Monday, March 21, 2011

On Coming Out Bipolar

the more I learn, the more I learn / the more I cry, the more I cry / as I say goodbye to a way of life I thought I had designed for me... / and I see you standing there, wanting more from me / and all I can do is try
           - Nelly Furtado, "Try"

what you thought you lost was just mislaid / all the poems written in your skin
           - Goldfrapp, "Some People"

Silence = Death
            - ACT UP Slogan

I was having a conversation with my therapist last Monday about a feeling that I have fairly regularly these days - the need to explain the circumstances of my life since I moved from Los Angeles, effectively ending my graduate school career, back to my childhood home in South Carolina. Whether I'm catching up with a friend or getting to know someone new on a more than superficial level, there's a dialogue that I have with myself whenever someone asks me how the return came about.

On the one hand, there are ways of crafting the explanations in a fairly socially acceptable way. When I first started getting the question, it was easy to respond, since my time in South Carolina was first intended as a simple leave of absence, and I would ostensibly be resuming classes at the leave's end. Even as I would explain this, though, I knew that it was a lie of omission - given my psychological state and the material resources it would take to have the return to California come to fruition, the chances I would return were slim. It was one of those gut feelings.

And now, as we approach the two-year anniversary of my return, the urge to disclose what's really going on is rearing its head on a near-daily basis. But back to the therapist's office: when I told her that I had begun having this need to be more explicit about the issues that have been going on in my life, I asked her a question - how should I handle it? What should I tell people? What is the appropriate level of disclosure? How do I explain all of this?

Her response: "How do you explain it to yourself?"

I paused for a second; my first thought was, "that's a really therapist-y thing to say." But after a few moments of silence, my cynicism began to evaporate. I spoke: "That's really the question, isn't it?"

"Yes, Charlie. What would you tell people if you had cancer?"

Another pause. I begin to intellectualize things, which is what I do when I feel like I know the "correct," on the nose response to a therapist's question but I want to say something smarter.

"I wouldn't have a problem telling people that. That's..."

"That's what?"

"That's... that's real."

. . . . .

I am a Fat, Queer, Southern, Spiritual, Feminist, Cisgendered Man.

And I have Bipolar Disorder.

. . . . .

I've written this post over and over again in my head, and every time I sit down to write it for real, it just never carries the same weight. I stop and start. I self-censor. Perhaps the most crippling aspect of the whole endeavor is that I feel the need to put things perfectly, to illuminate everything all at once. As I put it to my therapist, I'm feeling the need to say the definitive thing about what I'm feeling, and that pressure has often kept me from saying anything at all. Of course, the truth is that I'm learning new things about myself and this disorder every day. The beautiful thing about journal-keeping is that you record, over and over again, versions of yourself that exist in an eternal present, available for access at any time that follows. So this is where I am now, forever.

Prior to graduate school, I was primarily a depressive, with spurts of hypomania that allowed me to do enough to function in an academic setting. Academia was the organizing principle in my life, to such an extent that in both my senior year of high school and college, once I had secured a place in the next step of my scholarship (college and grad school, respectively), I descended into blackness. I'd be curious to see how many days I missed of senior year exactly, but I'd put the number somewhere between 50 and 80. College was similar, though I was able to hide the depression from the world through scheduling a light, Tuesday/Thursday only schedule in my final semester. In both cases, I had built up enough goodwill at the institutions I occupied that I was able to scrape through.

As anyone who has undertaken graduate study will tell you, however, there's far more to accomplish and far less structure in which to do so. In 2006, at the end of my first semester of graduate school, my sister suddenly died, and in a certain way, that threw my priorities into sharp relief – before I’d inflate the importance of academic output to such an extent that not doing it seemed impossible, but having this happen gave me a very compelling reason to not give a fuck on a moment-to-moment basis while still being aware of the school obligations that hung over my head. After a year of agonizing over making up the incompletes that had accrued in the wake of Stephanie’s death, I eventually gave up. I wouldn't admit this to myself, let alone the people in my life, but that's exactly what happened. I was in such a state of numbness, grief and depression that it was an achievement to leave my house, let alone do readings and attend classes. It was like swimming in sand.

