Just Breathe

Last week, I spent six days in Alamosa, CO at Adams State University. The week was first two intensives that I have to complete in order to graduate from the Counselor Education Program with my Master’s in Counseling. The week was called an “intensive” and with very good reason.

Our day started with breakfast at 7am and most days didn’t end until 6pm. I spent two and a half hours every morning in group therapy and three and a half hours every afternoon in class practicing counseling skills as both the counselor and the client. After this class I spent one to two hours in meetings with the faculty and staff going over other aspects of the program. Every day was exhausting. We spent a lot of time talking about self care, which was paramount during this week.

In addition to simply having quite a lot to do each day, we were all worried about being graded, judged, and accepted into the program, while trying to show up in authentic ways in the counseling environment. We were stressed and emotional on an almost constant basis.

At home I occasionally remember to focus on my breathing in order to manage stress and anxiety. But while in Alamosa, it became not just helpful, but necessary to remember to consciously breathe. Sitting in my therapy group trying to manage my tears as I tell a story, taking my turn as a counselor in practical class and getting triggered by my ‘clients’ story, trying to stay present and attentive during our after-class meetings.

I never would have made it calmly through the week if I hadn’t spent a significant portion of the week just breathing. This was great practice for every day life and had been incredibly helpful for reintegrating into my regular life. Every time I start to feel anxious or stressed, angry or frustrated, I’m remembering to go back to my breath.

Breathe in, Breathe out, Hold it. Breathe in, Breathe out, Hold it. The holding it is key, because it helps our body move from the fight or flight response (sympathetic nervous system) to the rest and digest response (parasympathetic nervous system).

Emotion isn’t just cognitive, it’s physical too. So remember to breathe. Just breathe!

Guest Post: Bipolar Transgender Life

Hey Everyone,
Below, you’ll find a fantastic post from my friend Danni. I invited him to write something for my blog because of his unique perspective as a transgender man who also struggles with Bipolar I. I hope you enjoy his post and that you have a fantastic week. Please show Danni some love!

My name is Danni, and I came out on Facebook as male on May 1 of 2014. I had told many friends and family in the months leading up to that, but it was an important step to announce it online. I have a lot of online contacts that I don’t see regularly and that might have missed it otherwise. I lost a few friends, but mostly ones that I didn’t realize were missing for months. It was empowering to change my pronouns and gender identity on Facebook.
I was diagnosed with Major Depression at 17, and then later it changed to Bipolar 1 when I was 19. When I started to come out as transgender, at 27, people doubted my sincerity because I was also struggling with my bipolar symptoms. It added to the struggle of people not taking me seriously. My updated diagnosis has become Bipolar expressive. It was a really hard time for me, and it took months before that got settled.
Being bipolar and transgender brings its own challenges. Last week, I wondered why I was getting more depressed. I had run out of lithium and missed three doses, so it could have been that. I recently switched from biweekly shots of Testosterone to weekly shots, hoping that would make my moods more stable and not on a two week long roller coaster ride. The depression was bad a day after the lithium had been reintroduced into my system, and also during the last day before my next Testosterone Shot. Sometimes there is no reason for my feelings, but other times it is worth examining what is going on with me chemically.
Sometimes things people say to me can set off my bipolar symptoms even though the reason they upset me is due to disrespecting my transgender status. When I get mis-gendered, it feels like someone is looking at me and not seeing me for who I am. When it happens on the phone at work, I just correct them and it doesn’t upset me very much, but when it happens in my personal life it is harder to deal with. I tend to be very open on Facebook about this, but at the same time I try not to call people out in that way, especially when I know they don’t mean to be malicious.
One of the things I do to manage my bipolar is to keep a mood chart, which can directly assist me in figuring out why my moods have changed.  Changes in medications are recorded, as well as other stimulants/depressants. I often see that if I have an alcoholic beverage, that I will be more depressed either that day or the next day. My mixed episodes tend to appear the same way… once I experience hypomania or mania, usually I will experience depression of the same extent within 48 hours. I have talked about this on Facebook, but it usually leads to people judging me for giving up instead of trying harder during the depression part. I talked to some in more detail about it, but it was clear they haven’t experienced mania and I let it go.
I have been at my current job for a year now, and most of that time I have been pretty stable. However, January and February were particularly hard, and I had a lot of mixed episodes during both months. I tried changing meds, which made my insomnia worse. I also got a nasty case of the flu in there, so I missed a lot of work during that time. My employer was upset at me, but I was not reprimanded officially. During that time, I might post about how I was having trouble with my mental illness, but other times I was too ashamed to say anything. A lot of coworkers are friends with me on Facebook, and I wanted them to know what was going on. However it also can lead to rumors and meanness because I choose to share personal details on Facebook.
For the last few months I’ve been depressed a lot. I miss the mania a little, because it makes me feel alive… afraid, but alive. The depression is numbing, and when it is so constant, it gets worse with time. Right now my coping mechanisms that I’ve been using haven’t been enough to really curb it. I woke up one day last week with soul-crushing sadness and I was too paralyzed with it to move for a while. I ended up coming to work more than an hour late. I have tried really hard to be better with my attendance, and aside from the panic attack that caused me to miss work a few weeks ago, I had been doing much better. Last night I was looking at my charts and noticing how the depression is less debilitating than the mixed episodes, as far as making it to work goes.
The internet has been very helpful in communicating how I’m doing, keeping track of how I’ve changed, and as a source of information. I have been able to direct friends and families to sources that can help them understand my dual diagnoses. I have support groups on Facebook where I can talk to about symptoms and experiences, and reading what others are going through helps me as well.
I recently learned about the spoons theory for those with invisible illnesses, (http://www.butyoudontlooksick.com/articles/written-by-christine/the-spoon-theory/) and it has given me a new way to view and communicate my limitations. I shared it and a lot of my friends thanked me for it. My journey as a bipolar trans man is enriched by my online interactions, and I am honored to be a guest blogger for my old friend, who I haven’t seen since we were in high school over a decade ago. We’re not alone in our struggles, even when it feels that way.

