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I’m Okay Right Now: Living with Bipolar

I’m okay right now.

A few months ago I was in the throes of a mixed state, and before that I was in a deep depression for about a year and a half. Now I am a fully functional human. I can get up in the morning (most of the time) and juggle school, writing and running a company with my husband. I can cook and clean and be creative. I can ace exams and puzzle out an essay. I am finally a person again. A person who doesn’t sleep all day and stare blankly at Facebook for hours on end. A person who doesn’t run away with crazy ideas that have me falling down a manic rabbit hole for months, sometimes even a year. I don’t see the universe when I close my eyes anymore (which is something that I miss), but I don’t see nothing either (which is progress). My head is on straight and I can look forward with a calm hope that things will work out. That I can follow my actual dreams instead of the wild flights of fancy I am prone to when I get high.

I’m okay right now, but it’s been a long journey to get here and it’s not over yet. When I was depressed I spent a lot of time looking inward, I posted a lot online about how I was feeling and what the experience of struggling with my diagnosis was. But when I got better I just stopped sharing. I guess it’s because I moved from looking inward to looking outward. I was so excited by my recovery to a semi-normal state I didn’t dwell on it, I just wanted to cram all the living in that I could. Now it’s been a couple months and I’m ready to reflect. I also think it’s important to share the story of my recovery and its ups and downs because all too often when people are well they forget to say it.
I am well.

I am okay right now.

And this is how I got here.

Diagnosis

The diagnosis was the first and most important step. After a year long manic/hypomanic episode that saw me going back to school in an attempt to be an astrophysicist (which was more than a little nutty as I barely had a grade eight grasp on math and science, but I was convinced if I could just learn enough I could open up the universe and peek inside), I fell into a deep depression. After a couple months of sleeping and feeling that life was an empty, pointless form of torture I went to the doctor. My first diagnosis was SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder), so I bought a SAD lamp and would sit in front of it every morning bathing in the light. Nothing changed, so I went back to my doctor. My second diagnosis was Major Depression, so my doctor put me on some medication that had terrible side effects and I waited for things to change. Nothing did. During that time, when I happened to be awake, I started researching for a book I wanted to write about a girl with bipolar who thought she could become one with the universe. Oddly, it took me a long time to finally clue into the fact that the book I was researching for was about, well, me. After a lot of reading about bipolar I finally clued in. All these case studies I was reading, all these biographies of people who have suffered with bipolar—the raging highs and the aching lows—they were describing my life. They were describing me. It was a huge relief to have that realization and, armed with my new knowledge, I went back to the doctor and requested I be sent to someone who could diagnose me. My doctor sent me to a psychiatrist, but there was a problem. As I sat with the psych and let loose my story, he didn’t know what to do with me. He told me he was too old and too stodgy to really get a handle on me. He basically told me I was a weirdo and he needed a second opinion, so he sent me off to another psychiatrist. The next psych didn’t seem to think I was all that strange, and diagnosed me Bipolar, returning me to the care of the original, old stodgy psych who prescribed me medication that cost $300 a month and made me puke five minutes after taking it, then promptly dumped me from his care. Freshly diagnosed and still unmedicated (and depressed), I was left alone to fend for myself.

Other Avenues

I went back to my doctor to get referred to another psych and he sent me to CAMH. At the same time, at the advice of the stodgy old psych, I called a nearby hospital and asked to be paired with a social worker or psychiatrist. At CAMH, the psych had a single meeting with me and declared me Bipolar I and gave me a prescription for a new medication which would end up making me so anxious that I thought at any moment me and the people I loved the most would die some horrible death. I could barely even ride in a car without a panic attack. In the meantime I was paired with a lovely social worker at my local hospital and signed up to a program at CAMH that teaches bipolar life skills. I also sought out some talk therapy on my own. At one point my social worker asked if I was a little manic, having signed up for every possible therapy, and I couldn’t be sure. All I knew was that I had spent so long suffering that I wanted every opportunity I could get to make it better. The next medication I tried was prescribed by my doctor. One of the most common treatments for bipolar these days. It felt like it might be doing something, but I couldn’t be sure. We fiddled with the dose and the release time (there was a slow release and quick release option) and finally found the right combo. I finally woke up.

