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Archive for June, 2009

HappierWe often enhance happiness to the greatest extent when we pursue activities that provide us with meaning and pleasure and that help others.”  “Happier: Learn the Secrets to Daily Joy and Lasting Fulfillment” by Tal Ben-Shahar, Ph. D. 

I want to state, for the record, that I am no longer suicidal.  While there was a brief period of time when thoughts of taking my own life did occur to me, days when I did in fact lay in bed praying to God not to wake me up in the morning, those were, while perhaps not entirely, at least predominately, drug induced.  I say that lest you interpret my recent behavior as (covertly) suicidal.  

By recent behavior I mean that I spent the afternoon at an information session for the Prison University Project, a half day long meeting to explore the prospect of teaching college level courses to the inmates at San Quentin. 

Why, you ask, would anyone in their right mind (okay, so I’m off the hook right there) willingly place themselves into a real life episode of “OZ“? 

First of all, in my quest to manage my bipolarness without medication, I have discovered that one of the things I need to do is get out of my own head.  Let me clarify that, in case there is any misinterpretation; out of my head, not OFF with my head.  And secondly, I believe that one of the reasons I (and others like me) have such a hard time managing the disease is because we are incredibly self-centered, and not because we want to be.  We have to be.  The very nature of the disease demands that we spend the better portion of our lives trying to establish some mental equilibrium. 

By self-centered I don’t mean narcissistic, I mean we practice self-preservation.  What might appear to others as self-obsession, the constant monitoring of drugs, moods, circumstances, alternatives, of things we must do, or not do, are simply ways in which we try to maintain some sort of status quo that others simply take for granted. 

Anyway, why the Prison University Project?

  1. San Quentin is (practically) in my back yard, making it an easy commute, etc.
  2. If I’m going to volunteer my time, and if I’m going to commit to something on a long-term basis, it needs to be something that will both stimulate and challenge me.
  3. I like the fact the students are not only disadvantaged, but motivated.  The program is not easy (the students are held to the same academic standards as any other undergraduate student) and they participate freely in the program.  They want an education.
  4. I enjoy reading, writing, and teaching.  All of these things have made a huge difference in my life.  I was raised by a single mother on welfare.  I know what it’s like to be disadvantaged.  And I know what a difference knowledge and the ability to communicate effectively can make in a person’s life. 

I must admit that there is (was) a certain amount of terror associated with the idea of being locked behind bars, sitting next to a criminal (whose reason for incarceration is likely something I will never know) and being totally at the mercy of the prisoners and guards.  No weapons obviously with which to protect myself.  No contraband with which to negotiate.  But worse than that, no cell phone.  I panic if I have to drive five blocks to the grocery store and I don’t have the ability to communicate via satellite in case my car breaks down.  Having gotten so used to the ability to connect with someone anytime, anywhere, the thought of being untethered to my iPhone, its contact list and apps, is more frightening than the idea there’s a chance (regardless of how slight) that I might actually incur physical harm. 

I will tell you this; the information session was fascinating.  I fully intended to have the shit scared out of me in the way they do at skydiving class.  Before they let you jump out of a plane they spend a good hour or two telling you how dangerous it is.  “Are you sure you want to do this?”  But everything I heard today only made me want to participate even more.  I’d start tomorrow if they’d let me.

I felt good just sitting there, just knowing that the opportunity of assisting someone else in realizing their dream of education and a better life was available to me.  

I believe in education.  And I believe in second chances.  I dropped out of high school in my senior year.  A decade came and went before I earned my GED.  It took another two decades of enrolling in one or two classes a semester at community colleges and universities before I finally graduated (magna cum laude) with a bachelor’s degree.  Five years later (and thirty-five years after my early departure from high school) I earned a Master of Fine Arts degree.  

There are many who would have written me off.  In fact there were many who did.  Poor.  Product of a broken home.  High school dropout.  That is all they saw when they looked at me.  Let me tell you, those judgmental looks, those condescending comments by people who were often wealthy and educated (not always a sign of good breeding) did much to contribute to my low self-esteem. 

It took me a very long time, but I prevailed.  Living well, as they say, is the best revenge. 

