Tag Archives: Mental Illness

Self-Delighting, Self-Affrighting

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“…Considering that, all hatred driven hence,
The soul recovers radical innocence
And learns at last that it is self-delighting,
Self-appeasing, self-affrighting,
And that its own sweet will is Heaven’s will;
She can, though every face should scowl
And every windy quarter howl
Or every bellows burst, be happy still.
–from “A Prayer for My Daughter” by W.B. Yeats

These are the type of words to which I cling: words that remind me that my soul is capable of light and growth regardless of external circumstances. With the latest political catastrophes, though, I feel that such things are one of my dirty little secrets. How dare I believe that joy and peace are possible while things are turning to shit around me? How dare my soul remember anything but impending doom?

I can’t help it, though. During my life I’ve met so many people who were happier and more at peace in their lives than I can imagine being. They came from all walks of life, dealt with poverty or illness or injustice, and carried what seemed to be an independent joy about them. They cried and fought and grieved like anyone else, yet they were also able to rejoice and rest and laugh.

That’s what I want, and it doesn’t mean I want to retreat from the problems of the world and huddle beside some inner fire. It means I want that feeling of wholeness to accompany me where I need to go.

Writing this–confessing that I feel guilty for thinking about an inspiring and comforting passage of poetry–makes me aware of what a dangerous place I’m in. I already struggle to feel worthy of any space on this planet. If I let this guilt control me, I’ll fall farther and farther into the kind of place I described in On The Advice Of My Solicitor:

I just want not to be a burden anymore. I don’t want to sit on the sidelines and consume resources and imagine the contempt others feel toward me.

…Take my eyes and give them to one who is blind. Take my hands and create, build, fix what is broken. Take this pretty-good soprano voice, that sings so little, and play lullabies for children fighting nightmares. Send these feet to march in the protests against racism and social injustice. Take this brain, hammer out these kinked chemical impulses, and turn its intelligence toward solving the dilemmas of our species. Take these words and craft them into speeches that will liberate, or into the right phrase at the right time for someone who needs it.

Take this neglected flesh and feed it to starved dogs in dusty fields. Take the food I’ll no longer eat and give it to the hungry. Take the phosphorus and minerals from my bones and replenish the tired soil of my planet.

The disabled are going to suffer under the new regime, whether the disabilities are physical or mental. We don’t need to be inflicting extra suffering on ourselves. How do I stop it? How do I really act upon my belief that if I harm myself, I give the enemies of love a victory?

It’s not a matter of trying to believe in the “self-delighting” part of my soul, or of understanding that the truest poison of many fears comes from the “self-affrighting” part. I know these things; they stand immutable in my psyche. It’s about giving myself permission to use the power of this truth.

The Watch-Fires

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Damn, it’s been hard to know what to write here lately. I shut down completely for the two weeks or so following the election–not proud of it, but every bit of energy and strength I had was going into not doing stupid and irreversible things to myself. Then there was Thanksgiving to get through.

I’ve been writing and discarding multiple essays in my head. There’s so much I could say, about so many subjects. So many populations for which I fear. But the thing that is helping me sit down and write today is a return to my most basic principles: what is the purpose of Not This Song?

Well, the main non-selfish purpose is trying to make others feel less alone in navigating difficult lives, with an emphasis on a few particular conditions. If I go back to this, I can rein in the part of me that thinks I have to write everything. I don’t need to discuss specific issues right now. I need to support those that are doing so, but my work has a different focus. I don’t need to change anyone’s mind about anything outside the confines of their own psyche.

So what I want to say is: Are you okay?

What are you doing to take care of yourself? What is helping you? If you are disabled, what is helping you resist the voice that makes you feel guilty for not being able to do as much as others? If you are an addict, what is helping you resist using? If you have a history of suicidal thoughts or actions, what is helping you not go there?

