Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Obecalp Effect

It’s no secret that I value my diagnosis as a tool for self-awareness and seeking appropriate care. It’s no secret that I defend my right to love myself enough to try to appreciate what I can accomplish and structure my life in a way that helps keep me from pushing things so far that I decompensate. It’s no secret that my ability to diagnose my immediate symptoms and seek care has saved my life many times.

What is the dark side to all of this? Because there is one. Even if it doesn’t come close to competing with the light, the shadow side needs to be acknowledged.

Last week, I met with my psychiatrist again; a follow-up to my meds change of three weeks ago. As we discussed my condition in fairly clinical terms, as we tend to do, he told me he’s getting quite concerned about my level of depression. I debated this, saying that my biggest problem was hypomania lately, and he said he was observing an underlying tone of fatalism and negativity in my speech. He pointed out to me that hypomania and depression are quite capable of coexisting, something I knew but hadn’t really been applying to myself.

I’ve been thinking about what he said, and sort of monitoring my thoughts, and I’ve come to the conclusion that he’s right. It’s not the obvious, gray-curtain pulled over the world kind of depression I am used to spotting, but it’s there. When discussing my real-world problems, my emotional tone is solemn at best; I try very hard not to be dramatic but something is coming through; a feeling of hopelessness or resignation.

This needs attention, but some questions need attention too. Questions I have to ask myself periodically, no matter how much I would rather not.

Am I allowing my diagnosis to influence my thoughts in such a way as to contribute to my depression, my anxiety, or my general outlook?

Am I ever skating close to a self-fulfilling prophecy?

When it’s clear that my symptoms are, truly, elevated to a point of clinical concern–do I dwell on it to to point of self-absorption, or use it as an excuse to act more dysfunctional than I truly am?

Asking these questions is so hard, because it pushes a lot of the “stigma” buttons and the defensiveness that tends to arise after years of the world telling me that I will be fine if I think more positively, or work harder in therapy, or do a better job seeking God, or whatever.

But the questions need to be asked, because it can happen. Many studies show a placebo effect in about one-third of subjects: give them a sugar pill and they’ll feel a decrease in their symptoms. So it stands to reason that the “obecalp effect,” so to speak, is also a real thing. Tell someone they’ve entered a state characterized by certain negative feelings, and the brain and spirit could be affected by expecting them.

Even though the ability to know I’m having an episode is vital for me, I need to think about my attitude. Am I broadcasting some internal signal, some internal call to prayer, that focuses me on the expected feelings and makes me less open to contrasting input? Less open to that spontaneous laugh, that interlude with a glimpsed cloud, that sense of humor about myself? Less open to hope and to my spiritual side?

There’s no simple answer. (If I ever write what I claim is a simple answer to a question on this site, you’ll know something is really wrong with me.) I’m not bringing myself up before some internal jury who will pronounce me guilty or innocent. I’m just asking the questions.

I have some difficult things going on in my life, and it seems as if the improvements I work for get knocked down all of the time. I ask these questions out of love for myself, because I can’t afford to be feeding my demons, nor can I afford the price of hopelessness.

My old posts are sometimes useful postcards for me, so today I went back and looked at The Night’s Watch for passages like this:

“We will not “abandon our post” because we get bored, or discouraged, or think it isn’t fair that we have to be there. How we got here, or how little we deserved it, makes no difference. We will not run away; we will not drug or drink or eat ourselves into unconsciousness. We will not craft an escape with a sharp edge, or neglect ourselves and hope the cold night will do it for us.

Oh, Professor Snape

I write to you of struggles with demons; of image and word and symbol used as weapons in our existential battles. I write of reasons to go on. But I also write the human, mundane component of this story; the part about my personal foibles and the silly things I do to deal with, or escape from, my reality.

Meditation and Frog Breeding is an example of a time I revealed something that makes feel sheepish. Today I’ve decided I am due for another, and more embarrassing, revelation about what I do to pass the time when I just can’t think any more. Here goes: I read fanfiction.

