Present Day, April 28th, 2020

FURLOUGH – day 23

I have daddy issues. Where to begin with them would be a larger challenge than I am interested in undertaking today. 51 years of history is a lot to try and rehash. Leave it to say there is a past that includes emotional and physical abuse. Therefore, at the advice of numerous professionals, following my hospitalization, I cut all contact with him (and my mom). That was in 2016.

As time passed and I began to feel more managed in my illness, I hesitantly reached out an olive branch to him. We started to communicate once again. Sporadically. Superficially. Electronically. But communication nonetheless. I cannot even remember when this was. I do not know if it is the bipolar, or medications, or old age, or whatever else it could possibly be, but I have great difficulty with memories and dates.  I would guess it was maybe a year ago. Give or take. We had definitely been shut down for multiple years.

I digress, what is the point of all this? Simply to try, and in incredibly inadequate terms, communicate that our relationship has been strained at best. Which makes it difficult to know how to respond in times like this. Not times like a pandemic. Times like a heart attack. As in, he had one. A rather major one.

This past weekend he was admitted to an ER. They attempted a heart catheterization but found three blockages too major to handle with stints. So tomorrow or the next day they will be going in for a triple bypass. Open heart surgery.

He is currently in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Not that he is from there. He is from Northern California but was traveling on business when he had the heart issues. My mom is with him, sort of. With the Covid-19 restrictions, she is unable to actually enter the hospital and actually be “with him”. And I am here. Across the country. The semi-estranged son, responding to the situation as best I know how through text messages of support and interest.

Of course, this gets one’s mind racing through all kinds of thoughts. Due to our relationship, I had already wondered what I would do if my father ever passed away. Would I attend the funeral? Would I be emotionally/mentally in a place to face my family whom I have not seen for years upon years? Would it even be healthy for me to do so, physically or mentally? Would it be more unhealthy for me to not say “good-bye”? What does it even mean to say “good-bye” and does it matter whether it is done in person or from a distance? These questions have been thrown around in therapy, but never with any resolution. Never with any gameplan or finality. And yet, within hours, not likely, but possibly, an answer could be needed.

Of course, the pandemic adds all kinds of layers to the thinking. Or maybe not so many. There is the risk of catching Covid-19 during travel. There is the challenge of social distancing at all times, including a funeral. There is a need to self-quarantine for 14 days upon returning to my home state. And there is all the anxiety that plays into these realities for my bipolar mind to wrestle with.

I have a therapy session tomorrow. He often asks, “So, what are we going to talk about today?” and I often answer, “Well, I don’t know.”

Guess that will not be a problem this week. We will see if we can come to any finality this time around.

Present Day, April 21st, 2020

FURLOUGH – day 18

I feel like I have no voice. Not that it has been taken from me, or there is a direct attempt to stifle me. Just that it is all being said. A hundred times over. Ad nauseam.

Take mental health for example. Now, during a pandemic, everyone is supposed to be taking steps to protect their mental health. Emails, blog postings, websites, from local newspapers to CNN.com there is no place you will turn where you will not run into a message on how to maintain your mental health. And they all largely say the same things. They all largely say the same things that those of us with mental health issues hear on a regular basis during “normal” times. Limit news exposure, practice mindfulness, get enough sleep, do not forget to exercise…you have seen the lists.

So why say it again?

And let’s face it. Unless I myself, or someone I know actually gets sick, there is very little news to communicate. Days are pretty much the same from one day to the next. It is like living the movie Groundhog Day and attempting to stay ahead of the day by making slight modifications that will change the outcome. Sometimes the day ends differently, but then the alarm goes off the next morning and we are right back where we started.

This past week they announced seven benchmarks that will determine when my state will reopen the economy. As my workplace has never indicated that I was furloughed or they largely ceased operation as a non-essential business, I do not even know if these benchmarks apply to my return. One of them is fourteen days straight of decreasing cases reported. We are on day one. Does that mean I am guaranteed at least two more weeks of furlough? I have no idea. Uncertainty remains constant. At least fourteen more Groundhog Days.

Yesterday they announced that our schools will not be reconvening during this school year. They will finish the year out with NTI (non-traditional instruction). Groundhog Day through May 27th. A slight modification to the day, leaving us right back where we started when the alarm went off this morning.

