I find that people have two, dare I say, polar opposite reactions to my negative behavior, knowing my bipolar diagnosis. On one side you have the Raving Randys, the no-nuance gang of "all bad behavior is bad behavior, period" crowd. On the other side are the Understanding Olgas, the folks who contextualize my behavior within my sickness, "That's bad, but I see where it comes from." Contextualizing, over condemning or justifying. There is a crowd that wants to give me a pass for all my negative behavior, an unnecessary & dangerous proposition. I'll say something inappropriate or not show up for three days, totally not in a mood swing or bipolar episode, & they'll just decide, "Ah poor guy, free pass!" totally letting me off the hook for simply being an asshole.
Once, my parents, my ex-wife, & I were getting in the car to head to dinner. I had forgotten something inside, so I hopped back in to grab it. On my way out, I had some song in my head, so I started air-drumming. My mom leaves over to my ex-wife & says, "I can't tell when he's having one of his spells or if he's just being weird."
My buddy CM, a neurologist, said he learned in med school that many bipolar folks don't finish projects, too energized by their mania to focus or too bogged down by their depression to follow through. He noted my organizational skills. I think it is a copy skill, not a character trait. I have a trail of unbusinessed: all my jobs, two divorces (of what I would call good marriages), etc. I think it also relateds to me being "okay" at a bunch of things--drums, cooking, handyman stuff--never getting my 10,000 hours in to be great, mediocrity as a form of unfinished. Instead, I've made a practice of planning so that I don't get swirled up in my manic energy or sucked under the weight of depression. To put that energy to work, I must have a plan.
I relistened to John Lockley, sangoma (a kind of shaman) on You Made It Weird w/ Pete Holmes today. From the moment I heard this episode a couple of years ago, I felt a kinship to John's journey. Born in apartheid South Africa, he was a white guy drawn to the indigenous coulture, fiting in neither spiritually in his white culture nor racially in the tribe that later adopted him. He was very sick, lost in the dream world, ravaged by his unfulfilled calling as an emapth, a wounded healer, a sangoma. It is often how I feel in battling this bipolar disorder, stuck with all the traumas & feelings & confusions, both my own & others, & it literally makes me very ill. Right now, I'm focused on doing what he says, to connect to humanity, moving beyond just being a human. He says we must lead with our wounds. My illness, my losses, my connections to the dead--these are my wounds. How do I begin to be my sbest self with those at the forefront?
My view on my ex-wife D leaving has been shifting lately, as I process my grief, understand the dynamics better, & find hope in the future for the first time in a long time. Right now, I'm in awe of the bravery & commitment leaving took of her. Her house, her dog, her husband, her plans, she felt the danger grave enough to leave all that behind.
I've been realizing, at least with mental illness & mental health pitfalls, it is really hard to see how sick you are, make judgements & adjustments, & get better while you're in the midst of the sickness, which, I know, sounds like a hopeless statement. Simply, it is hard to tell how sick you are when you're sick. When I'm in extended episodes, I cannot see hwo irrational my choices are, hwo hurtful my actions are, how counterintuitive all of it is to getting well & feeling safe. Instead, it isa fake-out blur where everything I do seems right within the heightened moment. That's why, when stable, the thought of possible episodes & the recollection of previous ones is so scare & embarrassing. No one likes being out-of-control!
Meditation has proven itself a useful tool for dealing with my impulse control problems. Whenever I feel a charged action--argument, sexual activity, random purchase--coming on, I take a moment to find my break (my anchor) & start letting the thoughts sift. There, in that head space, I can view the impulse as an object separate of myself, able to decide if it is a positive or negative behavior in line with my values & needs.
Seven years ago, I felt on top of my own little world. I had just moved to the Big Cool City with my awesome girlfriend. My first poetry manuscript just got snatched up by one of my favorite small presses, & I was a few months from being accepted into my dream MFA program to study with my favorite poet. Also of that own little world was a secret that I’m still, these years later, only beginning to understand, to articulate: beginning in my late teens / early twenties, my inner life had become rampantly twisted with the dissociation, irrationality, unpredictability, & chaos I was being noted for capturing in my poems.
