Note to Self #1

Hey sweetheart,

It’s been shitty, hasn’t it?  I mean this whole winter has just kind of eaten itself, shat itself out, and left itself out where you could step in it.  What a bastard.

This one’s been especially bad thanks to the world out there going to hell in a Cheeto-colored handbasket.  People have given themselves permission to be as mean and hateful as they want because why not?  Obviously there are no real consequences, and it can even get them into the White House!  

But that’s not you, and right now you need to pull your head out of Twitter and take a breath.  You’re no good to the world paralyzed by despair, and let’s be honest here, your personality is the kind that runs the edge of empathy-implosion even when things are going great.  You take on too many of the world’s sins as if it’s your job to feel the world’s feels, but you’re still just one girl with a brain full of faulty wiring, and if that wiring burns the house down, there’s nowhere for that compassion to live.  

You’re doing okay, though.  Hey, don’t laugh.  You’re still here, aren’t you?  And yeah, you used up your sick days and got zero work done for over a month, but…so?  In the long term view, what’s the big deal about that?  You didn’t hurt anybody.  You’ve had to deal with far worse consequences from far less intense depression, so, overall I think you’re doing all right.  You’ve reached the point of self-reflection where you’re actually being kind to yourself, so, I take that as a good sign.

Here’s the thing, and it’s a combination of something you don’t want to think about and something really cool, so, let’s just get it out there:  This is going to happen again.  Always.  It’s nice to think about your bipolar going “into remission” or whatever but let’s face it, you’ve spent five years trying a couple dozen different meds and combinations (and that’s after over a decade of doing the same thing when you thought you were “just depressed”) and what have you learned?  Nothing “fixed” you.  There is no “fixing.”  And really, overall, the meds haven’t made that much difference in the way this plays out.  Lithium dulled it all down to where you felt like your heart was wrapped in cotton batting, but everything else just offered variations on the theme, with some working better than others at keeping the lows from going as low, which is important and can definitely keep you alive.  The cycle itself, however, is the same regardless.

You’ll feel all right for a while, maybe even great, but eventually it’s going to slide – maybe not as far, maybe not as long, but you got dealt a pretty gnarly hand by the mental illness gods and basically you’ll be pushing that boulder up the hill until the day you die.  

Yeah. You’re mentally ill for life.  That, as Mark Watney would say, is a real dick punch.  

You could get angry about it, I guess.  The world is full of people who feel nothing deeply enough to be destroyed by it – that’s how we all got in this mess, in my opinion, people thinking everything happens “out there” when the truth is it’s all interdependent and connected and therefore “in here.”  There’s no strand of the Web you can yank on without making the whole thing shake, even just a tiny bit.  But all those folks walking around with the luxury of not having to care, not having to fight just to get up in the morning, not understanding why you can’t just “think positive” and “snap out of it…”  Lucky bastards!  You deserve better!  It’s not fair!

It’s not fair.  Never has been.  It’s awful and hard and it sucks that you have to deal with it – you’ve already dealt with enough just from other people hurting you, you shouldn’t have to protect yourself from your own brain.  It’s shitty, shitty, shitty, and you don’t have to pretend otherwise.  Don’t cheapen the hard work you’ve done by pretending the universe did you a mitzvah here.  Any lesson or gift you get from this is the result of struggle and sweat, of nearly drowning and pulling yourself out over and over again.  

Besides, yelling at the sky will accomplish exactly nothing, whether because nobody’s listening or because it’s nobody else’s job to deal with your shit.  If there’s a God, or a Goddess, or a Whatever, you might get a boost from Her, a door opened, maybe a last-minute save, but it’s your life and your work to live it, not Hers.  She ain’t your fairy godmother, babygirl.  Granted, you figured that out back when you were a kid.     

But there’s a difference between accepting that you’re never going to be “cured” and just giving up altogether.  Because yeah, you’ll always slide, but you’ll also always climb out again.  This too shall pass – like food poisoning or a kidney stone.  Assuming it doesn’t kill you, you’ll see another sunrise.

That’s the cool part…although I understand if you think my definition of “cool” needs some revision.  

Every time, you feel the color draining from the world, and you know you’re sliding down, down.  And every time you claw desperately at those shreds of happiness as if you could bring them with you, but you can’t.  You end up in the pit again, staring up at the night sky wondering why, why, WHY DOES IT HAVE TO BE LIKE THIS?  And every time, you think, “Is this it? Is this the one that kills me?  Is this the one I can’t beat?  Is this going to be the time I can’t climb back up?”

But then you do.

You climb out filthy and battered and exhausted, but you do it.  

Can I just say how badass that is?  

