The Siren Call Of All That Is Not Me

Turkish Farmer Abuses Hashish

Many people in AA speak of alcoholism as a disease, as if to say, our bodies are “allergic” to alcohol, our reactions are different from those of “normal” people.

I think this is a facile, inaccurate rationalization that makes it easier for people to admit they have a problem with booze and need help.

In fact, we are like other people except that our “alcoholic personalities” – driven by a hunger for escape – catapult us into excesses of all kinds.

I recently ran across this passage from my bipolar memoir, INVISIBLE DRIVING, which sums it up succinctly.

“One of the highlights of my career as a jazz listener was a concert in Carnegie Hall. It featured McCoy Tyner and his big band, the outrageous Pharaoh Sanders, and the immortal one himself, Rahsaan Roland Kirk. The hall was hushed as McCoy Tyner, pianist for John Coltrane during the legendary quartet years, took the stage with his large and heavily armed band. Nothing sounds prettier than a room holding hundreds of people with their mouths shut. It reminded me of the Quaker meetings I used to go to every week at school. So many people, alone with their thoughts, together in a room, silent. Great moment.

“The wooden floors of the old hall creaked like a ship at sea as people settled in their seats. This silence was not the silence of a bus station at 3:00 AM in the morning. This was warm and rich, the audience filled with respect, even awe, and anticipation. You could have heard a lemon drop drop.

“And then, we heard a bomb drop. Tyner’s band burst into an all-stops-out barrage of sound intensity that blew off every hairpiece in the room. From silence to a hurricane of sound, cracking and crashing like madness, so loud that it couldn’t be denied, it didn’t come in through your ears, it came in through your bones. I felt like I was having an orgasm. I was so relieved, so joyful, so happy, I wanted to jump to my feet, thrust my fists into the air and scream ‘Yes! Thank you!’

“Later, when I was replaying the concert in my mind, I wondered about that moment. Why was it that I craved that level of intensity so much? The longer I thought about it, the harder it became to avoid my best theory. The music was so strong, it obliterated my personality. It was so complete, so overwhelming, that it freed me from myself. I was immersed in only the intoxication of the music. I forgot about me.”

The Best Present Ever

Share Your Self Unavailable Elsewhere

They say that, for alcoholics in recovery, every morning is Christmas morning and every evening is Thanksgiving. If that sounds like a wonderful way to live, trust me, it is. We start the day delighted – even amazed – to have a day at all, and close it out in humble gratitude – no matter the challenges rained down upon us.

Christmas – that Winter Wonderland of Dysfunction – that Tournament of Neuroses parade – is fueled by an intense concentration of wildly unrealistic expectations arising from what we hope to get and what we believe we must deliver. Resentments fly and pressure mounts – those of us still drinking enter a hideous, toxic fog from which we emerge only after the last dreary scrap of cretinous Super Bowl commentary has been shared.

The best policy regarding gifts is – assume you will not get any – concentrate your energies on giving them routinely – with no quo on the quid’s other side. 

(This mirrors your reality, since you receive gifts daily which are offered with no expectation of return.) 

One of the reasons Christmas is the most dreaded and despised time of the year is that presents – things – are expected to redeem a year of disappointment. This is a curious bit of idiocy, one wonders how it can survive.

When you give, give of yourself. As the great Taz Mopula reminds us:

“Give yourself. That is the only present you can give that is not readily available elsewhere.” 

Give little gifts every day; don’t focus on one behemoth at the glittery time of year to save a lost cause. 

Self Medication

If You Need Brain Surgery - Involve Other People

The first time I heard the term “self-medication” I laughed out loud. In searching for an analogy one thinks immediately of the old adage – the lawyer who defends himself has a fool for a client. But that’s when the stakes are low, going free or going to jail. How about when the stakes are high? Sanity versus insanity? Life versus death?

Jean Paul Sartre, a very clever fellow, used to play Russian roulette because he was bored. Well, self-medication is like playing Russian roulette with one big difference, all the gun’s chambers contain live ammo.

Self-medication – (the term itself is preposterous) – fits nicely into the insufferable arrogance and egotism of mania – as if to say – I can manage this little spot of bother myself with nothing more complicated than some garden-variety drugs. I remember it all too vividly – “throwing gasoline on a fire”.

I adored the adrenaline rush of mania, and I tried to “manage it” with marijuana and alcohol – marijuana to knock the sharp edges off the mania and make it smooth and yummy – and alcohol to slow me down and mellow me out to the point where I wasn’t constantly irritated by the sheer inanity of the huddled masses and their inability to keep up with me.

It was an inspired strategy except that it wasn’t and a brilliant idea except that it almost got me killed – folks – when it comes time for brain surgery you really need to involve others, professionals – people who actually know what they’re doing.

The hubris and sense of entitlement one encounters in a person at the apex of mania are astounding, but add in the loss of inhibitions and appalling judgment that arise from drunkenness and you have a confident imbecile who thrives on risk-taking and abusing authority.

