Immigrant from Paradise: Me and Mental Illness

I have always suspected, ever since the age of eleven or twelve, that I was mildly bipolar. My whole life, I have feared either “going crazy” or sinking into a deep depression. My mother was my support line. Each time I felt myself in decline, she would tell me that everyone experiences highs and lows in their lives and encourage me to go distract myself with something I liked doing to ride it out. Each time I’d freak out, she’d assure me I’d always be able to get out of that low state by the sheer strength of my will. For twenty-five years, I regulated myself astutely in this way, and for twenty-five years, it worked. I attributed the ‘peaks’ and ‘valleys’ to some sort of circadian rhythm I assumed was natural to all people, one whose rise and fall were perhaps felt more greatly in me. I had no idea how other people experienced the world. I still don’t. No one can ever know how another person experiences the world, but my mother’s attempt to help me, in the only way she knew how, led me to believe that in this respect we were, in general, all the same.

sidney nolan

I made sense of things by recognizing that I—and I still believe this—am someone who feels deeply, about everything. When I am happy, I am extremely happy. When I’m down, I can be extremely low. It’s not that my mood changes for no reason, it’s that the effect of a joyful or sad event becomes magnified a thousand fold, so that they would not be such under ‘normal’ circumstances. And the varying degree of that magnification determines the severity of experience.

Over the past winter break at the close of 2014, I felt myself, once more, start on a downward slope. I can recall a distinct moment, waking up on the first morning after having returned to my parents’ house in northern California, where there was no more snow or slush, no more harsh winter of Wisconsin, and where my old bedroom remained. Looking out the window I saw all gray, the cement of the neighbors’ houses lined up in a row on an overcast day. Pure suburbia. The profound aesthetic, natural? cultural? poverty of America that sent me into the first major depression of my life as a thirteen-year-old immigrant from paradise, the Australia of my remembrance, full of eucalyptus trees and ecological wonder. A poverty and ugliness I’d never really gotten over, that surely haunts me each time I see, and I constantly see, the ugliness of America. I felt this weight come down over me, like a whoosh, cover me over as in an upside-down bowl. I held up my phone and made a document of the moment of feeling, which seemed significant to me. I sent the picture to my then-longtime-friend-turned-lover with the caption, “Desolation Central, CA, USA.” I made light of it, but I felt the familiar fear of no return and literally shook and averted myself from the window.

In the week following, I existed in either a mixed or slightly manic state. The only other distinct moment I recall from this time is of looking at an old family album of my parents in their youth, and feeling so happy because, well the pictures were pretty cool. My parents looked utterly beautiful and stylish in their own. I was laughing, ecstatic, why not. But in hindsight I was much too happy. I was so high that after a while, I’d exhausted myself emotionally and had to stop looking at the album. This too I laughed aloud at myself for, though I could see on my mother’s smiling face also a slight surprise or trepidation at my having reacted so strongly. It was not as if I’d never seen their old photos before. Once again, I documented the pictures or the moment of feeling and sent them to M.

I knew I was in trouble, feeling a quite persistent low thereafter. So that although I felt physically tired, even reluctant, I agreed to meet up with M. in Portland, the halfway point between our parents’ homes, knowing I needed to be cheered up. Even with a bad cold I’d caught over New Years Eve spent by the Sacramento river, I felt a great warmth and relief when he came to meet me at the airport. By the end of our week together however, I’d felt the distance between us to be so great that we could no longer be together, though outwardly all was well. All of this was complicated by the fact that M. suffered from a troubling chronic depression, which I’d learned of early on in our friendship and feared, because I feared the germ of that in me. I only overstepped our friendship when I felt sure that I had finally willed myself out of this condition, when I felt confident, invincible even, cured of myself through twenty-five years of hard work. That in this superior version of me, I could finally take care of M., give him relief. That because I knew he loved me, somehow my love in return would cure him of his depression.

