Sunday, September 20, 2009


“He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."

I love that passage from Revelation, which in turn is derivative of Isaiah. Healing is an ancient and universal yearning. Instinctively, we just know: There is something better out there. Being stuck in our own shit just doesn’t cut it.

But we still persist. "Ah sinful nation," the prophet Isaiah thundered, "a people laden with iniquity, a seed of evildoers, children that are corrupters: they have forsaken the Lord ... "

Last thing you want if you happen to be a character in the Bible is for God to get mad. Bad things always happen. Wake up! Isaiah kept telling his people. But no one listened. Now all hell was about to break loose.

“O Assyrian,” proclaimed the Lord through Isaiah, “the rod of mine anger, and the staff in their hand is mine indignation.”

I can’t help but wonder. With Sargon and his vast legions dropping in on Israel and fast-track rezoning the countryside and otherwise vindicating Isaiah, were the Israelites still stuck in their own shit? Were they still not getting it? What’s wrong with our shit? Is that what they were thinking?

Obviously, the Israelites had lost sight, lost their way, and ultimately God’s favor. Why couldn’t they have listened?

It turns out change is not so easy. Over a period of seven years, I attended various depression/bipolar support groups. For three years, I ran a DBSA group in Princeton, NJ. I’m a huge fan of DBSA, but what sticks out most in my mind is the number of people I came across who were "stuck" in their recovery.

These were people who had had satisfactory results with their meds and tended to be fairly adept in managing their illness. But they couldn’t see their way to satisfying lives. Meaningful work, loving relationships, and friendships were all problematic. Moreover, they displayed a distinct lack of ease with themselves.

So, what were they doing wrong? Loaded question, as we are assigning blame, but in a blog I write for HealthCentral, I asked it anyway. One of my readers, “Kate,” who had attended a co-dependency support group, responded:

“I went for about 8 weeks. At first I was like, "Wow! This is so great!" but after the 6th or 7th week it seemed like the same people showed up, made the same complaints, took all the blame, used the same buzzwords ... and never took any steps towards recovery.”

Wow! Did this ever strike a chord.

I vividly recall one DBSA meeting I facilitated. After our initial check-in, we broke into two smaller groups. Eight or ten of us were seated around a table. “William,” a highly personable young man, had recently started a job as a salesperson at a car dealership. As a result of his illness, he was heavily in debt, which placed a huge personal hardship on him and his wife. Moreover, his illness posed a major daily challenge.

But I knew William well enough to know what success on the job would do to his self-esteem and sense of self-worth. I also knew that if he could make it selling cars, he could make it in sales. And if he could make it in sales, then he could write his own ticket.

But I also knew that if he pushed too hard against his illness, his illness would push back. He knew that, too.

Three well-meaning women urged him to quit his job. They trotted out the standard advice that stress on the job can trigger a mood episode.

So, also, can the stress of having no money and feeling worthless, I wanted to counter. I was the only one in the room who presented William with the option of hanging on - of entertaining the hope that the situation at work could improve.

The chorus of quitters virtually drowned me out. I wanted to smash a shoe on the table and shout that only people with jobs or who owned businesses (or retired from such) were allowed to talk. Yes, quitting was an option (and it later turned out to be the correct one), but the first option?

You just quit and retreat into your miserable half-life and then spend the rest of your time on earth blaming your illness? Sorry, I don’t get it. And what I really find reprehensible is whiners and complainers wishing their horrible fates on others.

I’ve lost more years to my illness and various personality issues than I can count. Trust me, one day in that kind of walking coma is an eternity too long. When you’re in it, it’s virtually impossible to see your way out of it. Perversely, the psyche responds by finding comfort in this state of suspended animation. The brain adapts and then locks in. The abnormal becomes normal. Fear sets in. You doubt everything about yourself.

There is something better out there - it just doesn’t register. We yearn for a healing - to embrace and have that embrace returned - but instead we curl into a defensive fetal ball and block out the world.

Stuck in our own shit.

The Israelites could not imagine a life different than the ones they had, a life in the favor of their Lord. They were told they had to change, but we know change is hard. They knew there would be all hell to pay, but who likes to think about all that?

So, imagine, you’re one of those doomed Israelites, standing on a rocky promontory, gazing out at the cloud of dust on the horizon representing Sargon and his chariots of doom. What are you thinking? Oh, shit, my daughter is about to be raped and sold into slavery? Or, despite all indications to the contrary, that life will go on as usual, that you can plan for your daughter’s marriage?

Ten Lost Tribes of Israel? They were lost long before Sargon came to finish the job. The Exodus of Moses and triumphs of Joshua were but distant tribal memories. In the intervening years, the Israelites had intermarried with the locals, embraced Canaanite deities and customs, and had forgotten how to be Jews.

Lost in their own land - we all know the feeling.


Jen C said...

