They Should Do This at the Psych Ward!

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Today is a sunny Saturday, and my morning consisted of two important medical appointments.  I had scheduled a mammogram and a lithium blood level/fasting glucose test far in advance so that I’d have my husband available to care for our children – and Lucy puppy!  I dreaded going to both appointments for different reasons. The lithium blood level wasn’t that big a deal and it was an old hat procedure.  But I hated the fasting with a passion!  

Last year my psychiatrist suggested checking my glucose level regularly, which was something I’d never done in the past.  When I first started seeing him he ordered a baseline glucose level and my result was pre-diabetic.  Scary stuff.  We did another check and it was much lower, thank God.

I showed up at the lab bright and early.  After I sat down, ready to be stuck by the needle, the phlebotomist said she couldn’t find my doctor’s fax request so she couldn’t test me.  It wasn’t end-of-the-world stuff by any means, but it was totally frustrating all the same. I went in search of a gallon of coffee so I could become human once more.  

Fortunately my beloved, dog-friendly Surf City Coffee shop was just down the road. I had fun buying a sample pack of locally made, organic “Lucky Dog” cookies for Lucy!  I showed the barista my puppy pictures, acting as if I had given birth to her myself!

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After mainlining Surf City’s delicious caffeine, I checked email on my Kindle and then set out for my local hospital’s breast center.  This place held very bad memories for me.  Several years ago I had an abnormal mammogram that resulted in my need to get a lumpectomy.  I had already been in the throes of a deep bipolar depression, and when I was told that there was a chance I had breast cancer and that I needed surgery, I plunged further down into that morass.  At the same time, a friend and neighbor who had been diagnosed with an aggressive breast cancer was rapidly declining. Despite the fact she had a double mastectomy and she fought the cancer with an extraordinary strength, her two small children and husband lost her to the evil disease.  I was terrified that I would face the same fate.

I had the lumpectomy done, and I waited over seven days for the results. That was excruciating – I have never been a patient gal.  During the waiting period we went to snowy Lake Tahoe for a few days, as Craig wanted to cheer me up and give our girls a break.  I felt incredibly anxious about my lumpectomy findings. The radiologist himself was going to call me about my results, but he hadn’t promised exactly what day that would be, which drove me nuts.  

When he called me with good news about my lump being benign, I was profoundly relieved.  I was still depressed, but I felt grateful all the same.  I hoped never to repeat that experience again! Boob treatsBoob goodiesSo, when I walked into the breast center this morning, I was welcomed warmly by the staff.  I spotted several tables in the waiting area that were filled with yummy-looking fruit, dessert breads, a coffee/tea/cocoa bar (!!!) and best of all: BOOBY COOKIES! Yes, booby cookies.  A baker had handcrafted graham crackers stuffed with marshmallow filling and they were topped with a candy “nipple”.  I don’t know if she put anything else in them but they were super-good!

There were also goody bags filled with cute pink trinkets like pens, keychains, a stuffed animal, pamphlets on breast health, etc.  A OB/GYN doctor was hanging out in the lobby available to answer any health-related questions that we had.  To top it off, there was free massage offered by a certified massage therapist.  All the staff wore pink outfits and flowers, and they were really cool and friendly.  It was clear they were having fun watching the incoming patients’ surprise at such a festive atmosphere.

I later learned that one of the longtime staffers, a beautiful blonde woman named “Charlie” who I recognized from my past visits, created this biannual event.  She wanted to add cheer and education to the gloomy, often stressful mammogram procedure.

 As I waited for my turn, I made myself a coffee (like I needed more, but hey, it was good!), ate strawberries and pineapple, and I chatted with the doctor.  I couldn’t think of a good question to ask her, so she shared with me about caring for a group of women who were disabled during the previous day.  It was a sobering conversation, but I appreciated her insights.

In retrospect, I realized I could have asked her if she ever had a patient like me: a mother diagnosed with postpartum bipolar disorder. I’d love to know what her perspectives were about postpartum mental illness in our community.  Damn!  I missed a great opportunity!  BIG DUH! I had noticed her name, however, and I knew I could call her.  I liked her attitude and I had a feeling she would be a valuable contact.

