Mindfulness and Self-Judgment from Another Angle

Thanks for all of your comments regarding mindfulness on that last post, it is a topic that I keep circling back to in my mind because it has been hard for me to grasp the concept.

While some people seem to lean heavily toward the aspect of mindfulness that involves being aware of emotions and their changes, this is the part that I feel completely confident in. Identifying my emotional state is something I have been working on tirelessly for four years now (and I do it 4-12 times per day or as mood shifts happen). Mood charting has allowed me to check in with myself to identify my mood and potential triggers (among other things) so in a self assessment, this is an area where I would give myself five stars.

Having said that, while I have strength in the area regarding identifying my moods and mood swings I am not very good at identifying psychosis. I can sometimes identify this phenomenon when it is slowly gaining momentum (like over a period of days) but when it occurs suddenly and without warning or builds slowly over several weeks it often goes unnoticed by me until I am so irrational I have previously only been able to identify the psychosis after it passes.

This concept (and realization by me) has led to trouble on the second leg of mindfulness; withholding judgment of myself and my emotions.

When it comes to withholding judgment about what emotions I am experiencing, I thought I had that in the bag. For many years I would judge myself harshly and consider myself depraved or inhuman for some of the urges and thoughts I experienced (and still do, some of them daily) but over the last few years I have been able to step back from that and conclude that many (if not most) of these things are a product of my own mind playing tricks on me during periods of depression, mania, or psychosis. I thought that taking the step of realizing that these desires (born of the illness) are not my fault, and that being somewhat burdened by the unwilling desire to do bad things (you know, like homicide) doesn’t mean that is how I am going to live my life and it doesn’t make me a worthless human being.

Having revisited this concept several times in the last few weeks, I couldn’t figure out exactly what was bothering me about mindfulness and why I both seemed to “get it” and not “get it” at the same time. What I stumbled upon the last few days is that even though I am reserving judgment of my emotions in terms of identifying them in a self-deprecating way, I am not withholding judgment completely.

Because of the combination of the psychosis factor and the, well, less than desirable “socially unacceptable” thoughts and feelings I have put up with on a regular basis I have a track record of inexplicably doing things that I wouldn’t normally do. There have been times where, let’s face it, I have not had control of myself or my actions, and during those times I have done some things that have scared the bajeezus out of me.

Things like running away from home, or plotting to murder someone (hello hospital), or attempting to harm very cute, innocent, furry creatures (hello again, hospital). What I have learned from these experiences (and others) is that I shouldn’t trust myself, and that I am capable of doing things that frighten myself and others.

Even though I might be reserving judgment about the origin of these thoughts or actions today, my judgment is taking place in a different way; through fear.

And, well, we all know how that story goes. Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and hate leads to suffering. (Thanks Yoda)

Personally, given my track record and the notion that any one of my swings could suddenly bring the overwhelming, incoherent madness of psychosis, it doesn’t seem unreasonable for me to feel terrified when my mood starts to shift or deteriorate. With every additional layer of emotion my reaction becomes more complicated, I begin jumping to conclusions out of a place of fear, and quickly go tumbling down the rabbit hole.

I find myself in the age old riddle; which came first, the panic attack or the anxiety about having a panic attack?

At this point I am not looking for answers from any of you, just thinking aloud. What I do know is that this fear is something that I need to address, and hopefully with enough applied reasoning (or voodoo) the fear and I can reach some kind of understanding.

No cute, innocent furry creatures were harmed in the making of this post.

Exploring Mindfulness; Anxiety and Bipolar Rage

I have a new therapist. So far I haven’t decided if I like her because we are total opposites in terms of our beliefs and methods. While this has been pretty helpful in terms of learning new things (like mindfulness techniques), it can also be entirely exasperating when it comes to explaining my point of view.

The first day we spoke she seemed confident that the practice of “mindfulness” would help solve a lot of my problems.

For those of you who haven’t come across this technique, mindfulness comes from a Buddhist practice involving keeping your focus on the present, including “regarding your emotions in a non-judgmental way” (that is a direct quote, I can’t say I totally understand).

The mindfulness meditation I took on takes about five minutes and involves taking deep breaths, focusing on relaxing my body, looking at my surroundings and finding 3 things that are pleasing to me (colors, textures, etc.) and then formulating an appropriate emotional response.

What I found was that after a week of using this technique (several times a day, sometimes 10 to 15 to 50 times as needed) my anxiety was somewhat responsive. I say somewhat because I often found a bit of relief after the exercise, but it wasn’t uncommon for the relief to last about five minutes and then I needed to do the exercise again. I could see how it would be easier to continue doing the exercise for someone who is seated much of the day, however when walking down the street or overwhelmed at the supermarket I was having a really hard time dropping everything to breathe and relax.

