24 June 2016

Nobody move and no one gets hurt



It was 1994. I was 32.

My first marriage was already starting to crumble from the strains of navigating the unchartered waters of a diagnosis of autism, ennui and my own mental condition. 

You can always say – if I could go back to one point in my life for a do-over. . . 

Well, the problem is, I can’t and even if I could, I’d have so many ‘recovery points’ I couldn’t choose one over the other. Our lives are defined by mistakes, yearnings, unforeseen blows and dumb luck. It starts with your parents and what you inherit from them – money, looks, intelligence but most of all, guidance. 

I was constantly groping for something. I wanted someone who would marry me before I got too old. I found one who said ‘yes’ when I was 20. I wanted a full-time, go-to-a-big-downtown-office responsible job and I got one with the Department of Labor when I was 22. I wanted a house with a yard and a fence and I got one when I was 24. I wanted kids and I got the first one when I was 26.

I saw my father die at 51 when I was 20, and, in some way, felt that if I didn’t do all the ‘adult’ stuff now, it might never happen. The ‘adult’ stuff, unfortunately, was always someone else’s dream – my parents, society’s, and the media’s. I spent an entire childhood not fitting in anywhere so I spent most of my adult life striving to fit in somewhere.


I didn’t realize it until I was much older how much I was ‘playing’ at being an adult. I didn’t have any real idea of what I wanted so I tried to copy various acceptable lifestyles. 

I blew through my young adulthood like a tornado and never stopped to think why I was living this frenetic pace. All I knew is I was ticking boxes: graduate college, marriage, job, house, kids. 

Divorce 1996, remarriage 1997, moves, jobs, careers, lost friends, divorce 2008, remarriage 2009 – one long blur of activity.

There were times I stood still for just a moment and asked myself: is that it? Is that all there is? Did I make it? Did I experience everything? Would my relatives be proud of me? Is there something else?

There are two ways to look back for me. One, I can say it was a bumpy ride but a hell of a wild one. So what if I didn’t learn anything? The other is to survey the wreckage left in my wake and wonder why I did what I did.

The one thing bipolar disorder always steals from you is perspective. You do things that seem normal to you while everyone you know looks aghast at your choices. I never felt as sure of my destiny as I did when I was wrecking my life. 

There were 29 mental health professionals, at least 25 different types of medications and all the king’s horses and men that made up my friends, and all of that could not stop me from running because I didn’t know what I was running from or to.

I just knew there was something out there I had to catch as soon as I could and once I did, my life would be justified and everything would make sense.

When you’re depressed you don’t want to be depressed. When you’re manic, it’s great because you have a reason and the energy to get out of bed and make great plans. If you have no idea how your brain chemistry is screwing with you, everything seems like a big adventure and you are the star. 

I suppose there is a third way of looking at my life: once you have the cause and effect figured out, spend the rest of what time you have left finding meaning in your life and listening carefully to your own mind. 

And make amends, somehow.

And ask for forgiveness, if possible.

I remember the first time I heard Round Here. It’s one of those songs that convey a powerful mood, in this case, longing, despair and maybe not a little anger. 

It was one of those songs that were the soundtrack of the start of a very tumultuous period of my life. It would be a long time before I would pay attention to the lyrics and try to figure out the symbolism of the video. Once I did, I knew why every time I heard it on the radio, I choked up.

Counting Crows lead singer Adam Duritz said the song was about him. He explains:

"The song begins with a guy walking out the front door of his house and leaving behind this woman. But the more he begins to leave people behind in his life, the more he feels like he's leaving himself behind as well, and the less substantial he feels about himself. That's sort of what the songs about: even as he disappears from the lives of people, he's disappearing more and more from his own life." (emphasis mine).

I think that’s why I keep looking back so much and trying to figure out why I did what I did. I lost something of myself along the way with all the people I left behind. They always will carry a part of me and I of them, but not the part I want remembered.

I sat on the other side of 50 years wondering who the hell I was and how I got here; hence the allusions of this blog to the Talking Heads’ Once in a Lifetime.