So when I saw that his happiness with me did not come at the exclusion of those ticks and symptoms of depression and anxiety, that were perhaps even heightened by being with me, by fearing the loss of me, symptoms which are painful not only to their owner but to those around him, I felt I had failed M. I realized that in this fundamental respect of quality of life, I could do nothing or little for him. In my uninformed notion of what mental illness was—something a person should be able to get over—I blamed him and myself for each our inadequacy. I returned to my parents’ home after the trip feeling extremely down. I would get over M. eventually, I was disappointed but not inconsolable. I wasn’t worried about that, but lifting my own spirits became more urgent than ever. I knew the situation with my own state of being was becoming dire.

So I did many other things to pull myself up. I cut my hair down to inches because I remembered how great it felt the last time I did that. I bought a pair of sunglasses that were two perfectly reflective rounds, what is called in Chinese the “accountant master’s glasses,” or here, John Lennon glasses, only supersized. I switched out of a class I anticipated not caring about in hopes of caring for another. I started to apply for fellowships only to stop out of uncharacteristic self-doubt. I dropped out of a class with a professor I respected in hopes of caring for the classes I was still enrolled in. When teaching became a drag, which had before felt essentially effortless, I put in five times more time and effort into prepping in hopes of doing a better job than I believed I was doing. I went to the doctor for the first time citing “mental illness.” I took a pill one time before stopping. I went to a therapist who gave me pamphlets and told me to go to psychiatry on the seventh floor. I went to other doctors. I forced myself to go out and socialize even when my body didn’t feel up to it physically. I started telling close friends and then not-so-close friends that I was in trouble. I called my mother probably everyday, or more, as the sole guardian of my terrible, shameful secret. At night I skyped with M. only to hear him gloat, as if to say, ‘See? Now you know how bad it is.’

Nothing worked. Everything backfired. Each failed attempt on my part only gave further confirmation to the thought that I’d finally let this happen to myself. I’d somehow become so weak. That probably I was always this weak and I merely pretended to be tough. That my whole life was a lie, and this sorry person was revealed as the real me. If I couldn’t get over it, it was my fault. I fell into extreme self-loathing and shame. My fears of cognitive-intellectual decline (teaching, concentrating, thinking) gave way to irrational fears of not being able to take care of myself (making food, drinking water, cleaning). I experienced a total loss of interest in everything—funny enough with the exception of food, which ensured my survival and suffering.

In three months of spiraling downward, I’d arrived at a new place. A place entirely foreign, unknown, harder than moving to any new country because, well this state seemed unknowable, by science even, even by the experts, unknowable, more terrible than America. A place that made me feel contrary to myself, or what I believed I knew of myself.

It was here that I ran away. Back to the west coast, to California, where I’d quickly realize things were quite the same. That my mind, my way of experiencing the world would not be altered, no matter where I went. There was no escape from myself. I ran from Wisconsin because of the irrational fears, but also because I recognized those fears as irrational. I knew I needed help. If not help, then time. If not time, space.

I was deeply ashamed but did not want to lie. So I did my best with the unspecified but honest explanation that I was ill and was seeking treatment. What that treatment would entail, if it even existed, I did not know.

I am just now coming out of things. In the eight to nine months of its own kind of grotesque, seemingly endless gestation, at times—many times—unbearable, I tried in response doing many things, and I also tried not doing anything. I can see the turning points in retrospect, and all the little things that added up that helped. Carey Mulligan being adorable and badass in the film adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s novel, Far from the Madding Crowd, which I was supposed to read for a class but never finished. Lucky Peach magazine “The Plant Kingdom” issue and my subsequent mastery of the mapo tofu dish. Democracy Now! with Amy Goodman syndicated via 90.3FM KDVS at 12:00PM every weekday. Andrew Solomon’s TED talk on YouTube, “How the worst moments in our lives make us who we are.” Stephen Fry’s two-part BBC documentary The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive. The 1980 self-help classic Feeling Good my doctor told me to buy off Amazon. The strange phenomenon that Americans were paying attention to a socialist’s run for president. Osamu Tezuka’s animated masterpiece, Metropolis. Learning to skate. Skating until I busted my ankle. Confined and immobile, consuming volume after volume of alt comics the size of religious tomes. Jessica Abel’s La Perdida. Anders Nilsen’s Big Questions. Drawing. Petting Beanie the dog. If there was one thing I could find to enjoy, I’d go on living. But it was the moments in which I did nothing, the most awful moments, moments of paralysis and anxiety (anxiety at what I’d “become,” anxiety at paralysis) that led me out of it, the worst part of it that counts.

