Holding Lightly; Forgiving MadnessSubmitted by jacks_ashley on Fri, 05/06/2005 - 3:17pm
By Ashley McNamara November, 2002
Driving home from a near run-away, I am trying to remember how to be calm. I put in a tape of a very kind Buddhist priest named Ed. He made a lot of sense a few months ago when my mind was quieter. One thought catches me: "so often we think, if you behave well, then I will love you. This is not fair. We cannot love this way." I nod, realize I treat myself like this all the time. My love for myself is so much more conditional than my love for anyone else. So many ifs"”if you don't make any mistakes, if you don't need help, if you behave well, then I could love you. But if you don't figure it out"”if you make trouble again"” so much anger. Adding something like a diagnosis of mental illness into this equation is such a tricky thing. The line between feeling that your thoughts and behavior should be something you can control and accepting or blaming it all on biology is so unclear. After I spent the eve of the millennium in a psych ward playing ping pong with a guy named Scott I swore to myself I would find out what I had to do to keep from ever ending up there again. I was so damn afraid. Nothing scared me more than becoming so devastated and out of control that I either had to kill myself or get locked up again until somebody reconfigured my brain.
About a month and a half ago the same Buddhist Ed explained that most people try, unsuccessfully, to pin down happiness by avoiding unpleasant experiences. I nodded and grinned; I was in the middle of a major upswing towards mania; I was definitely not one of them. I remember having the profound epiphany two days later that I'd arrived at such a place of blissful wisdom that not only did I require no more than a couple rocks or a scrap of paper to entertain me until the end of time, but I had also found the loophole that would allow me to slip out of my bipolar diagnosis. Clearly, I was going to flourish in a state of perpetual happiness without lapsing into the ugly black holes and the depression that broke me last time around. I didn't even need to avoid unpleasant experiences because I was so enlightened that they simply weren't going to happen. I was convinced I was going to be happy for the rest of my life.
5 days ago I found myself standing on the railing of the Golden Gate bridge deciding not to jump because a dolphin broke the surface of the ocean down below. It seemed like a sign; I should stick around on this side of mortality and re-learn how to play. I'd become so angry with myself in the last week. After a couple months evangelizing the truth"”we can all learn to manage our brains through what we eat and how much we sleep; we don't need medication or the Man; we can control all variables and all discomfort if we have enough discipline"”to anyone who would listen, I found my brain churning out black noise so fast I would ride my bike 20 miles or drive hours until I was shaking just to run away from it. I was starting to think I might make everyone's life easier if I jumped off a bridge; a few weeks before I'd felt incredibly close to God and blessed with a knowledge of how to live that was eventually going to transform everyone who met me. How could I start having these black thoughts that felt like violent insertions, like someone slipping crazy drugs in my tea, when I was still eating my oatmeal and enacting all the "lifestyle choices" that were supposed to keep me from going over the edge? Why the restless anxiety that I was about to let everyone down? When did the sight of a thousand pink clouds start feeling like a world at the end of drugs where you're desperately trying to keep something from slipping away? The sudden certainty of loss and the urgent need to stave it off, to hold something raw and shimmery like a soap bubble in the tips of my fingers. But the connections between thoughts start snapping and so much tenuous magic turns invisible like water evaporating off hot pavement. And then all the premonitions, the forecasting dreams, the nervous hunch of impending insanity and the broken records in the brain. Sudden desire for violence, to smash and break and tear and hide and run and seize and snatch"”
In the course of two weeks there was no way to sit still"”as soon as darkness drops, the need to smother this raging weeping tantruming creature in my brain. I have never wanted to kill myself"”I have only wanted to kill the restless blackness that comes for hours or days after the upswings and transforms my whole world and everything in it, making it nearly impossible to appreciate anything like a plant or a bird or a smile except as some sign that I'm actually ok. It is when you feel that the blackness has become your whole self that it is completely unbearable.
I would like to think that these demons don't come from me, that they are some kind of other, some black invader surging out of my DNA or last night's dinner to interrupt the real me at work. But I am coming to realize that I am one self. The restless demons and the visionary choirs of angels are me, along with the person developing between this body and this routine. I am trying to forgive myself for being exactly what I am; occasionally brilliant, frequently imperfect, mostly kind, and burdened/blessed with something in my blood that can send me divine inspiration in September along with suicidal plans in November.
When I felt myself going up this fall, despite all the changes I'd made in my diet and everything I'd tried to fix, I was still determined that I could handle myself without caving in to the Man and his medicine. I distinctly remember the day I realized I hadn't slept normally in over two months, a huge red flag. Despite all the reading I've done on bipolar disorder I still told myself, "well, I guess I just don't get to sleep like that anymore. I'll be fine. I have so much energy now anyways. I have so much to do. I'm becoming a Great Artist. I'm changing the world." I could feel the heartbeat of the city's construction hammers in my own chest; I could soliloquize on the metaphysics of a doorknob for hours. I was no longer afraid of death. Who would want to stop? But after scaring myself and my friends with the sudden need to jump off roofs or stay in bed for the rest of my life, I find myself back on medicine, opening my bills for the first time in 3 months and cleaning the neglected, rotting food off my bedroom floor.
I don't know how this will work. I don't know if I'll stay on the drugs forever or even if I'm back in safe territory. I've only been on them three days. When I woke up this morning"”hours after sunrise, for the first time in ages"”there was no one screaming in my head. But I still took off for the Mojave desert some hours later, possessed by a frantic need to escape, and found myself shriek-singing uncontrollably and shaking deep in my skin, flying down the highway determined to make it to Arizona by dawn"”but the drugs cut my energy around 4:00 and I wound up back in my apartment, shame-faced, with my roommates shaking their heads. But I wrote this damn story in a narrow hour of sanity, fickle though it may prove to be"”which seemed an impossible task even two days ago. So who the hell knows. I guess my point, to quote my roommate, is that I have to learn to be compassionate with myself, even if that means accepting that I need to medicate my brain in order to stick around on this planet. Some people tell me that diabetics just have to take insulin, and I am no different. Other people tell me psych drugs are a way of copping out on the intensity of life and becoming normalized by the screwy system. I am trying to take a more moderate piece of advice to heart"”that I must hold lightly. A friend used those words in reference to a romance, but said she thought they also applied to me in my struggles to carve out a sustainable, honest life. She says we must hold lightly to our strategies, that we can't refuse to adjust our model of what works, no matter how much we'd like to reach the end of our struggles and locate the way out.