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An Interview with Alistair McHarg on his Memoir of Bipolar Mania "Invisible Driving"

David Van Nuys, Ph.D. Updated: Apr 14th 2011

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Alistair McHargMr. McHarg is the author of the 2007 memoir of life with Bipolar Disorder, "Invisible Driving". Started as notes designed to record the experience of his third major manic episode, the book became a means of communicating the manic experience to people who otherwise could not relate. McHarg's family is predisposed to bipolar disorder with both his father and two half brothers sharing the diagnosis. The three major manic episodes of his life (interspersed with more low level hypomanias and depressions) have followed in the wake of severe stressors. In his twenties, an episode occurred in response to his being arrested and jailed on drug related charges. Sixteen years later, a second major episode occurred in response to the sudden and unexpected event of his wife divorcing him. The third episode occurred in the wake of being laid off from his work. The title of the book "Invisible Driving" comes from a practice he invented while manic this third time in which he dangerously drove his car bent over onto the passenger seat so as to make it appear to other drivers that no one was behind the wheel. While acknowledging the strong biological underpinnings of mania, McHarg is keen to also communicate his sense that, at least in his case, his manias have represented a coping strategy of denial and flight; a way of psychologically escaping from stress which feels marvelous and which is quite irresistable during its ascent.

David Van Nuys: Welcome to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by, covering topics in mental health, wellness, and psychotherapy. My name is Dr. David Van Nuys. I'm a clinical psychologist and your host.

On today's show, we'll be talking with author Alistair McHarg, who has written a moving memoir about his struggles with bipolar disorder and mania in particular. Alistair McHarg spent his early years in Edinburgh and Amsterdam, and then moving to Philadelphia with his father Ian and mother Pauline at age six. He attended Germantown Friends School, Haverford College, and the University of Louisville. The prestige of an M.A. in creative writing enabled McHarg to secure employment with one of Philadelphia's least-reputable cab companies - his words, not mine - where he pulled 12-hour shifts, 6 days a week for a year. Other forays into dead-end employment have included deck hand on a Norwegian tramp freighter, forest-fire fighter in Alaska, and guide at a Canadian wilderness and survival camp.

Alistair's been arranging words for a living since 1983. He's the author of a memoir of manic depression entitled Invisible Driving, as well as two novels, Moonlit Tours and Washed Up. You'll find links to his blog, "America's Favorite Manic-Depressive," and his website in our show notes. Now here's the interview.

Alistair McHarg, welcome to Wise Counsel.

Alistair McHarg: Well, thank you, David. It's a pleasure to be here.

David: I see that you live in Sandown, New Hampshire. I taught as an exchange professor for two years at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and made many good friends there. Where is Sandown in relation to Durham?

Alistair McHarg: Well, Sandown is not even a wide spot on the road. It's a narrow spot on the road. It's very close to the Massachusetts state line and close to the shore, so Durham would be northwest of us.

David: Okay, well, sounds like you're well-located. You can trip down to Boston very easily and also enjoy wonderful New Hampshire. And I gather you're having some stormy weather there right now.

Alistair McHarg: David, I am looking out the window right now at two feet of snow, and it's snowing more, so I'm a Pennsylvania boy - I'm just getting used to this New Hampshire weather. This is a honest-to-goodness winter.

David: And I'm looking out the window here, and I'm looking at a blue sky, and the sun is shining here in northern California, and it's starting to feel almost like spring on certain days.

Alistair McHarg: You just know you're killing me.

David: Well, you know, I miss the kind of weather that you're talking about. I have a fond place in my heart for everything New Hampshire, but that's not really who you're on the show today. You've written what you describe as a bipolar memoir titled Invisible Driving. What was your goal in writing this book?

Alistair McHarg: Well, it's funny how goals shift with projects. I had been a professional writer for almost 20 years when I started the book, but my goal at the beginning was not necessarily to write a book at all. I had just survived the worst of my three major manic episodes, and because the details of it were so wildly improbable and bizarre and horrific, I just wanted to jot down as much as I could remember just so I would have an actual record, a trustworthy record, of what had happened. And I wanted to do it quickly before it receded into memory and became unreliable. So that's really all I began to doing, just taking notes and documenting what had happened.

