June 30, 2015: Three Good Things

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This week I’m sharing three good things about myself rather than my day. Today is going to be a challenge, because I really don’t know if I could even relate three good things about my day, much less myself, right now. My brain weasels have taken hold and won’t let go. I’m sitting in a dark, quiet apartment, prohibiting myself from everything, even drinking water. And I have to come up with three good things about myself. This should be good.

1. I’m organized. I function better in a non-cluttered space than a cluttered one.

2. I’m loyal, to a fault. If I’ve given you my friendship or my love then it is eternal.

3. I’m polite. I was raised in the South where responses like “yes ma’am” and “no sir” were drilled into me starting from a very young age. It takes a lot for me to be impolite to someone.

So that’s done, back to staring at Facebook and waiting on the evening to pass.

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My Little Black Books

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I’ve gotten a lot of requests for information about my little black books, those two indispensable resources that are helping me to start to reclaim my former self. I thought I’d share them with you here.

First off, I’ve started with the Moleskine Squared Soft Notebook (Pocket). This is basically a notebook full of graph paper. Inside it, I’ve sectioned off the book into roughly two halves. In the first one, I keep my checklists.

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Across the top are the dates. (In this example, you’ll notice that there are a few missing. Usually that indicates a bad day. You’ll also see the trend of improvement at a glance.) Down the side are the things that I regularly have to do with my day, in more or less chronological order. When I complete an item it gets checked off. If it’s not relevant (for instance, “Commute” is only applicable on those days I have the car, and never on the weekends, unless I’m out of town and traveling – more on the “Commute” selection later).

If you click on the picture above, you’ll note that there’s a single entry for “To-Do.” That’s where the second book comes in, but I’m skipping ahead.

At several points in the day, I have to measure my vital signs to some degree – in the morning, my blood glucose, my blood pressure, my pulse, and my weight; and two hours after every meal, my blood glucose. That’s what the second half of the squared notebook is for, and it looks like this.

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This time, across the side of the page, turned to be the top, I mark which vital I’m tracking. Along the bottom, turned to be the side, I have the dates. Again, as you can see, improvement is progressive. If there’s a spot where there’s a double digit number in a triple digit space, I usually trade the leading zero out for a slash (/) and in places where recording a specific vital is impossible, I put dashes (-) in each space. You can invent your own system for what works for you.

Now for the second notebook. It’s a Moleskine Ruled Soft Notebook (Pocket) and it’s just like a standard lined journal.

What goes in here is straightforward. It’s a list of things that I need to do, written in brief language to jog my memory about the things that need to happen. If details are needed, they’re included. When something is either done or the decision is made not to do it, it gets crossed off. It’s a progressive to-do list in that there aren’t dates or deadlines involved. You decide what order things happen, and by when. When you’ve done things that need to be done by the end of the day, plus whatever else you want to do to work ahead, consider the To-Do item in the other notebook checked off.

This to-do list looks something like this.

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So that’s basically it. It takes some getting used to in order to make sure things get done and then recorded, but I soon found the reward of checking things off on the list was a motivational tool. If I miss checking something off, I acknowledge that at the end of the day and tell myself that tomorrow is a fresh column with fresh opportunities. Some days, I just don’t want to worry with much of anything. On those days, I make sure that, if nothing else, I take my meds as indicated. Those are critical to maintaining an even keel and I can’t afford even a day’s lapse.

Oh, one other thing about the checklist. They’re fluid from page to page, so when I turn the page in a few days, I’m going to have made some minor changes to my checklist of things to track. New habits come in, obsolete ones go out. (For instance, when I turn the page, “Dance” will be added, and “Commute” will be removed.) If a new habit needs to start before the page gets turned, it goes temporarily into each day’s To-Do list until I can make a space for it. I still make the time to check things off if I’m still doing them, even if they’re fully integrated habits. The checklist also serves as a progress meter for my day. I know what needs to happen next and how I need to proceed with the rest of the time I have before the next item that’s timely comes due.

