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.

Nocturnal Missions And Disappearing Acts

Moonlit Tours Cover

In 1976 I returned to Philadelphia after three years in Louisville where I worked for a newspaper and got an advanced degree. (I discovered later that an M.A. in creative writing virtually assures unemployability.) My mother had died, my father had taken up with a student of his, and I was well into a prolonged clinical depression. I had no family, no job prospects, and more importantly, no will; so I got a job as a cab driver.

There was an existential purity to that job; it was sublimely meaningless, which was deeply appealing.

For 12 hours a day, 6 days a week, a river of unimportant people flowed through the back seat of my cab. I can honestly say I didn’t care about them at all. Some were beautiful, some were ugly, some were entertaining, some were annoying – it didn’t make a difference. They all had one thing in common, the only important thing; they needed to go somewhere and they were willing to give me money if I took them.

One fine spring morning I was dispatched to a Pennsylvania State Liquor Store where I was to collect a fare and proceed to The Alden Park Manor, a stately red brick apartment complex abutting Fairmount Park. I pulled up to the curb and there, holding a brown paper bag and waiting patiently, was an attractive, middle-aged black woman with a wooden leg. (She was wearing a skirt and no stockings; the device was in plain sight.) Neatly dressed and perhaps a bit too thin to be healthy, she looked road-weary and yet oddly serene.

It was a short drive and conversation was minimal. She leaned forward to pay me and whispered.

“Would you like to come upstairs?”
“I really should be going.”
“I’ll give you a drink.” She wiggled the brown paper bag.
“Thanks a lot, but, I can’t drink on the job.”
“I’ll take off my leg,” her voice danced musically, “you can have a look.”
“Um. Well. Well. Um.” I simply could not think of anything appropriate to say.
“I’ll let you touch my stump.” Her smile was warm and generous.
“Yeah, I really do have to go.”
“I’ll pay you, I’ll give you $20.”
“That’s all right, thanks all the same.”
“The other drivers like it.” This was offered with a whiff of bitterness. She opened the door and got out.

I had been living in depression for a very long time, my own pain had become alpha and omega. For that instant she had forced me out of my prison and into hers. I felt the wreckage, the doom, the longing – the strange hunger that would cause a person to abandon all shame and propriety in order to be fed.

The world is larger than you know, I thought to myself.

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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.