Saturday, September 29, 2007

"I" is for introvert

For the last few days I've been exploring the subject of Meyer-Briggs character and temperament types. I first learned of them in the early 90's when my entire department was tested during an off-site work retreat. The goal was to foster a better understanding of not only our own temperament, but that of our co-workers as well. I won't go into details about the theory or the various types here, but there is a ton of information on-line. If you're interested, you can google "Meyers-Briggs" or "MBTI". It really is fascinating stuff.

I am an "INFJ", which in Meyers-Briggs-speak is Introverted INtuitive Feeling Judging. I love consistency, and my temperament has remained consistent over the 15 or so years since I first took the test. What's interesting though is that over the course of those years, I've taken the test several times and each time, these particular characteristics have grown stronger. For example, when I first tested, I scored only 51% on the introverted scale. Now my score on introversion is 78%!

Contrary to popular opinion, in the world of MBTI, introversion and extroversion have little to do with whether you talk a lot or are the life of the party. To some extent, it has to with how people process information - extraverts tend to "think out loud", while introverts tend to process information internally. It also has a lot to do with how you relate to people on an "energetic" level. One MBTI coach explained it to me by saying that when their emotional batteries need recharging, extroverts need to be around other people. Conversely, introverts' emotional batteries are more likely to be drained by prolonged interaction with people, and when they need recharging, they typically need time alone.

For as long as I can remember, I've always felt "different", somewhat out-of-place. If I believed in reincarnation, I'd presume that I'd lived a wonderful life in another space in time and that I felt more comfortable there than I do here. When I was assaulted and dealt with the aftermath of PTSD for years, I thought that explained it. Then, when I was diagnosed as bipolar, I knew that had to be the explanation. Except that even among the bipolar community, I'm quite different from most of the people I've met or read through their blogs.

But when I started reading about INFJs again over the past few days, time and time again I found myself saying "Yes! That's me!" Being an INFJ isn't necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, no more so than being a Pisces or a Virgo, but finally I see who I am - how I think and feel, in a "quantifiable" way. It's sort of like when you know you're not well, but you can't quite figure out what's wrong. There is something liberating about getting a diagnosis. Suddenly all of those seemingly unrelated symptoms begin to tie together and things start to make sense. That's how I feel about my MBTI temperment. I shouldn't have been surprised to learn that mine is the rarest of the 16 temperments, representing only about 1% of the population. Even that is comforting because it explains the isolation and sense of "differentness" that I often feel but could never quite articulate.

It was also validating for me to learn that INFJ's are usually extremely intuitive (I scored 75%). One INFJ profile noted the following: INFJs have uncanny insight into people and situations. They get "feelings" about things and intuitively understand them...This is the sort of thing that other types may scorn and scoff at, and the INFJ themself does not really understand their intuition at a level which can be verbalized. Consequently, most INFJ's are protective of their inner selves, sharing only what they choose to share when they choose to share it.". If you've been reading my recent posts, you know how timely that message is for me.

Quite a while back, Marja from Roller Coaster asked me to share more information about myself. I haven't done that yet, I'm not sure why, but I never forgot that she'd asked. Then there was another blogger who shall remain nameless who e-mailed me off-line shortly after I started this blog. After several e-mails, I mentioned that I was an African-American woman. We laughed until we cried when she admitted that when she'd first started reading my blog, she thought I was a white male - an incredibly sensitive one at that! So, now that I've read several different profiles on INFJ and have really had a chance to focus on "who" I am (as opposed to what I've done), I think I'm ready to share more of myself. If you're interested in learning more about me, I'll be posting to my About Me page soon.

Friday, September 28, 2007

A poem


that's how i felt
when you turned off
the lights and
pulled the plug
on us.

no explanation.
no apologies.
no anything.
darkness falls.

shadows crept.
endless whispers.
thoughts went "bump"
in the darkness
of my heart.

an endless parade
of emotions.
each searching
for answers.
none finding

eyes slowly adjust
to darkness,
where once
there was light.

when the heart
no longer sees,
the mind's eye
learns braille.

clarity comes.
needs lose their
passions fade.
darkness isn't so dark
after all.

who's disconnected now?

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Growing a spine

I heard or read somewhere a long time ago that depression is anger turned inside. If that's true, then I've been a pretty angry woman for much of my life. I don't think I ever really learned how to express my anger in healthy ways, so it usually festered inside until it either went away or I exploded.

I don't know what made today different, but it was. I was treated rudely - AGAIN - by a co-worker who apparently doesn't consider me one of her favorite people. I can't blame my reaction on being bipolar because I felt perfectly fine before the run-in and after my cool-down time-out. I can't blame it on PMS because thank God I've had a hysterectomy. Maybe it was today's peculiar alignment of the sun, moon and stars, I don't know. All I know is that instead of directing my anger inside, I directed it where it needed to be.

I'm not a wrestling fan, but it was reminiscent of a WWE Smackdown, if I may say so myself. I was professional, measured and focused, but there was no doubt that I was righteously indignant. I didn't raise my voice, I didn't utter a single foul word, and I even resisted the powerful urge to jump over the woman's desk and give her an old-fashioned beat-down!

By the drumbeat of my heart as I made my dramatic exit from her building, I'd say that I got my aerobic exercise for the week and a quick glance in the mirror afterwards confirmed a pleasant rosy glow on my cheeks. I thought I'd be steaming over this all day, but I'm not. It's done. I've said what I needed to say. I made the point abundantly clear that I WILL NOT tolerate this kind of disrespect from her one moment longer and from this point forward, when she pushes me, I will push back. I can let it go now.

