• Bridge Ladies

    Bridge Ladies When I set out to learn about my mother's bridge club, the Jewish octogenarians behind the matching outfits and accessories, I never expected to fall in love with them. This is the story of the ladies, their game, their gen, and the ragged path that led me back to my mother.
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No I Don’t Have a Gun

Saw my psychopharmacologist today for my tune-up. He actually referred to himself as a mechanic, said he looks under hoods all day. I can forgive the crappy metaphor given that he’s the only medical professional to correctly rewire my engine. Of all the chapters in The Forest for the Trees, the one people never talk about or write to me about is the one called “Touching Fire,” about depression, alcoholism, drug addiction and bi-polar illness in writers. THe chapter is largely drawn from Kay Redfield Jamison’s brilliant book on mental illness in writers in which she documents a disproportionately high rate of bi-polar illness in writers, in people with an artistic temperament. THough I struggled for the better part of fifteen years with manic depression, the last twenty years have been depression-free, free of manic episodes. The floor and the ceiling have remained fixed. I’m too smart to say I miss it.

Dear Lord of the Medicine Cabinet, thank you for my salmon tablets. THank you for my life. This is a tough season for people. If you’re not feeling well, get help. As a good friend of mine once said when I asked him if he was thinking about suicide, “Not me, honey, the light always changes.”  What about you? I’m thinking about you.

56 Responses

  1. I was out of my meds last week, and away from home with my family emergency, and after a few days, I start to disintegrate, a sort of slow melting away of the part of me that keeps me 1) productive, 2) happy, 3) patient, 4) . . . sane. That’s why my book is so important to me and to the people who’ve read it so far — mental illness sucks, and we’re not supposed to admit we have a problem, but facing it is the best way to start dealing with it.

    So there. I don’t have a problem. Not me. I’m good. (Oops, typo, I typed god, and that just isn’t right.) I’ve learned what I need to do, and I shall keep doing so. Is it because I’m a writer, or am I writer because I have “issues?” I don’t know.

  2. I’m a PTSD baby, whiplashed from a bi-polar mother. Many of my many siblings and cousins are bi-polar. And unmedicated. I respect your self care enormously. And your creative insight. Am almost jealous of you.

    Maybe that’s the missing ingredient in my prose, who knows.

    Under pressure I get triggered. Isolate. Then spiral down into the not good enough gutter.

    Oddly enough I just used that same painting on a blog post.

  3. Great pic for this post, Betsy.

    I wouldn’t normally think of pimping someone else’s blog on yours, but The Bloggess just had a post that fits here so, so well. Don’t know if you read her. She generally makes me laugh, but like you, she runs way deeper.


    We’re all in this together. And together, we’ll all make it through.

  4. Beautiful post. Glad you are well, and wonderful words to those who aren’t feeling themselves (or, maybe, are feeling themselves too much). Fortunately, my dark nights of the soul are on hiatus – hopefully, permanently. But if not, I know where to go for help. Thank God for good therapy and good meds!

  5. something broke for me this week.

    the past month or so was particularly hard, but i was coming off a bad year that included not talking to my sister for most of it (something i would have never, in a million years, ever thought possible. me not talking to her. it’s still hard for me to believe even after it has happened.)

    i spent most of thanksgiving through christmas trying to pinpoint the exact events in my life that were pulling me down, making it hard to do anything but run the other way or have mini-breakdowns throughout my day. (my husband even agreed to go out of town for the holidays; it didn’t help. different states; same depression.)

    your post reminds me that it’s just that season. on top of having a particular wide breadth of crap to process, i was trying to wade through it during the dark months.

    not that it’s staying any lighter any longer; but, whatever broke this week has offered more light in my day.

  6. Love Kay Redfield Jamison. Love this post. Had you lived a generation earlier, you would have suffered without relief. It’s nearly impossible for the depressed people I know to remember that the light will change when the darkness descends upon them.

    I’m glad for your friend and hopeful that the huge numbers of adolescents and adults who suffer debilitating depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, schizoaffective disorder, and all the other bogeymen of the brain get the right help. And here’s to insurance covering mental health care the same way physical disorders are covered.

  7. “…I asked him if he was thinking about suicide, ‘Not me, honey, the light always changes.'”

