Mad Hatter Lives

Living, Loving, Lasting

Wasted on the Young?

Is youth wasted on the young?

I have a young friend who is going through a very difficult time, and I woke up with her on my mind this morning after a long conversation with her last night.  She is dealing with decisions someone her age should not have to, and I keep thinking, wondering, where the carefree days of youth have gone?

It’s ironic that I’m seeing things this way, as the current culture is hurling the concept of happiness as an entitlement into society like a shot putter, while it appears there is less actual happiness.  I don’t know.  Maybe I’m getting old, but I remember, in my early twenties, driving down the road in my little yellow sports car with the sunroof open and my hair whipping in the wind as I traveled across whatever road I had chosen for the day and feeling exhilarated just to be alive.  Granted, these were the pre-bipolar days before someone turned out the lights on my understanding of “normal,” but I remember them that way.

These days, it seems young people are saddled with so much drama and adult situations, they don’t have time to just experience life and what it means to be alive, even if for just a short time.  Youth is the time to make mistakes, but to learn from them so those mistakes are not repeated later.  When you are young you must explore and use the senses to ascertain things much as a toddler does when he or she first starts walking.  How else can you learn about a whole world opened up for you if you do not make mistakes in it?

Life is so heavy.  It is so encumbered with making huge decisions at such a young age when it should really be about discovery.  It should be about turning away from mistakes and heading into another direction, down a different road.

My heart hurts for my friend.  I have no way to fix things, and I know she it beaten up over something that began as a simple mistake and has now impacted life in what seems an endless montage of painful, complicated moments.

So back to my question.  Is youth wasted on the young?  It is generally stated rather than asked, and it is a really sad statement, as I believe that it is the job of those who are no longer in their youth, like me, to remind those who are still young just what youth is.  I believe youth is wasted on the young when the young are not taught how to fully embrace it.  And maybe it’s not up to parents to teach this.  Maybe it’s about society doing this part.  After all, if you define this statement within the context of young people out of high school, then it becomes the role of those who are on the scene during the young adult years.  Employers, teachers, and people who are older who come in contact with the young and begin associations despite the age gap.

I have been most blessed to be a part of this young lady’s life I have been referencing, and I have no doubt she will rebound from what she is dealing with, walking through the fire a little singed, wiping off the ashes and soot as she walks away from what is still burning. But I hope she retains her resilience, and I hope she does not give up on her enjoyment of the little things in life that are really most recognized in youth, and I truly desire that she maintains her transparency.

I remember a statement made in the movie “Where the Heart Is”, Willy Jack Pickens says to Novalee (I may be paraphrasing a bit), “Sometimes you tell a lie so big it changes your whole life.”  It may not be lies we tell to others. Sometimes the big lies, we tell ourselves, and they change everything.  It is important in our youth to cultivate authenticity and transparency with ourselves, and if we do so, we will be much more likely to perpetuate this practice with others.

We must teach this and reinforce it to those in their youth.  I am not working to solve my young friend’s problem.  She is fully capable of moving through it with a little encouragement from those of us in her life who have survived the bombs that go off in the road.  What I am most pressed to reinforce to her is that no matter what life throws at her, she must have an understanding of who she is, and that involves being honest in the arena that only she sees. She is only beginning to really know who she is, and as life continues to hone and shape her, will become more and more dimensional and complex as a person and as a woman.

I believe those of us who are older must invest in those who are younger in a way that encourages them to experience life but in a way that does not completely destroy their youth.  We must teach that the most valuable thing about being young is the true essences of the person who is growing and learning from what he or she is experiencing.

It is not the experience itself, or even the choices in the experience that matter most.  It is not even about the outcome of the experience.  It is about the person and the growing of the individual in a way that invests in stamina, development, authenticity, and contribution.  I will do whatever I can to reinforce these things in my friend. This is what matters, and youth is not wasted on the young when they are taught to truly experience it.

A Pain

I know that what I deal with is a pain for those in my personal life.  I mean, between the panic attacks and the inability to adapt quickly to new environments, and the instability triggered by it all, it just gets to them.  I would love to make things easier, and I try, but there is only so much I can do.  Because the bottom line is…

I am not normal.  I will never be normal.  I will always struggle with things that people take for granted as just part of living life.  I will never easily adapt to new things and environments.

We had a vacation.  It was filled with lovely things.  I would have loved to have enjoyed all of it, but I’m not equipped to “enjoy” such events.  I look longingly at events and adventures my friends and family have, and I wish I could go and do and come away thrilled with the experience, but the truth is, I come away with much less than I had going in.

It’s not about what I want.  I rarely get what I want, because my brain does not work like it should.  I am now trying to scramble to re-adapt to my home environment so that I don’t miss a step, whilst being at a deficit from maneuvering through everything we did when we were on vacation.

People wonder why those of us with major mental illness become suicidal.  Well, let me just clue in those who don’t deal with this stuff.  Exhaustion and the inability to keep up with the demands of others wears us to the point of thread bare.  And it never stops!  We are continually expected to function like everyone else all day long, every day.  I can say with confidence here that I am going to fail every time under those expectations.

It must be difficult for people to have someone like me in their lives, trying to accommodate to make things better, never knowing which way to jump to make it easier, better.  I struggle as well, only I never get to push back from the table and say, “I have had enough; I don’t want to play any more.”  I don’t get that option.  It’s live and in color 24/7…living mental.

Me going to a social function in a strange place with thousands of people and having an expectation that I should enjoy it, is like me going to a baseball field, stacking all the plates, the pitcher’s mound, all the equipment in my arms and then telling me to “play ball”.  I’m already overloaded, so me joining in the game and swinging for the fence is just not going to happen.  I try.  I give it what I have to give, but I am not graceful about it.

And so those in my life are faced with a few options, give up doing anything social in order to stay in the environments where I optimally perform, have me come with them where they face having me drag down their fun as I struggle to cope in the environment, or go by themselves to such occasions.  It’s a difficult decision for them.  My immediate family does pretty well, but then they are all introverted so they need very little interaction in big social settings.  My husband, however, is extroverted, so it is difficult for him to get the interaction he needs and still have me with him.  I also have many friends who are very active and always doing fun things, and I just can’t do it all.

