There are two ways to look at what happened to me in the fall of 1989. The safe, sanctioned explanation is to simply say my body attacked my brain, like this:
I got a fever of 104° F. My skin erupted in a violent rash all over my back, legs, and face. My brain swelled and pressed against the inside of my skull. My neurons short circuited. My brain caught fire. I went mad. It wasn’t MY fault, it was my body’s.
The damage done by those tempestuous weeks of fever and rash left my brain vulnerable. My previously dormant biological psychiatric illness never slept again. I was born manic‑depressive. It was only a matter of time. My fate was always to make a scene. The diagnosis was simply the last one on stage.
It’s a forgiving perspective, which explains everything. This is helpful.
How I am is not me. It’s my Illness. It has a name, symptoms, and cure.
The other way to look at my challenges used to be unthinkable to me. Now, I see it as part of a wider perspective on a very complicated picture.
I had two academic passions. Mathematics, and French literature. I know, a bit schizo right? Backing up, I had only applied to two colleges. Brown University, and the United States Naval Academy. Not exactly sister schools. I was accepted for admission by both. Navy was an efficient path to having the Government pay for my fuel to fly jets. The easiest way to boil down the decision is to say that I didn’t want to be told when to brush my teeth or cut my hair.
I really liked math. But I was used to being the best thinker in math class. Not anymore. Not at Brown. As the leaves turned to reds and golds the fall semester of my junior year, I enrolled in two upper‑level math classes. Differential Geometry and Topology conspired to shunt me away from my handful of exceptionally bright classmates into the dunce’s corner of Euclid fans.
I adored French literature. When I opened a French book, I fell ass over teakettle into imaginary worlds two steps removed from waking, Anglophone life. Seventeenth century, nineteenth, twentieth…didn’t matter. A dreamer is freer in a second language. (Samuel Beckett, though Irish, wrote much of his best stuff in French.)
A description of my two majors as “bipolar” isn’t silly. Math: practical, precise, proven to be helpful in a world of men and money. French Lit: navel‑gazing, or escapist. Or else super‑serious Absurdism.
Not long before I was to graduate from Brown, I got ambushed picking up a girlfriend in New York City for one of our early dates. The whole clan was there in her parents’ Upper East‑Side apartment to size up the new tribeless boyfriend. Some had driven in from halfway out on Long Island. As I stepped through the front door, my date’s aunt fired point‑blank: “What are you gonna do with a degree in math and French literatchuh?”
So here’s the second, more complicated way to look at my meltdown: I was disintegrating, right down to my core. I wanted to continue to pursue math, I loved it. But it was becoming clear that I sucked. I also wanted to pursue French Lit, I loved it, but Aunt Mary‑Bette was right to ask. What, exactly, would I do with a degree in French literature?
I used to cling to the absolution that came with putting all my struggles down to bad luck, to a body playing mean tricks on me, and to a trendy diagnosis. However, I now believe that my mind—or perhaps my Soul—made sure I didn’t miss the invitation to see that I might be barking in the middle of a forest of hollow trees.
Joseph Campbell talks about the seat of the soul being that place where the outer world and one’s inner world meet. My outer and inner worlds were colliding head‑on when I dragged myself to the infirmary with a violent rash. I had midterms the following week, and I was going to fail.
Instead of stepping down, resting, and reflecting, I did the opposite. The second I got off the IV drip, I doubled down on the stress, tripled up on the caffeine, and went for broke on the determination. Then, I cracked.
Did my stress divert all remaining powers from my sanity force field? Did madness pass into me from a fraternity party sneeze, or maybe the morning dew? Once inside my body, did the insurgents give me a fever, swell my brain, and cause me to lose track of what was real and what wasn’t? Maybe. That’s the chicken theory.
The egg theory is messy. It’s jagged. It has taken me twenty five years to swallow: the arrow points the other direction.
I was in trouble. I was smacked from peacock to feather‑duster when I realized that in the world of math I was barely a guppy in an ocean of white whales. There was no map for passing through magic French doors which led to a roof over my head and food on the table. At least, not a table set with the silver and privilege to which I had become accustomed.
In a world where “what do you do?” and “who are you?” seem to be interchangeable to potential future in‑laws, I couldn’t answer either question. I went insane fighting to keep the ideas of who I was and what I did separate. My mind was well on its way to splitting—which would have shown up soon enough—when my body flinched first with a fever and a rash. A few short weeks later, I played the madman and the fool, got arrested, then locked up to sit still and drool.
The Western, medical model had the cause outside the patient. So, give him pills, restore the neuro‑electrico‑biochemical balance, and get him back in the game. Job done. Case closed.
