I Would Like Closure, But I'll Take Honesty
The New York Times is special. Often enough it’s specially frustrating, but no one could doubt that it has a special place in our culture and in the hearts of many. Including my own. So it was a big deal for me to be published by them again this past Tuesday, and it was also a big deal for many of my detractors, who cried injustice. They feel I should not be published in The New York Times, or anywhere else, perhaps. I wrote for the Washington Post last year and have turned down many opportunities this year, so they should not direct their ire at the Times. The broader question is the ire itself. I write this piece in the vain hope that telling the story one more time will finally lead to some sort of closure.
I have bipolar disorder and have struggled with it my entire adult life. I was diagnosed in 2002 at a state mental health facility. My family, my friends and I have had to live with my condition for 20 years, although I lived in denial of it for a decade and did not become fully transparent about it with them until I was in my 30s. I only publicly revealed my disorder in my published work in 2016. Though I long to be free of both, my mental illness and the medications I take to treat it have been two of the most dominant influences on my entire life.
As I have discussed at length in the past, I once again went off my psychiatric medication sometime in spring of 2017. As is consistent with my history and common to the disorder, over a period of many weeks I gradually became severely manic. As has been my consistent pattern, I lost weight, I fixated and obsessed over minute issues, I barely slept, I acted irrationally, and I developed severe paranoia. In August of 2017 I made totally baseless accusations of sexual misconduct against the writer Malcolm Harris on social media. That weekend I was threatened with arrest regarding an unrelated matter, so my brother came to New York and began seeking immediate treatment for me. When we were able to arrange appropriate care I was diagnosed as having a psychotic episode due to untreated bipolar mania. I received injectable antipsychotics and from there I began oral medication and therapy. I withdrew to continue the recovery process. A few months later, I posted an apology to my website. Several times since then I have tried to work out these issues in print in an effort to satisfy some of my critics, to no avail. Harris has done me the kindness of never attempting to resolve the situation legally, or to obstruct my reintegration into professional life, or to otherwise pressure anyone or any institution to punish or sanction me. He has my thanks as well as my continued deep regret and apology.
I did something very wrong, and the complication of my mental disorder should not excuse me entirely from blame for those actions. The degree to which any individual weighs that complication will have to be a matter of their individual ethical sense. Everyone has the right to make up their own mind about whether I should be forgiven or not. These issues are very complex, and I have had to wrestle with my culpability for my actions when manic for a long time. It’s not easy. It’s perfectly legitimate to weigh my mental illness as context and still conclude that I deserve to have social ties severed. I did in fact lose some real friends over what happened, they made their decisions in full light of my condition and history, and I can only respect that stance and hope that one day they might reconsider. However. It is unambiguously a lie to tell someone about my false accusations in the course of condemning me without mentioning the context of my mental illness. That is not something a person of integrity does. Had the situation gone through the legal route, my psychotic state would have been legally relevant. Had a reporter written up the scenario, they would provide that context. It simply would not make sense to confront what happened without that information in mind. Psychosis alters behavior, clouds judgment. That does not mean that I should bear no responsibility for what happened. It does mean that thinking and fair people should factor it into their understanding. It’s not everything. But it’s something, something important.
If you tell the story, tell the real story. If you tell it in the prosecution of an argument about why I should be condemned, that’s fine. But tell the whole truth. That is really the first and most important thing I’m asking here. Don’t tell people about the accusation and not the psychosis, because to do so is to violate very basic principles of honesty. And if you are a third party to such a conversation, perhaps consider sharing this post with others, so that they can have the relevant context. It’s really not asking a lot to ask people to share elementary information and not to perform retroactive long-distance mind reading to ascertain my motives.
For example, a common claim is that I accused Malcolm Harris in an effort to “cancel” him. The fixation on this particular narrative is not hard to understand. Despite my relentless effort to write about many things, and despite the fact that I usually have targets that are much more particular than “cancel culture,” I am often lumped in with people who criticize it. And so the claim that I was trying to cancel Harris has a sort of poetic ring to it; it makes me out to be a hypocrite as well as a liar.
But in fact I had not intended to cancel Harris; I hadn’t intended anything at all. I would have attacked him, physically, had he been present, over a pure delusion, which I say with shame I can’t put into words. But I was not thinking that I would hurt his reputation. I was not thinking of cause and effect in any conventional way. I was not in a mental state where I was capable of understanding long-term consequences. Once again, I will be accused of saying that I bear no responsibility for what happened, but that’s not what I’m saying or have ever said. I am saying that it is a lie to say that I had a particular outcome in mind because I was operating under the antilogic of psychosis. I know because I’m me and I was there. I’m sorry if this is inconvenient for your efforts to develop simplistic moral readings about what happened, but I assure you my psychotic disorder is harder on me than it is on you. Forgive me if I’m angry, but it is incredible the number of people who believe that their understanding of neurology and psychiatry and psychology is so complete that they can decide unilaterally for the human race that “mental illness doesn’t do that.” You can make whatever moral judgments about me you like. You have no idea what was happening in my brain and no right to speak as if you do.
