Better now

Two nights ago, Tuesday night, I had two 30 minute naps – each punctuated by a bizarre, disturbing dream that woke me up.  Then, around 1 in the morning, I got up and just stayed up.

I was coming off four weeks of being depressed – more grimly so each week.  I knew that, according to my personal statistics, I was due to shift up any time – but there was hanging out there the specter of the winter, when I was depressed for four months, progressively retreated to my bed and was finally hospitalized when it seemed I was on the razor’s edge of taking my life.

In the last few months, a new personal pattern for me is that the night before my energy is about to shift up again, I am unable to sleep all night.  So Wednesday morning I carried hope that my cruel biochemistry was about to lift me out of the depths of depressive pain.  But the other, even more telltale sign of finally coming up for air, is that the contracted pain throughout my whole body that is the most central symptom of my depression, goes away – totally.  Poof, I suddenly don’t hurt.  But Wednesday morning I still had the pain, so I didn’t know what was going on – what I could hope for.  But the pain did finally let up and go completely away Wednesday afternoon and I have clearly moved into a manic episode.with Jenn G 2-12-17

Mania has, for me over the last few years, become a very positive state.  walk3It doesn’t cycle way up high – doesn’t go out of control.  I don’t spend a lot of money (mostly never did – once bought nine pairs of nice socks on sale, but that was the most extravagant I ever got).  I no longer start big, ambitious, unrealistic projects that there is no hope of me ever bringing to fruition – especially when totally non-functional depression inevitably follows the mania.  I sometimes surprise almost everybody’s expectations of this too-nice guy by telling off or cussing out some jerk who is totally begging for it.  I don’t suffer fools gladly.  I really like this part of it.  Mardi Gras

Today, the day after coming up to breathe, my dear friend Amanda Graves was asking me about the previous weekend – which had been totally lost to bed, despair and isolation, easily the worst two days of the whole four weeks.

“So you had no work, nothing to keep you up.  You were totally incapable of reaching out to your friends.  Would it have helped if we had reached out to you?”  (I had made a lunch date with her and then cancelled it.)

“Absolutely – even if I might have resisted that reaching out.  Remember the previous Sunday, when – even though we had definite plans to go to the Tall Tales Isis concert with my friends Joan D’Entremont, Al Schlimm and Chris Rosser Sunday night – I told you in no uncertain terms that I had avoided Jubilee that morning and would be going back to bed by 7 and skipping the concert that night.  Because you were right there in front of me, you were able to beat me around the head and shoulders and get me to go – and I ended up having a real nice time.  When I was bopping all around the table in perfect time with the very upbeat music, you said ‘You don’t look very depressed now.'”

Now that I’m up and again wonderfully extroverted, I will naturally find great ways to connect with people.  Two days ago I told Lauren Fortuna that I could not provide a poetry “gift” at a Jubilee Sunday service because I had no inspiration and that – even after 15 years of a lot of commitment to Jubilee – I was liable to not get it together to go to Howard’s roast on Saturday night or final service on Sunday morning.  Now I know that I will go to both of those very festive, life-affirming events and will get back to Lauren about the poetry gift – which poem has not appeared yet, but I now trust will manifest itself.

How long will I continue to feel good?  A couple of months ago, after about two months down, I had an up cycle that lasted five days.  That seemed cruelly unfair.  But I have some reason to hope that I will be on the right side of the dirt for 2-3 weeks.

I hope to spend some wonderful time with many of you in these weeks – and maybe make some plans for how we can stay connected when I again lose the capacity to reach out to you.

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Suffering

I’m suffering. The core symptom of depression for me is physical contraction, painful tightness throughout my whole body as if every cell is in a vice.  Mood change sometimes follows this lead symptom – maybe 2-4 days later, sometimes not at all.  But is the discouragement a side-effect of experiencing so much pain?

This is my third week of depression/contraction, with the pain building steadily each day.  Not as much pain as some people experience – and with many of them (I think of a friend my age at church who has very painful back problems) it is genuinely chronic, there is no respite – whereas I know that inevitably (hopefully soon) I will get a few days or a couple of weeks respite.  The surest sign that my energy has turned up (“manic”) is that the contracted pain is reliably, totally, instantly gone – poof!  Sometimes long before I get speedy – if I do at all.

