And so we reach that point in my story where I do my best Marlon Brando.
‘I could’ve been a contender,’ I snarl. ‘I could’ve been somebody.’
Yeah, right. Like Brando’s character, Terry, I was acting on orders from above when I threw the big fight. Orders from the ghost in my machine: Bipolar Disorder (Type II).
My mind made me do it.
For most of my life I’ve felt like I’m special, a success story just waiting to happen.
If you read this blog you’ll know what I mean. Him, a contender, you’ll say. He’s nothing but a shadow-boxer sparring with himself in a far-off corner of his head.
And you’d be right. My writing, marker of my worthiness, declares me unworthy. Delusions of grandeur are all part of the bipolar experience.
For what, then, should I strive?
A modest existence, I think, is within my reach. A little paid work, a dash of labour at home and hearth, and a smidgen of intellectual and artistic activity. It’s the kind of life many only dream of having.
As for my dreams, I’ll put them to bed.
For years I have been a closed book, to others and even to myself. Time and time again, words have failed me when I’ve tried to speak of myself.
Not any more.
Last month someone read me – a writer, no less. His name was Anthony and in the pages of his book I did the unthinkable: I found my type.
We met in a bookshop. After a confirmatory flick, I took him home, where he spoke to me until the sun rose, shedding new light.
‘There exist two rather fundamental states of mental distress,’ Tony began, ‘the depressive state and the schizoid state. The emotion characteristic of the former is a feeling of hopelessness and misery. The emotion pertaining to the latter is one of futility and lack of meaning.’
Yes, Tony, I replied. I know them both.
‘Both states take origin from deprivations and misadventures afflicting the infant during the first year of its existence,’ he went on.
I hear you, man, I said, but we won’t go there. Tell me more about schizoid dude instead.
‘He is characterized by detachment and emotional isolation,’ he explained. ‘Schizoid people have ceased to interact genuinely with their peers. Thus they often continue to feel themselves to be unrealistically weak and incompetent on the one hand, and to have equally unrealistic phantasies of power on the other.’
‘Moreover, the less satisfaction a person gains by interacting with people and things in the external world, the more will he be preoccupied with his own inner world of phantasy.’
Hence this blog, I muttered. Turning back to Tony, I asked, What about the depressive?
‘His principal concern is also to protect himself from the danger of loss of self-esteem,’ he said. ‘But, unlike the schizoid person, his self-esteem is much more directly dependent upon a “good” relation with others.’
‘Depressives have no built-in confidence. They remain as vulnerable to outside opinion as a baby is vulnerable to the withdrawal of the breast.’
Tea, I said. Would you like some?
But Tony was not to be deterred. ‘Many people of this temperament give up hope of being loved for themselves, especially since they habitually conceal their real natures. But the hope raises itself when they start to create.’
Then he grew more expansive.
‘Another way of dealing with depression is the so-called “manic defence”,’ he said. ‘When a man becomes manic, he reverses and denies his depression. He becomes overactive. Instead of being sensitive to the needs and wishes of others, he becomes inconsiderate, irritable, demanding. He alleges that he feels splendid and claims complete self-confidence.’
You know me better than I know myself, I said.
‘It’s possible,’ said Tony. ‘After all, some creative people seem to have only a tenuous sense of their own identity. Indeed, their work may be an expression of their search for identity.’
I nodded. That explains a lot, Tony, I said, sadly. Not least of all why I’ve been obsessed with writing, music-making, art and creativity for most of my ‘adult’ life. Not because I’m especially good at them or because they’ve made me any money, but simply because they keep me sane.
‘If creative work protects a man against mental illness, it is small wonder that he pursues it with avidity,’ Tony said, in his bookish way. ‘And even if the state of mind he is seeking to avoid is no more than a mild state of depression or apathy, this still constitutes a cogent reason for engaging in creative work even when it brings no obvious external benefit in its train.’
You’ve read me, Tony, I said. Thanks to you I’ve found my type. What I do with this knowledge is now up to me.
‘For creative work, access to the inner realm of the psyche is essential,’ Tony said. ‘But,’ he went on, a note of caution entering his voice, ‘so is a strongly functioning ego, inhibition of immediate impulse, and control.’
