Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


Getting Your Head Examined & Exorcising Your Soul

My dad was not a brain surgeon but he was a very brainy history buff. He collected surgical implements of the medieval kind.

In his library, there was a tattered black suitcase on the shelf. Its mysterious contents under lock and key. I remember sneaking the key out of his desk — super curious to find out what was inside. And what I found scared the bejesus out of me.

The suitcase was a Civil War version of my dad’s little black bag. There were saws for sawing off legs. There were pliers for extracting bullets and yanking out teeth. And there was a hammer and a chisel for cracking open skulls.

A hammer and a chisel to tap into the brain.

Brain surgery is not just medieval, it is ancient. Archaeologically speaking, it is the oldest documentable surgical specialty — dating back nearly 10,000 years. 10,000 years – that’s Neolithic. Carefully cracked skulls have been found in Stone Age caves in France. 4000 year old bronze surgical tools have been dug up in Incan Peru. 5000 years ago the word “brain” was first recorded on Egyptian papyrus. Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, penned several textbooks on the subject — 500 years before Christ was born.

We may think that such a primitive practice was purely for magical purposes. Not so. It was a medical practice wielded with remarkable success – on patients with epilepsy, head injuries, and even headaches. Some of those carefully cracked skulls, found in those caves, show clear evidence of recovery and healing.

And brain surgery was the cure of choice for those possessed by demons and deemed insane; for those who heard voices and raved like lunatics.

The clerical cure of surgical exorcism.

Guy of Pavia, 14th C.

In fact, Christian clerics – learned in Greek and Islamic literature – were the brain surgeons of the middle ages. Even though the study of anatomy was prohibited, no king would be without such a doctor in his court. No pope would be without such a physician in his conclave.

So where was the surgical exorcist when my mother needed one? There was no crucifix — there was no holy water in my father’s little black bag.

Growing up, my mom was in and out of psych wards.  Her manic-depressive mind was a mystery apparently  no doctor could solve. Her darkness was deep and unrelenting. Her mania zany and out of control. Her behavior sometimes beyond belief. Her thoughts no longer her own.

Once she streaked in the woods behind our house. Free as a forest nymph, she ran wild until my dad wrapped her in a raincoat and brought her back inside. And once, during a hospital stay, my mom had a three way conversation with herself, invisible celebrities (specifically Regis and Cathy Lee) and me.

And during that same visit, she told me that God had opened up holes in her head  — so that the evil spirits in her skull could pass through.

 I did not know whether to laugh or to cry.

Her every circuit firing, her every neuron engaged, her every synapse snapping — my mom, like her mother before her, flew over the cuckoo’s nest.

And I was next.

Sometimes my thoughts also  have not been my thoughts.

In my most manic of days, I too have been so lit up inside – as if by a million fireflies – that I thought I could fly. Driving down the highway – ever so much faster than the legal speed – I truly believed that my car would lift up off the road — like a plane taking its leave of the runway. Down Interstate 95, I would fly over — not under — every overpass. Euphorically grinning from ear to ear. Oblivious to the risk.

I know what it’s like to have my brain so bedazzled with delight that fairies whispered in my ears. I believed I could actually glimpse their gossamer wings outside my window. Better to not tell anyone though. Not the psychiatrist. Not the therapist. They might shoo the fairies away.

I felt as if I had found a portal to another world – a world of things unseen. A magical place, a mystical place where the veil between the worlds was torn. And something godly was calling me to the other side.

Sugar plum fairies dancing in my head —  I never actually thought I was Joan of Arc. But like her, why could I not also hear voices?

Yahweh says, “My thoughts are not your thoughts.”

In my manic brilliance, I began to believe that maybe my thoughts were the thoughts of God. Swept up by angels — mania tastes delectably delicious. So exquisite. Surely this must be what heaven feels like. Right?

Who would want to medicate such mania away?

Now this happened to me once once upon a time a very long time ago — fifteen years ago to be exact. And it has not happened to me again. Not since I began to get my head examined. Once a quarter by my psychiatrist. And weekly – yes, weekly —by my LCSW. Thanks to them (and me, of course!) my bipolar brain buzzes at optimal speed.

My diagnosis is Bipolar Disorder with a cherry on top. With psychotic features. Seems pretty damned scary when you see it in black and white! But it isn’t really.

