Recovery in Turbulent Times

I write about recovery from mental illness. Recovery is difficult business. It takes a lot of hard work on each of our parts. Maintaining stability is not as simple as waking up and taking a pill. There are many moving parts, and all of them have to be kept in balance as best we can at all times.

It doesn’t help when the news is full of chaos. It’s not a simple process to keep my many parts in balance when there is messy stuff happening all around me.

In the midst of turbulence, here’s what it boils down to:

Focus.

I have to focus on my recovery above all else. I have to keep the focus on maintaining my recovery. I cannot get sidetracked by the many competing items all wanting my attention. I must be the center of the work I do daily.

Two things help me maintain my focus on recovery.

First, I maintain my daily routine above all else. I take the medicine prescribed by my doctor at the same time every day. I drink tea and start the day and meditate every morning. After I meditate, I do some stretching exercises to get my body moving. I continue my day doing my regular activities. For me, that means going to work. I eat healthful food. I need good quality nutrition.

Second, I do not watch the news. I limit my news intake to the headlines. There is a large amount of information bombarding me throughout the day. The vast majority of that information is about things that I personally can have no effect on. Dwelling on that type of information will only upset me. It will upset my recovery and tip me into instability.

I am, however, active. I have a few topics that I am passionate about like LGBT rights. I have marched for LGBT equality. I also marched with the women’s march. These are topics that I feel like I can make a difference in. These are topics I choose to be passionate about. I am also very passionate about the rights of individuals with mental illness. On this topic, I regularly write to my elected officials. The important point is that I have chosen my passion. I disengage from most news to maintain my stability.

If you are feeling overwhelmed by the turbulence in today’s world, perhaps my way of maintaining my recovery can help you, too. Be focused. Concentrate on your recovery. Do the things that will make your stability stronger, and limit your intake of things that distract from recovery.

We who live with mental illness have one job: our own recovery. That has to be our priority at all times.

Oh joy

I have not been feeling completely well for a few days. I left work early Tuesday. I went in Wednesday morning, but left after just an hour. I went back in Thursday morning and left almost immediately, which I wrote about yesterday. I made an appointment to see my psychologist this morning and was really looking forward to that.

I just left his office. It was a superb session.

I was extremely irritable on the drive to his office. I am experiencing very high levels of anxiety. Also, I’m horny as hell.

Add it all up, and what do you get?

Hypomania.

Yep, I’m experiencing bipolar disorder. I have not been hypomanic for years. Honestly, it’s probably been three or four years since I felt these symptoms.

It is very uncomfortable.

Here’s what feels good: I have a plan of how to use my tools. My first tool was my psychologist. I did that, and we made an appointment for a follow up visit on Monday. My second tool was to call my psychiatrist. I did that. We decided to increase the dosage of my regular medicine. That will help. I have some anti-anxiety medicine that I can take as needed, and I’ve already taken a very low dose of that since I got home.

Another tool is writing in this blog, and I’m doing that now. I will tell my close friends what’s going on, too. They give me support, and reaching out and asking for support is important. I am worthy of support and care. I know that today.

I’m going to close now. I’m going to lie down.

Peace.

My Internalized Stigma

I am fully committed to my recovery. I can and do live a full life. I am very grateful to have a good job helping other mental health peers find their own paths to recovery.

This morning, I faced the fact that I still carry internalized stigma against mental illness.

I have been experiencing intense but unfocused anxiety for about 3 days. I left work early Tuesday. Yesterday, I went in and started work, but I left after an hour. This morning, I went in, sat at my desk, and immediately sent two emails requesting sick leave. I need to take care of my mental health.

Yet I felt guilty requesting time to take care of my mental health. I felt guilty for having debilitating anxiety.

I feel nothing when I need to take time off for a cold or worse, but this morning, I felt guilty. Something inside me said I need to be tougher. That’s bullshit.

From now on, I will not say I need to take care of my mental health. I will only say that I need to take care of my health. My mental health is just as vital to care for as my physical health. In my situation, it might even be more important.

I have taken an important step toward regaining good health. I have called my psychologist and asked for an extra appointment, and he is checking to see when he can work me in. He told me he will find the time. Therapy is an important tool I use to maintain my recovery. Getting this appointment is a signal to myself that I will do whatever is necessary to care for my health.

I am worth it.

I will continue to tell the voice that says I should be tough and not take leave to care for my health that it is wrong on every level. I am valuable. I am worth having good health.

Using Tools

This morning, my anxiety has been high. I have hopes for a situation to work itself out in a certain way in the very near future, and I’m anxious about it. Because I’m in recovery, I have experience using tools to help me cope when I have difficult emotions rolling around inside.

