Tag Archive | manic depression

Summer was a bummer, but I’m back

It’s the first full day of autumn, an auspicious day for new beginnings, and for better or worse, I’m back on my blog, after a leave of absence that lasted virtually all summer. I’ve been mired in a deep depression that stole over me last May, robbing me of my motivation and self-confidence, convincing me that I no longer had anything worth writing about, much less anything people would care about enough to read. But with the coming of fall, I’ve resolved to write myself out of my doldrums.

Writing is an integral part of my identity, and the notion that my writing years might be behind me severely deepened my depression. I spent far too many beautiful summer days ensconced in my old Lazy Boy recliner, endlessly reading other authors’ novels. For the first time in ages, I bypassed the races at Saratoga.

The sorry state of my parched and weed-infested garden all too accurately mirrors my state of mind. Upstate New York’s been unusually dry this summer, with only half its normal rainfall over the past two months, and my imagination has been suffering a similar drought. In May and June, my posts grew less frequent, more downbeat. Afraid of becoming a Debbie Downer like the Saturday Night Live character, I made a deliberate decision to stop blogging, possibly forever.

I made a mistake. I missed the creative excitement that came with crafting a new post, the cameraderie of the online community, and I came to feel increasingly like a nebbishy nonentity. So I’m jumping back in, hoping it’s not too late.

Charles Burchfield

What brought on this dark night of the soul? Probably a combination of biochemical and psychosocial factors. I’ve written before about my bipolar diagnosis, but it’s been well controlled with medication, and over the past few years, my mood has been amazingly upbeat and sunny. Back in May, in the post titled “Depression – cloudy, cool and drizzly,” I said, “I’m a firm believer in the biochemical nature of manic depression, as some still prefer to call bipolar disorder, and I know medications work.” I had faith in my shrink’s ability to tweak my medications enough to banish my increasingly bleak moods, but I’ve undergone lots of tweaking in the months since then, and nothing seems to work.

What triggered my depression, I’ve come to believe, is an old-fashioned identity crisis. For years I’ve identified myself as a mystery writer, but the success I’ve dreamed of has eluded me. I’m proud of my two self-published novels, Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders and Eldercide, but the sales have been less than stellar. I’d hoped that building an online identity through my blog would boost my readership, but I came to realize that impressive blog stats don’t necessarily mean lots of people will buy my books, and my track record isn’t likely to inspire an agent or editor to beat down my door any time soon.   

Even so, I enjoy online schmoozing far more than marketing my books in person. My depression descended soon after a signing at a local independent book store. It was my first straight solo signing ever, with no talk, panel discussion or party to drum up interest. True, I sold a few books, but each sale took painstaking effort in teasing out the themes that would appeal to each reader. For some it was the regional locale, for others an interest in bipolar disorder or end-of-life issues, for still others an interest in mysteries pure and simple. I’m basically an introvert, and the expenditure of energy left me drained and exhausted, with the realization that I’m just not cut out to be a demon marketer. Never was, never will be.

But am I still a mystery writer? At the very least, I’m a woman who has written four mystery novels and published two of them, and that’s something to be proud of, or so I try to convince myself. Will I write another? The verdict’s still out on that one. But one thing’s for sure – I’m still a writer, and I need to write. My life literally depends on it.

Can I write my way out of this depression? Stay tuned to find out. Never fear, I’ll cover other subjects as well, but I plan to post at least twice a week. And if you’ve read this far, please leave a comment – I know my readership has dwindled during this hiatus, but I need to know you’re out there.

Depression – forecast cloudy, cool and drizzly?

Weather report from the dreary Northeast: cloudy, cool and gray with intermittent drizzles – a lot like the weather inside my head the past few days. Outside, they’re predicting a positive change, and tomorrow’s forecast promises a perfect spring day, sunny with temps in the seventies. I wish my mental state would brighten too, but I’m not at all sure.

I’ve written here before about my bipolar diagnosis, but from the perspective of someone who has it well under control with medication. Over the past several years, my disposition has been amazingly, predictably sunny.  Now that depression is rolling in like low cloud cover and fogging my brain, my impulse is to hide, to retreat into silence. Who wants to read a blog that’s basically a downer? Maybe you’ll read it and never return. If I can’t say something nice and cheery, better not to say anything at all, right?

Wrong. I’ve always been big on self-disclosure in this blog, and it would feel hypocritical to change now, so I’ve decided to go public with these feelings of depression. My novel  Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders is all about transcending the stigma of mental illness, and sharing feelings is one way to go about it. The book’s protagonist Erika Norgren reveals her bipolar diagnosis on the 11 o’clock news, and when the book was published, I came out of the closet as well, to my enormous relief. I’m hoping that sharing my feelings here will have an equally therapeutic effect.

