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Bipolar Disorder in a Time of Hate

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square836Shortly before my hospitalization for a mixed state came the 2004 election. I crashed and crashed hard after the results. Politics is a fascination of mine but obsessing about it is not my friend. When my expectations are high as they were in 2004 and the hope I feel is unrealized, I take it very hard. The mix of anger and disappointment plus certain medications I was taking for depression at the time pumped me up into a mixed state. One day, when I had enough of it and of other life issues, I texted my last will and testament to my wife and sat down on a log to study my veins for the right place to cut. A timely phone call from my psychiatrist saved me.

The 2004 election was cordial compared to what has happened since 2008. Elements on both side but especially the right have been whipped into a frenzy by their respective leaders. We hear stories of blatant racism and sexism, two faults that have been hidden until the recent elections. We see them not only in the political arena but also in the news media and on the streets of our cities. Some such as Fox News are instigating their viewers to greater and greater heights of denial and fear while others just give the demagogues air time by covering them without comment. We see black men strangled or shot dead with no justice leveled against their killers. And respect for the police — even the good cops — sinks lower and lower.

These same haters have declared a culture war, but some have also declared war on psychiatry. Alex Jones, for example, tells his followers not to go to psychiatrists or take their children to one. This suggests that he knows all too well that his variety of agitation depends on keeping at least some of his followers sick. And do not forget that lack of insight is a common symptom of bipolar mania. I have witnessed people Right and Left who I suspect need to be on medication but remain in denial. I know that I tweeted constantly during the 2014 election and either lost or was muted by several Facebook friends who grew tired of my relentless political diatribes. The irony is that I foreswore such activity. It consumed me anyway.

At the same time, we see funding for treating mental illness cut. There are fewer beds in hospitals. The community clinics that were promised in the 60s, 70s, and 80s never materialized in many places. Many of my fellow sufferers do not vote because they see all candidates as being alike in their heartlessness or simply apathetic on these issues. Others rage and rage.

What does one do in such an America, an America of violence, alienation, and stigma? I have chosen to cut my consumption of the news, focusing on science and psychology instead. My photos of peaceful landscapes offer me another escape. But is this isolation from issues which affect my life as a bipolar good for me? It’s a razor’s edge on which I find myself sitting. I remember too well how I spiraled out of control in 2005. And I do not want to go back there. But the things I describe cannot be allowed to persist because they trigger and they numb us with despair.

To the sane I ask that you consider the effects of what is happening in your country today and speak to silence it. Ask for moderate voices and no platforms for the misanthropes who have seized control of politics and the media. End the polarization that cleaves us from our neighbors and even family members. Seek an end to unregulated police violence and support justice and safety for the police officer who try every day they set out on the beat to do the right thing. Reclaim America from the racists, the sexists, and the extremists of all natures.

You will save people like me from crushing triggers.

This new country: ADD

square835I seem to accrue more and more diagnoses to cover my symptoms. Two months ago, I handed my therapist a pile of questionnaires. A week later, she confirmed a diagnosis of Attention Deficit Disorder (without hyperactivity). Two weeks ago, the day after I transferred her findings to my psychiatrist, I began taking Vyvanse.

Having traveled the country of mania before my acquiescence to mood stabilizers, I worried what this daily ingestion of a stimulant might incite in me. The night before I began, my entire body cramped up in dread of losing control. I took the capsule on schedule and went about my day. The kitchen table was a project which had defeated me in the past, so I decided to try it as a test. Somehow I saw the difference between necessary papers and trash, a distinction which I had had trouble gloaming onto before. I packed some of the contents into three boxes, stacked a few books and tablets, and crammed everything else except for my laptop and an iron mouse paperweight into a plastic bag.

Was this mania? I checked for the other signs: Paranoia? No. Grandiosity? No. Irritability? No. Impulsiveness? No.

What I feel now is nothing like mania. I don’t jump to fulfill every whimsey, running up credit cards to their max. I think of myself as just a human being not all that much different from others. The spies and government agents who used to follow me when I was in the throes of bipolar disorder don’t lurk next to the cable hookup outside. I am clear-headed and able to motivate myself. I have discovered that for the longest time I was more depressed than I had realized.

Such a map I lay out. Dismal forests overrun with kudzu swamp my head when I go untreated. This pill, I hope, closes the gap created by the last of my debilitating symptoms. I set my keys and wallet in the same place each night, keep the table clear, and go through the mail every other day for junk mail and old magazines. I find the energy to experiment with my camera and make no excuses for my sluggishness because I just don’t feel that way anymore. The only thing that remains lost to me is my poetic imagination. This new country reserves no place for it, so far, but I shall plow the field for it soon.

