Seeking Sanity Step by Step
Like many stories of my peers I had to hit rock bottom. This came in my third hospitalization when I wound up committed to a state psychiatric hospital. The words “state psychiatric hospital” sound terrifying, but it wasn’t that bad a place, to be honest. The hospital acts as a place of confinement. I was sent there after going to Trinidad, where I was manic for a month. I tried to enter Venezuela illegally on the way back, to no avail. My illness devastated me at age twenty when I was committed to a psychiatric hospital for sixty days and eventually diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I slowly left the realm of normalcy experiencing a fit of depression and then a surge of energy which led to manic delusion, where I was out of touch with reality. Going to the hospital crashed my high flying rocket ship as my freedom was taken and I was given a tranquilizer. I spent sixty days under the ever present hospital staff as they observed my every move. Upon release there was a long road to recovery, I struggled to find my place in the world feeling dirty and soiled because of my illness.
I believe that the defining test of mental illness is whether a person needs some chemical to live a ‘normal’ or relatively ‘normal’ life. Unlike a physical problem that is easily understood and accepted, mental illness is a disorder of the brain. That is an x-ray can show a broken leg but, alas, there is no brain scan that can show a mental illness, to prove that it exists. That makes it no less real in any way, to the person suffering. Unfortunately, many loved ones don’t understand. Families and friends sometimes question the validity of a mental illness. After my first hospitalization back in 1987, in the depths of a severe depression, I had no hope in life and I would sleep long hours. My friend thought that I should get a job. He could not understand my severe disability or the reality of my mental affliction; to him I was just being lazy.
Bipolar disorder or manic depression, as it used to be known, is a mental illness that is two sides of the same coin. My depression was so severe I couldn’t get out of bed and take a shower. On that flip side, my mania brought me to a hyper-elevated state where I felt like I was on drugs. I was intensely creative, but I lost touch with reality. My religious beliefs became so intense that I believed I was a prophet to God. I even went as far as going to the United Nations in Manhattan to deliver a message from God. When I am manic, nobody doubts my mental illness; it’s as obvious as a slap in the face. When I am depressed, people just see laziness.
The pathway to rehabilitation begins with acceptance of the problem. In my personal case, I was in denial about my illness. That and my hyper-religious fascination set me up for destructive behavior. On one side of the road I didn’t want to accept my mental illness as being real. On the other side was the belief that God could cure me. All I needed was a little faith so, to demonstrate my faith, I promptly quit taking my medicine. I was again committed into a psychiatric hospital. Foolishly, I quit taking my meds twice. When I quit taking my medicine my depression lifted. Unfortunately the balloon ride up didn’t stop and I was cast into the stratosphere of madness with a pool, full gym and food that rivals fine restaurants. Still I didn’t have my freedom and with that sole fact it was depressing. Thus, whenever I found myself in a psychiatric hospital I longed for a quick release and this hospital was no exception.
After thirty days inpatient I went before a judge. In the state of New Jersey if you are committed you have the right to go before a judge for an evaluation. The records indicated that I attempted suicide. This wasn’t true and I told the judge so. He believed me and, to my relief, he ordered my release, but there was a catch. The judge told me that if he ever saw me again I was going to be locked up for a very long time. Like cold water was thrown in my face I realized that I should take steps not to return to a psychiatric hospital. This meant following the advice of those trying to help me and that meant taking my medicine.
But, ah, if only the story would end there. I kept true to my word and took my medicine faithfully. Unfortunately, my medicines failed me. The lithium I was on wasn’t effective. As a result I returned three more times to psychiatric hospitals. I was a volunteer patient, which meant the rules and regulations were less strict but I was still confined. Living a life slipping in and out of mental institutions was the reality I was facing. The lives of some of my peers consisted of living in group homes where the highlight of their day would be a cigarette.
This brings up a point about recovery, it comes in increments. There are no quantum leaps from being in a psychiatric hospital to being independent and a productive member in the workforce. Rather the path is crossed with many small steps—accepting my illness and taking my medicine. Another positive thing I began to do was to write. Writing wasn’t a magical cure to my illness but it was a constructive element that allowed me to cope and overcome.
