On and Off the Learning Curve: Notes by a Bipolar Student (Talk Given at the University of Toronto, March 11 2009

) Seven weeks ago, I, along with millions of others suffering a long-term malaise, was given a strong antidepressant. The treatment included watching chopper blades lift George Bush out of sight, and watching and hearing Barack Obama sworn in as the U.S. president. Many of you will remember this vividly, I’m sure, especially if you were a fellow sufferer. Like all treatments, though, this one had its unwanted side effects, one of which was exposure to potentially toxic levels of rhetoric. That same day, I heard a commentator gush: “It’s a brand new country!” Immediately, this was contradicted by a colleague’s more sour view: “It’s the same old place.” Which was true? I wondered. And I decided they both could be. It’s the same old, brand new place. And within a few days, influenced no doubt by the ceremony to the south, I wrote the following, applied to a person instead of a country. I call it “The Continuity Clause: Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of Self”: “I” shall still be considered “I” in spite of lapses or contradictions in the behaviour of myself or the partial or complete disappearance of myself for whatever duration and for whatever reason. So help me...anyone. What does this have to do with a book on mental illness called The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis? Everything, really. A core theme running through the book–sometimes addressed explicitly, more often implicitly–is the existential conundrum of how to maintain a self and a life, when that self and life are subject to regular and radical disruption. How does chaos become continuity? Before I try to suggest an answer to that, and say why I think it has a special relevance to education, let me briefly summarize my memoir. The Lily Pond consists of four sections, which I imagine sometimes as the ripples that would result if a stone fell, or a frog jumped, into a still pond. The innermost circle, the book’s first section, describes my first psychosis and hospitalization, a very protracted and almost-fatal eighteen months. From that first episode, as it’s sometimes called, the circles spread outward, in time and in society: to 1

childhood and family, considered over decades, in the second section; to work as a writer, and as a participant in psychotherapy, in the third. And then there is a fourth section, but I didn’t know that at first. After I’d written what is now the third section of the book, I thought the manuscript was done. I showed it to a few friends...cautiously, tentatively. Their reactions were encouraging, but I had a nagging sense that the matters I’d been writing about were still hanging overhead, left undone, developing. Why? I kept asking. What’s next? What’s coming? Part of what was coming, as my doctor pointed out, was simply more life, living with it. Something doesn’t end because you write about it. But what also turned out to be developing–and I tell this with her permission, as she generously and courageously gave me her permission to write about it–was my wife Heather’s deepening mental health crisis, which spiralled into an acute episode and her own diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Along with all the emotions anyone would feel–worry, fear, sadness, exhaustion–I wondered: Had I learned anything from my own experience that could help her? Or, even more simply, could we find a way to be sick together...to perform the often awkward, but sometimes strangely graceful, dance of helping and being helped? You’ll hear more about Heather at times today. I’m grateful to her, as always, for allowing me to tell parts of her story as parts of my own. The Lily Pond’s four rings, then, move gradually outward from isolation and passivity–lying motionless on a hospital bed–to a life shared with others, including shared illness. They chronicle the journey (as the book’s back cover says) “from the darkness of unconscious suffering to the daylight of mindful recovery.” What I mean by mindful recovery is not a cure–nothing so final or triumphantsounding. It is more like tugging recurrent problems into better light so they can be worked on, coped with, managed. This is a long, indeed endless process. Ongoing active awareness is what I mean. I also think of these concentric rings in another way: as my particular story of mental illness, inside the larger story of mental health, which in turn fits inside the much larger story of existence and its challenges, for some of which we use the shorthand “mental health.” The story in The Lily Pond spans four decades. There are mentions in it of my stop-and-start university career, but that’s not described in detail. I’d like to look at it a little more closely now. I got my Honours B.A. on the 13-year plan. I started in 1973 and graduated in 1986. While I have nothing against gradualism, it’s not a schedule I would recommend to anyone. You see, I was never a parttime student, but rather a full-time student who kept being forced to drop out. Interruptions to my course of study included those eighteen months on a psychiatric ward, working (after my discharge) as a dishwasher for two years, stints of unemployment and short-term jobs, 2