Going Beyond Hope

square834I arrived at an epiphany this week. The anger of others frightens me not because I fear violence, but because I dread their rage to be unending. When I contemplated where this might have come from, I remembered how things were in my family when I was growing up. First, there was the continual picking of fights by my mother and brother particularly. Then grudges were held — for years. My mother needled me about things I had done in high school forty five years after the fact! Finally, I had no escape even when I became an adult. I dreaded coming home because these scenarios would be repeated over and over again. I had dreamed of leaving this all behind when I went off to college, but adulthood failed to bring me the freedom I craved.

To survive, I developed a number of behaviors. One was to simply avoid getting into any situation where people might fight with me. I isolated. I avoided parties and other social gatherings. I visited my mother as seldom as possible. I should note that not only was the anger of others an issue, but my own anger was a problem. Rage was a second behavior that could quickly get out of hand — though I never hit anyone or threatened to do so. I kept my feelings bottled up for ages without seeking insight into them. Thus from time to time after weeks or months of provocation, I would explode. The purpose of this rage wasn’t to get people to do what I wanted, usually, but to get them to leave me alone and let me do my work. (In my family of origin, there was a duplicitous code whereby I was expected to study, but could be interrupted at any time. I fulminated to try to protect my working time.) Finally, I ran when people attacked. An example of this: One time I went for a job interview where the interviewer started shouting at me. Instead of telling her that she was out of line, I murmured some apologies, left, and drove as fast as I could to get back home. So even though I was more than willing to protect my workspace, I was a coward when people abused me.

Adult life demanded that I make changes, but I did not dare to carry them out until after my mother’s death. I finally allowed myself the freedom to react assertively to rage — apologizing where I had to and standing up for myself when the other person’s apprehension of the facts or my intentions were wrong. My exercise of these has not been perfect, but at least I am standing my ground more. And I try to hear people out more so that we don’t reach the point where they attack me.

This self-empowerment is changing my life. I have less to trigger my anger or my bipolar episodes, especially the depression. A new dream envelopes my mind, a dream that goes beyond hope and manifests itself as self-confidence.

Death, Luck, and Going On

square833I count my deaths. The times when I fell down and hit my head or hit it on the top of a door frame (a hazard of being six foot six and a half inches). The time when I ran a red light and nobody hit me. The time I put on the brakes in a heavy rain and spun around and around in a circle. The time when I was rear-ended. The time — I was four — when I stuck some wire in an electrical plug and felt the juice starting to flow into my hand. The time when a dog should have mauled me. The times I was knocked about by family or other kids so hard that I heard the scream of my brain. The time when I ate raw elderberries and needed to have my stomach pumped. The times I was bitten by wild animals and should have gotten rabies. The times I ate dodgy foods from the refrigerator. The two times when I was hit by a car — one as a boy and one as an adult. I should be, by these counts, in the grave and forgotten — a presence beneath a tombstone becoming diffuse in the dirt. But I don’t even have a scratch.

What to call this existence that I am in? Heaven? Certainly not. Hell? It seems so at times. Purgatory? More likely because there are lengths when life is not excruciating. What it all shares is an unyielding guilt for having survived to do so little, to be of such little impact. I mark that I have been an embarrassment and a mistake in other people’s lives. I’m sorry, so very sorry. But I can’t help being around. This thing will end when it ends. It is not for me to decide.

Selfies and Narcissism

square832Notice how people with no clue of the personalities of the people who post selfies jump to the conclusion that they must be narcissists? Appreciation of the complexity of motives driving self portraiture lies beyond the capacity of their minds it seems. I, however, believe the problem is ignorance which fuels too hasty judgements.

I have taken selfies for several years now. Many artists and photographers do. For most of us it is an exercise in our art, an experiment in composition. For many years, I did not like having myself photographed. It was a shock to see how people saw me or how I presented myself to the world. My wife, for example, seemed to include my then-ample-belly in every one of her photos of me. When I was young, I did not like my lanky frame. When middle-aged my stomach. Now in my late fifties, I don’t care about these things so much because I have spent a lot of time desensitizing myself to my own face and body. This isn’t narcissism: it is self-experiment and rehabilitation.

What about the young woman who shows her cleavage or her legs? I have to ask why the obsession with how young women choose to present themselves? I will grant you that there are narcissists among them, but the focus on young women in particular rankles of sexism. There are men who like to present their six-packs. And men and women who are not so pretty and fit who still show their faces and bodies. Are these narcissistic or are they merely trying to show the world that they, too, are attractive?