I didn’t have time to get a massage, as Craig needed me back home.  I told Charlie it was the first time in my life I ever turned down a free massage.  She encouraged me to return to their office in October for the next special event. I could have my massage then, even though I wouldn’t need a mammogram in six months.  I was so stoked!

As I drove away it occurred to me how wonderful it would be if there was something like that event taking place at psych wards.  Really.  The ubiquitous community rooms found in psych units could occasionally be turned into a warm, welcoming place on a weekend afternoon.  Extra-special treats could be brought out for patients and their visitors to enjoy, an “Ask-the-Doctor” volunteer could casually hang out for patient/visitor questions, there could be free massage (!), maybe soft classical live music, and this would be the best part: animal therapy.  

As far as the liability issues and high-risk patients go…well, during all the times I hung out in mental hospital community rooms, I barely saw any patient totally freak out and seem harmful.  If the staff are doing their job properly, then if a patient has a psychotic break, the appropriate staff will be take action right away. If a high-risk patient wants to interact with a therapy animal, I’m not sure how that would roll, but the concept is worth exploring regardless. It took just one breast center staffer, Charlie, to dream up such a beautiful event all on her own.  

I guarantee that she helped make every woman’s experience at the center a special one today.  I know that because as I helped myself to the fruit, coffee and cookies, I watched the other patients’ reactions and I heard their enthusiastic feedback. Maybe there are other “Charlies” who work in mental hospital settings who would like to create a special event in their milieu.

Someday after I’ve finished my book, I can imagine exploring to see if it’s possible to create special events in the psychiatric unit setting.  I have a background in special event production after all.

I could check in with my friend who I’ve known for twenty-five years, an extremely experienced charge nurse who worked in the behavioral health unit where I first admitted myself.  He would tell me if such an event in the mental hospital setting would be viable.  For all I know, this concept is already happening in hospitals, but I have no idea.  It doesn’t hurt to do a little research.  We’ll see!

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Not Crazy, Just Mad

bIt’s a Sunday mid-morning on Mother’s Day, and I’m in our front yard sitting in a patch of sun.  The inside of our home is much colder than the outside temperature, and I just want to warm up a little bit.   Our three chickens Hazel, Malena and Emily cluck soothingly beside me in their coop.  My husband Craig is in the living room supervising our girls playing with Lucy the feisty puppy.

We just had an argument.

I blame Mother’s Day for it.

Over the past few days, I prepped Craig about Mother’s Day, saying I would like to “do my own thing”, within reason.  I didn’t require gifts, flowers or  fancy dinner.  I thought that he’d consider himself lucky to have such a low-maintenance wife!  Then I clarified my request and said I wanted to have a lot of writing time.  I didn’t think I was being unreasonable, and he didn’t say that was unacceptable.

But just now, after I had been glued to my laptop for a few hours, my husband just told me that I had a “dysfunctional” relationship with our computer.  That was a low blow.  I’ve freely admitted I’m online too much as a rule, both to him and to pretty much everyone on the planet, but to throw a nasty label like that at me really hurt.  Plus, it’s Mother’s Day.  Shouldn’t I be treated like the Queen that I am?

Now I sit in a puddle of sunlight feeling like I’m in an icy bath.

How dare you say that to me on holy Mother’s Day!!!  I wanted to scream at him.  It would have felt soooo good to yell.  But I won’t do it because I stopped my rage-fests a long time ago.  Making a complete spectacle of myself is the last thing I want to do in front of my girls, our puppy, and our new neighbors who moved in yesterday next door.

So I’m taking a deep breath.  I’m taking another one.  I’m going to keep away from my innocent computer for a while.  Our relationship is not dysfunctional.  I have a life outside of being online, albeit more narrow than I’d like it to be.

My MacBookPro and I are just friends!  We have a healthy relationship consisting of mutual admiration and respect.  I’m reminded of a great 1984 sci-fi, romantic drama called “Electric Dreams” that depicts a love triangle between a man, a woman, and a home computer.  It really was a charming film, and I loved it so much that I bought the Giorgio Moroder-composed soundtrack.  

