I am sorting through some things when my bare calf is bitten — or rather mouthed — by a red, white and blue ball. The ball has no mouth of its own — rather there is a head wrapped up inside of it and it is the head that is trying to bite me through the thick, leather walls of the ball. Lynn tells me to give it to her and she will take care of it, so I do. I put up some latex gloves and pick up some stuff that is littered on the floor such as torn up shreds of paper and dog droppings.
Whiting Ranch can be divided into two sections, the West and the East. The East is closest to my home and — except for trail bikers who whiz like locusts down the Cactus Trail and the Serrano Cow Trail — is mostly deserted. The real traffic bulges the trails of the west side, particularly the Borrego Trail which wends its way through a marsh and live oak groves and the Mustard Road. The West Mustard Road is deserted: on a given hike to the Vista Point overlooking Red Rock Canyon you might lucky to see three other travelers. The East Mustard Road rises from the end of the Borrego Trail and slithers through the chaparral until it collides with three other wilderness avenues at a spot called Four Corners.
Throngs of bikers and walkers choke the East Mustard Road on Wednesday afternoons. The bikes come singly or in pairs or triplets or, sometimes, squadrons. I listen for the whirr of spokes behind me and try to guess which way to jump when they get closer. Walkers give themselves away by the stomp of their feet. The other day I was grimly climbing the dirt track when I heard a woman’s voice behind me. The ascent squeezed the breath out of me, so I didn’t look back. In a few seconds, a blonde woman and her hyperventilating ginger daughter came briskly walking to my right. The woman — who I surmised to be the mother — was delivering a lecture on personal fitness.
The hammering in my temples from my heart surges prevented me by listening in. They pressed past me with no attempt on my part to equal or better their speed. A few minutes later a third, stouter member of the party pounded past in her black spandex. I kept plodding along, feeling a twinge of guilt about my slowness.
“Wait,” I thought. “You have a heart condition. A narrowing of the coronary artery. You are going as fast as you can without giving yourself a heart attack. You are doing fine.
“How well would they do if they were in your place? To them, walking this trail is a race to see how fast they can get to the top. For you, getting to the top at all is a triumph. What if there was no race for them, no number on a timer that they can strive to beat? Would they keep going?
I arrived at Four Corners maybe ten minutes after the last of the three. They stood around the bulletin board talking and drinking from their green and pink neoprene bottles. I sat down on the bench, drank some water, ate some glucose tablets and then I was good to go. I left them behind me, still sweating and recovering their strength.
On the way down, I waded through what must have been a youth group on bikes. Then I saw a man riding up the hill directly behind his 8 or 9 year old daughter. He kept telling her to keep her wheel straight and keep going going going.
Poor thing. He’s already pressing her to win the race.
The doctor who was going to perform the colostomy spent several minutes of my preliminary appointment putting information from my new patient form into the computer. He asked me a question here and there about previous conditions: why, for example, my anemia was of concern? (My hemoglobin count had dropped from 13.7 to 12 in the course of six months.) How long had I experienced gastric reflux? (On and on for twenty years. For this I won the bonus prize of an endoscopy to be performed at the same time.) Then he reviewed my medications and saw that I was on psychotropics.
“We’re going to have to bring in an anesthesiologist,” he announced.
The reason for this is that my psychotropics tend to raise the level of sedation. The valium they use for most patients won’t put me out. I would find myself enjoying every moment of the procedures as they poked my orifices and sought answers in my intestines and my esophagus.
The extra attendant would cost me $260 which my insurance might or might not pay. I sighed and made a note of this, then followed him to have a clerk send my prescription for the laxative to the pharmacist and explain to me what I could and couldn’t have before the probe.
A black man keeps preventing me from taking sugar or salt from a bowl by pulling on a string he has around my right arm. When I ask why, he says he is protecting it from other people. When he gets up from the table, I follow him. “Tell me about McCarthyism,” I ask. He gets me a convoluted answer in which he insists that McCarthy was a Canadian who fought in the war and then became a great American senator. For his wrong answer, I tie him up and carry him off to a place where there are other black people. To get there, I have to walk against a crowd which is going to see the Fourth of July fireworks. There is only one white woman walking the same way. Everyone else ignores us as I take my prisoner to other black people who will sit in judgement.
While I make an announcement about the support group, the members begin to meet with some new people. I finish my work just in time to see the newcomers get up before the end of the meeting and go to an outer area to eat pancakes with blueberry syrup. I feel hurt. The leader of the newcomers listens to me as I explain that they need to stay for the whole meeting. He says they don’t want to follow my rule, so I suggest that they could start their own group. The leader — who looks like a young Stephen Jobs in a blue suit — likes the idea and proposes they hold their meeting on the same night. I try to convince him that this won’t work, but he just keeps shaking his head.
We all know that mania is the antithesis of humility, but I don’t think you can be humble in a place of depression, either. Humility is neither blind optimism or blinding pessimism. It is realism as truly defined: seeing yourself as a human being, not a god or a demon.
Some may ask why I post so erratically. I would rather have clarity and brevity than muddleheadedness and verbosity.
