cranky with a chance of showers

I have been taking medication for my bipolar disorder for fourteen years.  It started off small with one antidepressant, once a day. As the years progressed, my illness bounced and my symptoms expanded. Today, I am on nine medications and take 16 pills every day. Not all of them are for my bipolar disorder. Three are for side effects of the bipolar medication.

Although I am proud of the fact that I always take my medication, which is paramount for my mental health, I must admit that I absolutely despise taking it. Every day twice a day, I line up the allotted pills for either the morning or night regimen. I look at the pills, which vary in size and color, and with disdain I sigh. However, despite my hatred, I swallow each and every one, every day twice a day. I should say it is out of love for myself that is my motivation. However, it is honestly out of fear that keeps me going. Fear of ending up in the hospital again. Fear of being sick and feeling crazy again like I did in the beginning (my mid-20”s). Mostly, fear that I wouldn’t survive without the medication.

But I do take my meds as prescribed, and I am healthier because of them.  So, healthy in fact, I am in the progress of attempting to get off of some of the nine medications. My first attempt was with my Ativan, which helps me fall asleep. I know that it helps me fall asleep because three weeks into my withdrawal attempt I was staying up till 2am – normally I go to sleep around 10pm. So, getting off that medication isn’t going to happen, however I did reduce it from two pills a day to just half of one. A small victory, but I’ll take it. 

I am currently in the beginning of getting off my antidepressant — the one I started 14 years ago. I am on such a small dose now, I had to switch to a liquid form to be able to slowly reduce my dosage. My body happens to be highly sensitive to any chemical change. After three days of reducing my Lexapro from 5mg to 2.5ml, I must admit I am a mess. I am cranky for no reason and will start crying for even less of a reason. It is very frustrating to feel so healthy and to be doing everything “right” and to have my bipolar sentence confirmed. Granted it is only day three of this reduction attempt and day four could be easier, but today just feels like a slap in the face. 

I know I will always have bipolar disorder. However, I believe that my life can be better than it was today, easier than it was today. I know it can be because I have lived it. The question is can it be easier and better without so many pills.

give back and do art

I’ve decided that what l want to do with my life is to give back and do art. I think I am young enough to figure out how to fund my life doing both.  There is something about giving back and helping others that fills my soul with passion and excitement. My heart beats like a child’s in the moments before a Christmas morning is revealed — filled with possibilities. When I learn about a new giving project, my mind becomes nimble, quick and focused. A multitude of ideas will zip through my mind, and I’m lucky if I can catch them all with the tip of my pen. The end goal is to maximize my resources and do all that I can. I’ve learned in my late thirties that asking for help is a strength not a weakness. The only downside of my do-gooding passion is the urgency I feel of doing it as soon as I find out about it. While I can be a procrastinator in many areas of my life (i.e. cleaning), this is not one of them. When I hear about a need that I can assist in, my passion swells, and I want to do it right away. My core drive in helping others completes me.

On the other side of the passion spectrum is my creativity — my art. Creativity fills my soul the same way giving back does with passion and excitement. When I get an idea for a new art piece, my mind also becomes nimble, quick and focused. All materials must be obtained the same day. I will create as fast as the materials will let me (i.e. glue drying time). An outsider may say my behavior borders on obsessive, to which I simply counter—I’m just focused.

Having recently observed that I get the same rush from giving back as I do creating art, I know that combining the two creates the ideal happiness path for my life. I know I am lucky in discovering this, for this type of clarity of one’s life is not always so easily obtained.

So, where do I go from here? I want to take my Haven House (a domestic abuse shelter) Friday art class to the next level by creating a non-profit. I want a brick and mortar free art center for low-income adults. I want to continue to give back in a variety of ways, whether through reupholstering a couch for a needy family or feeding the homeless. I want to do all that I can because I can.

 

am i afraid? actually yes.

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I missed last week’s #MentalHealthMonday. A dear friend of my family had passed away. Though it wasn’t just her death that created the heaviness in my world, I had been asked to do her funeral mass program. This was an honor, but honestly I have had too much practice with funeral mass programs over the last three years. Specifically, my grandmother, Mimi, died three years ago to date. Although she was 93 years old and suffered dementia, it was still hard to let her go.

 

Mimi used to always tell me that we were alike in that we were fearless. She liked to tell a story when she was a little girl in Sioux City, Iowa, a woman once asked her if she was afraid to walk home alone. My grandmother said that she didn’t know what the word afraid meant. That is how she lived her life.

