Gallows Humor Swings

Fearless Frontiers Of Ventriloquism

“Be nice to your enemies; you just might be one of them.” Taz Mopula

If you’ve been blessed/cursed with Manic Depression (Bipolar Disorder) you’ll be spending time off the beaten track, in some cases, far off – for example, you might find yourself lying face down in a drainage ditch paralleling the beaten track, being pecked on the head by an irate duck.

At moments like this you can weep and shake your fists at the sky, or you can scratch your head in wonder at the dizzying, diverse smorgasbord of experience life has set before you, and laugh with bemused disbelief. Both options have merit, but healthy bipolar bears benefit from developing a resilient sense of humor predicated on perspective.

“The world is most certainly not a fair place, which, for the vast majority of us, is very fortunate indeed.” Taz Mopula

Laughter sheds light on a dark situation, creates distance, and generates power. Indeed, seeing the absurdity and irony of threatening situations is a great way to make them less intimidating. Courtrooms, prison cells, mental hospitals, distraught loved ones, and the offices of therapists are not intrinsically funny – however – the most beautiful lotus emerges from the darkest mud.

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

Becoming better at doing this means developing an ability to find humor in the most unpleasant, disagreeable situations life has to offer, because these will be the moments when it is most desperately needed. This may serve to further estrange you from those who have never strayed onto the shoulder of the beaten track, much less off of it. At this point you can pretend that your view is not as wide as it is, or acknowledge the distinction and let them deal with it.

“Pretending not to know the obvious is exhausting.” Taz Mopula

In a politically correct environment like ours, where the consensus holds that pretending a duck-billed platypus is a swan will make it so, there are those who believe Tourette’s Syndrome is comedy gold, ripe with satiric potential – and those that believe it is always wrong to make fun of the disabled.

“Political Correctness: An experiment in social engineering which holds that renaming dung mousse au chocolat makes it edible.” Taz Mopula 

The problem with this, dear reader, is that bipolar bears ARE disabled, we have already learned that, when it comes to comedy, all of life is fair game, especially ourselves. Indeed, we know that being able to see the humor and absurdity in our own pain, our bizarre affliction; is a key ingredient of healing.

“The better your vision becomes, the harder you laugh.” Taz Mopula

The Isabella Mori Interview

I’ve done a lot of interviews about the how and why of writing my bipolar memoir but the one with Isabella Mori really stands out – she’s smart, appreciates literature, and is an excellent writer herself. Isabella is based in Vancouver and blogs regularly about mental health and recovery.

Invisible Driving Cover

Alistair McHarg: Thank you for your interest in INVISIBLE DRIVING. One thing that stands out about you is that you really care about literature. A lot of people I speak with only come to Invisible Driving from the bipolar standpoint, which is fine, as far as it goes.

Isabella Mori: There is a rhythm to your book that is clearly there but hard to pin down. In the beginning you seem to have a “crazy” chapter taking turns with a “normal”; then the manic and the normal (if I may use that word) start to take turns within the chapters, then whole chapters are wild and woolly, etc. etc. Can you say something about that? To what degree is that a stylistic device, and to what degree does it echo your experience? Can the two be separated at all?

Alistair McHarg: The manic chapters came first. Then a literary agent said that there needed to be “depth” – a second voice that was sane, reliable, and recovered. I rewrote the entire book several times. I now see she was so right, the chapters in the recovered voice provide the background – the psychological architecture. The reader finds out why I was vulnerable, what the triggers were, and what was significant about how I acted out. Yes, the point/counterpoint is very deliberate. (You would think that the wild, manic chapters would have been hardest to write, but the sane ones were much harder, more soul-searching of real things.)

Isabella Mori: Actually, to me, imagining writing the book, it felt that the manic ones were the ones that were written with more ease. Perhaps that is because I was frankly flabbergasted how much I could relate to a lot of what you wrote. I think that’s what first drew me in. I knew exactly what you were talking about, even though my bipolar experiences are extremely mild. I’m still astonished at that.

Alistair McHarg: Interesting. Maybe the bipolar experience is essentially the same, and what varies is the degree. It is a very nice compliment that the writing registered with you. (When I gave the ms. to my psychiatrist he said he had to put it down now and then because it was making him manic!) I can’t say that they were written in ease. Recreating the pitch of mania, the quicksilver logic twisting and slipping, the bobbing and weaving, energy, raw creative force – when I was squarely back on earth, slightly depressed – took a tremendous amount of labor and craft, craft I didn’t know I had until I attempted it.

