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Olden Times and Ancient Rhymes

December 11, 2019

It’s here: the season of joy and cheer. Every year it looks different, but there is one tradition that will never disappear, and that’s listening to Christmas music. Especially the songs I grew up with and still love. A few years ago I made several CDs from music I bought from iTunes with a mix of modern songs and old favorites from my youth. Anytime I want to be transported back to happier times, I just pop one into the CD player and let the memories wash over me. It’s one of the purest forms of enjoyment in my life, and at this time of year I indulge every chance I can get.

My favorite carols have always been the ones about Jesus and how he came to this earth. I mean, these give me goosebumps every time: O Holy Night, God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, Silent Night, Hark the Herald Angels Sing. There are also some from later years, such as Mary, Did You Know? and Child of the Poor/Away In a Manger, that really bring the meaning of Christmas into my consciousness and lead me to thoughts of gratitude to God for my many blessings. The thing I’m most thankful for this year is being safe and warm; if things had continued to go sideways during that December of 2014 when Will and I missed homelessness by a squeak, I’d probably be telling another story. I see people on the streets in the city I live in, and think “there but for the grace of God go I”. Sometimes all that separates us humans is a bit of luck…or an outpouring of love from a good family.

But in case you think I’m all serious about this Christmas thing, I love the funny side of the holidays. My kids will tell you that it wasn’t Christmastime until I heard I Want a Hippopotamus for Christmas…and sang it at the top of my lungs, which cracked them up every time. I also got a kick out of Alvin and the Chipmunks and the one about poor Grandma getting run over by one of Santa’s reindeer. (Well, y’all know I have a rather twisted sense of humor.) However, there are a few I could do without, such as Santa Claus Is Coming to Town. My mother beat me over the head with that one every Christmas. I was literally petrified at the idea that Santa would pass me by if I so much as pouted a little. Of course, my vision of what pouting was differed greatly from hers, which was basically that anything I dared to dispute constituted defiance, which was an even greater sin…and what’s more, Santa knew about it. I couldn’t win. But every year, he did come to our house and leave me some pretty nice things, like a bike one year and a Chatty Cathy doll which was all the rage back in the mid-1960s.

Speaking of Santa, I have to admit I find the whole concept kind of weird, even though Will and I raised our kids with him as the giver of the really awesome (and most expensive) gifts. My daughter Mandy and her husband didn’t—my grandsons didn’t believe in the Easter Bunny or the Tooth Fairy either—and sometimes I think they were right. After all, here’s this fat old guy who sees you when you’re sleeping and knows when you’re awake; it’s like he’s God but in a red suit and boots. And that deal about sitting on his lap and telling him all your secret wishes while your picture is being taken? Tres creepy.

Anyway, this is the time of year when I wax nostalgic, so please bear with me as I (over)share my musings. It’s also the time when I miss Will most of all. Yes, I’ve learned to live without him, and Christmas is always good even though there aren’t many traditions in this house. But he made the holidays extra special, and it wasn’t just the presents he gave me (although those were pretty great). He embodied the holiday spirit in every way possible, from getting drenched putting up the outside lights in the rain, to making real cocoa for the family on Christmas Eve while we all watched National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.

Ben seems to have taken over where Will left off. He bitches and moans while he decorates, but he loves it and the results are always amazing. This year he’s turned the inside of the house into a winter wonderland, with a big tree and bright white LED lights as well as candles and lights around the patio door. The outside has lights around the front door, garage, and a blue spruce that grows out in the front yard. It took him parts of three days to get it all done, but it’s worth it. He may not think it’s a big deal, but I love it that he loves to decorate for the seasons like Will and I used to. A chip off the ol’ blocks, as it were.

That’s how Christmas is in my life—ever changing, but also ever staying the same. And that’s just the way I like it.

