Has Been’s, Could’ve Been’s, Once Was’s, and Children

Note: Like a sliver that’s penetrated the thick skin, it needs to be removed by a sterilized needle and constant squeezing. It will continue to ache until its presence causes you far more anguish than it’s extraction. The parallels are one reason why this post means so much to me.
Me (right) and my brother (left)

My brother got my dad’s physique; I got his mental illness.

Once I assumed the role of cook a couple of years ago, I planned my menu so that every other day I’d prepare a new meal.  The only cookbook I owned was a 1960’s copy of Betty Crocker’s Cookbook.  This cookbook was my mother’s, and if you saw it, you’d think Betty Crocker herself passed it along to my mother.  It was a solid first-step for me, my hesitation quieted by my mother’s obvious use of the cookbook, evidenced by the incredible number of batter-splattered pages; missing pages; half-pages; and an index at the rear which resembled the color palette of Crayola’s 64-Color box of crayons.  There were highlighted recipes; notations at the margins; and just a few, but oddly significant in an extreme way, an ad infinitum decree by way of thick, heavy lines, one or two eliminated altogether by a formidable, dense marker, applied as determined and repeated coats, forbidding any chance that these recipes might appear on our kitchen table.

My father was already a train wreck when my brain began recording his presence.  Failing at life (mainly due to his undiagnosed mental illness, bipolar), his appearance was infrequent: his social mask was one of humor: albeit acidic sarcasm and shearing, pointed wit composed in the key of tease and enacted before an unending column of untried yet promising second-shift ladies.  His role as a bullying, boorish big shot, whose sole domestic purpose was to reprise the 1963 verbal variety of water boarding. His peacocking drove us  closer and closer to suffocation, as though with each matinée he pressed another thick pillow of despair onto our faces and then, just when our desperation went quiet and we felt that first, foamy wave of disappearance, back we’d go into his second act and the shrill, ingenuous cackle of his subordinate’s callow laughter warned us that he was gaining adoration.  And the louder the laughter, the more lewd, raunchy, and viscous his anecdotes became, and our mention increased proportionally until, by the end, the three of us, his family, descended well past indecency, a good way beyond degenerate, and somewhere between contemptible and worthless.

And as the ladies stood and he, broadcasting his manners, helped them with their coats, those ladies whose saturating attention fueled my father’s mania sending him further and further afield, looked at the three of us, fodder of my father’s insanity, and delicately lifted the corners of their mouths in an effort to produce a symbol of empathy that my father couldn’t decode.

But what those lips produced was that sneer tossed at has been’s, could’ve beens, once was’s, and children who repeatedly witness their father falling apart.

Which Is Which?

aa-allnighter
Night after night after night after night for the past three weeks I’m awake well past 4:00 am.   Last night I was awake until 3:10 am, just awake, not anxious awake or fearful awake or even we-leave-for-Prague-in-six-hours awake.  Just awake even after swallowing three milligrams of Clonazepam.

I still awaken at 7:30 or 8:00 or 9:10 am.  Today my day didn’t start until 3:00 pm.  But I can’t untangle the ball of yarn because I can’t pinpoint the beginning of this wakefulness: Is it one of three dire maladies that come and go like my sanity was a delicatessen (and bedeviled generations since expelled from Pandora’s Box with other evils) or if the distress of my brother’s death only appears in solitude; then today this torment advanced by adding a threatening malaise. Teasing the debilitating effects of mental illness with the expeditious death of my brother, my routines have been stirred, causing an atypical night/day composition causing great distress and exhibiting itself in one of three years in great part by one three infirmities: 1) Mania (this ain’t a party; 2) Depression (which routinely involves sleep; or, 3) Grief.

But today, today the symptoms were clear: sleeping well into the morning, sitting on the side of the bed for two hours; no concept of passing time.  When I first was diagnosed we accepted odd sleep patterns as a component of bipolar.griefpoem But now, when the inevitable death became evitable, my grief churned the sediment of negative memories, their decay rising to the surface like the Magic Eightball, and I precisely recall that day or incident or mounds of work to what?  End in death? Four years now sours like wet rags lying on the basement floor for two weeks and turn into deep, powerful, and dangerous emotions like hate, retribution, and bitterness which poison even my brightest memories like an elixir or potion.

