Embrace Your Limitations

tumblr_kuygfotqWv1qzkclao1_1280More than twenty years ago, I had my first writing-induced panic attack. A ninth grade English assignment about Oedipus Rex sent me into hysterics. The blind prophet could “See.” Oedipus was “blind” to his own fate. My teacher would say, “Tiresias can ‘see with a capital S.’” I had no idea what she was talking about.

On a Friday night that ninth grade year, sometime around 1991, the paper was going well. I wrote my introduction. I mapped out and wrote my three body paragraphs, each crowned by a topic sentence. I then faced the conclusion. If I could just write the conclusion, I would be finished. The conclusion, as it always is, was key.

But I couldn’t. There were too many options. Should I talk about “Truth with a capital T?” Should I talk more about Oedipus stabbing his eyes out? Should I talk about the meaning of the prophecy? I had no idea. My parents returned from wherever they were and, in the kitchen in front of our new PC desktop, I broke down into hysterical tears. My mother listened. With a pen in hand, she listened to me talk about what I wanted to write, and she wrote. In fact, she continued to help me write my conclusions all throughout high school. After so much work on the paper in its entirety, the conclusion was always what put me over the edge.

For those of you who have studied the five-paragraph essay, you know that the conclusion is the one part of the essay that’s not bound by any rules. After you restate your thesis, you can go on to do whatever you want. A new insight, or maybe a few. Eventually, in college, after dozens of writing-induced panic attacks, I managed to teach myself how to write a foolproof conclusion. I developed a formula that relied on one quotation I identified early on as the ‘wrap-up’ quote. I learned how to write and finish my own essays so well that I became an English teacher.

And yet.

For me, writing is excruciating. Tonight, I was sure I would skip writing this blog post because the idea of sitting down and figuring out what I should write about was terrifying. I then received a notification for a meet-up group I signed up for a while ago where people—both friends and strangers—gather at a coffee shop and write together for one hour.

I realized that I could handle one hour. I’d think of a topic on the train and then I’d limit myself to 500 words. Just 500. That limitation paired with the security of a coffee shop gave me the freedom I needed to write something. Anything.

Limitations. They frustrate us to no end. We bemoan that we’re not taller or stronger or smarter or blessed by a better title at work. In Wicked, the Wicked Witch of the West, Elphaba, sings, “I’m limited.” Here, she’s talking about her green skin and her ‘secret powers’ that have made her a pariah. She’s also the most powerful person in Oz. Her limitations—an unusual skin color and those secret powers such as being able to defy gravity, or fly—have, in fact, given her strength.

My instinct is to avoid writing because I know it can push me over the edge. My instinct is to give up before I’ve even started. The reason I’m able to push through is because I put limits on myself—limits like “You are only allowed to write one short blog post. That’s it. One hour.”

And so here I am, in a coffee shop on the Upper West Side, surrounded by other writers who, like me, have committed to this hour.

Limitations, I am learning, actually help in every single facet of our lives.

Take yesterday. My best friend got married in a small town outside of Boston. I’ve only been out of a recent stint in the hospital for 10 days. I’m just starting to understand how to manage new medication. Socializing has felt impossible. But she’s my best friend. And so instead of not going, I worked on how to manage the challenge in one of my wellness groups. I spoke with my parents, who agreed to drive me to the wedding and then pick me up when I was ready to leave. I arrived. I reconnected with my friend’s family. I did a little mingling. I drank ginger ale. And then, about twenty minutes after the ceremony, I called my parents who came to get me.

I knew that being at a wedding sober and single and knowing almost no one would feel impossible, so I placed a limit on myself. No alcohol and no staying past what felt comfortable. I used this limitation for bravery, for strength, and as a way of coping.

I think the reason I’m succeeding in managing my illness is because I know how to use limitations. Yes, I’ve made mistakes. But I’ve also thrived because of limitations. I know that I need to leave the party at eleven. I know that I can’t drink more than one glass of wine. I know that I can’t drink caffeine after noon. I know that I need to be in bed by ten.

You can strive by placing limitations, but finding out where and how to apply them to your life is crucial. How can you place a limitation on yourself to enhance your life or your creativity? What can you do for one hour? Even if you are struggling with something as treacherous yet seemingly simple as cleaning your apartment, give yourself a limit. You will work on your closet for one hour. You will deal with that stack of papers on the bureau for one hour.

One hour is power. One hour is freeing. Pick an hour and get busy.