I can't say that I won't have another run-in with this person because I'm pretty sure I will. I don't necessarily expect her to change just because of this experience. But I can tell you that I've certainly changed because of it. Not only was standing up for myself not nearly as "awful" or as difficult as I thought it would be, but it actually felt great! My only question is why did it take me so long to realize that it's OK - not only OK, but healthy - to express my feelings, even the unpleasant ones? The key, of course, is choosing the battles and making sure that the defense is appropriate to the offense, and in this case it was.

So, after all these years of quietly seething in silence, I'm finally growing a spine.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Excellent advice for breaking up

Breaking up sucks. There's no nice way to say it. Whether you're the breaker or the breakee, breaking up is hard and it usually hurts like hell. But my guess is that what makes most break-ups so painful is not the dissolution of the partnership as much as the way it's handled. I'm not sure why, but it seems that leaving gracefully, showing at least a semblence of courtesy, dignity, respect and concern for the other party is something that people seem to really have trouble with. Perhaps it's fear, or apathy, or pride, or embarassment that causes previously thoughtful and loving people to become apathetic, inconsiderate, unkind, or perhaps worst of all - to disappear without a trace.

I was talking to a friend last night who is known for giving great dating advice. I think she outdid herself this time though. We were talking about the difficulty that people have breaking up, and she said that she's figured out how to make it painstakingly simple for a guy who's not interested in seeing her any more to let her know. She said that she'd picked a "break-up song" and when she's dated a guy long enough to care if the relationship ends, she gives him a copy of the song and tells him that if he decides he doesn't want to see her anymore, and can't bring himself to tell her, then call her and play the song and she'll "get it."

I know, it sounds rather sophomoric, but it never ceases to amaze me how people end up breaking up. In an ideal world, when a relationship is no longer working, the party who wants to leave would chose a quiet, private place and tell the other person how much they cherished the good times they spent together, thank them for all they've given to the relationship, and explain the reasons why the relationship is no longer working. Even if it has to do with the other person, there's got to be a kind way to point out the problems while at the same time preserving that person's dignity. And for God's sake, if it's not because of the other person, say that too. There's nothing more cowardly than letting another person believe they are responsible for unresolved issues that are yours, not theirs. Oh wait... there is one thing more cowardly than that... not saying anything at all. When it comes to breaking up, no news is definitely not good news. If you cared enough for a person to become involved in a relationship with them, then no matter what went wrong, you should care enough about them to end it in an honest and decent way.

Sadly, this is not an ideal world and as long as people (and in my case, men) have such a hard time breaking up gracefully, I'm going to make it easy. The next time (if there is a next time) that I date a man, if he can't give it to me straight, I'm going to give it to him easy. I'm going to burn a CD of my break up song for him. When he's ready to bolt, all I ask is that he pick up the phone, dial my number, put the phone down near the speaker and play my song. Trust me, I'll get the message. Now, it can't get any easier than that!

How did we ever survive without Google? Pick your favorite break-up song here.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Outsmarting depression (Part 2)

I can't recall a single time that I was feeling fine and all of a sudden, with no warning, I hit a wall and was suddenly depressed. Instead, something happens - usually something big, something that elicits a huge emotional response. After the initial shock wears off, I feel as if the emotional life has been sucked out of me. For a brief period, there is nothingness. Then I start to think about what happened, replay it over and over in my mind, ruminate on it. This is the time when the harmful emotions that I equate with depression tend to creep in. I feel alternating waves of anger, sadness, bitterness, grief, loss, isolation, sadness, pessimism, hopelessness, the list goes on. The more I ruminate, the worse I feel.

The odd thing is that until recently, I thought that this was all a natural part of depression, and that I had no control over how I'd feel or for how long, which as you can imagine, only leads to more feelings of hopelessness and despair. But now I've begun to seriously question the assumption that there's absolutely nothing I can do to stop the downward spiral that causes me so much pain.

The last few times I've felt a depressive episode looming, I've noticed the point at which I start to feel the life being sucked out. I know this is a woefully inept way of explaining it, but hopefully it makes sense. Intellectually I decided that if I could just fill that empty space with positive, productive feelings, there wouldn't be as much room for the negative feelings to grab hold and multiply like a virus.

While I know this may sound painstakingly simplistic, it's not. When I'm depressed, even a little bit, my thinking becomes cloudy and on some days I probably couldn't think my way out of a paper bag. Knowing that, I recognize that choosing to replace my negative feelings with more positive ones would require a lot more than "thinking my way out of being depressed," which unfortunately, all too many people who've never been depressed seem to suggest I do. So, how did I do it? I'm so glad you asked.

Years ago, when I managed a small research unit in a Fortune 100 company, I decided that my team needed to institute something we called "Joy Breaks". On a frequent basis, particularly when we were stressed, overworked and up against a major deadline, we'd take a break - sometimes 15 minutes, sometimes a bit longer, just to do something fun to take our mind off of work for a while. Inevitably, we came back to work energized, with a renewed focus on the tasks at hand. But we learned early on that the key to making this work, particularly when the Joy Breaks were short, was to know ahead of time what kinds of things actually worked. There was nothing worse than spending the entire break time trying to figure out what you were going to do on your break!

Our individual and collective lists grew over time, and obviously there was variation among the group, but even taking the time to create our lists of Joy Breaks was a Joy Break in itself. Whether it was munching on microwave popcorn, going out for a quick ice cream cone, walking around the block on a sunny day, knitting for a few minutes or sharing funny stories about our weekend adventures, it was amazing what the Joy Breaks did for us, both individually and as a team.

So, I decided to apply the same approach to dealing with my depression. I recognized that the ony thing that would get rid of a negative feeling was to replace it with a positive one. I also realized that was nearly impossible to do if the negative feelings were allowed to take hold. So just as with Joy Breaks, I started thinking of things that make me happy, or at least calm and relaxed, when I wasn't depressed, so that when I start to feel bad, even if I can't THINK myself into feeling better, I can DO something that will make me FEEL better.

