Pardon my french toast.

Once the drugs are really working (the ones to make me immediately less of a lunatic have already slowed me down just enough to dislike being insane), ideally before, I will get my diet under control.

I will get my diet under control.

What’s a nicer way to say that? I will take my food medicine? Gag. I will embrace nutritional healing? Whatever.

I will quit eating crap that swells every part of my body, (it helps to imagine my brain swelling up like one of those sponge animals, soaking up my cerebral spinal fluid until my skull just pops right open). I will quit drinking to slow myself down. I will honor the cupcake and reserve it for it’s rightful occasion.

A note about mania: Mania is that person who comes to undo everything I have ever done, who intentionally pushes my buttons — eats food I don’t eat on principle, drinks beyond reason, makes me fat because HA HA! Mania likes to fuck with me. Mania asks, “What would really piss her off?” and then does that thing.

And yes. I am really pissed off. My belly is swollen — not with fat, but with constipation, gas, internal revolt against the poison I’ve dumped into it.

None of this helps with pain either. Or migraines. Cupcakes, Monte Cristo sandwiches (no matter how expensive or gluten free, freaking Steeping Room), baskets of chips and free flowing Mexican Martinis don’t just make me fat, they actually hurt me.

This episode has been the first time I’ve recognized manic bingeing as a form of self-harm. In the past I’ve viewed it as self medication or the “freedom” of mania. But this time I could almost hear the cackle, the maniacal laughter as I unwrapped my hundredth Hershey’s miniature. It is a step beyond “fuck it”. It is a deliberate “fuck you”.

That’s sad.
Let’s not do that.

Let’s make sauerkraut instead.

Old Rachel, old kitchen, old sauerkraut.  I miss them all.
Old Rachel making sauerkraut in the old kitchen. Makes me homesick.

The first black raven.

When I was twelve, I laid in bed for a month, my head pinned down by the beak of a massive black raven.  I stayed in the dark and refused to speak.  Eventually my mother lured me out with a cherry Slurpee to get an MRI to make sure my brain wasn’t riddled with tumors.  On the way there, as I sipped the frozen, bright red sugar, we talked about what it would be like if my famous curls all fell out.  Would I wear a wig?  Would I choose to be bald?  We talked as if it would be so tragic, but I was secretly hopeful.  I wanted to have something visible, something everyone else could see, something that would force my father to love me and my mother leave me alone, quit shoving me out of my room.  Maybe cancer would feel better than this?

I threw up in the MRI and everyone panicked.  When they found out it was not blood, but Slurpee, the tone changed.  They were annoyed, but polite.

I did not have any tumors, just “chronic tension headaches and depression”.  I kept my hair.

In which I whine about pills and powerlifting.

When I was a little girl, I would get up in the middle of the night and rearrange my furniture.  I would  take out all the drawers, lay on my back on the floor, and push the dresser across the carpet with my legs.  Then the bed.  I would shove the mattress off and scoot one side, then the other, until I had the whole thing on the other side of the room.  It was deeply satisfying to have control over such big things, and to have a quiet way to exhaust my energy when the whole house was asleep.

When I had heaved and pushed and reordered all I could, I would lay in the dark, staring out into the dark room in it’s new orientation and imagine I was not myself, but some other girl in a far away land.  It didn’t occur to me until very recently that those sleepless nights of heavy lifting, rearranging were likely an early version of mania.

In the years I have spent unmedicated in adulthood, nutrition has been my chief protector against depression, but exercise has rescued me from mania.  Powerlifting is the equivalent of a seven year old moving dressers and double beds. In my most stable years, I was training 4-5 times a week, without fail.  My schedule was incredibly consistent and there were a number of times when I would double up my workouts, add extra weight, or throw in some hill sprints to burn off a mixed state.  Endorphins and hormones worked their magic on my brain chemistry.  It was a potent and effective medication.  And I loved it.

When I injured my back at the end of November (not while lifting), my surgeon assured me that I would be back in the game in just a few months. “Tony Romo had this surgery!” he assured me, again and again.  When the surgery didn’t go as planned and the pain didn’t go away, he stopped saying that.  I found a new surgeon and at our second visit he looked me in the eye and said, “You will never be able to powerlift again.  No more squats, no more deadlifts.  Ever.  You will have to find something else, something gentle.”

“SOMETHING GENTLE?” I screamed silently.  He  must’ve seen the panic on my face because, in classic surgeon style, he turned on his heels and disappeared out the door.  I sat and cried while my daughters ripped the pages out of the stupid magazines.

Now I had three herniated discs, a failed back surgery, chronic pain, three kids under six that I planned to homeschool, two with major health issues, a husband weighing a significant career change, weekly migraines, and a completely untreated, severe mental illness.  Add the chicken pox, stomach viruses, and unending rain and darkness of the previous weeks and you can see why being told I would NEVER be able to do one of the few things that made me a functional human being ever again might be more than I could take.

It’s really no wonder that weeks later I was out of my mind, faced with an ultimatum — the mental hospital or six pills every morning, one at noon, three at bedtime.

