On Tuesday May 13th I went to this show at the Piano Craft Guild in Boston. I really liked it and I took some photos, a selection of which you can look at here. Click pics to view larger images.

 

SUDDEN INFANT & NMPERIGN – Swiss post-Aktionist Schimpfluch punk meets Boston’s own purveyors of nmperignity. Fans of bodily discomfort will find something they might be looking for. www.suddeninfant.com, http://www.bhobrainey.net, http://www.geocities.com/greyelkgel

WILL GUTHRIE & NEWTON ARMSTRONG – Two Australian ex-pats via Nantes, France & Hanover, New Hampshire arrive in town to lay it down. Electrical engineers weilding sharp weaponry… radio static and convulsive junk-electronics amplified splat from percussive detritus and homemade digital whatsis. Fans of Voice Crack or Jerome Noetinger, don’t miss this! www.antboymusic.com, eamusic.dartmouth.edu/~newton/

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The HATE Society

May 28, 2008

[I wrote the following a few years ago. I sat down to write cathartically about my hate for human behavior but this came out instead. It serves as a reasonable statement of some of my philosophical positions wrapped in some gratuitous self satire.]

When I was a student, a friend and I wanted to found a student group called the HATE society. This acronym stood for hedonists, atheists, temporalists and existentialists. I thought we were very clever to think this up. The cleverness of the name and our self-satisfaction were conveniently hateful. The student society idea never progressed. Perhaps that was because students, student life and student societies were all hateful, or so it seemed at the time. Our university had seven different communist student societies that appeared to spend most of their energy warring with each other. What was our society supposed to do? Meet in licensed premises to discuss and develop ideas relating to the insignificance of existence and the compensations of nihilistic self-indulgence? Maybe the idea of the HATE society, despicable on so many levels, never really stood a chance.

Hedonism is decadent and hedonists are repellant. The idea, that the only worthwhile use of one’s time on this globe is self-indulgence, felt very reasonable. But what to do with this knowledge and how to be self-indulgent was problematic — where to get the money, for one thing. So practice of hedonism turned out to be hard to sustain. The affected swagger of self-confidence retreating in the enduring onslaught of self-doubt.

I was taught that atheism is acceptance of materialism and belief in the non-existence of the supernatural. I was brought up by atheist parents to be a skeptic. As a teenager I had a fling, I’m embarrassed to admit, thought it turned out to be quite educational, with evangelical Baptists before returning to atheism as a university student. Now I consider myself a died-in-the-wool, table-thumping (in the absence of a bible) atheist. I’d like to consider myself a fundamentalist in this regard but that doesn’t fit with my hate for credulity. But I feel comfortable regarding myself as a skeptical but devout atheist.

Temporalist is a word I made up to fit the acronym. We needed a T. Collins’ dictionary gave me: “temporal — 2. of or relating to secular as opposed to spiritual or religious affairs”. Just add an -ism and, bob’s your transsexual auntie (as we liked to say), a new philosophical movement was born: the philosophy of a kind of secularism specifically opposed to spirituality and religion. Sounded good to me.

Existentialist thought occupied me from my teenage years. I suppose there’s nothing unusual in that. I eventually came to the view that attempting to answer the principal existential questions is futile but that the questions themselves are universally important. We all feel compelled to address existential questions and the non-existence of answers causes almost unbearable tension. The tension involves yearning and searching for any explanation. Credulity combines with sham existential answers to bring release of the tension. I experienced this with those very loving Baptists.

At the social level existential yearning and release propels all manner of outlandish ideas and practices despite their demonstrable nonsensicality. Beliefs such as god or nationalism and practices such as prayer or war, all remarkably durable ideas despite their very apparent weaknesses, are cast into existence by the quasi-magical power of existential tension. Sure, other factors contribute and other human beliefs and practices aren’t so harmful but that doesn’t contradict me. Existential tension has a lot to answer for.

Though my existentialist tension was never released, over the years I slowly gained confidence in acceptance of the materialist answer. There is no supernatural supervisor or a place to go after death of the body. We are just more-or-less complex arrangements of matter, ambulant zones of reduced entropy organized out of the environmental chaos of matter (dust) by intricate cellular processes, destined to return to dust when the machine wears out or is destroyed. Brain function is a result of a specific material organization and consciousness is an aspect of brain function.

