“More than those who hate you, more than all of your enemies, an undisciplined mind does greater harm. More than your mother, more than your father, more than all your family, a well-disciplined mind does greater good.” – The Buddha, “The Dhammapada,” (3:33-43)
People describe “hitting bottom” in various ways. In my experience, while still using I would think that I had fallen to some plateau of degradation but then just kept digging myself lower and lower. In hindsight, I believe the “bottom” is really just the graveyard. I was lucky enough to somehow hit the brakes before that happened. But I admittedly had some menacing obstacles that encouraged that surrender.
At one point near the end of my using, I had come down with a case of “cotton fever,” a condition resulting from a bacteria-tainted-fragment of the cotton, used to draw up drugs into the syringe, quietly entering my bloodstream. I had heard of this health risk related to ongoing-IV-drug-use but if the threat of AIDS, Hepatitis, and even Myocarditis didn’t scare me away, this possible ailment surely did not. I was incredibly ill within what seemed like minutes of shooting up: fever and chills, body aches, and gasping for air were some of the hilarities I experienced. Over the course of a very long day, these symptoms eventually wore off. But while shaken up by this incident, I barreled forward into the madness.
After finishing another in a series of grueling gigs without drugs, I decided to stay up all night and drive to a local methadone clinic and sign up. While I hated that actual drug for recreational purposes and considered it a “dirty high” like cold medicine or weaker narcotics, its sustained effects surely helped stave off my cravings. I had heard that “anyone” could climb aboard and they accepted all takers. Of course, this information was told to me by other, runny-nosed junkies so I probably should have questioned my source. Knowing that the parking lots of these clinics are usually inhabited by early birds waiting for their daily dose or “take-homes” long-before daybreak, I left the house ninety minutes before the clinic opened. On the way there, I repeatedly blasted the Neil Young song “Don’t Be Denied” as a kind of cheer-leading anthem and self-aggrandizing moment. Addicts always think the camera is focused on them. Long story short: they denied me. Looking back, I think this was a blessing in disguise, however painful at the time, since I might have never left the world of drugs. And in truth, when factoring in my batting average, methadone might have expedited my chances of an inevitable dirt nap.
I also had the benefit of running out of recipes. As my habit increased, my need for drugs had risen accordingly. I was abusing a variety of medications including Neurontin, an off-label drug usually prescribed for epilepsy or neuropathic pain, the phenobarbital Donnatal, and an array of tranquilizers. While these drugs put me in various states of dopiness and downright disorientation, they never hit the mark of my ongoing dope sickness. Even though by this time I considered myself an honorary-physician, I made an incredible desperation-fueled-error in purchasing a large amount of the painkiller Talwin Nx; a drug I was unfamiliar with and had neglected to investigate online with my dope fiend research skills. While most popularly-abused opiates fall under the classification of being opioid agonists, binding to the receptor sites in the brain and producing the junkie-desired fireworks, Talwin Nx is an opioid agonist-antagonist which contains the drug Pentazocine as well as Naloxone. The latter chemical is one of the key agents in the current-detox-craze drug Suboxone. Naloxone counteracts the effects of Morphine-like opiates and is used in Emergency Rooms to treat drug overdoses, blasting the central nervous system and respiratory function awake and hopefully kicking the near-dead junkie back to life while also kicking them into instant drug withdrawal. Not realizing this possible side effect, and still having opiates in my body, I took a handful of the Talwin and experienced one of the most discomforting drug-related experiences of my life, making myself even sicker in the process. Amazingly, the person I bought them from gave me a refund. I later returned and purchased more familiar drugs from them, the circular transaction of addiction.
I know that two experiences in particular were moments of clarity; or at least increased awareness of my lousiness. On New Year’s Eve of 2005, I had spent most of that day scrambling around town to cop, naturally, some of the much-loathed methadone. Hours later, I was successful in that venture and went to play the gig that night which was actually booked at the local navy base. I had gone from playing to a sold-out crowd at Brixton Academy in London, England a few years earlier; now I was strung-out and preparing to play to an empty bar at a military base – direct ego hit. Unless they have somehow been reprimanded for some violation, no one in their right mind is on a base on a holiday night, especially New Year’s Eve. The bar was located right on the beach. After we arranged our gear onstage and sound checked, I went outside and sat on a concrete block that covered, most fittingly, the septic tank. I can remember looking up at the moon and wondering how in the hell I had wound up at this moment in my life: almost 34-years-old, completely addicted to drugs, and now preparing to play cover songs for a bartender and two glum sailors nursing their beers. Years later, I believe this moment in the moonlight was some kind of prayer, however unarticulated and self-pity-driven. But I kept using. Fast forward to early 2007; I had ended a ten-year relationship with my girlfriend. I feared I was dragging her and her family down and I’m sure I was correct. My using was also beginning to affect my health. I seemed to begin experiencing an allergic reaction to opiates: sometimes when I would shoot up, my face would turn flush with flecks of red rising up from my skin. I had developed prostatitis, a condition that was certainly aided by heroin’s tendency to shut down and inhibit bodily function, particularly those of an “evacuation-based” nature. Not long after that, an angry-looking cyst appeared on my tailbone, a condition that was surely also exacerbated by the drugs and adulterants that I was injecting into my bloodstream at every available moment.
