Unorthodox and Unhinged

Tales of a Manic Christian


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Dirt Therapy Redux

Mary Magdalene and the Gardener

Resurrection stories. U&U is an ongoing collection of resurrection stories — that before too long I would like to turn into an actual book. It seems that now I may just have carved out some time to actually do it.

Last week I chose to leave a job that I loved. You see the garden in which I so lovingly toiled had become a bit too overgrown with weeds. Weeds suck up all the water and crowd out the sun. Its hard to stay healthy and whole in a garden choked by weeds. Its nearly impossible to grow.

So I decided to uproot myself and with God’s help, to plant myself anew in life giving soil.

“Now the green blade riseth” is my favorite Easter hymn.

So it seems very apropos to repost Dirt Therapy once again.

So here we go….

Once upon an Eastertide, a little boy came home singing the Pete Seeger song: “Inch by inch, row by row, Lord, please help my garden grow”. At school the little boy, along with his class, had planted bean seeds in jelly jars. Each day they tended their little glass gardens, checking the moist dark earth. Some of the children drowned their seeds with love. While others, their seeds withered from neglect. While others, theirs actually and miraculously sprouted and grew.

Tiny green shoots poked their heads into the fluorescent light. Slender green vines wound around the inside of the jars.

And then one day — the little boy proudly brought his home and set it down on the kitchen table. His mom asked, “Okay, my little sweet potato, what’s this?” And the little boy replied:

”That’s Jesus, mom. That’s Jesus in a jar.”

It wasn’t exactly “Now the green blade riseth” but it was sweet indeed. That sweet little boy was my son Jacob (now 28 years old!). Sadly the little Jesus vine did not survive very long — but don’t blame Jacob. Sadly, you see, plants often came home to my house to die.

Even though I quite ironically once worked at plant store called “Great Plants Alive” most of the plants that crossed my threshold sadly met an untimely death.

And back in the day when I still had a backyard, I was quite happy to just let Mother Earth be my gardener. So whatever grew — grew –and whatever withered – withered. My yard was a little city patch of green. And since I had no green thumb, this was my rule:

If it’s green let it grow.

My lawn was covered with crab grass, wild violets, clover, and dandelions. The fence was covered with tangled honeysuckle vines, ghetto pines, a struggling maple tree, and poison ivy. Plastic baseball bats and dead tennis balls dotted my lawn. A sad little wagon and outgrown bicycles littered the grass.

Occasionally I would attempt to tame this wilding place with my lawn mower and a weed whacker. But much more often, I would retreat and recline in a plastic chair on the patio to read a good book.

If it’s green let it grow.

My manic-depressive mom, Mary Lou was quite the gardener. While I have been blessed with her bipolar brain, God did not see to bestow upon me her green thumb. And hers was very green indeed.

When I was growing up, my mother could lash out like lightning just as easily as she could erupt in joy. Her highs and lows were beyond her control, tamed only by a regular shot of bourbon, a little lithium, and the occasional session with Dr. Freud. My beloved mom did the best she could.

And she did her very best in the garden.

Mary Lou was totally at home in her rock garden. She relished her trips to the local greenhouses and she spared no expense at the nursery.

The back of the station wagon would be overloaded with peat moss and potting soil, flats of flowers, hydrangeas and azaleas, and a shrub or two — or three.

The lawn would be littered with empty plastic pots, as she dug down deep in the dirt planting geraniums, petunias, and marigolds. I have a snapshot of her doing just this. Her sun kissed skin is freckled and bronze; her auburn hair peaks out from her kerchief; and golden hoops dangle from her ears. Gorgeous.

Resplendent and radiant, digging in the dirt, all is right with her soul.

Digging in the dirt is therapy.

Sowing seeds is therapy.

Fertilizing the soil is therapy.

Watering the ground is therapy.

Gardening is therapy.

Dirt therapy.

Wordless, holistic, holy, hopeful, dirty therapy.

My mother’s daughter, namely me, no longer has a backyard. But I do have a little balcony. And each Eastertide I plant my little English garden in half a dozen clay pots. I am partial to bright colors: Shasta daises; hibiscus; and geraniums. I am partial to plants of the forgiving kind, the kind that forgive me if I don’t water them as often as I should.

A little Miracle Grow, a little sunshine, a little dirt, and all is right with my soul. At least for a little while.

In the beginning, the Creator walked in the cool of the wet garden at the time of the evening breeze. God made us out of the dirt of the garden. God made us out of the dirt of paradise.

