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Archive for the ‘Recovery’ Category

Up and down together is good news!

I’m inhabiting a mixed state today.  There’s lot of evidence that I’m still down (for the last ten days – today I’m calling myself a mania-depression 8, “Definite physical contraction”): on the conference call I was on this morning, my responses were really flat; my unconscious is still trying to generate the “This is all bullshit” mantra (though i have new tools to wrestle with this – which I will describe in a different post).  So it’s clear to me that my biochemistry has not shifted – I’m still down.

When I’m up, I’m very keen about this blog.  I believe that it has lots of value to offer – to mental health professionals and other helpers, to family and friends of people with bipolar disorder, but especially to my brothers and sisters who also suffer with this condition.  I picture that writing these mostly autobiographical posts will spill over into finishing my memoir, which is largely about bipolar disorder – and that this will then also reach and help people.  And I picture more books – why not? I have the professional credentials and the lived experience.  And finally I picture public speaking on the topic.  Again, why not?  I’m a terrific public speaker and get tremendous satisfaction from it.  All this will spill from the baby steps of writing this blog, day by day.

When I’m down, as I have been, I’m usually discouraged about my writing.  This blog seems useless.  “What do I have to say to anybody else about bipolar disorder when my own condition is still so out of control?”  And if my blog is worthless, the whole scenario of books and public speaking falls apart.

Today I’m clearly down.  Yet I’m encouraged.  Yesterday I had three separate encouraging experiences around my blog.  I had two days earlier sent the link to this blog to an associate who is very centrally positioned in the local mental health community.  I got her reply email yesterday morning, in which she raved about the blog up one side and down the other.  Then the piece of stand-up comedy that I performed at church yesterday (see yesterday’s post “A piece of manic comedy”), which in my down state I thought was badly written and would not reach people, did reach them – in spades.  More affirmation about my writer’s voice.  Then, in the evening, I wrote that blog post i just referenced – and couldn’t resist the assessment that it’s a good piece of writing and one that has a lot to say about bipolar disorder, that it could be useful to many people concerned about bipolar disorder, especially my cohort with the disorder.  My carryover from all this today is that I’m more believing in my writing voice, in this blog – and in all the other elements of a positive future that I see spilling from this blog.

So today I’m down – and encouraged.  My take on bipolar disorder is that the target is not so much mood stability as what I call bipolar integrity.  The problem is that these two states, mania and depression, operate so separate from each other – they polarize. We are like two different people that have no crossover, that don’t talk with each other.  Each side has gifts to offer, but those gifts don’t come to fruition as long as we are so split down the middle.  We need to integrate those two parts.

The da Vinci Vitruvian Man represents for me an image of wholeness, of integration.

The da Vinci Vitruvian Man represents for me an image of wholeness, of integration.

Today my up state and my down state are co-existing.  I’ve got flat responses and self-destructive rumination – along with encouragement about my writing and my future.  I’m not having fun – my mood is not up.  I would not say that I am happy even.  It makes me realize how attached I am to my up state, even with all its negative implications (ungrounded, out of control, creating the crash that comes after).  But I’m not discouraged.  So I have elements of my up state, but am not really up.  And I have elements of my down state, but I’m not really down.  I would not say that I’m in balance, because when I’m there I don’t have the elements of suffering that I have today.

Yet this is fundamentally encouraging.  The integration that I see as central to my healing is happening.  Part of me wants to try to leverage the good elements, to pull hard to get out of or away from the down elements – to get myself feeling good.  But another, i think wiser part, is saying, “Soak in this state.  Appreciate, relish this state.  Out of this mixed state will come the integration that is the key to your positive future.”

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I’ve been depressed for the last six days – and again not writing.  Around 6 p.m. this evening, I was staring at a threateningly empty evening.  I asked myself what I could do this evening that would be most encouraging on this very discouraged day.  My roommate Will is a sculptor and painter.  He’s anxious about a relationship – and this afternoon and evening is channeling that anxiety into painting.  “Why not me?” I thought.  “I’ll create – I’ll write.  I’ll write a blog post.  I don’t know what it’s going to be. i don’t want it to be discouraging. I’ll find something.”