That spring, that psychological turmoil would intensify, leading to one of the ugliest periods of my life, actions & abuse that the aforementioned girlfriend chronicled a couple years later in an online essay, now missing from the internet. Since then, I admit I have continued to flounder, blowing opportunity after opportunity, ruining relationship after relationship, lost in a swirl of misdiagnosis, counterproductive medication, & increasingly volatile symptoms. In this last year, following another tumultuous winter of hurt & dischord, it has been revealed that I have been battling bipolar disorder all along (bipolar I, severe, with psychotic features, more specifically). The inexplicable mood swings, the memory loss, the paranoid & delusional behavior, the impulse control issues, the engulfing episodes: the picture is finally becoming clearer.
Still, I believe I must take responsibility for what my mind/body has done, does, is capable of doing, both good & bad. Many of you have been affected by similar moments, either first-hand or from others, of my switching, collapsing out of this normal-guy self into a persona fueld with unreasonableness, confusion, & sometimes, aggressive outbursts. Here I wanted to write, not to justify what has happened, to you or to others, but within the necessary contextualizing, to offer my remorse to you. I finally feel like I can speak properly to all that has happened, with me literally feeling like a different person than the person that hurt you, one properly diagnosed, medicated, & managed.
Over the last decade, in one way or another, because of my erratic behavior, I've lost you, the receivers of this letter. The big question for me now is how does forgiveness fit into this baffling predicament? I gained much wisdom from Robin L. Flanigan’s essay on BP Hope about bipolar & forgiveness, now on my own journey of learning to listen. Where once I wanted to write as a means to plead my case, I’ve come to the place where I can be here for you, your feelings, your questions, & your answers.
Flanigan’s other tips--to forgive oneself & to not overshare--have been other struggles I’ve been battling these last couple years, opting to record my frantic bipolar life in a public space in the face of self-harm & deep grief, as a means of accountability & forward momentum. It is why I keep this blog; it is why I have these conversations on my podcast. Please know these attempts to catalog my experience, process my thinking, & to reach out here aren’t intended to disrespect anyone’s experience or cause more pain.
I hope it can actually be about healing, in search of peace & security, a way of "coming to terms with things as they are," as Jon Kabat-Zinn defines it. In this effort towards openness about my struggles, my remorse, & my hopefulness, I am presenting myself to you now, all my baggage included. This is all to say: I see you. I know I’ve hurt you (&/or someone you love). I know I haven’t always handled this well. I’m truly sorry.
Please, let me know if you see a path to forgiveness, to closure. If you would like to have a private conversation, to receive a personal apology, I would be honored for that opportunity. If a public discussion feels more necessary, we can do that on the blog or the podcast as well. If you’d like to stick with the separation, I totally respect that & will leave you be from now on. Anywhichaway, out of respect for our past & the pain I’ve caused, I promise to continue to grow as a manager of my own dysfunction. I want to utilize these stable moments to be my best self; right now, this is how I know how.
With All The Love I Can Muster,
In terms of my episodes, when I’m feeling imbalanced & vulnerable, I’ve learned that my two main triggers are embarrassment & fear of abandonment, which is ironic, since my behavior historically has led to a high degree of both. My sometimes-bizarre symptoms--hypersexuality, erratic mood swings, physical outbursts--& mood episodes have pinned me to the memory of many friends & acquaintances as a fool, a nutbag, a psychopath, distinctions that flood me with self-consciousness & have stolen many worthy relationships. Regardless of whether or not I was in control or made the conscious choice to do those things is some useless debate; for better or for worse, this is me: 99% of the time a typical dude moving through the world with this ugly, mess, & destructive 1% tagging along.
When I texted my mom an article by Jule A. Fast, entitled “Three Bipolar Disorder Symptoms No One Wants To Talk About,” I added, “I’ve never felt so seen.” Really, I think I meant that I’ve never seen myself so clearly, as my three loudest symptoms happen to be the ones JAF calls out. These are the ones that create a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy with the abandonment & embarrassment. Both my divorces, the loss of numerous major friendships, my inability to hold a job, & my blacklisting from the poetry community can all be linked to these three symptoms. Thanks to this article, I feel validated & given permission to talk about them.
When my therapist SW read my ex-girlfriend LR’s essay, she said I see a very sick man in these words. My mom’s best friend, an LCSW, echoed that recently in response to my abuser essay, citing the manic nature of the violence, linked to both psychosis & memory loss, not a hunt for power & control, as the catalyst. The typical Midwestern boy-fighting never phased out the way it did for many of my peers; despite consistent counseling & much effort, my “black-outs,” as LR called them, took my body over, often leading to verbal & physical aggression. In her article, JAF admits to chasing down cars who flipped her off; I went through a phase of that in Austin, coming to mid-chase. Before I was managing my symptoms & noting my triggers, I was getting into shouting matches--with my partner, with friends, with strangers--once a week, often ending in me hitting a wall or other hard object, an ugly-but-necessary release of energy.
