Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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One Pill Makes You Smaller; One Pill Makes You Tall

Smaller or taller?

Smaller or taller?

Alice could not reach the doorknob.

Shrunk down so small, Alice saw no relief in sight.

And then what should appear but a little bottle by her bed.

“Drink me.” It said.

And so she did.

And on the table was a little cake.

“Eat me.” It said.

And so she did.

She opened up like a telescope and shot up like a shooting star. Her neck stretched; her legs grew. Her head burst through the ceiling. Her arms burst through the windows. Her feet stuck out the door.

Welcome to Wonderland.

Welcome to my world.

Take a little bit of this and a little bit of that until you get your bipolar brain just right.

So before I lay me down to sleep — I wash down three little pills with a glass of water:

One little pill to — balance my brain;

One little pill to — help me sleep;

One little pill to — keep me this side of crazy;

A mood stabilizer; a soporific; and an antipsychotic.

I have got this thing down to a science. I am a walking, talking miracle of science.

But the recipe for this little cocktail is not written in stone. Every once in a while I need to have my head examined. Yes, literally have my head examined by a board certified psycho-pharmacologist. And then re-examined.

But we are not just a pile of chemicals. Being organic, every little aspect of our being has a bearing on our brains.

So like going to Jiffy Lube, my doctor peers down at his clip board and runs my brain through the 39 point checklist:

“How much shuteye have you gotten lately?”

“Well, doctor, less and less”.

“When was the last time you took a run around the block?”

“Well actually, doctor,  I’ve been doing that more and more”.

“What have you been eating for breakfast?”

“Well, doctor, I am crazy about breakfast. I eat it three times a day.”

“How about your workload?”

“It’s great, doctor, but I rarely say ‘no’.”

“How is your love life?”

“What love life?”

“How are your finances?”

“What finances?”

The measure of my moods is the balance in my checking account. And recently when it comes to money I have gotten way out of balance.

At first my spending seems most sensible.

For water aerobics, a new bathing suit – and then a new pool bag and water shoes to match. Of course, they have to match.

And then another bathing suit, just because.

For walking that next half marathon, new running shoes — and then new socks, new tights, new jacket, new hat. Of course, they have to match.

Two new dresses just because.

And just because I was traveling: new slippers, new scarf, new coat. And of course, they have to match.

And just because I love to read, a new e-book, a new real book, new bookmarks.

And because it is cold — new boots.

And because they might break — a new toilet, a new washer, a new dryer.

You get the idea!

And o by the way, walking, and swimming, and half marathon-ing this last year  —  I have lost weight equal to that of a small child or two. (And yes, I look amazing! Thank you for noticing!)

Money matters out of whack. Metabolism redefined. It’s time to get my head re-examined. And even though I know I should, this is something I am wont to do.

Feeling fabulous, I regularly drop by my therapist’s office to tell her so. But I am neglectful of my visits to the psycho-pharmacologist.

Who needs to go to the doctor — when you’ve got this down to a science?

Medication may be only a small part of being marvelous. But an important part it is. And when there is a big change in your life; you may just need a little change to your prescription cocktail.

One pill makes you smaller; one pill makes you tall. And when you are not sure —

Make an appointment with Dr. Alice. I am sure she’ll know.

JoaniSign


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Angelic, Manic and Magic

angels victorian

“Two angels sitting on my shoulder”

I  grew up believing in angels and archangels and all the choirs of heaven. Angels graced the holy cards that marked my place in my St. Joseph missal. Angels glittered on Christmas cards and sat on top of Christmas trees. Glass angels shone through the church windows and marble angels guarded the church doors. Their wings shimmered like silver. Their names sounded like spun gold – Gabriel and Raphael. Angels flew like the wind and they could dance on the head of a pin. My world was awash with angels.

