Present Day, January 23, 2021

269 days. Not a full year, but closer than not. That is how long it has been since I have found the gumption to sit down and post a new blog entry. Why? Too many reasons to explain, and not the point of this entry. But here I find myself again.

So much has changed in those 269 days (and the 45 or so preceding). How is that for the understatement of the year? New meds. New psychiatrist. Tele-therapy. New job. Family separation…just one of the day-to-day changes brought about by a global pandemic. Again, too much to delve into and not the point of this entry.

What has brought me back? Why now? An acute awareness of how other people live. Of their struggles. Quite literally, of their pain.

Around Thanksgiving, I began feeling a slight jabbing pain at the base of my neck. The feeling of a crick in my neck. Or possibly a mildly pinched nerve. Nothing severe. Nothing to worry about. Except it did not go away. In fact, the pain increased. Slowly, but surely. Different head movements became more and more uncomfortable. Then downright painful. By Christmas, things had grown rather intolerable.

I attempted a telehealth visit. Was placed on a steroid anti-inflammatory medication and advised that if things were not better in about a week or so, I should probably go visit someone in-person. Things did not get better. The medicine had no effect. I started sleeping sitting up.

The week passed and I headed to an urgent care center. A few x-rays, lots of questions, and this time a shot of anti-inflamatory steroids. Another prescription. Another week. No improvement. Nothing even taking the edge off the pain. Increasing uncomfortability.

Back for another telehealth visit. Two more prescriptions, and a referal for an MRI. Results? Three bulging discs. Yeah, that explains it. Now I am in line for an epidural injection and a neurosurgeon consultation. However, even that is not really the point of today’s reflections.

Chronic pain. Mind you, I would not classify my current circumstance as chronic pain. In the big picture of things, it has a fairly recent starting point, and if the experts are correct, an ending point is in the not too distant future. I’m talking about the pain whose beginning is too far in the past to even remember. The kind of pain that has next to no promise of departure. The kind of pain that gets medicated, but to seemingly no avail. The kind of pain that makes common activity difficult, common movements challenging, and common dreams vanish.

My current experience has given me just a glimpse into the life of the individual living with chronic pain, and I do not envy them. In fact, it has taught me (or is at least teaching me) two things. First, you may never know who around you is in pain. If I was not sharing with my co-workers what is going on, they would never know. I try to maneuver as normally as possible. I am very self-conscious of taking my medications in private. And up until this week, most of my medical appointments took place during our 18-day winter shut-down. All of which got me to thinking there may be individuals that I even work with who are in chronic pain, and I have no idea.

Second, it has taught me (or is at least teaching me) to empathize with people going through pain. Especially those for which the pain will seemingly never go away. Not to belittle the broken leg, or a dislocated shoulder, or even pinched nerve in the neck, but there are people for which the pain will not end. For which there is no “Just hang in there until ______” fill in the blank. For which there is no diagnosis other than let’s try to manage the pain. Which implicitly indicates that you are not going to live pain-free. How difficult that must be. How mentally challenging. How physically exhausting.

I have bipolar. This is a blog about living with bipolar. And in many ways, there are similarities between being diagnosed with a mental illness and having chronic pain. My co-workers are unaware of my psychiatric condition. There is no suggestion that it will ever go away. It is “managed”. I take my medications. I do my therapy. I get my sleep. That helps but doesn’t heal.

Over the past few weeks, I have tried to imagine what it must be like to live with the combination. A mental illness, and chronic pain. Could I even do that? How long could I go on? What sustains people in that position?

If you live in chronic pain, I feel for you. I will not claim to know what it is like, but I have been given a taste. I cannot imagine the strength and resolve with which you live life. For those with a mental illness, more of the same. I admire your strength and resolve. While I walk that walk, I rarely do it well.

I once read, have tried to live by, and have failed miserably the following:

“Everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”

A few bulging discs have reminded me of the truth of this. Have reminded me to try and be kind. Always.

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.