Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Times That Try: A Scholar in Crisis—Part II

[This piece is the second in a two-part series on the experience of enduring hardship while suffering from Bipolar Disorder. Click here to read the first installment, The Times That Try: A Scholar In Crisis—Part I]

Still rising...
Though much of these events have already come and gone, their gravity continues to pull at me, warping the shape of the space which surrounds me until nothing is familiar save the prone position in which I so often feel I am forced to exist. I know that survival ultimately lies within reach of my own agency, and my escape is inevitable—the question is, what form will I take once the worst has passed?

I have long held that the nature of the universe is heavily dependent upon the fact of consequence; every effect is the cause of another, the very course of Reality amounting to an infinitely complex mosaic of cascading dominoes falling in endless succession. The tiles which so chaotically tumble now are very much the result of events which transpired in the summer of 2009. This crucial tipping point, five years in the past, seemed even then to herald no small amount of difficulty to come. I learned rather quickly to avoid clinging to an anxious anticipation of the "other shoe" dropping; "Everything changes", Heraclitus said, "and nothing stands still." Rather than dread the eventual outcome of that conspiracy of triggers, I looked forward to the adventure of navigating their results. But in the five years that followed, I'd forgotten a great deal, having grown complacent as those changes failed to materialize. I took for granted the illusion of stability, yet another example of naively setting myself up for a painful surprise.

Days of Summer Past

In the wake of the economic collapse, my family had been struggling. Additionally, my grandmother—with whom we had lived all of my life—had begun to suffer from Alzheimer's and dementia to such a degree that we could no longer adequately care for her. In response to the latter, after much guilt-ridden consideration, we opted to find a nursing facility that could more capably contend with the many challenges presented by my grandmother's condition. Though our hearts were heavy with self-recrimination at our failure to care for her ourselves, it was a relief to find the home more than sufficient to the task. Her condition began to improve, and we enjoyed a brief period of relief.

In response to the economic hardship that had befallen us, just as it had befallen so many, my parents sought to restructure their mortgage, hoping to lower the monthly payment enough to afford a little more breathing room in the budget. They were told by their lender that, in order to qualify for refinancing, they should forego payment on the house for two months, after which they could then enter negotiations for new terms. 

One night, at the end of June, we received a phone call from the nursing home—my grandmother had contracted an infection, and it had spread. They informed us that she had been rushed to the hospital and was being treated now for septicemia, or blood poisoning. At nearly 89 years of age, she was not expected to survive. The next morning, my mother woke in a daze, her vision blurry, her speech slurred; she, too, was taken to the hospital.

A few days later, we received notice from the mortgage lender that due to the lapse in monthly payments, they had begun the process of foreclosing on the house.

My response to these and other circumstances was, as I've said, to embrace change as the natural order of things. Thankfully, my grandmother did survive, my mother recovered without incident, and though the house was in foreclosure it remained more or less in our possession for years after. In fact, it wasn't until a few months ago—just days after the tragic event that preceded July—that my family finally received word that the house was to be sold, at auction, in the beginning of August. I hadn't realized until the day that noticed arrived just how much of my breath I'd been holding all that time—finally, the end was in sight.

August - 2014

I had thought, with no small amount of optimism, that the sale of the house would provide the motivation necessary to bringing so much of my family's affairs into order. I suffered no delusion that I held any power over these events—indeed, the affecting of this boundary has been integral to my survival over the course of the entire season. Whether or not matters were resolved should never have been such a concern that a failure to do so could impede my own progress, but I must admit that, as the sale came and went without much notice or fanfare, I found my optimism quickly replaced by still more despondency than I had already experienced through much of July. The bank, it seems, had purchased the house from itself, prolonging the foreclosure even further, and so the process of moving on from the old home life still has yet to proceed. 

I had managed, however awkwardly, to find some semblance of "footing" in spite of these events. However, this tenuous stance suffered a major blow from well beyond the sphere of personal matters, in the form of what can only be called a national tragedy—the passing of Robin Williams.

I should like someday to expound upon the influence that Robin Williams' work has had on me over the years, the ways in which his roles have so greatly informed the man I have become. While I know enough to credit the writers and directors behind these roles nearly as much as I credit him for so perfectly portraying them, in the wake of his passing those characters have become as patron saints to the cause of my progress toward actualization. While not everyone mourned his loss, those of us who did felt it deeply, and fiercely. Then, when further details of his life emerged, I found even more reason to grieve: Robin Williams suffered from Bipolar Disorder, and his death was no accident. I was left wrestling not only with the absurdity of grieving for a man I'd never met, but also with a question: If someone like Robin Williams could lose the fight against this condition, what hope do I have? 

