The Isabella Mori Interview

I’ve done a lot of interviews about the how and why of writing my bipolar memoir but the one with Isabella Mori really stands out – she’s smart, appreciates literature, and is an excellent writer herself. Isabella is based in Vancouver and blogs regularly about mental health and recovery.

Invisible Driving Cover

Alistair McHarg: Thank you for your interest in INVISIBLE DRIVING. One thing that stands out about you is that you really care about literature. A lot of people I speak with only come to Invisible Driving from the bipolar standpoint, which is fine, as far as it goes.

Isabella Mori: There is a rhythm to your book that is clearly there but hard to pin down. In the beginning you seem to have a “crazy” chapter taking turns with a “normal”; then the manic and the normal (if I may use that word) start to take turns within the chapters, then whole chapters are wild and woolly, etc. etc. Can you say something about that? To what degree is that a stylistic device, and to what degree does it echo your experience? Can the two be separated at all?

Alistair McHarg: The manic chapters came first. Then a literary agent said that there needed to be “depth” – a second voice that was sane, reliable, and recovered. I rewrote the entire book several times. I now see she was so right, the chapters in the recovered voice provide the background – the psychological architecture. The reader finds out why I was vulnerable, what the triggers were, and what was significant about how I acted out. Yes, the point/counterpoint is very deliberate. (You would think that the wild, manic chapters would have been hardest to write, but the sane ones were much harder, more soul-searching of real things.)

Isabella Mori: Actually, to me, imagining writing the book, it felt that the manic ones were the ones that were written with more ease. Perhaps that is because I was frankly flabbergasted how much I could relate to a lot of what you wrote. I think that’s what first drew me in. I knew exactly what you were talking about, even though my bipolar experiences are extremely mild. I’m still astonished at that.

Alistair McHarg: Interesting. Maybe the bipolar experience is essentially the same, and what varies is the degree. It is a very nice compliment that the writing registered with you. (When I gave the ms. to my psychiatrist he said he had to put it down now and then because it was making him manic!) I can’t say that they were written in ease. Recreating the pitch of mania, the quicksilver logic twisting and slipping, the bobbing and weaving, energy, raw creative force – when I was squarely back on earth, slightly depressed – took a tremendous amount of labor and craft, craft I didn’t know I had until I attempted it.

Isabella Mori: I was wondering about the mood you were in when you wrote those passages! The fact that it was indeed a recreation speaks to your fantastic writing skills. Were there moments when you wondered whether recreating this would take you into the mania?

Alistair McHarg: Thank you. It was writing this book (my first) that turned me into a real writer; it was transformational. Your question is pivotal. I began writing immediately after the episode described had ended. I was terrified, really shaken. I had suffered with the illness long enough to know that a trigger could send me off again, and I was pretty sure another episode would kill me. But I knew I couldn’t write the book unless mentally I went back in. I was between a rock and a hard place. So I went deeply back into the middle of it. That decision is what made the experience transformational. I knew it might set me off on another high, I knew that it might kill me; I did it anyway. I knew that I had to face this damn illness or be destroyed by it.

Isabella Mori: Fascinating! I am really touched by what you say, can feel it in my gut. And what hits me is, again, this commingling; meeting of art, this thing called mental illness, and the healing of/from/with it. It reminds me of a poem I wrote many years ago when I was close to dying of typhoid fever. I wrote it in Spanish so it’s a bit hazy but something about the need to climb the mountain of art, alone, naked, because there is no other choice. Does that resonate?

Alistair McHarg: Resonate indeed. That was my challenge exactly, and it was probably the single bravest thing I’ve ever done. As you point out, I had to do it alone. I had been fed so many lies and was very fear-based. I had to strip absolutely everything away until there was nothing left that wasn’t true. And then I rebuilt; I reinvented myself. What you say about commingling is deep, and many people do not understand. I say often that Manic Depression and Alcoholism have given me more than they have taken. In Manic Depression I saw rare things, and was forced to evolve. Alcoholism ultimately took me to a better way of life and a higher power. It has all been a spiritual journey and while mental “illness” has caused earthquakes in my life it has also produced angels. I was shy, I hid, I felt “less than” – but manic depression made it impossible for me to hide, and also, it forced me to admit my power.

Isabella Mori: There is so much we could talk about here; I hope we stay in touch, but more on the commingling. So there is the art, there is the “mental illness” (funny how I often feel I have to put it in quotation marks), there is the healing, there is the acknowledgment of power, and then there is humor. There’s a lot of humor in your book. Page 218, “and how do these aristocrats of oddness settle down after a busy day of counting their fingers and slashing their wrists with plastics forks?” Humor in these circumstances can be taken as disrespect sometimes. Do you hear that sometimes? How do you react? By commingling I mean that the humor seems to be part of it all.

Alistair McHarg: Humor and music are in the very center of me. To me the best humor is never nasty, it doesn’t single out anybody and it is never there to make me feel better than you. Real humor celebrates the absurdity of all life, human vanity, fatuous selfishness. You will notice that most of the humor in the book comes at my own expense. That said, when I was manic every mean quality came out, the anger, the hurt, the fear, and, combined with an intellect that had caught fire, all this hurt often found expression in really cruel humor. Other times it was quite surrealistic and charming. In my other books – both are satiric novels, and my cartoons, even my poetry – you will find that I include myself, all of us, when aiming barbs. I disrespect elements of people; racism, jealousy, entitlement, xenophobia, but it is never about disrespecting people, it is about loving truth and loving what people could be but are afraid to be.

