remember when?

Just a few things I have done during manic episodes:

  • Picked up a 5-gallon bucket and started beating it with a baseball bat until the bucket was in tiny pieces scattered across the lawn.
  • Slapped myself across the face and punched myself until I was sore and bruised all over.
  • Surprised my co-workers by taking a half-used can of whipped cream and spraying the contents directly into my mouth, in full view of management.
  • Tore apart several computers and worked on them all night just before the family returned home to find parts all over the house.
  • Bought a drum kit.
  • Drove to the beach and started screaming at the waves, sincerely hoping one of them would drag me out to sea.
  • Stayed up all night cracking the password to my wife’s computer, then going through her files and blog posts.
  • Bought a girl a bra for a birthday present, then actually gave it to her.
  • Urinated off a tall bridge into a lake.
  • Shouted obscenities at an inappropriate moment during a band performance.
  • Drove over 110 mph in the Blue Bomber (my old Chevy Impala).
  • Almost drove in front of a truck with suicidal intent.

I love these trips down manic memory lane. I’ve done some pretty stupid things over the years, and I know I was manic at the time, but hey, no excuses. The times I feel guilty about are where I could have hurt someone else.

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e-mails to never send

Thanks to the Internet, we now have the ability to harass people from our distant past. I searched for the Old Bitch’s daughter on Google, and in about 2 minutes I had her full name, date of birth, address, phone number, and e-mail, plus husband and kids’ names to confirm it was her. Turns out she is in her 70s, and she hasn’t moved from the house where I visited her many years ago.

Anyway, I’m in a dark sentimental mood today, and I wondered what it would be like to write her a little note asking a few questions. It might go something like this:

Hey Wanda,

I’ll bet you remember me, I was the little kid that A-mom adopted way back then when she lived with your mother. Boy, your mother sure fucked up my mother and I. Why did you let her live with us in Treetown while you escaped to the Bay Area? Did you think it was okay to let someone else deal with your aging, mentally ill mother while allowing us to visit for a few days once in a while? You and your sisters wanted nothing to do with her, while A-mom served her and endured her abuse and bullying day and night for 20 years. Your mother needed a care home, and instead she got two people who were not equipped to deal with her illness. When you finally allowed your mother to come live with you, she left behind two people who were barely able to function for themselves and who were emotionally damaged to the breaking point.

I don’t blame you for what your mother did to A-mom and I, but I would like some answers why you thought it was okay to allow us to care for her instead of you and your sisters taking care of her. I would like you to acknowledge that you knew the situation we lived in was messed up, you did nothing to help, and you took advantage of us.

Sincerely,
Fishrobber

Funny thing is, back in 1994 maybe, my wife and I were going to a football game in San Francisco, and on a whim I decided to drive past Wanda’s house. I had not been to the house in 14 years by this time, and of course I had never driven there, but I knew the streets and the landmarks well enough from memorizing maps as a kid. To my wife’s surprise, without backtracking or u-turns, I drove directly to their house. Wanda wasn’t home, but her husband was in front of the house, washing their old pickup truck, so I stopped and talked to him for a few minutes. As an outside observer, he agreed with me that “the situation there was pretty messed up” (his words exactly), and he wished Wanda were home so we could talk. I had to get going though, so I thanked him and we drove off. I guess what I got from her husband will have to be good enough.

all about beth

I was having a crappy time as a brand-new adult, and college life in Reno was not treating me very well. I was in the middle of a deep depressive spiral, as usual saved only by music. Then Beth arrived in my life, and things changed dramatically. Unfortunately, Beth was in the wrong place at the wrong time, because my bipolar was causing collateral damage before I even knew what it was.

Beth was one of those strange people who seem to be a hundred years old in the body of a young person. Some people call that an “old soul”, and maybe she just kept her experiences from a previous life. Apparently she inherited a little bit of crazy from her mom, but I didn’t see it at the time. She had ruffled brown hair bleached almost blond from surfing in Santa Cruz for the past few years, and a laid-back personality formed by the sun and waves. She had lived with a guy previously, but they broke up when she came back to live with her mom. She was mysterious, carefree, and easy to like. I was instantly attracted to her.

A girl from my high school also went to school in Reno, and she lived in my dorm building. We weren’t close friends, but she invited me out with her and her roommate Beth. We went out as a group of 6 people, but very quickly it became a 4+2 scene. Beth and I talked to each other most of the evening and basically ignored the others. We laughed, we flirted, we played keno at Denny’s. I have no idea what we talked about, but even with my bad luck and lack of experience with females, I could tell we liked each other. We ended up crammed together in the back seat of someone’s little deathtrap car, and at one point we just started holding hands. I looked at her fingers laced in mine, then looked at her face; we both shrugged and laughed a little and decided to go with it. When the night ended and we got back to our building, she gave me a quick kiss and a promise to see me again soon.

