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


  1. Writing has always been one of your skillful means. It is a way that you manage what is happening to you and heal the world by letting people know that they are not alone. I'm so proud of you for sharing your stories.

  2. Falling, I recently learned my 85-year old dad has been falling down fairly often. He is very active and plays tennis and walks around all over as well as puttering around with tools. He was an acrobat and stunt-diver when he was young, so he is very good at falling and rarely get hurt.