Writing about the illness that nearly killed me was the key to my recovery.

by John McManamy


IT'S LIKE a cardiac arrest, only it happens in the brain - something responsible for holding the gray mass together abruptly shifts, there is a sickening feeling of something terrible about to happen, and next thing your head is experiencing the awful sensation of being emptied out.

From somewhere inside the power goes down and the body seems to collapse into itself like a marionette being folded into a box. You look for a way out, and what's left of your broken brain does its best to oblige with images of high bridges and frozen ponds and nooses dangling from balconies.

In January 1999 when my family brought me to the emergency room at our local hospital I could never imagine less than a year later that I'd be writing about anything I had to be thankful for, much less paying tribute to this beast inside that sent me there in the first place.

Flashback: New Zealand, 1978: After all those wasted years at the mercy of the very condition I denied having, I landed on my feet in New Zealand. I had successfully completed my second year of law school there, and I was married with a beautiful three-month-old daughter. There had been some other Americans in our birthing classes and we invited them over, together with another Kiwi-Yank couple we knew, to celebrate Thanksgiving. I recall lifting my glass to make a toast, but then words failed me.

We were seated on cushions on the floor with the turkey and all the fixings on a low table. But the stars of the show were the new citizens of planet earth. I looked at the proud parents and their newborns and all the baby paraphernalia they had brought, and simply choked out, "thanks".

Little did I realize in ten years I would find myself in another country, broke and alone and unemployable and in search of a convenient bridge to jump off. I couldn't blame it all on Fred.

May as well give it a name. May as well call it Fred.




Now, here I was - early 1999 - back in the US, in a state of shell shock from having survived my worst rounds of depressions yet. One of the first things I did when I crawled out from under the covers was get to the computer. I was new to the internet and I was new to finally acknowledging depression, and I was also coming to grips with my diagnosis as bipolar, something I had somehow known all my life but up till now had steadfastly refused to accept.

I bounced from website to website, reading about what a devastating illness bipolar was, but I also learned that I had a major role in my recovery. Then I discovered various mental health bulletin boards, and even started replying to messages, once I worked up the courage. Over the next few weeks, I found myself gravitating to one particular board that was frequented by bipolars.

Someone there had posted ten reasons you know you're bipolar. Reason number ten, as I recall, was you know you're bipolar if you think Robin Williams should stop being so laid-back.

Somehow I knew I had found a home of sorts.

A few weeks later came a cryptic posting calling for writers. I was a writer. I replied. It turned out the person who ran the board happened to be the mental health editor at, Colleen Sullivan. She was looking for someone to write on depression. I told her I was good for maybe four articles.

Unbelievably she did not break off the correspondence.

So I sat down at the keyboard and typed:

"Depression isn't the word for it," I wrote. "We're talking about a condition that can take over your mind, rob you of your dignity, deprive you of all the joyful offerings of life, and leave you nose down in two inches of water, feeling totally abandoned by man and God."

Next thing I know, I was writing for

I would write as I learned, I decided, one article at a time. It would all be tied into my recovery. In the space of one week, I banged out three articles, then another three in another week, all backed up and waiting to go. There was no question in my mind now - I would have plenty to write about.

Writing is what helped bring me back from the dead. For me, it is a healing activity. If I were a basketball player I'd be shooting hoops, if I were a gardener I would be out with the petunias. Healing is about finding something that makes you feel alive and doing it. When I'm in full flight there is no time and space. The sun takes its leave, booming music falls mute, and the steaming hot cup of tea by my side is stone cold when I pick it up a minute later.

After six months in the land of the living dead, I was writing again, and really writing. I was still writing in the shadow of my illness, but I was writing. I was reclaiming my life, one article at a time.

As for Fred:

Whatever our differences, Fred is responsible for me being me, so to hate Fred would be to hate me. Besides, having Fred around does have its advantages.

It is Fred who painted my brain with amazing visions and insights, and filled my senses with the type of sensations few mortals experience. It is Fred who made it possible to for me to find the sublime in even the most mundane, and it is Fred who cloaked me in a humanity and godliness that I would not exchange for a winning lottery ticket.

So, yes, Fred, I will sing your praises and give you thanks. I will give thanks to my family who were there for me, and to a God who somehow has proved to me he does not and does exist.

And yes, Fred, I know one day again, you'll be waiting for me in some dark alley. But for now I invite you to pull up a chair while I lift my glass in a toast.

Reviewed July 16, 2016


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