i remember going to the carnival in the small town where i lived when i was a little boy. the main square of town had been transformed into a gallimaufry of contraptions and structures which consisted of rides, games, and food purveyors, all of it was strange and exciting and new. adrenalin filled my veins like a mountain stream after a downpour of rain. i always eagerly anticipated attending and would make my way to try as much as possible as soon as possible. i would gorge on roasted corn on the cob, cotton candy, and pork tenderloin sandwiches- usually double up on the sugar- and swirl with a buzz. i treated the rides just like the candy- i was a glutton-almost pacman like.
i don’t remember those carnival days as the happiest in my youth by any means, but i remember them vividly.. they seem pagan and pre-radical faerie at best. what i also remember succinctly is the kind of vertigo that would follow this ritual and roll in like a fog after the convergence of sucrose and kinetics. i would get somewhat numbed, disoriented, a bit detached, just as i do at the end of the manic phase. the energy of those outdoor festivals felt just like mania to me. and for this bi-polar mania may just be like a broadway show overture, comprised of a whirlwind of curious and enticing soundbites strung together in an upbeat tapestry. this vertigo, or motion sickness, that i would feel has always felt intrinsically connected to me, just like the mania that preceded it.
i bring this up because i am in the circuit that is described above in my daily life. there is so much newness going on that i have spied my reflection spinning in circles to keep up with all the changes. interwoven with this activity is that ancient sense of disambiguation which ebbs in and out like a marine layer and fills my soul with intoxicating feelings of engagement and disconnection that can be dizzying. the strangeness of it all is the topside and the underside is the familiarity of the dance.
moving through and living with a chemical imbalance is both the carnival i remember and at the same time it is like the funhouse there. it is an revolving and everhshifting maze that recites “the more things change, the more they remain the same” each time the labyrinth is walked. my life has traditionally felt tumultuous. it was before i began using substances, it continued in the 33 years of consistent self-medicating, and it remains in tact after 9 years of sobriety. it has become less of a star player in my drama and phased into the greek chorus. medication reels in the circumference, but the ride motion remains.
no matter how unflattering, now matter how inconvenient, how unsettling- this is part of the truth of who i am. i often spout to those that i work with that emotional sobriety really involves looking at, understanding, and accepting how we really are in the world. omg- that is so much easier said than done. and it is definitely a ride.
i worked a coupla weekend parties in the foothills and came home pooped. it morphed into a melancholy saturday evening mostly due to time travel. i managed to be in 2 places almost at the same time. i was moving small platters of food through a milieu of gentiles, and all the while i was whisked forward to the past. i have an incidental connection with the family i worked the parties for. a now-deceased member of their tribe had a profound effect on my sanity and my sense of self and style.
her name was cat and she still seems as aloof and elusive as she did when we met. i was almost sixteen and really struggling in my life. i had become caught up in teenage self-loathing, hormones, and my homosexual proclivities like a fox in barbed wire outside the coop. i kept running from home because home was so very unhappy and somehow i landed in the very hot and very humid south with an uncle and his bride of 2 years. they were in their 30’s so it wasn’t about a honeymoon for them. i now believe it was about the distraction. but then that’s another story.
i arrived in the late spring and had the whole summer ahead of me. there was a pool, 2 acres, a room of my own and about 8 chow chows that cat bred within the confines of her kennel. it was, it turns out, my own version of armisted maupin’s “tales of the city”. it was the 70’s (spring boarded by the 60’s) and all manner of roles and boundaries were being tested. cat was an extremely exotic person to this 16 year old mid western boy. she smoked pot, drank diet dr. pepper by the case, bred chows, and wore an almost inappropriately revealing 2 piece bikini daily as we sat by the pool and swapped stories about life, beliefs, growing up, and sex.
cat changed my life that summer. she seemed even more odd than i felt and that resonated somehow into my feeling better about myself. i fell in love with the dogs- especially blue and maya- 2 chows- i believe blue was a champion- and then there was sing-sing- an adorable and misfitted pekingese who ended up following me around like a vow had been taken. cat’s life, her aura, and her presence fortified my sense of propriety in the world. her words and her attentions steered me towards believing that indeed i wasn’t the most outrageous individual or foreign particle in the universe, which i had silently believed up until that point. it certainly didn’t rid me of those thoughts internally, but it did provide me with a new direction in which to move my thinking.
i enrolled in the local high school in the fall, but the insular quality of the summer faded like grapes on the vine. within a couple of months cat and my uncle’s relationship had become more volatile. they were avoiding and whisper-arguing and i knew that my time there had come to a close. i headed back up north to chicago and tried once more to sow the seeds of a less manic life. lord knows it was quite some time until things settled a little.