But the worst condition I dealt with was the absolute sense of emptiness. The decades-long spell I had cast with a cauldron of chemicals had finally worked; I was losing who I was. I had failed at everything and was now losing the shaky handhold with my oldest friend: drugs. My spirit was splintered and the shrapnel was hitting everyone closest to me. In the late spring of that same year, I had called someone who could hopefully hook me up with something. Horror of horrors, they were not home and I can still remember the annoyance and disgust in the voice of their spouse, who knew exactly why I was dialing their number. “Don’t ever call here again,” was their strong suggestion, before hanging up on me. Later that night at around 3 a.m., I was listening to “Corrina, Corrina,” by Taj Mahal, a song that I had always loved and had certainly played while falling into a nod. The universe snapped its fingers and the past years hit me at full force. I cracked. I wept. I gave up. And then the miracle kicked in.
I decided to reveal to my family what was really going on with me. I had used a series of excuses – depression, my artistic temperament, exploiting pain management, the “I’m Irish” card – to explain, rationalize, and justify my behavior to them for many years. They were, by no fault of their own, both my ultimate targets and enablers. My parents had already been reduced to buying a lock box to keep money and any pain medications safe from my ever-creeping hands. Of course, I eventually stole the key, made a copy, and emptied the box. Their understandable distrust in me was only overshadowed by an unspoken disappointment. I sat down in their living room and hesitantly explained to them that I was not the world’s most baffling pain patient but in fact was a drug addict. I can remember my dad weeping when I revealed the awkward disclosure of stealing their insulin syringes and finally closing the case of The Missing Spoons from the Kitchen. “Daniel, I had no idea you were this bad. Why didn’t you tell us this?” he cried. His tears hit me in the center of my heart. If I had any doubts about getting honest, they were demolished in that moment of seeing my father crying out of concern over what I had become. “Well, what do we do?” my mom asked. I had no idea. The world of drug rehabs, treatment centers, and detoxes was completely alien to me. My family is decidedly working-class and there was no Betty Ford Treatment Center Fund on hand. But I remembered the people from the band I had previously worked for. And I remembered those mutual support meetings. I looked online and found the meetings. After this admission, I still spent another week spinning my wheels, driving in circles. Anything to not get clean.
I finally went to a meeting, still using. I had to take a handful of pills to even operate the car and make the mile-long drive to the meeting place. When the floor was opened for sharing, I immediately announced “I’m an addict named Dan” and admitted that I was killing myself with using and needed help. That was the new abracadabra that broke the ancient spell. I talked to a man that night after the meeting and he agreed to be my sponsor, a guide and confidant in recovery. I then went home and threw everything away; even the “expensive bong.” Over the past decade, I had accumulated every possible piece of drug paraphernalia and a veritable library of drug related literature (i.e. “Grow Your Own Opium at Home!”). I went as far as demanding that my brother photograph me flushing the remainder of my drugs, as some kind of documentation of this turning point. Since I had told my family I was an addict, gone to one support group meeting, and was now destroying all of the very things that had been destroying me, I was making certain that I could not “take this back.” I had to move forward, however terrified. The next day, September 6, 2007, I went back to my second meeting – and my first day clean. By the grace of some higher power, I have so far stayed clean since that day.
Since I still couldn’t get my shit together to actually call a treatment center, I decided to kick opiates cold turkey. I am one of the most stubborn, bullheaded motherfuckers on this planet and I now realize that there is not a cessation program in this galaxy that would work for me. So I kicked. I was incredibly, almost-comically sick. Much medical literature on opiate withdrawal offers that the patient will experience “flu-like symptoms” for “24 to 72 hours” but that information, however well-intended, is really like comparing a broken heart to a broken shoelace. I lost around twenty pounds in less than two weeks, puking and shitting nonstop. I subsisted on cigarettes, nutritional replacement drinks, and gagged back a few spoonfuls of yogurt. I would sit in a meeting with my eyes watering and nose running, trembling, sweating and aching. Suddenly I would race to the bathroom and then stagger back to my plastic chair. Yet none of this was a surprise to me. I had felt the pangs of withdrawal for seven years; they were the alarm clock that ordered me to I use. What did surprise me was the grieving process I experienced. Maybe four days into kicking, I was sprawled out on my bed watching the film “Paris, Texas.” While Wim Wenders’ 1984 film is surely a poignant piece of cinema, I was suddenly overcome with an irrational wave of emotion and began sobbing. Through all of my cellular and emotional weirdness, at that moment I somehow followed this sudden surge of melancholy to its source: If I wanted to survive and live any further, I could never successfully use any drugs or alcohol again. They would kill me.