I’m a firm believer in the biochemical nature of manic depression, as some still prefer to call bipolar disorder, and I know medications work. A couple of months ago, my shrink tweaked my meds, changing one of them to something less apt to promote weight gain, but in retrospect, maybe that was a mistake. Yesterday, after taking to my bed for the afternoon, I was  alarmed enough to call him, and I’ll be seeing him soon, but he wants me to monitor my moods a little while longer rather than changing the meds too abruptly.

I could launch into a whole laundry list of things to be depressed about, but realistically, I have far more things to be grateful for. This kind of depression isn’t about rationality, though – that’s what’s so frightening about it. Images of the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico come to mind – the toxic black muck keeps pouring up unstoppably from the depths.

Never fear, I have no intention of dragging you into my slough of despond on a regular basis. There’ll be cheerier postings in the days and weeks ahead, but I may occasionally offer progress reports on my mental status. Meanwhile, I feel like Tinker Bell in Peter Pan – my inspiration is flickering, and I don’t want it to die out. If you believe, it would be good to hear some applause right about now.

When you’re feeling creative, how crazy is too crazy?

Bud Powell at Birdland

Since early adolescence, I’ve been fascinated by the fine line between creativity and madness, and the life stories of artists and writers who suffered from mental illness. At 13, when I took up painting and jazz piano, I was intrigued to learn the great bebop pianist Bud Powell was schizophrenic. I barely knew what the word meant, but it sounded romantic, and I thought his illness contributed to the brilliance of his intense, driven style in compositions like “Un Poco Loco.”

When it comes to artistic creativity, is being “a little crazy” an asset or a liability? The question has been the subject of endless speculation. Would Van Gogh have been as great if he’d been totally sane? What about Robert Schumann or Virginia Woolf? I’m not sure, but in my own case, being a bit over the top has probably helped. At any rate, my experiences with bipolar disorder inspired my first novel, Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders.

I came by the diagnosis atypically late, in my early 50’s. I was running ElderSource, Inc., a Licensed Home Care Services Agency, and the work was unbelievably stressful. A shrink prescribed Zoloft, and the effect was amazing. Within a couple of weeks, I felt better than I had in years, ready to take on the world. A few more weeks, and I totally flipped.

Virginia Woolf

It began harmlessly enough. I spent more and more time in my office behind closed doors, writing on my computer. My mind was flooded with inspirations I simply had to get down on paper before they escaped. What’s wrong with that, you ask? Nothing, if you’re a writer – but I was supposed to be running an agency. My memos got longer and longer, then turned into voluminous essays, including one about my father’s brilliance as Managing Editor of the Milwaukee Journal during the McCarthy era. Staff in the office were worried, but I blew them off – I’d never felt better, and I knew what I was writing was of supreme importance.

In early December, I devised a plan to revitalize the economy of the Hudson Valley through a multimedia art show which I would carry out with the assistance of the President of Bard College, Robert Rauschenberg (my favorite artist), and various other luminaries. Soon I was on the phone to Bard, trying to schedule an appointment. I locked myself into my office long past midnight, called the New York Times, and tried to convince some lone reporter on the night shift that they should run a front-page story about my plans, my father and his achievements. A sympathetic listener, he diplomatically suggested that my story might be better suited to the Milwaukee Journal. When I called the police rather than let my husband into the office, things were way over the top.

I narrowly escaped hospitalization. Somehow my husband got me to the shrink, who prescribed heavy medications to tamp down what I came to understand was an acute manic episode. I spent a week at home, prone on the sofa catching up on sleep and watching endless videos, waiting for the lithium to kick in. (I remember especially loving a documentary on Sting,  U-2’s “Rattle and Hum” concert, and Robert Downey Jr. as Charlie Chaplin.) Within two weeks, I was back running ElderSource, but on a new medication regimen and with a newly heightened awareness of just how fragile mental health can be.

Was I manic depressive all along? I don’t know, but I’ve now got an official diagnosis of Bipolar Disorder I, and I’ll probably be on medications for the rest of my life, although the dosage is minimal now. Fortunately, being bipolar seems to be trendy. When I talk about my mystery novel Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders at panels and signings, people from the audience invariably approach me to confide that they or close friends or family members are bipolar. But too often they tell me they’ve kept the information secret for fear of repercussions from the stigma that still surrounds mental illness.  

So is being “un poco loco” good for creativity? Maybe, when it’s under control. These days, that control is possible through advances in psychopharmacology. Hypomania – the state of mind that falls just short of full-blown mania – can be a wonderfully productive state for writers. But if you find yourself locking out your husband and calling the police, it might be time to call a shrink instead, and see about getting onto some new meds.

 *This post originally appeared on Helen Ginger’s wonderful blog, Straight from Hel, on Friday the 13th, November 2009, as part of my first Blog Book Tour.

**This beautiful photo of Bud Powell rehearsing at Birdland in 1958 was taken by Francis Wolff. I heard and met Bud on just one occasion, when we were introduced by Max Roach, around this same period. Sadly, his mind and his playing had deteriorated by this point. His only coherent statement was a plea to my mother – “Buy me a Ballantine’s.”