Faith?

I don’t know how many other people engage in theology at 6:30 am on a Tuesday when they should bloody well be asleep, but….apparently I do. My guilty secret is that even though I loudly declare myself to be an atheist, I actually want to have faith in more than just the spirit of a fat man in a velvet suit who shimmies down the chimney once a year to leave presents for children. (I’ll spare you my musings on the existence of Santa for now).

I have been following a homemaking blog for almost a year now. I liked the author’s personality enough from the get-go to be willing to ignore how many times she interrupted her posts to talk about Christ (I normally find such behavior annoying). She believes in God for reasons that are solid and right for her. She spreads his word in her own way, not because she believes Christianity is the only true religion, but because she wants others to be as happy as she is. I can get down with that, honestly. I truly respect her faith, despite knowing that Christianity is not, and never will be, something I can get into.

In all honesty, I am ever so slightly envious of her ability to ride through life’s storms by clinging to the divine power that she believes in.

How different would the last few months have been if I had had that kind of faith? Would my heart hurt so badly if I had truly believed in a divine reason behind all the trauma?  Would I have felt less alone if I had truly believed the Goddess heard me when I cried like a lost child, begging for a miracle? Would I have stood stronger and made better decisions if I had thought an almighty power had my back and would show me the way to a better life?

How do people continue to believe in a loving divinity when they are going through hell on Earth?

I really want to know.

Ode to my warrior prince

Three months ago I had no reason not to believe my son would be born at home well before Christmas. I remember being upset because I was overweight, and my fingers were numb and impeding my ability to finish my gifts. I remember being intensely proud of the fact that I had a workable plan to get out of debt. I remember making apple pie for the hell of it. I remember thinking about “quitting the internet” because I worried it would impede my ability to care for my son.

Then everything changed. My son was late. Then he was later…then even later. I had to go get ultrasounds every other day for a week to make sure he was okay.  Then I woke up one day with a fever of 101, and had to go to the hospital. I was diagnosed with H1n1 virus. Because of the illness and how far post-term I was, they induced labor to save my baby. Labor was unproductive- my body simply would not cooperate. Two days after we began, I asked for a C-Section; I just couldn’t do it anymore. I was too afraid for me and for my baby, too alone in my head, and in more physical distress than I had ever been in my life.

When they gave me the anesthesia before the surgery it was the first time I had been truly pain-free in almost a year. I found myself crying uncontrollably. I cried out all of the suffering I had been through, all the confusion and sadness, the loneliness, the guilt, the terrible fear of the unknown…and then I cried some more.  I remember being vaguely embarrassed, but the tears were cleansing and healing, and eventually stopped on their own.

A little while later, they cut me open and pulled my baby out. He was big, and so beautiful…I was drifting in and out of consciousness but I heard his first cry, and I cried, too, until they brought him to me so I could see him and touch him…so tiny and helpless and red in such an enormous and sterile room.  They took him away to do all the things that doctors do when babies are born, and I let myself drift.

When I came back, I was back in bed, holding my baby and trying to nurse, struggling to understand the enormously powerful feeling that had taken hold of me the second I saw him. A glorious little boy had grown inside of me and been birthed healthy and whole despite all of the complications we had suffered together. He was a fighter, a champion, a prince…he had more than earned the right to be named after warrior kings. At that moment I realized that I would lie down and die, without question or doubt, for this tiny human I had birthed from my body.

Since then he is rarely out of my arms, and even more rarely out of my sight. When I’m holding him and he looks up at me with his solemn blue eyes, everything else fades away. Every day I fall more in love with every hair on his body, every wrinkle and dimple, every tiny nuance of his face as he cries, nurses, sneezes, sleeps, nurses, or –now-  laughs. His cries break my heart, his gurgles of joy make it sing, and a soft sneeze lights up the darkest of moments. The realization that he knows who I am and is unhappy when I am not around is awe-inspiring.

After he nurses, he usually falls asleep with a tiny sigh, his little body warm and soft and absolutely trusting as it presses against mine. At those times I find myself entranced by the magic of his very existence. How did I create something so perfect and beautiful?

