Lessons from Mother Nature are not always the ones you expect

Maybe it’s the unusually early snow. Tree branches still rich with green foliage weighted to the breaking point under heavy wet snow are decidedly out of place so early in September. If it warms up we may squeeze a little fall out of the year after all. If we get a killing frost the leaves will turn leathery and cling to the trees until spring.

Copyright JM Schreiber 2014  (yes these shots were taken today)
Copyright JM Schreiber 2014
(yes these shots were taken today)

An omen perhaps?

Is it late summer or early winter?

Like trying to define the weather, it can be difficult for me to clearly pin a label on my emotional state. A stable, well medicated state is actually one of relative distance from what I really feel. Blunted at either end of the normal ups and downs. I am not certain if that is a natural or artificial state. It is probably more realistic to call it functional.

Manic? Well, manic is really only recognizable as it recedes. Think of the way that you can become accustomed to a certain level of physical pain and not realize just how severe it is until the painkiller kicks in. But there is no instant relief for a significant manic episode. Manic gradually disappears in the rear view mirror as I creep along and then, just as the road ahead seems to become clear, I hit depression. Or this anxious emptiness that I feel lately.

Copyright JM Schreiber 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber 2014

Like today.

The streets are littered with branches that could not handle the weight of the snow. The power has been off across the western side of the city for hours. As crews manage to restore power to one section, melting snow frees branches that bounce back and knock the wires out all over again. The silence and reduced light has left me alone with my thoughts for much of the day.

There is, however, an important lesson in unexpected situations like this. You have no choice but to ride it out, stay safe and wait until the storm has passed. Only then can you assess the damage, clean up and move forward. After all, we are supposed to be back up to summer temperatures by the weekend.

My own spirits might not lift quite so quickly, but I know from past experience that they will.

With time.

Capturing madness on the page

I started this blog in a fit of manic energy not realizing how very close I was to running over the edge into full blown madness. And now I find myself writing in and around the experience as best I can, unpacking and worrying myself into the future with a level of anxiety that seems to greet me refreshed every morning before I even crawl out of bed.

Taken in the aftermath of major flooding last year this looks like how I feel sometimes... Copyright JM Schreiber 2013
Taken in the aftermath of major flooding last year this looks like how I feel sometimes…
Copyright JM Schreiber 2013

With my original diagnosis I read all the available materials and although it was pre-internet (imagine!) I spent a lot of time at the library. This time around I find myself in world where so many fellow travelers on the road in and out of sanity are busy scribbling their way along. I have been and will always be selective in what I chose to share about myself with others. Great for maintaining privacy, not so great for making new friends. So I struggle every day with how or what to add to the dialogue.

I think I am personally drawn to creative expressions… photography, poetry and writing but am not sure where to start. I suspect madness, sanity and that huge area in between is best met sideways. So no memoirs for me. Photography is good outlet but I lack the discipline to take it to the next level. I would like to capture that moment when reality and one’s experience of reality begin to part ways. It is such a subtle process with manic depression the way I experience it and I imagine I am not alone in this regard. To those outside, unless they are highly attuned to changes in your patterns of behaviour, the transition can be unnoticed for a time.

And then before you know it you are picking up the pieces or retreating from the world or both.

To date, the finest literary account of slowly growing madness, that I have read, is William Golding’s The Spire. This novel imagines the construction of a 404 foot spire atop a medieval cathedral (inspired by Salisbury Cathedral in England) and is narrated from within the mind of Dean Jocelin. The dean is a man who has attained his position by curious family connection rather than earning it on a solid foundation of faith. As he envisions and directs the construction of the spire, tuberculosis in his spine advances to the point of driving him into a psychotic state. At first he interprets the sensation caused by his infection as angels at his back, sure evidence of God’s blessings. However as his pain and madness grows he becomes increasingly erratic, unstable and irrational. It drives him to conflicts with the master builder, sexual obsessions with a woman, paranoia, jealousy and possibly murder.

William Golding - The SpireReading with an online reading group added to the richness of the experience of this novel, but for me personally it captured so vividly the sensation of gradually and fully losing grip on reality that I had during my first severe manic episode. By the final moments before the ambulance arrived to whisk me away I was no longer able to distinguish between what I had interpreted as a mental breakdown that I could handle and the creeping fear that the Devil was tormenting me. It was a horrifying moment.

For poor Dean Jocelin because he is not only mad but dying of tuberculosis, his last days and hours are vivid mental and physical torment. It is up to the reader to decide if his soul finds any peace at the end.

Luckily my more recent manic episode did not end with as much drama as the first because someone finally commented on how fast I was talking and I had the shocking realization that I was sick. But the damage was already done all the same. I just wish I could help those who experienced my behaviour understand but I am not certain they wish to listen. And honestly, can I be a more reliable narrator of my own manic experiences than The Spire‘s mad dean?