Some people can drink; I’m not three of them. It would be nice if the folks who made booze would take people like me into consideration. For example, if booze came with realistic warning labels with statements like these.

WARNING: Excessive Use Of This Product Might Cause You To:

· Invade Russia during the winter.
· Buy life insurance from a guy named Guido.
· Toss your Rolex onto the chips in the expectation of filling out an inside straight.
· Believe your boss really wants your advice about improving the department.
· Think you’ve suddenly become a great singer who will dazzle them all on karaoke night.
· Tell the cop of course you knew it was a one-way street; you were only driving one way.
· Impress your mother in law with that joke about the octopus and the bagpipes.
· Get the word THINK tattooed on your forehead backwards so you can read it in the mirror while you’re shaving.

The list would be long. Perhaps reading it would give us time to get over the absurd idea that we can “medicate” ourselves using drugs that are designed to rob of us of our reason.

People Can Be Important

If You Need Both Hands And Both Feet To Count

Human beings are social by nature; one true barometer of health is whether or not we build and maintain nourishing relationships predicated on dignity and respect. Those of us who have spent time in Cookoopantsatopolis understand what it means to be truly isolated from our kind, imprisoned in an irrational, unsafe world of our own. Indeed, there is no loneliness to match the loneliness of the mentally ill. Alcoholism too is an illness of isolation, a lonely avenue of broken glass.

The very earliest phases of recovery involve emerging from a hideous prison of lies and misperceptions, joining with the world of other people at last. At this point it is imperative to trust, for some of us it is the first time we have ever done so. Sadly, we must acknowledge that our judgment is virtually useless, and the opinions of others are almost certainly superior to those of our own. Gradually we learn how to gauge our own behavior by reading the eyes of others, in this way we become the masters of our own well being. The opinions of others become important raw material in the process of self-regulation.

Having learned how it feels to be connected to others, to trust them, even depend on them – it can be hard to know when the moment has come to fly, however, if you are lucky, it will. As a child is ready to leave home, so are you ready at some point to become serenely indifferent to the opinion of others. Everything in this twisted culture of ours will try to persuade you that you are winning only if you are professionally successful, popular and rich – but one very important measure of your actual health will be how successfully you avoid this idiotic bear trap.

If you can look at yourself in the mirror without blinking and honestly say that you are in good faith, making the most of the gifts you’ve been given, and savoring this sweet short life – you’re cool. As a recovered, clear-eyed individual, the moment you are influenced by how your efforts are perceived by others is the moment you begin your fall from grace. If they like what you do, that’s great, if they don’t, that’s great too. By now you can tell if you’re for real or selling soap – if you’re okay – let the others float.

Suffering Judgment

Expect People To Disappoint You When They Don't

When my daughter was young – say 12 – she was going through a rough patch with her friends involving bad-mouthing and backstabbing. I told her, “Honey, people will always talk about you and 95% of what they say will be wrong. You may as well get used it.”

In the rooms they repeat this gem, “What people think of me is none of my business.” Both statements speak to what I call, “benign disinterest in the opinion of others, pro and con.” Indeed, if your self-esteem rises and falls in direct relation to the value applied by others, seasickness is in your future. We all know that true self-esteem comes from within and is blissfully unaware of audience reaction.

This would not be a significant concept if it were not so incredibly hard to achieve. The idea is particularly relevant for those of us residing in any extreme demographic, regardless if it’s admired or loathed by society. For example, envy causes us to secretly despise the beautiful while fear causes us to despise the unattractive. In general, we like people that fall neatly into our own bracket and look upon outliers with suspicion.

Relevance is even greater if you’ve been tarred with the brush of mental illness. For one, the smear is never coming off; you will always be “a few bricks shy of a load” in the eyes of observers. So pretending you’re not “an alien” isn’t a real option. You’ve had experiences completely outside the understanding of most people – this is very scary. (Just like married people often avoid divorced people, they seem to fear it’s contagious.) 

But, as a recovered person, you function normally – just like a real person! – even though your emotional range is far greater and more profound than theirs, and that is thoroughly intimidating. (People, even nice people, are not at their best when intimidated – you’ve worked hard to achieve “normality” but they may be invested in minimizing your accomplishment.)

You have broken through the mirror and become an “aristocrat of the soul” – you will be viewed with a combination of revulsion and envy. You went to the summit of Everest, and lived – they’ve never made it out of the foothills, and never will. But you are not going to be pulled down and changed by the weirdness of their reactions to you, on the contrary, you are simply going to open up and let them into your world, a world they would never get to see if you hadn’t gone there. 

Don’t Give Up

You Just Haven't Lived Until You've Had Nothing

They say that – when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Well, when the going gets tough for Bipolar Bears; Bipolar Bears get going too…right out of town. Of course, flight – in whatever form – provides only short-term comfort since the problem you avoid today is the problem that will perpetually reappear until you confront it.

