Saturday, July 12, 2014

The bee in my bonnet...

With summer came the familiar desire to cut my medication. I take five milligrams of Olanzapine at bedtime. I imagined that this anti-psychotic might be causing my voracious appetite (it probably is) and my difficulty rising each morning (it probably is not).
At my regular appointment with my psychiatrist, I asked permission to cut the med in half. He agreed I could try, first by alternating a full dose with a half-dose and seeing how it went. My counselor Brian urged me to pay attention to how this affected my sleep.
The trial period started. After a couple of weeks I had charted lost sleep on a couple of the nights I took the half-dose. I decided to adopt the half-dose anyway, since I felt less 'affected' taking less Olanzapine.
When I attended a Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance meeting, several other members of the group made me re-think this intention. One woman said, "You say that you are terrified of becoming manic again...so why would you take the risk?" Two others said much the same thing.
I decided to take their advice. I went home and replaced all the half-tablets in my pill case with whole ones. For years I have stayed stable on this medication, and I am fortunate to require no greater dose than five milligrams. Perhaps the desire to take less of it is just a subtle form of denial...if I take less, I can feel as if I have a lesser case of bipolar disorder, or that some of the condition has gone away.
A review of my BP history reminds me of the seriousness of my case. In the past insomnia has led inevitably to euphoric or dysphoric mania. Olanzapine helps me sleep. I was on a lesser dose when I had my last episode, and I 'broke through' my medication at that time, i.e., relapsed in spite of it.
The next time I get a bee in my bonnet about cutting meds, perhaps I will recognize a temptation I need to resist.

Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Pilgrimage 2

A week ago Friday, I leave my house at 6:45 a.m., to begin the journey to Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery where my youngest child, son Anthony, will be ordained as a novice, after serving for a year as an anagarika. Next year’s ordination will make him a ‘full’ monk.
I fly Southwest to Los Angeles, change planes, and continue to San Francisco. There I rent a car and drive through the city, across the Golden Gate Bridge, and north toward Ukiah, where I plan to stay three nights.
For hours I follow GPS instructions before I realize I made a crucial mistake in its setting: I opted to ‘avoid freeways.’ Soon I am driving 2-lane country curved roads past wineries, ranches and camps. A lengthy trek on Petrified Forest Road convinces me I am sufficiently lost. Fortunately I see a Texaco station where I learn I am still an hour from my destination and I will approach it from the north, having passed Ukiah while driving in half-circles.
I arrive at the Fairfield Inn at 11:00 p.m., which feels like Nashville time of 1 a.m. I set my phone alarm for 5 a.m., allowing myself an hour to get to Redwood Valley--twice the time it takes someone who has even a minuscule sense of direction. Then I actually sleep fairly well. For no known reason, the motel has upgraded me to a suite, which luxury I sincerely appreciated at that late hour.
Next morning I grab a cup of coffee in the lobby, choose 'quickest route' on the GPS, and arrive at Abhayagiri ten minutes before breakfast. Walking up the driveway from the parking lot, I am again awestruck by the beauty of this remote site against the side of a mountain.
Anthony appears, somewhat thinner than I found him last year. He is wearing the white robe he will trade in tonight for the orange-y gold-colored monk’s robe that he has sewn and dyed himself in preparation.
We serve ourselves breakfast, which we eat in the meeting room, where ten monks and two anagarikas including Anthony sit on the front half of the floor and Buddhist visitors sit in audience to them. As a mature (read old) parent, I sit on a bench in the back. We eat in reverent but comfortable silence. The peace of the environment transforms me, as all my anxieties melt into their essential nothingness.
After breakfast my son and I find a quiet place to talk in the tiny library off the kitchen. Anthony looks at the pictures on my cell phone and wants to hear about his nieces, nephews, siblings, in-laws, aunts, uncles, cousins. He is anticipating a July visit from cousin Melanie and her husband Sean, who plan to take a day of a planned trip to S.F. to visit him at the monastery.
I want to know all about Anthony's life and what his advancement to novice means. Besides new robes, he gets a new name but we won't know the moniker until the ceremony tonight. I learn that he will no longer have kitchen duty (a good thing) or be able to hug his mother on monastery grounds (a bad thing). Nor will he drive anymore, on monastic excursions. He will be driven from now on, keeping his license for ID purposes only. Nor will he be allowed to handle money. His health insurance will be paid for by his community. On infrequent visits to Nashville, he will need his plane ticket acquired for and sent to him.
