Our Brains Are Tougher Than We Think

imgres-1imgres Yesterday I struggled with writer’s block.  I really wanted to have the satisfaction of writing something  meaningful, though, so I sat down and fumbled in front of my computer.  Facebook was calling my name, but I told it to…please use your imagination!

I decided to free write.  Free writing is a prewriting technique in which you write continuously for a set period of time without getting fixated with spelling, grammar, or topics.  Free writing is supposed to produce raw, often unusable material, but it also helps writers overcome blocks, apathy and self-criticism.  It was just was I needed to do, and it actually worked!  It worked a little too well, as what you’re about to read is overly long.  I should have broken this down into two parts, but please read away if you dare!

The subject that came to me was about something that was within myself all along, literally.  Yes, my very own brain!  I started typing in a frenzy, but then I had to schlep away to do errands and pick up my girls at school.

After I left the house, I noticed something cool happening throughout my day.  I encountered not one, not two, but three concrete, intriguing pieces of brain-related information (and a fourth just plain-old-weird “coincidence” for want of a better word).  Perhaps I was ultra-sensitive to noticing anything brain-themed, but these happenstances seemed too uncanny.  I considered them to be good omens that I was writing about the right topic.

Before I discuss what happened yesterday, I can’t even think about brains anymore without mentioning my most harrowing brain experience, namely my rounds of ECT,  or electroconvulsive therapy.

As some of you faithful readers know from my previous blog post, I’ve had two separate rounds of electroconvulsive therapy (ECT).

https://dyaneharwood.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/are-you-shocked-that-i-got-shocked/

The first ECT series I had was after my Dad died.  I became suicidal (he was one of my best friends) and I admitted myself into the hospital.  I asked for ECT because I had been medication-resistant up to that point – it wasn’t forced upon me.  I had unilateral (on one side of the head) ECT.  Several years later, when I relapsed after tapering off my bipolar meds, I had bilateral ECT on both sides of my head.  I was told by my psychiatrist that I would have short-term memory loss only, but I felt totally skeptical.  I was gravely worried that I would have permanent memory loss.

I remembered one time when I was an inpatient at the hospital where I had ECT there was a patient I called “J. Lo” in my unit.  She dressed every day in full makeup and had “Dragon Lady” nails.  J. Lo told me the day before I had ECT that she couldn’t remember her wedding or the births of her children after her ECT, and of course that completely freaked me out.  However, since I was desperate, I went ahead with the ECT anyway.

The good news is that I am one of the luckier ones; ECT helped me function and ultimately do much, much better after suffering during through those suicidal depressions.  After my bilateral ECT, which affects more of the brain, I experienced a few somewhat alarming memory loss experiences.  However, nothing was life-threatening and I even found some humor about the situations which took the sting out of the memory struggles.

One example is when I picked up my girls at school, I ran into some parents in the hallway. Although their faces seemed really familiar, I couldn’t remember their names, which I had known pre-ECT.  I felt embarrassed, unnerved, and even rude at not remembering their names, but my tendency for that to happen reduced greatly over the past few months. My psychiatrist who administered all my ECT told me that my short-term memory loss would come back by the end of six months following my treatment.  While I have no empirical evidence to prove this assertion, I can feel it in my bones that it’s true in my case.  My brain feels stronger, I can retrieve my memories easily, and my intuition tells me that our brains are WAY more resilient than we give them credit for!

The phrase “mind over matter” means when something that seems impossible can be overcome if it’s thought out.  I think that concept could be literally applied to our brains.  I know this will sound a little “out there”, but maybe our thoughts really can heal ourselves, starting with our brain first.  Life is crazy enough – why not?

I live in Santa Cruz, a town famous for its New Age culture, and for all I know there’s a “Resilient Brain” workshop or “Brain Healing Bonanza” weekend nearby at Esalen.  There are lots of books about the brain that examine both traditional and alternative healing techniques.  I’ve also noticed books written by patients with brain injuries or mysterious madnesses who achieve full healing after their traumatic illnesses.  I haven’t read any of them yet, but I bet that some of these books are entirely possible in their far-out-sounding premises.

Something amazing I never expected to happen was how these days I feel heartened at really feeling that my brain is recovering from being zapped, and it’s stronger.  I wonder if our brains get bigger when they are healthier?  Hmmmm – do any of you know? I digress!

I turn forty-four in six days and while I doubt that my brain’s growing older is a plus, I believe that my healthy habits and attitude are restoring my brain.  Some of these habits are: working out, using my Sunbox, having a few people love me unconditionally (and who I love back!) and getting daily doses of nature.  Writing helps too, as does music I enjoy.  Miracle of miracles, I even starting doing a smidgen of guided meditation with my counselor!  In other words, I’m doing many things to keep stable and productive.  (I won’t get into my sugar, fat and chocolate consumption subject now, but you don’t expect me to be perfect, right?)

And now for those brainy coincidences that occurred yesterday.  I received an email message from my friend Amy who runs a yummy gluten-free food business “Gluten-Free For All”.  She wrote me about a psychiatrist/psychopharmacologist/neuroscientist’s podcast.   The headline caught my eye: “How Gluten & Gut Health Impact Your Brain with Dr. Charles Parker”.

http://www.glutenfreeschool.com/2014/03/10/gluten-gut-impact-brain-charles-parker-gfs-podcast-036/

When I visited the link, I noticed a very handy outline of the key points that Dr. Charles Parker makes in his thirty-minute podcast.  I haven’t had a chance to watch the podcast yet, but the outline notes that Dr. Parker discusses how psych medications interfere with the immune system, brain neurotransmitters and gut regulation, as well as exacerbate gluten-sensitivity issues.  Amy has shared with me how much going gluten-free has improved her life dramatically in all sorts of ways, but I haven’t made that plunge yet.  I will watch this podcast later when I work out and hear what Dr. Parker has to say.  I’m curious!