These violent tendencies were often nudged along by the second symptom noted, psychosis. These were the most baffling elements, at first very mild--errant sounds, whispering voices, paranoid delusions that never got off the ground. As my then-undiagnosed disorder progressed, they increased, intersecting & heightening my mood episodes. I didn’t know until last month that “[p]eople with bipolar disorder only have psychosis during a manic or depressed mood swing,” as JAF says. We see it all over my personal history--misreading another’s intentions as aggressive & disrespectful, becoming convinced that someone was out to get me, a cacophony of sounds literally drowning out my better judgement--but only in those times when my moods were off-kilter. Paired with increased irrationality, these psychotic elements escalated the situation to disastrous effects.
Then, in the aftermath, I am left alone with the guilt, embarrassment, & little or no memory of the situation, much like a black-out drunk. This is a frustrating one for me because I’m so high-functioning in other like areas, such as reading comprehension & direction-following; things I’m normally good at--listening, telling stories, etc.--become very difficult around & in episodes. I have physically harmed & emotionally traumatized two of the people I’ve loved most in this life, along with verbally & emotionally abusing many others I care about, & I have no recollection of those events, beyond their stories & the occasional dream. I cannot describe the heart-breaking & bewildering disconnect of this large regret-without-the-memory.
In the past, this memory loss has often been misconstrued as untrustworthy or not caring. I hope being up front about this stuff helps for the future. As Denise Mann points out in her article “Bipolar Disorder and Anger: Understanding & Getting Control of Irritability,” the key is becoming aware of the stressors, situations, & internal signs that open me up to these now-talked-about symptoms. I’ve accepted the fact that I’ll battle these possibilities all my life. What I won’t do anymore is stay silent about them, letting the surprise & fear dictate how I handle them.
How are we all not constantly asking for forgiveness? All day we're just walking around farting & cutting in line & dropping stuff & forgetting things & being rude. It's really quite shameful.
I've been having sleeping problems ever since a drunk friend of my parents, having found out I was having a tough mental health week, showed up randomly at my house, demanding to be let in right in the middle of an episode cycle. Her boundary breaking has left me very paranoid at night, prone to delusions & hallucinations. It takes me about ten to twelve hours to get a decent six hours of rest. I am trying a better evening routine--less late night food & electronics, evening meditation session, melatonin gummies--but there is an imbalance with my sense of safety. Reason number 14,763 why I miss living with DS: I hate sleeping alone.
I was relistening to Maria Bamford's incredible stand-up special from this year, Weakness is the Brand, & the last bit is about saturation point, a concept where emotions of a moment get too high, ensuring further escalation & possible damage if the person continues in the confrontation. I was thinking about how this relates to my anger outbursts. I erupt because I've hit that saturation point, much quicker & much more intensely than others, often without warning or obvious trigger. I have to be even more proactive & attentive. It is probably why I have a very low tolerance for bitching & bickering. I need to concentrate!
I had a long chat with a lawyer the other day about my appeal for disability benefits. In the wreck of fluoxetine hypomania, COVID sinking in, my new diagnosis, & DS's leaving, it felt impossible to work, to string together six to eight hour chunks without dangerous symptoms. Up till this week, I carried that feeling, which translated into the case he was going to build, that I couldn't hold a full-time job because of my disorder. Ultimately, I decided not to pursue the case, because white it might be true now, it certainly isn't the goal & doesn't seem like I'll be long-term disabled in that way. I'd rather put that effort into getting well, baby steps towards being my version of an independent adult.
I realized yesterday that I over-corrected intense emotions--anger, sadness, joy, fear--in response to their uncontrollable appearance in my bipolar episodes, almost banishing them from my "normal" life." I think a huge part of 2021 will be allowing these normal feelings back into my emotional range, building trust with myself to not fall captive to spells, going overboard.
I sleep in a twin bed now. My wife left & I couldn't stand that big California King. I am not a California King. I am just a lonesome Hoosier with too much bed. So, I just said, fuck it, & started sleeping in the twin bed in the spare room. My twin, in case you were wondering, is my grandpa, who died in this same bed a few months ago. But don't worry, I washed the sheets!
Sometimes I worry I've read too many poems to be a normal person!
