2014/2019/2024

2014

2014

Me in 2014 at Nigara Falls

I was directionless.  I’d graduated college last December but remained in the same small town.  On a manic whim, I wanted to buy a building on Main Street and start a bookstore.  Luckily, the bank said no.  I was generally depressed, especially with the long winter still ahead of me.  In October, my Mom and I had taken a road trip to the East Coast to see an area of the US we’d never seen.  We’d had fun in Boston, Niagara Falls, and Maine.  Vermont was beautiful.

On another whim, with no jobs open to me in my little town, I applied to the graduate program at my old university.  I don’t think I’d get an acceptance letter until the next month.

Most of my day was spent in a depressed stupor.  I napped most days.  I would watch television, Netflix, and read.  I was very inactive, and I survived on a diet of pasta.  I loved to make a pot of goulash and save the rest for lunches and dinners afterward.  I wasn’t interested in cooking.  I ordered takeout from the local Chinese restaurant or terrible Italian place.  Typically, I made my own breakfast: eggs, turkey bacon, and toast.  I drank too much Coke with vanilla or straight Coke.  This habit would become much worse when I’d have to power through hours of homework in grad school.

I didn’t exercise or even leave the house if I could help it.  Most days were spent at home with my two dogs, Lucy and Desi.

I weighed around 260-270 pounds after gaining over 50 pounds two years before.  I’d been put on a new medication, which made me ravenously hungry.  I didn’t realize that I was eating way too much, often filling myself with very unhealthy food.  The weight gain made my depression worse, as I felt bad mentally and physically.  I was never athletic but during my undergraduate years, I’d been active and somewhat healthy.  I ate better then and didn’t overindulge.  I was comfortable with my body size in 2012; I weighed a bit too much, but I wasn’t obese.

Two years had changed my body to a sluggish, inactive mess.  It would remain that way until 2019.

 

2019

2019

Me in 2019 (November) at Galaxy Con Minn

I’ve been working hard since February to change my body, when I walked into a gym and signed up with a trainer.  I’d moved to the area at the beginning of the month to be closer to my parents and extended family.  It took me nearly a month to follow up on my desire to change.

When I joined my local gym, I was 293 pounds and deeply unhappy.  Although I’d been working with a student-trainer from 2017-2018, I’d stopped for the winter and gained 15+ pounds.  The thought of being 300 pounds made me upset and extremely depressed.  I knew gaining weight back in 2012 hadn’t really been my fault but now I’d had to live with it.  I’d been living with it for 7 years.  I knew I needed a dramatic change.  My move was an opportunity to create a new start.

Ten months later, I’ve lost 50 pounds after a great deal of work and some setbacks.  Since February, I’ve been going to the gym three times a week, with a few exceptions like travel.  I’ve scaled back my pasta habit considerably.  Instead, I enjoy cooking meals at home or eating a Chipotle chicken bowl.  I now monitor my diet, logging every meal and snack.  I don’t drink Coke anymore.  Occasionally, I’ll have one can of Zevia cola mixed with water to take away it’s sweetness.  Otherwise, I drink water or sugar-free Powerade.  My diet is limited to 1700 calories per day.  I don’t eat candy or inhale pasta like I once did.  I walk an average of 7000 steps per days.  I can lift 140 pounds.  When I first started, I couldn’t squat without getting stuck in an awkward position.  Now I can do back squats with weight.  I’m physically the strongest I’ve probably ever been.

My mental health has been stable for months with only a few mild bouts of depression.  My lows are small and brief.  My highs are limited and manageable.  In my adult life, I’ve never been this mentally healthy.  After a workout, I feel an incredible boost both mentally and physically that I’ve never known before.  A natural high.  I’m the most active I’ve been since I was a preteen.  I never played sports in high school.  In middle school, I played softball.  Before middle school, I ranked up to red belt (just below black belt).  I deeply enjoyed marital arts, but I stopped when I couldn’t level up to senior red belt.  As a child, I was wild and playful, staying outside from morning until dinner.  I spent most days roaming our family farm.  I watched Saturday morning cartoons and Aladdin and Hook (both on repeat) after I’d spent the day outside.  Otherwise, I didn’t spend much time in front of a screen.

