I had the pleasure of spending the Memorial Day weekend with a bunch of new-ish buds camping down in Red River Gorge. It was full of the usual joy--campfire jokes, time among the trees, dogs trying to navigate the unfamiliar. But what added to the wow of this weekend was the fact that I had zero behavioral incidents & the most minuscule of bipolar symptoms. If you've known me awhile, you know that trips & excursions are both my favorite thing & a load of dread for me. Let's just say I don't have the best track record as an adult when removed from my comfort zone & routine.
I grew up camping with my parents, first in tents as a toddler & then in campers through my late teens, but when my symptoms started to set in in my early twenties, primitive camping became often problematic. Right after graduating from college, I organized a camping trip for a group of buds, & it quickly came to an end, when a friend's drunken mouth met one of my psychotic rage attacks. I had a couple successful camping trips in Texas, but those usually only worked when I was alone. Most recently, I tried a solo trip last summer after my wife left, but ended up shoving the tent & all my belongings in the van at 3 a.m. as hallucinations overwhelmed me. As much as I love the outdoors & adventure, something about tent camping knocks me off my psychological balance.
Knowing the possibility for trouble, I communicated with the group my concerns about the trip, but after their understanding responses & noting my recent successes in managing my illness, I decided to join, making the three-&-a-half hour trek down to Kentucky. I knew being removed from routine & comfort can cause me to become moody & unstable. I knew poor sleeping & eating habits could affect my ability to be aware of my symptoms & make the proper adjustments. I knew, in the past, responsibility, such as planning a trip or being in charge of the camp, added more stress than I could handle while trying to manage my moods. Ultimately, I had to watch out for falling into the unregistered, unaware trap of my more animalistic feelings & behavior.
I've been re-reading Waking The Tiger: Healing Trauma by Peter A. Levine (with Ann Frederick) & it's been providing me much insight on that last key to understanding my mood episodes, the big boom we were avoiding. As Levine notes, "Sensations come from symptoms, and symptoms from compressed energy" (76). I've learned it's not just about being aware of the symptoms & sensations, as important as that is, but also about releasing that compressed energy in clear, intentional ways. During the day, I made sure to step away from the campsite, be it for a hike, a walk with the dog, or a solo round of disc golf; on the site, I made sure to take moments to check in with myself, like with a power nap or a session of Dr. Weil's breathing cycle. Any success I had on this trip, compared to others, was all about awareness & intentionality.
As Levine remarks in his book, "The fundamental challenges we face today have come about relatively quickly, but our nervous system, but our nervous systems have been much slower to change
" (43). Partially removed from that modern grind, camping can be a jolt to that nervous system too, half-hung up on the quick-paced stress of modern life & well-exposed in the slowness of a weekend away. Looking back, wondering what was different this go-around, the core answer is simply that I'm taking better care of myself on a regular basis, having established some positive forward momentum--being well-medicated, developing a solid relationship with a new, trusted therapist, & following a daily routine balanced on meaningful work & reflective rest time. For the trip itself, the bookends were first being up front with the group & releasing myself of much responsibility pressure & allowing myself to pack & leave on my own internal schedule.
It is a weird thing to be proud of as a thirty-two-year-old, having a successful holiday weekend camping trip with buddies, but I can't help but smile looking back on all the good moments, knowing my bipolar disorder & I didn't ruin anyone's trip, MINE INCLUDED. I will always feel awful for the torment my rage attacks & mood episodes have caused, the fissure I've created among should-be peaceful time, often for some of my most beloved people. But with each successful trip out of the comfort zone, I have a better understanding of how to concoct such success, & I feel a little more confident in my ability to pull off such a task & prevent calamity in the future.
I noticed recently that a lot of people around here, even some that know me well, talk to me as if I believe exactly like them, especially when it comes to Christianity. Where I live (Elwood, IN), like much of the Midwest, is steeped in a conservative fundamentalism that treats god as some dictator sending down punishments & rewards in response to his subjects' behaviors. Many folks I know, even some more progressive or educated types, are bogged down & often seemingly confused by this antiquated system governing morality, & in interactions with others, because it is often the case, they assume the other has the same strange foundation.