Like I said in a previous essay, for the last seven years, I’ve been haunted by this question of whether or not I’m an abuser; like with my diagnosis, I have been reminded to focus on the causes & the symptoms, instead of dwelling on the label. This focus leads me to my relationship with anger, which is tied to the root of nearly all of my major episodes, not to mention its exhaustive strain on my day-to-day coping with bipolar disorder & the “normal” activities I’m attempting to engage with--having loving relationships, holding a job, being an artist. As Julie A. Fast reminds us several times in her blog post “Three Bipolar Disorder Symptoms No One Wants To Talk About,” the key to preventing the problematic symptoms she outlines--violence, psychosis, & memory loss--is to prevent the imbalance in the mood--“Prevent the mood swings, and you can prevent the dangerous, aggressive, and violent behavior.”
Let’s just say that I haven’t been very good at that, raised as a young boy in the Midwest, constantly hearing “don’t start a fight, but finish it;” until my mid-20’s, I just assumed everyone fought demons & short fuses like me, that they were just better at hiding it. I never realized until this year that my bipolar anger is a completely different explosive than typical anger, one with much different triggers, presentations, & ramifications. Even now, I have trouble differentiating between what were the bipolar symptoms & what were the results of me being immature or a butthead, when looking back on some of the outbursts of my childhood. One thing is clear: I’ve had a long history of uncontrollable aggressive responses to frustration, disrespect, & agitation, a real collection of owlshit outbursts, if you will.
I remember the first time I was told I had an anger problem. It was after the premonitions, where just the day before both my grandmother & my uncle died, in back-to-back years, I became panicked about their safety & suggested something might be wrong. I remember being more confrontational with my peers, acting out more with my parents, & genuinely being inconsolable. These fits were the result of overwhelming grief & creepy confusion, as well as possible early signs of bipolar disorder. Still, it is striking that the one thing I remember from the therapy I received from my school counselor was that it was “the devil working inside you.” Not helpful advice, but it is the in to the anger problems that would consume me in my teens & twenties.
Years after they actually happened, I heard two stories about myself, both involving what I would’ve considered my best friend at the time & me reacting irrationally & inexplicably aggressive towards each of them. Early on in my eighth grade year, I became friends with this older kid EF. He was a bit of a punk, so my parents didn’t much like me hanging out with them. One day we were at my house shooting soda pop cans with my bb gun. We got into an argument about something & that is as much as I can remember. My memory picks back up with me standing on the porch holding the bb gun, EF nowhere to be found. The next day at school, where we normally hung out in the hallway between his high school & my middle school, he was still nowhere to be found.
As the days trickled on, I began to hear a rumor about myself, that something happened with the bb gun. Some say I shot him; others say he attacked me & I hit him with the stock. Again, I have no recollection of this, but I didn’t have the language to admit this or understand why I can’t remember. I just didn’t talk to him for years & the rumors quickly dissipated. A few years later, when we were both in high school, we found ourselves at the same lunch table. I was finally able to muster up the courage to ask him about that fight. He told me what I feared all along, what I knew deep in my gut: I had gotten furious at him because of a minor off-handed comment, shot him several times with the bb gun, & he retreated.
A year or two later, I had a similar incident where a simple hang-out with a best bud went awry. ZH & I were up at the campground with my parents, like we were most weekends. He said something minor & I threw a golf ball I was holding, pelting him in the arm. Here’s where it gets weird, another symptom--mood swings--coming into clearer focus: I simply walked away, went into the camper, took a shower, & returned to ZH in a chipper mood, as if nothing had happened. This sequence became the pattern--quick switch, contained violent act, amnesia, mood swing back to positive.
It is in that succession that presented myself very clearly in Gabe Howard’s article, “The Difference Between Anger and Bipolar Anger.” What always felt frustrating & out of my control was the switch, unable to predict; what always felt dangerous & guilt-ridden were the manifestations of the symptoms from Fast’s article--the delusional mood swings, the violent release, the loss of time. As Howard points out, anger, in general, connects to fight or flight, letting us know there is danger & forcing us to have a response to fear. Problem with bipolar anger, as Howard says, is that “there is no clear reason for the anger and no clear way to defuse it.”
