Thursday, November 19, 2009

Riding the Invisible Dragon

Once upon a time there was a princess who set at her desk most of the day and wept.  She tried to hide her face from others because weeping at her desk was not in her job description. There were times she wept because something sad had happened, but sometimes she wept because the dragon she was riding dove for the ground.

Some days, some nights this fiercely beautiful, wildly untamable creature arches her neck, spreads her shimmering wings , as they soar to the high upper reaches where the stars are always bright and the moon always full.  The dragon's flames light up the sky, the princess shrieks her joy.  Poised precariously on her dragon's back, she dances until she falls, still laughing as the moon and stars spin past her.

Sometimes the dragon catches her.

Sometimes she keeps falling.

And sometimes they soar too high and the dragon twists, plunging down into deep water, into caverns where there is no light, until the princess begins to believe that light is an illusion and all there is, all there ever will be is darkness.

The princess, though, is the only one who can see the dragon.  To everyone else she is gyrating frantically through the skies, shooting up, diving for the ground, and all of her own volition.

This is, of course, metaphor and an oddly mixed one at that, unless the princess's office is somewhere between Middle Earth and Hogwarts.  Obviously, too, (or at least I think it is) the princess is me.

I'm bipolar.

When I was crying at work--I cry, only princesses get to weep--I was in the midst of the break that finally sent me to the psychiatrist who named the dragon. I had been treated for depression for years because who sees the therapist when you're flying high in a mania? However, this final break was triggered by a medication that works great on depression--not so much on bipolarity.

Crying at work.  Certain that not only did no one like me, but sure that they were talking behind my back and telling everyone how damned incompetent I was.  (They probably were but I wasn't being singled out--it was just the way things are sometimes.)

The 3:00 AM awakenings were especially fun. I would wake up crying. The dogs that slept with me would looked baffled and one even--how maudlin--would actually try to lick away my tears.  (Shit--he probably just needed more salt in his diet.)  All my sins and failures, especially as a mother, would come and sit on my chest, going over a detailed laundry list of my crimes against everyone. There was no washing away these sins, either.  I knew I was unlovable and that the people who said, who thought, they loved me were either deluded or loved me out of pity.

Did I always cry?  No.  Anger and hysterical rage are also a part of mania. I could go from trembling lips and barely held back tears after being told I'd misspelled a word, to shaking anger and ice dagger words.

I had a sticky note on my computer with a list:. d. t., d. t.. d. e., l. p.--which stood for don't talk, don't think, don't eat, look pleasant. 

Being carried by the dragon was no joy ride for me, but being anywhere near me was certainly no pleasure either. I wasn't always angry, I wasn't always tearful.  I could still laugh--my family tends to have a pretty dark sense of humor--but I wasn't just fragile, I was brittle and ready to shatter at the slightest touch.

People (wisely) avoid being around you if they can and when they are--they tiptoe.

Or they try to help you.  Usually they're rational and reassuring.  People don't really hate you.  Your kids--or "we" when it was one of the kids talking--have turned out fine, so you didn't ruin them.

Cheer up.  Snap out of it.  Let's go do something fun.

I tried my own drugs of choice: buying stuff and things for other people, trying to help my friends and family with their lives (I think it's actually called interfering), refusing to open any mail that looked remotely like a bill--because if you don't open them you don't have to pay them--spending the time I wasn't working curled in my recliner with a book and the computer on my lap and the TV on.  Nothing could hold my attention for very long.  Oh, and by the way, if you're ever shopping in this aisle, the, uh, "admiration" of men can be quite an excellent drug too.  And you might be surprised at what can seem like a good idea at the time.

Humans tell stories and want to frame life and make order, or at least some kind of sense out of the chaos.  When the dragon is taking you for a ride, you sometimes try to figure out why.  Because there has to be a why, doesn't there? My ex-husband caught of lot flack on this one--blame for how I was feeling, blame for leaving me, blame for not understanding now, for being mean to me.  Now we aren't divorced for nothing and there are people, including our own children, who are amazed the marriage lasted so long. We're both battered and scared, but the dragon didn't walk in the door he opened to walk out. I brought her with me and I got full custody.

There is also the explanation of simply being unlovable, unworthy, and a burden to everybody whose orbit touches yours. That's when people start watching you closely and don't like to leave you alone.

Most of the time though you're just too busy trying to hang on, flailing around for something to grab hold of. What's hard to explain--to others and even to yourself--is that you didn't choose to get on the dragon and you didn't choose this emotional crack the whip. To other people, the people around you, you're doing the crazy dance, but the assumption is that at some level you WANT to dance and you'd get off  the dance floor if you really wanted to. (Do I have to remind you that the dragon is invisible to everyone else?  It's the best I can do metaphorically, so please keep it in mind.)

