Madness, Mania and Creativity: A Bipolar Search for Identity, Part 1 of 2

by Patrick Sumner

Search for identity: A beat poet

Search for identity: A beat poet

The central question that troubles me is: Who am I?  I suppose this question is as old as civilization, but modern medical break-throughs have thrown a new curve into my search for identity.

In my teens, I hung out with the demi-monde of my home town:  pimps, prostitutes, punks, junkies and other persons living on the edge. Though I never shot dope, I would sit for hours watching as my friends did, furiously scribbling stream of consciousness poetry in the manner of a self-described latter-day Beat Poet.

In my later teens I became politically active associating with anarchists, Trotskyist socialists, Maoist communists, and veterans of the Vietnam era anti-war movement. It was the 1980’s, the age of “Ronny Raygun,” Sandinista guerrillas, and imprisoned opponents of South African Apartheid.

I organized and agitated, founded a lefty youth collective, and marched on Washington. I worked to raise the minimum wage, set up educational forums and went to national student movement conferences. I interacted with civil rights preachers and mad philosophy professors.

Other Places My Search for Identity Led

One day, before taking the bus to work, and holding a sign related to the deployment of American troops to Honduras in order to bolster the Contras, a businessman in a Beamer drove by, and ironically shouted, “Get a job.” In other words I had my hands in everything happening, not as a passive participant, but as active an activist as was possible at that time.

These were years of “hypomania,” when I felt strong and secure, fully invested in a self-created identity that gave me stature and powerful contacts.

In my junior year of college, while running to take over the student senate, I had a powerful break into a world I had never thought possible. I saw shards of light surround and penetrate me. I quit school and my job, put a couple of thousand books on the curb, shaved my head, and became homeless in my own hometown.

Living outside, I went to sadhana with the Sikhs at 4 a.m., hung out in abandoned train yards, and worshiped at an idol of Mary. Eventually I sort of got out of what I saw as a mystical state, and became a macrobiotic vegetarian, faithful yogi, and health food store cashier. One of my friends, who attended art school, did a haunting oil portrait of me, and eventually I moved out West and slept in the redwoods and on the beaches.  I learned how to sheet rock and grow organic vegetables.

Mania Seemed to Make Me Creative

 A journeyman sheet rocker

A journeyman sheet rocker

As a journeyman sheet rocker, still on a search for identity, I moved to a college town and went back to school. I wanted to learn how to interpret streetscapes like others could read a book. I discovered Vernacular Architectural History and a mentoring professor.  With my brother behind the camera, I made a documentary about alleys that won first place in a film festival.

At the same time, I drank heavily in the downtown bars, took magic mushrooms, and gave girls a ride around on the back of my motorcycle. Again I considered myself a Beatnik, born after his time, and had the occasional manic psychotic episode, in which I envisioned myself as a sort of super-hero, living large, and giving new meaning to the term grandiose.

Fatherhood Changed My Search for Identity

I met a young woman; we had a baby.  I went from riding a motorcycle to pushing a stroller, went into graduate school, and obsessively studied the Kansas abolitionists. I got depressed, gained weight, and got diagnosed with Bipolar by a university psychiatrist.  I only treated my depressive phases, as I loved and craved my hypomanic energy, like an addict admires heroin.

I thought it was great that I could write web sites and make documentaries. I worked for an adman who came to me for instant answers to complex creative problems. I made money, and then, in a rage, got fired. I was unemployed, anxious, and depressed. I found out I was going to have another baby.

My stepfather had to pay my rent and utilities as I struggled to make a living building stage sets for seven dollars an hour.

I Had a Breakdown

After my second baby, I had a complete breakdown, went utterly manic, started speaking with an accent, joined a Black church, and got baptized. I started organizing again and helped people in political campaigns, appeared on public policy television and radio shows. And I completely ignored my family. I was a proverbial A-hole who thought I was the best thing since sliced bread and I started having out-of-body experiences.

Composer Robert Schumann: Do madness, mania, and creativity meet?

Composer Robert Schumann: Do madness, mania, and creativity meet?

My girlfriend, mother of my sons, looked into having me committed, and went to see a prominent psychiatrist with me. I took large doses of tranquilizing horse pills, calmed down and sought ongoing treatment. My madness had finally overtaken me. I no longer channeled creative energy. I scribbled incoherent poetry, and had hypo-graphia for a time before the meds. I got depressed and couldn’t function. I wanted help. My girlfriend and family stood by me. I survived.

What is My Identity Now?

That brings me, a few years later, to write this, the first real thing I have tried to write in years.  Where did this search for identity lead?

I take an anti-psychotic that makes me drowsy, an anti-depressant, and an anti-anxiety medication. I work for a mental health center, as I now know my illness inside out. But who am I?

I am able function much better as a mate, father and provider, for which I am thankful  They say I will have to take medication for the rest of my life. I miss the fire that used to burn through, me, but I like the peace I can now enjoy.  Who am I, a subdued maniac who is controlled like a lion in a cage, or just an ordinary person whose medications enable an ordinary life?

Yes, I still have some subtle symptoms, like spending too much or using poor judgment. But I am no longer a vampire who thirsts for the blood of life. I can’t tell which is the real me. I feel like my medications have dulled, and sort of put me into exile from my old lust for life. I can’t live without the meds, and keep the things most important to me, as I now have some sense and insight into my illness.

Medicated manic, medicated depressive, worker, father, provider, and mate. My meds helped me grow up.  I know I don’t have super powers. “Who am I” is a question that haunts me, but because of my meds I don’t lose any sleep over it.

Where has your search for identity taken you?

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