(CC BY-SA 3.0) Phunk Studio

Why Are Manic Episodes So Chaotic?

(CC BY-SA 3.0) Phunk Studio

(CC BY-SA 3.0) Phunk Studio

If you’ve lived anywhere other than under a rock, you’ve likely heard horror stories of folks with Bipolar Disorder. Thankfully, they aren’t all true for everyone, and many are exaggerated. Each person with Bipolar Disorder has their own subset of symptoms and can’t be compared with each other. The most inconvenient manic trait I deal with is starting projects that I don’t complete. My to-do list ends up being extraordinarily long, as I begin project after project. But why? It’s simple enough. I feel compelled to become happy.

It always starts with the need to do something enjoyable. Crafts, video games, puzzles, and music are the high points. Crafts is the hardest, though. I will start a new project, perhaps a bracelet, blanket, or even a pillow. My manic mind is full of great ideas. They really are great, too. It’s not a matter of delusions. Rather, it’s a matter of enthusiastic optimism.

The problem comes in the finishing of the project. See, the manic mind feels compelled to seek further happiness. I could be listening to music, making a beautiful piece of art, totally happy. But it’s not enough. The longer the project takes me, the more likely that I’ll have another great idea, and start another project.

And that’s where the chaos comes from. My manic mind makes excuses for minor messes, even as they pile on. I have no qualms shelving a project, because I know I will come back to it. At least, that’s what my brain says. My desk becomes covered in projects I’m working on, and my pile of unfinished crafts grows.

Are there ways to make things less chaotic? Absolutely. The hardest, but most effective method is to limit myself to one project at a time. I make smaller things, so I can move on when it’s time. I also hold myself to a standard of minimum clutter. If things get too messy, I’m not allowed to start the next project until I’ve tidied and cleaned.

I also talk to Jenny about what I’m doing, and my plans for my project(s). Even taking five minutes to explain can save a lot of trouble. Jenny’s really good at poking holes in a plan, which means I’m much more prepared for trouble if/when it comes. Planning the project thoroughly means that I run into fewer complications that might make the project less fun. Also, it helps me realize when my plan is a little unrealistic.

Each person has to figure out what works for them, of course. Lists, companions, conversation, self-discipline, even meditation: These things all make my life less chaotic. Think about what helps you, and feel free to comment. Maybe you’ve got a nugget or two for me, too?

Raynaud’s Syndrome

So, unexpectedly, I had a calm Christmas. Yes, I had nightmares. Yes, I’ve been depressed. But those symptoms are predictable, and I can mentally prepare myself ahead of time. I can keep my care team (read: wife and medical professionals) in the loop, and keep everything in context. Nothing major or disruptive, just depression and some annoying nightmares.

But there’s been another layer to my Winter complications. A moderately common disease called Raynaud’s Syndrome. It’s a chronic disorder, which can last your entire life. It affects many fewer men than women, but there are about 200,000 cases reported every year for people of all ages and sexes. But what does it do? It causes pain, irritation, and tissue damage including gangrene/frostbite.

Ouch! Here’s how it works: My fingers, toes, wrists, ankles, nose, even nipples get cold. Like, really cold. When my body senses cold, especially in the extremities, the body stops sending heat to the extremities to preserve core temperature. Blood vessels, capillaries, veins, and even lymph vessels spasm as blood flow is reduced. This hurts. Like, a lot.

After a while, the tissue grows colder and colder. There are a scary number of cases which involve people being so cold in the Summer that they get frostbite, even if it’s 100 degrees outside.

Son of a dog, folks! Thankfully, my case isn’t that severe, for now. I concentrate on staying warm, and keeping my core temperature high enough that my body wants to get rid of some heat, so it sends it to the radiators (fingers, toes, nose, top of head, etc.).

So I’ve been cold or hot for months. It sucks. But you know what? I’m glad to have the diagnosis. It means that I’m not crazy for being cold or hot when other people are comfortable. I can take control of this all on my own!

Unfortunately, the medications that work well for treating Raynaud’s are all blood pressure medications. I cannot take these because of my normal medication regimen, so it’s all manual work. That’s okay, though. I’m just glad that I have supportive friends and family who have all kinds of ideas.

