The Noonday Demon

The Noonday Demon

Happiness itself can be a grand labour …Charlotte Bronte

On December 7, 2004 34 year old Carson Spencer took his own life.  It was a shocking and unceremonious exit from the world in which he excelled and touched so many lives.

His disease, bipolar disorder, had pursued him like a relentless phantom, unseen by friends and family but a familiar specter since he was first diagnosed at the age of 17.  Like, many manic depressives, his symptoms were subtle at first and disguised by enormous accomplishments and popularity that a visceral society interpreted as achievement and success. Carson was the embodiment of all that was right.  Yet, his manic swings and struggles to cope with an illness that he hid like an ugly scar, conspired to overwhelm him.

In his book The Noonday Demon – Andrew Solomon leads us much like Dante’s guide in The Inferno into the harrowing hell of depression.  As he pushes us forward, he attaches a rope to the outside world so that many of us might find our way back to the light of day and out of the blackness that occupies the uncharted parts of our brain chemistry.  In reading Solomon and hearing the story of Carson, I was struck by how common bipolar disorder is in America and the terrifying statistics around suicide.  Last year over 500,000 people attempted suicide in this country.  Suicide amounted for almost two percent of deaths worldwide in 1998, according to Solomon, ahead of war and homicide.  Half of those with bi-polar disorder will attempt suicide. The most likely suicide attempts are those who are experiencing their first depressive episode.  Those that have had multiple episodes have significantly reduced risk, particularly if they have maintained a treatment regimen of cognitive therapy and medicine.

Carson’s life and death left footprints to follow and lessons to be learned.  Not unlike a suicide bomb, the carnage that ensues is not limited to the bomber.  In this case, it’s unintended consequences ravaged the lives of friends, a sister, a wife and 2 year old daughter and loving parents.  This successful husband, father, athlete and businessman was by all accounts dynamic, driven and compassionate.  As he struggled through the massive roller coaster ride of a brain whose chemistry would not cooperate, his ability to understand and master the less traveled and veiled road of those with bi polar disorder created doubt and confusion.

Shame, prejudice and lack of understanding around mental illness have all been passive accomplices in the rate of suicide in our country.  I have seen in my own industry, healthcare, a reticence to consider mental health parity as a cornerstone to a healthy society and adequate healthcare coverage.  Timothy’s law, recently passed in NY, was named after Timothy O’Clair, a Schenectday boy who completed suicide in 2001, seven weeks shy of his 13th birthday.

As a society, we are now discovering and understanding that these illnesses are created by imbalances in the brain chemistry and uneven release of serotonin, dopamine and epinephrine.  Life events, profound trauma, body chemistry, genetics can all conspire to create the demons.  A bi-polar individual may unwittingly receive massive doses of their own neurological chemicals during a “high“ propelling them to incredible accomplishments and great heights.  But like a plane that expends all of its fuel to reach its highest possible altitude, the engine runs dry and crashes to earth in a shattering collision that leaves the individual cut off from a world and deadened to any overtures of love, affection or compassion.  In many cases, the only logical alternative for this purgatory of nothingness is death.

Carson did not realize he was in such a common club of tortured souls:  Buzz Aldrin, actors Jim Carrey, Patty Duke, Cary Grant, Marilyn Monroe, Art Buchwald, Francis Ford Coppola, Mozart, Emily Dickenson, Daryl Strawberry, Agatha Christie, Walt Whitman, Abraham Lincoln, JC Penney – – all struggled with bi-polar disorder over the courses of their lives and all fought the noonday demons who would appear without any sound and tug at them trying to pull them back into that “dark place”.

The lack of knowledge, the fear of confiding something that society rejects as mental weakness or the trap of one’s own mania can conspire to drive a person further from help and in to stop-gaps efforts to blunt their symptoms through alcohol, drugs or inconsistent use of one’s prescribed medication.  Our ability to raise awareness enough to destigmatize this disease and to educate not only those afflicted but those effected, is paramount to stitching together a social safety net that catches everyone who falls.  If Carson were alive, he would have wanted to help create awareness and understanding around the disease of bi-polar disorder.  In the end, the noonday demons took him from us too soon and robbed the world of yet another person whose capacity to love and be loved could have healed our society just a little faster.

Out of the ashes of this terrible tragedy, a small phoenix emerged in the form of the Carson J Spencer Foundation.  Carson’s friends and family established the fund to support further bi-polar research.  2 million Americans or a little less than 1 percent of the population has diagnosed or undiagnosed bi-polar disorder.  This translates in a town of 20,000 people to over 180 adults and children in this community suffering from this disorder and five fold who are impacted by its potential radius of pain.

