The Stories we tell Ourselves

Otto RainOtto, our puppy, needed to go out to potty today. He didn’t like the dreary, cold rain, so I sat him in his doggie play-pen and put an umbrella over the side of it. He still wasn’t happy.

These events made me think about the change in weather and seasons and how before you know it, it will be winter and then Otto will really hate going outside to poop.

For a person with a mood disorder the change in seasons can trigger symptoms. Winters used to affect me greatly, but not as much these days. I suppose some of this is due to changes in physiology and brain chemistry, but I also believe having a positive attitude and practicing an ounce of prevention can play a role. Now I look at winter differently.

It’s a time to try new chili or soup recipes in the crock pot, or watch lots of movies with my family since we are all inside more. It’s an opportunity for reflection and taking stock of what and who I’m grateful for, especially around the holidays. Candles are better on dark days and listening to Billie Holiday in the winter makes me nostalgic for my grandparents and for a time period I never lived in.

For preventing the winter blahs, I also have some strategies in self-care:

  1. Sitting under my sunlamp in the morning and using the time to meditate or read would be good.
  2. I can take Vitamin D. This is the vitamin we get from the sun. It helps with immune functioning too.
  3. Speaking of immune functioning, I can do everything possible to avoid the flu or a sinus infection. (Being physically sick makes me more vulnerable to depression).
  4. It’s a perfect time for me to try different hot teas. There are tons of varieties and certain decaf selections like chamomile are useful for calming.
  5. I can enjoy the changing color palate of nature while going for a walk. If I kick it in, I will get a serotonin boost too.

Don’t get me wrong. I know winter in places like the Midwest can be tough. In fact I

recently dusted off an essay I had written last winter about how on a bleak, cold day I had to trek to the grocery store and wasn’t happy about doing the mundane chore in the elements. Everyone shopping that day also seemed to be in a “blah” mood. Looking back, maybe I should have just used the experience as an opportunity to be nicer to the people around me in the store.

A therapist once told me, “It’s all about the stories we tell ourselves.” I can tell myself that the end of summer sucks, and rainy days suck, and winter weather and winter colds seem to last forever. Or I can tell myself a different story about how the changing colors of leaves are breathtaking and bare trees with snow on their branches are magical. I can remind myself the taste of peppermint tea is strangely wonderful, and the smell of veggie chili in our kitchen makes me feel content.

What story are you going to tell yourself as the seasons change?




Doppel Disco

Doppel DiscoThe opening guitar riff in “Sweet Home Alabama,” the drum solo by Kenny Aronoff in “Jack and Diane,” and listening to artists I love who possess amazing vocal ranges like Johnny Cash, Joni Mitchell, and Prince makes me happy. Who can’t be transported by the husky growl of Barry White or the upbeat songs from Saturday Night Fever where you can hear the high pitch harmonizing that can only be achieved by the brothers Gibb?

What is it about music that cheers me up?

Listening to familiar, well-liked songs can release dopamine in the brain. Dopamine is considered to be a “pleasure chemical,” and is a neurotransmitter stemming from the striatum, the same part of the brain that is associated with deriving pleasure from food and sex.

While I’m not condoning drug use, this makes me think of the phrase “sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll,” which stemmed from the Ian Drury single, but went on to massive usage.

There was a time when I was manic and the last thing I needed was more dopamine in my brain. I listened to my iPOD so loud that now, years later, I’m pretty sure I’m experiencing hearing loss. Perhaps I should have appreciated music then in moderation, but when you’re as manic as I was, nothing is done in moderation.

A quote from Elton John is, “Music has healing power. It has the ability to take people out of themselves for a few hours.”  It definitely has the ability to transport you. For me, listening to music combined with physical activity such as power cleaning is a great way to break through a funk.



Hamburgers and Home

image1I recently attended Richmond State Hospital’s 125th Anniversary Celebration. As a volunteer, I get to engage with patients and share my recovery story.

One of the things I tell them is I know what it is like to be in a hospital and wish I were at home instead. I empathize with the difficulty of cohabitating with other people having problems.

During past hospitalizations, I was more than a little uneasy while waiting for the medications to reach therapeutic levels. I knew the nurses, doctors, and attendants were all monitoring my behavior, taking notes and discussing whether or not I was well enough to be discharged.

FullSizeRenderAnother difficulty was the boredom I experienced. I am a creative and curious person. I’m also really busy. At home the only time I sit still is when I’m writing or making something. When I do sit, it’s often on our front porch. I enjoy being outdoors, which is another drawback of hospitalization.

What made me happiest about the 125th Anniversary at Richmond State Hospital, was witnessing many of the patients going outside for hamburgers. They ate under a covered pavilion with swings nearby, and a stage where they could sing karaoke. If it wasn’t obvious it was on hospital grounds, the scene could have taken place in a park.