When our brains go awry, it manifests itself in our thoughts, our words and our deeds. Thoughts can be distracting or delightful. Creative or destructive. Inspiring or terrifying. Thoughts spinning out of control.

The outward and visible signs of such thinking can be alarming to those who do not understand. And when your own mind shatters into a million little shards — you become disturbing — even to yourself.

You lose your bearings.  You have no longitude or latitude. You are lost and adrift at sea. Your head goes dark — and you have need of something like a brain surgeon.

So, I take one little pill a day to keep the crazy at bay. It’s called Seroquel, an antipsychotic. It’s not the only thing that keeps me thinking straight but like a spoon full of sugar — it smooths the way. It makes my head less cloudy and my thinking more clear.  Seroquel, my little surgical, chemical exorcist.

So friends, consider this. Sometimes your thoughts may not be your thoughts. Sometimes your thoughts may be intrusive or obsessive. Maybe your head races. Maybe you hear voices that are not your own.

Know this. You are not alone.

One out of a hundred — of just about everyone — walks around with a bipolar brain similar to mine. 20% of just about everyone, at any one time, walks around with a mental health issue. (Though sadly only 40% get professional help.) There is help out there.

There are doctors of the mind —  of all kinds. Maybe you don’t need a brain surgeon. Much more likely, a board certified psychiatrist and a fully credentialed therapist will do. Maybe a little medication. A little blessing  – to keep you from flying — like this Peacock who flew over the cuckoo’s nest — once upon a time.

Get a referral from your pastor or your doctor. Check out community mental health resources like CSB of Alexandria. The National Alliance on Mental Illness is a also a treasure trove of resources.

It might just be time to get your head examined. It might just be time to exorcise your soul.


Good Housekeeping according to Mary, Martha & Joan Louise

I have always been a Mary and not much of a Martha. This is not so much a matter of theology as it is a matter of biology.

As a babe, barely out of my mother’s womb, I preferred the library to the laundry room. As a toddler, my favorite toys were blocks and rocks – in that order – not pots and pans. As a grade schooler, the household chore I excelled at most was getting out of household chores. In high school, rather than dust the bookshelves I would read the books. My mom’s favorite magazines  were Family Circle and The Lady’s Home Journal. I preferred  my dad’s Scientific American and Journal of the American Medical Association. (Not that I could understand either, but I liked the pictures!)

The domestic arts are just not part of my DNA. And now all grown up  — my house and my home —  will never quite qualify for that “Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval”.

Good Housekeeping, of course, has been the magazine of choice for homemakers since it was first published in 1885. Recently while plowing through boxes of books, I discovered two vintage issues: October 1953 and March 1957. Each is nearly 300 pages and a bargain at 35 cents. The contents are packed tight with domestic delights. Featured articles include: “Hostess with the Mostest”; “Mother is a Lady”; “Man Talk”; and the “How Did We Ever Get Along without Cellophane Tape?

Each issue has thirteen categories covering every conceivable domestic discipline: Fashion; Needlework and Sewing; Medicine and Health; Bureau and Chemical Laboratory (Don’t ask! I don’t know!); Textile Laboratory; Decorating and Building; Beauty; Teenagers; Children’s Corner; Food; Appliance and Home Care; and Automobiles. Apparently the 1950’s iconic mom could change a tire just as expertly as she could change a diaper.

(Homemakers, of course, can be any gender. But this was the 1950’s. Hang in there with me, please!)

One issue has a ten page “Hotdog Cookbook”. The other has the “Wisconsin Reducing Diet” based on cheese.

But best of all are the ads – advertisements for every household, cooking, cleaning and beauty item under the sun.

I wash 1400 pounds of laundry a year…but I’m proud of my pretty hands.” Jergen’s Lotion only 10 cents plus tax. (Transfigured just like new!)

“Only the Sunbeam toasts with Radiant Control…that gives the same UNIFORM TOAST….Bread lowers itself automatically…Toast raises itself silently.” (Resurrection Bread!)

“Palmolive Soap is 100% Mild to Guard that Schoolgirl Complexion Look!” (Baptized like a newborn babe!)

“Crisco ends pie crust failure… Use Crisco, it’s digestible!” (Baptism by ordeal!)

It is comforting to imagine June Cleaver — of Leave it to Beaver — in her shirt-waist dress, pearls and pumps — her house neat and tidy as a pin and nary a hair out of place. June Cleaver, the iconic reincarnation of St Martha of Bethany. Manic Martha, my mom’s patron saint.

