What You Didn’t Know

Though I can in no way enforce this, I do you think your viewing experience of my latest video would be much more enhanced if you knew a little bit of why I chose these specific songs and images.

Let me start by saying I put a lot of thought into this. Nothing heard or seen in this is without meaning, at least for me. However, it began as sound. About 6 months after I returned from France (roughly 14 years before this video was made), I sat alone in my dorm room with a tape recorder and began speaking my thoughts into it. I don’t remember exactly what compelled me to do so. Perhaps I meant for it to be a letter, a “talking letter” as my dad called them when we made audio cassettes to send to our relatives when I was a child and all my extended family lived out-of-state. Then, when I was in France, I made “talking letters” for my best friend and my parents. Occasionally I’d take my tape recorder with me as I roamed to capture the sounds of other people’s voices as well. But most of the time it was just me, alone in a room, longing to share with my thoughts with another human being.

The six months leading up to my first bipolar manic episode were, up until then, the most challenging, exuberant, and melancholy moments in my life. There was a constant, unprecedented flux of emotion and, whether it was the highest of highs or the lowest of lows, I longed to tell someone about it, anyone. But once I’d made the decision to live alone in a tiny studio apartment in Montpellier, I came to the instant realization that no matter how happy I was at the end of the day, having no one to share my thoughts would instantly bring me down. And so, with no a computer of any sort, no TV, and rarely enough money to buy more minutes for my prepaid cell phone, I talked into my cassette tape recorder, I prayed and read my Bible until God felt completely real and became my sole companion, and I wrote like mad until I actually succumbed to madness.

Music calmed me in my solitude. I didn’t bring any sort of portable CD player with me because I intended even before I left to buy a plug-in mini-stereo once I arrived in France. Originally, I wasn’t even going to bring my own CDs because I was so committed to hearing French and only French, but at last I caved in and packed a small CD wallet with Christian music, much of which had already brought me comfort over the years. I justified this decision by reminding myself that, as my French friends in the US had informed me, this kind of music wasn’t even available in France. In the end, I was grateful for my decision and all the songs you’ll hear, except the first one, came from that collection of CDs. By contrast, I was actually tricked into listening to the song by Avril Lavigne. You see, in my loneliness I would often wander through the music stores and listen to the samples they had on display with their complimentary headphones. One day, when I was particularly sad and lonely, I saw the name Avril Lavigne, mistakingly assumed she was French, and began listening to her songs in the store when I stumbled upon “I’m With You” and felt as though she’d written the song just for me because that was exactly how I felt in that moment. So I impulsively bought her album and played it over and over again in my studio. Eventually, in the height of my mania, I made a mixtape for a friend beginning with her song and ending with “The Time is Now” by Twila Paris, the song which, as you’ll learn when you read my memoir, was the song that happened to be playing when I encountered God in a mystical, terrifying, and beautiful moment in which I neither heard voices nor had visions but felt, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that he was there in the room with me, reminding me that he was there for me and that I needn’t be afraid.

The order of songs on the mixtape was intended to be a soundtrack to my journey from beginning to end, from mourning to dancing (actually side A was all English but side B was the same idea, but all French music) Thus, “The Time is Now” became God’s words to me as well. A few days later, I’d abandon everything and walk into the unknown only to be intercepted by French law enforcement en route to Spain and ultimately taken to a psychiatric hospital in Thuir, France. Three weeks later, my dad flew to France to bring me home to the States – not that I wanted to go home, but no one gave me the choice. They told me I was sick and that I wasn’t able to think clearly and that everything they were doing was in my best interest. I didn’t believe them, but I obeyed, thinking this was perhaps God’s plan for me after all. After all, did Jesus resist arrest even though he knew he’d be beaten and nailed to a cross to die? No.

I made the audio track before I pieced together the images for this video. In fact, this is a remake of a similar video I did about 6 or 7 years ago. The only other faces you’ll see are people from that time in my life, people who would have been on the receiving end of my emotional outcries. I understood very little of what I was going through back then; they understood even less. But I still count them as friends and, even though we’ve not seen or spoken to one another in what feels like lifetimes, I still hope that, should we ever meet again, the spark of friendship will reignite and we’ll laugh and sing as we did when we were young.

Where’s the Value in Me?

It suddenly dawned on me the other day when I was talking with the makeup artist and salesman at Nordstrom. He told me that I needed to take better care of my skin or else no amount of makeup of any kind would look good on me.

But, I argued, it’s all too time-consuming and besides, I have a difficult time starting any new habit, especially if such a change would make me healthier or more attractive.

Well, he said, I think that’s really more of a self-esteem issue than anything else.

That was it. I was dumbstruck and the uninvited tears resurfaced. It wasn’t really a dramatic moment, of course. My voice remained calm and my breathing steady. In fact, I could easily dismiss such tears as allergies even though I knew full well that wasn’t true. No, what he said had actually triggered an involuntary emotional reaction. I could feel it in my chest and in my spine.

I smiled and requested a tissue, apologizing profusely. I’m sorry for this pitiful display of weakness I can’t seem to control. I’m sorry you had to witness it. I’m sorry it exists. I’m sorry I exist.

Then I blamed it on the bipolar disorder, although I knew that was kind of a lie. But it just felt easier to be dishonest at the moment than to take a stranger into the labyrinth of all my abnormal psychologies. He played along and started telling me about someone else he knew with bipolar disorder and my tears let up.

If a mental health professional were to sit down with me and ask me right now if I have suicidal thoughts, I would have to say no simply because I don’t have any sort of plan. I’ve not been collecting sharp objects or hoarding medication. I’m not romanticizing about death in my private fantasies or anything. No, I can assure you beyond a shadow of a doubt that if death takes me before I grow old, it won’t be by my own hand.

Then she’d breathe a sigh of relief and write somewhere in her notes like: this patient is not suicidal. She can keep her shoe laces, her drawstrings, and all the under wires in her bras. She is free to go where she pleases, no need to be monitored 24/7.

But she wouldn’t be completely right. I don’t meant to say I’m in immanent danger. But I’ve also not fully bought into the idea of growing old, especially when I perceive that phase of life as being incredibly lonely. I mean I’m 37 years old, my peers all seem to have spouses or kids or nieces or nephews or some combination thereof. They don’t seem afraid of entering their senior years completely alone because they have a plan for coping with old age. They seem confident in knowing their life will always be of value to someone. But I’m not confident, at least not for me. Furthermore I’m the youngest of my own family making the odds favorable that I’ll be the last in my family to go so what’s the point in prolonging such misery?

My diagnosis of bipolar disorder many years ago seemed to solidify this morbid take on life. After grieving my old life and spending most of that grief in denial, depression, and anger, I finally decided to take care of my chemical imbalance. I also spent years in and out of therapy because, let’s face it, I suck at dying and I figured if didn’t learn how to at least “pass for normal”, I’d lose the few friends I had (who were the people I longed to spend most my time with) and never make new friends.