The next brainy thing that I noticed yesterday was posted on one of my favorite blogs “Bipolar, Unemployed and Lost”.  (http://insideabipolarhead.wordpress.com/)  The blogger known as “Oh Temp” informed us that this is “Brain Awareness Week”.  I love how Oh Temp writes in Monday’s blog post:

“This week kicks off NATIONAL BRAIN AWARENESS WEEK and for a whole week I will be posting a random fact on the human brain. Since a lot of our brains hold our STUPID mental illness, I wanted to share great facts about the good and interesting things about the brain!! Enjoy this week, and enjoy your brain (just a little…)”

The following link leads you to a two-minute YouTube video “The Human Brain – 10 Fascinating Facts” that Oh Temp posted on the blog.  If you’ve been feeling insecure about your brain’s ability and potential, take two minutes to watch this inspiring video!  You will learn facts you definitely didn’t  know in less time that it takes to brush your teeth.

Soon after I wrote about the “mind over matter” concept above, I took a Facebook surf break.  I encountered this link below, which discusses ten compelling reasons why “mind over matter” may not be a crock of merde.  Some of them I was familiar with, i.e. the placebo effect, but there were others that I hadn’t never heard about before.  I encourage those of you who are especially jaded about the power of positive thinking, etc. to take a peek at this link.  It might very well change your mind literally and figuratively about the power of our brains to change themselves on their own.

http://www.collective-evolution.com/2014/03/08/10-scientific-studies-that-prove-consciousness-can-alter-our-physical-material-world/

Finally, yesterday in the late afternoon I was driving our windy highway 9 to my house, listening to 95.5 BOB FM.  Peter Gabriel’s song “Shock the Monkey” came on the air, which I haven’t heard or thought of in a SUPER-long time.  I was an 80’s teenager during Gabriel’s height of fame, and I heard that song a bazillion times and I could barely stand watching his disturbing video with the scared-looking monkey.  I’ll be blunt with you – I had no idea what the lyrics meant, as I’ve always been terrible with lyrics.  But the word that struck out for me was hearing “shock” sung repeatedly, reminding me of my ECT a.k.a.”shock” treatments.  Impressionable me, I took that as another strange coincidence since I was writing about ECT and brains that day.  I know that’s a biggggg stretch, but it seemed a bit weird.  It turns out that Gabriel has said “Shock the Monkey” is a love song and about jealousy! It has nothing to do with ECT!  I had no idea.  Go figure!  I still took it as a hippie dippie sign of some sort, silly me.

If you want to watch it, go to this link:

If you are like me in the that you take a lot of heavy-duty bipolar medications, you may sometimes wonder how these meds truly affect our brains.  I am just hoping that our chemically “different” brains can not just handle the drugs that give us the gift of stability, but that our brains can get better, not worse, for a good long while.  Let me know what you think and thanks so much for reading this novella.  I got carried away – my brain couldn’t help it! 😉

Bipolar Blogs & Memoirs & Creativity, Oh My! (Part One)

bpblog-Beth

The brilliant and radiant writer Beth Mader, featured columnist and blogger for BP (Bipolar) Magazine

Every Saturday morning I’m in the habit of reading Beth Mader’s blog at the BP (Bipolar) Magazine’s website.  I was drawn to Beth’s blog because of her raw, original and relevant writing.  She never attempted to hide the dirty laundry of her life, but she was adept at avoiding “T.M.I.”.  Her blog was definitely not ho-hum in style.  Eventually we became Facebook friends and I occasionally asked her for writing advice.

Last Saturday was no different in terms of my routine, but imagine my surprise to see that Beth had briefly mentioned me in her blog post du jour!  I got a kick out of the fact that she found me to be rather spunky.  In her post “On Bipolar Memoirs and Writing” she writes:

“I am currently writing a memoir, and I refuse to make having bipolar its primary theme.  My journey across this planet, this existence, is far more complex and rich than what the role of mental illness plays in it.  That said, of course my having bipolar is a part of my memoir as it is woven throughout the fabric of my life.

Writing a memoir is hard.  Having mental illness on top of it makes it even more challenging.  Bipolar blogger and forthcoming author Dyane Harwood writes in a recent piece about how difficult it is to stay focused when we have bipolar, saying “Many people with bipolar have attention challenges and/or struggle with sedation due to medication side effects.  I have both of those issues, but I won’t let them stop me.”  Even without the side effect of meds, bipolar symptoms get in the way, I’d add to her thoughts.  I like Dyane’s pluck; it’s the kind of spirit we need to keep in order to get anything done, let alone writing.

Someone who did get it done is our bphope.com blogger/BP Magazine Columnist colleague, Melody Moezzi, whose book I just finished. Her Haldol & Hyacinths, a memoir about her struggle with bipolar disorder, and also about being Iranian-American, an activist, and proudly intelligent, is brashly honest.  I like Melody’s story because she tells it in way that illuminates a full life — one with pain, struggle, and both mental and physical illness—and a life with goals, dreams and pursuit of the same.  And she doesn’t whine about it.  Along with Dyane, Melody, and numerous others, I am keeping my nose to the grindstone, and working on my story. I have things to say.

What do you continue to do despite your symptoms?”

I bought Melody Moezzi’s book Haldol and Hyacinths as soon as it was available.  The book made for riveting reading, to say the very least.  It was totally unique as Moezzi vividly depicted how her Iranian culture played such a significant role in her life.  The book is among my favorite bipolar memoirs, and it has earned rave reviews everywhere.

To view Beth’s original blog and meet some other BP contributors (including Melody Moezzi, & cartoonist Chato Stewart whose cartoon is in my 3/4/14 blog post) please visit:

http://www.bphope.com/bphopeblog/post/On-Bipolar-Memoirs-Writing.aspx

On a separate note, every few days I discover a new bipolar memoir on Amazon.  I kid you not.  I simply do a general book search with “bipolar” as the key word.  My latest find took place last Monday, when I spotted L.E. Henderson’s A Trail of Crumbs to Creative Freedom: One Author’s Journey Through Writer’s Block and Beyond.

Henderson released this relatively short book (88 pages) for only 99 cents on Kindle. In Trail of Crumbs she analyzes the creative writing process and how her bipolar disorder adversely affected her writing.  She ends the book on a high note in sharing how she was able to let her creative juices flow again. I just started reading it, and I’m finding it interesting and well-written, so it was quite a deal for less than a cup of coffee!

