Monday, December 10, 2007

Coping with Depression (Wellness Activity 2)

Another way I try and cope with depressive episodes is to read inspirational books. One of the books I'm currently reading is Happiness: A Guide to Developing Life's Most Important Skill by Matthieu Ricard.

Richard is a Buddhist monk who "had a promising career in cellular genetics before leaving France to study Buddhism in the Himalayas thirty-five years ago. He is a bestselling author, translator, and photographer, and an active participant in current scientific research on the effects of meditation on the brain. He lives in Tibet and Nepal, where he is involved in a variety of humanitarian projects."

Ricard writes, "The search for happiness is not about looking at life through rose-colored glasses or blinding oneself to the pain and imperfections of the world. Nor is happiness a state of exaltation to be perpetuated at all costs; it is the purging of mental toxins, such as hatred and obsession, that literally poison the mind.

"It is also about learning how to put things in perspective and reduce the gap between appearances and reality. To that end we must acquire a better knowledge of how the mind works and a more accurate insight into the nature of things, for in its deepest sense, suffering is intimately linked to a misapprehension of the nature of reality."

Friday, December 7, 2007

Coping with Depression (Wellness Activity 1)

This morning, as I waited for my medication to kick in (I use a stimulant and it takes about 45 minutes to begin having an impact),I thought back on all the years when I sought help for this illness and how extraordinarily bad the advice and treatment was.

The lack of insight about depression and bipolar mood disorder is stunning! The treatment is terrible. The pain it produces is legion. The devastation is inestimable.

Then, I stopped that thought process and began focusing on the positive. I said the words that no doctor has ever said to me. "Susan, you need to remember you can heal yourself. You can change your body chemistry by the strength of your personality. You feel good about yourself and have high self-esteem. You must use your strengths to heal yourself.

"Depressive episodes don't happen in a vacuum. They are triggered by life events. You understand your recent losses and you have felt overwhelmed by sadness. Relatives have deeply disappointed you but this is not new behavior. You cannot allow disappointment or their bad behavior to make you ill.

"You were there for your mother for so many years and she and your father are there for you now. They are in your heart as is everyone else you love. Relax and think about all the people you love and those who love you. You are the same person you were two weeks ago when you weren't depressed.

"You have the capacity for great joy. Most people have never known the happiness and well-being you feel for months at a time. You're lucky to be able to love so fully and completely. Think of what that feels like.

"Close your eyes and think about the people you love--living and dead, the radiance of the sun shinning on your face, the pleasure you get from singing and playing music, the strength you provide others when you're well,the joy that radiates from every pore during the good times.

"Say to yourself, 'I love and I have been loved. I love and I have been loved. I love and I have been loved.'

"Think of the people you love. Concentrate on their faces. Let that feeling of love you feel for them spread throughout your body. Feel it in your heart. Imagine your heart filling up with love. Envision the love moving through your veins and arteries to your lungs. Now take a deep breath...slowly fill your lungs with love and exhale. With each breath, think of someone you love and imagine that each breath is a lifeline from you to them."

Well, I think you get my drift. I continued the exercise until I felt the medication beginning to work. And then, for the first time in days, I decided to blog about it. I thought that perhaps what I do may help others.

What I have learned is how to use my mind to recreate positive emotions. Experts say that "ruminating" about the bad stuff makes you feel worse. Over time I have learned that recreating the good stuff makes me feel better.

I'm not over the hump yet but each day I utilize all the wellness activities and skills I have developed and refined to heal myself. It's not easy. It's requires a lot of self-discipline. But it does by day.

Friday, November 30, 2007

Acts of Kindness

Leo Babauto, author of Zen Habits wrote a post about acts of kindness (with the goal of bringing people closer together). This is a concept I truly believe in. What prompted him to write was that when he went to the DMV (in Guam where he lives), a woman who works there was particularly helpful and he was so grateful.

And yet, when he was talking with his sister Katrina, she said she felt that most people aren't as kind as they used to be. She's noticed that people say "thank you" less often, and don't smile at strangers. They spend less time walking and talking with each other and more time in their cars where they often act rudely. They watch more TV and spend more time on their computers and less time outdoors interacting with others.

Leo mentioned that when he thinks of ways for people to establish community and help each other, the image that comes to mind is Amish barn raisings.

He is hoping that by offering to do kind things for others (he gave away 50 eBooks to the first 50 people who responded to his post), others will also do acts of kindness.

In the last 18 months, one of my favorite acts of kindness was playing the Autoharp at my mother's assisted living facility. Like Leo at Zen Habits, I'd like to know what my readers are doing to restore kindness and develop a sense of community. Do tell!

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Where Are The Bipolar Success Stories (Follow-Up)

There was a burst of activity on the subject of "Where Are the Bipolar Success Stories? (Part 1) so I decided to follow up. First, I'd like to thank casdok, JayPeeFreely, Syd, and Marja for their contributions. I've highlighted a few of their comments but I'm hoping you'll read them in their entirety.

casdok who has an autistic son found the post to be "Food for thought indeed." Perhaps she has similar feelings about the way autism is perceived and the way the media portrays it.

JayPeeFreely wrote, "I always find that love is missing from the hearts of people that can't rightly know what it is that people depressed or (psychotic) endure through. They just can't put aside their pre-conceived, pre-ordained notions as to what people under this problem have to get through."

I couldn't agree more!

Syd wrote, "Unfortunately the media chooses to focus on the most extreme and disturbing cases because they make for higher ratings. And to be honest, many within the BP community perpetuate the 'awfulness' of this disorder by focusing almost exclusively on how terrible their lives are."


Marja wrote, "...I believe that, one day, psychiatrists will subdivide bipolar into a bunch of different illnesses. I think there's a great difference between us in the way we suffer. The bipolar 1 that I suffer with had been hell for me for many many years, with many psychotic episodes. That must be different from those who have depression as their primary symptom."

I share this view completely. Although I didn't know a single bipolar person before I began writing this blog, it is clear to me from the comments I've read in the last ten months (and the other bipolar blogs I've visited) that people experience this illness totally differently.

I think there is a huge difference between people who come to this illness from the manic side and those of us who come to it from the depressive side. I believe that people who suffer from psychotic episodes have a completely different experience from those of us who don't. I also can tell you from experience that bipolar medication can cause "quasi-psychotic" behavior for people who have never experienced it before (and won't again after they stop taking the drugs).

I find it inconceivable that the doctors and researchers who study this illness lump everyone together and prescribe medication with a "one size fits all" mentality.

And finally, in response to another comment by Marja about my feeling that working in a mental illness facility isn't "uplifting," it just goes to show you--once again--how different we are.

While Marja hosts a weekly support group for people suffering from mental illness at her church (and I think it's terrific), that would be a tremendous "downer" for me. What I have learned, over time, is that I need to focus on wellness, not illness. I read very few bipolar blogs because, as I've mentioned before, I don't find them uplifting. Being with people who are depressed depresses me.

While I would agree that I am a bipolar success story, I'm not a member of any mental health organization nor do I plan on joining one. In fact, I'm even having difficulty publicizing my new book: Bipolar Depression Unplugged. My problem is that while I believe the book provides important and unique insights about the way bipolar depression is treated--oh so badly as we all know--my focus is more on illness than wellness.

I wrote the book because the act of writing about my treatment saved my life. I could never have survived such an idiotic, inhumane, ineffective, and downright horrific treatment regimen without being able to poke fun at it. And I want others to understand that they are not alone. Most of all I want them to know that if I could survive 120 depressive episodes, so can they.

But...and this is a big "but"...I also know that without a vigilant stance--which in my case means focusing on the positive and surrounding myself with others who feel and act similarly--my depressions could return.

And perhaps that's why there aren't more bipolar success stories. Maybe, there are others--like me--who are well most of the time but neither wish to be defined by this illness nor spend the rest of our lives reliving it.

While the trend in treating physical illness is to focus on wellness, that's not the trend in treating so-called mental illness. While people who are suffering from cancer, high blood pressure, heart disease and a host of other illnesses can participate in inspirational and motivational treatment programs--that isn't the case with so-called mental illness.

And until it is...I'd rather play my Autoharp for seniors at assisted living facilities than spend time with my fellow bipolars.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Bipolar Depression Unplugged

My newest book, Bipolar Depression Unplugged: A Survivor Speaks Out is available as an eBook from Chipmunkapublishing in London. The following is an excerpt.

"Between 1993 and 2003, I took 25 different medications in different dosages and different combinations. And I got sicker and sicker.

One of the most depressing days of my life was in 2003 when I downloaded and read the American Psychiatric Association (APA) 2003 Practice Guideline for the Treatment of Patients with Bipolar Disorder. I wanted to cry. The guidelines for prescribing medication for Somatic Treatments of Acute Depressive Episodes were based on the flimsiest information.

