Etiology

The sadness comes, I disengage:
Or days may fly where I don’t sleep —
There is no reason, rhyme, or rage
That can my wholeness sane me keep —

I do not understand, or see
The unknown etiology
Of why my moods just must be so
And go where’re the winds

May blow


Approximately thirty-five years ago, I was told by a series of doctors that I was manic-depressive, a condition now known under the term “bipolar disorder”.

This renaming followed the usual rule that any new term for a medical condition must have at least one more syllable than the old one.

As one may ascertain from the two terms for this condition, those who have it tend to vacillate between “two poles”: mania and depression. The latter condition is familiar to almost everybody, at least by name: the former, less so, as being wildly out of control and energetic is not always viewed as a problem.

When it reaches the level of mania, it is. Believe me, it is.

I’ve been dealing with this condition for the better part of four decades now. Like dealing with my epilepsy, it is part of my daily routine. It’s not a big deal in my thoughts anymore, unless I have had a “bad day”.

Like yesterday.

In a typical day, I need to (a) stay away from any kind of mood-altering substances (notably alcohol or sugar); (b) make sure I get some elevated-heart-rate exercise; (c) take my medicine in the prescribed amounts at the appropriate times; and (d) get adequate sleep.

Yesterday was my third consecutive day where I didn’t do (b), but did do (a), and decidedly non-wacky hijinks ensued.

I turned into a horrible person, basically.

On my best days, my life is severely limited in terms of my flexibility and ability to socialize because I am trying to make sure I do the things I need to do to be a reasonably pleasant and functioning human. When that fails, I am reminded again what happens. Because I don’t feel sick when it’s happening, I just feel like I’m a monster.

Because mental illnesses are diseases, just like other illnesses, we are told we should feel no shame over them. However, my experience is that people who have physical illnesses also struggle with feeling “less-than”: I know, I have one.

When I asked my doctors, back in the day, what caused this condition, I got various answers: however, their answers can be grouped into three general categories, as follows:

1) My genes suck.
2) My brain structure sucks.
3) I have some other equally sucky condition that causes this as a side-effect.

No matter which of these causes is THE cause in my case, I feel just as bad after knowing it, or possibly worse. Because none of them is of the “oh, this was caused by a bacteria or virus” so I can blame black rats migrating across European trade routes or something.

Nope, no one to blame, just defective old me and my broken brain and/or genes.


One thing that has helped, however, is realizing that problems of the sort I have are in the nature of a continuum; everybody has challenges along the way when it comes to issues of physical, mental, and emotional health.

Many — perhaps even most — people hide these challenges, however. Or never come to grips what the nature of what their particular challenges are.

Every one of us is born with different tools, in a different place, at a different time. Each one of us is faced with different limitations; we all each have different abilities, and differing experiences to draw upon. And we’re all just doing the best we can, given where are and what we have to work with.

And I’m just trying not to be a monster.

Days In

Nights out
Days in
Feel lost
What’s been

Long gone
Still here
Drank love
Ate fear

Drove far
Stopped short
Dropped off
Held court

Need break
Can’t bend
Sad shape
Days inn


I grew up dreaming of a wanderer’s life: roaming from place to place, seeing things, experiencing things. Just me, and the road, and wherever I happened to go next.

To some, that might seem like a life of unbearable loneliness. And indeed, it probably would be. However, I found the solitude inherent in the idea to be part of its attraction.

In addition, my ideas about economics were rather poor: things like eating and sleeping having a cost associated with them hadn’t occurred to me. But, substitute the always useful “if I won the lottery” trope and I was free to resume these fantasies.

The world is in a constant state of change, of course. However, we tend to think of the world we enter into and come to know as children as being “the” world. The one we think of as permanent. The stores, products, and businesses we know at that age are felt to be stable and abiding features of the world — but they rarely (if ever) are.

The motel chains of my youth lay largely abandoned. Restaurants are standing ruins. I often stop off at Interstate exits where few people stop anymore.

I am at one now.

My family never stayed here (it’s about four hours from where I grew up) but we ate at the restaurant here when I was a kid. I can still hear my family laughing over dinner and some story my brother told.

How many people’s lives intersected with this place?

Families staying here, children conceived here…

So many lives, so long ago…

“They brought them dead sons from the war,
  And daughters whom life had crushed,
  And their children fatherless, crying—
  All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.

  All, all are sleeping, sleeping, sleeping on the hill.”

