Walk With Me

It’s my second week of being bed or chair-bound as my foot recovers from a total overhaul. It’s been really inconvenient, but, ironically, it’s give me a chance to take a different kind of walk with one of the best people I know.

This time last year I was still writing mostly about Thing1’s journey with Ulcerative Colitis. We thought, at the time, that journey was almost over and that he was starting a newer, more adventurous one. Then his body recently reminded us that a diagnosis of a chronic illness is a permanent one.

His chronic illness is classified as a disability. It took me a little while to really understand why it’s classified that way, but as I watched his disease derail a year of his education and govern so many other major and minor life decisions, I gained a better understanding of how invisible illnesses can cause impairment. It wasn’t until the last two weeks, however, that I understood how that feels.

As someone diagnosed with bipolar disorder, I can sympathize and empathize with some of the impacts of invisible illness. Depression can impact your ability to function at work and your ability to parent effectively. It does not, however, turn the simplest activities, such as showering, into activities that need extra equipment or preparation. It doesn’t keep you from reaching the microwave. It does not have you planning your schedule when you might want to go to the bathroom next, let alone how to return to work.

Thing1 is less than half my age and wrestled with all of these issues and more in the last few years. These questions have determined where he would live and if he would go to school on any given day. They are determining if he may miss yet another year of school and when he will begin his adult life.

Spending a few weeks navigating the activities of daily living that are usually take for granted has been a pain in the neck, but it’s also given me a chance to walk with T1 in a whole new way.

Better than Before

The girl had received bad news for the umpteenth time in the last few months. Her sobs of despair reverberated down the hall as she asked the powers that be, “What’s the point?”

“You’re the point!“ The cosmos answered in the form of a lanky young man charged with keeping order the school. “People like you are the point, “ he repeated. “Don’t you know that you all make us better?“

I smiled as I leaned my head towards the doorway to listen from my classroom. I was on standby for hugs and comfort, but my young coworker was already working his magic. And, as he elaborated on the ways our students make us better, I thought about how Thing1 and Thing2 have done that for me every day over the last 19 years.

Just before Thing1 was born, I still didn’t have a handle on my bipolar disorder. My depressive episodes sporadically threatened jobs, and manic phases spurred spending sprees and other self-destructive behavior.

But then Thing1 happened, and I knew I had to be better.

“Every day I go home after work and think about how to be better,“ my coworker said to the girl who was now listening quietly. “You do that for all of us.“

I thought of all the ways I have tried to be better for Thing1 and Thing2 over the years. I thought of the therapy I’ve sought and the examples I’ve tried to set.

Then I thought of all the ways our students spur me to be more organized, to learn more, to be better for them. It made me smile as I thought of how no matter what we will ever do for our own kids or for the ones we take care of during the day, we will always owe them far more for every day making us a little bit better than we were the day before.

A Little Night Mania

It’s 2 am and Jim-Bob is trying to decide if his lumpy human will be still long enough for him to pad a nice tummy wallow to sleep on . I’ve tossed, turned, shut off my screen and turned it back on half a dozen times since I first crawled into bed for some desperately needed sleep two hours ago. I know he thinks I’m about to fly right out of the room.

In my head, I’ve been flying for hours.

For hours I’ve been playing with the possibilities in my head. How hard would it be to do two master’s at the same time? I’ll finish the drawings for both books this weekend. I can finish this assignment , design that database and then check another online illustration course. Ooh, that story would be great as an animated cartoon.

For most of the last few weeks, I’ve been still, seeking sleep whenever possible. Depression wraps me up like a wet carpet, and I’ve been a good human to sleep on.

But living with bipolar is like living with a volcano. It rumbles in the darkness until it’s time to explode and let the steam and fire out. Sometime heat is power. It drives me out of bed into my office to write and read and paint. It also, however, can become a wild fire easily out of control, coaxing me to take on more commitments than I handle in a lifetime, spending on things no one ever needs, and torching anything in its vicinity.

So even though the screen is off, Jim-Bob knows my tapping hand is a sure sign the mania is still burning, ready to send this lumpy lady back into space, and he decide to stay put until the fire cools.