Sometimes I touch his face, whispering my blessings and wishes for his future, hoping he will understand somewhere in his tiny soul how very much I love him. Then I fall asleep, too, body curved around him to hold him close and protect him from the world outside for a little while longer.

A tale of multiple mental disorders

Once upon a time, I got diagnosed with Bipolar I Disorder. At the time I was diagnosed, I was working 40 hours a week while taking 15 credits of classes, I was commuting by bus, I was exhausted, I was stressed out, and I could tell I had become “unbalanced”. I was struggling with depression mixed with undependable bursts of energy and insomnia, and I just couldn’t handle it anymore. I had been to a psychiatrist who had started the process of diagnosis, but I hadn’t been able to continue because she was not covered by my insurance. Therefore, I went to a regular in-network doctor with my concern.  At the end of my half hour visit, the doctor said I needed to be on medication for BP I before I “did something that would harm other people.” (I had not described a single even potentially harmful scenario to him.)

I was given a prescription for lamotrigine with instructions on how to gradually up my daily dose until I hit 100mg (4 times the normal starting dosage at that point in time), and told to come back in two months. After about six weeks I developed a skin rash, which can be a sign of a lethal side effect of the drug. When I called in to make an appointment, my doctor got on the phone, ordered me to stop taking it, and then called a prescription for lithium and fluoxetine (Prozac) into the nearest pharmacy. I never even got to see his face, nor was I given a chance to ask about alternatives (For the record, there are many) since I think both lithium and Prozac are every kind of awful.

I never filled the prescriptions, and I never went back.

“Oh. My. God. You did WHAT?  I can hear the collective gasps all the way over here in my living room. Everyone knows that if you go off your meds terrible things will happen. If you stop seeking assistance, terrible things will happen. You must stay on your medication at all costs. (And, I am going to take this moment to say that 99 times out of 100, this is absolutely valid advice. Talk to your doctor if you have questions, but STAY ON YOUR MEDS until you are told when and how to stop.)

In my case, I was the exception, not the rule: Nothing terrible happened.  Nothing at all happened, actually. The medication had not yet kicked in to relieve my “mania”, so continuing to struggle with it didn’t bother me a bit. In fact I only had two true consequences (so to speak) of stopping: the rash went away, and my creative drive came back. Gradually I worked my way out of depression. Soon enough it felt like a bad dream, and I decided I’d figure it all out later.

So what does all that have to do with the price of tea in China?

Well…let’s fast forward three years. A few days after I started my new job, I was sitting at my computer when I felt a very familiar wave of “nothing and nowhere” wash over me. I felt distant, indistinct, disconnected from the world. It felt like there were eight million violins shrieking their highest notes in my mind, and I was cold and couldn’t get warm.  When I interacted with the world around me, it seemed like someone had pulled a gray veil over my face, or enclosed me in a bubble. I felt like I could take on a lion bare-handed and come out on the upper hand….and yet I also felt like a single would topple me into oblivion.

I recognized the sensation; it was what my doctor had told me was mania, and I hadn’t experienced it (at quite this level, anyway) in over two years. I couldn’t afford to have it happen now of all times!  I was pregnant and exhausted. I had a new job I needed to do well at. I needed to clean the house. I needed to call my old job and settle some final details. I needed to pay the bills, and we were short on cash. My husband wasn’t feeling well, and neither was my mom. I had so much stuff going on…I couldn’t afford to have it all come crashing down because of one ill-timed session of crazy face.

I freaked out. I posted on Facebook about what was happening, begging for someone to help, to keep me from doing stupid things. Thankfully I have an out of state friend who became a therapist, and he saw my post. He contacted me privately, and told me that it was likely I was having a panic attack. He coached me through how to cope with it. I’m sure he violated some kind of code of ethics by helping me like that, but the important part is that he did help me. Not only did he help me get over the panic attack, he helped me see something I had taken for granted in an entirely different light.