It was hard but I did what I could and it kind of worked except for that nagging feeling I carried with me that I’d never be good enough. You see, back then I was woefully behind all of my peers in this race called life and, since then, I’ve felt that it’s too late to catch up. I’ve fallen too far, perpetually left in the dust.

On the other hand, it’s not like I perceive anyone else to be as doomed as I am. Even those who have greater struggles than me I tend to hold in greater esteem than I hold myself and I know I’m a hypocrite for thinking it. But give me every intellectual argument in the world for esteeming myself and believe me, I’ve heard it before. Telling me again and again that I’m valuable and loved will never be enough because internally I will be telling myself this: You’re only saying this because you’re my friend (family member, mentor, pastor, counselor, etc.) and you have to say this. You don’t really mean it. I’ll say thank you because that’s what you want me to say but I never have and never will believe you if you so say anything kind about me.

I’ve been wondering a lot lately why I can’t follow my doctor’s orders when it comes to taking care of my diet. I’ve been wondering why I can’t stick to a regular exercise routine or remember to follow the dentist’s instructions each night and wear my night guard. But now I think I know . The reason I can’t get on board (and stay on board) with any new habit that’s good for me physically is because I just don’t see the point anymore. I’ve almost stopped believing I have the ability to impress anyone let alone me. Yet I still write. I still photograph. I still hope in a way, but it’s not enough.

To be sure, my struggle with how I see myself predates any mental illness diagnosis, but it had a fighting chance when I was in college, at least in the three years leading up to my first hospitalization. In my late teens and early twenties, I began opening my mind more and allowing myself to change. I even went in search of change (as many young people do) by going out-of-state to school and, ultimately, across the ocean. With each new city, state, or country I stepped into, I knew I had another chance to be a new and improved version of me. But the illness reset much of that progress and it became harder to move forward when so few of my peers stood with me anymore.

I guess the question, then, is, how do I fix this? After all the emotional damage, how do I truly learn to love myself?

Pretending to be a Street Photographer in 2016

I’m sad to say that too many of what might have been great photos came out blurred, like these. If I were to do them over again, I’d ask my subjects to wait a moment while I made some adjustments. But I was nervous and didn’t want to make them wait.

Despite my shortcomings as a photographer, I still want my pictures to have meaning and purpose. I want them to be beautiful. I don’t know why, I just do. But I don’t know if they’re beautiful to anyone but me. I just love how the camera take me out of myself.

For me, the best pictures are of people. When I take pictures of people, it’s like I’m an anthropologist studying my own culture and its subcultures. I want to understand this world around me where I’ve always felt foreign, even in my own home.

I love it most when people aren’t posing or pretending – just being.

Then I return home and study the RAW files. I look at their expressions, their body language, and imagine what it is to be them.

I imagine their stories. They have amazing stories!

ASU Tempe Campus where I was taking a class back in January and happened upon a preacher holding up a hateful sign while a couple of students who seemed to be protesting him held up their own signs promoting peace and unity. It was a sad spectacle but at the same time I wondered what would drive a man to go out there and hold up a sign such as this while still professing to believe in a God of love.
This was the first guy in line for the VNSA Annual Book Sale in February. It says the line starts at midnight, but he had a tent so I’m quite sure he was there earlier than that.
Some young teachers keep entertained while they wait for the doors to the open at the VNSA Annual Book Sale. They must have arrived between 4 AM and 5 AM. I was there just before 3. Doors opened at 8. To me this is the only event worth waiting in line for.


Walking the paved trail at Multnomah Falls in Oregon on the last weekend of February.
A book-lover browses books at the Powell’s on Hawthorne bookstore in Portland, OR.
I hope this couple found love and joy in Portland, OR.
Photographers resting at the old bunkers around Fort Stevens State Park, Astoria, OR.
Young people flock to Roosevelt Row for another First Friday Art Walk.
Directions from the man in stilts at the Arizona Renaissance Fair.
Street musicians perform at the First Friday Art Walk in Phoenix.
Springtime at the World Bazaar at 19th St. and Camelback in Phoenix.
Fan art at Phoenix Comicon.
Cosplayers and other Phoenix Comicon attendees taking a break. Most of my pictures from Comicon didn’t turn out super great this year, so I tried to make some of them look like comics themselves.
This was a craft fair for Arizona crafters and merchants organized at the Mesa Convention Center by Arizona Made (I think that was the name of it)
Some of my family members are enjoying a coffee break in the corner there at Joseph-Beth Booksellers back in June of 2016.
A protest against police brutality in Flagstaff, AZ on a Sunday in August of 2016.
A protest marches through Heritage Square in Flagstaff when an audience has gathered to watch a string quartet on a Sunday afternoon in August, 2016.
An abandoned guitar in an alley way in Flagstaff, taken in August 2016
Tourists gaze down at Horeshoe bend in Arizona, August 2016.
Tourists – some of the most fascinating people for people-watching at Horseshoe Bend, AZ in August 2016.
Tourists heading back to their cars at Horseshoe Bend.
Some of the “free hugs” guys on Roosevelt Row at the November First Friday Artwalk in Phoenix.
A First Friday concert on Roosevelt Row, Phoenix, AZ.
On election night in Tucson, this guy saw me with my camera and asked (jokingly) if I wanted to take his picture. So I did, or at least tried to (I think he thought I wouldn’t take him up on it),
Young voters gather at a local bar near the university in Tucson while votes are counted, anxiously awaiting to find out who the next president would be.
Protestors against the Dakota Access Pipeline (among other things) descend upon Phoenix First Friday in December.
More protestors in Phoenix against the Dakota Access Pipeline in December 2016. Their fight would be one a day or two later.
Comedians warm up at the fire before the free comedy show behind Lawn Gnome Publishing in Phoenix.


Reflecting on Finding God in the Waves


I might never have heard of Science Mike (Mike McHargue) had I not already been a faithful listener of the RELEVANT Podcast where he’s invited over now and then to help settle debates or make us all smarter in general. That was where I first learned about his book, too: Finding God in the Waves: How I lost my faith and found it again through science.

Right away I knew I needed to read this book.

Of course, I’ve never had a problem reconciling science and faith. After all, my dad’s a man of faith and a man of science. He even has some impressive credentials with his undergraduate degree from MIT where he studied aeronautics and engineering before switching to the left coast and studying engineering and computer science at Stanford. His Ph.D. in computer science comes from a less prestigious university, but the point is, his brain is hardwired for science. I can’t remember a time when our kitchen table didn’t have publications such as Science, Astronomy, ACM, MIT Technology Review, etc. spread across it. On top of that, he’s always admired and respected Carl Sagan and eagerly purchased the box set of Cosmos almost as soon as it came out on DVD (along with such nerd, sci-fi classics as Star Trek the Original Series, The Hellstrom Chronicle, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and Contact).

