The Swiss Cheesehead
In the summer of 1993, I went on an exchange program to Europe through a college in northern California. The program placed students into jobs at companies throughout the continent based on their skills and language abilities. Students were placed at British Airways, BMW, Porsche, Swiss Bank, Fiat, Lloyd’s of London and so forth. Up to that point in time, I hadn’t had much job experience and my German skills were good, but not good enough to work at a highly skilled job. As a result, I was placed in the largest supermarket company in Switzerland working as a fork lift driver in a distribution center. It was in small village in the German speaking part of Switzerland just outside of the capital city Bern.
The program also placed the students in homes with local families, so the intern could learn the native dialect. Well the German spoken in Switzerland was almost totally incomprehensible to me. They didn’t speak the ‘high’ German I was taught in school. It has even more guttural sounds and they tend to spit when they talk the sounds get so harsh. Many times, food bits would fly out of their mouths.
I showed up to the little village on a train from Zurich, and my host mother picked me up and took me on a little tour of the city. When I walked into her place, it was immaculate, and every little thing had its perfect place in the house. She was completely anal retentive and obsessive compulsive. Not a very compatible combination for me at all. I tend to leave my dirty laundry on the floor and let the dishes pile up in the sink. This personality difference would result later in a blowout.
The next day I reported to work at the distribution center. I toured the enormous facility that had state-of- the-art robots that would grab pallets full of shopping items from a train that drove into the warehouse and place them into shelves that were up to four stories high. The forklifts were used for special tasks the robots couldn’t do like get into the back of the train cars. There were people from Italy, Turkey, Poland, Russia, you name it. In general, they were outcasts and refugees of their native societies. There were two other Americans working there through the same exchange program. One was kind of a mean-spirited person from southern California and the other was a jolly Mormon gentleman from Provo, Utah.
I was trained on the forklift that week and learned how to operate my machine with utmost precision. One small mistake on the distribution floor and you could mangle somebody very easily. I was an excellent driver I must say. Everybody complimented on my speed and accuracy. I was dialed into the zone. There was no way I could drink or do drugs and work on this job. It required my full attention literally every second.
The Mormon friend, Kevin, and I couldn’t understand the rest of the group due to the language barriers, so we ended up spending a lot of time together. We would rent motorcycles and cruise through the Swiss Alps on the weekends. We would trek into France and Italy over mountainous terrains. It was a blast.
I got to know a little about the Mormon religion while I was there, and I even went to a service to meet the elders of the church. My jaw dropped when I heard the eccentric stories about their beliefs. I was there to understand and not to judge, so I kept my comments to myself.
I also made friends with other employees from various countries and was invited back to their homes to meet their families and break bread together. To me, when someone opens there house up to you for meal, that is one of the most endearing things in life. Truly.
After about four to five weeks, I remember starting to feeling I was in a magical state in a magical place. Everything seemed perfect, even my leg spasms didn’t act up and I wasn’t experiencing any seizures.
The neurologist in San Francisco had told me that if things started getting better I could start tapering off the drug. So I did. He didn’t tell me how fast to slow down on the Dilantin, I weaned myself completely off the drug within less than two weeks. I had been taking it for almost two years. It was way too fast.
What happened was that I went into a mental tailspin. I started seeing angels and demons and hallucinating. It was the onset of a severe manic episode.
One day I walked up the mountain where I lived to the last house at the top. I saw a deer grazing near the front yard. The deer didn’t move when I approached, and I got within ten feet of it. There were some rabbits in the near distance. Then all of a sudden, a fox poked his head out of the forest. They all just stared at me. I thought they were communicating words to me. The voices were clearly audible hallucinations.
When I reached the only house on the side of the mountain, there were about thirty huskies all chained up individually to their respective dog house. They were Iditarod Sled dogs. They all were furiously barking, obviously because I was a stranger. I closed my eyes and held up my hand and one by one, the dogs stopped barking. After about thirty seconds there was total silence. I thought, “Wow. I have magical powers over these animals.”
