My father had PTSD from being only one of three men in his company to survive the battle of San Pietro. My maternal grandmother suffered from depression so badly that she spent most of her life in bed. My mother, it seemed to me, was just mean. For this reason, I kept my diagnosis a secret from her but someone told her. One Thanksgiving she made a disparaging comment about people who “thought they were bipolar” and looked right down the table at me. The faces of the other family members turned to see how I would answer. In the days before I went on mood stabilizers, I would have risen with a fury and blasted her with a confused twirl of invective. But I sat calmly and mentioned how hard it was for psychiatrists to make a diagnosis, perhaps harder than for other medical specialties. Someone changed the subject. I got up to get more turkey.
This confrontation pretty much ended our relationship. Even though she lived only 50 miles away, I only visited her on Thanksgiving after that. We seldom if ever talked on the phone. When she was dying of a brain tumor — she had moved to Portland, Oregon to be closer to my brother — I waited to hear that she wanted to see me. The call never came.
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Both those terms have been used to describe me. An insult just doesn’t stab, it leaves a wound — not a scar, but a bleeding dripping lesion that comes to you in your worst depressions and sometimes — like now — when you are feeling just fine. I am a loser because I have not worked since I was 33 and do not have kids. I did not make a million in Silicon Valley and no one buys my photography or my writing (which I haven’t tried to sell in a long time.) Never mind that I have been married 27 years to the same woman, never hit or threatened to hit her or called her a vile name. I am a loser, a pariah.
The isolation of bipolar disorder is hell, but the isolation of my personality is worse. When I take tests such as the Myer’s Brigg, I keep scoring in the rarest categories. Less than 1% of people out there share my characteristics. We wander around, seldom meeting each other. The way we see the world, the things we strive for just aren’t appreciated or discerned by the rest of you out there. You come onto my blog, read my accounts of my illness or other aspects of my life and you don’t get me. I am a cipher, a shadow on the wall swept by the wind, a curiosity that cannot be. I, like others of my kind, feel alone. No wonder so many of us end up in monasteries or convents.
An article from a 2010 issue of The Guardian cites a pundit who believes that the InterNet has destroyed our ability to think deeply. All the shallowness of our political talk, our inability to concentrate works of art that encourage us to probe our minds, the simplistic and self-serving grasp of religion — those things I believe have always been there. InterNet debates are only emblems of a longtime tendency for their participants to refuse to engage with people who disagree with them, to damn new ideas with oversimplifications and patronization, to mock differences. People have always told me that I think too much, even educated people. They twisted the gifts of my mind into a curse. So I hide from them. I do not speak of my cogitations in any place other than here. Yes, I pretend to be something that I am not, but what am I supposed to do when I am so alone and the mass of human beings cannot and will not trouble to understand me?
Bipolar disorder with its wild antics and chilling depressions hogtied me for the longest time. I’ve come out as a new person, but the rest of you remain the same. Freak is how you thought of me when the disease ran my thoughts and freak is how you think of me now that I am in my right mind. Was it worth it?
I count my deaths. The times when I fell down and hit my head or hit it on the top of a door frame (a hazard of being six foot six and a half inches). The time when I ran a red light and nobody hit me. The time I put on the brakes in a heavy rain and spun around and around in a circle. The time when I was rear-ended. The time — I was four — when I stuck some wire in an electrical plug and felt the juice starting to flow into my hand. The time when a dog should have mauled me. The times I was knocked about by family or other kids so hard that I heard the scream of my brain. The time when I ate raw elderberries and needed to have my stomach pumped. The times I was bitten by wild animals and should have gotten rabies. The times I ate dodgy foods from the refrigerator. The two times when I was hit by a car — one as a boy and one as an adult. I should be, by these counts, in the grave and forgotten — a presence beneath a tombstone becoming diffuse in the dirt. But I don’t even have a scratch.
What to call this existence that I am in? Heaven? Certainly not. Hell? It seems so at times. Purgatory? More likely because there are lengths when life is not excruciating. What it all shares is an unyielding guilt for having survived to do so little, to be of such little impact. I mark that I have been an embarrassment and a mistake in other people’s lives. I’m sorry, so very sorry. But I can’t help being around. This thing will end when it ends. It is not for me to decide.
Self revelation is the most dicey thing that a blogger can do. You put yourself out there hoping for help and support, risking being attacked or ignored. Mental health bloggers have perceived this, I think — as well as sensed opportunities for fame — and made a transition to writing advice columns for people with their illness. (I’ve remained stubborn and keep writing about how my mind works.) There are those vagabonds who come by a page for the purpose of harassing you because you have a mental illness. These are easily dealt with. The silence is worse. Your words disappear onto a hard disk and are never removed. Worst of all are the people who read what you write and then make a comment like “Well, you told us how you feel.” Behind remarks like that I hear a resounding “shut up”.