Draw me a map to my self

Yesterday I took a small road trip with my son out to visit my parents. It’s about a two hour drive each way and this is the first time I felt that I had sufficient stamina and concentration to manage it since my breakdown in June. The countryside is beautiful but the journey did not really offer me more than time to sit and fret behind the steering wheel.  I thought about how I used to need a road map to navigate the back highways when my 86 year-old father’s ongoing retreat from civilization first drew them out there a few years back. I no longer need a map and know the route well.

Copyright JM Schreiber 2013
Copyright JM Schreiber 2013

I could, however, use a personal map or trail of bread crumbs to follow back to make sense of the past year or two of my life.  A mood disorder can wreak havoc on one’s internal compass. In the hazy debris of an extended period of hypomanic energy sliding into manic, I am finding it impossible to make sense of where I was or where I go from here.

At a deeper, more fundamental sense I have lost faith in myself. Or rather my ability to make sense of my self.

It is likely that this is the affect of depression. It’s hard for me to know because I have rarely ever experienced the sort of black dog depression that many others describe. I tend toward anxiety and a bone weariness that weighs me down, but I do not crawl into bed and pull the covers up. I don’t sleep well, in fact I tend to insomnia. But I don’t recall experiencing the all pervasive lack of physical energy that haunts me now. I find it hard to remember how I ever managed to accomplish all of the projects, personal and professional, that I tackled during the many years of relative stability I experienced over the past ten to fifteen years.

At the moment, the fact that’s really eating away at me is that the last impression I left at work was of a manager who was increasingly high strung and finally quite stressed and obnoxiously concerned that he alone had the skills and perspective to resolve the challenges facing the agency. The manic Mr Hyde side. But how long was he showing his face? And now that I am living with a shy, anxious shadow of my Dr Jekyll self (assuming I even have one) I wish I had GPS system of some kind to help me retrace my steps.

A good therapist would help, and I do have one, but at $180/hour I won’t be seeing her much and if I am going to spend that much I would rather wait until I have figured out where I have been so she can help me figure out where I go from here.

Or maybe it’s better to accept what cannot be changed and look forward instead…

Shame, guilt and absolution

Shame: A painful emotion caused by a strong sense of guilt, embarrassment, unworthiness, or disgrace.
Copyright JM Schreiber 2014
Copyright  JM Schreiber 2014

A severe manic episode leaves a residue of shame that no magic formula can resolve or wash away. Your behaviour, actions, words and deeds – no matter how out of character – are remembered by others while you, yourself, have only the foggiest sense of a hellish few days or weeks.

As the weeks pass I find myself unable to shake thoughts of my workplace, the environment in which my manic drama played out. I don’t think about returning to work and I know that at this point I could not even mentally or emotionally entertain that notion even if they would accept me. I realized today that it is the unbearable shame I feel for actions and words I could not control and can never properly apologize for that is eating me up inside.

A post on a blog I follow inadvertently put me in mind of a poem I discovered in the wreckage of my first manic psychosis many years ago. The poem, “Deceptions”, by Philip Larkin was inspired by an account from Henry Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor of a young girl who was drugged and raped by her master.

The poem is exacting in its depiction of her grief and the poet admits, unapologetically, that there is no consolation he can give her; recognizing that both victim and perpetrator were deceived in the violent act. I think it is this very measured recognition that there is nothing that he can offer to absolve grief and shame in the sufferer whether the event is recent or buried by the sands of time that gives the poem its power. The following lines struck me when I first encountered them and this time around, perhaps because my manic episode was a much more public event, they clearly articulate the feelings with which I am currently trying to come to terms.

… light, unanswerable and tall and wide,
Forbids the scar to heal, and drives
Shame out of hiding.  All the unhurried day,
Your mind lay open like a drawer of knives.

This too shall pass, I know, and I will ease the drawer closed and the emotional scars will fade with time.

Absolution is not the issue. Mental illness is not a sin.

Buying time to recover

Every morning I wake up in the middle of a dream about work. The dreams are surreal and disturbing.

I was at the height of a full manic psychosis at the point of last contact about two months ago. That is not an impression one wants to leave. It has taken a long time to slow down enough to appreciate just how agitated I have been. One can no more pull oneself out of depression than one can throw the breaks on a train running at full manic speed. And my memories of those last few weeks are hazy at best.

Technically I still have the potential of returning to work. I was a senior manager and I worked at this small not for profit agency for nine years without incident until a series of circumstances contrived to create an increasingly dysfunctional, toxic environment. And, well, long story short, the pressures took a devastating toll on my mental health. After a decade and a half of relative stability, I became ill. And as a bipolar person with a strong swing to the manic, I left in a spectacular flourish. So I have no real idea what remains for me there.

In all fairness I was paid out generous sick time and vacation pay and I do have access to a short term disability benefit that should see me through the next few months. The approval process has proceeded with typical government efficiency. But today I finally received confirmation of my application and that is a tremendous relief.

