Last spring, a small observance of Earth Day—that annual declaration and celebration of the sanctity of the Earth—took place at a senior-living community in Tenleytown, Northwest DC, where I live. Our little environmental teach-in was a success, with three invited speakers and good crowds that captured the spirit of the first Earth Day 43 years earlier. As the one who suggested the commemoration, I took satisfaction in revisiting a journey begun when I played a part in that initial launch—before mental illness derailed my career and my life.
I clearly remember the words a US senator said to me in early September 1969: “See what you can do about environmental teach-ins on college campuses around the country…all on the same day next spring.” My boss was Gaylord Nelson, a Wisconsin democrat and a powerful figure in Congress. From his suite in the Russell Senate Office Building, there was a view of that corridor of world power, Pennsylvania Avenue. I was Nelson’s legislative director, managing all things related to the environment, on which he was building a national reputation.
I would lead the organization of what became Earth Day. Some 20-million people turned out for the first observance the following spring—April 22, 1970—in a massive, peaceful protest against the pollution of our planet. For me, it was a fateful assignment, an opportunity to reach a pinnacle in my young career in Washington and to prove to myself and the world that I was special. I had hungered to do that since childhood, when my parents never gave me much of a sense of self worth.
Environmentalism, though, inspired me. It was no accident that I was in charge of environmental matters for Senator Nelson’s office. I had become interested years earlier, when I saw the bulldozing of the woods and rivers near my home in Georgia. As a reporter in 1967, I started the first environment beat for the Minneapolis Star Tribune. A series I wrote about environmental degradation in Minnesota was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Earth Day would be a culmination of my past work and an achievement of greater magnitude.
The senator’s directive in hand, I bolted into a four-month sprint of feverish, 18-hour workdays. I tapped inner resources of energy and creativity that I didn’t know I had. In the headiest moments, I felt as if I had been hit by a lightning bolt of genius. My strategies, plans, and decisions seemed golden. I had no fear, and I thought anything was possible. It was time: I would convince everyone that I counted, that I was destined for greatness.
Beginning in September, I was everywhere. Before the convenience of the internet, I was recruiting and organizing a committee to steer the teach-in, setting up a tax-exempt organization, raising seed funds, and helping to recruit a staff director for the day when the rapidly growing project would be too unwieldy to be run out of the senator’s office. Telephones rang constantly, inquiring visitors poured in. Everyone, it seemed, wanted to know about the teach-in. I remember a secretary looking at me in open-mouthed wonder as I talked back and forth between two telephone receivers.
My most important contribution, however, was to articulate a coherent vision for Senator Nelson’s inspired idea—that the nation, length and breadth, could be committed to environmental protection. Now was the time for action, we believed, and our mass environmental teach-ins would get the ball rolling.
I crafted a pitch to entice the environmental reporters of the nation’s news media to rally around the idea. Almost in concert, the three most important outlets of the day—Time, Newsweek, and The New York Times—picked up the story. Their articles, supplemented by other coverage across the US, established the viability of what soon was to be called Earth Day. The project was launched. I was 31.
In my euphoria during the Earth Day launch, I was blind to the possibility of any obstacles. No problem was unsolvable; nothing could slow me down. But on December 4, 1969, four words interrupted my speeding life and, along with certain genetic predispositions, changed it forever. “John, I feel faint,” my mother said, raising her hand to her forehead. Mother, in the passenger seat of the car I was driving, was having a heart attack. The thin walls of her ailing heart were giving way.
Not knowing CPR, I did the only thing I could, which was to get her to the hospital. Her doctor later told me her heart was too far gone. Aware that I had witnessed Mother’s traumatic death, he said: “You should see a psychiatrist after this.”
I reached home late and wrote a poem through tears: “Momma died tonight./Momma died and took my soul away./Momma./Oh, Momma./Momma died tonight.”
That was all the time I could spare to grieve. The next day, I was back in the senator’s office. Earth Day deadlines were rushing toward me, and I attacked the project with more energy than ever. A psychiatrist suggested later that, perhaps, after being unable to save my mother, I became doubly committed to saving Mother Earth.
Though I didn’t realize it, my work performance declined rapidly after that day. The magic was gone. A fatal obstacle had been met. By Mother’s sputtering heart, I was brought down into the real world—and in the shadows of my mind, a genetic-borne illness was awakened.
