Bipolar Does Not Steal Your Life: Take a Vacation to the Sunniest City in the U.S.

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Bipolar Does Not Steal Your Life: Take a Vacation to the Sunniest City in the U.S.

Yuma has three hundred and sixty-two days of sun a year. Manic? Relax as you soak up the sun. Depressed? Swim, run, walk. Enjoy the sunshine.

I was going to Yuma for a month. I planned to drive cross-country in my car, a 2020 BMW Roadster. The car was a warning sign of my illness. Sitting in the driver’s seat, I played with the bells and whistles. When I found the start button, drive and reverse, I drove out of the lot. I drove to my son’s house. “You’ve got to see this. I’ll give you a ride.” He didn’t want a ride. He wanted to find out what happened to me. I drove to friends’ homes. I thought they would want a ride. They saw dilated eyes. My voice was shrill. This wasn’t enthusiasm. It was manic excitement.

In August 2019 I attended a conference in Dayton, Ohio. I acted out of character. I gave away money. I ran from person to person, introducing myself. I was on to the next person before I learned anyone’s name. By the time the conference ended I was over the top.

I was sick and needed help. My son called a psychiatrist and made an appointment. The doctor surprised me when he diagnosed bipolar disease. My son told him my plans to drive to Yuma.. “Fly” the psychiatrist said. “Wait until your medication takes effect. If you want to go right away, you need to fly.”
I was looking forward to driving to Yuma with my dog, Gracie. We would have a great time. I would drive seventeen-hundred twenty-five miles to my sister’s house. Situated on the border between Arizona and Mexico,

Yuma is a big city. I should do what my doctor said. “If you insist on going, do not drive. Fly.” My son agreed. He was afraid I’d get confused or stuck on the side of the road. He worried I would forget to take my medication. I told him I’d fly. Even that wasn’t good enough. I should wait. My kids worried I wouldn’t find my gate. I’d flown for five years working as a consultant with the Federal Head Start Program. I would be fine.

My son wanted me to be accountable to my older sister. Was I that ill? I complied with the reporting-in idea. I wanted to get going. I wanted to get to the land of blue skies, warm sun and hot air.

Gracie is my cocker spaniel. I couldn’t leave her for a month. “She’s a good dog. She obeys commands. “She’ll miss you, but she won’t feel abandoned,” Jim, her veterinarian said. He and his receptionist would care for her until I returned. Mary put a gate between her area and the reception counter. The gate would keep Gracie from getting into trouble with other animals. Good enough.

I was ready for an adventure. I was flying and I didn’t like it. My trip didn’t start well. During a layover at Phoenix Sky Harbor airport, I left my bag with another woman while I used the restroom. Have you ever left your carry-on with a stranger? I didn’t hear the announcements over the PA system. It was loud throughout the airport. Everyone heard. There was no excuse for missing the warning. I might have heard it and thought it didn’t apply to me. Delusion can be part of my illness. The stranger asked me to watch her bags while she used airport facilities. That went well. Wasn’t that enough to trust her? I knew better, but really? I didn’t have trouble in the past. When I returned to my gate, the woman and my bag were gone.

Big mistake. I would have been insulted if my kids reminded me of airport rules. I wished they would have told me to hang onto my purse. My valuables were in my bag.

In retrospect, I pose a question. If my son was concerned, why didn’t he warn me to take my bag with me to the restroom? Why should he? He had enough questions and worries. Besides that, I’ve always been independent. I was a sixty-nine-year old widow who knew her way around an airport. I wanted my family to stop meddling in my affairs.

By the time I arrived in Yuma, my sister and brother-in-law had their concerns. My sister didn’t know how ill I was. I didn’t make sense in phone calls before the trip, but not enough for her to worry. She saw me and worried. I worried. What if I had a psychotic episode in front of her? I didn’t know psychosis could be part of my illness. I found out by checking Mayo’s website and following up with my son and doctor. My anxiety soared.

