What’s You is Mine

I used to steal things.

It was wrong, certainly, and I felt a tremendous guilt over it at the time, but largely because I didn’t understand why it was only directed towards the people I cared about. I think people take things for a lot of different reasons, and while kleptomania is the clinical label we put on it when people do it compulsively, trying to paint every person who has this compulsion with the same brush ends up dismissing the very real dysfunctional thought processes which underly it.

I didn’t steal things very often, but it occurred enough times as a child that I was convinced that I was a ‘very bad person.’ I took a swan-shaped perfume bottle from my best friend (and forever added water to it, trying to get it to last for as long as possible). I took a tiny drummer boy pin from my grade two teacher’s desk at Christmas time. I occasionally took tiny mementos from my mother’s desk or jewellery drawer.

I didn’t do these things because I was angry or wanted to hurt them. I did it because I loved them. But I cannot deny that these acts must have hurt them, and would have hurt them even more to know that I was the one that did these things, because you (especially) don’t steal things from people you love.

I think to understand why I did these things, you need to look at the behaviour that accompanied the theft.

stealingI was an anxious child (who grew into an anxious adult). I didn’t have any outlet for that anxiety, so it was up to me to develop my own self-calming techniques (calling them techniques suggests way more self-awareness than I had at the time — it’s taken me years to recognize these patterns for what they were). One of these strategies was (what I thought of as) treasure-hunting. If the opportunity presented itself, I would go through hidden spaces and look for little treasures: items that made me happy and calmed me through tactile stimulation. It started with my own things — it was always possible in my messy room of hoarded things to dig through my piles and find things that I had forgotten about. Finding those things anew and touching them, rubbing them between my fingers, putting them in my pocket or even touching them to my lips (or putting them in my mouth) would calm me.

But sometimes my own things weren’t enough. The older I got, the better my memory was and the more that I needed novelty, and I needed to branch out. I would sneak into my mother’s room and go through her drawers or her closets. On her upper shelves she had some collectible dolls — I would take them down carefully and look at them, touch them, but never remove them from their case. I wasn’t allowed to play with them and I although I did gently handle them, I never risked damaging them by taking them out of their boxes. For the most part, I’d just dig about and put things right back where I found them. It wasn’t until later, when my anxiety was no longer satiated by looking that I took things.

I didn’t take a lot. Usually just one thing would be enough. Somehow having something of my mother’s (and later my best friends or favourite teachers) was enough to bring me comfort when I was anxious. Those items held extra power because they belonged to the people that I loved. It helped when I was scared, and certainly helped when I was apart from them.

I didn’t steal from strangers. I didn’t steal from my brother or father — the idea of doing so never even crossed my mind.

I think I recognized after taking the perfume bottle from my best friend and the pin from my teacher that it was wrong to take anything that they would miss or that was too precious. I didn’t want to hurt anyone, I just had this need that I couldn’t suppress. I tried to only take things from my mother that seemed lost or forgotten to her already.

I don’t remember exactly when the habit passed — somehow I graduated from being a child to a teen and I wasn’t stealing any more (other than borrowing clothes from my mother, but that wasn’t something I hid).

I thought it was past me until all of a sudden in my late thirties, I found myself at my mother’s house one day while she was at work, going through drawers and cupboards. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I was in the upswing of a manic phase (the one that ended up defining my bipolar disorder). I had been sleepless for weeks at this point. I had gone over to my mother’s house to pick something up and ended up pacing room to room, looking for nothing that I could verbalize.

I ended up finding some paintings that had been tucked away to the side of her dresser and just knew that I had to rescue them and they needed to be in my house. Suddenly the only thing that mattered to me was that these beautiful paintings were being ignored, unhung and forgotten.

A week or two later, when my mother came over and saw one of the paintings hanging at the top of my staircase, she was furious and (not surprisingly) hurt. She demanded them back and when I got upset and tried to point out that she hadn’t even noticed they were gone, she took them and left. I tried to plead with her and explain that I was trying to save them, but we were both hurt and angry and not really listening to each other. I cannot deny that what I did was an aggressive act (or that it seemed so to her), but my defensiveness was in part out of confusion that she thought I did it to hurt her, which in my delusional mind, I hadn’t.

It wasn’t until later, long after the incident (and after drug therapy had treated the manic episode) that I began to question why I had done it and how it related to a larger pattern of behaviours.

Any person who experiences anxiety (or any other mental illness) will tend to develop calming strategies, many of which are potentially self-destructive (like smoking, alcohol or drugs). Unfortunately, with something like kleptomania or drug abuse, the symptoms of anxiety can mask the underlying cause, which will inevitably go untreated. More clinicians are recognizing this fact, which is why there are more dual diagnosis treatment centres opening, thankfully.

