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Thursday, May 10, 2018

BEING BIPOLAR, Part 8: Illumination

"Sir please return to your room.  PLEASE sir it's dangerous!"  A fleck of dark red was on her cheek and plainly she was anguishing to clean off her face, take a shower and likely dispatch her uniform to the incinerator.  Red smears also on front desk.  A crimson palm print, vigorously violent and vaguely human, on one of the support columns.  Not far away on the floor: shards of broken glass.  Some stained red like those among the ancient windows of Notre-Dame and other holy places I had seen in Europe long ago.

But it didn't register that it was blood... lots and lots of blood... until I was heading back up to the fourth floor.  Three hours later, as a commercial hazmat crew was finishing with cleaning and decontaminating the lobby, the desk clerk phoned up the "all clear" signal.  Once again the elevator doors opened onto the lobby.  The pungent smell of ammonia flooded into my nostrils.  And the same desk clerk who had screamed at me earlier, now in fresh clothes, told me what happened.

A man had walked into the lobby, began screaming about things that weren't there, and then he slammed his bare hand through the large-screen television just inside the front door of the hotel.  In doing so he slashed open an artery.  If it had caused pain he didn’t seem fazed by it, I was told.  He just kept raving and ranting about the dirty women all around him, and the irony of his own tattered clothing and penetrating stench was apparently lost upon him.

He had stood there screaming and flailing his arm and throwing blood all over the lobby and onto the two young ladies behind the desk for a number of minutes, then had fled back through the front entrance and into the streets of downtown San Diego.

I never learned if he had been apprehended and given medical treatment.  I've always assumed the best.  That much dark red pumping out of an arm or a leg would require a tourniquet if all else had failed in dire circumstance.  I pray that he was picked up and given attention.  That he didn't become another of the nameless men and women found dead every so often.  Nameless and abandoned and seemingly unloved, like so many other homeless I had seen around San Diego and in places like Phoenix and Dallas during my journey.

Late one night I was ravenously hungry, realizing that I hadn't had a meal since breakfast.  I headed out at 1 a.m. and my dog Tammy riding in my lap as she had for 10,000 miles across America.  There were few empty tables at the McDonald’s near Mission Beach.  Occupied, but not with customers.  Men and women slept at most of them.  The cashier told me that they were homeless.  That they came every night to sleep and that it was pretty much mandatory to give them their space.  It was the only place they had to sleep on a winter night like this one.

It would not be a far reach to declare that of all the homeless individuals that I saw and even had the chance to talk with a few times, not one of them could fail to be diagnosed with mental illness of one variety or another.  They were men and women from so many different backgrounds.  And the one common denominator of each of them was that they suffered delusions or hallucinations or uncontrollable mood swings, or deep depression.

Like me.

That could very well have been me on the streets, with no place to call home and no friends and family to encourage me and lift me up when I needed it.  Particularly in those times when I have been more than a little tempted to end it all and with grievous intent slash open my own wrist.

“There but for the grace of God…”

Being Bipolar is an ongoing albeit wildly irregular series (the most recent installment was five years ago!) documenting what it is to have a mental illness.  Specifically, Bipolar Disorder Type 1.  As has ever been the case, I am doing my best to chronicle this with candor, with honesty, without embellishment, and also with levity and humor whenever possible.  Because, y'know... this is something you NEED to be able to laugh about when you can.  If you are new to this blog feel free to peruse the other articles in the Being Bipolar series.  And the rest of this site isn’t too boring either!

"Meanwhile back at the ranch..."

So.  Five years since last time we did this series.  And needless to say, a lot has happened in that time.

Lost a relationship.  Then lost my father.  Lost all desire to live for a while.  Have been hospitalized twice: once voluntary, the other not.  Tried to finish writing a book about having bipolar disorder but Dad's passing took the wind out of my sails on that one, though I’m hoping to return to it sooner than later.  And then through circumstances which don't have to be shared here, there was the need to leave my old hometown in North Carolina.  So I set out with my dog and a car packed with "the barest essentials" and headed out across the fruited plain.

That didn't work out as I had envisioned either: with God leading me to someplace new to put roots down at.  But here it is now, almost two years since embarking upon the road, and I'm in a new place that I had never thought about coming to.

And now?  There is, at last, the shot at real happiness that I've been searching and grasping to have, for so very long.

But the bipolar disorder is still there.  Still throwing a shadow over my mind.   The "dark fountain" erupts every so often, as it has since the winter of 2000 when the symptoms began.  The flood of depression and racing thoughts that I have to struggle to keep my head above those black waters, lest I drown.

