About This ‘Joy’ Thing

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For two days this week I’ve had what I think of as “normal” days. I’ve been able to go outside, take walks just because they’re good for me, read a novel, start a painting. I even took a shower. Yesterday I wrote in my journal, “I feel wonderful.” Oh, oh. “Wonderful?” I never use that word. Yep, This is the first sign that a manic phase is coming.

Second sign is that I’ll talk to anybody, and be as charming and charismatic as a stumping politician. Strangers on the bus, cab drivers, and people I see in the hall daily, but usually barely acknowledge, are suddenly blessed with my loving attention and clever repartee, whether they like it or not. I’m on top of the world, full of loud confidence, which easily yields to arrogance, then belligerence or worse, if I’m triggered enough. I’m so clever  and garrulous, that the people who do care for me have a hard time tolerating me.

Third stage happened last night. I couldn’t sleep. Not tossing and turning because I couldn’t stop the mind chatter, but just not feeling any fatigue at all and wanting to write, paint, write some more. Full of big ideas that run into each other, tripping along painlessly til the dawn’s early light.

Today was more of the Miss Congeniality stage, but with the added fun of feeling the floor beneath my feet seem to vibrate if I stood still. I may seem to the untrained eye to simply have a ‘quirky’ or ‘highly strung’ personality, but I know that I’m always teetering on the verge of a panic attack during these episodes.

Tomorrow I’ll be talking constantly to my cats in a high pitched voice and feeling rushes of goosebumps up and down my arms and spine. My heart is racing and my breathing is high in my chest. Creativity flows more easily, but I can’t focus enough to do any real work.

In my younger days, I’d have registered for a huge class load, AGAIN, attended the first week with way too much enthusiasm, beaming at nothing as I walked down the hall to the next class, asking each teacher for extra credit work. Then would come the crash.

So yeah, I appear to be bi-polar. My highs just look like happiness and a “good mood” to most people, especially when compared to the hallucinations, public scenes, shopping or gambling binges, and self-medicating we associate with Bi Polar Disorder. So maybe my case is milder. It’s still frightening, and I know how many times in my long life I’ve registered for classes at the local community colleges, then was unable to complete any classes. I know what that’s done to my life. The dreams deferred, the thwarted attempts to change my life, the constant frustration. Before anti-depressants I’d end up a TV zombie, shutting out everything else, barely able to respond, or just sobbing under the covers, for weeks after.

So, when my Holistic Health teacher started talking about “joy”, I was afraid of the idea, thinking it must be like this state of near-hysterics that would occasionally be visited on me.  He talked about joy for a couple of hours before he introduced the idea of “mind chatter.” Sometime during the second hour, it started to dawn on me that what he was talking about was something else, something I had no memory of ever experiencing. I began to cry. I cried until he said, “Joy is your birthright. You are born for joy.” At that moment, I was shaken out of my self-pity as I realized that life could be better. There was hope, and he was going to show it to me.

Now, years later, I can say that I’ve experienced joy a few times, and I have excavated a couple of memories of early childhood that were joyful, too. Joy is much more peaceful and grounded than I could have foreseen. There is a “high” that may seem comparable to various stages of mania, but for me,  the high of mania exists in a place where the air is thin and the rooms are too bright, while joy liberates you inside a warm breath of knowing at your deepest level that you are okay and have always been. It opens you up to all your possibilities, grounded in love.

Joy is what happens when you feel connected to your authentic self, your true needs, your true worthiness, your actual divinity. It happens when you can hear past the mind chatter, intuit that connection, and respond to the world out of that ground. And it is something that even us depressives can sometimes choose for ourselves, once we learn how to recognize the mind chatter and decide to listen to our true voice. It can give us a chance to be genuinely happy, for whole minutes at a time. Maybe longer.

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Of Knots and Thoughts

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What I described in that last post is nothing more than another tool that might help sometimes. For people who don’t suffer from mental illness, it could help them connect to the Source of all joy and peace. So far, for me anyway, it’s only helped save my life. Even now, when I’m feeling fairly okay as long as I’m indoors, it helps me to loosen the knots around my brain just enough so I can breathe a bit easier, and make it through another day feeling somewhat better.