all of this in a series of rented rooms–a “tumbleweed life,” I called it once–before I decided, at age 30, to complete the last year of my degree which had stalled at the three-year mark. Why did it take me so long? And what, since I call the interruptions “forced,” was forcing me? There’s more than one answer to that question. But the main reason, I think, is one that eluded me for many years; in fact, it was not until fairly recently that I fully acknowledged it. Mental illness. Plunges into listless or agitated depressions, followed by equally destabilizing flights into rushing manias. And–far more damaging than these swings themselves–my bewilderment about what was happening to me, which led me to ascribe my swings to other, misleading causes. Here is what kept happening. I’d start a school year with energy and enthusiasm–attending lectures, doing the readings, getting good marks...learning–and then at some point–usually in the late fall or spring, though it was not strictly seasonal–I would simply bottom out. Lose interest in the classes and the readings, start falling asleep over books, have trouble following a line of argument or even a sentence...and I would think: Why am I here? I’m not interested in this stuff. Or: I’m not smart enough, I can’t do this. (Forgetting–for depression has its characteristic amnesia as well as other forms of inattention–that only weeks or days before I had been smart enough, interested enough.) My reading and attendance became spotty, my work and marks trailed off...I dropped out. Usually vowing never to return. Looking back, I see that what I was mainly lacking, to pursue my education, was not intelligence or desire or diligence, but selfknowledge. I was not well enough acquainted with myself, and not forgiving or understanding enough of those parts with which I was acquainted, to succeed in school. I needed to educate myself about myself before I could educate myself about anything else. Or at least– since the processes should occur in tandem–I needed to be learning about myself while I was trying to learn about Geoffrey Chaucer and John Milton. “Know thyself.” Everyone has heard the ancient Greek injunction, inscribed in the forecourt of the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. For all its wisdom, though, I still think it could be improved. It presumes, in its singular pronoun, a stable and consistent identity, when in fact identity is malleable and multiple, a condition of flux which must be constantly updated, even renegotiated. “Know thy selves,” I humbly suggest, would be a more humane and practical credo. Something I remained ignorant about for a long time, for example, was the fact that my periodic inability to read–words, these things I loved, going dead and blank, their sequences fuzzy and 3

meaningless–is a common symptom of depression, and doesn’t at all betoken apathy or lack of intelligence. Or at least not permanent forms of those things. What it may mean, though, is a temporary impairment of interest and cognitive ability. And there are far better ways to deal with that than simply dropping out of the life one wants. Like what? you may be thinking. What are you supposed to do if you find yourself bottoming out just when you need yourself most? Unable to read–but an exam coming up? Unable to write–but an essay due? I can think of some practical approaches to these problems, but outlining them would take us too far astray in a short talk. And I would be the last person to say that these are not serious problems, serious threats. Fluctations in mental health still threaten my job and my personal life; they’re a minefield I’m always trying, and always will try, to pick my way through. I have no wish to travel back in time to advise my younger self: he did the best he could, what he had to do, then. But I know a couple of things he didn’t. One is that hiding a problem– from yourself and from others–usually takes more energy than trying to manage it. Coming out is almost always a good idea. What I hope I would do now, when I felt myself slipping, is to approach someone I trust with the facts: I want to do this (finish my course, write my exam, hang on till tomorrow), but for some reason I’m unable to. I need help, something to get me through this. That would be a start. Not a solution yet, but the only sure step I know towards finding one. I don’t say it is an easy step to take. It seems strange that my eighteen months on a psychiatric ward in my early twenties had not begun my education in these matters. That tumultuous passage had schooled me in many miseries, fears and selfdoubts of every kind, but it had not taken me very far at all in developing a practical awareness of myself, how I had changed, and how I might get on with my life, given the fluctuating and rather fragile (though at the same time newly toughened and robust) creature I now seemed to be. Strange...or not so strange. Many medical mishaps–including a misdiagnosis of schizophrenia, zombiefying tranquilizers, multiple electroshock treatments and a near-fatal overdose–had given me good reasons to drop out of the standard curriculum of mental health. Again, though, I was an extremist: I shunned the mental health system completely for the next decade, which included some of the lowest and most pointless wandering in my life. Some kinds of learning occur only slowly, in tiny increments. No matter how successfully it is managed, trauma takes time. Time to occur (since it occurs in waves, even if one event precipitates it)...and a long time to come back from. Long, slow time is usually not on offer in an age that idolizes speed and a narrowly defined functioning. These idols of quick-time get stamped out rather brutally and worshipped thoughtlessly. And is it perhaps yourself–your 4

