Two Weeks Without Class, Day One: In Which Your Humble Author Makes Announcements and Reflects On Problems

First, the announcements.

The Charitable Sub-Committee of the Women’s … Oh, wait. Wrong announcements.

Here we go.
First, partly as a function of Item The Second (see below), it looks like I’ll be able to add a fourth class to my schedule in January. B. and I are cooking up an idea which will be amazing if it pans out, but I am desperately trying to keep mum about it.

As the Druids supposedly said:

To know, to will, to dare, to keep silent.

In other words, don’t tempt G-d, fate, or the faceless perversity of the universe by blabbing your exciting plans all over the place. Pride goeth before the fall, etc.

Come to think of it, this gets really long, so here — have a More! tag:

Second, it would appear that I have acquired gainful employment for the time being, barring the absurdly unlikely event that I somehow contrive to fail a pre-employment drug screen (if such a thing is even required; it’s almost universal these days).

Since I’ll be working evenings, it seems like I’ll have to do some re-arranging of my schedule.

There are, of course, a few drawbacks to this arrangement:

  • I’ll have to reduce myself to substitute status in bell choir, which is too bad. I’ve found, interestingly, that dancing makes me a better ringer.
  • I’ll have to get more organized about cooking, lest Denis either starve or spend my entire income dining out, thus defeating the whole point of working in the first place.
  • If I miss a morning class, I won’t be able to just dash off to an evening make-up. That said, Brienne’s class and Advanced class only take place in the mornings, anyway, so I make a point of missing them only when I’m in no shape to be going to work, either.
  • I won’t get to hang out with Denis as much, though usually I spend my evenings puttering about in the kitchen or writing while he watches TV, so that isn’t likely to be a huge burden on us as a couple. I’ll miss his proximity, I suppose, but it’s looking likely that I’ll be away from him at grad school, so this will be good preparation.
  • The schedule may be more than I can really manage, though I think the kind of work I’ll be doing (throwing boxes around, which I’ve enjoyed immensely in the past) will mitigate theeffect to a degree. I also applied for a few more cerebral positions, but I’m glad this offer came through first, as it will afford my brain a nice break prior to grad school.

This last point is the one, of course, that concerns privilege: when Denis and I discussed the idea of me taking a job that adds to my schedule and takes me out of the house in the evenings, he pointed out that if it’s too much for me, I can always quit.

No matter how critical the management of stress is for people with mental illness (and perhaps especially for those of us with bipolar disorder), the ability to walk away from a job that overloads us — or, indeed, to carefully select work that we think probably won’t — is a function of privilege.

It shouldn’t be.

Stress* both literally and metaphorically maims, cripples, and kills us when we are forced to endure it past a certain point. In the past, when I was on my own (and footing the bill for two adults, most of the time), having to continue to work in stressful environments during florid episodes of depression or mixed mania nearly killed me at times. I made what seemed like a good choice of careers and workplaces only to find that I was terribly wrong on both counts, and by the time I realized that, I didn’t have the luxury of walking away. It is no exaggeration to say that I’m alive today largely because of Denis’ ability and desire to be the material provider for our little household.

*I should point out that I’m painting stress with a broad brush here; stress can be a good and necessary thing, but there are types of stress that exacerbate the symptoms of many mental illnesses beyond all bearing. The right kinds of stress, of course, can serve to strengthen us and shore up or resilience.

Likewise (with, I think, some exceptions), one man’s unbearable stress may be another man’s Heaven: someone who needs movement and spontaneity can suffocate when forced to endure a desk job sixty hours per week for months on end while someone else might thrive in that setting; an introvert may melt down as a phone support rep, while an extravert may find such a job to be a lifeline in difficult times.

I think about this often. We have done away with the very concept of the rest “cure” as a formal thing, but it still exists in an informal and (unfortuantely) destructive sense: the employment histories of people with bipolar disorder tend to be peppered with job changes and periods of unemployment, often endured under conditions of abject poverty.

We endure for as long as we can, crack, and find ourselves out in the cold. Even when treated, we have hard limits. Our illness drives us out of work and, in too many cases, keeps us out of work.

