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.

I Know Why The Alligator Hides

Writer Reads Rejection Slip

I began writing INVISIBLE DRIVING in 1990 and ultimately self-published it in 2007 – that was 4 literary agents and 100s of rejection slips ago. I learned that there is something harder than surviving Manic Depression, harder even than writing a book about it – that is publishing a book about it. The torrent of abuse and rejection was epic – at times – even comical. (My step-grandmother founded and owned W.W. Norton – a very prestigious publishing house – even they wouldn’t publish it!)

The process was at once humbling and character-building. I knew what I had was good, I knew it surpassed the competition, I knew these unimaginative, lazy publishers were the ones missing out. I came to truly “get” that life is not a meritocracy, and that acceptance does not flow naturally from quality and hard work. I grew accustomed to the feeling that jazz musicians must experience when they see Kenny G in a Ferrari; a mélange of rage, envy, frustration, mystification and absolute certainty that there is no God.

I Know Why The Alligator Hides

After a long hiatus, I began writing poetry again during this period and was being published in one of the country’s most celebrated – and bizarre – online literary journals – EXQUISITE CORPSE. One day a friend said, “Your stuff is really getting good, you should send it to The New Yorker.” Against my better judgment I finally did send them one of the best. Weeks later I got the obligatory rejection slip. Without a moment’s hesitation I turned it over and wrote, “Dear Sirs: I was saddened to learn of your recent loss. Sincerely, Alistair McHarg” and mailed it back to them.

Childish? Perhaps. Passive/aggressive? Most definitely. But let me tell all of you out there – I know why the alligator hides and I know why he needs his hide. If you are mentally ill, you are going to take some abuse, even if you are trying your best to get better. If you are an alcoholic in recovery, don’t expect a parade. And if you are a committed artist, you can hope for the best – that’s good, even necessary – but plan for the worst and expect it. Remember that the rain falls equally on the just and unjust and the biggest mistake you can make is looking up at heaven and shaking your fist. The answer to the question “Why me?” is always “Why not?”

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Share Your Self – It’s Unavailable Elsewhere

Share Your Self Unavailable Elsewhere

One encounters a Whitman’s Sampler of humanity in the rooms of AA -“Yale-to-jail” as they say. Early one Sunday morning, nearly a decade ago, I was sitting in a bitterly cold, dimly lit AA clubhouse with a small flock of fellow dipsomaniacs. Large, heavily tattooed, and dressed in full biker regalia, a woefully inarticulate ex-con unleashed an incomprehensible, though passionate, soliloquy.

“How drunk do you have to be before cutting your own hair starts to seem like a good idea?” Taz Mopula

After many minutes of wrestling with the language, and losing, he paused, becoming quiet and still. Then, unable to contain his frustration any longer, he blurted out this memorable phrase with clarity and impact, “I just want to be one of God’s employees!”

“Arguing about God is like screaming about silence.” Taz Mopula

I imagined a man in work clothes, aluminum hardhat and steel-toed boots, arriving at a factory, punching the time clock and awaiting instructions. He has no will at all, he does not know what the day’s work order will be, and he doesn’t care. He only knows that he will carry it out to the best of his ability.

“A knowable God wouldn’t be; any more than a square circle would.” Taz Mopula

Like so many Americans, I am frequently pulled away from the important things of life by the insane mythology that there is a direct link between worthy accomplishment, fame, and material prosperity. Even as I write these words they seem to belong together, but just a cursory look at our culture quickly reveals that fame and prosperity are rarely associated with merit – indeed, they have become goals, not byproducts, which is shallow and very sad.

Never confuse fame with artistic quality, or wealth with value. Society gets what it wants, not what it needs.” Taz Mopula

It was in the rooms that I first truly understood that each of us has the capacity to provide something unique, something useful, something that can change a life, even save one. When we look to convert that activity into cash we’re already way off the mark. One does it because it’s the right thing to do.

“Share your self; it’s the only thing you have to offer that isn’t readily available elsewhere.” Taz Mopula

As a writer in an age when people don’t read, I don’t expect to be a household word anytime soon. I’ll settle for sweeping the nation …  one sidewalk at a time.

The Inevitable Failure Of Technology

We Devise New Technologies To Serve Us And In Our Boundless

A few days ago I was in Salem, Massachusetts. Whenever I visit this charming hamlet I am acutely aware that short centuries ago people like me, (who manifest mental illness in splashy, colorful ways), were subjected to questionable judicial proceedings, found to be practitioners of witchcraft, and summarily executed. When I leave, after a day of enjoyable tourism, I do so with a sense of gratitude that I live in a more enlightened age.

In the climate controlled splendor of the Peabody Essex Museum I found myself examining a page from an original Gutenberg Bible. Now, we will leave the absurd, disturbing subject matter of this dense, complex book for another day and focus instead on the descriptive text next to the glass case which read, in part – Johannes Gutenberg – 1395-1468 – Named “Man of the Millennium” by TIME Magazine in recognition of his profoundly significant contribution to world culture.