My flight was smooth and short. The flight attendants did all they could to make sure I was comfortable. I don’t fear flying but l craved the attention. Only one issue left. I was thinking about my bag. My visit to the washroom was not necessary. Why did I feel compelled? Although attempts to locate my bag failed, I didn’t think to check lost and found. My lost bag was inconsequential compared to my family’s worries.
I’ll tell you what was in that bag. My passport. I usually carried it with me. My pockets weren’t big enough. There goes any trip to Mexico. There went my credit cards. American Express, Amazon Prime and my bank card. All lost somewhere between Phoenix and Yuma. Oh, yes, I had three whole dollars in my wallet. Thank God I tucked my driver’s license deep into my pocket. I had my license.

I would use my license to secure payment on my room, I thought. It didn’t matter what I said. The amiable young woman at the desk couldn’t offer that. I hoped the company authorized her to accept my license guaranteeing my room, I slid it across the counter. She couldn’t do it. She couldn’t take my license for payment. She could not alter room rates. She could make changes in room assignments. She offered water and snacks at no charge. “I can give you other examples of what I can do.” she said. “I cannot use your license.

I thanked her and asked my sister if she would use her credit card. She agreed. After paying for my room. Step one finished. She and her husband helped enough, but we made another trip to borrow $50 from my brother-in-law. I reminded him about my missing bag’s contents. He loaned the cash to me with the stipulation I promise not to lose it and would repay him when my bag arrived.

The next morning, I woke with the sun. I was going enjoy my first day in paradise. The air was cool. I was not. I loved it. I could stay here forever. I visited with people. Too many people in the beginning. When I settled down, I stopped talking without end. I didn’t tell anyone about my illness. I started limiting friends. I asked questions about their lives instead of yammering about my own. I worked hard. Each time hearing my talk about myself. I tried to stay curious. My family would be proud of me.

I alternated between my room, poolside and the pool. I worked on my novel daily. If it is not too much to edit, I would publish by late summer. If I finish writing by June and editing goes well, I could make my deadline. I had trouble with hypomania at the time and slept little. I may be crazy, but I enjoy the click of my keyboard as much as I like making up a story.

What was this illness getting in my way? I was showing mild symptoms of bipolar disorder by age fifteen. A psychiatrist diagnosed my daughter when she was fifteen. Why did it take until I was sixty-nine-years old to figure it out? My symptoms were under control and I didn’t realize anything was wrong. Why wasn’t I diagnosed earlier? Diagnosed sooner, my life might have been better. The doctors’ words scared me. I didn’t know what I would face the rest of my life.

By the time vacation started, I was sick of family comments about my mental health. I loved them, and they were expressing their concern. By day nine of my trip, my sister wasn’t visiting as often; she wasn’t hauling me to the gas station or the ATM for more cash. She nagged me enough. “Will you take your medications?” she asked. Can you believe she wanted to put my meds in pill keeper? She told me it wasn’t her idea. My son asked her to sort my pills.

Mood-stabilizing medications were not the only meds I was taking. Did they think I was too dumb to put them in the correct compartment for the appropriate day? I took medication for other conditions for six years. I knew how to keep them in order. I knew when and how to take them. “No more.” I told her to get off my back. I said I’d had enough. The next words were mean. I told her I know how to take the damn pills. I wanted a break. She wanted to know I was safe. I decided to let her fill my pill case. I handed my medication and pill pack to her. I didn’t like sorting anyway. She was happy and I got out of doing something I didn’t like to do. I decided if anything like that came up in the future, I would let her do it.

I hate medicine and don’t take pills unless I needed them. It was not often. I continued to reassure my family. I would take my pills as directed on the bottles. I wasn’t taking many pills. I was one of the lucky ones. When I got home, my doctor prescribed my new medication cocktail.

The last half of vacation was glorious. The kids no longer worried about my safety. They didn’t worry if I was dangerous to myself or others. My son said he would not fly out. My sister and her husband backed off. They didn’t call. I called them when I wanted to talk with them. They stopped monitoring my behavior. I continued to tell them stories about my behavior. I told them I was better. Could I reassure them?

The next days I was on my own. I had solitude when I wanted it. I observed. I got comfortable being with myself. I made friends. Some became friends I will correspond with. We talked about visiting each other’s homes. We would vacation together in Yuma the following year.

