Five Years in Recovery
I don’t know if I love using the word “recovery” for what I’ve been up to, as I don’t want to collapse the distinction between addiction and mental illness. (But if they handed out those AA chips, I’d happily take one.) “In treatment” is probably more accurate, but it also lacks a bit of the sense of positive momentum that I’m trying to express. In any event - five years ago today I finally fully committed to addressing my bipolar disorder. I’ve told the story before, so suffice it to say that after 15 years of running I finally got with the program. “The program” has meant five years of psychiatrist appointments and taking the pills and dealing with the side effects, and it’s five years of only mild depression and no mania. (It’s not, alas, five years of therapy, but I’ve talked about that before.) The cycles pulse along below the surface, and they do have consequences for my mood and those around me, but they remain under control, and I have not developed a paranoid delusion or threatened someone for disloyalty or wanted to kill myself since. I owe that to a kind and experienced doctor and to modern pharmacology, as flawed as it may be.
It’s hard to remember what things were like before, sometimes. My whole life changed. I surrendered, got treatment, and went away for three years. I got a shot of Geodon to get my head right enough to get help, found a long-term psychiatrist who still treats me, and started taking the pills again, and I have not stopped. Lithium carbonate (ER & regular), olanzapine, lamotrigine, fluoxetine, bupropion, alprazolam, trazodone, diazepam, dextroamphetamine, hydroxyzine, and a partridge in a peartree. (A little back-of-the-envelope math suggests that I’ve taken better than 15,000 pills in this past half-decade.) However briefly, I’ve done group therapy, psychoanalytic therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy. I’ve seen a social worker and done online support groups. I was sober for 18 months, sat in at meetings for a year, and though I’m drinking socially again my relationship with alcohol has been forever changed. (I’ve been drunk once in the past five years.) All manner of destructive and instinctual behaviors have been replaced by rituals. I’ve donated thousands of dollars to RAINN and raised thousands more from my readers, because it has seemed like the thing to do. I’ve given out many apologies, though I know they’re never enough.
And I'm still sorry, towards a lot of people and for a lot of things. I’ve never believed that I was wronged by being ostracized, not in and of itself. I have only said that people were and are dishonest about the reason for that ostracism, that they ignore my condition rather than process it and still choose to advocate for my ostracism. (People I know, people I was close to, have taken my bipolar disorder into account and still made the adult decision to walk away, and you can too.) Once I lost my CUNY job and spent a fruitless year looking for another job, I had to ask for the right to come back; I just didn’t know what else to do, other than to make my living selling writing again, once it became clear no one would give me a job doing anything else. People will make their own judgments about all of it, and I accept it all. No one can audit themselves. I can’t, anyway.
There’s been ups and downs. I've aged more in the past five years than I did in the preceding ten. I've lost more friendships and acquaintances than I can count. I’ve gotten used to perpetual inconsistency from personal and professional connections. (There’s a tendency for other writers to send me sweet emails and to have a little correspondence and then suddenly they won’t answer my emails anymore, and I never know why.) I’ve been sweaty for 98% of the past five years, gotten fat, had some form of gastrointestinal distress almost every day, woken up in the night from spasms in my legs countless times, dropped more plates and glasses thanks to trembling hands than I care to remember, struggled to focus, forgotten names, and lost track of time to socially undesirable effect. I wrote a book I was proud of and nobody bought it. In the span of a few months I got Covid, lost my job, had one of my best friends die, and had to say goodbye to my beloved dog Miles. And in general, for a long time, I was so alone, and I couldn’t even console myself by insisting I didn’t deserve it. Now I find myself productive again, with another book deal, making more money than I ever thought I would, and putting things together so that I can spend the rest of my life with one special person. Last year I even convinced the New York Times to publish me again; I wish I could say I was too cool to care about that, but I confess that it was a signpost for me. Life is funny. Of course, the worm can always turn again. Usually does.
The tricky thing about this recovery stuff is that the only impetus for change that really matters is the sudden and overwhelming understanding that you must change for others, and also that for it to really work, you have to do it for you. That’s the paradox, a contradiction but a generative one.
The other thing that some people don’t understand is this: if you stay down on the mat too long, it becomes self-indulgence. If you stay apologetic and obsequious forever it stops being for others and starts being for yourself. That will seem really abstract to most of you, but I’m sure it’s true. Self-flagellation is cousin to self-aggrandizement. So I got up. And if you’re struggling I encourage you to get up too, even though I know that you can’t always just choose to do that whenever you'd like. For those who have the ability to choose - choose to work the program. See your doctor. Take the pills. Do your therapy. Manage your illness, then put it away so you can be yourself. You are not your illness. Your job is not to suffer more beautifully than others; your job is to get well. So get off the mat.
Eternal thanks to Dr. James Halper for saving my life. A special fuck you to RUMC for exemplifying everything wrong with emergency psychiatric medicine. Not that I’m bitter! I’ve advanced past such things, you see. I’m a floating Buddha, these days. And I am here. I am here, and I stay.
And there could I marvel my birthday
Away but the weather turned around. And the true
Joy of the long dead child sang burning
In the sun….