In Which The Problem of Enthusiasm Returns

December 29, 2009 at 6:23 am | Posted in My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems | 1 Comment

While I’ve been on vacation, I’ve been treating myself badly in the guise of treating myself well. For my entire vacation so far, I’ve slept far more than I need to (sometimes 12 hours a night), written but not blogged, and, for hours at a time, stared out into space and made desultory (though amusing) conversation with my parents.

I have placed all of this under the rubric of Being Nice to Myself. As a result, my shoulders ache from inactivity, a rill of guilt erupts at the thought of this space, I haven’t eaten enough, and I feel groggy much of the time. Certainly a perverse element of my character doesn’t object to feeling this way, but it’s hardly in my best interest.

It can’t help that I flog myself mercilessly when I’m not on vacation. Seven days a week I’m at myself to accomplish more, establish better habits, and stop procrastinating about loathsome tasks. (Side note about procrastination: A couple of weeks ago I made a procrastination list and dutifully plowed through several items. To my dismay I discovered that I’d been putting them off because they were truly horrible. Rather than feel productive and relieved after finishing them, I grinched around angrily, or guiltily, or otherwise brimful of negative emotions. I’m still wrestling with this issue: I procrastinate about certain things for a reason.)

Does this mean that I’m a model of productivity in my domestic and public life? Far from it. One task in particular leaps to mind. I think about it on average six times a day, and yet I’ve heroically resisted doing it for at least nine months, perhaps longer. Clearly self-flagellation isn’t the answer. History and hard-won experience suggest that it seldom is. My accomplishments, which impress me if no one else, have come about because I regularly apply the tricks and shifts that I know work.

Now that I have the opportunity to slack off entirely, instead of being filled with renewed enthusiasm, I find my spirits settling ever lower, like muck in a Florida retention pond. I bitterly resist even the simplest action — making a cup of tea comes to mind — and devote my considerable ingenuity to cobbling up reasons not to start on any of the amusing little tasks that I’ve brought up the mountain. I’m secretly relieved that the snow and ice make hiking impractical. I turn down all offers to drive me down the mountain or into the village. None of my books seems quite right; when I examine them, trying to decide which one to start, my gaze riccochets from volume to volume, and each one evokes its own special reluctance.

Naturally, once I actually start reading I enjoy it so much that I slurp up the chosen book in less than 24 hours. Then, not having learned even this simple lesson, I go back to regarding the remaining half-dozen or so with suspicion. This launches a minor existential crisis, which sounds a bit like this: “Where has all of my enthusiasm gone? Why do even the simplest tasks take so much effort? Why do I procrastinate about things that I’m sure to enjoy? What the hell is wrong with me?” I routinely pose that last question several times a day, much as if it actually had an answer.

This problem is hardly mine alone. I remember as an undergraduate reading a section in Kierkegaard where he mourns his young self, which approached every new task with preternatural eagerness. My 20-year-old self nodded a sad, wise nod. I later re-read this when studying for my qualifying exams, and, of course, felt that the problem had only worsened as I descended into the senesence of my mid-twenties. I know rationally that I was racked by doubt, guilt, and terror during those daily eight-hour bouts of reading, but I still compare myself unfavorably to the machine of industry I was. (No matter that I drove my then-boyfriend utterly mad by stopping every 10 pages to apply a coat of nail polish or a facial mask. Of course, he was the sort of dude who kept a German edition of Hegel’s Encyclopedia in the bathroom, which demonstrates either unholy rectitude or severe gastrointestinal distress.)

So what the hell is wrong with me? Or, rather, what can I do? Well, obviously I need to get my butt in gear if I hope to taste enjoyment before I return to work on January 4. So, let the self-flagellation and trickery begin, along with the attendent resentment and nostalgia for an imagined earlier self. When I discover a better answer, I’ll let you know.

(Note: I had to herd myself to the keyboard to write this entry, and naturally I enjoyed doing so, and am experiencing a pleasurable sense of accomplishment. Hm.)

In Which I Compare Myself to Alexander the Great

December 26, 2009 at 6:46 am | Posted in Creativity, Dealing with Depression, Philosophical Problems | Leave a comment

Alexander the Great

Alexander the Great

Most other great generals acknowledge that the Macedonian King Alexander the Great was the conqueror’s conqueror. Perhaps the best measure is the simple fact that his conquests covered the known world. He kicked every butt that was available to kick, from other Greeks to the Persians and back again. He died at 32, partly as a result of wounds that he received in battle, and, not surprisingly, his heirs couldn’t hold on to the immense and disparate lands that he managed to acquire.

Though he devoted his brief life to making war, Alexander was far from the stupid bully or killing machine that you might imagine. His tutor during childhood was Aristotle, and he seems to have been an apt pupil. Even today, we use the phrase (or I use the phrase) “Alexandrine solution” to refer to his stunt of slicing through the famous Gordian knot with his sword rather than bothering to untangle it.

