Sunday, April 28, 2013

Why Having Fun Creates Better Mental Health

We have been trying to add different kinds of exercise, adventure, and fun to our lives. This is good for everyone's mental wellness, but it is especially helpful for people with mental illness. We chose some activities the other day that were inspired by a few of the principles in the book Running with Nature. We got outside, laughed and played, and had some adventure.

Research shows are many reasons why these activities help create mental wellness. Being outside gets us out in the sun, which elevates the mood. People with Seasonal Effective Disorder (SAD) and depression are often treated with light therapy. Too much darkness increases melatonin. Melatonin is needed for sleep, but too much of it can make people depressed and tired. Laughing and playing is proven to make everyone happier. Taking a bit of time each day for fun means we then have enough energy for the rest of our life such as work and it even helps us handle difficult situations better. It is also said that laughter helps us heal. Some hospitals and use humor therapy as part of their program and have found it reduces the need for medication.

Copyright, Jeff Norris
In order to get all of these benefits for us as a family, we decided to use the slackline that my husband Jeff bought on a whim a few months ago. Slacklining is basically balancing on a piece of nylon that is suspended between two trees. We also spent some time on our trampoline which is always fun. I often forget to do anything fun, ever, and I was reminded how important it is to my mental health and also the health of my family.

The slackline is basically a balance exercise, which means you need to be in tune with yourself. Balance exercises require you to pay attention to your body and really focus on what you are doing. This is never one of my favorite things to focus on because I am very self consious about my size and I often feel like a big bull in a china shop. I would rather forget I even have a physical body, but you can not do that when you are doing any kind of exercise that requires a focus on balance. Slacklining helped me be a little less upset about who I am as I started to just let go, have fun, and focus on learning to balance more. I found that when I started taking stronger antipsychotics a few years ago, my balance was severely effected and even though I stopped taking them, I have never gotten my balance back. I hope slacklining will help me reverse that.

I also found slacklining brings us closer together as a family. We were all encouraging each other and helping each other get across the line. We wanted to see each other succeed and we were all engaged in helping each other reach our goals. (My son is currently working on his best yet, four steps without help from anyone.) When we were on the trampoline, I commented that our neighbors must think we are so weird. Other people have trampolines, but we never see parents using them. Our son, while jumping high up in the air said, "You guys are the best parents and the most fun!" Seriously, how could you not feel happier after hearing that?

Copyright, Jeff Norris
As Jeff was helping me across the slackline I had this profound sense that we rarely are just present with each other. The longer partners are together, the less we remember to have any daily physical contact. You hold hands less and don't spend as much time really looking at each other. When Jeff helped me go across the line, I remembered how we still need to make time to be present with each other rather than just going through our daily lives. It is all too common for couples to loose connection with each other, especially when one of them is living with an illness. It can feel like all of your life is about the illness and everything becomes stressful. Spending time together having fun brought us much closer together and allowed us to appreciate each other more. All in just an hour.

They suggest one hour of play per day in Running with Nature and I can tell that the more we try and stick to that suggestion, the better off we will all be.

What will you do today that gets you outside, let's you have fun, and is a bit adventurous?


Rev. Katie

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Book Review: Running with Nature

Running with Nature by Mariel Hemingway and Bobby Williams is, simply, a book that helps people live their best life. It's not a book specifically about mental illness, but a book about having a well rounded life.

Many of you know that I use many lifestyle initiatives in order it treat my bipolar disorder. I have researched what diet, sleep schedule, meditation techniques, exercise, etc... are effective in treating bipolar. While there is a lot of overlap in what works, I have also come to learn that exactly what works is different for each person. You really need to experiment and see what is your perfect treatment plan, knowing that it will need to change as you age and as life changes.

So, I have been looking for a book that speaks clearly and concisely about basic principles which create mental wellness while also giving room for discovering what works for you personally. Running with Nature (formerly The WillingWay), is just that book. This is one of those few books where you highlight and flag almost everything in the book and you read it over and over again so everything can sink in.

Each chapter talks about an essential element to living a well balanced and healthy life and achieving mental wellness. I will go through each chapter and highlight some of the main points.