It’s All Downhill From Here

November 24, 2019

Ever since I turned 60 back in January, I’ve found myself contemplating the last part of life. You know, death. Muerto. The End. I wonder about it all the time. I think about what it will be like to not exist anymore except in my loved ones’ memories. But don’t worry, it’s not depression…it’s curiosity.

After all, longevity does NOT run in my family. With a couple of notable exceptions–both of whom had dementia–people in my tribe just don’t live into their 80s and 90s. My father died at 59, my mother at 66. Both my grandmothers lived till their early 70s, and my sister is 73 and has multiple health problems. But then, so do I–there’s my diabetes (which is under control without medication), as well as high blood pressure, asthma, and heart disease, all of which are well-managed thanks to a variety of meds. And of course, I have to count my bipolar as a medical condition, which is alleged to reduce life expectancy by 10 or more years.

I’ve long been aware that my health isn’t what it should be. My diet is horrible, I don’t exercise, and I have no motivation to change either of those things. If it weren’t for all these drugs—psychiatric and others—I wouldn’t be here. I’ve been able to conveniently ignore that fact because I really did believe I could go on forever, but otherwise didn’t give it that much thought.

Now, however, I’m intrigued by the whole idea of dying. I think of it as life’s last great adventure. I’m in no hurry to experience it, but realistically it will probably come early—maybe even in this decade of my life if statistics are to be believed—and I want to know what actually happens. I want to know how I’m going to die. Will I be in pain, or will I be allowed to slip away in peace? I’ve seen a lot of people die and I want to know what their last thoughts were, what they felt at the moment they passed. And most importantly, is there really life after death, where I’ll meet the God I’ve believed in all my life and see my husband again? Or is it just…nothingness?

I know it sounds morbid, but it’s also utterly fascinating. What’s weird is that turning 60 was the trigger for all this introspection. I’m still considered middle-aged (except at movie theaters and other places that give discounts to “seniors” over 55 or 60), but the way time flies, I’ll turn around twice and be 65, the age when you’re officially elderly. Like, what the hell happened to this year?? I just got over the trauma of actually beginning my seventh decade of life, and here I am, about to be 61 already. Time really does go faster the older you get; I remember when I was a kid and it seemed like Christmas or my birthday took forever to get here. Now, the last four months of a year feels like four weeks, and the holidays seem to come twice a year instead of once.

They say that it’s all downhill from here, but I still refuse to look at life that way, even though I’ve been thinking a lot about my own mortality and how someday my kids are going to have to go through my stuff, a job I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

It’s all good. Happy Thanksgiving!

Bipolar, Wherefore Art Thou?

November 11, 2019

Having recently passed the anniversary of my hospitalization, I’ve had the opportunity to reflect on the course of my bipolar 1 disorder and stand in awe at the miracles wrought by hard work and a little medication. Well, OK, a lot of medication, but by this time I’m no longer counting.

It’s been five years since my last severe depression. It’s been even longer since my last big manic hurrah. For someone who looked (and felt) pretty bad off for a while, I’ve done quite well. Oh, I have the usual wintertime blues and the spring silly season, but that’s nothing compared with what I used to go through every year, and sometimes even between seasons. Despite meds and therapy, I struggled badly through the first few years of my diagnosis, and I almost gave up because if that was the way my life was going to go, why stick around?

Thank God I did. Life isn’t what I thought it would be at this stage, but it has its good times, and I enjoy them that much more because I know what it’s like to be so hopeless that the whole world loses color and becomes blurred around the edges. I also know how much damage mania can create when you have no filter between your brain and your mouth, and when you spend your family and yourself into bankruptcy, not once but twice. I look back on those days now and wonder how the hell I could have done so many impulsive and downright stupid things. In what universe is it OK to drop a thousand bucks in Walmart and have nothing to show for it but a bunch of junk? What was I thinking when I cranked up my car stereo full blast and flew down the freeway at 90 MPH, singing at the top of my lungs? And I certainly wasn’t thinking when I overshared with everyone at work the fact that I had a serious mental illness. Foolishly, I thought it made me seem more fascinating and mysterious.