One of the many and-almost-universal delights of opiate withdrawal is that while the detoxing dope fiend is completely and utterly lethargic, with only the faintest level of strength and energy, sleep is impossible. At night I would lie in bed and listen to The Band’s first two albums repeatedly, letting the low volume of the music distract me from the ongoing battle raging through my being. One of the first and foremost suggestions that I heard at these meetings was this: pray. Keep in mind that I had no use for any God. If there was a God, then I was His mutant chimerical combination of mental illness conjoined with addiction. And I was already somewhat weary of these meetings since many of the facilities where they met happened to be located inside of religious institutions. But I was so willing to try anything to get through those first days that I did pray. I prayed for one thing and that was sleep. And that night I slept for eight hours non-stop, while still in the eye of the hurricane. I considered this a miracle. I still do. So I took more suggestions. I kept going to meetings, sometimes three a day. The meetings and people there were helping me kick, minute by minute, and I was going home clean. And I continued to pray to whatever was out there. I made up a God or some spiritual force. I prayed for help, I prayed for the lifelong obsession to use drugs to be lifted. Three days into getting clean, I prayed the purest request that I had probably ever sent outward and into the unknown. I have only revealed this to a few people in my life because it can sound so unbelievable, if not delusional. But my thoughts were always in the order of garbled ideas, negative inner chatter, and fear. I prayed to whatever was out there to help me, to save me, to stop me from destroying myself. And as soon as I finished that plea I immediately “heard” this in both mind and heart: “You can either live your dreams or die in this nightmare.” I felt an indescribable peace and stillness flow through me. I believed what I had been told. And I still do.
After three months clean, I decided to go see my primary care physician and reveal to him that I was an addict. He had been one of the main targets/victims of my drug-seeking-song-and-dance and I needed to tell him the truth – for my own safety as much as owning up to the reality of who I was. I feared a few possible outcomes: an understandable reprimand, law enforcement somehow being involved, or even his decision to no longer accept me as a patient. I had been treated by this man since I was 12-years-old and he had seen me through my highs and lows, but I was certainly apprehensive about disclosing this new information. His response? He leaned over, hugged me, and told me he was proud of my honesty and decision to get clean; he also explained that in his experience, recovery had seemed to be the best process to keep similar patients abstinent for extended lengths of time. During this time I was still being prescribed low doses of the psych meds Lexapro and Xanax; with his blessing, I decided to taper off of both medications. I was so weirded out from being clean that any side effects from coming off of meds – once again in my life – thankfully seemed unnoticeable.
I believe that nobody walks into a recovery meeting on an upswing, whether they are a newcomer or returning after surviving a relapse. But I felt an incredible sense of hope from that first day. I have also had to accept that I am with a collective group of people who are sick but getting better. But I identified with the others in the meetings who talked about their feelings and view of life. I was a mentally ill ex-junkie and within a few months was entrusted with a fucking key to a church and issued a box that contained literature and cash. So these people had faith in me when I did not even have faith in myself. And they still do. Over the years since, that same faith and trust has been returned in kind and I have also tried to direct that same love and encouragement towards the next broken person who walks inside of a meeting and takes a seat in that circle of chairs.
Once I had made the highly personal decision to get clean and enter a recovery program, I began to acknowledge my past history of being diagnosed mentally ill, suicide attempts and my stints of being hospitalized. Initially, I would wonder aloud in meetings if I was ever truly crazy or “just an addict.” I quickly reined in any speculation at these meetings but would still confer about my doubts with my small-yet-crucial network of fellow addicts. Since recovery immediately started to change my life for the better, I simply decided to throw all of my troubles into the box marked “addiction.” And admittedly both addiction and many forms of mental illness share similar traits: obsessive thinking, compulsive behavior, self-centeredness and self-aggrandizing … symptoms shared by both smack heads and various lunatics. But my self-acceptance of addiction eventually soured into a kind of parallel prejudice towards mental illness. I had friends in recovery that confided in me that they were being prescribed antidepressants or mood stabilizers and I would openly tease them; while secret judging them: “They are full of shit. They’re not clean. Recovery doesn’t come in the form of a pill.” I think that I resorted to this kind of intolerance to separate myself not only from them but also used that very prejudice as a way to buffer, if not soften, my own fears that I still bore the mark of madness.
Even though my life became incrementally better, I would still experience incredible depressions and those ancient electrical charges surging through my brain and body, sleeplessness, racing thoughts, rage…but I told myself that I was an addict, a newcomer in recovery. At a little less than two years clean, I was looking for a different sponsor and discovered a guy with whom I shared both a similar background of LSD/heroin-induced craziness and subsequent personality change and transformation into a-near-obsession with meditation and spiritual realization. I told him everything about my life, things I had told no other person (not even my previous sponsor) and he responded with humor, compassion, and unconditional love. Even though he has racked up forty-plus years clean, this guy doesn’t claim to be surrounded by angels and has his shitty days; but he is still my sponsor to this day for all of the aforementioned reasons. I coped with my subcurrent of highs-and-lows by going to more meetings and deepening my burgeoning-spiritual-practice. I also started running and began going to the gym; like a typical addict, I did this to the detriment of my health, exhausting my body to the point of repeatedly making myself ill. I would have the flu and go run five miles, proving that I still had a lot turn learn. A dope fiend without dope is still a fiend.
