Tag Archives: alcoholism

“invisible driving”: a memoir of mania and depression

here, finally, is a review long promised, of alister mcharg’s extraordinary memoir, invisible driving. this book, says alistair,

reads with the urgency of a novel. my work delivers a wild and hilarious thrill ride through the misunderstood, phantasmagorical world of manic depression, providing both a visceral sense of the experience and a thoughtful context for understanding it. while other books have described the surrealistic circus, invisible driving takes readers along so they can smell the sawdust for themselves.

alistair mcharg spent his early years in edinburgh and amsterdam, moving to philadelphia with his father, ian, and mother, pauline, at age six. he attended germantown friends school, haverford college, and the university of louisville. the prestige of an M.A.. in creative writing enabled mcharg to secure employment with one of philadelphia’s least reputable cab companies, providing the background for his first novel, moonlit tours. other forays into dead-end employment have included deckhand on a norwegian tramp freighter, forest fire fighter in alaska, and guide at a canadian wilderness survival camp. alistair has been arranging words for a living since 1983. apart from invisible driving, he has written countless poems, hundreds of movie and book reviews, and an ever-growing catalog of cartoons. his second novel, washed up, was released last year.

what follows is a conversation we had last tuesday.

moritherapy: what do you like best about your book?

alistair mcharg: the writing itself, the way it puts readers inside the experience of mania. (and of course, the humor.)

moritherapy: have you found people who are/were interested in the literature aspect of your book? actually, that sounds a little strange – “literature aspect.” the way i read it, your book is literature, and it is about the topic of bipolar illness. thoughts?

alistair mcharg: i totally agree with your description. it is a memoir first. in essence it is a coming of age story about facing demons, battling them, and becoming a man – a human being – in the process. the landscape where that battle plays out is manic depression. the people that don’t get it are the ones who don’t realize that the manic narrative is there to put readers inside the experience of a manic episode – you have to surrender to it to get the true benefit. – i have indeed found many readers who appreciate it as literature – rather unorthodox literature.

moritherapy: there is a rhythm to your book that is clearly there but hard to pin down. it sure isn’t a simple little polka. in the beginning you seem to have a “crazy” chapter taking turns with a “normal” one; then the manic and the normal (if i may use that word) start to take turns within the chapters, then two or three chapters in a row are wild and woolly, etc. etc. can you say something about that? to what degree is that a stylistic device, and to what degree does it echo your experience? can the two be separated at all?

alistair mcharg: the manic chapters came first. then a literary agent said that there needed to be “depth” – a second voice that was sane, reliable, and recovered. i rewrote the entire book several times. i now see she was so right – the chapters in the recovered voice provide the background – the psychological architecture. the reader finds out why i was vulnerable – what the triggers were – and what was significant about how i acted out. yes the point/counterpoint is very deliberate. (you would think that the wild, manic chapters would have been hardest to write – but the sane ones were much harder – more soul searching of real things.)

moritherapy: actually, to me, imagining writing the book, it felt that the manic ones were the ones that were written with more ease. perhaps that is because i was frankly flabbergasted how much i could relate to a lot of what you wrote. i think that’s what first drew me in. i knew exactly what you were talking about, even though my bipolar experiences are extremely mild. i’m still astonished at that.

alistair mcharg: interesting. maybe the bipolar experience is essentially the same, and what varies is the degree. it is a very nice compliment that the writing registered with you. (when i gave the manuscript to my psychiatrist he said he had to put it down now and then because it was making him manic!) i can’t say that they were written in ease – recreating the pitch of mania, the quicksilver logic twisting and slipping, the bobbing and weaving, energy, raw creative force – when i was squarely back on earth – slightly depressed – took a tremendous amount of labor and craft – craft i didn’t know i had until i attempted it.

moritherapy: i was wondering about the mood you were in when you wrote those passages! the fact that it was indeed a re-creation speaks to your fantastic writing skills. were there moments when you wondered whether recreating this would take you back into the mania?

