Healing Trauma

It’s taken me some days to write again, because I came back from my second week of training with a horrible head and chest cold. Thankfully, it’s passing. After one whole day in bed reading, I’m feeling much better.

I learned some frightening things last week. Of the mental health consumers I will be working with, 91% will have experienced serious trauma. The definition for trauma we were given was “extreme stress brought on by shocking or unexpected events that overwhelm a person’s ability to cope, resulting in feelings of helplessness and extreme fear and horror. The survivor perceives the event as bodily violation  threat of death or serious injury to self or a loved one. The event may be witnessed or experienced directly.”

All kinds of things can be traumatic. The Holmes and Rahe Stress Scale tries to delineate the spectrum of major life stressors. Death of a spouse is highest on the list for adults. Death of a parent is highest for non-adults. It goes on to many other events, and it even includes Christmas as a major stress point.

The most devastating effect trauma has on a person is the shattering of trust and safety leaving a person feeling powerless. Thus, we spent a good deal of time learning about techniques for aiding recovery. Each participant had to face their own trauma, and indeed one person chose to drop out. It was a very sad experience for all of us.

Each of us was given a book that will be enormously useful. Seeking Safety by Lisa Najavits is a seminal text on conducting groups aimed at providing tools for recovery. There are pages of information, but the bulk of it is a workbook for conducting groups. When I am finished with training and during my internship and afterward, I will be facilitating Seeking Safety groups as well as WRAP groups.

The best possible outcome for me has been a personal transformation. I’ve already written about how my negative self-talk has ceased as a direct result of creating my personal WRAP. I have gained a sense of hope for the future I’ve not felt for many years.

I want to help, and now I believe I can do it.

For the first time ever in my 49 years, fear is not ruling my decisions.

I am born anew.

I am born anew.

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Week 2 of Job Training

The second week of job training starts tomorrow, and I’m very excited. I’m looking forward to it so much that I only got five hours sleep last night. That’s not a good thing for me. I normally sleep nine whole hours. I’m concerned that it’s a sign of a swing toward mania.

I got some very good financial news recently, and I’m watching myself for signs of overspending. Spending sprees are a symptom of bipolar widely recognized by psychiatry. There’s nothing better than a whole day spent losing money I don’t have for this gay man. So far, the only luxury has been a dinner with one of my daughters at a cheap restaurant. I don’t think that’s overdoing it yet.

I’m taking my medication as prescribed. I am taking care of myself by brushing my teeth, etc. I am doing the daily maintenance called for in my WRAP.

Who am I kidding? I’m not faithfully following my WRAP. I’m neither meditating nor exercising. I am doing the other things on my Plan:

  • maintaining my sobriety
  • drinking plenty of water
  • eating healthy meals
  • chatting with my best friend
  • checking in with myself
  • talking to supporters
  • educating myself about my recovery and my illness
  • writing
  • being open about my sexuality

I am following those points on my Plan but not two important ones.

Meditating keeps me focused. Even a short five-minute session in the morning affects my mood for the whole day. I sit on a stool in my bedroom and breathe, and then I follow a well-worn path to my happy place, which you can read about here.

I want to exercise. I love walking. I love power walking to be precise. But I can’t right now. I’ve developed painful plantar faciitis, and simple walking around the house is difficult. The good news is that the job training requires me to travel and stay in a hotel with an exercise room. Perhaps there will be some machine there I can use. If I like it, I’ll check out the YMCA’s gym when I get home next week. Maybe I’ll join.

You know what? I’m really fine. I will meditate today and hobble around a local park for some fresh air. I’ve made — what are for me — earth-shattering changes in the last three weeks, and I am happy.

I am happy!

You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life? - Rumi

You were born with wings, why prefer to crawl through life? – Rumi

Feeling Surreal

Can time be experienced as more than simple aging and decay?

Can time be experienced as more than simple aging and decay?

I wrote recently how my negative self-talk had stopped. I’m happy to report there’s been no resurgence. I won’t call this permanent, but there’s a sea change in my head. I glow.

My psychiatric nurse practitioner took one look at me yesterday and noticed. I’m beaming.

I have been studying for my job training classes. They hoisted an enormous 3-ring binder on us bursting at the seams with information, and we will be tested on it at the end of the training. There will be a written and an oral test. I’m concentrating on the present. I’m studying and retaining as much as possible. The test isn’t today.

Where did this patience come from? When did this ability to live here now appear?

I can honestly say I awoke after the training and realized I had a head clear of the negative bombardment I’d known all my life. I’m questioning when these qualities I’ve seen in others came to me.

