In a few different episodes of You Made It Weird this year, Pete Holmes reminded us of a common mindfulness metaphor, the necessity of finding good wood for the fire of consciousness to burn. As someone with bipolar disorder that often presents in aggressive manners, I have learned that this mantra is extra relevant to my day-to-day living. Whatever I allow into my brain holds the possibility of bursting back out, out-of-context & irrationally, tangled in a mess of psychosis. Thus, this year, especially the past six months, I’ve been acutely aware of what I allow into my brain, much like a dieter monitors what is eaten.
I see it in two ways; it is important to note the intensity level of the media & also the amount consumed. In the last few years, I have learned to avoid violent movies & video games, as they tend to feed fantasies & nightmares about possible danger & tragic outcomes. I’m also in a habit-changing phase to reexamine activities that make me feel guilty because of their relationship to violence & immorality, such as porn & fast food. Instead, I am focusing on engaging with stuff that propels the spirit forward, be it my mindfulness practice, my new exercise routine, or my daily reading & writing schedule.
In many ways, it is about avoiding unnecessary stressors. Like focusing on good conversation rather than obsessing over my phone, or like showing gratitude instead of bottling up bad feelings, I am learning to lean towards the positive. In my younger days, I signed all of my correspondences with “Stay stoked, Tyler,” which was less of an affirmation of positivity, but a regular reminder, both to myself & the recipient, to try to stay burning bright; as Matt Hart said, “Stay alive & stay light for as long as you can.” Here are twenty morsels of creation that helped me shine a tad bit bright this trip around the sun:
Weakness is the Brand by Maria Bamford
“You don't have to be that good at being a therapist to make a ton of money. I've been paying this one woman -- online therapy, two-hundred bucks a month. She just texted me: "Christine, of course you're stressed. You just had a baby."... And it was helpful!”
MB’s stand-up doesn’t just utilize mental illness as a schtick, but rather, it harnesses such hardships as the fuel that propels the performance on-stage. As MB notes in this special, the combo of medication, therapy, & personal growth have left her with less direct lessons & anecdotes from being one of the psychologically troubled; still, this hour takes a step forward in embodying the mental health journey in our current culture. The best example of this is her story about going to a funeral of a friend who committed suicide & hearing someone call the person selfish. Everyone is allowed in on a joke not everyone is in on.
End Times Fun by Marc Maron
“You never know when someone's gonna dump some shit in your head that's gonna ruin your life.”
I watched this special with my friends JH & CM right before the Covid put some brakes on the world. What a weird predictive force this special ended up being! MM is aging quite nicely, both growing into his curmudgeonly self & growing wiser in terms of being more contemplative & less reactive. Still, MM speaks for the “What the fuck!” moments in all of us, watching people bramble in & out of stores without masks, helpless daily to a president who chooses division on unifying truth & a society, which is in fact us, that seems hellbent on killing us, be it through global warming, societal upheaval, or all this junk we shove down our throats. When MM sits on the stool, you owe it to your inner turmoil to listen.
David Bazan at Tinker Coffee Company
“It’s hard to be / hard to be / it’s hard to be / a decent human being.”
One of the first & most soul-brightening things of 2020 was my 2019 Christmas present from DS: tickets to see one of my heroes David Bazan live. I’ve seen him a couple times before, both solo & with Pedro the Lion, & I think this was my favorite, a performance I’ve been living off of for the past eleven months. He’d play a few songs & then do some chatting with the host, back & forth till the night wore off. His young son was there just hanging out. DB could be seen both before & after the show just waltzing around the warehouse. I lied when I said “performance” earlier; really, what DB does, & what I strive to do in all my work, is generously & vulnerably allow the world to gaze upon you as your humblest self, be it in song, in conversation, or in mere being.
Bad Dad Brewing
When I moved back here to the middle of elsewhere, I was worried about a separation from fresh-ingredient restaurants (most of the eating places in my county are frozen / GFS places) & good local craft beer (drinking less these days, I want to make my brews count). Bad Dad Brewing filled a big hole in that regard, providing a safe (big converted warehouse space) & delicious (made-from-scratch pizza) option around here. I’m particularly fond of Sundays, when you can snag two pizzas & a pitcher of beer for thirty bucks.
I’ve yapped about this app by Sam Harris plenty on this here blog this year. Still, it obviously had to be on the list. In terms of managing my disorder--keeping symptoms in check, staying productive through the stress, & recovering from episodes--my new mindfulness practice has literally saved my sanity, & quite possibly my life, this year, & just to be clear, Waking Up is my mindfulness practice. Its daily meditation is the ten-minute break I take each day to re-ground myself, often two or three times over. Its conversations with mindfulness teachers & neuroscience scholars allows me to better understand the mind I’m often battling to stay balanced. That moment when I open my eyes after a session is often the most joyous part of my day, when I see clearly my body, my mind, whatever is myself, as simply more objects mixed in the world, ready to go. What a relief!
You Made It Weird with Pete Holmes
“Like, a lot of this is me putting this stuff out there to let a counsel look at it, like a group of strangers look at it, and just be like ‘is this that strange?”
In my battle for balance, I sometimes erase quiet & true solitude with any & all opportunity for the company of another; thus, I’ve had to stay mindful this year of not just turning on podcasts as background noise, something to keep me company when I should probably be practicing being alone. Podcasts first became interesting to me because it was one of the first spaces in my life where I heard men talk about their feelings, their interests, & their journeys honestly & openly; obviously I appreciate those same efforts by folks with other gender identities, but as a man from the Midwest, it was a shocking & necessary example of male vulnerability & progress. This is all to say that PH settles all those criteria with engaging conversations about how we laugh, why we love, & what we believe. As a podcaster myself, I feel granted permission to be goofy, a little off-kilter in pursuit of connection & understanding, thanks to PH.
The Bill Simmons Podcast
“Our favorite teams bring people together, keep family members close, bond people from different generations. Some of the happiest moments of my life involve something that happened with one of my teams.”
Not everything has to be in dogged pursuit of mindfulness & peace; much of that journey can exist in pleasure, in entertainment, or in contentment. Sports has always been that gateway get-away for me & BS has long been my pilot. I appreciate folks who are opinionated without being an asshole, who are knowledgeable without being a show-off. Like with You Made It Weird, in his own way, BS holds out his allegiances & models his thought-processes in a vulnerable, connective way. I escape into his episodes as a way to think of something beyond my own journey, the hallucinatory effect of fandom.
Sacred Smoke Herbals
A big change this year for me was swapping a self-medicating relationship with weed for the high-free world of CBD. My buddy JL introduced me to Sacred Smoke Herbals, a small woman-owned operation that offers that perfect top-quality / affordable combo of plant magick. Between the anxiety of having a mental illness, the chronic pain of my bad bones, & the late night tussle with slumber, my days possess spots of time that require some relief. I’m thankful for CBD’s ability to boost me legally without the distraction of the head high. These days I am rolling with either Lifter (for the needed pick-me-up) or Moon Dust (for the necessary calm down).
The New One by Mike Birbiglia & J. Hope Stein
“Writing is always a process of trial and error, but this was writing about my own errors, so the errors felt compounded, like I was re-living my own mistakes and failing at that too.”
