Going Public

9 of 10 Doctors Bipolar Memoir

For many years I hid, in order to keep from being discovered and exposed as a fraud. My flaws were not visible; I “passed” for normal and learned to provide the public with a convincing show. (Much later I would learn that the hideous flaws I sought to hide were imaginary, I was, in fact, no worse than the average Bozo.)

Like thousands of lost souls who eventually find themselves in the damp church basements of AA, I avoided intimacy as others avoid influenza. For reasons too dreary and predictable to enumerate, I imagined that – if you truly knew me you would be disappointed and ultimately repulsed – so I saved us both the trouble.

I was like a John le Carré character in deep cover, impersonating a person, blending in, hiding in plain sight. Writer is an ideal occupation in a case of this type; we are a bit like voyeurs and spies anyway.

So I honed detachment and isolation down to a fine art. This luscious anonymity was ended by the eruption of mania and a subsequent, highly public, battle with manic depression (bipolar disorder). As I struggled back from the rubble that remained of my former life and brick by brick rebuilt and built anew – reinventing myself as I did so – I found that I now had a very real, and very dangerous, secret which had the power to wreck my hard won recovery.

I understood the stigma; I understood how people fear mental illness. Even criminals fear crazy. In Alistair V.2 I guarded information jealously, revealing only what was absolutely required. I shielded my employer and new friends from my past; every day was spent on eggshells. But, after two cataclysmic manic episodes I realized that I had to know, and kill, this hideous monster, and for me, that meant writing a book about it.

Bear in mind, this was 1990; at the time there was no such thing as a bipolar memoir to be found anywhere. (“Call Me Anna” by Patty Duke was as close as the curious reader could get). I knew that, by writing my memoir, pitching it to agents, and publishing it – going “bare” for all the world to see – I was making myself incredibly vulnerable to ridicule, contempt, marginalization, prejudice, misunderstanding and worse. But it didn’t matter; I had to do it. It was both my emancipation, and my gift to the afflicted and their loved ones.

At that moment I ceased being a spy, my double life ended. The polar extremes were integrated into one completely imperfect entity. That is my joy today, just one of the many gifts bestowed on me by manic depression.

Heard This One?

If You Cannot See Yourself As Others Do You Will Never Understand

Life is not funny; indeed, life repudiates all attempts to describe it.

People, on the other hand, with their vanities, hubris, delusions, and complete inability to accept existence as it is, are endlessly funny. The closer you get to the dark, corrupt heart of humanity the harder you laugh.

For me; truth, art, humor and pain have always been like four compass arrows at the North Pole; they seem to point away from one another but do just the opposite, and circumscribe all we have, and are, in the process.

I have never succeeded in teasing these elements apart. All three of my books look mercilessly at painful subjects: mental illness, evil, and addiction. Yet, all are outrageously funny – in the words of one reader – “wickedly funny”.

My cartoons, which pair found art & photography with created captions, are oddly entertaining, but rarely yuck yuck stuff. In them you often see the razor’s edge of satire, an author disappointed by humanity.

Taz Mopulisms – those Twitter-friendly snippets of faux profundity – are usually absurd, at least in part.

The harder I work to be honest, the funnier my output becomes. There is no changing that now. But understand; cheap laughs are not my quarry. I started down the road to madness over 40 years ago; since then Manic Depression (Bipolar Disorder) and chemical dependency have followed me like a curse.

Amazingly I have defeated them, but I am one of the lucky few.

I am a foot soldier in a war. I have lost so many dear friends and even family members to suicide of all descriptions – and I myself have peered over the ledge more times than I care to remember. I write for me, of course, because that is what I do. But I also write on behalf of the ones who didn’t make it, my lost brothers and sisters, for the benefit of those who need to see the other side.

Wild Turkey

wild turkey

Philadelphia is one of the nation’s most important cities, culturally iconic, socially complex, eminently livable. Like other major metropolitan centers it has a dark side characterized by heartbreaking poverty, despair, and brute violence.

As readers of my 1st novel – MOONLIT TOURS – will recall, I worked as a cabby there way back when. During that time, one of my fellow drivers was robbed and murdered; shot through the back of his head. They found him wrapped around his steering wheel, brains painted onto the windshield.

A year later I was attacked by a gang of punks, beaten in the face with lead pipes, and dumped in a snow bank to die.

I have spent most of my life in urban settings and consequently developed a rather philosophical attitude towards mortality; a city is a place of police cars, ambulances, fire engines and endless news reports of senseless death described, and illustrated, in lurid detail. One is tempted to sigh and say, “Yes, so it goes.”

But that serene, dispassionate indifference left me when I relocated to the country and had to confront wild animals face to face on a daily basis.

Just over two years ago I moved to a New Hampshire hamlet so small it does not have a stoplight, gas station, or Starbucks. The rallying point of this burg is a tiny post office with an uncertain future. One day I was getting my mail and who should walk in but our Chief Of Police. He recognized me immediately and we exchanged pleasantries. Commanding a full-time force of 4 police officers allows him to take a personal approach to his work.

I began to relate the story of Tom, nicknamed “The Tominator” by my wife, who has a flair for such things. Tom is a rogue wild turkey who, presumably as a result of turkey crimes too terrible to contemplate, has become separated from his tribe and now works alone.

I am accustomed to watching flocks of wild turkeys ambling through the yard, leisurely pecking the ground, but a solo Tom is new. Snood flapping casually, Tom brazenly walks up and down the center of the road in front of our house, a busy thoroughfare where one may see trucks and even school buses. His arrogance and disdain are limitless, and traffic has become increasingly deferential – he is now something of a local celebrity.