Thankfully the meds are still working.  Pretty much the same regimen, albeit with some tweaking of dosage, that I was on last time.  The one significant thing that’s changed is that I’m no longer on lithium.  It wasn't out of vanity that I stopped taking it because of massive hair loss.  But it was out of concern about what else it might be doing to my body.  A few months after stopping the lithium my hair was as thick as ever.  However as I wrote three years ago, being on lithium carbonate seemed to have been a potent anti-allergen for me so far as hay fever goes.  There might be something to that because ever since the use of lithium ceased my seasonal weed and grass allergies have been as wretched as ever.  Oh well.  Guess even in bioengineering there's always a trade-off.

"You won’t be the same."

Something happened to me when I was out on the road.  And I still count myself as being on the road even now.

What it was, is most difficult to express.  Except that I began to come to see my own mental illness in a different light.  Maybe that is a gift that God has given me.  Perhaps it is the prize of my quest, though I didn’t and couldn't see that in the beginning.

Because the Chris Knight who last wrote words for this series was very much a bitter and angry and confused person, who was desperate to find meaning and purpose in his condition.  He was hurting himself in his vain effort to "be normal", to be accepted and recognized by others as "just as good" as everyone else.  I think it's valid to say that he was also doing his damndest to force God to weigh in on the issue.  To make Him explain why it is that even in a world as fallen and corrupted as this and with this weak and failed flesh, that my own neurons are so whacked.

It hasn't seemed fair at all.  And there is a spiritual component to this.  How DARE God let anyone have a medical condition that might imperil one’s very soul?!  Or are there some people who He allows to go mad because, hey, SOMEONE has to be populating Hell, right?

That’s what it's been like for me.  So often then.  And even at times now.  When it's night time and I want God to tell me that He has heard me all along.  That He hasn't abandoned me.

He never does.  I've come to accept that He never will. Not in an audible voice anyway.  But that doesn't mean He hasn’t been hearing me.

Looking back over the past two years since leaving my original hometown, though it wasn't the journey that I thought it would be... it was still being directed by God.  And all the people and situations and predicaments that came about along the way and are still coming about.  Those have had an enormous impact on my life.

Maybe that's how God works now.  Maybe it took making that leap of faith two years ago into the unknown to be prepared for what He was guiding me to.  It wasn’t a "destination" that I was going to be led to so much as it was the journey.  The process that God was going to use to radically alter my life as it had never been altered before.  When Gandalf saw Bilbo again after his adventure to the Lonely Mountain, he exclaimed that Bilbo looked different.  Indeed, he had told him that if he came back "you won’t be the same."

So it has been with me.  I'm not the person I need to be.  Not yet.  Probably never will see that work completed in this lifetime.  But the Chris Knight with bipolar disorder who went out is not the same Chris Knight with bipolar disorder who returned.  THIS Chris Knight is more accepting of who he is and what he has.  He is far more thankful for what he has than resentful about what he does not have.  He also recognizes that despite how his neurobiology might be he has had a life that most never get to experience and it's a long ways from being done with yet.

That could just as easily been me, with filthy clothes and a tattered sleeping bag and empty hopeless eyes and wandering the streets of some major city with no promise of food in my stomach or of being killed for a few dollars of potential drinking money.  Instead, God gave me more than many with mental illness have or ever get to have.

Appreciating the Warmth

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, the author of The Gulag Archipelago, once shared about how he had visited the office of a Soviet general.  The winters are fiercely brutal in Moscow, and the general's office was toasty warm from the crackling fireplace.  Solzhenitsyn – who had lived through winters more brutal still in the distant east of Siberia's prisons – observed that one cannot appreciate the warmth without having first endured the cold.

All of these past several years I have been bitter about the dark, when it could have been far, far darker.  Turns out, things were brighter in my own life than too many ever get to enjoy.

I have good therapists. Good psychiatrists.  The medications are working well.  Most of all, I have been blessed with friendships who are as true as any family.  They have seen me through situations where many would have been abandoned as beyond all hope.  Even when I forget it during those times in the valley, God has provided and has sustained me through much.

I should not be here.  Not in clean clothes and with an iPad to type these words into.  Not even alive.  A dozen times over and more, I should be dead.  But I'm not.

If nothing else was gained from the road behind me, then I will have gained this.  Thankfulness.  Humility.  Appreciation for what I have that others do not.

And I look forward to taking those along the road still ahead.

This chapter of Being Bipolar is dedicated to the many who my life has crossed paths with during the course of the past two years since I left Reidsville, North Carolina.  I could not have come to the place where I am now... in mind and spirit as well as body... were it not for God letting them be met along the way.