Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Have You Ever Seen Anything Cuter?


I have set my rainbow in the clouds ...

Genesis 9:13

I shot this at about 5 PM yesterday through my iPhone from the roof of our house.

Monday, September 28, 2009

My Life as an International Awardee (How it Helped In My Recovery but Didn't Change My Life)

Rural southern CA, two months after my arrival, Feb 2007: An intriguing heading to an email was waiting in my email box. “Mogens Schou Award,” it read, or something to that effect. The email was from the Seventh International Conference on Bipolar Disorder, to take place later in the year.

I was well familiar with the Mogens Schou Award. It was established in 2001 in honor of the late Danish psychiatrist, who back in the sixties built an airtight case for the safety and efficacy of treating bipolar patients with the common salt, lithium, thereby helping open up a new era in psychiatry. To give you an idea what he was up against, prominent British psychiatrists characterized Schou’s efforts as “dangerous nonsense” and “a therapeutic myth.”

I was at the 2001 conference when Dr Schou was honored as the founding recipient. His frail health at the time - he was in his 80s - prevented him from attending, but he did address us via a pre-recorded video. I was particularly moved by the man’s passion. Here he was, his time on earth running short, urging a younger generation to investigate lithium for treating recurrent depression.

The conference also honored Jules Angst, the legendary Swiss diagnostician who conducted the ground-breaking longitudinal studies that helped give rise to our modern views of both depression and bipolar disorder. In addition, the conference paid tribute to philanthropists Vada and Ted Stanley.

Two years later, at the next conference in 2003, a clear pattern for the awards had been established: Research, Education and Advocacy, and Distinguished (later Public) Service. The line-up that year included Husseini Manji of the NIMH (Research), with a slew of prestigious awards already on his mantlepiece, and celebrated author Kay Jamison (Education and Advocacy), with a MacArthur “Genius Grant” and other honors to pad out her resume. Philanthropist Waltraud Prechter received the Distinguished Service Award.

The 2005 Awards singled out another stellar trio: Family-focused therapy innovator David Miklowitz PhD (Research), Paolo Morselli MD (Education and Advocacy), and lithium pioneer Samuel Gershon MD (Distinguished Service).

So naturally I was curious about what was going on with the 2007 Awards. This was early February. The Awards wouldn’t be announced till the Conference in June. Were they looking for nominations? If so, why contact me?

Please read the attachment, the email instructed, or words to that effect. I opened the attachment. “Yada, yada, yada ...” Then:

“Mogens Schou ... Public Service ...”

Something wasn’t tracking. It appeared as if they were referring to me. Then something like:

“... attend ... to accept ... Award?”


Surely a re-reading would establish the truth: A Nigerian millionaire wanted to transfer his savings to my bank account, an offer for discounted natural Cialis, a reminder to get my tires rotated ...

But no. I got it right the first time.

Calmly, coolly, I did another re-read, then another.

Only after the fourth reading did I let out an exultant whoop and leap toward the ceiling. Then I brought myself back to earth. This couldn’t be right, I decided. I called the person listed on the contact information to set me straight.

“I’m afraid so,” she said. (Actually, I’m making this part up.) “Unfortunately, it’s true.”

Okay, false modesty is as bad as empty bragging. The truth is I had busted my ass getting out current and accurate information to patients and their loved ones. No one did it better than me. The first 18 months I didn’t make a dime. By the time I landed in southern CA, I was making about $8.00 an hour putting in 60-hour weeks.

My email Newsletter was a free service, so was my website. You could read my blog for free, and my book only set you back $15. From my reader feedback, I know I had helped thousands help themselves to better lives. In the entire mental health industry, there was no better value for your money. So, if anyone deserved this Award it was me.

But hard-scrabble journalists like me never get awards. Hence the surprise.

Paradoxically, one of my initial reactions was this would be a good time to get out of the business, such as it was. Before I ran out of gas. My book had been out for four months, now this Award. My tank was on empty. Maybe now was the time to walk away from it all, at the top of my game. It was a liberating thought.

But no, the Award spurred me to redouble my efforts. I banged out a batch of Newsletters that featured highly-complex, impossible-to-write pieces on brain science. I gave talks. I went on the road a lot.

My first road trip that year nearly ended in a disaster. This involved a 12-day tour back east that included stops in four states and the District of Columbia. I trundled into Reagan National with my three bags only to encounter the return flight from hell. Some of the airline’s ticketing computers were down, and lines were everywhere. People were missing their flights, and my fragile psyche was absorbing all the anxiety and hostility in the terminal.

I got into Philly and casually grabbed a bite to eat, then strolled to the very end of C Terminal only to find I had 15 minutes to run to the other end of the airport to catch my flight at A Terminal. I got there to find the plane was an hour late. Oh-oh. This is too close for comfort for my connection at Las Vegas.

The plane spent nearly an hour on the runway. Naturally I missed my connecting flight in Vegas to San Diego. I felt control over my brain slipping away, I was dehydrated and disoriented and my jaw was throbbing in acute pain. I lost my way more than once negotiating my way to the right ticket counter, and I sensed myself asking for directions with far too much aggression in my voice. By the time I get into the right line, I was on the verge of panic. It was 1:00 in the morning Vegas time, which equated to 4:00 in the morning east coast time.

I knew the airlines would put me on another flight, but would they put me up in a hotel?

I was at very high risk if I didn’t get in some serious horizontal time right then and there. The line was moving at the same speed as those terra-cotta Chinese warriors that were buried for thousands of years and the ticket agents were as animated as Rip Van Winkle. I felt my sanity slipping away.

“Look!” I wanted to shout. “I have a chronic medical illness and I need attention RIGHT NOW!”

An airport is the last place you want to lose it. I could see it now: “Agents Subdue Crazed ‘Living Well’ Author.”

Breathe! I told myself. Breathe. One’s breath is the best emergency stress-buster there is. Be nice! I told myself. Whatever happens, be nice to the agent who deals with me. Anger is the ticket to flipping out. Breathe, be nice, no anger.

Soon an agent was handling my case. A ticket for a morning flight. A voucher for a hotel. I would have four hours of precious sleep. The crisis was over. But this was way too close for comfort.

To be continued ...

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Welcome to the World, Edward Stewart Alexander!

Advice to a New Grandson - Part II

As you know, I just became a proud granddad, which moves me up in status to Wise Elder in the clan. I'm taking my new duties very seriously. Following is my second installment ...
  1. There is no excuse for dancing like a white man.
  2. A good poop is way better than mediocre sex.
  3. What most people call a God experience, scientists call dopamine.
  4. That doesn’t mean God is not real.
  5. We elude happiness far more than happiness eludes us.
  6. God has a sense of humor. Trust me, every day you will do something to make Him snort milk out His nose.
  7. Good enough is not good enough.
  8. Friends are a way better investment than money.
  9. The oldest known redwood is 2,200 years old. An idiot with a chainsaw only needs one day.
  10. Napoleon lost an entire army in north Africa and an entire army in Russia. Still, he had no trouble recruiting volunteers for Waterloo. Go figure.
  11. You are a book responsible for your own cover. Expect people to judge you.
  12. God has a funny way of treating people He loves most. Just ask Joan of Arc.
  13. Thoreau danced to a different drummer, but he also died a virgin.
  14. Ration your hate. Don’t indulge.
  15. It’s okay to curse God. But tread lightly when blaming fellow humans.
  16. Good teachers make you think, not tell you what to think.
  17. If you suck up to the rich and powerful, you won’t have to do your own laundry. If you do your own laundry, you won’t have to suck up to the rich and powerful.
And finally ...