When the owner of the house came out of the house, I was petting his huge Rottweiler that was guarding the front door. I had no fear whatsoever. The owner couldn’t believe it. He said in German, “That dog could have torn your arm off. You must have some big cajones or you’re not that bright.” The case was that I was going into a psychotic episode and didn’t even know it. I thought for a minute that I was the reincarnation of St Francis, the Patron Saint of animals. Indeed, I was in the middle of a manic episode.
Nocturnal Leap of Faith
That same night I couldn’t catch a wink of sleep. I had this incontrollable energy. I felt like I was on top of world. I stayed up all night writing in my journal at a fast pace. My penmanship looked like I was furiously writing in a car through the middle of war minefield. I was extremely psychotic but have never felt this way out there before. All I knew is that I kept feeling more elated as each minute passed by.
I decided to go out on an exploratory mission throughout town to see if there was a sign of life. There really wasn’t any good intention or goal to my manic mission. The only legitimate objective I had was to get out of that small bedroom and get some exercise, so I could get tired and eventually fall asleep. I had too much energy to be cooped up in a small room.
I left the apartment at about two in the morning and hopped on my bike and started cruising around the old town two miles from my village. Everything was shut down by 11:00pm. With the exception one police car, I did not see a human in sight. I rode my bike to this large, historic stone bridge in town that went over this huge, raging river. I rode my bike to the middle of it just to check it out. My mind started racing really fast. One side of me, said ”Jump”, The other said, “Are you frickin’ crazy?”
I thought that if I dove from an eighty-foot cliff in Greece, I could handle this. I left my bike along the side of the bridge. I leapt up onto the wall along the side of the bridge. I stared at the raging waters in the moonlight. I convinced myself that this was the thing for me to do at the time. Talk about insanity.
So with all of my clothes on I position myself to jump. Again, I counted, “Three, two, one” and plunged head first into the river. The water was flowing so fast I got sucked under about fifteen feet. It was like being in a washing machine with no escape. At that very moment I thought I was going to drown. I heard a voice that was clearly Satan telling me to swallow the water. I thought in that instant I was going to try to take a gasp of air and fill my lungs up with water. All of a sudden, I heard a gentle, calming voice. I could have sworn it was Jesus. He said to me, “No, Joseph. Not now. I still need you.” I struggled underwater for what seemed to be an eternity. I finally fought my way to the surface of the water. I drew my first breath and said, “Alas. I’m going to live.” I floated down the river in the strong current and finally made my way to the river’s edge where I was lucky enough to grab on to a ladder.
I got out soaking wet in all of my clothes. I was inside the swim park at this point. I had been there before and knew where the exit was. I had to climb over a barbed wire fence to get out. I cut the palm of my hand a little bit and started to bleed. I sucked the blood out of the cut then looked at my hand. It was
healed. No more blood. A true miracle I thought. The cut seemed to have gone away. I’m sure I was just manic and was dreaming things, but I really thought it was a miracle. I thought, “Wow, Jesus just saved me and gave me magical healing powers.” I walked back to the bridge. Hopped on my bike and rode home.
Luckily my host mother didn’t see me come in the door. Whew! It was a day I'll never forget.
The next day, a friend of mine that was soldier of peace in Afghanistan and my Mormon friend went to the top of one the highest peaks in the country to do the tourist thing. We drove about an hour then got out in the most picturesque setting I had ever seen. We went up the mountain in ski lifts and arrived at the top. It was absolutely majestic. Words cannot do it justice. There were beautiful billowy clouds gently coasting in the sky. Even though it was August, there was still snow at the summit. You could see hang gliders climbing vertically from the thermal winds.
I was in a state of ecstasy. I still hadn’t slept for two days and was oxygen deprived up there. I decided to lie down at the top of the mountain to meditate. As I lay down, I started to go psychotic again. I was staring at the sun with my eyelids closed. I started dreaming about the scene from the movie series of Jesus of Nazareth when he was given his crown of thorns and cross to walk through town along what is called the Via Dolorosa to Mount Golgotha where he was crucified. I could see the eyes of the Roman soldiers as they drove the nails through my hands. Then they hoisted me up painfully and the cross
jammed into the ground driving the nails in deeper. I then had a conversation with God and asked why he had forsaken me. I remember hearing cries from a woman presumed to be my mother at the foot of the cross. Then when the Roman soldier just about to jab me in the lung with his spear, I opened my eyes and looked around. I took off my shoes and started walking in the snow down the mountain. I remember vividly singing the lyrics from a Grateful Dead song called “Standing on the Moon” that goes, “What a lovely view of Heaven, but I’d rather be with you.”
