Monday, December 28, 2009

Talking the Walk (14)

Crusoe and the Swinging Door

Another figure that recurs in my book is not a shadowy stalker but an amazed, and dazed, wanderer on a beach. Robinson Crusoe. At one point I talk about the frequent sense I have of “stepping out from [a mist] to stare, alert and surprised, at the present I find myself in. Crusoe mode, as Heather and I call this islanding in the present, has its positive aspect. Washed up on a new beach, you focus intently on the things about you: grains of sand, a shell, the leaves of a new tree, a footprint. You are alive to the life about you in a way you scarcely could have been during the routine and tedium of the voyage.” This sense of witnessing an ongoing miracle–and a newborn baby, if we knew how it thought, must also live in Crusoe mode–was one of the most striking results after I finally got out of the hospital. I hitchhiked across Canada with my friend that summer. It must have been a somewhat harrowing trip for him–I would only sleep an hour or two at night, and often saw strange things, such as the giant, 2-metre-long crow that swooped repeatedly at one ride’s window–but luckily, my friend was a good sport, and even more luckily, a sound sleeper. I remember one day we were in a diner, I think it was in Kamloops, having breakfast, and I was sitting there after my scrambled eggs, watching my spoon glitter in a pool of sunlight, and my friend said, sounding surprised, “You feel good now, don’t you?” Yes, I told him. And more than good: wealthy. He asked me about that and I tried to explain. I was warm and comfortable, I’d been fed, I was free to sit on a vinyl chair and look about, listening to my friend, gazing at a spoon, watching other people...what more than these riches did I need?

To a large extent I’ve never lost that perspective. It’s a permanent gift I received.(1) A legacy of madness. Or, perhaps, a grateful ebullience that was always there, but that madness, or just hitting bottom, heightened. I’m aware of it standing here now. Inside–out of the November elements–invited to talk to people...pretty confident I’ll get a good lunch somewhere. I don’t really need anything more. Except–I need to say something... or else you’ll begin shifting uncomfortably in your seats. And then we’ll all feel bad.

And there’s the rub. How to live in the moment, but move to the next moment. A practical problem for all of us: how to live now, but still be living tomorrow. Which I must have solved somehow, or I would be a skeleton grinning at a dusty spoon in a boarded-over diner in Kamloops.

How did I solve it? I wonder. How do I? I think perhaps, at my best, I solve it by becoming, by living as, a moving now, a moving readiness. A newborn on the newborns always are (even when they're sleeping). A Crusoe with a Crusoe soon developed.

Continued life does involve forward-thinking. Future-thinking. But...I have trouble with future-thought. For a good and healthful reason–my tendency to marvel at the miracle of the present–but also for a more destructive one, which is a simple inability to believe I can have a future. That it won’t be swept away by another trip through the swinging door of madness.

My current psychiatrist, an excellent doctor, has given me much counsel on this problem, but a lot of it boils down to two of those simple words that call out for attention: “as if.” Live for today, but also “as if” tomorrow will come. Prepare “as if” you will be granted a future as well as a present. A tall order, but a sensible and necessary one.

Doors are another metaphor that run through my book. I think of the altered states of madness as a door that, for someone of good mental health, should properly be a little sticky and resistant. But if it bangs open once, it will open more easily again. It it swings open many times, as it has with me, it starts to resemble one of those screen doors with worn-out hinges that flap at the slightest breeze. You have to learn to live with a door with loose hinges, which means the possibility of something coming in...or something, maybe you, going out. You have to learn to live with a door that is ajar.

There are worse things. Permanently locked doors, for example. Being sealed out...or in.
(1) A blessing and a curse, actually. “Live for the moment,” runs the advice we are always getting–and often, most of us, giving. But it is a counsel of ruin for so many of the important moments we find ourselves in. Moments during a job interview, a consultation about health or finances, a pledge of romance or friendship–when success, when fulfillment, depends precisely on the degree to which we can offer ourselves as a person capable of deferment, someone who can be reliably counted on to bank a portion of every moment’s potential for future spending. Someone prudent enough to have opened, long ago, an RRSP of vital energies and to be committed to making regular, incremental contributions.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Talking the Walk (13)

It’s true. It’s true.

