She has a birthday today.

Today I got a Facebook notification of a birthday. It really sucked.

Several years ago, I lost a friend for the second time. This is mostly about me, because she’s not here, and it hurts every year. I had lost touch with her, again, as you do with people who are consumed with beasts and needles, when you have your own things to fight. When we were kids, and I thought I had lost her the first time, I remember feeling so strongly that there was something I should have done, some place I should have stepped in, some thing, any thing that would have come between her and the beast, but I was 17, and beasts don’t work that way.

She was gifted. Which is a corny way to say she could write. She never wanted to publish, because she didn’t want anyone to actually read her stuff. She just wrote to get the hell out of her head, and sometimes it worked, and always it was brilliant.

She lived through more crap than I can really wrap my head around. She came to school one day with a tooth knocked out. The school called Children’s Aid, and they went to interview him, but he told them everything was fine, so they went away. She got a little more scarred every weekend.

I finished school, and she didn’t. She took the money he gave her and paid for a little one-room apartment downtown, where she would gather up little girls from the street, to keep them warm and safer, because they trusted her. The money ran out, because it does when you spend so much a day to cope, and things deteriorated fast. She called me at university, completely out of it – please, just lend me a little. I still love you.

The last time I saw her, was in a dive bar, just south of the university. She knew I would be there. She could barely stand up, with her missing tooth, and the bruises and messed up eyes. I didn’t know what to do. I gave her money, and then regretted it, and then wished I had taken her home with me. 17 year olds are very rarely equipped to deal with shit like this, or at least I wasn’t.

Then she was gone. The phone was gone. The apartment was gone. She was nowhere. I didn’t think there was any way she could have made it, she was so sick, so I grieved. She was gone from me, at the very least.

When she came back, after I had mourned her the first time, she had moved away, found a life, and some purpose. When she found me, I was so happy, in a simple, naive way. She had found life, and joy, and was away from the things that made her life so shit in Canada. Everything was cool. FB was my friend that time.

When I found out she was gone the second time, I knew that the beast had followed her, and was just waiting for her to trip, but none of that changed what I knew about her. There was a news report, from a hotel in a far away place. The name was right, and her cousin verified it. I’m not sure which time I was more crushed, but I felt it again today when I saw the notification. She’s gone. She’s dead. She will never call me again. She will never write another word. I still love her.

She was, and always will be, the only person who came to my 14th birthday party. She was the one who faked an asthma attack to sit with me in the dark while the rest of the class ran laps in gym class. She was the one who told me, there is something wrong with you, but it doesn’t make me love you any less. She was the one who wore her mother’s pink cotton prom dress, that she had to keep hitching up over her non-existent boobs, and danced with me, when some guy named David told me I was ugly and stupid, and I believed him. She was the one who made me feel like sticking around. She was the only one my mother would let smoke on the back porch in high school, because we were afraid she would leave, and we never knew if she would make it back this time.

She would have been 42 today. If you need help, please ask, please tell someone. There are ways to feel ok again, and ways to fight beasts, and you don’t have to be alone. There are people who you have made better, and people who will miss you for the rest of their lives, because you are awesome.

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Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project, or, yes, I made it to the kitchen today.

bfmh14-copy-e1388959797718“I pledge my commitment to the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project. I will blog about mental health topics not only for myself, but for others. By displaying this badge, I show my pride, dedication, and acceptance for mental health. I use this to promote mental health education in the struggle to erase stigma.” 

There are pretty much 6 people who read this blog. Once you realize how long this post is, that may start to make sense.

When I started it, I just needed a place to write. I really needed a space, but I didn’t really need an audience. I get a little jump when someone comments, or I get an email saying that someone follows this, but this was primarily a little place for me, and I had no fancy paper notebooks to work with, and my handwriting sucks. Really, it does.

I wanted to write this post, as part of the Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project, because I think that while it is great that all sort of celebrities are announcing their mental health status, I don’t know that that really helps people on a day to day,  oh god how am I going to get all the way to the kitchen, I’m so tired my teeth hurt, basis. In my experience, the only thing that really does that, is knowing people who have lived through that, made it to the kitchen and lived to tell about it. Today, I made it to the kitchen. You can do this.