So the fact that I’m writing is encouraging.  And there’s more.  I have for the last few weeks been involved in Overeaters Anonymous for my sugar addiction and compulsive eating.  Shortly after making my resolution to write, I got a call from one of my OA friends. She and I have been trying to connect by phone, so I was glad to interrupt my momentum towards the computer with this call from her.  And that call gave me the material to write about.

When I was high a week ago, I was enthused about lots of things – including  my progress around my food.  In the last few days, my eating has fallen apart – and has reinforced my nihilistic mantra of “Nothing helps and nothing matters”.  But my friend helped me name several things I’m doing right, several areas of progress, and I’m going to name them here.

  1. The first one starts with a setback, but also has a positive dimension. I had, almost as soon as starting OA, named peanut butter as a problem food.  It’s a food that I am most likely to eat compulsively, most likely to overeat – a food that I genuinely binge on.  So I just completely cut it out – huge progress.  But I left two jars in the cupboard.  This morning, in my “Nothing matters” mode, I pulled out one of those jars of peanut butter and – having already eaten a little breakfast – ate four spoonfuls – and then a couple more.
    I get it - I really get it.  Peanut butter is not an innocent food for me - it's a problem.

    I get it – I really get it. Peanut butter is not an innocent food for me – it’s a problem.

    Then, a couple hours later, I went back for more.  But here’s a sign of progress: I struggled with it.  The 12 Steps encourages you not to trust your willpower, but rather to turn it over to a Higher Power.  I tried to figure out how to do this, but couldn’t get there.  I considered making an outreach call to an OA friend, but didn’t manage to do it.  But, as someone said later, “If you can insert a pause, you can insert a call.  You’re this much closer to making the call next time.”  I’m picturing doing that – and knowing that it will feel enormously gratifying when I do it.

    After giving in and eating more peanut butter, I poured some hot sauce in the rest and threw it out.  I’ve learned the hard way that just throwing it out won’t necessarily prevent me from fishing it out of the garbage.  Later on, I dropped the other jar – and a jar of almond butter – off at the food pantry.  It was out of my way, but felt like a big symbolic step.

    So where do I focus my attention? I can focus on the slip, focus on the regression to an old behavior.  I choose to focus on the new behaviors – the struggle where in the past there was only abject surrender, the taking of the food to the food pantry.  And the fact that this offending food, which up until just a few weeks ago was a staple part of my diet, now is an intruding stranger.  What a huge change that is!

  2. I went to an OA meeting.  I judged myself harshly for “going to meetings instead of eating right”, but the meeting was actually encouraging and good connection.  And what a totally new behavior for me!  These meetings are a completely new presence in my life.  And I told people there how much I am needing to make calls, to break up my isolation.  And made a specific plan to call one woman, whom I like very much, tonight.  I’m going to do that when I’m walking the dog, right after finishing this post.
  3. This wasn’t from today, but yesterday and tomorrow.  After many months (a couple of years, actually) of trying to find the right focus of attention while I’m swimming laps, I’ve got one that’s really working: creating and repeating mantras from the first three of the Twelve Steps.  I described this at length on August 30 and 31, but three of my favorites are “Came to believe” (that a Power higher than my own could restore me to sanity) and “turn over my life and my will” “to God’s care, as I understand God.”
    "Whatever this Higher Power is, in some mysterious way it cares about me" shortens down to "Life cares about me."

    “Whatever this Higher Power is, in some mysterious way it cares about me” shortens down to “Life cares about me.”


     I don’t understand God or Higher Power, but I think there is some kind of power or energy that underlies the separation of the material world – and it feels like a very positive step that I am spending all this time opening myself up to it.  In fact, this is huge.  This could actually turn out to be the biggest development of this phase of my life.

