Revenge

Over the weekend I went to see The Revenant, and though I am not typically interested in dramas or anything relatively violent I am interested in stories about mountain men and stories about revenge.

I’ve been thinking a lot about revenge and why it is so interesting and even consuming, at times, to me. True that in a heightened state of emotion revenge can seem that much more gratifying, but most of these stories about revenge (or my experiences with revenge) well… they never quite end well.

The thing that interests me the most about revenge is how my own mental health has been able to completely warp this concept in different situations. For example, I started having my first full-on panic attacks in elementary school in P.E. when our teacher had us running around the track. He told us that we were not allowed to stop for any reason, not even to get a drink of water. When I asked him if I could stop to tie my shoe (which had become untied) he said no. I was supposed to keep running.

Now, this might seem totally mundane in terms of “personal threats”, but I have always been a somewhat awkward being who is able to trip on a line in the road. Having my shoe untied was a serious invitation to biff it on the track, and I was both pissed off and terrified. However, my fear quickly turned into something else as I found myself desperately wanting to trip on that shoelace, fall, and get hurt enough for some kind of punishment to befall my P.E. teacher.

It didn’t happen, but there have been many situations where my apparent inability to do anything about a perceived injustice has left me believing that the best form of revenge would be to take that revenge out on myself and subsequently whoever I meant to get revenge on would be forced to watch me withering away… potentially causing them inexplicable amounts of pain. At times I have thought that my younger self may have wandered into believing herself some kind of witch-doctor, capable of performing voo-doo. Of course, that almost never, ever worked out the way I expected it to, and while I admit the idea of hurting oneself to exact revenge on someone else seems totally ludacris there have been times where the act of revenge seems to completely outweigh the act of living. Watching any number of “revenge” themed movies will typically suggest the same.

I fought this notion a lot via the church. The act of forgiveness being the total opposite of revenge, I figured that might help me shy away from a lot of the odd, convoluted notions I had about punishing others or using myself to do so. Unfortunately, I found myself living in the opposite extreme, constantly in a state where the people around me were taking advantage of me and I would be ushering out forgiveness in a never ending revolving door of pain.

As it turns out, forgiveness without any sort of boundaries can be just as detrimental as revenge.

The road since then has been awash with many different theories and attempts to live a healthy life. I would say I have made significant progress on that front, but as a profoundly emotional individual it still swells up, from time to time, and revenge becomes something shiny and wisp-like begging me to chase after it. Even if I can withstand chasing it, it isn’t hard for my imagination to take the bait and for days, weeks, or even months I become trapped, seeking this thing out -if even only in my mind.

I am hoping that one day I will have replaced that inexplicable pull with something as simple, but as important, as acceptance. While it is something that seems distant to me now, I hope that little by little, inch by inch, it will become a more central part of my life and my future.

One day I will be able to sit with my life as it is as opposed to being haunted by the notion of what it should be.

Depression Under the Radar

Like most people, when you hear the word depression you probably associate it with emotion. Sadness, perhaps, if you’ve never had it yourself. Despair, even, if that is something you’ve come face to face with. I know when I hear the word depression it is easy for my mind to make an association jumping straight to utter and complete hopelessness, or going a week without leaving the house, or even suicidality.

However, the truth of the matter is that depression has many symptoms associated with it that may not directly involve feeling sad or hopeless at all, and it is this odd grey area that I’ve found myself in lately.

Though I haven’t been having feelings of despair (profound or otherwise) I am definitely feeling exhausted all the time. I am more anxious than usual and having a hard time being in public places. I am less motivated and less interested in things, and I keep bouncing back and forth between wanting to eat everything I can get my hands on and not having an appetite at all.

But, despite all of these things, my first reaction when I saw my therapist last was to say things were going well. It wasn’t until she asked about my appetite and sleeping that I started noticing all of the other (emotionless?) symptoms of depression have been stacking up, but without that emotional sort of sinking feeling they’ve all latched onto me under the radar.

