PUSH BUTTON FOR HELP
Thanksgiving is a special time when family members, spread far and wide across this great land of ours, unite under one roof to dine, catch up, and recall exactly why it is they are so careful to avoid one another the rest of the year.
Those of us strangely blessed with mental illnesses of various descriptions are especially vulnerable, since these allegedly cheerful events feel more like crime scene reconstructions where the horrors that sent us running down the path to Cookoopantsatopolis are revisited endlessly.
Seated at the table, any progress made in therapy over the past year seems to magically melt away. Before long we find ourselves reclaiming emotional baggage we’re desperate to abandon. No matter how far we’ve progressed in life, there, seated in front of that defenseless avian carcass, we’re seven again; and it ain’t pretty.
Small wonder so many of us cringe as we witness the approach of Thanksgiving, contemplating the event with a dread one might reserve for dentistry without anesthesia.
If you are faced yet again with this psycho-emotional Armageddon, take heart!
Turn your Thanksgiving dinner table into a payback battlefield with you commanding the tanks! As soon as trouble approaches, apply one of these brass-knuckle gambits certain to turn the tide!
Take Charge Of Thanksgiving Dinner With These Psychological Grenades!
Insist on saying grace before anyone can start eating. Launch into a rambling, incoherent list of wonders that inspire you with a sense of gratitude, including, but not limited to, salt & pepper shakers, lamps, lint removers, self-winding watches and anchovy paste. Do not stop until you can see the vein in your dad’s forehead protruding.
Instead of asking your mom, dad, or sibling to pass the potatoes, say, “Please pass the resentments.”
As your sibling drones on about a recent social triumph, raise your wine glass in their direction and say, “You know, the more I drink the more interesting you become.”
Just when things are settling down, deliver a long, impassioned toast dedicated to, and describing in detail, the imaginary family you wish you’d had. Do not refer to your actual family at all.
Share odd details about turkeys. Say things like, “The fleshy growth from the base of the beak, which is very long on male turkeys and hangs down over it, is called the snood. Sometimes I wish I had a snood.”
As you listen to family members converse, randomly say “Hmmm” and scribble feverishly in a tiny notepad. When one of them asks what you’re doing, patiently explain that you’re observing them and will be reporting back to the authorities soon. If pressed simply say “Hmmmm” a lot.
Bear in mind that these techniques will not heal psychic traumas of youth, nor will they help you outgrow any damage done to you by your family. However, they will provide you with a lot of laughs at your family’s expense, and that’s got to count for something.
If you’ve ever gotten divorced you know that, as soon as it happens your married friends start avoiding you as if the inability to maintain a relationship is some sort of bizarre, highly contagious skin condition. The fate of those fighting serious mental health issues, including addiction, is far worse.
The road leading out of Bedlam seems endlessly challenging but we trudge it all the same, then, at the finish line, in place of that brass band we expect there is an angry mob. It seems beastly unkind, especially after the hard work, but before you start nursing a grudge (“No amount of nursing will ever make a grudge healthy.” Taz Mopula) understand a few things about who and what you’ve become and why the new you is bringing out the very worst this wretched refuse has to offer.
The day you went skidding off the road and right into downtown Cuckoopantsatopolis was the day you reminded every straight arrow of your acquaintance that none of us is ever truly safe. Sanity itself, that sine qua non for the bourgeois, mediocre, pointless life ostensibly guaranteed by the Constitution, is as vulnerable as a Fabergé egg. Nobody wants to be reminded of that, and yet you do.
“But wait,” you say, in that adorably naïve tone of voice you apply to questions that illustrate your innocence, “do I not also teach, i.e. show, that by facing down these unholy perils one can evolve spiritually and grow stronger, actually emerging as a better, more morally grounded person in the process?”
Yes, yes you do, Sparky, and this is precisely why that mob is roughly as happy to see you as they were to see Frankenstein.
They say in the rooms that a pickle can never return to its previous incarnation as a cucumber. While you may be a reformed devil transformed into an angel, one thing is certain, you will never again be just another Bozo on the bus in the eyes of outsiders; the tired, the poor, the slow, the dim. Fellow insiders know better, they know that all of us are merely Bozos on the bus, but that is another story.
