The prologue last time mentioned a tiny psychiatric crisis that intruded upon my life. Later, in the body of the essay, I wrote:
One nice thing about complete mental breakdown is that it erases all delusions of inner solidity. This can feel alarming, but it can also awaken us to the power and hopefulness of fragmentation.
In the aftermath of my recent physical illness, a mammoth struggle with my disability company, and the dawning realization of my inability to continue as an acupuncturist, my mind became unpinned from its ordinary constraints. Like a hot air balloon released from tethers, it rose skyward. The loss of mooring led to large-scale mental disorganization, which due to meditative work, assistance from many healers, and luck, resolved within a relatively short time. I remain a bit more energized than usual, but my mental velocity is now compatible with normal life.
Readers have often observed my attempts to find lessons in hardship. My primary strategy for negotiating life’s trials is to use them as sources of insight. This doesn’t mean I believe the universe (God?) inflicts pain as education. But no matter how or why disaster arises, we are all forced to deal with it. For me, the surest way to live through my problems is to discover some meaning in them.
Here is some of the difficulty and instruction served up by 2012 (so far): A major abdominal disease process initially suggestive of pancreatic cancer taught me to value life more deeply. Severe pain and nonstop vomiting showed me that even as my body writhed in agony, my mind could find peace. The hassle with the insurance company forced me to abandon passivity and take a more proactive stance. The looming closure of my acupuncture practice helped me understand that I’d gained much from the project even if it failed in its stated goal of permanently establishing me in a new career as a healer.
So how did a full-blown manic crisis enlighten me? Was it merely a lesson in “the power and hopefulness of fragmentation?” Not at all. More importantly, it highlighted the differences between brain, mind, and Self (with a capital ‘S’). Before explaining how flying off the rails taught me so much, I’ll describe the evolution and resolution of my mania.
As is often the case with psychiatric spinouts, in the early stages nothing seemed terribly unusual. I had been released from the first hospitalization (for internal bleeding) and felt poorly. In short order I alienated a close friend, but he had treated me shoddily on several occasions and I felt justified in slamming him. That should have been a clue to my deteriorating mental state, but in typical human fashion I made excuses and blamed the other party. Besides, it seemed that pain and fear were sufficient to explain my irritability and impulsiveness.
The day after my discharge from the second hospitalization, my disability company called and declared me capable of full-time, high-paying work in a corporate/medical environment. This pronouncement immediately escalated my agitation and anxiety to dangerous levels, but that is more clear in retrospect than it was at the time. To burn off some of my raging frustration, I stomped up and down the hills around my house. My insides boiled with explosive terror and fury, even as I felt utterly depleted by my recent illness and the starvation I’d suffered during it. Waves of intense psychic energy propelled me forward despite my depleted physical reserves.
Late one afternoon, on my second hike of the day, I watched myself wound someone in pain. Walking with a friend, I tried to help this man cope with personal problems by (in effect) yelling at him. This is not at all my normal way of relating to people in distress, and before long I recognized my behavior as hurtful and counterproductive. I tried to smooth the situation by apologizing and blaming my poor health, but damage had been done. Another friendship succumbed (at least temporarily) to my evolving mania.
Because the disability company claimed (falsely, it turns out) that my psychiatrist had deemed me free of psychological impairment, I called the good doctor in an angry panic. I accused her of misrepresenting my case. After several days of unabating inner chaos, I acquiesced to “mood-stabilizing” medication to take the edge of the jagged mental state that afflicted me. The drug given then had the paradoxical effect of escalating a so-called hypomania into a surging manic state. Before long all ability to sleep or meditate was lost, emotional tsunamis swept through me unpredictably, and my language became erratic and alarming.
A few days later, my therapist likened watching me to seeing someone respond to the effects of LSD. In the course of our session I alternated between tears, laughter, attempts to calm down, and rapid flights of speech. Over the next twenty-four hours, my inner energies continued to burgeon until I could no longer sit down. I paced constantly and became unable to connect my high velocity thoughts with the snail’s pace of ordinary speaking. My language became stilted and bizarre as I tried to express myself through a swirling storm of neural chaos.
Despite the accumulating havoc, the experience had some positive aspects. At times during this maelstrom of mania, I entered spacious realms of divine wisdom. I understood in my deepest heart the exquisite tenderness and determined durability of life. I felt the densely woven webs of consciousness and ecology that unite us all. I recognized value in every wound I’ve ever suffered, and I lost all doubt that brokenness plays an essential role in creation. Insights that cannot be expressed in words flooded my soul with peace. Love became a palpable presence, as pervasive as air. But these moments came and went unpredictably, alternating with irritable torrents of spoken words and inappropriate expressions of boundless affection toward those nearby.
Luckily my psychiatrist answered her phone personally at 6:30 pm, or I’d have ended up in the emergency room. There’s a good chance the next stop would have been a mental hospital. Instead, I was instructed to discontinue the putative mood stabilizer. My doctor called in a prescription for Valium to help me finally get some sleep. After pacing the pharmacy and putting the staff on edge while the bottle was prepared, I was able to snooze fitfully for a few hours.
Over the next couple of days I noticed a little slowing. I often couldn’t sit down for as long as a minute, but whenever I wasn’t speaking my mind seemed less on fire. Any use of language ramped up the energy, but by remaining nonverbal I was able to find moments of calm. Over the following week I augmented the soothing effects of sleep and Valium with acupuncture, massage, swimming, saunas, and soaks in the spa at the YMCA. I meditated whenever it seemed possible.
Today, nearly six weeks since this all started (and after about ten days of straight-up mania), I feel nearly normal again. I’m especially happy to report that despite all this spinning and bucking mental activity, throughout this episode I retained connection to a sane particle of consciousness in the center of it all. As a result, there remained a hint of helpless but patient curiosity even as I watched myself behave in an overcharged and inappropriate manner.
Well, this essay was supposed to describe the lessons gleaned from mental fragmentation, but it already exceeds twelve hundred words (i.e., fifty percent more than my preferred maximum). So I’ll put off until next time discussion of what this episode teaches. For now, let’s all mark the end of this essay with a few slow, deep, healing breaths…