At the same time, I also was curious about using this technique to combat bipolar mood swing reactivity, but the results I experienced were somewhat catastrophic.

If you’ve ever seen the episode of Seinfeld (yes, I know, a common theme lately in this blog) George’s father begins using the mantra, “serenity now!” to help combat his rage. What we find out at the end of the episode however is that this practice was only bottling his rage up to a critical breaking point.

However comical, this is actually fairly similar to what happened to me when I was trying to use the mindfulness meditation to address (primarily) bipolar reactive rage. At first it seemed like it was working great and I felt quite pleased (less like breaking things or shouting or hurting myself), but within a span of four or five days the rage suddenly exploded out of me, and I leapt off the couch, threw the remote control in one direction and my glasses in the other and made a mad dash for the hallway where I very seriously expected to throttle whoever was on the other side of my door.

It wasn’t as if this was a situation that had gone on all day and I had been “stewing”, I felt perfectly fine one moment and then within two or three seconds (literally) I was ready to break someone over my knee like a piece of kindling. All I can say is thank goodness for my boyfriend, because if he hadn’t been home to divert me… well I am still shuddering at the notion of what might have happened. Instead I just stood in the bathtub and screamed and cried for a solid half hour.

I have a couple theories about why this happened.

The first involves George’s father from Seinfeld screaming “serenity now!” The thing about rage that I find makes it so difficult to deal with is the energy that comes with the feelings. For me, it has never felt like the emotion builds up if I don’t express my anger, frustrations, and rage, it is the energy. Since childhood my methods of expressing rage have all been physical because they allow me to address and release the energy that is overwhelming me. Unfortunately, they also have all been more or less unhealthy.

With this mindfulness technique I used, I was addressing the emotion I was experiencing, but not the energy that came with it. Once it built up it only took the tiniest moment to trigger it and… kaboom.

My second theory involves PTSD as I have encountered several situations where very minor things have seemingly flipped an invisible switch in me. Frankly I find this to be less likely in this situation because it did not involve any of my typical triggers (being in close proximity of a stranger, the bus, etc) but I can’t discount this as a possibility.

Finally, one could suppose the incident and meditation were not related. Frankly, I can’t say with absolute certainty that they are, but I am nervous to try again given how close I came to, well, certain incarceration.

At any rate, being able to try new “treatment options” that don’t involve pumping my body full of chemicals has definitely been a welcome change. And as frustrating as my new therapist can be, I think a little change can do me good.

At this point we are brainstorming ways to potentially address that rage-energy in conjunction with mindfulness meditations so stay tuned, I am sure there will be more to come on that topic!

2014 Firsts

I was doing some lamenting early this year about how it seemed many of life’s “firsts” were behind me. After all, I would never try sushi again for the first time, or kiss my boyfriend for the first time, or see the roller derby for the first time again. In a harsh and gloomy place, I was really feeling like some of the best and momentous of life’s experiences were behind me -and I can tell you, that doesn’t lend itself for a particularly sunny outlook on the future.

I decided to do an experiment and start a list on my phone. Any time I did something for the first time or tried something new, I would add it to the list.

For example, January 26th 2014 is the first time I ever ate Puerto Rican food.

(It was also the first time I ever got sick from eating Puerto Rican food -and unfortunately not the last!)

No one thing was too big or too small for the list. I had firsts ranging from the first time I ever enjoyed pulp in my orange juice (I must be growing up or something) to wedding dress shopping with one of my friends (and getting a killer deal) to inventing the insult “wool turkey” (as in, “shut up you old wool turkey!”).

I even saw the biggest spider I’ve seen in 28 years in the Pacific Northwest on July 27th.

I think what I liked most about this project was that sometimes unpleasant things can also be firsts, and spinning something unpleasant (like, say, a colonoscopy) into my list of “firsts” somehow made these moments seem like they were serving a purpose and that I have been moving forward. When it feels like I am moving backwards (or not at all) sometimes it can be helpful to see the list of accomplishment (no matter how silly) that got me to today.

What I didn’t realize when I started this project was that it would not only document my exploration of new places, new foods, and new experiences but also fuel me to try more new things than I normally would. Even if it was a bust (like lime yogurt) I could at least add it to the list… and in the periods when I hadn’t added anything to the list for a while, why not wear something new? Or try vitamins? Or reach out to someone I might not normally talk to?

