Reverse Abstraction: Giving Form and Contour to Mental States

Art and a narrative by Michael Johnson

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I remember when I was much younger I loved reading about mythical creatures. I was addicted to reading cryptozoological books, and I filled my sketchbooks cover to cover with depictions of those strange creatures. Yet for all the outlandish and fantastic beasts I read about, my favorite always was the lowly jackalope. Wyverns, sphynxes, the Loch Ness Monster; those were all well and good but I knew that they were just stories and myths, and I knew I would never have a chance of ever actually seeing one in real life. The jackalope, on the other hand had some promise. It seemed just real enough to maybe exist, and the idea of one day stumbling upon one filled me with the same giddy boyish hope one gets when planning out their future career as a firefighting astronaut who also plays professional football on the side. Eventually, as I got older, I of course went through the phase where one has to come to terms with the fact that most of their boyhood dreams would unfortunately remain as such. I learned that fires do not typically occur in space, I learned that astronaut training is prohibitively rigorous and does not leave much time for football practice in the off season. I learned that I wasn't really good at football anyway. And while this childhood disillusionment is perfectly natural, mine seemed to continue unendingly to new lows. I learned that people lie more often than they tell the truth, I learned that pain was a much more common force than pleasure. I learned that my parents hated each other, and that love could have just as well been a creature in one of my books. I learned that the most I could hope for in life was a vague discontentment, although more often then not my life felt like a painful and pointless burden I had to carry around with me forever and ever until I finally got to die. Then one day I learned something which had an unexpected effect on how I viewed everything. I learned that jackalopes were in fact real animals. The one fairy tale creature that I always had a hunch might actually be real turned out to be so. I was right after all. Yes, there are instances where rabbits grow horns or antler-like protrusions from their skulls, and it is because they are afflicted with cottontail papilloma virus, a type of cancer which causes uncontrollable keratinous growths. These growths eventually get so large that they interfere with the rabbits ability to eat, and the rabbit eventually dies a slow, pathetic, malformed death.

All of those saccharine promises that were made to me about life turned out to be thinly veiled cancers. Every conceivable thing about this world that I thought was positive ended up being a disease that results in an agonizing death. Life itself, from the second you come out of the womb, is just a long, drawn out process of dying. And as I grew older and older my life really did feel like a cancerous growth on my skull that was ever increasing in size, and I knew that one day the weight of it would crush my cranium and kill me. Around this time I also discovered I appreciated movies with sad endings. It was in middle school when I first made these connections, and these dismal beliefs have had an unfortunate permanence ever since.

If you can think of your life as a lens of perception, then depression is a film of soot on that lens that distorts and misshapes everything you come into contact with. Everything you see, hear, feel, or think is rendered ugly and pitiful. I have had to look out through these tarnished lenses for quite some time, and one of the few reprieves I have is through painting. The world may be unlovely and inhospitable, but when I'm in front of my canvas then at least for a little while, at least in a small amount of space, I can create something beautiful. It is in this way that I have played the world at it's own game. My subject matter is ugly, just like the rest this existence. My figures are disproportionate; they have odd protrusions erupting from their bodies. My animals are emaciated and sickly. Nearly everything I paint has empty, blind eyes. And just the same I give them saturated, vibrant colors, and I try and make them glow with a chromatic radiance that is in every sense not of this world. I do this because I really want the ugly things to be beautiful too.

Through painting I have, in my mind, closed the gap between the ugly and the beautiful, or between the happy and the sad. I've come to see that they are just two ends of a continuum that eventually wraps around itself and meets again, and the troughs of your deepest lows are a direct reflection of the crests of the soaring highs that are soon to follow. No rain, no rainbows is what I'm saying, essentially. I can see now that life is like one giant sad ending. A sad ending that has been written so elegantly that you are moved to tears at the sheer beauty. And I really like movies with sad endings

Check out more of Michael's work below and visit his site here.

Michael Johnson's artwork finds its home somewhere between the unnerving and the alluring, the decaying and the blossoming, the mythic and the biographical. His works can be seen as self-portraits, collectively making up the mindscapes of his consciousness. The process he uses is that of reverse abstraction: he seeks to flesh out those myriad mental states that accompany the human condition and give them form and contour. Anxieties are given hooves and snouts, sleepless nights are turned into sprawling landscapes, tendons and sinew are surgically connected to thoughts and memories until finally an aesthetic figure is born. In this way Michael is like Courbet, constantly pursuing that “Real Allegory” which can be used to outline his psyche. But to say that he is directly inspired by any artist would be a slight misstep. To Michael everything in life is his muse, whether it come in the form of his 10 month old son's scribbles or Mondrian's 10th composition. He subscribes to no set style nor movement, only holding onto his inspirations long enough for them to pass through his lens of perception before being projected onto his canvases and released.

