Properly diagnosed, in a stable, positive routine, & with a good, working knowledge of my illness & its symptoms, the last frontier of my journey with bipolar disorder is dealing with my episodes. As it is, I’m handling the day-to-day symptoms well, avoiding the scary ones thanks to being off the Prozac & on the right anti-psychotics, & balancing the destabilizing ones through practicing mindfulness alongside my mood stabilizers. But there’s still the issue of my bipolar episodes, long mood cycles that uncover those dangerous symptoms & pushes me off my stable track.
About every three months a new experience or transition comes up, & exhausted from keeping it together on a daily basis, I collapse under the weight of the new stress, falling into one of these cycles. Most recently, I tried to get back into the classroom, feeling ready to teach, but like has happened every time over the past three years trying to start a new job, I was overwhelmed by negative voices in my head, triggered by something (often minor) in my environment, & sent into this week-to-two-weeks-long spin of manic outbursts, depressive collapses, & hopeless feelings of grasping for safety.
Inevitably, my support system says a similar thing: “I’d love to help, but I just don’t know what to do.” In the episodes, I don’t have the energy to communicate what I need or have the insight on how to ask for help. At my mother’s request, I decided to create this “user manual” for my loved ones in helping me during these spells. While I’m stable & coherent, I want to give you the tools to be your best self in relation to me when I’m unstable & incoherent. I figured it’d be helpful to: 1) describe as accurately as I can what I’m going through 2) give tips on what you can & shouldn’t do 3) provide access for more empathy.
When I was misdiagnosed & improperly medicated, my spells were seemingly “random,” able to be triggered by the delusions & paranoia floating around in my head. Luckily, now that I’m properly treated, we have a better idea of what triggers them, usually a major transition—starting or ending a job or relationship of some sort, most notably. For many years, I’ve struggled with appropriately responding to embarrassment or abandonment, & we think this is related to my mood cycles. When I’m already feeling vulnerable & imbalanced, as we all do from time to time, something that feels threatening to my stability will set me off, a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts.
This is what happened with the teaching situation. After a successful teacher work day, I was feeling a little manic in responding to the natural nerves of starting a new job, especially after being out of the classroom for so long. After a night of dark dreams & restless sleep, I woke on the day off before school started feeling very uneasy. I called my mother for some reassurance; unfortunately, my call woke her & she responded inappropriately with an “uh-oh” to my stressed voice on the other end (not blaming her, just stating what happened). This sent me into a rage-induced black-out, the beginning to what would be a week-and-half-long bipolar episode.
See, the beginning is subtle, & thankfully, these days I can usually feel it coming on—out-of-character anxiety, intrusive thoughts, & tingling in my hands, feet, & eyes. The problem comes when I am triggered into a highly manic mode before I can resolve those early feelings. Mania is where the moods are elevated, both in positive & negative feelings, with an increase in energy & reactiveness. For me, this early manic stage is volatile, marked by extreme irritability & usually rage-filled, physical responses, which is where the black-outs come in. Reduced to my lizard brain, I am completely irrational & obsessive. During the “uh-oh" situation, I apparently screamed “uh-oh” over & over while writing the phrase in sharpie & spray paint on the walls & garage door.
This type of manic outburst usually gives way to a few days of rapid cycling, the true ups & downs of manic depression (the old name for bipolar disorder). This is the roller coaster often depicted in media. Unpredictable & irrational, these days are a blur for me, alternating between the previous day’s outbursts, positive elevated highs, & big depressive crashes, over & over again. It is just a wave I have to ride, if I’m not able to catch it & shut it down. Because of this unpredictability, it is best for me to be at home & alone.
As much as you might want to intervene, there is really nothing you can do & though it might not seem like it at times, I’m safe if I’m home & alone. Just let me go through it. I might say crazy, hurtful, or confusing things; please do not ask for apologies or explanations then. I am not in a rational mind, so it is important to not feed into any embarrassment or abandonment fears, by avoiding judgmental or catastrophic language of any sort. In this state, I can twist just about anything into a personal attack or more fuel for the fire. If need be, cut off communication by being direct & kind; others have had success with something like, “I can tell you are having a hard time (gives me the sense of feeling seen). I’m going to let you focus on that (non-combative goodbye). I will check in tomorrow (anti-abandonment).”
This will take us into our next phase, which is depression, partly fueled by the exhaustion of rapid cycling & partly caused by the embarrassment & confusion as things start to settle down a bit. This is the “it gets worse before it gets better” part, a sort of hangover after the high. Though often ugly, it is where I begin to recharge, lasting as long as a week. I’m fine if allowed to chill, watching a lot of television, eating one big meal a day, & generally just trying to keep my energy low so I don’t start the rapid cycling again. This is where suicidal problems come in, when manic energy gets reintroduced & drives depression thoughts. Thus, it is important not to re-escalate, as I can easily slip back into mania.
This is where reminders can be useful—that I’m loved, that you’re there for me, that you’ll be here when I’m ready. Remind me to take my meds. Encourage me to go on a walk. Offer to join me for a walk or a sit. Tell me I’m doing what I need to do. In the depressive phase, those abandonment / embarrassment fears are the strongest. Please don’t mention abandonment or embarrassment though, as it could be an “uh-oh”-like trigger, but instead do things that remind me, while I’m home & alone, that there are people out there on my side. Above all else, just try to be proactive & on my side.
Once I’ve worked through some sorrow, I start to “try to be a regular person again,” going to the store or meeting with a trusted person. Usually, at first, I can only last an hour before its back to the couch, but each day, I try to extend that stamina. I’m able to know my limits here pretty well. It is also in this phase where I’m ready & craving human connection, though I often don’t have the confidence or energy to express that. This would be a good time to invite me over, give me a phone call, or feed me a meal. Think of this as a “testing the waters” phase.