I think that impulse, to assume your conversation partner believes parallel to you, is a natural default setting, but certainly one that could use some revisiting, a spitshine. Isn't a more productive & open-hearted method of approaching people one that leads with curiosity & diversity? I find much joy & growth opportunity in witnessing & unpacking, in collaboration, what others are thinking, experiencing, & witnessing in their own right. Unfortunately, our American society is on this fast track to conflict, where differences seem synonymous with antagonism.
To be clear, I am an atheist, have been since I was fourteen, but more importantly, I am continuing to grow as a secular humanist, believing humanity is both the key and the lock in regards to morality, ethics, & progress. While my journey to "there is not god" (or at least, not one that has been presented to the world thus far) was a short & obvious one, my understanding of humanity--what it is here for, how to interact with it, what to value, etc.--has been a rollercoaster, especially as I navigate the mood swings & anger attacks of my bipolar disorder, as well as the consequences of those mental health struggles, in my day-to-day life.
I say all of this not to chest-puff or initiate some conflict, but as a reminder to us all, myself included, that the folks we intersect daily are all carrying different belief systems & the baggage that comes with it. I, for one, want to learn from others & for others to learn from me, so that we might meet again with better mutual understanding & a more whittled set of impulses & reasons the next time around.
As someone who was married to a Episcopalian chaplain, who lived at a Christian seminary for three years, who has had the pleasure of knowing folks practicing many variations of faith, I have progressed from an angry atheist, a firm black/white viewer, to someone who is able to hold the "there is no god" belief while also remaining curious in others' perceptions of belief. I think what it has really done is to broaden my concern, leading me to ponder, "Why have people invested so much time, energy, & resources over the millenia into create hundreds of religions & thousands of gods?"
This is where we can all re-meet: the concerns of humanity. It goes back to the basic existential questions of life--How did we get here? What do we do while we're here? Where do we go when we're dead? The point of life for me is rooted in the well-being of conscious creatures, the end. I don't need a higher power to tell me to treat people well, not murder, take care of myself, etc. I don't need a religion to give me purpose or something to do.
There is this irrational concern in Christians about the possible moral chaos without god that I believe stems not from any actual interaction with god or the supposed teachings of a particular faith, but rather from a distrust & disconnect from both the self & from humanity at large. You see it in the questions I've been asked over & over again when Christians find out I'm an atheist: "How do you know what your purpose in life is?" "Where do you get your "rules" from?" "What keeps you from raping & murdering?"
Just because existence is "random" or finite doesn't inherently mean it is purposeless, boundary-less. Even without a ruler, we are governed by ourselves, the moral intuitions & proven concepts of ethics & reason. Like Ricky Gervais's quote above implies, that very fleetingness injects existence with real meaning & urgency. One might see that as discomforting at first, but I think it's one of the most enlivening aspects of being here, no raping or murdering necessary.
This week is the one year mark of when my life changed in ways I'd long imagined but also long hoped I'd avoid--my insanity reached a point I could no longer deny, I spent a week in a psych ward, my wife left me, & I was diagnosed with bipolar I, all in the same week. Since then, I've tried to utilize art, loved ones, & projects to keep my league of selves grounded, my mind focused, & my body alive.
Unfortunately, I live my day-to-day life in constant fear of relapse & the life I have set up, originally intended for the previous iteration of self, often drains my general level of hope & enthusiasm for the future. I'm still overwhelmed by my struggles, still struggling to manage my illness. I'm still easily sent into mood episodes by the activities & people who are supposed to help me.
Right now, I'm stripping my life, my responsibilities, & my activities down to minimal requirements in this second year, honoring the privilege I have of doing so. Unfortunately, that includes halting this blog, a regular activity I can no longer maintain. Thank you so much for reading this past year, giving me some momentum when likely there would've been little.
I don't know what this next year will look like, but I need a different journey, one that better fits my capabilities & values. I'll be sure to update you when things are a little more solid. Until then, may you be warm, may you be happy.
It is pushing a year since the Great Convergence of 2020, that fateful two-week window last year where I had a complete mental breakdown, I was hospitalized for a week, my wife left me, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, & COVID came bearing down (oh & my septic tank--pun intended--went to shit). This past year has been all about getting stable--finding the proper medication, sifting through my past to gleam lessons about choices, environment, & symptom management, separating the grief of losing D from the cacophony of mental illness, developing a sustainable routine & support system. Standing here in the spring of 2021, I am proud of my current condition, feeling like my best self without the blur brain tripping me up regularly.