 

 

2024

I see myself happily active and weighing between 170-180 pounds, a healthy place from my frame.  I cook at home and actually enjoy doing it.  I go to the gym 4-5 days a week, in the mornings.  I work on writing afterwards, when I’m mentally alert.

I like to jog around my neighborhood or on local trails.  Maybe I’ve taken up hiking.

I can do back squats well and deadlift 200 pounds.

I continue to be mentally stable, but I check in with my therapist monthly.  I’m comfortable in my body.  I own nice gym clothes that I’ve invested in.  My wardrobe of clothes fit well.

I’m strong physically and mentally.  I let myself enjoy cheat meals without feeling guilty.  I don’t overindulge.  I like protein powder.  Maybe I can make smoothies at home.

I generally feel calm and content, at peace.

I don’t gain weight, especially during the winter.  I like looking in the mirror.

I’ve become what I always pictured when I imagined myself as an adult.

 

Thinking about Meditation

For the past 177 days, I have been meditating daily.  I wanted a way to “switch off” before bed in order to fall asleep faster.  After a few false starts, I have kept the habit going for almost six months.  Before developing this habit, I had never really meditated.  While many starts with YouTube videos of guided meditation, I didn’t go that route because I was worried I’d get distracted by other, more exciting videos.  Instead, I downloaded an app called Headspace onto my iPhone (I believe there is a version for Android as well).  Many may find the act of meditation as too crunchy or hippie for their tastes, which I completely understand.  I did not look to mediation for a spiritual experience.  I merely wanted a way to quiet my brain before bedtime.  Headspace, for me, does a great job at handling both the long history of meditation, as well as the facts about what happens when a person meditates.  According to the Headspace website: “[W]e see meditation as both a practice rooted in ancient history and a topic of modern science.  This is why we are as equally committed to providing authentic expertise in meditation and also studying the science of meditation” (LINK HERE).Unknown

There are many benefits to meditation according to the research that has been done.  Some of these benefits include: reduced stress, better emotional health, enhanced self-awareness, and improved sleep, among many others (LINK HERE).  The Headspace website even includes peer-reviewed studies on the list of benefits (LINK HERE).  But, again, I am not pushing this on anyone.  I just found that it works for me.

In the past 177 days, I have meditated for a total of 24 hours over the course of 231 sessions.  I have integrated mediation into my nightly routine.  I turn on the app and select from one of its many courses.  I only do between 3-10 minutes per night, although I find myself more focused the longer the session.  Since I began this routine, I have found myself slipping easily off to sleep at night, instead of overthinking and tossing and turning before sleep happens.  It has made me feel more rested in the mornings and more aware throughout the day.  I’ve always been told I was a self-aware person, but this routine has helped me realize my own thoughts more.  I can usually catch myself when I’m too deep into my own head.  I highly recommend this app or any others out there.  I should also mention that the Headspace app isn’t free.  If that holds you back from trying it, please do look for other options.  Any mediation is better than none at all.

Thinking and Awareness.png

1 https://www.headspace.com/science

2 https://www.healthline.com/nutrition/12-benefits-of-meditation#section8

3 https://www.headspace.com/science/meditation-benefits

 

What is Hypomania?

The image of the maniac is ingrained in our culture.  What is a common image of mania?  While I hate to perpetuate the stereotype, I even think of Jack Nicholson in The Shining, hacking through a door with an ax.

What do you think of when you hear the word mania?  You may imagine a business person, working long hours and getting things done.  You may even discount the term mania because you think it is a harmless thing, like Sonic Mania or Mattress Mania, where some spokesperson in a commercial shouts “These low prices are crazy!”8E4463B6-F3FD-4B1C-916B-5C333B453D80.png

But that is not the normal or reality for most people struggling with mania.  How would I know?  I know because I have bipolar disorder and I often deal with something very similar to mania, which is hypomania.

What is Hypomania?

First, let’s look at a definition because I’m a good English scholar.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, mania is “one of the aspects of bipolar (manic-depressive) mood disorder, characterized particularly by euphoria, grandiose thought, rapid speech expressing loosely connected thoughts (flight of ideas), decreased need for sleep, increased physical activity, and sometimes delusions or hallucinations” (OED).

But I said hypomania, not mania.  So what does hypomania mean?