Soon after my first admission to hospital, I entered a state of complete catatonia, either as a result of psychosis or the powerful tranquilizers I was put on, or most likely a combination of both. But before that, I have fragmented but clear memories of an exchange that kept recurring during my first intake interviews. It involved the doctors telling me, with regard to the wound I had given myself–what I called my “self-Caesarean”–and my beliefs about it, that it was a delusion, a hallucination, part of the psychosis. And I kept saying, with the monosyllabic stubbornness of a trapped person, “’s true.” I think I kept repeating this until it was just a whisper, and then it became an internal voice: It’s true. It’s true. You see, I had been guided by a vision that a rebirth was coming. That the person I had been was dying, and had to die, so that a new person might be born. “You’re sick,” they kept saying. “No, it’s true,” I kept saying. We were speaking from different vantage points–they from sickness, symptoms, and treatment; and I from existence, metaphor and what I saw as salvation–so we couldn’t understand one another. What I might say to them now, if I could travel back in time, is, “I’m sick...and it’s true.” What I’d done was violent and horrible and terribly distorted–with more violence and distortion to come–but it was also true. Twistedly true. Or, if you prefer, truly twisted. And true in the most literal way. A straight-A high school student, a good and likeable boy whose future seemed promising–now lay bandaged and mute, drugged and shocked, on a psychiatric ward, with, after a while, very little hope held out, even by the doctors, for his recovery. Clearly, someone had died. And then, two years later, working as a part-time dishwasher and living in a rented room, tramping about the city all day and night scribbling poems on scraps of paper, restaurant napkins and placemats, even the margins of dollar bills...hand-stitching little books, making collages out of curb-found objects...and feeling exultant, jubilant that at last I’d found the life in art I was meant for. Just as clearly, someone had been born.


It is terrible, of course, to be un-made as a person. And exhilarating. And terrible to be exhilarated by your own un-making. As I thought about this the other day, what flew into my mind, like a flaming arrow, was the famous war cry attributed to Crazy Horse: “It is a good day to die.” Which means, as I understand it, that it is also a good day to live. (Especially if you couple it with the first sentence Crazy Horse is supposed to have said: “It is a good day to fight. It is a good day to die.”) If it is a good day to die, it is a good day to live. And...if it is not a good day to die, then probably it has not been a very good day to live. This, by the way, is not related by any neat corollary to suicide, which stalks through my book like a shadowy hunter. I won’t generalize about suicide, which I think is talked about too glibly, when in fact it must be as various and complex as the people and moods that turn to it. I only want to say that I have known the impulse to exit life not as a good day to die, but rather as a day so bad to live that dying seemed the only way to end it. That is very different.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Talking the Walk (12)

Catching Up to Yourself (Part 2)

How did your wife’s diagnosis effect you?

Well, the long answer to that is the fourth section of the book: “The Lily Pond,” which became the title for the whole. The manuscript was originally just the first three sections. But after Heather got sick, was diagnosed...and came through a very rough time...after that, we agreed that I should try to write about it. Heather encouraged me to do so. In fact, earlier she had said she felt there was “something missing...another piece” from the story. That may have been partly her own premonition of illness. Which usually gives an advance aura of itself, and seldom, if ever, comes truly out of the blue. The short answer is that I was affected much as I imagine anyone else would be. I felt sadness, worry, fear, exhaustion. Bewilderment. Helplessness. My own history of mental illness gave me a general purchase on what was happening, but takes different forms, poses new perils, in each person...even someone you know very well. No amount of preparation can make it predictable or fully understandable. You can’t tame it. You can learn a bit to manage the terror and bafflement, but you can’t erase them.

Was writing this book a catharsis?

I don’t know. I started writing it three years ago, and it was published three months ago, yet I still feel I’m coming to grips with it. Catching up to it, maybe. I think that might be true for a long time to come. Publishing froze the text at a certain point, but the processes it describes are still unfolding. One thing I’ve noticed, a mixed blessing: writing down the past gave more of it back to me, recalling things I’d thought were lost, making connections I hadn’t seen before...but that strengthened past now seems to crowd into the present more, bullying it at times. There have been moments of catharsis. It still feels like early days.

What is your advice to writers with bipolar disorder?