After that, the worst is over. It takes another week or two to be fully stable, but I’m at least able to communicate effectively about where I’m at & what I need. Even in mood episodes, I’m decent at telling others what’s going on, though not great at saying needs or behaving appropriately. So, if you’re not sure what stage I’m at, just ask. Yes, I might be pissy, dismissive, or odd. Please remember that this isn’t personal or about you. This is me working through a serious chemical swell. I appreciate you wanting to know how to help & hopefully this will give you some confidence in being proactive about helping. Stable, sane Tyler sure does appreciate you.
I had no clue / I'd be the boy who / your momma warned you about - Turnpike Troubadours
People in my life these days forget sometimes how volatile my psychology was for a good stretch of time. People in my life back in those days went many different ways in their response--ghosting me, learning about my challenges & illness, giving me a pass. The most dramatic response was when I was "cancelled," after it was publicly revealed, a couple years after the fact via a now-unpublished online essay, that I physically & emotionally assaulted my girlfriend during a psychotic episode. I was publicly shamed by & shunned from the poetry community that I loved dearly. I lost teaching opportunities & loved ones & book deals & whatever semblance of stability I was clinging to. And you know what? Maybe I deserved it, maybe I was a danger, maybe my actions made me unfit for those roles & relationships.
Recently someone I met on a dating app cancelled our planned date due to hearing from a "mutual friend" what happened with that ex-girlfriend back then. At this point, if someone wants to make final judgements on me based on something that happened 7 years ago during a psychotic break, I can accept that, as it probably says more about their values & journey than it does about where I am at. The thing those continued detractors don't understand though is that my story didn't stop 7 years ago; it is mid-telling today as I continue to learn to manage my disorder, seek forgiveness for the harm I've caused, & use this very ongoing story as a learning opportunity for how we view & treat mental illness.
Through the last year or so, I've been trying each month to tweak my mindset, routine, & lifestyle to better support the management of my illness & to ultimately extend my capabilities as a rational, caring human being. Early on, it was developing a mindfulness practice & recommitting to the local disc golf community. Lately, it has been developing a better relationship to what I put in my body, namely quitting drinking alcohol & practicing an every-three-hours small meal "diet." I'm also currently in the process of getting back into the classroom as an educator.
As someone who craves collaboration & connection, I think the next step that I am ready for is exploring possible romantic relationships. I stumbled in late 2020 / early 2021 trying to date, for two major reasons. Mostly, I hadn't adequately processed losing my ex-wife--how & why she left, the lack of closure her disappearance caused, the nagging feeling I likely won't find anyone more compatible & enchanting. Also, I wasn't quite yet confident in sharing my shaky past & the reality of my illness with new folks.
Through therapy & through this blog, I've sifted through both of those necessary hurdles, & I feel like I'm ready to share my full self with someone else again. As the earlier example shows though, my past will inevitably be a stumbling block for some folks. In practicing telling my story, honestly & vulnerably, I hope to find people who are open-minded to the nuance of mental illness & judge for themselves through actually current experience with me, not passed-along stories or others' previous perspectives. I promise to be forthright, probably within the first couple dates, about my illness, its possible problems, & my historical episodes. I also hope to be confident in my current iteration of self, one neck-deep in self-care & illness management.
For me, I grew because of graceful accountability, knowledgeable guidance, & added presence from loved ones; I got better because I was provided opportunities for meaningful work & safe collaboration. I didn't get better because I was shamed, threatened, or shunned; in fact, those measures, in many ways, pulled me from resources & motivations, even slowing & derailing progress at times. I worry that our dualistic, simplistic thinking on these very complex situations robs us of beautiful stories of redemption & healing, as well as keeps us away from much true progress, both in ourselves & others. In dating again, I hope to invite others into this wider perspective & understanding, knowing that the good / right ones will be willing & able to stare into that particular flame.
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
A bit over six years ago, my struggle with mental illness found its new level, a rock-bottom, resulting in my assaulting my then-girlfriend LR in the parking garage of our apartment complex in Austin, TX. I still have no memory, no words, no excuse for what she witnessed & suffered that day. Regardless of its relation to my later-diagnosed mental illness, I will never forgive myself for the pain I caused her & the traumatic legacy that endures.
As I’ve continued on this journey, I’ve learned much about the triggers, symptoms, & treatments for what has since been diagnosed bipolar disorder--with a good bit of psychosis to boot, possibly of the schizoaffective type--the mechanism that allowed that madness to occur. It is not justification, resolution, or even forgiveness that I seek. Within this contextualization & the passage of time, I aim to better position where poetry rests in life, as a tool for community, comfort, & rehabilitation. Maybe in that, we can find those other bits.
When that incident happened, poetry was not a part of my life, it was my whole life. I was about to start the MFA program at the University of Texas-Austin. I was publishing regularly, including my then-forthcoming debut collection of poems, MORE WRECK MORE WRECK. I was hosting a monthly reading series, working at a bookstore, & editing a literary magazine. The majority of my friends were poets. I was joyfully neck-deep in the poetry world.
With LR’s essay (since unpublished) about my struggles, the social pressure in response, & my continuing heightened psychological demands, I stepped away from the poetry community in 2016. The poetry circle I once ran within closed without me in its circumference. I say this, again, not as a pity party, but to contextualize the poet tip-tapping these words out right now. I was humbled by the necessity of stepping away, yet Poetry--the act, the spirit, the machine--wouldn’t leave me be.
My life has reached another great convergence--the era of COVID-19 combining with a life-threatening mental health crisis this spring--that has propelled me into another chapter of my journey with mental illness & its relationship to poetry. Struggling to get out of bed, to string more than a few good hours together, to convince myself to keep going, I was saved, yet again, by poetry, its ability to provide a safe space to place the wild, extra parts of myself, unfit & unfeathered for the modern world.
I have spent the past five months dealing with the worsening of my condition--more frequent episodes, longer depressions following, a dangerous mania--which has totally uprooted my life with a series of losses & changes that just adds weight to the worry. The escape into poetry, both as a reader & writer, unlocked a chamber of recovery that I had forgotten. Editing poems at the kitchen table, reading poems in my blue chair, talking to my friend BM about this or that new collection of verse literally gave me something to do besides be crazy & off myself, to put it bluntly.
