Tag Archives: bipolar

“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

around the world for mental health

this morning i went to michael schratter’s sendoff on his year-long ride don’t hide bicycle tour around the world to create awareness about mental health.

let’s just stop here for a moment and picture this.

map of the world

and then let’s put a finger on how long this is.

three
hundred
sixty
five
days.

eight
thousand
seven
hundred
sixty
hours.

as far as i know this is the first-ever attempt to bring something of this duration and magnitude to raise awareness about mental health. of course, last year, there was mel thompson, who successfully rode across canada for mental health. and now michael takes it a few steps – spokes? – further. i am very, very honoured and excited to be witness to this.

as many of you know, michael was one of the speakers at the vancouver mental health camp this year, and i found him very inspiring as he tlkaed about his dream to change the world and about his experience with having bipolar disorder. one of the things that keeps coming back to me is the fact that he is a teacher and that his students are among his most avid supporters. when we were at mental health camp, airdrie made the very, very poignant point at the end of the conference that we are doing this for the children. we are speaking out and speaking up for mental health so that our children don’t have to hide, so that they don’t have to pretend they’re sick with a cold when they can’t face going to school with a depression, so that they can confidently talk to their peers and teachers when going on a field trip brings up their anxiety.

the kids at michael’s school will not forget this. it’s really neat to see all their comments about him on facebook and his blog. after meeting michael’s school’s principal this morning, i am confident that she will do everything to keep them abreast of what’s going on and to involve them in the adventure as much as possible.

here are a few pictures from the sendoff.

michael schratter in front of vancouver's olympic clock

michael in front of the olympic clock.  hour zero.

michael schratter about to blast off for his world tour to raise awareness for mental health

last moments with his girlfriend

michael schratter off on his bike on his world tour to raise awareness for mental health

… and he’s off!

blogging yourself home

laptop at homehere is part 1 of my presentation at MentalHealthCamp on the topic “blogging yourself home – writing, blogging and creativity.”

i’ll present it as if i was talking at the presentation and treat you, dear readers, as if you were participants in the workshop.

here we go …

when i was a little girl, there were these tiny glass bottles that fascinated me, and i loved playing with them. and not only were there bottles, but there were also tiny saws with which to open them. i could never figure out why they didn’t just have caps but anyway, i thought they were great little things to play with. especially since my mother really didn’t want me to.

turns out they were my father’s morphine vials.

after a few years, he exchanged the tiny little morphine bottles for bigger ones. from the little 2-ounce ones to mickies to 2-litre bottles of cheap red plonk. they were everywhere. i dind’t really think they were that cute anymore.

my father had the typical addictive personality. he managed to overcome the booze, too, but he had first bladder then pancreatic cancer, and there’s a high correlation between that and smoking, which he did with a passion.

he was also a great artist, a wonderful person in many ways, he introduced me to buddhism which many of you know is very important to me – but he had major difficulties.

the funny thing is that his addictions were difficult but for me as a child they were more a nuisance than anything else.

he also had bipolar disorder, and what did get to me were those long periods of depression where he basically wouldn’t leave his bed for months in a row.

it was that and a mother who tried to cope with this and my sister who has a disability by being a rageaholic and giving me the role of being the “responsible one”

so that’s the home that i grew up in.

why would i want to blog myself home then, why would i suggest to you to blog yourself home? because let’s face it, many of us grew up in homes we don’t particularly want to go back to.

here’s what i propose.

most of us are bloggers here, which means we’re writers.

and that means that we use our creativity, we use our imagination.

the neat thing is, not only is our writing a piece of the imagination; in many ways, the whole blogosphere is a piece of the imagination.

i’d like to ask you, then, what do you imagine your ideal home to be – what are the good words that come up for you as you think of the word “home” – in general, and then also specifically, your virtual home?

why don’t you reflect on this question and comment below? next blog post, i’ll continue the presentation.

image by nuanc

hurry down sunshine – a father’s story of mental illness

hurry down sunshine is the supremely well-told, literally mind-boggling tale of a father, michael greenberg, who suffers through and survives the experience of watching his teenage daughter go through her first extreme manic episode. it is an iridescent story, shimmering with many facets in the hot new york summer that provides the backdrop of this memoir.

let me shed some light on one aspect, the family’s wrangling with stigma of mental illness.

here, greenberg suffers through a visit by eric, his landlord and acquaintance, shortly after “the crack-up”:

i feel as if i’m impersonating the person i was before sally’s crack-up. if sally had been in an accident or come down with some overtly physical disease, i would not hesitate to tell him about it, confident that his sympathies would flow in my direction as a matter of course. but psychosis defies empathy; few people who have not experienced it up close buy the idea of a behavioural disease. it has the ring of an excuse, a license for self-absorption on the most extreme scale. it suggests that one chooses madness and not the other way round.

