Category Archives: alcohol

“invisible driving”: a memoir of mania and depression

here, finally, is a review long promised, of alister mcharg’s extraordinary memoir, invisible driving. this book, says alistair,

reads with the urgency of a novel. my work delivers a wild and hilarious thrill ride through the misunderstood, phantasmagorical world of manic depression, providing both a visceral sense of the experience and a thoughtful context for understanding it. while other books have described the surrealistic circus, invisible driving takes readers along so they can smell the sawdust for themselves.

alistair mcharg spent his early years in edinburgh and amsterdam, moving to philadelphia with his father, ian, and mother, pauline, at age six. he attended germantown friends school, haverford college, and the university of louisville. the prestige of an M.A.. in creative writing enabled mcharg to secure employment with one of philadelphia’s least reputable cab companies, providing the background for his first novel, moonlit tours. other forays into dead-end employment have included deckhand on a norwegian tramp freighter, forest fire fighter in alaska, and guide at a canadian wilderness survival camp. alistair has been arranging words for a living since 1983. apart from invisible driving, he has written countless poems, hundreds of movie and book reviews, and an ever-growing catalog of cartoons. his second novel, washed up, was released last year.

what follows is a conversation we had last tuesday.

moritherapy: what do you like best about your book?

alistair mcharg: the writing itself, the way it puts readers inside the experience of mania. (and of course, the humor.)

moritherapy: have you found people who are/were interested in the literature aspect of your book? actually, that sounds a little strange – “literature aspect.” the way i read it, your book is literature, and it is about the topic of bipolar illness. thoughts?

alistair mcharg: i totally agree with your description. it is a memoir first. in essence it is a coming of age story about facing demons, battling them, and becoming a man – a human being – in the process. the landscape where that battle plays out is manic depression. the people that don’t get it are the ones who don’t realize that the manic narrative is there to put readers inside the experience of a manic episode – you have to surrender to it to get the true benefit. – i have indeed found many readers who appreciate it as literature – rather unorthodox literature.

moritherapy: there is a rhythm to your book that is clearly there but hard to pin down. it sure isn’t a simple little polka. in the beginning you seem to have a “crazy” chapter taking turns with a “normal” one; then the manic and the normal (if i may use that word) start to take turns within the chapters, then two or three chapters in a row are wild and woolly, etc. etc. can you say something about that? to what degree is that a stylistic device, and to what degree does it echo your experience? can the two be separated at all?

alistair mcharg: the manic chapters came first. then a literary agent said that there needed to be “depth” – a second voice that was sane, reliable, and recovered. i rewrote the entire book several times. i now see she was so right – the chapters in the recovered voice provide the background – the psychological architecture. the reader finds out why i was vulnerable – what the triggers were – and what was significant about how i acted out. yes the point/counterpoint is very deliberate. (you would think that the wild, manic chapters would have been hardest to write – but the sane ones were much harder – more soul searching of real things.)

moritherapy: actually, to me, imagining writing the book, it felt that the manic ones were the ones that were written with more ease. perhaps that is because i was frankly flabbergasted how much i could relate to a lot of what you wrote. i think that’s what first drew me in. i knew exactly what you were talking about, even though my bipolar experiences are extremely mild. i’m still astonished at that.

alistair mcharg: interesting. maybe the bipolar experience is essentially the same, and what varies is the degree. it is a very nice compliment that the writing registered with you. (when i gave the manuscript to my psychiatrist he said he had to put it down now and then because it was making him manic!) i can’t say that they were written in ease – recreating the pitch of mania, the quicksilver logic twisting and slipping, the bobbing and weaving, energy, raw creative force – when i was squarely back on earth – slightly depressed – took a tremendous amount of labor and craft – craft i didn’t know i had until i attempted it.

moritherapy: i was wondering about the mood you were in when you wrote those passages! the fact that it was indeed a re-creation speaks to your fantastic writing skills. were there moments when you wondered whether recreating this would take you back into the mania?

alistair mcharg: thank you – it was writing this book (my first) that turned me into a real writer – it was transformational. — your question is pivotal. i began writing immediately after the episode described had ended. i was terrified, really shaken. i had suffered with the illness long enough to know that a trigger could send me off again – and i was pretty sure another episode would kill me. but i knew i couldn’t write the book unless mentally i went back in. (rock & hard place.) so i went deeply back into the middle of it. that decision is what made the experience transformational. i knew it might set me off on another high, i knew that might kill me – i did it anyway. i knew that i had to face this darn illness or be destroyed by it.