My dad is also a man of faith and when I was growing up, he made sure we all went to church every Sunday. Granted he raised us in the Presbyterian church (PCUSA) which was one of the more “liberal” denominations where women could be ordained as ministers and doubts and questions were not discouraged. He spent many years as an elder or a deacon and frequently taught classes and/or led small groups.

Dad never saw the Bible and science as being at odds with one another because, as he put it, “If you want to learn about science, you read a science textbook. If you want to learn about God, you read the Bible.” He was an evolutionist as well. It wasn’t too much of a strain for him to believe the creation story wasn’t meant to be a literal account of how the world was made. And even now, if there is something he doesn’t know or understand, he isn’t afraid to say “I don’t know” and seek council from someone with more knowledge in the matter.

So when I first began learning about the New Atheist movement and meeting people who took real issue with anyone who claimed to be Christian but also claimed to believe in science, I was taken aback. What was so wrong with calling that which was beyond the realm of science God?

Unlike Mike, science didn’t kill my faith. Nonetheless, I had no trouble identifying with his loss of faith. Of course, my story is quite different and I’ve told it countless times over the years. I don’t think it needs to be told here (not yet at least).

When I publicly renounced my faith in 2006, I wrote an essay explaining why. I didn’t have a blog back then nor had I signed up for any sort of social media service. Instead I sent this to friends and family on my email list. It went something like this:

First and foremost I must send my apologies to the friends and family who strove for so long to guide me and mold me in the faith of their fathers. Although I know you did it with the best intentions, the time has arrived for me to move on, evolve, progress, and change. After careful consideration following years of indoctrination, I have at last come to the conclusion that I can no longer adhere to the old ways. That is to say, I can no longer call myself a Christian. Nor can I embrace any religion the world has to offer me. In the following discourse, I lay out the research and experiences that have led me to this conclusion.

I began my journey very pious in my faith. So much so, that I was certain only my beliefs were true and anything beyond them were of the devil. I observed the world from my comfortable certainty of a blissful afterlife and cried that so many would not be with me. My emotions, backed by a self-proclaimed loving church, drove me to tell others about what I had found, why I was so joyful, so blessed, and how they could be too. It saddened me to think that other religions had deceived their followers. It never occurred to me that I too had been deceived.

The problem was, I was lying even to myself. Truth be told, I had never experienced real joy as my parent church told me I would. Perhaps, I thought, that was coming in the afterlife. But even I couldn’t explain a loving God condemning his own creation to hell simply for not believing. I wondered, too, if that was where I should go.

Overtime I’ve been letting go of this black and white view of life and death. By and large, the people who have been the most caring in my world have been non-Christians. I remained pious as I transitioned from high school to university. That first year away from home I studied at a Christian school, but, as I moved on to a more liberal and secular university system, I came to understand that there was much more apprehension toward Christianity among those with a higher education than those without, sometimes stretching as far as anger.

I remember words of caution from my Christian friends as I told them I was transferring to a non-Christian school. They said my faith would be challenged as never before, so I must be ready to defend it. Don’t trust any source other than the Bible. Avoid taking courses on philosophy or religion at the university. Be well grounded in apologetics. Do not read material that is anti-Christian lest you give the devil a foothold.

That failed to strike me as odd until I began to branch out and encounter people with different faiths, cultures, and worldviews. All of a sudden it struck me that, if my faith were the one, true faith, then it should be able to withstand the onslaught of contradicting ideas. Oddly enough, I had pitied other religious groups for not reading literature that contradicted what they believed solely on the basis that they had been told anything written to bring down their church was bad. Now days I wonder how I ever did that without seeing how greatly I was contradicting myself.

Though my current train of thought can be largely attributed to discussions I’ve had with other people over the course of the past five years, there have been a few books recently that have also played a pivotal roll in shaping my worldview…

Contradictions between Christian churches also led me to dig deeper to unravel the secrets of the book and the religion that has shaped western civilization for nearly two millennia. It always boggled me how a religion that was supposedly peaceful still used words like “spiritual warfare” and “God’s army”. It also boggled me how a religion that was seemingly very attractive to women in the first century C.E. became one of the most oppressive religions the world has known.

I’m not angry for all those years of blind belief. However, the freedom I have now is far greater than the one promised to me by the church I was raised in. Therefore, I encourage everyone, no matter what your creed, to stop and question everything. Next time you partake of a sacrament or rise to sing a hymn, stop and ask yourself why you are doing so. Where did the words come from that you utter so mechanically during a service? If you were not raised in the your faith, would you still believe it?

As I look at world politics and the war on terror, I realize how quickly the world is decreasing in size. We can now contact someone on the other side of the world with the click of a mouse. The flow of information and ideas that we have access to now is unprecedented. I believe that is why fundamentalists are so frantic about guarding their way of life. However, change is on the horizon and no one can stop it.

… I want to thank all of you, because my way of thinking has been so deeply influenced by conversations with others, I can honestly say that there is not one among you who has not taught me something that has aided me in my journey. However, my journey is not over and hopefully neither is yours….

I obviously edited the above statement. I could’ve edited more but it felt so disrespectful to my younger-self to do so. She was really passionate when she wrote this. Of course, that was also a time when my tendency toward self-harm and suicide attempts was at its peak. Perhaps that’s why the following quote from Mike’s book struck me the way it did. He was responding to someone who was very critical of his return to faith and some of the things he’d been saying in public. Perhaps the person criticizing him felt betrayed in a way. Whatever the reason, Mike brought up an important point that I hadn’t thought of before but makes perfect sense to me.

“But if you follow my work, you know I’m not out to convince anyone of anything about God. My work is in response to suffering – there are people for whom the loss of God produces acute pain. Second, you’re right about everything you’ve said. My experience doesn’t prove anything to anyone – not even me.” (p. 139)

Two things stood out for me: the loss of God producing “acute pain” and a religious experience not being reliable proof for anyone, not even for the person who experienced it.

A few months ago I wrote a series of short monologues and one of them was about my desire to talk about Jesus. In the beginning of Mike’s book he writes about being a kind of social outcast (stereotypical “nerd” if you will) as a kid and God being like his friend, someone who was always there who he could talk to about anything.

That was how God was for me, too, especially when I entered my adolescence and didn’t feel like I could talk to my parents about most of the stuff going on inside of me. God was often my only friend and I could actually imagine him holding me while I wept because no one else was ever there to hold me. And this concept of God as my best friend carried over into my young adult years and played a crucial role in my first mental breakdown at age twenty-three, while I was studying abroad in France. Religious experience mixed with mania and psychosis if awfully hard to defend, especially if the experience was so impactful and so beautiful to you that you simply don’t want to chock it all up to some sort of brain malfunction. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

In mid-summer this past summer, I wrote this:

…In fact, to make this easier on all of us, I won’t call myself a “Christian.” It’s not like I belong to a church anyway. Why would I tell you to do something I don’t even do?

