Swimming Laps with Helen Mirren and Santa.

Helen Mirren tugs her white Lycra swim cap over her sleek silver bob, then pops on her pink swim goggles. She smooths her swim skirt and eases herself into the water.

Santa is already here. Santa is always swimming laps before I arrive and he is always still going strong after I leave. Santa’s belly is not akin to a bowl full of jelly, but he is white-bearded and has a kindly smile. He puts me in mind of a right jolly old elf. Santa favors the breast stroke at a slow but steady pace.

I’m pretty sure Alanis Morissette was at the pool two nights ago too, in an ill-fitting one piece that she’d obviously given up hand washing and run through the spin cycle on high a few too many times. Alanis, of course, gives no fucks about the swim cap, letting her trademark long brown mane trail wildly behind her in the water. You look at her and think, “That is so Alanis.

These are the people who swim laps after the people who really swim laps are done for the day.

For the past week, I have been one of their number.

I like to arrive just as the pool staff is taking in the lane markers after the official adult swim time is over. One lane stays reserved for lap swimmers and that’s where you’ll find Santa. Helen Mirren likes to split the lane with him. They have a system.

I don’t know how to use the lanes. I swim next to the marked lane, though I occasionally have to dodge guests from the resort that shares the pool.

I’m new to pool etiquette. I’m new to belonging to any kind of athletic facility. I’m new to lap swimming. Last night was my fourth trip.

It’s the perfect pool for me. The “laps” are some random length unrelated to any regulation pool. But they are my laps, damn it, and if I want to say I swam six laps – or three, or ten – then I will. My daughter lets me count a lap each time I touch a wall, so when she swims with me I get to double the number.

When she’s not with me, I watch the clock. A half hour, that’s my goal.

I am winded at the end of each length and I have to take breaks. I hang on the edge of the pool as Santa keeps his metronomic pace. Helen Mirren takes breaks too, but mostly to change up her equipment. She likes to use props, which makes me feel more comfortable with my fledgling attempts. Sometimes she’ll breast stroke with a pool noodle tucked under her elbows or clutch a kickboard in lieu of a full on crawl.

Maybe I am supposed to be doing that. I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing.

I’ve attempted exercise before but nothing ever stuck. Old people kicked my ass at yoga and taekwondo damaged my joints. But from a mental health standpoint, exercise is pretty much a do or die thing for me at this point. I never want to revisit the depths of the past year.

I swim, each stroke a moving meditation. You can’t not focus on your breath because of the whole drowning thing. So I follow my breath. Sometimes it is gasping, sometimes my timing is off and I swallow water, sometimes one breath barely gives me the energy I need to make it to the next.

I breathe and stroke, breathe and stroke, avoiding the kids jumping in the shallow end, wondering if I’ll ever have the guts to split a lane like Helen Mirren and Santa do. When my half hour runs out, I lie prone on the cement pool deck, unable to move.

No one seems to notice, so maybe the post-swim collapse is a common occurrence amongst the people who swim laps after the people who really swim laps go home.

I stagger to the locker room. I am so tired it is probably dangerous for me to drive the two miles home.

But I am swimming towards 50, and I think I am going to make it.

ckr swim

Want to write a kickass story this summer? I’m teaching a 30 day online creative nonfiction writing class this July, and I’d love to have you join me to learn the fundamentals of great storytelling. Learn more and register at CindyReed.Me.

Posted in Self Improvement | 16 Comments

I’m back.

Hey there. Last time we spoke, I was off, like, getting my brain shocked and stuff.

I did that ten times. I’m thrilled to be home.

People have been asking me how I feel and if I think electroconvulsive therapy worked for my treatment resistant bipolar disorder. I have mixed feelings about the process.

On one hand, I wasn’t thrilled at the level of support from the facility I used. I felt very much like a brain on the ECT assembly line as they shocked eight to ten patients each morning. Not exactly a “whole patient” approach. I used an out-of-town hospital, so I was away from my family for a month, which made the experience more isolating.

