Thursday, April 30, 2015


#HAWMC Day 30: There’s a reason why we have the saying,  “Hindsight is 20/20.” What do you wish you had known at the beginning of your patient journey that would have made it easier and less scary?

I'm one for reflection. And there are a lot of questions I could ask myself. A lot of things I could doubt about the past, knowing what I know. I could ask myself: if I knew I'd have to make the decision to give up biological children, would I have thought about adoption in my 20s, before my condition really reared it's ugly head? Would I have started my business, knowing how tough it would be at times when I woke up horribly depressed and couldn't move? Knowing how much the stress of it could cause me to cycle? It would have been easier to stay in my fitness job, where I had set times and wasn't much required to work when not physically at work, certainly. Would I have medicated myself up, gone to extensive therapy, and possibly not gone through all of the tumultuous personal ups and downs - a divorce, a broken engagement, and more? I have no idea. But I don't believe in regret, nor do I believe in looking back much, unless it's a nice bit of nostalgia here and there. 

What I wish I'd known at the beginning was that I wasn't alone. I wish I'd known about all of the other health activists. I wish I'd known about the strength that we could draw from each other. I wish I'd known how amazing my support group would be, so that I could start it sooner - not only for myself, but for the others as well. 

But mostly, I wish I'd known it wasn't my fault. I blamed myself. I blamed myself for getting into a marriage that I wasn't happy in, that I knew I wouldn't be happy in. I blamed myself for being so unhappy that I couldn't stay in it. I blamed myself for not getting where I wanted to be with my career. I blamed myself for the problems (or most of them) in my engagement. I blamed myself for friendships that went awry. I allowed my self esteem to get trampled on. Then I blamed myself for allowing my self-esteem to get trampled on. Why wasn't I strong enough? Why wasn't I secure enough in myself? Why am I so high strung? Why can't I see the world like others? Why have I changed so much from who I used to be? 

And by saying I wish I'd known it wasn't my fault, I'm not placing the blame on anyone else. But it's like having severe asthma and blaming yourself for not being able to run a marathon as fast as your friends (or ever). Everyone else might think that if you train hard enough you can do it - maybe they even have asthma and they did it, so they transfer that to you. But you know that no matter what they say, your body won't let you. And eventually, perhaps you accept it, and decide to take up other pursuits which don't cause you to struggle to breathe. And maybe you'll no longer see your marathon-running friends so much because they don't understand, or they do, but they don't want to take time away from marathon training. But either way, it's not your fault. Acceptance of this doesn't mean that you're in denial or that you're making excuses or that you're not holding yourself accountable. It means you do the best you can, be the best version of you that you can, and acknowledge that maybe it doesn't fit with what others need and want. 

I wish I'd known who I was deep down, and how to be true to that self. I wish I'd been able to separate my vision of myself, others' vision of me, and who I really am when you peel away the layers of baggage and illness and shame and years of blaming myself for things that were often out of my control. 

Do I wish I could go back in time and know then what I know now? I do not. Because I wouldn't be who I am now. There are certainly things I might have changed if I'd known. But if I'd done so, I  wouldn't have experienced the things I have, and grown as a result of them. Which means I wouldn't be the same person today. And while I'm not on the path I thought I'd be, I don't think it's a bad path. It's just different. Like me. 

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

With A Little Help From My ... Apps (and other stuff)

#HAWMC Day 30;  What’s your favorite health-related product? Share it with your community and tell them why you love it so much and how it has helped you on your patient journey.

I'm honestly not big on product reviews on my blog. It makes me feel like I'm trying to sell something, like people will think someone's paying me to give them a plug. But I'm going to try to complete this in a round about way by giving a few options that have helped me. I'm skipping over the obvious answer here, which is to say, my meds, because I'm not going to try to "prescribe" them or promote them to anyone. That's way too person a choice for each of us based on individual needs. 

  • Meditation oasis: Meditation is like exercise to me - I love the end result. I even enjoy it when I get going. But sometimes hypomanic me has a tough time being convinced to sit silently and "do nothing". When this happens, I find guided meditation helps. I like both the site/podcasts and the app (it costs $1.99 for the app, I think). 
  • app:   This is a goal setting app, in which you can create your own goals, join those set by others, and even have guided coaching opportunities. I've seen everything on here from "pray more" to "write daily" to "learn to do 100 push-ups" to "stop smoking so much pot" (yes, someone has actually vocalized this goal on the app and others seem to appreciate it, based on its popularity. It's not, however, one I require). The app helps keep me on track with daily tasks when my mind is messy. 
  • My Five Star spiral notebook. I'm totally serious on this. It's always one subject, always five star, and I try not to repeat a color twice in a row. It's what I write in every day. As you know by now, writing is ever so important to me. 
  • My Keurig: Totally not kidding here, either. I love coffee. Sometimes it's the only way I get through the day, especially when I wake up in a depressive cycle. I try to set up my coffee on auto-brew the night before, but sometimes I'm too tired to grind the beans and set up the coffee. That's right, I'm sometimes too fatigued to make coffee (this should tell you the seriousness of my fatigue). The ability to make a keurig cup in about thirty seconds, and to switch to my decaf pods when needed, instead of "just drinking another cup of caffeinated because it's already made and I don't want to waste it," is also very good for my health, particularly when I'm leaning towards hypomania. Sorry, environment. I'm usually very eco-friendly, but score 1 for Keurig on this one.
Can I review my dog? Probably not. Besides we already dedicated a whole post to her here in #HAWMC. So I think that's it from here. What products, apps, and other inventions keep you going? 

Tuesday, April 28, 2015


#HAWMC Day 28:  H.E.A.L.T.H.  Use “health” as an acronym and come up with words that represent your Health Activist journey.

If the word cloud felt a bit like Mad Libs, this prompt trumps. I'm not going to lie - I absolutely used some online "words that begin with...." directories. I love words, but, like with titles and names, I kind of freeze when someone says "give me a word that begins with x (metaphorically) that means y."  Let me tell you, H is a toughie. My favorite from the list was "hallooing" but I couldn't manage to make it fit, sadly. Also, I tried not to use words that are actual medical terms - i.e. hypomania would have kind of been a cop-out with two h's here. 

H:  Habitual. While my condition itself is anything but habitual, being unpredictable as it is, I've had to make my life more habitual. Meals, meds, activities, sleep in a specific amount a specific time, every day, in order to minimize cycling as much as possible. 

E:  Eye-Opening. This might be a slight cheat, as I'm not sure it's one word. Since being diagnosed, my world has changed. Not only in daily habits, as described above, but in the way I look at the world. I've dedicated myself to learning as much as I can about my condition and mental health. I've become an advocate not only for mood disorders and mental health, but for chronic and invisible illnesses. I've gotten to known so many wonderful people through the mental health support and health activist communities, who I would otherwise have never known. And I've learned to look at myself in a different way, to explore parts of my personality I never knew existed. 

A: Assertive. I would say that those who know me would be in two camps here. Those who have seen me in say, a board room or leadership role, will have seen my assertive side. Those who know the side of me who has endlessly bent to others needs because I hate to make anyone unhappy, will raise their eyebrows at this, and I understand both views. But my condition, and particularly being an activist, has helped me to become more assertive (note: not aggressive, assertive). I've learned to speak up for myself, what I want, what I need. I've learned to stand up for my limits and stick to them instead of impossibly trying to make everyone else happy and making myself more ill in the process. It's not easy for me - my natural tendency to be a peacemaker tugs at the edges, but I'm learning. 

L: Lifelong. (This is one word, I googled it). My journey with my condition is lifelong. Therefore, I suspect my activist journey will be too. Unless they find a cure for every mental health condition in my lifetime, and I sadly don't see that happening. Nor do I unfortunately see everyone accepting mental illness the way they do other more visible illness. So until that happens, I'll keep advocating for education and awareness, and against stigma. 

T: Terrifying. Yep. There are times when my journey is terrifying. Times I wake up and barely recognize myself emotionally and mentally. Times I have a rapid cycle, and later barely recall what happened. There are times society makes it terrifying - like when they talk about making laws that require a therapist to disclose conversations with their patients to the government if they think they might harm themselves. It's terrifying when I hear about people losing their jobs because they had to take time off for their illness - something they'd never be able to do if the person, say, had a heart attack - and despite that it's illegal based on the ADA, they get away with it. And it's also terrifying at times to open up about the most private things about yourself, and have no idea how anyone will react. But it's also these things that fuel me to continue. 

