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.
Me — I don’t laugh much. By this I mean that I’m not one of those who is inspired to laugh by the antics of the so-called sane, though I often find them amusing when they don’t intend to be. I find my sense of humor shared mostly by others like me. More than a few times my support group has been brought down by the tale of some unafflicted schlamazel’s reaction to the revelation that s/he is in the presence of a maniac. I confess to sometimes toying with the sane just to see their reaction. It’s a dangerous sport, however: given that the mentally ill are far more likely to be the victims of the sane than the reverse, I could be teasing a grizzly bear.
An iconoclast friend of mine suggests this reading exercise: When you see the word “blessed”, substitute “medicated”. “I don’t know a medicated thing.” “Medicate your soul!” “And Isaac gave his medication to Jacob.” “Medicated are the peacemakers.” Or is it “Medicated are the cheese makers”?
Lynn was often woken up by my screaming when we first married. Nightmares and memories of my childhood would stab me in my sleep. “I was born innocent! I was born innocent!” I cried in protest one night.
Early on, I figured out that alcohol didn’t help. So for a long time, I wrestled the disease without any kind of help. I can understand the desperation of people who use street drugs and alcohol because their health insurance doesn’t cover mental illness or because they haven’t found the strength to face the inner stigma. But there are those who get themselves drunk for its own sake. The other day I said: “Alcohol is liquid mood disorder. Why are you working so hard to become insane like me? It’s no fun!”
Too many people have weirded out on me when they learned of my syndrome. They panic and blame any argument on me and my “crazy ideas”. Even here on the net they flee as if I have a butcher’s knife which can travel up the cables and out their monitors into their hearts. I have had people ask me not to help them even after I was medicated because they feared the stigma of being associated with a man who lives with bipolar disorder. The so-called sane are unpredictable and sometimes dangerous.
A few months ago, I got in trouble on a hike for innocently wandering away from the group. The leader of the hike went beyond simple chastisement: before asking me my side of the story, she accused me of the vilest motives — of being a fire starter. She took my photo and saw that it was distributed to other event leaders of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy. I did defend myself, explosively. When I got home, I called my wife; I was fearful that this confrontation would break my equanimity and overturn my calm into an episode. Yes, this is the life of one living with bipolar disorder — that constant dread of “losing it”.
There is a fair amount of controlling among those who gather to support others who live with my condition. Sometimes the warnings are apt, sometimes they are ridiculous — incited by the fears of therapists more than anything else. Once i was telling the story of how I hallucinated while I was on marijuana after a meeting. The leader of the meeting overheard this and castigated me: “No war stories”! he abjured. Fuck that.
When I am manic, women look very good to me. All women.
Once — in my Senior year at college — someone slipped an anonymous note under my door complaining about my taking showers with my girlfriend in the men’s bathroom. This affronted me and I posted a response on the wall outside my room. Another note — perhaps written by someone else who lived with bipolar disorder? — appeared and I posted them both in the same place as before. This went on for a few days. It ended when I came out of my room and found some strangers reading the exchanges. My wall was famous across campus. I took the notes down. My girlfriend told me that the following year the resident assistants used the story as an example of a situation that should have involved them before it got out of hand. What could they have said to a raging bullshit artist?
Oh, the irony. I once made a crack that linked craziness with violence. A young schizophrenic woman put me in my place on that one. Who would know that in a couple of decades I would be diagnosed with bipolar disorder and this would become one of my causes?
I can go on for days talking about my manic episodes, developing involutions upon convolutions about their intricacies. Mania is a flash flood; depression is the rock that staunches the flow and sinks the ship of personality. I can describe it in two words: Numb Hell.
“The real pain is to feel one’s thought shift within oneself.” — Antonin Artaud
Some people seem to make it their mission to correct every mistake that I make. When the illness possessed me and I felt grandiose, this would enrage me. Now I look at these people and pity them: most do not stick their necks out to say much else. They seem to live for finding fault in others. Could they dread that they themselves have nothing to say?
A fellow who came to support group asked me “how do I tell when I am in mania?” I said “Look at the people around you. If they look scared, you probably are.”
Some day my meds will fail me or destroy my liver. At least they won’t give me dementia. This is the great ticking of the clock. Some day my diabetes medications will stop working and I will have to prick myself with those tiny hooked needles to give myself insulin. There isn’t an insulin for when the mood stabilizers all fail.
When I was in second grade, I became sensitive for no reason. The kids teased me and called me “Baby” when I cried. My parents colluded with my teacher of the time and they decided that the thing to do was to tease me more. I did stop crying. Crying means that you had hope. Numbness was a sign that I had lost it.
I can’t say that I was a loveable maniac any more than I can say I was a fun drunk.
My worst spin out and withdrawal from a medication happened when I went cold turkey on Geodon. It was an impossible medication. I would take it at bedtime, wake up dizzy in the morning, and stay dizzy until about three to four hours before I had to take it again. So I stopped. The next day I devolved into a depression that I thought lasted four or five days but my wife tells me persisted for more than three weeks. I lied on the bed for hours, my cats perched on top of me, rising only when the DVD player needed to be restarted. I felt terribly ashamed and cried when I finally told my story at a support group meeting.
Right now, I am listening to the rolling, empty of emptiness sound of the air purifier. It can be an emblem of the state of my mind at times.
I have never understood the problem with identifying myself as “bipolar”. It doesn’t mean I am my illness any more than saying I am blue makes me that color.
Classical music is my favorite genre. I feel it intensely when I am in mania, so much so that I will put it on when I am depressed and hope that it will restore the euphoria. The violins affect me the most: I can feel the grooves that they rub in my brain.
“Joel”, a minister I once sought out for counsel told me, “you’re a leader”. Oh how I have sought this and fled from this. When I was in Junior High and High School I sought election as a class officer but not once was I chosen by my peers. You should have seen the ways they defaced my posters. I never tried in college.
There are people in this world who see me as an evil to be stopped because of things I said and did when I wasn’t well. Samuel Johnson said something about people being judged by their worst performances when they are alive and their best when they are dead. I hope my best is worth praising.
Thoreau said “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” I happen to lead a noisy one.