Energies Flow: A Self-Drawn Mandala in Oil Pastels

The past couple days have been much, much better. I really needed Friday to recuperate. Since then I’ve been calmer and more cheerful. I’ve only had a couple moments when I felt overwhelmed by my emotions, and one of them was when I let myself get too hungry. I’d call the past 2 days good days; I’ve enjoyed spending time with my fiance and my best friend and I’ve been able to remain emotionally engaged. Relaxing and playing fun games have helped as well. ūüôā

Tonight I felt like drawing and my carbon pencils both need to be sharpened, so I pulled out my oil pastels instead. I created a mandala by making 5 overlapping circles with a purple pastel. This created a flower-like shape where the circles all overlap; I colored the center yellow, the small inner petals purple, and the large outer petals pink.

2012-12-31

Next I finished coloring the inner circle clockwise from the upper right: blue, blue green, green, and blue green again – to create a kind of transition from the blue to the green and back again. Come to think of it, that’s kind of like the seasons.

The blue in what remains of the outer four circles represents the sky and freedom. After filling them in, I colored with silver above and below the circles. The red triangle at the top of the page seemed to form on its own and felt kind of ominous. I remembered the “invasion” from the Web Mandala and wondered if impulsiveness and anger were threatening the balanced and beautiful flower I had created below it.

Next I added the purple on either side of the 5 overlapping circles to represent spirituality. It’s holding them up in a way. I colored green at the bottom, providing a nice firm ground to stand on. I thought about green’s connection with growth and recovery, especially as I colored over the silver.

I wanted to color yellow between the top of the flower and the red triangle, but I was concerned about getting the yellow pastel dirty from the darker colors. After debating about it for a short while, I decided it was worth the risk to express what I wanted and needed to express; I could always try and clean the pastel later. (It cleaned quite easily.) As I colored, the yellow mixed with the red to create orange.

So I put yellow – inspiration, intellect, and imagination – as a boundary between the flower and the “invading” impulsiveness and anger (red) and created orange: energy, ambition, joy, courage, and strength. … yeah, that sounds about right.

Finally, what’s the fun in using oil pastels if you don’t smudge them? This was a lot harder than I expected: my tissue fell apart, so I tore out the next page in my sketchbook and used strips of that instead. I tried to follow the flow of energy around the 5 circles and while the colors didn’t blend much, I think I added a nice sense of movement to the image. One of my favorite parts is on the left side where green accidentally got smudged in the middle of the purple area.

There’s always a risk of messing up the image I just created with so much care, so I tend to feel a bit wary of smudging my artwork. But it seems to work out and maybe giving up a little bit of control over the final product – taking that risk – is good for me. In this case, I like the movement and the way different colors mix. No aspect of my experience is “pure.” Everything is mixed with and colored by all my memories, hopes, fears, and simultaneous experiences.

Two Sketches in Black Carbon Pencil

I wanted to draw but couldn’t think of anything to draw, so I decided to let my pencil guide me. It is soft carbon (No. 595) so there are a lot of options for fine lines and shading from light to thick, dark black. I love it! It also smudges very easily, which can be used to create interesting effects (or, more likely, happen by accident).

This sketch formed itself as I experimented with the different marks I could make with my pencil:

2012-12-28-01

For my second sketch, I wanted something more specific to draw. I looked around my room but didn’t see anything I felt comfortable sketching. And I preferred for the image to come from inside, anyway.

I imagined someone telling me, “draw a time when you felt happy,” and started drawing an eye. I wanted to make it look the eye of someone smiling but I’m not sure I pulled it off. As I colored in the iris and added shading around the eye, I actually felt happy.

2012-12-28-02

 

We all know it’ll never happen, so why do we waste our breath?

The things I seem to struggle with the most are knowing my limits and setting boundaries. By “setting boundaries” I mean asserting them and enforcing and defending them no matter what efforts the people I love make to tear them down. This keeps happening, over and over and over again. And at the end of the day, who’s hurt by it? Me. I might say or do some things that hurt other people, too, but guess what? That also hurts me!

