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The Sting of Stigma

Coming out of the closet as a gay man is one thing. Coming out as someone living with Bipolar Disorder is a whole other ballgame. I like to view myself as an invisible minority because most of the time my mental illness is not obvious, at least as far as I can tell. I go to grad school, getting an MFA in creative writing. I help take care of my cousin who is handicapped, and I have a pretty good life with two companion animals, an Akita and Beagle.

Recently, I started dating, and in an effort to be honest, I shared with him my struggles with Manic-Depression. I’ve had long periods of remission where I functioned without any hospitalizations, but in mid-October, and through November, I had a breakdown and my psychiatrist and I together made a decision to try ECT–ElectroConvulsive Therapy, in an effort to stave off future hospitalizations. For those not familiar with the lingo, ECT basically induces a seizure in your brain, and I had this done a total of six times. According to online websites talking about the procedure, it in effect “reboots” your brain, and is quite effective in arresting symptoms.

The guy I had started dating in late January/early February met me two or so months after I had gotten back to a normal routine, but the possibility of my having another breakdown at some point in the future scared him. Just admitting I live with Bipolar Disorder proved too much for him to handle, and though I appreciated his honesty in letting me know that this issue was bothersome, it took me by surprise that this would be a deal breaker. I don’t see myself as a “crazy” person. I live a more or less normal life, punctuated, however, by a need to take Lythium, Risperdal, Cymbalta, and Clozaril.

I need to make sure I get enough sleep, exercise regularly, and challenge myself intellectually so as not to wallow in depression. Going to Northwestern is a lifesaver because it provides focus and drive to my ambitions to be a published author someday, and it gives me much needed structure.

Having said all that, I must confess that being rejected for having Bipolar Disorder stung, almost more than if I had been rejected for having HIV (which I don’t). My mental illness is just one small part of who I am, but it wouldn’t have hurt any more if I he had told me that he doesn’t date black men, or Asians or Jewish guys. I feel, perhaps incorrectly, discriminated against for something beyond my control, and I feel the sting of prejudice.

I like to consider, like Kay Redfield Jamison in “Touched With Fire: Manic-Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament,” that my mental illness fuels my creativity. It is something I can marshall and summon to work for me, not against me. There remains, however, the possibility that it might sometime betray me, but on the whole, most often, I am glad to be who I am, glad for the gifts God has given me, and glad for the chance to leave the world a better place for my having been in it.

Our kin, our relatives and those closest to us, profoundly influence the person we become. It takes a concerted, ongoing effort to determine our own destiny. As much as we celebrate in America the idea of the “self-made man,” the Ayn Rand ideal of the man who is architect of all he surveys, the reality is often quite different, even for those of us used to enormous liberties, and it it this indeed that makes Svetlana Alliluyeva’s story even more poignant.

As the daughter of Joseph Stalin, a man who renamed a city after himself, Svetlana became the Cold War’s most famous defector, choosing the freedom America offered over the privileges of the Communist Party elite in the Soviet Union. She took her mother’s last name rather than associate herself with her father, but her story is riddled with tragedy, not the least of which was the suicide of her mother. Apparently, Svetlana’s mother had once drawn a tattoo of a black square over her heart, and, as the March 31st issue of the New Yorker tells, her mother told her, “This is where the soul is,” and it was in that spot she shot herself. Nothing like making a determined effort to kill your own soul, to completely obliterate yourself.

Svetlana left behind her children in her effort to entirely remake herself, and though she became famous at first, it was a fleeting fame formed by two books she wrote shortly after defecting. After that, she faded into relative obscurity, and ended up living rather anonymously in a nursing home in Wisconsin. She gave up a lot for the freedoms of the west, but it cost her greatly also. As she herself said to the journalist who interviewed her for the New Yorker, “You are not alone–everyone who talked to me here in USA–looked at me ONLY through this prism: my father’s life.” It begs the question as to when we truly start living for ourselves.

We take for granted that we are responsible for our actions and that our actions determine who we become, yet in Svetlana’s case so much of her world was colored by the actions of her father.


Truth or fiction?

Originally posted on 101 Books:

You’ve seen the chain emails and the Facebook posts that spread urban legends and myth like they are truth.

Maybe your crazy Tea Party Aunt posts something like “Barack Obama is actually a Pakistani Muslim working undercover for the Pakistani government!!!” Then she’ll link to some whacked-out conspiracy theory site. Doesn’t that stuff just drive you crazy?