What I took away from that day was that what my doctor had classified as mania was not. If what I was feeling was not mania, then I cannot be diagnosed as Bipolar ISo why do I struggle so much where others do not? In the months since then, I think I’ve finally pieced together the puzzle, and in the process have come to terms with myself in a way I never have before.

The first part of the puzzle is straight up depression. It has consumed me since my early adolescence. I had grown so used to it hovering over my mind-scape that I assumed it would never go away. It finally cleared up around the time I met my husband. For the most part I have been healthy in body and mind since then, and apparently the difference in my behavior and outlook on life is a welcome change. I still get random comments from people telling me that they “really like the new M.” (For the record, I also like love the new M!)

The second part of the puzzle is anxiety. I don’t mean the “oh I hope this goes well” kind of unease…I mean soul-consuming, fact-destroying, emotion-crushing anxiety. The constant inner diatribe telling me exactly how many ways I’ve screwed up everything I’ve ever done or tried to do. The dialogue of “what ifs” and “maybes” (usually) keep me from going on “adventures” or making decisions that could have long term impact, and generally make life miserable. Anxiety rules my world, controls my existence, causes my panic attacks, and keeps the clouds of depression constantly brewing on the horizon.

The third part of the puzzle is ADHD. My family has a long and complex history with ADHD, which I had dismissed out of hand as having no relevance to me. Why? I think simply because I wanted to be “normal”. Unfortunately, the “normal” train took me straight through Crazy-Town and into all-out bat country, so I’d say that idea backfired on me. However, I read a book about ADHD recently that changed everything. It described aspects of ADHD that I did not know existed. Despite my family history, I truly thought that “being ADD” just meant being scatterbrained and hyperactive, and I joked about it just as freely as they did. I didn’t know that people with ADHD could be extremely impulsive, or that they had social problems, or that they could not only fail to focus, but they could also hyper focus. I have struggled with every facet of ADHD for years, and I had no clue!

I have not been to a therapist to confirm my theories about how these three issues conspired to screw my life over, but I simply cannot get past how well it all links together to create the perfect illusion of manic-depressive cycles. The physical symptoms of a panic attack mixed with the hyperactivity and lowered inhibitions of ADHD perfectly mimic the clinical definition of mania, and then depression and general anxiety were there to complete the manic-depressive picture.  The one thing that would have blown the entire thing out of water is this: the fact that although I FELT like I could take on the world when I was “manic”….I never acted on it. I actually had MORE impulse control when I was “manic” (due, I suspect, to high levels of anxiety) than when I wasn’t. I also did no great harm to others, took no major risks, and even when I was going off the deep end I was utterly dependable at work.  In short: I do not meet the qualifications for a manic episode. I never have.

I am intensely angry at that doctor for treating me the way he did. I feel that by not taking the time to ensure I was given the correct care, he actually made my situation worse. His misdiagnosis certainly threw my life off track for a long time! Some of it was my own fault; in my desperation for a cure, I was willing to agree to pretty much anything, and I’m sure that didn’t help. However, I cannot get past the thought that if he hadn’t been so intent on prescribing medication, he would have identified the discrepancies between what I was experiencing and what he was diagnosing. If I can do it…why couldn’t he?

I plan on going back to a therapist at some point to get his diagnosis overturned (I acknowledge that it is entirely possible that the therapist will uphold his opinion, but it seems extremely improbable). I also plan on seeking counseling (but not medication) for my anxiety, because it makes my life hell and really is the one aspect of myself that I would change if I could. I think doing that will help keep the depression at bay. As for the ADHD thing….that’s what makes me who I am. I am an artist. I do weird things, many of them without realizing it. Plus, if my thought processes changed…so would my creative process. I like those aspects of myself, and I would not change them for all the consistent, focused productivity in the world. I have coping strategies that I utilize when I’m at work or doing something Really Important, and they have been fairly effective.  I see no need for any greater intervention.

So….there you have it. Another of my little epiphanies. It’s probably not that big of a deal to the world at large, but for me it is. For me, it means that in the innermost inner shell of my soul I no longer consider myself incurably unbalanced, and that I have even more hope than I thought I did.

