Monday, August 27, 2007

The power of perspective (Part 2)

For me, the primary trigger of both my depressions and my hypomanias is relationships. Whether it's a romantic relationship, family interaction, or relationships with co-workers, bosses or clients, relationships (or perhaps more accurately, my perception of those relationships) have brought great joy and tremendous pain.

When I reflect on my various "relational challenges" with honest eyes, I can see that though faces, places, circumstances and outcomes may have been vastly different, there was one common thread existing throughout - me. No matter where I went, or with whom, I was always there. Yes, I grew older, and in some ways wiser, but fundamentally, each situation was merely a variation on the same old and painful theme.

There are some who believe that God (or "the Universe" as some prefer) gives us the same lessons over and over again until we finally learn them. It's taken me far too long, and the costs have been great, but I think I've finally gotten it. With few exceptions (murder, incest, rape and other heinous crimes), events are not "good" or "bad". They just are. It's the way we perceive them that determines how they effect us and how we react in response. This may appear to be a trivial exercise in semantics, but it's far from that. It's HUGE! Why? Because we can't always change the circumstances we find ourselves in, we can't always predict or alter the way people treat us, but we CAN change how we chose to perceive those events. And therein lies the key!

I'm big on lists, so I can sum up the key points of my new outlook on relationships (of all types) as follows:

  1. It's not always about me. Despite what I may want to think, everything is not about me. I do not have a monopoly on "issues". Just because someone is upset about something, even if I'm involved, it's not necessarily my issue. I'm finally learning to discern those issues which are mine and those that aren't. And as a result, I've been pleasantly surprised to discover that the less time and energy I waste on internalizing and trying to resolve someone else's issues, the more time and energy I have to devote to my own. I need to pick my battles. I used to respond to every issue, every insult, every slight, with equal indignation. Not only is this useless, but it's exhausting and totally counter-productive. Some issues, and some people, simply are not worth it. Period.

  2. The devil is in the details. I used to spend countless hours ruminating over all of the miniscule details of all of the mistakes I've made. I'd go over them in my mind again, and again, and again. While I succeeded in making myself feel miserable, all my efforts did nothing to change the past, not even a little bit. Finally I realized that what's done is done and that what's important is not what happened, but what I learned from it. When I changed my persective on this, those "mistakes' lost their emotional chokehold and I'd even dare say that I now see even the really bad things as valuable learning experiences. The worse the tragedy I survived, the greater my resolve that I'm a survivor and that my life has purpose. After all, who better to help people who are hurting that someone who has been hurt?

  3. Is it really "true"? This is a BIG one. One of the symptoms of being bipolar, at least for me, is that I sometimes perceive events through lenses distorted by my emotions. When I'm feeling depressed, the glass is more than half-empty, it's drained dry. When I'm feeling up, my glass runneth over. In the midst of the moment, my thought processes and my interpretation of the events at hand seem totally logical, but often in retrospect, I realize that the situation is rarely as bleak, or as rosy, as it appeared. Armed with this new-found knowledge, I've learned to rely on the advice of a few close friends whom I trust to be able to provide a clearer (or at least a different) perspective when I'm at risk of misinterpreting what's going on in my life. I've also learned to force myself to broaden my own perspective by asking myself some tough questions about the situation. Is what I'm thinking really true? If I believe that it is, how do I know that? More often than not, it's virtually impossible to know if the way we perceive a persons' feelings or their intentions are "true". So, if I can't be sure that what I'm reacting to is the truth, then perhaps it's not worth getting so upset about it. So, if I can't be sure that the perceived slight that I'm reacting to is "true", then there must be at least one other possible interpretation. What other possibilities could there be? I'm finding that even though I may not know what the ultimate correct answer to this emotional multiple choice question is, the fact that I can train myself to see more than one possible motivation makes mu much less like to get so bent out of shape about one, and that it turn makes life so much easier for me.

  4. Sometimes it's better to be happy than right. I'm not always right, but I am a lot of the time (smile). In high school I was on the debate team and I loved it. Perhaps it's a latent desire to be a kick-ass attorney. I don't know. All I know is that I used to love being right, and believe me, I made sure everybody knew it. But as time goes by, I'm learning that being right isn't as important to me as it once was. Don't get me wrong, there are certain issues of integrity for which I won't budge. There are lines that I won't cross. But when it comes to the day-to-day stuff, I've decided that a lot of it really doesn't matter. The bottom line is that for the most part, I'd rather be happy than right. So if that means keeping my mouth shut sometimes, even when I know I'm right and can prove it, and I avoid an argument, a debate, or an unnecessary confrontation, that's not such a bad thing.