Finding a new girlfriend is a great way to beat depression.

She was the first girl I ever had sex with; I knew she was experienced, and she knew I was not. In the minutes after losing my virginity, she found a shirt in her closet and casually cleaned herself with it. While doing so, she told me a strange story about a Central American tribal custom. When a couple first has sex, the woman keeps the rag that was used to clean the man’s sperm. If he mistreats her or breaks his promises to her, she can have vengeance by burning the rag; the custom says that the man’s testicles will shrivel and become useless for the rest of his life. “I’m keeping this shirt,” she said somewhat seriously, and that was my first inkling that she might be a little bit crazy.

I didn’t know that I would be the crazy one who blew up everything.

We had fun for a few weeks. We spent lots of time together, as much as conflicting schedules would allow. We didn’t have any specific plans, we were just young people enjoying a new relationship. But in the meantime I wasn’t sleeping, my grades were tanking, I was extremely stressed, and I didn’t realize I was heading toward a manic episode.

I don’t remember exactly how it happened, but I now know I was in that dysphoric mania I have become familiar with over the years. I was freaking out about something, and Beth knew there was something wrong with me. I remember we were arguing, although I can’t recall why; I know there was this sudden, desperate urge to run away. She was crying, asking me to stay and talk things out, but I was telling her some stupid reason why I needed to go. Finally I just turned and went down the stairs and out the door to the parking lot. As I got in the car, I could see Beth sitting on the fourth floor stairs, watching me through the window, and I hesitated for a moment.

I still wish I could have that moment back, a moment where I wondered if she was right and I was fucking crazy, a moment where I briefly thought about going back to her and letting her help me, a moment when I could have stopped repressing feelings for once and be genuine with someone. But I wasn’t mature enough yet. I wasn’t ready.

I started the car and drove away.

My instinct was to head for the mountains, as usual, the place I felt most at home. Escaping the desert and reaching the forest, I headed for the highest point on the old highway. I was still upset and out of control when I parked at the top of Donner Pass and wandered through the granite boulders and silvery evergreens. I kept walking without a destination, climbing up ledges and struggling to maintain my footing on the rocky landscape. Running out of breath and energy by this time, I found a large flat boulder and just sat there in the moonlight. I was home, in the trees and rocks and stars, and I could just lay back and let the calm return to my hyperactive brain. I stayed for a couple of hours before I started to get cold. I don’t know how I found my way in the dark, and I blew out my flip-flops on the way, but somehow I made it back to the car without falling off a cliff or being ravaged by a hungry bear.

By this time the manic energy had passed, and as I drove back into town I felt like crap about what I had done. I knew I had been stupid and immature, and I had really fucked things up as usual. I wanted to apologize and try to put things back together. Now I understand that I was scared to let someone new get that close to me, that I was afraid of being hurt, and that I sabotaged everything because I felt like I had to push her away so she could earn my trust by coming back. In hindsight, I know how fucked-up that logic was, but at the time I simply wanted to fix what I had undone.

The next day when I knocked on her door, Beth’s roommate told me she had gone for a few days without really explaining why, so I left a note for her. On the fourth day, Beth answered the door, and she pointed me toward the stairs. She stared at me with the saddest look. How do you think that made me feel, she asked. She said she needed time away from me to figure out her feelings, and she would let me know. I saw her again three days later when I showed up in front of her classroom. We talked only a couple of minutes and hugged, but I knew there was no going back to what we had.

I never saw Beth again.

There was a note under my door a few days later. It turned out she was making bigger decisions than just the fate of our relationship. She was failing a couple of classes, and instead of staying she decided to move back to Santa Cruz. She said it wasn’t my fault, but I made her decision much easier. She might have loved me, and she might have stayed for me, but she didn’t feel like she could trust me. At the time, she was probably right.

the biggest little man-child

It was my first semester of college in Reno, and I was very depressed. That is not surprising of course, but this was a particularly nasty episode before I even knew bipolar existed. Nothing I was doing was working out very well, except for being in the marching band. All my band experiences were good; everything else sucked.