Photo from Mariel
Get Outside
This chapter is all about the benifits of being in nature which brings us closer to ourselves and the divine. One of the great suggestions in this chapter is a simple one: walk barefoot. We truly connect with nature when walking barefoot - it grounds us, and we feel the rejuvinating energy of the earth by walking upon it without rubber soles on our feet. Try it and I guarantee you will feel better in a few minutes.

Sleep Well
If you have read anything about treatment for mental illness, you will know that keeping a good sleep schedule is extremely important. This chapter explains why sleep is important and how to create an environment so you get the best sleep you can. They also talk about your natural circadian rhythm and how to honor it. Circadian rhythm is one of the things most disturbed by bipolar disorder so you have to get this on track. 

Breathe Consciously
This chapter explains the importance of breathing and also how to use breathing techniques for mental health such as alternate nostril breathing, which my therapist taught me. This technique helps balance the right and left hemispheres of the brain and helps you feel more balanced. This chapter is a great resource for quick ways to improve your mental state no matter where you are.

Live Silence
We rarely ever have silence in our technology laden, fast paced world, but without silence we can not tune into ourselves and get to know who we are. This chapter talks about different forms of meditation and their benefits. I am glad that they mention how during meditation deep emotions come up, so if you are experiencing depression, trauma, etc..., you should see a professional counselor to help you through the process. They also talk about the importance of prayer, which they define as asking our inner self, the Universe, and God (or what you find divine) for help. What I love about their prayer practice is that they say to always add at the end "For the highest good of all concerned in connection to the universe and the source of all that is." This means prayer is not about asking to get what you want, but asking for the greatest good of all. Another part of silence is turning off technology and they suggest turning it off for one day a week. This is something I want to try soon as I think it would help our whole family.

Eat Wholesome Food
An amazing chapter about how to eat good food, but not giving a prescription that everyone must eat the same way. They believe that each of us, if we pay attention to our body, can discover the right diet to maximize our wellness. I find this to be so true. While I know that the basics of a Paleo diet work best for me, there are things I need to modify for it to work best in treating my bipolar disorder. This chapter gave me the freedom to listen to myself and be my own expert. It covers such things as eating as local and organic as possible, the issues of pasteurized dairy, keeping an acid alkaline balance, healthy protein sources, gluten sensitivity, and the issue of sugar. Nothing in this chapter conflicts with what I have researched about a healthy diet for people with mental illness.

Drink Pure Water
Basically, pure water helps us in many ways by keeping us hydrated, clearing out toxins, and it gives you great skin. This chapter talks about how to actually make sure you are drinking pure water that will give you the most benefits for a healthy mind and body. I am glad they talk about the environmental impact of drinking bottled water and also some of the things you need to watch for in tap water.

Cleanse and Heal
I admit, I was a bit afraid of this chapter because there are so many detox and cleanse fads out there. Few of them are a good idea, most of them will set someone like me with an eating disorder up for increased disordered eating. Mariel addresses the issue of disordered eating and fasting, so thankfully this chapter explains the basics of cleansing and how to find what method is right for you. Too many "experts" recommend cleanses and fasting to people with eating disorders and that is a serious problem. There is a whole range of ideas from just eating mild foods for part of the day to give your body a break, to people who fast for a few hours a day. I also love that Mariel talks about the connection of food and mood, she says "I have a passion for making people aware of health, nutrition and lifestyle as it relates to mental well-being. When I eat unheathy food, I become mentally challenged and off-kilter." There is a lot in this chapter about mental wellness and food choices, it is a wealth of information.

Laugh and Play
One of the best chapters ever! As adults, we think we are not supposed to have fun and play, and we teach our kids that they need to play less and act more like adults. Mariel and Bobby quote Unitarian minster Rev. James Freeman Clark (shout out to my fellow Unitarian Universalists!) when he said: "The love of play and sport shows that amusement is evidently one of the original instincts of human nature." Having fun is essential to a well balanced life. Play games, find fun exercises, use a trampoline, laugh. Make a conscious effort to bring happiness into your life through laughter and play. This chapter has made such a difference in our lives, especially as a family. This has allowed us to focus more on finding time to have fun as a family, which also means I am participating in activities which combat the depressive side of my illness.

