Tag Archives: social situations

Bright or Blight

There is something strange about being old enough to see fashion recycling itself. I have a degree in fashion design, so I have been finding myself acutely aware of the fact that people half my age are now wearing reissued platform sandals and overalls.

I’m thirty and despite growing up on an island a few hours from Seattle I missed grunge. I don’t remember the kids in my school having many options in terms of fashion, my high school wasn’t awash with much style diversity. A lot of us wore whatever odd second hand clothes we could come by, and even those that seemed to linger on the fringes of the social structure typically didn’t make it all the way into the realm of “goth”.

I was infatuated with punk rock and found myself seeking out skinny jeans before they became a staple. I listened heavily to the Clash as a teenager and, bored with the social norms I had grown accustomed to every day, began dying my hair in bright, new, interesting colors.

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Me at the Denver Art Museum in 2003, Photo by Michael Putlack

 

That was a lot for a small rural town to handle at the time and every day I was greeted politely by someone telling me I didn’t belong. To be fair, they usually said, “you ought to be living in the city!” but no matter how it was phrased, I knew that we agreed on something: I didn’t quite fit where I was.

Experiencing the budding effects of bipolar disorder and psychosis in my teens made it hard for me to see a place for myself among my peers and as funny as it might sound, dying my hair orange (or blue, or pink, or green) was one of the only ways I felt like I could express that. Trying to avoid how different I felt, how much I felt like I didn’t fit in only acted as fuel for my depression and a little hair dye went a long way in helping me accept those differences and realize that being myself was something worth doing.

*

Living in Seattle the last ten years and working in the fashion industry in particular has meant seeing all kinds of trends come and go, both in style and in my own life. Some seasons I am happy about some cute boots and sweaters, some seasons I am happy with where I fit in the world. Other seasons everything in stores is mustard yellow (which is crap for my complexion), other seasons I find myself hating Seattle. The city has been tumultuous that way, and every March I tell myself I can’t stand anothe Seattle winter… but here I am.

I gave up the neon colored hair almost nine years ago. It was hard to keep up as a broke student and then, even working in fashion, it wasn’t something that was exactly welcomed when the economic crisis hit in 2008. Making my departure from the fashion realm didn’t pave the way for brilliantly colored hair either, there were no studies I could point to that suggested pink hair might sell more condos.

Somewhere in the interim I slipped back down into depression first, and then found myself with post traumatic stress disorder after a slough of unwelcome male attention. It seemed to be something that was all around me, coming from bosses and strangers and people I couldn’t seem to get away from. I found myself wanting to fold myself up like a tiny note and hide in a crack somewhere. I was having so many panic attacks that I had to wear sunglasses on the bus in an effort to hide the fact that I was crying most of the time.

So even when it began, when the citizens of Seattle began showing up more and more with brightly colored hair, it wasn’t something I could celebrate. I was too busy hiding to be willing to put a neon sign on my head, too busy wanting to be invisible.

That hesitation followed me for several years. I felt too afraid of the police, too afraid of anyone noticing how agitated I might be at any moment, how aggressive I might seem without realizing it, how manic I might be acting to feel like drawing attention to myself. I obliterated my wardrobe in an effort to remain unseen, packing anything noteworthy up in boxes or giving it to charity. I became an expert at blending in, even when I found myself so overcome by my symptoms of bipolar disorder, PTSD, & psychosis I was only really blending in with the rampant population of those living with mental illness on the streets in Seattle.

I told this to my therapist a few weeks ago and she seemed confused by the idea that I didn’t want to be seen, she kept asking why I would be afraid of people looking at me and if I was always afraid of attention from other people. Instead of try to explain how much anonymity has eased my anxiety about a local police force with a poor track record regarding those with mental illness and the expanse of men who have always seemed to believe that I owe them something simply for existing I revised my statement to say that so many people are dying their hair “just because” that it didn’t feel punk rock anymore.

Gross, I feel gross for saying that. At this point doing something because it is in fashion is not enough to motivate me, but not doing something just because everyone else is doing it is something I find equally disturbing. I don’t want trends or what people want or expect to play into the decisions I make about what I wear or how I look or the confidence I feel in myself. I want the freedom to look however I want, and even though chipping away at my own anxiety is what will eventually help me tear through all of that (though hypomania seems to work too) it is important to me to work toward doing what I want, regardless of any other opinion.