I was diagnosed with Bipolar II in 1992, after a not very successful trial of anti-depressants made it fairly obvious that I did not have unipolar depression. I spent 8 weeks in hospital getting used to lithium and also getting used to the fact that there was a name for the thing that caused me to lose my marbles on a fairly regular basis, and that that name was not just “tired” or “energetic”.

I spent my 20 year “crazy” anniversary in the hospital too. I’ve been hospitalized seven times in 20 years, which is pretty freaking low, given how things have gone. I have had good treatment, mediocre treatment, and downright horrible treatment. I had the best possible psychiatrist, but then she retired last year. I have taken at least one of almost every class of medication that has ever been even hinted at for BP, including one that is supposed to be for Parkinson’s Disease (that one, for the time being, is working).

I fought an uphill battle with self-harm. Mostly, I won. There are occasional skirmishes. I don’t beat myself over the head with them anymore.

I have significant kidney damage from medication, and it probably won’t get any better than this. I know where every public washroom in the entire city is located, and if I don’t know, I can find one. It is my superpower.

I wrote cranky blog posts about things I found completely unfair about living with mental illness, days when I really wished I could shuffle off this mortal coil without disturbing anyone, and things that are awesome (like peer support and friends).

In and between all of that, I did the following:

  • Got bachelors degree in physical anthropology and human evolution
  • Got college diploma in Early Childhood Education
  • Got bachelor of Education degree
  • Taught elementary school for 8 years
  • Got master of Educational Technology degree
  • Got married
  • Worked for an educational company designing online courses
  • Gave lectures to mental health professionals about lived experience
  • Got unemployed
  • Made really good friends in the physical world and online
  • Learned cross stitch
  • Knit a whole bunch of socks

(Resume available on request. I really need a job, just in case you were wondering. I’m not really trying to advertise.)

Being bipolar is not all of what I am, but it is a huge part of how I became this person. This has been with me my whole life, and it has shaped every decision I have made, and influenced all of my choices. I learned (slowly, and with great reluctance) how to be self-reflective. I learned compassion. That was supposed to apply to me too, but I have not quite got the hang of that yet. Further updates as events warrant. I learned that not only do I have a voice, but I really want to use it. I learned how to be kind. Again, not so much to myself, but I have to leave some startling growth spurts for my 40’s, right?

I also learned how incredibly cruel ignorance is, and how ignorant people really are. I learned what it is like to be marginalized and humiliated for something that is beyond your control. I learned how privileged I am to be a white, well-educated woman, from the right kind of family, when I interact with the mental health system. I learned how dangerous it is to be part of a minority against whom it is still socially acceptable to discriminate. I learned that stigma is a Human Resources issue, and discrimination is a Legal Department issue. I learned that fighting stigma is probably a good thing, but that fighting discrimination and harassment is more important. I learned that people change their behaviour when they have to, and not because you have a good argument.

Other Things I learned:

  • The whole “baby steps” thing is infuriating, but sometimes it actually works.
  • If you can’t get out of bed, put one foot on the floor. Then, if you drag it back under the covers, at least you can say you accomplished something.
  • Practice forgiveness, not in a religious way, but in a “I can let go of this thing I am beating myself over the head with today” way. It is liberating
  • Accept help. No one is so awful that they don’t deserve help. There is no way you are that undeserving, no one is. Humans are worthy, just because.
  • One of my favourite quotes is from Jenny Lawson (the Bloggess, read it. No, really read this blog, and also read Hyperbole and a Half). She says depression lies, and she is right.

Things I like:

  • online virtual worlds
  • Science fiction
  • DBT (Dialectical Behaviour Therapy)
  • coffee (not the best thing for someone with an anxiety disorder, but there’s decaf, and that doesn’t suck as much as you would think)
  • Twitter
  • Politics
  • My cats

Things I know now:

  • I’m a pretty decent person
  • I can be useful
  • Panic can only last so long
  • I am 100% successful at not dying so far

If you made it this far in the post, I am truly impressed, and a little bit grateful (ok, a lot grateful). This is not something that people can do alone, and having someone read what you write is both scary and empowering. The Blog for Mental Health 2014 Project is incredibly important in that respect, and I hope that you go and read a whole bunch of stuff that people have written, and scare and empower them.