I was dumbfounded when I learned that studies on lithium had been completed before 1980. There had been no published controlled studies of valporate (Depakote). The two studies on carbamazepine (Tegretol) included only 36 patients.The studies on lamotrigine (Lamictal) were equally distressing.The summary statement of one study reported “in a flexible-dose, placebo-controlled study of lamotrigine in 206 patients with bipolar I or bipolar II major depression, both treatment groups improved significantly (response to lamotrigine was 50%, response rate to placebo was 49%), but lamotrigine did not distinguish itself from placebo.”

I finally realized that for ten years, I had been taking an array of toxic medication whose treatment guidelines had been based almost solely on anecdotal information because there hadn’t been any substantive studies."

(to be continued)

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Where Are the Bipolar Success Stories?

There was an article today in the Los Angeles Times about a meeting place for mentally ill people in their twenties and thirties. The seed money was donated by the parents of a man named Daniel, who was diagnosed as mentally ill when he had a psychotic episode in college many years ago. He went on medication, graduated from college, was a client at another mental health facility and then a staff member, and then he committed suicide.

While I imagine the story was intended to be uplifting to low-functioning people in this age group who have no social life, I thought it was yet another depressing article about mental illness.

I truly wonder whether being bipolar is so bad or if it's just the treatment that is so ineffective. Isn't there a difference between people who suffer from psychotic episodes and those who suffer from depression? If people who suffer from depression get help--truly effective help that enables them to change their behavioral patterns and stop the triggers--isn't it possible to stave off this illness early on?

Surely, there are people--besides me and a few others who read this blog--who get well.

I've often wondered whether people continue to feel ill because they think of themselves as mentally ill? Do they continue to feel depressed because they're hanging around other people who feel depressed? Was it truly a good idea for Daniel--once he was well--to be a staff member at a mental illness facility? Might he not have felt better if he had spent his days in a more uplifting environment?

Any thoughts?

Monday, November 26, 2007

Feeling Grateful

In the last month, my son, husband, and I have seen three films: 3:10 to Yuma, American Gangster, and No Country for Old Men. (Yes, all three are violent but when you're the mother of an 18-year-old male, chick flicks aren't an option. To be honest, I really enjoy action-adventure films as a genre.)

Each time, we capped off our evening by going out to eat. Last night, we went to a Vietnamese restaurant that specializes in Pho. As we were driving home, I realized how lucky I feel that I'm well enough to go to the movies.

There were years when going out at all--because of my depressive episodes--was truly difficult for me. I'd have to force myself to get out of bed. By the time I got showered and dressed, I was so tired that I had to rest. The process of driving to the theater, walking inside, sitting through all the previews, watching the film, and going home was interminable.

Going out to eat was even worse. For years, the medication I took caused such an array of side effects that I was frequently nauseous, and had to order bland food. And it took all of my energy to participate in dinner table conversations. I was doing so little in life--that there wasn't much to say. And I felt so lousy that it took a tremendous amount of energy to try and be upbeat for the sake of my husband and son.

Now...all of that seems like it happened to someone very long ago. It's inconceivable to me that it dragged on for so many years. I can't imagine how I withstood all the pain and suffering.

I am so grateful for my husband for standing by me. I am so thankful that my son has blossomed--despite my illness--which had to have a huge impact on his life. I am so glad that my mother, who was always there for me--lived to see my recovery--and that I could be there for her when she needed me.

Today, on my parent's wedding anniversary, I thank God for my mother and father. I believe that my ability to survive adversity was because of my high self-esteem and strong personality. Who knows where that comes from? But from my earliest memories, I have felt fully and unconditionally loved and supported.

For another look at gratitude, check out Syd's posts on Bipolarity.

Saturday, November 24, 2007


While I usually don't post on Saturday, it somehow seems appropriate. After a holiday--any holiday for that matter--I always need a few days of solitude. I used to worry that my need to replenish was a bipolar symptom. Now I think it's just a part of who I am, and I'm quite comfortable with it. I particularly like the following quotes on solitude.

"I love people. I love my family, my children . . . but inside myself is a place where I live all alone and that's where you renew your springs that never dry up."
--Pearl S. Buck

"What I must do is all that concerns me, not what the people think. This rule, equally arduous in actual and intellectual life, may serve for the whole distinction between greatness and meanness. It is the harder, because you will always find those who think they know what is your duty better than you know it. It is easy in the world to live after the world's opinion; it is easy in solitude to live after our own; but the great person is one who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude."
--Ralph Waldo Emerson

"It is in deep solitude that I find the gentleness with which I can truly love my brothers. The more solitary I am the more affection I have for them…. Solitude and silence teach me to love my brothers for what they are, not for what they say."
--Thomas Merton

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Friends (Part 2)

In her book, Among Friends: Who We Like, Why We Like Them, and What We Want To Do With Them, Letty Cottin Pogrebin, using herself as an example, writes about why friends withdraw when someone is ill.

"I have a problem with illness. Armchair analysis suggests it is because my mother died of cancer when I was young and I have never been able to visit sick people or hospitals without stirring up these memories. But it may be something more ignoble: cowardice, laziness, a primitive fear of "germs" or the unknown, a self-serving denial of human frailty and the fragility of life. Whatever the cause, it is humiliating to own up to such behavior, and like any coward, I do so only having discovered that others are guilty of it too."

I am disturbed by her sentiments but I find her honesty appealing.

I wonder how many of you were deserted by your friends when you were ill with bipolar disorder. How did it make you feel? Did you welcome these people back to the fold when you were well? How did your illness affect your willingness to count on others? To trust them? Has the lack of empathy by others caused you to be more empathetic with others who are ill?

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Friendship (Part 1)

While I intended to write about my new book today, I've decided to post about friendship instead. As I approach Thanksgiving this year, I would like to discuss the importance of friendship. As you all know, my mother died on October 26. Her lengthly decline and subsequent death was very sad--for a number of reasons.

Losing a parent you love is always heartbreaking. But I know that one of the things that disturbed me most during the final years of my mother's life was how many of her friends deserted her--during her decline. And it was truly unfathomable to me.

A few days ago, one of my mother's closest friends (for so many years) called and left the following message on my answering machine. "Susan, I heard your mother died. Well, I've been out of town and out of touch, but you've been out of touch too. I've heard there is going to be a memorial service but I don't know when it will be. Could you call me and let me know?"

When I listened to the message, at first I was just angry and then I was sad. It was perhaps one of the least sensitive messages I've ever heard. The memorial service had come and gone. Yes, I had been out of touch, but to be quite honest, I was sick and tired of my mother's friend calling to ask me where she was living (this woman doesn't have a memory problem) and then giving me all the reasons why she couldn't visit.

At first, I had returned her telephone calls. Later, I didn't. In my defense, I knew she could always call my sister. Also, she was friends with other friends of my mother's. But I lost patience when I realized that these calls were "bullsh*t."

If my mother's friend was interested in seeing her, she would have. She was my mother's only close friend who didn't visit once in the two years mother was at the assisted living facility. Why was that?

I wondered how she defined friendship. Was her view of it so shallow that she didn't realize that one loves one's friends "in sickness and in health?" Why would she think that now that my mother is dead, I have any interest in talking to her--ever again?

My anger and passion about the topic of friendship made me realize that I needed to begin researching it further. Stay tuned!

(to be continued)

Monday, November 19, 2007

Moving On

A few of my online friends have recently expressed concern about what I'm up to. At first I was going to write a new post. Then I decided that my email to Marja, with a few minor changes, expressed it best.

Dear Marja,
Actually, I'm swamped with stuff. My new book: Bipolar Depression Unplugged: A Survivor Speaks Out has just come out as an eBook. (For those of you are interested in it, I'll write about it tomorrow.)

I had to quit my photography class this semester because I missed too many classes but my professor--who I genuinely like--will be teaching it again in the spring. And I've already enrolled.

Next semester (which is a short one, only six weeks), I'm taking a music appreciation class, and Sydney and I are working together on an exciting new venture (which I'll also discuss further down the road). plate is full. I've just needed some time off from everything to grieve in my own way. And once my son goes away to college in January, my husband and I plan on pursuing some of our hobbies that Alex doesn't like, namely fishing and hiking.

But...I appreciate your concern.


Saturday, November 17, 2007


I usually don't post on weekends, but I highly recommend that you check out Syd's post today on her blog Bipolarity. She's discussing emotions, which I feel is a really important topic, and one that I'd like to explore further.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Change (Part 2)

Yesterday, I wrote a post about change and quoted William Bridges, who's a transition specialist. My friend Marja wrote a comment about how she doesn't like change.

The truth is that I don't like change either. Like Marja, I've been married to the same man for almost 30 years. I have lived in the same house for 27 years and I live five blocks away from the house in which I grew up. Most of my closest friends are people with whom I went to high school (although I have made new friends over the years and recently made one of my dearest friends through this blog). I've worn the same hairstyle for more than 35 years, and I felt terrible when the guy who cut my hair for 12 years recently moved to Mexico. Most of the tradespeople with whom I deal are the same people my mother found so many years ago.

