Existentialists Explore Extreme Tedium

Russian Base Jumping

The word “extreme” is overused today; like “awesome” it has been drained of its raw glory by thoughtless abuse. Being manic-depressive – or “bipolar” – I have spent most of my life in extremes, natural habitat of the mad. I chased kicks obsessively, certain I was having fun. But fun, I discovered late in life, occurs when you know who you are and enjoy who you are; you don’t find fun somewhere else, you bring it with you. What I actually chased was adrenaline.

“Until you’ve had nothing you haven’t yet had everything.” Taz Mopula

We attempt to make mundane activities sound less mundane by applying the word “extreme” to them, for example – “extreme makeover” – not to be confused with “extreme snoring” or “extreme shoe polishing”. But the dirty little secret about life in extremes is that over time they blend together and lose their scary, “cool” edge. So many of these adventures are flights away, not towards.

“There are two kinds of people, those who believe there are only two kinds of people and those who dislike oversimplification.” Taz Mopula

Mental hospitals and prisons are all basically identical, bland food, linoleum, and well-appointed recreational facilities. Teheran opium den, Rio de Janeiro brothel, raging forest fires in Alaska, battered urban wastelands of Philadelphia; after peeling off layers of veneer I realized they were all essentially the same place. Ultimately it wasn’t where I was that mattered so much as what I was doing there, and why.

“People are always finding God in prisons and mental hospitals; but try finding a gift shop.” Taz Mopula

Whether by design or, as in my case, fate, it is exhilarating to close your eyes and sail off the edge of a cliff – crash – break into a heap of ragged fragments – and do it all again once you’ve mended. The thrill is all consuming and luscious. Doing what most people spend their entire life fearing and avoiding accelerates the process of spiritual growth, but, like anything else, there are limits to what it can offer. Crashing one’s car into a wall at 100 mph twice is not twice as instructive as doing it once.

“Everything and Nothing are identical twins; completely unrelated to Enough.” Taz Mopula

The shocking revelation about spending a life exclusively in extremes is that it actually stunts growth and ultimately is, (gasp), boring. The middle lane is not only the safest, it is the most richly complex, challenging, and satisfying; it’s where the real action is.

Nursing A Grudge Will Not Make It Healthy

No Matter How Long You Nurse A Grudge

If you’ve ever gotten divorced you know that, as soon as it happens your married friends start avoiding you as if the inability to maintain a relationship is some sort of bizarre, highly contagious skin condition. The fate of those fighting serious mental health issues, including addiction, is far worse.

“Not all human sacrifice is equally noble; it depends a little on which human is being sacrificed.” Taz Mopula

The road leading out of Bedlam seems endlessly challenging but we trudge it all the same, then, at the finish line, in place of that brass band we expect there is an angry mob. It seems beastly unkind, especially after the hard work, but before you start nursing a grudge, understand a few things about who and what you’ve become and why the new you is bringing out the very worst this wretched refuse has to offer.

“People are always finding God in prisons and mental hospitals; but try finding a gift shop.” Taz Mopula

The day you went skidding off the road and right into downtown Cuckoopantsatopolis was the day you reminded every straight arrow of your acquaintance that none of us is ever truly safe. Sanity itself, that sine qua non for the bourgeois, mediocre, pointless life ostensibly guaranteed by the Constitution, is as vulnerable as a Fabergé egg. Nobody wants to be reminded of that, and yet you do.

“Ever noticed that people who claim to be crazy never are; and people who actually are crazy always claim to be sane?” Taz Mopula

“But wait,” you say, in that adorably naïve tone of voice you apply to questions that illustrate your innocence, “do I not also teach, i.e. show, that by facing down these unholy perils one can evolve spiritually and grow stronger, actually emerging as a better, more morally grounded person in the process?”

“Those who can’t do, teach; those who can’t teach, teach anyway.” Taz Mopula

Yes, yes you do, Sparky, and this is precisely why that mob is roughly as happy to see you as they were to see Frankenstein.

“Give a man a fish and you have fed him for a day. Teach that man to fish and you have given him a way to hide a drinking problem.” Taz Mopula

They say in the rooms that a pickle can never return to its previous incarnation as a cucumber. While you may be a reformed devil transformed into an angel, one thing is certain, you will never again be just another Bozo on the bus in the eyes of outsiders; the tired, the poor, the slow, the dim. Fellow insiders know better, they know that all of us are merely Bozos on the bus, but that is another story.