Just go ahead and call Jesus my imaginary friend because to talk to someone you can’t see or hear requires a bit of imagination. Call me stupid, irrational, spineless, and childish if you wish but I’ve been trying to cope with being alone for a long time now. It’s not easy when you’ve never quite felt like you belonged anywhere. My closest friends, even my own family, don’t “get” me most of the time. But this Jesus fellow, he gets me. He knows me better than I know myself.

So why don’t you humor me a bit because I don’t have a close friend or a lover anymore. I don’t have someone in my life with whom I feel comfortable enough to share everything. But this Jesus guy, my “imaginary friend” if you will, is all of that and even though I can’t hear an audio voice or feel his physical arms around me when I need someone to comfort me, I still sometimes sense he’s there and it brings me peace.

That’s what I want to talk about, but I won’t because I love having you for a friend and I really don’t want to scare you away.

I did not realize it at the time but much of my “pain” when I abandoned my faith was directly linked to the loss of my best friend and, at times, my only friend: God.

Books fed my doubt when I turned away from my faith. But my return to faith was also fed by literature. I have a tendency to read a book and think the author and I could be best friends. Mike McHargue refers to Donald Miller and Rob Bell, two of the authors who helped me return to faith as well and both of whom I’ve also met. But, unlike Mike, I don’t know how to talk to people I admire when I meet them in real life. With both Bell and Miller I became completely tongue-tied and I think I said something really stupid. I met Rob Bell fairly recently so I can say for a fact that it all went downhill after I mumbled something along the lines of “I don’t know how to talk to celebrities.” But, at least my discomfort and embarrassment made him laugh. If Science Mike ever does a signing here in the Phoenix area, I’ll probably just write a note and hand it to him. It’s so much easier than actually talking.

By the way, I love Mike’s advice for how church people should handle doubt:

“If you’re a Christian who wonders what to do with someone who’s in doubt, consider these words carefully: Love and grace speak loudly. The first and best response to someone whose faith is unraveling is a hug. Apologetics aren’t helpful. Neither are Scripture references. The first thing a hurting person needs is to know they’re not alone.

“My path back to God was paved with grace by those who received my doubt in love.” (p. 119)

Returning to church has been a bit of a challenge for me. No offense to Mike, but I think it’s probably easier if you’re married with children. My quest for a church home is much more difficult when I’m searching alone. And then I have the mental illness thing plaguing me. I once tried to go to seminary but I was too afraid to tell them I had bipolar disorder. I was too afraid to tell them my experience with God was basically dismissed by everyone because it was mixed with mania and psychosis. Hyper-religiosity was the name the psychiatrists gave to it and ever since it happened, my life has been derailed. I was told I couldn’t live and serve in a developing nations if I was taking psyche medicine. I was told most missions or humanitarian organizations would reject me because I’m basically a liability. What a foolish idea to think that I could serve God or even encourage other people to serve God when I’m severely mentally ill!

But I miss being part of a faith community. I suppose I’ll have to drive farther than I’d like to find one but I love Mike McHargue’s list of what a church should be.

“When it comes to finding a congregation you can serve as part of, there are two things you have to look for: a church that is safe and a church that will challenge you. You should find a church that can share or accept your views on evolution, same-sex marriage, social justice, and environmental concerns; that’s part of what makes it safe. Your church should affirm you and accept you exactly as you are, should celebrate how you were made and how you’ve grown, and should tend to your wounds and love you as you heal. But it can’t stop there.

“Your church also has to challenge you to become all you can become. It should comfort you, but it shouldn’t let you get too comfortable. The people of your church should challenge rote thinking and decision making and prompt you to put your ideas into love action – to embody the Gospel with hands made dirty by work in the world. The congregation should empower you to serve the world with grace and to see that world with ever-more-loving eyes.

“I’d go so far as to say it should make you become more like Jesus, but don’t tell anyone I said that.” (p. 223)

Anyway, all this is to say, I thank God for Mike McHargue and I’m so glad he shared his story. I’m going to give my copy away, but not as an evangelical tool. I have more friends who are skeptics than I have friends who are believers but they’ve been handed books and tracts from so many well-meaning religious folk that they just don’t care anymore. They’ve heard hateful words from street-corner preachers and have had door-to-door salesmen hang religious flyers on their doorknobs or ring their doorbells in an attempt to force religious beliefs upon them face-to-face. Therefore, if a skeptic friend wants my copy of this book, he or she need only ask. I have only one copy but I will pay the postage to send this copy anywhere in the world. That’s how important I think it is.



Dear Old Friend….

My Dear Old Friend,

Do you remember me? We’re still friends, right? Although, I guess that all depends on how you define “friend.”

(above: A mix of mostly my voice from childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood followed by a clip from Matt Marvane’s single “Un coin de paradis”– “I wish you happiness…The perfume of life is so good this day when you’ve found a reason to exist…I wish you happiness….” Matt Marvane (translated by me))

Anyway, I’ve always considered you a friend. Even when I barely knew you I knew I’d do anything for you. I don’t know if you felt the same about me. But who cares? I was happy when you were near and I think I’d still be happy if I could only see you again, even if just for a moment.

Of course, as time went on, our paths diverged. I mean, we started out as equals. We were both in the same year of college after all. But somewhere along the way you managed to harness your gifts and earned respectability while I squandered mine. You boldly chased your dreams while I self-sabotaged. And now here we are, still running the race only you’re so far ahead of me I can’t even see you anymore. Once more, you’ve taken the crowds with you. There’s no one left to cheer me on aside from a few retirees who are really only there because they’re related to me (or maybe they just pity me).


You know, one of the reasons I decided to live was because I sucked at dying and each failed suicide attempt pushed you further away. The more I relied on you to bandage my wounds, the less you wanted to see me. And even though I really needed a friend, I forgot how to be a friend. I can see that very clearly now. But at the time, my emotions blinded me.

It was when dying consumed my waking thoughts that friends like you began dropping from my life at an unprecedented rate.

Most of you chose simply to stop answering my calls, texts, and emails, hoping I’d take the hint and leave you alone. And after all these years, I’ve actually had the chance to experience being on the other side. I know it’s the easy way out and I’ve done it too, but that doesn’t mean it’s the right way to handle things.


I may have thought of us as friends, but I could tell in your eyes, I ceased being a friend when the world began to revolve around me and I no longer asked about you. It was before I learned to offer hugs, asking for them instead (can I have a hug?). I needed constant validation. I can’t do this. I’ll never be able to do that. I suck at this. There’s no point in trying anymore. I was so needy that if now-me would’ve met then-me, I’d probably have abandoned me too.

But there was one friend, and only one friend, who ended it right; who cared enough to formally “break-up” with me. She broke up over the phone because she was too far away to do it in person, but we talked for at least an hour. In that time, she told me this was only temporary, a year at most. She loved me, she said. But she was not emotionally capable of handling my self-harm and suicide attempts at the moment. I mean, for God’s sake, I’d been hospitalized twice in one week for drug overdoses! The first of which she’d been there for and she’d witnessed me telling the nurses I wasn’t going to do this again. I’d lied right in front of her – although I’d lied to myself too. I really did believe what I said.