This is a shame, because the availability of a formal rest treatment, a kind of retreat, could do most of us a world of good — the ability to rest from time to time can be immensely healing and can preserve our capacities for creativity and productivity; for some, it allows us to continue important and rewarding work in fields that might otherwise swamp us.

I don’t think that Western capitalism is equipped or prepared to deal with this reality. Western capitalism is constructed in such a way that a steady but mediocre producer is far more highly valued than a brilliant but intermittent one.

I don’t think this means Western capitalism is inherently evil, though — rather, in the US, at least, we make it so by using the mythos of the so-called Protestant work ethic (and is various relations) to cast blame upon individuals whose makeup causes them to be intermittent producers so we won’t have to adapt our implementation of the capitalist concept.

We feel that if we can blame people for their apparent shortcomings, we are justified in treating them as we currently do; in short, in ways that only exacerbate their difficulties and waste their creative and productive potential.

I don’t claim to know how to fix Western capitalism to accommodate people like me; like my other bipolar friends. Even academia, literature, and the arts — historical refuges of a certain class of privileged sufferers — have been transformed into pressure-cookers in which only those who are built to withstand the specific rigors of the Western marketplace and who are lucky have any hope of survival. If anything, they are now the hardest sectors of the economy in which to survive.

I know that much of my own comfort and “success” is a function of luck — I chose my parents well, as it were, and later happened to meet the right man at a point in my life at which I was able to make a good decision about choosing a life-partner. I was given a good brain for neuroscience and psychology and a body apparently purpose-built for dance, which in combination suit me well for what I suspect will be a life-sustaining career path. Even that path I discovered mostly by luck — Denis happened to have worked with one of only two practicing DMTs in a state where almost nobody had even heard of the discipline.

Except for the part where I’ve worked hard to build upon those natural abilities (which I’ve been able to do only because we could afford University tuition and ballet tuition), most of this boils down to luck or, at best, divine Providence.

The myth of the Protestant Work Ethic suggests that hard work will always win through. I worked very hard at my Responsible Adult Job and, in the end, it ground me into dust. If I’d had to stay, it would have killed me. It was the chance to walk away from that and work less hard, in environments that healed instead of harming me, that led to my survival and, in fact, to my becoming better equipped for long-term material and spiritual success.

Hard work is a great threshing mill for those who are not disabled, mentally ill, unprepared by upbringing, the wrong color, and so forth … but, as we have arranged it (abetted by the mythologies of the Protestant work ethic and of “self-reliance” that ignores the very real influence of others on the life of every successful individual), it’s actually a very poor yardstick. It certainly does thresh out those who actually don’t want to work hard (though I have some issues even with that interpretation), but it also threshes out those who can and who desire to work hard, but who require a degree of accommodation.

Perhaps worse, unlike a real threshing mill — in which the chaff would be gathered and used for some other purpose to which it was well-suited — our economic threshing mill leaves the chaff to be wasted; to be blown away on the wind.

In a way, the trajectory of my life in the last eight years or so reflects what the threshing mill could do: at my Responsible Adult Job, I was chaff (though I left on my own terms); but I’ve been repurposed now. Grains of wheat can’t be woven into sun hats any more than chaff can be ground into bread.

Does this mean that I think nobody should have to work; that we should all be free to frolic in the meadows of delight?

Frankly, yes — and I suspect most people, deep down, agree. Few of us aspire, for example, to spend our later years drudging away in an industrial laundry. We tend to aspire to lives of ease, the sooner the better, under the pretext of having earned our leisure**.

**What that leisure looks like, of course, varies: Denis plans to keep practicing physical therapy until they roll up the Heavens, if he can; I hope to keep dancing and, if I’m not terribly mistaken, practicing Dance-Movement Therapy, until they pry my cold, dead fingers from the “Play” button on the sound system.

The difference, in short, is one of need — we imagine continuing to work in spite of no longer needing to, someday. We imagine being able, if we desire, to take long breaks for travel and adventure, working because we choose to work and because our work buoys us up.

Realistically, of course, the world doesn’t work that way: the attempts we’ve made to make it work that way have generally failed when applied on the scale of nations and cultures. That doesn’t mean, though, that we can’t improve on the status quo at all.

