Greetings from the Depths (Originally published 12/5/12)

“You’re drowning in the grief of Jupiter’s water
Let me open my teeth and cradle you there”
– “Grief,” from the film “The Devil’s Carnival”

I wasn’t very happy with my last blog entry. I felt I rushed through it and never properly edited it. I may go back at some point and rework it, but I’d like to go more in depth as to why I was unhappy with it. A while ago I wrote about trying to hold off a manic episode. I know that after a manic episode occurs, I will have to deal with the inevitable depression that follows and that was precisely what happened. I had started working on the last entry about anger and rage when the depression crept in. It made writing very difficult and I rushed my editing process a bit so I could be done with it and move on. I planned on writing about the depression while suffering through it, but I couldn’t. I could hardly get off the couch to do basic things like showering or going to the store; focusing to write coherently was completely impossible.

One of the first symptoms of my depression is a lack of concentration. I can’t even pay enough attention to watch a thirty minute sitcom, which is by no means an intellectually Herculean feat. This leads to my sitting in front of the TV, not paying attention, and ruminating over every stressor in my life, running the gamut of problems from family to financial. This time there was a new worry, a court appearance scheduled for the day before Thanksgiving to set my child support payments. In order to prevent panic attacks (which I proceeded to have anyway) I would try to get out of the house, but I wasn’t always successful. I would alternate between sitting with my racing thoughts and falling asleep on the couch, thoroughly exhausted. Although it seems that the converse would be true, depression is far more exhausting and draining than mania. The lack of sleep that accompanies mania is far more manageable. After all, it’s easy to stay awake when you feel as though everything is yours for the taking. When depression sets in and it seems as if your brain’s sole function is to torture you and push your body to the point hyperventilation and chest pains, it’s physically and mentally draining.

After my last manic episode, I knew the depression was coming, and with the added stress of the child support hearing, I almost could have marked it on a calendar. As the hearing drew closer, the depression intensified to the point that I would wake up and lay in bed shaking for ninety minutes or so until I had the strength to get up and take a Xanax. The night before the hearing was torture. I didn’t want to take anything to help me sleep for fear of oversleeping, so I tossed and turned all night, constantly checking the clock. I made it to court with plenty of time to spare, but then I had to explain to the magistrate about being in the outpatient program at Four Winds Psychiatric Hospital and how I lost my job, substantially reducing how much child support I could pay. I almost broke into tears explaining my reasons for going to a psych hospital. Having to tell this to a total stranger in a court of law was an entirely different level of stress. Luckily, the magistrate understood and because of my mental health issues I was assigned a court-appointed lawyer to assist me. As soon as I left the building, I wanted to collapse into a heap and simply throw a tantrum and cry. I managed the two and a half hour drive back home without incident.

The entire incident of being depressed was the first time I recognized it from the onset. My biggest concern, as always, is how long the episode would last. In this case, I felt better just about the time I got home. This also reinforced my theory that the child support hearing was the main trigger this time, and as soon as it was over and I got home I felt better. Granted, it began several days before and followed a manic episode, so it still fit the pattern, but making it through that hearing and having a lawyer made me breathe much easier.

Unfortunately, I also realized that writing about depression while still depressed is nearly impossible for me, hence my small break from blogging. Hopefully now I can get a lot more writing done as the holidays approach.

Rage On (Originally published 11/20/12)

“Then someone will say what is lost can never be saved
Despite all my rage I am still just a rat in a cage”
— Smashing Pumpkins, “Bullet with Butterfly Wings”

