To be nobody but yourself in a world that is trying its best, night and day, to make you everybody else means to fight the hardest battle any human being can fight and never stop fighting.
I am sure that this resonates with many of you. You know where the pressure comes from. It comes from bosses, teachers, peers, friends, and your family. You learn by observation: who wears a hat and a bowtie these days? Television, books, movies, and the omnipresent Internet tell you how you should act, dress, and think. This struggle against conformity can be overwhelming. You are who you are because Society tells you who you must be.
But there is a harder fight that e.e. cummings did not recognize: the battle with your own mind!
I live with bipolar disorder. When I am in episode, I become someone else. If I am manic, my mind says I am superhuman and a god. My poetry is the best, I am the greatest speaker, I am touched by the Holy Spirit. It has led me to former Yugoslavia in the midst of a war, to fight with my friends, and harry my wife.
When depression smothers me, I am convinced that I am vermin and an embarrassment. Should I spare others, I ask myself. Should I hide in my home?
Paranoia: If I am manic, I live in my own James Bond adventure. Is that car following me? Is that woman spying on me? Is my phone being tapped? When depression brings on this delusion, the assumptions become darker. During one period, I believed my brother-in-law was hacking my computer. No amount of reason could dissuade me from my belief. Lynn tried, but I held fast to the notion. “I am not paranoid” I would yell.
The strange thing was that I knew on a deeper level that behind all these warped personalities was a self who knew that these behaviors were absurd. This real self could not express itself, could not calm the disputatious sea inside me. My life was a continuous current of babble and self-deprecations as I swung from mania to depression and back again. It was a continual succession of tides, some of black mud, some of fire.
I am at war with my brain. It has gone so far as to try to kill me.
Suicide is not the only way the brain attacks the mentally ill. Schizophrenics suffer many of the same symptoms as I do except I experience them when my mood goes up or down: they feel them all the time. They may exhibit what is called word salad: Donkeys monkeys eucalyptus bend the green tortoise break imagination. When they don’t know that they are sick it is called Lack of Insight.
People with OCD are all too aware that something is wrong. Obsessions swoop into their brain and they can’t let them go. Compulsions make them do odd things: for example, I know of one man who leaves notes on everything. “Don’t move this. Leave this alone. If you use this, clean it.” If his son ignores the Post-Its, Father feels the end of the world is coming.
Escape from this confused world is difficult. Let me read you my poem, Recovery:
One day you realize
kudzu is choking the forest.
You hack and chop.
It comes back
thicker than crabgrass.
You persevere, exposing
the oaks and the roses
as best you can
even though you never find
the roots of the vine.
I saw a video recently about a man who learned to ride an unusual bicycle. It had been engineered so that if you pointed the handlebars to the right, it went left. If you pointed them to the left, it went right. He spent eight months learning to ride that bicycle, but one day he did it. He set his son the same challenge: the boy mastered it in two weeks.
You’re asking what this has to do with you. Many of you are not mentally ill. You have sad days, but they pass. You have strange thoughts, but you ignore them. But each of you faces your own contrary bicycles. How do you learn to ride them?
My recovery has taught me this: First, you must admit that you have a problem. Second, you must decide what you must do about it. Self-knowledge is vital: Who are you? Take the time to reflect on this and release that self. Third, you must get on that bicycle — it changes every few years — and learn to ride it.
“Habit is habit,” wrote Mark Twain, “and not to be flung out of the window by any man, but coaxed downstairs one step at a time.”
I did not magically recover as soon as I started taking medication. It took time for them to work. Then I discovered that I had certain bad habits which I had developed as a way of coping. Those had to go, too. That was my struggle.
People who overcome alcoholism often go through a stage called the dry drunk. They don’t finish the job of recovery. Many stop here, tormenting their friends and families. The smart ones move on.
Have you ever changed? Are you a dry drunk? Toastmasters can teach us many things. One of the most important is compassion. Appreciate the struggles that the new people undergo and give them aid. Even advanced speakers have bad days — usually when they have a fight with the projector. Have compassion for them and have compassion for yourself. I guarantee you that as you move through life, you will either have to change or become a distressed person. Be prepared.
This is what my battle with my mind offers you: Engage your faults honestly and with resolution and you will win.
I have to tell you the truth: I don’t think you are going to hire me. It is true that I have a lot of strong features on my resume. I am not the most bubbly person, but I am compassionate. I make time to listen to those who come to me and I leave them with encouragement even when on the inside I don’t feel much hope for myself. Sometimes I get angry, but I know how to forgive. I have given unselfishly of my time.
I am probably too intelligent for this job, which will lead people to think that I am arrogant and elitist but the truth is that I have found some kind of intelligence worthy of respect in every person who I have met.
I’m getting old. I know this job would help my self-esteem — I know I can perform beyond expectations, but all you see are the white of my beard and the gray in my hair. Maybe you have heard rumors. My mother, who was a negative person, is beginning to sound right when she said that the good things always go to someone else. I will not stop believing that I am a good person and competent, but truth be told, I don’t believe that there is anywhere for me. You’re no different from all the other employers who have interviewed me. You have the same strange prejudices and preferences for youth and people who know how to hit a baseball. You will hire someone else who will probably disappoint you. You will have missed your chance, but I will have missed out on having a job I can live for.