Now THAT’S a hoot! This thing is not glamorous or romantic, it’s a giant pain in the ass and I hate it. But I can minimize its impact on my life by continuing as I have ever since I fully accepted my diagnosis and committed myself to staying compliant with my medication regimen. I didn’t have a hint of mania or hypomania this year, and with the exception of a little depression and anxiety (both situational) during the late summer and early fall, I’ve been completely stable. It’s as if none of the craziness ever happened, or it happened to someone else.

But of course it did happen to me, and I’m always going to be missing a chunk of my life because of symptoms that have interfered enough with my day-to-day existence that I’ve had to make permanent adjustments to accommodate my limitations. I had to give up my nursing license this year because I haven’t been able to practice in five and a half years, and there’s no going back. It was a good career while it lasted, and I met so many great people and got to do some pretty incredible things. But it’s over, and I’m not sure I’d try to resurrect it even if I woke up tomorrow completely free of bipolar and able to work. I’ve moved on from it. Besides, I’m getting to be an old lady and my back and knees would punish me severely if I even attempted it. Haha!

(Speaking of achy body parts, I think I’m nearly done with this walking cast/boot. I go back in to see my foot and ankle guy this week for another X-ray to confirm it is healing, which I think it is because I’m no longer in severe pain. It feels very delicate, like it could break again with little to no provocation; but I’ve been able to put my full weight on it on occasion and can even stand up in the shower without it hurting much.)

I’ve come a loooooong way since 2014. To have no bipolar symptoms at all is amazing and if it stays like this for the rest of my life, I will be one HAPPY woman. But of course, I can’t count on that because this is a cyclical illness, and eventually I’ll probably cycle out of this wonderful phase and into something less thrilling. Still, I’ve heard of people who experience long-term remission for years, even decades…why not me?

If It Ain’t Broke…

October 19, 2019

But it is broke. My ankle, I mean. The X-rays I had at the imaging center said it wasn’t fractured, but then I had a second set of X-rays done at the podiatrist’s office which clearly showed the break. Now I’m in this walking boot for at least the next five weeks and possibly longer, and with the way injuries to my lower extremities take forever to heal, I’m not particularly optimistic that my poor little bones will knit themselves together quickly. The pain is better, but it doesn’t take more than a few minutes of standing or walking for it to start throbbing, which makes things kind of interesting when I try to do normal things like grocery shopping and showering. The pain feels like someone is drilling straight through my ankle with a white-hot screwdriver; Aleve takes it down to a dull ache.

But get this: I can’t get prescription pain pills for it. I’m going around on a broken ankle without benefit of narcotics. I don’t necessarily want narcotics, but it bothers me greatly that I am being denied them because Klonopin is on my medication list. It doesn’t matter that I take them very infrequently, or that decent pain control would make me even less likely to take them for anxiety related to pain; as far as the medical establishment is concerned, I might as well be a flaming drug-seeker. And that really pisses me off!

I have heard many tales of people being blackballed from pain meds. What used to be considered the “sixth vital sign”—pain, as measured by the patient’s subjective description of it—is now largely ignored by medical professionals who used to actively treat it. Now most of them won’t prescribe anything stronger than over-the-counter Advil or Tylenol because the federal government will come down on them like stink on a bad smell if they do. Because SOME people abuse narcotics and die, ALL of us have to suffer…especially those of us who take the occasional benzodiazepine or mild central nervous system depressant (think Tramadol, or beer).

Maybe I’m just cranky because I’ve been limping around in pain for the past six weeks, but this is the first time I’ve ever been denied relief and it gives me a lot of sympathy for other patients in worse circumstances. In the past, I’ve actually turned down offers of pain meds; I hate the way they make me feel, and yes, I’m on a lot of other medications that make me sleepy; they also make me constipated and I have to be vigilant about bowel care or things can get ugly fast. But I’m not going to become an addict from judicious use of an opioid to get me through the worst of an injury. Hell, I feel like I should just go ahead and take the damned Klonopin if I’m going to be accused of it…at least I’d be able to sleep better and relieve the pain that way.

