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Wednesday, June 12, 2019

BEING BIPOLAR, Part 9: Full Circle (or: Tale of an Odyssey)

(It wasn't MY idea to start this post off with that, honest.  Thanks Nicole!)

A note about this installment of Being Bipolar: it's the longest to date.  There's no escaping that and soon you'll see why.  It's also the most straightforward and absent clever floridity (is that even a word?).  But that has to be too.  It's an account of all that's transpired in the past three years since I departed on this quest for happiness.  Ultimately it became a quest for myself.  And if you press on toward the end, I want to believe that it may help others in their own quest for purpose and fulfillment.

Being Bipolar is a series that began in the winter of 2011.  It's an occasional attempt to explore aspects of the life of a person with manic-depression, or bipolar disorder if you will.  Ummm... I guess it could be pointed out that it's me who is said person.  It's never meant to be a regular feature of The Knight Shift.  It comes along whenever "the time is nigh" for another installment to be committed to the "publish" button.  In this series I do my best to be as honest and forthcoming about this condition as possible, within reason.  As with anything else of this caliber of subject matter, it should be noted that I am not a medical professional.  So don't take anything written here as solid medical advice in the way of drugs etc.  If you need immediate assistance, please go to the emergency rom of the nearest hospital, or call 911 on your phone.  You may also find a great deal of assistance from a local support group, such as those sponsored by National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org).

The Journey Begins

Three years ago this morning, in a Camry packed with "the bare essentials" (including a cast-iron skillet, because one never goes on an epic odyssey without a cast-iron skillet) my dog Tammy and I left my old hometown of Reidsville, North Carolina.  Destination: unknown.  Like, literally, unknown.

All I knew is there was nothing for me if I stayed.  That's not a slight toward the people of that area: many of whom are and will forever be dear friends.  But there was no chance of a fulfilling life there for me.  Call it delusion if you must, but one night in February a few months earlier it was as if God Himself spoke directly to me:

"Chris, what are you still doing here?  Your father isn't coming back.  You know there is no happiness here for you.  No purpose.  No chance at family.  You know your dad would want you to be happy.  You know there is something more for you.  So... go!  Just go!  Sell the house and leave and don't give a thought as to where you are headed!  You won't find the happiness you are seeking immediately, and you are going to have to go through much to find it.  But you WILL find it.  Take a leap of faith as you NEVER have before.  Trust Me, Chris.  Leap into the unknown.  Just fill your car with what you think you'll need and take Tammy and the two of you... go!  You will be thankful that you did.  Trust Me, Chris.  And live as you never have before."

Selling the house where I grew up was difficult.  It was harder because of circumstances that need no delving into.  There was no choice in the matter for me.

But there was the issue of my having a mental illness.

I confess: it was intimidating.  It made me question my state of mind (as if it wasn't questionable enough).  But after pondering and prayer, and consulting with that inner circle of closest associates, well... it seemed right.  And then came that day when I said two words to my family:

"I'm leaving."

There was objection.  Some didn't want me to depart.  They thought it was a foolish notion, that I couldn't handle it.  Some wanted me to be placed in an assisted living environment: because the bipolar disorder was too severe for me to have a "normal" life.  And for months they tried to talk me out of it.

There was no convincing me.  There was no going back after those two words.  The path had been committed to.  The Rubicon had been crossed.

And so on the morning of June 12, 2016, I said goodbye at my parents' grave and hit US 158 and headed west.  Why west?  Because my best friend from college Weird Ed asked me to join him for a special nationwide screening of the original Ghostbusters and he was wearing his self-made Ghostbusters uniform.  If that was not an omen, I don't know what was.  Afterward Tammy and I spent an extra day near Asheville and tried figuring out where the heck to go to from there.  Keeping west seemed as good an idea as any...

A photo that speaks for itself.