Dropping the Ball

Enter: Vacation, medical procedures, and my first week of school. (School! Did I mention I’m going back to school? Ackkk!)

I’m still here. Still thinking of you all. Still wanting to share my life with you. I’m running short on time these days, so here’s a quick run down of what’s up.

  1. I spent two weeks visiting my mom in Florida. It was gorgeous and fabulous. It mostly looked like this:IMG_2566
  2. Shortly after I got home I had a minor medical procedure from which I am still recovering. I’m okay!
  3. Monday was the first day of my first semester at Adam’s State University in the Master’s of Counseling Education program. Ahhhhh!
  4. I’m learning how to be a student again. This is what that looks like (multitasking):IMG_2621Lecture on the left and blog on the right.  I can do this!
  5. After two weeks and a half weeks away from my hubby (he was away when I got home!) we’ll be taking this long weekend in front of us to spend some quality time together. Which means, I need to finish all my homework before the weekend begins! Guess what? I already did that! I’m working on next weeks assignments. Woohoo!

I’ll be back with something more substantive. Soon. I hope.

 

 

Finding Peace

How does one find peace?

Is it a matter of simplifying one’s life? Eliminating all avenues of fear or worry? Avoiding negative people and events? Can we find peace simply by meditating the negative away?

For the last couple of weeks, I have been experiencing anxiety at bedtime. I will lay down in bed and start intermittently and involuntarily shivering, like I’m cold. Sometimes, I am able to simply breathe through it and fall asleep. Sometimes my darling husband will wrap me up in his arms and that will soothe me enough to fall asleep.

Last night, I could not be soothed.

For the last two weeks, we have been battling an indoor mosquito problem. In general, I don’t like bugs, but I have a deep and utter loathing for mosquitoes. Ever since I was a child, I have been allergic to mosquito bites. I used to get these massive, baseball-sized red welts. Now I get much smaller welts, but they take much longer to heal than most people and I sometimes end up with these permanent lumps where I got bit. This is all by way of saying that an indoor mosquito infestation was a nightmare for me. And to make matters worse, it seemed to be concentrated in our bedroom.

So, for the last two weeks, we’ve been sleeping in our spare bedroom. Now, this spare bedroom is simple and functional. It has a queen size bed a night stand, a shelving unit and a closet. There is no other furniture, no clutter, and clean floors. This was the perfect remedy to my mosquito infested bedroom/bathroom. Nowhere for the little $%&*#@$ to hide.

While we were sleeping in the other room, we’ve been running the fans in the house non-stop (since mosquitoes have a hard time flying in moving air) and we poisoned our bedroom that first night in an attempt to kill as many of them as possible. These two methods appear to have been effective. It’s been about 48 hours since I last saw a mosquito in the house. (Hooray!)

