Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Highs and Lows

Last night, I got to experience the highest and lowest of life - all in the span of about four hours. My head is still spinning a bit, my emotions reeling from the wild roller coaster ride.

I decided to attend a concert, to be held in one of the classier venues in our city, right in the heart of downtown. Coinciding with the decision to attend was the decision to take public transit. (I'm not a fan of driving in the city at night - or any other time, really...)

So I walked to the nearest bus stop and sat on a bench to wait, a little nervously. (There was a time that public transit was the only way I traveled, but that was several years ago. Now I take the bus a few times a year, max...) Already on edge, I just about had a heart attack when a cat was trying to cross the road and narrowly escaped being hit by a truck - right in front of me!

The rest of the bus trip was uneventful, thank goodness. Until I got downtown, that is. I got off at the right stop, but then I didn't know where I was in relation to where I needed to be - only a few blocks away, but more than enough to stump a directionally-challenged person like myself. So I started walking.

It was then that the juxtaposition of life hit me hardest. There, in the midst of enormous modern skyscrapers and old architectural masterpieces, resided the lowest of the low, the down-est and out-est. The homeless, the wanderers, the ones who had squandered their chances or never had any chance at all. And you want to know something? No one accosted me, no one asked me for anything...but more than one of these poor folks actually looked me in the eye and smiled as I passed by. It broke my heart.

I finally found my way to the concert hall and was immediately accosted by the opposite extreme - the wealthy, the well-off, the affluent, the comfortable, finely-dressed folks who had extra money to spend on tickets to a Christmas concert. And I was one of them.

The concert itself was lovely, the impeccable harmonies lifting praises to the heavens as obscure melodies and familiar carols were sung. My soul was well-nourished by the time the final notes had ceased. To say that the evening was a study in contrasts would be a bit of an understatement.

Kind of like my life these days.

(If you're still with me, Friend - bravo! You'll find a revelation in the following lines.)

If you've been reading this blog for any length of time, you'll be familiar with my struggle with depression over the last few years. (Your support has been so empowering, by the way - thank you.) At the urging of family and friends, I finally gathered the courage to see my doctor a few weeks ago.

My doctor's a great guy. Very thorough, very efficient. He asked a lot of questions, had me fill out several mental health surveys and BOOM! Diagnosis: mild to moderate bipolar disorder.

Say whaaa? First of all, I one hundred percent didn't expect a diagnosis on my first consultation about this. In fact, I was kind of anticipating/hoping the doctor would say it's nothing to worry about, go ahead and get on with your life, or something to that effect to suggest that I really was okay. And bipolar disorder? Of all the things it could have been, I sure didn't foresee that.

Looking back, I'm not sure why it was such a shocker. I mean, there is a family history of mental illness, diagnosed and not, that goes back generations, and includes bipolar disorder. I guess if I had actually taken the time to find out what it was when it emerged in our family, I would have seen the symptoms in myself much sooner, and may have been spared some hard things.

Do you know about bipolar disorder? Boiled down, it's regular life interspersed with extreme highs and lows, or mania and depression. "They" believe it's caused by a chemical imbalance, serotonin and dopamine specifically. It's a spectrum disorder, with a wide range of severity and occurrence of symptoms. Generally speaking, someone with bipolar disorder has higher highs and lower lows than the average person - whoever that might be :)

I've experienced a wide range of emotions as I've processed this new label. I expect there will be more to come, but for now I've landed on acceptance. A very good, very wise friend gave me a great way to look at it - that we're trying this label on to see how it fits. If life gets better wearing it, maybe we keep it. If not, it's not a problem to take it off and try on something else.

I feel good about having taken this step towards health and wellness and knowledge. I'm happy to have the opportunity to be an ambassador for mental health, to help break down communication barriers and stereotypes and stigma. I'm anticipating the positive changes that will come in my life as a result of this step in the right direction. I'm thankful for a God and a family and friends who have never and will never give up on me, who give me strength and courage and hope in the face of what could be seen as a bleak outcome. I'm choosing to anchor my soul to hope.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

I Can

I returned home a few days ago from the first overnight trip I've taken without my family since 2011. I've been making an effort to process my experience, but it finally occurred to me that writing it all out would likely be the way to make some real progress towards dealing with this mental and emotional overload. (Duh, Joy...) And so, once upon a time...

