Triggered Once Again…

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A photo from the hospital’s website…my room looked nothing like this.  

The words “dreary”, “desolate”, and “sterile” sum up my room’s decor.   

It was eight months ago when I was last locked up in the loony bin for bipolar depression/suicidal ideation.  The relapse occurred during my tapering off lithium, and it was so nightmarish that I asked for bilateral electroconvulsive (ECT) treatments.  The ECT worked in tandem with a new medication combination, and I was incredibly fortunate to have minimal side effects.  While I’m not cured by any means, I’m 360-degrees better.

I know that “loony bin” is derogatory; I’ll use the euphemistically named “Garden Pavilion” at Community Hospital of the Monterey Peninsula instead.  I suppose I should wipe the snide tone out of my words at the get-go, and give this hospital much more credit.  C.H.O.M.P.’s confines and staff did help to save my life.  But the way in which that was done left much to be desired.

For one thing, I was cooped up worse than our three chickens.  We allow them to “free range” every day in our yard, and they truly seem more tranquil after these excursions.  During my lengthy time at the hospital I wasn’t taken outside once with staff for a breath of fresh air and natural sunlight.  As small a thing as that may sound, I believe that staying in an ugly, uninspiring, yucky-smelling, bleak unit 24/7 prolonged my recovery, and worsened my depression.  I’ve always loved nature, and during my deepest depressions getting out in nature gave me moments of comfort and hope.

A few months after my hospital release, I made some calls to Bay Area hospitals out of curiosity .  I learned that numerous mental health units with the same population as C.H.O.M.P. take their patients out for walks or even field trips.  Why C.H.O.M.P. couldn’t do that, I don’t know.  I called the unit about it and I couldn’t get a clear answer.

And then there is the cost of hospitalization.  I manage our bills, and we’re going to be paying C.H.O.M.P. for a very long time.  My hospital visit cost TONS of money not covered by Medicare.  I could have bought several new cards for what my hospitalization cost.  Again, I realize that I sound ungrateful and that my life is worth any exorbitant medical bill, but it still, for want of a better word, sucks.  I would have rather saved up all that money for my children’s college education.

The truth of the matter is that I feel triggered this afternoon..  My husband and daughter left for Los Angeles this morning.  Craig’s acclaimed book Quest for Flight – John J. Montgomery and the Dawn of Aviation in the West is being honored for winning the Regional Literature Award by the Great Southwest Book Festival in Hollywood.  I could have accompanied them, but I chose to stay home to write and relax. The tedious eight-hour-long drive to L.A. and and eight-hour-long drive back for only a three-day-long visit didn’t appeal to me.  (Flying there was too expensive.)  Fortunately Craig is so easygoing that he didn’t mind my staying home in the slightest.  He’s even making time to visit my Mom while there, and she’s thrilled she’ll see her eldest granddaughter.

It’s just that I haven’t been away from either Craig nor Avi since I was hospitalized and that makes me feel nervous and sad.  Memories of prior separations (I’ve had seven lengthy hospitalizations since 2007) are surfacing that I don’t want to dwell upon.  I have no concrete reason to be nervous or sad – I’m in good physical health, way better mental health than I’ve enjoyed in years, and I’ve set up plans for a few fun activities to do while they are out of town.

I am lucky to have my other daughter with me.  Rilla deserves to have me be in relatively good spirits during this one-on-one time.  So what I’ll do to get in a better frame of mind is:

1) Work out on the elliptical – this always puts me in a better mental state 

2) Plan a couple fun, special things to do with Rilla (Our big splurge is going to the famous Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, which she has been begging me to do for ages.)

3) Use my Sunbox (I use this bright light for thirty minutes in the morning when I write or surf the internet. It helps me keep depression at bay)

4) Write 

5) Invest in some good quality chocolate!

and lastly…

6) Don’t be a recluse.  When I stay in the house all day long, it’s very bad for my mood.  Even getting out for a little while makes a big difference.

Time flies by so quickly that the three days will pass by in a heart beat anyway.

I can’t help but have a Pollyanna moment after sharing these thoughts.   I’d rather be home, freaked out, than back in that cold, scary hospital.  All I have to do to feel better is look out my window at beautiful redwood trees and the clucking trio of chickens.  It’s a pretty damn good life.  So I’ll just take the myriad of hospital bills in stride, and I’ll deal with my Garden Pavilion memories that come and thankfully go.  I have my life back in my own hands, and that’s what matters now.

I dedicate this Crowded House song “Better Be Home Soon” to Craig & Avonlea; the lyrics have a different meaning than my situation, but it’s a classic song!

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! 😉

Hitting Rock Bottoms and Dealing with Diabolical Dust!

images-1During most of my life, I’ve needed to hit rock bottom before I’ve been able to make a significant, lasting change.  I hit rock bottom hard last spring in my quest to become medication-free.  I almost completely tapered off lithium and just when I thought I was going to achieve my goal, mania set in, followed by suicidal depression.  I wound up back in the hospital for a good chunk of the summer.  I’ll just say it wasn’t quite like visiting Maui.