You are two days old. Breasts are the center of your existence. You and I have a lot in common.

With love ...

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Advice to a New Grandson

At about 1 AM last night my daughter phoned me from New Zealand. It could only mean one thing. “Congratulations!” she told me. “You’re a granddad!”

A healthy mother, a healthy boy. Oh, happy day!

Okay, now that I’m a granddad, I need to take my responsibilities seriously. The Little Guy is setting out into a whole new unexplored territory called life and needs all the help he can get. As the newly-designated Elder in the family, it is my duty to dispense the wisdom that will see him through his journey. Thus ...

An Elder’s Advice to His New Grandson
  1. Remember, Hannibal never won a battle with his elephants.
  2. No one cares if you spell, “opthamologist” right - except for optha ... whatever.
  3. Men often don’t think with their brains. That’s why we have dicks.
  4. Our purpose here on earth is to laugh at farts.
  5. There will be many many more James Bond movies during your life, but the one constant is that Ursula Andress will always be the all-time number one Bond girl.
  6. He or she who presumes to understand God is a fraud.
  7. Same applies to guys who think they understand women.
  8. Remember, no one gives a shit about you.
  9. That way, the people who matter will all give a shit about you.
  10. When you reach into your pocket searching for a one dollar bill and all you can come up with is twenties - try not to express your disappointment.
  11. Don’t waste your time trying to “get” toilet seat covers.
  12. Never get in a fight with idiots - they don’t know how to stop.
  13. The Wise Man knows when to quit while he’s behind.
  14. This is doubly true in any arguments with women.
  15. We are who we pretend to be. You can’t go wrong pretending to be JFK or Martin Luther King.
  16. A blind man can beat Tiger Woods in golf at night.
  17. If you challenge Tiger Woods to a game - make sure it’s not golf.
  18. Caviar is fine, but peanut butter will always be your friend.
  19. You are but a mere speck in the vast universe.
  20. A mere speck contains a whole universe.
And finally ...

You have the best mom and dad in the whole world. Trust me, they love cleaning your poop.

With love ...

It's a Boy!

More later ...

Friday, September 25, 2009

The Gift

I could be a grandfather any day now. A little while ago, my daughter (and mother-to-be) Emily emailed me a photo of her in late pregnancy, looking radiantly beautiful. The picture brought back fond memories of my first marriage, when my wife and I were anticipating the birth of Emily.

I related this to Emily on the phone, what a precious time this must be for her and husband, Hamish. Soon after the conversation, I had a bolt from the blue:

I had just recalled a pleasant memory from my first marriage!

My first marriage lasted seven years. Somewhere, the marriage went sour. No bad reflection on Gail, or myself, for that matter. We were two good people caught in a bad situation, beyond our abilities to resolve. We stayed in this bad situation way longer than we should have. By the time we acknowledged the inevitable, the damage had been done. The trauma and hurt of the bad times was driving me crazy. My brain responded the only way it could under the circumstances - by going into a protective amnesia that locked away the good memories along with the bad.

That way, over time, I could put my marriage behind me and move on, not necessarily whole, but in one piece.

My marriage broke up a quarter century ago, when Emily was five. Now, here she is with Hamish, experiencing moments beyond precious. Yes, I remember. I do remember. Thank God, I remember.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Guest Blog - Eternity in an Hour

Another profoundly moving piece from one of my favorite writers of all time, Elizabeth:

One of my favorite people in the world lives in poverty. She rents a tiny house down the street from me, and barely gets by with her social security. The house she lives in is set back from all the others, and was probably originally an out-building behind a main house that burnt down. She’s older and suffers from bad lungs, but she’s raising a four-year-old granddaughter who has more energy and will than I’ve ever seen in one human being. Watching this child on a playground, it’s as if she’s in technicolor and all the other kids are in black and white. As if she’s in fast-forward in a world of slow-motion. She is the issue of one of the children my friend adopted in her younger years, a girl who was severely damaged by her junky-prostitute biological mother, and who is presently, sadly, following a similar path.

This friend of mine is a natural nurturer and masterful gardener. She takes in strays, human and animal. She knows each squirrel and rabbit that frequents her yard, and worries about the fate of the birds as she revels in their beauty. She teaches me a lot. Like for instance, if you get a bee-sting, just smear some mud on it and the pain will disappear immediately. But more importantly, she teaches me to take to heart that old adage, “better to give than to receive.” She walks around with one breast, the other removed for cancer, and half a set of false teeth, the bottom teeth having broken. Medicare won’t replace them for another year. She wouldn’t survive without her oxygen tank and inhaler. Yet she is one of the most radiant people I’ve ever met.

I’m trying to recover from a depression that was so low and long that I can’t even begin to describe it. This friend helps me by just letting me watch her live. The other day, some kids brought her a newborn kitten that was somehow left abandoned by its mother and howling under their porch. It’s about the size of a mouse, it’s eyes still sealed. It has problems feeding from the bottle she got at the pet store, thrashing and yowling as it tries to latch onto the unyielding nipple. It could easily die if my friend wouldn’t persist, but of course she does, and that tiny kitten eventually grasps and drinks and drinks.

This tiny thing feels more essential to me than anything at the moment. It is just born and is being delivered from death by kindness and persistence. Yesterday I held it in my hand, petting it with my finger to simulate a cat-mother’s licking. It writhed and stretched and turned in my palm, and finally let out a long purr. And I thought, wow, this kitten is actually bringing me back to life, healing me. It can teach me so much, something like . . .

Something like this, a gift from William Blake called “Auguries of Innocence.” I’ll give you some of the more pertinent stanzas, although it’s so profound you might want to look it up and read the whole thing.

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,

Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,

And eternity in an hour.

. . . . .
Joy and woe are woven fine,
A clothing for the soul divine.

Under every grief and pine

Runs a joy with silken twine.

The babe is more than swaddling bands;

Every farmer understands.

Every tear from every eye

Becomes a babe in eternity;

. . . . .
Every night and every morn

Some to misery are born,

Every morn and every night

Some are born to sweet delight.

Some are born to sweet delight,

Some are born to endless night.

We are led to believe a lie

When we see not thro' the eye,

Which was born in a night to perish in a night,

When the soul slept in beams of light.

God appears, and God is light,

To those poor souls who dwell in night;

But does a human form display

To those who dwell in realms of day.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Job and Me

My last two pieces had Biblical themes. Why stop now? Here's a blast from the past I wrote ten years ago, from mcmanweb:

Perhaps now is a good time for a little Norse mythology. I'm a bit rusty on my gods, so if I mistake Thor for Odin or accidentally stick in a Greek deity I hope you'll bear with me.

It seems that Thor and two of his god buddies ventured into the land of the Frost Giants, and were challenged to place wagers. I forget what one of the wagers was, but Thor, I think, bet he could drain a beer mug, and Odin that he could pin an old hag in a wrestling match. All three wagers, in fact, turned out to be sucker's bets.

The beer mug was attached to the ocean, and the veins on Thor's forehead bulged purple trying to make headway. (Remember, they were in the land of the Frost Giants. It is just possible that their ocean could be confused with a Canadian ice house brew, though you would think a Norse god would be able to tell the difference.) At last, Thor was obliged to put down his mug in defeat, but he could take some small measure of satisfaction in surveying his handiwork on the way home (those fiords in Norway, I believe).

