Turn Away from What Should Be and Focus on What Is

August 8, 2010 at 9:27 am | Posted in Philosophical Problems, Productivity, stress, Work Life | Leave a comment

I got up this morning to a problem that every human being confronts at one time or another: My time and energy are limited, and I can’t meet the demands that I’m facing right now. I think that the answer spelled out in the headline applies, not just to my immediate dilemma, but to any situation where the stakes are high. Let me begin with the problem, and derive what I think is the solution.

When I got up, I felt the hopelessness and dread that stem from a truly unmanageable workload. It’s unmanageable for several reasons:

1. There’s more than anyone can do in 40 hours a week. I’d be happy to do overtime, but…

2. I’m often in a situation where I’m facing deadlines for multiple, different mission-critical projects. This week, for example, I had to burn 110 data CDs for testing this weekend. At the same time, I needed to translate, index, post and log several data items for analysis — again, this weekend. None of this was optional — if I didn’t get to any one of these tasks, we would be looking at a schedule slip that we can’t afford. So it’s not enough for me to work overtime, since it’s literally impossible to do crucial tasks simultaneously when they have the same deadline.

3. The work requires total precision and unflagging attention. I can’t do it effectively when I’m exhausted, hungry, or depressed; I’m human, too, and I find it demoralizing to respond to constant nervous status inquiries from people who don’t understand the dimensions of my workload.

4. Other people depend on my work getting done quickly and accurately — if I don’t post data, others can’t perform analysis on it, and the program will miss crucial deadlines. If the data I post is corrupted or hard to locate, the engineers will waste precious hours restoring it or simply looking for it. In other words, if I fall behind, that places the whole program at risk.

5. If I defer routine tasks like training, eventually crises will erupt that will — yes — waste precious time and resources. Therefore I need to spend several hours a week tending to administrative tasks that aren’t, in the moment, mission critical.

6. My work requires an unusual level of conscientiousness. If I feel hopeless and stop caring — even just a little bit at the end of a long day or on a Friday — I risk making a critical mistake.

So, what to do? In the past, my solution has always been the one espoused by Boxer, the faithful draft horse from Orwell’s Animal Farm: I will work harder. I will get up earlier and stay later. Through sheer force of will, I will be perfect. Program and functional management, God bless ’em, have been quick to enforce this ethic whenever they think I might be slipping.

There’s just one problem with that. When Boxer’s health breaks — and it does break — the pigs send him to the knacker, and he’s made into glue. The farm loses Boxer, and Boxer loses everything.

My old answer is the wrong one, then. I think that my experience with climbing provides a better one: Turn away from what I think should be and face what is. When I’m climbing or belaying, I can’t afford to fool myself about my limits. If I don’t understand a belay technique and let my partner climb anyway, he could be seriously injured or killed. If I’m tired, distracted, or dehydrated, I need to look realistically at the extent of my impairment and do whatever I have to do — including refusing to climb or belay — to keep myself and my partner safe. A good climber is not someone who can scale a 5.12 with ease. A good climber is levelheaded, systematic, and, above all, realistic about her limits. A dangerous climber bluffs, brags, or refuses to acknowledge her own failings. She pretends to be perfectly skilled, fit and attentive, and thereby places her own life and others’ at risk. Pride — the kind that would lead me to overestimate my abilities or ignore my physical condition — has no place in an activity that involves risk.

You may ask, how does this apply to my life as a cubicle jockey? For one thing, my life is at stake. Also, the program has no margin for failure — if I make a horrible mistake or cause delays, it could cost the company a sum of money that I hate to contemplate.

Work differs from climbing in one crucial respect, however. Good climbers are swift to acknowledge and adapt to a partner’s limits, since no one wants to hang from a sheer cliff wall with no one on belay. Business tends to be more shortsighted. When time is short and profits and lives are at stake, management will reward me for ratcheting up the pressure on myself and refusing to accept limits. Until, of course, I reach a hard limit and break. Then they’ll just discard me and reach for someone who is still fresh. Unfair though it may be, it’s ultimately up to me to think for myself and for the program, and to call a halt to an untenable situation.

Starting Monday, then, I will turn away from the vision of myself as the perfect, tireless emplyee. I will go in an hour early and take a clear-eyed look at my workload and at my own individual, human limits. I will set up meetings with functional and program management, and I will communicate the facts clearly and dispassionately. I will spell out the consequences to the program if management ignores the problem and deprives me of the resources I need to solve it. I will document each conversation in writing, and take it up the chain of command if necessary. If my immediate bosses don’t see the problem, I suspect — I know — that upper management will.