At Holy Family School the angels that mattered most were of more of a humdrum kind. There was the angel who carried your prayers to heaven – if your hands were folded just right. And each of us little Catholic kids had a guardian angel  — who watched over us as we crossed the street like a crossing guard. Then there was a little nameless angel who sat on your right shoulder like Jiminy Cricket — the clear voice of a good conscience for a third grader. And the greatest grade school angel of them all was the veritable star of the Christmas Pageant –“The Angel of the Lord”.

“And behold I bring you tidings of great joy, for unto to you this day  in the City of David is born a savior who is Christ the Lord.”

These were my lines! I got the part and a star was born.

Three days a week for three weeks straight, we  rehearsed the words we would recite and the carols we would sing. I remember beaming with pride as Sister Inez Patricia blew on her pitch pipe as we burst into “Joy to the World”. But then Sister’s nose curled up like she smelled cauliflower cooking.

“Someone is flat here, let’s start again.”

Secure in the knowledge that I had  the voice of an angel — the Angel of the Lord. in fact — I sang even louder the second time. I virtually shouted in order to drown out the voice of that poor soul who could not carry a tune.

“JOY TO THE WORLD!”

This time Sister looked as if steam was coming out of her ears. “Peacock, it’s you.” she said. “You’re out.” Wings clipped, this Angel of the Lord fell from grace, a third grader in  disgrace.

A place I was not totally unfamiliar with.

I did not grow up in a fairy tale household, but a crazy and chaotic one. I had, of course, an alcoholic bipolar mom and a workaholic dad and five wild and wooly siblings. But my childhood nevertheless was still somewhat enchanted. Now at fifty-nine, I can see that the guardian angel  that actually protected me. in fact,  was a hypomanic nine year old cherub. And those hypomanic years got that little cherub through a hellacious home life and all eight grades at Holy Family School.

A little mania is a gift that can go a long way. Euphorically it lifts your spirit. It can give you angel wings and let you hear the angels sing. Miraculously you open your mouth and out comes the voice of an angel. And you believe beyond a doubt and in your heart of hearts that God wants you in his choir.

And as long as you can keep your feet on the ground, it’s okay to walk around with your head in the clouds. And so for so many school days, I did just that. All through high school, all through college. Into married life, professional life, my seminary years, I did just that. A little mania is a marvelous management tool. And even better, prolonged mania is euphoric and delightful and delicious.

But it is also dangerous.

Tripping the light fantastic, I have fantastically overspent my bank account. Flying down the highway, I have flown over guard rails and totaled my car. Staying up nights on end, I have endlessly done myself in. Fearing no evil, I have lost my moral compass more often than I care to confess.

“There’s two angels sittin on my shoulders
All they ever do is disagree
One sits on the side of rhyme and reason
The other on the reckless side of me”

So goes The Steeldrivers’ song, a bipolar twist on “Angels we have heard on high….”

“I’ve been known to gamble on a long shot
Leave my better judgment on the rocks
When it comes to takin sides or takin chances
There’s a part of me that didn’t come to talk”

“There’s two angels sittin on my shoulders
All they ever do is disagree
One sits on the side of rhyme and reason
The other on the reckless side of me”

“I’ve spent a lifetime listening to the whispers
Always try to heed my second mind
Never done nobody wrong on purpose
But I’ve come mighty close a couple times”

“There’s two angels sittin on my shoulders
All they ever do is disagree
One sits on the side of rhyme and reason
The other on the reckless side of me”

I can blame the mania. I can blame the darkness. But in the end — bipolar or not – I have only myself to blame for my risky behavior — for my poor judgement — for my skewed thinking. There is no guardian angel to save me from myself. I am left to work out my own salvation.

Medically, chemically, prayerfully, therapeutically, responsibly, faithfully, fitfully, anxiously,  and o so gratefully. By the grace of God, I am left alone to work out my own salvation — in the choir of angels.

And now – Sister Inez Patricia be-damned – I continue to make a joyful noise. Fifty years on I have slummed in the soprano section of church choirs for Sundays and seasons both high and low. Singing is cathartic. Singing is ecstatic. Singing is therapy. Singing is a balm for my bipolar soul.

So friends, won’t you join me in the choir of angels?