(If you’re wondering about appointments, those I track through Google Calendar and slip reminders into each day’s To-Do list in the ruled notebook. As for them being little black books, if you want to interject some color into your life and don’t mind switching to a hardbound cover, you can get the same two notebooks in red, white, oxide green, orange yellow, brilliant violet, and magenta.)

Hopefully this answers some of your questions, but if you have others, feel free to leave them in the comments, and I’ll respond as soon as I can.

My Little Black Books and I

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I mention frequently that I have “several mental illnesses” but until now haven’t gone into too much detail about them. In a nutshell, I suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, bipolar disorder, and borderline personality disorder. There are some undiagnosed obsessive-compulsive tendencies in there as well, and eventually I’m going to discuss those with my medication manager, but for now, we’re working what we know.

In August 2013 I was “diagnosed” with diabetes. I put the term in quotations as the diagnosis came through a phone call the day after I was discharged from the hospital with a bout of severe hypertension. My A1C, the test that indicates roughly the previous three months of average blood sugar level, was “within the threshold” of a diabetes diagnosis, and so I “might want to talk to my primary care physician” about it. Having neither insurance nor money, I had no PCP at the time either, and so since the doctor on the other end of the phone didn’t seem alarmed, neither did I.

Fast forward to September 2014. My darling wife and I were on our way to dinner when I started having the classic symptoms of a heart attack. We detoured to the emergency room, got admitted, and the next morning my fasting blood sugar was an even 400. It should be between 70-130 for non-diabetics. They checked my A1C. It should have been under 6. I scored a 10.4 and a brand new medication order for insulin to try and get it under control.

Since that time my first priority has been my health, both physical and mental. But there are so many things to remember to do. Wake up. Check and record blood sugar. Check and record blood pressure and pulse. Check and record weight. Shower. Shave. Brush teeth. Dress. (I’m told this one is important if I want to leave the house.) Eat breakfast. Take morning medications. Set timer to check blood sugar in two hours. Drive the wife to work, if necessary. (We’re a one-car family.) Exercise. Check and record post-meal blood sugar. Eat lunch. Set timer to check blood sugar in two hours. Write. Accomplish to-do list. Check and record post-meal blood sugar. Take afternoon medications. Get the wife from work, if necessary. (We’re still a one-car family.) Eat dinner. Take evening medications. Set timer to check blood sugar in two hours. Yoga. Check and record post meal blood sugar. Brush teeth. Take bedtime medications. Record something good that happened during the day. Go to sleep.

For someone whose daily schedule used to consist of

  1. wake up
  2. get coffee
  3. uhhhhhhh …
  4. go to bed …

… the above paragraph is a huge lifestyle change. It’s a lot to remember, and I still have trouble doing so. (I couldn’t give you that above list from memory, for instance, over a month later.) So I incorporated my love of journals into a tool to be used for Good.

Benjamin Franklin used to measure the worth of his day by 13 virtues. At the end of the day, he’d check off in a little book whether he’d lived up to those virtues that day. He did this every day for the majority of his adult life. The idea of using a book to record progress in living one’s virtues is the concept that gave birth to the Franklin Planner, the main product of the FranklinCovey company.

I went in a different direction and made my own. Moleskine makes a soft-cover squared book – almost 200 pages of graph paper. I created a checklist chart for each of the items that I need to do, and a separate chart for recording values for the vitals that I need to track from day to day. I also have a separate lined Moleskine book that tracks a progressive to-do list and also helps me remember things to tell my wife when she comes home from work. (She works in a call center, where communication between us during the day is sporadic at best.)

So these are my little black books. They have already helped to structure my days in many ways, where before I had little to no structure at all. Structure is an important tool for someone with mental health issues. It gives them the next thing to look toward, the next task to do, and can often keep them going when they otherwise couldn’t. Speaking for myself, if I go “off book” for more than a day or two at a time, that’s a danger sign that my depression is starting to sneak back in.

And having that danger sign, recognizable to my own self in the midst of a downward spiral, might be the best feature of all.