Month: April 2015

Can I Cast Away the Bad Parts?

Living with obsessive-compulsive personality traits creates a certain stagnancy, an inability to let go of the perseverations and to untether one’s mind.  My obsessions manifest in many forms – numbers, words, checking items – but of the most prevalent and highly distressing are my obsessive thoughts.  An incident may occur, and the gluey tendrils of my brain grasp upon it and hold the thoughts in a chokehold where their sole mobility potential is to run in circles at ever-increasing rates.  In essence I cannot let go; the tendrils are too sticky.  An incident may be as simple as, I should not have said that word or phrase to another person, initiating a thought spiral of incomparable capacity, my brain beating black and blue as I perseverate on the perceived idiocy and inappropriateness of the comment.  Another manifestation is a preoccupation with health issues.  I imagine (unbeknownst) that I have different health ailments and conditions causing impending death.  My compulsions?  I seek constant validation in the form of question and response; however, no matter what answer I get – whether it is the “right” one or the “wrong” one – is never enough, is never sufficient.  I can phone individuals forty times and never abate the feelings of the lack of control of my mind.  The obsessions create within me an inherent feeling of badness.  I am composed degenerately, housed with evil parts I wish to cast away as resultant of the guilt derived from the objects of my obsessions.

There are days where I wish I could cast all of the bad parts away – open my flesh, tease apart my organs, and grasp with surgical tongs the black tumors and cysts turning my body and mind sour.  I know this is unrealistic, impossible.  So what do I do with what I perceive to be my inherent badness?  I realize I must recognize the source of these thoughts and perseverations.  Jeffrey M. Schwartz, M.D. claimed the phrase, “It’s not me, it’s my OCD.”  I find great comfort in the short verse, or mantra. It takes the focus away from the belief of inherent bodily and mental malfunction, but suggests that it is a biochemical brain function independent of one’s faculties as a person and composition of character.  With this in mind, I find the empowerment to cast away the bad parts – rather, the thoughts and perseverations, as those lie within my locus of control.  Similarly I relinquish control and conscious efforts to eradicate all thoughts, as they fight back with claws and teeth.  Ignore them, and the teeth with rot and gums will recede, disarming and conquering through passivity.  Some bad parts will stick; not all can be cast away.  So what is the remedy for a sticky, gluey brain and psyche?  Prayer, mindfulness, and meditation.  Acceptance.  Acceptance holds far greater power than is given credit.  With mindfulness and acceptance, you are loosening hold on the rope, yet not letting it drop completely to the ground.  The mind is calm, but there still lies a connection between the entities, for how can we persist in a state of defeat and still battle the unwanted residents?

Joan Didion’s Cure for Bankrupt Mornings

One of my heroes!

The Daily Post

Joan Didion in 2005. Photo by Kathy Willens/Associated Press Joan Didion in 2005. Photo by Kathy Willens/Associated Press

Sometimes words fly from your fingers into the keyboard, the ink runs from your pen in a continuous flow, and your imagination fills the screen or page as if by magic. Sometimes when you sit down to write, inspiration is absent or obstinate, hiding and refusing to surface. American author Joan Didion refers to these times as “bankrupt mornings.” She counsels writers on keeping a notebook as a prophylactic against truant inspiration:

See enough and write it down, I tell myself, and then some morning when the world seems drained of wonder, some day when I am only going through the motions of doing what I am supposed to do, which is write — on that bankrupt morning I will simply open my notebook and there it will be, a forgotten account with accumulated interest, paid passage back to the world…

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Colors.  Our sun bleached blond and red hair messily restrained in lycra swim caps, goggles tight across our faces.  We take turns as the leader calling out red, orange, yellow, green blue, white, pink… as the other two of us swim as stealthily as we can muster across the deep end of the pool.  Red, orange, yellow… I splash as I attempt to make it to the other wall untouched, but I feel a tug on my leg and know I have failed.  We all laugh and begin again, playing for hours on end, burning to a crisp in the hot Southern Californian sun.  The concerns of life were simpler, punctuated by swims and games of Sailor Moon in the small orchard alongside the house.  What would we not give to return.

Wildfires were burning up Southern California.  Ash was raining and smoke hovering.  As my world burned, I retreated within, further falling into a zombie-like trance.  I went through the motions with little knowledge of my doing so.  It was another nondescript day at high school, and I wandered from class to class.  Once again I had slept too much and not completed my assignments; I was starting to see no way out of this.  My lack of functioning plummeted me further into the depression, igniting a vicious, self-perpetuating cycle.  The world was ashen black, and the narrative music had ceased.  My Bach and Beethoven transformed into sinister voices speaking about death, urging, encouraging.

