Tag Archives: AA

“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

the wisdom to know the difference

the good people at TLC book tours asked me to write a review of eileen flanagan’s book the wisdom to know the difference – when to make a change, and when to let go. let’s start with a tidbit that resonated with me

“often when we accept something we shouldn’t, we feel resignation, rather than serenity.”

the book, as you might have guessed, takes as its root the serenity prayer

grant me the serenity
to accept the things i cannot change
courage to change the things i can
and the wisdom to know the difference.

the quote above goes right to that difference. how do you know when to accept something and when to change it? the answer is often quite muddled, and so we need wisdom. one of the ways the wisdom can come to us is through feeling into a possible decision. acceptance, ideally, brings with it a feeling of relaxation, of a burden lifted. and no, resignation and serenity are absolutely not the same.

a propos differences, let’s talk about how eileen flanagan’s oeuvre is different from other self help books. flanagan, among other things, is active in the quaker community, and you can see the quiet friendliness that we tend to associate with quakers all over the book. she does not wield the heavy stick that i often find in self help books; rather, she tells stories and gives gentle suggestions. each chapter of the book ends with a few queries (another quaker tradition). i liked this one:

“if you were to translate the proverb, ‘trust in god, but tie up your camels’ for your own life, what would it say?”

good question. i like the idea of translating proverbs.

the book is also well-researched. for example, she cites another of my favourites, andrew greeley (a roman catholic super priest who churns out not only one bestselling novel after the other but is also a well-respected journalist and sociologist), who “has developed a tool he calls the ‘grace scale’ that measures a respondent’s image of god … how we conceive of and describe god has profound implications for how we live.” flanagan talks about this in a chapter entitled “the courage to question”.

the serenity prayer is most often associated with 12-step programs (alcoholics anonymous, overeaters anonymous, narcotics anonymous, etc.) interestingly enough, 12-step programs encourage their members to work on their image of god, even to manufacture one according to one’s needs. however, this is by no means a 12-step book; while it occasionally mentions concepts associated with “the program” and also tells the tale of someone in AA, these instances are just one among many. this is another thing i liked about “the wisdom to know the difference” – flanagan takes great care to present a diversity of experiences. the stories that populate self-help books often have a canned feel to it. there is always the 36-year old single female executive who is disillusioned with her career, right? flanagan uses those cliché sparingly; her illustrations seem a little more alive, for example when she traces the life of a middle class african american woman who is both bewildered and inspired by the history of her ancestors. this historical and cultural context is also something that sets flanagan apart.

i noticed that most of the sections i underlined where ones where flanagan cites others. a few more examples:

“we live in a culture [that encourages] people to pursue perfection and control. the result is inevitably frustration and angst.” in quoting another book i find quite helpful, the spirituality of imperfection, flanagan points out the “anxious determination to take control, to be in charge” engrained in our culture. replace that wilfulness with willingness, is the suggestion.

quoting st. teresa of avila:

“one day of humble self knowledge is better than a thousand days of prayer.”

and a quote from thomas keating’s invitation to love:

“the regular practice of contemplative prayer initiates a healing process that might be called ‘the divine therapy’.”

alcoholism and everyday addictions

the 12 steps of alcoholics anonymous are sometimes summarized in these seven words:

i can’t
god can
i better let god

these pithy words come from the first three steps:

1. we admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable
2. we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves would restore us to sanity.
3. we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of god as we understood him.

depending on one’s interpretation, that can sound quite defeatist (“i can’t / i’m powerless”) and cultish (“i better let god / turn over our will”).

in my occasional musings on how the 12 steps can be used outside of traditional addiction recovery (for example, here are some thoughts on step 3) i’d like to propose that these seven pithy words and these three steps can be useful for anyone as a guide in their lives.

we admitted we were powerless over alcohol, and that our lives had become unmanageable.

it may not be alcohol, it may not be drugs, food, work, cigarettes or caffeine – but the truth is that there are a lot of things inside and outside of ourselves that we are powerless over, and that feel totally overwhelming. i have no power over the traffic, you have no power over your boss, joe has no power over politics. but it goes deeper than that – it is our reactions to these things that truly trouble us – the feelings of helplessness, the endless worry, the anger. we hate these feelings, so we run to do something about them – TV, romance novels, potato chips, blackjack chips. at the root of that are fear and pain and avoidance of fear and pain through escape into instant gratification. so how about:

step 1: we are run by fear and pain and avoidance of them, and that the endless cycling between those two is exhausting and overwhelming – it is insanity.

we came to believe that a power greater than ourselves would restore us to sanity.