Growing up on 24th Avenue, the household chaos was measured in baskets of laundry, beds to be made and dishes to wash. On the high side, our house was House Beautiful. On the low side, our house was Mad Magazine. Raising a family of six kids in the suburbs with a workaholic doctor for a husband would make just about anybody crazy — and so it did my mom. My mom on the high side became a manic Martha extraordinaire.

So, I became a Mary — a  quite contrary one. My mom loved to cook. Not me. My mom loved to shop. Not me. My mom loved fashion. Not me. My mom loved to decorate. Not me. My mom loved to clean. Not me. My mom loved to collect stuff.  Not me. My mom loved to plant stuff. Not me. My mom was definitely a Martha. I was decidedly  a Mary.  

Or at least so I thought. Until the day…

I was magically transformed into Martha Stewart on Speed. The magic potion that worked this wonder was a decidedly delicious anti-depressant cocktail.  It’s counter-intuitive but chemically speaking these little pills can push the “max button” on the bipolar blender. Maximum speed. Maximum energy. Maximum ways to mix and match a million little things.

So, I stayed up nights hanging pictures on my walls, turning sheets into window treatments, and spice racks into towel racks. I created collages and decorated bulletin boards. I framed post cards. I potted plants. I arranged and rearranged knickknacks and whatnots. (I even dusted them!) I alphabetized my bookshelves and cleaned out my closets. I fluffed pillows already fluffed. I vacuumed floors already vacuumed. I even manically made my bed over and over. But I did not sleep in it, at least not very much.

But I would crash there when my addled brain ran out of steam.

Good Housekeeping”  is actually a great guide to the bipolar brain.  A bang-up barometer, indeed. In therapeutic language it’s called monitoring your “ADLs” – Activities of Daily Life. Laundry. Housework. Yard work. Grocery shopping. Cooking. Cleaning. Taking out the trash. Making meals. Doing dishes. Folding clothes. Checking the mail. Paying bills. Playing with the cats. Taking a walk. Phoning a friend. The rhythm and routine of daily life attests to the state of our health and wholeness.

Keeping house is literally about keeping healthy. When a loved one does way too little housekeeping or way too much, it’s time to be concerned. It’s time for a loving conversation to see what’s really going on. It may be time to talk with a counselor. Time to make an appointment with a psychiatrist. No, you are not crazy. It’s just the right thing to do.

And I, myself, have become a bit of a convert. Home is where the heart is and my home has become a sacred place — an outward and visible sign of my inward psychic space. Order, color, texture, sight, smell and sound – orchestrated and arranged — keep my bipolar soul – healthy and whole.

Just the right amount of Mary and just the right amount of Martha — biblically speaking — helps to keep our heads on straight. Just the right amount of Mary and just the right amount of Martha  brings peace and balance to unquiet minds –  bipolar and not.

And it is not just me who says so. Jesus says so (Ha!). Jesus said so right there in Martha’s living room — while Martha fussed in the kitchen and  Mary listened at his feet.

Martha, Martha, you are anxious and troubled by many things; one thing is needful; Mary has chosen the better part; and it will not be taken away….” Luke 10:38-41

All things in moderation, my dad, Dr. Peacock, so wisely used to say. Good Housekeeping a blessing in disguise!


Pajamas, a Personal Manifesto

I am addicted to pajamas.

I recently invested in a Pier One wicker dresser just for my pajamas. I have over a dozen pairs: short, long, cotton & comfy. I even have a linen red polka dot night shirt. Nobody ever really sees me in them but that does not matter. I collect them for myself and recently from my favorite store Bloomers — I brought home a brand new pair.

Sometimes spelled “pyjamas” and nicknamed “PJ’s, jimjams, and jammies”,  pajamas derives from the Hindustani word for lightweight drawstring trousers traditionally worn by Islamic Continental Indians.  Perfect for lounging.  Perfect for sleeping. Perfect for so much more.

Like interchangeable monastic robes,  each pair I wear depends upon my manic-depressive mood.

Mostly manic and  mostly mystical, in the sanctity of  my sacred space, I call home.

Yoga stretching.

TV watching.

Blog blogging.

Day dreaming.

Coffee drinking.

Netflix binging.

Life contemplating.

Psyche orienting.

Decompressing.

Soul relaxing.

