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.
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.
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?
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.
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
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.
I recently read Ben Lerner’s acclaimed first novel Leaving the Atocha Station. I bought the book in 2012 but had put it aside, uncertain I wanted to spend time with a narrator I expected to be a misanthropic American slacker poet slouching his way through the streets of Madrid. When I happened to catch the replay of a CBC radio interview with the author my interest was rekindled, especially in light of my recent breakdown and the therapeutic comfort I have been finding in poetry.
Sure enough our narrator Adam Gordon is an ambivalent and emotionally insecure young poet who has chosen to spend a fellowship year in Madrid. Ostensibly his aim is to explore, in verse, the impact of the Civil War on Spanish society although he seems to have precious little direction or inclination of how to begin his project beyond attempting to improve his comfort with the Spanish language. He seems to have a cultured skepticism in the value of art and the validity of the artistic experience which in turn causes him a healthy dose of self loathing. He passes his days smoking hash and cigarettes, while relying on the security of tranquilizers and mood stabilizers. He reads Tolstoy, Cervantes, and John Ashbery. Beyond that he parties and awkwardly attempts to conduct love affairs with two Spanish women.
The resulting novel is a surprisingly humourous and engaging exploration of the struggling artist who refuses to struggle. Adam spends much time trying to make sense of what his new Spanish friends are saying and attempting to compose the facial expressions that he assumes will be appropriate for the circumstances. If in doubt he hides behind the prop of a cigarette. Yet it is not only the dislocation of being in a foreign country that accounts for Adam’s feeling of always being one step out of sync. He also believes himself to have bipolar disorder although it is never entirely clear that this is a confirmed diagnosis or a justification for the little yellow and white pills that he relies on. I’m not certain if Lerner, himself an established poet, is playing with the idea that neurosis is an essential element of the artistic process. Nonetheless Adam embraces it fully, manipulating his medication to ramp up the production of poems for a Spanish translation without any real sense if he is producing anything of worth.
Ultimately he crowns this phase of intense creative production with a grand manic splurge, thanks to his parents’ credit card, to impress one of the women he imagines himself in love with. An insanely expensive dinner and a night at the Ritz Carlton coincides with a tragic early morning blast at the busy Atocha Train Station, the 2004 attack by Islamic militants that killed 191 commuters. The street protests and the involvement of Adam’s wealthy young Spanish friends in the demonstrations and elections that follow this terrorist attack serve to force him to ground himself, even just a little.
The most engaging aspect of this book for me was the continual sense of self consciousness that pervadesAdam’s thoughts, plays with his confidence and keeps him from ever feeling that he is at home in any setting. His anxiety causes him to sabotage his potential relationships (or at least believe he is sabotaging them). He is alternately cocky and absolutely certain everyone else is humouring him. He spends time composing his face, adopting poses and pulling himself together in public settings. If you have never lived with a mood or anxiety disorder such obsessing might seem like poetic license. I found it uncomfortably familiar.
And those little pills Adam keeps reaching for… I have had to rely a lot on those myself lately.
We have all heard this expression, probably said it ourselves if we are parents. Somehow, today, as we continue to simmer in the aftermath of the news of Robin William’s tragic suicide on Monday, this is the thought that keeps coming back to my mind. For those of us who live with the very harsh reality of a mood disorder his death holds a special poignancy. So does the inevitable, endless discussion that only unexpected celebrity death seems to be able to generate.
I am presently on sick leave after a severe manic episode and although I feel the worst of my own suicidal ideation has passed, the extreme mixed state I passed into as medical resources were amassed to put the brakes on my mania was the worst I have known to date. I relied heavily on the local Distress Centre at all hours of the day and night and as much as practical on my elderly mother and young adult children. Otherwise I was intentionally and completely ostracized by my employer and they have yet to follow up on my well being. Still I feel fortunate. Robin Williams and countless others are not so lucky.