Odin, too, could take comfort in losing his wrestling match, for it wasn't an old hag he had been fighting, but a shadowy form that represented age itself. He had fought hard against something no one, not even a mighty god amongst gods, could defeat, and he had fought well.

Now we turn to another wrestling match from the annals of mythology, this time Jewish mythology, or Jewish fact, depending on belief. We are talking of Jacob wrestling with an angel, only the Bible doesn't mention angel. Jacob assumes he is wrestling in the dark with a man, but when morning dawns, none other than the Lord of Hosts makes his appearance and changes Jacob's name to Israel.

There, in one name, is the piece to the puzzle, for Israel means "wrestles with God." Jacob - Israel - had wrestled with God. No one, of course, wins against God, but, apparently there is no shame in trying. No, this isn't about God, but the Lord of Hosts does turn up in another book of the Bible, this time the Book of Job, and here God does something far more typical of the gods of Norse mythology: He makes a wager. A wager with Satan, no less.

But Satan is not your standard devil figure. Not in this version. No, Satan is more like a trickster god, a member of the heavenly court who stirs up discord and shakes up the status quo. In short, another Norse god - Loki.

So Loki - er, Satan - lures God into making a wager. God places his bet on a righteous man called Job. He bets Satan that Job will not curse him, no matter what ill-fortune Satan - with God's permission - may throw his way. And God, with no more regard for Job's welfare than a gambler would have for a fighting cock, gives Satan the go-ahead.

And so Satan takes from Job everything he has - wealth, property, health - until he is reduced to a mere shell of his former self. Still Job does not curse God. Four Doctor Laura types happen by and accuse him of being responsible for his own misfortune, but still Job does not curse God.

And that's how it eventually ends, with the righteous Job restored to his good fortune, Satan the apparent loser, and God registering his clear disapproval of Doctor Laura.

Nevertheless, I maintain that had Job known about the wager God had made - how an apparently thoughtless Lord of Hosts had treated poor Job as nothing more than the object of a bet - God's ears would still be ringing today.

And this brings me to the point I am about to make: You see, when I was in the throes of my depression ten years ago, I was convinced that God had abandoned me - had left me to the mercies of Satan and his devilish whims - but, unlike the righteous Job, I cursed my fool head off. I had been wrestling in earnest with this depression since God knows when, and the thing had finally gotten to me. My brain had gone crash. Big time. The event was larger than myself. I finally decided to throw in the towel.

In other words, I finally sought help.

There was no loss of honor, I finally decided, in not winning. Just the opposite, in fact. I had been reduced to nothing by a force I could barely comprehend, let alone grapple with. I felt I had wrestled God. There is no shame in losing to God.

Someday, perhaps, I will come to terms with this God I had unknowingly fought against, but who refused to make himself known, even as he brain-slammed me to the mat and took away all but one inch of life in me. Yes, I cursed the hell out of God, and said all the things to God that Job by rights had been entitled to say to God.

Still, I know God will not hold this against me. Quite the contrary, deep in my heart I know that God expects a good fight from us, just like the one Jacob-Israel gave him, just like the trials Job endured, and that the cursing and all the rest is part of what goes into giving God everything you've got.

Yes, God, I gave you one hell of a good fight, and for that I can salvage some small measure of pride. But I would have been a whole lot smarter had I cried uncle much much sooner.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Then your light will break forth like the dawn,
and your healing will quickly appear ...

Isaiah 58:8

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.

Friday, September 18, 2009

A Visit to My Tormented Inner Child

I perform my own stunts. Trust me, through large parts of my life I would have loved to employ a stunt double and perhaps someday I will. Take my depressions - please. It was around the time I was in seventh grade that I had a profound sense that I wanted to return to the planet that I was born on, any planet but this one. I was small and skinny with glasses and had a nerdy personality.

A nerd is an individual not smart enough to be a geek.

Every morning, I had to steel myself to get on that bus to school. Ours was the second to last stop, which meant I wound up standing in the aisle, fair game for young sociopaths in the making, the type of people who grow up to become Charles Manson or talk radio hosts (it's hard to tell the difference). Then, again, for all I know, they are now working for Habitat for Humanity.

My inner immune system invented its own respite from the terror of school and the outside world. Just when I knew I could not ever possibly board that bus one more time, my body would give out on me. My throat would constrict and flare up, my nose would heave up great gobs of green bloody snots, and I would cough the cough of the dead.

Then the healing would start. There in bed, or on the couch under a million blankets shivering in a sweat-induced micro-climate of Vicks Vapo-rub fumes, my strength would come back. Slowly. Over several days, a week, more. Then one day I would get out of bed and get dressed, too far behind in my school work to ever really catch up, but nevertheless ready to take what the day offered, one day at a time.

That 12-year-old me gave rise to the 13-year-old me, which eventually gave rise to the adult me. So ...

What if the present me could go back to that 12-year-old? Imagine how different my life would have turned out. Say I had one minute - 60 seconds - to spend with with that confused kid? Would would I say?

No time for a candid heart-to-heart. My message would have to be cryptic, like a Zen koan, something that made no sense, but would lead to an earth-shaking revelation upon further consideration. So imagine if the 12-year-old me had the benefit of the wise counsel of the present me, and I appeared to him in his moment of need, like the disembodied Obe Wan Kinobe to Luke Skywalker.

“John,” I would say, in a voice brimming with compassion. “Remember - Hannibal never won a battle with his elephants.”

Therein lies the key to healing.

Wait! Hold on. ... A buried memory is coming up. Holy crap! Now I remember! The present me really did visit the 12-year-old me, and this is what he actually said:

“John. Remember - Hannibal never won a battle with his elephants.”

Son of a bitch! What kind of idiot thing is that to tell a 12-year-old?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Guest Blog: A Knock on the Door

Another gem from Elizabeth:

Wow! Something really amazing happened this morning, as I was starting to write a little piece about empathy and human connection for this blog, as if I know all that much about either. But I’m trying to learn as I try to work toward mental and emotional healing.

But I scratched what I was trying to write when this amazing thing happened, because life gave me such a surprising gift. An adolescent boy, I’d guess about 16, rang my doorbell and presented himself as the cousin of a friend of mine, a 14-year-old boy I call V. This young man at my door, who I don’t know from Adam, said, “My cousin (V.) told me about you and asked me to come over and see if you need any help.”

I said to this young man at my door, “Well, not today, but thank you. Come back another day. I don’t have any money. But I do have this serious weed garden problem you could help me with when I have some.”

He said, “That’s all right, you don’t have to pay me.” He seemed a bit surprised by my presumption that he’d want to get paid.

I said “Thank you, thank you so much. Come back another day because I would have to pay you.”

I came back to my desk in total awe.

V. is motherless child. A few of years ago, his mother was shot and his father put in prison. He doesn’t quite know why, or he’s not saying. Until a couple of months ago, he was living in a house behind me with about twelve relatives. Now he lives in the inner city with his grandmother. Haven’t seen him in a while, and worry about him. He’ll show up again soon, I hope.

Now I don’t know anything about this adolescent who just rang my doorbell, except his connection to V.. but I have a feeling I will. But let me tell you the events that led up to this great blessing of a total stranger coming over to ask me if I need any help. For free.

I teach, so I have summers off. In my neighborhood, kids of all ages congregate at the yard next to mine to play basketball and noodle around all day. Built into the hemlock that dominates my back yard, there’s a ladder to a ledge about five feet off the ground, and a swing hangs from one of the branches. My front porch has a porch swing. So naturally, kids infiltrate my yard and porch.