Perhaps I would have eventually figured out these lessons and all the others I'm learning had I not been diagnosed with BP. To be honest, I'm not even sure that the diagnosis is completely accurate. While I do have many of the symptoms, I am clearly atypical, both in terms of my symptoms and my responses to the medications. Just as with insomnia, systemic lupus, fibromyalgia, sleep apnea, and all of the other things I've been diagnosed and misdiagnosed with in my life, I never seem to fit neatly into any diagnostic box. I've reached the conclusion that I'm never going to get a neat and tidy diagnosis for whatever it is that ails me, but I'm not sure that it matters so much anymore. What matters is the lessons that I'm learning in trying to make the most of the hand I've been dealt

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

The power of perspective (Part 1)

It's been nearly 6 months since I was officially diagnosed with atypical bipolar II (predominantly depressive episodes with mild to moderate hypomanias), although I'm convinced that I've lived with the condition for at least 20 years. I never thought I'd hear myself say that finally obtaining a diagnosis was a blessing. A relief, yes, but a blessing? No way!

Please don't misunderstand. I'm not happy about being bipolar, I can't imagine that anyone would be. It's a complicated, confusing, frustrating and sometimes indescribably painful state of being. But, despite what I was led to believe in the early days of my diagnosis, it's not a death sentence, my life isn't over. In fact, in many ways - perhaps in all the ways that really count - the diagnosis has given me a new life, and a better one.

I find it very curious that over the course of 20 years, despite examinations by dozens of specialists, thousands of dollars worth of medical tests, and countless pounds of pills that at best did nothing and at their worst made me much sicker, no one was able to accurately diagnose the cause of my countless medical issues. I also found it curious that years of therapy with several different therapists never scratched the surface of the root causes of my emotional pain.

The diagnosis was the last missing piece of the puzzle of introspection and self-analysis that I've been working hard at for the past few years. At some point I decided to take control of my life and do what no therapist had been able to do for me - namely identify the root causes of the self-sabatoging behaviors that were causing so much pain in my life and figure out how to turn things around. Although I made a lot of progress, it wasn't until the diagnosis of bipolar disorder that all of the puzzle pieces began to fall into place. The more I learned about the disorder, the more I saw how it's symptoms had manifested in my life. The more I understood what had been going wrong, the more I began to understand what I needed to do to make it right.

(To be continued...)

Thursday, August 9, 2007

The barn door is open

Yesterday I was verbally accosted by a co-worker. Because I stood at her desk (in front of her chair) to leave her a note that I'd stopped by when she was out, she accused me of sneaking up on her, trying to look at her computer to see what she was doing, and violating "her space." Ironically, our boss (the owner of the company that we work for) trusts me with a corporate credit card, I have the credit card account numbers of approximately 50 of my clients and pay for things that are charged to their accounts on a regular basis, and I collect and deposit substantial sums of cash for my employer. So, while my boss and my clients trust me with their funds and their personal property and confidential information, a co-worker doesn't trust me to stand at her desk.

After getting over the initial shock, I took several deep breaths, drafted an e-mail reply to her, took several more deep breaths, and then sent her an e-mail. I told her that I was stunned and offended by her behavior and that I couldn't imagine what would cause her to accuse me of spying on her, and for what purpose? I told her that short of a life-threatening emergency, I would not set foot in her building (much less her "personal space") ever again. All I need is for some cash or her purse to come up missing, and have her blame me for it.

I then proceeded to tell her that since she obviously had concerns about my trustworthiness and my integrity (two values that are extremely important to me), that she, our boss and I should schedule a meeting to discuss her concerns. Almost immediately she responded with a brief e-mail simply saying that she saw no need for a meeting, she was simply letting me know "how she felt."

I spoke with our boss later, who assured me that she had absolutely no concerns about me or my work, and re-iterated that my clients all "love me". She agreed that the 3 of us needed to meet so that we could identify the underlying issues and resolve this matter so we could move forward. She was going to set the meeting up for 2:00. I didn't hear another word until a few minutes before 5, when my boss informed me that the other party had decided that there was no need for a meeting.