In the final analysis it’s important to remember that uniqueness is about the only thing we all have in common. Taz Mopula

Your very existence says to these apple pie bakers and flag wavers, “My experience is larger than yours, I know terrible truths you dare not admit. Though horribly handicapped I have emerged morally grounded, fearless, strong, and (most upsetting of all) happy.” Trust me, they will never forgive you for that.

“For the sake of convenience be your own best friend; it’s always easy to get in touch with you.” Taz Mopula

You have become a teacher, a leader, whether you care to admit it or not. As ever, peace of mind lies in embracing the inevitable, my advice is – learn how to lead by example, make your life a poem, a prayer.

“No matter how long you nurse a grudge it will never become healthy.” Taz Mopula

Look around you; we desperately need leaders. Today we have none, instead we have celebrities who only lead by being cautionary tales, they show us what not to do. Leave footprints.

Prunella Entwhistle Visits The Highlands

glen coe prunella highlands

Many years ago my (then) girlfriend, let’s call her Prunella Entwhistle, and I took a vacation to Scotland so she could meet the relatives and eat haggis.

A dyed-in-the-wool Romantic, Prunella adored art and was an amateur sculptor. Enthusiastic and impulsive by nature, she was given to moments of inspiration infrequently preceded by rational deliberation. The vacation progressed well and we crisscrossed the Scottish highlands in a rented Mini, lodging modestly in tiny towns with names like Auchnagallin, Kearvaig, and Cave of Smoo.

One morning, as we were leaving the latest in a long line of B&Bs, I firmly gripped the handles of our suitcases to take them downstairs for packing into the Mini. Doing so gave me the distinct impression that our suitcases did not wish to come along.

Flummoxed and put off in a way unique to people trying to break camp and get going, I raised the bags slowly – they had definitely put on weight. I was then reminded of a nagging suspicion I’d had – and ignored – for days, that either I was becoming weaker or the bags were getting heavier.

Impatient and irritated I opened them up to determine if this was real or some dreadful hallucination. There, carefully wrapped and stashed inside Prunella’s sweaters, shirts, and trousers were half-a-dozen large stones, souvenirs of the Highlands. I was horrified, but it was about to get worse.

I also discovered several whiskey bottles that had been filled with water from mountain springs. As I realized I’d been carrying this dead weight up and down stairs – and was expected to carry it through various airport terminals – the blood began to rise like mercury in a thermometer.

Later, after I’d vented sufficiently to make continued travel possible, Prunella revealed her “artistic” plan to install a little garden in our Pennsylvania home featuring Scottish rocks and water. I shook my head in quiet disbelief, wishing for a witness to confirm the depths of my suffering.

To live is to accumulate baggage. It pays to have a good look through the contents every now and again; some beliefs, assessments, values, etc. may have outlived their usefulness. As to dragging around somebody else’s insanity, well, enough is enough.

What Is A Friend?

axe

At sixteen I went on a 1,200-mile canoe trip down the Albany River to Hudson Bay, two months of whitewater with nine other guys my age, Pete, our group leader, and an Ojibwa Indian guide. Absolute wilderness, our only company the occasional bear or moose. My best friend’s name was Terry.

Every evening we set up a new site, cut tent poles and firewood, and cooked dinner. One evening, after a long, exhausting day of paddling in the rain, we found a site and I went to chop firewood. My axe glanced off a wet tree, through my sock, and deep into my left ankle. (We kept our axes sharp!)

Warm blood soaked my sock; the milky-white anklebone was clearly visible. Pete made me lie down on the ground face up so he could sew the wound back together using a curved needle, nylon thread, and fishing knots he knew. I was close to passing out. He gave me a piece of wood to bite on so I wouldn’t swallow my tongue and said, “When it starts to hurt, bite down.”

I looked up and saw a neat circle of faces looking down at me, a combination of sympathy and morbid fascination on their faces. Everyone was there, except Terry. I felt betrayed, let down by my best friend when I was already so hurt. No one spoke as Pete began sewing and I tried my best not to scream, the only sound was a faint, steady chipping in the background.

When they carried me back to my tent, Terry presented me with a beautiful cane he had just carved. Everything I knew, or have come to know, about friendship reverberated in that moment.

Study Links Bipolar Disorder, Genius, Creativity & Idiocy

Portraits In Stupidity - Bare-chested At The Top Of The World

If you’ve ever met an actual genius – or worse – if you are one – you know that: those in need of garden-variety stupidity are advised to seek out a moron – but – those in search of world-class idiocy should go the extra mile and track down a genius.

“Those who believe that intelligence alone can cure all ills possess either too little of it or to much.” Taz Mopula

The link between Manic Depression and intelligence has been widely discussed, as has the link between Manic Depression and creativity. Because the illness has a genetic component, descending through generations like a toxic heirloom, this cannot be considered exactly shocking.