As an afternote: In the course of writing this, I had to look up lamotrigine/Lamictal to remind myself of the specifics of my prescription. When I was taking it, I was told that a) it was the only drug other than lithium proven to be effective against BPD and B) that it had no side effects except potentially the rash I mentioned.  I see that both of those statements have been proven false since then….and I can’t say I am surprised. I was on that drug for almost two months and the only effect it had on my brain was to kill my creativity when I needed it most. Yuck.

Thinking of donating to a third party relief fund? Please read this.

When I worked at the restaurant, we did regular charity drives. One of them in particular struck me as particularly gross because we advertised that “100% of all donations go to Such-and-Such charity” but if you read the fine print, you found out that that after they took “operation costs” out. On top of that, the charity itself took operation costs out of that amount. In the end, for every dollar that a customer donated, the actual CAUSE they were donating to only got 10 cents. 

Ten. Bloody. Cents.

I can understand the charity in question using the money to help keep their operation running- that’s what it’s for! In this case, however, there WERE no “operation costs” to my restaurant. The charity provided all the necessary materials, all of the employees would have been working those shifts anyway…in fact, the only extra work that my work had to do was a) attend meetings and agree to participate in the fundraiser, and  b) add a button to their POS. That’s….it. So why did my employer take a sizable chunk* out of every dollar that was donated for themselves? Are the executives involved in making that decision THAT highly paid? I know I sure wasn’t!

This came to my mind today because I’m noticing a lot of pop up fundraisers to help the Philippines recover from Typhoon Haiyan. Most of them donate some percentage of net proceeds only. Most of them are donating the results to the Red Cross, which is infamous for not only taking exorbitant amounts of money out of donations for “operation costs” but also for failing to utilize donations in an effective manner. (See: Hurricane Sandy and the Red Cross versus Occupy Sandy debacle.)

With all this in mind…thoroughly research who you are donating through and avoid third parties (especially corporate ones).  Taking a moment to donate directly to a reputable charity will ensure that more of your donation is used for the people who need it, and less will line the pockets of executives taking advantage of a disaster.

Thank you for your attention.

M

 

* Post script, in the interest of being honest/accurate: It has been almost a year since this charity occurred. Thinking about it now, I cannot actually remember the exact amount that was taken out by my employer. I do know it was a ridiculously high amount for an “event” that cost them next to nothing, and that customers who thought to ask, usually chose not to donate after being told.

The Abyss of Loneliness

I have a hard time making friends…and that is a massive understatement.

I don’t know how other people do it so easily. My sister (and my husband) can walk up to a complete stranger, chat them up, and walk away knowing how many kids they have, what they’re having for dinner, and what their bad habits are. Me…I have a hard time even conversing with the person ringing up my groceries. My shopping expeditions usually go something like this:

Me: “Good morning!”

Cashier: “Good morning, how are you?”

Me: “I’m okay.  How are you?”

Cashier: “I’m doing okay.”

Silence. Thundering, embarrassing, overwhelming silence.

Cashier: “Thank you, have a nice day.”

Me: “You, too….”

What I cannot convey to these passing strangers is the aching loneliness that fills me when I walk away from such an exchange. How much it hurts to realize that even if that person recognizes me later, they usually won’t go out of their way to greet me because I didn’t give them enough of myself to find a connection with me.

It extends beyond such exchanges, of course. The world of social media has actually made it worse. It is terribly depressing to log into Facebook and see 250 acquaintances, and realize that there is only one person on that list (outside my family) who could show up at my door with no warning without sending me into an immediate and world-shattering panic! Everyone else…I know of them. They know of me. I know some of them follow what I do and truly care, but I am terrified to break the ice and speak to them beyond the random exchanges that happen about cat memes and political videos.

