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Focusing on hope

I had an experience yesterday that was a huge victory for hope.  A wonderful progressive political candidate in my county, for whom I had worked and to whom I was very attached – who had been written off in many circles as not having a chance against the entrenched political power of his opponent – won, and by a wide margin.  Early in the campaign, a friend who knew a whole lot about Democratic politics in this area said, “Bless your heart for working for Todd, but I’m not going to invest any energy there because he doesn’t have a chance to win.”  This lodged deep in me and I spent the rest of the campaign not expecting to win.  When, at Todd’s “celebration” party after the polls closed – which I mostly expected not to be a celebration – the word came through that his opponent had conceded, I mostly couldn’t believe my ears.  It took my breath away. Tears squirted up into my eyes.

How do you hold out hope when the odds seem to be against you?

How do you hold out hope when the odds seem to be against you?

I had given up hope.  I had continued to support my candidate – had taken election day off from work and spent the whole day at the polls – but did it out of loyalty to my friend and out of some sense of duty, without an expectation or even a hope for a positive outcome.  There was a depressive quality to all my efforts.  When i sent out broadcast emails or put up Facebook postings to get out the vote, my discouragement did not come through in my words – though some of my friends or acquaintances might say that the negative energy somehow came through.  When, at the polls, I gathered all my bright energy for the moments it took to hold out a piece of literature to a voter and say “Todd Williams needs your vote for District Attorney”, did my secret discouragement leak through?  Even though I was depressed that day (definitely not manic) I seemed to myself more energetic in those moments of engaging the voters than the other people similarly hawking their candidates.  I don’t know.

At my depression and bipolar support group last night, when we were searching for a topic, I proposed, “What are the sources of hope in your life?”  The group liked this topic and chose it.  It was generally agreed that lack of hope is perhaps the key symptom of depression – and the belief that “This too shall pass” is maybe the key antidote.

A wide variety of factors were given credit for generating hope.  Several people mentioned this very support group.  Others referred to other relationships where people are close with you, believe in you.  I mentioned that a variation of “This too shall pass” is paying attention to the fact that even in a depressed day there are moments/hours/segments that are not depressed or at least less depressed. Seeing that depression is not monolithic, that it waxes and wains, is encouraging.  (Is encouragement the same as hope?  That’s a good topic for another post.)

I said that for me creativity is a key stimulator of hope.  I’m going to save this for another post(s).

 

The grounded smile (md 4)

I’m manic, no doubt about it.  After almost two weeks down (some of it pretty rough, but nowhere as bad as it often has been), six days ago I came up – and I have come too far up.  I’ve been missing a lot of sleep, but I’ve not been irritable, not making big errors in judgment, not spending too much money. I’ve been feeling good, having a good time at work, being very productive.  Let’s call it a manic-depression 4 – significantly expanded.

When I’m manic, expanded, the work is grounding.  Here’s one way I worked on that this morning.  i was at my Sunday morning ecstatic dance, having a great time.  And something happened there which sometimes tends to happen when I’m manic: I started to smile – big smile, big shit-eating grin that just stayed there for a minute or two at a time.  i was just that happy, that benevolent, that much liking myself and the other people around me.

Some smiles can return us to a state of innocence.

Some smiles can return us to a state of innocence.

So what’s the problem, right?  Well the problem has to do with being ungrounded, with getting too high.  This ecstatic state (and yes, it is ecstatic dance) can kind of blow the top of my head off, can be too dizzy – it doesn’t get integrated.  But this morning I came up with a strategy that worked pretty well: I focused on my feet on the floor.  This created a wonderful little energy loop – a connection between my head (where my smile was) and my feet, my high energy and some groundedness.  This made me trust the smiling happiness more – and made me realize that it was tending before to have a little out-of-control quality, even a little scary.  This groundedness allowed me to move in and out of dancing with other people in a kind of seamless way – enjoying their energy, their dancing, without losing track of mine.

