On the subject of fear: the thing you’re most scared to write about is the thing you most need to. Because if you can reach deep inside and come out with even ten words of the truth of what it means to be a human being, your audience will identify with you regardless of your age, gender, race, sexuality, social class, or even culture or language, and everybody will come away better for it.
Think about it: when you meet someone new you make chit-chat. You broadcast a personality construct in order to gain validation of yourself as an individual. For this reason you don’t reveal your doubts or fears to a stranger, and you’re deeply uneasy around strangers who do. And this being the interwebz and with all of us trying to monetize our writing, making people anything other than mildly uncomfortable is to be avoided.
But how, then, do you practice compassion? And how do you find and share truth?
You have to go first. You have to find the right scalpel and carve into your soul and have the courage to get up on stage afterwards and show your injuries, and only then can you form the intimate relationships that truly matter. The brotherhoods and sisterhoods, the family you never knew you had. The people who find you in themselves, and find themselves in you. Which can be everybody, if you’re only willing to try.
So here’s my scalpel and here are my injuries, and these are my ten words.1
Thinking “If nobody knows what you’re going through, nobody gets hurt except you” is straight-up bullshit.
When I hit puberty back in the mid-eighties—eighth grade—I started having episodes of what I thought of as “numbness.” My mind would go foggy and my social anxiety would swell and I’d get disgusted with my clothes and body and even my own name. But in two or three weeks I’d be fine again.
Didn’t help that I got bullied. Randomly punched in the halls. You know how it is: the skinny bookworm kid who doesn’t dare fight back and even feels like he deserves it.2
So I didn’t know what I was going through or how to ask for help for it. I simply hid and endured these phases of numbness until I was forty-three—almost eight years after I retired—when I sank into a depression so bad that all I had the energy to do was drive aimlessly around town after midnight making suicide plans. For hours and hours.
Strange that being out in public can be an act of hiding. But I’m a grown American man and consequently have the unfortunate cultural need to act six feet tall and bulletproof. Big boys don’t complain or cry, and we especially don’t go to doctors. We’ve got families to provide for and appearances to keep up, and we don’t have time to bleed.3
But on those early-hour drives I kept circling back past a particular therapist’s office. His number was on his sign and my wife knew him, but I lacked the courage to make the call. Cell phone right there in my pocket, and I couldn’t bring myself to use it.
You take to your bed when you’re depressed not necessarily because you feel bad—you do, and your bed’s safe and comfortable—but you go there just as much because you’re figuratively drowning and you’re desperate for a lifeguard. A loved one who’ll wonder where you disappeared to and who’ll come find you. If that door would only open, you think, then I’d know somebody cares about me. Then I’d be OK.
So one afternoon during my driving-around phase I was upstairs in bed—I’d been there for a couple of hours—and I’d broken down and was crying into a dirty bathtowel, and my wife came in to get the laundry and found me there and set the basket on the floor and sat down next to me and asked me what was wrong.
I still don’t know why I chose that particular moment, but I finally confessed that I wanted to kill myself.
Her face grew as serious as you’d expect, and she took my hands and said—I’ll never forget it—“I’m not gonna let go of this.”
She got the guns out of the house and poured the liquor down the sink and made the phone call to the therapist that I couldn’t bear to make. I don’t know exactly what she told him, but I can figure out the gist of it, and twenty-four hours later I was in his office with thirty-five years of pent-up fear and sadness and self-hatred ripping its way out of me. I was raging and sobbing and such.
At the end of the session he said, “Listen, I’m gonna set you up an appointment with a forensic psychiatrist. I think you’re bipolar and if that’s true, we can help you.
And in another twenty-four hours I had an appointment with a shrink. This was a guy whose calendar filled up months in advance, but it’s obvious why he cleared a slot for me.
Wanting to die may not mean you want to die. Suicidal ideation is dire, and steps should be taken to isolate you from the means, but the “cry for help” cliche is very much true. In a subconscious way what you crave isn’t death; it’s dramatic change. You badly want the pain to end, and death is the most available symbol.
