All Mixed Up

I haven’t written a column here in some time. I haven’t felt like I’ve had anything to say. I still feel that way. Like nothing I say is important or matters. Sounds like I’m depressed. Everybody around me says I’m stable. My psychiatrist, my counselor, my partner and my friends all think I’m fine. And I guess I am. Only in so many other ways I’m not. I was originally diagnosed with bipolar II, with mixed states and rapid cycling. I’m not sure if I fit the technical criteria for mixed states and rapid cycling or not. But it sure is my lived experience. And it happens all the time, every day. Or so it seems. In actual fact I’m sure it doesn’t, but I’m often in a mixed state, and the mood changes often happen more rapidly than I can easily handle. It feels like I’m bouncing around all the time.

I’ve been keeping a mood chart lately. I’ve also been charting my pain level next to it. The two so often go together for me. It’s been interesting, even though it’s only been a month. I’ve broken up the days into two or three or four hour sections. I put down a word to describe my mood and a number for my pain level. My pain has been pretty consistent at six or seven. With a few jumps up to eight or more. But my mood descriptors have been all over the place. Lots of Good’s and OK’s. But most of the entries seem to say Mixed or Depressed. When I fill in the space at the end of the day for overall mood and pain levels I have a lot of Seven’s and Mixed’s. What I want to focus on here are the Mixed days.

In bipolar disorder a mixed mood basically means you experience both the highs and the lows at the same time. That’s been a significant part of my experience for months and months now, maybe years. I’m not there all the time, by any means. But I’m there way too often for my comfort. I can be having a wonderful, cheerful conversation with my partner about how beautiful the garden is, while my internal dialogue tells me I don’t deserve to live in such a beautiful place or have such a lovely garden to tend. This constant back-and-forth makes me feel unsettled much of the time. Add to that the crippling social anxiety I experience as part of the PTSD, and the bipolar fueled rage that makes me feel like exploding half the time, and you can see why it doesn’t feel like I’m doing as well as I appear. And underlying it all is the constant low grade depression of the dysthymia. I may look fine but inside I too often feel like a basket case.

Fortunately my high times don’t ever approach major hypomania these days. But in my low times I go as deep as I’ve ever gone into the depths of depressive despair. In seconds my heart can plummet to the floor and my outlook becomes unbearably bleak. By then I can be in full suicidal ideation mode. Often there’s a trigger that sets me off, but just as often there isn’t one. To me it feels like it just happens in an instant, without any conscious thoughts on my part whatsoever. It’s very hard to pull myself out of that state. But I do it every time I have to, every day. Right now I wouldn’t even try to pretend I’m not depressed. I’ve been this way for a couple of days. But even now, if it was required, I could pull myself out of it and act normal, at least for a little bit. That’s why everyone thinks I’m fine. I maintain too well for my own good.

In reality it’s a lie I perpetuate out of shame, fear and embarrassment. At the moment I’m experiencing all of those emotions as I prepare to continue writing this piece. Because, as much as I’m embarrassed and ashamed to say it, I still don’t think I’ve come to terms with this fucking bipolar disorder. It will be 24 years next month since I was diagnosed. I thought I’d dealt with this and had come to terms with having this illness and accepted it years ago. Now it feels like I didn’t really get rid of the fear at all. In some ways the longer I’ve known I’ve had this disorder the more afraid of my perceived mental deterioration I’ve become. I say perceived because I know my brain itself is just fine. It’s my thinking that is disordered. I feel stupid. I know I’m not. But right now I feel ashamed of having bipolar disorder, especially the depression. And that’s just stupid.

As a gay man I know that coming out is a life-long process. The same is true if you have a mental illness. You may think you’ve come out but then you find yourself in another situation where you have to come out again. This has happened repeatedly for me as far as being gay. It’s not really an issue for me here in liberal Seattle, but when I go to conservative Eastern Washington it’s a very different story. It’s even more so for mental illness. Again, especially for depression. When I’m hypomanic everybody loves me because I’m charming, cheerful, charismatic, positive and full of life. When I’m depressed I’m afraid to even tell anyone because I feel so negative and boring. I’m sure no one really wants to even be around me. That often includes my partner Louie. I know he’ll love me forever regardless of my emotional state. But I’m still terrified that I’ll burn him out on me if I’m too depressed too much of the time. I know that’s crazy thinking, but it’s got me bad. So I hide my feelings, even from him.

