[Ed.'s Note: Welcome to “The Manic Manual”, a first hand look into mental health, specifically manic depression, through a series of stories told by Lizzy DiSanto. The narrative begins with the release from a mental hospital and takes to the streets of Boston, Allston to be exact. No.1b of “How to surf the pulse” will continue on Monday March 4.]
I have just been released from the women's mental hospital and I am looking to lose myself again in the madness of the city. It’s a cool October evening in 2010. There is a basement show happening tonight. I am prepared, externally anyway. I have on a nice outfit and I’m wearing a pair of Vans. The malleable canvas and thick soles make enough of the right kind of friction for treading the uneven, gravelly terrain of the Allston basements that I frequent. It's all akin to standing up while riding the B Line as the streetcar writhes along Commonwealth Avenue. Make like you're on a skateboard and riding the waves of movement is easy. Surf the pulse and stay afloat. This is necessary in any underground but especially for me. Going underground too often can mean certain death.
Two days prior I reemerged after I willfully submerged myself. 2010 has not been such a kind year to me. I moved to Allston after living in a group home for young adults. There weren't all young adults there though: June, a 60-year-old woman had a bedroom on the first floor. She was a schizophrenic and always left her radio playing—even the static; especially the static—to block out the voices in her head that she could be heard arguing with on any given day. She also left soiled diapers around the bathtub of the bathroom that we shared. She didn't eat much because she didn't have any teeth. She drank coffee and smoked Double Diamond cigarettes. June always seemed like a drifter in real-life: never actually living but just visiting. June wasn't even the worst of the residents and my decision to move out of the group home was solidified after being date raped by a fellow male resident. Like the others at the group home, I was on a severe regimen of potent antipsychotic medications. Antipsychotics are also referred to as “major tranquilizers” and being on thousands of milligrams every day of these pills rendered me a shell of a human being. I was a depressed, languid walrus of a girl shuffling about in a foggy orb of blunted, plastic emotions and deadened affect. Maybe I could have smiled more if my face didn't feel like molasses. Boston is such a small town that the guy who date raped me had previously tried (and failed) to date rape one of my best friends, Cherry Kicks.
Cherry died in August 2010 of a heroin overdose at the age of 18. Two weeks later I turned 21. I didn't find out that she had died until four days after my birthday. The night that Cherry overdosed in the bathroom of a Harvard Square Cafe, I was in Allston watching the Vivian Girls play in a basement. I went home and stayed up all night putting the finishing touches on a zine that I had made about a boy, Max, whom I liked but didn't like me back. Max was going to see Ween play a free show in New York City. I had promised myself that taking a trip from the madness of the city would salvage the little bit of sanity that I had left. When that failed, I decide to go to Bravo Pizzeria and order the usual: two “dank” Sicilian slices and a root beer for five dollars.
It isn't the usual. I need something because I am going to kill myself. It doesn't seem as bloated and dramatic as it was when I was 15. After that suicide attempt, I was subsequently hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder. I started to prefer the term “manic depression.” It sounded cooler. It sounded antiquated and made my madness somehow sound intellectual and elegant. There is something illuminated about the phrase “manic depression” itself. Manic depression, not bipolar disorder, is an heirloom or artifact of faded generations of brilliant minds and great artists. I can carry manic depression like a Moleskine noteboook as a quote that I am indeed an artist. A reference. A vintage piece. Jimi Hendrix sang: “Manic depression is a frustrating mess.” Bipolar disorder sounds so clinical. So sneering. So diseased. I have manic depression. I am a manic depressive, a link in the ghost chain of madness past and future.
Contrary to popular belief, a manic depressive is not in a default state of disorder. Manic depression is not always so chaotic and disordered. It's a condition marked by extreme episodes: we are not always walking disasters. In between the extreme states, we can actually be pretty functional. The manic depressive modus vivendi isn’t so troubling but the modus operandi i.e. how our moods move, not that we incur such moods. Sometimes I feel real feelings and the ecstatic, wondrous bigness of the world emanates through me, good or bad, light or heavy. What’s the big deal? The depressions can be the most toxic. They are as churning and insidious as black molasses and a big mess when they inevitably spill over.
That is until the manias choose to sweep in like a fire dream (and it is definitely the mania that chooses us, not the other way around). In the theater of moods mania will make us fun, lively, loud, intense, exciting, entertaining, hyper as fuck, flirtatious, frighteningly euphoric, charismatic, sexy, and confident. It will turn us into performers, singers, stand up comics, dancers, actors, philosophers. You will think that we are on coke but we are likely sober. We get high on our mind. To the manic, the world will be infinite, open and alive. God is in our brain. You will envy us as we sparkle and burn, and pity us when we burn out. You will tell us a thousand times in vain to “calm down”; “you have way too much energy for me right now.” “Will you shut up already?” “Are you on drugs?” “Oh my God, I love you.” You will not be able to resist us, even when the mania gets edgy and you find yourself scared. The manic loves and loves to be loved but we will forget all about that when we are depressed. What goes up must come down, after all.