I realized something today; standing in line at KFC for more than five minutes renews my hatred for humanity. It’s not just KFC; it’s any line that doesn’t move because one person is taking an inordinate amount of time trying to free his head from his ass. It throws me into a complete rage. Another example is the day I ran into CVS for a pack of cigarettes and the line was ridiculously long. I got on line like a good little boy and immediately my rage hit eleven on my internal meter. To further my dilemma someone saw an ornament on the shelf that plays Christmas music. They then proceed to set off two of them at once. Immediately I wanted to turn around and let loose a torrent of profanity at the dumbass who thought this was amusing. Instead, I practiced a deep breathing exercise I learned in the partial program. Finally, I calmed down and the musical ornaments stopped.Until I learned different techniques to calm myself I would have stood there and let my anger simmer until I took it out on someone; whether it was yelling at someone in traffic, or even worse, someone close to me. Since I was a child I’ve had anger issues. I’ve always had a short, violent temper. I’ve yelled and screamed profanities, thrown and broken things, and then shut down afterwards. It wasn’t a daily occurrence, but it still happened more often than I would have liked. I would get into screaming matches with my parents over the most ridiculous things and then regret it for days. It still happens occasionally, but I am learning to deal with it.

The most recent and memorable occurrence was last April. My wife and son moved out at the end of February. I figured they would be gone for a couple of weeks and then return home. One weekend in April my wife came back with her brother to pick up a few things. I started to get irritated because I figured by now we should be back living together. Instead, there were clothes and other things leaving the house. I went into the bedroom and hid under the covers. I was shutting down and refusing to deal with the situation. My wife and her brother went out for a while and returned with a U-Haul trailer and began loading in my son’s furniture. I suddenly realized that they weren’t coming home anytime soon, if ever. Watching the pieces of my son’s bed get loaded into the trailer pushed me into an incredible rage. I lost it and began unloading a most violent, profanity-laced diatribe that would’ve made Mel Gibson proud. I left my wife with the only decision she felt she had left. She called the police. Rather than get involved in further confrontation, I left the house. I got in the car and headed to a nearby mall because that was as far as I could get before a panic attack hit me. I sat in the parking lot, shaking and hyper-ventilating. It took almost twenty minutes before I regained control of myself. I called her to apologize and ask if I could at least come back to get my Xanax to get through the panic attack.

The fact that she felt there was no other option than calling the police was utterly humiliating for me. How could I make someone so afraid for their safety that they felt the need to call the police? How many other times had my wife feared for her physical safety because of my verbal tirades? I had never thought of this. In my mind, I knew I could never physically harm someone, but in the midst of one of my rages, how would someone else recognize that?

When I was at Four Winds I was working on other issues, especially my suicidal ideation. It wasn’t until I had a session by phone with my wife that mage rage issues hit home. She told me she was attending a group for abused women. Again, I felt horrendous that I was responsible for someone else feeling abused. I decided then that this was something I needed to resolve as quickly as possible. I began working on my anger issues during therapy. I learned several anger management skills and they have mostly proven effective. I still slip occasionally, but my outbursts are minimal. Like most parts of therapy, it’s a work in progress.

Storm A’ Brewin’ (Originally published 11/17/12)

“Manic depression is touching my soul
I know what I want but I just don’t know
How to go about gettin’ it”
– Jimi Hendrix, “Manic Depression”

I’m trying to hold back an ill-timed manic episode. I know it’s coming because I’ve been overly productive. I’ve been up late and sleeping little. I’ve been spending my time reading, watching TV, and writing. I’m not saying that this blog is responsible for, or related to, my mania. If I weren’t working on the blog, I would find something else to occupy my time at four in the morning, probably television. While dealing with my occasional periods of insomnia I have watched more complete TV series on Netflix than I care to name. Insomnia isn’t the only sign that a manic episode is coming. Another clue is the spending of money to the point of financial problems, and that’s not hard to do in my financial situation. Twenty dollars could screw my budget up. Yet, I still feel the need to spend. For example, I was online looking for a leather jacket for my son as a birthday gift, so of course I wound up looking at things for myself and wound up spending $100.00 on a pair of boots that I didn’t need. Luckily, I found out the boots were backordered just as my buyer’s remorse kicked in and I was able to cancel the order and get my money back.

