Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Romulan Right of Statement

How much does our story matter? In a world with billions of people and billions of other stories, why spend time and effort shouting ours into the aether? Will it not be drowned out by the shrieking multitude, so aptly portrayed by the human zoo we find online?

Storytelling is part of our basic nature, of course, but we overthink it. We think our story is only worth telling if it’s inspirational enough, or shocking enough, or has enough commercial value. And after we’ve told it, we think it’s not good enough unless it’s promoted enough and gets enough positive responses. We idolize a select few paid storytellers, aspiring to be like them and seeing ourselves as failures if we aren’t.

There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a better storyteller! There’s nothing wrong with lusting to be the person who makes the tribespeople whisper excitedly that you’re going to be at the gathering tonight, and they’ve heard that you have a new story, and everyone can’t wait to hear it. Being that person is awesome–where we go wrong is in thinking that only that person gets to tell any stories.

The Romulans have the right idea. Yes, we’re off to science fiction; the original Star Trek series to be exact. In one episode, (The Enterprise Incident, if you want to know, and there are about to be spoilers) Spock is caught in an act of espionage aboard a Romulan ship and is about to be executed. As part of the formalities, he asks for and is granted the Romulan Right of Statement. A recording device is turned on and he is allowed to speak about what he did, why he did it and any other thoughts he has.

In the episode, Spock is using this speech to stall, and his executioner gets impatient because she knows it. Spock points out that there is no time limit on the Right. (By the way, there’s a Star Trek novel in which McCoy, standing trial on the Romulan world, uses this fact to conduct an outright filibuster–by the time he’s rescued, he’s rendered his listeners glassy-eyed with hours of rhapsodies about everything from his med school pranks to his pursuit of the perfect chili recipe.)

Putting aside the potential impracticalities (many wouldn’t be in a hurry to die, so would it just turn out that they talk until they fall down, having soiled themselves at some point because they can’t stop to go to the bathroom?) we’re still left with my basic point: the Romulans believed that even a condemned criminal’s story was important.

In the ongoing trial that takes place inside my head, the condition of our planet and culture is often used by the prosecution if they run out of material relating to my personal unworthiness. Placing my witnesses for the defense on the stand, they harangue them with questions designed to leech the meaning from any reasons the defense tries to give for going on, trying, creating for one more day. Declaring my evidence irrelevant or insufficient, the prosecution moves that it be stricken from the record and a verdict rendered.

I have always hated the idea of departing without telling my story. When I was close to the end, and believed I was out of options, the thing that bothered me the most was not having written the things I dreamed of writing. It tortured me more than the simple fear of death, or the shame, or the regret about other things unseen and undone.

Now I have a second chance–well, a millionth chance, really. No one forced me to keep my mouth shut and my fingers still for all of those years. It was my choice, no matter what sickness affected me. Today I can face the question: how badly do I want to speak my story? Am I willing to do it imperfectly? Am I willing to do it even if it’s not deemed important? While I stand (as we all do) awaiting my death, am I willing to put passion into my statement, even if it might only be filed away with a myriad of others?

I am an addict in recovery; I have a temporary and contingent reprieve from the worst consequences of my addiction. I live with another condition that drastically increases my risk of self-harm. I live on a world in peril; a world with an uncertain future. Perhaps I am only stalling and extending my trial. Perhaps everything I’ve been writing, and everything I will write in the years I have left, is only my version of the Romulan Right of Statement.

We’re back to the idea that I have certain illogical beliefs keeping me alive. Beliefs that tell me it does matter; that our stories matter even they only serve to contribute to a mass shriek of consciousness emanating from some future wreckage. Consciousness matters, my words matter, your words matter, and screw anyone who tries to tell us they don’t. Today, I will claim the Right.

Vitamin Diplomacy

I imagine “normal people,” whatever they might be, do a lot of things differently from the way I do them. This imagining may or may not be accurate, but I do it. I imagine them getting into the shower without a great deal of internal debate, simply because it’s the thing they do every morning. I imagine them opening the mail before the stack gets so tall that it topples onto the floor. I imagine them answering the phone with an air of curiosity rather than dread: I wonder who that is? instead of Oh, God, can I handle a conversation right now?

I imagine them taking their vitamins without conducting a negotiation.

I have a simple regimen containing just a few high priorities: a basic multivitamin, Omega fatty acids, and extra vitamin D. Three items, once a day, in addition to my psych meds. So why do they get ignored so often? I have managed to be consistent about taking my psych meds for a long time now. Those don’t get negotiated. So I’m standing right there, at the counter, taking those, and the three other bottles are inches from my hands. What keeps me from taking them?