So, yeah, the forensic psychiatrist diagnosed me with “highly functional bipolar II,” which is (to paraphrase DSM-IV):4
“…recurrent episodes of depression and hypomania. Hypomania…requires elevated (euphoric) and/or irritable mood, plus at least three of the following symptoms (four if mood is only irritable): grandiosity, decreased need for sleep, increased talking, racing thoughts, distractibility, overactivity (an increase in goal-directed activity), psychomotor agitation and excessive involvement in risky activities. This observable change in functioning should not be severe enough to cause marked impairment of social or occupational functioning, or to require hospitalization.”
And that was me, man. To the letter.
I’ve been asked: “How do you feel about your diagnosis?” Greatly relieved, that’s how.
I think I’m expected to be angry, as in “Why me?” But after so many years of going it solo, being told that I’m not alone…that roughly one in forty people have this condition, and that bipolar disorder is treatable, and that most of all I’ll feel better…being diagnosed turned out to be the most liberating experience I’ve ever had. The weight of the universe came off me.
Four hundred milligrams of Lamictal a day and periodic talk therapy have set me right. Or if not entirely right, at least much much much less wrong. I get bummed out occasionally, usually for just cause, and sometimes I get a kick of happiness out of nowhere. That’s it.
Ignorance of bipolar disorder and discrimination against those who suffer from it is both widespread and hurtful, and in fact prevents many people from getting help for it.
I live in Chattanooga, where in 2015 a young man named Muhammad Youssef Abdulazeez shot up a recruiting center and then a Naval Reserve station, killing four Marines and a Navy sailor, and wounding another Marine and a police officer.
CNN soon reported that according to an unnamed source Abdulazeez had bipolar disorder, and the media was quick to seize on this news as if it and it alone explained his rampage. Crazed killer runs amok; film at 11. His substance abuse and religious radicalization and heavy indebtedness got much less coverage, but even then were attributed to his bipolarity as the root cause. And it was pointed out that like so many bipolar individuals, he was in and out of therapy and on and off medication.
So to get back to how one feels after being diagnosed…who wants to be known as that guy? Who wants to be thought of as a potential Abdulazeez? Who’s eager to embrace being a…but let’s save the “savage sicko” label for the next section.
But I mentioned earlier that roughly one in forty people have bipolar disorder. How many coworkers do you have?
Do you feel safe?
Don’t define people by their medical conditions. Enough with the “So-and-so is bipolar,” OK? You shouldn’t say “So-and-so IS bipolar” any more than you should say “So-and-so IS cancer.”
Case after case of this kind of prejudicial thinking. Shortly after the Parkland shooting, Trump tweeted implications that the criminalization of mental illness was preferable to prevention and/or treatment of it. To wit:
He also said in a televised speech that:
“I want to speak now directly to America’s children, especially those who feel lost alone confused or even scared. I want you to know that you are never alone, and you never will be. You have people who care about you, who love you and who will do anything at all to protect you. If you need help, turn to a teacher, a family member, a local police officer or a faith leader. Answer hate with love. Answer cruelty with kindness.”
Well…come on, man…that sounds paternally benevolent and all, but as a guy who’s labeled as “mentally disturbed” I hoist a middle finger to that entire class of rhetoric. Serially reporting mentally disturbed people to the police rather than to medical providers, calling them savage sickos, espousing violence as the prime deterrent, hatred and cruelty—the implication is crystal clear.
Quite a bit of the resulting gun control debate has therefore centered around keeping guns out of the hands of people who aren’t mentally healthy. Many questions have been raised:
- Who gets to decide who’s mentally healthy and who’s a savage sicko?
- How do we keep track of such people?
- Should they be allowed near schools or other “high-risk” places?
- Is a public registry necessary?
- What privacy laws/issues are raised by sharing confidential medical information with firearms dealers?
- Should entire categories of people be summarily stripped of their Constitutional rights?
