Archive for March, 2012

My Life Examined

In my dotage I’ve taken to making the following macabre observation: by the time some of my friends were as old as I am now, they’d been dead for 10 years, i.e., I have in some sense begun to examine my life however simplistic the foregoing might seem. Looking back, I can follow the seemingly inevitable but hardly logical progression from me in my youth as the hurler of adobe mud balls, to later ascending to the role of Mr. Science in High School, and then full scholarship to an Ivy League university followed by a brief stint at Harvard, again on scholarship followed by my marriage to my High School sweetheart and then fatherhood. From mud balls to fatherhood spanned barely a dozen years, all of them unexamined until now. One thing is clear to me now, I was immortal then and remained so. off and on, for years more.

I can’t say when exactly I knew in my gut that I would one day die. Perhaps that was fallout from Vietnam, I don’t know. I only know that the music of the counter culture in the late 60s had a profound impact on me, especially the anti war songs like “Darkness, Darkness”  by the Youngbloods,” an anthem to returning Vietnam vets struggling to find meaning in anything. I began struggling too, and as my life devolved into a “tale told by an idiot,” I took refuge in music, especially the Blues, and especially the electric Blues of such notables as Eric Clapton, Michael Bloomfield, Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Sonny Landreth and SRV.

Gradually my musical tastes have changed (expanded?) and I have followed suit, so what can I say, if anything, has remained constant in my life, especially over the course of two failed marriages? As I struggled to find meaning and a sense of fulfillment in my life, it began to dawn on me that work was this sought after constant, that work was the one thing that gave meaning to my life and brought me a sense of fulfillment. Why is that? Well, my personality is that of the consummate care taker, and I use work to give myself value and worth, for without these, I am lost, for the ones I care for most will abandon me. Work has been and probably will continue to be the one constant in my life, the one that simultaneously gives it a sense of purpose and me a sense of fulfillment.

But hold on a second; my therapist and I have begun looking at what she calls my super masculine ways—me as gorilla. Who knows where I’ll be a year from now? Stay tuned.

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Was Abraham Lincoln bipolar?

Much is known about Lincoln’s bouts of melancholia, and I, ever the one on the prowl to find famous people who are or were bipolar found my attention instantly riveted upon this fact. So, armed with the mighty google, I sat out in search of an answer to this question, Was Lincoln bipolar? Apparently I’m not the only one who’s wondered this, for almost immediately I found the following website

Distilling from it a bit, was Lincoln ever hypomanic? Well, according to one William Herndon, Lincoln’s law partner and biographer, “He was gloomy, abstracted, and joyous—rather humorous—by turns.” In the milder forms of bipolar disorder, hypomania will present as just being happy, with the telling symptom being how the sufferer will repeatedly cycle between melancholia and happiness, with ‘cycle’ being the operative word here.

And pressured speech, another tell-tale sign of bipolar disorder, how did Lincoln fare there? Lincoln was known to be a great talker (when in the mood for it), and he could talk on and on, story after story, almost as if compelled to speak, and at such times seemed tireless. And Lincoln’s penchant for extended bouts of story telling dovetails nicely with the bipolar symptom of Racing Thoughts/Flight of Ideas wherein the sufferer may feel they cannot slow their minds down.

Perhaps the hall mark of the bipolar disorder is the irritability that often accompanies it. What evidence is there that Lincoln was often irritable? According to editors Don E. and Virginia Fehrenbacker [Recollected Words of Abraham Lincoln], “In the White House, Lincoln lost his temper more than once.” And according to the man himself, “I have been angry…[and] if I had encountered the man who caused my anger, I certainly would have hurt him,” a very telling remark indeed.

Bipolar disorder is an inherited one, so what evidence is there that Lincoln had any first degree relatives with this disorder? To quote (from the blog by Joshua Wolf Shenk) no less an authority on this disorder than professor Nassir Ghaemi, Tufts University, “Thus, the bipolar relative (and likely relatives), Mordecai Lincoln, in Lincoln’s family should raise our suspicion that Lincoln himself either had hypomanic periods that are difficult to document, or perhaps experienced a variety of depression that might biologically be similar to bipolar disorder.”

So, it’s all conjecture at this point, I know, yet I can’t help feeling that he and I have something in common, something beyond all rhyme or reason—I know the pieces fit.