It was a question I would continue to ponder as the month dragged on, but I had little time for it. That very same night, my mother was rushed to the hospital. A few days later, so was my grandmother. Though it astounded me to see the same confluence of issues resurfacing in tandem five years from their first convergence, I could not claim enough recollection how how I rode out the storm then so as to similarly weather it now. Things were much more serious this go around, as well; though my mother is doing well, she faces the possibility of fighting against a chronic condition for the remainder of her life. And although my grandmother did recover from the illness which sent her to the hospital that terrible week in August, it sapped from her whatever strength she would have needed to contend with the next blow only three weeks later. 

Everything After

For a time, however, it seemed the tumult of the season had finally begun to subside. The matter of the house remained unaddressed, but it was a trivial matter when held against the question of our very mortality, which stood at the forefront of my mind following the tragic and near-tragic events of August. Through the entirety of the season, I was confronted with my own powerlessness in the face of so many aspects of my own existence. With the family health scares seemingly behind us, a birthday fast approaching, and my own finite nature well grasped, I was resolved more than ever to rededicate myself to the portions of my life over which I did have power. I'd allowed the instability of my condition to become the sole focus of my attention, at a serious cost to the goals I'd set out for myself. I'd forgotten one of the most important lessons I'd learned over the course of the past few years: the answer to any situation, no matter the size, is to keep moving forward. And forward I moved.

This time, no episodes coincided with my effort; though I experienced an elevation in mood, I refused to allow things to grow beyond my power to contain them. Inspired by the acquisition of a new electric typewriter and acting on a whim I'd shelved some weeks before, I repurposed an old dining room table as an work station, for arts and crafts, to accompany my writing desk:

Although I had managed to chronicle the most pertinent events that had transpired over the preceding months, I'd done little in the way of proper writing. Struggling to resume the practice, I instead turned to less serious endeavors; thus, the ScholarDoodle was born.

"Normal is an illusion..." - Charles Addams
For the first time in months, I remembered what a joy it is to create again. "The old juices", as Hemingway would say, were flowing. Though I still found work on my novel to be too daunting to undertake, I began conceptualizing on its structure, and arrived at a better understanding of the form it should take. In addition to reinvigorating my work, my confidence was boosted as well; i suddenly discovered myself to be more capable than I'd ever thought. Seeing these projects through from conception to completion has been more rewarding than I'd imagined. I've even opened a Tumblr account for exhibiting these and future works. 

"Gather ye rosebuds..." - Robert Herrick

Not only did this personal renaissance open new channels for me creatively, but it also drew a rousing burst of support from my closest artistic friends. Once again, I discovered the essential role that community plays in the life of a creative individual. No longer did I find myself questioning my chances given Robin Williams' passing; instead, I came to realize how much farther he must have made it with the help of his friends and loved ones. And, thanks to the support I received for these new efforts, and the rallying of the family in response to my grandmother's health scare, I was able to see, finally, a light dawning at the end of this long, dark season of my soul. Though I often approach birthdays with nothing less than the most dismal of depressions, I now viewed the upcoming birthday as a bright new year in my life, a means of putting all the darkness of the previous season—indeed, the previous three seasons—behind me. I was ready to move forward, and seize each day with aplomb. And then the other shoe dropped.

On Saturday, September 6th, my mother received yet another call from the nursing home: my grandmother had a fever. It seemed so insignificant at the time, though we were of course aware that she had become much more susceptible to a sudden decline. Nevertheless, it still managed to catch me off guard when, just after midnight, on the morning of September 7th, after she had once again been rushed to the hospital for the treatment of a potentially systemic infection, my grandmother reached her limit just as the nurse was to administer a dose of antibiotics. At the age of 93 years and exactly one month, the life of our family's matriarch came to its close. My grandmother was dead.

It was my grandmother's wish that we eschew the traditional arrangements after her passing. There was no viewing at the funeral home; there was no church ceremony, with grandsons and nephews escorting her down the aisle to an awaiting hears; no interment at the cemetery where so many of our family have been previously laid to rest. In the end, by the loving graces of her eldest grandson, we gathered as a family two weeks after her passing, broke bread together, and celebrated her life. I'd never realized how much I'd come to depend on the pomp and circumstance of the traditional funeral, but seeing the entire family gathered together—people I have not had the good fortune to see in years, otherwise—did bring some sense of closure. 