In the years since I wrote the poem, people have asked me what “Momma Died Tonight” was about. It wasn’t about my real mother—who didn’t particularly love or support me and who physically and emotionally abused me at times—it was about the mother I longed for, one who gave me consistent caring and affection. That fantasy mother was the unreal love of my life, and when my actual mother died, my hope that she might become the caring, loving woman I imagined died, too.
That may help explain why December 4 put the brakes on my four-month Earth Day joyride and started a 40-year hell. I was becoming ill, no longer capable of being the star performer to whom my peers had become accustomed. Yet I denied the sad changes taking root in my brain.
The Downward Slide
The first unmistakable sign that my magic touch had faded was the poor “State of the Environment” speech I wrote for Senator Nelson in January 1970. It was billed as a national speech by a Democratic standard bearer for environmental protection, so expectations in Washington were high. Nelson’s political goal was to preempt President Nixon’s looming State of the Union address—expected to focus, opportunistically, on the environment because of the country’s burgeoning concern about the issue. But our speech was a miss. The news media yawned, then paid rapt attention when President Nixon claimed the issue a few weeks later. Before the year was out, Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency by executive order.
Instead of seeing the greater good in the outcome, I felt responsible for a fumbled political opportunity. Shortly afterward, another speech I drafted unleashed the ire of the senator’s axe man, an administrative assistant whose job it was to criticize, bully, and even tyrannize staffers with whom the senator was unhappy. The AA showed up at my desk one day, my draft in hand, “This is no good,” he said, launching a scathing critique. I was floored.
Burned by his criticism, I responded in a manner that has caused me harrowing difficulties over the years—though it has ultimately helped me survive as well. I rebelled, stubbornly, not by improving my performance, but by engaging in hand-to-hand office combat. I launched a barrage of internal memoranda attacking the senator and his AA for using the senatorial offices in the Capitol and his Wisconsin staff for campaign duties—a common ethical transgression among senators back then and an obvious target for an angry young man.
After my uprising, I was relegated to writing mundane press releases about the teach-in drive, while Senator Nelson gave a new star, Denis Hayes, the job of managing the rollout. (By that time, the Earth Day project had grown too big for the senator’s office; Hayes operated from a downtown office financed by contributions from the United Auto Workers.) The AA later moved me to a no-duties staff position on a Senate subcommittee on poverty. Late in 1974, I was simply let go, my contribution to Earth Day forgotten, bereft of others’ sympathy or curiosity about whether something internally might be wrong. Fired.
The Crash of a Marriage
My first marriage followed peaks, valleys, and an eventual crash similar to the roller coaster of my Earth Day experience. The marriage had begun with a flourish in Atlanta in 1963. As a cub reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, I had formed a bond with the paper’s receptionist, Rose, who was a newsroom sweetheart. Rose swept me off my feet: To her, I was the young journalist going places, having been awarded a Congressional fellowship in Washington, a comet that could take her to an exciting life in the nation’s capital. To me, she was a lovely complement and support in a new world, in which I wanted desperately to succeed. Ralph McGill, the Journal-Constitution’s Pulitzer-winning publisher, known as “the conscience of the South,” attended our wedding because he was so taken with Rose’s charm.
No sooner were we married than Rose and I rushed to Washington, only to witness a capital thrown into uproar by the assassination of John F. Kennedy. My first job—in the office of the glamorous Manhattan Congressman John Lindsay—quickly dominated my relationship with Rose.
In our hastily established household, suffused in Potomac fever, we had little time to build a solid, loving union. Yet we were a family, and within two years, Rose gave birth to our first son, John-Down. I changed his diaper for the first time, with joy and pride, in our apartment. A second son, Steven, arrived a year later. Outwardly, we were an ideal family: a bright, ambitious, young husband, a beautiful wife, and two healthy sons.
But I was so caught up with myself and Congress that I had no time or patience for the boys. Perhaps their existence helped to point out the emptiness of our marriage, which I deeply needed for appearance’s sake but couldn’t sustain by being a steady and affectionate husband day after day. If I arrived home at a decent hour, Steven would come up and throw his arms around me; embarrassed by the physical contact, I would push him away.