Later, as I read from my memoir to a group of patients, I mentioned that during my hospitalizations in private hospitals, we never had any picnics. But state hospital or private, short stay or long, we all have the same goal of leaving asylum. And we all have emotional work to do while we are in it.

Naturally the ultimate goal is to never be hospitalized again, but if it happens, here are some tips that can make the experience easier on everyone. Feel free to use them if you like.



Ten Tips for Hospitalization:

  1. Have a plan in place, and communicate it to family and loved ones.
  2. If you are insured, stay updated on your coverage and benefits.
  3. During the intake, or another appropriate time, make sure a communication happens about things you enjoy and who you really are, so that if recreational activities are available, you can participate.
  4. In your plan state who you wish to have contact with in the hospital, and specify who can have access to updates.
  5. Keep a medication history log and share it with the treating physicians, so they know which medications have worked well in the past, and which ones caused side-effects.
  6. Decide in advance what you want communicated to any employers or teachers you may have about your absence.
  7. Fully understand your rights as a patient. Make sure you understand policies regarding your access to the telephone, mail, and clergy. Know the visitation schedule.
  8. Have strategies in place for coming home. Often it is best to reduce stimuli.
  9. Understand what your triggers are. Increase self-care during times of stress. You can reduce the chances for needing hospitalization.
  10. When you are well, write an encouraging note to yourself that reflects how you got better. Pull it out as needed. Because if you did it once, chances are you can do it again.

Move it or Lose it.

FullSizeRender1My friend Michele says time and again that movement is the key to getting fit. Instead of formal exercise, she suggests trying to move throughout the day as much as you can. This could include twenty minutes of intense housecleaning, parking far away from a store’s entrance so you have to walk farther, or dancing in the kitchen. Merriam Webster online defines movement as “the act or process of moving; especially; change of place or position or posture.” Movement is also key in combating depression.

About seven weeks after my recovery memoir launched, I found myself in a funk. I was burnt out on promoting the book and couldn’t write. I briefly went on a cooking strike. When I declared this to my husband, he looked like he had seen a ghost. But when I realized that the funk could morph into depression, I had to act.

I started reading Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing – The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life. Shapiro discussed the fallow period following the completion of a book. I learned it is common with writers, and needed to recharge.

In addition to moving my mind with reading, I emptied it by coloring and practicing meditation. I took my dog to the park as walking in the neighborhood seemed boring. I de-cluttered our bedroom, going though every pair of socks, folding each t-shirt, and weeding through baskets of jewelry. While I did this physical activity, I watched documentaries on FDR and WWII. I started reading about Josephine Baker, an African-American dancer and singer who worked as a spy. Her bravery shook me up.

One night Rick and I watched the movie Cake, about a woman’s decent into prescription drug abuse in the wake of a tragedy. A car accident left her with a huge loss, and she also had pins in her legs. Physical therapy in a pool was excruciating, but her therapist pushed her, because she knew the exercises would help her get better.

I won’t tell you what happens at the end of the film, but I will tell you that engaging in movement, both mental and physical, likely saved me from spending my summer depressed.

Instead I get to explore new hobbies and interests, and my husband doesn’t have to cook, which is good because he doesn’t like to cook, and frozen entrees get old.

If you find yourself stuck, get moving. What have you got to lose?



Self-care & Sunshine

During the last six weeks my husband had back surgery, my daughter was treated for two hairline fractures in her back, my brother-in-law survived two strokes, and my oldest son fractured a bone in his foot and sprained his ankle too. In the middle of all this, I was teaching part-time at the community college in a composition class with an intensive 8-week format. Oh, and my first book launched.birdhouse blog

Last night I was sitting on the screened porch painting a birdhouse when my sixteen-year-old son opened the sliding door and asked me what I was doing.

“I’m crafting for self-care,” I said.

He responded by saying something about how crafting was lame.

To this I could have answered in a number of ways. I could have pointed out that crafting typically doesn’t result in broken bones or sprains unlike soccer (all three of our teens love and play the sport), or I could have simply snapped at him for putting down my passion. But I let it go, and I hope I taught him something. Not something about reacting, but about how necessary it is to engage in self-care.

Stress not only triggers symptoms of mental illness, it can be a factor in physical illness as well.

When my book launched, in addition to everything else going on, I attempted to have four book-related events in the span of about ten days. I had to postpone one of them, but even that wasn’t enough. After engaging in a conference call as a guest speaker for recovery specialists, I had a health scare resulting in a call to 911.