So my life, thought and perception was material and of no more consequence to the universe than a peanut, a star or a molecule of potassium bromide. Nature was wholeheartedly disinterested in me. Compared to nature, and so to time and space, the phenomenon of my existence was an irrelevance of unimaginable proportion. I may be of matter but matter, apart from a few other pieces of it beside myself, couldn’t care less. Celia Green considered it remarkable that many humans actually appear to retain their sanity when confronted with this utterly inconceivable yet fatally significant thought.

Consciousness, cognition and language interaction, being traits of the human species, along with love, credulity and war, are therefore based in matter. Other than us, nothing within or beyond the universe, nothing natural or super-natural, nothing at all could possibly give a care to my behaviors and thoughts.

At death it’s just over. The material consequences of an individual human existence — a corpse, a photo, a poem or a firebombed city — persist for a while along with some memories, perhaps. All will disintegrate into the dust in their own course. I find it pleasing to think that if I were to create a large hard, smooth object of fully cured vitreous porcelain, it would be my longest lasting legacy. My life memorialized by a toilet bowl.

The persistent existence, beyond my individual human life, of morality, values, humanism etc. is interesting but is also material in nature since these are ideas and thus an aspect of brain function. The phenomenon of their existence outside of the self is partly realistic but also misleading for they exist, not quite as matter but as the dynamic state of certain specific matter, namely a collection of human minds (plural). Persistent ideas propagate from one mind to others. Humans imagine them, injected into the “hive mind” (the currently fashionable notion of the mesh of human minds interconnected by various languages) where they are sustained by the energetic motors of existential tension and pervasive credulity to evolve as memes through time and societies. I admit being complicit, in my own way, of sustaining and nurturing the memes.

I don’t really want to judge our established memes. They have no responsibility for themselves. But I do anyway. I would prefer to practice judgment only of their applicability to me and within my sphere of influence. But beyond that, I can’t deny that I love them, hate them or ignore them as capriciously as the rest of us. Presumably this is my relationship with humanity more than it is with humanity’s ideas.

Unquestionably, the well-established memes can have utility and some have awesome power. They can be deployed to organize populations for war or for peaceful co-existence, to generate wealth for individuals or for societies, to exploit and impoverish or to educate, empower and cure disease.

There’s also no question that they exist. God exists. Heaven exists. They were here before I was and will be here after I am gone. But they are still only ideas in the minds of people, products of material evolution and liable to extinction with our species. They have no other existence.

I found the truth of all this inescapable. Deny it and I am forced to deny the basic axiom of materialism, denial of which is denial of empiricism and reason. Despite sometimes wanting to, I could never bring myself to do so, at least not since renouncing that teenage thing with the ever-loving Baptists. Natural philosophy and empiricism compels me to accept materialism and the non-existence of the super-natural just as they compel me to accept that the sun shines on the earth. I can’t prove the truth of either, nobody can, but the evidence is overwhelming.

So I applied materialism, and what follows from it, to some specific existential questions. Materialism, turning menacingly into an overbearing alter ego, didn’t answer my first one: why am I here? Instead he rebutted the question. “Who cares?” he said angrily. “Hardly anyone and nothing besides. That’s who! It doesn’t matter why you are here. That’s as irrelevant as why a leaf is here. It matters not why you are here but that you are here, how you got here and what you’re going to do about it.” [His emphasis, not mine.]

“But what you do is your own business,” materialism continued angrily, “yours alone and its a lie to say otherwise. It’s your job to figure out what you believe and what you do. Accept ideas from outside without all due consideration and you deny individual freedom and responsibility. All education, indoctrination and media are essentially authoritarian. Received wisdom isn’t. Feel free — turn yourself into an automaton programmed by your environment if you want. But uncritical acceptance of external ideas is credulity. So don’t come to me for tea and sympathy when received ideas abandon or fail you.”

So materialism, harsh as he was, didn’t answer my existential question before he stormed off. But he had unwittingly given an answer to what was going to be my next one: what is the nature of my freedom as a human? It was, perhaps, a meta-answer but it was a crucial one.

While I busy myself here, making stuff up for this essay, more or less, about my personal history (oh yeah, like you’ve never done it), humor me as I coin a name for the alter ego’s rebuttal. His philosophy of “materialist existentialism” never released my own existential tension but it was a handy framework for mulling over other questions.