Creativity

Throughout this whole period of depression one of the things I feared and lamented the most was the loss of my creativity. I couldn’t hold onto thoughts for extended periods of time, not even long enough to write a short story, never mind a novel, and I was freaking out because I have a book coming out soon and I just kept berating myself for not writing a new one. My mind was blank, empty, and I just kept saying: what if I never write anything again? To try and combat the perceived death of my creativity I tried a bunch of things: I made writing dates with people to write based on prompts, I signed up for a creative writing course, I forced myself to write a poem a day for a month (I ended up writing a series on being bipolar which was actually amazingly cathartic) and I tried reading as much as I possibly could. I was despondent though because in my depressed state I couldn’t write fiction. I was so inward facing I could only write biographical pieces and I had to learn to be okay with that. To know that was where I was with my writing and to be happy that I had something creative in me, even if it wasn’t the thing I thought I ‘should’ have. During that time I learned something about myself: I say ‘should’ a lot. Maybe it comes from my manic periods where I feel I should save the world, I should understand the universe, I should be the best in every way. Or maybe it’s just built into my personality. Either way I came out the other end of my creative deprivation feeling a little more relaxed in the should department. I no longer believe I should do anything. I know now that whatever I have in me, even if it is as short as a haiku or as long as a novel, is meaningful and creative. That creativity can take many forms and they don’t all have to be something I can sell. Sometimes just being creative for creativity’s sake is the best thing you can do for yourself.

Climbing Out

It was a long climb out of the deep crevice I was in. And I am still climbing up this rocky mountain. I’m doing all the things I am supposed to do: taking my medication, exercising regularly, keeping a strict sleep schedule, managing my time, going to therapy, relaxing, following my passions, and I feel so lucky that I have the opportunity to do all of that. I am writing fiction again, and non-fiction too, I am going to university (not for astrophysics, but for something I have been interested in deeply my whole life—psych) and I am keeping an eye out so I can catch myself when I start to fall or fly a little too high. My life is more balanced now, less fireworks, more of a slow burn. Sometimes I worry that being healthy is boring. That I’m medicating the universe out from behind my eyelids, that all those ups and downs that made me interesting are being evened out and I will lose something in the process. But then I remember the downs. The real horrible downs, when I was in so deep and covered with so much muck there was no chance I could climb out. Or those manic highs where I was so convinced that magic existed that I joined a cult, put myself in dangerous situations, pursued spur-of-the-moment passions that were ultimately leading nowhere I really wanted to be. There is this mystique around being mentally ill. All those artists who struggled, their tortured lives informing their art and giving it depth. It’s easy to be swept away with the romance of it all. Oh my wild bipolar life! So high! So low! So passionate! But as a tortured artist I can attest to the fact that being tortured is not the way to go. When I’m healthy I work, I’m steady, focussed, capable of balancing art, business, life and school. When I’m sick I’m empty, or so full I can’t even see straight and I produce very little that matters. So I will continue to climb, up, up, up, knowing there is not real top to this mountain and that’s a good thing. Knowing there are rocky cliffs ahead (as I can’t stay on my current medication and have to change come spring), but if I can just hold on to everything I’ve learned maybe, just maybe, when the winds rise and the climb is full of crags, I will remember I have all the rope I need, to make through without plummeting all the way back down.

 

 

Photo by: Heather at funlovephotography.com

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Writing an outline

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I’ve decided to write an outline for my next book.


It’s a weird feeling. Usually i just dive headfirst into a novel, emotions in front, ready to do battle. That approach has served me well. I’ve gotten three books out of it, books I like, books I’m proud of. 



So why the outline?


Because I’m tackling something new: science fiction.

I wrote a short story based on a concept I learned about in an astronomy class I was auditing at U of T and I loved the idea so much I knew I had to make it into something bigger. But the thing about science fiction is that it requires…science. And to make my science fiction even remotely scientific, I need to do some research. Also, because my story will be set in a time that is beyond ours it requires a little world building. I’m working from the outside with this concept because it’s an idea about the universe itself, not about a single character, which is my usual approach.

I have to say I’m a little bit intimidated by the idea of the outline. It makes writing a book seem more like work. I write outlines for corporate clients, web videos and projects. I know when I finally sit down with it I’ll get into it and things will be fine, but right now it just seems liked a daunting proposition.

So why do I feel as though writing should be a purely emotional pursuit? It seems like a foolishly romantic notion: this idea that I should be some poet in a coffee shop spilling my guts in a moleskin notebook. It’s also unrealistic; I like structure, order and a good understanding of my direction in life—so why shouldn’t I like it in my writing?