Part of this new step forward was supposed to be getting back to work, something I haven’t been able to do well in two years. In the past, lost in my misdiagnosis / undiagnosed mental illness, I was never able to fully concentrate on the job, or rather, the job became such a burden, having to mentally prepare so much that it caused major exhaustion & often the problems I was trying to avoid were self-fulfilling prophecies because of my condition. Within my safe, supported life, that condition is now well managed, complete with solid boundaries & a clearer, consistent perspective; thus, I went out searching for job-based purpose & fulfillment, carrying the weight of my previous failures with me.
In order to avoid disastrous guilt & shame, I must always remember I was sick & not properly taking care of myself. As a teacher, I often took jobs that demanded more hours & energy than I had then, requiring much structure & space outside of work to recuperate & deal with my disorder. In preparing for this new job, I thought a lot about what with wrong at my other jobs. At a ranch for adults with intellectual disabilities, where I taught day classes such as creative writing, public speaking, & golf cart driving, my focus was constantly pulled away from my students & the classes, & I was forced to deal with organizational dysfunction, ultimately outside of my control. This disruption brought down upon me much undeserved stress & responsibility.
Many of my other pitfalls in jobs have been because of a disconnect between my need to manage my disorder at the time & a heap of responsibility. I held it together for a solid year at this awesome preschool in Austin, as an assistant teacher; I really excelled at the hands-on teaching/learning approach. Again, however, when they promoted me to Director of Operations, the mess of managing the self & the weight of managing others was too heavy for me to carry. Same was true this past summer when I tried a couple jobs with local businesses--working on cars, waiting tables--my need to manage my disorder actively incompatible with learning new skills in a high-stress environment.
This time I was looking for a job that would utilize my skills, while also being flexible. Mostly, I am most cautious of not overextending myself. The best jobs I have ever had since the onset of my disorder’s symptoms were task-driven, active, & independent. Most recently, at a farm in Austin, I excelled in my job sorting, washing, & packing vegetables for restaurants & grocery stores, able to listen to podcasts/music, work at my own pace, & focus on completing my to-do list each shift. I think it is why I’ve always excelled working for myself--be it handyman stuff or writing/tutoring. The task is straight forward, keeps me focused, & is solely my responsibility.
About a month ago, I took a job with a non-profit here that supports adults with developmental disabilities, as a direct support professional in a group home; it seemed like a solid gig for me, nightly tasks--medication, dinner, activities--in a setting that is designed to be nurturing. During orientation & training, I saw a very organized & professional system with clear goals focused on caring for these vulnerable individuals. Unfortunately, in practice, that was not the case, as I witnessed several cases of abuse, both mental & physical, each day I was there in my first four shifts, which, obviously, was triggering.
After addressing these issues with the management / leadership team, I was told that it was taken care of & not to file reports with the authorities. On my fifth shift, I witnessed both other employees on my shift screaming at the individuals in our care, putting their hands on them, & making demands outside of their role as a support professional. I tried to remind the staff members of the individuals’ rights & better tactics for interacting with them, but I was also battling my own symptoms, namely impulse control.
That all came to ahead when the male staff member began teasing one individual with low verbal capabilities & she got so upset it seemed she was having a seizure. I tried to calmly-yet-sternly confront him, to explain how his behavior was inappropriate & actually abuse, but he wouldn’t listen. I knew I had to remove myself from the situation, heading to my car to call the team leader. Somehow, he got ahold of her before I could & told her lies about what had happened, all while trying to intimidate me, standing next to me at my vehicle. After he hung up with her, the team leader called me, immediately scolding me based on what he had told her & not hearing my side. I couldn’t take it anymore.
I felt the embarrassment of being misportrayed & the recollection of my previous blunders all come flooding in. My hands went numb, my eyes went blurry, & eventually I blacked out on the drive home, frothing with anger & disappointment. This is all to say, yet another attempt to work didn’t, well, work out. Instead, we’re back to the drawing board, hoping to find a small business idea & side hustles that will sustain my financial needs while still allowing the space & flexibility for me to take care of my mental illness & do the work, like this blog, that I find necessary on that journey. Till then, I’m putting my energy into a few treasured relationships, my writing, & my day-to-day conversations, remembering that love is the greatest work.
