Crazy Like Me

“Everybody needs his memories.  They keep the wolf of insignificance from the door.”

–Saul Bellow

About three weeks ago, I was a minor celebrity about town.  I was the “feature” in the Sunday profile column of The Meadville Tribune that typically celebrates our small city’s successful entrepreneurs, cupcake mavens, beekeepers, quilters, and kindergarten teachers.  Initially, the reporter contacted me and said he’d heard some amazing things about me in the vein of successful-woman-about-town: 1. That I was (still) a Professor at Allegheny College while raising two children and writing my books; and, more compelling, 2. Did I really climb Mt. Olympus while nine months pregnant?

“I’m sorry to have to say,” I wrote back in my email, “but I think someone has overestimated my accomplishments.  I was a Professor at Allegheny, but I’ve left the College due to medical difficulties. And while I have climbed Mt. Olympus and did travel to Greece when I was nine months pregnant, I didn’t do both simultaneously.  I think my Ob/Gyn would have had me committed, much less my psychiatrist.  However, I would be willing to share my other story, which your readers might find interesting.  Maybe more so, though it is a different kind of adventure.  The reason I left teaching is because I was unable to find a way to recover from anorexia and find stability with my struggles from Bipolar Disorder.  So I did what was necessary for my health and well-being—not easy given that teaching was what I always wanted to do with my life, given that was basically my dream job—but rather than die while working, I needed to prioritize living.  I’ve found as I’ve been in recovery that part of what keeps me moving forward is to be a resource for others who are also struggling with mental illness and trying to get well and find balance so I am working against the shame of suffering from mental illness. Part of my mission is the blog that I write.  Let me know if you are interested.”

Well, he was interested, and I went public in my city in a BIG way, in a way I’ve never done before.  Not only was a detailed summary of my “story” published, but so was my picture—the prettiest mug shot I could come up with.  More than vanity, though.  There is a belief that someone who is seriously mentally ill can only “look” one way—unkempt, frazzled, tangled hair, stinking of piss and shit, shuffling down the street, muttering to herself.  That she, or he, is “other,” so far removed from anyone you could really know.  That she, or he, is either the person hanging around a dumpster, rocking back and forth in a corner, or institutionalized.  Surely, that’s what serious mental illness looks like.  And you wouldn’t have anything to do with someone like that, would you?  You wouldn’t let someone like that around your kids, would you?  You would never fall in love with someone like that, who had a label, a diagnosis like that, would you?

Here’s the truth.  Two months ago, I had to find a new psychiatrist because my current one was moving on to a new position.  He referred me to another psychiatrist in the area, someone with the right credentials, with the right depth and breadth of experience.  We spoke and he wanted to review my records before seeing me for my evaluative appointment.  So I had them sent.  And waited and waited and waited.  Finally, he called.

“Ms. Bakken,” he said.

“Yes?”

“I’ve had a chance to look through your records.  They’re quite extensive.”

I laughed nervously.  I’ve never looked through my records, could only imagine what the 20 or so hospitalizations, the 30+ Electroconvulsive Treatments, and the potential 3 different psychiatrists’ diagnoses might all add up to in the end.

“I’m sorry, Ms. Bakken, but I won’t be able to take you on as a patient.  Your mental illness is too severe for me to treat.  The range of severity is too extensive.  I hope you can understand.”

If one can nod dumbly into the phone, than that’s what I did.  In fact, idiotically, I reassured him.  “Of course.  I know how difficult I must be.  Don’t worry.  I’ll find someone else.”

It took ages to find someone else, but now I have and my “severe mental illness” doesn’t scare him off. Which is also to say, if, before now, I haven’t scared you off, don’t let this admission scare you away. Don’t let these words, uttered by someone in your life, or someone who could be in your life, scare you off.

Of course, there are moments—ten minutes, a few hours, a few days—when I do scare my husband and family and friends.  Usually, that’s when I’m not following my agreed upon plan that helps me stay stable and keeps anorexia, mania and the suicidal fangs of depression at bay.

