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The Thirteenth and Final Chapter of The Places I Lost It
Zen Mountain Monastery was like a theme park for budding Buddhists. Housed in the Catskills in a stone building from the late 1930s, the monastery sat back off the road at the edge of a large clearing, skirted by a garden and a thickening forest at the bottom of a path that led to small houses for the residents and, further along, off into the woods. It was mid-October, and a few clinging leaves of dry, rusty brown dangled from the trees that surrounded the main building. Inside, a dimly lit zendo of highly polished wood floors and gilded statues came alive with wood blocks, drums, gongs and bells, and the registered students wore light gray robes and chanted “gate, gate, paragate” as the light came up in the high windows, and the tonic scent of coffee drifted in from the adjacent dining room. Long periods of seated meditation were broken by the adherents rising from their crossed-legged position to walk in concentric circles around, and through, the rows of cushions. Bowing rituals preceded more chanting and more seated meditation, then the congregation rose with stiff knees and aching backs to begin a period of work.
I was a guest for a retreat with psychotherapist Brenda Shoshana on Loss, Illness and Change, and I didn’t wear a robe or understand any of the Sanskrit that was chanted. I was amused by the students’ attachment to symbols and ritual as they practiced non-attachment, and I drew great lines of similarity between the service on Sunday, complete with a talk by the Abbott, and the Mass I attended that infused my being. Feelings of spirit re-emerged in comparison as the message and performance turned East. It was nice to meditate with a large group, and while the practice didn’t always bring me stillness, this weekend I settled into camaraderie with like minds still searching.
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Meditation and work fit together as the keystone of my recovery, and the work that went into meditation, the effortful effortlessness, saved my life. I continued to see Dr Dube and take the medicine he prescribed. Talk therapy with him, and medication prescribed by him, became the two sides of the arch that stabilized me and set me up to recover. When I dropped meditation and work into the gap at the top to complete the curve and hold together the primary therapies, the wild episodes passed and a consistent life became possible.
I started small. I’d sit for only a few minutes, and the rumination of flighty moods would drive me from my seat twitchy and uncomfortable. I read about focusing on the breath, and counting breaths to anchor that focus, and I failed with every attempt, over and over. Meditation became an exercise in failure as I slowly learned to hold my attention and notice the barrage of thoughts that competed with every cycle of breath for my mind’s primacy. In my grandiose, hypomanic moments, I’d fancy myself a monk and a master. In my rooms alone I grew into a discipline that enabled me to see a place beyond the fantasy of what could, should have, or must be, and I settled into a place closer, more familiar, more comfortable and secure than the one I lived in before I began to meditate.
A lot of reading went into my early practice. Probably too much, as I should have been spending more time in silence and less time in the flight of ideas that drove me to set goals for my practice instead of to just be. I probably should have sought out a teacher, but as with so many other things, I thought I could better teach myself, or find truer masters through written pages that have survived centuries. I had begun two years ago by reciting the Psalms of the Divine Office that I encountered in my study of St Benedict. Again, non-present fantasy took hold and I imagined myself an oblate, but most of the time I just did the work. I was also reading a lot of Thomas Merton and Elaine MacIness, and felt my compulsion for self-definition through achievement fall away – replaced by a germination of satisfaction in what already was. These Catholic/Zen writers, and a literary encounter with Evelyn Underhill’s writing on mysticism, led me to abandon the Divine Office and take up silence. Fueled by an attraction to Zen thought I read Dogen and increased my Zen practice. I moved onto a cushion on the floor, crossed my legs, and just noticed things that came up. I practiced intently and learned immensely how my moods moved not only through my mind and emotions, but through my body as well.
That was the strength of meditation for me with my mental illness. Subtle changes in the body and behavior signaled as precursors of an oncoming episode. Sometimes my sleep would falter, or I would start online shopping, or have a pain in my bowels, or obsess on ideas for new investments. These would all tip me off that things were about to change, badly, and when meditating I noticed the emergence of early symptoms. All too often, and definitely when not meditating, these warning signs were missed and I sped headlong into an episode; noticing too late that I was racing again or feeling mournfully depressed and unable to function normally or skillfully. Then it would be too late to do anything but suffer for a time. But when these precursors were noticed while meditating I was able to intervene with a method developed by me and my doctor in order to head off or stop short an impending episode.