For example, materialist existentialism readily allowed me to accept the worthlessness of many customary existential answers. I wasn’t going to talk myself into going to church like that pussycat Kierkegaard. And I wasn’t going to fret over the evil in the world — it doesn’t exist anyway, other than as a subjective individual evaluation of things — nor over the actions of others outside my sphere of influence. On the other hand, my new philosophy — not itself new, I presumed, but new to me — rebuked me sharply for being passive in the face of life and my environment, for not expanding my sphere of influence and striking out to actually do anything. Following my path of least resistance from school to a comfortably paid career, living a life with consequences that were barely measurable and, averaged over time and space, not necessarily positive, was an act of cowardice.

So materialism was a product of empiricism that led me inexorably to atheism while materialist existentialism bullied me into libertarianism (what you do and believe is your business and yours alone) and thus into secularism. Furthermore I chose to adopt temporalism — I invented it, I thought, so I might as well go first — because I disdained the spiritual and religious lies forever hurled at me. I suppose materialist existentialism could also justify hedonism, but I never had either the wealth or courage required.

Maybe the HATE society idea, that distant but still visible beacon of my studentey pretentiousness, wasn’t all that far from the mark after all. Only the hedonism bit didn’t work out — the rest turned out to be correct. Maybe now is the time for an update: replace hedonism with materialism to produce … the MATE society? Maybe revise this manuscript in front of me — getting rid of the first person singular and past tense — and there we have it: the MATE society manifesto. Come! Join us in the MATE society. We’ve got ideas, unoriginal perhaps, worn out even, but revitalized in a new style with all the passion of reformed HATE. Ideas ready to thrust into the minds of others in that fecund milieu of … um …

Perhaps in another 25 years, if the bits and bytes are still available, I can look back on this MATE society manifesto, like Krapp reviewing old tapes of his thoughts on reviewing even older tapes, and enjoy a chuckle over my mid-life post-studentey pretentiousness.

Riding in the burbs, boonies and exurbs in orbit around Boston, as I often do, there is ample opportunity to contemplate the nature of human behavior. In those situations I am often interested in the behavior of people driving cars. I observe, record, tally, analyze, and classify. Recognizable patterns arise. Sometimes with sufficient definition to have some predictive power. And sometimes I like to wager a hypothesis as to the cause of the patterns.

Within the broad class of drivers who’s aim appears to be to maintain strict limits on the distance between their car and the one ahead of them on the road, some are more urgent in their efforts than others. Of course, the only thing that can be achieved (on the roads I cycle on) by accelerating a car is reduction of the distance to the car ahead. But most drivers avoid colliding with that car and few will ever pass it so they just end up maintaining a certain distance. This then appears to be the goal, maintaining strict upper and lower bounds on that distance.

Thus these drivers appear to be motivated to either a) get close to a car, if they aren’t already, or b) to stay close it if they are.  I’d say that the majority of motorists in Eastern Mass. display this behavior.

Nothing new there, of course, but what’s interesting is the priority of this goal relative to other dimensions of the driving experience. Some will risk the safety of a cyclist in pursuit of this goal. This is actually quite common. By no means the majority of drivers do it but for cyclists it’s a routine experience.

Before postulating the underlying reasons for such behavior, let’s estblish some simple facts:

  1. The opportunity to pass a cyclist safely when it isn’t now is usually only a matter of seconds away.
  2. The consequences for the driver, his or her passengers or anyone else in the world of waiting those seconds are almost certainly nil. Even if the wait is 30 seconds (extraordinarily long), it’s only going to be a minute or two before the car in front has been regained, so arrival time for the journey will not be affected. Even if it were, what do 30 seconds matter?
  3. The consequences of passing a cyclist unsafely can be very serious. While the life of the cyclist may be of some concern to the driver, almost all would prefer to avoid a collision with an oncoming vehicle. Even on slow country roads the relative speed of the vehicles can easily reach 60 mph — enough cause injury (even with today’s safety technology) and cause considerable inconvenience.

So there is no incremental cost to anyone if the car passes safely as opposed to unsafely. But there is potentially high cost to driver, passengers, cyclist, other road users, emergency services, families, etc. to passing unsafely. The choice to pass unsafely is therefore irrational.

And that’s what makes it interesting. Why do people make that choice?

  • They don’t know that their driving is unsafe?
  • They feel that they are safe and don’t care about the cyclist or other drivers?
  • They feel entitled to drive without having to slow down to the speed of the vehicle in front if that vehicle is a bicycle?

I’m sure you can think of more possibilities. But in any of these three cases, the position taken is clearly unsupportable by obvious and available facts. So there’s a fair chance that a cognitive dissonance is involved.