The first severe panic I had was in Kansas City at an amusement park.  There were thousands of people there. It was very hot, and I found myself in a sea of people being jostled about like flotsam on the waves.  The entire world became blurry and started to spin.  I felt I was being upended, and the closeness of the heat and bodies contributed, making me black out for a moment.  I don’t remember how I made it out of the crowd, but I ended up in a little atrium area, sitting on a bench.  A friend found me and gave me a paper bag, telling me to breath in an out of it.

That was the official entry of social phobia which quickly let to agoraphobia.  I never feel safe in public.  Even if, mentally, I’m solid on the environment, my fight or flight response will kick in and leave me in a primal state. I tend to feel guilty when I can’t be what the people in my life need me to be, but that is just hubris on my part.  It is unrealistic for anyone to expect they can be all things for all those in their lives at all times.

I’m angry because I came away from this experience feeling defeated, when in fact, it was a huge win.  I managed to survive three days with constant interactions with people in large environments  that were extremely over stimulating.  I had two issues where I had panic attacks but they were minimal in comparison to the debilitating panic attacks that wreck me for hours.

In reflecting on the experience last night I decided I was going to take this as a win for me, personally.  I would never have attempted such an endeavor in years past.  I won’t claim there weren’t difficulties, and going to the large event, much like the amusement park that kicked everything off over a decade ago, was probably not a good idea on my part.  Still, I made it through about an hour of swimming through a sea of hot sweaty people whilst being hot and sweaty as well.

The real struggle is trying to find balance with a spouse who is very extroverted.  I don’t have many options for compromise.  I can either go and fall apart at some point, be scared from the beginning that I will fall apart at some point, or stay away from such situations and let him go and enjoy himself.

I will go and attempt such places and have always done so just to stretch myself a bit.  I mentioned in a previous blog that agoraphobia is a hole that continually tries to close over me, so I am always trying to keep it open so I can crawl out.  Such events stretch that hole a bit further, even if for just a short time, so I need to continue to attempt to take such risks.

However, I need to do so without the pressure of letting someone I love down and creating disappointment for them.  I don’t want to do that, and I don’t want the stress of ruining a potentially great experience for someone else because I can’t control my body.  I may have to go with someone who is not so interested in being at the event and who will be okay with leaving, even if it’s 15 minutes into the adventure.

I could dwell on the fact that I am no longer a person who gets enjoyment out big group events base on the simple fact that my body cannot handle it, but I don’t think that is healthy. The reality is that it is what it is, and I am done trying to accommodate everyone else by performing at a level that exceeds my range of actually capability.  It’s generally me placing those expectations, though there is frustration produced by others when I am unable to perform as everyone else, so I know there is a level of expectation, albeit subconscious.  The price is too high and is generally underappreciated by those I’m trying not to inconvenience.  If you want me along, I’m a special needs case, and there will be adaptive measurements in place for me to go along.

I have a friend in a wheel chair.  It would be stupid for her to attempt to get her chair in through an area it won’t fit just because all the people in her life can walk it with ease. There has to be room made for her to get through, or she can’t go.  It is no different for me, and I’m done trying to be something I’m not.  I’m sorry this is such a pain for the people in my life, truly, but this is what I have to work with, I can’t modify any more than I have, and I must learn to accept that if I want to live a longer life.

The Constant Companion

We are going on vacation, and the preparation process for me is a bit different than from my friends who do not have mental illness as a constant companion.  Chris and I have had few opportunities for vacations in the years we have been married, so we are very excited to be able to take some time and just go play.

For me, the preparation for such an event starts a couple of weeks before we actually go.  Even if I only had me to take care of, it would be that way, but since I also have to make arrangements for the dog and the cat, there is more responsibility and more stress involved.  Doesn’t seem like a big deal, does it?  Maybe not, but it’s not the bipolar that is the issue in these situations.  Not at this point.  It’s the agoraphobia, and if it is not contained, it will trigger instability with the bipolar component, and then EVERYTHING will become a big deal.

So about two weeks before the designated date, I start formulating a plan for execution in my head.  I think of everything that needs to be done and how I will implement each task.  The goal is to have very little to do right before time to leave. It’s really all about eliminating as much stress as possible.

I begin taking anti anxiety medication at that time.  I know that no matter how much I plan, I will still be escalated when it is time to change environments, but the medication will help keep the lid on the disorder.  I am also planning even further ahead with the meds, as I know I will be entering unknown environments our whole vacation, and each change will trigger the agoraphobia.  I want to enjoy my time, but I especially want my husband and sister, whom we will be meeting up with, to enjoy their time as well.  That will not happen if I’m having continual panic attacks, which will trigger the BP and cause mood instability.

As they say, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” or agoraphobia in m case.

For those of you trying to figure out why a fear of spiders is classified as an anxiety disorder (though that isn’t a far stretch by my way of thinking either), agoraphobia is a fear of spaces.  It can be small spaces, like claustrophobia or large open spaces like standing in the middle of a room.  It is often accompanied by, initiated by, or results in social phobias.  Agoraphobia designates spaces as unsafe where the person feels trapped, at which point the fight or flight instinct kicks and manifests all kinds of fun physical features that accompany panic attacks.

Agoraphobia is very rare. Only about 1% of those with anxiety issues have agoraphobia.  I was officially diagnosed with agoraphobia about 15 years ago, but I had been dealing with it much earlier.  I was a shut in in my home for about a year, and I fight every day to keep it under control.  It’s like trying to crawl out of a hole that is continually trying to close.  I have to push and fight my way out of it every day. All day.