It is no sin to like your face and body. Calling others ugly or narcissistic because they don’t measure up to your standards of beauty or privacy strikes me as more contemptible. I have come to like my face and I like the faces that others post, too. It’s not all about me, but about the comeliness of the human race. Instagram, Snapchat, and Dailyboother when taken as a whole celebrates us for what we are. Human beings are meant to be seen.

Check out my new blog

No, I am not closing down Pax Nortona. I am merely making some separation. Chaparral Hiker is devoted to my adventures in the brush and beyond. Hope to see you there soon!

Mood stabilizer

I foreswore
anguish
for a silver dawn
but I also
gave up
rabid joy.

Colors

square831Awakening brought a turbulence of thought. The Supreme Court decision, troubles online, and other matters swept through my head — and like a white water raftsman passing through the Inner Gorge, I thrilled to every second of it. Fortunately, I had an appointment with my therapist. I dressed, ate, walked the dog, and then got in the truck for the drive to Laguna Hills. Enroute, I came to a rise on El Toro Road. A pair of bikers mounted the crest. One wore Day-Glo green-yellow and the other a pink so bright to my hypomanic eyes that I averted my gaze so that they wouldn’t hypnotize me. Then I saw the double yellow lines streaming over the top. They had never seemed so brilliant as they had at that moment. I knew by this that my mood was surging with the slope of the road.

“There are certain difficult things that I need to do,” I told my therapist, “but I can’t do them now because I would enjoy them just too much.” She laughed because I was laughing hard.

On the way back, I saw a cop car stopped by the side of the road, its lights flashing. It started moving as I approached, then picked up speed, turned a corner and vanished into traffic. A second sheriff’s deputy came from the opposite direction. Then as I came to a stoplight, a third one entered the intersection, slowing at the crossroads before zooming to the scene of all the excitement, its lights flashing white yellow red, white yellow red.

Broken Water Main

square830The street was slick as if we’d had a good rain. The closer we drew to our light at the crest where Saddleback Ranch and Glenn Ranch met, the wetter the road. It was flooding near the top. A pair of police cruisers hedged off the road. In the darkness, I could see a blue-white geyser shooting into the air in a steady torrent. A firetruck stood at the ready. At the other end, more police cars blocked off the road. We splashed past our usual turn and made a left at El Toro. Lynn and I schemed about what we would do if our water was cut off by the burst. “The only water we’ll use is for drinking and flushing the toilet,” she said. “I have Gatorade on hand,” I added helpfully. When we got home, we turned on the kitchen tap expecting it to scream as empty plumbing does. But a stream bubbled into a glass and I drank it.

On Self Revelation and Its Risks

square829Self revelation is the most dicey thing that a blogger can do. You put yourself out there hoping for help and support, risking being attacked or ignored. Mental health bloggers have perceived this, I think — as well as sensed opportunities for fame — and made a transition to writing advice columns for people with their illness. (I’ve remained stubborn and keep writing about how my mind works.) There are those vagabonds who come by a page for the purpose of harassing you because you have a mental illness. These are easily dealt with. The silence is worse. Your words disappear onto a hard disk and are never removed. Worst of all are the people who read what you write and then make a comment like “Well, you told us how you feel.” Behind remarks like that I hear a resounding “shut up”.

PTSD and Bipolar: Vampires in the Warehouse

square828I’ve been dreaming of vampires lately. The vampires work normal jobs as clerks in huge warehouse stores. You pass through the aisle and then come to the checkout stand where the vampires are waiting for you. There are people who kill the vampires, but when they do, they turn into vampires themselves. Nicholas Gage is one of the vampire hunters. This is never a good sign.

The stigma I have experienced for being a sufferer of PTSD is worse than that I experience for being bipolar. Though bipolar disorder is not what some call a “casserole illness”, I can at least talk about it without people telling me that my symptoms are figments of my imagination. Standing up for the reality of my bipolar disorder was hard with my mother to be sure, but it was harder to speak about what my childhood had been like. Like many abusers, she denied her part in the emotional and physical abuse perpetrated against me to the very last day of her life. After she died, her friends told me what a great person she was. They did the same for my father. I have learned that the most beneficial salve for this is simply to remind myself that there exist as many different perspectives on each of us as we have relationships. But this comes dangerously close to buying into the denial about what was done to me.

Things continue to trigger me. The other night I was facilitating a support group when a man walked in from the street. We were mid-meeting and were about to listen to a fragile member. “Do you understand what the group is for,” I asked. “I saw the sign that said ‘Quakers’ and thought this is where the Universe wants me to be.” “This is for people living with depression and bipolar,” I said. His eyes lit up. Had he lucked into the right place? I asked him his name. He started bragging that he was a certified NLP therapist.

