By John Lee Pendall
Don’t let me fool ya; I’m always just one breath away from a total nervous breakdown.
The present moment is my sole refuge from utter chaos. If my attention deviates even a hair’s breadth from the here and now, then I start to spiral into depression and anxiety.
The future is full of possibilities, most of them terrible. The one certainty is death, our own and the deaths of all those we love. There’s sickness, decay, failure, and loss. The past is full of regrets and of good days that I’d like to see again. It’s full of my childhood, that elusive innocence that seems so far out of reach. It’s full of romantic entanglements, all of them permeated by some degree of mourning and confusion.
I’m a man on a tightrope, trapped performing a perpetual balancing act. I’m always trying to maintain contact with that “sweet spot,” that ever so fragile center of gravity. I’m berated by fear and anger on one hand, and guilt and misery on the other. In between those two extremes, there’s reality; there’s me. This short, hairy, chubby white dude of vaguely Eastern European descent who, for some reason, people love and come to for guidance. Love is what chains me to this world and what compels me to maintain. I wish I could teach those who love me to let me go.
Reflecting on your life is a bitch when you’re mentally ill. It’s sort of like being fully conscious while an unpaid intern performs open heart surgery on you. You’re immobilized and fully aware of what’s happening, but unable to do anything about it.
One head shrink diagnosed me with bipolar disorder III, a.k.a cyclothymia. Out of the dozen different diagnoses they’ve handed me over the years, that one seems fairly accurate. For the most part, I’m constantly bouncing between poles with a short stop at “normal” along the way.
Unlike Bipolar I and II, cyclothymia doesn’t really involve “episodes”— it’s just my life— I’m always either on the upswing or the downswing. Sometimes the changes are slight. Sometimes, like the past few weeks, they’re extreme.
Hypomania is pretty awesome, though. I feel so fully me when I’m manic. It’s as if all the best parts of me are cranked up to 11. I can interact with strangers the same way I do with my closest friends. I can work tirelessly for hours on different projects. I’m so happy, so alive. People say they can feel me enter the room when I’m manic. I’m buzzing, electric and totally high on the moment.
Then comes the drop. Like a camel that’s walked one too many miles through the Sahara. I shrivel up and hide away in my bedroom, binging on Netflix and frozen pizzas. I exhaust my serotonin and dopamine reserves and, like a supernova, collapse in on myself.
This whole process is usually slight and only takes a few days, or even just a few hours, to complete. But sometimes, well, it takes a little longer. That one manic night could turn into three or four weeks of down and out misery. “Maybe you should get back on your meds?” my mom suggests. No way. If I wanted a lobotomy, I’d just binge watch The Big Bang Theory.
All these years of mental anguish have given me various insights; the most succinct one is, “The only way out is in.” This is as true for mental illness as it is for enlightenment. The only way out is in. So I let it in. I get familiar with it; I serve it tea and ask, “So, how’s the family? Read any good books lately?” When I do this, the suffering is de-mystified, like a balloon farting out all its helium.
All this pain, all the dark parts of ourselves just want to be loved. They’re crying out for attention. Attention is the greatest expression of love. That’s why compassion is the very marrow of the Path. Compassion is a natural part of mindfulness.
Through mindfulness, I’ve noticed that suffering is fueled by thought. Without the narratives, hypomania is just me feeling good and being alert. Without the narratives, depression is just me feeling drowsy and fatigued. It’s my thoughts that turn these states into something more than they are. Thoughts rip me away from the present moment and rub my nose in fantasy.
I used to have a reoccurring dream when I was a kid. I found a little pebble lying on the sidewalk. When I picked it up, it started shivering in my hand. When I dropped it, it didn’t bounce or roll but plopped back onto the concrete. Then it started to grow. It grew and grew until it was the size of a building. It was pulsating, writhing, and it smelled terrible. Years later, I’d interpret this dream as me making mountains out of mole hills. Through thought and fixation, I can take something benign and transform it into a profound malignancy. It doesn’t help that I’ve always been hyper-aware. I notice everything, every tiny change in my mind and body.
None of this is a curse. The same peculiarities that cause me suffering can also free me from suffering. Everything can be re-purposed. A chain (fixation), for instance, can be a lifeline that I can use to climb out of the mental pits I find myself in. My hyper-alertness and propensity for fixation can become mindfulness and concentration. My ever-shifting moods provide ample angles to view things from because, as my mood changes, the whole world changes with it.
I think mental illness is a decent prerequisite to Dharma practice. Honestly, I can’t imagine the Path appealing to someone who hasn’t dealt with mental illness or existential crises to some degree. Happy, well-balanced people don’t really need the Dharma, and I certainly don’t wanna give it to them—they’re annoying as fuck. I suffer, so I’m drawn to the suffering in others.
I once committed myself to the loony bin when I was on the edge (literally), and I was amazed at how much I loved my fellow patients. People were so real in there, in the ward. Everyone’s wounds were wide open; no one was trying to hide who they were and what they felt. It was so real—far more real than the circus out here where people conceal their scars and ignore their wounds which then fester over time.
That trip to the ward was the best decision I made in my life. Only two days in, I started bawling because I wanted out, I wanted to feel the wind on my face and see my loved ones again. I wanted to go home. That’s when I realized, “If I really wanted to die, I wouldn’t feel this way, I wouldn’t miss my parents, my cat Zoe, or the fresh spring air.”
I had a room with a view while I was there. Beyond the panoramic window, the Illinois glided gracefully downstream. I’d watch the tugs carrying freight, the speedboats full of laughing thrill-seekers, and the canoes carrying lone fishermen to their staked out spots. I watched the water reflect the clouds and turn pink, orange, and red as the sun sunk to the other side. I watched loners, lovers, and families amble through the riverside park, all flowing along their own courses.
I remember my mom visiting me in the lounge. We were surrounded by the downtrodden and self-maimed, all of us watching Year One unfold on the TV screen. I remember the food, which wasn’t half-bad really. I actually ate more in there than I do out here. I remember a girl with bandages up her arms who’d cut herself the night before. She told me a story about sitting on train tracks just waiting for the metal monstrosity to take her away. The train never came. It turned out the tracks had been abandoned for years. I remember group therapy, when a man said, “I hear voices.” “How loud are they?” “Loud. Louder than you are.”
These were my people—my Sangha. For the first time in my life, I felt part of a group, I felt understood and accepted. Not even my best friends have been anywhere near as genuine with me and as accepting of me as those strangers were in there. I was able to be my unfettered self while I was inside.
With the heavy burden of social norms abandoned, I walked down the halls singing Rocket Man. The patients, nurses, and orderlies all sang along. One by one, they each joined in on the chorus. To do this day, when I hear that song, I’m reminded of my time in the ward. To me, the lyrics will forever be a metaphor for mental illness and institutionalization. If you like, take a listen and see if you can spot that angle.
When I left the ward, I wanted nothing more than to go back in but be on the other side, the side that could care for those people and help them heal.
All I can say to you now, all of you who suffer and who are probably suffering more than usual since it’s the holiday season, is that the pain doesn’t go away. The darkness doesn’t lift, and the fear doesn’t recede. But you can master the darkness; you can wield your pain the same way you wielded that blade that you took to yourself. You can use that fear to sharpen your mind, and that sorrow to cultivate compassion and understanding.
In Buddhism, this process is called transmutation. It’s like taking a tool and learning to use it another way—the skillful way. Our greatest weaknesses are just our greatest strengths taken out of context. If we can find the context, we come to master our own minds. I can’t think of any more worthwhile trade than mindscaping.
Editor: Dana Gornall
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