You know, when the idea came up of changing my hair again I really wrestled with it. I had so many excuses not to, I didn’t want to relive the past (heck, I’d already done every color), I didn’t want to spend the money, I didn’t like the idea of people looking at me… but ultimately I had nothing to lose (well, except hair and mine grows so fast it would only be a travesty for a month or two). Without remembering the sense of peace it gave me the first time around, the confidence, the comfort, I had a hypomanic sort of upswing a few weeks ago and just let it happen.

It’s true the fashion police in my head were in an uproar (“you’re just trying to recapture your youth!” they cried furiously) but something funny happened that I didn’t expect. I didn’t revert to a past version of myself, I just found her in one of the deep recesses of my mind reading John Irving. I tapped into her sense of levity and found that I feel more like myself than I have in several years. That might sound goofy, the idea that orange hair could produce such an outcome, but I find that I’m remembering what it was like back before I felt the need to hide all the time.

Whatever I thought might happen when people looked at me, well it hasn’t. Heads haven’t exploded, I haven’t had strangers trying to talk to me every five minutes, and I haven’t been approached by dozens of creepy stalker suitors because even though my hair is different, that isn’t the key. I am different too. I am older, yes, but also wiser. It has been important for me to realize that I don’t need to hide from unwanted attention, I am strong enough and capable enough to deal with it when it comes, even if there are times I don’t feel that way.

 

 

 

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Putting Myself Out There

Despite how busy summer has been I have found myself doing very few of the things I wanted to do. I’m fully aware that feeling helplessness doesn’t look good on me, so I decided to try a few things outside my comfort zone in an effort to feel more in control of my own life and to pep up a potentially dangerous sense of boredom.

For better or worse, my sense of curiosity has always been able to steer me into the mindset of, “well let’s try _____ and see what happens!” Sometimes the results have been wonderful and sometimes they have been devastating, so when I went to work trying to decide what new thing to try I wanted to be a little conscientious of that fact. Ideally trying something new and maintaining whatever scrap of emotional and mental stability I have is the goal, but knowing that living with treatment resistant symptoms of bipolar disorder means that any little detail could potentially rock my brain-boat is challenging. I have often found myself opting to do nothing at all because doing anything is potentially risky (in terms of creating instability in my mental health) but, tired of doing nothing, I decided the reward was potentially worth the risk.

I have been described as having an “overactive imagination” and more than one therapist has told me that when things are perfectly fine my mind has a tendency to imagine problems that aren’t really there… these days I would consider this description to be something like a cute version of saying, “psychosis”. For a time I thought this might lend itself well to writing fiction, but back in 2007 when I tried my hand at writing a novel I found that I lost track of where the novel ended and reality began. The problems in the story became the problems of real life, and I abruptly vowed never to venture down that path again.

All this time I’ve been writing nonfiction instead, and while I’ve enjoyed writing for this blog the past five years I feel like I am constantly moving toward the point where I wont have anything more to say without being redundant. I’ve been learning a lot about myself and writing in the process (and I don’t expect to stop any time soon) but part of me has wondered if I could write about something else. Anything else, really. I admit there are times where I don’t want to think about my own mental health. I want the freedom to think of other things, of other problems, and for the love of Pete, to talk about something other than myself.

With a little experimentation I found that while writing fiction that takes place in a modern setting (like my writing in 2007) is too close to my own life for me to separate myself from it, writing about situations on other planets or in places I’ve never actually been seems to create enough distance to keep my mind from getting the two confused. It seems that following an odd story down a rabbit hole makes perfect use of my (previously useless) problem-generating brain because stories need conflicts to be interesting.

Writing any fiction at all certainly took me out of my comfort zone, but in the past few weeks I decided to take things one step further and I joined a local writing group. Frankly just getting out of my apartment to meet with them was a huge step and even though I was anxious as heck to make my first appearance I did my best to remind myself that they’re strangers, so who cares if they like me anyway?

It turns out they are all quirky, imaginative, and intelligent individuals and just passively listening to them share about the different projects they are writing was both interesting and encouraging. Within an hour or two I found myself holding conversations with people casually and I left knowing that I wanted to go back again.