My friends above were wondering what the heck I was doing. After twenty minutes, the Mormon shouted, “J.P., Get your ass back here. We’re outta here. Let’s go” The soldier of peace asked what happened to me. I said I was harnessing the powers of Jesus and felt the need to walk on the snow. He was a staunch Christian and thought I was mocking him and his religion. We were quiet in the car ride home. My head was still dizzy from the whole experience.
Angels and Demons
The next day I returned to work feeling extremely elated. It had been three days now with little to no sleep. I started talking to my friends, and then all of a sudden, I felt like I could see the auras of everyone.
I could tell immediately whether they were a good or bad person. One woman had a tattoo of the devil on her shoulder. I thought, “She’s a Satanist.” I talked to the American from southern California. I told him I could see angels and demons in people. He looked at me, opened his eyes wide and said, “You too?” Then he laughed maniacally. I thought he was a devil worshipper too and that there was a conspiracy working against me. I became paranoid. I ran up to my boss’s office above the distribution floor and said, “I’ve got to tell you something. There are devil worshippers down there on the floor. I think they might be after me, but I have no clue why.” The refined Swiss businessman had no idea how to respond to that. He said, “Joseph, I’m not sure what you mean, but if you’re more comfortable taking the afternoon off, go ahead.” He knew something was wrong with me. I am assuming he thought I was on drugs, which wasn’t the case.
I looked out the window of his office down at the train pulling into the warehouse and thought, “He’s in on it too.” I had just read a book on the holocaust for school. When I saw the train, I envisioned the trains with all of the Jews coming through that same warehouse during World War II. My mind imagined that that very same warehouse was used to ship the local Jews off to Dachau concentration camp, where I had visited in the summer of 1991. My mind had visions of bloody carnage. The hallucination was terrifying.
The Botched Exorcism
A friend of mine from New Zealand approached me and said, “Hey J.P. Let me talk to you for a second.” He continued, “Are you O.K.? I talked to the boss and he said you might not be doing so well. I noticed that you’ve not been yourself all week. You seem to be overexcited and are going faster than your usual self. Let me take you home and get you something to eat.”
He got me in the car and instead of driving to his house, he drove to a hospital and said, ”I just got to run in for a few minutes. I’d like for you to come with me.” I was completely out of it. I decided to get out of the car and enter the hospital with him. He led me into a doctor’s office, who had apparently been waiting our arrival. My friend introduced me to the doctor. The doctor looked at me and asked, “How are you feeling Joseph?” I realized that we weren’t there for my friend’s errand, we were there for me. My friend said, “J.P. There’s something wrong with you and the doctor can help you out.” The doctor said I was in a state of mind that required medication. I told him that I was feeling fantastic and had just quit the Dilantin. The doctor left the room a minute and returned with a little cup of with some pills in it. He said, “Joseph, I want you to take this and come back tomorrow.” My response was that I didn’t want to come down from my euphoric high. Much to the doctor’s chagrin, I refused to take the medicine and stormed out of the office. I said to my friend, “Let’s get out of here. I’m perfectly fine.”
We left the hospital and got into his car. The New Zealander was making several cell phone calls to several people. He was speaking fast in Swiss German so I couldn’t understand him. He took me to this house and said, “We’re going to have some lunch here.” I entered the house and several adults greeted me, but they were looking at me a little funny. My friend said, “Let’s go upstairs while they prepare the food.” We walked up to the third floor and went through some “Greg Brady” beads. There were chairs set up in a circle. Several other adults started filing into the room. I suspected something suspicious as they started to get seated in the chairs around the circle. They started holding hands and make me a part of the circle. An older black man from South Africa walks in with a staff and a big crucifix around his neck. Then I realized they thought I was possessed by the devil and that this was some kind of an exorcism.