Even so, Alexander’s skills didn’t really lie in statesmanship; he may have settled into a wise and just ruler if he had lived longer, but he devoted his short life to making war. That’s probably why Napoleon Bonaparte and Hitler admired him so. And, indeed, it makes sense to ask why we should admire him at all. Conquering the known world is a dubious enterprise at best, involving, as it does, a staggering number of deaths and casualties. He did bring Greek culture to the East, but if I were living in the East at the time I wouldn’t have felt particularly grateful for the gift.

That said, I find myself admiring Alexander much as I admire the Romans. From this distance, it’s easy to forget about his brutality, and to admire his skill, drive, and bravery. Here’s a funny thing, though: Alexander suffered from bizarre mood swings. Much of the time he labored under some pretty hefty notions of grandiosity. If he hadn’t been king and a brilliant general, his conviction that he was destined to rule the world would have been downright bizarre. As it was, he managed to get others to buy into his crazy schemes, and the result made history.

Historians also record bouts of what seems to have been severe depression. He would sulk in his tent for days on end, refusing to come out or see anyone, and probably thinking, “So I conquer the Persians? And? So?” He indulged in drinking bouts that weren’t unusual for that time and culture, but that would put contemporary frat boys to shame. Despite all that, he always did emerge, ready to fight on.

And that’s why I meditated on Alexander the Great for an hour or so yesterday. Sure, his enterprise was arbitrary and destructive, but it drove him, and it changed history, perhaps even for the better. If the Big Question is “Why bother?” Alexander’s answer did make some sense. Since I don’t have an army at my back, there’s no danger that I’ll get carried away and follow in his footsteps. I can see the point, though: you bother for two reasons. First, it beats sulking in your tent, and second, because your skill has turned into a calling, and you really can’t stop.

All of this is a roundabout way of saying that writing has saved the mind of more than one scribbler. People don’t write because they figure they’re going to top Homer and Ovid (well, Shakespeare did, but again, it’s a case of grandiosity meets ability). They write, as Harlan Ellison said, because they can do no other. If I do launch a Grandiose Plan, I will be doing it partly to give myself something to write about, to gain enough stature in my own mind to justify sharing my jottings with the world.

I sat down this morning with little notion of what to say, and I haven’t really said much. But I’m chipper, and feel a sense of accomplishment nonetheless. So, yes, one of my best pieces of advice is this: Devote yourself utterly to a craft, whether it be art or war, and let it carry you through those long, bleak stretches.

How to Get Through a Wretched, Wretched Day

December 25, 2009 at 5:58 am | Posted in Dealing with Depression, My Fascinating Mood, Productivity, Work Life | Leave a comment

This Monday, the 21st, was one of the roughest days of my life. I had a brutal weekend during which I struggled to get out of bed and brush my teeth, and come Monday, I wasn’t feeling much better. In fact, I was feeling mentally and physically shot.

I had the shakes for some reason, my back ached from staying in bed for three days (note to self — bed rest is the worst possible thing for middle-aged aches and pains), and I was thoroughly derealized and depersonalized. Emotionally, things were as bad as they could be. On the cognitive front, I had the attention span of a five-year-old boy who hasn’t taken his Ritalin, and even the most commonplace thoughts were arriving and leaving at an annoying drip-drip-drip pace.

Oddly, I had been briefly — very briefly — hypomanic on Friday, calling folks on the phone and chatting away in a manner that at least I found most amusing. Or perhaps I was simply acting normally and the contrast was so stark that I felt hypomanic. In any case, a brief spell of hypomania makes depression that much more difficult to weather because you really feel — or, at least, I really feel — that destiny intended you to live in this heightened state, and that you’ve been robbed for the last year or so since you last tasted it.

So, yeah, I was struggling. Going to work and staying there was was quite simply one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. This is sad in itself, because going to work is such a simple, basic act, and a part of me thinks “Good Lord, is this the sum total of my aspirations and abilities? Laboring mightily to see through a few trivial tasks at a job that is, let’s face it, largely administrative?” The answer, it would seem, is a humbling yes.

Right about now you’re probably asking yourself, “Wow, Dr. RandR, how did you accomplish this amazing feat of endurance?” Well, I’m glad you asked, because I’m about to give you some Pretty Darn Good Guidelines for Soldiering Through What Seems to Be an Impossible Task. Hang tight, here we go.

1. I’ve said this before, but it does bear repeating: No big goals. Break everything down into the tiniest imaginable steps, and work your way through one by one, refusing to think about the overwhelming whole. So in addition my master to do list, which, as usual, I populated with all sorts of ambitious projects that I had neither the intention nor the ability to carry out, I prepared a step-by-step list for each task that I absolutely had to accomplish, and I crept through my duties bit by bit in turn.

2. It helped that we had an urgent data delivery, and that none of my coworkers seemed inclined to help to get it out. I mean, if I were carted away to the looney bin before their very eyes, or they had proof positive that I was lying in a coma following a tragic car crash, I imagine someone would have stepped up to the plate. But as long as I was hovering around like a rain cloud, or at least likely to show up, everyone made it clear through their actions that they were too busy to help — and some were — or that they simply didn’t want to. So I was able to carry on in a martyred fashion about how if I’m not there to do things, they simply don’t get done.

