“Couldn’t Look Away” – Book review by Alistair McHarg of “Eye-locks and Other Fearsome Things”
I enthusiastically recommend this book to anyone interested in psychological exploration – from clinicians to self-diagnosticians to concerned family members to lovers of extraordinary tales well told.
Do not imagine that this is a lesson-plan about Bipolar Disorder, or Asperger’s Syndrome, for that matter. On the contrary, we see Ms. Wolfe wrestling with a panoply of symptoms residing on different points of a spectrum – we never know exactly where we are, and neither does Ms. Wolfe. We get first person, real-time intimacy – the raw data, not the spin.
Asperger’s, autism, schizophrenia, paranoia, mania, depression, and challenging questions of gender identity blur back and forth until one is overpowered by the sense of a shape-shifting, ghostly enemy. We witness Ms. Wolfe inaccurately interpreting social cues the way an anthropologist might puzzle over artifacts from an alien civilization.
The writing is austere, elegant, forceful and almost chillingly honest. There is not an ounce of self-pity to be found, or self-aggrandizement. Serious students of these illnesses could hardly find a more useful document because – using meticulous diaries she kept through the years – Ms. Wolfe has made scrupulous accuracy her battle cry.
From very early on I found myself caring about what happened to Ms. Wolfe, wanting to know more. I sensed sweetness, innocence, and vulnerability – and that made me want to protect her. Consequently, the dread I felt as I watched her struggle with her own mind – and the outside world – created the tension of real drama. One would have to be a cold fish indeed to not suffer along with her as she trudges ahead with heroic determination.
Ms. Wolfe has achieved something quite remarkable. She has applied the direct simplicity of science to a human ordeal and, in the process, accomplished what art does, when it is at its very best. She has fearlessly and generously taken us into her world and – in doing so – enriched us all.
“It won’t happen again. Never. Never. Never. It’ll never happen again. No. No. No.”
The words to a song by Yusuf, better known as Cat Stevens, about a love affair gone awry. The words reverberate in my head repeatedly in true Bipolar style, as in true Aspie style, I listen to the song over and over and over and over again. My perseveration on the song fashions the words into a mantra, sending me full throttle into another state of consciousness, like the whirling dervishes of Istanbul who spin until they enter a mystical state. Since I no longer alter my consciousness with alcohol, cigarettes or recreational drugs (was too crazy to go that route), and since I am on anti-psychotic medications which keep me in reality, I have to use music, meditate and take refuge in nature to venture into my much-missed mystical states of being. The states today are washed out versions of the vibrant intensity I was accustomed to earlier in my life. But then, at age 28, my mind, never too strong to begin with, broke down and reality shattered into so many smithereens of glass. “It’s always a trade-off,” the experts say. But (and a “but” with a capital “B”) the psych meds hold me together and, most importantly of all, they allow me to love.
“It will never happen again. No. No. No.”
I can’t say that. My first major manic episode was ignited by a flaming crush at work that catapulted me into the fractionated world of psychosis for a very long time. Some thirty years later I am unsure just how far away that world is. It is not unusual for love to trigger the first manic episode in Bipolars, and I had another when I met the man who was to become my husband. This time the psychosis lost the war– because the love was reciprocated and nurturing– the most stable thing I had ever experienced. And (big “and”) because I was medicated. Though it felt like another break with reality was encroaching on my psyche, it never materialized and has not since.
But there have been close calls now and then. Writing my memoir of madness while working part-time, I would go to my job with all the raw feelings I was writing about whirling around inside me and, seemingly, outside me as well, as though stamped on my forehead. The memories and flashbacks bubbled up from deep inside like a lava flow of feelings. But no breakdown.
Mania is not the only state that flirts with psychosis. So, too, does the underbelly of the beast, depression. Loss of loved ones and caring for my dying mother brought me perilously close to the precipice again but extra medication kept me on the sane side of psychosis.
Even now any highly emotional experience (and being bipolar there are many) can shake the foundations of the self. Beholding great beauty in ecstatic encounters with nature, profound connections between thoughts and ideas, connecting deeply to another person—all these can send me reeling into space wondering if I can make it back to earth. These are all dangers I engage in somewhat recklessly for they make up the majestic magic and mystery of life. Friends and family I have helped keep my feet on the ground, but my husband is my real anchor to reality. Should something happen to Tom, well…
No. Unlike a dead love affair, I can’t say the descent into madness “will never happen again.” As I drift in and out of tantalizing trips into mania and try to flee the inevitable free fall into depression, I hang on for dear life and will not let go.
Enjoy the song sung soulfully by Cat Stevens, “MaybeYou’re Right…”
(Click http://www.independentauthornetwork.com/ellen-stockdale-wolfe.html for information on, and to purchase my Bipolar/Asperger’s memoir.)