I’m still depressed, and having a hard time with some of my work. I’ll talk about work another time, though. What matters is I’m okay. I hope you are all doing well. As ever, I pray for all of you, but if it would help you to have more prayer or positive energy, comment, and you will get it. Hugs, folks.

PS: You’re a bad-ass. If you have Raynaud’s, let me know. I might be able to suggest things to help!

Christmas Nightmares — PTSD and Seasonal Affective Disorder

I’ve been quiet a lot this month, and I’m sorry to anyone who has missed me, or worried. I just have a hard time being 100% myself in the winter, and my energy all goes to my kids and Jenny, because they are most important. Happy Christmas to you all, by the way. I know it’s late, but what the hell.

The nightmares have been the hardest part. Constant, vivid, terrifying dreams of my brothers becoming ill, and trying to care for them as they wantonly spread infectious diseases. In the dreams, they aren’t the young adults I know. They are the small children I lived with, and cared for, for so many years. Children. Sick, tired, enjoying life as much as they can without parents to guide them.

I also dream of Jenny and our two wonderful kids, hurt, tired, confused, and looking for answers I can’t give them. Our daughter in college, desperate for guidance. Our son leaving home for the first time, unable to see that he’s still welcome in our home. Jenny, terrified of losing her close relationship with her adult children. Me being unable to help, frozen like Han Solo in carbonite, watching, unable to speak or act.

None of these dreams are true. They are lies created by the depression and tiredness that come with the Christmas season. My brothers grew into healthy adults. My children are safe, and will always know the love of their parents (all of us, I’m sure).

Split families can be hard. Christmas in two homes, parents who aren’t together any longer, trying to belong in two worlds simultaneously. I know, too well, the burden of a child trying to make sure that both parents know they are loved. It’s a challenge children shouldn’t have to face, a burden they shouldn’t have to carry. But parents are humans, too. It’s hard for everyone, and that’s okay.

I had a good Christmas. A simple affair with Jenny and the kids, then the kids we able to spend the night with their father, and spend the Christmas weekend with him.  It’s magic, you see. A miracle that our children are loved by so many. It’s a blessing I didn’t have as a child, and I can’t be happier for them.

My nightmares can sit on a stick. They can stay in the dark of the night, washed away by a mug of morning tea. The darkness passes, and now the days will get longer again. Winter may be in full swing, but the sun is shining a few moments longer today than it did yesterday. The days will only get longer as summer comes.

My depression is a nasty bitch. It’s hard to do everything, but it’s harder to do nothing, so I cling to that. I woke up this morning to a wonderful wife, in a warm bed, with a beautiful view of the desert highlands. I came upstairs to find emails, comments, tweets, and pokes, all wishing me a happy season. Point taken, world. I’m off to make something of my day. I hope you do the same.

The Oppressive Fog of Depression

I’ve always had a hard time putting the symptoms of my depression into words in a way that I can share, and quantify in some way, how my depression affects my day-to-day. During my latest wave of depression, I noticed my work was going much slower, and that I was spending more time working than normal. So I put myself to the test, and did some numbers and observations.

I’m typing at half-speed when I’m depressed.

My typing speed, on a normal day, is about 65 words per minute. That’s about 400 characters, or around 7 characters each second. While depressed recently, I took an online test to check my speed. I was horrified to find that I was typing only about 35 words per minute, or about 3.5 characters per second.

My body can’t work as long.

This problem has several fronts to address. First, I can’t look at my computer screen as long as normal, because my eyes get worn out sooner. If I sit too long, my energy drops into “rest” mode, so I have to get up and move around. During my normal, I can work for up to four hours without breaks. During my recent work stints, I’ve noticed I start to lose focus after about 45 minutes. I have to get up, move around, and blink a few times. Finally, I have to take more bathroom breaks. This might seem silly, but I have chronic Colitis, which means my intestines are always inflamed. Always. Bathroom trips (especially 6-8 a day) are not my idea of “productive time.”

I am hungrier when I’m depressed.

I eat 30-40% more when I’m depressed. During my normal, I maintain weight. When I’m depressed, I gain weight. It takes a lot to lost weight, because I get sooooo hungry. I don’t want to eat my emotions, I just want to feel satisfied. See below for more on that.

Depression Means Fun

Feeling satisfied is a Sisyphean task, and happiness just isn’t happening.