I don’t know that I have any general advice that would be helpful. Every writer is up against the same challenge (though the challenge may be more extreme in the bipolar writer): how to find the rhythms and processes that work for you. We're handed so many fantasy templates of what it means to be an artist–and we hand ourselves so many–that it’s an arduous task to keep recalibrating back to the basics: Yes, but what works for me? What tools and procedures actuate my talent, my vision? Experiments can be useful. I talk about one in the “Leavetaking” section. My psychiatrist noted that over the years I’d become resigned to my own productivity being geared to the cycles of illness: sleepless non-stop writing in the energized phases, wordless inactivity in the lows. And she encouraged me to question both assumptions: that quality work came only from the highs, and that nothing worthwhile could be accomplished in the lows. And numerically, empirically, she and I proved that the poles weren’t so clear-cut. That there was middle ground where much could be done...and done more surely, clear-headedly, than during a lurching, veering high. Still, I doubt I could ever be a steady, year-round producer. Mild depression is a workable state for a writer–even a favourable one for some parts of the writing process–but serious depression, which still lays claim to me regularly, is a destructive state to attempt work in. Depletion falls to even lower ebb if it’s not acknowledged. It’s a time to minimize, conserve...convalesce. In a fight where you’re being pummelled, there’s a time for the defensive crouch, to protect the vitals.

Was there anything you couldn't put in the book that you wanted to for various reasons?

No, I can’t think of anything. I felt free to say what I had to say.


You wrote “this is the first time for me as a writer that the period after writing has proved far more difficult than the writing itself.” Can you expand on this?

Full expansion might need a therapist and lots of hours, but here are a couple of ways I’ve found it difficult. Unlike other books, which have receded after being written, this one has remained “right here.” Because I’m “still living it,” as I’ve been reminded. But also, I think on some level, not consciously, I expected some resolution–maybe the catharsis you spoke of–from writing. Yet mentally I’ve taken some frightening tumbles this fall...episodes so bad, I’ve felt that no time has passed and I’m right back where I began. Despair, mental anarchy: these are timeless states; in a sense, they occur outside biography. All that I’ve learned gives me more means to manage psychological upheaval, but doesn’t prevent it. That’s sobering to realize. “There’s no cure” is an easy thing to say, to understand intellectually...but tougher to come to grips with as a lived reality. And there’s another difficulty. Giving talks this fall, reading from and reflecting on the book–I realize as never before how much of my life has been spent on the rat’s wheel of mental illness. Along with a strengthening sense of my own resilience, for hitting bottom so often and reinventing myself, there’s a corresponding sense of waste, of sheer destruction. So much time and energy–and how much else?–have been chewed up by that wheel. Time and energy that might have gone toward other things. These are autumnal thoughts, wintry thoughts. But it snowed last night, and it’s near the end of the year.

How do the poles affect productivity? You said they are not always so clear-cut.

Well, the simple fact I’m finally getting straight is that the mood in which you work is no accurate measure of the work’s quality. Euphoria colours things brightly; depression colours them darkly. But some of the glittering things lose their lustre if you wait a while, and some of the drab things gain. Of course, waiting doesn’t come easily if you’re on fire...and if you’re ashes, there’s nothing but waiting. Realizing there’s more middle ground than you thought is not the same as knowing how to utilize it. Rather than the two poles, here, very crudely, is the 5-zone range that I think I operate in: low...heading down/up...baseline...heading up/down...high. Good work is done in the stable middle and the transitional zones on either side. At the highest extreme, vast quantities are produced, little of it worthwhile; at the lowest, nothing can occur, it’s a dead zone. It helps to have things lying around at different stages of development, since the different zones have their characteristic energies. For example, the energized loose associations of the upper end are ideal for generating ideas and possibilities...but not so good for evaluating them. Mild depression, as I said before, may be sluggish at generating new stuff, but good at evaluating and revising. A degree of disillusionment and irritability could amount to sober second thought. Of course, there’s a world of subtlety and discrimination in that “degree.” That’s what makes this a living issue, which is to say endless, and not a science project. (Though rational experiment has its place. I describe an experiment my doctor prescribed for me in the book. In a manic burst one January, I’d written several dozen poems in several weeks. When that sputtered down, my psychiatrist suggested I try writing some more. I didn’t see any point to it, but gave it a go. And did manage to write a few more poems, though they seemed rather dull and workmanlike. Yet when it came time to finalize the contents of my collection A Thaw Foretold, the editor and I picked 6 from the frenzied burst and 5 from the assigned work. Considering the size of the starting pools, “a better hit rate” from “mild depression” than from “wild euphoria.” The conclusion seemed obvious: my perception of my ability swings more wildly than my actual ability. There’s a real oscillation of faculties, to be sure, but the pendulum swing of self-assessment is even wider and more erratic.)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Talking the Walk (11)

Catching Up to Yourself (Part 1)

I sometimes wonder whether interviews wouldn’t be a good therapeutic tool. The several I have done, whether in person or in writing, have proved almost disorientingly informative (to me, at least); I left them with a wildly buzzing brain, as if I had been hooked up to one of those sci-fi learning machines, which transferred information into my head that I must have known before, but hadn’t known I knew.