Psychiatrists and psychotherapists typically don’t know what I’m talking about when I relate this – they have never heard of it or read about it in their journals.  I went through a long period where I no longer talked about it because I had grown discouraged about mental health professionals understanding me.  I have encountered some other folks with bipolar disorder who recognized this phenomenon and said that they too experienced it – but maybe never before put it in words because they never heard anyone else put it into words.

Today, as I walked the Mountain-to-Sea Trail behind Monika’s house with little Pancho, my body was so tight that I had trouble walking.

But I’m not sad or discouraged.  I am as happy and encouraged about the direction of my life as I have been for the last several weeks:

  • I am really happy to have my job back at Earth Fare.  I don’t enjoy every minute – or even necessarily most of the minutes.  But I enjoy a lot of them – and that’s enough.  In some of those minutes I feel like I am living out my mission to make grocery shopping creative and fun, to validate the customers who come through my line, and to influence the younger cashiers in these directions.
  • I am thrilled to be liberating myself from Battery Park Apartments.  A very bright and resourceful friend told me the other day that, after a year there, it really is working for her – and for some people it really does.  But it was not working for me.  I had to move through some powerful inner resistance to get clear on just how bad it was for me – largely by being high-rise apartments and downtown – but I did finally get clear and within three weeks of that final clarity, by virtue of Monika’s generous offer for house-sitting, have extricated myself from it.  I’m on the ground, one doorway away from the outdoors, surrounded by trees. With a little luck, I will move into my long-term digs straight from here and never again sleep on the fifth floor – so far removed from the ground (which for this airy, ungrounded guy is a big deal).
  • I am very excited to be moving in with Tom Kilby, my all-time favorite roommate, and his wonderful son Ian.  Tom KAfter negotiating some details over a number of days, we just finally got to a solid “yes” yesterday, and today the three of us gathered at the house in Candler to continue our dialogue about what it means to live together.  So much open conversation right up front bodes well.
  • Robert had told me he didn’t know if his Wi-Fi would reach the patio out back, but just a couple hours ago – having purchased a l-o-n-g extension cord – I discovered that it does!  This means that – after a year of being imprisoned in an apartment with windows that open 3 inches – for the next two months I can spend most of my laptop time outside.

So I’m in a lot of physical pain that makes it hard to get up in the morning and hard to resist the call of the bed (let me get unconscious/escape the pain!) early in the evening (like now, 6:08 – thinking I may go to bed when I finish this, or maybe now, without finishing it).

And happy!

Why I’m getting off of meds

Today I will be asking my psychiatrist for her support and guidance as I gradually wean myself off of psych meds.  This process will probably take several months.  Here are some of the words I hope to remember to say to her today. Maybe I will just start the session by reading this. It takes 3 minutes – my insurance is paying for the 30 minutes. It’s my life at stake.

My dear friend Amanda – deeply grounded social worker and psychotherapist of many years – likes to say to me, “You have taken these meds for 30 years. You feel totally sure that, aside from 6 months on your first med ever, Zoloft, none of them has ever helped you. But you keep taking them – why? You know there are risks from taking such powerful medications for so long. Why don’t you just get off them all and find out who you really are?”headache-pain-pills-medication-159211

That last sentence came not from Amanda, but from me. Why do I continue to take these meds that I feel sure are not helping me? Guilt and shame. I feel that anybody who experiences such powerful and painful ups and downs “should” take meds – it’s just assumed in this technological society, right? And, when people – hearing for the first time that I have bipolar disorder – ask me, so often almost the first words out of their mouths, if I take meds, I want to be able to say, “Yes.” To say “No” would risk their disapproval, their judgment that I am irresponsible. Most of them assume innocently that meds make these things better – not realizing that for a lot of us, not just me, they really don’t.

I have recently taken some very big steps towards my own integrity. Since I returned to the job I loved, but gave up in order to keep my current subsidized apartment – a move that so many of my loving friends strongly pushed a year ago – and am making plans to leave this apartment, which i have never liked, the life force is flowing back into me. That life, which had drip-drip-dripped out of me for the last year, leaving me finally so depleted that twice in three months I drifted precariously close to ending my own life.