We reviewed all this in the Post Office, and the Chief confessed that “dealing with Tom” was high on his To Do list. He revealed that he had a net at home. Tom, we agreed, was a danger to himself and others…it’s just a matter off time…we nodded in unison…Fish & Game had been called.

Tom has not been seen for many days, and I like to imagine that he has been captured and relocated to the tourist country of northern New Hampshire where he now resides in a resort for wayward, unruly wild turkeys. I can accept nothing less, because, as a daily visitor who liked to sneak snacks from beneath our bird feeder, he was practically a family member. But this is not where the story ends.

A few days ago I was driving down a back road and had to stop as a large flock of wild turkeys, perhaps twenty, crossed. If you have never seen one of these magnificent animals, which Benjamin Franklin nominated over the bald eagle for National Bird status, they are amazing. Imagine a blue-collar peacock, stately, slow, immense, with a truly commanding presence.

Absentmindedly I followed each one as it ambled to the other side, wondering about Tom. I noticed a long, cylindrical shaft protruding from the feathers of one. At first I thought it was a random feather refusing to lie down next to the rest, then I realized I was looking at the back half of an arrow. Not a nice, wooden arrow from the colonial era. No, this was a state-of-the-art, fluorescent green missile made of high-performance polymers, bouncing as the turkey walked.

Clearly it was embedded enough to remain, but not enough to injure the bird.

I considered trying to remove the dreadful thing but thought better of it. Then we made eye contact and I imagined him saying these words to me.

“What’s the matter, moron, never saw anyone shot in the ass before? New in town? This shit happens, buddy. No sense being sentimental about it. I’m wild, can you dig it? That’s why they call me a wild turkey. Takes more than a little DuPont plastic in the hands of some half-blind, half-drunk hunter to slow this bad boy down. Now quit staring and piss off.”

Cry Me A River

river amazon

Manic Depression (Bipolar Disorder) stormed into my life like Godzilla and left like Santa Claus. Among its many gifts was the ability to cry. Until that time I had fled this basic human function with resolute determination and was unacquainted with its primal power and beauty.

My parents came from cultures where the open display of emotion was anathema; a grotesque admission of defeat and, even worse, bad manners. Both spent their adolescent years surrounded by the cruel chaos of war, which hardened an already Stoic world-view. Essentially their position was; one is entitled to experience moods but there is no profit in sharing them with others.

I soon discovered that feelings could be hidden under layer upon layer of illusion until they became invisible to all. The spontaneous, involuntary expression of sentiment seemed like the province of simple, unsophisticated people – peasants, blacksmiths, and hod carriers.

Oddly, I thought of laughter as a cerebral activity, I did not yet understand it as the mirror image of weeping. On some deep strata not yet known to me I believed that if at last I begin to cry, I wouldn’t be able to stop. I was so deeply estranged from my own inner life that I actually thought I didn’t even have feelings.

Mania cracked me open like a cheap piñata at a child’s birthday party and before long bats covered the landscape. Fear, rage, resentment, envy, shame; it was undeniable and overwhelming.

In time I learned that mania overrules filters, controls, governors – manic behavior is involuntary. One sees and feels one’s true emotional landscape with vivid clarity, whether you want to or not. In mania, and intense depression, one’s nerves and feelings are totally exposed; everything is experienced intensely.

How you respond is almost unimportant, what is important is that you are unable to process stimuli successfully. You hit “overload” and stay there.

During those first waves of 100% manic intensity I cried in bursts, like tropical storms that appear out of nowhere, rage briefly, and then disappear in a blink.

Never before had I experienced such blessed relief, such sweet surrender of control. The pain, at last had a voice – it finally had a chance to speak. I listened.

I Was Wrong

wrong way

Infallible people never have to apologize, why would they? These are the folks of whom it is said, “Been there, done that, has a medal to prove it.”

My own father was one of these blessed individuals, and he constantly reasserted his infallibility by mercilessly bludgeoning anyone who disagreed with him. I cannot recall him ever apologizing. Indeed, apologizing is one of many skills he neglected to teach me.

My own pantomime of infallibility, a sort of homage to dad, depended on a careful balance of arrogance, gullible audiences, and tap dancing. Lacking the big guy’s prodigious powers of prestidigitation I could only keep the illusion alive for a while. Fortunately, when cracks began appearing in the shiny veneer – well – new, less discriminating audiences were always waiting.

Worshiping at the altar of perfection, imagining a model of humanity superior to all others, I naturally came to regard apologies as anathema. To apologize was to admit fault, to shine the unforgiving spotlight on a hideous blemish, either deed – or worse – attribute of character.

Two things happened.

First, I completely abandoned what I call “the myth of perfection” which I regard as a toxic lie responsible for an almost unimaginable amount of misery. I accepted myself as an imperfect entity.

Next, I came to understand mistakes as essential to the human experience.

Edison observed that his latest experiment hadn’t failed; he had simply found another way to not do what he was trying to do. Ultimately, I came to realize, the only people who don’t make mistakes are the people who don’t do anything. (Ironically, this is the biggest mistake of all, since it wastes a life.)

Now, instead of feeling diminished by apologizing, I feel empowered. To apologize is to cease hiding and take ownership of something you have done. It is also to acknowledge the effect one has had on others; it validates them and puts their needs above yours.

Apologizing is yet another skill I learned in the damp basements of my program, and I quickly came to the conclusion that it is one of the few activities in life one cannot do too often. If you have made a hurtful mistake, own it, face it, deal with it. Bow.