David: Well, it's a good thing that you did. That's something I'll want to explore with you a little bit more as we move along here because it is an incredibly interesting story that you have to tell. Let's get started with genetic predisposition. You had the cards stacked against you in that regard, right?

Alistair McHarg: Well, yeah. As we say, "Mental illness doesn't run in my family; it gallops." My father was bipolar. He was a professor a the University of Pennsylvania, and he was once told by the head of the department of psychiatry there, a man by the name of Mickey Stunkard, that he was the only manic depressive who was manic all the time. And I have a full brother who fortunately is not afflicted, but I have two half-brothers who are both bipolar. So the gene for bipolar disorder is very, very strong in my family.

David: Okay, well, it's actually in my family as well, and so depression is certainly something I've struggled with over the years, and I've had just a little taste of what might be called hyper-manic experiences - interestingly, a paradoxical reaction to taking Valium. Where Valium tends to sedate most people, over time - it was given to me for a stomach ailment or something years ago - and over time, it seemed to be sort of a disinhibitor, so that it released - I guess kind of released my underlying mania. So that's partly why I could relate so much to your book.

Alistair McHarg: Well, good. It's interesting, though - I'm obviously a writer; I'm not a physician, and I don't really know that much about medicine, but it definitely does vary from one person to the next. For example, ADD people taking Ritalin, which is a form of speed, and then it calms them down. So it's curious how different people react to drugs differently.

David: Right, right. Now, you just mentioned that your father was a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. I was curious because, in the book, I don't think you gave that fact. You wrote that your father was very successful in his field, but I don't think you said what the field was. Can you share that here?

Alistair McHarg: Well, I'd be glad to. My father, Ian McHarg, was a very famous environmentalist; is one of the, really, the people who spearheaded the environmental movement of the '60s and the '70s. He was the chairman of the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning at the University of Pennsylvania, a department he founded and chaired for about 35 years. In addition to that, he was a lecturer, he had a firm with some other landscape architects and architects that did regional planning, and he was an accomplished guy. He received the National Medal of Arts from the president, the first President Bush, and I was able to attend that ceremony. So it was interesting having a person like that as a father, I'll say that.

David: Right, and he's certainly one of the stars of your book in terms of being a formidable presence, not only suffering from the sort of constant manic state that you just mentioned but also a lot of anger. And you talk about how that kind of tended to spill over for you and perhaps was influential modeling.

Your book focuses on your - as you just earlier pointed out - on your third major manic episode, which certainly was a whopper.

Alistair McHarg: [Laughs]

David: And worth writing about. When did you have your first one?

Alistair McHarg: Well, like a lot of bipolar people, my first episode happened right around late teens, early twenties. Mine was when I was 20, and it was, oh, I would say was a splashy. I went to Europe with a friend and then to the Middle East, and, just between us, smuggled drugs from Pakistan, Afghanistan, throughout the Middle East - Iran, Turkey - through Europe; was caught in Germany. By then I'd had dysentery for a couple of months and had lost, oh, I don't know, 30-40 pounds; was in terrible health and went to jail briefly; was sprung - my father pulled some connections; I got out. But by that time, I was absolutely primed. I was kind of pushed to the breaking point and exploded into a manic episode that lasted for, well, I would say close to month, maybe six weeks, and took a considerable amount of medication to handle.

David: Well, was the drug bust the trigger for the manic attack? Or were you already in the midst of the manic attack and that's what led to the drug escapade?

Alistair McHarg: It's hard to know exactly, as is so frequently the case with mania. Where precisely do you draw the line? But in this case, yes, definitely the arrest - and I was in jail for 10 days - was really what sent me flying over the moon, so to speak.

David: Okay. And none of that's in the book, so I'm glad I asked about that. At what point did you realize that you suffer from bipolar disorder?