sally and her family tumble into her madness head-on, seemingly from one moment to the next. it is a family that knows of mental illness – greenberg’s brother, in a strangely parallel reality, has struggled with it since childhood – but, like so many others, had not yet found the courage to look it straight in the eye. perhaps an illness-that-dares-not-know-its-name, its precursory blush and rumble could not be seen or heard; and then it breaks in on them like a tidal wave. sally suddenly sees and lives in a different world, a world from which she transmits communication – demanding, disdainfully regal and bitingly sarcastic – but with which she does not engage.  her father is a helpless bystander, looking at her as if through thick, opaque glass. in the beginning, he can only connect with her in short bursts.

she demands control because, in some interstice of her psyche, she knows she is hurtling out of control. this realization brings me closer to her. i can’t witness her disintegrations without somehow taking part in them, and, closing my eyes, i feel myself racing, too, as if her flutter has lodged inside me.

once the reality has set in that sally will spend some time at a psychiatric ward, the wrestling with the stigma begins:

about eric:

“i don’t want him to know about her. it’s not that i’m ashamed of what’s happened. but he wouldn’t understand.”

“no one understands. we don’t understand.”

“he’d tell our friends. it would make life more difficult for her. people would start thinking of her as weird. stained.”

later, when sally leaves the ward:

i’m glad she’s getting out of that place. she doesn’t belong with those people.

and her brother’s concern and fear:

sally is a mental patient, pops. there are people who if they find this out will see her as an eternal mental patient and nothing more. they’ll trust her less. i know how they talk, especially about girls. there’s no mercy. they’ll snicker about her and crack jokes. we have to keep this from getting out.

thus is the strength of stigma. greenberg and his family are well-educated, open-minded, loving, artistic people. they are no rednecks filled with superstition, afraid of mental monsters and supernatural demons of the soul. and yet they tremble before the opinion of those-who-don’t-know. which may be exactly those who do know and who may be just as afraid of greenberg and his family, who THEY in turn may suspect of being uncomprehending of THEIR secrets.

sally does not stay manic forever. one day,

something about her tone has caught my attention: the modulation of her voice, its unpressured directness – measured, and with a warmth that i have not heard in her in months. her eyes have softened. i caution myself not to be fooled. yet the change in her is unmistakable.

i am grateful for michael greenberg’s courage to finally write about this experience and thus beat the stigma.  he comes out, tells his story, uses his own name, even his daughter’s real name (with her permission). today, many years later, sally is still faced with the difficulties of mental illness; and it looks like she has found a bit of a place for herself.

this is an extraordinary book, important particularly because quite a bit has been written about mental illness from the point of view of the person afflicted by it (greenberg mentions a few, such as girl interrupted and robert lowell’s work) but little is recorded about how life-changing such events are for parents. and yet, it is parents and family who, more often than not, are deeply affected by a person’s severe mental illness.

please read this book. it is heart-breaking, beautiful and unforgettable.

(go here for a short, touching video of michael greenberg talking about the book).

mental health, cancer and art

this is my first peopleized interview. peopleized is a site where you can find people to interview, offer yourself for interviews, and post interviews, which are then available for anyone to use. neat concept. [update on september 2009: that site doesn’t seem to alive anymore]

it’s friday, so of course this is a frozen pea friday post – a post about cancer. got a few pennies to share? why don’t you donate them to the frozen pea fund, here, where you can also find out what the dickens frozen peas have to do with breast cancer.

today we have an interview with addy, who, he says, is a little crazy, a little kinky, and suffers from bipolar type 1, depression and self harm. “they are illnesses i suffer from and are not a reflection of my personality. i’m tired of the stigma surrounding mental health, it’s time we gave it a damn good spanking.”

moritherapy: addy, i just spent a little time on your blog and saw that we have a few interests in common: fighting mental illness stigma, making depression visible, art, talking about cancer, and generally being a bit, how should i say – eccentric. tell me, for you, are there any connections between these topics?

addy:: eccentric, wow! i don’t think anyone has ever called me eccentric before. i’ve been called pretty much everything under the sun, but eccentric. i feel quite honoured.

is there a connection? who knows, i’ve never actually thought about any connections between all the things which make me who i am. i do however think that there are a lot of connections between who we are and what we’ve been through.

i have seen some very dark places in my life, more darker than i would wish on anyone i care about, and i think it’s having the strength to fight through those dark caves and chasms which has made me into the person i am.

moritherapy: how did/do you deal with the impacts of cancer on your mental/emotional health?

addy:: with a huge amount of difficulty.

i had spent a lot of time and energy over the months leading up to this diagnosis in trying to control and overcome my mental health problems that i actually truly felt i had them beat. at the time i was also suffering from glandular fever so my physical energy, as well as mental and emotional state, was at an all time low.

then being dealt the blow that i had cancer absolutely 100% knocked me for six. my initial reaction was disbelief, denial, confusion, and that whole other gauntlet of emotions which comes from such a shock. i didn’t know what to do, who to tell, how to deal with it at all.

i made the decision to tell my then girlfriend who just wouldn’t listen, and as i’ve explained on the blog, being broken up with by her so soon after this shock – and whilst i was having various tests and biopsies performed – had a cataclysmic effect on my mental health.

