not worth chewing through the straps

irreverent outlaw reluctant hero

My interest in Madmartigan’s on/off switch is purely selfish. And no, for once I’m not talking about ogling Val Kilmer. Though, while we’re on the subject:

A still from 'Willow'
Um. Yes. Uh, what were we talking about?

I work the same way. I can be in deep crazy, but there’s one way to get me to competence. It’s not a sword, though, I need thrust into my hands, but a pen. Or, more aptly, my word processor.

A still from 'The Ghost and the Darkness'
Outside a dog, a book is man’s best friend. Inside a dog, it’s too dark to read.—Groucho Marx

When I write, even if I’m fully depressed or highly manic, I feel an internal calm. It’s like something inside me switches to “on,” and I can just run on automatic. It’s a separate, competent part of myself.

A still from 'The Saint'
We read to know we are not alone.—C.S. Lewis

Writing can be frustrating—sometimes it’s work—but if I can tap into the automatic part, it’s wonderful. It’s the best I ever feel, like being a conduit for something grand. When it’s automatic, I don’t feel like I’m crafting something; I don’t even feel like it’s coming from me. I am unaware of the construction, the labor of writing, and yet I am more completely involved than anywhere else in my entire life.

high on life and also heroin


“Let me out of here, lend me a sword. I’ll win this war for you.”
      —Madmartigan, Willow

In Willow, Val plays Madmartigan, the irreverent outlaw reluctant hero that seems to be in every George Lucas movie. (Think Han Solo and Indiana Jones if you’re unfamiliar with the type.)

A still from 'Willow'
Also pictured: runner-up in the Medieval Mullet Contest.

Madmartigan is not crazy, but he’s hardly fit to be left to his own devices. We first see him in a crow’s cage, a hanging prison to which he’s been sentenced for a reason never discussed (but we are led to believe it had something to do with sexual impropriety). He is manic and indulgent and easily distracted. He ruins every small task he’s given.

A still from 'Willow'
Val’s shit has gotten real face.

Until you put a sword in his hand. Most of the time, Madmartigan cannot hold a thought in his head for two seconds, but on the field of battle, not only is he competent, he’s brilliant, a specialist you can bring in to win a war. He goes from zero to kickass in a second flat, the moment you put him in his element.

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not worth chewing through the straps

blind horizon

Frank Cavanaugh has some problems. He’s lost his memory. Someone’s trying to kill him. Someone’s trying to kill the President, and only he knows about it, but no one believes him.

To top it all off, he can’t sleep.

A still from 'Blind Horizon'
Frank takes a little dirt nap. He's even handsome near-death.

Frank spends the first part of Blind Horizon sleeping; he’s in a coma. I don’t know where this whole after you wake up from a coma you never need sleep again thing comes from, or if it’s based in fact—judging from the rest of the medicine in this film, I’d guess no—but as tropes go, it annoys me almost as much as, say, amnesia. I kid. I actually like this movie; it’s one of my favorites for when I have insomnia, myself.

A still from 'Blind Horizon'
Frank spends his sleepless nights fighting crime. Me, not so much.

There are basically three routes you can travel when you have insomnia:
  • The I’m Totally Going to Sleep Route In this approach, you spend your sleepless hours doing everything you can to go to sleep. You drink warm milk; you count sheep. You attempt meditation for the first time in your life. You do all the stupid, self-help stuff you’ve ever heard Dr. Oz recommend.
  • The Oh, God, Why Me? Route In this approach, you basically spend all night tossing, turning, and staring at your ceiling. You do everything you’d do in bed short of actually sleeping. You actively curse your alarm clock, and do constant mental math re: how many minutes you have until you have to get up, unsated.
  • The Fuck You, Insomnia Route In this approach, you act like you’re awake on purpose. You get up, check your email. You get some homework or housework done. You watch television, cook, crochet. You pretend you are too good for sleep; this is just Daytime: Part Two.
There's no right approach; pick the one you feel is right for you. Sadly, though, none of these things will result in a good night’s sleep.

forgive me father for i have sinned


It is 3:30 AM. I went to bed at nine thirty; I have to be up for class in three hours.

I have not had a single minute of sleep.

A still from 'Tombstone'
Doc can't sleep, either. Maybe that's why he shot so many people.

Sane people are such pussies when it comes to sleep. “Oh, I didn’t get my eight hours last night; I just can’t function today.”

I haven’t had a full night’s sleep in ten years. Sometimes I go weeks without any sleep, period.

You can go a long, long time before not sleeping will kill you. In the meantime, you just feel dead.

Zombie living.

A still from 'Blind Horizon'
Seriously. Why aren't I asleep?

The depressed insomniac is the walking dead. The supine dead; hours and hours every night, staring at the ceiling. Dear God; dear Buddha; dear Minka Aire, maker of my ceiling fan. Why aren’t I asleep? In Ancient Greece, they reserved this kind of torture for people who stole fire from the gods. In this instance, it seems extreme.