Of course, I put it off a little. Since it is a critique group I knew that at some point I would have to share something I had written, and when I’m working on something I’m typically very private about it until the final version is completed. Even though I don’t like sharing something unfinished because of how vulnerable it makes me feel, I have had a lot of questions that I knew would probably be answered if I just powered through my anxiety and shared my work.

So the thing I did this week to step out of my comfort zone was to read something I had written in front of a group of people and listen to their feedback. I had a knot in my stomach all day leading up to the group and every five minutes I could feel myself changing my mind, thinking, “well… I’ll print these read along pages and bring them, but I don’t have to read them.” Then, “well… I will tell the moderator I have something to read, but maybe they wont get to me before the group ends.”

Finally, that night at the group after an hour and a half the moderator asked me, “do you want to go next?”

I knew that if I left without reading I would feel twice as anxious the next time around and I knew I couldn’t handle a double dose of anxiety driven irritable gut another day. I had already gone through 5 or 6 tums and it seemed there was little to do but press on.

I decided to take a leap of faith and even though it was wildly uncomfortable, even though my hands were shaking and my ribs were contracting as I powered through a panic attack while I read, I reached the last page in a triumphant (and slightly dissociative) stupor.

I never used to have problems reading aloud, not when I was in school. I gave so many presentations, so many speeches (even publicly at the state fair) that I never expected to feel so overwhelmed when speaking publicly. I know my anxiety is much worse these days, but I also think that the unfinished nature of my story and the effort I had put into it were huge in informing how nervous I was.

I also know that my Achilles heel is judgement. I’ve never taken criticism particularly well, never felt good about the idea of being examined and torn apart. I feel like I can say that I generally feel good about who I am, but there has always been the fear of judgement present in some form in my life. Fear of God’s judgement as a child, fear around the judgement from my peers in school, fear around critiques in college, and fear around the scrutiny of Social Security and the government as a disabled adult.

By the time I stumbled into the critique portion of the reading I had catastrophized the whole situation so much that it inevitably went much better than I expected. Some of my concerns were confirmed, some new issues were brought to my attention, but for the most part everyone seemed excited about what I had written, which acted as a cork in my odorous anxiety bottle.

My boyfriend, sweet as he is, went to work right away when I got home to remind me that I don’t need to take any of the advice I was given. I don’t need to change anything I wrote if I don’t want to. I know he has continuously witnessed the way other people’s opinions have acted like quicksand for me in the past. The defiantly obsessive portion of my brain loves to latch on to those statements without letting go, and I immediately found myself wrestling with them as they echoed (ironically) in my mind, “redundant, redundant, redundant…”

The difference now comes from the knowledge that has come from my DBT group. I know that when I’m closed in with the garbled echoes of disappointment or disapproval or judgement I can open the windows in my brain-house and let that stuff escape. I don’t have to be hosting the equivalent of a mental dinner party six years from now and set an extra place setting for “redundant” because it’ll be long gone. That’s the hope, anyway.

Having said that, I don’t know if I will read my writing aloud again any time soon. I need time to practice letting go of these comments, time to sort them out of the “terribly important, don’t stop thinking about this,” pile into the, “backlog” bin. If I can manage it without much incident I expect to have another go, because having the opportunity to practice letting go of, “this sentence is redundant,” is infinitely easier to me than having to let go of considerably more cruel and pointless scrutiny. Anything I can do to help myself learn and grow is good, but anything that also helps me learn to be less reactive and less prone to destabilization is a serious win.

 

DBT; Subscribing to the System

I’ve now been through three quarters of the DBT (Dialectical Behavioral Therapy) program and I have started my final chapter; Interpersonal Effectiveness.

That means I’ve been through Emotion Regulation, Distress Tolerance, and Mindfulness. I’d say I entered this program feeling rather skeptical (I hated CBT – Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and generally disagreed with several of their claims about how the brain works) and while I didn’t know anything about DBT before, I quickly found myself sinking into a system of techniques that only added to my current ones without taking anything (useful) away.

As it turns out, I’ve been “practicing” several DBT techniques for a long time, things like distracting myself through immediately unsolvable emotional crises, or using changes in body temperature to calm myself or bring myself out of a slow depressive stupor. For the most part, I would say at least three quarters of what I’ve learned has been useful in some way -including new ideas, like working not to suppress negative emotions but to sooth myself through them instead. Overall I would say the subject matter has been presented in a very organized way which I really appreciate, and now, 75% of the way through the program, I feel a bit like this system is something I can really subscribe to.

