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Insomnia, my old frenemy

27 Jan

Insomnia. I gave up on sleep after two hours of lying awake in bed. I tried to counteract it with Benadryl and Valerian root, but no dice. I usually wake up at 5 AM to make my husband breakfast and see him off to work. This morning I’ll just stay up until then. I’ll crash sometime later in the morning. The day will be a wash, but luckily I’ve nothing on my agenda that can’t be rescheduled.

My brain often speeds up at night. I start lighting on insights and deconstructing everything, and snatches of songs I’ve listened to during the day play in my head in a relentless loop. I used to feed it. Now I fight it. Being a restless night owl works better when you’re in your twenties.

My depression and mood swings are more manageable when I’m on a 9-5 schedule, but I often feel like I’m fighting my nature. My frosted side whines: why shouldn’t I follow my inclinations to stay up all night writing, watching Game of Thrones, and bopping around online? It’s fun. It feels good.

The next day, however, feels awful. Today will not be fun. Today will be a mulligan. It’s just the way it is, and beating myself up about it isn’t productive. I’ll need to reset my clock: more Benadryl and Valerian root. Maybe a shot or two for good measure. Tequila agrees with me a hell of a lot more than Trazadone does. That shit gives me nightmares. And I don’t hit the bottle much. I haven’t done so much as a shot since the weekend before Halloween. I can finally justify buying a bottle of Espalón.

I know I don’t do enough. I don’t exercise enough. I rarely meditate. And I haven’t been eating well the past few days.  I admit it, I’ve been slacking.

When I was a child, I tried the conventional remedies that I gleaned from books and television. Warm milk didn’t do anything besides upset my stomach. I counted sheep well into the hundreds. When none of that worked, I often sneaked books out and read them by flashlight. It got to the point where I hid two or three flashlights because my parents started checking on me and confiscating them. I remember my father being roused by the noise from me playing in my rocking chair before dawn and dragging me back to bed. I remember him accosting me in the hallway late one night and telling me that if I couldn’t sleep, I should just lie there and rest. I resented him at the time, but now I’m grateful that they didn’t try to drug me with sleeping pills.

In high school, I stayed up writing frantically in my journal and purging the day’s pain with a crying jag, screaming sobs into my pillow and gulping  vodka filched from the kitchen cabinet. When I grew too restless, I’d creep out of the house and wander. I walked down back roads lined with stone walls built centuries ago by colonial farmers.  I walked through moonlit woods hallucinating that the trees were following me. I walked to the houses of boys I had crushes on. Cops would find me and put me in the back of their cruisers, lecture me while they drove me home, and deposit me at my door with empty threats of alerting my parents if they caught me out again.

Sometimes fatigue would set in on the walk back and I’d accept a stranger’s offer of a ride home. I’m incredibly lucky that I was never outright assaulted, that on the occasions I felt unsafe I was able to exit the vehicles and get away.

In college and grad school, I worked late into the night reading and writing. I loved it, but it wreaked havoc on my mood. I plan on going back to grad school and I’m not thrilled at the prospect of only working during the day and sticking to a schedule. Studying and writing in manic spurts has always been my M.O.

When I was emceeing and performing burlesque, I stayed up late doing shows and then winding down with other performers afterwards. Musicians and theater folk tend to keep late hours. I loved it, but again, not the best thing for my moods. It’s one of the primary reasons I gave up performing.

My brain functions differently at night. I feel more inspired, creative, and insightful. I do not enjoy fighting that.

I’m starting to fade. I’ll go back to bed after I make breakfast. Bring on the mulligan.

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Hypergraphia: How Not to Write

10 Aug

One of the reasons I don’t usually write creative or personal pieces is that I don’t like looking too closely at my past experiences. It requires a facility with mood regulation that I have yet to achieve. I keep so much back, all the time, fighting with memories and emotional currents. I need to put them in boxes, not channel them.

T.S. Eliot once said that he wrote to escape from his emotions. I think that’s bullshit. We are driven by our emotions. There is no escaping them (especially not in writing). But mine overwhelm me if I’m not careful. I’ve finally internalized the fact that I can’t run from them, but I endeavor to keep them at a safe distance. 

I stopped performing for much the same reason as I stopped writing, even though I loved it and exhibited some potential. There were also the overlapping issues of hypomania and sleep hygiene. Performing makes me speedy and it often involves being “on” at night. Then I can’t sleep and things spin out of control.