Isabella Mori: I was wondering about the mood you were in when you wrote those passages! The fact that it was indeed a recreation speaks to your fantastic writing skills. Were there moments when you wondered whether recreating this would take you into the mania?

Alistair McHarg: Thank you. It was writing this book (my first) that turned me into a real writer; it was transformational. Your question is pivotal. I began writing immediately after the episode described had ended. I was terrified, really shaken. I had suffered with the illness long enough to know that a trigger could send me off again, and I was pretty sure another episode would kill me. But I knew I couldn’t write the book unless mentally I went back in. I was between a rock and a hard place. So I went deeply back into the middle of it. That decision is what made the experience transformational. I knew it might set me off on another high, I knew that it might kill me; I did it anyway. I knew that I had to face this damn illness or be destroyed by it.

Isabella Mori: Fascinating! I am really touched by what you say, can feel it in my gut. And what hits me is, again, this commingling; meeting of art, this thing called mental illness, and the healing of/from/with it. It reminds me of a poem I wrote many years ago when I was close to dying of typhoid fever. I wrote it in Spanish so it’s a bit hazy but something about the need to climb the mountain of art, alone, naked, because there is no other choice. Does that resonate?

Alistair McHarg: Resonate indeed. That was my challenge exactly, and it was probably the single bravest thing I’ve ever done. As you point out, I had to do it alone. I had been fed so many lies and was very fear-based. I had to strip absolutely everything away until there was nothing left that wasn’t true. And then I rebuilt; I reinvented myself. What you say about commingling is deep, and many people do not understand. I say often that Manic Depression and Alcoholism have given me more than they have taken. In Manic Depression I saw rare things, and was forced to evolve. Alcoholism ultimately took me to a better way of life and a higher power. It has all been a spiritual journey and while mental “illness” has caused earthquakes in my life it has also produced angels. I was shy, I hid, I felt “less than” – but manic depression made it impossible for me to hide, and also, it forced me to admit my power.

Isabella Mori: There is so much we could talk about here; I hope we stay in touch, but more on the commingling. So there is the art, there is the “mental illness” (funny how I often feel I have to put it in quotation marks), there is the healing, there is the acknowledgment of power, and then there is humor. There’s a lot of humor in your book. Page 218, “and how do these aristocrats of oddness settle down after a busy day of counting their fingers and slashing their wrists with plastics forks?” Humor in these circumstances can be taken as disrespect sometimes. Do you hear that sometimes? How do you react? By commingling I mean that the humor seems to be part of it all.

Alistair McHarg: Humor and music are in the very center of me. To me the best humor is never nasty, it doesn’t single out anybody and it is never there to make me feel better than you. Real humor celebrates the absurdity of all life, human vanity, fatuous selfishness. You will notice that most of the humor in the book comes at my own expense. That said, when I was manic every mean quality came out, the anger, the hurt, the fear, and, combined with an intellect that had caught fire, all this hurt often found expression in really cruel humor. Other times it was quite surrealistic and charming. In my other books – both are satiric novels, and my cartoons, even my poetry – you will find that I include myself, all of us, when aiming barbs. I disrespect elements of people; racism, jealousy, entitlement, xenophobia, but it is never about disrespecting people, it is about loving truth and loving what people could be but are afraid to be.

Isabella Mori: One last question for now. Towards the beginning of the book you say, “The love of my daughter is my favorite thing about myself.” In therapy, there is often a dictum that people should change for themselves, not for others. As a father, would you agree with that?

Alistair McHarg: This is a great question. The easy answer is yes! In AA we tell the uncertain ones; fake it ‘til you make it! At first it doesn’t matter if you are in therapy, or recovery, for the wrong reasons, so long as you are there. (Bring the body and the mind will follow.) But absolutely, there must come a time when you are doing it for yourself, otherwise you will never commit fully and you will never get the full benefit. If you asked me that question today I would answer: My favorite thing about me is that I know what I have to offer and I am doing my best to put it to the service of others.