So it goes. I will arrive at the dawn of my 36th year without grandparents for the first time in my life. The house, while still filled with what familial possessions were left behind following the heinous act at the end of June, will soon enough be out of our hands. If ever it could be said that a chapter in my life was ending, let it be said now. The last vestiges of childhood are but a memory, now happy, now filled with regret, now tearful and joyful and filled with such life as I can barely contain. The trick is to experience these highs and lows without letting them run away with themselves, swallowing up still more months of this turbulent year.

My name is James La Salandra, and I suffer from Bipolar Disorder. When life is upon me—as ever it is—it can cripple and devastate in ways that confound the average person. The conspiracy of events that befell my family and me this summer have been absurdly severe, heartbreaking, and tragic. And for much of that time, they made the very act of surviving a day's duration the hardest work I have ever undertaken. But that survival, the endurance of these dark days, has taught me much about myself. It has strengthened my resolve to make the most of my allotted time, and sent me charging into the next chapter of my life determined to continue the fight to become whatever it is I may yet become. It's also reminded me that, despite the darkness, there is still beauty in this world. There can still be joy amidst so much sadness; one can still find kindness on the harshest of days; there is still life, so long as we have the strength and courage to live it. "Gather ye rosebuds", my friends, and just you watch as they bloom.

Monday, September 22, 2014

The Times That Try: A Scholar in Crisis—Part I

It's hard to believe that September is already past its midpoint, much less that fall has finally come once again. This is, in part, due to the fact that still-summery weather had only recently—and so suddenly—been replaced with the cooler days and chill evenings that presaged the impending arrival of autumn. Still, there are some warm days left in the forecast yet, and the summer has seemed longer, in many ways, than those of some years past. The quietude of June seems a lamentably distant memory. Indeed, it seems impossible to fully detail the events of the previous three months and their combined effect without enlisting the help of a novelesque backstory replete with specific dates, locations, and various dramatis personae. This season has truly been a dark one, and an integral chapter in the overall book that has become my life.

A bad moon's rising...

Although one of my aims as a writer has been to openly explore the struggles I endure as a sufferer of Bipolar Disorder, I must admit that thus far I feel I've barely paid lip service to the daily battles waged by myself—and others like me—against this debilitating condition. For my part, I'm fortunate enough to face only rarely the still-prevalent societal stigma with which so many mental health sufferers are confronted on an all too regular basis. In truth, the fight against this stigma is every bit as important as the fight against mental illness itself, for, as long as the afflicted are maligned for the very fact of their sickness, the pursuit and potential success of treatment will remain hindered, if not impeded entirely. To live under the conditions which these maladies impose is challenge enough; to do so in secret, as if in shame, is to invalidate so much of the dignity and humanity to which we earnestly cling, and of which we risk losing sight altogether.

I believe it is with these tools—what dignity and humanity I can muster at any given time—that the invisible prison walls of social stigma can best be dismantled. Dignity, humanity, and candor. The story of my summer is very much the story of a life lived under the pendular whims of Bipolar Disorder, and it is hoped that, by telling it, I might offer more than a simple update on my life as a writer. Although I must, for reasons beyond my control, remain vague in regard to certain details, I should very much like to convey the severity of the season's tumult, its debilitating impact and, finally, how it is I found myself back on solid ground.

A Case History (Abridged Version)

Life is, in many ways, a conspiratorial procession, a summation, of the events and conditions which, over the course of its unraveling in time, come together to inform the steadily changing concept of the Self. As Sagan remarked, "If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe." So it is with people, though we of course tend to excise the portions of our own stories which predate our births. While I've no wish at this juncture to present a thorough exposition of my mental health issues over the course of my entire life, I should like to preface with the most immediate—and ongoing—portion of that journey.

The current course of treatment began nearly a full seven years ago, and represents the longest such term in the 25 years that have elapsed since my first encounter with professional mental healthcare. Though at first I had considered myself to suffer only from severe and persistent anxiety, after sorting through the background noise of several aggravating factors it was deduced that an underlying thread of mood disturbances facilitated the majority of my issues, and I was diagnosed with Bipolar II Disorder. In short, am subject to sudden, often inexplicable shifts in mood, vacillating between sustained bouts of depression and startling fits of hypomania, which while not as severe as full-blown mania still presents enough disruption as to contribute to the condition's overall unstable and debilitating nature. After suffering adverse effects at the hands of a variety of medications, which only served to exacerbate my condition, it was decided that my treatment would be comprised solely of regular therapy sessions. Over the course of the ensuing years I have been exposed to various forms of psychotherapy, all of which proved fruitful, and all of which were administered by one extremely capable therapist—until earlier this year. 