And so in all the deaths we die — both large and small — we return to the Garden. We go down into the dirt like seeds forgotten and buried in the dark earth.

So as we are in the beginning, we are in the end. The Alpha is also the Omega.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary of Magdala, came to the garden and she saw that the stone was rolled away. And there stood the Gardener, the same Gardener who had walked at the time of the evening breeze. Mary did not know him until he called her by name. And then she knew. Here stands the very tiller, the very tender, the very lover of my soul.

Now the green blade riseth.

Dirt therapy.

JoaniSign


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Make Sure to Tiptoe Around Mom

tiptoe around mom house of cards picture

Middle child of six, my childhood can be best described as muddled — or better yet, “fair to middling” as my father used to say.

But charmed and enchanted is what outsiders saw.

My dad was a successful surgeon and my manic mom, a stay-at-home mom. Our six bedroom suburban home was well appointed 1960’s style: wing back chairs, antique sofa, oriental rugs. I had French Provincial furniture in my bedroom and my brothers had Ranch Oak bunk beds in theirs. And four bathrooms, so there was little need to share.

And all was spit and polished just about all of the time. Most of the time.

With six children, three adults, and a dog, the upkeep of the castle was intense. So Downton Abbey style, we had household servants. All African American, I am more than a little ashamed to say. Two full time maids: Nan and her daughter, Cornelia. And a handyman, a grown man, we shamefully called Sonny (Joseph, being his given name.). All members of the Simpson family. And Cora, whose last name I do not recall. She came twice a week to do the ironing.

Thanks to them, we were always freshly pressed in our uniforms or nicely dressed in our department store clothes. Shoes from Hahn’s or Stride Rite. Only the best.

And oh my goodness, we ate well too. Very, very well. My mom had a wall of cookbooks  which she rarely consulted but seemed to inspire her nonetheless. While other kids had meatloaf for dinner, we dined on Beef Bourguignon. While other kids wolfed down fish sticks, we feasted on Filet of Sole Almondine.

And all six of us went to private schools: Holy Family, Gonzaga, La Reine, Immaculata — with all the standard extracurriculars: piano lessons, softball practice, swim teams.

We were privileged, well to do. And while we were not taught explicitly to look down on anyone else — it was made very clear that we were to be looked up to. Or least to act like we were. “Remember you’re a Peacock.” my dad would say every time we left the house. Like mini model citizens, our appearance was supposed to be polished, our behavior beyond reproach.

Materially we lacked for nothing – or so it seemed. While maternally and paternally, we were falling apart at the seams.

My dad the workaholic doctor was barely at home.

My manic-depressive mom retreated more and more behind her bedroom door — a door on which I was very nervous to knock.

Each morning, I would check out  my mom like a weather report: dark and stormy; bright and sunny; cloudy with rain. The forecast was often in doubt and subject to change. When bright and sunny, my mom was the life of the party! Fun loving, story telling, cooking up a storm and shopping ’til she dropped.

I loved this mom very much – but as I grew up I saw her less and less. More and more she was dark and moody, drugged with valium, and with a drink her hand. Medicating herself for this malady for which we had no name. (Which now I truly understand.)

And this middle child — who was just a child – thought it my job not to upset her. I thought it my job to keep the peace, to maintain the status quo, not rock the boat in any way, if I could help it. So straight A, goody-two-shoes Joani kept her head down.

And little old me believed, that if I could be a better little kid, a better little daughter, a better little student, a  better little Catholic — that I could keep my house from falling down on my head. I could keep my house from falling down and crushing us all.

Not my job, right?

Of course not.

My own healthy, bipolar, grownup self knows this now. Knows this to be true. I know that childhood chores involve making your bed, doing dishes, and picking up toys. No, childhood chores do not involve saving yourself and your siblings from your very troubled mom and your mostly absentee dad. Though I do believe they loved us as best they could.

But funny how history repeats itself.  And funny how whatever we learned at our parents’ knees will stay with us until the day we die.

And it bubbles up in our grownup lives. Sometimes imperceptibly. Sometimes overwhelmingly.

I am still a middle child, peacemaker, model citizen, goody-two-shoes, bleeding heart, employee of the month. Raining sunshine wherever I go — or at least so I think.

And what goes wrong in my world – whether it be my fault or not — whether it be at home, or at church, or at work — I have the uncontrollable urge to fix it. Where things get rough, let me make them smooth. When things are sad, let me cheer you up. When things get messy, I will tidy them up. When others fail, I will take their place. When things get crazy, I will make them sane.