We talk until almost time for the Meal (there is no dinner), which turns out to be a fantastic spread of vegetarian casseroles, hardy and healthy soups, fruit and veggie smoothies, and a wide assortment of desserts. All food comes from donations and volunteer visitors' cooking.
After the monks enter the kitchen in a solemn line and fill their bowls, they proceed into the meeting room. Debbie, one of two laywoman residents who keep the whole place running well, calls to me to come inside to hear the pre-meal chanting. I find my place on the bench. After this form of not-exactly-prayer, the rest of us leave the monks in their eating, fill our own bowls, and congregate at little tables outside on this lovely spring day which is in turn cloudy, sunny, breezy, still, warm and cool. Buddhist practitioners, many of whom visit this monastery regularly, greet me with warmth and joy as Anthony’s mother.
After lunch Anthony's friend Meryl arrives from Berkeley. Also Buddhist, she completed the same chaplaincy program he did several years ago, and she has been his mentor ever since.
A second laywoman resident named Beth presents me with a partially filled photo album that shows my son in countless activities during his year and a half at Abhayagiri. This thoughtful gift will be kept on my coffee table in Nashville where all my grandchildren can gain a better knowledge of their missing uncle! She promises to send more photos in the future.
After greeting Meryl, I accept the offer of Delores. a visitor, to show me the guest house where I might choose to stay on future visits. We walk up a steep mountain road--a workout that makes me think I should have been using the incline feature on the treadmill at the Y. Delores, my age, works and lives in New Orleans and also runs a Buddhist retreat center in Mississippi which she invites me to visit.
The guest house, Casa Serena, offers accommodations far more comfortable and private than I expected, but the climb required might deter me from choosing to stay there. I walk back down to my car and return to the motel to rest and refresh before the 7:30 p.m. ceremony. The morning re-encounter with this remarkable environment has dissolved any feeble, lingering doubts regarding Anthony's chosen destiny.
At 5:00 p.m. my son's friends Meryl and Diana come to my hotel room, to ride back to the monastery. We arrive there two hours before the meditation to be followed by the ordination ceremony. We make ourselves cups of tea. Two more of my son's friends arrive--Dawn and Jeanne. Sweet-faced Jeanne reminds me of my dear cousin Sandy. Anthony later says he too sees the resemblance.
Shortly after 7:00 we take our places in the meeting room, where up to 100 men, women, and children have spread mats on the colorful oriental rugs that line the seating area for this special occasion. Flower arrangements by a lovely Thai woman visitor surround the sturdy super-lifesize bronze-colored statue of Buddha behind where the Abbott is seated. Debbie has set up a chair for me, complete with small blanket and back pillow. I am grateful for not having to kneel or sit.
The ensuing ceremony begins with a lengthy meditation period and lasts for over two hours. First two men are ordained anagarikas, as Anthony was last year. Then my son officially attains the status of novice. Anthony chants in Pali for long periods multiple times. I know he has some anxiety that he will forget his lines because he told me. But apparently his recitations are correct and there are no pauses. There is more chanting back and forth between him and the Abbot, Ajahn Passano.
My son presents his new robes to the Abbott, who presents them back to him. Anthony then takes them into an adjoining room, where another monk assists him in changing from the white garb he has worn for a year. He reenters the congregation bearing a gift of flowers and candles for the Abbott. There follows an affirmation of dependence, as the Abbott accepts and my son acknowledges the Abbott's responsibility for his welfare.
The Abbott’s final announcement: that Anthony will be known henceforth as Khantiko, pronounced KAHN’-TEE-KO, which means patience, forbearance, and forgiveness, traits the Abbott recognizes in my son.
Afterward we gather outside in the chill evening air, congratulating my son and practicing pronouncing his new name. Diana presents a Pali dictionary to Khantiko. I give him my card of congratulations, with a $100 Visa card in it. This turns out to be appropriate, because he no longer handles money. It’s considered a gift card that can be used by the community.
With Meryl and Diana as passengers, I drive back to the hotel for a short night's sleep.
