Whew! 15 Minutes Is A Long Time!

Being the subject in a feature article which appeared in the first section of the Sunday edition of a US major newspaper like the Chicago Tribune was wholly a great experience, but also one in which I am relieved is diminishing in attention.  Like a child standing abreast the Sundae Buffet Bar at a local eatery piling one bizarre topping atop the last, the news cycle here in Chicago has a short attention span, especially when the subject (me) is an unknown (me).

It was the condition (bipolar); its manifestations before diagnosis; the odd behaviors preceding a mental breakdown; the swath of tawdry details, hateful accusations, and trust-damaging honesty laid bare which piqued their interest. The reporter who, with an eye focused on sensitivity, remained intent to anatomize sequential events like they were the identifiable behavioral ingredients required to produce a blue-ribbon breakdown pie.  She often returned to the timeline which, like a mooring buoy, guides a diver safely to the wreck.  However, my timeline represented a fall from grace, a clawing desperation numbed by opiates, acts of treason undermining my relationships; and finally, any semblance of sanity or allegiance to life was pitched like an unwanted circular.  The drilling for details only struck bedrock when trivial yet salacious activities, freely offered as context, had to be included in the article to highlight the stakes of my all in bet.

Absolutely not!  I would not be drawn-and-quartered on page 8, section 1, the entrails of my privacy displayed like human anomalies hawked at second-class side-shows!

I made it very clear: I’m not ashamed nor am I proud of my behavior, the pain it caused others, my professional devastation, the annihilation of trust, or the surrender of an identity.  But there’s a difference between honesty and privacy when it involves my life and the lives of those dearest to me.  I have been candid and explicit and straightforward.  But if your newspaper can’t respect what I say is private, then they must not respect what I’ve determined to be public.  In which case they can’t have any of it!

And that stand on my own behalf was my take-away.  Before 2008 I always felt like I had too keep going, had to get promoted, had to make six figures, because there was always somewhere to go, a place just beyond my reach that would be better, easier, calmer.  And on I went, like so many of my friends, pursuing. . .something. . .

After 2008 that place which had been so important to get to disappeared along with the constant gnawing I heard, and the “coveted by others” baubles bought to fill an expanding void where truth-to-self and character once resided, and year after year after year of acrimonious evaluations designed to hobble my self-worth.

I find great joy and comfort and silence knowing there really is nowhere else than right where I am.


Chicago Tribune Feature – Published Sun., Aug. 26

No rhetoric; no sublime style; no lexicons or etymology.  Pure and simple disclosure of disquieting issues.

Please, REPOST THIS ON YOUR BLOG.  Personally, I prefer privacy over publicity; I exposed my life in the hope that the stigmas of mental illness, obesity, and homosexuality might be reconsidered to be human conditions worthy of respect and empathy.


Bipolar II disorder: Another Chicagoan’s story

Like Jesse Jackson Jr., Harlan Didrickson has the illness and has had weight-loss surgery

 Harlan Didrickson poses outside his Rogers Park home. (Chris Walker, Tribune photo / August 17, 2012)
By Barbara Brotman, Chicago Tribune reporter, August 26, 2012
Harlan Didrickson was a model of middle-class stability.He lived with his partner of more than two decades in a handsome Victorian on a leafy North Side street. He worked as manager of executive and administrative services for a high-powered architectural firm, where he made hospitality and travel arrangements for large meetings and oversaw budgets that ran into millions of dollars.He was not the kind of person who would go to lunch with friends and come home having spent $4,500 on a puppy and a month of obedience training.

Or who would get up at 2 a.m., go to Dunkin’ Donuts, then drive to Indiana and back, snacking on Munchkins.

But that’s who he became.

Four years ago, his life was upended by bipolar II disorder, the same illness recently diagnosed in U.S. Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.

This is not Jackson’s story. People with the disorder — nearly 6 million in the U.S. — have unique experiences with the illness, which cycles between moods of manic energy and deep depression.

