After I spoke at the University of Wyoming this year on my experiences with Bipolar Disorder, the college newspaper ran a headline “Ex-professor exposed drag experiences.” The reporter focused on my recounting of my cross-dressing escapades when I was ill. Dan Socall PhD, the director of the University Counseling Center, responded to this article with a letter to the editor saying, “I find this story atypical for bipolar disorder.” My reply to this statement is “What is typical for bipolar disorder?” I don’t think you can simply say what I did wasn’t the norm because there is no norm. That is the point. Bipolar disorder leads to extreme behavior and extreme sexual behavior is a symptom. Hypersexuality it is called and it “may include decreased inhibitions or a need for forbidden sex” as stated in About.com. It doesn’t matter is if it is cross-dressing, sadomasochism, prostitution, compulsive sex, pedophilia or rape. On the internet I could find only three or four articles that dealt with the subject. The suppression of sexual desire from medication was a more common topic of discussion. Contrary to what is frequently discussed, I believe sexual excess is often the experience of the manic-depressed.
Sexual excess is an essential element in the writings about bipolar disorder I have read be they Carrie Fischer’s fictionalization of her own experience, Andy Behrman’s account of his own adventures in “Electro-boy,” or Jason Pegler’s account of his slavery to a domineering mistress in “A Can of Madness.” We know that Vincent Van Gogh had a penchant for prostitutes as has been recounted in several books about the life of the artist. The manic- depressed individual is drawn to the flame of forbidden desires often fueled by drug usage. Van Gogh drank absinthe. Andy Behrman used cocaine. The loss of inhibition that comes with the illness and being drugged is a heady high.
In “The Best Awful” by Carrie Fisher, Susan Vail is a promiscuous slut. She does after men with abandon. She is an alcoholic. She goes after Dean, a Hollywood hedonist, who had “****ed the **** out of everyone.” Carrie Fisher writes: “Suzanne slid down in her seat an leaned into him (Dean), doing her best impression of being forward, suggestive, available – whatever the word was for ‘lets have sex now.’” This was Susan’s ecstatic state, “She was barely able to sit still, squirming with sunshine, this chaos of pleasure bubbling up in her, rendering her barely able to see.” The sexual component of Bipolar Disorder is an electric state where what normal people do is forgotten, and anything goes to get the high or suppress the rage of the illness.
In “Electro- boy” Andy Behrmann writes of: “The dichotomy of my smart yuppie lifestyle on the Upper West Side and my career stripping and getting jerked off in a seedy Times Square theater.” He adds: “The risk of hustling gets me high.” There are two things I take special note of in these words: the dichotomy and the risk. There is this aspect of being another person at times of high mania. Andy Behrmann had a successful public relations business which called on him to dress normal and act normal. He did this in daylight hours. After dark he became the male prostitute living a life on the edge, where he was exposed to all kinds of deviant behavior. This is another retelling of the Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story- two different kinds of persons in the same body. These two persons are diametrically opposed to one another – the clean safe professional verses the sexual predator that lures lonely men as he dances.
Safety and risk define the two poles. Safety defines what is revealed in everyday life. The bipolar person appears normal. He or she can operate like other people: hold down a job, have a place to live, even carry on what appears to be a normal relationship. Risk, however, is the big attraction. The bipolar person is lured to that risk, which can be fulfilled easily in the night time. To be outside the boundaries of society is trilling, and that trill is often sexual. Isn’t this what we often find out about rapists and the pedophiliac? They have ordinary lives laced with times of extreme behavior. Perhaps that is why so many sexual abusers are labeled bipolar.
In my own case the sexual adventures, which I have recounted in vivid detail in my book, “Bipolar Bare”, were associated both with both mania and depression. A depressed rage would come over me, where I sought out high risk behavior in bathhouses. I wished to kill myself through contracting AIDS. I would go into periods where I thought my life worthless, and vile. The more I sought out sex in gay bathhouses the worse I felt about myself, but I hid this behind a façade of normality. I acted and dressed like a professional during the day, and at night during those times of extreme depression I would go out looking for sex. I didn’t do this when I was not depressed. I acted like a heterosexual male dating women and loving their company. But I could never get into a meaningful relationship because I had this secret life which occurred during my depressions. I was addicted to marijuana at this time. Stoned it was easy to overcome my inhibitions about homosexuality so that as my cyclical depressions arose I could operate on my hidden fantasies. Gay sex was the behavior I loved and hated at the same time.
Later after I had given up marijuana and became a Buddhist meditator, I abandoned this secret life for eight years. I still had depressions and manic episodes, but they were not as severe and I could handle them. I stopped hating life and frequenting bathhouses. I got married and embarked on a productive professional career as an architect, but this period of tranquility did not last. After a few years the stresses in my life especially the problems of keeping an architectural practice flourishing lead me back into severe manic-depression and addiction. The drug I became addicted to was far more powerful than marijuana. I found crack cocaine and immediately began to abuse it. Crack is rocket fuel to mania. I loved this high, which at first and actually for a fairly long time diminished my depression. I was self-medicating. The drug however released all my inhibitions, and I found what I most wanted to do was cross-dress and seek out sex in clubs and bars. I did this secretly for a long time. I had a studio separate from my home, where I would go ostensibly to work on my art, which I did some of the time, but much of the time I spent getting dressed up as my alter-ego Carlotta. She would prowl the streets of downtown Los Angeles with the other transvestites looking for johns. She also carried in her purse and eight inch ice pick for protection –she said- but in reality she hoped to come across some poor smuck who would challenge her and she could skewer. Luckily this never happened. It was all about risk and dichotomy.
The risk of this behavior was more than merely exciting, I was euphoric. Once I had a rough homeless man hanging onto my open car door as I tried to speed away from a drug deal gone bad. I was trying to push him off the door at the same time negotiating the steering wheel. He eventually let go and tumbled into the street. I should have been terrified by this event. I wasn’t. I was trilled. It was everything I wanted: the adrenalin rush, the exhibitionist behavior – I was dressed in full drag, and the act on the cusp of illegality. I could not get enough of this activity. I like Dr. Jekyll could not and did not want to stop becoming Mrs. Hyde.
The dichotomy was a full expression of my manic self. There was Carl, the professional architect doing his job each day looking normal –at least normal at first, the more my addiction grew the less balance and reliable I became. People in my office later remarked to me that they did not know what Carl would show up on any given day. One day I would be cute and loving, the next I could be cutting and hateful. Then there was Carlotta, black dressed bitch with orange red hair, who raced around town from transvestite bar to gay bar or walked the streets of skid row. These two selves were diametrically opposed to one another. One was the daytime loving husband and father; the other, the queen of the night.
I have recovered from my addiction and my cross-dressing with the help of therapy and medication. I have come to see my desire to become a woman as a manifestation of my illness that had its roots in childhood. When I was five or six before my young life was torn apart by the nasty divorce of my mother and father. My happiest days were dressing up in an attic closet with my older sister in our grandmother’s old clothes and shoes. We would put on slips- they dragged far behind us, high heels that were twice as big as our little feet, and wrap our necks with feather boas. These days with my sister that ended in our separation after the divorce stayed with me and influenced my future relationship to my sex. Sex is deeply ingrained, be it be sexual identity or sexual proclivity. I believe it comes out in mental illness in some form or the other, perhaps influenced by personal history or just plain biology. Perversion of sex can be seen in many of the bipolar disordered.