I underestimated the physical trauma of undergoing general anesthesia three times a week. Yes, ECT is safe and effective, but that doesn’t mean it’s an insignificant procedure. I suffered from nausea, headaches, and extreme fatigue on the days of treatment, with little time to recover on the off days.

My anxiety rose to panic levels. I’d have dreams that I was permanently damaging my brain or that I couldn’t wake up from anesthesia. I’ve gained a tendency toward migraines on the right side of my head, where the electrodes were attached.

Doctors sometimes recommend maintenance ECT as a follow-up. I don’t think that’s for me.

On the other hand? I think it worked.

(How’s that for burying the lede?)

Once the overwhelming sensory experience of reentering a house full of dogs and children and activities and expectations subsided, the panic eased as well. I’ve been able to work. I’ve got a mind over mood mentality that seems to be enduring. I’ve gone off some of my medications.

Life seems clearer. I’m not trying to just get through each day so that I can fall into bed at night and read. I’m relishing the things that actually make up daily life. Like, making lunches isn’t a reason to be anxious. “Making lunches” might just be shorthand for what it’s all about.

I’m doubling down on lifestyle changes – focusing on the food I eat, practicing mindfulness, and working with my therapist on cognitive behavioral changes so my new habits stick.

I can’t thank you enough for your support and positive feedback. My friends and family who texted, emailed, called. My sisters and mom who sent care packages to me and my kids. My dad and his girlfriend who drove hours out of their way to visit. My very real online friends, who were there for me before and after each treatment, ready to post a picture of their staticky hair in solidarity.

My in-laws, who housed me during the entire process, drove me to each treatment, and brought me home for visits.

My kids, who were rock stars during a confusing and scary time.

My husband, who has always been my solid Buddha, unflappable in crisis, for keeping the family going and never giving up on me.

*  *   *   *   *   *   *   *  *

I’ve always been open about my struggles with mental illness, but after I posted the piece disclosing my treatment, I wanted to take it back. Hide. Not have people know I was getting ECT. I worried about what people would think, if other parents would still let me drive their kids or allow them to sleep over, if editors would still want to work with me, if people would wonder if I was going to fall apart.

So I want to say this:

I’m asking for your trust.

I’m ready to work. To write. To teach. To raise my voice and tell my stories and to help other writers do the same thing.

I want to be a part of my community again. To be present for my family.

I’m back.

reedster ECT collage

(l to r) before my first ECT treatment, after my first treatment, end of treatment

Posted in ECT | 49 Comments

I was terrified of electroshock therapy, until I wasn’t.

Monday, April 27, 2015

In less than 12 hours, an anesthesiologist will place me under IV sedation. A doctor will attach an electrode near my temple. He will turn the dial on a machine and intentionally flood my head with enough electrical current to raise my brain above its seizure level. I will be allowed to seize for about 30 seconds. The electrodes will be detached, I’ll recover from the anesthesia, and leave.

I’ll do this twelve times over the next four weeks.

It’s called electroconvulsive therapy or ECT. You might know it better as electroshock treatment.

I’ve been depressed, anxious, or bipolar for as long as I can remember. My first encounter with the mental health system came in junior high, when my parents brought me to a local therapist to help with my anxiety. He prescribed the self-help book The Assertive Woman. I was twelve.

Since then I’ve tried talk therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, and EMDR. I spent ten years misdiagnosed with major depression until a prescription for Paxil threw me into a rapid cycling bipolar state. I’ve struggled to find the magic combination of drug and talk therapy that can keep me at or near the mood levels normal people apparently experience without woe. In this quest, I have been on the following psych meds, alone or in various cocktails:

  • Abililfy
  • Buspar
  • Celexa
  • Depakote
  • Desepramine
  • Effexor
  • Eskalith
  • Klonopin
  • Lamictal
  • Latuda
  • Lexapro
  • Librium
  • Lithium
  • Luvox
  • Neurontin
  • Paxil
  • Prozac
  • Remeron
  • Risperdal
  • Seroquel
  • Serzone
  • Trazodone
  • Trileptal
  • Valium
  • Wellbutrin
  • Xanax
  • Zoloft
  • Zyprexa

For most of the 2000s, I was relatively stable. But bipolar women often find that during perimenopause their hormonal changes suddenly render their carefully crafted medical cocktails ineffective. This has been my struggle since late 2013. After a nervous breakdown last fall and mounting interventions since, I failed a structured outpatient program last winter. I say “failed” because the program confirmed what I’ve long suspected: My bipolar disorder is treatment-resistant. There are no drugs left to try.

