Holding Back

I have a mood disorder. It’s like the hip dysplasia of mental illness: I’m frequently in pain or limited in my activities when my moods slip out of place, but I don’t qualify for disability, so I and most everyone else in my world expect me to show up as healthy, whole Elissa whether my old trick brain is acting up or not.

I don’t get to ask anyone to make special accommodations for me because, unlike those broken souls who have bona fide mental illness, I can manage on my own. The brain is the last vestige of bootstrap individualism. I can’t pull myself up using the thing that itself is afflicted, but it’s the only brain I have, so we find our way through life like blind bulls in a china shop.

Today is one of those days when I strapped on my mental boots and immediately slipped out of joint because my rugged tenacity of yesterday [I took the lifeless chicken my toddler had just drowned in his attempt to teach it where its water bowl was and turned it into a lesson about internal organs and where meat comes from] had morphed overnight into the deadweight of apprehension.

  • What if yet another chicken has died? How will I make lemonade out of that lemon?
  • Suppose I do make it to the store for BTS shopping (“back-to-school” for those still blissfully in the dark about that recurring malady), why in the name of all that my education in motherhood has taught me would I take my children to the store with me and search for notebooks in a color that were sold out last week?
  • What if we never move on from the place we’re living? What if I am destined to forever be in limbo, neither investing fully in nor drinking deeply of all that life has placed in my path, simply because months stretched into years and I didn’t want to settle in only to be uprooted again?
  • What if the peace I thought I’d achieved on that subject was really just a good mood mixed with indifference to my circumstances? What will I do when I start caring again?

I did a personality test last week that hit my “that is me!” bull’s eye so frequently, that I wanted to bellow, “Please stop aiming at the mote in my eye! Now you’ve created an entire beam, and I can’t see past it to clearly help anyone.” Can you believe I am the “turbulent” rather than the “assertive” sub-type of the “Mediator” personality? Yeah, in another life I might learn how to be assertive, but for now I think turbulent is just another word for “moody.” It means I spend so much energy trying to not drown that I don’t seem to be going anywhere.

Perhaps just as hip dysplasia can cause one leg to seem shorter than the other, which would aid in one’s walking in circles instead of making forward progress, my brain reaches too far in some aspects and not quite far enough in others. The captain may call herself Wisdom or Forethought, but Fear is at the helm and Confidence has so many times attempted to wrest it from her cold, cruel grasp that she has given up and is instead checking the lifeboat for holes.

This is my brain trying to move me forward each day. From The Far Side by Gary Larson

I know I have so many resources available to me. My therapist said I can email any time. I have parents who would be thrilled if I called them. My husband sits next to me at this moment wondering what it takes to get more than a shrug out of me. My kids offered me hugs and jokes all evening (not that they’re my emotional support animals, but they could see I was glum and wanted to help their mom smile).

I have five siblings and nine siblings in law. At least a dozen of them will talk about the deep, messy stuff with me. I have church sisters and friends and people who mean well but will never really “get” me. I even have God’s word in the scriptures and through personal revelation. I take my meds and I try to do all the babystepping to get myself out of the pit when I fall back in again. But I just keep landing back at this place where turbulent waters and mismatched strengths seem to land me.

I have so many books and blogs and articles I’ve bookmarked for moments just like this. But if your loved one were having a mini-stroke (a transient ischemic attack), would you suggest she go find that file where she keeps healthy living tips and see which one of those she could work on in order to get the blood flow back to normal? With her fuzzy brain and less responsive limbs and unsteady gait? And yet that’s what I keep asking myself to do for my emotional setbacks.

The trouble is that I have only barely begun to understand this idea of advocating for myself, and so I don’t have a big poster on my wall that reads, “In case of stroke, act FAST.” The best advocating I ever did was as a nurse, and that was because I had enough credentials to believe in myself for sometimes 12 hours at a time. I’ll borrow from that short-lived confidence and use an example from the human body to help me arrive at a deeper conclusion.

Turbulent blood flow in a heart, such as that caused by atrial fibrillation, creates mini-clots, which can lead to mini-strokes. I tried explaining this to my grandfather when he finally mentioned to his nurse granddaughter (that was me) that he saw no reason aspirin would help him keep from falling again. So I explained that taking his baby aspirin would allow him to retain use of the side of his body that was getting weaker and weaker by preventing the tiny clots that were causing mini-strokes and rendering him unable to drive a car. I wrote a simple diagram and a reminder on a card with magic marker and stuck it to his mirror. Maybe I need a patiently written note stuck to my inner mirror reminding me of the why behind the simple steps to getting emotionally stronger.

In fact, I am a lot like my grandfather was in this stubborn mentality that somehow I just need to brave through my physical insufficiency instead of acknowledging reality by responding appropriately to it. Maybe I feel like a dummy for needing to do thought work nearly every moment of every day at this stage in my mental rehabilitation, but once I master those new neural pathways, my thought patterns can be the ones I want to use, not just the old standby that has kept me spinning in circles for the last twenty five years.

I remember recognizing in myself this tendency to move forward and pull back at a very young age, but I am only now trying to see it as neutral instead of proof that there is something wrong with me. If you have ever been my friend, you might see a lot of truth in this part of my personality assessment, as I did:

“Mediators will always need to disappear for a while, removing themselves from others so they can re-center on their own minds and feelings. Often enough people with the Mediator personality type will emerge from this time alone having come to some momentous decision that even their closest friends didn’t know was weighing on them, evading even the option of receiving the sort of support and advice they so readily give. Such is Mediators’ way, for better or for worse.”

If I could just see this spinning in circles as simply re-centering; a centripetal process instead of a centrifugal catastrophe. (Please don’t ask me to explain the difference between those two forces. I just read up on it, and even the watered down version had me scratching my head as much as when I took Intro to Physics for my very first college course. Free advice: never take a class just to impress the high school crush who preferred physics over you. You will only add confusion to your feelings of inadequacy.)

The turbulent chaos I create by reverting into self-doubt during this time of emotional progress makes spinning in circles look like the safer option. I am getting dizzy with this nonsense, and I’ve been sucked into the maelstrom of spiraling fear enough to know that even circles could spell danger. How do I get into the channel that propels me forward? How do I start seeing days like this as useful? Right now they feel like they add up to a lot of wasted years.

[I have a distinct memory of visiting a fabric store on the dumpy end of town with my mom and hearing this Simply Red song playing as I escaped the tedium of giving opinions on colors for a monochrome minute in the restroom. Even as a pre-teen I felt I had already lived through lifetimes of emotion and this song spoke to me, smoky and depressing as it sounds.]

2 thoughts on “Holding Back

  1. That song had lyrics? (Wasted all those years..) Let me know if you end up diagnosed and medicated Bipolar II. I’m in an internal struggle to maintain my drive for art and stay on a collision course with reality by avoiding that intervention. We hit the road for Colorado from Texas (14-15 hours) in half and hour and will arrive not at the calm Colorado house where we can enjoy Mom and Dad sans littles that we anticipated but instead with a troop of visitors that make your kids look calm, endlessly helpful and fully incurious about the oil paints I planned to enjoy with Mom for a couple hours. Oh well.

    I hope today meets you with some strengths of the mediator type 🙂

    Sent from my iPhone



    • Disappointment is such an obnoxious pill to swallow. It’s hard to set up just the right moment, and then to have it swept out from under you. I hope the new circumstances turned out to be favorable in unexpectedly needful ways.


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