What has come down and come over me is something massive. The modus operandi is the same as my many depressions before—sweep in, inch its way like a casual parasite as it clings to the miserable mise en scene of my given circumstances and attack the host. I can't go see Ween. Max doesn't like me back. There is another semester of school starting and while I crave knowledge and relish the realization of my higher education dreams, school is so stultifying. I feel so low and so alone. Going to basement shows somewhat mask what I am going through but I can feel the gloomy stirrings inside of me. My whole world is a dark, dingy cellar with no door, no light and no show. I’m really just going through the motions. Drink. Smoke. Laugh. Make a pop culture reference. Praise the boys in the bands. Dance. Sometimes I am the only person dancing at a show. When live music, or anything, moves me and stirs my soul, I can't hide it. My enthusiasm is dorky and unbecoming of the ennui expected of an Allston scenester but I go to underground shows seeking transcendence.
I am oddly methodical the day of my suicide attempt. I go to the same drugstore as I did when I was 15 and buy the same brand of generic aspirin. It still costs the same price: $3.99 plus tax. Suicide is so easy and accessible. It is so cheap and obvious. I can do it myself. Only this time, I am old enough to legally purchase alcohol and I use the beers I bought and put in my minifridge to wash down my volatile cocktail. I beat my teenage suicide record of “approximately 15-20 tablets” and eat exactly thirty pills before my eyeballs start feeling like bricks pushing out of my sockets from the inside. My fingers go numb intermittently. They feel like they're made of static. To leave my body behind as I have planned would mean feeling it and its sensations most strongly and feverishly while it fights the curious toxins put into it so rapidly. Something is not computing here. The human body is made to be alive. It will fight the waves of death. It won't go silently. A friend of mine drives me to the hospital and although he has nothing to do with my wanting to die, I borrow the dynamics of our relationship and configure them into my selfish psychic architecture. I have been in love with him since I was 16 years old but he is married with kids. He is older than me and thus saner and much more mature. He is at work when I decide that it is a grievous fucking world and I want out of it. My arrested affection is not imminent to my suicide attempt but incidental and I take it as collateral. I am hungry for hurt.
At the emergency room, I am triaged. I answer questions and relinquish my bottle of pills to a very concerned and upset doctor. I don't see what the big deal is. Can't everybody see that I am nothing? Worthless? Everything about me is covered in suck stain. I won't be missed. Of course, self-loathing is just a form of narcissism: another way of being fixated on yourself. And now I have nurses and doctors and a concerned friend all focused on little old me. I feel like Sarah Silverman in the episode of The Sarah Silverman Program in which she downs a bottle of orange cough syrup and crashes her car into a schoolyard playground. Then she is booked at the police station by Officer Jay but continues being gloriously ignorant to the egregious nature of her offenses. I try her line out on the doctor: “Why are you so mad at me?” He places his pen down sternly and looks up at me. “You ate enough aspirin that you could need dialysis for the rest of your life.”
“Really?” The plug is pulled on my sitcom of affected ignorance. I had plum forgotten that there are serious medical repercussions for eating nearly ten grams of aspirin. I'm still not getting it, or if I am, I am rapidly justifying my actions in my head. It was a birthday present from my 15-year-old self, albeit a lousy present.
“Aspirin is just one letter short of aspiring.”
If you're a manic depressive writer, you really watch your words. Letters, wordplay, spacing, anagrams all radiate some arcane meaning that your mind races to encode. Words speak to you in the most strange and novel ways, even if you aren't necessarily manic. If you're lucky, you can parlay this gift into some genius writings. If you're not careful however, these illuminations can become hauntings. Even worse, they become delusions of reference and reality idly slips away while you force yourself to stay awake all night fearful that because “peels” is “sleep” spelled backwards, the ghost of John Peel will inhabit one of your roommates bodies, kill you, peel your skin off like an orange, and turn your bones into a drum to hide the evidence. Mania (and even depression, when you're sad enough) can feel magical but these states are far from logical. Still, logic is starting to creep in with a healthy dose of reality. I am not 15 years old. There will be no conversation with an ER doctor about Elliott Smith. Elliott's death wasn't even ruled a suicide. The romance of the situation is rapidly eroding. What a waste of a day. What a waste of time this all is. Just drink the damn liquid charcoal. Don't have them threaten to pump your stomach. Give up on giving up.
