Welcome to the Breakdown (Part I)


Once the tears started coming, they wouldn’t stop.

Unbeknownst to me, I had been going through life the past several months in a haze, maintaining a high quality facsimile of myself, but far from a fully present human being. I cannot pinpoint when exactly I started lying to myself. If there is one thing I’m good at, it is putting on a ‘brave face’ for the world when I’m at something less than my best. However, I used to know what was real and what was fake. Even when the world only saw what I wanted it to see, I could still look through the lies of ‘being fine’ straight through to the truth. At some point, that changed.

It all came to a head when I went on vacation last week. I headed out to California to visit Mike, a man I call my godfather because there is no term that exists to convey the role he plays in my life, but is really more like a surrogate father really. One of the things we decided to do while I was there was attend an improv workshop, Get Out of Your Head and into Your Body, which focused on “getting out of your head and allowing your emotions to lead the way”.

37760385_10104742851649126_12410402491072512_n

The last fake smile for a while, I hope.

One exercise the instructor had us do was walking around while embodying an emotion. So for example, he would say “anger” and you walk around angry. That was all well and good until he added an important detail. “I don’t want you to pretend to feel that way or act how you think you should. Think back on a time you were genuinely angry and feel that.” Whenever I’m doing improv, I try to be fully present and commit to the exercise, so I started dredging up memories.

“Sadness,”

“Happiness”

“Heartbreak”

“Heartbreak but you don’t want anyone to know”

It took me to some very real places and some very painful memories long ago put aside. However, it was the pulling from times in the past when I genuinely felt combined with embodying transparent emotions and discrete emotions was jarring for me but I didn’t realize how much until later that night.

Mike and I have settled on the same two core hobbies, improv and tennis. So it would only make sense that we would go play tennis after doing improv for hours upon hours. Our first set started out the same as any other, lots of joking and affirmation amidst the competitive tennis. Then I called a serve out and was (very) gently challenged on the call. I could feel the anger swell inside me even though I could tell immediately my mind was blowing it all sorts of out of porportion. I was in a rage. Angry at Mike for questioning my call. Angry at myself for not being able to talk myself down from this irrational outrage. I am well practiced at keeping my emotional volatility from affecting the people I care about so I did not snap, I just shut down. A longstanding practice when it comes to my containment strategy and limiting the fallout of my mood. I knew Mike could tell I was off though. It was a jarring shift from laughing and supportive comments to complete silence.

After we finished the set, we headed to his car and as we loading the equipment in the trunk, he asked me if I was okay. He asked in a way that conveyed “of course I know you’re not okay, but you have to choose whether or not you want to talk about it.” I started trying to explain that this was just the latest in a string of times where I had noticed myself feeling way too little or way too much. As the words left my mouth, I felt the tears swelling in my eyes. I could not remember the last time that I had collapsed into tears like that. Between sobs, I explained to him that I had realized that I seemed to have very little control over my emotional responses to things and it was terrifying. I have spent the majority of my emotional energy the past 14 years on managing my illness and as a result have developed a pretty sophisticated set of coping mechanisms and a high level of emotional intelligence. Because I knew to live the kind of life I wanted to live that I had to condition myself to operate at as high a level as possible for as long of periods of times as possible. That only works though if I’m being honest with myself, something that has not really been an issue in the past, but this time I felt like my mind had let me down.

There were times I knew I should be feeling something but wasn’t or couldn’t. My mind was telling me everything was fine and I was eating the sand believing it was Joy or Hope or Fear or Anger. It was an extended mirage in the desert of my mind. I became an approximation of myself passing off imitation of emotion as the real thing. This time was different from all the times I put on a brave face for colleagues, students or family members while going through a depressive episode though. This was prolonged. This was unconscious. This was not depression. This was me lying to myself or being lied to by my mind, take your pick. My mind, a timeless foe and often the source of my deepest pain, ran a long con and the carefully built facade my my mind made came crashing down right on top of me. I live so openly with my disorder because of my fear of folks not knowing how I’m doing when I’m spiraling but that only works if I know how I’m feeling.

The emotional release felt like the world being lifted off of my shoulders, but once I started to feel again, I felt everything. The tears continued to fall as my legs buckled and I slumped into Mike’s arms until I could bring myself to breathe and stand again. There was a feeling of exhaustion. The type of exhaustion that comes from holding a fake smile for a picture and never letting go.

I’m still reflecting on how this came to pass; how I missed the warning flares fired off by my mind in a failed attempt to prevent catastrophe; and what it means for me as I reflect on everything that transpired over the past several months when I was somehow far from okay and seemingly fine.  Stay tuned for more on that in Part II sometime next week.

Diminished Capacity


I’m starting a new job tomorrow which, in many ways, is the culmination of my work for the past few years. I get to tackle a new challenge and do so with more autonomy and with less of a safety net.

