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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.

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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.

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I am depressed – an 8 (definite physical contraction) on my manic-depression scale.  And I am grieving.  And they are different.  And they tend to get all stuck together.  And I am working hard to separate them.

I crashed a week ago today, after once again being fairly manic (a 4, significantly expanded, on the md scale – see the tab at the top of this blog) for about a week.   Crashed hard.  And at the same time, my beloved dog Buddy was crashing hard – from cancer.  Looking back, I can see some signs that he was failing, but most of Thursday he was a happy little camper.  Then Friday he stopped eating and walking.  By Sunday he was peeing himself in his bed from not being able to get up and was in full liver failure – and I followed the vet’s advice to put him down before he got worse.

My Buddy

My Buddy

People who have never been really close with a dog tend not to get it why you can have a powerful grieving response to the death of an animal.  It’s a blessing to talk with someone who has been here and fully gets it.  So I am depressed and grieving – and it feels important to tease them apart.

The grieving is crisp, bright pain.  I don’t cry much these days, after earlier in my adult life being blessedly good at it.  (I had lost it during adolescence, but retrieved it when I learned peer co-counseling in my early 20’s.)  A friend told me a couple of years ago that she thinks the inability to cry is because of my psych meds.  I asked my psychiatrist after she said this and he said “Probably – the mood stabilizers smooth out your highs and lows, but can tend to muffle other feelings.  You have to decide if it’s worth the trade-offs.”  I appreciated his candor and decided, with some real regrets, that it was worth the trade-offs – at least for now.

Buddy helping me write

Buddy helping me write

But I’ve had three good cry’s over this.  The first was late Sunday afternoon, sitting next to Buddy on our deck in the waning light, an hour before taking him to the vet for the last time.  I had just taken the advice a friend gave me earlier in the afternoon to write a poem for Buddy (I write poetry).  When I tried to read it out to him, the floodgates burst.  The next two cry’s came on Monday and then Tuesday.  I’ve been grateful for them –  both because I believe that crying can be healing and because it is clear testimony that I let that little critter into my heart, I genuinely bonded with him.

By today, that good crisp pain has gotten all kind of blurred out by depression.  I am fighting to retrieve it.  I want to go to the heart of the pain, to be fully alive.  I may not, today, be able to not be depressed – but I want to be as human as I can at the same time.

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For Buddy

Buddy

Buddy

Once you were afraid of me – and all men
When i stepped on your paw, you ran away –
You thought I was trying to hurt you
Now I am your safe space
You trust me
You have taught me about trust
You have taught me so many things

You have shown me what it’s like
To come totally awake to the night
To smell, hear, and sense it all
Like there is no tomorrow
Like there is nothing else
Just this night – here, now

You have shown me what it’s like to be content
This moment, this place, this life

You have shown me what it’s like to have no regrets
No second-guessing
Wishing we had done something different

I can’t take away your cancer
I can’t extend your life
I can’t keep you here with me
I can commit to you, before you go
Out of gratitude for all you have given me
Over all these years
That I will redouble my efforts
To sense the night
To be content
To have no regrets
And that sometimes
When I feel the night
Am content or
Have no regrets
I will think of you
And I will smile

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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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A few weeks ago, I bought two tickets to see Steve Earle at the Orange Peel.  I had been out of work for several weeks and no way should I have been buying concert tickets.  I don’t even know his music.  But I was manic , had heard good things about him through the years, and it seemed like a good idea.

(I never get super manic, usually just slightly hypomanic, and I have gotten pretty disciplined over the years about not spending too much money when I’m manic – one of the classic risks of mania.  But I seem especially vulnerable to overspending on the last day of a mania, just before I start to slip into depression.  My theory is that some part of me senses the impending slip and spending money is part of a last ditch attempt to stay expanded.)

Pandora likes this album.

Pandora likes this album.

I briefly considered just going down to the Orange Peel before the concert and hawking the tickets for a couple bucks less than people would pay at the box office – I have done this before and it has worked out fine.  (If you are not jacking up the price for a sold-out show, you are not scalping and it’s totally legal.)  But something in me said to hold on to them.  I posted on Facebook that I was looking for someone to buy the second ticket and go with me.  Within an hour, two actual friends (not some Facebook “friend” who I don’t really know – or someone I do know but don’t really like – which I was concerned might happen) bid for the ticket.  The first one in line is a cool woman with whom I have been looking for the chance to spend some time.  It was, once again, the miracle of Facebook – and part of why I think, for all its failings, it actually can serve as a partial antidote to isolation.  (More on my position that Facebook can be good for depression in my upcoming Page on Treatments – gonna get it up when I get a little more content on it, probably within a week.)

So I decided to roll up my sleeves and expose myself to some of Steve’s music.  Spotify, my favorite source for free downloaded music, surprised me by only having one of his albums – The Essential Steve Earle, not one that Steve’s Pandora discography even mentions.  Probably today I’ll bite the bullet and pay ITunes to download a couple of the albums that Pandora describes as “critically acclaimed”, but so far this album is a completely adequate introduction and I have played it through three times in two days.

And I like his music a lot!  It’s a nice blend of rock and country, which Pandora says made it hard for him to ever be embraced by the country music establishment, but I like better than straight country.  He’s a great songwriter, with terrific melodies and very poetic lyrics.

This album, like most "Collection" albums, is not listed by Pandora as "critically acclaimed"

This album, like most “Collection” albums, is not listed by Pandora as “critically acclaimed”

And when he sings – as he frequently does – about wild times, hard times and being down and out, he apparently really knows what he is talking about.  He has, over the years, had more than his share of problems with drugs and alcohol and problems with the law – once for assaulting a security guard at his own concert.  And problems with women – five failed marriages, some of them in quick succession and/or very brief.

But he apparently has been straight for a number of years now.  Pandora doesn’t say much about the current state of his mental health, but I like to fantasize that he is in a pretty good place – more peaceful than ever, with a fairly non-chaotic life and finally enjoying the fruits of his labors.  Like I said, this is a story I’m making up, but one I like.  When I see him in concert in three weeks, I will be holding him not only as an exceptionally talented musician, but as one of my recovery heroes.

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