Guest Blog: The Edge – A Bipolar Creative Perspective by Kasey McMahon
11.1 mph hour on the treadmill. I ran at that pace thinking that if my heart burst, I’d win that level of the game. Eye on the prize, I continued running as fast as my legs would take me, then violently fell off, the right side of my body bruised and bloodied from impact. Heart was intact – mind, however, was questionable.
I believed I was playing a virtual game. That death would have no consequences. It could, in fact, take me to the next level of the game. And I was playing to win.
The problem was, I wasn’t in a virtual world. I had let myself into a stranger’s home near Malibu, California. The treadmill on which I ran on was not my own. I was under the impression that I needed to change identities, thus had followed license plates and codes, what I believed to be a motorcade, leading me to this suburban house far from my loft in downtown Los Angeles. I swam in their pool, played Grand Theft Auto with their kids, then hopped on their treadmill and turned it up to 11.1 mph. The game I played was in my mind and landed me in Los Angeles County Jail for ten days.
We are taught to trust our judgment, that our minds will somehow innately know right from wrong. That our wits will guide us through the world, directing us by some moral compass of righteousness. That somehow, in some way, we will know. We will do right. We will choose wisely.
But my wires had crossed. My reality was broken.
I didn’t expect 2011 to go that way. I had just wrapped up a gallery show in Los Angeles, was interviewing for the TED Fellowship and was in discussions with a high profile company to be their creative director.
Earlier in the year, I was proud to be selected as one one of LA Weekly’s best people in Los Angeles. My artwork had been well received and I felt lucky to be surrounded by wonderful friends. Life was going well – so just how did I end up in a jail cell finger painting messages and codes all over my body with peanut butter and jelly?
I was diagnosed bipolar seventeen years ago following a manic episode that culminated in a meltdown in the middle of Tiffany’s in New York City. Embarrassing? Absolutely. I was hospitalized for two weeks and diagnosed type 1 Bipolar. The following months were spent recovering from a major depression. I promised myself I would never break again. I have tried so hard to live a life defined not by this condition, but by my art and what I am able to contribute.
Through the years, I’ve tried a variety of medications and treatments. Most were exceptionally mind numbing. Medicating the illness is a crapshoot, an inexact science. The golden ticket is finding the correct medicinal “cocktail”, but everyone’s chemistry is varied. Perhaps it would be easier to understand if they could pinpoint the deficiency, but as it stands, treating bipolar through medication is predominantly trial and error. And the side effects can be mentally crippling. For the past eight years, I managed to combine diet, exercise and lifestyle measures to maintain what I thought was a generally healthy existence. I kept my condition private, partially due to the stigma surrounding it and also out of a desire to simply lead a ‘normal’ life.
Until recently, even close friends were not aware that I am bipolar. During the highs, I’m a lot of fun to be around, until, of course, it gets too high. During the lows, I duck out, simply disappear for a while. I’ve always felt that it is something I should be able to handle on my own – that there should be ways for me to maintain balance – that I should be strong enough, or wise enough, to control it. But how does one contend with the fact that the thoughts running through your mind are not to be trusted? That your mind – which you depend on for stability, for sanity, for guidance through this complicated world – can fault you?
Bipolar is a complex, bizarre condition. Hypomanic highs are glorious – creativity is heightened, inspiration and ideas flow fast, frequent and freely. The depressive lows are troubling and terrifying, ridden with self doubt and the inability to navigate the world. In both highs and lows, one must be mindful of the edge, for reality’s grip is easily lost.
It’s been an interesting ride. Undeniably, I dance on the edge. Walking over that edge was something I had hoped to never do again. I made it nearly seventeen years without another manic episode. Perhaps it had been so long that I simply forgot full blown mania was possible. Perhaps I was simply fragile.
A GLIMPSE OF MANIA
Leading up to my recent episode, a variety of life stressors contributed to being less stable than I prefer. I had just attended a leadership seminar, the sort that tear you down so they can build you up, thus was emotionally raw. Excitement over a job possibility threw me into overdrive. I stayed up all night writing a creative brief – lack of sleep is a major trigger for mania, leading down a slippery slope of manic energy and uncontrollable fits of passion.
In textbook manic fashion, my mind began to degrade into seeing codes and patterns. I became reckless, careless and fearless. My brain made a multitude of connections where none exist in our reality. In that state, it’s as if the veil is peeled back, akin to living in the matrix, where everything is directed at you: books talk to you, license plates have meaning, the radio is sending you messages, every conversation you overhear has a code meant only for you. Everything you encounter has information to decipher. The senses are heightened, your mind is in constant motion, finding patterns where none exist.
I believed I was living in a multi player game, a virtual reality with multiple lives – so dying wouldn’t matter. I completely lost connection with reality. I split lanes on my Ducati in dead stopped traffic at 85mph and pushed limits in multiple arenas. In that state, rules don’t apply, the world is revolving around you – thoughts are extremely grandiose in embarrassing ways. I made multiple calls to the company I hoped would be my future client, telling them that I would work for free as long as my expenses were taken care of. Which was true, but it regrettably crossed the fine line between passionate and completely nuts.
I began to believe that I needed to protect myself, that my artwork was too personal to have on display. I threw many art pieces away, hauled every red item I owned out to the garbage and purchased dozens of books that I thought could help decipher the codes I was seeing. Believing that the veil between the worlds was thinnest from 3 to 4am, I set my alarm for 3am daily so that I could write during that time. I collected metal items in the house and built an antenna close to my bed so that I could better receive “messages”. These were legitimately crazy things to do, but I was too far in to realize that the water in which I was swimming was tainted. And because I felt like I was in danger, I was hiding these thoughts from the people closest to me.