H: Humorous. Say what? I know. My journey and my condition certainly aren't funny, and I'm willing to be neither are yours. But let me tell you, if you held a contest between stand up comedians and health activists to see who could make people laugh more, health activists would win hands down. We have to be funny. We struggle every day. We have to take so much of life seriously that we have to lighten up on the rest. We have to be able to laugh at ourselves and our situations sometimes - to somehow find some humor in a situation - because otherwise we'd spend our lives despairing. And it becomes a bit of a self-preservation technique to do so. If I make fun of myself first, if I call myself out first, then it takes the power away from others. It's no fun to call someone a name if they nod and say "yep, damn straight!".  It also helps to spread our message as activists. If all we did was lecture, if everything we did was always so serious, it would bring people down. People need to hear the message, but sometimes telling it in a funny way, in a "can you believe what happened to me now" way, or at least with a little quirky/snarky smart-assery, can keep people interested. And so we have to develop a good sense of humor. It's one thing that, no matter what else the doctors do and say, they can't take away from us. 

Monday, April 27, 2015

An Open Letter

#HAWMC Day 27:  Living with an illness, you are more likely to face people who don’t understand your daily struggles. Sometimes, these people can be inconsiderate and hurtful. Have you ever wanted to tell them how you really feel, but didn't feel like you were able to? Now is your chance! Write an open letter to the people who have hurt you. What would you say to them? What lessons would you like them to learn?, whoever you are that reads this and doesn't understand,

While I’m tempted to be sarcastic and snarky, which is my natural tendency when I’m hurt/frustrated/sad/angry, often as a form of self-defense, I will refrain. I think I covered that decently well a couple of posts ago. Instead, I’m going to try say what I think I need to get out, and you need to hear, in an educational and calm manner.

You don’t understand me. You may know that. You may think you do, you may even try to, but by virtue of the fact that you've hurt me (intentionally or otherwise), I know that you don’t. Because I’m not writing this to those people who have understood and said “I just can’t handle you.” They get it, they just don't want to be around it. I can accept that. Being supportive in the way I need isn't up everyone's alley and while I personally think that sucks, I get it, and I respect their honesty. I'm not easy, nor is my condition. I understand that as well as anyone. Hell, sometimes I don't want to be around myself. So, I’m writing this to the people who think they “get me” but don’t (that would be all of you who right now are saying to yourselves, "I don't need to read this, I totally get her"). Or the people who haven’t tried to get me. Or the people who just somehow can't fathom that my views of life aren't the same as theirs (doesn't everyone love feel better in big parties of people, drinking to relax?) Or they do, but they are so sure theirs is right and mine is screwed up that they refuse to even listen, to even consider that mine might not be better or worse, but just different. I'm even writing this to the people who want to get me and can't quite manage it yet. Because maybe this will help. and we can somehow reconcile our views.

I have an illness. A disease. I've had it since birth. I haven’t always known what it was, but I've known that it’s there. I see the world differently than you, and while in concept this might make sense to you, in actuality, it is "weird". I don’t see the world on the sliding scale that you do. The world in where things are horrible, bad, not so great, neutral, OK, decent, good, great, phenomenal. I see the world in three ways: Bad/awful/terrible/painful/urgent, I can’t feel anything, great/exciting.

My world doesn't have, or very rarely has, contentment. It doesn't have OK. It doesn't have “eh I’ll have to deal with that but no big deal”. Perhaps you could think of me as emotionally color blind. You have the whole rainbow. I have black, white, and maybe a few colors that look one way to me and another to you. We may both know this, and we may both try to compensate, but unless you've actually seen through my eyes, you'll never know exactly what your "green" or "red" or "purple" looks like to me. This doesn't mean I don’t have “normal” days, but even in my normal days, I have to strain to feel things the way you do. I know you think I’m not trying, that I’m making excuses, that I could choose to see the world the "right way" if I tried. Trust me, I try. You might not see the effort, because I might fail, but I'm trying. And in trying, I get more frustrated, I doubt myself, and my cycling gets worse, and my view of two end of the spectrum only intensifies.

I know that because of this, you think I’m too anxious, too high strung. That I can’t relax – which is not true, by the way, just watch me while I'm writing or reading, and you’ll see me relaxed. You think I’m too hyper, or annoying (in my hyperness and excitability). When I’m hypomanic, yet trying to be normal but unable to control my energy or stop talking, you think I’m trying to get attention, that I’m self-centered. You don’t know that I’m desperately trying to stop it and can’t, that I’m embarrassed even as it’s happening, that because of this, I actually hate attention on myself, and sometimes just hate myself and certainly my illness. It’s like holding onto the leash of a giant dog chasing a squirrel. You can pull with all of your might, and the dog is still going to drag you. That’s what happens to me in hypomania. I'm dragged through it with zero to very minimal control, or at least that's how it feels.

I know you think I’m no fun. I get too self-conscious, too easily upset. That makes me more self-conscious, more anxious, and less fun. I can't enjoy myself because I''m constantly hoping "please don't cycle, please don't have an episode."  And then I do, because I'm so stressed out that I cycle. And when I cycle, I'm either crying my brains out for "no reason" in the middle of a get-together, or I'm hyper and annoying and "attention seeking" (as you call it). So next time, I stay home. Out of what? Embarrassment, worry, panic?

My self-esteem, you think, makes me negative or mopey or jealous. But given the situation above, and how I know everyone feels about it, about my, when it happens, how can I possibly not be self-conscious, not feel badly about myself in others' presence, not worry? I’m not trying to ruin your time, honest. But I can’t drink much these days (it seems this is a primary fun activity of those I surround myself with, and there are very few social events that don't involve alcohol). Drinking makes me horribly depressed. I can’t stay up past about 11 PM at the latest because I’ll cycle worse if I don’t get enough sleep, and my cycling makes it impossible to sleep in at all. When I’m in a group and not emotionally close to everyone, the walls start to close in. I can’t breathe, my head starts to spin. Anxiety rises. I panic. I don’t mean to freak out, it just happens. I didn't even want to go to this... gathering, whatever it is… but I wanted time with you, and you were going, so I went, despite myself, despite knowing the risk. In turn, you'd probably rather I'd stayed home. So do I.

I've learned not to ask people to rearrange their plans on account of my anxiety. When you say "hey we're having people over for drinks" I know not to say "could we stay home and play cards (the non-drinking game kind) instead?". I get strange looks. You’re all social people, extroverts, without social anxiety. The more the merrier, right? Not for me. For me it’s the more the scarier. I think you and I are doing something, and it turns out to be 10 people. Walls. Closing. In. But I went, to try to be “normal”, in hopes that maybe, maybe this time, I could pull it off.  But that was a worthless hope. Because I can’t live in your world.  I don’t care about many of the things you care about and I certainly don’t care about sharing them with 30 of my closest friends. It’s nothing against you and your way of living. I wish often that I fit the norm. It’s just not how I’m built. I don’t want 30 close friends.  Three is just fine. Three people who truly get me, value me, for exactly who I am. (five would be fine, ten is my limit, and we can't all get together at the same time). Three people that would come over and drink coffee at my home or a coffee shop and talk about my health advocacy work or the books we just read or the book I’m writing, and not consider it a sacrifice but a good time.

Maybe you think I’m wrapped up in myself, my brain, my illness. Of course I am. How can I not be? It follows me around like a shadow. I have to think about it every day and work my day around it. What and when to eat, what to do, when to wake, when to sleep, which meds to take when. When I try to forget it just for a little while, it comes back, reeling at me, like an ugly monster. (You think you can stay up late? You think you can have fun like the others? You think you can pretend I don't exist? I'll show you!).

I don't want to lose people from my life. I'm not writing this to say, "you aren't like me and I'm not like you so our friendship is dissolved." I love my friends. I want them to understand. Because maybe then we can both be ourselves and meet in the middle. That would be amazing.

I’m sorry if we can’t come to an understanding – and understanding of who I am and how I need to live my life. I’m sure I’ll miss you. I’m less sure you’ll miss me. But I don’t have a choice. I've spent 35 years putting other people’s lives and happiness first. Thirty five years trying to be someone I thought I was, hoped I was. It's high time I stopped all that, and started to actually be me. 

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Up We Go, Down We Go

#HAWMC Day 26: Life is full of ups and downs. Sometimes, the type of day we have is out of our control, but other times, we can influence how our day is going. Come up with 5 tips for changing your frame of mind when you’re having a bad day!

This post is very timely. I’m writing this a couple of days in advance, and I’ve had a shitty-ass week. Nothing horrendous, or nothing out of the ordinary. Just bad depression and the feeling of numbness and robot-like-ness that I described in my recent post. So perhaps this will help actually help me, as well as others today. 

1. Talk to someone. Doesn't have to be a therapist. Maybe a good friend that knows what you’re going through, or a loved one who will just let you talk without judgement. Or perhaps a support group – my online support group did wonders for  me this week. Hell, talk to your dog. Cry it out, let them look at you with those unconditionally loving eyes as you pet them. A caveat here:  make sure to choose carefully. Someone who’s going to offer empty platitudes like “it will all be ok” but has never actually been where you are is not helpful when you want the world to disappear. Similarly, there are people who are great with advice, but when I just need to vent about how much the day/my condition/whatever sucks, I don't want a detailed and chronological list of all of exactly how to fix the situation (I realize that this an ironic contrast to the theme of this blog). I'm not looking for a solution in that moment. I'm looking for empathy and a caring arm around my shoulder.