Totally Ill, Yo. A Narrative About Bipolar and ECT

A Narrative By Aly Jones


well, you wouldn't be ashamed of having cancer, would you?

 By Ian Dietz   Check him out on  Instagram

By Ian Dietz

Check him out on Instagram

it only feels right to begin this by telling you i can’t think of a way to begin this, so here we are. i guess the real start is acknowledging that i kind of disappeared for a year, and i have been/still kind of am ashamed of what happened, hence the title. however, it's important to me that my friends and family (you’re one of those!) know where i’ve been because, while i really appreciate people asking what i’ve been up to, i get tongue tied in person and generally make the whole thing a lot weirder than it has to be. i also want to share because there have been some lasting impacts that are helpful to know when we’re hanging out.

it started in fall 2013 with debilitating panic attacks almost everyday. these led to me missing a great deal of work, which led to increasing depression, which cycled until i admitted to myself i was slipping and needed more help than therapy would provide. i wanted a day treatment program so i could still live at home, and healthnet guided me to a partial hospitalization program (PHP) at the alta bates herrick campus in berkeley. i remember scheduling my intake appointment before i had even talked to rhys about the depth of what was going on. obviously he knew there was a problem, but i don’t think he knew what could be done about it any more than i did. on tuesday, november 19, 2013 i began an official leave of absence from my job and started what i usually refer to as “program”.

my days at herrick were interesting. the group ranged anywhere from seven to fifteen, depending on how many people were losing their minds on the outside, i guess. their program has one group of patients and a variety of professionals who cycle through to provide treatment. there’s cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT); dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT); education about coping skills, harm reduction, and addiction/co- dependency; a daily process group for patients to share and support each other; and
a variety of recreational therapies, such as drama, art, occupational, and music. patients also get a psychiatrist that sees them at least once a week, and a case manager who does the same. crazy camp ran monday through friday, 9am – 3pm, and included a $7.50 voucher for lunch in the cafeteria, which was actually pretty good. my psychiatrist and case manager were nice enough guys who seemed to like me, get my humor, and genuinely wanted to see me get better. unfortunately, despite all that the program was teaching me- self-care, kind self-talk, relaxation exercises and new coping techniques- my depression was worsening and no one seemed to be able to help me.

in february, i started to worry i had been misdiagnosed, and that what was going on inside was not chronic depression or generalized anxiety. finally, i broke down sobbing one day after program, telling my doctor and my caseworker i was afraid i had bipolar II disorder. they said they had been moving toward the same conclusion and agreed that was the case. this seemingly dramatic change in diagnosis sent me over the edge, and i was hospitalized for 72 hours.

unfortunately, the new approach did not result in more fruitful efforts where my

treatment was concerned, and things continued to spiral. i was hospitalized again in may after presenting myself for help, and for the third and final time in june or july (can’t quite remember, which we’ll get to shortly), after i was put on an involuntary hold due to concerns i was going to hurt myself. i am not going to get deeply into what hospitalizations are like, or what my exact thoughts and plans were, but i had a clear plan of action and spent a tremendous amount of time between february and november of 2014 begging my family to give me permission to die. the psychiatric ward at herrick saved my life, so it is great. it is boring, but it is safe, quiet, comfortable, and the staff openly care about you getting better.

in may, after trying more drugs than i can name, and refusing a fair number of others due to common side effects, my doctor was left with very few options. i had been in a six-week program for over seven months. i had seen dozens of patients come and go, only to be left behind. i was there so long that i saw a woman start, leave and come back for a “tune up” six months later. no other person had been in program for even a third of the time i was there, and i was feeling irretrievably broken. my doctor had me meet with the medical director for the unit several times over the course of a month and a half, and that didn’t get me anywhere, either. finally, people started talking about ECT, aka electroconvulsive therapy, aka “shock therapy”- all fun, really, so take your pick.