Your very existence says to these apple pie bakers and flag wavers, “My experience is larger than yours, I know terrible truths you dare not admit. Though horribly handicapped I have emerged morally grounded, fearless, strong, and (most upsetting of all) happy.” Trust me, they will never forgive you for that.
You have become a teacher, a leader, whether you care to admit it or not. As ever, peace of mind lies in embracing the inevitable, my advice is – learn how to lead by example, make your life a poem, a prayer.
Look around you; we desperately need leaders. Today we have none, instead we have celebrities who only lead by being cautionary tales, they show us what not to do.
“Be nice to your enemies; you just might be one of them.” Taz Mopula
If you’ve been blessed/cursed with Manic Depression (Bipolar Disorder) you’ll be spending time off the beaten track, in some cases, far off – for example, you might find yourself lying face down in a drainage ditch paralleling the beaten track, being pecked on the head by an irate duck.
At moments like this you can weep and shake your fists at the sky, or you can scratch your head in wonder at the dizzying, diverse smorgasbord of experience life has set before you, and laugh with bemused disbelief. Both options have merit, but healthy bipolar bears benefit from developing a resilient sense of humor predicated on perspective.
“The world is most certainly not a fair place, which, for the vast majority of us, is very fortunate indeed.” Taz Mopula
Laughter sheds light on a dark situation, creates distance, and generates power. Indeed, seeing the absurdity and irony of threatening situations is a great way to make them less intimidating. Courtrooms, prison cells, mental hospitals, distraught loved ones, and the offices of therapists are not intrinsically funny – however – the most beautiful lotus emerges from the darkest mud.
“People are always finding God in prisons and mental hospitals; but try finding a gift shop.” Taz Mopula
Becoming better at doing this means developing an ability to find humor in the most unpleasant, disagreeable situations life has to offer, because these will be the moments when it is most desperately needed. This may serve to further estrange you from those who have never strayed onto the shoulder of the beaten track, much less off of it. At this point you can pretend that your view is not as wide as it is, or acknowledge the distinction and let them deal with it.
“Pretending not to know the obvious is exhausting.” Taz Mopula
In a politically correct environment like ours, where the consensus holds that pretending a duck-billed platypus is a swan will make it so, there are those who believe Tourette’s Syndrome is comedy gold, ripe with satiric potential – and those that believe it is always wrong to make fun of the disabled.
“Political Correctness: An experiment in social engineering which holds that renaming dung mousse au chocolat makes it edible.” Taz Mopula
The problem with this, dear reader, is that bipolar bears ARE disabled, we have already learned that, when it comes to comedy, all of life is fair game, especially ourselves. Indeed, we know that being able to see the humor and absurdity in our own pain, our bizarre affliction; is a key ingredient of healing.
“The better your vision becomes, the harder you laugh.” Taz Mopula
The truth is we are born into a world of pain and devote most of our brief existence to satisfying base needs. Over time we are damaged, diminished, and ultimately destroyed. Instead of coexisting peacefully with the earth and each other our best energies are consumed by hatred, fear, violence, greed, and self-destruction.
The real tragedy of political correctness is that it has given lying a bad name.” Taz Mopula
We abhor truth and love lies. Lies are the air we breathe, the earth we tread upon, the foundations of our buildings. Most are so deeply ingrained we no longer even think of them as lies, indeed, we no longer think at all. Politicians, priests, and corporate representatives spoon-feed lies to the masses because people want to be lied to; lies win elections, build cathedrals, and sell soap.
“You can’t fool all of the people all of the time; but why would you even try when they’re so eager to do the job for you?” Taz Mopula
This is human nature, and I am not so foolish as to attempt a modification of that. However, I will frame it in a context of recovery, because, for the likes of us, recognizing and facing truth can be a matter of life or death.
“There are two kinds of people, those who believe there are only two kinds of people and those who dislike oversimplification.” Taz Mopula
Lunatics, wing nuts, and whackos – like me – are incapable of distinguishing reality from fantasy. We don’t want to live in an abandoned funhouse full of wavy mirrors misrepresenting reality; we just can’t help it. Dipsomaniacs, drug addicts, and adrenaline junkies – like me – are capable of distinguishing reality from fantasy, but we steadfastly refuse to try. No one hates truth quite as passionately as we do, and when it comes to lying, well; we are the masters.