So yesterday, we thought we’d try sleeping in our regular room again – our king size bed, our clothes, our master bathroom, etc. It’s our room. We’ve been sleeping in that room, in this house, for almost a year.

But the room is, shall we say, a disaster area. There are clothes all over the floor and not a single surface is clear. And while this bothered me before, last night it came to a fever pitch. I knew that we’d be moving back into our room soon, but I wasn’t exactly prepared for it to be last night. I had been thinking that I would clean up our room before we moved back in there. I thought I had more time.

But I wanted to accommodate my husband’s desire to get back into our regular bed. He has not been sleeping well in our temporary bedroom and misses the space and comfort of our master. Understandable.

Only one problem, I have become very attached to the simple, minimalist, and clean guest bedroom. So when we moved our stuff (phone chargers, pillows, books, bedtime paraphernalia) back into our master, I started to feel panicky. I couldn’t sleep with all of this crap everywhere. So, I started cleaning, organizing, putting away. But there was too much to do at 10 pm. I’d never get it all done. So I threw a fit, yelled at my husband, and refused to move back into our master. He could if he wanted, but I was sleeping in the guest room!!

Cut to laying in bed (in the guest room) with my patience-of-a-saint husband, and I’m shivering more than any other night. He wraps me up and promptly falls asleep (because my tantrum has made us go to bed much later than normal and he worked a twelve hour day) and I lay there shivering away. I finally fall asleep only to have two consecutive nightmares, the second of which I go back into every time I fall back to sleep. I wake up shivering, I fall back to sleep and get terrorized again.

Around 5am, I finally give up on sleep and decide to try to think happy, calming, peaceful thoughts. I try to meditate. I try to follow my breathing. I try to say affirmations to myself. But because I am so tired, I keep nodding off, which allows the anxiety to take over again.

I am trying to push away the fear. I am trying to ignore the anxiety. I am trying not to think about what it means that in both my nightmares I was being chased, caught, escaping, and being chased again. (In the second one, I was being chased by an evil Tom Cruise. What the %^&* is up with that!?)

So, around 6am I find myself wondering about peace. How do I find peace? Clearly, sleep is not an avenue to peace. At least not this night. Meditation, affirmations, avoidance doesn’t work. And then I was reminded of something my counselor said this week. “You’ve tried everything else. Maybe you need to embrace the fear.”

When she said it, it was in relationship to another issue entirely. I embraced that fear and almost immediately felt better. I’m not sure what this fear is; it feels scarier than the other fear; and I definitely don’t want to embrace it.

Which is probably why Tom Cruise is chasing me in my dreams, trying to steal my memories so he can make robot copies of me. (Was that a movie?)

So, here I am, trying to embrace my fear so I can find peace. Life is nowhere near perfect. I am terrified of failure, of not reaching my dreams. I am afraid of not being enough. I am terrified of not being in control and so I seek to control my surroundings (things and people). Today, I will embrace the unknown. I will set myself up for peace by creating a peaceful living space. I will love first, myself and my husband. I will fail, but I will do my best.

And hopefully, I will find peace.

 

The Stigma of Mental Illness isn’t Going Away

Why is the stigma of mental health so endemic? What makes otherwise intelligent, logical, non-biased people believe that mental illness completely defines a person?

Fear. Fear of the unknown, fear of personal safety, fear for the safety of our loved ones.

Recently, I’ve decided to go back to school. The first thing that happened is unexpected backlash from someone I least expected. This person expressed primary fear about my ability to handle a master’s program because of my mental health. This person enumerated all of the reasons why I should not go back to school because of my mental health. The danger to myself I could become.

My therapist suggested that I find out what kind of accommodations the school would be willing to make if my mental illness flares up. But doing that would require me to disclose my mental illness to the school. Talking to accessibility services would be confidential, but disclosing to the actual program could be detrimental to my success. It could end my new career before it begins. And this is how stigma is propagated. If I allow my fear to stop me from telling my academic adviser about my bipolar disorder, then I’m not doing everything I can to fight the stigma of mental illness. But I also risk being discriminated against.

This is how stigma maintains through fear. We have to fight the faer with facts and logic. We have to stand up to the fear and refuse to back down, refuse to give up.

dawn

Fight fear with strength and love. Be a light. And if you face discrimination, stand up for yourself and remember that your stand just might smooth the way for someone coming up behind you. You’re stand is doing the world a service.