Sensible people urge me to keep these kids off my property. “If a kid fell out of that tree, you could get sued,” they warn me. Of that little tree ledge, they say, “Tear it down. Legally, it’s what’s called an attractive nuisance.” I know they’re right, but I can’t help feeling that I would just be adding to the sickness of the world if I shooed these kids off my yard. I’m trying to heal my own sickness, and contributing to the insanity around me—in this case, the fear of lawsuits that leaves many of us in a state of paranoia—is just more than I can bring myself to do. At least not on purpose.

A couple of years ago, the neighborhood kids started started knocking at my door. They’d come in in flocks to see my cats and because I’m really bad at names, I just started giving them letter names. Thus the name of this 14-year-old friend of mine, V., who immediately dubbed me Z.

V. and I hit it off right away. He’s amazingly quick-witted and curious, funny and rascally. He started to come over by himself to hang out, look at the pictures on my walls, the weird chotskies and such I have too many of, and listen to music. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to Mozart’s Vespers, one of his favorites. He was fascinated by the food in my kitchen: I don’t eat much American food. He’d pull some mint out of my garden and we’d make tea, maybe play some Monopoly or cards, and I’d usually end up feeding him something and giving him a chore, so I could give him some pocket change. He’d end up buying food to share with his friends with that money.

I have serious depression issues, and some days when he came to my door I’d tell him I wasn’t accepting company. At my lowest, my depressions get so bad I’m afraid to answer the phone and quake at the sound of the mailman for months on end. I isolate. I can’t manage to get out of my bathrobe. I don’t want people to see how badly off I am. I have nothing to say and no way to communicate. No words but words of misery. V. would do his best to pull me out of my funk. “Let’s play Monopoly, Z.,” he’d say. “Let me in. Please?”

People told me, “Don’t let that child in your house. You could be accused of child molestation. He could steal from you.” Sensible people say I should have shut this child out of my life. He’s not your problem, they say. But V. isn’t a problem. He’s a delight. And he has helped me more than I have helped him.

What’s the point of this little story? As a dear friend of mine says, be good to people and the universe will take care of you. And as I’ve started to meditate on that and try to practice it, my view of life has become brighter. And even though life has dealt V. a pretty brutal hand, I hope the universe will take care of him as he tries to make it to manhood in the inner city.

Sometimes it seems that life is all about cruelty and swindle and pain, and the best thing to do is distrust and shut people out. Particularly during periods of depression.

But today, this adolescent boy, a total stranger, showed up at my house. He was sent on a mission by a 14-year-old orphan. He said, need any help? And I know that life is certainly not all about cruelty and swindle and pain.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Five Days Off the Grid

I'm back home, back on the grid, in front of a real keyboard. To briefly recap my last several days:

Friday, 6 AM, near San Diego Airport - I leave the rental car lot in a Chevy Aveo. Compared to the '92 beater Tercel I get around in, this thing is an SUV with all the bells and whistles. It even has a radio that works.

Los Angeles, an eternity later - I finally get to Sylvia's place somewhere in Westwood. I've only fried 99 billion brain cells in the local freeway traffic, so I'm in good shape. Since getting my license last year after 30 years of not driving, this represents my longest drive ever, and we have miles to go before we sleep.

We're headed off to the two-day Russian River Jazz and Blues Festival deep in the woods of Sonoma County in Northern CA. Our hosts Sherman and Liz have extra beds in their two RVs, but just in case I've brought along a tent. I met Sherman two years ago at a state NAMI conference. Sherman is on the CA NAMI board, runs his own business that delivers a range of services to people with disabilities, and is very active in civic and human rights and mental health efforts on local and state levels.

At the most recent state NAMI conference, I got a chance to hang out with Sherman, plus his girlfriend Liz and "little sister" Sylvia.

Los Angeles, a coffee and a fruit smoothie later - Sylvia and I are off. She has thoughtfully brought along some great CD's to match her sparkling company. The miles go by ...

The Bay area - Darkness is closing in fast. I am wearing down and I'm way out of my comfort zone, on sensory overload close to panic. Sylvia acts as my Ground Control to Major Toms and gets us over the Golden Gate Bridge in one piece. Then I settle down and focus on the last leg of the journey.

But Sylvia lays down the law: No driving back for me. I simply wasn't ready to take my driving to this level. I'm smart enough to listen. With my diagnosis, I need to accept that from time to time other people need to be my brains. We will be turning the car in up north and flying back.

Late evening, Guernville, Russian River, way behind schedule - We pull into the RV camp. Thankfully, I have two operational neurons. Sherman greets us. I just want to crash and break Rip Van Winkle's record, but someone pours me a wine, and the next thing I'm partying with everyone else. Liz graciously offers sleeping space in her RV, and I'm out like a light.

Saturday morning - Today is Jazz Festival day. Framed by a river and mighty redwoods, with ospreys circling above, God is the master builder and special effects guy for this venue. Sylvia has laid out a gourmet nibbles spread at the site, where the music comes in loud and clear. We spend the better part of the day migrating from one locale to the other.

Afternoon - Like driving, I can easily reach overload being around people. I manage to steal some time to myself with a nap and a walk.

Evening - Sherman's friend Charles has prepared an off-the-hook meal for everyone. More partying. I haven't thought about my usual daily garbage since leaving San Diego. I've left that world far behind, and am fully engaged in this one. This is good for me - so long as I don't overextend myself. Fortunately, I'm in bed by 2 AM, so there's nothing to worry about.

Sunday morning - I'm helping Charles cook breakfast. Today is Blues Festival day. Down below, the joint is jumpin'.

Later - I don't do my nap or walk, but I'm chilling out quietly in Sherman's RV, with several others. I'm ready to call it a night at 9, but Sherman leads us to the local bar, where the house band is blowing the roof off the dump. Suddenly I'm wide awake. Much later, in Sherman's trailer, a bunch of us wind down with chunky monkey ice cream. Life doesn't get any better than this.

Monday morning - Life is balance, yin and yang. This morning is all about yin. I'm walking along the river bank with a new friend. The clouds that have been hovering below the redwood canopy are breaking up. A great blue heron is sunning itself on a nearby spit. Still, peaceful. A perfect moment. Perfect.

Monday afternoon - We break camp and head out to Sherman's who lives a short distance away. I spend most of my time in the kitchen, prepping food for Charles' next masterpiece.

Definitely an early night for me. Then Sherman suggests a quick visit to the local karaoke joint. We end up closing the place.

Tuesday morning - I need to be at a NAMI San Diego Board meeting at 5:30 PM. I make a quick tactical decision and decide to book a flight that will get me there after the meeting is over. I don't like missing meetings, but I'm no good to anyone if I don't put myself first this time. Two months earlier, I canceled an LA trip in order to make a board meeting that had been rescheduled. So I have no guilt feelings over opting out of this one.

I turn in my car, and am off on a shuttle bus to Oakland Airport. In the Southwest terminal I'm confronted by the depressingly dreary sight of sleep-deprived business travelers with cell phones glued to their ears.

Nine PM - I'm back home. I call for my cat, Batty. No show. Twenty minutes later, she makes an appearance, clearly expressing her displeasure over my absence. She decides to forgive me, sort of.

This time, I do manage to get to bed early.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On My Way Home

I'm at Oakland Airport, waiting to board my flight to San Diego. Friday morning, I picked up a rental car in San Diego, picked up a friend in LA, and drove up to Sonoma County in Northern CA for the Russian River Jazz and Blues Festival and an extended weekend in an RV camp in the hospitality of my friend Sherman and his posse.