Maybe I think an outline will restrict me. But it would be an imaginary restriction, because if I make it, I can destroy it. Maybe I think it will be too formal, that I will get bored of it if I have my whole path charted for me. Maybe I think writing is more exciting when it’s a mystery. But if that were true then I wouldn’t need to know the ending before I start a story…and I always know the ending before I start.

So where is the resistance coming from?


Writing a new genre is daunting, I’ve only written two or three pure science fiction stories before. Writing in a new format is daunting too. An outline is a new skill that I have yet to master.

But ultimately I think it will be good for me. The fear of trying new things has never stopped me before.

So watch your back outline…I’m coming for you.


P.S. Any tips or hints on good ways to outline a novel would be appreciated. If you have any just drop them in the comments section!

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Finding the balance

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I’m the kind of person who likes to throw myself into things, as evidenced by my long history of doing just that.



In little school I was devoted to figure skating, then in high school it was acting. Both had varying degrees of success (many medals and a strange, embarrassing YTV show where I talk to a lava lamp). During the rest of high school (after the acting business) I threw myself into raving, with all its trappings, and excelled at it; dancing for days on end, getting high and staying out late enough to constantly worry my mom (sorry mom!). When I left high school I committed myself to being a crazy, world travelling hippie and focussed on my commitment to visiting ‘power points’ that had something to do with Ley lines and energy or some such bullshit. Then came a dark time where I committed myself completely to two people in such a fervent manner that it led me to a pretty bad place. In the midst of that I also threw myself into a potential event planning career path which wasn’t ultimately my bag.

So I’m a pretty dedicated person when I put my mind to it.


After the dark times I threw myself into writing completely. I wrote four novels and over 50 short stories in the span of two years and loved every minute of it, then I decided I wanted to pursue science and now here I am.

But because I tend to be very focussed I have this feeling that if I’m not focussed completely and entirely on the thing I’m passionate about, then I don’t care enough about it and therefore I actually hate it and will ultimately fail at it.

Shit, that spiralled out of control pretty quickly.

With a mindset like that you could see how this would lead to complications with finding a balance between writing and school.


When I first started school for science I was pretty focussed on it. I had to get into the rhythm of the classes and realize it was something I could actually do. But while I worked away at school I had a nagging sense of guilt about ‘abandoning’ writing. The fact is I didn’t abandon it at all, but I thought I had just because I wasn’t giving it every last bit of my attention, which is a pretty flawed way of thinking.


Ultimately my brain is balancing things out for me naturally as I grow accustomed to school and need to give it less full-time attention. Sometimes I think about writing stuff, sometimes I think about science stuff, and sometimes I just think about sitting around in my underwear, eating chips and playing Zelda with Ben.

I think the main point of this story is not to stress about it if your focus shifts a bit here and there as time goes on. Just because you have a variety of interests and passions doesn’t mean your goals are any less achievable or focussed. In fact I know from experience it’s detrimental to focus all of your energy on just one thing. Life is about balance and finding it might not be easy, but it’s definitely necessary.

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Writing is writing

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Things have been crazy because I just started school again and when I meet up with other writers they ask me if I’ve been writing lately.


And I say yes.

But I hesitate. Why do I hesitate? Because I’ve been writing loads, just not fiction. I’ve been blogging a lot about my experiences at school over at my Cosmorphosis blog and it’s been extremely rewarding and fascinating, but there’s some tiny part of me that believes writing = writing fiction.


This is clearly a flawed thought and I have no idea where it comes from. Non-fiction is obviously a valid and important form of writing, from news to memoirs, sharing stories of the real world and our own lives is extremely valuable.

But it’s not fiction.

I think the moment I really committed to writing fiction was the same moment I officially committed to being a writer. Even though I had been writing non-fiction and travel memoirs for years, for some reason I only decided to take the moniker of writer when fiction was my focus.

It’s not a good, healthy thought. Writing is writing and all of it is great.

Whether it’s tweeting, blogging, writing a book, a poem, a single line or even a lab report (which I did for the first time ever this week), writing is important and meaningful because it’s all just various forms of expression. I can find the joy in any one of those forms, as evidenced by the fact that I loved writing the lab report.



I don’t want to limit myself to the form of fiction for my expression and I don’t think anyone should. As a writer, a creator of art, my focus will change throughout my life and as someone who considers herself open-minded and well suited for change I want to embrace that and proudly proclaim my love of self expression, no matter what form it comes in.