Today we will go for an afternoon hike. A modification to the day. And we will celebrate Taco Tuesday! And when the alarm goes off tomorrow? We will be right back where we started. Groundhog Day.

Present Day, April 15th, 2020

FURLOUGH – day 14

My wife and I have had some rough days during this period of lockdown, stay-at-home, whatever they are referring to it as where you live. Some rough days with some rough arguments. Not that we did not ever argue before COVID-19. Just that the current circumstances can amplify disagreements and conflict.

Our arguments have a typical pattern. Maybe not unlike that of many people. Someone initiates the discussion. The other person responds. Point, counterpoint begins to take over. Emotions, and often volumes begin to escalate. Eventually, someone has had enough and decides to punch out of the conversation. More times than not, this is me. I become emotionally overloaded and simply check out. I rarely walk out of the room or even declare that I have had enough. I just stop interacting. I am done.

My wife and I were discussing this pattern today when she made an interesting comment. I will not claim to quote her word for word here, but she had agreed with my above-described assessment. And then came the interesting comment. She indicated that the challenging part for her was not knowing when my normal self had left and my bipolar brain had taken over (that is the part I do not claim to have down word for word). What I got her to be saying as the discussion continued was that she did not know when the common, everyday me turned off and the bipolar me turned on.

And here is the thing. There is no point because it does not turn on. Why? Because it does not turn off. It is one of those ironic things about how we differentiate mental illness from a physical illness. We would never suspect a cancer patient of having times that they can just turn off their cancer. If a person suffers from diabetes, we do not wonder at what point of the day they turn on their disease. Lupos, Chrone’s, ALS, MS, Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s…we may refer to “flare-ups” or “bad spells” but we recognize that the good times are not times of miraculous healing. They are just that…good times. The carrier is still sick. The illness is still present. They have what they have.

People tend to look at it differently with mental illness. There is almost an implied assumption that it came with an ON/OFF switch. The only difference between our good times and our bad is our choice to throw the switch. Losing an argument, turn on bipolar. Feel like going a little manic, flip on the bipolar. Weather sucks for the third day in a row, hit that bipolar switch.

I have pretty much vowed from the start that I would never claim to be the spokesperson for bipolar, so I will not be today. I can only speak from my own experience, and that experience is that my mental illness did not come with a switch. Can I manage it better at some times than at others? You bet. Therapy, meds, sleep tracking, and other steps can make me feel almost “normal” at times. But I am not. I still have bipolar. And a slight deviation from the plan can make that abundantly clear fairly quickly.

My hunch is that it is the same for most people with a mental illness. Some days are better than others. Some weeks can feel almost triumphant. Some months might almost even go so smoothly that the illness does not dominate our thoughts and lives. But we are still sick.

I ended the conversation with my wife by trying to give her the most simple piece of advice I knew to give. When it came to trying to know when the regular me was shutting off and the bipolar me was turning on…just remember, it is always the bipolar me. Everything goes through my bipolar mind. It is always turned on.

I think it was about as comforting as being told your spouse has cancer.

Present Day, April 12th, 2020

FURLOUGH – day 11B

It is easter. Easter Sunday. A very weird day for me.

Today I consider myself an atheist, which combines with my lack of belief in the easter bunny to make this a fairly irrelevant day. That is a polar opposite for me.

You see, I spent the majority of my adult life in “Christian” ministry. Quite a few years of it as an actual pastor, and some in para-church ministry. This followed being raised as a pastor’s kid for the first 18 years of my life. All of which meant that easter used to be the day. I am talking the day of the year. Sure, Christmas had the gifts and gatherings, but easter had the resurrection. The whole church year was built around it. This was the day people would come to church that would not come any other day. This was the day we would cook the ultimate of feasts (well…maybe second to Thanksgiving). This was the day of candy, baskets, egg hunts and family. For the first 40 plus years of my life, this was the day of the year.

Now? It is nothing. Just another Sunday on the calendar. Granted, with plenty of Facebook and Instagram reminders of what day it is. Hell, even the Green Bay Packers account wished me a Happy Easter! But for me, nothing.

I have not blogged for a few days because each of the last few days have been just another day on the calendar. Very nondescript. Uneventful. Unworthy of memory.