The past couple weeks have been crazy. The end of the semester is always insane. Then on Wednesday 12/19 I had to pick my best friend up at the airport and pack for a 2-day road trip. Thursday and Friday we drove around like crazy people so she could find a new apartment. We’re thrilled because she’ll only be 4 hours away instead of 14! But it was also a lot of driving with her dad (who is awesome! – but: 1. adding a third person changes the dynamic so we interact less, and 2. I seem to fall asleep the instant I’m in the back seat of a moving car). So, I feel like I lost 2 days. Saturday my roommate had a party at the apartment, which was fun but also a bit draining (for an introvert).

My mom is having the area of her house where I’ll be living fixed up, which is incredibly nice of her. I’m really excited about it. On Sunday we went to the hardware store to look at paint colors and some other items, with limited success. Spending time with her and my fiance simultaneously was nice … but can also be quite stressful because somehow I end up being the one who has to deal with the things they both do to get on each others’ nerves.

Monday has its own post and there isn’t much more to say about Tuesday. Wednesday and Thursday were crazy. I was at Mom’s while the contractors were working. I blinked and suddenly two rooms were painted, with ALL THE THINGS in a third room and a fourth room – my new bedroom – completely empty. The contractor wanted to paint the bedroom, which is the only room I hadn’t picked a color for yet, so I had only a handful of hours to make my decision. We went to 2 hardware stores and picked out several color swatches, then came home and helped move everything out of the bedroom, then Mom asked if I’d picked a color. Of course not! I had to consider colors with Mom and the contractors watching me, making me feel like I was being indecisive and taking forever.

Finally I made a decision, then rushed over to my best friend’s parents’ house to celebrate the holidays with her and five of our mutual friends. We had the gathering yesterday because my fiance and I had plans with his family for today and two of our friends wouldn’t have been able to come if we’d had it tomorrow. I enjoyed spending time with people, but found it difficult to remain engaged. I was too tired to put in the effort to fully participate. I feel like I missed out on a lot.

I wish I’d known my limits well enough to anticipate that I would need a day or two between events to recuperate. And I wish I’d set boundaries by scheduling in those days, regardless of protests by others who would be inconvenienced by them.

Today I was supposed to go celebrate the holidays with my fiance’s immediate family, who already consider and treat me as one of their own. Driving to their house can take up to 2 hours and tends to be very stressful. I would have had to make the drive alone.

I thought I’d be up to it, but this morning I woke up feeling dead. I explained my decision not to come, but they tried to talk me into coming anyway with promises of tasty food and information about why today is really best for them. I abandoned my attempt at a boundary by agreeing to come, but in the evening instead of afternoon.

Then they asked (via text message) if they should wait for me to have dinner, and I snapped. Dinner is the family coming together to share a meal and connect with one another; it is nourishment for the spirit as well as the body. They shouldn’t have needed to ask if I wanted to be a part of that. They should have wanted to share it with me and decided on their own to make that happen. That they would even consider not doing so felt like the gravest offense – especially after the sacrifice I had agreed to make out of consideration for them!

I sent an angry text telling them to have their dinner and holiday celebration without me, ignored my fiance’s calls and even turned off my phone. I did my long-neglected laundry. I took a shower for the first time in almost a week. I scribbled in my sketchbook and wrote this post and relaxed in bed. While it was still light out I looked out the window and admired the beautiful blue sky.

Maybe I’m starting to feel human again. And as a human I know I can’t go on like this. I plan too much because I want to make everybody happy, but I ignore my limits and my needs. Then instead of asserting myself and maybe making someone a little unhappy, I let myself get pushed and pushed and pushed until I have no choice but to push back. We all feel horrible. Rinse and repeat.

This is the time of year when everyone’s probably posting their New Year’s Resolutions, so I guess I’ll jump on the bandwagon and share mine:

  1. I will figure out what my limits are. For some things I might be able to write out “rules” to follow later, such as “I can only plan 2 social events for one week” or “I must get 8 hours of sleep.” For others I’ll just need to listen to what my body is telling me in the moment.
  2. I will set my boundaries. That means letting others know my limits and using my limits as a guide to set boundaries with others. It means maintaining my boundaries no matter what. I will not compromise until I learn to do so without sacrificing my own needs. I will risk hurting someone’s feelings a little bit now to avoid hurting them (and myself) a lot later.