It’s Not Them

Winter at Heart

Even shielded from news most of the day because of the internet ban at work, it’s impossible to avoid all awareness of an earth-turned-inferno and humanity’s own seeming desire to immolate itself in war. Sometimes it’s hard not to wonder, “What’s the point?”

But the minute I start asking that question, I know it’s not the news. It’s me.

Hammering out a few words each day has seemed to be a Herculean task, and, until last night, I hadn’t touched a canvas in months. I know that, even though in some cases, things really are that bad for some of the world, right now, depression is warping the lens of my mind’s eye.

Sometimes depression is like seeing through a fog, but there are times when it is like living with a lens stopped down to the smallest aperture. It throws everything into sharp, extreme focus. There are no soft edges. There is no cropping out ugly details that make the world seem like an overflowing landfill that hardly needs anymore pointless paintings or posts.

And I know it’s not the world, it’s me – at the moment.

I like to think the depression isn’t who I am, but it’s been with me, off and on, since I could crawl. It’s at least as much a part of me as being near-sighted, and there are even times I’m glad for the hyper focus (this isn’t one of them).

I was driving home tonight, still struggling for what to paint or draw. I knew my head needs me to but couldn’t reconcile my need with the resources it would use, the waste it might generate, or the pointlessness of making anything.

Usually Facebook is the opposite of an anti-depressant, so it was against my better judgement (already shaky this week) that I launched it on my phone when I got home and sat down to decompress. The first photo that hit my feed, however, was a screenshot of a September tweet from Dan Rather that went like this:

“Somewhere, amid the darkness, a painter measures a canvas, a poets tests a line aloud, a songwriter brings a melody into tune. Art inspires, provokes thought, reflects beauty and pain. I seek it out even more in these times. And, in doing so, I find hope in the human spirit.”

It was one answer to a question I ask all the time – especially when my focus is sharp but corrupted .

Is art selfish?

I know art is therapy – a softening of the lens. When continents really are on fire, when children are living in prisons and adults are making more misery from war, however, I hope for it to be a light in the darkness. For tonight, the hope is enough to let some softness into my view.

Poem – Stopping Down

I stopped all the way down

And now my field is deep,

Focused and sharp,

Too treacherous to roam.

Bodysurfing

Friday night, after a great day at school, I drove home determined to write or paint something. I had gone to bed early each of the previous two nights, and I wanted to make the most of a non-school night. Friday, however, was about to be another part of a nagging pattern.

I got home not long after the sun went down, but, even knowing I would sleep late the next day, I headed right to the electric blanket instead of my studio. Saturday Thing1 came home for an overnight from school, and, even after what would normally be an inspiring evening of dinner and catching up, the light in my studio stayed off after dinner.

I know this pattern. In the past, I have confused this creative coma with fatigue. Now, it may take a few days, but, now, I can see the apathy for the skimming of the Mariana Trench of depression that it is.

Most of the time, writing has enough tow capacity to keep my head over water in spite of a strong under-tow. As long as I create, the gulps of air it generates are enough to deal with the buffeting waves of inexplicable melancholy that, in the past, have had the potential to push me under. When I stop, I sink.

There are times, however, when the waves hit faster than the keyboard or canvases can keep up. These waves don’t stop me from thinking of of anything to write or paint. They hit so hard or fast that I forget that I need or even that want that next page or piece to float above the flotsam.

This morning I got up early for an appointment in town, and every tree in Vermont was bejeweled with frozen mist. The sun shining through through the crystal coating made it feel like I was driving through a set for Dr Zhivago, but, even though I snapped a few bad photos, I knew I wouldn’t paint any of it later.

The bending light, however, refracted through my brain and reminded me that I’m not tired. I’m bodysurfing, and climbing back on top of the waves means ignoring the ‘fatigue’ long enough to snap, sketch or scribe absolutely anything.

Sunshine on Etsy

Under the heading of “she’s kind of funny girl”, I decided to blow sunshine up on Etsy.

And there is a funny thing about my new mantra. Each time I feel frustrated or down, it gets easier and easier to start blowing sunshine into my life. It appears to be pretty good source of renewable energy so far. I liked that the place that prints these T-shirts offers a few colors. i’m thinking of ordering the blue one first and using as armor when I do tech-support.

