Category Archives: bipolar
In terms of ballet and in terms of aerials, 2016 has been a good year.
I am a far better dancer now than I was at this time last year. In fact, I’m a far better dancer than I was six months or so back, when I auditioned a piece for a show in Cincinnati. It wasn’t accepted* but the act of auditioning changed how I thought about myself as a dancer and a choreographer: which is to say that without even realizing it I began to think of myself, unequivocally, as a dancer, and as someone who works in the ephemeral medium of dance. It made me buckle down and really focus on learning my craft.
The hard thing, the really hard thing, is that life being a thousand times better than it once was — while it helps — doesn’t stop bipolar disorder in its tracks.
Mania still leans on the throttle, sending the whole thing charging wildly into the unknown, fired by over-stoked engines.
Depression still roars out of the night and crushes me under its wheels. I still live a life in which, at times — more times than I care to admit — I’m clinging by the skin of my teeth; by the tattering shreds of my nails.
There are still too many days on which getting out of bed seems unthinkable; on which feeding myself is a chore I’d rather not bother with; on which even going to class (the one thing that I know will reliably lift me into the light, if only for a little while) is almost unbearable.
In some ways, I think of this in the same terms that I think of ballet.
Ballet is like bike racing: it doesn’t really get easier. You learn more and more steps; they become part of you — but the physical demand increases apace with your command of the physical vocabulary of ballet and your ability to use that vocabulary beautifully and expressively.
Just as the rigors of bike racing are absolutely, irrefutably worth it when you’re descending a gravel track at 30+ miles per hour with the wind in your teeth and no hope of any victory except the one over the voice that has so often told you, “You can’t,” the rigors of ballet are absolutely, irrefutably worth it for those moments when everything comes together, when the steps and the music and the soul all move as one, and suddenly you are the music and you can fly.
I do not expect ballet to get easier, so I’m not disappointed when it doesn’t. Like most dancers, I find a specific thrill in tackling challenging steps and I revel in hard classes; even spectacular failure in the service of attempting something difficult has its own charms.
Bipolar isn’t quite the same — I suppose there’s something to admire in the tenacity with which all of us, medicated or un-, hang on through its fits and starts, in the face of its slings and arrows, but there isn’t some beautiful craft to master at the end of it all (except insofar as the craft is life: but that’s a thing we all share, bipolar or not).
But it is hard; sometimes, in long stretches, unstintingly hard. And while the manias can hard — particularly the black, dysphoric ones — the depressions are probably harder.
So I write from the rails of a depression in which I am suddenly paralyzed by potent self-doubt; suddenly more than half convinced that I have no business pursuing the calling of my heart, that I am a deluded try-hard who will never do anything meaningful (even noting that I apply the term “meaningful” on a scale that has nothing to do with money or fame), and that I should just lie down and die.
I write from beneath the wheels of a freight train that, for reasons beyond understanding, wants to undo me — or perhaps simply from the wheels of one that has lost its brakes. Again.
I write not to ask for sympathy (which I usually find kind of annoying) or to fling my misery out into the world so others can be just as miserable as I am, but because sometimes the most powerful response I have found to just this thing is the act of naming it, writing it down, looking it in the face.
Later, when I’m recovering, I’ll come back and look at these words and wonder, How could I ever have thought that? (Just as I wonder now, about my own right to regard myself as an artist, How could I ever have thoughtthat?)
I will try to remember what it felt like to hurt so much for no reason; to not even be sure that “hurt” is the right word, not because of the magnitude of the pain, but because it is so very sourceless and alien — and I will not be able to summon the feeling.
But I will understand why I wrote this: to say, This is what is now, at this moment, and to do so clearly and publicly, to stop it rattling around in my head, so I can go outside and plant a redbud tree that my friend B. brought me from an Arbor Day celebration.
So I can get up and go to conditioning class tonight.
So I can finish cleaning the kitchen, or at least do as much as I can (thinking all the while, “For the love of all that is holy, how long can it take to wash a few dishes?!”).
So I can collect the tatters of my soul and get back to weaving dances with them.
So I can get back to dreaming.
Honesty is the first tool when depression comes thundering in. So this is my honesty. This is my island of grace. This is my song and my banner, though I try, now, not to see any of this as a battle.
But we go into the mission field, too, with a song and a banner, don’t we, to tend to the sick and the wounded.
I hold these truths to be self-evident:
First, that anything so preposterously introduced must, unless it’s the founding document of a nation, be either at least partly false or too frightening to face without a little bombast and a little irony.
Second, that winter is a stone-cold bitch, in both the best and the worst senses that phrase can possibly convey, and I — although I was born in the dead of winter, in the Month of Fevers — don’t really know how many more winters I can take.