The manic insomniac is Superman. I have no need for your puny Earthling notions of sleeping. I have a carburetor to build! I have things to take apart and things to paint and things to build with my bare hands, despite having no idea of how they work.

I can sleep when I’m dead.

better put a leash on your boy

top gun

A still from 'Top Gun'
“I’m proud of it. It’s my best flying movie.”—Val Kilmer on Top Gun

In 1986 (read: the year after I was born), Val made a movie called Top Gun, which is about frat boys being irresponsible with seriously expensive government property. The protagonist, played by Tom Cruise, is Pete “Maverick” Mitchell—the writers decided to go with subtlety—whose every action is focused on bucking tradition and sticking it to the memory of his dead father. Val plays Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, Maverick’s counterpoint. Ice is calm and disciplined; he obeys the rules and believes that the military is a team sport, and when you put an “i” in team, people get killed.

A still from 'Top Gun'
Val’s sole contribution to this film is snarky cutaways.

But Ice’s demeanor is less personality than it is purposeful restraint. The man is tightly wound, but he’s wound himself.

A still from 'Top Gun'
Oh, we’re right there with you, buddy.

Ice has many of Maverick’s personality traits—the irreverence, the cockiness, the attitude. The difference is, Ice also keeps himself in check when he’s on the job. The same man who flies, “ice cold, no mistakes” snaps his teeth—literally—at Maverick when they’re on the ground. He disrupts class to call Maverick on his bullshit, but when it’s time to work he reins himself in. When it’s time to work, he goes by the book and flies ice cold fucking perfect; this self-discipline is what separates him from Maverick.

A still from 'Top Gun'
One more snarky cutaway for the road. I believe this is Val’s bitch, please face.

forgive me father for i have sinned

self regulation

When I say “dangerous,” I mostly mean, “in danger of being sicker than you need to be,” or sometimes, “a danger to yourself.” Not so much, “in danger of being on the eleven o’clock news,” though in rarer cases, that does happen. Just like it does with sane people.

A still from 'The Salton Sea'
It’s not just us crazy people doing crazy things, despite what television will have you believe.

Anyway, the best way to keep from being dangerous is self-regulation. You have to be in charge of your disease.

thekilmercure’s Guide to Self-Regulation

  • You are not your disease. It’s important to remember that your disease is something that happened to you. It is not a defining feature of your personality, and it does not govern you.
  • You have a life outside bipolar disorder. You do have to live with this disease, but you do not have to live for this disease. It is okay to try new things, even if you don’t know how your disease will react. It is not okay to define life through bipolar disorder’s language. You can be happy or sad without being manic or depressed.
  • You can control this. If something is going to trigger mania, don’t do it. If something will make you so anxious that you will want to SI, don’t do it. Avoid things that aggravate your disease. It’s just like asthma or lupus: there are things that will cause flare-ups, and it’s okay to avoid those things for your mental health.

better put a leash on your boy

walk the line

“You’re my problem. You’re everyone’s problem. Every time you go up in the air, you’re unsafe. I don’t like you because you’re dangerous.”
      —Lieutenant Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, Top Gun

Even when you’re on a cocktail that works, you still have bipolar disorder. There are still symptoms. You are still a crazy person; you are still dangerous.

And even if you’re completely asymptomatic, which is incredibly rare, your brain is still wired for bipolar disorder. You’re still a silent film actor trying to make it in a Technicolor world. So how do you fill the gap?

A still from 'Real Genius'
Baby Val needs a timeout.

Well, there’s therapy. But mental health professionals generally have one mode with bipolar patients: drug and release. (In this, we’re not unlike polar bears! Grrrr.)

A still from 'The Ghost and the Darkness'
If you thought I could post “grrrr” and not post the sad lion picture again, clearly you have not been paying attention to this blog. GRRRR.

In addition to that, unless you’re much richer than me, a therapist will not be following you around 24/7, so even if you find one who is really willing to work with you beyond tranq’ing and letting you back into the wild to fend for yourself, you’re still going to be alone with your crazy at least some of the time. So what’s the answer? How do you keep from being dangerous?

As in all things, it’s best to rely on yourself.

better put a leash on your boy


A still from 'Tombstone'
I assure you: He does know how good he looks.

Meet Doc Holliday.

A still from 'Tombstone'
Doc realizing his girlfriend is missing a piece of her underwear.

He thinks poker is a decent way to make a living, and he likes the nightlife. Wine, women, song. He speaks sexy Latin, and can tell whether a woman is wearing a bustle just by touching her.

A still from 'Tombstone'
He is a very subtle eye-roller.

He doesn't like authority.

A still from 'Tombstone'
Not pictured: the knife in that bowler hat guy's gut.

He has a bit of a temper.

A still from 'Tombstone'
And he subconsciously touches his gun a lot. Do with that what you will.

Doc is a very smart man. He knows the consequences of his actions -- like smoking constantly even though he's dying of tuberculosis. But he just cannot help himself. Doc tends -- gleefully -- toward chaos. Self-destruction isn't just a byproduct of his lifestyle; it's a good time!