Weight

This depression feels like weight. It is some kind of lead blanket tied to the inside of my chest, pulling me down, crushing my organs. Maybe it’s supposed to protect me from cosmic xrays or something. Or maybe it just sucks. I can barely hold my head up. When I walk the heaviness pulls my shoulders down and I slump. I’m sure it’s wrecking my back, but I don’t feel like thinking about long-haul anything, so that’s nothing more than an idle thought to add to the pile of ways I am screwing up.

The suicidal ideation is back. I’m not actually suicidal, but I wish I could be. I wish I didn’t care so much about the people I would leave. My husband would be on his own in the world. My mother would die. Maybe not actually die, but some vital part would. I’ve already messed up enough, I can’t do those things too. So basically, there is no way out. There is no way to stop this.

I’ve had a bad cold for a couple of days, and some rational part of my brain is telling me that the depression is probably just an artifact of having been sick. That happens sometimes. But the parts of me that count, the cold, emotional, vicious parts, know it is not that. It is the manifestation of whatever it is in me that is rotten, decaying and harmful. So basically, lying to me, but I buy it. Why is it so much easier to believe that I’m a fundamentally damaged waste of time and space, than to accept that three days of fever and not being able to breathe through my nose have pushed my mood down?

A blogger I read says she has maybe 3-4 days a month where she really feels like she has her shit together, and is worthwhile. This is clearly not one of my days.

I’m suffocating under the weight of all the stillborn accomplishments, all the failed starts, all the disappointments and the let-downs. I’m crushed under the heaviness of my ineptitude and my inability to do anything with my life. The worst of it, is how ordinary and commonplace that sounds. I’m reduced to cliches about depression. I can’t even be miserable in any special way. I’m just depressed. There is nothing romantic, or tortured about it. Just a sucking pit, and a lead blanket to push me down into it.

I accept that most of what happens to me is chemical. I know my brain chemistry is the kind that punishes you for your wrong moves. I know my response to stress is not to take on the challenge and thrive. It’s more of a retreat and try not to take anyone else down with me thing. I am vulnerable to depression, in the same way that I am vulnerable to the highs that push me into overdrive, goad me into bad decisions, and exhaust everyone else. Knowing that doesn’t actually make anything any better though.

When I am a refugee, stranded on the couch, it doesn’t really matter that much where it comes from. What matters is that the effort to overcome the weight and get oxygen into my lungs is not something I am really interested in doing.

They don’t talk about this part much, the physicality of depression. They don’t really give you photocopied handouts to manage the feeling that your body is failing, that your limbs are so heavy, they might rip the skin and come free of your torso. When they say, pull yourself together, I imagine the ridiculous situation where I would be trying to pick up my unattached limbs from the floor, and somehow, without hands, graft them back on to me. I feel like my hands will leave dents in the table. I have them on the edge, trying to brace myself, so I won’t fall on the floor. The floor would be safer. You can’t fall off the floor, but I feel like the tonnes of me would leave a depression in the floor boards. Yeah, I know, physics. That isn’t actually going to happen, but some part of me is borderline delusional today, and so I can see it. I can see my lungs shrinking in capacity because of the blanket pushing down on them, and I can feel the skin around my shoulder tighten from holding the weight of my dying limbs.

Damn. {spoiler} SI

You know those days? I mean the ones that get away from you. You have plans, you have obligations, maybe you are supposed to meet someone for dinner, maybe you just have work to do, or a blog thingy to write. Best laid plans, eh?

So, a couple of days ago I was sitting on the couch. It was early, since I don’t really sleep much past 5, and my husband had already left for the early shift. (Why does this stuff always happen in the semi-dark?) I was fine. Fine. Fine. And then suddenly, I wasn’t.