i have come to explain to people my belief- that living with bi-polar disorder is what it must be like living on a ship or boat for most of one’s life. the motion that emanates from the ocean is normal. the strangeness in life comes when the ship docks and one walks on dry land. the lack of motion seems out of balance-abnormal, trippy. instinct tells us to get back to the sea. even though the ground is quiet and less chaotic, it doesn’t feel right. it doesn’t feel natural. the constant motion feels like home. mental health treatment- especially therapy provided me with some tools to understand this. but sobriety is the plow that tilled the way.
recently i saw one of the most relevant discussions about modern culture of which i have seen recently in the media. the impact i felt was due to the embedded passion and emotionality that emerged as the cast of a recenlty released film about life and mental health displayed by some of the male cast members and the director of “silver linings playbook” i have my own experience with mental health- both myself and in my family as well as in my work. i took my mother to see the movie and she was a little taken aback at first, but then totally sucked in by it gentle candor and inclusivity. she leaned over and whispered “this is so personal” and “what a hard story to tell”.
the film’s director david o russel is quoted as saying in an interview with dealdline.com
“You have to have those disturbing moments that let you know that the movie isn’t fooling around. And that the emotions are real, and that the people are real, and you want to be able to feel as much of that pain as you can in a real way. The movie is filled with heartbreaking moments, I think, and there’s some very painful ones when he bottoms out. You know, where Jennifer slaps him and what follows is this manic episode of anger and anguish with his parents. In romantic movies terms, it’s like she rang his bell but given his situation, it was a bell he wasn’t prepared for. He had all this baggage he wasn’t willing to let go of, and it became this catastrophe in the household. It was important to Bob and Jacki, but especially to Bob that we see this family moment. What I love most about that is how the family goes through this horrible trauma, and when the cop leaves, they’re just standing there, wiping their bloody noses and ears, in their pajamas, all traumatized, but you can already feel in the quietness of it, the love that’s knitting itself back together. It feels very poignant to me, like they’re in it together no matter what. They’re sticking together.”
Perhaps the only true dignity of a man is his capacity to despise himself. – George Santayana
Nothing fixes a thing so intensely in the memory as the wish to forget it.– Michel de Montaigne
Let us not burden our remembrances with a heaviness that is gone.– William Shakespeare
Emotion has taught mankind to reason.– Marquis de Vauvenargues
In a fight between you and the world, back the world.– Franz Kafka
I am the master of my fate, I am the captain of my soul.– William E. Henley
Happiness is the interval between periods of unhappiness.– Don Marquis
Happiness is not being pained in body or troubled in mind.– Thomas Jefferson
We do not have to visit a madhouse to find disordered minds; our planet is the mental institution of the universe.– Goethe
Stress is nothing more than a socially acceptable form of mental illness.– Richard Carlson
Mental illness is nothing to be ashamed of, but stigma and bias shame us all.– Bill Clinton
i decided to start this post with quotes about mental illness. i inherited a form of bi-polar disorder from my mother who inherited it from her father and so on… definitely a gift that keeps on giving, i have wrestled with mania and depression for longer than i allow myself to remember.
early in my journey i was so enmeshed in her process that i didn’t realize i was learning how to deal with mine. i guess it’s called learning by rote. or maybe it’s a journeyman process like the 12 steps. it doesn’t matter really, either way. it is my experience and i can’t erase that.
our particular brand of challenge seems to be characterized by a meltdown somewhere in the 40’s. there has been a consistent crash that is characterized by the letting go of everything in life and a calling to proverbially circle the drain. this seems to be the point when a medical professional usually comes into the picture and introduces medicine and our lives change – at least for awhile.
that last sentence sounds simple, but it is anything but that. included in this is releasing the romance and relationship with mania. crazy can be much more intoxicating than its reputation. it is perhaps the ultimate natural high. mania is addictive. it’s pretty common knowledge that most folks with bi-polar disorder will follow doctors orders until their lives have leveled out and then tell themselves they are ok and leave the meds behind much like an alcoholic or a crack addict. this must be because the chemical releases in the brain are so powerful that the brain devises ways to get more.
i have come to understand a deeper reason it is referred to as a chemical imbalance. there has been very little balance in my brain since i was 12 or so. it has been a storm of sorts. “tumultuous”,” uneven”, and “wtf” are just a few phrases that can relay the reality of a bi-polar brain. i am now learning that living with bipolar disorder just may be one of the huge lessons that my life has to offer me. there are others certainly. the gift of recovery has been monumental in my life. but years into sobriety, it is being revealed that recovery for me encompasses much deeper issues that substance use.