The Amazon.com description of A Trail of Crumbs reads,

“Writing is hard.  Toxic ideas about the need to summon a particular mindset or to force yourself to write cause pointless suffering.  A Trail of Crumbs to Creative Freedom proposes a more playful approach.

Part narrative, part instruction, Trail chronicles the creative recovery of the author, a bipolar novelist.  After a manic episode, she swings toward depression and block.  She longs to re-experience the creative rush of writing her first novel and imagines a trail leading back to it. 

Henderson asserts, “More than anything, I wanted to go back. Back to the time before my episode when the ideas has flowed freely. I needed a road, a path, a map. Anything would have been welcome.

L.E. Henderson’s blog is http://www.passionatereason.com/

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Tomorrow I will post part two, in which I discuss how a brand-new memoirist (someone who I frankly never imagined could write anything worthwhile) influenced me to “keep my nose to the grindstone” with my own writing.

Until then, have a great day, and thanks for reading!

“The End of the Day” – Singing My Song About Bipolar Disorder

Aside

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For the past twenty years I’ve been a closet songwriter.  During my first year attending the University of California at Santa Cruz (UCSC), I was a regular at open mike night and I belonged to UCSC’s Concert Choir.  Our final concert was an exotic piece sung in the Esperanto language with an Indonesian gamelan orchestra.  I loved all kinds of music, and I still do!

I wrote the song “The End of the Day” when I was in solitary confinement for four hours in the hospital’s mental health unit.  That unforgettable censure took place during my first hospitalization.  Why was I put in solitary?  You’ll have to buy the book! 😉  Anyway, it was October, 2007, just a couple months after my second daughter was born.  I was diagnosed with bipolar one disorder during my stay at the unit.

In solitary I practiced my song at the top of my lungs.  To my surprise, the unpadded room actually had excellent acoustics!  I remember one of my fellow patients could hear me through the wall and he yelled “Great job!” Another patient shouted something not quite as complementary, but I didn’t care –  I was manic, so I was immune to his criticism.  I sang most of the Beatles catalogue, as well as every Crowded House song I knew.  I couldn’t believe that I remembered all the words, as I usually didn’t have a good memory.  Mania activated a part of my brain that recollected lyrics.

In the accompanying PhotoBooth clip which I recorded last year, I introduce my song and then sing part of it.  I apologize because I’m off-key for half of it, and I’m nervous. Please forgive me.  I recorded “The End of the Day” when I was doing my grand experiment of tapering off my bipolar medication.  It was difficult for me to watch this clip today and revisit that time.  When I sang the song back then, it seemed like I had a shot at living med-free.  I was acting fairly stable.  I had no idea that going off my meds would backfire in the worst possible way.  I wound up relapsing so severely that not only was I hospitalized three times during the subsequent summer, I asked for bilateral electroshock. (ECT)  It was a long, long road back to recovery and took almost half a year.  I’ll be writing more about what influenced me to make the decision to taper off meds soon.

For now, I’m going to keep popping my pink & white pills, be with my family and friends, exercise, be grateful, and write.  I’m going to work on cutting down on sugar, which is unfortunately still my nemesis. At the end of the day, that’s all I can do!

The End of the Day

by Dyane Harwood

I have an illness in my head, I have an illness in my head

And it seems…I go to extremes

And everyone wants me to do it, everyone wants me to do what they say

Although I have my own way….

I don’t know, but I do care

At the end of the day

You can call me crazy and I’ll agree

At the end of the day

I know I’ll be okay

I have two little girls, I have two little girls

I miss them more than words can ever say

It has been five long days, it has been five long days

since I was with them all day…and night, yeah

I don’t know, but I do care

At the end of the day

You can call me crazy and I’ll agree

At the end of the day

I know I’ll be okay

You know I do see how this frustrates you

But I ask you, have you ever been in my shoes?

Have you ever had bipolar too?

‘Cause I do, and now I know what to do…

How Sixty Seconds Made A Difference

 on Valentine’s Day

Today I received an extraordinary Valentine’s Day present from beyond. 

 But let me back up a bit…

Image

It was 1999, I was twenty-nine years old and I owned a standard answering machine.  Remember those?  Ancient machines like mine used tape cassettes.  I grew up with tape cassettes instead of DVD’s, and I still have forty tapes of my favorite band recordings from the feel-good seventies and the big-hair eighties era.

When I was twenty-nine I was a fan of the bestselling writer/artist SARK (www.planetsark.com) I’ve written about her before:

https://dyaneharwood.wordpress.com/2014/02/04/meeting-a-fave-author-sark-the-inspiration-line-juicy-pens-thirsty-paper/

SARK now has over two million copies of her books in print and has gazillions of fans, but it wasn’t always that way, of course.  I discovered her when her fan base was still modest.  Over the years SARK has maintained an “Inspiration Hotline” (415-546-EPIC) that she has offered free to the public.  SARK uses the line to record messages sharing her unique views. You can hang up after listening, or leave her a message. 

  Before SARK became a bestselling writer, she claimed she listened to every single message she received from her fans. In 1999 I contacted her to arrange an interview for an article I was writing about her latest book.  SARK called me back and left a message on my answering machine.  I loved her message so much, in which she said she considered me a friend and she would always return my calls, that I kept the tape as a memento.

I meant to listen to the SARK tape again, but for whatever reason, I just didn’t do it. 
  On a whim, today I took this cassette out of my drawer for the first time since I listened to it 1999.  I placed the tape in my old Suburu Forrester’s cassette tape player.  I drove to the girls’ school to pick them up, and arrived in the parking lot with some time to spare.  I took in the gorgeous day’s cerulean blue sky and smattering of puffy clouds drifting above me.  A brisk wind blew gently, hinting that spring is on its way.

I noticed the majestic redwoods which served as a stunning backdrop to the school, and I popped in the tape.  First SARK’s sweet voice rang out of the speakers.  She spoke at length, bringing a big smile to my face.  A long beep sounded out after she finished, and then a male voice came out of the speakers that I didn’t recognize.