Once I noticed it I felt a little silly for not noticing it before. After all, I consider myself pretty experienced with depression’s escapades at this point and beyond that, there are plenty of times I have had symptoms of mania come on without the bliss or agitation I normally associate with it. Things like increased energy, impulsivity, lack of appetite and sleep, have been pretty easy for me to notice, but something like decreased energy could be any number of things from my immune system to stress to the weather. It isn’t until I can see all of those symptoms together that I am willing to start labeling them.

I guess I am hoping that since my stress level should (that’s the key word) be letting up in the next couple weeks I can simply play hostess and seat these other symptoms at a table while they wait for their friend emotion to arrive. If I’m lucky it’ll get stuck in traffic or be too sad to come to the party, and if not I will have my wait staff ready to do what needs to be done to keep things afloat.

One Bad Day Does Not An Episode Make

Yoda

One bad day does not an episode make.

Lately I have been feeling the brief bleeps of depression sending a telegraph signal to me to double my portion size. Worry about everything ever. And definitely cry while eating pancakes. I may not have noticed until the results became cumulative, and my first instinct when this sort of thing starts to happen is to shout,

“Quick quick quick! Finish all projects, sever all ties, and run for the hills! The big depressive swing is coming!”

While there is something to be said about being aware of my symptoms and knowing to be wary when they begin to stack into something more unmanageable I have a serious tendency to immediately expect the worst. Doom and gloom, certain I’ll be hospitalized within months, ever starting at the ground floor and working my way back up.

The reality of the situation, however, is that this idea simply isn’t true. One day of crying over my pancakes does not provide a 100% certainty that the next day will be the same, or worse. In fact, there are many more examples of me bouncing back from a depressive or mixed day than there are big (note: several month long) depressive episodes in my life, but these larger episodes have generally produced so much fear in me that I would not be shocked to find that I’ve worried myself back down into one.

It seems the real trick here is balance, something I’ve always struggled with a bit. Finding a sense of awareness about my symptoms but not overreacting (or even underreacting) to them is the goal. One of the biggest ways I can help myself is to remember that I can’t see the future (though I did have a dream once that came true. It was about cupcakes. None since then though). Being able to feel prepared for the future while also not feeling consumed by it is ideal, and while I can’t say I’ve mastered that I am definitely working on it.

It can be easy for me to forget that one bad day does not imply an episode, but this concept is one that I am actively trying to remind myself of (naturally doing so in a goofy Yoda voice helps) to help stave off that horrible crushing fear that seems capable of grabbing hold of me and dragging me exactly where I didn’t want to go. Hopefully working harder to stay in the present (while maintaining an awareness of my symptoms and how they operate) is something that can help keep me from stumbling into another depressive self-fulfilling prophecy!

Big Change Bringing Optimism; 10 Years in Seattle

Today is my ten year anniversary of the day I moved to Seattle to go to art school.

The funny thing is that moving here was never something I aspired to, in fact I thought the city was dirty and full of all kinds of sad and frightening things. Frankly, I really just think I got lucky when my depressive stint in a cold house in the middle of the woods on an island was interrupted by a phone call from the school with an open invitation to come down.

I already had been to college once and dropped out after a mixed/manic episode and I was already familiar with the burden of student loans. Still, the offer was too tempting to resist, and swapping the dark and quiet island for loud, bright city streets also meant swapping my depression for hypomania.

The sudden shift in my emotional state taught me a few things, even though it was something I really didn’t understand at the time. Learning that the excitement and insomnia that came with being in new places made me feel quite spectacular, and that my depression could temporarily be outrun led to a lot of attempts to shift gears and outrun that depression in later years. Unfortunately no matter where I ran, it always managed to catch up with me.

The biggest thing I remember about this day ten years ago was laying in bed awake trying to sleep while the streetlight poured in and the fire station only three blocks away emitted what seemed to be a constant siren. It felt like the epitome of the opposite of where I had come from and it took several sleepless days for me to become tired enough to sleep through it.