I had seen the movie “The Exorcist” and thought I’d play around with them for a while and tease them with some of the antics the little girl pulled. They started talking to me in Swiss German, and somehow, I thought I could understand every word I was saying. In fact, I was talking back to them in the same language, or so I thought. They started chanting and I chimed in acting like a fool. The black man opened the Bible in front of me and somebody held my head in place so I had to view the Bible with the crucifix dangling from his neck in front of it. I thought, “They think I’m afraid of this stuff, just like holy water.” I started shouting in tongues at them in some incomprehensible language. To this day, I don’t know what happened. I thought, “Was it just gibberish or did I actually have a Swiss German demon in me that knew the language?” Well I knew that this exorcism wasn’t going anywhere and felt like I had been duped by my friend. I was very disappointed in him. I got up and ran out the door and told my friend not to talk to me again. I didn’t realize what a jackass I was being.
E.T. Phone Home
My mind was experiencing a new emotion every other minute it seemed. In medical terms, I was rapid cycling as it is called. I started running away from the house without knowing where the hell I was. I walked for miles through the countryside until I came to a busy road. There was a large military truck that was passing by and I stuck out my thumb. The truck stopped. Some soldiers jumped out from the back with large automatic weapons and approached me. They spoke in formal, understandable German. One said, “What is the problem, Sir?” I said I was lost and was trying to get back to Wangen bei Olten. They could tell I was an American and told me to jump into the back of the truck with the other dozen soldiers. I remember cracking jokes with them as if it was a scene from “Good Morning Vietnam” with Adrian Cronauer played by Robin Williams.
They dropped me off at the gates of a beautiful, medieval town. They said the train station was a few blocks away and a local train could take me to Wangen. As I was entering the gates of the town, there was an unlocked bicycle leaning against the wall. I thought, “Holy cow. God is setting me up with some transportation.” I am no thief, but for some reason, I felt the bike was really for me. I essentially stole the bike and started pedaling though the cobblestone streets. The setting was so quaint. The people were all so beautiful. I parked the bike and started walking around. I started looking into people’s eyes with my beady eyes and thought that if I just looked at them, I had the magical powers from God to get them a direct pass into Heaven when they died. You can’t get much more absurd that that. So I went to as many people as possible to catch a glimpse of their eyes, instant salvation. People started making comments and staring at me weird. I started to become a little self-conscious, so I got out of there.
I jumped on the bike and pedaled a few blocks down to the train station. It was getting late at that point. I was starting to get confused again and my mind started racing faster and faster. I knew something was wrong with me but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I said, “Enough is enough. I’m going back to the United States. I can’t take this madness anymore.” I walked into the train station. There was nobody there except the station chief. I asked him kindly if I could use the phone. I didn’t have money for a pay
phone, but I did have my AT&T international calling card. The station chief allowed me one call. I dialed my parents back in Milwaukee.
I was getting paranoid at this point thinking that the military might be after me and my family. My father answered the phone. It was about six in the afternoon. I had pictured it was late in the evening and was already in bed with my mom. I said, “Dad, are you okay?” I thought they were surrounded by Swiss soldiers about to kill them. I said, “Dad, it’s okay if they shoot the dog, just keep quiet and everything will be okay.” He said, “What are you talking about?” I said, “Dad, there’s nothing to worry about. I’m coming home.” He didn’t know how to process this. I was supposed to stay there for another month.
Now, I’m quitting and coming home. He asked, “Are you alright?” I said, “Terrific, but I’m getting crazy thoughts in my head and I don’t know what to do.” He told me to go back to my home in Wangen bei Olten. I told him I couldn’t because I feared my host mom was a devil worshipper and was going to try to sacrifice me that night and eat me for dinner. He told me then to go to my Mormon friend’s house. The station chief told me it was time to get off the phone. I told my dad, “I gotta run. I’ll call you later when I’m safe. Goodbye” Then I hung up and walked outside the station.