Third, that I have been, as usual, wrestling internally and exalting externally; hanging on with a bloody-knuckled death grip and the skin of my teeth. I felt excellent (which, by now, I should know means at a minimum “hypomanic”) and then the edges, as they do, began to fray. My soul feels rope-burned.
Fourth, that against the best advice of husband and therapist I have been Doing Too Much again, but feeling trapped by it, and wanting to be at home, until now I just want to crawl under a rock.
Fifth, that bipolar alone is not enough; that the battle against my own feelings is one I’m losing. One I should lose — I wrote to Denis this morning that it’s like keeping a spring under tension; eventually, the spring has to be released or it will collapse — but one I’m still not sure I’ll survive losing.
I tell myself that memories and feelings themselves can’t kill me, but that overlooks the glittering irrationality of mixed states, of dysphoric manias, in which the part of me that feels trapped, backed against a wall, increasingly sees death as preferable to … what, surrender? Imprisonment?
The eternal strain either of living the life I do — one in which I work desperately to keep even the merest whiff of my own internal struggle from all but a few, even when it drains everything I have — or the life I should, in which I would simply be and devil take the hindmost… Either flavor of strain, over the long run, seems untenable.
I know the answer is to Be Here Now, but sometimes I can’t do that, either. Zen, mindfulness — these are excellent tools, but I don’t know that they can rein in madness.
This time of year, I find myself cracking, wondering how much further I can carry this. I know I probably don’t have to, but I don’t seem to know how to make myself stop. All the plans I’m making, the dreams I’m dreaming, seem hollow now; built upon the wind.
I write this here, I suppose, partly because I suspect that many of you will understand, but perhaps mostly because I have to put it somewhere. So I ask forgiveness for this burden, which you did not ask to carry, and hope that it might, at least, be a familiar echo that gives comfort even if it also stings.
There is a thing about trying to live with bipolar, a thing where sometimes, maybe often, it feels like walking a tightrope.
You’re on this knife’s-edge, and if you stop, you’ll fall.
So you keep “moving forward, using all [your] breath,” gritting your teeth and trying to relax your neck (which is weirdly like the first passé balance en relevé at the barre, come to think of it).
The only thing that keeps you upright is momentum (which is totally unlike that aforementioned passé relevé balance; you don’t have momentum to save you, just the dancer’s wordless prayer and good technique and a few hundred years of evidence that it can be done).
If you falter, you fall (presumably in flame, like the “…staaaaaaaars, in their multitudes, scarce to be counted…” — which is totally unlike ballet class; we mostly try to avoid self-immolation during barre, no matter how tempting it may seem).
Life with bipolar is coolly executing 32 fouettés as you feel your supporting pointe shoe slowly unraveling; it’s lifting the ballerina and feeling something give in your shoulder and continuing to gaze serenely up into her eyes as you desperately pray you’ll make it to the end of the pas de deux.
We don’t show it because that’s life. To some extent, life is a performance, and the show must go on. It is when your edges crack, when hints of Von Rothbart invade our Dashing Prince routine that the world spooks and backs away. So we hold out as long as we can, as well as we can. Seigfried is not also supposed to be Von Rothbart, after all.
So this is how I live much of my life, how I’m living right now. Bipolar tells me to stay in the house, but tomorrow I’ll go to class anyway. Bipolar tells me that I should give up on the tutoring job I’m applying for, but I’m going to fight my way towards that, too.
Bipolar tells me I’m going to fall, so I keep going, one foot after the other, across the chasm, never looking down.
Overall, 2015 has been a phenomenally successful year for me — both in the a typical sense (I achieved goals and made tangible progress) and in a less typical sense (I tried new things and failed in illuminating ways). Perhaps most importantly, though, I learned something immensely valuable about sustainable change and what drives it.
Mostly, I want to write about that last bit — what I’ve learned about what drives sustainable change.
First, though, if you don’t mind, I think I’ll do a little navel-gazing. In fact, I think I’m going to divide this into two posts; one in which I shamelessly toot my own horn (because every now and then it’s good to have a “Yay, me!” party!); another in which I write about what I’ve learned.
You guys, I freaking GRADUATED.
What feels like a jillion years ago, when I was a senior in high school, I took it for granted that I’d step right into college, zip through, graduate in four years, and then … um, whatever. I actually didn’t have any concrete post-college plan back then.
Life intervened. All kinds of crazy stuff happened. I started projects and … basically didn’t finish any of them, actually. I got bogged down in all kinds of stuff and wandered all over the map. Not counting the school where I completed a one-year computer network engineering certification, I launched my little educational barque in the waters of four separate institutions of higher learning.
At last, this year, one of them — Indiana University Southeast — became my “alma mater,” a place that would (as higher education should) shape not only my knowledge of a specialized field, but also my ability to think critically about the world and my character as a human being.