    That’s a fucking book. He is beautiful and needs to be written.

  8. So far I’ve managed without medicating (although I have been prescribed a couple of times). Day three of my traditional alcohol free January though, and things are looking pretty edgy.

  9. Me, I’m well. Just trying to settle in this new hometown of mine, loving on my dog, delighting in new friends, writing when I can, working when I have to and trying not to take much for granted. Things got better when I turned 30. Before that, it was all so complicated and now I realize it’s because I made it that way.

  10. I’m not too fond of fixed floors and ceilings and tend to use my condition as an excuse or reason at times. I’ve always been somewhat opportunistic. The ER doctors now have to ask you about your mental health. They kind of sneak it in. I think I’m going to get a plastic card. “I have come to grips with the things in my life I cannot change and have several things to be very happy about.” My reason for sticking around? Curiosity. My doctor likes to talk about neuro-biology and how little they know of it. She gives me freedom to juggle a bit. I like her.

    I’m convinced I was born this way.

  11. My doctor doubled my dosage last week. When the adjustment fog clears, I hope I’ll get a glimpse of what normal looks like for me because I think I’ve forgotten what that’s like.

  12. If pink was blue and I were you….
    Having survived 50 years thus far, and lived many of them, my most recent understanding of me n my illness is that we are each other’s gift. Well, your Forest book helped… thank you.
    I’m unable to tolerate meds, at least the many I’ve tried, but though it had a few wonderfully creative attempts, bipolar never killed me before, and at 50, I do believe I’ve won that part of the battle.
    And now for the first day of the rest of The War…

  13. Yeah. About a couple of years ago I put my head in the oven. A la Sylvia. Thank God, ovens nowadays do not just spew out gas. I ended up roasting my head like a little ham. There is progress in technology. I did call my therapist.
    Do that.
    Or pick up a pen.
    Take care.

  14. Betsy, for what it’s worth, I thought that chapter in FFTT was excellent. I was so pleased that you addressed it. Jamison’s contributions to the field of psychiatry cannot be measured. Years ago I was given a copy of Night Falls Fast as a gift by a cherished mentor and from then on I was hooked.

    The creative brain is wired differently and as such needs “mechanics” like yours. The metaphor is used by docs a lot, surgeons, pharmacologists, etc. Most of us are not very creative. Anyway, your words today are so reassuring and hopeful. I am so grateful that you talk about mental health especially your own. Here’s to fixed floors and ceilings. Thank you.

  15. Here’s a prose poem I wrote on the subject about a year ago:

    Fluorescent Flamethrower

    Mania where have you been? I long for you to return and dance through my doorway naked and screaming. We have such fun when you’re around. I miss you when you’re gone. Depression’s been hanging around in her black dress weeping over her bouquet of dead flowers. She’s such a bore. I miss you, Mania. I miss your fireworks in the living room, your fast growing jungles of psychic kudzu, your sudden explosions of blown glass and honey. I miss how you chase the others away. No one likes Depression much, but they put up with her. You they can’t stand. You’re dangerous and scary, that’s why you’re fun. When you’re around the others leave and it’s just you and me plotting the overthrow of the universe with our handguns of laughter. When you’re around I can hear colors. When Depression’s here, I can hardly even see them. Some have suggested I break up with you both. Neither one of you are any good for me, they say. Fuck that. I’d leave Depression if I could, but not you, baby. They don’t know you like I do. Come back with your fluorescent flamethrower and arsenal of cream pies. We have smug faces to smoosh and vast cities of tinder to ignite.

  16. You know I have been successful at managing my anxiety and trying to write despite having it managed. I do think my writing has suffered in the absence of “the fire”.

  17. I like to have options. But the ultimate option has gotten really low on the list in the last few years.


    Let’s keep that statement close, for times of need. Write it down on a piece of scrap paper, pin it up one sleeve, pin it to the skin in steady black.

  19. What a generous post, Betsy. I cured my life-long anxiety and depression by catching a whopping case of postpartum depression 15 years ago. Drugs were suggested for the first time, and after much hedging and denial, I gave in. I’m still on them. Whenever I think of quitting, I tell myself, “I never deserve to feel that bad again.” To those of you still resisting help, check your self-esteem. You DO deserve to feel good.

