Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight


Saturday, December 22, 2012

A Little Night Mania

Winter in Alaska seems like an illogical time to go sweeping into the heights of hypomania; but so far I haven't found much that is logical about bipolar disorder.  We've had a weird time of it here in the far north.  Grey, rainy, listless summer followed by blinding, brilliant winter where the sun is so bright it bounces off the arctic air and pierces our soft and malleable brains--for five hours a day.  Then we're plunged back into darkness, where the stars wheel overhead and our mole-eyes sift through the impossible cold again, seeking light.

I get an ice-cream headache every time I leave the house in the mornings.  I imagine my pineal gland, that mystical and medical third eye at the center of my forehead, taking a literal beating through these extremes.  A sinkhole of blackness.  Scintillating sunlight.  A rabbit-punch of subzero cold.  The signals it sends to the brain are, one might imagine, like telegraphs from the first monkey sent into space.  "WE ARE DYING!  --No, wait, we're good. We are very good, in fact AMAZING!  Oops, hold on--we are definitely dying.  So, so lonely and cold.  This is the coldest and saddest day of our lives." And so on.

Of course a monkey can't telegraph, but my brain can go haywire, and it is.  I was driving down the 150-mile highway from Anchorage to Kenai yesterday, an ice-blue sky overhead and icy black roads under my wheels, Led Zeppelin pouring from the speakers.  Robert Plant was howling about a lion standin' alone with a tadpole in a jar, and suddenly I was driving far too fast.

I said it's alright, you know it's alright
I guess it's all in my heart
You'll be my only, my one and only
Is that the way it should start?

Seventy, seventy-five, seventy-nine, the ice barely making a sound beneath the tires.  The sun, low and blinding, flashed through the trees at strobe-light speed.  That snarly guitar riff, the one I loved to play air guitar to as a 'tween (and still do, "rreearrdy-rreardy-rowr...) powered my accelerator foot.  I was in the Houses of the Holy.  I was immortal.  I was just-a-touch manic.

If BP were a job, these would be the benefits.  The cream off the top.  The paid vacation.  You want to know what it's like to fly?  To really soar?  That is what it's like--to live, for a time, without fear.  To feel wings, actual wings, spreading from the center of your soul and lifting you, defying gravity, defying all that holds you back, ties you down.  Boundless.  Immortal.

But the job?  God, the job sucks.  Days, weeks, of darkness.  Of pain, sometimes physical pain.  You think it's cold and dark outside, where the temp is -11 and you haven't seen the sun for 19 hours.  But the true darkness is internal.  The true work is in dragging yourself out of bed and into the kitchen to make the coffee, feed the dog, feed yourself.  Then into the shower.  Then into your clothes.

Crazy ways are evident, in the way that
You're wearing your clothes
Sippin' booze is precedent
As the evening starts to glow

You try to keep your face out of the bottle.  Self-medicating, they call that, and that's the best way to get in trouble with your psychiatrist.  The theory goes that when you have BP you never just drink for fun. You drink to escape--that's what "they" say.  Escape your boredom, your relationship, your job, the place you live, your life itself.  Your self itself.  Except--you don't have to be (gasp) mentally ill to try to escape something.  It's not like the crazies invented escapism.  And it's not like the crazies can't do stuff for fun.  I'm not so sure about those psychiatrists; I'm not so sure about all of "them."  Didn't they get into their profession because they were a little crazy, too?  And doesn't everybody sometimes hate the "job" of getting out of bed in the morning?  Don't you have to self-medicate in some way, just to be human?  Why does the medication have to be booze?

Can sunlight through trees be medicine?  Can music?  Can conversation?  Mountain air?  A good book?  Can love be medicine?

It's a weird time of year here in the north.  And we are weird sorts of people, both sane and not-so-sane.  The darkest day of the year is a strange time for mania; I blame it on Robert Plant and an overstimulated pineal gland.  What's your excuse?