My cell phone alarm fails me, but I wake up at 6:10 and decide to try to make breakfast at Abhayagiri at 7:00. I get there around 7:10. After breakfast and work assignments Khantiko and I walk up the mountain to Casa Serena, then follow a trail through the forest that approaches the main building from the opposite side. I am careful not to address him as Anthony. Someone pointed out to me that he will eventually have been Khantiko longer than he was Anthony. The strength of his commitment and his general good health convince me this is true.
We arrive back at the kitchen for the Meal, which consists this day of Italian food ordered with a monetary donation. Debbie gives me a lovely gold and tan scarf made in Thailand, which I immediately drape around my neck. I will wear it often back in Nashville and recall this surrounding of peace with each wearing.
I drive back to the hotel for a couple of hours before returning to the lovely home of my friend Sondra, who hosted me during my last year's visit. She brews loose tea, which she serves with dark chocolate in her clutter-free home. I am impressed anew by the streamlined look of her (minimal) stuff, made up of the highest quality everything (such as kitchen appliances and utensils, each of which resides in the most logical and convenient location as determined by its owner with unerring accuracy). I compliment her housekeeping and the efficiency she models.
We walk down her back yard to the thin stream of the Russian River that runs beside her property. She tells me details of the water rationing currently in place due to extreme drought, and she predicts that the river will soon dry up completely until the next big rain. She is allotted 50 gallons of water per day and has to pay a fee for any overage. She says she was surprised how little water that is, compared to what she was using. And she describes how she conserves the water we normally use so carelessly—as when running water until it gets hot—and uses it selectively on her flowers and plants.
She tells me about the popularity of growing marijuana, how much water these plants demand, and how they emanate a stench that is skunk-like. Because we are the same age, we share with each other how quickly we tire these days and how cautious about falling we have become, for fear of broken bones and decreased mobility. I quietly resolve to keep in touch with this incredible distant friend with whom I have much in common, both of us aging widows trying to follow the teachings of Buddha and Christ.
Shortly after 5:30 p.m. I arrive again at the monastery. Khantiko is in a lengthy business meeting with the other community members, so I await his return, preparing myself another cup of tea and sitting on the kitchen’s porch beside two young Buddhists--a beautiful girl, Ash, from India, and a twenty-something American boy traveling across the U.S. and visiting one Buddhist monastery after another.
He tells how he quit his yuppie job and how he has not regretted his decision. I want to ask if he thinks he has a vocation like my son's, but I decide such a question would be too personal. The two young people compare Buddhist retreats in which each has participated. The boy, Scott, asks me what I do and I explain that I am here to see my son get ordained, that I am a Catholic. I tell them that they are fortunate in discovering Buddhism in their youth and having a lifetime to practice it's precepts. I am realizing that this religion attracts me more than my own chosen Catholicism, and I feel more comfortable and truly myself in this worshipful center that my youngest son has found. While I have no intention of converting at my age, it is only by giving my own theology a Buddhist slant that I can continue with it, which perhaps puts me out of the mainstream but which thankfully makes me feel secure as an Associate of Mercy.
Sunday evening I join the monks and their Buddhist followers for a lengthy period of silent meditation along with group chanting in Pali and English. I decide it will take me much more practice and perhaps even study to get down the Pali pronunciations. I say goodnight to Khantiko and walk down the driveway in the dark to drive my rented Nissan through lonely Tomki and West Roads to an almost deserted freeway back to Ukiah.
My last morning the cell phone alarm fails me again. I realize that for two mornings in a row its vibration has propelled the phone to the floor, where the impact cuts off the alarm before I hear it. The good result is that each day I get 45 more minutes of needed sleep. It's 6:00 a.m. when I wake up and I must bathe, dress, pack everything, and check out. I hustle and leave the hotel shortly after 6:30, arriving at Abhayagiri before 7.
I sit and enjoy my bowl of oatmeal at the bench in back of the meeting room, while the monks eat from their sturdy silver bowls in their assigned spaces, seated on the floor. I note that Khantiko now has a 'real' bowl unlike the light tin ones used by the anagarikas. His assigned seat is beside Anagarika J.R., who will be ordained a novice in July.