My obsession with the Earth Day launch in late 1969 contributed to the downfall of the marriage. I would arrive home at 1 AM to find Rose waiting in the kitchen, dinner warming in the oven, the children in bed hours ago. Despite her thoughtfulness, we had none of the affection and interdependence of a healthy, growing family. I was too obsessed with my “genius” project. And I became preoccupied with an office secretary—an inappropriate daydream that quickly turned into a torrid affair. It burned on fire, nights after I left the office late, in the backseat of my car parked in the Capitol Hill driveway. It ended with the young woman crying in the street as I pulled away in my car after telling her that marriage was out of the question. I really had no time to love either woman.
A psychiatrist told me later that the secretary, who was physically tiny, made me feel like a giant, feeding the sense of power unleashed by my Earth Day obsession. Rose inevitably learned about the affair, which caused her fragile fantasy of a young couple on an ideal journey to success in Washington to explode. After Earth Day, our marriage degenerated into separation and an angry struggle over control of the house and custody of our boys, who were still quite young.
On Sundays, when I had the children for visitation, I would take them to church. Next to them in the service, I would weep openly, immersed in grief, bitterness, and guilt. Meanwhile, Rose started an affair with a next-door neighbor that turned into full-blown involvement. My belated effort to repair our relationship came to nothing. By then I had gained some insights from psychotherapy, which I had entered on the advice of a minister friend, but it was too late. We divorced, and Rose married the neighbor after his own marriage broke up.
Ours was among the countless marriages that crumble after high hopes. But in retrospect, I see it as a casualty of my Potomac fever run devastatingly high and my mental illness, which had taken root invisibly in the shadows. Perhaps, if we had built a better foundation, the outcome would have been different.
No-Man’s Land—and Arrested!
The loss of Mother, job, and marriage dumped me into a no-man’s land. The glories of Earth Day were far, far away. Repeatedly, some friend or other would find me a job, only to see me lose it through poor performance, refusal to accept authority, or absenteeism. Some friends turned away. Mental illness, which had been stalking me for months, now took me into its harsh grip. I had not yet been diagnosed as manic depressive, though I was seeing a psychiatrist, but even had that disease been identified, there were no real, effective medicines to give me at the time. My head ached. More and more, I was living in an internal world, out of touch with reality. I fantasized that I was destined to be a great man, if only I had the courage and tried hard enough.
Thus the groundwork was laid for my first, terrible episode of psychosis: my arrest for disorderly conduct at the headquarters of the Washington Post and the subsequent jolting, painful events that led my psychiatrist, exasperated, to ask, “Are you trying to ruin me?”
The episode began in late 1975 with an act of plagiarism, a misdeed I never would have committed before. I had begun working as a freelance writer, and I wrote an essay urging reform of the nation’s governance to meet the needs of an increasingly urban citizenry. I hoped the essay would position me as a latter-day Thomas Jefferson who could inspire the nation. But I had lifted the ideas in the piece from another project, on which I had been a paid writer for several citizen’s groups, funded by a National Science Foundation grant. I didn’t ask them for permission.
I was started on an insane and lonesome journey. I felt I had to have the essay published on the front page of the Post, a paper I had revered since I arrived in Washington. I slipped past the guard at the newspaper’s headquarters, five, ten, fifteen times, making my way to the writers’ and editors’ offices to ask them to publish my piece.
The journalists whom I importuned—many of them former contacts from the Hill—had great patience but turned me down. I became a newsroom pest. One writer did invite me downstairs for coffee and listened to my story—it was a kindness. My fevered mind, however, felt no embarrassment, no fear. I was on a mission and believed that the harder I pushed, the more likely I was to become a modern Jefferson.
Eventually, I went straight to the top: Katharine Graham, the publisher of the Post. I made my way up to her office with the essay. She was not in. But several writers appeared and crowded around me, huddling close, so I could not move. Policemen stepped from the elevator and approached with handcuffs. A cold chill went down my midsection as I was taken from the building and, without struggle, put in the back of a paddy wagon. The Post had responded.
It was no fun riding, handcuffed, in the paddy wagon, as it bumped down the streets from the newspaper’s headquarters to the DC courthouse; my body slid on the hard seat, my back and shoulders banged against the metal walls. By mid-afternoon, I was in a holding cell in the courthouse basement. I was visited by an attorney, who sidled up to the cell bars and said, “I can get you out.” I waved him away. My journey to greatness required suffering. I did have a terrible thirst, however, which had grown over the hours since I intruded at the Post. I began to scream for water to no avail.
