Friday, April 5, 2013

My Brave Face

This entry was sent in the format of an email to my Pastor, Dave. Part of this piece is based on what I had sent Kate earlier in the week, and much appreciation for Dave's thoughts and words, which yes, I'd like to discourse further, which I take to heart to ponder, while the Master is counting all the hairs on my head and truth be told, I'm really grumpy and tired.

His perspective on matters of spirituality and humanity is a blessing, and he's certainly witnessed great perils of both mental and physical disability and decay, but I don't think you understand the desperate necessity of Brave Face Syndrome. If you feel trapped....truly this world, anyway, the benefits vs. risks of veiling what's "acceptable," "proper" or "normal," I have learned via experience, have to trump every thread of the display of weakness, need, insecurity and doubt that might mar or alter that shield, that honed persona. This phenomenon isn't confined to the mentally or otherwise chronically ill--we all do it at some points in time as humans.

But such a level of adrenaline--the fight or flight--on a constant, unrelenting basis is twenty times as exhausting, dangerous and difficult in terms of self-preservation if, for example, you take Person A, who's wearing a cast over a broken bone, which seems a logical, natural and a typical plan of treatment, and Person B, whose illness seems illogical, melodramatic and phony because it's confined to the inside of the mind or body. If you can't see it, Doubting Thomases, it must not exist. It's not so much "put up or shut up," but rather you do what is ultimately in the best interest of everyone else you meet, know or love. To those whom we allow inside us, with whom we share our struggles and our triumphs, to whom we extend our hearts, it's still enigmatic to me whether or not it's such a wise idea at the end of the day with some degree of frequency.

It takes a special range of unusual and rare love and openness on others' ends to literally dump our vulnerability into their laps and nail-nibble to seek acceptance or warmth. Too often, the end result is further isolation, alienation and despair. Too rare is not only tolerance granted but an unconditional reciprocity as Christ taught us through the Resurrection. If you're really lucky, there are moments when you laugh heartily, you hold tightly or you look deeply into a pair of eyes that are the remarkable hue of your own.

God created us all in His own image, and if that's true, while the Lord is humorous and totally loving, I still see snickering sarcasm in a lot of what a person of reasonable intellect can't help but find absurd. Yes, everything in God's time, not the constructs of ours, but humans have limits, points that say "go" and points that shout "stop."

Bob Dylan said, and I've quoted this to people many times over the years, "It's possible to become so defiled in this life that even your own mother and father will abandon you; and if that should happen, God will always believe in your own ability to mend your own ways." When the dust settles and the view clears, you may very well find yourself standing alone, and with that you must cope and push past. Most of us who seek the bulls' eye can only see the dozen darts off-target.

Since my first experiences with mental disease when I was in college, it's not anything like that broken bone. It's not like that heart attack. It doesn't heal or go away. It gets worse. No operation or procedure can fix it. If a patient follows Western medicine, it's a commitment to a chain of pharmaceuticals for the physical duration. It's insidious, deep and usually undefinable other than to describe the heaviness of the whole world and, in a growing number of cases, escapism to numb is at the root as to why the mentally ill also share histories of concurrent substance abuse and why suicide is found in our percentage of the population at a very alarming frequency.

My mother said something to the effect today of "not wanting to live inside my mind for all the tea in China" after a medication SNAFU last night on my part really jarred the family pretty badly. She's not the first person (with little tact) who has sighed with relief that the overwhelmingly dizzy continuum of thoughts and ideas is more than a person could bear. For her own reasons, with her own ignorance and shut-off valve, which puzzle me, I told my mother that I could cite her more articles helping to explain bipolar disorder. She indicated that she's "read article after article after article" and does not wish to read any more. Still other relatives ask me how I "caught" bipolar disorder. (My new snarky reply is "I ate some undercooked chicken.")  My son has been cast the burden from little-on of taking care of and protecting me, which is too much to ask of him but his heart is huge and his guard strong. He has been blessed with incredibly keen awareness of this world, even if the responsibility was premature. It's also exactly that  ferocious dedication, in too brief a time, with which I tried to deflect and dodge my own father's suffering, to no ultimate avail.

My mother feels that I dwell on or excuse my (crazy?) behavior as being, as she views it, "how I got to be the way I am," and "what went wrong" or "how I got to be so sick" when in truth, I'm finally acknowledging my flawed authenticity. The Cortex Cocktail with which the Good Lord bore me, or so I'm told, would've tightened the noose and knocked down the stool underneath to swift, gasping ligature a helluva long time ago for a large number of  people not afforded a benediction.