For days afterward, I wandered around remembering some of my answers, thinking: Do I really believe that? Think that? Feel that? Yes. For how long?

You have a sense of catching up to yourself. Becoming aware of things you already think and feel, but have never clearly articulated before.

How do you know you’re not spinning a line–putting across the image you want the other, or yourself, to believe?

Same way you always do. Revisit the statements, examine them from different angles. (You’ll need to keep a transcript to do this.) Give it time. If they still sit right, and keep sitting right, they probably are.

What are the conditions necessary for a good interview?

Two people who want to find out something.

After The Lily Pond had been out for about three months, I did an e-mail interview with the Danforth Review which helped to clarify for me some aspects of what I’d learned, and hadn’t learned, about mental illness.

When did you begin outlining this book?

I plunged into writing it, without an outline, in November 2005. I describe the initial impulse in the third section of the book, “Leavetaking.” The first words of the first section, “Two Rooms,” came into my head, then joined to other sentences. The writing came steadily and quickly...but calmly, too. That last part surprised me, given the often harrowing nature of what I was describing. I was already well into the writing when I saw how the different sections might fit together. In some ways, it seemed to come pre-formatted...which might mean it had been taking shape in my mind a long time before I was aware of it. I find that’s often true. What you focus on at any point is what’s in front of you on the work bench, but all around the shop are pieces at various stages, from half-finished to mere raw materials...and you sometimes catch glimpses of these, too.

When did you first notice a cohesive (if that was the case) pattern to your mood swings?

It was only about 5 years ago (I’m 53 now) that I fully accepted the diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder, or manic-depression in the old terminology. And that’s after psychiatric treatment starting at age 17, eighteen months in hospital at age 22, multiple “breaks” and breakdowns...throughout all this turbulence, I still resisted a label, fearing it was somehow destructive, reductive. I’m still wary of it; I think of it mainly as a working hypothesis. But finally it seemed even more destructive to keep turning over rocks in my own life, looking for “exogenous” factors, problems in my life or relationships ... when it was obvious, and had been for a long time, that I roared up or crashed down regardless of what was happening in my life. When did it start? By my late teens I knew that something was awry internally. I had no language to use about it then, so I just thought of it as something “off,” “wrong,” “alien.” At that stage, the worst periods were notably seasonal: speed-ups in early fall and spring, followed by depressive crashes. But the pattern still wasn’t clear to me, I think partly because my states are so often what they call “mixed,” e.g. high, driven energy combined with very black mood. Is that high? Low? It’s elements of both. That’s why “mood” is such a crude term. Energy, both psychic and physical, and in terms of both quantity and quality, would be more accurate. And although I’m wary of the current eagerness to identify “the bipolar child,” I do see signs that my own swings began early in my life, certainly by the time of adolescence. I talk about that in the book’s second section, “Hunters in the Snow.” But it takes–or it took me at least–a long time to see any coherent pattern in something that seems so chaotic. For instance, it’s clear to me now that the main reason I kept bombing out of school–it took me 13 years to complete my B.A.–was the neatly horrible overlap between my worst times and the crunch-times of the university year: late fall, spring. My mind would be failing on me–the words I was reading going dead and senseless–and I kept assuming that I simply had no interest in what I was studying...and then quitting, or just scraping by on past performance. Yet the words I couldn’t understand in late November were the same words I was excited by, charged up by, in September. This is something I’ve learned to accept, but with difficulty: going through “spells” of six weeks or more where not only do I have no desire to read my favourite books, but on the most basic level, I can’t even understand them. Can’t track a sentence to its end and know what it said. With all the multiple strategies I’ve learned, the awareness I’ve developed...I’m able to manage these periods better, perhaps level them off slightly...but not change them fundamentally. Could there be a better proof of a biochemical disorder than that? Unfortunately, in some ways the cycles are becoming more random and faster, something I’m told is typical with aging. I’m sorry, I thought this was going to be a very short answer. It’s complicated. It’s taken decades to sort out even these basics.

Did you ever feel while writing this that the simple barebones “non-fiction” element was too close to home. Did you fear it would trigger a negative outcome?