But the hard thing for you, the rider--meaning of course me--is to admit that while you didn't choose to get on this dragon, there's really no one to blame for the wild ride, not circumstances, not other people, and not even your own unlovable and horrible self.

It's an illness. A mental illness.

Frankly I hated the term.  When the psychiatrist first suggested it (her statement was, "I will not give you a diagnosis this quickly but if I were teaching a class to med students on bipolar--you would be a classic example to take to the class."),  I went into a kind of disassociated mental fugue.  Depressed was depressed but bipolar was really mentally ill. Mentally ill.  Which really means crazy. It takes awhile to wrap your crazy head around that, and a little longer to tell people what your doctor said. You walk the road to acceptance in fits and starts and the dragon doesn't stop the ride any time soon.

 The meds help amazingly.  The clinical sounding words "mood stabilizer" don't convey the tremendous, rainbow-hued relief they can be.  The clouds begin to lift and the reign of tears begins to end.

You learn that you can't cure this yet, but you can  manage it.  You can feed the dragon or learn to keep her in her stall. Take your meds.  Keep a routine, which is hard when chaos has been the only life you've known. Take your meds. Talk to yourself (usually better in private and maybe just on paper or in your own head) when the dragon starts sidling up to you.  Carrie Fisher (who talks about her own diagnosis) says, "The facts of my life don't change; the fiction does." That's when you have to remind yourself that feelings are only feelings and do a reality check.

I've learned to be aware of the signs that the dragon is creeping up and I'm putting on my riding boots.  When tears are right behind my eyes, when fears of a rejection that hasn't happened knots my stomach, some of the time I can step back and repeat the mantra of "feelings are only feelings. They aren't reality."

I told my therapist on my first visit that my goal was to sort out what was fucked up brain chemistry and what was real in my life. I'm still sorting.  It's like having diabetes, a good day yesterday doesn't mean you can be careless today. 

Mindfulness.  Self-awareness.  These are the gifts of managing this illness, this whatever it is, because these are the tools that help to gentle the dragon.

I'm learning to embrace the dragon rather than fight her.  Which is a fancy lame attempt at a poetic way of saying that while this illness doesn't define me,  it is a part of me, and that acceptance is the only way to stay grounded.

And it wasn't all bad; I can still remember the glitter of the stars and a full moon rising, poems pouring out like honey in summer, love so intense it was like lightning, rolled like thunder, and lit up the sky.

But I live now where light is not a illusion and the ground is under my feet.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

I THINK I Believe in Being Positive. Maybe

Oh, Lord, I believe, help thou my unbelief" used to be one of my favorite prayers--along with "Send my roots rain," and "please, please, please let there be enough money in my account to cover that last check."  (I don't know if it's true there are no atheists in foxholes, but I'm pretty damn sure there aren't too many the day before payday when you really needed that check two days earlier.)
A good friend pointed out that in my previous blahblah blog (I Am Like SO Sure) there's more than a smidgen of negativity.  I think my point was the strength of my conviction--or yours, or anyone's for that matter--has nothing to do with being right, whether it's about a baseball game or the meaning of life.

Still hold with that and she didn't disagree.

However, her point is that believing does make a difference. And, on reflection, I think she's right.  Within the limits of rationality. (And I'm a lover of Lord of the Rings and a universe of infinite possibility and all the weird things light and subatomic particles do--but I don't think I'm going to play for the NBA no matter what I believe.) 

On the other hand--which is where I frequently go without ever having gone to the one hand--belief shapes behavior. That's an easy postulate. We don't have the time or resources to check everything in the world and sometimes we have to act on faith--faith that the waitress at Carrow's isn't out to poison us, that space aliens aren't sending messages through our fillings, all that. Paranoid schizophrenia is an incredibly debilitating illness.  And whatever the opposite might be--trusting everyone and everything?-- is, in my opinion, equally lethal. Believing that everyone has a soul and is a child of god should not lead to going home with the guy with chainsaw unless he's your tree surgeon. There are people who do not wish us well and situations that do not end happily.

Beyond that, I think MM is right in that if you think you can do something, you are far more likely to do it.  And if you believe you can't--well, that's pretty likely too.  If I believe I can go to college, I'm far more likely to look for possibilities for colleges, financial aid, majors I would like.

That's elementary duhness.

Attitude is important too.  If I expect good things to happen I'm going to act in ways that have a chance of attracting good things.  By and large people like to be around positive types unless they're good looking dark and brooding types with an ironic twist of bitter phrase that makes you laugh.

