Every now and then I get a glimpse of what my mental illnesses look like.
It’s been a long time. I have taken my medications without fail for years. I exercise, eat healthy foods, get as much sleep as I can, visit my psych-nurse practitioner every three months and I get on my knees every night and thank God for my sobriety. In other word, I do what I am told – an unnatural act for me.
As a reporter for a daily newspaper, I am accustomed to stress. For nearly 30 years I have lived with a deadline hanging over my head. I took six weeks off to have a baby, 8 weeks for my last major depression but other than the one- or two-week vacations, I have had a deadline over my head.
Recently, I accepted an assignment which today I realize I should not have done. I agreed to leave my home and my dog, suspend my exercise routine and healthy eating habits and forego nights of 8-hours of sleep to cover the Florida legislature’s last two-weeks in session.
I did this once before, nearly 30 years ago when reporters were only expected to write a story for the newspaper. Now, we must also Tweet, blog and make videos. Despite my degree in political science, after 30+ years in journalism, I’m kinda disallusioned with politics.
Every Saturday morning I refill my pink pill box: S-M-T-W-T-F-S. I have been doing this for years. Three different medications. One of this pill. One of that pill. One-and-a-half of those pills. Every morning and every night, I take my meds. It’s like brushing my teeth – just something I do when I wake up and before I go to bed.
My meds. I go weeks without giving a thought to my meds. I just take them. My life is good. No more hopeless black holes or vibrating with energy like a wide-eyed racehorse pawing at the dirt in the starting gate. Nice and steady. I have grown used to it and I really, really like it.
So, when something comes along that has the potential to seriously disrupt my balance, I tend to freak out. Anxiety is the enemy. Drama is the enemy. I have made enough enemies in my life. I don’t need to make anymore.
There are three things that scare the hell out of me: Sharks. Being trapped in a car after an accident and cut out with the jaws of life; unemployment. As long as I stay out of the ocean and drive safely, I’m in good shape. Right now, unemployment is beyond my control.
And I like to be in control.
The first step of any 12-step program is to admit you are powerless over something and that your life has become unmanageable.
For many addicts and alcoholics, this is an extraordinarily difficult task even though their addiction has cost them their job, their marriage, a few teeth or most of their body fat. If you are not an addict, you look at these poor souls and wonder, “How can you possibly not see what you addiction has done to you?” “Why haven’t you you made that connection?”
A lot of it has to do with denial. They blame their predicament on anything and everything BUT their addiction: It’s the ultimate dog-ate-my-homework excuse on a massive scale. Taking that first step means admitting two things: 1. That you have no control over something. 2. That your life has become unmanageable.
There are some addicts and alcoholics who readily admit that their lives have become unmanageable, but they refuse to see that the cause of the un-manageability is drugs and/or alcohol.
For others, they readily admit that they cannot stop drugging or drinking but they cannot see that their lives have become unmanageable. I am one of these folks.
I was what is known as a high-functioning alcoholic. I knew I could not stop drinking. I even admitted I was an alcoholic. But I refused to admit that my life had become unmanageable. We are the ones who often drink at home, so no one can see our unmanageability. Those around us high-functioning addicts/alcoholics don’t see it either. In fact, they praise us for how well we manage our busy, successful lives.
Although we’re very often the biggest pricks you will ever meet, deep down we are very, very concerned about what other people think of us when it comes to our drinking and drug use. We can be ruthless in our drive to prove that we have control and that our lives are manageable.
You live like this long enough and you can become exceedingly good at what you do. Which is why a lot of high-functioning addicts and alcoholics are so successful. We work our asses off – will sacrifice our families, marriages and children – to prove to ourselves that our lives are manageable. The more unmanageable our drug use or drinking becomes, the harder we work at proving to ourselves and others that we have our shit together.
God help the person who threatens our relentless drive to prove that our lives are manageable. We will eat you alive. We can become ruthless, sarcastic, self-righteous bastards in our effort to prove the manageability of our lives. We will intimidate you so you will shut up. If you happen to have depression or bipolar along with your addiction, you are a living hell.
Here’s what it looked like for me:
Fourteen years ago today I took my last drink. I’m not sure exactly what it was because much of that night remains a blur – in and out of a blackout. I remember going to a party where there were massive martini glasses on each table filled with goldfish. I was determined to SAVE THE GOLDFISH! when the clean-up crew started flushing them down the toilet. Ah, the joys of being the last one at the party.
I have a few other snippets of drunken debauchery from that night but I clearly remember waking up and my neighbor coming over and asking if I was okay because my front door was wide open when he went out to get his paper that morning and some of my clothes — the kind of clothing that neighbors usually aren’t privy to seeing — were strewn about my front yard.
I stumbled into a 12-Step meeting later that day, sat in the back and realized I was in the right place — even though I thought it was insane that these people could be laughing at stories like mine from the night before! How dare they take this so lightly! Can’t they see how much pain I am in? What is wrong with these people?
A guy from Flagstaff, Arizona called me the other day out of the blue. He wanted to talk about some of my writings and we covered a lot of ground. A co-worker and I had a smorgasbord of a conversation yesterday – discussing parenting, quirky, brilliant friends and investigative journalism.