Point taken, my friend.
Thus our conversation closed, and with it Tony’s tome*, whose lines had me pegged. It leaves me a more open book – if not to others then at least to myself.
And that’s saying something.
*The Dynamics of Creation by Anthony Storr (1972)
Take a look in the mirror. Notice anything about your orientation? That’s right: you’re upright, like the rest of us. Relax, it’s just the way we grow; up, it seems, is the way we go.
Okay, step away from the looking glass.
While you were admiring your anthropomorphic erectness, you may not have twigged to something else: our feelings are vertical, too, or at least they are in the ways we think about them.
We’re up or we’re down. Our spirits are high or they’re low. Our mood is elevated or depressed. If our metaphors are anything to go by, our emotions are like mercury in a tube. (Ha, there’s another one! To be mercurial, of course, is to have sudden changes in mood.)
Why so much Y-axis in our thoughts about feelings? It comes back to gravity, methinks, to that perpendicular pressure which drags us down – down to die, if we’re not careful, our brains dashed out on a rock somewhere. For if down equals death and death equals despair, then down clearly equates to despair.
Which is why, one Sunday past, I went and stared at a bridge. An irresistible force was weighing me down, and part of me wondered whether gravity would flatten me if I gave it the chance.
But as I sat in the car, dog-walkers wandering idly by, my thoughts turned from the bridge to the page, to the net that catches me when I dive for oblivion. Because stories, for me, are the upside of down.
Falling to Safety
I met him at the park. He said it was near his place but he couldn’t face his girlfriend so he’d come here instead. He was on my seat – the one with the view of women pushing kids on swings. Only he wasn’t watching.
When I arrived he had his head in his hands. I didn’t encourage him to talk, he just started. Told me he was a fireman; asked me if I’d heard the news. I told him I hated the news. So, after a pause, he filled me in. Fire, apartment block, trapped mother, trapped baby. Straight out of a comic book. Then the crazy bit: mother dropping her baby from a window to a fireman.
That pulled me up.
Hold on, I said, go back a bit. You caught the kid? The fireman groaned. That’s the thing, he said. I almost dropped it.
But didn’t, I said.
Listen, he hissed. I almost dropped that thing; I almost killed it. Next time I won’t be so lucky.
Next time, I said, you won’t be so unlucky – you won’t be the poor prick stuck underneath. You don’t know that, he said. True, I said, nodding. I don’t know a lot of things and that’s one of them.
We went quiet for a bit. I watched a mother try to coax a boy down the slide. The fireman watched with me. You any good at sport, he asked, after a while. Not as good as my brother, I said. And that’s all that counts. You reckon, he said. I’m fucking useless.
I looked at the size of him, the wide shoulders, the monstrous arms. Bullshit, I said. It’s true, he said, with a shrug. I can pump iron but I can’t catch to save myself. I’m a clutz.
That’s not cool, I said. Not in this country. Don’t I know it, he said. I copped hell at school. And fair enough too, I said, with a grin. You gay prick. Sometimes I wished I was, he said. Least I would’ve had a few decent mates. Yeah, I said, I know what you mean.
He turned to look at me, just as the boy went down the slide.
So, he said, you’re finally getting it? That my career’s over? That my cover’s blown? That all this flab, and my uniform, is a disguise? That I’m going to drop the next baby?
Everything’s a disguise, I said. Look, what if you weren’t lucky. What if the catch wasn’t half empty but half full?
I almost dropped it, I tell you, he cried.
But you didn’t, I said.
He thought about this for a while. But how can I be sure, he said finally. Catch another baby, I said, knowing straight away where I was going and not knowing if I liked it one bit.
Don’t tell me, said the fireman, looking at the pram beside me. You live in a two-storey house. Sorry, I said, it was my wife’s idea. I hate climbing stairs.
And you’ve got a baby. Sorry, I said, it was my wife’s idea. That’s pretty piss-weak, he said. Sorry, I said, that’s me. My wife’s idea.
The fireman snorted, got up and walked away.
