Strange Happy Days

A psychologist I’m seeing thinks my diagnosis should be changed from bipolar disorder to high-functioning schizophrenia.  So I went and read the diagnostic criteria.  I qualified years ago.

I probably spend about 80% of my energy every day on combatting illusory or irrational thinking, but am still much healthier than I was a decade past.

On Friday, I started by meeting a teacher who has been diagnosed with cancer.  We spoke about her students and what kind of support the special needs students would need for the exam.  I gave her a handmade card.  We hugged.

Then it was off to a local elementary school to meet with teachers of students who’ll be entering our high school next year.  I took rabid notes and asked questions.  The teachers and principal were kind, compassionate and knowledgeable, especially about the students who require help from protective services.

After returning to school I met with a 16 year old boy who has recently been hospitalized for suicidality.  He likes to write, and he’s gay, so with those things in common the conversation flowed naturally.  I look forward to speaking to him again.  Despite his recent doubts in himself and the world around him, he has an irresistible hope inside that kept surging up.

When the school day had ended I stayed in the department office, killing time on clerical work while waiting to chaperone the dance.  An old friend from my home town called.  He told me that he’s started to volunteer to help people like himself, who’ve been in paralyzing accidents.  He was also happy to announce he’s bought an adapted van.  This allows him to simply guide his wheelchair into place and drive away, as opposed to lurching in and out of the chair and only with assistance.  He apologized repeatedly.  He couldn’t guarantee he’d make it to my wedding, as he has a surgery scheduled for a few days before.  I told him we’d video-chat him in.

The dance was loud.  I was assigned to locker security and had to keep students out of the area.  For the most part, I had company.  One of the students with autism likes to come but finds it hard to settle into dance nights.  That day he had visited a school that would offer him full-time education from ages 18-21.  He liked it.  Good news, as the last time he visited a prospective program, he offended everyone by releasing a volley of abrasive statements.  This time he behaved well.  He told me he’d had a good run at the school and was ready to graduate.

By 9 pm I was on my way home.  My girlfriend texted me to say she’d have to go into work the next day.  She’s been promoted quickly through the ranks but is exhausted.  When I got home, she was ready to slip into sleep.  I kissed her, had dinner alone, and collapsed on the couch.

In the morning, we kissed sleepily and she headed off.  I had an appointment with the psychologist.  We further discussed hallucinations and voices of years ago.  The isolation of an extreme world alone.  The grief in detachment from reality.  It has been a while since this happened, but it happened for over 10 years, and it’s left its mark.  I still belief specific people read my thoughts, but like all the irrational obstructions of my head, I try and defuse these ideas.

Today the sky is clear.  My girlfriend has gone to pick up our rings.  I stayed behind to clean and finish schoolwork.  I feel very lucky and, as always, pulled from my place by an unyielding tide.

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Posted in LBGT, mental illness, paranoia, psychiatry, special needs, strange gratefulness, teaching | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sentimental Reykjavik

Today I miss Iceland.

Three years ago I went to Reykjavik.  I booked the flight a day before the colossal volcanic eruption, and decided to head off anyways (the actual trip was 3 months later).

On the plane I was overcome with doubt, and not just became of a 90 minute electrical storm during the first flight I’d taken in 18 years.

Why am I going to Iceland?

I was alone.  Despite the fact that the volcanic ash had mostly blown off the coastline, tourists were staying away.  When I arrived, there were only 3 guests in the 4-star hotel booked at a meager $50 a night.  The shuttle from the hotel drove past fields of dried lava coated with green lichen.  It looked like a landscape of berserk oversized worms.

What am I doing here?  Have my instincts gone mad again?

Sometimes I’d like to know if people with bipolar disorder ever learn to trust themselves. Okay, more to the point: I don’t feel like I can trust my instincts, and usually have to check and double-check to make sure they’re responding  to the world outside my brain, forcibly detaching from illusions.  This probably takes up more energy during the day than anything else.  Self-regulation is everything.  Without it, I tell myself when feeling tired of the whole business – there’s no job, no friends, no girlfriend.  Endorse the pulsating impulses and you’ll feel whole, for a second or two.  Then everything that matters will fade.