When I first encountered sites such as fanfiction.net, I was astounded at the sheer volume of this kind of thing available. The Harry Potter universe is, by a large margin, the most popular template–on one site alone, there are more than 600,000 stories in this genre. Some incorporate erotic interaction among characters; some do not. Some are short and amateurishly written; some are novel-length and quite interesting. These fans explore a variety of plot-related questions and alternative ideas. Some of the most popular ones include:

–hello, why did no one ever check on Harry after he was dumped on a doorstep? And how could Dumbledore blithely send him back each summer to be abused and starved, blood wards or not. It must be part of a plot to keep Harry ignorant, desperate for affection and easily led. What if Harry grew a pair and got angry enough to seek help from somebody besides the man who, it turns out, was raising him to be a sacrifice?
–the epilogue does not exist. it never existed.
–Ron and Hermione? Seriously? Ron’s a fool, they have nothing in common, and it’s not going to end well.
–thousands of WAY more interesting ways the war with Voldemort could have gone, or what would happen if he’d won.

Don’t even get me started on the romantic/sexual plots. Every conceivable pairing has been done…the most popular ones being Harry and Draco (thin line between love and hate, I guess) Snape and Hermione (he’s the only one near her IQ) Lucius or Draco/Hermione (because it’s hot and dangerous, I suppose). Some authors just push the pair of their choice together with a magic spell or an arranged-marriage law.

But, by far, the character the most often, the most deeply, and the most variably explored is Severus Snape. Embittered outcast, double agent, brilliant potions master, seeker of redemption and ultimate martyr. There are a thousand versions of him out there, each far more explored than the one in the books.

Why do people love him so? Because they do. The fan universe, most of the time, flatly rejects the death of this character. They craft detailed romances between him and another character, lovingly building a story in which he gets the love and happiness they feel he deserves. They delve into just what horrific tortures he suffered during his times as a double agent. They have him misunderstood, persecuted or enslaved after the war, to be rescued by the aforementioned future mate. Or he’s exonerated and admired, building his career and taking on Hermione Granger as his apprentice. He’s usually far hotter than the book version, or even Alan Rickman.

Why am I telling you all this? Firstly, I’m doing it in the spirit of confession; to show that I haven’t just scanned a few of these things but read enough to know a bit about the genre. Secondly, I’m about to do one of my metaphor things.

I think the Harry Potter universe is the most popular one for fanfiction writers because it carries the largest number of opportunities for what-ifs. What some people, rightly or wrongly, consider to be holes or weaknesses in the author’s crafting are each transformed into tiny windows into an alternative reality. It parallels quantum theory; the idea that every choice and every variable give rise to another one of a vast sheath of other universes.

When I studied just a bit of quantum theory, this the aspect I found most exciting–and its implication that no aspect of reality is cast in stone. Our assumptions, our allegiance to the story of our reality, may not be as valid as we think they are. If we’re confronted by a scary gun-wielding person in an alley, there’s a universe in which the attacker is our cousin, or just asks us to name the capital of Wisconsin, or drops the gun and starts crying.

These writers–often young with dreams of doing other writing, or older and seeking diversion from their daily works–are reveling in the opportunity to riffle through an infinite sheath of possibilities and choose the ones that please them. This can feel easier, more fun, and more relaxing than creating one from scratch.

This, then, is my take on why I find it relaxing and diverting…it’s not a defense, only some thoughts. My daughter is mortified by my little habit; she’s a purist at heart. She’d be even more stern with me if she knew what happened during my last bipolar episode–what I did in the throes of my racing, desperate search for soothing occupation. If she knew that, last week, I actually wrote a little story. Oh, the shame.

Why it’s “Not This Song”

Today is the one-year anniversary of Not This Song‘s creation. The day I made my first post, I had many thoughts and hopes about what this site would be, and many have been achieved. Though there’s far to go in terms of taking these essays to a larger audience–something I both desire and fear–my hopes, and more, have come to life.