I have not really felt deeply depressed, nor have I felt inspired. I do not know if I would call it a funk or a groove, but I have just been going through the motions. Up in the morning for coffee and social media trolling. Exercise. Shower and dress. Spend some time reading. Spend some time in mindfulness. Lunch. An episode of Black Mirror (highly addicted!). Maybe read some more. Maybe doze in and out of a nap. Walk the dog. Help cook, eat and clean-up dinner. Read some more. (Getting bored yet…I know that I am?) Eventually, call it a night and head to bed for more reading before floating off to sleep.

Some other activities mix in here and there and I blog about them if they are anything noteworthy, but most of them are not. Picking up groceries. Watching Jeopardy. Texting my kids to make sure they are still healthy and safe.

I attempted a gratitude journal today, but it was as forced as I imagined it would be. A couple of items that I am thankful for, and a few others that I “wished” I would feel thankful for. It seems like that is a start. Wishing to be thankful for something. Wanting that old attitude of gratitude. Hoping that someday such a journal will not feel like such a chore. Maybe I will try again tomorrow.

I guess my mood pretty much matches the weather. Overcast. Not warm, but not cold. Windy. Rain on the way in.

Looking forward to better days. Because easter is no longer the day.

Present Day, April 9th, 2020

FURLOUGH – day 10

Two full weeks. Two full work weeks. Two full work weeks with no work. I am not sure which seems stranger: the fact that I have not gone into work for two full weeks, or the fact that by all accounts this is forecast to stretch on for quite some time. This might just be the beginning.

The company I work for is in an industry that does a major shut down around Christmas. That means I get paid, for an almost two-week vacation, on top of my other vacation time, every Christmas/New Year’s Holiday. It is roughly the same time that I have been off this go around. Of course, there are some differences. For example, you have the celebration of the holidays in the midst of those days which typically includes family gatherings and time with friends. Places such as shopping malls and theaters are open, so there is plenty of getting out and about. It is roughly the same time length, but an entirely different vibe.

Today I was supposed to receive my first unemployment check. No check. I attempted to access the website and determine the status of my payment. It has crashed. Money is not a dire issue. At least not as of today. That makes this one of those things that you just have to let go, and check back in tomorrow. Otherwise, it could be a crazy maker. And lord knows we do not need any more of those at a time like this.

Our local NAMI chapter had advertised a video conference today on living with a mood disorder. I thought it might be helpful, and since it was on Zoom I could attend without any video or audio. Just sit in and gather whatever information was being offered. Anonymously. It was supposed to run from 11 a.m. to 11:45 a.m. Apparently, the moderator of the group is not very tech-savvy and was unable to join in. As of 11:30, they were still trying to get him on board. I was always taught you start on time with who you got. After giving it 30 minutes, I bailed. Let it go, check back at a different time. Another crazy maker.

I have been reading On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous. It is a powerful novel wrestling with immigration, homosexuality, abuse, mental illness and more. I have been watching a series on Netflix called Black Mirror. Each episode stands alone and takes a futuristic look at the potentially negative consequences of technology that we are embracing today. These things help occupy my time and my days. But the days still pass slowly. Another crazy maker.

I am supposed to be doing a daily gratitude journal. I cannot even count the number of times this has been recommended to me, or that I have read the suggestion in an article. I just cannot find any traction for it. Partly because I know I am not a very grateful person. Quite the opposite in fact. Very pessimistic. In less than a week I will have my next therapy session and my therapist will ask me about it. Will I have started? Will I lie about it? Another crazy maker.

The days tick on. The crazy makers pile up. The tilt of my sanity hangs in the balance.

Present Day, April 8th, 2020

FURLOUGH – day 9

The weather is about to take a turn. After a number of very springlike days with highs in the 70s and lows in the sleeping with windows open range, it is all about to drop about 20 some degrees. Coupled with some clouds and rain, things will likely feel more like England or Seattle for the next 10 or so days. Which will present some new challenges to my stay-at-home lifestyle.

I do not know the process or clinical procedures for being diagnosed with Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD), nor am I looking for another diagnosis to go along with my Bipolar. I just know I am one of those people who does better when the sun is shining. Who does better when I can relax outside in any number of ways on a 75-degree day. I have a daughter that absolutely loves the rain. I just do not get it, nor do as well in it under normal circumstances. And that is under “normal” circumstances, which we are far from living in.