And all that’s really important, ofcourse, but there’s also another critical point: this year, I finally finished something.
Something arduous and challenging, in fact. And I finished well: I didn’t quite make the “With Highest Honors” distinction (which, in the long run, is probably good for my not-inconsiderable ego), but I only missed it by .02 grade points.
I’ll take that.
This year, I created a job for myself and, as a result, discovered that I love teaching.
When I decided that leading a Supplemental Instruction group for Behavioral Neuroscience sounded like fun, nobody was doing it. I had to propose the idea to the Supplemental Instruction Coordinator and to my Behavioral Neuroscience prof.
That was hard for me — but it paid off, and I discovered that I really enjoyed my work as an SI leader, even though I basically had no idea what I was doing at first and even though I had to get up really freaking early.
This year, I built a small-business website from scratch.
When Denis launched PorchLight Express, I didn’t feel as confident in my abilities as a web maven as I would have liked to. It had been a long time since I’d done any professional web work, and I wasn’t sure I could create a site that would uphold my standards. I was also absolutely petrified of implementing the e-commerce aspects.
The end product wasn’t perfect, but I was still pretty darned proud of it — and 2016’s version will be even better.
This year, I grew by leaps and bounds (heh, heh) as a dancer*.
I guess that was going to happen one way or another. As soon as ballet got its hooks into me, a certain amount of progress was pretty much inevitable.
But that’s not exactly what I mean. Mere ability isn’t that big a deal. Any monkey can learn to tendu (well, maybe not — actual monkeys aren’t really built for ballet).
What I mean is this: in 2015, I discovered confidence, musicality, and expression — mostly confidence. I recovered from injuries and kept plowing ahead. I stopped being afraid to go in the first group. I started talking to people I didn’t know. I launched myself into the dangerous waters of Advanced Class.
*Come on, it just wouldn’t be one of my posts if there wasn’t a bad pun sooner or later.
This year, I created a beautiful self-portrait.
It’s just a simple drawing in ballpoint pen and Prismacolor pencil, but it’s one of the very few visual works in my ouevre that I’d call art. Heretofore, I’ve done a ton of illustration, quite a few comics, etc. — but not much that had anything stirring beneath the surface.
That self-portrait, created for BlahPolar’s blog, re-awakened my desire to create works of visual art. It changed how I think about my art, as well.
There’s been a lot of that in 2015.
This year, I submitted my first graduate school application.
That’s an achievement in and of itself, I think — for anyone, but especially for those of us living with mental illness. To apply to graduate school is to make a bold statement about the future and about your belief
in your own abilities.
Perhaps more importantly, that application involved creating an audition video. For the first time in my life, I choreographed an entire performance piece and performed it with another dancer in front of a camera (once I discovered how much I like using video as a tool for recording and improving dance, I also recorded a bunch of solo improv pieces).
I found rehearsal and recording spaces, negotiated schedules, and learned to adapt my choreography on the fly with input from my dance partner.
While in some ways, that’s a far less profound kind of success than graduating from university, I think it’s probably the single coolest thing I’ve done all year.
This year, I didn’t finish an entire novel in November.
But I did work on one, and … um … that’s a start.
This year, I didn’t actually manage to pull of my performance thing at Burning Man.
I got pneumonia instead. But I did lead some basic ballet classes, and I did create a bunch of choreography, and I did discover that I love creating dances.
This year, I unsuccessfully auditioned for a performance.
I’ve written a little about this. I was a mess at my audition: I was recovering from pneumonia, hadn’t danced in weeks, and my choreography was far from finalized.
However, the mere idea of preparing a piece for audition transformed the way I thought about myself as a dancer — in fact, it may have been the turning point at which I stopped thinking of myself as a dancer* (*void where prohibited, some limitations may apply, etc.) with caveats and started just thinking of myself as, you know, a dancer.
It certainly revitalized my sense of myself as an artist: while I’ve spent my entire life doing artistic stuff, I have never thought of myself as an artist until this year. I was raised to regard that word with respect; to recognize the awesome responsibility that comes with creating art.
I can’t say I ever expected to see anything I did (with the exception of my poetry) as art.
And, though I talked a good game, I never seriously expected to regard myself as a real dancer.
And, yet, here I am.
This year, I struggled really hard with bipolar disorder.
I almost didn’t include this one. There’s nothing triumphant about this one. It’s the most qualified of my successes, and to call it a “success” is dangerous.
I don’t mean to imply that those who haven’t survived — and, in any given year, there are many of us, because bipolar has a terrible rate of attrition — have failed.
They haven’t. There have been years that only chance has kept me alive. Without ballet and without Denis, it is entirely probable that this would have been one of them — or even the year I didn’t survive.
Likewise, there’s no failure implied in deciding not to struggle for a while. Everyone gets tired. Everyone needs a rest.