But here’s one I haven’t seen discussed. Mentally unhealthy people can benefit from treatment, yes? So if you’re a troubled eighteen year-old and you enjoy owning, say, a tactical Mossberg 500, wouldn’t the idea of losing your Second Amendment rights discourage you from seeking help?
Why am I discussing slash ranting about all this right now?
Because I’ve had enough. An ignorant act of discrimination just this morning shot down a dream I’ve cherished for fifteen years.
I enjoy cargo ship-spotting in much the same way people enjoy train-spotting. After wanting to take a transatlantic cruise on a cargo ship for a very long time, I finally managed to arrange one on the CMA CGM line. Included in the California redwood’s worth of paperwork I had to fill out was a medical certification from my doctor that I was fit to travel. He did so, and I sent the form in.
But this morning I got the following note from the French shipping agent who represents the company:
“Dear [Early Retirement Dude],
Thanks a lot but I’m really sorry, we saw with the doctor of the company and you are not allowed to travel. Your pathology is not possible on board to cross the Atlantic. On your medical form, it’s written that you are Bipolar. So we must cancel your trip.”
And there it is. I have bipolar II and I’m therefore a safety hazard. Despite everything I’ve accomplished in life, I’m not to be trusted, not to be in proximity with the crew, and presumed to be unable to function like a “normal” or “healthy” human being. CMA CGM, or their underwriters or whomever it is, says I’m not worth the risk of taking on board. God alone knows what might happen.
Bloody hell. No wonder the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission considers bipolarity a disabling condition. I might be a multi-millionaire, but I reckon I oughtta march right down to the local Social Security office and file for disability. And why not? I paid for the ticket and now I want the friggety ride.
Despite all I’ve just written, I should get as outraged when others are discriminated against as I do when I am. Failing to do so seems nasty and narcissistic. Is something real only when it happens to me?
I can’t answer that. But I could, I suppose, muster up anger at every injustice in the entire world. Should I? No. I shouldn’t, and can’t, walk around angry all the time. Don’t want to be that guy.
Among other reasons it wouldn’t be honest…because I’m in a damned good place in life.
Thinking back on those thirty-five years of bewildering numbness, it’s easy for me to see why I worked so hard to retire so early. I’ve said many times that early retirement shouldn’t be used as a glorified geographical cure; that it’s easy to change your surroundings but difficult to change your situation.
So it becomes clear that—much like in the case of suicidal ideation—I felt like my life sucked and I wanted drastic change. Consequently I mistook my external reality for my internal one. I should’ve, then, been working on myself as hard as I was working on my escape plan.
And being somebody afflicted with a condition that makes it possible to achieve the focus of the Hubble space telescope, getting to ER may have been tedious but it was far from impossible. A good thing, yes?
Good can come from bad, certainly. So am I grateful for having bipolar disorder? For “being bipolar?”
Ultimately, yes. This whole experience has given me a good handle on who I am. I’m not violent; not a savage sicko who needs to be outed to the community and isolated before I shoot up a school or Naval reserve center…and if I’m disturbed, it’s because I don’t want one single kid to have to go through what I went through, ever again.
You’ve heard, I imagine, that there are two kinds of people in this world: those who are ill, and those who will be. So until you know what it means to lose your health, move cautiously and with compassion, and for God’s sake don’t mistake the condition for the individual.
Because we’re not “bipolar.” We’re you, and you over there, and you sir, and you madam…and especially you, dear reader.
Hope you can identify with that.
- Metaphorically, I mean. I’m not a Sesame Street character…counting is hard work. This episode is brought to you by the square root of negative one.
- Something I’ll always hold against my dad is that if he’d taught me to throw a straight right instead of ordering me to love Jesus and turn the other cheek and suffer in silence, etc., I’d be a much more confident person. I even got bullied at church, and yet today my mom still tears up when she begs me to become a Christian. I’d list all the reasons why I can’t and won’t, but she wouldn’t be able to un-hear them. They boil down to: fuck fundamentalist congregations that place spreading the gospel to all the world ahead of the well-being of their own children.
- H/T to Jesse Ventura.
- Sorry for not using DSM-V, but the IV description seemed most apt.