Well, it drives me crazy. And the literary world is no stranger to conspiracy theory, myth and urban legend. So I thought I’d use our old friends at Snopes and a few other sites to compile some literary myths in this post.

Here’s some of the better ones that I could find.

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Wreckage of the Past

One thing about being in recovery from either drugs or alcohol is that eventually you must face the wreckage of the past. In practicing the twelve steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, step nine tells addicts to make direct amends whenever possible, except when to do so would further injure others.

Just last week I saw a wonderful play at the Court theater, “Water By The Spoonful,” winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Drama, by Quiara Alegria Hudes, about addiction, efforts at recovery, and the terrible price of addiction on those who surround the alcoholic or addict. The play was especially timely, given the unfortunate, unexpected relapse and death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman who got sober at age 22, spent 23 years in recovery, but sadly relapsed, overdosed, and died. Aaron Sorkin commented on Hoffman’s death in Time magazine: “He died because he was an addict on a day of the week with a y in it.”

Sometimes the best you can do in recovery when facing the wreckage of the past is to make a living amends, reform your life, stay sober “a day at a time,” and attempt to find a more spiritual way of living. Now that I’m coming up on seven years without a drink, there’s a slight tendency for me to whitewash my drinking years. It feels like the life of a different person, a person who dreamed of doing things, who dreamt of being creative, but never actually sat down to write, a person who wanted to live life fully, but lived a shadow life, using alcohol as medicine to drown out feelings of inadequacy, a sense that I just didn’t measure up and that I wasn’t really living life.

In “Water By The Spoonful,” one of the main characters, Elliot Ortiz, can’t forgive his mother Odessa for the years she spent using drugs and alcohol. The title comes from an incident in his childhood in Philadelphia where she, in the throes of addiction, took him and his sister to the ER when they had the flu and was sent home with the instructions to give the two kids a spoonful of water every five minutes to prevent dehydration, but she failed in her job and his sister ended up dying. Elliot’s aunt ends up raising him, and his mother does indeed get clean and sober, but he can’t forgive her. She ends up getting a job as a janitor (highly symbolic), and during her free time monitors an online site dedicated to helping crack addicts beat their addiction. Unfortunately, not only can’t Elliot forgive his mother, she can’t forgive herself, and it’s this inability to cope with the wreckage of the past that comes back to haunt her and threatens her sobriety in a vulnerable moment.

I think the lesson is that we must reconcile ourselves to the life we have lived, and we must forgive ourselves if we are to move forward and change our future from our past. I’ve been told that insanity is doing the same things over and over and expecting different results. The reality remains that we recover a day at a time, and for me, recovery means that I write–good or bad, the words accumulate a page at a time.

City Boy

Are you a city mouse or a country mouse?

A tale of old originally titled, The Town and Country Mouse, as part of Aesop’s Fables, the story tells of a proud city mouse who visits his cousin in the country and then scoffs at the simple meal his country cousin prepares so the more extravagant city mouse in turn invites his compatriot to come to see big city life. The country mouse takes him up on his offer, but during their opulent meal, they must scurry for safety when dogs invade their digs, and each mouse, I believe, determines that he is the more fortunate of the two. Neither envies the other’s circumstances.

I myself just got back late last night from seeing a play in the city with my friend Rosie. While the drive home took only an hour and a half, the drive into Chicago took nearly three hours, and though I listened to an audiobook most of the way, I still found myself cursing my distance from the city. There’s always been a kind of divide between my friends who are city dwellers and suburbanites. I happen to be an ex-city dweller, and have lived on both the north side and south side of Chicago. The city, I have found, is very neighborhood-specific, and as a Chicagoan, you also feel a sense of pride and belonging that differs, in part, based on whether you live in Hyde Park, are a South Sider, or live on the north side in Andersonville, Edgewater, Wrigleyville, East Lakeview, Rogers Park, or any of the many other neighborhoods. Of course there are many more neighborhoods, neighborhoods peopled with Polish or Irish or Mexicans, and a lot of your identity can be determined based on where you live. I also think I had a sense that I was more hip and urbane, somehow more current and relevant, and that I was living life more audaciously when I was a Chicagoan proper.

Now I live in the far western suburbs, and though I grumble at the distance into the city, I don’t think I would trade my sense of increased space, or the greater sense of peace and well-being I have now. I feel more able to spread out, walk around my three bedroom ranch house–even if I’m only pacing when trying to come up with a story idea or simply to glance through my book collection as I look for a book I’ve misplaced–or leisurely walk my Beagle and Akita around my neighborhood.