Once you achieve a certain level of study, there is a sharply reduced sense of the day-to-day accountability that characterizes high school and (to a somewhat lesser extent) undergraduate life. Furthermore, in college and high school there is the motivation of keeping a transcript that will allow you to go on to the next level of study, but the feeling I got in my grad program (and from my close coterie of academic advisors and student colleagues) was that in time, everything was fixable, even expired incompletes. I could write when I was able.

But that day, that ability, didn't come, and slowly but surely the incapacity to write, to do anything
worthwhile, was a voice that took permanent root in my head.

To add insult to injury, by my second year of teaching - my third year of grad school, the first was a fellowship year - my evaluations had gotten so low that not only was I constantly berating myself for not being able to produce anything, I was also required to come into the Writing Program's offices and "check in" every week. (One sage piece of advice: "The way to get grading done is to just fucking do it.") At the time, I resented this level of surveillance, mostly because it caused me to dedicate so much emotional energy and time to teaching preparation that I had a significantly reduced amount of time to do my own work – not that I was using what time I had effectively.

My graduate career felt unfixable. My life felt unfixable. I didn't even bother trying to write the papers for Fall 2008, resigning myself to more incompletes and retreating into hazes of self-medication.

. . . . .

Manic symptoms are generally divided into two classes: hypomania, which presents as a mild elevation in mood or irritability, and full-blown mania, which is characterized by losing touch with reality, paranoia, and even hallucinations and psychosis. The difference between Bipolar I and II is the presence of a full manic episode as opposed to the hypomanic state. Up until February of 2009, I had only experienced hypomania – and the beginning of ’09, in retrospect, was a reoccurrence of that mild upswing in mood.

Just before New Year’s 2008, I was having more than a few beers with some high school friends of mine, and somehow the subject drifted to my “disappearance” in senior year. Although I was rather drunk and do not remember the particulars of the conversation, I do remember that I cried that night for only the second time since my sister had died (the first had been in the Fall of 2007, nearly a year after the fact), and that I emerged feeling somehow healed, like I had spoken my piece about having been so disconnected during that time and that a newfound closeness had been forged. Up until then, I had kept a cordial friendship with several of the people there, but afterwards I realized how much they had my back.

(I suppose I should interject here that much of my depression in high school came from feelings of isolation surrounding being queer. I’m pretty sure that was a big part of the catharsis I had that night, telling them just how alone I had felt and how much I had needed them, and how, even though they weren’t there in high school, I was grateful that they were right there, right then.)

When I arrived back in LA at the beginning of 2009, I began to have days in which, for no explainable reason, I just felt great. The night with my friends had spawned an energy in me that made me feel like everything was going to be OK, that I would be the best teacher that I could be, that all the work I’d avoided so completely was going to get done. On a moment-to-moment basis, nothing practical was happening to support those feelings, but my zest for life was such that I was just riding the wave and enjoying the moment.

At a certain point, the “good-feeling” reached more of an elevated intensity, and I began to lose touch with reality. I was crying with joy on a fairly regular basis; I became strongly opinionated; my inhibitions lowered. I smoked pot one night and actually felt like I was speaking directly to God. I stopped sleeping and eating, becoming obsessed with the purity of my body. I called friends, asking coyly if they believed in possession by good spirits. I tried healing people telepathically. My energy seemed limitless, and goddamnit, I was going to use it while it was there.

Soon, though, I became more afraid than anything. My previous entry captures well when that turn began to happen. I called a friend a couple of nights after those events, asking if I could just spend the night – I was scared to be alone with myself. That night, she fed me, the first meal I had eaten in about 3 days. I slept for 6 hours, the most I had in about a week. For a couple of hours the next day, I felt better, and decided to give going back home a try. Within about an hour of returning, though, I knew that things were still seriously amiss. While eating a few good meals and replacing all the electrolytes I had flushed during my "purity" kick had given me some relative calm, the paranoid, racing thoughts were still there.

That evening, I checked myself into Cedars-Sinai for a 72-hour observational stay, and was put in the crisis wing. I was diagnosed Bipolar that weekend, and put on a combination of Depakote, Abilify, and Klonopin. For the moment, things seemed to have stabilized. The hopefulness of the hypomania of earlier in the year stayed, tempered by a raw vulnerability that felt etched in my soul. I had survived this. What more was there to bear?

. . . . .

When you re-enter the house you went crazy in, it feels like a war zone.