A side note: a funny feature of my job — some would say a kafkaesque one — is that I have as little power as it’s possible for a creature with a pulse buried in a large, bureaucratic organization to have, and yet screwing up my main function by missing a data delivery actually carries severe penalties, both for me and for the organization as a whole. For the company, it can mean substantial fines and, in the long run, fewer widget contracts. I actually benefit from the sense of importance this gives me. If my job were entirely futile and pointless — I’ll refrain from pointing out specific functions at work, but trust me, they exist — I really wouldn’t be able to carry on at times. So I’m grateful for the bit of importance that I do have.

3. I’m not in the habit of speaking in an encouraging way to myself, but, boy, did I lay it on thick this week. At least one station in my head remained firmly tuned to the positive thinking channel: “It’s OK. You can do it. You’re going to be fine. You can do this. Just a little more. It’s really going to be OK.” It reminds me of the way I coached my car when the transmission suddenly stopped working the other day. A lot of, “Come on, baby! Just a little further! Let’s get through this one intersection, shall we?”

4. I flatly refused to think ahead to the future, or to ask any of the Big Questions. I’d been asking the Big Questions all weekend — “What am I doing on this planet? Why is there so much suffering in the world, and specifically in my skull?” — and — surprise, surprise! — I hadn’t managed to dredge up any persuasive answers, so come Monday I summoned all of my considerable powers of denial and refused to engage in any cheap existential philosophy. No big questions, just small tasks. No future; just the paper and pen, phone and computer before me.

5. I told myself again and again how proud I would feel if I managed to get through the day. I thought, “Heck, if I can sit upright and look busy for eight hours while feeling like this, then I can conquer the world!” And you know, I do feel proud. I’ve encounted a few stretches in my life where all I could do was slog through with very little hope, encouragement or pride, and I do pretty much manage to tough it out.

Taken together, these strategies did work. I doubt that they could work for months or even days on end, but luckily I did feel a bit better on Tuesday, so I didn’t have to test their efficacy over the long haul. I mean, I think I will eventually have to ask at least a couple of modest questions and discover some sort of purpose to drive me, but Monday was not the day for that, and I wisely refrained. As so often happens with depression, things did get a bit easier, and it was no longer such a superhuman struggle, say, to brush my teeth.

One consequence of my lost weekend is that I’ve had to skip Christmas. The window for buying and sending gifts and cards has closed, and I’m left reassuring myself that I will give everyone on my list random gifts throughout the year when they least expect it. Certainly not on their birthdays, since I always miss those. Perhaps in July, when the holidays seem so far away, and look alluring and not simply stressful.

One thing I did decide on Wednesday, my last day of work before the blessed, blessed holiday shutdown, is that I need a Grandiose Plan for this blog, and by extension for the rest of my life. Here’s the idea I’ve been toying with: what if I become the ideal mental patient? After all, I don’t follow a lot of my own advice. My diet isn’t horrible, but it certainly doesn’t meet FDA guidelines. The only exercise that I’ve been getting has been climbing the stairs at work and trudging back and forth to remote corners of our absurdly huge building. I’ve been slugging away at the coffee, which all the experts agree worsens mood disorders over the long run. I’ve stopped praying and attending church. And so on.

So I’ve been thinking: what if I really clean up my act? I don’t have to run a marathon, but I could revitalize my yoga practice and get the recommended minimum 20 minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week. I could eat more fruits and vegetables, behave as if I haven’t childishly withdrawn my faith from God, and so forth. Obviously, I couldn’t do this all at once. If I did, I would probably be assumed into heaven body and soul like the Virgin Mary, and that would have unfortunate consequences at work and for this blog. (I’m guessing that they don’t have internet connections or cell phones in the afterlife. No TV, either.)

Even so, I’m almost ready to concoct a grand scheme for self improvement just as an experiment. Would I actually get measurably better? Or is it true that mine is a hopeless case and there’s no point in buying spinach just to see it wilt in my refrigerator? The benefit of this approach is that it’s purely experimental. I don’t have to believe that it will work in order to do it. That helps, since I’ve been having a bit of a belief problem for the last several months.

It would also make for good reading — better reading than relentless whining about my sad lot, which others already do much more eloquently on other blogs (well, their lots, not mine). It would prove amusing for others, if not for me. And it might just work. All of the science and clinical evidence suggests that I would improve to some degree. Perhaps the clincher is this: it may be a matter of life and death. I’m genuinely not sure that I can go on like this, so I don’t have much to lose.

So, yes, a hopeful, ambitious, apparently unquenchable corner of my soul has been urging me to concoct and at least try to carry out a Grand Scheme. Watch this space for further developments. Or for more relentless whining. Or, most likely, for both.

Love to all.

Senate Passes Limited Health Care Reform

December 20, 2009 at 4:14 am | Posted in In the News, The Heath Care System | 1 Comment

Yes, after placating assorted holdouts and clearing a host of procedural hurdles, Senate Democrats have passed health care reform.

I have mixed feelings about the bill. On the one hand, if they don’t pass anything this year the political climate may worsen to the point where a bill may not come up for another 20 years. On the other, the Senate bill doesn’t include a public option, which originally was a compromise designed to win votes from progressives who support a single-payer system.