For instance, I live in a tiny, tiny apartment. It can be cleaned thoroughly in an hour, and made presentable in twenty minutes. In this tiny apartment is a tiny, 5 x 9 kitchen with a tiny counter and an itty-bitty sink. There are as many  as three dirty bowls,  a plate, and a few spoons in there. A few more have spilled out onto the 2 x 3 feet of counter space. The 350 square feet that comprises the entire apartment, stem to stern, needs to be swept. My depressed brain has been resisting taking the twenty minutes to do what it takes to make this place feel good again. But since I’ve been aware of the mind chatter for a few years, I know that the resistance comes from a voice that habitually says, “I can’t do it.” “It’s not worth it.” I’m not worth it.” and other fretful, scared-child sort of things, and that there’s another voice to listen to. There’s another voice to CHOOSE to listen to. That voice is my true voice. The smart, calm, responsible, authentically responsive voice. It says I deserve to live in a serene, uncluttered house because I am a lovely, discerning person who is comforted by clean surroundings.

Choosing to listen to that voice can sometimes loosen a knot a little. A knot that, truth be told, is not just squeezing my brain, but my heart as well, preventing my heart from remembering that I am a worthy human. One good, deep breath that comes easily and is not strangled by those old, ugly thoughts can be enough to maybe help me get out of bed, or take a shower, or even go outside. It might even get my house clean.

One small step at a time.

Response vs. Reaction

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Right. The pills are not a magic panacea that renders me suddenly happy and balanced. Wouldn’t that be nice. And, for lots of reasons, it looks like I won’t be seeing a shrink any time soon. So, how do I keep myself from sinking in this morass of doubt, shame, judgement, criticism, sabotage and grief?

First, it only feels like a morass, a miasma, a mess. (So shoot me, I like alliterative sets of three). If you’re able to see that these feelings begin with thoughts, you can find ways to feel better, as I’ve said, for whole minutes at a time.

So, thoughts. Who would have ever suspected that thoughts could be a problem? Thinking is perhaps my favorite hobby. I like being smart. Criticism and judgement too? I always thought those abilities are what MAKE me smart. What gives?

Well, it’s easy. There is conscious thought and unconscious thought. I can consciously assess and judge when it makes sense in the present to do so. My ability to do so comes in handy when I need to, say, not be taken in by every internet pundit I read. Or when I meet or talk to anyone with an agenda. In those moments, it’s helpful to be able to use the brain to figure things out for ourselves. But we can observe clearly and assess accurately only when we are responding to what’s happening right now in front of us, and not to something that happened long ago.

So, notice some of the key phrases in that last paragraph: “in the present”, “in the moment”.  “In the moment” is where we find the ground from which to act responsibly. On the other hand, when we’re reacting to things that have already happened in the past, or worrying ourselves to distraction over what might happen in the future, we create anxiety for ourselves. Conscious thought is necessary to help us navigate our lives; unconscious thought, on the other hand, only creates emotional reactions and only gets in the way.

Unconscious thought is not necessarily a voice we hear in our heads, but it’s there, and we react to our environment in negative ways as a result of it. There are dozens of names for it. The saboteur, the inner critic, the editor, the committee, mind chatter, roof chatter. The list goes on. It’s automatic. It’s often a perpetual repetition of things we heard in our childhood. It’s often negativity directed at ourselves. It picks us apart. It projects dark motives onto others who may only be asking a question or  sharing an innocent thought. It forms biases and prejudice. It shames us. It looks for “evidence” to reinforce itself. It adds meaning to emotionally neutral situations and sees a threat or insult where none exists.  It causes us to react emotionally, instead of respond with care and awareness. It takes us out of the moment, so we’re reacting to things that are not happening now.

