My Redwood Therapists

imagesNo, the banana slugs are *not* my therapists…but they are pretty cool, aren’t they?

imgres-2These magnificent redwoods are my therapists!

Last year when I started tapering off bipolar medication, I became an exercise fiend.  I knew how to work out well because I was an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer in the late 1990’s.  After teaching in a gym for a few years, I definitely preferred exercising outdoors.  Bypassing the gym was economical as well, so I felt good about my fitness plan.

The road in front of my home wasn’t pedestrian-friendly; it was “pedestrian-deadly”.  The steep mountain lane was devoid of sidewalks, and speeding cars appeared on it every few minutes.  (If I could do it over again, I would have bought a different house on a street that wasn’t full of near-death experiences!) I needed a safe walking option, so I chose our local high school track.  The track was set against the spectacular redwood-blanketed Santa Cruz Mountains, which served as a beautiful focal point .  The weather was usually warm and sunny, and I brought my iPod so I could listen to my favorite music.  I timed my track walks to take place when students usually weren’t there.  Walking made me feel grounded and healthy and I rarely missed a day.  I knew that I needed to exercise regularly in order to achieve my goal of being medication-free.

One day I wanted a change of scenery.  I headed for a trail next to the track which led into Henry Cowell Redwoods State Park’s Fall Creek sector.  This state park is home to a centuries-old redwood grove.  It’s a tree lover’s dream as it has other old-growth woods such as Douglas fir, madrone, oak and ponderosa pines.  At the risk of sounding like a hippie (which I am, in a way) the energy in this forest feels almost magical.  When I entered the forest I encountered a unique quiet.  The quiet was interrupted when I approached Fall Creek, but its gentle burbling sounds were welcoming and soothing.  Rays of sun peeked through the tree branches so that I didn’t feel claustrophobic.  I loved smelling the fresh, pure air.

I knew the state park attracted many visitors, but I found it so large that I didn’t come across other hikers too often.  An occasional horse or two would startle me, but they seemed mellow. The lack of people, as much as I enjoyed it, was cause for concern, especially as a woman hiking there alone.  As a resident of the area for years, I read reports in our local newspaper of occasional illegal incidents in the park.  I bought a pepper spray and I reviewed how to use it properly.  I always told my husband when I’d be there.  He wasn’t thrilled about my hiking in such isolation but the pepper spray made him feel a little better.  When I walked in the forest I had the spray in my hand, ready to use at any moment.  I didn’t use my iPod in the forest for safety reasons and because I wanted to hear nature’s sounds.  I was surprised to observe another park regular, a female runner, pass me on the narrow, rocky trails wearing her iPod (and hardly anything else) – that definitely seemed like an unsafe idea. I also always brought my fully charged cell phone, and I was lucky I had good cell reception in the forest.

There were other risks besides coming across criminals.  Mountain lions have roamed these hills for ages.  I doubted that my measly pepper spray could fend off an attacking mountain lion, but actual sightings were very rare.  At least there weren’t any bears!  There was the remote chance that I could come across Bigfoot.  Yes, Bigfoot.  The park entrance was five minutes away from the town of Felton’s infamous Bigfoot Discovery Museum.   Despite the museum’s claims of Bigfoot hanging out around here, I never obsessed about running into the hairy beast in Fall Creek.

In case you want to learn about the Bigfoot Museum, (who doesn’t?) here’s the link:

http://bigfootdiscoveryproject.com/

However, there have been a few times when I felt that my sanctuary had a sinister feel.  I think the creepy sensation was more about my projecting my dark moods upon the innocent forest rather than there being actual cause.  This gloominess usually happened when the sun disappeared from view.  Sunlight always has had a tremendous affect upon my psyche, and I’ve used a bright Sunbox light for a decade now.

My med-free attempt did not work.  When I relapsed while tapering off lithium last spring, I admitted myself to the mental hospital yet again.  I was in the unit, off and on, for over three weeks last summer. Patients were not taken outside unless they had a doctor’s note.  (I wasn’t informed of that ludicrous policy when I was there.  I found that fact out long after I was released, to my disbelief.  It was truly insane that patients who were able to be outside safely, with supervision, were not exposed to fresh air and sunlight.)  After I came home, I couldn’t stop thinking about “my” forest.  I felt like a caged animal who was finally given freedom.  The day I was able to drive to Fall Creek and walk on the path I had tread so many times was a momentous accomplishment.  Many days during the past summer I never thought I’d be in the forest ever again.  After being cooped up in what I can only describe was a horrible hell, it was incredible to use all my senses to savor the park once again.  I was still depressed, but it helped to be around my “tree therapists” for their very real comfort.

When the Indian Summer shifted in much colder weather, I dressed for the chill in a down jacket and gloves, with plenty of layers.  Finally, when my walks became too uncomfortable despite all my gear, I stopped my Fall Creek hikes to use my home elliptical trainer.  I missed Fall Creek but I was still lucky enough to be able to look out the window and see trees and sky on the elliptical.

Being in a mental hospital does many things to you.  For some very resilient souls, they stay at a unit, they get out, and they don’t really look back.  On the other hand, and I don’t use this term lightly; I feel that I have PTSD from being in these places numerous times. The difference between a locked-down unit full of suffering and a spacious forest comprised of graceful trees and streams is enormous.  It doesn’t get more “bipolar” than the difference between sterile civilization and majestic nature.

I will return to my hallowed forest when the weather changes yet again to warmth.  Now more than ever before, I am grateful for the freedom of being able to visit such a stunning, peaceful place.

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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

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

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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…