There’s something inside of me that gets in the way. I think of it as the part that wants me to be sick, or maybe the part that wants me bound, stuck and ashamed. Most of us have one. My vitamins are my symbol of it today because they’re an example of how illogical and power-hungry this aspect of me is. I got up, took my psych meds, made breakfast for my daughter, worked on a poem and haven’t done anything markedly stupid today…and the vitamin negotiation goes on. It goes on as a way of showing me that I can’t get away with taking care of myself too much. It wants me to know that it hasn’t lost the power to sabotage me, even if it’s only in a small way at the moment.

There was a time when my blood sugars were under very poor control because of my weight, food choices and inconsistent compliance with my meds. I would walk by my diabetes meds on the counter, pause, look at them and walk on. I was prescribed a cholesterol lowering drug: the bottle sat in its unopened pharmacy bag for months. An earthquake–not as severe as the recent 6, but a good 5–failed even to get me out of my chair. During this period of my life, the self-destruction was winning. Aided by drugs and severe depression, it had conditioned me into helpless apathy.

Things are different now, but it clings to life and occasionally roars recollections of its past glory. Like a hostage negotiator, I have to try to get concessions from it, and I often don’t succeed in resolving the situation completely. As I said above, the psych meds are high priority and tend to get “released” first. Vitamins, while important, don’t have severe consequences for missing one or two days, so I am more likely to let them slide. They mock me from the counter, sitting in plain sight and silently asking why I’m staying away. I don’t like it because it reminds me so strongly of the times I was ignoring more vital things.

Sometimes I push through the resistance and take the bloody vitamins. Down they go–the oblong multi, the round white Vitamin D, and the aesthetically pleasing golden Omegas. But what is the price? The price is danger; the danger inherent in feeling virtuous. Because they’ve become such a symbol of doing well, succeeding with them kind of invites the other shoe to drop…

See? This is how I think. This cannot be normal.

And if you think my attitude about vitamins is bizarre, you might not want to ask about exercise. Same weirdness, with added complexity because it requires much more effort. Something I desperately, vitally need for my health is held hostage. I belong to the Y near my home. I own a freaking treadmill, which is apparently guarded by an invisible giant spider that wraps my psyche in a strangling web if I venture too near.

Should I go with the metaphor and try actual negotiation? I could say, “Please, let me exercise today and I promise to skip the vitamins all week.” “I promise to bite my nails until they bleed if you let me stay away from binge eating for the day.” I could bargain for the things I want most that day, and pay with other ways of harming or neglecting myself. Let’s face it, I already do a lot of that, consciously or unconsciously.

My drug addiction uses this dynamic to try to woo me back. It whispers: just start using me again, and this frustrating negotiation will be over. The fact that it goes on is proof that you’ll never be able to handle life without me. The vitamins join the chorus, singing their little song from the counter. We are for people who love their bodies, they sing. We are for people who walk firmly on the side of life, they sing. We are for people who don’t harm and neglect themselves.

We are for people who are not you.

Snap, Crackle, Don’t Pop

I have a lot to learn about dealing with anger. I have a lot to learn about dealing with hypomania. When it comes to the combination of the two, it’s as if I won the Lottery of Batshit Craziness.

Why I’m angry and frustrated today is unimportant/not my story. What’s important is that I am. That something’s running around inside me, jumping, scratching, burning the insides of my blood vessels. That my stomach is clenched up in a knot of frustration, mixed with the fear that always accompanies anger for me. That whenever I begin to calm myself and find a little serenity, a stray thought or cue will bring me back to rehashing a conversation, composing speeches in my head and fighting the urge to go back to a thoroughly unconstructive interaction.

The energy of healthful anger is so powerful if it’s used properly, but that’s a big if. Most of us either learned to shun all anger as dangerous or to take on an angry persona for self-protection. I was the first kind–for me, the overwhelming fear and anxiety trigged by anger bring the desire to push my feelings down, turn them off, bury them under a rock, anything to keep from having to tolerate what’s going on inside my skin. For decades, that’s exactly what I did. A simple sequence, repeated so many times it no longer involved any decisions:

–Feel anger or another strong emotion
–Imagine expressing it/confronting the source
–Get terrified and anxious
–Try to live with the anxiety I now have
–Crack and do something self-destructive
–Beat myself up/suffer other consequences
–Voila! Anger has been replaced with shame and self-loathing.
–Most psychic energy is gone; what’s left is deflected into repairing the damage.