Most wonderful among these is that the site still exists and I’m still writing regularly. If you’ve ever known what it’s like to begin and abandon many projects, you know that starting anything for which you have hopes is always accompanied by a faint metallic taste of possible regret; a fear that this new thing will join your pile of might-have-beens. I had that feeling when I began, and the fact that, one post at a time, my writing has continued fills me with joy.

Receiving comments on things I wrote has also filled me with pleasure and gratitude. To hear that my words struck a chord in someone’s heart; made them feel less alone, or made them feel understood…well, that’s what it’s about for me. To learn that my facility with words, one of the gifts I have that my episodes can’t keep me from using, sometimes helps others lets me be more at peace with myself and my limitations. I thank you all for taking my words into your consciousness, even for a moment, and giving me that precious gift.

Anyway, in honor of the site’s birthday, I am going to tell you the story of the name I chose for the site. Why Not This Song? Why not something more obviously descriptive of the site’s material? The short answer is that the name pleased me, resonated with me because of its associations, and the call of it was too strong to ignore. Here is the tale of these associations:

It’s no secret that I have experienced times of deep despair, and had thoughts of ending my life. These took many forms, and could be exacerbated by drugs or by symptoms of my bipolar disorder. It was important to me that I try hard to live, and I got creative about postponing suicide. Not talking myself out of it, if times were really bad–just coming up with a reason to put it off; convince the self-destructive part of me that tomorrow would do just as well. Or next week.

I’ve put off suicide because The Return of the King was coming out in theaters soon. I’ve put off suicide waiting for George R. R. Martin’s latest book. I’ve put it off for an old friend coming to town, for a loved one’s birthday, or because I didn’t want to ruin everyone’s holidays. The reason wasn’t important, as long as I could find or create a reason. The time it bought would get me through long enough to stabilize a bit and be ready to go on.

One day, I encountered what is, to me, the most powerful example of this technique I have ever met. It was in a semi-documentary film called Touching the Void, based on the true story of a climber who fell into an ice crevasse and was (understandably) left for dead by his companions. With multiple injuries including a shattered leg, and battling hypothermia, he makes his way through a tunnel and out onto the mountain, trying to reach the base camp before the party leaves and takes his only hope of survival with them.

He fights through indescribable pain, becoming delirious, and he knows that he’s taken too long. They are almost certainly gone. He picks one goal at a time, a rock or a patch of dark ground, and drags himself to it to choose the next. But this only keeps him going for so long. It’s time to rest, to lay down his head and let death take him. He no longer fears it; it’s got to be better than this.

Now comes the unlikely occurrence that ends up saving his life. As he crawls, delirious, over the ground, a song begins to play in his head as songs sometimes do. It plays louder–it blares, the same chorus over and over; it’s a song he never liked. Over and over, it plays–and, years later, when he’s being interviewed about his ordeal, what do you think he says about how he kept going?

He doesn’t say that his belief in a God sustained him. He doesn’t talk about hope or faith. He doesn’t talk about his loved ones, or quote inspirational literature. He says:

“I didn’t want to die with that song in my head.”

That was it. The perfect metaphor for the reasons I waited and still wait. No lofty speeches, just a simple fact that spoke to me and stuck around in my head. Years later, when I wondered what I would title a book if I ever wrote one, this phrase is what I decided on.

There are so many “songs,” literal or figurative, we can sing or hear in the course of our lives. Even when I am not sure if I can go on living, I am in touch with a part of me that cares how I die. It matters to me what song is going to be the last song playing in my head. Matters enough that I might be willing to hang on long enough for the song to change. To say:

Not right now.
Not this way.
Not This Song.
Not today.

Separation

Don’t do a thing. Just rest.
For your separation from God,
from Love, is the hardest work
in this world…
–Hafiz, translated by D. Ladinsky

Those of us in recovery from addiction of one kind or another are often encouraged not to dwell on positive memories of our substance of choice. Glamorizing or romanticizing our old experiences is dangerous, and we are most likely to do it when life in recovery is difficult. So it’s important that we remember the bad parts and remember where our addiction led us–and let those memories combat the illusion that we could ever relive any good times.