“The symptoms of bipolar disorder can be very different from one person compared to another,” said Dr. John Zajecka, a psychiatrist with Rush University Medical Center who specializes in mood disorders.

Manic states leave some people euphoric, others irritable. “There are people who can function their whole lives in these hypomanic states,” though they may lose marriages, jobs and money, Zajecka said.

Depression, too, can appear in a variety of ways. Some sufferers stay in either mania or depression for decades; others cycle between them many times a day. And people respond differently to treatment.

But Didrickson’s struggle provides one look at how bipolar II disorder and its treatment can affect a life.

And he does have one key factor in common with Jackson. Like the congressman, Didrickson, 54, had weight-loss surgery before being diagnosed with bipolar. He had a gastric bypass procedure; Jackson had a duodenal switch.

It became a serious complication in his treatment. The weight-loss procedure, which causes the body to absorb fewer calories, prevented him from absorbing the full dose of his antidepressant medication.

Didrickson’s illness began when he started feeling extremely stressed at work. He considered himself skilled at his job but felt beleaguered by office politics.

“I felt as though I was fighting a lot of fights on different fronts in my life, and that I didn’t have the wherewithal, the energy,” he said. “I was profoundly unhappy.”

He changed jobs, twice. He still felt miserable. And he also felt trapped, having to do work he now found unbearably stressful.

More than 60 percent of people with bipolar engage in substance abuse as they try to self-medicate their inner pain. Didrickson was among them. At night he would wash down some hydrocodone, an opiate he had been prescribed for a back injury, with beer. He would stay up till 4 a.m. watching TV, then take Ambien to fall asleep.

“At 6 o’clock I woke up, got dressed and went to work. I was probably still high,” he said. “Then somewhere around noon, I would crash. I would go to the men’s bathroom, go sit on the toilet and fall asleep.”

His partner, Nick Harkin, a publicist with an entertainment and lifestyle marketing firm, had no idea how deeply troubled Didrickson had become.

But then Didrickson didn’t show up on time for a planned out-of-town getaway. When he arrived the next day, he was morose, secretive and exhausted. “It was a very abrupt shift,” Harkin said. “It was quite obvious that something was very seriously wrong.”

Didrickson was thinking of ending their relationship, he told Harkin. And he wanted to move to California’s Death Valley. He wanted to start a new life.

“I was falling apart,” Didrickson said. “It was this desperate: I will do anything to get out from under this pressure.’ It was like having a heart attack, and if you don’t get out from under it, it will kill you.”

Back home, he called a friend who had once been his therapist. She asked if he was suicidal.

“I was, like, ‘Of course I am. I think about it all the time,'” he said. “‘It’s the only comfort I have.'”

She told him to see a psychiatrist. He did, and was told he had depression — a common initial diagnosis for people with bipolar, who generally seek treatment during a depressed phase of the illness.

The antidepressant the doctor prescribed didn’t work. Didrickson developed memory problems, to the point where he forgot how to do simple tasks like using a phone.

“I could not take a shower, because I couldn’t recall the sequence of activities … turning on the water, stepping into the spray, getting wet, washing,” he said.

He lost 40 pounds and neglected bathing and grooming. And yet there were also times when Didrickson felt powerful, energetic, nearly like a superhero. He could do anything he wanted, no matter how dangerous or destructive, with no consequences.

He ran red lights. He drove the wrong way down one-way streets. “I felt like I was back to being in charge, like I was back to saying, ‘It’s going to go like this because I said so,'” Didrickson said. “I felt kind of emancipated.

“I thought, Wow, this (antidepressant) Paxil is really working.'”

But it wasn’t. A psychopharmacologist gave him a new diagnosis: bipolar II disorder, a form of bipolar disorder with less extreme mood swings.

His new doctor told him to stop self-medicating — Didrickson said he hasn’t had a drink or abused a drug since — and put him on a mood stabilizer. And then began the painstaking process of trying to find the right antidepressant: six weeks getting to a therapeutic amount of a drug, then six weeks being weaned off when it didn’t work, again and again.

“My symptoms came back. I just felt terrible,” he said.