To the left is the Tommy Castro Band blowing the roof off of this dump. Right is a great blue heron during a still quiet morning on the river.

They don't call these breaks from routine mental health breaks for no reason. Tomorrow, back to routine ...

Monday, September 14, 2009

My Good Friend Kevin - One Year On

I'll be brief. I'm up in northern CA, with good friends, taking time off, having a life. One year ago today, my good friend Kevin - someone very special to me - threw himself in front of a NJ Transit train. Gone. No life. He was 28.

That's all I have to report ...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Road to Nowhere

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week. Above is the suicide prevention video I produced a few weeks after my good friend Kevin threw himself in front of a train. He was 28. It is coming up to the first anniversary of that horrible day.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Guest Blog - Trying to Comprehend Loss

At age four, Nancy Rappaport's mother took her own life. Her just-released In Her Wake: A Child Psychiatrist Explores the Mystery of Her Mother's Suicide (Basic Books) explores the author's own coming to terms from both a personal and clinical perspective. Dr Rappaport is a child psychiatrist and assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard.

This week is National Suicide Prevention Week. Following is a timely excerpt from Dr Rappaport's important new book:

When I was a resident, a psychiatrist I knew killed herself, leaving me bereft. The gossip was that she was infatuated with another doctor, and that he rejected her affections. Humiliated, she barricaded herself in her apartment and downed too many pills. On a frigid winter morning, I boarded a train to New York for the memorial service. In an austere stone chapel filled with blue flowers, the doctor’s mentor stood up to pay his respects and commended her for her conscientiousness. He noted with admiration that the day before she died, this diligent doctor had assessed ten new patients in the emergency room – an impressive feat. One by one, patients had filed into her office, closing the door behind them. She had asked the same diagnostic questions ten times, the equivalent of the physician taking a pulse, about sleeping at night, having trouble concentrating, hearing voices, mood changes, loss of appetite, plans to commit suicide. I wished that she had interrupted her “mental status examinations” long enough to get help for herself. I was saddened by her fragility despite her having tried to put up a good front. I was frightened: Now I had to relinquish the fantasy that if I learned this profession it would somehow protect me from the forlorn legacy of suicide. Even if you are proficient in this craft, it does not inoculate against the forcefulness of depression.

At the memorial, my medical colleagues speculated on her state of mind just before she died, offering armchair analyses of why she might have killed herself and wondering whether it was premeditated or a passion of the moment. In the rush for an explanation and with the disturbing sense that things are not always what they appear, they had a morbid fascination and dread that she was able to function with apparent ease professionally while struggling with private anguish. And yet there was also a heaviness – as if we had failed her.

Over the next few days, I was irritable, haunted by disturbing dreams and a sense of foreboding anxiety. The psychiatrist’s suicide evoked the loss of my mother. My therapist told me that when someone kills herself it is as if she puts her skeleton in your closet. I did not want this skeleton, and I resented the intrusion. I could not do this work if it felt futile, but in the aftermath of this doctor’s death, I did not want to think with my patients about the urge to end it all. I wished that I could bag groceries, do any other job that did not involve making sense of suffering and sharing the responsibility for keeping someone alive. But my therapist reassured me warmly, with the intimacy that comes from years of talking with each other, that it is normal to be shaken to the core when a colleague kills herself; it did not mean I was unstable or destined for a free fall. I have cultivated a determination and a skill to recover my balance when life has unexpected detours. I was depleted and needed to give myself some time to be with the people I love and who provide me solace. After a cross-country ski trip with Colin, awestruck by the pink sunset etched into the silhouette of the branches in the sky, painting valentine boxes in Cory’s class and resuming the outward semblance of routines in my life, I felt less overwhelmed. My sadness would run its course not because I would avoid the flood of feelings but because I could replenish without drifting too far from my center.

I always find myself incredulous that when someone commits suicide – when my mother took the overdose, when a teenager hangs himself in the closet, or a man shoots himself – this person truly wants to die. When I was younger I often dreamt that my mother and I were careening down a hill in a car out of control and in the back seat I was valiantly trying to reach down for the emergency brake to avert disaster. For the tortured souls who are intent on suicide, there is no territory beyond the present. The “mind tumble” means that they are not thinking clearly, and their judgment is clouded as they reach for pills or jump from a bridge. As I investigate my mother’s suicide, with the stealth of someone who wants to break the code, the inexplicable mystery of why this was the moment that she lost her determination, I return to her diary. I wish that I could have shown her the sunset that I found so comforting or that she could see her grandchildren, anything to have her hold on to a fighting spirit, to find the invincible shield of self-preservation. To develop the wisdom that premature death will not bring the peace that she ached for. In her diary she is wrestling with her demons, trying to stay alive, to anchor herself in her love for us. Yet that was not enough to keep her grounded in survival.

As I read from her diary, I weep for her, wanting to hold her, give solace….Understanding my mother’s suicide matters to me – as a doctor I spend my life trying to avert disaster, to offer a safe retreat to find strength to stay alive….I actually feel better when someone is talking to me, figuring out how to ease his pain. Some of what I have learned about suicide, depression, and substance abuse in general has helped to define, yet has also complicated, the mystery of why my mother killer herself, and it guides my assessment of how to help my patients not take the lethal next step.

Purchase In Her Wake on Amazon.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Guest Blog - A Day in the Life of a Bipolar Warrior

Another must-read from Elizabeth:

Three years ago I left a Ph.D program, and since then I’ve been working as an adjunct English instructor at local colleges. This turn in my life occurred for the same reason that most of my major upheavals have: I’m bipolar. I’d gone back to graduate school after a wild, Prozac-induced manic scotched the career I’d been working for a decade or so, ended my marriage, and threw me into a desperate three-and-a-half year custody battle to keep half-custody of my daughter. I persevered, but the experience involved me screaming at the walls many a late night and lots of pleading to a largely indifferent, uninformed justice system and a God Who was apparently busy elsewhere. My therapist couldn’t work with me because her notes were subpoenaed. My psychiatrist committed suicide. Friends abandoned me. Yet I endured somehow, and it was time to start over. I’d always wanted to be an English professor, and was accepted at a local Ph.D program toward that end.

For three semesters, things were going peachily, but then I had another major manic, then a year of severe depression, then another manic, then more severe depression, until I was sitting at my computer for five hours at a time every day in an attempt to write, and coming up with one ill-conceived sentence or two. My mind was so muddy and seeped in fear and guilt and suicidal ideations that I could barely hold a conversation, let alone write a dissertation. I found out that my dissertation adviser was cracking such hilarious jokes as “Elizabeth will be turning in her work. If she takes her meds.” What a punchline!

(Of course, most so-called normal people are led to assume that the psychiatric community has our disorders under control. For some of us, this is really true; for some, somewhat true. Not true at all for me and millions like me.)

After leaving the Ph.D program, I would have gone on disability if I could have, but as I’d been spending the previous ten years studying, working freelance so I could be there for my daughter, teaching part-time, and babysitting, that wasn’t a possibility. No disability for me. No health insurance. Life sucked. I despised myself for falling short and felt sorry for myself for the same reason. The world seemed like a nightmare, and I was terrified. Terrified by the people around me that thought my pain was a really amusing joke or a reason to villify me, or worse, dispense with me. But way more terrified that my mind kept generating horrific scenes of suicide, replaying the disastrous follies of my manics, berating me for the things I could not get myself to do. Terrified of my mind turning what used to be pleasant things—birdsong, tree branches swaying in the breeze—into demonstrations of shrieking, nefarious movements, nightmare.