is there something greater than fear and avoidance of fear? god? maybe for some. how about for those uncomfortable with or plainly disinterested in the idea of god? the 12 steps are informed by underlying principles such as honesty, hope, courage, integrity, love, justice and service – all positive, life-affirming, values that are greater than our little egos and ids, our inner factories that constantly crank out more fear and fear avoidance. here is my proposition, then:

step 2: we remind ourselves that by holding on to our values, we can rise above fear and instant gratification and leave insanity behind.

we made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of god as we understood him.

the awareness that there is an alternative to fear, pain and instant gratification is a good start but it is not enough. a lot of us are aware that there are problems. we need to make a decision to do something with that awareness. this decision, by the way, needs to happen on a daily, hourly, sometimes minute-by-minute basis. fear and pain and our desire to escape them are incredibly strong; if we want to let go of them as prime motivators for our lives, we need to counter them with our values, virtues and beliefs on an almost constant basis. one of my favourite quotes is freud’s about us having but a “thin veneer of civilization”. i firmly believe if we are to keep this world going, maybe even make it a better place, we need to do everything we can to make this veneer stronger and thicker. we literally need to become more civil. isn’t that one of the main goals of democracry (a concept deeply informed by civility): to create and nurture an environment where citizens need not be governed by fear? just as we need to keep working on and fighting for democracy, we need to keep building our own personal virtues and values. here is my suggestion for step 3:

step 3: we decided to lead our lives by our virtues and values.

i would be very interested in hearing your thoughts about this.

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.

blogathon: 6 questions about change – twelve-step’s step 6

i haven’t done an entry on the twelve steps for a while. the last one was on step five. the idea of discussing the 12 steps here is to look at how they can help anyone, not only people who go to groups like alcoholics anonymous, overeaters anonymous or alanon (for people with alcoholics in their lives).

warning: if you’re not into god or religion, please wait until the end of the post, don’t get turned off the second the g-d word comes up!

step 6 says

“were entirely ready to have god remove all these defects of character.”

background: step 6 comes after step 4, where an individual takes a thorough personal inventory, and step 5, where this inventory is shared with god and another person.

if we want to make this a little less heavy on the god language, we can translate step 6 like this:

“were entirely ready to work towards change, accepting help, and without immediately jumping to the desired results.”

we can also rename the “character defects” (that’s 1930’s language) and call them unhelpful attitudes and behaviours.

we’ll deal with the working towards change in a second. first, though, a few words about accepting help.

if we’ve been “trying” and pushing for a different life for a long time and nothing has worked – maybe it’s time to take a different approach. maybe it’s time to accept help. this help may come in many ways, and it’s good to be open to the many ways. it might be in the form of a pesky co-worker, a pet or an article in a newspaper we don’t normally ready. it may be god. whatever it is, it’s probably not going to be the petty, demanding little ego that’s been driving the bus for way too long.

and a few words about “entirely ready” and “not jumping to the results”. when i work with people, one way i can usually see right away that it’s going to take a little while is when they have a one-dimensional view of what they want. it’s usually coached in words like, “the only way this is going to work is …” or “i couldn’t use an X, it has to be a Y”. being entirely ready means being open. you want to become a happier, healthier, more giving person? then open yourself to the possibilities.

so what about this “working towards change”? the question here is, do you REALLY want to change? often, that’s not the case. we may want to become more accepting of others not because we truly want to open our hearts but because we’re teed off at the constant bickering. so really, we want to get rid of the bickering and all kinds of aspects of not being accepting are just fine, thank you very much.

if that’s the case, the unhelpful attitudes and behaviours need to be taken under a magnifying glass.

here are some questions that can help:

  1. how has this attitude/behaviour helped me in the past? how has it helped me cope?
  2. what is it doing for me today? what do i still get out of it?
  3. can i get what i truly need in some other way?
  4. what is this attitude/behaviour doing to me? how does it hurt me?
  5. what is it doing to others?
  6. what are the consequences of hanging on to it?

canadian mental health association

this is an entry for my participation in the 2008 blogathon, a 24-hour marathon of blogging. please support the cause and donate – however much, however little – to the canadian mental health association (vancouver/burnaby branch). to donate, email me or use this URL: www.canadahelps.org/CharityProfilePage.aspx?CharityID=d2252. you should be able to get there by clicking the link; if not, just copy and paste the link into your browser. it will take you to the appropriate location at canada helps.

thank you for visiting, reading, commenting and, if you can, donating!