After the morning meeting, I say goodbye to my son without hugs or kisses. I think that I have neglected to ask him about the abandonment of human touch and how that affects him...the man who from childhood was the most sensual of my children, touching and feeling everything. But there's no use in asking him that now. And, besides, he can still touch and explore things. I tell him I love him and he thanks me for coming. I realize I am reluctant to leave but I do so without tears because part of what this visit has given me is lasting--an enhanced understanding of how to live well.
I have told Khantiko something that perhaps (since he does not have bipolar disorder) he cannot understand: his introducing me to Buddhism and sharing Abhayagiri with me have given me a ‘safety net’...a sense of security sought but not so palpably found in my own Catholic faith.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Cultivating normal

The months of my wellness fall away and I experience small ups and small downs, which my counselor Brian reminds me are normal. When my mood chart shows a slight dip, I tend to think I am approaching bipolar depression. Brian points out that I am merely affected by situational triggers, as I continue getting used to good mental health.
In dealing with these mildly fluctuating moods, I remind myself of my friend Theresa's comment on this blog: "I finally realized that I have a choice each day: believe the good or believe the bad. I now choose to believe the good...it's a hard habit for me to form, but I'm progressing!"
When I turned 70 recently, I had every reason to enter this new decade of life with joy. Children, grandchildren, cousins, in-laws, and friends showered me with presents and cards. Then came Mother's Day with more well-wishes, and I felt even more loved and appreciated. Clearly being seventy-something would be non-stop positive.
Then an incident occurred that changed my mood. While flossing my teeth, I watched in the mirror as a huge cap flew out of the front upper part of my mouth. It had a fibrous stick coming out of the middle that I assumed was the root of the tooth. Immediately I visualized endless dental appointments necessary to get an implant and thousands of dollars spent, after which my other teeth would spontaneously self-destruct, one by one. I found myself thinking I must have deserved this...I started dissecting my bipolar past and resurrecting the countless reasons why God was punishing me.
Suddenly I saw the foolishness of this reasoning. I was choosing to "believe the bad" despite all the good that had preceded it.
Before I could adjust my thinking, I drove to the dentist, who repaired my tooth within minutes. Since the cap was undamaged and the base of the tooth showed no decay, he simply re-cemented the cap. What I had thought was the root of the tooth was actually a fiber from a root canal done ten years ago.
I felt ashamed for thinking the worst, as I silently thanked my maker for restoring my smile. The collateral damage of negative thinking was a shaken self-confidence...What next would happen to threaten my recovery?
Then a grandchild texted me; another phoned to invite me to hear her sing at Mass; a third challenged me in double solitaire. Soon I was the happy person I am meant to be..."believing the good" again...believing that the good of this life somehow out-sustains the bad.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

A preface

I wrote the following preface for the book I am working on finishing in the next couple of years.
Once upon a time, I thought I could make sense of it all. I could explain what it’s like to have bipolar I disorder. This book represents such an effort. More the story of my disorder than a story of my life, it largely omits the valid accomplishments of birthing and raising four children, holding down several jobs, and sustaining marriage to an exceptional man. Rather, it details the chaos resulting from bad—i.e. bipolar—choices.
Over a period of several years, I put together these chapters in chronological order, for my then-new cognitive therapist, Brian. In weekly one-hour sessions, we examined the experiences I wrote about, noting possible influences from my infancy on…potential causes for the mood disorder that emerged unmistakably when I was twenty-five years old and drastically altered my everything.
Brian and I worked together to forge a wellness for me. I finished this story and began a blog that follows my continued management of an incurable disease. As late as 2011, I was hospitalized during a manic episode, so I harbor no illusion that my remission is certain (i.e., permanent).
Now I enjoy the happy life of a grandmother of seven. I work part-time as a caregiver for employers I respect. Thanks to a balance of exercise and good nutrition, I stay fairly healthy. I have learned to make sufficient sleep a top priority, because exhaustion and insomnia have taken me rapidly to breakdown again and again. I see Brian every other week and he helps keep me alert for signs that my stability is being threatened.
I offer my story to my children and grandchildren. And I acknowledge that at times it makes no sense. May my loved ones escape the useless drama and destruction of major mental illness. They live in a world much enlightened, with elaborate diagnoses, countless medications, numerous therapies, and specialized professionals.