So what’s left? ECT and other brain stimulation techniques – the scary stuff – turn out not to be so scary when the alternative is to live with the pain. [Or not. The suicide rate for people with bipolar disorder is as high as 20%.]

Electroconvulsive therapy, they tell me, is not the electroshock treatment of old – the Jack Nicholson “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” cultural touchstone that strikes fear into the very patients who could most benefit from it. Psychiatry tried to pretty up the name, but I’m not sure whether focusing on what my body will be doing (convulsing) versus what the doctor will be doing to me (shocking) makes it any more palatable. With anesthesia and muscle relaxants, there are no broken bones, no emotional trauma. You sleep. Maybe your foot twitches, or you grimace. It’s not Academy Award-worthy.

And so I’ve gone from being terrified of ECT, to being resigned to it, to being hopeful. ECT is now considered a first line treatment for bipolar depression and is particularly useful for the bipolar “mixed state” – a combination of manic symptoms like extreme anxiety and agitation together with major depression – that I suffer from. Memory loss, ECT’s primary side effect, is much less severe now than it had been with older, cruder forms of the treatment. Its efficacy rate of 70-90% is as or more impressive than talk and drug therapy. Side effects include confusion, headaches, fatigue, and nausea, as much from the anesthesia as the ECT.

Nice statistics aren’t much comfort tonight, though, as I flop sweat my way through the final hours before treatment. But I’ll take healthy nervousness over empty hopelessness.

See, I’m clinging to hope. A hope that years from now I’ll look back and see a dividing line. A time before, when I had to keep telling my kids “Mom is having a hard morning.” A time before, when the days clattered and collapsed around me, the world all elbows and angles. A time before, when the road contained more bumps than pavement, and I stalled out.

And a time after, when the days’ edges softened and, at last, I could glide.

image by Saad Faruque CC/BY

Posted in ECT | 40 Comments

The Yips.

In sports, they call it “the yips” – a sudden and inexplicable loss of fine motor ability. An athlete’s skills simply vanish – no more pitching strikes, serving aces, or shooting free throws.

I’ve had the yips. I lost my writing hand last fall and I’ve been beating myself up about it every day since.

Oh, I never stopped telling stories. I tell stories in my head every day. I tell stories while I drive, when I’m walking the dog, as I’m waiting for my daughter’s roller derby practice to end already.

In my head, I’ve written about the summer of the Nestea plunge at my grandma’s lake cabin. The tragic hair intervention my eighth grade friends staged for my out-of-control locks. The solitude I found nestled in a cove of wild grapevines, journal in hand, at the far corner of the Minnesota acreage I grew up on.

I’ve mind-written a long-form article called “400 Miles to Ohio with Jason Derulo” and part of a one-woman show called “What’s a Girl Gotta Do to Get a (Non-Alcoholic) Beer Around Here?”

And in my head, I’ve told the stories of the past year since I quit my day job. I have told these stories over and over as they’ve unfolded, in blog-sized bites that I can’t seem to transmit through to my keyboard. They have titles like:

  • Lying in the Fetal Position Writing a Motivational Speech
  • Spelunking with Children, ft. Hypomania
  • My Cry for Help (or How Blue Cross Ruined My Winter)
  • Badass Outpatient
  • Trying to Find Happiness in a 12×12 Room of Depressed Appalachians

These are stories of a mom, interrupted. Of a downward spiral. Of sussing out just what rock bottom looks like (spoiler alert: there’s a moldy shower stall floor involved).

