Archive for April, 2009



This is WaterIf you’re automatically sure that you know what reality is, and you are operating on your default setting, then you, like me, probably won’t consider possibilities that aren’t annoying and miserable. But if you really learn how to pay attention, then you will know there are other options. It will actually be within your power to experience a crowded, hot, slow, consumer-hell type situation as not only meaningful, but sacred, on fire with the same force that made the stars: love, fellowship, the mystical oneness of all things deep down. David Foster Wallace 

I’m a bit confused today.  Befuddled.  Perplexed. 

I settled down on the living room sofa this morning, dog on my right, coffee cup on my left, New York Times on my lap.  I read the Arts & Leisure section first, then Style, then Travel, and so on, as always, saving the Book Review for last. 

The scenario is the same every Sunday.  I read about Broadway openings I wish weren’t three thousand miles away.  I learn how to get by in Madrid on $1,000 a day.  And I discover another book or two that I want to, but never will have time to read. 

But today the Book Review ended with an essay by Tom Bissell, “Great and Terrible Truths,” about the 2005 Kenyon Commencement Address by David Foster Wallace.

This led me to the full transcript on Marginalia, which included the above quote. 

It seems strange to think that someone so gifted, so (relatively) young, and so capable of understanding the power of the mind, could take his own life. 

David Foster Wallace hanged himself on September 12, 2008.  And, if only to prove his point, “There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of,” the day that I read the report of his death I remember thinking, if Wallace, a successful and admired writer can succumb, what hope is there for me? 

I hate to admit that I had a similar thought this morning as I read his words about being able to train your mind to experience the world differently.  How could he speak with such conviction about the ability of the mind to rise above the circumstances and still put a noose around his neck?  How can I? 

But in fact, I do understand.  I do experience the dichotomy.  I do believe that I have the power to overcome my demons, but only during those moments when my demons have taken a brief respite. 

They’ll be back.  Both are real, the belief that I can be “master of my own domain,” and the fact that I am at the mercy of a mind compromised by genetics and further damaged by parents unable to nurture. 

The scariest thing is the conviction with which my mind can hold both thoughts.  I can conquer the world.  All is hopeless. 

Normally a quote like Mr. Wallace’s would refresh me, remind me of my strength, lift me up, if only momentarily—just long enough.  But today they are an eerie reminder that we are all standing on shaky ground.

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Operating InstructionsI am the piece of shit the world revolves around.” Anne Lamott, author of “Operating Instructions: A Journal of My Son’s First Year” and “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.” 

I was on the freeway yesterday, driving home, thinking about God knows what, or, perhaps trying NOT to think about God knows what, when my peripheral vision captured the image of a driver with blonde hair cruising past me in the slow lane.  The car I didn’t recognize, the hair was unmistakable.  It was Anne Lamott.  And as always, whenever I see her or hear her name, I am reminded of the above quote.  As someone who has been bipolar as long as he can remember (and long before it became fashionable (or profitable to the pharmaceutical companies)) I have had the distinct impression that I am both incompetent when it comes to handling even the simplest of tasks, and at the same time, fully capable of taking over the world.  At least my world.

Floored the first time I read it, I have since come to believe that it should be the bipolar slogan. 

Seeing her also reminded me of my first encounter with her, which was a reading of  “Operating Instructions,” and of my previous post on authenticity.  “Operating Instructions” was a revelation as well.  Long before everyone and their dog was publishing memoirs, and long before every last human being felt compelled to share their innermost thoughts with the world via the web and reality TV, Lamott dared to expose herself.  I can remember being both shocked and impressed when she wrote this about watching her infant son: “I look blearily over at him in the bassinet, and think, with great hostility, Oh, God, he’s raising his loathsome reptilian head again.” 

How horrible?  How honest?  How funny!  How refreshing! 

Bird by BirdA writer is at their best when s/he bleeds on the page, which is not an easy thing to do.  I attempt to do that here, but there is a fine line between sharing and dumping, between expressing and complaining.  What Lamott manages to do in that journal, and again in her follow up book on the craft of writing, “Bird by Bird,” is to open an artery. 

This all comes back to authenticity.  She is not afraid to be who she is.  She is not concerned about what we might think of her.  Whether she’s “selling out” writing a magazine article to make a buck, or confiding in us that her son, Sam “…is an awful baby,” she’s real, she’s herself. 

Who am I trying to be?  Who do I pretend to be so that others will like me, so that I’ll fit in?  Part of that is habit, from trying to present a “sane” front to the world, from trying to take control when I feel out of control.  Of course, sometimes we have to, to keep a job, to get a promotion, etc.  Or do we? 

How do you compromise yourself to get what you want?  And is it worth it?

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Once over the line, we can’t go back.  We “have” depression.  We can recover from episodes, we can modify our lifestyles to prevent or moderate future episodes, but we “have” depression.”Undoing Depression; What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You,” by Richard O’Connor, Ph.D. 