It’s going to be hard, but it’s the only way.

Love to all.

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Steps to Take on Days That You Suspect Will Be Rough

October 7, 2009 at 5:16 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, Productivity, stress | 1 Comment

Having a rough morning?  Try these techniques to smooth out your day.

Having a rough morning? Try these techniques to smooth out your day.

Yesterday was a tough day, and I suspect today will be, too. I’m under a lot of pressure at work, and my new antidepressant doesn’t seem to be doing much for me. So, following my usual technique of giving all of you the advice that I’m giving myself, here are several actions and activities for days that will be particularly rough.

1. Come up with five easy activities that will be gratifying to finish. Mine for this morning were picking up 27 items around the house (feng shui suggests moving 27 items to get your house’s chi moving); watering my houseplants (if you don’t have plants, getting one might not be a bad idea — they’re much like animals in that they respond to and repay love and care); emptying the lower rack of my dishwasher and hand washing one icky dish; doing five small very small tasks around the house that I’ve been meaning to do for quite awhile, including taking the price tag off of the table at the top of the stairs and entering my sister’s street address into my iPhone; once I’m done here, I will fold five pieces of laundry. As usual, the keys are to do no more than you’ve decided to do unless you feel genuinely motivated, and praising yourself for what you can do, no matter how small.

2. Go for a short (10-20 minute) walk, and make it as brisk as you can. Repeat every few hours. This can help with depression over the long term, and may lift your spirits immediately.

3. Do something sensually gratifying like fixing a cup of fragrant tea or inhaling aromatherapy oils. Keep both around for this purpose so that you won’t have to go out to get them, which can be nearly impossible on tough days.

4. In line with number one above, do just a step or two in a larger project around the house. For instance, I finally persuaded myself to read the installation instructions for my programmable thermostat. Next I will assemble all the tools that I need and put them in one place.

5. If you absolutely must skip work, be sure to schedule alternate activities so that you don’t lie in bed brooding. I tend to feel guilty if I take a sick day and then go hang out with friends, but really I’m just doing what I need to do to get well.

6. Tell people that you’re having a rough day and enlist their help. This is where it really helps to have a confidante or two at work, especially if that person is a supervisor. It can be rough to ask for help at work. As I’ve said before, it always seems to me that it’s OK for to be bipolar as long as you don’t have any symptoms — the minute you get ill, people tend to let the judgment roll. Even so, I’m going to try to seek out support at work today. I already have one coworker in mind.

7. Make a schedule or plan and stick to it. For me, a plan means looking at my to do list and choosing the next three to five actions that I will take, and the order in which I will take them. This prevents me from falling into a funk and staring at my list, feeling overwhelmed, every time I finish one task and try to choose the next one.

8. Congratulate yourself sincerely on every success, no matter how small. Only you know how hard it is for you to wash an icky dish right now, so praise yourself when you do.

9. Do not reward yourself with a shopping trip, chocolate, caffeine, or alcohol if these are problems for you. You know best if these are problems. Be honest with yourself.

10. When you’re well, design and follow morning and evening routines. When you feel crappy, stick to them — no excuses. I struggle with this one — when I feel lousy, morning prayer and yoga tend to go out the window.

11. Write down your negative thoughts and replace them systematically with positive ones, as described in David Burns’ The Feeling Good Handbook.

12. Orient yourself regularly by noting five things you see, five things you hear, and five sensations you feel. Don’t judge this sensory input — just note it. It’s a good way of clearing obsessive thoughts for a minute or two.

Immerse Yourself in Nature

September 2, 2009 at 4:25 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, Dealing with Mania, stress | 3 Comments

Even stark beauty is beauty, and beauty can be found even near a missile range -- here, grasses photographed at White Sands, courtesy of istockphoto.com.

Even stark beauty is beauty, and beauty can be found even near a missile range -- here, grasses photographed at White Sands, courtesy of istockphoto.com.

I’ve been unable to find academic studies about the healing effects of nature on bipolar disorder. It figures; who stands to make money off of a good long hike? (Well, in my case, Smartwool, Patagonia and Mountain Hardware — but at least they’re environmentally friendly companies.) Even so, I believe that nature is deeply healing, and that a lot of my wellness over the last three years has to do with vigorous hiking and rock climbing. Below I’ve listed several reasons to get out into the wild, or to find the wild by the side of the road.