He was still manic, once getting up at 4 a.m. to drive to Lake Shore Drive to look at newly fixed potholes. He spent money recklessly. He spent hours obsessing over the paper stock to use for custom stationery.

The manic states always turned dark, ending with him lashing out at people — usually Harkin.

“When I begin my mania, it’s a great party,” he said. “But when it gets to be months into it, it gets uglier and uglier and uglier, to the point where you really are a monster.

“Mania isn’t happy; mania is crazy,” he said.

No antidepressant worked. Then a friend with bipolar recommended Adderall, the stimulant often prescribed for attention deficit disorder.

His doctor prescribed a standard amount. It did nothing.

So Didrickson took another dose. And he felt a little better.

“I started to feel buoyant,” he said. “I always talk about feeling underwater. I felt like I was finally breaking the surface.”

He didn’t know why he needed a higher dose. But then he came upon online message board postings by people who had undergone gastric bypass surgery and then found that their antidepressant medicines stopped working.

The gastric bypass surgery he had undergone years earlier to lose weight, he concluded, was keeping his body from absorbing the medicine.

Indeed, Zajecka said, gastric bypass surgery can change how people absorb medicines given for bipolar disorder.

The Mayo Clinic statement announcing Jackson’s diagnosis also noted that the weight-loss surgery he had “can change how the body absorbs food, liquids, vitamins, nutrients and medications.”

Didrickson’s doctor would only marginally increase his dosage of the notoriously abused amphetamine. It wasn’t until he switched doctors because of a change in his health care coverage that he got what he found to be an effective dose.

His longtime internist, Dr. Eric Christoff, assistant professor of clinical medicine at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine, gradually increased Didrickson’s dosage, with weekly appointments to check his blood pressure.

The depression lifted. He has been on the higher dosage for a year and a half.

“We have never seen any evidence of drug toxicity or high blood pressure,” Christoff said. “He’s really not absorbing much of any dose he’s taking.”

Many people with bipolar disorder are able to resume their previous lives.

“It’s one of the most treatable illnesses we have in medicine,” Zajecka said. “If it’s diagnosed properly and treated appropriately, there’s no reason they can’t get back to resuming a normal lifestyle and their normal goals in life.”

But Didrickson has been unable to go back to work and still has periods of depression and mania, though much milder ones. He manages the house, cooks and has taken up woodworking.

“Going out in the evening can be very, very, challenging for him,” Harkin said. “If we go to a concert or a dance performance and it’s too noisy, he’ll have to leave. If … there’s someone in a film who’s violent or cruel, that’s very upsetting to him too.”

“It’s nothing like I thought my life would be,” Didrickson said.

“The good thing, I guess, is that I don’t hold on to yesterdays,” he said. “That’s a blessing, I think, frankly. But I also don’t have tomorrow. My life isn’t about tomorrow.”

He has gone back to writing, which he did in college. He writes a blog about his experiences with bipolar, under the name T.M. Mulligan. The moniker stands for “Taking My Mulligan.”

“I’m having my do-over,” he said. “I’m taking the second chance.”

Copyright © 2012, Chicago Tribune

Chicago Tribune Feature – Set to Appear This Week

Early last week I was contacted by a staff reporter from the Chicago Tribune newspaper asking if I’d be willing to share Life With Bipolar II.

I’m a private person by nature, but also an author rummaging through his past looking for experiences which, when written in my style will leap from me and land on you resulting in some degree of change expressed through your thought or action.  I don’t write for the sake of writing.  I write with purpose; with hope that my style captures your attention; and with honesty so that a kinship occurs as you read and when finished actually feel something whether it be acknowledgement, empathy, entertained, or moved.  If you don’t experience any shift then I have failed you as a writer.

So many people know so little about mental illness generally, and Bipolar specifically, that to decline the opportunity to be featured in a full-page story in one of the top five newspapers in the country (not too mention their on-line edition) would be foolhardy.  There’s no possible way that I and this blog occupying a little corner of the internet could reach the number of readers that this article will touch.