So who says I’m stuck?

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What does it mean to be an expert on bipolar disorder?

I have the credentials to be a professional expert: Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology and 20 years of clinical practice.  I also have a lot of resources, a lot that I can teach about bipolar disorder.  But who gets to decide that I’m an expert?  So far in this blog, I have erred on the side of too much wanting to pitch it to mental health professionals and other helpers, so that they would decide that I’m an expert.

ask the expert

Who’s going to really decide that I’m an expert on bipolar disorder is other people with the disease.  If they read this blog and it has the ring of truth, if it’s the straight stuff, if it’s clear that I’ve been there – if they recognize themselves in my posts, if it’s balanced, if it equally tells the story of the pain as well as the healing and the triumph…then my brothers and sisters with this disorder will judge me to be an expert.

A lot of people know a lot of things about bipolar disorder - and have much to contribute, can be very helpful - but nothing can replace having walked the walk.

A lot of people know a lot of things about bipolar disorder – and have much to contribute, can be very helpful – but nothing can replace having walked the walk.

This blog fundamentally has to be primarily written for other people with bipolar disorder.  If I do that, it also will have lots to teach professionals – but I can’t be writing it primarily for them.

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I talked yesterday about how while swimming laps on two recent days I used as mantras phrases from the first two steps of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous – and Overeaters Anonymous, with which i have recently gotten involved.  Here I’ll write about how on both of these swimming outings I’ve used the third step (as far as I’ve gotten, and I’ve just barely dipped into these three).

3) “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.

I’ve described earlier that for me God is not a person, much less a guy.  I mostly avoid the God word, though I’m working at being less allergic to it.  I’ve actually been positively impressed with how allowing these particular (Asheville-type?) OA folks are of all the variation in how people understand their Higher Power, but there still is a fair bit of God talk in these meetings.  When I use the word Life to describe my Higher Power, I imagine some of these folks internally translate that to God – and I some of the time am doing the flip of that.  But notwithstanding the God word, this step is working some real juju on me – including while swimming laps on Wednesday and again yesterday.

Made a decision“. Am I making a decision?  A decision to be more open to spirituality – to make it more a part of how I really experience the world, not just how I think about it?  I used this phrase as a mantra for a lap or two and it felt good to me.

Turn our lives and our will over“.  This one is huge for me.  I’m usually trying to run the show.  I feel alone in the universe – who else is going to make the decisions, run the show?  The OA person I connected with on the phone when I was in such a difficult place on Wednesday morning suggested that before I go into the meeting I was feeling anxious about I practice thinking “Thy will be done”.  But who is this “thy”?  The great mystery.  And it worked!  I had a great, actually enchanted, visit with my friend.

This morning, when I was struggling with whether to have another little bit of a food that I had already overeaten, I interrupted the struggle by thinking, “Maybe I don’t have to fight the fight – I’ll just turn it over to my Higher Power.”  My first reaction to hearing myself think this was, “Where did that come from?  That’s not how I operate!”  But it felt kind of soothing – and it amazingly got easy to let go of having the food.  So this phrase, which for part of the time I shortened to just “Turn it over” (one of the most popular 12 Step phrases), really had a lot of power for me.

To the care of God, as we understand him”.  This is the one that most took me places Wednesday and especially today.  What if, when I turn my will and my life over to this Higher Power/Life/Spirit/Great Mystery, it genuinely has my best interests in mind?  No, more than that, cares for me.  What if, when I let go of trying to have it my way, i drop into being cared for, cared about?  After a couple of laps thinking the phrase “the care of God”, I really went for it: “Life loves me” (two laps), “I am loved” (another two laps).