Anyone else identify? Anyone else have it so ingrained that the first couple of steps get skipped and they aren’t aware of anger on a conscious level at all? I used to be like that, and in recent years (thanks a bunch, therapy!) that’s changed. I’m more in touch with an inner fire, and it burns–especially in a situation, like this one, where I’ve already done all I can and need to move on. Where it really wouldn’t be constructive to dig deeper, and the only conflict I have a chance of winning is the one in my own head.

Anyway, I’ve been in a state of high frustration for a couple of days, and I haven’t been acting out. This means my anxiety is through the roof, and it’s one of very few times I’ve felt this way while already hypomanic. I really do want to climb out of my skin–and the addict in me is all for that. It wants an off switch for these feelings, and it wants one NOW. It wants the lethargy overeating creates, or the everything’s-okay feeling of drugs. It wants the normal sequence, the one that leads to the return of the status quo.

It tries to tell me that this feeling is unbearable, and that it will last forever. I try to tell it that it’s full of shit. I AM bearing it, and it won’t last forever. Do I like it? No. Am I unhappy? Yes. These are very different things from being unable to bear something. That’s the tough love I am trying to give myself today.

I’ve stalked around the house muttering to myself. I’ve sat with a pile of National Geographics, ripping out pages for later cutting of pictures. I’ve twitched my way through TV programs, card games and various other attempts at distraction. I’ve hyperventilated from time to time, or babbled to someone on the phone. And the world hasn’t come to an end. I breathe in, breathe out, repeat. It’s a lot like the kind of coping I describe in A Trip to Town. I’m getting better at sharing with my family, although it’s hard. I’m getting better at letting myself be twitchy in front of witnesses if that’s what I have to do to keep from being self-destructive.

The amount of energy that flows through my brain scares me, and I don’t know–have never known–how to use it properly. Becoming more actively creative is a help, but I must not be doing enough–the energy crackles around me, like an electrified aura; I can almost see it and feel it. Anger heightens it all, until I half expect my hair to be standing on end. I use various grounding techniques, but they are all temporary in their effect.

Here’s the part where I come up with a metaphor or a sweet thing to say to my readers; well, I don’t have much today. When I’m not crackling, I am drained. This is just a check-in/slice of life, and maybe a little scrap of hope: I’ve made it through two days (one eternity) of this, and poured out some of it into a poem, and done other things to try cleansing my personal universe of what’s sticking to it. I never would have been able to do that a few years ago. Things change. Things can change.

Cowards

After forty-eight hours, I began abstaining from the Internet. My brain could no longer assimilate or respond sanely to the storm of emotion, judgment, anger, defensiveness, and fear that has been triggered by the tragic suicide of Robin Williams.

One of the hardest themes to handle has been the vociferous denouncement of those who take their own lives as “cowards.” This has, of course, been met with many replies urging compassion and denouncing the accusers as being clueless about the realities of mental illness.

It probably comes as no surprise to my readers that I don’t belong to the “cowards” faction. When I hear people talk about how suicide is a selfish choice, I don’t deny the truth of that–but I’m able to see that it might be one momentary, selfish choice that follows 9,999,999 unselfish ones made at other desperate moments. I believe there’s enough mercy in us to forgive such a thing.

I’m also able to see that a person who commits suicide may not be in possession of their faculties. Those who condemn seem to expect a logical weighing of pros and cons, or an ability to think of consequences–during a severe episode, these may be absent. I myself have shared about times when my grip on reality is tenuous–someone in worse shape might be incapable of considering anything. Those with bipolar disorder have an astronomical suicide rate compared to the general population; some studies say up to one in five will die this way.

Should I ever fall to my illness, I would fully expect anger from those my choice harmed. Blistering anger. But anger is a very different thing from contempt.

Contempt makes people “other.” Contempt is a tool used for convincing oneself that they are different; that this could never happen to them. Contempt is used to make us feel superior. And it hurts to see that someone might look at a person who died in pain and despair and feel a kind of need to assert their own superiority.

Having said all of this, I want to say that I can see another reason people express this attitude. For some people, it doesn’t have to do with judgment or contempt. I think they express it because they are trying to protect others who they fear may be contemplating suicide. That is to say, they worry that a lack of condemnation might send the message that suicide is an okay thing to do. Somewhere in them is a dreadful fear that giving that kind of message might tip a sufferer over into the wrong decision. By stressing one’s duty to others, or the idea of a moral obligation to keep trying, they hope to give someone on the edge a reason to wait.

My heart goes out to these people. I know what it’s like to fear that someone I love is going to harm themselves, and fear that I might be neglecting to do or say something that would change the outcome. I have been with those who live in the aftermath of suicide, and heard their heartbreak and their anger.