For myself, I’ve tried to learn to identify which of my behaviours are related to my anxiety, and which are acceptable and helpful outlets for those feelings (this list is only mine, and the things that I call risky or bad are simply that for me):

RISKY

  • alcohol
  • drugs (some, potentially)
  • stealing
  • violating other people’s personal boundaries (going through their things)
  • lists
  • exercise
  • looking at the scale

SAFER

  • window shopping
  • walking
  • magazines
  • flowers
  • looking at bright, pretty things

The top list will confuse some people, I know, because it has lists and exercise on it. For me, the problem is that besides anxiety, I am prone to obsession and compulsion. If I keep things light and not too focused, I’m okay, but unfortunately that’s not how things tend to unfold. Things with numbers or lists or goals tend to push me into overdrive and I compete with myself. In the past that has resulted in compulsive exercise and anorexia.

Sometimes though, colour and design are enough mental stimulation to calm me. If I can walk through a HomeSense or Ikea, walk the aisles one at a time and pick up each little knick knack, turn it around in my hands and put it back, that’s enough to settle those feelings in the back of my brain. Without realizing it, I’ve had this habit since I was a child — first at the toy store and then at any store at the mall. kIt’s such a simple thing and it doesn’t hurt anyone. The challenge in the past has usually been that I haven’t been able to express why I needed to do it. This has led to whoever I’m with growing impatient with me and rushing me through the process, leaving me feeling unfulfilled and even more stressed out.

One of the constants of living with bipolar is the lack of psychological or psychotherapeutic counselling. With drug therapy as a catch-all for treatment, we as patients are forced to be explorers of our own psyche, trying to dissect each little action or behaviour and figure out how it relates to the whole. With each new realization I feel like I take a step closer to being a whole person, but I am also filled with growing regret over the time I’ve lost and the people I’ve hurt because there was no one to step forward and guide me through this process years ago.

/rk

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If a Crazy Person Falls in the Woods and No-One’s Around, Do They Make A Sound?

The other day in the car with a family member, we were having a discussion about how hard it is to access adequate healthcare (specifically pain treatment) when you are mentally ill.

“Is it?” they said.

“I’ve seen it happen countless times with other people I know, and it certainly has been for me,” I said.

They looked at me with confusion. “But you’re not mentally ill?”

I was gobsmacked.

I asked them what they meant, since they knew I was being treated for bipolar, and they said, “But you’re not crazy crazy.”

It’s a weird thing that family and friends do — even if they can bring themselves to acknowledge your diagnosis, they still don’t lump you in with (what they imagine to be) the raving lunatics who get locked away in mental wards. The thing is, not everyone who is mentally ill ‘looks’ like a raving lunatic. But some do. And some people can be both of those things. The point is, you do us a disservice by trying to candy-coat our disorders.

It’s not that I want to come down too harshly on the people that support us, the mentally ill. A huge number of people in our lives (possibly the majority) will turn around and walk away because they simply can’t handle being around someone who is mentally ill. Maybe because all they see is the stereotype of the maniac. So the last thing I want to do is alienate those who can see past their own fears and are game to stick it out.

But you also don’t get a free pass for your ‘altruism.’ I mean, when it comes down to it, caring for and about your family members or best friends should just be a normal thing that you do. The fact that they suffer from mental illness is certainly a challenge, but we all come with our own bits of baggage and as long as your mentally ill friend is a putting work into the friendship too, the fact that they are mentally ill shouldn’t be something they need to constantly apologize for.

If you are going to support someone who has mental illness, you need to acknowledge all of their parts. Glossing over their illness or pretending it’s not really there isn’t helping them.

show my crazyThis whole business of playing down people’s mental or physical disabilities seems to be something that is culturally ingrained. Parents play down illness when kids complain because they think they’re just doing it for attention. Doctors play down symptoms and refuse to apply labels because they are convinced that it will become a self-fulfilling prophecy and patients will develop somatic complaints or hypochondriasis (the nocebo effect). But this can have a devastating effect on people with genuine complaints who end up feeling like no one believes them, which in turn can lead to self-harm and avoiding much-needed medical attention.

When you care about someone, avoiding using labels or acknowledging their mental illness feels like you’re being kind. Certainly the last thing you want to do is to bring it up every time they behave erratically or use it as a weapon in arguments. You can’t blame everything that someone does on their illness. So it might seem like the kind thing is to avoid the label entirely, to prove that you see the person beyond the illness.

The problem with acting like their illness doesn’t count or that they are some special case is that it a) is not recognizing the whole person, b) suggests that you think that part of them is somehow unacceptable, c) makes it extra hard for them to get help or talk to you about their illness.

In terms of c), getting help can be in big ways or little ways. It can mean that they feel safe calling you when they need help getting to the hospital, or it can just mean that they feel safe telling you that they can’t meet up today because they feel extra anxious. It is really hard maintaining friendships when you have bipolar and anxiety, for example, for the simple fact that you end up having to cancel or reschedule plans based on your mood. If you are someone I feel I can trust I would simply explain what my issues are that day and reschedule. If you are someone I don’t trust with my mental illness, I just might not make plans at all, for fear of disappointing you or having to deal with uncomfortable questions.