By the end of the day, I had been hauled before a judge, who sent me to the DC jail for the night. But I wasn’t done. Using the pay phone outside the cellblock entrance, I somehow managed to reach Katharine Graham. I don’t remember her words, but the tone of her voice was not sympathetic.
My quarter gone, the conversation quickly ended. To try Ms. Graham once more, I reached for my remaining quarter, which I had placed on the coin vault of the pay phone. It wasn’t there; a small African-American inmate stood near me, grinning. I went for the inmate and the quarter, and two guards went for me, wrestling me to the floor and handcuffing my wrists behind my back. More guards arrived; they dragged me down a hall and up a flight of stairs. They shoved me into a cell and handcuffed me to a metal frame bed. I later learned that this was the jail’s “crazy room.” I spent the night trying to break my leg by twisting it between the slats at the end of the bed. I hollered for water and also to declare that I was the Messiah for the African-American inmates.
The next step in that horrific journey was St. Elizabeth’s, then DC’s hospital for the insane in the southeast quarter of the city. The transfer from jail to hospital by judge’s order was not without incident. I was taken from my cell by guards the next morning, one grinding his heel in my bare foot as they dragged me. The halls were alive with inmates, yelling and watching, and jeering, “Yeah. Yeah. That’s him.” In my seething mind, I was Christ; in reality I was a terribly sick, suffering individual, without any water or medication.
At St. Elizabeth’s, I was locked in a seclusion cell with a heavy wooden door and a tiny window. I slept exhausted on the mattress on the floor. Hours later when I awoke, an object was next to me—a large glass of cold orange juice, put there by some good soul. Later, several white-coated attendants burst into the room and wrestled me to a flat position on my belly. I struggled feebly, wondering why the fuss. A nurse came in and injected my exposed rear with something that turned out to be the powerful drug Thorazine, which socks the mind with quiet, and stiffens the body, zombielike. In those years, chlorpromazine, its generic name, was a standard treatment to subdue the violent mentally ill.
I remember little of my week at St. Elizabeth’s. The Thorazine may have dulled my senses. I do recall my fear of being in the company of the severely insane, their hands and faces twisted and jerking, probably an effect of Thorazine. And I recall sitting on a small patio with a view of the Washington skyline, reading Hannah Green’s novel, I Never Promised You a Rose Garden, about a young woman’s struggle with schizophrenia. I also remember one close call: I overheard two orderlies, driving me to the hospital clinic for a checkup, saying, “Make him fight, then we’ll get him.” I didn’t bite. In the end, St. Elizabeth’s was more painful for me in reputation than in actuality. And I’ll always remember the orange juice.
Soon the judge released me, and the episode was over. My father, a tough federal prison warden, who saw me walking stiffly from the effects of the Thorazine, choked back a sob. He took me for a stay at his Virginia apartment. He never said a word of congratulations about my role in Earth Day.
After the Post fiasco, there were more scuffles—with people on the street, policemen, guards. There were jailing and visits to St. Elizabeth’s, where I once was kept for six weeks in the facility for the criminally insane. Placed in a seclusion cell for upending a guard in his chair, I prayed over and over, “I am a child under God. I give myself up in thankfulness and in hope.”
The same fantasy drove all of my episodes: I aimed to show great courage and boldness and to conquer all fear, necessary steps toward achieving greatness. I fantasized that I would be beaten and raped in prison, although in truth my pain was mostly internal, mental. I was bruised, but never seriously injured. Said one psychiatrist: “They simply treated you like an unruly prisoner, which you were.”
One night in my apartment, I beat my bare stomach and back with my belt, raising a flock of welts. I believe I was hurting my body to counter the emotional pain of the psychosis, which was driving me to suicide—as when, another time, I threw myself down a hillside that I knew was populated by poisonous snakes.
One psychiatrist suggested that my penchant for getting into fights, being arrested, and being jailed was a subconscious attempt to get close to my father, an emotionally distant man. I was trying to be a ward in his prison, in his care, the doctor offered. Dad, who died many years ago, would never have imagined that picture—known as a good and moral man, he indeed was a stern taskmaster who would take his belt to his three sons as punishment.