I am transferred to the Intensive Care Unit until I have medical clearance to be admitted to an inpatient unit. To make sure that I don't have any communicable diseases like MRSA, I am subjected to a rectal swab. I'm all clean. I make a mental note to write a joke later about getting the periphery of my butthole swabbed. “Hey, doc! I'm an exit only girl!”
I have a female attending psychiatrist on the women's unit and I'm glad. She's nice, she thinks I'm smart and she respects my insight into my condition. She is intelligent herself but at least dumb enough to discharge me after two weeks when I’m well. Whatever that means. She also gives me a prescription for klonopin. We agree that it will be helpful in treating the temporal lobe epilepsy with which I was diagnosed at age 16 (which is true) and she knows that I won't abuse it (which is false). The very day that I am discharged I go to two places: the pharmacy to fill my klonopin script and the liquor store to get some cheap whiskey. While I won't become addicted to klonopin, I will habitually begin using what I term a “Joplin Cocktail”, a mixture of pills and alcohol that I name after doomed songstress Janis Joplin.
Indulging in a depressive state is not allowed since I've been recently hospitalized. If I do, I cannot show it. It will look like I'm not “fixed”; like I'm not trying hard enough. Manic states oddly don't get me high anymore, or high enough. But a Joplin Cocktail can hurl me into a hazy state of static oblivion. I can't feel sad if I don't feel anything, I reason. During my hospital stay, a hospital staff stole the SIM card out of my Blackberry phone, which was paid for by my enabling New York boss. I can still make videos and play music on it. My neighbor puts the new Corin Tucker Band EP on my computer and I put it on my phone. I have tickets to see her play live at the Paradise next week, or a ticket rather. I end up going to the Paradise alone.
A lot of people will certainly be at tonight's show. It's the album release for a beloved Allston band with a strong cult following. They are default dope: one of those bands that you go see, go see everybody else see and go to be seen. Binge drinking is so commonplace in the show scene and since alcohol makes me manic, I am a social fucking butterfly. I interview enthusiastically people about the most idiotic topics but it's more about me and what a personality I am. If everything goes well (whatever that means) I will tire myself out, go home, and listen to Elliott Smith with my cat while I smoke cigarettes. Depending on the hurt I can muster, I will cry myself to sleep.
My plans for a date with a dead cute, sensitive guitar-playing white boy are interrupted by a living one. As I am “interviewing” one of the boys in the band and capturing it on camera, I see him: Julian Hamburger. He sees me and stares at me. Out of the corner of my eye, I clock his gaze. It's lustful and he is waiting for me to pay attention to him. Turn your little camera my way, baby girl. I acquiesce.
“Oh, hey, you're Julian Hamburger. I saw you play a show last night.” The post-psych unit show that I went to had some local bands and Julian was on tour. The basement was packed and I smoked a blunt, popped some klonopin, and sipped a Twisted Tea while I sat at the very back of the basement. My shoulders were slumped sitting in my suicide suck stain, nursing my drink. The only person who can even be seen talking to me is a girl who may or may not have been diagnosed as schizoaffective. That I even had to ask somebody to share a blunt with me is horribly depressing. You can't catch crazy, you guys. It's not like herpes. I have manic depression. I'm trying to be normal again. You think you're uncomfortable being around me? I'm uncomfortable being me. Trying to kill yourself is social suicide and if you're manic depressive, you'd be better willing to deal with the looks, the whispers, the rumors and the alienation. Your upstairs neighbor will be mad at you but her anger will transmute into pity once she realizes that the ten dollars you borrowed from her was used to buy pills and pizza. She probs won't ask for you to pay her back.
Being an Allston outcast at the time has its advantages. For once, I can actually focus on the music at the show. I can close my eyes and meditate upon it. You have to do that with Julian's music so that it can really hit you just right. He is singing and playing so softly that it is almost punk. He is using such affected minimalism while playing to such a large crowd. After his set, I go up to him. The crowd is breaking up and I want to let him know that I liked it. “Hey, I just wanted to tell you that I really enjoyed your set.” My words are sincere but the cannabis and klonopin make them feel furry and alien. I try not to slur. “Very Elliott Smith…when he was fucked up at the Largo!” Julian isn't so much like Elliott but they are cute, sensitive white boys with guitars and I like to quip in the context of a familiar reference.
“Thank you,” Julian says. He has a firm handshake. I'm impressed. He asks what my name is. I look up at him. He is so tall, at least 6'3″. The muted basement lights make his medium length light-brown-sort-of-sandy-blond hair glow in an aura of adorableness. His eyes are hazel-ish. He is so able to be adored. It is probably the weed, booze and downers in me but I feel like I'm visibly glowing. His light makes me swoon.
Lizzy DiSanto is a pseudonym that the author uses so the normal people don't think she's crazy and the crazy people don't think she's normal.