One theme in Round Here I didn’t even realize until I read Duritz’ explanation (from soungfacts.com) was the song’s comparison between childhood wants and adult realities:

The theme of childhood promises not panning out is one that shows up a lot in Duritz' lyrics. In the chorus of this song, he lists some sayings that our parents often say: "Around here we always stand up straight," "Around here we're carving out our names."

Said Duritz: "You're told as a kid that if you do these things, it will add up to something: you'll have a job, (a) life. And for me, and for the character in the song, they don't add up to anything, it's all a bunch of crap. Your life comes to you or doesn't come to you, but those things didn't really mean anything.” (emphasis mine)

It was a shattering experience when I realized that after all the houses, cars, jobs, awards and stuff, that if you hate what you’ve become, those things will not comfort you but indict you – the stuff of life is not ‘stuff.’  These things will not love you back.

Duritz:

“By the end of the song, he's so dismayed that he's screaming out that he gets to stay up as late as he wants and nobody makes him wait; the things that are important to a kid - you don't have to go to bed, you don't have to do anything. But they're the sort of things that don't make any difference at all when you're an adult. They're nothing."

One of the first things I did when I left home was go to the grocery store and buy all the food I wanted to eat which included a lot of snacks and garbage food my parents refused to buy. During one lunch I ate an entire box of Rice-A-Roni chicken followed up by half a bag of Oreo double-stuf cookies and milk. 

I could do what I wanted but I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. I had the freedom to screw up my life and I made the most of it. I bought beer, got cable TV, went out at night.
Always looking, always searching for that ultimate feeling that says ‘you have arrived, you’ve made it.’

It never happens. 

The greatest mania of my life led to me starting my own business – a used bookstore in 2007, just when online bookseller were destroying the brick and mortars and the mom and pops. It was a few months after I opened that even through the fog of my own disorder, I could see this was madness.

I can’t tell you how many times I thought about suicide in response to questions I could answer: why did I do this? What was I thinking? If I can’t get my own life on a straight line and all I experience in the end is defeat and depression, what is the point of enduring more of it?

The mind is a terrible master. A fucked up mind is playing Russian roulette with six bullets.


Paranoia set in. Since I no longer trusted my own judgment and didn’t trust people, I withdrew. I married a wife who gets me, bought one last house I love and managed to get a job that’s steady. And yet, my illness almost blew that to hell not that long ago.

For a while, I stopped moving forward. I stood still, scared of losing what I had. I have a basement where all the ephemera, all the memories I’ve been carrying around for decades, are displayed like a museum. I can go down there and thumb through my life any time I want.

Even though after 40 years, the meds seem to be working, my mood swings have become tolerable and I have more self-awareness than I ever had, I don’t want to move. So  I force myself out of the house, force myself to write, force myself to re-connect with friends from high school, but every step is filled with heaviness and dread.

What if this awareness is merely a remission? Like any bipolar condition, if I fall into mania where I do and say things that alienate people, will I even realize it before it’s too late? 

I think I’m in charge of my own thoughts and emotions but I remember the disasters of the past. I realize full well there is no guarantee it couldn’t happen again. And it’s scary. I could stay home. I could shut down. I could isolate myself and all of that would lessen my chances of causing pain to me and others.

If I don’t move, I don’t get hurt.

But if I don’t move, I might as well be dead now. 




17 June 2016

True confession of a paperclip destroyer or 43 years of shame



A new class period was starting but we could all tell from the look on Sister Mary Helen Louise’s face that something was seriously wrong. 

That face meant business. It was an angry face. It was the kind of face one makes when you walk into a public restroom and none of the toilets have been flushed. 

She stood in front of our class and drew herself up to her full height which wasn’t much, but for fourth graders, was pretty imposing.

Without a word, she produced a paper clip and held it aloft like the body of Christ. After what seemed like an eternity, she finally spoke.

“I want to know,” her voice shaking, “who is responsible for this!”

The paper clip looked like this:

We all sat frozen to our seats. The thought crossed my mind: ‘Is she kidding?’

I knew better. This paper clip had suffered a gross insult. And someone was going to fess up to it or else.

“This is a useful piece of property that someone has bent and left on the floor,” sister said. “I want to know right now, who bent this paperclip and left it on the floor,”

In the silence you could have heard a . . . paperclip drop.