And I will tiptoe, tiptoe around “mom” — hoping against hope — that this “house of cards” wherever it is — this “house of cards” will not come crashing down on those who live or work there. On my head, or the heads of those I care about, on the heads of those I love.

Not my job, right?

Damn right.

Not anymore.

JoaniSign

 

 


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Bipolar Boundaries: a Geography Lesson

USA Canada Puzzle Concept

A puzzling, cross-boundary bipolar diagnosis.

Will I be crazy in Canada?

I just got my passport and I am psyched! This November I am hightailing it to the Canadian, BC border. My sister Maureen, 1970’s style made a big political move north – and while she retains her American citizenship – she has never moved back.

She is as Canadian as maple syrup and Molson’s Ale, eh! Different and yet the same, geography has shaped who she is. Maureen’s longitude and latitude have shifted her worldview. Different and yet the same, geography has both shaped and redefined her.

So I ask again, will I still be crazy in Canada? Will I be just as unhinged north of the border as below?

Last week with “Inked!”, I posted my 60th post here on U&U. And it seemed as good a time as any to look back at a year’s worth of data – to see how U&U is doing. Who’s reading, who’s following, who’s commenting, who’s “liking”, who’s sharing.

I am obsessed with my WordPress app, compulsively checking stats on visitors and views after each week’s post. And daily I am amused to discover where my readership resides. Googling — folks from across the globe stumble upon U&U. And it makes me smile.

This little blog is a worldwide phenomenon (wink, wink, nod, nod!): 13,648 views, 8,233 visitors, and 300 followers. Read in over 80 countries, the lion’s share of my readers are, of course, in the U.S., followed by the UK, Canada, Australia, Germany, and France.

My numbers are in the “tens” in Russia, Italy, the Philippines, Belgium, Poland, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Spain, Ireland, Switzerland, and South Africa.

I have a couple of readers each from Finland, Thailand, Uraguay, Colombia, Nigeria, Slovakia, Vietnam, Greece, Egypt, Lebanon, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Argentina, Iraq, the DR, Costa Rica, and Kenya.

And I am a one hit wonder in Jersey, Cameroon, Portugal, Estonia, Algeria, Zambia, Zimbabwe, Croatia, Uganda, and Saudi Arabia!

(Are you smiling? Me too.)

A few years ago, I read a most provocative book, “Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche” 2010, by Ethan Waters. In a diverse world, Waters writes, there is a diversity of ways of going mad. Likewise all across the map, there is a rich variety of ways, humanity maps the mind’s terrain.

Western hegemony, he says, has homogenized our understanding of mental health. Exportation of the Diagnostic & Statistical Manual has obliterated cross -cultural expressions of mental illness. Powerful pharmaceutical companies profit not just from the drugs but from the diagnoses they advertise and promote.

“Crazy Like Us” tackles this global issue at the local level. Specifically Waters tells the story of people with four different diagnoses in four different countries: “The Rise of Anorexia in Hong Kong”; “The Wave That Brought PTSD to Sri Lanka”; “The Shifting Mask of Schizophrenia in Zanzibar”; “The Mega-Marketing of Depression in Japan”.

The data he shares is persuasive. The stories told are compelling. The questions he raises are profound. Waters’ investigation contextualizes the West’s experience of mental illness and calls into question our scientific theories and therapeutic practices.

So I ask the question again. Will I be just as crazy in Vancouver as I am in Virginia?

For me specifically the question is about bipolar disorder. Does it cross borders? Is it the same in any language?

My answer to this question is incarnational.

You see, deep down in my bones, I know that both my mania and my melancholia are both organic and spiritual, local as well as universal.

My answer is yes.

And oddly enough, after doing a little research, I find that my findings concur with a study done by the World Health Organization in 2011. The World Mental Health Survey (WMH), used consistent methods, (yes, the DSM-IV), and collected data in eleven countries in the Americas, Europe, Asia, the Middle East, and New Zealand.

Bipolar disorder indeed crosses borders — but not uniformly or without cultural variation. Bipolar spectrum also differs in degree from country to country. The United States has the highest lifetime rate of 4.4% and India the lowest, with 0.1%

Dr. Sarah Bodner, assistant professor of psychiatry at the University of Miami, attributes the differences to diverse factors.