One progressive Senator remarked that “We’ve compromised the compromise of our compromise,” and it does feel that way. The current Senate bill makes a few incremental improvements, and for those I’m grateful. On the whole, though, requiring everyone to buy insurance without including significant cost-cutting measures seems like a giveaway to insurance companies and pharmaceutical companies. In fact, I wish I’d bought stock during the negotiation period, because this is sure to give insurance companies a boost on the market.

I’m tempted to speculate on what could have been if Obama had taken a more active role in the debate by giving a series of major speeches framing the issues. He’s a centrist, though, and may be more or less pleased with what passed.

Two Digressions, Including a Political Moment

December 18, 2009 at 5:09 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Warning: What I’m about to say has nothing to do with bipolar disorder, and may be offensive to some. This is one of four posts that I spent a good deal of time writing and have my doubts about publishing. I’m including it here because I’m not always all about being bipolar, and neither are you. So enjoy, and feel free to leave comments.

For awhile now I’ve felt a general disquiet about the Air Force flying so many drones in the current wars. The advantages are obvious: fewer troops placed at risk and more information gathered at a greatly reduced expense, for example. At the same time, it does concern me that we appear to be fighting wars in which we have less and less at stake besides money and expensive equipment. Let me explain.

It’s hard to think how to make this point here without sounding like I want troops to be placed in harm’s way — far from it. I’ve advocated withdrawing from both wars from the beginning. Like my discussion of the Fort Hood shooter, this point is difficult to make and to understand, but important to changing the debate about certain issues — in this case, when and how we should go to war.

When we send troops, they, at least, are confronted with the reality of the war we’re fighting. Their lives and bodies are on the line, and their families are deprived of the daily presence of a loved one and all too aware that a relative, friend, spouse or child is running a very real chance of injury or death. When this happens, the President and the public care a good deal more about the outcome of a war beyond whether we won or lost, and whether or not we withdrew with our honor intact. In fact, we should care a good deal more than we do. I really admire the support that my company gives to deployed troops and their families, and to wounded troops when they return. We could do a lot more, but we certainly are much more involved in supporting the troops than many organizations. My point is this: the average citizen needs to know much more about the human and financial cost of war.

At the same time, I have always been struck by how little we, as a country, seem to care abut civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan. The press rarely provides even rough estimates of civilian casualties, and our leaders rarely speak of the death, injury, rape, and privation that innocent Iraqis and Afghans suffer.

The widespread use of drones makes me uncomfortable precisely because it reduces our stake, and ensures that much of the killing is done from a distance. From what I’ve read in defense industry publications, drone pilots typically never leave the U.S. — they have no contact with the country and culture upon which they spy, and upon which they may call down attacks. From a distance, it’s easy to preserve the illusion that war is black and white, that it’s easy to tell the “good guys” from the “bad guys” (yes, the latter phrase is commonly used in the defense industry), and that civilian deaths are few and inconsequential. I can easily foresee a future in which we fight wars almost exclusively by remote control. That, combined with our tendency to postpone paying the staggering cost of war, could make war a popular pastime, a sort of sport — in some ways, this vision has already become a reality.

So I’m torn. On the one hand, the lives of troops are precious to me, and I think we should preserve them whenever possible, and risk them only when potential gain is great. Nothing horrifies me more than accounts of the sanguinary battles of World War I and WWII, in which all sides used troops as cannon fodder and civilians were routinely slaughtered remotely.

That’s why the idea of a drone war terrifies me. Already, past Presidents have committed our troops all too lightly and cynically. What will the future look like if we can reduce the possibility of American casualties dramatically?

All of this is by way of introduction to a disturbing article from today’s Wall Street Journal. Apparently it’s easy and cheap to intercept signals from some of the drones we use in Iraq and Afghanistan. Many captured insurgents have been caught carrying computer video that intercepted from Predator drones. This simply underscores my point that war is always more risky and difficult than we’re willing to acknowledge, and it undermines the idea that drones are a relatively cheap, risk-free way of fighting a war.

Jeez. I didn’t think I’d spend so much time on that digression. It’s a delicate topic, though, and I want to make my position as clear as possible.

As if that weren’t enough material irrelevant to being bipolar, here’s an excellent gift guide from the blog Zen Habits, which I always seem to be pushing in this space. This list is comprised of ebooks and hard copy books, and there are some excellent suggestions here. Plus, I think Leo’s tone of grouchy impatience with the project is funny. Boy, Christmas does tend to bring out the worst in all of us.

I’m not just saying it when I wish love to all, you know. I mean it.

Happy Birthday to Me

December 16, 2009 at 4:31 am | Posted in Goal Progress, My Fascinating Mood | 1 Comment

Birthday Cake

Yesterday was a day of many candles -- may main wish is to keep moving forward, inch by inch if necessary.

Yesterday was my birthday, and I’ve also hit 100 posts in this space. In true depressive style, I tend to focus on what’s absent instead of the many amazing gifts that I have. Therefore, I wanted to spend this morning reminding myself that I have made progress.