“It is a SIN,” sister went on, “to destroy property like this. We do not do this at Notre Dame. This is disrespect not only to bend this paperclip but to leave it on the floor.”

I couldn’t have been the only kid in the room to have two thoughts on the matter. One, just bend the stupid thing back and voila! The paperclip can be used again. Any idiot could see that. Two, in 1973, the cost of one paperclip was some small fraction of a cent. Perhaps it was a mil, I don’t know, but you could probably get a gross of them for 39 cents. Plus tax.

But I guess she was using this lowly paperclip to make some grand point and neither the simple solution, nor the infinitesimally small price of a bent piece of metal, was going to make a difference.
No one spoke. No one even looked at another classmate.

“Well,” sister said. “We are just going to wait here until someone confesses to this. 

“We are not going to start class and all of you will be the lesser for it, but I will not start class until the person responsible for this steps up and claims responsibility!”

Really? You promise?

This went on for almost 15 minutes before Sister Mary Helen Louise conceded we were of the devil this day.

“Well,” she said. “The person responsible for this knows who they are and the sin they have committed and they will have to live with this sin.”

“But make no mistake, if I ever see anyone doing this to a paperclip in my class, I will be taking you down to the Principal’s office and calling your parents.”

The Inquisition was over. For now.

I remember while we were sweating bullets in silence I was thinking the one thing I could not say: it may have been me. But I didn’t remember.

I was a young Catholic boy having a crisis of conscience.

I remember having bent paperclips in this way before and bent them back. I found this particular shape interesting, like a Mobius loop (OK, I didn’t know what that was in the fourth grade but work with me here – it just looked interesting). It also reminded me of the TV antennas many home still sported. VHF, not UHF.

A child’s mystery toy.

But I wasn’t entirely sure this was my paperclip. I certainly don’t remember leaving it on the floor but it could have fallen off my desk. I thought to myself – has any of the other 26 kids ever thought how fascinating a paperclip looks when you bend it this way? I wasn’t sure. It was a possibility.

I didn’t know what to do but I knew Jesus was watching. I talked to him right there in the middle of class -- in my mind, of course.

“Jesus, sister sure is sore about this paperclip and I may have done it, but I’m not sure,” I said in my head. “What if I confess and I didn’t do it? Would it be right to be punished for something I didn’t do? Or should I sacrifice myself, as you did on the cross, and take the punishment for the sins of another?”

“Please give me guidance, Lord,” I went on, feeling the sweat trickle down my brow (would sister see this? And would it be a sure sign of guilt?). “You see everything Jesus, you know – please let me know if it was me.”

And, as has happened so many times, my plea was met with silence. So I kept my mouth shut. Damn if I was going to give this nun and her ridiculous crusade for office supplies my scalp. I had already taken enough crap from the nuns for a lifetime and I had four more years to serve before parole.

So 43 years later, I think it was probably (but not beyond a shadow of a doubt) me. So, forgive me Lord for I have sinned – I have deformed one of your creations – a lowly paperclip (and, I might add, compounded my sin by doing it again for this story, but I couldn’t find a similar photo on Google) and I am heartily sorry for offending thee and pissing off the nun. 

Since I know I deserve to make penance but have not been to confession since 1977, I will listen and wait for your instructions. 

(15 minutes later)

Nothing. 

OK, I guess it wasn’t me after all. Whew, carrying that guilt for 43 years was quite a load! Or maybe He let me off with time served. 

Now I have to bend this paperclip back. It is, after all, government property.

There. Almost good as new.

16 June 2016

Too many voices, not enough attention paid



If you're in the right demographic, The Mighty might publish them

There are many websites asking for first-person accounts of mental illness – quirky stories, self-help methods, recovery, etc. I’ve submitted to a few of them and been greeted with silence. It seems that perhaps, I do not have interesting stories to tell or my writing flat out sucks. That could be either depression talking or reality – I usually see it as reality. 

So comes this story on two trips to the mental ward in the OC 87 Recovery Diaries by Karis Rogerson.

When I read stories like this, I accumulate red flags and warning bells. By the time I reach the end I can usually figure out why this story made it and, perhaps, others didn’t.