 

It is quite daunting to be labeled fearless, when since I obtained the label – bipolar disorder, I sided more with fearful.  However, when I was 22 years old, I spent six months in Europe. Four months living and working in Edinburgh, Scotland and 2 months traveling Western Europe alone, with a train time table book to guide me. That girl was fearless sprinkled with a little naivety. Due to my lithium I do not remember much of my twenties or even my thirties. But those six months – before the lithium – are as clear as yesterday. Those days as a stranger in strange lands – speaking only American – and with new adventures every day, should have been a springboard for the next chapter of my life.

 

However today, my life is more fearful than fearless. I’m afraid when I am too happy – when my smile cannot be contained no matter how hard I try- that I may become hypomanic. Or when I’m so heavy my body won’t move and tears fill my eyes – am I just sad or depressed? I am afraid of irrational fears like the dark or that my covers will smother me at night — could they be labeled anxiety?  Or could my rage flare-ups be signs of dysphoric mania? I am forced to use a mood thermometer with every mood thus every breath. I am fearful of my bipolar because I’ve danced with mania, and wept with depression. I’ve slept with the lights on to calm down anxiety and have holes in my walls from rage. Yes, I am afraid of my illness not because of the unknown elements, but quite opposite, because I know my bipolar all too well.

 

While I am healthier with my bipolar these days, I am not cured. I am hopeful that as my episodes get further apart my fearlessness will fill in the gaps.

Oh yeah, I have bipolar

For the most part these days, my bipolar illness is in cruise control. My mood swings are not as rampant as they once were. Therefore, the only daily reminders of my mental illness are the morning and night medication times. However, this past week my illness has been present more than usual in the most unexpected way – a dentist appointment.

I’m not a big fan of the dentist. I do love my dental hygienist. I’ve been going to her since I was four. But the process of getting my teeth cleaned is never fun. My teeth are not perfect. I have a couple of cavities. However for the last ten years, I’ve been good, until last Thursday. Not only do I have a crack in a tooth, which requires a crown (that I feel too young for), apparently I have dry mouth which is deteriorating my teeth. What?!?!? My first thought was – I don’t do meth. This is where my bipolar says hello. My dry mouth is due to my bladder medication, which is due to my lithium, which is due to my bipolar disorder— a side effect of a side effect — which in my opinion is the worst kind.

I will admit, I did have a pity party for one that day. But I did get all the dental products for dry mouth that my dental hygienist suggested. What is crazy to admit is that all those products – toothpaste, mouthwash, chewing gum and these weird lozenges that stick to my teeth at night — that I reluctantly purchased have made life actually more pleasant.

Granted side effects for side effects definitely suck. But acknowledging them and treating them properly is another step towards self love. So yeah, I have bipolar disorder, but I’m facing it and treating it head on.

from surviving to living

“My transition from surviving to living was subtle but remarkable” – Me | August, 2011

 

It is hard to believe I wrote that six years ago. My bipolar disorder, while better in my early thirties than in my heart wrenching twenties, it was still a rollercoaster of mood swings in 2011. In retrospect looking back today at age 32, my transition to living was still only a flicker in the darkness of getting by.

 

When I was 28 years old and at Ridgeview Institute (a mental hospital), I remember in one group session, I had expressed my belief that my illness would get better with age – starting in my thirties. I believed this because my psychiatrist had given me this hope. The room laughed at me – one woman, who was in her late forties, told me it never gets better. I burst into tears and cried for hours. How was I suppose to live with that unbearable life sentence that is so often becomes a death sentence.

 

That was ten years ago and my severe bipolar with its ferocious roar has tamed down to the annoyance of a buzzing fly. My episodes that could last days, weeks and months, now last only hours. How? I’m a fighter. I have made a lot of life changes and choices to get me here. Sleep schedules, medication schedules, no alcohol, gluten free, and omega threes.

 

My diligence over the years has led me to this point where I do believe I am finally able to live and not just survive. With this newfound power, I am also finally able to plan. When I was living day to day, hour to hour and at times minute to minute, tomorrow always seemed a distant possibility. However now, I am able to plan, not just tomorrow but further. I now have a new five-year plan.

 

Many of you know of my work at Haven House, a local domestic abuse shelter, I teach art there on Fridays for the women. Watching the healing power of art through the women every week is in a word beautiful.  However, most of the women who enjoy my class have no way to continue the creativity outlet. Rent comes before paint.

 

I want to expand on all the goodness that is happening at Haven House. My goal is to create a safe space for low income and homeless adults in Henry County to heal through art. My five-year plan is to create a nonprofit art center with a free open studio for those who do not have access to art supplies.  And my excitement for this is twofold: first, for coming up with a nonprofit goal and second, for finally being in a place in my life where goals can be a reality.