Then I spent a couple of laps thinking about people in my life who I really do believe genuinely love me.  Two days ago, as I was sitting on this very same front porch writing, my 37-year-old roommate Will – who is a wonderful artist – brought out a beautiful drawing of the Buddha, which he had shown me on day 3 of him working on it and which I had enthusiastically loved.  He said, “This represents what it’s like for a bipolar person to be in balance – I want you to have it.”  That completely blew me away.  I spent about a lap today thinking about this gift – then going on to ways that other people (including Tom, my other roommate) have recently expressed care for me.

I probably don’t need to belabor the connection of all this with depression.   I more and more getting it that being out of control of my food is discouraging and depressing.  One of my core depressive mantras is “Nothing works”.  Opening up the possibility that OA might actually work for me – might lead to some real, concrete, positive change in my life – is really torqueing my stuff around.  Yesterday morning I was kind of jumping out of my skin with the internal battle between the forces of hope and despair.

But, as much as thinking that i might make significant change in how I eat is kind of blowing my mind, the 12 Steps are messing with me on a deeper level.  What if this program were to significantly change my relationship with Life as I understand it?  What if this network were to – as it promises – provide me with relationships that offer real support, real intimacy? (I’m already getting glimmers of this being true.)  What if working this program were to help me shift my life (not just my eating) in some healthy, life-affirming ways?  People talk about the 12 Steps changing the whole way they approach their lives.  I’ve been in the periphery of various 12 Step programs and people in recovery for much of my life, but I have never really thought about it as a system that could have a big impact on my life.

But who knows?

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Here’s what i did while swimming laps on Wednesday that allowed my mood to continue to lift after my magical visit with my friend (yesterday’s post).  It’s especially fresh, because I did essentially this same thing swimming a couple of hours ago.  I started this day at a mania-depression 8 (definite physical contraction, with significant discouragement and negative self-talk), lifted to a 7 (slightly depressed) during and after a good Overeaters Anonymous meeting, then got to a 6 (balanced – yay!) during and after swimming.  So far this has held.  Since my mood frequently is better in the afternoon and evening, I’m hopeful that I’ll get through the rest of this day in this wonderful state of balance.  And I’m going ecstatic dancing tonight (see page at the top of the blog), which tends – if I’m even close to not depressed – to be a lot of fun.  (If I’m really depressed it can be awful.)

Lap swimming, like ecstatic dancing, is one of my key tools for staying balanced.  I’m a lousy swimmer, have never learned to put my face in the water and do a reasonable crawl and instead do lots of side stroke and back stroke, but still 45 minutes of it is great exercise, leaves me more relaxed – and on a good day can be soothing to my mind.  Oftentimes I will try to count my breaths (1 on the inbreath and again on the outbreath, then 2 – up to 10 and start again) as one way to calm my mind while I’m swimming.  Other times my mind may not get quite this quiet, but I can do some soothingly peaceful thinking about things in my life.  When I’m really depressed, as the last couple of weeks, the contents of my mind may stay pretty gnarly through almost the whole 45 minutes – maybe easing up a little as the time goes along.

No goggles for me - I don't stick my face in the water, which makes me a very clumsy swimmer.

No goggles for me – I don’t stick my face in the water, which makes me a very clumsy swimmer.

All this 12 Step stuff – after just 2 1/2 weeks of exploring it (see my post on August 28) – is mostly still also swimming in my head, but I have just started trying to get my hands around the first three steps.  These last two times swimming, I have been occupying my mind with phrases from these three steps

  1. “We admitted that we were powerless over food – that our lives had become unmanageable.”

    Just thinking the word “admitted” has been soothing to me – I can feel the resistance, the tension, the inner struggle softening as I just acknowledge to myself that I have a serious problem with food.

  2. “Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.”

    “Came to believe”.  I don’t believe in a personal God. I consider myself to be non-theistic, which is very different from atheistic – I don’t oppose the idea of a God.  I actually think that when people use the word God, they are trying to point towards the same reality I do believe in.  I also think of myself as more spiritual than agnostic, which is simply saying “I don’t know what is true.”  I do believe there is something going on deeper than material reality.  I believe that life (I sometimes use a capital L) is in some mysterious way intelligent and benevolent – keeps sending us exactly the experiences we most need for our healing and growth.