Copyright JM Schreiber 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber 2014

I just hope the dreams about work fade for while.

And I can spend some time reading and reflecting about where I go from here.

Making peace with our ghosts

There is a question tends to haunt those of us who live with mood disorders, especially in the early months of adjusting to a diagnosis or in the aftermath of breakdown:

Who Am I?

There is this persistent fear that, if the highs and lows of this “disorder” should ever hit equilibrium, what will be left?

And will that stable “me” be the real me or a medicated artifact?

Copyright JM Schreiber 2013
Copyright JM Schreiber 2013

The theory is that mood disorders are typically associated with “normal” periods but as most of us know, mania and depression can simmer under the surface, felt rather than observed for a long time. When symptoms burst through resulting in “abnormal” thoughts, actions and behaviours, those around us rarely understand that these are beyond our control. And because insight is impaired, when we are at our most unstable we are often the last to know just how far off the rails we have run. All this is further complicated when a mood disorder exists in conjunction with addictions or trauma or other chronic conditions.

Having a mood disorder is like living with ghosts.

But we own those ghosts. They are us. Everyone has them.

Ours just like to try to steal the stage, set the agenda, write the script and direct the show.

Maybe that is why I am drawn to so much fantastic literature lately… allowing the ghosts of others to distract me from my own.

The detective and the end of the world: The Coming by Andrej Nikolaidis

If you are a bit of a news junkie like I am, there is a lot of bad news on our TV screens and computers each day. Violent political upheaval, deadly viruses, floods and fires. But it is scattered and for so many of us our complaints are relatively minor, isolated. What if the signs suddenly started to rapidly multiply and spread across continents and communities. Would it herald the end of the world? Would we know or even agree on the meaning of the signs? Assign them to God, reduce them to science?

Translated by Will Firth Istros Books, available through Dzanc Books in North America
Translated by Will Firth
Istros Books, available through Dzanc Books in North America

The Coming, a wonderful novella by Montenegrin novelist Andrej Nikolaidis explores such questions from a rather unconventional perspective. Our hero is a private detective, a small town Philip Marlowe based in the ancient city of Ulcinj. He finds himself most comfortable providing his clients with the answers they want, regardless of whether or not he even manages to find the truth behind a crime or infidelity. This approach makes him popular with the locals who prefer to approach him  rather than the authorities. Consequently the quiet life he seems to desire tends to allude him. As the book opens he has become obsessed with the particularly brutal murder of an entire family which appears to have coincided with the burning of the local library.

Yet even stranger phenomena begin to threaten his routine. Snow starts to fall in June and does not let up. Around the world catastrophes – earthquakes, floods, raining amphibians – are reported with alarming intensity. Is this the Apocalypse, is the Second Coming finally at hand?

For our poor detective who faces this most peculiar string of circumstances with cynical humour and frustration, there is an added factor. Emmanuel, a child he fathered during a brief affair with an irresistible client, is now grown and has tracked him down from an asylum in the Alps where he has been confined after some serious mental breakdown. Through a series of emails Emmanuel shares details of his childhood with the father he has never met and offers his curious knowledge of messianic mystics, millennial cults and numerous attempts to calculate the date of the end of the world throughout western history. Perhaps because he himself has a mental illness, Emmanuel interprets the reported behaviours of many cult members or their charismatic, wildly erratic leaders in reference to what would be probable modern psychiatric diagnoses.

For myself, personally, in the months that followed my diagnosis with bipolar, I struggled to make sense of the role of my illness in the intensely spiritual experiences that I had periodically encountered growing up. During full blown psychosis, I could imagine that the frantic notions that I had the answer to the meaning of life were indeed in keeping with mania. I had the cramped and panicked nonsensical documents to prove it. But what about the earlier visions and spiritual experiences? Far less dramatic, frequently beautiful, these moments had filled me with such an assurance of the existence of God that I completed an honours degree in philosophy without once being troubled by any ontological questions. I could argue for or against the existence or nature of God while my own personal spirituality remained intact.

However, as I started to read about psychotic symptoms, I began to recognize similar features in the visions of Biblical prophets, the martyrdom of saints, the trance states of mystics and other ostensibly spiritual experiences. I could not divorce my own experiences from an underlying framework of biochemistry. My sense of personal faith crumbled.

Over the years as I have watched good people of faith rejected by their churches following mental breakdowns, I have been increasingly concerned by the double standard. After all who draws the line between mystical vision and clinical madness?

The Coming sees no need to draw those distinctions. I loved the way the pragmatic emails from the detective’s estranged son reach out to a world that may well be facing its final hours with the observation that the human desire for an Apocalypse can be compared to our urge to fast forward through a detective movie because we can’t wait to see how it ends.

We want answers – but we those answers to come from God or from science, not from the visions of those who are determined to be not in their right minds.