I have spent ten hours on telephone interviews; two hours of photography here at my home; my partner’s been interviewed, and so has my physician.  The process has been, frankly, unnerving and profoundly confronting and nowhere near as safe as if I’d been writing it.  But I agreed because too many American’s need to understand that mental illness is a disease.  Doctor’s need to understand that a post-gastric by-pass patient won’t respond to medications as expected.  Patients living with mental illness need to believe that sharing themselves with others is the only way to dilute discrimination based on mental health.

Please watch for it!

Maybe We’re Just Like Ducks

It’s called imprinting, the rapid learning process by which a newborn or very young animal establishes a behavior pattern of recognition and attraction to another animal of its own kind or to a substitute or an object identified as the parent.  Ducks must be given full credit for bringing this natural attraction to the world’s attention.

We’ve all heard of some unusual attractions that ducklings have developed: humans, dogs, even beach balls.  So, if a duckling can blame nature for his predisposition for beach balls, perhaps our sexual proclivities are the combination of imprinting and sexual awakening: Love Potion No. 1.

My Duck Day coincided with the appearance of the concrete caravan and my budding sexual identity.

It happened during the dog days of summer, near the end of a blistering July, 1966 that the concrete caravan first appeared at the top of the hill on National Avenue and slowly made its way past Lapham Street, past the Roebuck house, skipped the alley, patched Elmer’s front walk and finally stopped to repair the crumbling curb in front of my house.

Most of the cement-men were career contract-labor: exceptionally efficient at chain-gang-hard-labor; blood-orange skin from the unrelenting sun, hints of aging hair poked from beneath hats, enormous bellies born from beer, and exhausted cigar stubs deeply wedged at the side of their mouths.  And then there was this one guy, unlike the others, this one guy resembled the older brother of everyone’s best friend; this one guy was the guy that came to pick up your sister, bewitched your mother, and worried your father; this guy, handsome in a blue-blood kind-of-way but absent of the sophisticated grooming; his countenance was basic, organic, and naturally simple; his body was whittled by the repetitious pounding of pick-axes; his age was disguised and  purposefully vague evoking my curiosity; he was a pioneer, trailblazing through his indecisive twenties.

He wore identical clothing each day: A clean, sleeveless white T-shirt absent of any distracting graphics; tattered by abrasions, the frayed front pockets of his torn 501’s gave witness to his desperate deep-hand searching for loose change to feed the pop machine; a thick, brown belt wormed its way through the faded-to-white belt loops and cinched the denim preventing its avalanche; a navy blue bandana was tied tightly across his forehead to restrain a chalky cowlick; and concealing safety glasses which rationed the gleam of his lapis colored eyes.  Draped yet suggestive, his broad shoulders were easily double the width of his narrow hips which plunged into the deeply concave impressions of his hindquarters which were kept aloft by fleshy legs challenging the denim’s restraint.

Each morning he would arrive fresh like today’s baked bread.  As the toil took its toll his sweat marked then saturated his T-shirt prompting its removal which resembled pulling peel from fleshy fruit.  From my perch on Mrs. Bower’s front steps I mapped the pathway of his perspiration, its headwater found near his neck where it gathered then overflowed and trickled south swallowing isolated beads of sweat and tributaries which first appeared on his capped shoulders and added volume and speed which breached the sinewy levee of his spine and flooded the darkening waistband of his 501 ‘s as well as the white cotton banding which sat low on his hips.

I watched him for more than a week when my mother took notice and opportunity of my afternoon routine of sitting on the front porch.  It was her idea that I take the hose and water Mrs. Bower’s flowers and front lawn.  Perfect, I reasoned, an alibi should allay any suspicion caused by my daily observations.   On Tuesday of the second week of their construction I walked through the gangway with the spitting hose and began to shower Mrs. Bower’s flowers.  By the time I started to water the parkway (grass between the street and the sidewalk) the man in the blue bandana ambled cautiously over to me like a slow, curious cow to a farmer holding a bucket of feed. I stood on the sidewalk and thumb sprayed the grass when he asked, “Mind if I have a drink from there?”