1. The most obvious benefit is exercise. From gardening to hiking to a gentle walk in the park, getting out into nature usually involves a certain amount of movement (though it doesn’t have to — see below). Exercise is the most reliable natural cure for depression, and can be as effective as medication in some cases.

2. It’s possible to leave your self behind, sometimes for extended periods of time. This probably sounds a little odd. After all, one of the most horrible things about depression is its persistence: it’s always there perched in the corner, if not careening around in your skull. However, if you find some aspect of nature that you like — say, a bug or a flower — and you really look at it, observing and enumerating the details, you can lose track of your misery for minutes at a time. It’s possible, with concentration, to project yourself into a bit of nature and feel yourself to be a grasshopper or spiderweb. This is incredibly refreshing and renewing if you’re tired of the sound of your own thoughts.

3. In nature, you can sit quietly and listen, and gradually you will hear the most amazing sounds. Just the varieties of bird and wind sounds can heal you.

4. If you can safely go alone, nature can provide comforting solitude when you might otherwise be lonely. With luck, you can go for hours without hearing another human voice. Sometimes this can be a tremendous relief. Remember, though, that hiking alone in remote areas can be dangerous, since snakebite and falls, for example, can be a real threat.

5. You can take a friend and have an in-depth conversation without the distractions of cell phones, internet, and other people. My cell phone does sometimes ring even when I think I’m well off the grid, but you can always turn off your ringer and really focus on present company. You can also point out lovely features to each other that you might miss on your own.

6. Nature is omnipresent. You can carefully observe a single tree, or even a bit of lawn, and spy miracles. People may think I’m crazy for studying an aphid, but so what? They’re right (though not for the reasons they might think).

A most attractive aphid.

A most attractive aphid.

7. A good, hard hike can sometimes calm hypomania, absorbing just enough of that electric energy to take you back down to safe heights. Also, when you’re hypomanic and colors shine brighter and words leap and flow, nature is more beautiful than ever.

8. You can buy a bird or bug book and look for common wildlife even in urban areas. Believe me, once you pay attention, there are plenty of creatures besides pigeons. In fact, when the pigeons take off in a flock, that’s your moment to search the sky for a hawk.

9. As Hopkins knew, the book of nature can reveal God’s grandeur.

10. If your doctor agrees that you are, to some degree, disabled, you can get free admission to national parks for life. Mental disabilities do count. I plan to hit up my shrink for a letter soon.

A female falcon in flight -- Hopkins' Windhover.

A female falcon in flight -- Hopkins' Windhover.

11. If nature itself isn’t readily available, you can read nature poets. Gerard Manley Hopkins is my favorite. Check out “Pied Beauty,” “The Windhover,” and “That Nature Is a Heraclitean Fire and of the Comfort of the Resurrection” and see if you’re not deeply puzzled, then gradually inspired. Read it aloud. It’s difficult stuff, and perhaps better grasped by the heart than the head, but in the end it rewards study. His poetry is also deeply religious in nature, and often deals with extreme emotional states. (He was certainly depressed, and perhaps bipolar.) If Hopkins isn’t your cup of tea, try Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey”, or Shelley’s “To a Skylark.” In truth, just about any Romantic poet will do. I’m stuck for contemporary poets; feel free to leave suggestions in the comments.

So get out there. I’m going to try to this weekend.

Steps You Can Take to Improve Your Finances

July 25, 2009 at 1:20 pm | Posted in Finances, stress | Leave a comment
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It’s no secret that bipolar people often have trouble with their finances. Both depression and mania can lead to overspending. When I’m depressed, I tend to spend money in an attempt to lift my spirits; when I’m hypomanic, I do the manic-spending thing, playing ducks and drakes with any money I can lay my hands on. Even so, I’ve done a lot to keep my finances in reasonably good shape. Here are a few tips on how to structure your finances to preserve as much as possible for emergencies and retirement.

1. Educate yourself. My favorite way to learn about personal finance is to read the excellent blogs that abound on the subject. Three of the best are Get Rich Slowly, The Simple Dollar, and Queercents. I like the latter even though I’m not a lesbian; it’s great for any single person, and if I had to guess, I’d say that bipolar people have greater-than-average difficulty forming stable romantic partnerships. The first two blogs can be annoying because they assume, not only that you’re married with kids, but that your life is kind of empty and pointless if you’re single. Nonetheless, all three are great resources on everything from frugality to Roth IRAs.