I understood fully her reasons for leaving, and sincerely believed that she should have been—and, as best I could manage, wasafforded the freedom to depart without concern for my ability to continue my progress with her replacement. Still, the transition period represented an extremely turbulent time for me. My life during those first six years of treatment had been riddled with upheaval, and on more than a few occasions it was the consistency of my regular therapy appointments which helped me survive, hopping from one appointment to the next like following a stony path over churning waters. In the uncertain time between my last session with her and the building of a functional rapport with my new therapist, the instability of my condition began to grow to unmanageable proportions. It has been an almost miraculous bit of good fortune that her replacement has proven every bit as capable as she had been, but this fact did not emerge until tested by the events that transpired this summer.


As July approached, a sense of excitement and optimism began to build within me. It has, historically, been a good month for me, particularly these past few years. I had finally established a steady rhythm after the months of uncertainty surrounding my therapist's departure, and had distanced myself sufficiently from a number of other troubling events which had thrown the first half of the year well off its intended course. This sense of relief was noticeable in every aspect of my life; it was if the sun had finally risen after months of darkest night. Sleeplessness gave way to full nights of rest; a constant nausea subsided and the joy of eating returned; after allowing months to lapse without writing a single word, I suddenly found myself tallying over 10k words that I'd characterized as exactly the sort of work I'd always dreamt of doing. After months of intolerable malaise, life had finally become livable again. And so, as I awaited July's arrival, my mood continued to brighten until, just days from the first, it finally erupted into the most severe hypomanic episode I'd suffered in years. 

While in the throes of a hypomanic episode, I am fortunate enough to avoid taking full leave of my senses; this state is lacking in the grandiosity of mania. However, I do become possessed of an amount of energy that far exceeds my capacity for containment. There have been many instances in which this aspect of the condition has come in handy, whereby a mild hypomania, triggered by a sudden realization or the generation of a rare good idea, facilitated a level of productivity lacking in the weeks or months that preceded it. There have been many more instances, however, in which I merely became too excitable for my own good. Rational thought is dispensed with, and poor judgment reigns supreme until the repercussions set in and bring me tumbling back to earth. The hypomanic episode that occurred at the end of June was neither middling nor extreme, but sufficient to leave me feeling exhausted for the few days that followed. 

The exuberance of that single evening left me weary, and emotionally raw. I remember the psychosomatic manifestation of the plummet quite vividly: my body aching and weak, my extremities numb, my heart feeling heavy and drained. Though on the mend two days later, I was still extremely vulnerable, having not yet found firm enough footing to contend with much of anything, and certainly not what eventually transpired.

It's here that I must resort to an obnoxious degree of vagueness. Given the presumably ongoing nature of the situation, it might not be in my best interest to go into fullest detail. Hopefully, it suffices to say that I witnessed a transgression being committed against those close to me and, despite having seen said transgression as it was in progress, have yet to find a just and proper resolution to the matter. You see, there's more to being an eyewitness than mere seeing. Although what I saw was plain enough for the average person, in the very technical and specific court of law it would, apparently, not have been enough. It took no more than a few seconds after hearing this for the self-recrimination to begin: I could have done more. I should have done more. I could have done a better job. It was my fault that nothing will come of this.

Of course this line of thinking is both natural, and irrational, yet it persisted. Helping to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of such violation, burdened with an entirely unchecked sense of guilt for my failure, and all of this being experienced in the raw and vulnerable post-episodic state...I was thrown headlong in the opposite direction, into an anxious depression which arrested my thoughts, abolished my focus, and left me unable to escape a compulsive revisiting of that day's events. Even in my sleep, I attempted to pursue the culprit, and even in the best of those dreams I still failed. Convinced by my therapist that no feeling can last so long as we hope or fear it might, I waited as patiently as I could for an abatement of this agony, always mindful of the month's impending closure, as a duration of longer than one month could mean a state of post-traumatic stress. I had to be mindful of how far I allowed this damage to go, lest it become just one more unanswered crime added to the list.

But there was hope—near the end of July, I found I could make it through most of the day without obsessing or brooding. I began to sleep again, and dream my own dreams. Before the month was out, I even experienced an entire day on which I all but fully forgot about these things well beyond the scope of my influence. Rational thought returned. What's more, August would bring with it a closure to matters that predated this terrible event, and would force us to leave the entire scene behind. I felt ready to move on, to move forward. As relief finally began to set in, I turned an optimistic eye to the new months' arrival—and was thus entirely blindsided by the new, and far worse circumstances it held...

Rising still...

To be continued...