I eventually was hired on as a groundskeeper at a local hospital. While this was hardly a strong career move, I also had limited employment options and Drug Addict is usually a red flag on most résumés. I truly enjoyed the physicality of the work, being outside, and the company of my two co-workers. For two years, I would wake up at 4:30 a.m., pray and then meditate for 20 minutes, and then start my shift at 5:30 a.m. We started work early and left by 1:30 or 2 p.m., before the Florida sun reached its burning peak. Due to city ordinances, we couldn’t fire up any equipment until 7 a.m. Our boss knew this and seemed indifferent to what we did during that ninety minute gap; they just wanted someone there on the hospital campus at those hours. I spent the time journaling and reading, digging deeper into spirituality and an almost-scholarly study of mysticism and comparative religions (incidentally: religious zealotry or visions also being a symptom of mania – for more on my spiritual-based ramblings, check out this memoir piece). I was making $10 an hour and my wages were being garnished to the tune of $500 a month. Apparently, when you take out a college loan and spend the bulk of the money on heroin and electric basses, they still want that money back. But I also had health insurance for the first time in my life and was ultimately happier than I had been in years. Every day I did my morning spiritual deal, went to work, exercised, went to a meeting that night, and went straight home to bed to repeat this process the next day. And I stayed clean.
The sad truth is that quite frankly, just like some non-addicts, some people in recovery are highly judgmental of mental illness, if not downright skeptical that one can have two diseases. In the support group environment of addiction people tend to share about many feelings, situations and conditions. Yet depression and mental illness are what a dear friend eloquently described what can at times be a “Third Rail” topic in meetings, a reality that appears too dangerous to approach. But as another trusted friend once pointed out to me, “Nobody ever has a fucking using dream about taking their Paxil!” And I heartily agree. And I certainly acknowledge that decades of ingesting a cornucopia of illicit and legal substances to alter my mood surely did not help my mental condition. Bipolar disorder can even be seemingly-triggered by drug-induced trauma to the brain. But in my own personal history, I quickly shifted from “getting high” to “using” in an attempt to quell my mind and its ever-shifting agenda of thoughts. This unspoken prejudice towards mental illness makes this a journey of the absurd and pure paradox. So I have learned to keep my mouth shut. I shared once in a smaller and more intimate recovery meeting about my reluctant return to the realm of psychiatric treatment. I felt that I was subsequently blasted by two people afterwards so I kept my mouth shut. “Don’t share about this in a meeting,” is the strong suggestion of my sponsor. “Some people just don’t realize that you can be an addict and be mentally ill.” I have taken his guidance to heart. Yet I still regularly attend mutual support groups for recovering addicts where it is strongly discouraged to engage in “dope-a-logs” and mention specific drugs by name or describe the insane antics of active using i.e. “We already know how to get high. We are here to learn how to live clean.” Conversely, I have attended mutual support groups for people dealing with bipolar disorder and other mental illnesses where the attendees freely rattle off drug names, dosages and side effects like they are swapping recipes; an almost kind of symmetrical and poetic irony to witness.
In 2010, through a friend’s recommendation and most-assuredly some weird divine intervention, I interviewed for a job as an editor at a local alt-weekly. I used a classic junkie technique: “If you can’t dazzle them with your brilliance, baffle them with your bullshit.” It worked. No one was surprised more than I that they actually hired me on. This paper had published a eulogy the previous year that I had written about my two-day teenaged-adventure-with the late poet Jim Carroll. Yet I had no real previous writing or publishing experience, let alone a college degree. But this job was the perfect fit for me, as my tasks included editing and writing copy related to music, film, and, most crucially, visual arts. I had an incredibly patient editor-in-chief, who, along with the equally supportive staff reporter and copy editor, showed me the ropes of the world of alt weekly journalism. I remain indebted to my friend who suggested me for the gig and aforementioned editorial staff for helping in change my life and push me further into writing.
Beginning in the spring of 2011, my footing began to slip. I stopped bouncing back as quickly from stumbling into my shadow. I was approaching four years clean and doing all the things one is “supposed” to do but I was getting worse. Through the benefit of my ongoing meditation practice, I was starting to both see and feel these shifting moods surging through me on an experiential level. Throughout the day, I would sense the train barreling down the tracks, never knowing when it would hit me, but always certain of its arrival. And then it would move on. I would dust myself off, pray and go to a meeting. I threw it all back in the box labeled addiction: “I’m an addict named Dan.” I had talked to my sponsor about my concerns regarding my mental state. “Those are just spiritual growing pains. If they had all of these medications around when I was in early recovery I would have been full of pills.” A year later he was urging, if not strongly demanding, that I seek medical help for my condition.