I’m predisposed to being on at night. I used to start writing around 8 or 9 PM and go for hours until I passed out. This practice began when I turned twelve and the shit hit the fan.

A few years ago, I stumbled upon a box full of my old notebooks. It was pure hypergraphia. Some of the pages had holes where the pressure of my pen had pushed through. Many were so covered in ink that hardly any white showed.  When I reached the end of a page, I sometimes spun the book ninety degrees and continued writing so I wouldn’t have to stop.

Those notebooks horrified me. They chronicled the onset and development of my illness. So, over my mother’s bewildered protestations, I threw them out. 

Franz Kafka wrote his short story “The Judgment” in one night during a bout of hypergraphia. His family tearfully intervened in the morning, begging him to stop, and he collapsed. 

Kafka’s world was one of trauma. His hometown of Prague had a lengthy history of Anti-Semitic pogroms, the most notorious of which occurred on Easter Sunday in 1389 when a mob massacred 3000 men, women, and children and burned the Jewish quarter to the ground. The history of the pogroms was recent enough that the generation before his remembered them. Within this context, his Jewish family bore its own wounds. His two younger brothers died in infancy when he was six years old, and he had an exceedingly complicated and painful relationship with his father.

He confronted all of this pain in his writing, channeling it to create inimitable works of art. And he died in his thirties of tuberculosis after years of ill health, anorexia, and suicidal ideation.

I know that you don’t have to suffer to write well, but given my history, I don’t see how I could write effectively without examining my own pain. I’m afraid to do that because it could unleash my illness, which means I don’t write honestly. Without honesty, the writing falls flat.

So many of the writers I admire embraced their crazy. They looked unflinching at the world. They held nothing back. And almost all of them died early from suicide or substance abuse or lack of self-care.

Maybe I should just learn to play the violin instead.

Things Not to Do When the Carnival Kicks in**

6 Aug

**See stand-up comic Doug Stanhope’s profanity-laden description of the carnival below.

1. Watch that macabre shit I usually love so very very much: The Killing, Twin Peaks, American Horror Story, and trashy, increasingly unwatchable True Blood. NO horror movies or psychological thrillers–they invariably include trauma and family dysfunction, and they sometimes make me speedy.

2. Participate in social media. Don’t broadcast the crazy. Also, online exchanges can provoke me.

(Case in point: last night’s horrifying parlay with random militant antipsychiatrist on Mad in America’s site. She kept putting quotation marks around  the words “mental illness” and “schizophrenia.” I feel like antipsychiatrists are the Tea Party of the mental health community: whatever valid arguments they have are vitiated by polarized thinking, a persecution complex, and snarky insistence that anyone with a different viewpoint is “drinking Kool-Aid.”)

3. Talk to people who can drain or trigger me.

4. Make irreversible decisions about anything long-term or important.

5. Tell my husband he’d be Better Off Without Me.

6. Drink caffeine (okay, one cup in the morning unless the anxiety’s really bad).

7. Watch or read the news.

8. Forget to eat.

9. Eat poorly, as in processed food, takeout food, high fructose etc.

10. Stay up too late.

11. Wake up too late.

12.  Fall down the rabbit hole of deconstruction.

13. Allow it to win.

Protecting Your Psychic Space

15 Jul

I have a very bad habit of letting negative people into my life and tolerating their toxicity. This is not good for anyone, but it is actually dangerous for those of us with mental health issues because such people throw us off balance and sap us of emotional energy that we need to take care of ourselves. They can also be triggering as hell.

One trait PTSD and mood disorders share is sensitivity. We are finely tuned to our emotional environment. There are potential benefits to this, such as empathy and strong communication skills. But if you don’t protect your psychic space, as certain as a shark loves blood, serial victims and emotional vampires will gravitate towards your openness and vulnerability. They will prey upon your empathy. They will suck you dry. And you can’t get and keep your shit together if you allow that to happen.

I’ve culled people who triggered breakdowns, who exploited everything they knew about my past and my symptoms to hurt and control me, and who caused me moral distress by expecting me to turn a blind eye to, if not actively enable, dysfunctional and abusive behaviors. I used to think that ridding my life of such individuals would be a finite process, but like most things relating to my mental health, I am discovering that it’s ongoing and requires a fundamental shift in my perspective and MO. Removing the toxic people I know is only the first step. I must also learn to identify and protect myself from the ones I encounter. Until I do that, all of my efforts towards recovery are futile.