(the breakdown i suffered i am still dealing with today.)

in terms of how i deal with the impact in an ongoing sense, i just don’t think about it. simple as that. i don’t even really talk about it to anyone; because of what happened when i discovered i had cancer i find myself unable to talk to or ask for help from anyone in regards to this, or any, part of my life.

i have tests, feel like shit, go in/out of doctor’s surgeries and hospitals, hide bits and pieces of information.

i know this will most likely kill me, but because i’ve been dealing with it – and everything – by myself for so long, the only way i’ve been able to cope with it is to go it alone.

i guess i’ve learned from my experiences in life that ultimately this is what we have to do.

moritherapy: … and conversely, how does/did your emotional and mental health state relate to having cancer?

addy:: pre-breakdown i actually felt i was dealing with the cancer pretty well, in fact i’d be willing to say few people suspected there was anything so serious wrong with me.

post-breakdown i just haven’t been coping. with everything that is happening i just haven’t been able to focus any strength or energy on this part of my life, which creates a myriad of problems in fighting and dealing with the physical ramifications of such an illness.

the emotional/mental state i have been in since the breakdown has made it hard for me to fight the physical aspects of my life, as i just can’t summon the energy. it’s just a huge drain on my energy both physically and mentally.

moritherapy: : what place do art and creativity have in your life? does this place have anything to do with cancer or mental health?

addy:: art and creativity have, since a young age, played a huge huge huge part in my life.

ever since i was a bouncing baby i remember drawing and craving new colourful pens and pencils.

i remember sitting in front of the tv writing stories, new indiana jones adventures and long rambling stories about all sorts of things.

this is what i love, this is what i’m most passionate about. my creativity, my ability to manufacture whole words, languages, people, cities with my writing. or my ability to capture still, peaceful resonant beauty with my photography.

this is all intricately linked to my mental and physical health problems. i struggle when i’m emotionally wrecked to write anything, a factor which ultimately led to the loss of my college course (as it came at a time when i was struggling with the huge emotional whack of cancer, loss of important relationship, glandular fever and mental health collapse).

depression stifles my creativity, and yet things like self-harm help bring it out. whereas if i’m manic or brimming with hypermanic energy i can’t stop writing, drawing, scribbling and creating.

i still haven’t quite figured it all out, but like i mentioned earlier, everything is connected. so there is definitely a link between my creativity and cancer/mental health problems.

then of course there is the obvious “escape hatch” theory; when dealing with so much don’t we all just want to run away into a fantasy world where everything is perfect?

moritherapy: do you find people with cancer are generally seen or treated differently than people who are dealing with mental health issues? if so, how?

addy:: see, now having both, this is interesting because i’ve experienced both the obvious differences and obvious similarities with how people treat me.

the obvious similarity is that regarding both health issues few people ever – and i mean ever – ask any questions about them. they know of them, but i’m very rarely asked any direct questions about either the cancer or mental health issues. they just hang in the air never being raised or discussed. as if people are scared of them.

the difference comes with the reaction. when people find out you have cancer it’s all sympathay and words of support and ‘is there anything we can do to help?’…but with mental health issues, with the depression, self harm, bipolar and suicidal issues it’s all ‘your own fault’ or ‘you’re just weak’ or ‘sorry, can’t have anything to do with you because those illnesses are contagious’ and you never see or her from those people again.

it’s funny, the stigmas surrounding cancer and all those myths from the 70s and 80s are now surrounding mental health issues. just cause i suffer from depression, self harm, bipolar etc doesn’t mean you’re going to get them – they’re not contagious – and it’s this stigma which annoys the hell out of me.

there’s a lot wrong with me both physically and mentally; and that’s all people see. they see the depression or the bipolar or the cancer. they never see me for who i am, and i like to think i’m more than that.

moritherapy: would you like to add anything?

addy:: i think i’ve rambled a bit too much, don’t you. then again there’s so much that should be spoken about more openly both with cancer and mental health issues that i urge people to think more about their health; both physically and mentally. think about their friends and family. think what you can do to help. although i say i go it alone i wouldn’t reccommend this to anyone else because loneliness is a huge strain. find help, find support, find love and care. this is a hugely undervalued form of medication…and hey, feel free to drop by the blog to get to know me – the me beyond the mental and physical illnesses. this is the best therapy of all, because we are all, above whatever we go through, people with thoughts, feelings and emotions.