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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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The story of our lives

Last year on our anniversary Ben and I got our wedding rings tattooed on our fingers.

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The three rings symbolized three years of marriage.  We planned to get a new ring each year, but ultimately that idea was unsustainable because our fingers aren’t long enough for all the years we plan to live together.

So the plan changed.

We decided instead to write the story of our lives on our backs.

The plan is to pick a symbol each anniversary that represents the year and our lives in some way and to, over time, create something akin to a page from a spell book on our backs, telling the story of our life and love.

This (the first) year of our project we decided to choose a rune Ben invented when he was twelve.  The letters spell: CRAW.

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Craw is an undead dragon from a personal role playing game Ben and I are playing together.  Currently Craw is a bit of a villain, but I hope to befriend him (as my paladin character Nectar Sweetums) and turn around his heart to the side of goodness in the end.  Either way, he lives on our backs now, as part of our story and our journey.

The symbol represents more than Craw though.  It represents Ben’s early creativity and the recent re-emergence of that creativity in the form of gaming.  It represents Ben and I playing together in a world all our own and it also represents my own emerging creativity and endeavors to reclaim my inner paladin (hero) after a rocky road in the past.

I can’t wait to see what the next year with my sweet, awesome husband will bring!

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Roleplaying – Lessons in Creativity

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This was inspired by a blog post by Darius I read on I Believe in Story.  I typed a whole long response into the comments and then something happened and I lost it all, so I thought I would reiterate it here and add in some more.  If you haven’t read Darius’s post yet, I suggest you do that first, because he explains roleplaying beautifully (for those unfamiliar).  So because he covered the intro I’m just going to dive right in.

I’m currently actively playing three roleplaying games and so I have three different characters:

Dixie the Pixie – an all time favourite of mine, Dixie is precocious as hell and powerful to boot.  She can fly, turn invisible and change into any creature between the size of a mouse and a hippo at will.  She’s short and cute and she’ll press any button in her path, or use any magic item she can get her hands on with no thought for the consequence because she’s just a crazy kind of gal.

Nectar Sweetums – Nectar is a sixteen year-old paladin halfling.  She fights for freedom from oppression and lives for adventure.  Her mother was an adventurer (now retired) and Nectar is taking up the banner and venturing out in the world.  She tries to do what’s right and makes mistakes along the way, but like any good paladin she will fight the good fight until her dying breath.

Ophelia – she’s a dark, mysterious, broody teenager who pretends she lives in the graveyard when she really lives in her parent’s mansion and is a secret bronie.  She’s selfish and obsessed with the dark power (demon) who gives her anything she asks for…for a price…

Three characters, three personalities, a million different choices.

What I love about roleplaying is that it’s liberating.  For the hour (or six) you are playing, you can be someone else entirely.  You are transported to a rich, exciting world of the imagination and you get to occupy someone else’s head space…sound familiar?

I guess I love roleplaying so much because I love writing.  I love trying out different characters, exploring their choices and mistakes and ultimately (usually) helping them overcome and grow into heroes.

Because I have a rudimentary grasp on the concept of story arcs and character development, I find that the lessons I take from roleplaying aren’t so much technical as emotional.

Ideas aren’t finite

The first and most important lesson for me is about concept development.  When I’m playing a character I’m often asked to describe a scene or a person by the DM (Dungeon Master).  This helps me feel involved in co-building the world, but sometimes it makes me panic.  What if I don’t have a clue what a place looks like?  What if I create one great character and I’m never able to create another one again?  This is similar to the process I go through with my writing.  I’m always terrified that I’ll run out of ideas, that my most recently penned story was the last and I’ll never have a good idea again.  Obvious nonsense, but still it plagues me and that’s where I find roleplaying helpful.  I’m asked to make choices so instantaneously that I don’t have time to think (or more specifically panic) and the ideas just flow.  Roleplaying helps me to remember that ideas aren’t a finite commodity, I’m actually full of them.

Saying yes is best

Sometimes it’s easier to say no.  No to adventure, no to risk.  Maybe in real life there’s a reason, but saying no in a game just doesn’t make as much sense.  So what if the guy you met on the road to the next kingdom looks a little shady, doesn’t it make the story better to follow him into the woods?  So what if that woman crying in the distant hills might be a trap?  Aren’t you just a little curious?  I find roleplaying teaches me the art of saying yes and that starts to translate into my fiction too.  What would happen if I let me characters say yes more often?  It doesn’t just apply to writing either.  How many more interesting experiences would you have had if you just said yes instead of no?  There are limits obviously, but emotionally I find roleplaying cracks me open and makes me more of a yes girl, which is a state I like to be in when writing, playing or sometimes even living!