I am really slow to jump on bandwagons, I tend to be too curious about what makes them tick to be able to adapt to them well. I like when I can see results quickly and know why they are happening, I like efficiency, and organization, and have a hard time putting all my chips into something I don’t understand.

So… what’s the problem, right? Up to this point, things with DBT have gone swimmingly! The trouble is that last week we started on Interpersonal Effectiveness. Communication and relationships with others are by far my Achilles heel, so at first I was really excited to get to this section.

The group was instructed to go through a series of statements and pick out which ones were myths and which were facts. I wasn’t born yesterday, the page was clearly headed, “Myths in the Way of Relationship and Self-Respect Effectiveness” and “Myths in the Way of Objectives Effectiveness” (fancy talk for convoluted thinking that keeps people from asking for what they want, saying no, and generally maintaining healthy relationships). So they’re all myths (you tricky teachers you!). I sat feeling quite superior at this realization.

But then, then I started to read them. Confusion began to rise as I chewed on my lip and skimmed through both blocks of text. I admit, I glanced over at the papers of my peers who had checked two or three of the boxes as things that rang true to them, but after everything was said and done I’d checked off at least half of the entirety.

“These are myths,” said my brain. “So why do we (brain and I) believe they are true?”

I sat there, confounded, rationalizing some of the statements.

“Well, I mean ‘everybody lies’ may not be an absolute truth, because… well… maybe some people don’t. I find that hard to believe, but in 6 billion people there might be a few who never lie, so I can accept that as a myth that feels true.”

“How about number 21? ‘Revenge will feel so good it will be worth any negative consequences.’ Well… that one usually feels true but having some experience in the revenge arena I can tell you it doesn’t always feel spectacular, so I can accept that as a myth that feels true.”

When the teacher called on me I joked my way through my response, did a small song and dance, and handed the imaginary baton to someone else. I was still quite disturbed at the discrepancy between the sort of general beliefs that had got me to that point and the fact that they were labeled myths on the page in front of me. It was like someone had told me my green shirt was actually called “orange” and I’d been wrong all along in believing “green” existed.

More seriously than the ones I described were others I could not seem to contradict. Statements like:

“I shouldn’t have to ask (or say no), other people should know what I want (and do it).”

“They should have known that their behavior would hurt my feelings; I shouldn’t have to tell them.”

“Other people should like and approve of me.”

“I should be willing to sacrifice my own needs for others.”

These were all things I could hold in one hand and look at saying, “perhaps this isn’t true,” but in general, when I got down to it, they were all ideas that have shaped the way I interact with others.

I left class last week thoroughly wigged out. My first reaction was to throw DBT under the bus and conclude it didn’t know what it was talking about. I couldn’t understand it, and so I had little ability to trust in it. At the same time (as I mentioned), Interpersonal Effectiveness is definitely the thing I struggle with the most so it seemed more reasonable to assume I am the issue in this situation.

I brought it up in therapy at the beginning of this week and my therapist (one of the teachers of the DBT group) told me to “think of it as an opportunity”. There have been so many areas of my life that I have been willing to experiment on, trying over a dozen new psychiatric medications, trying new techniques to help with mood swings, or falling asleep, or my general health. However, with all of this kind of experimentation I only lost a day, a week, my mental or physical stability for a brief period.

It takes an extraordinary amount of effort on my end to maintain an even vague sort of relationship with another person, so these relationships are extremely precious to me. Frankly, in many ways I am terrified of experimenting with them, it seems that the risk of losing a friend by suddenly behaving differently is more significant to me than losing a day to depression, or a week to hugely swollen lymph nodes. This notion that only bars my better judgement; I know I need to improve at communicating.

I took a French class at a local college in high school and almost failed the class. I had been a straight A student up to that point, but for some reason the very act of having to speak aloud, speak strange sounds and arrangements of words I didn’t fully understand, well it freaked me out. Being able to communicate in a way other than I’m used to is something I aim to learn, but, like French, don’t be too surprised if there is a lot of hacking and gagging involved before I get it right.

 

The Trustworthy or Untrustworthy Self

I have always tended to operate under a series of hard rules. Hard Rules; you know, like “oh crap, I just touched that burner and it was hot!”

New rule: don’t touch hot burners!