2. Write it out. I often find I don’t want to talk to ANYONE. If that’s the case, I write. It doesn't have to be even about how I’m feeling. That helps, of course, but for me, working on my novel or just thinking out loud, via my pen and paper, is soothing. As I've explained before, it gets me out of my head, which is exactly where I need to be on a depressive day.   If you’re not a writer, drawing, painting  (finger painting!) making collages, photographing, or any other artistic pursuit can help channel the energy into something else.

3. Get the hell out of dodge. Go for a walk, a drive, take a (literal) mental health day and get away from the atmosphere that’s causing you so much frustration/hurt/pain/anger, etc. *Another caveat: obviously if you physically can’t, this won’t work. Also, of course be mindful of the medications you've taken and your state of mind. If you feel you’re unsafe to drive, please, don’t do so.

4. Ground yourself. Take off your shoes and walk through the grass or the sand (play therapy with sand is amazing!), weather permitting. If you can’t  - or would rather not - do this, try a grounding meditation or yoga can be a huge help. Even just lying down listening to actual or app-inspired nature sounds can be helpful.

5.  Help someone else. One of the most cathartic parts of my online mood disorders support group is helping others. I know this sounds like a bunch of warm fuzzy stuff, but it’s true. There are times I’ll go on to post my own struggle and start reading what others have written. I’ll begin replying to and conversing with them, and eventually, I sign out of the group, forgetting that I never posted my own troubles.  To be clear, I do not support the “starving children in Africa” theory, which is to say that others have it worse so you shouldn't feel so bad. You should be allowed to have bad days, even if you aren't the sickest, most alone, unluckiest person in the world. Otherwise, how could you have a good day if you aren't the luckiest, happiest, person in the world? No, you’re allowed to be upset and sad and frustrated and have a shitty day and admit it, because you have some shitty-ass days and sometimes life isn't fair. But it’s not the comparison that makes me feel better when I help others. It’s the ability to do something nice for someone, the feeling of giving back or paying it forward. Because when I’m having a really out of control day, that does give me some control over something –   the ability to make someone’s day even the tiniest bit better.

One of the things I love most about the blogging community is hearing others' tips and advice. So feel free to share away! 

Fun With Words

#HAWMC Day 25:  Use Wordle to make a cloud full of words that come to mind when you think of your blog, health, condition, interests or community. Pro Tip: Use a thesaurus to make the branches of your “tree” extend further.

This was SO much fun. I love color and creating and so this was right up my alley. Wordle didn't work well for me (on my particular computer due to a firewall), so a fellow #HAWMC blogger suggested ABCya!, which is made for kids and therefore easy even for me. I decided to experiment with the colors and shapes. Each has the same words, but I thought I'd post both, just for some variety of color and alignment. The words are my own, chosen however they popped into my brain, to describe different aspects of my blog, and the content of it - both the written words, and the underlying thoughts behind those. I didn't stick to a particular word type (noun, verb, etc) or tense (past, present, future) so this came out much like a Mad Lib. I love Mad Libs. Enjoy!

Friday, April 24, 2015

Fitness Friday!

#HAWMC Day 24: Tell us about your how you maintain a healthy lifestyle. What is your favorite type of exercise?   How do you manage fitness with a chronic illness?

First off, I love alliteration, so hats off to you, WEGO Health! It gave me an easy title, and we know by now that titles are the trickiest part of my blog writing, so molto grazie! 

I'm a certified personal trainer and fitness instructor, and have been since I was 21. I spent the first five years post-college working in Corporate Fitness, and even after I left that, I taught a few classes at my local gym for several years. On occasion, I still take on private training clients. So like travel, fitness is also kind of my thing. 

As someone trained in health and fitness and the study of human movement (B.S. in Kinesiology over here!), I HATE fad diets. And I don't use the word hate, or capitalization, very often in my posts. Fad diets are bad for your health. Period. I believe in a balanced diet of 55-65% carbs, 15-25% healthy fats, and the rest protein and anything else (read: junk food and alcohol). Of course, this is for the body that can process such. If you have a gastrointestinal illness or a gluten allergy or diabetes/hypoglycemia or any other illness that affects your food and beverage intake, by all means you know the best "diet" (in the nutritional sense, not in the "trying to lose weight" sense) for you! I want to be clear on that. Hell, I salt load because of my tendency for hyponatremia. But I'm not a fan of eating one piece of grapefruit for breakfast followed by four protein shakes to substitute for meals and snacks, and calling it a day, all for the point of looking better. It's not healthy, and your body will, eventually, in some form, suffer from it. I promise you. Ok soap box over, couldn't help it! 

So, diet wise, I try to maintain a relatively balanced diet, being careful to add in salt/sodium when needed, and watch my dairy intake due to it's ability to increase my depression. Exercise wise, I also try to keep it relatively steady. With mood cycling, stability is the key. Everything should, ideally, be routine - sleep, diet, exercise. It sounds boring, I know. And sometimes, it is. But it has to be this way for sake of my brain, myself, and those around me when I happen to cycle. I attempt to get 30-45 minutes of cardio exercise at least three to four days a week, plus some strength training and stretching. I prefer running and biking (spin bike in winter/rainy days, outside in summer), though I'll jump on a cardio machine if I have to. I get outside when I can - hiking, kayaking, anything to be out in the warmth and sun. Cardio, in whatever form, helps me in my depressive phases, and helps me to clear my head in general. I have to be careful, though, as in a hypomanic phase, or when I'm in danger of cycling into one, exercise can make me worse. Adrenaline and endorphins can make me more hypomanic. So it's a bit of a tightrope that I have to walk (no pun intended on the exercise/walking thing, nor the cycling/cycling thing, but that worked out nicely for this pun-lover). 

Yoga is amazing not only for toning, balance, and flexibility, but for countering cardio intensity of my other workouts. It helps balance my mind as well as my body, ever so important. 

How do I manage it? Carefully. Like every thing else when living with a mood cycling condition, it's all about finding the "sweet spot". Too little, I'm depressed and out of my routine. Too much, I'm hypomanic. Ironically, it's the depressed days I don't feel like working out, and the hypomanic ones when I feel like I could run a marathon (I've never run anything close to a marathon, though it's on my bucket list) but I have to be mindful. By keeping it as consistent as I can, I can help to keep my cycles as under control as possible. 

I also have to time it with medications. I don't like to work out right after meds for several reasons: 1.) I often get side effects such as dizziness and nausea and the works with my meds. Nobody wants the room to start spinning when they're on the treadmill. 2.) I'm more likely to be hyponatremic, and the more I sweat, the more sodium I lose, making me hyponatremic. But, if I wait too long, I'll get the medication daze/drowsiness, and then I won't have the energy to exercise, so I have to get it somewhere right in the middle, or if possible, in the AM before I take any meds at all. 

I have to forgive myself when I slip. There are days, weeks, where depression kicks my ass, where the stress of work and my business and life just take up my days and even though I know exercise will be good for me, I can't make myself do it. Other than yoga. Always yoga, every Wednesday. Luckily, it's scheduled and paid for in advance, through my work, and holds me accountable for going. No matter my week, it's my happy place. And I have to learn not to be hard on myself when I miss my workouts, but to gently coax myself back in. To tell myself, "you don't have to do 45 minutes or even 30. Go outside and walk around the block a few times. Do one or two shoulder/arm/whatever exercises. Get on the eliptical for 15 minutes. It's better than nothing. You can do more when you have more energy." It's a battle. Having worked in fitness for years, it was my life. I was never not active, never not "in shape". I battled body image and disordered eating, and there are times when, after missing workouts frequently, I feel those shadows in the corner of my mind. I have to push them back, to not let them win, or even get a foot in the door. I know how that goes, and it doesn't go well. So I have learned to be kinder to myself, at least most days. It's a key component for me. 

I've recently begun to tie my fitness goals into my health activism. I've been doing as many charity/fundraising events for all types of illnesses, both those that have affected me and my loved ones, or just those I feel particularly need extra support. My current  goal is training for my second Out Of The Darkness Overnight Walk (shameless plug here!). I'm raising money and awareness for this event, which I did for the first time last year, and was such a moving and important experience, that I'm doing it again. If you're unfamiliar with this event, it's an overnight walk, somewhere between 16 and 20 miles, sundown until... whenever you finish in the early hours of the AM, for suicide awareness and prevention. It truly was one of the most amazing experiences of my life. So right now, I'm slowly increasing my mileage, and focusing on that in terms of "workouts", which is amazing because it combines both my need for exercise and my work in mental health awareness. (PS If I make it to $2000 raised I get an Out of Darkness t-shirt, woo hoo!. Sorry, couldn't help it!). 