I have had a pretty good morning routine going for the last few days. The weather has allowed me to enjoy an invigorating bike ride each morning as part of my exercise commitment. I am trying to avoid putting on the COVID-30 (no…not another virus…another 30 pounds). So daily exercise is part of the plan. However, I am used to having a gym to go to which is no longer a luxury. So my choice is the bike or these god awful workout videos that motivate my wife on a daily basis but I absolutely disdain. Unfortunately, the change in weather will mean a change to the videos. At least for the short term.

I have also enjoyed a daily afternoon walk with my dog. The weather is not changing so severely as to eliminate that, but we have really been taking our time on the strolls. No hurry at all. Depending on the weather, they may have to become more purposeful. Less relaxing and enjoyable. Less therapeutic.

If all this sounds like I am just being a whinny ass wimp, I probably am. It has been very difficult for me to establish a routine and rhythm to this period of life. To any period of life. Routine is critical for me to begin with, as with many people suffering from a mental illness. Now more than ever. Any disruption to that can be very unsettling during what is already a highly unsettling time. So the thought of having to “mix things up” really can mix my mind up.

I did a quick Google to try and obtain some advice for dealing with derailed plans as someone living with bipolar. First suggestion, do not panic. Okay, so it is a tad bit late for that one, but I feel my panic is still at a level that I can reel back in. Next suggestion, find a solution and adjust my schedule to accommodate the situation. Third? No, that is it. In other words, stay calm and carry on. Easier said than done.

When I wake up tomorrow it will be a new day requiring a new plan from the previous handful of days. Here goes nothing!

 

Present Day, April 7th, 2020

FURLOUGH – day 8

One of the ways recommended for getting out of your own head is to do something for someone. Some type of act of kindness. Maybe volunteer at a soup kitchen or a food bank. Help out at a homeless shelter. Assist with a literacy program.

While the recent outbreak of COVID-19 has not eliminated such opportunities, it has definitely made them a greater challenge. On top of that, in recent years I had gotten disconnected from much community service as I have simply tried to keep my own shit together. For better or for worse.

However, one very simple and basic way that I try to “give back” is by donating blood. It really could not be less of a big deal for me as I have no problem with needles (I watch the entire process so intently it is probably a bit creepy for the phlebotomist), it only takes about an hour out of my day every few months, and I am even rewarded through various donor programs with such things as t-shirts, mugs, and movie tickets.

Even this has been somewhat challenged by the recent dynamics in society. They have put out a number of calls for donors during these times, and the calls have been answered. At least, they were a few weeks ago. I made an appointment for my wife and me to donate. On the day of our donation, we went to the blood center only to find it packed with people. We were told it would be a two-hour wait, even with an appointment, and there was clearly no space for the number of people they had in line as far as social distancing was concerned. They simply were accepting too many walk-ins for us to feel safe. Regretfully, we left and figured we would just have to give it another try at another time.

A few days ago I decided to give it another go and booked another appointment. This one, for today. Upon arrival at the parking lot I could tell that the circumstances were very different, and when I reached the door it was clear as to why. They had gone to an appointment-only basis. There were a few other differences as well. All the employees were wearing masks (as was myself and a number of the clients). Before check-in, I was asked if I felt healthy today, and also if I had traveled out of the country or to New York in the past 14 days. They wanted to know if I had been exposed to anyone who had tested positive for the virus. My forehead was scanned for my temperature, and then and only then was I allowed to approach the check-in counter and report for my appointment. Tables and chairs had been removed to thin out the waiting area and space people further apart.

From there forward things proceeded as normal. Blood pressure, pulse and finger prick. Lie back and squeeze the stress ball a few times. The customary multiple stabs to strike a vein (I have tough veins to find apparently…multiple efforts are always required). Roughly ten minutes of blood flowing into a pint-size bag, and a handful of test tubes. Like I said, for me…no big deal.

It felt good to do something that I am at least told is a good thing to do. To do something that might land beyond my world and help someone in theirs.

I wish I could do more. In what now seems like different lives I worked for a rescue mission. I once directed a residential addiction recovery program. Not anymore. The mental and emotional fortitude required for such work is no longer there. Maybe it never truly was, but definitely not since my breakdown. So I have to settle for more basic acts. Like serving on my daughter’s high school marching band food crew, or donating blood. Simpler things for a simpler man.

Maybe when things die down and the world goes back to normal I will be able to discover something more. Something regular. Something more frequent than every two or three months. But for now…for today…this was my act of kindness. My act outside my own head, that hopefully will mean something to someone else.