perhaps you are as intimidated by the name as i was, because i replied with a pretty firm no. however, i didn’t want to appear stubborn and as though i just didn’t WANT to get better (which came up at one point), so i started researching other options. there is a new technology called TMS, or transcranial magnetic stimulation, which is an easily administered treatment involving magnetic pulses and the brain. you do have to go five days a week, an hour a day, for 4-6 weeks, but it's also noninvasive and can help you want to live, so it evens out. unfortunately, i was not a good candidate due to the severity of my symptoms, and even the TMS doc recommended ECT. shortly after that consult was my final hospitalization, and it was then that i relented and agreed to begin treatment.

the main things to know about ECT are how it happens and the side effects. luckily we’ve come a long way since nurse ratched, and now they put you to sleep, which is usually the part most people are freaked out about. i certainly appreciated being knocked out, but it thoroughly sucked getting stabbed for an IV three times a week. the way ECT works is by causing you to have a seizure, which, for reasons science honestly does not understand, alters your brain chemistry in a way that can impact mood and suicidal thinking. it’s a pretty mysterious process, made even more so by the fact that it can be used to treat both mania (extreme highs) AND depression. although it is an outpatient procedure, because you’re under anesthesia, you cannot take yourself to and from the hospital. you also cannot take a taxi because you have to have someone present to care for you for at least four hours post-discharge. because it is a seizure, you legally cannot drive for 48 hours after treatment. because you have a treatment three days a week, you are always within 48 hours of having had a seizure and are not able to drive at all. because you cannot drive at all and you

need intensive care at home three days a week, your mom moves in with you and your husband, putting her life on complete hold. at least that’s what happened here. on august 10, 2014, my mom moved into my house, and on august 11, i started getting zapped.

one of the most significant side effects of ECT is memory loss, both short and long- term, in varying degrees. for me, it’s been frustratingly extensive, but i’ll never, ever forget the date i started ECT. robin williams killed himself the same day i started a treatment people were desperately hoping would resolve my will to end my own life, and all i could think is “you lucky son of a bitch”. obviously we’re never able to see ourselves from the outside, but people in my circle have described me as completely lifeless during this phase of my depression. i know i felt hollow and my voice was often completely monotone, but i also did very little talking. there wasn’t much left to say. i was done. i guess in some senses it’s good that i can’t remember just about anything from this time period.

the bummer, however, is that i can’t remember just about anything from this time period, or even earlier. most of 2014 is a messy blur with flashes of memory, usually out of context and with foggy details. i don’t remember doing comedy at all, even though fun times with friends was in sketchfest and we apparently did really well. it means i don’t remember my 30th birthday, where my family took me out to dinner at chez panisse and we apparently got a tour of the kitchen. it means i don’t remember to going to an a’s game and sitting in a luxury box with rhys and his hockey guys, where i apparently had a really good time. a luxury box at an a’s game! chez panisse! a literal dream come true- sketchfest!! and as far as i know, these things never happened. it seems to be almost daily that a new activity i participated in but don’t remember comes up. at this point the joke in my family is “if you say so!”. the memory thing is why i find it crucial for you, friends and family, to please know that when i can’t remember something we did or talked about together, or if i need help being reintroduced to someone, it’s not personal. please don’t be surprised if i need directions to get somewhere i’ve been before, even i have been there many times. i also find i am repeating things back a lot right now in order to process and hopefully retain them, and i know that’s annoying, so i ask you to please bear with me.

for all of the pomp and circumstance leading up to ECT, and all of the insane crap that comes with it (you’ve never had such a ridiculous headache in your life), it also proved ineffective for me (i am in the <3% of patients for whom that is the case). i underwent the maximum number of treatments allowed, finishing on october 23. two weeks before that, i started searching for programs again, willing to go wherever and do whatever it was going to take, including residential. if my family was going to insist that i stick around, i needed to find a way to do it honestly. mercifully, it did not take too long and i didn’t have to leave home.

my wonderful therapist referred me to a program in oakland called la cheim (oy, i know). mom and i checked it out the day before my last ECT treatment, and six days later i was in. the core content at la cheim was similar to herrick- CBT, DBT, coping skills, art therapy (which now included writing!), and process groups- but that was pretty much the only similarity. the most significant difference is that at la cheim, pretty much every group ended up functioning as a process group; we were continually encouraged to share concerns, questions, or examples from our daily lives, regardless of how much content the group leader had intended to get through. we drove the content, which means we progressed much more quickly and deeply. at herrick, the packet was sacred. funny how it all comes back to good teaching vs. bad teaching. because of all of the incredible work i was doing daily at la cheim, i had a game changing breakthrough in therapy on november 12. what does a breakthrough look like? during process group that morning, i had been sobbing in frustration and hopelessness over being a broken person. in therapy that afternoon i hit gold, came home and processed my revelation over the phone with my mom. on november 13, i woke up before the alarm, showered, did my hair and make up, and felt like i was genuinely seeing, hearing, and breathing again for the first time in over a year.