Head raising.

Life strategizing.

Event planning.

MAC typing.

Day scheduling.

Church organizing.

Kid connecting.

Friend texting.

Book reading.

Breakfast eating.

iPhone tapping.

News consuming.

Pillow hugging.

Couch surfing.

Spotify hopping.

Coffee drinking (Yes, again, coffee drinking.)

Mood mellowing.

Evening praying.

Inward looking.

Brain cycling.

Tightrope balancing.

Politics pumping.

Crazy resisting.

Fire dreaming.

Self affirming.

Spirit restoring.

World saving.

All in my pajamas: fleece, flannel, cotton, short and long, worn through and brand new.

All in my pajamas, in an hour or two, I collect my thoughts and reconfigure my gut, at least for the next day or so.

I recommend it most highly  — in these exceedingly strange and stressful times.

Pajamas, my personal manifesto. A way of life.


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Sur/real: NPR Invisibilia w/Story District!

Woo hoo!

This past spring I was honored and overjoyed to be part of NPR Invisibilia’s first live event with Story District.

My Sur/real story of the summer of 2005 –navigating the space between the mystical and the manic — was one of six selected.

I felt a bit like an impostor – included with other heavy hitting storytellers I am in awe of. Working with Amy Saidman, Story District’s Artistic Director is an exercise in the craft of first class storytelling.

Each eight minute story is the end product of several coaching sessions, rewrites and rehearsals. It’s a rare and rewarding collaborative creative process.

And finally my knee-knocking performance April 17th at the Lincoln Theatre in front of a packed audience. Yikes!

Exciting for me but also I really hope my story might resonate with yours. All those listening who also have the gift of a bipolar brain. And those whose spiritual life lights up their world. This one is for you!

So take a listen to 47 minutes of great stories.

NPR Invisibilia Live with Story District Podcast

Or watch the the Sur/real performance on YouTube!

And please share! (I’m a shameless self promoter!)


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Bipolar Bit/Joani: One Day @ a Time
























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“Besties, Bromances & Soulmates” -Post-Election Therapy

besties-bromances-and-soulmates-picture

This time last year, I was feeling “Bookish”.

Having met Meredith Maslich, at the Story District rebrand bash, I was psyched to learn that she heads – Possibilities Publishing – a unique, boutique, partnership approach to the book trade.

Maybe I could turn Unorthodox & Unhinged into a book?  A radically manic idea! Meredith and I met over coffee to discuss the possibility. But the journey, from blogger to author, is in reality a gargantuan leap.

Long story short: U&U has not morphed into a book.

But short story long: U&U has made into a book.

A reflective piece I wrote, Make New Friends and…, is the opening chapter in Besties, Bromances & Soulmates, this year’s Possibilities Publishing anthology. Between its covers, half a dozen writers explore “pivotal relationships” and the gift of friendship through short story, essay, fiction and non.

So is it any wonder that”Thank you for being my friend”, the old Golden Girls’  theme song, is ringing in my ears. And this post election week, it rings all the more dearly and resonates all the more deeply.

Our country has just come “through the great ordeal”. Well, we are not actually through anything.

Post election, I am experiencing waves of grief. I am stumbling, disoriented as if awoken from a bad dream. My bleeding heart liberal sensibilities have been overwhelmed. Knocked down and beneath these waves, I struggle to come up for air.

How about you?

As a coping mechanism, I have poured myself into my work. In just two days, I plowed through two week’s worth. I have stayed up later and gotten up earlier, cramming 27 plus hours into my day.  Possibly by abandoning sleep, my busyness will belay my fears.

Mania, for a day or two or three, is awesome.

Mania, for a week or two or three, not so much.

So how do I – do we – rein in the mania when we are feeling so unmoored?

Well, very simply, by tightening the ties that bind.

By calling friends,

talking with friends,

having coffee with friends, dinner with friends,

walking with friends,

hiking with friends,

biking with friends,

Netflix/Hulu binge watching with friends,

cocktail partying with friends,

road tripping with friends,

book clubbing with friends,

bar hopping with friends,

pew sitting with friends,

praying with friends,

couch surfing with friends,

shooting the breeze or catching a movie with friends,

cooking with friends,

baking with friends,

crafting with friends,

board gaming with friends,

protesting with friends,

witnessing with friends,

volunteering with friends,

peace making with friends,

reconciling with friends.

