My Profane and Wise Friend Once Said…

“It’s really about cultivating your shit,” Betsy told me.  I was sitting across from her at a dingy bar.  We were snacking on cheap popcorn and sipping our respective drinks (me: a girly pink cocktail.  her: some obscure microbrew).  People were shooting pool in the corner, and a group of guys at the bar were getting all worked up about a basketball game that we were ignoring.  No one was paying attention to the crazy people in the corner talking about cultivating life’s shit.

Betsy has been my friend since we were four.  When you have your entire childhood in common, sometimes that’s all you need to stay friends.  If we met now, we probably wouldn’t be.  I’m an English teacher living in the suburbs with a picket fence and “sensible” (read: boring) work-driven wardrobe choices.  She’s in a band, wears leather jackets and hipster clothes, has half of her head shaved and the other half crimped in a fabulously random way.  I wear lipgloss.  She wears eyeliner on only one eye.  I drink cocktails.  She drinks microbrews.  On the surface, we don’t have a lot in common.  Under the surface, we do.

On this particular night, she was passing through my town on a break from her current thirty-city tour.  We’ve both had hellish years for different reasons.  We drank to the fact that we were still friends even though life turned out oh-so-differently than we imagined back at sleepovers when we were seven.  Or nine.  Or nineteen.

Sometimes good life choices result in a happy life, and sometimes they don’t.  There’s no guarantee about that like teachers and parents want you to think.  We talked about the things we wished we would have known as kids and the things we wish we could know now.  Then Betsy came up with this gem:

“It’s really about cultivating your shit,” she said. “Because sometimes life gives you shit.  A huge pile of it.  But you know what?  Shit can be a really good fertilizer.  Beautiful things can grow from shit, but nothing’s going to grow from it if you leave it in a giant pile and say, ‘Ugh.  Look at all of this FUCKING SHIT.’  You have to work with it.  Deal with it.  Don’t just leave it there.  Put it to use and let things grow from it.  Make it work for you so that someday you might see that it actually helped you in the long run.”

That’s pretty beautiful for a disgusting metaphor.  Both of us are trying to work toward a place where we can look back and say, “That helped us in the long run,” but until then we’ll keep not caring about basketball games, eating cheap popcorn, and being there to catch each other when life knocks us down.

I’ll drink to that.

 

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That Time When Someone Said the Right Thing

It’s not easy being crazy.

It’s even harder when it’s a secret.

Secrets have weight.  Some secrets are relatively light: “I’m the one who ate the last piece of cake that one time” or “I’m actually three pounds heavier than what I told you.”  Some secrets are heavy.  Having bipolar disorder is a heavy secret.

Not many people know my heavy secret.  I’ve changed my last name for this blog so that my students and friends won’t stumble upon it (and really, “Hillboro” is a cool last name anyway.  Let me pretend).  Keeping my secret is a good thing for now, maybe forever, but it comes with its challenges.  One of them is that people say really stupid crap that they would never say if they knew I have a mental illness.  They make jokes about moody people being bipolar.  They joke about cutting themselves and killing themselves when it is so, so not funny.  I’ve had multiple nurse friends talk about their mentally ill patients like they are sub-human, when I don’t see why those patients have any less worth than their otherwise-ill peers.  It’s strange.  I think people would be more sensitive if they knew, but it makes me see the world through new eyes.  Did I ever make those kinds of jokes?  Is that how I viewed people with mental illness?  I certainly hope not, but I also don’t remember.  It’s tough to remember what life was like a decade ago, before I started down this road.

Last week, I was riding with my brother-in-law to Ann Arbor for something he had to do for dental school.  He needed someone to ride along, and I said sure.  My in-laws are 89% cool, but none of them know my secret.  They’re the kind of family that doesn’t talk about problems.  We talk about the weather and recipes and baseball games.  It’s the all-American family, and I don’t want to wreck the magic by having a mental illness.  My husband is a great support, but I think his family would be horrified and completely lost on what to do with that information.  Anyway, they’re all in the dark.