This is a rule that is always true. If I see a hot burner, I don’t touch it (at least, never on purpose but I’m a bit of a klutz). Having said that, many of these sorts of rules that I’ve gathered up over the years have been helpful, some even life-saving. Don’t throw temper tantrums at your boss. Don’t swim out into Puget Sound where the undertow can drown you. Don’t get in a car with a random stranger. Don’t ever wear black and brown together.

Sounds useful right? Well, for the most part it is, but I have always had a tendency of somehow shuffling all rules into the “hard rule” category. Inflexible. Rigid. Once it is there, it is there forever.

Even though that is a concept that seems useful when it comes to ideas like “don’t touch a hot stove burner,” it is useful because a hot stove burner is always hot.

On the flipside, there are aspects of my life and of having bipolar disorder that might be true sometimes and not true others. Of course, in my life having a mental illness is true, but to say that I am always manic or depressed or agitated or homicidal or suicidal is not true.

These sorts of facts lead me to strange places somewhat reminiscent of math class where these rules become much more complex.

“My suicidality warrants hospitalization if and only if it is a level three on my suicidality scale, requiring x, y, and z… (you get it).”

Despite all the nit-picking and tweaking that has gone into these rules, these ways in which I keep myself alive and relatively healthy, there is one that somehow slipped under the radar. It managed to sneak into the hard rule category without any real revisions over a period of years:

Because of my bipolar symptoms, I am not trustworthy.

These days I can see the difference between a generalization and a rule, but the truth of the matter is that despite how my understanding of myself and my symptoms have improved, there has been a wall of fear that has kept me from being able to edit this statement.

I don’t know exactly where it came from, I don’t know if it was something external that I was told or that people suggested or if it was purely created out of the fear I had of myself and my inability to control myself sometimes. Yes, there have been some incidences that have scared people, but I expect this rule is probably more about how much I scared myself.

For me there was always a big fog around my symptoms or any number of the unhealthy urges swirling around inside me at any given time. I mean, what if something happened? What if they just slipped out before I could realize it?

For many years I allowed myself to defer back to this rule. When people would ask me,

“Oh, do you want to hold my baby?”

or

“Can you watch the cash register for me for a minute?”

or

“Mind unwrapping this new kitchen knife set with me real quick?”

The answer was always no. No, sorry, I might punt your baby. Or steal all the money. Or suddenly believe I can juggle knives.

A few years ago I had a friend who had a baby and she insisted I hold him. As it turned out, I held him and he didn’t burst into flames. Or turn into a squealing pig. In fact, nothing weird or inappropriate happened. After returning the baby to her I considered two things that really shook the foundation of the untrustworthy rule I had created.

  1. My friend trusted me so much she practically forced me to hold the baby.
  2. In that moment with that baby, I was trustworthy.

This friend did not know much about my past, but she knew my diagnosis. While part of me clung to the notion that she trusted me because she didn’t know about the bulk of my untrustworthy behavior, it felt meaningful that in that moment on that day, she considered me trustworthy enough to hold the most precious thing in her life.

On top of that, the fact that nothing went wrong was kind of like a slap in the face to the rule that had been created. I could be trustworthy. Er… maybe not all the time, but sometimes, yes.

Even though this one moment was the key to begin revising this rule I had created for myself, it has taken thousands of situations and the knowledge I gain about myself and my symptoms every single day to keep reshaping it into something more true.

After all, when my symptoms first started I was really just a kid. I had no idea what they meant or why they were happening, and I had no skills or knowledge to help me keep them from exploding out from me whenever they felt like having a party. When my mind wove a terror filled tapestry for me, I didn’t know I shouldn’t believe it.

Really, getting to know how my different mental states work have been like working out any other part of my body. I couldn’t walk into a weight room and bench press 300 lbs on the first day because I had to build strength first, I needed to learn my own limits in order to push myself to my goal, and be able to take care of myself and heal up if I pushed myself too hard.

Even though having mental illness is a constant for me, my understanding of myself and my symptoms have changed over time. Living with it means adapting as my understanding and knowledge grows, and affording myself more trust over time because that unknown I have been so afraid of? Well it is shrinking every day.

 

Stepping Stones; Stepping out of PTSD

Trigger Warning – my brand of PTSD came from situations involving sexual assault, and this post may contain loose details about that situation or other sexual topics regarding my recovery. Nothing super graphic though, don’t be gross.

