Andrew Hamm: the Bipolar Express

Ruminations on theatre, music, and just about anything else that crosses my bipolar brain.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Lithium: It's Not Just for Teenagers Any More

There’s no clever way to come up with an intro here, so I’m just going to begin. I’ve been diagnosed with bipolar disorder and have begun medical treatment for it. Specifically, my doctor believes I’m bipolar-II. II is less severe than I in that the high state manifests as hypomania rather than the more severe mania, but the depressive state is largely the same.

Here’s a link to WebMD's page on bipolar disorder for anyone who’s interested in further reading. I plan to add links about bipolar disorder to this page soon.

I spent the first three months of the year in the highest manic state of my life and have since crashed into the lowest depression I have ever experienced. In the middle of some discussions with Karen last month, she suggested that I might be bipolar. I didn't think much of it at the time, but started to do some research the next week and found myself answering a vehement "yes" to almost every question on the diagnostic surveys. I started seeing a counselor who soon concurred that I should see a psychiatrist for an evaluation. It took two weeks to get in to see Dr. Sajid, and about 15 minutes for him to make a diagnosis.

There's no blood test or CT scan for bipolar disorder (though I am having blood work done to check other chemical levels). There's no "if it turns blue you're bipolar." The way it works is we try some medication, keep talking to medical practitioners, refine the doses, and see how it feels. I'm taking lithium right now (just started yesterday); it's the most commonly-prescribed medicine for my indications. It will be several days before I begin to feel any of its effects, and weeks before enough has built up in my system for a real gauge. Also, potential side-effects are myriad, and are worsened by too much caffeine intake (down to one cup of coffee per day) and use of anti-inflammatories, which means I have to hope aspirin will soothe my aching joints.

This comes in the middle (or as the result) of a host of massive personal questions and issues that may or may not have much of their foundations in a hypomanic or depressive phase of bipolar. In simple terms, I'm kind of a mess right now, and Karen and I could really use your kind thoughts and prayers. I'm not a lot of fun to be around right now.

I've posted this information on my blog first of all so my friends will know what's going on and second of all because part of the purpose of my blog is to make my artistic process transparent. Certainly a mood disorder like bipolar can't help but be a factor in your artistic process. The biggest question I have, and one no one can really answer for me is this: How much of my artistic identity is tied in with a mood disorder? I'm not afraid of lithium taking away my creativity per se, but the fact remains that the best work I've done, particularly recently, has definitely been heavily influenced by the boundless energy and running mind of an extended hypomanic episode. Intellectually, I believe this so-called "disorder" is in reality nothing of the kind; my bipolar design is part of what makes me Andrew and an artist. That, of course, doesn't make it any easier to figure out how to live with, but I'm not going to be ashamed of it or try to conceal it.

So where does that leave me? Well, I kind of have to put a lot of my personal questions and problems on the back burner while I figure out how much of them is purely a chemical imbalance in my brain. That's going to take a while. So forgive me if you're not getting the Andrew you saw in the catalog. In many ways, I'm re-learning how to be, and I'm doing it on the fly in the midst of a handful of personal crises that may or may not be the results of a disorder in the first place.

I'm not posting about this to get sympathy or pity or for anyone to feel like they have to treat me differently. But I want my friends to understand what's going on, and I want to take some steps toward advocacy for people (artists in particular) with mood disorders and mental illnesses.





  • At 5/28/2008 12:47 PM , Anonymous Phil Hamm said...

    Thanks for sharing.

    FWIW, Aspirin acts as an anti-inflamatory as well. When I had adverse reactions to large doses of Ibuprofin with my tendonitis, my doctor told me to take Aspirin instead, as it has a similar, though not as pronounced, anti-inflamatory healing quality. It really is the wonder-drug. Be sure to get the Enteric Coated Aspirin which is easier on your stomach.

  • At 5/28/2008 11:03 PM , Blogger Frank Creasy said...

    "...not...the Andrew you saw in the catalog." Each of us does, indeed, play "many parts", my friend, and the main one we attempt to play - day in, day out - is the role of the person you want people to perceive you to be.

