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.

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.

CLICK HERE To Order INVISIBLE DRIVING

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.