Any time I take on a new role, I usually have to do a cost-benefit analysis when it comes to my mental health. The obvious question is “Will this job exacerbate my mental illness?” That question kept me, for instance, from joining the field organizing team for Obama for America coming out of college and more recently has led me to shy away from opportunities to create or run organizations because I’m afraid of what will happen if I cannot carry the weight.

However, I don’t always shy away from an opportunity even when that answer is ‘yes’. At times, I take it on anyway knowing full well that I may burnout, trigger severe depressive episodes, experience bouts of mania or d) all of the above. Sometimes I go for it because I want to test my limits. Sometimes I go for it because the opportunity to serve and do good is too much to pass up. Sometimes I go for it because I stubbornly do not want to admit that there will be times when bipolar disorder will get the best of me.

Sometimes, though, it does.

I hate what depression does to me. It is like I transform into a human being that I no longer recognize. I go from being a productive person able to tackle most any task and balance many things at once to having to force myself to get to work in the morning. I look for the first excuse to leave the office that I can justify to myself. I feel guilty that I cannot offer more. When I’m barely scraping by, I cannot be the support to my colleagues that I try to be the rest of the time. I cannot pick up slack. I, quite simply, cannot period.

I have spent my whole life trying to limit the impact of my disorder on other people. In a work environment, this means I struggle to ask for help even when I know I need it. I push through and carry on, often to my detriment, because I do not want to fail- my colleagues, the people I serve or, honestly, at the task itself. I’ve spent portions of my life living in a constant state of fear of the next episode. Because I know all to well that no matter how good things are going that it can change on a dime.

I used to say that if I had been given the choice between going through all the trauma and adversity of my disorder- the psychotic episode, hospitalization and everything that followed- that I wouldn’t have changed anything because it shaped me into the person I am. I’m not sure I feel that way anymore. The person that I am is so easily discarded by the unfortunate realities of depression that it is hard to find solace in the fact that I’ve been able to weather storm after storm. They never stop coming no matter how many I seem to weather. My life is basically separated into three categories- the calm before the storm, the storm itself and the recovery from the wreckage.

In my low moments, I coast by on whatever inherent work ethic/talent that I have in order to keep my head above water and do the bare minimum necessary to keep my job(s). The problem is that I’m not a bare minimum type of person. Part of the reason that I’ve gotten as far as I have is my willingness to out-work other people. I’m not always the smartest or the most gifted at something, but I generally compensate by caring more than anyone else and not be satisfied by anything less than great. When depressed though, I find myself shying away from the slightest challenges.

It is not uncommon for bipolar patients to have more and more depressive episodes as they age and I have certainly found that to be true. Looking out at the horizon, that is still a harrowing thing to consider. At times, I want to give up. I don’t mean taking any sort of tragic action. I mean giving up on chasing any sort of dreams or anything that takes me at my best to accomplish.

I’ve been fortunate, at least most recently, to be a part of an unbelievably empathetic team that cared about my work, but cared even more about me and my wellbeing. That has not always been my experience and I have, at times, certainly dealt with negative work repercussions even when I disclose openly what is going on. In spite of that, I’ve found more peace as I’ve continued to realize that my value as a human being is not limited to my productivity.

By and large though, I have found that if I trust in people with my story and my experience that my trust is rewarded with compassion and care. There is always a fear that people will judge me for being less than my best self. However, a lot of that is self-inflicted. I see myself worse in times of crisis than anyone else ever does. In the best of circumstances, the care of the people around me, both in work and in life, shines through like a beacon to follow to shore rather than the judgment and wrath that I fear.

Whiteness


I remember vividly sitting on the curb outside of the police station.

Looking around.

Handcuffed and confused.

My mind was running a mile a minute.

I knew I had a mission, but I could not quite grasp what it was yet. The messages…unclear. The voices…distorted.

When I could break through the noise inside my head, I heard officers talking about me, but could only make out pieces of it.

“He was in the back of their pickup truck and wouldn’t get out.”

“Back of their pickup truck?”

“Yeah, back of their pickup truck. They drove him over here.”

It has been about 13 years since my (thankfully only) psychotic episode and my memories of it are hazy at best. I guess that is what happens when your mind fully breaks from reality. I’ll write more another time about the episode itself, but for the moment, I just want to focus in on one particular memory that remains very strong  through the haze.

That memory is one of being at a police station, apprehended for, I’m assuming, trespassing. What I don’t remember is being charged. What I don’t remember is being treated as a threat. What I don’t remember is being thrown in a cell. I don’t remember those things because they did not happen.

As it was relayed to me later, apparently the cops:

  • saw that I was wearing Habitat for Humanity gear
  • called the people that they knew ran Habitat in the area
  • arranged for me to be picked up without being processed

They also assuredly noticed I am white. If I wasn’t, I have to imagine that situation would have gone very differently. I reflect on that whenever I see that a mentally ill black man ended up dead or in jail after an interaction with the police. When I first started talking about my episode many, many years ago, I talked about it in a “I could have been dead or in jail if not for the grace of God” kind of a way. As I’ve learned more and become more socially conscious over time, I began to discuss it in a “I could have been dead or in jail if not for the grace of Whiteness” kind of a way. 