the last 16 months have been so surreal dali’s jealous, but i am sincerely pleased to report that i’ve only been climbing since november 13. it’s a slow, treacherous ascent, but i know i can make it because i have such a ridiculous support network (personal shout outs to rhys, my mom, and kelly for being my ride or dies through absolute shit). i’m no longer teaching, and don’t believe i’ll ever return, but you know what they say about nevers. i’m crawling back into comedy thanks to my fun times friends, and talk about a muscle that’s out of shape... we’ll see if i ever remember how to write a joke again, but for now at least, you can catch me at the milk bar, 1840 haight street, san francisco at 8pm the 3rd and 4th mondays of every month. i’ll be the one laughing the loudest.

sick, bro

yesterday, my mom and i were on the phone talking about how i am doing, and she made a reference to me being "mentally ill." before i could even process what i was saying, i snapped at her. the phrase knocked the wind out of me, and as my chest constricted, my brain was taunting me:

"you're not mentally ill."
"well, yes, you are."
"noooo, you're NOT."
"but you have a MENTAL ILLNESS!" "oh my god... i'm mentally ill... fuck."

i owe my mom an apology, because she's right. i am mentally ill. when you break it down to the actual meaning of the words, it is an entirely neutral phrase that applies to me because i have a chemical imbalance that requires daily medication and will for the rest of my life. that is not a bad thing or a good thing; it is just a thing. the meanings of words, however, are much more than oxford says, and the magic of connotation is where i got tangled up.

it's really fun to think of yourself as an open-minded, free-love, no-judgments person until something pops up to expose you to a prejudice you didn't even know you had. bingo, baby. and you have to admit it's pretty funny that the condition i have, which impacts my sense of self-worth, is what i'm prejudiced against. it's like a betty crocker box mix for self-loathing. mentally ill isn't safe. mentally ill isn't okay. mentally ill isn't in control. mentally ill is clandestine. mentally ill is scary. mentally ill is homeless.
mentally ill is unsafe to those around you. mentally ill may as well be a death sentence. and i put all of that onto my mom because of the biological reaction i have to those words.

the real thing of it is i'm not upset with myself for having that prejudice because i am not alone in it. it isn't something i was born thinking; it is the product of 30 years of accumulated evidence on how the society i live in treats those words. it is the same reason i broke down when i was diagnosed as bipolar- the information stored in my database tells me that those things are bad. they cause people to kill strangers, coworkers, friends, and even family. they mean you are constantly cycling in-and-out of control and require intensive medical attention to remain anywhere near stable. they mean you are worthless because therapy is only for people who are weak. they mean you'll never have a "normal" life. i learned this stuff from my environment. i learned it from discussions with family, friends, and acquaintances. i learned it from the media, especially via coverage of situations involving mentally ill perpetrators. i learned it from literature and film. i learned it from social norms of what is and isn't

taboo. last night it settled on me that if i learned this prejudice, it means a significant percentage of the population probably learned what i did, too.

my therapist is not so keen on me posting about my illness here because she's worried when i apply for jobs people will search for me, see what i've written and be less apt to hire me. i bet anyone who would make that choice based on my illness wouldn't say they're prejudiced, because they have a fair point: would you hire someone who may need a modified schedule, working conditions, or other accommodations if you knew ahead of time those issues existed? you might if they had a physical health condition, because it's easier for people with physical limitations to have others literally witness their discrimination, and that would look real bad. if you're like i was, the fact that you'd skip someone mentally ill but not someone physically ill (even if we knew their illness was a limitation) should be a red flag. i shouldn't feel afraid of possibly needing accommodations when i go back to work, but i am because before i landed here, there's a decent chance i may not have hired me. oops!

i'm not really one for just casually advertising the fact that i have a mental illness in workplace or anonymous social situations, so i'm not going to go 180 on y'all and wear a BIPOLAR AND PROUD pin everywhere (totes did just order one from etsy, though). i'm just happy that i got the chance to bring this to light in myself so i can work on making it vamoose. turns out that just like the equality i've pushed and worked so hard to get for others, it's not about being able to shout about yourself from the rooftops; it's about being able to go to sleep at night without worrying how you'll ever succeed in a society that sees you as defective. mental illness doesn't have to be all up in your face; i'm just saying that if people can speak publicly and unabashedly about an illness that impacts digestive functioning (big ups to crohn's allies), it'd be cool for me to not feel scared people might find out sometimes i have good days and sometimes i have bad days. cuz i'm, like, totally ill, yo. 

