Tag Archive: manic depression


Fall Funk

One of the biggest challenges I face as a man with Bipolar Disorder is that nearly every autumn, I fall into a funk. As the weather gets suddenly colder in the midwest, my mother also battles the same demons, and struggles to get out of bed, sleeping an average of fifteen to seventeen hours a day.

It’s ironic that she and I sleep so much during this time, because there’s even less daylight than usual, but I personally must take even better care of myself during the fall season, lest I start rapidly cycling between mania and despondency. I kind of give myself permission to sleep in on days when nothing is due at school, and I’ve learned to pace myself over time.

Having goals helps immensely. I’m finishing up my final two courses at Northwestern University, getting ready to start my thesis this winter and spring, something that can be done from home, but I’m scared. I’m both scared and excited that I’m drawing near the end of my coursework, getting ready to launch into both the work world and, hopefully, the publishing community. If I didn’t have school to propel me forward, I’d probably watch Judge Judy reruns all day. My father always jokes that when that happens to him, just push him out on the ice floe like the Inuit Eskimos.

The reality is that things are going well, and I’m nervous that the proverbial other shoe is going to drop any day now.

The challenge remains being gentle with myself during challenging times, and keep rising each morning as long as God grants me breath to greet the day.

Advertisements

Peg Entwistle’s Entropy

There’s something about pursuing a life as an artist that can sometimes lead to acts of self destruction. Whether the writer drinks to excess, the painter cuts off part of his ear, or someone like actor James Dean crashes his sports car and ends his career after only three films. More modern examples abound, including Robin Williams, Amy Whinehouse, and even River Phoenix. I think we expect our artists to be both immortal and indestructible, and the truth is, Philip Seymour Hoffman, after years sober, can suddenly listen to the demons of addiction and overdose, ending one of the most prestigious careers of the modern era.

Still, when I worked in Los Angeles on a little known show called, Mysteries & Scandals, one artist stood out: Peg Entwistle. She had had a fairly successful career on Broadway, and definitely paid her dues, but Hollywood was not so kind to her. Her only supporting role came in a Myrna Loy/Irene Dunne, David O. Selznick vehicle called “Thirteen Women” that was released after her untimely death.

Peg Entwistle went for a walk one night and wound up in the Hollywood Hills with a suicide note in her purse. She claimed the letter H in the sign that then read, Hollywoodland, now just Hollywood.

I don’t know how much depression led to her suicide, how much alcohol contributed, and how much can be attributed simply to the impulse in some artists to self destruct. Robin Williams, one of my heroes for the way he lived life on his terms, unfortunately marred his legacy because of an intractable depression that came out of a recent Parkinson’s diagnosis, but word has it he died sober. That saddens me even more. With a clear mind, he took his life, and didn’t in that moment know the amount of joy he had brought to millions.

I suppose none of us are immune to the Black Dog Days that Winston Churchill described as plaguing him at times. The best we can do is go to bed early, take care of ourselves, check in with our friends, and trust that those dark days do indeed pass.

I just wonder a bit about the artistic bent toward self destruction. I recently started reading, Daily Rituals: How Artists Work in an effort to understand how best to channel those creative energies.

That showed a more positive spin on how people organize their days to insure heightened creativity. The key, I think, is what to do to survive fallow periods when you’re not feeling creative. Self preservation is more important than any particular string of well constructed sentences.

Til Death Do Us Part

As someone with manic-depression, I find myself wondering, at times, whether part of my illness stems from an inability to accept death. Certainly, mental illness is inherited genetically, but I also believe it is, in part, a maladaptive response to life stress. I feel I have to be careful not to blame myself for my illness, and I work hard to take care of myself by avoiding alcohol for the last seven years, get enough sleep, try to workout on a regular basis, eat right, and continually challenge myself intellectually. That last bit is an important, often overlooked element of mental well-being.

Nevertheless, I find the basic human condition painful in that it inevitably involves loss, at the very end that loss including the loss of self. As I drove on vacation to northern Wisconsin yesterday, I heard on the Wisconsin Public Radio a program talking about the new phenomenon of lasting tributes to Facebook users who have died. That number now includes over one million people with Facebook pages who have died.