Manic Depression has given me more gifts than I can count, but perhaps the most significant is – the gift of desperation.

When you live in comfort, the seductive allure of escape is everywhere. If all you hold dear is taken away, even your faith in your own sanity, escape becomes increasingly difficult until at last it is impossible. At that moment one experiences a kind of blinding clarity – something perfect and exquisite, terrible and joyful in its beauty. Absolute zero.

Life itself becomes binary – one must choose between struggle and death. If one chooses struggle – and sadly, so many don’t – one must face the truth, however terrifying and distasteful. The resultant education can be overwhelming, the work required may seem impossible, but one soldiers on anyway. You just don’t give up.

I did not experience this epiphany until I was well into my 30s, but at least I did experience it, and in doing so, began the journey of finding my true self. The archaic way to say it would be that I became a man, but I prefer to think of it as becoming a three-dimensional human being; fully aware of my power and my responsibility.

I came to understand something I have believed ever since; ultimately, the only thing of consequence one has is one’s character.

The I’m Not Okay Corral

Russian Base Jumping

Most of us engage in a rather juvenile fantasy that goes, “If I paint by the numbers and keep my nose clean things will work out well for me.” We desperately want to believe in a rational, merit-based world, all the while admitting secretly that life metes out misery at random – at least, according to some concept of justice incomprehensible to us – and seems to be as predictable and responsive to bribery as lightning. As a friend of mine likes to say, “What are you pretending not to know?”

Those of us who have crossed that invisible line and wandered the crooked streets of Cookoopantsatopolis can no long pretend not to know that – at any given moment – it is entirely possible that things will go terribly wrong. For us, the knowledge, and the fear, are always in the foreground and shall remain there until confronted eye to eye.

This, of course, is the greatest fear of them all – because any foe with the power to turn your life completely inside out is a foe worthy of your respect. However, just because it has killed before does not mean it is going to kill you. You can live in fear or you can face the music and dance.

I was forced to have a shootout at the I’m Not Okay corral and I’m so glad; since that time nothing has had the power to frighten me. It happened when I was writing my bipolar memoir, Invisible Driving. Every spare minute for an entire year I threw myself back into the one place on earth I was most afraid to go, the memory of my most recent manic episode.

In doing so I was not merely reviewing horribly painful memories, I was running the risk of sparking another episode. I understood this well, but likewise I understood that I simply had to do it if I was to have any chance at all of getting through it, and starting down the road to recovery.

Like the fellows in this cartoon – (one of my best, and most popular) – I knew there was a chance I would not make it. For the first time I had to be fearless, I had to have faith in myself in a life-or-death situation. Importantly, I understood that the wisdom and bravery of this labor in no way guaranteed it would work, and if it failed, I would be dealing with the consequences on my own.

There is purity and beauty to meeting, at last, the adversary you’ve been avoiding all your life, the demon you’ve been pretending not to know.

CLICK HERE TO VISIT COOKOOPANTSATOPOLIS

A Life Of Crime Begins Inauspiciously

The World Is Not Fair For Most Of Us That's Good

I have failed in many ways, which helps explain my success. One of my most notable is crime. I’m not exactly certain which element of the criminal character I lack, perhaps if I’d thought about it first I could have studied. Certainly I have the sloth, entitlement, lack of ambition, and contempt for authority needed to excel, but for some reason life on the wrong side of the law never worked out for me.

Like many before me I dabbled in drug smuggling, which seems ideally suited to unimaginative slackers. A brief, and ill-fated, career began in Izmir, a Turkish city on the Mediterranean. My traveling companion and I secured a kilogram of hashish, neatly wrapped in transparent wax paper and ready to travel. We were on our way back into Greece.

Drug buys tend to be anxiety-ridden events, especially when they involve strangers; being in a foreign country just made it that much worse. So we were naturally relieved after the exchange was complete to be on our way back up the coast. Giddy with the elation of “getting away with it” we purchased a bottle of unbelievably nasty wine from a roadside vendor. Our route to Athens was a winding road that hugged the seashore and offered spectacular views as it did.

The two of us relished our gangster lifestyle, smoking hash, drinking wine, and enjoying the scenery. It got dark and we discussed pulling over for a while but, with signature manic intensity, I insisted on going until we were back in Athens where I believed we would be safer. We continued, my buddy drifted off to sleep and I struggled to keep my eyelids from drooping. Black night, black sea, no sound or lights to poke me awake, only the waving pair of parallel white lines.

Blubadubablubadubadub. The car was at rest in the furrows of a plowed field. We checked to see if it still moved and it did. We checked ourselves for cuts and broken bones; there were none. And so, we finally went to sleep properly, it seemed like the thing to do.

The next morning I surveyed the scene properly. We were only a few feet off the road. On the other side of the road was a long, sheer drop to the sea, certainly 70 feet. I looked at the waves slapping against the stony beach and realized – this was only the toss of a coin. My stomach tightened like a fist, I fell to my knees right in the middle of the road and kissed the pavement.