On Saturday, May 5th, 2007 Carson’s friends and family, Genesis Gallery and Digizip, Inc will hold a benefit in Port Chester, NY to support the Foundation.  The admission is $ 125 per person and will feature a live auction with world class vacations, art, jewelry and a few surprises.  The money raised by the Foundation will support the continued work in the fight against bi-polar disorder.  Tickets  can be purchased as well as donations received on http://www.carsonjspencer.org.  The foundation is a lifetime memorial to a beloved son, husband, friend and brother.  Eleanor Roosevelt once said, “we can either light a candle or curse the darkness.” The noonday demons dwell in the darkness and prey on uninformed and unsupported people.  Through our efforts and energies we can cast a light so bright that we can banish them from our town, our country and from the minds of those whose lack of defense makes them vulnerable.  For more information about the Foundation, or the event, please call New Canaan resident and Digizip CEO, Greg Schneider at 866-375-8324 (X 201).

DemoIndependican

Demoindependican

 

Politicians are like diapers.  They both need changing regularly and for the same reason.  ~ Author Unknown

 

It wasn’t until much later in life that I realized I had grown up in a house fashioned from most hardened political timber.  Its primary architect, my Father, was a highly intelligent self-made Midwesterner who believed hard work could overcome any obstacle.  He loved America, loathed its enemies and routinely exercised his right as a citizen to write letters to public officials and the “liberal” media, expressing his support for or disappointment in a particular piece of legislation or editorial. 

 

America in the late ’60s was ablaze with Vietnam, racial tension and civil disobedience.  Fear and anger permeated the ranks of the men in the gray flannel suits.  It was driven into our heads that government and its social programs were like weeds – if not pulled and pruned, they choked the growth of our economic garden.  Social Darwinism was an inconvenient fact.  America?  Love it or leave it!  North Dakota would be a nice, out-of-the-way place to shoot those who burn the American flag.  Personal responsibility and a strong work ethic were building blocks of society’s DNA.  This brand of conservative libertarianism drew heavily on the political views of Friedrich Hayek, who argued in The Road to Serfdom that any form of collectivism would eventually disintegrate into dictatorship and tyranny.  I did not know it at the time, but I was a Republican.

 

If you’re not Liberal when you’re 25, you have no heart.  If you’re not Conservative when you’re 35, you have no brain.  ~ Attributed to Winston Churchill

 

Upon attending college in the early ’80s, I took a political left turn.  I became aware of the underbelly of capitalism and the social ills that ran through the gutters of a free market society.  I was outraged at the institutional prejudice and fascism of the Reagan administration which was perpetuating poverty and protecting wealth.  I was convinced “the man” was to blame.  The fact that “the man” was paying my college tuition did not seem to hit my radar.  My predictable plunge into liberal politics was tolerated like a sort of ugly rash.  My flummoxed father couldn’t comprehend how a conservative liberal arts college that spawned Henry Kravis and Peter Drucker could have allowed enough intellectual rope for my brain to become ensnared by neoclassical welfare theory.  

 

I think my Mom understood the real cause of my ideological U turn: most of the good-looking girls in college were Democrats.  I had become a political chameleon, switching colors from red to blue faster than my lava lamp.  Half the time, I had no idea where my argument was going as I spun great swirls of meaningless mental cotton candy.  I brought home a succession of ’60s retro girlfriends who listened to The Grateful Dead, spiked trees and laid themselves across railroad tracks purported to be transporting nuclear waste. 

 

To my father, I might as well have defected to Havana.  What he did not know was that like The Manchurian Candidate, certain words or triggers would plunge me into a conservative flashback.  I had become a political schizophrenic.  I was over watered by “trickle down economics,” blinded by a “thousand points of light” and left wondering what I should do for my country instead of asking my country what it could do for me.

 

There are many men of principle in both parties in America, but there is no party of principle.  ~ Alexis de Tocqueville

 

After marrying and moving to San Francisco, I was aroused by the orthodox liberal theory of Northern Californians and their broad inclusive agenda.  I learned that we Southern Californians had been stealing their water, polluting their environment and ignoring the warning signs of the imminent social apocalypse for years.  I apologized and became very active in the community.  However, as I rubbed elbows with anarchists, nihilists and liberals that made Jimmy Carter look like Hermann Goering, I kept feeling the imposter.  I realized my innate values were incongruous with the views of those who secretly longed for a collectivist society.  I kept thinking of Hayek and, being a student of history, believed that a free market, capitalistic society was a more reliable path to economic prosperity, creating a greater opportunity to address civilization’s deep warts.