Naturally my first thought after reading this was – wow, who knew TIME Magazine was still in business?

“Technology has democratized the tools of creativity, resulting in a tsunami even more cretinous and loathsome than anticipated.” Taz Mopula

While we think of movable type as something related to literature and philosophy, it is in fact a technological breakthrough. Let’s say, more engineering than art.  As such, it could never qualify as the most important achievement of the millennium because it did not improve the soul of man. Indeed, by putting the bible in the hands of millions it may easily be argued that it set human evolution back several millennia.

“Humans can repair mechanical problems; but machines cannot repair human problems, only manifest them in new forms.” Taz Mopula

For some time, humanity has put its faith in technology, with catastrophic results. TIME Magazine’s deification of Gutenberg is an excellent example of this, as is the recent Steve Jobs adulation orgy. Jobs was flamboyant and had an uncanny gift for marketing and developing machines that look and behave the way people want them to look and behave. But again, the consequence of his contribution is strictly technological, not spiritual, and therefore cannot be considered deeply important.

Humanity does not have problems; humanity is the problem. If Gutenberg and Jobs have taught us anything at all they have proven beyond debate that more communication is not necessarily better communication and, as ever, the difficulty isn’t the car, it’s the loose nut behind the wheel.

Portrait Of The Artist As A Short Man

Alistair Sheriff Cropped

By the time I arrived in Philadelphia at age six I had already lived in three different countries and learned two very different languages. My writerly personality – detached, solitary, depressed, thoughtful, lonely, mercurial, disingenuous, acquiescent, analytical, misanthropic and insecure – was already well in place. Drug abuse, chronic isolation, and a rich assortment of self-destructive behaviors lurked just around the bend.

I once asked a professor what it took to make a living as a writer. Without pausing he said, “You have to give up any hope of leading a normal life.” When I asked him that question I thought I had a choice, I did not understand that the decision had already been made for me. I was a serious wee lad, a miniature adult; the world was too much upon me. By six I was already scribbling poetry about God, death, and the meaning of life.

Time allowed me to grow up, or down, into my image of an aspiring, young artist – miraculously I never owned a beret, probably because I do not wear hats well. I pursued sensual indulgence, cheap thrills, and bourgeois decadence with relish.

I enjoyed the feeling of squandering talent, wasting opportunities, and pissing away gifts others might have killed to enjoy. It was an era of bad boys and anti-heroes and although I did indeed turn bad it never made me a hero. Also, somewhere along the way I stopped writing anything more culturally consequential than an ad for foot powder.

After you read Invisible Driving you will come to understand that it was only through traversing the burning landscapes of manic depression (bipolar disorder) that I was forced to break my personality down to its most primary elements and reconstruct. That process, hard as it was, gave me so many glorious gifts, among them the ability to have fun and play.

I read once that it is never too late to have a happy childhood – and I have taken that as my mantra. As far as I am concerned – He who dies having had the most fun wins. I learned at last that having fun is not difficult, complex or costly – it is simply a matter of knowing yourself, being yourself, and enjoying being yourself.

There is a coda to this song. You allow other people to enjoy you enjoying being yourself, too.

I wish I could tell the little boy in that photograph he needn’t be afraid.

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Stigma Is A Two-Way Street

People Are Always Finding God Prison Gift Shop

As a long-term professional writer, I am very careful, and selective, about what I do and do not say. Like a spy, I know how to offer only the appearance of self-disclosure. As a mentally ill person moving incognito among “sane” citizens, one becomes a skillful actor.

However, I am temporarily discarding this policy. Shamelessness has been a wonderful byproduct of my recovery and there is little I am not willing to do in the battle against mental health stigma.

When I began writing Invisible Driving in 1990, I realized there was no longer any room for privacy, anonymity, and secrets. Terrified, confused, and completely overwhelmed, I painstakingly recreated the bizarre and harrowing odyssey, thereby taking charge of my own healing. That, dear friends, was transformational.

The journey lasted many years; I worked hard. In diverse settings I received kindness, guidance, and wisdom from a wide spectrum of wonderful people. Triumph over fear and shame, acceptance of life as it is, celebration of self, and peace of mind, grew gradually through the incremental process of recovery.

I began life at the very top of the food chain and learned early that – when everything is designed to fit you, and society itself is doing backflips to please you, it is easy to succeed. It is easy to believe you did it yourself. It is easy to believe you are entitled to it. When the world is beneath you, everybody carries just a whiff of stigma, and the mentally ill are at the very bottom of the heap.

But life beat me down, way down, all the way down to the streets, the prisons and of course, the madhouses. There is no lonely like the lonely of a madhouse. Everything was taken from me and I had to rebuild from zero many times. It was a process that might have killed me, but instead, it made me. Today, I live a life beyond my wildest dreams; I am the only person I envy.

Madness took me places most folks could not spell, much less imagine. I had every stupid scrap of entitlement, superiority, and prejudice ripped away – I was reeducated in the realities of life, of being a moral person, of daring to be the very best me, the me that finds joy in contributing to this world without the expectation of benefit. Of all the unexpected blessings of life, ironically it was mental illness that gave me most.