Christmas Eve: An Emotional (and functional) Rollercoaster

On Christmas Eve, I awoke knowing I hadn’t gotten enough sleep and determined to claim the last hour or two I required. My fiance got up, got dressed, and tried to wake me gently. Eventually I acquiesced, had breakfast, and took my morning pills (Zoloft, omega-3, vitamin B, and vitamin D).

Then we launched into baking cookies. I did most of the work mixing the ingredients while my fiance cleaned and got some Trans-Siberian Orchestra Christmas music playing. We worked together to put the cookie dough on the trays and get the trays in and out of the oven in a timely manner.

I was on top of the world through the whole process. Between the music and sharing a favorite holiday tradition with someone I love, I simply could not imagine anything better. And the results of our labor were some of the most delicious, satisfying, euphoria-inducing cookies I have ever had. I couldn’t wait to share them!

I felt like everything was right again and I could stop taking my medication.

Then my fiance took about half the cookies and left to spend the holiday with his family, an arrangement we’d agreed on days earlier. I worked on a project with my best friend over Skype, an endeavor which was fun and satisfying but also more stressful than I think either of us had anticipated. Once we finished, it was time for me to get ready to go.

The plan was for me to spend Christmas Eve with my best friend at her parents’ house, then go to my mom’s that night so I could spend Christmas Day with her. I felt overwhelmed by the prospect of not only getting ready to visit with people, but also having to plan what I would wear for another day or two and put together an overnight bag.

I’m moving back in with my mom in a couple of months, so she had suggested that I bring some things over with me as part of that transition (which is stressful in its own right). Deciding what items I could live without for a couple of months – and packing them so they’d be manageable to carry, along with the other items I was bringing – was just too much for me to handle. I decided pretty quickly to let that one slide; there will be plenty more opportunities for me to go through things and bring some of them to Mom’s.

I showered, then sat down on my bed with my towel draped over me. It’s an organizing tactic that admittedly slows me down, but feels necessary when I’m stressed about going somewhere. My roommate was watching a movie in the other room with the sound so loud it was making the whole apartment vibrate.

I froze. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t think, I couldn’t tell you what emotion(s) I was feeling.
I was stuck.

All of my energy went into holding my rigid position and taking things in through my senses: I saw the objects within my range of vision, heard the catastrophically loud music and sound effects and walls vibrating, felt the bed under my hips and legs and the towel draped over my shoulders. I was aware of my heartbeat and respiration. That was all I was – that, and a sense that I should be doing something else.

Finally, I got myself to move. I stuck out a leg, suspended it horizontally from the bed, and froze again. My intention had been to get up and start getting dressed, but I became stuck in this new position. My leg shook slightly with the effort of keeping it in place, but I did not move. Waves of fatigue, sadness, and anxiety washed over me.

Eventually, with much effort, I was able to get dressed, put together an overnight bag, remember to bring my viola so my friend and I could play string music together for the first time in seven months, check the weather and decide I should wear my winter boots in case of snow, etc.

I forgot to get gas so I had to drive around in a circle. Then I got boxed in at the gas station. Then when I was about a third of the way to my destination I realized I had forgotten the one Christmas present I’d managed to pick up – my present for my mom. I felt horrible. I was already an hour late for dinner, the weather was getting gross, it was dark, and I was tired. I kept driving toward my friend’s parents’ house, furious with myself for “messing everything up.”

The thought of committing suicide entered my mind, but I fended it off with the conviction that it would be horribly cruel to subject my loved ones to that much sorrow – especially on Christmas Eve.

People were still eating when I arrived at my destination, so I joined their meal and conversation. It was very pleasant. My best friend and I played a few duets, then it was time to exchange presents. I felt awkward receiving presents when I had none to give, but I was happy with the gifts I got and enjoyed seeing the exchanges among family members and friends.