But that’s not how I operate. I don’t take any drug for pleasure or fun; I take meds to treat certain conditions. Of course, being part of several marginalized groups (women, poor, mentally ill etc.) doesn’t help my case any, because our complaints are often not taken seriously to begin with. My strength has always been my ability to advocate for myself thanks to a couple of decades in nursing, but even that isn’t enough to make a healthcare professional risk being scrutinized by the government. I don’t blame them for not wanting that; in fact, it’s been my experience in working with them that most doctors and nurse practitioners don’t refuse to prescribe narcotics because they are mean and like to watch patients suffer. They just don’t want to risk being sued or losing their medical licenses, and that is a reality in 21st century America.

I remember when I was a nurse in the late 1990s. Back then, we assessed patients routinely for pain and medicated them appropriately; we also taught them to call us before pain got bad, not wait till it was out of control. Now it’s almost the exact opposite, you have to be crying and shaking and practically peeing yourself before anyone will even consider giving you an opioid, and God forbid you have a medical condition that sends up red flags when a provider goes over your prescriptions. I’m sure the fact that I have bipolar disorder doesn’t encourage my healthcare professionals to give me drugs. So, there’s that. But damn, the ankle is broken, not merely sprained or contused, and that fucking HURTS.

Just a little whining on a wet and chilly October night. I’ll get over it. Thanks for listening.

Fall Back

October 6, 2019

It’s Saturday night and I’m in my customary spot on the sofa with my poor outraged left ankle encased in a walking boot, and surrounded by little dogs who seem content to be close but not ON me. I have Live PD on the television, fresh ice water on the end table, a Butterfingers bar, and much less pain than I was in 24 hours ago. It had gotten so bad that I could hardly bear weight on it anyway, and then I somehow stepped down on it wrong yesterday morning and almost went to ground. After calling my NP, who told me he wasn’t going to prescribe pain medication because I’m on Klonopin (like I take it every night, haha), I decided I’d had enough waiting around for this to get better on its own and went to the local urgent care center. I didn’t get pain meds there either, but I wasn’t looking for them. What I wanted was a good strong brace, and that’s what I got.

I also bought the large economy size bottle of Aleve, which I’d forgotten works a lot better for me than Advil and Tylenol, and started that this morning. Now I can walk a little without holding back screams or wondering if this is the time when I roll the ankle again and fall hard. The boot is a two-piece affair held together with lots of Velcro straps in a sassy black shade, and I think it weighs at least half as much as I do. I’m not sure I know how to put it all back together again when I take a shower and have to remove it, but like everything else, I guess I’ll figure it out.

In the meantime, autumn has definitely arrived. It’s been wet and blustery with occasional sunny days that are absolutely spectacular. The trees are changing to beautiful hues of red and yellow and orange; the nights are cool and make it necessary for me to snuggle under the electric blanket; the dogs are growing out their winter coats. (They are very thick. Makes me wonder what kind of winter we’re in for.) And I’m struck by how early it’s getting dark now…my least favorite thing about fall.

It’s this last that makes me feel like I’m backsliding. I’m not depressed—yet—but I can see it from here. We didn’t really have much of a summer, and I feel cheated; as you know, I live for summer all year round and we just didn’t get enough of it this year. It was as apt to be in the 60s and raining as it was to be warm and sunny. So now that my favorite season is gone and my second-favorite has taken over, I look at the leaves and wish I didn’t dread the upcoming winter months. The only things that get me through November, December and January are football, pumpkin spice everything, my birthday and hanging out around the pellet stove. (February, on the other hand, has NO redeeming qualities.)