So I hid it. I hid it so well for so long and continue to do so when I have to in order to live functionally; which, over the course of the years during which I ignored and never spoke of bipolar disorder, resulted in how many  occasions when I almost physically died for one reason or another? Why, after maybe the 3rd or 4th bout of pancreatitis, did I plead with God to let me wave the white flag and boogie out at 113 pounds, vomiting constantly and passing out on my desk at work? Because the quality of a life led in hiding or in shame with a stigmatized label is very, very poor. Such a grand illusion which requires infinite labor in order to successfully execute, I finally deduced, would kill me before I had a chance to kill myself.

So I didn't talk about bipolar: at home, or at work, or at church, unless it was part and parcel of a private medical history, or a pre-surgical workup, or to politely ask someone not to describe another person as "bipolar" when they had no idea what they were talking about. There is no end to the insensitivity of human nature and it's really a lot more popular than sheepishly wearing a button that says in a 4 point font, "Um, I'm friends with Annie." There's a really big difference in seeking pity or seeking grace, respite or mercy (not to mention other times when you just wish everyone would get off your damn back). Sometimes you wish for none and other times, you really need it all. When does God give them to you? Constantly.

All that being said, this was what I told my best friend, Kate, who has Crohn's Disease among many other chronic illnesses, my sister separated for 20 years by thousands of miles and my much sultrier twin:

"We're the rare types of people who can put on such a brave face and carry ourselves so well, that even trained professionals gathered en masse can't remotely discern the toll which disintegration has accumulated. There's sometimes a perverse gratification, like one of Luke's magic tricks, in the slight of hand simpleton snowing where everyone has erroneously perceived you to be the most well-put-together, strong, tough, capable fighter, when in reality, you've already slipped, cracked, fallen through and drowned on the surface of the icy lake, though the shell of what's left of you is still upright. My group therapy class thinks, maybe because I'm old, that while yeah, I've disclosed a lot of scary shit out from which I've barely crawled, overall I'm remarkably confident and wise."

Expectations of confidentiality in mind, I can't share more about the session of group therapy itself, but almost had to laugh and certainly raised an eyebrow (it's a certain look I give when something completely senseless happens, which Luke points out) at how an eager, inquisitive collection of such bright people could collectively conclude that *I* had any remote sense of a tiny modicum of confidence or strength. I appreciated their Yoda-charge of "GO GO GO!" but sort of felt that it was a) undeserved yet b) ironically true--they'd released charge of the asylum to the verifiable lunatic. If I've taught one concrete thing to the Group class apart from anecdotal psych ward ditties, it's that I sure as hell can whip out a more apt or creative adjective to describe words bland or unsaid, in seconds flat, with that useless bachelor's degree I got in English-Writing.

And so sort of explains my curiosity, and why I began what I called "spiritual estate planning" within myself and related to matters of faith extending beyond the tradition of Christianity, not saying that anything was better or worse, just throwing it into a gumbo pot and letting it all stew. You might disagree as a Christian, but I would argue after extensive study of many paths of faith that universally, orthopraxy, humility, love, forgiveness and gratitude all erase edicts and connect across cultural or geographical borders.

Fearing death seems fruitless energy expulsion, and wanting to continue living in such a craptastic living condition can be pretty futile, which makes them paradoxical emotions, which can in no way be appreciated until you've been up to them nose-to-nose oneself. My soul existed with God before I entered physical form and will continue on long after my remains are fertilized ashes, which is brutal truth a lot of people cannot face, as if to say the pondering of mortality will superstitiously jinx one's physical existence. Perhaps that's why I'm looked upon as strong, or why my son insists I'm invincible. Conversely, perhaps also why my parent complains that I am "out of control." The only one who can claim to control of me is me, and that's a challenge. Only those misguided folks who live in perpetual denial or sans vim and vigor can claim to have ANY "control." Usually, people insatiably want to control others and unfairly project the scars and miseries they've already endured, professed or experienced, ignoring autonomy or individualism--each quirk every one of us has--onto anyone who could be within firing range. Misery may love company but I choose nary a part of either to draw complacency or community unified in something that kinda royally sounds like it sucks.

