‘Nothing makes sense’ in times of war

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, March 27, 2001

Nothing makes sense.

Tuesday, March 27, 2001

Nothing makes sense.

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– T.J. Frank

Dr. Maxfield was a psychiatrist I saw in Riverside. He was a man of few words and had a flat top. A flat top was a common hair look back in the 1950s. "Give me the usual" is all I would have to say then when I sat down in Walt’s barber shop. By the time Walt moved his shop to the former Bakko Barber Shop, next to Smith’s Royal bar, the flat tops were pretty much history – but not for Dr. Maxfield and this was 1969 or 1970.

My sister had recommended that I go see someone after being hospitalized in the Minneapolis VA Hospital psych ward, my temporary residence after I returned home from Vietnam.

I would continue to see Dr. Maxfield for three to four years. Along the way he prescribed lithium and diagnosed me as a manic depressive. He prescribed this just in time. I don’t think I could have lived through another cycle. I had faced three of them before he made his diagnosis. The manic phase had been a kick but the "forever valley of depression" that followed wore on me.

I didn’t make much sense to others when I was in my manic phase, but in my own mind was filled with ideas that "few others" realized. Thoughts I couldn’t share with many others or they would have thought I was crazy. My mind ran wild.

I would return to a normal phase after a brief hospitalization in Brentwood, the VA Hospital in Los Angeles, where I listened in on the most interesting, profound conversations of my life, but did they make sense.

After being discharged from my stay there, I would "level off" for a while and then the long-term depression would kick in and my mind would shut down. I almost think it needed three months rest from the amount of activity it dispensed during the manic phase.

I would come back to Minnesota and climb in bed until it lifted and contemplate suicide.

Once it lifted, it was back to Riverside to renew my therapeutic relationship with Dr. Maxfield.

On my way to wellness he said there was a book I should consider. It was "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."

I tried to read it then and knew it had something important to say but I wasn’t equipped to understand it.

Now 34 years later, I’m back in the thick of it, not the "craziness," at least I don’t think so – I’m back into "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" and I’m going slow, writing things down as I "travel with them."

In the book the narrator leaves Minnesota on his motorcycle with his son and another couple to find Phaedrus who is the part of himself that tried to bring together the "classical thinker and the romantic feeler." The hero’s thesis is that never the two shall meet. I think this is part of what the book is about.

Any attempt to bring them together is met by resistance and the resistance of others go after that person, in this case Phaedrus and this is what drives Phaedrus crazy "they" won’t listen, which leads to his own downfall.

Please excuse me for attempting to explain the book.

I am grateful to my sister for initiating what led to my discovery of Dr. Maxfield which led to my still being here today and for Dr. Maxfield leading me to lithium as well as "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance."

I am grateful too for the late Walt Hansel, the barber, who was my first "therapist" growing up. That’s what barber’s were those 20 minutes every other week.

And of course this still applies to barbers and hair stylists today.

I took lithium for 10 years and then stopped and have been able to be relatively "normal" since.

My sister later developed manic-depression. Her community refused to consider this as a diagnosis so I invited her to Riverside. Here she was able to meet with Dr. Maxfield. He then prescribed lithium and this prolonged her life.

Mental illness was in our genes and I have a hunch mental illness genes lie dormant in everybody’s genes. My concern is that it really isn’t mental illness. It certainly has something to do with our minds but why do we have to make stigmatize it. Why do we have to label everything. We do we have to base everything on a "clinical model?"

I remember Phil Smith, a Unitarian Minister in Riverside saying that what we call "mental illness" might be revealed as "enlightenment" in some Eastern cultures.

In the Indian culture it might be perceived in better light – at least what we now call "bipolar."

An old Papazan in Vietnam used to tell us, "You beaucoup dien caidau" – you much crazy.

We were.

Nothing made sense.


Bob Vilt’s column appears Tuesdays. Call him at 434-2236 or e-mail him at newsroom@austindailyherald.com.