alistair mcharg: thank you – it was writing this book (my first) that turned me into a real writer – it was transformational. — your question is pivotal. i began writing immediately after the episode described had ended. i was terrified, really shaken. i had suffered with the illness long enough to know that a trigger could send me off again – and i was pretty sure another episode would kill me. but i knew i couldn’t write the book unless mentally i went back in. (rock & hard place.) so i went deeply back into the middle of it. that decision is what made the experience transformational. i knew it might set me off on another high, i knew that might kill me – i did it anyway. i knew that i had to face this darn illness or be destroyed by it.

moritherapy: fascinating! i am really touched by what you say, can feel it in my gut. and what hits me is, again, this commingling, meeting of art, this thing called mental illness, and the healing of/from/with it. it reminds me of a poem i wrote many years ago when i was close to dying of typhoid fever. i wrote it in spanish so it’s a bit hazy in my memory but something about the need to climb the mountain of art, alone, naked, because there is no other choice. does that resonate?

alistair mcharg: resonate indeed. that is exactly what i had to do – and it was probably the single bravest thing i’ve ever done. as you say in your poem – i had to do it alone. i had been fed so many lies – i was very fear-based – i had to strip absolutely everything away until there was nothing left that wasn’t true. and then i rebuilt – i reinvented myself. – but what you say about comingling is deep – and many people do not understand. i say often that manic depression and alcoholism have given me more than they have taken. in manic depression i saw rare things – and was forced to evolve. alcoholism ultimately took me to a better way of life and a higher power. it has all been a spiritual journey and while mental “illness” has caused earthquakes in my life it has also produced angels. (typhoid fever!! yikes! thank goodness you’re okay.)

on my blog today is a poem called “rex” — you see, i was shy, i hid, i felt “less than” – but manic depression made it impossible for me to hide – and also – it forced me to admit my power.

moritherapy: more on the commingling … so there is the art, there is the “mental illness” (funny how i often feel i have to put it in quotation marks), there is the healing, there is the acknowledgment of power – and then there is humour. there’s a lot of humour in your book. page 218:

and how do these aristocrats of oddness settle down after a busy day of counting their fingers and slashing their wrists with plastics forks?

humour in these circumstances can be taken as disrespect sometimes. do you hear that sometimes? how do you react? (by commingling i mean that the humour seems to be part of it all.)

alistair mcharg: humor and music are in the very center of me. to me the best humor is never nasty, it doesn’t single out anybody and it is never there to make me feel better than you. real humor celebrates the absurdity of all life, human vanity, fatuous selfishness. you will notice that most of the humor in the book comes at my own expense. – that said, when i was manic every mean quality came out – the anger, the hurt, the fear – and, combined with an intellect caught on fire – all this hurt often found expression in really cruel humor. other times it was quite surrealistic and charming. even in my other books – both satiric novels – and my cartoons – even my poetry – you will find that i include myself – all of us – when aiming barbs. i disrespect parts of people, racism, jealousy, entitlement, xenophobia – but it is never about disrespecting people – it is about loving truth and loving what people could be but are afraid to be.

moritherapy: one last question for now: towards the beginning of the book you say, “the love of my daughter is my favourite thing about myself.” in therapy, there is often a dictum that people should change for themselves, not for others. as a father, would you agree with that?

alistair mcharg: this is a great question. the easy answer is yes! there is a saying in AA that is told to the uncertain: fake it till you make it. at first it doesn’t matter if you are in therapy – or recovery – for the wrong reasons – so long as you are there. (bring the body and the mind will follow.) but absolutely, there must come a time when you are doing it for yourself – otherwise you will never commit fully and you will never get the full benefit.

if you asked me that question today i would answer – my favourite thing about me is that i know what i have to offer and i am doing my best to put it to the service of others.

moritherapy: thank you, this was absolutely lovely!