With a renewed affection for Poetry & a better grasp on the self, I have decided to revisit an important part of my past life--submitting & (hopefully) publishing. I know this decision may upset a few folks, but I hope I’ll be heard. This next step is a crucial one towards me feeling whole again, an act my therapist & psychiatrist support. The act of editing, submitting, & (again, hopefully) publishing a poem gives self-worth to the process otherwise lacking; instead of the catastrophic cycles of my mental illness, it is a positive cycle of valuable effort, self-affirmation, & reciprocity.
I totally understand if someone doesn’t want to publish my poems because of what happened in that parking garage, because of how my actions have affected LR. I sympathize if there is a worry about backlash or a loss of reputation by associating with me. I especially support not publishing or reading my poems because you don’t enjoy them, don’t find a necessary oomph there. But if you do like my poems, I hope you’ll give them a nod, how I am giving them a chance again to hold myself up.
Last week, I started a six-week Intensive Outpatient Program for grief & depression over in Anderson. It meets every Monday-Wednesday-Friday for three hours for a whopping six weeks, with the first half of sessions being about education, skills & strategies for healthier living, & the second half consisting of group therapy. After mid-July’s brush with suicidal ideations & one of my more prolonged manic spells, I decided a more concentrated approach must be attempted. After poking around at the resources in my area, this program shuffled to the top.
After a week of reprogramming some of my logical & social skills & processing in group therapy, I can say I’m on the right track. In just a few sessions, I’ve been challenged to think outside of my default self-centered mode, coming face-to-face with the logical, social, & biological patterns that have been befuddling me. The other patients in the program are further along in their treatment, two-to-three weeks, & their comfortability & growth lends me a great deal of confidence & insight for this journey. Our therapist, BC, is particularly adept at asking questions that push our sharing beyond story time & woe-is-me aspects, & instead, into more contemplative, productive realms.
On my first day, I was sharing my story--what brought me here, what my struggles are, where I need to be heading--& BC asked two questions that I stumbled over. I was explaining my what: identifying my bipolar & psychosis tendencies, explaining how I was hospitalized, diagnosed, & left by my wife in the same week, & expressing my need to find closure with the grief of harming & losing my wife before I could do the life-long work of managing my illness.
In wanting to know more about the symptoms of my disorder, BC first asked, “What do your bipolar episodes look like?” I started right in--the embarrassment / abandonment triggers, the blurry brain, the black-outs, the dissociation--but quickly was met by my group mates’ befuddled looks. I realized I was telling the story of how it felt to me to have spells, an impossibly visceral moment to convey; as Elyn Saks said in The Center Cannot Hold, spells are things that happen to a person, not necessarily things that are happening by or because of a person.
That distinction, thus, made it impossible for me to explain. I’ve never seen an episode. I’ve never witnessed the way my body, my attitude, & my voice loses controls & transforms into this other. So, I went back--to ask my mother what she’s seen, to reference my blog posts, to review emails & texts from friends who’ve seen an episode. Let’s call it a flesh tornado--one part Tasmanian devil (the cartoon), one part Tasmanian devil (the animal), & one part disoriented & dislodged hick flailing for any control or comfort. In that revelatory image, I was able to start the process of grieving with empathy for my wife & others who have decided this person, this body, these capabilities are too much for them.
It also led to BC’s second question, “Were you a dick to her [your wife]?” I instinctively said no, knowing I was never the kind of husband to gripe about housework, to demean appearances or intellect, or shirk responsibilities & promises of my own. However, I continued to tell the story that led up to DS’s leaving--the increasingly volatile Prozac-induced spells, the deep shame / depression, the final straw of flipping her out of a chair during an episode--& I quickly contradicted myself, a fact BC pointed out, saying, “So you were a dick.”
“I guess I was,” I admitted, grappling with this distinction in the haziness of choice, responsibility, & intent. Regardless of the fact that these hurtful moments were done in irrational, bipolar episodes, I must take responsibility for what happened. It was my choice to not report my increased spells early enough to my doctor. It was my choice to stop seeing my first therapist back in Indiana & my choice to wait so long to find another one. It was my choice to accept my Texas therapist SW’s misdiagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder. It was my choice to not protect my wife DS earlier in the year when I knew things weren’t right. The blame sits with me because I didn’t make the right choices, take the necessary responsibility, & harness my good intentions when I had the power to do so.
Like I hoped to avoid with the LS situation years ago, I never sought to justify my actions, disorder-induced or not. Rather, this contemplation remains focused on contextualizing the situation, which is what BC’s questions nudged me towards. How proactive am I (& must I be) in regards to my disorder? When & how do I allow myself to decompress & possibly dissociate? Who do I trust with my care? While I have moments when control is ripped away from me, every day there are critical choices & circumstances to be handled. I must never forget that again.
IN THE MIDDLE OF MY MUDDLE: REFLECTIONS FROM THE CENTER CANNOT HOLD by Elyn Saks for me to reflect upon
Somewhere in The Center Cannot Hold, Elyn Saks describes a scene as being “[i]n the middle of my muddle” & that’s the resonating hum that sticks with me from this book, narratives that move beyond the description of living with the disease, but rather capture the visceral nature of living within its grasp. Elyn Saks’ most lasting achievement in these pages, for me, is when she’s recalling the slippage of her verbiage, reverberating in her own confusion & shame, & ultimately recounting the lessons she’s learned in the given moments along the way.
I admire the path Saks has carved for us psychosis-laden folks. Over a decade ago, she opened up the conversation to be about more than the label of the disease & the list of its symptoms, but to focus on the actual experience of living as a schizophrenic (or whatever variation one might be). She’s privileged, no doubt, with money, therapeutic resources & a strong intellectual side of her mind; regardless, the deep terror of her days reflects highly off these pages. As someone with bipolar disorder with a fair amount of psychosis, I’ve decided to single-out individual reflections from the book that most parallel my own experience & hop a bit farther.
