Ride It Like You Find It To The End Of The Line

train station abandoned

There’s a certain kind of desolation one can only experience by being stranded in a train station at three a.m. An opulent, silent gloom covers every surface like a thin film of invisible grit. The odd, incidental sound, heel scrape, cough, rides a hollow echo and affects grandeur. Night crawlers are all that remains of humanity, pimps, pickpockets and pushers. The trains are done arriving until morning; even the newsstand is closed. You crave sleep almost as much as you fear it, unwilling to slack off vigilance for even an instant.

It is a form of loneliness, isolation and vulnerability that seems almost charming in comparison to what I’m after here, romantic and quaint. Because I am talking about a station beyond where the tracks end. It does not appear on any timetable or tourist map. You don’t buy a ticket; it’s purchased for you, in Bedlam, or on shooting expeditions.

Amidst the rusting tracks and weeds is a station for those who would go as far as they possibly can, at all cost. Where life is not that good and death is not that bad. Where escape masquerades as fun, oblivion passes itself off as insight, and no monster is more horrifying than a mirror. Where feeling good and feeling nothing are identical twins. A million different paths go to just one destination, and it is always the same.

No one intends to visit this place, it doesn’t lead anywhere else, there are no connecting trains. It’s an unintended, accidental journey, with an innocent start. A battered yellow school bus winding down the Khyber Pass, leaving the cool, dry mountain air for the humid plains of Pakistan. Bags unpacked in yet another miserable hotel; this time it’s Peshawar. Walking choked streets, blazing color, riotous noise. Ascending the smooth woozy, wooden staircase after spotting the identifying cobra painted on the door.

Bald, black midget sporting huge, hoop earring. Money changing hands. Long pipe, black tar, teasing it against the candle flame then smearing it to go, thick taste, almost instantaneous delivery, midget laughing hard at me, I am laughing too, I think, street noise like a blessed magic symphony of blurring swirling every nothingness.

A million different paths lead to just one destination, and it is always the same.

The Toxic Myth Of Manic Creativity

If You Need Mania To Be Creative

It is said that alcoholism is the only disease intent on convincing those who suffer they’re not sick. This deception is, of course, only one of alcoholism’s many lies, the first of which is that happiness can be purchased and consumed.

There is a parallel, and equally dangerous, bit of twaddle in the world of mental illness. This nonsense runs thusly – I do not want to “become sane” because if I do I will lose my uniqueness, my brilliance, and my creativity. That skewed perspective has led to many voyages of self-destruction, some more abbreviated than others.

At first, alcohol does give one a rosy; numb feeling – so it is not hard to understand how people imagine they’re not ill but simply having a good time. Likewise, manic episodes carry much with them to provide the illusion of creativity – boundless energy and confidence, bizarre observations and juxtapositions of thoughts, and the feeling of being “directed” or “guided” by unknown agents. But this maelstrom of mad activity rarely withstands the cold scrutiny and deliberation of daylight.

As the great Taz Mopula reminds us, “Art is not produced by healthy people.” Well and good, but this does not mean that being sick – whether by natural or artificial means – makes you an artist. (For years I validated my descent into alcoholism and drug abuse by clinging onto the observation that nearly all the artists I admired, especially the writers, were alcoholics.) Being an alcoholic does not make one Faulkner; being an untreated bipolar does not make one Lord Byron.

The irony here is that we are seeing a very old syndrome – the human desire to possess the rose without confronting the thorn. We reach for alcohol to make us happy when we know in our hearts that happiness involves hard work – it is the byproduct of leading a righteous life. We cling to mania because we think of it as a shortcut to the heights of celestial creativity when we know that even the most deranged, brilliant artists achieved their heights the hard way – dedicated labor.

In madness, and in the despair of addiction, we forget ourselves – what emerges cannot be true because even we do not know what is true. The long campaign of self-discovery that leads to mental health will take you to what is true for you, and guide you to creativity that matters.

Art is not flash and hyperbole, art is something divine within you that you learn to set free as you heal. Drugs, alcohol, and mania are poor substitutes – hold out for the real thing.

Help The Cause Of Mental Health Awareness

Invisible Driving Cover Framed

When I sat down to write Invisible Driving in 1990 there was no way to know that this simple act of literary recklessness would hurl me down a path of mental health advocacy ultimately culminating, 22 years later, in the conclusion of this sentence.

Such is life in the land of Whackadoomious. Prior to writing the very first bipolar memoir, I had labored valiantly to keep my mental illness under cover, hidden from the pitchfork-wielding town folk who welcome the mentally ill with the same enthusiasm they shower on seven-year locusts. Going public as a bipolar bear gave me what I call “confession Tourette’s” – I went from “lips are sealed” to bipolar blabbermouth.

