PUSH BUTTON FOR HELP
There’s a certain kind of desolation one can only experience by being stranded in a train station at three a.m. An opulent, silent gloom covers every surface like a thin film of invisible grit. The odd, incidental sound, heel scrape, cough, rides a hollow echo and affects grandeur. Night crawlers are all that remains of humanity, pimps, pickpockets and pushers. The trains are done arriving until morning; even the newsstand is closed. You crave sleep almost as much as you fear it, unwilling to slack off vigilance for even an instant.
It is a form of loneliness, isolation and vulnerability that seems almost charming in comparison to what I’m after here, romantic and quaint. Because I am talking about a station beyond where the tracks end. It does not appear on any timetable or tourist map. You don’t buy a ticket; it’s purchased for you, in Bedlam, or on shooting expeditions.
Amidst the rusting tracks and weeds is a station for those who would go as far as they possibly can, at all cost. Where life is not that good and death is not that bad. Where escape masquerades as fun, oblivion passes itself off as insight, and no monster is more horrifying than a mirror. Where feeling good and feeling nothing are identical twins. A million different paths go to just one destination, and it is always the same.
No one intends to visit this place, it doesn’t lead anywhere else, there are no connecting trains. It’s an unintended, accidental journey, with an innocent start. A battered yellow school bus winding down the Khyber Pass, leaving the cool, dry mountain air for the humid plains of Pakistan. Bags unpacked in yet another miserable hotel; this time it’s Peshawar. Walking choked streets, blazing color, riotous noise. Ascending the smooth woozy, wooden staircase after spotting the identifying cobra painted on the door.
Bald, black midget sporting huge, hoop earring. Money changing hands. Long pipe, black tar, teasing it against the candle flame then smearing it to go, thick taste, almost instantaneous delivery, midget laughing hard at me, I am laughing too, I think, street noise like a blessed magic symphony of blurring swirling every nothingness.
A million different paths lead to just one destination, and it is always the same.
Have you heard this one already? Three clinically depressed highjumpers walk into a bar. They lower it.
I’m kidding of course.
Then again, I’m not kidding, (as always), because if there is anything that will help today’s mentally ill individual survive the three-ring-circus of psychological torment and emotional Armageddon known by that deceptively sweet euphemism – the holidays – it is lowered expectations.
Why? With every layer of tinsel, every rehashed Christmas chestnut mangled by Beyoncé, every eggnog-infused martini, every promise of no money down and no payments for the first seventeen months, every drug-addled midnight greeter at Walmart scratching his most recent tattoo, every ill-considered fax at every office party, and every other cliché of Christmas cacophony and tintinnabulation comes the rising tide of truly ho-ho-horrible inevitability – the hopes, the joys, the fears of all the years, reindeer and pain dear – that Grinch-ish thief of all that is merry; expectations.
Those of us who have mucked out a foxhole or two after the elves have returned to their elf-help groups, leaving only ripped wrapping paper and the unnerving sound of gnashing teeth, know only too well that – an expectation is merely a resentment that has been booked in advance.
We watch the lemming-like inevitability of shoppers who resemble nothing more closely than poor Charlie Brown looking far across the yard at the relentlessly malevolent Lucy finger pointing down at the poised and ready football, believing deep within that dimwitted, soft-boiled egg of a head he has that this time it will be different.
Sadly, it never is. Fellow Whackadoomians, examine the terrible trap we must sidestep. Because it is the Santa-bag of expectations we bring with us – not the event itself – that causes our undoing.
Week after week, the entire culture conspires to deceive; is it any wonder we question reality itself and struggle to differentiate between what is, what might be, and what could be if only we had been less naughty and more nice throughout the year?
The entire communications infrastructure which now extends to gas pumps, check out lines in supermarkets, phones, rented movies, in short, everything we encounter in our daily lives, stokes the id until it roars like a voracious furnace – wanting, craving, needing and hungering for a mountain of flashy, splashy landfill-food made in China and destined for a useful life so short it would inspire pity in a drosophila before vanishing out the back end of our consumer economy. It all happens in the bat of an eye.
It was the redoubtable Taz Mopula who warned, “If I could give you just one piece of advice it would be this; do not, under any circumstances, take my advice.” In this spirit I will say that I would not presume to give you advice and if I did you would almost certainly not take it but if I did and if you did this is what it would be:
Want to enjoy your holiday? Do some Christmas triage. Ratchet down the level of your expectations to zero and start there.