It could be genetics; it could be environment. It could also be the way individuals in different cultures are willing to respond to this kind of inquiry. Cultural awareness plays a very big role in psychiatry. Some cultures have a huge reluctance to speak about such things.”

 Cultures with a higher rate of stigma had a lower rate of the disorder. But those very same cultures’ traditions may also help inoculate and protect that culture’s corporate psyche. America’s highly mobile lifestyle is counter to stability in family structures and community support, making bipolar disorder more of a first world problem.

Maybe.

But a Health.com article cites another quite unique theory behind what makes America the most manic country in the world: the melting pot. And it is the topic of at least one book:

“’The Hypomanic Edge: The Link Between (a Little) Craziness and a (a Lot of) Success in America,’ by John D. Gartner, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins, discusses the hypomanic qualities entrepreneurs and leaders who took risks to come to America.”

 Hypomania is that Bipolar sweet spot, in which a person experiences exuberance, creativity, and focus and gets a sh*tload of things done! (This is my favorite place to be!)

David Schlager, a psychiatrist with the Lone Star Circle of Care concurs:

The U.S. attracts people who believe they can achieve a better life. They come to believe they can pick up and start again. It’s a self-selected sample of people who are grandiose and impulsive. It takes a suspension of belief to actually believe you can come here and make it happen.”

Those are a significant percentage of people in the bipolar spectrum.”

Bipolar disorder is strongly heritable. Two thirds of bipolar folks have a close relative who is also manic-depressive. My Irish American ancestors bequeathed this brain to me. It’s the gift that keeps giving in my family: my grandmother, my mother, and me.

My brain is both blessing and curse, emphasis on the first. Hypomania is God’s gift to me – yes – God’s gift to me. Manically and daily, I pray that in this sweet, sweet, sweet spot – I can manage to stay.

Often I succeed, sometimes not. And that’s okay. I would not have it any other way.

So I am grateful to God for my genes; I am grateful to God for my DNA. I am grateful to the Great Creator who made me this way — created in the image of a crazy and wondrous God.

Crazy in Virginia. Crazy in Vancouver. Crazy all over the world.

Canada, here I come.

JoaniSign

 


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What’s in a Name?

baby-names1 - you named we what 2

My mother ran out of names.

Providence Hospital, DC, March 3, 1955: Three days old, I lay swaddled in the nursery nameless.

Preceded by a sister, Maureen Ann, and a brother, Timothy Francis, it seems my mom had already exhausted a very brief list of favorite names and could not come up with one for baby number three – me!

The discharge nurse told my mom I had to have a name to be discharged. “What shall I write  on the birth certificate? “ My mom responded with a question. “What’s your name? she asked the nurse. “Joan”, she said. “Then we’ll call her ‘Joan’,” my mom said, “and tack on ‘Louise’. That’s my middle name. That’ll work.”

So I went home as JoanJoan Louise.

Growing up I searched for a grander story – a better story to tell. A grandiose little Catholic soul, I believed I was named for Jean d’Arc. A lacquered portrait of Joan hung on my bedroom wall – a First Communion present from my second cousin, the priest – Father Buddy Litkey. Shining in her armor, mounted on a white horse, banner furled, and wielding her sword, I believed myself her heir apparent.

So I canonized myself – St. Joan.

Yet even sanctified, It did not take long to grow bored with my monosyllabic name. (Don’t you love it that “monosyllabic” has five syllables?:)) Such a plain Jane name is Joan. So at my confirmation – as little RC kids traditionally do – I chose a saint to be my patron.

I chose “Veronica”: the woman of legend who wipes the face of Jesus on his way to Calvary. Her beautiful name literally means “true icon”. So beautiful. But for none of the above reasons did I choose it.

I chose it because it was the sexiest damn name this little 10 year old could come up with. Four syllables, exotic, and musical it rolled off the tongue –

Veronica!

But everyone still called me Joan. Well Joani actually (as I spell it now).

As a kid I tried to stretch my name on the page by adding letters: Joan, Joanie, Joannie. In my hippy dippy adolescence I chopped off a couple– an “n” and an “e” in homage to Joni Mitchell. I still have all of Joni’s music on my iPod, but I held on to the “a” for my own namesake:

Joani.

Two weeks ago at SpeakeasyDC’s “Unhinged”, Dara, one of the storytellers, introduced us to her husband’s alter egos. Struggling in their marriage, she met them all in therapy. Out came Michael, a shy and vulnerable boy. Out came drill sergeant, Charlie, his champion and protector.