Once the exchange was complete, we went back to making music together, which at least started out as an enjoyable activity. I felt insecure about sight reading, but did my best and had some fun playing Christmas duets.

Unfortunately, I had to stop playing viola before long. I’d fallen back on bad habits, was holding my left wrist in a very awkward position, and had pain shooting down my left arm whenever I moved my fingers. I felt depressed and tired, but my friend was understanding.

We sat down on the couch to listen to some recorded viola music and I fell asleep, occasionally twitching.

Soon after I woke up we watched The Muppet Christmas Carol, one of my most favorite movies ever. I love the music and I resonate with the message behind the story: no matter how much pain you have experienced, you can still find love and cheer if you’re open to it.

I sang along to all the songs and felt fantastic!

Visiting with Mom after that was very enjoyable. She didn’t seem angry that I had forgotten her present. I enjoyed opening the presents she had gotten for me and expressing my gratitude for them. Eventually we went to bed, tired but content.

Today Mom and I were late leaving to visit with family, but otherwise had a pleasant Christmas. Yes, I took my medication. My mood – primarily content – was a lot more stable than yesterday. My energy levels fluctuated from moderate to low enough that I had to fight to stay awake. Speaking of which, this entry needs to end because I’m losing my current battle. Good night!

On the Eleventh Day of Zoloft my SSRI Gave to Me …

I’ve been taking my new antidepressant for about a week and a half now. The first 6 days were half doses (25 mg) and today is my 5th full dose (50 mg). It’s kind of hard to say whether the Zoloft has “kicked in” yet, but I have noticed a few changes:

I’m a lot calmer. I still feel emotions, but they’re not as intense as I’m used to.

My anxiety is basically gone. I’ll still worry about things from time to time, but I don’t feel overwhelmed. It’s easier to take anxiety-provoking situations (such as showing up for an exam at my regular class time to find an empty classroom) in stride. That, in turn, makes problem solving easier. (I looked up the exam schedule and discovered I had two more hours to study!)

It’s harder to think in words. I’m used to having a lot of complex verbal thoughts, sometimes so many it feels like my mind is racing. I’m used to my thoughts sometimes taking more of my attention than the world around me – especially if I’m trying to solve a problem, or to determine which words will best express my perspective in a conversation I anticipate having.

But lately the opposite has been happening: It takes so much effort to maintain a focus on verbal thoughts, I’m having a harder time writing. I can listen to and follow conversations, but have trouble thinking of things to say – especially if there are two or more people talking over background music (or other auditory distractions). Sometimes I’ll just take in the world around me and not think any verbal thoughts at all. Or, the thoughts I do have will be fleeting.

I’m concerned about the effect this might have on my academic performance, because the difficulty concentrating will extend the time I need to write papers and complete exams and may influence class participation. It’s also a significant, disturbing change in how I experience my internal world and my sense of self.

But, I’ll admit, it’s also kind of soothing. It’s easier to focus on physical reality, including my body. I can let go of uncomfortable ideas – which, admittedly, can cause significant emotional distress and interfere with social interaction – and just be.

So, I’m still on the fence regarding whether it’s a welcome change of pace that might actually be healthy … or a blissful annihilation of my intellectual capabilities.

I’m very tired. There are periods of high energy, where I’ll be cheerful, silly, dancing around, and able to immerse myself wholeheartedly into an activity and thoroughly enjoy it. I live for those times. But they can abruptly end and I’ll feel extremely tired, even falling asleep against my will and regardless of whether I got a decent amount of sleep the night before. I think it’s easier to give in to the fatigue because of the blunted emotions and sparser verbal thoughts I’ve been experiencing; I need more (of the right kind of) stimulation from the outside world to remain engaged.

Otherwise it can be like a radio is playing in my head: verbal dialogue (which I may or may not be able to understand) and music (that I may or may not have heard before) fill my consciousness and I get caught up listening to it, drifting away into dreams that can feel more real – or at least more interesting – than reality. The sensation of the sounds is different from the sensation of hearing through my ears, in the same way having a song stuck in one’s head is different from listening to the song on an MP3 player.