E thinks the solution to my loneliness is to “go out and meet people” and he gets very frustrated (even angry) when I try to explain that that isn’t going to solve the problem. It never has, it never will. I think seeing me struggle to interact with the other parents in our birthing class has shown him that it really isn’t that simple for me, but still we get into angry spats about it.  Trust me, my love: I WANT to go out and meet people. However, I am scared…so scared that sometimes I literally curl up in a corner and cry just thinking about it. When faced with a social situation I usually feel like a four or five year old again, sitting in the corner with my thumb in my mouth, ashamed of the marker all over my face. It’s hard to approach adults on equal footing when you feel like a child. There have been so many times when a person I would like as a friend has asked if we could hang out, and even though I have desperately wanted to say “yes”, I have made up an excuse –no matter how flimsy- and stayed home.  Why? Because I’m afraid….of rejection, of inevitable gossip, of making a fool of myself … the list goes on.

It took me a very long time to acknowledge that what I am experiencing is not a temporary issue. I always thought I was just shy, or that I was trying to be friends with the wrong people. “When I’m older and can go out by myself, it will get better,” was one of my favorite mantras when I was a teenager. I blamed it on the fact that I was homeschooled for a while- but my brother and both of my younger sisters were also homeschooled, and they have no issues with social settings (quite the opposite, actually). Then I tried to find contentment in the idea of being an introvert. “I like my alone time,” I told my mother one time, and she nodded understanding. The truth I have never admitted before is:  I don’t. I actually really enjoy having company, but I’m scared of seeking it out. Most of my hobbies and skills are solitary, it’s true…but I like to have company while I do them. When I am alone the silence roars around me like a howling wind, and I know if it sucks me into the void no one will even notice I am gone.

I’m going to be 28 in a little less than 3 months. I am having some life problems that I can’t write about here that would be so much easier to field if I had some girlfriends…but I am terrified of talking to anyone but my mother about it. I am also expecting a baby in six weeks- that baby is going to grow into a child, and that child will want friends that I don’t know how to find for him.  I want to home school him, but is it fair to do something that will inevitably stymie his social growth, given my won personal issues?

The anxiety I feel is debilitating. The loneliness is crippling. The empty hours of silence when other people would have someone to laugh with are horrifying. I am humiliated by my inability to fill a pause in a conversation without seeming too loud, or awkward, or downright rude.  Why do some people seem to always know exactly what to say? Why can’t I be one of them? What is wrong with me?

My loneliness has gotten so bad that I have decided to seek professional assistance in overcoming it…but I can’t afford that right now so I have to weather a little longer without it. If I’ve made it this long, surely I can wait a few months, right? I just have to cling tight and find joy in the small things as I always have.

Having difficulty finding cheer today, but it has to be there somewhere…

M

On the mundane: Food budgeting

If you look up “Grocery budget” on the internet you will find endless sites and blogs that drone on about meal plans, sales, and coupons in a variety of either utterly boring or irritatingly in-your-face ways. You will also find a variety of sites where blog moms or scam artists (or both?) will claim that they feed their family of six three square healthy meals a day for $50 a month. Looking through all that was profoundly intimidating to me. How could I get my scattered, inattentive, and occasionally lazy brain to stay on task long enough to make that stuff a reality?

The honest answer is that I can’t. It’s not realistic. Like Victoria’s Secret models, the Pinterest craft god(dess)s, and housekeeping bloggers, the $50 a month shoppers have achieved a level of inhuman perfection that simply cannot be achieved by most normal people leading normal lives. (The mental image of all of the above combined into one super human person just accosted me. It was scarier than any Halloween costume I’ve ever seen, I swear.)

I finally made my peace with my inability to achieve perfection several months ago, and subsequently tried a few different not-so-perfect approaches to dropping our food bill.  In the process, I learned some basic truths about food and shopping that hadn’t really made themselves apparent until that point. Some of them are absolutely contrary to what those shopping tip websites have to say, which really surprised me.