    Despite the numerous theatrical productions I performed in at Longwood College, I was in fact a sociology major. Without going into all the details, my life experiences have also included personal involvements with people with mental illnesses including paranoid schizophrenia and severe clinical depression. I personally suffered a while from clinical depression when my marriage ended, so I know how the effects are both physiological and mental, and it's impossible to tell where the "catalog" version of one's self begins and the disorder ends.

    Well meaning advice from friends and family usually is both impotent and unwanted when one is dealing with such a health issue. However, I will offer this one piece of advice as a friend: Do not make any major life decisions until you feel well grounded. Beyond that, advice from me or from others who do not have medical degrees associated with our names is basically useless to you now, and for that matter should probably be avoided. However, a friendly ear willing to listen, without judging or analyzing, might be of benefit for the near future. For what it's worth, I do have two available for your use. Call on them as needed.

    Your artistic identity and creativity cannot be separated from all the parts that identify who you are. The one benefit of living a life that stretches beyond one's youth is gathering and learning from experiences both pleasant and unpleasant. Certainly, my experiences in dealing with loved ones with mental illness has informed my acting, and most recently was brought directly into play in The Spanish Tragedy.

    It's no mistake that Shakespeare uses a meddling fool such as Polonius to offer up Hamlet's most sage advice. If, indeed, we are true to ourselves, then it is true we cannot be false to anyone. Loving ourselves and embracing all our virtues and foibles increases our self awareness, our appreciation of the world and others around us, and enhances our imagination and creativity. I don't know what the next several months will bring for you my friend, but of course I'll be there for at least some of it directly as we prepare for As You Like It at Agecroft. I will keep you in my thoughts and prayers when not in your company, and am at your service as needed otherwise.

    By the way - when we get catalogs at our house, we throw them away. They're only pretty images misrepresenting our lives, and not terribly useful but for recycling.

  • At 5/29/2008 2:43 PM , Blogger Dave T said...

    As difficult as it must seem to you right now (and as empty as these words might sound), you are doing a great and brave thing to confront your situation head-on and in such an open and honest manner. The father of one of my best friends was bipolar, largely untreated, and had tumultuous and destructive relationships with most everyone around him his entire life as a result, leading to a second generation of damaged psyches.

    As Frank says, any layperson’s insight is probably not worth a whole lot in this realm. But I will offer one opinion based on what I’ve seen: during his manic episodes, my friend’s father would write reams and reams worth of rants, opinions, stories and fantasies. Excerpts that I’ve read are pretty good; he seems like he was a smart and creative man. But without control over his condition, he was never able to utilize that unseen ability.

    It’s obvious you have talent, Andrew, but so do hundreds of thousands of others. I believe success comes from the judicious application and focus of talent (and of course from a good deal of luck). I believe there are many more talented people who are derailed and distracted by a disorder they don’t understand or can’t control than are somehow assisted by one. I think confronting and understanding whatever is going on in your head can only help you, artistically as well as personally. But that’s just my opinion.

    Mostly, I wish you and your wife peace, love and strength in this difficult journey.

  • At 5/29/2008 5:22 PM , Blogger Andrew Hamm said...

    Thanks, Dave. Essentially what I'm doing is diving in, acknowledging what's going on, and sharing the experience. I have a feeling that this blog is going to morph into the experiences of an artist who is bipolar more than anything else. I probably need a new title.

    The point is, this is me. I'm not going to duck it, hide it, or make excuses for it. And my emotional life must remain the foundation of my work as an artist.

    As You Like It 2: Like Harder (as Adam Mincks is calling it) starts rehearsal on Monday. I can't wait.

  • At 5/30/2008 10:58 AM , Anonymous Phil Hamm said...

    Frank wrote:

    Your artistic identity and creativity cannot be separated from all the parts that identify who you are.

    One of my all time favorite artists is Maria McKee, she is one of the most brilliant songwriters I've ever experienced. I believe she has dissociative identity disorder (aka multiple personality disorder). Her song "Absolutely Barking Stars" is a stark and explicit account of her condition, written in the tumultuous undtreated throes of it. Her condition was undagnosed and untreated until well into her 30s.

    I remember seeing her in concert once, between the records "Life is Sweet" and "High Dive". During the show she mentioned how wonderful her life has been ever since she had gotten treatment for her condition. Her artistic output has been more prolific and, as if it's even possible, actually higher quality, ever since.

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