After my relapse, I finally uttered out loud that I needed bipolar medication.  I wasn’t simply spouting a Big Pharma party line.  I was truly sincere in declaring that I needed the meds because I finally found a combination that lifted my bipolar depression.

A year later I’m hitting rock bottom in a different, much less alarming way.  I’ve begun to spring clean. It sounds a little ridiculous, not to mention uber-boring, but please bear with me.  The fact that I’ve been able to clean more than a couple of dishes is huge.  A mere five months ago I was bedridden with fatigue a good part of each day due to Zoloft side effects.  I am actually excited that I can eradicate heaps of dust that accumulated in my living spaces during my depression era.  Usually the only thing that can cause that much excitement in my world is a brand-new book or a Green & Blacks milk chocolate bar.

Although Spring, 2014 won’t officially begin until March 20th, last Friday our warm, sunny weather felt it had arrived in full force.  “Springy signs” such as daffodils and blooming Japanese plum trees have appeared over the past week.  That particular Friday I chauffeured the girls to school without too much drama in the car’s backseat.  After I walked them to class, I navigated driving home amongst my fellow parents.  Just exiting the school parking lot has always been challenging, and I needed to be fully alert.  Some of these parents have the driving manners of a felon on methamphetamine and possess the IQ of a squid.  I returned to an empty house where I could write in peace.  But something stirred in my veins besides wanting to write my blog and surf Facebook.  At first I couldn’t quite believe it, but I realized I felt an overwhelming compulsion to clean our decrepit home.  I tanked up on some super-strong coffee and I stood quietly for a moment.

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Due to detritus just about everywhere, I would need to clean in baby steps.  The easiest task to start with seemed like vacuuming.  Little did I know that vacuuming one bedroom and one living room would be so time-consuming, physical, and utterly gross.  Our rat colony, now in Rat Heaven, left droppings galore which they emitted during their time on Earth.  I knew that underneath my queen bed there was a ton of dust.  After moving the bed and pulling a muscle in my back, I discovered that one of our girl’s hobbies was hiding candy wrappers underneath the bed.   There was a huge amount of chunky dust everywhere I looked – so much so that I emptied the vacuum’s dirt receptacle three times in half an hour.  On the bright side, I was happy to have a vacuum that actually worked.  Best of all, it was awesome to experience the gratification that comes from the sweat and toil of cleaning.

I am very fortunate that I don’t live with a Neanderthal-type of husband who demands his wife to keep the house in spotless condition.  Craig has had every right to drop me a hint to clean.  I am a stay-at-home-mom and I have time to do some rudimentary tidying up around here.  He knows I’ve felt too exhausted, depressed and overwhelmed to impersonate Martha Stewart, and I’m forever grateful to him for his understanding.

My daughter Avonlea knows we can’t afford a housecleaning service, and told me she would give me her piggy bank money to pay someone to clean our home.  She explained that she felt embarrassed to have friends over due to the mess.  I felt like I won the “Worst Mom of the Year” award in that moment.  I’ve considered asking for a one-time professional deep clean as my upcoming birthday gift rather than books, a facial, or chocolate.

As a teenager long before I was diagnosed with bipolar, I took good care of my surroundings.  When I attended college, I’d clean whatever room or studio I was renting on a regular basis.  I’ve actually had a stint as a professional housecleaner.  In my early twenties I had the good fortune to visit Vail, Colorado.  While I was there I was hired to clean condos for seventy dollars a day.  I did a reasonably good job and I took pride in my elbow grease.

I expanded my cleaning repertoire when I worked at a gym for a couple years.  I began as the morning front desk greeter, and then I became a certified personal trainer.  My daily responsibilities included cleaning the gym before we opened and throughout my shift.  I cleaned all the gym equipment, the jacuzzi, and the large women’s and men’s bathrooms.  I’ll never forget one morning when I discovered that a female member had left me a disgusting fecal “present” in one shower.  I couldn’t comprehend how a woman could expect another human being to clean up after her in that way.  I think that’s when I started searching the classifieds for an office administration job.

Over the past fifteen years during our marriage, we’ve vacationed at housekeeping-style rentals.  These spots have usually required a cleaning fee, but of course we couldn’t leave the places a pigsty for the cleaner.  We were instructed by the owners to follow basic cleaning checklists before leaving.  Since I knew what it was like to clean professionally, I’d go above and beyond those lists’ requirements; I’d strip beds, remove all hair in the sinks and showers, and make sure that nothing skanky was in the toilets…that kind of thing.

Last year when I became manic during the med-free experiment, I  agreed to housesit for a friend.  As a surprise gift to her family, I decided to clean her home.  I had a tremendous amount of  energy, and I cleaned as if my life depended upon my doing a meticulous job.  I wish I could have been a fly on the wall when my friends walked in the door to see my handiwork.  During that same time period, I also cleaned our own home before throwing a surprise birthday party for Craig.  I didn’t do as thorough a job as I did at my friend’s place, but it wasn’t bad.  At least I didn’t go on a $30,000 shopping spree or do other disturbing and/or dangerous things people sometimes do when they are manic!