Of course, for a lot of us that might still fall into the category of expecting good things.

Be that as it may....

But where is the point that belief and denial converge and should divide, or--?  I read a story once about the actor Richard Dreyfuss who said that he almost literally never heard negative comments on his acting and his chances.  He was so focused and so sure that he would be a successful actor that no alternative ever entered his thoughts.

Wow.  Straight ahead tunnel vision maybe can move mountains, one more kick will churn the butter (an Irish saying about the frog in a jug of cream), refusing to listen to the people who tell you "why try?" can pay off.

However, and there's always one of those, at least when I'm writing, when I worked as a chaplain's assistant at a hospital I worked on the oncology floor--I worked with cancer patients.  This was at the height of the attitude determines prognosis movement. There were patients who wore smiles always, except--perhaps--in their sleep. Nothing was painful, nothing was difficult, and there was no possibility of anything but victory over the disease.

So, what was wrong with that? Well, for one I don't think denying that having cancer is an absolute bitch is realistic or healthy.

I could be wrong.

What I do recall is the self-flagellation I would see if a negative thought was permitted to cross patients' lips or minds. And if the cure didn't happen, if they were dying, the fault was theirs because they didn't try hard enough, weren't positive enough.  If the family shared this belief, the person died because she didn't want to live.

As Americans (in general) we love fighters. We're right there raging against the dying of the light. Passive acceptance is not our way/

But life happens and death happens (a nurse once reminded me that death is the one appointment no one is ever late for). It's happening now, as my fingers hit the keyboard and the microwave beeps and I remind myself I need to do my timesheet. A pretzel stick is soothing my soul and the slightly old and somewhat bitter coffee is hot. Now.

My bare feet are planted on holy ground.  Wherever I stand, holy ground. I'm not sure what this means and where believing in my dreams fits in to this.

Do I even know what those dreams are worth, what could be, what should be?  At one time I would have ripped my right arm off with my teeth to have our family be the living avatars of the Brady Bunch.Turns out that instead we are us.  Broken marriage but unbroken family--although a lot patched, glued and mended--events happened that couldn't be resolved in 30 minutes or 30 years, just endured and survived. Are their things I would change if I could?  Good Lord, yes! But I don't know if I would, if it meant losing what is. A situation that almost anyone would describe as disastrous resulted in a grandson who is the light of so many lives, who, his mother says, saved her life.

I'm not a person who believes that everything happens for good or is part of god's plan.  If there's a deity that planned Rwanda, I'm not lighting any candles. But I do believe in quilts and mosaics.  Take what is torn and broken and try to piece it together into something that, if not beautiful, might be useful.

It's holy ground.  There's no point in standing in shit and calling it roses--but I can, you can try to plant roses or at least  some onions in it and hope they grow,.

So, I guess I do believe. In believing.

Help thou my unbelief.

Monday, November 9, 2009

I Am Like SO Sure

It started with a yada yada conversation about week-end plans with JE.  In the world of baseball and post-season play, everything is scheduled around The Game(s).  He began with, "When do the Angels and Yankees play?"

I took another swig of my Corona.(in the tradition of Seniors Citizens--which is my new club--we were at a Happy Hour when drinks are cheaper and occasionally there are free snacks.)

Sometimes I worry about him.  "What game?" The Angels had lost a fourth game, American League playoffs were over and it was time to move on.  Hoping for the Yankees to get their pinstriped butts kicked, but nonetheless time to get to "acceptance" already.

"The fifth game."

"There is no fifth game--the Angels lost."  I could see their stiff upper lipped I'm too big a boy to cry faces headed toward the clubhouse.

Another thing I've learned in this new Senior Club is that anxious looks from people around you are not uncommon.  Lose your keys.  Misplace a coffee cup or the date, forget a kid's name when the kid is yours--forget your own name--and people look...worried.

We were giving each other The Look.  JE is older than I am and a little hard of hearing, while my hearing is adequate and it's the vision going.  (Now Bush the Elder just showed up in my head which is not an unusual event--not Bush but the whole pinball thought process --nd he's going on about the vision thing. Never mind, though.  Really.)   Being as JE sometimes misses things, occasionally I have to set him straight--gently and with great respect for his feelings.

"Bet you five bucks, " I said.

He raised.  We'll skip the details but it was the kind of stake where no matter who loses both people win.

A handshake and we went back to our beers.  Nibbling veggie spring rolls and barbecued ribs--which were NOT free but were (in theory) at a reduced price.  I kept looking sideways at him--frankly a little worried.  How could he be so confused?

Of course he was giving me the same looks and asked me several times: "You really are sure about this, aren't you.?"