I enjoyed the people I met. I met them at the pool. I met them at Happy Hour. I met them in the lobby. I was not frantic. I didn’t talk nonstop. I was vacationing the way I wanted. Long days at the pool. Swimming, writing and knitting, I was happy. If others wanted to talk, great! That made me happy. When it was time for my return trip, my family reminded me to hold my bag close. They told me to follow airport rules. No matter what, stay safe. Come home soon. I knew now that they were right about me. I accepted their directions. All went well.

My vacation lasted thirty days. I slowed down, talked less, sat still longer. I found the way to myself. It was hard work. I knew I wasn’t my illness. I loved being aware. I loved knowing who I was. I may have another cycle of depression or mania. It may come next week. It may not return. Recovery tastes sweet. I was ready to go home. I had a great vacation and got my life back.

Sally’s Been Thinking…about Mental Illness

I have been thinking about mental illness for a long time. I have enough research and experience with others to write a book. Unfortunately, the topic became quite personal after I completed radiation for DCIS, ductal carcinoma in situ, see last Novembers blog post, I’ve been thinking about Being a Person with a Serious Iillness.

As I drove home from my final radiation appointment, I found myself going beyond the hyper-vigilance that had plagued me for a month. My mind was racing so fast with so many ideas that I knew was not typical Sally thinking. After a visit with my doctor, I was put on a mood stabilizing medication that helped me to sleep and slowed me down. That was great and I moved happily into fall and winter.

Sadly, my best friend had been diagnosed with brain cancer and was fighting for her life. I saw her for the last time shortly after beginning the medication.  I fell into a deep depression that held fast through Beth’s battle and death. It did not dissipate until March, after a week in the sunniest city in the country, Yuma, AZ. I arrived back home in Winterset ready to engage in my life again. I was so relieved to be free of the depression that I failed to notice symptoms of an episode of hypomania. My family tried mightily to help me recognize it, but off I went to Anchorage, Alaska where the sun was shining even through the nighttime hours. I engaged in some unusual behavior for me and the friend I stayed with contacted my family with concern.

I barely returned home when I was off again to attend a conference in Dayton, Ohio. Again, no realization that my behavior was off the charts. It was only after sending a series of strange photos to my family that they began charting a course of intervention that would get me back to normal. Let me tell you that hypomania comes with its own set of denial (much like that of an alcoholic). I did everything I could to assure my family that I was fine and mentally healthy. I saw nothing strange about trading in my one-year old Honda Fit to lease a 2020 BMW Roadster, but they sure did.

I never got to the point of full-blown mania, but my actions were regularly inconsistent with my values. Caring very much for my son, friends and the rest of my family, I agreed to take Alan with me to see my doctor (the one who prescribed the mood stabilizing medication) and to see the therapist I’d found shortly after my last depression ended. Once we heard the diagnosis, we were all relieved. Not happy, but relieved. A psychiatrist confirmed my bipolar disorder shortly after those visits.

Now a new regimen of medication ensued, and I nearly surrendered to the darkest depression I have ever experienced. A shift in medication and seven weeks later, I was on my way out. And up. You may be able to tell that I am definitely recovered from the depression because this is my first blog post since November 2018. This time, however, I am working weekly with my therapist, seeing my psychiatrist who is 50 miles from home, and initiating a plan of many activities to keep me from racing and going back into hypomania.

Why am I writing this? Why am I sharing my experience with a disorder that has so much stigma attached? First, I am writing this to let you know there is life after diagnosis. Secondly, I want to be part of the fight to rid the stigma tied to mental illness.

For what it’s worth, I’m well today, December 5, 2019 and I have a toolbox filled with ideas to deal with both the depression and the hypo mania. That seems the best thing to do at this time.

I have access to treatment. I have family and friends who love me. And I always have hope; the hope that God consistently provides. Here is the bible verse that keeps me from spinning completely out of control in either direction: “We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed,” from 2nd Corinthians, chapter 4. I hope you find comfort and encouragement in these words as well.

Until next time,

Sally

I’ve Been Thinking… about joy and dirt

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When I purchased my little 1890-built home in Winterset IA, 2016, I was thrilled. Within months of moving in, I hung a small barn board sign on my porch: JOY.