“A part of me had been waiting for those words, or some version of them, for a very long time, but that didn’t lessen the overwhelming impact of them, or what they signified for my life” (167).
It was our second meeting, the psychiatrist in the psych ward & me, & he pulled down his Covid-19-era mask so I could hear him clearly—schizoaffective disorder, bipolar-type (later amended to “bipolar disorder with psychosis”). I’d been living with the symptoms long enough, though in confusion & fear, to know them individually—the outbursts, the hallucinations, the mood swings, the delusions—but added up like this & laid out flat, it was both a relief & a dagger. I’d done enough poking around the possibilities to know this meant I had a lower life expectancy than my fellow man, less of a chance to have a stable career, & a problematic choice in family planning. An existential crisis thus arises.
“What is a person? What’s the difference between a person and a personality?” (255)
I’ve been asking myself these questions on a regular basis for the last decade, feeling myself not fit into the consistent, expected paradigm of adult-person. When I have a spell & hurt someone—yelling word-salad at my best friend in the mountains, abusing my girlfriend in a parking garage, squealing out of my workplace’s parking lot to leave another job behind—it felt like a back-to-the-drawing-board moment over & again. Whole months would pass where I felt more like a personality, a mask, than a person, disjunctive & performative. As Saks said at the beginning of the book, “I think I am dissolving” (10).
“Schizophrenia rolls in like a slow fog, becoming imperceptibly thicker as time goes on” (35).
I remember laying in bed, this had to be around 2012 or 2013, staring at the boring white apartment ceiling. I swear I could hear my brain thickening up, the weight of the coming days washing in. It started with the sleeping dreams—demolitions & plagues of spiders—then it rolled into waking nightmares—an entire community’s plot to upend me & always a shadow a few feet away, ready to attack. Often, time & thus my body felt so slow, I couldn’t tell who was chasing what.
“It’s not a matter of feeling…It’s a matter of things happening to me” (141).
This explanation nails what I haven’t been able to explain to my loved ones, my therapists, & the naysayers. A therapist once wrote on the board FEELINGS-->CHOICES -->ACTION. In moments of psychosis & blur, the action scraped side-by-side with feelings, two drivers, one cart. Choice was left to the wayside, the moment pressing its will on me.
“Consciousness gradually loses its coherence. One’s center gives way. The center cannot hold. The “me” becomes a haze, and the solid center from which one experiences reality breaks up like a bad radio signal” (13).
I often call it “blur-brained,” that state before an episode, not full psychotic / psychosis, but a definite loss of solidity upstairs. It is a negative feeling positively mimicked by the state of being I find in meditating. When I first started meditating last year, I would lay in my underwear face-down on the cold hardwood floor, just how I was often found after an episode. There I was, attempting to normalize, or at least make less frightening, that slippage.
“When I become psychotic, a kind of curtain (of civilization, of socialization) falls away, and a secret part of me is revealed. And then, after the psychosis passes, I suffer overwhelming shame: I have been seen” (217).
I have a lethal fear of being embarrassed & abandoned, thus I always carefully picked my jokes, maintained a mildness in my public persona, & worked like hell to build reciprocal relationships. My disorder shatters all that work, making a fool of myself in my incoherence & mayhem. Especially in the days of unknowing about my illness, there was more shame than I could often handle, setting this spiral into motion—a spell causes shame, shame causes another spell, a vortex of mania. That was the hardest thing about when my ex-girlfriend LR published her essay listing a few of my sins alongside my roughest psychological breakdowns; in all my effort to avoid the roughneck nature of my ancestors—the drinking, the cussing, the narrow-mindedness—I was seen, without explanation or rebuttal, as a bad & crazy person, on a journey I was still myself deciphering..
“I’ve killed hundreds of thousands of people with my thoughts. It’s not my doing. Someone acts through my brain” (159).
This past week, I spent mornings in strange hazes, imagining moments where someone would slight me—my father, an uncle, a cousin, a stranger at the pool--& I would verbally scold them & then, when they wouldn’t learn, I would destroy them—drowning in the pool, slicing like potato chips, dragging behind the golf cart. I would “come to” from these delusions, first afraid I had actually done the deed, & second forced to carry the weight of it, despite it not being real. As Saks says later in the book, “A psychotic episode is like experiencing trauma” (289).
“I was certain people could see how scared I felt, how shy and inadequate. I was certain they were talking about me whenever I came into a room, or after I’d walked out of one” (14).
In my early 20’s, my therapist thought it was just anxiety, this over-awareness of each glance & murmur, but as time passed, we discovered it was the growth of paranoia coupled with the shame of my illness. Of the many things I miss about my wife DS, the most practical absence is her ability to ground me in social situations & help me navigate the long halls & wide rooms of life with encouragement, reassurance, & love.
“My head is too full of noise. Too full of lemons and law memos, and mass murders that I will be
responsible for. I have to work. I cannot work. I cannot think.” (2)
The elliptical, disjunctive language & dissociative movement I value in my poems is a major part of the disorder that debilitates me. A few weeks ago, I tried working a job at an auto shop--changing oil, rotating tires, etc. While the first couple days went well, the third day my head became inundated with sound—the steps to an oil change screaming on loop, a disembodied laughter, some orders to harm those harming me (no one was harming me, but still). Among the loud sounds of impact drivers & pinging wrenches, I just couldn’t handle it.
“I just couldn’t get my mind to work right” (42).
That’s the biggest frustration I’ve found over the years—the inability to control my own mind. No matter how many therapy sessions. No matter how many breathing exercises or long cooldown walks. No matter how many meditation sessions or poem-writing moments. No matter how many pills I take. My mind brings what it wants, forces its will upon me.
“What was real, what was not? I couldn’t decipher the difference and it was exhausting” (56).