I find that people have two, dare I say, polar opposite reactions to my negative behavior, knowing my bipolar diagnosis. On one side you have the Raving Randys, the no-nuance gang of "all bad behavior is bad behavior, period" crowd. On the other side are the Understanding Olgas, the folks who contextualize my behavior within my sickness, "That's bad, but I see where it comes from." Contextualizing, over condemning or justifying. There is a crowd that wants to give me a pass for all my negative behavior, an unnecessary & dangerous proposition. I'll say something inappropriate or not show up for three days, totally not in a mood swing or bipolar episode, & they'll just decide, "Ah poor guy, free pass!" totally letting me off the hook for simply being an asshole.
Once, my parents, my ex-wife, & I were getting in the car to head to dinner. I had forgotten something inside, so I hopped back in to grab it. On my way out, I had some song in my head, so I started air-drumming. My mom leaves over to my ex-wife & says, "I can't tell when he's having one of his spells or if he's just being weird."
My buddy CM, a neurologist, said he learned in med school that many bipolar folks don't finish projects, too energized by their mania to focus or too bogged down by their depression to follow through. He noted my organizational skills. I think it is a copy skill, not a character trait. I have a trail of unbusinessed: all my jobs, two divorces (of what I would call good marriages), etc. I think it also relateds to me being "okay" at a bunch of things--drums, cooking, handyman stuff--never getting my 10,000 hours in to be great, mediocrity as a form of unfinished. Instead, I've made a practice of planning so that I don't get swirled up in my manic energy or sucked under the weight of depression. To put that energy to work, I must have a plan.
I relistened to John Lockley, sangoma (a kind of shaman) on You Made It Weird w/ Pete Holmes today. From the moment I heard this episode a couple of years ago, I felt a kinship to John's journey. Born in apartheid South Africa, he was a white guy drawn to the indigenous coulture, fiting in neither spiritually in his white culture nor racially in the tribe that later adopted him. He was very sick, lost in the dream world, ravaged by his unfulfilled calling as an emapth, a wounded healer, a sangoma. It is often how I feel in battling this bipolar disorder, stuck with all the traumas & feelings & confusions, both my own & others, & it literally makes me very ill. Right now, I'm focused on doing what he says, to connect to humanity, moving beyond just being a human. He says we must lead with our wounds. My illness, my losses, my connections to the dead--these are my wounds. How do I begin to be my sbest self with those at the forefront?
My view on my ex-wife D leaving has been shifting lately, as I process my grief, understand the dynamics better, & find hope in the future for the first time in a long time. Right now, I'm in awe of the bravery & commitment leaving took of her. Her house, her dog, her husband, her plans, she felt the danger grave enough to leave all that behind.
I've been realizing, at least with mental illness & mental health pitfalls, it is really hard to see how sick you are, make judgements & adjustments, & get better while you're in the midst of the sickness, which, I know, sounds like a hopeless statement. Simply, it is hard to tell how sick you are when you're sick. When I'm in extended episodes, I cannot see hwo irrational my choices are, hwo hurtful my actions are, how counterintuitive all of it is to getting well & feeling safe. Instead, it isa fake-out blur where everything I do seems right within the heightened moment. That's why, when stable, the thought of possible episodes & the recollection of previous ones is so scare & embarrassing. No one likes being out-of-control!
Meditation has proven itself a useful tool for dealing with my impulse control problems. Whenever I feel a charged action--argument, sexual activity, random purchase--coming on, I take a moment to find my break (my anchor) & start letting the thoughts sift. There, in that head space, I can view the impulse as an object separate of myself, able to decide if it is a positive or negative behavior in line with my values & needs.
Seven years ago, I felt on top of my own little world. I had just moved to the Big Cool City with my awesome girlfriend. My first poetry manuscript just got snatched up by one of my favorite small presses, & I was a few months from being accepted into my dream MFA program to study with my favorite poet. Also of that own little world was a secret that I’m still, these years later, only beginning to understand, to articulate: beginning in my late teens / early twenties, my inner life had become rampantly twisted with the dissociation, irrationality, unpredictability, & chaos I was being noted for capturing in my poems.