I’m pretty sure the “radio sounds” are coming from my own mind, much like the “voice” my verbal thoughts have, though I don’t seem to have any control over the former. To be honest the “internal radio phenomenon” is nothing new, but I’m used to it only becoming an issue when I’m very tired – when I should have gone to bed hours ago. It’s been “turning itself on” more frequently and at less appropriate times since I started taking Zoloft.

That’s about all I can think of right now. Happy Holidays!

Mental Illness and Mass Shootings

Today I read some articles that have me concerned about the potential impact of my last post (in which I described some of my own experience struggling with intense anger and the hoops I had to jump through to access mental health services).

They are:

  • Thinking the Unthinkable, better known as the “I am Adam Lanza’s mother” post
  • Comments on “Thinking the Unthinkable,” most of which were by mothers also sharing their experiences raising children with mental illness – but some of which were by adults and teens with mental illness. This comment makes a particularly relevant point about how one’s responses to a child’s difficult behavior may cause the very thing we fear.
  • When You Tie Shootings to Mental Illness, which points out the dangers of assuming that violent criminals are mentally ill and, conversely, that someone with mental illness will commit violent crime (people with mental illness are actually more likely to be victims of violence)
  • Law Creates Barriers to Getting Care for Mentally Ill
  • Some articles questioning the validity of psychiatry (which lacks scientific tests to diagnose mental disorders, relies on societal norms to define mental disorders, and benefits financially from dispensing potentially-debilitating medications to some of the most vulnerable members of society). The articles go to¬† more of an extreme than I think is valid, but they make a good point: People labeled as “having mental illness” are not really all that different from people considered “normal.” They are people with very difficult problems, some of which result from their experiences, our messed-up society, and possibly biological or genetic factors. What they need more than anything else – regardless of diagnosis and other aspects of their treatment – is the compassion and respect of someone (preferably multiple people) willing to accept them as they are. (This is a core component of any psychotherapy and has been supported by scientific research.)

And so we come to the real problem with mental illness: the stigma associated with it. That stigma can lead a person who is suffering to isolate hirself for fear of rejection, violence, and “being locked up” – instead seeking much-needed help. Not only does it put that person in danger, but it perpetuates domestic abuse and can create a significant risk for others in the community. It also costs a lot in terms of lost contributions that person could have made to society.

That stigma interferes the creation of an adequate mental health system. It interferes with people reaching out to someone who seems troubled or is exhibiting “abnormal” behavior and trying to get that person much-needed help. It criminalizes people who have mental illness.

Worst, it interferes with developing the understanding we really need in order to find more effective treatments and change society in ways that enable everyone to live safer and healthier lives. Most of the information available about various mental illnesses is from the perspective of people who have never experienced them. Descriptions of abnormal behavior, especially as it may be exhibited by people with schizophrenia and other psychotic disorders, verge on the sensationalist – like going to a freak show! Sometimes I read them and think, “if the author of this article saw some of the things I do on really bad days, what would ze think about me?”

Exposure to these portrayals likely silences the very people we need to hear from in order to actually understand the behaviors and bigger picture, particularly how they fit into and reflect upon society.¬† I most certainly do not want to be lumped in with the “monsters” and the “lunatics” and ridiculed (again – it was bad enough as a kid) and marginalized and worst of all considered unemployable¬† – just because I dared to share some of my experiences. I most certainly do no want to be physically brutalized or killed. So what am I supposed to do? Even writing this blog using a pen name seems incredibly risky.

So please understand this: whatever we may be feeling, whatever we may be tempted to do, even whatever we may do, people with mental illness are people first. Yes, it may be disturbing and frustrating to others who have to interact with us, but consider how much more disturbing and frustrating it is to us! We have to live with it constantly and with the terrifying and devastating consequences of behavior over which we sometimes feel we have no control. You are entitled to your emotions, but when you interact with us and talk about us and make policies concerning us, please do so as compassionately and with as much empathy as possible. And please respect our confidentiality – including that of children!

