The old man–a hitchhiker I had picked up on I-10–marinated the warm burgundy interior of my Nissan Maxima with a stench that lingered for weeks. I labeled him a hitchhiker although he hadn’t proffered the universal thumbs-up ride seekers are known for. He was just wandering a few hundred yards away from a broken down RV in the middle of the Arizona desert. I was on a mission. I was saving the world. So I pulled over and motioned him in. He reeked of cheap whiskey, stale cigarette smoke and assorted bodily fluids. His face, weathered, and a shade of red past tan, was grizzled with a three-day growth of graying beard.
Without a word, he laid the seat back and soon was snoring away. I had a vague flash that three or four folks in their mid-forties were working on the weathered RV. I didn’t wonder if they missed him. I didn’t wonder if he was their dad. I was saving the world.
A half hour later two highway patrol cars, lights flashing, sped up to my left, paused, and sped on. My drunken friend was fully reclined. I was the only visible occupant.
An hour later we were passing through Phoenix. He came to, kind of, and had me drop him off downtown near a dilapidated liquor store.. He left with hardly a word; his scent lingered. I was glad to have saved him. Though unspoken, he knew I was the chosen one. His time with me was a blessing.
This was eight days into what I later would learn was a full-blown manic break. Nine days prior I had stopped drinking abruptly. I also stopped sleeping just as abruptly. And then I started buying.
The first sign that something was different was a compulsion to buy and gift CDs. Music, always a constant in my life, had taken on supreme importance. Tori Amos, in particular, was now speaking to me through her songs. No, not figuratively. She had recorded those songs with me in mind and was sending me messages. As was Val Kilmar, in the role of Doc Holiday, in the epic western Tombstone, which I rented on video tape and watched incessantly.
Val was teaching me to hold dearly onto my few friends. The bottle had me isolating with increasing frequency and friends were sparse. I visited them and invited them to watchTombstone together. The message was simple but powerful. I was Doc, they were Wyatt Erp. I treasured their friendship and had their back.
I wonder if they were able to enjoy the movie. I was up and down, and restless… only settling into my chair during key points in the dialogue that I wanted my friends to note.
The Tori Amos fixation is a little harder to explain in hindsight. Her Little Earthquakes CD was the sound track of my first manic. Every lyric, every note, every rest vibrated with an intensity that had every cell of my being tapping out the rhythm as my right foot does in less excited states.. I played conductor, a mad gyrating maestro, as the music blared through the speakers in my car. I snapped up the CD with regularity; gift-bagged it; and blessed my friends with Tori’s flurried piano riffs and vocal gymnastics.
At the time, the CD was sooo important. But as I examine the lyrics from a non-manic perspective I have little idea why. “I never was a Cornflake girl,” she croons. I’ve never defined myself by my cold cereal choices. (Though I did have to blog once about the resultant heartburn from late night Grape Nuts snacking.) She sings “Black winged roses that safely changed their color,” in the title track. For weeks, I belted that lyric along with her thinking I was actually saying something. Um, yeah, I haven’t a clue.
It was the summer of 1994. I was 31 and bat-turd crazy during a manic that when subsided would leave me terrified of myself… mistrusting of my own mind. But before it subsided, what a ride.
I was working in Southern California and the commuting home on weekends to Arizona where my wife and two daughters lived. My wife had grown weary of my drinking, and I was so excited to show her I had conquered the bottle. Returning home after dropping off my hostage… I mean hitchhiker… I strutted past my wife and into our bedroom. Taking my copy of Alcoholics Anonymous, commonly referred to as The Big Book, from my bedroom bookshelf I returned to the kitchen, showed it to my wife and ditched it in the 13-gallon trashcan with a “I won’t be needing this anymore.” I was drunk two weeks later.
That stunt, saving the hitchhiker, gifting CDs and watching Tombstone repeatedly were the more visible components of that first manic. The real show was inside my head.
Mania is a surreal state. Sleeping and eating come to a near stop. Like a crack addict without the pipe, the mind is racing constantly. Gaps start appearing in my daily timeline. One moment I might be pounding away furiously on a computer keyboard, the next I am barreling down the freeway some 40 miles away from where I last remember being.
Thoughts come in flashes. The Godhead, as I was taught growing up, was comprised of God the Father, His Son Jesus Christ and the Holy Ghost. God and His Son had bodies (and matching robes). The Holy Ghost needed a body. Could it be? Was it so? He was me?
I wasn’t certain that I was the Holy Ghost. That thought rushed in and rushed out several times but never stuck. A tease of a thought. But I was certain church leaders knew of my greatness. They knew I was the chosen one. And they were making preparations for me to be a living prophet to guide the church. I got excited every time the phone rang. They never called.
As with all things that burn brightly, there comes a time when the fire eventually fizzles out. The manic, frantic mind began to slow. Not abruptly, but there were lucid moments. I couldn’t handle the lucid moments. I couldn’t handle the realization that I had lost my grip on reality. So I returned to the bottle and everything slowed down.
With alcohol, there is a detachment from reality. But it’s predictable. I convinced myself it was manageable. I sought daily escape.
The alternative was to accept that I was damaged goods. I knew nothing of bipolar disorder. I just knew, when sober, that I was broken. I was the only one. Terminally unique. Beyond repair.
I had long feared being labeled as broken. Even as a child I never wanted the stigma of being defective in any way. During the 3rd grade at Acacia Elementary School, some well-intentioned optometrists came around to administer eye tests. As I stood in line to take the test, I was mortified by the realization that I couldn’t read what was on the chart. So I listened, intently. And I memorized the lines. No four-eyes label on me.
It wasn’t until the 6th grade that my teacher, Ms. Bailey, noted that every time I was called up to the board it was as if I was seeing the problem for the first time. She contacted my parents who in turn took me to twitchy Dr. Chase, that poster child for halitosis. There was no line of test-ees, no chance to memorize. Turns out I am legally blind in both eyes.
I read memoirs by others diagnosed with bipolar disorder. After their first serious break with reality they usually ended up having a little chat with a psychiatrist. Go figure. That never occurred to me. It wasn’t that I thought I should see someone and then let shame get the better of me. I literally had no inkling to seek professional help.
So I went manic and abruptly quit a job as IT director for a large franchisor. I went manic and scared off a woman I cared deeply about. I went manic and was taken to the hospital by a consultant I worked with. And not once during any of these episodes did the thought occur to me that professional help might be in order.
Then I met a woman who was bipolar and open about it. She picked up a hitchhiker on a lonely stretch of road. He was carrying guns, plural. She just had him put them in the trunk and thought nothing of it. She too was saving the world. Her story saved me. I wasn’t the only one.
Years later I came across a definition of humility that worked for me. Humility, on a basic level, is simply the admission that I need help. In my grandiose state and in the depressive state following the recession of the grandiose tide there was no such humility. No admission of helplessness. So, as I alluded to, this was not to be the last manic episode.
Follow this blog…