And there is a simple post of apology I’ve been meaning to write – to family, to friends, to students, to former colleagues. To all of you who have reached out to say you are there and you care.

That post is called: “I’m Sorry I Didn’t Return Your Phone Call or Reply to Your Facebook Message or Your Email or Even Your Text.”

I opened the front door to my inner self a week ago, surprised to find spring waiting for me on its stoop. I pulled on short shorts and vintage Frye boots. I carefully threaded my seventies-era hoop earrings through my ears. Digging around in the bottom of the bathroom drawer, I unearthed my make-up. I rifled through my stack of fedoras and chose the jauntiest.

With boot heels clicking, I picked my way along a cobblestone street to meet an online friend for the first time. I watched as she resolved from a profile picture into a real human being. We sat on the sun-dappled patio of an outdoor café. The air had just begun to hold on to its humidity, and the breeze smelled like hope.

Photo by Kevin Collins/CC BY

Photo by Kevin Collins/CC BY

I won an award today for writing. A BlogHer Voices of the Year award, affectionately known as the VOTY, for my post “The Layered Look Only Works When You Wear Layers,” about flashing my daughter’s taekwondo class. It’s my third VOTY in three years and my friend Bill has won three in three years and he’s a real writer, so I’m thinking, through the fog of my wintry doubt, that I might be too.

Posted in shut up and write already, These posts are not funny., Uncategorized | 14 Comments

I have lost my words.

b and w the leap 2

I have lost my words and I am failing my literary idols.

Norman Mailer, whose towering work of creative nonfiction, The Executioner’s Song, made me want to write in that genre, said that “[i]f you tell yourself you are going to be at your desk tomorrow, you are . . . asking your unconscious to prepare the material.”

And Joseph Campbell, whose work changed my world vision and whose theories I taught for twelve years, said to find “a room, or a certain hour of the day” that must become your place of “creative incubation.” He promised that if you visited, “[a]t first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.”

The message is simple. In order to find your words you must show up. Write every day. Make a commitment. Do the work and the inspiration will come.

It’s a message I pass on to my writing students: Write regularly and the ideas will flow. You will form and shape your stories and give them life as only you can do with your authentic voice.

Perhaps I am failing my students too.

Because I have no words.

I quit my day job last April to “be a writer.” To take a leap and the universe would catch me. I even tattooed that quote on my forearm, a constant reminder that once I was brave and did brave things, and that everything would turn out all right in the end. Never one to shy away from hard work and secure in my belief that I was the smartest girl in the room, I trusted in my ability to give my dreams flight.

But I can’t find my place of creative incubation and my unconscious isn’t preparing the material and I can teach, but not do.

And so I’ve barely written. The “award-winning writer” phrase in my bio makes me cringe, as though it were spit-laughing in my face. Dust gathers in the corners of my blog, and the cobwebs overtaking the ceilings would make Miss Havisham proud.

My mind is never at rest, racing with a flight of ideas I can’t harness and hitch to the page. My archives read like a blow by blow account of the mania, anxiety, and depression that trap my bipolar mind, and they shame me. That illness holds my words locked away in a high tower, neither a length of tresses nor a shining prince in sight to rescue them.

I count as close friends the talent-filled members of my online writing group. I applaud them as they chalk up success after success: Agents, book deals, articles in influential newspapers, stories in literary journals, posts accepted by major websites. Their voices rightfully need to be heard because they are unique and valuable and resonate and capture universal emotions and change hearts and minds. Their work astonishes me and leaves me breathless and I am honored to be among writers of their caliber.

But I feel like I’ve become a silent partner.

I hate my mind. It’s taking away the one thing I thought was my purpose, and I am left here, my world shrinking to the isolation of my bed and the eight square feet of my desk and the school drop-off line and my keyboard, which stares up at me with the sad, empty eyes of rejection, begging for human contact, and daily finding its affections unrequited.

It is breaking my heart.

Posted in I am the weakest link. Goodbye., These posts are not funny. | 38 Comments