MB is one of my favorite artists because of how he allows his work to snowball beyond bounds. Where most comedians would write & record a stand-up special & then move on to the next one, MB gets carried by curiosity, wondering what can be built further out of this special. It is like a house; additions & pole barns & landscaping & basketball hoops are added instead of just selling the house & moving on to build a new house. I got to see his special, The New One, live & I’ve watched it several times, often alongside new parents, but here, MB has brought in his wife, the poet J. Hope Stein, to add connective tissue through her poems, relating to the stories MB has already told. These new ligaments allow the beams to grow stronger & the joints to become tighter.
Diagram 20th Anniversary tarot deck
“I am afraid I have poisonous thoughts.” - Jack Hereford
Diagram magazine has long been one of my favorite literary journals, existing mostly as a online journal for twenty years now, but always with a few merch surprises up its sleeve, like the 10th anniversary playing card deck or the disc golf discs. This time, they’ve truly outdone themselves, honoring the two-decade run with a tarot deck set, featuring new pieces by past contributors, including personal favorites like Sean Lovelace, Amber Sparks, & Ross Gay. I’m no tarot head, but I just had to snag a copy. I’m thankful I did because it has already become a source of inspiration, begging, “How do I make the next creation even more timely & interesting than the last?”
The Nightgown by Taisia Kitaiskaia
“He watches / a virgin exit the church. Her beauty is a single / Plump word squealing in between the pews, / Leaving behind a sticky streak, marmalade or dew.”
I had the honor of being classmates with several incredible poets while at the University of Texas-Austin for my MFA in poetry, TK among them. She has created a truly unique voice situated at the intersection of surrealism, folklore, & translation. It’s no secret I like poems to unnerve me a little. These poems do just that, insisting on exploration over explanation, hilarity over clarity. I don’t just mean “hahahaha,” but more like “wow, okay, that just happened”--antelopes feeding on beauty, drunks toasting the speaker’s foolishness, “giraffes, [c]hewing the moon’s soft yogurt with blind lips.”As I’ve been editing my own next poetry manuscript, this collection has reminded me of the power of going on one’s nerve, as O’Hara recommended.
The Tradition by Jericho Brown
“A poem is a gesture toward home.”
I see JB exploring many of the same concerns in these new poems as I hope to in my current work--poem as container for an ever-evolving vision of the self. He is inventive, creating a new form, the duplex, combining the sonnet, ghazal, & the blues. He is precise, tapping out piece by piece, line by line, a vision of the full poem requiring truly giving over to the poem as a full-loop experience. He is open to possibility, utilizing line breaks as a way to make contradictions, revelations, & characterizations. This collection feels less like a book & more like a giant moment, teeming with a poetic commitment that feels really fresh.
A Treatise on Stars by Mei-Mei Bersenbrugge
“Consciousness embodies it by acting self-referentially, not dualistically as in seeing, not seeing.”
Once in Dean Young’s workshop, he asked us to bring in a poem by a poet we highly admire but that would surprise the class as an influence; back then, I offered Anne Carson as said poet, but now, I would present Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge. As I’m becoming familiar with her work, after discovering her in the Hick Poetics anthology a few years ago, I’m evermore in awe of the space, both of the page & of the intellect, that her poems insist on filling. This new book speaks with a meditative tongue, but thinks in a prayerful direction. Wandering deeper & deeper into the connection between us & whatever is out there, from the grass to the farthest galaxies, these poems model another option in wonderment.
Schitt’s Creek / Longmire
“I’m incapable of faking sincerity.” - Stevie / “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes the truth.” - Sheriff Longmire
Like with the Bill Simmons podcast, the mind requires moments to exist in a contented pleasure that creative, spiritual, & intellectual avenues don’t offer. This is where television usually comes in for me. With most television, I use it as mild accompaniment to mundane household tasks--doing dishes, folding laundry, cleaning--but certain shows shift right into a necessary form of attention. With Schitt’s Creek, I found some comfort in the face of my wife leaving, a comedic pick-yourself-back-up story too absurd to be true, but also somehow too heartfelt to not connect with. For spurts of the year, I’d find myself in late night hours, unable to stop crying, unable to find rest, turn to the Rose family & their community as my own playful distraction. With Longmire, it was a recent trip with my dad, him & I closing out days with this contemporary western drama. Over-the-top, it was rubbery enough to not bother the sensitive tendencies of my mind, but there was also a real humanity to the show that book-ended my own feelings of the day. The best television for me always toes the line between absurdity & sincerity.
Show Pony by Orville Peck
“You and I bide our time / And I miss summertime.”
This EP crashed into my life like a glittery meteorite. Burrowing out of the influence of grand country characters of yesteryear like Dolly & Elvis, OP has created here songs that have a deep, deep core to them below the glamour. This argument that he’s not country because he’s a gay Canadian or because of the glitz is just ridiculous. These six songs connect to the contemporary country music I love that is inclusive of both the past & the future, acknowledging influence (such as a cover of “Fancy” & a duet with Shania Twain) while also breaking new ground (such as representing LGBTQ+ country kiddos). For a fella that doesn’t show his face or use his own name, Orville Peck sure seems to be a great example of making the art you want to make, presenting oneself as truly as desired.
Long Violent History by Tyler Childers
“It’s the worst that it’s been since the last time it happened / It’s happening again right in front of our eyes.”
This is another album that honors its legacy while making true strides forward. His message that he released accompanying the album sums up this dichotomy well, calling for a better application of southern values to supposedly (as in “how is this not just the default yet”) progressive issues like racial justice. As a piece of art, I’m amazed by this album’s commitment to vulnerability. First, we get eight instrumental fiddle tracks, with TC himself doing some sawing, an admittedly new endeavor for him; to end it, the title track presents a liberal southern white man’s perspective of the current Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of the Breonna Taylor & George Floyd killings. We should all hope to be so able to push aside our ego to pursue our values & our talents as far as they’ll take us.
The two Cuttin’ Grass albums by Sturgill Simpson
“You could have told me you didn't care about me / You could have told me you was the cheating kind / I'd be out on the town running around / Seeing what else I could find / Instead of sitting here without you / And with you on my mind”
I must have a thing for country artists who push their own boundaries, often just for the heck of it. SS is the current shining example of a musician who follows the pattern of his own wind. What started as an outlaw country trajectory added in psychedelic rock & jam-band vibes before blistering into last year’s Sound & Fury, an industrial rock record that coincided with an anime film. Now SS has hopped deep back to his roots, turning his first four records’ worth of material in two bluegrass albums. There’s this misconception that country boys can’t like non-country things, that somehow it invalidates our country card. SS has proven that not only do those forays into other matter matter, but in fact, it makes our hillbilly side even stronger.
“Brightest Star” by Lilly Hiatt / “Kyoto” by Phoebe Bridgers / “January” by Tyler Lance Walker Gill / “Where To Start” by Bully
Here are four songs from four strong 2020 albums. I stuck them here together for two reasons: practically, I wanted them to fit on the list & artistically, they all exude an angst that covered 2020 with its dust. “Brightest Star” by Lilly Hiatt is where I hide whatever hope I have left for my love with my ex-wife DS. “Kyoto” by Phoebe Bridgers is where I let loose the frustration I feel for how she left. “January” by Tyler Lance Walker Gill is where I let loose the frustration of what this year’s done to me. “Where To Start” by Bully is where I learn to live with the rubble of my current predicament. I’m always down for a rowdy, catchy song played entirely on heart strings.