This chapter talks about how adventure keeps us growing. This is also where they talk about the mental health benefits of exercise. Exercise helps combat depression and boosts cognitive ability. Keeping up with exercise means you need to pick something that is fun and adventurous, or challenging for you. Exercise is key to a good mental health treatment plan, I can not stress that enough. This chapter and the Laugh and Play chapter have really added to our lives. (Look for an upcoming post about Slacklining!)

Be Mindful in Your Relationships
Wow, a book about wellness that recognizes true wellness is not created in a vacuum! If you are in a partnership, you have to communicate well in order for both of you to maintain wellness. They talk about being honest with each other, having time together, and making time for yourself. They also talk about male and female energy, but not just that only men have male energy and women female. I acknowledge that not everyone feels there is male and female energy and so that part of the chapter may not speak to some people as much.

This is just a basic review'summary, and I don't feel it does the book justice! It has really changed the way our whole family lives, even to the point that my son told me today "Mommy, you need to get in touch with nature more" when he was asking me to play outside on this warm spring day.

Look for future blog posts that talk about the many ways in which we have implemented the principles of this book for better mental health by clicking on the Running with Nature tag/label on the right side of the blog. I am feeling so much better, with a more even mood and better ability to implement diet, exercise, sleep, and other lifestyle components after embracing the suggestions in Running with Nature.


Rev. Katie

Monday, April 22, 2013

Healthy Ways to Manage Bipolar Swings

I have been getting more and more off over the last week, feeling tired, disconnected, angry, and depressed. There have been triggers, but also something (we are not sure what) that is making the triggers worse than usual. So the theme of this week has been: What can we do to interrupt the downward spiral, or at least lessen the magnitude of it?

Cleveland Metroparks. Copyright Jeff Norris.
Last weekend on a particularly depressed day, my husband and son took me for a walk in the Metroparks. I was really resistant to it and it took a good half hour before I started to feel some joy again. They made sure we walked, but also had time to just sit in nature and hear the water rushing down the river.
We also made sure that I exercised at CrossFit three times last week. On Friday I was so angry when I woke up, and normally I would not go out in public, but Jeff got me to go to CrossFit anyway. I did feel better after the workout and it allowed me to manage later triggers in the day better because my anger did not skyrocket thanks to the exercise. Now today I woke up even more angry and also feeling physically sick due to all the junk food I ate yesterday. I finally got to CrossFit, assuming the same thing would happen as last Friday, but even just into the warmup, I could tell all my muscles were like lead and everything was just so hard to do. I got part way through the workout and stopped. I was pretty upset about that, but Jeff reminded me that even part of a CrossFit workout is normally a full work out for most people, and that I actually got there on a day when I usually would have stayed in bed. So, it is progress even if it is not as much as I had wanted it to be.

Right after CrossFit though, I felt pretty bad about ending my workout and was just an angry mess when we got home. So, Jeff talked to me, and got me to let him do the meridian work on my feet. He said the angry energy was literally burning his arms during the energy work. It did calm me down though, after I was done trying to resist it working. Then Jeff got me some food and tea and had also emailed my therapist. So, by the time my therapist called, I was doing much better and we could look at the situation and find out why it might have happened and I am looking forward to my appointment tomorrow.

Today I will still be lounging around a lot. I will make sure I don't go anywhere on my own because I don't want to end up getting fast food and making myself even sicker. I will have Jeff hide all the car keys tonight so I do not try and go to Dunkin Donuts in the middle of the night.

To some people these tactics might sound extreme or weird, but there are so many illnesses where you have to manage the symptoms, where you have to intervene to lessen the effects. What I don't think we talk about enough in mental health is that there are many non-pharmacological things you can do to stop or lessen a downward spiral. We also need to realize that we need understanding and compassionate people to help us because sometimes we can not do it on our own. If Jeff had not sat holding my feet even when I was arguing with him, I would not have been able to calm down. It took about five minutes of me trying to say this was not going to work until it did work. Even my workout this morning, I waited it out to see if it would help. And it did, because it kept me committed to my healthy lifestyle, got me out of the house, got me some exercise, and made it easier for me to calm down later in the day. Now, if I can just get in some family time, and meditation or art practice today, I think things will go even better.