Alistair McHarg: Well, this is actually part of the story that's sad because I know that I'm not alone in this regard. I did see a psychiatrist when I had that episode, but I was not diagnosed as bipolar. I simply came back down to earth, went back to college, and like so many bipolar people in similar situations, I just tried to put it in the past, put it behind me, and pretend it never happened, and sort of "speak no more" about it.

So I went from 20 to 36, when I got divorced, without having a major episode. I had some depressive periods and some hypo-manic episodes, but nothing even remotely in the same category as what we're talking about. So that was 16 years.

David: Well, did you - you had mentioned that your father suffered from this most of his life or all of his life. Did you know at an earlier age? Did you suspect that you might be carrying this gene? Or did all of this come as a surprise?

Alistair McHarg: It really did come as a surprise. My father was never really diagnosed as such, and in his case the behavior was rewarded, just constantly rewarded, because he was hyper-successful in a number of different fields, so it was never perceived as an illness or even as anything that was undesirable. So there was no - I mean I knew I had some issues with depression, but it was never - the illness was never given a name until my late 30s.

David: Okay. I think you said 16 years went by before you had your second major episode. What triggered that one?

Alistair McHarg: Well, that one is very easy to identify. By then I had gotten married; I'd become a father - which I've always been a very devoted father and cared about that - and divorce snuck up on me, shall we say, and in a very surprising and alarming way, kind of like falling out of airplane. And because it happened so quickly and so traumatically, my system just absolutely was shocked to the core, and I went into what you would call a classic type A - or I mean bipolar 1 manic episode: inability to sleep, boundless energy, racing thoughts, grandiosity, the works.

David: Okay, and I seem to recall that the third episode, which is the one that your book deals with, was triggered by losing your job.

Alistair McHarg: Correct. So you can kind of see that, in my case - and, once again, I'm not an expert on manic depression; only an expert on my manic depression - but in my case, catastrophic loss provoking fear is just a hard-wired trigger for me.

David: Well, that's fascinating because I'm not enough of an expert in this area to know whether that's generally the case or not. I do know that loss tends to be associated with depression, and of course the theory is that mania is a kind of a cover-up or a defense for depression, so I guess I shouldn't be too surprised to see that pattern - that loss triggered each of these major episodes.

Alistair McHarg: Well, I would say loss and fear. Fear seems to be the culprit behind so much activity. There's kind of a naked fear: fear of being alone, being unqualified to handle life, fear of not having any kind of support system or safety net. And then, of course, the mania is an elaborate - almost a Kabuki dance, you might say, that is denying the fear, that is whistling past the cemetery and pretending that the fear doesn't exist.

David: Sure, that makes a lot of sense to me. Now, your book is titled Invisible Driving. What's the significance of that title?

Alistair McHarg: Well, this is the kind of thing that it's just fortuitous. It fell into my lap. It does work on a metaphorical level, certainly, because some invisible force was driving my behavior. Manic behavior is definitely involuntary, and I didn't know why I was doing what I was doing. But it really refers to something very, very specific, which is stunts, driving stunts that I did in the middle of the winter and outside Philadelphia, and they almost happened organically, as if to say one day I found myself doing them.

And just to put it very succinctly, I started driving my car while sitting in the passenger seat in the front. I started driving the car while crouched down in front of the passenger seat so that the car looked unoccupied. I started driving with my left hand out the left window and the right hand out the right window, almost as if I was holding down the roof to keep it from flying off of the car - and making it clear to everybody that was near by that I was driving without using my hands. At times I had one foot - or actually a leg - stuck out of a window. I mean the stunts got more and more preposterous and bizarre - and frightening, of course, and dangerous. But I'd never thought of them as dangerous. I just thought of them as this really exquisite form of performance art that was hilariously funny and that would be enjoyed by whoever happened to drive by.

David: Yes, okay. Teenagers get ideas like that sometimes.

Alistair McHarg: [Laughter] Yeah.