Common ground, mutual support, trust, concern and compassion.

Love, respect, and admiration.

Friends restore one another’s souls and revive one another’s spirits.

This art of “befriending” is fueled by our tending to our friendships. Befriending the other, the new, the stranger, in this post-election season, is desperately what we need. Not rushing to an easy or happy-clappy reconciliation, but working towards deep, honest, life affirming connections.

Working towards a radical “we”.

Which brings me back to Besties, Bromances & Soulmatea perfect little book to honor a friend or tuck into a Christmas stocking (or for Chanukah, Kwanzaa, etc.). These half a dozen stories celebrate the  pivotal relationships in our lives.

Friendship begets friendship.

Love begets love.

December 11th at 4:00 PM, this little book is going to be launched. Its a friendly affair with author readings, book signings, and refreshments at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, 1608 Russell Rd in Alexandria, VA.

Bring a friend, a family member, an acquaintance, a coworker. Invite a Muslim friend, a Mormon friend, a Jewish friend, a Buddhist friend, an agnostic friend, an immigrant friend, an LGBTQ friend, an African American friend, a Hispanic friend, an old friend, your BFF, your next door neighbor, or the new guy who just moved in from across the street.

Ask a Hillary voter or a Trump supporter to come along.

It’s the Christian thing to do.

The price of admission? New warm hats/gloves/mittens/scarves in all sizes for our friends at Carpenters Shelter in Alexandria. Click here to RSVP.

A friend in need is a friend indeed.

JoaniSign


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Grounded Flight

propeller_beanie

I know nothing of aerodynamics but I do know that I have a helicopter in my head.

The propellers  begin to spin slowly, slowly at first.  Then faster and faster they pick up speed.

I feel a rush of wind, a little cyclone swirling counter clockwise.

My feet take leave of the ground.

Climbing skyward, I soar over the trees. I taste the clouds.

There is a lightness of being almost too delicious to describe.

I hover high above the earth. My heart beats so, I  hear the swoosh, swoosh of a rush of blood.

Heaven expands before me. Space and time, they stretch.

Gazing above, I truly believe the only direction is up.

Gravity has no hold on me.

Gazing down, I have no fear.

No fear at all.

Buoyant. Euphoric. Exquisite.

Mania.

Or at least hypo-mania.

A mild and manageable outbreak.

Please do not ask me to medicate it away.

Yes, I have a helicopter in my head and I like it that way.

Hypomania is flying just under the radar at optimal altitude. It is the passion of a polymath.

(I love that word – “polymath”. Go look it up!)

This Peacock believes herself to be a person of insatiable curiosity. Engaging in encyclopedic endeavors. And with boundless energy, of course.

I blog. I preach. I write. I teach. I walk. I read. I talk and talk. I swim and float  and dive in deep. I delight, dig in, and devour my work. I scatter seeds and rattle beads. I vocalize and volunteer. I spin tales and search for holy grails. I cruise the river front. I wander DC. I pound the pavement in front of me.  I breakfast with the birds, lunch alone, and dine with friends. I binge watch Stranger Things. I speed read three tomes at a time. And I drink lots and lots of coffee.

Good coffee.

My head expands exponentially as does the universe, so Hubble says.

The world is so, so wonderful, I dare not miss a thing. I dare not go to sleep.

My brain says that I do not have to.

I stay up later.

I wake up earlier.

I hear the engine sputter. I feel the propellers falter, the copter lunge and lurch.

Turbulent, nauseous, like stumbling and tumbling over rocks.

Sky sick, I lose control.

The ground comes rushing towards me.

Crash landing.

CRASH.

I hate when this happens.

My grandiose pride bruised. It begrudges me my humanity.

But wings of wax melt in the sun. Weight returns to my body. More than I would like to admit.

You know, I think I need a mental health day. I play hookie and “call in crazy.

“Yes, Joani,” my colleague Chuck says, “that sounds like the sane thing to do.”

So I do.

Sleep in.

Drink coffee in my pajamas.

Stretch out on the couch.

Read the paper.

Veg out.

Surf Hulu and wade through Netflix.

Take a late shower.

Get dressed.

Tune in.

Gather my thoughts.

Scribble them down.

Publish  and post them on U&U.

The helicopter has landed.

This Peacock is safely on the ground.

JoaniSign

NOTE: Manically submitted at midnight, Sunday, September 12, 2016.