“Who the hell is this?” I wondered for a few seconds, and then it dawned on me.

It was the clear, melodious voice of my Dad.  He died five years ago, and his death was the end of a nightmarish, drawn-out illness.  In his last couple years, his once-magnificent, rich voice was transformed into a quivering, weak voice full of fear.  He always told me he was terrified of dying.  When he realized he was on the decline, his voice was affected by that knowledge both physically and emotionally.  That depressing version of his voice stayed with me since his death in 2009.  When he died alone, I became so devastated that I slipped into bipolar depression that caused me to become suicidal.  I asked to be hospitalized for treatment.  I had been resistant to all the psychiatric drugs I had tried so desperately for my bipolar depression.  Feeling like I was at the end of my rope, I requested ECT treatment (electroconvulsive therapy ) that, ironically, my Dad had done at UCLA for his own bipolar depression…to no avail.

As a result of my week-long hospitalization, I missed my father’s memorial service, but the ECT did help me lift me slowly out of the depression.  I now have no regrets for doing it, although I don’t know what the long-term effects will be on my brain until I am older.  I didn’t have a single adverse side effect from the ECT such as memory loss, although I was scared shitless to go for it.

I heard firsthand about others’ ECT experiences at the hospital.  One I called “J. Lo”.  She was a beautiful Latina who took great pains to put on full makeup in the locked-down unit each day.  Before I had my first ECT session, J Lo told me that after her ECT she couldn’t remember her wedding day or the births of her children.  Undaunted, I was so low, I didn’t give a damn.  I just told my psychiatrist to flip the switch without a second thought.  I’ll never forget the amazed reactions on the faces of the other patients in my unit when I was brought into our community room after my first ECT session – they were impressed with my improvement after just one treatment.

I felt at that time that ECT was a miracle and after each treatment I felt a buzz as if I had a really great Italian espresso.  The hospital staff was top-notch and my medical team was compassionate and humorous. I looked forward to my ECT treatments, and it didn’t hurt that the anesthesiologists who put me under each time all looked like GQ models.  Maybe the hospital planned it that way.

  Since I had ECT done I have taken Nordic Naturals fish oil, which has seemed to boost my brain in some way.  I can remember details from my childhood and eighties song lyrics that I couldn’t sing to you five years ago if my life depended on it.

However, 

I digress.

When I heard my Dad’s vibrant voice ring out and tell me that he was hanging out in his hotel in Santa Cruz, I was transported into remembering him at his very best. He sounded happy and full of life.  He said he was off to go play his violin.  (He was a professional violinist with the Los Angeles Philharmonic for over twenty-five years.)

“On second thought, I think I’ll go take a walk!” he proclaimed. “I’ll see you at dinner!” The tape quality was perfect – he sounded so clear it was as if he stood right in front of me.

Right there in my dusty car in the school parking lot, I began to cry.  I rarely cry in public, but these were tears of joy that I couldn’t hold back.  This was one of the best Valentine’s Day gifts I could ever receive.

Mom and Dad had been married for forty years and while their relationship was quite difficult, especially because Dad had bipolar one disorder, they loved each other very much.  Mom nursed Dad through his decline with incredible dedication and she was his powerful medical advocate with the hospital as well.  After Dad died, Mom very reluctantly sold their home of four decades to a young couple and she moved into an apartment five minutes away from her former home.  She put up pictures of Dad all over her apartment, and also had a vase of his ashes in her room.  From that point on, anytime we’d talk she would always mention how she missed Dad a great deal.  Mom expressed that despite having a close circle of friends, she often felt lonely without Dad.

As soon as the tape ended, I queued it up at the start of Dad’s message.  I called my Mom on my cell.  She answered her phone and I told her I had a surprise for her.  “Mom, you are not going to believe this!” I said as unchecked tears continued to trickle down my face. “What?” she replied with slight irritation in her voice.  I knew that her tone would change in a moment for the better.  “Listen!” I implored.  I played Dad’s voice for her.  She was quiet throughout the minute-long message. “I can’t believe it!” she said. “This is the best Valentine’s Day gift you could give me…I fell in love with Dad’s voice. Thank you so much, sweetheart!”

I knew then for sure, although I had suspected it for a long time, that our loved ones are around us, watching us, and once in a great while they will send us a reminder that their love for us remains strong and everlasting.

Listen to Luka Bloom’s song The Man Is Alive from his “Riverside” album

A beautiful song by my favorite Irish singer that reminds me of my Dad.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Hpr7qj2cDtE

INSERT AMAZING MATT SAMET QUOTE INTO BOOK THAT’S IN EPILOGUE AND ASK PERMISSION

How Sixty Seconds Can Make A Difference

Something quite extraordinary happened last week that was a wonderful Valentine’s Day present from the universe.

Way back in 1999, I had an answering machine. Remember those?  Yes, they contained classic tape cassettes, not CD’s, DVD’s, or MP3’s in them!

When I was 29 in 199, I had already become a huge fan of the bestselling writer/artist SARK (www.planetsark.com) who now has over 2 million copies of her books in print.  The San Francisco-based SARK has maintained a Inspiration Hot Line (415-546-EPIC) which she has offered as a free public service for many years.  SARK (which stands for Susan Ariel Rainbow Kennedy, a name that came to her in a dream from the author Henry Miller) records an inspirational outgoing message whenever she feels the urge to share her quirky, profound views with her fans.  You can simply hang up at the end of her talk, or leave your own message.

SARK listens to every single message she receives.  I had contacted SARK in 1999 to arrange an interview for an article I was writing about one of her books, and she called me back and left me a message on my answering machine.  I loved her message so much, in which she said she considered me a friend and she would always return my calls, that I kept the cassette tape as a record of her wonderful call.  I have been meaning to listen to this tape to lift my spirits for almost 14 years.