In the wake of his death, everyone seems to be turning in to look at the darkness haunting so many seemingly outgoing, humorous, entertaining and outgoing individuals. It seems to me like the attention is so keenly focused on depression and addiction. But when he was working all out, brimming with manic energy the danger signals were just as evident. But we were too busy laughing, crying, and being entertained to be concerned. It’s all fun and games…
Another public media post mortem comment that disturbs me is the observation some people have made that he seemed to hide behind his characters, whether in his improvised comedy or the countless powerful and engaging individuals he portrayed on screen. From this they extrapolate that it is as if he was hollow inside. As if only an individual so empty and devoid of being could ever be driven to take his or her own life! I am no expert on Robin Williams, I never met him, but I would not be surprised to learn that he was a deep and intensely private man. Probably shy and insecure too.
For many people who grow up with an inclination to conditions on the mood/anxiety disorder spectrum, there is often a lot of social isolation. I know from my own experience and that of my son, social interaction does not come naturally to some of us. The need to compensate can drive such people to the creative arts – drama, music, literature for example. Likewise such individuals can be drawn to academic pursuits where energy and intellectual drive can lead to striking success. After all, there can be long periods of essentially “normal” function, especially if one avoids the trap of alcohol or drugs as a means to cope.
From my own recent experience, it seems to me that our western society, rewards the mildly manic. Over the past nine years I worked at a small agency where I routinely held the largest and most complex caseloads and took on any extra assignments placed on my desk. I developed programs, trained staff. I was rarely sick and frequently had to struggle to squeeze my allotted vacation time in before year end. I loved my job.
At home I was a single parent with two teenagers, each with their own special needs. There was whole full time round of responsibilities that fell into play outside the office. Then about a year ago things at work got crazy. The Director was exhibiting signs of significant cognitive decline and it was left to myself and a junior staff to monitor and report on the increasingly toxic state at the office while the Board of Directors tried to decide what to do.
As senior management I took the brunt of the responsibility, workload and, ultimately, abuse. I became irritable, overwhelmed and distressed – big time manic. Although I had always been open about my bipolar diagnosis no one recognized the warning signs until a chance comment about how fast I was talking hit me like a ton of bricks. I immediately pulled myself out but by then it was too late. And it is all still seen as entirely my fault, my failure to control my behaviour.
I wasn’t funny, no one was laughing and I am the only one who lost an eye, figuratively speaking of course.
In the early weeks of my sick leave I remember thinking that if I took my life, maybe my employers would realize how truly sick I had become. Of course it would have only reinforced my madness and saved them the complication that as a disabled person I have human rights protection.
Loveable madness is remembered fondly. Margot Kidder digging garbage out of an alley is not. On a more horrific level, the nice ordinary person who seems to suddenly snap and takes the lives of family or strangers is not. However mental illness is a critical subject that we cannot afford to ignore.
After all, it’s all fun and games until somebody loses a life.
For some 30 years I have packed and unpacked, shelved and reshelved a library full of books that I have not yet read but would not dream of carting off to a charity sale. Naturally I assume that the day will come when that book will come to my attention and, conveniently I will have it at hand. Of course, in the meantime a wealth of new books have joined my libraries, actual and electronic, so that all those long held treasures run the risk of absolute obscurity. I suspect more than a few book addicts can relate.
And sometimes the tendency to hoard a book pays off, though sadly that time is too often heralded by the death of the author.
I must have purchased Nadine Gordimer’s Burger’s Daughter, in the very early 1980s. I was studying anthropology and working part-time in a bookstore. South Africa and the struggles against Apartheid would have held a particular resonance for me through the presence of a number white South African ex-patriots who had found their way to the Anthropology department of a Canadian university for their own safety. However, had I read this novel when I first bought it, I am not sure if I would have been able to fully appreciate this powerful testament to those men and women, white and black, who risked their freedom and too often their lives to fight for justice. But with 30 year’s perspective, the hard won experience of middle age and the political changes that have marked South Africa in deeply complicated ways both positive and negative – as history tends to unfold in real life – this is one of the most rewarding reads of the year for me to date.