So she said goodbye and of course I cried. Of course I was miserable. I was miserable for a long time but at least I understood. At least she told me how she felt instead of leaving me in the dark as everyone else, including you, had done.


Fast-forward many years until now and guess what? Many years of talk-therapy and psychiatric medicine have actually helped a lot. Furthermore, it turns out the friend who “broke-up” with me had inadvertently done me a huge favor. She became the voice for all of you and in so doing, she guided me to where I needed to go if I wanted to have any friends at all.

Wasn’t the advent of social media amazing? During the MySpace vs. Facebook wars the word “friend” became a verb and lost much of its original meaning. I kind of wish we had more than one word for “friend” like the French do. When I was in France, I always referred to my “friends” as “amis.” But the French frequently use the word “copin” for “friend” as well. The difference between “amis” and “copins” was simply a matter of how important that person was to you. “Amis” is the stronger term although the French Facebook uses that as well so maybe it too has lost a bit of its meaning in recent years.


I have over 200 “friends” on Facebook which isn’t a lot compared to some of those friends’ friends. Some have an upward range of a thousand or more. For the most part, my criteria for “friending” people on Facebook is simple (with a few exceptions). If I’ve met you face to face at least once and I like you, I’ll add you as a friend.


I remember the early days when I’d receive friend requests from former high school and college mates who I hadn’t seen in years. We’d message one another and catch up a little bit and I’d naively try and arrange miniature reunions with those who lived nearby. But even with my own car and lots of flexibility when it came to time, few people took me up on the offer. Of the two or three people who did, only one still hangs out with me at all. Everyone else just piled on the excuses. Their passiveness sent me one clear message: We’ve moved on. We don’t want you in our lives.

Pixilated-PartyAt least you and many others could use the excuse of distance. We can’t travel across oceans at a moment’s notice. Although it wouldn’t kill us to Skype now and then but I won’t pressure you, lest you prove my fears to be true. (It’s not that you can’t talk with me – it’s that you won’t talk with me)

I almost feel like it’s easier to find someone to date than it is to find a friend in this day and age. I prefer guy-friends most of the time. They’re much less dramatic than us women and they don’t want to waste their time shopping for clothes or doing makeovers. Gay guys are the best because they don’t pose a threat to me and, even if I do develop a little crush on one of them, it’s already quite clear that our relationship will never go beyond the platonic level and I can easily get over such a crush. Straight guys can stay in the friend-zone as long as they’re single, but if they are looking (and not looking for me), it becomes kind of sketchy once they do begin a relationship with someone else. But, if I’m a true friend, I’ll do my best to befriend his significant other too. Usually that’s not hard if he finds a good match to begin with. I’m not referring to a guy who’s at the “best friend” level, mind you. If I met a guy who I considered my best friend and he saw me as his best friend too, I’d definitely want to marry him. But that just hasn’t happened yet, at least not for me.


Anyway, the point is, I need a friend, a true friend, and they’re so hard to come by these days! You’re as great a friend as you can be from far away but I need to find someone here.

Here’s what I expect in a friend and the kind of friend I aspire to be:

  • First and foremost, a true friend must be honest at all times, even when the truth hurts. Not even a “little white lie” will be tolerated.
  • Someone who lives within a reasonable driving distance and owns a car (this is Phoenix, after all).
  • Someone I can see often and who I look forwarded to seeing.
  • Someone who doesn’t share all the same the same interests as me, but with whom I have enough in common that we can genuinely enjoy our time together.
  • Someone with whom I can laugh uncontrollably but I also feel comfortable enough to cry with.
  • Someone who is secure enough to admit being wrong once in awhile.
  • Someone who may not share the same faith as me but who let’s me talk about my faith sometimes because it’s important to me.
  • Someone who loves me just as am and doesn’t expect me to change but always encourages me to grow.
  • Someone who loves books.
  • Someone who knows how to actively listen.
  • Someone to just be silly with.

Did I Predict My Own Future?


I wrote this in my diary on March 22, 1999, two months shy of my high school graduation. I was 19-years-old. Now, more than 17 years later, it’s eery how much this entry mirrors my current situation. It’s a little frightening too because it begs the question: is this all I was ever meant for? And yet the very last line takes it a step further exploring whether or not my lot in life is unique or is there someone, somewhere who might truly understand me.

This book has come to be a great consolation to me. When something is heavily burdening me, I’ve come here to talk to God, myself, and to think. Here is a place where my words are truly mine and no one else’s. I’m not judged in any way nor interrupted. I’m at peace and I very much wish I’d taken the time to fill in the empty days. There are so many memories worth sharing! I only wish I’d taken the time to write them. My life is not that hectic.

A rather disturbing feeling of laziness has fallen upon me. I want to leap up and run, but I seem to lack the energy. I suffer from no illness so I’ve concluded it’s entirely in my head.

I’ve also found myself annoyed at almost everyone who’s attempted to talk to me. This is anything but a Christian attitude and I’m frustrated with the fact that I cannot find its source.

This is all very hard for me. I constantly struggle to find my self-worth while I listen to praises from [my boyfriend] and my parents. I’m so scared to suddenly be thrust out into the “real world” and not have a single ability to survive on; to find every man I think I’m in love with turns out to be “Mr. Wrong;” to be alone with no best friends, no husband, no future.

I’m not a born-leader. I make too many mistakes. I fall short somehow in almost everything I attempt.

This is enough! Dwelling on my faults is making me depressed. I must pray and listen to what God has to say. These fears will subside [after while], I know. But they won’t go away permanently. I wonder, am I the only one who feels this way?

Disappearing from the Crowd


I can’t really remember it. I only know it happened because a younger version of me reminded me of it. Besides, I know what I was like back then. I know how unsure of myself I felt when I was in a crowd. Occasionally I’d pretend I was bold and perform for the crowd by singing a song or speaking my thoughts aloud, even if they sounded better in my head. But the crowd’s lack of enthusiasm always forced me back into my shell.

That’s not entirely true. Occasionally my singing would win over one or two people, enough to make me not give up on it entirely. I mean, I even wrote a high school essay about how I walked home feeling particularly sad one day and, in passing my old elementary school, one of the old 6th grade teachers saw me and said hi. He couldn’t remember my name, of course, but he remembered that I was from Texas and that I could sing. And then in a flash my mood switched from depressed to hopeful. If my voice left such a lasting impression on him…never mind.

But like any gift, there were people who loved it and people who just didn’t care. And the apathetic ones had the greatest power over me.

In group situations where I felt overwhelmed or embarrassed or simply unwanted, I would often succumb to the urge to disappear. And why not? If I truly believed that my presence was a hindrance to the happiness of the group, wasn’t I doing us all a favor by simply fading away?