First thing I noticed, and I see it many of these stories, is that they are thinly veiled love letters to living in New York. I suppose if you can get committed there, you can get committed anywhere. It seems that many people find their lives unfulfilling if somehow, they can’t make it to the Big Apple. I don’t understand why any person fighting mental illness would want to live in that hell hole, especially anyone with a nervous condition. 

Woody Allen made the mistake of making neuroticism in New York look trendy and hip. Nervous conditions anywhere are neither but, in reality, a giant pain in the ass. To be in a place where there is constant noise, activity and unreal career or personal expectations would seem to set up a fragile person for a disaster. Maybe all the mental wards and delis within walking distance make up for the crushing cost of living and claustrophobia that would seem to be generated by living in a closet marketed as an apartment.

But maybe it’s just me. I just don’t get it. 

At the end we find a little more out about Karis:

Karis Rogerson is an American/Canadian who grew up in Italy and Germany, and is currently in New York City getting her master's in journalism from New York University. She loves to read, write and laugh. All she wants out of life is an NYC apartment, a newspaper job and lots of travel. She couldn't live without friends (both the TV show and the real-life ones), binge-watching cop shows and lots and lots of pizza. Someday she hopes you'll read her novels.

I know how this is going to sound, but I’ve seen too much of this. So many of the people who actually have their mental health stories published are, not to put too fine a point on it, people who come from means and, by nature of their published bios, probably have a number of connections in both the web publishing and online mental health communities.

I rarely see any essays that are written by people without the kind of pedigree I see above. And, I also rarely see stories from people who were not inpatient psych at one point or another. Perhaps an inpatient stay is needed for street cred in the mental health writers committee. So I guess I’m out of luck on that score as well.

In addition, there seems to be a dearth of stories written by anyone over 40. Again, maybe it’s just my perception.

If these rougher voices need editing, well, that's what editors are for. Not everyone afflicted with a mental illness is William Styron.

Why do I care? I think I have something of interest to share, especially my story of what happened to me at work and why sometimes silence is better than educating (it involved a SWAT team and other unpleasantness).

But I’m used to this sort of thing and it doesn’t bother me much anymore. That’s why I have a blog, after all. What bothers me is the dulling sameness of the people I do see published and the seemingly similar story arcs and construction. I’m also concerned that other people who did not have the external advantages and connections are not being considered for publication. 

You can say that is the way things are and that is true to a point. My naiveté may be that I believed that the online mental health community may have been a little more opening and willing to consider a wider range of voices. 

OK, stop laughing. 

My interactions with the local NAMI branch should have disabused me of such fairy tale notions but I guess my Pollyanna attitude with the ‘helping community’ dies hard.

15 June 2016

Once In A Lifetime. . .

Sid holds the Cup aloft during the Victory Parade in downtown Pittsburgh 6/15/16 photo by Mary Gottschalk
I think I may have mentioned growing up in Cleveland.

Where nothing like this has happened in my lifetime and probably never will.

So I was there today - at 8 a.m. for an 11:30 a.m. parade.  I was nervous - I don't like going downtown and I don't like mingling with 350,000 people.

But if I never did this, I knew, or think I knew, I might not ever get another chance.

Why is this important? Is it important?

I guess because a big part of me always wanted to be part of a winner. And growing up in Cleveland the whole idea of losing teams, and the ignominy that goes with it is part of it, made it painful. We identify with the city we live in and, rightly or wrongly, with the sports teams it represents.

I still don't think Cleveland got over when the Browns left for Baltimore in 1995. Now they're desperately pulling for the basketball Cavaliers to pull off a miracle in the NBA finals.

I know it's pro sports and it's a business.

But there is really something about this city that's different and I can feel it. I've been living here 5 1/2 years and today felt like I belonged here, that I became a 'burgh person. Not a 'Yinzer' per se, but a naturalized Pittsburgher.

I'm proud of my high school and what they did. Cleveland State I couldn't give a hang about.

To be a part of this community, to be a full part of it, you become a part of the black and gold legacy, even if you don't realize it. Just tell someone in another part of the country and the first thing they think of is not the Carnegie Museum or the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra. Rightly or wrongly - it's the teams.