Occupy Inner Space

enter sign

Terrified and utterly defeated I crawled into talk therapy in 1986 and walked away 17 years later. I learned that analysis is like “exploring inner space” – in the same sense that Lewis & Clark fearlessly plunged into an unknown world. A journey like that is almost certain to be filled with loss, sadness, monsters, bloody struggle, pain, death, revelation, rebirth and joy. Mine was no exception.

“Why raise the bridge when you can lower your expectations of the river?” Taz Mopula

The prolonged excavation that therapy is prompted emotional, spiritual, and intellectual growth. I’m happy to report it also prompted an almost unnerving creative Renaissance which included, but was not limited to, one memoir, two novels, dozens of poems, hundreds of cartoons and Taz Mopulisms, as well as reviews, essays, and blogadelia.

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

Through academic study and introspection I have come to understand that the human heart and soul have not changed since the earliest recorded time; we are making the same mistakes we’ve always made, the only difference is that now we make them in shabby Chinese clothes. More than ever I believe that for things to improve we must look inside – not to outer space but to inner space – as the final frontier.

“History repeats itself with tedious insistence; mankind seems determined to perfect its imperfections.” Taz Mopula

Just as we are always surprised to find our keys in “the last place we look” – we continue to be surprised by the idea Walt Kelly coined in his comic strip, Pogo – we have met the enemy and he am us. Looking inside for the culprit continues to be the last idea we’ll ever have.

“Be nice to your enemies; you just might be one of them.” Taz Mopula

To paraphrase Yeats, “Wine comes in at the lip, love comes in at the eye, and wisdom arrives at the business end of a Louisville Slugger.”

“If you are going to tell me the truth, at least have the decency to buy me dinner first.” Taz Mopula

I may not know much, but I have learned a few things over the years of battling manic depression and substance abuse. With a naiveté one would consider touching were one to encounter it in a developmentally challenged child, I have sought to share what I’ve learned. No need to elaborate on how this has worked out for me other than to observe that social ostracism and walking into a buzz saw are not as dissimilar as one might imagine. But this too is a lesson; this too does not matter.

“Looking for self-worth in someone else’s eyes is like trying to breathe with someone else’s lungs.” Taz Mopula

Truth And How It Got To Be That Way

spelunker in giant cave - light

The truth is we are born into a world of pain and devote most of our brief existence to satisfying base needs. Over time we are damaged, diminished, and ultimately destroyed. Instead of coexisting peacefully with the earth and each other our best energies are consumed by hatred, fear, violence, greed, and self-destruction.

The real tragedy of political correctness is that it has given lying a bad name.” Taz Mopula

We abhor truth and love lies. Lies are the air we breathe, the earth we tread upon, the foundations of our buildings. Most are so deeply ingrained we no longer even think of them as lies, indeed, we no longer think at all. Politicians, priests, and corporate representatives spoon-feed lies to the masses because people want to be lied to; lies win elections, build cathedrals, and sell soap.

“You can’t fool all of the people all of the time; but why would you even try when they’re so eager to do the job for you?” Taz Mopula

This is human nature, and I am not so foolish as to attempt a modification of that. However, I will frame it in a context of recovery, because, for the likes of us, recognizing and facing truth can be a matter of life or death.

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

Lunatics, wing nuts, and whackos – like me – are incapable of distinguishing reality from fantasy. We don’t want to live in an abandoned funhouse full of wavy mirrors misrepresenting reality; we just can’t help it. Dipsomaniacs, drug addicts, and adrenaline junkies – like me – are capable of distinguishing reality from fantasy, but we steadfastly refuse to try. No one hates truth quite as passionately as we do, and when it comes to lying, well; we are the masters.

“Pretending not to know the obvious is exhausting.” Taz Mopula

Mental health involves a long, arduous process that begins by identifying the truth about yourself. This is followed by a hard look at where you are, where you would like to be, and what it will take to get there. Brutal, often painful, honesty is an absolute requisite for this journey. For many of us, living a life of constant self-examination and ruthless honesty is rather like learning a new language. But, we tend to be determined, sometimes obsessive, people and what was once anathema can become a familiar, valued way of life. The benefits of rigorous honesty are everywhere, so we grow to love it.