"Wouldn't bet the rent money, but, yeah, I am."  Wondering how he would take the inevitable news that he was wrong.

Naturally, you know what happened--or otherwise I wouldn't be writing this, now would I?  He was right  I had commingled the defeat of my team--the Dodgers--at the bats and gloves of the Phillies with the hard fought Angels' win over the Yankees in game four.  I had ended up with two sad stories when the second one hadn't happened yet.  (It did.) Right about the saddened faces, wrong about the team.

We watched the game and the Angels lost.  But the whole incident "gave me furiously to think," as Hercule Poirot would say.  (I have to drop these things here because most of the time nobody I'm talking to would get the reference and I don't have to worry if you get it or not.  Or even if I've misquoted it.)

I had had absolutely no doubt that I was right.  Not a speck, not a scintilla, not a crumb.  None.

With the  kind of certainty I had had , I might have risked the gallows.  Or at least mockery on the Drudge Report.

And I was wrong.  Completely, no excuse, and no shading wrong.  The only thing I had right were the names of the teams and there's no prize for that.

My point?  The strength of your conviction has nothing to do with being right.  And this brilliant insight is applicable in all kinds of ways.  Really.

First of all, I find my certainty unnerving.  I SAW the Angels win.  True, just on television,  but I saw it and then managed to flush it completely out of my mind.  I was almost literally blind--there was something I couldn't "see,," no matter how clear and plain it was.

That kind of scary wrong certainty makes me wonder about other things I'm damn sure about.

One of the arguments I've heard from both pulpits to religious books of varying academic weight actually rests on the whole strength of conviction argument.  Why would the disciples been fired with evangelical zeal, if they didn't know that Jesus was the resurrected, living Messiah? Early Christians faced the lions (who just about always won), torture, stoning, crucifixion--only a crazy person would endure that if they weren't absolutely, heart and soul deep convinced.

I have no argument with this assumption until it's taken to the next step which is to claim that this passionate belief proves that the tenets of Christianity are fact, well, fact.

The one has nothing to do with the other, any more than a suicide bomber's willingness to die proves anything about the "facts" of his/her whatever religion or ideology the dying is for.

I was so very sure about what I KNEW I knew that not one bit of doubt crept in--not one. I was only "concerned" over JE's feelings when the poor darling found out he was wrong.

These days in self-help lit and in political arguments, religious arguments, and on and on and on, doubt is of the devil.  You shouldn't ever doubt yourself, your abilities, and the in reachness of your dreams.  Don't waver or wobble in your faith, your ideas, your solutions.  Don't even waver on what you say you said--even if those damn lying words are on video--because strength of conviction is all.

One of my favorite sayings--going back to the days when I wrote advice for parents of teens--is "choose the hill you're going to die on."  Not every issue is the apocalypse and if you treat it as such--well, by the time the real thing shows up all your ammo and your credibility will be gone.

The trouble is that I think the real issue is becoming not what hill will you die on--but the various hills you will kill for.  Lord knows we've all seen more than enough of that--the World Trade Center is an obvious one, along with the Pentagon, suicide bombers, Oklahoma City, and acceptable "collateral damage" nearly everywhere.  Woops, my bad's are everywhere.  Didn't know that was a school, hospital, wedding party.  Sorry for the babies blown to pieces in daycare in Oklahoma, but they probably shouldn't have been in a government building anyway.  I could--and usually do--go on and on.  Health care, stalled budgets, hating your neighbor and sending your dog to poop in the middle of his/her lawn....

However, my daughter, KM, pointed out to me that most people want to read something short in a blog.  If they wanted a book, they'd buy one.

She has a point.

But I want to bring this around to my barefoot on the ground and mindful moments--even if  that epiphany at Happy Hour and home is old, cliche, and hardly even new to me. I mean, like wow: I can be wrong.  Facts can be not only discounted and ignored, but erased. My mind--your mind, anyone's mind--can try to reinvent reality to suit our desires and never register a conscious thought.

Believing really, really hard doesn't make anything so. Wishing doesn't make it so. Saying "make it so" isn't a guarantee either, unless, perhaps, you are a deity. And, if you are, why are you reading this?

Mindfulness is being present, present in the world as it is, not as I want it to be.  (That's another blog entirely.)  If I am present in the moment, PAYING ATTENTION, I might be less likely to delude myself.

If I am trying to be aware, I might be able to perceive the desires that I am focusing on that are simply that: desires.  Acknowledge them and let them pass. I wanted the Dodgers to win.  I'm not actually that fond of the Angels even though I want to be.

I can check my facts.

And, in matters of faith and belief where facts as we know them do not exist, humility would seem to be in order