David: And it seems like a really good idea. [Laughs] Your book has a fascinating structure, with chapters being written in alternating styles, so that one will be written from the perspective of "normal," rational consciousness, and the others written from the perspective of manic thought process, which turns out to be a kind of James Joyce-ian stream of consciousness, with lots of puns and wordplay. And it also reminded me of Kerouac's On the Road.

Alistair McHarg: Well, it's really fascinating how that happened because, when I started writing the book, the one thing that I really wanted to do is give readers the feeling of what it is like to be inside the mind of a person who is in the middle of a manic episode. Now, at that point, no one had attempted it, and to the best of my knowledge, no one has attempted it yet besides me. So it was uncharted territory. I didn't know if what I was trying to do was even possible or not.

And the way I describe it is imagine if one day you went to Venus and then the next day you came back to Earth, and your assignment was to make other people feel what it's like to be on Venus. In other words, it's not enough simply to describe it; you have to actually give readers the feeling of what it's like. And that's why I wrote it the way I did - the manic voice - because I wanted to give readers that feeling of intensity, that quicksilver, mercurial nature of manic thought and speech and reasoning. The thoughts that in a normal mind would be absurd and insane, if they're presented in a certain way by a manic mind, suddenly become if not reasonable, at least possible and not unreasonable.

David: Sure, and you really wildly succeeded, I think, because none of it reads like word salad; you can definitely follow it all, and you can follow the logic of it all - or least I could, and I don't think I'm exceptional in that regard. So your skill as a writer really comes through. Now, at the time, you were working in advertising as a writer in Philadelphia, right?

Alistair McHarg: Absolutely, yeah. I've spent a career as an advertising writer, and that's something very, very different than writing a memoir like this and two novels. But, at the same time, all of those years as a promotional writer did train me and really helped me when I sat down to write Invisible Driving.

David: Well, that's more that you and I have in common. You majored in creative writing in college. I majored in creative writing, as it happens, at the University of Pennsylvania.

Alistair McHarg: [Laughs] Now, that is funny; that's [unclear].

David: And my first job out of college was as an advertising copywriter for Strawbridge and Clothier department stores in Philadelphia.

Alistair McHarg: Oh, that's too great. Yeah.

David: I didn't last long, but that's another story. That'll be my book.

Alistair McHarg: Yeah, there you go.

David: So, you're so effective at communicating the powerful rush and energy of the manic phase, and I wondered how you were able to pull that off. Were you able to remember those thoughts? Or did you reinvent them? Or what?

Alistair McHarg: Well, I remembered the feeling of it, and so I had to recreate it. But it's the old business of you can't write when you're in that state.

David: I would think not.

Alistair McHarg: You have to recreate it when you are in a sober, sane, calm state, which requires not just a certain amount of technical expertise, but an act of will, and you've got to put yourself back in that scary place. And I must tell you that this was the most challenging part of the entire project. People ask me, well, it must have been very hard writing that kind of narrative, and it was. But the harder part still was emotionally returning to that place in order to be able to recall it and write in that voice. Because as you can imagine - and know from your work - what you want to do at the end of a manic episode, is just run as fast as you can and get as far away from it as you possibly can. And so I was doing the opposite of that in order to write the book. I had to look back into it and sort of look it in the teeth and face it down.

David: Yeah, and I wondered if you felt any danger that, in the writing, it might pull you back or seduce you into that mode of consciousness.

Alistair McHarg: I absolutely felt that, and it really, really terrified me. I knew I was taking a calculated risk that you get a sort of a contact high effect, in that by recalling it, you kindle, you provoke another episode. And I was willing to take the risk in order for the larger good, but it really was terrifying, and I didn't know, when I started out, whether or not I would have another episode as a result of writing the book.

David: Yeah, I can really understand that. They talk about Steve Jobs of Apple Computer being such an effective marketer that he creates a kind of reality distortion field, and I get the sense that when you were in your manic phase, there was something infectious about it at times that would sweep other people up into it, at least for a while. Do I have that right?