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
I felt as though the air had grown thick; I navigated it laboriously, as one walks through knee-deep water. Sweetness and flavor were gone; colors had faded into a thousand gray variations. I was 26 and thoroughly adrift. In need of employment I followed a path worn smooth by thousands of over-educated lost souls before me, complete immersion in a dead-end, service sector job.
Penn Radio Cab was a poorly managed, independently owned taxi company that prospered by transporting Philadelphia’s under-served population throughout its most distressed neighborhoods. We were not Yellow, parked in front of swish hotels, on our way to the airport, oh no. Our days and nights were spent prowling the forbidding landscapes of North and West Philadelphia where money was scarce and life was cheap.
The management at Penn Radio exploited its drivers mercilessly – 12-hour shifts, 6-days a week, weekends mandatory, no exceptions. Saturdays were okay, but Sundays were useless, no fares, no money. Rolling the desolate, trash-lined streets, awash in post-apocalyptic rubble, cars on cinderblocks, hookers, junkies, cops, and newspaper delivery trucks, we ate donuts, drank coffee, and smoked cigarettes.
Early one Sunday morning in April, gritty city trees in graffiti-smeared planters bravely pushing buds out into the carbon-monoxide, I answered a radio call in North Philly. It was a slim brick row house in a block of identical dwellings distinguished by the presence of bright green Astro-turf on the front steps. Out of the house, moving with precise determination; came a distinguished, buttoned-up black nurse. She got in the cab.
Philadelphia is known for its hospitals, so when she gave me the address of a Baptist Church I was confused. In my innocence I asked her if she was attending church on her way to work. She said no, she worked at the church. More curious still I asked her why a church would need to have a nurse on hand.
She said, “You know, in case somebody gets too happy.”
Then it all came to me, like a wave. Being a choirboy at St. Martin’s in the Fields, my mom driving me and my friends to the service on Sunday, listening to the live feed on WHAT from The Cornerstone Baptist Church at 33rd & Diamond Streets and the way the entire congregation sang with a completely unqualified euphoria of jubilee shout halleluiah until we couldn’t figure out why the building was still standing and even then I ached for that kind of belief, that faith, that mad commitment and wondered how it must feel to give yourself up to the divine and surrender and then we would go to St. Martin’s in the Fields and sing and men in tweed with their women in mink would fall asleep and I thought this can’t be what religion is.
And so I drove the nurse to her church.
I’ve been a professional writer for 30 years and in that time I’ve learned a few things. So, with the help of with my old friend Taz, I’m going to toss out some pointers guaranteed to make you a better writer.
“Technology has democratized the tools of creativity, resulting in a tsunami even more cretinous and loathsome than anticipated.” Taz Mopula
Today, everyone can instantly transmit shabby, incomprehensible phrases around the world. We are awash in a tidal wave of staggeringly poor writing. The good news for you is that it is easier than ever to stand out – good spelling alone puts you in the top 5%.
“Writing is the easiest part of being a writer; the most difficult part is becoming a writer.” Taz Mopula
Arranging words is the very last step of the writing process. Great writing begins with great thinking; your writing will improve immeasurably if your thinking and motives are clear.
“On the Internet, all statements are true; including this one.” Taz Mopula
The Internet is like a broad boulevard where idiocy, divinity, and evil stroll hand in hand. The poor reader must learn to separate cheese from Cheez Whiz. Your writing will either exploit and exacerbate this problem or help repair it.
“Learn to speak the truth; it is helpful to be fluent in a foreign language.” Taz Mopula
Truth is the hallmark of great writing. Most people purposely avoid telling the truth. Most of those who try, fail, since they habitually deceive themselves. While there is no such thing as absolute truth, understanding and sharing your personal truth catapults you into the top 1% of all writers.
“We write to discover who we are, and in the process, become somebody else.” Taz Mopula
Writing well requires a reckless disregard for comfort and safety. Be Columbus, sail off the edge of a flat ocean and you and your readers will be rewarded beyond your wildest dreams. Personal evolution is an almost inescapable byproduct of great writing.
“Ultimately it’s not what you don’t say that matters most so much as how you don’t say it.” Taz Mopula
Here is an exercise for you – listen to the music of Thelonious Monk for a day. Listen to the spaces in-between the notes. The confident writer says more by saying less, but when you do say something, make it count.
“Even the greatest paintings are flat; they only become three-dimensional in the eyes of those who behold them.” Taz Mopula
As a rule, writers are arrogant, narcissistic, impatient, self-indulgent and drunk. You’ll find over time that these qualities work against you and must be mastered. The finish line is the realization that you are a craftsman and a servant – without your audience you are merely a mime performing at a school for the blind.
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.