My guess is that the core underlying cognition is a belief that one is important and that one’s journey is urgent. It’s obvious that neither is true, hence dissonance. So cognitions consonant with the core cognition of self importance are piled on: “I shouldn’t have to wait for cyclists.” “Cyclists should be on the shoulder or sidewalk.” “This is a 40 mph road.” and other such nonsense. (I’ve heard all of those from drivers, btw.)

One that I heard earlier this year really stuck with me. I was riding on a Sunday morning in the pastoral burbs arourd Acton or Westord or somewhere like that with a group of three other cyclists. The stretch of road was straight, narrow enough so a car had to cross the center line to pass, but undulating enough that you couldn’t always see what was coming the other way. We were riding in line carefully at the right, knowing that traffic wanted to pass. One car began a passing maneuver without being able to see beyond an oncoming rise in the road. It got half past us when an oncoming car emerged over the now very near crest of the rise. The passing car slowed and moved right forcing two of us to brake to make space. The oncoming car had to stop.

One of our group had a word with the driver. She declared in her defense: “But we live here!”

For a cognition to reinforce the core self-importance cognition, that’s reaching pretty far into the absurd. “But we live here!” She was perfectly serious. She was driving a Subaru.

I mention the brand of car because I’ve noticed that among the minority of drivers who choose to pass unsafely rather than safely, Subaru (Scooby-Doo as call it) and mini-vans are over represented. And I’m curious as to why.

And so finally to my outlandish conjecture. If I were living in a vinyl-sidewall house on a standard plot in a banal subdivision of a town without one decent restaurant, without a bar women can comfortably frequent, without a cinema, a theater, art gallery, with virtually no cultural or intellectual life but with plenty of churches, and I had to face that fact that I had sacrificed my foreseeable future to little more than the transportation of groceries and thankless children, I’d be pretty pissed off too. It would be hard to resolve that dissonance by adding consonant cognition. What alternative would I have? So I’d be living in constant tension and insecurity regarding my self-importance. 

Pity these Scooby-Doo and mini-van drivers. But if your out on a bicycle, take care too.

Bicycle storage

May 27, 2008

After much to-do, we finally installed the bicycle storage I had envisaged but been unable to describe to the most beloved. I think it works rather well. For an apartment of 1250 sq ft, nine bicycles, two of which are tandems, is quite a lot. This solution puts four of them into a volume of space that is otherwise little used. I have to nod my head when I stand under a front wheel but I don’t want to stand there very often so it’s no big deal.

The hooks were at the Home Despot at South Bay, Boston. I can’t find the hook on their web site. They have a big screw that requires a 5/16″ pilot hole. The hook part has a rubbery coating. We used a stud finder to locate a joist in the ceiling to screw the hooks into.

I hope the photos could be useful.

Fatigue and muscle weakness are commonly listed as possible side effects of lithium. But as far as I can tell, that’s as far as anyone takes the subject. The causal mechanisms aren’t discussed. Nor are possible management strategies. I had those side effects bad enough to be almost ready to quit lithium when I figured out what was going on. I was then able to eliminate the side effects with a very simple remedy. I am not making suggestions for anyone but this is my story and it may be interesting to those on lithium, their family and friends, and those with patients on lithium.

I began medial treatment for BPDII Dec 2006 with Lamictal, presumably because I was presenting with depression. The Lamictal modified the depression by making me irritable and agitated all the time. Whether this change of mood was due to the drug or the disease wasn’t clear initially. But by summer I’d had enough of agitation and irritability (despite a attempt to mitigate it with Seroquel) and wanted a change.

So I started lithium. We monitored side effects, plasma Li level and kidney function during the ramp up. I had the thirst at first but that went away. Otherwise, all OK.

But when I got to 900mg sustained release daily dose I started to feel fatigued, weak, lethargic, and sluggish. I was sleeping more: 9-10 hours at night plus naps in the day. I had no energy and continuously faced a strong urge to lie down on the couch. My mood was affected: I was unhappy, irritable, and mean. And my athletic performance was dismal. This was very disturbing.

I am a male, early 40’s, and a cyclist. I do long distance cycling and a little bit of racing. I am relatively good; I finished Boston-Montreal-Boston 2006 in 70hr 34min, around the top 25% in an event that attracts cyclists from all over. I finished the 2006 400km Boston Brevet in 15hr 37min first out of 54 riders, 5 min faster than the next finisher. So before I started BPD treatment, I was a decent athlete. And please trust me that I have a good idea of what kind of baseline performance I can expect.