All I knew when booking the trip was that I’d always wanted to go.  I just didn’t know why.  Gnarled moss, while fascinating, only made me wonder if I’d lost the reins on my mind and an illusion had led me astray again.

But it didn’t take long to figure it out.  The first full day there, 6 of us, from 4 countries, were taken to an isolated fjord for kayaking.  There was no one there but the paddlers, wild sheep and birds, ocean water and dark mountains.

Floating on the fjord made feel like I was cresting the edge of the earth.  The air was pure, the animals roamed free, and everything found its place – without being centred.  Things just were.  You could stare, fascinated, into the blank whiteness of a glacier.  You could lose yourself in a view of black cliffs.

Everyday after getting back to the hotel, I chatted with my then-new girlfriend online.  I shared all my excitement and joy and she was happy for me and asked me to tell her more.  Falling in love with Reykjavik and falling in love with my now-soon-to-be-wife were tied up together.

Iceland is often called the land of fire and ice.  Scalding hot water erupts from geysirs while cool air rises off blue blocks of frozen water.  The raw edges, the apparent deep inconsistencies, and the health and beauty of the place all were one.  That made my strange and brutal contradictions feel at home.

Posted in bipolar disorder, dating, Iceland, Kayaking, LBGT, mania, mental illness, same-sex marriage, strange gratefulness, wedding | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Sugar Rush

Same as the others, lady.  Shhugarrr.

I love sugar.  I’m a longtime, hardcore addict.  And now, again, sugar and I must part.

Two years ago, while supervising a June exam in a stuffy gym, half my body went cold.  One arm prickled.  Half my face had numbed. I told a good friend and colleague, who called a medical hotline.  They advised going to the emergency room.  After undergoing a scan to check for a minor stroke, I came out clean, and was sent home with instructions: if this happened over the next 3 days, return immediately.

A psychiatrist who’d seen me for years felt that this incident was neurological. Twice more I went to emergency after completely losing sensation in one arm (and the feeling of muscle use).  The psychiatrist believed I was having early symptoms of a major neurological disorder, like MS or Parkinson’s.

During a third visit to the ER, when my throat had gummed up and I couldn’t swallow food properly, the ER doctor told me she was sure it was extreme anxiety and I should be medicated for that.  Since the symptoms were repetitive and worrisome, she fast-tracked me for a neurological consult, to be sure.

The neurologist asked me to perform various physical tasks.  All easily done.  The neurologist was kind, thorough and no-nonsense to the core.  She bid me goodbye to give a little extra time to the man right after me, struggling in his wheelchair with severe MS, saying I should be medicated for severe anxiety.

I have no problem with others taking psychiatric medications.  They are life-changing (or life-saving) in a range of situations (and they have been in mine). But I hate being on them and try to limit their use.  It’s not a moral decision.  It just kind of is.

I wouldn’t ask anyone to defend taking more of them – what right do I have?  No one owes me a justification of their life.  It’s THEIRS.

Sometimes the illness is such that there is no choice.  It would be harmful and irresponsible not to take medication.

Most importantly, what do I care?  If someone’s life is working, the only thing I have to say is GOOD.

My issue is that it’s hard to teach drugged-up.  For my first 2 years as a teacher, I felt like the classroom was drowning in fog until about 2 p.m.  2?!  That’s WAY too late!  The teaching day is 75% done, plus there are morning meetings with students or staff before classes start.  True, there’s lots of marking and prep usually done in the evening.  Paperwork, even creative paperwork, I can do in a fog.  Interpersonal stuff?  Are you kidding? I’m no social genius to begin with.

So last summer I started looking for ways to limit anxiety.  One of the things that I read said this: if you are serious, really serious, about limiting severe anxiety, stop eating refined sugar.  Period.