Justin Townes Earle
“LE, LS / GS, GT / Don't mean one damn thing to me / Just get me something that will get me where I'm going / Like that pretty little thing riding by in a champagne Corolla.”
I wanted to take a moment here at the end to honor two of my favorite musicians who passed away this year. Clearly taken too soon, JTE’s death is a reminder of how anyone can struggle, how struggles loop in & out. I’ve grown as a JTE fan since his death, finding remarkable wisdom in his pop-rock-tinged blues. Whether quiet or raucous, the best JTE tunes burn because of his understanding of the dilemma of living: one must keep going until they don’t. My favorite JTE tracks since his passing have been “Harlem River Blues,” “Champagne Corolla,” & “15-25.”
“Then as God is my witness / I'm getting back into show business / I'm gonna open up a nightclub called "The Tree of Forgiveness" / And forgive everybody ever done me any harm”
JP understood the cosmic joke, that everything is at least a little ridiculous & thus life should be approached accordingly. His songs open up the possibilities of what can be in a folk song. I’ll stand by the fact that The Tree of Forgiveness is the best album ever made by someone over the age of 70. The expansive journey of his career should give all of us artists inspiration to just keep going, just keep making. My favorite JP tracks since his passing have been “When I Get to Heaven,” “In Spite of Ourselves,” & “Lake Marie.”
These last eight months since DS left me, since I was finally properly diagnosed with bipolar disorder, since the manic haze of the wrong medicine was replaced with the calm clarity of proper medication, I have been focused on one thing in regards to my disorder: managing my symptoms. The what of them has been clear for a decade now--anger outbursts, interpersonal delusions, distracting mild hallucinations, memory loss, gigantic mood swings--& now we have the why (bipolar disorder) & the when (around feelings of abandonment, embarrassment, or personal danger, even if misperceived). The piece I’m attempting to unlock is the what-to-do-about-it, the preventative, proactive measures to limit both the occurrences & their severity.
While loneliness has been one of the uphill battles of the last eight months, it has been an odd perk as well. No one to see me or judge me as I can’t get out of bed in the morning, crippled by horrific nightmares & real-world anxiety. No one to see me or judge me in my own home as I fumble with staying grounding, lose battles to my own mind. No one to see me or judge me as I flutter late into the night, the manic energy I’ve been holding at bay all day suddenly swelling. Thanks to the support of my family, I haven’t had to work, be in situations that cause me stress, or interact with anyone that I don’t feel comfortable around, a privilege I see clearly & with much gratitude. It has been my choice when & how to share my struggles, my lessons, & my overall journey with the public, be it through this blog or with trusted loved ones.
However, we know that is not the real world. A person inevitably puts their personal work & persona struggles to the test in public view; it is a part of being an adult, living, working, love, & interacting out in the open. One will encounter uncouth folks, will enter difficult situations, & will be witnessed in one’s struggle. My journey has been working to get to the point where I feel comfortable--not only in a self-awareness sense, but also in a public safety / betterment sense--putting myself out there. I am not ready to date again, still wildly in love with DS & maddeningly frustrated with the manner of her leaving. I am not ready to work again, still easily triggered in high-pressure, physical situations like in my fields of teaching or manual labor. I am, however, ready to test the management of my disorder in a public field.
That is where disc golf has come in. It is a familiar zone where I have excelled in the past & where I feel comfortable in the present. Locally, most of my disc golf buddies know about my mental illness. Disc golf & its community here, in fact, has been a positive therapeutic practice these past eight months, providing the literal space to pay close attention to the task at hand, swept away by the movement & concentration the game requires, & the friendships that come with it. Still, it does present frustrating obstacles, a necessary finicky mind-body connection, & the occasional butthead on the course, which all can poke disordered Tyler in the ribs. This month, I decided to play two tournaments--one at the beginning of the month here in Elwood, IN & another down in North Carolina (where I was visiting family for Thanksgiving) at the end of the month--both for the disc golf pleasure & for the personal challenge.
The EDGE of Insanity tournament here in Elwood is one that I’ve played before, hosted by my local club & littered with folks I know. I didn’t know the other three folks on my card & the youngest guy was overly competitive, but being in my home course, one I’ve played literally hundreds of times, I was able to use my mindfulness practice to come out focused & symptom-free, shooting my division’s best round for the first round. After lunch, I had the same focus, but my bad bones couldn’t hold off two of the younger guys in my division, completing the day in third place. Again, the safe space of my home course & my from-the-start clarity allowed me to take the ups-and-downs & the interpersonal moments in stride.
I knew the North Carolina tournament would present more of a psychological challenge, playing an unfamiliar course--I had practiced it once earlier in the week--& literally knowing no one. Still, I felt pretty good during warm-ups, having struck-up conversation with a local & feeling present in my body. Unfortunately that would immediately change when I met one of the guys on my card. Be it as an empath, an extrovert, or someone with bipolar disorder, bad vibes strike me straight to the core. In a competitive, active environment, those bad vibes can easily get entangled in & often escalate my bipolar symptoms. That was the case with this guy.
From the very first hole, he was complaining about the tournament, shouting after bad shots, & even kicking his bag, all of which is frowned-upon to against-the-rules in sanctioned PDGA tournaments. This is where the delusional tendencies kick in, my mind misconstruing the aim of his frustration as a viable threat to me. This is where the hallucinations come in, his voice & the thump of his physical gestures seemingly to echo, repeating its cacophony in my head. To say it distracted me would be an understatement; unable to concentrate, my play suffer, spending all of my energy managing those symptoms--reminding myself they were not personal attacks, reminding myself they weren’t real--instead of concentrating on my disc golf game. That is where the anger outbursts come in, usually.
Luckily, that did not happen this time, as he left after round one (typically cards change, but for this one, we were playing round two with the same people) & I was able to meditate during our lunch break as a way to ground myself & restart the clock, so to speak. The symptoms went away & though I didn’t play much better, already very far out of the lead, I was able to concentrate & ultimately enjoy the beautiful day & awesome course. This tournament was a reminder that I cannot control my outside environment & in many ways, cannot even control how it affects me, but I can prioritize my mental journey, the management of my symptoms, & the well-being of others. In the past, I would’ve put disc golf first, likely blowing up on this guy, even harming him, & completely ruining my day. Instead, each day, as I step out into public, I’m mindful, first & foremost, of the possibilities behind my eyes & the single task that’s crucial right now: getting through.
FINDING CONNECTIONS TO & APPLICATIONS FOR MY MENTAL HEALTH JOURNEY IN THE MAKING SENSE BOOK BY SAM HARRIS
“[H]istory doesn’t repeat itself so much as offer you a broad palette of what’s possible.” - Timothy Snyder (189)
In the preface to his new book, Making Sense, a collection of selected conversations from his podcast of the same name, Sam Harris declares this “a new golden age of public conversation,” thanks to the proliferation of podcasts & interview shows. He speaks to the benefit of our ability to “replace the voice in our heads with the voices of others,” learning, being entertained by, & keeping company with whatever expert, celebrity, or thinker one chooses to listen to on a given day. I’ve begun to think of managing mental health similarly. The negative voices of the self, in the case of mental illness, override the more stable, rational self; one of the main tricks in remedying this imbalance is by allowing the voices of others--therapists, mentors, heroes, your better side--in turn to override those disconcerting head voices, prompting one to retain grounding, make better choices, & navigate the murky waters better.