Thursday, April 23, 2015

WTH Is Wrong With You?

#HAWMC day 23: Write about whatever you like! Got a great story,opinion, or tip to share? Tell us here.

I'm writing this on a rainy day, in the middle of depressive cycle, the day after some weird type of cycle switch in which I know some bad stuff happened but I have a little bit fuzzy recollection of some of the details because, well, that's what happens when I have a really bad episode... it's a bit like I'm possessed and when it's done I'm like "what the f- happened to me just now?"

And so I'm not feeling like sharing a funny story or whatever. I'm feeling like commenting, answering, the question that I know all too many people have about me: WTH Is Wrong With You? I've decided to break this up into the most common complaints/issues - spoken or "don't need to be spoken it's obvious in your actions and/or body language or the fact that you've slowly stopped inviting me to do things" - that I receive. Let me point out, these are things I hear over, and over, and over from numerous people who don't understand my condition, even if they try, because they've never experienced it. I'm not just trying to be a sarcastic ass here, though I'm sure I come across as such, but I really am trying to help people understand. 

Why are you always tired? Because I have a rapid cycling condition that literally drains physical, mental, and emotional energy. It's like a giant tug of war with my body and my brain, all day, every day. And also, I'm on meds that could tranquilize a moose. I'm starting a second today that I'm told "is slightly stronger than a zyrtec". So if you see me face down on my computer keyboard, just prop me up Weekend-At-Bernies-style. Because of my cycling, I often get insomnia - middle of the nigh hypomanic cycles don't make for a good night's rest. If I sleep, I often toss and turn so it's not proper sleep. I'm supposed to get 8-9 hours of sleep every night to help with cycling, doctor ordered. What grown person with a job gets that? Nobody, so I'm always sleep deprived. Oh, and my meds drain my sodium, so I'm often borderline hyponatreumic. You know one symptom of hyponatremia? You guessed it - fatigue. (Here's a full list from the Mayo clinic). Trust me, I hate my exhaustion more than anyone else. It's prevented me from doing many fun things because I physically can't manage to. 

There's always something wrong with you. Are you ever going to be better? Err... umm... awkward pause, because you have a point. There IS always something wrong with me. I have a chronic, lifelong medical condition without a cure.Also see below, this helpful advice from "if people treated all illness like they treat mental illness". 

You use your condition as a crutch. Once again, the graphic above. If I had one leg, and wasn't able to do something that required two legs, would it be a crutch?(no pun intended on the leg/crutch thing, it was just an easy example). I think there's a difference between one's condition being a reason, and it being a crutch. I can understand to the outsider it may look this way because you can't see what's going on inside my brain, obviously. But I ask you to take my word for it on this one. Fun fact: the definition of crutch part b says: another word for crotch. Completely unrelated, I just had to share. 

You never want to do anything. You're no fun. Absolutely untrue. There are plenty of things I'd like to do. A nice cozy dinner with one or two people I'm close to. Meeting a friend for coffee or breakfast at my favorite cafe. Going for a hike or a bike ride or kayaking  (weather permitted). Playing cards or board games (that don't involve solo cups or shot glasses). In fact the things I don't want to do are very limited: I don't want to go to an large event or gathering where most of the people are acquaintances at best, where everyone's going to be up late drinking when I can't, and I have to interact and be social with drunk people who are actually enjoying themselves while I'm trying not to have a panic attack. There's this great article on being friends with introverts. I think it can also imply to being friends with someone with social anxiety. I happen to hit both of these groups. What is fun to you causes the walls to close in on me, to the point where my heart races, I have trouble breathing, and I get dizzy. This is not by choice. Who would choose that? It's like if my idea of fun was skydiving and bungee jumping, and you were desperately afraid of heights, and I considered you no fun because you wouldn't come along or got anxious when you did. 

Why are you crying? I'm depressed. About what? You're life isn't bad. It's not about anything. I have depression. It makes me cry, randomly, about god knows what. In fact, probably not even god, because I'm a Buddhist.  How can you fix it? By not having depression. Can't you get over it? Technically, I'll "get over it" when I cycle back into hypomania. But no, you don't really "get over" a mood cycling disorder. 

It's all in your head. Is your brain located somewhere else on your body? Because mine is right inside my skull, like a "normal" person's. So yes, it is in my head. It's in my brain in my head where my sodium receptors randomly release too much or too little sodium whenever it feels like, resulting in cycling of my moods.

You're not trying hard enough. 
Let me tell you about my day so far. I woke up literally unable to feel anything. Physically, I could feel my legs and arms move, but it was more like I registered them move, than felt them. I felt like my emotional center, my heart, had been ripped out of my body, and had radiated down to the rest of me. I literally couldn't feel. Do you know how scary this is? Freakin' scary. I got in the shower, got dressed, got ready for work because I knew I had to. Like a robot. I made some coffee. Thank god for coffee. I took my meds after breakfast. I had a meds reaction, not by any means uncommon, which made me dizzy, nauseous, and disoriented. Luckily I didn't get the numbness in my tongue and lips this time, so there's a plus, and it went away after a couple of hours. I tried to feel happy. I tried to feel frustrated. I tried to feel... anything. I couldn't. I could, barely, somewhere, in the background, feel sad. Oh, I forgot to mention that I spent the drive into work crying. I'll probably spend the drive home crying. It's not about work at all, I love my job. It's not about anything except depression.  I'll probably have at least one more crying bout today. I don't know if it's worse to feel everything, like I often do, or worse to feel nothing. I think on some level, I'm feeling them both - every emotion is magnified in my subconscious, but I can't actually feel any of them. It's confusing. Did I mention scary? Hence, the tears.

Sometimes, it hits me that this might be as good as it gets. That this is the rest of my life. This back and forth between feeling every emotion like a raw nerve on your skin, to numbness, robot-ness. That thought makes me more numb. I cry more, but at least I finally have a reason. And so I advocate. I write blogs like this in hopes that people will understand. I try to be ok with my world being different than everyone elses', with me being different than everyone else, in case they don't understand. And sometimes, I want to ask myself "wth is wrong with you", too. But I don't, because it's not "wrong", it's just me. It's how I'm made, for better or worse. Nobody has to like it. I just ask that they respect it.  

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

A Shift In Hobbies and Perspective

#HAWMC Day 22:  Running and 3PM dance parties are some of our favorite hobbies at WEGO Health. Tell us, what are YOUR hobbies? Love to crochet? Can’t stop collecting rocks? Take photographs of everything? Share your favorite past times.

Whenever someone asks me this question, I start to answer, and then realize I must sound like I pretty much have no life. We established, two posts ago or so, that I love to travel. Which is awesome. But it's also kind of work. I run a travel planning company. So it's not really a "hobby" per se. And I love to blog and do mental health awareness, but to call that a hobby make it sound like it's something I do for fun when I have the time. I enjoy it, but not in the way you enjoy a hobby. I enjoy it because it's cathartic for me and helps others, but it's not the same as people enjoy, say, crocheting or running. So right there that's two big parts of my life that I "can't really count."

I'm not sure even how often you have to do something to consider it a hobby, and what makes something a hobby exactly. We also established, by way of the chemistry museum dance video, that I like to dance. I could dance to elevator music. I dance in the car. I dance randomly whenever I hear music and it's so second nature that I don't realize I'm doing it until someone points it out and we both laugh at me. So I guess, dancing, however sporadically and randomly, could be considered a hobby.

I like creative pursuits. Writing is the one I spend the most time on (just finished the very very rough draft of my first novel, woo hoo!). It transports me out of my messy mind, which is probably why I like it so much. Reading, similarly. I have the attention span of a gnat, but I could sit down with 400 page book and read it from start to finish, moving only for bathroom breaks and to get a cup(s) of coffee. I've spent entire days reading, literally. It's like I'm in some sort of time warp.

I enjoy outdoorsy things, like long walks on the beach. I'm kidding, this was just starting to sound like an online dating profile, so I had to throw that in there. I do, though, like outdoors activities - hiking, kayaking, going to gardens and parks. Nature soothes my soul, which is ever in need of soothing. I love photography, but despite having a DSLR camera, I pretty much keep it on automatic mode and just shoot, hoping the lighting is ok. My brother, who's a very good photographer and has sold some of his work, has tried to teach me countless times. But like everything else, the information gets jumbled in my brain and when a good shot comes along, I freeze trying to remember, so go back to my tried and true method of putting it on auto and hoping it works.

Does coffee count as a hobby? I think that might be more of an addiction. But I love to just sit and sip my coffee, whether it's in a cafe while writing, watching my dogs run around (read: sit lazily) in the yard, or just curled up under a blanket on a cold day. I guess anything you enjoy doing that you do routinely counts as a hobby, and therefore, I can consider coffee one.