Why have I chosen to share this with you?  Because of the warm, positive feeling that still flows through my body several hours after the information session ended.  The mere thought that I might be able to contribute, to give back to society, in a way that is meaningful to me, gives me hope that I have found yet another tool to put in my arsenal, another way to keep the depression at bay. 

I am not a particularly altruistic person.  Bipolar disorder has a way of making you feel like you are not even capable of contributing to your own wellbeing.  And while in theory I understand the concept of helping others, the occasional Thanksgiving Day spent serving up turkey and mashed potatoes at Glide Memorial Church never did much for me.  Never made me feel like I was making the world a better place. 

“…do something regularly to make a contribution to the larger good.  Based on what I know about depression…that means more than writing a check.  It means taking the trouble to get involved, on a personal level, in a way that challenges our comfort.” “Undoing Depression; What Therapy Doesn’t Teach You and Medication Can’t Give You,” by Richard O’Connor, Ph.D. 

I would say that teaching in a prison is likely to do both, contribute to the larger good, and challenge my comfort. 

Here’s to shaking things up, to stepping out of our comfort zones, and to doing good deeds.  If the reality feels half as good as the anticipation, I’m sold.

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Night Falls FastThe “wondrous tunneling” into the sun and subsequent falling back into the sea conjure an image of the dangerous relationship between exploration and recklessness.  Mania…is an aggressive and volatile state, but it is generative as well, an influential condition of contagious enthusiasms and energies.  The elements that in part define mania—fearlessness, a fast and broad scattering of thoughts, an expansiveness of moods and ideas, utter certainty, the taking of inadvisable risks—often carry with them the power to both destroy and to create.”   “Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide,” by Kay Redfield Jamison

Even though it’s June in Maui, the water is cold and dark, the beach all but deserted.  And while it’s a little late in the day for snorkeling, the sun having made its way west and begun its descent, I put on a pair of fins (but fail to tighten them after the last user) and place the mask over my face (the blue plastic air tube facing the wrong direction) and ease into the wet blackness.

Maui Four Seasons

Even though I’m a capable swimmer, the Darth Vader quality that my breath assumes as I inhale, exhale through the snorkel makes me anxious.  It is one of those rare times that I am completely aware of the connection between life and breath.  Floating there for a moment before heading off towards the reef, it is evident to me that this in-and-out of oxygen is the only thing keeping me alive.  It is as if “life” is something I can see as separate from myself, something borrowed, something on loan.  It is tangible, yet transient.

After swimming for a brief time I find myself levitating above a patch of uninhabited dark coral.  Well, maybe there’s an occasional Long Nose Butterfly or an Achilles Tang wandering past, muted by a lack of sunlight, but that’s all.  The lack of marine life in the area leaves me with only my heavy breathing and an eerie stillness to concentrate on.

In addition to my earlier mistakes in judgment (fins and snorkel,) I remove my mask because it is starting to make me claustrophobic and because it’s taken on some water.  There are two problems with this act.  First, I am in over my head, and second, I am unable to put the mask back on.  My repeated attempts to reinsert the mouthpiece only result in my ingesting large quantities of salt water.

As I struggle to reapply the mask, I take in more and more water.  I am gasping for air and as I do so I mange to inhale what seems like more fluid than oxygen.  It is then that one of my fins comes off.  Foolishly I reach for it, grasping it in my right hand, clutching it like a life preserver.  It occurs to me (rightly or wrongly) that no fin is better than one fin, so I remove the other and hold that one in the same hand with its mate.

By now I am hyperventilating, flailing, taking in more and more gulps of foul tasting seawater, which makes me even more anxious.  And heavier.  I go under once.  Twice.  I look off to the shore and spy my partner, virtually alone on the beach, reading in a deck chair, oblivious to my struggle.  He seems very far away.  And even though he was on the varsity swim team in high school, (if anyone can save me he can) that was years ago, and now he’s miles away, so I don’t hold out much hope for rescue.