It’s hard to remember that many specific instances, probably because they happened so often that they all kind of bleed together as one. At church camp in Texas, when I was about 10, I followed the girls in my cabin on a raid of the boys’ side of the cabin. Armed with pillows, we pounded at the door but the only guys in the cabin were counselors and they decided to roll down the windows and call for help. I got scared and slipped into our side of the cabin and under the bed before anyone noticed. The rest of the girls received a stern lecture and only once after several minutes did a counselor ask where I was. The other girls weren’t sure but at least one replied that I was probably in the bathroom and it was left at that. When the coast was clear I finally crawled out from my hiding place, eyes red from tears. I wasn’t a rule-breaker by nature and that emotion, the thing that made me hide in terror, was the reason why. That situation was supposed to be fun and we had the indirect support of our own counselors, but it didn’t matter. Pillow-fighting was, apparently, nothing less than criminal behavior.

Fast-forward four or five years and I’m at a local water park in Arizona with a friend’s church group. It’s night time and the only one or two people I know have gone off on their own adventure, leaving me behind. I wander around the park and take on a couple of water slides alone until all my joy fades. Then I just walk around in the dark, sad and alone. The church has rented out the venue. There are groups of kids laughing and splashing water at each all around. But they don’t see me. No one sees me. I wonder if I’ve finally learned how to become invisible.

When it’s finally time to leave, I see the two people I knew, the ones I call “friends” and we greet one another. But they don’t seem to understand this loneliness I’ve been carrying with me. I choose not to tell them either. Why should I ruin their evening by guilt-tripping them into acting like friends? The pain is probably all I deserve anyway.

The only other instance I remember with clarity happened during my 10-week tour with the Continentals in 1998. I felt so deeply misunderstood that summer and yet in the last days of the tour, I’d learn from more than one person that this was largely my fault. It was obvious to my tour companions that something was bothering me but since I was unwilling to talk about it, there was nothing they could do to help.

Most of the people on that tour fell into one click or another and only a couple of us were more or less outcasts. And maybe it was wrong to think like this, but I felt like if my only companion was the other outcast or no one at all, then I would much rather be alone. It was more painful for me to fake a friendship than to have no friends at all.

That tour is a story in and of itself, but when I heard the recording I transcribed the other day (from April 2003), I had to completely take a step back. What do I still remember from that day I that I remembered 13 years ago but not now?

The 2001-’02 school year was kind of a year of celebration, at least for the international students and everyone I lived with. Among our many causes for celebration were birthdays which included door-decorating, homemade cards, a favorite alcoholic beverage, and, occasionally, gifts and a small gathering of friends.

For my birthday, the French guys and the English guy came together and bought me a copy of Bilbo le Hobbit so as to encourage me in both my French and Tolkien studies. They gave me a card too. I also received a pair of “chirping cicadas” as a gift from the guy from South France. The French girl made me a card written (mostly) in French. The Swiss girl bought me some “Hooch.” My roommates made me a Lord of the Rings – themed card and I think we had a small party. Yet, in the midst of it all, I decided to step outside and wander off for a bit.

It was dark but the darkness didn’t frighten me back then and I’m sure I thought my absence would go largely unnoticed, despite the fact the party was for me. And even without a perfect memory, I can play out the scene quite well.

I know I stepped out of that room feeling useless and unwanted. I know I somehow believed that regardless of where I was or what I did, it didn’t matter to anyone there. When at last one of the girls finally came looking for me, I’m sure I told her no more than a half-truth. I’m sure I thought that my excuse for leaving would make no sense to her or anyone else.

Often time I attended the French chatters’ group in Flagstaff, despite the fact that my French was so feeble back then I’d usually be forced to remain silent the whole time. But I still thought the exposure was good for me and I was even able to persuade some of the French students to come along now and then, so we could have a few native speakers in the mix.

Blaise came once on a night when none of the others could make it. I hadn’t expected him to actually come. Serge and Amélie were much more likely to join but neither of them were there last night. Just him, a couple of French professors, and some community members.

He bought me a drink, another rarity for him. I knew he had a girlfriend so I never expected him to act very chivalrous with me. We chatted for a bit in English before the French group officially began then, when gathered at a table and everyone was in French-speaking mode, I began to zone out and the urge to depart took over.

I started to rise from my spot as discretely as possible but I hadn’t quite achieved invisibility because Blaise notice me and asked me where I was going. I felt a little teary-eyed but hoped he wouldn’t notice.

I’m going home. I said.

Why? Is everything ok?

I’m fine. I lied. I just feel like going home, that’s all.

Wait! I will walk with you.

No, I don’t need you to walk me. I like to walk alone. I’ll be fine. I lied again.

There was nothing to fear from walking home alone at night in 2002. Even before I owned a cell phone, the city was well-lit and there were enough people on the streets to keep me feeling safe all the way from downtown to my dorm. The only person who posed a danger to me was me.

Why I Want to Share My Story


Why do you want to tell your story?

I want to tell my story because it’s an interesting story but also one that’s haunted me ever since it happened – even before, come to think of it, because I actually began writing my life story in my Mozart journal while I was on the train from Salzburg to Innsbruck. I didn’t really have any other motive for doing so other than this desire to simply kill time. Besides, my real journal was only in French, unless you count my generic emails I sent regularly to a massive amount of people whether they asked for them or not. Really I just missed writing in my own language. I’m just not completely sure as to why I chose an autobiographical narrative. Maybe it was because my traveling companion and I were starting to get on each other’s nerves. Just before we left Munich for Salzburg she and I had gotten into a stupid little spat over whether or not I had the right to call myself “American” since Mexicans and Canadians were technically “Americans” too (that is, if you grew up with the “6 continent” concept as opposed to the “7 continents” I was raised with) She did not believe in separating North American from South America and nothing I said would change her mind. I started to cry but she remained steadfast in her belief and so I began to question myself. I couldn’t call myself an Arizonan because I wasn’t born there. I couldn’t call myself a New Yorker because, although I was born there, I didn’t grow up there. As far as referring to myself as “United Statesien,” that simply did not sound right. So I began to have a kind of identity crises.

My travelling companion (let’s call her Amélie because that’s the first French film I saw in the cinema) had begun to be visibly irritated with me when we were staying at her friend’s house in Paris. I failed to remove my shoes when we entered the guest room and Amélie was furious because I left footprints all over the cream-colored carpet. We searched frantically for something to clean up the mess with. I apologized over and over again. Later I made it worse by insisting on speaking French when I still had a very limited vocabulary and thus couldn’t hold an intelligent conversation. Whereas Amélie’s English was perfect and if I’d just allow her to use it, she wouldn’t have to suffer through all the awkward silence.

I wanted to be like Amélie. Blaise had told me not to be like her but how could anyone not want to be like her? She was smart, bold, and confident. She always managed to find new people to talk with. Like that time we were at an Irish pub in San Francisco. We sat down to listen to the music and then she disappeared. When I finally went to look for her, there she was sitting with three Irish lads, I mean straight-off-the-boat-from-Ireland Irish lads. Apparently she was wandering around after she’d gone to the restroom, saw an empty space at their table, and invited herself to join in. Such encounters were normal for her. One of the first nights of our European travels she disappeared until morning without a word. When she returned, she couldn’t understand why I was angry with her. She’d had a wonderful night because she’d lived in the moment and followed her heart. She came back at daybreak alive. What’s wrong with that?