That spring, that psychological turmoil would intensify, leading to one of the ugliest periods of my life, actions & abuse that the aforementioned girlfriend chronicled a couple years later in an online essay, now missing from the internet. Since then, I admit I have continued to flounder, blowing opportunity after opportunity, ruining relationship after relationship, lost in a swirl of misdiagnosis, counterproductive medication, & increasingly volatile symptoms. In this last year, following another tumultuous winter of hurt & dischord, it has been revealed that I have been battling bipolar disorder all along (bipolar I, severe, with psychotic features, more specifically). The inexplicable mood swings, the memory loss, the paranoid & delusional behavior, the impulse control issues, the engulfing episodes: the picture is finally becoming clearer.
Still, I believe I must take responsibility for what my mind/body has done, does, is capable of doing, both good & bad. Many of you have been affected by similar moments, either first-hand or from others, of my switching, collapsing out of this normal-guy self into a persona fueld with unreasonableness, confusion, & sometimes, aggressive outbursts. Here I wanted to write, not to justify what has happened, to you or to others, but within the necessary contextualizing, to offer my remorse to you. I finally feel like I can speak properly to all that has happened, with me literally feeling like a different person than the person that hurt you, one properly diagnosed, medicated, & managed.
Over the last decade, in one way or another, because of my erratic behavior, I've lost you, the receivers of this letter. The big question for me now is how does forgiveness fit into this baffling predicament? I gained much wisdom from Robin L. Flanigan’s essay on BP Hope about bipolar & forgiveness, now on my own journey of learning to listen. Where once I wanted to write as a means to plead my case, I’ve come to the place where I can be here for you, your feelings, your questions, & your answers.
Flanigan’s other tips--to forgive oneself & to not overshare--have been other struggles I’ve been battling these last couple years, opting to record my frantic bipolar life in a public space in the face of self-harm & deep grief, as a means of accountability & forward momentum. It is why I keep this blog; it is why I have these conversations on my podcast. Please know these attempts to catalog my experience, process my thinking, & to reach out here aren’t intended to disrespect anyone’s experience or cause more pain.
I hope it can actually be about healing, in search of peace & security, a way of "coming to terms with things as they are," as Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it. In this effort towards openness about my struggles, my remorse, & my hopefulness, I am presenting myself to you now, all my baggage included. This is all to say: I see you. I know I’ve hurt you (&/or someone you love). I know I haven’t always handled this well. I’m truly sorry.
Please, let me know if you see a path to forgiveness, to closure. If you would like to have a private conversation, to receive a personal apology, I would be honored for that opportunity. If a public discussion feels more necessary, we can do that on the blog or the podcast as well. If you’d like to stick with the separation, I totally respect that & will leave you be from now on. Anywhichaway, out of respect for our past & the pain I’ve caused, I promise to continue to grow as a manager of my own dysfunction. I want to utilize these stable moments to be my best self; right now, this is how I know how.
With All The Love I Can Muster,
In terms of my episodes, when I’m feeling imbalanced & vulnerable, I’ve learned that my two main triggers are embarrassment & fear of abandonment, which is ironic, since my behavior historically has led to a high degree of both. My sometimes-bizarre symptoms--hypersexuality, erratic mood swings, physical outbursts--& mood episodes have pinned me to the memory of many friends & acquaintances as a fool, a nutbag, a psychopath, distinctions that flood me with self-consciousness & have stolen many worthy relationships. Regardless of whether or not I was in control or made the conscious choice to do those things is some useless debate; for better or for worse, this is me: 99% of the time a typical dude moving through the world with this ugly, mess, & destructive 1% tagging along.
When I texted my mom an article by Jule A. Fast, entitled “Three Bipolar Disorder Symptoms No One Wants To Talk About,” I added, “I’ve never felt so seen.” Really, I think I meant that I’ve never seen myself so clearly, as my three loudest symptoms happen to be the ones JAF calls out. These are the ones that create a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy with the abandonment & embarrassment. Both my divorces, the loss of numerous major friendships, my inability to hold a job, & my blacklisting from the poetry community can all be linked to these three symptoms. Thanks to this article, I feel validated & given permission to talk about them.
