Mental health

Funk

Today was hard. I can't exactly identify why. It appeared out of nowhere-I definitely didn't feel like this yesterday. Or over the weekend. Today I felt heavy and the weight of it (whatever It is) overwhelmed me in waves of unease and discomfort thought the day. 

I couldn't shake it either. I tried. Tuesdays are studio days, so I spent time trying to evade what I was feeling by continuing to work on the sheets of canvas I started last night.  

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I couldn't get any of the writing done that I had planned but I worked my way through these, hoping the agitation and heaviness would lift as I did. They were a helpful distraction but not the remedy I was hoping for. On his lunch break and after work, my husband kept asking if I was ok, so I know he could see it too. Sometimes I'm pretty adept at masking where I'm at or what I'm carrying (survival mechanism), but today he could see it. "You look like you've got something on your spirit. You ok?" I wanted to say yes with confidence and meet his eyes. Instead I just  mumbled something about being tired and having a lot on my mind and looked away. 

I don't know. It's hard. If I can't understand what's suddenly thrown my mind and mood off, how am I supposed to explain it to someone else? Things are just..."off" today and I don't have any explanation for it other than it's just the nature of my illness and sometimes that's just life. Both are inconsiderate assholes who do whatever they want regardless of what you're trying to maintain and accomplish day to day. Sometimes Life and Bipolar Disorder don't care that you're taking your meds, engaging in your creative outlets, and fighting to thrive. Some days they scream FUCK YOU like petulant toddlers and force you to just deal with their funk. 

So that's what I did today. I dealt with the funk. After following current events closely yesterday, I read nothing about them today. I didn't write but I painted. I'm going to go to bed early, remind myself this heaviness will pass, and strengthen my resolve to not give up. Tomorrow's a new day. Hopefully funk free. 

Always Gone Til November

I've been thinking a lot about the rhythms, patterns, and cycles that exist in my life lately, particularly those related to my mental health.  After years of living off and on with depression and anxiety, I was diagnosed with rapid cycling bipolar disorder type 2 in July 2011. Looking back 4 years later, the significance of the timing of such a critical diagnosis isn't lost on me. Since I was 19 years old, July has consistently been a month of conflict or strife either in my relationships with others or my relationship with myself. It is also THE month where definitive moments or events take place that transform my life on some level. 

Some examples include...

  • July 2002: I enlisted in the United States Air Force at age 19 while being estranged from my family. 
  • July 2006: Found out I'd be raising my first, Brennan, on my own without his father. 
  • July 2009: Conceived Alex, shortly after beginning to date my husband. 
  • July 2014: Read my piece "America's Not Here For Us" as a VOTY honoree at BlogHer 14
  • July 2015: Took part in my first art exhibit + Moved to California

I don't really know why Life decides to show up exactly in the middle of the year and begin rearranging everything I've spent the first half of the year building...or sometimes just getting through. I don't understand why it feels the need to test the bonds and boundaries of my relationships with others either. Seems like kind of an asshole thing to do in my opinion, growth and forward movement notwithstanding. What I do know is that once August arrives, I'm reeling from the impact, my mind and mood thrown off kilter. What adds to this particular rhythm of mayhem and fuckery is my annual onset of seasonal affective disorder, or SAD. I'm not really sure why my SAD symptoms get triggered as early as mid-August. I think some of if it is due to stress from whatever was kicked into motion in my life the month before, and I think it's just my body & brain chemistry's natural response to Fall's impending arrival. Whatever the case, it descends and stays, triggering the rapid cycling aspect of my illness until the end of October. I also notice a similar pattern with milder symptoms when Winter starts to near its end, and Spring begins to awaken. 

While medication has helped stem the frequency, some days the cycling between hypomania and depression still occurs hourly once Fall kicks into high gear. Others it's daily, but usually I just find myself in what they call a "mixed" state: hypomanic and depressed. Only my hypomania doesn't manifest as boundless stores of energy that send me skyrocketing through the stratosphere, and rarely does the depression have me sink so low into its gravity well that I become enveloped in a darkness I can't see my way out of. For me, a mixed state usually just results in my living in a daily state of agitation and unreconcilable tension. The weight of it rests in spread eagle fashion across my shoulders. The pressure causes migraines. Bearing it means I'm exhausted but sometimes unable to turn off my brain enough to sleep before midnight. Thoughts buzz incessantly and noisily around. My focus and concentration fragment into abstract bits and pieces, leaving me to sweat from anxiety while I stand in the bread aisle in the grocery store and try to remember why I'm there and who these kids are calling me "Mom". My productivity goes down, way down, throttling my creative practice and output. I become withdrawn, selectively social, unable to tolerate the noise of social media, and the desire to disappear from it rages strong. I want to accomplish all the things and then abandon them for someone else and some other life where I'm only responsible for myself. It's this constant see-saw action that I am the first to admit renders me a less than pleasant person to live with...but I fight to contain it. I spend so much of my time working to keep its grubby paws off my relationships with my husband and children, I have little energy to keep it from impacting the one I have with myself, and that's what always winds up suffering the most. 

Then as quickly as it shows up, it leaves, dissipating until the next shift in season, until the following July. Literally overnight. I awake on November 1st and feel the fog that was clouding my brain lifting. My body suddenly feels lighter. Simple bodily movements like lifting my arms, extending my legs, and turning my face toward the day are easy again. My mind is busy but calm, quiet but ALIVE with ideas, focus and concentration locked in on exactly how I should structure my day, my mothering, our living. My desire to create roars voraciously. Words return to dance impatiently upon the tip of my tongue waiting to be brought to life, and my eyes turn back to viewing my world through paint and color. I become introspective and hyper-focused on dreams and life goals, asking intuition to guide me on where to head next. I go back to being the more congealed, fuller and more embodied version of myself. The one I like and recognize when I look in the mirror. 