It can be easy for me to get locked into a place of sameness, orbiting those few things that make me feel comfortable. What I learned this year is that there are ways to step out of my comfort zone that don’t require me to move to Bangladesh or shave my head or wrestle an alligator. Yes, I mean, those things are good too… but recognizing that we are all growing in tiny ways constantly can be a great reminder that I’m not just sitting here “doing nothing”.

This is a great project for anyone who has been feeling stagnant, or trapped in a life you may feel you have little control over, and it is a pretty easy one too. There is really no need to commit to “once a day” or “once a week,” because exploration should happen naturally (and you will notice these things often happen on their own), but if goals help you follow through there certainly is no harm in it. All I did was start a list on my phone and write down the date and a (very) short explanation of what occurred. Later you can look back and marvel! Seeing as we are approaching the new year, if you are interested  this is as good a time as any to start!

Overwhelmed By Positive Emotions

Normally when I think of being overwhelmed by emotion, I think about my day to day life and the fear, anxiety, and depression that I experience. These emotions often make me feel overwhelmed by the world and everything it entails, from social gatherings to daily living. One thing I had forgotten however (up until recently) was the feeling of being overwhelmed by positive emotions.

Looking back on my life up to this point, I can remember small snippets in time where a joyful sort of emotional floodgate opened and I found myself, almost drowning, in whirlpools of joy or appreciation or beauty. When I was younger, most of these moments took place where something as simple as hearing a song (that I had only heard on a recording) played live for the first time swept over me; when something powerful that I already had an emotional connection to came close enough to me that we came as close to becoming one as possible.

In these moments I found myself so overwhelmed by beauty and joy I could not speak, and my heart often felt like it was trying eagerly to escape my body. I would cry uncontrollably, but not out of fear or sadness or desperation; simply tears of love and appreciation and joy.

I can recognize well enough that this sort of reaction to something beautiful or profound can be just as jarring to the innocent bystander as my typical negative emotional reaction. In fact, many people can’t tell the difference from the outside when they see me overwhelmed in either a positive or negative light; they see simply someone who is overwhelmed.

Becoming emotionally overwhelmed in a positive way is something I don’t hear many people talk about, and for me it has been one of the most profound experiences I have associated with bipolar disorder. Unfortunately, for every thousand days I experience being overwhelmed in a negative way, I only seem to get that positive overwhelmed feeling once or twice. For me it is exceptionally rare, and as I’ve gotten older the moments have become few and far between. I also can’t orchestrate them anymore, many years ago live music stopped producing this tidal wave of emotion for me… so I slumped into a dark depression for several years without that punch in the face of joy or beauty.

The moment this concept and these memories came flooding back to me was last week. Through an odd turn of events I witnessed one of my childhood heroes give a talk and sign autographs for charity. I know people say you should never meet your childhood heroes (because they will be sure to disappoint), but all I saw was an aging man who was genuinely interested in doing something kind for others.

I spoke to him for a couple minutes (as best I could with my throat closing up anxiously) and he was very sweet. When I walked away it hit me like a ton of bricks; the joy, the appreciation, the beauty, the hope and compassion I don’t normally feel toward others. Within moments I was running for the bathroom because tears were spewing out of my face and I had no way to control them.

For the next two days, every time that memory came up I would start crying and grinning like an idiot. On the bus, down the street, at home, talking to my sister, it didn’t matter. I normally spend so much time trapped in a place where I can only ever seem to see the negative things in the world, being afforded a moment, even a split second, where I could see something wonderful felt extraordinary.

Happiness and I have not been the best of friends this year, but I am very appreciative that it is something I’ve been afforded (even briefly) this holiday season, even if it came at me like a tidal wave. Here’s my wish for each of you; if you’ve got to be subject to feeling completely overwhelmed over the holidays, I hope the tidal wave approaching carries joy and love and hope.

And maybe a personalized surfboard.

Leaving on a High Note

If you’ve ever watched Seinfeld you may remember Jerry (a comedian) advising his best friend George that the best thing he can do is to “leave on a high note.” Lately I’ve been trying to change some of my habits to reflect this idea.

A big problem I have been facing is that no matter what my mood is like during the day, it often takes a big downward spiral (even more downward in the event I am already depressed) in the evening before bed. Going to bed feeling so negative has lent itself to trouble sleeping and nightmares for me, so when I first discovered that the specific mindset I am in when I go to bed plays a big role in my ability to be fully rested the next day I began to do some experimenting.