Actually, it felt more like relief to concentrate on just my own story, understanding and telling it as well as I could, without the need to create characters and invent things for them to say and do. At the same time, it felt, if anything, more deeply imagined (as opposed to invented) than fiction: there was a need to find the underlying patterns and structures that could link true events. But I guess you’re asking more about personal risk. That was something I was not so aware of at the time–when I felt mostly exhilarated to be recovering the past–but have become very aware of since. More aware every day. I think there have been, and will be, many negative outcomes for me from writing this book. They’re hard to name and harder to quantify, but I feel them, certainly. Writing names things, which can sound like taming them; but in another sense it gives them new substance and power: it bodies them forth. It’s daunting as well as strengthening to take the true dimensions of an enemy you’ve been battling...especially when there's no sign of an end to the battle. At one point, when we were discussing the manuscript, my psychiatrist advised me to be cautious in dealing with what I had recalled. I quoted her for a piece I wrote about dealing with what I had written: “What you wrote may have unearthed a box. It may have been sealed for a you could keep functioning. Now it may be time to open it, or at least peek into it. Cautiously.” This is the first time for me as a writer that the period after writing has proved far more difficult than the writing itself.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Talking the Walk (10)


I was fortunate to find Dan Wells, the publisher of my last three books. In Dan I found a true bibliophile (who are not so common, even in the literary world); a publisher whose almost alarming energies are fast building, in Biblioasis, the best small press in the country; and a friend. Dan and I are both slaves to our love of books and our love of conversation, and the mood swings of those masters colour our exchanges, often by email at hours when more temperate passions would be sleeping.

One day Dan sent me a list of questions for an interview that he later posted on the Biblioasis blog.

The title of your memoir is The Lily Pond: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis. I wonder if you could start by explaining this a bit, with perhaps particular emphasis paid to your rather interesting subtitle?

For a few months the manuscript had another title, and only three sections instead of four. I thought it was finished. When I was surprised by the events, and then the writing, of the last section, I realized that its title, “The Lily Pond,” had to be the title of the whole book, since it encapsulates so many of the themes and images explored throughout. But a book just called The Lily Pond could be mistaken for a manual on aquatic gardening or a study of Monet—hence the subtitle. It came from me asking myself a simple question: What is the book about? What are its main and recurrent elements? It’s about madness, an oldfashioned term which I prefer to the more modern “bipolar disorder.” Madness covers a huge range of extreme states: from craziness to fiery creative passion to overmastering love and obsession. I think this scope makes it a more humane term, but also a more accurate one. The book is also about memory. This might be considered redundant: isn’t a memoir by definition about memory? No. All memoirs draw on memory, but this one actively explores how memory may be lost or damaged (through illness and its treatments), how and to what extent it may be recovered, and how a coherent life story may be maintained even in the absence of reliable memory. The book is also about myth. It draws on world mythologies to make some of its points, but in a broader sense, it questions the daily myths of illness and wellness by which we know ourselves and others. How do these myths damage, limit, nourish, reveal? Can they be changed? Lastly, it is a story of metamorphosis: of altered states wrought by illness and confusion, but also by recovery and understanding. It is about the paradox of accepting radical ongoing transformation as the foundation of life and sanity.

Plus, I like the alliteration of all those M’s. They sound like murmuring.

It seems to me that this is a book you have been working toward for quite a while. Your other books–some of your stories, your poetry, perhaps most especially your first novel, The Syllabus–have grappled with the subjects of madness, of memory (and forgetting), of metamorphosis. Especially M., the hero of The Syllabus. You describe memory in The Lily Pond as a Turner fogscape. Can you briefly explain?

Well, that comparison comes specifically from “Two Rooms,” the first section of the book, where the period I am trying to remember is the eighteen months I spent on and off (mostly on) a psychiatric ward...when accurate recall was swamped by a perfect storm of memory disruptors: dozens of electroshock treatments, phenothiazines and other powerful drugs, and the confusions and distortions of psychosis itself. So the snippets that come back to me are often like those tantalizing gleams in Turner’s veils of fog. Sometimes, if I concentrate, more details will come and the object or face, a scene, will solidify and make more sense. And this also happens looking at Turner’s paintings. This doesn’t mean, though, that the glimpses of things could be anything, are random. I have a sense—a memory trace, I assume—of what is really there, and it has weight, a “rightness” on those occasions when I find it. For example, a year ago, my sister told me of visiting me in the hospital at a time when I was catatonic, just lying on my bed unmoving day after day. And fleeting images of her then came back to me, bits of her face, hands, the hospital wall behind her...and I trusted these. Partly because they had that weight I’m speaking of...pieces actually dredged up from something sunken...but also because they stayed as bits, fleeting fragments. I think a wish-fulfillment fantasy would have bloomed more completely. This was one of the worst times, memory-wise. Nearly obliterative of those years, but also of much of my life up till then, as if a retroactive fog had swallowed much of the past. And the memory troubles continued forward too, with fog and “gap-outs,” as I call them, especially during times of illness. In recent years I have felt more able to retrieve the past. Relatively speaking–when I compare notes with other people, they express surprise at how much of my life has simply vanished. But I’ve learned a lot of tricks that help: checks and double-checks, ways of reinforcement, and also habits of concentration and reflection to lay down and maintain a stronger memory track. And I’ve learned to live with the holes. Turner’s fog can be unsettling...but it also has its gentle and allusive aspect, a richness of suggestion. Easy-to-see can also mean easy-to-dismiss, which is another kind of forgetting. I’m sorry: you asked for “briefly” and this hasn’t been. Memory is a raw nerve.

