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By Cynthya Porter
Brian Jost, author of Grounded by Bipolar Disorder, One Pilot’s Landing, will speak in Winona August 8 about casting off the stigma of mental illness within a community.
Episodes with mental illness are often shrouded with shame, hidden away like a dark secret too embarrassing to share even with those close at hand.
But that stigma denies friends, family members, and communities the opportunity to understand mental illness and treat it for what it is: a medical condition outside a person’s control.
Author Brian Jost has broken that silence, bravely exposing his darkest moments with bipolar disorder to the world. Sharing his story, Jost said, is his part in helping to dissolve stigma and promote understanding for those with bipolar disorder and those who come in contact with them.
Jost will speak in Winona Monday, August 8, at noon at the Winona County building at 202 West Third Street. The presentation, sponsored by Family and Children’s Center, is free and open to the public, and it will be an intriguing glimpse at the inner-workings of a bipolar mind.
In the book Grounded by Bipolar Disorder, One Pilot’s Landing, Jost takes an unflinching look backward at the roller coaster that brought him to his enlightened, stable life today.
The story starts as any other promising college graduate’s life story might, with a young Jost following his dream of flying commercial planes and teaching aviation.
In the first few years it seemed that his career was hampered by his continual hopping from one city to another, though looking back Jost realizes that was just an early manifestation of the mania that was to come.
Big, impulsive ideas are a hallmark of bipolar disorder, also referred to as manic depression.
For most people, life’s good and bad moments feel like a gentle roller coaster ride with manageable ups and downs. But when brain chemistry is out of whack as in the case of bipolar disorder, those ups get higher and higher, and the lows get lower and lower, until life feels like a wild, delusional ride moving at a pace that is completely out of control.
If it happened overnight, perhaps it would be easier for family and friends to recognize the precursor to full-blown mania or depression.
But customarily and as was the case with Jost, symptoms crept in a little at a time, the kind of symptoms people are expected to just snap out of.
Hypo-mania, or slightly manic behavior, is difficult to recognize for what it is because few who experience it complain about it, Jost said. In fact, when in a manic state, most feel pretty good.
But it was a bout with depression that brought on Jost’s first uncontrollable episode with mania, as a well-meaning psychiatrist put him on an antidepressant to help lift him out of sadness.
Manic depressives can’t take antidepressants without something to counter the mood elevating, however, and Jost found himself feeling better and better. Too good, even.
As the antidepressants kicked in, Jost found himself soaring higher and higher, effervescent and invincible. “Every day keeps getting better than the one before,” he told his mom at one point.
But then God started talking to him, and life became problematic.
Jost had crescendoed into his first full-blown manic episode, and in 2005 he was hospitalized and diagnosed with bipolar disorder.
The blessing in his life then and since was a close circle of friends who recognized his behavior as unusual and held enough sway with him to convince him to seek help.
But the problem during manic episodes, Jost said, is that you feel really, really great, and the idea that something is wrong with you is hard to swallow.
Still, he spent a numb year on Lithium, the first drug of choice for bipolar disorder, which controlled his brain chemistry but made him feel hollow inside.
A medication change a year later sent Jost through his next manic episode, this one more extreme than the last.
Plagued by growing euphoria, promiscuity and alcohol abuse, Jost didn’t immediately recognize the mania. By the time he did, he was in a public park trying to hide his keys from himself, talking in strange, disjointed sentences to his friend on the phone while he waited for the police to come bring him to the hospital.
The painful episode is available in full detail to Jost who, at that stage of his mania, was documenting everything with video recordings. He was convinced it was his purpose to create a documentary given his exemplary understanding of the universe.
Medicine changes are scary times for people with bipolar disorder, as the chemical imbalance it creates sometimes sends them spiraling out of control again.
Jost experienced exactly that in 2009, when a medicine change prompted a manic episode so bad that he believed he was God and that he needed to have an important conversation with President Obama.
A tiny sliver of his rational mind told him to get to the hospital, but once there his completely delusional mind warned him to act normal so they would let him go back home.
He needed to get home, after all, because he knew the secrets of the universe, including about terrorism plots, and there were many important meetings to be had.
His life was full of delusions of reference, where everything seemed to have special significance in confirming his wildly racing thoughts. And Jost’s reality was steeped in wild delusions of grandeur, where he was Jesus, and then God, and where a stadium full of people were gathering to watch the documentary about his life. That documentary was being secretly filmed by “hospital staff” who secretly knew how important he was, Jost wrote in his gripping account, so he played along with them letting them film “The Show.”
In and out of the hospital, Jost’s mania had taken on new proportions, including hallucinations about demons and terrorists and the belief that he was surrounded alternatingly by FBI agents or angels there to protect him. It all made perfect sense to him at the time, though today he knows that none of it makes any sense at all.
Jost credits his wife, Sarah, his parents, and a few close friends as his saving grace during those dark days. They stood by him and sought to understand the condition that plagued him.
And he credits the police, 911 operators, emergency room workers, and psychiatric care he received as positive interventions in his mania.
But there has been collateral damage dealing with bipolar disorder as well. Jost can no longer fly as he can’t get medical clearance, and many relationships over the course of his illness ended.
Sometimes friends didn’t understand and drifted away. Sometimes Jost was too ashamed to let them into his dark secret.
But today Jost has rebuilt his life with new understanding and a new mission to spread information that people can take home into their own lives and communities.
He speaks to medical groups, public servants and mental health communities about his struggle, and about the hope he feels going forward.
Jost also touches on how communities can be better advocates for those suffering from bipolar or other disorders. Education, understanding and openness about mental illness are the cornerstones of a community’s response to its residents who need help.
Part Two in the Winona Post will explore this community’s responses and resources relating to those suffering with mental health issues