Anonymous Blogging BreakDown

Many years ago, I opened a Blogger account and started a blog much like this one about bipolar disorder. The catalyst: I had no one to talk to about what I was going through. The disease was/is lonely. There seemed no better place to connect with like-minded (pun intended) individuals.

This was around 2006, when no one thought of the internet as permanent in the way we do today.  Print publications—”real” magazines, “real” newspapers—those were permanent. Anything published online seemed, for most of us, ethereal and fleeting.

Back to my Blogger account in 2005. After I opened that account, I unleashed myself onto the internet. I freely talked about my moods and whatever struggles I had with the disease. I connected with other bloggers. I felt completely empowered.

And then I got a comment from another anonymous blogger who told me that the way that I had opened the Blogger account—with my first and last name in the registration form—meant that the blog was not actually anonymous. Search results were showing my first and last name, he pointed out.

I will never forget reading that comment ten years ago. I was sitting in my small bedroom in the New Jersey suburb where I lived at the time. Horrified, I went into my Blogger settings and immediately deleted the blog in its entirety. That would fix it! Of course, a few minutes later, when I googled my name, the posts were still appearing because the Google cache—a concept I didn’t understand at the time—had not cleared.

Through the help section on Google’s website, I sent dozens of SOS emails. No one replied. I stayed up all night in a panic, convinced my blog would get me fired. The next day, someone from Google responded to explain that even though I’d deleted the blog, it would take at least a few weeks for the old posts to disappear from search results.

For the next month, I lived in agony. I obsessively searched for myself online, waiting for the posts to clear. At some point, I went on a mediocre date with a guy, and when he didn’t call me back, I was certain it was because he’d googled me.

Finally, the blog disappeared.

The weight of my embarrassment was lifted, but I was left with no blog, no outlet, no community. And so I eventually started this blog on WordPress. I registered with a pseudonym. I read lots of posts about how to stay anonymous and blog.

Today, ten years after that initial SNAFU with my blogger blog, I somehow managed to send an email to coworkers that went out with my “yourbipolargirl” email address. How did this happen?I’d stupidly tried to merge my whole life into Mac Mail and didn’t understand when I sent that note I was sending from that address. Terrible, idiotic mistake.

Fortunately, I’ve gained perspective over the years. The soul-crushing embarrassment I felt at the moment of this realization a couple hours ago has lifted. Life is simply too short to live in fear that people will find out who you “really” are.

That all being said, if you’re thinking about blogging about your disease and want to stay anonymous, learn from some of my mistakes and do the following:

1. Register your account with a pseudonym using an email address you create for blogging only. It’s easier to do this using a site like WordPress.com. If you’re thinking of hosting your own site through WordPress.org or another platform, be sure that you understand the functions and limitations of WHOIS privacy.

2. Do not use one email platform (like Mac Mail) to read email from various accounts. This is my most recent mistake. You risk accidentally sending an email from the anonymous account to real contacts.

3. Don’t write anything you don’t want the world to read. While your anonymity affords you freedom to talk about something private, it’s the internet. Unlike what we all thought years ago, pixels are permanent.

How To Write

I’m a neurotic writer. Ever since high school, when I’d melt down in a panic over essays about Antigone or Lord of the Flies, I’ve struggled with the written word. My sentences do not flow the way I want them to.  Nails get bitten. Hair is pulled out. The ego takes over and asks: Why do you even bother when there are so many better writers out there?

This is when it’s time to remember The Artists’s Way, Julia Cameron’s brilliant guide to creativity. No doubt I’ve blogged about it before. In her book, she talks about the concept of ‘shadow artists,’ people who would be artists if they’d only recognize themselves as such:

As a rule of thumb, shadow artists judge themselves harshly, beating themselves for years over the fact that they have not acted on their dreams. This cruelty only reinforces their status as shadow artists.

In large part, Cameron argues, to be an artist means declaring yourself one. Vincent Van Gogh said “If you hear a voice within you say ‘I cannot paint,’ then by all means paint, and that voice will be silenced.” The same goes for writing. Not to be flip, but to be a writer, we simply have to show up to the computer and suffer the blank page until we decide to fill it with words.

If you’re someone who wants to write, then I promise: if my neurotic brain can pull it off, so can you. Just sit down and confront the page.

No judgments. Let yourself go. See what happens.