(this post is part of the carnival of healing #154)

more on the 12 steps: step 5

it’s been almost a year that i last discussed a step from the 12-step programs a la AA. thankfully, someone made a comment on another 12-step post, and that spurred me on to another post.

while the 12 steps were originally intended to help alcoholics and addicts, they have proven to be a fine blueprint for any kind of recovery.

that last step i discussed was step 4, which is designed to help people make an inventory of all the burdens of the past, as well as of all their assets they want to keep.

step 5 says, “admitted to god, to ourselves and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.”

once again, if you see the word “god” and freak out, please read on – it doesn’t have to be the god of your childhood or george bush’s god – the word “god” just stands for something good in your life. another word for “god” in 12-step programs is “higher power”.

if this higher power is the highest authority in one’s life – allah, for example, or buddha nature, or one’s internal value system, or simply that power that is greater/other than the little ego that has run the show unsuccessfully so far – then the relationship with that higher power is one of the most important relationships. in that case, after having done all the work of the inventory, why wouldn’t one immediately check this out with this higher power?

it goes on “… and to another human being”. “confessing” to another human being is immensely powerful; the catholics knew what they were doing. that’s also why therapy is so useful. research shows that people who carry too many deep, dark secrets are more accident prone and are generally less healthy. this is corroborated by research that indicates that high concentrations of bodily secretions of people who carry a lot of hate and unresolved anger can kill laboratory animals.

yet this step is not about confessing “sins”. it is the logical continuation of step 3 – “made the decision to turn our wills and our lives over to the care of god as we understood him” – a decision to trust the goodness in your life. if a person is willing to turn their whole life over to this goodness, then it surely makes sense to turn over a handful of mistakes, fears, worries and regrets, even though (and maybe exactly because) they may have been held in secret for a long time.

what about this “other human being?” this really can be a life-transforming step so it’s good to choose that person carefully. i suggest to a) choose a person who understands the process, preferably someone who has been through it more than once, b) someone you can trust in all the different ways you need to trust them, and c) an environment where the precious nature of such a step can be honoured.

at the beginning of sharing, it’s helpful if there is a negotation about what the other person will do. do you just want to recite your list, with the other person simply as a “loving witness”? what type of feedback, if any, do you want, and at what point? do you want to hear the other person’s experience, strength and hope regarding similar difficulties they had?

many 12-steppers believe that “it is only through the process of discussing our shortcomings out loud with an understanding person that we can finally begin to know ourselves and accept ourselves” (from overeaters anonymous).

the “out loud” is really important. “out loud” doesn’t necessarily mean literally – this step has been done successfully over the internet or the telephone – but it does mean that you need to get all that junk out of your head, outside of your head and heart. you know when you wake up in the middle of the night and can’t fall back asleep and you toss and turn with a gazillion worries? it’s because it’s all stuck in there, rattling around, like a bird trapped in your living room, banging its little head against the window. your living room doesn’t need the bird, the bird doesn’t need your living room, let it out!

this is all useless baggage. how can we know ourselves if we’re almost unrecognizable under a mountain of stuff?

something really beautiful happens in this sharing. i like to think of it as the breaking of the bread in christianity or the sharing of the pipe in native traditions. the sharing goes deep inside of us.

what about the “discussion?” a loving witness may not do that much discussing; most of it may come from the person who is laying her burden down. maybe that’s what’s needed, or at least for some of the things that are brought up. some of our baggage feels pretty darn raw, it’s difficult enough to bare one’s soul – maybe it’s a little early to actually engage in a discussion about them. you may need to have space to simply speak your piece, without anyone else’s perspective added to it.

in many cases, though, a bit of discussion is a good idea. it can be illuminating when after a while of talking, the other person begins to see some angles of your burdens that you hadn’t seen before. sometimes they are quite surprising. it’s very similar to what often happens in therapy – indeed, the very reason why many people enjoy therapy. i remember i client who talked a lot about not being focused and ambitious enough at university; it turned out that he simply was not the university type and would be much better suited to more hands-on work. you see, the interesting thing is that in talking about all of these supposed “defects”, a picture slowly emerges – often quite a beautiful picture that simply had never been seen in such clarity before.

towards the end of discussing step 5, one of the 12-step books says, “from this point on, we begin to leave behind the character defects which have caused us so many problems in the past.”

what a beautiful promise! leave them all behind.

fear, shame, self-delusion, procrastination, self-centredness, resentment, gossip, closed-mindedness, destructive anger, neglectfulness … all these can be left behind. imagine opening your hands and letting go of them … and then moving on … with your feet fully, squarely planted on a new path.