But I don’t think shaming those who fall is the way, and I don’t believe shaming them in advance is actually a deterrent. And I can’t help but notice that some of the same people who denounce my brothers and sisters as cowards if they kill themselves are equally quick to denounce us for our lack of productivity or our use of public health resources to try to stay alive. Apparently it is far less acceptable for the rich, successful and well-loved to remove themselves from this planet than for the poor and friendless to do so.

Now, having said what I felt compelled to say as my personal response to this issue, I will let go and give myself permission to move on to different topics. Robin Williams, I love you, and I’m sorry for the pain you endured. I promise I will try my best to remain here and carry the kind of message you might wish.

Ave Atque Vale, Robin Williams

Friends, we’ve lost another one. It’s been ten minutes since I heard about the death of Robin Williams, and I’m starting this with the tears still on my face because I have to begin expressing it.

Robin…oh, God damn it, Robin, not you. Please let it not really be you. You know I’d never judge you for doing it, but could you please just sit up and tell us it was all a colossal joke?

Depression gets mentioned a lot in the articles about this, but I know your picture was broader than this–you lived with bipolar disorder and a decades-long history of addiction, making you dual diagnosis like me. Although I feel kinship with every addict and everyone battling mental health issues, I can’t help but feel a special empathy for those who live with the intertwined duality as I do.

The circumstances of your death are going to be rehashed a lot in the upcoming weeks–and as I wrote about your fellow actor Philip Seymour Hoffman in Goodbye Again, there’s going to be a lot of shock that doesn’t really belong. What’s happened to you isn’t that shocking, because it’s happening all over the world to others with these conditions. Your talent, imagination, resources and incredible spirit bought you time, but they didn’t make you immune.

Others will list and praise the diverse elements of your awesome body of work, as well they should. But I want to praise the work nobody saw.

Robin, I know–someone knows–what you had to do to stick around as long as you did. Some of that journey got expressed in your art, but much of it was solitary. Some of it happened in the dark watches of the night, or rang in a piece of music you listened to over and over again, or got traced in invisible lines on the places you may have thought of cutting but didn’t, day after day and year after year. Signatures on admission papers, choosing life over pride several times. Drugs untaken, drinks unpoured. Hours with family and friends, setting aside panic or despair to try to interact for a while.

You inspire me (present tense) to continue trying to release my creativity and my weirdness in recovery. You remind me to value passion above propriety.

Many are grieving over you today, and I believe some of them will come away with more of a gut-deep comprehension of the nature of depression and other issues. They might grasp the contradiction for a moment, and see that someone can be all of the things you were and be this too. Maybe they’ll remember it if they ever need some help.

You’re my hero, Robin. I hope you knew some people who identified with you and made you feel less alone. I wish I could have been one. I wish I’d been famous, or published, or something, so that maybe you could have seen something I wrote. Don’t judge yourself for what’s happened. Don’t belittle what you achieved. Don’t you dare.

Choosing the Tiger

There’s an old short story called “The Lady or the Tiger.” In it, a man must choose between two identical doors. Behind one is a beautiful princess for him to marry, and behind the other is a ferocious tiger that will eat him. The story ends just as he chooses a door and turns the knob.

If I use this story as a metaphor, I have to make a very important change…it’s not a lovely Lady behind one door, but a merciless and dark one, casting a spell that numbs my mind and saps my life force. She’s just as destructive as the Tiger in her own way.

Sometimes I, as in the story, don’t know what is coming when I open the next door on my path. But there are times that involve choice–there are things I can do to increase the probability of encountering one or the other. This week, I’ve been facing one of these dilemmas.

My meds got changed a couple of months ago, when my hypomania/anxiety symptoms began to get more out of control. We added another non-addictive med that we hoped would help, and for about two weeks it seemed to. But I’ve been struggling with a much higher level of depression since then, and also gained twelve pounds in less than eight weeks. The twelve pounds is in addition to the fifteen I have been struggling with all spring, so we’re talking about a serious potential threat to my health if it goes on.

Six days ago, I went off the new med. My mood is better, and the food behavior and cravings have settled down markedly. But making that decision, and leaving the room of my spellweaving Lady, means opening the other door and meeting my Tiger again.

My Tiger, with the fearsome snarl of anxiety and the swift stride of hypomanic thought. With the vigilance of sleeplessness and the piercing teeth of sensation. It isn’t as extreme as it was a couple of months ago, but it’s beginning. Sleep has already taken a big hit, and I’m pacing around, unable to decide what to do next.