Here’s the gift, and it’s not just my gift to you who might be struggling to get well and come across this blog and see that it’s possible not just to hang in there but to climb out—and to climb out each and every time, as pointless and exhausting as it might seem.  To climb out and breathe each time a bigger breath and say to everyone who loves you and who also fights for you, but especially to the doctor who believes you are too ill to help, “Fuck ill.  I am well.”

But the gift given back to me?  The more I am free with my story, the more I am helped in my adventure into love and wellness.  Two days after the article was published, I received a letter from a man who told me about his wife who had died six months earlier after a long bout with melanoma.  But his wife always talked about the time I came to visit her book club—how much that meant to her, how my book inspired her, how my talking to her and her friends was so generous and warm.  That even in the months preceding her death, she talked about me—that I made that much of an impact.  I would not have remembered this but for the article and the follow-up letter.

To be honest, because of the massive memory loss, the complete almost 10-year retrograde memory wipe-out from the Electroconvulsive treatments, I don’t remember that visit, and part of me feels desperately guilty about this.  But his letter is the gift of memory.  Because I parted with shame and fear, because I allowed myself to be seen in a small Sunday article as severely mentally ill, with the pretty, charming photograph of me juxtaposed beside it, I was given back a piece of my past that reminded me that I mattered, that in the years I normally consign to the dumpster because I was on my crazy rampage, years I just assume should truly be forgotten, there are these miraculous, salvageable moments.  A woman held on to my memories for me in her dying days.

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Ready To Run

On Saturday, Derby Day, I won first place in my age group (40-44) for a 5k running race.  And while nobody covered me in a glorious blanket of 564 roses, I was given a medal, an actual hang-around-your-neck medal, my first—my first for running, anyway–but perhaps my most meaningful as it was the first time back competing in a race since I had to bow out, most unceremoniously, five years ago because I was emaciated, suffered from irregular heart rhythms, and hypotension, all by products of anorexia.  But on Saturday, under clear blue skies, in crisp morning air, my legs prickled with goose bumps, breathing in and out, in and out, glad to be alive and there, I stood at the starting line with all the other runners ready to run.

Let me say that again.  Ready to run.  Not ready to win.  This is important and something that I am still learning in my recovering from all of IT’s manifestations—Anorexia, Bipolar Disorder, Alcoholism, Self-Injury.  Ignore the voice that says: Be Perfect.  Be the best.  Anything else is shit, is failure, is grounds for starvation/ruminative self-loathing/drinking to excess/cutting.  That’s how Anorexia works best.  Lose 10 pounds.  Now another 10.  Now another 10.  You are still too fat.  Still not good enough.  Still not the thinnest in the room, in the hospital.  Worthless if you are just mediocre, finishing fourth, or worse, always second.

I can turn anything into a competition—usually against myself since I no longer play team sports.  I time myself at little tasks—I have to unload the dishwasher before a round of commercials is over on TV. Ridiculous, I know, but when I hear the third commercial begin, my chest tightens, and I pick up my already frenetic pace.  I justify this by telling myself I’m making mundane chores interesting, but really, it’s compulsive.  Like shaving my legs in the shower—again, part of a time game—so, no shaving cream = precious seconds saved to come in under my five minute goal.  There’s the grocery store game where I’ll given myself x number of minutes to get in and out depending on how many items are on the list and whether the kids are hanging from the cart.  All of this is to say it is very hard for me to turn off the voice in my head that is always competing for The Woman Who Could Chug the Most Beers (Won that one in Jamaica on Spring Break one year), The Woman Who Had Fast-Track Admission to the Psych Ward (Well, almost, but everybody did know my name…), The Woman with The Most Scars on Her Arms (100+ but fading now so what does that mean when they’re gone?).

But I wasn’t thinking about winning at that starting line.  Instead, I was filled with gratitude.  How lucky I was, and am, to be connected again to my body which is healthy.  Unbelievably healthy because truly, I should be dead many, many times over.  I have tried to kill this body with deliberate means.  I have woken up in emergency rooms and in an intensive care unit rescued by strangers from my suicide attempts.  All of the alcohol my body has processed and recovered from (not to mention my brain).  All of the wounds my body has healed because that’s what it does when it is trying to recover from my best, competitive attempts to die.  All of the pounds lost and regained and lost and regained and lost and regained and lost and finally, hopefully for good, regained.  This body standing in shorts and a tank top and sneakers, ready to run because it was healthy.  A healthy body in the middle of a pack of what looked like other healthy bodies, other people ready to bolt into the wind and sunshine, ready to run the course.