    From a writing standpoint, I’ve never been so productive, starting from the book I wrote about the PPD.

  20. Thanks to one little antidepressant I did not melt down once during holiday travels. ADHD meds keep me at my desk and working. It was hard hard to get help at first, but after I did I felt relieved. And it’s sunny out today, that helps too.

  21. If I could take a pill for my misery, I would be grateful, but I can’t because of issues with sleep—and fear of issues with sleep.

    I’m not bipolar, but I’m what my retired therapist used to call a high-functioning depressive. I’m sad inside myself and cry a lot, but I’m fun to be around most of the time.

    I just have to remember the power of fish oil and exercise on mood (exercise when it’s not 7 degrees, that is), and I’ll be OK. Thanks for asking.

    • I’m resistant to taking pills, and never have. It was probably stupid, since I’ve lost a lot of time. But somehow I’m still here. What keeps me from sliding too far down (or staying there) is:

      Going to bed and waking up early
      Getting sunlight first thing in the day
      Showering (I used to go days without, and would immediately come out of a depression upon a having a good scrub)
      Regular tidying and housecleaning, a little at a time
      Eating good food and not junk
      Kirtan (musical meditation on the names of God)

      The physical, external things come first because what’s good for the body is good for the mind. Even in cases of extreme pathology, it can’t hurt to be regulated and healthy.

      But the single most important action that has stopped a depression cold for me is exercise. The scribes of old had to walk miles (or chop wood, or ride horses) in the course of a day. And for the modern-day writer, walking can be as much a muse as anything. Move your body!

      Menopause made huge difference in my outlook also. It’s been a blessing, surprisingly. The run-up to it was murder, though. If anybody wants some advice and battle stories (so far, I’m winning), get in touch.

  22. Betsy: I’m beginning to think you have a serious problem!


  23. My CBT suggested that I think of myself as a pendulum full of colored sand. I’m working on moving in small central patterns rather than wild Tarzan swings.

    I won’t lie–some days there’s sand everywhere. But the intricacies of the patterns are starting to appeal.

  24. Thank you a million times over for this post. It’s hard to find a good mechanic, and when they fix one thing something else tends to break. To complicate matters, now I’m worried about my 16-year-old daughter. Hormones and teenage angst or bad genes? So very close to the bone…

  25. We all have our secrets, how brave are we all willing to be? Random itches, night sweats, insomnia, the Worry. You know that feeling when you’re balancing so hard your legs start to shake? Insert that feeling here—constantly. It’s all about how you come out. How I come out.

  26. Are you thinking about *me*? I’m narcissistic enough to think that you are. I saw my first psychiatrist (after fifteen years of psychotherapists) last month. He was an asshole. He kept me waiting an hour, didn’t make eye contact, and diagnosed me with hypomania when I got nervous and started talking fast, after I finally asked him if he was ever going to look me in the eye. He also left the room every 5 minutes without ever saying where he was going, or why, and shuffled me out the door with a bag of Cymbalta samples and a printout of famous bipolars throughout history.

    I want to ask a question or say something meaningful about depression/writing, but I’ve exhausted myself. Also, my GP, who referred me to the above mentioned psych, has told me he won’t refill my sleep and anxiety prescriptions now that I’m seeing a psych. Sigh. Good times. Glad you’re back. We missed you. I missed you.

    • Shanna — I like reading your words. Stick around, not only because we like what you write. I don’t know why some shrinks feel obligated to be arrogant and rude, but I’m sure their farts smell more like shit than roses.

    • The GP’s stance is a personal choice, not an ethical standard of the industry. Armed forces won’t give you their freebie psychoactive meds unless you are seeing and Armed Forces psych, but they will pay for you to go see a GP that can prescribe them as maintenance and you get all the Tri Care benefits. The Armed Forces psych did start me on the psychoactives. My GP is not in the guv employ and has no prob with my maintenance. It is of course a possibility that your protocol falls outside these parameters.

      You have to be comfortable with your arrangement.