My performance on the bike in Nov and Dec was bad. I felt tired, my legs ached, I was having no fun and I was slow. My performance was off by 30-40% in terms of power*. I was embarrassed when I went out with the buddies. I didn’t enjoy cycling. My ambitions for 2008 seemed questionable.

It seemed like I was facing a choice between lithium and cycling. If so, it was fairly clear that lithium would lose since cycling has done more for my heath and mental wellbeing than any psychodrug.

Then in early Jan 2008 it started to get better. I was thrilled. I was not back to my previous performance but I was not far off. I had some good fast rides with the troop and things looked well. My shrink, who had no idea what had been causing the fatigue, agreed with me when I said: perhaps it was an initial thing and my body had adapted. But then in Feb the fatigue returned.

In Mar, while I was still feeling bad, I stopped taking lithium for one week to see what would happen. By the end of that week I was significantly improved, not fully recovered but noticeably better. When I started the lithium again I was back where I was.

I make a note of my weight regularly and the sheet is on the bathroom wall. So it was obvious when my body weight jumped up by 2.5% when I stopped lithium, stayed there for the week and then jumped back down where it was when I resumed taking lithium.

But it was a couple of weeks before a likely explanation dawned on me. My hypothesis was that lithium was causing dehydration and that dehydration was causing my symptoms of fatigue and weakness.

So I started drinking more. I was already drinking a lot relative to typical civilians but I stepped it up. I now drink 4-5liter H2O a day (roughly a pint every 90min) when not exercising. When cycling this goes up to about 0.75 – 1liter/hr depending on temperature and effort. When I get up at night to pee, I drink some more. I felt better already the day after I started drinking like this. The symptoms were gone.

Well, almost. Occasionally I have a day when I feel the side effects again. I attribute it to falling behind on my drinking.

I’ve discussed this with my shrink, who accepts the dehydration theory, and at length with my GP. He has several patients on lithium and explained to me how it affects the kidneys.

Lithium encourages the kidneys to drain clean water out of the blood. Technically, they say that it inhibits the kidneys’ ability to concentrate urine. That’s true but that doesn’t explain the dehydration. Better started: lithium inhibits the kidneys’ ability to concentrate urine AND boosts urination. So, for example, if you are dehydrated and on lithium, you can still pee plenty of pale or clear urine. For an athlete, this is tremendously important to understand.

Like many endurance sportspeople, I was in the habit of estimating hydration by monitoring urine color, volume and frequency. But on lithium this is misleading. As my GP explained, the only thing to go on is the sense of thirst. I make an effort to pay close attention to this. It’s a new habit and not so easy to learn but I think it works.

So that’s the end of my story. However, I’m still rather disappointed that I had to figure this out on my own. My shrink didn’t suspect dehydration as the cause of my symptoms. I found no clue despite hours of searching and reading online. I found mention of fatigue and muscle weakness and I found mention of the kidney effects and the need to drink enough but nothing that connected these – nothing to warn that lithium can cause dehydration that in turn can cause fatigue, muscle weakness, irritability and lethargy.

After I resolved the issue, I searched again armed with better queries and again found no sign that this is an understood problem. My shrink accepted the theory but it seemed new to her. Considering that one of the documented effects of dehydration (2% is enough) is mood disturbance (irritability is often recorded), this seems unreasonable. Aside from the physical symptoms, lithium is causing mood problems in some patients — needlessly.


* This was estimated from heart rate. Properly prepared (rest, feeding, etc.), I can expect to be able to ride at average 165bpm for an hour. This was down to 130bpm. Taking my sitting heart rate as 55bpm, this indicates about 40% power loss.

Mania is a narcotic: speed and cocaine together. It’s a high, for sure, a powerful one. Work is easy and you get a lot of it done. Ideas flow freely, new concepts arise without effort. Creative output is voluminous. You don’t tire, don’t sleep, you keep at it, whatever it is. You have confidence and, in particular, self-confidence, enough to tackle audacious projects and dissolve social inhibition. Productivity and imagination is immense, be it prose, poetry, music, philosophy, mathematics, computer programs or whatever.

But one utterly crucial characteristic of mania is loss of critical judgment. You are convinced of the originality of your ideas, the beauty of your art, the power of your music and the life-changing significance of the concepts you have understood. You are essential, inspired, brilliant, shining like a sun, superhuman — the evidence is everywhere but you don’t have the critical sense to know if it is real or an illusion.