 

The missing piece was personal responsibility – from those who needed to help themselves and from those where much had been given, much was expected.  Business and individuals needed to fill the void created by a diminished role of government.  If people failed in delivering on this implied social contract, the gap between the “haves” and “have nots” would only increase, and political upheaval would accomplish what a well-intentioned but self-absorbed society could not.  I felt uncomfortable among mainstream Democrats and Republicans.  I considered myself an Independent, but the likes of Ross Perot and Ralph Nader did not convince me that I’d found my tribe.  I decided I was really a Demoindependican.

 

The Democrats seem to be basically nicer people, but they have demonstrated time and again that they have the management skills of celery.  They’re the kind of people who’d stop to help you change a flat, but would somehow manage to set your car on fire.  I would be reluctant to entrust them with a Cuisinart, let alone the economy.  The Republicans, on the other hand, would know how to fix your tire, but they wouldn’t bother to stop because they’d want to be on time for Ugly Pants Night at the country club. 

  ~ Dave Barry

 

When I moved to Europe, things only got more complicated.  Every dinner seemed to result in a political attack on America, and I found myself constantly defending my country.  However my brand of Demoindependicanism was confusing to the Europeans.  “Are you Republican or Democrat,” a German colleague finally asked.  “Neither,” I chipped.  Perhaps somewhere in one of these countries was a coalition party that I could relate to – the sugar eating, fiscal and personal responsibility, social safety net, “Yes, I admit to believing in a higher power” party.  I was sure the Germans had a word for this.  As I evaluated the various countries with their myriad forms of governments, I felt cheated being part of a system where no political party captured the essence of my particular brand of humanity.  

 

Conservative, n:  A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal who wishes to replace them with others.  ~ Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary

 

Returning to America was wonderful, but it did not ameliorate my conflict.  I still feel like a political hobo – riding each party’s railway for a while until either out of disgust, boredom or anger I move on, incapable of making a commitment to stay.  As a Demoindependican, I advocate fiscal conservatism, social activism predicated on service and open arms internationalism.  This would not be the party of libertarians or populists but the amalgamation of Tocqueville, Confucius, Adam Smith, Hayek and my senior pastor.  My biggest problem is finding a party and a presidential candidate that best embodies those views.

 

Any ideas?   

The Son Also Rises

The Son Also Rises

“Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me.  I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see”. John Newton, 1773

It’s spring and with it comes an avalanche of Easter lilies, bunnies, egg hunts and hidden baskets.  Somewhere off in the distance, floating like buds on a dogwood is the message of redemption.  Buried under a benign avalanche of modern day commercialism, resurrection stirs.  It may be as subtle as a crocus risking its bloom in an early spring chill or the daffodil bravely signaling that we have once again been reborn from the depths of winter.  It is a time of year that activates a latent emotion deep within us, the idea of dying and being born again.

The concepts of redemption and resurrection are essential threads in the fabric of human history and culture.  No matter a person’s ideological or theological orientation  – atheist, agnostic or fanatical acolyte, the idea that one might redeem themselves and “resurrect” to become a better human being, holds deep spiritual appeal.  As children we heard stories that focused on individuals losing and regaining their purpose in life.  For those marched to Sunday school each week, we were taught the religious allegory of The Prodigal Son.  As a parent, the story of unconditional love resonates more today.  In the parable, one of two sons leaves his family, demanding his inheritance early from his father, which the son then summarily goes out and wastes.  When the son returns home broken, the father does not reject him but rejoices while the brother who had remained faithful to the father becomes upset.  The father explains to the faithful son that he is rejoicing that the “lost” son has returned just as a shepherd rejoices when he finds a lost sheep.  Because of a father’s unconditional love, the son rises again.

In life, redeemed sinners have left indelible marks on the world. Bill Wilson was a physician that had lost his reputation, self respect and soul to alcoholism.  Through his efforts to help another alcoholic stay sober, he founded the most successful spiritual movement of the 20th century, Alcoholics Anonymous.  Bill Wilson was hardly perfect.   But through the simple act of sharing his humanity and serving others, he was reborn giving hope to an entire generation of broken souls. Bill W was resurrected.