What I want to say is: if you have things that are helping, do them. Do them as much as you need to. Don’t you dare tell yourself you have to earn them by doing things you aren’t able to do at the moment. If you don’t have anything, seek help in finding something. Easier said than done, I know, but just keep the option in mind. Don’t you dare tell yourself that you don’t deserve it because others are suffering more. You can’t help them if you aren’t here a month or year from now.

I won’t tell you things are going to be all right. I’m just continuing to operate on my basic premise that giving up is not a good option. Given that, it makes sense to do what is necessary to stick around. We will all operate in different ways and at different speeds. Some of us find action is the best soother and we’re already out there. Others, like me, are taking weeks or more to get back to a non-dangerous level of functioning. It’s okay. Yes, I admit that’s much easier to say to you than to myself, but I mean it.

One of my favorite metaphors for the inside of my mind is a small village, in a jungle, at night. This particular jungle is full of terrifying creatures that attack the village frequently. The creatures stand for any malign influence on my psyche, whether external or self-created. Messages of shame, terror, despair, envy, compulsion, apathy, nihilism, and everything else destructive. It doesn’t matter if they are from childhood, from media distortions, or from real-world catastrophe…if they get in, the effect on my psychic strength will be the same. The village is circled with a defensive ring of watch-fires and a guard of warriors. The warriors will fight whatever gets in, but they need the fires to be able to see it. The fires also keep much at bay just with their light and heat.

When things are not going well, I imagine the attack. I can almost hear the cries of the warriors and the snarls of the beasts. As I consciously concentrate on generating opposite thoughts to combat the destructive attack, I imagine positive turns in the battle. Most of all, I imagine the fires blazing more and more brightly.  If I am taking good enough care of myself to do any regular meditation, I visit the fires and add fuel to them. Fuel, of course, is made up of things that make me remember why I want to win the battles. Music, poetry, experiences of love, beauty, every non-linear belief I have…the fires need them to burn.

Right now, the fires are low and the jungle is crowded with danger. And I know that, too far away for me to see, other villages also fear the darkness. I hope you’ll try to feed your watch-fires, as I try to feed mine. Only if we survive the nights of our spirit will we be there to give anything during the days.

We Interrupt This Depression…

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My dark phases, hellish as they might be, are not uninterrupted darkness. The grim or lackluster parts are almost always interrupted by moments of grace. Much grace comes from my family, for I am blessed not to live in isolation.

Beyond these everyday blessings, sometimes I get moments. The kind I’ll remember years later. They pierce through the fog and join their neighbors in the innermost vaults of my consciousness, there to be defended to the death.

About ten days ago, I drove about an hour and a half north to go to a poetry reading in Napa County. The reading was held at the town’s library, which like many buildings in the town basically backed up to a vineyard. Lines of comfortable chairs were arranged facing the windows of the main room, and the reading poet was silhouetted against one side of the bright span of windows. While listening, we gazed at the green vines under the slanting sun of a late summer afternoon.

The beauty was so surreal that I began to feel as if I were on another world. I found myself thinking of recent tragedies in the news, and about how much privilege is involved with this tranquil setting, but even the familiar sadness and guilt faded into just being present.

The Moment with a capital M wasn’t only this beauty, though. It wasn’t just the careful packing away and stowing of a lovely memory. No, the magic part came next, in equal parts spirituality and science fiction.

I was struck, suddenly, with a feeling of being apart from the time stream. The concept of parallel timelines exists in many sci-fi universes, and I have been exposed to it long enough for it to be a part of my thinking at times. Right there and then, at that moment, I felt my current timeline brushing against another one. The other timeline was one, probably one of many, in which I was not in that beautiful room because I was not alive.

In that timeline I didn’t live to write any poetry, or read any, or drive to Napa to share some. I died sometime between 2009 and 2011, you see, from a drug overdose or some other self-destructive act. My chair was empty.

It sounds a bit trite as I attempt to describe it: I had a moment of being grateful to be alive, blah blah…but there was something about that empty chair, almost superimposed against the one I was occupying, that made my worries and shames lose power for a moment. The words, the window, the sun were my reality, mine, there as opposed to not there.