My old friends from Goldville didn’t seem to miss me, whether I drove back to visit or wrote letters that no one answered. My racist roommate got me into trouble by flying a Confederate Flag in the dorm window, and I was too stupid to know it would offend anyone, such as the offensive line of the football team. I had to play “wingman” for a friend who nailed his girlfriend while I was left to babysit her dumb-as-a-stump friend. I couldn’t get a job delivering pizza because my auto insurance wouldn’t cover it. I got food poisoning while eating at the campus dining commons, and I was down for three days with gastrointestinal distress. I got a parking ticket for being in the preferred lot, and when I didn’t move the car after 24 hours, I got another ticket and “The Boot”, the device that immobilizes your car.

More importantly, I was struggling in multiple classes, which had never happened before. I was a fucking genius in high school, but it was so easy that I never learned any study habits. I never learned how to work for good grades, and I found I couldn’t do everything at the last second and expect to be successful in college-level classes. My presentation and organizational skills sucked. Believe it or not, I was trying to write papers with a manual typewriter. I was banished from my dorm room for banging away on a Royal late into the night, and someone mercifully let me borrow an electric typewriter until I could find one to buy for cheap.

I discovered I wasn’t the big fish I thought I was. There were a lot of smart people all around me, and while I knew I didn’t suddenly turn stupid, I realized that I wasn’t anything special in the bigger world. Goldville was a small pond I outgrew, but college was the ocean in comparison. I had two girls from my high school who also came to Reno, and they seemed to be doing okay, but I wasn’t. My ego took a big hit that first semester.

At this point, my college career was starting off with a thud, my shiny new proto-adult life was a mess, and I was depressed as hell. Yes, I was dealing with bipolar mood swings that I didn’t know existed, and emotional depression from a fucked-up childhood, but no excuses.

Then a girl arrived in my life, and things changed dramatically.

fledgling

A-mom drove to Reno, following me over the mountains as I was about to start college. Boxes had been carried, small talk finished, and it was time for her to head home alone. It was my first time living away from home, and she was predictably emotional. She was not ready for me to leave home, and I’m sure there were some leftover feelings of abandonment, the jealousy of one survivor over the other’s departure. Maybe some of the tears were brought on by my lack of reaction. I had prepared myself for this, rehearsing how to respond and reduce the amount of histrionics to a minimum. More than that, I had prepared myself to not feel the same sense of separation. I blocked those feelings out, forcing myself to move onward despite any silly emotions I may have had about leaving home. When it was time to say good-byes in the parking lot of Nye Hall, A-mom struggled to accept the new state of things, but I had already neatly wrapped up those feelings and packed them in the mental attic.

In my mind, I had already said goodbye to her, to home, to a chapter of life. Little did I know that this next chapter would be eventful but short, and I would be returning home sooner than expected.

cheerleader

All parents are cheerleaders for their kids to a certain extent, but my A-mom was the whole squad. As I got older it became somewhat embarrassing when she would tell people how smart I was, or how good a singer or musician I was, or how skilled at baseball I was. Even if I was proven to not be the best in some of those categories, she would stubbornly hold on to the belief that I was better than anyone else. She would complain to the coach when I didn’t get enough playing time, and she would tell the choir director that I deserved a solo when I really didn’t. I was her precious genius with superpowers, and she mollycoddled me to the point of smothering.

Despite her being a cheerleader for me to the rest of the world, she never seemed to encourage me very much at home. She never sat down and said “you can make it through college, you’re smart enough.” I felt like my motivation to succeed at my education came from myself, partly to escape poverty and avoid being white trash, and partly to prove wrong the people who told me I wouldn’t amount to anything.

I wonder if she didn’t feel like she could help me anymore once we escaped the abuse in Treetown. Maybe she felt like I was grown up at that point, which was far from the truth. I wish I had had someone to help me through the transition from high school to college, but the reality is I did it all by myself. I don’t think she wanted me to leave home, and she was secretly happy when my first attempt at freedom failed and I moved back home.

I don’t want to be unfair to her. We were poor, and we didn’t the financial opportunity to take advantage of special tutoring or coaching or music lessons. In addition, we were recovering from years of abuse at the hands of the Old Bitch, and we were both still in a raw emotional state, trying to figure out how to live a normal life. We needed therapy more than we needed music lessons, but we had the mistaken belief that Jesus would help us more than psychiatrists.

what stress?

I had a very stressful year in 1991. I was 21, and working my way through college, when this happened. I:

– broke up with the not-quite-girlfriend
– met a new girl, my future wife
– lost my b-mom to pneumonia
– sold a house and part of a business
– finished the semester at college
– bought a car
– moved to a new rental
– rented out my old house
– got married
– sold 2 cars
– moved again
– transferred to a new college
– got a new job
– lost my dog, then found him again.