And you’ve learned, over the years, that there are ways to help make that climb a little less arduous, or to make the pit seem a bit shallower.   There are tricks and practices and emergency measures that, when put in place and used properly, really do help.  

The slightly grating yet accurate term for this is “self-care.”

I think it’s time we took a closer look at those ideas and figured out what’s worked and what hasn’t.  You’ve tried so many things in the last 20 years to alleviate the pain, you’ve amassed a gigantic mental library and arsenal of techniques and philosophies ranging from the reasonable to the ridiculous; your application of these things has been a bit slapdash, I’ll admit, but there are plenty of tools in the box.

Time to start going through the box, getting it organized, maybe coming up with a more cohesive and holistic plan – including some measures to put in place for the next time the pit starts beckoning.  I mean sure, often those self-care practices are the first thing to go in hard times – it’s that way for everybody regardless of mental health. In fact entire extremely cynical industries exist to profit on that all too human tendency to fuck up and start over and over and over.  TV ads in January are all the proof of that you need.  

But don’t beat yourself up for being human.  There are definitely worse things to be.

Meet you back here in a bit and we’ll get started.  Sound overwhelming?  Don’t worry…there will be lists.  

Diagrams.  

Possibly stickers.

Knew I’d get you with that one.

Love, always love,
Me.

 

 

 

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In Which Sara Bareilles Tries to Kill Me (or Possibly Save My Life)

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I think I’m in mourning.

First, disclosure:

Long about mid-January, I went off my meds.  This isn’t something I’ve spoken about, because I wasn’t sure how people would react – a deciding factor in the decision was money, but I didn’t want people offering to pay for them because the real motivation was something much harder to articulate.  In the first few weeks I didn’t feel like I had the clarity to defend my decision without sounding like, well, a crazy person.

Because while I am a huge proponent of psych meds when they are a) needed and b) helpful, and you could certainly argue that I still need them and I wouldn’t be able to disagree, it’s “helpful” that is up for debate in my current state.

I’ve been on and off antidepressants since I was 19, but it wasn’t until 2012 that I was diagnosed with Type II Bipolar Disorder. In the time since then I’ve tried, if my count is right, 23 different combinations of meds and dosages – that’s right, I’ve changed the medications keeping my brain chemistry “balanced” an average of five times per year in the last four years.  I don’t know what the average is, but for me that’s an awful lot of adjusting, waiting, watching for side effects, evaluating, tinkering, adjusting, waiting…and almost no living.

Last fall when I stopped taking Ambien (I had been on it since 2007 – that’s right, I took it every day for eight years) what my intuition was really screaming at me was “STOP ALL OF IT. PLEASE JUST STOP. THIS IS NOT HELPING YOU. PLEASE STOP.” But I was too afraid to stop.  I felt like I had already tried so many non-drug things and nothing had given me a moment’s relief, if I stopped the drugs I would certainly end up in crisis or dead.  It took being so broke I couldn’t swing the three-month refill appointment with my shrink to force me to make the call, and I made it.

Luckily the meds I was still on are known for a fairly easy withdrawal.  The issues with cold-turkeying any med are both physical and emotional – even without the miserable side effects like I experienced with Ambien, the emotional fallout could be devastating.  The most common reaction is a violent catapult into depression or mania.  Quitting any long-term med without professional supervision is just a terrible idea. Trust me on that one.

Quitting Ambien was awful.  Just straight up awful. Yet I still miss it – because what I wanted wasn’t sleep as much as it was silence.  During the day, Wellbutrin and Lithium (or Seroquel, or Brintellix, or Lexapro, or Zoloft, Lamictal, Gabapentin, and on, and on) dulled my symptoms (or in the case of Cymbalta, gave me episodes of blind rage), but at night when it was just me and the darkness, I needed Ambien to shut me down so I didn’t have to think.  But eventually I was taking it during the day, knocking myself out every eight hours on the clock so I never had to be awake.

Needless to say that’s an off-label usage.

Quitting the rest, well…it’s a strange contradiction.  I don’t feel worse, as in, not more depressed or more unstable – but I feel more.  You might think this is a good thing – the drugs were absolutely blunting my ability to feel happiness, I can tell you that right now with absolute certainty.  The lithium in particular was meant to stabilize me – to make the shift from hypomania to depression less of a violent slide…but what it did was bring the average down.  Instead of being at, say, a level 7 for a few days and then a 3 for two weeks, I felt like a 4 all the time, just shy of fully functional and never really good, ever.  Sometimes okay.  But over time okay became the new awesome, because my average kept sinking lower and lower.