Chocolate cake?  Snickers?  Kraft peanut butter?

No, no, no.

ARGGGH.

After 6 weeks, my head felt clear in a way I barely recognized.  It was hard to stay off the sugar, but my girlfriend backed me and we did the grocery shopping very carefully.  Many people are not as sensitive to refined sugar, but it became clear that I had found something that worked and didn’t require a prescription.  A perfect solution.

Except – gosh, it’s bloody difficult for me to stick with.  We’re coming to the end of the school year and I’m craving the sugar crutch.  Last week I ate an entire large bag of M&Ms.  You know, the kind marked “For Sharing?”  Marvelous & Magnificent.    Then I felt sick and unsettled the next day.  Didn’t matter.  A few days later I bought a 3 Musketeers.

Now that I’ve had some sugar, the draw is strong.  And the timing couldn’t be more crucial.  With 3 months to our wedding, my girlfriend and I have a lot of details to sew up.  My goal is to be steady for her through this.  As far as work goes, there are many responsibilities to come – some to ensure current students finish well and some to ensure future students will be prepared for.  No slips permitted.

So – no sugar.  Or as close as I can get.

Do you have tips or tricks?  I’ll take them with great appreciation.

Posted in anxiety, emergency room, LBGT, neurology missteps, psychiatry, strange gratefulness, sugar wars, teaching, wedding | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Invitation Station

Things I’ve learned about wedding planning so far:

1) Everybody’s got advice.  Some’s lovely.  Some is likely to make your wedding resemble an avant-garde performance piece.  Or an 18th century garden party.

2) Everybody thinks one of us gals will be wearing a suit.  True, I don’t wear dresses often.  But I love them.  Now’s my chance.  It won’t be white – my girlfriend and I can’t really carry off an all-white bridefest.  She’ll be in white though.  She’s also holding the bouquet.  Between the 2 of us, grace is more her style.

3) Everybody comes back to greet or haunt you (through your invitation list). 

This one is the hardest.

My girlfriend is a steady, kind, warm person who, from what I can tell, has always been that way.  She’s got a group of longtime friends from years ago who are happy to travel across the country for the wedding day.

I don’t.

When I was younger, I alienated almost everyone I knew with erratic actions and unpredictable, very dramatic behavior.  I have tremendous respect for anyone with a strong mental illness who maintains good friendships at the height of the storm.  I failed totally here.

One of the people I alienated was my closest friend at the time.  We had moved in together, a terrible idea I was very attached to.  She was a thoughtful, steady person with a naturally optimistic outlook.  Eventually I became too extreme and she too was unable maintain our friendship.  She moved out of the apartment and cut off all communication.

I never expected to hear from her again, and was shocked when she tentatively found me and wrote a message online twelve years later.

We are no longer close.  But we keep in touch regularly-sporadically – messages at odd times but keeping up to date with the important things as they spring up.  We’ll never have the easy rhythm of our youthful camraderie again.  Surprisingly there’s something else – a nameless way we’re still bonded.

Maybe that’s why she’s coming to my wedding.  This is definitely something I never thought I’d see.  Now I’d like to tie this up with some kind of competent phrase, but I can’t.  Her coming, after everything, leaves me speechless.

Posted in family, friendship, lists for life, mental illness, reconnecting, strange gratfulness, wedding | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Freedom or Bust!

Ahhh, Wonder Woman.  A powerful female who’s ready to take on the world.  And seems to have lost her shirt.  Don’t worry, Wonder.  We’ve all been there.

Uh… right?

I remember a day where, after leaving a psychiatrist’s office, there was a long walk home to follow.  I didn’t have much money and couldn’t afford a bus ticket.  The way would take about an hour and half down one of the busiest streets in the city.

‘You’ve gotten very paranoid,’ the doctor told me.  ‘We may need to change your medication.’