I chose the pills, though I have regretted it many times over the last two weeks.

And because one or more of each are somewhere in my body right now, I’ve reached the end of my capacity to focus.  Next up, the drug post.

Mania is a mermaid.

Depression is an old friend. I have built my life around its coming and going.  I am rarely surprised by its arrival and I have systems in place for when it stays too long or pushes too hard.  Depression slows me down, gnaws at my hope for any good to happen in life ever again.  Depression, in a sort of quiet, almost tender way, tells me my death would be welcome relief.  We discuss it at length.

Mania drops like an anvil from the sky.  It has no schedule, no rhythm.  It sings it’s siren song and dashes me upon it’s rocks.  It empties my bank account and fills up my notebooks.  It swerves the minivan and sets tarantulas on my writing desk.  It steals my sleep and my friends.  It convinces me that I should run my throat along the rusty edge of the metal roof and pins me down with it’s shiny black beak.

Mania has crushed me more than once, but even so, I wave the red flag in front of the hypomanic bull, begging it to chase me so that I will finally write fearlessly, satisfy all the extroverted requirements of my world effortlessly, give generously, impress everyone, and clean out all the closets.

That magic is real.  That magic is why we don’t take our medicine.  That magic is why normal brained people claim to be jealous and rattle off the list of famous artists, writers, poets with whom I share a diagnosis. That thrill seems harmless, helpful even, until you find out just how many of those magical people stuck their heads in ovens, shoved a gun in their mouth, poured poison down their throats or drowned themselves.  The hypomanic magic gives way to the unrelenting, terrorizing force of mania and lives explode into a million irreconcilable pieces.

It feels easy to write about my back injury and all the ways it disappoints and inconveniences me.  It feels acceptable to be on the prayer list at church every Sunday since the fire shot down my leg, to let them read my name out loud and ask for my healing.  The scar on my back and the leg that drags give me permission to ask for help.  My MRIs and hospital bands and stacks and stacks of medical bills make the pain real and accessible to the world.  Physical pain is universal.  Everyone has a spine, has accidents that break bones, pull tendons, misalign ribs, crush intervertebral discs.  There is no shame in breaking your back.

But this is not the disease that will kill me.

When all else fails.

November was a victory.  Three months into therapy and I had finally decided I would stay among the living.  I mapped out the winter, made resolutions, got excited.

And despite the fact that it almost kills me every year, I survived December in good spirits.  Even with the three herniated discs crushing my sciatic nerve, making it impossible to stand up, hold my children, or use a toilet, I survived.  I took good care of myself.  I slept, I ate perfectly, I followed all the orders.Image 1

And though January stung, with all the plans dashed, I marched on.  I had the surgery. There were complications, and the promises of returning to normal faded with my New Year’s resolutions. But even then, I was still certain I would be okay.  I was impressed with myself, my resilience, my resolve.

I limped along, around and around the block.  I ordered a lightweight stroller to replace the trail running double monstrosity that likely got me into my lumbar mess, and I soaked in sun.  I slept and I ate.  I boiled the bone broth and poured collagen into everything.  I kept my journal and I inked my pens.  I prayed.  I practiced receiving help.  I spoke gently to my children and listened long to my husband, as long as I could.Image 6

It was almost February when things began to crack.  It started with dreams. Big, seemingly profound, possibly prophetic dreams that got me up out of bed to record every detail.  Then there was the thrill of pages flowing right out of my fingers like water from the tap.  My therapist smiled so kindly as I pulled six notebooks from my bag and pieced together the story of my grand epiphany, scrawled across spreads in each one.  She listened all the way to the end, and even read back parts she thought were especially interesting before she handed me the slip of paper with the names and numbers of psychiatrists I needed to see immediately.

“I’m just hypomanic,” I said, “This is good!  I’m finally figuring it all out.  I don’t want to be free -from- Bipolar.  I want to be free within it!” I sang so confident and so convincingly that she let me go.  I came back the next week, decidedly not free.Image 7

She asked me to go to the hospital, to the ER.  I refused and went to the mall. I pushed the stroller round and round for hours, fed my children waffle fries and lemonade.  My husband tracked us down after my therapist called him, warned him not to leave me alone.  The girls and I were choosing new dinner plates at Dillard’s, singing “Go Tell it on the Mountain” with mouths full of peanut butter cups.  Everyone was so proud of me, the children for my fantastic, sugar filled ideas, the grown ups for my thoughtful use of emergency gift cards and the removal of myself and children from traffic.  It’s those flashes of “Let’s see how many red lights we can run!” that’ll getcha.  The mall is better.  The fact that I could still see that is why Bryan did not take me immediately to the hospital, but chose to stay with me, and return with me to the mall three more times that week, a sort of controlled burn.

I have Bipolar Disorder.  This is not news.  I always think it’s news.  I always think it’s going to be so scandalous to announce, as if it isn’t the thing this blog is based upon.  I think that telling anyone I am sick will be disappointing, will discredit any ounce of wisdom and wellness I may ever have, undo any bit of the good I’ve done.  As if this is a disease tamed by diligence and strong moral character.  It does not matter how perfectly I eat, how long I sleep, how meticulously I curate my media consumption, sometimes, I just get sick.  Really sick.