The medication helps, but I don’t take it all the time, as I don’t want to build up immunity, and if I have to deal with this for a lifetime, this medication I know to be safe and nonaddictive.   I don’t want “wear” it out too soon in the game.  So I take it when I know I’m going to be dealing with a lot of new environments, and I start taking it far enough ahead to make sure I have efficacy.  The rest of the time I use cognitive reframing as a means of keeping it under control.

I mentioned in another recent blog that bipolar is an unwanted guest I have locked in a guest house.  Agoraphobia is the annoying dog, that if not constantly monitored, will rile up the monster and actually slip the lock for the BP to get out.  I can’t have that, so I am diligent, often giving the agoraphobia more attention than might actually be necessary, but it’s the only way to be sure I have it under control

I do a lot of training with my agoraphobia “dog”.  I do a lot of behavioral modification.  I make it attend and bend to behaviors I deem appropriate, and I watch my thought life to the point of obsession.  If I don’t, if I allow myself to watch things that negatively impact, I begin to escalate and that little dog starts acting up.  It’s the same with people who constantly perpetuate drama and would suck me in to what they are creating.  I cannot allow that, as the price for me is catastrophic.  The irrational fear of spaces and feeling trapped every time I want to step out of my home becomes nearly unmanageable.

So in preparing for a vacation, I know that the little dog is going to try to act up.  I’m watching my sleep.  I’m eliminating any stress I can control, and I’m being organized in the process.  It helps me to know that I will be with my husband, who is big and tough, and not only protective but gracious as well.  I will also be with my sister who has been involved with my illnesses since before I was stabilized, and she knows how things work…and don’t work.

I find that the longer I live with these illnesses, the more I am able to roll with what they do to me.  Nothing diminishes.  In fact I would say both have gotten, maybe not worse, but certainly more concentrated over the years.  The biggest thing to remember when dealing with what other people deem “normal living functions,” such as going on vacations, is that mental illness is an added challenge. The more condemnation I heap upon myself about the fact that I can’t function as others do, or that I take a lot of work to get me to a place where I can participate, I am sabotaging my progress.

I think that is the take away here.  Do not come down on yourself because you take more maintenance.  The fact that you even attempt to go outside your comfort zone, is huge, and even if others condemn you for being different or higher maintenance to function, don’t ever do that to yourself.  Pat yourself on the back for every step you take in a different direction.

Life is still what we make it, even if it looks different through the lens of mental illness.  I fight for the things in my life I feel I should be able to access just because I’m living and breathing, and much like a theater production, there is a lot that goes on behind the scenes that no one knows about to make something happen for a short period of time.  I have arrived at a place where I understand that now, and I just do the best I can.  If I can’t “do,” then I apologize and try to just “be”.  Be gracious to yourself, even if others are not.  Those who do not have mental illness as a constant companion cannot begin to understand what it takes to build a moment, but what is most important is that YOU do.

Worth Living

I could write a blog about the things mental illness does in my life that makes it difficult to or not worth living, but what a drag, right?  There is more to life than mental illness, and though it is the lens through which I view all things in life, it is NOT life.

I have worked with so many people, encountered so many people over the years, who are completely unwilling to own what they are and what they have as a human being.  It is unfortunate, as owning everything is what ultimately gives us victory.  I have never encountered someone who has been mentally ill for a long time and says, “I ignored my illness, never was accountable for anything my instability caused or did, and it was absolutely the right thing to do.  It made all the difference in my ability to be healthy.”

I have observed in my own life and the life of others that hope and fulfillment come from fearfully stepping into ownership, and I do not count self-medicating as a means of healthy treatment.  It just can’t sustain stability, as the means are often unhealthy in themselves.  That is not so say that there are not varying ways in which to address mental illness, but self-medication will show results quickly, and most often those results leave the person in a much more compromised state rather than one of power.

One of the things I am most proud of in life, is the relationships I have.  It is very difficult for people with mental illness to sustain healthy relationships.  It is just so very difficult to live with mental illness, maintain stability, AND have someone close to you.  I have been so fortunate to have healthy whole people actually want to be a part of my life, and I truly believe just one healthy relationship makes all the difference in the journey.  When you can’t find hope, they can remind you it still exists.

The thing about mental illness is that it is like another skin.  I see people continually trying to shed it like it’s a coat, and they end up frustrated and much worse off by investing energy in something that cannot be changed. I still, after 25 years, struggle with the desire to somehow get away from it.  That is natural.  It is unnatural to have mental illness.  But when that is the way life rolls out, you must, at some point, if you want to have any quality of life, move on from that mind set.

So every day I face a new set of challenges just within my own mind, before I ever step foot out the door.  I am not a person who enjoys being around other people a lot.  They drain me, so I must pace myself.  It’s not generally something others do that makes me shy away.  I get overwhelmed by the constant stimulation that occurs when engaging in social settings.  I fake being outgoing and engaging for a while, but the cost is high, and I can only affect it for a while before I need to withdraw and regroup.

I used to feel guilty that I wasn’t very social, like I was a bad person because I didn’t want to run all the time.  But the truth is, I like being at home.  I like solitude.  I like my husband, I would rather engage with him than run out to a social setting with people I don’t know well.  There is nothing wrong with going out to engage with others socially; not at all, but I simply don’t need it.  I do not feel I am missing out on something or that I am lonely.  I have a circle of people in my life, and as far as I am concerned, they are cream of the crop.  Why would I need to go further, when I can be with them?

My husband, parents, and siblings just happen to be my closest friends.  It’s nice when the people you are related to are also your most intimate friends.  I also have friends I am not related to.  Not tons, as I don’t need tons.  I have a few I spend time with occasionally, but my love for them is deep, and I know they love me.  I feel honored to have friends like I do.  I don’t deserve them, and I will always be there for them. It’s important to understand what true friendship is.  A lot of times, I think mental illness robs us of our “healthy things” equilibrium, and we end up adding people into our lives as friends when they really only want to sabotage us. We must learn the difference.