Is it me or is something terribly wrong here? I've been insulted by a co-worker, I've gone through the proper channels by informing our boss and requesting a meeting, and because the person who started this doesn't have the courage to discuss it with me in front of our boss, then that's the end of it? Am I supposed to pretend the incident never happened and go back to business as usual? Isn't that sort of like trying to close the barn door after the horse has already run off?

I've decided that it's pointless to be angry at my co-worker. Since no one else seems to have a problem with me, and their stakes are much higher, it's clear that the problem is hers, not mine. The only thing for me to do is make sure that I have as little contact with her as possible. I refuse to knowingly put myself in a situation to be insulted again. But now I'm struggling with how I should feel/respond towards my boss. By doing nothing, I believe that she is condoning this type of behavior as acceptable, when clearly it is not. Under the circumstances, and knowing the party involved, I did not expect an apology, but I think I deserve an explanation. I think I'm owed at least some semblence of closure.

So far, I've resisted the temptation to say or do anything rash. This is not worth quitting over (although the thought did cross my mind for a minute), but I've been warned. Now that this barn door has been opened, it's not going to close any time soon.

Friday, August 3, 2007

The art of gifting

When it comes to giving gifts, we've become spoiled. Actually, we've become lazy. How often do we wait until the last minute to purchase birthday, anniversary or even Christmas gifts, only to rush out and get a gift card? How often do the gifts we give depend on what's on sale or what happens to be featured in a special store display or in the latest catalog or web page? I'll be the first to admit that it can be extremely difficult to give a gift to someone that we don't know well. But what's our excuse when it comes to family members and/or close friends? My guess is that we opt for the easy way out when it comes to gift giving simply because it's easy. We simply don't want to take the time or go to the trouble of thinking hard enough and long enough about that special person to pick a gift that is truly special.

Another excuse that I often hear, and that I've used myself, is that it's too expensive. Somewhere along the way we've been duped into believing that a good gift is an expensive gift. Of course money can buy some really cool stuff, but in my opinion, that's not what "gift-giving" is about.

One of the most heartwarmingly beautiful wedding bands I've ever seen is one that was made by a soldier for his wife out of a silver nickel. Although I can't imagine how painstaking the task must have been, he described the process of hitting the nickel with a spoon over and over again to shape it into a band. That's how he spent long lonely days onboard a Navy ship while separated from his girlfriend. He was probably in his 70's when he showed me the ring. He'd given it to her when they were in their 20's.

I love to knit. When I was married, my husband made a pair of knitting needles for me out of wooden dowels. He carved, shaped and sanded them by hand. He stained them and then added jade caps on the ends. We are no longer together, and I've donated or re-gifted many of the expensive things he gave me. But those simple knitting needles, that he made with love (when he still loved me) I chose to keep.

I think Ralph Waldo Emerson got it right in an essay entitled "Gifts" in 1844.

"The only gift is a portion of thyself... Therefore the poet brings his poem; the shepherd, his lamb; the farmer, corn; the miner, a gem; the sailor, coral and shells; the painter, his picture; the girl, a handkerchief of her own sewing. This is right and pleasing, for it restores society in so far to the primary basis, when a man's biography is conveyed in his gift... But it is a cold, lifeless business when you go to the shops to buy me something, which does not represent your life and talent, but a goldsmith's."

My dear friend Susan must understand what Mr. Emerson was talking about, because today she sent me a gift that I will cherish for the rest of my life. Those of you who read her blog, Bipolar Wellness Writer know that she is a talented, thoughtful and sensitive blogger. You may also know that she's an accomplished and successful writer, having published and sold many books. She's written before about how she loves to write long-hand and has written about the tools of her trade. She knows that I love to write too and has been very supportive of my writing goals.

Well, today I received the most beautiful pen I've ever seen. It's a Levenger pen, which is awesome, and the fact that it's orange, which is one of my favorite colors, makes it even nicer. But the best thing of all is not that Susan went out and bought me an expensive ink pen, because she didn't. What's incredible to me is that this is one of Susan's favorite pens, one that she's written thousands of words with. It has been a part of her world for a long time... and she gave it to me. Somehow she knew that I'd understand the significance, the eloquence and the "perfectness" of her gift.

Susan and I met through our blogs in early spring. We post on each other's blogs and e-mail privately off-line almost daily and we've talked on the phone two or three times. Yet for some unexplicable reason, although our friendship is new and we live on opposite sides of the country, I feel like we've known each other forever. And now, I have a very special piece of her world here in mine and I am truly touched. Today I want to publicly thank Susan for her thoughtfulness and I thank God for Susan's friendship.