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
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.