That’s all it said, but it said it well. Typically, I am a person of joy. I am grateful to be alive; to have a home; a family that I love; a faith that provides comfort, as well as joy; work that is a calling; friends I adore and a sweet little dog whose name is Amazing Grace. My life brings me joy.

Once the sign was hung, I had my huge backyard fenced in so sweet Gracie could run and play outdoors without danger or the possibility of getting lost. Using permaculture strategies (I know just enough about permaculture to believe I’m part of an earth-saving movement), I first analyzed, planned and then staked out a plot of grass that would become my garden. I layered cardboard and newspaper, followed by leaves and grass clippings, nutrient-rich soil, compost, and straw for mulch. I used the same process for my front terrace. The snows came, and my new garden was under development.

As soon as the soil could be worked (standard language in gardening manuals), I pulled back the mulch, added another layer of soil and compost and started planting. I got to see a few flowers out front and the four strawberry plants came in beautifully. As for the rest, well, it would either grow or it would die. No matter what, I was feeding the soil and that brings me joy. The garden plot did not fare much better. I ate a few tomatoes, had enough potatoes for a meal, and the kale was almost plentiful. One cannot live on kale alone, but I was cultivating healthy soil. So, I pulled up some dying plants, left a few in the ground, and began my layering process once again, in both garden plot and my front yard terrace.

This year, I again added soil and compost (lots from a previously unused dog kennel now serving as a compost bin), planted my seeds, starters, and transplants and covered them up with straw mulch. Much better this year, despite the long weeks without rain. Enough potatoes to actually weigh (#31 pounds) and sweet meaty tomatoes to eat every single day. I’m freezing and giving away basil, parsley, oregano and mint and finding great joy in the bright spots of color from the perennial flowers my daughter-in-law gave me. Oh my, the terrace still looked pretty sparse, but the too widely spaced yellow, blue, lavender and deep red flowers made up for it. A sudden stretch of serious rain plumped up the strawberry plants and brought new life to the Daylilies and the Hostas growing close to the house.

Not the prettiest garden around, but there are great things happening under all that straw.

On the flip side – my beans, peas, carrots, radishes and cucumbers really struggled and produced only a “eating while cleaning up the garden” snack. The cucumbers were hilarious. They grew fat, instead of long. The plants flowered, a little green poke emerged, and then…fat orange cucumbers with humungous seeds. Are you kidding me? Oh well, back into the soil from whence they came. My soil will continue to grow healthier as I drop everything back into or on top of it and await next year’s planting season to repeat the process once again. This brings me joy, so I had a local crafter create a matching sign that says GARDENS and hung it below my JOY sign.

Joy Gardens hopes for the future:

Eliminate all grass in the front yard and replace with strawberry plants and blueberry bushes so I can eventually pick berries from my own yard. Why the front yard? Because berry plants and bushes are pretty, and they do not require mowing. Plus, many people walk past my house every day. Retirees walking dogs, children and teens on their way home from school, the occasional exercise walker. Why not provide them with a little rest stop and a sweet snack. Am I worried about others eating up all my fruit? Not a bit. I do hope they save a little for me, but just the thought of my yard offering a treat to passersby brings me more joy than making jam.

I looked long and far to find the author of the quote I adapted for myself after seeing it somewhere many years ago. Sorry there is no credit line. If you wrote it, tell me.

“She who plants a seed beneath the sod and waits for food believes in God.” YES!

One more thought: Of all the gifts my mother ever purchased for me, my favorite is the garden sign I received Christmas 1982. Although there were a number of years that my husband and I were too busy enjoying summer camping, biking and kayaking to plant and care for a garden, the sign is in my garden today:

The kiss of the sun for pardon,
The song of the birds for mirth,
One is nearer God’s Heart in a garden
Than anywhere else on Earth. *

Until next time,

Sally

* God’s Garden, lines 13–16, Poems, by Dorothy Frances Gurney (London: Country Life, 1913).

PS – Who knew? If I have a chance to go to Starbucks, I usually use the drive through. The last time I was there, the drive through was so busy I decided to go inside. There – right on the counter – were large bags of used coffee grounds. FREE! Coffee grounds are a great addition to garden compost. From now on, I’m going inside.