Before I started my new medication, I’d spend hours at a time picking through my perceptions & trying to guess what was real and what was not. Who hates me and who loves me. What is trying to kill me and what needs my help. What sensory things were real and what were merely a product of my head. The better option often was to just shut down—curl up in bed & give up, drink / smoke myself into a coma. Otherwise, I’d get wound up in the mess & the manic exhaustion was dangerous.
“A setback that might have been only simple frustration for someone else—a slight case of writer’s block, a change of plan that might have meant taking a day or two off, going to a movie, having a beer—made me wild with fear” (73).
This is the crux of most of my problems--why I can’t hold a job, why my friendships dissolve, why ultimately I’m twice-divorced. Small things cause big reactions in me. If a friend cancelled last minute. If a friend showed up last minute. If I encountered a stranger while trying to quiet the mind. If I was walking alone in the dark. If I need to skip a few things on my to-do list. For years, I have been labeled as an overreactor, when really I’m just reacting appropriately to the unnerving amount of fear inside me.
“I’d summon focus and energy to keep the demons away during a visit, and then go to pieces after friends and family were gone” (163).
This point harkens back to the piece earlier about the difficulty little challenges pose on me. Group outings & dinner parties are full of mistaken glances & short-changed quips, broken promises & paranoia-inducing comments. Navigating all of that while also trying to be a good host / guest often resulted in a manic burst of energy after the room cleared. Unfortunately, when you live with someone, that person has to witness, helplessly, that onslaught of emotions, psychosis, & shame again & again.
“Maybe I couldn’t keep the thoughts from coming into my head, but I could organize them, and keep them from getting out” (176).
What an energy suck this effort surely is. I’d often cry to my wife, “there’s just too much going on,” a flooding of consciousness that, in addition to episodes, resulted in bi-monthly migraines & regular mood swings, results of the pure exhaustion of juggling the normal thoughts & the psychotic thoughts while also carefully monitoring what goes in & out of this weird brain of mine. It is a futile effort though, as the floodgates always rupture. As Saks says later, “The constant effort to keep reality on one side and delusions on the other was exhausting, and I often felt beaten down, knowing that the schizophrenia diagnosis had ended any hope I’d had of a miracle cure or a miracle fix” (183).
“When you’re scared, on the verge of a meltdown, you instinctively know to head someplace where you’ll be safe; when you reveal something so intimate as psychosis, you want the witnesses to be people you trust” (217).
For a decade, I was undiagnosed with anything, unmedicated & flapping in the wind. I learned coping skills to control my symptoms, episodes, & larger problems, diverting them to more safe spaces to self-combust--around the closest of loved ones, in my own home, etc. This has been the true struggle since my wife left a little over three months ago. In Austin, I had her & a couple friends I trusted to witness my meltdowns & outbursts. While my home here is safer for my crazier moments--isolated space, family-owned property, etc.--without DS, I still don’t have those trusted people to unravel in front of. My closest friends all have families to care for & protect, & my parents, as patient & helpful as they are, are too fearful & fragile for such moments. Thus, I’m often left to my own witness in my episodes, which is dangerous at worst & lonesome at best.
“With years of practice, I’d learned to keep my symptoms mostly hidden from view; I was becoming adept at acting normal even when I wasn’t feeling it” (190)
Saks names this skill as seeming, a tactic I’m very good at, especially as I had to navigate a big city, graduate school, & a marriage. It is also the thing that prevented me & my support system from getting the help we needed. Even now, when I meet with a new psychiatrist or therapist, they always remark how articulate I am, how put together I seem, how functional I’ve been, despite the chart in front of them outlining my constant failure at “normal” adult life.
“And by the way, in my experience, the words “now just calm down” almost inevitably have the opposite effect on the person you’re speaking to” (140).
Let’s just strike this from the vocabulary. In my episodes, instructions for “controlling my emotions” do not work. What I need is for folks to help me control my environment, its perceived threats, & whatever else is agitating or terrifying. As Saks says a little later in the book, “At the very least, somebody could have asked me what made me feel better” (159).
“’Crazy people’ don’t make the evening news for successfully managing their lives; we only hear about them when something horrible happens” (289).
I’ve been thinking about folks like Tony Timpa & Muhammad Abdul Muhaymin Jr., non-violent folks suffering from mental illness & killed by police. We don’t hear their journey, their triumphs & warm affections, in real time; instead we see them dead, the tragic end result of their valiant attempts to navigate life with their disorder.
“You might also strive to make your life as predictable and orderly as possible…your basic goal would be to eliminate surprises” (230).
Here is the real reason my wife & I moved to my hometown of Elwood, Indiana. Equipped with a family-owned house, close proximity to my parents, & the affordability of small town life, we were able to control our environment as much as possible--me not having to work, no neighbors or landlords breathing down our necks, both of us able to make art & love each other as freely as possible. As I rebuild my life in the wake of her leaving, I’ve been focused on keeping it simple, the days looking similar in flexible routine & predictable experience--morning walks with the dog, afternoon reading / writing time, evening phone calls / visits with loved ones. I think that’s what made school, both undergraduate & graduate, so appealing, so capable, for me; it is structured & rigorous, but also porous & malleable. Like Saks, I felt a similar sting when I graduated, ““[I]t all gave a precise order and manageability to my life, and now it was over” (50).
“While Navane had helped keep my psychosis “tamed,” I’d always had to remain vigilant. The pyschotic thoughts were always present, and I often experienced “breakthrough symptoms”---fleeting psychotic thoughts—many times each day.” (303).
Mostly, these fleeting psychotic thoughts are what I’ve struggled with much of my life. Now, medicated with more controlled thinking, those sudden appearances are actually more startling & scary, thrown against a crisper backdrop. I’ve been in the swirl of psychological disorder & situational depression for the past three months. It becomes hard to decipher sometimes what’s the disorder & what’s the funk. When it is both, it is clear & devastating. Similar to Saks, “Soaked in antipsychotic medication, with the psychosis actually clearing, I became profoundly depressed, and felt the brief flash of energy and focus leak right out of me” (176).