And today I feel like shit; disinterested, loathsome, hopeless, belongings reduced to ordinary objects; all over, two men smiling or laughing in picture frames remain unrecognizable; too many functional, but inefficient appliances, especially my computer.  In order to simply write I’d have to troubleshoot half a dozen issues:the writing is slow to the surface anyhow, and when buoyant is likely to blather on about how shitty I feel, and how long am I expected to stave off this darkness?

Oh yeah, and when will someone like me rush to my side and avail his own life to repair mine?  When will that be? When do you think? How long did you wait? When generosity runs as thin as this a damning selfishness takes a seat at my table: “Hear you’re tired of saving people even when you’re risking yourself. Hear you’re looking for your “generous man” to shoulder your burden and top-off your short-comings.  Well, today’s your lucky day, ’cause they sent me instead. I’m what you’d call Selfishness.”

The Time Spent To Read This Post, Equals The Time You Have To Save Your Life

Back in 2008 when the shit storm incinerated the first 20 years of my adulthood, I made an oath while dragging what’s left of a . . . of a bespoke walking stick through four inches of gray ash – some sizeable went aloft and rode a breeze – only to land in some other year; this oath was directed at loss, or better, surviving loss which is always, always more painful than the combustion of mortality which is hard-wired to flee extinction.

Appointed to this life: Two tiny, perpendicular scratches amidst millions of other’s noting everyone’s start and finish on (what we’d like to believe) linear straight-edge of time. And my time – time as living – a selfish amalgamation of loneliness, caution, exposure, intimacy, maturity, judgement, patience, learning, strife, letters, confessions, achievement, and the likely propagation of another generation or the unlikely dog-eared page noting a dead end by a period placed unerringly after the last letter of the last name annotating The End, A Willful Extinction.  The simple decision to stop production thus beholden to past generations, or, the decision of propagation thus bound to the future.

We’re putting a stop to this tributary of our bloodline; my older brother never purposely or haphazardly discovered the merits of fatherhood, and I, being of the gay-persuasion fell in-love when fatherhood and matrimony were simply off-limits; thusly denying my partner and I any marginal hope to have children.  My partner yearned to have a child, Jack (because I simply grew tired of our constant referral to “It”), but by the time the stork delivered to same-sex households, I, in all honesty, was too old and too tired and too responsible to entertain my partner’s fundamental need to nurture.  My father was well beyond my reach; that life, that engaging and interested life, was at least a decade before I consciously understood that I was bereft of any gargantuan, mitt-like hand to hold.  And that sadness burrowed deep, deeper than any other heretofore denial ever tunneled.  And honesty foretold of my family’s dearth in the health department by my adult-life diagnosis of a mental illness, a disease, not a sickness or an infection or a fever but a disease, not an alien landing, not a vampire, and not a plague, but a disease nonetheless. Mental illness is handled, not treated but handled by this nation’s body politic.  It’s a dispassionate and treacherous handling, like the negotiating cop that placated the felon’s demands until one, perfectly aimed .32 caliber round stops the demands. “They” know how to dilute the alleged discrimination; the mistreatment of patients in county facilities;  blaming us, the patients, for their on-going ignorance and antiquated seclusion as a “well-informed, empathetic, and public safety response” to the irrational and grossly illogical . . . blah-blah-blah. . . Um, hello, hello? (is this thing on?) mental illness is a disease as bona fide as cancer or chronic kidney failure (except mental illness lacks a “celebrity endorsement).

And yet, we’re not alone: patients-in-general have devolved into a 15-minute generic; that is, the disappearance of importance, the disinterest of ailments, suffering, and cause.  Today’s Western Medicine Patient has become an Accounts Receivable entry in the ledger; a doctor’s statistic of efficiency; appointment number 58.  We as patients have been reduced to a test result followed by a prescription or passed along like a troublesome foster child to a series of specialists and more tests and more prescriptions.

It’s a cold and alienating model of efficiency and profit, and we, the patients, the commodity are fought over by insurers and institutions chanting “To Hell With Life!”