Honestly, that's all I can think of. Pretty sad, I know. There are a lot of things I enjoy - music, festivals, playing cards and board games, the beach. But I wouldn't call them hobbies. They're situational activities I like, but not things I do routinely. (Though when I lived at home, my dad and I played cards every morning, so the line may blur there).

When I look at the hobbies above, chemistry dance video aside, they're mostly things I do alone. Things I want to do alone. Things I do because I can be alone. It makes me realize the shift in myself in the past year or two, and one of the reasons I find my life a bit more confusing these days. It challenges the, oh, 33 years or so that I lived my life as a complete extrovert, surrounding myself with people and, it seems, living vicariously through them, though I don't realize it then. But, despite the confusion, and I'll admit, the loneliness at times, I feel more true to myself with these new hobbies and this new perspective. There's no social standard to measure up to, no show to put on,without even realizing it's a show at times. No trying to fit in, but knowing you don't, even if others can't see it. Just me, and my book, or my notebook, or my camera, or my cup of coffee. (And my dogs). There's some inner peace in that, however boring it may seem to the outside world.

Tuesday, April 21, 2015

My Mental Health Journey

#HAWMC Day 21:  This is a day to reflect. For the WEGO Health family, we reflect on the inspiring and tireless work Health Activists do every day. Reflect on your journey today. What are your thoughts and hopes for the future?

From the time I got diagnosed, to the time I somewhat timidly decided to share my journey, to the point I am at today, I've gone from the stages of disbelief and confusion, to acceptance, to determination and motivation. Being diagnosed with a chronic, lifelong illness for which there is no known cure is, of course, not fun, to put it very mildly. But, at least for me, suffering from something that nobody can explain, that you have no name for, that people think is just a bad attitude or a negative disposition or "all in your head", but knowing it's not, is worse. So in a way, having a diagnosis, as tough as it is, was somewhat of a relief. It at least gave me a place to start. 

Deciding to share my journey was nerve wracking at first. While most of the time I now don't care what anyone else thinks, sometimes I still get a little nervous. There are times I still wonder what my clients or coworkers will think if they read this or that. But either none of them read my blogs (likely) or they don't think any differently of me after doing so (possible) because they've never, knock on wood, treated me differently. Sharing my story gives me courage. On the worst of days, I know that if I can get through it, and write about it, I can perhaps inspire someone else to do the same. I can let them know that they're not alone. 

I've gotten emails, calls, and Facebook messages from complete strangers and from people I never knew read my posts, telling me how much my blog helps them, how much they identify with them, and how good it is to know that they're not alone. Cyclothymia is very under-represented in .... well... everything, and finding much information on rapid cycling cyclothymia is a bit like trying to find a unicorn playing tag with a leprechaun in an enchanted forest, and so I'm glad to be a source of information, or at least experience. I have had people reach out with all kinds of questions about myself, my condition, my diagnosis, my treatment. I've had people who just "need to talk", to tell me about their own concerns, just to tell someone they feel will understand. I've had those without a mental health condition tell me they feel educated, that they didn't realize what I and others with this similar conditions go through. These are the things that keep me writing. I decided to share my journey in an effort to speak out about cyclothymia, mood cycling, and mental health, and if my doing so is helping even one person, I feel successful. 

Throughout my journey, I've made friends in the mental health and chronic illness community. Most of these I've been unable to meet in real life due to distance, but they're friends all the same. We understand each other. We support each other. We can empathize with each other when others cannot possibly do so, not having been through what we have. Without all of this, my condition, my efforts in mental health awareness, I wouldn't have met these friends, and for that, I'm very grateful. 

What do I hope for the future? 

I hope that some day I can tell people I have a mood cycling disorder the same way someone says they have asthma. By which I mean nobody balks and looks uncomfortable and is at a loss for words. 

I hope that going to therapy and taking meds (if needed) is no longer something people are afraid to do for fear of what others will think, or what they will think of themselves. People aren't afraid to take meds that will help the rest of their body. But they're afraid to take meds that will help their brain.

I hope some day taking a "mental health day" is not viewed any differently than taking a sick day for any "physical" illness. 

I hope that the fundraising walks and charity events and other campaigns for mental health awareness and suicide prevention became as big as those for breast cancer and MS and other more publicly  recognized illnesses (not to take anything away from these, they deserve it too). 

 I hope those stupid laws in which a therapist is asked to break patient confidentiality and report to the state government if someone says they may harm themselves go away and never, ever, ever return.

I hope the media stops blaming everything from school violence to people stubbing their big toe on mental health. 

I hope that when I can't go to a party because of my depression or social anxiety, I can tell people and, instead of them thinking I'm no fun, they choose an activity in which I am comfortable participating - or understand when I just need to be alone. 

I hope that one day there are medications for mood cycling and other mental health disorders that we can take while pregnant, so that we don't have to chose between having a family and having our health.

I hope, of course, that one day there will be cures, instead of just treatments.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Leaving On A Jet Plane

#HAWMC Day 20:  If you could travel anywhere in the world, where would you go and why? Maybe you’ve already traveled to an exciting place and want to go back. We know travelling with a chronic illness can be challenging, so any tips for others that you can share would be great!

I feel like I'm cheating a little on this one, because I run a travel planning company. Travel is, more or less my life. People always ask me my favorite place, and I find this question extremely difficult. My "favorite" depends on what I'm looking for - a city escape, time with nature, lying beach with a fruity drink in my hand, exploring an exotic or unique landscape. But if someone said they could teleport me to somewhere right this minute, I'd choose Paris. 

I've been to Paris twice, once as recently as this past November. The first time I visited, about eight years ago, I wasn't excited. I was new to the travel industry, and I had not heard very positive things about Paris. We all know the stereotype - they're rude, they hate Americans, etc. I had a conference in Lyon and I thought, "I'm so close. I work in the travel industry now. How can I not go to Paris just to see what it's like." I fell in love. With the city, that is. This past trip only solidified this. 

When I'm in Paris, I feel like I belong. To someone who, in 35 years, as almost never, ever feels like she belongs, this is borderline miraculous. I don't know what it is about the city. Everyone there is chic and fashionable and I am ... not. My french is more or less limited to names of pastries, asking for the toilet, and the word "canelle", as it's French for Cinnamon, which is the name of my dog. (Fun story, I know this because I met the "house dog" of a hotel I was staying at, who was also named Cinnamon). So I'm not sure why I feel such a sense of belonging in this city that so many feel repelled from, and unwanted in, but I do. 

As for traveling with chronic illness, that greatly depends on your illness, of course. First and foremost, meds, meds, meds, meds.  If there's a time difference, you may need to adjust the time of day that you take them to keep on your schedule. Set alarms or ask someone to keep you accountable. Bring a few extra, in case for any reason your return flight is delayed/cancelled/etc and you are there longer than expected. Even many of our over-the-counter meds can't be found overseas, so don't count on running to the drug store to pick them up once you get there. Finally, as a travel planner I cannot stress this enough: DO NOT PACK YOUR MEDS IN YOUR CHECKED LUGGAGE. Or even a carryon that's big enough that it may have to be checked at the gate if they run out of overhead space. I was on a flight with a woman who had put her insulin in a large carry-on that they checked at the gate. Our plane was then grounded for mechanical issues, and the next flight out for her was the next day. She had to stay overnight in a an airport without her insulin because the airline said they "weren't authorized to retrieve her luggage". Understandably, she was freaking out. Just keep them on you. Always. Please. 

Ok, that rant done, - sorry, occupational hazard - a few more things I find helpful: 
  • If you need to travel with any medical equipment, make sure that you have the proper written documentation from your doctor. I recently watch a woman kicked off a plane because she didn't have documentation for her oxygen tank. She was about as happy as the insulin lady above (note; also make sure all meds are in the original packaging. Customs doesn't like unidentified pills). 
  • When you first arrive, try to adjust to the time zone. If you can make it until about 7 or 8 PM and then go to bed early, it helps to adjust your body to the time difference. 
  • Try to keep more or less to regular schedule. If you usually go to bed at 10 and wake up at 7, don't stay up until 2 AM every night and sleep in until noon. Illness doesn't take a vacation (unfortunately) just because we do, and I think for many of us, routine is key. 
  • Build in rest time. I'm guilty of being go, go, go when I'm on a trip because I don't want to miss anything. I've learned I have to build in a day or two to relax - go to the hotel spa, order room service, or at least do something less physically strenuous to give myself a break. 
  • Alcohol. If you have an illness that is affected badly by alcohol, it's still affected badly by alcohol when you're on vacation. This is a sad but true fact. 
  • If you have food allergies or sensitivities, try to learn the words for these foods in the local language before you go, so that you can at least attempt to ask about them. The same is ideal for your condition, though I'm nearly certain that cyclothymia doesn't translate into other languages, and I suspect many chronic illness sufferers are in the same boat.
  • Other countries seem to have a different idea of a food "containing something" - as in, it doesn't contain it if it's not the main ingredient. While I hate to advise being a finicky traveler, sometimes it's too important not to be. 
Ok, I think that's it. As I said, travel is kind of my life, so I apologize for the particularly long post! Wherever this prompt takes you, I hope that you have a fabulous time! 