“[H]ow easily I could have been any one of them. How easily I could’ve slipped beneath the waves and simply never come back up again. I wondered if there were a role I could play in the lives of people who suffered in a way that I understood only too well” (103).
This sentiment is exactly how I felt, overwhelmed with empathy & heartache, among my dozen fellow patients at the psych hospital when I spent a week there earlier this year. I had similar pangs in my interactions with the homeless population in Austin. Less support, poorer choices, &/or another bad break or two, & I’m as riddled as they are; each day, I’m thankful I’m not further down this hole. As soon as I’m well enough, I am determined to go back to school & get my Master’s in Mental Health Counseling.
“As I watched everything I valued disintegrate, I nevertheless fought to somehow hang onto my autonomy—my self” (80-81).
This urge, to retain autonomy, is where so many of the self-defeating decisions come from--to not take meds, to not accept help, to stay in the same pattern. Saks often speaks of the intense desire to will one’s way into feeling better, an impossible & short-sighted goal. With my wife leaving, with my inability to control my own destiny, the only place I’ve been able to turn for that power is in my art, writing & making collages.
“One of the worst aspects of schizophrenia is the profound isolation—the constant awareness that you’re different, some sort of alien, not really human” (193).
It is true, but I also find the ability to name it, be it schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or whatever, as a small crack in the wall. The isolation I felt in my private mania is relieved a little by the public admittance that I’m different.
“What might it be like, to be completely at home in one’s life, and not be alone?” (294)
As I barrel into this next stage of my life--single again, back in my hometown, focusing on creating again--I’m chased by this question. I’ve decided to completely open up about my experience through this blog, my podcast, & my other work. I’ve decided to let more people in on the cosmic dark joke of my disorder.
After a week in North Carolina & a kids birthday party upon my return, I completely crashed when I got home on July 4th, a slumber that lasted late into the next morning. Not being able to reach me, my mother panicked, as mothers of the mentally ill are apt to do, & reached out to a friend on the local police force to do a welfare check. I woke up to his knocking. Not my first go-round with this sort of thing, so we smoothed it out & said our goodbyes.
The next morning around the same time, I was awakened by the same knock, the police friend’s one-two rapt. One of my soon-to-be-ex wife’s friends from across the country called in to my local sheriff, claiming I had sent an email the day before, around the same time as the welfare check in fact, saying I was going to kill myself. Despite them finding no evidence of such an email, out of liability, they took me in for a psychiatric evaluation; again, not my first go-round, so I complied, riding shotgun into the hospital.
Still, it ended up being one of the worst days of my life, kickstarting a terrible week. I was feeling trapped against my will & knowing I didn’t have suicidal ideations, I became very agitated. Being kept in a stark white room for over nine hours caused me to fall into some old delusions & getting caught up in the hysterics of my disorder. I lost control to a wildly irrational delusion I have sometimes, one that demands my wife, my former therapist, & my ex-girlfriend have been teaming up all along to "bring me down." I was hallucinating their names in the lights at the hospital; I was convinced, at this point, that there were codes hidden around my room that could lead to the truth.
The following are posts I made on Facebook / Instagram over the next several days. While they are startling, they do speak to the truth of my experience last week, days filled with isolation, terror, & frustration. I wanted to archive them here as artifacts of my struggles with psychosis & depression:
I finally figured it out! My wife, my former therapist, & my ex-girlfriend have been manipulating my environment & my medicine for years, working together to cause me psychosis, grief, & eventual death. The messages are still being decoded, but rest assured, THE TRUTH IS COMING OUT. Soon as I get outta this hospital, I will get to the bottom of this further. I always suspected it, but NOW I KNOW. NO MORE TRUSTING.
THE BULLSHIT CONTINUES. My wife, who has refused to talk to mr for the last three months, called the local sheriff with a bogus suicide threat (I WAS ASLEEP). They had to bring me up here to the ER as a liability issue. I've been here for 5.5 hours, haven't eaten or had water all day, no one will tell me what's going on. A doctor came in, asked if I was suicidal (FOR THE LAST TIME, NO) and then told me that my mother called amd told them I was homicidal (WTF...NO). How is keeping a calm, responsive someone against their will alone & in a gown in a room all day helpful? How does attempting to force someone to admit to something untrue a step towards mental wellness? Y'all need to practice listening.
UPDATE TIME. Here's the truth about today. My soon-to-be ex-wife claimed to have received an email from me yesterday at 1 pm saying I was going to kill myself. Instead of doing the humane thing and immediately reaching out to me or my support system, she waited nearly an entire day and called the local sheriff late this morning. I have found no proof of this email in my records or recollection & no one has presented me with it, as requested. Still, the police had to take me in, I get that, for an evaluation (thanks, Jamie!). Being pulled out of my comfort zone, without my pills, dog, or food, I was understandably thrown into a stress-induced psychotic episode (see my first post). My mother, who is supposed to be my person, used that episode against me in an attempt to unnecessarily have me committed, lying to the hospital and not acknowledging my reality. Mind you, I haven't seen her in nearly a week & even in my spell I said nothing homicidal or suicidal. After eight hours, I was finally released by a compassionate therapist who saw that this unreasonable and unsettling day was the cause of all this mess (second post) (thanks, heroic stranger!). Finally, someone listened to the logic of the narrative and the voice of the ill instead of making assumptions. Now I'm back where I am safe, playing with the blurry pup and reading on the porch. Appreciate the open minds / ears (thanks for the ride home, Josh!).