moritherapy: fascinating! i am really touched by what you say, can feel it in my gut. and what hits me is, again, this commingling, meeting of art, this thing called mental illness, and the healing of/from/with it. it reminds me of a poem i wrote many years ago when i was close to dying of typhoid fever. i wrote it in spanish so it’s a bit hazy in my memory but something about the need to climb the mountain of art, alone, naked, because there is no other choice. does that resonate?

alistair mcharg: resonate indeed. that is exactly what i had to do – and it was probably the single bravest thing i’ve ever done. as you say in your poem – i had to do it alone. i had been fed so many lies – i was very fear-based – i had to strip absolutely everything away until there was nothing left that wasn’t true. and then i rebuilt – i reinvented myself. – but what you say about comingling is deep – and many people do not understand. i say often that manic depression and alcoholism have given me more than they have taken. in manic depression i saw rare things – and was forced to evolve. alcoholism ultimately took me to a better way of life and a higher power. it has all been a spiritual journey and while mental “illness” has caused earthquakes in my life it has also produced angels. (typhoid fever!! yikes! thank goodness you’re okay.)

on my blog today is a poem called “rex” — you see, i was shy, i hid, i felt “less than” – but manic depression made it impossible for me to hide – and also – it forced me to admit my power.

moritherapy: more on the commingling … so there is the art, there is the “mental illness” (funny how i often feel i have to put it in quotation marks), there is the healing, there is the acknowledgment of power – and then there is humour. there’s a lot of humour in your book. page 218:

and how do these aristocrats of oddness settle down after a busy day of counting their fingers and slashing their wrists with plastics forks?

humour in these circumstances can be taken as disrespect sometimes. do you hear that sometimes? how do you react? (by commingling i mean that the humour seems to be part of it all.)

alistair mcharg: humor and music are in the very center of me. to me the best humor is never nasty, it doesn’t single out anybody and it is never there to make me feel better than you. real humor celebrates the absurdity of all life, human vanity, fatuous selfishness. you will notice that most of the humor in the book comes at my own expense. – that said, when i was manic every mean quality came out – the anger, the hurt, the fear – and, combined with an intellect caught on fire – all this hurt often found expression in really cruel humor. other times it was quite surrealistic and charming. even in my other books – both satiric novels – and my cartoons – even my poetry – you will find that i include myself – all of us – when aiming barbs. i disrespect parts of people, racism, jealousy, entitlement, xenophobia – but it is never about disrespecting people – it is about loving truth and loving what people could be but are afraid to be.

moritherapy: one last question for now: towards the beginning of the book you say, “the love of my daughter is my favourite thing about myself.” in therapy, there is often a dictum that people should change for themselves, not for others. as a father, would you agree with that?

alistair mcharg: this is a great question. the easy answer is yes! there is a saying in AA that is told to the uncertain: fake it till you make it. at first it doesn’t matter if you are in therapy – or recovery – for the wrong reasons – so long as you are there. (bring the body and the mind will follow.) but absolutely, there must come a time when you are doing it for yourself – otherwise you will never commit fully and you will never get the full benefit.

if you asked me that question today i would answer – my favourite thing about me is that i know what i have to offer and i am doing my best to put it to the service of others.

moritherapy: thank you, this was absolutely lovely!

—–

alister mcharg’s blog, america’s favorite manic depressive, is at http://alistairmcharg.blogspot.com/

the book’s web site is at http://www.invisibledriving.com

arrest them! no, not the drunk guys

i’m doing NaNoWriMo again this year, this time determined to do all i can to make it to the 50,000 word count. so my blog posts may be sporadic, or short and sweet, or both. like this one. only it’s not sweet.

at a walmart in lethbridge, told by a friend:

a drunk native fellow ahead of me was buying 10 bottles of alcohol-containing hair treatment. i asked for the manager and asked him whether he was going to let that sale go through. he said there was nothing they could do. i checked the shelves and saw that this product was vastly overstocked compared to the non-ethanol products. i called the cops. they just took my name and address.

the week before a bunch of guys had been sitting on the bench in front of walmart drinking hair product. walmart restocks the shelves according to the rate of product sales.

they should be arrested.

not the native guys.

alcohol, art, sobriety and escape

the following was a comment on my blog post alcohol and art. i really enjoyed the insights, and with the commenter’s (lew’s) permission, i am sharing the gift of his reflections here.

