Still Touched With Fire
Updated: Oct 5, 2021
(I started calling this mental health awareness blog, Memoirs of My Madness. Not sure about that title now, but this is the next post.)
Depression and suicide are like J. K. Rowling's Dementors: shady, negative-energy relatives or friends you try to avoid. Mania is toxic. Not as frequent a visitor, but an irascible, irrepressible one with exhausting energy. Like a ravenous, restless animal who will not be captured or tamed, the manic may ruin all in his path. Mania is like the weather, ever changeable. At times apparently (if deceptively) benign, other times wreaking swaths of havoc like a twister at anything in its path.
Unlike a destructive storm, mania often begins with a period of intense elation. Here’s how the Johns Hopkins professor, Kay Redfield Jamison describes it in An Unquiet Mind, a memoir of her own life with bipolar disorder:
When you’re high it’s tremendous. The ideas and feelings are fast and frequent like shooting stars…Shyness goes, the right words and gestures are suddenly there, the power to captivate others a felt certainty. Sensuality is pervasive and the desire to seduce and be seduced irresistible. Feelings of ease, intensity, power, well-being, financial omnipotence, and euphoria pervade one’s marrow. But, somewhere, this changes… overwhelming confusion replaces clarity. Memory goes… Everything previously moving with the grain is now against - you are irritable, angry, frightened, uncontrollable.
Before last summer, the most extreme experience of mania I’d had was in the summer of 2011. I dove deeper into a long-held enthusiasm for the esoteric philosophies of the Italian Renaissance stretching back through the Medieval period to Antiquity. After all, who doesn’t like a little Boethius with a summer vacation to New England?
I swore I saw spirits walk among the tombs of the famous cemetery in Salem, Massachusetts. I was convinced a Red Tail Hawk circling above me in Concord was either my very own Daemon sent by the gods or perhaps even Athena herself. I was avidly seeking connections and experience with the occult world of my feverish imagination.
I found myself at such a heightened pitch in New Hampshire I passed out repeatedly. I was so irritable and impatient I was hurting the person closest to me without even recognizing it. Hurting your loved ones is one of the many painful "hangovers" of this illness. Would that it were as benign as the morning after a night partying with inflated enthusiasm...
As Jamison hints at above, intimate relationships and finances are among the most acute external consequences of manic and hypo-manic episodes (mania without “marked impairment” or hospitalization). As I look back over the summers of my adult life, it's a painful journey, more like Nightmare on Elm St than a trip down memory lane: broken relationships, suicide attempts, and professional conflicts which would blow up in my face.
One of the most unremarked upon aspects of living with bipolar disorder is the consciousness one has of the pain caused by moods and imbalances beyond one’s control. As I said above, you hurt the people you love before you realize it’s done. And like that night of binge drinking, you often can't remember what you said or did.
Thankfully, you are in treatment. Within the cognitive behavioral therapies is the process of understanding and managing your mood disorders and the extreme polarities therein. You become more and more conscious of the pain your illness has caused, both to you and others. Those twin recognitions - the pain you’ve unintentionally caused and the knowledge of how difficult it is to live with bipolar disorder - are sometimes too much to bear. The suicide’s claim that “they’d be better off without me” is not so much the cry of a victim or coward as it is that of a responsible and honest patient assessing an impossible dynamic. Literally: how can I live with myself like this?
Of course my loved ones would not be better off without me! Besides being self-aware and emotionally in touch, we manic-depressives surf waves which make “normal” brained mortals quake. I’m not trying to justify that rationale. I am trying to express a little-discussed aspect of living with this illness: the awareness that not only am I suffering, but my sickness hurts those around me when its at an extreme.
As I said in the first installment of this mental health blog, I hope to shine a light and perhaps give voice to what others have felt and experienced but not expressed. Treatment helps. Don't wait to have a crisis. Talk therapy is a gift. Conversation by conversation, post by post, the stigmas surrounding depression, bipolar disorder and suicide can be replaced with awareness, understanding and empathy.
I love what the actor Mark Ruffalo says at the end of the first Avengers, in a delayed
response to a question about how he manages the Hulk:
You want to know what my secret is? I'm always angry.
Rather than visualizing this superpower as ever angry (guilty), I think of having my own inner Ner tamid, the "perpetual light" or "lux aeterna" which is always burning inside. I’ll end with an excerpt from Stephen Spender’s poem, “I think continually of those…”
Who, from the womb, remembered the soul’s history
Through corridors of light, where the hours are suns,
Endless and singing. Whose lovely ambition
Was that their lips, still touched with fire,
Should tell of the Spirit, clothed from head to foot in song,
And who boarded from the Spring branches
The desires falling across their bodies like blossoms.