At this point, I regard the desire to stigmatize as a public admission of fear, insecurity, and unapologetic idiocy – like a self-administered learning disability. (We fear what we do not understand, and, to be fair to the apple pie crowd, insanity really is hard to fathom when viewed from the outside. Of course, that’s why I wrote Invisible Driving – to give a name to the unknowable.)

My problem today is an intense desire to stigmatize those who actually believe they are superior to people suffering from an illness. This cruel illusion is revolting and ludicrous; almost like believing one person is better than another because of their skin color. I mean, can you imagine?

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.

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.

Dancing With Your Bipolar Bear

polar bear dance

One of life’s great lessons is to accept, master, and ultimately enjoy that which cannot be avoided. Chances are you already know that bipolar disorder is incurable, however, there is a vast spectrum of experience in between being a victim of the illness and living a full, productive, and happy life that includes it.

Over the four decades since my first manic episode I have gone from one extreme to the other. It is not my intention to underestimate or romanticize this rude adversary. I’ve done loony bin factory time, engaged in all manner of reckless behavior, and rebuilt my ruined life over and over again. It’s a wonder I’m here at all.

That said, let me urge you to hold on tight to this one bit of advice while trudging through the foreign and forbidding landscapes – embrace your bipolar bear and take it dancing.

The epigraph for my bipolar memoir, INVISIBLE DRIVING, is by Rainer Marie Rilke.

Perhaps everything that is terrible is in its deepest being something helpless that wants help from us.”

Only through dealing with the illness did I come to understand myself and lose my fear of life. Learning why I was susceptible caused me to evolve in ways I never would have otherwise. Bipolar disorder has given me far more than it ever took; because of it I achieved the peace of mind and gratitude I enjoy today.

If you are new to the illness your instinct will be to deny and forget it – don’t.

If you are new to recovery you may think you are “cured” and stop taking your meds – don’t.

If you are early in therapy and meeting the demons responsible for your manic episodes you will want to turn away – don’t.

If you feel stigma, if you feel “less than” because of the broken genes you carry – don’t.

The problem you refuse to face is the problem that will continually present itself until you do. Bipolar disorder is not a cute little foe; it is a monster you must not battle alone. Embrace it; let it teach you and guide you to places so called normal folk cannot spell, much less imagine. Befriend your bipolar bear, it is part of you, embrace it and take it dancing.

Fred Astaire On Ice

thin ice

Having an unusual name is downright aggravating if you’re the type of person who wants nothing more than to skate through life unnoticed. In Scotland, Alistair is popular (Gaelic for Alexander), but on the unforgiving playgrounds of America it’s virtually unknown. I have grown accustomed to spelling it repeatedly, and even providing pronunciation tips. The most successful of these is pointing out that it rhymes with Fred Astaire.

Astaire was known for his elegant, fluid style; gliding through densely populated art deco sets like a bird. In stark contrast, when it comes to dancing I am two leftover feet. However, growing into a reasonable facsimile of adulthood I too developed a terpsichorean signature – dancing through human relationships without ever touching or connecting. Shark-like, I had to keep moving forward to survive and, also shark-like, I consumed pretty much everything I encountered.

Suffering in the shadow of a larger-than-life father who neutralized anyone reckless enough to compete with him, I aimed low. The atmosphere of fierce, unforgiving intensity and extreme achievement threw a warm, appealing glow onto failure, which beckoned like a welcoming friend.

Understand; I had no appetite for magnificent, fearless failure, far from it. I was drifting towards the quiet desperation Thoreau described as though it was a beach resort.

For many people, life has a rather linear quality. Certainly there are peaks and valleys; moments of triumph interspersed with difficult, challenging episodes. But overall, life is of one piece; there is a philosophy, a rational context, driving it inexorably forward. That, and only that, is what I longed for, safety in the comfort of reason!

Other lives contain a terrible moment of clarity when, either through the auspices of a transformational event, or a revelation of insight, you understand fully that you will not have the life you craved.

For me, this moment did not occur at 20 as I sat in a German prison cell after being pinched at the Austrian border with a kilo of Afghani hashish.

Nor did it occur to me at 26 as I lay in a hospital bed with dozens of stitches in my face, having been beaten and left for dead one winter night after roaming the desolate streets alone on a drunken jag, stewing in depression and rage.

It didn’t even dawn on me at 36 when, divorced and penniless, I wondered why I’d been fired from two corporate jobs in just six months.

My inability to face the inevitable fueled astonishing powers of denial. Despite the long succession of catastrophes I still clung to the precious fantasy of a mediocre, uneventful life where I would be spared the demands of greatness.

In 1989, after a spirited round of fisticuffs with two large police officers who ultimately managed to subdue me, I sat silently as the cruiser approached Norristown State Mental Hospital. At that moment I realized there was no chance of leading a quiet, bland life – and wisdom meant surrendering to the life I was actually living. There was no dancing out of this one.