“Pretending not to know the obvious is exhausting.” Taz Mopula
Mental health involves a long, arduous process that begins by identifying the truth about yourself. This is followed by a hard look at where you are, where you would like to be, and what it will take to get there. Brutal, often painful, honesty is an absolute requisite for this journey. For many of us, living a life of constant self-examination and ruthless honesty is rather like learning a new language. But, we tend to be determined, sometimes obsessive, people and what was once anathema can become a familiar, valued way of life. The benefits of rigorous honesty are everywhere, so we grow to love it.
“Don’t forget to wash up after losing your grip on reality; hand sanitizer is strongly advised.” Taz Mopula
Then, we get a horrible surprise. Mental illness and addiction have already marginalized us, we have always lived on the outskirts of town, but our newfound commitment to honesty and truth has put us in a ghetto on the outskirts of the outskirts of town. Remember, you have changed but the world has not. You have benefited from merciless self-evaluation and willingness to address your faults, but the world has not. Your modus operandi has changed, but take it from me, truth is just as unpopular on the outside as it has ever been.
“It’s not that I don’t love you, I do love you; I just don’t love you enough to lie to you.” Taz Mopula
Enjoy the quiet satisfaction and peace of mind it affords you, but, as ever, your ticker tape parade has been canceled.
Long ago, I had a hypothetical girlfriend we’ll call Prunella Entwhistle. Indeed, it was so long ago I was not yet sober and still cheerfully diving headfirst into debauchery as one might leap into a swimming pool. This was during that blissfully ignorant period in my life when I believed that, as a result of facing down bipolar disorder and defeating it, I had become bulletproof.
By then I’d recovered from several devastating battles with the terrifying illness referred to at the time as manic depression. I had even written a memoir (Invisible Driving) that chronicled my ordeal. Having walked through fire and survived, I bristled with self-satisfied cockiness and swaggered through life like a cowboy breaking in new jeans.
Prunella and I occupied a modest bungalow where we impersonated adults. I had a mediocre job at an unspeakably dull corporation, and Prunella worked as a sales clerk at the gift shop of a prestigious art museum where she devoted her hours to making personal calls and stealing earrings. We were all about phun, or what we thought of as phun, and hopping the Oblivion Express. Very dry martinis, fine imported wine, and the wackiest tobacco on the planet; this was the formula and it functioned with awe-inspiring inevitability.
“How drunk do you have to be before cutting your own hair starts to seem like a good idea?” Taz Mopula
One Friday evening found us merrily ingesting intoxicants, becoming increasingly boisterous as we did. Prunella and I were sitting in the kitchen after dinner (after all, you need food in your stomach if you want to drink as much and as long as possible). She looked at me and, with that charmingly demented enthusiasm and confidence that were her signature, said, “You need a haircut. I’ll do it.”
Every life has critical moments which, like hinges holding large, creaky doors, mark fundamental endings and beginnings. Should I tell you now that Prunella’s infectious optimism was almost always groundless, and that she instinctively returned to dark alleys and dead end streets with a degree of reliability that might have brought envy to the swallows of Capistrano? Shall I tell you now that it is my nature to trust, even in the complete absence of justification?
Mental illness and intoxicants are like the two bad kids at the back of the classroom. They gravitate towards each other, they are a natural fit, but it is best to separate them. Mental illness alone spells bad decisions, throw in alcohol and you guarantee stupidity.
I knew I was in terrible trouble when Prunella stepped back to admire her handiwork and exploded into hysterical laughter. On Tuesday, I finally got to my barber for damage control. During the intervening eternity I resembled Moe, of the Three Stooges, and felt like him, too.
Mental health is a world within a world, complete with its very own vocabulary. These idiosyncratic names, phrases and expressions may seem odd, even bizarre, to newcomers and outsiders alike. However, if you intend to successfully navigate the crooked concrete corridors that lead, eventually, to sanity – familiarity with this specialized lexicon is strongly advised.