    • Ack! Shanna on behalf of psychiatry I apologize for this negligent and ridiculous treatment. There are bad psychiatrists of course but there are also many, many good ones. I hope that you will find a doc who treats you with the respect and compassion that you are entitled to. This guy is a disgrace to the profession and to humanity. If I were treated in that manner I would report him to the licensing body.

  27. Glad I am only reading this post now. Spent the better part of last night talking a loved one away from the idea of suicide. That Evil Inner Voice – so determined to convince one that all is hopeless – is a powerful, horrible force. Today, I am looking at broken furniture, torn paper and understanding the inner, true spirit of my loved one raging in despair against this Voice.

    It will be a long day, but at least it is not a cloudy day. I hold hope even with winter sunlight and its feeble warmth.

  28. FWIW, not taking the Cymbalta. And not seeing that psych again.

    • He sounds like an asshole but don’t let him deter you. Keep looking. I had to fire a couple of docs before I found the right one for my father. When I did, his world changed. Even the good one tried him on the commonly known antidepressants first – usally some sort of seratonin affecting pill. Inadequate dopamine ended up being his issue, but she had to start somewhere and it took some time to figure it out. It seems to be a trial and error business. I found keeping a list of possible changes/side effects for him to discuss with the doc at the next appointment helped a lot. We knew she hit the jackpot when his mood changed for the better and his anxiety came under control. Seriously, it happened over the course of a few weeks and was like the sun coming out from behind a cloud. One of the most difficult things was when she took away his anxiety pills and asked him to trust her. He needed a lot of support through that time. I think it was so she could see clearly how the chemical affecting meds were working. He hasn’t needed a xanex since.

  29. Thank you Betsy. Like the Van Gogh painting illustrates, black crows and shadows of lifeless bodies rise from fields of grain at the sound of the shotgun blast. I won’t say depression is behind me, but I’m sticking around to see what comes next.
    I’m guessing people are reluctant to talk about the “Touching Fire” chapter because it hits too close to home. Or they’re too polite. Fuck that.

  30. One afternoon sixteen years ago, while in my office nineteen floors above the city streets, while I was having a spot of personal difficulty, I had a strong urge to throw myself through the window. I backed away from the window and made a promise to myself that I would call someone for help before I killed myself.

    That didn’t come out right. I promised I would get help to restrain me, not assist me. But I know how deep and dark and suffocating depression can be, how a person can get beyond the desire for help.

    I own a rifle, but I won’t own a pistol. They’re too easy to use. If I had a pistol, I would almost certainly shoot someone eventually, and it could very well be me.

    Sometimes it’s hard. It’s just hard. Sometimes. The years pass. Friends and lovers die. Opportunities are lost. Fortunes are wasted. The slope is steep and the heavy boulder must be rolled to the summit. Then it will roll back down to the foot of the mountain and the work will need to be done again. And there will be no one else there. Everyone will be on their own mountain, doing the same work in solitude.

    When I was much younger and would feel suicidal, as romantic and self-involved adolescents sometimes will, I would tell myself that tomorrow is worth sticking around for, because you never can tell. I hope to always feel that way.

    Writing saves my life. Every day. Nothing else does.

    • I saw a movie in which three characters are getting some air on the roof of a skyscraper. One guy says to the others, “People think they’re afraid of heights because they might fall. That’s bullshit. People are afraid because they think they might jump.”

      I wish you didn’t have a rifle, Tetman.

      • Averil, I’m an army-brat and quondam officer cadet raised in the South. I’m all but required to have a rifle (at least I don’t call it a “gun”). If you ask me, and you didn’t though I will tell you anyway, I think every adult American citizen ought to have a rifle and know how to use it. Just like the Swiss. Yee. Haw.

  31. I’ve read two of KRJ’s books and loved them, although they didn’t speak to my particular situation. Has anybody read The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon? I started but never finished it.

  32. i’m a college-educated woman but I didn’t recognize that I’m depressed. Until today reading this column. Thanks, Betsy, and all the other commenters who shared their demons. I think I need some help. First I’m going to go wash my hair.

  33. It starts with clean hair, Mary Lynne. Just don’t forget to take the next step.

  34. Tremendous things here. I am very satisfied too see your post.
    Thanks so much and I’m having a look ahead to contact you.

    Will you please drop me a e-mail?

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