This began as an unfinished draft that I discovered when I was cleaning out my database. It is an exercise: to take a subject — my illness — and speak of it in many different ways. I have included discussion of Illness Past, Illness Present, and Illness to Come because I am a sequence of events. There’s no order, however, except that which I have come upon through hunches.
A friend — one friend — tried to call me while I was in the hospital. Afterwards, we spoke on the phone some. Then Lynn and I met her for dinner. She and Lynn talked and talked. I didn’t know what to say — I felt ashamed of what I had become, a man who lacked hands that could cast forth stars. So I sat at my end of the table, sipping my glass of clear water and eating my pear and Gorgonzola pizza. I didn’t misspeak because I said nothing. And this friend hasn’t returned my calls ever since that night years ago.
For a time, my psychiatrist had me taking Depakote (known to some of us as “Depabloat” because of its obesifying properties) to stabilize my moods. Shortly after I went on it, she called me to see how I was doing. “I’m feeling great,” I said. “Provided I get 16 to 18 hours of sleep each night.” She took me off of it.
The door to the meeting room closes and everyone shuts her eyes, puts her hands in her lap, and tries to bring the silence of the room into her head. This is not meditation, this is listening — listening for what is called “the still small voice”. It is not conscience, though it is kin to it. The people in the room are seeking to make contact with — depending on whether they are Christian or not — the Holy Spirit or simply the Spirit or the Light. Sometimes one of them feels a rumbling inside. Words begin to come together. He rises and speaks to the rest of the congregation. Words of comfort, words of insight into the sufferings of the human soul flow through the voice into the ears of the congregants. The Light infuses these messages with a powerful optimism — a sense that all humans are ultimately good and capable of being reached. Other times, the words speak to “concerns” that the Friend feels need to be brought before the Meeting. Sometimes he thinks he has been led by the Spirit to witness in the world by undertaking a project that will help others.
In 1992, I sat in one of the chairs of Palo Alto Friends Meeting and thought I had such a leading: I was going to former Yugoslavia to help the peace movement communicate with the outside world. I managed to convince a clearness committee that I was sincere. This let me use the meeting as a place to collect money for my project. For three months, I lived in Croatia and visited other countries including hostile Serbia — meeting locals, watching events, and writing about my experiences. Upon my return, I spoke about my struggles. Two years after my return, I admitted to my wife that I was suffering from depression and sought psychiatric help. Eleven years later, I found the right diagnosis (I knew because the medications eased my discomfort with the world) which was bipolar disorder.
My brother is trying to impose a conservatorship on me. I am not married — my wife Lynn is not part of my life — so I am totally at his mercy. But he makes a mistake: he enlists the help of his wife. She is not the woman who he actually married, but a shorter woman with long blonde hair. She warns me about what he is going to do and helps me escape down a long, dark red tunnel.
File under Nightmares.
Victor Frankl believed that depression had more to do with thought patterns than a physiological cause. Time has shown that he was wrong, but many continue to believe that depression is the fault — rather than the affliction — of the sufferer. In Man’s Search for Meaning — a book I commend despite the flaw I am about to assess — Frankl relates this case:
Once an elderly general practitioner consulted me because of his severe depression. He could not overcome the loss of his wife who had died two years before and whom he had loved above all else. Now, how could I help him? What should I tell him? Well, I refrained from telling him anything but instead confronted him with the question, “What would have happened, Doctor, if you had died first, and your wife would have had to survive you?” “Oh,” he said, for her this would have been terrible; how she would have suffered!” Whereupon I replied, “You see, Doctor, such suffering has been spared her, and it was you who have spared her this suffering — to be sure, at the price that now you have to survive and mourn her.” He said no word but shook my hand and calmly left my office.
The psychotherapist apparently doesn’t see him again.
When the man has an AK-47, you do as he says, even if you are soaring
I was in Osijek, Croatia as part of a Quaker peace mission when I had the chance to snag some InterNet time at the local phone exchange. Croatia was at war with Serbia at the time, so security in this frontier city was tight.
I had my camera — the Nikon N8008 that I still use — with me.