But this shouldn’t mean squashing or outlawing the feelings we may have about giving up this thing that’s been part of our life. The truth is, we who join together in recovery have something in common besides our addiction and our desire for change:

We are all grieving.

Each of us had something that took our pain away. Each of us had something with the power to make things different, soothe our fear, make the unbearable bearable. Each of us had a sort of magic spell to invoke when we couldn’t take any more of whatever was making us crazy. The fact that our magic thing began to destroy us does not negate the fact that it was special to us, and so was the comfort it represented. I wrote a little about this, trying to describe the indescribable, in A Love Letter to the Non-Addicted.

No matter how much we embrace the idea of living one day at a time, there is a corner of our hearts that is broken, crying plaintively for what it misses and grieving at the thought that it’s not coming back.

We get up in the morning, and go to bed at night, with a void inside us, whether we are conscious of it or not. This, to me, is a reason for the spiritual seeking many embrace in a path to recovery. That void within us, and the loss we feel, cause us to seek a higher source of comfort and completion.

There are those who say and write that a spiritual void is actually one root cause of addiction, or that the hell of our addiction is a blessing because it opens us to a spiritual search for something better than what we’ve lost. Leonard Cohen said “There is a crack in everything–that’s how the light gets in.” It’s certainly true that pain, loss and other experiences of breaking often precede spiritual growth.

Our grief needs to be respected. Being aware of it helps us avoid being undermined by it without knowing. Being aware of it helps us use it in ways that strengthen our recovery, not weaken it. Our grief and loss, when felt honestly, make us more compassionate with our fellow addicts. Our grief and loss spur us to search more passionately for new sources of pleasure and comfort. And, if we are ready, we can lay these feelings on the altar of our choice and let them open us up to something new.

Bookstore Sans Filter

Today I got to spend a couple hours in my local big-chain bookstore, perusing the newest science fiction books, writers’ magazines and anything else catching my eye. As has happened so many times before, I found myself looking at the self-help, addiction & recovery, and parenting sections with profound ambivalence. It’s really easy for me to get overwhelmed in any public place with much stimuli, but these sections get to me.

The self-help section–well, I have read some lovely books by self-help writers in my time, but when I look at a huge spread of currently popular books they seem to be giving off several basic messages.

1) You are not good enough, but if you do everything just like me you might be someday.
2) Whatever you’ve been doing is wrong, even if I recommended it last year.
3) Whatever difficulty you are experiencing in your life is 100% due to your bad attitude. Often, in the guise of encouraging higher self-esteem, the message is that what is wrong with you is that you haven’t worked hard enough on your self-esteem, inner healing, etc.

Then I move on to the parenting section; or, as I once described it to a friend, the “You’re a Bad Parent” section. There I can see why every parenting decision I have ever made, apart from a few no-brainers (don’t hit, don’t drop on head, don’t molest) is wrong. Any area of any controversy has books representing both or all sides of the argument, so no matter what I did someone was always screaming at me in print about it.

Again, I don’t mean to say there isn’t a wealth of wonderful, important information out there. It’s just that I need a thick skin to wade through it all to what helps me. There seem to be some basic messages calling from the shelf, especially about parenting a child with any kind of special needs:

1) Your child’s diagnosis or treatment is wrong, and if you don’t do what I say (which is the opposite of the book next to me) they will die, fail, end up on the street, etc. and it will be ALL YOUR FAULT.
2) Oh, you say there’s nothing wrong with your child? Oh, you’re just not attentive enough.
3) This world is a scary, dysfunctional place, and it’s up to you to protect your child from it…and if you let your child near any media, nonorganic food or item of clothing that costs less than an imported alpaca you are a horrible person.
4) You are solely responsible for helping your child succeed in this world…at age eighteen, your finished product will pop into this world with a destiny formed and determined by you, never to develop or grow again.