I am in trouble.  I know that.  I am at death’s door.  I have never been more certain of anything in my life.   But I am resourceful.  Independent.  I try to float on my back while “swimming” backwards towards shore.  But I am in a riptide and no matter how much I move my arms and legs, I stay in the same spot.  No matter what I do I make no progress.  All my efforts simply result in my getting more and more exhausted and more and more anxious.  One more error in judgment that could prove to be fatal: I hang on to the fins in my right hand, seriously hindering my ability to swim in any direction.  I take in yet more water as my feet flail below me searching for something solid to light on.

At this moment things begin to slow down.  I am panicked, yet I am calm.  Death is near, I can feel it.  I know that I have gotten in over my head, this time quite literally.  Being bipolar, I am always doing that; spending too much, driving too fast, jumping out of planes, skiing faster than I should given my skill level.  But never before have I been so acutely aware of the consequences.

I am conscious that my mind is merely assessing the situation, not judging it.  “Okay, so this is happening.”

Having experienced suicidal thoughts as recently as six months ago, there is a part of me that wants to let go.  It’s quiet.  Peaceful.  The water gently rocks me, back and forth, back and forth.  I am anxious, panicked, but not especially frightened.  I could very easily take in a few more gulps of salty liquid and disappear below the surface.  When my partner looks up from his book and doesn’t see me he will not be surprised.  He will think I’m on other side of the reef, or that my profile, flat on the surface as I observe aquatic life, is just not visible from his spot on the beach.

I can’t say it was a conscious decision.  I can’t take responsibility for saving my own life.  But something, somehow, some force beyond my comprehension, caused me to cry out: HELP!

And again, HELP!  Off in the distance my partner looks in my direction, but makes no effort to get up.

HELP!  I can’t stop saying it now.  And yet it feels like a lost cause.

But there is a cost to crying out for help.  I have conceded.  I have given up.  I will be saved by someone else, or I will drown.  I know this.  At this point I am incapable of saving myself.  Once I committed my efforts to that option, all others came off the table.   There is not enough time for alternatives.

My partner slowly drifts towards the water, unsure if he hears me correctly, unsure if I am joking or not (we manic depressives inherently have a good sense of humor.)

As he dives into the water, my big toe briefly lights on a small outcropping of coral, just long enough for me to take in a breath or two of oxygen instead of saltwater.  I try to hover there but the gentle waves keep rocking me away from any safe footing.

My partner is on his way, but I am too far out and I have taken in too much water.  He’ll never make it.  And yet he does.  “Take my hand,” he says.  And I do.  And with only a few of my fingers curled around a few of his, he is able to swim backwards to shore, taking me with him.

And that was all there was to it.  That night at dinner at the Four Seasons, our table overlooking the very spot this all took place only a few hours earlier, we barely spoke of it.

And a month later I am not a changed person.  I had no epiphany.  No mad desire to live life to the fullest.  And I don’t know what that means.  Lately I’ve been reading a lot of blogs by writers questioning the meaning of life.  And I have never been more certain, because of this experience, that there is no meaning to life.  Any meaning we try to apply to it is merely our own ego trying to rationalize its own existence.  That doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy it, or do good while we’re here.  But searching for a reason for our own existence is as futile as trying to swim against the current.

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The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression

In depression, the meaninglessness of every enterprise and every emotion, the meaninglessness of life itself, becomes self-evident.  The only feeling left in this loveless state is insignificance.”  “The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression,” by Andrew Solomon 

 

It’s hard enough to make changes in your life when you’re motivated.  But what if you’re not?  What if life has lost all of its color and the future all of its promise?  

This mania thing is VERY confusing.  First of all, my mind is flooded with ideas.  They come faster than I can write them down.  Each one a gem.  Each one a brilliant, fascinating project sure to enlighten and engage. 

And then reality (or rather depression) sets in, and my furious notes for novels, short stories, classes, websites……all of these notes (dreams) seem like a waste of time and ink.  Just so much hubris.  

But the question remains, which one is the reality?  Which state, mania or depression, is the least delusional?  And is there a middle ground where most individuals live their lives, where both states are tempered with rational thought? 

It is the most disturbing thing of all to feel so passionately about something one minute only to feel ambivalent about it the next.  Or worse, feel that it was ludicrous, foolish, infantile. 

The problem is, when I am not manic or depressed (and I am usually some degree of either, or at the very least, attempting to resist the pull of one of those extremes,) I am acutely aware of what a waste of time anything is.  The very office in which I sit typing these words is a shrine to failed projects.  My own personal Lucille Ball Hall of Shame. 