Romanticizing Madness

I’ve noticed recently a spate of blogs and websites declaring which famous people are bipolar (please visit: (http://pinterest.com/bipolarbandit/famous-people-with-bipolar-disorder/).  This identification of plausible personalities is a definite indication of social change.  To see familiar faces, icons, sport legends, entertainment moguls, and just plain “they’ve-got-it-too” types provides a sense of belonging to a community-at-large which includes not just me, or members of my support groups, but people whose face is undeniably recognizable and never dreamed that they, too, face the same challenges I face.  And there’s a degree of comfort in that.  Secondly, it begins to slowly tear apart the prejudice and educate the ignorant not necessarily about mental illness, but that anyone, their favorite hockey player, their dreamboat actor or actress, their business executive role model, can and do live with mental illness.

This identification is the initial crack in the shell of shame and stigma.  And we (people living with mental illness) didn’t invent the tactic.  For instance, a similar identification of the famous and powerful occurred during the homosexual march toward acceptance and respect.  The exposure of the public’s least likely to be or to have is one step closer to the day when ordinary patients living with a mental illness can disclose their disorder free from the fear of isolation, castigation, or retaliation by pointing to the recently exposed successful, popular, and famous comrades-in-madness.  This identification of recognizable personalities borders on the romanticizing of madness which isn’t that dissimilar to the mid 90’s trend to have a gay friend.

I can testify to the similarities because I’m gay and I’m bipolar and I voluntarily disclose these two details with the same degree of importance as when I confess that I microwave my ice-cream or that I prefer medium starch on my dress shirts.

In the homosexual world your voluntary disclosure is commonly referred to as “coming out (of the closet).” The expression “coming out” was introduced to the gay lexicon first in the 20th century and has permeated the American lexicon during the late 21st century.  “Coming out” was seen as an introduction into the clandestine gay subculture and compared to a débutante’s coming out party.  Today “coming out” is less likely a party and more likely an uncomfortable incident, like soiling your pants in public or getting arrested for peddling questionable pornography.  Their concern is how the homosexual lifestyle will impact them (that is, the collective “them”) and are notorious for their absence of empathy or support.  Some abandon; some think its a phase; some deny; some cover their ears; and some (like my mother) invoked the bigotry of my dead father and wept when she looked at me.  And then there are others — embracing and supportive listeners; honored to have been told; and a few see the courage and witness the honesty and reverse their ill-informed ideas that homosexuality is Satan’s playground.

In 1952 the American Psychiatric Association listed homosexuality as a sociopathic personality disorder in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual) .  In 1969 a week-long gay uprising in New York City started by a police raid in a Mafia owned bar called The Stonewall Inn started the gay movement toward equality.  In 1973 homosexuality was officially removed from the DSM and was no longer considered a psychiatric disorder.


Remaining quiet, covert, dishonest, and shameful simply reinforced the commonly held belief that there was something wrong with homosexuality.  As early as the mid-19th century German’s were advocating the public admission by men and women of their homosexuality as a form of emancipation.  It took another century and countless victims of bigotry, hatred, and ignorance before homosexuals coalesced into a unified voice demanding that the social stigma of being a homosexual be eliminated.  It’s taken another 40 years before more than fifty percent of all American’s believe that gays and lesbians should have the same right to marry as heterosexuals.

I believe that there are great similarities between the long and painful trailblazing required to achieve acceptance of homosexuality as a legitimate lifestyle and the eradication of the social stigma people living with mental illness experience on a daily basis.  Both groups perpetuated their own discrimination by remaining silent as society tortured, oppressed, and determined that it (homosexuality or mental illness) was an abomination which must be isolated, subjected to brutal and inhumane treatments, or permanently removed.  The gay rights movement was sparked by one drag queen who was determined that she would not tolerate brutality at the hands of the police simply because she was homosexual.  Her defiance was her voice and her protest was her high-heeled shoe parried in the face of her tormentors.

Will it be your voice that’s louder than the others?  Will it be your courage that’s Tweeted around the world?  Will you be the one that’s still mentioned fifty years later as the voice which shouted, “this is the last straw!

Which it was.

All thanks to you.

“You Brought This On Yourself,”

momwashingdishes
My mother’s back: her way of avoiding conflict.

