Critical Condition

Dying Gladiator Resents Critics

If a debilitating mental illness like manic depression, schizophrenia, or republicanism has stolen your ability to make rational decisions – you’ve gone through a confidence crushing emotional sea change.

For many of us, it can be months, even years, before we regain the ability to observe, analyze, and evaluate the never-ending stream of input with clarity, agility, and unwavering authority.

Today’s recovering lunatic must contend with what I shall refer to as moral and emotional relativism and the insufferable twaddle known as political correctness. Anti-intellectualism is the height of fashion; claiming truth affords one as much credibility as being able to prove it. Sparing hurt feelings now takes precedence over honesty.

Fuzzy-headed social engineers would have us believe that everything is awesome, there are no losers, and all it takes to fulfill one’s wants and desires is the ability to visualize and wish with a level of naïve sincerity most frequently encountered in the puzzled expressions of unsuccessful prize fighters struggling through the final days of regrettable careers.

Faculties at last back where they belong, shoulders squared, you will gaze upon the rotting remains of what was once, at best, a mediocre culture and wonder – is this bullshit or is it me? At that precise moment, the extent of your recovery will be determined by your ability to say – this is bullshit – with confidence.

Like a muscle gone weak from neglect, the courage required to repudiate social stupidity must be rebuilt. To help you do so, I have prepared a diverse assortment of questions that call for snap judgments. Remember to trust your visceral responses. Good luck!

QUESTIONS

1. The meek shall inherit the earth. True_ False_

2. Quentin Tarantino once had an original idea. True_ False_

3. Everything happens for a reason. True_ False_

4. Harmony and joy will return to this troubled world of ours only after Garrison Keillor has been pecked to death by a duck. True_ False_

5. You are unique. True_ False_

6. Sacha Baron Cohen is funnier than syphilis. True_ False_

7. All men are created equal. True_ False_

8. In hell, all elevator Muzak is by Pink Martini. True_ False_

9. Creationism should be taught in high school science classes as a legitimate alternative to evolution. True_ False_

10. In Narcotics Anonymous, describing The Grateful Dead as – “a hideous shambles of talentless wing-nuts I can no longer endure” – is considered a pivotal breakthrough moment in recovery. True_ False_

ANSWER KEY

1. Sadly, this is not true, except to the extent that they will be buried in the earth.

2. False. No evidence supports this, although there is a remote possibility that he had one and kept it to himself.

3. True – frequently a bad reason.

4. True.

5. True. You are indeed unique; it’s one of the few qualities you share with everyone else.

6. True. Sacha Baron Cohen is a tiny bit funnier than syphilis.

7. False. Nobody believes this.

8. True. While no one has returned from hell to validate this, the force of logical deduction seems irrefutable.

9. True. In addition, Bozomism (clown worship) should be preached in all churches as a legitimate alternative to Christianity.

10. True. There is no record anywhere of a person listening to the Grateful Dead while sober.

Dealing With The Loss Of Mental Illness

Waving goodbye to mental illness

All good things must come to an end, according to the sage of old, but did you know this also applies to bad things? That’s right! Here’s the shocker; when it comes time to bid a fond adieu to your particular mental health challenge, you may find yourself dragging your heels, gnashing your teeth, dotting your tees, and crossing your eyes.

Ridiculous, you say? Stifling the urge to cough derisive laughter up your sleeve? Well don’t let a little counter-intuition embolden you overly; allow me to share a personal vignette for illustrative purposes.

As many of you know, Bipolar Disorder is my particular albatross and it ruled and wrecked my landscape like a series of Old Testament plagues. For years, life was defined by my relationship to this demon and I graduated from mere survival to combat to mastery until, at last, it lay in a heap at my feet, vanquished.

(Aficionados will point out that Bipolar Disorder is incurable. While true, I must add that one can reduce it to inconsequence and insignificance so that, for all intents and purposes, it is neutralized.)

When Bipolar Disorder was in full flower it made me zany, newsworthy, and interesting beyond my wildest dreams. This splashy, sensational illness became something like a really bizarre, all-consuming hobby with a huge payoff, continued existence! It even provided the subject matter for my first book, Invisible Driving, the original bipolar memoir. There were times I wondered what I did for entertainment before the onset of my “fine madness”.

Seventeen years in therapy raced by until, before I knew what hit me, sanity arrived and with it, the challenge of adapting to normal society as an insider. No longer shivering in the rain beneath a tattered blanket, marooned on the outskirts of town, I bravely faced a life of acceptance.

The thought of being ordinary was oddly unnerving. It was then that I experienced what trendy psychologists in California refer to as “the wrong goodbye”, grieving for the loss of mental illness.

Remarkably the process broke out over the classic 5-phase grief confrontation process identified by Kübler-Ross in 1969.