A pair of maids are helping me clear out my brother’s bedroom in the old house. One of them keeps knocking pictures from the wall. I tell her that it is all right and help her cut away the broken frames and stack them neatly. She produces an old movie poster from a Chinese film framed in cardboard. “I remember seeing that,” I said. Then after a moment’s thought “You can throw it away.” I go outside onto the back porch. They’ve done a terrible job of sweeping it — there’s lots of dirt. I walk on it in muddy shoes which infuriates my mother and father. Mom screams at me and blames the entire mess on me, so I tell her that I will sweep it. While I clean up the maids’ mess, I hear my parents arguing in the house. I finish sweeping and take the broom to the garage. I hear Dad say that he has a solution for the family’s finances just as the door opens and a large car rolls into the garage. An Asian man gets out. He tells me that he knows me and explains that he is renting the space. I hear the family coming out, so I tell him I can’t talk. They come out in a ragged line with my father at the front. My brother tells my brother that he has been to a casino in Las Vegas. “Which one?” my mother asks. He names one that I have never heard of. “That’s not a good one,” she says. “They have small cash payouts.” I take my place at the end of the line. Many members of my family are eating dinner, including many little brothers I never had. I cringe at the thought of my father hitting me because I didn’t get the patio swept to his satisfaction. He is putting a sausage on his plate and complaining about the job I did. I want to tell him to show me the right way, but I am scared.
The teacher is standing in the center of the room holding up a flip chart. The subject is mathematics. She has divided the test into two kinds: one for those who like math and one for those who hate it. The second part features an algebra problem in which we are to figure out how many deer (or ducks) and how many does (or ducklings) are featured in the problem. I wrack my brain looking for a trick answer, but force myself to awake. When I go to sleep again, the problem is still there and I keep waking up and falling back to sleep to find that the problem is still there, begging for me to answer it.
Coming out of a manic episode can be a struggle when we start to consider or hear about the things we did while we were in episode. I have many sorrows to relate: there was the time, for example, when I decided to have a race down a crowded city street in Palo Alto with another person — possibly also bipolar — who cut me off.
I put the pedal to the metal and swerved around several vehicles, cutting them off as I had cut off the jerk who — in my mind at least — had started it all.
My wife was in the seat next to me, clutching the handle in front of her and all but screaming for me to slow down.
I did manage to realize what I was doing after a few cars honked at me and flipped me off.
No one got hurt, but afterwards I felt badly — I had lost control — that I had come so close to the point where I might have ended up in jail or on a slab in the morgue next to my wife.
There’s a scene in The Silver Linings Playbook where the main character is so frantic looking for his wedding video that he knocks his mother down by accident. This is the kind of violence that people with bipolar disorder are mostly known for. Like the Bradley Cooper character I never set out to harm people, but I came too close for their comfort. People were afraid of me.
Therapists often tell us to forget about such things, to write them off as “things we did in mania”. They are trying to save us from the daily self-torture known as guilt. Every time we are reminded, we think we must put ourselves on a rack and stretch until we cry out.
But I don’t think that is a very good answer because I have seen people give themselves too much license. “I did that in one of my episodes, so it is OK.” They miss the point: many of the things we do in mania are harmful. A few of us have spent large amounts of money — run up credit cards and stolen to feed the rampant materialism of mania. We may choose to ignore the anger that overwhelms those around us. Or the acts of vandalism — one guy I know put a hole in the wall with hist fist — that frighten those we love.
I don’t think the answer is feeling guilty but part of my recovery has been to feel a proper amount of shame for the demonic releases that I perpetrated while I was high on my illness.
Guilt doesn’t do anything except make us feel awful. It is torturing ourselves over and over again for the things that we did.
I prefer to engage in shame. What is the difference? Guilt punishes us repeatedly. Shame reminds us that the thing we did was harmful. We don’t muse over it, we don’t spend our time getting the high again or inflicting emotional damage like an experimental psychologist might electrify the floor of a cage to punish a rat.
In guilt, we keep revisiting the scene of the crime. In shame, we simply say “What I did was wrong. And I will not go back there.” This means that we take steps to prevent future episodes of mania and live as responsible human beings. Our episodes are no longer an excuse: they are things we avoid.
I am on a cruise with my brother. There seems to be a writing conference going on. We meet someone we both knew in Boy Scouts. My brother comments that the range of people on the cruise seems narrow and the friend agrees. I find that I am sitting in the chair that one of the instructors is using to teach a class in film. He makes sure that every item in the scene is where it should be and asks me to focus the frame while he puts the last touches on it. Just don’t press the shutter he says. I wait in his seat — a little proud that he asked me to fulfill this function for him, until he is ready and can start. I step back when he is and then a man with a ragged beard and round glasses from the port asks me to help him find some film in the shop. The instructor has a reputation as a bigot, so I take the man behind a wall where he won’t be seen. We find all kinds of film and recording tape, but no Portra which is what I suggest and what he wants. Someone sees that the man is Middle Eastern and goes to tell the instructor. “You need to get out of here,” I say to the man. He runs. When the informants return, another person in the shop derides them. “You don’t even know if he was a Muslim or a Christian,” he says. “What business do you have harassing him?” Another man calls out that he was a “zohmay”. Before I can find out what that is, I wake up.
An alien made of mint jelly becomes my companion. I have it teach the Toastmasters to dance, then take it to the Opera House. I reach the top of the stairs. And either they won’t let me in or I decide that I didn’t want to go in after all. So I go down another set of stairs, but they get narrower and narrower as I go until I am standing on them with just my heels. A surge of fear wakes me.
A scandal erupts. During a Super Bowl, a fan sneaks onto the field wearing the uniform of his team and catches the ball for a winning touchdown. Now several weeks later, the opposing team wants the result repealed because the winners had an extra and illegal man on the field. The winners, of course, don’t want the final score changed and say that they can’t do anything if someone gets onto the field without their knowledge. They point out that he is now a member of the team despite the fact that he is short for a football player.