Now that I am reclaiming my integrity my listening to my own inner guidance, my inner landscape is no longer one of darkness. Even during the difficult biochemical turndown that hit me in the last week, I am stronger and more optimistic than I have been in years. The choices I have recently made towards my integrity have released a new level of confidence, integrity and assertiveness that have me handling all manner of little decisions and interactions in ways that support my aliveness.

The next step towards my aliveness, my integrity – quite obvious to me – is to stop taking the pills that I resent, that I have never trusted, that I think do me no good, and that have so many subtle and obvious side-effects. I want to get off them and see who I really am. Any risks in doing so are, to me right now, totally acceptable.

Swiping groceries

It’s a mistake for me to show up for work overtired – which, when I’m manic and missing sleep, I do a lot.  The first half of my 6-8 hour shift may be fine, sparkly even – jamming with people, flirting, teasing, saying bullshit, listening, affirming.  Then, several hours in, I crash and can’t summon the energy to do anything but swipe groceries.  I think I usually give people a good smile – but sometimes maybe not even that.

Today Arthur showed up in my line excited to see me.  He knew that I always make something happen – and he wanted to be on his toes.  He didn’t exactly say, “I love all your bullshit” – but when I translated his words to mean that he didn’t disagree.  I said, “Arthur, I can’t do it today – I’m not up to it.  I’m too tired – I’m crashing, my lunch is late and maybe my blood sugar has dropped.  All I’m good for is swiping groceries.”

But I was saved from uselessness by a happy circumstance.  My good friend Tony Godwin, who likes my poetry and has accompanied me some on his wonderful acoustic guitar, came into the line right after Arthur.  He wanted to talk about my poetry – and especially a big, ambitious poetry concert I had put on a couple of months ago.  I wanted to keep Arthur, my current customer, the focus of attention – so I pivoted the arts theme to him.  “Arthur, what’s your creative outlet?”  (This question usually gets a positive answer in Asheville, even if you need to coach the person that creative outlets can include gardening, cooking, parenting, dancing, etc.).  Arthur didn’t hesitate: “Writing and photography”.  Obviously a creative guy – I think this is going to get us somewhere.  And there is no one in the line but Tony, who is totally tuned in to this, so we’ve got some time to explore.

“What do you write?”  This hit the mother load: Arthur had lots of energy to talk about his writing, which I genuinely found very interesting.  He writes stuff to take the energy out of the polarization of right and left in this country, to help people discover/remember our commonalities.  On a values basis, this theme is very resonant for me  – and I am genuinely interested to see what he’s writing.  It’s fun to express this to him, even if he has some trouble believing me.

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Really showing up for the customer is an art.

But, after that very lively interaction – and a shorter one with Tony, who had fewer groceries and by then a couple of people behind him – I went back to mostly swiping groceries.  Just swiping groceries is painful work.  Where’s the pizzaz, the fun, the creativity?  I become a robot and I make my customer into no more than a customer – not a living, breathing, creative individual, different from every other person to come through my line that day.  I don’t play with them, I don’t make them laugh, I don’t tell them something wonderful about them.  It’s dead.

I think that maybe some of my younger front end colleagues have not yet discovered the satisfactions of really jamming with the customer.  I haven’t really worked much with these folks, so I don’t really know, but when Brandon the store manager hired me, he gave me a mandate to find ways to coach, inspire, role model and in any way I can get parts of my approach to customer service to rub off on them.  It takes more energy to really show up for the customer – to question, listen, play, flirt, affirm, tease, bullshit – but the rewards are amazing.  And you can do some of it when there is a line in front of your register.  It doesn’t take any extra time to put a light in your eyes – and “What’s been a highlight of your day?” or “What are you looking forward to today?” take only moments.

One of my younger colleagues is at least some of the time reading this blog.  Inspiring others to do this may help my mission.  And role modeling – which includes getting more sleep and not being a robot myself.

“You guys are great together!” Families

After my first four days back at Earth Fare, after a year away, I have been very keenly reminded that my greatest satisfaction in this job comes from validating people – affirming them.  And, while I really love doing this with individuals – especially if they seem lonely or depressed or like they could really use a shot in the arm – the greatest challenge and satisfaction comes from validating couples and families.  Here I will describe two families.