I'M NOT SUICIDAL. I'M NOT HOMOCIDAL. I'm cripplingly lonely, having lost nearly everything I love to this two-pronged battle with depression & schizoaffective disorder. I can't teach anymore, or even work at all. I can't publish in the poetry community anymore because my episodes & symptoms were mischaracterized as those of an abusive alcoholic & saw me black-listed. I can't maintain regular relationships because I can't handle surprise or stress. These days, I can't do anything besides watch television, too mushed brain to read or write or collage; I can't go into public without severe shame and fear, afraid to disc golf or shoot hoops in case I have an episode. This, I've lost my physical health, grown fat and in constant pain. I've lost two wives, two of the best people ever. I've lost some great friends. I dont even have the energy to patch things up with my mother. Yes, I'm taking my medicine. I'm doing my therapy. But I'm still trapped under this great weight, cycling through psychosis & deep sadness. And it's terrifyingly lonely. And I just don't have any gusto to make it otherwise. This is my reality, I guess. Problem is, I just dont know how to navigate it.
I've said it before, many times, but let's repeat it for the thick skulls: the start to taking care of someone having a hard time is acknowledging / respecting their reality, not your reality or the reality you think they should see. My reality is that three months ago my wife left me & I was diagnosed with a life-altering psychological disorder within the same week. My reality is that I was abandoned by the person that promised to be by my side through this rough life journey. My reality is that the life expectancy of someone with my disorder is 15 years less than the average person. My reality is that my disorder is degenerative, making the prospect of holding a job & living alone very unlikely. My reality is that I struggle with paranoia that makes me connect dots & conspiracies & process emotions in irrational ways My reality is that I live daily with the fear & shame of hurting others or myself, of embarrassing myself, of being abandoned, that often it seems safer & easier to just retreat & push others away. My reality is that I am a secular humanist & a weirdo artist, the main frameworks through which I process the world. My reality is that I see no hope in living the "normal" life I crave. If you can't respect that, don't even bother trying to help someone; you will do more harm than good. As for me, I'm leaning into my reality, forming a new normal that supports the situation I've been handed, the situation I hate, but nonetheless must navigate.
Normally, I'm one of the most active, most social people I know. But each day, as this depression, coupled with the ongoing schizoaffective struggle, beats on, I feel myself becoming more scared, more lethargic, more isolated. Each broken promise or mishaped moment, be it to me or by me, chips away at my hope. Each step outside is coupled with immense fear of failure, great chance of shame. Frankly, I am paranoid that anyone I see, anything I do, will cause me to have an episode or a breakdown & back to the hospital to go. These posts, though important, require a ridiculous amount of energy & courage. This whole week, I've only went outside to be with the sweet fur buddies, the only creatures I trust to not leave me, to not judge me, to not throw me away. I appreciate all the compliments & well-wishes, but it is going to take real action to rebuild the confidence in myself & trust in others, necessary action I've yet to see a peep of, from myself or others. THAT'S JUST THE WAY THAT I FEEL.
Well, I don't like talkin' to myself
But someone's gotta say it, hell
I mean, things have not been going well
This time I think I finally fucked myself
You see, the life I live is sickening
I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion
Day to day, I'm neck and neck with giving in
I'm the same old wreck I've always been
(lyrics by David Berman)
Back in Indiana, in a sling but coronavirus-free (for now), I jibber-jabber about my recent trip to Texas, contemporary country music, my latest injury, the coronavirus, & much more on my podcast, DISPATCHES FROM ELSEWHERE. Below is the poem I read in the podcast (a wedding poem for my friends Alex & Ellis) & here is the link to my Contemporary Country Music Doesn't Have To Suck playlist I mention.
MY EMOTIONAL KOOZIE
I once signed my emails “Stay
Stoked, Tyler,” that second word
Birthed from the Dutch word “stoken”
Meaning “to feed a fire”
& mouthed first in its current
Connotation way back in 1965
To imply one is eager
As well as enthused, agog,
Geeked-up, hepped-up, hopped-up, hungry
& don’t you forget juiced, keen
Voracious, wild, raring-to-go.
Receivers often took it
As a command, but honestly
It was a sly reminder
To self to keep the fire--
It must stay lit, if it is
Ever to keep another
Warm. I have finally done it.
I have married & I now
End with “Your Buddy, T-GOB"
A gesture I wouldn’t utter
Without the courage announced
By the light of this one bond.
Fuel enough for any fire.
My wife deciphers each heave
Of my shoulders--one signals
A minor & soon-to-pass
Argument with the void
Or a neighbor. This other
One beckons the daily dance
With the dogs in the yard &
Yes, there is one announces
“I have certainly gone off
The deep end.” She will know it
When she sees it, like cicadas
Stuck in the crosshairs of time.
Like their shells, my own wedding
Vows voila’d to dust nearly
The moment sprung away from
This body, but of that dust
There is still the stuff promised
To be in the coming years.
In these years, the latest days
Of marriage, I’ve learned better
To choose what attention tunes.
When to stare at the butter
& when to listen closely
To the story connecting
The gap spans this countertop
Like stars or the outline of us
I etched in the hall mirror.
Self-consciousness, it is not
The knowing you exist, but
It is the awareness that
Others dare know you exist.
What a blessing another
Watches, is adding a log
To the fire. In its glow
Tonight I caught a fly,
Whispered to it, let it go.
I am over here cobbling an multi-disciplinary art submission, stitching together various assertions & high-spirited lunges about my aesthetic vision & artistic provisions, often culled from previous plops done here on this blog. For this week's post, I thought it useful to place it here.
Looking out at the juniper bush coughing through winter, my mind burps an old bit of Kenneth Koch’s poetry, an epigraph for my work heading into this new decade--“I have a knocking woodpecker in my heart and I think I have three souls / One for love one for poetry and one for acting out my insane self.” When new folks find out I am a poet, high-energy camo-clad hick that I am, they often present perplexed eyebrow-raising plus the question, “How did you become a poet?” It starts with peering, which, I have come to realize, is kind of a rural thing, “just looking at stuff,” as my dad says.
Many of my ancestors’ / elders’ activities promote the importance of seeing (& thus, pondering)--farming, fishing, hunting, porch-sitting, building stuff, etc. As a whippersnapper, I would ride atop a pillow in the passenger seat of my dad’s semi-truck to peek at what we were passing, what we passed over. He taught me at an unusually young age the difference between the solid yellow lines & its dotted brethren, a lesson that backfired, what with me stringing together calls of “don’t pass, don’t pass, don’t pass” with “okay, you can pass now” for hours on end.