I’ll be going for another week of training in a matter of days, and I am truly excited. One of the next lessons will be about battling negative self-talk. Ha! It appears that all I needed was to write a WRAP, and – poof! – they were gone.

Bipolar Dating and Love

How are you feeling? Loved and supported or abandoned and neglected? How is your mood? Have you checked in with yourself today? Here’s a simple question: did you brush your teeth this morning?

I am concerned about how we people with bipolar approach dating, romance, and love. Ah yes, amour. The best way I know for me to keep track of my feelings is to watch my daily insignificant behaviors. Am I concerned about my hygiene? Am I eating food that will give my body a healthy dose of the energy it needs? Am I reaching out to those around me with helping hands?

It’s my opinion that I’m on an even keel when I can answer those questions affirmatively, and love adds a layer of joy to the reaching out. I have many more questions to ask, but they’re not necessary to list here. I try to keep them simple, though. Complex questions confuse the issue.

I’m in an interesting dating relationship. My beau lives two hours away by car, so we don’t get to see each other regularly. He works a difficult job, too, and his hours are long. I live on disability, so my hours stuck in my head are long, too. Those hours spent rummaging through the entrails of my memories and musing about future possibilities are dangerous territory. I want to fill them up with him. Him!

Why can’t I just pick up the phone and call? Why can’t we spend hours together talking over coffee or even lying in each other’s arms? Why?

It’s a puzzlement, and I’ve had experience in the past with dating and love and revealing my illness. In my current relationship, I waited a month to tell him I was a recovered alcoholic and another month to break the news of my bipolar. I took it slowly due to past problems with those issues.

I have given out the information up front at times and had men walk out of my life immediately. That pain is fleeting. I once dated a man for eight or nine months, during which I was stable. At least, I think I was. I told him about my recovery from alcoholism and my diagnosis of bipolar, and he left, too.

Come to think of it, that last man wasn’t the best of those I dated steadily. He was inconsistent with his availability, often wouldn’t return my calls, and rarely initiated contact. The relationship was my responsibility, it seemed, and it made me nuts. It drove me batty.

I learned a very important lesson from him. I had three choices of how I could react to his behavior.

  1. I could want more of him and be miserable.
  2. I could accept what he was willing to give and when he was willing to give it and be happy.
  3. I could end the relationship.

I chose number two with that particular man only to have him walk out on me when I became open and vulnerable, but the lesson learned has stuck with me.

With my new job training and the life lessons it is teaching me, I know that I don’t have to run from the idea of opening myself to new loving relationships. My admirable qualities make me a great catch for some man. I’m recovering from mental illness. I’m not dying because of it. I have a lot to offer in the way of dating and loving.

I approach dating differently now. I used to throw myself into a relationship 100% from the beginning. When things soured, I backed off giving only 75%. Slowly, things would diminish, and I would be down to giving little more than 10%, and then the breakup would occur.

My current relationship is about ten months old. We started by trading personal information and stories via emails. We waited to meet for coffee, and then we had a lunch date. I told him my darkest secrets as I mentioned above, and he didn’t run from me. Over the intervening months, I have shared my emotions with him. He’s known when I’ve been down. He’s stuck around.

Maybe it’s because he knows we’re in this for a longer term. This relationship was started with the idea of becoming friends and working our way up to lovers.

Or maybe it’s because he likes me. That thought gives me a smile.

Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day. The distance will keep me away from the one I call “my man,” but I have someone to calmly think of fondly. My smile is instant at the idea.

Shout It from the Mountaintops!

I sit right now in front of a blank screen on my computer, and my fingers refuse to move. My brain sputters. I have false starts. Ideas flit to the surface and recede. Through it all rides exuberance. I giggle.

Stunning.

Exhilarating.

Rapturous.

In about a week’s time, this blog will be three years old. However, that’s not the cause for celebration. While it’s a worthy milestone, I’m excited for another reason.

You see, I’m drawing a blank.

I’m stumped.

There’s nothing there!

That’s right. Nothing!

Sh! You can’t hear it? If you stop up your ears and shut your eyes, what do you hear? When you have a brain without mental illness, you hear nothing or your heart beating or maybe loud noises from passing traffic in the street outside your window gets through your fingers in your ears. I think you understand what I mean. There are everyday sounds, natural ones.

To people with mental illness, a quiet mind is often unattainable. Indeed, a book that is a pillar in the field of mental illness is called An Unquiet Mind by Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison. I highly recommend it.

Quiet.

That’s what I’m up against today, and it’s glorious!

In the first days of this blog, I wrote my “Thoughts in Hell“. I had horrific thought patterns, which I had faced for many years, too many years. In more recent years, I’ve battled other burdensome thoughts. I’ve experienced visual and aural hallucinations, which are controlled by medication.