Then, as I tend to do, I drift over to the addiction and recovery section to see if there’s anything new and interesting. I like the fact that the topic gets its own bookstore section now; that there is such a wealth of material being written. What tends to make me tense is the adversarial attitude of many writers or editors. I’m too tired and lazy to go into this deeply, with specific names, titles and critiques, but my fellow addicts who like reading probably know what I am talking about. It’s a back-and-forth between two extremist camps:

1) We follow or promote a certain popular path to recovery, and that path is THE path. Anyone who doesn’t want to do it, or has tried it and is choosing something else, must be in denial or just not be ready.
2) We do not follow or promote this path, and those who do are idiots and sheep. This path doesn’t work, and there’s a giant conspiracy going on to make people think it does. Buy our book and find out the REAL way to recover.

It makes me tired. Isn’t black-and-white thinking one of our common problems?

So, I flee to the poetry section and the writers’ magazines (trying to drown out the voice interpreting their content as warnings about how many writers are out there, how little my work matters, etc.) and when I am done, when my brain cannot hold one more iota of thought or resist one more onslaught of insecurity, I come home to my last resting place: the science fiction aisle.

I don’t need extra reasons to love something I have loved since I was old enough to get books from the library, but today reminds me of one: this section asks nothing of me. It doesn’t tell me how to help my kid, or manage my weight, or improve my marriage. It doesn’t suggest I submit my writing to eight thousand magazines for only $25 each, or bombard me with writing tips that make my head spin.

It only wants to tell me stories.

Please Please Me

What a lovely response I got from my last post, I’m Asking! It helps reinforce my desire to learn more about connecting with others. I can tell some people forwarded pieces of mine, because my site views were huge and I picked up about a dozen new followers in two days. Thank you to all, and welcome to my new followers! Your masks and black robes are in the mail, but the tattoo appointments will take a little longer to set up.

Sorry, a little Harry Potter humor slipped in there. Anyway, the topic of learning to ask for things we want started me thinking about the topic of pleasure in general. Why we need it, how to get it, and why it’s so important for living in recovery and living with other conditions we have.

Take recovery, for instance. In Anhedonia, I wrote a little about how opiate addiction affects the brain’s ability to create and feel natural pleasure. Recovery from any other drugs, including alcohol, also involves “teaching” the brain, body and psyche to experience pleasure in other ways. The barriers standing in our way are biochemical, psychological, and even cultural.

What do I mean by this? Well, biochemically, I mean that in the first year or so of recovery, and most acutely in the first months, our brains are literally starved for pleasure. We’re desperate for a surge of the neurotransmitters that govern reward and pleasure, and we’ve lost the ability to get it. It’s one reason people advise avoiding romantic relationships in early recovery: when two pairs of pleasure-starved eyes meet across a crowded room, decisions made are unlikely to be well-considered.

Even as our brains begin to heal, we often find ourselves at a loss when it comes to pleasure and fun. Some people in recovery never even had an opportunity to experience fun that didn’t involve some kind of drug. Their fun activities were limited to hanging out in bars or clubs, or someone’s home. If recovery is to be sustained, it has to include new pleasures, or it will feel like a never-ending round of chores and “being good.”

Living with mental illness also requires the sustained seeking of pleasure, relaxation, and activities that speak to our brain in positive ways. We’ve all known people who can go to work, come home, watch a little TV, go to sleep, and repeat the cycle day after day with seeming contentment. Very few of us are that type of person. We might be able to do it for a little while, if we are high functioning or in a high functioning phase, but a pressure or a void builds up and we need more.

So how do we seek pleasure in healthful ways? How do we even know where to start?

The first line of attack can be social activities in recovery, if that’s our thing. Many groups do camping, dancing, softball games and other interactive things. It doesn’t hurt to try some. But don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t please you as much as it seems to please others–you might be more of an introvert, or simply have different tastes.