I’m ok, and everything is fine, but I’ve come up with a couple of truths: One is I can probably only handle two book-related promotional events per month, and second, I have to do self-care, whatever that means to me in a particular moment. Sometimes crafting feels like work so I don’t even do that.

That’s when I know just sitting still in a spot of sunshine is enough.

The Mixed Tape

Robert Lowell part 2Robert Lowell wrote “Mania is a sickness for one’s friends, depression for one’s self.” I used this quote roughly 25 years ago, typing it on the cover of a mixed tape I made for my best friend. On April 11th when my book launched, she showed me the long-forgotten gift.

While I don’t remember giving Susan the quote, as I reread Lowell’s words they made sense to me in a way I doubt they did all those years ago. While I can’t speak for the poet, or truly know what those lines meant to him, I can say that a couple of times when I was manic, I thought about my high school and college friends a lot. We had moved around extensively during my 30s, living in a total of four states. I lost touch with several friends, and it wasn’t until I found myself moored back in Bloomington, Indiana, that I reconnected in any meaningful way with Robert Lowell part 1some of them.

During these manic episodes, I would set up a euchre game, convinced they were about to show up at our house. Other times I’d step out on our back deck and listen for the hum of airplanes overhead or the whistles from nearby trains, feeling certain they were delivering friends to see me.

In depressive episodes my friends were also important. I had missed my own self just like Lowell wrote, and I also missed the ability to laugh, create, and move forward with pursuits. I’d call my girlfriends, but wouldn’t have much to say, and yet having them there on the other end of the phone gave me comfort.

While the famous writer’s quote doesn’t end there, I could add to it, something like, “Mania is a sickness for one’s friends, depression for one’s self. Many thanks to my friends for allowing me to find my way back, and being there for me when I did.”

Happy Birthday, Mom

Today is my Mom’s birthday. Mom and I haven’t always seen eye to eye, but I believe time lends perspective. Regardless, when I first began to experience symptoms of my illness at the age of 18, I was hospitalized multiple times. In the late 80s, bipolar disorder wasn’t a common diagnosis in young people. No one had my back like mom did. I’m pretty sure at one point plans were discussed for placing me in long-term care, and I came close to being lost in the shuffle. Luckily, my Mom didn’t let that happen.

Navigating the mental health care system on behalf of a child or loved one can be a daunting task. Dealing with hospitalization, doctors and medications, insurance, and therapy appointments is overwhelming. (I know this because later in life I became a caretaker of someone I love who also has bipolar disorder.) But that is another story, perhaps for another day.

If you find yourself in the position of caring for a loved one with a psychiatric condition, there are things you can try to make the journey a little easier.

1. Knowledge is power – I once had a life coach who encouraged me to educate myself about things when I became anxious. The more you understand something, the less frightening it is. Read everything you can about the mental health system, the illness, and the medications being dispensed. 2. You are not alone – In a given year one in four Americans experiences mental illness. Look for support groups in your community or online. 3. Practice self-care – Take breaks from care-taking and focus on doing something you like. For me it’s crafting or writing. Mom & Me4. Eat well & exercise – If you don’t feel like hitting the gym or eating broccoli, start with something small. Drink a cup of soothing, decaf, herbal tea, go for a short walk. Don’t want to walk? Maybe just do some stretches. 5. Corral your thoughts – It is helpful to keep journals during this time; one for tracking things like medication changes, or advice you’re given that needs following up on. You can also log notes about your loved one’s progress. A second journal can be all about you. How are you feeling about all this? Write it down.

I’ll close with this: Happy birthday Mom, … and thanks!



Manic Mondays & Sad Sundays

You know how sometimes on Monday mornings when the work and/or school week begins, you might find yourself rushing around, spilling a cup of to-go coffee on yourself on the way out the door, or, if you have kids, you may be hurrying them unsuccessfully until it begins to feel like corralling cats? Can you relate to how it feels sometimes on Sunday evenings when you realize the fun you had over the weekend is starting to wane into a mere memory, and that Monday begins in just hours?

Those contrasts in two ways of feeling are a little bit what it feels like to have bipolar disorder. Only as someone who lives with bipolar I, extremes in mood can be amplified even more, and a better analogy is something such as the difference between how you feel watching butterflies in your garden or watching slugs. Actually, that’s not a very good example either. Some people may very well prefer watching slugs.

Since everyone’s experiences with mood disorders are different, all I really have to offer is my own journey with having one. I hope that in sharing it in this very public way, that others may not feel so alone or ashamed of the biology they have been dealt, and the challenges that brings. And so, today my blog is born.

Visit “Manic Mondays & Sad Sundays” as often as you like. I’ll try to post a few times a week, but since part of my recovery journey has been to admit when I’m taking on too much, I will not promise that.


Colleen Wells