Can you say a few words about the writing of the book?

The story of the book’s genesis is told in the book’s third section,“Leavetaking.” There, with the help of my psychiatrist, I follow, in an almost detective-like fashion, a number of mysterious clues and events that lead me to an answer which is also a course of action: telling my own story, this memoir, for the first time. One of the precipitating events was being asked to speak about my life as a writer for a university group. In preparing that talk, I realized that I had never really told, even to myself, my own story—or not this important aspect of it. In my poems and fiction I had alluded to it often and tried to illuminate it from various angles. But I had never consciously explored at length, in writing, the meaning for me of my decades of mental illness. This preliminary thinking led me into areas that were unusable for a talk to strangers but which proved to be the beginnings of this manuscript. After writing the first three-quarters of it, I sent it to four friends, less to get their judgement on its literary merits than to see if it spoke to them as a human story. Their encouraging responses led me to continue the project, eventually writing the last section about Heather’s recently-diagnosed illness, and, in slow steps, to consider and finally say yes to your offer to publish the book.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Talking the Walk (9)

Title and Total

The Lily Pond
has a lengthy subtitle: A Memoir of Madness, Memory, Myth and Metamorphosis. Back in the summer, Chapters-Indigo told my publisher, Dan Wells, that it would place the book on one of its coveted “power tables”–a coup for a small press–if we changed the subtitle to feature “bipolar disorder” prominently. I was loath to cost Dan possible sales, but I argued strenuously against this, outlining many reasons in a marathon midnight email, which I’ll shorten drastically here. Besides liking the alliteration of all those murmuring “M’s,” I had reasons for each word. Madness, for example. While “bipolar disorder” may be a workable shorthand for a medical condition, or conditions, in general I prefer the old-fashioned word “madness,” which can mean craziness, illness, but also wildness, fiery creative passion, overmastering love or obsession. It has more scope, more texture...more humanity. In its wider allusiveness it is more accurate. Memory, myth, metamorphosis–I have my own rationale for each of them. And I convinced Dan. But not Chapters-Indigo. I doubt if you win many battles with a large chain. At best, you state your case and then the line goes dead. They still ordered a small number of copies. These can be found, thin spines out, in Health and Wellness, under Mood Disorders or Depression.

These questions about the book’s title are related to the questions I have been asked by readers and interviewers about the book’s reflections, at points, about such things as great paintings, star constellations, ancient myths, and common animals like frogs. The questioners have sometimes seemed to regard these as poetic digressions, depatures from the book’s core of mental breakdowns, psychiatric treatment, poverty and other turmoil, and slow recovery. I have two things to say in answer, answers that haven’t always come readily on the telephone or in a radio studio, in response to questions that have sometimes sounded sympathetically curious, but sometimes impatient or hostile: 1) I wrote this book, first, long before I thought of publishing it, to better understand events that had been dogging me for most of my life. The stakes, for me, couldn’t have been higher. So I had no time, no room, for any line that didn’t help to illuminate for me some corner of the subject. 2) Second, why is it that people think you’re talking straight when you talk of shock treatments or tears in a psychiatrist’s office–as I also do in the book–but raise their eyebrows when you speak of how you perceive the world, how your mind, in illness and in health, processes it? It demeans the mentally ill, as it demeans anyone, to say: Tell us about your heart, but not about your mind. It not only dumbs down the person, and the problem, but it makes plain a paradox that still bedevils our understanding of mental illness. We will allow in the heart–How do you feel? is heard routinely; but we still prefer to leave the mind out of mental illness–How do you think? is a rare question. And that is strange. Because if you go crazy with your whole self–mind, heart, body, all of you–then arriving at any sort of understanding of that going crazy must involve your whole self also. You go mad with who and what you are, and aren’t; you recover, if you do and to the extent that you do, with the same totality.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Talking the Walk (8)

A Pair of Us

Question from a sceptical professional: Do you really think you and your wife can take good care of each other when you’re both so sick?