When my therapist SW read my ex-girlfriend LR’s essay, she said I see a very sick man in these words. My mom’s best friend, an LCSW, echoed that recently in response to my abuser essay, citing the manic nature of the violence, linked to both psychosis & memory loss, not a hunt for power & control, as the catalyst. The typical Midwestern boy-fighting never phased out the way it did for many of my peers; despite consistent counseling & much effort, my “black-outs,” as LR called them, took my body over, often leading to verbal & physical aggression. In her article, JAF admits to chasing down cars who flipped her off; I went through a phase of that in Austin, coming to mid-chase. Before I was managing my symptoms & noting my triggers, I was getting into shouting matches--with my partner, with friends, with strangers--once a week, often ending in me hitting a wall or other hard object, an ugly-but-necessary release of energy.
These violent tendencies were often nudged along by the second symptom noted, psychosis. These were the most baffling elements, at first very mild--errant sounds, whispering voices, paranoid delusions that never got off the ground. As my then-undiagnosed disorder progressed, they increased, intersecting & heightening my mood episodes. I didn’t know until last month that “[p]eople with bipolar disorder only have psychosis during a manic or depressed mood swing,” as JAF says. We see it all over my personal history--misreading another’s intentions as aggressive & disrespectful, becoming convinced that someone was out to get me, a cacophony of sounds literally drowning out my better judgement--but only in those times when my moods were off-kilter. Paired with increased irrationality, these psychotic elements escalated the situation to disastrous effects.
Then, in the aftermath, I am left alone with the guilt, embarrassment, & little or no memory of the situation, much like a black-out drunk. This is a frustrating one for me because I’m so high-functioning in other like areas, such as reading comprehension & direction-following; things I’m normally good at--listening, telling stories, etc.--become very difficult around & in episodes. I have physically harmed & emotionally traumatized two of the people I’ve loved most in this life, along with verbally & emotionally abusing many others I care about, & I have no recollection of those events, beyond their stories & the occasional dream. I cannot describe the heart-breaking & bewildering disconnect of this large regret-without-the-memory.
In the past, this memory loss has often been misconstrued as untrustworthy or not caring. I hope being up front about this stuff helps for the future. As Denise Mann points out in her article “Bipolar Disorder and Anger: Understanding & Getting Control of Irritability,” the key is becoming aware of the stressors, situations, & internal signs that open me up to these now-talked-about symptoms. I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll battle these possibilities all my life. What I won’t do anymore is stay silent about them, letting the surprise & fear dictate how I handle them.
How are we all not constantly asking for forgiveness? All day we're just walking around farting & cutting in line & dropping stuff & forgetting things & being rude. It's really quite shameful.
I've been having sleeping problems ever since a drunk friend of my parents, having found out I was having a tough mental health week, showed up randomly at my house, demanding to be let in right in the middle of an episode cycle. Her boundary breaking has left me very paranoid at night, prone to delusions & hallucinations. It takes me about ten to twelve hours to get a decent six hours of rest. I am trying a better evening routine--less late night food & electronics, evening meditation session, melatonin gummies--but there is an imbalance with my sense of safety. Reason number 14,763 why I miss living with DS: I hate sleeping alone.
I was relistening to Maria Bamford's incredible stand-up special from this year, Weakness is the Brand, & the last bit is about saturation point, a concept where emotions of a moment get too high, ensuring further escalation & possible damage if the person continues in the confrontation. I was thinking about how this relates to my anger outbursts. I erupt because I've hit that saturation point, much quicker & much more intensely than others, often without warning or obvious trigger. I have to be even more proactive & attentive. It is probably why I have a very low tolerance for bitching & bickering. I need to concentrate!
I had a long chat with a lawyer the other day about my appeal for disability benefits. In the wreck of fluoxetine hypomania, COVID sinking in, my new diagnosis, & DS's leaving, it felt impossible to work, to string together six to eight hour chunks without dangerous symptoms. Up till this week, I carried that feeling, which translated into the case he was going to build, that I couldn't hold a full-time job because of my disorder. Ultimately, I decided not to pursue the case, because white it might be true now, it certainly isn't the goal & doesn't seem like I'll be long-term disabled in that way. I'd rather put that effort into getting well, baby steps towards being my version of an independent adult.