If I feel afraid of burning out Louie, imagine how I feel about my neighbors and people in general. I’m bloody terrified. Most people still think depression is a failure of character or will power. Of course I know that’s nonsense. But it doesn’t stop me from buying into their opinions in some situations. When you’re already feeling vulnerable it seems crazy to make yourself even more vulnerable by acting depressed. People think you’re weak if you’re depressed and when you’re already vulnerable you can’t afford to look weak. This attitude seems to be shifting a bit in our culture now. But our cult of pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps rugged individualism is still too strong to allow for those of us with depression. It takes a lot of guts to be who you are in this world. I say this as a privileged white boy. Imagine how much worse it is for a person of color, a woman, a trans person or anyone else who doesn’t fit society’s definitions of what it means to be a man, a woman or any other sexual identity. Or what it means to be mentally healthy and functional.

Everyone I know would tell you that I’m a high functioning individual who just happens to have bipolar disorder. That’s what they see and I have no desire to try to change those opinions. Except I sort of do. I want to feel free to exhibit my depression whenever I feel it so strongly. I want to be real and true and honest about who I am. But I’m scared. I’m afraid people will think less of me if they see me being depressed. I have what is often called a shame-based personality. That doesn’t mean I feel ashamed all the time, but when I do it can be overwhelming. I once told a counselor that I thought shame had stopped me from becoming manic at times. He laughed at me and told me mania was too strong to let shame stop it. I’m sure that’s true for full-blown mania. But shame has definitely kept me from acting out some of my worst hypomanic impulses. In some ways it has actually protected me from losing it. What a weird fucking paradox.

I rarely feel much strong hypomania these days. But even so when I’m feeling really really good I tend to ascribe it to hypomania rather than just a good mood. I don’t really act out the grandiosity but I certainly think of myself in that way at those times. A part of me still thinks I’m hot shit. It feels good to feel that way, which is why people like mania. Especially since I’m depressed so often. I can still go way overboard with the hypomania if it strikes me that way. My “episodes” rarely affect me for just the four day criteria needed for a diagnosis. They tend to be more diffuse and spread out over days, weeks, months and even years. A couple of years ago I spent about three months in a hypomanic state that I didn’t even know I was in until it was over. Balancing my checkbook was the clue that I’d really overdone it. I was chagrined and embarrassed that I had let myself get so carried away. Because underlying the hypomania was the usual depression, and I really didn’t feel that good about myself. I was in a mixed state.

I hope I’ve given you some idea of what it’s like to live with mixed states. As I’ve said, it can be a real challenge. In my high times I tend to do things and make promises that when I’m depressed just fall apart. I’ve always tried to be a very responsible person and to walk my talk. I think I’ve mostly been pretty good at that. But as I look back over my life I see so many times that I blew it. In fairness to myself I also see plenty of times that I did OK. Most of my life I’ve lived in a hypomanic haze, with periods of depression now and then. I’ve been able to function really well and I’ve created some good things in my time. But the last 24 years have been really hard. I haven’t been able to hold a real job in that time, even though I’ve done some good work now and then. This really affects my self image. I feel like a failure even though I know I’m not. Feeling good, feeling bad, feeling good, feeling bad – it’s a constant merry-go-round of emotion, especially when both things are happening at the same time.

My hope is that I will continue to learn that when I’m in a mixed state I need to moderate my behavior as much as I do as when I’m depressed or manic. Sometimes I think I’m doing really good at that. I’m depressed right now so everything looks pretty bleak. But if I know anything about depression, I know that it doesn’t last forever. One of these days I’ll start feeling better again, maybe even today. Mixed states give me a different perspective on reality than most people get to have. Just having bipolar does that. So I could view all this as a good thing. I’m trying hard to do that. Sometimes I’m even successful. I hate to be trite, but yes, there often is a silver lining. It’s pretty dim right now but with any luck it will get brighter in the near future. I won’t say I have much hope, but I do know that the wheel of life keeps turning, and sooner or later it’s bound to come up roses.