I reward myself for small successes, like finishing an assignment early. I celebrate by “feeding my soul”. “Feeding my soul” is a combo of things that make me feel happier, or special. This is usually video games, or egg-nog. Now, each time I feed my soul, the void grows when it empties out. I struggle to fill it. I pour more-and-more happiness into this growing pit, feeling less-and-less “fed” each time. I take breaks, get distracted, spend longer stretches of time playing games between work sessions, and drinking huge tumblers full of egg-nog. My work day gets longer, and I still get sadder.
It takes more “fun” to feel like I’ve had fun.

I am a lot more anxious.

I second guess everything, especially myself. I withdraw. It’s like my depression is this Dementor inside my brain, sucking the happiness out of me, lurking in the hope that it will get my soul, which makes me anxious. Mostly this manifests in me not putting out ads for work, because I’m sure I’ll be turned down. Thankfully, my work comes from multiple places, so I can trust work to come my way, even when I’m not chasing work down. This is intentional, I set my work up so it keeps going, even if I’m depressed.

I drink about 4x more tea.

Caffeine and sugar give me some relief. Some of my medications make me sleepier, and low-grade stimulants help. I drink glass after glass of sweetened strong Earl Grey. It’s a short-term solution, that leaves me to pay for it later. I end up taking a few naps, or skip my early-morning “fun-time” (which means Facebook and Skyrim), in order to sleep in an extra half-hour.

Basically, everything slows down. My vision suffers, and my empathy takes a hit. I find it harder to understand other people’s emotions. I get a little more selfish, not because I want to take it out on others, but because I have fewer spoons to work with, and fewer to share. I have to save my spoons to get my work done, and what little bit I have left I spend on Jenny and the kids, because nothing is more important than them.

I am coming out of a funk. At least, it feels that way today. But I’m still slower than normal. It took over an hour to write this, for example. It’s not (just) that I have a hard time typing, it’s that my words take longer to stick together. I have to read everything an extra time or two, just to make sure I’m making sense. If, for any reason, you aren’t understanding this, blame the fog. It’s clearing up, but it’s still there, for now.

Here’s hoping for a clear day.

Carbon Monoxide Couldn’t Kill Me

Carbon Monoxide - "Carbon-monoxide-3D-balls" by Benjah-bmm27 - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons - https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carbon-monoxide-3D-balls.png#/media/File:Carbon-monoxide-3D-balls.png

“Carbon-monoxide-3D-balls” by Benjah-bmm27 – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Carbon-monoxide-3D-balls.png#/media/File:Carbon-monoxide-3D-balls.png

I moved to Arkansas when I was 12. My mother had fallen in with the most abusive man I’ve known (which is quite the damned feat, I tell you what). We didn’t say goodbye to our friends. We didn’t have a going-away party. Our family just woke one day to find that we were suddenly hundreds of miles away. What a shock it must have been for them. It was certainly a jarring and terrifying experience.

That winter was a harsh one. Loss of power, a lack of running water, and a failed heating system became the highlight of the season. No fireplace, no central heat, and a lack of enough space heaters added up quickly. I remember soothing the tears of my five-year-old brother, pulling him under a blanket with me, trying to keep his tiny, thin body warm. My mother and Dirk finally caved, and bought a heating solution: a propane space heater.

Yep, you read that correctly. Those nightmare stories you hear on the news of a family who died because of carbon monoxide poisoning? My family, by sheer luck, wasn’t one of those families, despite all efforts to do us in anyhow. We were kids, but I knew it was dangerous. I was just too afraid to speak up. Dirk had a way of silencing any dissent. Usually, that method involved lots of physical pain, often caused by whatever was at hand.

Eventually, we left that house. We became squatters, in an abandoned home with serious structural issues. But it had a wood stove. The angels sang, and trumpets blared my relief above the red dirt road. But I wasn’t prepared for the task. I didn’t know how to start a fire. I never learned about tinder or kindling. It took months for me to learn the art of putting wood in a concrete stove without snuffing the fire.

I slept no more than three feet of the heater. I would wake up when it started to feel cold, and I would stoke the fire back to life at two in the morning. At five, I would wake up again to get it roaring. I would shovel out ashes, pile in some small wedges of wood, and work it up to a blaze. My family would wake to a warm home. I’d already be showered and sometimes have food ready. I always had coffee made, so Dirk and my mother could remain zombies while we prepared our daily escape to school.

