Sunday, March 18, 2018

Euphoria or Mania?

It’s finally spring up here in the top left corner of the bottom 48. The kids are doing great. Oliver says I’m “fat” again. The yard looks amazing. Thanks to continuing pressure from the militant Pro-Beard Front, even the Xmas beard looks amazing. ("Amazing" in the sense that most years I would have shaved it off by March.)

Writing has been gushing out, including twenty-eight new blog posts in the last six weeks, and publishing every day for the last fortnight. [Ed. Note: and the quality has been surprisingly readable.]

So far in 2018, I’ve only yelled at the kids twice, and neither counts. Once we were playing a board game where everyone was yelling, and the other time Oliver was wearing earphones and couldn’t hear my question. I’ve even applied for a couple of appealing jobs.

Yesterday was particularly delightful. The kids and I had a great week together, and now they're blessedly gone. After staying up late Friday to read and write, I peacefully slept in. I had a perfect Americano at my favorite American coffee shop. I rearranged the dining room. What shows more confidence in the future than buying a cheap but bulky antique buffet, just because it goes perfectly with all your other tiger oak furniture?

Then I drove to Vancouver in the sunshine. After dinner and beer, for the first time I attended Vancouver Men’s Chorus’s annual fundraiser “Singing Can Be A Drag.” All live singing, no lip synching – there’s so much terrifying talent in the chorus. I even sat next to the lucky guy who won the $600 cash raffle. I’m feel pretty lucky-adjacent these days.

Now I’m in my favorite Canadian café again – check for the tell-tale spellings. I’m sipping my morning Americano, and writing again while I wait for my best friend in Vancouver to get out of bed.

Life is good. Or is it?

Top right corner of Mrs. Atkinson’s Grade 1 class
Gilmore Avenue Elementary School, 1970-71
I met my best friend in Grade 1. He turned out to be gay. And bipolar.

Paul killed himself when we were thirty-six years old. I’m trying to finish a “Doppeler Effect” essay about Paul, and all the ghosts he left behind in Vancouver.

These days I have another gay friend who lives with bipolar disorder. He manages his disability well. In the past, I’ve seen what he looked like unmanaged. I can spot the difference.

Last year, I observed how well things were going for him – jobs, relationship, family, the gym…. His initial response was suspicion. He described some of his recent activities, and the weird feelings they evoked. After carefully inputting the data into various psychobabble grids, we kept getting the same answer: “happy.”

Happiness can be hard to recognize and accept. Not because you’re on mood stabilizers, but because when life is shitty for too long, you can’t remember what “happy” feels like.

A few months after our conversation, I started observing some pretty manic behaviours in myself. I was reading again. I exercised. The kids and I got along. My insomnia vanished – I slept well and woke refreshed. I stopped falling back into bed. Most obviously, after two decades of painful writer’s block, I couldn’t stop writing. A burst of activity resulted in twenty-three blog posts in July.

I was in a good mood about just about everything in my life, except for the inconvenience of being single, broke, and unemployed. In particular, I was in a good mood about the fact that being single, broke, and/or unemployed didn’t seem so important any more.

I described these symptoms to my bipolar friend, and asked for his expert opinion. Was I manic or just happy?

He told me I must be happy, because I couldn’t be manic. The fact I can sleep gave me away.

Anyone who spends too much time flipping through the pages of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.), as I obviously do, will eventually notice a pattern:  a lot of pretty harmless sounding quirks become “disorders” when they “interfere with daily activities such as job performance, school work, and relationships.”1
1Hence the professional debate over diagnosing Donald J. Trump with Malignant Narcissist Personality Disorder – how can a mental condition interfere with your life if you’re on top of the world? [Ed. Note: when you’re interfering with everyone else’s lives.]

A couple of weeks ago, I started getting worried.

I was writing too much. My tennis elbow and carpal tunnel flared up. When the kids were gone, I went days without bathing or eating. (I still slept fantastically, thanks for asking.) I started reading two books at a time. The blog posts gushed forth.

When the fog of writer’s block lifted last year, one of the first long essays I started writing was about Zen. After living with anxiety for many years, I finally learned how to approach important forks in the road without responding with either paralysis or dithering. It felt good to apply mindfulness, calmly consider alternatives, and face the future.

However, I didn’t finish editing “Schrodinger’s Razor.” Instead, I was distracted by writing “To Zen and Beyond.” This draft essay is a mediation on happiness. It starts with the same anecdote about my happy bipolar friend – damn, now I’ll have to come up with some new material.

For an anxious person, peace is pretty wonderful. But happiness is cool too.

Now we find ourselves asking what constitutes too much happiness?  When is euphoria actually tarted up mania?2

2I just realized the next essay in this latent series will inevitably be called “Unsurprised by Joy.” I’m vigilant, I’ll let you know as soon as Joy gets here. For now, Euphoria will have to do.

At a minimum, I need to take breaks. And sleep, and eat, and bathe. And parent.

So earlier this lovely sunny week, I took a vow of silence. Just a short one. I promised myself I would go at least a day without writing anything down. And no cheating with memory games, or pretextual typing. (“Yes, I always keep detailed minutes as I watch YouTube cat videos with Rosalind.”)

All day, I had fun with the kids. I was cheerful and amusing. I read. I slept like a blessed baby.

And I didn’t write anything, except for finishing this sentence.

Bottom left corner of Mrs. Atkinson’s Grade 1 class
Gilmore Avenue Elementary School, 1970-71

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