JoaniSign


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Breaking-Fast with the Past

Seeking the truth, in a box of cereal, 1955.

Seeking the truth, in a box of cereal, 1955.

My grandmother used cornflakes as condiments. My grandmother used cornflakes as garnish. On ice cream, instant pudding, tuna casserole. She was a terrible cook. A bookkeeper, a career woman way ahead of her time, she was a terrible cook. Somehow she believed a crunchy topping of corn flakes made all her food taste better. A breakfast cereal that she also served for breakfast.

She was good at breakfast. Sunday breakfast was her very best. Scrambled eggs, bacon, English muffins, and of course corn flakes. But there would be no breaking of the fast until after Mass. Before we could have a good breakfast, our little souls had to be in a state of grace. No food could pass our lips until the communion wafer had melted on our tongues. So not to faint, early Mass was best. The earliest even better.

Hurry up, Jesus! Come on corn flakes! Breakfast is the most important meal of the day!

So thank you, John Harvey Kellogg, for inventing corn flakes. A 19th century doctor and Seventh-Day Adventist, he ran a holisitic health spa at Battle Creek. He preached a healthy diet, taught cooking classes, and encouraged exercise. He was also a prudish stickler for “sexual hygiene” and was fixated on enemas for fixing whatever ailed you. But when it came to breakfast, he got things right — biologically and theologically.

In 1878, Kellogg gave “an able address on the harmony of science and the Bible” – a bit unorthodox.

“Take the sunflower…it looks straight at the sun. It watches and follows the sun all day long, looking straight at it all the time, and as the sun dips below the horizon, you see that sunflower still looking at it, and as the sun turns around and comes up in the morning, the flower is looking toward the sun rising. It is God in the sunflower that makes it do this…”.

Manic flower power, of the glorious sunflower, I know just how you feel. Radiant and glowing, eager for the morning light, wondering just where the sun has gone all night, shaking off sleep, and ravenous for the morning meal. Breakfast.

I love breakfast. The “ritual of the Donut” at Dunkin’ Donuts. The sacrament of the table at Table Talk. Communing over coffee at Starbucks. Homemade hash browns on Christmas morning.

And like my grandmother, I am good at breakfast and yes — cornflakes are my specialty. Breakfast cereal anyway. Right now on top of my refrigerator, there are six boxes of the stuff: Flax Raisin Bran Crunch; Organic Fruit and Nut Granola; Maple Pecan Clusters & Flakes; Rip’s Big Bowl Banana Walnut; Swiss Muesli (Original Recipe); and last but not least, the organic equivalent of Honey Nut Cheerios.

I have a refrigerator full of Greek yogurt, cage free brown eggs, orange juice, and almond milk. I am all stocked up on clementines, apples, and bananas. My freezer is stacked with bags of blueberries, mango and pineapple.

I know how to scramble eggs with a few vegetables and a little cheese. I know how to whiz up a fruit smoothie in the blender.

And of course, coffee! Whole bean, fair trade coffee. My not so singular vice.

I am good at breakfast.

I practically live on breakfast.

Which is a break from my past.

As a kid, I was “cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs” – which my mother seldom bought. As a grownup who should know better — I’d order that extra hash brown with my “extra-value” meal. Or stop at Krispy Kreme for that still warm half dozen original glazed.  Sugar induced mania. Fried-food malaise. Caffeine craziness. Carbohydrate coma.

We are what we eat. All food is brain food. If you eat crap you will feel like crap. (Yes, you can quote me on this:))

“Not just a theory,” says Dr. Pamela Peeke, a Pew Scholar in nutrition and mental health. “I work directly with those with mood disorders and have seen firsthand the benefits of choosing the apple over the doughnut, meditating rather than obsessing and ruminating over a life stress, and going for a walk instead of sitting for hours watching mindless TV.”

Not just a theory, I have seen it for my own  manic-depressive self.