Oh man.  I was having none of that.  I’d take this paranoia thing head on.  Just you wait, Doctor.  I’ve got it licked.

Out on the street the sidewalk was hot with heavy sunshine.  Couples strolled lazily, happily eating ice cream.  In nearby parks, crowds swirled around blankets full of food.  And everyone seemed to be staring at my chest.

Ha ha ha!  I thought.  Gotcha, paranoia!

I’m not a busty lady by any stretch of the imagination.  These people can’t possibly be staring at my chest, I thought.  Just blown-out perception.  Paranoia. I’m going to ignore it and go on my merry way.

Minute after minute added more and more people who seemed to stare.  I didn’t care.  Screw my stupid paranoid head.  It didn’t control me.  I was going to win this fight by a landslide.

A few blocks before getting home, I needed to stop at the pharmacy to have a prescription filled.  The pharmacist again glared at my chest.

‘Oh,’ she said, going a little white.

Forget it, I thought.  Pay and move on.

‘Uhhh, the cash isn’t working.  You’ll have to… take this and pay at the front.’  She handed me yet another clear plastic bottle, rattling with lithim pills, in a paper bag with a label stapled to it.

Standing in line, more people stared.  Whatever.  Then I was in front of a young cashier.  She was late teens, maybe very early twenties.  She looked me right up and down.  Then picked up the bag and read the label.

‘Oh Jesus,’ she groaned.  ‘That makes sense.’  She pointed at my chest. ‘Hey, you might want to fix that.’

Finally I looked down.  I was wearing a light blouse that was… completely undone.  Underneath, a bra but nothing else… no camisole, no t-shirt.  All the way down the street.  At some point I must have done it – loosed every button until the shirt was flying open like a flag.

Welllllll… fine!  Who needs these conservative… prudes?  Not me!  Who needs to do up their shirt for them?  Judgmental judgers!

Paying for the lithium, I spun away from the cash and headed back out into the sunshine, now fully aware and still refusing to cover up.  It was only a few minutes’ home.  In my bedroom I collapsed on the bed, thoroughly worn out, head spinning.  I was naturally a pretty modest dresser.  This was weird.  That’s all the reflection I had on it – what a weird day.

To this day, whenever I wear a button-up shirt to work, I’ll look down periodically.  Standing in front of a class?  Only Wonder Woman could get away with shielding herself with those bracelets.

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hallucinations & a side of cherry pie

Lately I’ve been trying to figure out what to do with a memory full of hallucinations.

I don’t hallucinate much now.  Barely at all – maybe once a year, and it’s brief.  But for years it was daily and it interfered with a lot.

There were different types of hallucinations… it makes it easier to think of giving them types and headings.  Some were noiseless but they left a buzzing after that was hard to hear through.  Some were screeching and would hang over for hours.  Some seemed to alter the environment, leaving their noises behind, like the crackle of fire.

Sometimes I think the hardest thing about disturbing hallucinations isn’t the image, the sound, or even the free-flow fear.  It’s the loneliness.

Dealing with hallucinations is a lonely way to live.  There’s no one in there fighting with you.  Maybe if there were, the whole thing would feel different.  You could come out the other side with a friend, and could say, look, we’ve beaten it together.

Back in university a friend and I would go to a Chinese diner for cherry pie after late classes.  The Chinese food was terrible but the pie was cheap, day-glo red and sugary, which we were into.

She had an older boyfriend and used to talk about their relationship quite a bit, weaving stories out of their lives.  She was witty and smart and generally no matter what kind of day it had been, I’d laugh, freely and gratefully.  Then she’d ask me about my day and if truthful, the story would’ve been about the figures who blocked the way out, hollering, hovering in front of my apartment’s front door.

You don’t, though.  You think, thank god for this friend and the cherry pie.

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We Are Making A New World

Paul Nash’s We Are Making A New World

The first time I saw this picture was in universityI was 20, 5′ 7″ and around 95 pounds.  I’d never been thin and have a large frame,  but for 2 years, days would go by and I’d just forget to eat.  Hallucinating was distracting.