I stood dumbfounded and handed him the hose, his wide, thickly calloused hands reaching across the freshly poured concrete for Mrs. Bower’s  Craftsman “Kinkless Guaranteed” one hundred foot garden hose, and moved the bubbling water to his mouth, drinking quietly, his lips pursed into a muscled “O”.  I watched with a great deal of curiosity as his Adam’s apple moved up and down with each quenching swallow, the dimples in his cheeks mirrored the rhythm of his bobbing Adam’s apple.  When sated he returned Mrs. Bower’s hose to my care and said, “Thanks; I’ve seen you watching us for a couple of days; thinking of a career in concrete?  What’s your name?”

“T.M.,” I said quietly.

“Thanks for the drink, T.M.” he said with a wink, then turned and rejoined his crew.

July, 1966 became known as The Summer of Eye-High Marigolds and Mrs. Bower’s Famous Flowers as reported in one local paper.  That July day in 1966 when Bandana Man put his lips to Mrs. Bower’s Craftsman “Kinkless Guaranteed” one hundred foot hose and quenched his thirst, I, instantly developed an unfamiliar thirst rising from deep within, a thirst temporarily doused by Bandana Man’s proximity, but which would reignite moments after I switched off my bedroom light later that night; by morning I longed to be near Bandana Man.  My disquieting need to putter around the front yard required a significant diversion, an understandable reason why I needed to be there.  Which is why my camouflage became an avid interest in gardening.  I think Mrs. Bower’s was exceptionally proud, and I’m happy that she took all the credit.  It was her front yard of course which received my best intentions while I continued to catch furtive glances through the gardens towering stems.

It took the concrete caravan an unprecedented three weeks to complete its concrete repair from the Roebuck house on the north end of the block to the Nichols’ house at the south end.  It was a Friday, I think, that the inevitable happened: I ran out of hose.  The crew had just turned the corner and was heading west on Mitchell Street. I stood there, water pouring from the stretched hose, acknowledging yet not understanding life’s cruelty: Why were we both at the same crossroad at the same time, if all it meant was fame for Mrs. Bower’s flowers?  As Bandana Man turned the corner he stopped, looked back at me, dropped his pick-ax and trotted in my direction, his tanned torso rippling like sheets on a clothesline.

He untied his bandana and held it beneath the cold water, wrung it out, then wiped his face and neck, returned it to the cold water and said, “You look kind of hot.  You hot, T.M.?”

“Yes,” I answered while nodding my head.

He took the hose from me letting it drop to the ground, turned me around, and wrapped the navy blue damp bandana around my head and tied it snuggly in back.  He spun me around, studied me for a moment, then said, “Cool man, you’re one of us now!”  And with a tousle of my hair he turned and ran to catch up with the crew which from afar resembled a motley gang of vagabonds.  I remained at that spot and allowed the water to drip down my face, catching a few droplets with my tongue, detecting a hint of salt which I knew was my first real taste of men.

The Night My Liberty Was Nullified (Thursday, July 10, 2008)

Thursday, July 10, 2008 started out normally: cotton had been stuffed between my ears sometime throughout the night; my body had gained an enormous mass as well, its weight pulling me deeper into the feather bed, my heavy legs swinging to the edge like cast iron bells; my feet encased in iron felt ready for the ocean floor; I pushed my body upright using arm strength and sat motionless for five minutes in a kind of stupor; a man with no goal; no alarm; no schedule; no deadline. Simply a man with time. And this time continues to tick, on and on, and in this stupor it doesn’t stop, it simply continues to drum, and I am oblivious to its march. In the mornings time fails to exist; there’s simply the stupor and the weight and me, or what I think is me, trying to read the details of an unfamiliar map in poor lighting and without spectacles.

