Tag Archives: evolution

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!

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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!

Bridges; To Burn or Not To Burn

If there is one ultimate truth regarding those of us with bipolar disorder, it is this: we are emotional. Granted, humans generally are, but we are more so.

Because of this it isn’t uncommon for us to find ourselves in situations where we need to, want to, or are being forced to sever ties with not only the people around us, but the communities we find ourselves in or the jobs we hold.

I’ve burned a lot of bridges at jobs I’ve held, and even some in communities, but the bridges I’d like to focus on today are ones of friendship.

In the past, friendships were very difficult for me. As I mentioned, I’m a tad emotional, and there has been more than one occasion where I have exploded in a fiery cataclysm, denouncing all ties of friendship and loyalty.

The trouble with bipolar disorder is that I can have feelings for hate for something or someone one day, and feel reasonably loving toward them the next. Before I realized this, there were a lot of friendship bridges burnt, so I started a new methodology. That, and, I realized that my actions were hurting people… which isn’t really fun for them (and, you know, were apparently even a bit emotionally scarring). That’s not the sort of person I want to be, so I implemented the new plan.

Don’t burn the bridge.

I’m sure you’re thinking that this might sound easy but we both know that acting it out can be quite difficult. That’s why I developed a strategy to help.

Ignore the friggen’ bridge.

There have been several friends in my life that I found myself growing apart from. Sometimes that is just the way life works, people head off in different directions. After finding myself in situations where we’d both sit and awkwardly stare at our drinks without really talking for our usual social time, I could tell it was time to part ways.

And that’s when I’d start to get the itch. The bridge burning itch. The aggressive, intrusive, I’m going to call them and tell them never to talk to me again itch.

For a while the friendships in my life were neatly book-ended. There was a clear beginning and a clear end of each one (thanks, in part, to my bridge-burning). What I discovered in my adult life was that friends would sort of just start to fade away. I’d see less and less of them (and inevitably want to friend-dump them).

Let’s not forget, I didn’t want to be that person. I don’t want to be that person. Instead of burning the bridge, I work very hard to ignore it. I let it fade away until it seems to be gone, and in one situation I was even rewarded for this. A few years later my friend came back into my life and our friendship was suddenly better than it had been before.

This hasn’t happened with the others, but that one successful re-friendship has taught me that people learn and grow at different speeds. Sometimes when we aren’t synced up, we lose touch and part ways, but that isn’t a good reason to cut off all ties with that person forever. They could always have a life event that brings them closer to you than ever somewhere down the line!

On top of that, I’ve learned that what I say (and don’t say) to other people is really important to me. It’s true that some people have pushed my buttons on purpose, or given me the ol’ friendship backstab move, but that probably isn’t a good reason to unleash the raging, fiery cataclysmic beast that dwells inside of me. As it turns out, when people hurt me, I am often capable of hurting them ten fold. After all, I never do anything half-assed.

The Bipolar Dog Comment

Earlier this week at the dog park, one of my neighbors made a comment I thought was quite curious.

A Rowdy Luna

Luna, our Boston Terrier, is a couple of months away from being three. You wouldn’t know it if you met her though, she often bounces back and forth between the energetic fervor of puppyhood (running in circles, humping and head-butting other dogs, etc) and a petrified docile state where she flops down, belly up, if anyone even looks at her.

The suggestion, then, was that her behavior is:

a little bipolar.

At first I wasn’t sure if this was an insult or a compliment (as someone who lives with bipolar disorder personally) so I chuckled and shut my mouth to consider the implications of this statement.

A Meek Luna

I’m not saying I believe my dog has bipolar disorder, but it is often true that people’s dogs take on personality traits of their owners. Luna hasn’t had any angry outbursts, or mentioned any hallucinations, or gone on any manic spending sprees, but it is obvious, even to those that don’t know her, that she fluctuates between two very different extremes when we’re out on our walks. Rowdy and raucous one moment, meek and submissive the next.

Really, there are any number of things that could be causing this behavior in her, (and it isn’t uncommon for people to project their own feelings onto their animals) but what was beginning to bother me was the thought that maybe this was because of me

I mean, I don’t have kids, and I don’t plan to. Luna is the closest to having a child I ever expect to get. I’m sure it sounds far fetched, but could I possibly have taught her to be this way? I mean, I’m constantly bouncing between being a completely docile, whimpering, couch potato and getting up to play with her when my own bursts of energy come along. Surely she doesn’t have the emotional responses of a person with bipolar disorder, but her bizarre energy fluctuations do mimic my own (because that is how I interact with her and take care of her).

The one little piece of heartbreak in this is knowing that she has, in one form or another, adapted to the way I live. I am around her all the time, and she usually only plays or asks for something when she knows she is most likely to get what she wants. But has adaptation to the way I function (or don’t function, sometimes) made her unable to adapt to the way other dogs play at the park?

I’m not really that worried. She’s a dog, she’s very adaptive, she’ll figure it out. I was just boggled by the notion I had passed this behavior on to her, and I was concerned, if even for just a moment, that she’d somehow caught bipolar disorder from me.