As soon as I stopped drooling, moved out of the locked ward, and caught my breath, I ran right back out on the field. Like nothing with spiritual or self‑identity implications had happened. I didn’t slow down. Not in class, not in training, not on the racecourse.
Well, my body tried its hand again at getting my Soul’s attention. This time, instead of crazy, it was cancer.
Losing one nut is, in a relative sense, not a big deal. That’s not how it felt at the time, and I don’t mean to be glib. But with a remaining testicle, the system still works. It’s actually easier to answer the question, “How’s it hangin’ ?” And hearing about how something must have “really taken balls” doesn’t clang the same way it clangs once you have none.
So to review:
Junior year: Crazy.
Senior year: Cancer.
Fast forward through the next ten years: Following year—crazy again. Next year—huge operation to remove the lymph nodes from my sternum to my groin and clean out the metastasized cancer. But the nodes were all negative, benign. Nothing there. Major medical mystery! Not exactly the way I wanted to be unique, fascinating, and deserving of great attention. The mystery solved itself a few weeks later when my remaining testicle hemorrhaged, announcing I was to become a crazy castrato at twenty‑three.
Over the next seven years, I rode along for seven more acute manic episodes. That makes it sound tidy. It was not tidy.
Police arrests, gurney restraints, nightmares while strapped to a plastic bed wet with my own urine, locked wards, Group therapy, Day/Night Room, and the eventually earned euphoria of the five minutes of freedom for a cigarette during “smoke break!”. I only smoked with my peeps in the nuthouse, but there were times that cigarette was all I lived for.
Ensuing depressions. Some suicidal.
Once the chronic bipolar disorder diagnosis won out over encephalitis, Lyme disease, or any other temporary physiological or neurological causes, father came to believe that all of my psychiatric challenges were avoidable. This has been hard on our relationship recently. To Dad, the times of uncertainty have always been a simple case of medication regimen noncompliance.
He was always there for me. He has always loved me. He has always wanted me to be healthy, happy, and prosperous. But his model of me proposes that manic episodes betray a simple lack of willpower. Essentially, the choice to fuck it all up.
He’s entitled to boil my life down to whether or not I took the purple pill. As an emergency room doctor I’m sure it seems that cut and dry. Symptom/cure. Gushing blood/tourniquet. Broken leg/cast. Just take your medicine, and if you haven’t, don’t call me.
But right there, hidden in the evasive name of the condition, is the truth. There are two sides to the story. Maybe stopping the medicine is an attempt to cure something deeper, and far more painful or scary than losing jobs, friends, or even sanity.
I have lots to show for the times I did exactly what the world asked of me. I took my MEDS. I drank the protein shakes, lifted the weights, incurred the debts, kept the jobs, paid off the credit cards, jumped through the hoops, and sailed around and around the buoys. I got the leather jacket—the one with the Olympic rings on the back. I’m an Olympian. “Never Former, Never Past” it says on my keychain. I’ve won races as the navigator in the America’s Cup finals. And I have a marvelous, loving family.
But when my friend died in a tragedy of splintering black carbon fiber and foaming salt spray two years ago and I helped pull his dead body out of the water, there it was again. Life is unbelievably fragile. I only have one chance—this life—to find out who I really am.
Maybe there are clues in my past. In the place my outer world and my inner worlds first collided head‑on. Maybe my soul knew itself already then, and my head has been getting in the way ever since.
My French honors thesis won an award, which came with a very practical $200 prize. American dollars. The ultimate vote of confidence.
“Les lettres d’amour de Marguerite Duras et Ludwig van Beethoven” ‑ The Love Letters of Duras and Beethoven proposed that Beethoven’s famous “Immortal Beloved” letter was never sent to a particular woman, because it was written to Love itself. The letter was a breakwater against his desperate isolation, and an optimistic transmission to a future self. The mystery surrounding her identity is the wrong question.
Beethoven’s famous letter begins “My angel, my all, my very self.” I believe those words could be taken at face value. My thesis ends “L’imortelle bien aimée, c’est donc l’amour.” The Immortal Beloved, therefore, is Love.
So there you are. Twenty‑two years old, three‑time All‑American sailor. Now, do you sign up for the immediate status and paycheck of turning pro, or do you walk the other way and hope the news that his son is going to be an Artist garners Dad’s support? Yeah, right.
* If you choose to be an artist, close the book.
* If you choose to be a pro sailor, turn the page.
–excerpted from Black Sails, White Rabbits; Cancer Was the Easy Part by Kevin A. Hall
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