Both GRS and TSD have lists of recommended books on personal finance; I suggest that you look these up and do some reading. My favorite book is Your Money or Your Life, which includes a rigorous — perhaps too rigorous — program for gaining financial independence. And the phrases “gazingus pin” and “left-handed veeblefitzer” have practically replaced “thnead” (from Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax in my vocabulary as words for consumer objects that I don’t need but desperately desire.

2. Structure your finances so that it’s difficult to get at your money. I use ING Direct for savings for two reasons: they pay a relatively high interest rate, and it takes two business days to transfer money from savings to my credit union checking account. Often just knowing that I don’t have instant access to my money keeps me from spending it on some passing whimsy. It also forces me to exercise thrift during the waiting period if I do decide to transfer money. When it comes to thrift, I need all the practice I can get.

Along these lines, I also suggest that if you have an emergency fund, keep it divided between a money market account, which is fairly liquid, and short-term CDs. If you do run into a true emergency — like being laid off — you’ll be able to scrape by while you wait for the CD to mature. If you don’t have an emergency fund, start saving immediately using automatic withdrawal (see below).

Also, take a hard look at cutting up your credit cards and closing extra credit card accounts, especially if you’ve maxed them out. Credit cards represent deadly temptation for many bipolar people who experience full-blown mania. Screw freezing them in a coffee can — just get them out of your life entirely. Closing accounts that you’ve had for a long time can ding your credit score temporarily, but that beats the damage the accounts themselves can do if you fall behind in your payments.

Finally, take advantage of automatic withdrawal. For some people, it’s an excellent way to whisk away money before you can see it, feel rich, and spend it. It’s how I saved for the down payment on my house. Just be sure that your money goes to an account at an institution like ING Direct that will make it difficult to suck that money back into checking.

3. Contribute to your 401K — it’s a nearly painless way to save money for retirement, and it will reduce your tax burden. If your employer matches it, then you’re crazy not to. Shoot for a contribution totaling 10-20% of your income. Saving for retirement is crucial when your illness might force you to stop working at any time.

4. Make every effort to purchase short- and long-term disability insurance. Given that you do have a potentially crippling illness, it will be nearly impossible to buy this on your own. If your employer offers disability insurance, then definitely opt in. Chances are, you will be unable to work at least part of the time. Plan for that.

5. If your financial situation is particularly desperate, consult 31 Days to Fix Your Finances, an excellent program offered by The Simple Dollar. If you’re carrying a lot of debt, consider buying Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover, which is devoted to that topic. Be warned, though, that the techniques he describes will be very difficult to follow without carefully structuring your finances to separate you from your money. Also, the book contains religious overtones that some people find difficult to swallow. That said, it’s an excellent program that has benefited many, many people.

6. If you’ve been fired or laid off, collect unemployment. My dad, who spent much of his career working for the Arizona state unemployment office says that it’s stunning and sad how many people refuse to collect unemployment out of pride — they mistakenly believe that it’s some sort of welfare. In fact, it’s called unemployment insurance for a reason: you and your employer pay for it with every paycheck you receive. So take advantage of this crucial benefit.

7. Keep good financial, medical, and employment records. This is crucial in case you should ever be ill enough to apply for medicaid or Social Security (SSI). I will discuss the process of getting SSI in a future post. For now, know that the Social Security Administration will tax your abilities to work the system to the limit if you should ever need it. Prepare yourself in advance for that ordeal.

8. If you work for a company with more than 50 employees, find out the process for getting intermittent leave via the Family and Medical Leave Act. This is worth its weight in gold. Rather than disappear suddenly when you get sick, you can call in intermittently without having to give an excuse. FMLA is unpaid, but it beats getting fired.

I’ll try to write a general introduction later. For now, think about setting aside a weekend day to prioritize these steps and implement at least one or two.

Actions You Can Take to Relieve Stress and Avoid an Unpleasant Episode

July 24, 2009 at 11:18 am | Posted in stress | Leave a comment
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It’s hard enough being bipolar.  If you’re like me, you have a demented drill instructor howling in your head most of your waking hours, and you feel like you must resist at all costs — even if resisting means lying very still and staring at the wall.