these last few years of clean time have afforded me the luxury of being in the middle of a storm in my brain on more than one occasion and learning that i can withstand that without disappearing. it has taken 50 years to just get a glimpse of the grace of that revelation.
i’m pretty sure i have spent most of my life judging my mother and her circumstance, her decisions, and her occasional knack to get in over her head. i have hated some of those times. luckily, time has a way of softening the lens. now i know that i am not very different.
so tomorrow, as i spend time with my mom on mother’s day, i will have renewed gratitude on a hugely deeper level. i cannot ever think i would have figured out how to come in from the storm without her wisdom and experience. and especially her mistakes.
It’s rather splendid to think of all those great men and women who appear to have presented symptoms that allow us to describe them as bipolar. Whether it’s Hemingway, Van Gogh… Robert Schumann has been mentioned… Virginia Woolf, Sylvia Plath… some of them with rather grim ends… Stephen Fry
today i found myself trudging as i always do, but with a strange and renewed skip in my step. i’m not sure how long it will last, or if it will wane as quickly as it appeared. either way, it feels pretty damn good. there is a fresh inovigorated zest with regard to some changes at one of my workplaces. i have been looking at assisting with editing, enhancing, and modifying services. this process of creation has become like a drug for me. it definitely stimulates my brain and stirs my soul.
if there were a thing i could categorize as “what i do”, i think that the process of creation and re-creation would be at the top of the list. i have been involved in this process in almost all of the jobs that created spiritual growth in my life- starting at the age of 25. so here i find myself once again, contemplating getting on the rollercoaster that is this my work and experiencing the ride.
more details will follow, certainly, but i wanted to affirm that a new phase in being ushered in. i know that when my brain is tickled, i am happier and more productive. it feels as if i am doing what i am supposed to be doing. and i am very happy and grateful that i may be going for a ride…
crazy is as crazy does. sounds simple, but it gets so much more complicated than a catch phrase. and i was once again reminded of this yet again as i watched and listened to the darkly fantastic “next to normal” playing at the elle caulkins theatre in denver last night. a musical about mental illness? the ironies only begin with that question.
not a perfect play by any means, i found it compelling and thought-provoking at worst and engaging and validating on the better part of the scale. mental health anomalies (ergo mental health issues) don’t get cured. they are endured and remain. or not. this nugget of truth makes up the dark part of this story of a family doing their very best to limp through their own wounded situation. all are heroes, all falter, and all of them make sacrifices as well as compromises in order to keep going. and keeping going is the light at the end of the lightless tunnel they take us through. this family keeps going, as individuals, and as a unit, just not the unit we were introduced to at the start of the show.
the daughter’s character held special interest to me. she has not bonded with her mother (who has the disorder) and yet she is so like her mother it’s uncanny. she handles life and mishandles life in the very same ways she learned from her mother, yet seems so eager to get angry at her mother with every action. it reminded me that indeed most of us learn by example, not by direction and this truth may be hard to get around.
i remembered last night during the walk back to the car that how i deal with life was mostly learned by example. my chemical imbalance is hereditary and is active in most members of one side of my family, although it does manifest itself differently in many. but i did learn about self-medication, avoidance, and denial from my older family members. and later in life- my twenties, i started seeing what the repercussions of their techniques were, although i was already entrenched in my own blend of coping and a course was set.
i liked the magic show approach to psychiatry that was presented in the play. it stings with truth as well as exaggeration. there is not a formula or an exact prescription that fits all. it is an approach at best. and even with the best approach, the symptoms of an anomaly continue. they may be quelled to a point, however, an imbalance still exists. and always will.
learning to live with one’s own mental health is a lifetime voyage. both for the bearer and for the people in their lives who love them. i love the lyric “this is the price we pay to feel”. this difficulty is illustrated in a most tender and beautiful fashion in “next to normal”. and i believe that next to normal is probably the best anyone will ever get. “and still we pay… we love anyway”…
And you find some way to survive
And you find out you don’t have to be happy at all,
To be happier alive.
Day after day,
Give me clouds, and rain and gray.
Give me pain, if that’s what’s real.
Henry and Natalie:
It’s the price we pay to feel.
Dan and Diana:
The price of love is loss,
But still we pay.
Dan and Henry:
We love anyway.
And when the night has finally gone.
And when we see the new day dawn.
We’ll wonder how we wandered for so long, so blind.
The wasted world we thought we knew,
The light will make it look brand new…. lyrics from “light” next to normal