Rejecting this med feels like the right decision–I don’t want to accept or reject any med because I think my hypomanic state is somehow superior; I don’t! Both sets of symptoms have their own characteristics and cost. Right now, though, the level of depression is worrisome. My psychiatrist and I will try something else, and I will try to cope with the Tiger until then.

I don’t enjoy writing about these cycles again and again; I want to be writing new and clever things all of the time. I see many other bipolar folks writing similar check-ins, and I imagine they feel the same frustration. I suppose everyone has cycles to their challenges and faces recurring themes.

What’s the point of writing about it again and again, one might ask? I suppose, for me, it refines the quest for meaning–that is to say, in every cycle I write about it with a different twist. I use a new metaphor, give it a slightly different flavor, and in doing so I make it more a part of a larger tapestry. I remove some of the recursive-loop feeling from it.

We search for meaning. It’s our nature. Cynics say we’re fooling ourselves, but so be it. I couldn’t go on living if I saw what I go through as nothing but an endlessly repeating teeter-totter. Fool or not, I choose to use my creative quirks to make myself think there is something a little new in each brief season of my brain. That with every encounter of my Lady or Tiger, I experience something that can matter. Some bit of growth and change; some progress toward whatever’s next for my soul.

Are We Disposable?

It’s a selfish question that hovers around the edges of my mind when I think about the state of our world. I’m not involved in politics, and I tend to be ignorant of many topics that speak of important developments–I don’t like that about myself, but it is my truth. As my readers know, there are times when my main contribution to society involves working on ways not to be an active drain on it.

Those who share some of my issues are often seen as an impediment to the prosperity of others, and certain voices try to shame us when we use the services our governments may provide to care for those who have trouble caring for themselves. I’d like that to be different, but I don’t imagine it will ever be uncomplicated.

In the end, we are all still animals competing for resources, and only the trappings of civilization introduce the idea of giving any resources to the helpless. Some have said that the measure of a civilization’s advancement is related to how much, and how well, they care for their children, their sick and their elderly.

Whatever one thinks about the world situation, it’s pretty clear that overpopulation will continue to be a problem. Resources will be at more of a premium, and there will begin to be more sorting of which kinds of sick or disabled are worthy of help. Mental health may not be highest on the list. Addiction-related issues are likely to be even lower, since addicts are usually seen as deserving their suffering.

This, from a Darwinistic point of view, may be a regrettable but unavoidable thing. But how much should we resist its progress? How much should we fight to be seen as something besides a liability? Is there a place for us in the future?

Sometimes, when my mind is spinning its catastrophic phantasies, I go postapocalyptic and imagine how long I, and many I care about, would last. I always imagine myself as a liability to whatever group I’m with, unable to function very well without my meds, or unable to see because my glasses got broken. I see myself as useless, without a lot of physical strength or swiftness to build or get things the group needs. I see myself as the first to fall behind and become lunch for zombies–unless a friend gives me a helping hand.

And why should they?

Why should they, unless we have some kind of value that isn’t strictly practical?

Why should they, unless those crowded barracks or underground warrens need us? Unless humanity is incomplete without us? Unless there’s a spark that’s worth maintaining, a spark worth a bit of food or a place near the fire?

Why should any society help its disabled, even when a cold equation might say the help isn’t bringing a sufficient return?

I got on this subject with my therapist during one of my dark and hopeless spirals recently, and we talked about the idea that humanity, by nature, will always need its shamans, its poets and its weird people in general, as well as the wisdom of its elders. “That may be true,” I said, “but you can’t deny that in a crisis state the strong and able will be valued most. The women who can bear healthy children, the physically strong, the mentally stable: these are the ones who can outrun the zombies or will get rescued first. You can’t deny that I’ll be one of the first to go.”

Then he told me that, although it might be true in some situations, it doesn’t mean I deserve it. Then he said something that cheered me up: he told me that if it does happen, maybe I’ll discover that the zombies are in need of poets too. Feeling better, I began to imagine my new dream job as Poet Laureate of a zombie city.

I don’t know if we are disposable. I don’t know, not for sure, whether our existence has intrinsic value. But I do exist, and I am grateful for it, and I have a daughter for whom I want to model values of love and not shame. I want her to see me doing my best, and believing I have something to give the world, so that she might learn to believe the same thing.

So I send love to all my peers, and invite us to go down swinging if the time comes, and hold our heads up until then. As a token of my affection, I enclose the opening poem from my potential future body of work:

Brains

Arrrgh brains brains
Brains gurgle thud howl
Brains brains crunch splat
Brains brains brains.