Why then did I write about change? Because like it or not, the world changes around us. A few days ago, my friend JayPeeFreely wrote asking what new "adventure" I plan to involve myself in? It's a good question because now that my mother has died, and I won't be spending time with her--which has been considerable these last few months when she was so sick--I have a lot more available time.

Also, my son will be going away to college in January--another life-changing experience. I'm quite thrilled for him and don't intend to be one of those clinging mother's who can't let go. It's his time to assert his independence and my responsibility to allow him to and help him in whatever way I can.

So...what are my plans? I'll discuss them next week. In the meantime, I'd be interested in knowing how other people deal with change and transition. Do you like it? Hate it? Do you cope well with change or do you try to pretend it's not happening? If you've got good coping skills, what are they? If you don't, do you think this presents problems in your life?

To all...have a nice weekend. See you on Monday!

Thursday, November 15, 2007


Sorry that my post is so late today. I've been out and about, and seem a bit out of sorts. So...I'd like to share a quote from one of my favorite new books: The Way of Transition: Embracing Life's Most Difficult Moments by William Bridges, Ph.D.

"It's a paradox: To achieve continuity we have to be willing to change. Change, in fact, is the only way to protect whatever exists, for without continuous readjustment the present cannot continue. Even the great conservative, Edmund Burke, realized this, for he said that 'a state without the means of change is without the means of its continuation.'

"The refusal to change will not guarantee that whatever we care about stays the same. It only assures that whatever we care about has been deprived of the very thing it needs in order to survive. A marriage, a career, a dream for the future, even a picture of the past: Each of these things is being primed for destruction if it does not change over time.

"Here is another paradox: The very things we now wish we could hold onto and keep safe from change were themselves originally produced by changes. And many of these changes, in their day, looked just as daunting as any in the present do. No matter how solid and comfortable and necessary the status quo feels today, it was once new, untried, and uncomfortable. Change is not the only path ahead, but it is also the path behind us, the one which we traveled along to wherever we are now trying to stay."

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Bipolar Blogging (Part 3)

I guess the bottom line is that I'm well and have been for almost a year. I've figured out what initially triggered my illness--so many years ago--and resolved it. I'm continually identifying triggers on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis, and I try to resolve them.

I've learned how to brainswitch so that when something bothers me, I can stop the brain kindling, and I no longer ruminate about past events.

And on a daily basis, I have a wealth of wellness activities I've developed that not only work for me but are fulfilling and satisfying.

Finally, I rarely take medication and when I do, I'm able to take a very low dosage and it's effective. Once again, I'm the exception to the rule.

So, despite having a wealth of knowledge about this illness, I'm ready to move on. I started this blog with the goal that I could share what I've learned. I was hoping that readers would find me who've were interested in discussing wellness rather than illness, and who have developed a wide array of healing and wellness activities that we could share. For the most part, that hasn't been the case.

Still, now that I'm well, I can appreciate certain lessons I've learned from being ill. I've often thought that while some people have lived in monasteries or ashrams for years and have gained insight from these experiences, I've had a similar experience from having been so sick for so long.

In my case, it was 10 years of near silence due to depression. Now that I'm well--most of the time--I truly have learned what is important in life. And I try not to sweat the small stuff.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Bipolar Blogging (Part 2)

3. My third reason for changing the name of my blog--is to expand my readership. The people I'm interested in attracting are those who have overcome adversity and are truly seeking happiness, fulfillment, and wellness.

After months of reading a variety of different blogs, I realized that I'm bored with those that focus solely on bipolar themes and issues. Almost five years ago, after spending ten years doing bipolar research, I stopped visiting bipolar websites and reading bipolar books when I realized that reading about this illness made me feel worse rather than better.

I've mentioned elsewhere that during this decade, I'd read over 100 books on manic-depression, unipolar depression, and related topics. Perhaps one or two had any positive effect. For the most part, they were dreary and self-limiting.

During my darkest days, I read the books on cancer that I'd bought when my father was dying of prostate cancer. I'd found a wide array of books on cancer that were uplifting and positive. I read inspirational stories about exceptional patients who lived far beyond their life expectancies. I familiarized myself with techniques for reversing illness. I read about doctors who truly believed that their patients could get well.

I couldn't find similar books on bipolar mood disorder. I didn't feel the success stories were inspirational in the least. The lack of insight about this illness was downright depressing. And the psychiatrists and psychologists who write on this topic truly need help. Either they have no patients who are life-affirming or they're just extraordinarily downbeat people.

(to be continued)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Bipolar Blogging (Part 1)

Thank you to all of the people who have been so kind and supportive these past few months, particularly: Sydney and JayPeeFreely as well as Marja, Marie, Dream Writer, AKA Cate, Cindy, Daily Dose, and Howard.
* * *
What's in a name? I've finally decided to change my blog from Bipolar Wellness Writer to Susan Bernard. Why? There are three primary reasons.

1. Bipolar wellness is just one of the issues I write about. For the last few months, I've been focusing on my experiences caring for my mother...and then her death. Although I'm now moving on, I've got to tell you that scattering my mother's ashes was truly a wonderfully healing experience --aside from the fact that I thought I might be arrested, that I had a lengthy talk about biodegradable urns with the mortuary guy who told me about the one he sold that looked like a Frisbee, and when all was said and done...the only person who would have laughed as loudly about my experiences as I did--was my mother, who I truly miss!

2. Most bipolar blogs are too downbeat for me. I apologize to anyone I may offend by this comment but as far as I'm concerned, it's true. Having survived more than 120 depressive episodes, I feel I'm entitled to my opinion. The fact is that, for the most part, if I've learned anything about avoiding depression--and quite honestly, I've learned a lot--I believe that dwelling on the negative makes you feel worse.

There is a difference between "writing to make sense of one's experience and to try and heal," and "writing to dump." While I occasionally engage in the latter, it's truly with the goal of trying to understand the triggers or people who have caused me to feel depressed in the past, and to rid myself of the anger I feel toward them so that I can move on.

I strongly believe that "writing to dump" on a daily basis provokes negative emotions and causes depressive episodes.

(to be continued)

Friday, November 9, 2007

Tribute to My Mom (Part 4)

The following are excerpts from the tribute I wrote to my mother--in a letter form--that were read at her memorial service. I realized that some of the things I'd written were so personal that only her family members and friends would appreciate them. So...I'm including the parts that I feel everyone might enjoy and understand.

From you and daddy, I learned about love and marriage. Even when I was a child, I couldn’t imagine how I could ever find anyone I loved as much as you loved daddy and he loved you. It was only fitting that I found another "Bernie" as my soul mate. Still, the depth of your love for each other was inspirational. I will never forget the poems you wrote when daddy died. This one made me cry.

Berny Schwartz: 1921-1989
I don’t want him to be gone.
I want him here to mow the lawn,
to rub my back,
to kiss my ear.
I want him here
to take out the trash,
to hold my hand,
to wiggle our toes in the silver sand.
I want to hear him whistle again.
You were my darling,
the dearest of men.
I loved you Berny,
and oh how I grieve.
Why oh why did you have to leave?

And this one made me laugh!

Is it too late
to ask questions quite complex?
I need to know
because I loved you so.
Is there life after love,
and after death…is there sex?

Mother, I’m sure there’s sex after death for you and daddy. After all, he’s been waiting for you in heaven for more than 18 years. My fantasy is that when you first arrived, you’d have a passionate reunion, and then play tennis together again. I’m sure that by now he’s given you a racy new convertible sports car with a stick shift, another new wedding ring, some great costume jewelry, a new hat or two, and that you’ve bought at least a few pairs of shoes.

Mama, everyone always says that people who die will be sorely missed but not forgotten. But, in your case, it’s true. A few nights ago I had a dream that I was standing at the Pearly Gates and there was God, who looked just like Golda Meir.

I said, “Hi, I’m Susan Bernard.”

“You’re one of the Schwartz children,” she said.

“Your parents are truly wonderful. The March birthday parties are extraordinary. Everyone has so much fun. Those ecumenical Passovers have brought all kinds of people together. Your father is a highly sought after doubles partner, and your mother’s new column, Speaking from Heaven, is a great success.”

I started laughing and I awakened. Then I started crying—when I realized that you were gone. Still, my memories sustain me. Mama, you were a wonderful mother, mother-in-law, and grandmother. I felt lucky that my small nuclear family lived five blocks away and I could drop in and visit so often. Bernie, Alex, and I were glad we could continue the Schwartz family tradition of spending every Sunday with you—for sixteen years—with Bernie cooking your favorite foods and Alex being the lightpost for your love—and you for his.

I will treasure the last few years when you talked less, but I could share my love by playing my Autoharp and singing to you, telling you stories of your youth and mine, and just being with you—so that you could feel my love with a touch, a smile, a hug.

Whenever I’m feeling sad about my loss, I turn to your poetry. This one made me smile and brought tears to my eyes.