Some of the friends I have, I have had for 15 years and more.  They have grown with me, experienced loss with me, prayed for me and I for them.  Some friends are newer in my life, but they overwhelm me with their kindness and grace to me.  When I first started my new business, my friends came to me as clients and would tip me more than the cost of the service!  It’s not about the money.  It was their way of showing they believe in me, that they have my back, and they want something better for me.  I have friends who have come to me for services whom I know can’t afford to, and I that humbles me.  I reciprocate as I can, am compelled to do so, and am just so stinkin’ blessed to be able to try to give to them in a way that shows how much I love them.

My husband.  I can’t even start with him, as he is a shield in my life, and the ballast in my continual wave-tossed ship, and there are not enough descriptive words in the world to describe what he is in my life and my heart. My family, well, there is none like them.  We have traversed this thing for so long, they keep it real for me and let me know when I need to check myself.

These are what healthy relationships look like, and I can’t take credit.  God blessed me with wise and caring people who were willing to hang in when others bailed.  I cannot express how much better the journey is with a select few than alone.  So if you are thinking you don’t want to put in the work to find stability and balance in your life, consider the reward of healthy relationships that is waiting for you.  This is one of the biggest rewards that make life with mental illness worth living.

Creative Surges

I have been having a creative surge, and it is nice.  I don’t tend to write unless I am compelled, and generally I’m compelled from an uncomfortable place within me.  It’s a strange sort of electric sadness that propels me onward in my writing.  It has been dormant for some time, and it is difficult for people to follow your blogs when you are sporadic in your writing!

This morning I woke up knowing I was not in the sad place.  I am in a place of intense frustration, which generally renders me problematic to those around me and much less able to focus on expanded creative thought processes.  I am attempting to persevere, though, because I sense some valuable information may be forthcoming at some point for someone who is looking, and I don’t want to miss the opportunity to help, if even just a little bit.

While I certainly do not have all the answers to life or even life with mental illness, I can say with certainty, I have beaten most of the odds when it comes to quality of life and longevity with mental illness.  I am staring 46 in the face, and I do believe I have learned a couple of take-aways from this life I have been living.

  1.  I am never gonna arrive.  I am never going to look at my life and say, “Finally, it is just the way I always wanted it!”  Not going to happen.  I am too much of a perfectionist and the winds of change blow too freely through my lifescape to allow me any sort of arrival I am content to stay with.
  2. I am never going to land.  I have a desire for a life that has meaning; significant meaning.  I have warred with this against the desire to have a little cottage with a true English garden where few know me and I can just live my days in peace and quiet.  The problem is that I have never been able to marry the two concepts together, and it is the warring between them that keeps me from being able to land in one place, not to mention a husband who would never stand for the quiet subdued life.

I confess, my desires pull me asunder.  I am continually trying to fulfill one or the other and generally failing all around.  Should I write?  Should I make money?  Why can’t I do both?  Why can’t one perpetuate the other?  Now THERE’S a novel thought!  Sometimes in the midst of the turmoil I make decisions that I think will aide in direction, only to find they contribute to the unrest and indecision already affecting my abilities to access creative processes.

I have had heard that I “must really decide what I most want to do and then go after it.”  That is just unrealistic as a blanket statement, because the truth is that sometimes you just can’t have or do what you most desire.  Sometimes you have to work a job that is not even close to what you want to do the majority of the time just so you can have a few hours every day or week to DO that thing you most desire.  That is often the reality of life, and no matter how much you want the thing your heart desires, this is life, and we are often more caught in the throes of it than rowing steadily along on top of it.

I once read that if you are in a place of confusion DO NOT blindly wander about like a person caught in a blizzard.  You never know what you will run into whilst you are blindly staggering about.  Stand still.  Wait.  Ahhhhhhhhhh!  The big W.  I just hate that word, but sometimes, most times, it does not “take two to make a thing go right.”  It takes waiting to make a thing go right, and I have found, though it’s generally in retrospect, that waiting makes the difference in how messy things get.

So, say it with me, “How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time,” and it is taking time to swallow where the waiting occurs. Ah Ha!  Food for thought!!  So you take small bites of your elephant, and I will do the same with mine.  In the process, I’m hopeful there will be more creative surges and fewer periods of waiting, though it is only a fleeting hope.

 

 

The Monster in the Guest House

Over the years I have attempted to describe my special brand of mental illness with vivid imagery like, the monster in the guest house, so as to lend someone who has never experienced mental illness a way to identify if even just a little with what goes on in the life of a person with major mental illness.  I’ve no idea how successfully I have managed to do that.  I know that when I do speaking engagements I often get feedback from those kind enough to listen to me in regards to the vivid imagery I use, suggesting that they have in some way been able to relate.  That positive reinforcement compels me to look further for ways to help bridge the gap to understanding, because stigma exists out of fear of the unknown, and the best way to ameliorate fear is to educate.

The icon I have used that I feel best defines the existence of bipolar disorder in my life has been the monster in the guest house.  I have written this out before, but I have had so many different venues for my writing that I am unable to find my original writing, and there is the fact that I was also writing a dissertation whilst writing blogs, and some things disappeared in the process and my wearing out laptops and not getting everything saved beforehand.

So, without further ado…

My life with bipolar is like having a monster show up on the doorstep of my house, insisting that it is going to move in.  That is what happened at 22 years old.  Now, I wrestled and fought this monster, but I was poorly armed, so while it rampaged in my house, tearing everything apart, I began to search for reinforcements.

There really were no human beings able to help me. They had never seen such a monster, and their response was that I simply control it or pretend it was not there.  But the monster could not be controlled, and I could not pretend it was not there.  It not only tore up my house, but it was a shape shifter and would alter its appearance to look like me, then run out of my house and do things others could see.  They would think it was ME doing those things.

I found a doctor who gave me some magic pills and told me that he could not see the inside of my house or the monster, but the more I explained to him what my house looked like, what the monster was doing, and how I was feeling, he could better help me.  I was relieved to have someone in my life willing to help and who seemed to be able to plot a course for killing the monster.

What I came to realize was that the monster was so attached to me and to my house, that if I killed him, I would also die.  Many times I very nearly killed the monster.  Many times I nearly succeeded.