I’ve also benefited from books on writing and creativity. Because I’m always struggling, I’m always revisiting these books for encouragement:

Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott
On Writing, Steven King
The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
Stein on Writing, Sol Stein
Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life, Dani Shapiro
An Absorbing Errand: How Artists and Craftsmen Make Their Way to Mastery, Janna Malamud Smith
Steal Like An Artist, Austin Kleon
The Creative Habit: Learn It And Use It For Life, Twyla Tharp


Finding the Courage to Continue the Blog

Tonight, all of a sudden, I started to freak out about this blog. It seemed like such a good idea a few days ago. But, as had happened to me before, I was feeling immensely paranoid that blogging about bipolar disorder could be somehow detrimental to my life, so instead of keeping the fear bottled up inside me, I thought, hey, why not write about it? The thing is that to actually blog really and truly “anonymously,” you have to go through all sorts of crazy technical hoops that I started to read about online. So I started to second guess things, partially because I’m doing this stealthily in my apartment.

As of tonight, I haven’t told anyone that I’m doing this. Most notably, not even my boyfriend, who’s sitting across the room and, I think, wondering why I am all of a sudden so much more prolific with my writing  … lately I have been trying to write creative nonfiction, and that process is much more slow and painful for me than this has been.

What I’m realizing as I write this, though, is that maybe my fear is not just about blogging about bipolar disorder specifically, but about all the things I’m always afraid of: being judged, not being good enough, failing. Maybe my doubts about this blog are something I need to push through. I need to listen to my own advice from earlier today and adapt the growth mindset. God, I wrote that post a few hours ago and still need reminding to think that way!

I need to remind myself that I know I will make mistakes along the way here, but the reason why I want to blog about my life and about bipolar disorder is not to convey anything perfectly. It’s to connect with others who can share my experiences. It’s to illuminate some of the things I’ve learned about managing this disease for others who may be just starting out on the journey of managing. And then I hope that we can, as a community, begin to alleviate the stigma we all feel.

And so I have to say that with the commencement of this blog (again), I feel as if I am crossing over some imaginary line. This time, I hope to stay on this side of that line and not go back to my old ways of not expressing what I want to say about myself and the illness because of, well, fear.

How to Understand and Change Your Mindset

In this book, you’ll learn how a simple belief about yourself–a belief we discovered in our research–guides a large part of your life. In fact, it permeates every part of your life. Much of what you think of as your personality actually grows out of this “mindset” Much of what may be preventing you from fulfilling your potential grows out of it.

There are so many books out there on “finding happiness,” and I often find that after finishing these books that make big promises about personal fulfillment, I’m often disappointed. But the Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck’s Mindset: The New Psychology of Success is a book I wish I’d read when it was published five years ago. Her thesis simple yet revelatory. There are two mindsets: the fixed mindset and the growth mindset. People who live with a fixed mindset believe that talent is innate/”fixed”, that success should come easily, that failure is a dead end. People with a growth mindset believe that intelligence is ever-changing, that we are always learning, that effort is a crucial part of success; they are able to recast a failure as the challenge to keep going, and in that way the failure isn’t failure for long: it’s just another step on the path to success.

Dweck writes so well about how these mindsets manifest themselves in the ways children learn, athletes perform, and even in how relationships evolve (or don’t evolve).

Dweck acknowledges that we can all have different mindsets about different things, and I found myself reflecting on how my own mindsets change radically depending on what mood I’m in. When I am more manic, I believe I’m capable of anything. I am inspired by the success of my friends and of other artists and writers when I read their work. I’m excited about writing, photography, reading, and learning new things.

And when I’m depressed, I can find personal failure everywhere I turn. All I do is think about the things in my life I haven’t accomplished. “You never finished your novel,” I’ll say to myself. Or, “All of your friends are mores successful than you and have talent you will never have.” It’s embarrassing to even write the things that cross my mind when I’m depressed.

But what’s great about this book is that, especially for those of us who normally think about our minds in terms of a depressed-or-manic rubric, these mindsets are a new way to understand our thinking, no matter what our mood is. And  as much as the book is about learning how to change your mindset, it’s about learning  to identify the qualities of the mindsets that lead to growth verses those that lead to stagnation.

Mindsets are an important part of the personality, but you can change them. Just by knowing about the two mindsets, you can start thinking and reacting in new ways. People tell me they start to catch themselves when they are in the throes of the fixed mindset–passing up on a chance for learning, feeling labeled by a failure, or getting discouraged when something requires a lot of effort. And then they switch themselves into the growth mindset–making sure they take the challenge, learn from the failure, or continue their effort.