While I rode with Jake to Ann Arbor, I asked how his girlfriend is doing in nursing school (she is scheduled to graduate next year).  He said she’s doing fine and that she’s working in a psych ward rotation this quarter.  I immediately wished I hadn’t asked, because I was pretty sure I didn’t want to hear anything he was about to say.  I couldn’t completely shut down and stop talking, so I said, “Oh. Ummm…how’s that?”

“It’s hard,” he said.

“I can imagine,” I replied, staring out the window.  I was suddenly very interested in the highway.  I wanted this conversation shut down NOW.  Jake elaborated on his previous statement even thought I hadn’t asked him to continue.

“She says it’s mostly sad,” he said.  “Like, her first day there, she worked on someone who looked just like her mom.  She realized that these patients are real people, you know?  Just like us – with families and dreams and stuff. Most of her patients are voluntarily admitted.  They’re not dangerous or anything – they’re just sick.  It’s like any other sickness, but it’s in their brain.  People don’t understand that, which bugs her.  And me.  People need to get that it’s just a sickness.  They need help just like someone who has liver disease.  But it has to be so scary to have an illness in your brain, because you can’t even think straight.  Wouldn’t that be scary?  I hope that never happens to us.”

“Me neither,” I automatically said, even though that probably would have been a great time to say, “Well, actually… I sort of do know what that feels like…”  I was too stunned.  No one – no one – has ever said anything like that about mental illness to me.  Especially someone who doesn’t know I have one.  Occasionally people will say encouraging things when they already know my secret, but then I always feel like maybe they’re just saying that because they feel obligated.

I was embarrassed to find my eyes filling with tears because I was so-freaking-happy to hear someone say what Jake just said.  I wanted to hug him.  I was glad he was driving and couldn’t see me getting all emotional in the passenger seat.  I immediately texted Andy and asked, “Does Jake know the secret?”  I figured maybe this was Jake’s way to try to get me to open up about a secret he already knew.  No one could actually hold that logical of an opinion about mental illness, could they?  Andy texted back, “No, I told you I wouldn’t tell anyone, and I haven’t.  Why – did he say something stupid?”  I laughed because Andy immediately thought his brother said something dumb.

“No,” I texted back. “What he said was perfect.”

Hypomania and Me

My friend Charlotte asked me to write about my experience with mania.

By “friend,” I mean she reads my posts and comments on them, but she lives on the other side of the world and I’ve never met her (Hi Charlotte!).  The internet is pretty cool like that, huh?  Anyway, disclaimer about this post: I can only write about my own experiences, and I in no way am trying to diagnose anyone or say, “You probably have bipolar disorder if…”   I have no idea.  Go ask my psychiatrist friend from high school who went to school for a zillion years to be able to actually know these kinds of things (Hi Sarah!).

Okay, enough with the shout-outs.  Here’s what I’ve got for you:

I have been diagnosed with bipolar II, which presents with episodes of depression and hypomania.  This is different from full mania.  Hypomania is scary enough, though.  I mean, it’s a little awesome at the time, but also completely terrifying.  Confused yet?  Try living it.

I think the biggest, most objective way for me to notice a hypomanic episode is to notice that I need barely any sleep.  This past summer (before my diagnosis), I went to Asia.  I flew through thirteen time zones, which is a hugely bad idea for people with bipolar disorder.  I didn’t know at the time that I had the disorder, so I didn’t know to look out for this.  Upsetting a sleep schedule can trigger a manic episode, and there’s not a much better way to “upset a sleep schedule” than flying through thirteen time zones.  Ugh.  Anyway, when I got to Asia, I basically didn’t sleep.  Going back through my texts after my diagnosis, things started to make sense that were completely baffling at the time.  I texted my husband things such as, “I’ve gotten four hours of sleep in the past forty-eight hours, but I’m totally not tired.  I’m going to go explore the city.  I tried to sleep, but I can’t.”