It was lunchtime, and I sat in zombie trance as I heard over the loud speaker a secretary beckoning me to the front office.  I was too tired to question or ponder this occurrence and trudged in a slow shuffle to the office.  My mother was there, waiting to pick me up, and again, unquestioning, I obliged to her offer.  Once in the car, she explained that she and Dr. Azad conversed, and I was going to spend some time in the hospital.  In my state of emotional indifference, all I could offer was an “okay,”  I imagined a hospital room with machines and a bed – a bed I could sleep and sleep and sleep in, endlessly.  Little did I know that it could not be further from the case.  I was to imminently enter a little prison that would sequester me for the next five weeks.

We arrived at the University of California, Los Angeles Neuropsychiatric Institute Adolescent Psychiatry Ward, or 2-South, as I would come to know it.  A psychologist completed an intake and mental status assessment.  I was quiet and confused, but compliant.  My naivete was a sedative drug, overriding all brain function and nervous system response, for had I known the domain I was to enter, storm clouds would have rained torrentially.  The naivete was a protective factor, stemming from my interminable internment in a vortex of a tornado untruthful and unforgiving.  So yes, I complied, with what composure could be mustered.

The five of us sat in the Suburban, father driving and mother in the front seat, sisters and I in the back with the dogs.  The windows were all down, the air rushing and blowing in, twisting and turning loose strands of hair, coaxing the laughter from our throats and carrying away with it the happiness gently oozing from our depleting stores.  We drove through the streets of Westlake Village, and as we did so, we honked at strangers on the street, waving enthusiastically in the ruse that we were acquaintances or knew each other well.  Some strangers waved back in confused embarrassment from an apparent amnesia, while others stared blankly in confusion.  To us, it was hilarious, a wonderful warm afternoon pastime.  

Every evening, twice daily on weekends, my mother made the drive to UCLA to visit me for five weeks, and continued to do so for the following five hospitalizations.  As we played cards in the dining room on a plasticized wooden table, two sisters sat at home in the care of my father, who himself was distant, existing in a world that was slowly deviating from our collective.  In fact, we were all shifting into and out of different collectives.  Fractures forming.  We played gin rummy every night, the only rope that could draw me out of catatonia.  Two sisters, hours without their mother in the prime of their childhood.  My father was no longer allowed to visit.  I could not tolerate his presence.  Fractures.  My illness tore through the burlap of our family fabric with the ease and adeptness of a razor shaving hair.  First the tibias and fibulas broke.  Then, as time progressed, the femurs, the metacarpals, the bones necessary for the cohesiveness and function of the family.  A mother’s sacrifice twofold.  An ailing child in the hospital and shrinking children at home in the loss of a childhood, a forced maturity.  Loss, on all accounts.

Every Sunday, my sister would don her Cleveland Browns jersey and watch the Browns football game with my father.  Two peas in a pod, one large, another growing, nesting in their pod as they cheered each touch down, groaned at every fumble.  She was still young, bleach blond hair not yet turned brown, swimming in her jersey, swimming in the camaraderie and happiness, the naivete still nursed to her from the bosom of childhood innocence.  She was deserving, and when the milk ran dry, roads diverged, carrying her youthful body far from the familiar into terrain rough and rugged.  Thirsty, she was, perpetually thirsty.

Not long after I was discharged from my fifth hospitalization, my aunt committed suicide.  My mother and I went back to Ohio to attempt to piece together the remnants of my aunt’s abandoned life – clean her house, organize for donations, and plan a funeral.  The fractures of my mother’s family thrusted to the forefront as many came to converge upon the death of my aunt.  Fracture upon fracture does not hold in firmness and promise a structure capable of supporting a family ailing in many avenues. Following our days in Ohio we returned to California in time for another seismic shift and fracture in the walls of a house precariously resting upon the San Andreas Fault.  My father was leaving the marriage, dissecting the family lines.  A cut through the flesh with a sharp blade.  The casualties?  Two sisters shadowed by an illness and a broken marriage.  Our feet bled as we walked upon the shattered china littering the kitchen floor.

Their sister was thrusted to the forefront, ill and hospitalized, discharged only to return a day later, a week later.  The two sisters metamorphosed in the aftermath of an illness, the melting and drying wax of their dwindling candles slowly molding and melding to the life and care of their older sister.  Years pass, school absences abound.  Depression ensues, anger bubbles from fresh wounds.  Fractures ever more apparent.  One sister spends nearly three quarters of her year driving her sister to electroconvulsive therapy treatments, a sucking, a sequestration of nine months of her life.  No, not her life.  She struggles to exist in the wake of the aftermath of the seismic shifts, her life an entity separate from that of her sister, of the illness.  Enmeshment and inseparability are words served cold with dinner each night.  