On a Sad Day
Don't cry for me.
I have loved and been loved
with more sweetness than most.
I promise to be a gentle ghost,
with only a reminder here and there...
an off-key song...a steak that's rare...
an ice cream cone...a silly poem.
So, smile awhile and think of the stories I'd tell,
then remember me...and laugh like hell!

Mother, you taught me how to laugh, and love, and cry. You also taught me to end every story with a good punch line, so I wrote my own small poem for you.

Oh mama, I love you so!
I'm so sorry to see you go.
I know it's time to say goodbye
but I'll love you dearly until I die.

Love, Susan,
Your one in the middle.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Tribute to My Mom (Part 3)

The following are excerpts from the tribute I wrote to my mother--in a letter form--that were read at her memorial service. I realized that some of the things I'd written were so personal that only her family members and friends would appreciate them. So...I'm including the parts that I feel everyone might enjoy and understand.

I learned about friendship from seeing what a good friend you were. Whenever anyone was sick, you were the first one to rush over with homemade matzo ball soup and fresh rye bread. You remembered everyone’s birthday and anniversary and you were generous and thoughtful in so many ways.

During the sixties and early seventies, I think you did cross-stitch patterns on work shirts for all of your friend’s children, and later—when those children had children of their own—you cross-stitched baby’s undershirts.

Mother, you and daddy shaped my moral character, but in different ways. He and I had long talks about honesty, integrity, family, loyalty, and the work ethic, but you taught me by your actions.

You were always out there in the community blazing trails, whether it was writing the Fair Housing Newsletter, joining the temple Social Action Committee, busing children to Overland Avenue Elementary School, being the Jewish panelist on Portraits of American Women, a member of Women For, attending services with Christian parishioners at All Saints Church and Leo Baeck Temple, and participating in a wide array of political events. For you, establishing a "liberal" agenda was a moral imperative.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Tribute to My Mom (Part 2)

The following are excerpts from the tribute I wrote to my mother--in a letter form--that were read at her memorial service. I realized that some of the things I'd written were so personal that only her family members and friends would appreciate them. So...I'm including the parts that I feel everyone might enjoy and understand.

Mama, when I think of my childhood, there are so many stories to tell and impressions to share. You were an exceptional role model in so many ways, but it wasn’t until I was older that I realized how special you were. When I was young I guess I thought that everybody’s mother could write wonderful poems. This is one I know by heart because you wrote it about me:

For Susan
Do you have the problem of a middle child?
The consensus is you do,
if you’ve an older one and a younger one,
psychiatry says you’re through.
In our house, the big one
is the very first grandson.
And the little one
is precocious and wild.
But the one in the middle
plays the fiddle
and her charm has us completely beguiled.

As I got older I learned that everyone’s mother didn’t write poems, and I certainly knew they didn’t wrote a newspaper column, but you never made a big deal about it. Writing was just something you did…all the time.

What amazes me is how many of your readers called our house, and you always had time for each and every one of them—whether they truly had news items for your column or they were lonely and needed someone to listen.

Growing up as one of the Schwartz children whose mother wrote Speaking from Cheviot also meant that everywhere I went—everyone knew me because everyone knew you.

And our home was the cornerstone of abundant joy and happiness. You and daddy were so welcoming to our friends, and you entertained grandly. Who can forget the March birthday party celebrations? And what about our ecumenical Passovers where you included people of different religions and everyone read from the service?

I’ve often thought about how inclusive you were to so many people. Whether it was Thanksgiving, Passover, or Yom Kippur (to break the fast), you always invited friends who were widows or widowers, those whose children lived in different states and couldn’t be with family members, new friends you’d made, or people who interested you.

(to be continued)

Tuesday, November 6, 2007

Tribute to My Mom (Part 1)

I'd like to thank everyone who wrote to lend me support and provide solace. Yesterday, my aunt, cousin, and I scattered my mother's ashes. Today, I'm taking my aunt and cousin to the airport to return to Austin, Texas. I'd like to spend this week sharing the tribute I wrote to my mom--before moving on, and returning to my life.

Dear Mama,

As I’m sitting down at my desk to write my tribute for your memorial service, tears are streaming down my face. Already, I miss you so! I’m not sure there ever has been a daughter who loved her mother (and father) more.

But I will miss you and mourn you privately. Today is my opportunity to celebrate your life, share some stories, and tell friends and family members what you and daddy taught me, and how special I always felt when people said, “You must be one of the Schwartz girls.”

One of the greatest gifts I received from you and daddy was that for my entire life I have felt unconditionally loved. But perhaps my earliest memory is when I was a five-year-old kindergartner. One day when you picked me up from school, I was crying because my teacher told me I couldn’t saw wood with my left hand. You hugged me and kissed me, wiped away my tears, and held my hand as you led me back to my class. As we entered the room, you walked right up to my teacher Mrs. Sweeney and said, “I don’t want you to change my daughter. She’s perfect the way she is. You’ll have to teach her to saw with her left hand.”

From that moment on, I knew you would always stand up for me, and so you did. You also must have had a huge impact on Mrs. Sweeney. More than 15 years later when I was a senior at UCLA and taking some education classes, Mrs. Sweeney, who by then was a bigwig within the Los Angeles Board of Education, was a guest lecturer in one of my classes. Afterwards, I walked up to her and said, “Hi, my name is Susan Schwartz. You probably don’t remember me but I was in your kindergarten class at Hancock Park Elementary School.

Without batting an eye, she asked, “How’s your mother? I read her column.”

I smiled and said, “Fine.” We talked some more and just as I was ready to walk away, she paused, and with a twinkle in her eye, asked, “Do you still saw with your left hand?”

I remember laughing out loud as I left the lecture hall and thinking that I hoped that when I had children, I would be as much of a heroine to them as you were to me.

(to be continued)

Friday, October 26, 2007

In Memorium

My mother, Marjorie L. Schwartz, was born on March 19, 1922 and died on October 26, 2007. There has never been a daughter who loved her mother more!

Next week, I will be writing a memorial service for my mother. I will resume posting on Tuesday, November 6th. To everyone who has posted comments about my mother or offered words of solace and support, my deepest thanks.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Making God-Like Decisions

Yesterday was very difficult. Because Dr. Smith (the incompetent doctor) didn't respond to five telephone calls over a five hour period, we had to delay hospice for an extra day. Talk about a selfish "a**hole." Then the hospice representative was three hours late; it was a true emergency and she was very apologetic.

She was also very competent and empathetic. When she called to get directions, she could hear mother moaning in the background. Upon her arrival, she immediately ordered morphine for the pain, and within three hours had a nurse at my mother's side to administer it.

Still, it was a terribly long and painful day. On my way to Casa del Mar I picked up a song book at the guitar shop of folk songs from my youth that my mother loves. To calm my mother down, I played the autoharp for three hours or so. I had read that even when a person is totally out of it, they can still hear. I was sure that my mother heard the love in my voice, and it was very healing for me to sing as well.

In between I cradled my mother's head in my arms, and kissed her. She didn't respond, but it seemed to calm her down. However, sometimes she opened her eyes and when I looked into them, she seemed so frightened to me...or maybe it was the pain.

I sure hope this decision for hospice is the right one. I can't imagine mama would want to continue to live this way, but I also don't believe that we should make "God-like" decisions.

I know what I want for myself, and my husband and I have decided to make our decisions now and write them all down. But my mother (and my father) didn't want to discuss death and dying so it's all so very difficult.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Putting Mama on Hospice

It's mama's time to die. It's not because of the terrible medical care she's received. It's just that she cannot rally back one more time. I met with the hospice people today. I explained that they didn't need to "sell" me on the concept of hospice. Before I contacted them, I had done everything possible to see if mama could survive--with a quality of life that was worth living--and she can't.

It's time to let her go so she can join my father who's been waiting for her in heaven for 18 years and 8 months. Their marriage was a match made in heaven, and that's where she'll join him--for eternity.

For the rest of this week--in tribute to my mother, Marjorie L. Schwartz--I will share some of her poems with you and an essay and a few poems I've written to her. This afternoon, I wrote the short poem below while I sat on a bench on the bluffs overlooking the beach, near Casa del Mar, where my mother lives. Writing it made me cry because I knew my mother would get a kick out of it.

To Mama
Oh mama, I love you so!
I'm so sorry to see you go.
I know it's time to say goodbye
but I'll love you dearly until I die.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Writing to Heal

Although my blog is a form of writing to heal, I also write letters to people that I sometimes don't send. This is one of those letters I can't send for obvious reasons, but it makes me feel better to write it.

Just to give you a bit of the back story, I had another unbelievably bad experience today with my mother's doctor (a new one who replaced the two awful doctors that preceded him). I've come to the conclusion that there is something so wrong with the medical profession that unless we speak out, we'll only have ourselves to blame when our time comes around.