It took two hours to complete my morning routine which Nick and I have outlined on two cards and placed in the bottom edge corner of my medicine cabinet. The cards remind me of the order of bathing: brush teeth, start shower, hair, body, face, shave, squeegee, towel dry, brush hair, after-shave balm, deodorant, patch, hang towels. If I fail to use the list I forget where I am in the sequence and either stop altogether or restart from the beginning. My inability to concentrate on even the most menial activities is another symptom of my depression. I suppose I’m fortunate though, in this fog I find myself in, I don’t really judge the degree of my disability. It’s not as though yesterday I had two legs and today one. This disease is invasive: it’s a brown-out; not quite a black-out, but enough surge to switch off delicate systems and place them in a suspended mode. Next came dressing. The simple selection of items was daunting. Incapable of processing difficult code, I simply grabbed shorts, shirt and sandals and hoped I wouldn’t look like a clown.

I was exhausted by the time I made it to the garden. Nick was there working on a crossword and presented me with a cup of coffee. I opened my laptop and quickly discovered I was unable to concentrate on even simple navigation. Pulling myself up from my chair I hoisted myself onto the sofa and fell back asleep.

During sleep I began to hear the quiet invitation of the river. “Come to the river,” it asked. “Come to the river, it’s quiet here,” it pleaded.

I heard Nick’s voice far away, in the distance, miles behind me, “Harlan,” he yelled. I awoke, looking longingly for the river but all I saw was Nick, “I heard your yelling outside, about going somewhere; where were you going?” he asked. “To the river,” I said, “It was calling me.”

After a number of telephone calls I found myself in our car speeding to the hospital to be admitted. By this time exhaustion had overtook me. My resolve against the disease, its voices, its demons and magic and trickery had ceased. I was a harm to myself. I was in significant danger and unstable and required hospitalization in order to save my life from itself.

Upon entering the hospital the stark reality of mental illness was immediately evident. Once announced that you require psychiatric care you are moved through a well-oiled machine. I was placed in a triage room and asked a simple question: have you had homicidal or suicidal thoughts? A simple “yes” answer thrust my welfare to the front of the line: papers were shuffled, calls were made, registration was completed, body searches conducted, personal belongings and shoes removed and bagged, a personal security guard assigned, and the single most powerful yet profoundly simple right was revoked: my right to freedom. I had now become a legal liability requiring constant supervision in a small waiting room with other psychiatric patients. And I was incapable of leaving without seeing a doctor. I had been incarcerated by my own volition.

I found it impossible to sit in the holding cell with severely psychotic patients: one yelling someone was stabbing her; another rocking and laughing/crying; a third belching and retching; a fourth pacing like a caged cat. I asked to sit outside, right next to the pen. My guard agreed. About two hours into this episode there was a guard shift-change and I was ordered – ordered to get back into the holding pen. When I flatly refused the guards began to don rubber gloves and said, “Don’t make us lay hands on you, sir! Do not make us lay hands on you!” as though I were a criminal. I said, “I’m simply depressed! Christ, had I known it was going to be like this, I’d have simply killed myself!” and Nick and I walked back into the cell.

Nick and I sat in that holding cell for a total of five hours until at last my name was called and we (Nick, my guard and I) were escorted back to an empty emergency examination room. A nurse threw back the curtain and asked Nick to step out while she interviewed me. She was an angel, I thought, looking at her compassionate eyes and heavenly smile. She inquired as to why I found myself at the ER and I explained the days events. I told her that my language got out of hand, I talked of suicide but had spoken out of turn, and I really just wanted to go home with Nick and did not wish to be admitted.

A platoon of doctors came and went and finally I was discharged honorably into the night. It was determined that I was not a suicide risk and would see my personal psychiatrist the next day and that Nick would have to remain at my side until that time.

This mental illness has kidnapped my sanity; it has revoked my right to free thought and happiness; it has sentenced me to life with a chance for parole only if I continue to absorb Paxil at night before bedtime. But even this mindful incarceration, this disease and its disability pales in comparison to the penal colony operating under the guise of patient safety.  Having willfully turned over my right to freedom was the most eye-opening, chilling, humiliating experience of my life and one in which I will not soon forget.