I went to bed Saturday night with a flailing, disjointed brain chemistry, and woke up on Sunday morning with it having fallen back in step with a much steadier rhythm, working more fluidly in conjunction with other components of my treatment plan. I woke up feeling alive and released from Fall's vice like grip. It hasn't been the worst Fall I've experienced, but it has still forced me to accept it's the one time of the year I'm the most vulnerable and susceptible to my illness, and that is why when I woke up on Sunday, I took full advantage. I threw myself into the tasks that in weeks prior triggered overwhelm: cleaning the house, meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking, yard work, preparing us for the week ahead, cleaning up my workspace in the garage. 

 It was a relief to feel the desire to thrive coursing through my veins, pumping in rhythm with the hope beating wildly in my heart again. Hello, November. I've missed you. 


A Shift and The Pivot in My Mental Health Advocacy: Tessera Collective

People have asked me over the last few months if I still have an interest in mental health advocacy work. Since stepping away from being actively involved with orgs and projects concentrated specifically around postpartum mood disorders earlier in the year, the impression I seem to give online is that I've gone "quiet" on mental health, that it's no longer a priority for me anymore. The answer is YES, I DO, and yes, it is still a priority for me-it's just that my focus has (naturally) shifted in a new direction. It's broadened to encompass all of mental health vs. just maternal, but has narrowed, seeking to primarily serve women of color both here in the US and hopefully, abroad.  I felt the pull to go in a new direction last Spring, but it's taken time for me to get clarity on the How, What and Where. I've always been passionate about issues that impact women and girls, so while the timing of this shift was unexpected, the fact that it even exists was not.

When I came back from BlogHer last July, I quietly and slowly got to work allowing the shift to pivot my efforts online and off. It's been a process, an often unsettling one that's required me to be ok with letting go and trusting my vision, and the feedback from the women who are working with me on this. We aren't nearly where I thought we would be on this front by now because fear, doubt, and insecurities have plagued me from the beginning and erected some tough creative blocks since this idea began. I'm learning not to beat myself up about this though, because I've learned that sometimes slow and steady while doing what you can when you can is ok...even necessary with all I have going on in life these days. It's all good. Baby steps. 

"Tessera Collective: an online platform and nonprofit dedicated to the mental health empowerment and support of women of color."

It now exists beyond just some thought in my head, notes scrawled across journal pages, words bouncing off of friends and colleagues for their input. 

tesseracollective.org now has a landing page. Yay!

 

The build has been slow, but what we've accomplished in a year is something I'm celebrating this month as we start to expand. Last August, we started a private/secret support group on Facebook, specifically for women of color. We wanted to provide a safe space online where WOC could openly share and get peer-to-peer mental health support. We currently have over 40 women there supporting and encouraging one another. It has been a joy to watch this little community grow & thrive. I'm so grateful to the women who share themselves there and say "this works for me." The learning curve that comes with moderating and building such a community has been steep but empowering.

While we build the site and work on establishing the nonprofit, we're going to start doing Twitter chats.  I set up the Twitter account today and had all kinds of nerves & deep breaths. You can follow TC at @TesseraWomen. Our Facebook page will be up and next week. We're still working on the logo & branding, and I'm excited about what we'd like to do in the future as we build and grow. 

I'm hoping this pivot is the start of something good. I don't know all of what I'm doing, but I'm open and eager to learn and our team is amazing. 

Here's to a new journey and growth in purpose. Here's to empowerment and kicking stigma's pervasive ass. Here's to collaboration and partnerships, working with others in the mental health advocacy space to do the work and fill a void. To community building and hush harbors (safe spaces) being created where they are desperately needed. Onward. 

 

How I Get Through This Thing Called Our Life.

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"How do you manage everything on your plate and stay sane?" she asked somewhat laughingly but her eyes were completely serious. They earnestly searched mine as she grabbed his hand to take him to the back, imploring me to answer honestly.

The grappling, pulling, juggling, managing, navigating and maneuvering, keeping track and keeping pace, doing it sometimes alone, the grind, keeping it straight, holding it altogether, the staying afloat and standing upright even when your knees are buckling, the work. This work of parenting, living, surviving and grinding to thrive internally and externally. Life.  

How do any of us do it?  

"Medication," I answered with a smile. "And color. Always color. The bolder and richer the better, honey."

She nodded. "Then I guess I should tell you that Orange is definitely your power color. Every time I see you wearing it, you emanate strength. I'm going to miss seeing your colorful self and the boys here every week. I know the others here will too-we love your family."  

I swallowed back a rising flood of tears and let out a shaky breath as I smiled back. 

 "NOPE. We can't do this yet. We have three more visits left before we can get emotional about saying bye. I can't really admit it's happening because I'm still just not ready for this change to occur, you know? I know it's going to be fine, but I'm just not ready."

We hug and she takes Alex into the gym, joking with him as he skips next to her laughing. N comes and scoops up Austin, sing song-ing her hello in an effort to quell his anxiety during the transition from the waiting room to the gym. He cries like usual but I wave and smile reassuringly to let him know it's going to be fine. They disappear behind the door and I turn to Brennan. He's already engrossed himself into Creative Mode on Minecraft, and when I reach out to give his shoulder a squeeze, he looks up and smiles, scooting closer to me on the seat. 

I exhale and allow it to quiet my mind as I insert my headphones, shuffle through my library and press Play. 

This is how I do it. The living and grinding. The managing and standing upright when my knees are buckling as I do the work to thrive. 

Medication, honesty, color, reaching out for support, loving gestures in moments and in ways I didn't experience as a child. That's how I do this thing called our Life.