Knowing and exploring this distinction between conscious thought and mind chatter has literally saved my life. I’ve been able, over time, to recognize what the mind chatter is saying, and notice when it’s informing my emotional state. Then I can step back from it enough to see that what it’s saying is not useful, or not true, or outdated. The “tool” I’ve used to learn this ability is a daily practice of saying out loud what “the mind chatter” is saying. I was able to do it with another person at first, but now I can just notice it, and noticing it, bring myself back to the present. I know now that the mind chatter’s voice is not my voice, at least not anymore. I can tell right away when the mind chatter has taken over, because the thoughts are taking me out of the present moment, and I’m feeling bad for no reason that can be seen right now.

Ever been on a first date or in a first meeting with someone and been unable to enjoy yourself? You’re trying to smile and be charming, but instead the mind chatter is saying, “Why did I order the spinach salad? I bet there’s some in my teeth right now.” Meanwhile there’s a lovely new person in front of you to get to know, and you’re missing out. You can’t respond with genuine interest to their witty efforts to impress you. Instead, you’re reacting to some anxiety-producing thoughts with unwanted and inappropriate emotion. Or you may decide to judge them instead of get to know them, as the mind chatter compares them to some ideal who may not exist.  If you can find a way to notice it BEFORE it takes you away from your new friend, then maybe you could laugh at it, or, because you’re still calm and free of worry, you can take action. Go check for spinach in your teeth, or take stock for a split second, and choose to enjoy this person as they are, then get back to your grounded, charming self.

Certainly that’s a less dire situation than a slide into increased depression, but it still impacts the quality of your life. You’re meant to enjoy your life. Feel that joy that’s always available, even for only minutes at a time.

 

 

Accepting Anti Depressants

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It’s been awhile since I’ve posted here. Two years. In that time I was off the pills for awhile – long enough to know that trying to live without them was a fantasy, especially when my world exploded.

I don’t need to launch into a dramatic retelling. Suffice it to say I had to leave my home of sixteen years, move into housing for low-income seniors, and lost a friend of twenty years through betrayal and pain and misunderstanding.

In order to move from my huge Victorian flat in San Francisco to a tiny one-room apartment in Oakland, I had to cull my belongings. Twenty-five boxes of books became five; I gave away my collection of sex toys; I gave away my collection of hand-held musical instruments, and all of my spray paint. I sold my desk, my bed, and my massage table. My disappearing belongings seemed to comprise a living sculpture depicting my idea of who I was. I felt I was shrinking with them. I would have to reinvent myself or disintegrate entirely.

Then, just two weeks after I’d moved into my little studio, my body started giving me signals that something was terribly wrong. I began to navigate the Medicare system, commuting to San Francisco to do it. My doctor examined me, then went on vacation. His underlings made me wait. Time from the beginning of scary symptoms to the surgery that fixed it? Four months. As I waited and waited for something to happen, my anxiety levels were through the roof, but I tried to learn to accept my isolation, with the help of a constantly blaring TV. It would take me many more months to relax into the peace of living alone, and it was three additional months after the surgery before I finally got a new prescription for the pills.

Truth is, I immediately felt better. My step-daughter’s wedding had happened in that interim between surgery and pills, not to mention all the Winter holidays, all of which taught me that I’d better learn how to be alone, or die. Dying as an option definitely occurred to me. After all, they had left me alone with a pile of opiates from the surgery, plus the specter of cancer , and a feeling of abandonment. I got through by using all the tools at my disposal – notably, a fervent gratitude practice, and a way to notice when I was about to go down the rabbit hole of no return, and pull out of it, often just in the nick of time.

The point is, I made it, but barely. I know now I will never stop taking my meds. You, of course, can go ahead and do what’s best for you. For me, it’s like a diabetic refusing insulin.

Also? I want to teach everyone about those tools that saved me. Stay tuned. I’m back.

 

Withdrawal

The pills helped for awhile. Then they started increasing my anxiety. Then the brain fog came back. When I stopped being able to focus enough to read or write, I knew it was time to either increase the dosage or wean myself from the pills.

I decided on the latter. I was only taking 20mgs, so I did 15mgs a day for 4 weeks or so. Then 10 for 3 weeks, then 5 for 2, then none. Each time I decreased the dose, I spent 3-4 days experiencing dizziness, “brain zaps”, (my Doctor’s name for the aforementioned Tesla coil in my head) and general malaise. I felt it was worth it if I could get off the drug slowly enough to avoid an extended period of brain zaps. But at the end, there were still another several weeks of miserable symptoms.