Sunday, December 16, 2012



I am driving through a vast desert country in an old van, a 3rd-world patched-up canvas-topped affair.  My companion is a journalist; she's on a deadline, and the desert doesn't interest her much.  We make a quick stop in a destitute village for refreshment and news of the road, and learn that there is a tragedy unfolding on the route ahead of us.  Some people have been attacked--are still being attacked--by a monstrous, bizarre flock of birds.  Our journey will take us right past it, and suddenly I'm anxious to get back on the road; maybe we can help those people.  My companion is unenthusiastic, however.  She figures the people are already dead, or will be by the time we get there.  But we head out across the desert again, my anxiety building with every mile, and soon the birdstorm looms into sight.

It is hideous.  Ravens, jays, eagles, crows, birds of every description, in a massive cloud that towers to the sky.  It boils and heaves, it stirs up the dry earth, it blots out the sun.  It's a cloud of hatred, of retribution and madness.  It is everything about the world that doesn't make sense, that shouldn't be.   The cloud boils constantly in on itself, driving toward its center, where I can't imagine how those people can still be alive.  Ahead of us is a sparse desert oasis, and our faint track of a road enters this.  We find people inside, their cars parked here and there, watching.  They have set up a makeshift camp, just off the flagstone road, and in the clouds of dust stirred up by the birdstorm, this is a surreal war-zone of a world.  Near us a little group of people squats, one of them playing a dirge on his harmonica.

I am frantic.  Why aren't we attempting a rescue?  I look up at the birdstorm, writhing above the trees.  The noise is phenomenal.  All I have for protection is a bandanna to keep the dust from clogging my throat.  I figure I can break a heavy branch off one of the trees to fight off the birds, and maybe tie a rope to my waist so someone can pull me out.  But no one is listening to my pleas for help--my journalist companion is grumbling at the prolonged stop, and the squatters all but ignore me.  I think of the people at the bottom of that storm, torn by thousands of curved beaks and talons, bleeding in the dust, no doubt being divided into bloody pieces; and in the end it's my own mind that drags me down.  I'm so despondent looking at that overpowering, evil storm that I can't even get out of the van.  The noise and the dust, the situation itself, is immobilizing.  I realize the fear is too much for me, the darkness too terrifying.  I succumb to the paralysis that has already gripped the others, and instead of making an effort, I hang my head in shame.


This past week we had a reminder of how overpowering the darkness can be.  How anxiety-inducing it is to realize that death and loss will come to us all, regardless of the form it takes.  Sometimes it is absolutely terrifying to contemplate loving another human being under these circumstances--because the more deeply we love, the more painful it is to undergo the loss.  So much easier, so much less painful, to "go to sleep" and not try.  To sit and play a dirge, or do nothing at all--to let our eyes glaze over and our hearts go numb while others are hurting, being torn to pieces, rather than grab a rope and dive in to help.  Even when it seems like all is lost, I am learning that I have to try.  And sometimes--to be honest--all IS lost.  But to know that you tried instead of sitting there in self-defeat: that's something. If, in the dream, I dove into that evil mess with a rope around my waist, got the shit beaten out of me, discovered there was nothing left to rescue, and then got pulled back out of it by someone on the other end of the rope--at least I'd have known I gave it my best.  And that I had some backup.

I've had that experience in my life recently, and even though I didn't get what I thought I wanted and needed, I found out that it's the people on the other end of the rope that really matter.

KB © 12/16/12

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


I was a bitten dog
a fighter, a wild one
chasing love and throwing
myself under the tires
I was a landscape of scars furred in shame
swore you knew me
spoke my language, called me to you
took off our coats of fear
showed me how our tender scars
matched, every last one
how our landscapes fit together
skin to skin
so human, so much more:
this deep knowing from before time

I forgot how to fight
I dropped my guard
gave in to love, finally
climbed in and went along for the ride
what strange trusting beasts we are
in the end!
yesterday a universe of warmth
a cosmos of heart-opening knowledge
today a scarred stray watching
taillights in the dampening snow

KB ©  12/12/12