A few weeks ago I took the cassette out of the drawer fort he first time since I placed it there in 1999, and I brought it into our old Suburu Forrester “Raindrop” (yes, all our cars have names…I grew up with “Baby Volvo”) Raindrop has a cassette tape player.  As I waited in the carpool line at Marilla’s school last Valentine’s Day, I had some time to spare.  It was a gorgeous sunny day with a cerulean blue sky and a smattering of puffy cumulo nimbus clouds hovering above me, with a brisk wind gently blowing that foretold that Spring was on its way.  I stared out at the magnificent redwoods on the Santa Cruz Mountainside that provided a stunning backdrop to San Lorenzo Elementary, and popped in the tape.  First SARK’s sweet voice rang out of the speakers and she spoke at length, bringing a big smile to my face.  A long beep took place after she finished, and then a male voice came out of the speakers that I didn’t recognize.  “Who the heck is this?” I wondered for a few seconds, and then it dawned on me.  It was the clear, melodious voice of my late Dad at age 69.  My father died at age 82 in 2009, and his death was a nightmarish, drawn-out descent in which his once-magnificent, rich voice was transformed into a quivering, weak voice full of fear.  He had always told me he was terrified of dying, and when that time approached, he knew he was on the decline and his voice was affected by that knowledge both physically and emotionally.  That depressing version of his voice stayed with me since his death in 2009 in which I was so devastated that I slipped into bipolar depression that caused me to become suicidal and I asked to be hospitalized for treatment.  I had been resistant to all the psychiatric drugs I had taken for bipolar depression (totaling around 14 medications compete with horrible side effects) so I requested ECT treatment (electroconvulsive therapy ) that, ironically, my Dad had done at UCLA long ago to no avail for his own bipolar depression.

As a result of my week-long hospitalization I missed my father’s memorial service, but the ECT actually did help me lift me slowly out of the depression.  I now have no regrets for doing it, although I don’t know what the long-term effects will be on my brain until I am older.  I did not have a single adverse side effect from the ECT such as memory loss, although I was scared shitless to go for it.  One patient, who I referred to affectionately as “J. Lo” for she was a beautiful Latina who took pains to put on full makeup in the locked-down unit each day, told me that after her ECT she couldn’t remember her wedding day or the births of her children. Undaunted, I was so low, I didn’t give a damn and just told my psychiatrist to flip the switch.  I’ll never forget the reactions on the faces of my fellow mental ward patients when I was brought into the community room after my first ECT session – they all looked amazed at my improvement after just one treatment. I felt at that time that ECT was a miracle and after each treatment I felt a buzz as if I had a really great Italian espresso.  The staff at Community Hospital of the Monterey Hospital was top-notch and my medical team was compassionate, humorous and all-together fantastic.

Moreover, since I started tapering off lithium last year and started taking Nordic Naturals Ultimate Omega Xtra liquid fish oils, my memory has come back very strong. I am remembering details from my childhood that I thought were gone forever, and old song lyrics that I couldn’t sing to you five years ago if my life depended on it!

I digress.  It’s a bad habit!

So when I heard my Dad’s vibrant voice ring out and tell me that he was hanging out in his hotel in Santa Cruz, I was transported into remembering him at his very best.  He sounded happy and full of life.  He said he was off to go play his violin, and that he was a little sleepy, although he didn’t sound groggy at all.  “On second thought, I think I’ll go take a walk! He proclaimed.  “I’ll see you at dinner!”  The tape quality was perfect – he sounded so clear it was as if he was talking right in front of me.  Right there in my car at the front of the carpool line, I started to cry tears of joy.  This was the best Valentine’s Day gift I could ever imagine being given, aside from the beautiful present my husband gave me later that evening.  As soon as Dad’s voice disappeared, I called my Mom on my cell.

Mom and Dad had been married for 40 years and while their relationship was quite difficult (especially because Dad had severe bipolar disorder from age 18 on; 90% of marriages in which one spouse has bipolar end in divorce and they beat those odds!) they loved each other very much.  Mom nursed Dad through his decline with incredible dedication and she was his powerful medical advocate with the hospital as well.  After Dad died, Mom very reluctantly sold their stunning home of four decades to a young couple and moved into an apartment five minutes from their home.  She put up pictures of Dad all over her apartment as she missed him dearly.  Four years later, at age 77, anytime we’d talk she would always mention to me how she missed him a great deal and she expressed that she often felt so lonely despite having a close circle of friends and keeping up an active social life.

Mom answered her phone and I told her I had a surprise for her.  “Mom, you are not going to believe this!” I said as unchecked tears continued to trickle down my face.  “What?” she said with slight irritation in her voice.  I knew that would change in just a moment for the better.  “Listen!” I implored.  I put Mom on my cell’s speaker played Dad’s voice for her.  She was quiet throughout the minute-long message.  “I can’t believe it!” She said. “This is the best Valentine’ Day gift you could give me…I fell in love with Dad’s voice.  Thank you so much, sweetheart!”

I knew then for sure, although I had suspected it for a long time, that our loved ones are around us, watching us, and once in a while they will send

 

Bipolar Books I Recommend – I Mean Books About Bipolar! ;) – Part One

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Today it’s truly raining cats and dogs and I’m using my Sunbox to cope with the gloomy weather.  Some of you are rain-lovers, I’m sure, but not this born-in-sunny-Los Angeles gal.  There is nothing quite like a rainy day that is so ideal for staying home to be warm and cozy, and of course read a good book.  Reading on a rainy day is my nirvana, well that, and being in Hawaii when I am not depressed!  For more about my Hawaii trip please read one of my favorite posts:

https://dyaneharwood.wordpress.com/2013/12/23/hell-in-paradise-part-one/

Now, I am a voracious reader; even when I am depressed I devour books.  I have read all the “biggie” bipolar books.  I’m sure you have heard of some of these: Dr Kay Redfield Jamison’s An Unquiet Mind, Teri Cheney’s Manic and The Dark Side of Innocence: Growing up Bipolar, Marya Hornbacher’s Madness: A Bipolar Life and many more books.  I’m always on the lookout for more good books about living with bipolar, and I’ve noticed a surge in the overall amount of books published about this topic literally almost every single day.  I discovered this fact while I was using Amazon.com to conduct book searches for bipolar books.  Once I found the main bipolar category, I selected to sort it for “most recently published” books. (I’m making it sound harder than it is – this takes all of thirty seconds to do.)  This search is a pretty amazing feature and one can see which books will be published in the future – even a year or two from now.