But, I’m writing now. My hands have forgotten how to type fast enough to keep up with my brain, which is frustrating, but I’m writing! I’m reading too, which leads to writing!

At around week 5-6 of the withdrawal process, I noticed the old feelings of pressure behind my eyes, as if there were something to cry about, but I didn’t know what it was. But I had learned while on the pills that it was only a sensation, an emotion, one that I could welcome back with gratitude and allow to pass. I also started to experience that dread at the thought of going out, or of “having to do” anything. What I had learned about that was that it’s okay to want to stay home, to feel safe and secure. If I didn’t let it be okay, it would turn into a morass of anxiety that would paralyze me. I could decide the next day whether to go out or not. My friends would accept my boundaries. I could say no. I could accept all the sensations in my body, and even all the thoughts in my brain, and allow them to make me cry, make me postpone, make me feel pain. I could experience them without judgement and then let them go.

Of course this is only my own journey. I don’t have an opinion about whether or not other people should take medication for their depression/anxiety. If it helps, go for it. If something else helps more, do that. As for me, the meds helped until they stopped helping, and left me with some idea of how to cope without them.

I had not had a good cry since I’d started the pills, so I welcomed the tears and the sobbing. I felt more alive that way, as long as I didn’t think of any of it as permanent. It was actually a gift. It was authentically me, and it got me writing again with all the flavor that goes into being me.

Pills With My Coffee

After six months of feeling giddy all the time, needing a nap right after breakfast, and my brain doing an impression of a Tesla coil every few minutes, the pills are starting to work. That is, they’re contributing something to my life besides side effects. I can tell because I’m in love with my cats again. I adore them in fact. I’m still pissed off about every minute of my life, and at myself for having lived it, but at least I’m keeping the cat box clean. Sometimes I even leave the house, and I’m taking showers more frequently.

Still, if too many obligations pile up, obligations to perform a thing, no matter what it is, a thing I cannot find a way to get out of or postpone, then I start wigging out completely. Then it’s not just naps anymore; it’s being paralyzed in bed for the duration, trying to ignore the fact that I have a body; curling up in fetal position among soft surfaces and staying as still as I can, until I get hungry – the one thing that will motivate me to move this hated meat puppet that I drag around.

As you can imagine, this has played havoc with my work life, and forget getting through four years of school. So, I’m broke all the time and I spend too much time imagining what my life would be like with money. The money would have to fall from the sky, though, because jobs tend to require a commitment to performing those aforementioned Things.

I’ve always thought someone should take care of me, and so far no one has, not even during my childhood. That’s probably at the core of my depression, at least as far as a shrink could get, but who can afford a shrink? And even if I could afford one, I’d still have this wonky brain chemistry that instructs my other systems to respond to stimuli that are not there. I cry for no reason, laugh because I’m hungry, and have fallen in passionate, horny, soaking wet love with a strange man half my age whose picture I saw on the internet. I eat voraciously when I’m not a bit hungry. I spend too much time cowering in abject terror because I’ve promised to do. a. Thing.

So, this is what I have to work with; this is the raw material with which I’m supposed to carve out a life that doesn’t piss me off. Depression, I’m told, is mostly self-directed anger, so it looks like I was born angry. But I was also born creative. I hear love in colors that form musical phrases; my body is a drum; the inside of my eyelids is an abstract painting of the hand of a deity blessing itself. Most importantly, or at least more usefully, I can change the course  of my reaction to stimuli sometimes and redirect the energy to an easier flow.

For instance, I know that if I can find a way to deliberately interrupt my anger with gratitude, I can create some moments that do not suck. I also know how to notice my thoughts and choose different ones.This stuff works for me sometimes. Then I become an artist who creates my own reality using fluid light, and the outcome is feeling happy for whole minutes at a time. I want to teach other depressives how to do that. I want to get paid to teach/share those simple skills that can help a depressive’s day work out a bit better.

That’s what I’m creating now. Let’s see what happens next.