—–

alister mcharg’s blog, america’s favorite manic depressive, is at http://alistairmcharg.blogspot.com/

the book’s web site is at http://www.invisibledriving.com

arrest them! no, not the drunk guys

i’m doing NaNoWriMo again this year, this time determined to do all i can to make it to the 50,000 word count. so my blog posts may be sporadic, or short and sweet, or both. like this one. only it’s not sweet.

at a walmart in lethbridge, told by a friend:

a drunk native fellow ahead of me was buying 10 bottles of alcohol-containing hair treatment. i asked for the manager and asked him whether he was going to let that sale go through. he said there was nothing they could do. i checked the shelves and saw that this product was vastly overstocked compared to the non-ethanol products. i called the cops. they just took my name and address.

the week before a bunch of guys had been sitting on the bench in front of walmart drinking hair product. walmart restocks the shelves according to the rate of product sales.

they should be arrested.

not the native guys.

taking responsibility: constance barnes and the braidwood enquiry

i was going to offer you another poem of sarah’s in this post but there’s something i need to say before we move on to that.

the braidwood enquiry into robert dziekanski’s death, the polish immigrant who was tasered at the vancouver airport in the fall of 2007.

and constance barnes.

right from the very beginning, the RCMP – the royal mounted canadian police – lied presented their own version of the truth. through their teeth, fancy red hats and polished black boots. the latest in their sometimes daily refusal to take any responsibility whatsoever is to deny the existence of an email that details how they decided to use a taser on their way to the airport.

now let’s talk about constance barnes.

constance barnes is a vancouver parks board commissioner, single mother of two children, employed at dr sun yat sen gardens – and she screwed up. she drank, she fell asleep at the wheel, and then ploughed into a house.

and then she apologized.

see the difference?

people are complaining that she didn’t apologize at the right time, that she didn’t use the right words to describe that she’s going to AA, that what she did was not a “mistake” but a … well, i don’t know what – etc., etc. who cares!

she took responsibility, and she apologized.

what a concept.

i don’t have a clue what’s going on behind closed doors at the RCMP. is there something even bigger they’re hiding? are they too steeped in a culture of secrecy that they can’t see what they’re doing? is there a boss somewhere who can’t handle looking at the truth? are they getting paid big bucks by taser? who knows.

what i DO know is that responsibility liberates. responsibility is for mature, grown-up people who know that there are no gods among humans, that we’re not perfect, and that we make mistakes. awful, horrendous mistakes sometimes. and that the way to show you’re a woman or a man is to stand as tall as possible, warts and all and to say, “YES, i did this. what can i do to make it better?”

it liberates because after you take responsibility, you don’t have to cower beneath fear, shame and guilt.

addiction and creativity

i’m back from kelowna, after a somewhat tense 6-hour drive (some stretches were a bit treacherous), followed by one hour’s worth of snow shovelling.  so i’m going to go to bed now and will cede this space to someone else, creativity coach eric maisel.  here he talks about his new book, creative recovery:

creative recovery, the book that susan raeburn and i recently wrote describing a complete addiction recovery program for creative people, just received a very nice library journal review. here is the review in its entirety.

“therapist and creativity coach maisel (fearless creating; the creativity book) and clinical psychologist raeburn illustrate how creativity both contributes to addiction and is a tool for recovery. in the first of three sections, entitled ‘preparing,’ the authors begin by expanding upon the biological and other risks for addiction and explore the abuse continuum. the next section, ‘working,’ is devoted to the foundation of recovery, awareness, which can be enhanced through creative talents, and addiction challenges, including an acceptance of the need to change. finally, in ‘living,’ the authors emphasize that recovery is an ongoing, lifelong process, and they expand upon and reinforce the role played by creativity, which provides an artistic outlet to express the hope, strength, and wholeness of continued recovery. including an extensive list of resources, this informative, insightful, and valuable book is recommended for large public and academic library collections focusing on addiction and addiction recovery.”