That’s what my mother used to say, her back to me, and her hands wrist deep in dishwater.  I needn’t see her hands to know she was wringing them upon hearing my news; I could tell by the way the muscles in her forearms were flexing.  There were several of these confessions at the kitchen table over the years, and I always found her reaction astonishing.  She was incapable of ever helping me solve whatever dilemma I disclosed.  The scope of my problems were well beyond the dimensions of her upper-flat apartment and any collateral influence her small circle of single-mothers might discover.  No, my mother lived a small, tightly wound existence, and like those gated-communities with elaborate, electronic gates and guard-posts manned by ex-militia, she’d honed the art of deflection, quickly interrupting my admission like a towering volley ball player blocking an opponents spike, by conjuring up the standard retort to unwelcome news, “You brought this on yourself.”

Which in many instances was both honest and obvious.  Most people don’t find themselves in a pickle by being an innocent bystander.  Most pickles are borne of poor planning and even poorer execution.  But not all admissions warrant my mother’s standard suppression.  For instance, the admission that you suffer from a mental illness in which you slide from a manic state to a depressive state as easily as Ferrari’s change lanes on the Autobahn. And that stress is a definite trigger, especially if that stress is a direct response to particular issues, situations, or circumstances.

What I’d like to know is whether other bipolar patients are accused of mania by a friend or relative when attempting to communicate important (and potentially volatile issues), and if so, does your intensity escalate in direct response to their continued defensiveness about the issues you are attempting to discuss?  And if the discussion derails and car after car of well-intentioned-but poorly-stated-examples jump track and pile atop each other deeply burying your initial point, does the person with whom you are now arguing with pull out the trump card, the ace-in-the-hole, the Coup de Grace and draw the conclusion that your passionate (implication: ridiculous) and persevering (implication: absurd) diatribe is characteristically manic, therefore you are literally, ranting like a lunatic, what do you do?  Back off as proof of your sanity (thereby recusing your accusations)?  Or stand firm and mad which guts the rationality of your point-of-view?

I recently cautioned a close friend that, out of desperation, played that card, and immediately quelled my interrogation.  But later, when civility returned, I quietly cautioned him of setting this precedent: “If I’m defenseless or simply tired of fighting, and he is intent at satisfying his blood lust, I’ll shut him up by asserting he’s Manic.”  Because most likely I’m not manic and accusing me of being manic in the context of an argument is cowardly and insensitive.

And lest you’ve forgotten, my mental illness is a disease not a strategy; it’s not my power play.

I’m out of control and therefore, by the very nature of the disease, am incapable of rational thought or reason; and the last thing an irrational person wants to hear is he’s behaving irrationally.  Talk about a dog chasing its tail!

Any thoughts?

 

Recovery: A Saw Blade and Alpine Climbing (Journal: July, 2008)

I had thought that an increase in medication would signal a decrease in depression. But my psychiatrist corrected my logic and chose two separate metaphors to describe my recovery: 1) A hand saw; and, 2) Alpine Climbing.

Picture a well-made 26″ cross-cut hand saw with its blade facing upwards.  Don’t look at the teeth but look at the blades carefully honed angle-of-rise as its surface broadens to eventually equal the width of the handle.  And the teeth are hand-shaped on a grinder causing the familiar serrated edge which means there are several contact points (peaks and valleys) along the saws blade.  My mind when in major depression is like a serrated cross-cut hand saw blade. There’s a consistent up hill climb but in order to achieve the handle one needs to live through a number of peaks and valleys.

Similarly, the Alpine Climbing endeavor is peaks and valleys to which I am ignorant: I am not a mountaineer, having lived for 50+ years at or slightly above sea level.  But something odd occurred recently: my sea level suddenly rose skyward and I, lacking any previous experience went tumbling like poor Jill after Jack tripped showboating his coronet.  And then there it was, sea level, way up there, beyond tree canopies, even higher than some clouds.  It wasn’t until my psychiatrist explained that sea level remained fixed; it was I who had tumbled downward, spiraling like bath water down the drain.

From its approach I studied the aspect or face which I would climb to reach my first base camp.  The first leg I climbed alone (except for talk therapy and psychiatric medications) and joined my psychiatrist/sherpa at base camp where he was waiting with our racks.  We left the dark despair and feelings of hopelessness at base camp in mid-July, 2008.  We lightened our load by leaving behind my feelings of worthlessness and the idea that my life has collapsed, I am invisible in my own life and I would be better off dead. We both agreed that we didn’t need to drag those thoughts with us to the summit. We shouldered our racks and tightened the harnesses, checked and rechecked; thus began my apprehensive and cautious attempt to the distant summit of Peak Recovery.  The trek had been an exhaustive challenge across an unfamiliar landscape filled with dark crevasses of suicide and treacherous, newly fallen snow provided a dense foothold for our crampons, but which also hid the setbacks of insufficient dosages. But the activity of climbing and breathing the thin, cold air provided a sense of refreshment and newfound challenge.