Ironically, my delusion of being a messiah probably devolved from my Roman Catholic upbringing, which my mother hoped would be a good influence on my two brothers and me. Indeed, Catholicism was the chief source of my moral sense, as a child raised around prisons and their inmates, who was teased and taunted at school, with parents who were too mentally disturbed (my mother) or career-occupied (my father) to tend to my values and growth. As an adult, in my rational periods, I came to view the Catholic mythology of Christ as terribly unrealistic, distorted, and guilt-producing.
These days, a psychotherapist I see twice a week, often asks me: “What triggers your psychotic episodes?” I have always felt, suddenly, in the middle of one. But my counselor persists in wanting to know—rather, she wants me to know—so I can learn to spot trouble coming and avoid it.
My best guess? The trigger is a loss, whether of a job, a marriage, a friend, others’ esteem, or anything that makes me feel “special.” This need I have to feel special has, in many ways, defined my life. Why? Because as a child, I always felt like a nobody. My parents loved me, I suppose, but they didn’t show it consistently, not giving me the validation upon which a child builds a healthy personality.
In response to the loss, I cook up a grand idea, perhaps a fantasy. These ideas come freely to me. Gripped by my idea, I want it fulfilled immediately, but reality being what it is throws up hurdles and complexities. Instead of acting reasonably—developing the idea thoughtfully, strategizing, lining up allies—I try too often to kick down a door to make it heard (I am reminded of the heavy wooden doors of St. Elizabeth’s). When that fails, my mind may be captured by fantasies that are even more grandiose—ways I can become super-special.
I discuss this pattern with my counselor. “Use your intelligence to manage the mania,” she says. “Use your imagination to find alternatives.” Outwit the manic impulse by putting a modest idea and a sane pace in its place, she says. Afterwards, I go to my apartment and struggle with myself. I try to remember, to accept, to learn, and to grow—in order to avoid, manage, and if necessary survive the terrors of psychosis.
To be honest, I don’t know if I ever have been truly and completely psychotic—when my mania and impulses were alone in the driver’s seat, without a shred of rationality, self-control, or judgment applying the brakes. Even in the most intense of episodes, I held back. For instance, I was once in a cage in a prison van, with a guard outside, standing 20 feet away, fingering his pistol. I judged that, at that moment, if I shook the cage menacingly at him, he might shoot me. Instead, I sat quietly, watching. I’ve often thought that the chaotic world I created for myself was in good part fake, a sideshow, that would set me apart without repercussions as dramatic as a long prison sentence, permanent hospitalization, or death. I was, one could say, a good actor, toeing the line of some grim fate.
Finally, the parade of psychotic episodes ended. I didn’t just wake up one morning clearheaded, as had been the endings to previous episodes. I woke up clear and stayed clear. There was one traumatic exception—a suicide attempt in which I crunched the lenses of my glasses with my teeth and spent the night digging into my wrists and throat with the shreds. The attempt was a bloody failure, which landed me in the hospital where the glass was dug out, my psychiatrist looking on, said: “Oh, John, what have you done?”
Ironically, the suicide attempt came on the same day that I had learned some valuable information. Earlier, I had been in a fight and ended up in my psychiatrist’s office; a nurse at the Psychiatric Institute in Washington sat beside me and gently gave me the momentous news. “You are a manic depressive. Your doctor has prescribed lithium.”
It was a relief to have a name for my condition, now called bipolar disorder. I had never heard of the lithium compounds that, in the late 1970s, increasingly were being used in psychiatry as mood stabilizing drugs, and I immediately feared them. Rightly so. Lithium may have the side effect of dampening one’s creativity, a trait I prized more than anything in my insane quest to be special. My counselor recalls a painter friend in Europe saying, “I live in a lithium cage.”
Despite my fears, I began taking lithium without hesitation. I’d had such a hard time, anything that was purported to be helpful was worth trying. As the weeks wore on, I realized that I had reached a turning point. This time, with lithium and the psychotherapy, when my head cleared of psychosis, it stayed clear. I might be able to hold a job. I might no longer have to endure periodic torments and languish in a mental hospital or a jail. To use a timeworn saying, lithium could give me a new lease on life.
My friends noticed my increased stability. They had never given up on me, and it wasn’t long before I was offered a new job. That was important, because financial needs were pressing. I feared that the lithium had destroyed my creativity, but only time would tell.