I’ve also been thinking about the things I used to do when this type of mood struck me: going out, doing drugs, drinking, spending horrific amounts of money. Yet somehow, at the end of the night (or early morning), I still wasn’t happy. That’s the curse of the manic episode. It seems like a great idea at the time, but ultimately it is empty and unsatisfying and that’s when the depression can start to roll on in. Remembering what that emptiness felt like has, in a way, kept me honest. It’s very similar to remembering the physical feelings the morning after I was out doing cocaine and drinking. I would feel awful and swear it was the last time, but then a few weeks later I would wake up with same feeling saying the same thing.

This time, though, the mania has more of a restless feeling. I want to do something, but I don’t know what. I don’t want anything that will trigger my old behaviors, so I run through alternatives. I’ve become obsessive about staying in touch with people, so I will call, text, or chat online with friends, for no reason other than to keep myself busy (idle hands, remember). I will do anything that will get me out of the house. Luckily I have close friends and neighbors who don’t mind me just popping in on them and hanging out until odd hours. I’ve even gone to the supermarket and walked around for an hour without buying anything just for something to do.

Another coping skill I learned is the trade-off. I know that when mania knocks at the door, as it does now, I have a desire to spend and spend big. I can still do that to a lesser degree. I bought a video game, but I had gift cards I actually got it for free. Rather than buying a couple of DVDs, I rented a couple of movies for $3.00 each. These actions were much more satisfying. Now is also a good time to watch DVDs and Blu-rays that I bought but never watched. If these tactics get me through this manic episode, then I know what to do next time. I’m trying to stop impulses that I always gave into. It’s strange being aware of my behavior when I never was before; that I can recognize these things as they occur and stop them before they cause more problems. I’ve written several times about looking back on my life through the filter of bipolar disorder and realizing how and why certain situations occurred, but this is the first time I can recognize something before it’s happened and, if not stop it, then at least minimize the damage, It’s kind of refreshing, and, on the upside, I’m a smarter shopper because of it.

The Stigma of the Stigmatized (Originally Published 11/16/12)

“No one seemed to hear him
So he leafed through a magazine
And, yawning, rubbed the sleep away
Very sane he seemed to me”
– David Bowie, “Look Back in Anger”

            I knew almost immediately that my bipolarity would cause problems.  Aside for the expected mood swings and anger issues it brought on, I also recognized that some people do not easily understand the concept of mental illness.  As I told my friends about my diagnosis I got a variety of responses.  Some had no idea what bipolar disorder was or what the symptoms were.  One response was, “Bipolar, is that a real thing?”  Almost all my friends were supportive, but there were one or two who refused to accept mental illness as real and therefore my depression was merely weakness.   I am glad that this response was the exception rather than the rule. Losing one or two acquaintances I can deal with.  It’s a few less statuses for me to read on Facebook.  My close friends have been far more accepting.  My employers, well not so much.  I already described the last conversation I had with the school president.  Even over the phone I could tell he was uncomfortable.  It actually made me laugh, yet I know that many people with mental illness get treated like this regularly, and that is nothing to laugh at.

            It seems that most people’s instinct is to treat someone with bipolar disorder, or any mental illness, with kid gloves.  I have oftentimes been dealt with as if I am in some way overly fragile.  Obviously I appreciate everyone who has offered support, and it’s a long list of those who have, but just as important is being treated just the same as I always was.  Granted, I’ve done things in the midst of manic episodes that I had kept secret for a long time, and I understand that, but I am still the same person I was.