I’ve won medals before, and trophies.  I’ve played sports my whole life, but with the attitude of DO OR DIE.  Competitive tennis from the age of five to eighteen, bruises purpled my shins because every time I flubbed a shot, really screwed one up, I’d whack myself in the shin with the tennis racquet.  No joy in the playing, because there was no playing—there was just me executing a perfect performance and when I failed, as I always did, I enacted penalties.

Ready to run.  I ran.  Without expectations.  Just do what you can do, I told myself over and over.  Of course, it was a race, so I wasn’t going to lollygag and keep vigil at the dead possum or chit chat with other runners.  I was there to run my best, which meant with all I could give, but which also meant without IT’s voice.  So when I crossed the finish line and saw that my time was faster that I imagined, because I’d been feeling a bit fatigued by the long hill, I was already elated.  And then when they posted the results and I saw my finish, and later still, when I received the medal, I knew what the medal was about: ready to run into my life and into hope.

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Strong, Sober, and Sane

Strong, Sober, and Sane.  These are the three words that I want to define my path in 2014.  Words I’ve been working my way towards—separately—for the past few years, but have been too small of vision, too timid to put them all together into one big AND for myself.  I can be all three, all at once.  I don’t have to do strong or sober or sane one at a time, piecemeal.  That’s for wobbly-kneed wimps.

Take today.  I signed up for my first Half-Marathon ever.  13.1 miles.  Sure, I’ve run 10 miles before, so another 3 miles more doesn’t seem like it should kill me.  But I’ve always been pretty tired at the end of 10 miles—on the point of giving up—and the self-talk has been desperate (“Please, please just another fifteen, ten, five feet and I won’t ever make you do this again?  Well, maybe in another week, but it’ll be easier next time.  I promise!”)  But here’s the thing: the fact that I can ever sign up for this race means I’m a radically different person than I was two years ago.  I’m strong—and by this I mean my body is come-back-from-the-dead-strong.  Once upon a time, I was only living to become weak and weaker still, starving and purging in an attempt to disappear.  I wouldn’t feed my body, so my body ate itself.  People looked at me and were afraid that I was going to collapse.  I was strong then, but strong-willed, stubborn, and irrational.  Now, when people look at me, they’re no longer afraid that I’m going to blow over or pass out at the track—except maybe when my face turns bright red from exertion, which I can’t help.  I love the feeling when I’m working out with free weights and lifting them over my head, doing barbell curls, and crazy kettlebell, twisty sit-ups, how something hard and tough and unbreakable is growing inside of me.  And every now and then that Eating Disordered Self pipes in and says, “You know that weightlifting will increase body weight, don’t you?”  And to that I say, “Fuck you!”  Because I’d rather be strong than weak, here than dead.

Sober.  I’m trying to extend this one beyond just alcohol to a more expansive understanding of the word sobriety.  To be sober means to be thoughtful.  And this is what I would like to be: a more forward-thinking, more reflective, more thoughtful person.  I don’t know if it’s the nature of being Bipolar, but my anger can be volcanic, my emotions run riot—at least when I’m alone or at home.  Out in public, I try to keep myself together.  I want to be like the women in those commercials that you always see standing in some doorway wearing a long white, flowy gown, hair blowing off their backs, holding onto a mug of tea.  They always look calm and content–one foot in the house, the other out on the beach.  And it’s early morning, too!  That’s what I’d like to aim for—an unruffled demeanor, a quietude, an ability to be present in myself without the need to rush around yapping at everyone else.

