Friday, November 5, 2010

When I was 16 my Dad experienced his second bipolar episode.  The whole time is a bit hazy, the self-absorption of teenagedom more than eclipsing this major event in my family unit.  Memories are vague and, rather than fully-formed, they're snapshots: Dad acting fun and zany, a ramped-up version of his charming self.  Dad buying stuff.  Dad not sleeping very much, then not at all.   Dad going to work in the middle of the night without shoes on.  Mom looking concerned, then beside herself.  Dad's blood pressure skyrocketing to near-fatal highs.  Going to the hospital.  And coming home again.  Shuffling about, his effervescence gone.  Sleeping on the couch for weeks, losing fifty pounds.  Then leveling out, eventually.

These images have a way of staying with you and, in retrospect, they plant a strange seed.  While knowing someone with a mental illness makes you compassionate, it also (somewhere subconsciously) makes you smug; it allows you see it in others, but never yourself.  It makes you above it, somehow.  When you're able to spout off on serotonin levels and hypomania and lithium, the whole thing becomes factual, and in that, less mysterious and terrifying.  And while mental illness is like any other disease, it also isn't.  Our minds are complex and it can be hard (even with all the knowledge in the world) to separate the science from the swirling magical qualities.  

These things are hereditary, of course, so you must protect yourself against them:  Self-preservation in the face of something scary.  And so you become defiantly sane.  Aggressively level-headed.  Lucid.  Direct.  Pragmatic.  And you build walls of denial around yourself: You could never be crazy like Dad.

And so it went with every passing year, I quietly celebrated being further out of the woods.  Typically onset of bipolar disorder occurs in late adolescence, so as I approach 30, I'm confident I won't experience this particular struggle.  But in staving off one illness,  resting on the comforts of sanity, I may have painted too broad a stroke.

I was always an anxious kid.  Complaining of a headache or sore stomach, but without the language to say I was worried or confused in an over-arching, fundamental way.  Socially, the word "anxious" has been stripped of all meaning.  It's not a clinical word anymore, but rather a blanket-statement for all feelings, good and bad, related (usually) to waiting for something.  Anxious to go to the carnival.  Anxious about a math test.  Anxious for no particular reason on any given day.

And so kids like me (shy, nervous, fearful, moody) were described in vaguely-offensive terms like "worrywart" or "sensitive" to avoid labeling us with anything more scientific.

I was a boy who could feel his heartbeat from time to time, one who would spend afternoons quietly ruminating on all sorts of topics, some morbid, others just a touch hysterical.  But, looking back (and forward) I know that I'm someone who lives with textbook anxiety and likely a dash of depression.  It's not debilitating, doesn't require medications or intervention, but it's there.  And it's time to accept it.  Breathe through it, feel it and learn to hold it in my hands.

I want to own this part of my brain and my heart, and work harder to deal with it in a functional, thoughtful way.  I want to come out with it and talk about it like any other part.  Rather than hide from this stigma, I'm grabbing it by its palpitating balls.


  1. Are we the same person?! GEESH! Right down to the Dad scenario...mine with freakish effects from Vietnam, but WOW, blown away right now!

  2. So, so awesome and refreshing to see someone talking honestly about mental illness. I suffer from crippling bouts of anxiety. As a 6 year old girl I thought I contracted aids from kissing a boy and wept myself to sleep thinking I was going to die. FOR YEARS.

  3. I understand fully. I have suffered from PTSD and I must tell you medication is a godsend. And believe me, I know how debilitating anxiety can be. Good to read this lucid account of mental illness and I thank you for your honesty.

  4. You express yourself so honestly - with your words and photos. I can relate to the anxiety and worrying - sometimes I worry that I'm not worrying. oh gees.

  5. I adore you - with a dash of anxiety and depression alike.

  6. I really appreciate your honesty and am waiting on your book to come out. Do you have an ETA?

  7. Yet another amazing, touching, honest, inspiring you xoxoxo Leann

  8. I remember this one. Vividly. I read this in real time in November 2010 and remember thinking how honest and accurate and...I dunno? Just plan brave and real this felt. It stuck to me then and as I do, I read it again...but the second time through a lens more personal to me. I read it the same way just now. Your dad bipoloar. My dad an alcoholic. "Self-preservation in the face of something scary. And so you become defiantly sane. Aggressively level-headed. Lucid. Direct. Pragmatic. And you build walls of denial around yourself: You could never be crazy like Dad."

    Self-preservation served me well as a child (of course!) but figuring out the core of who I am--the self I was trying to preserve--is something altogether different. And, I guess in some sense...just now beginning...