ok, Cupid?

When I signed up to my first dating app, about six weeks ago, filling out the profile information caused no-end of soul searching.

My first problem was a practical one: I had no recent photos. My husband had left three years previously, and he was always the one who photographed me. My kids certainly don’t. They’re busy playing with Snapchat or TikTok or taking selfies. Sometimes I’m lurking in those selfies, but there is no way I’m using pictures of my kids on a dating site, even with their faces Sharpied into oblivion.

In recent months and years, when I looked in the bathroom mirror I saw myself – more often than not – through the callous, distorting lens of depression.

I would flee cameras at family gatherings. I would delete photos where I had been unwittingly caught. Looking back through Photos on my MacBook, searching for anything serviceable that could be used on OkCupid, it occurred to me that if something bad happened to me, my children would be left wanting. I’d obliterated all trace of myself. It was as if I hadn’t been around for three years.  There was a complete absence of me.

The OKCupid profile has gone through several iterations, but I decided to combat the photo problem by captioning them to make it clear which ones were less than recent – using the same, hopefully witty, tone as elsewhere. Not taking the whole thing too seriously, but being honest all the same, which is more than can be said for many of the men posting less than fresh photos and passing them off as though they were taken yesterday.

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I think the question above gave me the most pause. It was easier to say what I didn’t want, which has been both useful and not.

Saying I can’t or won’t have any more kids (the ovary police are undecided, but probably the former) was designed to filter out people who did want children. What it seems to have done is attract guys fifteen years younger than me who are wary of commitment with girls their own age. (Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining).

Stating that I wasn’t interested in being some extra-conjugal adventure (there are sites designed for that, why not use them?) hasn’t deterred the guys in relationships from contacting me, forming a bond online or offline, then confessing that they are in a relationship afterwards, when the damage is already done.

But that really only covers what I don’t want. What do I actually want?

I spent too long listening to the harpy voices in my head crowing that it was over for me, that part of my life. Who was going to want this fuckup, with her two kids from two different relationships? This hollowed out husk, who hadn’t had sex in almost three years and really hadn’t even missed it, because the medication and the sad had just de-activated everything. Under the clothes I was just a Barbie doll, with no genitalia.

I remember telling a good friend that I was worried I’d meet someone when I was one version of myself, then I’d withdraw, and hurt his feelings. Or I would be dating a guy, or guys, then suddenly lose the will to leave my apartment, and just delete my profile and disappear from circulation. These things could and may happen. But she said, fuck it, just do it anyway.

Of course, I didn’t realise it at the time, but the very fact that I signed up to OkCupid at all, was the first sign that my mood was improving, markedly, and so the whole endeavour has been much easier for me than I could have imagined. And over the past six weeks, as I moved on from there to bumble, to happn, and fiddled with my settings, I’ve had something of an epiphany.

I knew that I wasn’t looking for a relationship in a traditional sense – my kids and I don’t want a guy moving in or spending time with our family unit, which occupies fifty per cent of my time – and that has not changed.

I suspected that guys with kids of their own would understand my responsibilities and constraints but that conversely, coordinating our schedules so we could meet would be tough. That has also proved to be true.

What I didn’t realise, is that I was capable of enjoying more fleeting kinds of attachments. The French term is “rencontres éphémères“, which sounds much prettier than any English translation could render. No strings, but more than once. Non-monogamy. Girlfriend experience, but not girlfriend. Seeing someone, but not exclusively.

No-one I’ve encountered so far seems to be looking for anything serious, but then nothing ever starts out that way, does it? You start out with a date, with a night, with another night. We are all improvising.

I know what I don’t want, I still don’t know what I do want. But I feel more confident now that I’m going to enjoy the journey, until maybe I cross paths with a person I want something more with. Whatever that may be.

muse

When I left the Psychiatric ward of Hôpital Tenon (admittance number duly saved in my iPhone, because they said there would always be a bed for me, should I need one), there was a photocopied pamphlet about lithium carbonate tucked into the inner pocket of my suitcase. It was an in-house, unofficial publication, typed in word with the pages folded, not even stapled together. I’ve dropped it a few times and can’t seem to manage to put the pages back into the correct order – which I find infuriating – and one of the pages was actually missing all along.