“Sometimes it seems like the inmates are running the asylum. Then again, would a sane person want that job?” Taz Mopula

The net is that, intelligence and artistic creativity track higher among Bipolars than the general population. This does not mean that all Bipolars are brilliant and creative – that would be like saying that all alcoholics are great writers simply because many great writers are alcoholics.

“If you need mania to be creative, then maybe creativity isn’t for you.” Taz Mopula

(By the way, I’ve tried this myself – trust me – becoming an alcoholic does not make you a great writer. I was horrified to learn that the only way to become a great writer is by becoming a great writer, which, I assure you, involves a lot more effort than becoming an alcoholic.)

“Writing is the easiest part of being a writer; the most difficult part is becoming a writer.” Taz Mopula

One thing I’ve observed over a decade of meetings in church basements is that – there are a lot of really brilliant, successful, charming, creative alcoholics. As we say, “It was my best thinking that bought me this chair.” Likewise, there are many brilliant – genius level – crackerpants coocoobirds in mental hospitals, prisons, and cemeteries.

“Learn humility first; all the other important lessons come so much more easily when you do.” Taz Mopula

For both groups, intelligence and success pose the greatest obstacle to recovery. Convinced of their own superiority to others, these hubris-stoked, arrogant twits believe they are equipped to master whatever comes their way, even life’s most bizarre, horrific challenges. They are too smart to realize how incredibly stupid they are being.

“To live happily it either is or is not essential that one learns to embrace self-contradictory concepts.” Taz Mopula

A mentally ill person – whether Bipolar, alcoholic, or both – that believes in the mythology of self-sufficiency – who is actually willing to risk it all on his ability to scale Everest alone in his underwear – is no mere dimwit – that takes world-class stupidity. For that you need a genius.

The Importance Of Being Unimportant

One Cannot Overestimate The Importance Of Fully Grasping

One day, while sitting in my windowless corporate office and trying to imagine it didn’t resemble a jail cell, I picked up my ringing phone to discover the call was not business-related, it was in fact a friend I’ll call Chumley Frampton, although his real name is Syngen Enthwhistle.

Arrogance: What stupidity wants to be when it grows up. Taz Mopula

Now, bear in mind that Chumley is not what you would call a close friend, so I wondered immediately what the purpose of his call might be. I didn’t have to wait long. With fabricated faux urgency for which he is well known, Chumley informed me he was too busy to speak with me right now and had to ring off.

Multi-tasking: The fine art of doing many things badly at the same time.” Taz Mopula

Yes, that’s right. He called me to let me know he was too busy to speak with me, even though we hadn’t spoken in months.

Before you criticize a man, walk half a mile in his shoes, turn around, retrace your steps, and return them to him.” Taz Mopula

I don’t usually deconstruct for the reader’s benefit but let’s look at this briefly. 1.) Apparently he was incorrect, he wasn’t too busy to speak with me – the communication was false. 2.) Had it been accurate, why would I have cared? What possible purpose could have been served? 3.) The exclusive point of this contact was to remind me of his importance. (This quality, by the way, existed only in his mind, assuming that one measures importance by gauging influence, power, achievement, and celebrity, which he did. So, not only was it a tiresome nuisance, it was wildly inaccurate.)

“Celebrity: A state of being where one is not known by a large number of people.” Taz Mopula

As concept humor the story is hard to beat, but there is another reason why I’ve retained it all these years. Long ago a psychiatrist said to me, “It really matters to you that what you do is perceived as important.” This was both true and damning. He didn’t say that it was important to me that I achieved important things – (like Chumley I existed on the periphery of accomplishment but had nothing to show for myself) – he said it was important that I was perceived as having done so. Back in the day, Chumley and I managed our images fastidiously, what others thought of us mattered tremendously, indeed, it determined the value of our stock.

“Humility is nothing to brag about.” Taz Mopula

Today I know with absolute certainty that I am not important. On occasion I may be involved in work that is potentially important, and now and then I may serve the purposes of a very important entity, but that is another matter altogether. If I ever find myself making a case for self-importance I immediately take a time out – recalibrate, and begin again.

“Never underestimate your ability to underestimate others, and overestimate your own capabilities.” Taz Mopula

I am perhaps important to the extent that I have learned the importance of unimportance.