Flying in Formation


Even after 49 years, I can still take surprisingly long time to recognize when a manic episode is starting. It’s not telling every person in town I’ll be happy to come over and answer that computer question after work or even right now. It’s not acceding to all of Thing1’s needs and wants for college and groceries. Nor is it when I’m googling every graduate program and trying to turn the lemons of a stable but unsatisfying day job reality into a Tom Collins of academic and professional success by planning a succession of degrees at schools I could never afford and which would have dubious value for a middle age Hausfrau who already has too many responsibilities and dreams.

No, usually it’s about the time I look at my bank balance and say, “Oh shit,” that I realize mania may be in full swing.

Today I was in the shower when I realized I my flight was ending, sending me knocking at the door at the back of my mind. That door is the place I go when the world becomes my demon, often made worse by maniacal flights of fancy. It’s a gateway to a vast, rich fantasy world as layered and complex as the ‘real’ one everyone else lives in. Sometimes I crash through it as I fall out of the stratosphere, other times, I slink through it.

There’s usually no logical reason for the flights and falls. The wrong screw is loosened, and then up and down and up I go until I find a way to pound my octagonal peg of a personality into a round hole of life.

Over the last few years as I’ve become better at managing mania and depression, a few cobwebs have grown over the door. I may peek through but don’t really go inside. That morning in the shower I rinsed the soap from my eyes and found myself fully on the inside, peeking out, but realizing the kids, my husband and my job require active participation in that outside world.

The lifeline back to the other side, this time, came from an unusual source — common sense. It took the form of a small, almost unrecognizable voice in my head.

“Let go,” it whispered.

Those two words were so simple and clear, more meaningful than just saying no to the drug of trying to do everything because it sounds good. Don’t just fly after every idea. Learn to fly with one or two dreams in a single direction.

So the next morning, I looked at all the creative projects I’ve started over the last year.

The words ‘I have an idea’ can strike fear into the hearts of husbands and resignation into mentors. My sun-singed ideas languish in half-filled notebooks and devices. An almost-finished children’s book marinates on my iPad as I view yet another video on how to write children’s books. Another waits to move from the rough sketch book to the painting table. The pages of still another non-fiction book have started forming. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to explode into the sky and catch every idea for a novel or comic book that flutters chaotically over the fields and mountains, often following their trajectory until I’m blinded.

And then, “Let Go” echoed again.

It reminded me that chasing every dream, soaring towards the sun, may make it hard to tell the difference between the glow of opportunity and a goal going up in flames. Letting go means nurturing a few meaningful the ideas that may already be getting off the ground.

So I’m letting go of the degree research and lining up the writing projects so that I can more easily follow one at a time and stay on course. I hope it means I’m learning to fly in formation.

How I Explain It

Blog-Post---Roller-Coaster

When we heard that Robin Williams had committed suicide, I hoped we would google it and learn it was just a new, creepy urban legend.  But it wasn’t.

We were mostly without internet at the time, so I just caught snippets of reactions from the electronic consciousness.  One snippet seemed to echo frequently.  It was the idea that Williams hadn’t focused on the good in his life or that, unlike the pontificating pundit of the moment who had also been through really hard times, he had simply chosen to wallow in his misery.

I’ve heard variations of that sentiment my entire life because while I can’t say I know what it was like to ride a mile in Williams’ roller coaster car, we are in the same amusement park.  I don’t know how all the rides work, this is how I explain my experience at the fair.
 
I had a fresh ticket in my back pocket a few weeks ago when I bounced into my shrink’s office, plopped down on the couch, and, without taking more than one breath, chattered non-stop for 45 minutes.

I chattered about a book I’m wrapping up, an idea for a play I’m going to write in September, an idea for a novel I’m already fantasizing about writing in October and had spent the previous half hour drafting a 20 page synopsis of.  I chattered about reorganizing the linen closet. I walked to my car, still dictating a dozen to-do’s into my to-do-a-maphone.

You could say I was up.  I was real up.