I started thinking about the class on miracles and metaphysics that I studied with the Jesuits at USF. I thought matter can pass through matter at the will and pleasure of God above. A large freight train was coming past the station. I thought that it would be a wild trick if I could jump in front of the train and it would pass through me like a ghost. I was very confident it would work and started edging myself towards the tracks. Just as I was about to jumping front of the train, the conductor saw that I was going to commit suicide and laid on the deafening train horn that shook my soul. I freaked out and jumped backwards. That was almost the end. I would have died instantly. People would have wondered if I committed suicide or was just out of my mind.
My mind kept cycling faster and faster. I decided it was a good idea to grab my new bike, throw it to the ground and start jumping on it. I destroyed the bike. Then I thought, “Wait. I need to talk to my parents again. I have no idea where I’m going right now. I have no idea where I am.” I went to go inside the train station again, but it was locked. The chief looked at me and shook his head no. He must have seen me destroy the bike. I shouted, “I need to use the phone one more time.” He answered, “No.” I was
frustrated and mad. I grabbed the largest rock on the railway that I could find and threw it as hard as I could at the enormous train station window. The glass shattered leaving a little hole where the rock went through. The look on the station chief’s face was one of horror. He felt I was going to attack him. I went up to the hole in the glass and said in a calm and gentle voice, “Sir. I just need to use the phone for a few minutes. I’ll gladly repay you for the glass. I have the money.”
I turned around and scratched my head and said to myself, “I guess I’ll just have to wait for my train to come by.” The logical reaction for somebody that just vandalized public property would have been to run. Instead, I started to climb on top of the empty coal cars that were sitting in front of the station. I was twenty feet off the ground walking along the narrow perimeter of the coal car. It was ludicrous. If I fell one way, I would have landed inside the car and be trapped. If I fell the other way, I’d probably break both of my legs.
A man in a Hawaiian shirt approached me from behind the station and shouted, “Hey, you. Get down from there.” I obliged and carefully climbed down the car. He drew a gun on me and pointed it at my feet. I started dancing foolishly and said, “What are you going to shoot me?” I had no idea he was a policeman. He then takes out his badge and shows it to me. He asked where I was from and I told him, “The United States.” He kept asking me questions and getting closer to me. I kept backing up. I wouldn’t surrender. Then all of a sudden, a second man came running from behind me and grabbed me by the neck and threw me against the cop car. He grabbed me by the hair shook my head violently to see if I’d put up resistance. I had given up the fight and became totally compliant.
They took me to the jail cell and locked me up. I was in there for about thirty minutes before my mind started racing again. I started shouting and thrashing on the ground. The police knew that I was mentally ill. Less than an hour later a woman came into the cell with syringe and doped me up with a strong tranquilizer. That was it for the night. Lights out.
I woke up in some sort of hospital, but I was so confused, I had very little recollection of what took place the night before. I asked the nurse where I was, and she said, “You’re in the psychiatric hospital. You had a psychotic experience last night and vandalized the train station.” I faintly remembered. I went in and out of many deep sleeps that day and woke up in the afternoon the following day and heard my father’s voice down the hall. I thought, “Bullshit. He’s in the United States.” When he walked into the room, I accused my dad of being a body double like the kind Saddam Hussein had. I told him to stay away from me. He said, “Jay, It’s your father.” He approached me to give me a big hug. When we embraced, I knew it was dad. I broke down and cried on his shoulder and told him how much I loved him and thanked him for saving me.
The doctors monitored me in the hospital for several days, but never officially diagnosed my condition. They wanted to make sure I was stable enough to get on a plane and fly home. They didn’t want any international incident in the air. My father and I bonded for the next few days. I started reluctantly
accepting the fact that my thoughts were just fantasy about being Jesus or a modern day prophet with magical powers. Part of me didn’t want to give it up. I was bummed out and disappointed that God played such tricks on me.
Milwaukee Psychiatric Hospital
I flew back home to Milwaukee and checked into the Milwaukee Psychiatric Hospital right away. My first psychiatrist was Dr. Ferguson. He conducted some tests and spent a few hours talking with me. He diagnosed me with bipolar disorder and immediately put me on lithium, which is an inexpensive salt extract. They put me in the lock down ward and took my shoelaces, so I would try to do something stupid with them like hang myself or strangle another patient. I had a roommate that was twice as upside down as I was. I started making friends with everybody in the ward and asked each of them what their problem was. I was curious, but also wanted to provide some positive input. That’s my nature.
