The Maternal Instinct

On the day of the earthquake, I was doing freelance production work at home. Marina was eight months old and was socializing at Miss Bea’s daycare that afternoon. Steve and I were on the phone when it struck, me in the Mission and him on the fifth floor of a brick warehouse built before the 1906 earthquake.

For some reason, I react to earthquakes by laughing. Maybe it’s because that’s what people around me were doing during the first earthquake I experienced. It happened in 1973 in Mexico City while I was in a photography studio having a headshot done for a fotonovela. My friend Guillermo had a friend who worked at Rutas del Amor, and he thought I had “the look” for it. Being a big fan of the fotonovela, I was thrilled at the prospect of being in one.

The chair I was sitting on moved. When I looked down and saw nothing to explain it, I wondered if the sensation meant I was about to faint. Then everyone started laughing riotously and running out into the street. It made no sense that they reacted that way— earthquakes were not uncommon in the Mexican capital. I doubt running into the street was considered prudent earthquake behavior. Maybe it was kind of a Day of the Dead sentiment—a celebration of the fact that you hadn’t died yet, but today offered a fresh chance.

So when the Loma Prieta Earthquake struck while I was on the phone with Steve, I simply laughed and said, “Oh, it’s another earthquake. I’ll call you back when it’s over.” As soon as I put down the receiver, bricks started shooting out of the fireplace across the room. I ran into the hallway and braced myself in the designated earthquake spot of our railroad flat near Dolores Park.

As I sheltered in the hallway, it felt like a giant hand had picked up the building and was shaking it. Crashing sounds came from all sides. This was different than any earthquake I’d felt before, and in the years since I’d moved to San Francisco, there had been quite a few. The shaking lasted long enough for me to wonder if it might not be better to run out into the street, laughing or not.

Finally, the movement stopped. I raced back to the front room and was immediately confronted with evidence of the damage. Deep grooves in the hardwood floor showed the path the bricks had taken as they flew across the room. When I picked up the receiver the line was dead. I looked out the window and saw that the traffic light in front of the Go-Getters Market had stopped working. My first thought was Marina—I had to go get her right away! Miss Bea’s place on Shotwell might have been hit harder than ours. I grabbed the car keys and raced down the stairs of our second story flat.

A lot of the crashing sounds must have come from the stairwell, which had been lined with marble in a more opulent era. Several of the huge slabs had fallen from the walls and broken. One chunk of marble, about three by five, leaned against the front door. I tried to move the slab so that I could get out, but it was much too heavy.

Steve couldn’t be reached. I didn’t know when he’d make it home—“if” was a possibility I wouldn’t allow myself to consider. Marina’s safety depended solely on me. With a mighty effort, I managed to wedge one foot under the broken slab. As I used my foot as a lever, pivoting and wrenching the slab with both hands, it finally yielded.


That evening, with all of us safely home, we first learned details of what had happened in the rest of the city. A brick building had collapsed, killing five people. It was on Bluxome Street, just two blocks from the brick warehouse where Steve had his silkscreening business.

He was a reggae fanatic and had named his T-shirt printing business Babylon Burning from song lyrics. Massive fires raged in the Marina District, but Babylon was not Burning.

“You know, the South End Warehouse was built as a liquor warehouse. Turn of the century. The walls were built eighteen inches thick in order to keep the liquor cool.”

No, I hadn’t known that. But it was a relief to hear it.

There were some cuts and bruises on the top of my foot, but other than that we had come out of the earthquake unscathed. As we cleaned up the damage, I tried to lift the slab of marble at the bottom of the stairs again. It wouldn’t budge.

The maternal instinct had given me superhuman strength. [e1]

The earth beneath us remained relatively stable for years after the Loma Prieta earthquake. In 1994, we decided to visit Steve’s mother in Balboa Island and spend a day in Disneyland.

Barbara Patton lived in a tiny beach cottage, and the guest bedroom was barely large enough for a bed. We piled blankets on the rug at the foot of the bed for Marina; at five, she could sleep anywhere. Just before dawn on the day of our Disneyland trip, we were awakened by an all-too-familiar rolling and shaking. In one motion and without thinking, I launched myself from the bed to cover Marina with my body.

The maternal instinct must be operated by the autonomic nervous system. Marina was still asleep when the earth stopped shaking.