So what do you do when extra stress comes blasting at you?  Say you’ve broken off a long relationship (or been dumped), you’re under grinding deadline pressure at work, or God forbid and God help you, you’ve lost your job entirely.  What can you do to keep yourself from spiraling out of control when life gets really rough?

Here’s what’s worked for me in the past.  I don’t take these steps as often as I should, but when I do they help every time.

1.  Exercise.  It’s best if you can do something rigorous that’s both mentally and physically absorbing.  For me, bushwhacking and rock climbing can really help.  With the former, there’s the loveliness of nature; with the latter, if I don’t pay attention, I’ll fall (do rope in, unless you’re really determined to die with your boots on).  If you haven’t got the time (and who does when you’re working 12-hour days over some damn work crisis), then make time for small, mild bursts.  When I’m getting schizy at work, I often take a 15 minute break just to walk around briskly.

If you doubt my advice, read John J. Ratey’s book Spark — it will persuade you that moving your body really can change you intellectually, spiritually and emotionally.

2.  Take a yoga class.  I have a daily yoga practice at home, but there’s nothing like showing up in a lovely, lavender-scented studio with hardwood floors and just dong what the nice instructor tells you.  In my experience, there’s no high to equal it.  Yoga will remove you from your problems long enough for you to rejuvenate yourself and get some perspective on that lost relationship or job.  It will put you in touch with a higher self that transcends even great losses.

Again, what if there’s no time, or no yoga studio nearby?  Then get a book or video and practice on your own.  I swear by three books: Cyndi Lee’s Om Yoga will benefit both beginning and intermediate yogis, and is portable enough to take with you anywhere. Her excellent Yoga Body, Buddha Mind will take you up to advanced practice. The Yoga Bible includes everything from restorative postures to exotic balances. This book works better if you have a regular practice and are looking to shake things up by trying something like Scorpion that you never thought they could do.

As with other forms of exercise, some is better than nothing.  I like to do cowhead pose and reverse anjali mudra at my desk, which may be part of the reason why my office mate is on to my madness.

3. Orient yourself to the present. Notice five things you can see, five things you can hear, and five things you can feel. These things don’t have to be beautiful or exotic. Just focus on an icon on your computer screen or your pencil holder and really see it. Then tune into the tiny noises around you: the humming of the air conditioning, or the friction between your pant legs if you’re walking. Then become conscious of the air against your skin — is it warm or cool? Or notice the sensation of your watch around your wrist. The point is not to judge — I’m miserably hot, or God, that chattering bitch in the next cube bugs me, or even, what a grand saguaro cactus — instead, you’re just trying to jar yourself loose from your worries about the future and regrets about the past, and to exist in the present, even just for a moment.

4. Do something absorbing. Get engaged in work or play that has the potential to bring about a flow state. This is not busy work or any activity that you can do while brooding. No, this is something that will give you a sense of mastery while stretching your abilities. Only you know which activities work for you. Many people find flow in simple activities like driving and sex, or more complex activities like practicing a musical instrument or creating art. The point is to get outside of your miserable self and shift your attention to something external that you love.

5. Take a nap. Sometimes, when all else fails, I just take a 30-60 minute nap, and about 50 percent of the time, that just seems to push my reset button and improve my mood. Set a timer to make sure that you don’t just spend half an hour staring at the wall thinking of your own inadequacies. If you haven’t slept after 20 minutes, then it’s probably time to get up and try something else.

6. Purge stuff. For whatever reason, it really lifts my spirits to just sort through a desk drawer and toss old files, broken office equipment, and grungy sticky notes covered with old reminders. Like many bipolar people, I tend to accumulate things a bit compulsively, and it’s a great exercise to go through and get rid of anything that you’ll never use, or that holds negative associations. It’s a sign of the times that there are probably hundreds of books on how to shed your stuff, but I like Clear Your Clutter with Feng Shui. It appeals to my hokey, new age side.

7. Stick to a regular sleep schedule and get a minimum of eight hours. This is critical if you’re bipolar. For Christ’s sake, don’t make my constant mistake and try to trigger hypomania by shorting yourself on sleep.

A note of caution: many of these activities will seem impossible if you’re depressed. If you are, you’ll need to take much smaller baby steps towards positive mental states. Any of these can help if you’re willing to start very, very small — say, a single yoga pose, or a five-minute walk up and down the office hallway. For times when you’re truly down, I highly recommend Get It Done When You’re Depressed, a brilliant little book written by a woman who’s been there.

That’s all for now. I’ll save the formal introductions for later.

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