There's no need to recount everything that happened over the following year.  The meandering path across America.  The many cities, including some towns I had never heard of before (ahhhh Emporia, Kansas: you will forever have a special place in my heart).  Places I had long wanted to see with my own eyes (the Grand Canyon, Dealey Plaza, the Very Large Array, three presidential libraries, the Gateway Arch...).  Native cuisines that had only been spoken of in awed whispers.  Seeing the Pacific Ocean for the very first time on Thanksgiving Day.  Climates I had never endured or enjoyed...

And the people.  So many amazing and unforgettable individuals.  And if Tom in Albuquerque is reading this, I will forever remember the hearty whiff of Sir Walter Raleigh tobacco from your smoking pipe.  That made me wonder if the timing of it was from God, letting me know that Dad was watching over me from afar.

We were on the road for very nearly a full year.  Including four months when I tried settling in San Diego.  Until the rest of my life it is a journey that will define me in no small part.

And then my life went straight to hell.

"You can't go home again."

Betrayal is something I've never handled well.  Maybe I never will.  And after returning briefly to the Reidsville area there came two betrayals from people I had long trusted.  And it very nearly destroyed me.

I had come back from across America seemingly empty handed.  But still hopeful.  Then the first betrayal, by some of my own family.  People who I had counted on to have my back with encouragement and prayer and telling me, as Dad was fond of saying, "Always think positive!"

Instead they gave me criticism and berating and telling me, in so many words, that I was hopeless.  And in a moment's flash I knew: they had to be disattached from.  I loved them and always will love them in a sense.  But it was my own life to find meaning from.  Not theirs.  And to hell with the "assisted living because you're incompetent"!

But then came the second betrayal.  The reason I returned when I did was that a longtime friend had set up an offer for a career far from Reidsville.  It was an opportunity I jumped on!  And then it turned out that my friend was leading me down a road of his own real delusions.  There was going to be no offer at all.

And then there really was nothing.  I had run out of the last drops of hope, of money, of reason to live.  I had even let down Tammy: something I had never wanted to do.  And I thought that she deserved better than a loser like me.

It was in Reidsville, in a hotel room, that I attempted to end my life.  And there's no shame in admitting that.  Not when it figures into what came later.

Had it not been for Weird Ed and his wife, God only knows what would have happened.  They came all the way from their home to where I was staying. We packed up my belongings and placed some in my rented storage unit and after that I screamed into the night at God.  Demanding an answer from Him.  Looking up into the dark sky and proclaiming that He had betrayed me, had lied to me.  Had forgotten me.  Or had let me believe that He had led me to take a leap of faith and there was nothing to come of it.

There had been two betrayals already.  Then betrayal by God.  And that was the worst of the three.

Ed and another friend had been conferring by phone.  They decided that I couldn't be alone.  That I needed to be somewhere.  That I needed time to seriously figure out how to straighten my life out.  Because there were matters in addition to the bipolar disorder that I hadn't faced yet.  One of those diagnosed a few months later was severe complex post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  And maybe another that hasn't been formally recognized but we're pretty sure is a condition present.

Like I said, betrayal by people I had trusted and by God who I had trusted most of all.  And... what was left?  There was no going back to to Reidsville.  Later I was told that one of my friends had asked the police there to check on me and they told her "Chris has a reputation" among law enforcement there for being sick of mind.  So much for them.  "A prophet in his hometown..." applies to more than real prophets, apparently.

Arrangements were made.  Tammy and I arrived at the home of a friend.  And we stayed awhile.  I thought that was the end of the journey.  That it had been an utter failure.  And when ideations still came to end it all, it was hard to resist those temptations.  I should have given up every hope and surrendered to the realization that my leap of faith had been brought to a wretched and wasted end.

I could not have been more wrong.

The Odyssey: The Second Half

Year One of this "journey of self-discovery" was a physical and spiritual one.  Year Two was even more intensely spiritual.  And it was one that forced me to address my mental state of being as never before.

For sake of confidentiality, most of the details will have to remain spotty at best.  Suffice it to say, my dear friends and hosts became encouragers and tenders to my immediate needs.  Were it not for them, I likely would not be alive writing these words: so deep was the despair I had fallen into.  And it wasn't very long before they began pointing me to resources that would become as magic waters to a soul parched for reason and meaning.