Noticing the changes was the key. When buffeted by rapidly cycling moods my mind would give little pause to recognize new sensations or behaviors. But time spent on the cushion enabled me to take heed of signs that something was off, and to act before it all went wrong. Interventions that were added to my regular treatment at these points included something to help me sleep, more exercise, the surrender of my credit cards, a change in my medication, or additional talk therapy visits. This system of noticing and intervening worked. After I had about a year of experience with meditation I became adept at predicting and minimizing the onslaught of emotional variability that defined my bipolar disorder. I went a very long time without an episode that required hospitalization, or even one that so impaired me that I could not successfully function socially. The caprices ended. I felt better. Possibly I was, or I was in a long period of remission, or I was stewing hypomanic unaware of the full boil or return to cold yet to come. But what I’d learned through my meditation practice made such an error unlikely. The cruel thing about having lived so long with a mental illness is that I would never truly know. I would move forward, head down, hoping for the best, feeling a bit more prepared than before to handle things if the trap door of hellish memories that I balanced on should ever open again. But I could never be sure that the disease was really gone.
The first night at the monastery a senior monk gave instructions and laid out the ground rules. She said we weren’t allowed to fidget during meditation, and we weren’t there to pick somebody up. It was to be an austere and somber weekend. There was an attractive woman there who asked a few questions and protested at the demand we weren’t permitted to adjust our position, as she had never meditated before and didn’t expect the militaristic formality that can pollute Zen practice. We all entered the zendo well into the evening practice session and sat for a short period. Afterward, in silence, we filed off to our dormitories. We would be abruptly and noisily awakened at 4:20 the next morning by a gong in the hallway, calling us to practice.
Before breakfast we all entered the zendo again, this time to find our names placed on the back of the cushions off to one side of the room. I was seated next to the woman with the questions and nodded to her in greeting as the weekend was still silent. A long period of meditation was to be followed by a short walking meditation, and sitting nearly dozing I imagined the group following one another as we snaked around the rows of cushions, first slowly, then at tempo, always looking down and silent, hands folded across our abdomens. I imagined myself the perfect meditator. Then, late into the first meditation session my foot fell asleep. It tingled for a while, then disappeared from all sensation. I couldn’t feel it at all. When the bell rang and time came to stand, I unwisely tried to rise, placed all of my weight on the nerve disabled foot, and fell right on top of the woman seated next to me. And so I met Nicole.
So there I was, sprawled across a stranger with wide espresso brown eyes that quickened my heart. Her eyes glared amusement as I rolled off and pointed to my foot and a monk yelled, “if your foot fell asleep don’t get up!” too obvious and too late, as any dictum from any authority figure usually is. It felt as if I’d recovered from years of mental illness in a time quicker than the time it took my foot to regain feeling, and I was still suspect of this year of good health that landed me upon this interesting and mysterious woman’s lap. During the workshop with Dr Shoshana, we all talked around the specifics of the illness or change or loss that brought us together, but we all seemed to accept the fact that some very important things we wanted in our lives were out of reach and behind us, and it was time to move on.
It was 2007 and I was 44 and over the fact that I had to act like someone else to hold a relationship. But I was yet to put this new security into play, and I remained unattached for the longest period of my life. I never really resolved if I wanted a family or not, but now as that seemed completely out of reach I mourned the absence of something very human. Left behind, perhaps, were the chances of a family and a high-powered career, Instead I had a litany of symptoms that had made it all impossible. I committed some very big mistakes getting here, but they could have been much bigger, and I cherished the opportunity to put it all out of my mind and maybe, for once, live satisfied. I existed in an unfamiliar world free of the turmoil of bipolar disorder and I settled, possibly, on the budding chance that anything was possible. Sure, there were brief times over the last 14 years when I felt I was better, that the illness had gone away, and it always came back. But this time, in 2007, seemed different. Dr Dube and I put together a treatment program that worked, and while for a long time I felt the horrors of mixed episodes tap on my shoulder and whisper in my ear that they’d be back, they never came, and I never missed them. I’d take my medicine and keep meditating, and I’d see Dr Dube less and less as I managed my life in a way that was unfamiliar, but good. And there was an outside chance that I could end up happy.
But I’d be happy and set apart, still. In many ways the world had passed me by. My passion remained political economy, but that was a subject barely taught anymore. New technology ruled the work I’d done, and I was unfamiliar with it and ignorant of its uses. Self-responsibility was, to me, the greatest character trait one could exhibit, but it seemed many faced challenges by abdicating responsibility and blaming someone, or something, else for their plight and their prognosis. But the biggest changes came in mental healthcare. Patients were now called consumers, as if they purchased their disorders or chose to be so left out. The criteria for diagnosis became so broad that it seemed, suddenly, everyone had bipolar disorder, even if merely moody, and treatment for the “worried well’ robbed resources from the programs that helped the most challenged among us. I’d face this myself when, after so long a time in remission, I would meet someone who was seriously ill. If I revealed my own diagnosis, they would get angry, not knowing my past, and lump me in with all the others masquerading as disabled, destroyed, individuals. And maybe they were right, because I was rebuilt and mental illness barely shook my life or held me back anymore. I remember asking Dr Dube if he knew others like me. I mean, there must be others who recovered and now lived normal lives. He shook his head and said there were very few.
