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.
When we heard that Robin Williams had committed suicide, I hoped we would google it and learn it was just a new, creepy urban legend. But it wasn’t.
We were mostly without internet at the time, so I just caught snippets of reactions from the electronic consciousness. One snippet seemed to echo frequently. It was the idea that Williams hadn’t focused on the good in his life or that, unlike the pontificating pundit of the moment who had also been through really hard times, he had simply chosen to wallow in his misery.
I’ve heard variations of that sentiment my entire life because while I can’t say I know what it was like to ride a mile in Williams’ roller coaster car, we are in the same amusement park. I don’t know how all the rides work, this is how I explain my experience at the fair. I had a fresh ticket in my back pocket a few weeks ago when I bounced into my shrink’s office, plopped down on the couch, and, without taking more than one breath, chattered non-stop for 45 minutes.
I chattered about a book I’m wrapping up, an idea for a play I’m going to write in September, an idea for a novel I’m already fantasizing about writing in October and had spent the previous half hour drafting a 20 page synopsis of. I chattered about reorganizing the linen closet. I walked to my car, still dictating a dozen to-do’s into my to-do-a-maphone.
You could say I was up. I was real up.
I have a family I adore, a great job, and a growing creative life, but there was a lot on my mind that week. I’d learned of a friend’s recent death and a serious illness of another. There was a mountain of work that wasn’t getting smaller, a world panicking about Ebola, Russia and the Middle East, a fresh diagnosis of a degenerative eye disorder (I’m blaming that for any drawings that appear subpar) and more than a few bills marked ‘Freakin’ Urgent – Pay UP Loser’ waiting in the mailbox.
I, however, was helicoptering over the planet, suspended by a thread-thin seatbelt over a world that looked technicolor perfect and sparkling with possibility (it could have been the algae blooms in Lake Erie).
I would have been up if you had told me I had a special type of cancer that made my butt look even fatter when viewed from outer space with the naked eye. I can admit the flying is fun when it’s not scaring the shit out of me, but it does scare me. I become SuperWoman, taking on too many obligations in a single phone call and exercising the purchasing power of a regional big-box store, leading to a crash whose destructive force would make Michael Bay drool with envy.
I’ve been doing this part of the roller coaster ride since I could talk.
I’ve tried working with my brain’s air traffic controllers, but the littlest things (medications, for example) can inspire strikes and and even walk-outs. My current shrink has been helping me find new ways of negotiating with the control tower. We haven’t ruled out new and improved pills to pop, but my brain, like my diet, is a work in progress.
But like my diet, if there were an easy way to be ‘normal’ (or thin – the ultimate fantasy) by just ‘snapping out of it’ or ‘deciding to be well’ without having to medicate and journal and snap rubber bands on my wrist and sit with a shrink once a week for many of the last 30 years, I would jump at it – even if I had to jump for “it” from a plane without a parachute to grab it out of the sky with a pair of tweezers.
Because I know that in a few months, even if I found out I’d sold a zillion copies of my soon-to-be-imagined bestseller “How to Not Dust a House for 365 Days or More”, Santa was real, both kids had landed scholarships to Harvard and Yale, and peace on earth prevailed, I would still feel like closing my eyes on a deserted highway so that the Big Guy and the kids could call my death an accident and not know that I had intentionally left them forever.
I know this because I’ve been doing this part of the roller coaster ride in one form or another since before I could talk – long before I was old enough to understand the words, “snap out of it”.
Last week after work the Big Guy came home from work and soberly announced that the son of a neighbor had taken his own life. It took me a moment to start breathing again, and, out loud, I wondered what the rest of the town was wondering that day. “What was he thinking?”
Privately, I had a pretty good idea of what he’d been thinking. Only earlier that day had I been wrestling with those urges as I hugged my mother goodbye and had the irrational thought that I would never be happy again once she was gone. A vision of achieving perfect permanent peace flashed through my mind as I smiled at her and my father as they left. It was so strong and so clear that if I had not been having these urges and images since I was 10, I might not have chased it away.
My guess was that this kid, who, for as long as I had known of him, had exhibited self-destructive behavior, had been living with those urges for a long time.
My morning vision and the afternoon news brought me back to a high school assembly on suicide. After a movie and lecture, the hosts separated us into groups. I remember them asking us if any of us had ever contemplated taking our own lives. I was the only one in my group raised my hand.
One of the adults took me aside and asked me how often I thought about it. I answered, “I don’t know, every day. Doesn’t everybody?” The counselor shook his head no and gave me a pamphlet for nearby church.
Back then I don’t think I had even heard the word bipolar disorder. Manic Depression was just the title of the Jimi Hendrix song. I did know that just getting out of the house – even out of bed – was often an enormous task when depression hit. When mania was pushing me to outer limits, I was the life of the party. People thought (and still do) I was a drama queen. I was told to snap out of “it” but wondered why I couldn’t. I did know I couldn’t tell anyone about the places and pictures in my head. I could barely explain them to myself, and trying to describe them to other kids – or any of our teachers – would have added just one more oddity to my already odd personality.