Now, I try not to let the doom and gloom get me down. There are plenty of things to like about the cooler months; I just can’t think of many. But it’s very hard to avoid seasonal depression when I hate half the year!

I check my weather reports from all the places where family and friends live. It’s 80 in Pensacola, where my oldest daughter and her family are; it’s 81 in Dallas where we plan to move one day. Places where it’s winter for about five minutes in the middle of January. I bet I wouldn’t get depressed down there, at least not because of the weather. Then again, it’s the loss of light early in the evenings that really throws me for a loop, and that happens everywhere.

I’m not sure what exactly can be done about that. I should be using my HappyLight, even though it’s not dark in the mornings yet (well, by the time I poke my nose out of my room there’s plenty of light), but that only helps minimally. That leaves medicine, and I’m already taking a lot of stuff. My son happened upon my medication list today and said “Holy CRAP, Mom, you’re on a lot of meds!” And that was just the psych meds—he should see the rest of it. Four blood pressure meds, an inhaler, vitamin D, and aspirin. Not to mention all the OTC pain remedies!

Anyway, that’s what I’m up to these days. I hope this fall and winter won’t be too hard on me, because it’s a loooooooong time till spring. I know that if I start sliding downhill I’ve got Dr. Goodenough to help me sort things out, plus family and friends who can see it’s happening sooner than I can. This month marks five years from the last severe depression I had which landed me in the hospital, and I’m happy to say that I’ve never been anywhere near that bad since then. Even now when I could easily slip into a low, I know that my brain is trying to lie to me, and I’m much quicker to recognize that than I used to be.

It’s all good.

Etc., Etc., Etc.

September 22, 2019

A random collection of what’s been going on with me for the past couple of weeks:

  1. I managed to sprain my left ankle after Mass last Sunday. I slipped on wet bricks and it was either going to be that or a nasty fall, so in a split-second I decided the ankle had to be sacrificed. Now it’s a week later and I’m still limping around, living on Advil and liver-killing doses of Tylenol, and wishing the damn thing would stop hurting. It just wears me out, and I’m sure not gonna make it heal any faster by dragging my sorry carcass to the grocery store and standing/walking on it for half an hour. Big mistake—the next day I could barely walk on it.
  2. Saw Dr. Goodenough on Tuesday, and for the first time in our three years as doctor and patient, he didn’t have his shit together. He had the wrong patient’s chart pulled up on the computer and began asking me what dose of Prozac and Remeron I was taking. I don’t take either of them. He was, however, appropriately embarrassed and he apologized, and I promptly forgave him. Everybody has a bad day now and again, but I’m glad I’m such a stickler about knowing my meds and diagnoses inside and out. I guess that little adventure known as a nursing career taught me something.
  3. I am most definitely done with trying to change my medication regimen. I didn’t have even a moment of mania this spring or summer, and the longer I live with this illness of mine the more I realize that I really DON’T want to become manic again. That whole thing about hypomania? Sure, I’d love to have that kind of energy but I definitely don’t want to torpedo my credit rating, get involved in projects I never finish, drive like my hair is on fire and my ass is catching, or wake everybody up by noisily cleaning the kitchen at 3 in the morning. Life may have been a little more exciting back in the day, but I don’t want to change anything because the way I am when I’m not manic is better.
  4. Mild depression is lurking around the corner. I can feel it softly creeping in sometimes early in the morning, but it’s gone by the afternoon and I go about my business as usual. Besides, I’ve got my HappyLight, and as Dr. G says, we both have phones.
  5. Speaking of phones: I’ve actually been without one for the past three days and I am in acute withdrawal. For some reason my sweet iPhone Xs Max decided that I shouldn’t make any calls—although I could receive them—and the only solution was to get another phone. So while I’m waiting for the new/reconditioned one to come in, 100 times a day I’ll reach for my phone to text someone, check out Facebook or take a look at my stats here at bpnurse. My fingers literally itch to have it in my hands. I take it with me everywhere, and I mean everywhere, but for now I have to be content with carrying around my phone case and trying not to lose my mind.