What kind of resources?  One of them was the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI).  For the first time in my life, I found myself in a support group meeting.  Going into that Sunday school classroom at a nearby church, I felt weak and intimidated.  But I showed up again the following week.  And the next.  And the next.  A few months later the facilitators were telling me that I had become like a whole 'nother person in the short time I had been coming.  NAMI has since led to new friends coming into my life and a profound kinship with those who are in the same boat as I.  There is even a leadership committee that I have come to serve on.

And then there was "the clubhouse".

It's such a peculiar notion that I had never heard of before and it demands an explanation.  Clubhouse International is a global network of local "clubhouses", each of which presents a model of social interaction and sense of community for people with a variety of mental illnesses.  It's not a place of residence, although it can help members find apartments (and nice ones at that).  But it is place where such can come together during the day and stay busy with... well, a wazoo of activities.  They are not only all across America and Canada but throughout the world.  At the one I was shown there were two kitchens (one for meals and one for breakfast and as a snack bar), a clerical unit where members can use math and organizational skills, so many more.  And there was a video production unit to make a daily in-house news show.

That's a real samurai sword, and she knows
how to use it too!
I applied and was accepted and became a member and threw myself into it and began having fun of a sort as I had forgotten could be had.  Especially with the video work.  Although I can't show it here, for one Friday the 13th I made an opening and closing for that day's show using movie footage of Jason Vorhees and clips of members and staff recoiling in terror as Johnny Cash's "Ain't No Grave" played on the soundtrack.  During the week of Halloween it was making a Stranger Things-style intro with some of the members and staff''s names who were at the clubhouse.  Another day had me crashing a helicopter on the front lawn of the place.

Ummmmm... yeah, I went a little wild with having a full-blown video facility on-site and a captive audience five days a week!  There were also opportunities to return to my roots as a reporter: covering social events beyond the clubhouse itself, and one occasion involving the house being plunged into darkness after a truck crashed into a transformer down the street.  Wherever there was action for the members and staff, I was there with my trusty iPhone and an iPad Pro to edit all the footage on.

It also must not go without saying that the friendships made at the clubhouse I have become a participant of, are many and already very precious.  These are people who have impacted my own life in profoundly astonishing ways, and I can only hope that my own may have made some mark on their own.  That would be a great honor.

It's a place of fellowship and it offered stability.  It gave me a creative outlet.  It let me be distracted from my own mind and despair.  And that's what was needed.  And in the meantime I was led to a new therapist, and a psychiatrist who helped me maintain my mediation regimen and "tweak" it a bit.

That was Year Two in a nutshell.  And in a peculiar way, it was a mirror of sorts of Year One.  Except that I remained in one place instead of being "will of the wind" across America.  And despite what had become a profound lack of faith in Him, I am beginning to see that God was using those two years to heal me.  To prepare me.  To point me toward something greater...

Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil

What happened next is gonna come across as creepy and maybe even dipping precariously into the dark side of the supernatural.  Feel free to judge me if you so wish.  But had it not been done, the blossoming of the ensuing time could not have been provoked into being.

Again, I must be vague.  But for sake of this chronicle: the "voices in my mind" that would not leave me in peace... the screams and laughter which held me hostage to the past griefs of my life... had become debilitating.  They barely let me sleep.  Were making it impossible to even consider finding work.  Were destroying all hope of peace for my spirit.

Last July, my therapist at the time made a suggestion.  That I should perform a kind of ritual that would serve to sever away the hauntings from my mind.  It was a drastic and daring and radical idea. And I considered the possibility of taking it several steps further.  Instead of doing it "here", I would do it "there".  In Reidsville.  Where it had all started.  The heart meat of the matter.  And now I would be driving a stake through that heart.

Thursday afternoon after this past Labor Day, on the drive to the clubhouse, I realized it was time to end it once and for all.