Right now I am really sick.  Image 4

Sick enough to sit with psychiatrists for hours.  Sick enough to choose anti-psychotics and mood stabilizers.

Sick enough to say I can’t do my job without a tremendous amount of help.

Sick enough to say it out loud.

 

Pens and the art of mood disorder maintenance.

When I was younger, hypomania was bright and shining, immensely productive, thrilling, vibrant. I was a joy to be around in those days and weeks when art and music and poetry and friendship just flew fearlessly right out of me, right up until I burned up in the stratosphere and came crashing down, a smoldering lump, to the ground.

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As I’ve gotten older, I still see flashes of that sparkling energy, that proprietary brand of effervescence. But more often than not, my hypomanic episodes are a crackling flame of anxiety and irritability. Medication and strict management have hemmed in the dangerous, bankrupting highs, and while this has kept me breathing (and married, and financially solvent), it has transformed the once scintillating creative energy into agitated, tightly wound fear. My manic traits now manifest in panic.

I once believed that if I could track precisely, eat perfectly, medicate consistently I would be safe. But even if you starve this disease of every trigger, it breathes. It attacks unprovoked. After two decades with this diagnosis, and eight years with babies in my belly or on my breast (and therefore unmedicated), I have become hyper aware of its movements. I have learned that the best defense is to move with it. It is not unlike holding a very hot cup of coffee in a moving car, anticipating the stops, starts, and potholes, inevitably spilling here and there and burning your mouth trying to drink it down to a manageable level.

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These movements are subtle. Taken out of context they are silly and strange. But these movements are purposeful, powerful, medicinal, so it’s no surprise that they become habit.

Pens are one of my small movements. Fountain pens require regular cleaning, inking, maintenance. They must be taken apart, inspected, thoroughly cleaned and reassembled. By modern standards, they are a ridiculously tedious and inefficient way of writing, but a remarkably effective method of managing anxiety. Pens, unlike children or husbands or most things living, have steady, predictable, constant needs. Pens have problems I can solve.

When I begin to buzz with panic, I clean my pens. I spread my ink cloth on the ugly blue laminate beside the bathroom sink, set up my little yellow bowl and baby blue bulb syringe just so. I select the most needly pens in my collection, remove the caps and unscrew the barrels from the sections. The eviscerated shells sit quietly and wait while their converters are twisted, pinched, plunged empty. The water runs wild in the sink, stained with Damson, Tsuki-yo, Tanzanite, and Ancient Copper. I fill the yellow bowl with cold water, suck it up with the bulb syringe, and cram the nozzle into the section forcing out the old ink. Again and again, until the water runs clear. Again and again until my nervous system is convinced that the threat is under control.

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Sometimes there are nibs to remove, breather tubes, feeds to reset, but no matter how elaborate the deconstruction, the goal is always the same. Empty the pen and make it new.

Often there are children pulling on me while I do this surgery. One might be clawing at my leg, another desperate to spray the mirror with water. All of them fascinated by the mess I’m making, the magic of ink and water and towels and mama’s intense focus. With each pen laid to dry on the cloth, my anxiety eases. My brain, satisfied by this focused, non-threatening, dopamine producing activity calms. My shoulders drop, my breathing slows, and I frequently forget the emergency that drove me to the sink. The trigger may still exist, but I have moved beyond the initial jolt, the panic that accompanies interruption.

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I get by with a little help from my pens.

My first fountain pen was a burgundy Sheaffer No-Nonsense. I taped a feather to it and kept it in a writing slope with some gilded stationery, sealing wax, and brass page points. I was thirteen and very sophisticated.

I didn’t have the patience to learn much beyond my first name in Gothic script, but that pen provided a still, quiet place in those early days of my mental illness. I could be raging and desperate when I picked it up, but the sound of the nib scratching at the paper, the feedback vibrating up the pen into my fingers, the ink flowing from the silver tines like a ribbon being untied caught me, slowed me down.

Many years, many doctors, many methods and medications to manage manic depression later and I still come back to this simple practice of putting a pen to paper. Any form of dragging an inky stick across a page makes me feel better. It is action where I am helpless, motion where I am stuck. I push my mood forward with the pen, nudging it, heaving it across the page until it goes quiet. It is less of a hobby than it is medicine. I take it daily, whether I want to or not.

Pens are just a trick. Bait. The shiny object that lures my hand to paper and coaxes me to write. My husband gives them to me as often as he can, like some men give flowers. Birthdays, bad days, just-thinking-of-you, hope-you-snap-out-of-it days. Some are so painfully gorgeous they can be almost impossible to use. Some are plain and hardworking. Some are always, always with me. My therapist once had me count how many fountain pens I had in my bag during our session. There were eleven. She asked how much time I typically spend writing with them when I am out of the house, carting three small children around town. Zero minutes. But just knowing they are there, my tiny Ebenezers, gives me peace.

Would you like to meet them?

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