Each day, the last thing I did before leaving for school was to bank the fire. Carefully folding ashes over white-hot logs, I’d put out the open flame, but not the heat inside. The coals were the critical bit. If the whole fire went out, I’d have to start a new fire, from scratch. I still had to, sometimes. Those were some of the worst days. Nursing a fire to life inside a box no more than two cubic feet inside is difficult. Old ashes, damp kindling, and thick smoke made the fire a matter of nightmares.

But the stove was better than a propane heater. Going outside, at all times of the year, with an electric chainsaw to retrieve logs and branches sucked. Splitting wood with a maul that weight 8 pounds, but felt like 50. These were inconveniences, and I hated them at the time. But they were always better than poison, and risking the death of my family.

I wasn’t alone. I had four brothers supporting me. I also had the scowling, hateful, and altogether humiliating feedback from Dirk. We were a poor family, living on a dirt road, twenty miles from the nearest Wal-mart. We did what we had to do, even if I hated every minute of it. My brothers and I survived cold winters, and had each other. I couldn’t ask for more, because we had what mattered: family.

George’s Tree

Photo: Jenny Bristol

Photo: Jenny Bristol

Today I got to see some of George’s family. His sister and her family were here visiting George’s mom. Jenny and I swung over to say hi before they left town again, and to see the new addition. George’s mom and step-dad had a beautiful Sycamore planted in his honor on their terrace. (Pictured above)

This culminated in us all standing around a beautiful (if late-seasoned) sycamore tree, with tears in more than one set of eyes. In the end, grandkids and crew were being swept up the path to the house, and I found myself saying, “excuse me, but I’m going to be silly for a moment.”

I then tried to hug a sapling. It didn’t go so well, at first, because the trunk is about 2 inches across. I ended up with my arms stuck through branches, and my head poked in through the most convenient gap. I felt very silly indeed as I felt some not-quite tears fill up my eyes. It felt good, though. Really good.

I came home and celebrated life with a friend (whose birthday is Thanksgiving Day), and played D&D until the kids called it off for the night. It was nice. In the growing quiet, I found myself sitting alone in the living room, half-heartedly playing Spider Solitaire, quietly crying.

I miss my friend. I miss seeing him every week, and I miss talking to him. And partly, I miss having another person I could trust completely. Life can be hard when you carry too much alone. Thankfully, I have a wonderful wife. I don’t carry anything alone, not really, not anymore. But it was nice to be there for George, and for him to be there for me. His friendship made life feel a little bit bigger, somehow.

Now, it’s smaller, but that’s okay. I met a beautiful shade tree today, and I remembered that life goes on.

Un-press My Depression [The Computer Analogy]

No Easy Button

Today, I feel the weight of Depression holding me down. My vision, typing speed, communication skills, and focus are all diminished. My emotions sit in a pile in front of me, and are like a bizarre abstract sculpture, disorganized and baffling. But more than anything, I feel like I’m in Sleep Mode.

You know the drill. You don’t want to shut down your computer, so you don’t lose your work. You also don’t want to pay for the power and bandwidth used by a computer running all day. So you put it to sleep. That’s where I am today.

I’m still plugged in. I still have a place to be. I’ve got power, and can access all my software. I’ve got processing power, and all my hardware is perfectly functional. But, for some reason, I’m unable to do my stuff. There is this undefined filter between me and my world. I’m connected to my router properly, and I can access the internet, except that I can’t.

Just as a computer is perfectly useful before and after sleep mode, I am in great shape when I’m not depressed. But that button is pressed. I’m down, but not out. I’m on, but not up. I’m in this limbo where I can’t do my job because something is there, keeping me from loading my drivers and sending my packets.

If your friendly neighborhood IT guy (or doctor) were to check things over, they’d say everything works fine. All the tests in the world will say there’s nothing wrong, except that nothing is happening. Thankfully, a computer can be woken up with a click of a mouse, or stoke of a key.

Unfortunately, there’s no equivalent for Depression. No way to un-press the button. No “wake up” protocol. At some point, I’ll wake up. But I won’t know when, and I won’t know when that button will be de-pressed again. All I can do is run when I can, and rest when I can’t run. It’s that simple.