A Narrative About Bipolar Disorder

Narrative by Heather Cook

Spring 1988. High school. Lunchtime. I remember what I was wearing that day -- a long white skirt dotted with red roses with crooked stems and a matching red sweater. While the outfit was a bit “mature,” my mom had kindly rushed out to buy me new clothes on her lunch hour the day prior. Beggars can’t be choosers.

So, why the rush, you ask? Over the course of three months, I had blossomed from a size eight into a 12, jumping over 10 as nimbly as Jack did the candlestick. The only thing frail about me at that point was my self-esteem.

Of course, it sounds like I was pregnant, but under no circumstances would I have traded a diploma for a diaper bag. (Though a stint on Teen Mom, had it existed, would have eliminated a need for college loans.) Rather, I had “issues.” At the age of 14, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. Three years after came the bigger gun: bipolar disorder. I had just turned 17.

 Whether it was a decision or an oversight, neither my parents nor psychiatrist sat me down to discuss the disease, and how it might affect my future. My own research, though persistent, was pointless. My book case stored a massive set of useless, faux-leather door-to-door salesman encyclopedias. The information superhighway didn’t exist back in the 1980s and the school library featured books about Paul Bunyan and Native American crafts.

Desperate for information, I remained hyper-vigilant, sitting quietly at the top of the stairs to listen to my parents’ conversations. Nothing much there. I lied about staying after school one day and took a bus to the library in a larger city. I found some information, but it was mostly scientific. There were no personal accounts of living with a mental illness, which I craved. Uninformed, I often had senseless nightmares, including one about polar bears fighting to the death, their snapping jaws sending ribbons of saliva flying everywhere.

What I was learning by the surrounding silence was to keep quiet. Rather than reach out for support from other family members, my parents circled the wagons. I don’t blame them; they, too, were bereft of reliable information. One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was their closest frame of reference. So, I carried around a bookbag full of secrets, textbooks and of course, a massive can of Aqua Net. It was the 80s, after all – which brings me to my next point.

I was diagnosed at an uncommonly young age, particularly for the 80s. A psychiatrist (his name was Dr. Aspel – I’m sure you can guess my version) put me on Lithium, which was uncommon for children, and soon thereafter, Prozac, which had just been approved for adults in 1987, but was nowhere close for adolescents and kids.  My parents blindly filled the prescriptions and put them on the sink. They never had to remind me to take them, even after I discovered, trial by fire, that Lithium would make me into the Pillsbury Doughgirl and push me down flights of stairs.

Given everything, though, the lack of reliable information had its perks. That my parents weren’t told that bipolar disorder is incurable and responsible for many bleak outcomes was the one time that ignorance was a blessing. I believe we all would have responded to the diagnosis quite differently. We may have expected failure and surrendered to the disease.




Whether we were experts or clueless didn’t change the day to day hell of being a high school student with a secret brain disorder. As a freshly-minted wackadoodle who spent two hours every morning creating a hair helmet worthy of Bon Jovi groupie-status (80s hair band groupie? Who me? ::lookingsidetoside::)I was also balancing my parents’ crapola marriage and Lifetime Movie Network separation, incessant bouts of chronic bronchitis and pneumonia that necessitated frequent hospitalizations and ceaseless antibiotics and steroids (which also contributed to the pudge), all while being a straight A student in private school hell bent on a good college. As the meds set in, I found it almost impossible to study. They were like little backstabbing friends; they promised if I stuck with them that I’d become popular and beautiful, but fed me cookies while I slept to get me fat.

Most of my human friends were living normal 80’s lives -- aerobicizing to the driving beat of “We Built This City on Rock and Roll” every Wednesday afternoon in the gym while I was getting my blood drawn to check for Lithium toxicity. Now that’s sacrifice.

