My Favorite Failure

October 26, 2013

This has been the best year of my life but it sure didn’t start that way. A year ago today, I didn’t go to work, didn’t call in, didn’t email anyone, didn’t go.

I dressed but then just stretched out on the sofa. When Calvin came downstairs and saw me I told him I hadn’t slept well and wanted to lie down a little before I left.

As soon as he was gone to work I jumped into action. I cleaned the kitchen and ran a load of laundry. I walked a couple of blocks to the post office and bought stamps. I wrote some letters and folded the laundry. I took the letters downstairs and dropped them in the box.

And at one o’clock on the afternoon of October 26, 2012, I swallowed a bunch of pills and drank a bottle of wine and went to sleep.

It was a surprise when I woke up 14 hours later but I immediately knew what had – or, more specifically, hadn’t – happened. And I remember thinking, “I’m glad it didn’t work.”

The top had blown off of my pressure cooker of depression, frustration, worry, extreme self-criticism and general angst. Decades of mental methane dissipated overnight. The challenge, I soon learned, would be to keep it from building up again.

For 24 hours I lay in the E.R. and Calvin sat with me. He didn’t ask any questions and didn’t express any disdain. There would be time for questions later.

I behaved myself so that restraints weren’t necessary, but judging by the screams coming from my next-door neighbor, everyone wasn’t so lucky. “Why am I tied down? This is not right! I will sue somebody!” He, too, had taken a lot of drugs on October 26th, but apparently not the kind that make you sleep.

A male nurse’s aide accompanied me to the restroom when I had to go and he wedged the door ajar with his foot. A couple of times, during the nurses’ shift changes, I’d hear them muttering outside my room. “And this one…mutter mumble…suicide attempt…mumble mutter…Ambien…Vicodin…mumble…waiting for psych…”

A county employee came to assess me and assessed that I should go to a hospital for several days. A “5150 hold” has many implications – most of them not résumé-worthy – among them a clause dictating that I may not own, fire, hold, be near, or think about firearms for several years. I am still allowed to watch Winchester ‘73, starring James Stewart, which is a comfort.

The hospital stay was beneficial. It wasn’t Hilton but it wasn’t Cuckoo’s Nest, either. There were a lot of very friendly people who wanted to help me get better. In the space of three days I moved from scared and weepy to skeptical to invested in my recovery.

Once home I reconnected with the psychotherapist I’d seen on and off for a few years and he helped me find a psychiatrist. It was pretty clear that medical care would be part of my path forward.

Sure enough, after an hour with my new doctor she gave me the news. “I have a diagnosis.”

“OK. What?”

“Now, these things don’t have to define you. Many people do just fine…”

“What is it?”

She stared at me for half a minute.

“Look, if we’re going to get along you’re really going to have to tell me stuff.”

“Bipolar II.”

“OK, fine. How does that work?”

She explained Bipolar in general – higher than normal highs and lower than normal lows in the natural cycles of mood. In Bipolar II the highs aren’t as high as in Bipolar I (“hypomania” vs. full-blown “mania”), but the depressive episodes are just as severe, and sometimes more frequent, than in Bipolar I. The instance of suicide is at least as high in Bipolar II.

“OK, fine. What do we do about it?”

What we’d do about it, she said, was I would start taking a bunch of medicine. There would be a mood stabilizer for the middle, an antidepressant for the lows and an antipsychotic for the highs. The antipsychotic would have the added benefit of helping me sleep. Because I had taken all my Ambien in one day we thought it would be a good idea to try a different route than that for sleep.

(Technically I didn’t take all my Ambien on the day I tried to kill myself. Two days after I came home from the hospital I was sitting at my desk and looking for stamps. In the desk drawer where there should have been stamps, staples and paperclips, I discovered yet another bottle of Ambien that I would have taken if it had been where it belonged. I’m not one for reading signs into things but if I were, that definitely would have been a sign that I wasn’t meant to kick off just then.)

The medicine turned out to be a big help. I’m highly functional now and not a zombie at all. We’ve adjusted dosages once or twice but in general the pharmaceutical aspect of my mental health has been fairly straightforward. My doctor’s a good and insightful one and I trust her.

It’s been in psychotherapy that the most exciting stuff has happened. My therapist is named Mike and he doesn’t let me get away with anything.

“How did (whatever) make you feel?”

“After it happened I did this and then did that.”

“But how did it make you feel?”

“I thought the reasonable thing to do would be to…”

“Yes but how did it make you feel?”

“I just thought…”

Feeelll…”

“Oh. I guess I felt…”

This is where I would take time to admire Mike’s well-tended ivies and his bounteous library of how-to-be-sane books and the various DSMs.

Tick, tock goes the wall clock. Mike stares, expressionless.

“What was the question?”

“How did it make you feel?”

“Ah, yes. I felt…ang-“

He leans forward a few inches and raises an eyebrow.

“-gry.”

“Yes! You felt angry!”

It turns out that acknowledging my feelings is a job unto itself. And feelings are what fuel my internal boiler. Unacknowledged, they churn and fester into a cesspool of psychic funk.

I was unhappy in my office job. Over time I had accepted more and more duties that I hadn’t been hired to do, and those tasks in turn kept me from doing the things I liked doing and for which I felt valuable.

But what I had done, Mike helped me to understand, was to point my bitterness inward. My logic went like this: I hate what I’m doing and I’m angry for not doing the things I really want to do so it must be my fault so I must be deeply flawed so rather than handle things the only option is to kill myself.

Parsing the emotional aspect of that sentence took more than a few therapy sessions but the result has tinted almost everything else that’s happened with me since.

It looks ridiculous to see that particular set of linkages spelled out on my computer screen but I understand now that “anger turned inward” is an old Freudian concept of the basis of depression. And if I’m angry at myself, what’s the harshest punishment I can inflict on myself? Death.

Yes, there’s a physiological component to Depression and Bipolar Disorder, but for me the psychotherapy has been the most important piece. It’s constant – every single week – and every session builds on the previous ones.

We came to understand very early, for example, that I’ve spent my life assessing my innate value by the things I do rather than who I really am.

The doing-vs-being battle, it turns out, has clouded large swaths of my life, and I have to remind myself every day that the core of Clay-ness is what it is regardless of whether I get to work ten minutes late or forget to buy butter at the grocery store or serve dinner guests three courses instead of four.

Sure, I can enjoy doing things; they can bring financial rewards and high-fives in abundance. But they don’t determine my worth.

My suicide attempt was a gift. Needless to say, having another shot at life has been a gift. But beyond that, once the pressure cooker blew there were large chunks of cerebral real estate freed up to devote to other things.

Things like learning about what makes me tick and how to corral my peculiarities to make my life safer and happier.

Like figuring out what really makes me happy and fulfilled…and then doing it.

Like telling my friends over and over again that I love them, and relishing the sound of hearing them tell me the same thing. Real strength comes with “I care about you” and it’s worth saying it out loud.

I’m nobody’s idea of a crusader but I’ll go out on a limb and make a suggestion. It took a lot of hassle and worry and drama for me to be able to hit the reset button on my life, to get a second chance.

I suggest that whether you have Bipolar Disorder or any other mental illness or not, it’s worth taking a look at yourself and deciding if hitting the reset button makes sense for you.

About the Author

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Clay Russell is a writer, raconteur, news junkie, world traveler and husband. He prides himself on his non-linear life path. He has been a professional chef, shoe salesman and private investigator, and he spent seven years deep in California state government. Clay lives with his husband and two cats in rural Mississippi, where he gardens and swats mosquitoes.

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