Exploring one’s artistic creativity is a healthy thing for any person regardless of mental state. For somebody such as me suffering from bipolar it is an outlet to release thoughts and troubles on my mind. Besides the therapeutic aspect I really enjoy writing. In those early days of going in and out of hospitals my prospects of ever working looked rather bleak.
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I would write in the hospital and outside as well. While hospitalized, I would write poems for my fellow patients and their guests when they visited. We all got a kick out of it and it helped pass some lonely hours. It was a great positive as it added a dimension to my being, something that I consisted of beyond my mental illness. I was more than a psychiatric patient; I was also a poet.
You see, mental illness assumes one’s identity. In America, we usually recognize somebody by what kind of work they do. However, many people with mental illness don’t work. So our psychiatric problem becomes one of our most important defining characteristics. When I socially engaged with people who didn’t know of my mental illness the question of ‘what I did for a living?’ would come up. There I was put in a quandary. I didn’t want to be honest and say “I have a mental illness and I don’t work.” True as it may be; it just isn’t socially acceptable. On the other hand it was hard to get around the issue; it stopped me from getting close to strangers and making new friends.
Today, when somebody asks me what I do I can answer with a plurality of answers. I can tell them I am a caregiver, or a writer or a minister in complete honesty. With time and walking the road to recovery things gradually improve. I don’t even have to bring in the mental illness aspect unless I want to. My mental illness no longer defines my life. Paradoxically, I reached this safe area by addressing the mental illness. A great part of this was taking a relatively new medicine. I was one of the first people in the United States to be put on it. It worked wonderfully and I managed to stay out of psychiatric hospitals. Previous medicines would only slow down the slip into mania whereas my new medicine put up a brick wall of defense.
My future looked brighter with every month I managed to stay out of a psychiatric hospital. Previously when I returned to college and because of pressures I wound up back in a psychiatric hospital. Now I went to a four year college and graduated with a degree in mathematics. Despite my psychiatric problems I had accomplished something that most of the people in the United States hadn’t done.
A lot of people never learn what their passion in life is. Many people with successful careers are very miserable. I am fortunate to have found what I love to do and to have explored its depths. In my life I continued with the song lyrics and poetry and even expanded into prose. At this point I have over a dozen books out mostly published by small independent publishers.
Several of my books explore the depths of mental illness. In particular is my memoir entitled More than the Madness. This book explores the period of life this essay covers. It describes my life from birth until the point I was stabilized on Clozaril. It deals with the ins and outs of mental illness but the book is much more. My personal stories show that despite being bipolar, that I too am fully human and thus there is More than the Madness. This book came about by writing short stories of my life. I shared them with my friends and eventually there was enough for a book.
In opening up in this book I have inadvertently become an advocate for the mentally ill community. Anybody who is open with a mental illness automatically becomes a representative of the population. With the unfortunate tragedies of mass shootings one thing that is always brought up is the subject of ‘mental health’. I fully understand the point that is being made but I think if we want to end violence in the United States we should focus on the culture of violence. Pointing a convenient finger at mental illness is in fact the easy way out. We need to find a way that we as a people can come together in a more compassionate and loving way. People who suffer from mental illness greatly need acceptance.
In writing my books I have put myself at the mercy of the world. While this opens up my vulnerability it also explains the misconstrued world that I live in. I am at peace with my decision knowing that the potential for good is worth the personal sacrifice. Any future prospective employer could easily do a Google search of my name and see the books I have written. Without a doubt they will learn that I have a mental illness. Unfortunately, in today’s world this would put me at a disadvantage. But I continue on in doing the work that I do as I feel it is both important and necessary.
Mental illness is not something to be feared but rather a reality of life to be accepted. Search for your perfect person you’ll find not a one. The struggle for acceptance goes on and I will continue to explain to the world from the point of view of the mentally ill. For me I have crossed that line and there is no going back. Like it or not this is what I am, but there is a whole lot more of me beyond my bipolar. Whether you chose to look or not that is up to you.