I decided that I would not be a victim.  I would be a warrior.  I armed myself with as much information as possible, and though the magic pills did not work, I continued to search for ones that would.  I became strong in my knowledge, and authority on the monster.  I became powerful in my abilities to trick the monster, and finally after 10 years, I found a magic pill that helped.

I was able to take the magic pill and close places in my house in a way that rendered the monster limited in its ability to access them.  The magic pill was not a cure, but it was a powerful weapon in limiting the monster, and eventually it only had access to a couple of rooms in my house.

One day I met a brain wizard. He was a doctor of cognitive behavioral practices, and he taught me how to take a thought and remake it into a better functioning thought.  This was valuable, because the biggest power the monster had was to take thoughts that roamed freely in my house and turn them into twisted ugly things that didn’t come close to their original structure.  They would turn on me and attack like little rabid dogs. The brain wizard helped me grab hold of those twisted thoughts and remake them.

I realized I could act on the monster’s weakened state, so I kicked it out the door of my house and locked it in the guest house.  I told it I may never be able to kick it off my property but I was not going to allow it to destroy my house any longer.  I locked it up, and with the magic pills and the skills taught by the brain wizard, I have managed to keep it there…

For the most part.

After so many years of battling the monster, my house is not the same.  There are scars, gouges, from where it sliced through walls.  I have rebuilt the furniture many times, and the appliances work, though not as well as they used to. It is not a pretty house any more.  Things are tidy, but often the walls shake with the monster’s rage and attempts to break out of the guest house, and things fall and break. There are fewer rooms to secure these days.  The last time the monster broke out of the guest house, he broke down more walls, so the house is pretty open.  And though the memory room still stands, there is no longer a door.  That is the room that the monster likes to wreck, and it is the room it takes me the longest to restore.  In fact there have just been too many things that have gone missing from that room.

I feel that for the most part I have been fortunate in my dealings with the monster.  I have had people move in around me who are good neighbors, people who help me watch the guest house and alert me when things are looking unsettled.  Mainly, though I have a Being in my life that is unafraid of any monsters life can produce.  I was angry at the Being for a long time.  I thought he had put the monster on my property, but I have come to realize he has orchestrated all the weapons I have obtained, and the beautiful neighbors who help me are there by his design.

Here’s the ironic part.  The Being has helped me realize my life has more meaning because of what lives on my property. I am a more dimensional, humble, and empathetic person because the Being didn’t kill the monster but helped me submit the monster.  Some days I stand guard very well.  Other days I struggle to make it to my post from the sheer magnitude of stress caused by having such a creature on my property, but I continue in my precarious existence, and I attempt life with grace bestowed on my by the Being and those beautiful neighbors.  I find I have a light of hope walking back and forth between my house and where the monster is housed that reassures me that there is more good for me than bad.  I find I can employ  gratefulness and identify with others, and I believe I am able to do those things largely because of the presence of the monster in the guest house.

Lessons from the Farm

My most recent, past, work experience has been two years spent working as the Human Resources Coordinator in a correctional prison setting.  It was an experience unlike any other I have ever had, and it challenged me in more areas than I could ever have imagined.

When I resigned, on my last day of work, I gave a little goodbye speech, and mentioned that I knew the first week I worked I was going to hate the job.  That is very much the truth.  I knew right away the position as it had been presented to me was not exactly as presented.  I may have a doctorate, but it is decidedly NOT in accounting, and much of the position involved processing payroll and all that goes along with that process. My background is in organizational leadership psychology, the OTHER side of human resources that works on developing and empowering staff, working to eliminate turn over and employee resistance to change.

I can tell you that the powers that were, were not interested in the side of human resources I came from.  Even now I marvel at the nearsightedness of the leadership in that organization. I was continually told to “work” on morale.  But here is the thing about morale…

it exists in an intrinsic state, meaning it is intangible and is different for each person.  Yes you can hit on generalities that impact morale one way or another, but morale is largely contingent on how and individual interprets and feels about a situation.  Prisons by and large have huge issues with turnover, so morale thrown about as the answer to a problem when, in fact low morale is a side effect of a bigger issue, is ignorant and should not be present in top level leadership.

The phrase continually thrown about by leadership was, “Do we do what we say we do.”  The longer I was there the more I came to seriously detest that phrase, because it did not apply to anything consequential.

Lesson 1:  We do NOT do what we say we do, or low morale and turnover would have been addressed in a manner that actually encouraged staff and let them know they mattered to the organization.

What I learned?  I learned to endeavor to be authentic in what I do and to remember that people are what matter.  They are not commodities that are interchangeable.

I was sitting at a table in Cheyenne with lots of important people discussing the processes involved in training and hiring.  I mentioned a particular process that was being given way to much credit in the hiring process and mentioned that while it was a good measure of a certain period of time, it could not represent a good assessment of the individual.  The instrument was not being used correctly.  One of the individuals leading the forum pointed out to me, in a manner indicating I had no place to question, the instrument had been created by “all kinds of qualified individuals as well as academics, even…”

“Doctors?”  I finished the sentence for her and continued, “Yes I’m well aware who develops these instruments, as I have been trained to do so as well.  I’m questioning the use, not the integrity of the instrument.”  At that point one of the other staff said, “I think Dr. Noonan is probably the only person here qualified to assess the instrument.”

In the time I was with the organization, I was never asked to use any of my advanced skills.  I volunteered, was willing to do anything to try to make things better for my staff, but my knowledge base was never tapped, and I saw that happen with people across the organization.  It was as if leadership was threatened by having diverse and knowledgeable staff, yet that is the kind of staff they like to hire.

Lesson 2:  The abilities you bring with you will not be developed, and if you attempt to think outside of the box, the box will be flattened, and you will be categorically dismissed as a viable option for advancement in the organization.

What did I learn?  This was a tough one.  I learned I must not look at other people and places to validate the work I have done, because they may very likely discount me or be so threatened by what I have worked for, I will be considered a trouble maker and not considered for promotions.  I learned I must define my abilities and grow myself.

