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.