digging out

I suffer from type II bipolar disorder. I am bound and determined to not allow it to define my life. And, also, it is a central facet of my adult existence, which touches and colors everything, one I can’t evade, though I try. I live in the tension of those past two sentences.

I have been, for a couple months now, digging out of what I now recognize as a months-long manic phase (technically hypomanic), which gripped me from perhaps the end of February until recently, if indeed this is the end. It was, in hindsight, a long while coming. I had been sprinting since I left Indiana, having finally gotten a job offer after two exhausting, dispiriting years on the academic job market. I moved myself and my stuff and a dog and cat in a UHaul, first to a little cabin by a lake in my hometown, then to Brooklyn, apartment hunting, credit checking, stress piling onto stress. But I was grateful and excited. I started my job, with the usual rush of panic and confusion that entails, then settled slowly into the growing vague disappointment that your life is now just your life. I went out with a lot of friends, I joined activist organizations, I Did Things In The City. And winter came, and my office was as remote and lonely as it had been from the start, and the little indignities and grand alienation of the city were grinding away at me every day, and then it was winter. I’m surprised I didn’t see it coming. But not that surprised.

The truth is that I had done what I have done over and over again, and which I swore I would never do again: I had, without ever articulating it to myself, called another false dawn. I was convinced that now, with health insurance and a shrink and medication, with a pension and an unlimited MTA card, with respectability and urban life in hand, I had beaten it finally, that I had achieved normalcy. If you had asked me I would have denied such thinking up and down; I have been through the steps, I know the catechism, I can recite all the teachings, and I know better than to talk about cures. But every new stage of life offers a powerful incentive to believe in the delusion that things are permanently managed, and I am weak before that temptation. My whole life changed. I was going to New York. My New York life. My New York me. And then came the crash.

Depression seems to be intuitively understood by most people, but mania is hard to talk about. Describing a manic phase as a crash might surprise some people, but that, for me, is the only metaphor, a crash, a car crash. There’s a vague impression out there, I guess, that mania is some sort of reward for living with the depression, a karmic balance where you get a matching period of happiness and energy to match the draining sadness of depression. This is, to put it mildly, inaccurate. I would not wish a manic period on my worst enemy. They are the gremlins of my existence, despite the fact that I have not had a true psychotic episode since the first time, when I was 22.

I hate myself, when I’m manic. I am short with people; I am judgmental; I am desperate and needy all the time. I assume everyone hates me. I imagine that I will lose friendships and find ingenious ways to engineer that outcome. I know some people identify mania with an inflated sense of self-worth, but for me it’s an inflated sense of the precariousness of all of my human relationships. This of course is itself a variety of self-importance; it’s another way to inflate your presence in other people’s minds. But either way, it leads to a fear of losing others that is itself a mechanism for losing them. And I have many of the common effects — I can’t concentrate, I interrupt sensible and workable projects to waste time on fantasies, I drink too much, I can’t turn down sex or invitations to go out even when I know it’s better that I do. I double down on my already hyperactive social media usage. (I rejoined Twitter, awhile back, a surefire sign that I am experiencing a manic phase.) I obsess. I watch Youtube videos by the thousands. I play out the same disastrous scenarios in my head, over and over again, both fearing that they’ll occur and wanting them to happen so that my fears are proven right.

Compounding my problems is the fact that two ancillary elements of my disease, graphomania and body dysmorphia, both lead to behaviors that seem like healthy productivity. I write a lot and always have. Like, a lot. But in a hypomanic phase enough is never enough. I wake up in the middle of the night and write blog posts. I compose essays, convinced I’ll pitch them to editors first thing in the morning, then hate the sight of them the next day, for no good reason. I dig out the drafts of pieces I had professionally published years ago, and write the better version I am convinced is trapped somewhere inside my head. None of this feels, at the time, any different from when I’m just doing the work. I made this commitment to myself, that I would have discipline, that I would never skip steps, and that I would dedicate myself to a craft and work and work and work until I was good enough. And that’s what I did, for four years, before I put a single word on the internet. Now I look at myself and I wonder if any of it was ever healthy, if it was just a self-aggrandizing gloss on my problems.

All of this happens in view of the internet. I really was not made for the digital era, or the digital era was not made for people like me. No one has ever needed the gatekeeping functions of editing and publication more than me, and I was born at precisely the time necessary to be among the first to avoid them. The sense not to share, the ability to police oneself, thinking about consequences, adhering to rules, having a sense of proportion — all of these things, necessary for a healthy online life, are precisely the kind that are so hard to practice in this state. I can break new rules as fast as I can come up with them.

I know this sounds like a shirking of personal responsibility, and I don’t mean it to. You are not obligated to excuse any of my myriad failings. You are entitled to find me pretentious, self-obsessed, abusive, misguided, wrong, and worse. I just have to tell you that I have never known how to discuss or think through my mental illness and how it affects my troubled engagement with the online world. I dunno. I am responsible for everything I say and do. My bipolar disorder is one of the basic conditions of my life. I don’t know how to reconcile those two things, so I can hardly ask you to do so.