Post traumatic stress disorder seemed to come into my life like a flood. One minute life seemed totally normal, and the next it began to deteriorate rapidly.

It was sort of like, if you could imagine, every time you bought a smoothy someone would walk up and take that smoothy away from you after a couple sips. After a while, you sort of just know to either avoid buying smoothies or, if you do buy one, only expect two sips. This is just the way things are, and because you haven’t known much else there are no real expectations otherwise.

Now imagine someone sits down with you and tells you that we live in a world where you could have (and you deserve) that entire effing smoothy. I mean, more than two sips. And that these people who have been taking this delicious fruity beverage away from you are a-holes who have done something profoundly inappropriate.

Well there’s shock. And anger. And definitely some horror associated with the fact that people can be so awful to one another, and that you’ve let this smoothy-snatching business go on for so long. There is guilt for not knowing things could have been different, and fear that this cycle is something that will never end.

But, maybe you feel a little empowered too. Like maybe now that you know this business about the smoothies you can buy one and enjoy the entire thing. You can break the cycle! So you go out, you buy a smoothy, and after two sips someone walks up, takes it, and walks away.

This time it feels different though, doesn’t it? This time you know you’ve been violated, that the other person is in the wrong, but maybe you just froze and didn’t know what else you could do to stop it. The anger is much bigger, much more difficult to contain. The fear becomes profound, because now you know that people seem cavalier about hurting you and that it can happen anywhere at any time. The shock leaves you frozen, bringing guilt because, somehow, you knew this would happen, didn’t you? Maybe the horror is so overwhelming you decide to pretend the whole thing never happened, just to put it all out of your mind, and ultimately blame yourself. After all, you really just can’t be trusted with a smoothy.

For me there was a series of moments like these that were like seeds being planted. I pushed the memories and my reactions down into the dirt as far as they would go, and once they were there I didn’t feel a need to address them because I thought I won. I thought I put them somewhere that was somehow equivalent to them not-existing, and if they didn’t exist I couldn’t be upset, right?

I admit, it is easy for me to look over this whole process when it is about a deliciously fruity blended beverage or something as seemingly harmless as seeds and connect the dots, but even now, years later, thinking about this process in terms of sexual assault there is a whole host of emotions that come up making it difficult for me to see through the fog that they create.

For several years I did a great job of putting the whole thing out of my mind and ignoring it. Then, after enough time had passed, those seeds that had been planted began to grow.

They broke through the soil and I suddenly began having panic attacks in crowded places. I became physically ill when someone, anyone, would touch me. I couldn’t leave the house without getting into arguments with people, so I didn’t leave the house. I felt powerless and depressed, but also angry and very afraid. Every time I closed my eyes I could sense someone standing next to me waiting for me to be vulnerable, like any moment I was happily unaware or in the shower or asleep.

The most infuriating part of this process for me was not being able to see how one person could get from the situation I was in to something better. My PTSD symptoms (mostly the anxiety and panic) were just as treatment resistant as my bipolar symptoms so I couldn’t rely on any anti-anxiety medications to help with the panic attacks and fear I was having. My doctors suggested deep breathing and reading boring case studies about PTSD, and while the deep breathing only really helped keep me from constantly screaming the reading seemed to trigger my symptoms over and over again.

Having said that, (spoiler alert) I am sitting here today really feeling like I have finally made a big dent in untangling myself from those awful PTSD plants and I found myself wondering just what I did to make it here. I thought that perhaps sharing what helped create a makeshift ladder for me might be useful to others in a similar situation, and while I am not suggesting you go out and do any of the things I am about to share I can honestly say they helped me, and all of these things were done with the consent of my healthcare team (including my therapist and psychiatrist).

For Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Basically I needed to desensitize myself to being around people and sort of re-learn that people (in general) aren’t trying to hurt me. The real trouble was that any time I was in a more crowded place (the bus, downtown, the grocery store) it would just trigger the panic attacks over and over again. Even at house parties of people I knew and loved I felt overwhelmed and would panic, so I entered into the realm of medical marijuana.

I realize this might not be a popular idea, but totally legal here in Washington State. Also, like many of the medications I have tried, it turned out there are some forms of cannabis that actually made my anxiety and panic symptoms worse, so the process of narrowing things down was a little frustrating. Thankfully, as someone with treatment resistant symptoms I have a lot of experience trying treatments that either aren’t effective or have some rough side effects so I already had a system for taking detailed notes on the effects I was experiencing.

