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Let me tell you a little about my head

Manic depressive illness has taken me all over the world. It’s given me extraordinary power and deprived me of basic human relationships. Medicated and psychoanalyzed, I have it under control now. But it demands constant care from a psychiatrist and the development of coping skills and discipline.

I’ve had this all my life. But the ups and downs of being a kid disguised the symptoms until I was into high school. School at Archbishop O’Hara High School was a miserable time for me, one I used to chalk up to being eccentric and an outsider.

There were hormones, teen angst, and rebellion. But as I look back, much of my bad time had to do with manic ups and depressive downs. I’ve since reconsidered all the people I thought made my life miserable. As a whole, they are a good lot.

Now, having become aware of manic depression as an adult, I see my high school and early college years much differently. Incredible flights of mind convinced me I could do anything. I tackled difficult projects, started running, and took on extracurricular activities. I took weightlifting classes and even contemplated joining the wrestling team (but even I recognized that those guys were obsessive macho freaks). In high school, all in one week, I joined the backpacking club, the skeet shooting club, the yearbook, and the newspaper. In college, during one of these heady bursts, I ran for student government and won a seat on the All Student Association, a training ground for people who would become political types and lawyers after graduation.

I had enough positive feedback from these activities I was convinced of my abilities. I wrote well and teachers mentioned my enthusiasm and productivity. I shot at skeet, though I never, not once, hit one. I went on backpacking trips, rock climbing expeditions, and nature hikes, all of which gave me a great deal of satisfaction. I spoke up at student government meetings and people listened. I was often praised for my unorthodox perspective and unusual approach to solving student-administration issues.

During these moments of immense energy, I made myself the class clown. In high school, I wound up in the principal’s office. Charm and quick talking slipped me past the principal, on whom I had an undying crush. It was a little rougher when she left for another job and a guy named Stuart took over the administration. Still, in four years, I never did detention duty. In college, I became well known to other students who sought my company at the local pub.

During the periods of euphoria, little things—a momentary setback or failure, resistance from people around me, even something as simple as not being able to find the keys—sent me into wild bouts of irritability. Anyone could be a victim of my ire. I groused and raged. I would fly off into heights of anger that only ended with exhaustion or impact with impenetrable circumstance. For instance, one time my sister would not let me use her car to go someplace and I was late for my appointment. I laid into her with a fury that not only scared her but moved her to call the police. Faced with impending arrest, I apologized with the same vigor. Fortunately, she put down the phone. Who knows where that would have gone.

These euphoric and irritable times never lasted. Seemingly within minutes, I would fall from great heights into bone crushing depression. Feelings of worthlessness and guilt plagued me. I found no motivation to do anything. I ate too much. My grades fell and I did the barest amount to maintain a B average—grades which kept parents and teachers off my back. (Though they often gave me the “you’re not applying yourself” speech in both college and high school.) I played sick to stay at home and in bed, curtains drawn. Sleep was my great refuge. At the same time, I didn’t sleep at night or I would sleep for 14 and 15 hours in a row.

I took to drinking early. By the age of 14, I was a weekend drunk. At 18, I drank every day. Alcohol helped both with the depressions and the sleepless nights. Especially after high school, when I was working on the student paper and was a member of the Philosophy Circle, a notoriously alcohol-soaked group of college students older than me. I drank as much as I could when I could. Drinking, it seemed, helped leveled surges of manic energy and softened the crashing lows.

One of the ways I dealt with both upswings and downturns was with physical labor, the harder the better. Strenuous use of the body was easy during a heightened manic phase, when I had all the willingness to labor long hours at the same, repetitive work. At the same time, physical output expended the extra energy that produced irritability or that may have gone into anger directed at myself, someone, or a group of people. I excelled at jobs. I started new employment with great excitement and enthusiasm. I proved myself quickly. Employers were glad at their recent find.

Then, I figured the job out and my enthusiasm would wane, When the job became routine or drudgery, I laid into it with all my might. I prided myself on my work and ability to complete tasks. This was also true when, in the depths of despair, a job, particularly one that required heavy-lifting or physical acuity, rescued me from darkness. Instead of staying in bed, I forced myself outward. The physical strain often diverted my mind from thoughts of suicide and from lack of physical feeling (dulled senses of touch and smell), emotion or motivation.

After I moved away from home, periods of over-the-top energy and devastating depression only grew worse. Wild mood swings struck at any given moment. When up or down, I drank harder. Then, I’d experience weeks or months between episodes when I would return to some sort of normalcy. Drinking lightened up, but not much. I would feel the day’s labor and leisure without any ill effects. I didn’t get arrested. I didn’t lash out at anyone. I was, we might say, my normal, drunk self.

A downturn might not always follow a manic episode, and manic episodes weren’t necessarily precursors to depression. Often, these happened independently of one another, with depressions being the most frequent. In these years between the ages of 20 and 22, I made and delivered pizza. It was an easy job. It demanded little brainwork and lots of physical motion in the kitchen. When driving the truck, I was in motion and preoccupied with details. In both cases, I worked by myself. I washed a lot of dishes during busy lunch and dinner hours. That job demanded enough physical labor and intensity that it solved both my mercurial states and absorbed the deepest depths of depression.