The George Bailey/"It's a Wonderful Life" illustration of Clarence the angel convincing George not to commit suicide is always a little nudge in the back of my mind. George realizes everything, all of it, from soup to nuts, is totally fucked up and hopeless. Clarence, a heavenly fuck up angel who hasn't found success, through a floating recollection of an opposite construct of every life that has gleaned temporal or long-standing positivity solely by the virtue of George's presence, influence or compassion prove to George how vomitrotiously fucked up more catostrophically things may have turned out if George hadn't been around to unfuck them during his life. And, of course, the climax of the film, during which pretty much everybody swoops in to save George when he needs material salvation, George's jingle-jangling Christmas tree branches hold the key to the "Wonderful Life." Clarence inscribes a book to George saying, "No man is a failure who has friends..." and we're reminded that altruism is more than polite; it is life-sustaining when a person has had ENOUGH. Somebody, somewhere, near or far, loves each one of us, and when my next bestseller, "Pep Talks With Jesus" comes out, my list of support-shooting gaggles of weirdos, lawyers, LGBTQ's, eccentrics, chemists, my son, dorks, tramps, family, artists, funeral directors, mentors, a fractured cardiologist and one incredibly hot rock star will all have to squeeze into one page of thanks and acknowledgments.

I may fail often and extensively, but my life has never once been described as "boring." I love a lot, give a lot, and subsequently hurt a lot and cause people pain. I take advantage and am taken advantage of. I am given and give a lot of second chances. I can't remember what happened yesterday but I can remember the early 80's. My different drum beat is honest and I keep pretty good time. My loyalty to those I do love is unshakable, and it is during these times of not only defeat but also hope, I am reminded of the cross and the simple advice of "Love one another."

Which loops me back to living authentically and truthfully. Will I make a good psychotherapist? I hope so. I can listen to junkies with bowel control problems, or people with similar comorbid conditions like bipolar. It'd be therapeutic to disclose some portion of my personal experience to my clients, but my job won't be to be helped. I'll be there TO help. While my bullshit radar is keen, my own bullshit is way too easy to figure out, I have no poker face and I break down rather quickly. Contemplating suicide? Yes, I DO get it. And if you stick to a strict regimen of your meds and counseling, you may trip and fall, but you're not alone and I can say "I HAVE been here." If a patient gestures "You don't understand what I'm going through!" I can say without shame that we are all more than just a diagnosis. We are more than what has happened to us. We are worthy of love, patience and empathy, especially from the people closest to us.

The stress and strain bipolar disorder has flung at my family, let's set my addictive personality aside for a moment--like the sleepwalking, sleep laundry load doing, sleep check on and wake up Luke up 6 times, sleep clunking up and down the stairs, sleep smoking outside, the sleep making a pot of coffee and waking up with a pot of hot water with no coffee to be found...nobody believes me that I do not understand during those moments what damage I'm causing. It all seems perfectly normal to me and I remember little of it during the hours I do sleep. I'm grateful that I didn't attempt to drive the car anywhere.

Thanks to God for waking me up in the morning and having Luke in my life (he is my rock). If not for that young man, my life seemed to be a tiny drip in between the faucet and the sink, ready for the plumber's wrench tightening to make it stop. But I have copper pipes, which, as we all know, stand the test of time.


Anonymous said...

Dear Miss Thang,

A somewhat off-topic reply to your comment above, "...God will always believe in your own ability to mend your own ways."

Read "A Different Kind of Cell: The Story of a Murderer Who Became a Monk". EXCELLENT book about God's amazing redemptive powers.
I got it several months ago via a Kindle special for $3.99. Maybe it will be offered that way again? Even if you don't have a Kindle, it can be downloaded & read on your computer.

Thinking of you.

Miss Thang II

Anonymous said...

Everything your colleagues said is totally true. It's into YOUR heart that believing in yourself needs to sink. You, my dear, are incredible.

Rich Trout said...


I decided to start using Twitter yesterday, and found your wonderful entry on keeping a brave face. I am so sorry I did not get to it until now. You are a gifted writer, and you make me ashamed to call myself a writer. Thank you for writing this. I did read most of it despite being on the cusp of starting a dissertation.

We need to talk. Rich

Andrea Miklasz said...


I'm sure your writing is magnificent....we came out of the same undergrad program and you at least have a masters in writing...I think...I would much rather have your career than mine. Wait, I don't have a career yet. I just write for leisure and sanity. Trying to help others, and tell the sordid story of my otherwise boring life. I really, really appreciate you taking the time to read my entry, hope you got something out of it, and good luck starting the dissertation. Catch up on Twitter and if you're looking for more specific blogs on topics, let me know and I'll point you in the right direction. It was good to hear from you and yes, we'll talk soon! :)