More than any other metaphor, bipolar I as Satan serves both my counselor and myself as a way to describe what happened to me…as the illness took possession of my brain time and again, rendering me demented, deluded, dangerous to myself and others. It put me on a course of destruction that left tangible souvenirs of ruined reputation and broken relationships.
Every day this demon reminds me of sins in my past, suggesting that present contentment and stability cannot endure for someone like myself. Armed with the love of family and the expertise of Brian and my psychiatrist, and confident in the grace of God, I refute Satan’s dark messages. My wellness has already exposed me to depths of joy far more satisfying than the most euphoric mania; reality brings multiple blessings that I never take for granted.
I believe that my wellness depends on good physical health, sobriety, exercise, good nutrition, and a “cocktail” of meds prescribed by an enlightened psychiatrist. It demands from me that I reflect my living by means of a daily journal and track my moods on a chart that my counselor examines at each session. It suggests I attend Depression and Bipolar Support Association gatherings, which surround me with others managing their own remissions.
I want to believe that I can continue doing all that is necessary to keep my illness at bay in my old age. I neither expect nor desire that stability become less challenging. My current joy depends on constant watchfulness and effort.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

The magic continues...

My appreciation of life continues despite two minor stumbling blocks. I had a recurrence of pneumonia that hit me on Thursday and Friday before a weekend of important plans. I canceled a much-anticipated art class (with my son's daughter) and a great niece's baptism. Giving myself total rest worked; I felt much better by Sunday night and went to work Monday. But it took longer for me to overcome a sense of intense guilt about what I missed. Automatic negative thoughts attacked: I should have forced myself to do what I had planned; the antibiotic alone would have gotten me well; I have no stamina; I'm lazy. Etc.
The second tiny setback happened when I found myself falling asleep during a fantastic production of "Wicked" at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center. The night before, perhaps because I had slept in that morning, I could not get to sleep and ended up reading until after midnight. Sitting in the audience the next day, nodding off, I felt sinfully lethargic, according to the automatically negative thought I always bring to such an occasion. My spirits and my enjoyment of the play both rose during the second half, thanks to a diet coke my daughter bought me at intermission. Later I discovered I had neglected to take my morning (wake up) meds. The sleepiness, then, had two causes, neither of which was (dreaded) apathy.
I am learning more and more about my bipolar condition, as I remain stable and remarkably content for a record number of days, weeks, months, and years.
Brian suggested we change our counseling sessions from weekly to every other week. I recalled that the last time we did that, I went into the hospital within weeks. Now I was in a better place, the progress of my recovery almost tangible. I found that I could use the extra hour on off weeks, and we had more to discuss when we met.
Reading my journal at our last session, he told me he was proud of me for taking the weekend off to get rid of the (second) pneumonia. He said I should never feel guilty for prioritizing needed rest, because deterioration in physical health had led me straight to mental problems in the past. Unlike someone younger and without bipolar, I must not risk getting run down. The remaining vestiges of guilt dissipated before Brian's logic.
On Sunday, March 23, I became an Associate of Mercy during a brief ceremony in the Mercy convent chapel, witnessed by my oldest son, his wife, their children, my daughter Lisa, and three of her children. In front of family, friends, other Associates, and perhaps a dozen Sisters of Mercy (nuns), I made a 3-year covenant to live a life of Mercy, i.e., a life based on love and the teachings of Jesus--including a prerogative for the poor and disenfranchised. I acknowledged that I must minister first to myself, as an individual with bipolar I disorder, before I minister to my clients and my grandchildren.
Each morning I place a shiny Mercy Associate pendant around my neck and approach the day with a renewed sense of commitment and companionship. In my past, religious encounters have triggered psychosis. I am happy that the 3-years-long approach to Association has allowed me time to change gradually and gently. When I made my Cursillo weekend decades ago, I went into the hospital for mania just days later. The bombardment of unaccustomed piety led to two nights' sleep deprivation, which led to psychosis and a month's stay in a psych hospital.
After I wrote the last blog entry, I asked Brian if so-called "normal" people notice life's magic all the time. Are colors always vivid for them and everything and everyone super-sized and intricate? He said most people probably take created beauty for granted while I, having been chronically deprived of clear vision, appreciate it more.