White privilege means that my illness is first thought of as a health issue rather than a threat.

White privilege means that I’m much less likely to be read as ‘dangerous’.

White privilege means I have better access to treatment and care.

When it comes to societal privilege, my cup runneth over…excessively. As a straight, white, cisgender man, I’m benefit from tremendous unearned advantage. The only marginalized identity I hold is that of someone living with a severe mental illness. It speaks to the pervasive nature of our country’s “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy” that even in the area where I experience marginalization, I’m still protected by my privilege.

For a point of comparison, I remember being at a club in Baltimore in my late teens/early 20s with a couple of my black male friends. As we were leaving the club, one of the officers started jawing at one of my friends…who was doing absolutely nothing at the time. He was taunting him and trying to create a problem where none existed. He was trying to bait my friend into an altercation. An altercation where he could then use force and have my friend still get in trouble. I had to physically put myself between my friend and the officer to try and keep my friend safe. Just to remind you…this was all because he was leaving a club in a peaceful manner while being black. 

Now compare that to the response I received for actually trespassing while being either non-responsive to commands or speaking incoherently.

I’m incredibly thankful to the Habitat for Humanity folks who came and picked me up, watched over me, kept me safe and got me home. I will forever feel indebted to them. However, the fact that they were called at all is a direct reflection of how whiteness is the protective factor to end all protective factors.

 

Running for my life


CW: Suicide, suicidal ideation

When I was a kid, I would lie awake at night in a pitch black bedroom as my thoughts spiraled from the pain of the day. The words used to wound. The taunts used to demean. The verbal jabs used to leave invisible scars.

As I internalized it, my mind practiced its mental gymnastics. Eventually, it would turn to thoughts of death. More specifically, it would zero in on a paralyzing fear of not existing. I would run out of my room and down the stairs…

eyes wide open

heart pounding

mind racing

…trying to find refuge, escape or support. Looking back, it was a premonition because I’ve been running from thoughts of death ever since.

It is hard for me whenever someone in the public eye commits suicide. It is not because I fail to understand why it happens. It is because I understand far too well. Undoubtedly, a chorus of folks comes out of the woodwork with questions ranging from confused to ignorant:

“But they were so successful. How could this happen?”

“How could they be so selfish?!”

“We needed them here. Why would they leave?”

The confusion and ignorance does not rattle me anymore honestly. What is rattles me is that suicide does not confuse me at all.

I understand how living with depression can feel like you’re living on borrowed time. And as the sands pass through the hourglass, every depressive episode chips away at your ability to believe that better days are on the horizon. Over time, you find yourself severely outmatched in the war for your mind. Sometimes it happens slowly…sometimes it happens very quickly all at once.

There is a myth of suicide being an act of cowardice and a display of weakness, but I view it more as a heartbreaking surrender after months, years or decades of fighting. Now don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that suicide is inevitable or ‘the answer’. I believe wholeheartedly that hope is possible and that we should continue to love each other and support each other so that people know that they are cared for.  I have to believe in that. Many years have passed since my nights lying awake in my childhood bedroom, but I’m still running. Keeping my eyes on that horizon as I hold out for better days. All I’m saying is, I understand…because years of running can leave you exhausted, hopeless and searching for lifelines.

I have had to find supports to sustain me in this survival marathon: friends, therapy, medicine and eventually writing. I started trying to put words to my experiences with mental illness when I was a junior in college. It was liberating for me. I found myself, for the first time, as the narrator and protagonist of my journey and not merely as a passive participant held captive by bouts of depression and mania.

I started my first personal mental health blog in 2008 and wrote posts on it (at first regularly and then intermittently) until 2012. It was a lifeline for me. A way to make sense of the hopelessness. A way to give meaning to the madness. A way to try to help people understand.

I haven’t written about mental illness in six years and have not really written about anything at all in four years. For years now, I’ve been debating starting to write again in general and I found myself stuck and unclear as to why I felt like I should. Recently, I’ve been reflecting on it and trying to figure it out. Was it because:

a) I missed it and found it to be a meaningful part of my life that I wanted to rediscover.

b) I knew it was something I had been good at so I probably should pick it back up.

c) In some self-centered way, I missed the positive affirmation it brought me from others.

It probably is d) all of the above, but I realized that there was more to it. I still had things I wanted to say. 

While I can’t promise to post every week, I’m going to try to keep at it. As a friend of mine once put it, I’m ‘consenting to learn in public’. One of the reasons I started writing in the first place was to try to be an example that living a meaningful life with mental illness, though not without struggle, is possible. Given all of the support that I have received that has allowed me to make it this far in this race for survival, I feel like the least I can do is try to get back to this commitment that I made many years ago.

Thanks for reading.