Below is a list of commonly encountered mental health verbiage, followed by helpful definitions.
This term describes a patient whose health insurance has run out.
2. Tibet’s Syndrome
A patient who believes all mental health maladies can be cured by studying Eastern religion.
The state of being that separates mental play from mental fast-forward. It is characterized by tropical island fantasies and irritability.
Paranormia describes an irrational fear of being abducted by aliens and forced to watch tedious, poorly produced movies of their summer vacations. It combines fear of the nearly impossible with resentment resulting from being disappointed by the nearly impossible, even though it hasn’t yet happened.
5. Gazebo Effect
The gazebo effect refers to a strategy in which a physician uses psychology to heal a patient. The patient’s normal medication is replaced with a sugar pill, or “gazebo”, without the patient’s knowledge. The patient is then instructed to sit in an English garden, preferably near a pond with swans. Since the patient believes they are still benefiting from the actual medication, they continue to get better, even though the only force healing them is the illusion that they are a gazebo.
6. Best Man-ic Depression
This rare, awkward condition describes what happens when the Best Man at a wedding considers his sorry existence, (a bleak contrast to the cheerful celebration surrounding him), and becomes so depressed he is completely incapable of performing his duties.
Instead of providing support he spoils the joyful occasion by reciting interminable passages from Nausea and No Exit by J.P. Sartre, all the while weeping voluminously as the bride and groom vainly attempt to console him.
The weird sensation of living inside a giant echo chamber experienced by psychoanalytic patients who realize after some time that their psychiatrists simply repeat everything they say (followed, after an appropriate pause, by a thoughtful “Hmmmmm”.)
8. Sleep Appnia
Individuals who suffer from Sleep Appnia download apps to their iPhones while asleep. (See also Drunk Dialing.)
This is only a partial list, of course; I’ll demystify other mental health terms in blogs to come.
In the damp church basements of recovery it is often observed that the 12 steps of alcoholics anonymous are in the order they’re in for a good reason and one should work them sequentially. This tenet is underscored because, as a rule, alcoholics are belligerent, defiant, and rebellious in an infantile, pointless sort of way.
Celebrating The Right To Be Wrong
Dipsomaniacs simply must do as they please, no matter how much more difficult, time-consuming, and aggravating their idiosyncratic path may be. Whenever “some assembly” is required, rest assured that the very first thing they did after unpacking the contents was throw away the instructions because – well, why on earth would you rely on the opinion of experts when you have your own complete ignorance, honed to perfection over years of not listening to anyone, nearby?
Ready, Fire, Aim!
A while back I worked at a company that employed many engineers. One of them had a sign on his desk that read – Ready, Fire, Aim! Of course, engineers – who live to plan – found this hilarious, but on refection it is amazing to realize how much behavior it describes, especially in an impulsive, indulgent, ADD world.
Never Enough Time To Do It Right; Always Enough Time To Do It Over
On a recent sojourn to the Maine coast, Mrs. McHarg turned my attention to a green box mounted on a pole. We walked over to examine it. It was a doggie poo bag dispenser, installed by the local citizenry to help keep their beach pristine. The box had writing and symbolic images. The writing offered a detailed description of its purpose and, importantly, instructions for bag use.
When All Else Fails; Read The Directions
To assist those for whom poo bag use is not intuitive, sequential images illustrated the proper technique. 1.) Put bag over hand. 2.) Grab poo. 3.) Reverse bag, tie securely, and deposit in an appropriate receptacle.
For Some Of Us, Doing Things The Easy Way Is Difficult
Whether you’re ascending from the cellar in recovery, firing a rifle, or cleaning up after your dog – being in the right place at the right time pays handsome dividends.
Even as a kid I had difficulty managing money. Along with my sketchy friends I’d go to the nearby abandoned coal yard and lay pennies out on the railroad tracks, collecting what remained once the trains were gone. If you’ve ever done this yourself you know that Lincoln is no longer recognizable, what’s left looks like a frozen, wafer-thin copper puddle.
Dancing on and off the tracks, putting our ears against the rails to gauge how far away the trains were; this was all part of the illicit fun. We were young and immortal, mindless to risk.