Ten years ago Thanksgiving, things were looking bad for our heroine. I was physically ill nearly to the point of death; I had just been released after two weeks in the ICU for a collapsed lung, the result of a long bout of untreated pneumonia. I had spent part of those two weeks on a respirator, and the doctors had prepared my family for the very likely chance that I wouldn’t be able to breathe on my own, and would die as a result. At the same time, I had serious nerve damage to my right leg; when I was first admitted to the hospital, I couldn’t walk. By the time I left, I used a cane and had a severe limp.

A terrible flare-up of my bipolar disorder combined with financial problems had forced me to drop out of graduate school when I had barely started my dissertation. I had run out of teaching support, and didn’t have the money to pay fees or support myself. I had been fired from two successive non-academic jobs, at least in part for cognitive problems (which I believe were caused by heavy doses of some very ugly mood stabilizers). Once I’d dropped out, I lost my excellent student health insurance coverage, and had no way to pay for the thousands of dollars in psych drugs that I needed every month. The hospital bills for my ICU stay totaled about twice I had earned in my entire life. What’s more, I was carrying more than $25,000 in credit card debt after six years of having earned $12,000 annually while living and working in phenomenally expensive Orange County, California. My student loans didn’t bear thinking on, and once I dropped out, I would have to start paying them back. My only asset was a bright red ’63 Galaxie 500 that would fetch about $2,500 if I sold it.

Since I couldn’t keep my apartment in graduate student housing, when my parents sprung me from the hospital, they sold all my stuff in California and moved me back to my hometown. In 1999, when my 31st birthday rolled around, I was living with them with no job and little prospect of being able to walk normally, let alone work. As you might imagine, I was suffering pretty severe depression. When I limped to the breakfast table that morning and found a gift next to my plate, I cried. I felt deeply unworthy of a gift of any sort. Honestly, I don’t remember what my parents gave me that December 15; I just remember my deep sense of shame and failure.

Fast forward 10 years, to December 15, 2009. I’ve earned my Ph.D. and enjoyed two prestigious postdocs. I was the only person in my graduate school cohort to receive a degree and a job as an assistant professor. I spent another four years as an academic before tiring of the lousy treatment and quitting. Today I have an excellent job with the largest and most generous employer in my home town. Through my company’s association for disabled workers and this blog, I’m living my dream of educating people about hidden disabilities in general, and bipolar disorder in particular. I even own my very own banana leaf house, a freshly renovated condo in the center of town. How on earth did I go from there to here?

Rebuilding my life after that illness took every bit of grit and determination that I could summon. In many ways, I was lucky. My parents supported me while I was too sick to work. I had nothing else to do, so I sat down for an hour or two twice a day for months on end and wrote my dissertation. Once I’d mailed it off to my committee for approval, I got a temp job to pay the bills and relieve my boredom. For two months during tax time, I was lucky enough to work as a clerk in a local accounting firm. It was hard to stand on my injured foot day after day assembling tax returns, but the hard work helped to keep my mind off my losses. From there, I went to an administrative position at a nearby research institute. Ironically, I was filling in for a woman who had taken an extended leave to deal with her bipolar disorder.

And the story goes on, one incremental step at a time. A friend was kind enough to pay my university fees so that I could register and file my dissertation formally; I graduated in June of 2000. Against all odds, I received an extremely prestigious, year-long research fellowship that allowed me to move back to Southern California to teach and write. And so forth, bit by bit, up to the present day. Luck and others’ kindness combined with a hell of a lot of hard work to get me to a relatively stable and responsible position. Believe me, I earned my opportunities.

Why is she telling us this? I believe there are two morals to this story. First, it’s always possible to move on, no matter how dire your situation. Second, it’s incredibly hard to do that. It’s a bloody, hand-to-hand battle that’s waged hour to hour and, at times, moment to moment. There are still many, many days when I think that the house of cards is about to come down. To get here, I used the techniques that I’ve outlined here: organizing my life, battling procrastination, working on wellness, and slogging through each depression as I come to it. I wouldn’t say that my life is a happy one, but I do feel that I’m giving back after years of depending on others for everything from room and board to heath insurance to emotional support.

For whatever reason, yesterday was an extremely hard day. I suppose it’s never easy to turn 41 without a spouse and kids, both of which I always assumed I would have. What progress I’ve made has been slow and halting, and there have been a lot of setbacks, including a horrible year of unemployment when I left academia. Overall, though, I have overcome my limitations and made a life for myself. It’s not what I expected or hoped for, but it’s more than I had any right to expect, given my circumstances 10 years ago.

I intend to fight on, then. I will do my best to give back to the community, to look for love, and to do simple things like pay my taxes and vote. I will keep trying, and in another 10 years I hope I will be able to point to a whole new set of accomplishments.

Love to all.

Nietzche and Sartre Go Head-to-Head on Destiny

December 14, 2009 at 4:04 am | Posted in My Fascinating Mood, Philosophical Problems | Leave a comment

Nietzsche and His Famous Moustache

I've heard -- and this may not be true, so don't pass it on under my name -- that all of these famous mustachio'd photos of Nietzche were taken by his sister during the last 10 years of his life, after he lost all mental function. Hmm. I would have specified in my living will that I wanted to remain clean-shaven at all costs.