here is a brief excerpt from the book:

the short story “the bound man,” by the german author ilse aichinger, is a beautiful piece in the existential tradition. it goes as follows. a man awakens one morning to find himself inexplicably bound by rope.

instead of removing the rope at his first opportunity, as we might expect him to do, he decides to remain bound and to become a circus attraction, turning his accidental bondage into his trademark work. how strange! why would a person happily accept such bondage? it is similar to the question that franz kafka poses in “the hunger artist,” where a man, who also chooses to become a circus attraction, starves himself to death because he can’t find food that interests him. these authors are asking variations of the following vital question: “why do people carelessly, inexplicably, and even happily do things that harm them so much?”

one of the things that people do that harms them, but that they nevertheless hold on to as if they were benefiting from it, is to get addicted and to stay addicted. not for anything can you pry them away from their alcohol, cocaine, tobacco, internet surfing, video-game playing, overeating, shopping, or sexual escapades. tell them that they are dying: no matter. tell them that they are wasting half their life in front of a computer screen or in the aisles of department stores: no matter. remind them that they can’t have love or a real life if they use sex as a drug: no matter. point out that their liver is already not functioning, that their nasal lining is already perforated, or that their lungs are already black: no matter. what you experience as you talk to an addicted individual is that he or she is completely indifferent to your good arguments.

creative people, our best and our brightest, squarely fall into the category of people at high risk for addiction-people who accept the “happy bondage” of an addiction even though they might be expected to know better. it isn’t just romantic mythology that creative people are more prone than their peers to succumb to the lure of an addiction. it is a fact, and there are many reasons for this. as we proceed we will explain these reasons: why, in addition to the biological, social, psychological, and developmental risk factors that confront many people, extra risk factors confront the creative person. for now we just want to get on the table that the risk is significantly greater for you if you are creative. that is a fact.

if you are creative, at how high a risk for an addiction are you? consider what tom dardis has to say in the **thirsty muse: “of the seven native-born americans awarded the nobel prize in literature, five were alcoholic. the list of other twentieth-century american writers similarly afflicted is very long; only a few of the major talents have been spared.

in addition to the five nobel laureates–sinclair lewis, eugene o’neill, william faulkner, ernest hemingway and john steinbeck–the roster includes edward arlington robinson, jack london, edna st. vincent millay, f. scott fitzgerald, hart crane, conrad aiken, thomas wolfe, dashiell hammett, dorothy parker, ring lardner, djuna barnes, john o’hara, james gould cozzens, tennessee williams, john berryman, carson mccullers, james jones, john cheever, jean stafford, truman capote, raymond carver, robert lowell and james agee.”

you don’t have to be a creative superstar to run extra risks for addiction. our clients and patients fall everywhere along the spectrum from unknown to established, from “sunday painter” to world-famous, from someone who manifests her creativity by knitting to someone who manifests her creativity by fabricating monumental public sculptures. we work with individuals who don’t know what they want to create and who can’t seem to access their creativity and with individuals who know exactly what they want to create and who work obsessively to manifest their ideas and their intentions. what links all of these people and makes them more alike than different is their felt sense that creativity matters to them, that it is a part of who they are. if you can say that about yourself, then you are a member of this family-and run added risks for addiction.

here is the site of eric maisel’s books and services, and one of his blogs, the eric maisel creativity central blog.

mental health week: alcohol and epilepsy

woman struggling with alcohol today for my post on mental health, i’d like to share with you a letter i received a few days ago from a fellow canadian. while it is about the mental illness of addiction, i’d also like to think about it as a move towards mental wellness; wellness achieved by sharing our stories with others. here it is:

dear ms. mori

i am writing to you, as i have to many other ‘alcohol’ awareness/help organizations, regarding what i feel is a fairly unknown health problem. while everyone is painfully aware of society’s affair with drunk driving, i have only found one or two individuals, in the last few months, who have ever heard of this health problem and its cause. i’ll try to make it as brief as possible, however, please feel free to contact myself, should you require any further information what-so-ever.

