Even after 49 years, I can still take surprisingly long time to recognize when a manic episode is starting. It’s not telling every person in town I’ll be happy to come over and answer that computer question after work or even right now. It’s not acceding to all of Thing1’s needs and wants for college and groceries. Nor is it when I’m googling every graduate program and trying to turn the lemons of a stable but unsatisfying day job reality into a Tom Collins of academic and professional success by planning a succession of degrees at schools I could never afford and which would have dubious value for a middle age Hausfrau who already has too many responsibilities and dreams.
No, usually it’s about the time I look at my bank balance and say, “Oh shit,” that I realize mania may be in full swing.
Today I was in the shower when I realized I my flight was ending, sending me knocking at the door at the back of my mind. That door is the place I go when the world becomes my demon, often made worse by maniacal flights of fancy. It’s a gateway to a vast, rich fantasy world as layered and complex as the ‘real’ one everyone else lives in. Sometimes I crash through it as I fall out of the stratosphere, other times, I slink through it.
There’s usually no logical reason for the flights and falls. The wrong screw is loosened, and then up and down and up I go until I find a way to pound my octagonal peg of a personality into a round hole of life.
Over the last few years as I’ve become better at managing mania and depression, a few cobwebs have grown over the door. I may peek through but don’t really go inside. That morning in the shower I rinsed the soap from my eyes and found myself fully on the inside, peeking out, but realizing the kids, my husband and my job require active participation in that outside world.
The lifeline back to the other side, this time, came from an unusual source — common sense. It took the form of a small, almost unrecognizable voice in my head.
“Let go,” it whispered.
Those two words were so simple and clear, more meaningful than just saying no to the drug of trying to do everything because it sounds good. Don’t just fly after every idea. Learn to fly with one or two dreams in a single direction.
So the next morning, I looked at all the creative projects I’ve started over the last year.
The words ‘I have an idea’ can strike fear into the hearts of husbands and resignation into mentors. My sun-singed ideas languish in half-filled notebooks and devices. An almost-finished children’s book marinates on my iPad as I view yet another video on how to write children’s books. Another waits to move from the rough sketch book to the painting table. The pages of still another non-fiction book have started forming. Meanwhile, I’m still trying to explode into the sky and catch every idea for a novel or comic book that flutters chaotically over the fields and mountains, often following their trajectory until I’m blinded.
And then, “Let Go” echoed again.
It reminded me that chasing every dream, soaring towards the sun, may make it hard to tell the difference between the glow of opportunity and a goal going up in flames. Letting go means nurturing a few meaningful the ideas that may already be getting off the ground.
So I’m letting go of the degree research and lining up the writing projects so that I can more easily follow one at a time and stay on course. I hope it means I’m learning to fly in formation.
I met this week with mentor extraordinaire and best-selling author Jon Katz to work on editing and cleaning up my first full fledged book, “A is for All Nighter”. The fate of the book is in flux as we are still working to find an agent for it and for me. I’m finding the advice of a good mentor like Jon is invaluable as I weigh the options of immediate gratification through self publishing or delayed gratification by trying to find a publisher.
So “A is for All Nighter” continues on the next step of the journey, and a new friend came to find me last week. Her name is Élly. That accent over the E means you pronounce her name “Yelly”.
she’s kind of a loud little troll, and we had a lot to talk about last week. You see, like most people, there’s a lot more to Élly than meets the eye.
The revelations from the presidential campaign that inadvertently focused the national conversation on latent misogyny and consent brought up unpleasant memories for many women I know and for me as well. Some people are able to talk about those memories, but sometimes, candor carries too high a price.
Secrecy also carries a high price, however. In secrecy there is depression and retreat from the blessings in your life. There is a constant mental rerun of the memories that encourage self-loathing, and, in my case I began to look in the mirror and see a horrible, ugly, little troll.
That’s when Élly showed up. Apparently she’s been lurking in the inner world I began building when I was two. She’s been just waiting for the right time to set me straight with some truth about bad things that happen in life and about trolls, about whom there is also much misinformation (they live under bridges, they have bad tempers).
So, like a kid talking to a hand puppet in a psychiatrist’s office, I told her why I felt like a troll and she told me why that wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. She talked to me about her life and about the strength you find walking through the tears and emerging on the other side into a life you love.
Élly was so helpful getting me back on track, that we decided to work on my next project together. She even helped me find it by suggesting that we work to set the record straight about her kind. Élly’s doing most of the writing, and I’ll be doing the illustrations, and we hope that in a few months we’ll have a kid-friendly book called The Truth About Trolls.
So far she seems happy with the first portrait.
I about 15 or 16 the first time I realized that everyone else in the world did not walk around thinking about suicide at least once a day. The revelation came after a school assembly on the subject when our class was herded into separate rooms where intimate groups of 50 or so giggling, super-sensitive teenagers were invited to play a quiet game of True Confession.