Dear Doctor Smith, (a pseudonym)
I hope that no one treats your mother the way you treated mine today. When we arrived at your office--after Dr. Jones (the orthopedic surgeon called you)--and we were waiting in the reception area, I know that you saw my mother and me and chose not to come out. How dare you!

Three weeks ago when you agreed to be my mother's doctor, and you told me that the care she had recently been given was terrible and you would take her on as a patient, what did that mean to you? Before she left the hospital, I specifically asked you to help develop a wellness plan because of the problem of dehydration, you said you'd handle it. But you didn't.

So today, after I had been on a vacation with my family, and I saw my mother and realized that once again, she was dehydrated, I was sure you'd take care of this. That's why I had the orthopedic surgeon call you.

We had a scheduled appointment with him to look at her broken knee, and when he said, "Is she okay?" I said, "No, she's dehydrated once again. Could you please call Dr. Smith?"

The reason I decided to handle it today is because: 1) My mother was obviously in bad shape; and 2) We were in your building. And while no one seems to care about this, it's been almost impossible to bring my mother to your building because I can't get her into my car with her leg brace. And the ambulance ride is very difficult for her because of her leg.

So we scheduled a Dial-A-Ride service, which we had to book a week in advance. And mother didn't fit into the first Dial-A-Ride van because of the brace on her leg and the way her legs were extended in the wheel chair. So they had to send a larger bus to pick us up. By the time we arrived at the surgeon's office, we were already tired.

However, after he saw her and called your nurse who said that we could come to your office, I just assumed you'd fit us in because my mother was clearly ill. But peaked at us behind the counter and immediately disappeared. Why was that?

How can you care so little for a patient that she could be sick--and sitting in your office--and you chose to hide? Was it because we didn't have an appointment and you were offended by the lack of propriety? Or was it because she looked so sick? Or was it because she's old and you didn't know her when she was young, so you're marginalizing her? Or was it because your nurse suggested I take her to the ER and I refused.

Do you have any idea how exhausting it is for an 85-year-old woman to go in and out of the ER? Last time (three weeks ago) we were in the ER for eight hours before they took mother to her room. I couldn't put her through that again. And I was afraid that once she checked into the hospital, she would die.

At best, it's a difficult experience. People like mom who have Dementia get disoriented. And she's just now recovering from her last stay. By the way, perhaps you weren't aware--because no one at the hospital noticed--when my mother returned to her assisted living facility, she had two bedsores, which is a serious problem for someone with diabetes.

I could go on but suffice it to say that your treatment of my mother today defies description. I was so angry and disappointed that if I felt I had any other options, I would try and get my mother another doctor. But I don't think it will matter.

I now believe that most doctors hate old people as much as they hate the mentally ill. Surely, my mother has received as terrible medical care as I have. I'm not sure what to do about all this. I guess I may just have to write a book.

What I find so ironic is that you were appalled when I told you that I detested my mother's last doctor because she stood there and did nothing when my mother slid out of her wheel chair while she was being examined. Today, your behavior was equally appalling.

All of you who have taken the Hippocratic Oath and treat patients this way should be mightily ashamed. And you should be punished as well, but that's between you and God.

Today, I guess I'm really grateful that I'm not you, because when your time comes at the Pearly Gates, you're going to have a lot of explaining to do. When God asks you about how you treated my mother, I can't imagine what you'll say. But I'm sure glad I'm not in your shoes.


Susan Bernard

Monday, October 22, 2007

Transition (Part 2)

I believe that sometimes we find books or people because we need them. Whether or not we recognize the need and embrace it is up to us. As my son will be going through his own transition to college, I began thinking about how poorly I have dealt with the transitions in my own life. Wishing to be a better role model and wanting to give him better advice (should he seek it), I have begun reading books on transition.

While I have already read Transitions by William Bridges, Ph.D., and it has had a huge impact, I decided to read Dr. Bridges' memoir, The Way of Transition: Embracing Life's Most Difficult Moments, which is having an even bigger impact. The following quote is from this book.

"Change can happen at any time, but transition comes along when one chapter of your life is over and another is waiting in the wings to make its entrance...You simply cannot imagine a new chapter, but the fact that letting go of one chapter in your life initiates the transition that concludes by beginning another chapter.

"Transition does not require that you reject or deny the importance of your old life, just that you let go of it. Far from rejecting it, you are likely to do better with the ending if you honor the old life for what it did for you. It got you this far. It brought you everything you have. But now --although it may be some time before you are actually comfortable doing so--it is time for you to let go of it. Your old life is over. No matter how much you would like to continue it, rescue it, or fix it, it's time to let it go."

Friday, October 19, 2007

Bipolar Mother

We're at my son's Student Orientation at Cal (he's starting college in January) and yesterday wasn't my best day. Yet, I'm proud of myself because despite my feelings--I was somewhat anxious and worried (UC Berkeley is where I experienced my first depressive episode almost 40 years ago)--I kept them to myself.

As a "bipolar mother," I feel guilty enough that I was sick for six straight years during my son's childhood. Now that I'm well (most of the time although like everyone else, I sometimes have a bad day or a few bad hours), I am vigilant about making sure that my moods don't affect my son.

So...despite a less than stellar late afternoon and early evening, once my husband and son returned to our motel, I took a long walk by myself--to a favorite bookstore. My goal was to walk off my mood and to spend time browsing, one of my favorite past times.

This morning, we all had a truly wonderful day. My son had a good meeting with his faculty adviser, we had a terrific lunch at this great Indonesian restaurant, and then went on a wonderful tour of the dorms. My son was really excited and my husband and I were thrilled for him.

I guess if I have any advice for other bipolar mothers--it's to put your children's need ahead of your own. Just because I had a bad few hours the day before didn't mean I needed to share my feelings. Instead, I took a positive action--walking and reading--and then posted my feelings in my blog (I've since deleted it), which is a form of writing to heal.

It feels great to know that I can not only quickly brainswitch out of my moods but that I've learned to control them so they don't affect the people I love most!

Thursday, October 18, 2007

A Mother's Lament

The photograph above represents my experience at Cal in the Sixties. While Joan Baez may have enjoyed participating in anti-war demonstrations, I was stunned when students ran down Telegraph Avenue throwing rocks at storefronts. I was speechless when some members of the police department hit some of them with billy clubs. And I was frightened when they tear-gased my dorm.

All of this and so much more caused my first undiagnosed depressive episode. Almost 40 years later, I'm here once again for the Transfer Student Orientation for my son. He picked the university that almost destroyed my life.

I made peace with Cal about five years ago. I've been so excited by the way my son (and I) have been treated. Nonetheless, today was very difficult for me. Perhaps, because of the stress of the last few months, there have been moments when I've felt like I could cry 40 years of tears.

I pray my son has made the right choice for himself. I can't bear the thought that he could be as unhappy here as I was--so many years ago.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


We're off to take our son to his college orientation; he'll begin in January. It seemed like a few quotes on change might be appropriate. They are from a wonderful new book I'm reading, The Way of Transition: Embracing Life's Most Difficult Moments, by William Bridges, Ph.D.

"There is no sin punished more implacably by nature than the sin of resistance to change."
--Anne Morrow Lindberg

"There is a time for departure, even when there's no certain place to go."
--Tennessee Williams

"Through loyalty to the past, our mind refuses to realize that tomorrow's joy is possible only if today's makes way for it; that each wave owes the beauty of its line only to the withdrawal of the receding one."
--Andre Gide

"I have begun to have an idea of my life, not as the slow shaping of achievement to fit my preconceived purposes, but as the gradual discovery and growth of a purpose which I did not know."
--Joanna Field

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Bipolar Holidays (Part 2)

The more I thought about yesterday's post, the more convinced I am that holidays are a big problem. I want to thank JayPeeFreely and Syd for their comments. I hope that "anonymous" came back to read them.

I wonder why it is that holidays are so difficult for so many people. Is it because we have wonderful (or terrible) memories of holidays when we were children? Do we imagine that everyone else is having better holidays than we are. Is it that the cinematic view of holidays is so much better than reality?

Or is it because holidays--particularly in the United States--have become so commercialized that people forget the real purpose of the celebrations. When I was young, my mother wrote the following poem:

The Thanksgiving turkey
is still in deep freeze,
but the streets are lined
with Christmas trees.

I remember laughing at the poem, oh so many years ago. Now, it seems a bit sad to me. So far, two people have written comments about dreading holidays and I've addressed both of them in posts. But, rather than dwell on the negative side of the holidays, I'd like to hear the "good stuff" about your favorite holiday, be it Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, or any other day.
  • What is your favorite holiday and why?
  • What do you do that makes it special?
  • What special memories do you have of holidays past?
  • What's your favorite holiday food?
  • What is the favorite gift you got as a child?
  • What tips do you have for making holidays less stressful?
If you share yours, I'll share mine!

Monday, October 15, 2007

Bipolar Holidays (Part 1)

I received the following comment from another post, but I'm going to address it today. If any of you have helpful suggestions, I'm sure that "anonymous" will appreciate your comments as well.