My entire life changed, and I changed, as a result not only of what happened with Malcolm but of my treatment of several other people in that summer. After 15 years of briefly starting meds and intentionally falling off again I have now been medicated without break for over four years. At one point I was regularly taking seven psychiatric medications. In the immediate aftermath of what happened I saw four psychiatrists in a six week period, and the one I started seeing long-term remains my doctor today. I have done group therapy, psychoanalytic therapy, and cognitive behavioral therapy. I saw a hospital-mandated social worker and attend an online support group. I was sober for 18 months and attended meetings to support that sobriety for a year; I eventually adopted restricted social drinking under the guidance of my psychiatrist as part of a larger effort to reenter normal social life. I saw my psychiatrist every week for years and still have regular online appointments with him. My medications carry with them punishing side effects, which include severe weight gain, profound cognitive problems relating to memory and attention, trembling, twitching and akithisia, constant sweating, reduction in brain mass, severe emotional withdrawal and apathy, serious gastrointestinal distress, sometimes leading to incontinence, constant urination, reduced libido, occasional impotence, potential liver and kidney damage, the risk of neuroleptic malignant syndrome, which is often fatal, and the constant potential for addiction and withdrawal. While I have been insured for three out of the past four years, my total out of pocket cost for various forms of care and treatment still exceeds $25,000 in that period thanks to the vagaries of the American healthcare system. I have worked hard to ensure that nothing like this ever happens again, and I have attempted to make restitution to individuals in private ways and to society with charitable giving. These are things that I have done in an attempt to make amends to others, to grow, and to save my own life.
I understand that it is deeply unfair to Harris, the victim in all this, that I yet again have to bring it all up and to insist on a certain vision of events in a partially self defensive manner. There are so many things I want to write about and not enough time, and I would so much rather be writing about any of them right now. But I don't know what the alternative is; every day, when my name appears anywhere online, members of the self-selected morality police tell lies about about happened, lies by any measure. They refuse to engage with the actual substance of what happened in even minimally honest terms. They attack me for attempting to move on in my life but give me no path to dealing with what happened. I remain completely at a loss as to what they think I should do, what should happen to me, or how I should proceed with my life, especially considering that what has happened seems to prevent me from securing a job doing anything other than writing for public audiences.
I assure you that none of this is material to my continued survival. My mother’s death from brain cancer when I was seven was devastating for my father as well as his children, and though he tried his best he was plagued by crippling alcoholism and addiction as well as depression for the rest of his life. Though he was a good man his conditions had serious repercussions for myself and my siblings. When he succumbed to liver cancer himself seven years later we were left in the care of someone who was not a good person and with whom I had an explosively unstsble relationship. Our home was broken in ways I will not recount, and then we were permanently forced out of that home before I turned 18. Some adults who were meant to look after us failed to prevent inheritance money from being taken from us. Our childhood home was sold out from under us under mysterious circumstances and to this day I don’t know where one dime of that money went. All of my siblings and I experienced severe financial instability as young adults with no parents to help. My reward for surviving that childhood was to graduate into an adulthood plagued by crushing depression and a recurring cycle of manic phases in which I have gotten arrested, burned money I didn’t have, destroyed friendships, rendered myself unemployable in many fields, and committed serious physical self-harm. There is nothing than any stranger can do to jeopardize my survival or that of my family, nor any “punishment” that the internet can mete out that will rise to the level of what I have already experienced. I will survive and I will thrive. But I am asking for honesty.
Beyond honesty, what I have asked for is something that it seems people are simply unwilling to give: I have asked that people consider that I deserve neither total condemnation nor total exoneration. I have asked that people consider that I should neither be permanently ostracized nor entirely excused. I have not asked for absolution; I have asked for forgiveness. I have asked for forgiveness knowing that only guilty people have the right to ask such a thing. I am guilty of doing something terrible, and I know that some will always judge me harshly for it. I cannot ask them to do otherwise if they are moved to do so by their conscience. But I do hope people will think deeply, about the nature of forgiveness in our current culture, about mental illness, and about a disorder I did not choose and which has resulted in me setting my life on fire more times than I can count. In their efforts to raise “awareness,” some who consider themselves advocates for the mentally ill have created a public perception of our illnesses as neat, clean, morally uncomplicated, and always cinematic, fitting into the picture of what we expect mental illness to be. If I had walked raving half-naked down a highway onramp in the middle of the night, many of the people who refuse to allow me to move on would immediately have chalked it up to my mental illness and not blamed me for it. But this, they are sure, could only be the product of a perfectly rational mind, despite the wreckage it made of my life. I am sorry that my disorder is not more orderly and in keeping with the stereotype of what mental illness looks like, but this is life for those of us who suffer from psychotic disorders: never trusting our own minds, never confident in what is the product of our illnesses and what is really, truly who we are. And so I ask again: could it be that I bear a complicated kind of responsibility for what I did, that I have paid a high price for it, that I have done everything I could to change, and that without absolving or excusing or exonerating me, it may be time to allow me to move on?
I will close with the same questions that I have asked many times before.
To those of you who are not people I harmed in my psychotic episode in August 2017… what is it you think I owe you?
If I was of sound mind that night, what was I doing? What was my plan? My exit strategy? How could I possibly have thought that such behavior would benefit me in any way?
What should I say, that I have not already said? What should I do, that I have not already done?
What do you think the appropriate punishment should be that I haven’t yet received, given the loss of reputation, loss of friends, loss of income, loss of professional opportunity, and the profound physical and mental challenges of my ongoing psychiatric treatment I have already faced?
What do you want from me?