Lately I have been trying to go straight to bed during a brief moment of contentedness. Sometimes that means booking it to the bathroom immediately after watching a show that has made me laugh or smile, or even going to bed earlier than I normally would (to cut off my emotional nosedive before it gets too out of control). Sometimes that means picking a moment where my rapid cycling is affording me a breath of fresh air from the depression I was experiencing moments earlier.

My general desire in these moments is to stay up later (because I may feel, for a moment, a bit better) but experience, at this point, has taught me that if I do the waves of depression and pointlessness can wipe out those small, good (or even just neutral) moments and leave me stewing for the rest of the night.

So far this experiment has provided me a slightly easier time falling asleep, and though I am sleeping slightly less, I am feeling more rested from the time I am asleep.

I have also been working to incorporate the idea of “leaving on a high note” with my therapy sessions. Let’s face it, they can get pretty… well… glum (is a nice word for it). Spending five minutes at the end of the session bringing the mood back to a happier or funnier place has helped me leave therapy sessions feeling slightly less like a sack of discarded potatoes.

This idea is also something that has made a big difference for me in terms of communicating with friends and family members as well. Leaving a conversation in the middle of something serious or even triggering without bringing things back around to a happier place has been extremely detrimental to my overall mental health. It is almost as if those negative topics, if not contained, spread through my system and drain me of all my energy. Encapsulating those moments in specific conversational bubbles (and moving to another lighter  bubble after hitting a dark one) seems to make a big difference for me, in terms of becoming triggered.

One of the things I like most about this idea is that no matter how dark, or weird, or awkward things get, there is always opportunity to make things a little lighter before moving on. While this is something I tend to do with humor, even something as simple as apologizing to the store clerk who I’ve just been short with has been enough to help me leave a potentially negative situation feeling slightly better. Sometimes it feels really important to me to recognize that I can’t always keep situations from being negative (or keep myself from feeling negatively about something), but if I do what I can to turn things around before walking away, that negativity seems to have much less power over me and doesn’t linger the way it might otherwise.

Maybe this holiday season a good option might be to leave on a high note. A polite goodbye before a party or gathering turns into total chaos could be the difference between a short, sweet appearance and that dreaded stressed out holiday meltdown. Not only that, but leaving when you feel good might also help keep you from feeling negatively about your friends, relatives, and yourself!

Circling America to Block Intrusive Thoughts

For a long time I have been falling into a pattern with mental health professionals (and, let’s face it, general folks as well sometimes) who seem to believe they hold the answer to my blight. The answer, it seems, is to let it go, “it” being whatever it is that is nagging at me for the moment.

Unfortunately, that has been about as helpful as telling me to solve my problems by digging up pirate gold. I have no map, and not one person I’ve asked who has made this kind of suggestion to me can seem to convey exactly how one lets something go. 

No matter how many children I see on the news singing the Frozen theme song I can’t seem to pick up this skill via osmosis. Likewise, I have never suddenly been able to perform an ollie after someone handed me a skateboard and said, “just do it, man!”

Seemingly more helpful suggestions have been to “focus on something else,” or “push the thoughts out of my mind.” I have been able to accomplish the pushing skill about four times out of the several hundred I’ve tried (but at least I know it can work if I put up enough of a strong arm) but trying to focus on something else has also been… spotty at best.

For whatever reason, I seem to live with the voices of all the rude, horrible people who have ever said hurtful things to me swirling around in my head. Try as I best to let go of them, they always seem to linger like flies and fail to allow themselves to be relinquished. They don’t seem to be interested in being set free, not when there is fresh meat (like me) around.

So what do you do when you let go of something that wont let go of you?

Well, first I discovered that if I shouted, “LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA!” I could drown them out a little.

From there I moved onto using the chicken dance song as a personal mantra, singing it at various intervals to block out the scathing internal conversations. This helps, but is decidedly obnoxious to anyone around who can hear (as is the random shouting).

Last week I finally met with my new therapist who brought to my attention a technique where you move your eyes in the shape of the United States, along the border all the way around over and over again. I’ve tried it with my eyes both open and shut, and for whatever reason after two passes the noise and horror in my head seems to die down.

I believe this technique is based on the same school of thought that EMDR comes from (a therapeutic technique that uses eye movement to help the brain become desensitized to traumatic experiences), and though I am still looking into this method for my own PTSD symptoms I don’t currently have the finances to be able to afford to see someone who practices it.

Realistically, I can’t walk around and do everything with my eyes spinning around in my head but if this works I am certain there must be other silent, less obtrusive methods of blocking intrusive thoughts. When I find them, I’m sure you will be the first to know…

Good Boundaries Make Good Neighbors

If there is one thing I could say is my least favorite thing about living in the city (and that is putting it mildly) it would be living in an apartment building.