I have a family I adore, a great job, and a growing creative life, but there was a lot on my mind that week.  I’d learned of a friend’s recent death and a serious illness of another. There was a mountain of work that wasn’t getting smaller, a world panicking about Ebola, Russia and the Middle East, a fresh diagnosis of a degenerative eye disorder (I’m blaming that for any drawings that appear subpar) and more than a few bills marked ‘Freakin’ Urgent – Pay UP Loser’ waiting in the mailbox.  

I, however, was helicoptering over the planet, suspended by a thread-thin seatbelt over a world that looked technicolor perfect and sparkling with possibility (it could have been the algae blooms in Lake Erie).  

I would have been up if you had told me I had a special type of cancer that made my butt look even fatter when viewed from outer space with the naked eye.
I can admit the flying is fun when it’s not scaring the shit out of me, but it does scare me.  I become SuperWoman, taking on too many obligations in a single phone call and exercising the purchasing power of a regional big-box store, leading to a crash whose destructive force would make Michael Bay drool with envy.

I’ve been doing this part of the roller coaster ride since I could talk.

I’ve tried working with my brain’s air traffic controllers, but the littlest things (medications, for example) can inspire strikes and and even walk-outs.  My current shrink has been helping me find new ways of negotiating with the control tower.  We haven’t ruled out new and improved pills to pop, but my brain, like my diet, is a work in progress.

But like my diet, if there were an easy way to be ‘normal’  (or thin – the ultimate fantasy) by just ‘snapping out of it’ or ‘deciding to be well’ without having to medicate and journal and snap rubber bands on my wrist and sit with a shrink once a week for many of the last 30 years, I would jump at it – even if I had to jump for “it”  from a plane without a parachute to grab it out of the sky with a pair of tweezers.

Because I know that in a few months, even if I found out I’d sold a zillion copies of my soon-to-be-imagined bestseller “How to Not Dust a House for 365 Days or More”, Santa was real, both kids had landed scholarships to Harvard and Yale, and peace on earth prevailed, I would still feel like closing my eyes on a deserted highway so that the Big Guy and the kids could call my death an accident and not know that I had intentionally left them forever. 

I know this because I’ve been doing that part of the roller coaster ride in one form or another since before I could talk – long before I was old enough to understand the words, “snap out of it”.

What This Blog Is

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A few weeks ago, my frustration with a writer’s block born of the down side of my Bipolar life led me to write about it. It was the first time in my life I had ever written about it overtly. Not knowing how it would be received, I purposely picked a post day when I thought no one would be on their computers. I worried about losing readers, but I was desperate to get past depression and back to writing, so I took a chance. The response to my gamble was overwhelming and, for me, completely unexpected.

Even then, however, freed from the fear of letting the world know that somethin’ ain’t exactly right, I was adamant that this would not become a bipolar blog. But a recent email exchange made me realize that, while I didn’t know exactly what this site was, in many ways it has always been a a bipolar blog -even if I couldn’t see it.

When it began last summer, I thought it was a mommy blog (for extremely disorganized mommies). I thought it might also be a rural mommy blog. For a while I thought it was an illustration blog. It was a cartoon platform and a poetry outlet. And, of course, it was a blog about family.

For months it was all of these things because I was. I was flying, and the blog and I were keeping each other aloft in the stratosphere. When my flight ended, however, the crash came, and the blog became part of my lifeline. It, like the other part of my lifeline – my family – needed me to get out of bed each day and nurture it. Like my kids, it needed care and feeding, even on the many days that I wonder if it and they would be better off with someone more competent or stable. And as my self-soothing visits to my fantasy work became more frequent, my blog became a depression blog, interweaving itself with the only other blog theme I could and needed to sustain – my family.

Now as I continue to cling to the “This Too Shall Pass” mantra that helps me manage my stay in Melancholia, I realize that this has always been a blog about mania and depression. It has always been about the simulataneously intoxicating but precarious highs and the sometimes crippling lows. But it is also a blog about how the journey between those places affect the family I chose to join and build – for good or ill – and how they have come to affect it by saving me every day of my life. Even on the days I don’t think I need it.