From The Way Way Back

This is an honest look into my current major depression.

It’s like I’m sitting in the way way back of a car on a road trip. The scenery seems to pass in slow motion, sounds are distorted, and the unexpected extra movements make me feel light headed and sick to my stomach. The people sitting in the front seat try to talk to me, but they have to repeat themselves a few times before I can hear and understand them. It’s hard to reach the things I want. When I have to ask the people in the front seat for what I need it’s hard to say it so they understand me. It is almost impossible to get comfortable.

This bipolar downswing I’m in has the power to make me unrecognizable to myself. I don’t recognize normal human functions. If I do leave the house, I watch other people incredulously, wondering how they can just go about their day, knowing where to walk, what to say, how to dress. I don’t know any of that right now. I know that people care about me. People are worried about me. They don’t know how to help me, and that makes me feel like I’m doing something wrong. I should know how they can help me, and I should be able to tell them.

It’s unbelievable to me that at one time I had a job. That I had a social life. That I didn’t panic at the thought of responsibilities outside of myself. At one time I had goals, and I felt like I had a purpose. Now I see a series of failures. Among the failures are my psych meds. They trick me into having hope by working for a few weeks, but then suddenly leaving me here, in a low period, unable to imagine a way out. I no longer believe that medications are an answer. I’m not sure I believe they can even help me anymore. I’ve been on this ride too many times.

Thoughts of death, thoughts of hurting myself, making myself bleed in order to feel a little relief plague me every minute. Thoughts that I am useless, I am unattractive, I am worthless, I have no purpose. This pain is all I know right now.

Yeah, this will get better. It’s only bad for a little while then I’ll feel better for a while; I know how this works. Like I said, I’ve been on this ride before. I’m just ready to climb out of the way way back seat, and I feel pretty helpless to do so at the moment. This isn’t any way to live a life.

Cutting Myself Some Slack

Let’s talk about self harm and cutting.

There are a lot of us out there who have urges to harm ourselves as a way to cope with emotions that are difficult to cope with. These urges happen mostly, but not exclusively, to women, and a lot of us are teens. But there are many adults who do it who don’t necessarily ever talk about it. I do it. Well, not at this moment, but I have had bouts of self-harm urges periodically in my life. I hurt myself by giving myself bruises and scrapes a few times when I was a teen. I cut myself once when I was in my 20s, then never thought about it for about 10 years. Then the urges came back in full force while I was married. It was a toxic marriage, which probably had something to do with it.

Like any overwhelming urges that might not be healthy, like self-harm, alcohol or drug consumption, wanting to hurt someone else, it is possible to learn how to deal with these urges in healthy ways. It’s a lot of work, and it takes a lot of self-awareness and support. And sometimes despite our best efforts we still fall back on the old coping mechanisms that have worked in the past.

For me, cutting provides two things. First, it gives me visual proof that something makes sense. If I put a needle on my skin, it will bleed. It’s a direct cause and direct effect that I can see when everything else in life, relationships, illnesses, crisis situations, feelings don’t follow any kind of sensible pattern. Call it a desire for control if you want, but it’s deeper than that. It’s a need for understanding. I’m not saying it makes sense, I’m just saying that’s what I am seeking when I’m experiencing the urges to cut myself.

Secondly, cutting is a way to take the pain of my bipolar thoughts out of my brain and transplant it onto my body. Not only does it serve to relieve some of the pressure of emotional turmoil inside my head, but it gives me, again, visual proof that I am in pain. People can see my pain, I can see my pain, which isn’t always the case with mental illness. Physical pain takes away the strength of mental pain.

I cut myself for the last time (I hope) several weeks ago while recovering from my suicide attempt. I took an 18g needle and cut grid patterns up and down both shins. Recovering from a suicide attempt is a confusing time. I was trying to step back into a life that I didn’t plan on being around for anymore. All of the problems I faced before the attempt were still there, I had a new diagnosis and new medicines to get used to, and I had to make the choice to stay alive for all of it.

That was difficult.

But I made that choice. I am alive, I will not continue to be miserable while I’m alive, and now I want to take this experience and find ways to turn that pain into something positive and beautiful. If that means writing candidly about things I’d rather keep hidden for forever, being able to learn about all the wonderful people in my life that provide me with support, making someone feel less alone by being able to relate to what they are going through, or turning my physical evidence of pain into something beautiful and empowering.

Last night I got the first of four tattoos that will cover up those cutting scars on my shins. The pain of the tattoo was nothing compared to what I have survived and my determination to move forward with my life. We were not able to color in the tattoo because the scars aren’t quite healed enough, but from the picture below, you can see where the art will cover the pain. Some parts will still be visible around the tattoo, but that’s life. Life is imperfect, but there is something for all of us in it.

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National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 800-273-TALK (8255)

Feel Less

So many major life changes, crises or otherwise, have happened to me over the last year, and I have felt every single feeling that has arisen along the way. I feel everything fully, to the point where my capacity for feeling emotions has shrunken to almost nothing. I was not aware that this was possible until now, but it is. I don’t know how to halfass anything in my life, from work to play to relationships to, apparently, feeling emotions. How much of that is the bipolar vs. innate personality or character, I’m not sure. But I don’t quite understand why I feel my feelings so strongly, to an overwhelming and depleting level, and other people don’t.

Can a person learn how to feel less? Is it possible to let some feelings in but not others? I don’t want to stop feeling altogether, but with the new medication cocktail I’m taking and my reduced emotional capacity, it seems like that might be where I’m going. Right now I often use apathy as a coping mechanism because I am fearful of irrational emotional ambushes.