The Oft-Cut Gem

The shine of tears
On the oft-cut gem:
For choices make us
More than we make

Them


The phone buzzes in my pocket while I am sitting in a meeting at work. The meeting is almost over, so I decide to wait until after to see who it is.

As I’m walking back to the floor I work on, I see that it was the youngest of my stepdaughters, the one who lives out of town. She and her husband are having… challenges.

Sitting on my desk is a photo of her, taken two autumns ago. She’s very tall, and very beautiful, but even then, the sadness she carried with her always was evident. For no young girl ever loved a man more than she has loved her husband, but his is a tortured existence.

She was in town a few weeks ago for the first time in almost a year, and it was wonderful to see her. Very different than her sisters, with a wildly extroverted oldest sister, and an ambitious and motivated middle sister, she prefers a quiet and simple life. Of an extremely quick mind, she has subordinated every aspect of her life to that of her husband.

All of this is heartbreaking to her mother, who sees her youngest as having given away large parts of who she really is, and with rather poor return. Maybe it is my naturally melancholy temperament, but I view love and grief as being the same currency; you trade in one, you deal with the other.

That, and I truly believe her husband loves her as well, he just has mental health and behavioral limitations.

When I wrote a few essays ago about being a stepparent, I mentioned that it can be a very asymmetrical type of thing: however, with my youngest stepdaughter and my stepson, it feels the least so. In her case, she seems to see and value aspects of the relationship her mother and I have in a way neither of her sisters do – particularly, that we keep each other sane.

If you are with someone who tears you down, or who you feel a need to tear down, you are in the wrong relationship, or perhaps you have no business being in any relationship.

Love doesn’t tear down, love builds up.

So I look, from the picture on my desk back to the text message on my phone and answer:

Sure. Whatever I can do to help…

Warming Hands

Where is the dark, the endless dark,
That used to blind and block my way?
Where is the sullen afterthought?
It seems we left it by the way

Upon the road that took us here
To sit beside the meadow,
And hold each other’s warming hand
Beyond the reach of shadow


Very often, people recount events to convey feelings.

I remember, many years ago, a date telling me about a place she went with her sister, and how the lines were long and stretched outside the buildings, and how they had gotten sunburned that day but how it was worth it for those two hours they rode around on jet skis, and how the two of them used to just laugh until their faces and sides hurt, but now they mostly talk about her sister’s no-good boyfriend, and all I could do is think I don’t understand this story. I mean, what do you want me to do about it? I don’t even know your sister!

Clueless, thy name is Owen.

The younger version of me hadn’t really picked up much in the way of social or conversational nuance. Here was this young lady friend of mine, opening up a part of her life that meant a lot to her, and it was wasted on me. Because I just didn’t get it.

This woman and I have stayed friends over the years, and I mentioned that date and her comments about her sister to her not too long ago. She said, after thinking for a few seconds, “I knew you were in there. You were listening; you remember all these years later. You just hadn’t… put it all together yet. A bunch of us girls tried to get through to you. That’s why we each kept trying.”

So it was a conspiracy. I should have known. These female friends of mine trying to draw me into the world of human beings, one failed dating relationship at a time.

Which kind of makes me smile.

at the margin bleak

a white powder day, the buzzards swarming in
circles above an inadequate dissonance

finding winter across bleak margin, and
a cross above frightened bushes huddled for warmth

it is a winter’s choice that must be made in every season:
to carry on, or be
carrion

the out of place

Years ago, I was renting a house. One of the gates on our fence was messed up, so I asked my dad if he could show me how to fix it. He did. About six months later, a hurricane blew through, and destroyed the fence. The only part of it still standing was the gate, because when my Dad fixed something, it STAYED fixed.

Sometimes people would ask why we had a gate, but no fence. “The fence wasn’t up to the challenge,” I’d answer.

We never know what will last in this life — friendships, jobs, relationships of all kinds. Storms eventually come through, however, and we see what’s still standing.

If we are.


you wonder if it has a point:
the out of place, the left behind —
but every body has a tale,
and it is best to keep in mind

that we appear incongruous
to those who do not know
the road it took to get us here
and why things turned out

so

 

Through Another Set of Eyes

A year of alcohol and sweat,
Of wandering and wondering;
A time of folly and regret:
Exploring, musing, thundering –

A voyage of discovery,
A country without maps:
A time of runaway intent
And imminent

Collapse


All of us have lives that are of abiding importance to us. Convincing other people how important we are, however, can be an uphill climb.

It’s almost like other people have lives and concerns of their own. Go figure.