If you have mental illness, especially PTSD or a mood disorder, clean your house, and keep it clean. You won’t be able to achieve anything close to stability otherwise.

Here is an overview of the usual suspects who crop up in my life. It’s not an exhaustive list and the categories are by no means mutually exclusive. Speaking from my own experience, beware the following:


The Bottomless Pit of Need

I have found this is the most common variety of toxic individual, and one to whom I easily fall prey because I feel loathe to judge. I too have been in crisis more times than I care to count. I too have felt that the whole world was against me and there was nothing I could do about it. I’d venture to say that everyone who grapples with mental illness can relate to this on some level. We all need help sometimes, and if someone is working towards addressing the problem, there is nothing wrong with giving them a hand.

But Bottomless Pits of Need do not address problems. They do not desire or seek agency. Instead, they embrace and wallow in their helplessness while harvesting as many resources (e.g. emotional support, favors, money) from you as they can.

Don’t Get Fooled: Occasionally, a Bottomless Pit of Need will seem to rally and try to cast off their self-forged shackles so that they can live a life of decency and self-respect. Once in a blue moon, this effort is genuine, and if the BPoN commits to change they may redeem themselves. Nine times out of ten, however, such essays are nothing but ephemeral, illusory attempts to keep you around so they can continue sucking you dry. Should you encounter a seemingly contrite BPoN, keep your distance until you are convinced beyond the shadow of a doubt that they are truly reformed. When in doubt, shut them out.


The Drama Magnet

There are two types of Drama Magnets. The most well known type is the person who endlessly pursues and manufactures crises, catastrophes, and interpersonal strife. Writer Suzan Bond refers to these individuals as Drama Creators. Many of them have been raised in chaos and now cling to it because it is familiar. They often do it to obfuscate the overarching issues that are fueling their behavior. It is also a handy method of control because the Drama Magnet’s crisis du jour will always take precedence over whatever else is going on.

Don’t Get Fooled: There is little hope for Drama Creators. As uncharitable as it sounds, the truth is that such behavior is usually pathological and unlikely to change. These people can ruin your life in a mind-boggling multitude of ways. Eliminate them. Extricate yourself. Run for the fucking HILLS.

Bond calls the second type Drama Allowers: people who let the Drama Creators in and don’t evict them from their lives. I am currently escaping from this category. We don’t seek out or actively cause drama, but we don’t take the necessary steps to protect ourselves from it, so it follows us wherever we go. Many of us have become so used to this state of affairs that we think it is simply our lot in life. A lot of us have savior and martyr complexes.

Don’t Get Fooled: Obviously, I believe that we Drama Allowers can be rehabilitated, but only if we realize that this is a pattern over which we have control and commit to actively interrupting it and enforcing our boundaries. If the Drama Allower will not do this, cut them loose, or at the very least distance yourself so you don’t get sucked into their vortex.

For more on Drama Magnets and other musings on self-determination, check out Suzan Bond’s excellent blog Word is Bond:

http://www.suzanbond.com/blog/


“It’s Not My Fault”

This is not uncommon to people with attachment issues and personality disorders, but PLENTY of “normies” are guilty of it, too. This is someone who endlessly recreates the same problems but devises a unique set of extenuating circumstances on which to blame each one as it individually occurs. In doing so, they completely escape accountability. They never learn from their mistakes or feel any need to change their ways. Their anger and defensiveness set up a positive feedback loop, and over time they become more stubbornly entrenched in their conviction that everything and everyone else is to blame for their woes.

People exhibiting the “It’s Not My Fault” mindset have a propensity for abrasiveness, manipulation, even emotional abuse. They tend to fight endlessly with everyone around them: family, friends, significant others, and professional colleagues.  A hallmark of these interpersonal conflicts is that such people rarely, if ever, offer sincere apologies. If pressed, they say that they’re sorry you took whatever unacceptable thing they said or did the wrong way, or that you deserved whatever they did to hurt you. Should you attempt to hold them accountable for their actions, they will denounce your instincts and observations and do everything they can to put you on the defensive, a charming technique known as “gaslighting.”

Don’t Get Fooled: These folks have an ever-increasing backlog of guilt and shame from which they are constantly fleeing, and many of them would rather eviscerate you than hear anything you have to say that threatens the reality they have constructed for themselves. Do not engage. Avoid at all costs.