My parents were immigrants, and loved this country in a way unique to immigrants – awed by the scale and opportunity. They liked to tell me about a trip out west they took as newlyweds. Picnic spread across an Indian blanket, vast expanse of desert splayed out before them, they watched an endless freight train snaking past. For a lark they decided to count the boxcars.
Revealing the number dramatically, as if I hadn’t heard the story a dozen times before, my mother would report, “Two-hundred-and-twenty-eight cars from engines to caboose,” with awe she might have just as easily applied to a description of the Grand Canyon or her first time up The Empire State Building.
The vast wealth and scale of their adopted nation lay in stunning contrast to the post-war Holland my mother had left, and my father’s native Scotland, not especially prosperous even in the best of times.
One of the particularly American habits my parents adopted in their zeal to be real U.S. citizens was drinking martinis. I can see them now, on the patio behind the kitchen, overlooking Fairmount Park, my father pouring from a silver shaker into glasses reserved for these occasions. They each had two, always with a twist of lemon peel.
If they were feeling especially jolly, my father would carefully strain out what was left at the bottom of the shaker, mingled in with the melting ice. This was enough for half a martini each, which my father referred to as – “the Dean’s half” – in honor of Sir Peter Shepherd, acting Dean of my father’s department at U of P.
My family tree is thick with accomplishment on both sides, but I am the very first to achieve the title of “alcoholic”. Dad was mad as a March hare, workaholic, and manic depressive; but no drunk. He understood on a cellular level something I never did, specifically, that martinis are like women’s breasts; one isn’t enough and three are too many.
And so, when I entered the rooms of AA on my hands and knees, utterly defeated, scared beyond all reason, and somebody said, “It isn’t the caboose that kills you man, it’s the locomotive,” I knew exactly what they meant.
You may find that recovery road is every bit as lonely as the road to ruin; but do not let this deter you. It all comes back to expectations, if you don’t expect a parade you can’t be disappointed when the boulevard is empty and there is no confetti in the air.
“Why raise the bridge when you can lower your expectations of the river?” Taz Mopula
Naturally, the mentally ill don’t really expect effusive gratitude and praise as they traipse the corridors of deserted carnival funhouses at night, staring into mirrors carefully constructed to distort reality in countless ways. We don’t expect it because we don’t think about others at all, much less how they perceive us; the solitary cul-de-sac we inhabit is world enough.
“For the sake of convenience be your own best friend. It’s always easy to get in touch with you.” Taz Mopula
The same applies for those of us who drink alcoholically, or take drugs – we may have some awareness of how our behavior torments others but in the end, who cares? The hungers of a callous demon, residing within a Byzantine labyrinth of twisted emotions, take precedence over all else.
“Before you learn to run you learn to walk; before that you learn to fall on your face, crawl, and summon the grit to get up.” Taz Mopula
The luckiest among us begin a journey away from the dark and into the light, and in so doing, develop improved self-esteem. (Some folks even dislocate their shoulders as they enthusiastically pat themselves on the back.)
“Be nice to your enemies; you just might be one of them.” Taz Mopula
In the fellowship one often encounters newly sober individuals who express disappointment because they are not getting the recognition they feel is appropriate. Happily, there is usually an old-timer nearby to ask them why they expect praise for doing what they should have been doing all along.
“Entitlement is a fraudulent concept. We are none of us entitled to anything. Even that next breath you crave is a gift.” Taz Mopula
Whether it’s mental illness you battle, or addiction – or, as is the case for so many of us, both – it pays to remember that you are doing it for yourself. You are changing, the people around you may not be, worse still, they may be heavily invested in having things stay just as they’ve always been.
“Looking for self-worth in someone else’s eyes is like trying to breathe with someone else’s lungs.” Taz Mopula
They may love you as a loser and fear, even despise, you as a winner. It is not unknown for friends and family members to actively undermine recovery, or at the very least, attempt to belittle, or negate, it. Do not judge your progress according to the presence or absence of brass bands.
“There is only one truly authentic way to enjoy success; that is by remaining indifferent to it.” Taz Mopula