Short answer: I don’t know. Do you?

Longer version:

“There's a pair of us,” Heather says to me, a bit breathlessly, after we have left the psychiatrist’s office and are sitting in our car. It is early June. She has turned in her seat to face me, and her eyes are wide and lambent, glittering with that desperate euphoria, or euphoric desperation, that has lit them–except when they have gone overcast, shrouded in cancelling gloom–for these last few burning, tumultuous weeks.

She seems relieved for the moment. To have a diagnosis, an illness with a name? (She had feared having a name, but then feared more being something unnamable.) To be sharing, as we have shared so much, a diagnosis with me? “It always amazes me how often you people find each other,” the psychiatrist remarked, when I had joined them in the office for the last ten minutes of Heather's interview. He spoke of the number of “bipolar couples” he had met, who had been drawn irresistibly together (often despite existing marriages or other serious obstacles) and who had established unusual but sustaining ways of coping with their cycles of illness, often long before either of them had been diagnosed. Heather and I exchange a look. His bemused, somewhat clinical reflections make it sound as if he is describing a species of exotic animals, creatures that emit a special mating call, inaudible or registered as noise outside their kind, and then embark on bizarre and esoteric mating rites. Yet the gist of his remarks rings true. From the start, Heather and I have been able to speak in shorthand, with intuitive understanding, of steeply swinging moods and strange mental states, and we quickly developed ways of gearing together discordant swings and of warily surviving the most dangerous times, when the swings coincide and amplify each other. We have even joked of a day like today, when Heather’s distrust of doctors would relent (gently, in our fantasy, not under the duress of crisis) and we would “make it official.”

But the day foreseen is not the day that arrives. I look through the windshield up the street, which is lined with parked cars and empty of people. The leaves of the overhanging shade trees are a bright, incongruous green; we have been keeping such wildly irregular hours lately that it has been a long time since I have paid attention to such basics as the weather or the changing season.

It is Sunday morning, early, before church even. It seems a strange time to be meeting with a psychiatrist outside of an emergency ward, but this psychiatrist has a quirky schedule and neither of Heather's other two doctors felt that it was safe to wait another day. The appointment was scheduled by telephone late last night. This recognition of the need for haste, of the peril Heather is in despite her equable demeanor, inclines me to trust these doctors, despite my own long history of damage by medical misadventure. Already they understand Heather well enough to know that she, like me, will understate rather than exaggerate a crisis, and understate with a more savage discretion as the crisis nears its climax.

Is it time yet? The question, sceptical but insistent–shadowing the mind at dawn, at noon, at 2:00 a.m.–has altered to a more drastic shape: Is there still time? Out of the myriad confusions of the last few harrowing weeks, Heather and I have arrived at one certainty: medical intervention is required. To wait, to hope for change, is no longer permissible; it is not safe. In this, at least, the doctors and we are in accord.

As we drive off toward the pharmacy where we will fill Heather's first prescription of lithium, she murmurs again, softly, as if to herself, “a pair of us.” Thinking of the Emily Dickinson poem she is quoting from, in which one frog discourses to another, I wonder if I am hearing, besides a mixed and quizzical expression of relief, a first sign of the controlling image of Heather’s sickness–or, could it be, the hopeful image of her health? For if you find yourself floundering between elemental extremes, might not the image of an amphibian be a comfort, a guide? As precarious as a frog’s survival may be, as it undoubtedly is, it has to afford more hope than the dominant image shaped by, and then shaping, my own first psychosis. Through the summer and fall of 1977, I kept seeing, faintly and intermittently at first, and then constantly and with bullying vividness, a seam of red glowing from within a brownish crust–like molten lava glowing under soil or rock, presaging volcanic eruption. The image was pregnant with violence, a fiery birth that I saw approaching and desired as a consummation, and it ended with blood spilling down my abdomen from the “self-Caesarean” I had performed on myself.

Twenty-nine years later, my thoughts are focused, as they have been for weeks, on how Heather might be spared such a moment, along with its lifelong ramifications, its endlessly rippling aftermath. Surely, I think, my own huge kit bag of mental illness must contain a few instruments to help another. Diet, daily habits, even lighting and room layouts–what might be changed? What might be tinkered with? The smallest adjustment could make a difference, tip the balance. And to that end, everything–even the grotesque, 4:00 a.m. arguments our sleepless, cross-wired selves inveigle us into–must be examined (in retrospect in those cases) for a possible clue.