Depending on the severity of your illness, managing it can be a full time job at times. It is not fun. It is tiring for everyone involved. You wish you could be like everyone else, but we rarely realize that everyone else has their issues too, we just don't know about them.

One of the things that has really been helping us add in simple things to help me is Mariel Hemingway and Bobby Williams' book Running with Nature (formerly The WillingWay). I will write a review on it soon, but basically it has many suggestions of how to calm your mind and feed your spirit, such as taking the time to sit and listen to nature, or meditation techniques. The book has made us much more mindful of the options we have for helping all of us be happier and healthier. 

So, just try anything healthy in order to help yourself manage the hard times. Even if you don't want to do it. Tell yourself you will try it for just five minutes and see what happens.


Rev. Katie

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The Boston Marathon: Sacred Ground

Exercise has been an integral part of my treatment for my mental illness. This started with running, training for my first half marathon in 2008. Running changed the way I saw myself, showed me that  I could be an advocate for my own healing, and helped me discover my own determination and power. So today when I heard about the bombings at the Boston Marathon, I was touched deeply.

My Dad, also a runner, helped me realize just what I was feeling when he commented that the bombing was like an invasion of our sacred space. Dad is a runner and while long distance running is not my main exercise these days, I have run two half marathons and I know the running community.

Running and training for a long race is a spiritual practice for many people. It can be a personal meditative practice, and it teaches you so much about yourself. You learn more about yourself running and training for a race than you ever expected to. Runners also train in a community. You train with people of all ages, races, and abilities and everyone cheers each other on. The person who runs a seven minute mile will help you train for a half marathon when you run a thirteen minute mile. You train for months together- through shin splints, freezing in the icy winter, and three hour weekend runs.

On race day, at the start of a race you all wait in anticipation; wondering if you have enough fuel and sharing stories about when your toenails fell off at the last race or you just missed your personal record by ten seconds. Spectators cheer you on whether you are the fastest runner, or one of the slowest. They wait on the route and tell you "You're almost there!," even though you have five more miles which for a runner is not "almost there," but it makes you smile and run faster anyway. At the end of the race, family, friends, and strangers are still cheering even after waiting there for you for hours.

The bombing was tragic for so many reasons, one of which was the deeper meaning of running, races, and the running community. Even the timing and placement of the bombs meant something if you know what typical paces are for runners and how family waits for people at the finish. When the bombs went off in Boston at the finish line, it was at the four hour mark when many of the older Boston qualifiers and some charity team runners would have been crossing the finish. When my husband and I ran the Disney half marathon in 2008, my Mom and Dad were waiting for us at the finish line with our four year old son who came out and crossed the finish line with us. I heard that an eight year old died in the explosion today.

Crossing the finish line with our son at the Disney Half Marathon.
The Boston Marathon course is sacred to many, even those of us who have never ran it, because we know what it means to get to that race. We know how much work it takes to train for and qualify. We know that the runners have discovered who they are through their training, they have made friends, and they have been supported by their families. For someone to run a long distance race, it takes a whole village of people to support them in that goal.

The race is sacred ground and the people (from runners, to spectators, to volunteers) are a beloved community.

Any tragedy like this is devastating and today my heart goes out to all of those who were affected by the bombings. The running community will never be the same. But we all know, runners keep going. They are a tight knit community who run in even the darkest hours whether that be literally, emotionally, physically, or today in the form of tragedy.

May the love of supportive community uphold the family and friends of those who have died and been injured (physically and mentally) by the bombings today. May our country heal after yet another tragedy. May our world one day be free from the separateness and hate which fuels such terrible acts.


Rev. Katie

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Being Shamed for Speaking Publicly About Mental Illness

I received a comment on my blog the other day which brings up an issue that affects many of us with mental illness - being shamed for talking publicly about our illness.

Here is the comment: 

"Anonymous has left a new comment on your post "The Messy Reality of Mania":

Dear Katie,
This post of yours is a true cry for help if I ever heard one. This was a truly sad and disturbing post to read. This has been viewed by many of your relatives and it upset many. I know that it must have been very hard for you to write it. This is not only hurting you, but also your husband and, unfortunately your son as well. Please, for your sake and for the sake of your family, seek a competent psychiatrist who is very familiar with bipolar disorders. I know that you do not like to be medicated, but if you work with the right person, they can find the right drug that can help you. Please do this for yourself. You are the only person who can change you. There is hope, but you need to take the first step. We all love you and want only the best for you.