But, on the other hand, I tend to discount — for myself, not for anyone else — the sheer effort required to live with this thing.
So, in the end, I’m including it.
I’m not sure that bipolar is one of those things where you ever win. There is no triumphal endpoint; no emerging permanently from the grip of the sea. So you take what you can get: you honor the survivors and you honor the dead.
The Final Summation
2015 has been one hell of a good year for me.
This year, I have done things I sometimes doubted I’d ever do (graduating!) and things I never really imagined I’d even try (proposing a job; auditioning for a performance knowing I didn’t really have a prayer).
Ballet has become an organizing principle; a prime mover. It has been the driving motivator behind some really significant changes. In short, it has provided a sort of razor for my decision-making processes: as a dancer, will this help me or harm me? It has made my life a lot easier.
That doesn’t mean, of course, that it has made my life easy. Living with bipolar is not easy; figuring out what to do with the year between university and graduate school is not easy; realizing how much further along you could have been if you hadn’t made x or y questionable decision eight years back is definitely not easy.
But ballet has become, for me, a source of clarity, and clarity is a good thing.
I don’t think I’ve ever met with this much success in one year before. I don’t expect every year that follows to be this successful.
But it’s cool to know that, in fact, I can do things. I can finish things. I can succeed.
That’s the best thing I’ve learned in 2015.
Well, that and how to use renversé effectively in choreography and how —at least sometimes — to carry off a coupé jeté en tournant.
First, let me state for the record, yet again, that not dancing drives me crazy.
Doubtless, the element of structure it adds to my time is critical, as is the element of physical exhaustion — but I think that, more than anything, I need the ritual and the communion. I need to check my mind at the door and do the steps. I need the order of barre and the challenge of the floor. I need to be not simply a dancer alone, working out his private salvation in turns and trembling, but a dancer among dancers. We are not solitary birds.
Second, an interesting thing has been happening in my life. The last year has made me less afraid to reveal myself — to others, but also to myself. I’ve learned to reflect on my own condition (in both the general and specific senses) in a new way. I’ve learned also to think more clearly about how my actions affect people around me, particularly those I love.
In some ways, this makes life harder. I begin to see the difficulty I present as a friend, with my abrupt flourishes of vigor and my equally abrupt retreats into solitude. I begin to see, also, the challenge I will face as long as I live; the tightrope-walk that is bipolar, with its precarious drops. I begin to see that to bolt forward without considering that in my plans is a fool’s errand.
In other ways, it makes my life better. Because something has shifted (Adderall, maybe?) in such a way that I can sometimes think about my thinking, I can begin to plan a life in which the room I must grant my illness is part of the design. Likewise, I can begin to step out on the ledge of public creativity again.
I have begun, once again, to believe in my vision and my voice.
Oddly enough, some of that has happened in the studio.
In real life, I have trouble with feelings — I can’t tell them apart very well, nor can I put them into words as readily as most people.
But I can dance them.
When I know the steps; when I no longer need to struggle to remember whether the next thing is pas de valse or balancé, I am suddenly able to summon feeling from the depths of my soul with trembling intensity. I am suddenly able to be transported; to let the music carry my heart and let my body follow it.
I used to be afraid of my own emotions (sometimes I still am: the crazy ones, in particular). Now, though, I’ve learned to manage them, like one manages a powerful horse, and I’m no longer afraid to turn and look at them.
At least, not most of the time.
It is true that I’m still afraid to look the out-of-control parts in the eye: the glittering mania ready to snatch the bit in its teeth and drag me out into the freezing void of space; the lightless depression, with its great liquid eyes, equally ready to drag me with it “down to a sunless sea.”
But the real feelings — pain and grief and fear, but also love and hope and joy — which I’ve kept at bay for so long… Those feelings I can now entertain; examine; hold in my hands. At least sometimes, for a while.
This is the work I am doing; the most critical work — in my therapist’s office, of course, but also in the studio and also alone, in my living room, with Holst’s The Planets whispering and shivering and surging from the speakers of Denis’ stereo system.
Little by little, I’m plumbing and charting the depths of my soul, filling in spots on the map that used to read, “Here be dragons.”
Life moves, and finally I’ve started to feel as if I’m moving with it.
This is a gift, a change, born from many seeds — but not least ballet, and the obedience of this body, which at last has begun to learn to belong to this soul.
Two Weeks Without Class, Day One: In Which Your Humble Author Makes Announcements and Reflects On Problems
First, the announcements.
The Charitable Sub-Committee of the Women’s … Oh, wait. Wrong announcements.
Here we go.
First, partly as a function of Item The Second (see below), it looks like I’ll be able to add a fourth class to my schedule in January. B. and I are cooking up an idea which will be amazing if it pans out, but I am desperately trying to keep mum about it.