it’s hard to know what’s real anymore. on the one hand i know that alcohol hinders me, certainly in my social life, but in my writing too. on the other hand, i feel like i’ve learnt a lot over the course of our coupling, and i continue to learn things. it is mostly about myself, but to know about others, it helps to know of yourself. and this has certainly helped my writing in a profound way. but where it has helped my writing in an important way, it has hindered it structurally. in the way that a tidy room can make for a tidy mind, a tidy mind can make for a tidy novel. and a mind, and often a room, is rarely tidy under the extreme conditions of alcoholic relapse. of two novels i’ve completed (unpublished as of yet), one was written in abstinence immediately upon discharge from hospital, and one was written very much in the middle of relapse. the first is very readable, i’m informed, and it seems to have a quality that some people need in a book, the second is not as readable.

without art, i could see abstinence and sobriety as a rich necessity to the comfort of my life, yes. but i am not without art, and this allows for a creative mind. alcoholism is a mind game, and, of course, an addiction. an artist makes a myth as much as a romantic historian, it is embedded somehow. but then perhaps the answer is in this mind game of a problem. perhaps i need to find a creative way to divorce drink.

i should add that i’ve made sweeping generalisations here that i am not qualified to make. and this is only part of my addiction. a part that nevertheless convolutes and contorts my attachment to escapism. for that is what it truly boils down to. escapism. even for an artist whose concern is getting at the truth, and probably uncovering horrors along the way, the work is escapism. perhaps one of the connections between artists and alcohol, is the need to escape. of course, all of us need to escape, but there is a depth achieved in art where we can lose ourselves (perhaps it is the same for anyone who works hard and deeply cares about what they do, creativity exists in most professions). and then to drink can be seen as to escape from escape, but i don’t feel it is. it is a continuation.

there is a contradiction between this and my first comment, but i’ve recognised over the course of this comment that i lied in the first (and using the word ‘truth’ too, but that’s another topic) – to myself as much as anyone. i never drink to wind down. quite the opposite. i drink to wind-up. after writing, i feel it is alright to drink. especially if i’ve had a good session. in fact, it is pretty much the only time i feel it is alright to drink.

i shall stop now, i’ve meandered a little. this is the first day i’ve gone without a drink in while. i can’t visualise a period of abstinence, there is too much ahead in the next two months. but i shall try to break from it for a day or two. lock myself away and ignore the knocking at the door or the phone calls. perhaps october.

taking responsibility: constance barnes and the braidwood enquiry

i was going to offer you another poem of sarah’s in this post but there’s something i need to say before we move on to that.

the braidwood enquiry into robert dziekanski’s death, the polish immigrant who was tasered at the vancouver airport in the fall of 2007.

and constance barnes.

right from the very beginning, the RCMP – the royal mounted canadian police – lied presented their own version of the truth. through their teeth, fancy red hats and polished black boots. the latest in their sometimes daily refusal to take any responsibility whatsoever is to deny the existence of an email that details how they decided to use a taser on their way to the airport.

now let’s talk about constance barnes.

constance barnes is a vancouver parks board commissioner, single mother of two children, employed at dr sun yat sen gardens – and she screwed up. she drank, she fell asleep at the wheel, and then ploughed into a house.

and then she apologized.

see the difference?

people are complaining that she didn’t apologize at the right time, that she didn’t use the right words to describe that she’s going to AA, that what she did was not a “mistake” but a … well, i don’t know what – etc., etc. who cares!

she took responsibility, and she apologized.

what a concept.

i don’t have a clue what’s going on behind closed doors at the RCMP. is there something even bigger they’re hiding? are they too steeped in a culture of secrecy that they can’t see what they’re doing? is there a boss somewhere who can’t handle looking at the truth? are they getting paid big bucks by taser? who knows.

what i DO know is that responsibility liberates. responsibility is for mature, grown-up people who know that there are no gods among humans, that we’re not perfect, and that we make mistakes. awful, horrendous mistakes sometimes. and that the way to show you’re a woman or a man is to stand as tall as possible, warts and all and to say, “YES, i did this. what can i do to make it better?”

it liberates because after you take responsibility, you don’t have to cower beneath fear, shame and guilt.

mothers day blessings

woman drinking ginblessed is the mother who gave up her daughter for adoption.

blessed is the mother who chooses daily between cocaine and breastfeeding.

blessed is the mother who drags herself to an abortion clinic.

blessed is the mother who is mortified with guilt over having beaten her sons.