I read some of these books post-bilateral electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) so I have a better recollection of what they cover.  Other books on my list are ones that I read years ago, and I don’t remember much about them except whether or not I really liked the book.  I wish I could recall all the juicy little details, but alas, that’s not meant to be. Most of these books are very reasonably priced for my Kindle, which I love.  An added bonus to having a Kindle is that you can sample the book for free before you purchase it, which is a fantastic option.  I’m sure that some of these books can be requested for purchase through your local library, or perhaps your library already has the book available to loan.

Haldol and Hyacinths by Melody Moezzi

Melody is an amazing writer and mental health advocate.  Her memoir is truly unique as she is an Iranian-Muslim-American with a spicy sense of humor.  I read her blog religiously on BP (Bipolar) Magazine’s website (www.bphope.com) and Moezzi’s book is absolutely fascinating.  I gave it a five star review on Amazon and here is what I wrote:

“I’ve always been a huge fan of Moezzi’s work.  I knew that Haldol and Hyacinths would not fail to disappoint me.  I was 100% right!  Moezzi’s sharp-as-nails writing takes you in from the very first page, and her brilliance shines through her narrative.  I could use every superlative I know to recommend this book, but in the interest of space here, I won’t.  All I can say is that if you have bipolar disorder or know someone who does, this book is a must-read.  And if you aren’t touched by this particular brand of mental illness, I say read it anyway, because the story ends in hope and it’s totally fascinating.  You will definitely learn things you did not know about, not just about bipolar disorder, but about Iranian Muslim culture, that I found made this bipolar memoir stand apart from the numerous bipolar memoirs available these days.  I honestly could not put it down once I started reading it, even though I was vacationing in gorgeous Kona, Hawaii and there were numerous activities beckoning to me – it was that good!”

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So Far by Cristina Negron

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Here’s the five star Amazon review I wrote for this book:

“I love reading juicy memoirs – the more disturbing, the better, as long as the author includes some redemptive themes so the book is not a total soul-sucking experience!  Yesterday I finished reading So Far by Cristina Negron, a former Rodale editor married to Amby Burfoot, longtime editor of “Runner’s World” and a winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon.  This book was published last fall.  Negron’s title appeared on my Kindle during a general search I selected for recently published bipolar-themed books.  I like to see what’s up-and-coming in the bipolar book world, and it never ceases to amaze me what people write and publish. The phrase “it takes all kinds” comes to mind…I was intrigued by this book as it was clear in its brief description that running plays a central theme in the story.  I used to be a long-distance runner in high school and I kept running in my 20’s.  I subscribed to Runner’s World and ran 10 kilometer races.  I’ve always believed that running consistently delayed the onset of my clinical depression and bipolar.  Negron’s book is well-written and very inspiring. While I don’t want to give anything away, I’ll mention briefly that she discusses her large Mexican-American family at length.  She reveals truly heartbreaking situations in connection with these relatives.

I found it refreshing that the topic of bipolar disorder did not dominate the story.  Yes, a bipolar disorder diagnosis played a pivotal role in her life and in the book.  However, Negron wove different elements throughout the narrative that gave her story depth.  Her writing style allowed the reader to have breaks, per se, from the highly sobering sections in a finely wrought fashion.  After I finished the last page, I knew that certain members of Negron’s family would stay with me, especially the ones who were extraordinarily brave.  Whenever I complete a book that has been the proverbial “can’t put down” type, I feel a void in releasing a world I have immersed myself in so intensely.  I felt that way with So Far.”

Moorestorms: A Guide For The Bipolar Parent by Rebecca Moore

After I bought Rebecca Moore’s book I discovered her insightful blog “Moorestorms” (www.moorestorms.wordpress.com)  I gave five stars to Ms. Moore’s moving book Moorestorms: A Guide For The Bipolar Parent.

“The book was a fast, moving read filled with tons of helpful information.  Reading Moorestorms was like sitting down with a good friend to learn about what it’s like to live with this illness, and how to live a better life in spite of its damage.  As Moore is the parent of seven children, she has learned an enormous deal about how to be the best parent she can be and shares this knowledge with her readers.  I wish I had this book a long time ago when my two kids were young, as it would have made me feel less alone with my struggles and it would have given me practical pointers as well.  The author bares her soul throughout the book. She never condescends to the reader like some “bipolar experts” do in their tomes. I highly recommend it.”

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Will I Ever Be The Same Again: Transforming the Face of ECT (Shock Therapy) by Carol Kivler

Carol and I have communicated via her blog for Esperanza the Anxiety and Depression Magazine website (www.hopetocope.com).  She is a wonderful, inspiring woman.  Long before I exchanged emails with her, I purchased her book about ECT and found it very useful.  I had ECT done for bipolar depression while Carol had it done for major depression.  Here is the Amazon.com description of her book:

Blessed with a loving family, a successful business as an executive coach and money in the bank, Carol Kivler was suddenly and unexpectedly brought to her knees by “The Beast” – clinical depression.  The story of her journey to recovery from medication-resistant depression is not only informative but inspires hope in others who suffer from this debilitating illness.  Because medication did not work for her, and despite serious reservations, Kivler eventually agreed to ECT (electroconvulsive therapy, or shock therapy).  The treatment not only gave her back the desire to live but the ability to thrive in her personal and professional life.  Electroconvulsive therapy became her “ladder out of the depression pit.”  In her opinion, the stigma associated with ECT deprives severely depressed individuals the right to potential recovery.  Consequently, the section of her book on “Demystifying ECT” provides accurate, up to date information about today’s modernized procedure, answers common questions such as “Does it hurt?” (No!) and discusses possible side effects (which Kivler found to be no worse than those from medication).