I know that from an early age I grappled with a kind of simmering depression. Living was always difficult and I thought every cheerful person I knew was just shallow in his or her thinking. I couldn't discover the meaning of life, but I was certain it was grim. In adulthood, I mistook mania for true happiness and subconsciously sought its delusion. Now I'm inclined to agree with the line from a pop song, asserting that "happiness is the truth." Not a happiness of excess or hedonia, but one of balance, discipline, and love.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

The magic of life

My latest illness began when I overworked and let myself get run down because my good, stable mood kept me from noticing my physical symptoms.
Weekend before last I accepted a caregiving assignment which involved long hours, accompanying a legally blind mom as she negotiated three days jam-packed with festivities surrounding her daughter's Jewish wedding. I had a cold going into the weekend, but it was such a glorious success--due to my client's stamina and the love of her entire wonderful family--that I hardly noticed my exhaustion. Fortunately my counselor Brian noticed at our weekly session on Monday and he prescribed bedrest for the next day, my day off. This helped but not enough, apparently. My cold got worse, but I continued work with my regular client. When I left her house on Friday, I stopped at the Little Clinic to make sure I had not contracted the flu. I was diagnosed with pneumonia.
This past weekend I was as sick as I ever remember being (physically), until Sunday when the antibiotic took hold. What astounded me was that my mood remained good and stable throughout and the noonday demon of depression could not get through to taunt me with messages of inferiority and failure.
I took all the cold meds I could in order to ensure proper sleep. I was hospitalized for mania in 2011 following a bout of bronchitis when I could not sleep due to cold symptoms. When I saw Dr. B., my PCP, on Tuesday, he told me it will take about four weeks to recover completely from the pneumonia, but I can resume normal activities that I feel like doing. Yesterday I went back to work with my regular client, which tired me out quickly, but today I still feel some improvement physically and a mental wellness that surpasses previous experience.
This is what I call the magic of life--this sense that I am right with the world and with my creator. It is the sweet taste of which occurs in mania and certainly had me convinced earlier in my life that it would only occur in mania--leading to a subconscious pursuit of that "pole."
Yesterday afternoon I met with my psychiatrist, Dr. M., who applauded my progress. He was pleased with the mood charts I showed him, with their steady line right across the center of the graphs, shaded light green for "happy" with no sign of invading the dangerous territory of the extreme poles (depression or mania). I thanked him for his efforts in finding the perfect med cocktail that I have been living on now for years: 10 mg generic Lexapro, 5 mg. generic Zyprexa, and 40 mg Vyvanse per diem. Happily the side effects are minimal and the benefits sufficient, with no change needed.
In March I will make my first covenant as an Associate of Mercy, joining a group of non-denominational men and women who follow the precepts of the Catholic Sisters of Mercy, with their bias toward the poor and underprivileged. Since I have aligned myself with this group, for three years now, I enjoy a better discernment of right and wrong, which makes life simpler.
Today I visited my dermatologist for a facial treatment aimed at destroying pre-cancerous cells on my face. For sixteen minutes I sat still before a light that shone on a face smeared with acid, and I meditated on my status quo. I decided that the approaching decade of being 70-80 years old will most likely be the happiest of my life so far. The test of pneumonia has taught me that I can weather serious physical illness and remain happy. The prospect of watching seven grandchildren become even more beautiful and complex over the ten years, with the love they all show me, promises more joy than I would ever have imagined possible.
While I linger a few more months as 69, before the next decade begins, already I see events magical in their possibilities: a birthday lunch this Sunday for grandson Michael, who will be 6, and his family; my usual playtime with my son's two children that evening; keeping precious 8-month-old George next Tuesday; a full day in March of "Watercolor Basics," taught by my artist friend Vinci, with my son's daughter, who is 9; seeing Wicked with my three granddaughters and their moms; proudly attending two separate "Grandparents Days" this spring; and witnessing the ordination of my son Anthony as he moves forward in his journey of becoming a Buddhist monk.