It works quite well as a metaphor for the hospital ward in general: their heart was in the right place, but the facilities were pretty terrible (I must write about that shower, one day) and there were some gaps in the service.  But it was free and I am eternally grateful for the month’s care I received as in in-patient that summer.

The leaflet begins with a page where I filled out some personal information, followed by charts where I track my lithium blood levels. I’m taking slow release tablets in the evening, and the therapeutic range for treating my bipolar 2 disorder is ideally between 0,8 and 1,2 mEq/L.  Toxicity can occur if the level in my bloodstream reaches 1,5 mEq/L, which is really not very much higher, so I have to watch out for various fun side effects which could start with, say, fatigue, coordination problems or muscular weakness in the first instance and progress to really cool symptoms like convulsions, distorted vision or hearing or even muscular seizures if lithium toxicity becomes severe. So far, there has been nothing to report on that front. Praise be!

I can no longer take ibuprofen, and anything which would dehydrate me – stomach bug, diuretics like coffee, tea or alcohol, will potentially affect my lithium levels.  Moderation is key here. Nobody needs to be adding lithium intoxication to their usual morning-after hangover symptoms.  Non pharmaceutical recreationals are also probably best avoided.

Under the heading “length of treatment”, it is stated that it might be necessary to take lithium for the rest of the patient’s life. My psychiatrist wants me to take it for as long as it is safe to do so, meaning that in my blood panels we also regularly check for damage to my kidneys and thyroid. The latter was seriously misbehaving – cue a battery of tests and MRIs and a not insignificant amount of worry – but it now seems to have fallen into line.

Under medium-term side effects, aside from the weight gain which seems to be associated with every single medication a person can take for bipolar disorder, the paragraph which interests me most is cut off, mid-sentence.

Diminution de la créativité : Certains patients qui prennent du lithium rapportent que le traitement diminue leur imagination et leur productivité créative. Il est à noter que les épisodes notamment dépressifs peuvent également affecter la-

It’s been nearly two years now, and I have no way of knowing whether lithium carbonate stomped all over my muse or whether feeling low sapped the will to write.

Perhaps it was a combination of both.

But it is a pretty well documented phenomenon. And no, I’m not comparing myself to any of the authors cited in that article, I’d happily just ride Carrie Fisher’s coattails, may she rest in peace.

Aside from the meds and the big black dog in the room, the other thing that has been holding me back, if I’m honest with myself, is causing (extra) (undue) worry to my nearest and dearest.

First of all, there are all morbid, dispiriting thoughts when I’m on a downswing, which I’m not sure I could or should be sharing with anyone. And when I’m just feeling kind of baseline meh? I’ve not been able to convince myself there is a lot of literary mileage to be got out of that mental state.

Even when things are good, it’s not as simple as you might think. Family and friends, who know about this blog because I overshared last time around, now invariably associate me writing, sharing on social media and being sociable with the possibility of subsequent self-harm and hospitalisation.

I know people mean well, but I dread those “you have been posting a lot more on facebook lately, is everything okay?” emails from my mum or from well-intentioned friends.

I suppose the only way to help them get over that fear, is to keep posting regularly. And let them see for themselves that the scary phone call (hopefully) never comes.

So buckle up muse, you and I are taking a ride through the good, the bad and the boring. Let’s see where this journey takes us.

undiluted

The signs are very familiar.

The need to have my blue Sennheiser headphones clamped to my ears every time I go somewhere – even if it’s just to nip out to fetch bread from the baker’s – so that my life is set to a soundtrack of my choosing. My brain craves the stimulation, and the volume is cranked up to full. Sometimes the combination of music and street stimuli gives me such a pure physical rush that I walk, head upturned to the clouds, remembering with every fibre in my body what MDMA used to feel like.

If the sensory overload gets too much, I stop in a bar for a beer, to take me down, just a notch.  If I start to slow down, I drink an espresso. Careful buzz maintenance.

My mojo has returned. A different walk.  A bounce in my step. I swing my hips and arms a little. I caress the handrail as I dance down the steps to the metro. I hang from the pole in the carriage, eyes closed.