On the day of the ugly flowered skirt, I was satisfying my Lithium-induced sugar cravings by mixing cake into chocolate pudding for a stunning cafeteria dessert. It was fresh cake Friday, and all of my friends stuck around for cake, so for once, I was part of the norm. By this time, I had been on Lithium for a few months, but the Prozac was new. Headaches zipped in and out with a weird sting that I now attribute to the strange elixir of psych meds and teenage hormones. I was a hot mess on stairs because I was so damn dizzy.  I had started tripping over my feet, my book bag, people, everything.

 ”Walk much?” I heard that all of the time. Small comments and changes were making me paranoid and self-conscious. I was as delicate as Barry Manilow’s cheekbones. Other kids began to terrify me. I cried every morning on the way to school while my dad conducted business on his cell phone (which was the size of a brick). Kids who liked me before started to taunt me. I was truly the walking wounded, and high school assholes can sniff out weakness faster than Simon Cowell can put together a shitty boy band.

All of the pudding of the world couldn’t erase the fact that I had to get up in my granny-gear and cross both the cafeteria and the student center to make it to class. Most kids can relate to the fear of walking through the cafeteria, but the student center where the popular kids (jocks and their gfs) hung out was a particular treat. The jocks, mostly fifth year seniors, were usually sprawled out on the sofas with their long arms draped around the shoulders (headed toward the boob area) of their tee-hee’ing cheerleader girlfriends. A perfect set up for bullying.

            I gripped my books and looked ahead, determined to get the hell out of that room. I remember feeling particularly vulnerable and transparent that day.  Turns out that I was. Even my lacquered 80s hairdo couldn’t deflect a nasty example of teenage cruelty.

“Hey Heather!” The voice was loud and mocking. It was Derek, a “basketball player” who stood at 5’2 (the 2 attributable to his spiked hair) who had tried, unsuccessfully, to make out with me at a school dance six months prior.

 "Heather Cook!” he yelled.  “Tear off your skirt and show us all that FAT!”

The room went silent, then several students broke out laughing. The jocks hit the floor in one idiotic herd, holding their stomachs and howling in laughter. Their size 2 girlfriends twittered, even the one who had lip scabs from leaving the wax on too long on her secret mustache, a mistake which she tried to cover the day before by hiding behind her Trapper Keeper.  I froze, humiliated.

As unsteady as a carny’s girlfriend who got to ride the Flying Bobs free for an entire week, I took to the stairs. After hitting (literally) the lockers, I grabbed all the wrong books and stumbled into AP History, the class with the 22 year old teacher who told us the slaves sang because they were happy they had jobs. I slid into my seat. And just like that, I rebounded. I took notes as if everything was normal. I felt better, even on the way to happy. Then, I’d remember what happened and think horrible thoughts. God, I was so scared.

Clearly, having bipolar disorder was taking its toll on my dignity, and the mood swings were increasingly difficult to control. I never made a slow descent from feeling OK into melancholy. A deeply depressive mood wasn’t, and still isn’t, progressive. It’s a fast fall from a skyscraper. I don’t have time to watch the windows go by and think oh shit, I don’t think this is going to turn out so great. It’s a BAM. A deafening thud. I have no idea when it will come. As fast as the freefall hits, it disappears. Within a couple of hours, I will talk without pause and feel pretty darn good. I can write again. Then, the elevator may stop at an OK in between. That’s the dream for a person with bipolar disorder: stability. It is so hard won. Losing that, whether it is for a moment, a few days, or two months, is devastating. I feel like it will never, ever come again.

Living with it is exhausting, scary and disruptive. Under these conditions, staying on any kind of task for work or school is a nightmare. Being broadsided by a depressive crash, the feelings themselves, and how ferociously they take hold, sucks, sure. But, it’s the corresponding behavior that ramps up the danger. If a person with bipolar disorder is unstable and untreated, he or she cannot make good decisions or choices. Also, with any type of mental disorder, there is high risk of addiction as people try to self-medicate. Overall, the risks of mental illness are exponential. At worst, the compulsive behavior and disorientation stemming from the disease lead to fatality, whether by suicide or accident.

That day in the student center was pivotal. First, my mother forced me to wear girdles every day until the end of the school year. More seriously, for years I, and my family, had tried to subtly hide my affliction – like sticking a wad of chewed-up bubblegum to the underside of a table at a restaurant. Someone, at some point, would discover the gum, maybe, but probably not. Its presence would likely be unknown for years. That has worked sometimes; other times the gum has fallen onto the floor, attached itself to someone’s shoe, and then spread in one germy mess throughout the restaurant like a long strip of toilet paper.