“Don’t forget to wash up after losing your grip on reality; hand sanitizer is strongly advised.” Taz Mopula

Then, we get a horrible surprise. Mental illness and addiction have already marginalized us, we have always lived on the outskirts of town. But our newfound commitment to honesty and truth has put us in a ghetto on the outskirts of the outskirts of town. Remember, you have changed but the world has not. You have benefited from merciless self-evaluation and willingness to address your faults, but the world has not. Your modus operandi has changed, but take it from me, truth is just as unpopular on the outside as it has ever been.

“It’s not that I don’t love you, I do love you; I just don’t love you enough to lie to you.” Taz Mopula

Enjoy the quiet satisfaction and peace of mind it affords you, but, as ever, your ticker tape parade has been canceled.

The Main Thing WWII Taught My Dad

Battleship Burning2

My father was a gifted storyteller. If I was good he would tell me one at bedtime. My favorite concerned a troop ship anchored in the Mediterranean, off the coast of Italy. This is how it went.

He and his men were asleep; it was late at night and silent. (My dad fought through the entirety of WWII, he was a Major in the British Army and commanded the 2nd Parachute Squadron of Royal Engineers.) Suddenly they were awoken by a horrific explosion that caused the ship to burst into flames, throwing shrapnel in every direction.

He painted a picture of the madness in glowing detail, terrified men racing to get on deck before the ship sank, men torn open by flying bits of debris, screaming men whose clothes were ablaze, men leaping overboard into the cold water.

He described jumping into the sea and watching as the ship became engulfed in red, yellow, orange, blue, black and white until, in short minutes, everyone on it was dead. Then, he turned his gaze to the dark water around him, looking for anything he could use to stay afloat. Doing so he noticed a fellow soldier flailing his arms wildly and screaming for help. My dad swam to him and gripped his collar, hoping to keep the man’s mouth above water level.

But – (my dad always slowed down for this part and went sotto voce) – what he hadn’t counted on was that the man did not know how to swim and was in a state of irrational, hysterical fear. Madly, desperately, the man grabbed onto my father as if he were mere flotsam, and in so doing began pulling the both of them, by now entwined like doomed serpents, below the water.

At this point, my dad confessed, it was his turn to panic. He understood there was no saving this man, and attempting to do so would simply bump the body count from one to two. He described the complex moral soul searching that occurred in mere seconds before he bit the man’s fingers in order to break the death grip, finally separating the two of them. A few strong kicks got him far enough away to be safe; he watched the man’s hands churn water until at last he fell to the depths of the Mediterranean Sea and into an unmarked grave.

Then my dad would gently brush the hair off my forehead and whisper, “The best way to help the dead is by not being one of them.”

Until You Have Had Nothing You Have Not Had It All

badlands

It was the great Taz Mopula who observed, “You just haven’t lived until you’ve had nothing at all.” This counter-intuitive proclamation is quite possibly enigmatic to many, but for those of us who’ve wandered the uneven cobblestones of Rue Whassamattavous, the meaning is only too familiar.

Madness – and the madness of addiction – will continue to pick your pocket as long as you let them. If you’re stubborn – (and so many of us are, preferring to do things our way rather than the easy way, much less the way that results in minimum damage to ourselves and others) – then it is likely you will proceed in your folly until there is nothing left at all. The question is – how high does the pain level have to get before you are willing to ask for help?

Mania and addiction have both pillaged my life like marauding Visigoths. It is astounding how quickly the fruits of one’s labors can be destroyed, if one is truly unhinged. I have closed my eyes on a bourgeois Shangri-La only to open them and discover a desolate, tortured landscape…no home, job, family, property, money…zero, the null set, a goose egg.

Absolute zero is terrifying, of course, but it is also exquisitely beautiful – because what you lack in life’s comforts you have gained in vision and truth. Your existence has become binary, you consciously make the choice that nearly everybody else makes unconsciously every day – shall I live or end it? Bear in mind that 1 out of every 5 bipolar adults attempts suicide, and succeeds.

If you are fortunate enough to find even a scrap of resolve, you get up off the canvas and wait for the stars and chirping birds to stop circling your head. Then you get back into the game, no matter how damaged and humbled you may be.

Mania completely wiped me out three different times – after a while, even the end of the world isn’t the end of the world anymore. One proceeds. As Churchill – whose battles with depression are legendary – reminded his countrymen when the very existence of Britannia was questionable, “Never, never, never, never give up.”

The name of the game is resilience.