Also, everything sounded like a good idea.  When I was in South Korea, my cousin asked if I wanted to go mountain climbing.  I hadn’t slept at ALL the night before, not even five minutes, but when he asked me that I said, “Yeah, sounds like an awesome idea!” and proceeded to go on an eight hour rock climbing excursion with rock picks and climbing ropes and such.  It was crazy, but it sounded like a great idea at the time.  I went with no equipment.  Some Korean guys bailed me out and let me use some of theirs.  I’m lucky I didn’t die.  According to me, though, why would I need equipment?  I could totally do that with no equipment! (*facepalm*)

During this same episode (episodes can last for days or for weeks, which this one did), I decided that you know what sounds like a good idea?  Smoking!  Ummm… I realize that you don’t know me that well, but that is COMPLETELY out of character for me.  I’m definitely a “good life choices” kind of girl (to the point of being occasionally pretentious…I’m working on it).  Doing out-of-character things is another symptom of a hypomanic episode.  I found myself smoking cigarettes off of a balcony in Seoul and simultaneously thinking, “This is awesome” and also, “What on EARTH I doing right now?!”  It’s like the usual part of your brain that sends up “this is a bad idea” red flags is totally disabled.  Like the guy who holds that red flag is standing about five football fields away on a foggy day, and he’s waving that red flag with all of his might but you’re like, “Is this actually a bad idea?  I can’t remember…hmmmm….it’s probably fine.”

I was extremely confident throughout this entire episode (as is common with most hypomanic epidsodes).  This in itself is strange, as I’m usually quite a bit more reserved and unsure of myself.  Throughout this time, though, I thought, “I am so awesome – of course I know what I’m doing.”  I met up with a group of teachers in Japan (that’s the reason I went over there in the first place…to meet up with these teachers and study Japan’s education system).  I’m sorry to say that I was quite a bit more flirtatious than I should have been with the guys on this trip.  I’m not even sure if there is a line for “appropriately flirtatious” when one is married, but if there is a line then I definitely crossed it.  The guy waving the red flag five football fields away in a fog finally threw down his flag and walked away.  It was pointless.  Poor guy…my bad.

Believe it or not, overly sexualized and promiscuous behavior is another symptom of hypomania (I’m not making this stuff up.  Look it up.  I didn’t believe it either).  There was this one guy in particular…the suave playboy of the group…we’ll call him J.  I ran into some trouble with J.  See, even though I was being flirty, I made it clear that I was married and didn’t want any sort of Asian fling with anyone on this trip.  I was just having fun.  J was being pretty flirty back with me, and I literally said, “Seriously…don’t try anything.  If you try to kiss me I’ll be TICKED, because I’m really for real married, I love my husband, and I’m not doing anything with you.”  In J’s mind, I’m pretty sure that translated to something along the lines of “Look!  A challenge!”  He wouldn’t let it go.  Suffice it to say, he didn’t stop trying to get me into bed with him for the rest of the trip.  At one point we were in an elevator together, and he literally pushed me up against the side of the elevator and tried to make out with me.  I pushed him off and said, “Ahhhh!  No! I SAID NO!” but apparently that didn’t really work either.  He still liked me.  He kept trying.  As I mentioned, he was a playboy.  I hate to put a stereotype on anyone, but I really think it’s guys like him who make that stereotype what it is.  He had been with a lot of women, he always knew exactly what to say to get what he wanted, and I think he was really rattled by someone who he couldn’t get to say yes.  Even though, you know, he had a fiancee back at home in America.  He’s a quality man, ladies and gentlemen.