As the Druids supposedly said:
To know, to will, to dare, to keep silent.
In other words, don’t tempt G-d, fate, or the faceless perversity of the universe by blabbing your exciting plans all over the place. Pride goeth before the fall, etc.
Come to think of it, this gets really long, so here — have a More! tag:
Yesterday was a bad day: a very bad day. The kind of day on which the depths of my disorder are somehow visible to the general public; the kind of day on which sensitive people ask me if I’m ill. The kind of day on which, for whatever reason, bipolar reveals itself in enormous dark circles under my eyes.
It was the kind of day on which the thought of talking to people is nearly unbearable — at once repugnant and frightening, since I can’t trust myself to speak in a way that doesn’t reveal the magnitude of my debility; on which I feel the fear the injured alpha wolf must feel — that my weakness will be revealed and I will be torn apart.
The kind of day on which I am wildly paranoid in an inchoate kind of way, but still rational enough to know that I am paranoid.
Yesterday’s venture deeper into to the dark and tempestuous waters of mixed mania was almost certainly precipitated by the use of a sleep aid the previous night. It’s a counter-intuitive outcome, but one I’ve experienced regularly. For some reason, antihistamines do things to my mood.
When I’m fairly euthymic, they render me a little groggy and down the next day; when I’m in my current state — skating desperately along the knife’s-edge of mixed mania — they’re a potentially-disastrous crap shoot.
The sleep-inducing medication in question is an antihistamine.
I seem particularly prone to the adverse effects of antihistamines, anticonvulsants, and other sedation-inducing medications — in short, depressants. Alcohol can also induce deeply unpleasant and even dangerous mood-states after its pleasant effects have worn off.
I would conjecture that I’m also unusually prone — relative to non-bipolar people — to the effects of stimulants, but I rarely experience those with the immense dysphoria typical of my reactions to sedatives.
Sedatives combined with stimulants, meanwhile, are a recipe for a day in Hell (whereby I probably should’ve skipped the iced coffee I had with lunch yesterday).
Yet, there comes a point at which one must decide whether the risks of a sleeping pill-induced bad day are worse than those of continued insomnia.
The after-effects of the sleeping pill, presumably as my brain attempts to re-regulate itself, wear off in a day or so if I don’t take another one. It is possible to get through one very bad day with a little help.
The effects of insomnia, on the other hand, will continue to accumulate and self-amplify indefinitely, until the current manic episode passes — and it is difficult to predict when they’ll jump the track and become manifestly dangerous. Worse, manic insomnia tends to beget manic insomnia — the less I sleep, the less I sleep — which induces further mania.
This is, perhaps, the heart of the problem with bipolar disorder: beyond its often-disabling nature, beyond the fact that non-bipolar people seem literally (and, perhaps, understandably) unable to comprehend what it’s like, it carries with it an immense sensitivity to all the factors that influence brain chemistry — including the very medications we use to treat it.
Worse still, perhaps, it is associated with great creative gifts — but also with the inability to utilize those gifts.
Bipolar disorder disrupts the ability to do sustained, concentrated creative work (or uncreative work; it may be even worse — the “worstest” — for that!).
The medications we take to counter the destructive aspects of bipolar, meanwhile, are equally capable of destroying both the creative faculties and the ability, physical and/or mental, to exercise them.
Lithium alone is associated with micrographia, Parkinsonian movement disruptions, and disturbances in balance and equilibrium, to name just a few of its adverse effects. For visual artists, dancers, and musicians, it can be devastating. Worse, these effects do not always ease up (as is often the case with other medications) as the brain and body acclimate: instead, they are often cumulative and even progressive.
In some cases (the tardive dyskinesia and akathesia associated with antipsychotics; the thyroid disruption associated with lithium), they become permanent: they will remain, perhaps treatable but generally incurable, even if the medication is stopped.
Artists living with bipolar find themselves trapped between hammer and tongs. The immense sensitivity that informs our work is at once fed, imprisoned, and subjected to danger of execution by the firestorms that rage in our brains and minds; when we bring in the fire crews, however, the ensuing flood too often downs all but the mere ability to keep body and soul together. Too often, the ability of the soul to soar is not preserved, nor even the ability of the body the function as it once did.
I have no useful advice to offer, here — just frustration to vent.
The question that all of us who live with bipolar disorder always face is this: are the costs of this treatment worth the benefits?
For many, the answer is a resounding yes — for many more, a qualified yes. For others, though, the answer is no, or not really, or I feel trapped; there is no right answer, here.
Too often, practitioners and caregivers still treat those of us for whom the existing medical therapies are not acceptable bargains as recalcitrant children who do not know what is best for us.