After having a job that offered health insurance and being exhausted from trying to go at this alone, I finally began seeing a talk therapist. And she was a godsend. After our first two sessions, she suggested I give medication another try. I immediately balked. “Just write ‘patient refuses treatment’,” was my immediate response. Other than my resolute defiance in going back on psych meds, I felt an instant rapport with her and opened up. I dropped my caution. Most sessions involved me yammering away in a non-linear monologue of complaints, which eventually led to observations, insights, and gradual confessions. I had shared with this therapist an experience from my childhood that I had only shared with very few, a secret that had always sat in the corner of my life’s story. “So you are a survivor of molestation, of sexual abuse,” she explained. I left that session freed from decades of needless shame that over the years had festered within me, long disguised as some ancient guilt. As I put the keys in the ignition of my car, I felt an odd blend of rawness and relief. I sat staring through the windshield and realized what I really recognized was the rarest moment of clemency, liberated from my own violent self-judgment and a pain that had suffused into my spirit. When ghosts are reminded of their true name they sometimes never return. And while some of my innocence might have been taken from me as a child, over the course of my lifetime I must admit that I gave most of it away, selling it to the lowest bidder and pawning off whatever remained.
And then, almost-expectedly and true-to-form, I stopped going to talk to her. I boomeranged back to rationalization and denial of being bipolar. “I’m fine. I’m just an addict.” I found it harder and harder to bounce back. My three-year relationship with my girlfriend ended. Oddly enough, I went to a place of almost-immediate acceptance of this. And I still consider this woman to be one of my closest friends; another gift of changing my ways. But at the time it surely shook my sense of stability. My mind continued to spin out whirlpools of erratic moods. I would sit at my desk at work trying to write or edit some other person’s copy and felt that familiar distraction that made me imagine I was possessed by some alien force. The ringer would be turned off on my office phone, directing people I didn’t want to deal with straight to my voicemail. I feared they would hear me losing my mind through the receiver. Once my head was set back to normal, I would return their calls. I could always deal with e-mails, since, like their younger sibling of text messaging, they are such a wonderfully bland, toneless, and manipulative way to communicate with others. “How are you?” I am fine. I am ok. In the next hour, I might have a fucking gun barrel pressed up into the roof of my mouth. But I’m ok. Always the same answer, like an annoyed child being grilled by a parent after returning home from school. I kept moving forward; old fuel in the tank.
In a little over two years, I resigned from my job at the alt weekly over a failed salary negotiation. After nearly twenty years of manning the paper, my much-loved editor-in-chief and writing-guru told me that she was leaving and moving on to another job. She strongly urged that I ask for a sizable raise; even suggesting a certain figure as a bottom line amount. I approached the publisher with this request and he sent it up towards the owners of the paper. I prayed as much as I worried over my uncertain future. A few days later, the vice president-and-co-owner of the company explained that they simply did not have the budget to meet my goal; so I turned in my two weeks’ notice. This was not an easy decision to make. I loved my job but I was also exhausting myself, working 50-plus hours a week. Some of this was just part of the gig: my editorial coworkers also spent more than one weekend day back at the office proofreading and refining each weekly edition, or at home also chained to their laptops. But I think between my ego seeing an incredible opportunity to create, while also being prone to manic feats of craziness, much of my prolific output bordered on self-abuse. I would need a film review so I would leave work, go see the film, come home and write a review, and then have it in before the next morning’s deadline. On some mornings I would interview an artist or musician and have the copy finished by noon. During this time a brief relationship ended as heatedly as it had begun. I handled it badly, if not horrifyingly so, lashing out at her in a series of texts that were fueled by rage. At one point, I went for a jog and was convinced that a stranger driving by in his car was somehow sent by my ex-partner to spy one me; pure manic-based delusion. I still have much regret over my handling of all of this and my treatment of her in the aftermath, but like anything else, I only learn the lesson if I remember and apply the education, however painful it may be.
After resigning from my editorial job, I simply shifted gears into becoming a freelance writer and playing more gigs in a cover band. I had no idea how to edit before I actually became an editor so I figured I would I apply that same logic to freelance writing. It came down to willingness and faith. I would still get the work done. Yet my mind would accelerate at even greater speeds and I would then crash with equally-brutal propulsion. Sitting down at my desk, opening a blank document file, and then hammering out a 10,000 word visual art story or interview in an eight hour run; and then be rattled by the electrical current I had somehow siphoned out of nothingness. I had nowhere to aim this excess radiation that seemed to crackle around me after creating something. The job was done but my mind was still at work. Countless times I have been in the actual process of writing and tried to force myself to ignore what had once been a single voice but had now grown into a chorus of screaming doubt and self-hatred; another interior distraction that I am sure is common to sculptors as well as plumbers, albeit ones who might also benefit from psychiatric treatment.