When sobriety returns it does so with embarrassment. Even if there is no depression in the aftermath there is the evidence of your creative bender. Bad poetry, unfinished texts full of confused ideas, art that is after all neither original nor good. The philosophical theories you thought would change the world turn out to be incoherent.

It’s trite, worn-out and banal to mention it but what they say about the 90% perspiration is true. Inspiration is involved but seldom is it sufficient. Great works require a great amount of work. And they require the critical editorial eye. You didn’t produce a masterpiece throwing paints around all night in a hypomanic flight of virtuoso inspiration before going at dawn for coffee and deciding instead to write an opera. To your sober self what is on the canvas is a worthless embarrassment. Mania can’t make you superhuman — nothing can make you capable of producing works of genius with ease. It may give you inspiration but it robs you of the sense to judge which inspirations are worth anything.

Mania is a narcotic — your work is garbage but it makes you feel like god.

Mania is a fraud.

In her book, “An Unquiet Mind”, Kay Jamison avoids exploring this aspect of manic depression. And that’s very strange. It would be one thing if she were just talking about herself, if she were just a bipolar sufferer who refuses to discuss the evidence that the upside of mania is fake. But she’s a practicing clinical psychologist treating manic depressive patients and a scholar specializing in mood disorders with status as a world-class authority on the topic.

So she must have encountered this aspect and dealt with many patients who were dubious of the value of their manias. I spoke to my own therapist about this and she said that there are some patients she’s had who cherish their manic experiences, associate them with creativity and would fear loss of that part of their lives but that there are many others who, like me, are skeptical and fearful of mania and the intoxicated trash it generates.

Towards the end of her book she writes nostalgically of her earlier manic episodes. In the epilog where she says she would rather have the disease than not, she avoids making claims that anything of value came from the manic episodes but elsewhere in the book she does not. For example, she speculates about the possibility of eradicating the disease from the world and what a loss to society that would be: “The disease appears to convey its advantages [to the individual and society] not only through its relationship to the artistic temperament and imagination, but through its influence on many eminent scientists, as well as business, religious, military, and political leaders.” The astonishing thing here is the bald presumption that the disease confers any benefits at all. To Dr. Jamison this appears to go without saying. But many of us with intimate experience of the disease (I’ve had it for 25 years) disagree. I prefer my artistic temperament and imagination sober — the productivity may be lower but at least the product sometimes has value.

This book is not just a personal memoir. Dr. Jamison uses her platform as respected expert in the field to offer also an objective layman’s introduction to the disease. As such I consider it irresponsible to omit mentioning that it is nothing more than her personal opinion (and indeed a controversial one) that the disease has benefits and can, in balance, be a good thing.

Mania and hypomania obliterate critical judgment and reliable self-appraisal. Recognizing this, as Dr. Jamison does in her account of her manias, how could one fail to be suspicious of the accuracy of the memory of the experience or of the work products? One would have to have a motive to ignore this blindingly obvious line of thought.

I can understand that it may be hard to accept that what one recalls as the most creative moments of ones life were perhaps hollow or that which has distinguished ones life from the ordinary was possibly nugatory. I can see why people would avoid exploring these possibilities. But I cannot accept that this, of all books, should seek to avoid their mention. With her books such as this, Dr. Jamison seeks, among other things, respect and acclaim as a professional and an expert. I accord her that. But I consequently expect corresponding standards to apply. By those standards, I regard this obvious omission as irresponsible.

This being my history with the medical treatment of BPDII.

In summer 2003 I had been unemployed for more than a year. In October 2001, my employer, a high-tech equipment maker, went bankrupt after the investors lost their nerve the previous month. Every employee was laid off at a meeting in the cafeteria. This wasn’t a surprise but it was a new experience, as was unemployment. One has a lot more time when unemployed. With a full time job its hard to squeeze in all the things that are so much more interesting and relevant than either work or being at the office: reading books, practicing guitar, going to movies, clubs, concerts and gigs, playing games and sports, writing, collecting music, improving ones German, and maybe learning Spanish. But instead of thus deploying my unemployed time I just spent it being depressed.

In the second half of 2002, the absurd build-up to an outlaw violent US attack on Iraq was underway. I felt complicit in this war crime having subsidized it as a US tax payer and having failed to do anything much to stop it. A couple of friends managed to talk themselves into supporting the war — willful acceptance of a lie, as I saw it (still do). This was a betrayal I could not accept — a crushing blow. Then the war happened.