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Chemistry Dance Videos ... And Other Stress Relievers

#HAWMC Day 19:  What’s the best way you deal with stress? How do you like to let loose to escape common stressors? Share with us your favorite ways to shake off the stress. #shakeitoff

I am so often a giant ball of stress. I mean, aren't many of us? It's not just work and errands and chores and things like that (because who are we kidding I do the minimal number of chores that I have to unless I'm trying to get in extra fitbit steps and opt to use cleaning as a method for doing so). It's that, as a mood cycler, every single thought, emotion, feeling is magnified. You see something as "I should probably get to that", I see it as "omg what am I going to do this is urgent" and then make a sticky reminder, a calendar note, and add it to my iphone "Reminders" app. I talk about it more in this post about what it's really like to have hypomania, but that's the gist of it. Stress relief is crucial.

My stress relief techniques, like so much of my life, have come in the form of trial and error. Much of it depends on the day, and the situation, and the amount of free time, but here are some of my favorites.

Yoga: My office offers yoga every week on Wednesday from 4-5 PM in our building, and it's one of the highlights of my week. People know not to mess with my yoga time. Not only is the yoga itself relaxing and grounding, but it's one of the rare opportunities where I'm completely un-reachable but to the others in that room, and they're all doing yoga and wanting to be unreachable too. It's both stress reducing and soul renewing.

Meditation: Similarly, when I need some brain space, I pull out my meditation cushion and often one of my favorite meditation podcasts. I try to use my ipod instead of phone, so I don't inadvertently hear the buzz of a text or call coming through. Even if it's just 5 minutes (it often is) it helps dramatically.

Laughing: It might not literally be one of the best medicines - I could laugh all day and still need my meds - but there's something about a good belly laugh that gives me peace of mind. Luckily, I surround myself with a lot of pretty funny people and laughter is part of my daily life. And learning to laugh at oneself, instead of cry, has been one of my key methods of getting through some pretty shitty times.

Driving: When I need space, I go for a drive and turn up the radio. Something about the freedom of just getting in a car and going, blocking out my thoughts with a good tune, takes the stress away.

Exercising: A walk, a run, a bike ride can help me feel like I'm literally escaping the stress, like it's trying to chase me, on my heals, and I'm getting away from it.

Dancing: Seriously. It could be in the kitchen alone while cooking dinner or a night out with friends. Recently, my coworkers and I did this "dance video" for the When You Work At A Museum Dance Contest. Yes, museum dance contest. I love my coworkers.

And because I'm not sure anything can really trump a chemistry museum dance video, I think I'll end there. Perhaps laughing is also a stress reliever for you, and in that case, I hope that little video helped make your day a bit brighter.

Saturday, April 18, 2015

Summer Summer Summer Time...

#HAWMC Day 18:  What are the 3 things you look forward to the most in the summer? Whether it’s travel, the weather, family cookouts or another activity, share with your readers why you’re excited for summer!

Let me first acknowledge that I'm aware that this is my second Will Smith/Fresh Prince reference in almost as many days. What can I say, I grew near Philly in the 80s, I can't help it. 

With that out of the way... Ahhh summer! I love summer. The day I was born it was 120 degrees Farenheit, and I think that must have somehow shaped my ability to withstand the heat and detest the cold. It's almost never too warm for me - though 120 might be pushing it - and I relish the months where I don't have to calculate which layers of clothing I'll need at which hours of the day. 

What do I look forward to most in summer? It's pretty much a tie between... everything. But I'll try to narrow it down. 

1. The long, sunny days. Cold, dark days are depressing. This is probably true for the majority of people, but it's especially true for those with depression and mood cycling. I find my depressive cycles more frequent and lengthy in the winter. It's like the dreariness is physically and emotionally weighing me down. I don't know specifically why this is - I'm sure there have been studies done on it, though I'm less sure of the conclusive evidence. But considering there's an actual disorder called Seasonal Affective Disorder, clearly, there's a correlation between seasonal changes and depression. 

2. The outside opportunities. Fresh air lifts my spirits, especially if it's warm fresh air. Whether it be a concert, a beach trip, a day of hiking and kayaking, or just dining al fresco, I feel more myself, more positive and optimistic and capable, when I have enough outside time. It also gives me the opportunity to connect with nature, which tends to help me feel grounded. 

3. The "summer attitude".  Let's face it, the winter months are full of end-of-year deadlines, new year budgets, people fighting over the closest parking spot so they don't have to walk ten extra feet in the frigid cold. The cold tenses up people's muscles, and the heart is a muscle like any other. It seems in the summer, people are just more open and friendly and generous, and that's certainly the type of environment I like to live in.

Happy Almost Summer, everyone! Unofficially just 38 days away! 

Jersey Shore last summer. Sorry about the random dude in the background. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

My Open-Sourced Personal Tagline

#HAWMC Day 17: Give yourself, or your patient experience a tagine. Grab attention with your slogan. Make sure it’s catchy!

When I saw this prompt, the first thing that popped into my head is the title of the TLC Album from 1990-something, Crazy Sexy Cool. But then I admitted I only have the crazy part down and had to throw it out the window. 

I'm notoriously bad at names and titles, so this is a bit of a tricky one for me. I can be creative when I'm doing so in my own head, which I do hourly, but when put on the spot, I'm pretty rough at it, especially with instructions on "make it catchy".  I get overwhelmed with thoughts like "no that's corny, that's not catchy, blah blah blah. It's like someone saying "tell me a joke, make sure it's funny." Deer in headlights. My outfits are catchy (read: things many people wouldn't wear but I don't really give a *&*$ because I like them) but my taglines and titles, not so much. 

And so, I did what any good 21st century blogger would do: I open-sourced it. Specifically, I posted on Facebook asking people to describe me in one word, and to have fun with it. I specifically mentioned it was for a mental-health-related blog post, to give people the freedom to delve into that arena if they so chose. Here's what I got:
  • Multi-facited
  • Friend - I'm going to group this in with loyal for purposes of making them all adjectives. 
  • Loyal x2
  • Optimistic 
  • Positive 
  • Focused
  • Strong
  • Enthusiastic
  • Inspiring
  • Determined
  • Motivated
  • Smiley
One of my friend wrote "crackers", a joke from freshman year in college when I was eating soup and somehow ended up with crackers on top of my head, which he apparently won't let me live down 18 years later. But, it does lead nicely, on several levels, I suppose, into my own word, which is Messy.

I'm not trying to be a downer after such positive feedback. I don't believe messy needs to have a negative connotation. I mean: I'm all over the place. I don't fit into a nice square box or description or even personality type - I'm an E-I-N-F-J-P on Myer's Briggs, seriously. By nature of my cyclothymia, and it's being rapid cycling, I'm never quite sure what each day holds. Some people wake up on the wrong side of the bed; I wake up on the wrong side of the brain. Sometimes I am social and excitable, sometimes I'm in my own space in my head creating, writing, reading. While I know everyone has several sides of them and nobody can be perfectly categorized, what makes it mood cycling is the frequency and severity of the change. It's not just that I am sometimes social and sometimes not. It's that I'm sometimes hypomanic to the point of being physically unable to sit still and appearing (and feeling) frantic, and then depressed and battling social anxiety to the point that having to see people makes me panic. If you were to illustrate the path of my daily life and brain activity, it would resemble something like a product of the game Spin Art.

From SpinArt Free app - not quite the same effect but a good representation

And so, it appears, my open-sourced tagline is: Motivated-Inspiring-Determined-Enthusiastic-Smiley-Strong-Focused-Positive-Optimistic-Loyal-Multifacited-Messy-Maya. Yep, I think that sounds about right. It might not be catchy, and I guess it grabs attention if you like long-winded tongue twisters. It certainly doesn't fit in a nice little box. Which is just the way I like it. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Life Goals and Disappointments

#HAWMC Day 16:  What’s one thing that your 10-year-old self  thought you would do? Can you still do it? How would you approach it to make it happen?

Let me start off by saying that when I was four, my goal was to be a "Dunkin Donuts Lady", I had developed an apparently very influential friendship with a nice woman named Jackie who worked at the nearby Dunkin. By ten, after a trip to Wheaten Village, I had switched my allegiances and wanted to be a glassblower.  So with all due respect to all of the Dunkin Donuts ladies and glassblowers out there (I actually still think the latter is an amazing art, I just have zero glass-blowing talent), I am not sure that my young self's dreams were exactly the most on point. 