It was great fun, back in the day, to pack a towel and swimsuit, and take the El train north to Hollywood Beach to lay out on the sand, great fun to head to the Music Box theater to see the latest art house film, great fun to check out the latest ethnic restaurant, and I have to confess, now it’s much more of a trek to plan a day in the city, but I don’t feel nearly as claustrophobic and cramped as I used to feel. One time, while living in the city, I was even broken into, although the rather inept robber quickly scanned the studio apartment and stole the VCR (this was back in the day before DVD players took over), leaving behind my fairly new laptop computer. The police suspected it was a drug addict who wanted to quickly fence something to fuel his drug habit.

For many years, as a Chicagoan, I didn’t have a car, and had to walk everywhere, or take the El, and I used to think myself somehow superior to suburbanites, simply because I felt closer to the pulse of life back then. Now life is perhaps more measured, lived with a greater deliberateness, but I wouldn’t trade the sense of peace I feel. I always felt vaguely frantic and rushed as a city boy in a way that I no longer feel hurried.

It makes sense to me to get up on a Sunday morning, pour a cup of coffee, and read the Sunday paper or the New Yorker magazine. I can still always head into the city when I want, but city life doesn’t dictate my very essence.

Butch It Up!

A disclaimer: I live in a small town, a town so small that until quite recently it was considered a village. Our town is nestled about an hour west of Chicago, and people have chosen to live here for various and sundry reasons, including its proximity to a major metropolitan area as well as for some citizens, the advantages of being in a small town where everyone knows your name.

I am part of a library book club, and have made friends that way, but recently went to check out a mens’ group at my local Catholic Church. I made sure, when I walked in the door, to drop my voice into a gravelly hyper-masculine tone and monitored my mannerisms. It occurred to me that I was seeking to “pass” as straight in much the same way that in the not-too-distant past some light-skinned African-Americans may have sought to “pass” as white. Why the good opinion of strangers mattered so much to me remains a mystery?

Being both Catholic and gay poses certain challenges. Until quite recently, the position of the church seemed to be something along the lines that having a gay sexual orientation in itself was not sinful, but that acting on it was, an untenable position, if ever there was. Our new pope, however, Pope Francis I, has made public declarations about homosexuality, saying, “Gay people should not be marginalized,” and, going further, “When someone is gay and seeks the Lord, who am I to judge him?”

The problem with the meeting was more than me merely feeling judged. A good forty-five minutes was spent discussing how to snare new members rather than focusing on the spiritual needs of the thirteen of us present. The guys had a lengthy discussion as to how a significant monetary donation to help high school students do service work projects during their spring break would raise the visibility of the mens’ group and attract new members. Everything revolved around getting more butts in the seats, and it certainly seemed to help if you happened to have discretionary income to donate to those causes the mens’ group deemed worthy. Though they appeared friendly to me as a newcomer, I found myself wondering how welcoming they would be if they knew for sure I was gay? A lie by omission is still a lie. I kept thinking of the old song played during the Sesame Street skit: “One of these things is not like the other.”

In the future, I suspect I will go where I feel I can fully be myself, where I can date a man without feeling liking I’m sinning simply by being who I am. In my mind, I think we Catholics would benefit not by concentrating on our sinfulness, but rather by focusing on leading more spiritually centered lives.

The Eros of Attraction

I’ve been playing a song a lot on ITunes recently, a song called “Happy,” by Pharrell Williams. I’ve met someone new, and perhaps what I really should be listening to is Liza Minnelli singing, “Maybe This Time,” but even I have to admit that grown up romance feels far different than those long gone youthful dalliances. The rush, urgency, and yes, even desperation of young love no longer dictate my approach to love. Having a romantic relationship now isn’t the same as when I was in my 20′s.

I realize I need to be careful what narrative I tell myself about the possibility of romance blossoming. If I am jaded and cynical, I believe I’m far less likely to attract a worthwhile person into my life. I also don’t want a toss away, meaningless experience. I want to draw a great guy into my life.

Having said that, it occurred to me that eros still rules me, more than I’d like to admit. Luckily, this new guy is very handsome, but nevertheless there’s still something about the attention of a stranger that inevitably draws me in.