The next four months or so did not exist. Human memory is selective; it remembers only what is worth remembering, what’s new, not routine and literally memorable. I believe I managed to get out of bed every day, eat and wash myself. And I remember pain and self-hate from reliably failing at any of the tasks I set myself, no matter how simple and small. I’ve long known that ambitious goals when depressed are pointless but that getting something done, anything, no matter how small, was about the only thing that feels any better than really bad. But nothing happened.

In the summer I started to recover. It had been the worst depressed episode of my life. I had been through depressions often before, usually twice a year since mid-adolescence, but the evidence was that it was getting worse. I had wasted too much of my allotted time here being depressed. I went for help.

I consulted a private independent psychotherapist known to me for quick, effective results. I had a preconception that I wanted cognitive therapy to remedy the false cyclical logic of self-defeat and loathing in the depressed mind. I wanted to learn how to stop putting obstacles in the path of my own life.

After ruling out early life trauma or other subconscious motives for my illness and interviewing me about my symptoms he said he thinks I have manic depression should see a physician about drug therapy. Saying that he’s not a psychiatrist so he got out his copy of DSM-IV so we could read the diagnostic criteria of bipolar disorder together. We checked a few other conditions as differential and it seemed fairly clear that I was bipolar II, i.e. manic-depressive with mania that doesn’t reach the level of dysfunction.

Surprisingly, I was surprised. I had known that my behavior and moods were of a manic and depressive nature since I was an undergraduate student. I knew that there was a regular pattern of mania roughly every February and August followed by gradual onset of depression of increasing intensity until it flipped suddenly back to mania. I had learned to fear and prepare for the Manias. I could accurately and objectively characterize both the manias and the depressions. I also knew that these were the characteristic symptoms of manic-depressive illness and that it is also known as bipolar disorder. And I knew that manic-depressive people took lithium to control the symptoms; they used mood stabilizers. I had known all this for over twenty years but not made the connection that I was myself a manic-depressive, that is, I am a person with manic-depressive illness, bipolar disorder, and that needed psychiatric treatment.

So I sat in that psychotherapist’s chair (do any of them still use a chaise longue?) quite surprised, a little alarmed, trying to take the idea in. He encouraged me to take the view that the problem has a biological cause, that I shouldn’t feel responsible for my moods, and that I don’t need to tackle them alone. I roughly remember his words, “You don’t have to strap your balls on and go to fight this.” He suggested I think of myself as someone with congenital hypertension that no lifestyle adjustment can remedy. A blood-pressure-reducing drug may not be the most desirable solution but it’s better than nothing and it helps.

So I went to see a psychiatrist at the same hospital where my GP works. The meeting was farcical. She became obviously irritated with me when I said that I had taken myself to a psychotherapist privately. I became irritated at that and defended the therapist, a man I greatly respect, and my decision to see him. She became very angry that the therapist had offered a psychiatric diagnosis and she immediately disagreed. She decided that my depressions had not met the diagnostic criteria for major depression and therefore I wasn’t bipolar II. That I had managed to never lose my job as a consequence of depression was the key — if I had managed to hold down a job then I must be functioning. She really did nothing to hide her contempt for me and my friend the therapist or that she was professionally insulted that either of us, both equally unqualified, should have been so bold as to wield the DSM-IV or had the temerity to deploy technical terminology such as “bipolar II disorder” that we do not fully understand. But she offered me a consolation prize. She could, with more examination and after due consideration, perhaps offer me a diagnosis of cyclothymia. But why bother? All she could do with that diagnosis is offer a mood stabilizer like valporate, something I didn’t really want and that a mild disease like cyclothymia didn’t really need. I decided not to waste any more of her important time with my malingering or return to insult her professionalism again.

That absurd and pointless interview set my treatment back about three years.

I made an appointment to see a social worker for talk therapy. But by the time of the appointment I had found a job (a fairly good one, surprisingly enough, after two full years unemployed), I was hypomanic (a bit off schedule) and consequently arrogant enough to regard the therapy as unnecessary. So I stopped after only one or two visits.

But the cycles of the disease continued and when depressed I would fear for my job. My productivity was so poor that I could go for weeks without any real progress on any project. I managed to hide this, somehow I always have, but it’s really not a swell feeling to have to do so.

In early spring 2005 my mother, who lived in Scotland, was diagnosed with AILD, a bizarre and rare lymphoma. Her treatment with steroids caused psychosis and acute confusional episodes severe enough for hospitalization, once for two weeks against her will. (She was “sectioned”, as they say in the UK, which is when the police arrive with the ambulance.) Her subsequent treatment with antipsyhotics and thalidomide caused depression. It seemed like a cruel way to treat a woman in her late 60s.

