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 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, November 21, 2017

Reminders…

…pills

…therapy

…paranoia

…dark depression

…racing thoughts

…no pleasure

…irritability

…pills

…constant fatigue

…suicide ideation

…shame

…medication management

…lack of concentration

…pills

…lethargic living

…instant anger

…insomnia…

followed by stuck in bed…

…catastrophizing

…more pills

…and more pounds

…and more reminders.

Present Day, October 8, 2017

There are a lot of things that have headed in the right direction for my life over the past 90 days blogging hiatus. Including the avoidance of some pretty significant pitfalls and traps. I have come through all of them relatively unscathed. However, one area has not gone so well. In fact, it has gone down right horribly. My weight.

10 pounds in 90 days. 20 pounds in 9 months. 30 pounds since being placed on medications and being released from the hospital in September of 2016.

This would come as no surprise to any educated psychiatric provider. In fact, I was warned of it during my last psych review at the hospital. Even warned it would amount to 20 to 30 pounds on average. Guess they called that one.

It is one of the catch 22s of bipolar medications. Feeling depressed? Don’t worry, your meds will help you feel groggy and lethargic. Bad self-image? Don’t sweat it, your meds will help you put on weight and feel even less good about yourself. Uncertainty an issue? No biggie, your meds will leave you trembling and nauseous. In other words, the stuff you need to help you can just as easily hurt you. Or best case scenario, greatly frustrate you.

In the case of my weight, other frustrations are at work. I made a commitment roughly three weeks ago to begin exercising on a regular basis. According to my Fitbit, have managed to log a decent workout 17 of the last 20 days. That’s pretty damn good. But the weight keeps climbing.

I downloaded “My Fitness Pal” to my phone and began counting calories. This was about 10 pounds ago. Back when I thought to be 20 up was enough and it was time to turn the tide. Granted, I have been far from legalistic with it, but I have paid attention which is more than I had done. But the weight keeps climbing.

I had to go through the degraded process last week of updated the wardrobe. Maybe you have been there. The waist gets too tight, and to avoid complete discomfort, it becomes necessary to hit the Goodwills and upsize a bit. Goodwills rather than new retail because you are convincing yourself that this is not going to be a permanent change. The weight will come back off. You’ll figure this out. But in the back of your head, you are wondering if that is true. You are wondering if this is even where it stops.

I am within five pounds of my all-time high. That weight was not medication driven. Just too much time not taking care of myself while sitting at a desk. One morning while going through the struggle of tying my shoes I decided enough was enough. The journey began, and over the next few months (I can’t really remember how long) I dropped just short of 50 pounds. And most of them stayed off until being hospitalized last fall. Now they are almost all back, and I have to try again.

I recently received blood work back from an annual physical. I am pre-diabetic. My kidney function has dropped (maybe related to the massive stone and surgery earlier this year…maybe not). My bad cholesterol (at least, I think it is the bad one) is up a bit. There are plenty of reasons to drop some weight. And tomorrow I will start the journey again.

Maybe past success will provide hope for the future path. One thing is for sure, of all the things that are on my side…the medications are not on the list.

Present Day, October 7, 2017

12 weeks. Such a perfect number in some ways. Three months. A quarter. And without even intending to make it so. That is probably what excites my neurotic mind most.

It has been 12 weeks since I last posted on this blog. And what a 12 weeks it has been. To be honest, there was no direct intention the day I submitted that post to take such a hiatus. It all unfolded very naturally. Very organically. A week or two break. Some anniversary and life changes unfolding that made staying away the healthier choice. Chaos of daily living beginning to unfold in a new and fresh way. And before you know it…three months are gone.

My current intention? To catch you all up (which really means to take some time to process through this three months within my mind and allow you to come along for the ride …if you are so interested) on life from then to now. The losses I have experienced. The “quality of life” (see – Present Day, July 12th, 2017) improvements I have managed to navigate. The anniversaries that have been survived. And hopefully all within the context of the original purpose and goals of this venture (The Next 100). In other words, to get back into the habit.

Why? Because it is part of my therapy. It is part of living and staying healthy. Because when I am “healthy”, I truly enjoy writing. I enjoy the expressiveness of it. The “getting out of my own mind” of it. The ability to release my thoughts from the cage of my skull to a place where they can be free and I can be free to move on to new, present ways of thinking. Because I have entered a new phase of life (more on that down the road), and this phase needs some filler. Needs some hobbies. Needs some anchors which help me focus on a daily…or at least weekly basis.

So for those who so choose…all aboard! Welcome back onto the train. If you are new, feel free to troll and scroll and catch up on the past 15 months that this blog has been dedicated to. If you are a long timer…yep, I’m still alive and kicking and living out the clickety-clack rhythm of the rails. Still taking my meds. Still logging my sleep. Still going to therapy. Still recognizing that bipolar disorder is not something you overcome, but something that you can manage with hard work and diligence.

…and still believing that living with a mental illness does not exclude one from the rightful pursuit of an ever-improving quality of life.