If one suffers some form of mental or emotional disorder, and happens to get lucky enough to find a way out of that condition, how does one then deal with things that became associated with the condition - such as, creativity? How do you reconcile the two, to be able to live a fulfilled, fulfilling but sane, existence? This series will explore how that has played out, and is playing out, for me.
One of the things that struck me, when we attended our old friend John’s funeral last month, was how much I heard how music was such an important part of John’s life. He played guitar, and apparently was pretty good at it. More importantly, it was something that brought him a great deal of joy – it was his way of expressing himself, creatively. Unfortunately, he hadn’t availed himself of that creative outlet, that joyful practice of playing the guitar, for many, many years. When I knew him, it was just something he talked about as part of his “story”, one of the many things he did when he was nuts and in his active addiction. In his mind, and his fears, it was all tied in with those days when he was actively using, and he had left that all far behind. It was not a part of his clean and sober life. I was really gladdened to hear that he’d found his music again in his last chapter, and got back into it those last couple of years. It also made me even more grateful that I rediscovered writing, and allowed it back into my life, after many years in which it was intentionally marginalized.
For me, too, writing had gotten wrapped up in the insanity of my active addiction years. In my case, late in my active addiction, I had developed the symptoms of manic depression. Well, they had been there all along, throughout my addiction, but towards the end, manic depression had become a more popular diagnosis. This was years before they coined the term “bi-polar”, but I would have fit neatly into that diagnosis, as well, had it been around back then. I was often at one extreme or the other – on a manic tear, staying up for days, the mind never shutting off, or in a depression, barely able to get up and face life. Of course, alcohol being a depressant, and speed being a stimulant, helped to aid these behaviors, considerably. I did lots of both in the last couple years of my active addiction. It was never clear what came first, the chicken or the egg, i.e., the manic-depressive behavior or the massive amounts of drugs and alchohol that fed them. Writing was always the tip-off that I was on a manic tear. I would write for hours, days, at a time, just write and write and write. I had great things to say. I was going to write the next great American novel.
All I knew was, when I decided to stop drinking and doing drugs, I fell into a terrible depression that eventually led to months of being suicidal. I had tried all of the available options for treating my acloholism – my mother ran the state of New Jersey’s Ala-Call Hotline, the only one of its kind anywhere, at the time, so I certainly was made aware of all of the options available – but nothing seemed to be able to lift me out of the fog of my depression and my desire to just end it all. Three months after stopping everything, I still just wanted to die. I didn’t consider returning to using alcohol and drugs as an available option – I knew that didn’t work, and I wasn’t willing to face the demons that awaited me down in that abyss. I had stared deeply into its endless, bottomless hole, and it was no place I ever wanted to return to. But, for me, death seemed to be the only available escape.
Then, a way out of that particular hell presented itself to me, serendipitously. In the depths of my depression, I had gotten to the point where I spent many long hours in front of the television set, trying to lose myself in old movies and bad T.V. programming, just wanting to avoid the reality of my life in any way that I could. Late one night, as I scanned the Philadelphia Inquirer’s television listing section, an ad on the side of the page caught my attention. In big, bold letters, it asked the question, “ARE YOU DEPRESSED?” I just looked at it, and thought “Are you talking to me? Are YOU talking to ME?” I even laughed – hey, I made a joke. Might be the first time I laughed at anything in months. I read on. The ad had a list of ten questions that it challenged the reader to answer. I thought, “ah, what the hell. You gave me my first good laugh in months. I’m not going anywhere. I’ll play”. So I answered them all, as honestly as I thought I could. At the bottom, it said, “If you answered ‘Yes’ to 3 or more of these questions, you might be suffering from clinical depression.” Hmm, let’s see, I answered yes to…9 out of 10! I actually got a little excited. “Hey, look at that – I’m clinically depressed! Now, what?” The ad went on to say that, the University of Pennsylvania Hospital had a program where they were testing out new and innovative treatments for clinical depression, and if you answered yes to 3 or more of these questions, you may qualify to be a participant in the program.
I figured, with a stellar score like I had – when I looked back at the questions, I realized that I probably hadn’t been 100% honest, and really should have answered ‘yes’ to all 10 – I might be star student of the program! I kid around talking about it now, but I was actually kind of excited about this. It was something. I had had four months of nothing. Nothing that connected. Nothing that made a lick of sense to me, about anything. I had been on a downward spiral, and each time I thought that this was as bad as it could get, it wasn’t – it could always get worse, and it did. There wasn’t a ‘bottom’ to the particular hell that I was falling through – it just kept going, down and down and down some more. I was looking for a way out of that spiral, and this seemed like something. I latched onto it.
I called the number in the ad. Sure enough, it was just my luck – the program was full, they’d had an uprecedented response to the ad, and there was no more room at the inn. Damn, that was just my luck! But, wait…later that day, I got a call back, from the doctor who was actually running the program. He apparently was as impressed with my score as I had been, and he wanted me in the program, bad. He knew greatness when he saw it. “I understand that you’re a veteran?” That’s right. I just got out of the Navy last summer. “While my program here at the University of Pennsylvania is filled up, I’m also starting a program over at the V.A. Hospital at 38th and Woodlawn. Would you like to participate in that?” Hot dog! I was in! “The only problem is, that one is an inpatient program. You’d have to go into the hospital, for a minimum of 30 days, probably closer to 60 days, maybe even longer.” Problem? That’s no problem. Let me check my television listing. Yup, it looks like my schedule happens to have an opening. When do I check in?
They confirmed my diagnosis as manic-depressive, with depressive tendencies. That meant that I was more depressive than manic. They put me on lithium, and after a few weeks, I was feeling like living again. It was a cool feeling. I was used to going into a real manic mode, after one of those months-long depressions, where I’d just want to tear everything up, and go blasting back to life, writing like a fiend and being full of life and everything being magnified ten times. It wasn’t like that this time. I almost felt “normal”, probably for the first time, ever. At that point, I was even o.k. with normal. That would be something different. I worked with a counselor there to put together a plan for when I left the Depression Clinic, as it was called – I was able to line up some college courses at Rutgers, and I got a job at a Printing Company, and I was ready to get back into life. It was like everything was new. It was a fresh start. I couldn’t believe that I was being given another shot at life. I was beyond grateful. It was a new day.