Tag Archive: manic-depressive illness


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

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Turgid

I’ve heard certain bodies of water, in particular parts of the Mississippi River, described as having turgid waters, meaning distended and overflowing. The primary definition of turgid is in reference to something that is pompous and overcomplicated, but to me, the word has always had a different connotation, as something that is muddied or unclear, but perhaps I’m thinking of the wrong word.

Using the word turgid in the way to which I have become accustomed, I have to say that since my 10 day trip to Ireland in mid to late June, my world has been somewhat, although not altogether, muddied and unclear. At first after I got back, I simply slept, and jet lag, I’ve discovered, is a very real thing. And since I had six sessions of ECT–Electroconvulsive Therapy, in October of last year, I’ve put on 35 to 40 lbs, and with the body slowing down, so has the mind. I’ve heard that ECT is supposed to reboot the brain, and that it is quite effective, and may indeed prevent future hospitalizations, but I’ve had to get used to things being different in how I function.

With ECT is expected some short term memory loss, and indeed, much of October and November of last year are a haze, but I’ve had some difficulty retrieving older memories as well, and I even developed a bit of a stammer, a kind of stuttering that comes out when I’m overtired, overstressed, nervous, or just overwhelmed. They just don’t tell you these things when you sign on to have an electrical current passed through your brain, that after you’ve had six carefully controlled induced seizures there might be serious side effects in how you think and process information. I do, however, remember them bringing me upstairs just as soon as the anesthesia had worn off, and having them get me to practice writing my name. For someone who hopes to be a published author someday, this activity has stuck out in my brain as being especially relevant.

The good news is that I’m once again hopeful about my future, hopeful that with effort and determination, I can achieve my goals, graduate from Northwestern with an MFA in creative writing, and indeed finish and publish a novel. At that time I had lost that faith in my abilities and had become overwhelmed by trying to care for my older, handicapped cousin who is wheelchair bound and morbidly obese, unable to take care of those activities of daily living that you and I take for granted. The phrase, “Physician, heal thyself,” has seemed especially pertinent, and I’ve realized that if I don’t manage my own health and well being, I won’t be able to be there for someone else. Fueling the fog of my thought process was my feeling that I just couldn’t cope with the responsibilities of being able to care for my cousin who had become reliant on my for her well being.

I’ve slowly crawled out of the turgid waters of my brain, and resumed my place among students, hoping that I can regain my abilities to think my way through a plot, even if it’s only to plot my own trajectory through life.

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.