*TRIGGER WARNING: SUICIDE**
Hell found me recently. Ever hear the phrase “No good deed goes unpunished?” A couple of nights ago, I engaged a chatter first by disagreeing with an assessment of his and then, after watching him become more and more explosive, asking him if everything was all right. I was truly concerned, but that remark was my undoing. Three days of public denunciation and harassment ensued with him accusing me of personally insulting him while questioning my motives and disparaging my intelligence. The staff at the site were no help: they didn’t want to get involved. Finally, I wrote a blog (part of my own account) outlining my rebuttal to his remarks. This led to his posting of yet another diatribe claiming that I was persecuting him. I lost it and let him have it. Suddenly the staff took notice. But instead of trying to put him in line, the one I approached for help told me that there were “two sides”. I pointed out that my blog was directed at his ideas; he had responded by calling me a moron. There was a qualitative difference in the interaction and the staffer was not helping the situation by failing/refusing to see the distinction. There was a wild finish where my persecutor denied he had insulted me, then backed down when I showed him that he had. He apologized and I deleted the whole argument between us as off topic. Of course, he exploded again saying that I had shown that I had not appreciated his apology by deleting it. I wrote one note to him telling him that he was out of control and needed to get a handle on his anger; and another to the staffer noting that not once had he noticed that I had kept my temper for three days under barrage. I was through with both of them. So far, silence from the one and a weak apology from the latter.
The USENET (or abUSENET as I like to call it) — also known as newsgroups — is a crime scene first created during the early days of the InterNet, one that I happily leave to its perpetrators. It is divided into various interest categories whose content is marginally controlled by its users. Some of the first spam appeared there and the first trolls. What I remember most, however, was how it attracted mean people — which included myself in my rages and manic obsessions — and demagogues of every opinion, political inclination, and persuasion. It was not a place to have a serious, insightful conversation about anything — much like the comments sections of some blogs and news sites.
When I was at my worst; I could not let go much as I have had problems with Internet arguments elsewhere. Like most abUSENETters, I had my home groups where I persisted in long battles with adversaries, repeating the same arguments over and over again in response to their repetitions. I wanted them to change their views, but I should have seen that nothing of the sort was happening. They kept making the same points and I kept repeating mine. This went on for weeks, months, years. I gained a reputation in these groups as an aggressor which was probably due to the mixed states that controlled my mind at the time. I must admit that the people I targeted were pretty ignorant of their subjects compared to me, such as the computer tech who had read Carlos Castenada and regarded him as a good model for participant observation by anthropologists even though he did no such field work and had made Don Juan and faked the Yaqui philosopher’s “teachings”. Or the fellow from a small state college who insisted that the brain trust he studied under was better than that at any more prominent and distinguished university. I was merciless in my repeated crushings of these oafs. What puzzled me was that they would not concede their wrongs and go away.
Flickr has a group called “Bipolar Photographers” of which I am a proud and prolific member. The other day, I tweeted the name and the url of the group. Another person reteeted my announcement but “corrected” it: “Photographers Living with Bipolar Disorder”.
Two weeks before, I was at a Mental Health First Aid group. One of the participants called herself “bipolar”. The presenter stopped the introductions and shamed her. Was this supportive?
Now I think these interventions are plain rude. The owner named the group what he named it. It is not for anyone else to change that title. Modeling may be appropriate — I call myself a person living with bipolar disorder when we introduce ourselves in group — but correcting someone — especially in a public place — smacks of grandiosity and arrogance.
How discover the agent’s motive and whether he desired death itself when he formed his resolve, or had some other purpose? Intent is too intimate a thing to be more than approximately interpreted by another. It even escapes self-observation. How often we mistake the true reasons for our acts! We constantly explain acts due to petty feelings or blind routine by generous passions or lofty considerations.
The 1992 war in the Balkans was different from any war that we have fought here in America in that it was what you could call a commuter war. Soldiers fought on the battlefield all week and then went home on the weekends to decompress and spend time with their families. What I am about to describe happened on both the Croatian and the Serbian side. The fighters came home with their gear — uniforms, AK-47s, and even hand grenades. A few of these men — the stress of the combat still shaking their bones — called their families into the living room. They sat everyone down, took out the hand grenade on their belt, pulled, the pin, and dropped it in the middle of the floor, killing most if not everyone. After a few such incidents, the respective governments began making their troops leave their weapons behind before they went home.
