Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Talking the Walk (19)

The Continuity Clause

(This passage and the two that follow it are taken from “On and Off the Learning Curve: Notes by a Bipolar Student,” a talk originally given at the University of Toronto on March 11, 2009. To preserve a closely woven argument, it has been necessary in places to repeat material from previous talks. I have shortened or reworked these sections where possible.)

Seven weeks ago, I, along with millions of others suffering a long-term malaise, was given a strong antidepressant. The treatment included watching chopper blades lift George Bush out of sight, and watching and hearing Barack Obama sworn in as the U.S. president. Many of you will remember this vividly, I’m sure, especially if you were a fellow sufferer. Like all treatments, though, this one had its unwanted side effects, one of which was exposure to potentially toxic levels of rhetoric. That same day, I heard a commentator gush: “It’s a brand new country!” Immediately, this was contradicted by a colleague’s more sour view: “It’s the same old place.” Which was true? I wondered. And I decided they both could be. It’s the same old, brand new place.

And within a few days, influenced no doubt by the ceremony to the south, I wrote the following, applied to a person instead of a country. I call it “The Continuity Clause: Amendment to the Constitution of the United States of Self”:

“I” shall still be considered “I” in spite of lapses or contradictions in the behaviour of myself or the partial or complete disappearance of myself for whatever duration and for whatever reason.

So help me...anyone.

What does this have to do with a book on mental illness called The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis? Everything, really. A core theme in the book–addressed both explicitly and implicitly–is the existential conundrum of how to maintain a self and a life, when that self and life are subject to regular and radical disruption. How does chaos become continuity? The answers to that very big question, which I can only begin to suggest, have, I think, a special relevance to education.

The Lily Pond has four sections, which are like concentric rings. I imagine them sometimes as the ripples set up by a frog jumping into a still pond. They might also be seen as a series of lenses, with each lens offering a wider view of the subject. The first view is a close-up of a patient in crisis, me; the second, of the patient’s family, companions and fellow sufferers; then, moving further outward, a view of living in the wider community as a writer and a participant in psychotherapy; and finally, to caring–trying to care–for my wife Heather as she survives her own mental health crisis. The last view, though it involves many close-ups of each of us and of our marriage, is the widest view because its focus is on trying to make use of illness, trying to turn its hard lessons to some positive and outward-facing account.

The book’s four rings, then, move gradually outward from isolation and passivity–lying motionless on a hospital bed–to a life shared with others, including shared illness. They chronicle the journey (as the back cover says) “from the darkness of unconscious suffering to the daylight of mindful recovery.” What I mean by mindful recovery is not a cure–nothing so final or triumphant-sounding. It is more like tugging recurrent problems into better light so they can be worked on, coped with, managed. This is a long, indeed endless process. Ongoing active awareness is what I mean.

I also think of these concentric rings in another way: as my own story of mental illness, inside the larger story of mental health, which in turn fits inside the much larger story of existence and its challenges, for some of which we use the shorthand “mental health.” The story in The Lily Pond spans four decades. There are mentions in it of my stop-and-start university career, but that’s not described in detail. I’d like to look at it a little more closely now.

I got my Honours B.A. on the 13-year plan. I started in 1973 and graduated in 1986. While I have nothing against gradualism, it’s not a schedule I would recommend to anyone. You see, I was never a part-time student, but rather a full-time student who kept being forced to drop out. Interruptions to my course of study included those eighteen months on a psychiatric ward, working (after my discharge) as a dishwasher for two years, stints of unemployment and short-term jobs, all of this in a series of rented rooms–a “tumbleweed life,” I called it once–before I decided, at age 30, to complete the last year of my degree which had stalled at the three-year mark.

Why did it take me so long? And what, since I call the interruptions “forced,” was forcing me?

There’s more than one answer to that question. But the main reason, I think, is one that eluded me for many years; in fact, it was not until fairly recently that I fully acknowledged it.

Mental illness. Plunges into listless or agitated depressions, followed by equally destabilizing flights into rushing manias. And–far more damaging than these swings themselves–my bewilderment about what was happening to me, which led me to ascribe my swings to other, misleading causes.

Here is what kept happening. I’d start a school year with energy and enthusiasm–attending lectures, doing the readings, getting good marks...learning–and then at some point–usually in the late fall or spring, though it was not strictly seasonal–I would simply bottom out. Lose interest in the classes and the readings, start falling asleep over books, have trouble following a line of argument or even a sentence...and I would think: Why am I here? I’m not interested in this stuff. Or: I’m not smart enough, I can’t do this. (Forgetting–for depression has its characteristic amnesia as well as other forms of inattention–that only weeks or days before I had been smart enough, interested enough.) My reading and attendance became spotty, my work and marks trailed off...I dropped out. Usually vowing never to return.

Looking back, I see that what I was mainly lacking, to pursue my education, was not intelligence or desire or diligence, but self-knowledge. I was not well enough acquainted with myself, and not forgiving or understanding enough of those parts with which I was acquainted, to succeed in school. I needed to educate myself about myself before I could educate myself about anything else. Or at least–since the processes should occur in tandem–I needed to be learning about myself while I was trying to learn about Geoffrey Chaucer and John Milton.

Like generations of bad students before me, I aspired to speak passably well about lives and minds and relations in worlds remote from my own, and to do so I turned exclusively to textbooks and experts, disdaining the materials nearest to hand: my life, mind, and relations in this world, now.

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