To say that sharing walls with other people is enough of an inconvenience for me that it blows past trying to avoid stepping on used needles, people entering and exiting the bus without any concept of keeping other people from being on time, and parades for “most annoying city thing” might be something of an indication that my real problem is this; the people thing.

No, people on the streets in Seattle aren’t nice. They call it the “Seattle freeze,” people here will honestly just pretend you don’t exist when it is convenient for them to do so. Even worse is that these folks, when snuggled into their apartments at the end of the day, seem to also believe that whatever happens in the walls of their little unit has no effect on anyone else -and why should it? This is my home.

This is not something I can pass off like a torch and say, “ah, well, this weird and overwhelming rude-neighbor-noise-problem has nothing to do with me!” I know very well that it does.

You see, most of the time I have a very hard time asserting myself. I realize that might sound odd to anyone who knows me because I tend to have a bit of a controlling reputation, but it is true. I really struggle in situations where I feel like my boundaries are being violated and I need to stand up for myself.

Part of the problem is that I don’t really know how to assert the boundary in the first place, especially with a neighbor. So when my neighbor spends two or three weeks encouraging their children to scream as loud as they can over and over again and I do nothing (“just ignore it,” right?) a precedent has been established; screaming all day and all night is ok.

At my last apartment, that was my method… and not because I have a great time ignoring horrible sounds, oh no. In fact, I am pretty sure I don’t have access to that part of my brain, or it broke, or never quite grew in. This is especially true with repetitive noises, nothing will make me psychotic faster than a repetitive sound that I cannot avoid.

At the same time, I was terrified of what might happen if I did say something. If I waited to reach out to my neighbor when I was already agitated from the noise, wasn’t there a risk I might have a panic attack at their door or, even worse, snap at them? What if the psychosis brought on a moment where I couldn’t control myself? What if I acted like such an asshole it made things worse? What if they called the police on me for not making sense and seeming threatening?

Ultimately, no matter where I tried to go with this, the final result seemed thus; no matter what I do, pissing off my neighbor could be the biggest mistake I could make. An angry neighbor can make your life hell. 

The truly funny part was that right before I moved some gentleman went to some of my neighbors and asked them about me. I figured that since I hadn’t ever approached any of them, their responses would probably be neutral.

Nope.

The responses they got were overwhelmingly negative. I was a hermit. I was cold. I was rude. I was constantly on autopilot.

And while these things are probably true (because I was always pissed off at those people for making stupid amounts of noise) it became clear that avoiding confrontation was not making people like me. In fact, they probably liked me about as little as I expected they would if I had said something to them about the noise!

One of the things I really took away for my hospitalization a couple weeks ago is that I need to work harder at being assertive and setting up boundaries with people. Again, this is something that is pretty easy to put on the list, but following through with it can seem like a daunting task.

My first day back from the hospital I approached neighbor-with-screaming-kids (I call him the butcher since it constantly sounds like he is murdering children two doors away -I dare say I would be more nervous if the kids didn’t seem to keep multiplying or answering the door grinning) when I couldn’t rest because (you guessed it) his kids were screaming.

Though he seemed somewhat incredulous that seven blood curdling screams happening simultaneously could be heard in my apartment (really?) he kept the kids quiet for a good 12 hours before the screaming started up again.

Last night I had a panic attack while trying to eat dinner because I could hear an adult over there encouraging the kids to scream louder. This unit is not next door to me, it is on the other side of the building! So, for a second time I approached my neighbor, this time with the blank pallor and the uncontrollable twitching that accompanies a panic attack. After he smiled and laughed a little a six inch Bugs Bunny sporting a pink beret, a shaggy pink sweater, and a green pencil skirt appeared on my shoulder,

“And of course you know this means war!”

Maybe my neighbor doesn’t like me, but chances are he probably wouldn’t have liked me anyway.

I’ve made the first step in establishing a boundary. Screaming at that level = inappropriate. Having established this idea with my neighbor, I feel much more relaxed about calling my building manager or the police if (or when) the screaming starts up again.

There are often times in my experience with bipolar disorder where it feels like I’ve suddenly woken up. They don’t last long anymore, but when it happens I look around me and see how much of my life has been reduced to nothing… then I spend the better part of the next few days trying to set something up again. Just enough that the ball will keep rolling without me pushing it every few feet. Practicing being assertive and setting boundaries (um, no, pizza with no sauce is not pizza!) while I briefly have the frame of mind to do so will hopefully help it stick when I don’t.