I have never loved a group of work colleagues as much as I love the people out at the Farm.  I did everything in my power to make things better for them, to protect them in their jobs, and to help them in areas where they were suffering.  Leaving was very difficult in the sense that I felt I was abandoning them.  Don’t get me wrong.  I was no savior, but I felt very responsible for their well being at work.  It just got to a place were I was being pulled too many directions, my mental health was deteriorating rapidly, and I had been asked to represent a side of a an issue with an employee I felt was a breach of my ethics both in my professional status and my personal code.

At some point you have to really face the “beat them or join them” mentality.  I was faced with either joining in on something I felt was unethical and implemented by the ego-maniacal with support from pure cowardice, or quit.  There really was no way to beat them, as the structure is corrupt from the top down.  Everyone wants to wash their hands of a situation and say, “Not mine.”  No one ever wanted to stand up and say, “This is wrong.  This should not be happening, and I refuse to budge on this, no matter the cost.”  I guess in a way they did me a favor, because I had no qualms about my stance in the situation.  My resignation was a definite period on the end of a too long, drawn out a sentence, but I made my reasons for leaving very clear.

Lesson 3:  It is impossible to truly support the unethical with ethics.  People become passive aggressive in situations where they have no recourse, and passive aggression is not good, because it perpetuates deception, lying, and manipulation.

What did I learn?  I learned that even when I’m in a place where I’m suicidal on a regular basis, fighting for, well, my life really, I’m still capable of drawing lines in the sand for things I know are not right.  It’s often ugly.  I’m not especially graceful at it, but I will do it when I know I must.

Working in Corrections is a thankless job and so very difficult.  The culture is really, truly dark.  But if you have a prison in your community, do not mistreat and badmouth those who work there.  For one thing, they are the reason you can sleep at night without worrying about inmates running amuck.  Another reason, is that they are the back line of law enforcement.  Yeah, I know things happen and not everyone is interested in operating with ethics in all levels of an organization.  I get it, but we need to show those who work such jobs that we appreciate their commitment, because I can tell you first hand they are not well treated by the organization that employs them, and we should be thankful someone is willing to work in those facilities!

I learned lessons at the Farm that broadened my scope of understanding of a culture that is very private and closed off from society at large.  Part of the way inmates are kept in line and part of the way staff are kept in line is the “need to know” mentality where very little information is given.  If you keep people in the dark, for the most part they will make few waves, because they are stumbling about, unable to see what is going on.  I also believe that the culture is extremely reactive rather than pro-active.  That is dangerous in any culture, because people are not prepared, and things that could be avoided with prudent planning are simply not addressed until the aftermath.

Now that I am no longer employed in the correctional setting, the walls of the culture have closed back in over themselves, leaving me standing on the outside.  There is so much I cannot talk about that happens in prison culture, and I suspect it’s not just about keeping what is confidential, confidential.  It is also very much about what I heard staff mention many times, “The community hates us,” and I would agree that communities do not like having prisons within view, but the employees there make it safe.  It is important to support the staff at prisons, encourage them to be involved in the community as accepted members, and let them know they are appreciated.

So I guess that is the 4th lesson I learned.  I learned to pay attention to cultures and systems that are different to my own and to always be cognizant of the fact that people need to be accepted and part of a community even if where they work is not especially applauded by the community at large.  We all play a role in life; in our communities; in our homes.  I don’t ever want to be the reason someone else struggled to succeed in any of those areas, and now having been there, I am especially aware of this in the correctional setting.

 

Madeleine L’Engle, Icons and Idols, and Carrier Fisher

I am a big fan of Madeleine L’Engle.  I prefer her nonfiction to her fiction and have read her books over and over in past years.  Currently, I am rereading “Penguins and Golden Calves.”  This is one of my favs of hers, because it addresses the differences between icons and idols.

An icon is something that is a reminder of something else.  It is like a bookmark in a book on a certain section you do not want to forget.  When you look at an icon you can be transported back to a place in time.  An icon can be a reminder of something else that you hold dear.  My wedding band is an icon for me, for when I look at it, I am reminded of a moment when my husband proposed to me, but it is also a reminder to me of the love we share and the promise I made to him to always consider him when making decisions.  This is a difficult thing for me, as I was single for many years before I met him, so the symbol is important to me.

An idol is something altogether different.  An idol often starts out as an icon, but then obsession takes hold, and suddenly that which was a reminder of something we valued becomes more important than that what it was put in place to help us remember.  An idol is dangerous because we can waste time and energy on something that takes us so far away from the reality of our own lives and who we are that we become lost in, not living, but in existing for the thing we are idolizing.  Sometimes it is a person.  Sometimes it is money.  But more often it is less obvious and, as such, more dangerous.

I find it fortuitous, my reading Madeleine’s book at this time.

If you have been involved in my writing or have been on my Live Mental page, you will know I am a fan of Carrie Fisher.  She has been an icon for me about having longevity with major mental illness.  She constantly reinvented herself and her life over the years, and she was always very candid about her battle with mental illness and, by extension, drug addiction.

When she passed away, I was quite sad.  I felt like I had a kindred spirit in her; someone who has traversed this dangerous road of mental illness ahead of me.  She was inspiration for me to keep going at times when I have felt I was all alone in the dark of this living black night, and suddenly, she was gone.

When Carrie died, I confess I was relieved her death was a result of something normal, a heart attack.  When I say normal I am quantifying with natural causes vs. suicide or drug overdose.  I could rest in the fact that she ran her race, and though it was still early days, she had had a very full and vibrant life, conquering her demons as they came.

You most likely know that the toxicology report came back to reveal drugs in Carrie’s system, and not the kind you use to legally and effectively control bipolar disorder.  I was really heartbroken.  I was a little surprised at the impact the new information had on me.  I felt betrayed.  How could she do such a thing!  She had been clean for so long, as far as anyone knew, and now the focus will shift from her valiant experience with mental illness where her heart just finally gave out, to her death potentially being impacted by drugs in her system.

