My Interview with C.E.Chaffin, Doctor, Poet, and Bipolar Disorder Survivor
In my wanderings on the Internet I am always searching for people who give me inspiration not because of what they say but how they have lived. I personally get the most inspiration from people who have forged their way through the fires of mood disorder and emerge with something to show for it. C.E.Chaffin is such an individual. His poetry and writings are the creative artifacts and testaments of his survival of one of the most potentially life disrupting mood disorders, Bipolar disorder. Despite his many challenges he had made a career as a doctor and then as a published poet and writer. His poetry is some of the finest I have ever read because I know that each word was written from the depths of both human suffering and of joy.
I hope that you will find both hope and enlightenment as I have from reading about Mister Chaffin’s life and experiences in dealing with a most brutal mood disorder.
I now introduce to you C.E. Chaffin.
C.E. Chaffin, M.D., FAAFP, edited The Melic Review for eight years prior to its hiatus. Widely published, he has written literary criticism, fiction, personal essays, and has been the featured poet in over twenty magazines. In the last ten years he’s had over 500 pieces published. Credits include: The Alaska Quarterly Review, The Pedestal, The Philadelphia Inquirer Book Review and Rattle. His new volume, “Unexpected Light: Selected Poems and Love Poems 1998-2008,” was just recently published.
- So tell me a about your diagnosis. When were you officially told that you had Bipolar Disorder?
I was thirty. I had dropped out of a psychiatric residency in my third year to return to general medicine in a state of abject depression before I was finally hospitalized and the diagnosis made. That suicidal depression, not my first by any means, lasted sixteen straight months.
- What things help? Do you take medication? Therapy? Alternative treatments?
I have truly found only two things that work for the illness: medications or electricity. Sadly, during my recent depression of two years, ECT didn’t even work–it made me worse. Mostly it’s luck; your mood changes, you go to your doctor, he tries new things until you get lucky. I am presently on five medicines for my mood disorder. It took the addition of three new ones to finally pull me out of my longest depression a year ago. Anything but supportive therapy has been shown to be of little if any help.
- Tell us about your work as a doctor. Did your mood hinder your abilities to perform your job?
Externally not. I was an excellent doctor to all appearances, and in my family medicine group the most difficult cases were referred to me by other doctors because I had a reputation for never giving up. I learned from three decades as an untreated bipolar how to appear normal. Nevertheless internally my world could be psychotic; while depressed, after seeing a patient, I became convinced that all I said was meaningless gobbledygook and that my treatment might harm them. For a year I used to often weep between patients in the bathroom, then use Visine to clear my eyes in order to see the next one. Before my diagnosis there appeared no way out.
- What sorts of signs do you feel alert you to the fact that you will either soon be experiencing mania or depression?
I’ll try to make a laundry list. Depression? Self-absorption, negative thinking, reduced libido, reduced energy, fear of human contact, weeping spells, overpowering anxiety, depersonalization (a loss of feeling like an individual person), derealization (where everything seems “unreal”), loss of appetite, sleep disturbance, loss of interest in usual activities, suicidal thinking, reduced socialization, feeling worthless, undeserving of any love, as well as hopeless and helpless.
For mania it’s much the reverse: A sense of wonder for all things, nearness to God, mystical understanding of the universe, delusions of grandeur, overpowering energy, incredibly persuasive social charm, decreased sleep, extreme tolerance for drugs prescribed or recreational, increased drinking, increased libido, grandiose plans, talking too much, a tendency for physical confrontations (actually almost an appetite for fights with perceived enemies), unusual strength, increased athletic ability, overwhelming creativity, opinionation on everything, complete surety of purpose, inability to listen to reason, improved musical and poetic abilities, seeing the grand design of all things and my special purpose in it, exaggerated awareness of the Devil and demons.
In the early stages I become quite popular!
- What about your relationships? How does your mood disorder affect things with friends and family?
It pretty much becomes a one-way street. I don’t call anybody, I mean, why would they want to talk to me? I react, I don’t act. I can’t see why my wife would stay with me, why my children would love me, it seems so impossible it makes me weep. I hide out, every contact is painful. In fact, when depressed, the most painful thing is to have a loved one express her love to me, which makes me break down in tears of worthlessness.
- What do you feel is the best type of support that a friend or loved one can give to someone who suffers from a mood disorder?
This is important: Treat them as you would normally. Don’t treat them like glassware. If they usually take out the trash they should continue. Work as well. Any behavioral patterns that obtain during normalcy should be sustained if possible. Be yourself with the ill person, that helps restore a modicum of normality. Treat them as you would if they were not sick. Coddling is anathema and only makes things worse; anger is sometimes helpful, especially if you can make the depressed person angry, which gives them energy, which gives them a chance to get their heads above water for a moment.
- What is the worst part of having Bipolar Disorder?
The uncertainty. You want to make long-term plans, achieve things, yet you know you are always in danger of the black hole swallowing up your life, and to a lesser extent, mania taking you out of your life completely. If I knew when depressions would come and how long they would last it would be a great blessing. Uncertainty about one’s basic self can be crippling long-term. The more immediate answer to this question is the indescribable emotional pain that lives inside you, like a whirlwind of dust, dead and dry and blown to the winds.
- What is the best part of having Bipolar Disorder?
My creativity, without a doubt. The manic element gives way to incredible creativity, in my case it has involved poetry, music and art. I could paint and paint well the first time I tried it while manic–even an art critic admired my work though I never took an art class. I can play lead guitar faster and cleaner than I can normally. I can write one or two songs and a couple of poems a day while taking on all other kinds of projects. But in no way do the better aspects of mania compensate for the deep depressions.
- Was there ever a time when you wondered if you would surive your mood disorder?
Oh yes but more in the sense as to whether I could resist putting an end to it myself, as my bipolar father did before me when he committed suicide.
- I absolutely love reading your poetry. Your words always resonate with me deeply. Tell me how your passion for poetry began. How do your moods affect your writing?
Thanks for the compliment. My passion for poetry began very early, by five I was making up poems and songs on the spot, in elementary school I turned in reports in perfect quatrains. Part of my love for poetry is due to my mother, who read poetry to us as young children, like Longfellow’s “Hiawatha.” And I was always fascinated by “The Jabberwocky.” As I got older, discovering T. S. Eliot was a revelation, and he exerted much influence on my work because of it. I love the magic of poetry, when words transport us out of ourselves and we can forget about ourselves in the experience, what good poetry does.
- Could you share a poem with us?
I’d like to share a short poem from my new book, a sort of desideratum for surviving depression:
For the Record
I am myself, even in the dark
without mirrors or clues.
I may be as inconsequential
as the point of a fading penlight
but I am not this feeling
of being buried alive.
If I fall through the ice
I am not my hypothermia.
I am not my heart’s vacuum’s
cruel absence of presence.
There are times this seems specious,
as if I were a Jesuit preaching in a sewer,
hoping echoes could convince me-
but all I have is this distinction.
I hold it in a cup like Christ’s blood
as I fall through infinite separations.
I am still here.
I write this for the record.
- What is your best advice for those who suffer from depression or Bipolar disorder?
- Accept the illness (This takes at least ten years in my experience, and is a struggle for years afterward when we have long normal periods and forget the illness. Acceptance is absolutely the first step, although it is the last step in grief that must be worked through over loss of self.)
- Take your medicines. Even if they don’t seem to be working, you don’t know how bad off you’d be without them.
- Behaviorally, it is better to do something than nothing.
- It is better to do something active than something passive.
It is better to be with or around others than being alone.