As I drive down the surreally bright, surreally empty streets, I try to remember the exact wording of the Dickinson poem. Beside me, Heather is slumped in her seat; she is staring blankly ahead. I imagine the glum routines of drug therapy–on my way to fill my scrip–pressing in on her.

I’m Nobody! Who are you?

Are you­–Nobody–Too?

Then there’s a pair of us?

Don’t tell! They’d advertise–you know!

The poet’s frog is all questions, exclamations, and commands. There’s not a single croak of reasoned calm amid the flurry of agitated queries and exhortations. It sounds familiar, which means it is not what I am looking for.

Dickinson’s question mark–Then there’s a pair of us?–isn’t helpful either. I am glad Heather forgot or ignored it. Sometimes I imagine a flint-eyed observer watching the two of us and thinking, The blind leading the blind. Someone with my record, trying to help someone in Heather’s situation–Who worse? I imagine them thinking.

On the other hand: Who better?

Talking the Walk (7)


So far I’ve talked about the stages of crisis, aftermath, and recovery. I’d like to touch now on the question of what happens when recovery is completed. That one’s easy. Nothing happens. It’s never completed. That may sound dire, but only if you’re the kind of person who thinks people “get over” tough things that happen to them. I don’t think anybody gets over anything...and thank God. Getting over a part of life makes it sound like a fence rail in a horse race. A more human goal, I think, is to try to weave the experience into the fabric of one’s ongoing life, making the past part of the texture of the present and the future.

“Unfinalizable” is a word that Dr. George likes, and I’ve grown fond of it too. Recovery is unfinalizable because you’re still living it. Can a life be resolved? Would you even want it to be? In my case, there isn’t any cure for the difficulties I’ve had and continue to have. They’re chronic. I manage them...sometimes well, sometimes not so well.

This, by the way, is why we didn’t want to use a conventional image of a water lily bloom on the cover. The kind of image you might see on a meditation book or a collection of Zen sayings. Beautiful–the lotus blossom of enlightenment. But too perfect. Too finished. Too pristine and complete. So we bought our big plastic bucket from Hamilton Kitchen Supplies and tried, from June to September, to grow our own lily plant on the apartment balcony. And got leaves, lots of leaves...but no bloom. Not enough sun, said my gardening advisor; they need long, pure hours of it. Which, in the end, we decided was better after all. We rinsed off the plant when it looked like it was starting to wane and photographed the whole length of it, from root mass, with a new shoot poking out, to long stems, to leaves. itself. But not perfect.

It should be clear by now that I don’t believe any of these processes are unique to mental illness and its treatment. In fact, I’m often struck, when thinking of these subjects, how when the phrase “mental illness” is left out, the issues are existential ones common to everyone. Perhaps many mental health problems, even the severest crises, and however they may be caused, are intensifications of everyday human concerns and challenges. These existential concerns–of encounter, of crisis, of recovery, of living with the unfinalizable–are only more obvious in episodes of trauma, which shines a harsh light on questions of existence that are always operative, always urgent.

Unfinalizable. It ain’t over till it’s over. And even then, there’s probably no conclusion to any story, but only the sense of a new chapter beginning, in which the events of the previous chapter are incorporated and enlarged...and the question becomes: have you learned anything from what came before, anything you can apply in your life, now?

Writing this book gave me an object lesson in the meaning of unfinalizable. In many ways...but in one way I would never have wished, but which couldn’t have been a more powerful demonstration. After I’d written what is now the third section of the book, I thought the manuscript was done. I showed it to a few people...cautiously, tentatively. Their reactions were encouraging, but I had a nagging sense that the matters I’d been writing about were still hanging overhead, left undone, developing. Why? I kept asking. What’s next? What’s coming? Part of what was coming, as Dr. George pointed out, was simply more life, living with it. Something doesn’t end because you write about it. But what also turned out to be developing–and I tell this with her permission, as she generously and courageously gave me her permission to write about it–was my wife, Heather’s, deepening mental health crisis, which spiralled into an acute episode and her own diagnosis of bipolar disorder. Along with all the emotions anyone would feel–worry, fear, sadness, exhaustion–I wondered: Had I learned anything from my own experience that could help her? Or, even more simply, could we find a way to be sick perform the often awkward, but sometimes strangely graceful, dance of helping and being helped?

The answers, I’m afraid, are the usual trinity: Yes. No. Maybe.