My friend Maggie: “I can see your teeth. That’s a good sign – it means that you’re smiling.”
Me: “It means that I remembered to put them in.”
My friend Maggie: “I can see your teeth. That’s a good sign – it means that you’re smiling.”
Me: “It means that I remembered to put them in.”
I delivered this piece today at Jubilee, the non-denominational church I attend. I also posted today the back story about the writing and performing it, which has everything to do with mania and depression. The theme for today’s service was “It’s never too late to have a happy childhood.”
It’s never too late to have a screwed-up childhood.
Now I know people who say they had a good childhood – and lemme tell ya folks, they are insufferable…smug…and boring. They basically have nothing t talk about – except the weather, sports, stocks and their grandbabies. Now I ain’t knocking grandbabies: i’ve got a new one myself, who is gorgeous and I’ve got lots of photos to prove it – let me show you the wallpaper of my phone.
OK, i digress.
What got me started on all of that? Oh yeah – how boring it is to have not had a messed-up childhood. And I hope I’m not offending those of you in this group. I’m sure you have your non-boring dimensions. But if you carry the burden of not having a screwed-up childhood, I’ve got good news for you: it’s never too late. And for those of us who look at you and get all kind of wistful about how nice that might have been, who feel one-down or inferior, I’ve got good news for us, too: they’re in denial. They just haven’t had enough therapy. One weekend in a good scream therapy workshop could fix them right up. Or they could have someone read their Akashic records – there’s a whole page of those folks in the Asheville phone book. One of these healers would let them know that they have actually been screwed up for a long time – basically since they were cave people and watched their brother get sat on by a mastodon. You think that’s not traumatic.
But if you’re not into New Agey stuff like Akashic records – first, what are you doing in Asheville? You see the bumper sticker, keep Asheville flaky and ungrounded. Or the one that says “if you’re too weird for Asheville, you’re too weird.” But anymore it’s not really possible to be too weird for Asheville. We actually do have a support group for people who believe in things too weird for anybody else to take them seriously. I ain’t kiddin’, you can find it in the Mountain Express. Oh, OK, the Mountain Xpress hasn’t had anybody checking what’s actually true since Cecil Bothwell left – and praise God he’s been calling ‘em straight ever since.
Oh dang, I have done wandered off the topic again. Which shows that you’re never too young to have a senior moment. I’m actually 49 – I’ve just lived really hard. Howard’s enjoying the daylights out of this, but Don is back there going, “I knew that if we encouraged Majo it would eventually come to this. This is one of those weed-em out Sundays and it’s not even something that Howard said. He’s been pretty well-behaved lately – oh, about potty humor at least. And if i couldn’t handle his craziness, why did I marry into the family? Yeah, Genevieve comes across all normal and grounded, but none of you knows her like I do. None of you know what support groups she goes to. She just wears a wig and false teeth. And she still looks hot. She actually is 60 and just looks 49. It’s because she has lived right – like only listening to her brother about music. Van Morrison and Eva Cassidy and Keb Mo are all very solid musicians. And Jimmy Buffet – now that’s about the straightest bone in Howard’s body. When I lived in Cincinnati, a very uptight town, people used to try to prove they were swingers by going to concerts with parrots on their heads.
Oh man, how did I get there? Oh, OK – here’s the point I’ve been trying to find my way to: it’s never too late to have a screwed-up childhood. Move to Asheville, come to Jubilee, join the Spiritual Journeys team, which sponsors workshops by every cockamamie spiritual teacher who travels through Asheville – there’s still hope for you. Just keep coming back.
I came down today – hard, very hard. I started the day hyper, after another rocky night of sleep (two nights out of the last three), still running fast. In the morning, I was speaking with a good friend and said, “I’ve been really compulsive the last few days. When you’re manic, you tend to run really hard – trying to get everything done that you couldn’t get done when you were down, and knowing that soon you will be down again and it will once again be hard to get things done. I know I need to ground myself, to not let myself get so high, but there’s a conflict of interest here: when you ground yourself, when you slow down, you’re a sitting duck for the depression – which you’re trying always to stay one step ahead of.”
So when I came down today, was it because I spent several hours angry – very angry – at a really good friend, over something he has done now many times? Angry, sad, scared – scared that our 30 year relationship may not survive this. Was that enough to puncture the good feelings and cause me to drop?