“Cold silence has a tendency to atrophy any sense of compassion
Between supposed lovers
Between supposed brothers”




I found a new way to amuse myself—making up the names for and descriptions of fictitious diseases. Today’s contribution Scachycephardia. It comes from, compliments of wikipedia:
Scaphocephaly (Pronunciation: skaf-O-sef-aly), derived from the Greek skaphe (a light boat or skiff), describes a specific variety of a long narrow head that resembles an inverted boat. It is a type of cephalic disorder  which occurs when there is a premature fusion of the sagittal suture.  The sagittal suture joins together the two parietal bones of skull. Scaphocephaly is the most common of the craniosynostosis conditions and is characterized by a long, narrow head.
Tachycardia which comes from the Greek words tachys (rapid or accelerated) and kardia (of the heart). Tachycardia typically refers to a heart rate that exceeds the normal range for a resting heart rate (heart rate in an inactive or sleeping individual). It can be dangerous depending on the speed and type of rhythm.

Yes, well and good, but what does it mean? Simply put, scachycephardia is a mental condition wherein the sufferer is afflicted with an abiding fondness for klezmorim and craving for klezmir music.

Well I never said I wasn’t crazy, now did I?

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Hypomania—What’s it like?

At first glance the term hypomania seems like an oxymoron, i.e., a little bit of a lot, but in my world, the hypomanic mood state is a real one. In it, the “victim” experiences what psychiatrists and psychologists like to refer to as a reduced (hypo-) form of an extreme state (mania). But their jargon tends to gloss the truly significant differences between the two. In mania, the victim has no or very little control over his/her thoughts, emotions and reactions. Their innate sexuality and/or moral convictions give way to hyper-sexuality and/or hyper-religiosity, and this is just for starters. They have a propensity, unless they are Scottish, to spend and/or give away large sums of money; one might even say ‘with abandon.’ They are compulsive and impulsive to a fault, and as their lives converge on the shambolic, their lives become indistinguishable from chaos, and this to the extent that their speech, and even their thoughts, grow increasingly incoherent, incoherent but yet not disorganized as in schizophrenia, but I may be splitting hairs here.

“Yes,” you say, “That’s all well and good, but what does mania feel like?” Well, for one thing, while it may feel pretty grand at the outset, by the time it reaches full-blown status, it feels pretty damned dreadful, like the difference between ‘warm’ and ‘fucking, scalding hot,’ or the difference between feeling animated and energetic, and feeling totally taken over by frenzy. Make no mistake, the manic state is damned dangerous and likely to wreak great destruction in the lives of its victims and their families—”tornado in a trailer park” I like to think of it as. And that’s why psychiatrists are so quick to pounce on the hypomanic state, because they see it as nothing more than a “wide spot” in a very narrow road that leads straight to hell—mania. And for the most part, their view is the correct one, although I know a few manic depressives who are living their entire lives (so far) in a hypomanic state. They lead happy, energetic, creative and productive lives, but do so only for as long as they can elude the frenzy of which hypomania is so often the harbinger. “All their sanity and wit they will have vanished, I promise, it’s just a matter of time,” and they rip off all their clothes and run naked down the middle of the street singing (if they’re lucky) or screaming (if not).

But what of hypomania; that’s what I really want to talk about. “What’s it like?” I’m sometimes asked. “You feel like you’re in love,” I say to them then.  But with whom? You’re in love with someone you have yet to meet but hope to meet soon, very soon, and the expectations exude from every aspect of your being leaving you thoroughly intoxicated with anticipation and enthusiasm. And it feels like you’ve been set free. It’s as if God has just whispered in your ear that you cannot die. And in your very soul you know that there is nothing beyond your capabilities. “Nothing,” you repeat to yourself as your head fills with plans and projects, one piled upon another. Needless to say, hypomania is addicting, addicting as hell—as addicting as meth, I’m told by the few bipolar tweakers (crack heads) who cross my path—in that, like meth, having experienced it once is enough, more than enough, to leave you longing for its return ever after.

I had been actively manic-depressive for the better part of 6 decades, before someone noticed—my family doctor—and sent me to a psychiatrist, so, in some sense then, that qualifies me, or should, as an expert, of sorts, at least among the laity, on what it’s actually like to be hypomanic. (The aforementioned laity, it seems, is very uninterested in what it’s like to be depressed.) So, over the years since my diagnosis, I have been asked many times what it’s like, and have tried many, many times to explain and describe the experience. I’ve not been successful according to my family and normy-friends. The claim is, they say, that it’s not possible to make them understand, sort of in analogy to the impossibility of making the deaf understand what it’s like to hear one’s  friends laugh, say, or what it’s like to hear Beethoven’s 9th for the first time . Still I persist. My latest stab at it: when mania takes you that all-pervasive feeling of emptiness that is always there will vanish, the weight of it lifted from your shoulders leaving you light as the air we breathe. And life will suddenly have meaning, a meaning which had always eluded you in the past, but what that meaning is is not clear, but that there is a meaning is a given.

