- Posted May 11, 2014 by
San Francisco, California
This iReport is part of an assignment:
Going public with mental illness
The guidance and support from my therapists provided insight into my disorders and helped me to function, but my despair, anxiety, anger, impulsivity, mood swings, cravings, violent flashbacks, and ruminations persisted. My medicine cabinets have been stocked with a variety of psychotropic medications, including antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and anti-anxiety as well as other off-label drugs. None of them offered much to alleviate my symptoms. In fact, a misdiagnosis and titrating of (SSRI) antidepressant medications by several physicians contributed to suicidal ideation and manic episodes over an extended period. The mood stabilizers’ sedative effect mellowed me out a bit, but the side effects, including tardive dyskinesia, led me to seriously question the benefit-risk tradeoff.
By the age of eight, I had already exhibited symptoms of manic depression. I was hyper, irritable, easily agitated, had little need for sleep, and was a chronic school truant. I contended with racing thoughts, worried obsessively, and exhibited high-risk, aggressive, and hostile behavior. I got into fistfights almost daily, stole, scaled buildings, climbed rooftops, and played cat-and-mouse with the police like it was a game. I was on edge, twenty-four seven—always expecting the worst to happen. I attribute my personality trait of being a perfectionist to a combination of OCD, from constantly being criticized and ridiculed as a child, and a desperate need to be perfect in order to control my environment. Rarely did I feel physically or emotionally safe—in places or with people—including my own family. I was always anxious, afraid that a fight would break out at any moment. When I encountered someone for the first time, I naturally sized them up as though we were about to engage in combat. When I entered public establishments such as a restaurant, store, or theater, my first order of business was to scrutinize the crowd for enemies and to plan an escape route.
My perception of the world was that it was “dog eat dog,” cruel, and unpredictable. I quickly adopted a survival instinct, which relied upon being secretive, cunning, resourceful, and aggressive. It took tremendous effort for anyone to gain my trust, especially since I didn’t really trust myself. My core belief was that it was me against the world. At times, I felt like it was me against me.
In my previous memoirs, I detailed my upbringing in a violent and emotionally toxic home, hustling in the streets as a child, gambling and seeking sanctuary in violent gangs. Witnessing my mother’s suicide attempts, being subjected to my father’s drunken rages, and other violence in the home bequeathed me with post-traumatic stress disorder. However, nightmares and flashbacks of those events simply augmented the recurring images of shootings, savage assaults, and grisly crime scenes—remnants of my secret life in the Chinese underworld. When an all-out gang war in San Francisco Chinatown culminated in a restaurant massacre, I was questioned by the police as a person of interest. Twenty years later, fate (or perhaps karma) would lead me to Silicon Valley, where another massacre—this time at my workplace—would shake up my already fragile psyche.
Although I graduated from college with honors, and achieved a so-called “successful” career, my motivation was driven by a constant need for attention and approval because—deep down—I felt worthless and was consumed with self-hatred. I compensated for my insecurities by placing a high value on money, career, and material possessions; and by feeding my inflated ego, criticizing, bullying, and acting out my aggression. When I competed, it was win by any means necessary and at all costs. Working tirelessly and gambling recklessly—nonstop for days at a time—were some of the ways I self-medicated to offset bouts of major depression and to numb my emotional pain. Although my bosses and clients repeatedly labeled me a superstar, they had no idea of my ongoing internal turmoil. If they did, they kept it to themselves.
When I shared my dark secrets with therapists, I worried that they would have me committed, or report me to authorities for being a danger to myself or others. One of them was so concerned that at the end of each session, she had me enter a verbal contract with her by reciting and agreeing to the following: I will not hurt myself or anyone else—on purpose or by accident—no matter what happens. It worked for a good period of time.
In 2009, I started power hiking for the cardio benefits. After just a few outings, I experienced periods of calmness and clarity. This motivated me to delve into walking meditation (known in Zen Buddhism as kinhin), since I wasn’t able to locate any books on hiking meditation. This led to a renewed interest and commitment to the Buddhist tradition. I applied what I learned to hiking, adding my own techniques along the way. After a few months, I discovered that mindful hiking and the teachings of Buddhism—when combined with my experience in psychotherapy—benefited my mood disorders. Adopting this lifestyle, which I refer to as magga (Pali word meaning a path to the cessation of suffering) has transformed my life, leading me to be more calm, relaxed, patient, compassionate, and virtuous. It awakened me to my inner Buddha (true nature; enlightened self), which is pure, peaceful, kind, compassionate, nurturing, and non-judgmental. This path has empowered me to comfort and heal many of my psychic wounds. My mood is more stable, I have firmer control of my thoughts and emotions, I sleep better, I experience less anxiety, and I have added a powerful coping mechanism. The frequencies of my nightmares, flashbacks, and ruminations have lessened considerably—some have ceased altogether. Instead of repressing or running away from them, I embrace each one as they appear, study them, make friends with each one—then release them.
In my new Kindle ebook, Born-Again Buddhist, I describe the crucial role that compassion plays in my magga. I also detail some of the insights and emotional breakthroughs I have experienced. My bipolar disorder is in remission, based on established psychiatric diagnostic criteria. My hope is that by sharing my experiences, it will motivate others affected by mental illness to learn more about how the integration of mindfulness meditation, psychotherapy, and a spiritual practice could be beneficial for them or someone they love.
(Excerpt from Born-Again Buddhist: My Path to Living Mindfully and Compassionately with Mood Disorders by Bill Lee)