A mother plays doctor, suturing lacerations and bandaging wounds, attempting to tie again what has been untied, to meld together what has been fractured.  Such pressure, this role.  Unfair.  Caught between the worlds, the collectives divided by illness and seismic shifts.  Of pinnacle importance?  The knowledge that the body seeks self preservation and perpetuation.  Fractures heal.  Fractures once apparent connect and dissolve.  There exists a remaining faint scar, a reminder that life is messy and that our ills and struggles will crack what we hold to be impervious.

Chasms and Divides

I recently presented at the Portland State University Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Student Research Colloquium on the topic of mental illness, feminism, and community.  The bulk of my presentation drew upon my experiences as a woman experiencing bipolar disorder and the ways in which I – as well as my fellow sufferers – fit into our collective society, our community.  The chasms separating the mental health community and the rest of society are deep, far deeper than many understand or wish to realize.  Just as patriarchy is predicated on its ability to reproduce and perpetuate with blind acknowledgment and fatally passive actions, these chasms are maintained and deepened with every generation that passes in an uninterrupted cycle of oppression.  Silence is the enemy of progress, development, and change, and far too often it is silence that falls from our potentially potent tongues.

Oppressions intersect and intertwine.  Individuals experience the effects of multiple oppressions simultaneously – sexism, racism, classism, ageism, ableism.  The effects of mental illness fall within the web of intersectionality.  Feminism strives to build a society based upon equality and justice.  I ask, how can this be done so if an aspect of the equation is missing, the presence of invaluable minds relegated to the periphery?  If we remove the eggs from the cake batter, the cake cannot bake into a cohesive product.  Such is what we are doing in the negligence and social annihilation of individuals experiencing mental illness.  Individuals with mental illness also experience structural violence occurring on a broad spectrum, ranging from the denial of SSI Disability and inability to get adequate health coverage to the homeless who are lacking of any support or resources in both healthcare and daily living necessities.

So what is the remedy?  It is the annihilation of silence.  The employment of speech.  The spread of education to interrupt this and other cycles of oppression.  Talk and listen.  Hear and be heard. We cannot build bridges and close gaps without the active participation of every member of society and the exercise of influence of the powers that be – ensuring access to adequate and comprehensive mental health care, securing homes for the mentally ill homeless that are not library stoops and church stairs, providing work environments conducive to the struggles people with mental illnesses experience, the elimination of all aspects of structural violence impeding the progress of our communities.  Until this cycle of oppression is broken, to the periphery mental illness shall lie.

Emptying my Receptacle

The cyclical nature of the calendar year draws and elicits different emotions and behaviors within me as the days, weeks, months pass.  In summer, I can fly high as a kite, soar as an eagle over rugged terrain.  My mouth becomes unhinged, espousing thoughts and revelations with the rapidity of a firing machine gun.  I will dance, I will cry, but I am alive, and I know it. Fall and winter bottom me out, reduce me to the final dregs in a mug of coffee, existing as the grainy remnants of ground coffee beans holding their apocalyptic collective before their impending annihilation.  Spring, however, holds a certain significance, a certain beauty.  There is a mystery in spring that stops the clocks, if but for a moment, and I live unencumbered.  What a tease, this minuscule period of respite.  Though I inevitably return to the daily grind of fighting the beast, I am reminded that there rests within me an innate part to which I am inextricably bound, that cannot be taken away or sequestered.  Its existence is indistinguishable and its code indecipherable.

What begins in a state of shining, iridescent glory becomes tarnished as the year progresses.  My soul collects the hurt and anguish I endure.  I am able to fight, to polish the tarnished silver, but my receptacle gradually fills with the aftermath of colliding tempestuous elements.  My psyche can fight for only so long.  With each battle there leaves a film of dust, a memento of the conflict and pain that occurred.  I cannot cleanse as quickly as the dust collects, and my receptacle becomes home to hosts unwelcome.  Come springtime, my soul chokes and spittles as it tries to speak through layer upon layer of dust and dirt amassed through noonday and eventide battles.  The cherry blossoms and blooming tulips serve as the reminder that I have a choice, in fact an obligation, to my own progress and the searching for and attainment of truth, for what greater truth can be discerned in the emptying of one’s receptacle, casting aside the detriment of the world and polishing the silver laying inherent beneath the surface, the facade.

The truth and beauty of this world can only be attained through the process of purging impurities in order to make room for the sweet nectars that pour forth in abundance, if one searches ardently and earnestly.  Spring has always served as a reminder for me to do so, but I have come to the realization that the process of renewal and rebirth is a constant, perpetual one. I must empty my receptacle in order to live, for should I neglect, I will succumb to the dust and dirt hiding the recipes and inscriptions for health, happiness, and the secrets to the unencumbered existence.