 That day, the gum had fallen asunder. As I sat in AP History listening to my up and coming Fox News correspondent-teacher rant about the astronomical loss of a million U.S. soldiers during the Korean War (huh?), the story was running through the school. For the rest of the day, kids walked past me snorting and oinking.

Of course I wanted to jump into the trash chute and plummet to the basement in one stinky, dusty ball of humiliation. Of course I thought constantly about suicide and made my plans. Since early childhood I had tried many forms of self-harm, which ticked my parents off, so it was like shame upon shame. That particular dynamic did not bode well for my future, and is still therapy material. Although I have always worked hard to stabilize, and even as a kid stayed med-compliant, we keep one ear to the ground listening for the distant beat of bipolar hooves. At one point, my mother’s hope for me was that I’d never run naked around parking lots, jumping from car to car like a spider monkey.  Not exactly med school, but none of us knew what to expect.  Information about mental illness was limited to pamphlets in doctors’ offices – maybe, but they’d be concealed behind the front desk with the STD info. The state psychiatric facility was called the “looney bin” and rumored to be haunted with the spirits of crazies from decades past.

 Mental illness was truly not discussed, certainly not in my town.  We lived in a bedroom community of white houses, coniferous trees and crocus-lined streets. Summers were marked by the flicker of citronella candles and the distant croak of frogs.  Weekends saw dads in boat shoes listening to Gordon Lightfoot and washing their cars in the driveway. I can still smell the buckets of warm, soapy water, and see the gleaming hoods of Cadillacs. All looked perfect, spit-shined, but what goes on behind closed doors is always anyone’s guess.

So what has kept me waddling through life? Something in me – just the smallest speck of will – has urged me to keep going. At first, I had no clue if I would get worse (which I absolutely did, for quite a while), or if I would be permanently institutionalized one day, an option that was actually discussed in my mid-20s. At the age of 25, I was booked for a six-week course of Electro-Convulsive Therapy, otherwise known as “shock therapy.” I backed out the day before the first treatment. No matter how much I struggled, no matter how many inpatient visits and medication changes I endured, I never let my illness drag me so fiercely by the nose that it took charge.

Am I ashamed of having BPD? No, but it has taken 30 years to get to this place. I have learned to accept that I have a disease that requires lifelong management. If I don’t accept that, I can’t stay well.  Do I fear the reaction of others? A bit, but what a foolish reason to stay silent when so many are suffering. It’s an internal conflict – do I stay stuck up beneath the table, all hard, discolored and clandestine, or do I fall softly onto a Gucci loafer?

Clearly, suffering is at a premium. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention has released these facts: An American dies by suicide every 12.95 minutes.  Ninety-percent of those who die by suicide had a diagnosable psychiatric condition at the time of their death. Given such stats, I’d like to allow public access to the endless adventures of my bipolar life, its endless adventures and widely-applicable lessons about self-love, relationships, and persistence. I’m willing to bet my cat’s second litterbox that numerous people are looking for the stories I’m happy to tell.








Dickotomy: Fitting Into Gay Culture

Dickotomy: Fitting Into Gay Culture

A certain dichotomy is developing over these past couple of weekends as I find myself in the midst of Fire Island rush hour on the Long Island Rail Road. Just this past weekend, for example, I left mid day Friday to head to Nassau County to visit my parents. In doing so I caught the extent of seer-sucking, aviator wearing homosexuals heading east towards Sayville. The gay man’s life has always seemed a bit fanciful to me, unobtainable even, something out of a movie that I was never able to achieve – which has always led me to feel a slight disconnect from the community. Somehow they have the time to work a job that allots them the freedom, luxury and finances for a Fire Island share; but also have the time to maintain a glamorous social life and participate in a gym routine that results in a perfectly sculpted body. I on the other hand can barely allocate funds that allot me the freedom to ride the MTA Subway system on a weekly basis, and despite rigorous efforts, still have the physique of a prepubescent girl.

A Childhood Connection With Insomnia

A Childhood Connection With Insomnia

It’s as if I don’t have a body until I stop moving. Once I’m lying there—feigning motionlessness, my mind takes off. In this moment I try and breathe out into my extremities in a desperate attempt to escape the crevices of my mind. Take the heat off my brain and the slur of rushing thoughts—things I must do, things I didn’t do, what am I doing, where did I come from, why am I here, I should join the gym, what is wrong with me.