Yesterday I picked up a book by John C. Maxwell, Your Road Map for Success. I’ve enjoyed his work at times, if only because he manages to collect inspiring quotes from a bewilderingly broad range of sources. I write an inspirational or funny quote on my whiteboard at work every day, so this is more useful to me than it might seem. (A snippet that I liked enough to add it to my business email signature: Saith Wyatt Earp, “Speed is good, but accuracy is everything.” I do love that man!)

Nonetheless, I have mixed feelings about these self-help/business books. They can provide a genuine boost of enthusiasm when I need it, but at times they make me burn with irritation. Why? Well, Maxwell in particular asserts that you can carve your own destiny no matter what your condition. He’s definitely a bootstrapper, and there are days when I long to reach through the page and slap him. On the subject of having a positive attitude he writes:

Since everyone faces limitations of some kind — whether lack of talent, limited money, few opportunities, or poor appearance — you need to learn to live with them. As Robert Schuller said, your limitations should be guidelines, not stop signs. They should direct and guide your path on the journey, not prevent you from taking it.

Even if you set aside the fact that I think Robert Schuller is a jerk, you can probably see why I struggle with this statement. On the one hand I agree that you “need to learn to live with” your limitations. You have no choice, really. And, too, I believe in accomplishing as much as possible despite those limitations. I’m extremely ambitious and driven, and bipolar disorder hasn’t changed that.

On the other hand, I want to whine, But bipolar is different! How can I have a positive mental attitude when I’m seriously depressed roughly 50 percent of the time? True, it’s a state, not a trait, but it’s a state that I can control only indirectly, through medication, eating right, exercise, and so forth. My curse is unique in that I can’t simply decide to walk on the sunny side of life.

To his credit, Maxwell admits that none of this is easy. But a part of me wants to say that for me it’s often impossible, and that makes his book a cruel tease.

Or does it? Now that I’ve pulled myself out of my slough of despond, I notice that I’ve begun to engage in what shrinks call “goal-directed behavior.” I’m full of projects and plans, I’ve got a lot of lists, and I’m actively pursuing my goals again despite having been knocked so badly off course recently. With me it seems like an instinct: part of me will keep on climbing despite dangerous obstacles and painful falls. (This makes me a frightening hiking companion; in my world, the sheerest cholla-studded drop-off is “doable,” which is like calling Venetian Snares’ music “listenable.” That’s as close as I’ll come to admitting difficulty when I’m bushwhacking.) When I’m capable of action, I act, and I wait out the paralysis when it comes.

All of this got me thinking about Sartre and Nietzche. Now, what I’m about to tell you is a dramatically simplified version of both, but here goes.

Among many, many other things, Sartre argues that each human being has the duty to take charge of her destiny. He’d be the first to tell you that this duty is often unpleasant. In a profound sense, we are born alone, we live alone, and we die alone. Life plops us down in heavy seas, and we must grab control of the tiller and steer that ship. To do otherwise is both dangerous and morally wrong.

I’ve discussed that problem in this space before: I’m responsible for my actions, but I often can’t act responsibly. I admit that this is simply the human condition magnified tenfold; even so, it’s a tough row to hoe. Sartre acknowledges that it’s no simple matter to take control, but nowhere in his philosophy (that I remember) does he acknowledge that some conditions may make controlling your destiny dauntingly difficult, and at times impossible.

I was raised to believe in Sartre, and I got a heavy dose of him as an undergraduate. On some level I will always believe — and act as if — I’m the one in charge here. This is deeply unchristian, of course, but often practical. It is one way of seeing the essence of this blog’s theme, revolt and resignation (and, indeed, Jean Amery was a contemporary of Sartre’s and would have been very familiar with his work). The tricky part is, I’m not at all sure that I can control my destiny. That makes it fairly brutal to believe that I’m responsible for doing so.

Nietzsche’s take is a bit more to my taste. For Nietzche, we are born into certain circumstances and destiny smashes us around like a hockey puck, so — and this is poignant but, I think, true — we must embrace that destiny and those circumstances. We must not just embrace events, but align our will with them. So for Sartre, we ought to impose our will upon the world; for Nietzche, we choose to affirm our lot. Nietzche’s stance is not as simple and submissive as it sounds — it’s actually subtle and dynamic in the way that Nietzche’s writing always is. And though the gloomy suicide Amery would probably find it to be a ridiculous and cruel demand, it’s one way of approaching the resignation part of his equation. (And, yes, it’s mean to call a Holocaust survivor a “gloomy suicide,” but he was, in fact, an unforgiving and unhappy man. Indeed, it’s unreasonable to ask that he forgive the SS guard who tortured him. I not only would be bitter in his circumstances, but often am in mine).

So, here we have two divergent theories of how much power we can and should exercise over our lives. I find Sartre’s easier to live by, but suspect that Nietzche’s is the truer of the two. It’s interesting to note that Nietzche went mad, and died in a vegetative state. One wonders whether his philosophy served him as he made the transition from brilliant thinker to a creature that had to be fed.