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Undercurrents by Dr. Martha Manning

I read this book long ago (before both of my rounds of ECT) and to this day I vividly remember it being so lyrical and convincing regarding ECT as saving her life.  I was so impressed with Dr. Manning that when I was hired to write my first professional article for a national magazine (the sadly defunct “Fit” Magazine; my 1997 article discussed the importance of exercise with women) I contacted Dr. Manning to interview her for my piece.  I also interviewed none other than Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison.  Dr. Jamison was a famous bestselling author and in the late 1990’s numerous writers clamored her for interviews.  I stood out because she and I attended the same high school, although we never met there as she is older than me.  I also had the honor of meeting her when she gave a fantastic talk at the Palisades Library – the lecture room was packed like sardines in a can, she was so popular.

Copied below is the primary description for Dr. Manning’s book that I found on the Amazon.com website.  I find it rather strange that the ECT that saves Dr. Manning’s life is not mentioned in the blurb.  I could be mistaken, but to me that is a subtle form of stigma towards mental illness and ECT.

“This is the memoir of an ordinary woman—a mother, a daughter, a psychologist, a wife—who tells the tale of her spiraling descent into a severe, debilitating depression. Undercurrents pioneers a new literature about women and depression that offers a vision of action instead of victimhood, hope instead of despair.”

I believe a much better description is the review by the Library Journal:

As psychotherapist Manning began her slow descent into depression, she recognized the signposts along the way: a sense that she was losing control of her life, perpetual fogginess in her head, social withdrawal and subsequent isolation, and a painful alienation from all that gave her life pleasure and meaning-except her daughter. She recounts how medications were tried and discarded, psychotherapy proved fruitless, and her mind became overwhelmed with thoughts of death as a way out of her ceaseless torment. The one last hope was electroconvulsive therapy (ECT), the thought of which left her feeling frightened and totally helpless. Nevertheless, ECT alleviated her despair and began her recovery. Told in journal form, the events so sensitively and insightfully depicted here reveal how tenuous one’s connection to physical and mental well-being can be. Recommended for general readers.

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I am so grateful to Dr. Manning for her book, as it made me feel better about getting ECT when my time came.  I still had huge reservations, of course, but I was desperate.  (I also cover this issue in a prior blog post:

https://dyaneharwood.wordpress.com/2014/01/22/are-you-shocked-that-i-got-shocked/

Tomorrow I will share Part Two of my favorite books with you…and mention a few I will be purchasing in the coming year that look really cool, unique and helpful.  Take care and if you are staying home due to inclement weather like I am, happy reading!

How Do You Explain Heaven To A Child?

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Photo of an “Eskie” puppy who looks exactly like my Shera.  Everyone told me she looked like a stuffed animal, and she did.

Today is one of those days where I am not getting anything done.  Dirty dishes fill the sink. Clean clothes that are meant to be put away are strewn all over my unmade bed.  It’s a gloomy, rainy Thursday; this weather drains my energy, but our community is relieved for the outpour because we’ve had scary drought conditions.   According to my favorite trusted astrologer Risa D’Angeles we are experiencing Mercury Retrograde in Pisces.  I don’t know what that means, exactly, but I know it’s not good.

The day began at 5:00 a.m. with a screaming match between my two little girls who woke up ninety minutes earlier than usual.  Ever since then I have felt somewhat off kilter.  Today’s Risa D’Angeles horoscope for my astrological sign of Pisces states that I “need uninterrupted sleep”.  She’s right.  (You can check your horoscope at http://www.gtweekly.com – I highly recommend it.  I’ve been reading this paper for the past two decades and I always flip to Risa’s page first!)   After schlepping the girls to school in bumper-to-bumper traffic I played around on Facebook when I should have been working on my writing.  Facebook writing most assuredly does not count towards my writing project, as much as I wish it did.

I did have an exciting, positive interaction happen since the crack of dawn.  I was contacted by the author Martha Rhodes.  Her powerful book 3000 Pulses Later: A Memoir of Surviving Depression Without Medication details her journey with TMS (transcranial magnetic stimulation) and she explains how it alleviated her severe depression.  I have tremendous admiration for Martha, who survived a suicide attempt and is now a mental health advocate.  I didn’t know that TMS can also help with bipolar disorder symptoms – you can check out Martha’s Facebook page 3000 Pulses later or her website http://www.3000pulseslater.com for more information.  Martha was notified of my blog through a Google alert. (Do you know about Google alerts?  If not, I suggest you research them – they are very cool!) I mentioned 3000 Pulses Later in my “Memoir” blog post, and Martha got in touch with me.  Hearing from a talented author certainly brightened my day.  This was the second time that I’ve had an author contact me this week.  I could get used to this happening with other authors as well!

On a more serious note, the topic I planned to cover today sounds a bit lofty: heaven. Unfortunately I don’t think I will do this subject matter justice in the time I have to write. It’s also difficult to analyze heaven since I connect it with death and that brings up some painful memories.  However, I’ve found that when I write about upsetting matters, the writing serves as a catharsis.  I always feel better afterwards, so to quote one of my favorite writers Greg Archer: “Onward!”

(Greg wrote the entertaining, insightful book Shut Up, Skinny Bitches! and he is the editor of “Good Times”.)

Onward, take two.

My six-year-old daughter Marilla has been struggling lately at bedtime.  She has been telling me repeatedly how scared she is.  When I explain that she has no reason to be frightened, she disagrees with me.   “I’m going to have bad dreams about vampires or zombies again!” she whimpers, and I feel terrible and powerless to help her.  I do everything I can to reassure my girl that the bad dreams can vanish.  I remind Rilla to think about the good things in her life to get her mind off the spooky stuff.  I suggest that she focuses on what cheers her up: her toys, her friends, her favorite foods, etc.  She eventually falls asleep and then we repeat the same scenario the following evening.

Two nights ago we were having this nightmare discussion and our talk took a different turn.  She was fixated on talking about my dog Shera, an American Eskimo cutie who died when Rilla was just three years old.  I had Shera for fifteen years, ever since she resembled the photo above at six weeks old.  Shera took part in my wedding and and she accompanied us on our honeymoon in Mammoth.  Like me, Marilla is a ginormous dog lover.  I didn’t think that Rilla had many memories of Shera, but she does.  She sobbed as she told me she misses Shera “so much”.  Rilla has pictures of Shera in a little photo album that she made.  As I wiped her tears away with my hand, Rilla asked me the Big Question:

“Mommy, where is Shera now?”