A psychiatrist urged me to stay out of school for the year and recover.  But there’s 2 kinds of people in the world, when it comes to school and crises.

1) People who find school a burden, and need to be relieved from it

2) People who find school stabilizing, and need it to be relieved from chaos

Stay or go?

Since becoming a teacher, I’ve met students in both camps.  Some teenagers who lose a parent to an illness, for instance, need time off to be with other family.

Or they need to forget about social and academic pressure altogether.

Or they just don’t want to talk more than they need to.  For the most part, it looks pretty unusual to other teenagers to suddenly stop talking. And they know it.

Others are desperate for the structure and familiarity of school.  I’ll never forget twin 15 year old girls who’d lost their mother a couple of years ago, in my homeroom class.  Their background was totally unstable.  Their mother had been an on-again off-again presence in their lives.  Her drug addiction had left her distant. The girls had spent time living with their grandmother, staying at friends’ houses for extended periods, in temporary foster homes.  Their father wasn’t in the picture.

When their mother died, the school expected them to be away for a while, staying with their grandmother who they loved.

But you couldn’t keep them away from school.  You couldn’t give them an extension on a single assignment.  They wouldn’t accept it.  Neither girl found school easy, and one had to struggle badly to pass.  But they kept asking for more feedback, politely and urgently, going steadily forward.

During that time one of the male students, who had known the twins all their lives, took on a kind of paternal role with them.

He kidded them gently and smiled at them with mischief in his eye, as if to say that all the right jokes were still possible.

He walked them to their grandmother’s house.  He kept me up to date with brief, thoughtful, thoroughly undramatic descriptions of their state.

When their grief was extreme, I deeply admired the twins ability to go on.  We liked each other and had always gotten along well.  But our exchanges were simple and warm, not intimate or searching.  Their friend’s care amazed me.

Besides what he obviously gave the girls, it helped me to understand where they were and some of the things our school needed to do for them: provide a world that made sense, treat them kindly, fairly and logically, and put worthwhile goals within reach.

Tearing might’ve worked, but I doubt it

I didn’t lose a parent and there is no comparison to that loss.  But I can make a connection between their need for structure and goal-setting during a time of crisis, and mine.

As long as I could remember, I was terrified of losing my head.  As a young kid I feared being sent to a mental hospital in a white jacket as my family looked on.

Now 19, 20, I sat in a hospital psychiatrist’s office.  He wore the white coat though.

You are a danger to yourself. 

You have become irrational. 

You don’t know the difference between fantasy and reality. 

At minimum, you will flunk out of school. 

I’m trying to understand you, but I can’t understand a word you’re saying.  You’re speaking way too fast. 

Your arms are flailing.  Do you know this?

I didn’t.

You’ve become very paranoid.

It felt like my imagination had made a jailbreak, smashing through the flimsy walls of my brain and littering havoc wherever I looked.  Now there was a bottle of lithium to go with it.

Leave school?

That psychiatrist had to be kidding.

I loved studying, and longed to learn.  Plus the whole university reeked of contemplative, knowing quiet.  And decency.

They’d have to rip it from my hands.  Or tear me out of the university with expulsion letters and tuition refunds.

The doctor was right about the possibility of flunking out though.  Unlike the twins I later taught,  I was a totally unpredictable student.

Once I marched confidently into a literature class to give a presentation about a short story.  The night before, I had counted all the syllables in the story – there were over 12,000 – and divided the sum by 2.  The halfway point of the story should have been exactly where the halfway point was in the syllable count (maybe 6250 syllables in?).  But it wasn’t.

There was a syllabic imbalance, I announced to the class, beaming with pride (I’d invented the term).  Collecting some strange looks on the way out the door, there was later received a failing mark to go with them.

It sure wasn’t the only time opening my mouth during a presentation backfired.