In other news, I wrapped my banister with eight-way Christmas lights, and as a result feel the holiday spirit rising within me. I am lucky to be so easily amused.

I also did set a goal worth discussing here; I hope to get to it next time.

Love to all.

Book Review: Unclutter Your Life in One Week

December 11, 2009 at 4:35 am | Posted in Book Reviews, Productivity, Resources, Work Life | 1 Comment

Unclutter Your Life in One Week

The cover of Erin Rooney Doland's excellent book on organizing.

In case you hadn’t guessed, I am a huge believer in being organized, and in self-improvement in general. Nothing jazzes me quite like a complicated project that promises me a bright, shiny new life of simplicity and ease. On a more practical level, I believe that bipolar folk need to have good systems in place to keep us functioning when depression strikes.

Imagine my delight, then, when I read a review recommending Unclutter Your Life in One Week, a summary of wisdom from Erin Rooney Doland’s Unclutterer blog. I ordered it immediately, even though I thought I didn’t really have a tremendous amount of clutter in my home. How could I? I moved into my lovely new condo at the beginning of May, and purged crap madly before packing.

Of course, I do, indeed, have a good deal of clutter at home and at work. Why, my excess beauty supplies would keep a small village clean and preened for a month; my file drawers at work are crammed with outdated papers and office supplies that past data managers have bequeathed upon me, including, to my dismay, transparencies for overheads (which demonstrate that people bored each other well before PowerPoint) and printable labels for floppy disks.

Once I realized how dire the situation had become, I plunged into Doland’s program, and found her advice to be excellent. I would give one caveat: the agenda for each day is crazily ambitious. Unless you want to bog down and get discouraged, I suggest that you set aside two or three weeks for the dramatic cleanup that she recommends. I’m also a believer in incremental rather than dramatic habit change, if only because I’ve committed to so many radical new plans only to discard or simply forget them in the hustle of daily life. Again, I recommend that you allow several months to implement all of Doland’s cool systems.

The book is divided into separate chapters for each day of the week, each one focusing on a different area of the home and office. She begins by telling you how to clean, simplify and organize the area, then gives a system for maintaining your progress and streamlining the activities associated with the area. So, for example, Monday is devoted to tackling your wardrobe at home and your desk at work, and to setting up a “reception station” by your front door that will give you a transitional zone that will keep you from bringing clutter like loose change and unopened mail into your home.

I tackled the wardrobe project on Sunday, and am still working on it sporadically along with my bathroom. It’s Friday and I haven’t even touched the kitchen or living room. Of course, my wardrobe situation had become pretty grim. I love clothes and shoes, and tend to accumulate them willy-nilly without much regard for fit or function. Following her instructions, though, I managed to pare down my holdings and tidy the floor and storage bins. I haven’t yet established a routine for getting dressed, partly because that entails purchasing at least one big item — a full-length mirror. Also, Doland’s goal with getting dressed is to save time — she believes that it should take no more than five minutes — while I actually enjoy putting together the day’s stunning outfit. So I’m modifying her plan to make dressing fun and sensual rather than simply fast.

Doland provides examples of several wardrobe systems that could work, and encourages you to adopt one that you will actually maintain. This is a real advantage over programs like Getting Things Done that tend to seem elaborate, rigid, and overwhelming to us mentally ill folk. Again and again, Doland emphasizes that the goal is productivity, not maintaining a system for the sheer pleasure of being hyper-organized and precise. This is crucial, since I tend to use things like to do lists to procrastinate and engage in obsessive-compulsive checking behavior rather than as productivity tools.

All in all, though there are plenty of other systems out there (many of which I’ve tried), hers ranks in the 90th percentile, certainly. The same is true of her advice on emailing, filing, and running meetings — her systems are certainly not the only ones, and perhaps not the absolute best, but they are an excellent starting point if certain areas of your life have drifted out of control. Doland’s book rises above the competition because she breaks each project down into tiny steps and shows you exactly where to start on what could otherwise be an overwhelming project.

There are two odd omissions: there’s no advice on organizing storage closets (mine is quickly descending into chaos) or junk drawers (ditto). I can happily turn elsewhere for these, though, so it’s no big loss.

Overall, Doland’s book is a valuable organizing tool. Even if I only follow one-seventh of her advice, my quality of life will improve, and I’m all about quality of life. Too, this book showed up in the mail at just the right time: when I was digging out from a depressive episode and becoming discouraged by the disorder around me. I’m ready for some good old-fashioned goal-directed behavior, and Doland’s book has provided structure and encouragement. So buy it and jump in, or store it until you’re neck-deep in clutter and desperate for a cure.

Love to all.

A Dedicated Email Address for Revolt and Resignation

December 9, 2009 at 3:21 am | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

I’m embarrassed to admit this: I briefly entertained the idea of providing an email address when I began this blog, but I thought, no, I must protect my anonymity, so I can’t use my Gmail address. Um, of course, you can have as many Gmail accounts as you want. That crossed my mind yesterday, so as of this morning, you will be able to email me privately with comments, questions, stories, or anything else. Just send an email to

If you ask a question or share information, please be explicit about any restrictions you’d like to place on my use of the material. For instance, can I refer to it, quote it, or use it as “deep background”? Or should it go to the grave with me? (Never, ever send anything that sensitive via email. But you knew that already.)