There I was, in the middle of this period of depression and poor health, feeling so powerfully alive that all else faded. And when it came my turn to read something of my own, what need was there to fear? The words were mine, my reality, coalesced in this fortunate timeline from ghosts of might-have-beens.

The Cycle of Apologies

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I am so tired of apologizing, but I don’t see how I can stop doing it. I’m not even sure I want to stop doing it.

I don’t want to live my life as a walking apology, but I also don’t want to become the kind of person who sees no need for regrets about how my condition and/or my shortcomings affect others.

Recently, I was having an interaction with someone that involved me sending an email every day for a certain purpose. I was consistent for a couple of weeks, then skipped days. When my dip ended, I began again, apologizing for my lapse and saying it was okay if they didn’t want to continue. They gave me another chance…and, after some days, it happened again.

It’s only the latest iteration of the type of cycle that defines my life:

Stage 1: I’m back! So sorry I haven’t done the thing for (insert length of time here.) I’m going to try really hard to do the thing again, because the thing is very important to me. 

Stage 2: Look, I did the thing. See? I did it some more. I can do the thing. I can do the thing every day. So grateful to be doing the thing.

Stage 3: I am sort of doing the thing, but not well. I’m sorry. Can we talk about this later?

Stage 4: *silence*

Stage 5: Hi. I haven’t been doing the thing. I want to start again and I can’t and what does it matter anyway because I know even if I do it won’t last and I’m sorry, so sorry; I know you must think the thing isn’t important to me but it is, I swear it is, and so are you…

Was it unrealistic of me to even try something that relied upon consistent, daily performance of a task? What if I had said, look, I really want to do this, but I have a mental health issue and a history of interruptions in my functioning? Would that have been being realistic and sensible, or would it be seen as making excuses?

What if I say to my doctor, look, I’d like to nod and smile and tell you I’ll exercise every day, but the only exercise I have been getting during the really bad times is digging through cupboards for band-aids?

Where is the line; where does a realistic assessment of my condition end and making excuses begin?

Could I be allowed to stop making promises, or even implied promises, that set me up for the inevitable apologies?

There’s no way for anyone else to assess, or even for me to assess reliably, the subjective amount of effort I’m making. So how can I, when unable to perform consistently, express that the thing, principle or person is still important?

Can I ever be good enough, do enough, love enough to have it mean something?

These are not new thoughts, and the search for balance will never end. I’ve made progress on some aspects of it. I’m better about not making commitments during my “up” phase that are completely unrealistic, and I’m more forgiving of myself than I used to be. But shame still saps way too much of my energy, and delays the return of good self-care after a dip.

I want to conquer shame and let my apologies be simply an expression of regret–always remembering that an apology means little in the absence of a sincere effort to do better.

News Flash (Not)

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I have come to the conclusion that life is not fair.

You would think I already know that to my bones. I’ve written about the concept of fairness, and how expecting fairness can get us into trouble in recovery or any other parts of life. I know we are promised nothing.

But there are some courses in life we never really complete…there’s always a new layer or dimension to cover. A new way for the lesson to be presented, a new way we need to integrate it into ourselves. So I’m feeling it, learning it; trying to accept it in two new ways lately–one more self-centered than the other.

The self-centered one has to do with what I’ve already talked about…the problem I’m continuing to have with my metabolism. I sought a higher level of support around my sensible eating plan, and it’s been going really well for a couple of weeks now–until I step on the scale and have an experience I can best describe as baffled terror. The math just doesn’t work out right. Even the endocrinologist is puzzled; at our last appointment I presented her with a list of what I’d eaten for the last ten days and she agreed that I shouldn’t cut any more calories.

Abstaining from compulsive eating has always brought me some degree of physical recovery in the past, and it’s hard for me to accept that I must, for the indefinite future, abstain without getting any of those rewards. I know, intellectually, that I am getting rewards in the form of not making things even worse, but it’s hard to feel it when I am scared and ashamed and in pain.