The first tool I used this morning was meditation, and it helped enormously. I was very calm and centered for a few hours afterward. Sitting in a quiet place and breathing helps me when I’m anxious or otherwise unhappy.

I would normally go for a good powerwalk, but my knee doesn’t feel right. I have to stay off it for a while. I’m sad about this, because exercise is a very good way to work through unpleasant emotions.

I got to work fine, and I’ve been concentrating on some tasks. That helps a great deal, but it doesn’t take my whole mind off what I’m anxious about.

So I turned to another tool: friends in recovery. I’m a member of a small group on the internet of people in recovery from mental illness. I asked them what they did to cope with anxiety. One person reminded me to take breaks from the busy-ness. I just did that. I left my cubicle and went for a walk in the sun. I went down the street to the cathedral and sat there for five minutes. It worked. I feel calm again.

I have therapy tonight, and it couldn’t come at a better time. I will be able to talk to my psychologist about what’s going on. I have found in all my years in therapy that when I talk about a problem, it loses its power. Sometimes it disappears completely.  It really works.

I do not know if talking to my therapist will cause today’s anxiety to disappear completely, but I am positive it will help.

I am grateful today for the tools I have to aid me in my recovery.

Strength in Seeking Help

I recently had an interaction on the internet with a person who is a casual acquaintance on a website we both happen to be members of. I do not know her in real life, and it’s highly unlikely that I ever will.

She posted a story that clearly demonstrated she’s living with a great deal of unresolved issues from a broken marriage. I left a one-sentence comment that she could resolve these old ghosts by seeking help through psychotherapy. Her reaction was not a complete surprise, but it demonstrates a wider problem in our world.

She was angry at my suggestion. She was incensed that I thought she had a problem that needed help. To her, living with old wounds is simply a part of life, and using psychotherapy is a weakness. She is living with a great deal of stigma against mental health difficulties as  evidenced by this reaction. In a world where mental health is stigma-free, she would not be defensive. Rejecting psychotherapy shows internal stigma against openly recognizing the value in receiving help to overcome mental issues.

The truth is it requires great strength to admit the problem exists and then to reach out for help. It requires courage, too. I have to recognize that I have something inside me that needs resolution, and I can best resolve it with outside help. In our world that devalues seeking help for mental health instead of simply pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps, the act of reaching out for help is a sign of strength and maturity.

Harboring unresolved issues about past pain is weakness. It also shows a lack of self-worth. If we truly value ourselves highly, we will take any necessary step to heal ourselves. If we do not believe ourselves worthy of good mental health, we will ignore our cries for help. We will tell ourselves we deserve to continue to hurt.

I can assure all who care to listen that it is possible to be free of pain from the past. It is possible to resolve old issues and live free and clear. It is possible to rid ourselves of our baggage. It is possible to heal our demons.

I know it’s possible, because I did it. If you search the old posts on this blog, you will see that I was mired in pain. I can state honestly today, that I am free of that old pain. I did the work necessary to heal. It was hard work, and it required courage to be open and vulnerable. Now when I feel pain, I have the tools necessary to heal it right away. I don’t let it become old. I keep myself free. I breathe clearly each day.

If you have old pain from the past, recognize it, and allow yourself to be brave enough to seek help.

Healing Demons

I have now seen a meme twice. A meme is a viral phenomenon that spreads an idea from person to person in a given population. It’s also the slang term used to describe a trite saying usually accompanied by a picture on the internet.

This particular meme says, “We never lose our demons. We only learn to live above them.”

I can happily report that we can heal them. We do not have to simply learn to tolerate their rude behavior as they live downstairs. It is possible to completely heal them, releasing ourselves from their power. Why can I say this? Because I healed mine.

It’s popular to talk about our baggage, the stuff we carry with us from the past that weighs us down. Baggage is something we talk about with a therapist. In the early days of going to AA, I heard a lot about baggage, and I realized that I don’t simply have baggage. I had a freight train.

Indeed I did. I had so much junk attached to myself on many different subjects: homosexuality, religion, being an American male from the South, parental expectations, etc. The list is very long.

I started therapy when I was 23. The first big item I tackled was anger. It may surprise you to learn that I actually had to teach myself how to be angry. I remember it quite well. I had to keep a small notepad in my pocket and write down every time I felt angry. It took many months before I was able to recognize my real anger. I suppressed it before. I didn’t know that I was allowed to be angry. It was an enormously unhealthy way to live.

I haven’t thought about that episode in my attempts to unpack my freight train in a very long time. My anger is healthy now. I feel it. If necessary, I act on it. I let it pass. It flows like it’s supposed to.