I held up my hand. “You’re trying to control me,” he protested. “We’ll get to you in time. First we listen to Regina..” Our NLP therapist took a seat and leaned forward hungrily. I focused my attention on Regina so that the other members of the group would do the same. When she was finished, I made a remark or two, then asked if other members of the group had feedback.

Mr. NLP rattled off a series of probing questions that, in his mind, established him as creditable. The look on his target’s face suggested that she was overwhelmed. Other people looked scared. I held up my hand. “This is inappropriate feedback,” I began.

“You’re trying to control me,” he shot back. “I’m the facilitator of this group,” I replied. “I’m supposed to do that.”

Insert the standard paranoic lecture about people who get off on having a little power into the mouth of Mr. NLP here.

I pointed to the door. “Out.”

His protestation that I couldn’t make him leave was drowned out by five angry women telling that, indeed, he had to go. My wife rose up and crossed the room to hover over him. “You have to leave now!” she said. He stood up and started accusing us of being a bunch of whiners who he could cure. He called my wife bipolar. I followed them to the door where he made his exit. There was shouting, yelling. I saw that the affair was over, so I went back into the meeting room where one member sat calmly in her chair.

“We can just talk you and me if you want,” I said, craving calm.

Lynn came back. Then Regina showed her face at the door. The two other women came back. They requested that we secure the Meeting House so he couldn’t sneak back in. Lynn locked the doors.

I held a moment of silence, then let people talk about what had happened. Many expressed their fear that he was going to be violent. One woman needed to use the bathroom. Lynn went with her. A frantic feeling filled my gut, one of panic not anxiety. I returned the focus to Regina, then continued through the circle. When it came to me I reported that I was shook up and scared. The other members made it clear that they did not fault me.

Afterwards, we gathered in shocked silence in the foyer. Everyone had brought out their cellphones and studied the keypad as if memorizing the correct configuration for Nine One One. I told people that we would all leave together. We went from car to car, checking the back seats as I had learned to do on a college campus years ago. I was the last to leave.

The people in whom I confided my feelings of being scared laughed them off. One person spoke of how she would have liked to have handled the guy and implied that my accompanying people to check the backs of their cars before they left was “oh so American”. “I don’t have that problem because I have a bicycle,” she said.

It has been a chore to write about this in the aftermath of the event itself and the facetious commentary. One fellow survivor of abuse observed on Facebook that people will often shut down the victim relating their experience by outright denying the abuse or otherwise belittling the telling of it. He writes:

It closes the doors for someone to talk about their feelings and forces them to keep it inside. This can destroy a person’s life. Many suicides result from this. Once any of these lines are used, the person may loses trust with the person who used one of these lines. Unfortunately much of this comes from family. The ones who we are supposed to trust to talk about our feelings are the very ones shutting us off. This forces us to seek friends or even strangers to talk to. This type of abuse is worse than the original abuse we went through.

I am worried for myself. I’ve detected faint flashes around the rims of my eyes. I feel the panic of the dream — that there are vampires around me and people treat it as a joke. Worse, I fear signs that I am becoming abusive. Or that my confessions will brand me as untrustworthy.

The final stigma of PTSD that haunts me is the implication that because I don’t have “a thick hide” I am unfit for being in a leadership role among people enthralled in the suffering of mental illness. My sensitivity is a mark against me even though I feel and others have told me that I am more empathetic because of it. This feels like the final revenge of my dead parents: when I was young, it was always my protests that were the problem — not their considerably more violent rages. For the longest time, I have not stood up for myself and when I have done so, I have done it badly. Now it is my sensitivity — my feelings of upset by encounters with aggressive people — that is labeled the problem. Don’t feel. In cases like the one I have just described, I have felt a distinct uneasiness and shame for having allowed the situation to develop. As I told Lynn: “I am sorry that I put you in a situation where you felt you had to act the pit bull.” After all of this, I am the vampire. So far those with whom I have talked about this have not gainsaid me.

The Same Places

square827I’ve been thinking less about what it means to live with bipolar disorder and more about what it means to be human. But I have not yet stopped looking at what is wrong with me — damn those memories that strobe in my brain at the slightest trigger — and moved on to being the kind of person that I could be given the burnishing of my life history. I do things to fill the time. My steps on the trail resound with classical musical, my eye finds fresh subjects for the camera, but I end up in the same places, seeing the same things. And I haven’t dreamed in weeks.