As for my relationship with M., it collapsed simply out of the irreconcilability of our philosophies, when his biological fatalism no longer allowed me to go on living.

I couldn’t have come out of it without the friends and acquaintances who stuck with me, whether I opened up to them or not, whether I ignored them or not, whether I cared about them or not, which in my lowest moments I have to say I did not. I was this close to disappearing forever. People, strangers even, who showed me kindness. My parents of course, even my mother’s own mistaken view of this beast. My father, to whom I’d always planned eventual estrangement, as the architect of my first depression (that of America), to whom I am very distant, who upon hearing my admission immediately wept openly and spoke of his own episodes of depression, who at times even gave me the more grounded, less affectionate support I could not get from my mother. A therapist I saw just twice, Jody, a very sweet blonde woman who likes to go out with her girlfriends and get manicures, someone utterly different from me, who listened to me toss tough existential philosophical questions at her and responded in kind with simplicity and down-to-earthness.

When I felt I finally understood this new place, that finally everything made sense to me, I asked Jody, So now what do I do? How do I get out of this? And the single solution she offered gave me infinite hope, something coherent with my optimism yet corrective of my past ignorance. She said, You create new neural pathways.

How do I do that?

By thinking. By our thoughts, which we do have control over, even as we cannot control our emotions.

As my dear friend Lewis clarified it for me, it’s not that mental illness isn’t biological and thereby fatal. But that everything is always already biological. As Jody said, from a neurological standpoint, the brain is only able to develop due to the processes of thinking and learning, which occur from the time we are born until we die, though the bulk of it occurs when we are children. So that yes, it is all biological, but we are not without agency. That thinking can and does, scientifically and practically, if my experience holds any proof, alter our brain chemistry. That the biological process of thought-making influences our very biology is at once astonishingly empowering and, excuse me, a no-brainer.

In my darkest moments of despair, I kept stumbling upon PBS documentaries on prosthetics and robotics for the disabled. What never held great interest for me before suddenly seemed broadcast for me. It is a good parallel if what I’ve tried to express has not been clear enough. Things happen to people that change their lives drastically. It can happen at any moment, and they are no longer the same. They can never go back. Perhaps they do not recognize themselves. Perhaps at first they will believe themselves inferior than a former version of themselves. Many other people will believe so, but the thoughts and judgments of other people are always out of our control. What is required is radical acceptance, easier said than done. It took me nine months, or maybe twenty-five years. Once you achieve acceptance, you love and respect yourself as you are. You do not judge yourself according to other people’s standards. And then, because the circumstances have changed, in order to go on living, you change and you adapt. If you want to survive, it is that.

Going through this ordeal has changed my values, or clarified them. The particular way I happen to experience the world, whether you want to pathologize it as an illness, see it as a predisposition, vulnerability, personality or character flaw, for all the grief it has given me, it has also given me tremendous joy. It is this way, the only way I know how to experience the world, that makes life for me full of pleasure—that makes the tiniest things giant, that even the routine sensuous experience of taking in a breath can be unexpectedly sweet. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. And I don’t wish I were anyone other than myself.

Everyone’s values change over time. Sometimes slowly, sometimes abruptly. Our values are changed by the chance events and people we encounter. That is why people—the connections and relationships we forge with them—are the things that truly matter. It is the external environment around us, and other people, who hold the capacity to change us, especially when we believe ourselves no longer capable of change, radical change. I hope no one has to go through it, but when death is this close, everything is so trivial, becomes so clear and simple. If I’d always aspired to living openly, that is, with openness to the unknown, to my own inevitable misdirection and ignorance, then surely it had only been done in theory until now.

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Thanks to my mother for listening as I spewed a very primitive version of this that probably made little sense while crying profusely in the passenger seat as she drove us on I-94 toward Lake Michigan. Thanks to friends for the long-distance phone calls, skype sessions, sporadic texts, and especially the exhausting long conversations that let me draft this before I even knew I wanted to write it.

Paul Klee

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