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I digress.  I need to shake off my anger and do it as swiftly as I can.  I hate feeling this way.  I know what I’ll do!!!

It’s puppy therapy time!

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I shall take a few private minutes with my furball, tell her of my woes, and hold her gently in my arms.  I will let her lick my face even though her breath is pretty iffy – I’ve seen what else she licks and it ain’t pretty, or hygienic for that matter.  I don’t care.  I’m upset and I need comfort.  It’s refreshing to realize I can give myself a time-out with my canine.  Wow.  This is so cool!

As I embrace this coping strategy I can already feel a shift in my rage.  I’m still quite upset by what happened, but I’ll discuss my hurt feelings with Craig after I’ve had my Lucy time.  It might not be such a bad idea to suggest to Craig to have a few minutes alone with Lucy before we work things out.

Suggesting to hang out with one’s pet to overcome a nasty spat may sound simplistic.  I don’t think it is.  The feedback I’ve gotten from my pet-owning friends is that their “fur children” have helped them with emotions such as anger, sadness and loneliness immeasurably.  I remember the comfort I felt as a little girl laying by my Irish Setter’s warm side, hearing her gentle
breathing and watching her chest rise and fall.  It has been a long time since I’ve had my own dog comfort me, and the gift of Lucy’s unconditional love is a Mother’s Day gift of the highest degree.

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A New Life In The House

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I never thought I’d have this gift again…and no, I’m not pregnant! (You probably figured that out already by the photo above.) It’s looking likely that I’ll have honest-to-God puppy love in my home.

I’ve been around dogs for most of my life, starting as a newborn.  My Dad had a predilection for Irish Setters, and we had two large, docile dogs while growing up in Los Angeles.  First there was Tanya, a mellow setter who was often accompanied my father as the “first mate” on his sailboat.  When she passed away, Amber joined our family.  She was my dog more than my Dad’s, and I adored her.  I took Amber with me on hikes in the Santa Monica Mountains, and I always felt happier when she was with me.

When I left for college and lived in a dormitory for the first year, I was dog-free. I know that being without a canine companion contributed to my loneliness and depression.  I didn’t think to volunteer at a shelter; I was totally overwhelmed with the lightning-quick quarter system of classes, but spending time with a dog would have helped assuage my sadness.

During my junior year, I lived in an off-campus studio on a large piece of land.  I decided to take the plunge to adopt a puppy. I fell madly in love with her, and I named her “Tara” after the Buddhist goddess of compassion, long life, healing and serenity.  We took many rambling walks on Santa Cruz Mountain trails.

On one horrible Easter Sunday I witnessed Tara getting part of her chest ripped out by an Akita also named Tara in a freak accident.  ($400.00 worth of E.R. surgery later, my Tara recovered.) She slept in my bed with me, she ran around the fields and beaches of Santa Cruz with me, and all who met her said she was one well-loved, happy dog.

During my  short-lived waitressing career, during my shift Tara escaped the yard where we lived at the time.  I returned from work and to my horror she had disappeared. I became hysterical.  It was a stormy night complete with thunder and heavy rain.  I drove slowly around the neighborhood screaming her name until my throat became raw.  I got out of my car and knocked on doors, asking my neighbors if they had seen her.  Hours later, I was so exhausted that I returned to my studio and collapsed on my bed sobbing, facing down on my pillow.  I had lost hope because I lived next to a major highway and I feared that Tara had been struck and killed by a car.

I left the door wide open, not caring about anything.  Suddenly I heard the whooshing sound of my thirty-pound dog jump up on the bed right next to me.  She promptly threw up a bunch of digested M&M’s all over the pillow.  I burst out laughing with relief and gratitude.  I couldn’t believe my luck at Tara finding her way home in the dark the way that she did.  It was a true miracle.