In 1992, I went to former Yugoslavia to help the peace movements there instead of getting another soul-ripping job as an administrator. Twenty five years later, I still wonder if I did the right thing, if I did any good in the world. I wrote about my experiences in the way that I like to write, walking around what I saw and thinking about what it meant. People wanted me to go back, but I raised money for the peace groups so they could have offices, supplies, and the like. It did not seem right for me to finance any more “vacations”.
In the end, I never went back. I fell into a depression that lasted for nine months before I had the faith and the courage to admit that I had a problem. I turned to Lynn and said “I’m sick.” Sickness had not begun that day or that year. It had been with me a long time. It was like the guns booming and the machine gun fire I heard in Croatia. Loud. But I could ignore it. Background noise. My illness was background noise that I could shove aside. But the booms never stopped the war inside kept raging, and there was debris all over the streets of my inner city. I wasn’t going back to Osijek. I had a new form for my illness, a new, sick metaphor.
The last day I attended class at the University of North Carolina, I stopped in a diner that I had never seen before, one that stood overlooking the road linked Durham and Chapel Hill. I ordered breakfast because it was mid-morning. The other patrons — the regulars — all turned to look at me, giving me that interested stare that they gifted all strangers. Then, to a person, they resumed chatting or looking in their coffee cups. I ordered pancakes with a side of sausage, then spent the meal cutting pieces off the pancakes never looking at the other customers. When the waitress slammed the bill on the table, I was staring at the lingering grease and maple syrup. This was a last day and I was sad.
Blue light, still as it makes everything still. The bookshelves, the mirrors which are reflecting nothing except the blue light shining off the sheets of the bed. That is nothing to the mind, something to reality because there is no emptiness in the universe. Even in the far reaches of space between the solar systems there is something slowing down the spacecraft hurtling through the emptiness past the birthplaces of the comets, past the dust of the planets that never got to be! I cannot see those tiny worlds because even when I stand under the clear desert sky I cannot see them. I wouldn’t call them invisible because that darkness is not like the darkness of a cave, but a lit darkness like that of my room.
What they had seen! I remember them behind his glasses, staring intently at a book or squinting at the punch cards he was sorting for work. He was a slow reader, but then I was a frantic one so perhaps I held him to an impossible standard. When he beat me, I don’t recall that they glowed or showed particular anger. They were set to the task and nothing more. Had they shown terror once as he watched all but three members of his company fall before German guns? He never spoke of that to me and there were no images hanging in his eyes, no memories of the War that he shared with me.
Bingo hated me. The only thing I ever got to do was give him his name and that — despite the fact that he favored my father most of all — made him mine or so my mother told me ad nauseum. They wouldn’t get me a cat or a hamster or a turtle, so I was stuck with the jobs of feeding him, changing his water, and cleaning up after him in the yard, a task I ranked slightly above picking up rotten peaches in August. He growled at me, was stubborn when I took him out for walks, slept with me only because my parents’ bedroom door was closed. My father used to come to my room holding him. “You’re a good boy,” he’d say to Bingo. “There’s a baaaad boy.”
I did not cry when my mother wrote to me in Greece to tell me that he was dead.
…when I walked into the door and broke my nose — off. I felt around for it, letting my fingers become corneas and pupils. What had become of it? I felt grit and the dust, the bits of rock I had tracked in from the desert surrounding my rock house. Out here there was no electricity, so I had no lights except a lantern which was out of kerosene. Damn the door! Then I pursued the only solution available to me: opening the door to let in the moonlight. I did this slowly until it stopped on something soft. My fingers tickled the underside of the door until I had my nose in my hands. I picked it clean and reattached it.
I burst out the door. A new life! A new life! I couldn’t get to the car fast enough. The sun slammed into the ground. That tired old company with its dirty tables, dirty warehouse, dirty plastic injection molding machines in a filthy factory was over. They had lost customers and they have shoved me and most of the rest of the staff and workers out the door.
Blessed was that moment. Was it a depression that waited for me I get to get through this mania with all its miseries. In a few weeks, I would be in Croatia writing reports for the Internet about peace groups and what I saw of the war. Enforced sadness in those days to come, a public face to hide the exuberance that came with having a new passport, money for a train-ticket, and a thousand dollars of traveler’s checks in a country where life was cheap. I was unemployed as far as the state was concerned but I was laughing at all the people who stayed behind in those filthy factories of the South Bay. They could have the dirt, bury themselves in it if that was their wont. I would never go back.
I made my break clean and complete. They could have it all. I wanted no references, no memories of it. No more applications. No more enduring the micromanagement of a boss. Then beyond all this rabid exuberance — the crash.
In my manic days, I told everyone. Their eyes darted around the room as if checking the escape routes. Eyes that told me that I was a freak, that I was dangerous.
Shame is how I feel about those days. Looking back leaves me with a heaviness in my chest, a surge of blood in my head that can turn into a headache.
I keep it a secret now. I don’t share the knowledge — not with my neighbors, not with my fellow students — except I have revealed myself in Toastmasters where I told the story of my journey to a diagnosis. It was a tale of knives and crazy text messages. I knew they would feel badly for Lynn, but how would they feel about me? Once I had finished, it was out there. And no one attacked me, no one told me that I should leave the club. I have told exactly one neighbor — when Lynn had uterine cancer — and she told me that she lived with bipolar disorder, too! And so did another neighbor!
I have not told the others. They don’t need to have this tidbit for gossip, they don’t need to worry that I might be a child molester or a knife-slashing maniac. My angersometimes gets out of control but it hasn’t happened in a long long time. The neighborhood has no need to know.
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