Alistair McHarg: Well, that's absolutely right, and I would think, for people who treat bipolar people - psychiatrists, psychologists, and also social workers, even policemen and other professionals - there's such a danger of being swept into that world because manic people are so forceful, and their brains are going a mile a minute, and they're so persuasive and frequently charming and entertaining. It's the sort of charm and entertainment that wears thin after awhile, but initially it can be extremely persuasive, so that's a danger really for everyone involved.

David: Yeah, I was feeling that rush, you know. Just reading those, I was feeling sucked in and like, "Oh, yeah. I want to go out on this night-time adventure." But of course it can go too far. Now, speaking of marketing, I have to say that I thought you might sell a lot more copies of this book if it were marketed as comic fiction. I feel a little guilty saying that because I know the book is about the underlying pain, but I have to say I was laughing out loud as I was reading the chapter on a new way to play Chinese checkers, which is not about Chinese checkers at all. And I was reading it alone, in bed, and laughing out loud.

Alistair McHarg: [Laughs] Well, you know, any book that has a chapter entitled "Seven Difference Between a Baritone Saxophone and a Kumquat," probably isn't entirely serious, and I am definitely a humorist, and there's humor in all of my books, and I absolutely love humor and writing comedy. And you can see that really intensely in Invisible Driving because there's such wild humor, and sometimes it's just over the top, and sometimes it's angry, and sometimes it's cruel. But there's so many different kinds of humor, and I find that the humor is very revelatory. It informs the character even when the character doesn't want it to, which I find - you know, I've always said that humor and truth are like ham and eggs. They're natural together. So there's so much truth about what's going on, what's happening, in the humor of this book, but what's so ironic about it is that here I thought at the time I was being so witty and funny and such a bon vivant and above it all, and in fact, the humor was at my expense.

David: Yeah, ultimately it was, as it got further and further out. Well, let's give our listeners a taste of what we're talking about by having you read a few paragraphs from one of the manic chapters.

Alistair McHarg: Well, I'd be delighted. There's one little sketch that's right from the very beginning and sort of introduces us to Invisible Driving, and that seems like as good a place to start as any.

David: Okay.

Alistair McHarg: [Reading] "These are glory days for Invisible Driving. I've discovered the core position, The Empty Car. While performing The Empty Car I'm in the driver's seat with feet on pedals in the normal arrangement but all of me above waist level is bent over, resting on the passenger's seat. I have the mirrors set so that I can still see perfectly well but to all observers the car is unoccupied. It's incredibly funny. We're talking radnopolis funny. Impossible for me to pull this maneuver without cracking into a squizzling, snerchified hysterical laughter. I laugh with a nervous, giddy delight at the sheer absurdity of it. I laugh with a childish delight at the outrageousness of it. I laugh with an anxious excitement, agitated by the risk. But I laugh most uncontrollably as I imagine the reactions of the passengers in the cars who see this apparition. The ghost car. This is my only regret, that I never get to hear the comments of the people who have this performance foist, and the foist shall be last and the last shall be foist, upon them. How does one react when one confronts the thing which cannot be? Eh? See? If, as a teenager, you ever mooned a busload of senior citizens, that is, exposed your naked behind to them from a moving automobile, you have an idea of some of the facial expressions I encounter when I reemerge from my crouch. Contempt. Shock. Surprise. Extippitox squatchifromp. Amazement. Naturally it's the kids who enjoy it most. Unlike so many of the adults who try to ignore this inexplicable phenomenon, the kids point, laugh, jump up and down, and stare."

David: That's great, and one of the things that we heard in there were a lot of neologisms, I guess you call them: made-up words, razzababy. And they're like jazz riffs. You're a jazz musician, too, aren't you?

Alistair McHarg: I am. I have a life-long love affair with jazz. I have been a sax player, a flutist, but most of all a singer. And I have to tell you that the young gentleman that painted the cover, man by the name of Dan Endicott, in his review of Invisible Driving, said that the style of writing reminded him more of John Coltrane than anything else, which I really took as high praise indeed because I'm a huge admirer of Coltrane, but mostly because there's a punctuation, a freedom to the bob, the weave, the beat, the meter, the way it just kind of bumps and grooves and moves all over the place. And even with regard to the words that you talked about - and they're throughout the entire book - it's almost as if there's so much energy in the manic persona, and so much creative force, that the language itself isn't big enough to contain it. Do you know what I mean?