Mostly, I’ve dealt with negative self-talk. This voice was not small. It was big and ever present. When I wasn’t wholly engaged in an activity, the voice would pipe in and say, “You’re worthless.” Any spare moment was opportunity for it to deride me with hateful sayings like “ugly, fat, and bald.”

Today, it’s gone. Vanished. I’m clearheaded.

What’s most surprising to me is how quickly it seems to have left. It was not present while I was at the job training, because I was too busy. Normally, it would rear its ugly head and shout something at me even in those times when I was in my room alone or ambling the hallways, but this time it was quiet.

I’ve been home more than a week, and it’s roared at me a couple of times. Really, it’s been maybe three times, and each of those times, I’ve looked at myself in the mirror and thought, “Really?! Nah! I’m okay. I’m good and getting even better.”

Why? Why did this change happen so suddenly? I honestly have to give the credit to our training. The Wellness Recovery Action Plan or WRAP by Dr. Mary Ellen Copeland has turned my thinking on its head. I came home from the job training and began putting my Wellness Toolbox together. I’ve got a 3-ring binder with some lists and important information. There’s a list of my attributes when I’m well that I can look at when I’m not well. I put in pictures of my children and a favorite picture of me acting in a play. I’ve got a pen to remind me that I like to write and that I’m good at it. There’s a small stuffed animal that I can hold and cuddle when I’m feeling blue. In the next week, I’ll be gathering the last of the items for my Wellness Toolbox. I’m going to put in a funny book since I love to read, a deck of cards, and some candy wrappers because I like chocolate. On the front of my 3-ring binder, I put a print of a big rainbow flag, the international symbol of gay pride. I’m out and proud to be gay.

Friends, my head is clear! Shout it from the mountaintops!

We Can Recover from Mental Illness

There are stages in the recovery process of mental illness similar to stages in the grieving process. But wait. Did I just write the words “recovery process”? There must be something amiss here. Something’s gone awry. Recovery? Can there be recovery from mental illness?

Yes!

I completed my first week of training for a new job recently. For those just stumbling across this blog, I’m becoming a Certified Peer Specialist in mental health. I have three more weeks of classes and then a three-month internship. It’s intensive and tiring. My brain hasn’t been used this much in years.

The first week felt so good. I grasped and really appreciated so many things. There was so much information to absorb. I was humbled and excited to be a part of it. I am learning to help myself recover and then to help others by sharing my own recovery story.

We are learning about WRAP (Wellness Recovery Action Plan developed by Mary Ellen Copeland, PhD) and how to maintain our own wellness and recovery. It has many parts, and I want to get to it. First, let me say the program is not mine. I did not originate it. You cannot learn it from me in this single blog entry. If you are truly interested in wellness and recovery from mental illness, then I encourage you to follow the link and order Dr. Copeland’s book and join a WRAP group.

We all possess tools to help us stay well. Physically, we have hunger and thirst to remind us to eat and drink appropriately. Mentally, we have needs for social interaction and friendship. I believe we have innate yearnings for nurturing. We search for love and acceptance. When mental illness strikes, it skews the core of those desires and things get out of whack.

We often require medical intervention to set things aright, but there is much we can do on our own. For my own early recognition of self-help, you can read this blog entry from two years ago. The Wellness Recovery Action Plan puts it all in much greater detail and to much greater effectiveness.

Beginning, we each create a daily maintenance plan. Importantly, we are asked to start by taking a good long look at ourselves when we are well. Encouraged by a long exercise of listing exemplary attributes, we can begin to feel the hope this whole program engenders. My list includes things like out and proud to be gay, sober, getting exercise, taking medication, and many other things.

The daily maintenance plan goes on to list vital things we do each day to stay well. Some items are repeated from the previous list, but that’s OK. I added things like checking in with close friends and family and supporters. The whole notion is to build a list of daily activities I can do to aid my recovery and wellness.

Then there is a list of things I do to keep well, but not daily. Simple items like buying groceries appear on this list. I also put down hiking and writing letters.

After the daily maintenance plan, there are five more sections of what is called the wellness toolbox. I’m not going into detail here about each of those pieces, because I don’t want to give the impression that this is something that can be easily transferred in one sitting. My own WRAP toolbox took days and is still a work in progress, and it will take me many more days of classes and study to learn to teach others how to make their own.

The point to be taken away from this post is the hope that the program brings. Persons with mental illness can recover. We can be vital advocates in our own plan for wellness. We are not pawns of any system. We are not defined by our disease.

To paraphrase something I wrote a few entries ago, I am an active participant in my own wellness and recovery today.