I'm sure such a list would vary wildly from one person to the next, and it should. My list is still growing, but here are some of the things that work for me:

  • listening to music that I love (I'm working on burning some mood-busting CDs of my favorite songs)

  • playing the piano (my Mom says that when I was a child, she could always tell when I was stressed, because I'd continue to play the piano long after my hour-a-day practice session was over) - I even bought new sheet music this week and had my piano tuned!

  • looking at photographs (some of my own as well as others) - there are some amazing digital photo galleries and blogs online

  • taking pictures with my digital camera

  • aromatherapy (candles, diffusers, essential oils, bubble bath/shower gels)

  • watching great movies, sometimes a comedy works and believe it or not, sometimes a really good tear-jerker does the trick

  • going to a favorite place (the beach, the river, the park, an art gallery)

  • long, hot bubble baths by candlelight with a glass of wine (or two)

  • blogging (the act of writing my way through my feelings is incredibly therapeutic for me)

In reviewing my list, I had to smile at an obvious irony. While I could blame my depressive bipolar tendencies for creating the circumstance that makes this list necessary, I can also celebrate my creative bipolar tendencies that make this list work for me.

It's really hard for me to stay depressed when I'm doing the things on my list. When one doesn't work, I try another, and another, until I find those that work at that particular time. And, unlike most of the meds I've tried, when I do the things on my list, there are no distasteful or worrisome side effects! (No, I am NOT suggesting that you stop taking your meds if you're taking any!)

So, why not create a list that works for you? Then, the next time you start to hear that loud sucking sound, give your list a try. It certainly can't hurt you, and it just might even help! If so, I'd love to hear about it.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Outsmarting depression (Part 1)

I'm working on a theory about bipolar and depression disorders. The traditional view seems to be that emotions are a symptom, or a by-product, of the disorders. However, for me, emotions seem to be at the crux of the matter, not the other way around.

Unlike many people with bipolar or depression who have episodes that are tripped by an often unknown switch, at any time, I can trace every serious depressive and hypomanic episode to a specific situation that was occurring at the time. In every instance, these "triggers" resulted in a rush of emotions, feelings that would normally be expected given the situation. The emotions in and of themselves were not the problem and in fact, would probably have represented a healthy response to the circumstance at the time. However, it was the overabundance of emotions which, when unfiltered and unchecked, led to an episode.

Could it be that the biochemical processes that cause bipolar disorder and depression disorders involve a massive overdose of emotion and/or that they significantly reduce or retard our mind's natural abilities to regulate sensory perception of these emotions?

I am not dismissing the existence of a biochemical process at the heart of bipolar/depression. I think certain people are born with a predisposition to developing these disorders and when this predisposition is coupled with some sort of emotional and/or physical trauma, it's no wonder that the smoldering cauldron of feelings eventually overflows. I think the process is similar to that of people who are predisposed to, and eventually manifest, cancer, diabetes or heart disease.

What I am saying is that maybe, just maybe, if we accept the possibility that our emotions, our feelings, are critical to the equation... and if we can accept at least partial responsibility for our emotions (even if we don't feel we can control the intensity with which we feel them), then perhaps we can fight some of the negative aspects of these disorders and minimize the disruption they cause in our lives.

When I'm depressed, I feel like the life has been sucked out of me. My energy, my ability to perceive happiness or pleasure, and even the vividness with which I can see colors changes. An emotional vacuum is created, and because nature abhors a vacuum, emotions must come from somewhere to fill the void.

In the past, logic, reason, intuition and my sense of spiritual connection have automatically been replaced by hopelessness, pessimism, apathy, anger, self-blame and self-pity. I don't consciously choose to feel these things - it's as if they are my "default" feelings when depression sets in.

So, finally recognizing this pattern of dark thoughts filling the vacuum, I began to wonder what would happen if I made a conscious choice to fill the void with other, more positive and productive feelings. Could I change the predictable course of my depression by taking my mind off of emotional cruise-control and taking control of the wheel, the accelerator and the brakes?

I've been writing lately about the process of reflection I'm going through as I deal with a very difficult personal situation - one that in times past would have sent me flying head-first into the deep, dark abyss of depression. But this time it hasn't. Does it still hurt? Yes. Is it hard fighting the depression? Affirmative. But the important this is that I am fighting it and so far, I'm winning.

Next up, I'll share what I'm doing. If there are others who'd be willing to try a similar approach, I'd love to know if you find it helpful, it certainly can't hurt.

(to be continued...)

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Cry me a river

Faith may be a verb, but it's no picnic. In fact, some days it downright hard. Today is one of those days. Some days, even when we believe in our hearts that we're on the right path, it still hurts like hell to stay there. On days like today I understand why it's so easy to slip back into old, unhealthy patterns and make the same poor choices that we made in the past... because they're easier. They're familiar. Right or wrong, good or bad, they've become part of our comfort zone. And whether we want to face it or not, sometimes it's less scary to face the known, even if we don't necessarily like it, than to step out on faith into unchartered territory.

As I wrote in yesterday's post, I've chosen a path, and until I'm led to do something different, I'm committed to staying the course. Admittedly, though I've been praying for incontrovertible proof that I'm on the right track, I haven't received it yet. The only thing I can say is that as long as I focus on the path I've chosen - the process, not the outcome - I feel a subtle sense of peace. But the minute I start thinking about what others would advise me to do in this situation, or about how weak or stupid they would think I am if they knew, I start to feel anxious and confused.

Today I've come to terms with the reality that the path I've chosen is not going to be easy, and the outcome is completely unknown, but the journey is part of my life lesson. The act of taking responsibility for my decision does not mean that I must ignore the emotional realities that come with it. This situation hurts. I'm confused and I'm sad. And I will be until I'm not anymore. So, I've decided today that I'm going to face my pain, embrace it, let it take it's course and hopefully, over time, it will lessen, or at least become more manageable.