I’ve lost weight; it’s just melted away. My fun clothes have come out to play, my crazy shoes. I apply a little more make-up, get my roots done. I start seriously considering that ladybird tattoo.

In the street, I meet the eyes of the men who stare at me. And they are looking. They even say “Bonjour”. The elderly guy from the Tunisian grocery store on the boulevard made some borderline-filthy joke about his “belles dattes“. Some alchemy has occurred: I’m no longer invisible. Something about my altered state is perceptible: to men, in particular.

Re-reading something I wrote here about not letting myself create a Tinder profile while “up” makes me smile. I’m not on Tinder, but a good friend persuaded me to try out some similar apps just before this altered state took over, to break with my three years of celibacy, and it has been serendipitous. Because this edge, this high is making me very good at seduction.

Side effects of hypomania include making “sufferers” charismatic, witty, gregarious, confident and impulsive. I concur. I am a charm offensive personified right now.  My libido is ten stories high. Any boy in the path of hurricane me is likely to have difficulty resisting.

This is the me I like best. The creative me who has been making things on the internet, taking photos, and chatting up a witty storm with multiple boys, putting the restlessness and the racing thoughts and flights of ideas to use.  But it’s me undiluted, when really you are supposed to add 90% water to taste. If you drink me like this, I may be too sweet, and I can’t rule out a bitter aftertaste down the line.

This version of me might stick around a few weeks, or a few months. I have no way of knowing. What happens next is an unknown quantity, too. I might come down slowly, like a hot air balloon, or I might crash land in spectacularly messy fashion. I’ll withdraw into my shell, to some degree. I’m never sure how much of the change is in my perception of myself, or how other people perceive me. I suspect it is a combination of both.

In the interim, I’m taking my meds, and being as honest as I dare when I see my psychiatrist, but I’ve resisted his attempts to increase or tweak my lithium dose, for now. Not taking it is never an option. A simple blood test would expose the truth, which is precisely why it was prescribed after I was admitted to the hospital: to police me.

But I’ve resisted any dosage-tweaking because I’ve spent too much of the past two years feeling hollowed out inside, numb, barely setting foot outdoors aside from work or necessary commitments for the kids, with my libido at ground zero.  This is not my definition of living.

Every time I complained, I was told this was an acceptable trade-off for staying well (read: alive).  I disagreed, but wasn’t in the best frame of mind to argue.

So while I know that I need to play safe, and absolutely acknowledge that I will have to pay some price for this period of euphoria one day soon, I’m also secretly hoping that I’ve reached the point where my brain has got acclimated to the lithium and will now regularly enable me to feel things again.

And if not, I intend to revel in this while I can. I need it.

I choose life, of course I do, but if it’s an option, I choose this version of my life.

bikini-ready

Shortly after my discharge from hospital, I agreed to meet a couple of friends for a playdate with our kids at the local swimming pool, rue Denoyez.  (Note to French speakers: sadly, no, the pool has not been named after the street.)

I will admit that standing nipple-high in lukewarm water in a kiddy pool for an hour (or longer if I can bear it) is not high on my list of “Fun Things to do on a Weekend”. Approximately once every five minutes I screw up my eyes – laser-surgery left me with not-quite-perfect vision – to reduce the haloes around the red numbers on the digital clock at the far end of the adult pool. The high-pitched shrieking of delighted children shreds my nerves.

But the parent-friends in question are very good company – litmus test: we have drunk alcohol together – and they have graduated beyond a listing as “Mother of A” or “Father of B” in my phone, which is a testament to that.

After being cooped up for so long, I craved normalcy. Even the kind that requires you to wear a compulsory swimming hat and leaves you with wrinkled fingertips.

A couple of hours from RDV time I suddenly realised that a month of trouser and pyjama wearing hadn’t exactly left me bikini-ready. One of my favourite songs at the moment contains the lyric “I wanna shave my legs for you.” There is no-one in my life just now for whom I need or want to shave my legs, particularly during the autumn or winter months. But I wasn’t sure I wanted to make that long, chilly walk from changing rooms to pool looking quite so unkempt, so I started rooting around in the bathroom cupboard for a disposable razor which was neither blunt nor rusty.