Do you role play and write?

What emotional (or technical) lessons have you learned?

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Try try again

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So, I sat down ten days ago and started typing and managed to produce a first draft of my newest novel.

It was amazing, I was on a word high and for ten glorious days I was writing between 5000 and 10,000 words a day. When I was done my arms were sore, but I was elated because the thing just flowed.

Sounds lovely and magical doesn’t it? Well it’s not…really. 



Because before I started this book, I spent a long and frustrating chunk of time hacking away at another book, nearly hitting the 40,000 word mark before I wanted to violently hurl it out the window because I hated it so much. It just wasn’t working. I loved the concept so much I was trying to make it work, but it just ended up horrible, so horrible in fact that I had to step away from it completely and not think about it for months lest it make me insane.

So a couple months later I took a look at the concept at the core of the book again because I kept coming back to it, I was drawn to it and I didn’t want to let it go. Then Ben and I went on one of our epic creative beach walks and discussed and I whined about how in love I was with the concept and he finally said ‘so just write a different story’.

The original novel was about a 20-something girl with no friends or family and I was feeling in the mood for a younger voice to I decided to write from the perspective of a twelve year old with a family and a bunch of friends instead. Then I took a step back from my core concept (a mental affliction) and instead of giving it to the protagonist I gave it to her mother and blammo, I was in business!

After months of struggle with a concept I loved too much to walk away from I had finally hit the mark and I wrote like the wind for all the time I’d wasted fretting over a book that was falling flat.

So the moral of this story is that if you have something you love you don’t always have to let it go. If your book kicks you down, sit on your ass for awhile then get up and try try again. Don’t get locked into a single story, because a single concept has the potential to become a million different versions of itself, so if one isn’t working don’t be afraid to toss it in the trash and start fresh.

I sometimes struggle with learning this lesson because of the fear that once I have an idea I’ll never, ever have another one again. But that has never been true, not even once, so I think it’s time for me to get over it and learn that just because a story isn’t working, it doesn’t mean the concept is a flop.

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Breaking the routine

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Routines can be good.

They allow us to have consistency, get in the flow and concentrate at certain times.  For example, I like to write in the mornings, I find (unless I’m exhausted) my brain functions better and there are less distractions in the morning.  I like the sunshine and the sound of the birds.  It feels like the morning is a peaceful and contemplative time, with everyone just having woken from dreams there is a certain stillness to it that makes it ideal.

So I try to keep my routine.  I think it’s important to write every day, whether it’s just a blog post or a few words on a work in progress.  Gotta keep the juices flowing.

On the other hand, routines can be bad.

Writers should be keeping their eyes open for the unexpected parts of life, the parts that jump out, make an impact, feel different than the every day.  If you are stuck in a routine and every day falls into the same pattern, how are you going to experience the unexpected?

Routine can also become an excuse if you let it.  If I told myself I was going to write every morning from 9am-11am and that was my ‘writing time’, what would happen if I was busy one morning?  I don’t want to use a routine as an excuse not to write, or to lock myself into something so completely that I feel guilty if I don’t do it.  For example I missed the past two days of this blogging challenge.  I immediately got cranky with myself and tried to think of ways to make up for it.  Then this topic of routine came up and it got me thinking.  I don’t want to beat myself up for not doing something, I don’t know about you, but I don’t think that’s a good way to live.  I want to do it because I love it and not stifle myself with routine.

I want to break the routine and embrace the spontaneity of my passions.

That’s the joy of freelancing too, the lack of routine.  There is no nine to five, we work when there’s work and play when there’s none and I wouldn’t want it any other way.  If I need to I can work at midnight to finish a project because I just had to finish that episode of The Office (see the symbolism?).  As long as it gets done, it doesn’t matter when I do it.

So routines can be good for some things, but what’s better than sticking to a routine tirelessly is breaking with routine and embracing the unpredictability that follows.

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This is a post for www.writesofluid.com’s blog writing challenge.  One blog post a day for all of June!  Check it out at the website or on twitter: @sofluid or #wpad!

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Beating Writer’s Block

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In my experience, writer’s block means one of two things.  Either fear of moving forward, or being lost in the woods of your imagination.  I suppose it could just be a bad day too, but those pass more often than not without much ado, so let’s stick to the big two.