I would especially adore questions and suggestions for posts you would like to see. I will answer all email via the blog, or, if it’s more appropriate, via return email.


In Which Hope Deserts Me, Then Returns

December 8, 2009 at 3:21 am | Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

A statue of Pandora from the Louvre.

A statue of Pandora from the Louvre.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the myth of Pandora. The story opens near the beginning of time, just after Prometheus has brought the gift of fire to humanity. The earth is a paradise, but the gods are angry that humanity has received this crucial gift. So Zeus gives a young woman, Pandora, a locked box, and tells her not to open it under any circumstances.

Of course, like any curious young lady in a story, she opens it the minute she’s alone. Thousands of monsters come streaming out and go to work tormenting humanity. There’s Disease, Death, Sadness, War, Terror, and so forth — every awful condition that you can imagine was imprisoned, personified, in Pandora’s box. Pandora struggles to slam lid shut, and manages to trap the last creature: Hope. The moral: As long as humans have Hope, they can live with every imaginable plague and horror.

The opposite is true as well: Once hopelessness sets in, you’re ready to collapse over a hangnail. I’ve been thinking about the story, a sort of ancient Greek theodicy, because I’ve been struggling to regain hope since my last depression. I find that the Greeks had it right, as usual. When I feel hope, no matter how irrational, I can live with my condition; when I can’t believe that there’s a chance that my condition will improve in the future, I’m overcome with despair.

I had a terrible migraine on Friday, and it drove me into a bout of petulant, self-pitying despair. I had been looking forward to the long weekend so eagerly, only to spend a day of it feeling rotten and flogging myself to take care of mandatory tasks like picking my car up from the shop. So naturally I spent Saturday wallowing in self-pity.

I’ve spelled out the problem in this space before. Every time I manage to get my life running fairly smoothly — to put on regular appearances at church, for example, and to maintain a little garden — a depressive episode slams me down and I withdraw entirely, thereby destroying the little life I’ve built.

I’ve been through this cycle dozens of times, and for me it’s the most discouraging feature of manic-depression. The life I build between episodes isn’t stable enough to withstand a serious depression. I haven’t yet figured out how to break this cycle. I do rebuild, of course, like a spider weaving the day’s web. My work tears, and I mend it. Hope always does return eventually, and I manage to believe that this time will be different. As I grow older, though, it’s getting harder to believe, and harder to rebuild.

Enough of that. The more I think about it, the more likely it is that depression will return. A part of hope, it seems, is self-deception. I like the irony of that: therapy is supposed to be about uncovering the truth about yourself, but it is built on the irrational belief that things will be better this time around.

Wow. What a discouraging rant. It’s tough to be realistic and honest without giving up hope. John McManamy’s book, which I’ve reviewed in this space, manages to walk this line. He’s realistic about how tough and wily the disease actually is. That’s refreshing after reading several books that seem to suggest that a cure is one chakra balancing away.

Saturday and Sunday I wrote endless pages trying to find hope in my situation. None of the usual appeals to courage and discipline worked — I didn’t give a rat’s ass, and I couldn’t see any point in setting goals, or even just trying to entertain myself. Me, myself and I finally reached a truce Sunday morning, and I managed to clean and purge my closet. The bargain I struck with myself was purely irrational: I set a series of tiny, tiny goals (1. Go downstairs to get laundry; 2. Put laundry in basket and return upstairs; 3. Fold laundry; and so forth) and forced myself to spend an hour working on them. At the end of the hour I lay down for 15 minutes, then I got up and worked for another hour. Since amusement was out of the question, I focused on accomplishing a few basic tasks. After several hours of this I went to dinner at my parents’ place and watched the first quarter of the Vikings game, then returned home and went to bed. Yesterday morning (Monday), hope had crept back, and I could function as usual.

I’m not sure what the moral of that story is. I know now that Alexander Pope was right when he wrote that “hope springs eternal in the human breast.” It does. We’re animals, and we are designed to function, to go on living. So I went on, and by Monday, I felt marginally better — enough so that I could set more goals and begin to look forward to taking the week between Christmas and New Year off, and even to returning to work on January 4, when I will begin a tough new assignment.

So I managed to soldier through, and now I do feel better. I will rebuild again, damn it, since I don’t seem to have much choice about the matter. And I do hope that things will be different and better, that my 40’s will be better than my 20’s and 30’s were, that the gods will give me something besides hope alone.

At least I have a clean, well-organized closet. Things were getting pretty hairy in there. And even as I write this, I think, What does a clean closet prove? This hope I’m feeling is totally baseless and irrational, and will just lead to further pain when depression knocks me flat again.

I do feel hope, though, and even gratitude. I prayed all day Sunday for the strength to stay out of bed and carry out a few, simple tasks. I got that strength (or found it within myself, if you prefer), and now I can appreciate my tidy closet and even inch forward in this space.

Love to all.

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