...there serendipitously arose a last-minute opportunity to attend a four-day, out-of-town workshop. The stars aligned (i.e. my husband heroically rearranged his schedule) and I was able to go.

It was, in a word, amazing. But holy intensity, Batman! Long days, late nights, tons of new information, big ideas, fresh perspectives - more than enough to boggle my mind. Even more overwhelming was the constant challenge to assimilate, to incorporate, to apply what was being presented. But I was alert, focused, interested, excited - looking forward with great hope and expectancy to what could be. I was on board!

In retrospect, maybe what I experienced on the third morning was not much of a surprise at all. At the time, however, it came as though out of the blue - wholly unanticipated.

The morning session began with a time of singing together. In the middle of the second song, the all-too-familiar thick cloud of depression wrapped itself around me, choking me. I couldn't sing another word - I had suddenly lost the ability to believe that the beautiful words of acceptance and love and grace and forgiveness applied to me. Simultaneously, being around people became utterly unbearable. Without a second thought or a word to anyone, I headed for the door.

I'm coming to see what depression means for me in terms of what it takes from me. It robs me of the capacity to believe truth. It renders me feeling-less, numb. And it severely limits the possibility of receiving help from people who love me, since it blocks my willingness to accept care - convinces me I'm not worthy of such.

I don't know what I hoped to accomplish by running away. I wasn't thinking rationally - it never occurred to me that my absence might be noticed and cause my group concern. But as I sat outside in the cold, crisp air, I began to observe myself as if I were someone else.

I noticed particularly that though there was beauty around me - ancient trees clothed in late-lingering leaves, blue sky and clouds creating gorgeous celestial artwork, fresh mountain air - it didn't penetrate into my soul. I saw that my surroundings were beautiful, but it failed to move me.

I'm not sure how long I sat there, staring at the cement staircase upon which I had landed. Eventually, I was discovered, reprimanded, loved on and returned to the workshop. In the far recesses of my mind, I felt the glimmerings of regret that I had caused my friends anxiety, but it was pretty dim. I was still moving in a fog at this point - the remainder of that session was completely lost on me. I felt powerless to re-engage.

Then came a coffee break, and the reckoning. I was pulled aside by my group leader. I heard the words being spoken to me - a wonderful, intricate blending of rebuke, encouragement, truth, care and challenge. I was able to respond, just barely. But a bit of anger and indignation was starting to cut through the fog. I hate being reprimanded. I do not do well with people telling me what to do.

But I did it. I think the initial motivation was to just smooth things over, to shift the focus elsewhere, to make it look like I was okay, to keep everyone from pouring on more care and concern. But that small step in the right direction, even for the wrong reasons, started an avalanche.

The activity immediately following all this was in a small group setting, with people I'd met only two days before - and all men at that. I had been strongly encouraged not only to attend but to engage. So I did. Maybe it was somehow easier to talk to strangers about it, but I ended up sharing some of my struggles. And the genuine outpouring of sympathy and concern and wisdom and knowledge and love I received from these big, tough, manly strangers broke through the fog and broke my heart - in a really good way.

After all the heart-felt prayers and cleansing tears, it was lunch time and down time - thanks be to God! I met my leader in the hallway, and the joy on his face as he beamed at me and exclaimed, "You did it!" was a lovely reward for the exhausting, soul-wringing work of confession and repentance. And after I apologized to my dear friends for shutting them out and rejecting their love and concern, it felt like the sun had just risen again.

Several questions have emerged from all this that will need to be examined at length (some other time!), but I'm taking one extremely encouraging and hope-giving truth from this incident: when I have help, I can overcome. In clinical terms, the duration of a depressive episode can be greatly diminished by outside intervention.

God, please help me remember this truth. Help me to have the courage to reach out, and the grace to receive Your love through those beautiful souls You've placed in my life. Amen!