blessed is the mother who can’t give up smoking.

blessed is the mother who makes more kraft dinner than broccoli.

blessed is the mother who works two jobs.

blessed is the mother who works in the sex trade.

blessed is the mother who can’t pay the rent.

blessed is the mother who died while driving drunk.

blessed is the mother who is afraid to leave her abusive husband.

blessed is the mother who has disowned her parents.

blessed is the mother who soothes her pain with valium.

blessed is the mother whose only babysitter is the TV.

blessed is the mother who hears voices.

blessed is the mother who is fighting anorexia.

blessed is the mother who is afraid she’ll abuse her daughters the way she was abused.

blessed is the mother who yells too much.

blessed is the imperfect, suffering, bewildered, overwhelmed, underpaid, lonely mother.

may she be happy, may she be peaceful, may she be healthy, may she be free.

 

image by zoe

up the down staircase

garden staircase castlethis is a guest post by my blogging and twitter friend alexander zoltai. it’s the story of how, down and out with alcohol and homelessness, he almost … well, read for yourself:

at first, i was trying to push ahead when i really needed healing time.

went from a homeless situation in ohio to florida for my daughter’s wedding. (dear audra! i wasn’t able to help raise her but she loves me anyway.)

was walking, literally, 100 blocks a day to get to my job and back to the salvation army shelter. had miraculously been included in her wedding party but i was not the dude who gave her away.

one month after the wedding, i was homeless again, and deeply depressed.

must have been some turning point in my history of striking out with vigor only to be beaten down, then striking out again. this time, the fire of renewal was gone.

beat down enough to walk the streets of sarasota, florida begging god to kill me.

one of the members of my faith attempted an intervention–not for my psyche but to loan me $3,000 to move into my own trailer.

there was a delay in approval for the place and i slid further down the slope of life.

went to the bank one day and cashed the check, took the $3,000 and went into an alcoholic tailspin. rented a motel room and drank about a case of guinness a day; also smoked pot…

finally had the suicide idea hatch–hell, i’d been sittin’ on the egg a long time!

bought pills that i could overdose on, and proceeded to watch them for a whole day–i had no motivation left at all–even to kill myself.

so, on to sandusky, ohio, my hometown and continued drinking.

my sister had hacked my email account and determined i was alive. oh! i’d written a good-bye e-mail and shipped it out to all my friends.

while in my hometown, i bought two knives and tried slicing my wrist–again, no motivation at all–even to kill myself.

my sister did intervene with love. i went back to florida and stayed with her, went to the VA hospital for psychological examination, got stuck with a chronic depression label, and found out i had hepatitis c!

this is when i was certain something “spiritual” was going on: god, the humorist, was letting me know who was in charge. he “said”: “so you thought you could end your life and i stopped you; but, just to give you a chance to truly repent, here’s a deadly disease.” i told family and friends but they couldn’t understand my delight.

next, six months on antidepressants, quitting smoking, and spiritual recharging–creating a 300-page compilation from a 500-page compilation of powerful spiritual writings.

the day for starting treatment for the hep C arrived and i skidded into eleven months of debilitation, crappy feelings, hair-loss, muscle-mass-loss, flu symptoms, bone aches, anemia–all “normal” for the treatment.

i’ve said before, the poet in me taking center stage, that truly spiritual events have an inherent contradiction embedded in them. for those eleven months, i experienced the contradictory pulls of massive physical degeneration and ecstatic spiritual upliftment–feeling my existence as worth more than i’d ever imagined, as long as i profoundly submitted to god.

here i am 17 days past the end of treatment and resigned to the further tasks of being proactive about depression mitigation and establishing myself in a home-based business.

like i told my VA psychiatrist last week: “before, i’d rise from a fall with conviction of conquering; now, i don’t know what will happen…

just moving ahead with resignation: “in the sense is of making an entry (signum) ‘opposite’ — on the credit side — balancing the former mark and thus cancelling the claim it represents. sense of ‘to give (oneself) up to some emotion or situation'”– we so often consider being resigned to a situation a depressing alternative. however, if the resignation is to cling to the way the universe actually works, it can be a calming and steadying position.

no idea, or could even pretend to guess, what my future holds. but, the captain of my soul shouts, “steady as she goes!”

alexander m zoltai is a writer with roaring flames in his heart, a blogger with a global agenda, and a nutrition entrepreneur.  alexander has also written a beautiful poem that goes with this post.