It wasn’t until I was an adult that I realized that I might not just have the blues.
I was lucky. When my own bipolar disorder was diagnosed, my family was overwhelmingly supportive, and our home, at least, was a safe place to talk about mental illness. The rest of the world is not so safe, and not everyone is so lucky.
I don’t know if this boy had a safe place to talk about the suicidal tendencies he had been exhibiting for as long as I had known of him. I do know that we still live in a world that makes opening up about mental illness – or even its symptomatic emotions – is like baring your throat to the wolves. There is still stigma where there needs to be safe spaces.
Our very small town of 300+ people has talked of it regularly since it happened. I hope we all continue talking about it. Mostly I hope we start talking about giving other kids like him a safe place to talk about their visions before they become reality.
As I’m lying down with my little one for his bedtime snuggle, I’m realizing that I haven’t retreated to the fantasy world that gets me through depressions lately. At first I though it was the magic pill I’ve been taking, but I think something better is happening.
When I first started taking the pills, I tried to get in and I couldn’t. Something was blocking the door. It wasn’t me, it was the pill. But in the last few weeks I’ve begun taking care of my physical health, and while that switch took a herculean effort to move to the on position, it’s like watching a compact fluorescent’s power grow as it absorbs powers. At first it’s only little successes, but then a sense of physical well being takes over, charging the mercury until all the rooms in my head are bright, and my vision is clear.
Now running about a mile or mile 1/2 a day, hoping to get up to three so I can run with my sister in August, I’m starting to feel the effect of a natural magic pill. As I was lying next to my beautiful sleeping boy, I noticed I still couldn’t get into the room, but for the first time in a long time, I didn’t need or want to. Some of that need may have been quashed by pharma, but it’s nice to know that at least some of that lack of desire may be my own doing.
A week ago I got the prescription. Two days later I picked it up. I’m not functioning. These magic pills feel like my last straws, but I still can’t bring myself to open the bottle.
It’s been twenty-odd years since I last turned to Prozac. The drug and the disease it’s meant to treat are both better understood, and I understand I’m at that place where I need help that can’t come from myself or another human. I’ve tried other magic pills and management methods. Some of them get me out of the cave for a while, but, as the characters on my favorite guilty pleasure show ‘Once Upon a Time’ are fond of saying, All magic comes with a price.
Managing the big “D” with tricks means getting through it, but it also means experiencing every throb of worry and pain in every nerve. It means that tears are always waiting in the wings for the weak moments as over-analysis of very interaction keeps the psyche in a constant state of almost-adolescent angst. The magic pills dull that pain, but they do have a price.
Some cause weight gain (pretty depressing). Others lead to all nighters for nights on end. But all of them, while evening the keel and pulling my attention from the depths back to the horizon, wrap themselves around the soul like a neoprene wetsuit. It’s not a straight jacket, but the thick, impenetrable insulation does inhibit sensation. It’s a price, and the question I ask of every bottle of magic pills is how much?
The last year has been the most creatively-productive one I’ve ever known. Stimulated by new friendships forged at a writer’s workshop at Hubbard Hall in Cambridge, NY, I’ve written and drawn more and more regularly than ever before. Before the workshop, I was a dabbler, trying to choose between two crafts and vacillating between them as the mood struck me. A year of unprecedented encouragement offered a more rewarding search for authenticity in our work. The workshop which started with a focus on rural and small town life ultimately became the search for the stories and meanings in all of our lives.
That search meant opening my eyes and my soul. It meant discovering beauty and meaning in my very ordinary life. It meant living life and recognizing the ways I had kept it out.
Depression doesn’t keep life out. It keeps me withdrawn from life, watching it from my cave, but I’m never quite sure if the pills are a way out of the cave or just a way to be less aware of it. It’s that uncertain but sometimes strong anesthetic effect that makes me fear the cure as much as the disease.
But there’s another uncomfortable reality. The deeper I go, the less I write. Not ironically, and the less I write, the deeper I go.
There’s a romantic picture of the tortured artist. It isn’t entirely unfounded. There is an frighteningly long list of authors and artists whose lives were upended and prematurely ended by mental illness.
However, as I struggle to work at the one occupation that truly gives me satisfaction, I’ve begun to wonder how much of their ability to express their creativity was actually hamstrung by their cranial chemical imbalances. Mania may produce periods of intense productivity, but, as I study the lives of the luminaries, it seems that the despair at other end of the spectrum often coincided with a withdrawal from life and work.
By contrast, the few people I’ve met in ‘real life’ who are working as artists or writers, are the ones who have managed their moods to allows themselves to ‘show up for work’ everyday. There is no drama in the work. There is only the work, as there is with any other job.
Right now, I feel constantly in jeopardy of failing the day job and the parenting job – forget achieving the dream job of writing. I know only fear of the unknown keeps the pills in their bottle, but int this moment the pursuit of the authentic is yielding one other invaluable lesson. It is that fear can be as crippling and counterproductive as any mental illness, and, while the debate over the link between creativity and mental illness thrives, my small hope is that conquering my fear of what might happen will be the stimulating cure to any analgesic effects of the curative I’m about to swallow.