I'm Back2

I’ve been away from the blog while I completed my book, My Bipolar Summer Playlist: A Story of Mania and Recovery. I couldn’t do it justice and blog at the same time. Now I’m done!

Superwoman Has Left the Building

Originally published August 7, 2015

“Why am I the one always left to do the cleanup? It wasn’t me who made this mess!” I view the aftermath of a hypomanic episode with horror and disgust.

“Um, actually, it was you . . . .”

Oh. Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde merge back into one fucked-up being. I did this, no one else. The sensation is both familiar and disorienting. But it is always sickening.

Spread out everywhere are the beginnings of ambitious projects. Each undertaking is essential, but abandoned for the next, more pressing one. It’s not that the new seem more important than the current. It’s just that each new idea must be acted on immediately, before it disappears! There’s no intention to discard the last project—I’m going to get back to it. The great endeavors, piling higher and higher, threaten to spill over the windowsills and into the street, exposing glittering but strange ideas to my neighbors and the world. During the high period this never bothers me. My life is an open book, one of which I’m proud. You don’t like what I’m saying? I’ll either dismiss you as unworthy, or take you on like a prizefighter.

Then comes the requisite sharp dive that always follows the high. I plunge deep into the black water of the river Styx. After a gargantuan struggle to surface, I’m forced to tread water to keep from drowning. This is my sentence in Hell. Tears stream down my cheeks for so long that my face gets chapped.

Slowly I pull myself out of the murky depths. I re-examine the projects begun, the enthusiastic letters sent and received, the ideas that bubbled up faster than I could record.

The project notes all begin in organized fashion, bullet-pointed, well thought out and written with attention to detail and syntax. Soon they begin to drift from one notebook to another, then to Post-It’s, then to the odd scrap of paper. The backs of envelopes have notes, beginning in a normal size, but getting smaller and smaller toward the bottom. With no space left, the tiny letters are forced to march up the right margin of the envelope, bravely hanging on upside down until they reach the left side and descend. Some are color coded, but there is no key. Without a manic Rosetta Stone with which to decipher them, the meaning of the codes is lost.

In addition to the typed and handwritten notes, there are those dictated into my phone and tablet, digitally recorded into Notes, Stickies, and emails to myself. Organizing these notes into manageable order is a dubious task. Is it even worth the time? I remember staying up all night, working on my laptop, and feeling desperate when I moved too far away from it. The ideas had to be recorded before they disappeared from my fragmented memory.

Some of the sketched-out ideas are so impractical as to be laughable. The tricky thing is, many of them are excellent. They approach problems from original angles. They are not only worthy of follow-up; they demand it. Thinking outside of the box is easy when there is no awareness that the box exists.

“Remember that proposal I was telling you about?” I begin nervously, hoping to clarify for a friend a conversation we’d had when I was hypomanic. She had probably been humoring me as I explained the idea.

“The letter I was writing to the Senator? That might have sounded kind of crazy to you, my thinking I could take that on . . . .”

“No, I thought that was a great idea! Why wouldn’t you be able to?”

In a way I’m relieved. My perceptions haven’t all been off, then! At the same time I’m filled with a profound weariness at the impossibility of following through on every recent brainstorm. I’ve been living in a rainforest, and the ground is sodden after the deluge.

So, at least that idea was good in the Real World. And I know the same is true of some of the others. But who will do it? It’s too much for one person—at least in a post-hypomania depression. By now I’ve wised up to the fact that Superwoman has left the building.

The Positive Elements of Bipolar Disorder (Yes, There are Positive Elements)

flowFirst published Saturday, 06 September 2014 on

I had my third episode of “florid mania” recently. Many people I know with Type I bipolar disorder have rapid onset. My own onset, however, is so slow, spanning as much as six months that the changes from “normal” to hypomanic to manic are almost imperceptible. My signs of hypomania invariably present as completely positive. I’m finally happy! I am finally able to put my ideas into motion and follow through! My self-esteem goes up to a healthy level. When I am stable my self-esteem tends to be low. I view myself through a distorted lens. It is actually when I am hypomanic that the lens snaps into focus. I become free of anxieties, confident, and feel that this is my true self. When stable, I often feel bad about myself despite objective reasons my self-esteem should be high: I am a kind, loving person with strong creative abilities, two master’s degrees, and a wonderful daughter and husband. I’m considered attractive, and have many friends and relatives who love me. I’ve had several interesting careers because I want to experience as many things as possible, and I have wide-ranging interests. Many of the things I’ve crossed off my bucket list are considered pretty amazing.