"I have a sister (age 45) who has bipolar. I am her 56 year old sister. I am already dreading the holidays. I dread going to see my parents on Thanksgiving and Christmas because I know she will be at their home. I get a knot in the pit of my stomach every time I think about going. She will be there all day on both holidays. She has not spoken to me in 6 months because I talked back to her last February when she called me out of the clear blue sky and swore and screamed at me for 30 minutes for no reason. Any advice would be greatly appreciated."

First of all, let me say that there's no excuse for "bad behavior," whether your sister is bipolar or not. Should an incident like the one you described happen again, i.e. she calls you and screams at you for no reason, I would say, "I'm sorry. This is not acceptable behavior. I'm going to hang up the telephone now. When we can talk together like adults, please call me back."

And then I would hang up. Bipolar mood disorder does not give anyone the right to be abusive. If your sister cannot distinguish between "appropriate and inappropriate" behavior, she should get help from a cognitive therapist.

From reading your comment, it's difficult to provide advice about what you should do about the holidays. I have no idea whether your sister was always unpleasant at the holidays, if her behavior is caused by her medication or because she's not taking any, what your relationship has been over time, what the family dynamics are, whether there are other extended family members present (other than your parents and sister at these holidays) who can act as a buffer, and so much more.

Knowing none of this, let me say this. I don't believe that holidays are the time to resolve family problems; for the most part I believe they aggravate problems. If you and your sister can talk before the holiday and resolve things, that would be great (although from what you've said, it's seems unlikely). If you can't talk with your sister but if you can discuss her behavior with your parents, and seek advice from them before the holidays, that would also be helpful. If none of this is possible, do you have a clergy member who knows your family with whom you could discuss the problems?

If none of these ideas work, perhaps my readers will have advice for you, or you can always contact NAMI and the Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance to see if someone there has advice, or perhaps Dr. Deb Serani, or John McManamy can help.

To see why your sister may have difficulties during the holidays, I googled "holidays with bipolars siblings" and got an interesting hit on WebMD, which might give you her perspective.

Best of luck!

Friday, October 12, 2007

Hope (Part 2)

After Dr. Jerome Groopman was healed from a 19-year-struggle with extraordinary back pain (which he discusses in his book, The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness), he set out on a journey "to discover whether the energizing feeling of hope can in fact contribute to recovery. I found that there is an authentic biology of hope. But how far does it reach? And what are its limits?

"Researchers are learning that a change in mind-set has the power to alter neurochemistry. Belief and expectation--the key elements of hope--can block pain by releasing the brain's endorphins and enkephalins, mimicking the effects of morphine. In some cases, hope can also have important effects on fundamental physiological processes like respiration, circulation, and motor function.

"During the course of an illness, then, hope can be imagined as a domino effect, a chain reaction in which each link makes improvement more likely. It changes us profoundly in spirit and in body. Every day I look for hope, for my patients, for my loved ones, and for myself..."

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Hope (Part 1)

I am reading the most wonderful book, The Anatomy of Hope: How People Prevail in the Face of Illness. The author, Dr. Jerome Groopman, writes, "Hope is one of our central emotions, but we are often at a loss when asked to define it. Many of us confuse hope with optimism, a prevailing attitude that "things turn out for the best." But hope differs from optimism. Hope does not arise from being told to "think positively," or from hearing an overly rosy forecast.

"Hope, unlike optimism, is rooted in unalloyed reality. Although there is no uniform definition of hope, I found one that seemed to capture what my patients had taught me. Hope is the elevating feeling we experience when we see--in the mind's eye--a path to a better future. Hope acknowledges the significant obstacles and deep pitfalls along that path. True hope has no room for delusion.

"Clear-eyed, hope gives us the courage to confront our circumstances and the capacity to surmount them. For all my patients, hope has proved as important as any medication I might prescribe or any procedure I might perform."

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Wellness Activities

While I'd like to be able to continue writing about the process of brainswitching that I talked about yesterday, I realize that I'm too stressed out to be able to do it justice. So, I'll finish this series next week.

In the meantime, I know that stress can cause a depressive episode so I'm doing everything in my power to focus on wellness. For me, that means the following:

1. I know that exercise is very important, so I'm walking every day, whether I feel like it or not.

2. I also know that thinking too much about depression actually causes it. So...I am consciously refusing to think about past depressions or to categorize what I'm feeling as depressive symptoms.

3. For me, music clears my mind. It's my version of mindfulness meditation. Thus, I'm carrying my harmonica in my pocket and playing it numerous times during the day.

4. I know that disappointment in people can cause a depressive episode. While the behavior of some people in my life has been shameful, I am consciously refusing to think about it. It's not that I forgive them; rather I refuse to think about them at all.

5. I am spending time outside because I know that sunlight helps stabilize my mood.

6. I am giving myself permission to refrain from doing any work that causes stress and to extend deadlines, whenever possible.

7. I am spending very little time online because for me--reading blogs that are not uplifting--has a negative effect.

8. I am writing to heal.

9. I am sharing my feelings with my friends and with my extended family members (who are supportive) and finding comfort in their responses.

10. I am spending time with people who love me.

Tuesday, October 9, 2007

BrainSwitching out of Depression (Part 1)

Yesterday was the most stressful day of all in a month of prolonged stress. It wasn't due to all of the effort (which was significant) that my mother's caregiver and I expended getting my mom back to her assisted living facility from the hospital. Rather, it was caused by the behavior of my siblings.

Still, I have vowed not to let other people make me sick. The new skill I'm developing that is truly a lifesaver is from the book, BrainSwitch out of Depression: Breaking the Cycle of Despair by A.B. Curtis who is a licensed cognitive behavioral therapist.

While I'm only on page 67 and it's a 306-page book, I've got to say that it's the only helpful book I've ever read on depression. The basic concept is that when stressful situations occur, part of our brain reacts in an automatic mode (usually this is called kindling), and our neurons travel the same paths they have before.

To be more specific, if a situation occurs where a lover, spouse, or sibling is dishonest, disloyal, or abusive, and we've experienced this behavior before and it's made us depressed, over and over, our brain reacts in the same way--unless we switch out of it.

Curtis believes that through conscious thought and practice, we can change the path of our neurons. And she should know. She suffered from severe bouts of depression (she was diagnosed as bipolar) for many years before she returned to school and became a therapist. And, since she's figured out this method, she's changed her life.

She writes, "Although I am a happy person now, for almost 30 years I was an unhappy one. Chronic depression devastated my life and almost ruined my marriage. In the last fifteen years I have been so little troubled by depression that I no longer think of it as the enemy of the spirit by as the teacher of the soul."

(more to come)

Monday, October 8, 2007

Harmonica Healing

With the last month being so extraordinarily stressful, once again I have turned to music as a source of relaxation. Everywhere I go, I carry my Lee Oskar "C" harmonica. Quite honestly, I'm still not sure why I've learned no songs whatsoever; I've been teaching myself to play for a few years now.

But blowing in and out on the harmonica is one of my best ways of reducing stress. There is a Zen quality about it. I stop focusing on the stressful events--whatever they may be, I calm down, and I only focus on the sounds I am producing.

When my mother, her caregiver, and I spent 10 hours together--much of it in the ER--and the caregiver finally left, and my mother was sedated because of her broken knee, my stress level was only exceeded by my level of exhaustion.

So, I asked the nurse if we could turn off the light so that my mother could rest, I put two chairs together so I could elevate my feet, and I began playing my harmonica. For the first time all evening, I could feel the tension begin to leave my body.

I closed my eyes, pretended I was on a ranch in Wyoming,and began a series of chord progressions. I play quietly because I have no idea how these sounds affect other people. Since I can't play songs, I'm not sure if what I'm doing qualifies as "noise" rather than music.

(more to come)

Friday, October 5, 2007

Mama's Poems

In appreciation of my mother, Marjorie L. Schwartz, I'm sharing a few more of her poems. What do I love about my mother? Among other things, her sense of humor, her passion, and her joi de vivre. She and my father were a match made in heaven and they deeply loved each other until he died in 1989. These were poems my mother wrote for my dad.

marriage is... (1960)
sharing...both joys and sorrows
for now...and our tomorrows
loving with warmth and true compassion
understanding each his fashion for another
the wonders of being a father and mother
mutual trust with a love for living
but mostly marriage
is the joy of giving.

Color Me Blonde
Helene Curtis has kept me blonde
for more years than I'd care to say
but the problem has grown
my cool has blown
now that my pubic hairs have turned to gray!

A Diet...Try It (March, 1974)
We burn 200 calories
when we screw
but what in the hell am I going to do?
i'm so sad that I could weep
i get hungry and you go to sleep.

Happy Anniversary (November, 1975)
Where did we go right for 32 years?
Why was there more laughter than tears?
Come on Berny..what did we do?
Was it your expansive penis...
or my womb with a view?