Reading these transcribed conversations, many of which I’ve heard before, I became acutely aware of how the prevailing interests of both Sam & his guests--consciousness, morality, free will, even artificial intelligence--strike similar cords to the work, in thought & in therapy, that I’ve been doing in my personal life regarding my mental health.. As I manage my bipolar disorder, I am attempting to be more mindful of what Pete Holmes reminds us on his You Made It Weird podcast: to give the fire of consciousness good wood to burn. In these conversations, I find much insight, challenges, & hope for the further understanding & management of this wild mind, this barnacled brain, of mine.
Harris often starts with the basic question, what is consciousness? Early on in the book, David Chalmers defines consciousness as “what it feels like, from the first-person point of view, to be thinking and piercing and judging” (3). Moreover, he declares that “a system is conscious if there’s something it’s like to be that system” (3). In managing my disorder, it is this awareness, or at other times the lack of such, that declares whether or not I am level, stable, & grounded; when I have an episode, a gulf divides the what-it’s-like-to-be-me from the reality I’m positioned in, often creating confusion & panic. In conversation with Anil Seth, Harris reminds us of the alternative view of consciousness that Chris Frith has offered, a theory of “consciousness as a controlled hallucination.” I know a thing or two about uncontrolled hallucinations, within, I supposed, the structure of consciousness.
In some ways, this experience leaves me better-suited to pay attention to the ebbs & flow of the controlled hallucination. As Harris said in conversation with David Deutsch, “Evolution hasn’t designed us to fully understand the nature of reality,” so thus, this is me talking, one must adjust as time ticks on, striving towards the best understanding possible. In their conversation, both Harris & Max Tegmark emphasize the possibility & necessity of this better understanding of reality. Tegmark warns us “that whatever the ultimate nature of reality is, it should seem weird and counterintuitive to us,” which is a sentiment, on a functional, everyday level, I can get behind (388). The reality I am familiar with, one dotted with hallucinations, time loss, & delusions, is already a rather peculiar version; here’s to hoping, as both our understanding of reality & my own trip within it continues, I might be able to adjust to such peculiarity with more grace than I’ve shown in my early days of madness.
Furthermore, Deutsch, without meaning to, offers some comfort, induces in me some power, when he says, “You can’t deduce an ought from an is. But we’re not--or shouldn’t be--trying to deduce; we should be trying to explain” (59). This is totally a misapplication of his idea, but this statement acts as a reminder for me to continue to understand my symptoms, triggers, & disorder, not to sit in the purely conceptual understanding of those things, but rather, to put that knowledge into action, by managing my illness & in some small way, making the world a better place; it reminds me of how my psychiatrist emphasizes the symptoms over the disorder, the treatable variables over the conceptual label. As Deutsch says later in the conversation, “[T]here’s no limit to the possibility of removing evil by knowledge” (75). In terms of my mental illness, this means talking to the experts, reading the literature, & practicing the mindfulness in order to prevent the terror, confusion, & pain my unchecked behavior can cause.
For me, I’m terrified & in awe of the depths of my mind, judging from the bits that spew up during spells or psychosis, as well as in my creative work & emotional connections. Harris in conversation with David Chalmers believes there is “reason to wonder whether or not there are islands of consciousness in our brains that we’re not aware of” (11). Later in the book, Deutsch supports this idea when he declares, “What we’re aware of is just the tip of the iceberg, and even our conscious thoughts are supported by a rich infrastructure of unconscious thoughts, which obey the same epistemology as the conscious ones” (82). Here, I am reminded of the critical necessity of maintaining a good subconscious, a la Pete Holmes’ tip, & making the most of my conscious mind. In one of the final conversations, Harris & Daniel Kahneman get into a lengthy discussion about the remembering self versus the experiencing self. Kahneman sees the experiencing self as “the one that’s doing the living” & the remembering self as “the one that’s making the decisions” (304). For me, that dichotomy becomes skewed in the face of symptoms or episodes.
In those situations, the remembering self has gone haywire, irrational & unduly influenced by misconceptions, misperceptions, & perception errors; now, it is the experiencing self trying to juggle both jobs & its many factors. As Harris says in conversation with Robert Sapolsky, “[M]ost of human evil is the result of bad ideas more than bad people” (275). In my case, my evil moments--harming LR, terrifying DS, verbally abusing others--often arise out of the bad ideas perpetuated by paranoia, hallucinations, & delusions. In the confusion & panic of such symptoms, I am overtaken by the bad thoughts arising, the ones I am unable to squelch. Similarly, when I look back on my past, this decade-long struggle with mental illness, I see clearly what Kahneman says about regret, that it is “not about something that happened, it’s about something that could have happened but didn’t” (295). I could’ve been more proactive in distancing myself from my victims before the tragedy; I could’ve been more careful about who & what I trusted for advice & counsel; I could’ve prevented the stressors--a big move, an ill-fitted job, certain social circumstances--that caused such flare-ups of symptoms.
I see now that I’ve been caught up in what Harris calls “the apparent split in my brain between what-it’s-like-to-be-me and what-it’s-like-to-be-the-rest-of-me” (11). That is part of the beauty in Sam Harris’s work with mindfulness & meditation; it bridges that gap. If we believe Thomas Metzinger, “[Y]ou have no self, but you have a self-model active in your brain, and it’s naturally evolved representational structure that’s transparent,” then there is applicable work to be done in awareness. Anil Seth claims, “We perceive the world as it’s useful for us to do so,” which is what I think is so frustrating about knowing when I’m slipping into a manic or psychotic episode (121). I am not functioning in a way that is reasonable & productive for myself. It is completely disruptive & at worst, destructive.
In terms of how we deal with things, Deutsch adds, “Science is a way of dealing with theories regardless of whether or not one believes them.” I use the scientific method & other methods of verification to settle myself when the rumblings of hallucinations & delusions begin, testing out the reality by asking questions of others (“Did you hear that noise?” “I’m starting to be paranoid that [this] is happening.”), checking for evidence (searching for the speaker of the voice I heard, maker of the shadow I saw), & reminding myself of the facts of reality (the conceptual nature of dreams, for instance). Deutsch means it more generally, but I am relieved to know “the fact that improvements create new problems” (90). I am not caught off guard when attempts to improve or actual improvements themselves bring about new challenges; I had this when my anti-anxiety meds caused manic episodes, I had this when my move home to Indiana started rockier than I would’ve liked, I had this when it took awhile to find the right, side-effect-free combo of medications following my hospitalization.
