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.