Mayo Clinic

“Bipolar disorder is a long-term condition that requires lifelong treatment, even during periods when you feel better. Treatments and drugs” by Mayo Clinic staff. 

After several web pages that define what bipolar is, that it “requires lifelong treatment,” the Mayo Clinic staff writers go on to say that “Recovery from bipolar disorder can take time,” if you “stay focused on your goals.”  How exactly does one recover from a lifelong illness?  They seem to be contradicting themselves here. 

The most disconcerting thing about their website is their attempt to address the issue of alternative medicine: Under the title, Alternative Medicine, the Mayo Clinic staff writes:

Some people with bipolar disorder turn to complementary…treatments to help manage symptoms, improve mood and reduce stress. These treatments may include prayer or spiritual healing, meditation, and vitamin and herbal supplements.”  

That is all they have to say on the matter.  They are almost dismissive in their insinuation that there might be alternative therapies to drugs.  While others may not have been “cured” of their disorder, there are certainly numerous enough cases out there of people who have tried yoga, acupuncture, SAMe and other holistic products and exercises, either separately or in conjunction with each other, and found some degree of success. 

I believe it is this blatant disregard for all things non-pharmaceutical, from clinics, from therapists, from traditional media, that keeps us both trapped and stigmatized. 

I would venture a guess that more money is spent by Coca-Cola and Banana Republic trying to figure out what motivates us psychologically to spend money on their sugar water and chinos, than is spent by all of the corporations and all of the labs combined searching for ways in which we can shift our thinking and alter our lifestyles so that the effects of mania and depression are, if not eliminated, significantly diminished.  

Our brightest minds should not be sentencing us to a life of pharmaceuticals (antidepressants mixed with antipsychotics, alternated with anti-seizure pills and mood stabilizers.)  For too many of us, pills don’t work.  And we only find this out through trial and error (each trial taking anywhere from one to three months) all the while suffering from the terrible side effects of each, and in some cases (my own included) suicidal thoughts. 

Read the blogs.  Do a search for bipolar/depression/suicide/mental health.  For every person typing away with glee that the latest in a series of medications has finally begun to give them some relief, there are ten or twenty others who can’t get out of bed, who are cutting themselves, who are quitting school, ending marriages, contemplating suicide.  For too long psychiatrists, psychopharmacologists, and pharmaceutical companies have held out false hope, and we bought it. 

What else have you got????

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Undoing DepressionMost depressed people are perfectionists.  We feel that if we don’t do a job perfectly, our entire self-esteem is endangered.  Often this leads to procrastination.  The job is never really begun; outright failure is avoided, but the depressive knows he’s let himself down.  Then again, depressed people want to make themselves over from the ground up: we want to lose thirty pounds, run five miles a day, quit smoking and drinking, get our work completely reorganized, and have time for relaxation and meditation.  It seems like there is so much to do that we never start...”        We have to learn that attaining more limited, realistic goals is much more satisfying than building castles in the air.” “Undoing Depression; What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You,” by Richard O’Connor, Ph.D. 

I’m not naïve enough to think that observing thoughts alone (how, what, when we think) can manage depression/bipolar disorder. 

What we need more than anything is a foundation.  We need to create a sense of stability that exists for most people, but rarely for the bipolar person.  There is no consistency in our thinking, in our way of being in the world or the way we react or respond to it.  We are more often than not, out of control.  Or more accurately, we feel out of control.  No one can “control” their emotions, but for the majority, that’s not a problem.  For the majority, there is a sort of equilibrium to their moods, usually some sense of cause and effect, at least where extremes are concerned.  But for the person with bipolar disorder, we are often dealing with extremes that seem to be out of our control, unpredictable, random and irrespective of existing circumstances. 

But how does one build a foundation when, as Dr. O’Connor suggests, we want to do everything at once? 

Personally, I can’t think of just one step.  I’m a perfectionist.  I’m impatient.  I want to start an exercise program, design and implement a new diet/meal plan, revamp my budget, write down my goals and priorities (along with deliverables,) find a new job, start a support group, locate an acupuncturist, practice yoga at least five times a week, start meditating daily…. 

The list of things goes on and on.  And yes, I get so overwhelmed with what I want to accomplish that I never start anything.  Just doing one of those things never seems to be enough, and doing all of them, “perfectly,” well, of course, that’s just impossible. 

And then there’s the track record hanging over my head.  Every time I want snap myself out of a depression I fall into that same thought pattern.  The idea of it, the mere thought that I CAN recreate myself, sends me into a manic phase.  But then reality hits and I realize that it can’t all be done at once, not everything implemented by tomorrow.  And then I remember that I have been down this road before and failed, miserably.  Why bother? 

Because I must.  Because there are no alternatives. 

First commitment: No self-medicating.  No more drinking and no more Ben & Jerry’s.

Second Commitment:  Get to the gym.  Even if I only do ten minutes on the treadmill.

Third Commitment: Diet.  Start eating regularly.  I often skip meals and then binge on junk food.  The result being mood shifts induced by dips in blood sugar.  (Like I need help with my mood shifts?) 