Later I saw some of the drawbacks to Amélie’s lifestyle, most notably how, when you give your heart to someone too freely, you set yourself up for heartbreak. Amélie frequently fell in love during our travels but just as often she’d be a poor judge of character and return heart-broken. Blaise was friends with Amélie and it was clear to him how very different she and I were. But he cared about me. He just wanted to look after me as an older brother looks after his sister.

But I digress. My story changed later that year. I went from being someone with a relatively clean past to someone with a story so stigmatized I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be able to recover from it. The story was no longer just a series of things I’d seen or done. I’d been the recipient of something which, to me, was very spiritual and full of mysticism. God, who’d always been a part of my life, became more real to me than I ever thought possible. But then, when I returned Stateside, the psychiatrists slapped me with the label “bipolar” and told me God might not have been there after all, at least not in the way I thought he was. They used the term “hyper-religiosity” and chalked it all up to manic delusions, euphoria, and hallucinations. I was hurt and traumatized. It would take me years to overcome this.

My friends are already tired of my story. Six months after I returned home from France, even Amélie, who’d gone above and beyond the call of duty to help me when I was in the mental hospital there, was mystified as to how I still wasn’t over it.

Anyway, the whole thing definitely stunted my development into adulthood. I had so many dreams, mostly of living abroad, maybe even joining the Peace Corps, but those dreams were quickly crushed when a Christian counselor told me point blank that most missions organizations won’t take anyone who has a serious mental illness – at least not in the long term. I might be able to do short-term work but, especially in parts of the world where there’s little to no access to the medicine I need, I’m basically a liability.

Well, if you want to foster suicidal ideation in someone who’s just been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, that’s how you do it. Just tell them in no uncertain terms that everything they always dreamed of doing is now completely out of reach.

So I started writing a new story. I was twenty-three when I began jotting down this memoir. I figured, why not? It’s an interesting story. Besides, writing was my principle coping mechanism in France, both in Montpellier and at the mental hospital in Thuir. I had my journals, I sent bulk email updates (that my dad so thoughtfully saved for me). To my closest friends and family I sent handwritten letters and postcards. Then, to my best friend and my parents, I’d send “talking letters” (a.k.a. cassette tapes of me talking). Writing was such a natural thing for me I figured I could easily take it a step further and write something for the masses.

I think there was also this part of me that thought writing a book that people would actually want to read would help me feel more understood and secure a place in the world for me. I still feel so very insignificant and alone in this world. But at least I no longer want to die and my newest attempt at sharing my story will reflect that.

In short, I want to connect with people. I’ve never connected with anyone more than I have the people I’ve been hospitalized with. Even in the foreign mental hospital where we all spoke French, we connected somehow. In fact, my entire diary from that hospital experience is basically a reflection of what I saw and what I felt in response to the other people I met. I learned more in the almost three weeks I spent in the Thuir hospital than any other hospital experience I’ve had since.

That’s all I got for now.

Interpreting Tears



Last night I was greatly encouraged and inspired by Rob Bell when he came to talk and sign books at our local bookstore. It would’ve been even better had I not been preoccupied with the incident that occurred just before he came. See, my friend and I were looking for a place to sit and I sat right next to this person who I knew was a local author and tried to strike up a conversation based on the totally cool t-shirt she was wearing. Then she and my friend pointed out to me that the seat I was in was reserved and I had to move.

I was humiliated and so I tried to outwardly make light of it but inside I began to feel that familiar heaviness and the urge to run away would have overtaken me had my friend not been there to ground me a little bit.

They’ve probably already forgotten it, she said and I knew she was right. But that didn’t stop the tears from escaping and, since I knew this was not an appropriate thing to cry over, I discretely wiped them away, one by one. It’s okay for a child to be upset over such an embarrassment but a grownup? I should’ve moved passed those kind of emotions long ago.

Tears-1998Tears don’t seem to function for me the way they do for most people, though. I remember church camp when I was a teenager and that one night towards the end when the speaker would invite everyone to surrender their lives to Christ and then we’d break into our individual church groups where everybody would be crying. It came to be so expected at church camp that when I returned as a counselor in 2004, it’d been dubbed “cry night.”

But I didn’t normally cry on “cry night.” I’d maybe cry every single night but cry night, though, whether my peers and counselors were aware of it or not. It’s just when everyone else broke down, my tears seemed to dry up. But hey, at least I was free to comfort them without the need to be comforted as well.

Being diagnosed with bipolar disorder when I was 23 provided some explanation for my extreme emotions but still left a few unanswered questions. For instance, my suicide attempts were usually not linked with strong emotions. Sometimes I’d cut my wrists when I was feeling nothing at all. I was kind of cathartic in those moments and self-injury sometimes calmed me. That’s when the doctors decided to make borderline personality disorder my Axis II diagnosis. Annoying as the label was, it made me eligible for dialectic behavioral therapy (DBT) where I was taught to be less judgmental of self and others and to practice mindfulness.

DBT had homework assignments built into it. We had to practice each new skill we learned and then talk about it the following week in group therapy. I wasn’t necessarily the best student. Just like back in my university days I was scatterbrained. I wanted to learn everything so I could be a productive member of society and so I could make and keep friends but I couldn’t quite find the mental strength to fight for those things.

At least I stopped self-harming and the suicidal thoughts almost completely disappeared. Meanwhile my medication was working and aside from a few undesirable side-effects, I felt pretty good.


But the crying spells still manage to creep up on me now and then and I’m quite sure they have nothing to do with the bipolar disorder because they’re brief and triggered by very specific circumstances.

When I was a child, authoritative figures had a lot of power over me. Maybe that’s why I behaved so well at work and school. When Mrs. W, my fourth grade teacher, visited with her new baby, we had a small party with her and I joked with my classmates about how she was my teacher to which her replacement, Mrs. R, said, oh no, Clara, don’t say that. She’s everybody’s teacher. And I immediately started to cry.

I didn’t mean it like that, I said through my tears. I was just kidding, I didn’t mean to say anything wrong.

The teachers reassured me that everything was fine but the tears had already surfaced and there was no disguising the depth of my remorse.

Fast-forward to university and not a single professor could confront me about missing assignments or low grades without provoking tears. In one class an assistant professor called on me to answer a question when no one would raise their hands and I answered best I could. However, my answer was unpopular and being forced to say anything at all brought tears to my eyes. Fellow students who passed me on the way out actually stopped to console me saying we know that’s not what you really thought. You were just under pressure.

Let’s not forget my work-related problems. I don’t think there’s a single boss I’ve had who’s never seen me cry. Even when I knew the news would not be good, I couldn’t prepare myself enough to hear it.

So why has this happened as recently as last night? What am I still hanging on to?

