I started an 8-week mindfulness class a month ago and am feeling the benefits–including less anxiety and restful sleep with dreams. I’ve been having some realizations about the effects of prolonged states of anxiety and being revved up. It’s like the internal energy of those states stretches out your mind. Everything got all wound up and now that I am medicated, I feel like my head is swimming in vastness where everything moves much slower and I feel like I have way less energy. I was telling Kiri that it feels like the cogs of my mind are turned by belts that have been over-stretched, so there is way less tension in my mind and the way it works.
I know this is a much healthier way to operate, but I usually feel a little or a lot depressed about it. Now, I am just trying to accept it and not feel like I’m a shadow of my former self. I wonder if this looseness of mind is how most people usually feel. I’m glad I have mindfulness and walking and lots of opportunities to engage my mind in school now. Last night, I finished reading Ellen Forney’s memoir “Marbles: Mania, Depression, Micheangelo and Me” and I wrote a review of it today. It was hard to read because we had such similar experiences… This is what I wrote:
Ellen Forney’s “Marbles: Mania, Depression, Michelangelo and Me” chronicles her experiences, thoughts, feelings and decision-making process around being diagnosed with bipolar at age 30. She is a working comic artist and questions the link between creativity and mood disorders throughout the book. She doesn’t want to lose her creative drive because it is her source of income, but she also becomes less tolerant of the seasonal revved up episodes followed by depression as the years go by. Forney finally decides she wants more balance in her life, but it takes a few years for she and her doctor to find the right combination of medications and life style choices to make that a reality. In the process, she takes the reader through the existential realities of living with bipolar and how she learns to manage her symptoms by keeping track of her sleep, mood, medications and daily activities. Excerpts from her journals and sketchbooks are included in the memoir, which creates a pastiche that reverberates with feelings and thoughts from the past—especially during her depressive episodes. She weaves these with cartoons featuring interactions she had with friends, family and colleagues, sessions with her doctor, and her internal experiences of being revved up and depressed in Seattle and while traveling to comic conventions.
Each time Forney has another episode and needs to try a new medication to stabilize her moods, she returns to examining the link between mood disorders and creativity because she often loses some of her cognitive faculties when adjusting new medications and fears losing her creativity. She tries to find meaning in her experience by reading books her father sends her on artists with mood disorders—the “Van Gogh Club”. She decides that she doesn’t want to focus on her pain in her artwork like most of these artists did. But she relates to their thoughts and feelings and recognizes the dramatic shifts in productivity they experienced as her own creative process. Forney struggles with the idea of being a tortured artist because she doesn’t want to focus on her pain in her work. She does yoga and swims on a regular basis to find relief from her symptoms and develops a good support network after disclosing her diagnosis with friends. These are all really healthy ways to take care of herself, but she has an internal struggle around completely changing her lifestyle to manage her symptoms. She smokes pot on a weekly basis when she is not depressed and engages in risky behavior—like using cocaine—when she is revved up. This may be a symptom, but it is something she doesn’t share with her doctor until the end of the book when she finally decides she wants to feel more balanced. This was the final decision she needed to make around her desire to focus on something other than her pain in her work and to live a balanced life rather than one of a tortured artist. She still holds the experiences of these artists in reverence, but makes a decision to live her life differently.
Most of the details of the book focus on Forney’s bouts of anxiety, mania and depression and what prompts these episodes. In an effort to understand her experiences and make meaning from them, Forney explores all of the biopsychosocial components that contribute to her symptoms of bipolar. Her mother was diagnosed with bipolar and uses marijuana to self-medicate. Forney identifies with her “stoner mom” and tries to use pot along with medications to manage her symptoms. Rethinking this identification with her mother ends up being one of the hardest psychological tasks Forney faces, and ultimately is the crux of whether she will live a balanced life. Throughout the book it’s apparent that she is health conscious because she is really good about sticking with her complementary treatments of yoga and daily exercise, but this identification with her mother is really hard to shake. Forney also touches on the social interactions and cognitive patterns that drive her into manic episodes that ultimately end in depression. For example, Forney is already a little revved and not sleeping much. She knows that going to the comic convention in California is probably not a good idea, but she goes and becomes completely overwhelmed. When the bookseller runs out of her books before she even does her performance, she lashes out in anger and starts spiraling downward. Through this experience, Forney comes to realize thefaulty cognitionsthat might send her into anxiety, mania or depression. She explains that when she is agitated and something goes wrong, she has catastrophic thoughts and blows the situation way out of proportion in her mind. What becomes most apparent in “Marbles…” is that through experience and a little research, Forney comes to understand the stress diathesis model of bipolar. She realizes that the more stress she is under, the more episodes she has and the more medications she has to try to stabilize her moods. She also does some research on the connection between creativity and mood disorders and learns about the overlap between the characteristics of the minds of creatives and people with bipolar: loose associations, openness, mental imagery, impulsivity and high drive. This gives her a more positive view of living with bipolar as an artist that is scientifically based, rather than focusing on the pain and psychopathology.
Since I have been living with bipolar disorder for the last 24 years, I could relate to Forney’s experiences. I also tried to understand my experiences by acquainting myself with the tortured artists in my late teens and early 20’s. But by the time I was 24 and had my first mixed episode that ended in a psychotic break and hospitalization, I was finished relating to my life that way. Like Forney, when I was diagnosed, I was given a book (can’t remember the title) that linked creativity and bipolar disorder. Since I am an artist, this gave the disorder a positive twist, at first. But as you live through periods of medication-induced depression where creativity is low or non-existent, you do begin to think you will never return to a creative mindset again—especially if you don’t want to focus on your pain in your work. I also found that while I may not have access to the mindset I use to write or produce videos when I am depressed, I really enjoy crocheting and making jewelry in all emotional states. The repetitive motion of needle crafts reduces anxiety and depression. Learning about neuroscience, the state of flow and the recovery movement have been most helpful to me. The brain and mind are incredibly resilient and living a balanced life is possible with a lot of work and the right meds.
As Forney suggests, the expense of care for bipolar is a major stressor and probably the main reason people with bipolar don’t receive care. I tried to manage my symptoms with complementary methods only so I wouldn’t have to worry about the expense anymore, but that didn’t work for me. I have had periods in my life where I didn’t have insurance or I was not eligible for care at college counseling centers because I have a diagnosis. This is extremely frustrating and anxiety producing… Even with the new insurance plans, if you don’t have a job, you can’t pay for them. I am thankful I have a part-time job as I near graduation, even though it is a research job and doesn’t have any benefits. Hopefully, I will find a job with benefits by mid-September when my student health insurance expires. And in the meantime, I am working with Avel Gordly where I receive care to figure out which insurance I can use if I am unable to find a job with benefits by September.
I’m dealing with some stressors, but my slowed down brain and mindfulness training are really helping. I’m able to prioritize much better and not get overwhelmed with all of the things I need to do before I graduate. I have been biting things off in very manageable chunks and that is new for me. I’m going to be presenting the content from my Peerpocalypse presentations on campus on June 1st as part of the requirements for receiving a travel grant from PSU. This is 6 days before my final exams, so I’m staging out the last bit of work I’ll need to do for school.