Hypomania is defined as “A minor form of mania, often part of the manic-depressive cycle, characterized by elation and a feeling of well-being together with quickness of thought” (OED).  But this definition, in my opinion, is underselling the condition.  As someone with bipolar disorder, I occasionally suffer from hypomania and it is far from simple.

The Reality

When I’m hypomanic, I can go with little or no sleep.  Despite this lack of sleep, I feel an extreme boost of energy, like lightning in my veins.  I speak quickly, think quickly, zip around the house like The Flash or Quicksilver.16377486875_bd27a6a6a2_o

I am invincible.  I can do no wrong.  Every idea is pure gold.  I need to buy that useless something when I don’t have much money in the bank.  My mood changes on a pin, from happy to angry to irritable.  I forget to eat.  I think up a thousand new projects that need to happen now.  Then I reach a tipping point.  I become highly aware that I’m out of control.  I’m dangerous to myself and those around me.  I need to stop.

But I can’t stop.  I can’t focus.  I can’t come down off this high.  My thoughts and actions become foreign to me, to the point of annoyance.  I can’t control myself.

Then the crash. My seemingly endless amount of energy falls to E. Unknown.jpeg

Now there is only regret and exhaustion.  Can I return this item on Amazon or in store?  Do I really want to start a podcast?  When was the last time I had a meal?  I did what?

Depression begins to creep in.  I go from Flash/Quicksilver to some slow turtle creature.  My life becomes boring and everything takes effort, like walking through Jello.

What Can Be Done? 

When I describe this process to people, they are usually stunned.  Then they all ask the same question: How do you recover?  Here, I’d like to break down my answer.

First, I have to acknowledge that yes, I am hypomanic.  I am experiencing something that may feel wonderful at the time but it will pass.

Second, I try to minimize the damage.  I avoid Amazon.com, which is my Kryptonite (apparently, I have superheroes on the brain today).  If I cannot avoid Amazon, I put all the things I want to buy in my Wishlist or my Cart, but I do not press “Buy.”  For food, I stock my fridge with easy-to-make items and snacks.  I schedule my day to include meals and I will sometimes set reminders telling me to eat.

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Third, I take advantage of it.  The ideas that come when I’m hypomanic can be great.  But I don’t pursue them all.  I write them down in a notebook or an app like Evernote.  I get everything out of my head when it hits.  Maybe one day, I’ll start that podcast, but not today.  Once the ideas are out, I don’t have to dwell on them.

Fourth, I try not to let it interrupt my schedule.  My hypomania is typically tied to my monthly cycle, so I know when it is coming.  I block off days that I know I will be hypomanic and do not try to be productive on those days.  If I have an appointment, I try to reschedule.  But some things can’t be avoided.  If I have classes or something that can’t be moved, I tell the person in advance that I’m feeling a little off today, just a heads up.  I don’t go into detail unless I have to; they don’t always need to know.

Last, I try to fight it.  I try to sit down and write or read with no distractions.  I use my energy to clean the house–might as well put it to good use. (PS- I generally hate cleaning, but when I’m hypomanic, it is a great outlet.)  I try to be calm and not give into the hyper energy that I feel coursing through my body.  This doesn’t always work, but I try, which I feel is more important.

Conclusion

While hypomania, or mania, is not a walk in the park, it is manageable.  The key to dealing with it is the same key to dealing with any aspect of mental health: self-awareness.  Look at the patterns in your life.  Notice things that seem to crop up.  Keep a journal or even a mood journal.  I use an app on my iPhone called iMoodJournal, which is also available on Google Play (link here).  I’ve been using this app for over a year and it is great for tracking moods and patterns.

Also, know that you are not alone.  There are many people who struggle with the same things.  Reach out.  Ask your friends and family for help.  Ask your doctor.  Look for communities online.  I am a member of a few groups on Facebook, including TWLOHA,  who remind me that my struggle is valid and I don’t have to be in it alone.

Note: If you want to reach out to me, you can reach me on Twitter @LeslieJClaussen or via my website, LeslieJClaussen.com.

You Are Not Alone

perks_love we think we deserve

Perks quote

It is hard to describe how a few select books make me feel. They touch something in me and somehow make me feel everything. It is not that the books in question are lofty literature or anything like that. The actual writing—the words—can be very simple. I think it might have more to do with the voice and tone. In the two books I am thinking of, the voice happens to be male: Craig in Ned Vizzini’s It’s Kind of a Funny Story and Charlie from Stephen Chbosky’s The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Both books/characters talk about things I understand, no matter the gender.