I packed some things and told my friends that "I'm going to finish this."  They knew what I was referring to.  And I got into the car and headed off into the night for the long, long drive to Reidsville.  It took awhile to get there, on highways I had not intended to embark upon so soon again.

What happened when I arrived in Reidsville needs not be revealed.  I doubt it ever will be for a public audience.  That it was shortly before a midnight when I came to the place of reckoning wasn't my intention.  But there it was: the pitch black of a moonless night, as dark as it gets, in a cemetery.  And had a passing sheriff's deputy seen what was occuring he or she might have thought that it was some work of a lone Satanist or practicer of voodoo.

It took almost half an hour to perform the final part of the reason I had come all that way.  Then with the ritual ended I gathered the materials and returned to the car.  Just before turning the key I sent a text:

"It is done."

So began the trip back to my own life.

When I finally arrived back, I had the first solid sleep that I had known in over a year.  What had come before and wouldn't leave me alone had been buried and left behind.  To quote Kylo Ren: "Let the past die.  Kill it if you have to."

A lot of people might have hated The Last Jedi, but the former Ben Solo's words are going to always hold special meaning for me.  Because he was right.  It wasn't a "supernatural" thing that I did that night.  But in a very real way, it was a magic of the mind that had to be performed.

And it worked.

One Month Later...

I applied for a job, and it was a good one.  And I nailed that sucker!

For six months I was working for a major company.  How major?  You've already most likely dealt with it (no it's NOT the IRS!).  And by the end of my time there the supervisors were telling me that my performance was excellent.  There was hinting that I had a future ahead of me as a management-type.

It wasn't long after starting the job that I got a house of my very own, for the first time in my life.  Even as I write these words, my miniature dachshund Tammy is snoozing contentedly beneath her favorite blanket atop my bed.  There is a kitchen and two bedrooms and the bills get paid and the lawn gets mowed and... well, more or less what most people with houses do (unless you're Donald Trump and your current house has a permanent staff for those sorts of things).

Then came what I have to believe is what God had been preparing me for  during all of those hurt-filled previous years.

The Advocate

"Peer advocate".  That's what the position read.  To apply for the job a person had to be at least eighteen years old and in treatment at least a year for a diagnosed mental illness.  If experience was the critical factor, mine had been an education in the School of Attrition and I'd bloody well earned at least a Masters degree.

So I applied... and the shock of my life was when for some reason they chose me to offer it to!

What does a peer advocate do?  As part of a nonprofit organization, I meet with others who have mental illness.  It could be bipolar disorder, as myself.  Or those with schizophrenia, or borderline personality disorder, or PTSD or a myriad of other conditions.  Some of those situations may be complicated by the presence of struggling with substance abuse.  And I meet them in their homes, in group places like the clubhouse I was taking part in, maybe even places of incarceration after brushes with the law.  But there is no judging.  Because I know what it's like to be judged on account of my own illness.  And I am there to encourage them.  To speak for them if needed.  To show them that they do NOT have to be content with a mere existence of indifference and meds.  That they can have life, and life abundant.  Their conditions may be a part of their life, but they never have to define that life for them.

My job as a peer advocate?  There is not a single night that I go to bed dreading waking up in the morning and going into the office.  And that office is loaded with amazing people who have become not just colleagues and professional laborers, but are already becoming sincere friends.  My own personal office is coming.  There just needs to be some shuffling around of furniture and whatnot.  I'm looking forward to it because there is one bad-a$$ poster from the movie Doctor Strange that is going up on the wall (and a Star Wars LEGO set for my desk).

What do I love most about this job?  The understanding that with each new day, I can go in and have a chance to make a difference for the better in just one person's life.  Maybe even more than one.  And it can be in countless capacities.  Like, the idea hit to begin a therapeutic approach using role-playing games... and that is now a project I'm spearheading.  And that's a lot of fun!

Helping people.  That is what God knew was what I wanted to do most with my life.  Whether it be with writing or teaching or now, being an advocate and supporter of those who also must live each day with mental illness.

And speaking of God...