It’s worth mentioning that work can be edifying, even healing; even hard, physical work — but no one kind of work is suitable for every person, and some people arrive at the table (or workbench?) with real limitations and challenges that need and deserve consideration.

I suspect, at a certain level, that one of the unrecognized sources of difficulty in changing societal attitudes about mental illness is rooted in this very problem: while we cannot possibly ignore the challenges faced by people with visible, tangible disabilities and thus blame them when the existing system doesn’t work for them (though some of us, astoundingly, still do), we can overlook invisible disabilities. It is more convenient to go on blaming people whose difficulties we can’t see than it is to change our entire view of the world.

We cannot say, “I don’t believe in missing limbs; she’s imagining that she lost an arm to an IED; she just needs to apply herself. It’s all in her head.” A missing limb is a visible thing — and we can, with reasonable ease, make ourselves imagine at least to an extent what it would be like to live with a missing limb.

Mental illness (bipolar disorder, or schizophrenia, or Tourette’s, or major depression, or…), meanwhile, is invisible. With powerful brain-scanning technology, we may observe some changes in the brain over the long term in some people with some disorders — but even then we’re not sure whether those changes are causative, merely symptomatic, or the result of some other related environmental factor.

Few of us carry around MRI machines, so even in the cases where a clear neurobiological picture can be established, mental illness is mostly revealed in behavioral symptoms — and we like to believe, for better or worse, that behavior is entirely answerable to free will (regardless of our propensities for driving on autopilot and always buying popcorn at the cinema).

Those who do not suffer feel free to think, and to say, “You’re just lazy. You just want attention. Everyone has hard days. You could get over it if you just tried harder. Apply yourself! Pull yourself together! It’s all in your head***.”

***Mostly, those of us with mental illness refrain from replying, “Why, yes, the most important organ in the human body — the one without which none of the rest can function, without which we can neither think nor act not perceive, the one that’s malfunctioning in my case and apparently also in yours — is contained entirely within the head. Your grasp of basic human anatomy is commendable. Also, I can recommend a good proctologist if you’d like to have the problem with your head corrected.”

They are literally unable to imagine what it is like to live with a brain that hijacks itself; with a rational mind that feebly protests against the incontrovertible certitude of inarticulate paranoia, or with a depression that not only won’t yield to reason, but insists that reason is wrong while stealing not only pleasure and joy, but the very capacity to perceive them.

Likewise, while behavioral adaptations will inevitably affect outcomes for people with missing limbs, they don’t make limbs grow back — nor do medications that may be used to treat lingering symptoms associated with the incident or process that led to the loss of the limb.

Meanwhile, behavioral adaptations and medications can, in some cases, make mental illness seem to disappear — which too often leads the uninformed to conclude that those of us with mental illnesses could be just like everybody else of only we’d try harder.

And, you know, take our drugs. It is hard enough for those of us in the mental illness community to avoid policing each-others’ decisions about meds****; for those who have never taken powerful psychotropics on a potentially-permanent basis, it must be staggeringly difficult to understand A) that medication doesn’t always work at all, let alone working well enough to render us anything like “normal,” and B) that even when it does work, sometimes the side-effects are more disabling than the illness itself.

****I feel that I should pause to point out that while it’s generally rude to police other people’s medication decisions without consent, it is nonetheless a good idea to appoint people with that very job — kind, rational, empathic people who can maybe get the message across when we’ve ventured into territory in which medication is really vitally important. Likewise, sound advice gently offered can be helpful sometimes.

In short, they still mostly live in a world where medicine is magic (that’s not a criticism: they just haven’t, for the most part, had experiences that would tell them otherwise).

They don’t have the frame of reference that we have, so they go on believing that if we’d just take the drugs, get up at seven AM, and try harder to snap out of it, or problems would disappear.

Most of us with mental illness, on the other hand, try harder than anyone without mental illness can begin to imagine (especially if they judge by tangible results — it can take all you have just to open your eyes, sometimes, but you can’t make a pile of eye-openings): but, like medicine, effort isn’t magic, and no amount of just trying will cure us.