I’m not going to attempt to ascribe a motive here. Homicidal ideation — as well as suicide — is sometimes associated with PTSD and other mental disorders. There is no question here that it was a horrible war with men committing atrocities and simply carrying out the grim task of murdering the enemy — many of whom had been their neighbors just a few weeks before — every day. The soldiers described here had access to a unique means to kill. That’s all one can say.
Slate Magazine published an article by Psychiatrist Anne Skomorowsky criticizing the press’s assumption that depression led Andreas Lubitz to dive into a German mountainside. She writes:
Was Andreas Lubitz depressed? We don’t know; a torn-up doctor’s note and bottles of pills don’t tell us much. Most people who commit suicide suffer from a mental illness, most commonly depression. But calling his actions suicidal is misleading. Lubitz did not die quietly at home. He maliciously engineered a spectacular plane crash and killed 150 people. Suicidal thoughts can be a hallmark of depression, but mass murder is another beast entirely.
I’ve given this passage a lot of thought. Was Lubitz an evil genius? I take exception to the conclusion that his actions were in any way “malicious”. Looking back at my own personal experience of suicide and others’ recollections of their suicide attempts, I don’t think that he was even thinking about the other people. Mass murder was not his motive: it was simple self-annihilation and the airplane was the handy tool by which he engineered it. I find it no different from the bottle of pills, the knife, or the gun that others use to bring about their own demise. For Lubitz to do what he did, I aver, the passengers in the plane had to become invisible to his mind. He locked the door. He set the controls downward. He breathed deep so as to calm and steel himself for the resolution of the act. He felt his body hurtling towards the mountain. He was alone.
The fact is we are painters in real life, and the important thing is to breathe as hard as ever we can breathe. — Vincent Van Gogh
A few months ago, a writer (a psychologist wouldn’t you know) in Skeptical Inquirer dissed the idea that Vincent Van Gogh had bipolar disorder. She invoked new evidence that suggested that he had not committed suicide, but had been shot by a local boy. Now this writer left out a lot of facts about Van Gogh’s life such as the deep depressions that afflicted him, the ear he cut off to send to a woman who jilted him, and the euphorias that took him to his own heaven. All these are documented in his letters to his brother Theo. These didn’t matter: the psychologist couldn’t stand the thought that Vincent could be capable enough to render his masterpieces and live with bipolar disorder.
This stigmatization through denial gives us a yet another reason to stand up and show our faces in the world. We are capable, we create beautiful things, we hold down jobs, we engage the world. I had a psychologist once very much like this woman. She was controlling, overbearing, and made me feel that I was a dangerous, abusive person based on some personal confessions about some things that I did long ago. She kept pushing me to get a job and told me that my wife was too kind towards me. She didn’t want me talking about my having been emotionally and physically abused as a child, demanding instead that I completely forgive, trust, and love my parents. She didn’t like that I pointed to famous people who lived with the illness either, marking it as a sign of grandiosity. In the end, because I would not become the person she wanted me to be, she dropped me. I did not trust another psychologist for nearly two years. The one I finally turned to, fortunately, did not put me through this hell even though she knew the same facts. She has helped me to move on and appreciate who I am.
I must tell the truth here: I do not understand what Andreas Lubitz did. In my suicidal fugues, I thought of many ways that I might kill myself that involved others such as throwing myself in front of a truck or crashing my car into a tree or driving it off a cliff, but the idea of taking others with me — that wasn’t the self-annihilation that I planned. When I came close,I found a secluded place where someone would eventually find me. That was the maximum involvement of another that I planned. Though I thought capital punishment might work for me — and send a message to those who loved me — I did not want to assassinate others.
Rumor has it that Lubitz was going through some catastrophic issues with his girlfriend. He knew that he was ill and he was seeking treatment for it. The day of the crash, his psychiatrist issued a sick leave note. Andreas did not use it, however, and his doctor could not call the airline to tell them that he was at risk. But Lubitz did not stop at ending his own life:
Andreas Lubitz was breathing, steady and calm, in the final moments of Germanwings Flight 9525. It was the only sound from within the cockpit that the voice recorder detected as Mr. Lubitz, the co-pilot, sent the plane into its descent.
The sounds coming from outside the cockpit door on Tuesday were something else altogether: knocking and pleading from the commanding pilot that he be let in, then violent pounding on the door and finally passengers’ screams moments before the plane, carrying 150 people, slammed into a mountainside in the French Alps.