Her husband, who suffers from DID, Dis-Associative Identity Disorder, by any other name is still her husband. All three gentlemen sitting on the couch were fragments of the man she loves. Shattered by trauma, to cope and survive, he gives them different names.

Each week in therapy they would pick up the pieces, befriending the fragments, collecting them together, both hoping to be be healed, both hoping to be made whole.

And I too go to therapy — twice monthly — to remember my name. I go to recall who I am, to recall just who my God calls me to be – in this time and in this place. And in ten years time, who I call myself has changed many times over.

Names change as lives change. Biblically speaking, on the way to the Promised Land, Sarai becomes SarahAbram becomes Abraham. Wrestling with angels, Jacob is renamed as Israel.

Even the Holy One, whose name was never to be spoken, has too many names to number: Elohim, el Shaddai, YWHW, I AM, Emmanuel – just to name a few.

So what’s in a name?

Well for each and everyone of us  – a whole, whole lot.

Name them and claim them.  Count them up and collect them. Try to understand them. Hold them close and cherish them. Good. Bad. Indifferent. Birth to death, each and every one is an integral and indispensable part of you.

Thanks be to the nameless God — who calls us all by name — whatever that might be.

JoaniSign


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Dirt Therapy

Mary Magdalene and the Gardener

Mary Magdalene and the Gardener.

 

Once upon an Eastertide, a little boy came home singing the Pete Seeger song: “Inch by inch, row by row, Lord, please help my garden grow”.  At school the little boy, along with his class, had planted bean seeds in jelly jars. Each day they’d tended their little glass gardens, checking the moist dark earth. Some of the children drowned their seeds with love. While others, their seeds withered from neglect. While others, theirs actually and miraculously sprouted and grew.

Tiny green shoots poked their heads into the fluorescent light. Slender green vines wound around the inside of the jars.

And then one day — the little boy proudly brought his home and set it down on the kitchen table. His mom asked, ”Okay, my little sweet potato, what’s this?” And the little boy replied:

”That’s Jesus, mom. That’s Jesus in a jar.”

It wasn’t exactly “Now the green blade riseth” but it was sweet indeed. That sweet little boy was my son Jacob (now 27 years old!). Sadly the little Jesus vine did not survive very long — but don’t blame Jacob. Sadly, you see, plants often came home to my house to die.

Even though I quite ironically once worked at plant store called “Great Plants Alive” most of the plants that crossed my threshold sadly met an untimely death.

And back in the day when I still had a backyard, I was quite happy to just let Mother Earth be my gardener. So whatever grew — grew  –and whatever withered – withered. My yard was a little city patch of green. And since I had no green thumb, this was my rule:

If it’s green let it grow.

My lawn was covered with crab grass, wild violets, clover, and dandelions. The fence was covered with tangled honeysuckle vines, ghetto pines, a struggling maple tree, and poison ivy. Plastic baseball bats and dead tennis balls dotted my lawn. A sad little wagon and outgrown bicycles littered the grass.

Occasionally I would attempt to tame this wilding place with my lawn mower and a weed whacker. But much more often, I would retreat and recline in a plastic chair on the patio to read a good book.

If it’s green let it grow.

My manic-depressive mom, Mary Lou was quite the gardener. While I have been blessed with her bipolar brain, God did not see to bestow upon me her green thumb. And hers was very green indeed.

When I was growing up, reading my mom was like reading a weather report. Is today’s forecast dark and stormy? Bright and sunny? Clear and calm? My mother could lash out like lightning just as easily as she could erupt in joy.

Her highs and lows were beyond her control, tamed only by a regular shot of bourbon, a little lithium, and the occasional session with Dr. Freud. My beloved mom did the best she could.

And she did her very best in the garden.

Mary Lou was totally at home in her rock garden. She relished her trips to the local greenhouses and she spared no expense at the nursery.

The back of the station wagon would be overloaded with peat moss and potting soil, flats of flowers, hydrangeas and azaleas, and a shrub or two — or three.

The lawn would be littered with empty plastic pots, as she dug down deep in the dirt planting geraniums, petunias, and marigolds. I have a snapshot of her doing just this. Her sun kissed skin is freckled and bronze; her auburn hair peaks out from her kerchief; and golden hoops dangle from her ears. Gorgeous.

Resplendent and radiant, digging in the dirt, all is right with her soul.

Digging in the dirt is therapy.