 

The Willful Martyr

The Willful Martyr is a close friend, family member, or romantic partner of another toxic person.  The Martyr normalizes and accepts their toxic counterpart’s behavior and, to at least some extent, expects everyone around them to do likewise. Their full-time job is caring for their toxic counterpart and “saving” them from the big bad world. They are constantly putting out fires, convoluting excuses, and compensating for their counterpart’s dreadfulness. Willful Martyrs must work very hard to maintain the cognitive dissonance necessary to do all of this. As their sense of reality erodes, they become blind to their counterpart’s destructive qualities and behaviors, and may even come to emulate them.

Identifying Willful Martyrs can be tricky because many seem like nice people. Often, their toxicity becomes apparent only when viewed in the context of their counterpart. But rest assured, anyone who seems fine on their own but is in a close relationship with a toxic person is a Willful Martyr, and must be shunned lest their counterpart’s nonsense seep into your life.

“But he seems so nice!” “She’s just a regular person!” Do not fall into this trap. Willful Martyrs are enablers, however harmless and well intentioned they might seem. Let them in and you open yourself up to the counterpart’s poisonous nature and all it engenders. Worse yet, you may become complicit in the Martyr’s enabling campaigns.

Don’t Get Fooled: Even if the Willful Martyr shuffles off their toxic counterpart, they are likely to take up with another one. A Martyr between toxic counterparts is still bad news and should be kept at arm’s length until they demonstrate that they have changed their ways.


Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have some housecleaning to do.

Subduction

22 Jun

I’m afraid to go to sleep. For the last four nights, I’ve woken with the residuals of nightmares. The moods they evoke take time to dissipate. I drink coffee and will the feelings back. Numbness rushes in to fill the space.

Then yesterday I started having flashbacks, dissociating, and hyperventilating. Nothing triggered it. I haven’t had intrusive PTSD symptoms for over two months, even with the stress I’ve been under. I was in the middle of a support group meeting. It was embarrassing.

The flashbacks receded today, but the anxiety and dissociation keep creeping up on me. I can’t drive because I intermittently float out of my body. People speak to me and I can’t focus on their words; I just stare at them and do my best to feign comprehension. I dig my nails into my arm to try to keep my mind connected to my body. I breathe diaphragmatically.

These past couple of days have reminded me not to get cocky. Never turn your back on your illness. Your mind will get the better of you if you don’t keep your eye on it.

I don’t want to backslide. I’ve made a lot of progress in the past few months. I’m determined to learn to live with this and not let it control my life. Concurrently, I know that I need to be honest with myself about my limitations. It’s a balancing act.

I don’t think I’ll ever get it fully under control. Things happened to me when I was too young to articulate them and they come to the surface sometimes. I don’t try to process them. I attempted that several years ago with a therapist, desensitization therapy. It was too much all at once. My symptoms have been much more frequent and intense since then. Because I can’t clearly recall things, and because no one can fill in the gaps, it isn’t possible to examine the memories and put them in perspective. All I get are sensations, shards of visions, and waves of confusion and fear.

I have no desire to dig into that mess, so I have to contain it. I’m hoping that it will die back down after a couple of days of TLC and sustained efforts. But it will always be straining beneath the surface. All I can do is breathe and prepare for the next time.

Amber Alert

26 Apr

I’m having a rough patch. I can look at in two ways. The first way is that I’m a mess who is never going to get her shit together and woe is me it’s so hard. The second, more constructive way, is to acknowledge that as much as I’m struggling right now, I haven’t fallen to pieces and as long as I get and keep my sleep cycle under control, I am not going to find myself giving in to the Swamps of Sadness–which for anyone who’s never seen the 1984 fantasy classic The Neverending Story, is this:







I used to cry my eyes out during that scene.

Anyhoo: I’m not doing great, but I’m still on a somewhat even keel, except I’m having the worst insomnia I’ve had in a very, very long time. Once I get that under control, I’ll be almost somewhat okay.

Unfortunately, my appetite has dwindled. Food isn’t appetizing and my stomach’s in knots. This morning, I stared at my breakfast and actually felt repulsed. I’ve never had an eating disorder but I think I may have achieved some empathy today.

I also keep clenching my jaw. Not exactly grinding my teeth, but certainly applying pressure.

But I’m up. I’m showered. I’m cleaning and cooking and doing things. I’m not having any flashbacks or thoughts about hurting myself.

I think of mood management as a ship at sea. Sometimes the waters are clear and calm. Sometimes they’re choppy. Just try to keep the damn ship upright.