This change, though not one I expected, coming to me with all its sense of newness and opportunity, produced a two year period of almost uninterrupted hypomania (with the exceptions of a few mixed and manic nights), something I have not experienced since. While I’ve learned that trying to outrun depression is something that acts as a temporary fix for a more permanent problem I face, knowing that opportunities for growth are something that can help me rise above it (even just temporarily) has been wildly invaluable.

And the city? A big portion of the original area downtown where I moved has been gentrified, and the run-down convenience stores and bars have been replaced with shiny new condos and rustic taprooms. A lot of the homeless population has moved on to other parts of the city, replaced by people who work in technology often having more money than they know what to do with. Sometimes it is strange to me to think of the way the neighborhood used to be with fondness and find myself feeling like the distrust I have for this shiny new version trumps any negative feelings I had about the dirtiness and sadness of the way things used to be. At least before I felt like the city was being real and honest, instead of trying to hide the unfortunate business of homelessness and those of us who still live from paycheck to paycheck.

The reality is that the city I moved to ten years ago has become an entirely different city, and while I feel lucky to have lived there in a time where it was a place I really did feel at home, it has changed as much as I have.

At any rate, there is a dream of the next place, wherever it is. I don’t know how long it will be before fate comes knocking and I find myself terrified by how dark and quiet it is while I am trying to sleep.

In the meantime, thank you Seattle for 10 years.

Looking Back, Looking Forward

With the new year fast approaching I am excited to say that I will be starting 2016 with a new therapist and a new psychiatrist. I will also be continuing the DBT group I have been participating in for a couple months now which is great because so far I would say it has been helping me make a difference in my reactivity and emotional rumination.

Of course, it helps that Emotional Regulation was the first thing we covered because that is one of the more challenging things I have been facing. The funny thing is that now that I’ve got a few skills to help me see the big picture (instead of a pure emotional reaction) in situations it has been made clear that my other biggest challenge is communication and Interpersonal Relationships. That module of the group definitely can’t come soon enough!

That doesn’t mean I am miraculously cured, or that I am not continuing to lose my shit on a semi-regular basis. But… I may lose it for a shorter period of time, or only two or three times (instead of 12-16). Frankly I am willing to consider any and all progress progress.

Ultimately the way my perspective has been shifting around because of this class highlights an issue that I’ve known for a while but may not have given enough credit to. Stress makes a huge difference, in terms of the timing and magnitude of a lot of my emotional episodes. Stress is like… my death star. I might think it is a friendly moon at first but really it is a fully operational space station of mass destruction.

What does that mean, exactly? I am not sure, but I know I need to be addressing stress more aggressively (eh, not me being aggressive but more seriously) and not fail to recognize it or deal with it before all the firing sequences have been completed and it becomes a giant laser heading straight for me.

I can’t control the stress, but I am hoping that if I can recognize it early enough there will be time for me to react before the laser hits the fan.

Anyway, even with the intense illness and surgeries of 2015, spending summer in bed, and most of my plans being totally pulled out from under me this was somehow a better year than 2014. While 2014 was almost a year of being comical because of how many things could go wrong, 2015 was great because “at least it isn’t 2014.”

I don’t know if it was because I spent 2014 operating on a totally empty tank but this year it was like I could feel parts of my brain beginning to operate that hadn’t been used in ages. I can’t make a final word as to if I should be chalking that up to hypomania or simply 2014 acting as a hard-reset of my brain but it leaves me hopeful that in 2016 I might be able to dust off a few more parts and put them to good use again. We’ll see.

Ultimately, this year I learned that there is still a lot of improvement to be had in terms of the treatment of people with mental illness and mental health crisis. It bewildered me that so many people were willing to reach out and to respect my space when I was having surgery (for a physical problem), but the treatment I have received both just having a mental health problem or during a mental health crisis is wildly different. I am hoping that going forward I can learn and discern new or better ways to communicate this problem and what we can all do to help solve it.