A very concerned relative" 

There are many issues with a comment and action such as the one above. First, let me say, this is an "anonymous comment from a very concerned relative." This is the internet friends, and I did not think to require an email to leave comments on my blog (that will change though), so I have no idea if this really is a family member or someone else. I do believe whoever this person is, they do care and want the best for me. That is very kind and I appreciate the concern.

Photo copyright of Seanan Holland.
However, this comment is written in a way that shames people with mental illness. Maybe not on purpose, but that is what is happening. They are asking me to wear a public mask in order to not make them uncomfortable. This is much like the mask project we did in seminary where we painted the outside of the mask to represent what we are supposed to present to the world and the inside with who we really are.

Saying that me telling my story and opening up about the reality of mental illness upset many of my family members and I am hurting my son and husband is extremely shaming. This comment is saying "I am scared of your illness and so I don't want to hear about it. I will use the ultimate way to make you feel bad, saying you are hurting your family, in order to try and get you to do what I want." Whenever someone says "many others agree with me" you should probably question that. This is a common way for someone to try and get you to do what they want by backing up their statement with an unseen group of people to make you think "If lots of people agree, I must do what this person is asking of me." In leadership you learn that these unknown "many people" often end up being just a few out of the hundreds in the organization.

There is also a huge assumption that this person knows what is best for me and how my husband and son feel. All inaccurate information of which they have not attempted to verify. It is a presumptuous comment which does not allow my husband or son to speak for themselves.

This comment assumes I do not have competent medical help. Sadly, whoever this is has not actually inquired as to what help I am getting, which is a lot. I am fortunate to have more people helping me than the average person with mental illness. I am so blessed to be getting such great mental health treatment.

Out of the dozens of comments and emails I received about the blog post, only two people thought it was a cry for help. This is most likely due to a misunderstanding of what a cry for help is and not knowing much about cutting, which is why I will write a separate blog post on this topic to go more in depth on those issues. 

This comment is annonymous. This happens to people with mental illness all the time. For me it was on the blog, for others it is triangulation where a "concerned friend" tries to get to get their message of concern to you through another person. Other times it is an anonymous letter or email. 

In ministry I learned to never take anonymous feedback. Anonymous feedback is a huge red flag that warns: this issue really has nothing to do with you and everything to do with the person attempting to bully or shame you into doing what they want. Anonymous feedback leaves no room for relationship, understanding, empathy, compassion, and love. And in all honesty, true concern and love does not come from an anonymous comment. It comes from direct communication.

I know the phrase "You are the only person who can change you" is very popular. I don't disagree completely. We can not change another person. For someone to recover from a mental illness, or really deal with any illness, they need to recognize they have an illness and be open to treatment. However, mental illness is greatly affected by environment. When someone is trying to treat their illness and they are in an unsupportive environment, it is almost impossible to get better. In fact, it is really just better to get out of the dysfunctional system. The best thing to compare this too is alcohol addiction. If the family of an addict drinks around them, keeps alcohol in the house, does not support their recovery, and will not talk to them about their addiction, they are sabotaging the alcoholic. 

I understand that mental illness scares people. Many illnesses scare us. No one wants to be sick. The reality of illness is that it is messy and complicated. That does not mean we should not talk about it. The more we hide it, the more we promote this whole idea that mentally ill people are too scary to be around and we just want them to get medicated and be quiet.

You may be wondering if you have a loved one you are worried about what might be a good response to express concern for someone. Here is one suggestion:

"Dear Katie,
This is (name of family member or friend.) I read your blog post and I did not know so much about your bipolar before. I admit it was sad for me to read this, but I am glad you shared so I can know more about what you are going through. Are there ways that we can help you and be supportive of you? Please let me know what we can do. Please let Jeff and Jeffrey know we are around if they need anything as well. We love you."

Notice that this does not bring up their evaluation of my treatment of my husband and son. It does not imply that telling my story is upsetting large groups of people and thus inappropriate. It is not anonymous so I can actually contact this person and ask for help if I need it and thank them for caring about me. It does not judge my choices on treatment or judge the actions of my medical professionals. It is honest that the reality of mental illness is scary for them, but they want to help anyway.