It is the switch, as my ex-wife DS labeled it. It has been described to me many times. Some saw it in the flash of my eyes, the twinkle gone, replaced with a pinpoint rage. Some saw it in my panicked confusion--the slurred speech, the hyperactive body, the sky-rocketing irritability. Most said they couldn’t even notice it quick enough, before the surge overtook me, the situation, &, too often, themselves. A couple falls ago, the mania dial turned way up by an over-presciption of an anti-depressant, my ex-wife & I were playing with the dogs in the yard when suddenly one of the dog got too close with a stick, bloodying DS’s nose. I remember the blood & then the next thing I remember is waking flat on the hardwood floor, as I often do after major anger-driven episodes.
For many reasons, I wish my wife had stuck around, or at least maintained contact; here, selfishingly, I need her to help me remember these stories. I promise I’m doing my best. Anyhow, I had apparently starting stomping at & chasing the dogs & screaming, “I DON’T LIKE BLOOD” (never had a problem with blood). I locked DS & the dogs outside & passed out on the floor. In my case, as I shuffle through examples, these stories retold to me by others & attempted to be kept by me, I recognize that “what is angering a person has been distorted or “imagined” entirely,”as Howard notes, sometimes able to be recognized afterwards, sometimes not at all. Example after example bleep out this way: the switch flipped & no one, including me, could pinpoint why, the response very irrational & overblown.
Yesterday on my daily walk with Ginny Bug across the family field I noticed this bright streak in the sky. I texted my conspiracy-willing friend JL; his three-year-old daughter said it was an angel. Then I saw six or seven more farther off down the horizon. I called my dad. He said they were probably just airplanes. JL texted me a website wehre you can track planes flying over your area. They were planes, but they still might also be angels.
Following the last week-and-a-half's grief fest, spiraling in & out of bipolar spells, I've been putting my now-manic energy toward reshaping this house, my routine, my life to fit one, me. It was intended, built, for two, but that is no longer so. Thus, it is necessary that each item, each choice, each plan is for me, not DS & I. Funny how the fact of her leaving isn't enough to make it such.
I read an article today about anxiety in bipolar folks. It separated anxiety as a symptom & anxiety as a coexisting condition. It seems my anxiety is a symptom of my bipolar disorder since it surfaces as irritability in stressful moments only during mood episodes.
I finally had to get rid of the dining table chairs DS reupholstered because every time someone would come over they'd say, "Wow, those chairs are cool," & I'd tell the story of DS teaching herself that skill. They'd leave & I'd sit in one of those chairs alone & cry. Even when I posted them on Facebook to get rid of, a bunch of people commented about how awesome those chairs were. Fuck!
My friend JC, since finding out of this recent pitfall, she texts every afternoon, "How are you doing today, friend?" I'm a little surprised I don't find it annoying; rather, it is very touching, a part of my mindfulness routine, a moment where I must turn awareness inward, "Yeah, how am I doing today?"
The most impactful interpersonal key might be to honor another's perception of reality, regardless of whether or not it aligns with my own or the true sense of nature. Think I disrespected or hurt you? I'm sorry. Feel that your life is in the dumps, or that the world is against you? What a terrible burden to carry. How can I help to alleviate some of that pressure? See bugs crawling all over you or a ghost in the corner of the room? Whoa, scary, let's get that taken care of!
I was talking to SJ the other night about my intense commitment to reason & rationality. I want to be as grounded & reasonable as possible in my life, full reliant on knowledge, information, & processing, as the hallmark of my life. I think it stems from my reaction to my bipolar disorder--an illness whose episodes strip me of all rationality & reasonableness. How emotional, how confused, how ignorant I can easily become is embarrassing at best & deadly at worst. Thus, when I can control it, can make my choices align with my values, I want to do so.
“But what if I'm like a flag factory, that only manufactures giant red flags?” - Maria Bamford
When someone leaves someone for a reason later explained, does anyone hear it? What if I’ve been shouting “You’re making a huge mistake” at the wall since I was nine? Can a family lineage can be any number of things? A particular number of divorces? The ancestral index to fight/flight? Has it ever felt like one moment you’re looking through the magnifying glass & the next you’re the dead bug on the windshield of the Toyota Yaris heading west? What is a dealbreaker for you? Do you put more emphasis on the diagnosis or the symptoms? Is it this simple? What if neither of us committed to me getting better? Have you ever heard of Jonathan Haidt? Do you know what he told us about the social intuitionist model -- intuitions first, strategic reasoning second? Do you remember the Glauconian model -- appearance more important than reality? Where are you coming from? Can we add “I’m doing what’s best for you” to the Mount Rushmore of Bullshit? If your partner is ill, how long do you wait for them to get better & under what conditions? What are warning signs coming from the other end? What are signs a partner might quit on you? What if I told you she said she wouldn’t date someone with a disability, would leave a partner who was transgender? What would others think of me for saving this? What would others think of me for leaving this? What is with all this “conscious uncoupling hoopla” anyhow? Who would’ve chosen “live apart as some weird special marriage” rather than this void? Does it sound weird coming out of my mouth, “I believe in vows?” Is a mental illness a life sentence? Is mishandling a mental illness a life sentence? How about twice? “Haven’t we all been punished enough?” When someone gives up on you, doesn’t it feel like the world has been given permission to do the same?