John, this is great. Love it. This is the perfect example.
It connects with me in two ways: dealing with bipolar and dealing with stuck churches. Both get caught up in the immediate and forget the important.
Thanks for your blog too. It's the only bipolar resource I check every day. Thank you.
Oh, and can you tell Elizabeth she does a great job too? Thanks!

Lucy Talikwa said...

It’s sounds like your shoe-smashing urge was a bit like Isaiah – or would that have been Khrushchev? I’d have been hurling shoes and socks right and left.

When there’s all hell to pay, it’s best to stand strong and just pay it, cause you’ll have to pay it anyway -- and if we’re BP disordered, we’ve probably made a lot of hell for others and ourselves. As for being “stuck” in recovery: it unfortunately happens even to resolute, creative non-whiner types who are horrified (horrified!) to find themselves in tears going forwards and backwards on the slippery shit-slope of The Abyss. Just a personal observation. Thank God for therapist-prophets and good manna-meds.

A Visitor said...

Another chord striker, John.

Just quoting ... Satisfactory results with medication. Adept at managing the illness. But stuck in recovery. Meaningful work, loving relationships, and friendships all problematic. And ... displaying a distinct lack of ease with oneself.

The last sentence jumped out at me. Are they drinkers? Do they struggle with some form of substance abuse in their lives? Bipolar and drugs and alcohol problems run together in something like a quarter to a half of all people diagnosed. You usually don't see people drunk at DBSA groups, but you could spot the consequences of a drinking or drug problem for someone at meetings, and you describe them to a T --- you're stuck.

You might as well toss in the possibility of personality disorder as well. You're describing some of the traits of borderline pretty well, too, and it's not uncommon to run together with bipolar, either. Hey, some even get the trifecta.

Now Kate mentioned, "... the same people showed up, made the same complaints, took all the blame, used the same buzzwords ... and never took any steps towards recovery.

Sounds very much like some twelve step groups I've known.

I've actually got a doctor on my case now about going on disability. We'll see. I'm in no hurry.

Lucy Talikwa said...

I also want to go back to this topic. I've been thinking about it a lot today and asked myself on the way to session what are the goals of my own recovery NOW. Like an addict, recovery is never ending. Goals shift as "recovery" progresses from plane to plane. The goals I had the day I was released from the psych ward post diagnosis were very different from those now. So this article made me want to reassess what my next recovery goals are within my particular set of life circumstances. My therapist and I talked about this today and will continue next session. Thanks for the reminder on this issue. That doesn't mean I won't get stuck in the shit again, but I have to keep fighting the mood battle, and listening to the prophets within and without.

Wendy Love said...

What a fascinating post. I can't even imagine what kind of thinking got you from the beginning to the end, but all of it caught my interest. You made a great point comparing us who are claiming that we are trying to heal, to the Israelites, and it is not a flattering picture. You have a gift for thinking and for writing. Keep up the good work.

herb said...

Hi John,

I wish a belated Happy, Healthy and Prosperous New Year to you and yours and your readership.

Joyce and I just returned home from a wonderful visit with friends in Tucson and I’m catching up on some of my blog readings.

As a former DBSA facilitator I too can easily relate to your experiences and thoughts as well.

Your blog and the positive thoughts you share and that of a number of your readers make this one of the rarer, healthier and better sites for those who suffers serious mood disorders in my opinion as a very, very long time support person and caregiver as well.

Negativism abounds in all forms of news media and throughout the Internet which I’ve come upon so I find it comforting to read of inspiration and positivism from you, your readers and a few others despite yours and their personal challenges.

As always, I wish you and yours and all wellness.


John McManamy said...

Hi, Everyone and many thanks for your comments.

1. Appreciate your kind words, Jen.
2. Definitely a mixture of Isaiah and Krushchev, Lucy. Unfortunately, I couldn't get away with the same behavior at the table. :)
3. Hi, Visitor. Even if it's not borderline, we all have personality issues. And I'm convinced that until we deal with these issues we will remain stuck short of recovery. It's something I will focus on in coming blogs. Alcoholism and drug use also enters into the picture, but the people I meet in support groups with these issues tend to have been clean or sober for quite a long time.
4. Hi, Wendy. I was raised Catholic, but my understanding is that traditionally Jewish teachers "midrash" on scriptural passages, constantly finding new lessons in old stories. It's a very dynamic process that makes scripture current, and I'm hoping on this celebration of the Jewish New Year that I am honoring this tradition.
5. Hey, Herb. A common theme of the Hebrew Scriptures is a people in search of healing. There is a lot of tripping and stumbling along the way, and any healing is at best conditional - which is why I see so many parallels to our situation. I try to keep this blog focused on healing and recovery and self-knowledge. Negativity does no one any good and there is way too much of that elsewhere. Occasionally, I have to call out these nihilists, but not at the expense of taking our eyes off the prize. We all want better lives, and we can all use help from each other.