Sowing seeds is therapy.

Fertilizing the soil is therapy.

Watering the ground is therapy.

Gardening is therapy.

Dirt therapy.

Wordless, holistic, holy, hopeful, dirty therapy.

My mother’s daughter, namely me, no longer has a backyard. But I do have a little balcony. And each Eastertide I plant my little English garden in half a dozen clay pots. I am partial to bright colors: Shasta daises; hibiscus; and geraniums. I am partial to plants of the forgiving kind, the kind that forgive me if I don’t water them as often as I should.

A little Miracle Grow, a little sunshine, a little dirt, and all is right with my soul. At least for a little while.

In the beginning, the Creator walked in the cool of the wet garden at the time of the evening breeze. God made us out of the dirt of the garden. God made us out of the dirt of paradise.

And so in all the deaths we die — both large and small — we return to the Garden. We go down into the dirt like seeds forgotten and buried in the dark earth.

So as we are in the beginning, we are in the end. The Alpha is also the Omega.

Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary of Magdala, came to the garden and she saw that the stone was rolled away. And there stood the Gardener, the same Gardener who had walked at the time of the evening breeze. Mary did not know him until he called her by name. And then she knew. Here stands the very tiller, the very tender, the very lover of my soul.

Now the green blade riseth.

Dirt therapy.

JoaniSign


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The Bartender Kid, the Bipolar Mom & The Bishop

people who drink old fitzgerald

I learned to make Old Fashions in 1965. I was nine. My father taught me by the book. A red hardbound cocktail cookbook, kept on the shelf behind the bar in our basement.

I still remember the recipe. My mother’s favorite. Equal shots of bourbon and water (Old Fitzgerald preferred.), sugar water boiled on the stove, bitters, and a slice of orange. In a Waterford glass.

I was quite the little bartender, and so were my siblings. Besides Old Fashions I could whip up a Tom Collins or a Gin & Tonic, on command, no problem. And when commanded, which was often, I would fetch my parents a beer from the fridge: Heineken for my mother, Lowenbrau for my father.

And in 1965 when I was nine the nightmares began. This one in particular:

My mom and I are alone driving down a highway in the sky. The sky is bright blue and the sun shines bright. We pass through fluffy marshmallow clouds. The highway is a thin ribbon with no beginning and no end. Just one lane. No shoulder. My mother is passed out drunk behind the wheel of our Plymouth station wagon. Somehow I slide into the driver’s seat and take her place. I clutch the wheel I can barely see over to steer. One tiny mistake left or right, and we crash into the abyss.

I wake up silently screaming.

My grandmother makes breakfast, my older sister packs our lunch, and my mom drives our carpool to school. A bit embarrassing to a nine year old, my mom often just threw her raincoat over her nightgown to get out the door and to get us to school on time.

Now my mom under the best of circumstances was not the best of drivers. Having learned to drive with a stick shift, she still drove the automatic with two feet. Clutching, breaking, we were never sure what she was doing.

She always drove under the speed limit, even on the interstate. She told us she only drove as fast as she felt safe. I remember slinking down in the back seat as cars whizzed by, drivers honking and flipping us the bird. I was both mortified and terrified that somebody would crash into us.

Miraculously no one ever did.

I was never aware that my mother was ever drunk when she was driving. But I can’t help but think that with all the medication she was on – prescribed and not prescribed – along with the Old Fashions, that indeed sometimes she was.

My mother loved us most dearly and never would have intentionally put us in harm’s way. But most sadly now I believe unintentionally likely she did.

Like my mother before me, I too am bipolar. And like my mother before me, I too am a terrible driver. I have no sense of direction and I am easily flustered behind the wheel. Even with Google Maps, I can get lost in my own backyard.

And while I do not share my mother’s addiction to alcohol, flights of mania have had me fly down the highway at rocket speeds. And in 2005 one very dark Sunday at the crack of dawn flying down I95, I fell asleep behind the wheel. My car crossed three lanes of traffic, crashed through the guardrail, rolled over twice, and landed on the shoulder on the opposite side of the road.

My roof was caved in. My windshield shattered. My front end folded like an accordion.

I could have been killed. But more horrifically I could have gotten other people killed. Someone’s loved one. Someone’s mom. Someone’s child.

All because I thought it so important that I get to church in time to preach on Stewardship Sunday. Even though I knew that my new combo of meds made me exceedingly drowsy — I thought I could shake it off by rolling down my windows or turning up my radio. I thought of pulling over a few times, but my bad judgment prevailed.

