What fresh yellow is this? (With apologies to Dorothy Parker)

Typically I love autumn – the crisper weather, the bright blue skies, the excuse to pull out sweaters. Normally this is the busiest time of the year as new programs and courses start and activities halted for the summer resume. More than New Year’s, this can be the season for resolutions, goal setting and looking forward.

Copyright JM Schreiber 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber 2014

Unless you are depressed.

Without the structure of work I feel lost. And unlike regular unemployment I am in a holding pattern, uncertain what type of work I may be able to return to when I do recover, if I recover, should I even recognize recovered if I meet it in myself.

I feel tired and agitated. Irritable and unfocused. I try to push myself out every day and have an exciting literary festival to look forward to in just over a week. Yet I am terrified that I have taken on more than I will be able to manage and I find myself fighting off regular amorphous panic attacks.

I feel like a wrung out dish towel. I miss having energy and enthusiasm but I have to guard against a reckless flood of these sensations lest they indicate trouble at the opposite end of the bipolar pendulum arc…

Copyright JM Schreiber 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber 2014

For now I am looking toward the brilliant yellows of the moment. Apparently yellow is the colour of the mind and the intellect, it lifts the spirit, stimulates creativity but can also heighten anxiety and emotional instability.

Sounds like a bipolar hue to me.

Inhale deeply : Reflections on Breath by Tim Winton

Take a deep breath and hold it as long as you can… I imagine there are few children who have not engaged in some variation of that form of super hero training. I am aware that some push it to an extreme, driving for the physiological high induced by oxygen deprivation, but in my day it was an exercise in imagining oneself capable of surviving one of the daring challenges we set up for ourselves. Where I grew up that generally involved challenging one another to crawl through one of the long corrugated metal culverts under the rural road ways. I never heard of any unfortunate incidents resulting from such an activity but my overactive childhood imagination manufactured many. Either way, being able to hold one’s breath for at least 60 seconds seemed to be skill worth developing.

At this end of life I no longer maintain this practice, but despite the fact that tests have assured me that I actually have very good lung capacity, panic and anxiety attacks can leave me struggling to fell like I am getting enough air. Breath deep, stay calm, focus on your breath.

1414720The arrival at the scene of an apparent suicide is the impetus for paramedic Bruce Pike, the narrator of Tim Winton’s novel Breath, to return on the pivotal events of a summer many years earlier and the struggle to relieve himself of the baggage he believed he carried on well into adulthood. What follows is a gripping coming of age tale featuring the young Pike (or Pikelet), a slightly bookish, awkward outsider, growing up in an unremarkable mill town on the edge of western Australia. His encounter and ensuing friendship with Ivan Loon (Loonie), the restless and reckless son of the local publican, leads him away from the safe an predictable confines of life with his reserved parents and into the aura of a former champion surfer who becomes their surfing coach, hero and guru.

Under Sando’s fickle attention the boys are introduced to the thrills of confronting nature in one of her most dangerous and unpredictable forums. Even if you have never fancied that you have an interest in surfing, Winton’s spare, confident writing pulls you right into the swell, creating vivid and heart stopping scenes that leave you gasping for air. Under the equally reckless attention of the aging surfer’s bitter and damaged young wife, our narrator is left with emotional scars that are even slower to heal than any physical beating inflicted by the surf.

This is my first encounter with the work of Tim Winton, chosen at the fine recommendation of whisperinggums as a suitable (i.e. shorter) introduction to his work in advance of his visit to Wordfest next month. It will definitely not be my last. I reveled in the exotic setting, a sharp contrast to my own landlocked prairie childhood, yet I fully related to the awe with which Pikelet and Loonie held their flawed hippie heroes. As a teenager in the 1970s myself I can remember clearly how the hippie movement of the 60s still held this magical allure that had not yet faded. On an even more personal level I was moved by the sadness and regret that drives the narrative on into the complications of adulthood. Pike’s adjustment is not easy. He has a breakdown, makes a mess of his life and has to find his own way to pull it together.

This wonderful book is more than a classic Bildungsroman. Youth and adolescence are never the full picture. When has anyone truly come of age? And by what measure of ordinariness are the true heroes assessed? Ask someone trying to live well with a mental illness.

The unbearable invisibility of being mentally ill

For years I worked with brain injury. Depending upon the cause, damage to the brain can mark the survivor with more or less obvious physical impairments. But frequently the greatest impact leaves no obvious trace on the outside. The injury takes its most significant toll on memory, behaviour and fatigue.