  • I don’t care what the “shopping authorities” say- store brand neither tastes the same nor is of the same quality as name brand. When it comes down to it, I would rather spend the extra quarter and get name brand.
  • That said, some name brands ARE better than others…and they are not necessarily the more expensive ones.
  • In terms of produce quality and variety (in the Portland area at least), Fred Meyer > Safeway > Thriftway > Albertson’s > WinCo, and the prices between those stores only vary by a few pennies. I neither know nor care where WalMart falls in that scale because I do not shop there.
  • Fresh meat is cheaper and tastes better than the flash-frozen kind, and it only takes a few seconds to portion it into bags and pop them in the freezer for use later.
  • “Extreme couponing” methods are a mystery to me. How can you “stack” coupons when every coupon I’ve ever seen says “cannot be used in combination with other offers”?
  • On the other hand, the coupons I get at the checkstand at Safeway are remarkably useful- and they are designed to fit in a standard sized wallet.
  • It is unrealistic to expect to eat the same thing for snacks, breakfast, and/or lunch for weeks on end, no matter how much I like it and no matter how cheap it is on sale.  If we switch it up every two weeks or so, however, we go right through it.
  • Similarly, buying food just because it is on sale is silly. If I didn’t eat it before, I won’t eat it now- so why waste the money?
  • Pregnancy causes complications in even the best-laid budgets. My cravings (and revulsions) are painfully abrupt sometimes.
  • The one truly effective method I have found for cutting down on the grocery bill is to make a weekly meal plan and stick to it. Our bill has dropped by $125 a week since I did that, and we’re eating better than we ever have before. No regrets, my friends.

Random musings on groceries are all I’ve got today.  Now it’s back to work with me!

Privilege: I have it. (A confession)

Yesterday, I got a much-needed attitude slap down, and I don’t know if the person giving it to me even realized what she was doing.

I was sitting in my mother’s studio-slash-study (a room in the basement of her house that ironically enough used to be my bedroom). We’d been talking for a couple of hours, and the conversation had spanned from my four year old niece’s latest exploits, to why there are no female street artists, to how I was going to afford to pay for my husband’s therapy bill.

That turned the conversation towards the Affordable Care Act, and I started going off about my monthly bills. I personally was very upset because the Department of Education can’t communicate with the Department of Human Services and see that they’re each saying that because I make X amount of money, I don’t qualify for assistance with their respective payments. However, if I deducted, say, my student loan payments from my income, I WOULD qualify for assistance with my health insurance (and vice versa).  I didn’t think that was “fair” at all, since the bills would force me to put a hold on my long term plans. My question to my mother was: Why can’t the government communicate? Why can’t they count debt as well as income so I could keep a handle on my life?

Her response was not as supportive as I expected, given that my complaint seemed perfectly valid to me.

She sat back in her chair, looked at me for a moment, and said, “You have some serious First World problems.”  I laughed, but she didn’t. She talked to me for a few minutes about how absurd it was that I was complaining about “unfair” with the job, lifestyle, and dreams that I have. Then she went on to say: “Do you know who needs assistance, honey? People like your aunt.  Even though she’s blind and crippled by diabetes and no one is willing to hire her, the government wants to cut her disability payments, and she can’t make it by as it is. She needs help with her insurance. You don’t.”

That shut me right the hell up.

Her sharp commentary on my privilege are still echoing inside my head and poking at my pride. The more I think about it, the more I realize she is unquestionably right.  Yes, my husband and I struggle…but we are NOT struggling to survive. We have achieved stability, even if it is not quite the way we want it, and the only reason we cannot afford our insurance premium is because we do not want to sacrifice the immediate comforts we feel we are entitled to….nor are we willing to extend the timeline on our long term plans. We are not willing to sacrifice our current privilege, and therefore we have zero right to complain about being denied yet another.

With her words and those facts in mind, I have come to the conclusion that the only decent thing I can do at this point is to shut my freaking pie-hole about what I can and cannot afford, stop being an ass about my self-inflicted problems, and fix my tiny family’s issues the hard way.   It’s going to be rough and uncomfortable for a while, and it’s going to force me to be patient and thrifty, and to institute a level of self-discipline that has not previously existed. I also have a feeling it’ll be a forced march for my husband on some of the decisions that need to be made…but….the end result, I think, will be worth the effort- not just for us, but for those we love and the random lives that we touch every day.

I’m going to begin my journey by making a conscious effort to STOP complaining.  Such an action has nothing to do with finances, but….it will have a hell of a positive impact on my life in general, wouldn’t you say?

Cheers,
M