The position that I took in 1979 was assistant editor of EPA Journal, a magazine of the Environmental Protection Agency. Joan Nicholson, an acquaintance, got it for me. The ex-wife of Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, “Joanie” was the EPA’s public affairs director and a fan of Gaylord Nelson. She placed me under a stern supervisor, Leighton “Skip” Price, who lived with a severe case of rheumatoid arthritis.
The situation was perfect for me: an excellent staff, a firm boss, sympathetic oversight from above—and the lithium. I served efficiently as a journalist, without any incidents, and by 1983 was named editor. Luckily there was no “lithium cage” for me; I excelled at conceptualizing issues of the magazine, framing articles to be done, and persuading and lining up good authors. I was awarded a Gold Medal for Distinguished Service to the Agency by the EPA Administrator, and later, my staff and I received an unprecedented second Gold Medal. As in the Earth Day launch, I had found a way to be special.
On an especially happy day for me at EPA, The New York Times published an article singling out the EPA Journal as a valuable resource of news and interpretation on environmental affairs for journalists around the country. The Times’ ecology reporter praised the magazine’s depth, scope, and integrity, which validated our staff’s resistance to attempts by the agency brass to use the publication as a propaganda tool. Our commitment to honest journalism, even in a government promotional document, had paid off.
On that happy day, much to my astonishment, my supervisor called me into his office and lambasted me for some minor shortcoming. I was dumbfounded. I felt I should be praised. A friend more politically savvy than I, still innocent after decades in Washington, suggest later that my boss was probably just taking me down a few pegs—a bureaucrat’s ploy to protect himself from an ambitious underling. Armed with that understanding, I might have let the criticism roll off my back. But instead, I retaliated, challenging the way he operated and questioning his judgment. It was foolhardy. Once again, having reached a peak, I followed anger down a slope shaped by mental illness.
Soon, I was in the chaos of an episode, despite the lithium. Over the ensuing weeks and months I churned out critical memos. This time, I was acting out in an office, with staff, superiors, and agency officials watching. My boss decreed, no more writing in the magazine from John: I was only peddling lonely fantasies of greatness.
The man at the top, the EPA Administrator, was kind. In 1993, his personnel director handed me an “early out,” an early federal retirement. So I found myself fired again, when my journey from the depths had been going so well. By then I had accumulated 23 years in the federal service. So despite the hurdles of manic depression, I had survived long enough to receive a limited annuity.
Good and Bad
Now I sit on the far side of four decades with an illness that causes chaotic feelings. Often I feel bad about myself, even when I excel. Or, less often, I feel dull, cold, and powerless to act. My chronic despair frustrates my counselor. “Where is the good in you?” she challenges me. “What within you endears you to people?” Find it, she says. Dig! I recoil in fear. What if there is no good in me? What if it’s not reachable? What else will that digging unearth? I wrench inside, remembering, struggling to understand.
I cannot make a neat list of “the good” in me. Yet I am beginning to understand that, by being minted as a human being, I have both sides of the coin: a negative, hateful, suspicious, shadow side, but also a positive, giving, loving side. Mental illness has hidden the good side; instead I have mostly lived with my shadows. Until I recognize both sides, and accept and integrate them, I cannot be whole.
I hold tightly to one experience, where I did express the good within me—a romance that bloomed during my productive EPA years. Ellen, an artistic and gifted musician and teacher whom I’d met at church, admired me and grew to have deep affection for me. Around her, I was willing to go outside myself, to relax, to enjoy time with her and others, to be “one of” instead of “above all.”
Ellen knew how to rebuff my claims of specialness. When I bragged about my high IQ, she replied, “There are many kinds of intelligence.” Nor did my drive impress her; she was drawn by more modest things in me—my pleasure in square-dancing with her and attending classical-music concerts. Many days I would spend an hour or two listening to Ellen practice for a piano recital, which pleased her. We found warmth in each other.
After a time, Ellen—a cautious, wise, restrained woman—agreed to marry me, in spite of the illness, which during this period was quieted by lithium, and by my love for her. Ellen had found good in me, and we built a relationship on mutual feelings and trust. More than any of my career achievements, that relationship made me special.
In June 1984, Ellen and I were married in a Unitarian church in Northern Virginia. We might have stayed together for the rest of our lives. Tragically, however, the illness that erupted and destroyed my job at EPA did not spare the rest of my life, including the marriage.