Ms Gordimer’s writing is rich, complex and worthy of a careful read. The shifting perspectives take the reader in and out of internal monologues that Rosa Burger, the daughter of a doctor and Communist activist who has died in prison, holds with the many individuals she encounters or remembers as she struggles to find an identity for herself in the huge shadow cast by her famous father (a fictionalized tribute to the lawyer who defended Nelson Mandela). In the infinite wisdom of Wikipedia, Burger’s Daughter is described as historical fiction. Of course, it is no such thing. Rather it is a time capsule, a deliberately political novel, but written without the advantage of knowing that Mandela would walk to freedom, become President, and pass away leaving a society where so many still live on a razor’s edge even if the tapestry has changed.
The final pages of Burger’s Daughter paints an uncertain future. Yet like life itself, the novel is brimming with vibrant, colourful characters brought to life with keen and loving detail. The complexity of the politics presented at the time of writing combined with the critical distance of three decades impressed me deeply. It takes courage to speak to injustice. Nadine Gordimer herself knew that her work not only took risks but would also be forever defined by her colour. Moving beyond colour, religion, ethnicity, culture, gender, ability, orientation or the myriad of other divisions we seem to be able to construct as to divide us as humans is a seemingly impossible task. But by taking that one piece to which a writer, by virtue of fate or circumstance, is able to address and telling the stories that matter, small changes may be possible.
“Writing is making sense of life. You work your whole life and perhaps you’ve made sense of one small area.” (Nadine Gordimer)
Nadine Gordimer was a writer of courage and I am ashamed that it took her death to bring her into my focus.
There is a dish which has become ubiquitous in Canada – fries smothered with gravy and cheese curds – the French Canadian artery clogging delight called poutine. Many years ago when I lived in Ottawa it was a treat to cross into Québec, follow some back road instructions to a truck, seemingly parked in the middle of nowhere and order the authentic dish complete with cardboard container and plastic fork. Personally my tastes have changed in 30 years, so while some version resembling poutine can be found at most of your favourite fast food haunts, but I will leave you to it. My kids, on the other hand, love gravy – with or without the cheese curds.
Today my wish for my son is gravy. At 24 he has been struggling with an addiction to alcohol for several years. He is aware that underlying the addiction is the mood disorder that knits so much of our family together. Yet his experiences in anything resembling conventional mental health care have been quite horrific for an intelligent, gifted child. As far as he is concerned, alcohol is preferable to medication or therapy. I can appreciate where he is coming from but I chose to take my risks with the prescribed meds and I have been spared the temptation to turn to alcohol that has marked many other family members over the years. Not that it has prevented me from falling ill again but life has no guarantees.
Living with mental illness is not easy. Addiction adds to the burden. But I love my son unconditionally and understand that, in the end, his life is his own and he is the only one who can really come to terms with his own blessings and curses.
Lately we have been fooling ourselves with the idea that he can maintain a minimal alcohol intake and get by. However, this morning after a night of heavier drinking and the inevitable conflict such situations evoke, he finally admitted that he cannot live without alcohol and that it is interfering with everything he wants in life. He poured out every remaining drop and gathered all the empty cans and bottles to return.
Will it hold? It is a critical start, as close to bottom as I have seen him reach to date. So I want to offer him gravy. Poets, artists, musicians and writers who nursed their muse with alcohol or drugs are well known and a tragic number paid a steep price. But I want to offer my son Gravy, a poem composed by the incomparable Raymond Carver after a diagnosis of cancer. Although illness took him early it was not for alcohol – that was a battle he won and was rewarded with the time to create a body of poems and short stories that have inspired and moved so many. And that is a victory he celebrated as, of all things, gravy:
No other word will do. For that’s what it was.
Gravy, these past ten years.
Alive, sober, working, loving, and
being loved by a good woman. Eleven years
ago he was told he had six months to live
at the rate he was going. And he was going
nowhere but down. So he changed his ways
somehow. He quit drinking! And the rest?
After that it was all gravy, every minute
Excerpt from Gravy by Raymond Carver, All of Us: The Collected Poems, edited by Tess Gallagher, Vintage (1996)