Luna is an excellent dog, and she has adapted to my needs very well. She can still be a little pushy (but then again, she does need to go outside sometimes -and so do I) but after this comment at the dog park I can’t help but feel an enormous amount of appreciation around how well she has adapted to how I live.

Sorry if I’ve inadvertantly made you a little weird, little dog, but everyone loves you anyway!

Controlling the Wave vs. Riding It

For several years I fully believed that if I controlled everything around me I could also control my bipolar symptoms, and that by eliminating all possible triggers I could also eliminate the possibility of intense episodes.

By controlling things like diet, sleep, exercise, and more I found that things were significantly improved, but at the same time, attempting to control everything around me was exhausting. Trying to control everything at the same time felt like a torturous juggling act that would never end, and that is one of the biggest reasons I began trying the traditional pharmaceutical route again a couple years ago. Any help I could get to manage my symptoms became a welcome notion, trying to do everything myself left me wiped out and unable to keep fighting.

It seems like just as there is a spectrum of symptoms for people who are diagnosed with bipolar disorder, there is a spectrum of views on how to manage it.

Living in the realm of intended total control put me at one end of that spectrum, but I have also witnessed the other end up close and personal as well. When I was younger I spent a brief period of time with a religious congregation that believed that my symptoms and subsequent episodes had little, if nothing, to do with what was going on around me, and that by relinquishing all control to God I would be freed of bipolar disorder.

I’m sure most of you know I am not here to condemn any view, belief, or way people with mental illness seek solace -in fact, I definitely encourage people to learn as much as they can about different views on the notion of mental illness and then make their own decision based on what feels right for them.

Saying that, I have to admit that relinquishing all control did not seem to make things easier for me. At the same time, attempting to control absolutely everything had the same outcome; it was not making things easier for me.

For a while I wasn’t quite sure what that meant, if wrestling a beast left me so tired I couldn’t get back up to fight its second wind, and trying to ride it by simply just holding on meant being bucked off over and over again before it was finally subdued, what strategy can I use?

By now I’ve really fallen into a place where controlling those elements around me is helpful, but needs to be met halfway with the idea that if I can’t subdue the tidal wave when it is beginning, it is sometimes more realistic to just batten down the hatches and ride it with what strength I have left. Once the wave becomes a certain size it is important for me to step back and say, “alright, I don’t think I can control this thing anymore, it is time to ask for help wherever I can and ride it out until it finally breaks.”

I can’t say that this has been a magical fix-it solution, in fact I’m really just giving this theory a go the past few months for the first time. I don’t think that just because neither of the extremes of these notions worked well for me it means there isn’t something in them that is helpful and important to learn. It just means that each person is an individual, that our beliefs and the ways we take on the world are all different, and sometimes they change as we do.

A Biopsy, Emotional and Otherwise

About a week ago I visited the dermatologist for the first time. I wasn’t really sure what to expect (getting poked with cold metal sticks? A giant skin magnifying glass? Maybe I watch too many science fiction films…) but I knew I wanted to ask a few questions.

After my general skin questions were answered (yes, the dermatologist said the most likely cause of my acne was the lithium I have been taking the last two years, surprise surprise) I asked about moles. Who should get them checked? When should they be checked? How does it work?

Instead of telling me she just began to look at them, and then quickly decided (though I am not at big risk for skin cancer, living up in Seattle where the sun never reaches my skin anyway) there was one mole that she wanted to biopsy.

For those of you (like me) who have never been to a dermatologist, biopsy just means they want to cut it off and study it, apparently.

I had no problem with it, jumped up on her table, she did her thing, and I walked away with one less mole.

The thing was, though… as I walked to the bus I found myself feeling increasingly alienated.

This is the first physical piece of me, I quickly concluded, that has ever been removed. Well, apart from teeth. But really, how often is a slice of your physical being removed?

Nausea crept in, and by the time I reached the bus stop the world began spinning and I had to collapse on a bench, sharing it with a silver life-size cast-iron statue of a naked man.

Over the course of the last week, this horrified feeling about a portion of me being taken has returned any time I needed to clean the area and replace the dressing.

After thinking long and hard about it, I don’t know that this is necessarily an unfamiliar feeling. True my horror and slight up-chuck reflex is a bit more present on the physical side of things, but that mental feeling of something being taken is what really bothers me the most.

I can’t help but wonder if anyone else has associated this feeling of loss, or damage to one’s being in response to receiving a diagnosis of mental illness?

I don’t remember many of the moments where I have been handed a new diagnosis of mental illness, bipolar disorder, OCD (which I remember slightly I think), PTSD, the anxiety disorder… but I do remember a range of different feelings upon hearing these things.

Initially;

  • Disbelief
  • Skepticism
  • Excitement (as weird as that is, I found it exciting to have potential explanations to what I was dealing with)

The same reactions I had when I heard the dermatologist wanted to remove my mole.