I realize that to many, this is a sad admission of self-identification with something that will not love you back (like falling in love with a car). But I would put it that there is a part of all of us that needs to celebrate vicariously through things we love but can't be a part of - except as a fan in a city.

Does it feel good - you bet. Is that wrong? No.

I don't live and die with teams anymore. If the Pens had lost, I would have been disappointed but not hung over the next day in the depths of depression. That would be - immature.

But if they're going to win it all, and I'm living here, I'm gonna celebrate.

And if that raises my mood for a little while, I think that's a good thing.

And I will never forget standing 20 feet away from Sid Crosby holding aloft the Stanley Cup in the city I live in. Ever.

13 June 2016

Sabotage!

So here comes some decent advice from Psychology Today.

How To Stop Sabotaging Your Own Success

Consider the case of Keith George:

George is always on a diet. He says his goal is to lose 20 pounds. He goes for a run every morning, eats a healthy breakfast, and chooses wisely when he takes clients out for lunch. But George sabotages his weight loss by keeping a cabinet full of junk food and “rewarding” himself with chips and cookies when he comes home hungry and tired.

Well, I feel for George. I feel his weariness, his hunger, his need to reward himself after another day surviving a soul-killing job in an environment of abuse and hypocrisy. 

For me, it's ice cream.

I think Big Pharma has been playing with us for some time. Are you telling me you can't make a pill that makes you feel as good as a bowl of ice cream or a big piece of chocolate cake (with lots of icing)? Oh, yeah, we do have those (opiates) but if we start enjoying life to much from a pill, some of us will OD and well. . . 

My wife takes pity on me when she buys groceries. When I'm melting under the couch, she'll bring home the stuff I shouldn't be eating but I do. 

And it makes me happy - for an hour -- then I feel guilty. 

It's not like I haven't said no to myself.

Like this - no.

Sometimes, when I'm really feeling good, I'll say it like this - no. 

But I really need to say this - NO!

I remember an interview a long time ago with Boy George where he was discussing his drug addiction problem and referenced Nancy Reagan's 'Just Say No' campaign. He made the point that you can consciously say no but your body says, uh, I need those drugs and I need them NOW or you will PAY!

And for many of us who are depressed, these foods are a drug. A bad drug to be sure because the effects don't last as long and have more calories than a Vicodin.

But there's more to the article than conquering fat. Some of us engage in a lot of self-defeating activity of which, we are fully aware.

You may not apply for a promotion because you’ve already concluded that your co-worker is better qualified, or you give up on online dating because deep down you don’t think you’re pretty enough or young enough. You worry that you’ll fail, so it’s easier to not even acknowledge that you want a promotion or committed partner.

But of course, this can be learned behavior, rammed into your consciousness because it has happened over and over. What is never quite acknowledged by psychology is that many of us have these gun-shy tendencies because these things have happened no matter how confident we were at the time or how well we put our best foot forward. Once or twice, one can, reasonably, recover. Several times and many of us figure - why put ourselves out for more pain?

Yes, people have failed many times, stuck it out, and become a 'success.' But I would put it to you that they are different-minded people from the world of the walking wounded. If this sounds like excuses, spend a lifetime in our shoes. 

I got to do almost everything I wanted and took very serious personal and career risks. It's a miracle that I landed on my feet when I could have cashed in several times. But the older you get, the more risk-adverse you become (well, at least I did) because for many of us, we've escaped from potentially catastrophic incidents so many times, despite our condition, that many of us feel we may have used up our store of good fortune. And this is a very definite feeling.

For instance, at my age, the prospect of being assertive at work when I recently had a case of people laying a trap for me because of my behavior, is terrifying. At 53, who would hire someone who got booted from the Federal civil service? Thankfully, lessons were learned, meds were adjusted and things have become tolerable. But in the back of my mind there is still fear. And I'm afraid it will never leave. 

And I am not alone in this. 

One more bite at this article before I go. We're giving some seriously mixed messages in our society today and here is an example. 

The author of this piece, Sharon Martin LCSW, writes:

Allow yourself to dream big. Don’t be afraid to imagine a bright future for yourself. Expecting failure or catastrophizing won’t protect you from disappointment. It only keeps you stuck in a negative mindset.

Dream big, which to many of us, sounds like following our dreams, our passions.