The impact of the crash woke me up. When the police arrived, they had to force open the driver’s side window. The officer leaned in and said, “Lady, are you all right?” I responded, “I’m fine, officer, but I have to go church.”

Blasphemy. In the name of God, I risked everything. In the name of God, I jeopardized the lives of God’s children. Innocent lives. A mortal sin — if there ever was one.

I was charged with reckless driving. But because my impairment was medicinal and not alcoholic or narcotic, the charges were dropped. It did not hurt either that I wore a clerical collar to court. I never wear a clerical collar. Blasphemy compounded.

All the mitigating circumstances did not mitigate the fact that I was responsible: Responsible for taking care of my illness. Responsible for my medication. Responsible for choosing to get behind the wheel of my car.

And so was my mother.

And so is Bishop Suffragan Heather Cook — held responsible in the hit and run fatal accident in Maryland that cost a 43 year-old Baltimore bicyclist his life.

All the circumstances are not known, but what is known is that she was charged four years ago of drunken driving and drug possession. She pleaded guilty to the first and the second charge was dropped. Her record was expunged in exchange for future good behavior.

Truly tragic from every possible perspective.

All over Facebook folks have been chattering. A prevalent sentiment expressed by clergy and others is that the bishop is just as human and prone to human frailty and sin as anyone else.

This I tragically know is so. There for the grace of God go we all.

Alcohol use and abuse is pervasive in the life of the church – at receptions, conventions, meetings, and meals. And it is too often ignored or excused and at great cost.

Alcoholism –along with alcohol abuse – is an illness, an insidious illness. An illness the bishop may likely have confessed to and for which hopefully she sought treatment. But her failed recovery likely cost the cyclist his life and untold grief for all those he left behind.

Possibly she was rushing off to church like I was. Very possibly under the influence and very possibly with her judgment impaired, she chose to get behind the wheel of her car — just like I did.

And she is just as responsible. No mitigating circumstances can mitigate that.

I pray for the Bishop’s recovery. But I pray more for the life that cannot be recovered and for those who grieve an unspeakable loss.

There for the grace of God go we all.

Therefore I implore you, sisters and brothers, this New Year’s Eve, to not drink and drive. Do not let a friend drive drunk. Toast the New Year with sparkling cider. Be the designated driver. And this very night you might save a life.

And please, dear God,  grant us the wisdom and the courage and the presence of mind needed to so make it so.

JoaniSign


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Differently Wired, Elektra-kly

The Bipolar Brain, wired bright.

The Bipolar Brain, wired bright.

Medusa. I definitely resembled Medusa. Twenty-one electrodes, like snakes had been glued to my head – a crazy helmet I had to wear for forty eight hours. A crazy helmet I had to wear because a crazy neurologist was trying to figure out how my crazy brain had gone crazy haywire.

But not because I was crazy.

Three years ago I started having side effects from one of the crazy drugs I was prescribed. The symptoms were both surreal and terrifying. They occurred only at night. It was like a power outage, like someone had flipped a switch. One minute my brain was on. The next minute it seemed my brain was about to shut off. I didn’t want to close my eyes. I did not want to go to sleep. I was scared to death that I might just wake up dead. Short circuited. Wires fried. Unplugged.

Dr. Khan stared at the scratches and the scribblings. Silent seizures, she said. That’s what wrong with your head. You’re not bipolar. You have silent seizures. Days of mania? Nights of depression? One EEG and she thought she had my brain all figured out. Diagnosis done. But Dr, Khan in the end turned out to be the crazy one. Crazy wrong.

But it’s really not so crazy to want to understand. The mystery of the mind is not solved with an x-ray or a blood test or an EEG. Cracking open the skull is like trying to crack God’s own safe. It is virtually un-crackable.

Just ask Michio Kaku, a theoretical astrophysicist and author of “The Future of the Mind: The Scientific Quest to Understand, Enhance, and Empower the Mind.”

There are 100 billion stars in the Milky Way Galaxy, roughly the same number of neurons in your brain. You may have to travel 24 trillion miles to the nearest star outside of our solar system, to find an object as complex as what is sitting on your shoulders.”

“The Universe is concerned with the vastness of outer space…. black holes, exploding stars, and colliding galaxies. While the brain is concerned with inner space, where we find our most intimate and private hopes and desires. The mind is no farther than our next thought, yet we are often clueless when asked to explain it.”