Though he’s talking about larger structures like society & culture, Snyder’s points can be brought down to the individual human level as well, with a warning to heed: “The future will always be full of surprises, structural forces we don’t anticipate, & accidents.” So what do we do in the face of that? As Robert Sapolsky says of behavioral biologists, in response to something happening, we must ask, “Why did that behavior just happen?” (257). I believe on an individual level, we can ask the same question of ourselves. In discussing free will, which Harris & many of his guests don’t subscribe to, he often points to the sheer number of outside influences affecting our decision-making--genetics, biological responses, subconscious impulses, others’ influence, etc. I see that point, but I have found avenues to circumvent such pressures, even in the face of mental illness & loss of control, such as separating from stressors & pinpointing biological catalysts. Though he’s talking more about philosophical & societal concepts, I like Kahneman’s clarification of “a fairly clear boundary about when you can trust your intuitions and when you can’t” (288). I apply this to my management of my mental health, back to the application of evidence-based modes of inquiry. He says you can trust intuition if 1) “the world [is] regular enough” 2) you “have enough exposure to those regularities to have a chance to learn them” & 3) “the time between when you’re making a guess and a judgment, and when you get feedback about it” (288). One thing to do, then, is to manage the container as much as I attempt to harness the reactive material within that container, creating a better context within which to work.
Sometimes it feels like an uphill battle, because, as Harris says in conversation with Metzinger, “[O]ur intuitions weren’t designed by evolution to enable us to grasp reality as it is. Our intuitions were designed to avoid getting hit over the head by another ape and to mate with his sister.” I, more than others it seems, have trouble keeping the lizard brain at bay, instead of leaning on reason. Furthermore, as Metzinger says, “The self-model we have as human beings is something that brings a lot of conscious suffering into the world” (179).” Then, I stumble upon something like this from Robert Sapolsky: “We assume that as creatures with big cortexes, reason is at the core of most of our decision making. And an awful lot of work has shown that far more often than we’d like to think, we make our decisions based on implicit emotional, automatic reflexes” (259). Again, in terms of disorder & symptom management, it circles back to awareness, training & utilizing mindfulness as a means to better understand the conscious nature of our reality & work in tandem with the unconscious impulses in our software.
At the end of his talk with Metzinger, Sam Harris calls for “a fully rational spirituality.” I think that is a good place to start. Using what we know of how the brain, & my mind in particular, works, I can situate myself in more comfortable contexts through mindfulness, gratitude, & better decision-making. This is totally out of context, but David Krakauer says, “The middle ground has always seemed lukewarm and uninspiring--but that’s exactly the bath I want to sit in” (377). When I first started therapy as an adult, my sophomore year of college, my therapist noted how I only lived on extremes, how I was all-in or all-out on situations; the growth comes, continues to come, through following the clues of my own experiencing to lead me to a middle-ground, somewhere closer to contentment, the safety of. Tegmark sums up my feelings well, “[I]f you’re a secular thinker, where does meaning and purpose come from? It comes from our having subjective experience, having consciousness, and I feel that we shouldn’t risk that” & this is me, by letting its depths run-wild, unfiltered & unprocessed, as much as I can (426).
One of the hardest lessons of these last several months has been separating the symptoms & pressures of my bipolar disorder from the grief & depression of my wife leaving. Before I acquired that skill, it was too much, was overwhelming, the disjunction of my mind & the pang of the broken heart coinciding. Since then, I've been able to see the sad seep on the edges of what would otherwise be completely normal days. I call them sad sack days, & I've found that singing my sorrow helps alleviate some of that burden. It gets me through the moments, through the mood, through the sad sack day. Here are seven songs that I like to sing on a sad sack day:
"Sometimes" by Luke Bell
Key Lines: "Sometimes I'm alright / And sometimes I get you off my mind / But other times all I do is cry, I cry"
Take with: a glass of whiskey, a seat at the drum kit
Quick review: This is a prime example of how contemporary country music doesn't have to suck. It packages Bell's modern cowboy swagger into a catchy tune that combines age-old despair & the classic structure of our lonesome country heroes of the past.
"Bite the Dust" by State Champion
Key Lines: "It's always shining on Kentucky when you're sad / But I ain't mad about the weather / I just ain't trying to feel much better about my past"
Take with: a warm shower, a good book of poems
Quick Review: The way Ryan Davis of State Champion clarifies how he's feeling is more poet than rocker, an honesty that isn't always brief, an experience that isn't always clear, as in exactly like life is.
"Weakness" by Margo Price
Key Lines: "I can't hide what I am, guess it's plain to see / Sometimes my weakness is stronger than me"
Take with: a cool glass of water, a handful of aspirin
Quick Review: Whatever your brand of weakness, Margo Price acknowledges the dual-nature of the self, one's good & bad. They say admitting is the first step; sometimes it is best to start with a song.
"Dylan Thomas" by Better Oblivion Community Center
Key Lines: "If it's advertised, we'll try it / And buy some peace and quiet / And shut up at the silent retreat / They say you've gotta fake it / At least until you make it / That ghost is just a kid in a sheet"
Take with: a PB&J & a glass of almond milk
Quick Review: The unapologetic forward-trajectory of this song forces one to sing along, to get tangled in the knotty mess of these lines. I find comfort in the being swept along, almost child-like joy of being in the blur.
"Oh Messy Life" by Cap'n Jazz
Key Lines: "Fire is motion. / Work is repetition. / This is my document. / We are all all we've done."
Take with: a lawnmower & a needs-to-be-mowed yard
Quick Review: Recovery is hectic, as they say, "messy," winding one's way through the catastrophe. Sometimes it just feels nice to shout in unison with another body, proof you can move along.
"I Said I Wouldn't Write This Song" by Black Belt Eagle Scout
Key Lines: "I said I wouldn't write this song / I said I wouldn't write this song"
Take with: a dog in the yard & a sparkling water
Quick Review: A song like this exists for that single line, loosely surrounded by few other quips, & in that single expression, there exists much possibility for application, depth. It might be deceiving how joyously I dance to this song in my yard with the dog.
"All the Best" by John Prine
Key Lines: "I wish you love / And happiness / I guess I wish / You all the best"
Take with: a cherished photograph & some CBD
Quick Review: I've been doing metta loving kindness in my mindfulness practice. This is that in song form, trying to move beyond the heartbreak to get to a gracious, open place, to be able to say to the one that hurt you, "I wish you all the best."
I'm in the middle of editing what I hope is the final draft of my next poetry collection, I ONCE WAS SOMEONE ELSE & OFTEN STILL AM. Written over the last five years, these poems grind content versus container. In practice, these poems are wild, harnessing the lopsided logic of mania & the quick energy of panic to say some interesting, often irrational things; in shape, these poems are well-shaped, often in syllabic lines, the line as the unit of measure. I thought I'd share one here that captures the twist that's happening in these pages.
MY TRIPLED-PANED SKULL FUMBLES WHAT’S CLAIMED OBVIOUS
With a flick of the wrist, my grandfather shook the snowglobe.
My triple-paned skull fumbles what’s claimed obvious.
The inability carried by my grandfather in separating cousin from I.
Not in our looks or our lineage, but the deeds we do, the needs we undo.
The twine around the newspaper still fresh with ink pulled tight.
I lose track of what once resembled reindeer.
You drink tea in the other room.
My grandfather requests a blanket of no one.
The vision of my mother set to turn her father into a fake gold watch.
Her pile of nightgowns needs folds.
You sit convinced I am a child of echoes.
Spiritually half-petrified as I barrel forth into the field.
Then later I fall from the roof.
To be frank, I am not trustworthy either.
In actuality, I shimmied the gutter, balanced my chin ever so a bit & plummeted.
I dream the stars fell down & shattered the pocket watch.
