Finding the Brink at the Edge of a Cliff

The most intense flood of relief I’ve felt in years came when I placed the barrel of a rifle underneath my chin the evening before Election Day.

Finally: no more attempting to hold things together, no more trying and trying and trying to be happy. No more wondering what more I could do if therapy and antidepressants weren’t cutting it, if quitting my job to follow my dreams did as much as playing video games all day in college. Which is to say, nothing. No more anything. I thought I’d succeeded in pushing away anyone who ever cared about me. And if no one cared, then that meant I didn’t need to care anymore either. Finally, was the only word I could think. Finally.

That was, at least, until my wife walked in just after I’d loaded the magazine.

Something was always wrong. I just didn’t know what. No one else did either. Mental illness runs in my family like a hereditary birthright. This was normal. We knew nothing else. And even after years of therapy and medication, I could not imagine anything else. I ran aground time and time again. I was out of ideas as well as energy and hope and just a general will to continue. This past year, horrid for anyone with a soul or at least bills to pay, had thoroughly depleted me. Beyond just the looming sense of doom, the noxious atmosphere hanging over all our heads, it was easily the worst in my own personal hell.

I started and quit a job in two months that I thought was going to last me for decades. I thought I finally grabbed the brass ring. Not so. Quite the opposite was waiting for me. Then the pandemic hit. I didn’t last long after that. My health, physical and mental, quickly started to spiral. My antidepressants were increased twice, but to no avail. So I did the only thing I thought would help and quit on the spot. And for a minute? It did help.

Then the minute passed.

The months that followed were a tidal wave slowly rolling to shore. I was free and clear from that awful job, but what did that mean for the next job? Was it the job, or was it me? Could I work again with my particular cocktail of mental and physical chronic conditions? What did it mean for me if I couldn’t? I’d be dead weight. I was dead weight. If the job killed the engines, then leaving it started the nosedive.

I wouldn’t realize until later that I was caught in the trap of a misdiagnosed mental illness, that I was in freefall and flailing. Looking for anything to hold onto or at least keep the blinders on. And each time I found something? The winds changed. Every therapy appointment was a new solution. Whatever I’d found the week before didn’t fit anymore. Inexplicably. It must be something else, then. Right? Wash, rinse, repeat. Until I got tired of looking around for an answer and in the process drove a lot of the good out of my life, drove a wedge between myself and those who loved me.

I came so close to tying the whole thing off with total blackness. In the days before and after, I thought about the release many times and in great detail. So much detail, in fact, that after learning rifles were not ideal for home defense, as the round can penetrate through walls and injure a neighbor, I started to think about which way I would lay in the bathtub so not only would the mess be minimized but also mine would be the only death. I even tested the sit of the muzzle to be sure I wouldn’t just suffer a brain injury and become a vegetable for someone to take care of. I am profoundly lucky that my wife had not gone to sleep as I thought. Profound luck is the only reason I am still alive. I made it to the next morning and an emergency psychiatry appointment.

And, lo and behold, I was correct. Something was seriously wrong. After taking a deeper look at some of my symptomology I was diagnosed with not just Bipolar Disorder, but Bipolar II Disorder. The condition is notoriously hard to diagnose and worsens over time, leading some experts to declare it the worse of the two varieties. Traditional Bipolar is characterized by the low-low’s of clinical depression and full-blown mania with (sometimes lengthy) spurts of normality in between; but Bipolar II is not so clear-cut.

Again and again I saw the metaphor of a snowball rolling downhill, noticeable only at dangerous proportions. Only my snowball had a little help. Bipolar Depression, already a cause for mood dysregulation and personality disturbances, becomes incensed when unknowingly medicated with an antidepressant. Hypomania goes from simply excessive to dangerous. Mixed episodes increase, and your mood cycling becomes much more volatile and rapid. I became far more aggressive and agitated than happy or excitable. My life had turned into a game of Russian roulette, the gun pointed inward and outward and upward and downward. But now, with my revised diagnosis, I could finally see the gun.

Suddenly all the pieces started to fall into place. I soon realized this had been happening for many years. I never had any throughline or baseline to work from. My interior self operated entirely of its own accord. My emotions (and consequently my feelings toward people) seemingly changed with the wind and without any rhyme or reason. I ran down so many ghosts in life and in therapy, shuttered myself into so many roads forward, that I’d ended up nowhere I wanted to be and with no way to get back.

You see, this illness–undiagnosed or, worse, misdiagnosed–is not unlike being caught in limbo. Nothing is real, everything is changeable, including yourself. You pinwheel through a chaos of emotions and personality disturbances until you’re not you anymore. Put simply, it is hellish. For yourself and everyone around you. You can imagine how much pain and destruction you’ll do to yourself and leave in your wake by following a broken compass. So step one was of course getting a new one.