Over the course of about two hours I crashed precipitously: huge physical contraction, tons of self-hate (this affective component sometimes lags days behind the physical contraction, but today they came together) . This life, which had seemed extremely optimistic over the last seven days, seemed suddenly hopeless.
I do this ecstatic dancing – and am devoted to the Friday night dance. My two guy roommates and I always go . When depression hits me on the dance floor, as it has quite a lot lately, I sometimes feel things that feel intolerable. When that happens, I have been leaving dances. That doesn’t work very well for me, because then I am just alone with the awful feelings and the hateful thoughts – whereas back at the dance hall there are people who care about me.
So I have been trying hard to not leave. I’ve been recruiting support: telling my people exactly what’s going on and saying, “When this happens, can I come and dance with you? I need engagement – I feel so isolated.” With just one exception, they’ve all been saying, “Sure, yeah, come. I might be into something else at that exact moment, but if not I’d love to engage with you.”
Tonight I did that, Before the dance, I went to several people and said, “It’s one of those nights. I’m liable to be reaching out to you.” During the dance, one good friend came in late and I told her what was up – took her aside and told her how much I wanted to leave. “But I’m not going to leave.” I went up to people while we were dancing and said, “I”m not going to leave.”
And people showed up for me – they showed up in spades. They reached out to me. They danced with me, they smiled at me, they hugged me. It was magical. I felt more loved than it felt possible that I could feel on a night that I was hating myself. At one point, two beautiful women had me by each hand and were waltzing me across the dance floor. The misery was not really gone, but it was overlaid with a layer of real happiness – both co-existed.
When it was all over, I felt relieved, really glad that I had stayed. I felt, very surprisingly, proud – proud of myself that I had stayed. When we did “shareback” in a circle after the dance (about 30 of us), I let people know what has been going on for me and what happened tonight. i was glad that I did, because there are many people in that group who kind of know me, who on some level care about me. I wanted them to know. My sharing went deeper than the typical offering in that circle, but it felt right – it had been a pretty extraordinary evening.
Things are changing. I’m develop tools. I’m developing community. I’m developing resilience. It doesn’t have to stay the same.
I talked yesterday about how while swimming laps on two recent days I used as mantras phrases from the first two steps of the 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous – and Overeaters Anonymous, with which i have recently gotten involved. Here I’ll write about how on both of these swimming outings I’ve used the third step (as far as I’ve gotten, and I’ve just barely dipped into these three).
3) “Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, as we understood Him.”
I’ve described earlier that for me God is not a person, much less a guy. I mostly avoid the God word, though I’m working at being less allergic to it. I’ve actually been positively impressed with how allowing these particular (Asheville-type?) OA folks are of all the variation in how people understand their Higher Power, but there still is a fair bit of God talk in these meetings. When I use the word Life to describe my Higher Power, I imagine some of these folks internally translate that to God – and I some of the time am doing the flip of that. But notwithstanding the God word, this step is working some real juju on me – including while swimming laps on Wednesday and again yesterday.
“Made a decision“. Am I making a decision? A decision to be more open to spirituality – to make it more a part of how I really experience the world, not just how I think about it? I used this phrase as a mantra for a lap or two and it felt good to me.
“Turn our lives and our will over“. This one is huge for me. I’m usually trying to run the show. I feel alone in the universe – who else is going to make the decisions, run the show? The OA person I connected with on the phone when I was in such a difficult place on Wednesday morning suggested that before I go into the meeting I was feeling anxious about I practice thinking “Thy will be done”. But who is this “thy”? The great mystery. And it worked! I had a great, actually enchanted, visit with my friend.
This morning, when I was struggling with whether to have another little bit of a food that I had already overeaten, I interrupted the struggle by thinking, “Maybe I don’t have to fight the fight – I’ll just turn it over to my Higher Power.” My first reaction to hearing myself think this was, “Where did that come from? That’s not how I operate!” But it felt kind of soothing – and it amazingly got easy to let go of having the food. So this phrase, which for part of the time I shortened to just “Turn it over” (one of the most popular 12 Step phrases), really had a lot of power for me.