The assembly leaders asked us if any of us had ever contemplated taking her own life, and I raised my hand. I was only one dumb enough to do it. My candor earned me a private session with one of the leaders who assured me I wasn’t normal and offered me a pamphlet to a nearby church. I decided not to tell him about the coupon for the box of sleeping pills that I carried in my backpack every day. I decided not to tell anyone because I already had a few labels at that school – ugly, strange – and I wasn’t excited about adding loony tunes to the list.
A few years and suicide attempts later a shrink helped me pin the manic-depressive (as bi-polar disorder was more commonly called back then) label on myself, but it wasn’t something I wore around in public. I was worried about being able to get a job. I was worried if I ever had kids, I wouldn’t be allowed to keep them. And I worried I’d be put on some kind of government list.
Now the State of Vermont is getting ready to do just that to people with mental illness. Under the guise of gun safety and protecting people from themselves, they have pushed a law through the senate that will put people with mental illness who have been deemed (by a court) to be a danger to themselves or others on a special FBI ‘pre-crime’ watch list of people who are not allowed to own guns , even though mentally ill people are rarely violent and many may never actually go to buy a gun.
I got a little nervous when I read this.
I’ve been out about my bi-polar situation for many years. It was harder to hide it than be honest about it, but as anyone whose stood at the kitchen counter, gripping a knife during a manic episode and seeing visions of their own amputated wrist can tell you, being a danger to oneself kind of goes with the manic-depressive territory. I called a shrink the last time that happened, knowing I would find help and a medication adjustment. I do know that one thing, however, that would keep me from walking into his office and talking openly about an urge to hurt anyone (myself or anyone else) is the fear of getting on some government list. It might keep me from going at all.
Now, I’m not saying that if I walk into my shrink’s office next week and tell him that voices from the planet Crapulon have told me to kill everybody whose name ends in ’s’ that he shouldn’t report me and take steps to prevent a clear and present danger to someone else (which, by the way is already the law). He should probably help me get into an institution at that point which would certainly keep me from getting a gun.
I don’t think, however, someone who has never actually committed a crime should be put into some national pre-crime database simply because they are mentally ill and because they might one day buy a gun.
You can call me paranoid to worry about a government that has never passed a law data to prevent crime or terrorism that ended up drag-netting the private communications and records of thousands of innocent citizens into databases that kept them from getting on planes or had them erroneously detained without counsel before, if they want off the government watch list, requiring them to prove their innocence (and nobody is innocent) because they’ve been assumed guilty, but in my addle-pated mind, nothing says stigma like putting a mentally ill person into a national FBI database.
Never mind that this doesn’t keep guns out of the hands of mentally ill people living with mentally healthy people – unless we want to add them to the list. It also doesn’t keep hands out of the hands of mentally ill people who don’t seek help because they don’t trust shrinks – unless we just want to add a random 5.3 million people to the list to be on the safe side (Do you feel safer?). But it does do something. By creating a special database just for mentally ill people at the nation’s largest crime investigation organization, it is taking the first step toward classifying them (us) as criminals. Excuse me, pre-criminals. I’m not sure if that’s much better.
I started deflating at the beginning of November.
I try not to write about the shrivelling because I don’t want my blog to be therapy (my writing is, but that’s another story for the commitment hearing) or a place to wallow. Sometimes that means I withdraw from it and other things I care about for a while.
The funny thing I’ve discovered about depression is that it’s not always weeks of crying or anguish. Often it’s softer and more insidious. It’s a shrinking from life. It’s feeling a soft, wet, layered flannel strait jacket wrapping around you and not feeling the muscle power to push it off. And, for me, it’s a lifetime of wondering why I can’t just shake it off and soldier on.
After all, it’s all my head, right?
If it weren’t for the plastic boot encasing my foot propped up on the pillow-padded recliner, I’d still be wondering that.
But things happen. Sometimes you find yourself surfing a couch for 3 to 8 weeks, ceding control of your life but still telling yourself you should just shake it off. You tell yourself you can handle the grocery shopping again and that driving home at night with one good eye is just as safe as it was with two eyes right up until you slam on your brakes to narrowly avoid that deer that you swear wasn’t there five seconds ago. And then you find yourself sentenced to another night with your foot in the air and your derriere in the chair because there was a whole lotta shaking going on that day.
Then you realize that you can’t always shake it off because bum legs aren’t necessarily just in your head and, neither, possibly, is a bum brain. All you can do is ride it out, holding on for dear life and reminding yourself that there will be long, unimpeded walks again. There may even a time when you can once more differentiate between your bum and your brain which, while it literally is in your head (if you’re lucky), doesn’t really respond well to being shook off.
Sometimes it isn’t a crash.
Sometimes everything just recedes.
You go from feeling everything to feeling nothing. To wondering why you’re here.
To wishing you believed in a higher being that had a purpose for your life and being fine with not knowing what it is because knowing it exists is enough.
To realizing every battle can’t be fought and others can’t be fought at all without ammunition. To picking the fights of getting up for the job and the kids each day and retreating from the others until the arsenal is stocked with little pills that still need a glowing fuse to work.