I have always floated on a curiosity in how others witness the world & how to gain more perspective & further goodness out of my own living from such methods. My dad sees the world through the movement around him, be it from the perch of his eighteen-wheeler, his recliner, or his deer stand, & he compartmentalizes & retains it through humor & storytelling. My mother’s literal vision was “the worst non-legally blind person in town,” I remember the local optometrist once declared; where her eyes lacked, my mother’s spirit extends very strongly, passionately, with love & frustration, protestation & faith alike.
I am reminded of Donald Revell’s assertion that “[t]he poem’s trajectory is an eyebeam, not an outline.” It is not the linear construction of that vision, but rather how our natural selves go forth & bring back what is found. My good buddy, Toby, a person who is blind, utilizes sight words like “I saw this play” or “He looks really cute;” which jarred me at first, but through his perspective, I have come to appreciate the expanse of vision that life renders us. Regardless of our literal ability to see, each of us finds our own method of envisioning our world through our other senses, through our emotions, through the stories of others, & through our collecting mind.
My high school art teacher was the only person that ever gifted me a failing grade, & you know what, I deserved it, me over there trying to fake my way into a realistic conch shell. Thanks to The Surrealists & The New York School, I later learned the power of collage, both in words & in visuals--the cutting & pasting, the collecting & combining, the piecing & the puzzling. In life, I am forced to witness angles & visions, perspectives & delusions, otherwise left for the wind--what the subconscious throws, what the unconscious uncovers, what dreams deliver, & what my delusions skew. Thus, the gut of me is lined with work that is polyvocal, collage-like, & disjunctive, what some might call dissociative & what I call the manner in which I witness the world.
Today I woke with that feeling hovering over the skin, like maybe I’m living someone else’s life, which rather than depress or disrupt, rather injects an needy empath like me with a grave, kinetic urgency for each & every moment. Top of the list of small-but-distracting agitators today is the fact that I can’t find the envelope this spirit I inhabit has been stuffing with an assortment of poems & collages, along with a letter, this body I find myself inside had been itching to send Dean Young--this brain’s favorite poet & a former self’s grad school mentor. If I learned one thing from Dean (though the mountain of quotes & anecdotes I lug say much more knowledge I’ve surely acquired), it is that poems are not modes of communication (“poems are not a horn you blow your shit through,” I once remember him saying in class); if I have learned one thing from my vast times living in the middle of elsewhere, it is that letters certainly are.
Now comes flooding a memory of a letter Mary Ruefle sent to an old pal of mine, another influential poet I’ll leave unnamed though whose moments & verse are stitched here inevitably; she dusted the page with perfume & a small drawing, if memory concocts properly. “All poems are a form of hope” is what Dean Young declares in his latest. For me, the hope is in the future possibilities that the poem represents. The poet lives, has lived! Another poem will be written! I’m about to see something I’ve never seen, yay! That’s what the best poets insist in us, I think, even if they are in fact dead or a thousand miles away (real or perceived); luckily for us, like these new volumes & like the vigorous poems within, MR & DY are anything but dead!
Once I saw MR open a reading by demonstrating how to fold a fitted sheet. Once DY let me come over to his house so he could sign a copy of his book for my parents. It’s not what is communicated, what meaning might get made, etc. It’s about the grand possibility of the raddest gift of human consciousness--language.
In these two new books -- Solar Perplexus by Dean Young & Dunce by Mary Ruefle -- I found what I have come to expect from these personal Mt. Rushmore poets. DY is pushing the limits of contemporary poetic disjunctive & dysfunctional utterance through odes, occasional, & litany-laced poems, while MR is dancing in brevity & the anecdote as modes for reflective revelation. We find MR in continued conversation with the contemplatives, the Japanese poets. We find DY channeling the huge spirits of the lost bodies (Tomaz Salamun, James Tate, John Ashbery). Even in this check-marked expectation, there is a reverberating baffling quality of where those modes & meanderings lead.
Once DY wrote a poem called “Mary Ruefle Poem,” which she published in one of her books, & MR, likewise, wrote “Dean Young Poem,” which he plopped inside his own volume. In a recent interview at Neon Pajamas, MR recollected very simply this collaboration, “It was a lot of fun to do. It was like trying to channel him. I don't really remember. I loved the project, I love that we did it.” No extravagance, no nostalgia, no fabricating. The poems in her new book hark a similar herald, gluing plain memories & crisp language to the page. She reminds us in the power & difficulty of brevity.
DY, likewise, spins some smaller webs, among his normal page-and-a-halfers, but anywhichaway, these poems enact what DY has been preaching for years. Take this ending paragraph from a short 2005 essay in Poetry Magazine: “Poetry’s primary & perhaps only obligation is, through the manipulation of its materials, to express and discover forms of liberty, thereby maintaining the spirit through constantly renewed meanings. Its greatest task is not to solidify groups, is not to broadcast, but to foster a necessary privacy in which the imagination can flourish. Then we may have something to say to each other.” This chunk of his, fairly enough, could be its own review for each & every DY book.
I will be honest with you--I did not even know these two heroes had a new collection out till my buddy Brendan sent me a screenshot of a DY poem after he carried it home from a bookstore. “How embarrassing,” I thought / felt. But of course, these two might would say it is better this way. I do not attend poetry readings anymore. I live nearly two hours from the closest bookstore with a reasonable poetry selection. I have not spoken to a poet in person in months! Instead I have been clapping through the clutter of my grandpa’s nine decades, setting up this Future Barn for hopefully a few more. I have been walking the dogs across the family field. I have been reading & writing, hallucinating & cutting out, inventing & drowning in lots of words, both my own & others. Still, the joy these two poets have once again brought me is paramount to my continuing, obvious in my grinning. I couldn’t quit poetry if I tried, as it stitches together my hide.