I am most definitely not hypomanic or manic now.  My meds are working, knock on wood.  I’m sleeping, exercising, and my psychiatrist is comfortable with how I’m doing.  A few days ago I took it as a good omen that I was asked by the International Bipolar Foundation to be their “Story of Hope and Recovery” which they featured on their website.

Cleaning, although not the most exciting or profound topic, has become a meaningful metaphor in my life.  By removing some of the squalor around me, I feel less lethargic.  Whisking away the nasty grime has allowed me to enjoy where I live instead – I no longer feel guilty for neglecting our home.  My inner hippie also believes that when I clean my small workspace this week, I’ll clear stagnant energy left over from my depression.  I’ve observed some friends wave burning clusters of dried sage in their rooms for purification purposes.  I prefer the smell of orange essential oil, and will dig up my old mini-diffuser in the closet.

Once my workspace is complete, I will finally be able to finish giving birth (pun intended) to Birth of a New Brain.  Some of you reading this essay may be “clean freaks” (lucky you!) and may not relate to letting dirt reign supreme.  For those of you whose depression has influenced you to sully up your surroundings, consider downing a pot of black coffee (even if you don’t drink it) and do just one thing.  Vacuum.  Clean the refrigerator.  (It won’t take as long as you think.)   God forbid I forget to mention the toilet.  If you do any or all of these tasks, I promise, you might end up with sore muscles, but you won’t be sorry.

Good luck, and I can’t resist writing this: May the force be with you.

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Two Mavericks I Admire: Dr. Liz Miller, med-free author of “Mood Mapping” and Stephen Fry’s “The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive”

search                                            Dr. Liz Miller, author of “Mood Mapping”imgres                                            Actor and bestselling author Stephen Fry

Some people with bipolar disorder can live healthy, thriving lives without medication. Despite my doing tons of research, consulting with top experts and giving it my absolute best shot, I could not live medication-free.  Maybe in the future, but definitely not now.

A person with bipolar who is able to live without medication is neurosurgeon and general practitioner Dr. Liz Miller.  I discovered her in actor Stephen Fry’s acclaimed documentary “The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive”; she was one of his subjects.  If you haven’t seen Fry’s film yet, I highly recommend it – he profiles both celebrities and regular folks, and it’s inspiring and fascinating.  I got emotional watching him as he narrated the film.  I felt tears come to my eyes as he shared about his suicide attempt. He has been there in bipolarland hell, and he has made it back to the other side to help people and has become a major mental health advocate in the U.K.  Fry is vulnerable, funny as hell, and immensely likable, plus he has the British accent going for him!  You can watch the film on YouTube – here’s the link for the first part, and you can easily find the other parts on YouTube :

Dr. Miller was the only subject in Fry’s film who was living medication-free and doing well.  I was impressed by her philosophy and I appreciated how she shared what helped her stay sane, i.e. healthy eating, etc.  Aside from working part-time, she co-founded the Doctors Support Network, a confidential self-help group for physicians in the U.K. with mental health concerns.  I liked what Dr. Miller had to say so much that I tracked her down through the internet.  I asked her to write the foreword to my book, which would chronicle my becoming medication-free.  I conservatively planned my tapering process to take a full year.  After reviewing my proposal and sample chapters, Dr. Miller agreed to write the foreword, and I was thrilled.  Unfortunately, when I relapsed, that version of my book went out the window.  I cancelled the book deal I secured with a women’s health publishing company, and I never thought I’d write more than a few lines again.

Despite the fact that I refuse to toss away my pills, I can still incorporate some of Dr. Miller’s suggestions for remaining stable and healthy.  She wrote a  book titled  Mood Mapping (Rodale) and it’s for anyone who wishes to keep track of her moods and learn from them.  Mood Mapping is on Kindle and here’s the Amazon description:

Mood mapping simply involves plotting how you feel against your energy levels, to determine your current mood.  Dr. Liz Miller then gives you the tools you need to lift your low mood, so improving your mental health and wellbeing.  Dr. Miller developed this technique as a result of her own diagnosis of bipolar disorder (manic depression), and of overcoming it, leading her to seek ways to improve the mental health of others.  This innovative book illustrates: * The Five Keys to Moods: learn to identify the physical or emotional factors that affect your moods * The Miller Mood Map: learn to visually map your mood to increase self-awareness * Practical ways to implement change to alleviate low mood.  Mood mapping is an essential life skill; by giving an innovative perspective to your life, it enables you to be happier, calmer and to bring positivity to your own life and to those around you.

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I am the Procrastination Queen…

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I’ve had Dr. Miller’s book for a long time, and I am ashamed to admit that I haven’t read it all yet.  However, I intend to finish her book soon, try out Dr. Miller’s Mood Map, and report back here.

Here’s Dr. Miller’s Facebook page link for Mood Mapping:

https://www.facebook.com/moodmapping