Reconciling with the Father

I really hope and pray that the past short months have been what finally lets my faith rest in joy and comfort, and never have to waver as it has for so very long.

Maybe my faith had to die, that it could be raised anew.  There would be some symmetry there, would it not?  It's not a determining factor, I know that.  But being led to the job of being a peer advocate is one that calls to the fore every bit of experience that has been accumulated for nearly two decades: the bad and the good.  I know what it's like to be alone and suffering and in the dark places.  Now I get to help others never have to go through that by themselves.  I get to be someone who I wish had been there for me all along.  Maybe God was shaping me to be that kind of person.  It gets to draw upon my education.  My creativity.  My very wacky sense of humor!  Sometimes I wonder if it's all a dream.  Because until now I could not have imagined such a place to be and a purpose to have.

It has renewed my faith in God.  Now, please understand: my faith is still NOT perfect.  It never will be.  Not on this side of the veil anyway.  And there are still issues from my past that I contend with.  But for the first time in my life, since become a Christian all those years ago as a college student... it's like my walk with Christ is one of peace and fortitude.

Want to know something silly?  Well, it seems silly to some no doubt.  But I'm considering being baptised again (yes, I meant to spell it that way: "baptize" seems so jagged and forced with that lousy "z" in the word).  Not as a means of salvation (which I will never believe it can be) or as a sign of first commitment to Christ.  But it would symbolize my "new" new life.  The life that only now am I getting to have.  The shot at happiness and purpose that had not been possible before.

Which brings us to some retrospective.

They Were Wrong

Yes.  They were wrong.  As wrong as anyone could be.  Those who wanted me to stay put.  Who wanted to put me in some cheap apartment for the rest of my life.  Who thought that I was going to be helpless and now I understand that they wanted me to be helpless.  And what they desired for me, had I not rebelled against them, would have been a torturous and meaningless existence that would have ended in dying a life without any joy or purpose whatsoever.

It wasn't with the exact words at all, but my choice was a "screw you!" to them.  I broke away from them.  Took a chance.  Made a leap of faith.  Went off into the unknown.

No, it didn't end as I had thought it would.  But it did bring me to where I am today.  In a home of my own.  In a job that I love.  A real life of meaning and purpose.  Without that rebellion it would have never come to be.  And my little friend and traveling companion Tammy is with me too and crazy as ever!  All I could hope and pray for now is for God to bring a wonderful woman into my life... but my closest friends insist that it's coming.  I like to believe so, anyway.

God brought me here, and I will praise Him for that.  And I will revel in this life and the freedom that has never been had before.  I know of no other way to put it, than the final line of dialogue from the classic film (no not that cruddy remake) Papillon.  Kindly pardon the lingo but:

Why Am I Telling You This?

Because now I am a peer advocate.  And Lord knows, there are lots of my peers out there.  My kind.  My peeps.  My friends and family spread across the width and breadth of the Earth, though we may never meet.

And with these few (?) mean and inadequate words, I am going to be someone to you that I never got to have in my own life.  I am going to tell you that it's going to be okay.  I'm going to tell you that your life is far from over.  I'm going to tell you that you can make it.  That nothing is impossible for you (except break the speed of light... but maybe someone reading these words can figure that out someday).  That you do not have to be relegated to the class of person best left abandoned and forgotten, as some wanted to do with me.

I started out with a soul trapped within a mind turned against itself.  And for one brilliant season, got to soar like fabled Icarus.  And yet, I escaped his own fate and did not fall back to drown.  Whether by the grace of God or the people placed dearest in my life or the resources that were found, I was able to soar even further and higher.

If it can be that way for me, it can be that way for you.  It really can be.  But you gotta hold on.  You gotta keep going.  As George Michael once sang, you "gotta have faith-uh faith-uh faith-uh"!

You can't give up.  Even in your darkest times in the valley.  During those moments when the pain or numbness or both become the most overwhelming. Remember, it's always darkest before the dawn.  Or dawness before the light.  Or something like that.