Sometimes, of course, they’re right — bipolar is a disease that does not want to be medicated, and sometimes it’s the disease talking; likewise, in our most florid moments, we bipolar types aren’t always rational.
However, I don’t believe that should be the first response. When an apparently-rational patient says, “I have tried these medications, and the side-effects were untenable — what now?” a practitioner would do well to listen, to consider alternatives, and — if need arises — to make a referral to someone else who may know if another strategy.
And always, always — even when we are manifestly mad, with all the attendant indignity of madness — patients should be handled with dignity and tact.
By way of illustration, there can be no doubt that lithium, in particular, saves lives.
So, however, does penicillin — and we find other ways to treat people who respond adversely to penicillin. We don’t criticise them or treat them as bad patients.
We who are or who hope to become practitioners would do well to keep that very simple example in mind.
When we express contempt towards mental illness patients who can’t tolerate the usual medical therapies, when we treat them as misbehaving children or miscreants, we are really expressing deep-seated cultural prejudices. Also frustration, of course, but that alone really doesn’t explain it; a doctor, PA, or NP may be frustrated by a patient’s inability to take penicillin, but that frustration isn’t generally expressed as contempt.
Instead, penicillin sensitivity (especially when severe) is generally met with compassion — It’s too bad the simple and inexpensive option doesn’t work, let’s see what we can find that will.
I know this because I, in fact, can’t take penicillin. I’m deathly allergic to it.
I am not, in fact, likely to die from lithium use, and I’m willing to use it as a short-term intervention should things get really, really out of hand. I am not, however, able to tolerate is effects over long-term treatment. The same can be said for antipsychotics.
I do the best I can to manage without — and I continue to research and seek and hope for an alternative. I also realize that, for me, a medical alternative may never appear.
I continue to understand that my current strategy may not always be tenable, either — that sometimes bipolar disorder gets worse with age, and that a day may come when I am no longer able to manage as I currently do.
Right now, the lesser of the two evils is bipolar: someday, that may not be the case.
If that day arrives, I may have to strike a different bargain. Bipolar, in the end, is the mother of many bargains.
Until then, I will struggle to make the most of my creative gifts, knowing that someday I may not be able to use them.
Until then — and indeed, thereafter, should that day come — I will continue to be immensely grateful for the fact that I have health and mental-health practitioners in my life who do not regard my decision to eschew long-term medical therapy with contempt, as the foolish decision of an irrational child, but rather with compassion, as the careful decision of a rational and intelligent adult.
That is an immense privilege; a great gift.
It is also a reflection of privilege: I am white, male, of “normal” size, well-bred, well-educated, and well-spoken. I am married to a medical professional.
Doubtless, all of these things factor in the quality of care that I receive — when none of them should. All that should matter is that I am a human being, and thus deserving of respect even when I’m irrational, stubborn, and wrong.
This, ultimately, is what every single person with mental illness deserves — even when we are irrational: respect. The essential respect of one human being for another.
This is basic human dignity in action.
It should be neither a privilege, nor something we stumble upon by luck.
Sometimes, I make bad decisions.
In fact, I would argue that I am better at making bad decisions than the average person — which is to say that, because I am a tad impulsive, I probably make them more often than most people do.
I’m not normally prone to catastrophically bad decisions (once in a while, sure — but for someone with bipolar and ADHD, I’m doing a reasonably decent job not burning my house down because SQUIRREL!).
Rather, it seems that I rather often find myself saying, “…It seemed like a good idea at the time.”
Anyway, this is one of those stories, but it’s an instructive one. For me, at least (consider this another “note-to-self,” I guess?).
Yesterday, I decided that I should stop at the grocery on the way home from the studio and pick up a few things. Dancers gotta eat. (Isn’t that a song? “Birds gotta swim; fish gotta fly; Dancers gotta eat if they don’t wanna die…*”)
There were five items on my list; five — I think I finished up closer to twenty, including five pounds of potatoes, a couple of pounds of quick oats, and some other things that are packaged by the pound.
In short, my purchases were rather on the heavy side for carrying home without, say, a proper backpack (my dance bag is tiny), shoulder bag, bike with panniers**, or what have you.
Anyway, just purchasing heavy groceries wouldn’t have been a terrible idea if I’d then decided that, as I usually do, I should call Denis to come collect me at the store.
Instead, as I was still in a mildly paranoid frame of mind, I decided that it annoys him when I call to ask him to pick me up, and that I should try to get home without doing that.
So I schlepped my purchases down to the bus stop and got on the bus.
…Which, in and of itself, might have been an acceptable decision.
Except then, without bothering to consult Transit App (Which, you guys, has made my life SO MUCH EASIER. I love living in the future!), I decided that there was no way the current bus would actually make a timely connection with the bus that would get me closer to home, and that it would make more sense to get off and walk 1.7 miles with my heavy-ass bags (I did have the sense to stuff my potatoes into my dance bag, at least).