I wont lie, I felt pretty weird about this idea at first. Growing up in a time where I was led to believe that the slightest proximity to any and every “drug” out there (D.A.R.E!!) would immediately make me an addict or banish me to hell or make me lose everything I loved made me initially totally recoil from the idea.  The legalization of medical cannabis only dampened this mindset slightly, but after speaking with three different psychiatrists and four separate therapists, all of whom who told me [given the nature of my treatment-resistant symptoms] I should proceed with anything I found that was helping, I felt a little more comfortable. Even so, it took some time for me to feel ok when other people were being judgmental about it but the fact that my doctors had my back (and heck, even my grandmother agreed) made me feel less squeamish about the whole thing.

Once I was able to pinpoint a couple strains that helped alleviate the anxiety and panic I was feeling (without sabotaging something else, like my mood for example) it was a matter of using it strategically (not all the time) to introduce me into settings where I might normally totally freak out, but because the cannabis removed the elements of anxiety and panic I was able to experience triggering situations in what felt like a non-threatening way.

Basically, cannabis allowed me to remember what it was like to be around people and feel safe, or at-ease, and after long enough it became the default setting for my brain again.

For Regaining a Sex Life

This has been very tricky, and while the cannabis was helpful enough to get me to the point of being able to be touched in general (like a back rub or foot massage) I had a big blinking red stop light in my brain around sex for a long time. Not super helpful, considering my PTSD symptoms didn’t actively show up until several years into a committed and safe relationship! Even though it had been years since I was in a place where I was in danger, once those seeds sprouted it didn’t matter.

I am sure it will sound a little funny, but the most helpful thing to removing fear and panic around sex for me was when I had surgery and my doctor told us we weren’t allowed to have sex. That’s right! Having even the possibility of having sex taken off the table made me feel more comfortable because then it wasn’t this awkward thing (or an obligation) I felt compelled to dodge constantly because I felt uncomfortable. Effectively we had to almost start our physical relationship over at square one (I recognize I am really lucky my boyfriend is the most patient person I’ve ever met) and in doing so we re-built the trust that I knew was there, but couldn’t feel because of my anxiety and panic.

For Fear and Paranoia

First I would say going to therapy and spending a lot of time talking about being assertive about boundaries helped me feel a bit more confident, but I was still really afraid that if something happened again I would freeze up and be unable to assert myself.

Something that really helped solidify a confidence in my ability to protect myself was taking a self-defense class with a friend at Fighting Chance Seattle. The staff was really knowledgeable and our male instructor made me feel very much at ease and did not require us to practice defensive moves with him, instead with anyone we felt comfortable with. Being able to connect a physical action to a feeling or desire to protect myself made me believe that if there was ever another situation I knew what to do and would be less likely to freeze in the moment. The class was only one day, but it really helped me feel like I was moving forward.

Another milestone was getting a tattoo that would act as a reminder that the fear I was feeling was coming from me, not from threats around me.

Over the last few years I have tried to keep my apartment feeling like a safe space for me. At first that meant coming home and looking behind every curtain and in every closet to be certain it was safe, but now that I have made some progress with my fear and paranoia I try to talk myself through the fear and visualize every detail of the apartment when it is dark to remind myself it is empty and safe. It is funny to me sometimes to think that my brain wants to imagine all kinds of horrors waiting for me when I close my eyes, but I spend a lot of time actively un-imagining them!

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While I can’t sit here and say, “and that’s how I kicked PTSD in the face! It is gone forever!” Things have gotten significantly better.

I still get triggered from time to time, but I’ve got enough tools to keep myself from replanting that same seed over and over again. After taking that self-defense class I felt quite empowered when I was faced with a situation on a city bus, a creepy dude next to me put his hand on my leg.

Initially I started to freeze. I could feel myself starting to shut down as I had in the past, but somehow I managed to turn things around and do the total opposite of the cowering I felt like doing.

“Excuse me?!?” I yelled in his face and then stood abruptly, pushing past him to sit in another seat. He looked over at me and I scowled, shaking my finger at him. Even though my hands were shaking and my heart was racing I turned away to look out the window and my scowl turned into a faint smile.

I was free.

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.

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.