In a manic state, your place in the world is blown extraordinarily out of proportion. Being relatively lucid through that experience and recalling it from a more stable perspective is mind blowing. The stories a brain concocts – and believes! – are more outrageous than a sci-fi thriller.
During this particular episode, I was under the impression that I was here to receive messages from an alien source – that if I tuned in enough, I would be able to deliver these messages and improve our shared humanity. I felt as if my place here on earth was to do whatever I possibly could creatively to show that we are one – to help the world choose love over fear; to show that more is possible through simplification. I wanted to help humanity understand the need to reach for the stars. These are not terrible “messages” to receive, but I am dead certain that there are better delivery devices than peanut butter and jelly scrawled across myself and a jail cell. The bizarre signs, signals and messages my mind was chewing on could fill two volumes – suffice to say, the brain is capable of things beyond all imagination.
Every piece of me believed this pseudo world my mind had created. I rode to Malibu that day thinking that I had to change identities in order to protect myself and the messages I was here to deliver. I remember being glad that the police showed up and took me into custody, for this meant that I would be going under cover for good.
Things got more confusing from there – there was absolutely no reality to cling to. My mind grasped for anything to ground itself – how had I ended up here, why was I being held? I thought I was following the right path. At that point, I crumbled. As I cried, I saw Da Vinci-esque mathematical equations raining down the walls of the police station. Wherever I looked, equations rained down with my tears. I will never be able to fully explain the beauty and the pain of that moment and how powerful those visual hallucinations were. I didn’t understand why I was being held, what had happened, or what was going to happen, but was seeing some of the most awe inspiring visuals raining down the jail walls. This “trip” was induced not by substances, but by my own wires crossing.
BROKEN IN A BROKEN SYSTEM
It’s likely that I will never know why I was sent to jail versus being sent to psychiatric care. That time is blurry. My physical wounds were treated at West Hills Hospital, but instead of being held and treated for mental illness, I was then transported to Los Angeles County Jail.
In jail my condition degraded. I was placed in solitary confinement in a blood stained cell, with a neighbor screaming both day and night. As I slowly regained sanity, my requests to contact family were denied. I was mentally broken and locked in a very broken system. Treated like an animal, I was on my knees begging for a book to read. For anything, for a faint glimmer of human kindness. I now know what fear, hate and power look like in people’s eyes. In that system, I learned what it feels like to be looked through, unseen. The only way to potentially get a question answered or get a basic need met is to ask as many guards as possible for a single thing. If lucky, you might get someone that will answer a question, such as, “when is my court date?” But that information will likely come half a day or more later.
After seven days in jail, I began to regain my wits and realized that nothing I could say or do would help my cause. I silenced and attempted to quiet my mind and gain strength from within. I began to meditate and practice SRI focused breathing techniques to try to still my brain and body. Tried to make sense of the chain of events that led to being in that cell. Tried to look beyond the cement walls, beyond the bone chilling cold and the lack of basic human connection.
MOVING BEYOND THE STIGMA
My aim here is to not only share my story, but hopefully shed some light on a very misunderstood illness that affects many. I look forward to the day that there is more societal acceptance for these conditions and am hopeful that science will open more doors. These are ailments of the brain, not easy roads.
Being bipolar, my guidance system is tainted and there’s no real answer as to how to keep it in check. It’s like walking a tightrope, always trying to maintain balance, aiming to somehow do it with grace. But if and when one falls, the fall is hard. And the consequences are steep.
In another place, another time this condition may have been lauded. Shamans, saints and medicine women were praised for their visions, for their ability to reach beyond the edge. Even with as much as we currently know about mental illness and as many people as it affects, the sad reality is that we do not openly talk about it. Our culture embraces the product of hypomania – we applaud the highs and the creativity that stems from it – yet stigmatize the conditions that coexist at the outer reaches of creative wanderings.
It’s highly possible that this illness is a major contributor to my art. Mania certainly lends itself to seeing the world through very different filters. Moving forward with open eyes and a penchant to be candid about my experiences, I’d like to further explore the link between my own madness and creativity. I’d like to know more about how my brain processes information and what formulates that particular brand of creativity on the edge. Yes, ideas do indeed stem from mania, however, I believe my best work has come from diligently thinking about, researching and working on projects while not in a manic state. For in the further reaches of either spectrum, high or low, creativity is lost.
One bitter truth about being bipolar is that it adversely affects the people you love the most. I am eternally grateful to friends and family that have stood by me through this process and would give anything to remove the hurt associated with my distorted moods and thoughts.
The bizarre events that led me to this point have strengthened and broadened my experience. I hope to be able to creatively express on a deeper level because of all of this – there is much I would like to bring to life. I continue to believe in magic and look forward to the creative muses sitting beside me again, guiding my hands, preferably without utter madness.
I now sit writing this in a small town in the mountains of Northern Arizona, healing, hiking, slowing myself and my brain down for a bit. I am learning to better live with life’s rhythms. Learning that beauty and pain coexist. Learning to identify the unhealthy thoughts that lead to falling off this tightrope. And perhaps most importantly, learning that creativity does not have to be tied to mania, perhaps it simply comes from the heart.
Kasey McMahon is a multimedia artist – http://atypicalart.com