Post-Prison Letter (unsent)

I’m free.  Hi.  Hi there.  I’m free.
I spent this last year in prison. If you don’t know, I am a felon. I was caught robbing banks. And now that I’m out I want to explain.

Hell. I’ve been telling this story all year to bad men and unlucky men. Now I want to tell my friends.

I have bipolar disorder. In the summer of 2009 I had an episode, triggered by a period of binge drinking. Technically, it was an acute psychotic mania, followed by an unhappier thing called a “mixed-episode”. The character of mania, for me, is all epiphanic insight, raging grandiosity, and impetuous action. The paranoiac and paralyzing aspects which many people experience were muted until the end of my episode.

My thinking during that summer, delusional mostly, fixated around economics. I came to believe that I had some dreadfully important insight into the causes of poverty. For several months it seemed I had access daily to a vision of such granular clarity and truth, that it only could change the world. Justice for all would spring wholly formed from out a hole in my head.

But that wasn’t why I robbed those banks. Delusional as I was, I never thought that stealing from Premier Bank would cure the world. Only that it could save my company, and put me on the road to riches, and help needy children, and be a lark. I had been working that year as a fundraiser to advance education in the developing world through technology, in which effort I felt that I was failing. I had two employees who weren’t much use, and payroll was exceeding revenues. Fundraising is hard, so I said screw fundraising. Robbing banks is faster and more fun. And why not?

Like some drunken Robin Hood I would steal from the bad, bad government and give to good impoverished children. I was psychotically deluded, in thrall of a maniacally grandiose self-image. I was Christ in the temple of money-changers. I was invincible. I was godam Jesse James.

It’s true that I gave a portion of the money to charity. Not as much as half; easy money spends like water. But a portion. Between the money I had raised and the money I had stolen, I gave $10,000 to buy laptops for schools. I have no illusions, now, that this was a good or noble thing, but it does make me unique among the bank robbers I met this year.

These things–the mania, the giving away money–didn’t buy me any points in prison. But they did get me a nice report from a forensic psychologist, and then a very, very nice decision from a judge. I got lucky. Federal District Court Judge Robert Blackburn was the most sympathetic person I could possibly have drawn. He reduced my sentence, which would otherwise have been 4 to 5 years, down to just a single year. God, was I overjoyed when he gave me his sentence. And how. But still, a year in the feds is a bad year.

The leniency I received earned me even fewer points in prison. Short-timers are distrusted by default. 5K13 reductions for snitching on one’s co-conspirators are common, and commonly earn violent reprisals; 5K12 reductions for mental health are unheard of, and commonly believed to be mythical. I had to tell my story and show my paperwork every place I went.

Federal prison is nothing nice. It’s miserable and boring and violent and racist and misogynistic. It’s a warehouse where bad men are locked away with good, and they all come out worse. I got through it with a minimum of trouble. I have no stories worth telling. I have nothing to show for it but anger and shame and one year less to live.

So. Now I’m free from prison, but not free from my disease. It’s so strange to take on this identity. Mentally ill. My brother is mentally ill. I’m not like him. No. Except, sometimes I am. Sometimes I’m worse. I’ve had two major episodes now, and many more hypomanic ones. They were all extremely destructive. To my relationships, and to the life I had tenuously constructed. I had to leave New York. I had to leave Portland. I had to leave Denver. I went to jail. Twice.

As destructive as the episodes are, they are also astonishing, fascinating, profound, and fun. I was invincible. Mania is the highest high I can imagine, and it lasts for weeks with no comedown, no doubts, no limitations, and no need to sleep. I believe that it brought me into contact with the limits of my personality—creative, spiritual, intellectual, social, sexual—in a way I would never have known. Going mad is certainly the strangest and most interesting thing that has ever happened to me.

But most of all, mania is just destructive. By the time I decided to repeat my robbery for the second and last time, the episode had changed into something awful. A “mixed-episode” combines the frenetic mentality of mania with depressed ideation. I was desperate for escape. I considered the military. I considered suicide. And I decided that prison would be no bad thing. I was caught right outside the bank, which I had chosen at random, by a uniformed police officer who happened to be sitting in the bank lobby, just out of sight.

Going to prison is sadly unsurprising for a person like me. Many manic-depressives spend half their lives in institutions. Mental hospitals, prisons, and shelters. Twenty percent commit suicide successfully. Many more die alcohol or drug related deaths. Drinking is an entwined problem that half, fully 50%, of people with bipolar get themselves into. It starts as self-medication. It makes the lows fuzzier and the highs more beautifully high. And it has developed, in my case, into its own, distinct illness. Two illnesses then, with an ugly synergy, like pouring Bacardi on smoldering embers. Alcohol reduces the effectiveness of my mood-stabilizing medicine. And getting drunk every day, the way I was, is a sure way to push myself into mania again.

But enough. I’m rambling off-topic. Mostly I just want my friends and family to know that I’m back in the world and I intend to stay free. I intend to be moderate in all things. I have a much better understanding of my illness and intend to do everything I can to keep it in remission, to keep it, as far as possible, from progressing any further.

Thanks to everyone who sent me letters, or books, or kind thoughts. I look forward to talking with you again soon.

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