Thursday, October 4, 2007

Ask Me

Ask Me
by William Stafford

Some time when the river is ice, ask me
mistakes I have made. Ask me whether
what I have done is my life. Others
have come in their slow way into
my thought, and some have tried to help
or hurt: ask me what difference
their strongest love or hate has made.

I will listen to what you say.
You and I can turn and look
at the silent river and wait. We know
the current is there, hidden; and there
are comings and goings from miles away
that hold the stillness exactly before us.
What the river says, that is what I say.

Tuesday, October 2, 2007

The Impact of a Diagnosis (Part 2)

When the psychiatrist diagnosed me as atypical bipolar II, and told me this was a "mental illness," I was stunned. Despite my semi-annual six week depressive episodes, I was one of the most "normal" people I knew.

In that first meeting, the doctor not only didn't provide very much information on bipolar disorder, but she prescribed Zoloft (for which she had no written material) rather than trying a mood stabilizer. Since all of this was pre-Internet, I had to hunt all over to find material on manic-depression and on Zoloft.

The details of my story are included in my upcoming book, Bipolar Depression Unplugged: A Survivor Speaks Out, and because it's copyrighted material, I can't repeat here what I've written. Suffice it to say, it was a terrible experience.

After a decade of illness, and extraordinarily bad experiences with four psychiatrists who prescribed 25 different medications in different combinations and dosages, I often wish I'd never been diagnosed.

I sincerely believe that even the psychiatrists who consider themselves bipolar experts know very little about this illness. In my experience, they "throw" medication at patients rather than helping them understand the triggering events and resolving them, developing new behavioral patterns to deal with stressful situations, recommending a wide range of adjunctive services, and providing hope, which I believe is the critical component for wellness.

(more to come)

Monday, October 1, 2007

The Impact of a Diagnosis (Part 1)

When my father was diagnosed with an advanced stage of prostate cancer--more than 18 years ago--I still can remember the look on his face. It seemed like the moment the doctor said the word "cancer," my father's face turned gray. It was as if a dark spirit invaded his hospital room, and robbed him of his spirit and zest for life.

Because I am a researcher by avocation as well as by vocation, I knew that the best way to help my dad was to find success stories that would give him hope. After a tremendous amount of research, I found a book, Recalled by Life, written by Anthony J. Sattilaro, M.D.

Dr. Sattilaro, who was the medical director of a major hospital, had been diagnosed with an advanced case of prostate cancer that had metastasized throughout his body--and was given no hope by traditional medicine. My father's prostate cancer wasn't diagnosed until it, too, was at an advanced stage, and he, too, wasn't given much hope.

In Dr. Sattilaro's case, he had to go outside traditional medicine to find hope. He met with Michio Kushi, a practitioner who believes in a macrobiotic diet, and by following Kushi's diet, Sattilaro healed himself. Ultimately, his MRI revealed that he was cancer free. After receiving a "death sentence," Sattilaro lived for 10 more years.

For my father who went to a Kushi disciple in California, the diet was not as important as the fact that Kushi's disciple told my father that he would get well. When my father returned from his week-long sojourn, he was renewed. Within weeks, his energy level improved, he was back to playing tennis, his eyes regained their intensity, and his zest for life reappeared.

I imagine that for some of us, hearing a psychiatrist say the words "bipolar mood disorder" affected us the same way the word "cancer" affected my father. In my case, after 25 years of undiagnosed depressive episodes, I was relieved to find out my periods of grave unhappiness had a "name," but terribly distraught to learn that I could possibly to categorized as a MIP (mentally ill person).

(more to come)

Sunday, September 30, 2007

Healing Food

I'd like to thank Sydney, Marja, JayPeeFreely, and Tery for their thoughtful comments during my absence.

While I had hoped to spend my week doing fun things, writing, and renewing myself, I had the flu for three days and I'm just beginning to feel better. For me, physical illness is just an inconvenience. Still, I was feeling so lousy that my only pleasure was eating.

I assume that everyone has healing food items that work for them. In my case, it's matzo ball soup, although I must admit that the matzo balls are more important than the type of soup they're in. I like them in everything. Last night, I had them in potato leek soup and earlier in the week I ate them in Sapporo Ichiban.

So, what you you eat when you're sick?

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Appropriate Emotions

I've got an ailing mother, an ailing family friend, and an ailing dog. Quite frankly, I'm feeling overwhelmed. While I'm ordinarily upbeat and when I'm well I can effectively deal with crises, these days my shoulders feel bowed from the pressure, and my heart is heavy.

Since I love Ken Brown's stamps, I've decided to pick two to illustrate my moods. I alternate between feeling like the woman moving the Maytag washer (upper left) and being competent and capable of handling everything, and the woman Brown calls "The Sobber" (upper right), who undoubtedly cycles in and out of crying spells.

While it would be easy to "blame" the bipolarity of moods on my illness, I prefer to see the intensity of my emotions as a sign of my humanity. Given the circumstances, feeling competent and capable and sad is "appropriate."

For me, the best way to deal with stress is to seek joy and spiritual renewal. So, for the next week, I will spend more time outdoors, take walks and hikes, play music and sing, take bubble baths and photographs, seek counsel, read books, pray, and write.

I will spend time with my mother and my dog, and try and figure out how I can help both of them. And I will think positive thoughts for our friend--who lives in another part of the country--and pray for the remission of his cancer.

I plan on taking a one week vacation from blogging. I'll return on September 31. During my absence, I wish you well and hope you all have a happy and healthy week!

Friday, September 21, 2007

Seeking Wellness (Part 2)

I agree with my friend that people who seek wellness are more likely to find it than those who don't. I have also learned--mostly by writing this blog and reading other people's blogs--that some people don't seem to want to get well.

Quite honestly, I have been stunned by the number of bipolar blogs where people dwell on the negative aspects of life, ruminate about all the bad things that have happened to them, and act as if they're powerless to make changes.

I've spent years reading about healing and wellness and all the literature confirms that dwelling on the negative without finding the positives will only make you feel worse and worse. While we all have bad days and unhappy thoughts and feelings, and I do believe it's important to "write them away," I also believe that keeping a sense of humor, putting things in perspective, and finding the "good stuff" is a critical part of healing.

Unlike my friend, I do believe in miracles. In my case, the miracle was "hope." For years, despite my best efforts, I wasn't getting well. I finally realized it was because the medication worsened my condition, the bipolar books I read were downbeat and disheartening, and my psychiatrists' lack of belief in wellness was debilitating.

Now that I'm mostly well, I know I can mitigate bipolar symptoms and their impact. I'm no longer frightened that depressive episodes will last for extended periods because my episodes are becoming shorter and shorter. I am far more knowledgeable about what triggers depression (for me), and far more skilled at defusing the triggers.

I believe that just because psychiatrists say that bipolar disorder is a lifelong condition doesn't mean they're right. I truly believe that wellness is a realistic goal.

* * *
For a different take on this subject, I suggest you look at Sydney's blog: Bipolarity. I highly recommend her essay on Outsmarting Depression (Part 1).

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Seeking Wellness (Part 1)

I was talking with a friend who suffers from clinical depression and he said, "Don't you think there are some people who just don't want to get well?"

"What do you mean?" I asked.

"Well, you know how hard you worked to try to get well when you were so sick? You read everything there was to read about depression and manic-depression. You took your medication religiously. You tried mega-vitamins, acupuncture, therapy, naturopathy and a host of other activities that didn't work. But you didn't quit. You found that doctor of integrative medicine, and continued your research, and starting exercising regularly and playing music, and get my point."

"Yeah," I said.

"I did the same thing, and now we're both well--most of the time."

"It's a miracle, isn't it?" I said.

"It is," he answered. "But I don't believe in miracles. I believe that if you work hard enough, and are willing to pursue every available option, and you use all of your energy to try and get well, then the odds of getting well are far greater for us than for people who don't."

(to be continued)

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Travel Therapy

For the last 14 years or so, September has been a difficult month for me. I'm sure it has to do with the changing season--even in Los Angeles. anticipation of this and trying to stave off a possible depressive episode, I'm spending much more time outdoors and trying to walk every day.

Ordinarily, some of the stress that has been on my plate--an aging mother who was hospitalized for five days, a beloved uncle who was hospitalized for three days, a sick dog (we're waiting for the biopsy), and now a very sick friend--might trigger a mood swing, but I vowed not to let this happen.

So, I'm not pushing myself in any way. If I'm tired, I take a nap. If I feel stressed, I spend time doing my own relaxation exercises, which usually involve playing music, or reading uplifting books that help me look at the world in a new way.

Also, my husband and I rented a slew of DVDs from the library, featuring Rudy Maxa, who hosts PBS Smart Travels, and is a contributing editor to National Geographic Traveler magazine. Each night, we've been transported to some wonderful European country. Tonight, it was Sweden, Norway, and Denmark. Sometimes, I believe that the best salve for the soul is to concentrate on new vistas that make your heart soar!