            I feel that being wild and unpredictable is a big part of the stigma attached to bipolar disorder, the idea that those with mental illness are not in control of their own actions.  Bipolar disorder doesn’t really work that way.  I indeed can be, when not on my meds, more impulsive, but not really out of control.  I could have, at any point not done cocaine or spent outrageous amounts of money, but I ultimately chose to do them.  It is my fault, and I take responsibility for those actions, and many others as well.  I will not explain away my actions simply because I am bipolar.  I am bipolar and I made bad decisions, and therefore I need to deal with the consequences.  Now, that I am in therapy and back on my meds, I am still the same person, except now I hopefully will make better choices and I am emotionally capable of handling the consequences.  I prefer to be around other people and out of the house as much as I can, but not because I feel the need to be supervised, but because being home in front of the TV means I am not accomplishing anything and I am isolating myself; something which, for me, leads back to depression.  Also, my friends are amazing people and I enjoy being around them.  The more I am out and being normal, and being treated as such, releases me from the stigma of mental illness.

            Lately there has been much about bipolar disorder on the news, mostly because of two celebrities: Catherine Zeta-Jones and Lark Voorhies.  Catherine Zeta-Jones admitted to the press a few months ago that she is bipolar, and former Saved by the Bell actress Lark Voorhies denied she was bipolar after several bizarre public incidents.  These represent the two sides of my argument.  Catherine Zeta-Jones is trying to raise awareness of this disease and break the stigma that is attached to it.  Lark Voorhies, if she is bipolar, is doing a great disservice to many by reinforcing the stereotype.

            My goal in starting this blog was twofold: first, to get writing again, and in that work through my own issues while hopefully providing some entertainment for the readers.  The second goal was a little loftier; trying to raise awareness of bipolar disorder and in my own way help to stop the stigma and the stereotype of mental illness.  I’ve joked many times in this blog and on Facebook about being crazy, or nuts, or mad, or…you get the idea, but the bottom line is I still want to be treated the same as always and I have always been crazy.

Take it or Leave It? (Originally published 11/15/12)

            In the documentary, Stephen Fry: The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive, Stephen Fry offers the people he interviews a hypothetical situation.  He has them imagine a button in front of them which, if pressed, would remove the disease of bipolarity from their lives.  All except two people choose not to press the button.  I was amazed that such an overwhelming amount of people would choose to keep this mental illness, and then I started to take a look at the impact of bipolarity on my own life.  Would I press the button to take away this disease that apparently has cost me everything?

            Pushing the button is a much more intricate question than it seems.  Since I was diagnosed at the age of 44, I would have to look back at my entire life through the filter of this illness and see exactly how it impacted my life.  The one area it seemed to impact the most was my writing and creativity.  Writing was, and is, the one creative outlet I have.  I never had the patience to learn a musical instrument and my artistic ability was sadly limited to stick figures.  Writing, however, I adored.  I was the nerd in the class who loved being assigned papers and research projects.  If I had to write it, I was guaranteed a good grade.  My ability to write well was well fed by my mania.  I would stay up until odd hours furiously typing working on papers for class or on my own short stories.  I got quite a number of compliments on my work.  I credit much of that to my bipolarity.  Hypomanic episodes can often be perceived as high-functioning behavior or even genius.  In other words my psychotic ramblings were perceived as being much more than what I was capable of.  Of course I didn’t know that 25 years ago and continued on writing.  I had some sense that I was doing something right creatively when I was accepted into a summer creative writing program at Yale University.  I studied fiction writing under Tom Perrotta who has written several excellent novels, including Election which was made into a film with Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon.  He told me I had talent, but shortly after that summer, I stopped writing.

            There were also times of depression when I was younger.  I attempted to commit suicide during my sophomore year of high school by overdosing on pills.  Four years later I was again contemplating suicide and was getting very drawn to playing with razor blades.  As I worked through those issues, others would arise and I would continue to work through them as any college student would – with alcohol and marijuana.  The numbed me to my surroundings, which became much more pleasant.  I also slept better.  By the age of nineteen I had discovered the fine art of self-medication, which served me well into my forties.