What struck me about both conversations is that the topic of mindfulness came up. Seems kind of weird because mindfulness isn’t a topic that gets dropped into conversations with strangers and co-workers. I’m taking it as a sign that I need to bone-up on my mindfulness practice.
I first learned about mindfulness when I got sober 14 years ago. As part of my 12-Step journey I decided to research some of the world’s great religions. I was brought up by a devout Irish-Catholic mother and attended a Catholic elementary school. I figured between mom and mother superior, I had the Catholic thing down. But I had never read the Bible. Parts of the Bible had been read TO me. But I had never read the whole thing.
Trout live in beautiful places. They like cold water, preferably flowing over the rocky riverbed. To catch them you must wade into running river, one uncertain step at a time over very slippery rocks with a fly rod in one hand and the other jerking and waving to counterbalance what seems like a certain plunge into frigid water.
Fly fishing a form of ballet. Your rod is like a conductor’s baton. If your cues and gestures are precise, the line floats in the air above the water, forming fluid arcs until the fly gently lands in the water. You slowly strip the line in and cast again, waiting for the trout to strike. The scenery is breathtaking and there is no sound but for birds and the whoosh of the rapids in the river.
For me to accomplish this without falling or snagging my hook on my hat requires complete focus. If I think of anything else but the task at hand, I will fail. I have found several other activities that require this kind of razor focus. Snow skiing hard and fast, sculling – rowing a 27-foot pencil thin boat with long oars as fast as you can – and CrossFit – an extreme boot camp exercise program that demands I push my strength, flexibility and endurance to the limit at every workout.
Some people think I am too serious and obsessed with these kinds of activities. What they do not realize is that for those of us who are bipolar, these activities silence our racing thoughts and focus our mania into something good and healthy.
I used to swim and run a lot. Running and swimming exhausted me and helped burn-off the excess energy. But I could still think while I ran or swam. I would think about work, what I needed to pick up at the grocery store, bills and what I would have or should-have said to someone who had pissed me off.
When I was first diagnosed I was so relieved because I thought I had bipolar disorder and you know how THOSE people act. Then I learned that hypomania IS s a type of bipolar – Bipolar II – and I had to confront my own prejudice against Bipolar Disorder.
I’m cool with it now. I have done a lot of research on both Bipolar I and Bipolar II. I am in good company: Kurt Cobain. Vincent VanGogh. Marilyn Monroe. Virginia Woolf. And did I mention Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher)? Many of us are creative and very, very successful.
Problem is, we tend to step on a lot of toes along the way and tick off a whole lot of people. We’re also intimidating. When I’m in a manic phase, all I have to do is walk into a room and folks kind of lean back in their chairs – like I have invaded their personal space. I throw out this energy – which some people admire and others question.
Sometimes the power of a bad example is as powerful as a good example. I’m thinking of Kim Richards, one of the housewives on The Housewives of Beverly Hills.
My daughter got me hooked on that show when she came home from college on winter break. There was a time – not too long ago – when that little intellectual dilettante in me would have dismissed such a show as a complete waste of time only to be watched by the mindless, vapid masses. Thankfully, I shut that little dilettante up and now I’m watching all the re-runs – thank you very much.
Watching Kim’s slow, self-destruction over this last season is good for me. I am, like Kim, am a single, somewhat middle-aged, mother whose child has grown up. We are both trying to keep our hair blonde and minimize our wrinkles. I am not going to pronounce Kim an alcoholic, but let’s just say there was a day – before I got sober 13 years ago – that I would have partied with Kim in a heartbeat.
I have been on vacation. A vacation without cellphones, wifi or even my watch. The kind of vacation where time stands still and you forget what day it is. I slept until my body told me to wake up. I fell asleep when it got dark because at 39-degrees and 10,000 feet, up in the mountains where the mountain lions roam, there is not a lot to do after dark but talk, sleep and pray that the mountain lions and bears have full tummies.
I did not read a newspaper or listen to any news. I stopped to say “hello” to every dog that crossed my path and ate jerky. I stomped around in streams, up to my thighs in clean, cold water attempting to fly-fish.
I paid attention to my mood. Uptight at the airport – trying to figure out what I had forgotten. Negotiating for an upgrade on the rental car, trip to WalMart for camping supplies and provisions.
Finally, we fished.
Way back in the 1970′s, when I was a teenager, the only depression we knew about was the one in 1929 that made our parents and grandparents tightwads. Back then, teenagers with depression either hid it (like I did), self-medicated (like I did) or were loners – kids who did not fit in.
So when I heard a local couple who had lost their son to bipolar was underwriting Johns Hopkins’ ADAP program at local schools, I had to ask…”What if this had been around when I was in high school?”
The Adolescent Depression Awareness Program is brilliantly simple. It’s common sense at its finest. ADAP provides teachers with a curriculum to use on on how to teach their students about depression.“Through education we will increase awareness about depression and the need for evaluation and treatment.”
This should not be controversial but teaching teens anything about their health can be absurdly controversial. Just say the word”condom” in in some parts of the country and you’re just asking for an inquisition by the PTA.