image and expectations of yourself–that have helped to mold this unforgiving deity? Just because what you need isn’t on offer–or doesn’t appear to be–doesn’t mean you can’t ask for it, claim it. A system may function badly–many do–but it can’t function better than we ask it to. Demand it to. And: permit it to. “Time heals,” we say, but do we act as if we believe it? It takes courage to trust time–the courage to wait and see. After that, of course, comes the challenge of admitting what you see, and finding room to accept it. Several times each year I still experience what I call my “shut-downs.” These are the periods that have taught me how far beyond sadness depression really goes. They are periods when my brain and body and spirit–my whole self, really– become, in stages, unable to comprehend or respond to much of the world. It is a lot like that famous scene in 2001, when Dave Bowman unplugs HAL, and the computer disappears circuit by circuit–busted right down to his programmed origins of “Dai-sy...Dai-sy”–though by that time I have long since lost the urge to sing. At such times I’ve learned to apply what I call the small-circle cure. This means reducing activity and stimulation to a bare minimum. Dimming the lights, unplugging the phone, cancelling social engagements. And, as I feel my ability to think in sequence ebbing away, scaling my reading down from the love life of Anna Karenina to the love life of Britney Spears...and then further down, to just flipping through books of pictures or watching reruns of The Sopranos. To return to the idea of functioning: Someone seeing me lying on my side for hours beside a single lamp, flipping pages of Rolling Stone or People, might see a very low order of functioning...and it is, in a way...but it is a much higher order of functioning than I showed in the years when I tried to keep reading and writing through these spells, which can last six weeks or more, and added terrible frustration to depression when I could understand nothing, produce nothing. Self-acceptance, I’ve come to see, involves a better understanding of one of the simplest words: and. I am a person who reads, and writes, challenging books...and I am a person who, at times, cannot read or write the simplest sentence. The two facts are not mutually exclusive; they mustn’t be, since I’m living both of them. But that little word and can be a terribly hard word to remember. A major part of my ongoing recovery, including the therapy I do with the excellent psychiatrist I have now, involves trying to remember the truth of and. As I said earlier, there is a degree of amnesia to my condition, so that every time I lurch upward into mania or downward into depression, it feels like the first time, and I lose all memory that I have been here before and gotten through it. Retaining a thin thread of memory, enough that I can say, “I know this place; I was here before, and I left again,” is one of the most important gains I’ve made 5

in recent years. It’s a lifeline to cling to, a thread to guide me out of the labyrinth. I learned all this again just last fall. Ironically, after my book launch in October, and at the talks I gave subsequently, some listeners said to me, “You seem well now,” as if all the troubles I was describing were safely behind me. “I do feel well,” I said, “...now.” But I could tell they didn’t believe me when I said I knew bad times would return, times they, and even I, could scarcely imagine. Sure enough, within a month, I was floundering, slipping into a netherworld of sleeplessness and incoherent thoughts and depression and even hallucinations. I could barely understand the book I myself had written or the talks I had given about it. But while I felt myself slipping, while I still had time, I did a useful, practical thing. Using what few verbal resources I had left, I wrote myself a letter, a sort of “message in a bottle” from my still-hanging-on self to the unwell self I felt gaining on him. I taped the letter to the wall beside my desk, it is still there, and read it often in the next two months, feeling disbelief but also comfort at its assurances that I had gone to this black place before and had returned from it. I wanted to read it as part of this talk, but it is a little too long. Titled “Letter to Thursday,” it is posted on the blog I started recently, if any of you are interested. It is a frank and simple statement from one self to another, saying in essence: I know you, even if you don’t remember me. We are in this together. Which brings me back to my United States of Self, the Continuity Clause I started with...and to why the frog, that symbol of a resilient traveller between elements, is such an important image in The Lily Pond’s last section. Multiple and often conflicting selves are a reality for anyone, not just someone with a diagnosed mental illness. For anybody, on any path, it is true: Parts of you are leaping ahead, parts are lagging behind, parts are stuck in the mud, parts are fleeing in the opposite direction. Ignorance of all these different momentums or, worse, denial that they are occurring, will only hinder your ability to find the direction you need and are capable of taking now. Only by granting legitimacy to the very different states, purposes and abilities that are known collectively as “I,” can a united self–a republic, if you will, of recognized selves, each with its rights and limitations–be made possible...and a pace be found, variable and humane, permitting that manifold self to move and act in the world. The smoothness of that phrase may make it sound easy. That is the peril of rhetoric. It is not smooth or easy. It is the hardest, most necessary, thing I know. I’d like to close by reading two passages from The Lily Pond that illustrate what I’ve been saying here today. The first is short and is quoted on the back cover. I have been there and come back. Come back partly, at least. Return is possible; the door swings 6

