Not As Crazy As You Think
I was dying to see this play on Broadway. I never got there. My friend, Tom, informed me that it was now in Mamaroneck, a town only a couple of miles from where I grew up and where my parents still live. This time I made sure I bought those damn tickets.
As a bipolar, I had a hunch that unlike many of the normal theatergoers in that audience, I had a deeper connection with the spectacle of explosive talent that was gracing that stage. I most likely had an insight most of them lacked; I not only vicariously joined in the journey of the characters for one night, I relived their pain through my own personal memories. Despite the prevalent stigma that is still going strong in our society, I humbly witnessed how the subject matter of mental illness was treated fairly and poetically. The riveting emotion the actors emoted and the raw honesty of the writing left me feeling as though I belonged in the world again. My own story was sung to the masses, and I could simply enjoy it as a grateful onlooker.
The rock musical, (with one of the best scores of its genre to date), dares to tell a human story through compassion, but it does not lack a sense of humor. At one point our bipolar heroine imagines her psychiatrist as a rock star as he comes alive on stage in sexy lights, wailing between the sterile psychobabble within their therapy session. The well-rounded tone of the show allows us all the chance to chuckle here and there, within and out of that mixed-up web of heartwrenching bipolar pain that quashes the spirit of each of the family members in one way or another. I appreciate most that the writers chose to reveal bipolar disorder as a condition that is often triggered by a traumatic experience, rather than just something a person is blueprinted to inevitably develop.
Bipolar disorder is generally not respectfully handled in the media, and the arts have been slow in telling our stories. But there is now hope, because "Next to Normal" did more than tell a sad story with its share of grief and suffering. It entertained us and allowed us to fall in love with and see ourselves in the lead bipolar character.
The Middle Path in Buddhism. A very simple theory that suggests the best way to reach enlightenment is by remaining centered, neutral and unbiased about all matters. In my bipolar swings I always grab at this philosophy, and it never fails as my life preserver. Yet, our society encourages bias. What are you--Democratic or Republican, liberal or conservative, religious or secular? Choose a side-- the point of view that possesses the most certain conviction, however extreme, is the winner. The overly passionate argument, the one dripping with seething emotion increasing endlessly in piercing volume, is the better. The culture we live in rewards taking sides; heaven forbid gaining the reputation of a flip-flopper. But for a bipolar, this vehement swinging back and forth only makes us terrorize over the possibility that the pendulum just may fly away never to return. A balance point between extremes in thought- living along the Middle Path- helps us maintain a centered emotional state of mind that is crucial to our health, and it is ultimately a great place to thrive and sustain our stability-- and at the same time, release our brilliance!
I have not had an episode since February 2006. I am happy that I can say that, and I intend to keep it that way. However, swings can occur; for me more on the depressive swing than the manic. And that's because my past episodes were so wildly manic, that my meds treatment is primarily designed to keep that high speed craziness that can result from mania squelched. For me it's better a depressive undertone from time to time rather than sleepless nights with racing thoughts.
Nonetheless, during these bouts, irritablity is my middle name--no, my first name. Last week, I pulled my husband aside and asked him if he thought I should up my meds. He was thrilled, not because he thought I should, but because I self-assessed and asked for an opinion on my mood from an outsider. By him especially, the most trusted companion I have.This has been an absolute rarity for me. Over the years, I have needed to learn to trust my own understanding of my moods, and felt that I was the best and most reliable interpretor. But my judgment has not always been accurate.
For 15 years over the course of my illness, the medical field and everyone else in my family and many of my friends took on the strange task of watching me and my behaviours, then relaying to me if I was acting and feeling ok or not. Quite embarrassing, the bipolar existence. No one allows their lives to be open for such invasive analysis by such a large group of people. But so it is. And I am sad to say it is necessary, because these are the people who saved me from myself when I could not properly assess. When I kept waiting for it to get better on my own, without anyone's opinion from the outside for fear that they might not get it, or worse, that they might take me away from the ingenius creativity and explosive momentum that was now gaining speed.
But mania is different than depression. I don't always have the ability to see the oncoming mania, but I can see encroaching depression with clarity. And I wrestle my brain and plunge into my toolbox of coping skills to combat the beast. Because really, who wants to feel like shit? This latest depression swung towards irritability, which grew out of a restless mind caused by some uncomfortable insomniac nights. This time, I chose to be trusting not of my inner denial child, but of my loving husband who only wants the best for me. I shared with him my fears of feeling angry, down, sad and confused; possibly losing the footing that I had secured for so long on my upbeat, enthusiastic and balanced good streak for the last few years. He stared at me and smiled and said, "This is a great sign, Jen." And of course he was referring to my choice. I chose health above my ego, I chose surrender above my need to control. Just in telling him to watch out for me, I felt a lot better. But part of that was because I have secretly assigned him as my personal watchdog. Bipolars need to do this. Because if they don't want everyone and their mother poking into the embarrassing losses of control that occur during the worst of an episode, they need someone who can make a judgement for them, safely and without condemnation.