WTF, you guys.
It seemed like a good idea at the time?
So I started walking.
Now, 1.7 miles really isn’t that far (for me). I will walk that far for fun without even thinking about it.
But a 1.7 miles with twenty-odd pounds of groceries in flimsy plastic carrier bags (because I forgot my reusable bags, because ADHD I guess?) and no free hands with which to scratch your perpetually-itchy nose; 1.7 miles of which the last .5 mile traverses three transverse moraines with short but steep climbs?
That was no fun.
Needless to say, by the time I got home, I was both drenched in sweat and more or less ready to lie down dead on the floor. And my shoulders hurt. And my arms. And my hands. And, in fact, even my legs.
And it had taken roughly forever and a half because every five or ten minutes I would have to stop put my gloves on (because the bags were eating through my hands, even though I double-bagged everything), take off my hat(because it was too hot), take off my neck tube (ditto), take off my sweater (erm … thritto?), or scratch my by-our-lady nose, which answered my attempts to use Applied Zen with an escalating arms-race of itchiness that quickly approached Thermonuclear Zombie Apocolypse levels.
After arriving home and quite literally sitting on the floor for a few minutes, being angry at the world for … let’s face it, who even knows? Sometimes, when you have bipolar disorder, your thoughts don’t really make a lot of sense.
…Um, where was I?
Oh, right. So after literally sitting on the floor for a few minutes, I got up, put the groceries away, washed dishes, and made chili for dinner and the best freaking chocolate muffins in the universe (reduced-sugar version; the basic recipe is vegan, though these ones have non-vegan chocolate chips in) because Denis loves them and I am a sucker.
And then we went out to the live-in-HD production of A Winter’s Tale, capping off a day that might have already been a little much by staying up past our bedtime (though, to be honest, that has nothing to do with why it took me ’til 4 AM to get to sleep).
Perhaps unsurprisingly, today I am not feeling so very peachy. I woke up with my wildly-underutilized upper body muscles feeling like they were full of ground glass*** and the rest of me feeling, well, really just kind of meh. Puny, icky, achy, under the weather, and … I don’t know, swollen or something. If that makes any sense.
And I realized that, in a sense, this was what I felt like when I was getting back to class after the recent Pneumonia Campaign (except, then, the ground-glass sensation was in my legs).
Which has led me to a revelation that really seems like, you know, it shouldn’t seem revelatory.
Specifically, that small expenditures of energy can still add up to one big expenditure at the end of the day, even with dribs and drabs of recovery in their midst.
You’re still burning matches, even if you don’t just light the whole book on fire and watch them all go up in a blaze of glory (or, alternatively, you’re still using up spoons, even if you don’t just throw them all at the smug-faced hipsters at the next table all in one … hm. Maybe I’m still feeling a little grumpy today).
Over time, of course, conditioning can help you start the day with more matches (well, not always: health conditions can get in the way, of course). The trick is figuring out how many you’ve got, since they’re invisible, and you don’t know they’re gone ’til you’ve used the last one.
So it turns out I might have overdone it a little yesterday, whereby I’m taking a rest day today (as if I ever do anything on Tuesday in the first place).
Some part of me, of course, continues to complain vociferously about this idea: You don’t need a rest day, it insists, You didn’t even do that much yesterday.
Except, as it turns out, I did — not just the walk (over the moraines) to the bus, then Brian’s class (which felt fairly easy, but was still pretty athletic), then the walk to lunch, then the walk to the other bus, then the walk through the grocery store, then the walk home with all those freaking groceries, then the cleaning and the cooking, all of which involves being up on your feet and moving … yeah. That’s nothing to sneeze at.
Does this mean that, the next time I feel the need to do two days of hard classes and all the other stuff back-to-back, I won’t?
No — in part, to be honest, because that’s the life I’ve chosen for myself. Dancers gonna dance.
But it does mean I’ll consider the process of conditioning, and maybe I’ll learn to go easier on myself when it is time for a rest day.
…But does it mean I’ll learn to make better decisions?
In all honesty, in a general sense, probably not.
But it might mean that I’ll learn, eventually, to figure out roughly how many matches I’ve got without burning the whole book and half of tomorrow’s book.
Today I am feeling restless, grumpy, and depressed.
A week without dancing will do that to you.
…Or, well, not entirely without. I practiced turns in the kitchen and did a bunch of random ballet stuff all over the house (I’m suddenly really into développés, balancés, and sauts de Basque, though the last of these I can only do very cautiously in our living room). What I didn’t do — though I should have – was give myself a progressive class of at least an hour’s duration at least twice. Or, like, I might have at least done one of those ballet-centric workout videos.