1. Denial – I refused to believe that insanity had abandoned me.

2. Anger – I was furious at losing my most marketable attribute.

3. Bargaining – I furiously crafted disingenuous deals with a deity I did not believe in.

4. Depression – I tried to rekindle the illness by immersing myself in depression.

5. Acceptance – Began insisting on being accepted as a sane person and threatened insane reprisals if I was not. 

Only by going through this 5-step process in good faith did I come to understand that saying goodbye to insanity can be a good thing; and that sanity can be a lot more messed up than one might imagine.

Nursing A Grudge Will Not Make It Healthy

No Matter How Long You Nurse A Grudge

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.

“Not all human sacrifice is equally noble; it depends a little on which human is being sacrificed.” Taz Mopula

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, 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.

“People are always finding God in prisons and mental hospitals; but try finding a gift shop.” Taz Mopula

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.

“Ever noticed that people who claim to be crazy never are; and people who actually are crazy always claim to be sane?” Taz Mopula

“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?”

“Those who can’t do, teach; those who can’t teach, teach anyway.” Taz Mopula

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.

“Give a man a fish and you have fed him for a day. Teach that man to fish and you have given him a way to hide a drinking problem.” Taz Mopula

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.

In the final analysis it’s important to remember that uniqueness is about the only thing we all have in common. Taz Mopula

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.

“For the sake of convenience be your own best friend; it’s always easy to get in touch with you.” Taz Mopula

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.

“No matter how long you nurse a grudge it will never become healthy.” Taz Mopula

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. Leave footprints.

Fear Is A Revolving Door; Fate’s A Boulevard

ian mcharg

My late father, Ian McHarg, was ensconced in Who’s Who before I made it into high school; by the time I went to college he’d been featured in LIFE Magazine. Later on, President H.W. Bush presented him with The National Medal of Arts and the government of Japan gave him a lifetime achievement award that came with a million dollar check. Not bad for a poor kid from Glasgow.

Breath, fame, and fortune have all vanished like mist on a lake, leaving me to sort it out. Though dismissive on the subject of celebrity, he craved it like an addict in an alley; and like that addict, no amount of more was ever enough. As they say, “nothing recedes like success” – and my father chased a steady stream of students, fans, and sycophants.

After the latest Wall Street Journal cover story or TV chat show guest appearance he’d regale me with insider celebrity tidbits in such a way as to demonstrate how little it all meant to him. Even then I knew the smell of horseshit, but I pretended to take him seriously all the same.

“One day, Alistair” he would say, “I will come to be known not as Ian McHarg but as the father of Alistair McHarg.”

In these rare moments of camaraderie we laughed heartily, enjoying this preposterous fiction as if there was a scrap of authenticity to it. The fact was, no one rose above my father and lived to tell of it.

I traveled under a double curse; as his son I was expected to reflect his glory but always defer to it. Had I attempted to surpass him I would have been crushed. And so, I turned my anger inwards and set out upon a life of self-destruction, depression, alcoholism, and failure. (You might be surprised to learn that real failure requires dedication.)

“Disingenuous self-deprecation is an especially distasteful manifestation of vanity.” Taz Mopula

Fear defined my entire relationship with him. Fear of failure, fear of success. Since the lesson one refuses to learn constantly re-presents itself, I was stuck in a revolving door. One day the door had had enough and spat me out as contemptuously as a fish rejecting a lure. I was left only with fate – and fate had plans for me that did not include ruin. There was service in my future.

This poem, Winter Birds, is recent, and tracks this father and son act back to the days when he would impress me into service in the garden, moving rocks, transplanting trees, stealing ferns from the woods. No man ever worked harder to make nature more perfect than it already is.

When it was done I reread it and understood at last how, finally able to see him life-sized, and honor him accordingly, I really am free to let fate have its way with me. I don’t know if there is anyone left who remembers his contributions but I do know this – I will never again think of him as Ian McHarg. He is the father of Alistair McHarg, which, from my vantage point, is a far greater accomplishment.

Winter Birds

My father was a foreigner no matter where he went
I stumbled in the shadow of his odyssey, shifting lands
And languages like agents on a mission, hiding in
Plain sight for all to see and none to know

He had to add a garden onto every new address
Pencil scratching paper scrap, knees upon the earth
Ferns and bricks and gravel paths, ponds and rhododendrons
Sprawled upon the ground like a flamboyant signature

He taught me the gentle ceremony, sapling uprooted
Burlap, fingers, spade, bearing it away to meet
Unfamiliar soil, transplanted, reaching to embrace the sun
And rain so it could drive its roots into the earth, like anchors

Water blessed, nested, tree we would admire how the sweat
Of our labors had borne fruit, then, flash of lightning like
Bird appeared to grasp a branch and claim possession of it
As if he had been watching us, aching for the chance

My father never told me that, without the weight, hollow bones
And feathers, nervous eyes alert, one small bird swaying
On a slender branch, earth itself, unbalanced, would wander
From its axis and vanish in the cold expanse of space

Alistair McHarg

CLICK HERE TO ORDER BOOKS WRITTEN BY ALISTAIR McHARG (Do NOT Click Here To Order Books By Ian McHarg)

Share Your Self – It’s Unavailable Elsewhere

Share Your Self Unavailable Elsewhere

One encounters a Whitman’s Sampler of humanity in the rooms of AA -“Yale-to-jail” as they say. Early one Sunday morning, nearly a decade ago, I was sitting in a bitterly cold, dimly lit AA clubhouse with a small flock of fellow dipsomaniacs. Large, heavily tattooed, and dressed in full biker regalia, a woefully inarticulate ex-con unleashed an incomprehensible, though passionate, soliloquy.