I began dating a woman in the late summer of 2012. I was still shaky from my questionable romantic safaris of the past year. But I tried to take it slow. I was unsuccessful. I had met her previously at an art installation and the attraction was immediate; but I was seeing someone else at the time and for all of my faults, infidelity is one I have somehow shed. I told her everything about me, and both disclosed, if not warned her, of my former life as a full-tilt smack head. I was 40-years-old so why fuck around with the truth? She probably didn’t click her heels when reading that e-mail, but she also did not step away. I was intrigued by her beauty as much as her sardonic sense of humor and intimidating intellect. Interestingly enough, she admitted that she had never been drunk or high in her life. This is no longer my criterion for any relationship today, but as an addict I found this fascinating. “Don’t worry, I did enough drinking and drugging for the both of us,” I laughed. She rolled her eyes. I fell in love.
Even though I failed twice at taking my own life, and barely survived various chemically-induced trapeze tricks, I have continued to experience suicidal thoughts throughout my adult life. I had previously dealt with this as I imagine any sane person would have: I hid those thoughts away. In the spring of 2013, an old friend had sent me a text. The message was just an innocuous message, the kind anyone gets on any day. “How have you been?” This friend has always been a lover of firearms. A few years ago, his younger brother, who was schizophrenic, had been hit by a car and killed when he was seemingly wandering around a beachside road late at night. I knew his brother and was saddened by this tragedy and reminded of my own history of stomping around those very same roads in the crazy moonlight. My friend drove from Texas to pick through the wreckage of his dead brother’s life. When he showed up at my house, the first thing he did was pull the loaded clip out of his Glock and place it on the table next to me. Some people would call my friend a gun nut, yet I know him to be a very responsible gun owner. He hunts (and eats what he kills), is incredibly cautious with his small arsenal of weapons, and is equally adamant about his right to own and carry a licensed pistol. I have never fired a gun in my life. In fact, I imagine there are probably a series of checks and balances put in place to keep someone like me from ever owning a firearm. But when I read his text, my immediate thought was: “I bet he could help me get a pistol; and then I could then blow my brains out.”
After this experience, the thoughts of suicide accelerated into becoming a daily occurrence. I would lie in bed at night in the dark, scrolling through web sites on my phone, looking for places where I could possibly order cyanide. And then I would investigate gun sites or eBay looking for a pistol. I am actually embarrassed to say that my search for the proper gun has been very specific: a nickel-plated Smith & Wesson Model 28 revolver – the same gun used by my pre-teen hero in taking his own life. Richard Brautigan also purportedly chose a Winchester Western Super X .44 Magnum hollow point bullet to blast through his own agony and out of this world. These thoughts have rarely been situational or arriving after some dark mood but rather show up like a surprise visitor whose increasing appearance can be exhausting, disturbing, and most terrifyingly, even alluring. Suicide has been in my mind since adolescence; if there is any red flag that tells me something might be wrong with me, sporadic and unprovoked thoughts of taking my own life surely qualify as a sign of trouble. It is my ballast in taking my mental health seriously, however reluctantly. While succumbing to these thoughts, the movie in my mind plays out as such: I start boxing up books and records; planning on how I would bestow this messy legacy after I erased myself. And then comes the funeral planning, the death-march-playlist, the self-penned Threnody of Dead Dan, etc… The arrogance of such thinking invariably snaps me out of my fugue; if I am lucky it continues to do so. Someone once told me that suicide is a hostile act and I believe this to be true. It is the illusion of hopelessness combined with impossible pain and amplified into a grim finality. In the past four years, I have endured the horrific pain of having two people whom I loved, and still love very deeply, commit suicide. My memories and love of them also pulls me back from the edge. But some nights I still lie in bed, hypnotized by the light of my smart phone, looking up exit strategies and then clearing the search engine filled with “cyanide online,” “cyanide India,” “cyanide amount to kill oneself,” etc… At this point in my life I accept it as part of the deal. My hair has always been a mess of cowlicks; my brain a clutter of aberrant intentions.
As 2013 rolled onward I would crackle in agitation and restlessness, only to crash. My memory and concentration shifted like smoke in the wind. I couldn’t focus. I have been an avid believer in keeping a journal for years. But now I began carrying around a half dozen small notebooks to write down both my thoughts and also remember the simplest of tasks. So a passage of sporadic insight such as this (verbatim): “What hangs over me? Doubt. Fear. Fear of being judged. But I need only remind myself of two things: I always have these doubts. Maybe doubt is simply an inherent feeling that precedes accomplishment. I don’t know. However, I do know that my doubt and fears are always exaggerated, and my prediction for failure never matches the actual outcome” would then be followed by a series of mundane lists: “Buy spinach…put gigs in phone calendar…pay phone bill…call Rob back, etc…” Many mornings I would call my girlfriend, sobbing, urging her to break up with me. The same challenge would be blasted at her via text and e-mail while she would try to deal with working an 8-12 hour day. Sometimes my motivations are centered on self-destruction. But I guess to accomplish that I must first destroy everything around me and love is the first target in the cross-hairs.