 

Yes, my transition from surviving to living was subtle and even more so remarkable.

 

9 years and not even a sip

With the fourth of July holiday comes many things: pool-side festivities, grilling out of various meats and for some tasty alcoholic beverages. Unfortunately for me, I opted out of the alcoholic beverage category nine years ago. While this choice is a personal one, I do feel it was a life or death decision.

 

My last sip of alcohol was on my 29th birthday. I couldn’t tell you what it was or how it tasted. I do know it was not the only drink I had that night. At the time I did not know it would be my last. Six weeks before that night, I was in the throes of my 2nd major bipolar episode. On a Friday, my job had an intervention, asking me to leave to get help. I took their advice and on the following Monday I admitted myself into Ridgeview Institute (a mental hospital) for a month long partial hospitalization (basically Monday thru Friday 8am-3pm). I learned a lot during my time there most of all how to sit still and be patient.  But, I did get at the time what I thought was “better.” I was wrong though. “Better” is an easy word to say. It is a much harder word to believe and actually be.

 

So, there I was on my 29th birthday — newly and falsely decreed “better”, jobless and drunk. So drunk that at one point I had fallen and could not get myself up. That wasn’t my last rock bottom that night. But by morning, the snapshots and blackouts of the night before would be my wake up call. I swore off alcohol the first day into my 29th rotation around the sun.

 

As easy as that was to type, getting through the first year sober was not. I had to change my playgrounds and playmates-as they say. My barhopping buddies become daytime movie mates. I surrounded myself with those who supported my choice.

 

Even nine years later, I will admit I still miss the taste of alcohol. I miss being able to have a casual beer or glass of wine with family or friends. But honestly I don’t trust myself, even today. Fear is very powerful. So, is being mentally healthy. When it comes to a rum and coke or not feeling crazy, I choose sanity every time. I choose me every time.

I love myself more

Today, I don’t feel bipolar. I feel normal. My head is clear, my mood is good and I’m awake. I had an amazing weekend with a successful art show at Dogwood Gallery with no anxiety. I even babysat three of my sister’s little ones this weekend — mostly stress free.

So, am I cured? Am I better?

Sadly, no. I still have bipolar disorder. But why then do I feel so good?

Lots of diligent daily self-care.

I take eight pills in the morning and nine pills at night. And I always take my medication. Even in beginning when it was the hardest because it didn’t make sense that I suddenly had to take meds to feel normal. As they took a month to work. Even when I had to switch meds because one of the meds in my cocktail stopped working. Med switching can take months, and every day can be hell since every pill works differently and you never know which ones will actually work. I always take my meds even with all the side effects. Such as tremors in my hands due to the Lithium, which makes a challenge to eat soup in public. And floaters in my vision, due to the Lamictal. And of course the roller coaster of weight changes due to different medications. Then there are the side effects of the side effects. Lithium caused my hypothroidism (add a pill) and my ADHD (add a pill). And the latest. my newly discovered bladder issues (add a pill). However, despite of all this, in the last 14 years, I have missed my meds less than ten times.

I also have a strict sleep schedule, which came with age. I get up around 8:30am and go to bed around 9:30pm. Yes, I feel lame sometimes going to bed so early. But, I enjoy my awake hours so much more.

About three years ago, I gave up gluten — that was huge for me. I cried when it was suggested to me. At the time, food wasn’t always my friend, and I was worried I just wouldn’t eat. But, I pushed through those initial fears. Since then my mood swings last hours not weeks. It is more than annoying than hard. But the benefits far outweigh all the doughnuts I am missing.

Another big life change I made 9 years ago was to give up alcohol. I haven’t had a sip since my 29th birthday. This wasn’t easy and it is a choice everyone must make for themselves. As for me, I cannot imagine the pain I would have experienced if I had not made this crucial change.

A different form of my self-care is that I just started increasing my omega-3 intake. Omega-3s are incredibly good for a bipolar mind. I take the omega-3 in a pudding form because I cannot take another pill. After two weeks, my head actually feels clearer and the pudding doesn’t taste bad.

While I do a lot of self care, there is so much more I know I could do.  My weakest link is exercise. I choose creating art over running every day of the week. Though they both heal my head. I know I need to do both. I also know I am a work in process.

So, today I feel good. However, I know its wasn’t just one thing that got me here that I did this morning. No, my goodness for today started when I took my first pill 14 years ago.

 

I’m Selfish, But I Care

What I have learned from my bipolar disorder: Part 1

Before my diagnosis, I didn’t know my erratic mood swings and recklessness had a name. I knew I felt different, but I didn’t know why. Nor did I know that I could feel “better,” stronger, even stable.