I think my experience with J is what scared me most about myself during this episode.  My flirtatious behavior at the beginning of the trip seemed really unlike me, but then also I found myself with a crush on this J character, even though he’s a scum-of-the-earth kind of guy.  It was very strange.  I knew I shouldn’t like him, but I think there’s a part of me that liked being pursued and borderline worshiped.  And really, who wouldn’t like that?  I kept telling him no, but I hated the fact that deep down I loved the attention, and I think I really liked him.  I should be a bit more stable in myself and in my marriage to not let a guy like that shake me up, you know?  It scared me that I let him keep talking to me.  It scared me that I didn’t hate him.  He never did get me to kiss him or do anything with him physically (ha, I win), but psychologically that whole situation had me pretty messed up.  It was scary.  At one point J told me he liked the way I did my hair that day, and I said, “Thanks.  I’ve never done it this way before.”  He said, “Really?  Like, never in your life?”  I said, “Yes. Never in my life.  It’s becoming a common theme for me in the past few weeks…”  He asked what I meant, but I didn’t tell him.  I didn’t know how to explain it myself.  I just knew it was scary.  I felt out of control.

I was still hypomanic for a little while after this trip, but then I crashed into a super deep depression.  I think this is partly because depression tends to follow any type of manic episode, but I do wonder if maybe that’s because once someone comes off of a manic episode, they have to turn around, look at what they’ve done, and say, “WHAT DID I DO?!”  I’m lucky the aforementioned situations didn’t end worse than they did, but they still messed me up.  I take full responsibility for my actions during this time, but it’s a bit tricky when a psychiatrist tells me, “You couldn’t really help it…you were in a hypomanic state.”  Like I was drunk and I’m supposed to blame it on the alcohol, except people get drunk on purpose.  I’m not bipolar on purpose.  I would rather take full responsibility, because anything less than that means that it’s not totally in my control and it might happen again.  I am not okay with that.

Anyway, that’s a summary of my most recent hypomanic episode.  Take it for what it is, and nothing more.  It’s only my experience.  I will say that one misconception that bothers me about bipolar disorder is that people think it just means you’re in a really good mood and then suddenly really irritable and in a bad mood, like PMS on steroids or something.  As far as my specific type of bipolar disorder goes, that’s not true for me.  Episodes last an excruciatingly long time.  Depressive episodes can last months.  Hypomanic episodes can last weeks.  Neither are good for me (even if hypomania might feel like it makes perfect sense at the time).  I’m currently trying to stabilize toward somewhere in the middle of the extremes.  Fingers crossed that I’m able to pack up my baggage, move into that place, and live there for a long, long time.

Got Any Secrets?

I don’t usually find myself sitting on the floor in a dark corner with a lady fifteen years my senior.  When I did find myself in that situation, I didn’t know the social protocol of what to say.  What came out of my mouth was, “So, got any secrets?”

*facepalm*

But seriously – it felt like junior high where my girlfriends and I would crawl into the dark crawlspace above the laundry room and confess who we liked, as if these secrets were of utmost concern and to be guarded as closely as matters of national defense.  If I’d had the opportunity, I’m sure I would have stashed a little piece of paper that said “Hazel loves Marcus” in D.C. right next to the files that contained codes on how to launch nuclear missiles.  That was a long time ago; those files are all digitized now, I’m sure.

Actually, that brings me back to my main story.  At my school, we have a consultant come in once a month to help us with technology issues and advancements for our school.  I’m the lead teacher for technology here (HA! – I’m pretty sure I only got this job because I’m under thirty and therefore must be “up on all of the new-fangled contraptions”).  On the day that the consultant comes, I get a sub for my normal classes and take the day to hold meetings, address issues that teachers may be having, etc.  She and I hang out and do teacher tech stuff all day.  It’s kind of fun.

Back in the early fall, my life was crumbling. I didn’t have much time/energy to create stellar plans or even pretend that I knew what I was doing.  I forgot our October meeting entirely, so she showed up and I was completely unprepared.  I didn’t try to cover for myself – when she came in I immediately said, “I am so sorry – I completely forgot you were coming today.  Don’t worry; I’ll get together a schedule and we’ll still get a lot done.  Just give me ten minutes.”  And, because improvising is a strength of mine, I did.  And, because kindness is a strength of hers, when my boss asked how things went at the end of that day, she said, “Great!  Hazel always keeps me on my toes.  We got a lot done.”

