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I Have Been to Hell and Back

by Bernie Zuber

I am manic depressive. I prefer that term to bipolar because it is more descriptive of the emotions suffered. I am also a firm believer in the necessity of medication to repair the chemical imbalance in the brain. In my third and latest bout with this disease, it took seven years to find the proper tricyclic antidepressant for me. Without it I don't know where I'd be today, so I continue to take it. Fortunately, I don't suffer from side effects.

I am also fortunate in not having met prejudice against mental illness from either people I knew before my illness or people I've met since my return to normal life. I feel I can talk about my illness when I'm more familiar with new acquaintances, and my old friends are glad to see me as I was before. That lack of prejudice is probably due to the social circles I am active in. For most of my life I have been a reader of fantasy and science fiction, and I've been active in various organizations devoted to those genres of literature.

Fantasy and sf (we don't call it "sci fi ") are more evident these days because of successful media exposure, but in the past fantasy and sf fans felt alienated from the rest of society because they were "different" (to a certain degree this is still true today when the media portrays Star Trek fans as "Trekkies" in funny costumes). So fantasy and sf fans know what prejudice is and are therefore more tolerant of others with social problems.

The full implication of the similarity between fantasy and sf fans and mental illness survivors didn't occur to me until I attended the 1994 Alternatives Conference. There I noticed not only the bonding between former patients, similar to that between fans, but also a surprising similarity in physical types, dress, and group activities. For instance, at the Alternatives Conference there were people sitting in hallways playing guitars and singing spontaneously, in the same way that fans entertain each other at fantasy and science fiction conventions.

Another similarity between mental illness survivors and fantasy and sf fans is creativity. The fans in general are well educated and quite often develop into professional writers. Similarly, it is a documented fact that many creative people throughout history suffered from mental illness, especially from manic depression. Early in 1993, less than two years after my last hospitalization, I was pleasantly surprised to find a new book entitled "Touched With Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament". This book by Kay Redfield Jamison, a clinical psychologist and researcher in mood disorders, is a study of the lives of several poets, writers, artists and composers known to have suffered from various degrees of manic depression. A typical example is the artist Vincent van Gogh whose struggles with mental illness are fairly well known to the general public. Seeing Lord Byron on the cover of this book made me feel I was in good company.

As an artist I can attest to the relationship between creativity and mania. Most of my latest illness was depression, but for several months in 1984 I was manic. At that time I was living in Hollywood hotels and associating with all kinds of people, from artists and musicians to prostitutes and lesbians. Fortunately, I didn't catch any diseases, take dope, or become involved in serious crime, though I did witness police action in the wee hours of the morning (as a typical manic I slept very little). I do remember that I was very inspired and filled a sketch book with colorful portraits of the Hollywood Boulevard crowd, which I titled "Hollyweird". I thought my drawings were very good at the time, but unfortunately that sketch book was lost, so now I have no way of checking to see if my art was really as good as I thought it was.

As I've mentioned, I've always been interested in fantasy, so most of my art, even when I'm not ill, consists of fantasy illustration. One of the drawings I did in my Hollyweird sketch book was a portrait of Lucifer. This brings me to another aspect of mental illness that I find interesting: the relationship between mental illness and religious or spiritual thinking. I've read of many cases in which those with either manic depression or schizophrenia have had "spiritual" experiences, and we've all read about the mentally ill who have delusions of being Jesus Christ. In my case, when I was manic, I thought I was an emissary of Lucifer. I believed that Satan was not the former Lucifer but an older evil spirit who had entrapped Lucifer. To this day I wonder where that idea came from, for it was unlike anything I'd ever read.

What I had read, however, did influence my thinking during depression. Fantasy stories by wellknown Christian writer C.S. Lewis and another writer, Charles Williams (who was a member of the same circle of British writers as Lewis), portray a Hell populated not by horned devils with pitchforks but by modern bureaucrats in settings very much like the world we know in life. In my case I did not suffer hallucinations about Hell, nor did I lose track of where I was, but my perception of where I was changed.

During my first severe depression in 1952, at the age of 19, I attempted suicide. When I am severely depressed I begin to think that the suicide attempt did not fail and that my life since then has merely been an illusion. As a Roman Catholic I believe that suicides go directly to Hell. So, that's where I believe I am when I'm in deep depression and no amount of reassurance from mental health professionals can convince me otherwise. It's not a case of "flames of Hell," or any other horrible physical torture, but it is mental torture in which every little detail, such as cracks in a sidewalk, are designed to persecute me. Since I'm in Hell, I know that things will get worse and worse until I eventually do end up horribly tortured.

Actually the "tortures" did come. I stopped eating and thought that I would gradually fade away into a "death within death". Paramedics were called and I was sent to a hospital where I was fed through a nose tube. At the lowest point of my depression I was in bed with a nose tube and a catheter, which were extremely uncomfortable, so I felt the full tortures of Hell had indeed begun.

It's obvious my religious upbringing and my readings did influence my depressed thinking. So, does that mean that spiritual experiences and religious beliefs are just mental illnesses? I don't think so. We'd like to think that beliefs regarding "possession" in ancient times were misunderstandings of mental illness, but are we so sure? Lori Schiller, who wrote of her schizophrenia in "The Quiet Room", claims that she did not have a religious upbringing. So, why did her voices tell her she was going to Hell? I think there may be such a thing as a mixture of actual disease and evil spiritual influence. Research into that "gray area" could prove to be very interesting.

An unfortunate aspect of mental illness is the prejudice, from ignorance, that results in the criminalization of the mentally ill. During part of my depression , I was homeless and I was often jailed overnight for trespassing and vagrancy. During my mania I was arrested for setting minor fires. The several months I spent in jail certainly contributed to my belief that I was in Hell. Now that I am back in normal life, I feel sorry for the homeless and mentally ill who are routinely arrested for law breaking. It is particularly upsetting for me to read about cases such as that of the homeless man who was shot outside the White House. That homeless man could have been me. Surely such cases could be handled without fatality.

I do consider myself lucky to have come out alive from my longest period of manic depression. Yes, I did lose a lot as a result of it my wife, my house, my job, my car, and most of my personal belongings but I don't dwell on those losses. Instead, I am glad to be back in normal life. I am living in a retirement hotel in Pasadena, my favorite city in Southern California. Social Security pays for my basic living expenses and Medicare pays for my antidepressant, lmipramine. I've been able to successfully renew old friendships and make new ones. I am even more socially active now than I was before my last illness episode. I publish a monthly newsletter that is a calendar of local cultural events. I am also active in the San Gabriel Valley Alliance for the Mentally Ill, contributing to its monthly newsletter. All of this is done on the computer I was able to purchase.

I go to a rehabilitation school to learn more about computing and to perfect my typing skill and I welcomed every opportunity I get to write about my manic depression. In my opinion, every person who has suffered from mental illness should try to contribute to a better understanding of it and thereby help those who may suffer from it in the future.

 

(This article was first pubished in 1995, in The Journal of NAMI California)

BERNIE ZUBER writes and lives in Pasadena, CA.

 


 

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Special thanks to California NAMI. This article was originally published in The Journal of NAMI California, and is provided on this web site with permission of NAMI California. Copyright 2000, NAMI California.

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