I had to push that all aside as best I could. I had no choice but to keep going, keep working, and all I can say at this point is thank God. My work as an English instructor has saved me.

My work requires me to get up every morning and do the work. People are depending on me to teach them something worthwhile and to respond to their writing with sensitivity and good advice. I have to do what I can to make these students better writers and readers, and to do that I have to convince them that doing so will improve their chances and their lives. We have essays and short stories to discuss, which deal with the difficulties, complications, and joys of human experience. I have to motivate them to do exactly what I am having so much trouble doing in my own life: reading well, thinking carefully, and writing clearly.

I have a responsibility to these people. Some of them seem totally disaffected, just sitting there in a daze. Some have come from incredibly hard lives and dysfunctional schools. Some are trying to scratch their ways into a second career. It’s my job to try to encourage them to persevere, to spark their interest, to focus their attention. I need to get them to feel comfortable enough to ask questions and interested enough to want to join our discussions and do the work with integrity and hard work.

Something strange happens to me when I enter a classroom. I turn into someone else, or that person I am underneath the depression. For some reason, when I am with my students, my depression disappears, even if I’d been panicking on my drive to get to them, unable to recall what I’d planned to say and do. I manage to focus and come alive once I hit the classroom. If I’m still at a loss, I ask my students what they think and what they don’t understand. I listen carefully and try to respond the best way I know. I find myself having some answers. I find myself cracking jokes. The dire thoughts clear, and my mind regains some of its bounce and focus. Suddenly, I’m O.K.

I don’t know why that is, exactly. The showmanship of teaching can be quite heady, and my students don’t know that I’m coming to them from a life of confusion and despair. They do know, though, that I’m listening as much as talking, and that can mean the world to them. My students’ appreciation that I’m really trying to get concepts through is gratifying. When a young woman coming from a history of twenty ghetto foster homes says, “Wow, I had no idea people thought about things like this!”, I feel I’ve given her something. She certainly deserves it—it’s mind-boggling to me that she’s managed to even get to college, and it puts my life in perspective. Turning a classroom of people into a community is exciting. It’s an ego boost, to be sure. It’s fun. It’s communal. It’s everything I can’t manage without them.

Sometimes one of my students will disappear for a while and come back with a disability form. Bipolar. Depression. Panic attacks. I out myself to these people. I try to convince them to try, at least to continue the course and complete the work through an incomplete. I tell them about my first breakdown, when I was about their age. I say, “We aliens, we have to stick together.” And I hope that makes them feel less alone and better able to deal with it alll.

I’m not saying it’s been easy. For most of these past three years, I’ve gotten up at four or five in the morning so I’ll be over the worst of it—my daily intense three-hour anxiety-attack-mixed-in-with-panic-and-suicidal-ideations—by the time I hit the classroom. Adjunct college instructors (along with pre-school and substitute teachers) are the most poorly paid out there, with no job security and no benefits. But I can scrape together enough to keep a roof over my daughter’s and my own head. Resale shops are fun, and that’s where I get my clothes and even my art and various oddments. I don’t find them demeaning. I find them entertaining and surprising and useful. Whole grains and beans and seasonal vegetables are the best food for me, and they’re cheap. So far my 1999 model Beetle (dubbed “The Evil Clown Car”) is holding up, and when it fails, there’s always the bus.

John writes about tools for dealing with mentally illness that go way beyond the meds: sleeping well (if you can), eating well, talk therapy, support groups, exercise, meditation. My best tools are to force myself to communicate and to do things I believe in, and communicating and doing don’t come easy when I’m depressed. I’m lucky—I have a job where I actually get paid to do both, and a reality where I need to do that job.

Jobs that entail helping other people are out there. They are quite often underpaid, but they pay off handsomely in ways other than money. I don’t think I could have survived these last years if my work had been gauged by the amount of profit I made. I think office politics would have killed me, literally. But I also think that if I’d been able to get disability, that would have killed me also. I don’t think I’ve had it in me these last years to make a meaningful life without other people needing me to do so. Whatever the dynamics that make my job work for me, whether it’s more or less ego boost or more or less altruism (I could, after all, do a crappy, dispirited job and still look O.K. on paper), I do know that my attempts to help other people have been at least part of my saving grace.

Even if you cannot hold down a regular job, or if you need to keep a job that doesn’t exactly make you feel like you’re improving the lot of humanity, seek out ways to be of good use. Volunteer officially, or just listen carefully to other people’s problems and offer understanding and a hug. Help out when you can. If, say, your job is to ring up sales at a gas station, smile and be kind to everybody. Many of your customers will smille and be kind to you in turn. It’s infectious. If you practice empathy toward others, even in the littlest ways, you’ll find yourself stepping out of your own pain. You’ll find yourself feeling connected instead of alienated. All our great spiritual leaders have taught the essential truth that taking good care of others is the essential way to happiness. If you suffer from mental illness, doing for others might just save your life.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

When I First Knew I Was Different

I wrote a slightly longer version of this back in 1999, as part of my coming to terms with my then-recent diagnosis of bipolar. It was one of the original articles that appeared when mcmanweb debuted in late 2000.

I always knew I was different, but the day I knew that I knew came in the fall of 1956 when I was six going on seven. The big event of that time from my perspective - and ultimately the world's - was the Coming of Elvis, but it wasn't until the release of "Hound Dog" that I was aware the cosmic order was no longer the same.

I knew it then and there with all the sagacity of one uncorrupted by life experience.

The world that fall had irrevocably altered - a tectonic plate shift - a movement of the heavens and the earth that had the ground and everything on it vibrating to a new frequency. Nothing would ever be the same again.

History, of course, would prove me right.

We had just moved into a new house in a new neighborhood cleared out of woods and old pasture land in central Connecticut. I didn't know it then, nor did the rest of my family, but we were making history every bit as significant as the Coming of Elvis.

In moving out of their old Irish Catholic neighborhoods back in Springfield, Massachusetts - actually a series of moves over eight or nine years - my parents, along with the millions of others of their generation, had taken us to the uncharted shores of a brave new world, an immigration every bit as significant as the ones associated with the Potato Famine and Ellis Island.

And there to welcome us were our new neighbors - Italians, Jews, a lone Greek family, WASPs, Germans, Poles, and - oh yeh - some Irish. What was missing, of course, were blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, but that would be Stage Two. In Stage One, first whites had to learn to live together. We were integrating. We were never just white.

It was then and there, in my new neighborhood, just as white America was in the process of becoming one, that I realized I was different.

Had this been 1955 instead of 1956, I might have passed for normal. But "Hound Dog" blew my cover. I couldn't just splash through the mud or climb trees or kick through smoldering piles of raked leaves or jump off half-finished garage roofs into conical piles of sand like the rest of the kids. No, I had to stop and savor the moment as I gyrated my body and yelled out, "Y'aint nothin' but a hound dog!" at the top of my lungs.

There was something about the song that put me in a different place, that temporarily stopped the sun and suspended gravity and lifted me into a different realm. The shrinks have a name for it. Peak experience, they call it.

My new and mostly older buddies were not slow to recognize the amusement value in my antics, particularly when yet a new Elvis song came to my notice, "Hard Headed Woman".