And yet it’s hard to give anything up.  It’s hard to admit that “X” was a waste of time, that “Y” was a pipe dream, that “Z” is better left up to someone with the capacity to see something to fruition. 

Depression is passion’s absence.” “Against Depression,” by Peter D. Kramer 

When you are bipolar you have no perspective.  You are usually “functioning” (and I use the term loosely) in an altered state, so that it is difficult to judge the merit of anything.  Difficult to choose from one of a thousand ideas.  Difficult in general, to commit.

 

Company, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim

Blow out the candles…and make a wish.  Want something!  Want something!”  “Company,” music & lyrics by Stephen Sondheim 

 

But that’s just how I’m feeling today.  Check back next week and I just might have a different story to tell. 

 

A question for all of you rapid cyclers out there:  How do you deal with the cornucopia of ideas rushing at you?  And how do you get yourself to commit to finishing those that you do? 

As for myself, I know, in theory, that I can go the distance (having recently completed a MFA (master of fine art) program.)  But sitting here right now, it’s agony writing this post.   It seems so futile.  I am not passionate about it.  No, I am depressed.  So nothing has any meaning.  I feel like Dickens, scratching away, spewing out words merely to keep myself out of debtor’s prison.  

But perhaps that’s the beauty, the symmetry of it.  A post on apathy written apathetically.

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My Suicide

My Suicide

For some, suicide is a sudden act.  For others, it is a long-considered decision based on cumulative despair or dire circumstances.  And for many, it is both: a brash moment of action taken during a span of settled and suicidal hopelessness.”  Night Falls Fast: Understanding Suicide,” by Kay Redfield Jamison. 

A few weeks ago some friends invited me to watch a movie at the San Francisco Film Festival.  These are good friends that I don’t get to see very often, so I took them up on their offer.  I went even though the title of the movie, “My Suicide,” sounded like a rather unappealing way to spend a couple of hours on a Friday night.  But it had a good cast and friends of said friends had been involved in the making of the movie.  

Having recently been troubled with (drug induced) suicidal thoughts myself, I was both curious and reticent as I approached the box office.  The day had been cold and rainy, so when I sat down next to my friends in the balcony of the Kabuki Theater I was already damp and gloomy.  But I have to say that the movie engaged me right away, and even though the subject matter was depressing, the film wasn’t.  Perhaps it’s that “misery loves company” thing?  Perhaps it’s that seeing other people’s pain puts our own in perspective? 

The overall premise of the film is that a high school student enrolled in a film/video class has decided that for his major project (60% of his grade) he intends to commit suicide on camera.  Part homage to cult films (Matrix, Deer Hunter,) part MTV video, part Infomercial spoof, part animated comic novel, the movie was (is) interesting, entertaining, and thought provoking.  Even more so now, several weeks later with news of the death (assumed by some to be suicide) of actor David Carradine, who played a small, but important role in the film. 

I can’t speculate on why Mr. Carradine chose to take his own life, if it does in fact turn out to be suicide.  But I can speculate on suicide in general.  It doesn’t matter who you are or what you have, where you are or where you’re going, life sometimes just doesn’t seem worth living.   For those of us who suffer with mood disorders, every day we have to choose NOT to kill ourselves.  For others, it’s situational: the loss of a job, the death of a loved one, a major illness.  It really doesn’t seem to take much.  One seemingly insignificant (in the grand scheme of things) incident can push you over the edge. 

For some reason it seems that creative people (David Foster Wallace, Spalding Gray, John Kennedy Toole, Freddie Prinze, Margaux Hemmingway) are particularly at risk.  

It occurs to me that the downside to burning brightly is the risk of burning out. 

My condolences go out to Mr. Carradine’s family and friends.  I hope they take some small comfort in the role that he played in “My Suicide.”  It’s an important film and I encourage everyone to see it, especially if someone you know and love is at risk.  It’s important for anyone who may be suicidal to see it as it might give them a new perspective.  For all the others, it’s a powerful and accurate look into a state of mind you might not otherwise get to see or comprehend.

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