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Inspiration Series – Lorraine Shenken Robbin

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Since starting my new life in 2010, each week I wrote as much as my ability allowed in one hour. That was all the library allotted.  At first I wrote a few words. I wrote an entire thought. A story took me four sessions. I learned and forgot and relearned and forgot again how to cut and paste, after 5 years of recovering my functions; my walking talking eating thinking through liver brain fog. Once recovered, with a new liver, I resourced healing through art.  I etched my scribbles. I discovered art once more. Not the same art but altered shaky scratchings on 8 by 11 paper with watercolors that I used in a group of women who traversed the rickety bridge to reality.

Doctors saved my life, yet the illness made my mind sick. I healed my mind through psycho-therapy. I discovered I need to create to heal, to feel human. Imagination and being human are important in order to emerge as happy artist.
Being a writer seems a vaporizing image. I reason that I must propel forward to expedite change. Keep moving. Keep learning. I want to breathe. “I want to write to taste life twice,” as Anais Nin said. I love living.

8 years back I read my stories on radio, published in notable publications where I was paid for my efforts. I taught at a Native Healing Centre. Exhilarated to share the joy of expressive writing I had learned from my mentor, Arnie, I felt certain these learners would benefit as I had.

A learner shook her head saying “No, all my creativity has been taken. I can’t write.” She spoke her story while I wrote it down.

It wasn’t until I fought for survival that I understood the words the learner said meant she needed to first feel safe. That her creative energy had been drained.  I, too, needed to allow myself the time to grieve. The time to reflect would be my opus.

I meander, I convolute, I digress, and most dreaded word of all I am “tangential.” An accusatory psycho-social worker wrote a report on me when I sought employment. I peeked at the report when she left the office. It read, “She speaks in stunted and unfinished thoughts. Lorraine is tangential.” I was hurt and angry. Anger prodded me to seek clarity.

Sluggish, fallow, waiting for my perfect alone time, I allow distractors, detractors to affect me, or pierce me with critique. I interrupt my flying mind. I stop my doltish disobedient fingers keyboarding in soft halting script tap tap tapping miniscule letters like no-seeums drowning in a blue drunken concoction a page on a screen on a blog a twenty year old set up for me on “Tumblr ‘cos that’s easiest, Mum.” When I doubted my ability to create, my girl had faith in me. Faith has its own power. I recognize that I need time to myself. I schedule my writing time.

I wrote a story for a community newspaper’s writing contest in 2012. Marietta, my friend and editor donated 5 hours of her time. She submitted the story via email as I didn’t have a computer. I won second prize. 50 bucks for a ‘Menorah Memory’. I was as ecstatic as if I’d won the Nobel Prize. It lit me up. I had finally written something concise. I was writing again. Small amounts of encouragement and caring friends entice me to create. Human contact, eye to eye interaction and stimulating conversation are vital components to help me think. I need to express myself and writing is the best method for me. I can take as long as I need to access words that escape me when talking. I am a klutz with speech. When I’ve written about a subject I know how I feel about it.  Writing about my ordeal is trauma inducing. Once I overcome I will write my truth. Overcome. I work under the illusion of myself as architecture. I joined a writers group. I listened. I read. I heard writers read.

I’m learning by helping children learn to read.

Theory is fine, yet the rules need to be broken. I say,” English is tricky.” We practice, we laugh, play, we converse, we use intuition, knowledge and experience to encourage 7 year olds to read and write.

Children teach me to be curious.

Focus eludes me. I give myself a gift. Walkabout Wednesdays. No pen, no notebook, no sketchbook. Out I walk. I am open to experience; people, trees, greenhouses, concerts, the touch of stuff. (I asked if I could touch someone’s hairy yellow sweater. It looked itchy but it was soft.) I look at art. I confide in total strangers who inform me and give me fresh details to ponder. Those are mini relationships.

I begin new projects hoping unfinished work may provoke me to end my stories. Am I scared to end? You bet I ‘m scared. I was on my way to a writing class when I became sick. Now 7 years later I finish what I started in that class.

My new story about life’s renewal ferments unfinished. I can’t help feeling oddly superstitious. I might have to feel the agony endured when the life force drained out of me till hallucinations haunted me. To return to a place I know was painful seems destructive.

To die without finishing would mean no one would read my story.  Startled into a stupor of wasted time. What an oaf. If I write the first part I already thought the continuum in my head. I abhor the tedium of conveying every word, typing till my fingers stiffen. I convict myself to my chair. The urge to write pounds me. I feel joy at being enthralled by story.