With mixed emotions,

Steve

Stable but Still Cycling

I just turned 63 this week so I figured maybe it’s time to check in here again. I’ve been so busy trying to stay OK and working in my garden and on the house. Through it all I’ve been healing from my surgery last May that I discussed I was going to have in my last post. Finally I’m healed up enough to enjoy having sex again so that’s a huge relief and my mood has taken a giant turn for the better since then. Hooray for Bionic Sex! But I still cycle all the time and it’s sometimes getting to me bad.

I did a homework assignment for my counselor the other week. He asked me to write down the good things in my life. Instead I did an old exercise I’ve done for 30 or more years. At the top of the page I wrote down “Who Am I?” and then I wrote down whatever came into my head. You can’t censor it, you have to write it all. Positive or negative. It could be “a piece of crap” or a “sparkling bit of light”. I get all sorts of weird concepts but overall it gives me a snap shot of my feelings and thoughts at the moment, and I had a lot of good ones in there with the bad.

It’s a great exercise and gave me a different perspective on all the negative emotions I’ve been going thru lately. It was like a catalyst and it changed my thinking for the better. Even in the midst of working hard on the house and gardens and accomplishing good things, I’ve still had this recurring cycle of downward spiraling thoughts that make me feel like dying and like I’m a useless human being. This is old stuff to those of us with cycling Bipolar I know but I’ve been doing it recently so I’m writing about it. I’ve been worse many times and couldn’t have put this on the page before.

My mind feels like the picture I posted. All open to sensations and input from the outside world that I can’t keep out very well. I shift each day from one kind of feeling to another without much break sometimes and it’s hard to cope. But I’m a lucky guy in that I have a wonderful partner to help me thru it all. He keeps me grounded and we’re so in love that the it’s wonderful and makes me feel like I deserve to live perhaps, tho it’s still a hard call sometimes. I’m so lucky to have him…

Anyway the exercise that I did is one I’d really recommend to other people struggling with their self image right now. It’s really easy to do but you have to honestly write down all the things you hear in your head, whether they’re good or bad, that’s what counts. It’s all who we are and none of us are purely saints or devils. We all have a range of possibilities of acting and thinking, and if we focus on that and the positive aspects of our lives it’s a lot easier on us, tho it’s often hard to do it.

Today has been especially hard for me. I’m trying to cut back on my Morphine a bit and I did so last night and I didn’t sleep well and woke up in pain and in a terrible, awful mood. I was so angry listening to the news I had to quit and go take some meds to calm me down. I also decided to write this post. It all helps me when I get this way. I’m better than I was an hour ago but I still feel wonky and uncertain. I feel fragile and like I could break too easily. A common feeling and one I know how to deal with pretty well. Drugs aren’t my only answers. I  have some nice Ravi Shankar sitar music playing on the computer as a backdrop to aid in my mood restoration, and I’m actively Trying to feel better. It’s working…

I suppose most people would say that I’m a good model of Recovery in my Bipolar reality. I can interact with people well and mostly enjoy my life. But these cycles keep me reminded that I have a serious mental illness that I have to constantly monitor even in my best of moods. I can snap in an instant and become totally enraged or become so depressed I want to die right then. It’s the story of rapid cycling and many of us do it. It’s hard to stay OK when your mind keeps sabotaging you.

I have a hard time with the biochemical explanation of Bipolar Disorder, but I don’t know what else to say about it. I clearly can’t control my mind on occasion no matter what I do, and I’m good a rearranging my  mind. So I feel forced to accept this diagnosis as a biochemical disorder that is beyond my absolute control, even tho I have a lot of that control. But I don’t always have it and I have to recognize that and go with the flow. If only I could remember how good life can be when I’m depressed. It’s a curse to forget that while it’s a blessing to be able to forget how bad the depressions are when you’re not in them. What a paradox, eh?

So I’m trying my best to go with that flow and to stay stable in the midst of my mind telling me I’m not OK. I’m doing good with it all but I sure wish life was different sometimes. It gets so hard to stay sane in an insane world. I’m hoping to be able to write more about my journey in this blog this winter when I have some time. There are a lot of things I’d like to say if I can get the words out and make sense of them.