So: how do we do that in this particularly stormy time?

1. SLEEP CYCLE. That needs to be addressed posthaste. To whit: limit consumption of coffee to one cup in the morning. Begin winding down for bed two hours before intended bedtime. Benedryl and sleepy time tea. I hate sleeping pills, so I work with what I’ve got. This isn’t going to be easy, but if I keep at it for a couple of days, I’m confident I can get it under control.

2. Once the insomnia is in check and I no longer wake up embarrassingly late in the day feeling like I was hit by a bus, back to exercising. Walks in Forest Park are excellent for both fitness and general peace of mind.

3. Take a hiatus from reading about and engaging in the culture wars online, and limit my news consumption to local and international current events. I’ll skim the headlines on the national stuff, but nothing more in depth than that.

4. Go back to my support group–I missed it last week because I’m embarrassed to be around people when I’m like this, but that’s the entire goddamn point of the support group, so I need to put my big girl panties on and engage.

5. Answer my phone when it rings and answer texts when they come. I let my phone die and ignored it for two days. No more of that.

6. Lots of reminders to pause, take a diaphragmatic breath, and be mindful about whatever loopiness my mind is currently producing.

7. Stop watching dark messed up shit like Hemlock Grove. If a television show, film, or piece of writing gets even slightly rape-y, immediately put it aside and cleanse the palate with lighter fare. Watch and read enjoyable things; my sweet spot is standup comedy.

8. Make myself eat light things that can get me through the day, such as bananas and yogurt. Carbs and meat are too heavy and sit in my stomach.

9. Do the dishes and laundry. Once I break through the inertia and start, it’s actually quite soothing.

We’ll start there and build on it in a few days when things are more manageable. I’m stoked.

Forward

9 Apr

I have a quote from Martin Luther King Jr. on the cover of the binder I use for all of my mental health info. It reads:

If you can’t fly, then run.

If you can’t run, then walk.

If you can’t walk, then crawl.

But whatever you do, you have to keep moving forward.

Woke up from an unpleasant dream with the image of a helpless baby seal with a broken flipper (don’t ask) stuck in my head. Began my morning ritual: coffee, news, Facebook. My instincts said: you should not go on Facebook today. I ignored my own advice and am now working to gain control over the second panic attack of the day.

I have family issues and the very first post on my feed was a picture directly reminding me of them; people I dearly love but have had to remove from my life because they were detrimental to my mental equilibrium. Like a shot in the solar plexus: oof. My heart rate ramped up almost immediately. I breathed diaphragmatically to try and slow it down. Having just consumed a cup of coffee didn’t help.

Normally, my response when this sort of thing happens in the morning is to surrender and hide for the duration of the day. But today I thought of that quote. I remembered the excellent discussion in yesterday’s support group about how working towards your own recovery shows others that it can be done, and how managing your illness fights stigma.

I continued breathing diaphragmatically and turned to the mountain of laundry dominating my bedroom. I tackled the laundry, then the dishes. Doing something tactile and repetitive that doesn’t involve higher order thinking can be very soothing. Some people knit to calm down, others bead jewelry.

The panic began to recede. Encouraged, I turned to other things that needed cleaning (there are usually many) and occupied myself for several hours. My anxiety abated.

Then I logged onto Facebook again and immediately confronted a post from a friend about gun control in which he referred to the Sandy Hook shooter as a “drooling loony” and said that a few crazies make life interesting, like an ugly sweater in your wardrobe, but that there are a lot of psychos out there.

I don’t think he meant any harm by it. Many people without mental illness are unfamiliar with the issue of stigma, and disparagement and fear of the mentally ill are ingrained in our culture. The “psycho killer” trope is omnipresent in films, music, and literature. Even our vocabulary reinforces it. The word “crazy” has overlapping meanings–it can mean mental illness,  someone who is unpredictable and volatile, or someone or something that flies in the face of logic. Like everyone, I use it to describe the latter all the time. There’s no getting away from that word or separating its multiple meanings. This is a slippery issue.

But we react emotionally before we react intellectually. Once again, my heart started beating that familiar tattoo within my chest. More breathing. I already had momentum, and that made it easier to keep going.

I thought writing about it would help. It does. Later, I’ll hit the gym, and that will help more. I’m taking a week-long break from social media to better concentrate on all of the things that need doing, and there are many because I’ve always shut down when the world bitch-slaps me into an anxious depression. However incremental my progress, I must keep moving forward.

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