So I was grateful for the smiling, which tends to not happen much when I’m depressed – and grateful for the grounding, which tends to more come out of my depressed state.  It was a genuine complex healing state (see the page above) – a real state of relative balance even though I was still mostly manic.  It was sweet, precious – and to be savored.  Tomorrow I may be depressed, but I still had this.  It was real – actually more real because it was grounded, less in my head.

On Sunday, March 2, another poet (Tracey Schmidt) and I are offering a poetry concert here in Asheville.  For me, it brings together light and dark and finally offers healing.   Below are one of my darker poems and one of my lighter ones (neither will be featured in this particular show.  Here’s the link to the Facebook event page for the concert: https://www.facebook.com/events/1432431080323647/.

White

I went to the beach this morning
Caked with the dirt of my life
And of my ancestors.
The gray sky reflected
The despair of my soul.
The beach was covered with fresh snow
All its detail and edge cloaked
In a mantle of brilliant color
Or lack of color
Unimaginably bright in this dark time.
I quietly slipped under the snow
And wore it home.

With my poetry partner Tracey Schmidt

With my poetry partner Tracey Schmidt

Dancing In the Supermarket Parking Lot

My friend is late to meet me
In the Ingles parking lot
Neil Young, on my new-to-me CD
Is rocking “Cowgirl in the Sand”
12 minutes worth
On my 7-speaker car stereo
The early spring, early evening
Blazes light
And the lot is filled with space

And I just gotta dance

Extending (md 8)

My new psychiatrist recently said something that I have been saying for a while (which makes him look smarter to me :)): “Bipolar disorder is not a mood disorder, but an energy disorder.  We go through cycles of expansion and contraction.”  My central depressive symptom is a painful contraction, like each cell is in a vice.  Sometimes the mood change lags behind by a couple of days – once it never happened at all, just seven days of painful contraction …no sadness or discouragement or nasty self-talk, nuthin’.

So when I am depressed – contracted – like today, Mania-depression 8 (“definite physical contraction”) sometimes the best treatment is anything that helps me to extend.  Expansion may be too big a stretch, but if i can reach out, push out, lean into life – anything that can get me back out from being curled up into a little ball.

I woke up at 5:30 a.m.: not quite enough sleep, having gotten to bed at 11:30, but I knew I wasn’t going to get back to sleep, so I knew that what I needed to do was to extend – get up – but instead I contracted back into the bed, trying/pretending to be asleep and just making myself miserable.  Finally, at the last possible time, I extended by getting up and going to dance (Asheville Movement Collective ecstatic dancing – see the page at the top).  I had to really push to get there on time.

Then, on the dance floor, I was confronted with a big blank canvas for painting contraction or extension.  (Sometimes extending left me expanded, but it continues to feel useful to make the distinction.  Extending is the effort to push out of contraction.  Expansion is what happens when it works.)  Some of the time I pulled in on myself.  But some of the time I extended.  I extended my energy and my body – moving vigorously through the space.  I extended towards other dancers – moving in and out of their space, dancing around them.  This is more complex: that other dancer can respond in a variety of ways.  In one instance, she danced away sooner than I would have wished.  In another, I finally moved away because I couldn’t handle how open she seemed.

Sometimes I can't find anything to do but to contract; other times, with a lot of effort, I can extend out.

Sometimes I can’t find anything to do but to contract; other times, with a lot of effort, I can extend out.

Overall, I was very confronted with all my issues about moving towards other dancers – all my insecurities, my mental trips about “Do they want me?”  And today that felt very productive.  Whereas another I day I might have just said, “I’m depressed, I’m contracted and I’m having a terrible time”, today I said, “I’m confronting some of my trickiest interpersonal issues.”  That seemed workable, important, valuable.

After dance, I completed the second part of my extending commitment for the morning – going to church.  Over the last year, I have been doing a lot of pulling away from this community – which has at times past been very important to me.  Sometimes I have been critiquing the church, sometimes I have just said that I hate going there when I’m depressed.  Today I said, “This place pushes all my buttons around belonging.”  This is such a  more useful way to think about it.  It’s also a place where I like/care about/love a lot of people – and they feel this for me.  If it also stirs the pot, gets me to work on my key issues, why would I not want to be there?  When I’m up, I love being there.  When I’m down, it’s an opportunity to practice extending.