To renew myself is to discover the middle, to keep searching, to continue to the end. When I write it I’ll know how I feel.

Lorraine Shenken Robbin has read 5 of her stories on Life Rattle CKLN radio, published in Life Rattle Press 1999, read aloud at Totally Unknown Writers Festival, and at The Imperial Pub, wrote an essay for Today’s Parent, recorded  one of her stories on First Person Singular on C.B.C Radio, written a story for the Globe and Mail, and since finding her voice again, after being the recipient of a blessed liver transplant, is working on 2 upcoming novels. You can read Lorraine’s thoughts and ramblings on her blog at http://www.tumblr.com/blog/bbirdword 

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Here’s to the children(s writers)

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I was on my way to a writing workshop yesterday and some guy started hitting on me.

His big line was: ‘What kind of writing do you do; kids books or real writing?’ I told him I wrote for adults and he grinned and replied: ‘so…real writing.”

In the moment I didn’t respond because I was busy trying to ignore him, but when we finally parted ways I was pissed. How dare he suggest that writing for children isn’t real writing? Where was his book? Where was his children’s book for that matter? And let’s not even talk about how bad it was as a pickup line because if I was a children’s writer I would have kicked him off his bike and as it was I kind of felt like doing that anyway.

It’s so easy to sit there and think that children’s writers have it easy, that they write such basic things that anyone could do it. But if you think that you’re dead WRONG.

Children’s writers are the people who give birth to literary worlds. They bring us up, nurture our dreams and imaginations, teach us lessons and rhymes. How would I know how to be a good friend if it weren’t for Charlotte’s Web? How would I learn about the places I could go without Dr. Seuss? How would I know what a blow-fat glow fish is without Mercer Mayer? I only wish My Little Pony – Friendship is Magic had existed when I was a kid, but I’m thrilled to be able to enjoy it now.

Children’s writers are so talented; they take complex ideas and reduce them to simple, elegant language. It’s a skill most writers strive to have but not many get to achieve.

So here’s to the children’s writers who feed our imaginations with their delightful talent, who help us grow and learn and see the world through colourful language and amazing imagery. Thank you. Even if that asshole pickup artist on the street doesn’t appreciate you, know that I do.

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Inspiration Series – Alice Murray

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Up until the past couple of years, my writing has revolved around me. My inspiration has been my desire to make sense of things that seem to make no sense, to search for justice when it seems there is none, to capture memories I want to share with my family and to entertain myself.  (Yes, I confess, I often get a chuckle reading my own writing.)

My inspiration changed in 2012 when I took the NaNoWriMo Challenge of 50,000 words in 30 days. What an adventure! Just write! That’s what they said. So I did and I did it as a pantser — I had no idea where my story was going, I just wrote as many words as I could each day. I can still feel the elation of finishing three days early. It was a very proud moment. It showed me that I could write something half decent, that was longer than three or four pages, and had nothing to do with my life. In 2013, I took the challenge again. This time, I plotted and I discovered that I liked plotting. I liked having a road map, a general direction of where I was going. Along the way, I took wrong turns, my characters decided to do things I hadn’t plan for, I got stuck and unstuck, and I was tempted to edit my story before it was done — but! I managed to stay on track, finish in time and I enjoyed the trip.

I think what intrigues me most about the writing process is how my characters come to life. At the start of my writing, I like to think I have a decent idea of who my main character is but really, I don’t; I know no more  about my main character than I do about the stranger I might talk to on the train or the chap whose dog I fuss over on the boardwalk. Lots of conjuring but no substance. As I work my story, I will find my main character walking beside me on my treks through Toronto, wanting to share their experience of the city or to point out something I had never noticed and sometimes, when I lay down at night, my character will lay beside me and reveal something intimate, something I hadn’t imagined.  Those are the moments I realize of course!  How could it be otherwise? And, then I’m really inspired 🙂

But inspiration is not enough — the toughest part about writing is… writing. As long as I bring myself to the table and start typing, my story will happen. The trick I’ve learned is to trust the process — and write the story to the end. 

Editing is a whole other story…

Alice Murray is an occasional poet and short story writer. She is currently working on her Creative Writing Certificate through the U of T. She has high hopes of finishing her Book of Remembrance so her grandchildren can entertain her with her own stories long after she has forgotten them.