I’m thinking now, back to a time before doctors were permanent personae in the drama of my life, and while my affliction was present even then, for I seemed to be affected by everything in the universe. I didn’t think constantly about it. For that to happen, it had to have been given a name, and this required the active participation of doctors—doctors have names for everything, and I suppose I should be reassured by that, but I am not.

And now that they have put a name to it, I find myself thinking about it all the time; it has assumed a role in my life, one commensurate with its effect—it’s in my every waking, idle thought. “But surely you are more than it,” others are fond of reminding me, and while I agree with that in principle, the truth of the matter is that much of the time it holds sway. It’s as if my soul came equipped with an ear trumpet tuned to detect every sound in the universe, down to the last audible tick, click and creek. How can I not think constantly about my madness when its cacophony, furious at times, if not altogether ardent, constantly reminds me of its presence like the shrills of one tormented by love—supremely seductive and yet somehow tainted? And of its attendant hypomania, what of it? The longing that used to fill my heart to overflowing has in time given way to melancholy, and I am often overcome with sorrow at the loss of my beloved hypomania, now denied to me forever by modern medicine. It’s in moments of reflection such as these that the tears are quick to come.

I keep a mood chart, and as I look back over this chart which extends backwards in time clear to the expulsion from the Garden of Eden, I see how each day’s entry begins with “Okay.” Occasionally there’ll be a “Not Okay.” I’m such a simple soul, I dutifully keep my mood chart every day, rain or shine. I keep hoping one day my entry will start with “Wow!” or “Holy shit” or, may it please God, best of all, “I’m back!”. What do you think? It’s manic depression at its poignant best, no? “I’m back!” will be the first words out of my mouth when once my beloved hypomania returns. I ache for it. God forbid I ever come down with cancer, but if I do, swear to God, I’m coming off my fucking meds. If I have to die, let me die a free man and not all doped up on meds. Let me die the way God made me and intended me to be—crazy!


On breech leaping

Recently my therapist and I sessioned on my penchant for breech leaping and my seemingly innate predilection for pouring oil on troubled waters. ¿Breech leaping? Yeah. Have you ever experienced discomfort or become ill at ease during a conversation when suddenly no one had anything to say and a lull ensued?  Did you feel compelled to say something, i.e., leap into the breech. (thefreedictionary  <> defines this as “to do work that someone else is not able or not willing to do.”) My therapist has been after me to express what I feel during such moments. I tell her it’s almost a cringing feeling. I cringe whenever there’s a lull. A cringe, I maintain, is a composite—part feeling and part physical reaction. “What kind of a feeling?” she wanted to know. I feel like the person will avail themselves of the lull to take a hard look at me, to judge me, and in the end to find me wanting. That if I let too many lulls pass by unfilled, the other person will turn away from me, withdraw from me, and leave me.

And what about me as the pourer of oil on troubled waters? I was raised to believe that of us six children, it was up to me to relieve the tension resulting from a momentary disharmony in the family, e.g., a heated argument, say. And my step dad was given to erupting on a regular basis. Sort of like “Old Faithful”, every evening he’d find something or some things over which to go ballistic. And he would, and if I was present, it was up to me to pour the oil upon the troubled waters—to say something funny, to make a joke of it whatever it was, to act the clown or at the very least, come up with a rational explanation for the situation which had provoked him to the point of rage. Of course sometimes Bozo couldn’t get the job done, and on these occasions, we’d all scatter and hide and leave my poor old mom to bear the brunt of his fury.

What do these two seemingly disparate behaviors of mine have in common? Why have I lumped them together? It’s that at root, the fear of abandonment is what energizes them both. That is, if I didn’t hold up my end of a conversation, I’d be abandoned. And if I couldn’t prove my worth in holding the family together and repairing the rends in its fabric, then I was indeed worthless and beneath any consideration, and would be abandoned. I had value only to the extent that I had something to contribute. It’s only common sense that only a fool would waste time on something of no value. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to figure that out.

So, here I am, well into the 7th decade of my existence and still struggling to find intrinsic worth, still fearful of abandonment. To end on a thoroughly sad note, this fear is so internalized and so pervasive and so keenly felt that I am unable simply to sit quietly with another human being, even one I love, for Christ’s sake!