Patrick and I headed into the city to walk around the gay neighborhood, catch an art film, and go to dinner where we could be comfortable, rather than self conscious, about being ourselves. We stopped into a Starbucks, simply to use the bathroom, and suddenly, a stranger glanced up, staring into my eyes, and I could feel the electricity between us humming like a tea kettle. Something about the attention of a total stranger is a turn on. Flirting is a turn on.

In the Greek language, there are four recognized words for love: agape, philia, storge, and eros.

I crave agape most of all, I think, agape meaning a “spiritual love,” a deep abiding affection for someone, something that transcends the merely physical. Agape is selfless, and is truly unconditional love whereas philia refers more to mental love, and includes affectionate regard or friendship. The term philos includes loyalty to friends and family as well as loyalty to your community. Storge is more specific to one’s family, meaning affection like that felt by a parent for her child. And then, of course, there’s eros. Eros drives physical and sexual attraction for another person.

I get the sense that without eros, I would be “faking” my attraction for someone else, but I find myself wondering, What is it about that immediate physical attraction, looking up to capture the attention of someone I will never even meet, that appeals to me? The attention itself is addictive. Luckily, my higher sense of self rules my head, and I have more than one way of feeling and demonstrating attraction for a new person. I am seeking out someone who will make me into an even better person, a more complete expression of who I am and what I’m capable of, someone who encourages my creativity and, on a selfish level, someone who makes me feel attractive.

Motion In The Ocean

One of the givens in life: if you find yourself standing in line at Starbucks, a long line snaking around the store, and you watch people inching forward, almost imperceptibly, you will, I guarantee, become annoyed if the person in front of you stands staring at his cell phone, checking messages, failing to shuffle towards the cashier, even if the forward movement is practically undetectable. In the grand scheme of things, you’re not saving any time, but getting someone else to conspire with your version of how things should work becomes somehow essential. The same holds true when you stand in an elevator and obsessively push the “close door” button. In reality, it’s doubtful whether you’re speeding up the elevator or getting to your destination any faster, yet it seems so important at the time that you do something, anything, to get where you’re going a minute quicker. Important to do something rather than nothing.

I must say, however, that when it comes to creativity, this “line shuffling” is critical to success. Many a day I don’t feel like sitting down to write, but when I do, even if all I’m doing is blogging, I feel more accomplished. I have done something to head in the direction I want to head. I have put pen to paper, and at least thought about the writing process. Writing, for me, is not a series of clearly directed forward steps. Rather, I shuffle along, in fits and spurts, and inevitably, those baby steps lead to revelations that have helped me as I work on my MFA in creative writing. Sometimes it takes twenty minutes of paper shuffling, looking over chapters I have written previously, before I am ready to sit down for “real writing.”

In this respect, I say, give yourself permission to shuffle impatiently in line, just try to do it without getting too irritated, trusting that it’s simply part of the creative process.

The Wrong Train

New Year’s has come and gone, and along with it, the requisite resolutions. In the midwest, the season comes at such a strange time–so much time spent in the dark. Even the few daylight hours can prove to be gloomy and depressing and a challenge for those trying to change their behaviors.

My local gym launches a contest in late January to see who can lose the most weight in a 90 day period, and I think it has taken a conscious effort on my part to stay goal focused, goal oriented. I have many ambitions, which include carving out more creative writing time as well as recommitting myself to a Weight Watchers weight loss program. Several years back I lost a grand total of 87 lbs, but lately some of those unwanted pounds have crept back, and I find it much, much harder to recapture that “Honeymoon” feeling when I was super motivated to lose weight in the first place. Over the course of the first three weeks back at Weight Watchers, I actually gained five lbs. I felt that I had gotten on the wrong train, a missed connection, perhaps, or the wrong line altogether. It was as though I were traveling through Europe, and instead of heading for Paris, my train was destined for some unnamed, underdeveloped Eastern European city.

I hadn’t bothered to track my food or eating patterns, one of the cores related to success. Trying to lose weight felt like a punishment rather than a worthy challenge, and I dreaded feeling accountable for my food choices.

Interestingly, launching in the wrong direction affected my creative work as well. I’ve been listening to an audiobook called “Making Ideas Happen,” geared toward increasing creative productivity, and one of the staples of the program is making yourself accountable through clearly defined action steps. Clearly defined goals and action steps has made it possible to achieve success in many arenas, including my original weight loss in addition to quitting drinking and applying for and being accepted into a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing program at Northwestern University.