As time has passed, so has that terrible mood as foul as a dragon's mouthy vapor. I am feeling a lot more myself---my good, balanced self. And much quicker that I expected. Part of the speed of the mood change had directly to do with my strength to ask for help when I needed it. It is not shameful to lean on the shoulders of others. The opposite is truer. It can be dangerous to pretend to stand when your inner world is approaching vertigo.
Although there are genetic markers that suggest predisposition, mental illness is not a defective and inevitable pre-condition that we have no control over; but rather, a consequence of neglect or breakdown that can usually return to balance. Balance needs conscious maintenance, and sometimes it requires the assistance of a change in lifestyle or even medication. Many of us shun medication for fear of being linked to those "who actually need it." But needing an aid that helps us retain balance is not something that should be shunned.
A family member of mine who struggles with OCD took herself off her meds. She had been doing well for decades, and because she felt fine, she relinquished her pills. The severe stages of her OCD returned, and her balance was thrown off. We bipolars have often shunned our medication as well and know the possible consequences of such a thing. After having made the same mistake myself, I realize that anything that aids in my body's homeostasis is embraceable, especially if it keeps me out of a hospital.
Everyone has a homeostasis system in their bodies, even the mentally ill. Homeostasis is our body's natural ability and tendency to regain its balance when disease or injury occurs. The organic roots from which we all stem, homeostatic mechanisms help us remain healthy as our bodies maintain an internal equilibrium by continually adjusting physiologically to conditions that are optimal for our survival. When mental illness occurs, our physiological equilibrium is disrupted. The call for healing is needed, as with any other illness. And healing is always possible.
People accept the journey to real healing much more readily with other known physical illnesses. We rarely judge diabetes treatment and need not judge mental illness treatment either. Even we who suffer with mental illness judge certain treatment plans. But if our tendency is towards homeostasis, then maintaining mental health lies in the same vein as maintaining physical health. Popping a pill for mood stabilization is equivalent to taking insulin to maintain healthy glucose levels. And alternative treatments are available to us across the board. Treatment in helping us access our homeostasis allows us to stay well and live among the healthy. But ignoring the problem is not an option.
My relative got back on her meds and is saddened by her delay in feeling better. "It will take time," I told her. "But stay on your meds, and you will live a very normal life again. And it's nothing to be ashamed of." And with that reassurance, I saw hope return to her eyes. She walked out of my house with a slightly stronger posture realizing that health is an attainable must. In the end, healing ultimately occurs with the first choice, which is to make balance a priority.
Sunday night I had the fortune of seeing the last production of the run of Dorothy Fortenberry's, play, GOOD EGG, shown by the Red Fern Theatre Company in NYC. I wasn't sure what to expect. Coming into the theatre as a bipolar myself-- considering myself mentally well, balanced and recovered-- I was leery as I usually am just before I digest someone else's version of the bipolar narrative. But from the onset as the play opens with a monologue giving exposition to the history of mental illness "science," I bought in. The story is Meg's, the responsible non-bipolar sibling played convincingly and poetically authentic by Andrea Day. Day's honest embodiment of the classic perfectionist with an obsession for control and seeming addiction to normalcy is impeccable throughout the play. Through a sweet detachment, Meg unveils the past damage that lurks beneath the memories of her childhood, in which both her deceased father and now her brother, Matt, were unmanageable bipolars. Matt is played by Dan McCabe with stunning accuracy and visceral honesty. He shows that he has explored the bipolar subject intimately, and he fairly portrays both the depression and mania embedded in Matt's character. In a brilliant monologue that Fortenberry nails, McCabe is as vulnerable as an actor gets, and he does justice to the playwright's attempt to share not only the human side of bipolar disorder, but also the scientific realities and questions about the illness.
Fortenberry tells her story through the clever technique of juxtaposition and foil, which helps the audience feel both sympathy and repulsion for the chaotic but artistically passionate Matt as well as the dependable but perfectionistic Meg. As Meg consistently reminds Matt that he was the problem child, she also reveals the loneliness in her life that she is trying to erase with her decision to have a child. And understandably, she wishes to secure a healthier, better, and happier life for her offspring. She takes the route of artificial insemination, and luckily, her embryos can undergo genetic testing for a variety of diseases, one of which is bipolar disorder-- (the "defective" gene in the play's world has just recently been located). Matt is appalled that she would do such a thing-- test for her brother's and her father's faulty genes, which have created the bipolar chaos in their lives but also the adventurous experiences, excitement and fun that Matt adored growing up while Meg despised. As an example, their father in the middle of one night woke Matt up to take a drive to Lake Michigan with no particular reason to do so except to look at the black sky. Matt adored him for the sublime experience, but Meg recollects how "he should have been home with his family!" -suggesting dad's lack of responsibility and unreasonable behavior that proved very damaging to Meg.