I became tense, irritable and unhappy. It was a dramatically new. I clearly remember when I first noticed it, sitting with my legs wound tight around the office chair at my desk, back arched, leaning over the keyboard with a frown and restless fingers. It was perfectly persistent. It didn’t go away for over two years and after my mother’s death in August 2007.

During 2005 and 2006 my moods were still episodic but different. I did not experience euphoric hypomania, only dysphoric. I also learned what agitated depression was like. I was perpetually tense and irritable. It was exhausting.

In summer 2006 I returned apologetically to the social worker I had disdained the fall of 2003. I was in a tense, irritable remission when we met and for quite a while we didn’t have that much to talk about but I wanted to maintain regular contact in case something happened with my mood, which at some point was sure to happen. When in December it did, she suggested my GP prescribe an antidepressant (unlike the psychaitrist in 2003, the social worker didn’t regard my depression as subsyndromal, but then that psychaitrist would surly regard this social worker as unqualified to judge) but he refused saying I should see a psychiatrist and citing the risk that if I am indeed bipolar then an antidepressant could be dangerous.

I got an appointment very quickly and bipolar II diagnosis within half an hour. I was cagey about the somewhat paranoid and delusional thoughts featured in some of my youthful manic episodes. Seeing as the treatments are no different, I’d rather live without bipolar I on my medical records. I’ve never been ravingly psychotic but I’ve definitely walked on the perimeter of neurotic.

I was given lamotrigine and quickly developed a persistent low-level dysphoric hypomania: reduced sleep, fast thoughts, energy, ideas, arrogance, spending, irritability, cynicism, pessimism and I was unable to relax. I was given Seroquel as well and that helped me relax and sleep better. Eventually in the summer I asked to be taken off lamotrigine to see if the tension and irritability would go away. The doctor strongly resisted taking me off a mood stabilizer. We compromised on a lower dose, which didn’t help. In September, after my mother’s death, I switched to taking lithium and sertroline. The nine-month-old dysphoric hypomania dissipated but I was left with persistent fatigue and muscle weakness. Those side effects, and how I handled them, are the subject of another post in this blog

When he first appeared as a potential candidate, my impression of Obama was positive. He seemed intelligent, competent, decisive and ready to work hard. But soon enough my opinion started to change and I wasn’t really sure why. Eventually I noticed that I couldn’t accuse him of pandering (which is about all Mrs. Clinton does) because he hadn’t said anything substantive at all. Yet he was making Democratic partisans weak at the knees in stage performances in which he managed to avoid saying anything. He has the magical tongue. Listen to him and you risk falling in love.

And I was reminded of a passage from Aldous Huxley’s “The Devils of Loudun”, one of the most interesting books I read. This is from the first chapter in which Huxley is introducing the book’s central figure, Urbain Grandier.

The Good Fairy, who visits the cradles of the privileged, is often the Bad Fairy in a luminous disguise. She comes loaded with presents; but her bounty all too often, is fatal. To Urbain Grandier, for example, the Good Fairy had brought, along with solid talents, the most dazzling of all gifts, and the most dangerous – eloquence. Spoken by a good actor – and every great preacher, every successful advocate and politician is, among other things, a consummate actor – words can exercise an almost magical power over their hearers. Because of the essential irrationality of this power, even the best-intentioned of public speakers probably do more harm than good. When an orator, by the mere magic of words and a golden voice, persuades his audience of the rightness of a bad cause we are very properly shocked. We ought to feel the same dismay whenever we find the same irrelevant tricks being used to persuade people of the rightness of a good cause. The belief engendered may be desirable, but the grounds for it are intrinsically wrong, and those who use the devices of oratory for instilling even right beliefs are guilty of pandering to the least creditable elements in human nature. By exercising their disastrous gift of the gab, they deepen the quasi-hypnotic trance in which human beings live and from which it is the aim and purpose of all true philosophy, all genuinely spiritual religion to deliver them. Moreover, there cannot be effective oratory without over-simplification. But you cannot over-simplify without distorting the facts. Even when he is doing his best to tell the truth, the successful orator is ipso facto a liar. And most successful orators, it is hardly necessary to add, are not even trying to tell the truth; they are trying to evoke sympathy for their friends and antipathy for their opponents.