A still from 'Tombstone'
Let the good times roll.

For those of you unfamiliar with the film, a brief recap of what's happening here: Doc, after a collapse that prompts a doctor to tell him he needs near-constant bed rest if he's going to live out the year, has gone with the Earps to shut down some civil disobedience. There is a standoff, weapons drawn; Doc catches the eye of one of the armed men, and winks.

Doc tends -- barrels -- toward chaos, and for him the waiting is a thousand times worse than anything that could happen during the gunfight, and so he has to, he can't help himself, from being the straw that breaks the camel's back.

A still from 'Tombstone'
Hit me with your best shot.

Chaos reigns. Doc is so manic and wild and desperate; when his gun is empty, and he cannot have the shot, he stops, poses. He is in exactly the least desirable position if you're trying to avoid a bullet; he makes himself as broad and open as possible. And he invites the Cowboy to shoot him, encourages him, "You're a daisy if you do."

A still from 'Tombstone'
"There is no normal life. There's just life."

In their first interaction, Doc and Johnny Ringo know one another without having to be told. Doc says that Ringo reminds him of himself; it takes one to know one. Wyatt asks Doc to explain Ringo's mentality to him, and he does without pause. It's not because Doc is the smartest member of the posse, though that's true, as well, even though he usually hides it behind alcohol and one-liners. Doc understands what's wrong with Ringo because it's wrong with him, too. He could have been normal, but then his heart was broken, "the only thing [he] ever wanted" not just removed from him, but locked up beyond his reach forever, and "there is no normal life" anymore. He becomes this frenetic, feral thing, endless appetites for women and cigarettes and alcohol and destruction. Chaos reigns.

forgive me father for i have sinned

self injury

Substance abuse is a slow form of self-destruction. The most keen is called self-injury, or SI. SI is just what it sounds like: purposeful injury of the self. The methods of SI are varied, though cutting is the best known. I prefer blunt trauma because it leaves bruises, not scars, although the first time I SI’d I burnt myself with a hot glue gun, which left a scar that is still there, twelve years later.

A still from 'Spartan'
My scars are nowhere near this sexy, or maybe I’d cut instead . . .

SI may be more difficult to understand than suicidal ideation. Why would anyone purposefully hurt themselves? Avoiding pain is more or less our entire aim as human beings, right?

The explanation is multifold. On the one hand, it’s a control issue. You can’t control the internal pain, so you control the external pain. On the other, the pain is a kind of release, a catharsis. Pain releases adrenalin, which in turn makes pain easier to handle. By hurting yourself, you actually hurt less.

A still from 'The Saint'
A still from 'The Saint'
Knife: $50. Trip to the ER: $90. Getting Elisabeth Shue’s panties to burst into flames: Priceless.

The thing about self-injury—just like with drugs or booze or any other coping mechanism—is that afterwards there’s a reset. It’s as much about getting back to base as it is about the catharsis or numbing of the act itself. What I mean: in the past you’ve done this thing and felt better, so it becomes a feature in your mind, an obsession that sometimes takes over your brain: I’m going to hurt myself, and then I’ll feel better. And for a while you’re a complete freak, and that’s all you can think about; it becomes your entire life. But as soon as you actually do it, all that goes away. You reset, and you go back to your normal, non-possessed brain, and things really are better.

high on life and also heroin

the white rabbit

“Nonsense. I have not yet begun to defile myself.”
      —Doc Holliday, Tombstone

Bipolar disorder is a study in excess. By definition, these excesses are of mood: the highest highs and the lowest lows. In practice, excess is everywhere.

Especially in bad neighborhoods.

A still from 'Blind Horizon'
“What goes good with medication? Tequila.” *
* I did not make this up. This is an actual line from Blind Horizon.

There is a high comorbidity—that is a medical word loosely translated to, “you got screwed twice by the same dealer”—between bipolar disorder and substance abuse. Given how prone bipolar patients are to bucking their officially sanctioned psych meds, it’s sometimes difficult to understand why so many of us are so eager to self-medicate. And yet.

A still from 'Tombstone'
Doc likes his whiskey like he likes his women: cheap and with a big kick.

Alcohol is legal, which for some reason is translated in the common vernacular as “harmless.” This is far from the case, especially in college. When people want to go out drinking—which is all the time—I have to be careful in accepting. Some nights, it’s fine: you can have one drink and apply the brakes and everything will be fine. And some nights, if you have one drink, you’ll have ten more, and after your friends go home you’ll go out with some more friends, Misters Beam and Daniels. Nice, Southern gentlemen. Always willing to help a girl in need.

The temptation to numb, to drink and smoke the negative feelings away, is always great. Even if you’re on meds, the temptation to self-medicate is there. The key is in self-regulation.

(We will discuss self-regulation, with our host Lieutenant Tom “Iceman” Kazansky, next week. Stay tuned!)