It wasn’t until the moment I’m alone and faced with whatever obvious wound remained after the discussion;

  • Racing thoughts
  • Depression
  • Panic Attacks

Suddenly I could see it in the face, this oozy, gross place, uncovered by the emotional biopsy done by whatever psychiatrist, Doctor X. 

And my response is the same as looking at the place where that mole was. Horror, a grimace, and the overwhelming nagging feeling like I have just been robbed of a piece of me. A piece of what would have been a normal life, perhaps.

What confuses me the most is that I’ve had time to look at this yuckiness enough to get used to it. The emotional yuckiness, anyway, -the mole thing still grosses me out. Over the last 10 years, I’ve had time to adjust (though, somewhat slowly) to living with this “missing piece” or “wrong piece” or whatever one might call it (maybe just an odd piece), and it is something I’ve integrated into my life.

So I admit, when the mole biopsy happened I didn’t think right away of that old emotional biopsy of a mental illness diagnosis. My thoughts went straight for the idea that there may be one day I could go to the doctor who would do an emotional biopsy that slices off my bipolar disorder. They will check it in the lab, and I will receive an envelope in the mail that says everything went well.

If these irregularities in me are removed, would I react in horror? Would I feel overwhelmed with the notion that a part of my being was now lost, the way I felt about a little meaningless brown piece of skin?

They say the mind grieves when a diagnosis of mental illness is given because of the loss of a life and many dreams that will no longer realistically happen. We have to adapt, to evolve as our lives continue -with whatever comes our way.

So would the mind grieve the loss of mental illness if it was suddenly removed? Absolutely.

Part of me feels terrified to think about that, but the answer is just the same as in the opposite situation. We adapt. We evolve. Life continues.

So I will adapt and evolve with my (minus one) mole situation. Maybe I’ll be gifted a really cool scar, but until then I’ll just keep cleaning it and throw a dab of ointment on there.

Mania Eliciting the Magnified Self

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about how depression can wipe out your sense of self.

I’ve been thinking even more about how mania does the opposite. Instead of eradicating the inner self, it seems to magnify it.

My thought is that manic episodes feed fuel to our inner most desires. It doesn’t create the desires, it just gives us the confidence and drive to play them out.

What happens when these desires/personas are amplified?

  • When the artist is amplified, one might be working on either huge pieces of artwork or hundreds at once.
  • When the entrepreneur is amplified, one might start or acquire businesses, or take on the persona of a business executive.
  • When the soccer mom is amplified, one might buy houses or cars they can’t afford, or bake enough cupcakes to feed an army for no apparent reason.
  • When the thrill-seeker is amplified, one might move around the country, fancy themselves race-car drivers or take up extreme sports of some kind.
  • When the bohemian is amplified, one might give up all of their possessions or sell their houses to regress into a simpler sort of philosophical living.
  • When the hippie is amplified, one might make an attempt to live in or commune with nature, become overly attached to various animals, or experiment with hallucinogenic drugs.
  • When the consumer is amplified, one might spend everything they’ve got (and more) on random things they think they need.
  • When the athlete is amplified, one might take up running marathons or body building or cycling an at extreme distances.
  • When the romantic is amplified, relationships might become suddenly very serious or blossom into immediate elopement.
  • When the comedian is amplified, one might spend night after night at the bar, getting as much time in with as many people as possible.
  • When the rockstar is amplified one might experience heavy drug and alcohol use that can turn into unruly behavior and unrecallable memories.
  • When the con-artist is amplified, one may fancy themselves a James Bond/spy type character, illicit various illegal activity for cash, or create various get-rich-quick schemes.
  • When the vixen is amplified, one might use their flirtatious demeanor for sport or personal gain.
  • When the carpenter is amplified, one might purchase a number of old vehicles to “fix up”, work on elaborate remodel projects, or be building any number of structures or projects at once.

I know there are many more, but these are a few of the traits I have seen amplified by mania, either in myself or in others. It seems common for these to overlap, and different people identify with any number of identities on this list.

This idea comes from a number of thoughts I’ve had recently, one being that I’ve been called out several times now for not participating in the “reckless spending” that is supposed to be a common symptom of manic episodes.

Personally, I don’t think one can always expect to couple reckless spending to mania. I think it is common because of our culture (as Americans, for example, we’re largely brought up to be consumers), but as an individual, consumerism is not something that I subscribe to. At my core, money causes me very extreme anxiety… so my most extreme desires usually involve some kind of banishment of money (something one might see with the hippie or bohemian, for example) or game to acquire it (like the con-artist). At that point, who needs reckless spending when I have the option of reckless earning?

So really, I guess I’ve just been considering how mania creates an exaggeration of the self (as opposed to some kind of “change” from one set of values to another) and how that information could potentially help in the diagnosis process as well.

In myself, I would say that most often in the last 10 years I have seen the artist, the bohemian, the hippie, the con-artist, and occasionally the athlete (though that one has failed to make an appearance for a while). Having a handle on these desires gives me a better idea of where an episode might go if things get out of hand, and can help me avoid situations (in theory anyway) that could potentially become catastrophic.