I took a deep breath.  I wanted to answer my precious girl with conviction, not cynicism.  I wanted to give her a smidgen of hope that Shera was not gone forever and that she existed in a better place.  You see, Rilla has suffered enough already.  Most six-year-olds have not had their mothers locked up in loony bins five times since they were born.  Rilla has witnessed agonizing scenes due to my bipolar outbursts that no child should be exposed to. I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to make it up to her.

I found myself able to tell Rilla what I now believe.  “Sweetie, Shera is in heaven.  Someday we will go to heaven and we will see her again.”

I wouldn’t have been able to say this to her last summer when my bipolar depression was so severe that I was stuck in the mental hospital for almost three weeks.  I didn’t believe in heaven back then; I believed in hell because that’s where I was living.  One does not beg for bilateral ECT (electroshock treatments) like I did unless one is in a hell of some kind.

Now that I finally got the medication cocktail right, and now that my depression is gone I can be stronger for my daughter.  I can tell her my truth, and while I can’t force her to believe in heaven, I will certainly try my best.  I want to give her a solid belief in heaven so that when she faces the hard times, she will have some hope in her soul.

The Trip of a Lifetime – Land of the Long White Cloud – Aotearoa – Part Three

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I should let you know that today’s reminiscence focuses on being a Kiwi music groupie, rather than upon the magnificent natural beauty of New Zealand’s North Island.  I will be writing about the scenic wonders I visited over the next few days.  I only went to a handful of them (Rotorua, Kare Kare, Waiheke Island, Cape Reinga, Ninety Mile Beach Sand Dunes)  but I’ll never forget their grandeur.  This journey took place over twenty years ago, and I thank God that electroconvulsive therapy/ ECT did not wipe out those memories!   

After a perfect landing at Auckland International Airport, I experienced deja vu when I walked by its lovely gift store.  I was tempted to stop in to buy more of the New Zealand milk chocolate (I wanted to actually taste it this time now that my cold was gone!) but I was distracted with finding the baggage claim.  I made my way to a Auckland youth hostel and was lucky enough to register for a single room at a reasonable rate.  After opening the door and throwing my heavy backpack on the floor, I promptly passed out on the bed.

The next day it was sunny and temperate, and I walked up and down Queen Street, one of Auckland’s main thoroughfares.  Queen Street reminded me a bit of Santa Cruz’s Pacific Avenue in that there were hippies and street performers galore.  I hit Real Groovy Records and bought a sleek, silver-colored, special edition Split Enz CD box set.  I would never find anything like that in the States and the price was reasonable with my beneficial exchange rate.  The set would be my most indulgent purchase while on the North Island and definitely worth it.  After I left Real Groovy, I found a nearby bakery and sat down inside for a snack.  On impulse, I looked through my box set and spotted a folded-up sheet tucked between the CD’s.  I opened up this paper to find I had the original autographs of Enz band members Neil and Tim Finn, Nigel Griggs, Eddie Rayner and Noel Crombie.  This was a true autograph boon as the band had broken up, and surprisingly it was included with the box set with no fanfare.  I crowed with glee over my unexpected luck!  I put away the box set in my roomy purse, and took out my well-thumbed North Island travel guide to review my itinerary’s must-see spots.

One of these must-sees not in the book included “Hang out with Auckland John”.  Over the past few years I cultivated an internet and phone friendship with John Dobbyn.  We “met” in a Crowded House fan club internet forum.  John originally hailed from Seattle and worked at Microsoft.  He immigrated to Auckland’s Microsoft branch to work there for a year.  We arranged to meet up after I settled in Auckland so he could show me some North Island sights. I had corresponded with John for so long that I felt relatively safe in terms of meeting him in person.  Now that I reflect upon my trip, I realize that it wasn’t the best idea to trust a strange man, no matter how comfortable I felt with him.  I was very, very fortunate that he was a stand-up guy.

John was even more of a Crowded House groupie than I was, so we were quite the pair.  He too had just gone through the end of a relationship, but we had a low-key, brother-sister dynamic between us that set me at ease.  We drove to Te-Awamutu, the “Rose Town” of New Zealand located in the Waikato Region.  Te Awamutu means “the river cut short” in Maori language, as it is the end of the navigable section of the Mangapiko Stream.  Te Awamutu is the birthplace of Neil and Tim Finn of Crowded House/Split Enz fame.  There is now a Te Awamutu Museum with a Finn Brothers exhibit, but unfortunately it hadn’t been created when we were there.  (The Finns have been called the “Lennon and McCartney of New Zealand”.  Like Sir Paul, they were awarded OBE’s by Queen Elizabeth II for their contributions to New Zealand music.)  All I remember of our Te Awamutu sojourn is taking a picture in front of Te Awamutu’s entry sign festooned with roses, and another photograph in front of the obscure Te Awamutu Shell.

To our credit, we didn’t stalk the proud Finn parents who still lived there, thank God.  If we did accost them, Neil may have written a song about us like he did about an American girl who stalked him in New Zealand.  Neil wrote “Mean to Me” for Crowded House’s first hit album about his stalker, and it’s a great song.  John and I drew the line when it came to stalking.  However, later on after I left the country, John would cross the line from fan to actual friend in a most enviable way.  Somehow John was able to contact Neil Finn in Auckland.  I don’t remember how he pulled it off, but he impressed Neil with his computer expertise.  This was the era just when the internet took off big-time.  Neil, who had a keen interest in technology of all kinds, decided to get to know John and arranged for some computer help.  He invited him to his home in Parnell, known as Auckland’s oldest suburb.  John visited the Finn home numerous times for dinner, and he would tell me about Neil’s wife Sharon cooking lamb chops for them.  I was wistful and a bit jealous, but at the same time I knew that I would never be able to handle having dinner with the Finns.  It would be a bit like watching how sausage gets made.