If you’ve ever met an actual genius – or worse – if you are one – you know that: those in need of garden-variety stupidity are advised to seek out a moron – but – those in search of world-class idiocy should go the extra mile and track down a genius.
“Those who believe that intelligence alone can cure all ills possess either too little of it or to much.” Taz Mopula
The link between Manic Depression and intelligence has been widely discussed, as has the link between Manic Depression and creativity. Because the illness has a genetic component, descending through generations like a toxic heirloom, this cannot be considered exactly shocking.
“Sometimes it seems like the inmates are running the asylum. Then again, would a sane person want that job?” Taz Mopula
The net is that, intelligence and artistic creativity track higher among Bipolars than the general population. This does not mean that all Bipolars are brilliant and creative – that would be like saying that all alcoholics are great writers simply because many great writers are alcoholics.
“If you need mania to be creative, then maybe creativity isn’t for you.” Taz Mopula
(By the way, I’ve tried this myself – trust me – becoming an alcoholic does not make you a great writer. I was horrified to learn that the only way to become a great writer is by becoming a great writer, which, I assure you, involves a lot more effort than becoming an alcoholic.)
“Writing is the easiest part of being a writer; the most difficult part is becoming a writer.” Taz Mopula
One thing I’ve observed over a decade of meetings in church basements is that – there are a lot of really brilliant, successful, charming, creative alcoholics. As we say, “It was my best thinking that bought me this chair.” Likewise, there are many brilliant – genius level – crackerpants coocoobirds in mental hospitals, prisons, and cemeteries.
“Learn humility first; all the other important lessons come so much more easily when you do.” Taz Mopula
For both groups, intelligence and success pose the greatest obstacle to recovery. Convinced of their own superiority to others, these hubris-stoked, arrogant twits believe they are equipped to master whatever comes their way, even life’s most bizarre, horrific challenges. They are too smart to realize how incredibly stupid they are being.
“To live happily it either is or is not essential that one learns to embrace self-contradictory concepts.” Taz Mopula
A mentally ill person – whether Bipolar, alcoholic, or both – that believes in the mythology of self-sufficiency – who is actually willing to risk it all on his ability to scale Everest alone in his underwear – is no mere dimwit – that takes world-class stupidity. For that you need a genius.
One day, while sitting in my windowless corporate office and trying to imagine it didn’t resemble a jail cell, I picked up my ringing phone to discover the call was not business-related, it was in fact a friend I’ll call Chumley Frampton, although his real name is Syngen Enthwhistle.
“Arrogance: What stupidity wants to be when it grows up.“ Taz Mopula
Now, bear in mind that Chumley is not what you would call a close friend, so I wondered immediately what the purpose of his call might be. I didn’t have to wait long. With fabricated faux urgency for which he is well known, Chumley informed me he was too busy to speak with me right now and had to ring off.
“Multi-tasking: The fine art of doing many things badly at the same time.” Taz Mopula
Yes, that’s right. He called me to let me know he was too busy to speak with me, even though we hadn’t spoken in months.
“Before you criticize a man, walk half a mile in his shoes, turn around, retrace your steps, and return them to him.” Taz Mopula
I don’t usually deconstruct for the reader’s benefit but let’s look at this briefly. 1.) Apparently he was incorrect, he wasn’t too busy to speak with me – the communication was false. 2.) Had it been accurate, why would I have cared? What possible purpose could have been served? 3.) The exclusive point of this contact was to remind me of his importance. (This quality, by the way, existed only in his mind, assuming that one measures importance by gauging influence, power, achievement, and celebrity, which he did. So, not only was it a tiresome nuisance, it was wildly inaccurate.)
“Celebrity: A state of being where one is not known by a large number of people.” Taz Mopula
As concept humor the story is hard to beat, but there is another reason why I’ve retained it all these years. Long ago a psychiatrist said to me, “It really matters to you that what you do is perceived as important.” This was both true and damning. He didn’t say that it was important to me that I achieved important things – (like Chumley I existed on the periphery of accomplishment but had nothing to show for myself) – he said it was important that I was perceived as having done so. Back in the day, Chumley and I managed our images fastidiously, what others thought of us mattered tremendously, indeed, it determined the value of our stock.
“Humility is nothing to brag about.” Taz Mopula
Today I know with absolute certainty that I am not important. On occasion I may be involved in work that is potentially important, and now and then I may serve the purposes of a very important entity, but that is another matter altogether. If I ever find myself making a case for self-importance I immediately take a time out – recalibrate, and begin again.
“Never underestimate your ability to underestimate others, and overestimate your own capabilities.” Taz Mopula
I am perhaps important to the extent that I have learned the importance of unimportance.
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.