Sometime in 1992, I saw a magazine article telling me I needed to reduce stress, and there was a scorecard to tell me if there was stress in my life. Almost every event that had happened in the past year was on the scorecard, and the result suggested that I should be in therapy. Imagine that.

bowling for katy

A short story about teenage drama.

Junior year at Goldville High School, 1987: I had a huge crush for three years running on Katy, a clarinet player who wore too much makeup. One time I tried to show her how much I liked her by giving her a frog leg. From biology class. Left in her locker on top of a book. Oh, the screaming.

Anyway, one day she sidles over to me with a twinkle in her eye, and I’m feeling lucky. She gives me a folded note and says “open it later”, and keeps walking. Of course, I open it immediately. “Our church is having an all-night bowling party Saturday. Would you like to go? ___Y ___N ___ I’m indecisive.”

YES! A church thing is almost like a date, right? An hour later I drop my answer in her clarinet case. “I guess so … are you going?” She turns around and gives me a look and a smile, as I peek over my music stand at her.

Saturday evening: I arrive at her church and scan the parking lot. I see another girl from the band, Tina, and we start talking. I told her why I was there, but she looked dubious. “I really don’t think this is a date,” she said. Moments later, Katy walked up and gave me a little punch on the chest, and we talked for a few minutes. Not a bad start, I’m thinking.

Another moment later, this sassy dude with spiky hair ambles over … and starts sucking face with Katy.

I’m stunned, and Tina is beside me trying to control spasms of laughter. After Katy pulls her tongue out of this dickhead’s tonsils, she says “hey Rob, this is my boyfriend Lee.” Clearly, this would have been good information previously, but it was now useless. Lee and I look at each other and give the typical male “whassup?” as I reluctantly shake his extended hand. Tina is now pretending to cough to cover her laughing, and I am uncomfortably stuck in an awkward situation until the chaperones tell us to get on the church bus.

Tina and I sat together, leaving Katy and Lee to swap fluids several rows back. Tina and I ended up spending the rest of the evening hanging out together, chatting in between bowling very poorly. On the bus ride back, Tina leaned over on me and went to sleep, but not before warning me not to try any “funny stuff”. I promised, and we slept for a little while. As the sun rose, I realized I had lost a potential girlfriend but gained a new friend. Not a bad night.

Of course my other friends had a good laugh, but it all worked out for the best. Years later I find out on Fakebook that Katy became an ultra-religious conservative and attended a racist bible college.

signs of bipolar

I had symptoms of bipolar disorder as far back as maybe 11 years old. Even at that time, I knew something was wrong with me. I definitely had depression, long periods where I would be in a crappy mood all the time and I wanted to isolate myself from people. During high school I had deep recurring depressive episodes that grew worse.

On the other hand, I realized I could anticipate when a hypomanic episode was on the way; I almost felt like I could hear it coming in the distance, and I knew it would cause me problems. I called it a “dangerous mood”, and it was during those times that I said and did stupid and hurtful things without regard for consequences or safety. I also developed a lot of obsessive thinking and rumination during that time. While that is not necessarily a symptom of bipolar, it was another facet to my struggle with undiagnosed mental illness.

My symptoms became worse as I moved into my 30s. When I was mistakenly diagnosed as having unipolar depression, I believe taking the anti-depressants made things even worse. Soon thereafter I went into the hospital, but the roller-coaster ride continues to this day.

image credit: kurumi.com

stairway to heaven

Another memory of Lisa from my senior year.

Normally I would hang out near the band room (I was such a band geek), but near the end of high school I was getting tired of that scene. I needed a change, I needed to expand my horizons a little. I was relatively happy the last half of that year, looking forward to a future away from Goldville. I had a few good friends, I was doing well in school, and I was feeling adventurous socially.

One spring day Lisa dragged me out of the band room, and we spent the majority of lunch sitting in the quad, typically the hangout of the “in crowd” and very much the social focal point. Normally I avoided this place, but on this day the grass was a little greener, the April sun warming me inside and out, and I was encouraged rather than unnerved by the sound of people laughing and chatting. I ate a thick chocolate milkshake with M&Ms, the candy freezing hard, crunching in my mouth. We joked, we watched people, we talked about whatever.

The library aide had rolled out a stereo system and big speakers, typical for springtime. Led Zeppelin IV was playing. It was the first time I had really listened to the song Stairway to Heaven. I felt every note. I was very quiet, taking it all in, seeing what I had missed out on during my self-imposed exile from the rest of the world, saving the memory like a video in my brain. Lisa looked over and asked me if I was okay – I must have drifted off into my mindscape again.

Yeah, I was good. I had my best friend, I wasn’t nervous, and I felt the music. I felt alive.