The Myth of Self-Medication

Whisky Drinker Prefers A

As a card-carrying alcoholic bipolar bear there’s little anyone can teach me about denial. When confronted with a choice between the easy way and my way – well – do I even need to tell you which I chose? Frequently I was so defiant that – if you told me to turn left, I turned right simply to annoy you…and show you that I could. Demonstrating my will became more important than doing what was best for me. I paid dearly for this commitment to ill-considered independence.

There’s an old expression that goes – A lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client. There is no equivalent saying in the world of mental health but we sure could use one because acting as one’s own therapist – counselor – physician is rather like performing an emergency appendectomy on yourself while drunk. Sadly, however, the practice is common, as evidenced by the hilariously euphemistic phrase, self-medication.

In the rooms one meets so many people who have wrestled with clinical depression; alcohol abuse was their way of “self-medicating” and the results are horrific. But my most vivid introduction to the concept came as I attempted the trapeze act of managing manic highs, using pot and alcohol to hold onto that magic point of euphoria. Repeated crashes taught me that pouring booze and other drugs on mania is really pouring gasoline on a bonfire; one is in tremendously bad faith if one acts surprised when the building burns down.

To be fair, talk therapy, which is where the real action and healing can be found, is so time-consuming and expensive that insurance companies are squeezing it out of fashion. We have become overly reliant on psychotropic pharma to manage mental illness, and it is an imprecise science. Some meds are nasty, some have ugly side effects, some are not well understood, and many are expensive – even if one has coverage.

So, for the arrogant imbecile anxious to ignore the medical community’s collective wisdom, there are plenty of plausible excuses to avoid the obviously superior path of care and treatment under the supervision of a trained professional. Bipolars are absolutely famous for doing this; going off their meds when things improve and taking back their will, no matter the seriousness of their transgressions.

If you have a bipolar bear in the family complaining about side effects, it’s okay to listen seriously and sympathetically, but, it might be the first step on a road culminating in self-administered brain surgery. Remember that alcoholics are world-class liars and bipolars, especially those early to recovery, are amazingly accomplished in the art of rationalization.

Nothing Recedes Like Success

B.B. King

My father received the National Medal of Arts in September of 1990; other recipients included Jasper Johns, Beverly Sills, Merce Cunningham, Hume Cronyn, and blues legend, B.B. King.

The ceremony took place at The White House, President Bush and wife Barbara (much scarier in person) officiating. Afterwards a select group of 50 or so attendees was invited to stay for lunch (lamb).

I almost didn’t make it in. Even though I’d been formally invited my name triggered an alarm when I arrived at the gate because short months prior to the occasion I’d been involuntarily admitted into a state mental hospital – for a curiously refreshing account of these events CLICK HERE to order Invisible Driving, my bipolar memoir.

The White House was much smaller inside than I’d imagined and I was delighted to find a complete set of Nixon’s memoirs in one of the bathrooms.

I had no desire to call attention to myself and didn’t want to do anything that might embarrass The Professor; it was his day after all. However, at the mix and mingle, right before sitting down to lunch, when I saw B.B. King schmoozing with then Attorney General Richard Thornburg, I simply had to introduce myself. (Frankly I’ve never been terribly impressed by King as a musician, although I do like his voice.)

We chatted very amiably for a while and then I stopped for a moment and said, “You know, unlike pretty much everybody else here,” with that I swept my arm across the sea of predominately white, male, humorless, Republican, conservative, uptight twits, sycophants, and unctuous opportunists, “I actually own some albums by you.”

(This was true; a terrific effort with horns called Blues On Top Of Blues and a dreadful 2-album Buddha reissue pairing him with old friend Bobbie “Blue” Bland. In high school I’d purchased an appalling album called Lucille and given it away after listening to it twice.)

Now, in all honesty, I thought this was a slow pitch, an opportunity for us to be amused by the irony together. It is hard to imagine George Bush moanin’ about goin’ to Memphis to get his hambone boiled, or Barbara cryin’ ‘cause she need a hot dog for her roll. I doubt that pooling the entire group would have produced more B.B. King albums than Jasper Johns paintings. And yet, nothing at all from The King, just a sour puss indicating I’d given him the blues.

Then it dawned on me, when it comes to egomania there is no such thing as success, there is never enough approbation to satisfy the appetite. King was unable to be amused by the irony because he wouldn’t be satisfied until the whole world had albums by him. But the bad part is, even then it wouldn’t be enough.

I saw this with my father; ultimately the fame meant nothing. As it says in the play Deathtrap, “Nothing recedes like success.” And when it does recede, if you’ve got nothing substantial to fall back on, nothing in the center to nourish you, it gets mighty lonely out there.

Everybody wants to know, why I sing the blues, I’ve been around a long time, and I’ve really paid my blues.