The second phase of this pleasure campaign, and in my opinion the most important, is to think outside the box. This is where the cultural barriers come into play. We’ve been conditioned by family, peers and the media to believe certain things about what fun is, what people having fun look like and do, what is fun for men versus what is fun for women, and many other messages.

We have to explore. Try activities that we used to think were silly or pointless, or activities that are usually associated with another gender. We also have to remember that pleasure doesn’t always need to come in the form of a class or a structured activity; it can be found in little things we do at home or at random times. Since we really have no idea what might give us pleasure, exploration is vital.

Then we have to work on wholeheartedly accepting whatever it is we find. I have learned that I like some weird, seemingly pointless and often childlike stuff. I have this huge stack of old National Geographic magazines on my table because cutting out pictures is soothing to me. I like to color with crayons. I have a tendency to burst into song when I’m most relaxed, I’ve recently learned I have a need to write bad poetry often, and for some unfathomable reason I am fascinated by Latin.

The search for pleasure is not selfish or juvenile. It’s part of our battle for a sustainable life. If we’ve ever been in a state of utter despair–if we’ve ever felt a lack of hope so deep we’re not sure it is worth going on–the memory of that should be enough motivation to try. Fear of others’ opinions need not rule us. Old messages need not define us. We don’t need a reason to like what we like: it’s not logical, and it’s not going to be. We don’t need permission to fight the darkness with unconventional tools.

I’m Asking!

My friends, I am conducting a daring experiment. Because I, like many people I know, suck at asking for things, this experiment will consist of asking for something and:

1) noticing that the world does not end
2) noticing that I have not been ostracized or ridiculed for asking
3) noticing whether I receive what I asked for, and
4) trying to understand that if I don’t, I am no worse off than I would have been of I had never asked.

So, I’ve decided to ask you, my amazing followers and other readers, to do something that will cheer me up during the current tough patch I am navigating. It makes me feel really good when something I’ve written reaches a new person, so here is my challenge: I ask you to share a favorite piece from Not This Song on your social media or other means of propagation.

You may want to check out some older pieces, which can be accessed with the Read More list, or use the category archives–or here are a few suggestions:

Like the science fiction and fantasy metaphors? Perhaps your friends would enjoy Gazpacho Soup, I Remember the Shire, or The Night’s Watch.

Is recovery your thing? Try A Note From My Addiction, Sweater of Shame or The  “G” Word. Dual diagnosis? Medications and Judgments or A Bittersweet Pill touch on these issues.

Mental health issues? The Wristband, The Perils of Good Health or the recent Bipolar Cuddle Time might please. Depression, specifically? Go for Apologizing to Roses, Donuts of Despair or Observing.

Do you know anyone who has felt the pain of parenting while struggling with mental illness? Send them No More Tangles or Broken Crayons.

Wow, this asking thing is hard. But I know it’s something that I–that many of us–need to work on. Maybe we learned that asking for things got attention we didn’t want, or just didn’t work. Maybe now we have an unconscious conviction that if something isn’t spontaneously offered, we must not be worthy of it.

But asking rocks. Asking honestly, while being willing to take no for an answer, can be magic. And sometimes we do get what we ask for–and we find out that the people who gave it to us don’t see it as some big sacrifice or inconvenience. Maybe they also got something out of it, or had their soul nourished by the act of giving. Many great friendships are born of one person helping another.

Someone once told me that we need to be more like baby birds sometimes. He elaborated: “A baby bird doesn’t sit in the nest and say Pardon me, mother dear, but if it isn’t too much trouble, could you bring me a bit of something when you come back? No, it throws back its head, opens its mouth and shrieks the bird equivalent of FEEDMEFEEDMEFEEDME until someone does.”

There are times to “suck it up” and accept that bigger concerns require putting aside some things we want. But there also times when asking for what we want isn’t going to harm anyone, so why shouldn’t we? Often, what stands in the way is pride or fear of rejection. I’m trying not to be ruled by these.