As a side note, let me address the issue of not agreeing with someone's form of treatment, because I know that is something many people are worried about. It's valid. Sometimes people do things you think are not a good idea. When I see someone with heart disease eating a burger and fries, I too want to say "Stop doing that and get help." That is shaming and unlikely to actually help them change their behavior.

Recently I had a friend express their concern who said, "I don't think bipolar can be controlled without medication, but I am willing to support you in your decision and help you any way I can. I am here if you need me and you can call me any time." This response expresses their concerns and opinion, but also does not try to change me. It lets me know they will help me. This means the conversation is always open and they respect me, which leads to me being able to hear any suggestions they might have. It is non-confrontational, not shaming, and relational. 

It is sad that mental illness is so scary that we have a hard time talking about it and accidentally communicate in ways that are shaming and do not allow for us to help each other. I understand why this happens. It is a tough subject to talk about. I hope by sharing the issues with this comment that I can help people communicate with each other better.  


Rev. Katie

Monday, April 8, 2013

Movie Review: Running From Crazy

Last night at the 2013 Cleveland International Film Festival, we saw Running From Crazy, which is a documentary about Mariel Hemingway's journey to understand her family's history of mental illness. Mariel is an actress, model, and the granddaughter of Ernest Hemingway. There are seven suicides in her family, including Ernest and Mariel's sister Margot.

Photo from Running From Crazy's FB Page
This is a very good movie for so many reasons. First, there is footage from when Mariel's sister Margot was creating a documentary about Ernest Hemingway. In the footage you can really see the family dynamics Mariel speaks of from her childhood. You also hear Margot talking about her struggles, which hit so close to home for those of us with mental illness.

Second, this movie is from the perspective of one of the healthier members of the family, Mariel, trying to live within a dysfunctional family, find her own peace and her own way out to break the cycle of mental illness and dysfunction. I think it is important to hear not only from the voices of those with mental illness but from their family members as well. Mariel is so candid about her emotions concerning different family members and how she is working towards greater understanding and compassion. What is beautiful about the movie is that she is not insulting to her family, but truly seeks to understand them better and talk about the times when she may have been unkind to her sisters. She truly talks about the whole family system rather than blaming and shaming anyone. This shows in incredible amount of insight and spiritual work on her part. And she is honest that she is still working on some of those issues. She is not perfect, just like none of us are perfect.

For me personally, as someone with mental illness, I identified with much of this movie not only from Mariel's point of view but also in some of the things her sister Margot spoke of and her pain. It was healing for me to watch this movie and know I am not alone in some of my life experiences. This is why I think sharing our stories is so important. We tend to think we are the only ones stuck in a situation that is scary and we don't understand, and this creates a lot of shame. We need to know there are others out there in similar situations also striving to change dynamics, become well for themselves, and live a happy and healthy life.

Mariel talked a bit about her lifestyle as well, which she sees as essential to wellness. Rarely in the community of mental illness do you hear people talking about anything other than medication as a way to recovery. This makes it very hard for those of us who feel a different way is a better fit for them. People seem to think that I am required to take medication and I am irresponsible if I do not. Then again others say I must not really have a mental illness if I don't take medication. This is not true. I just believe that we have the ability to know what our bodies and minds need to be well and for some of us that means we need medication as well as a healthy lifestyle and for others we do not need the medication.

Our home brewed mango kombucha (fermented tea).
I loved seeing Mariel on the trampoline, being active, and talking about drinking kombucha and eating local foods. These are things that Jeff and I do, yet most people think it is weird and a very restrictive life. Mariel was also walking across a slack line, which Jeff bought a while ago and has been wanting us to try. I guess I have to try it now! It is all about finding the diet that works for you which heals your body and mind, getting out in the sun and nature, sleeping well, exercising, having fun, and having a spiritual practice in your life.

One of the hardest things about sticking with this lifestyle is that it is difficult to do if you do not live in a community that supports it. Mariel and her partner Bobby Williams created The Willing Way in order to help support other people who want a healthy lifestyle. This is important in terms of general community support but also, I find it difficult to find healthy living supporters who also understand mental illness. Many of these groups are quite unsupportive of those of us who can't just make a decision one day and stick with it forever. We are seen as weak and selfish. I think Mariel could be a great voice for understanding and acceptance for those of us struggling with mental illness who want non-pharmacological ways to reach recovery.