It seemed sordid to me, and I just really wanted my icon to have died from natural causes.  I realized this morning, as I was reading Madeleine, Carrie Fisher had been an icon for me, representing the hope that it is possible to live a long life with bipolar disorder and die of causes not related to the illness.  Nothing wrong with that, but what I realized was that I made her a bit of an idol in my life.  An idol can garner worship.  That is where obsession factors in, and when I become consumed with the grief of a person’s passing, whom I never knew, and angry with her because of her choices before her death, I have crossed a line from reminder into something unhealthy.

Carrie Fisher started out as an icon of hope for me and ended up an idol I was holding responsible for letting me down.  Not good.  But seeing it is all it takes for me to reconcile the difference.  I can be sad that she, in fact, struggled with drug addiction all the way up until her death.  She did not conquer it.  But she was human, and there are many things we do not ever manage to conquer in this life.

Life is about finding balance and knowing what it feels like so that when we do go to one extreme or another for a time, we can recognize it, make an adjustment, and get back to balance, because it is a familiar place to us.  Icons help with that transition.  For me, they remind me of what is valuable.  I have many physical icons in my world.  I have a rock my friend, Lynn, gave me during a time where I was under so much stress I was collapsing both physically and mentally.  It is a symbol of the tangible being, because it is so solid, and it is an icon of a person’s ability to care about another person enough to give as a means of alleviating pain.  I have many icons that are reminders of people who are no longer with me, and I have icons that remind me of things I have achieved so that when I am doubting myself, I can look at them and remember I have made accomplishments.

I cannot recall ever intentionally embracing and idol in my life.  I have not found any healthy reason to do so, but that does not mean I have not idolized.  I know that slowly, subtly, some things have become idols in my life.  But my test is always, “If I were asked to, could I, would I give this up?”  If my answer is, “No!” I have a problem.  It is rare I have struggled violently to give up something I have made an idol, but it has happened.

Do you have icons or idols in your life?  Next time you find yourself overreacting to something ask yourself, “Is this an icon, or is this and idol?”  Icons promote health.  Idols promote decay, and I’m grateful to have both Madeleine L’Engle and Carrie Fisher as icons, contributing to MY health.

Mind, Metaphor, and Getting Tethered

It’s been too long.  It’s not that there was nothing to say, I just didn’t know how to say it.  I am ever at my best when seated with “pen” in hand, as I am not really as adept at verbal exchange as I pretend.  And, well, I have been missing a piece of my self, my soul.  I have been adrift for the past year; just feeling really at sixes and sevens with me, but there have been a few exchanges and events of late that have brought me round to remembering that the best way to get tethered to what matters again is to delve into the depths of me and what has been going on in terms of changes on my lifescape.

I have been in an all out war with mental illness for the majority of my life.  I have been a public speaker about my experiences with major mental illness, a writer, and I have worked with people who are mentally ill, as well as those who have a mentally ill loved one in their lives, for nearly two decades.  Living with mental illness rather than succumbing to it is an ongoing battle that never ends.  It permeates every single function and every singe moment of the day.  It destroys, erodes, overtakes, distorts, fractures, and decays every part of a human life…

If allowed.

In my twenties I found myself adrift on the wreckage of my life in a vast ocean of psychotic malfunction and biological disruption.  There was no compass.  The basics like cognitive control and all the other evolved limbic functions like memory, social acuity, and self-comprehension, were no longer present.  I was adrift on a vast ocean, small and insignificant, on the surface of huge illness that would never fully divulge its secrets, much like the oceanic metaphor I am using.

I determined I would either dive off that piece of wreckage and end my life, or I would commit to living the most “normal” life I could possibly procure for myself.

I was very naive.  I now understand that if “normal” exists, it is not in my sphere.  I had two things going for me,  my loved ones, and my God.  Not the God that is in a white robe with a long beard, awaiting the opportunity to smite me if I step wrong.  That God would be rendered absolutely worthless to me.  Not some nebulous universal thing that plays games with me, using chance and karma as a way to get even with me or devise a series of rewards if I pull the magic ticket or do something it agrees with.  I have no patience with such nonsense.

I needed a meaty God who would roll up his sleeves and get dirty in my life;  a God who would sit with me in the darkest, thickest, most horrible depressions (medicated depressions, mind you) that were so very despairing and hopeless that I would want to pull my skin off in order to balance the horrific pain in my mind that came from nowhere, suffocating every single light in my world with black night.

I needed a God who could break through horrific despair that left me crying out in so much pain, tears could not flow, with a handful of pills in one hand, and the other hand pulling at my hair trying to find release.  I needed a God who could handle rages that came from nowhere allowing no release; a God who would comfort me, help me find answers, and NOT condemn me.

I found him.  I found the God that helped me function not only as a viable human being, but a human being able to perform at an extremely high level of functionality, with healthy relationships, and accomplishments that mean something to me.  I found a God I am not afraid to let see every single part of my vast and open mind that alters between dark void to colors and movement so prolific as to make the Borealis appear blase’; a God that not only loves me anyway but shows me magnificent things about that which was presented in my life to destroy me.

I very much admired Carrie Fisher.  I’m not really a fan of heroes in human beings, but I have very much valued her honesty in dealing with mental illness.  She was authentic and raw, something that is very valuable in a disease that is stigmatized. I find that, since her death, I am less tolerant of excuses and behaviors from people who refuse to be accountable for mental illness they are dealing with.  I suppose the reason for the correlation between the two is because I considered Carrie a success in living with major mental illness, and in her death I find I am less indulgent of stupid mindsets regarding mental illness.  I struggle every day to function in a way that others take for granted.  There are times when I have been at work and only a few hours earlier it was uncertain as to whether or not I would commit suicide.