My family would come to see me every day. I was still somewhat manic. I would try to be a comedian and busted everybody into tears doing silly stuff. At one point, I got up on a picnic table in the courtyard and pretended to conduct a concert with my imaginary conductor’s wand just like the bipolar character played by Richard Gere did in the symphony scene in the movie, ‘Mr. Jones’. Although my parents found it amusing, they had to tell me to calm down. I would play tricks of them like hiding this little rubber frog my youngest sister bought me at the zoo. It was like hide and go seek. I would run down the hall and hide the frog in a ficus tree. My mom goes, “Oh, that’s a Benjamina ficus.“ I shook the tree and said, “Benjamitis. Fuckamitus. Where the fuck’s my frog?” And magically the frog fell from the tree.
They were in stitches.
I was the definitive leader of the pack in my psych ward, akin to Jack Nicholson’s character at the end of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”. The other patients looked to me for advice and leadership and I was probably less than half of the average age there. I thought maybe this credential ought to go somewhere on my resume.
I spent about a week or so in the hospital getting my medication levels balanced until I could think somewhat clearly again. I was released and went home. My doctor and family thought I also should see visit a psychologist. I told him my story about consorting with all of the religious people at my job including the exorcism incident. He was determined I was programmed by some cult.
There was a religious cult in Switzerland called the Order of the Solar Temple that had just made international news the year prior that had a mass suicide of over seventy people. Little did I know at the time; the order was based on the myth of the continuing existence of the Knights Templar. This would hold significance later on in my life.
The psychologist suggested to send me to a ‘boot camp’ for deprogramming the grid of lies infused in my brain. I said, “Not gonna happen. That’s not what went down. I was just hanging out with these people learning about their religions. Nobody tried to get me to do or believe in anything.” I told my dad that the session was over and we got out of there.
I went to get a second opinion of my diagnosis from a second psychiatrist. It turns out he grew up in the Haight Ashbury district of San Francisco. After hearing my story, he concluded that I wasn’t bipolar, just that I consumed too many drugs in high school and college. He said, “Just put the toys (drugs) away and be honest to yourself.” He didn’t think I needed medication. I felt inside that he was wrong as did my parents. I discontinued seeing him and went back to Dr. Ferguson for the remainder of my treatment.
I slipped into an unhealthy lifestyle falling into all of the pitfalls that would prevent me from recovering from my depression. Neurologists, psychiatrists and dietitians all agree that depression can be warded off by exercise. For some reason, I couldn’t find the energy to hit the gym or at least take the dog for a walk. It’s easy to crawl into the black hole where the more you sit idle, the more depressed you get. The hardest thing is getting inspired to get off my ass. I’m not a big fan of the gym, so I resort to other forms such as swimming, long walks, jogging, and playing Frisbee on the beach. I tend to let myself go for a year or two, then try to reel it in to get back to my fighting weight. At one point, I let myself go to 260lbs., which is forty pounds’ overweight.
Junk Food Diet & Mocktails
Another big no-no is the abusive increase consumption of sugar. caffeine, and nicotine. I hit it like it was going out of style. When I have that need for speed and can’t get my hands on drugs or alcohol, I turn to sugar and caffeine; mocktails(non-alcoholic cocktails), pitchers of Iced Tea, Red Bull, Rockstar, Monster, Coke, Pepsi, and whole pots of coffee.
My diet consisted of pure shit food. I’d eat Jack in the Box, Taco Bell, McDonalds, candy etc.; any kind of comfort food. I was too lazy to cook or fix something in the fridge, makes me fat and depressed, looking in the mirror or getting on a scale would perpetuate the cycle.
I had terrible sleeping habits; staying up too late and sleeping all day long like a vampire. Obviously the caffeine use played a big part of that. There was a total lack of a schedule. I watched too much television.