The road after Escondido
As I arrived, the blanks of my story began to show themselves more readily to me.
Where would I live? How will I begin earning money? Where can I continue to practice Zen?
I actually cannot recall most of what happened in San Diego. I have enough photographs and video to know that I was completely safe, did no one harm, and basically just rested a lot and pet my Airbnb host’s dog. My things remained in storage. I did not actually begin working. I never really found answers to those questions – because they were not the right questions to begin with.
A pivotal moment came on a phone call with a long-time friend and counselor of mine, Vince, whom I met at the age of 14. He called me to catch up on recent events as we had been doing every few weeks. I expressed that I was not sure how things were going.
I discussed updates since my arrival, giving what was essentially a tight, 10-minute version of this essay, and Vince shot an astute clinical truth across the country:
“Jeff, I believe you have confounded the meaning of new possible treatments for bipolar disorder with the meaning of working for this group.”
In this moment, sitting in traffic on the 5 en route to visit my oldest friend up north, any feeling of excitement or energy immediately evaporated as I came to realize the only thing that was truly happening: I was simply not yet mad.
Had I really miscalculated this so drastically? Yes.
Was I actually in California with all my belongings? Did I really leave New York, the music and my tabla teacher – after deferring that exact situation for 6 years? Yes.
What the fuck was I going to do now? That was the only question I had an answer to:
See my oldest friend and then take a call with another one of my most trusted advisors.
Madness is a solo act: To travel fast, travel alone. To travel together, slow down
Gambling with Sanity
I reached my oldest friend Dan and settled in for a moment, which is to say that I began describing my earlier conversation with Vince at a rapid cadence. I told Dan that I knew things were not as they had seemed to me, but wasn’t sure what to do next.
I had arranged to speak with E by phone soon after my arrival at Dan’s. I gave an even more concise version of the news, now shy of 5 minutes, and included Vince’s assessment. I was speaking quickly.
Another shot of truth across the country, this time in the form of a question: “Did we ever discuss the Balinese cockfights?”
E proceeded with characteristic precision.
He described an essay by one of his favorite cultural anthropologists, Clifford Geertz. In “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”, Geertz describes the powerful Balinese men who wager their entire livelihoods – farms, houses – on a cockfight. Deep play is a reference to Jeremy Bentham’s concept of a game with stakes so high that no rational person would engage in it.
E continued. “You appear to have engaged in deep play, but are instead wagering your sanity.”
He waited for my take on his assessment.
In this moment, I could not feel more gratitude for these three friends who rallied asynchronously to provide their support and insight. Dan, who I was visiting, sat with me listening to E on speakerphone. Vince with his earlier insights. For the first time in over 2 months, I felt like I re-entered neurotypical reality. I’m thankful that I was willing to accept all of this in that state of mind.
I said out loud that I was absolutely wagering my sanity, having gone all-in on the possibility of a treatment that doesn’t yet exist for this illness – it exists as a theory only. After I thanked him for the assessment, he offered a place to come in for a soft landing – “which is to say, not a crash” – back near Penn State. I have since accepted this generous offer.
It took a village, including my true self, for me to return to sanity.
I returned to my temporary California lodging with a car full of belongings, having already packed most my favorite things into it. I wanted to thank my Airbnb host and give her dog a pet after several weeks together.
“The premise of this whole organization appears to be centered around existential risk,” I said to my host, now a friend. “If that is the case, and we are nearing an end to this human experiment, why am I so far from everyone I love?” Knowing there was no real answer to what became the true question of this story, I hugged her and we parted ways.
Within a day I had packed and shipped most of my belongings back to Scranton, keeping my art collection and tabla in my car.
I set out to drive back to Pennsylvania, solo this time.
At first they are mountains: En route via Utah
Then they are not mountains: A controlled burn of false selves. Still Utah
Accepting my friend’s offer, I returned back to State College safely, found a prescribing physician and resumed a course of medication treatment. As I wrote in 2013 about my 2008 episode, “I slept a lot. I formed a tiny routine.”
I have since found myself beyond the necessary steadying actions that tend to follow an episode like this and onto strengthening ones. It is amazing what can be accomplished with a meditation cushion, kettlebells, and a place to land softly.
I am in the process of finishing the final 3 courses I walked away from in 2011 to return to Scranton. Following this, my plan is pursue the necessary coursework to become a licensed counselor and take things from there.
Then they are mountains: Home in Pennsylvania to practice Zen at Endless Mountain Zendo
Here and now, equipped with all the safety and fairness of hindsight, I hold firm that I maintained adequate levels of insight and never put myself or others in harm’s way, at least not physically. But I certainly could not have done any of that alone.
For this I can only be grateful. I can only be in awe.