Tell fear to fuck off

Ben said a great thing to me once: ‘being angry is better than being sad’.  At the time I was trying to overcome a phobia (agoraphobia triggered by the subway) and it was the best advice I’d ever gotten.  So I started swearing at my fear, under my breath of course.  I tried my best to think of all the things in the world that made me angry and I got pissed.  I told my fear to fuck off and it worked.  Getting sad or low about writer’s block will probably only serve to send you into a funk that ends with you sitting on your bed, watching the ceiling fan and thinking about nothing.  But that’s just boring.  So before you get sad, get angry.  Try giving your writer’s block a few mental kicks and a little bit of rage then settle yourself down and…

Just write

Write anything.  It doesn’t have to have anything to do with the offending novel or story that got you into this mess in the first place.  Write a list of your favorite foods, make up a character and write about him or her, write about a day at the beach gone horribly wrong.  Don’t think too much, just write, no pressure for greatness, footloose and fancy free.  Once you get back in the saddle of free and imaginative writing, you’ll remember why you love it, I promise.

Don’t try to be amazing

While in the midst of this ‘just write’ trance, don’t try to be awesome, don’t try to write the next great novel or story that you want to have published by the New Yorker.  Just write because you love it and it feels good and real and wonderful.  Trying to be amazing is a fool’s errand anyway because everyone has different opinions on what greatness is, so it’s up to you to find out what YOU love, not what everyone else loves.  So after you’ve done the anger, then the free form joyful remembering why you love writing, it’s time to find your way again.

Make a map

Don’t be one of those people who doesn’t want to ask for directions out of pride or the feeling that you ought to just ‘know’ which way is west.  Make yourself a map.  If you’re writing a novel this will look an awful lot like a story outline and if you’re like me and writing a fantasy novel (yes my short story suddenly turned into a novel) then it will be an actual map.  Structure and form can often be helpful for writers, even if we’re used to flailing about and simply ‘being creative’.  Order is good, but remember you only make lines so you can colour outside of them.

So now that we have the big two covered, let’s take a quick peek at the other options for beating that jerky writer’s block.

Exercise

I know you’ve already done your 30 minutes of exercise today, because it’s healthy and you can’t just sit around writing all day long letting your muscles atrophy, but when writer’s block strikes, it’s time to get up and move.  Exercise is awesome for a million reasons.  It loosens you up, gives you time to think, makes you feel good and apparently, makes your brain bigger!  Holy cow, how awesome is that?  Go now!  Run or walk (preferably in nature as that has stress reducing benefits as well) and get your brain working for you!

Talk to someone

Ben is my muse.  We get endless hours of enjoyment from planning out my stories and novels together.  If I’m facing writer’s block there’s nothing like a half hour walk with my honey to get me back on track.  Find yourself someone you can trust and bounce your ideas off them.  Writing doesn’t have to be a stoic, lonely thing and there’s no shame in talking it through.

Have an adventure

Go out there and live, then come back and write about it.  The world is a big place, filled with inspiration and excitement.  If you spend all your time at your computer writing about life, you might just end up not having anything to write about.  Go live it up and don’t be afraid to take a moment away from your writing, it will still be there when you get back…I promise.

Okay that’s all.  If you’ve done all these things and still have writer’s block, perhaps it’s time to switch gears and start a new project.  Leave your old one behind and give it some breathing room, then come back to it in a couple of months and see if it still has legs.

What do you do to beat writer’s block?

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This is a post for www.writesofluid.com’s blog writing challenge.  One blog post a day for all of June!  Check it out at the website or on twitter: @sofluid or #wpad!

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Let your story stew

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I had an idea for a story last month.  It’s been sitting as a single note on my computer for a month.  It’s been stewing in my brain.  I didn’t think I would do anything with it ever, like it would be one of those things that you get all crazy inspired about and then it just gets lost.

It had been three days since I wrote a story.   I was getting annoyed.  I wanted some inspiration and my prompts just weren’t cutting it.  So I thought of my stew.  It was simmering and I tasted it.  I just wanted to try it, see if it was ready.  I held the story for a day and it wasn’t feeling right.  I was just being really one dimensional about it.  You know when you have an idea in your mind and you keep going at it from the same perspective?  Over and over it was the same story, until all of  a sudden I changed the focus, changed the perspective, the voice and BAM!  Awesomeness.  After that the stew was edible.  I worked the rest out quickly, it just came pouring out.

So now that I’m done, waiting for Ben to look over the story and give his feedback, I’m reflecting.  What did I learn?  Stew tastes better when it has been left to simmer.  Sometimes ideas don’t come right away.  Hell sometimes they don’t even come at all, but that’s okay.  It’s in there somewhere, it just needs some time.  The veggies need to get soft, the juices need to mingle.

Now that I have driven this metaphor into the ground, I would love to hear your thoughts on story development.  How does it work for you?  Are you a stove-top cooker or do you just toss things in the microwave and super-charge them?  Personally, I’m a little bit of both, but I have to learn to be patient with myself during those times when the microwave just won’t cut it.