And if my words can help others at all I feel blessed and grateful beyond measure. I get so much from all of you on here that it’s only fair to try to give back when I can. I try to do that in sharing my story and hope that some one recognizes themselves in it and is comforted by the empathy and camaraderie. I do get it…

Be well, and cycle carefully,

Steve

Give it Time…

I’ve always been pushing the river. Even as a kid I had too much to do and wanted it done Now. I wouldn’t study for school and only my native smarts let me still get A’s and B’s and my counselors said I didn’t work up to my potential. But I had things to Do. I was always in a hurry. When I went to college I couldn’t wait to graduate so I quit and got a job in a nursery and worked instead. But I couldn’t do that for long and ended up starting my own businesses while still working for others to learn. I was simply impatient, which is a contradiction in a gardener and I did have patience when it came to the growing things. But in my life I was still pushing that river.

But in 1976 I had something happen that stopped me cold. I started getting Migraines and suddenly I couldn’t move, let alone work or do what I wanted. I Had to stop and rest. It was hard. But I kept working and often would work with a migraine and it’s hell let me tell you. But I wouldn’t stop. Then a year later I was hit by a semi-truck driving on the freeway and my life changed forever in an instant. My back was trashed. I almost died in that wreck but still I wouldn’t stop. Sure I was laid up for months but I went back to my landscaping job and as soon as I could I hired people to work for me but if they did it wrong, there I was in the dirt fixing a brick patio or replanting a tree. See, I’m a perfectionist too of course.

When I moved to the Mountains of the Okanogan Highlands in Washington to homestead I worked managing a Food Co-op’s Health Food store, where I pushed as hard as I could. I got a lot done and still am regarded kindly there 25 years later. It was easier on my back and I could do it. But then in 1988 I got out of a sweatlodge ceremony and my back spasmed and I was thrown to the ground screaming and that stopped me for good, tho I had to finish building my cabin even in my  pain and disability. I didn’t know it then but my homesteading days were over.

I went back to Seattle and to school where I did well. But at the end of a job I was also doing, (still pushing it) I decided that I either had to kill myself or create my own non-profit Center presenting classes as I’d been doing in my job. I hadn’t been diagnosed with the bipolar yet but I sure was acting it out wasn’t I? But even that was too physical and in 1995 I had the all time worst breakdown in my life. I was crippled for months – emotionally, mentally, psychically, physically and spiritually. I lost my Center and I was a mess and I finally  had to stop pushing and take stock of my life.

Somewhere into my consciousness came the phrase “Give it Time”. I don’t know if I read it or thought of it or what. But I wrote it down and put it on my bookshelf, where it still resides today, some 15 years later. It’s my motto now and it shows in how I  live my life.  No more pushing the river for me. I take it easy and take my time. If I have an appointment I leave early so I don’t have to stress in traffic. If I have an argument with someone I try not to fly off the handle but step back and think about things before I lose it (well not always, but I try…).

If things aren’t going well for me and I’m depressed especially I have to let myself adhere to my motto and give myself time to get over the depression. I have to wait it out like a bad drug trip or the nightmare which it resembles. I have to give it time and remember that it will change. They say time heals all wounds and tho I’m not so sure of That I do know it’s helped me deal with a lot of mine.

I’m a different person in so many ways now than I was back then before I had this realization. I was hyper and acting out my Bipolar Hypomanias all the time back in those days and I really am amazed I didn’t get caught at it and diagnosed. But all they saw was the depression and so that was what I was diagnosed with. A common fact among those of us with Bipolar of all sorts. But now I use my Chaos Theory as I’ve written about elsewhere here, and I try to put a framework on things that allows me to take them as they come and give them time to develop themselves so I can really see what’s going on.

I don’t always succeed of course. Old habits die hard and I do have episodes that take me over and I can’t cope. But I’ve overcome a lot and I think if I can do it so can you. Maybe you just need to step back a pace or two and stop what you’re doing and count to 10 and let things shift for you. That’s what I’ve done and I’m a better person and it makes life so much easier now. It’s not simple mind you but I’ll take what I can get eh? Now I just watch that River… After all I have Time on my side….

In a Timely Manner,

Steve

How Gardening Heals Me

Well I suppose it was only a matter of time before my 2 blogs conjoined but I didn’t think it would happen in the same week I started them both. I’m writing here about my health and in the other about gardening and here they come together in a post about how my gardening is good for my health. It makes sense I suppose since it’s so much of my life. Perhaps the two most crucial factors in my existence except for my partner and our relationship. My relations with Gardening go back to my childhood tho so do my illnesses, some of the most significant ones that is. I’ve had Asthma since I was born. Literally. They put me in an incubator at birth so I could breathe and gave me medicine from the get go. And I can look back and see how the Bipolar Disorder has affected my whole life, from the time I was a small child even. So here they come together in a post that will tell you a bit about how it’s worked for me to garden so long and so faithfully, and not so faithfully and how that’s impacted me.