Isabella Mori: One last question for now. Towards the beginning of the book you say, “The love of my daughter is my favorite thing about myself.” In therapy, there is often a dictum that people should change for themselves, not for others. As a father, would you agree with that?

Alistair McHarg: This is a great question. The easy answer is yes! In AA we tell the uncertain ones; fake it ‘til you make it! At first it doesn’t matter if you are in therapy, or recovery, for the wrong reasons, so long as you are there. (Bring the body and the mind will follow.) But absolutely, there must come a time when you are doing it for yourself, otherwise you will never commit fully and you will never get the full benefit. If you asked me that question today I would answer: My favorite thing about me is that I know what I have to offer and I am doing my best to put it to the service of others.

Occupy Inner Space

enter sign

Terrified and utterly defeated I crawled into talk therapy in 1986 and walked away 17 years later. I learned that analysis is like “exploring inner space” – in the same sense that Lewis & Clark fearlessly plunged into an unknown world. A journey like that is almost certain to be filled with loss, sadness, monsters, bloody struggle, pain, death, revelation, rebirth and joy. Mine was no exception.

“Why raise the bridge when you can lower your expectations of the river?” Taz Mopula

The prolonged excavation that therapy is prompted emotional, spiritual, and intellectual growth. I’m happy to report it also prompted an almost unnerving creative Renaissance which included, but was not limited to, one memoir, two novels, dozens of poems, hundreds of cartoons and Taz Mopulisms, as well as reviews, essays, and blogadelia.

“If you need mania to be creative, then maybe creativity isn’t for you.” Taz Mopula

Through academic study and introspection I have come to understand that the human heart and soul have not changed since the earliest recorded time; we are making the same mistakes we’ve always made, the only difference is that now we make them in shabby Chinese clothes. More than ever I believe that for things to improve we must look inside – not to outer space but to inner space – as the final frontier.

“History repeats itself with tedious insistence; mankind seems determined to perfect its imperfections.” Taz Mopula

Just as we are always surprised to find our keys in “the last place we look” – we continue to be surprised by the idea Walt Kelly coined in his comic strip, Pogo – we have met the enemy and he am us. Looking inside for the culprit continues to be the last idea we’ll ever have.

“Be nice to your enemies; you just might be one of them.” Taz Mopula

To paraphrase Yeats, “Wine comes in at the lip, love comes in at the eye, and wisdom arrives at the business end of a Louisville Slugger.”

“If you are going to tell me the truth, at least have the decency to buy me dinner first.” Taz Mopula

I may not know much, but I have learned a few things over the years of battling manic depression and substance abuse. With a naiveté one would consider touching were one to encounter it in a developmentally challenged child, I have sought to share what I’ve learned. No need to elaborate on how this has worked out for me other than to observe that social ostracism and walking into a buzz saw are not as dissimilar as one might imagine. But this too is a lesson; this too does not matter.

“Looking for self-worth in someone else’s eyes is like trying to breathe with someone else’s lungs.” Taz Mopula

How To Manage Bullies

Inside Every Bully Is A Coward

Concern about bullies is trendy today, so much so that Hollywood, (where having an original idea can actually destroy your career), has jumped on the bandwagon with its incredibly annoying “It Gets Better” Campaign. (You and I know that in fact it doesn’t get better, indeed, it doesn’t change at all. What happens is that you either get used to it or you learn how to master it.)

Bullies are a time-honored personality type. (To be honest, we are all bullies to some degree, or at least, capable of being bullies.) Bullies are instinctively drawn to the weak and defenseless; mentally ill folk always make the list. Left unchecked; bullies morph into monsters, I know. Philly, my home town, is among the nation’s deadliest cities, thug violence is commonplace. Indeed, I was once beaten unconscious with lead pipes and left for dead in a snowbank.

Back when I was cab driving, a hard-bitten veteran told me, “There is only one way to deal with a gang of “punks” coming for you. You don’t run, you don’t talk, and you don’t make deals. You figure out which one is the leader and you stick a knife in his face.” My own mother, a reasonable and patient individual, once tried to run my father over with a 1956 Pontiac Chieftan (a very large car) simply because she could not endure being bullied any longer.

“Inside every bully is a coward; dread the weak, not the mighty.” Taz Mopula

The confrontation approach may win short-term but always fails long-term for the simple reason that it plays to the bully’s area of strength; violent brutality. To defeat the bully you must understand, and eliminate, your fear of him. When he realizes you will accept a beat-down if you must, the power he holds over you slips in between his fingers. When he looks into your eyes and sees you looking back, the mean, sadistic thrill he craves is gone. At that point he will seek out a more timid individual.

That is the joyful power and freedom that come from going toe-to-toe, and not flinching. If that is not enough for you, if you are full of hate and resentment, if you dream of reducing this wretched excuse for a human being to a quivering, pathetic blob of sopping flotsam; then it is time to remove the ruthless sword of humor from its sheath.

When you make it obvious you find the bully pathetic and laughable, he is vanquished. And it’s a very reasonable assessment because bullies are the very antithesis of what they appear to be. Coming across mean and rough is merely their way of masking cowardice and self-loathing.

Nothing ever just gets better; what happens is; if you’re lucky, you get better.

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.