Friday, August 29, 2014

Your One True Friend

I'll be honest. The last several days have been rough. I haven't gotten much work done. Some people with bipolar disorder have an easy time of it. They take the same familiar medication cocktail for years, the same three word or three letter sequence that rolls off the tongue like a logic game. They've got it easy.

Though my quality of life has improved over time, I continue to experiment with the most effective combinations of drugs. For reasons unknown, my case is a severe one, one that has required around twenty-five different medications from start to finish. Recently, one drug, since discontinued, caused problems with all the others. I've had to wait for it to make its way out of my system before I make modifications to the rest of my regimen. Such is the life of the manic-depressive.

The other day I spoke to my mother on the phone. After retirement, she became a cause lady and has of late volunteered with the organization NAMI to educate others about mental illness. Mom talked about how close I was to killing myself at my worst times, back when I was in high school. The sad outcome of Robin Williams has stirred the pot once again. This is always what happens when someone very high profile commits suicide. I heard the talking points of her speech by the way she emphasized them in conversation. I could see the bullet point headings of a PowerPoint presentation, line by line, in what she shared with me.

I would have been a dubious distinction to the senior class, the first member to die. As it turns out, credit would be claimed a couple of years later by a pair of fraternal twins who left this life in an East Alabama car accident. Or as the cops so succinctly put it, alcohol was involved.

A couple years after that, a long-time troublemaker and social defective totaled his car and ended up a vegetable on life support. In the game of trees versus cars, trees won. Now he lives, if one can generously put it that way, hooked up to a machine in a perpetual coma. In a cool downstairs bedroom, he exists, barely, though he has not opened his eyes in fifteen years. No one was particularly shocked to hear the news and neither did anyone reach out to his family.

I remember only a hyperactive kid on Ritalin in fifth grade. I recall how we, his classmates, would beg the teacher to momentarily dismiss him long enough to visit the nurse, who would dispense his daily dosage to him. We would sidle up to the teacher's desk, one-by-one, urgently requesting that order be restored. He was always out of order, always crawling over desks or sharpening his pencils down to nubs. Later in life, his behavior reminded me of the schizophrenics I encountered during hospital says, a harm to no one but themselves. Some of them were perpetual children, in and out of the state mental hospital for one three-month stay after another.

In June of last year, I visited a friend who had developed a large brain tumor. The ailment was far more common in men fifty years older than himself, which perplexed the oncologist. Knowing that he was dying, he reached out to me for closure before he passed away. As is true with some friends, he always needed me more than I needed him, a fact which always sat uneasily with me. Prior to being diagnosed with a terminal illness, he had consumed recreational drugs with a ferocity and quantity that frightened me. I'm not sure if that's why he contracted such a severe case of cancer, but it's the best explanation I can formulate.

He was devoted to me and visited me in the hospital when the news of where I'd been for all this time eventually leaked out. I'd been a reliable buffer against an alcoholic father and a dismissive, critical older brother. I didn't have words for it at the time, but dysfunctional is the best adjective to use for what he dealt with and it explains why he clung tenaciously to me. His vociferous drug habit was never criticized by me. I knew he was looking for an escape, much as I was myself in my own ways.

Most people in psych wards have relatively short stays. Insurance companies only want to pay for the minimum, usually long enough to be monitored and to regain most of the zest for life. One is then discharged and set free. For most, it's four days and out. This stay for me was two months in duration, marking me as one of the severe cases. I returned to the ward again a couple of years later because at first I was a danger to myself. Upon arrival, the nursing staff knew me by name, which only increased my mortification at being back there once again.

My life could have been a tragedy to add to this list. During a manic episode, I deliberately crossed the street in front of a speeding car. The jaws of two people on the other side of the street dropped, shocked at what I had just done. Some of us live and some of us die. I no longer ask questions of God and I no longer play chicken with the cars on University Boulevard. If I'm still here, I must have a greater purpose, otherwise I cannot explain it to myself or anyone else.

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