The brain is a dark country. I travel there alone, lurching over its high roads and through its scourging vales. I believe that what happens to us is only a small part of our moods. The rest is a geology set down when we were in the womb, shaped by the fidgetings of life.
At times, I don’t like my own mind. I tell my therapist that this came from this and that caused this other thing. I despair because blame for my condition does not incite cure.
One by one, I’ve found old friends. I discovered most recently that one of these suffers from bipolar disorder like me. Another works as a walk-on in Hollywood. The fate of many others is unknown to me, but I haven’t seen them in the tabloids or the more respectable media.
We don’t seem to have amounted to much. A dullness has circumscribed our lives. The worst thing about it is that I can’t in all honesty say that we were marked for mediocrity as a group or that a personified Fate pulled out our strings and tied knots in them. Each of us came to our tragedies on our own and there is no celestial reason for it.
My mother used to imply that if I didn’t have my life together by age 25, it would never come together. Now at age 52, I have trouble believing that it isn’t over.
After great pain, a formal feeling comes. The Nerves sit ceremonious, like tombs.
I find the ease with which some people slough off accountability sociopathic: say you have a misunderstanding, a miscommunication. My practice is to get to the heart of the matter. If it is because I misread or misspoke, I quickly acknowledge it. I don’t stand on lies to myself or to others. My question for the world is how can others not admit mistakes of this order? These things happen and, at least, for me are easy to forgive and drop. Unless….
Here is where the sociopath takes off its trench coat and shows its ugly bones. Suppose I have responded exactly to what was said by a stranger. Suppose that person gave me no clue at first that he/she meant the opposite, but called me “stupid”. “Wait;” it could have been said at first. “What did you think I said?” Suppose someone else comes into the picture and castigates you for misreading the other person? So you quote exactly what was said, adding now that you’re willing to leave it at a misspeaking. “This kind of thing happens,” you state. “Let’s leave it there.”
You honestly want to stop the argument, but Third Party wants you to apologize for misreading what the other person said. But that’s not what happened.” You read all too well what was said. And you’re willing to leave it. Is this other person saying “Oh, I didn’t mean that!”? No. Third party directs the eyes of the room upon you. This clever ventrilloquist causes all the mouths all to say that you should be the one to apologize. The argument will not die the quiet death it deserves.
And this hurts precisely because you believe that we should be accountable for what we do and nothing more. You lose friends over it and it is written off to your stubbornness — maybe, in my case, your mental illness. It’s hard to undo because you naturally question yourself and what you do. “Am I missing something?” And on darker note, the sociopath in you makes a suggestion: maybe it is because you showed weakness by admitting your own faults in the past.
Fortunately, you ignore the sociopath. But you are still left with sadness: why do the rules of the world apply to you in this one way and to others in another? You may decide in the end that these are friends not worth having, but you keep hearing the voice of your mother saying “You never could keep a friend.” And so you have to fight the urge to let your grief step all over you.
For a few years, I shuffled around companies in temporary jobs, hoping for a permanent position. One place that I worked was a computer mainframe manufacturing company in the days when the big computers were being replaced by Suns and smaller makes like the Apple and the multitudinous IBM-PC clones. My job was external expediter. I loved the job because it involved getting things up and running again. I looked over a long list of parts that hadn’t come in, called the vendors, and asked them to get the material in as soon as they could. There was an angle that involved a sizable amount of detective work, too. Sometimes parts had already arrived but had not been checked in receiving. So I went out there to check the shelves to see if the paperwork had simply gotten lost.
One case involved a set of panels. When I called the provider, the contact yelled at me. He insisted that the parts were on our dock, that he’d sent them out weeks before. Understandably, he wanted his money for the job. I had him fax over a copy of the shipping slip. Right away I saw the problem: he’d reversed the purchase order numbers. I went out to receiving and asked about any shipments with that P.O. number. The woman who worked it pointed to a tall stack of metal panels. “Yeah, that’s been around for weeks.” I checked and thanked her, then circulated the information that we had the parts for the line.
About half an hour later, my boss called me in. He praised me for my work, but then told me that I couldn’t check receiving anymore. “You got to understand that she isn’t very smart and she thinks you are making her look bad.” If I had anything, I needed to send someone else out.