For most of us with “serious” mental illness, there is no cure — but appropriate rest at appropriate times can make an enormous difference.

But to allow for that rest and for work structures that make use of the chaff, we must question the very foundational mythos that moves beneath so much of American culture, and probably beneath many other cultures as well. We may begin by understanding that the chaff doesn’t choose not to be grain, and that it makes more sense to use the chaff in ways that suit it than it does to waste the chaff.

We must allow for the idea that blame is not always appropriate and consider that, if we are to be people of empathy — if we are to practice Tikkun Olam, to walk in the footsteps of Buddha, to be Christlike, to truly honor the words of Mohammed (PBUH), or just Be Good People — blame shouldn’t be the basis of our system of values in the first place. (We might also come to recognize that, like guilt, blame is a poor motivator when compared with almost anything else — including, unfortunately, depression and fear, but also, fortunately, joy and agency.)

Even as I write this, though, it feels futile: as if the people who need the message aren’t ready — indeed, this country, at least, is wrapped up in a paroxysm of self-serving individualism — and the ones who would benefit from it are, for the most part, already doing everything in their power … often just to survive.

I know, ironically, that some of this cynicism is my own mental illness talking; that the paranoia I’m more of less managing through the constant application of cognitive-behavioural therapy still leaves its mark.

This is a tough time of year for people with bipolar; we children of the solar year wrestle hardest at its zenith and nadir.

I maintain hope, perversely, by turning away from hope: the distant goal seems unreachable, so I look at something closer — for me, ballet, with its constant incremental gains, works wonders, assuming a cascade of paranoia doesn’t keep me from getting to class.

In these dark, cloud-shielded days, I work my way towards the horizon not by looking at the stars, but by studying what is near. It gets me through, but it doesn’t make thinking about the big problems easier. Sometimes, I don’t even bother steering my ship: instead, I stand on the deck and look at the albatross or giant squid or grampuses, because that is all I can do. (Full disclosure: sometimes when I’m manic, I go chasing aquatic unicorns directly into typhoons. Mania gonna, um, mane.)

There’s a famous saying in bike racing — two, actually:

First: “It doesn’t get easier; you just go faster.” (You can modify this one for ballet: “It doesn’t get easier; you just discover new levels of minute imperfection.”)

Second: “When you’re wrestling a half-ton gorilla, the gorilla decides when you’re done.” (This one probably fits ballet even better than cycling with no modifications at all, come to think of it.)

Both apply here. Thinking about this problem never seems to get easier, but I guess one does — through practice — refine one’s ability to think about it.

Likewise, one may decide to stop wrestling for a while, but the problem — the gorilla — doesn’t just go away. That fact alone can be hard to endure.

I try to close things up on a hopeful note around here, but I don’t think I have one to add.

Not that I don’t believe we won’t overcome this gorilla of ours — but I have no idea how or when it will happen, beyond the standards: “A little at a time,” and “So slowly that we probably won’t even realize it’s happened when it finally does.” I’m an optimist by nature, but not an immediate one: I believe this injustice will be righted, but maybe not in my lifetime. And I expect, with good evidence, that I’ll live to be very old.

I suppose I will rest in the knowledge that the only real constant is change (“given strange aeons, even death may die,” I guess?).

So that’s it for now. I live in hope, even when I preserve both life and hope only by turning my eyes from the stars.

À bientôt, mes amis.


About asher

Me in a nutshell: Standard uptight ballet boy. Trapeze junkie. Half-baked choreographer. Budding researcher. Transit cyclist. Terrible homemaker. Getting along pretty well with bipolar disorder. Fabulous. Married to a very patient man. Bachelor of Science in Psychology (2015). Proto-foodie, but lazy about it. Cat owner ... or, should I say, cat own-ee? ... dog lover. Equestrian.

Posted on 2015/12/21, in balllet, bipolar, health, justice, life, work and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. I found that needing to walk away from a job–and not doing it–was a sure prescription for a brief manic flight… and a long long recovery from a crash landing in depressionville. Hope that’s a decision you won’t have to make.

    • Yes indeedy — that has been exactly my experience in the past. I’m hoping things won’t go that way this time, too. Thanks 🙂

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