I realized yesterday that I over-corrected intense emotions--anger, sadness, joy, fear--in response to their uncontrollable appearance in my bipolar episodes, almost banishing them from my "normal" life." I think a huge part of 2021 will be allowing these normal feelings back into my emotional range, building trust with myself to not fall captive to spells, going overboard.
I sleep in a twin bed now. My wife left & I couldn't stand that big California King. I am not a California King. I am just a lonesome Hoosier with too much bed. So, I just said, fuck it, & started sleeping in the twin bed in the spare room. My twin, in case you were wondering, is my grandpa, who died in this same bed a few months ago. But don't worry, I washed the sheets!
Sometimes I worry I've read too many poems to be a normal person!
Like I said in a previous essay, for the last seven years, I’ve been haunted by this question of whether or not I’m an abuser; like with my diagnosis, I have been reminded to focus on the causes & the symptoms, instead of dwelling on the label. This focus leads me to my relationship with anger, which is tied to the root of nearly all of my major episodes, not to mention its exhaustive strain on my day-to-day coping with bipolar disorder & the “normal” activities I’m attempting to engage with--having loving relationships, holding a job, being an artist. As Julie A. Fast reminds us several times in her blog post “Three Bipolar Disorder Symptoms No One Wants To Talk About,” the key to preventing the problematic symptoms she outlines--violence, psychosis, & memory loss--is to prevent the imbalance in the mood--“Prevent the mood swings, and you can prevent the dangerous, aggressive, and violent behavior.”
Let’s just say that I haven’t been very good at that, raised as a young boy in the Midwest, constantly hearing “don’t start a fight, but finish it;” until my mid-20’s, I just assumed everyone fought demons & short fuses like me, that they were just better at hiding it. I never realized until this year that my bipolar anger is a completely different explosive than typical anger, one with much different triggers, presentations, & ramifications. Even now, I have trouble differentiating between what were the bipolar symptoms & what were the results of me being immature or a butthead, when looking back on some of the outbursts of my childhood. One thing is clear: I’ve had a long history of uncontrollable aggressive responses to frustration, disrespect, & agitation, a real collection of owlshit outbursts, if you will.
I remember the first time I was told I had an anger problem. It was after the premonitions, where just the day before both my grandmother & my uncle died, in back-to-back years, I became panicked about their safety & suggested something might be wrong. I remember being more confrontational with my peers, acting out more with my parents, & genuinely being inconsolable. These fits were the result of overwhelming grief & creepy confusion, as well as possible early signs of bipolar disorder. Still, it is striking that the one thing I remember from the therapy I received from my school counselor was that it was “the devil working inside you.” Not helpful advice, but it is the in to the anger problems that would consume me in my teens & twenties.
Years after they actually happened, I heard two stories about myself, both involving what I would’ve considered my best friend at the time & me reacting irrationally & inexplicably aggressive towards each of them. Early on in my eighth grade year, I became friends with this older kid EF. He was a bit of a punk, so my parents didn’t much like me hanging out with them. One day we were at my house shooting soda pop cans with my bb gun. We got into an argument about something & that is as much as I can remember. My memory picks back up with me standing on the porch holding the bb gun, EF nowhere to be found. The next day at school, where we normally hung out in the hallway between his high school & my middle school, he was still nowhere to be found.
As the days trickled on, I began to hear a rumor about myself, that something happened with the bb gun. Some say I shot him; others say he attacked me & I hit him with the stock. Again, I have no recollection of this, but I didn’t have the language to admit this or understand why I can’t remember. I just didn’t talk to him for years & the rumors quickly dissipated. A few years later, when we were both in high school, we found ourselves at the same lunch table. I was finally able to muster up the courage to ask him about that fight. He told me what I feared all along, what I knew deep in my gut: I had gotten furious at him because of a minor off-handed comment, shot him several times with the bb gun, & he retreated.
A year or two later, I had a similar incident where a simple hang-out with a best bud went awry. ZH & I were up at the campground with my parents, like we were most weekends. He said something minor & I threw a golf ball I was holding, pelting him in the arm. Here’s where it gets weird, another symptom--mood swings--coming into clearer focus: I simply walked away, went into the camper, took a shower, & returned to ZH in a chipper mood, as if nothing had happened. This sequence became the pattern--quick switch, contained violent act, amnesia, mood swing back to positive.