It tore grief from the ghost’s grasp, let my grandpa know he knows nothing.
I returned to me, the snow done settled within my northern orb.
“Pain is a vibration; allow it to shine out as part of your content; it’s not consciousness itself.” -- Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge
I’ve been meeting my basic goal on this blog, to produce a post about mental health &/or poetics every Tuesday, the last couple weeks, but I haven’t been exploring those topics in the depth I would expect. For one, I’ve been hunkered down with creative projects--preparing a collage show, beginning work on the (hopefully) final draft of my next poetry manuscript, cooking up some sweet kabobs. But more intensely, I’ve been chased by this question--“Am I an abuser?”--finally distanced enough from & stable enough in the wake of the grief of my wife leaving & the pang of my bipolar diagnosis to constructively meditate on such a monumental question.
In response to LR’s essay (& in the essay itself), I was labeled many things--abuser, alcoholic, psychopath, etc.--by former friends, then-colleagues, & even strangers. I was able to interrogate many of those claims through work with my then-therapist, SW, & in conversation with my then-wife, DS, & other trusted loved ones; I also conducted personal experiments on those accusations as well. I took quizzes like the Psychopath Test. I managed my alcohol consumption & even cut it out of my lifestyle completely on several occasions, like I am doing right now, to prove to myself I am in control of my relationship with alcohol. I’m reminded of what my current psychiatrist, AR, said in response to my worrying about the label of my disorder--is it bipolar disorder with psychosis or schizoaffective disorder, bipolar-type? She taught me that what is treatable (& thus most important) are the symptoms of my illness & its resulting behavioral dysfunction.
Regarding my mental illness, I’ve spent the last decade pin-pointing my repeated actions, their psychological components, & the triggers surrounding those episodes. I now know situations that elicit feelings of abandonment & embarrassment get me off-kilter, especially when tied to bouts of exhaustion & leadership-based stress. These situations cause me to dissociate, hallucinate, & become obsessive about delusions, which leads to episodes characterized by furiosity & panic. That is where the abusive tendencies come in. I’ve compared it before to a fucked-up version of the Tasmanian Devil character on the Loony Tunes, becoming so overwhelmed by the intensity of my symptoms that I spin off into this hyper-emotional, hyper-irrational, hyper-energetic storm. LR in her essay called it a black out; dissociative studies call it switching. Sometimes it is immediate like that, the lights switched off & no one is home; other times, it is much fuzzier, a transition bound up in confusion & panic. Anywhichaway, it often leads to a flurry: my emotional self unable to regulate itself, my rational mind not able to console the situation, & ultimately my physical body shifted into high gear.
In no way do I mean to justify what has happened, nor do I want to take away from my victims’ stories, but in this exploration of the term abuser, it is necessary to contextualize the situations in order to look at the symptoms & triggers of my episodes. I will lay-out the three major episodes I’ve had, so we can examine how the abuse occurred, my psychological state at the time, & how they’ve been conveyed to me by the victims &/or witnesses, to the best of my ability. Again, this isn’t an argument, but rather an exploration.
My first major episode was on a camping trip with a group of friends in the summer of 2011, immediately following both my graduation from college & my divorce from my first wife, SB. It was our first night there & something was making me less-balanced almost immediately; talking through the scenario with my therapist a few years later, I realized it was the fresh sting of abandonment, that SB should be on the trip, along with the uncertainty that both of these two major life changes brought on. I tried taking a walk. I avoided following my friends into the depths of drinking. I went to bed early. Yet, I still wasn’t able to prevent an outburst when a friend, RR, woke me from my sleep with loud drunken talk about my sex life involving someone who was present.. I swear I heard that present, involved person say, “Do something,” & then I snapped, blacking out, only to awaken when another friend restrained me after attacking RR.
The details of the situation with LR are becoming grainy again, as her essay has been pulled from the web & over six years has passed since she relayed the facts of that night to me. Still, the haunting moment feels as terrifying today as it did when I awoke on the couch & she told me through tears what had happened, the first switch that was unprovoked, or at best, minorly so; after arriving home from somewhere, we parked in the parking garage below our apartment, something LR said triggered me, I switched, & I then grabbed LR by the throat. I disappeared upstairs, only to awake awhile later to LR crying at the end of the couch, me with no recollection of what had just happened. She didn’t have the strength to recollect much of the experience with me over the next few months before she cut off contact, but based on her essay, there was a clear pattern of me becoming overcome by paranoia & delusion, rocket fuel for my irrational physical responses, also including things such as stealing her car & disappearing for hours at a time.
My biggest fear these last six years was causing the kind of mental & physical suffering to my wife DS that I had caused LR. At the beginning of this Covid pandemic, DS & I were having a regular weekend afternoon at home. We were going to record a Hot-Ones-style podcast episode, eating increasingly hotter wings & chatting about our transition to life in small-town Indiana. Then, our new-to-us, second dog, Bo, whined in the middle of the taping & I don’t remember anything after that, besides a vague sense of running around the room & yelling, until I woke up in my underwear on the cold hallway floor, DS sitting beside me crying. Apparently, as I would later figure out with my latest therapist, TT, the dog’s whining triggered a repressed memory of (possibly) killing a sick dog that attacked me when I was an early teenager; in the midst of that panic, I pushed DS out of the chair she was sitting in, scraping her knee. That was the final straw for her, for our marriage.
Since then, I’ve been hospitalized four times, including a week-long stay at Options in Indianapolis, tried out various cocktails of antipsychotics & mood stabilizers (a double-daily dose of Risperdal & Depakote has been doing the trick lately!), & am tackling some hard questions about myself. Chief among them is “Am I an abuser?” Some will see it in black and white, either “yes, you laid hands on another person who you were in a relationship with” or they’ll say no as a result of contextualizing; those folks will (& have) give(n) me a psychological-crisis pass, a lack-of-memory pass, a no-intention-to-harm pass. But I believe I am an abuser, aligned with the former group in terms of logic, attempting to accept responsibility for the results of my actions, regardless of my intent or state of consciousness.
The mixture of guilt, shame, remorse, & lack of closure of the past bothers me everyday, itching me like a forever rash. I feel so helpless to do anything about those situations, given the requested separation from all three victims & the fact that they alone have to carry those memories. I also feel so helpless to the fear of the future, acknowledging my dangerous side & the very real possibility that something like this could happen again. Again, I am not trying to diminish those victims, but rather, in solidarity with their experience, I am trying to feel those negative feelings, shackled monthly by physical and psychological pain, rather than avoid them.
Last week, I had one of those down-low days, launched by nightmares of these past episodes & potential outbursts, a montage of my worst possible moments. Like I do, both in these depressed days & in the wake of episodes, I was jolted awake by feelings of fight & flight, a “fuck-this” attitude that tells me to abandon this life, either by running away or committing suicide. It is of the opinion that my world is already shattered, my prospects so hopeless, I might as well force the hand & end it now. But something about this one felt different, even though the feelings were of the same name.
