The Fourth Floor

Here’s my version of “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden”. Deborah (I had to look up her name) attempts suicide and is put in a home for mentally unstable people. She’s checked into the third floor, and there are four floors in this hospital. The bottom floor is voluntary, you can come and go basically as you please, but you require access to a doctor and medication and treatment. The floors increase in severity as you go upstairs until the nightmarish top floor, full of screaming lunatics and 18th century Bedlam inmates.

Deborah starts working with her doctor and over a long stretch of time begins to slowly improve her behavior, but doesn’t seem to be actually fighting her illness. She’s told that her doctor is leaving in a month, and Deborah does everything she can to appear to be better, lying about the voices in her head, because she believes the end of her therapy means the end of her health. Before her doctor leaves, she’s moved to the first floor. Once her doctor is gone, she quickly attempts suicide, completely loses her mind and ends up on the dreaded fourth floor.

Her doctor comes back (she wasn’t actually leaving, she was simply going on vacation for two weeks) and they begin their work over. Initially, Deborah is SO RELIEVED to be on the fourth floor with the rest of the spastics, this is where she’d always belonged, but after a few months of therapy and medication, she begins to notice that she has nothing in common with the other denizens of that hell hole. She’s moved to the third floor where she begins to notice the same thing. Then the second, finally the first, where she’s granted full freedom to come and go as she pleases. She gets a job, finds new friends and then realizes that the voices in her head are actually her own voice, she understands that there’s nobody else talking, it’s just her.

NOW. Is that what the actual book is about? I have no idea, I last read it in 1983. But it leads me to a rather difficult admission and I hope that you’ll bear with me as I go into this.

I was a pretty sensitive boy who quickly became an angry young man, with radical enthusiasms and deep troughs of anger and sadness. My parents were divorced and we were broke and I was underachieving at school and a constant discipline problem, so I was largely written off by everyone. Except that I would have these spastic bursts of positivity and energy – bursts that turned into either a fantastic project or a marriage proposal or a move across country or a six figure paycheck. And then the project would fall apart, the marriage would end in divorce, the move required another move six months later and the paycheck would be gone.

It was widely decided, without much argument from me, that I was an emotionally unstable, immature drama queen – who was actually worth being close to because I was funny and you never knew if something awesome would happen.

All of that sounds like there’s an upside, but there isn’t. There wasn’t, I should say. Because the pit of despair is an impossible place in which to get purchase, and the heights of fancy *always* have the looming precipice. There was a monster in the back of my mind that would say, “I will have you soon. I can’t reach you now, but I will have you soon.”

This is the part that’s hard to admit. I started investigating life insurance policies. I began to give serious thought to the difference between living with an emotionally unstable drama queen, versus… Not. Would a young boy and a young girl rather have a father who’s nuts, or a single mother who is brilliant and stable. And could that mother be happier if someone else was there helping with the kids? I went so far as to start another blog, totally anonymous and hidden from everyone, with advice for my kids, in the hopes that it would go viral and they would eventually read it, not even knowing it was me, but getting what I had to tell them.

I fought it like crazy. And I wanted to be well. There was an impending disaster coming, like Deborah’s doctor leaving, and I had to do what I could to pretend to be Not Sick. I went so far as to announce that I was done with acting, because I wanted to make the decisions that healthy people make. Most people aren’t actors because acting is “crazy”, so I quit.

My therapist, who hadn’t fully caught wind of this but could tell things had taken a turn, suggested I seek out a psychopharmacologist that could help me with medication. It’s not the first time I’ve done that, but in the past I’ve been diagnosed with everything from ADHD to epilepsy to Manic Depression, and I’ve been utterly unwilling to go on lithium or whatever the hell else they were offering. But I also knew enough to know I had to look out, so I went.

Again, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but the doctor said he had a medication with almost no side effects. The only one, rash, could be terrible but they would slowly introduce the medication and see if I reacted. I went on it, and no side effects.

A few weeks passed, and then a month or two. And the alarming change is such a subtle one that I don’t know if I can fully explain its power.

I had choices. That’s the big difference, I was allowed to make choices.

On the medication, I had a split second chance to make a decision before I acted, before I said the thing or did the thing that my nutty-ass brain was telling me to do. And that tenth of a second has utterly changed my life.

The monster on my shoulder would say, “I will have you, there’s a precipice and I will have you when you fall.” And I would look at the edge and say, “Okay. Wait. Yes, there’s a precipice and I could fall, but look *this way*. See? I can just walk next to the gaping maw and… just… not go in, right?”

Nothing about me has changed. Nothing. I still get passionately furious, I still get irrationally happy, I remain hopelessly optimistic and teeth-grittingly furious. I’ll be honest, I was perfectly happy with the thought that I might lose some of the more horrible parts of my personality – but my personality is something I’ve been working on for 40+ years. The only way for the Giant Me to leave my brain would be for me to find silence or emptiness, and I’m no Buddhist. The body of my enemy may be floating down the river, but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna stop rowing up to try and fight him anyway.

But I find myself now six months or more removed from any kind of actual mood swing. I don’t know when it happened, but the monster on my shoulder was trying to talk to me, and I interrupted him and said, “Dude. Wait a minute. Where’s this chasm you keep talking about? Where’s the precipice?” and he said, “Are you kidding? It’s right over… oh, shit. Where did it go?”

And I look out and instead of a precipice, there are deep dark valleys and gorgeous snowcapped mountains, but the only thing that will make me *fall* is if I stop looking where I’m going, if I stop deciding where each footstep goes.

I don’t have anything in common with the demons on the fourth floor any more. I don’t belong on the third or the second either, and I’m not gonna spend too much time on the first. But as long as I’m an outpatient, as long as I get to make my own choices, then I’m going to make a few that are most important. The first few choices, about being a father and a husband, aren’t the kinds of things I can talk about on a blog – not because they’re personal, but rather because molecular movements like these require second-by-second adjustments and can’t be described.

But the last choice is one I didn’t think I would make. I don’t know what’s gonna happen, I don’t know if I’m inviting the monster back or if I’m rediscovering the precipice, but I haven’t always made indulgent choices based purely on my own happiness and as long as my family and producing partners are standing behind me, begging me to do this, I feel like this is the direction I should walk.

I’m gonna go back to acting.