Thursday, November 26, 2009

A Thanksgiving Tribute

This piece, which I wrote nine years ago, is one of the original articles on my website, mcmanweb, which I established in late 2000. The site and its contents have undergone many changes over the years. Today, McManweb contains around 200 articles devoted to all aspects of depression and bipolar, plus videos, and is recognized as one of the most comprehensive resources for learning about either illness. Something to be thankful for ...

It's like a cardiac arrest, only it happens in the brain - something responsible for holding the gray mass together abruptly shifts, there is a sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen, and next thing your head is experiencing the awful sensation of being emptied out. From somewhere inside the power goes down and the body seems to collapse into itself like a marionette being folded into a box. You look for a way out, and what's left of your broken brain does its best to oblige with images of high bridges and frozen ponds and nooses dangling from balconies.

In January 1999 when my family brought me to the emergency room at our local hospital I could never imagine eleven months later that I'd be writing about anything I had to be thankful for, much less paying tribute to this beast inside that sent me there in the first place, the one that goes by two names, both of them woefully inadequate: manic depression and bipolar.

May as well call the thing Fred, as far as I'm concerned.

For most of my life, Fred has been my constant traveling companion, even as I denied his existence and tried so hard to pretend I was a master of my own fate. I'm normal! I kept insisting over and over, much to Fred's quiet amusement.

Twenty-one years ago I was well on the way to proving it. After all those wasted years at the mercy of the very condition I denied having, I landed on my feet in New Zealand. I had successfully completed my second year of law school there, and I was married with a beautiful three-month-old daughter. There had been some other Americans in our birthing classes and we invited them over, together with another Kiwi-Yank couple we knew, to celebrate Thanksgiving. I recall lifting my glass to make a toast, but then words failed me.

We were seated on cushions on the floor with the turkey and all the fixings on a low table. But the stars of the show were the new citizens of planet earth. I looked at the proud parents and their newborns and all the baby paraphernalia they had brought, and simply choked out, "thanks".

Life was beautiful.

Little did I realize in ten years I would find myself in another country, broke and alone and unemployable and in search of a convenient bridge to jump off. I couldn't blame it all on Fred. Besides, Fred has a way of convincing you he doesn't exist.

Boy, you showed them, Fred let me know less a year after that. You're back on your feet again and working on your own terms, not theirs. I had one book out and another on the way. And there was my daughter, now ten, together with my parents, in my apartment to celebrate Christmas. Like a considerate roommate, Fred made himself scarce.

When he showed up again I was back in the States. Think of someone on a high hill lobbing boulders at you, that was Fred. One large stone would hit me on the chest and send me into a crushing depression. Then the next one would come thudding down on me as I lay sprawled on the ground, compounding my despair with a depression on top of a depression.

But I made Fred work hard, damn hard. Several years and an untold number of boulders it took, but finally I went down and didn't get up. After all these years, I finally acknowledged Fred's dominion, not to mention his existence.

So now, at long last, I'm going to give Fred his due. After all, he made me what I am. Whatever our differences, he is responsible for me being me, so to hate Fred would be to hate me. Besides, having Fred around does have its advantages.

It is Fred who painted my brain with amazing visions and insights, and filled my senses with the type of sensations few mortals experience. It is Fred who made it possible to for me to find the sublime in even the most mundane, and it is Fred who cloaked me in a humanity and godliness that I would not exchange for a winning lottery ticket.

So, yes, Fred, on this Thanksgiving, for the very first time, I will sing your praises and give you thanks. In a few months I will see my grown daughter, here from New Zealand, and I give thanks for that, too. I will give thanks to my family who were there for me, and to a God who somehow has proved to me he does not and does exist.

And yes, Fred, I know one day again, you'll be waiting for me in some dark alley. But for now I invite you to pull up a chair while I lift my glass in a toast.


Anonymous said...

So eloquent and well said as always, John. I have a Fred of my own - well, "Frederique", and yet give thanks for my ups and downs for they have given me opportunities to cherish my loving family of origin and my wonderful husband. Happy Thanksgiving!

Epic Lourdes said...

John, thank you for your blog. I am new to the manic depression diagnosis and still in the process of questioning its existence. It is a very unfortunate thing to suffer from and I find myself in constant conflict concerning my belief in it and then my suspicion that this "illness" is something created by those who manufacture the drugs to "treat" it (yet curiously never "cure" it) and have an economic interest in selling to more and more people. And perhaps dulling them and their formidable minds so they will shut up and cease questioning society?

Willa Goodfellow said...

You reminded me of a Thanksgiving I spent on an overpass of the Eisenhower expressway in Oak Park. I give thanks for the extra twenty-four years since then.

I call mine "Steve." But he told me he doesn't like to be called "depression." I wonder if it's because he suspects a different diagnosis? He also is a teacher, can be brutal, but a teacher.

Anyway, my latest at is "Thanksgiving and the Anterior Cingulate Cortex. -- Thought you'd like to know.

Blessings -- Willa

John McManamy said...

Hi, Anonymous. Very glad you and "Fredrique" are getting along. This kind of acceptance - I'm convinced - is the key to recovery.

John McManamy said...

Hi, Willa. You're not going to believe this, but I just finished getting off an email to a friend on the fine points of the ACC. What spurred the email was an article in the NY Times on brain surgery for OCD and depression, particularly DBS which focuses on the ACC. Plus the condition of someone close to me referenced in my previous blog post, which - in lieu of a definitive brain scan - I'm guessing to be an ACC malfunction.

My ACC blog post:

To readers: Willa's "Prozac Monologues" was cited in Knowledge is Necessity as one of my top six favorite blogs. She is one of the most intelligent bloggers out there, who isn't afraid to tackle the complexities of brain science and explain it to our population. Also, she had penetrating spiritual insights and a whole host of strengths.

You can click to her blog via the links on the left. And to her specific piece:

John McManamy said...

Hi, Epic. You raise some interesting points:

Those who treat us tend to think of us as sick and often do not respect us for who we are and the gifts we have. You are likely to find yourself battling with people who think they know better over this.

A lot of my earlier posts deal with this issue, so feel free to read at random.

On the other hand, the phenomenon of cycling up and down was noted in the ancient world, long long before the existence of big pharma.

So, what you need to figure out - what does "well" look like to you? My guess is probably not the "normal" your clinicians and your family would like to have you. But you probably don't want your out of control moments interfering with your life, either.

This is why "knowledge is necessity." The more you know about yourself, the more you are in charge. Welcome, and keep coming back

John McManamy said...

Hi, Willa. Oops. I accidentally linked to my ACC piece twice. Readers, the correct link to Willa's ACC piece: