June 14, 2024

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Aaron Parks: Finding Balance: Learning to Live With Bipolar Disorder: Video, Photos

To give a bit of context to people who might come across this essay from somewhere other than my social media: I’m a pianist and composer who was recently on what was meant to be a month-long European tour with my band, Little Big. After two weeks, however, I canceled the remainder of the dates. I made a post about that decision, if you haven’t already. What follows is a further explanation of why I had to make that call.

Hey folks,

After taking some time to recover and gather my words, I have some things that I’d like to share. My post on November 12th was a bit vague, so this time I’ll be more concrete. The reason I couldn’t continue the recent tour was because of a mental health emergency. More specifically, I was experiencing a manic episode as a result of bipolar disorder, and it was starting to create a fair bit of confusion and chaos for those around me, and for myself.

To give you some background: 14 years ago, after an extremely dramatic series of events in June 2008, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This illness has manifested in a variety of ways for me over the years, but before I go into any detail, I feel it’s important for me to actually just name it.

For many years, I saw this diagnosis as a shameful secret. A secret that I kept from others and, to a large degree, from myself — something to be hushed up, forgotten about, suppressed. I think a large part of why I felt this way had to do with how this disorder has been portrayed and spoken of in our culture. Even as talking about mental health has become more normalized in recent years, the word bipolar still seems to have a certain stigma. It’s tossed around almost like a slur: “That person is acting totally bipolar.” To be fair, some of the most spectacular and ugly extremes of the disorder are, by their very nature, the parts that garner the most attention. So I get it. But still.

Another reason for my inability to accept it was self-judgment. There was a part of me that felt as though accepting the diagnosis of having bipolar would be admitting there was something fundamentally wrong with me, that I might be irreparably broken and perhaps unlovable.

So I tried my best to act as if I didn’t have it. For a while it seemed like that was working for me. I felt as if I had an acceptable level of stability, and neither my doctor nor I thought there was a need for regular medication. We had tried a few drug options for maintenance, but they tended to make me feel shielded from my own life, almost as if there was a sheet of plexiglass between me and my experience of the world. And the pattern seemed to be that it was only in periods of intense personal drama (and/or unbalanced and reckless use of certain substances) that mania would rear its head, and I would eventually come down from those states either naturally or with the help of a course of targeted pharmaceuticals. Aside from these rare moments, I was mostly “fine.” There were long periods of low-grade depression, but I was decently functional in those states, and I thought, hey, who isn’t a bit depressed living in the modern world?

In the summer of 2021, I had a major episode that changed all of that. My mania accelerated to a point where I was staying up all night trying to decipher the mysteries of the universe, and on one hot July morning I embarked on what I can only describe as a woefully unprepared-for vision quest along the banks of — and ultimately into — the Hudson River. I was swimming toward Bannerman Island with some cosmic mission in mind when a group of kayakers saw me, paddled over, and urged me to return to shore. I’m grateful for them; who knows how the story might have gone otherwise. When I returned home, my family was so concerned that they suggested I go to the hospital. I agreed and ended up spending a week in a psychiatric unit, which was my first experience of anything like that.

The way bipolar disorder often works is that, eventually, the pendulum swings back in the opposite direction. And the come-down from this particular high was crushing. I spent the majority of late 2021 and early 2022 in the grips of one of the most paralyzing and dispiriting depressions I’ve ever known.

As I gradually emerged from that depression, thanks to support from my family and close friends — and with the assistance of prescribed medications — I made a resolution to do everything in my power to find stability, to find a way to live with this diagnosis rather than fight against it or deny it. For my own sake, and for the sake of my family. It wasn’t just me anymore. I had a partner and a young child and my laissez-faire approach to mental health wasn’t going to cut it anymore; I had to take responsibility.

And I did just that. My doctor and I found the meds that worked for me. I started to exercise more often, made changes to my diet, steered clear of substances that had seemed to be triggers, and adopted a more regular mindfulness practice. It was making a difference. I was feeling mentally clear and balanced, had started to shed some of the pandemic weight I’d put on, and music was beginning to flow again more naturally after a long fallow period. I was doing alright.

Which is why the manic episode on my most recent tour was so surprising. I was trying to do everything correctly. I was eating healthy, working out, taking my medication, etc. So what was I missing?

The answer was as simple as it was elusive: sleep.

For folks living with this particular disorder, proper sleep is crucial. A lack of sleep can easily trigger a breakthrough manic episode. While I’d been told this before, it’s clear that I didn’t fully understand its importance. Even with everything else I was doing to take care of myself, the lack of sufficient time to properly rest during the tour started to have a detrimental effect. Gradually at first and then quite rapidly, my mood shot up into the stratosphere and everything started to get pretty abstract.

I’d like to take a few moments here to speak about my experience of the two polarities that the word “bipolar” refers to. It’s worth noting that this disorder was formerly known as “manic-depression.” Sometimes that can feel like a more fitting name.

Depression is a condition not to be confused with sadness or melancholy. During a particularly deep depressive spell, I often feel like I don’t have access to any emotion at all. I might find myself wishing for sadness, just to be able to feel something — anything. There’s also a profound lack of physical energy and a mental lethargy that can make even simple tasks feel nearly impossible. While depression is often misunderstood, many folks have at least a general sense of what it is, and possibly even some firsthand experience.

Mania, on the other hand, seems to be a rarer and less-understood occurrence. It’s a strange, seductive creature. A double-headed snake, perhaps. Maybe that snake has wings; possibly it’s also on fire. Speaking from my personal experience, manic states can feel expansive and beautiful, full of free-flowing creativity, ecstatic emotion, physical vitality, and mystic vision. They can also be wildly delusional, cognitively overwhelming, emotionally dysregulating, and tremendously bewildering and hurtful to those around me. It’s an electrifying state of being and a destabilizing one all at once.

Let’s get back to the story of the Europe tour. By the time we reached what ended up being our final two shows, all of the above were in full effect. My mind was working in overdrive, I was overflowing with ideas and emotions, and my behavior was becoming increasingly unpredictable and indecipherable to my bandmates and my family back home. People were noticing, and voicing their concerns.

Fortunately, I was able to listen. We made the decision to cancel the rest of the tour and return home, as I was in no state to safely continue. On the airplane on the way back, I posted somewhat cryptically about this cancellation. Unfortunately, I didn’t tell my management that I was going to make that post and they hadn’t yet had a chance to go through the proper channels to talk to the promoters about the situation. This created a great deal of confusion and anger, which makes sense. If any of the folks from those venues happen to read this: I’m sorry about that. I wasn’t in my right mind.

So, I came home. I spent restorative time with my family. I took meds that helped me sleep — a lot. Day by day, I came down. It’s been an interesting re-entry back to reality. Something was different this time. I was no longer in denial, and therefore was no longer trying to suppress or forget the memories of my manic state. My mindfulness practice was proving helpful in that I was better able to observe thoughts without becoming attached to them. I found myself separating insight from delusion, un-literalizing metaphors, integrating from the experience and keeping what was useful while letting go of what didn’t serve.

Which brings me to the present. Now, I find I have a number of questions. Some of these questions are about what this means for my life and career. It’s clear that I need to make some changes. Touring without proper sleep is no longer an option for me. I’m going to have to be more selective and mindful about the work I pursue, and more attentive to details of travel and itinerary.

Aaron Parks Crafts a New Context

This line of inquiry gives rise to a larger conversation we might have about unhealthy practices and norms within the music industry as a whole. The conditions of the road these days are often quite rough and can feel unsustainable, and not only for neurodivergent people like me. I’m noticing more and more artists canceling shows and tours due to burnout, anxiety, and other reasons.

I also have questions about societal stigma and why it is that we treat specific types of mental illness like this as such boogiemen. A number of people who care about me have tried to dissuade me from speaking openly about my diagnosis because of their fear about the damage it might do to my reputation. I would count myself among those fearful people until recently.

I recognize this disclosure may make some folks think twice about working with me, either because of concerns about unreliability or perhaps just from a desire to keep their distance from what they might see as potential unnecessary drama. I’d understand these concerns. For what it’s worth, my intentions are to do everything possible to make sure that what happened on my recent tour never happens again, and I’m now better equipped with strategies and resources to ensure that. From a more optimistic point of view, it’s also conceivable that people will be understanding and supportive; so many have been already, and I’m grateful for that. Realistically, it’ll probably be a bit of both. Whatever the case, so be it. I accept. I’ve been living in denial and fear for long enough, and those old clothes don’t fit anymore.

One last thing, on terminology and identity: I’ve come to consider myself not as someone who “is bipolar,” nor as someone who “suffers from bipolar,” but rather as “a person who lives with bipolar disorder.” I know, it’s just words. But words matter, it turns out. This reframing has been helpful and empowering to me; maybe it could be helpful and empowering for others. I’m a person living with bipolar disorder. And I’m learning how to do that in a more conscious and balanced way.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. It’s taken courage to write these words, and it’s meaningful for me to share them.

Love, Aaron Parks

Aaron Parks: Finding the Way to Little Big article @ All About Jazz

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