And while the idea of regaining a capacity for joy sounds amazing, so far I haven’t had a taste of it.  So far it’s been pain.  Just pain.  I feel raw and exposed and bleeding-sensitive over my entire being.  I’m nothing but freshly grown skin over 3rd degree burns, bandages ripped off, stumbling around shrieking every time something touches me.

Except it’s not actually that dramatic.  What I’m doing is crying.  Crying and crying and crying.

I’m not talking about the kind of depression-crying that tells you you need meds – where you find yourself sitting in bed weeping for no reason for the tenth time that week and realize shit, something about this is deeply wrong.  This is different.  This is almost always in response to stimuli, especially music, or anything involving animals that look sad or sick.  But memories trip the switch as well.

I would have expected my childhood to be the number one trigger, but oddly, what I’m seeing over and over are my late 20s, early 30s.  Times I felt something like happiness, or potential, or hope.  The months leading up to Queen of Shadows‘ publication.  The months I was part of a coven.  Planning my self-wedding.  These brief candles of time when anything could happen, when I felt expansive and arms-wide to the world and like only good things were possible…I am, in fact, crying as I type this, thinking of the gradual lowering of expectations that has typified my 30s.  The slow, millimeter by millimeter loss of that optimism and realization that no, life was not awesome, people were terrible, and the Universe or God or whatever owed me nothing and, in the void that followed every prayer, probably didn’t even exist.

But mostly I find myself longing for those times, wondering…just wondering.  There’s no anger, no sense of betrayal or “why me,” just sadness.  Loss.  It’s a private sadness, one I try extra hard not to show because it’s messy and agonizingly intimate, but am trying to give it its own space without getting too much in its way.

I’m actually grieving.  I don’t know if I’ve ever really been able to do that before.  And I could go back to the doctor (assuming I could scrape together the money) and get back on meds, but I won’t.

I refuse.

Maybe eventually.  I’m not denying the real possibility that I need to go back on at least an antidepressant.  But not yet.  Not until I see where this is going.  Because I have this insane (possibly literally) conviction that if I miss this opportunity, all that optimism really will be dead – buried beneath serotonin reuptake inhibitors and mood stabilizers forever, along with any hope of getting them back in some new form that middle-aged me might just be able to love.

I had no way to articulate any of this for weeks – I was in one of the most embarrassing states a writer can find herself in, being lost for words – until I started doing this “30 songs” challenge thing over on Facebook that I’d done a while back and was bored enough to try again.  Browsing YouTube for videos for the particular challenges I happened upon a new Sara Bareilles song written for her new Broadway musical based on the movie Waitress (an old, melancholy favorite of mine).  I think I sobbed from the first line to the end and for about an hour after that, because it suddenly clicked:

I am in mourning for a girl, a me that used to be mine.

And there’s no way out but through it.

Disclaimer: This post is not meant to be medical or mental health advice.  It’s just my experience. If you are experiencing depression PLEASE GET HELP.  You are not condemned to suffer; there is help out there for you.  No two people react to medication or any other therapy in exactly the same way. The human brain is weird.  Just look at Tumblr.

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10 Five-Minute Mood Boosters That Even Work for Me

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Don’t you just want to back over her with your car?

Even if, like me, you have a bona fide mental illness that sets your mood dial at a baseline of “fuck everything,” it is possible to turn that dial up to “meh” or thereabouts at least temporarily.  Over the years I’ve developed a list of boosters – quick actions requiring little effort or commitment but providing a reliable return.

Now, a warning, for other neuroatypical types:  These are not miracle workers.  If you’re already in a really bad place, they might make it worse.  “Not only am I worthless, I can’t even get it up for internet kittens!”

We’re talking about good old fashioned shitty moods here, not intense depressive crashes.  If you are prone to the latter you likely know the difference.  Even if you’re a well-adjusted neurotypical, though, I would wager you can use the occasional smack on the ass from Cheer Bear.

Not all of these will work for you, but they may spark off some ideas for your own list; it’s good to add a handful of these to your self-care arsenal, and to vary them as widely as you can so that no matter what situation you’re in at least a couple will be doable.

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January 2016: State of the Author

I am, at this precise moment, sitting in Starbucks in my Hogwarts t-shirt sipping a half-melted espresso Frappuccino (it’s 66F in January), working on the Magic Words Monthly course/editing Shadowstorm/writing part 5 of Song and Cipher, and trying not to bawl.

Caption:  Portrait of the Author as a Middle-Aged Bipolar.

I’m not actually trying not to cry about anything – Taylor Swift’s “All Too Well” was playing and that song always, always makes me tear up, particularly:

You call me up again just to break me like a promise
So casually cruel in the name of being honest
I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here
‘Cause I remember it all too well

Hell, just reading the words makes my eyes hurt.  I have no idea why; I guess it just pushes my “Eye Leak” button.  I should probably look deeper at that sometime.