A text message arrived, enquiring whether I had any spare swimming hats.  I began typing my response with one thumb. Sad but true: I can touch-type at 100 wpm on a computer keyboard, yet I text like a grandma.

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I was about to hit send, when I realized my message could be construed as a threat to cause myself physical harm. And while the friend knew that no razors had been involved in my hospitalisation, my usually twisted sense of humour faltered for a moment and I couldn’t follow through.  I wound up deleting all but the first sentence.

Next stop was the bag where I keep our swimming towels, my son’s goggles, those infernal swimming hats and our swimwear. I don’t own a sensible, one-piece swimsuit, as I’ve never crossed paths with one which didn’t seriously exaggerate my pear-shape. I usually opt for an old, blue, geometric-print bikini often worn on holiday.

It was not in the bag.

Then my brain treated me to a little flashback montage. Me, wearing my blue bikini while nonsense-texting from the bathtub. Me, recording a video, long-since deleted, because nobody ever needs to view it (including me). Me, answering the door to two firemen, who gently suggested I might want to wear some clothes and put a few essential items into a bag. Me, wearing my blue bikini under the paper gown in casualty.

I opted for alternative swimwear. I wasn’t quite blue bikini-ready yet.

forty-five

Waiting for dinner in a fast food “restaurant” that shall not be named, my son (8) is fighting with his sister (14). He gets very irritable when hangry.  The shoving and sniping escalate. She finds baiting him irresistible; he can be extremely sensitive. It’s a potent cocktail.

I mutter something about wanting to bang both of their heads together and remember my father saying the same thing. I have become my father.

Then son tells daughter that he hates her so much, he is going to stab her forty-five times.

My daughter pulls a shocked-emoji face, then laughs. I feel glad that we are all speaking English and in a part of town where tourists are thin on the ground. Also, there are no knives – even brittle plastic disposable ones – in this establishment.

“That’s a very specific number,” I remark, “did you choose it randomly?” We were learning the nine-times table recently. I hope that is the explanation, as it would be preferable to a warped tribute to my age.

My daughter looks at me with her “mum, that’s not parenting!” face. I try again.

“You know, it’s really unacceptable to make horrible threats to people, even if you don’t mean them. If you’re going to say macabre things like that, I’m going to have to block Youtube on the iPad again.”

Via gateway films like Paranorman, Coraline and Goosebumps, he’s been on a deep-dive into the horror genre lately. There’s a parental filter on, but he knows stuff about totally inappropriate films he has never actually seen.

He ignores me and turns to his sister again. “When we get home, I’m going to gouge out your eyeballs with the ice-cream scoop.”

I allow myself to feel momentarily impressed that he knows the word “gouge”, then start picturing that day ten or so years from now when I’ll lie through my teeth in TV news interviews. “I never saw it coming,” I’ll wail. “He was always such a sweet boy.”

Later that evening, daughter has been left babysitting while I’m at a party, five minutes away on foot.  I can’t afford a babysitter, so when the kids are with me, I’m grateful for invitations from friends who live in the neighbourhood.

I check in with my daughter.

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insurance

Last year, in the context of my divorce, I applied for a loan.  It was quite a small loan, for about 15% of the value of our apartment. In essence, I was re-mortgaging my bedroom so that I could extract my husband’s share of the capital.

That said, I work part-time, so I’m looking down the barrel of paying off my bedroom for the next fifteen years.

By far the most difficult part of the process (and that is saying a lot, as my bank were breathtakingly incompetent) was dealing with the compulsory insurance, which includes coverage in the event of my death (we have a recurring theme!), or should I become too unwell to work for an extended period of time.

I’ve applied for a home loan twice before – both pre-diagnosis – and the health questionnaire had never phased me at all. I’ve never smoked. I’d never been off work for more than a week. The only time I’d seen the inside of a hospital in the past 20 years was for the delivery of my two children. (Is it just me, or does that it make it sound like babies arrive via DHL?) I’d forgotten the health questionnaire even existed until my bank manager sent me an email.