There is a bill (the Murphy bill) on the floor of the House of Representatives that many people I respect say would set mental health treatment back 30 years.   You can read the piece below from the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance of Tennessee (more about DBSA tomorrow) and then, if you are moved, call your representative (http://www.house.gov/representatives/find/.

http://www.dbsatennessee.org/1/post/2013/12/action-alert-sen-murphy-bill.html.

 

There was a time when I had no awareness of when I was getting manic – I just knew that I felt good, so bring it on!  Over time, I have become sensitized to more and more subtle cues that I am “getting high” – and I know that it has lots of risks.  Mania has some genuine gifts – as does depression – but the more ungrounded you get, the more risk of errors in judgement (spending too much money, starting unrealistic projects, etc.), interpersonal damage and the inevitable crash.  So grounding is key: how to keep your feet on the ground when the adrenaline starts to surge.

When you've been really low, all you want to do is to come up. Keeping your feet on the ground is both a skillset and a discipline.

When you’ve been really low, all you want to do is to come up. Keeping your feet on the ground is both a skill set and a discipline.

There are many strategies for grounding, from sitting and walking meditation to gardening.  I’ve tried lots of them, with more or less success.  Some, like walking/swimming/dancing, psychotherapy and talking with my friends are just part of how I regularly operate.

But I’ve got a new one: getting sick!  A couple of weeks ago, I came out of about two weeks of being down and started to come up.  Day 1 of being not depressed looked pretty balanced – call it a 6 (Peaceful State) on my Mania-Depression Scale.  But knowing the way my energy state tends to swing, I was watchful.  Then on Day 2, two things happened: I started to tip into mania (call it a 5, “slightly expanded”) and I came down with a cold.  And getting sick grounded me!  It turned out to be a nasty cold, which went on for ten days, getting worse for the first seven or so.  My up cycle lasted about eight of those ten days.

During those eight days, I frequently said to friends things like: “I physically feel like crap, but I’m not manic.  I’m not depressed and I clearly have tipped into the up end of the continuum.  My spirits are good, but I’m not speedy.  All in all, getting sick has not been a bad trade-off. ”

It felt great to not be emotionally down, but being physically down kept me from getting high - which itself felt pretty good.

It felt great to not be emotionally down, but being physically down kept me from getting high – which itself felt pretty good.

What’s the takeaway from this?  “Don’t try this at home?”  My current lesson from it is: Life is always working on me.  It’s trying to get me balanced.  It will use whatever strategies it can to teach me how to stay grounded when I am high and how to pull myself up to the surface when I am low.  I don’t want to use getting sick as a regular strategy for dealing with mania, but with a little luck I have integrated some subtle balancing capacity – or moved the needle a degree or two.  I’ll keep getting opportunities to practice grounding myself and hopefully I’ll have some muscle memory of what it was like here to be not depressed, but not high.

Often in my life, I am sad about intimacy and connection that I don’t have.  It’s so much better to feel sad for a good reason.

This last weekend I visited my son and daughter-in-law and granddaughter in Louisville, KY for Thanksgiving.  The visit was almost perfect.  The vibe with my son was really great: he was so available and present, so warm and informal and gracious with me.  My daughter-in-law was sweet and interested in my reports about my life.  My six-month-old granddaughter was amazingly present and alive and happy.  I was relaxed and had fun.

And when I came back I got sad.  I wasn’t sad because of anything that had not happened – I was sad because it was so good…and because I had to say goodbye…and because I have so much history of saying goodbye to my son…and because it is going to be a while until I see them.

It’s been hard to sort out this abundant sad from depression, because it’s looking like depression and that may also be going on.  I had been a little up for about ten days, through the visit, and the goodbyes may have broken the back of the up mood and swung me down.  But I also have a history of coming down after visiting my son.  So I do myself a disservice if I just call this depression.  I have touched into some very sweet connection and I no longer can touch it (even though it is still there).  And I feel sad.