So that’s how I’m doing. How about you?

Peace and Quiet

September 9, 2019

It has occurred to me over this short, mild summer that for the first time since I don’t know when, I haven’t had the slightest inclination toward becoming manic or even hypomanic. I’m calmer on the higher dose of antidepressant, and I have the Klonopin as backup. But I haven’t needed it except for a couple of nights ago, and that was only because I couldn’t shut my brain up long enough to go to sleep.

More importantly, there has been a subtle shift in the way I view all of the crap that’s happened to me in the past 7 1/2 years, and I don’t think it’s going back. You can’t un-know the known. I’ve reached the point in my bipolar life that I no longer see mania or hypomania as something to be sought after. I hate depression like nobody’s business, but mania truly is not my friend. It’s been long enough since my last big hurrah that I’ve gained some perspective and I remember how little control I had when I was full-blown manic. I did so many stupid and foolish things; spent money I didn’t have on things I didn’t need, endangered life and limb flying low on the interstate, and screwed myself out of jobs because I couldn’t keep myself stable for longer than a couple of months.

As a result, I’ve had many, many medication adjustments over the years which have brought me to this place of peace and acceptance. It amazes me to look back over the years and see how much has changed. How much being in control has changed me. I’m sure some of it is plain old-fashioned maturity, but I have to credit my treatment for at least part of it. I was somewhat of a case of arrested development before I got sick. I didn’t have enough insight at that time to know that, though. I just thought I was a little slow at this adulting business…if I thought about it at all.

Then there was the diagnosis, and all hell broke loose. Those of you who have been reading my blog for a long time know what I’ve been through with this illness; I invite newer readers to check out the archives for stories about my difficulties with reining it in. I still have very minor episodes of depression and maybe a little hypomania once in a while, but I haven’t been suicidal in five years and I haven’t alienated anyone by my outrageous conduct at the top of the mood scale.

It’s not perfect by any means, and sometimes the process slips a bit. I still tend to think people are mad at me when they don’t speak to me or when they make vague complaints about something that involves me; but I have just enough emotional IQ now to think about it and understand that not everything has to do with me, so I don’t take stuff personally like I used to. This has saved me countless times when Ben snaps at me or my other kids don’t call or text me as often as I wish they would. (Lately, however, I’ve been in frequent contact with all three of the others and we have had some great conversations. I love it!)

Hell, I’m not even tempted to mess with my meds anymore. I didn’t do it back in the spring when I usually lose my shit, and I’m not doing it now when it’s September and this is the OTHER time of year when I tend to be a little wacky. I know deep down that they are the only things keeping me from destroying myself, and obviously I don’t want that to happen. Other than recent (and ongoing) stresses, my life is pretty good, and who wants to screw that up?

The other significant thing that’s happened is my sister Louise has moved in with her daughter in Maine. She flew out early yesterday morning with her little dog, who was understandably upset about being confined to a carrier. It’s for the best; she will get more attention there than Ben or I were able to give. I will miss her, and it was an awful realization when I hugged her that it would probably be for the last time. Maine is about as far away from Oregon as you can get and still be in the continental U.S. I wish her well and hope she and my niece will be able to get along OK. I think they’ll do fine, my niece is a tough lady who can stand up to just about anyone. It’s a skill she’s developed over years of a hard life. She’ll need it, because one of Louise’s little personality quirks is to make a fuss over something—often something trivial, like being handed a dessert fork instead of a regular fork—and then outwit, outplay, and outlast her opponent. (Ben and I both know this from experience.)

Anyway, I hope life will be gentle as the summer fades and the leaves change colors. I’m thankful that the bipolar bear is hibernating. And I welcome the peace and quiet that not struggling with it brings.