Sunday, November 29, 2009

Knowledge is Necessity - Eleven Months and Five Days On

Why wait till my first anniversary? Eleven months and five days ago, I posted my first "Knowledge is Necessity" piece. Like any new venture, my new blog posed a new set of challenges and adventures.

To flashback several years, in Oct 2005 I started blogging as an "expert patient" for HealthCentral's BipolarConnect. I thought I would be lucky if the experiment lasted six months. For one, blogs are supposed to be a lot more personal and immediate, and I was wholly unenthused about exposing elements of my private life to reader scrutiny and judgment.

For another, I was a serious journalist dedicated to informing readers on just about every facet of depression and bipolar disorder. I accomplished this via a website and an email newsletter, with a book due to be published in another year. In my estimation, blogs were frivolous and shallow, and I was unimpressed to the power of ten by the narcissistic ramblings I had sampled.

To my surprise, HealthCentral did not fire me. My turning point came about two months into the enterprise when one day I bought a toaster that was better looking than my friend’s $90,000 Porsche. Why don’t I write about that? A toaster blog. A few months later, I got serious with an account of myself reporting for jury duty. I didn't want to use my illness as an excuse, but then we were told the trial would go at least five weeks. As I reported on BipolarConnect:

Five weeks! Five weeks of adhering to a rigid schedule dictated by others, of sitting in a room with no natural light, not able to stretch, walk, take a breather. Five weeks of sitting, just sitting.

Just sitting – the easiest task in the world for most of the population. But try doing it with my brain. There in the back of the courtroom, surrounded by other would-be jurors, I wanted to bury my face in my hands and cry. I wasn’t like the others in the room. For them five weeks of fulfilling one’s civic duty was a major inconvenience and perhaps a personal hardship. Nothing more. For me, it was life-threatening. A melt-down was a virtual certainty. ...

Finally, I comprehended the power of the blog medium. In certain situations, my personal life could serve as an educational tool in bringing home to readers the reality of an illness many of us share. In others - such as attending mental health conferences - I reported on events as seen "through my eyes," which gave me a new way to explain complex topics to those interested in learning more.

But there is a tremendous downside. Anytime you put your personal life out there, you expose yourself to personal attack. One comically dangerous individual designated herself my self-improvement police woman, to the point of cyber-stalking me. A notorious antipsychiatry blogger routinely spread libel about my personal life, then allowed the nutjobs he pandered to make up ridiculous lies and ideate physical violence against me.

Fortunately, the positive feedback far outweighed the negative. My blog was serving a useful purpose, and my writing was expanding in new and unexpected directions. Nevertheless, by late last year, it was time to take stock. Like Arthur Conan Doyle throwing Sherlock Holmes off a cliff, I killed my BipolarConnect blog in favor of concentrating on responding to reader questions there.

A few months later, the people at BipolarConnect urged me - like Conan Doyle bringing back Holmes from the dead - to revive my blog. This time, I retooled it as the voice of visitors to the site, an extension to answering reader questions. My personality was out of the picture, altogether, thank heaven.

But I couldn't leave well enough alone. As a hedge against the uncertainties of late last year, I began this blog. Over the years, it had started coming in loud and clear that our illness is only a small part of defining who we are and what is holding us back. What about the rest of it and how do we figure it out? That is the task of brutal self-inquiry, of knowing thyself.

Suddenly, I had a theme for a new blog, ironically based on an old tag line, "Knowledge is Necessity." Now my reach was a lot wider, almost infinite. Anything that shed light on the human condition and how we could cope: Brain science, philosophy, spirituality, psychiatry, psychology, economics, on and on. Other mental illnesses, which illuminated how we behave, even if we don't have a diagnosis: schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, OCD, Aspergers ...

And, of course, my personal life. I began noticing my life story had a different twist - how my encounters in my relatively new rural environment were playing a role in my own recovery and healing. Quiet moments in the sun, nightly encounters with raccoons and skunks.

Meanwhile, I discovered Therese Borchard of Beyond Blue, who quickly became my favorite blogger. She is a master of combining her own personal life with wisdom from numerous sources. Under her encouragement, I became less reticent in using my personal life as an educational tool. A fast friendship developed. Thanks to her, I saw the makings of a new book, based on my blogging. I even have a working title:

"Raccoons Respect My Piss, But Watch Out For Skunks."

No doubt, a publisher will change it to something like: "You, Too, Can Be Happy."

A couple of weeks ago, I walked into an LA bookstore with my good friend Louise. We have known each other since the early days of my Newsletter, back when I concentrated on serious reporting about my illness. I pointed out to her my observations about the store's Psychology section. There was very little shelf-space devoted to specific mental illnesses. One copy of David Miklowitz's "The Bipolar Disorder Survival Guide" was on the shelf. My copy of "Living Well with Depression and Bipolar Disorder" - the culmination of six years of my hard journalism Newsletter and Website efforts - wasn't.

Instead, what I noticed was an odd and seemingly contradictory combination of heavy duty brain science books and the type of light fluff self-help books Oprah might recommend. This was the direction reader preferences are going, I recall pointing out to Louise. It's as if we have all moved past thinking of ourselves in terms of diagnostic labels, not to mention the treatments that never lived up to their promise.

What is a lot more relevant, we are discovering, is finding out what is really going on inside our brains and how this relates to whatever life seems to throw our way. In that way, we can hopefully move from surviving to thriving.

My writing was going in this direction before "Knowledge is Necessity," but it took off with this blog.

Now is the time of the year when I take stock and plan for the year ahead. "Living Well With Depression and Bipolar Disorder" represents the past, "Raccoons Respect My Piss" the future. But do I keep "Knowledge is Necessity" - my "soft" journalism - going at the expense of my hard journalism email Newsletter, which I have put on hold for the last two years?

Or can I find a way to keep both going, with no sacrifice to my own health? A one-year anniversary coming up is usually the time for self-congratulation. But I don't have the luxury for that. This blog has certainly moved my writing forward. But where next?

Decisions, decisions ...


Anonymous said...

I enjoy you staying true to yourself in your blog. I don't have to worry about you trying to illude sympathy donations to your site due to the death of a cat like a certain other blogger.

Lori~ said...

John, I am commenting but fearing that I will sound...discombobulated! I am in a crash, after letting myself or my ACC, as you say, light up like a Christmas tree as you so eloquently put it.

When I read your blog some of it makes sense, but I have to fight the fog, it's frustrating, frustrating as hell. I've been here before...and will probably/unfortunately be here again.

All I really want to say at this point is through all of this crap. I look to you, because you are REAL. You let us know when you are fighting Fred, you try engaging in healthy balancing lifestyle practices, you keep us up-to-date on brain science, psychiatry and psychology.

The bottom line is John, I TRUST you. That is sometimes hard to do, being all that I (and so many of us) have gone through. So what ever your decisions may be, take good care of yourself first and know that whatever is good for you is good for us and if you allow us as part of your journey, we benefit and are the better for it.

You give us courage, inspire us and teach us many thing that we would not otherwise have the opportunity or gumption to learn.

John McManamy said...

Many thanks, Lori. I very much appreciate your kind words and support. All the best to you -