I really wish I had read both of these books at a critical point in my life—my mid-teens. I know this could have happened with Perks because it was printed in 1999. Funny Story was printed in 2006, when I was about 18 years old, so it would have been too late, maybe.

Funny_Story_frontBoth of these characters reflect something deep in me, something I think has to do with being bipolar, or at least knowing what depression—deep down blue depression—feels like. These books speak truths that no one told me about during those scary years. I wish someone had pressed a copy of Perks into my 15-year-old hands and said, “You are not alone.” Because, simply put, that’s what these books do; they each say, in bold letters: “You Are Not Alone.”

It’s that feeling when you’re all alone in a crowded room and your eyes meet someone and you know they know. You feel linked. And the moment may be brief but the fact of it is something you remember.

I know I’m not the only one to feel it because both Funny Story and Perks have been made into movies, in 2010 and 2012, respectively. I’m not the only one who wants a brain map from Craig or a mixtape from Charlie with the Smiths’ song “Asleep” on it (twice). These stories crack your chest open, reach in, and grab ahold of your heart.

All these words are only a glimpse of my true meaning. It is something you can only talk around but never name. And like only a few other books—The Giver, the Harry Potter series—these books will probably stay with me forever.

An Open Letter to Stephen Fry

Mr. Stephen Fry is a recent hero of mine.  I must admit that before I watched the 2nd season of Bones, I did not know who he was.  But I’m glad I decided to look into the work of Fry, beyond his role as Gordon-Gordon.

Fry in Bones

Fry is an actor, comedian, writer, activist, humanist, and general know-it-all when it comes to many subjects.  Here is a short video (3 mins) narrated by Fry on the subject of happiness and humanism: 

He is also an active member of the GLBT community and he has made a BBC doc on the attitudes towards homosexuality around the world, called Out There.  Here is a link to the BBC: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01fttn0

But the reason I found Stephen Fry most endearing is not his views or his personality (though he is fascinating).  I connect with Fry because he and I share something at the core of our being: we are both bipolar.  In the mid-2000s, he made a doc, again with the BBC, about what it means to be bipolar in the world today and many of the factors that enter into a person’s life if they are bipolar.  I highly recommend this two part doc and have a link to the first part here:

Why am I writing this, you may ask?  Yes, I am an anglophile to my greatest depth.  Indeed, I find Fry’s accent, like many of his countrymen, to be irresistible.  However, it is Fry’s humanity that charms me the most.  He gives bipolar disorder a face; not the face of a “mad” person, but a human face of great diversity and range, full of people who have and will give humanity great things despite their suffering.

After reading Moab is My Washpot, an autobiography by Fry from 1997, I see that he has suffered like my father and so many others, simply because he was born before there was proper/healthy care for those with mental illness.  He was finally diagnosed at age 37, but his battle began during boyhood.  My diagnosis came at roughly age 14, after suffering for two years or so.  We have both felt the highs and lows of this mental illness–the mania and the depression, each with its own struggles.  As he points out, speaking out is the only way to fight the stigma and tell people what the reality of this mental illness.

For anyone with bipolar or a family member or friend, I strongly encourage you to watch his doc, The Secret Life of The Manic Depressive (video above).  Talking about mental illness is the only way to help those who do not know what they are experiencing, the pain they feel, the ups and downs.  Mania and depression are not normal behavior and you need help.  There is so much life out there that you are missing or feeling that drug called mania that disrupts your whole life, that speed or slowness that no one understands…  It is all part of this new normal that each bipolar person needs to come to and develop until it just seems normal.  No, others do not always understand, even if they try their hardest, they are not in our head.  This is mental illness and one of us is visibly bringing to light: Mr. Stephen Fry.

And my hope is to add myself to that list of people trying to help others or speak out, from Carrie Fischer to No Stigma to Stephen Fry.

In short, I don’t care about his politics, though I do love his talent, I am a fan and fellow advocate of Stephen Fry.  And I can not wait to see what more he gives to the world, via books, television, film, documentaries, and so many other gifts that you’d have to ask him about it.