“How drunk do you have to be before cutting your own hair starts to seem like a good idea?” Taz Mopula

After many minutes of wrestling with the language, and losing, he paused, becoming quiet and still. Then, unable to contain his frustration any longer, he blurted out this memorable phrase with clarity and impact, “I just want to be one of God’s employees!”

“Arguing about God is like screaming about silence.” Taz Mopula

I imagined a man in work clothes, aluminum hardhat and steel-toed boots, arriving at a factory, punching the time clock and awaiting instructions. He has no will at all, he does not know what the day’s work order will be, and he doesn’t care. He only knows that he will carry it out to the best of his ability.

“A knowable God wouldn’t be; any more than a square circle would.” Taz Mopula

Like so many Americans, I am frequently pulled away from the important things of life by the insane mythology that there is a direct link between worthy accomplishment, fame, and material prosperity. Even as I write these words they seem to belong together, but just a cursory look at our culture quickly reveals that fame and prosperity are rarely associated with merit – indeed, they have become goals, not byproducts, which is shallow and very sad.

Never confuse fame with artistic quality, or wealth with value. Society gets what it wants, not what it needs.” Taz Mopula

It was in the rooms that I first truly understood that each of us has the capacity to provide something unique, something useful, something that can change a life, even save one. When we look to convert that activity into cash we’re already way off the mark. One does it because it’s the right thing to do.

“Share your self; it’s the only thing you have to offer that isn’t readily available elsewhere.” Taz Mopula

As a writer in an age when people don’t read, I don’t expect to be a household word anytime soon. I’ll settle for sweeping the nation …  one sidewalk at a time.

Extreme High School

Where You Go To College Is Unimportant

Mark Zuckerberg believes I have 304 friends, which only goes to show that even brilliant people make idiotic mistakes.

Anyone who has ever had a real friendship knows it is only possible to maintain a small handful at any one time. Friendships are like pets; they require constant care and nourishment to survive. One may have innumerable familiar relationships which could, under the right circumstances, easily be reanimated; but this is something else altogether.

Although I am no expert in these matters, I do know that – To have a friend you must be a friend. I’ve also come to understand that friendship is inherently selfless; one person places another person’s wants, needs, and desires above his own. (This would help to explain the paucity.)

The ubiquity of Facebook, with its relentless emphasis on intensely superficial social interaction, (where nothing of value is sacrificed), would seem to bring insights about friendship in its wake. While it does, they are perhaps not the ones we would have hoped to see. Indeed, as we bump masks and publish carefully crafted press clippings we wrote ourselves, the unavoidable lesson of Facebook is as follows:

“It really doesn’t matter which college you attend. However, where you go to high school is crucial; because they will never let you leave.” Taz Mopula

Remember how happy you were to graduate high school, remember the relief you felt? Facebook is here to remind you that the toys have grown more expensive and the jowls are drooping a bit but social stratification and playground games are more fashionable than ever.

Naturally, I am interested in this fabulously disappointing phenomenon from the perspective of recovery.

People struggling with mental illness are notoriously inept at making and maintaining friendships. Caring for others, self-sacrifice – these are activities of the healthy; the chronically ill tend to be very self-focused. Also, many of them attempt to protect themselves with anonymity, by remaining unknown. They believe that – to know them is to loathe them – so they don’t give people the chance. Their principal way of handling relationships is by leaving them.

However, as people grow and evolve in recovery they often encounter a very different reason to sever ties with individuals they once thought of as friends. As they learn to share themselves, their lives, their gifts with others, they may find that enthusiasm often interferes with judgment. They sometimes overlook questionable motives in people once considered comrades.

Frequently they fail to remember that, while they have grown, others may not have been so fortunate. They often find there really wasn’t much in common to begin with. Most important of all, they feel deeply that, however lamentable it may be, some people are simply toxic for them; breathing their air makes them ill and jeopardizes the mental health they struggled so hard to attain.

At these moments the old tapes will tell them that politeness demands they continue to nourish these vestigial friendships. (They will instinctively perpetuate these cheery illusions, essentially setting mousetraps in their own house and then crying when their toes are snapped.) Those tapes must be burned.

Once, leaving a relationship was a sign of sickness; but it can just as easily be a sign of health.

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