David: Yeah.

Alistair McHarg: That it has to actually break through the skin of the language and make the language bigger by creating new words to contain all that energy.

David: Yeah, and I really got that feeling. That really came through. It's kind of like you're scat singing. Periodically, you're breaking into scat.

Alistair McHarg: Absolutely, yeah.

David: Now, a point that really comes through very powerfully is that the manic state is like a super high. In fact, I'd like to read a couple of paragraphs from the book where you talk about that.

Alistair McHarg: Great.

David: Okay.

Alistair McHarg: What a treat.

David: So you write: "And now a little secret, a tale told out of school, something I share with everyone else you has my illness - I loved it. It felt great, I mean really great. Why else would so many manics refuse to get treatment? They get hooked on their highs. Can you remember the moments in your life when you felt the very best? Was it the day you got married? The day your first child was born? The day you scored the winning touchdown for your high school football team? Remember how you felt? Now double it. Keep going until the settings are turned up all the way."

I need a little more light here.

Alistair McHarg: "All the way to 10."

David: Yeah. "All the way to 10, and your nervous system is buzzing like high-voltage wires. Every pleasure center you have is glowing. You could burst into flames at any moment. Now add a few more elements. You're incredibly strong, incredibly smart, and your energy is limitless. It gets better. You're totally without fear. That tiresome little voice, the nagging conscience, is dead. You don't care who you step on the way up because you're not coming down. There's a separate set of rules for you. You're a Greek god. Lightning explodes from your fingertips. Of course, it's all a horrible illusion, a lie of brain chemistry adrenalin, body chemistry. But it doesn't feel like a lie. I'm sorry for how I behaved, and I'm sorry for all it cost me, and I'm certain, certain, certain that I don't want to ever feel that way again, but, my Lord, what a rare, profound experience. This life is short, and we don't get to sample all the things we would like. I'll never know what it feels like to hit a home run out of a major league ballpark, but I know exactly how it feels to dwell upon Olympus, and I know how it feels to be a Greek god, rubbing shoulders with mere mortals."

So that really got it across.

Alistair McHarg: Thank you so much for reading that. That was really a treat hearing you read that.

David: Well, it was fun for me to read it. Got a little bit of the performer in me, too.

Alistair McHarg: Yeah, well, one of the cliché's of life in the bipolar world is the person who either refuses treatment or stops taking meds and then has another episode, and then the people around him are saying, "What the heck were you thinking? For goodness sake, don't you remember what happened last time?" And they sort of look dumbly, as if to say, "I don't have a good answer for you." But it's very, very hard, especially at first, as a younger person, to give up those highs because there is nothing under the sun that even can touch the cape, the hem, of that experience. It is absolutely mind-boggling. And bipolar people romance it, and they start to say, "Oh, I'm so creative when I'm high. It's so -" and they provide themselves with all these excuses for not dealing with it and returning to that place, even though it's tremendously destructive both to them and to the people around them.

David: Well, I never had this insight before, but it almost sounds like the manic state has a very addictive component. It got me to wondering if some of the same brain chemistry or structures might coincide with drug addiction. Do you know anything about that?

Alistair McHarg: I'm not an expert on it by any means, but it would almost have to. It really would almost have to because the kind of adrenalin release that you get, and the feeling of euphoria - I would imagine hard drugs like heroin and opium are downs, and they probably give you that same sense of euphoria, but then up drugs like speed and that sort of thing just kind of give you this sense of King Kong strength and power and invincibility. And these are not moods [?] that you have; this is not a state of mind. This is something you feel on a genetic level. I mean you feel it right in your marrow.