#WorldBipolarDay

In honor of World Bipolar Day, here is my “Ten Things Only people with Bipolar Disorder 2 Understand” from a few months ago. Bipolar I and Bipolar II are very different versions of the same disorder. Are you or someone you know bipolar? Share your stories in honor of World Bipolar Day.

  1. What people think: You have intense manic episodes where you spend lots (and lots) of money on random crap. What’s true: A manic episode means you might smile a few times and have energy to the dishes, take a shower, clean the house, run errands, make dinner, and participate in one of your hobbies. In other words, sometimes “mania” makes you normal and sometimes mania just makes you angry.
  2. You do not understand how people with Bipolar 1 can suffer from a sense of superiority. You go to sleep every day congratulating yourself on only being antisocial rather than a complete shithead.
  3. You never know if mania will make you happier or just give energy to your sadness, anger, fear, frustration with life. Sometimes, mania makes you a complete shithead.
  4. You have to explain your diagnosis to your current psychiatrist and you’ve been on more medications than he or she has heard of because it took forever for someone to finally settle on a diagnosis.
  5. You have medications for every part of your day: Put you to sleep, wake you up, give you energy, calm you down.
  6. Lithium does not help you.
  7. You blame all the problems in your life on your mental illness. If you weren’t bipolar, you’d actually do things. Right?
  8. After a while, you can see the bipolar depression coming. It’s like a whirling blackhole toilet of doom that slowly pulls you in until all you can see is shit.
  9. Antidepressants made you feel worse and mood stabilizers don’t make you feel any different, except for the side effects. The side effects suck.
  10. Bipolar 1 doesn’t sound so bad. At least you’d get to feel good more of the time.

To learn more about Bipolar 2 Disorder and mental health in general, visit the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance.

If you think you might have Bipolar 2 Disorder, visit this site and bring the information to your psychiatrist.

This post originally appeared on January 11, 2015 under the heading “10 Things Only People with Bipolar II Understand”

We Are All Grieving Something

What do we associate with the word grief?

For a lot of people, death is the first thing that comes to mind. The loss of a loved one or beloved pet. But death is not the only cause of grief, and I would think, not even the most common.

The role of grief in our lives is so much larger than I think most of us realize. We experience grief for the death of a loved one, of course, but also for the loss of a loved one by other means – through divorce, geographic loss, distancing of a friendship. Any time we experience a sense of loss, grief can help us heal. The loss of a job, a hope, health, an opportunity, an expectation, missing a treasured event, etc. – all of these are losses that may need to be grieved.

Several years ago I was suddenly, unexpectedly, and indelicately removed from a position at a company that I absolutely adored. I was offered the chance to stay with the company in a different capacity, but without all the parts of my job that made me excited to go to work every day. I left the company shortly after.

I was devastated by this experience – the loss of this thing I loved to do, of daily purpose and meaning. I was terrified of going back to work and experienced severe anxiety, depression, and frequent bouts of agoraphobia for almost a year afterward. But even while I was experiencing all of that, I felt guilty and ashamed. I blamed myself for the loss of the job and for being unable to “pick myself up” and go back to work. It took me years to realize that I had never given myself permission to grieve, or even realized that what I needed to do was grieve.

The loss of that job completely changed the course of my life. I had worked at the company for only two years, but I had begun to see a path for growth and a future for myself there. I had begun to form an idea of what my life might look like. When I was fired, that future vanished in an instant along with any grasp I had on what my future might look like at all.

Five years later and I still have not gotten over the loss. This is the first time I’ve ever talked about it openly. Five years later, it is still a loss I am grieving, easier now than at the beginning, but as with all grief – a loss that may never completely go away.

I work from home now because of the wound inflicted by that loss. I have severe anxiety about getting attached to a job, about loving my work, about negotiating relationships with coworkers and bosses. The latter of which, in part, led to my dismissal.

I hope someday to find work that lights me up in the way that job did, that makes it possible for me to leap the hurdle of my anxiety and fear and have coworkers again. But this grief will take as long as it takes to heal. I can’t rush it no matter how much I might want to. And no one else can rush it either, no matter how much they might not understand it.

No matter what kind of loss you may be experiencing or have experienced, remember that in this way, all loss is the same. It requires time and room for grief before you will be able to successfully move on. And though the pain of the loss may ease, you may never completely get over it.

No one else can tell you how or how long to grieve, only your heart knows that. We are all grieving something. You are not alone. small-heart