Bipolar disorder is a diagnosis with as much stigma as there is scary misinformation. In the first few years of having this label I wrestled with its truth—its rules, regulations, scars, and trademarks.

Today—14 years after my diagnosis though 22 years of living with it—I have discovered an underlying whisper of whimsy. With practicing strict self-care, today, I do have more stable days than not. And with self-reflections I can finally see both the pros—the ways I’m better because of my illness–and cons—the things I still struggle to welcome–of having bipolar disorder.
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Pro | Empathy
My empathy for others has grown clearer through the mental anguish I have experienced through my bipolar disorder. However, it is not just living with the illness that has made me aware of the importance of acknowledging another’s story.

I was able to bond with my aunt suffering with kidney cancer through our complaints of multiple medications and their side effects.  While, bipolar disorder has many challenges, in its stillness I learned I was not alone.

It has been years of explorative therapy trying to understand my own. My empathy over the years has encompassed all aspects of my illness thus creating deeper connection with others who suffer.

Con | Selfish
My bipolar disorder can be an incredibly selfish illness. Logically I know this. Yet, despite my desire to keep my moods mine, my illness touches everyone around me: some with a cold shoulder, others with a slap in the face, and the lucky ones — a loving hug.

In the beginning, before I had the label bipolar disorder, when I was sick but didn’t know it had a name, my illness was messy. I was reckless towards anyone who came near my destructive downward spiral.

When I was 24, the bipolar label was adhered to me and simultaneously gave my recklessness an excuse. Early in my “labeled” years, I selfishly clung to excuse – “I’m bipolar.”

It took years of self-exploration to learn I am not bipolar; I have bipolar disorder. Just like someone else is not cancer, they have a cancer diagnosis. And diagnoses offer labels with treatments.

As the years and numerous episode have passed by, I’ve become more aware of how my bipolar exists as a part of me. I am now able to vocalize when I am in a particular mood. Warning others that what I may say or do, I do not mean and try not to take it personally. While this may not be a perfect solution for everyone, for those closest to me, it helps – sort of like a tornado warning.

my creativity always shimmers hope

This week I will turn 38 years old. While every life has its own path. My took an unexpected turn when I obtained the label bipolar when I was 24 years old. Yet, despite the depths of the illness, my creativity always shimmers hope. In the beginning, as the illness swelled, my creativity quickly adapted and I discovered the calming powers of photography. Focusing through the steady lens of a camera pushes back the waves of rage. This is a practice I have not forgotten over the last 14 years; it still works today.

When I was 25, my medication stole my memory. In turn, my imagination ignited filling my nows with sparks of curiosity. In my late twenties, I used my graphic design skills to create hand-stitched art journals to navigate through the life I was still trying to understand. When my illness needed a voice. I picked up a paintbrush. I spent much of my thirties, exploring my illness through paint, paper and canvases. Mixed media collages became my new therapy, (in addition to my psychiatrist and psychologist, of course).

As the years have passed by, my illness has calmed down due to the self-care choices I have made.  It seems the more I accept myself and the pros and cons of having bipolar, the more my creativity thrives.  I am finally stable enough to start giving my creativity back to my community, and I am becoming the person I’ve always wanted to be.

Two years ago, I started teaching art at a local domestic abuse shelter. The teen room was bland and lacked creativity, so I asked if I could make it over. Now it’s bright and colorful; it piques the curiosity and imagination of those who enter.

I hope art can be healing to them, too. Today, inspirational mixed-media canvases fill the corridors and bedrooms. It’s been fun creating art that speaks directly to the heart of specific residents.

I’ve come to the point in my life where I do what I can because I can; because art has helped me and I know it can help countless others. While I may always have bipolar disorder, I have learned that my creativity can outshine any darkness.

New Series Starts with Poe’s Raven

IMG_4346IMG_4344“Deep into that darkness peering, long I stood there, wondering, fearing, doubting, dreaming dreams no mortal ever dared to dream before.”  – Edgar Allan Poe, The Raven

I started a new book series today, authors afflicted with mental illnesses. Since I have bipolar disorder, I am choosing books that I found solace in with my illness. First on my list: Edgar Allan Poe and his Raven. I got the model Raven scaled to size and the background pages watercolored twice. The book pages have a coating on them, which made it hard to get a deeper enough color to saturate the page. Tomorrow’s goal is to glue the background down.

 

Other Potential Authors with Madness for this series:

Victor Hugo: Les Miserable

T. S. Eliot: The Wasteland – particularly The Hollow Men

Emily Dickenson

Robert Louis Stevenson: Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde

Walt Whitman: Leaves of Grass