That reorientation came in the form of a little white pill called Lamictal. The change, while not immediate, has been profound. Each night I log my mood for the day, checking with my wife to be sure I’m not deluding myself. And I can’t believe I’m able to say I haven’t had a bad day, much less a mood swing, in well over two weeks. That hasn’t happened in a long, long time. When I’m happy, I’m just happy. Calm, contented. When I’m down, I’m just down. I can turn away from negative thoughts and hardly ever feel the compulsion to brood.

I haven’t felt this way in over a decade. I finally feel like I have choices now. That I’m not chasing these weird emotional winds that vanish and reappear and blow in different directions, obeying this supposed and secret will of the universe.

But this hasn’t come without a cost. All of this has been really hard to bear. Harder to bear, I think, than if I was anyone else. One thing I’d always been able to hold onto is my durability. That I was a survivor. Because truthfully I’ve survived a lot. I’ve kept climbing whatever mountain this is even when I was too weak to stand. And I really, really thought I’d got high enough to not worry anymore about falling. Until I did. All the way to the bottom. I suppose it’s not surprising. Even the best climber tires out if the summit never gets any closer. But now that I’m at the bottom, free to rest and recuperate, I can see all the paths to the top for the first time. The mists have cleared. I know which way to go now.

So in the end I am glad this happened. I am proud to say this was all for the best. I don’t know where any of this goes from here. Except to say that when you’ve hit your nadir, the only way to go is up. A lot of work remains to be done; but I am hopeful for the first time in many years. Truly hopeful. Not guardedly, not suspiciously or waiting for the other shoe to drop. The other shoe has dropped. And I am still alive. I want to remain alive and to rebuild my life. Put simpler: I ‘want’ again, and not to be dead or forgotten. I have a feeling that nearly succeeding with self-obliteration will have been the best thing to ever happen to me.

~~~

Don’t get as close as I did: get help if you’re thinking about the unthinkable.

Coffee in the End Times

(Illustration by Megan Tatem)

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I want to sound off on something that has only just occurred to me. It involves waking up and smelling the coffee, but literally this time.

When I was a kid–not a kid-kid, mind you, but old enough–the sight of coffee beans and the aroma of brewing caffeine juice inspired something akin to bliss. Maybe it was all those Folgers and Maxwell House commercials, showing all the maddeningly content and happy adults downing their first cup of coffee for the day. Little did I know that age would transmogrify this beverage into an absolute necessity that I would chug down every consecutive day of college and work after that. Even when I experienced the diminishing returns and the rare horrors of the times when another cup actually makes you more tired. As with so many things in childhood, coffee was stripped of its decadence and delectable enjoyment by the travails of wage slavery and assembly line living so common to Americans. You don’t go to the movies or sit down in front of the computer because you’re dying to see X or play Y more often than you’re just trying to evacuate this mortal plane for a while.

Drudgery, I would more aptly put it. Painful, fatiguing drudgery.

Why do I pen this paean to coffee? This ode to the joy of downing a cup of joe? See the above warning concerning pedantry before continuing.

For the first time since I left employment in June of this year, I found myself looking down at the subtly chocolate coffee beans I’d just poured into the grinder with something akin to that love I experienced as a kid. That promise of a contented, joyful morning. I did not have one, mind you. “Akin to” is the operative part of the phrase here. But the experience made me remind myself of all that I had just kind of lost in the intervening years leading up to this one. Made me really bring into a frame of reference all those years of chronic stress and chronic illness. And therein lay another discovery.

Not only was able to experience the morning ritual of a cup of coffee in the way that it used to make me feel, but I was able to consider all that stress and sickness from a point of view that did not make me hate myself or the world for it. I was able to look at it and, in a way, say to myself that I survived. I’m still here. And without the nascent promise that a time would immediately arrive to dispel this idea, as I’ve arrived at this state of being before and been quickly disabused of it by a new crisis.

In short, this morning helped me to understand that I was not going to process through many “bad years” in a few “good months”. That it would take time, so stop worrying over it and getting upset about it. The stop at the next station is still coming, you’re just still on the tracks for the foreseeable future.

But this comes at a cost, one that I may no longer bear, but that others still do in my stead. In all our steads. A painfully few people who are not provided for by trust funds and other means of generational wealth get to experience this thing I’m experiencing, this shedding of years. And it sickens and saddens me. My small bump of happiness that maybe I’ll be alright is subject to the fact that many more others will never get the opportunity to reset and restart, to look forward to tomorrow as anything but another in a long line of struggles. They will grow old, but they will not retire. They will work until their bodies or minds fail them and are cast off into the gutter, replaced by the next rank of obedient workers. I hope this is not our future. It will be a short one if so, ended before its time by the weakening supports beneath a colossal monument to avarice. But in this moment and time, projected forward without alteration, that’s what awaits us. So we better start acting like it.

Join the Democratic Socialists of America. Vote Sanders in the 2020 primary and general. Protest, march, knock on doors, make phone calls, scream, tweet, post, or punch a Nazi. Do whatever you can. Fight for someone you don’t know or someone you do. We’re all in this together, and it’s my hope that when all is said and done, we’ll be enjoying a nice cup of coffee together.