In the mean time, however, I will wish you all a happy new year! Thanks for reading!

And an Epiphany in a Tree

I can say with some certainty that November and December have become my least favorite times of the year. For a long time I thought the stagnant months of February and March were worse (as they hold the record for the majority of my psychiatric hospitalizations) but it seems that every big blow-out started with a seed of intense stress in November and December.

Last week was really rough. Our dog Luna has been having seizures that our local vet has been having a hard time getting under control, and combined with the stresses and pressures of the holidays I started to crack very quickly. It started with really intense insomnia, and waking up psychotic around 4 or 5 am each morning for three days in a row. By the third day I had put on boots and a coat and walked to the grocery store outside in the dark in an attempt to outrun the vibrating energy in my body as I was filled with unprompted rage, and then the walk back tipped the scales in the other direction. Uncontrollable crying.

The swings were intense, on the brink of hospitalization-worthy. After having the ten-minutes-of-rage, ten-minutes-of-despair, ten-minutes of clarity, (wash, rinse, repeat) for a couple hours Corey and I decided it would be best to start the day with my emergency antipsychotic (Risperidone). 15 hours of sleep later I was a little more evened out, but it was a very serious sign to relax and take things more slowly. The last thing I wanted was to spend the holidays (and the new Star Wars premier) in the hospital.

One of the biggest difficulties I have at this time of year is that all of the progress my various family members have made regarding understanding my illness seems to evaporate (I am chalking it up to holiday stress, I don’t think they mean to do it) and things seem to reset to a time where I had little to no control over what I was doing or where I was spending my time.

It is often very hard for me to communicate my needs when it comes to managing bipolar disorder, but the problem always seems to grow exponentially around the holidays. It can feel really frustrating (to say the least) when my actions attempting to keep myself safe and sane start being ignored or demeaned when my needs start being categorized as selfish wants or irrelevant to the success of a holiday gathering.

I come from a long line of people who are much more quick to accommodate others than accommodate ourselves, and I think my Grandma said it best to me when she told me recently, “I always put my family’s needs before my own.” While this is something I have admired about us (lending itself to being giving and compassionate) one of the most difficult aspects of my life up to this point has been watching the people I love not taking care of themselves and feeling helpless to do anything about it.

At times it seems like my desire to take better care of myself is seen as an insult to my family when it has nothing to do with any of them. That is why I have had a whole series of Christmases where I made plans, and then always disrupted them at the last minute to do whatever whichever family member wants. These are people that really matter to me, and the shame and guilt I end of up feeling about not letting them control me is usually enough for me to give in. I don’t want to disappoint them, and I find myself traveling back to being a teenager or a kid who would rather just forgo helping myself and hide that I ever needed anything at all to keep from feeling vulnerable and like a disappointment.

Obviously that is a big part of what got me into this mess in the first place. Not taking care of myself when I really needed it has made my bipolar symptoms much bigger and stronger over time, and now that I am finally at that point where I am (making a good attempt at) managing my symptoms with a lot of help from my friends, things seem to be improving -albeit slowly.

Yesterday after a significant struggle through some knee deep inner turmoil I had a lightbulb go off. After the episode of this last week and all of the family conversations I had it was clear that taking care of myself has finally outweighed pleasing my family.

Like I said, I love them and I want them to be happy, but this doesn’t have to do with me being selfish, or my own happiness, or trying to punish them for not accommodating me, or just not wanting to be around them. This is about my health. My sanity.  My brain is a pretty integral part of my daily living, so it’d be better if I gave it a hand here, you know?

Putting my family first doesn’t keep me from having bipolar episodes. It doesn’t help me cope with stress. It doesn’t let me live the life that I want to live because I am not living through them, I am living through me. It took me many years to learn that I could not take care of them when they were failing to take care of themselves, but taking care of me is the one thing I can do.