Have you been off work for more than one month in the past ten years?  If so, for how long? OK. Ouch. Yes. There were those six months immediately following my diagnosis.  I’m not sure I needed six months but I was on full pay and, for some reason, my ex-employers took their sweet time drawing up my exit papers once I’d negotiated my non-return. Anyone who has dabbled in mood stabilisers or anti-depressants also knows that you need time to get acclimated (especially as the first treatment didn’t stick, so I had to start over with a new one).  No point beating myself up about it now though: I took the time out and the damage is done.

I also had to admit to having a long-term medical condition. My bipolar disorder is declared as such to the French health service, which entitles me to free medical treatment. My month-long hospital stay was all expenses paid. Vive la France! Lying wouldn’t achieve anything (other than invalidating my insurance if something were to happen and I was found out).

So I filled in the questionnaire truthfully and a few weeks later, a second questionnaire arrived by post, this time for the attention of my psychiatrist.  I took it along to our monthly appointment. He scanned the first page, sighed and put down his pen.

“If I fill this in, Madame, then they’ll deny you coverage. I’ve seen this situation before.”

Tears welled up and my ears starting ringing: early-onset panic. “But what would you have me do? It’s too late for me to lie now,” I stammered. “I’ll just have to try. I really don’t have any other option. I need this loan.”

Reluctantly he completed the form, putting the most positive spin he could manage on everything. The details of my treatment, but an emphasis on how long I’d been “in remission” and in employment.

A couple of weeks later the reply came and I was relieved, at first.  I had insurance! My loan application could go ahead!

But reading the small print I discovered my premiums had doubled (and this directly in relation to the death insurance – how prescient).  As for illnesses, there were some major exclusions. Incapacitation due to a freak accident or injury caused by third-party was covered. If lightning strikes or I get hit by a car, all well and good (hmm… maybe well and good weren’t the best word choices here). But if I have the misfortune to develop a heart problem, say, or cancer? Not so much. Even though these things bear no relation whatsoever to bipolar disorder.

Even I can make a case for excluding my pre-existing condition. I’m a risky bet because of my illness itself, and that’s without factoring in the side effects of my medication. Lithium can cause renal failure, hypothyroidism, and much, much more. I have to take monthly blood tests to check my levels. A double-sided A3 sheet comes neatly folded inside every box of quetiapine and it might as well be a Penny Dreadful. Anti-psychotics are often responsible for diabetes and… you know what, I can’t face unfolding that leaflet right now, so let’s just leave it at “other bad shit”. The previous generation of antipsychotic drugs have been linked to dementia, and when I pressed my Doctor on that subject, he hedged like a politician, saying the newer molecules are probably safer, butas they haven’t been in circulation for long enough, no-one really knows for sure.

The other day, after reading an article online about a lady who had saved a fortune by renegotiating her home loan insurance, I entertained the idea of trying to improve my lot.  What was I thinking, you ask? Am I a glutton for punishment? Well, I did warn the broker up front that there were mental health issues and work absences involved, and she promised to take that into account when sounding out the insurers. And if it doesn’t work out, it’s no win, no fee.

So I completed the first form, where I had to start by admitting I’d spent a month in hospital. The second questionnaire arrived, and I found the suicide section.

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Has the patient ever attempted suicide? If so, how many times? Date of last attempt? Likelihood of a repeat attempt? Tick boxes to choose method: firearm, hanging, jumping off a high building (as opposed to a low building?) or other (please specify). I wonder what statistical risk-analysis wizardry is behind these choices. Where is the wrist slitting? Where are the meds?

I’m guessing that if I do accidentally fall off a (high) bridge, someone will brandish a copy of this form at my next of kin and try to wriggle out of paying up. Here is proof that Madame didn’t fall. She had a history.  She must have jumped.

So when I read articles in the press about mental health and insurance coverage, my blood boils. But words, as you can see, rarely fail me.

</end rant>

 

die

We appear to have reached the point where my daughter can joke text about death. I’ve decided that this must be a good thing.

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(Context: she felt I had insufficiently congratulated her for a good mark in her physics test, so several hours later I bombarded her with lovingly selected cheesy gifs and hideous Hallmark card quotes along the lines of “Nothing in this world is impossible, even the word itself says that I M possible”. So, on balance, I fully deserved it.)