“To the care of God, as we understand him”. This is the one that most took me places Wednesday and especially today. What if, when I turn my will and my life over to this Higher Power/Life/Spirit/Great Mystery, it genuinely has my best interests in mind? No, more than that, cares for me. What if, when I let go of trying to have it my way, i drop into being cared for, cared about? After a couple of laps thinking the phrase “the care of God”, I really went for it: “Life loves me” (two laps), “I am loved” (another two laps).
Then I spent a couple of laps thinking about people in my life who I really do believe genuinely love me. Two days ago, as I was sitting on this very same front porch writing, my 37-year-old roommate Will – who is a wonderful artist – brought out a beautiful drawing of the Buddha, which he had shown me on day 3 of him working on it and which I had enthusiastically loved. He said, “This represents what it’s like for a bipolar person to be in balance – I want you to have it.” That completely blew me away. I spent about a lap today thinking about this gift – then going on to ways that other people (including Tom, my other roommate) have recently expressed care for me.
I probably don’t need to belabor the connection of all this with depression. I more and more getting it that being out of control of my food is discouraging and depressing. One of my core depressive mantras is “Nothing works”. Opening up the possibility that OA might actually work for me – might lead to some real, concrete, positive change in my life – is really torqueing my stuff around. Yesterday morning I was kind of jumping out of my skin with the internal battle between the forces of hope and despair.
But, as much as thinking that i might make significant change in how I eat is kind of blowing my mind, the 12 Steps are messing with me on a deeper level. What if this program were to significantly change my relationship with Life as I understand it? What if this network were to – as it promises – provide me with relationships that offer real support, real intimacy? (I’m already getting glimmers of this being true.) What if working this program were to help me shift my life (not just my eating) in some healthy, life-affirming ways? People talk about the 12 Steps changing the whole way they approach their lives. I’ve been in the periphery of various 12 Step programs and people in recovery for much of my life, but I have never really thought about it as a system that could have a big impact on my life.
But who knows?
Nothing can defeat depression more consistently than a clear, powerful sense of life purpose.
When I am very depressed, my life is dominated by nihilistic mantras like “Nothing helps and nothing matters” and “This is all bullshit” – which, on a really bad day, may audibly escape my lips several times an hour. This kind of devastatingly negative experience of my personal world cannot co-exist with a positive vision for what I have to contribute to the world – how i intend to make the world a better place by living out my unique sense of personal calling.
I’m definitely running high today – at least a 4 on my manic depression scale (see page at top of blog). This morning I woke at 4:30 – really the early limit on when I normally wake up. But I was up and at the computer within just a few minutes, buzzing with ideas for this and a couple other blog posts. It’s exciting, it’s positive, it’s constructive. It’s infinitely better than the alternative when I’m depressed – lying in bed for hours, trying/pretending to be asleep, really just not ready or willing to face my life. There is so much clear reason why I would be running high. But I still need to take this running high very seriously, to do everything I possibly can do to ground myself.
The first big factor that has me running high is this blog. This blog is so clearly linked to my own sense of life purpose that it is tremendously important to me.
The second, even bigger factor that has me running high is that in the last couple of days I have gotten dramatically clearer on my sense of life purpose. I have more and more intuitively sensed that this blog is somehow central to my personal calling, but that sense has been mostly only intuitive – murky, not well fleshed out. But in the last two days that vision for my future has come together: threads that for weeks-months-years have been floating around in background, in and out of consciousness, have coalesced into a clear picture.
Yes, this blog is central to my future – and here is why. This blog is a jumping-off point for the business that will carry me into this last phase of generativity in my life. Out of this blog will be birthed three books and a public speaking business that will allow me to devote my full time to powerfully making a difference in the world. It all has to do with bipolar disorder. It is something that is so central to the truth of my life, the unique personal path that I walk. After working for 20 years as a clinical psychologist and dealing with this disease for so long, it is a topic on which I am uniquely qualified to speak. I have, over the last 15 years, applied the personal consciousness that has been shaped by 35 years of personal and spiritual growth work, to the healing of this disease. I have learned a lot – it is meant to be shared.
Public speaking has clearly, for a long time, been meant to be part of my life purpose. I’m a performer, it’s in my DNA – it’s my karma. Back in Chicago, I won some very high awards for my public speaking in that region of 1500 Toastmasters. Here in Asheville, I have for nine years now performed my poetry four times a year at Jubilee, my non-denominational church – where we can get 500-700 people at two services on a Sunday and where my performance poetry is absolutely adored. Three years ago, I and two other men poets attracted 75 people, midweek for $10 a head, to an evening of poetry. I went into an absolute zone, brought the house down, and emerged from that evening into a mountain top experience where I knew that my writer’s voice – and my performing – were meant for a much bigger stage than Jubilee, bigger than Asheville.