There is some humor in this. At some point in the last year, I spent nearly four days not bathing and living on croutons and apple juice, urinating into a hospital issue plastic urinal bottle. I would lay in the dark, my phone face down on my writing table next to my bed. When someone would call I would watch the square of light illuminate the surface. Most people eventually stopped calling. I would talk to my girlfriend and she would be reduced to tears with my ongoing monologues of doom, agitated rants, and increasing paranoia. I was surrounded by feeble conspiracy theories. Fist fights were breaking out in my brain. My mind would attack me in every direction. And then I would forget the battle even occurred. The process would repeat; thankfully minus pissing in a plastic jug.
At the strong urging of my girlfriend and sponsor, I returned to seeing my therapist. We talked and at the end of the hour-long session, I asked her, “What is your diagnosis of me?” “I believe that you have Bipolar 2 Disorder and are chronically suicidal.” She then placed the DSM, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, on my lap and showed me the symptoms in black and white. I finally consented. I gave up. I surrendered. A few weeks after finally agreeing with my therapist’s undeniable verdict, I went to a psychiatrist. In that first visit I told him everything that I could inside of the allotted hour. I gave him an outline of my life that had pivoted on substance abuse, depression, rage, and creative endeavors. He told me that he marveled how I had avoided treatment for 20 years, but also acknowledged that a dirty secret in mental health is that self-medicating actually works – to a point. The psychiatrist reminded me of the seemingly-well-established link between bipolar disorder and creative people, the very same theory that the compassionate psychologist had once explained to me in my youth. But this seems like an honorary trophy given out to the team that loses every game. I’m sure there are many inventive, healthy people walking this planet whose brains don’t slingshot like yo-yos while they grow their own clandestine hemlock garden. I was indifferent to this. I knew all of the stories about various creative people hurling themselves out of their studio windows and blowing their brains across their typewriters. In fact, I had nearly destroyed myself trying to play dress up like them for the past 25 years, thinking they somehow lived and died by the answers I was seeking. “I don’t want to flat line you with meds,” he told me, which was very reassuring. This psychiatrist augmented my initial diagnosis, believing that I am Bipolar Disorder 2-B; or bipolar disorder beneficial which means I have somehow learned to use the disease to my own benefit. I turned the asylum into a production plant; again, an assurance that feels like another victory lap on an empty track in a rainstorm.
An estimated 2 to 7 percent of people in the United States suffer from, or as I now like to think, live with bipolar disorder; 60 to 80 percent of those same people self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. They are equally prone to higher incidences of both heart problems and headaches, particularly migraines. And out of all the known mental illnesses, bipolar disorder has the highest rate of suicide; a third will attempt taking their own lives and 20 percent of those same people will succeed. The mood swings and symptoms of the disease include racing thoughts, irritability, anger, depression, an impairment in judgment, problems in controlling impulsivity, distractibility and lack of focus, disruption of the sleep cycle, overworking, overindulgence, and suicidal ideation. These in turn can manifest themselves as rages and plummeting mood crashes, ongoing relationship problems with others, financial irresponsibility, careless sexual promiscuity, difficulty holding down jobs and unemployability, etc.*…I am surely guilty at some points in my life of acting out on these very things. After rattling off that laundry list, I also acknowledge that many of the above symptoms are shared by just as many people how are not considered “mentally ill” at all. There is a commonality of being human and the universal flaws and brain glitches in countless people trying to make sense of this life as they attempt to simply live. Everyone suffers and also experiences moments of joy. Every day is not our birthday. However, the symptoms of bipolar disorder, particularly the more self-destructive traits, are very specific, well-documented, and highly alarming. However, I make no excuses for past or current behaviors. But I do hope to someday make amends for some.
In the past few months, I slowly began confiding in friends about where I was at, why I was ignoring their phone calls, emails, and any form of human contact. I am grateful for their support. And I have been admittedly frustrated by the free-range and uninvited diagnoses by some: “But look at all the things you have done and still do… You seem fine to me…You’ll snap out of it…My mind is like that, too.” I don’t claim to own the exclusive rights to mental derangement, but these kinds of observations, justifications and rationalizations are the very things that have kept me from seeking actual psychiatric help. Addiction and bipolar disorder are two imaginary friends I never wanted. I don’t know if they forced their friendship upon me but they were surely never courted or invited inside. Whether through genetics, trauma, karma, a dice rolled in the universe, or some combination thereof, these parallel conditions became embedded in my being. They are a part of me and they are me. Sometimes I even think of them as weirdly wrapped gifts, forceful blessings I have yet to fully unravel. I think part of my problem lies in the fact that I am at complete peace with being an addict; or as much as I can be at this point in my life. I am powerless. I give up. But there is a deep part of me that wants to still believe that I can control my mental illness, even though my remembered history proves time and time again that I am not really guiding my brain, however tightly I grip the reins.