100 billion lights to light up my brain. 100 billion lights wired 100 billion different ways. To the 100 billionth power. Welcome to my wired world. There is a symphony of synapses firing in my head. Sometimes the music is exquisite.  Sometimes cacophonous. Sometimes incomprehensible.

And sometimes my brain erupts like fireworks. Bright flames of orange and yellow and red. Flames I am most reluctant to extinguish. Flames that keep me up at night. Once upon an October just two years ago, I barely slept for ten straight days and ten straight nights. For ten straight days and ten straight nights, my fingers flew like lightning on the keyboard of my Mac. Twelve sermons in two hundred and forty hours. Brilliant. Profound. Inspired. Glorious. Indeed so  — maybe the first five or six. The next half dozen – not so much.

Manic fire fizzles. It fades to shades of purple, blue, and black. Just how purple, blue, and black depends. Sometimes dim and depressed and distracted. Sometimes as deep and dark and black as a black hole.

The brain burns itself out — shattered in an electric storm as surely as when lightning strikes a tree. A matter of scientific interest  of great interest to none other than Mary Shelley’s, Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

…for a time I was occupied by exploded systems, mingling a thousand contradictory theories and floundering desperately, guided by an ardent imagination and childish reasoning, till an accident again changed the current of my ideas.”

“When I was but fifteen…I witnessed a most violent and terrible thunderstorm. It advanced from the mountains…and the thunder burst at once with frightful loudness from various quarters of the heavens. I remained while the storm lasted, watching its progress with curiosity and delight. As I stood at the door, on a sudden I beheld a stream of fire issue from an old and beautiful oak which stood twenty yards from our house; and as soon as the dazzling light vanished, the oak had disappeared, and nothing remained but a blasted stump….shattered in a singular manner….not just splintered by the shock but entirely reduced to thin ribbons of wood.”

My mother once was shattered thus. So shattered she could not speak. So shattered she could not hear. So shattered she did not eat. So shattered she could not raise her head.  So shattered all her days were night. So shattered it seemed – it would take a lightning bolt to raise her from the dead.

A lightning bolt did. It’s called ECT – electro-convulsive therapy. And my mother, a bit like Frankenstein, had these electrodes wired to her head. The doctor flipped the switch and she was resurrected. Maybe not the first time, but after several treatments — with all the electricity of a 100 watt light bulb — my mother was resurrected.

And no one knows how. No doctor, no scientist could explain how my mother’s brain got rewired but it did. Who needs a psychiatrist when you can call an electrician?

Differently wired. I have come to understand my bipolar brain as differently wired. Researchers at the Mayo Clinic, the National Institutes of Mental Health, and Mt Sinai Hospital Center are all working on the same thing. How to make visible that invisible thing called bipolar disorder. How to rewire the manic side and the depressive side just so. How to rewire the brain chemically and genetically just so. The very best scientists of the very best kinds are all exploring that inner space — magnetically, electronically, digitally.

All to find out what I already know. I am differently wired. My brain is bipolar and that is how it works. It is how I perceive the world. It is how I experience the ups and downs of life. It is how I think. It is how I feel. It is both blessing and curse. It is a gift I did not ask for, but I am grateful for it just the same. I am differently wired. That is who I am.

My mind dances in spirals and does not walk in straight lines. My thoughts fly like fireflies and my head is often in the clouds. Words spill out of my mouth both melodious and ridiculous. I am a one woman band, getting so much good stuff done in so little time. At least so I believe of myself — most of the time. I do not want to medicate myself away. But my brain can do with a little management — at least a little bit.

You see, I resemble Elektra more than I do Medusa. In Greek mythology Elektra is a nymph of the ocean married to a god of the sea. One daughter is Iris, the rainbow. The other daughter is Harpies, the storm winds that blow. Elektra — amber, shining, and bright — pierces the storm clouds with rainbows of light. I am Elektra. At least so I believe most of the time!

So with a little bit of science, with a little bit of magic, with a little bit of prayer, with a little bit of humor, with a little bit of faith, with a little bit of help, with a little bit of spark, and yes with a little bit of medication, and more than just a little bit of sleep — that is how I manage to be me. Joan Louise – Elektra – Peacock.

Differently wired. Definitely me.

So…

Thanks  be to all the gods and goddesses.

Thanks be to God, The Holy Three.

Thanks be to God for wiring me,

Electrically,

Quite differently.

For making me — just me.

JoaniSign