This morning I cried. I don't mean that I shed a tear or two. I mean I cried, like a baby. There I said it! I cried. And afterwards, I felt better. I felt lighter, as if a load had been lifted. And I guess, in a way, it had. Studies have been conducted that seem to affirm the notion that the act of crying can be cathartic. Many people say that they feel better after having a good cry. I know I do. So why is society so hard on those of us who cry to release our pain, sadness and anger. If crying is healing, why is crying considered a weakness and why aren't more people doing it?

For those of us living with bipolar or depression issues, I think this question of to cry or not to cry is an important one. I think it's safe to say that many of us experience intense emotions to a much greater degree than the general population, so I think it's also safe to say that both the need and/or desire to cry is probably more frequent and intense for us as well. Of course, there are times when it's probably not appropriate to start bawling uncontrollably (like at work, or a first date (more on this later), or in the check-out line at Wal-Mart). But if we experience a greater than "normal" need to cry, but don't because we're afraid or ashamed to, where do those tears go?

Biochemist William Frey has spent 15 years as head of a research team studying tears. One amazing discovery of his team's research is that crying may actually help a person to deal with emotional problems. "Scientific studies have found that after crying, people actually do feel better, both physically and physiologically—and they feel worse by suppressing their tears. Dr. Frey's research compared tears caused by irritants such as onions with tears caused by emotion and concluded that crying is "an excretory process which removes toxic substances that normally build up during emotional stress." Conversely, the researchers also found that "suprressing tears increases stress levels, and contributes to diseases aggravated by stress, such as high blood pressure, heart problems and peptic ulcers." To read more about Dr. Frey's research, click here.

In a very interesting article entitled The Healing Power of Tears, Paula Becker writes that

Our tears of sadness or hurt reflect the fears and scars that we spend a lifetime hiding. They are visible evidence of our vulnerability to life. Tears have been equated with weakness because they reveal the soft spots of our soul, and can make us feel unprotected. Deciding whether to stay strong and hold it all together, or let go and show our tears without restraint is not the question...What is most important is that we find a way to honor the truth of our feelings and listen to the call of our heart. We are learning through science what we may have known in our bones for centuries. Tears are a way to mend the pain and suffering of life. Tears of joy and sorrow, tears of awe and pride can make life richer, giving us a natural expression of the pool of emotions that flows through our being.

I've decided to dedicate this weekend to honoring the "call of my heart." I'm gonna cry until I can't cry any more. And then I'm going to watch one of the great tear-jerker movies, My Life, starring Michael Keeton and Nicole Kidman, and I'm gonna cry some more. I made the mistake of choosing this movie as a first date out with a guy whose name I can't recall. I cried so uncontrollably through the entire movie that I thought we were going to be thrown out of the theater. Poor guy, I can only imagine what he thought of me, but I never found out because I was so embarrassed by my crying that I never saw him again.

I'm off now to get ice cream and tissues before hunkering down with my favorite "blankie" for my marathon weepfest. Funny thing is that I'm feeling a little better already!

Friday, September 14, 2007

Faith is a verb

While I exhibit many of the symptoms of bipolar disorder, I'm not sure if I meet the technical criteria for the diagnosis. I share the moniker of being called "medical mystery" with my mother. We both have a history of being routinely misdiagnosed. Whether it's having some, but not all of the key symptoms, or responding to medications in the exact opposite ways that doctors would expect based on the diagnosis, Mom and I both share the frustration of never being really sure what's going on with our bodies, or how exactly to fix them.

But when it comes to sharing many of the characteristics of bipolar disorder, whether I tecnically have "it" or not, I've chosen not to consider that a death sentence. Of course, there are days that it may feel like it, but there are many days when I appreciate the heightened sensitivity, empathy, creativity and energy that are the brighter colors in the bipolar palette.

I've chosen to broaden my personal definition of "bipolar". For me, having a bipolar component to my personality/biochemistry means more than merely the existence of varying emotions spanning much of the length of the emotional spectrum. It also reflects what I believe to be a rather unique ability that I believe I share with many others who have been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, namely, the ability to view situations, objects, people and circumstances from multiple, and often opposing, points of view.

To me, it's no surprise that a significant percentage of people who are considered creative and/or artistic have also been diagnosed with bipoloar disorder. After all, what is creativity other than the ability to perceive and articulate everyday things in ways that are different from the ways that most people perceive them? The most successful writers are those that can describe a scene or a feeling that we've experienced, but in ways more eloquent than we ever could. Great artists and photographers similarly take every day images that we may have seen a thousand times, and capture just the right play of light or shadow, or touches of color, that transform the mundane into the spectacular.

I believe that many with a bipolar-type worldview are blessed, and maybe sometimes cursed, with the ability to perceive the same situation in entirely different ways. Sometimes, particularly before we are diagnosed, I believe that many of us bring to a situation the perspective that most closely mirrors our mood at the time. If we are depressed, the proverbial glass is nearly empty. If we are hypomanic, the glass is more than half full. And if we are manic, I'd imagine that the glass is overflowing.

But as we become more educated about bipolar disorder, depression and the ways in which they distort our perceptions, hopefully we are also learning how to compensate and course-correct our thinking and our responses in light of, and in spite of, how we're feeling at the time. For me, part of this process involves making a conscious effort to evaluate situations, particularly difficult ones, within the context of my spiritual faith. My "feelings" may change, from one point in time to the next, but when I take the time to think clearly about it, and more importantly to pray about it, the spiritual view of that situation remains constant.