            Granted these are only a few examples of what I found when I looked back over the last forty-three and half years.  There were more incidents of anger, irritability, and rage than I would care to remember, incidents of depression, mania, plus other incidents which I’ve already documented on this blog which stand as an inglorious testament to my bipolarity.  After all of this soul-searching and remembering, the question still remained, would I push that button?  Would I free myself of all the symptoms that have both served and ruined me?  Never.  It is my illness; I have accepted it now for good and bad.  I needed to take ownership of the things I’ve done and the mistakes I’ve made, and this is the first step.  I refuse to sacrifice my creativity and what that means to me for symptoms that I can now identify and hopefully cope with.  It has taken on too large a role in who I am for me not to embrace it and possibly relinquish one of my only true talents.  So, I will simply push aside the button.  For now.

Please Leave Quietly (Originally published 11/14/12)

“It’s alright
There comes a time
Got no patience
To search for peace of mind”
– Alice in Chains, “No Excuses”

            When my depression was at its worst I would stop going to work.  I wrote in the second blog entry how I would call in sick and say that I had a recurring physical ailment, usually related to ulcerative colitis, since I had already had a couple of bouts with it.  This would allow me to take a couple of days off.  This past March I started missing an inordinate amount of days, even by my standards.  It got so bad that I had to admit my depression to the principal and seek therapy.  Unfortunately, I was replaced.  The school hired another teacher to teach my classes while I became a full time sub and got paid per diem.  After Memorial Day the school president informed me that my services as a sub were no longer needed.  The school would pay me what they still owed me and I applied for short-term disability for a couple of weeks of work.  The rest of the time I was going to have to take unpaid leave under the Family Medical Leave Act.  The real problem was that my paychecks for the summer wouldn’t be enough to pay my bills or my mortgage.  Thus began the Summer of Ramen at my house.  I really couldn’t afford much else.  My cell phone was turned off twice and my FiOS service once.  Luckily, one friend with whom I grew up was kind enough to lend me money when I needed it and pay him back at the end of the summer.

            When I went back to work in September, I almost immediately started to fall into the same pattern.  I had been off my meds for almost a month and a half, so my situation had worsened.  I also developed a severe case of psoriasis, so now I had other reasons to call in sick.  By early October I was almost out of sick days already and it was becoming obvious I needed help so I went to my therapist and got set to go to Four Winds Psychiatric Hospital and start the partial program.  I then called my principal to see what would happen at work.  He told me he had to speak to the school president and get back to me.

            The Friday before Columbus Day weekend he called me back with two options: I could use the rest of my sick days and time left under the Family Medical Leave Act and then I would stop getting paid and lose my benefits or I could resign my position and keep my benefits until the end of October and receive $8000 severance pay.  I had until the following Wednesday to decide.  Needless to say this added to the stress and depression since I had neither the time nor faculties to make the decision properly.  I didn’t have the luxury of being comfortable with my choice.  Either way I was out of a job I had been in for fifteen years.  Since my decision-making skills were not t their keenest and I didn’t know what else to do, I took the severance package and resigned.  I felt that there could have been a way for me to keep my job, but I just wanted to stay hidden under the covers and not deal with it.  Was there a better option?  Probably.  Did I screw myself?  Definitely.  But at the same time I felt angry and betrayed by a place I had devoted myself to.

            I did have one moment of vindication and that came during my conversation with the school president.  I was supposed to call him to discuss the details of my severance package.  I told him I would call between 3:30pm and 4:00pm, as soon as I got home from the program.  I called at 3:45 and was immediately told it was a bad time.  He was on his way out the door and could he call me back later that evening.  I was mildly annoyed, but I agreed.  He called me early in the evening.  He explained to me that the severance would be broken up over several pay periods.  I asked how many checks and how much would they be.  Well, he just didn’t have that information, even though he was calling me for that exact reason.  Also his tone changed.  He wanted to get off the phone, so I stayed as cordial as possible and made him deal with the crazy guy, no matter how uncomfortable it made him.  If we had been standing in the same room, he would have been slowly backing away as if crazy was contagious.  If he couldn’t be professional and have the right information when he promised it, I at least was going to make him be civil.  That was my last conversation with him.