To be fair, it has been a rough few weeks. I barely have any work, and my husband was off work for a bit with a dislocated shoulder. There was one week where we had $7, and half a carton of milk. That was a little dicey. There were acres of time, and nothing to fill them with, sitting next to an empty fridge and half a bag of cat food.

But back to the couch.

Suddenly, without any real warning, all of the little lies that mental illness tells you wormed their way out of whatever corner of my brain they hide in when I’m well. Sort of like herpes simplex B viruses that lurk until you get a sunburn, and then wham, cold sore, but with more consequences. The speed at which I went from placid, dull stream, to angry, anxious tidal wave, was a little overwhelming.

I tried all of my coping stuff – sort of. The breathing, the talking to myself, but all of that is hard when you are shaking and crying and you pretty much feel like you deserve to be that miserable so why try to fight it?

The rest of the day was a write-off.

Being the good little mental patient I am, I took the benzo I’m supposed to take when I can’t calm myself down. The idea is the benzo will help the situation from escalating to the point where I have a panic attack or crash in a really bad way. This usually works, but there was a bit of a problem. My fascination with sharp objects was sort of back. I couldn’t stop thinking about them. Bits of glass. Sigh.

I was really good when I moved. I threw out all my stuff. All the little chips of glass , the broken bits of plastic and all the rest of the sharp things. I was proud of myself. Unfortunately, I was really unhappy about that now.

Ultimately I found something, and I did a bit of damage. Nothing major. No wound management. Just a smear of polysporin, and a whole lot of explaining when my husband got home. The trouble is, the damn thing works. The anxiety basically vanished. What the hell. How did I end up here again? No wearing a bathing suit in front of my normal friends for a few weeks for me.

So here’s what happened.

The benzo is dis-inhibiting. It can be sort of like being drunk. Sometimes I just sleep, but when my thoughts are really swirling around sharp things, it can get dangerous. The last thing I need when I am fighting something like self-injury is a hit to my decision-making abilities, and I had kind of forgotten that.

The benzos work really well for anxiety, I don’t want to totally knock them, but when you are working with dodgy safety issues, lowering you inhibitions is not really something you want to be messing around with.

So I fell off the wagon, and I’m not really happy about it. I’m trying to figure out if this is a giant red flag, flying on a pole over my couch, or if it was just a really bad day, and some iffy decision-making. I’m not really sure yet. On the one hand, I’ve blown 2 years of good behaviour, but on the other, that two years came from not beating myself up over slip ups, and not spending a lot of time promising myself I would never do it again. Taking that pressure off has been really good for me, but I could feel the shame/berating myself thing creeping back later in the day.

I think I’m ok. I’ve poked and prodded my brain over the last few days, and nothing is leaking out. I’ve had some horrific dysmenorrhea the last couple of months, and that always feels like bone-crushing depression, but all the other signs are good. I think I just have to chalk this up to a bit of not paying attention, and a higher level of anxiety than I’ve had in a while.

I’m in one of those phases where everyone is telling me how fabulously I’m doing, and how all the troubles are behind me, but you know what? They never are. I can have months, or years of really good, stable times, but if I let my concentration go, if I stop paying really close attention, it gets away from me. You can question whether mental illness is a biological entity, or a social construct, or some cool, unique feature of my personality that makes me creative and special, but when it comes down to it, it doesn’t matter.

In the semi-dark, when it’s just me and the cats and my thoughts, it still behaves like a chronic illness. I still have to deal with it every day. It doesn’t go away, and when I pretend that it has, it sneaks up on me. The lying, cheating beast that is mine slinks up to my ear and whispers the litany of all the horrible things I’ve ever done, and all the people I’ve ever hurt, and all the things that will always be wrong. Even though some part of me knows it isn’t really true, and that I’m not evil incarnate, I buy it.

So I need to be more careful. I need to get more sleep, and I need to deal with the stress in my life. The risk of thinking that everything is ok is not really one I should be taking. Recovery doesn’t mean you can leave mental illness behind you. It just means you figure out how to continue living with that particular piece of luggage on your rack.

Oh, and I didn’t make it to dinner. Sorry.