In many meditation classes they teach you that a very important part of learning to meditate is learning to “ground” as they call it. It means being able to connect with the earth and put your energy in synch with that of the planet we live on. Out of which our bodies are made. It’s not just a metaphorical expression. It’s a literal one for me. Grounding for me is literally putting my hands in the soil and getting dirt all over them. It’s diving into the realm of earthworms and compost and the decay of organisms and the regeneration that comes out of that mix. It’s a primal instinct to stick our hands in the dirt and mothers are always fighting their children to keep them from getting dirty. But I’d say that there have been enough studies to show that we’re depriving our children of something instinctive when we keep them out of the dirt. It’s been focused on bacteria that may help us keep our bodies free of disease but I think it’s more than that. It’s the primal connection we’re missing out on and keeping our children from experiencing.

I’ve put my hands in the dirt for as long as I can remember. Before I was actually gardening I was building in the dirt and making waterways where I could play with the runoff of the water as it flowed over the soil in patterns I loved. At some point I started to work with my mom and dad in the garden and help maintain it. I learned to plant and prune and to weed and hoe and all those other things we hate when we’re kids but I didn’t hate them. Well maybe the weeding I did some. But I loved the gardening and started  landscaping at an early age, something I’d develop into a profession as I grew older and went to college and studied Ornamental Horticulture and Landscape Design. I worked in Nurseries and had my own businesses for well over 20 years making gardens for other people, including my parents where I could experiment and play with my ideas. I did this in  my work too of course but I got paid for that and had to accede to the wishes of my clients. I wanted to do my own thing of course and I often was able to even in business.

My story takes a different turn in my late 20s when I started having migraines and was in agony too much of the time and couldn’t work as I had before. I’d gotten a job building logging roads in the high sierra to survive and that was bad for me who had always valued planting trees, not cutting them down. It went against my souls’ journey and it messed me up. I was involved in a serious auto accident that crunched my spine and began a period of disability that continues to this day. I kept landscaping tho I had to hire workers to do things I couldn’t do myself. But I still did it. I even moved back to the mountains in Washington where I was living and tried to homestead in the hills. I tried to create a garden with not enough water and too hard a soil to work and eventually I had a breakdown and my back gave out on me for good. I never again was able to work commercial landscaping. That was in 1988.  Since then I’ve had to work jobs that were indoors and kept me away from the gardens I loved. I couldn’t have access to green ever in the apt. I lived in in the city and I began to get more ill. In 1995 I had a severe breakdown and was diagnosed with the Bipolar Disorder that has plagued me my whole life. Finally I had an answer but it was a curse as well.

Over the next few years I lived alone and in an apt. with no way to garden. I was too disabled even to work a small community garden that was only a 10 x 10 plot of land in the neighborhood. I was sick and failing badly. I couldn’t touch the soil and even tho I went for walks in the neighborhood it wasn’t the same as gardening. This went on for several years until I met my current partner and in time moved into a home with him and had a chance to garden again. Here I’ve created my garden again. Here I have my Botanical Garden that allows me to collect the plants I love and to put my hands into the soil whenever I feel the need and to ground myself and get back to the earth in a real way and live fully and completely again.

I’m not cured or anything, I probably never will be,  don’t think that. I still suffer a lot and I’m in pain all the time, Especially when I garden. But it’s so good for me that I do it anyway and it keeps me alive and strong and as healthy as I can be. I have to ask for help when I need it but I do and I find it with my partner and friends. You can read about this aspect of my life in my other blog: Gardening in Greenwood, and I’ll continue this story there. But this will give you a sketch of my life as a gardener and why it’s so important for me to dig in the dirt and heal myself with the planet we live on. It’s a real thing and getting dirty is essential to us all if we want to live good lives and be healthy. So do it. Get dirty and feel the soil in your hands and let it heal you. That’s all I can say for now.

Health and good growing to you,

Steve