David: Yeah. So, give us a sense, if you can - kind of an abbreviated sense - of the whole arc of that third episode from where it started, and through whatever stages it kind of went through, and kind of where you ended up.

Alistair McHarg: Well, sure. The third one was definitely and had that kind of classic arc, as you say. An arc really is the right word. It started fast, as we were saying earlier. It was based on pretty much my whole department being laid off or downsized or whatever, but essentially just after having built a nice, little, secure life with my daughter - I had joint custody with my daughter - and so my life after the second episode had settled down nicely, and I had a little hard-won security that I'd really worked for. And so losing the job just absolutely knocked the legs out from underneath me and sent me, almost overnight, into full-bore manic high. And as you see in the book, that lasted through the Christmas holidays into January.

And initially, as is so often the case, I was on top of the world. I really thought that I'd never had it so good, and I was just having a ball, and the rules that applied to other people didn't apply to me, and I was just having a great time. But then reality just started sneaking in, and things became increasingly sort of desperate and marginal. I was really living hand to mouth.

David: Right. You were running your credit cards down. You had no money, and yet you had this feeling that it wasn't going to matter, that you were going to find stardom - stardom was somehow going to come to you.

Alistair McHarg: Absolutely. I had maybe $10 in my pocket, and I was going to the Four Seasons and the Ritz and ordering water, just so I could be there and let people bathe in the wonder that was me. I mean it was just - I was so far out there and so deluded that it was really quite extraordinary. And, yeah, I thought no matter what kind of situation I was in, that sooner or later I would do something, I would be discovered, and I'd be rich and famous, and that would be that, and so I didn't need to worry about details. And of course it just got - the ice got thinner and thinner and thinner until the inevitable happened and I found myself in an argument with some policemen in the middle of night. They wanted to know what I was doing, and the next thing you know, I was involuntarily committed into a state mental hospital.

David: So one of the interesting things there was that the manic personality was the opposite of your normal personality in many ways: that in your normal life you were relatively shy; you weren't a person who wanted to get up on stage and perform particularly; and you tended to be more of a peace maker than a fighter. So in the manic state, you go from retiring to very much out there, very much on stage, and very angry.

Alistair McHarg: It's so true and it's just fascinating. I mean when you have distance from the whole experience and you can look at it from your easy chair rather than being in the trenches, then it is absolutely amazing what the brain is able to do and how it functions. What happened, as you say - you've identified it very nicely - is that really certain aspects of my father's personality, which I identified with when I was in in extremis, went from being deeply submerged to being right out in front. And the nice me, the gentle me, the peace maker, the loving father was suddenly minimized - not eliminated, of course, but minimized. And this very false, very fabricated and, oh, disingenuous personality - all artifice, all theater - emerged.

David: Now, how long was that whole arc? How long did all that take?

Alistair McHarg: Well, it was an amazingly long time for a manic episode. The high part was over two months, maybe two-and-a-half months. And when I say two-and-a-half months, we're talking about being wide awake for two, three days at a time with just constant, fever-pitch activity, talking, thinking, at just an astounding rate. In fact, if you'd like, I have a section here from the book. There's one chapter, the third one - it's called "Everything Is" - that I wanted to do so that readers would have a sense of what it's like living inside a manic mind. I could only do one chapter like that because it would just like completely exhaust the readers, but I did want to do one, and if you'll forgive me, can I just read a couple paragraphs of that?

David: Yeah, go ahead.

Alistair McHarg: Okay. So, I'm just going to drop you right down in the middle of this. You're now inside the mind, and he's just sort of - his brain is just going. It says:

"The subway in London is the fellow peon tube. Tube B or not Tube B? I once met a Jewish gangster who was living in exile in the islands, his name was Bermuda Schwartz. Help! How do you turn this thing off? It's your turnip bat, Europe. European? No, it's just ice in my pocket. Pa kit, Ma kit, and locket. Let's go to Ma kit. The whole kitten kapoodle. Don't step in the poodles. She was only a stableman's daughter, but all the horsemen knew her. Then there was the performance artist who said, "I don't know much about art, but I know what I'm like." Power corrupts, absolute power corrupts Albert Finney. Remember that bastard Lester Maddox? He was a racist, and a brutal hatemonger. He was the Lester of two evils. And how about those Arab women, pretty in tents. When Arabs give gifts, do they do it in the present tents? Did you hear about the self-help book for architects, I.M. Pei, U.M. Pei? Help! Being in jail's not that bad, at least you don't have to agonize over vacation plans. Ahhh. Why do WASPs go to the hospital? For the food. Uhhh. If Sally Wong and Charlie Wong had a child, why wouldn't it be a Caucasian? Because two Wongs don't make a white. Stop, I'm killing me." Etc. Yeah.

David: Well, that really does it. Well, look, we're getting close to the end here just in terms of time. Tell us a bit about - there must have been some ensuing treatment to bring you to the place that you are today. What about the role of medication, the role of therapy?

Alistair McHarg: Well, I just can't say thank you enough to the people that I have encountered. I was actually in one form of therapy or another for 17 years. I found a really gifted therapist, psychologist; and worked with them on a regular basis. And I've been taking lithium the entire time since actually the second episode and some other drugs as well on occasion - Depakote. But I have to say that the key for me has been what I call the Eleventh Commandment, doing the inner work - looking inside and facing what's there and dealing with it. So on the one hand, for me this has been a challenge, life-long challenge, sort of an evolution, and oddly enough, the bipolar disorder gave it to me - it forced me to do it - and without this illness, I never would have faced my personal demons the way I've done.

David: Aside from buying your book, what's your advice to listeners [laughter] who might themselves be bipolar or have a friend or family member who's bipolar?

Alistair McHarg: One of the things that is so heartening is just how much help there is available, and it just keeps getting better. There's a lot of good support groups out there and a lot of good books. There's technical books. My book is very - it's definitely useful for people, especially family members - parents, siblings, what have you - of someone that has the illness. But there's technical, practical books that'll tell you why, if you got someone in your family with the illness, you can do this. So there's the whole gamut. And there's all kinds of support groups too, so once again, our old friend Google. Just drop bipolar disorder into Google and see where it takes you. It's really wonderful because even 20 years ago, when I first encountered this thing, there was virtually nothing available.

David: Well, Alistair McHarg, thanks so much for being my guest on Wise Counsel. Can I say it's been a real rush?

Alistair McHarg: [Laughs] And for me, too, Dr. Dave. Thank you so much.

David: I hope you enjoyed this conversation with Alistair McHarg. Personally, I found him fascinating, and I strongly recommend his book, both as literature and for the window it gives us into the world of mania. He has a blog, which he tells me is updated daily and addresses a wide range of recovery-related themes. And you can find it at And you'll find his website at

You've been listening to Wise Counsel, a podcast interview series sponsored by If you found today's show interesting, we encourage you to visit, where you can add a comment or question to this show's web page, view other shows in the series, or simply page through the site, which is full of interesting mental health and wellness content. Access the show's page and show archive information via the podcast box on the home page.

If you like Wise Counsel, you might also like ShrinkRapRadio, my other interview podcast series, which is available online at Until next time, this is Dr. David Van Nuys, and you've been listening to Wise Counsel.

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About Alistair McHarg

Alistair McHargAlistair McHarg spent his early years in Edinburgh and Amsterdam, moving to Philadelphia with his father, Ian, and mother, Pauline, at age six. He attended Germantown Friends School, Haverford College, and the University of Louisville.

The prestige of an M.A. in Creative Writing enabled McHarg to secure employment with one of Philadelphia's least reputable cab companies, where he pulled 12-hour shifts 6 days a week for a year. Other forays into dead-end employment have included deckhand on a Norwegian tramp freighter, forest fire fighter in Alaska, and guide at a Canadian wilderness survival camp.

Alistair has been arranging words for a living since 1983. He is the author of a memoir of manic depression entitled Invisible Driving and two novels, Moonlit Tours and Washed Up.

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