So why can’t I hold onto that positive self-esteem, productivity, and relief from the critical voices in my head? It feels like losing my best self.

Of course, I know the answer. No one can stay in that hypomanic happy place forever. It inevitably ramps up to full mania, when thoughts are distorted and anything seems possible. That’s when I go up so high that the negative elements come out, too—irritability and, eventually, rage. Productivity becomes impossible. At a certain point I realize I have moved from hypomania to mania, but I want to make it last as long as possible before I am forced to take the dreaded anti-psychotics. I have to finish my book! I have to follow through with plans I’ve made while I still have momentum!

Here’s the thing. I actually have taken ideas I’ve come up with while manic, and put them into action later with great results. For example, after my first karaoke performance (while manic) I had an epiphany. Since it boosted my self-confidence so much, I thought it would help adolescents. After coming down from that manic episode, I instituted a “Karaoke in the Library” program. I did some research to discover why it had better than hoped for results with my autistic students, who began relating to others for the first time. The article I wrote about my findings was published in an academic journal ( and cited by other librarians in their master’s theses. While manic, I had an idea for a tool to teach genres through card games. Post-mania I was able to put it into action, and teachers in several local schools adopted it. Would this have happened without the mania? I know it would not have.

I don’t mean to minimize the disastrous results of mania. I’ve experienced those, too, and I know I’m very lucky they haven’t been worse. But some of my experiences have enriched my life so much that I am actually glad to have this disorder. Hypomania releases my creativity. With my doubts and negative self-talk gone, I feel free to follow my muse(s). Anxiety and inhibition, which plague me when I am stable, disappear.

During the final stages of my last bout with mania, I stayed up half the night choreographing a dance to a favorite song, and organized a flash mob at work the next day (it was my last day on the job and I went out with a bang). The “flight of ideas” can be put to good use if you can grab some of those ideas as they fly by. And take notes.

I have over a hundred pages of a book I began while hypomanic. Post-hypomania, I am always afraid that what I’ve written will read like the crazed writer’s masterpiece in The Shining: “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy” repeated ad infinitum. Instead, it’s been writing of which I’m proud.

“Religiosity” is considered a symptom of mania, but in my experience it was a profound spiritual awakening. No one can pathologize that away from me. I never believe I’m Jesus Christ or decide to become a nun, so what’s the problem? My expansiveness, increased sociability, and compassion have led to meaningful connections with strangers as well as friends. I care passionately about everybody—a good thing, in my opinion. I recall a telemarketer telling me, after a very long conversation, that I’d made his day. Of course, going further up the manic scale turns me from the Life of the Party to When-Is-She-Going-To-Go-Home Girl, but at least I’m not completely oblivious to the signals when that happens. After I come down, I still have new friends.

An “inflated sense of well-being”? I have never understood that as a manic symptom: how is it possible to feel too good? And what can be wrong with optimism and always looking on the bright side? What about the “symptom” of trying to save the world? I don’t believe one person can save it, but I’ve come up with some concrete ideas on how to help improve it. The major tenet of the religion in which I was raised is to “heal the world,” so why dismiss efforts to do that? “Increased sense of playfulness”? When I’m hypomanic my sense of humor is infectious; people are drawn to me. I make up elaborate jokes and plan group activities like the Wake for the Pillsbury Doughboy (I invited the entire company). But having fun is a good thing….as long as you control it. Impulsive decisions? Deciding to leave a job that made me miserable turned out to be lifesaving.

I desperately hope there will someday be a med that will prevent hypomania from turning into mania. At least I can remember the truths I’ve discovered in that state, and act on them. Kay Redfield Jamison has written that, with all of the studies on depression, very little research has been done on exuberance. Let me hold onto that.



A Dream of Rain


Last night I fell asleep listening to
the sound of the oldies:
Rain falling on the roof
Not a recording but
The real thing
No ersatz “Sounds of rain” like the sample my phone has learned to play
for a quick trip into the Quiet Zone of the mind
But now

Live in San Francisco!

Back in the day we used to hear it all over the city
Like the mad hot jazz
That played in the North Beach clubs Dean Moriarty
jumped into with his Marylou

Back then the red-hot licks came snaking out of doorways and
sizzled as they struck the pavement in front of City Lights
Big fat liquid gold notes trembling with the surface tension of their fullness

Until they all burst to joyously merge and flow together
Filling up cracks in the sidewalk and swirling down gutters
The notes, resplendent, played
over and over, glorious in
lulling us into the belief that
we could hear that music whenever we felt like it

Because hadn’t it always been that way?