Of course, here I am, back in the words. I have no other alternative. Writing is the way I get myself into trouble and writing is the only chance I’ll ever have to get myself out. The odds are high that this missive is a reflection of the same problems that it is designed to explain. Coming out of one of these phases, for me, involves calling a lot of false dawns, telling people close to me that I am sorry and it’s over, then falling backwards again. But I have no recourse but to try and write my way out. Writing is the tool through which I shape my understanding of my own life; without it, I’d never stop bouncing from own wall to the other. William Carlos Williams once said that he thought of ee cummings like the prisoner in solitary confinement, who staves off madness by throwing a pin over his shoulder in the dark, to search for it for hours on hands and knees, only to find it and throw it away again. I’ll never be good enough at anything to inspire someone to come up with such a metaphor for me. But that’s what writing is for me too, a way to turn pointlessness itself into an activity to give life direction, that same grasping in the dark.

I look back at the things I’ve published in the past months and, to my relief, I don’t think my problems show up in the work itself, just in the pace of publishing. And you know, none of this is tragic or a crisis. Life is actually fine. I have been medicated and receiving treatment throughout, and that’s why this is about embarrassments and mistakes rather than tragedies. The medication did what it was designed, at a minimum, to do; I did not step in front of a subway train or end up in Rikers. Those are not small blessings. It’s just that all of the medications, over several years now of treatment, have proven inadequate to the larger goal of genuine stability. This is one thing I have always had a hard time expressing, this aspect of the medications: their terrible adequacy. They literally save your life and somehow are still disappointing.

I’ll be alright. I will keep digging out. I’ve got a good job. I’m in a cool city. I have my doctor and my meds have been adjusted. I need to bring these Medium posts to a close, at least for a long while. I do not regret any of them, and I stand by what I have written, but their frenetic production is a symptom of a problem that I have to take control of. I will continue to work on my education blog, The ANOVA, and try to grow the associated Patreon. That was a good instinct, the correct instinct, that project, and I should have trusted my plan to let that just be the project. And I still have a few publications willing to pay me for my words, and I’ll keep trying to find representation for this novel. And I will get the fuck off of Twitter again. In the meantime I will keep going and try every day to express my impossible gratitude that I have been given so many chances by life when so many others who suffer from my condition have not. I will dig out.

What will still be left in time, as always, will be the wreckage of the relationships that I have ruined. It is from those holes that I cannot dig out. It’s those problems I can’t fix. No one can be asked to have patience for me that I long ago lost with myself. Every time I have lost someone to my behavior when I am manic, I have sworn that it will be the last time, but it never is. I do not have words to express that feeling. I can only tell you that I feel remorse, true remorse, heart-deep and forever, for so many people over the past decade and a half. I cannot tell you quite what it’s like to yearn always for the forgiveness of those who you know you have no right to ask forgiveness from. No medication will emerge from anyone’s lab to put an end to that feeling. Only time can help. Only time.

My mental illness is not interesting. It does not make me an artist. It is not sexy or romantic. Writing about it does not make me brave, nor does living in its grip make me authentic. My disease is mundane, boring. Managing it is the banal work of my life. When I had that manic episode, it was set off by car trouble, the last little spark that lit the fire. 9/11 had happened. Iraq was happening. I was alone. And all of my family history, the consequences of growing up with the emotional wreckage of McCarthyism, was playing out daily in my head. With the flag-waving and the militarism and the loyalty oaths, it all seemed to be coming true, that sense that we would eventually be sought out and found. Someday, I had grown up knowing, they always come for people like us. And every day I was being battered by my brain, lying in the fetal position on the carpet of my studio apartment. And then one day I went to use my car and the transmission failed, and I couldn’t go in reverse, and I got out to push it into a spot, and I strained and struggled until I had cut both of my hands, and the next I thing I really knew I was sitting in a special room in the hospital in a flimsy gown with bandaged hands, and despite a culture that romanticizes and exoticizes mental illness, I did not feel the least bit romantic. I felt ridiculous, and in many ways I still feel the same today as I did then, stammering out excuses to a psychiatrist who was both hurried and bored and so was eager to hear them.

Today I memorize the colors of the subway lines and try, every day, to remember that I never really hurt anyone or myself, in the grips of my illness, and to thank god for it.

As a society we are, in our shambling fashion, moving towards more understanding and acceptance of mental illness. Among the many benefits of that understanding stands the belief that no one should feel shame or guilt for the chemistry of their own brain. And I can say that, in the limited sense in which people mean, I have achieved that. I don’t feel shame for my illness in the way that people usually talk about. I did not ask for this and I am not weak for failing to control it. It’s just that this obvious shame, this vulgar and specific shame, was for me only a mask for the greater shame, the real, deeper one, the one that I feel not for being sick but for being me, the brokenness beside the brokenness. And so the only way forward is forward, and I tell myself that each step is a step towards the day I will forgive and be forgiven.