Meanwhile, I was in and out of relationships, acting in ways that today would be considered risky and dangerous. But there were enough women. I acted out against my prudish, overly chaste, and guilt-ridden upbringing when it came to sex and relationships. In addition to being available in general, I was an eccentric, long-haired, exotic that some women took to. I tried to build lasting relationships, but these were often contrived or unsatisfying. Others could not stand the strains of emotional volatility and excessive drunkenness.

Then, I went to work for a liquor retailer. In many ways, it was a dream job. My drinking bill went down. I drank better beer and hard spirits. I stole a lot, likely thousands of dollars of wine, liquor, and beer. A lot of the job was stocking shelves, taking exhaustive inventories, and standing around waiting for customers. During depressions, I compensated by walking the three miles to work and back. Such walking also bled off the more manic upturns.

This job led to work with a wines and spirits wholesaler, a dirty, hard, sometimes tedious job of loading and unloading trucks, filling smaller orders for stores that did not buy by the case, and stocking shelves with forklifts and by hand. It was a dim time. I filled in for the company’s salesmen when they went on vacation, as I was “in training” for a sales position.

At the time I was living in a basement apartment of two rooms. It was a dingy place.

I have written here many times how the length of the day in spring bring me to indescribable depths. It turns out that spring is when many manic depressives commit suicide.

I get it. In March several years ago, I contemplated suicide and even started the work of figuring out how to hang myself so that my son wouldn’t be the first to find me. I had not had a period of flightiness. I fretted over the impending death of a friend. Thrown into the darkness, ironically, just when the days were getting longer, I found no way out of the crushing feelings of worthlessness, fatigue, and guilt. I obsessed about death. Thoughts of suicide seemed logical until my son called to me in the basement—where I was looking for a length of rope—from the living room.

After ten years of medication for depression, I went to the mental hospital, where a doctor held intensive and long discussions with me about my history. He recognized the symptoms of manic depression and prescribed me a drug that works on dopamine rather than serotonin receptors. He also prescribed an anti-convulsant that acts as a mood stabilizer. With this duo, I leveled out.

Since the hospital visit, thoughts of suicide have not recurred. I have had “breakthrough” bouts of depression and periods of mania. I have taken on projects as I had habituated myself to diminish the mania and depression. Fortunately, my present round of medication has kept me on the level for going on three years.

I look back and see that in taking on new projects, beginning new routines of physical labor and exercise worked for me. Something innate forced me outward. This didn’t mean that I became more social. I withdrew from people and personal relationships. Instead, I indulged in solitary endeavors that kept absorbed the mania and depression and allowed me to say to myself, “At least I did something.”

Let me give you an idea of some things I did in the grips of mania and depression. These are just highlights, there are many, many more:

  • I planned one spring to walk to Montana and canoe back home on the Missouri River. This set off a period of intense work, both at the job and at home. I worked all the overtime I could for the next year in an effort to save for the five months I thought the trip would take. I queried 104 magazines and newspapers to find a place for the articles I proposed to write from the road. I solicited canoe makers, outdoors and sporting goods companies, and makers of hiking boots. My effort was to lower the cost of the trip as much as I could. It was all successful. Often during this year, I experienced mania bordering on psychosis. Suicidal depression plagued me. Fortunately, my job was physical enough to keep me from going over the edge, and I actually worked two jobs at the hotel that employed me. Sometimes I worked 80 or 90 hours a week.
  • The following spring, I headed out the door. On the road, I experienced both mania and depression. Fortunately, walking 20-30 miles a day with a backpack kept my head level. I walked out mania to the point of exhaustion, making 35 miles one day and several other 30-mile days. The road wouldn’t accommodate a depressive in the throes of his malady. I had to buck up. I spent a lot of time sleepless and operating on autopilot. On the river, I had to paddle. Evenings I might slip into suicidal thoughts, but the fatigue of the day kept me from thinking too hard.
  • On a manic tear, I decided I would terrace the back yard. I did it with a mattock, a shovel, a wheel barrow, and 22 tons of stone. I moved earth. I hauled stone, stacked it into walls, and produced a living space out of what was a rocky hill. Mania works well in this situation. The energy produced something visual. I could see the yard transform in front of me. The work of hauling rock and dirt absorbed the deep lows I experienced. The project absorbed a year of highs and bone-crushing depression.
  • One spring depression, I took up photography. I made my own pinhole cameras, bought photo paper, and assembled chemicals. I learned in three short months the basics of photography and negative development. I took hundreds of pictures, two and three at a time. The physics of the pinhole camera and working with negatives on photographic paper slowed the process. I sunk into the details and attentions that such photography demanded. Low or high, photography soothed my inner perturbations and produced beautiful results.
  • On a manic flight, I enrolled in Ph.D. work. The intense study, writing, and reading absorbed the worst of highs and lows. At the same time, terracing the yard helped me cope with feelings of inadequacy and the tedium academics, as people, produce.
  • I was feeling low in the spring 2006. A couple friends of mine who were in political office asked if I would run for office myself. Looking to make a life change, I took on the immense work of campaigning, hand shaking, and fundraising. I didn’t win but I learned a lot and for seven months escaped the worst of mania and depression.
  • I took up beekeeping when down one spring.
  • I built my dining room table in a depressive fit.
  • My walls are hung with my abstract painting. None of it’s very good, but it fits with the house décor.

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