I wish I would’ve written a blog post about this thing I’m calling hick mindfulness, rural folks’ ability to sit with their thoughts & come out the other side with something better to say, to do. I saw it in my father growing up, emphasis put not on the things done, but rather value stemming from what was witnessed. He was a truck-driver before satellite radio & podcasts; he is a deer hunter, spending long cold morns trying not to shiver up in the treestand; he is a fisherman, a believer in the stillness of the water. He would come back more alert, more engaged with whatever the rest of his day held--projects around the house, playing with me. Those activities contributed to his even demeanor, his avoidance of some problems I’ve had--overtaken by extreme emotions, attention not on observing the world but rather on the story of self I play in my mind, easily imbalanced groundedness. In the way I’m utilizing a daily mindfulness meditation practice to learn how to be present, accepting of both joy & stress, suffering & triumph, I believe he learned it from sitting still, alone, doing his hickish duties & hobbies, similar to my grandfather quietly whistling to himself on the tractor in my memory. As Sam Harris reminds us, the process is the life & it’d be really great to be present for it.
I wish I would’ve written a blog post about my neediness, how it both relates to my bipolar disorder--a fear of abandonment is common in bipolar folks--& separates itself as just a nagging human quirk. When I was a child, my parents had to put a limit on how many times a day I asked, “Are you okay?” or “Are you mad at me?” In my marriage, much of my bipolar behavior understandably scared the shit out of DS, but undoubtedly she knew I loved her: I told her several dozen times a day. This would relate to the boundary issues & impulse control problems related to bipolar disorder, such as my hypersexuality & my attention-seeking behaviors. I feel haunted by this fear of being forgotten & often, I overcorrect to the point of driving people away.
I wish I would’ve written a blog post about how much language matters. We see it all over our culture--in response to Black Lives Matter, when discussing big topics like politics & religion, in the spin of the day’s headlines--language being used, both purposefully & ignorantly, to twist & deflect, to undermine or to willfully continue to not understand the problem or situation at hand. In mental health, it is so important to protect the words we have--diagnosis, symptoms, treatment--while also respecting the efforts to even better pinpoint what’s happening. I am thinking of a meme’d tweet that says stuff like “stop saying OCD when you mean organized” & “stop saying bipolar when you mean moody.” While I am all for playful, experimental uses of language, I am also against lazy conflation & unhelpful correlations. Let’s say it the best we can, so we can get it right in practice.
TIPS FROM THERAPY
I wish I would’ve written a blog post about tips I’ve learned in therapy that help me in my everyday life. Like the five-senses grounding technique, where you cycle through each of the senses, naming something you can see, something you can taste, etc. as many times as needed until you’re back grounded in your body. Like thinking errors, how important it is to recognize irrational and unreasonable thought patterns; for me, it is catastrophizing & self-fulfilling prophecy that do a number on my psychology. Like the importance of having a schedule / routine, how creating a structure to live within, especially when one is not working or is COVID-bound, both to occupy time productively & support the arising needs. Like asking yourself important questions when the blood boils or shivers, how I ask myself, in the face of obsession or a mood swing, before it gets bad, I ask myself, “Will this matter in a year?” If not, I let it go (or try!).
PHYSICAL HARM PARANOIA
I wish I would’ve written a blog post about my paranoid tendency to expect physical harm. Even though I’ve suffered very little physical harm in my life, since my early teen years, I’ve walked around tense, constantly anticipating an attack or a whack. I imagine mobs coming to my door to take me away. I imagine robbers leaping from bushes to stab me for my wallet. I imagine the slightest argument escalating into physical violence. But why? Where does irrational thinking become delusion? It is no wonder that, in the past, since I was physically on edge constantly, my readied responses were often aggressive & over-the-top; my situation had already been escalating, my reaction mounted, regardless of the actual catalyst.
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.