Tag Archive: artist


My Irish Grandmother

I called my Irish grandmother, Ahme, perhaps an infant’s way of saying Mommy, but the appellation stuck, and everyone around me referred to her as my Ahme. When she died, I gave the eulogy, and although it’s impossible to summarize what another person’s life has truly meant to you, I did convey a few things: one, that there was no one quite like her, and two, that she had lived life on her terms. I quoted “The Little Prince,” by Antoine de Saint-Exupery when the author writes, “What you see here is but a shell. What is most important is invisible.”

If I remember correctly, my grandmother died on January 27, 1999, and after giving the eulogy, I went back to work grief-stricken, and had my first nervous breakdown on February 28th of that same year. I simply couldn’t extricate myself from my depression, and in sadness plunged myself back into work with a sort of manic frenzy that came to a head about a month after her death.

The Irish mourn their dead at wakes, and though I didn’t raise a glass of Jamison in her honor because I didn’t and still don’t drink, I nevertheless felt a cultural loss, a loss of my connection with my Irish heritage that has been difficult to replace. My grandmother, Julia Kelley Donoghue, was Irish to her core, and there’s something about the scrappy Irish personality and the twinkle in our eyes that can’t be translated to other ethnicities. Ahme took up painting in her later years, and became quite accomplished at drawing landscapes of the Wisconsin wilderness, the forest and lakes of my childhood vacations. She was left-handed originally, but, in accordance with the times, was forced to write right-handed, something she seemed to resent. I think she associated left-handedness with creativity, and my mother and I are both left-handed while my sister, though right-handed and far more logical than either of us, is also an artist. My sister majored in art, and minored in business, what has worked out to be a great combination for her.

I associate my Irish heritage with a kind of superstitious Catholicism, and I joke that being Catholic, in my household, is almost like being Jewish. It’s more than a religion; it’s a veritable ethnicity. Until I visited Ireland this past year, I had not experienced that deep-rooted connection to my heritage since my grandmother died. I cannot tell you how many uniquely Irish phrases and ways of looking at the world are lost to me since both my Ahme and Boppie died, but I know that I’m a better person for having known both my grandparents, and I love the Irish for the way they have fought against and overcome stigma as they emigrated in large numbers to America during the Potato Famine and afterwords. The Irish stick together, and I’m proud of all the adversity I’ve overcome in becoming the man that I am today.

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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.

Leaping Into the New Year

I have read and reread a book by Julia Cameron called, “The Artist’s Way.”  It first called to me, assuring me that I too could be an artist rather than a shadow artist.  Shadow artists, according to Cameron, hover around those creative people who have the gumption and audacity to follow their own dreams.  Shadow artists subjugate their own dreams and ambitions in favor of a more staid existence.  The lesson implied is to be brave, be very brave.  And, as you discover your creative self, steer clear of those shadow artists, often well-meaning individuals who nevertheless tear down your resolve to follow your passions.

One adage that she explicitly taught:  “Leap and the net shall appear!”

This lesson was especially directed toward emerging writers, painters, dancers, and poets, but also applied to anyone else who wanted to live a more fulfilling existence.  Even politicians, clergy, professional baseball players, or social workers could benefit, according to Cameron, in living a life that matters.

Ralph Waldo Emerson put it slightly differently:  “Always do what you’re afraid to do.”

Vaclav Havel started out as a playwright with modest ambitions stuck in communist Czechoslovakia.  His writings attracted the notice of communist officials, and he was imprisoned off-and-on for five years, then endured secret police surveillance for almost twenty years while his many plays and writings were supressed, withering away.  The things we take for granted, the freedom that guarantees us the ability to say virtually anything that comes into our little brains is not allowed in other countries.  As a fellow writier, I cannot imagine anything more tortuous than having my vocation denied to me with the promise, ney threat,  that no one would ever read my work or share my worldview, or even be interested in what I have to say.  Vaclav Havel could have emigrated, many other prominent Czechs in all sorts of careers did, but he chose to stay and “fight the good fight,” all the while facing the very real possibility of being assassinated.  

After all his trials and tribulations, he was elected as President of Czechoslovakia and served from 1989 until 1993 when his country broke apart, leaving him the leader of the newly formed Czech Republic, starting in 1993.  It is one of the very few times when a writer, an artist, has been elected as president of his country, and become a force to reckon with on the world stage.  His close friends included Lech Walesa who sufferred under communist rule in Poland for forty years.  Both Walesa and Havel acted prominently in ushering in a new era of openness and aided in the fall of the Iron Curtain.  Havel also often relied on the adivice of Nelson Mandela. 

On two different occassions Havel spoke about the wonder of his own life, saying, one time, “It’s interesting that I had an adventurous life, even though I am not an adventurer by nature.”  Another time, just as eloquently, he said, “I wonder if all that–the fact that a man as calm as myself had such an adventurous existence–is due to the fact that life is an incredible miracle.”

Not to be beaten down by the past, but to bear burdens lightly, like wearing a light linen shirt, would be a wonderful goal to reach for this new year.  Don’t be afraid to make yet another New Year’s resolution, taking a few moments before the close of 2011 to list steps which need to be taken to head for what you want out of your life.  Then, take the next step and make a gratitude list for all the things we may take for granted, but which help usher us into new adventures.  Embrace your destiny this year.  I will be rooting you on, all the while trying to convey my truths, my own unique vantage point and lens to view the world around me.