Clinically it makes all the difference: “With each healthy choice that is made, you’re influencing the proteins that switch genes on and off and affecting the messages that are delivered throughout the body. Consistently good choices translate into a better reading of your genetic script. You’re also carving neural highways that lay down a foundation for new lifestyle habits.” (HuffPost, July 27, 2014)

In other words, a better breakfast, a better brain.

So the Seventh-Day Adventists got this one right. Not just Dr. Kellogg, but my marvelous, Adventist friend, Mical. Faithful and funny and incredibly fit, Mical unknowingly has been my coach. A hiker, a vegetarian, an organic cook, liberal in her politics and loving in her outlook, she also makes me laugh. She also makes me think. Good for my brain, good for my body, and good for my soul. Thank you, Mical.

I think I’ll take her out to breakfast. It is after all — the most important meal of the day!

JoaniSign


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Differently Wired, Elektra-kly

The Bipolar Brain, wired bright.

The Bipolar Brain, wired bright.

Medusa. I definitely resembled Medusa. Twenty-one electrodes, like snakes had been glued to my head – a crazy helmet I had to wear for forty eight hours. A crazy helmet I had to wear because a crazy neurologist was trying to figure out how my crazy brain had gone crazy haywire.

But not because I was crazy.

Three years ago I started having side effects from one of the crazy drugs I was prescribed. The symptoms were both surreal and terrifying. They occurred only at night. It was like a power outage, like someone had flipped a switch. One minute my brain was on. The next minute it seemed my brain was about to shut off. I didn’t want to close my eyes. I did not want to go to sleep. I was scared to death that I might just wake up dead. Short circuited. Wires fried. Unplugged.

Dr. Khan stared at the scratches and the scribblings. Silent seizures, she said. That’s what wrong with your head. You’re not bipolar. You have silent seizures. Days of mania? Nights of depression? One EEG and she thought she had my brain all figured out. Diagnosis done. But Dr, Khan in the end turned out to be the crazy one. Crazy wrong.

But it’s really not so crazy to want to understand. The mystery of the mind is not solved with an x-ray or a blood test or an EEG. Cracking open the skull is like trying to crack God’s own safe. It is virtually un-crackable.

Just ask Michio Kaku, a theoretical astrophysicist and author of “The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind.”

There are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, roughly the same number of neurons in your brain. You may have to travel 24 trillion miles to the nearest star outside of our solar system, to find an object as complex as what is sitting on your shoulders.”

“The Universe is concerned with the vastness of outer space…. black holes, exploding stars, and colliding galaxies. While the brain is concerned with inner space, where we find our most intimate and private hopes and desires. The mind is no farther than our next thought, yet we are often clueless when asked to explain it.”

100 billion lights to light up my brain. 100 billion lights wired 100 billion different ways. To the 100 billionth power. Welcome to my wired world. There is a symphony of synapses firing in my head. Sometimes the music is exquisite.  Sometimes cacophonous. Sometimes incomprehensible.

And sometimes my brain erupts like fireworks. Bright flames of orange and yellow and red. Flames I am most reluctant to extinguish. Flames that keep me up at night. Once upon an October just two years ago, I barely slept for ten straight days and ten straight nights. For ten straight days and ten straight nights, my fingers flew like lightning on the keyboard of my Mac. Twelve sermons in two hundred and forty hours. Brilliant. Profound. Inspired. Glorious. Indeed so  — maybe the first five or six. The next half dozen – not so much.

Manic fire fizzles. It fades to shades of purple, blue, and black. Just how purple, blue, and black depends. Sometimes dim and depressed and distracted. Sometimes as deep and dark and black as a black hole.

The brain burns itself out — shattered in an electric storm as surely as when lightning strikes a tree. A matter of scientific interest  of great interest to none other than Mary Shelley’s, Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

…for a time I was occupied by exploded systems, mingling a thousand contradictory theories and floundering desperately, guided by an ardent imagination and childish reasoning, till an accident again changed the current of my ideas.”

“When I was but fifteen…I witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm. It advanced from the mountains…and the thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood twenty yards from our house; and as soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump….shattered in a singular manner….not just splintered by the shock but entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood.”