Matt believes in taking risks, in loving your child despite flaws rather than getting everything you want in a child to still be dissatisfied. He tries to change Meg's mind in going through with the genetic test, and in a vain attempt to prove to her that the bipolar issue might not be that problematic after all, he chooses to go off his medication-- (a move that is so consistently common in the bipolar community, that it is practically included as a symptom in the DSM). But as the illness would have it, Matt loses his footing, and in just weeks, his bipolar symptoms resurface causing his life to once again come crashing down in pieces.
The direction by Kel Haney is particularly clever, and her treatment of the subject is carefully respectful yet honest. She could very well have exploited the drama of bipolar behavior throughout, but instead saves the volume for the end with a potent payoff. She styles the play within the minimalistic, natural setting of a homey, comfortable living room, (where both Meg and Matt live), to which everyone in the audience can relate as being friendly and safe. And when the forth wall is effectively broken by taking the monologues into the audience, she allows the audience to be personally educated-- something that is absolutely needed since every given cross-section of our society possesses such a gross lack of knowledge on the subject, which unfortunately only perpetuates the stigma of mental illness.
My only dissatisfaction with the play is how it ends in Matt turning violent, being kicked out on his own never to be heard from again, which once again affirms the supposition that bipolar disorder is impossible to live with and to have a normal, stable life. Here the audience indubitably sides with Meg: She is right all the way, Matt is clearly nuts, how sorry Meg's life has been for having to be forced to be his caretaker and give up her youth. And yet, I understand why Fortenberry commits to it. The dramatic climax is vital to the play to make the ultimate point-- that this is a serious illness that needs proper treatment and management. But does the audience walk away with the idea that bipolar healing is actually possible? I would say no, and that makes me sad. With Meg's comment that begs Matt to share with her evidence that a bipolar can live a normal life, I feel as though that is the statement that the audience rests their final conclusion on. But for Fortenberry, her truth is there, like it or not, honest for the world to see and very real in many bipolar families. The most important thing here is that people begin the conversation about the illness.
Lastly, after Meg has undergone the genetic testing and has chosen her two perfectly healthy girl specimens to be implanted in her womb, she is practically devastated that a human error has occurred in which the medical team accidentally implanted a boy egg, albeit a healthy non-bipolar one, but unassigned by Meg nonetheless. The image of a plan gone wrong shakes the very core of Meg's obsessive need for control, and with that, we see that even the normal people may never learn to be truly happy.
For the production of this very relevant and important play, I thank both the executive artistic director of Red Fern Theatre Company, Melanie Moyer Williams, and for the partnership with The Family Center for Bipolar Disorder-- an organization that is dedicated to the support, treatment and understanding of bipolar disorder within the context of the family. Through compassion they recognize that preserving family health and stability is an essential part of successful treatment.
Red Fern Theatre Company: www.redferntheatre.org
Playwright Dorothy Fortenberry: www.dorothyfortenberry.com
Director Kel Haney: www.kelhaney.com
The Family Center for Bipolar Disorder: www.bpfamily.org/home
It was an honor and a surprise. What I realized is that because I tried and took a chance, I was recognized for a talent I feel good about, and with that talent, I was able to influence others who need to hear the message. My video that I submitted to Depression and Bipolar Support Alliance's contest for the campaign of Speak and Be Heard...Living with Depression, won a spot in the Video category. Since the announcement of the winners, I had the chance to record a podcast with mental health activist, author and comic, David Granirer, with whom I and Marci, a fellow winner, talked about our videos. The experience has taught me that we need to talk and open up about our diagnoses in order to make real change in fighting the stigma of mental illness. I practically had a mini-breakdown before the interview about being so vulnerable and public about my illness, but after having shared openly my healing process with people who understand, I felt so much freer and empowered, as if my voice had reason to be taken seriously. Thanks DBSA! It's been such a joy to truly begin my journey in mental health advocacy. Hopefully my video will inspire others to share their stories as well. If anybody has a video or vlog that talks about mental illness, please upload it to YouTube, email me with the link, and I will add it to my YouTube channel www.youtube.com/user/SicilianoJen. Let's spread the word on overcoming mental illness!We have a story to tell, and only when we openly share our stories, will true change begin...
When my dear friend, Mr. D, (who was once a teacher of mine--and downright the best one I ever had), shared with me the following quote, my blinders flew off. Those daily signs now appearing in abundance were previously invisible to me because I was too distracted to notice...
Thought to be a quote by Goethe:
"Until one is committed, there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back-- Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truth that ignorance of which kills countless ideas and splendid plans: that the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favor all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance, which no man could have dreamed would have come his way. Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now."
Today I read through a few bipolar blogs--links that I plan to post--and I like what I see. People are coming out with it. They are not putting up with it anymore. The scariness of the label, the shame, the closeted life. For too many years I had gone down that road. What a waste of time! It seems as though while I was still busy bitching about the state of the world's ignorance on mental illness, others had already come out of their caves and faced their own fears. Good for you!!! Now, don't be fooled, others are not so brave....and rightly so....The world does not yet understand mental illness. And sometimes neither do I...