Poetry: Too Important To Be Left To The Sane

Poetry Is Far Too Important For Sane

As an insecure, fear-driven youth I relied exclusively on intellect. Lacking faith in social institutions, other people, or myself, I steadfastly trusted my mind’s ability to predict and manage life’s challenges. It made for a chilly, detached existence I found satisfactory.

“Poetry is far too important to be left to the sane.” Taz Mopula

Manic Depression (Bipolar Disorder) changed all that for me. It was obvious that even my most faithful ally, my mind, was untrustworthy.

When I sat down to write Invisible Driving, my bipolar memoir, I knew I was taking a risk – remembering my mania to write about it might easily have sparked another episode. Revisiting my terrors was the very last thing I felt like doing.

Ultimately it became clear that, unless I faced my demon down, it would keep coming back and my next encounter with it might well be my last. So, I went sailing head first into darkness, I unwrapped the gift of desperation.

“Great soldiers are brave; great poets are reckless.” Taz Mopula

My rational mind dearly desired to control, to soar above events and manipulate them like a puppeteer with marionettes. But the task at hand took precedence over my ego, and because it did, I trusted the process itself. After so many years of being a shoemaker, doing piecework for nickels and dimes, I became a real writer not because I thought my way into it but because I surrendered to it.

“We write to discover who we are, and in the process, become somebody else.” Taz Mopula

I do not deny the importance of craft, if one wants to be a guitarist one must learn how to play the guitar. But it is not the fingers on strings that make you an artist; it is the story they tell, and the way it reaches, and moves, others. You don’t play music; you find it. It isn’t in a curvy wooden box; it passes through you like wind through a canyon, coming out of nowhere, on its way to parts unknown.

“Writing great poetry becomes much easier when you’re willing to die for it.” Taz Mopula

My dive into darkness replaced fear with faith, not just faith in myself, but faith in the unknown, and unknowable. I embraced chaos without judgment or disappointment; I understood I could rely upon uncertainty.

“Without life, poetry itself would be meaningless.” Taz Mopula

In the end a writer is merely a man in a room with a typewriter. He arranges words like a Byzantine artisan laying tiles into a mosaic which gradually reveals an illustrative pattern quite possibly unknown even to him until the very moment of completion.

“It’s always darkest before the movie starts.” Taz Mopula

Straight Jackets Made Here

straight jacket

How is it that a culture able to conceive and create over 100 different types of toothpaste has managed to develop just one vision of the afterlife?

Heaven: puffy clouds, harps, angels floating lazily. Hell: flames, smell of sulfur, pitchfork-wielding demons.

Humanity really enjoys patting its collective back on the subject of inventiveness and creativity, but here, in a matter demanding its full powers and greatest reach, we are stuck with clichés so mundane they’re better suited to greeting cards than theological constructs.

Once again, imagination fails precisely when we need it most.

Heaven is actually very easy to find – (in a difficult sort of way) – but I will save that discussion for another day.

Hell, by contrast, finds you – and for those of us who labor under the disadvantage of mental illness, this concept has a very special meaning indeed.

You see, there is nothing generic about hell; it is not a “one-size-fits-all” experience. To view it this way is to grossly underestimate the exquisite construction of nature, in general, and the human mind in particular.

In fits of mental illness, your best friend – (you, one hopes) – turns traitor and becomes your worst enemy. This is very bad news since your newfound nemesis knows absolutely everything about you – darkest hungers, terrors, insecurities, shame, self-loathing, resentments, rage, unwholesome needs.

In other words, there is an entire dungeon full of devices to select from in order to devise a torture ideally suited to hurt and damage you as much as possible. One must admire the elegance of this construct, assuming one is blessed with the luxury of distance from it.

They say that the lesson you most need to learn is the one that will continue to confront you, reappearing endlessly until you deal with it. Mental illness is frequently a way to make certain this rule is enforced.

Your straight jacket will not be “off-the-rack” – it is custom-tailored to accentuate precisely those qualities you would prefer to hide from the world, and yourself.

DSM-5 Challenges Sanity Definition

Lost Out On A Great Job Because I Failed The Personality Test

Most of us who wrestle with mental health issues also must confront feelings of low self-esteem. When we fully appreciate that we are not quite “normal” we may come to believe that we are “less than”. But that feeling does not last forever.