I could have hugged her.

With that kind of early impression, there was really no rebounding.  Obviously every meeting day since then I’ve been ready, had a sub, had plans, etc., but when things didn’t go according to plan or a new plan sounded better halfway through the day, I just quickly switched things around and rolled with whatever.  I joke around with this consultant and have fun because – come on – I lost all sense of professionalism back in October.  No reason to pretend I’ve got my shit together.  She knows I don’t.  It was actually kind of freeing.  Pretending gets really tiring.

Last week the consultant was here again.  We had a lockdown drill in the middle of one of our meetings, so I had to lock my door, pull the shades, turn off the lights, and then we had to go sit on the floor in the corner.  It was, as I said, kind of awkward.  That’s why I came out with “Got any secrets?”  I explained how my friends and I used to tell secrets in the dark, and she thought that was funny.  Then she surprised me and said, “Yes, I actually do have one.”

Intriguing.

She went on to say, “This is totally unprofessional so please don’t tell anyone…but your school is my favorite of all the ones I consult.”  Really?  I told her no way, that she probably says that to every school.  She continued, “No, seriously.  I go to other schools, and people are so stuffy.  They have these perfect schedules that we stick to down to the minute.  They’re overly organized, and they’re stuck-up like they completely know what they’re doing all the time.  You are fun, funny, and we get a ton done, but I never feel nervous when I’m here.  You’re super relaxed and just roll with whatever comes up.”  I laughed and responded, “You don’t know how badly I wish I could be like those people!!”  Which is absolutely true.  If I could be stuffy and organized and totally prepared for everything, trust me, I would be.

Trust me, I have been.

I won the award for “most organized” at my school last year.  I was promoted to head of my department after only one year of employment at my last school.  I’m the teacher who generally “has it all together.”  My principal has sent in other teachers to observe me.  The truth is, my technology consultant let me in on quite the secret last week.  It’s just not the one that she thought she was telling me.  Here’s the secret:

People like authentic.

People like real people.

People don’t like perfect people, because perfect people aren’t real.

I was authentically me only when I lost the ability to be anyone else.  When I was so down that I literally couldn’t perform my usual “A-game,” that’s when I became likable.  My consultant had never met pre-apocalyptic Hazel.

Apocalypse summer 2015 was when my life completely exploded.  Full nuclear.  Nothing was left of what it was before except for my cockroach-like husband (cockroach-like because he would stick with me through any sort of life explosion and destruction, like how a cockroach is supposed to survive a nuclear bomb.  Other than that, my husband has nothing in common with a cockroach.  Just to be clear).

Anyway, because the consultant didn’t know pre-apocalyptic Hazel, she didn’t know that I was supposed to be organized.  She didn’t know I was supposed to have it all together like the stuffy people she can’t stand.  She just knew that I was relatable and fun and that I don’t try to pretend to be someone I’m not.  Truly, I feel like most days I am trying to get back to my super-teacher A-game.  When I really think about it, though, that’s silly.  Why do people spend so much time and energy trying to impress people they don’t even like?  What if we could get our jobs done, still be very effective, but be okay with mistakes and shake the feeling that everything has to be perfect?  What if we could be honest and confident about our strengths and weaknesses and just let the chips fall where they may?  Confidence isn’t saying, “Everyone is going to love me.”  It’s saying, “I don’t care if they do or not – I’m going to be me, and I’m going to be okay with whatever comes with that.”

That, my friends, is a way more important secret than the ones I told above my laundry room.

But seriously – if you run into Marcus, don’t tell him I liked him in seventh grade.  Whoa.  Embarrassing.