But then Mike Rowe comes along and douses the fire:

"But when it comes to making a living, it’s easy to forget the dirty truth: just because you’re passionate about something doesn’t mean you won’t suck at it.'"

The problem here is that both Martin and Rowe are right in their own way. I'd like to see them on a panel discussion. But here is the truth - one may suck at something that is their dream BUT if they never try, they'll go to their grave wondering 'what if?'

Rowe's point also has a dirty little secret encapsulated inside of it -- with the cost of higher education and the narrowing job market, the price of failure in America has never been as great. If you dream of being journalist, as I did in the 70s and 80s, you can go to J school, graduate with $100,000 or more in debt and find yourself working in a dying industry for $25,000 a year, IF you're lucky enough to get a job.

So the bottom line here is this: is regret on your death bed a greater fear than poverty and disappointment? Or do you believe you will be one of the exceptions?

This is one of many struggles that become internalized more severely among people with depressive disorders.

So too many of us land up like Homer:


So stop the negative head talk and stop sabotaging yourself.

If you can.

07 June 2016

Caloric Shame

or, my wife is going to kill me for this,

or, this is why I will always be fat,

What you see here started out with good intentions.

That container on the left was filled with an organic salad that my wife lovingly prepared for me from locally produced. . . produce.

I'm used to fake salads - the kind in bags at the Giant Eagle that say "American Blend." I think they're grown in factory greenhouses specifically for people who like to brag about the salads they have for lunch while slamming down ice cream after dinner.

Look, I grew up a picky eater and hated most things that weren't packaged by General Mills. I didn't even try my first salad until I was 10 and that was a few shards of iceberg lettuce smothered in bottled Italian dressing. For the next six years, that was what a salad meant to me.

Now I've learned to like raw spinach in my salad, and romaine, and . . . some other stuff. I'm still not sure about kale.

I eat only four vegetables - corn, green beans, peas and carrots. That's it. I call them 'The Big Four.'

Look, momma tried.

But okra reminded me of the aliens in the movie "The War of the Worlds." Something that weird could not have been grown here.

Brussels sprouts made me gag. The smell of cooking butternut squash gave me the heaves. It didn't help that my mom was a lousy cook who boiled everything to a limp death.

But OK, it's 2016, it's lunch, here's your salad, packaged with loving care.

First mistake - I sniffed it. Something's off. I think it smells like Earth. Who wants to eat something that smells like Earth?

So I smothered it in my favorite organic honey Dijon dressing and took a big bite.

Remember when we were kids and did that dare where you stuck your tongue on both terminals of a 9-volt battery? Remember that 'taste?'

Yeah.

Hon, I tried. I ate about half of it. I had the apple and the yogurt to try to kill the lingering aftertaste which felt like stuffing a bunch of old pennies in your cheeks.

But I was still hungry. I fought the battle of 'get yourself something healthy' from the snack store here at work until I remembered there is nothing healthy there. And I don't trust the food in the cafeteria.

So I'm lazy and feeling sorry for myself. Thinking about the walk across the parking lot almost saved me, but in the end the absolute 'sniffing the carpet for traces of coke' jonesing for empty calories won out.

And you see the result which is followed by bloating, lethargy and a healthy dose of shame.

So this is a confessional of sorts. By in my defense, I am a product of my upbringing. I was denied so much junk food when I was a kid, when I grew up and started earning regular paychecks, lunch would be a whole box of chicken flavored Rice-A-Roni (the San Francisco treat) followed by 'dessert,' which was half a bag of double-stuf Oreos with whole milk.

Thankfully, my parents did teach me to drink socially (and illegally) before I went to college. So while my classmates were making a beeline for the nearest display of Natty Lite, I was studying and wondering why they were treating mere near beer the way I treated Ho-Hos.

Everyone has their vice I guess. I did work out two days in a row, but stayed up late last night to watch hockey, which meant I am tired and when I am tired, I want to eat food that comes in cellophane.

Yeah, I know. Bullshit rationalizing. I'm worthless and weak.

By the way - total calories in that photo: 590.
Total fat: 20.5 grams.
Carbs: you don't want to know.

When my heart explodes, they'll erect a statue of me in Hershey, Pa.