Saturday, July 2, 2011

Bipolar, Borderline, Enlightened

This morning my study feels more like a sanctuary than usual. It is dim and threatening rain, a relief after days of bright heat. I had eight hours of healing sleep. There is nothing on our agenda for the whole long weekend but to relax. Our grandson, and his vital energy, are gone. Tashi is relieved - cats are instinctively wary of change. I'm getting there myself.

I want to write somehow about being labeled.

Last night we watched Crazy Wisdom, a wonderful film about the life of Chogyam Trungpa, who brought Tibetan Buddhism to the West. I first knew him as the teacher of Pema Chodron, whom I have never met, but whose books and tapes taught me how to meditate.  Recently my aversion to Trungpa's famous drunkenness and sexual behavior melted away - thank God, my standards are eroding - and I have been studying his talks on my Kindle.  So here came this film, through the Tricycle film festival.

Every psychiatrist I've ever known would feel satisfied that Trungpa Rinpoche was Bipolar and Borderline. You could make that Bipolar with schizoaffective overtones, as he had visions, one famous one in the cave of an ancient Buddhist saint. Add to that Dual Diagnosis - his drinking was legendary.

It is not news to me that the very manifestations that are called Bipolar can be seen in religious terms. I once owned a book called Are you Getting Enlightened or Losing Your Mind?  In the mid-1970's my own behavior during periods of extreme emotions/sensations was labeled "manic," but if I'd been in a knowledgeable Buddhist community it might have been recognized as the heart chakra opening, as an enlightenment experience.  Labels are strictly cultural.  Words have no intrinsic truth.

A wise Buddhist teacher might have had me eat beef, which is grounding, and kept me in dim, quiet rooms, with advanced students being with me, encouraging me to sit silent, to fall asleep, helping me come down.  Other behavior/feelings that hit later would have been labeled not depression, but despair, a spiritual condition long recognized in the Christian tradition, and prominent in Jesus's story. I would been encouraged to keep doing my daily work, to get outside and contemplate nature, to do physical forms like walking meditation, yoga, or tai chi, to sit with my feelings and recognize how they modulate and pass moment by moment. But I didn't have a religious tradition to help me.

People who are caught by the American mental health system can resist being labeled, or be grateful and hopeful that it will help. In the absence of a good community approach to extreme behavior, medications can help. Equally, they harm. Lithium cost me my kidneys. You don't know what trouble is until your kidneys start failing.  I'm sorry that a good residential training program did not exist, and sorry that very few such programs exist now.

Here is the Buddhist understanding of extreme emotions: you never "are" some thing.  You are a dance or a traffic jam, a bunch of processes that are active as long as your body is alive.  What you call "me" changes all the time.  Labels are a convenience, but we need to understand they are not reality.

Here and there are other people like me, for whom religiosity is deep experience, not "symptom". Many other people who have gone through extreme experiences and have learned how to work with their feelings, thoughts, sensations. Who use little or no medication. Who are happy and useful. I am convinced that more of us need to come forth and be willing to be labeled crazy, who know that the truth is, we have crazy wisdom.  Some frightened people will avoid us, some sick people will enjoy gossiping and feeling superior. That's life. You can't help what other people think.

Those of us who have found paths that work need to share our own experience, not the long drama of being sick and disrupted, but the important story of how we let that pass and learned to be happy.
Our Zen garden from kitchen window


  1. I very much appreciate your last paragraph and that is what I am working on myself. I posted a couple of times on pain and think it helped no one except me in that I realized I need to move on. I am working on letting it pass. Thank you.
    Our society certainly does like putting labels on everyone and everything. It helps us to communicate only if we stay open and allow change.

  2. Hi Linda - Thanks for your encouragement. This blog gets few comments, so I occasionally have to remind myself that it is offered to the universe, that every word I speak or write has consequences, and I never know what all of them are. That may motivate me to write on kindness soon, which is my defense against doing harm.

  3. Too much to say on this, so I will blog instead! :-) x P

  4. do you know about the icarus project,, it's a place to explore "madness" and creativity. the way they put it is that each of us are blessed with unique "mad gifts" that are ours to explore. their model has really helped me change my thinking about being an artist with bipolar.

  5. My son Patrick, who was diagnosed with bipolar dysfunction as well as ADHD as a teenager, quit the meds as soon as he left the nest at age 18. He self medicated with street drugs, and yes, dangerously addicting drugs, for years. Lately he does less and less (although I'm not convinced he's completely cut the drugs). He's been in a relationship for 2+ years, working fulltime and completed his preliminary makeup courses at Columbus State so he can start at OSU in the fall. His GPA is 3.7. This from a guy who barely passed his senior year in high school. He has a determination to do life his way, to deal with his highs and lows in more constructive ways. He doesn't come to me with his anxieties and desperation. I understand his 'sister' gets phonecalls...and probably some of his friends, too. But not to mama, anymore. Who knows, he may have to go the traditional route with meds & psychiatry, but he says not now. He feels like himself, he says. I'm proud of him. He's grown quite a bit in the last 2-3 years. Hard work! Terry

  6. I am a mystic, and a UU, and I struggle with what is happening to me lately and the label of "crazy" that could be easily slapped on it. I see the looks on peoples' faces when I do talk about the insights, the growth, and the knowledge of what is coming for me that has seemingly little basis in the here and the now... and so I struggle with staying present as well. I've also dealt with situational depression for years, and have not gone on meds because I tend to overreact to them.

    So this post speaks to me on a number of levels in terms of how we label ourselves and others, what is real and what is not, and how mental health is really just in its infancy. I need to give this much more thought. Thank you, Jeanne.