Wednesday, February 3, 2010
In my most recent blog piece, I indicated that my friend Tom Wootton’s new book, "Bipolar in Order," was a piece of shit and don’t buy it. I’m sure one day Tom will thank me.
But I come neither to praise nor bury Tom. My friend is at the center of a very important dialogue that he helped create. On one hand, he comes across as a brilliant visionary thinker miles ahead of everyone else. On the other, it’s easy to dismiss him as an unmitigated idiot totally out of touch with the real world. I’ve met both Toms. Let’s start with the visionary:
Tom’s first book, "The Bipolar Advantage," should have been called "The Manic Advantage." Convincing others to view their illness in a positive light has always been a hard sell, but, compared to depression and psychosis, there is much to like about mania. I guarantee that if a “mania stabilizer” were to come on the market - one that could keep us in a high productivity, high creativity, high sociability state forever without flipping us over the top or crashing us to the bottom - there would be one hundred percent compliance.
Indeed, I had written extensively on the subject before ever encountering Tom. In particular, I had a beef about psychiatrists medicating our personality out of us. When I raised this with John Gartner, author of “The Hypomanic Edge,” he likened the situation to the pitcher in Bull Durham, the guy with the 100 MPH fastball who keeps beaning the mascot. “We want to slow it down just enough so that he can deliver the ball where it’s supposed to be”, Dr Gartner explained to me, say to 95 MPH, not 50 MPH.
Make no mistake: Mania has wrecked my life more than once. But we should be wary of those who would indiscriminately clip our wings.
When I met Tom in 2006, his thinking was way ahead of mine. “I don’t want to be 80 percent better,” I heard him tell a workshop at a DBSA conference that year. “I want to be 120 percent better.” I never thought of my illness that way, but Tom had a point. Bipolar confers upon us a host of advantages that leaves the rest of the world for dead. So, if we could get out of our illness mindset and learn to master our gift of fire without getting burned we could be better - yes, better - than everyone else.
It’s all about that mania stabilizer. Too often, we can’t handle the overload. We flip out. We crash. But suppose we could train our minds to remain in control? Tom raises this point in his latest book, and I was treated to a sneak preview of his thinking at a NAMI CA conference last summer in greater LA.
In his talk, Tom displayed a PowerPoint of a Ferrari. A Ferrari has a stable platform so you can go around corners, he explained. But if you try to follow it in a mini-van with stuff loaded on top, you will flip over. Both vehicles are stable in the garage, he went on to say. But I don’t want to be stable in a garage, he concluded. I want to be stable while I’m driving.
According to Tom, if we better learn how to manage our behaviors so we are not simply reacting, we can lead great lives within a wide range of emotions.
A wider range of emotions includes depression, and here Tom has a much harder sell. The dominant view is expressed by Peter Kramer MD, author of “Against Depression,” who contends in a NY Times piece that “depression is not a perspective. It is a disease."
Most of us would readily agree, but then again, where does introspection and thinking deep end and depression begin? Besides, who wants to be happy all the time? In his book, “The Depression Advantage,” Tom focuses on the lives of Christian and eastern saints, and how their despair was the necessary prelude to spiritual breakthrough and growth. Likewise, Tom observes, in our own lives, our descents into darkness can sensitize us into achieving higher awareness and superhuman insights.
So, if you are experiencing depression and thinking deep without being incapacitated, is it truly depression? Who knows? More accurately, is it an illness? No way, Tom contends. True, no one wants to experience the devastation of depression or mania, but living within a very narrow emotional bandwidth also sucks. If we can learn to operate within a much wider bandwidth, says Tom, then our lives are going to have much greater meaning, with many more possibilities.
You may have issues with this, but there is no denying that Tom is on to something. Just so he doesn’t overreach.
Next: Tom overreaches.