    My rational mind sure doesn’t know how to get its hands around all this, but I still believe it’s true – and sometimes even experience it as true.  But most of the time it is not experientially/psychologically/emotionally true for me: I don’t live from this place.  I don’t most of the time emotionally feel supported by Life or any Higher Power.  But I want to – I want to translate this principle from a cognitive belief to a living, breathing experience.  And from just these couple of weeks of sitting in OA meetings where people are making reference to their Higher Power (two meetings in my first twelve days, then four in the last five days!) and having now four support calls with people who come from this orientation, I feel something starting to get loosened up in me.

    I sense the possibility of all this getting more real for me.  So using “Came to believe” as a mantra while I swim has been very powerful for me.  It’s soothing, encouraging – makes me feel like something new and positive may be starting to stir within me.  I even feel like I might be on the verge of a kind of conversion – not to a personal God, but to a more personal, supportive relationship with Life, whatever that is.

    “Could restore us to sanity.”  That “admitted” word from the first step has me really acknowledging not only that I am powerless over food, and that my eating life has become unmanageable – but I’m looking at a whole variety of ways that my life is pretty crazy, many of which relate directly to bipolar disorder.  At the heart of all this is the crazy illusion that I am a separate self in an uncaring universe.  The idea that I could be restored to sanity feels really good.

There’s more that I want to share about the good stuff happening while I’m swimming, but that’s already a pretty hefty post for today.  Let’s put up the rest of it tomorrow.

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Yesterday I wrote about my recent immersion in Overeaters Anonymous (OA).  I have mostly never had a problem with my weight and now am relatively thin, but I’m facing the fact that my problem with food goes beyond a serious sugar addiction – mostly controlled right now, with occasional serious slips – to chronic compulsive eating and a  chaotic relationship with food.

I described how I started the day yesterday significantly depressed (mania-depression 8) – and then bingeing on peanut butter left me even more messed up, and fearing that this would compromise the rest of my day, including a 10 a.m. visit with an important new friend.  So here’s how my day turned around, to where in the afternoon and evening I was calling myself an md 6 – in balance, really pretty happy.

Around 9 a.m., I got a call back from a new OA acquaintance whom I had called for support on Saturday and left a voice mail.  She did a great job of listening to and supporting me around my difficult morning.  In particular, talking about my upcoming (45 minutes from now – yikes!) visit with my friend – which i feared would be wrecked by negative carryover from my morning peanut butter binge – she gave me two especially helpful tips.  Neither was necessarily fresh or creative, but they did finally work for me.

  1. She reminded me that each new moment is fresh and in a real way completely separate from the previous one.  It is completely possible in each moment to step into a new reality that is not encumbered by what went on before it.  Much easier to say than to practice, and I was not sure I would be able to implement this strategy 45 minutes from now – but it sounded like a great direction.
    present moment - Tolle
  2. The second suggestion was even dicier for me.  She encouraged me to take a stance of “Thy will be done.”  Twelve Step programs have a spiritual base, but I have been reassured in these meetings and outreach calls by how people have complemented the God-talk with referring to “your higher power as you understand it”.  I don’t hold a belief in a personal God, but I identify myself as spiritual more than agnostic.

    I do believe – and sometimes actually experience – that life (I sometimes use a capital L) is in some mysterious way intelligent and benevolent, that it has our well-being in mind and continually gives us just the experiences we need for our healing and growth. How all  this works is definitely the great mystery, but I do cognitively believe it.  Emotionally, in my gut, however, I don’t moment to moment hold this as real.  Most of the time I do not walk around feeling supported by the universe – rather I live as if I am an isolated being in a chaotic universe.thy-will-be-done
    If I don’t think there is a personal “thy” out there to turn my will over to, then what is it to whom I would surrender?  Life?  A benevolent universe?  I aspire to this kind of surrender, but would it stand up to the heat of meeting with my friend in less than an hour?  I decided it was worth trying.

I pulled up outside of my friend’s house a few minutes early and worked on these two directions: “It’s a new moment” – check.  “Thy will be done.”  I just ran this mantra over and over in my head.  And it worked!  I immersed myself in the moment with my friend, surrendered to the flow of the dialogue and feelings between us – and we together created a really magical 90 minutes, before she needed to run off to a yoga class.

I left her house in a really great mood.  Then I went off to my gym to swim laps – and continued to have great experiences, which I will describe in another post.

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Last Friday my mood had lightened to a place where I was up to writing a post.  By Saturday I had really crapped out again and today is the first time I have again been able to get myself to write.

This morning I was in a lot of depressive pain (mania-depression 8), but have over the course of the day moved to an exceptionally balanced place.  And the source of today’s shift is a new development in my life that has surprised me as much as it may my readers.

I have, over the course of the last two weeks, progressively thrown myself into Overeaters Anonymous!  Over the first 10 days or so of this development, I did a whole lot of fussing about it – lots of resistance – and a lot of this had to do with depression.  “But my real problem is depression!  Everything else spills from this.  My chaotic, compulsive eating has everything to do with depression.  I can’t take my eye off that ball, and besides I have no real chance of improving the way I eat while I am so depressed….and no one is going to want to read my blog if I add in still one more big area of problems.”

Well, the easy answer to that last issue is that people who don’t want to read about my food issues can skip those posts – but those posts will make the point that people with bipolar disorder are bigger than that one very big issue, more complicated, and share struggles with other people who are not dealing with bipolar disorder.

And I am more and more believing that my chaotic, out of control relationship with food may cause depression as much as vice-versa.  It is really demoralizing to watch myself day-to-day have a really toxic, sometimes tormented connection with something as basic as eating.  I have for the last couple of years gotten more serious about my sugar addiction, which I had been naming for years but not before ever really hunkered down and tried to control.

Cookies - white flour and sugar.  I do love 'em, but very bad for this genuine sugar addict - and for anybody trying to stabilize their moods

Cookies – white flour and sugar. I do love ’em, but very bad for this genuine sugar addict – and for anybody trying to stabilize their moods

Over these two years, I have had periods of weeks or even months of being abstinent from sugar, but have always eventually had major slips and relapses.  And, though my chaotic eating habits have more and more tried to get my attention, I am only now starting to really face them – to treat them as a serious problem requiring a serious response.

I have attended four OA meetings in two weeks and have over the last five days made a bunch of outreach calls looking for support, actually connecting three times.  My eating is still way out of control – in some ways even more so than before these two weeks.  I am not close to finding a sponsor or developing a food plan. But I am beginning to see some deep wisdom in the 12 Steps, which I have floated around over the years – some Adult Children of Alcoholics meetings a long time ago and one OA meeting about two years ago – but never really engaged with.

Today I started the day with some terrific depression as soon as I got out of bed, then some really out of control eating – bingeing on peanut butter, a staple food of mine but one that I frequently abuse.

Peanut butter - I have relied on it as a quick and easy source of protein, but am now facing how often I abuse it, eating way more than I intended or immediately using it to try to balance out a sugar slip.

Peanut butter – I have relied on it as a quick and easy source of protein, but am now facing how often I abuse it, eating way more than I intended or immediately using it to try to balance out a sugar slip.

I then continued my compulsive eating with a bunch of other stuff, none of which was terrible in itself – but the stream of out-of-control eating left me demoralized and in a real brain fog.  i was getting ready to go meet an important new friend for tea – a meeting that I had been tremendously looking forward to but now felt would be compromised or outright wrecked by my miserable physical and emotional state.

That’s the md 8 (“definite physical contraction – my brain is in pain”) part of my day.  I’ll make another entry tomorrow about what turned all this around.

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