I’m also lucky that I’ve had weight loss success previously so that I know what is possible and doable, but losing weight does indeed demand a mental shift. Not only does “Making Ideas Happen” emphasize the importance of clearly defined action steps, it also purports that community and communal accountability helps creatives achieve their goals. In the arena of losing weight, having a community of people also looking to achieve weight loss success helps motivate me, knowing that each week I am accountable and check in with a core group of people, some of whom I can also call my friends.

Truly, you’ve got to believe it before you can achieve it, but at the same time it’s clear to me that I can start my day over at any time. So if in fact I started off my weight loss journey on the wrong foot, misread the train schedule, I can still be new again, and recommit myself to my goals. This past week I experienced a two pound weight loss. What a relief that was because I believe success builds on success. Now that I’ve got momentum in my favor, it’s much simpler to continue moving forward, embracing opportunities for success, rather than dwelling in negativity. There’s a saying I trust in: the more you focus on the problem, the bigger the problem becomes. The more you focus on the solution, the clearly the solution becomes.

Surviving Versus Celebrating

Almost without even knowing it, yet another holiday season is upon us. I could have sworn, just last week, that we were in the midst of the American orgy more commonly known as Thanksgiving.

We had a rehash of, A Christmas Story, Thanksgiving, based on the much more profound book by Jean Shepard, In God We Trust: All Other’s Pay Cash. I felt I was doing well to avoid the inherent drama when an aunt who is a lawyer (who I love despite her career) made known that she was not getting quite her share of the dark meat. Being health conscious the way I am, I had loaded her plate with white meat, thinking that, though it may be a bit more dry, white meat is allegedly more healthy (have all the ads and Weight Watchers been lying all this time?). And, of course, I was looking out for her best interest because she is diabetic after all.

This thought process leads me to the somewhat illogical conclusion that “like seeks like,” but that, my friend, is for another blog, another time.

At any rate,we watched the games, and if memory serves, the Green Bay Packers played and beat the Atlanta Falcons, even without the effort of Aaron Rogers, but I finally had enough, and as a light snow fell, I took the car for a ride, and where I live, the streets aren’t plowed with any regularity so I may indeed have taken my life in my hands just heading to Starbucks to find out if indeed they may have remained open long enough so I could get a Vanilla Rooibos tea, just to calm my frazzled nerves. By that time, Starbucks had indeed closed for the day so I let the car drift along, guided simply by the half tank of gas left. Two hours later, I pulled back in the drive and was informed, walking in the door, that our two dogs had devoured the leftovers from the feast, dark meat and all. My aunt announced that there was too much chaos and that she needed to check into the nearest Best Western.

Flash forward to New Years, no wait–not just yet. Flash forward to the approaching Christmas season. Normally we set up two trees, one real, one artificial, but maybe because of the many grey days in the Chicagoland area, I could only manage the artificial, and couldn’t be bothered with scouting out and hauling home a real tree from the Xmas tree lot.

Naturally, last year some of the pre-lit lights burned out at the end of the holiday season last year so, feeling especially virtuous, I cut them off and was forced to restring the entire tree this season. Hence: the one tree rule. Lucky for us, we have a hybrid fireplace (don’t ask, don’t tell what that means, exactly, but it involves a carefully calculated combination of gas and wood burning capabilities).

This brings me to the very important question as to whether I, or any of us for that matter, approach holidays with a sense of anticipation and joy or dread. It’s been many years since I toasted New Year’s with an adult alcoholic beverage, but I’m painfully aware that many of us need the kind of crutch that Budweiser is certainly willing to deliver. One thing about being sober, however, is that I have to guard against a feeling of superiority, a feeling that I have mastered stress without drinking myself into oblivion. I suspect that many of us have a hard enough time dealing with life on life’s terms without having that third or fourth glass of wine, or even heading to a bar for a shot of Doctor Feelgood.

So without a drink in hand, I nevertheless steel myself to celebrate Christmas. Counting blessing helps, folks, and indeed I am blessed to have my two parents both still alive, and a lovely home with a cousin who is dear to me. But for those friends caught in the miasma of a depressive fog, I’ve learned that simply asking them to count their blessings can even cause them to sink deeper into what Winston Churchill referred to as his “Black Dog Days.”

So in an effort to notice time passing, to find a reason to enjoy each moment as it passes, I treasure the gift of life. I make time to journal, to drive to a new coffeehouse, to hand write Christmas cards, to wander seemingly aimlessly through a bookstore.

The past is gone, the future is yet to be, why do we think today is a gift, why do you think we call it the present?


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