Over the years, I sporadically had seen prostitutes—a practice originating in childhood fantasies—and I surrendered to that compulsion in the marriage, more and more frequently. As in my affair during my first marriage, I craved sex without the responsibilities of a mature relationship. I acted out, repeatedly, heedless of the consequences. It seemed that sex and love didn’t jive in my personality. Somehow, I couldn’t integrate pleasure with a mature bond, and the illness stood as a monumental hindrance to any effort.
I told Ellen about the prostitutes. And she even tried to help me stop, attending a conference on sex addiction with me as well as sessions with a psychiatrist. Complicating the matter was my practice of cross-dressing, which for me means wearing lingerie in private. I have cross-dressed since my youth. Psychiatrists have told me that cross-dressers find it very difficult to remove the practice from their lives and may never stop; I am not gay, although some transvestites are. Ellen was compassionate, but our intimate relationship was difficult.
In the meantime, my mania during that period steamrolled to a violent level, prompting me to strike Ellen with my fist. She had tried to save the marriage under very difficult circumstances, but the violence alarmed her numerous, very concerned friends, who advised her to divorce me. She did in 1993, the same year I retired from EPA.
Once again, manic depression had gained the upper hand in my life, as I exploded into chaos, frightening those around me. I grieve now about the pain my behavior caused Ellen, a moral person with high values and standards; she must have gone through hell trying to salvage our relationship during the thrashings of my illness. Still, I think the breakup of our marriage may have been avoided, with the right treatment, the right understanding, especially on my part. In the end, my companion was gone. Ellen eventually found another man to dance with. For me, a long, lonely road lay ahead.
After that second divorce, I moved to a high-rise apartment complex in Northern Virginia, where I knew no one. Later I lived in a garden apartment complex, where most residents spoke only Spanish; I was quite alone. My only friends were members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Fairfax, the church where I married Ellen. The Unitarians knew of my ties to Earth Day from years back and welcomed me during coffee hour after Sunday services; they would even give me rides to medical appointments, my driver’s permit being revoked because of the many medications I was on.
“How’s your paranoia?” my doctor at the time would ask during my twice monthly 15-minute visits. Just fine—paranoia and suicidal thoughts were almost constant companions. The paranoia would rise when the Unitarians forgot to invite me to social occasions; I would get angry and suspicious. The suicidal thoughts stemmed from sheer loneliness and low self-esteem. I hung around my apartment, doing nothing, aching for the phone to ring. I fell back on occasional appointments with prostitutes; I calculated that I didn’t have a real date with a woman for 15 years. My future seemed glum at best. A memory surfaced of a mink I’d caught on my trap line when I was a high schooler in Michigan; it glared up at me before it resumed chewing at its leg, gripped in the steel jaws. I felt a primal determination to keep living, even when gripped in a grim life.
How did I survive those years in Northern Virginia? Blessed exceptions, or what I call “sparks”—brief glimmers of light, activity, and friendship. Sparks were daily walks to a nearby shopping center; two Unitarian buddies dropping by for a visit; Saturday movies with a dear, 85-year-old lady friend; coffee hour after a church service with its flurry of hellos.
The medicines surely helped; the new drugs I was prescribed had fewer side effects than the lithium. Twice I stopped taking the medicines, concluding that I was well. Twice I was hospitalized. A new prescription, for Abilify, signaled a new diagnosis by my doctor—schizoaffective disorder, a mood-swing disease like manic depression but with the addition of delusional thinking.
Another tonic was the poetry of the Psalms and the Book of Job—and the poetry I myself wrote, a habit since my teens. Writing a poem would release emotion from my pent-up self. I would share it with my fellow Unitarians, who gave me sympathetic feedback. It was my distant way of reconnecting; as the Psalms said, “He drew me out of many waters…”
“You should move into a retirement community, by all means,” my Virginia counselor said. “And my wish for you is that you find a woman there and build a relationship.” Community and a relationship—I hadn’t had much of either in the 19 years since my divorce from Ellen. Now I have the community, at least, in a small cluster of apartments designated “for senior living,” in Tenleytown.
In a short walk down a hallway, I can say hello and smile to several neighbors. I puzzle why people are so friendly. We are all in the last volume, if not chapter, of our lives, most residents a decade further on than I. People here walk slowly; many prop themselves with canes or walkers. At 75, I also walk slowly, recovering from surgery for an aching back. I am a long way from the young bull who charged toward Earth Day 44 years ago. Until the end, I will carry a mental illness, although my counselor says the intensity of the disease sometimes diminishes with age.