I can remember not so long ago when activities like these would embody components of dread and fear of failure. My children have supported me and Brian my counselor has worked me hard, that I have arrived at a truly joyous position in life. The magic itself? Purely God-given. I don't presume to define God, except to say He is definitely Jewish and Buddhist.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Where my demons hide

On this crisp, cold New Year’s eve morning, I drive north on I-40 and Briley Parkway to the Mercy convent, a one-story brick structure on spacious grounds in the vicinity of the Opryland Hotel. As a pre-Associate of Mercy, I am given the opportunity to spend the day in silent contemplation and group worship, along with other Associates and Associates-in-training like myself.
I attended another, similar, end-of-year retreat in this very place. When I read my account of it in an earlier blog entry, where I include an imaginary encounter with my deceased son David, I realize my spirit no longer soars into such channels. Chastened by grim threats of bipolar illness, I stay more fully grounded these days.
I park my SUV and walk to the front door, which swings open in anticipation, for my mentor Sister Eileen has seen me approach. Receiving her greeting, I feel all my reservations fade, as a sense of belonging settles on me. This very morning I wanted to opt out of attending this retreat. Yet the countless other things I could be doing on this day suddenly seem trivial. I have been assigned one of the comfy guest rooms, where I find an easy chair, a bed, a desk with chair, and a bathroom, for my personal use.
At 9:50 I place my pocketbook and bottles of water in this room and notice the question below the room assignment on the sheet of paper Sister Eileen handed me. “What do you desire from God this day?” My immediate answer: “to flush out the demons that plague me, that struggle constantly to take me over, body and soul.”
I walk to the chapel, where I sit among thirty retreat guests and resident nuns, for a brief opening service. A Mercy sister invites us to prayer. She reads the Gospel story in which Jacob falls asleep and dreams of the stairway to heaven. When he wakes up, he exclaims, “Truly the Lord is in this spot, although I did not know it.” (Gen. 28) I encountered this reading recently in a prayer book and resolved to print this phrase in big letters in a bold font, cut away the paper around it, and attach it with clear contact paper to the side of the chest of drawers beside my bed. First thing upon awakening each day, I will be reminded that SURELY THE LORD IS IN THIS SPOT… I resolve to do this today when I get home.
The Sister encourages us to examine our hearts and answer the question, “What is your dream?” To this I also have a ready, ultimate answer: I wish to learn to accept the physical and mental corrections of aging and to die with dignity. This ties in with managing my demons, who work within each perceived limitation to sour my mood. My highest aspiration must be to remain stable and optimistic for the rest of my life, however long that is.
I have always loved the poem “Thanatopsis,” in which the poet William Cullen Bryant advises that, on approaching death, “Thou go not like the quarry-slave at night, /Scourged to his dungeon, but sustained and soothed/By an unalterable trust, approach thy grave/As one who wraps the drapery of his couch/About him and lies down to pleasant dreams.” Because I have lived a sizeable portion of my life in a state of insanity, such a sanguine approach to my end sometimes strikes me as unlikely. It is my goal.
On this retreat, I look over the past year’s journal in order to glean lessons from the recent past. I find that I met and exceeded my own expectations repeatedly, yet refused to gain lasting self-confidence from success. In January and part of February, I attended Certified Nursing Assistant school, restoring skills I had acquired through similar training in the early 1990’s. I passed the coursework as well as the state test, which I was sure I would fail. I wrote in my journal toward the end of that course:
...Have been feeling inferior to every other student, although my grades must be near the top of the class…it just seems all the others have the confidence (that rudder!) that I don’t have and believe in themselves where I don’t. Even though I should feel good because of my scholastic achievement, I still feel slow and dyslexic, and likely to fail the clinicals…
The “rudder” to which I refer is that immaterial thing [I imagine] that people without bipolar disorder can take for granted, an almost gravitational power that keeps them centered and less likely to stray into too high or too low territory.…while for me living seems a continuous, precarious balancing act, trying to stay in a decent mood.
Before I took the state exam, I indulged in a huge episode of depression, in which I second-guessed everything I tried to do and felt doomed to failure in it all. As I re-read the journal entries of late February, I see that I didn’t attribute the mood to the upcoming event of the test…and it was obviously connected. This, then, is one place my demons lie ready to pounce—in the period preceding any perceived challenge.
Likewise, the demons hide in physical illness. My mood always plummets well before I recognize symptoms of the flu, bronchitis, or whatever, this because I automatically attribute feeling bad to my mood disorder.