Literature offers us innumerable examples of the rise, fall and resurrection of mankind.  Charles Dickens created our most beloved Christmas fable, a Christmas Carol, a ghost story of redemption detailing the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge.  In 1965, Alex Haley chronicled the story of Malcolm Little, a small-time crook and angry hoodlum who discovered Islam during his many years of incarceration.  His epiphany led to his reincarnation as Malcolm X, a fire brand minister for the American Nation of Islam that tirelessly labored to advance the moral and social future of the African American community.  Most recently, a popular South African movie, “Totsi” offers us the view of a ghetto tough in the shanties of Johannesburg that finds a baby while carjacking the vehicle from the child’s mother.  His encounter with the child transforms him and redeems him.

Every culture values redemption and resurrection. Buddhists believe one can improve their karma and achieve enlightenment with personal change and better moral conduct.  Hindus believe that Moksha, the release from the cycle of birth and rebirth (reincarnation), can only be achieved through the personal change and improvement – – through meditation, good works, devotion or knowledge. Many Christians worship the teachings of St Paul who prior to his miraculous conversion on the road to Tarsus, was Saul, the “crazed destroyer” of Christians.

As human beings, we are a complicated collision of opposites. We are fascinated by failure and those in our society who fall.  Even though we know at our core that everyone is imperfect, schedenfruede and insecurity compel us to watch the spectacular failings of people.  We are riveted by the gory public revelations of celebrities, politicians and every day people’s private imperfections.  In a bizarre way, we feel better about our own uneven lives.

Yet, within that same psyche that celebrates the fall, we also celebrate redemption. We are irresistibly drawn to tales of emancipation, salvation, and atonement.  The most happy among us seem to be able to re-embrace those that they, at one time, had banished. We find ourselves pulling for any person who overcomes self inflicted hardship. Whether it is a pro athlete who was once addicted to pain killers or a celebrity that succumbs to the artificial reality of stardom, we have short memories and a predisposition to forgive.  We love a comeback.  We have awards for most improved person and the comeback player of the year.  We love redemption.

What reassures me is this human capacity for compassion and forgiveness.  Vengeance and resentment are social and psychological cancers.  Actress Carrie Fischer once remarked that resentment was like drinking poison and then waiting for the other person to die”. Resentments are warm, familiar mud but they wash away in the fresh water of resurrection. We want to believe in salvation.  We pray for the various forms of resurrection – recovery from disease, release from heartache, redemption from corruption or resurrection from failure.    The one common attribute in anyone’s recovery and resurrection is the love of others – an individual or a community willing to unconditionally help a flawed person recover and find their way.  It is our quest to be part of a society that participates and celebrates in the return of any prodigal “son”.

As my children search for Easter eggs and baskets, I search for something more elusive, a golden egg hidden deep in the tangled undergrowth of my soul.  I am reminded on Easter of the value of resurrection.  In my church, I will faithfully hear the story of the son of God who rose from the dead.  As I ponder the themes of death and resurrection, I try to translate this to my children so they can practically understand that anyone can be reborn. Progress, not perfection is our human quest. The ability for anyone to recover depends on the love of another. Forgiveness and the instinct to celebrate when another lost sheep rejoins the fold, is an essential ingredient of our humanity.

I guess in the end, the “golden egg” I seek is grace – the ability to give it and receive it.

Sid Finch Meets Otis Brain

april fools

Sid Finch Meets Otis Brain

In.the spring of 1985, George Plimpton broke the story of a gangly, French Horn playing, rookie Mets pitcher named Sid Finch.  Finch, a student of the Dalai Lama had mastered Tantric principles of body control and had perfected the fastest pitch ever recorded in baseball, a staggering 150mph. The New Age phenom attended Mets spring training on the condition no contract was signed, no pictures were taken of him and that he would be left alone to meditate when he was not pitching.  It was as if this modern day Ichabod Crane had emerged from the enchanted woods of New York’s Sleepy Hollow.  The enigmatic Finch captivated America and for a brief moment, everyone was certain that the game had changed forever.  Finch hysteria started to sweep across Long Island and the five boroughs.  Not unlike Orson Welles on October 30, 1938, George Plimpton sparked a brushfire that was fanned by every Met fan across the Northeast.  There was only one problem.  Most of us failed to notice the byline of George Plimpton’s Sports Illustrated article, “The Curious Case of Sid Finch”. It was dated April 1st.  We had been had.

History has provided us some marvelous hoaxes and jokes.  Each generation has its own pantheon of merry pranksters and April fools.   The MTV generation has Ashton Kutcher, whose show “Punk’d” has introduced a new term into our lexicon : to “punk” or to pull an elaborate prank on another person. This is hardly new.  In the 60’s, Alan Funt masterfully planted hidden cameras and recorded ordinary people reacting to extraordinary situations with hilarious and unexpected results.