Yes, I say hello. It doesn’t hurt. In fact, a few words shared with neighbors crack the ice that froze me for so many years—just as my Virginia counselor had hoped. A university is close by, and good-looking young women are in abundance on the sidewalks and in shops and restaurants, making my head swivel. In fact, there are women in my apartment complex who are good-looking—for their age. I haven’t quite gotten used to their age since I moved here in October 2012; I am only slowly getting used to mine.
My Unitarian friends, who helped me move, call to ask how I’m doing. “Pluses and minuses,” I tell them. It’s true that when I don’t have a project to work on I get depressed and lonely. Last spring’s Earth Day teach-in was one of those projects: I suggested to the management of my apartment complex and to the environment committee of the Episcopal church next door that we celebrate Earth Day’s 44th anniversary, the weekend of April 22, 2013. As it happened, some take-charge types ran with my idea, leaving me in a back pew. Peevishly—and I seem to get peevish about once a day—I wrote those organizers and complained about not being fully included. I’m sure I came off as a crank. Still, I knew that I had counted.
As another project, I started playing cards several times a week with three women who live in my complex. We became fast friends over Rummy 500. I wrote a poem celebrating our group, describing our card game as helping me join the human race. Later we had a falling out. After one of my peevish moments, the others blamed me for being a poor sport, which led to a fierce shouting match over two days. “You were like children fighting in a sandbox,” my counselor chided me. For weeks, one of the women refused to play cards with me; I didn’t think I was entirely to blame for the rift, but I slipped a note of apology beneath her door. She came back.
The new counselor I’ve seen since I arrived in Tenleytown is a spunky, candid advisor who won’t let me run away from issues of my behavior. Again, I think of the mink chewing on its trapped leg—but this time, I am being pressed to recognize the good inside me. Perhaps that will keep my illness at bay and restore me. But can I ever make up for the hurt I have caused others—especially my two wives, my sons, my friends? “He was sick,” my first psychiatrist said of me, after The Washington Post escapade, when the rest of my therapy group wanted to eject me for being too troubled for them.
Yes, I was sick. Yet I have begun to look at my journey in another way: Perhaps I can use my life experience to challenge the illness and to compensate for the damage it has done. Instead of the negativity that has often walled off my best parts, I now feel things like wanting to love and give to myself and to others. I have gained knowledge; could it be of use to others? Be a gift in a wave of giving? Could it give me power to challenge the illness? Could it give me understanding and wholeness? I quaver before such questions, so terrific has the burden been.
And careful here—I don’t want to try to be “special” again, nor to beat myself up in some kind of martyrdom. Navigating the rest of this journey won’t be easy. And yet, and yet, a feeling of hope grows within me.
Eleven Rules for Staying Sane
My life experience, troubled as it has been, has taught me a few “rules” for surviving mental illness. I relate these with trepidation, for though I see their truth, I have neither mastered nor fully incorporated them into my life. It is a lifelong process to learn how to care for my little patch of the human condition.
- Go on the alert following a loss; it may trigger a psychotic episode.
- Reach in, reach out. Dig for the good; look for ways to use it.
- Care about others, interact with them, take a genuine interest in their lives and well being.
- When thoughts turn to suicide, reach out. Call emergency numbers or trusted friends and counselors.
- Cultivate projects. Stay active and thinking by having several useful projects for guaranteed alternatives if one gets stalled.
- Use intelligence to manage and control impulses—find thoughtful and effective courses of action.
- Enjoy sexuality without guilt and in healthy relationships. In avoiding prostitutes, find relief in the health protected and the money saved.
- Work to stay healthy and in control and to hold the illness at bay. Take medicines and follow the therapies that doctors and qualified counselors recommend. Seek low-cost or free public health resources, if finances require it.
- Don’t assume that someday, “wellness” will be complete. The fight for a quality life is lifelong.
- Cultivate a social life, one of the most healing of tools. Engage with others to escape destructive self-centeredness.
- See the folly of pursuing the acclaim, or simply the attention, of others as a way to feel special. Embrace what is both special and ordinary in being a decent, contributing human being.
John Heritage, now retired, lives in Northwest Washington. Andrew Trotter, who worked closely with Heritage to write and edit this piece, also lives in the District.