So it happened that one day we headed home from a far-flung corner of our great vast adventure playground, needing only to cross an intervening bull pasture to get back in time for the "Spin and Marty" episodes on "Mickey Mouse". Or maybe it was something completely different like "American Bandstand," but "Spin and Marty" with its Triple-R Ranch and kids doing dangerous things on four-legged animals seems altogether more appropriate to a story involving a six-year old Elvis fan and a herd of bulls. Probably they were just steers.

Then one my friends - Cartman or Butters or Kyle or whoever - happened to mention what a pathetic lot these particular creatures were. No horns, just munching on grass, lying down, waiting to become steaks, too lazy to even chase the flies away.

You could see where this conversation was heading. Next thing, I was swimming with the bulls. Without giving the matter a second thought, I straddled one leg in the air over one reclining beast. I thought this would impress my friends, but no, half of them were gesturing me to sit while the others were gyrating to "Hard Headed Woman."

I shifted my weight and the leg came down. Instantly the horizon dramatically changed. I was high above it and the scenery was moving. I didn't wait to see how this would turn out. I jumped off, but without kicking off. Somehow, I willed myself into the air, and when gravity reasserted itself I landed like a cat, found my bearings, then dived through a nearby electric fence with a precision and athleticism that would have put Jim Brown, the best running back in all history, to shame.

Chalk one up to - drumroll please - the amygdala and its fight or flight supporting cast. Mine checked out just fine.

My first thought - once the luxury of thought returned - was that I had somehow not lived up to the faith my friends had in me. I had bailed out, aborted the mission in mid-flight. I was nothing more than a scaredy cat, which is the worst fate that can possibly befall a kid, particularly one looking for approval from his elders. I gathered myself on the ground, trying to hide my shame, then stood up to face the music.

But instead of the barrage of ridicule that I expected, I gazed up into expressions of amazement and disbelief, the kind of looks that might have greeted me had I just emerged from a pool of crocodiles. In other words there was no way my older buddies were going to do what I did, not in a million years, not even to show me how easy it was.

How could I be so stupid? I suddenly realized, feeling my face go red. What idiotic thing would I do next? Stick my hand in a running lawn mower? Suppose something had gone wrong? Suppose I had got these bulls really angry? Suppose I had set off a stampede?

Bulls on the patio, bulls in the flower beds, bulls crashing down houses, and trampling babies, here in this brave new world that our parents had only just created. Maybe I should just start running right now.

But it was the prospect of school the next day that frightened me the most, for here I knew with absolute certainty what fate had in store. Humiliation before my peers, forever branded as the moron too stupid to stay away from danger. Even the kindergartners would show me no mercy.

But none of my friends were laughing. If I were red, then they were pale. I was safe, I realized, much to my infinite relief. Turning me in, after all, would only draw attention to themselves, brand them as accessories for egging me on, expose them to the same ridicule, get them into even worse trouble than me. This was serious business, and it was all taking place on the unspoken level.

It never happened, simple as that. That was the silent pact we made. We wouldn't talk about it, even amongst ourselves. We wouldn't even think about it. It was as if we had the power to take those last few minutes back. By the time I got home it was even a secret from me.

But one thing had irrevocably changed. I knew that I was different, that the momentary terror I had felt on that back of that bull had been nothing compared to that fear in my gut over being singled out for ridicule for the rest of my life. Sure, it didn't eventuate, but the warning had been sounded. I had been given a little foretaste.

In the meantime, I still had a few carefree years ahead of me. Elvis would later go into the Army, and when he came out the world would once again be different. And so would he. And so would I.

Friday, September 4, 2009

It's Official: She's Batty

My little furball now has a name: Bathsheba AKA Batty.

Kill the fatted calf, break out the best champagne, summon the musicians and dancing girls, let church bells ring throughout the land - we are going to have a celebration.

Celebration-shmelabration, Batty is telling me. Drop that extra morsel of salmon in my bowl right now and be quick about it.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Batty or Jazzy - Decisions, Decisions

As you are aware by now, this gorgeous little furball promenaded into my life and decided to keep me. In the process of falling under her spell, I ceded to her dominion of the premises. Thus, only an enchantress name or something regal will do. A friend suggested Sheba, which I modified to Bathsheba, the Bible babe responsible for God visiting calamity upon the House of David. And, of course, I could call her, Batty, for short.

I was all set to go with Bathsheba/Batty when Jen wrote in with the suggestion of Jasmine/Jazzy. The eight-year-old kid next door simply loved that recommendation. So, here I am, four or five days later, still agonizing.

"Poop or get off the litter box," my nameless wonder keeps telling me.

So what is it: Batty or Jazzy?

Readers, I appeal to you. Help!!!

Thanks to all of you thus far. Please respond via posting a comment ...

Latest Poll Results - It's Official: We're Intuitive

"How intuitive are you?" I asked you in a poll I conducted during the month of August. There were seven possible answers - ranging from "psychic" to "sorry," and you were allowed to fill in as many as you like. One hundred fifty of you came up with 316 answers, or two each, presumably not ones that represented polar opposites.

The extremes provide some indication of where you stand. Nearly one in four of you (35, 23%) answered that you were "borderline or full-on psychic, or at least it seems that way." In contrast, less than one in ten (13, 8%) responded with, "Sorry, I'm totally rational and logical."

I highly doubt that we would find so many with psychic tendencies in the general population. I also suspect that a lot less of you would share this kind of information with your psychiatrist. We've all had experiences that we can only describe as uncanny and inexplicable. Some of us have them with greater regularity.

Moving on to straight-up intuition: Four in ten of you (64, 42%) indicated that "my thoughts and ideas seem to come out of nowhere" while more than half (83, 55%) reported that "I often read people and situations like a book." This represents our bipolar advantage - creativity and seemingly otherworldly mental abilities - as well as our curse - racing thoughts and distractibility.

I would have expected that "I can put two and two together and come up with five" to have yielded a similar result to the previous two answers, but only one out of four of you (38, 25%) said yes to this. In retrospect, it wasn't exactly clear what I was driving at. What I was looking for was insight into how we connect the dots to arrive at conclusions. I suspect that many more of us possess the type of prescience that stuns casual observers. By the same token, we can come across as fools for giving undue weight to the first thing that happens to pop into our heads.

The most intriguing response may be those one in five of you (32, 21%) who reported that "I have heightened awareness in areas of my life that require my attention, such as my job, my hobbies, or raising kids, but rarely elsewhere." This suggests that although some of us may be born more gifted than others, we can improve with practice. Indeed, the military is onto this. A recent article in the New York Times describes how bomb squads in Iraq are trained to use their sixth sense to sniff out ambushes.

One third of you (51, 34%) report, "I get occasional flashes of insight, but I see myself as rational and logical." If you fall into this category, along with the eight percent who see themselves as totally rational, please don't feel like you're missing out on anything. Being grounded confers enormous advantages.

So what is intuition all about? In a recent piece on BipolarConnect, I observed:

Investigations into creativity and intuition point to variations in the way the brain processes information. In either endeavor, the mind arrives at conclusions that cannot be explained as the product of rational and linear thinking.

One way of looking at it is that in the creative and/or intuitive mind, the brain may be inefficient at filtering out so-called irrelevant inputs. Strongly allied to this notion is the idea that creative/intuitive brains may be frighteningly efficient at connecting these so-called irrelevant inputs into something transcendentally relevant.

I also noted in my BipolarConnect piece that science tends to view creativity and intuition as normal behavior writ large. Our brains, after all, are wired to function in novel situations. But there also seems to be a fine line where states of hyper-reality cross over into breaks from reality. This may account for why intuition, creativity, and bipolar (and other mental ills) seem to come packaged in the same brain.