Friends of mine and especially Nick have asked why I would’ve been so lucid for so long, then after meeting my psychiatrist it seemed as though my bottom gave out. It wasn’t until this afternoon as I write this entry that the reason occurred to me: I had spent the better part of two years in an utter state of unhappiness; unhappiness in my job, unhappiness in my relationship and unhappiness in my life. Yet, everyone in my life thought everything was swell and marvelous and happy! I had tried everything I knew how, from changing jobs, to self-medicating, to alcohol abuse, but nothing would erase that consistent gnawing pain I felt in my heart, or quiet those scratching, irritating noises in my head. Right up to the end I tried desperately to hold on, to simply hold on to the last end of rope, my fingers bleeding and numb. Until I saw my psychiatrist for the first time and he said, “there’s nothing to be ashamed of when you ask for help. You cannot possibly do this alone.”

It was then, right then, that I knew the futility of my fight; it was right then that my heart recognized kindness and a serene noiselessness smothered the incessant clamor filling my head.  This epiphany of surrender brought an end to my life as desperation.  When I released my hold my consciousness experienced a forced power-off; a reboot in safe-mode.  When I eventually opened my eyes there stood my psychiatrist who helped me to my feet and said “Now we can start at the beginning rather than the end.  The end which you fought valiantly to avoid never would’ve been avoided. Life starts when labor ends.  We all start on the heels of the end.”

My recovery continues to be slow with delays and disappointments along the way.  And yet, as we stop to rest I tell him of the anger and disappointments in my life. My psychiatrist/sherpa listened intently and then offered the most important advice of all: “Climb this mountain as though your life depends on it, because it does.”

Oomphlessness

It’s odd, this.

All my life I carried some kind of drive, as though the first-baseman-mitt-sized hands of a dad pushes a shy son to join the group; nudging, like the dog’s wet muzzle flips your hand like a pancake in order to be petted; knocked, like the brass-ring a toothless lion holds loosely between jaws, and which falls against a brass plate sounding more like the dinner bell than the formal announcement of a visitor.

This propulsion, like a jet plane, carried me to soaring heights where earth stretched like a night watchman and people, critical to life, shrunk so small so quickly that they hardly mattered.  Wouldn’t you think things of such importance could be seen from above?  Monuments can be seen; impact can be seen; destruction can be seen.  But people or their self-designations like importance or starvation or anger or bigotry or religion or anything, anything they’ve said or thought or threatened you can’t see.  You can see evidence, like ugly scars; at night lights dot the darkness like worn drapery holding back dawn, but some areas appear engulfed in flames, such a wide swath of light that I’d heard it told that the moon, once proud of its subtlety, is thinking of moving on, to Mars or Neptune maybe, a planet looking to adopt a real satellite, not some space junk.

The experts (who, self-admittedly, know very little about mood disorders, and even less about proper treatments) have identified this lack of oomph as a signature symptom of depression.  Ironically, the less oomph the more depressed.

Perhaps people have created a number of different systems all designed to manage oomph.  Clocks are oomph speedometers; birthday’s are oomph reminders; corner offices are oomph autobahn; retirement accounts are oomph cruise control.

Without oomph it would appear that I have no where to go and no reason to go there.  When you live with a mental illness you’re still in the same pool with everyone else.  It’s just that you’re knee-deep at the shallow end while everyone else with oomph keeps swimming back and forth and back and forth and will eventually join you here at the shallow end.  As they pass one or two might’ve noticed your inertia and may ask why you weren’t swimming, do you know how to swim, are you afraid to swim?

Oh no, I reply, I am oomphless; my brain doesn’t produce oomph; but in a world that places a high value on one’s degree of oomph, I think it’s better that I look like I have oomph because everyone that has it, is absolutely convinced that everyone has it, and those that aren’t using theirs are. . .

Are not oomphless.