Shattered glasses on the floor, candy wrappers (my last at-home sustenance before the hospital) scattered over the desk, my mattress in the middle of the living room floor, a bowl of water on the floor beside it. Nothing in order, everything with a chilling story. A chance for a new beginning, an opportunity for painful progress. Clean slate, dirty house.

The process of cleaning up was therapy in itself. I could change everything now, I thought to myself.

(Mania doesn’t leave wholesale. The way down is one of those multi-arced water slides.)

Generally, the institution I attended was accommodating. They replaced me as the teacher of the composition class I was responsible for and assigned me to a schedule in the Writing Center, where students came in by appointment and you could leave your work at work. It was decided that I would take a leave of absence for the next semester, but I would finish the current one so I wouldn’t face the burden of having to return student loan funds.

I tried to finish that semester on a positive note, I really did. But soon enough, I began experiencing side effects from the Abilify – specifically, I was unable to sit still for more than 20 minutes at a time without feeling extremely fidgety. This made my seminars into torture. I tried to do the readings. I tried to write the papers. I couldn’t.

Had I known then what I know now, I’d have been able to forgive that lack of industriousness. After a manic episode, the brain enters a sort of “sleep mode” that can last a year or more. I thought I was just lazy. What I was was healing. And healing from mania isn’t a pretty picture.

I know because I’m still doing it. Because a year and three months later, already deep in the despair of having lost the career I’d worked my life for, I had another manic episode, this one involving psychosis, handcuffs, police, commitment rather than voluntary admission.

That was nine months ago.

. . . . .

But this isn’t a piece about my manic episodes themselves, not in the detailed way it could be. That will come with more meditation, more memory-seeking.

This is about coming out.

I have Bipolar Disorder.

I am the “crazy” homeless person you see on the street. I am Charlie Sheen. I am Kurt Cobain, and Patty Duke, and Ernest Hemingway, and Vincent Van Gogh.

But most of all, I am me, and I am fucking lucky to be alive.

I said that cancer would feel more "real" to my therapist because when a person with bipolar, or anyone with an mental illness, is in a state of relative stability, it can often appear like they are not ill at all. But as someone who has suffered multiple manic episodes, I can tell you that they change who you are. Every moment of stability becomes a mixed blessing, colored both by the happiness of the moment and the fear that it will end. Moments of elation are tempered by the real possibility that something horrifying might be around the corner, and when the bottom falls out, there's the chance that rock bottoms past mightn't have been that rocky after all.

And much of the time, mental illness is invisible to the outside world, which is why I'm finding coming out to be a relevant metaphor to co-opt. A wise woman once told me that "writing is fighting," and if that's true - which I think it is - what I'm trying to fight now is the idea that the mentally ill are somehow incapable of articulating their subjectivity. It may not look like I’m doing much with my life right now, but I woke up this morning, did my laundry, took a shower, went to my therapist, and now I’m writing this. I am trying. I am trying so fucking hard to build something from what feels like nothing.

And boy, does it feel like nothing sometimes. If I had a nickel for every time I’ve told myself I was lazy, that I was worthless, that there’s nothing worth living for, I’d be a very rich, very unhappy man. But this blog, this entry, is a fight against that, a salvo against the paralyzing, deathly silence that I’ve relegated myself to for much of the past two years. If you are battling mental illness, you are not alone, because I’m here, and I’ve got your back. You may not have showered in a week, you may barely be able to get out of bed in the morning, it may be a battle every time you want to leave the house, but you are loved. I know, because I have learned to love myself, and I’ve been in all those places. I’m still there sometimes.

But I’m trying. And all I can do is try. And sometimes, that has to be enough.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Something Was Broken

-On or around February 23, 2009-

Somewhere, wherever Los Angeles trash goes, is a worn pair of New Balance cross trainers, white and blue, size 10.5 6E. They were keeping me from the earth, and they had to go right then.

Right then was a sidewalk on Jefferson Ave, the north side of USC's campus. Right then was a public trash can - I only had about a fifth of a mile to where my car was parked, but sock feet would be less conspicuous if I didn't have their former sheaths in my hands. The grey, worn insoles - I remember; I looked - were besotted with the black hair from the pug I'd parted with in the previous month, and I had no other athletic shoes at my disposal, but fuck that, the shoes had to go.