I recommend seeing this movie to give real insight into mental illness from a whole family perspective. It shows the reality of mental illness, but it also the hope that exists as well.


Rev. Katie

Saturday, April 6, 2013

The Messy Reality of Mania

I have decided to write a more vulnerable post than I usually do because I want people who do not understand mental illness to understand bipolar better and I want to let other people like me know they are not alone. Too often bipolar is portrayed as an illness of non-functional people and no one really knows what the illness is like for those of us who live and work with rest of world every day. Also, when those of us who write about having the illness are never honest about the darker sides of it, especially when we are in the midst of living it, we make other people with bipolar feel like what they are experiencing is abnormal. I hope this post helps raise awareness that in the midst of struggles like this, we still work to be contributing members of society. I also hope that others with mental illness feel held in a community of people who understand what they are going through.

Recently I have been noticing what I have to do to clean up after a night of mania, all the things required to be able to "present well." (Presenting well is what they say when those of us with mental illness are able to look ok on the outside and function just enough to get by.) This post-mania clean up and presenting well is one of the hardest parts of the illness and I wanted to share with you why with the story of a average day after mania.

After finally falling asleep at 7am, I wake up two hours later in a panic that I might have missed my alarm and I am late for a meeting. (I did not miss the alarm and now I am awake hours before I needed to be.) I think of the many tasks I still need to finish so my work does not fall behind, so I frantically lay in bed with my computer and get a few things done through the haze of sleep deprivation. I hope that everything I write sounds coherent. I have extreme stomach pain from everything I ate and drank last night in a binge eating episode.

I get out of bed and find that coming down from a mania and being extremely tired has made me quite dizzy, and I trip over my own feet and run into the side of the bathroom door. I barely brush my teeth and I shower, but don't wash my hair because that is too much work. I get dressed and try to pull up my pants without aggravating the now angry, red, and swollen cuts I made on my thighs and stomach. I know every step I take for the next few days will hurt. I make sure my son does not come into my room before I am fully dressed so he does not see the damage to my body. When I buckle my belt I realize my stomach is in fact two belt notches larger than it was yesterday thanks to everything I ate.

For me, this photo is a bit embarrassing, but real.
After I am dressed, my husband tries to get me to eat something for breakfast but I am full from various fast food items, the wrappers of which I now have to clean up. It is humbling and shocking to have to gather up the remains off all the things I ate since I don't really remember eating some of it. My husband has already cleaned up the shards from the dishes I broke in anger the night before. There is a lot of regret and questioning "What the heck did I do?" and "Was that even me?"

In order to not look like death warmed over, I sit in front of my extensive makeup collection doing everything I can to attempt to cover the huge red welts I have nervously scratched into my face. I put concealer under my eyes and curl my lashes to make me look less tired. A bit of light shimmer eyeshadow in the inner corner of the eye helps brighten the eyes as well.

At some point the night before or that morning I had sent my therapist an email saying I was not doing well, and he calls to help me look at what happened and see what triggered it. His call helps me realize the mania was not random, but a reaction to an event. This understanding stops me from falling into self-loathing, shame, and plunging into depression. Thank goodness for good therapists!

I try and interact with my son and husband, trying not to let the stomach pain and drowsiness make me too snappy. I fake a smile and hope my son has no idea how bad I am doing. I drag myself to meetings, with the pain of my stomach making me double over just a bit, and my brain being completely filled with what seems to be cotton. I can't really follow exactly what is going on so I smile appropriately and ask relevant questions, all the while knowing that while my body is in the chair, my mind is trapped somewhere else. I can see myself looking fairly presentable and not noticeably off to people who do not really know me, and yet I feel a million miles away trapped in a post-mania fog. I track the conversation while having a totally other conversation in my brain of how terrible I am and the agony that is life, which I have to live day after day.

I do all the things I have to do to "present well" and not cause too much alarm, and I go home. I get in bed and sleep, until my husband makes dinner and he and my son try and wake me up so we can eat together and we try to make tomorrow a better day.