Essentially, I wanted to educate the public as much as possible and, I dared, even defied, any of them to look down on me. I had a big, fat surly attitude back then. In time, I actually came to a point where I condescended to square shooters because I believed – without mental illness as a teacher – their life experience was, quite frankly, inadequate in comparison to mine.

But that’s just me. For every passive-aggressive exhibitionist nursing a grudge, feeding a habit, and putting a resentment to bed, there are 100 nice, quiet Whackadoomians who would prefer to recover and strive towards mental health in quiet anonymity and fuzzy slippers.

I would like to make it clear that I do not condemn this stealth, but, and this is a big but, (stop that), I will say that – if you want to change minds, spank stigma, and educate the not-so-great unwashed – and I know you do – the best way to do it is by example.

Make yourself a teacher, a model, and show them that folks like us are – candidly – just like them. To paraphrase Hemingway, “Living well is the best revenge.” To paraphrase Napoleon, “Revenge is a dish best served cold.” Finally, to paraphrase Taz Mopula, “Since you’re going to be jealous anyway, you may as well be jealous of yourself.”

Action Ideas for Mental Illness Awareness

As you know, I’m a practical – problem/solution – kind of guy. So, here are a few action items that could kick-start the knowledge building process.

1. Annual Mental Illness Memorial Day Telethon – Hosted by Charlie Sheen

2. Mental Illness Trading Cards containing profiles of famous mentally ill people in history.

3. “Halfway Home” – a board game based on Monopoly in which players take turns trying to escape from a Halfway House so they can return their dysfunctional families.

4. America’s Got Illness! In this homage to American Idol, mentally ill contestants would answer questions and disturbed celebrity judges would try to guess their disease.

As good as these ideas are, I’m still going with suggestion number one. Make the stigma-waving public watch as you rise from the ashes and enjoy a life that is better than theirs. If they learn a thing or two, great. If they don’t, the main thing is – you’re doing just fine without them.

I Sing Because I’m Happy, I Sing Because I’m Free

North Philly

I felt as though the air had grown thick; I navigated it laboriously, as one walks through knee-deep water. Sweetness and flavor were gone; colors had faded into a thousand gray variations. I was 26 and thoroughly adrift. In need of employment I followed a path worn smooth by thousands of over-educated lost souls before me, complete immersion in a dead-end, service sector job.

Penn Radio Cab was a poorly managed, independently owned taxi company that prospered by transporting Philadelphia’s under-served population throughout its most distressed neighborhoods. We were not Yellow, parked in front of swish hotels, on our way to the airport, oh no. Our days and nights were spent prowling the forbidding landscapes of North and West Philadelphia where money was scarce and life was cheap.

The management at Penn Radio exploited its drivers mercilessly – 12-hour shifts, 6-days a week, weekends mandatory, no exceptions. Saturdays were okay, but Sundays were useless, no fares, no money. Rolling the desolate, trash-lined streets, awash in post-apocalyptic rubble, cars on cinderblocks, hookers, junkies, cops, and newspaper delivery trucks, we ate donuts, drank coffee, and smoked cigarettes.

Early one Sunday morning in April, gritty city trees in graffiti-smeared planters bravely pushing buds out into the carbon-monoxide, I answered a radio call in North Philly. It was a slim brick row house in a block of identical dwellings distinguished by the presence of bright green Astro-turf on the front steps. Out of the house, moving with precise determination; came a distinguished, buttoned-up black nurse. She got in the cab.

Philadelphia is known for its hospitals, so when she gave me the address of a Baptist Church I was confused. In my innocence I asked her if she was attending church on her way to work. She said no, she worked at the church. More curious still I asked her why a church would need to have a nurse on hand.

She said, “You know, in case somebody gets too happy.”

Then it all came to me, like a wave. Being a choirboy at St. Martin’s in the Fields, my mom driving me and my friends to the service on Sunday, listening to the live feed on WHAT from The Cornerstone Baptist Church at 33rd & Diamond Streets and the way the entire congregation sang with a completely unqualified euphoria of jubilee shout halleluiah until we couldn’t figure out why the building was still standing and even then I ached for that kind of belief, that faith, that mad commitment and wondered how it must feel to give yourself up to the divine and surrender and then we would go to St. Martin’s in the Fields and sing and men in tweed with their women in mink would fall asleep and I thought this can’t be what religion is.

And so I drove the nurse to her church.

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.