Finally, I cautioned that the left brain is there for a reason. Our intuition may offer an enormous advantage, but only our ability to think rationally gives direction and purpose to this mysterious gift.

Further reading:

From Knowledge Is Necessity

The Mystery of Creativity

Madness and Creativity - What's the Connection?

Trick Question: Vincent Van Gogh

From BipolarConnect

Intuition, the Paranomal, and Bipolar - Any Connection?

Intuition and Bipolar - Is There a Connection?

Question of the Week - Uncanny Moments

From mcmanweb:

Madly Creative


This is an extremely rare sight where I live - clouds. I'm 3,500 feet up in the mountains 40 miles east of San Diego. Yesterday, for the first time in months, it actually rained. Not only that, it poured. For virtually the whole day, we experienced thunder showers. Not the drive-by variety that I'm used to on the east coast. These babies literally swirled around our mountain the entire day, dropping in for return visits.

Finally, as the sun was dipping into the horizon, I was able to get out for a walk. I shot this through my iPhone, on the street where I live, about a quarter mile from my house, looking down into the valley below.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Me and Julia - Now a Major Motion Picture

Those who have seen the movie, "Julie and Julia," are already comparing this pivotal scene to such classics as "Casablanca" and "Gone with the Wind." As for me, "My Fair Lady" springs instantly to mind.

"Julie and Julia" is based on a book of the same name by Julie Powell and Julia Child's "My Life in France."

The late Julia Child, of course, is the iconic author of the ground-breaking "The Art of French Cooking," and the larger-than-life host of a series of wildly-successful TV programs that ran from the 60s through the 90s.

But, as we all know, Julia Child came into gourmet cooking late in life and had to be guided along the way. That's where I come in. Here I am in the movie, playing myself, in a scene with Meryl Streep as Julia Child. Throughout the movie, Julia Child is Eliza Doolittle to my Professor Harold Higgins. Trust me, in the beginning I couldn't even get Julia to boil water.

As you will recall, I made a bet with a friend that I could pass Julia off as a gourmet French chef who I would get signed to a book deal and TV contract. After months of frustration, I was finally ready to try out Julia in public. Well, you know the result. Julia didn't know a whisk from an egg beater. The G√Ęteau Victoire au Chocolat Mousseline that she is making (pictured here) came out with the taste and texture of a Michelin tire.

The wrong kind of Michelin rating, take my word for it. All she had to do was follow my recipe.

The rest, of course, is history. I quit in frustration and was never heard from again while Julia went on to become an international celebrity. Julia always credited me for her success, citing her determination to spite me as the motivation for her to keep going.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Coming to Terms

Flying Home, I discussed settling into my new rural environment in southern CA. To pick up where I left off:

A thought-provoking Zen parable goes like this:

A man encountered a tiger in a field. He attempted to escape by lowering himself down a precipice. He looked down and, to his horror, saw more tigers looking up, anticipating their next meal. He looked up and spotted two mice above gnawing on the vine he was clinging to.

Oh, crap.

Then, looking to his right, he sighted a strawberry growing from the cliff face. Reaching over, he grabbed the morsel and popped it into his mouth.

“Mmmm!” he thought. “Delicious!”


My own translation: Enjoy the peanut butter.

By now I had all my stuff out of its boxes, and McMan International back up and running, which is my way of saying I had my desktop computer all plugged in and wired for internet. I had an email newsletter to get out, my first from my new world headquarters. I anticipated going full blast into the evening, but things went off without a hitch and I was unexpectedly through at about 2:30 in the afternoon.

Time to unwind with a walk. The winter sun was already low over the peaks behind me, and I was in the shadows, but the valley below me and the peaks in the distance were bathed in brilliant light.

I stopped in at the local coffee shop for a coffee and muffin to go. Shelley the proprietor heated my muffin for me and sliced it into tasty morsels. Soon, I was in the sun on the valley floor. The open space before me allowed my mind to breathe. Not too far off, peaks and rock formations rose from the valley like great cathedrals. I sipped my coffee, and munched on my muffin morsels, savoring the moment.

On my way back, I stopped at the general store, which adjoins the post office. Yes, we even have our own zip code. It was to be a dogs and beans night for me. Back outside, the sun had set behind the peaks and the temperature was dropping fast. I was back into my own shit now, still reeling from recent events, facing financial ruin, uncertain about my future, wondering how the hell I would ever get my life back together.

I hurried my pace, anxious to get home - home? - only to stop dead in my tracks. I looked right. The entire valley below was now in the shadows, as were the peaks and rock formations. But in the distance, a steep summit caught what was left of the sun full broadside. The mountain appeared to be radiating from the inside, a lustrous rosy glow that sharply contrasted with the cool hues of the darkened landscape.


Thank you, God, I found myself saying. I was experiencing the perfect moment, in the moment, what they call a Zen moment, fully aware, in the present. Tomorrow I could very well fall to pieces. But right now was a gift. Life happens here, right now. If you're second-guessing your past or fretting about your future, you're missing out.

The moment lasted maybe five seconds. Then I was back inside my own head, my own shit. But it wasn't the exact same shit inside the same head I returned to. I was back in my past, but it was one I could come to terms with. I was back in my future, but it was one I could face with hope.

Something similar occurred to me more than 30 years before, only back then it happened with the throttle wide open headed over the edge of a cliff.

We can all recall our exceptionally aware moments. Unfortunately, they tend to occur in highly-stressful and often life-threatening situations, such as skidding on glare ice at 60 MPH. This is when our fight or flight response takes over. The frontal lobes go off-line. We literally stop thinking as the faster-processing and more primitive regions of the brain (think amygdala) assume executive control.

Fight or flight is normally associated with an over-reaction, but here we are talking about a rare mental state that can only be described as calm awareness. If we had time to think about the dire straights we were in, we would probably panic. Instead, barring bad luck, we successfully avoid wrapping our vehicle around a tree. On one hand, the crisis is over in a micro-second. On the other, it’s as if time were slowed down.

There is a stretch of the Route 101 Coastal Highway in Marin County north of San Francisco that has probably washed into the Pacific by now. Gerald Ford was President and I had hair. I leaned my bike into the curves of the road, first one way, then the other, speeding up on the straightaways and gearing down on the hairpins perched high above the Pacific, my ears ringing with the roar of the waves crashing against the rocks below.

I was just leaning in for another sharp turn when I came upon some rocks that had worked their way loose from the hills above. There was no time to think. I swerved to avoid the obstacle and brought the bike around 180 degrees, but it was going backward toward the ocean on its own momentum. I felt the sickening sensation of the back wheel leaving the shoulder and losing traction in the soft earth behind. For a brief fleeting instant I had the sensation of being suspended in midair, like Wile E Coyote in those Roadrunner cartoons. Then the bike found purchase, jerked forward, and stalled on the shoulder.

I turned off the ignition, wheeled my bike to a safe place, and took stock. Something had shifted in me in those two or three seconds. Whatever had been holding me back before was holding me back no longer.

Within days, my life was on a new trajectory that would find me in New Zealand, attending law school, married, with a kid on the way. Now, here I was, decades later, in rural southern California. Healing happens, but don't expect to stay in the same place. There was no going back, not to New Jersey, not to my old sense of self. At the same time, I felt a sense of home. I was no longer on the run. I was here to stay. The land had heard my request. It was talking to me.