Sunday, October 23, 2016

Something was wrong, I knew that.

My boss had sent me to a big impersonal testing place, and they'd referred me to a psychoanalyst.

I'd gone to his office, laid on his couch, and talked for several years. Then I hallucinated again.

On a New York City bus, I sat across from the double doors in the back. I looked up, expecting to see myself reflected in the door's glass. Instead, I saw the Buddha, serene in his orange robes. I understood that we were one, because when I looked away and then looked back, he still sat there.

I told my doctor. "It's your choice," he said. "You can live with hallucinations or without them. You decide."

After a while, my hallucinations stopped, and I finished a "successful" psychoanalysis, but I knew something wasn't right.  

For one thing, I couldn't stop screwing. If anyone, male or female, wanted to go to bed with me, I hopped right in. 

I banged my psychoanalyst. Three of his patients. My new therapist. Colleagues. Folks I bumped into on the street.

I liked it, but I did notice that none of my girl friends acted that way.

Occasionally I experienced long stretches of gloom. Once I donned dirty torn clothes and tousled my unwashed hair. Then I sat on the curb of a New York City street, crying, waiting to see who'd pick me up. An old guy did, took me to a hotel room, put cash on the bureau, and I stripped down.

Months later, at a boy friend's apartment after he'd left for work, I started writing about death. Words poured out. I didn't know I had so much to say. I began shouting and stomping on the floor. I couldn't stop. I heard knocking on the door, I heard somebody shout, "Police! Open up!" but I kept on writing. They broke the door down, surrounded me, put me in the paddy wagon, and took me to the psychiatric ward in New York's Bellevue Hospital. My current therapist released me.

So something felt definitely wrong. No one, including me, seemed to know what. I lived like this for twenty-five years, sometimes sane but often not.

It's the summer of 1986. I'm in Saint Louis, in a drug store, nosing around. I see this yellow paperback on a metal shelf, bragging about diagnosing mental illnesses. I bought it, what-the-hell, it was cheap.  

Then I drove myself, my dog and my trailer on what would be a summer-long journey across Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, South and North Dakota, Montana chasing the Astorians, the first group of explorers to follow the Lewis and Clark trail.

Along the way, I read the yellow book. One day I saw myself in it. The book introduced me to a new term: "manic-depression." (Now we call it "bipolar disorder.")

Astonished, I read about extreme mood swings.

On the up side, being "high" for long stretches of time, thoughts racing, little need for sleep, and engaging in risky behavior, like impulsive sex.

On the down side, sleeping 10 or 12 hours, losing interest in once likable activities, thinking about suicide, or being preoccupied with death.

There I was.


That autumn, I returned to New York and showed the book to my current therapist. She agreed that the description seemed apt. 

"Then why did nobody recognize it?"

"Manic depression is difficult to diagnose. It runs in cycles. Some cycles are short, occurring within a day, a week, a month. But from what you say, yours ran more than a year apart. I suspect that none of your therapists saw both sides of your cycle."

I nodded. That made sense. 

She sent me to a Park Avenue psychiatric for my lithium, "the drug of choice" for manic-depression.

There in a shiny modern office sat the pricy psychiatrist, a slender middle-aged man whose taste in clothes ran to blue. He wrote a prescription and handed it to me. "Now you can't drink any alcohol with this."

"No alcohol!" I squeaked. "I can't do that."

The way he smiled at me, I felt like a small child. 

"Well, if you must have a drink," he lifted an eyebrow, "you may have one a day. At mealtime."

I walked down Park Avenue, uncomfortable with my daily drinking habit. Each night, I drank wine at supper and continued until I "went to sleep." 

As I walked, I considered which of my favorite restaurants served the largest wine glass. I went there for supper.

I downed a lithium pill and sipped the wine. When I noticed no negative effects, I thought, "what the hell," and ordered a second glass.

As I rose to leave, my head spun. I sat down and waited. Then I rose again and, ever so gingerly, glided home.

When I flopped on my bed, the room whirled and I knew I would need help. 

I never considered dropping lithium. I believed that I stood to profit greatly from those pills, and I did. 

However, choosing to take lithium forced me to "cure" my boozing. 

I stumbled into Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), where I insisted, 
"I'm not an alcoholic. I just have a drinking problem."
"What's your problem?" the leader asked.
"I can't stop drinking."
But on October 24, 1986, I did stop drinking. 

I was forty-nine. 

I have stayed sober, popping lithium pills twice daily—for thirty years.

And am I deliriously happy I made both decisions.

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