Much of the joy of reading blogs (at least for me) is when you see people trying to work out the significance of what they have seen, felt, and experienced.

The world seems an entirely different place when viewed through another set of eyes.


“So, why did you two get divorced, anyway?” I asked him. We were shooting baskets on an outdoor hardtop basketball court around sunset. We were the only two there.

“She had just quit working, and she was spending all the money and lying about it. We had gotten an apartment in Gulf Shores that took both of our incomes to make it, but she had just… stopped.”

“I thought attorneys made good money.”

“They don’t when they aren’t working. She had done house closings in Birmingham, but she never got her practice off the ground in the new place. Nor even tried to.”

“Where was she spending the money?”

“I never figured that out.”

“Gambling?”

“Maybe. She never seemed to leave home, and we had nothing to show for wherever the money went… Anyways, one day after I came home from work we had it out, and the next day, when I came home, everything was cleaned out of the apartment except my clothes, and the computer desk.”

“Did she go back home?”

“Yes. The divorce was final 18 months ago.”

“Well that sucks. Have you been dating anybody?”

“Yeah, you know me. My usual assortment of questionable choices… that’s five three’s in a row. You are buying later.”

More often than not, I ended up buying.


“So, tell me about these ‘questionable choices’ of yours.”

We were working on a plate of assorted appetizers later that evening. He was drinking Heineken; I was working on a Coke.

“First one I dated, before the divorce was final, was an engineer who had come in to do some work on the restaurant. I got her number, we went out to dinner and a movie, it seemed great. I wasn’t going to push for anything else at the end of the night, you know, first date and all.”

“… but?”

“I didn’t need to push. Whatever there was to do, she was down for it, it turned out. It was a little… disconcerting.”

“For you? I thought you loved that kind of stuff.”

“Yeah, well maybe I’m rusty or I’ve gotten older or more grown up or set in my ways or… I don’t know what. It was kind of a turnoff.”

“So you didn’t…”

“Oh, no, I did, we did, that part happened anyway. It was just, I knew when I left I wasn’t going to see her again, and I think her mind was… somewhere in the opposite direction.”

“Did you talk to her again?”

“Oh, yes, when I didn’t call her, she showed up at work. She used the excuse of wanting to inspect the work her guys had done, but she cornered me in my office and wanted to know where I got off thinking I could treat her like that.”

“What did you say?”

“That I was very sorry, but that I just didn’t think we should see each other anymore.”

“Wow. That’s wild.”

“When you got divorced, was dating hard? Did it seem bewildering?”

“Oh, yeah, and I did some really dumb stuff before Janey and I started dating.”

“Like…?”

“Oh, went out with a nineteen year-old and dated my therapist’s office assistant, just to name two.”

“Damn. You are an idiot.”

“Can’t deny that.”


All of that was close to fifteen years ago. Two years ago, my wife and I went down to Florida for a trip, and had lunch with my friend and his girlfriend of some years, but who we had never met.

We both liked her, immediately. She is a schoolteacher, and the two of them seem to play very well off of each other. She has grown kids: he never had any.

We ate at a restaurant sitting on some docks over the bayou; after lunch, we went out for a walk, and he I were talking as we trailed behind, watching the others chatting animatedly.

“She seems great,” I said.

“Yeah, I’ve been very lucky,” he said.

“You ever hear from your ex?”

“Nope, he said. “I guess that’s one good thing about not having kids together,” he added. “I did, however, recently hear from another sort-of-ex. Do you remember me telling you years ago about an engineer-woman I had kind of a one-night thing with?”

“I do.”

“She contacted me on Facebook.”

“Stalking?”

“No, she’s calmed down a lot since I knew her. Is married, has some kids. She actually wanted a recipe from the old restaurant. It turned out, she had eaten there for years before she came in that day to do some work, and I had never noticed or connected that was her. So she just wanted a recipe.”

“Did you give it to her?”

“Of course! It’s very flattering when people remember food you made so fondly.”

We looked up, and his girlfriend was pointing out some things across the bayou she particularly wanted Janey to see.

“It’s weird how you can know someone for such a short time, and have a picture in your head of what they are like, and then, years later, find out they are a totally different person than you remember them being,” he said, musing.

“People keep moving,” I said. “Our mind tends to freeze them at the ages we knew them. I saw John yesterday, and I couldn’t get over how old he looked. But then I remembered, I hadn’t seen him since High School.”

“And that was a long frickin’ time ago,” he said, laughing.

“Indeed.”