The other way I’ve been exposed to the lesson recently is that my relative, who has been ill for a while, has transitioned into hospice care. I am watching this process, and the effects it has upon my loved ones.

I think death is simultaneously the most fair and the most unfair thing there is. It’s fair because it comes for everyone, but it’s unfair about when and why and how. It’s not merit-based. And when you get right down to it, down into the nuts and bolts of the process of dying a “natural” death, it’s hard not to think that there ought to be a better system for this kind of thing. It’s not fair. It’s not going to be fair.

We all, on some level, think that life should be fair. Hard work and good deeds should be rewarded, evil should have consequences, and our efforts in life should influence the outcome. Even when confronted with countless examples to the contrary, even when we watch others grieve or be persecuted, even when we ourselves suffer, a part of us wants to believe it’s going to be different.

I’m in no hurry to stop believing some parts of that, really. We have to, in order to keep going. I have to think my fight matters. I have to believe my efforts influence the outcome…what I have to let go of is the belief that I can control how they influence it and what the end result will be.

I could die tomorrow, or next year–countless poems unwritten and all of my recovery efforts spent for just a few more years. It wouldn’t be fair. It’s also not fair that I’m alive at all when many of my fellows didn’t survive their active drug addiction.

Don’t Take This From Me

All right, bipolar disorder. You try to take a lot of things from me. Sometimes you succeed, and sink your claws into your prize until I wrench it back. Fine. Keep trying to take my sleep. Or my energy, or my sex drive, or my consistency, or any optimism about the future…go on, I’ll keep fighting the good fight against you.

But not my ability to think. Not my intelligence. Hands off.

I want to believe that this creative slump I’ve been in is just that: writer’s block, or a dry spell. Perhaps the natural result of some life stresses, or mental fatigue from some recovery work. A normal, natural ebb tide in the rhythms of my mind.

I don’t want to see that a lack of creativity can also be the result of impaired ability to think…and I’m terrified of seeing that kind of impairment in myself. I know it’s a fact of life when living with bipolar disorder: depression can make it hard to concentrate, hypomania can make it hard to focus, and meds can have side effects that blunt our sharp mental edges. Intrusive thoughts, feelings of unreality and any number of mental hijinks mean our processing speed can go way down when responding to input.

“But what if it’s not just that?” a terrified voice whispers in my head. “What if in the last decade you’ve actually lost something? Forever?”

Am I getting dumber?

It doesn’t help to know that there are multiple ways to answer such a question. It doesn’t help to know that for everything I may have lost, there has certainly been growth in other parts of my psyche. It doesn’t even help to remind myself that all humans face mental as well as physical declines that come with age.

The terror I feel is illogical; it’s the terror that comes from a threat to my sense of self.

It’s the terror of the question: “If I’m not smart, what am I?”

My brain is the only thing I ever learned how to trust: not my body, and certainly not other people. My brain was what let me escape into books. It was the only thing that let me build some self-esteem with test scores and teachers’ approval; it helped me win a chance for more education and a different life. It let me build an internal world strong enough to keep me alive, a world ready to integrate the spirit when I finally began to discover it.

My brain runs the metaphor factory of my psyche. What would I do if its edge got too blunted? How could I live? It’s not a question of self-esteem, although it is a good idea for me to keep examining the idea that I have no worth if I lose a few IQ points.

It’s a question of survival.

Is my fear realistic? I feel anxious even asking. Okay, let’s look at some facts. Line up my current self and my…oh, let’s say 30 year old self. Before the painkillers, before childbirth, before any psych meds but the occasional antidepressant. Give both selves a battery of cognitive tests; throw in an SAT and GRE just for fun.

Results? Yes, there are some real phenomena here. I fall short of the 30 year old in data retrieval speed, working memory, manual dexterity, ability to multitask…ugh. I would imagine the gap is at least slightly wider than a gap created by only the passage of time, too.