They had been bothering me all day - I had parked wishful-thinkingly in the 1 hour slots on Figueroa, hoping to get in a conference or three with my composition students before the always-fickle meter gods betrayed me. My whole body buzzed as I exited the car, late as usual. The music from my iPod was changing with every tangential thought that flowed electric through my synapses. I wasn't touching the thing - it felt like electronic telekinesis, both exciting and utterly horrifying. If this was possible, then what was impossible?

I plopped down on the grass, only halfway to the library where my students were probably waiting. I took off those damn shoes and regarded them as a new amputee might a prosthetic - artificial things, not meant to come between my feet and whatever was below. Every time I moved, either in physicality or thought process, the music kept shifting. I kept shifting. Stillness was an impossibility, and these conferences just had to get done somehow. I realized that I hadn't eaten since yesterday afternoon. I also realized that I was sitting in quite a strange place - not on the commons grass maybe 100 yards away, but somewhere in the relative hinterlands of the campus, a strip of green between a sidewalk and a bike rack. People were watching me and my preoccupation with the iPod that had just changed again. Maybe I should put my shoes on again to see if my feet would still reject them, I thought to myself.

Being the yoga dilettante that I was, I thought it would then be a good idea to try and ground my energies, to settle down. After a bit of public meditation, appropriately cool, blue tones filled my ears (my doing?), and I gingerly walked the remainder of the way to the library courtyard, minding my breathing the whole way.

To my surprise, none of my students were there, and as I sat in the courtyard surrounded by people, many of whom I knew as colleagues, the sobering reality began to set in. I had lost complete track of what day it was. The conferences were scheduled for the next day, and I had instead completely missed class. The class *I* taught. I began to disintegrate into tears, walking as fast as I could so not to be seen by anyone I knew. For no reason in particular, I began walking faster and faster, unable to fix my brain on any single coherent thought. The music now an insistent beat thrumming in my ears, the blue sunlit sky all oppression.

Something was broken. Something I couldn't fix. The soles of my feet began to tingle, not in pain, but in a feeling I can only describe as my body not being entirely mine anymore.

It was then I knew the shoes had to go. I had to feel cold concrete under my toes - the abrasion would make me remember that yes, I was still here on Earth. I removed the shoes, glancing around, comforted by the fact that I was in Los Angeles, where you are always surrounded but only in the most egregious cases scrutinized, and with a silent prayer, said goodbye to my shoes.

The block-and-a-half walk to my car remains a blur, but I remember a distinct sense of achievement in my arrival. Stepping down to the grimy asphalt, noting the coarseness of the tar-suspended gravel, I walked around the car - no ticket, thank goddess - and got in.

By this point, my thoughts were not so rapid-fire; rather, they were alternating between hazy consciousness and snaps of compensatory alertness. I cranked the car, and began to drive home. Similar to the earlier uncanny simpatico with the iPod, my car seemed too to be in sync with my brain. As the haze would encroach, the car would begin to labor, I'd sharply inhale - focus! focus! - and the engine would thrum approvingly. The mile home was peppered with these episodes - it felt like I was in one of those cars that bump to the beat of a sound system.

The relief was palpable as I got home. I closed the door behind me, stripped naked and crashed down on the mattress lying in the middle of my living room floor. Seeking desperately a touchstone for the life I had been living but which was beginning to seem all too fleeting, I pulled out my silenced phone from my backpack. One message, stern: I had forgotten to send in my vote for a singing contest I was judging on YouTube.

I walked across my bungalow to the computer desk, relieved that there was a small thing I could do to prove, if only to myself, that I could handle this, whatever *this* was. First, though, put on the teapot. Call the number. Oh, right, that burner doesn't work. "Hello? There you are!" Oh wait, that burner doesn't work "Charlie?" - the smell of gas shut it off - "Oh hi! Just calling to give you my vote!" (Smiling Too Wide) - "Whew! Put on the wrong burner! Jussssst a second. Gotta get outside, getting light headed from the gas!" (Awkward Pause)

"You're not gonna die on me, are you?" (a forced chuckle in her voice)

I hesitated. "No, ha! Just crazy old me, can't remember which burner works right!" I gave her my vote, and came to the realization that this phone conversation, the filament that was connecting me to another human being for this moment, was about to end. And then, the dread.

I had hesitated because, honestly, I wasn't sure.