Catcher in the Rye, I called after him. Ever read it? He kept walking, that big body of his blocking out the sun. Then he came back, mothers turning to look at him in a way they’d never looked at me.
It is funny, though, he said. Me running into you like this. Isn’t it, I said.
But you can’t be serious, he went on. You don’t want to take that risk, surely, with your own kid. You’re a fireman, I said, squinting up at him. What’s not to trust.
You trust me, a stranger?
Okay, I said, maybe I’m just trusting full stop. I even trust in trust. You’re a fucking idiot full stop, he said.
Ah, I said, now you’ve seen through my disguise.
He stood there, flexing his fingers. I would like to know, though, he said. Before I throw it all away.
Then he turned to me, his eyes shining with hope. You think I can do it?
More to the point, I said, do you think I can?
On and on we went, round and round the mulberry bush, until, trembling and quiet, we up and walked to my wife’s two-storied house, me pushing the pram.
Here, I said, pointing to a spot below the bedroom window. Try not to put your feet in the garden.
As I turned to go, the fireman grabbed my arm. I was top of my class, he hissed, his eyes glittering.
Hold that thought, I said, and took my son upstairs.
It was here, let me tell you, that I almost lost my nerve. I went to a shelf, I took down a bear. I turned it over and over. It was real enough. Then I saw the note you’d left and I put the bear back.
My throat was burning as I scooped the boy up. Three lives, I said as I clutched him to my chest, as I walked with him to the window. Three lives and the whole of humanity. Surely, Ben, we have to take the risk, just to find out.
I opened the window. It’s all right, said the fireman, I’m here, I’m here.
He looked massive as he stood there looking up, hands big like baskets filled with bread and fish.
How could I miss?
No, the fireman screeched, as Benjamin fell. Holy fuck, I cried, as he tumbled out of the fireman’s grasp.
When I got down there the bastard had gone. But Ben lay in the rushes, asleep and unhurt.
I turned and saw the fireman, who had crept back, massive hands hiding his mouth.
It’s all right, I said. He’s alive.
But I dropped him, he cried.
No, I said, he’s been safely caught.
But I dropped him, the fireman said.
So did I, I replied.
We stood and looked at each other, in something like wonder.
Then Benjamin woke with a cry.
At once, the fireman became a fireman again, and me, well, I went back to being a dad.
Which I did, having experienced, yet again, the upside of down.
The last time this happened I managed to grind out five lines of verse.
When the curtain descends
the performance ends.
Strutting player becomes
emptied of itself.
Sounds like the show’s over, doesn’t it? Not so. It’s merely intermission – as the rest of the poem was supposed to reveal.
That was a month or two ago. This time, though, I’ve got nothing, which is more normal. No ideas, no emotions, no energy; no patience, no confidence, no hope. Okay, I’ve got plenty of self-pity, but we all know lots of a negative doesn’t amount to much.
Depression’ll do that to you.
Churchill called it his ‘black dog’, yet the metaphor doesn’t work for me. Mild concussion – that’s how I think of my condition. Many of the symptoms are the same: confusion, sluggishness, irritability, difficulty concentrating, slowed reactions. And like concussion, depression passes.
I remember reading an essay about mental illness and writing. Its author tried to dispel the notion that the first is good for the second, that depression is a creative force. She argued that it ain’t good for anything, really, since it stops things happening.
That’s my experience, I’ve got to say. Usually, I can’t write a thing. Can’t even think a thing. Can read and listen, though, which means I try to drown my sorrows in novels and classical music during my ‘downtimes’. I used to, at least. I’ve got a job and a family now.
Having started this post with bad poetry, I’ll end it with something good. Here’s an excerpt from The Merchant of Venice which, somewhat perversely, makes me happy. Hope it does the same for you, especially if you’re feeling blue. Take it away, Antonio…
In sooth, I know not why I am so sad:
It wearies me; you say it wearies you;
But how I caught it, found it, or came by it,
What stuff ’tis made of, whereof it is born,
I am to learn;
And such a want-wit sadness makes of me,
That I have much ado to know myself.
Sounds like intermission is over.