It wasn’t as dramatic. I could see reality more clearly. The depression & shame cycle didn’t last as long as it has in the past. We can thank the meds, stabilizing my mood, mellowing out the symptoms, & keeping the ceiling of my irrationality low. We can thank the mindfulness practice, well-versed now in paying attention to the sensations of my body & the thought-processes of my mind, where in the past, I would have either had to shut down completely, giving over to a depressive state, or else face yet another psychotic episodic cycle. In a recent episode of You Made It Weird, Pete Holmes echoed what many mindfulness teachers have said, that you’ve gotta give good wood for the fire of consciousness to burn. I think I’ve been doing that, avoiding violent or negative media, finding hope in good conversation & exercise, & reading books & listening to podcasts that fill me with insight, joy, & hope.
So, yeah, I believe I should carry the burden of harming others. Still, I believe those professionals & loved ones who have said I deserve the rest of my life, one full of community, public endeavors, relationships, & hopefully a job. Thus, I must take these things--the hauntings of my past, the label of abuser, the symptoms of my disorder--in stride. I must not forget what Byron Katie says--life is something that happens for you, not to you--because I still have lots of work to do.
Next weekend, I will have my first show of my collages at a friend's beauty shop here in my hometown of Elwood, Indiana (Event Info). Photos of that show will be up shortly; for now, here is my artist statement:
In high school, I nearly failed an art class because I couldn’t seem to draw a dang realistic conch shell to save my life. Around the same time, I discovered a nerve for poetry, a practice that allowed me to call myself an artist, albeit of the word. My romp in the playground of poetry led me to the Surrealists & the New York School, in whose examples I discovered the most democratic visual artform: the collage. With scissors, glue, & found materials, I was finally able to create my own visual artworks. I dabbled in collage beginning in 2013, mostly as a therapeutic process, a grounding technique for my then-undiagnosed bipolar disorder, something safe & constructive to do among the haze. In the last couple years, it has transitioned into a true artistic practice, always hunting new methods & wild combinations to create pieces that are first & foremost playful & exuberant. These past sixteen months back in my hometown of Elwood, Indiana, I have been utilizing magazines, maps, pamphlets & other materials discovered collected in my grandparents’ home, as well as discarded frames, unhung paintings, & forgotten farm gear, to showcase these methods. Created in the luminous late-night hours, these are pieces of transition--settling in back home, learning to live with a mental illness, moving on without certain loved ones (including my recently passed grandfather). These are collages that speak to the disjunction of my head & the conviction of my heart, in honor of the mess I find & make. Make no mistake: this isn’t fine art; it is alright art, “I’m-doing-just-fine” art.
for Grandpa Fred, Aunt Martha, Cousin Tony
I hope the poets are writing from deep within their Covid caves. I was mid-conversation with a friend the other day, & they said, “One of the few good things about this pandemic is that it has forced writers into a space where they can do their writing.” It took me a second to realize that this was an alley-oop to talk about my own writing in the Covid era. Socially & publicly over the last four years, I have felt very little like a writer, very removed from the poetry community that I once held so dear; instead, I peck away in my cave, these minor blips let out via this blog as a way to let off some steam. It wasn’t always this way, though.
Before my mental health completely tanked--from my last couple years at Ball State through my first two years in Austin--I was all over the place in the poetry scene, hosting reading series & workshops, performing a couple times a month, & revolving my social calendar around times to meet up with other writers to swap manuscripts, read to each other from our favorite books, & scout out possible collaborations over beers & laughter. I was also so stoked to edit for several magazines over the years--providing editorial feedback, publishing reviews, & letting some wicked work out to the world. Oddly enough, these editorial positions validated me most as a poet, the extreme privilege of getting to work alongside great writers on honing their own language.
That all changed on September 26, 2016, the day after my 28th birthday, when my ex-girlfriend LR published her essay “I Shouldn’t Have To Write This,” chronicling a period of abuse on my behalf, linked my undiagnosed bipolar episodes. That essay unleashed a picture of me that was unknown to much of the writing community I was a part of, including at the magazine/press & MFA program I was currently involved with. It also brought to light many details of my own psychological distress that I had never heard before. To put it lightly, it completely recalibrated my relationship with poetry.
I think LR & the crew that saw me as a loud, abusive prick assumed I would just go away from poetry, give up the craft, & be someone else’s burden. In truth, I was a scared-to-shit twenty-five year old when it happened, juggling a major illness, a support system that was turning its back on me, & the loss of the career path I was heading towards. But that terrified young man, over the last few years has leaned into poetry, not as a community-builder or a friend-giver as it once was, but rather as a therapeutic tool to release the dissociative cross-sections & psychosis-driven delusions that I’ve been carrying much of my adult life. Poetry has become the place to remainder my excess.
It doesn’t mean I don’t miss it, still in mourning over the sudden loss of many dear friends, a possible career, & the joy of publishing / performing poetry. I often think of the glow on my friends’ & co-host’s faces watching some incredible writers & performers at my Everything is Bigger reading series. I think often of the authors I was lucky enough to publish in various roles, as they would post on social media when their author copies came in the mail. I often think of the writers--from third graders to the elderly--I got to teach in workshop. I think often of the books, both my own & other beloved collections, I got to hand-over to curious poetry minds. That’s what I miss the most, being out & about in the community, adding a little ring to the symphony.
For many years, that wasn’t possible or responsible, with the combination of the stigma from LR’s essay & my own awareness of the volatile nature of my undiagnosed mental illness. Like I said, I was better suited to a private poetry life. But what about now? I’m much better off psychologically. I have attempted (& will continue to) multiple times to make amends for the harm I’ve caused others in the writing community. I wrote my open letter to the poetry community. Am I ready to be out & about in the poetry community?
Well, obviously, the current pandemic stops that from happening, but what about from a distance--the publishing & the reviewing & the championing of others’ work--can I do that? I will tell you the truth about something. From the moment I first found out about LR’s essay, I was not so concerned with the effect it would have on my poetry “career,” nevermind the death threats & vandalism. I was most concerned with the impact it would have on others--the shocking disappointment, the blatant fear, & the expected backlash for those who knew me & even more so, those who would continue to know me. You can see it even in this post, my refusal to include the names of those folks I was previously involved with.
I know people bullied my support system in the years following that essay. What about now? What if I try to publish, either my own poems in magazines or starting a magazine to publish others? I am concerned about the bad reputation & backlash those seemingly innocuous decisions would have on those writers who get involved with me. It is the same reason I kept my name away from the work I was doing with DS’s theater projects; the risk never seemed worth the reward.
The other day, Saturday October 10th, was World Mental Health Day, a day to promote awareness, understanding, & advocacy for the millions of people around the globe struggling with mental health issues, ultimately to increase investment in mental health resources & programs. As I’ve learned through my own struggle with my mental illness, as well as the symptoms, diagnoses, & treatment for other disorders & afflictions, I’m becoming more comfortable advocating for mental health in general. In this post, I would like to offer a reflection on my experience, show gratitude for those folks who’ve helped me along the way, & provide some resources that might be valuable to others.
If I had to pinpoint when these mental health struggles started for me, I would say around 16 or 17; it was then that my negative reactions, such as in anger & disappointment, began to take on inflated, difficult-to-control characteristics. As the years ticked on, I began to suffer both time & memory loss, dissociating & becoming consumed by my emotions. Multiple friends in college pulled me aside to check me on my behavior--nonsensical yelling at others, disappearing in the middle of normal situations, irrational text messages or emails--concerns I, at first, brushed off as misunderstandings. I remember one good friend CD & I having a long talk outside of the library where he listed in detail several moments that I had very hazy, vague memories of, situations where I had “blown up” seemingly over nothing--randomly shouting at my partner, attacking a friend on a camping trip, shoving someone in line & running off screaming incoherently.