Over and over
Then over and out
The pauses between notes lengthened until
The notes stopped completely

We used to hear that music here all the time
at least during the season

But that was back in the day

It’s rare now that we get the privilege to
hear that music live

Performances are scheduled, plans thrown together
only to be canceled until further notice:
30% chance of rain
10% chance of rain
0% chance of rain

I dreamt of translucent germinating roots
uncoiling like earthworms
Growing fat
from here to Salinas
Shoots piercing the thin layers of soil above them

Drops fall
Words bubble up from a once-dry well

A fever inside me breaks

A Murmuring of Laurels


The invitation comes from someone I do not know on Facebook. Odd, because I share my posts only with Friends, and it’s unusual for me to receive any messages from strangers.

I’m messaged by someone with an (almost) unfamiliar name.

The familiar part of the name comes from it being exactly the same as mine.

“Hi Laurel, always great to meet another Laurel. We have a FB group called LAURELS with over 400 of us from all over the world. We’d love for you to join us. grin emoticon,” the stranger Messages.

Laurel and I PM, trying to figure out who we might know in common. There isn’t anyone. I finally guess we must have both Liked a Save the Bees petition in the past year.

Then I notice a little Facebook note:

You’re friends on Facebook through
Order Desk at American Lubricants, Inc.

We are? I try to recall what this could be regarding. I had ordered some special type of mouthpiece lubricant for my vaporizer. Could that be it?

Then I realize this is simply a reference to her employer.

“Hello Laurel!!! To be in the group you must friend Laurel ____ and myself. Would love to see you there. smile emoticon”

It’s an international group of Laurels. When it’s the middle of the night and you can’t sleep, it’s the middle of the day for a Laurel in some other part of the world. You can chat, if you feel like it. All of my posts receive frighteningly quick responses.

I am greeted like a newcomer at a 12-step meeting.

“Hi, Laurel!”

I blink back at a lush landscape of Laurels. (Sorry, it’s hard to resist describing it any other way).

I’m tempted to reply, “Hi, my name’s Laurel and I’m a (What? Addict? Newcomer?)”

“I’m from Pacifica, California,” I volunteer, and from there the discussion takes off.

The majority of these Laurels seem to live in Australia, Queensland in particular. Some live in magical-sounding places like Mooroopna. I see one Laurel whose location I get very excited about: she lives at Mcmurdo Station, Antarctica. It turns out, though, that she’s given that address in an odd attempt to maintain her privacy from Facebook, Google, and the powers that be.

The hundreds of new supportive Facebook Friends murmur warmly. Like the swans of Swan Lake, they beat their feathered wings gently together as, one by one, they come forward to welcome me.

There are male Laurels here, too, one Laurel tells me. Almost none of the Laurels have ever personally met another Laurel. For the first time, I realize that I have never personally known a Laurel, either. One exception is mentioned; one of the Laurels works with a male Laurel down the hall.

Some Laurels were passed down through family tradition.

I’m engulfed by a family I never knew I had. I feel as if I’m meeting my family of origin. Weird! They’re like the talking flowers in Alice in Wonderland. All colors and nationalities, the Laurel faces shine up at me with love.

Or, this could be a fact-finding mission for the CIA.

As I keep reading more from the LAURELS, though, my cynicism melts.

I hear from one of the male Laurels: Laurel Chisty of Bangladesh. He was not handed down an old family name but instead the name of an old company. He writes:

“My father was the owner of a Company named Laurel Freez Co. from 1966. My Uncle was the General Manager of this Freezer Company and so people called my Uncle name Laurel but his name was different and at the end of 1969 He became frustrated to listen his name Laurel. At the time I was in my Mum’s belly and My cousin was in my Aunt’s belly So my Uncle decided which baby will born first ( me or my cousin sister) his/her name will be Laurel. So I was born first and my name was given Laurel. So I was pre named Laurel. That’s the history of my name.”

I had no expectations of learning more about world cultures from such a group, but there you have it. In a matter of days with the LAURELS, I’ve gained new knowledge of geography, history, and the universality of my given name. Kumbaya, worldwide, in a Closed Group.