My Turn, My Life

John McManamy Health Guide
  • These blogs originate in comments you make, questions you ask. Your insight and wisdom, curiosity and concerns, get me thinking, keep me on my toes. This site bills me as the expert, but more often than not I'm the one who winds up learning.

    Every once in a blue moon, though, it's appropriate to change up, to let you know where I'm coming from. For instance, late last week I drove up from San Diego to attend a NAMI CA conference taking place in Torrance, just south of LA. I arrived just in time to catch the tail end of advocate Kathi Stringer's presentation on quality improvement at a pre-conference session.

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    I met Kathi a year ago through my housemate Paul, and the three of us and others wound up hanging out together a lot at the conference. Kathi is from the aerospace industry, which is big on the concept of having planes not fall out of the sky. The mental health industry, by contrast, has much lower expectations. When our clinicians and providers encounter failure, they tend to blame the patient rather than analyze what went wrong.

    But rather than try to change the system, Kathi points out, we can simply demand enforcement of the rules already written into law and government contracts. If you want to strike fear into an administrator's heart, Kathi says, simply utter the words, "corrective action."

    Kathi has single-handedly moved mountains on the local level, including actually increasing beds at the local unit in the hospital in her area where everywhere else in CA beds are disappearing. Similarly, she has spearheaded a dramatic reduction in seclusion and restraints at the same facility.

    Now, after years as a lone voice in the wilderness, Kathi is attracting attention on state and national levels. Throughout the conference, people were approaching Kathi and asking very perceptive questions. Trust me, if QI takes root, amazing change will happen.

    I have commented on author Tom Wootton a number of times in this blog. Tom is the author of "The Bipolar Advantage," and was in Torrance as the keynoter. Tom's thesis is that bipolar (and other diagnoses) are only disorders if you can't control the condition (condition, not illness). His answer is bipolar "in order."

    We can lead great lives, he says, if we learn to manage our reactions and other behaviors. Imagine, for instance, staying in productive hypomania without flipping out or crashing. Tom even sees an advantage in depression, which can lead to healing through introspection.

    I've known Tom for three years. Love him or hate him, he makes you think. These days, Tom tends to run too far ahead of his audience, which he openly acknowledges. For instance, in his address, he remarked that "depression can be a beautiful experience," which brought grimaces of open disgust from at least one person at my table. And the part of his talk where he volunteered that he benefits from his own hallucinations did not go down too well either, not to a NAMI audience, many who are parents burdened with caring for their adult children with schizophrenia.

  • Nevertheless, his central thesis is spot on: We need to be thinking of ourselves as gifted¬† individuals who need a bit more practice in managing our potentially brilliant lives rather than sick people who settle for stable and normal.

    My most incredible experience in nine years of attending mental health conferences occurred at dinner the first night of the gathering. As we began eating, an eccentrically-clad individual got up on stage and began playing his violin. The man needed no introduction. He was Nathaniel Ayers, "The Soloist" from the book by Steven Lopez and the movie of the same name starring Jamie Foxx.

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    Mr Ayers was a promising cellist attending Julliard on a scholarship when he experienced a major psychotic break. More than two decades of living on the streets followed, much of it in LA's notorious Skid Row. Mr Lopez, a columnist for the LA Times, discovered him playing a violin with two strings. Lopez succeeded in acquiring a shelter for his new friend, but had his own lessons to learn in accepting Ayers for who he is rather than who he would want him to be.

    Following dinner, we viewed a rough-cut documentary, "The Chorus," which followed the lives of six or seven individuals on Skid Row. As we became wrapped up in their stories, we began to experience every emotion, from outrage to grief to joy. There literally wasn't a dry eye in the house when the lights came on an hour later.

    Then members of the cast and crew, joined by Mr Ayers, took to the stage to a thunderous ovation, and fielded questions from the audience. One of the "stars" of the production - who was also an extra in "The Soloist" - belted out (I mean really belted out) a Gospel tune.

    As I said, this was my most incredible experience in all my years of attending mental health conferences.

    So what else is going on with my life? A month ago my cat Bullwinkle went missing. Two weeks later, I was still grieving the loss of my karmic buddy when a stray wandered in who immediately adopted me as her pet human. I'm waiting for a name to pop into my head.

    I'm still single. It's been Thanksgiving since I last dated. I wish it were as easy to replace girlfriends as cats, but I better not go there.

    As you know, from a Question of the Week I posed a week or two ago, I did something utterly ridiculous and purchased an iPhone. For years, I had taken pride in a cheapo cell with basic service. No extravagances for this dude. Joke: How do you make God laugh? Tell Him your future plans.


    Ha! iPhone!

    Several months ago, I joined the board of NAMI San Diego. NAMI SD is the gold standard for local NAMIs throughout the US, so I felt very privileged to be asked. Board duties take up a good deal of my time, but it is essential for me to be out there in the real world, listening to people on their own terms. It's very easy to lose contact with reality writing in splendid isolation, and you see it everyday in the work of many well-known mental health blogger and commentators.

    I try very hard not to be one of those people. Which is why I get out to conferences, volunteer for NAMI (and previous to that DBSA), attend support groups, and respond to your questions and comments here at BipolarConnect. I am far from infallible, but if I mess up, people like you are there to encourage me to make the necessary course corrections.

  • I'm also working on a book on recovery. In fact, call me butter 'cuz I'm on a roll. After more than two years of kicking ideas around in my head, I'm finally setting pen to paper, so to speak. The words are neatly flowing into organized themes. Unfortunately, I find myself doing precisely what constantly I warn others with my illness against - namely, with regard to sleep and other routines, we need to exercise strict discipline. Last night I stayed up till 2 AM. I could have gone till late morning.

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    One AM is my outer limit. No excuses. Feel free to call me out.

    A couple of months ago, what I thought was a leg cramp turned out to be severe sciata. I spent eight days on the couch, looking up at the ceiling fan. I'm better now, but the experience reminded me that I'm entering the decade where things start falling apart. I have two choices - learning to live with the natural process of aging or becoming a grumpy old man.

    In the meantime, age has it's compensations. I'm one trimester away from being a grandfather and having the most spoiled grandkid in the world. My daughter and her fantastic husband live in New Zealand. Time to check out air fares.

    That's my life for the time being. Thank you for allowing me to share it with you.

Published On: August 27, 2009