With that said, I can tell you one thing that I was sure I'd be when I grew up: a mom. My dad has five kids and my mom has two, both of whom she had by the age of 26, and I had a big family in general, so naturally this seemed like the path that I'd follow. When I got married, all of that changed. Let's suffice it to say that my brain seemed to sense something was wrong, that having children at the time wasn't a good idea (this was true for numerous reasons, a major one being that my marriage didn't last long). 

When I got diagnosed, I was told that my condition was very genetic. Basically, it doesn't just "show up", there had to be a family history somewhere. I consider myself a relatively bright person, and I therefore know that means that if it was passed down to me, it could be passed down from me.  This was confirmed, and it was also confirmed that the severity of it may change generation to generation - as in a child of mine could battle not just hypomania and depressive cycles, but full blown mania, depression, delusions, hallucinations, and basically anything else that could possibly be a symptom of any type of mood cycling disorder. I was also told if I ever wanted to have children, I'd have to work very carefully with doctors because I couldn't be on my meds and we know by now this could be pretty disastrous to me. I've been hospitalized once. I don't want to be there again. Long story short, I decided not to put myself, or more importantly my future children, through this, and I decided I would not be passing along my genes, the messy ones or the awesome ones, to a future generation. I got an IUD put in (fun fact: oxcarbazepine messes with hormonal birth control) and decided when that was "up" I'd probably do something more permanent. 

It's heart breaking. I don't ever think it will not be heart breaking. I look back on my 24-year-old newly married self and realized that probably, somehow, I knew this would all come about even though I wouldn't be diagnosed for another 6 years. It's the only reason I can think that I intuitively and so decisively put the breaks on something that had been my life plan all along. But there are still times I wonder, if I had had children during my marriage how would I have fared? How would the children have fared? But I can't think on it too much. I believe, when all is said and done, I would make the same decision again, knowing what I know now.  

Could I still achieve this goal? Well, possibly. I've never particularly tried. How would I approach it? Well I think we're all adults here and know how one goes about "having a baby". How would I approach it with my condition? Work closely with doctors, meditate on it (I'm Buddhist) and hang on tight for the ride while hoping that everyone around me doesn't want to strangle un-medicated me with their bare hands? I really am not sure. I could adopt. I've considered it. I still do sometimes, and maybe one day that will happen. 

But in the end, this is one challenge in life I have to say I did not meet, at least not the way I planned. Perhaps I should have just stuck with Dunkin' Donuts Lady. 

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

I'm So Excited, and I Just Can't Hide It!

#HAWMC Day 15:  Get Excited!  What revs up your internal engine? When you see, hear, feel this it gets you excited and ready to face what comes next. Tell us what it is!

I have hypomania and a generally excitable personality. Lots and lots of things get me excited. It get excited when I get a new shade of mascara or a new flavor of Keurig. This morning I heard the Rocky Theme (AKA Philly's unofficial theme song) and Bad Medicine by Bon Jovi back to back on my drive into work. That was exciting, in a 1986 type of way. I love to celebrate the little things in life. There are so many setbacks, especially in life with chronic illness, that if you don't savor the tiny moments, it's going to be a long damn life, and not in the best of ways.  If I can't enjoy the get excited over fun day to day things, no matter how small they are, how the hell will I get through the depressive cycles? 

But if I had to pick something, and this is tough with a brain that goes in 20 directions at once, I'd say creating gets me excited. When I create something from scratch, either on my own or with the help of others, I feel accomplished and in control. For a person who's condition often results in a lack of control over....err.... everything... the ability to create something of my own and see it through is thrilling. 

Some examples: my novel. I'll probably be the only one who ever reads it, but it's exhilarating. I'm writing a novel! I created a book, a whole story, out of thin air, just using my imagination and power in my messy brain, and I've seen it through - I'm almost finished the first, very rudimentary draft. 

Another example: the mental health work I'm doing. With the help of a couple of friends, I created Go the Extra Mile for Mental health, and with the help of loved ones, we held a charity hike and raised money for brain and behavior research. I'm also working with another friend to create a mentor program for youth with mental health conditions. This one is still in the "discussion" stages, but the ability to partner with someone and even consider putting this together is exciting. What's extra cool is this is a person I met via twitter because of our mental health awareness work, and now we've become friends and are combining forces in something that we're both passionate about and that we feel there's a great need for. I feel like I'm using my brain and my condition for good, to help others, and that most definitely gets me revved up.

Creating also allows me to get out of my "everyday brain" and reach into another part, a part I generally keep hidden because I believe my constant desire to create probably annoys people (read: I think my continual brainstorm of ideas and my desire to talk about them is akin to an excited kid asking "are we there yet" constantly over a long car ride). But for me, it's a solace. It's a place where, I'm not cyclothymic or depressed or hypomanic, but just me. It's a place where I can reach into the part of me that's so interesting to explore, that makes me truly, perhaps for the first time ever, at home with myself. It's the part of me I understand best, even if others understand it least. Perhaps, it's finally finding that part of me at all that's really what gets me excited. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

I Feel Best When I ....

#HAWMC Day 14:  Write about moments you feel like you can take on the world. Where, when, and how often does this happen?

This is an interesting question for someone with mood cycling, as this can very greatly depending on my mood state. If I'm hypomanic, I feel best when I'm planning or organizing something. Whether it be a trip, or an event, or a goal/dream for the future, it helps me feel in control, despite the ironic fact that it might well be my thoughts and brain running away from me.

When I'm depressed, or less than hypomanic, I often feel best curled up with a good book or writing my novel. In these cases, the inner calm I'm able to produce even in the worst of lows gives me a feeling of strength. I enjoy the introverted side of myself in these times. My ability to be self-sufficient, to not feel I need or desire external input and validation helps me keep my head above water. I feel myself wanting to shift to a quieter, more serene lifestyle. During depressive cycles my "big plans" include goals like meditate every day, finish writing my novel, do yoga three times a week, eat clean and give up alcohol to cleanse my body and brain.  In these times, it's an inward focus that brings me some peace, if I can manage any peace at all.

When I'm towing the middle line, I find myself happier with loved ones.  My family has known and loved me for 35 years. That's a really long time. They've gone through ups and downs with me, and they know the truest version of me - at least the truest that anyone sees, for I'm often still trying to figure myself out. With them, I can let my guard down completely. It's not weird for them if I talk about mental health and if I have to suddenly stop and take my meds, or if I'm too tired to do much more than sit on the couch. I can openly tell them when my symptoms start to appear, and they calmly ask how to help. My time with my family brings me back to the more innocent times (i.e. pre-"cyclothymia as a major force in every day life" times) of my youth - sitting around the table playing board games or cards, laughing and talking like when I was a kid. The years roll away, and for a few moments or hours, I don't know I have this condition.

Where, when, how often does this happen? It depends on my cycling. If I'm rapid, it can change every day, every few hours. If I'm in a long hypomanic phase, it can last for a week or so. The tricky part for me is discerning what's actually "me" and what's my condition. Do these goals really make sense? Do I actually want to do yoga three times a week and give up alcohol? When do I really feel best? Am I being influenced by my experiences, or the sodium alterations in my brain? It can be, at times, very difficult for me to tell, and I'm sure exhausting for those around me, who have to adjust to my changing needs. To be clear, it's not that I suffer from delusions or hallucinations (neither of which are part of my particular cycling condition). It's that at times I'm ill in one way, and at times I'm ill in another, and I need to treat each time accordingly.  I guess the up side of this, no pun intended, is that I'm constantly expanding my brain and myself in directions I didn't think to previously. I'm learning more about myself every day, and I any time that we're opening ourselves up to new possibilities, I think we're doing something positive.

Monday, April 13, 2015

The Perfect Comeback - Accepting Myself

#HAWMC Day 13:  Tell us about a time when you felt marginalized or stigmatized by someone because of your health condition. Maybe at the time you didn't speak up, or maybe you did – what did you say or what would you have said to take back control and let them know they were out of line. 

A time when I felt marginalized or stigmatized? Oh, ya know, how about every day? Yes, that's correct, every day. Now, I want to be clear - many, perhaps the majority, of these times, this isn't intentional. But it happens, because I don't, I can't, live by society's rules for "normal". 

I recently read (and shared) a meme/Facebook thing that said, "I'm that person that goes to a party and plays with the dog." I can relate to this 100 percent. I do, in fact, go to parties and play with the dog. When I manage to go to a party at all. Why? Because I think the dog understands me more than most people. It's not their fault (the people). I'm just, in many respects, different. Others are trying to drink and de-stress and chat and be social. I'm trying to not let the walls close in, hoping I don't cycle into a hypomanic episode and frantically talk everyone's ear off to the point of embarrassment, or cycle into a depressive cycle and burst into tears for no reason in the middle of the party. Others don't have to intentionally exclude me... I'm naturally marginalized by the difference in our thoughts, emotions, and actions. And trying to include myself and act like everyone else just feels fake - I think people can see right through it, and in my opinion, being fake is worse than being excluded. 