both ways. This gets at a paradox I’m learning more about each day. If your view of yourself is elastic enough to allow for downtimes, backslides, failures, even breakdowns–not only are you more likely to get back on your feet after these setbacks, but–and this is the truly magical part of the paradox–you are even less likely to get knocked down in the first place. “The door swings both ways.” You can more easily go out a swinging door, but also more easily come back in. Knowing there is such a door may even mean you don’t need to use it. Another, longer passage from near the end of the book uses the example of the wood frog to explore this tolerant truth of out...and in. Down...and back up again. The passage is from the book’s last section, called “The Lily Pond,” where the main focus shifts to Heather, as she survives a mental health crisis and is diagnosed herself with bipolar disorder. After a siege of several months, exhausted, we took a cautious week’s vacation in a rented cabin on Lake Temagami. The television, which we spurned at first, comes in handy after all. Scrolling through its channels, which number into the hundreds, is a good antidote when Heather becomes jittery and tired in the evening, a pattern from home that now resumes despite our lengthy sleeps. There is a lot of channelscrolling to find a few interesting, and a couple of absorbing, programs. The most absorbing is a documentary on the wood frog’s hibernation. Heather calls me from making dinner to watch it with her. We know, from our book at home, of the astonishing ability these northern frogs have to manufacture glycogen in their livers, turning their blood to a kind of sugary antifreeze that allows their bodies to freeze solid through the winter and then unfreeze safely in the spring. It is one thing to know this; it is another to watch it happen. A scientist in a white coat puts several wood frogs on a tray and places the tray in a freezer. [I recoil from this a little,] but despite his clinical procedures the scientist seems a true and kindly enthusiast about the frogs. There is a video camera in the freezer. As we watch, the frogs’ breathing slows, and slows, then finally stops. Frost crystals cluster, coating them all over, including their eyes, which stay open. The scientist brings them out of the freezer, picks one up and flicks it (again that aversive prickle), then bobbles it in his hand: hard as rock. But in the tray left out on the table, the process has begun to reverse itself; in time-lapse photography, compressing several hours into minutes, we see the ice crystals melt and slide off; the skin soften in appearance, becoming less brittle and more rubbery-looking; one frog, the fastest thawer, draws a breath, a twitch in his small side; after long moments, another breath; then other frogs are breathing, small sides lifting and falling; 7

finally, one makes a small hop. Alive. Down to zero–close to it–and back again. Neither of us says a word. There is nothing to be said; we saw it. On our last day, we take the last sections of our watermelon in a plastic bag and paddle to a quiet bay we visited before. Heather turns around in her seat to face me and we drift in the deep green shadows of the pines and cedars, eating pink watermelon and dropping the gnawed rinds into the bag. It is a moment of perfect restfulness, and it ends with a perfect, miraculous discovery. We have seen only one frog up here, a large leopard frog that hopped away once as we landed the canoe. The nights have been cold for late August, a few aspens already tinged with yellow. But today, when we stop on shore to stretch our legs, I see movement in the pine needles at my feet. I am a few moments spotting the small frog, his browns are blended so perfectly with the needles and rock and lichen. I put down my hand and trap him easily; he barely squirms inside my fingers. When I show him to Heather, parting my fingers to let his upper half pop out, then pinning him gently by the legs, we are amazed to see that it is the wood frog from the TV documentary. His black, robber-mask eye markings cinch it. It seems providential somehow, a sign, and standing on the rock admiring then releasing him–he hops away unhurriedly–we are both too moved to speak. Heather, who has paddled in the bow all week, suggests that she try paddling us home herself. She stays facing me and begins moving us homeward, awkwardly at first, unsure of her steering, having to switch from side to side, but then strongly and more steadily, smiling with shy disbelief as her Jstroke returns to her. It is wonderful to watch; and hard in a way, too. Mental illness–meaning, here, the diagnosis and treatment of it, especially–is working against her confidence, implanting radical doubts in her about her basic capability. It is one of the reasons I feel so strongly that hospitalization should be avoided except as a last resort. If diagnosis means that one is being considered seriously for a position, then hospitalization is confirmation that one has got the job. And it can be a hard position to leave; it can easily become a career leading to retirement, and beyond. (The Lily Pond, pages 175177) Heather, after a break of many years, has gone back to school this year. This school: U of T. She is picking her own way along the learning curve, as everyone must. She doesn’t need to be reminded of what I’m saying here today as much as I do. In fact, though I said 8

before I had no wish to advise my younger self, it’s not really true. I do in fact sometimes travel back in time to counsel him. He isn’t very inclined to listen–that hasn’t changed–but that no longer deters me from sharing with him what I’ve learned. What I tell him is a sort of footnote to Polonius, that off-and-on pedagogue ironically prone to forgetting himself. His admonition, given to Laertes as he returns to school, runs, in my amended version, like this: To thine own selves be true. Honour the people you were and will be, not just the person you are today.