But I never was able to find the baby steps to realize that overwhelmingly powerful vision and I collapsed into a very deep depression – actually into a downward spiral that went on for over three years. Now I am back to that mountain-top vision, but this time I have baby steps to take – this blog, one post at a time. This blog will lead me towards those bigger goals.
There’s a page at the top of this blog about this scale. Many of my posts will, in their title, refer to where on this scale I spent most of my time on the previous day. If I swung on the scale during the day, I show that span.
It’s by no means a perfect scale, but it is working for me. And it is good for me to keep track of this stuff. Too often I end up asking myself questions like, “Just how often have I been swinging in my moods recently?” or “Was I manic when I had that experience? How much so?” It’s also good information to be able to give my shrink when, every three months, we do our medication check-in (not that I am these days, or actually for many years now, so thrilled with meds – I’ll write more about that in another post, probably more than one). If referencing this scale helps you to follow my story or to integrate the information and perspectives I am offering on bipolar disorder, great. If not, feel free to ignore it.
If this scale is useful to you in charting your own moods, wonderful – take and use it and tweak it to your liking. Let us know in a comment (or me in an email) that you are using it and how you are changing it.
I’ve also created a spreadsheet where I’m charting these numbers, to get a quick eyeball reading on my ups and downs. Here’s a link to that spreadsheet. If you can’t get it to open (Google drive can be quirky) email me and I’ll send you the link directly.
I shifted back down over the course of yesterday, but the definiteness of the shift is only clear this morning. That makes 8 days of being mostly ok. I emphasize “mostly” because this was an exceptionally mixed picture.
On Wednesday, I told my counselor that i realized i was grabbing on to any sign of being up – to reassure myself that i actually had shifted, that the depression was not immediately going to grab me again.
On Friday, i feared all day that i was slipping back into depression.
On Saturday, i noticed a very interesting phenomenon. i was in the supermarket, kind of hurriedly moving through my shopping list. Then for some reason i momentarily entertained the idea of getting a particular item that was not on my list. Suddenly my brain started to swim. Things got foggy – I couldn’t concentrate. Tension started to spread through my whole body. I quickly abandoned the idea of getting this other item and returned to the relatively narrow focus of my shopping list. And my mind and body started to relax.
But, as i returned to my shopping, the question remained of what had just happened.
One way i have thought of my cycles of mania and depression – a pretty standard explanation – is that, aside from the biochemical shifts, when i’m up i’m just running as hard as i can to stay ahead of the depression, which is nipping at my heels. This running then wears me out, until i am even more vulnerable to the crash.
This vignette seemed somewhat different from that. The phrase i wrote down when i got out to the car was, “The demon is already in the room.” It wasn’t even that if i lost my momentum it would catch me – it was already sitting there next to me. I wasn’t ahead of it at all. I was just almost desperately focusing my attention away from it – as if to look at it would give it power over me, which it likely would.
Sometimes, when i’m up, my thinking seems very fluid – and certainly it moves faster than when i am depressed, when it can pretty much grind to a halt. But that headlong forward momentum can be more forced than genuinely fluid. Fluid, to me, also implies a little room to move side to side or up and down.
My friend Lynn S. likes to say that mania is compulsive and depression obsessive. When i am depressed (at least when i’m an 8 or more – beyond the single symptom of physical contraction), i definitely tend to obsess over unproductive or destructive thoughts). And when i’m manic, i try to use the new physical/mental/emotional energy to “get things done’ – especially because i feel behind and because i don’t know when the depression is going to grab me again.
In recent weeks, I’ve been noticing some subtler aspects of that compulsion to get things done
What i noticed in my supermarket vignette, which i don’t remember ever identifying before, was that this was not just a compulsion to “keep moving, don’t stop” – it was a true compulsion to “do it exactly this way”.
I was desperately trying to not look at the hungry bear that was already sitting in the room with me – right over in that corner where i dare not look. it wasn’t just behind me, nipping at my heels – it was completely coexisting in this moment. The demon was already in the room.