My mother once was shattered thus. So shattered she could not speak. So shattered she could not hear. So shattered she did not eat. So shattered she could not raise her head.  So shattered all her days were night. So shattered it seemed – it would take a lightning bolt to raise her from the dead.

A lightning bolt did. It’s called ECT – electro-convulsive therapy. And my mother, a bit like Frankenstein, had these electrodes wired to her head. The doctor flipped the switch and she was resurrected. Maybe not the first time, but after several treatments — with all the electricity of a 100 watt light bulb — my mother was resurrected.

And no one knows how. No doctor, no scientist could explain how my mother’s brain got rewired but it did. Who needs a psychiatrist when you can call an electrician?

Differently wired. I have come to understand my bipolar brain as differently wired. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic, the National Institutes of Mental Health, and Mt Sinai Hospital Center are all working on the same thing. How to make visible that invisible thing called bipolar disorder. How to rewire the manic side and the depressive side just so. How to rewire the brain chemically and genetically just so. The very best scientists of the very best kinds are all exploring that inner space — magnetically, electronically, digitally.

All to find out what I already know. I am differently wired. My brain is bipolar and that is how it works. It is how I perceive the world. It is how I experience the ups and downs of life. It is how I think. It is how I feel. It is both blessing and curse. It is a gift I did not ask for, but I am grateful for it just the same. I am differently wired. That is who I am.

My mind dances in spirals and does not walk in straight lines. My thoughts fly like fireflies and my head is often in the clouds. Words spill out of my mouth both melodious and ridiculous. I am a one woman band, getting so much good stuff done in so little time. At least so I believe of myself — most of the time. I do not want to medicate myself away. But my brain can do with a little management — at least a little bit.

You see, I resemble Elektra more than I do Medusa. In Greek mythology Elektra is a nymph of the ocean married to a god of the sea. One daughter is Iris, the rainbow. The other daughter is Harpies, the storm winds that blow. Elektra — amber, shining, and bright — pierces the storm clouds with rainbows of light. I am Elektra. At least so I believe most of the time!

So with a little bit of science, with a little bit of magic, with a little bit of prayer, with a little bit of humor, with a little bit of faith, with a little bit of help, with a little bit of spark, and yes with a little bit of medication, and more than just a little bit of sleep — that is how I manage to be me. Joan Louise – Elektra – Peacock.

Differently wired. Definitely me.

So…

Thanks  be to all the gods and goddesses.

Thanks be to God, The Holy Three.

Thanks be to God for wiring me,

Electrically,

Quite differently.

For making me — just me.

JoaniSign


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Nighty-Night, Dark Night of the Soul

"That very night in Max's room a forest grew." from Where the Wild Things Are

“That very night in Max’s room a forest grew.” , Where the Wild Things Are

“Now I lay me down to sleep.

I pray the Lord my soul to keep,

If I should die before I wake.

I pray the Lord my soul to take.”

Such a dark, dark lullaby. Such a dark, dark good night prayer to rock the baby to sleep. For three hundred years parents have used this prayer to tuck their little ones into bed. Night, night little children. You might wake up dead. “Now I lay me down to sleep” is the opening verse of The New England Primer of 1711: Spiritual Milk for Boston Babes. Boston Babes – sinners from their mothers’ wombs. 18th century life on the Massachusetts Bay could be cold and brief. Sadly even infant souls were depraved and needed  to be saved.

Now I lay me down to sleep” is nearly as familiar as the Our Father. But the words, I believe, would better keep a baby awake than put the baby to sleep. Chanted like a nursery rhyme, the dark verse was often the first prayer a child might learn. A night time prayer. A nightmare prayer that we dare not teach our children anymore.

There should be nothing more peaceful than rocking a baby to sleep. Nighttime rituals are some of childhood’s most cherished memories. With my own three children — I remember singing lullabies off key, fetching glasses of water, and checking under beds for monsters. We read and reread and read again “Goodnight Moon!” and “In the Night Kitchen” and “Where the Wild Things Are” (where Max gets sent off to bed without his supper.) We’d say the Lord’s Prayer, check the closet one last time for anything that might go bump in the night, banish the darkness and then turn off the light.