Not unlike mental illness.

Copyright JM Schreiber 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber 2014

For many who have never had direct experience of mental illness the tendency is to imagine the extreme – psychotic, eccentric, suicidal behaviour. But the reality is so much more complicated, so much more subtle and, on the outside it is often so apparently normal. Especially for those of us who live with anxiety and mood disorders.

We look like other people. We have lives, families, jobs when we are well enough. But sometimes those things are tenuous. And yet there is this inability to step away from the condition and observe it, no CAT scans or MRIs to chart the progress of the illness or mark remission.

Copyright JM Schreiber 2014
Copyright JM Schreiber 2014

Recovery is a slippery concept. It depends so much on how we feel.

And the deeper we look the harder it is to know exactly how we feel.

Aiming to see the bright side

For someone who recognizes the swings of bipolar disorder reaching back into late adolescence or early adulthood, I have had precious little acquaintance with depression. Unfortunately I remember it best as a stepping stone on the way to hypomania and, at worst, the door into a hallway leading up to eventual mania.

Now, on the heels of a drawn out period of manic and mixed state agitation I am settled into a pit of anxious depression. Bone weary I find it hard to sleep. With long days to fill I find it hard to focus. Plans and decisions loom on the horizon but I find it hard to concentrate. I make an effort to go out somewhere everyday but before long I feel nauseated and eager to get home.  And now my psychiatrist is unavailable so my faithful doctor has set about looking for someone else to help me assess the effectiveness of the medication I have relied on for so many years, just in case it is time for a change.

And the thought of a medication change is about as comforting as the thought of having the carpet pulled out from under me without warning.

Copyright JM Schreiber 2014  No sign of last week's storm
Copyright JM Schreiber 2014
No sign of last week’s storm

Today I made my own small effort to take back some control. It was a glorious warm September day, with only the piles of branches that litter the streets, sidewalks and parks giving testament to last week’s unexpected snowstorm. I made my way downtown to the offices of Wordfest, our annual literary festival, to see if they might still have a need for any volunteers.

One advantage of my current inability to work is that for the first time in years I am free to take part in this major festival. Typically it coincided with the busiest time of year at my former job, so volunteering or attending events was impossible. Now I am committed to helping out with two events on the 14th of October. I was cautious to warn them that my energy reserves are uncharacteristically  low at the moment but it is my sincere hope that in a month there will be a little more juice flowing. I can’t quite picture it getting worse.

In the meantime I have a plenty of reading to occupy my time in advance of the special visiting author events I hope to attend over the course of the festival. The support of my doctor and therapist is vital, I know, but Wordfest gives me a tangible goal to look forward to – an essential light at the end of the tunnel when everything else seems so uncertain.

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…

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.

Leaving the Atocha Station – The neurotic American poet in Spain

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.

indexSure 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.

Too anxious to read?

It should be a luxury to be freed from the demands of a regular work schedule, with no shortage of books to read and time to stop and reflect on where one is at in life. In fact that is the mandate, so be it, of my present circumstances. I am on sick leave with no pressure to return to the workplace and an expectation of a reasonable income to see me through the next few months. At the moment I know I am too fragile to consider working anywhere and my employer has been less than forthcoming as to whether they foresee a place for me in the future. I just know it would be reckless to engage in any employment related discussion or decision making for a while yet. So I find myself with time on my hands.

I should be reading more. Yet I feel like I read more when I had barely a minute to spare.

I have been cocooning myself with stacks of books and, like any book addict, have continued to browse for and purchase more. I have four underway – two old school paper format, two electronic – one serious literary, one non-fiction, one genre fiction and a collection of short stories. Each one is excellent but I seem to be struck with some inability to stay put without great anxiety building and the sense that I should be somewhere else. Or rather in some other book. So I put down one and pick up another.

Sometimes I try to take a walk, grab my neglected camera hoping to find inspiration, or at least distraction, in these gorgeous summer days. That’s what I did today, but I happened across a sidewalk sale outside the most fantastic bookstore along my way and came home with six more books!

I’m not used to anxiety. It seems to eat away at an ability to focus in a way that neither the ups or the downs of my regulated mood disorder ever has. The overwhelming sense of unease, the unknowns, the uncertainties appear to be keeping me from finding solace in the written word.

Boardwalk into the darkHopefully this shall soon pass because it would be a crime to worry away such valuable reading time.