I just started reading Carrie Fisher’s novel Postcards from the Edge, which is about chemical addiction; openly truthful about how people use drugs and alcohol to avoid or cope with their feelings. Honestly it would make so much more sense for me to self medicate. People get by in life by wanting to ease pain and dampen their feelings, and I think it’s a common human denominator to want those things. But for some reason I face everything head on and want to deal with feelings unfiltered and until they make sense or dissipate. Someone who does this without self medicating is going to be deeply affected by the emotional roller coaster. Why can’t I learn to self medicate like a normal person? It would save me so much grief. But then I wouldn’t stop, ever.

I’m so deeply affected by the intensity of my own feelings that I need prescription medications to make me stop feeling much of anything. The modern lobotomy. The meds will keep me alive, possibly allow me to create some sort of productive stability in my life, but they’re also taking away my feelings. I am frustrated that these are the choices I have. I don’t want to make either, and neither makes me very excited about my future as a human. I just want to feel things on a healthier scale. One that doesn’t destroy me.

But until I figure out if that’s even an option, I’m taking meds that work on a sliding scale of effectiveness, stockpile things and people that make me feel happy, and figure out how to get through a half a day at a time.

The Patron Saint of Bipolar Disorder

Imagine having a mood system that functions essentially like weather – independently of whatever’s going on in your life. So the facts of your life remain the same, just the emotional fiction that you’re responding to differs.
-Carrie Fisher, Wishful Drinking

The woman could make such clean cuts with her words, straight to the heart of whatever she was talking about. It makes me feel sad that I have to now refer to her in the past tense, but her words will be around forever. In the quote above she was describing what it was like for her to live with bipolar disorder. This description resonated so deeply with me that I felt it in my rib cage. My friend who recommended Carrie Fisher’s book to me refers to her as the “patron saint of bipolar,” and I have now adopted this epithet also.

I was officially diagnosed with bipolar disorder a couple weeks ago, but looking over the past couple decades of my life, I can see that I have likely had it all along. An odd mixture of feelings accompanies this diagnosis. First, relief. There are reasons, categories for my various patterns of behavior. In my twenties, the dozens of jobs I started with gusto then quit after a few weeks, or months, or sometimes days. My repeated attempts at going back to college only to give up again by the end of the semester. The races and competitions I’ve trained for but never completed. Always feeling like I’m playing catchup with my emotions, not ever quite being able to fully stay in the moment. The days and days I haven’t been able to get out of bed for no reason I could name, shortly followed by days or weeks of not being able to slow down. Never enough parties, no risk I was unwilling to take, not enough projects to start in a flurry of inspiration…only to find myself back in bed again, projects abandoned, unable to even remember the times when I felt good. I have always believed these to be weaknesses, failures, flaws in my character, but maybe I just needed a different kind of help that I didn’t know how to ask for. Maybe

Secondly, I feel anger and grief. Why, for decades, did I have to feel like a complete failure, fighting, with everything I had in me, against something that I didn’t even understand. I lost so many of those fights because I was focused on only one dimension of a bigger problem. I went to therapy, I took my meds, I saw my doctors, I did the things that were supposed to help me but they didn’t actually help. Why didn’t anyone see that? Why did I have to fail over and over and over again? Over the past couple weeks, with a new perspective on old problem, my weather system of emotions playing out like global warming inside my head, and I just watch it like an audience member in a theater (who paid way too much for their ticket…worst. play. ever.). I am awed by how little control I have over any of it. I’ve never had any control, not over the clear blue skies, the light rains, the tornadoes or earthquakes, the sudden freezes, or the ice storms in the middle of summer. For so long I thought I could force my way through the storms and build a life in the middle of the tornado anyway, like the tornado was simply an inconvenience that I could overcome if I wanted it badly enough.

I did want it, though. I do want it. But wanting it can’t stop a tornado from wiping out everything in its path anyway. The best we can do is try to keep ourselves and those we love safe until it passes. My relationships with those I love are not immune to damage from my weather systems, and I’m not always safe with myself in the rough times either. The sliver of comfort I can squeeze from this is that these weather systems, these mood changes, these misfiring brain chemicals are bigger than me. They are not in my control and not punishment for something I’ve done wrong. I’m learning how to stay safe when the storms come, and to do my best to keep those I love safe as well, as much as it is in my power to do so. I mean we all saw the Wizard of Oz. Things don’t always work out like we want them to, but sometimes in the forced detours you still end up with really cool shoes.

(That’s a metaphor about hope, but I’m not sure it played out as well as I thought it would. You’ll have to be the judge of that; I’m not erasing it.)

Carrie Fisher, patron saint of bipolar, also said, “At times, being bipolar can be an all-consuming challenge, requiring a lot of stamina and even more courage, so if you’re living with this illness and functioning at all, it’s something to be proud of, not ashamed of.” I want so much to believe in these words that I started a blog and decided to go ahead and act like I do believe it. I am functioning each day to the best of my ability. For example, I didn’t shower yesterday, but I did leave the house and see some people I love and made them laugh. Also, I make a goal at the beginning of every day, and a couple of friends follow up with me at the end of the day to see if I accomplished it. So far I have met the goal each day, which means my mind is focused on the future, even if it’s just a few hours into the future, and it’s no longer stuck and without hope. There’s a part of me that found hope again, somewhere, in something. Having an unstable weather system in my brain is not my fault. I don’t have to fight a fruitless fight anymore.

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