Other times things worked out differently.  I took a Shakespeare course from a scholar who was a specialist in linguistic patterns.  Our first paper was on Hamlet.  For 15 pages, I tried to analyse the use of vowels in a soliloquy.  For days I did little else but count up all the different vowel sounds, tracking them in long spidery charts in ballpoint pen.

That paper came back with an A+.  The professor gave me what he called a spontaneous book prize.  Two days later, in another course, I failed a simple test half-hour comprehension test.

Living in the new world

One course I got lucky with was Art and War.  Our professor was a typically brainy Ph.D. with unusually energetic empathy.  She wanted us to see as many artists’ reaction to war as possible.  We read fiction and poems, listened to music, studied paintings and pored over comic books.

She encouraged disciplined freedom of the imagination, if that makes any sense.  She never said so but that’s how I’d name it, looking back.  Freedom without wildness.  Without savagery.  That sounded great.  My mind had made some savage turns.

One of the paintings we looked at when studying the First World War was the one at the top of this post.  Paul Nash’s We Are Making A New World.  Our professor asked us to examine it and give our reactions.

It really didn’t do much for me.  Until a fellow student spoke up.

“Everything has been destroyed.  And now we don’t know if the sun is rising or setting.”

We stared at the painting.  It was true.  There was no way to tell if the light was blazing afresh or releasing its last beams.

Was the world reborn or had it vanished?  Were they building a new world after the war had ended?  Would a new forest grow?  Or was it a new world built out of war?  One that would always be gutted by gunshot sinkholes?

After that afternoon I taped a photocopy of Paul Nash’s painting to my whitewashed apartment bedroom wall.

Later, as I moved from apartment to apartment and the copy yellowed, I made another copy.  Stuck it to my fridge with a magnet.  Then, when I got a fridge that wouldn’t accept magnets, I pinned it to a scratchboard behind my desk in the high school where I teach.

Why?

I guess because it tells me that we are always making a new world, one way or another.  It is happening.  So you’d better decide what kind of world it’s going to be and swing hard towards that.

Look at the painting one way and it’s horribly dark.

Look at it another and it’s a burst of hope.

There’s so many moments like this.  The darkness is real.  The destruction is real.  And somehow the hope is real too.  They live together.  You can’t count either out.

So I’ve got to take them both in.  And start building.

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the great right here

These are the facts: I am a gay, bipolar woman on the verge of a wedding.

Why write about that?

I guess it’s an attempt to figure out how I got here and departed from the blurry world that came before.  Maybe that’s why anyone feels compelled to tell their own story.

You too?

More basics: I am nearing forty.  No kids.  Never done drugs, not even weed.  One of my students once passed on a cool name for that, letting me know I was ‘straight edge.’  Thanks again to her.  Believe me, I don’t need to buy what drugs provide.  Too much overflow imagination for free, at inconvenient times.

What else…  my girlfriend is astonishingly bright and gentle.  She’s an artist.  Though if she were here, she wouldn’t let me type that.  Talent?  Yesss.  Oil on canvas?  X.

Hoping for stability, she took a nine-to-fiver in the business world.  She still works with her talent, but for a company that provides a profitable service and a paycheque (yes, CHEQUE.  Just can’t let go).

If you know anything about bipolar disorder, you know that that kind of evenness is like interpersonal gold dust to someone like me.  She’s got an internal rudder that just won’t quit.

For the record, I proposed.  As soon as she accepted, I felt an overwhelming sense of peace.  Like a river had washed over and left me to lay out and dry in the soft sunlight.

I always expected to feel tied down by a marriage, and that’s one of the reasons I haven’t been in one (the others include previous legal objections and lack of women interested in marrying me).  But it’s freeing.  I feel more hopeful about the coming years than I have since I was a child.

So now it seems necessary to trace back, and see how I got here, before I leap out into the beyond of what will be.  Maybe you’re there too – just here, today, happily and somewhat uneasily sandwiched between the past and future.

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