People have long communed with the dead in ways as varied as going to the cemetery, praying, even, for some, holding seances, but Facebook offers a new way for people to communicate with those who are no longer able to respond directly. More than just in memoriam, this is an active way for people to grieve and continue to celebrate the presence of those who have passed on. I like to think that people who continue after me will still celebrate my life. I like to think that my life has mattered, both to me personally and to others around me.

It’s nice to think that the world is a better place for my having been here. With that, I wish you a happy holiday season.

Michael

Weighing Me Down

Over the course of the last five months or so, I’ve somehow put on 25 to 30 lbs, and trust me, not all of it has been muscle, so it begs the question, what exactly is going on? I’m convinced that stress, both good stress and bad stress, can pack on the pounds.

Of course I’m responsible for what I eat, and probably having that pint of ice cream late at night isn’t helping, but one pint doesn’t translate into thirty lbs, and, as my friends know, I’m a pretty active guy. I workout at the gym a minimum of two times a week, and I walk my two dogs at least one to two miles each and every day. Basically, I try to lead a really active lifestyle, but I think, if I’m being honest, that having gone through a major depression this past year really set me back. It’s almost as though my body is reacting six months after the fact. I’m no longer depressed, and in fact feel pretty darn great, but having struggled mightily in October, November and December, my body simply said, enough is enough, you’re shutting down. You’ve been severely depressed, and now your body is going to reflect that fact back to the world.

I’m listening to Nina Simone singing the song, “Feeling Good,” right now, and she cries out, “Birds flying high, you know how I feel. Sun in the sky, you know how I feel. Breeze drifting on by, you know how I feel. It’s a new dawn. It’s a new day. It’s a new life for me, yeah, it’s a new dawn, it’s a new day, it’s a new life for me, and I’m feeling good.”

Making matters worse in here in Chicago is that we’ve had one of our worse winters on record. So many grey, gloomy days, so many snowstorms, so many bitter cold afternoons and evenings that even turning on the TV felt like a chore. The good news is that we have a beautiful spring and summer on deck with lovely summer weather, and the opportunity for lots of outdoor activities.

The frustration is this weight problem didn’t happen overnight, and can’t be solved overnight. Like they say in Alcoholics Anonymous, it’s a Day at a Time program, and I get the opportunity to make better choices a day at a time. The key, however, is, to the best of my ability, to be happy where I’m at, because, after all, that’s is where I’m at.

Once A Jew

One of the ways my Bipolar illness manifests itself is in religious ideation. Before I started at Northwestern, in what you might term a previous incarnation, I got a master’s degree in Social Service Administration from the University of Chicago, and I distinctly remember one time walking in, on an emergency basis, to the student health center at U of C, and asking the Jewish psychiatrist whether she was my mother. Her response? “I think we might need to go to the hospital.”

I couldn’t articulate or explain at the time that I believed I had been Jewish in a former lifetime, that I may have been exterminated in the Holocaust, and that some of my mental problems might stem from previous life traumas.

For those who have been following my blog for a while, I’m clearly identified as an Irish Catholic, an identity that’s as much an ethnicity as a religious affiliation, but I must confess, there’s something about Judaism that draws me in, beckons me, compels me to pay attention to that which is at the root of all our modern society. Plus, as a gay man, I understand what it’s like to be marginalized, and Jews have certainly been marginalized over the course of their long and storied history.

During my very first Fiction Workshop class taught at Northwestern, an instructor named Goldie let me know that even some Orthodox Jews subscribe to the belief system of reincarnation, that reincarnation is not completely at odds with the idea of waiting for the Messiah. Just writing the word reincarnation makes me wonder what is meant by the term? How can a person reincarnate himself over the course of his own lifetime, or does he have to wait for successive lifetimes to correct the mistakes he has made this time around?

I know I suffer greatly from Jewish guilt, guilt that I haven’t been kind enough, generous enough, smart enough, hard working enough, a good enough son, a good enough dad to my two dogs, an Akita and Beagle. There’s a saying that the Catholics have confession, and the Jews have psychoanalysis–I guess I’m the lucky one, I have both.

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.