When faced with a difficult choice, my brain defaults to trying to logically assess all of the options and develop a statistically robust cost-benefit analysis of each. Since of course I'm never privy to all of the information needed to make the "correct" choice with 100% accuracy and confidence, this process of trying to reason my way into the right decision is exhausting, in more ways than one. But, when I consciously choose to force my rational mind to take a back seat to my heart, the energy of the situation changes. Now, by "heart", I don't mean the emotional and hopelessly romantic part of me. I mean the spiritual, "ultimate truth" part of me - the part of me that desires to live a life that is consistent with my spiritual values and beliefs. When my spiritual heart takes over, something amazing happens, the choice becomes clear and although it's not always the easier choice, I know in my gut that it's the "right" choice, at least for me, at that time in my life.

Getting to this point hasn't been easy though. Because the "right" choice can't be judged by what I think is "right" for me, today, in this moment, given my severely limited view of the ultimate plan and purpose for my life. The right choice has to be viewed from the perspective of God's plan for my life. As a result, a choice may be the right one ultimately, although it may not result in me getting what I wanted at the time. Garth Brooks figured this out in his song that acknowledges that "some of God's greatest gifts are unanswered prayers."

So what this ultimately boils down to is making a choice, a commitment, to a course of action based on faith. I think that secularists have popularized the notion that faith is the act of believing strongly in something for which there is no (or not much) evidence. I don't believe that. While there may not be evidence to support a particular choice or point of view in isolation, I believe that those of us who exercise our faith muscles regularly acknowledge that our lives are full of evidence that God exists, and that evidence manifested in one area naturally transcends into all areas of our life. In discussing the definition of "faith", Conservapedia says that "no person in scripture described as being 'of faith' believed without evidence. They all had signs, miracles, and the word of God, and were faithful in their trust in God to keep his commitments, as well as their own commitment to keep their commitments to God."

My faith is being tested now in two very different situations - one involves a job (and possibly a career) change and the other involves a point of crisis in personal relationship that is very important to me. In both cases, I find myself defying "conventional wisdom" and pursuing a path, and a timetable, that is contrary to what many people might expect. To be honest, the path I've chosen to take with respect to my personal life is even contrary to what my rational mind would dictate. When I fall into old habits of putting on my rational hat, I find myself becoming anxious, confused angry, overwhelmed and scared. I second-guess myself and wonder if my friends and colleagues are right and that I'm going about this the wrong way. But when I take a deep breath, quiet down my mind and pray about the situation, the anxiety and the fear subsides and sense of calm and peace rolls over me.

Does this mean that I know the outcome of the situation? Absolutely not. I wish I did, but I won't know it until I'm living in the midst of it. Does it mean that I'm confident that I'm going to get what I think it is that I want? Negative. What it does mean is that I've chosen to PUSH (pray until something happens) and I faithfully believe that I will know what to do when it's time to do it. I'm human, and I'd be lying if I didn't have some idea of how I'd like the situation to turn out. But in choosing to PUSH, I've chosen to commit to the process, not to a specific outcome. And in so doing, I am absolutely convinced that no matter how the situation turns out, the end game will be to my ultimate benefit. I don't know who Sherwood Eddy was (is), but I agree that "Faith is not trying to believe something regardless of the evidence; faith is daring something regardless of the consequences."

So, for now I'm going to proudly wear my spiritual hat while I'm PUSHing. I'm going to focus on the realization that faith is not a thing. It's an act... a verb. I'm going to take the advice of Benjamin Franklin who said that "The way to see by faith is to shut the Eye of Reason." And on those difficult days, which are sure to come, I'm going to remind myself that life is not about the destination, it's about the journey. And by consciously and purposefully embracing the path I've chosen, regardless of the outcome, I can only become a better person because of it.

Sunday, September 9, 2007

God knows

I've been contemplating writing about spirituality and bipolar disorder for months now, but for a number of reasons, I haven't done it yet. That said, I did want to reply to Laurie who responded to a recent post. Click here to read my post and her response in their entirety.

My first thought was to respond to Laurie off-line, but because her question is one that I struggle with, and that I'd imagine many believers struggle with too, I decided to reply publically. In her comment, Laurie says...

"I just feel as if, since my diagnosis, and a few other life-changing events around the same time– all triggers, apparently– I have really struggles with my faith in God. I still go to church, and I still believe He exists, and I still think I’m saved….I am just really having a hard time with some of my actions and reactions that occurred while in the midst of manic or depressive episodes, and the behavior I ought to be exhibiting as a believer. You know what i mean? And the recurring failures to live as such, because of my behavior during those episodes."

Dear Laurie,

First, thank you for your honest and obviously heart-felt comments. I'm not sure that I'm the right person to try to answer this. I would suggest that you discuss this with a pastor or some other spiritual mentor whose advice you trust. But, as one Christian to another, I can share with you my humble thoughts on this.

First, I do understand exactly what you're saying and I struggle with these issues too. I'd imagine that most (if not all) Christians who struggle with serious health issues share your concerns. To be honest, I'd be a little worried if they didn't. I've known people of what I consider to be "great faith"who have questions and doubts about their relationship with God in times of great challenge. I'm reminded of Job and countless others in the Bible who wondered why God allowed bad things to happen. Even Jesus cried out in anguish as he was dying on the cross. Asking God "why?" or "why me?" is not sacriligious. It's human.

I'd argue that as long as we're still having conversations with God, even if they're not all about sweetness and light, that's evidence that we have an intimate relationship with Him. Remember, no problem or concern is too big or too small for Him. He wants us to bring Him our concerns. He may not give us the answers we want, when we want them, but that's not really the point. It's not about receiving all the answers, it's about having faith that there ARE answers, and that God is in control, even when we can't understand what He's doing in our lives or why.