            The rest of the faculty was never told that I resigned or why, only that I was taking medical leave.  The president not only didn’t want to deal with my mental condition, he didn’t even want anyone to know I was gone for good.  I was being pushed out through a side door into oblivion.  The less anyone knew, the better he felt.  As for my co-workers, I hope they get to read this and know why I’m not there.  In the meantime I’m still deciding between trying to claim disability or unemployment, which I know the school will try to block.  At some point I’m also going to have to find another job.  It’s just a reminder that sanity isn’t stress free, but I can at least make a more informed opinion.

The Group Dynamic (Originally published 11/13/12)

“Everybody knows that the boat is leaking
Everybody knows that the captain lied
Everybody got this broken feeling
Like their father or their dog just died”
– Leonard Cohen, “Everybody Knows”

            Until Four Winds, I had never participated in group therapy, nor did I particularly want to.  I always figured that when it came to therapy sessions, it was my hour, why should I have to share it with someone who was potentially more fucked up than me?  When they told me 99% of my time at Four Winds was going to be in a group, I panicked.  First, my only knowledge of group therapy came from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Second, I didn’t want to divulge anything personal to strangers, especially to a group that was constantly changing because of discharges and new admissions.  I did, however, realize that when you have fifteen crazy people and only four or five therapists, group therapy makes it much easier especially when you are teaching the same skills.  It avoids repeating the same thing several times a day.

            The first adjustment was getting used to filling out a diary sheet every morning.  It took me a day or two to really understand it, but I caught on to the basics.  The first part was rating on a scale of 1-3, with 3 being the worst, if I was thinking of suicide, wanting to give up, and if I was coping negatively.  We were supposed to fill out the card for the day before, and there was also a checklist to mark off what coping skills we had tried.  After two days or so, filling out the card was pretty easy.  Shortly after that it was a brief part of my morning routine.  I would sit with my roll and coffee and fill it out and have it done before most of the other group members even got there.

            One all the cards were filled out we would have a few minutes before we started our community meeting, which was just a reading of the guidelines, going over the day’s agenda, and answering any questions we had our first group session which was everyone reviewing his or her card and come up with a goal for the day.  My first day, I not only felt like I wasn’t part of the group, but also that I didn’t want to be a part of it.  I wanted to sit in my corner, be quiet, and let the world pass me by.  I was also listening to people with PTSD, eating disorders, schizophrenics, addicts, alcoholics, and people who cut themselves.  There were also varying combinations of suicidal ideation, depression, and anxiety.  I just didn’t want to deal with anyone else’s shit.  I wanted to sit and feel sorry for myself.  I was there to keep myself alive and safe.  I really didn’t care about coping skills.

            During the first week or so the morning group session became my favorite part of the day.  As each day passed, I began to share more and more.  Not only did talking about my concerns and my manic depression make me feel better, but something wholly unexpected also happened; other members of the group gave me significant suggestions for coping.    For the three weeks I was there, the other members helped me more than the therapists.  I found out I wasn’t the only one suffering from bipolar disorder, so it was made it easier to have someone with whom I shared symptoms.  It was strange that I went from being almost intimidated to feeling part of the group.  When I was discharged from the group it was bittersweet because felt better and was ready to cope with my problems on my own, but I would be out of touch with the group.  According to the guidelines, we weren’t allowed to contact each other outside of the group and that saddened me a bit.  Who better for a crazy person to turn to than other crazy people?

            I did keep my morning routine of filling out a diary card, only now I do it mentally.  I also try to have a goal for the day only instead of goals like “Stay mindful to handle panic attacks,” it’s more, “Update résumé.”  I also noticed how my diary card had changed.  That thoughts of suicide and giving up which I scored 2s on my first day at Four Winds were scored zeroes on my last day.  I have to give partial credit to the other members of the group.  Without them opening up and talking about their most heartfelt matters, I never would have.  I would have been nuts not to trust the crazy people.