Then there's the times when I have to, for the third week in a row, turn down plans with friends because I'm so mentally, physically, and emotionally exhausted from rapid cycling that I can't possibly do anything but read a little and get to bed early. And if I do manage to get out, I worry the whole time about getting home and getting to bed because I am doctor ordered to get eight to nine hours of sleep per night to keep cycling to a minimum. If I start to lack sleep, I'm going to be ill. I will cycle badly and it could take quite a while to recover - all from a couple of nights less sleep. I know, when my friends are all out having fun, not concerned with getting to bed at the right time, that I'm out of place, worrying about my "bedtime" like a 7 year old or a 70 year old. I can't relax because the anxiety is too much. It's not needless worry, or me having a pole up my ass, unable to have fun. I can't just chill out, it's legitimate anxiety that rakes at me the whole time. And so I often choose to just stay home instead. 

Then there's my hobbies. When people ask what I do for fun, there's always an awkward pause before I say, "Oh I like reading, writing, and organizing mental health awareness campaigns. I run a mood disorders online support group." Nothing says barrels of fun like introspective, solitary hobbies. "So, let's talk about mental illness!" isn't exactly a great icebreaker at social gatherings. While I do have other hobbies, outdoor activities in particular, I generally like to do them with one other person or by myself. Big groups make me feel anxious and tend to maximize my differences... and the fact that I feel anxious in groups and can't relax further maximizes my differences. It's a vicious cycle. 

How do I take back control? I accept all of this. I accept who I am, cyclothymia and all. I have acknowledged that I will rarely be the cool, fun, life of the party. Most of the time, I won't even make it to the party. And that's ok. I've accepted that  my group of friends may be small, but they're loyal, and that sometimes, my best friend has to be myself (or my dog Cinn).  By understanding that much of my "extroverted" tendency of the past was actually hypomania, and now that I'm on meds for it a lot of that has disappeared, I've allowed myself to embrace my more introverted, creative, reflective self. It's a very different side of me, but I'm enjoying learning about it, exploring the deeper levels of me. Ironically, it's the unintentional marginalizing, the feeling out of place, that's helped me to truly understand accept myself, possibly for the first time ever. 

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Chillin' Out Maxing Relaxin' All Cool

#HAWMC Day 12:  Kick your feet up! What is your ideal day in?When you’re having a bad day, or a long week – how do you relax, recharge, and reset yourself?

Relax? What is this thing you call "relax"? I'm kidding, kind of, but I've always been notoriously bad at relaxing. Part of it is my general Type A personality. Part of it is my cyclothymia. In a hypomanic state, what's "relaxing" for me doesn't fit the traditional definition of the word. In this mood cycle, relaxing often involves some sort of planning or active activity (is that redundant) - something that's not work, but that measures up to the level of energy in my body. It might be a shopping trip with my mom, or doing a day hike, or going for a bike ride. It may be brainstorming for the mental health initiatives I want to role out. But I'm generally doing something. If I don't, I sit around anxious, jittery, pacing, obviously uncomfortable and unable to quell the energy running through my brain and body.

When I'm depressed, relaxation seems equally as impossible. It might look like I'm relaxing, not doing much of anything, sleeping more than normal, expending little energy. But let me set the record straight here - being emotionally paralyzed and therefore unable to drag yourself from the bed/couch, feeling so worthless and numb that you can't possibly care about anything, and therefore unable to bring yourself to do anything is NOT relaxing. It's down right terrifying and painful. Is someone who's blacked out, lying on the ground unconscious relaxing, because they aren't moving? It's kind of like that.

I have realized lately, though, that I must learn how to relax. I physically, mentally, and emotionally will break if I don't. I cannot blame myself for the times I'm depressed and unable to do much. I can't force myself to be active and productive every minute that I'm not in a depressive cycle, to make up for the times that I am. This seems obvious, but it's taken me years to get to this point of understanding with myself. I have found, through trial and error, that the key to teaching myself how to relax is not so much learning to do so physically, but to do so mentally and emotionally. Lately, I spend a lot of time writing and reading. When I'm working on writing my novel, or reading someone else's, I'm able get out of my own brain, figuratively out of my own life and into someone else's. There, I don't have to focus on the mood cycles, the anxiety, the frustration with myself. I don't have to worry about the argument I had with this person, or the disappointment I caused that person for once again not being able to make plans due to depression. I can just be. Just focus on the moment. No tug of war in my head. 

Sometimes, choosing to physically remove myself from my usual atmosphere helps. A drive (myself or riding shotgun) or a trip to the beach - particularly a quieter one where I can just sit back and enjoy the warmth and sun. It could be visiting a garden. Nature is a wonderful source of calm for the soul and mind. Or if I'm feeling energetic, I might go to a street fair with food and music. It could be coffee with a good friend in a little neighborhood cafe, or coffee on the back deck watching my dogs run (aka mosey slowly with frequent bathroom stops) around the back yard. The key is that it gets me out of my own head. It doesn't have to be physically un-taxing. It has to be mentally and emotionally renewing. That will, in turn, help me to renew physically. I guess that's as close to relaxing as I get, and for now, it will have to be good enough. 

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Pet Pal - An Ode to My Cinn

#HAWMC Day 11:  Write a thank you letter to your furry, feathery, or fishy friend for always being there for you. How have they helped you cope with your health condition?

Yes! A prompt about animals!  If you know me, or read this blog at all, you know how much I LOVE animals, and specifically, my dog Cinnamon, or Cinn for short (also, obviously, elephants, but I think that's kind of a gimme). I've written about Cinn before, such as this "happy birthday" post, in which I tell a bit more of "our story". Since the possibility of singing Cinn's praises are virtually endless, for this post I'll focus on specifically how she's helped me with my condition.

First off, I honestly think I get along better with animals than humans much of the time. We just seem to have some sort of understanding of each other that I can't manage with most people. I'm one of those suckers who has to turn off the Sarah McLaughlin commercials because otherwise I find myself in tears, wanting to adopt every dog on the screen, physically hurting for the animals, even though I know they're intentionally choosing extra pathetic-looking images for marketing purposes. So right off the bat, Cinn has my almost empathetic understanding of animals going for her. 

Furthermore, we have history. I got Cinn when she was 8 weeks old, while I was still married to my ex-husband. We had another dog at the time, who I liked ok, but Cinn just stole my heart. When I left my marriage, she was the only demand I made. I literally would have walked away with nothing else as long as I had Cinn (luckily my ex is a decent person and didn't allow this). She's been with me through heartache after heartache, and every happy celebration and momentous occasion. When I was diagnosed, I wondered how to tell everyone. Would they look at me funny? Treat me differently? But not Cinn. I knew I could tell her anything, and she'd just sit next to me, letting me pet her, putting her forehead down and leaning into me for a "hug". When I started my meds and was sick as a... ahem... dog... she would be by my side as I lay on the couch, dizzy, nauseous, and disoriented. When I didn't have the energy, or equilibrium, to take her for the longer walks she was accustomed too, she never complained (nor did she have one accident in the house).

The days I cry through my depressive episodes, she senses that I am upset, and is even more loving than usual. She lets me pet her and hug her and hold her, even if it makes her uncomfortable (note: dogs don't like to physically be encircled in a hug, but sometimes I just need it). After days or weeks of depression, Cinn never says "mommy, geez, pull it together, I need to get outside more." When I'm too exhausted from cycling to go out on a Friday night, I don't feel like I'm boring, letting her down because suddenly I went from fun to "grandma" (no offense to actual grandmas out there).  She probably thinks "sweet, I'm staying home to sleep too! Now I have a cuddle buddy!"

Even when I'm having a horrible hypomanic episode in which I'm freaking out, frantic, and generally scaring the humans in my path, Cinn doesn't react. She may wander out of the room to not be underfoot, but her memory is short. If I go to pet her ten minutes later, she doesn't recoil like there's something wrong with me. She's happy to be petted and loved. 

In a life in which there's so much uncertainty for me, with an illness that is so unpredictable that I don't know how I'm going to feel from one day, or one hour, to the next, Cinn has been my rock. Friendships have come and gone. Relationships have come and gone. But not Cinn. She's 10 years old now. I know that dogs don't live forever, and I watch her slower step, sloping back, and graying muzzle with infinite sadness. Some day, she will no longer be able to sit or stand by my side, through no fault of her own but simply the laws of nature. I dread that day. I tear up just thinking about it. Until then, I will spend every chance I get letting her know how much I love and appreciate her, for how much she's loved and appreciated me. Thank you, Cinn, for the unconditional love. No matter how gray or slow or aged you get, you'll always be my precious baby girl.