Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose


Wilfred Ruprecht Bion

The remarkable psychoanalyst, writer, and teacher Michael Eigen wrote in The Psychoanalytic Mystic about his own analysis with Wilfred Bion, and about the theory he drew from his analysis and reading Bion’s often difficult but enlightening works. He suggested (or I inferred) that mania and depression can free-float, and will attach themselves at will to almost anyone with a predilection to madness. When the “host” dies by whatever means, the illness will find a new host. It is eternal.

So as I said earlier: I have more issues than neuropathy. I also have psychological issues. And I’m finding that they may have morphed. I remember now that I was warned about the predatory nature of my illness long ago, when I was diagnosed in 1999. It will shape-shift and drag me with it. This is not foot pain. It’s pain in the soul, in the heart, and it by far predates anything that has happened to my body.

At the end of 1999, the summer from Hell, I was overspending, love and sex obsessed, drunk, holding a religious mania based on guilt as much as a new devotion.

And apart from that I was miserable.

I had caused someone I loved to consider taking her own life. I considered taking my own. I was doing badly at work; and thank God for an understanding boss who knew the best of me even if now he was seeing the worst.

I became involved in what I’d call sexual adventurism that was in fact sexual humiliation. And I took the whole mess I’d become to my therapist.

He didn’t dump me. Instead, he said I probably was having a summer-long hypomanic episode that pointed toward bipolar disorder or, by its old nomenclature, manic-depressive illness. Right, summer is my worst season: I have physical issues and my personality begins to approximate the common image of a wart hog. Yes, I was spinning back up from hypomania, but it was too ugly an episode to be shrugged off. He referred me to a psychiatrist in Manhattan with whom he’d worked. She saw me one afternoon in September and spent 90 minutes interviewing me. She said it was most likely Bipolar II, a form of the illness not as overtly ghastly as Bipolar I, but bad enough. Dr. Kay Redfield Jamison, during a manic flip-out, once spent $15,000 on a Chinese vase. She was and is Bipolar I. I merely spent money I didn’t have on an idée fixe, musical instruments I could barely play (including a $900 soprano saxophone I actually did learn to play), and I tried to screw anyone with indoor plumbing, out of the misguided belief I “loved” them.

I wasn’t surprised and I was not overly shaken. I’d just read Patty Duke Astin’s amazing autobiography, Brilliant Madness. And I recognized myself on almost every page. Identify, don’t compare. My own variations were height-scaling “ups” and stomach-churning “downs.” I knew something had gone way wrong with my life. I thought cyclothymia, a lesser-grade form of bipolar. So when the psychiatrist said I probably was in fact bipolar, it was something of a relief. Yes, the diagnoses of mental illness often are more artistic than scientific, but it was a place from which to start. So it was my turn to question her a bit. What is this? Why is this? It seems that bipolar is something triggered not simply by chemistry (sorry, Tom Cruise, you are an imbecile) but also by life shocks. In my case, I traced it back to an appalling event from my early childhood: my mother leaving her napping baby son (that’s me, at about 18 months) alone in the apartment while she went out for two hours to do the wash. As nearly as I can reconstruct the episode, I awakened from my nap to no mother, no one else, and the most horrible sense of abandonment and vast plane of loneliness beyond anything I have ever known, even since. I was terrified and destroyed. And there, I believe to this day, I was was launched into a world of unpredictability, volatile temperament, and near-murderous rages. The day my father died–July 5, 1954–I tried to kill the son of one of my mother’s friends by stuffing his head between two fence posts. Today I’d be institutionalized. Back then, I was just a dirty rotten kid having a bad day. The bad day lasted over 40 years.

Miraculously, I eventually forgave my mother for being a fool. She didn’t have a clue about how to be a parent. And her life thereafter was driven by guilt. So was mine–and by an unrecognized thirst for revenge against the woman who I inadvertently believed had poisoned me. Which part of the Oresteia was this?

The game changer came a few months later, in January, when a clear enough mind via new meds and therapy got me to discern that I could not quit drinking. So I committed an unnatural act: I quit drinking. Hello, I thought, I believe I am an alcoholic. Think, shit. I’m a drunk. I quit on the night of January 13, 2000. More than once since I’ve wanted to be dead-drunk, dead, or drunk, but I didn’t want to do the “work” to get myself to any of those places.

So my “training” took for years. I assumed everyone would abandon me. And I learned to hurt first and hurt for keeps. Fuck me? No, fuck you! I betrayed one lover, and I would betray another. The first time, in 1967, I didn’t care. “But that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.” The second time, 1999, I had faux-matured into having enough of a conscience to experience terrible remorse and the sense that I was a destructive and destroyed instrument. I was hurt, and therefore I could hurt.

The psychiatrist tried out different meds on me because the science is always shifting and imprecise. Sometimes the illness itself is the great teacher. I could grow used to one med that would cause the illness to change shape. So I went from Klonopin and Topomax to Lithium (the old and still effective original) to Divalproex, known to the commercial world as Depakote. The last has worked well for years. But now I find it may be time for a change.

See, the last few years have been unkind. I’ve been broke and I’ve been homeless. I’m not homeless anymore, but I’m still broke. And I find that I may not even be bipolar. The illness may have morphed in yet another direction, toward the glorious world of unipolar depression. I am depressed far more often and far more deeply than I find myself “speeding” or manic. Depression alone sucks beyond belief. It is manufactured by unhappiness and etches its way into the mind and soul as a profound sadness that outstrips immediate circumstances. I could find a million tax free dollars and get home to a glorious and giving woman in my bed. It would not help, not for long. The illness catches hold. It has nothing to do with circumstance. Not anymore.

So I need to be re-evaluated and perhaps be given something else to help fill in the empty spaces that have hollowed me out again like God has used a melon-baller on me.

Life is an adventure. Drunk or sober, crazy or sane. At my worst, I echo Hemingway’s Frederic Henry from A Farewell to Arms: “They always get you in the end.” At my best, I am unsure.


About Ken Wolman

Sit still, shut up, and listen. We might both learn something.
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2 Responses to Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose

  1. You write beautifully about this most atrocious affliction.

    See you this evening.


  2. kenwolman says:

    Thank you, Rabbi. You have no idea how long it took me to be able to be even marginally lucid about it.


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