“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.