Today I plan to do laundry, loaf in bed, indulge my depression (and my cat, who is only too happy to have a People hanging out in bed), and write.
Tomorrow, it’s back to the studio with me, and about demned time. I am quickly becoming intolerable (though I think it’s cool that I am beginning to have insight into this process, instead of merely feeling as if it comes out of nowhere).
I sometimes sort of apologize for this, when I explain that I use ballet as a kind of medication. I imagine that people will think, “Well, you’re not all right all the time, so clearly it doesn’t work.”
I forget that psychopharmaceuticals mostly must be taken every single day,and that if someone concluded that psychopharmaceuticals don’t work because the effects wear off if you stop taking them, I would patiently explain that they do not cure, but only treat, bipolar disorder, which is a chronic condition.
I do best when I can take class as close as possible to every single day, just as I would do best on a drug therapy* if I took it every day.
It’s not that dancing doesn’t work: it’s that, like drugs, it’s not a cure. Like drugs, it rather holds a relentless disease process at bay; maybe even drives it back a ways — but neither dance nor drugs effect a cure. Neither can eradicate the disease process entirely. Cease treatment, and the machinery of the disease will shudder to life again, and sooner or later symptoms will arise.
When I take a “drug holiday,” as it were, from dancing, the disease process is able to advance just as it would if I were taking lithium** and stopped that. Likewise, just as there are other drugs that can approximate, to a greater or lesser extent, the effects of lithium, a break from dancing may be mitigated by the substitution of suitable physical activities: a great deal of walking and/or swimming, for example, can keep me on a reasonably even keel — but those must be taken in doses of hours per day if they’re to work, just as different medications may have different dose effects. Running and cycling also work — better (and thusly at somewhat smaller doses) than walking and casual swimming, but still not as well as the intense rigors of ballet class.
So there you go.
I am grateful that there are such things as blogs. In moments like this one, I withdraw from reciprocal socializing — but it is helpful to know that I can write, “I am having a bad day” and that there is a public record of it, even if I can’t always lay that burden at the feet of my loved ones.
I am intensely introverted when depressed, and the outlay of energy required to initiate and sustain a social exchange seems dauntingly high. Blogging seems to offer some of the benefit of doing so, but at a greatly reduced cost.
* The analogy that follows doesn’t extend well to Adderall for ADHD — Adderall has a very short half-life and doesn’t necessarily produce any changes that outlast its therapeutic window, while both dancing and lithium arguably do. Adderall doesn’t arrest the disease process of ADHD (if, indeed, we even use “disease process” as a model — where ADHD is concerned, it’s not a very good one). It simply mutes the symptoms to a greater or lesser extent until enough has been excreted that the therapeutic threshold is no longer met. As such, I’m disregarding my very effective working relationship with Adderall, here.
** This is, in fact, a poor analogy in my case: lithium is an immensely valuable tool for many, but for some of us, the side-effects are disabling; I was far more disabled on lithium than I am off of it. Worse, I was unable to dance or to do creative work, without either of which I can’t feel whole. It’s still something that is, for me, a medication of last resort, to be used only temporarily and in extremis.
I eschew routine treatment with lithium not by choice, but by necessity.
As you may have gathered from Friday evening’s post, I am wrestling with insomnia. Possibly also a touch of dysphoric mania on-ramp action. It’s par for the course (onset of winter, hormones being wacky, somewhat stressed out), familiar enough, but still difficult.
In a comment on my earlier post, Cabrogal referred to that state in which your mind is still blazingly awake and alert but insomnia has begun to make your body tired. I can relate: that’s where I am tonight. I felt tired at 9:30 PM and crawled into bed. Despite many efforts to sleep, I’m still awake.
When I close my eyes, my mind whirls away at 3,000,000 miles per hour: musical compositions (which arrive with regularity at the onset of mania) playing themselves at various tempi (often inappropriate ones), sometimes elaborating themselves into staggering crab-canons that wheeze and clatter along like seige engines. Hard and bad thoughts intermittently surface. I try to just acknowledge them and let them go, but they persist. None of this feels like a conscious process; in fact, the music leaves little room for intentional thought.
When I’m just having difficulty falling asleep (read: almost every night), I tell myself stories. Apparently, my stories are very boring, because often they do the job. (Okay, so actually I think they just distract me from the horrid life-long anxiety about being unable to fall asleep — another trait El Roberto and I share)
When my brain won’t stop musicking, I often can’t tell myself stories. I can’t “hear” them (more like see/feel/smell/hear them) over the din of my mental calliope hammering out my setting of Psalm 137, which is actually a lovely piece of music, but not like this.
It’s almost 3:30. If a miracle occurs and I get to sleep soon, I should be okay in ballet class. I don’t want to keep missing class. I don’t want this to be my new reality, always sliding away from the thing I love the most (after Denis, anyway).