Spring 2007

Dear Catherine,
I’m in my early thirties, and I am intelligent and creative in certain ways. I have always had a hard time finding work that I enjoy or even knowing what I want to do. Earlier this year I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which has really been a blow to my concept about myself. I’m now on medication that seems to be helping, but I’m really disheartened about my livelihood, particularly now that I’m coping with this new reality about my mental health. Do you have any words of advice?
A.M.H.,
Portland, OR

Dear A.M.H.,
It is quite possible that once you have stabilized on your medication, you will be able to return to normal functioning and work. I have known many people who have bipolar disorder and can go from lives of chaos (dissociation, hearing voices, unable to function) to lives of high functioning and creative focus, with the help of their medication. It is important to stay on the medication and to consult your doctor about any changes. I have seen people relapse when they arbitrarily get off their meds, thinking that they are perfectly fine (which they seem to be while on medication). You should also not see this as a cause for shame but rather think of it as something like having diabetes and needing insulin to correct the imbalance. This is an imbalance in your brain. We are lucky to live in a time when these disorders can be treated through relatively mild means. All the best to you.
Catherine

Dear Catherine,
I have been re-reading a novel that I’d first read decades ago, in my twenties, and am struck with how my perspective has changed. Whereas back then I saw the heroine as a victim, I now perceive her as having made a bad choice and passing up her one real chance for a loving relationship in favor of a fantasy of something better in the future. This brings up the sometimes difficult challenge of living in the present moment, appreciating what is, versus striving for what we think will make us happy in the future. I have sometimes felt that I, too, have failed to appreciate the life I was living and I strived for a better one. In some cases, the striving did lead to better situations�and in some cases, it just clouded my ability to be happy with my life as it was. Could you please comment on this? Thank you,
B.R.,
Portland, OR

Dear B.R., It is fair enough to want one’s life to be better in certain ways. Perhaps we want more money, comfort, education, travel, a spouse, children, creative expression, a home of one’s own. We dream of all kinds of situations that we think will enhance our lives. Some of our dreams do make our lives sparkle brighter, and some of our dreams turn to nightmares, but as human animals we naturally have desires. However, if your energy is spent simply chasing one desire after another without satisfaction or deep appreciation for the simple joys already in your life, then your experience is that of perpetual insatiable hunger�a condition of suffering. Hold lightly your dreams and reserve a good part of your daily awareness for counting your blessings. That is the open secret for a creative and happy life.
Catherine

Dear Catherine,
I meditate regularly but I still struggle with stress. I seem to get stressed very easily and I seem hyper and nervous to others. I think I even make my dog nervous when I am in that state. I don’t drink caffeine and I try to use calming techniques that I have learned over the years, but it is as though the stress comes on and floods my body with chemicals that I can do nothing about. It doesn’t seem bad enough to get on anxiety medication, but sometimes I think it will come to that. I have a good job and am able to concentrate at work, but socially and the rest of the time, I am sort of a nervous wreck. Any advice?
B.H.,
Gresham, OR

Dear B.H.,
I assume your calming techniques include deep breathing, especially on the exhale. That is a simple way that is known to lower stress levels. In addition, it may be a good idea to get physical. Take your dog for a walk along a river or in the woods and get your heart rate up in a brisk stride. Try yoga. Get moving in ways that are enjoyable for you. Stagnant energy is a hotbed for stress. One has a tendency to sit around and think of oneself and potential problems. And some of us are more wired for nervousness than others so we need to compensate more in ways that induce our nervous system to relax. It is good that you recognize a need for change in this regard. Long term stress is dangerously unhealthy.
Catherine