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Bipolar Etiquette (Part 2)

The second thing I used to do to maintain friendships was to contact my friends when my depressive episodes were over. Whether it was an email or a telephone call, I would say, "I'm back," and meet them for lunch or dinner (or talk on the telephone) to catch up on their lives. I made it a point to send birthday cards (even though it might be months later).

I let them know that even though I may have missed important events or milestones in their lives, it wasn't like I didn't care about them. And I focused on letting them talk.

I think that one of the worst aspects of this illness is that it causes people to become self-absorbed. At least, that's how I felt. Of course, when I've been really sick, all I could think about was how I was going to get better. And...the everyday matters of other people's life weren't very important to me.

But once I was well, I realized that it's not acknowledging the small stuff that hurts people's feelings and makes them feel like you don't care about them. After all, friendship is defined (at least by Wikipedia) as cooperative and supportive behavior between two people.

I'll end this post by sharing a few of my favorite quotes on friendship:

"What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies." ~Aristotle.

"Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: 'What! You, too? Thought I was the only one.'" ~C.S. Lewis

"The glory of friendship is not the outstretched hand, nor the kindly smile, nor the joy of companionship; it is the spiritual inspiration that comes to one when you discover that someone else believes in you and is willing to trust you with a friendship." ~Ralph Waldo Emerson

Monday, September 17, 2007

Bipolar Etiquette (Part 1)

A friend who's bipolar and I were discussing some aspects of our illness when I mentioned how solicitous I used to be of my friends when a depressive episode began and ended. Since she hadn't thought to engage in what I consider Bipolar Etiquette, I figured that maybe others haven't as well and might find it useful.

I have written before about how sad and hurt I have been by friends who have deserted me because of my illness. But I should also mention the love and gratitude I feel for friends who have not only stood by me, but have helped in various ways.

A few friends were particularly sensitive to the financial devastation of this illness and were always there to offer freelance writing assignments once I recovered. Some would leave sweet voice mail messages just to let me know that they didn't need a call-back but they were thinking of me. During one particularly bad depressive episode, one friend came up with a list of potential support groups in case I needed to talk to other people. And during another painful episode, I fondly remember those people who wrote me such kind and touching letters.

In order to maintain these relationships over the years, I always made sure of doing two things. First, when I could feel a depressive episode coming on--and I always had at least three days to try and stave it off--I emailed my friends to let them know that I wasn't feeling well and might not be available for a few months. Usually, I just sent a fairly short note, something like this:

Dear Friends,
I'm feeling a depressive episode on the horizon. Hopefully, it won't be a bad one, but if it is, I want to apologize in advance in case I miss your birthday, anniversary, or other milestones. I'll be thinking of you and I'll let you know when I'm well again.

P.S. Although I'm not feeling like talking on the telephone, for the time being I will respond to email--although it might take a few days. If I feel worse and can't answer your emails, I'll try and let you know.

(to be continued)

Friday, September 14, 2007

Prayer Therapy

When I was really sick and my son was in Sunday School and later Hebrew School, I realized how much I dislike organized religion. Or maybe it just was the people at our temple. The two families with whom we carpooled kicked us out of the carpool because they said I drove too fast.The truth was that they drove too slowly. In fact, I'm a terrific driver and I haven't had a ticket or an accident since I was a teenager (and perhaps had one of each).

I believe they chose not to carpool with us because of my illness. It hurt my feelings, made me angry, and was truly a hardship. Once we no longer had a carpool, it meant that I had to drive my son on Wednesdays and Sundays (although my husband helped out when I wasn't feeling well).

What bothered me most was that here we were, participating in religious activities, reciting prayers about "loving our neighbors," and their behavior toward me was as uncharitable as any I've experienced.

Once my son was finished with Sunday school, I quit the temple and wrote a letter to the executive director explaining why. By this time, the rabbi I liked so well had retired. From then on, I only attended temple with my mother, who was still a member. I didn't enjoy it although I liked being with her.

A few years ago, when mom became less mobile, I began celebrating the High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) with my mother in her home. I would bring the booklets we'd used in the services and we would recite prayers together. We would alternate reading the rabbi's part. It was better than any of the services I'd ever attended.

Last night, I went to Casa del Mar to visit my mother and I brought the Rosh Hashanah booklet. She wasn't feeling well so once I'd gotten her in bed, I read an abbreviated service aloud to her. I read all the parts and she lay there with her eyes closed. I wasn't sure whether she was asleep or awake but I felt that my voice, and the prayers she's known for some many years, would be comforting.

While I no longer consider myself a religious person, spirituality is very important to me. As I sat reading the prayers, I felt a peacefulness and calm. I have dear friends (whom I met through this blog) who find comfort and solace in their religion. Last night, I understood why.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

How to Deal with Family Members Who Won't Help

At the end of yesterday's post, I promised to address Chas' comments on Bipolar Anger (Part 3). He wrote the following:

"I am so f**k**g (this is a PG blog) pissed at my mother. I am 42 and was diagnosed when I was 21. I have never been able to accept that she cannot handle learning about the illness and helping me. When I push the issue (I recently suggested a book), I get hostility and criticism. When I try to avoid my mother, I feel guilty and fearful that I am hurting her. I have siblings and a father but really do not care as much about their ignorant, inhumane approach. Anyway, I do not see how to let this go. Right now I am worried about having to go home for Thanksgiving."

* * *

I'm hoping that those of you who have had a similar experience will share some of the things you've done--hopefully that have worked--with Chas. As I've mentioned before, despite my disappointment with many family members and friends, my mother and husband have always been wonderfully supportive. (And my dad died four years before I was diagnosed.)

Chas, obviously my first suggestion would be for you to discuss all this with a therapist or counselor. (If the fee is an issue, there are plenty of people who are available at no cost.) My own experience is that severe disappointment with others greatly exacerbates this illness. And while we always hope the people we love will be there for us, sadly enough, often that is not the case.

It's difficult to know if the problem is the "stigma" of the illness or whether there are other underlying problems. Sometimes, people are so afraid of the label, "mental illness," that they are paralyzed to help. I'm not sure what your mother's problem is with this but it certainly is important to explore. Clearly, you're very angry--understandably so--but unless you can resolve this in some way, I'm afraid it will have a real negative impact on healing.

In terms of holidays, that is probably a universal problem for many of us. For years, I tried to celebrate holidays with family members--even those who were not supportive and whose behavior contributed to my illness. I primarily did it for my son but it was a mistake because these two days--Thanksgiving and Christmas--caused me to be sick for months and that didn't help him or me.

And it's not like I didn't try to "change the way I felt" about the holidays. In fact, I spent hundreds of dollars discussing it in therapy and I couldn't resolve it. What I learned is that for me, some people are toxic, and so are some environments.

So, these days we celebrate the holidays with family members who are supportive and affirming. I know other people who have such a terrible history of celebrating the holidays with their families that they've developed new traditions with friends, which is another possibility.

Sometimes, writing a letter of explanation as to "why you can't attend" a family holiday can alleviate the guilt you feel as long as it's written in love rather than anger.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Salute to Other Bloggers

First, I'd like to thank Gay Bipolar Guy and Jay Pee Freely for their lovely welcome back comments. They made me feel good! Also, last night I spent a lot of time reading other people blogs and I'd like to recommend some particularly enjoyable posts.

My dear friend Sydney from Bipolarity has been writing some pretty wonderful stuff. I'd recommend reading all of her new posts but I particularly liked A real-time exercise in forgiveness and What does it mean to be "black enough"?

A few weeks ago, the Gay Bipolar Guy posted a very painful but beautifully honest post, What Took a Lifetime to Write, about childhood abuse in Ohio that every anti-gay politician should read. Staggo has not only survived but flourished and I salute him.

Jay Pee Freely loves baseball. If any of you do too, I'm sure you'll enjoy his Timeline from the Baseball Project. If you're not a baseball fan, he does write on other topics. One of his pieces that touched me was Milestone or Millstone: Being 35 and Hating It.

Also...Marja from Roller Coaster has written two new manuals on faith-based support groups for mental illness, which are timely and I'm assuming--extraordinarily helpful--for those people who'd like to set up similar groups at their churches.

Marie from Somewhere in the Middle has written some very nice poems on her blog The Poet Laureate...Not. I particularly liked the one from August 4, entitled Voices.

Howard (formerly SurfCountry) from Mead on Mantattan has written a very funny piece about one of his sons called Porcelain piranha. And Cindy Lawson's (from Quotidian Light) essay on The Tooth Saga made me laugh.

P.S. Today, I had intended to discuss Chas recent comment on Bipolar Anger, but I'll address it tomorrow. For those of you who have parents who haven't been helpful with this illness, I'd appreciate it if you'd offer him advice in tomorrow's post. My husband and mother (my dad died before I was diagnosed) have been wonderfully supportive so I'm not really the best person to know what to suggest to him. Also, if you've written posts about this subject, let me know and I'll link to them. Thanks.