For the most part we work hard to address our maladies and gradually gain mastery over illnesses that were once overpowering. At that point we acknowledge that we have an illness, but we move among “regular folks” with a newfound comfort and confidence. We may still think of ourselves as “a wee bit different”, but we no longer feel “less than”.

Then an amazing thing happens. Because we have become confident in ourselves, we begin to look around the world with curiosity, not fear. We rapidly discover that the people we once found intimidating because they were so sane, grounded and “normal” aren’t really as mentally healthy as we gave them credit for being. The “irony alarm” goes off repeatedly as we compare some of these square shooters to the people like us, (who have been smeared with the label of “whackadoomius”), and quickly conclude that we are, in fact, a lot healthier and balanced than they are!

It’s a little bit validating, but also a little disturbing, and reminds one of the old idea that perhaps “the inmates are running the asylum”. Well, the hipsters, flipsters, and finger-poppin’ daddies at the American Psychiatric Association were well aware of this as they sat down to update the legendary Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, and DSM-5 will boast some brand new diagnoses demonstrating a new willingness to view commonly accepted behavior through a pathological lens. Below are just a few new entries that show, “Normal is the new whacked”.

Bloated Toad Syndrome: Generally considered a reflection of unhealthy societal values like wretched excess and conspicuous consumption, Bloated Toad Syndrome is among the most controversial new diagnoses in DSM-5. Symptoms include: McMansions, outsized SUVs like the Bentley Behemoth, and flat screen TVs that double as load-bearing walls.

Truth Decay: APA officials estimate that one in four Americans suffers from this debilitating moral degeneration. At first restricted to a handful of “at risk” groups, (i.e., lawyers, politicians, used-car salesmen, advertising executives, and FBI agents), Truth Decay has spread nationwide and has even had a corrupting effect on television news!

Debtor’s Prism: Once as exotic as Munchausen by Proxy, Debtor’s Prism has moved to center stage in American culture. The term “prism” is used synonymously with “rose colored glasses” and refers to a type of magical thinking that causes the afflicted to purchase material possessions far beyond their means. Massively in debt, the wildly deluded sufferers buy with random abandon, completely lacking any sense of responsibility or even reality. By looking through their “debtor’s prism” they see the world they want to see, not the world that is.

Faux Real? Disorder: It has long been understood – both by the APA and the general public – that life on social networking sites consists largely of manufacturing highly inaccurate, inflated portrayals of one’s self in order to impress near and dear and strangers alike. This did not concern psychiatrists at the APA until they realized that many individuals were actually believing their own fabrications, “reading their own Press Releases” as it were. Self-deception, always a bedrock contributor to mental illness, had morphed to an entirely new level, with millions of Americans adoringly hanging on every new lie they told about themselves.

There are more. Just remember for now, not every monkey is in the zoo – some of them own the zoo.

“Sometimes it seems like the inmates are running the asylum. Then again, would a sane person want that job?” Taz Mopula

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

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?

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.

Shame On You

Be Nice To Enemies You Are One

The earliest phases of recovery are characterized by denial; you try to distance yourself from the mental illness that has wreaked havoc in your life. Gradually you acknowledge the catastrophic messes you’ve made and claim ownership, your signature is unmistakable. The guilt you experience is not altogether unhealthy as it provides the foundation for action, your determination to not repeat these steps. However, guilt is best consumed in small doses, too much at once can be toxic and counter-productive.

Courage increases as you see the hurt and damage within exposed, perhaps for the first time. The mirror you have finally faced tells an unflattering story, all roads lead back to you, unintentional behavior has blazed a trail of self-destruction and abuse…people and property show the cost of being associated with you. At this point, shame – that most counter-productive of all emotions – arrives with a custom-fitted iron maiden. The self-loathing begins; you fully understand the source, and consequences – of your illness. You are ashamed of being you.

Right here is where you will lose whatever mojo you once had; cool, swagger, confidence will all abandon you.

You will see how the illness is hard-wired into your system – body and soul – and come to understand it not as a flaw but a fact. Work like a demon, shine the light on your miner’s helmet, and you will get to know yourself like never before. Then, forgive yourself – really forgive yourself – and the shame does not have chance. Hide nothing from yourself or anyone else and your beloved attributes will return; cool, swagger and confidence. But now it is different, now you no longer wear them like suits of armor – now they emanate from within.

Eliminate shame and you are free from the curse of caring about the opinion of others.

“Guilt is when you feel bad about something you did while shame is when you feel bad about something are.” Taz Mopula

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.