I nearly gave up.  Too many times.  As I write these words I can't readily number the times I was hospitalized.  Only once was it voluntarily.  The rest were against my will because it was thought that I was a danger to myself.  Never a danger to others.  Just to myself.  Neither can I recall all of the times that I came close to ending my life.  How "the line" didn't get crossed all of the way, I will never know.  By all rights I shouldn't be here.

And yet here I am.  With happiness.  And with the chance for more happiness.  The most I've ever been able to know.

And if you are reading these words and are in the valley and can't see a way out and have surrendered to feeling that it's all hopeless, well... I'm here to tell you that it's a damn lie.  That you deserve to be happy.  It may not be the path that you thought it would be by.  Hey, it wasn't the path that I thought would be the one to happiness, either!  But looking back upon it all, for all the grief pain and betrayal and frustration and screaming at God even, well...

I wouldn't change a thing about it.  The pain turned out to be good.  As John Locke said in an episode of Lost, when asked why he didn't change the past when he and the other survivors had been taken back in time: "No, I needed that pain.  Got me to where I am now."

We are more than our successes.  We are more than our strengths.  We are also our weaknesses.  And it is by our weaknesses that we grow stronger.  We grow bolder.

We become those who get to help others who are going through the same pain we have known.  It is a responsibility that few could ever bear.  Maybe God lets us have it because He knows we can take it.  Because someone has to take it.

Want to know a secret?  The world isn't controlled by presidents, or kings, or generals, or tycoons or tyrants of big tech.  Who are the secret masters of the Earth?  It is the humble and meek.  The ones who show kindness and compassion to others with each new day.  THEY are the ones for whom the world endures and is held up by.  THEY are the ones who God has trusted to lift and edify those who might need and accept encouragement.

And if you are one whom mental illness has also wrought a terrible havoc upon your life, well... who is to say that you are not one of those either?  You might as well believe that you are.  Because I certainly do, without any shred of doubt.

What Happens Now?

The mission of Being Bipolar is now that of an altered trajectory.  Whereas before I was writing as one struggling to describe bipolar disorder out of a measure of self-pity, now it is as one who is accepting and even embracing the purpose God has given me through it.  Does that mean it's not going to plague my thoughts?  Nope, not at all.  As I write these words, I am going through a bipolar mixed-episode that's throwing me back and forth from mania to depression.

(What is a mixed episode like?  Try to envision Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street fighting each other in Thunderdome from that Mad Max movie.)

Starting Being Bipolar was a desperate attempt to win back some broken relationships.  It failed for the most part.  Then it became about trying to have a place in this world.  I don't know if that worked so hot either.  Now it is going to be a proactive mission to help others.  And I am hoping and praying that it might do that in ways it didn't before.

So, if you are one of those who this post has resonated with, I thank you for bearing me with me.  And I would very much appreciate it if you could have an open mind and heart toward those who you may know, who struggle with something that none of them would dare wish upon yourself.  If you cannot do that for me, please do that for them.

For that, I would be uttermostly grateful.


Anonymous said...

Your story would make for a motion picture that would keel over audiences with its humor and hope. You should think about making it a screenplay.

Chris Knight said...

The compliment is appreciated! But if I were to write such a screenplay on my own the film would doubtless go straight to video, On VHS for good measure. At best it would play for one weekend at Puffy's Monoplex in Lizard Lick Mall, somewhere in Ohio.

americangirl said...

Wow! What a journey, what a tedtimony! The journey takes us all sorts of places, some good and some not so good. This journey has an end that takes us to another begining and God just leads the way...thank you for sharing your journey

Brien J said...

Chris, you and I have been friends for 30 plus years. Brother I have alaways believed in you! I am so proud of you as I know your mother and father would be as well. My mother would be over the moon you found your place in life. As I read this the tears of overwhelming happiness pour down my check. I rasie a glass to you my Brother, my fellow Eagle Scout...hears to you my friend my door is always open for a visit and that drink! So proud of the man you have become! Continue to do your great work with Gods help and you will prosper! Hope to see you soon! Love you man! Brien