In March, I signed up with a new employer, Visiting Angels. I had to accept that I am neither physically nor mentally strong enough to do the tough CNA work available at such a place as Bordeaux Long-Term Care, where I completed my clinicals. I took a job with Visiting Angels with no increase in pay, because certification was not a prerequisite for employment. My study definitely gave me the assurance I otherwise lacked in such service, however, as has my relationship with almost every client so far.
In April I traded in my 5-year-old BMW for a used 2012 Toyota Forerunner, which fact certainly indicated I felt better about my future than in years past, since I chose an SUV with room for all my grandchildren. I purchased it quickly because my BMW showed serious problems involving safety, and I’ve been totally pleased with the decision ever since.
Early May took me to Redwood Valley, CA, for the first ordination of my son Anthony into Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery. His choice of a vocation that keeps him so distant from me had troubled me somewhat, until I saw him in his new environment. I think I surprised myself that I stayed at the home of a Buddhist stranger and participated in the forms of the unaccustomed religion with such enthusiasm. I recognized the beauty of the life my son chose and, except in my most selfish moments, I have remained happy with his commitment.
In June my seventh grandchild George was born, and I took off a week to spend days with my daughter’s family for the second week after his birth. While staying with them all, I suddenly deciphered a major, obvious difference between my daughter and myself. In everything she undertakes, Lisa expects success, whereas, in everything I undertake, I expect failure. This insight revealed the omniscience of my demons: these little doubt-filled monsters swarm around all I do—little “ants” as my counselor Brian calls them—automatic negative thoughts.
By the end of July, I was writing in my journal: “I know it does not please God for me to project a gloomy future onto my consciousness that makes me linger in bed, tormented with dread…” Yet knowing this did not keep me from making it a stubborn habit to lie in misery for minutes, even over an hour, covering my ears with a pillow while my alarm jangled, and putting off starting each day. This habit persists, which is why I will post the reminder of God’s presence beside my bed and resolve in the New Year not to ‘linger in bed’ in the morning, since no good comes of this. In the moments after I first wake up, my demons exercise their strongest hold over my being.
In August, after trying to function on lower doses of my two major meds—Zyprexa and Vyvanse—I conceded, with Brian’s input, that I needed to remain on the original dosages, lest my demons emerge with more ease. Interesting to note that these drugs help “hide” my demons. So perhaps I do not really want to flush them out, as in my original premise, since I willingly aid in covering them up!
The end of September I spent a week in Water Color at my sister-in-law’s condo, and I thoroughly enjoyed myself, much to my surprise. I had so talked myself into thinking I am too abnormal to have a “normal” good time. Yet it was extraordinary—biking, swimming, sunning—and I felt great during it.
Toward the end of November, I began to feel down. When Brian pointed out in our regular session that this happens to me each year at this time, I gained a different perspective. No longer did I see my level of stress over the upcoming holidays as a mysterious, unexplained, unalterable event, but rather as a predictable occurrence!
When I considered my successes that day in my counselor’s office, I saw a year—so far—full of love showered on my by my grandchildren. And I remembered all their games and Grandparents’ Days and recitals that I attended, and the occasional sleepovers. I realized that I have good relationships with my grown children, their spouses, and with all seven of my grandchildren, and that I love them all unconditionally. I was able to address the specter of December misery and say firmly, “It doesn’t have to be that way any more.”
As I contemplated the intense weekly cognitive therapy sessions that have allowed me to attain such an enviable position in life despite my illness, I was able to disown much of the negativity I was hauling around. I proceeded to have a most joyful Christmas and to have fun hosting my annual Dessert and Santa party.
As the reflection of the retreat draws to a close, I find I have plenty of information as to where my demons hide. They’re everywhere! But I know now that I don’t have to take them seriously. I can ignore them and just get out of bed in the morning. I can continue to do what is right without hesitation even when they imply otherwise. Like my daughter, I can reasonably expect success in what I do and I need not be surprised by it. If I deny credence to enough of these insubstantial, ridiculous lies, they lose the spiritual force to unite as delusion or paranoia.
Our retreat ends with Mass and dinner. I am tired but pleased with my positive intention for the coming year. If the popularity of the Imagine Dragons’ hit song is any indication, even “normal” people have their demons; they just don’t let them take over their lives.