As for guilt about actions and reactions that you're not proud of during times of illness, I understand what you're saying about that too and have spent years feeling the same way. We've all done things that we're not proud of, whether we're bipolar or not. I think I've finally come to understand a few important things about this: (1) God knows better than anyone about the emotional issues that we're dealing with. He understands the symptoms, how they manifest in each of us, and most importantly, He knows our hearts; (2) there's nothing that we've done that God can't or won't forgive us for if we sincerely ask him; (3) none of us are perfect, and God doesn't expect us to be - I believe that my mother echoed God's sentiments when I was growing up. She used to say that all she ever wanted was for me to do my very best... nothing more and nothing less. That's all that God wants from us too. Once we ask Him, God has forgiven us. Now it's up to us to forgive ourselves. And that's not always easy. I have a 2-part post on forgiveness ((part 1) (part 2)) that you may want to read.

And when all else fails, think about all of the inappropriate behaviors that we see all around us every day. I can guarantee you that there are people who're doing everything "wrong" that you think you've done, and probably much much worse, and they DOEN'T have bipolar disorder. I think I've seen a t-shirt somewhere that says something like "At least I'm bipolar. What's your excuse?" :)

I don't know if my reply has answered your question or not. But hopefully it's let you know that you are not alone. And if you don't believe me, visit Marja's blog. She lives with bipolar disorder too, and she writes beautifully, and often, about spiritual issues. In fact, she's working on a model for faith-based mental health support groups in churches. Great stuff!

Thanks for visiting and please come back!


In search of sleep

There are several different types of insomnia. I think I have every single one of them. On most nights I have difficulty falling asleep, and every single night I wake up countless times during the night. As if that wasn't bad enough, I wake up very early - usually between 2:30 and 3:30 every morning, no matter what time I went to sleep. Sometimes I'm able to fall back into a fitful sleep, but the only time that I really sleep soundly is in the 30 minutes before it's time to get up in the morning. Then, the proverbial icing on the cake, which I've only discovered in the past year, is that I get practically no Stage 3, Stage 4 or REM sleep. Unfortunately for me, those are precisely the stages of deep sleep that the body and mind need to restore and heal themselves.

Of course, having a brain that can't quiet down long enough to get the rest it needs is bad enough. Add to that the fact that this same brain also "forgets" to tell my lungs to breathe several times each hour (a serious and potentially life-threatening condition known as "sleep apnea"). So, when it comes to subject of sleep, I'm screwed.

For the past year, since being diagnosed with sleep apnea, I have slept each night with a machine that forces air through my nose and mouth into my airway to keep it from collapsing and causing a restriction of oxygen flow while I sleep. While I am thankful for the assistance, unfortunately, the process does not involve one of those little innocuous-looking clear plastic cannulas that you may have seen used to administer oxygen to a patient in a hospital. No, that would make things way too easy. Imagine instead the mask that fighter pilots wear in movies like Top Gun. Better still, take a look at a mask like the one I wear every night. Imagine having to nod in agreement when your boyfriend says "May The Force Be With You" before you go to sleep at night. Now, you've got the picture!

While a year of nightly therapy has reduced the average number of times I stop breathing in an hour from more than 50 to less than a dozen, the number is still too high. But I finally have a medical team that is in the process of getting that part of the equation figured out. What's become much more of a medical mystery is the insomnia. Despite treating the sleep apnea and the depression, along with trying virtually every prescription and over-the-counter medicine, aromatherapy, herb and supplement, or relaxation technique, and several in various combinations, none have worked for long in alleviating my insomnia. When I'm feeling hypomanic, this is a symptom that's barely noticeable and not at all troublesome. But, since I'm very rarely hypomanic, it's a major problem.

Recently Marja wrote a beautiful post about sleep in which she shared the following quote from a book called "The Rest of God: Restoring Your Soul by Restoring the Sabboth", by Mark Buchanan, that says that sleep is: "...a relinquishment. It is a self-abandonment: of control, of power, of consciousness, of identity. We direct nothing in our sleep. We master nothing. We lose ourselves and are carried like children or prisoners into a netherworld alternately grotesque and idyllic, carnivalesque and elysian. In sleep we become infants again: utterly vulnerable, completely defenseless, totally dependent. Out of control."

If this intrigues you as it did me, I would encourage you to read the rest of the quote and Marja's post in its entirety, because it is a very moving, and loving, and comforting piece on sleep as an act of total faith in God. And I agree. But in actuality, what does that say for me? Does it mean that because I can't sleep that I don't have faith in God? I would certainly hope not. Even though some days my faith feels as tiny as a mustard seed, God tells us that that's enough. So I don't think that's the issue for me.

But at the urging of my dear friend Susan, it's time to shift my focus from illness to wellness. She's asked me a series of tough questions about when my insomnia started, what triggered it, when it seems most severe, and what, if anything, seems to help, even if just a little bit. Pondering those questions in the context of the quote that Marja shared may prove to be a helpful exercise.

I'm writing about this now as I'm about to sign off to head out to spend yet another seemingly endless night in a sleep lab for my fourth sleep study in 18 months. For the first time though, I'll be spending tomorrow at the sleep lab as well for a different set of tests to attempt to rule out narcolepsy. I will also have the opportunity to spend time with the technician who will be conducting the studies and analyzing the results. She has agreed to sit down with me to discuss all 5 tests to try to get a better handle of what's going on. I do expect to have quite a bit of "down time" tomorrow when I'll be awake, and being "tested", but not actively engaged with the researchers. Perhaps I'll use some of that time to work on Susan's homework assignment.

(to be continued...)

Saturday, September 8, 2007

A real-time exercise in forgiveness

I love books. I have bookshelves full of them, many of which I've never read. Whenever a book catches my eye, I buy it. But rarely do I read it right away. For some reason that I can only describe as "divine synchronicity", I am led to read certain books at the exact time in my life when I need to read it most.