What do I do now? I take my medications. I have learned to gauge their effectiveness by how I treat the people around me and how they perceive my behaviors and report those observations back to me. My current cocktail of pharmaceuticals seems to give me ongoing headaches. I’ve informed my psychiatrist of this but honestly this particular side effect seems minor compared to the headache a Smith and Wesson aimed into my skull will produce. I maintain my daily program of compete abstinence and recovery. I “do the deal.” I am surely lacking in having a sense of stability and structure in my life but I am trying to claw my way slowly back to a healthier rhythm. Key to my growth, health and overall peace of mind, however tenuous, has been my spiritual beliefs. I have acknowledged that I didn’t give a fuck about God and was especially suspicious, if not resentful, towards all religions. But I pray every morning and every night, on my knees like some insane child Photoshopped into a Norman Rockwell painting. I talk to my God throughout the day, petitioning for everything from protection from violence to complete spiritual surrender. I believe that meditation has been one of the most radical discoveries in my life. And I do have certain faith in some God, a being that I originally “made up” and who now makes their presence certainly known in my life. I guess I believe that God, if anything else, is perception.
But there have been moments in my life since my original Prayer to Whatever that have been beyond coincidence and have also brought me closure, if not healing. They are countless and at-times-jarring, but can be equally playful or deeply profound. I will share this one that I still find particularly remarkable: when I had around three years clean, I had the opportunity to take a recovery support meeting into a facility that housed both mentally ill patients and addicts going through the hell of detox. This particular center was hardly a resort. Its rehab program was based on a three-to-seven day detoxification process, what is commonly known as a “spin dry” detox. Wham bam, thank you ma’am. I would meet a counselor at the door of the locked ward with two other addicts. I coordinated and led the meeting, bringing in other recovering addicts to share their story and maybe even bring some hope. The meeting was held in a day room, where five to ten people would be sitting on couches and chairs in various states of withdrawal from an array of chemicals, the counselor sitting quietly in the corner. Since this was also a mental health facility, we would usually also have a few non-addict-bona-fide-nutjobs in the meeting. This was fine with me and considering the venue, who could tell the fucking difference? Sometimes I would only realize there was an insane interloper amongst us when I would open the floor for sharing and then the big reveal would occur. My friends and I would bring in this meeting once a week. One day after the counselor locked the door behind us, I walked down the hall towards the meeting room. I suddenly stopped and looked to my right. I looked into the room, the four beds; the sunlight streaming through Plexiglas…this was the very same room I had been in some twenty years earlier, slamming that suitcase against the unforgiving window. That room had not changed. But I had changed. In my heart, I felt that ineffable presence of Something and acknowledged both a homecoming and farewell that was, if nothing else, poetic.
After writing all of this, as ever, I am still not really certain why I felt compelled to do so. Quite frankly, as cruel as it might sound, a part of me fears that by posting this I will be blowing an invisible Freak Whistle and summon more crazy people in my life; believe me, my cup runneth over with paranoia. I know that I haven’t written this seeking sympathy, compassion or even understanding – but rather to redirect the compass that points me towards continued survival. Self-disclosure is painful. We live in a world that seems to honor secrets. I am writing myself forward and through that world. I certainly have the defect of arrogance; but within that is also the truth that I can sometimes back up my words with action. I can get shit done. But I also surely suffer from delusions of grandeur, comparing my own life, pain, and dreams to my pantheon of ever-shifting heroes. But I believe that I originally loved authors like Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Brautigan, or artists such as Francis Bacon and Max Ernst, due to an admiration not only of their work or identification with their worldview, but most importantly because they never held back. I personally doubt that anyone would care about art, literature, music, or anything that makes life interesting if people had gone halfway into their creation, only to turn back around when the process became uncomfortable or even terrifying. They leaned into both the anguish and wonder of this life and went as far to draw a map for the rest of us to follow. Whether we are sightseers, wallflowers or participants in this adventure is really up to us. I spent too much time wasted and missing out on being myself. I want to stay awake.
And I survive in spite of myself, a self-preservation that can at times seem as frustrating as absolute failure more than any kind of weak triumph. Sane is no longer a four letter word to me. But it’s probably an unrealistic expectation. The blues is a seemingly necessary but thankfully temporary condition of life. I only want wellness, happiness and to feel at home in my own skin. And I also write this to let others know that there is always hope, even if it is ripped out of the universe, kicking and screaming. Radical acceptance and empowerment are the methods and the goals. And I believe that by writing this, and not holding back, I am somehow letting it all go.
Tell All the Truth But Tell It Slant
Tell all the Truth but tell it slant-
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth’s superb surprise
As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind-
Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
Daniel A. Brown
*as taken from The Bipolar Handbook by Wes Burgess, M.D., Ph.D.