My needs are important and they can’t be ignored any longer. I am thirty years old now, and it is crystal clear that nobody is going to take care of me but me. That means I need to step up and do it all the way, not just a little bit here and there.

This doesn’t mean I am becoming a hermit, it simply means that what I want is going to have to agree with what is appropriate for my health before I do it, and the execution will involve a firm “no” (gasp!!) from time to time.

I’ve spent ten years trying to execute this plan and failed every time before now, but I am finally able to see that the old way… well it isn’t working. While I recognize that this is always easier said than done I can feel that guilt and shame window closing. I am tired of being ruled by my emotions, because emotions can be manipulated. I want my life to be about the things that are important to me, and while my family is important I am finally recognizing just how important my health is to me too.

Rebuilding After Depression

I often think of the lives we’ve all built as individuals to be like a tower made of blocks.

Life!

Each block is made up of our actions, our thoughts and feelings about our self, our memories, and our abilities, to name a few. Each tower is unique and the product of the time spent living that life!

For me, depression has always felt like that tower becomes totally smashed.

Depression

I can’t seem to draw on my memories or abilities the way I used to, and I find myself acting and thinking differently. Reaching the conclusion of a long, drawn out depression has often left me feeling like I am walking through that life building-block battlefield, and beyond the pain I feel about all of the shattered pieces, I tend to feel more confusion than anything else about how I could possibly even take these hacked up pieces and turn them into a beautiful tower like they were before.

Clean Up

As does living life, building my inner tower takes time and I hardly have the energy to jump back into such intense rebuilding right away after experiencing depression. In this period, building my sense of self might be as simple as reminding myself what it is like to get out of bed, or take a shower, or speak to other people. I call this the “clean up” phase, where I feel like a pile of blocks (as opposed to a tower) but I am cleaning up the thick layer of dust that depression has left over everything and slowly working to mend any relationships or obligations I find that have cracked under depression’s weight.

For me, this clean-up phase has always been the trickiest because I am still tired and my sense of self is still foggy. In the event that another round of depression hits me at this point, or another mood episode gets triggered I have a very hard time pushing back. After all, how hard is it to convince someone with little self-worth that they have no self-worth?

This is how things have been the last few years. Depression strikes, I clean up, but before I can make much substantial progress (like being able to make goals about the future, feeling a good amount of self-worth, or being able to tell depression to bugger off) I have had repeated episodes, over and over again.

This loop has caused me to look at my life differently. It has prompted me to keep shaving pieces off of the sides of my blocks, to try to simplify everything around me in order to reach that feeling of mastery over something much sooner than I would otherwise. To keep my relationships as straightforward as possible and build more boundaries to try to protect the little cluster of blocks I’ve been trying to repair.

Rebuild

This morning I noticed it. I am not sure if it was what I have been doing that has been helping, or if I got lucky somehow that I missed a big episode being triggered in the last six months, or if the research I have been doing about values (and what mine are) have sent a small spark of recognition to that tower of life I knew before, but things have changed.

At some point I have entered the rebuilding phase, and I couldn’t even say when it happened. While it isn’t a full tower yet, I know I am here after having one of the most hectic, upsetting weeks ever and something inside me, structurally, was left intact.

Am I afraid? A bit, yes. But I am also happy, and proud of myself for regaining enough strength to start putting the pieces back together. Even though the Sarah of yesteryear would consider this a sign to start grabbing blocks and trying to make them fit, to rush the construction of this tower out of fear of another topple, keeping things as simple as possible has seemed to be an effective strategy for letting this process occur organically.

I have already run through the gauntlet. There are few things depression could do to truly scare me at this point, and I am hoping that when depression comes (and it will again, that is simply the nature of my current existence) that my tower, finished or not, will aid in a different outcome. And if not? At least I know that I am still capable of rebuilding, because after all these years I am happy to find that the blueprints weren’t lost with the tower.

Life!