That is a perfect example of healing a demon, and that’s what bugs me about that meme. Saying that the best we can hope for is to merely live above them does us all a disservice. We can indeed heal them. We can completely disarm them and free ourselves from their grip.

I have healed many demons. I don’t live above anything unpleasant.

I am free!

I am very happy to be a gay man now, but I used to loathe myself. I healed the loathing. I did the necessary self-care that led to a very happy realization that I like being gay. I live completely out now. It was a difficult journey fraught with upset, but I did it. I did it!

I am free!

If you think you have pain that can only be tolerated and never healed, you are wrong. If I can heal the trauma of growing up gay in a time and place that abhorred it, you can heal, too. You can. I promise.

The question becomes how to start. Therapy worked for me. I know that it works for a great many people, because they’ve told me it works. It’s also important to do some work on our own.

Meditation is an amazing habit to form. It teaches us to find our calm center. We each have one. Most of us need help to find it. Meditation doesn’t have to be scary. Sit quietly doing nothing. Don’t sit and rock. Don’t sit and drink water. Sit. Just sit. Let your mind wander, and look for the spaces between the wandering thoughts. Try to enlarge those spaces in between. Don’t judge yourself as your mind wanders. Just watch it.

Exercise is important for me, too. I powerwalk. It’s something I enjoy, and it only requires good shoes. It doesn’t take any other special equipment. Think about what you enjoy, and do it.

There are many ways we each can begin the journey of healing. What do you want to look like after you have healed? Think about it, and think about the ways you want to get to that place. Find the help you need, and use it.

You can be free, too. I promise.

When Things Go Awry

I am teaching WRAP to a group. It’s my first time to facilitate a group instead of doing WRAP one-on-one with a client. We met for an hour last week to get started. I introduced myself, and we made a Comfort Contract for the class. A Comfort Contract is a group-directed list of guidelines to keep us all at ease talking to one another. I make these contracts with individual clients, too, but it’s vital for a group. Each member has to feel at ease.

We met again today, and we moved into the area of Triggers and a Trigger Action Plan. When a situation arises or an event occurs outside us that makes us feel particularly bad, it’s called a trigger. It may go so far as to worsen our symptoms. A very few examples of triggers include anniversary dates of losses or trauma, being overly tired, family friction, being judged or criticized, etc. The important thing to remember is that triggers are external to us.

In a WRAP class, we don’t stop at reminding us about the bad. We also gain power writing a Trigger Action Plan. An effective facilitator will reinforce this to the group. It’s easy to write a list of what makes us feel bad and have that snowball into actually experiencing the trigger. We take breaks, and we remember we are striving for recovery.

The Trigger Action Plan ideally contains some action to counter each triggering event or situation. Revisiting our Daily Maintenance List is high on the Action Plan. Are we doing everything we said that would keep us well? There are deep breathing exercises that anyone can learn to aid in getting through troubling emotions. Talking to a person we are close to is a valuable resource. Exercise cannot be underestimated in these situations either. The number of items on the Plan can go on and on.

The group went further today. We tackled the next section of WRAP, the Early Warning Signs and its accompanying E.W.S. Action Plan. While Triggers are external events that may cause us to feel bad, Early Warning Signs are internal. These signs indicate that all may not be well with us. Some examples are anxiety, forgetfulness, avoiding doing things on our Daily Maintenance List, increase in smoking, failing to buckle seat belt, etc.

The Early Warning Signs Action Plan is similar to the Trigger Action Plan. Each item relates to an Early Warning Sign. We may choose to meet anxiety with deep breathing or other relaxation exercises. Forgetfulness may cause us to renew our efforts at meditation. Avoiding doing things on our Daily Maintenance List is serious, and we may have to look deep and talk to a trusted friend about it. An increase in smoking may indicate a rise in stress, and we might decide to take extra rest and ask for assistance with responsibilities. Failing to buckle a seat belt is also serious, indicating a deeper issue that one might wish to bring up with a therapist or doctor.

Both Action Plans are important. They empower us. We don’t have to be hostage to our Triggers or to our emotions and their indicators.

It was at this point when things were winding down for the hour that something went awry for a participant. No sooner had I announced we were almost complete for the day, than she rushed from the room. Fortunately, this class took place at a center with lots of other people around, and one of the staff was soon by her side. She had not been feeling good since the morning, She bravely stated that her symptoms were worse. She was in distress, and the staff called an ambulance. I am sure she is now receiving the best care afforded by our local hospital.

I believe this incident illustrates why it is important to do WRAP with a certified facilitator and not alone. All people are vulnerable, and we with mental illness may have unique ones. A trained WRAP facilitator is often not a clinician but should have the experience to recognize a group member going off the beam, as it were.