That’s it.  That’s all I have to do.  I don’t need to plan out an exercise program in detail, working my upper body one day and lower the next.  I don’t need to have a weekly menu laid out and scheduled that incorporates the perfect balance of fat/carbs/protein for each and every meal.  I just need to do something.  To be proactive.  To shift my thought process from victim to steward.  And, more importantly, I am not to attach failure or success to any of the outcomes.  I just need to begin living life more consciously and to take more responsibility for my complicity with the impact of this disease.

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For those of you that are forced to live or work with someone who is excessively, endlessly cheery, there is hope.

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Choose To Be HappyThe mind strives to keep everything just as it is and you and everybody around you just as they are.” “Choose to be Happy; The Craft and the Art of Living Beyond Anxiety,” by Swami Chetanananda

The mind likes the status quo. That’s a huge disadvantage for the person who suffers from mental illness. We become very good at deceiving ourselves. Of rationalizing our behavior.

I did it just the other day. Wanting a respite from the drag of my melancholy mood, exhausted from resisting it, even though I’m not trying to resist, I’m simply trying to observe it, I gave in to the idea of self-medication. For me that meant a trip to the grocery store for a bottle of Bombay Sapphire Gin and a pint of Ben & Jerry’s New York Super Fudge Chunk.

I felt guilty as I unpacked the contents of the shopping bag.  I knew what I was doing was wrong, but that didn’t make it any easier to stop.  While I only consumed one martini (a hint of vermouth and 2 olives) and (later) only one half of the (full sugar/full fat) pint of ice cream, that was enough to both ease the downward spiral, and compel me to promise never to do it again. The truth is, neither the alcohol nor the desert were very satisfying, and both will only result in depressing me more, cause me to be sluggish, and make me fatter which will of course make me even more depressed.  It’s a vicious cycle. The mind wanting to maintain the status quo.

When I read through my previous posts, I am struck by a sense of autonomy. Of detachment. As if the whole concept of living life more fully is simply a function of mind-over-matter, something that is well within my grasp if I just put forth a modicum of effort.  A delusion no doubt manufactured by the disease itself.  As I’ve said before, I’ve gotten good at depression. And that means accommodating it, rationalizing any and all behavior that allows me to get through the day with it. But all of those rationalizations have made me weak. Made the depression stronger. Allows it to over-ride my adult rational self, resulting in quick fixes instead of long-term solutions.

But I know better than to chastise myself for my behavior. That only leads to low self-esteem and more bad behavior. What I need to do is learn from it. Remember that a quick fix is no fix. Remember that there are other alternatives, even if one of them is wallowing in it until it passes. Because it will pass. But the destructive behavior that I engage in doesn’t. It becomes a habit, an excuse, a rationalization. It not only maintains the status quo, it reinforces it.

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Be Yourself…many of us assume that who we are is not good enough and therefore we’re constantly trying to fix ourselves, or to act like others who we think are better than us.”  Mike Robbins on the Huffington Post

There is often a disconnect between who we are, who we pretend to be, how others see us, how we see ourselves, how—well, you get the picture. 

How can we possibly “get well,” when we have so many selves? 

I believe that a major component of depression has to do with our belief that we are not good enough.  How can we feel good about ourselves when just getting out of bed in the morning is a major accomplishment?  How can we feel good about ourselves when the irritability we experience because of our bipolar disorder turns us into raving lunatics? 

I would bet that people who have cancer or diabetes don’t berate themselves for their disease.  Yet so often we scold ourselves as if our depression or mania is our fault.  We imagine our life would be better if only we had more discipline, if only we were more motivated, if only we worked harder, tried harder, studied longer. 

I think that so often we feel the need to pretend to be something other than we are, that we actually forget who we are.  But what if we didn’t?  What if we just showed up, in relationships, at work, in the grocery store, just as we are?  Happy.  Sad.  Irritated.  Confused.  What if, instead of denying who we are, we accepted who we are, no judgments, no criticism, and presented that self to the world?  How liberating would that be? 

Today I went to what I thought was a book signing, an author reading, the recitation of a few pages of his text.  What it turned out to be was so much more.  It was a revelation.  It was Mike Robbins giving a mini-seminar complete with exercises that included turning to the stranger seated next to us and sharing some deep, dark, personal secret.  Sort of. 

Personally, I am not a big fan of those.  In fact I hate those.  Neither am I a big fan of the trend to percolate everything down to ten rules or eight secrets or six lessons.  But, even though Mr. Robbins’ book includes “Five Principles for Being Your Authentic Self: 1) Know Yourself, 2) Transform Your Fear, 3) Express Yourself, 4) Be Bold, 5) Celebrate Who You Are,” I cut him some slack because of the overriding message.  Be authentic. 

And that gets to the very core of our thought process, of how we see ourselves.  If we are not being authentic it’s because we feel we have something to hide, or fear, or lose.  And when we feel that way, when we think that way, we empower our depression, we give it cause. 

Here’s to being who we are!

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