While the night still lurked outside their door. While the dark still kissed the windowpanes.

There is no taking the darkness out of bedtime.  It just cannot be done. Disney tried to do it with Sleeping Beauty – a great disappointment to the Brothers Grimm. And even as grownups — as we lay ourselves down to sleep – and pray the Lord our souls to keep – it just cannot be done.

Everyone has their share of dark nights of the soul. This is where Compline gets complicated. And in my case — bipolar complicated.

“The Lord Almighty grant me a peaceful night and a perfect end.”

10 o’clock.

Off to bed. Over and over I turn over. And I turn over  in my head all of the things done and left undone.  All the things I should have said, could have said. All the things I could have done, should have done. My fault, my fault, my fault. My most grievous fault.

“O God make speed to save me, O God make haste to help me.”

11 o’clock.

And then just out of earshot I hear  — Elvis the King — a lullaby sing:

Yesterday is dead and gone,
And tomorrow’s out of sight,
And it’s sad to be alone.
Help me make it through the night.

Lord God Almighty, help me make it through the night.

Midnight.

Turn on the light. Turn off the light. Turn on the light. Read, read, read. The same chapter. The same paragraph. The same sentence. Silently and aloud. Silently and aloud.

“Be my light in the darkness, Lord. Illumine the night with celestial brightness.” Please.

1 o’clock.

Bump. Thump. Bump. Thump. Dear God, what’s that noise?

“Let me lie down in peace, Lord, please. Let me fall asleep, for only you Lord make me dwell in safety.”

2 o’clock.

Waking dreams. Scattered scenes. Faces I don’t quite recognize. Voices I can’t quite understand. I think “the devil does prowl like a roaring lion.”

“Visit this place O Lord, deliver me from the snares of my enemy.” Deliver me. Please.

3 o’clock.

Rock-a-bye, rock-a-bye myself to sleep, rattling beads and counting sheep. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Ave Maria. Glory be.

“From my labors Lord, give me rest.” Please, Lord, please.

4 o’clock.

Knock, knock, knockin’ on the heavenly door. Knock, knock, knock. You said you’d answer. Knock, knock, knock. No one answers.

“Answer me when I call, O God. defender of my cause.” Please, God, PLEASE.

5 o’clock.

Sleepless walking. Up and down stairs. In and out of rooms. Sleepless talking. Talking to someone not there. Talking to the air.

“Incline your ear to me. Make haste to deliver me.” NOW.

6 o’clock.

Turn on the TV. Turn off the TV. Write, write, write. Scribble, scribble, scribble. Pull out the prayer book and recite:

“Keep me O Lord as the apple of your eye; hide me under the shadow of your wings.” PLEASE. PLEASE. PLEASE.

7 o’clock.

In my head I hear BUZZ, BUZZ, BUZZ.  The music plays and the Roches sing: “Break forth O beauteous heavenly light and usher in the morning.”

Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

8 o’clock.

Exhausted I  climb under the covers one last time.

God gave me no “peaceful night” and no  “perfect end” but I am finally, finally  asleep. Thanks be to God. Alleluia. Amen.

I sleep ’til half past eleven, roll out bed, jump in the shower and am at work by noon.

This is how the  bipolar clock ticks and tocks. — on my one of many  – manic dark nights of the soul.  Mine may be different in kind  — but I believe — it is the same species of dark night — known by all the souls known to God. As the night falls fast, restless and weary we all  fall to our knees and pray.

And on such a night there is no better prayer – than this prayer from Compline, from the Book of Common Prayer.

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night; and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary; bless the dying; soothe the suffering; pity the afflicted; shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake.”

“Guide us waking, O Lord, and guide us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.”

Amen. Amen. Amen.

Special Note: I want you to know I stayed up all night writing this!

JoaniSign