Please listen to people who are brave enough to share their experiences and insights as a person with mental illness – and if you are one of these people, speak out!

Finally, you can comment anonymously on this blog.
(All comments are moderated.)

Access to Guns vs Mental Health Services

I was very sad to learn of the massacre that occurred at Sandy Hook Elementary School in CT on Friday. It is devastating to think that someone could be so deeply troubled he could open fire on young children.

The debate regarding whether we should have stricter gun control laws has already come back to the forefront, despite people’s attempts to silence it. I hope that this time we will engage in the debate, at least long enough to try and prevent something like this from happening again.

Yes, people will be violent no matter how much you try to restrict their access to weapons. Yes, the 2nd Amendment of the U.S. Constitution protects the right to have and bear arms. But the bottom line is you can kill a lot more people a lot more quickly and with a lot less effort using an automatic or semi-automatic gun than with your bare hands, a knife, or even a gun that only shoots one bullet at a time. We need to make auto/semi-auto weapons and high-capacity clips inaccessible to civilians.

Beyond that, I’m inclined to agree with people who believe we should regulate guns at least as much as we regulate cars. Still make them accessible, but require some proof that owners will use them responsibly. (I know the shooter on Friday stole the weapon he used, but most mass shooters obtain their weapons legally.)

I’ve heard some other arguments that I believe are worth considering in discussions of how to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. One is that violence is glamorized in the media; this encourages or at least condones use of violence in real life. Another is that there is a significant connection between mental health problems and mass shootings, including the one that occurred on Friday.

As a person with serious mental illness, I’ve been struggling with a lot of very intense emotions – especially anger. As recently as December 3rd, I felt so overwhelmingly angry I wanted to feel the full force of my body being as destructive as possible, and I admitted that my desire to do so in a room full of breakable objects was a compromise with my respect for human life. Thank goodness I was with someone who could listen to me talk about these feelings and help me work through them! If that hadn’t been the case …

Well, I don’t have access to semi-automatic weapons. But I was driving a car.

This was a week after I’d made an appointment to see Psychiatrist B. In order to make this appointment, I kept having to call what I imagine must have been a bureaucratic call center and was told several times I’d be called back. They called back when I was in class or otherwise unavailable. When a human finally called and I was able to answer, she said that the subject I’m studying in school “isn’t depressing” – when, actually, it involves learning about some of the most painful experiences a person can have – and asked me extremely awkward questions, such as “what makes you cry?” Never ask a person with depression what makes zir cry. Answering that question requires one to think about things that make one cry, and that’s the last thing a person with depression needs. Ze probably does it way too often already!

After that conversation, I felt like committing suicide. A week later, I was arguably angry enough to commit homicide. Nine days later, I shut out the whole world – fortunately including my therapist, who expressed enough concern in her voice mail messages (which I chose to listen to, by the way) to break through my withdrawal and get me to reconnect with her. Fortunately, in my case reducing the anger was as simple as not taking a prescribed medication anymore. What if I’d needed something more complicated?

Finally, 15 days later, I met with Psychiatrist B. But before I could see him I had to hand someone my health insurance card, read several pages of literature, and sign many forms. I worried that the information I put on the form might cause the mental healthcare provider to deny me the help I so desperately needed. I had to disclose a lot of personal information: where I live, who I live with, my source of income, substance use history, criminal history, my religion, my age, my weight, my sex (there was no place to indicate gender identity), my sexual orientation, and so on.

Only after I’d filled out all the forms, and paid my copay, and signed my soul away, did I get to meet with Psychiatrist B. It was almost an hour after I had arrived. The appointment went well, but what if it hadn’t? The medication he prescribed probably won’t even take effect for another month, at least. I’m a resourceful person with health insurance who cares a lot about other people and knows how painful it is to lose a loved one too well to willingly inflict that upon another human being. And I have a good social support network, including an excellent therapist.

What about the people who don’t?

Links:

Twelve Facts about Guns and Mass Shootings in the U.S.

Why are mass shootings becoming more frequent?

Mass Shootings: Maybe What We Need is a Better Mental Health Policy