That happened again this week as I prayed for understanding, guidance and peace of mind over the incident I wrote about in my last post. I was led to read a book that I've had for well over 10 years, but had never even opened, The Color Complex by Kathy Russell, Midge Wilson and Ronald Hall. In it, I recognized the situation I struggled with earlier this week as a classic example of "intraracial discrimination". I'd never heard the term before, but it definitely fits.

The book discusses in great detail the history of race relations in America, but not from the traditional perspective of white vs. black. Instead, it focuses on black vs. black perspectives on the long-term psychological, cultural and political consequences of generations of sexual relations (some consensual, but many quite violent) between whites and blacks (and Native American Indians) that have resulted in a plethora of skin tones, facial features and hair textures within the African-American community.

I was looking for validation of the emotional pain and isolation that I have suffered as a light-skinned black woman at the hands of my darker brothers and sisters. And I found it. But I also found painstakingly vivid stories about life on the other side.

While I'm not yet emotionally mature enough to completely overlook what was said to me a few days ago, I am intellectually mature enough to admit that on some level, I have a much better understanding of the deep-rooted psychological pain behind it, and much more.

As much as I was hurt by the exchange, my conscious decision to try to understand the deeper motivations and implications have caused me to realize that I'm not the only one who is hurting. I'm only beginning to comprehend the intensity of the pain this person must live with on a daily basis that could have caused this to happen in the first place. Perhaps more importantly, through prayer, research and a lot of careful consideration of the events and conversations leading up to this one, I realize that my skin color was not the real issue anyway. I'm sure it's lurking in there somewhere, but the real issues go much deeper. I read somewhere ages ago that all emotions can be boiled down to two: love or fear. In this case, it's both.

After my initial feelings of shock and pain subsided a bit, I decided that to be angry about this would be counter-productive and unhealthy for me. If I let it, this would surely trigger another depressive episode, something I'm working hard to avoid. So, I decided that I have to do something to transform this burst of negative energy into something positive. Then I remembered my recent posts on the power of perspective. I was able to recognize that this is not my issue, although it involves me directly. Finally being able to step out of the way and refuse to take personal responsibility for something that is not mine, gave me the freedom to choose how, or if, I wanted to focus the energy that is still undeniably entertwined in the situation.

I decided that instead of being angry with this person, I needed to pray for him. I know that may sound hokie to some, but it's been unbelievably helpful. I still feel an almost overwhelming sense of sadness (empathy?), but it's not directed internally. I feel sad for him, not pity, but a sincere and heartfelt sadness for his pain, which in turn only motivates me to pray for him even more.

Interestingly, I'm not praying for God to restore our relationship. If that's part of His plan, it will happen. Only time will tell. But for now, I pray for God's peace for this person. I pray that God will relieve him of the painful memories that haunt him. And I pray that God will soften his heart so that he can someday be able to truly love someone and accept their love as well.

I guess you could say that I'm practicing forgiveness in real-time for a change. I must admit that it's much easier when the pain is fresh. This way I don't have week, months or years of anger and resentment to cut through in order to deal with the real issues. I can honestly say that the process has been cathartic and I really do feel better. It'll be interesting to see how this plays out.

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

What does it mean to be "black enough?"

Today I found myself at the receiving end of a racial slur. It wasn't the first from this person, but because it was someone that I care deeply about, and the opening salvos appeared to have been said in jest, I did my best to let it slide. But today was different. The remark was not said jokingly, in fact it dripped with disgust, and it cut like a knife.

My feelings for this person not withstanding, the fact that the derogatory comment came from someone who is also black made it that much more painful. It brought back a string of memories from my teenage years growing up in a big city in the 70's.

I have no idea of the racial composition of the people who read this blog, but I'm sure what I need to say is going to offend someone. So, I'm imploring you, if you think you're going to get upset by reading this, PLEASE STOP. If race is an issue for you, as it is for many whether they can admit it or not, do us both a favor and move on. You know who you are and nothing I write about here will change you one bit. And believe it or not, I'm not trying to change anyone's opinions about anything, I just need to vent and since this is my blog, I've decided to do that here. If you're still with me, I'll proceed to my point.

I am what the Census Bureau would define as an "African-American." If you were to look at me, you'd assume that I was of African descent. But you might also assume that I have Caucasian ancestry as well. On both counts you would be correct. Technically speaking, I think it's fair to say that with this country's history of slavery, there are probably very few "African-Americans" born here who do not have at least some white blood coursing through their bloodline. I've never liked the term "African-American" because I don't think it clearly articulates who I am. Nor do I like the term "black" because that is not the color of my skin. But since I can't find a more suitable term at the moment, those old standards will have to do for now.

I was fortunate to have been born into a family of well-educated professionals. Both of my parents were present and both had good-paying jobs. We lived in a very nice neighborhood that most would consider upper-middle-class. At that time, I'd say ours was one of the few truly integrated neighborhoods in the city where I grew up. Everyone was educated, everyone was doing well, most had very nice homes, the children played together and went to school together. For the most part, race was a non-issue.

It wasn't until I went to a public middle-school in a different part of town that I began to realize that something was wrong. There were only a handful of white students in the school, and almost all of them had gone to the same elementary school that I did, so they were already my friends. The thought of tossing those friendships aside now that we'd moved to another school never occurred to me. But apparently it occurred to a lot of other people. I used to leave school in tears after seeing how my white friends had been treated by the black kids. The things I saw and heard just didn't reconcile with all I thought I knew about discrimination - basically that it was about white people hating black people. What I saw was the opposite and I just didn't understand why my white friends didn't fit in, or why I didn't either.

Somewhere between 7th and 8th grade, the answer became clear. I was told, on several occasions, that I would never fit in anywhere. More specifically, I believe the exact words were "You're too black to be white and you're too white to be black." I'd forgotten about those hurtful words, until recently.