There is a growing trend for public acceptance of mental illness (depression specifically), with lots of public campaigns to increase ‘awareness.’ I remain slightly skeptical about such campaigns, mostly because what I see is a lot of people sharing memes and pre-scripted platitudes with very little actual one-on-one support of people in need. It seems to me that we’ve traded the public erasure of mentally ill people for public awareness and private erasure. Now when people try to speak up about their mental illness, other people pipe up with “well I have depression too, so you’re not special.” It’s great that more people are coming forward with their own struggles, but the last thing that should be allowed to happen is for it to result in a watering down of the significance of mental illness. That more people are experiencing mental disturbances should not make it less significant. It should make it even more apparent that it is an important issue.

It is crucial that we do not create a further hierarchy or caste system of mental illness (depression, anxiety and bipolar are treated in a much more favourable way than schizophrenia or Tourette’s, for example), and playing down someone’s illness as if it is not ‘one of the bad ones’ or ‘doesn’t count,’ hurts not only them, but the mentally ill community at large.

/rk

New Book!

I’m pleased to announce the soft launch of my latest book, “I’Mmoral: Poems for Unrepentant Sinners and Free Thinkers.” For the time being, the eBook is available only on lulu.com, but is being rolled out for distribution through Amazon, Kobo, NOOK, and more. Once I have approved the proofs of the paperback version, I will advise where those can be purchased as well.

cropped-immoral-image.jpegSummary: What would the war cry of a mostly introverted, mentally ill, autistic, genderqueer, physically disabled, feminist, atheist, polyamorous woman sound like? A lot like this. Using a combination of essay and free-form poetry, R.K. confronts the status quo and dissects it, inspecting its parts and discarding the bad bits. In spite of tackling some obviously serious and controversial topics, such as abortion and the anti-vaccination movement, she approaches her subjects with humour and then slaughters them with equal parts derision and kindness.

Price (eBook): $2.99 / Click here to view/buy

Thanks very much for your support!

/rk

New Digs, New Work

Last year was supremely difficult, creatively speaking. My ongoing health issues got even more complicated, with new symptoms requiring new medications, and overall I felt really defeated. It took a toll on me physically, and ended up triggering a lot of mental fallout as well. Writing under those circumstances was almost impossible.

As we go into the fall this year, though, I’m finally feeling a sense of renewed creative energy. Some of this is down to some changes in medications and learning how to deal with some of my new physical challenges, but the biggest change is that I’ve found a new writing space.

I have always wanted to write. But writing is work, and for most people, you have to treat it that way. You need to set aside time and space to commit to getting it done. One of the things we sacrificed in our move to downtown was our home office, which makes writing at home even more difficult. I used to do a good deal of my writing from bed (out of necessity sometimes), but there were inevitably distractions that would make it hard to concentrate.

It hasn’t helped that I have been struggling with depression since I officially retired and became fully disabled — depression due to my lack of direction and identity. I needed a reason to get up and get dressed in the morning. I also underestimated, when I moved in with my husband, how much I would miss having my own space — something that was mine alone.

mybywardofficedesk

My space: I’m surrounded by my books, my art and a cactus I haven’t killed yet. There are also windows and other nice creative people here.

I realized that what I needed to feel like a whole person again was to find a creative space, commit to finishing all the projects that had been in limbo, and hopefully find a way to re-establish a professional identity for myself.

It took a bit of searching to find a space that fit the bill (and the budget), but I’ve been really pleased with the amount of work I’ve gotten done so far (and it’s only been two weeks!).

What I’m working on / coming soon:

  • A book of poetry and essays on counter-culture subjects called: “I’Mmoral”. It is 98% complete and I hope to have it published and available for sale in the next month (the ebook version should be ready in the next few weeks, with the paperback version taking a bit longer due to proofs and distribution, etc.).
  • A compote cookbook! You can catch up on my recipes in progress at Compote is My Jam. I would like to finish this one and have it available for sale in time for Christmas.
  • A memoir focusing on my childhood stories of abuse and mental illness. I’m about half-way through writing this one, so my tentative goal is to have it complete by early 2016.
  • A re-imagined work of Oedipus Rex (fiction novel), hopefully to be completed by late 2016.
  • I will continue to blog here, at Cuckoo My Cuckoo, as well as on my transgender/androgynous lifestyle blog, That’s My AgendA.

I have sincerely appreciated the support of my blog readers and those who have purchased my existing books. If you might consider further support to help me subsidize the cost of my writing space, I would be super grateful!

It’s tough being a writer, period (most people don’t make enough from their writing to make ends meet), but being a disabled writer is even tougher. I really don’t have any other options in terms of working. I’d like to think, as well, that my writing adds something to the world and has value on it’s own.

I have set up a page over at Patreon, where supporters can sponsor me for as low as $1 a month. Rather than set it up with walled access to content (I believe content should be accessible — I want you to read my writing!), what I might do instead is set up a Thank You or Sponsors page here on my blog where I can put your name (or avatar name) showing that you are one of my awesome patrons.  Please consider sponsoring me here:

https://www.patreon.com/rkbelford

Thanks so much! Without readers, being a writer is pretty boring, so you’re the best part of my day!

/rk