When Tara was seven years old, I adopted another dog to keep her company while I worked full-time.  Shera, an extremely energetic American Eskimo mix pup, joined our family.  Shera’s exuberance affected Tara in a positive way, and they played together spiritedly while I watched them with delight.  I lucked out that they got along so well – I knew it could have backfired. (When I lived with my dog Amber, my father brought a puppy home.  Amber became extremely jealous and depressed and she stopped eating.  We had to give the puppy to another home.) I now gratefully slept with two dogs on my bed…I didn’t give a whit about hygiene when it came to my girls.

When I met the human love of my life, fortunately he was a dog lover as well.  He adopted my dogs and he treated them like his own in every way.  The only difference between us as dog owners was that he insisted they stay out of our bed.  When we got married, Tara served as our flower girl. Shera was a little bit too excitable to be part of a wedding procession, so she joined us once the formal ceremony was over.  Her coat was sparkling white, and my dress was the exact same color.  I have photos of my holding her and she looked like she was part of the dress.  We took the dogs with us on our honeymoon to the stunning Mammoth Lakes area, California.  We could have left them back home, but we wanted them with us.

When our first daughter Avonlea was a year old, Tara’s health was failing.  I was at home and had an intense feeling to find Tara.  She was in the downstairs office, panting very hard and obviously in distress.  I started to cry and took her gently in my arms.  As soon as I held her and told her I loved her, she died.  I felt as awful, as if a blood relative had died, for she was part of my family and she had been with me for fifteen years.  Tara’s death was one of the few times I ever saw my husband cry as well.  Everyone who has a pet knows this day will come, and she lived a very long life in pet years.  Still, it was a shock and I grieved much longer than I thought I would over a dog’s death.

We still had our Shera, who missed her buddy.  I didn’t feel up to bringing another pet into our home. Shera received lots of loving attention from Avonlea and eventually from Marilla.  Then Shera hit age fifteen and she started having brain seizures.  After consulting with our veterinarian at length about her condition, it seemed like the most compassionate action to take was the animal euthanasia route.

I had always dreaded having a pet euthanized, but I felt in my heart I needed to do it with Shera.  My husband didn’t think he could handle being with her for the procedure.  I wanted to hold her in my arms the way I had with Tara.  By then I had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder.  I was in the depressed-but-functional stage and I thought I could be mentally strong enough to be with my dog when she died.  After I left the animal hospital the day she was euthanized, my depression grew much deeper and a vicious cycle had been triggered. I know that if we add a pet to our household, I’ll have to face the day she/he dies again.  Now that I am stable on my meds and I’m practicing habits proven to prevent bipolar relapse*, I am hopeful I will avoid falling completely apart when my next pet dies.

My two little girls have been begging us daily for a dog for many months.  In the rural mountain community where we live, most of their friends have dogs, cats, or both dogs and cats plus other animals too.  While we care about our three chickens, chickens cannot replace dogs in my book.  It’s like the wacky British saying: “It’s like chalk and cheese.”

I can’t deny that I am really excited about having a new life in our house, especially when I know a puppy will bring so much joy into my daughters’ lives.  We can teach the girls to be caring, responsible pet owners and those lessons will be invaluable ones.  I like the fact that now that my eight-year-long storm of bipolar disorder has subsided, I feel stable enough to care for a puppy.  It won’t be easy, but I’ve raised two “angels with fur” on my own.  This time I’ll have the help of Craig and my girls from the very start.  Plus, there’s one thing about bipolar disorder that has proven something to me about myself – if I can achieve and maintain recovery, I can be a great dog mom.

* As discussed in Dr. Ruth C. White’s new book Preventing Bipolar Relapse: A Lifestyle Program to Help You Maintain A Balanced Mood and Live Well  practice her “SNAP” method that focsues on sleep, nutrition, activity, and people. I exercise, sleep well, take my medications religiously, and spend time with people.  I see my psychiatrist and counselor. I use my bright light “Sunbox” in the mornings to help with seasonal affective disorder-related depression and take fish oil supplements...and chocolate and coffee too.  (To those purists out there, I love chocolate/coffee big-time and they make me happy.)