It is in that succession that presented myself very clearly in Gabe Howard’s article, “The Difference Between Anger and Bipolar Anger.” What always felt frustrating & out of my control was the switch, unable to predict; what always felt dangerous & guilt-ridden were the manifestations of the symptoms from Fast’s article--the delusional mood swings, the violent release, the loss of time. As Howard points out, anger, in general, connects to fight or flight, letting us know there is danger & forcing us to have a response to fear. Problem with bipolar anger, as Howard says, is that “there is no clear reason for the anger and no clear way to defuse it.”
It is the switch, as my ex-wife DS labeled it. It has been described to me many times. Some saw it in the flash of my eyes, the twinkle gone, replaced with a pinpoint rage. Some saw it in my panicked confusion--the slurred speech, the hyperactive body, the sky-rocketing irritability. Most said they couldn’t even notice it quick enough, before the surge overtook me, the situation, &, too often, themselves. A couple falls ago, the mania dial turned way up by an over-presciption of an anti-depressant, my ex-wife & I were playing with the dogs in the yard when suddenly one of the dog got too close with a stick, bloodying DS’s nose. I remember the blood & then the next thing I remember is waking flat on the hardwood floor, as I often do after major anger-driven episodes.
For many reasons, I wish my wife had stuck around, or at least maintained contact; here, selfishingly, I need her to help me remember these stories. I promise I’m doing my best. Anyhow, I had apparently starting stomping at & chasing the dogs & screaming, “I DON’T LIKE BLOOD” (never had a problem with blood). I locked DS & the dogs outside & passed out on the floor. In my case, as I shuffle through examples, these stories retold to me by others & attempted to be kept by me, I recognize that “what is angering a person has been distorted or “imagined” entirely,”as Howard notes, sometimes able to be recognized afterwards, sometimes not at all. Example after example bleep out this way: the switch flipped & no one, including me, could pinpoint why, the response very irrational & overblown.
Yesterday on my daily walk with Ginny Bug across the family field I noticed this bright streak in the sky. I texted my conspiracy-willing friend JL; his three-year-old daughter said it was an angel. Then I saw six or seven more farther off down the horizon. I called my dad. He said they were probably just airplanes. JL texted me a website wehre you can track planes flying over your area. They were planes, but they still might also be angels.
Following the last week-and-a-half's grief fest, spiraling in & out of bipolar spells, I've been putting my now-manic energy toward reshaping this house, my routine, my life to fit one, me. It was intended, built, for two, but that is no longer so. Thus, it is necessary that each item, each choice, each plan is for me, not DS & I. Funny how the fact of her leaving isn't enough to make it such.
I read an article today about anxiety in bipolar folks. It separated anxiety as a symptom & anxiety as a coexisting condition. It seems my anxiety is a symptom of my bipolar disorder since it surfaces as irritability in stressful moments only during mood episodes.
I finally had to get rid of the dining table chairs DS reupholstered because every time someone would come over they'd say, "Wow, those chairs are cool," & I'd tell the story of DS teaching herself that skill. They'd leave & I'd sit in one of those chairs alone & cry. Even when I posted them on Facebook to get rid of, a bunch of people commented about how awesome those chairs were. Fuck!
My friend JC, since finding out of this recent pitfall, she texts every afternoon, "How are you doing today, friend?" I'm a little surprised I don't find it annoying; rather, it is very touching, a part of my mindfulness routine, a moment where I must turn awareness inward, "Yeah, how am I doing today?"
The most impactful interpersonal key might be to honor another's perception of reality, regardless of whether or not it aligns with my own or the true sense of nature. Think I disrespected or hurt you? I'm sorry. Feel that your life is in the dumps, or that the world is against you? What a terrible burden to carry. How can I help to alleviate some of that pressure? See bugs crawling all over you or a ghost in the corner of the room? Whoa, scary, let's get that taken care of!
I was talking to SJ the other night about my intense commitment to reason & rationality. I want to be as grounded & reasonable as possible in my life, full reliant on knowledge, information, & processing, as the hallmark of my life. I think it stems from my reaction to my bipolar disorder--an illness whose episodes strip me of all rationality & reasonableness. How emotional, how confused, how ignorant I can easily become is embarrassing at best & deadly at worst. Thus, when I can control it, can make my choices align with my values, I want to do so.