The message I got from this was that it wasn’t cool to be smart — to do your job well. I hadn’t thought about bringing this woman down. I was just finding the part. The reversal of the digits had understandably thrown this woman off. It wasn’t in her log and she didn’t know what to do. I had come along and solved the situation. The parts were now off her back — no longer taking up space in the receiving area. I could have made the same mistake myself. But she personalized it.
It seemed to be part of a long theme in my life: that being smart led to being punished. And because of this and similar incidents, I have felt shoved to the periphery by people who quivered when I saw things more clearly than they did .
I’m at the computer late, my good habit of turning myself to bed at ten or so long abandoned. Playing solitaire, a game called Red and Black. And while I click on the cards against a red sunset, I think of a time when we found the one “California Cuisine” restaurant in Cortez, Colorado, not far from Mesa Verde National Park. I took a lot of pictures — now they are gone or lost in some box — and I remembered that I ordered red snapper, which surprised me to be on the menu of a bistro located nearly a thousand miles from the ocean where it found itself dragged up from the depths, its eyes bulging from the loss of pressure.
And tonight I think about what it takes to be a good ear, nonjudgemental ear. You don’t try to solve problems unless you are truly in key with the soul you give your time to. When I am at my best I am like that. And, as the scarlet clouds of Cortez, as the lights fade on that boulevard that stretches out into Route 666, I doubt that I have ever known a friend who has tolerated me as long as I have tolerated others, except Lynn. A few think that the listening can be reciprocal — you getting what you put in — but it never is. I’ve been a giver and when I look around for my own place, I find myself gasping like a sea bass or a blue-green rock cod, choking on an atmosphere which is not my own.
The last time I trusted someone I got burnt. And now others seem to be angry with me because I am watchful, because I don’t tell stories about what is really happening in my life right now and because I don’t open my heart for comment.
Lately I’ve been holding back regarding my feelings on this blog, largely due to accusations that I was becoming obsessed with my illness and situations relating to it. This is funny because I spend most of my days doing crossword puzzles, going to the gym, reading, and not writing or talking to much of anyone except the guys I meet in the gym. And our talk is about the two Ws: workouts and the weather.
I’ve realized, suddenly, that I am dealing with people in mania. Such folks are very good at appearing sane. Such folks are very good at running you down in histrionic bursts. Such folks panic when you appear to be on to them. No, I am sorry. No details. That would be to name names and violate confidences.
I must always be checking my own sanity in this. Currently, I would call it slightly depressed from the waves of hostile energy coming my way from just one source. I have email to show the outrageous overreaction of this individual. I’ve forwarded it to those who should know. And yet, despite the strength of the evidence, I still feel beaten down by the person. Is this obsessing or is this merely acknowledging what I feel at this moment? Only a few minutes ago, I was doing crosswords. Then I got up, went to the computer, put up the tips about bipolars over the holidays, and felt the feelings that I have now.
I’m not entirely in control of the disease. No one is, though some would love to think so. It has beaten me down many times and right now, in this moment, it is pulling at me. So I will finish this article and wash the clothes that I need for the gym. I should have done that an hour ago.
It would not surprise me if the person in question freaks at the sight of this and uses it to fire up an attack later. Ce la vie.
Someone told me recently that I cared a great deal about people and about the group and practices that were supposed to help them. My heart has been beating so hard lately about these things that I’ve wanted to pull it out of my chest and let it rest on a table for a bit.
I can’t stand it when people tell me that they want change and then remain silent when the time comes to discuss it. I know that I become strident. Being a reformer, an advocate does not seem to be my gift. What I do well is maintain an equanimity. But you can’t get there without the advocacy. I am so tired of this. I need it.
The other thing I do not like are liars, especially those who make serious mistakes but because they do not want to face the fact that a part of them may not be wise or may not be good, they insist that what they do is good. They, too, can be a serious problem.
Finally there are those people who are all advice and no ears.
I’m tired. I don’t know how to give advice or criticism to people who don’t behave like I do. I know that my distress gets to me. But I also know that my distress does not come from a place of selfishness. I’m not out to get girls or money. Last night I was speaking to my cousin. What’s up, she asked. Oh, I’m involved in one of those things that mean a lot to me, but won’t bring me any monetary gain. I can’t ever get excited about that kind of thing. If any venture of mine ever realizes a capital gain, I will be very surprised. I wish that I could wreak some positive change in a group that lasts. It’s not for the fame or the prestige. It’s for the Good.
I’m off on a retreat this weekend. I’ll make some time to cry about all this.
Seven Destructive Habits of Incompetent People