My memories of this painful time in my life were reignited as Barack Obama's presidential campaign began to gather steam. Questions about whether Obama is "black enough" circulated in newspapers and cable news shows. And because the question appeared to be originating among the African-American community, many seemed honestly confused about what this question really meant. Sadly, I was not one of them, and neither was Nancy Giles when she wrote an essay in response to the question. But that association wasn't quite close enough to home, so I had the opportunity to deal with again on a much more personal level today.

While I try my best to avoid using the "race card" and I detest those who play it when it clearly is not a factor, I'd be hopelessly niave to suggest that we've reached the point of total racial equality. As much as I'd love to believe that we live in a color-blind society, we're simply not there yet - not as a whole. But I sincerely believe that there are people, individuals, who are color-blind and I'm proud to be able to call some of them my friends.

Having fought my way into (and out of) corporate America as a young, black woman in what had traditionally been an old, white male industry, I have seen more than my fair share of institutional racism. But although I will never condone it, part of me understood it. I knew who my adversaries were, I knew the rules of the game, and I knew that the stereotypes and assumptions that they made about me had nothing to do with me personally. They didn't look at me and see me, the person, they saw me, a black woman, who also happened to be well-educated, well-dressed, well-schooled, articulate, competent and in many cases, a legitimate professional threat. And when all else failed, I knew that there were others who were in this same boat with me and together we'd find a way to forge ahead.

But as painful, degrading and humiliating as institutional racism was (and is), it pales in comparison to personal racism. Why? Because when a person who knows me issues a racial slur, I can't let them off the hook by saying that if they knew me - the real me - they wouldn't say or believe those things. Someone who knows me well is supposed to know my integrity, my background, my world view, my character, my heart. And when a person can skip over all of those things and say words that are the grown-up equivalent of those words I heard in middle school... well, that breaks my heart.

But I'm a big believer in the truth, even when it hurts. I learned some truths about that person today. And here's my truth:

  • I can't change the color of my skin or my eyes any more than I can change the shape of my nose and my lips.

  • I didn't choose the family I was born into or the neighborhood my parents chose to raise their children in.

  • I can't help that I was born with a higher-than-average IQ and was blessed to be surrounded by family and other adult mentors who saw my potential and challenged me to excel academically.

  • I will not apologize for graduating first in my class from high school or for getting both college and graduate degrees.

  • I will not apologize for loving the English language and working hard at being able to speak and write articulately.

  • I will not pretend that I like, or can even decipher, much less comprehend or relate to the lyrics of rap, hip-hop, gangsta or any other "urban" music. I happen to prefer light jazz, contemporary Christian, salsa, county and some classical music.

  • I will not be a closet Republican, pretending to be a Democrat because that's what all black people are "supposed" to be. I was born and raised a Democrat, and have shamed my family in this regard, but am thankful that I live in a country where I can research the issues, decide where I stand, and vote accordingly.

  • I absolutely will not make excuses for ignorance, laziness or unacceptable behavior, regardless of the race of the perpetrator.

  • I will not deny those people who have been kind, generous, compassionate, and loving towards me, accepting me as I am, regardless of whether we share the same skin color or not.

So if you're still wondering if I'm black enough, the answer is that if you are one of the many misguided souls (either white or black) who believe that black people are "supposed" to look, act or feel a certain way, and you expect me to speak differently, look differently, think differently, vote differently, dress differently, date differently, or treat my friends, colleagues and strangers any differently than I do, than I guess the answer is "No." But please don't feel sorry for me. I feel sorry for you.

Just do it!

Those three simple words carry a lot of weight. Advertising motivations aside, the total message behind that phrase is greater that the sum of its three parts. For me, "Just" means stop procrastinating or otherwise making excuses. "It" is intentionally non-specific, because sometimes what "it" is is not as important as doing it. Which leads to the last, and key word "Do", which clearly implies action.

Action is defined by as: the process or state of being active; an act that one consciously wills and that may be characterized by physical or mental activity; an exertion of power or force; effect or influence.

Living with depression often means being so emotionally and physically exhausted that action of any sort is the farthest thing from our minds. Yet, ironically, action of some sort is often just what we need to jump-start ourselves over the present roadblocks and to reclaim control over our minds and our moods.

Before I lose you, let me be very clear that by "action", I am not referring to physical exercise. While I know that many doctors recommend exercise as a "cure" for depression, I would argue that none of those doctors are actually depressed. If they had ever been, they'd know how absurd that suggestion is for those of us who can barely get out of bed or off the sofa to eat, got to work, and on some days, even to go to the bathroom.

What I am referring to is action, any action, no matter how small, that makes you feel even the slightest bit more powerful, more in control. For example, I've been stressed out about the disheveled state of my home office for months. Every day I mentally beat myself up for not getting in there and getting it cleaned up. I know I'd feel so much better if I did. But if I felt better than I do, it would have already been done. So, the vicious cycle repeats itself day after day.

The problem is not that I don't have the energy to reorganize my office. The problem is that I'm allowing myself to be overwhelmed by the enormity of the task, forgetting that it doesn't have to be done all at one time. If the march of a million miles begins with a single step, then surely the race to reorganize my home office begins the same way. So, rather than focusing on the entire project, if I can focus on spending even a little bit of time on my office whenever I'm feeling up to it, I'll be further along than I have been. So today, I'll begin my journey. On the way home I'm stopping at the office supply and getting colorful filing supplies to make the project more fun. And I'm committing to 15 minutes a day to getting it organized. The key will be doing it as soon as I get home, before I realize how exhausted I am from another day at the office. It'll probably take a month to get it done, but that's a lot less than the 5 months that I've spent doing nothing but feeling guilty about doing nothing. And I know that before long (well before I'm done), I'll start to see signs of progress and I'll feel better about my office, my home, and most importantly, about myself.