to set the stage, the years preceding our health deterioration, we had both quit drinking for a year here and there, with no reactions at all, but went back to it, in order to keep some sanity in our previous/former bad marriages.

neither of us had ever heard of possible dreadful health effects, were warned only, of course, not to drink excessively for the obvious reasons, and then, not to drive! we both found it to be somewhat of a stress reliever though, as we were prone to worry.

both myself and my late husband were born to alcoholic mothers. they drank before, during and after pregnancy, but we were both born in good health. we picked up the nasty little drinking habit quite well, in our late teens. we were both well educated and held down good jobs with excellent income and work associates who, unfortunately, also loved to drink. never any illnesses or health problems, never a sick day off work, nor hospital visits. this all came to a devastating halt, for us both in our mid 40’s. it is called ‘grand-mal seizures’ (epilepsy).

there is no known cure!! prescription drugs are the only help. along with complete alcohol abstinence, permanently! the current drugs have pages and pages of horrific side effects and are costly. we both were forced to give up our occupations, which is unbelievably difficult to do when you have worked happily your entire life, not to mention being accustomed to a certain level of income.

seizures do not hit all drinkers, some not at all, some earlier, some later in life, with no rhyme or reason, similar to many health problems facing today’s society. i have a distant relative whose daughter was born with it, and, while her mom and dad have never consumed alcohol, suspicion is that her dad’s biological parents did. however, being adopted leaves the question unanswered.

your drivers license is suspended immediately when it hits, and not returned until you have made 6 full months, without an attack. however, it is like having a wretched poisonous snake, dwelling permanently inside of you, forever and ever, and ever! the medication professes to hold it down, so to speak, and yes, it does, however, it is always on your mind especially when your license to drive is returned and makes travelling costs to many doctor’s appointments slightly more affordable. there is a little journal book always here in our home, where it is noted, time and day the medication is taken, in dreaded fear of missing, then being served notice basically, by the python inside. he is very aware when he hasn’t received his breakfast or supper, call it his ‘tranquilizing medication’. consequently, you may or may not be served his wrath! i trust you get the picture.

i never ever leave the house without checking this precious little diary, always sitting in clear, plain view, as having a seizure while driving could cause horrendous dreadful consequences! this is not drunk driving, so to speak, but the aftermath of drinking for years and years, not to mention the worry of it causing a fall, splitting your skull open (again), or breaking bones.

a year before my spouse passed away, he had a seizure while in a large parking garage, negotiating two upward steps, and literally flew over 20 ft., landing and breaking his hip, resulting in surgery, then a year long recovery process. this is for someone who at 6 ft 4″ tall, in excellent physical condition. but he was lucky that time! not to mention a previously broken arm & ankle, from the same cause! never had he broken a single bone in his life!!

i am attempting to bring this to as many organizations attention, as possible, as well as our government leaders, hoping that it will eventually result in them ruling for all liquor containers to bear a large warning, and to raise the purchase prices as well! cigarette manufacturers have been forced to do both, while our government still makes plenty of money from them, so, they don’t lose out. but i can’t remember ever hearing of a terrible traffic accident or severe fall, caused by smoking !?!

this type of life with a minor affliction is difficult. again, it causes a great deal of stress. my beloved’s passing away a year ago this month was a direct result of bleeding internally from a perforated ulcer, and his reluctance to go into the hospital for treatment immediately, as he didn’t want me to be on my own, i suspect, in case of an attack. needless to say, i’m on my own now.

i trust you will pass this on to others. i have been replied to by some folks on the subject, they believing, seizures are only caused from alcohol withdrawal! well, not so, not so at all !! it’s like wondering if the tenant inside is dead, alive, pissed off with you, bored or maybe, just maybe, unusually content! (for now!)

sincerely yours, in the hopes of helping others,

sjg in canada

(image by melody)