Rev. Katie

Friday, April 5, 2013

I Want an Off Switch!: Practicing Skillful Means in the Midst of Mental Illness

I won't go into explaining all the ways in which my bipolar is all kinds of whacky this evening- from depressed to angry and back and forth again. I will say, it feels awful. I will say that when it gets this bad, I can't hang on to all the things my therapist and I discussed such as meditating, eating well, going to sleep, using energy work to calm down.

Now, when I am not doing well, I tend to bug my husband in a myriad of different ways, and this week he is out of town. I was texting him frequently this evening, and of course he is trying to sleep at 3am so he can work tomorrow. So, he turned off his phone. This infuriates me. My irrational mind says he just does not care about me and he is a jerk. My rational mind tells me he has already responded about a million times and he is exhausted and needs to work tomorrow. I also know he is the best husband ever and is way more compassionate and helpful about my illness than most partners of people with mental illness are. It's good for him, and us really, that he turned off his phone because then there is less risk of us arguing. (Although I don't think he will like all the texts he finds on his phone when he wakes up in the morning.) When I get through this extremely bad time, my rational side will take over and I will not be angry at him anymore.

However, I was thinking that it must be so nice for Jeff to get to turn the illness off. With his phone off, he no longer needs to hear it, see it, or be affected by it. He gets to go to bed and leave it all behind. I am jealous. That must be so nice.

I don't get to turn my bipolar off. I have to live with it every second of every day and on the days when it is bad, that is excruciating. I want an off switch. I want to be able to calm my mind enough to meditate for even two minutes. I want to fall asleep. I want to be happy. I want to work tomorrow. I want to be a good mother. I would like to clean up the house so my husband comes back from his trip with no work to do. I want what every other person with most any illness wants, to be able to get rid of it.

I don't get that choice.

I do get to choose to go to therapy and keep working so that these terrible times happen less and then my bipolar will be more under control. It is not like I think I have no agency in my life. The problem is that sometimes when the illness gets so bad that it has completely taken over your mind, and in those moments you rarely have a choice. Or, the choice is to try and do the least damage to your life as possible. I don't think people without mental illness know that when we are manic or depressed, we are trying to make good choices and have agency in our life. We are trying to control it. In reality for many of us, what our brain is pushing us to do is way worse than what we actually end up doing.

It's like when you learn to ice skate and one of the first things they teach you is how to fall. It is a given that you will fall while ice skating, so if you have to fall, you learn to do it in a way that will produce the least amount of damage possible. Basically, that is what we do with mental illness. To use a simple example, I can not make myself sleep right now. My brain wants to push me to do really irresponsible things, so how can I "fall" and obtain the least about of damage possible? I try to scrapbook, watch funny movies, read something, basically do anything other than the normal manic behavior of driving all over the city at night or leaving home. (By the way, my son is sleeping over a friends house so there is no risk that I will be leaving him at home alone.)

While I don't get a switch, I know that I am lucky. It could still be worse. I have been living with this illness long enough to know how to fall without being so destructive that there is rarely ever no turning back. But I completely understand when people end up running out in the middle of the night driving to another state, or go downtown and jump in a fountain naked. Or when they drink into oblivion, or even when they commit suicide. I get it. We have no button that we can turn off and just walk away from the illness. Frankly, most people do not have access to adequate help which shows them how to fall with less damage.
Photo of Avalokiteshvara by Cea in Flickr Creative Commons

The "falling" is really what the Buddhists call skillful means. Simple put, this is the ability to adapt to your situation and be able to use whatever means necessary to navigate what is going on. My favorite Buddhist Bodhisattva is the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Kwan Yin is the female version of this Bodhisattva and the male version is Avalokiteshvara, the Bodhisattva often pictured with many hands. What most people do not know about the many handed Bodhisattva is that in each hand there is often a skillful means that he can use to help someone on their path to enlightenment such as musical instruments, bottles of ambrosia, flower, anything one might need to help end suffering. These teachings of Buddhism, skillful means, meditation, and being present in the moment is what has enabled me to learn how to fall with the least amount of damage. While I have no off switch, these Buddhist principles have given me more agency in my life even when my mind is too sick to give me much of a choice.


Rev. Katie