This was when I realized something was wrong; the stories, once lost in my haze & kept in secret by others out of respect, began piling up. I remember the first time I ever hallucinated a voice. It was my senior year at Ball State & the creative writing department had taken a few students down to a poetry festival in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Overwhelmed by all the people & the pressure, I went for a stroll through a nice neighborhood. I heard someone say, “Hello.” I looked around & saw no one. I heard it several more times, me crouching to look under cars & behind bushes. I stood in the middle of the street, freaked-out, pouring sweat. One last time, more personal this time, the voice said, “Hello, Tyler,” & then my head turned to static. I awoke what I believe to be several seconds later on someone’s lawn.
What I did next was the mistake I made for the next decade over & again--minimizing the situation & simply moving on. I rejoined the Ball State crew & went on my way. Oh how I wish I had pulled my trusted professor aside & told him what had happened. Even in therapy & my most intimate relationships, I long avoided the hard facts of what was happening--I was being undertaken by hallucinations, delusions, & mood swings--instead attempting to rationalize my way out of it. Oh how I wish I had taken my symptoms more seriously.
Back in April of this year, when I finally received my proper diagnosis, I was elated to finally have a disorder to name. My psychiatrist urged me to focus instead on the symptoms & how we can alleviate those symptoms rather than worrying about what is & isn’t confined in the name of my disorder. If I had been more honest about my symptoms earlier, I could have avoided the DID misdiagnosis that led to misguided & possibly harmful treatment & mania-inducing anti-depression meds. If I had been more mindful of the symptoms--receiving proper medication & behavioral therapy sooner--it could’ve prevented the physical & emotional abuse that I caused several loved ones. I say this, not to pile on the regret, but to stress the importance of honesty & self-awareness, even when it is embarrassing & terrifying.
I want to honor those loved ones who took the brunt of my unknowing. As I was tangled in worsening psychotic tendencies & greater mood swings, I subjected two wives, one serious partner, & several roommates / best friends to, I’m sure, scary & confusing episodes. I wish every day that I could take back the strange tirades & the Tasmanian-Devil whirlwind, the broken promises & the baffling switches; oh how I wish I could take away the trauma & pain I’ve caused others. The thing I can do now here is thank them for sticking with me, pushing me to get help, & leaving when they couldn’t handle anymore, saving us both untold aches & pains.
In Austin, I had one therapist, SW, who was incredibly kind, honest, & understanding of my struggles. Though she misdiagnosed me & made a pretty big mistake recently in consulting on my marriage separation, the steps she walked me through in interpersonally & socially handling my mental illness, especially in cleaning up the aftermath of my episodes, were invaluable. When I had a spell & screamed irrational judgements & profanities at a friend, she helped me talk through the shame to get to a point of apologetic gratitude. When I feared the worst--that I would harm my wife DS--she helped me parse out the triggers & make plans with DS for better transitions & preventions in the future. She also taught me some of my crucial grounding techniques, such as utilizing the five senses technique & recognizing thinking errors that lead to spells. Thank you to SW for the years of patience & guidance.
Since DS left, I’ve been seeing a local therapist, TT, who has done a fantastic job of helping me transition to this new journey in my life--living as a single man with bipolar disorder. She has helped me separate what is the grief of losing DS & what is the struggle with the illness. She challenged me to make a daily schedule to stay focused on the things I can control; she encouraged me to keep this weekly blog to process the things I can’t control. Perhaps most importantly, she facilitated my relationship with my new psychiatrist & got me on the right medications to lessen the symptoms. Thank you to TT for the support in this critical time.
I also want to thank all the folks who keep this easily lonesome hick active & with company. It is much easier for me to ignore the voices & tamp down the impulses when I’m surrounded by love & joy. I have an insatiable, sometimes manic need for human connection--through hanging out, conversing, & sharing. Hobbies have been crucial for me throughout this decade-long battle--the regular disc golf rounds, the cooking & sharing of meals, the discussion of art. As someone in a small town in the middle of elsewhere, it is helpful to have regular phone calls with my friends & family scattered throughout the world. Thank you to everyone who has explored & shared life with me; it literally keeps me sane.
As I move forward, I’m going to continue my cognitive behavioral therapy & medication routine. I will make daily plans to see someone I love for a constructive activity, be it a round of disc golf or a walk through town, a collage session or a good meal, recognizing that as an introvert I gain my positive energy from other people. I hope to find a guitarist to jam with on the drums, remembering how grounded playing with my friend MT in Austin made me. I plan to get a group of pals together regularly for both a collage & euchre nights, harnessing my passion for community-building. I am going to continue to research & test-kitchen kabobs for my food stand idea, seeking alternate means for a disabled person to make a living. I will continue on my physical health journey through weight-lifting, playing sports, & cutting out soda / alcohol / fried foods, knowing my mental health is served best by a fit body. I will continue to do my daily mindfulness, reading, & writing routines, in order to keep my mind sharp.
That’s where I encourage people to start, with the actions they can control. Set accomplishable goals. Make useful lists. Reach out to supportive people. Do activities that give you energy & zest. Beyond that, if you’re struggling with mental health, I always say start now, in terms of getting professional help. Unfortunately, our mental health care system is unnecessarily complex & aggravating, often taking weeks or even months to even get in for consultation if you’re not actively harming yourself or others. It is not easy, but it is necessary to be patient with the process. The techniques take many years to really sink in & benefit from; the relationships with therapists, psychiatrists, & the system as a whole take much practice to learn to manage. Most of all, if anyone needs someone to talk to, I’m here to listen.
Resources That Have Helped Me
SPECIFIC COMMITMENT ATTEMPT
To reinvest in the harsh music of reality.
To describe a chalkboard simply by sound.
To recap the luncheon through onomatopoeia.
To structure something in my own image, which of course, is yours.
To show others, in an historic singular way, the hardwood floor.
To harbor bitterness only where there is perfection.
To crimp the ribbons at the right moments on the calendar.
To intertwine my drowsiness with productivity, two rainbows.
To never spread an ugly rumor about a tooth.
To liberate whoever, for you, against you, or not.
To calm the clash beating my hometown to its pulp.
To surprise each exodus with my smile.
To operate my ancient lust with charm & kindness.
To sing from within my clay prison.
To quit mailing you fanciful envelopes of basic bones.
To never repeat the original lie.
To forget that I was previously at odds with the mathematics.
To be viscerally aware of what others have called the sun god & the rain god.
To bless the prospect of missing another.
To itemize my sense of things, one grain of rice, the replica football stadium.
To talk about hierarchy at length.
To find the collision of joy & a hatchling desire.
To locate my eyelashes, my spine, my shoulders each morning.
To sound great in everyday life, be it covered in sheep’s blood or riding a motorcycle through the desert.
To reflect the boat I am only original pieces of.
To translate, as needed, when the time isn’t quite.
To end more cooked than I came.
To explore these pristine reservoirs of hope.
To table unproven thoughts on upper-arm convulsions until further notice.
To interrogate whatever was said, if only to get a better view.