I went to see the Rend Collective on my birthday this year. They were playing in Portland so I used it as an excuse to see my best friend as well. Now I haven’t been to a concert in a long time so I’m not fully schooled on proper concert etiquette. The venue did not have seats so everyone was forced to stand for the whole concert and ticket prices were the same for everyone. That meant that if you wanted a good spot, you had to arrive early. But I didn’t realize that also meant I’d have to stay in the back the whole night. I thought the absence of chairs meant I could move around so I did only to be scolded by another attendee who said, you can’t move forward because some of these people came four hours early just to have their spots.

I apologized and moved to the back again. I moved quickly too because I felt the onset of tears the second she told me I’d messed up. I can’t cry over this. This is stupid.

My friend and I took a walk outside so I could cool off in the fresh air. It was raining but the rain felt wonderful and masked my tears quite well.

Last Fall I went to the National Geographic Multimedia Storytelling Workshop in Santa Fe and there were many tears that week! They didn’t come all at once but by the third day they were unstoppable. My assignment partner seemed to be scolding me for not pulling my weight and instead of discussing it like an adult, I ran out of the room to a solitary spot and wept freely.

Later, when the tears had subsided and I was more composed, she addressed my reaction to her words. She said she felt she was walking on eggshells with me and I didn’t know what to say in return. I wanted to tell the truth but the stigma accompanying mental illness is still quite strong, especially with the older generations. So I decided to tell her I have a mood disorder and that my emotions are kind of difficult to control sometimes. I assured her that it was nothing she said.

That was a lie, of course. I may not have realized it but I was lying to both of us. What she said did trigger an emotional reaction but since I wasn’t even fully aware of what was going on, I couldn’t exactly describe it, even to myself. Mood disorder was all I could muster and at least it didn’t feel like a lie.

I think it all boils down to my lack of self-worth. I won’t go into why it exists but I’ve never quite had the confidence it takes to achieve any of my dreams. I started college as a vocal performance major. I loved singing on stage but when I moved up to the college level I began to feel like I wasn’t good enough and lost the courage to audition for choir solos. In retrospect I probably wouldn’t have made much money as a singer anyway but the reason I dropped the major had more to do with how little I believed in myself.

And that essentially is how therapy works. We start by identifying the problem and then take it from there. I think I know where to focus my energy now.

To be continued….



Touched With Bipolar Disorder


IMG_0650 (2)

I’ll never forget my first manic episode, at least not my first full-blown one. That was the one that slapped me with the label “mentally ill” for the rest of the life. It was the one I’d spend years recovering from because it involved an involuntary hospitalization . I was in France, you see, and the police were part of the story as well as an ambulance and nurses holding me down in bed while they injected me with the medicine I’d refused earlier (because I didn’t believe I was sick). I was ultimately repatriated.

Once I returned home I received the “bipolar” label. The psychiatrist who first gave it to me understood my doubts and trust issues so she urged me to go to the library and look up the diagnostic information; see for myself whether or not it fit.

So I did and my “magical” manic experience began to unfold. There was a reason I hadn’t seen the warning signs. All those symptoms had slipped under the radar because I was “happy” and never saw any danger. But in hindsight, it was all there: racing thoughts, reduced need for sleep, loss of appetite, an abundance of energy, delusions of grandeur, paranoia, psychosis – and, if the memories weren’t evidence enough, I’d inadvertently kept a diary of everything as well. I could actually see changes in my handwriting, not to mention the deterioration of my written thoughts. Even in the hospital I managed to keep a relatively consistent diary of sorts and I could trace my return to a more realistic way of thinking after the forced introduction of anti-psychotics to my system.

Just saying I accepted my diagnosis was not enough to make me really accept it. Mania, after all, made me feel special, like I had a purpose in life. When it went away, I was desperate to find meaning again. I read Kay Jamison’s book Touched With Fire as well as her memoir An Unquiet Mind and I was both encouraged and troubled by them. I felt as though my level of creativity should be on par with Sylvia Plath, Dylan Thomas, T.S. Eliot, Victor Hugo and Virginia Woolf. What use was having these emotional gifts if I couldn’t publish a book or write a hit song?

I went through seasons of not taking my meds, just as the characters in the film Touched With Fire did. I wanted the mania to return but it was impossible to recreate the conditions that brought it on in the first place, a least not for me. Abandoning my medications more often than not led to depression. That’s when the suicide attempts became more frequent and from then on, depression and self-harm rather than mania, became my ticket to the psychiatric hospital.

I watched Touched With Fire through the lens of my own psychiatric hospital experiences as well as my memories of mania and depression. I was never one to pursue romantic relationships with fellow patients. Such relations were strongly discouraged if not forbidden, but they still happened. We’re human after all.

The hospital in the movie didn’t seem very realistic to me. It was very clean with far too many items available to the patients that should have been contraband. Metal forks, for instance, or even access to a kitchen area with an oven and stove, all seemed very unsafe. Also, the art supplies included sharpened pencils and the books themselves, being hardcover, would have been banned in number of facilities. I thought having those concrete stairs in the facility was a safety hazard too.

I realize that this was probably set in a private hospital since the two main characters seem to come from affluent families and receive a lot of financial support from their parents. At the same time the only two patients who seemed to have high IQs were the protagonists themselves. The others appear to suffer from intellectual disabilities as well as whatever mood disorder they might have been diagnosed with. It really annoyed me when things became a little too serious between Carla and Marco and the doctors and nurses went all One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest on them. I mean, this is the 21st century. Aren’t we supposed to be fighting mental illness stigma? Why are we taking this step back?

As for relationships between two people with bipolar disorder, I don’t know how many have actually worked out in real life, but I’m optimistic. I mean, if both parties understand their illness, take their meds as prescribed, and keep all their psychiatric appointments, then I don’t see why a relationship couldn’t work. It’s the whole “having a baby” bit that bothers me. You see, a woman with bipolar disorder has to stop her meds if she’s going to become pregnant because psych meds can harm a developing fetus. That means, ideally, her pregnancy should be well-planned because she needs to be closely monitored by her psychiatrist. It’s a risky decision, but not impossible. Men with bipolar disorder have it easier when it comes to fathering a child since they don’t have to actually carry the baby for nine months.

I felt like the other family members in the film were very supportive. Their main challenge seemed to be showing their children they were on their side and only wanted the best for them. Those of us with bipolar disorder often feel misunderstood especially by loved ones who want the best for us. I loved how Carla and Marco believed they were from another planet. In fact, I was overjoyed when Marco gave Carla a copy of The Little Prince because I had a copy of that in France and I’d seen the musical by Richard Cocciante and Elisabeth Anaïs in Paris. When I lived alone in France, I played the CD recording from the show frequently because it was soothing and I completely understood the other-worldliness of Le Petit Prince himself. So I suppose if I felt like I was from another world and so did the main characters in Touched With Fire, then this must be kind of a common feeling for all of us who have bipolar disorder. What do you think?