My father grew up in the industry of the Mad Men – Madison Avenue advertising where two distinct hemispheres of workers applied their talents.  There were left brain account management types and there were the right brain creative people – practical jokers, savants, malcontents and others in desperate need of therapy.  My father’s firm employed copy writers, art directors and “creatives” that manufactured great ideas and chaos.  Perhaps, no one art director personified this disruptive creative genius more than Bob E.

Bob was the king of practical jokes.  On certain nights, I would hear my father laughing to tears as he would recount a Bob E joke that had been pulled at the office.  One of Bob’s most famous pranks came at the expense of a new creative director, Mr Smith, whose rigid demeanor and poor sense of aesthetics had threatened to pollute the dysfunctionally successful creative department in LA.

The first phone call came to the creative director one morning.  A man with a distinctly Southern accent and poor grammar called Smith on his direct office line. ” Is this Mr. Smith?”

“Yes, who is this?”

“Sir, this is Otis Brain from MSU.  Your name was given to me by a classmate of mine, Levon Delacroix.  We have been in our marketing course here in Tucker and have been evaluating Advertising firms and making connections so we might be able to get active employment upon graduation”.

” I am not sure how you got my number but when you get out of Michigan State you can send us your portfolio and resume, but please send it to Human Resources.”

( Laughter ) “We’re not in university, Mr Smith.  Me and Levon are in the Maximum Security Unity here in Tucker but I am up for parole next month.  Levon’s in for manslaughter but he is up for parole in a year (“weren’t my fault” is yelled in background)

” Please don’t call me again” Mr. Smith barks and hangs up.

A letter arrived the following week addressed to Smith in child-like handwriting from an Arkansas penal institute.  It was from Otis Brain. “Dear Sir, enclosed is my resume and art work done while incarcerated.  I look forward to meeting with you directly upon my release from this correctional institution, yours faithfully, Otis Brain“.  The creative director contacted HR who encouraged him to provide her the letter and direct any calls to her office.  For the next few weeks, Mr. Smith continued to receive phone calls with the introduction, “This call is coming from a federal penitentiary, will you accept

charges ?” Visibly shaken, he refused the calls every time.  The letters keep arriving including one that included a letter of recommendation from a Warden Charles Culpepper.  In the letter, Smith learned that Otis Brain has been paroled.

One afternoon, the creative director’s phone rang. “ Mr Smith , this is Otis Brain!  I am here in Los Angeles and I have my portfolio.  Sir, I can be in your office in two minutes. I’m just across the street”. Smith was irate but also a bit scared. “Mr Brain, we have no jobs right now.  Why not consider a position at BBD&O?”. Otis Brain laughed, “ I don’t want no railroad job, Mr. Smith.  Say, can I stay with you at your house. I don’t have a place to sleep tonight.”

Smith hung up again.  He was having trouble focusing and snapping at everyone.  Bob E and his cronies smelled blood in the water.  Smith was under pressure to successfully defend a large account that was out for review.  His team was working round the clock.  One evening, his assistant came into his team meeting with a perplexed look on her face. She leaned in and whispered, “It’s the uh, LA Police department…They need to speak with you urgently.” Smith picked up the phone and pressed the blinking phone line button. ” Yes ? This is Mr Smith.”  In another office, Bob E changed his voice and spoke decisively into the phone, “Yes, Mr Smith, this is Sgt, Bonner.  We have a man down here that we arrested for vagrancy.  His name is Otis Brain and he says he is your brother”…At this point, Smith unraveled and started  screaming into the phone, “He is not my brother for God’s sake, will no one listen to me, he’s not my brother!”  The mental strain proved too much.  He slammed the phone down and left the office.  Despite his best attempts to find and restrain Otis Brain, Smith was unsuccessful.  He left the firm six months later.

At my father’s 50th wedding anniversary, Bob E sent this congratulatory note: “I also want to confess that Bill E and I did send the new secretary , Ms Kucaberger, outside with a memo only she received regarding the yearly fire drill at 3:oo that day. Second: it is true that Bill E and I did steal Dick P’s shoes before an important meeting. Yes, I did stand on the office desk next to Bob H’s( the region CEO’s ) office and moan into the air conditioner vent: ‘help me…someone help me’ until Bob H ran out of his office to see what was going on.”

To Bob E, every day was April 1st and the world is a little richer for it.