Here’s one snippet I found on the subject:

“Mood typically receives the bulk of our attention when it comes to descriptions and discussion of bipolar disorder; however, in my sessions with individuals living with the disorder, it’s common to hear concerns about their lessened cognitive capacities. To be more specific, I’m referring to the experience of decreased cognitive capacity relative to the period of time before any sustained bipolar mood symptoms arrived on the scene.

Examples of the kinds of deficits reported are difficulties with linguistic working memory (word retrieval), difficulties with planning, prioritizing and organizing of behavior (executive functioning), problems with retention of what’s been read or listened to, as well as the experience of mildly dulled or slowed thought processes. For some with bipolar disorder, it’s like they’ve experienced a gradual decline of brain power from their previous baseline level of function.” —Russ Federman, Ph.D. in Psychology Today

This resonates with me; I believe I have lost something. Since I started out with a lot, I’m still very sharp on my good days–but I’ll never be the gleaming tack my younger self was.

Ironically, thinking about this in clinical terms helps me with the fear. By replacing a vague description with specific terms, it reins in my tendency to expand into dark scenarios. It also gives me hope by letting me see that the aspects of my brain function that have taken the hardest hits are not threatening the core of the metaphor factory.

For now.

French Dictation

A character in an old book once lamented that his life seemed to be graded like a French dictation exam, while others’ lives seemed to be graded more like a history essay. The comparison stuck with me, because I remember taking those exams in French class–and because I think we all tend to do this to ourselves.

In a dictation exam, you start with full marks and points are taken off for every mistake you make. In a history essay, you start with zero and get points for everything good you write down. When applied to life, this represents two possible attitudes…and we tend to grade our own lives like the dictation and others’ like the essay.

It’s not a new idea. We tend to be hardest on ourselves; compare our bloopers to someone else’s highlight reel. We applaud and/or envy the accomplishments of people we know, while wallowing in Gazpacho syndrome around our own.

My attempts to change this are short-lived but recurring. They are easily drowned about by the critical and self-destructive voices wanting to inform me that I’ve blown it and my future is dark. But I don’t let go of the concept.

After weeks of better behavior with food, I succumbed about a week ago and have been punishing myself with overeating and lack of self-care. In true French dictation style, I give myself no credit for the weeks and for fighting so long…only the mistake matters.

I wish I could value the effort more. The truth, the truth I see if I lay aside my attitude, is that I put up one hell of a fight. I fought this episode harder than I’ve fought in a while. I bit my nails and fingers bloody over a series of nights; I asked for help and talked honestly with my husband about my insanity and the binges I was planning. I went out of my comfort zone to talk this way, and I held out for a good week longer than I usually do.

There were some things I didn’t do that I should have done to reach out for help, and I focus on those rather than all of the things I did do. To punish myself, I extend the period of overeating for days longer than it might persist if I wasn’t determined to make myself sick.

I think I’m just about done punishing myself for this particular round. I’m trying to look honestly at the pattern of this last year and think about my doctor’s advice to consider hormone therapy for my perimenopausal symptoms and PMDD…apparently, the combination of this and the bipolar undoes me for a week a month, sending hunger and cravings through the roof and derailing any progress I’ve made.

So here I am, sitting in the coffee shop looking out the window with the sharpened vision that comes with the emergence from a depressive dip. Sunlight glinting off of cars, the blue sky, a passing bird…there’s a bit of hyperreality to them, as if I just arrived on this planet and am studying my surroundings intently. It’s not the first time I have been here this way, and it won’t be the last.

Now is the time for a healing phase. Take the band-aids from my healing fingertips, drink some water to begin washing the toxins out of me, breathe again. Can I let myself be happier? Can I let it happen?

Can I, instead of punishing myself for a fall, give myself some credit for time spent standing? Can I acknowledge how hard I fought? How, even during the worst of the depression and the abuse of myself, I managed to get basic things done and help my daughter study for her tests? Can I see that, years ago, I would have spent a depressive phase like this barricaded in my room?

Can I give myself any credit for continuing to abstain from drugs? Can I acknowledge how dangerous it is not to value that accomplishment?