Sane.  What’s the expression?  The proof is in the pudding?  For the first time, well, in ever, I’m going on a solo vacation!  I am finally stable enough in my Bipolar Disorder to be able to venture out on my own for a solo adventure.  No overseers.  Ahem.  Caretakers.  Ahem.  Companions.  Just me on a mini-immersion in February for few days at a Yoga Ashram in the Caribbean.  Granted, nobody in the family would have been willing for mandatory 5:30am chanting and yoga classes and vegetarian food (not to mention ixnay on the caffeine and tent sleeping), but to me, this will be heaven!  And the only reason I get to do this is because I’ve maintained stability, kept my bearings together, fought IT off, been proactive in seeking out help when I’ve needed it, and kept my recovery front and center.  There are weeks when I forget that I was once the women located in an isolation room in the psych unit sleeping on a mattress on the floor, where I once wandered the psych unit so overmedicated I could barely tell you my name, where I was told by a psychiatrist that I was a hopeless case.  That was just three years ago.  You can read about that woman if you go back to the beginning of this blog—she’s there, and desperate and angry and scared.  But I’m not there anymore.

Strong and Sober and Sane.  That’s how far I’ve come and it keeps getting better.

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Commit Love

 

The other night, I was over my friends’ house for dinner.  A last minute invite: they had been out to the farm to pick tomatoes, boxes and bags of tomatoes, and needed to eat them, or some, that night.  The farm.  My insides tumbled.  Not their farm (they don’t have one), but the Yoder farm, the Amish family who grows all the vegetables for the CSA started up, in part, by my ex-husband (with my intermittent help).  In married life, I used to drive out to farm with C. and the kids, pick a trunkful of tomatoes, and spend days processing sauce, salsa, and bags of whole peeled Romas.  And chat with David, the farmer, and his wife, and their giggly half-dozen kids.  We even had them over for an Amish-English dinner party in our formal dining room.  One daughter, six or seven at the time, thought it was so fancy because I’d lit candles and put them in gleaming crystal holders shaped like stars.  Wedding gifts.  But in divorce, some friends get divvied up, just like the wedding gifts, which meant for two, go to one or the other.

This is not about the loss of wedding gifts, but the loss of friends.  The real loss.  Last week, one of my friends committed suicide.  Impossible to imagine (and I try not to) because she was always suffused with joy, at least when I saw her.  She owned the yoga studio where I practice.  Her smile was a stabilizing force and she inhabited her body with a grace I can only hope to achieve.  And yet, she is gone now.  A strange, legalistic phrase: “committed suicide.”  One commits crimes or commits to a relationship.  But suicide?  Perhaps initially as a cause of intended action.  But wholeheartedly?  That seems impossible, and I know since I once committed myself to such a course.  But gratefully I woke up in the hospital bed, my life, while not intact, given more time for repair.  Even in the pain and inside the intention and in the bottle of pills I swallowed, even in my irrational thinking, unable to see any other possibility, I don’t think I believed for an instant that I wouldn’t wake up at some point, even if that meant years on out, and see my daughter and son and husband again.  A faulty, fleeting solution to the pain of now, a decision, in its execution, that seemed temporary.  Except so often, it isn’t.

Sorrow for my friend in her pain and the consequent devastation.  It is not easy to resist shutting down for good.  Sometimes, I wander into thinking that might be the only way—not as often as I used to—but still, what I imagine as a blank, dark quiet can seem preferable over the angry, hopeless noise in my head. And then, my daughter emails me a sketch of the two of us, disguised as her invented cartoon characters. The mother has her arm wrapped around the daughter’s shoulders, and they gaze at the other as if besotted.

Roo and Mom

Love keeps me here.  Friends, too, and their tomato bounty.  So I commit love, then.  R. sliced up platters of enormous tomatoes marbled through like steak, and decorated them with mozzarella, feta, basil, salt and pepper.  We joked they were as big as the brains of small children or swollen hearts or alcoholic livers.  A way to counter sad mortality.  The three of us sat at the table, spearing tomatoes with our forks, juice and olive oil dripping from our chins.  We mopped up our plates with warm pita, spoke of our friend who was gone, and moved into the restoration and warmth of laughter.  That was our meal: the joy of summer’s bounty and the pain of its end, and friendship that could make a feast from what seemed like so little.

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