When the retreat broke silence Nicole and I spoke over lunch. It turned out that she lived in Philadelphia, and I lived just 12 minutes away from her house, right across the bridge into New Jersey. She had to leave the retreat early to travel to Brazil for work for a month, so we exchanged numbers and planned to be in touch. I meditated some more that weekend, but without her next to me my foot did not fall asleep again.
We spoke over a drink and I learned that she worked in product development on consumer package goods. We discussed emulsification in packaged soup and syneresis in squeeze bottles of mustard. I was smitten. Another night we went to see a movie, Before the Devil Knows You’re Dead, which neither of us knew anything about. I joked that it would probably start with a wild sex scene and we’d both be uncomfortable, and that’s exactly how the film began. As we saw each other a few times I wasn’t sure I was ready for a relationship, and Nicole wasn’t even sure these were dates. There I was, jumping into things again. We paused outside the spiral steps down to the train platform at 8th and Market, and shared a kiss before I sauntered down, lightly, to wait for the train. With a habitual motion, knowing there was no text on it to see, I pulled out my phone and it slipped, and I dropped it on the ties between the rails. I panicked, because her number was on it, and if it was gone then so was she. I asked a man who watched me, “If I jump onto the tracks to get that will you pull me back up?” He said yes, and trusting him I leapt off the platform and pranced around the third rail. With the phone stuffed deep in my pocket, I scrambled back onto the platform with the stranger’s help and eventually the late night train came and swept me away.
Nicole is shorter than me, five years younger, and her raspy voice sings with the effusive passion of a woman of Spanish and Italian descent. Originally from the Jersey Shore, she settled into Philadelphia and took advantage of the urban life the booming city offered. It was a different place than when I lived there, just blocks from her house. We’d been at that retreat at the monastery together, so she knew something was up with me. Eventually I had to address her curiosity and let her in on my secret. When stumbling into the possibility of commitment, you want to demonstrate to your new lover that all crazy people are different, in case they had any experience with one at some time in the past. What you don’t want them to know is that each crazy person can be as different each day as the sunset that ends it, so you try to keep things bright. It was early in our relationship when I asked a friend if I should tell Nicole my story. The friend asked, “Have you farted in front of her yet?” I said no, so my friend said it was too soon. But I felt if this was to go anywhere at all I had to be up front early. I thought it only fair.
Christmas was up at the Italian Market, and we walked along 9th Street with its third-generation butchers, cheese mongers, bakeries, and fish markets sitting off a gum stained sidewalk lined with vegetable vendors and oil drums spitting warming flames. We came to Washington Avenue, a row of Pho restaurants and Vietnamese groceries, the intersection hinged by Mexican bodegas and taquerias. We sat and ate queso fundido at a restaurant called Plaza Garibaldi, and Nicole spoke Spanish with the wait staff while I sat slightly lost in an unfamiliar world. A few nights later we sat listening to “Where I Like It Best” by Rickie Lee Jones in a hotel bar after seeing the Nutcracker at the Academy of Music. The song begged: “You can look through my eyes; hear through my heart; look through my eyes.” I ordered an old-fashioned, and as the ice melted and I sat a little more relaxed the whole thing seemed easier to take. I told her the details of my experience with bipolar disorder - details that I had been so vague about on the first few dates, and she acknowledged that she thought that something lurked hidden. She appreciated my candor. I told her I’d never use the disease as an excuse for any mistakes I’d make, and she asked: If things got rough, what could she do to help?
Broad Street was full of pine wreaths and Salvation Army kettles, and the lights outside the theaters illuminated the season and warmed the freezing evening. The bell of city hall chimed the hour, and couples crammed into Love Park for a photo with the iconic sculpture. At the end of the parkway, crisp in the cold distance, sat the art museum, and Calder statues marked the route. From the hotel bar we held gloved hands and moved into the neighborhoods, slipping through the colonial charm of Society Hill into the 19th century rows of houses in Queen Village, where the priest still joined the old Polish and Irish families’ events, and new couples walked dogs and pushed baby strollers and turned down the mid-block alleys. I was following a path I’d walked before, albeit always with the uncertainty of the unstable. I felt like stepping out of my head and into a relationship again; stepping into a life open and shared after a long pause - this time expecting an entirely different result.
If you liked The Places I Lost It, please support my work and read about the meditation, movement and meaningful work I used to recover from severe bipolar disorder by ordering my book Practicing Mental Illness, available from Amazon or wherever books are sold.
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