I maintain balance as precariously as any tightrope walker.  I stay on a schedule.  I toss unhealthy people out of my life like debris on fire, even if I like them.  I say “no” a lot, because I owe it to myself, my husband, my family, my friends, to set boundaries with myself an others in order to maintain that balance I must have to function.  My life is a series of enormous and vibrant spikes stretching beyond view but confined in a space no bigger that than a plastic milk crate.  There are no continual social interactions with limitless potential for more in my sphere of living.  I am constantly over stimulated in my work environments, where everyone else is unaffected.  Some days when I get home, I put in ear plugs to just have a break from continual noise that permeates our cultured in every crack and crevice.

I had a conversation with a young woman some time back where she assured me she had bipolar disorder.  It was cavalierly said, and I confess it rankled.  I do NOT have a casual existence with bipolar disorder.  It has become the poster child for every outrageous behavior, an excuse to be and do whatever with, “I have bp, so I can’t help it.”

Only abut 1% of the population has bipolar disorder, and just as I fall into the 1% category of those in the country with a doctorate, I also qualify in the bipolar category. One I’m proud of.  The other distinction, I could certainly do without, and it annoys me when people who have no bloody clue toss it about like a hall pass to behaving any way they like.

I am medicated, have been for nearly 25 years.  It would take about 5 days without medication for me to be rendered incapable of functioning in the world at large.  Even with medication, I am forced to make major adjustments, especially since I also have agoraphobia, a very severe anxiety disorder. I don’t have the option of partying a little too much.  I don’t have the option of staying up too late several days in a row.  I don’t have the option of jumping from one social event to another.

IF I want to be able to do all the things that healthy functioning adults do, I cannot do a lot of the things that healthy functioning adults do.

I also find I am really, really intolerant of people feeling they need justification or proof of my mental illness.  I told my mom the other day that no matter my age, 23, 34, or 50, those of us with mental illness will always be expected to expand or prove just how mentally ill we are in order to do the things that keep us the healthiest.  The difference for me is that the older I get the less willing I am to humor other people’s requirements for justification.

So if you are mentally ill, focus on health and balance.  Do not spend your time trying to convince other people that you are as sick as you are.  Because the truth is that they won’t believe you anyway, and I have found that people who require you to show them that you are in fact in need of being different because you have a very serious illness, are the people who tend to be least capable of maintaining health and balance in their own lives.

Denial

Let’s talk a bit about denial.

Denial is absolutely deadly to the person trying to live with mental illness.  In fact, denial is about living without mental illness, because even though you have it, you believe if you do not address it, it  does not exist.

I confess, I have never understood this perception, and maybe that has been my saving grace.  I would  love to live in denial, and if I could get a guarantee that I could stay in that space with no interference from reality, I would certainly entertain doing just that.

The truth is, that at some point we have a reckoning with truth.  At some point whether it be the beginning, the end, or somewhere in the middle, we have a reckoning with the reality of our situation, whatever that may be.  In terms of mental illness, it is a reckoning with the fact that while everyone around us seems to function a certain way, we are unable to.

It sucks, but there it is.

My mentor in college always used to say that we all fall on the spectrum somewhere.  He was spot on, of course, but my response was, “Well while you are sitting in you little space on the spectrum, moving through your life, it takes three different kinds of meds and a strangely modified existence for me to occupy my space on this spectrum that we supposedly all share.”

I recently told a family member that I have spent the majority of my life educating about mental illness, whether from a stage or from an environment where I was supposed to be able to function like everyone else.  The irony is that in all the years of educating and working in crisis intervention, the one family I have not been able to really help is my own.  It’s a feeling of helplessness I detest and work to avoid when working with my own illness.

Of all the things I am lacking, I have made very sure that empowerment in battling my own illness, is not one of them, and the absence of denial in the scenario is absolutely key.

I do not have all the answers for fighting mental illness. I have many of the answers for my own illness, and obtaining and maintaining them has been exhausting, but I tell you, I would take it all on again if it meant another member of my family did not have to fight the same battle.

Truly.

But that is not gonna happen.  So let’s start with 5 things to begin to put a leash on the dragon, shall we?

  1.  You guessed it.  Do not entertain denial.  Seriously. Take that little gremlin out and beat it until it’s dead.  It will only be up to all kinds of bad in your life.  You can lose everything by taking it in.
  2. Find a doctor.  Maybe pills aren’t your deal.  But you will never know until you check it out. I know very few who manage bipolar without meds, but some do, and there are other mental illnesses that can be managed without meds long term.  Go to a psychiatrist.  Don’t go to an MD for brain stuff.  Seriously you don’t go do a podiatrist for a heart issue.  Go to someone who has a clue. They don’t have all the answers but they are a heck of a lot further along than someone who has no training.  It’s just common sense, right?
  3. Find a psychologist who specializes in what you need.  I have had real issues with this over the years.  First there was no money to go to said psychologist.  Then those I could go to were afraid of mental illness.  Find someone who works with what you have going on.  Again, get the person who specializes in the area where you need help.
  4. This is by far the most important.  Sleep.  You must have sleep.  Good sleep, and that does not count the desperate sleep some of us go through to escape the world and perpetuate denial.  You need consistent, routine sleep.
  5. And let’s end this little list with a one, two punch.  You need to get some exercise.  You do not need to train for a marathon.  Go walk up and down the stairs a few times until your feel your blood move and your heart pick up the pace.  Walk down the street.  Get on your treadmill for 5 minutes, but do it every day and get into a routine, followed by healthy eating.  Don’t stick a bunch of crap in your body.  It will not help you feel better long term, and this list about surviving the long haul.

This is just a basic list.  There are other things.  These work, because I have had to do them, and when I am crisis, I must go back to the basics; the fundamentals of functioning.  No matter how much the people in your life love you or do not love you, they cannot do this for you, and they cannot stop you ultimately from doing this for yourself.

If you do not choose something for yourself that takes you out of yourself and back into the world in which you were born, you will struggle to stay in it.  You will not find anything of value that will help balance out what you have lost.  Denial is quick sand that will pull you right into something you may not get away from.

Fight it.  Refuse to placate denial.

 

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