But, alas, I digress.

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Not As I Do

red ball on branch2In preparation both for 2016 and my Magic Words Monthly e-course, I’ve been trying to figure out my Word of the Year for this coming run ‘round the sun.

Usually in December I love doing end-of-year questions, lists, and challenges – I signed up for the latest 30 Days of Lists, started doing Reverb, and all the usual stuff I have fun with before New Year’s. I might not have a great year but looking back on it helps me remember the good stuff as well as what I can take with me from the bad stuff.

This year I’m having a hell of a time doing any of that. I got maybe three lists in when they started making me angry – I couldn’t come up with items for any of the lists. What did I learn this year? What resolutions did I keep? What new things did I try?

Fuck a bunch of that.

I was staring at a list trying to come up with more than two things for it when I realized the problem: this year sucked.

I don’t mean it was tragic, or dramatic, or anything so obvious (well it was, on a global scale, but I’m talking personally). It just sucked. It was hard and painful and somehow incredibly boring and I was dick-in-the-dirt depressed for 90% of it. I didn’t follow through on any of my goals – aside from finishing SHADOWSTORM, which I do anticipate doing by the 31st (first writing, anyway, not the finished book, but that was the idea, so go me), nada. It felt like nothing worked no matter what I tried, and I took zero steps forward, ten steps back.

I don’t even remember what my Word of the Year was for 2015. I’d have to go back through my blog and look.*

It was at the point where even trying to “look for the positive” or make a freaking gratitude list just made me more depressed, because I knew I was just making shit up. I find the cult of gratitude/positivity annoying anyway (I know it works for some people, but a lot of people with mental or invisible illness find it victim-blaming – just another version of “snap out of it!” when it’s just not that simple for a lot of people.), so finally, I gave up.

2015 is pretty much a lost year. I can’t pretend it didn’t happen, but I’m going to do what Disney did with the Star Wars Expanded Universe and make an executive decision as the author: 2015 is officially not part of my canon.

In fact it’s the most frustrating, badly-written AU ever.

I think my Word for 2016 is going to have to be something gentle – I feel beaten down by 2015, and aiming for something too challenging is not going to work. Kindness, perhaps, toward myself, or possibly Naps.

Every year I start out with all these grand intentions, and they tend to go flat the same way everyone’s New Year’s Resolutions do. You know how it goes. Long about February that treadmill’s got socks hanging from it, there’s kale rotting in the back of the fridge (kale can suck it anyway), and that yoga mat…where is it, again?

You know what they say. You gotta walk before you can run, crawl before you can walk, and get out of the fetal position in the closet with your teddy bear and a bottle of vodka before you can walk.

I think the mistake that I make is that I imagine myself as having way more energy than I have. I keep thinking, hey, I don’t have that much going on during the day, surely that’s time to keep an immaculate house, exercise an hour a day, meditate, cook all my meals, and find a job. I’ve got as many hours in a day as Beyonce, right?

Sure. But what I don’t have are cooks, personal trainers, assistants, publicists, maid service, or drivers.

I’m mentally ill, and not terribly stable just now. I’m working on that, medication-wise, but as I’ve said before, the point of meds isn’t to make your illness go away – they can’t do that. They make it so you can get up, put pants on, and help yourself. Some days I can do that, some days not.

Closeup of message stones on white background.

The point of this is, I can’t treat myself like I’m an average person with an average amount of energy in an average body with average social skills. There are a lot of things I’m awesome at, but being a functional adult is not one of them. And every year that I try to pretend, come January, that I’m starting at the same baseline as everyone else, I fail.

What’s funny is I’ve never been that person. I’ve been depressed since at least my teens if not since childhood. I’ve never been “normal” and I don’t especially want to be. Honestly I don’t think I had much of a chance. Yet I keep trying to make myself that way by setting goals that are either way too lofty or just way too intense for where I’m at.

You know what that is? It’s punishment. I’m punishing myself for being screwed up by screwing up then calling myself a screwup. Yet for some weird reason being mean to myself hasn’t made me better. It’s almost as if shame isn’t a healthy motivator. Hmm.

It doesn’t matter what road we’re on or if we’re running or crawling; we have to meet ourselves where we are.

So, I’m off to find a Word for 2016 – and this time I’m going to try to work with myself, not against.

* – devotion

 

Want to find your Word of the Year, then get deep with it?  Check out my free e-book, Magic Words 2016, and then sign up for my new e-course Magic Words Monthly.  Registration closes on December 31, so join today!

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