I gave maybe a sideways or even backwards validation to this family.  There were maybe seven of them – a mom and kids of various ages, maybe 7-16.  The mom was pretty spritely and energetic, but the kids were the most burned-out crew I had seen in a long time.  Every one of them looked to be in a bad mood.  How do I validate this?   Validate their truth in the moment, make it OK!

“Did you guys have a bad night last night?”

Mom: “We’ve been driving since 6 this morning – it’s been a real long day.”

The mom and I then had some back-and-forth about how hard it is to be in the car that long, where they started, where they were going and for how long, etc.  I didn’t even attempt to involve the kids, because none of them made sustained eye contact with me or showed any signs of being willing to talk.

How was this conversation validating of the family?

  • It gave the mom some support – a shot in the arm – and if she stays in good shape it will be good for the whole family.
  • The kids got to hear their mom and this neutral third party say that it is natural and understandable and OK to not be in a good mood on a day like today.  Validation doesn’t have to be telling the person what’s great about them – it can mean telling them that they are fine just as they are.

Then there was the family I validated for whacking each other.  It seemed like the grandmother who was at the counter paying for the groceries.  One of the four kids came up and said something to her – and she whacked him on the chest.  Her wry smile made it clear that her intention was in no way mean – and the kid seemed to get a tremendous kick out of the whole interaction.  I would have loved to hear what he had whispered to his grandmother.family 1

Then, moments later, the big dad playfully whacked one of the older kids, who also seemed to love it.  It became clear that lightly whacking each other was a form of intimacy in this family, of belonging – of saying “I love you.”

I said, “I like you – I like a family that whacks each other.” They all seemed to think that was one of the funniest things they had heard in a long time.  I appreciated them just as they were – as a family that some family therapy journals might not value – and I think it was a real validation, something that might make them appreciate themselves even more.

“I love you guys” – validating couples

Why do I have such an especially great time validating couples?  I think it’s really my specialty.  Maybe it’s because they have something I want – a happy, successful partnership – and focusing on what they are doing right gets me closer to my own goal.  I dunno.James and Patte

This 35ish couple had come to Asheville from the Bronx and he was telling me how he was a tattoo artist and had been invited to work for a week in a studio in Asheville – and had taken the opportunity to organize a family reunion here.  They told me how, no matter how much – after several trips here – they really like Asheville, their heart was still in “the City”.  It was easy to appreciate him for his obvious skill at his trade, that he had been invited to be the guest artist for a week.  And to appreciate both of them (because I wanted to involve her, though this also sounded like mostly his project) for putting together this family reunion.  And for how much they love their home.

Mostly this had involved appreciating each of them as individuals.  I wanted to find something that affirmed the two of them together.  I paused, got quiet inside, asked the question – and, with almost no real “thinking”, the answer popped out.  “You two guys have really fresh energy.  If I was to pick, out of all the people to come through this line today, who I would really like to hang out with – it would be you.”  And I meant it – and they seemed to relish it.  Telling a couple that they work together, that they are attractive, that they have good energy is very powerful.  There are so many forces working to break couples apart – or at least to sever their intimacy – that they all can use all the support they can get.

The second couple was about the same 35ish age, but had a very different style – with the woman clearly the emotional leader in the pair.  I don’t know what intuitive process led me, but before she had said a word – based just on facial expressions and body language – I said, “You seem really fun.”  And, to the husband, “Is she real fun and funny?”  He agreed, and went on to tease her in a charming way – which she seemed to enjoy and take as affirming.  “Oh, I see – you guys are both fun and funny.  You must keep each other endlessly entertained.”

The wife: “Well, we do have our days.”

“Everybody has their days – there’s no way to get around it.  But you guys are good together – it’s obvious.  You’re my favorite couple of the day.”  Never mind that this validation came precariously close to what I said to the other couple – nobody was keeping track.

Twitter updates @JohnMajo

I will be posting my Earth Fare schedule for the week every Sunday – and schedule for the day every morning before 8.  Most weeks I will work three days.  I also post my weekly schedule on Sunday on my Facebook home page. Let’s be friends!

Also on Twitter will post random observations and insights gleaned from the grocery store – or other parts of life.

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Earth Fare Westgate, 66 Westgate Parkway, Asheville, NC 28806