Last week, I started a six-week Intensive Outpatient Program for grief & depression over in Anderson. It meets every Monday-Wednesday-Friday for three hours for a whopping six weeks, with the first half of sessions being about education, skills & strategies for healthier living, & the second half consisting of group therapy. After mid-July’s brush with suicidal ideations & one of my more prolonged manic spells, I decided a more concentrated approach must be attempted. After poking around at the resources in my area, this program shuffled to the top.
After a week of reprogramming some of my logical & social skills & processing in group therapy, I can say I’m on the right track. In just a few sessions, I’ve been challenged to think outside of my default self-centered mode, coming face-to-face with the logical, social, & biological patterns that have been befuddling me. The other patients in the program are further along in their treatment, two-to-three weeks, & their comfortability & growth lends me a great deal of confidence & insight for this journey. Our therapist, BC, is particularly adept at asking questions that push our sharing beyond story time & woe-is-me aspects, & instead, into more contemplative, productive realms.
On my first day, I was sharing my story--what brought me here, what my struggles are, where I need to be heading--& BC asked two questions that I stumbled over. I was explaining my what: identifying my bipolar & psychosis tendencies, explaining how I was hospitalized, diagnosed, & left by my wife in the same week, & expressing my need to find closure with the grief of harming & losing my wife before I could do the life-long work of managing my illness.
In wanting to know more about the symptoms of my disorder, BC first asked, “What do your bipolar episodes look like?” I started right in--the embarrassment / abandonment triggers, the blurry brain, the black-outs, the dissociation--but quickly was met by my group mates’ befuddled looks. I realized I was telling the story of how it felt to me to have spells, an impossibly visceral moment to convey; as Elyn Saks said in The Center Cannot Hold, spells are things that happen to a person, not necessarily things that are happening by or because of a person.
That distinction, thus, made it impossible for me to explain. I’ve never seen an episode. I’ve never witnessed the way my body, my attitude, & my voice loses controls & transforms into this other. So, I went back--to ask my mother what she’s seen, to reference my blog posts, to review emails & texts from friends who’ve seen an episode. Let’s call it a flesh tornado--one part Tasmanian devil (the cartoon), one part Tasmanian devil (the animal), & one part disoriented & dislodged hick flailing for any control or comfort. In that revelatory image, I was able to start the process of grieving with empathy for my wife & others who have decided this person, this body, these capabilities are too much for them.
It also led to BC’s second question, “Were you a dick to her [your wife]?” I instinctively said no, knowing I was never the kind of husband to gripe about housework, to demean appearances or intellect, or shirk responsibilities & promises of my own. However, I continued to tell the story that led up to DS’s leaving--the increasingly volatile Prozac-induced spells, the deep shame / depression, the final straw of flipping her out of a chair during an episode--& I quickly contradicted myself, a fact BC pointed out, saying, “So you were a dick.”
“I guess I was,” I admitted, grappling with this distinction in the haziness of choice, responsibility, & intent. Regardless of the fact that these hurtful moments were done in irrational, bipolar episodes, I must take responsibility for what happened. It was my choice to not report my increased spells early enough to my doctor. It was my choice to stop seeing my first therapist back in Indiana & my choice to wait so long to find another one. It was my choice to accept my Texas therapist SW’s misdiagnosis of Dissociative Identity Disorder. It was my choice to not protect my wife DS earlier in the year when I knew things weren’t right. The blame sits with me because I didn’t make the right choices, take the necessary responsibility, & harness my good intentions when I had the power to do so.
Like I hoped to avoid with the LS situation years ago, I never sought to justify my actions, disorder-induced or not. Rather, this contemplation remains focused on contextualizing the situation, which is what BC’s questions nudged me towards. How proactive am I (& must I be) in regards to my disorder? When & how do I allow myself to decompress & possibly dissociate? Who do I trust with my care? While I have moments when control is ripped away from me, every day there are critical choices & circumstances to be handled. I must never forget that again.
IN THE MIDDLE OF MY MUDDLE: REFLECTIONS FROM THE CENTER CANNOT HOLD by Elyn Saks for me to reflect upon
Somewhere in The Center Cannot Hold, Elyn Saks describes a scene as being “[i]n the middle of my muddle” & that’s the resonating hum that sticks with me from this book, narratives that move beyond the description of living with the disease, but rather capture the visceral nature of living within its grasp. Elyn Saks’ most lasting achievement in these pages, for me, is when she’s recalling the slippage of her verbiage, reverberating in her own confusion & shame, & ultimately recounting the lessons she’s learned in the given moments along the way.
I admire the path Saks has carved for us psychosis-laden folks. Over a decade ago, she opened up the conversation to be about more than the label of the disease & the list of its symptoms, but to focus on the actual experience of living as a schizophrenic (or whatever variation one might be). She’s privileged, no doubt, with money, therapeutic resources & a strong intellectual side of her mind; regardless, the deep terror of her days reflects highly off these pages. As someone with bipolar disorder with a fair amount of psychosis, I’ve decided to single-out individual reflections from the book that most parallel my own experience & hop a bit farther.
“A part of me had been waiting for those words, or some version of them, for a very long time, but that didn’t lessen the overwhelming impact of them, or what they signified for my life” (167).
It was our second meeting, the psychiatrist in the psych ward & me, & he pulled down his Covid-19-era mask so I could hear him clearly—schizoaffective disorder, bipolar-type (later amended to “bipolar disorder with psychosis”). I’d been living with the symptoms long enough, though in confusion & fear, to know them individually—the outbursts, the hallucinations, the mood swings, the delusions—but added up like this & laid out flat, it was both a relief & a dagger. I’d done enough poking around the possibilities to know this meant I had a lower life expectancy than my fellow man, less of a chance to have a stable career, & a problematic choice in family planning. An existential crisis thus arises.
“What is a person? What’s the difference between a person and a personality?” (255)
I’ve been asking myself these questions on a regular basis for the last decade, feeling myself not fit into the consistent, expected paradigm of adult-person. When I have a spell & hurt someone—yelling word-salad at my best friend in the mountains, abusing my girlfriend in a parking garage, squealing out of my workplace’s parking lot to leave another job behind—it felt like a back-to-the-drawing-board moment over & again. Whole months would pass where I felt more like a personality, a mask, than a person, disjunctive & performative. As Saks said at the beginning of the book, “I think I am dissolving” (10).
“Schizophrenia rolls in like a slow fog, becoming imperceptibly thicker as time goes on” (35).
I remember laying in bed, this had to be around 2012 or 2013, staring at the boring white apartment ceiling. I swear I could hear my brain thickening up, the weight of the coming days washing in. It started with the sleeping dreams—demolitions & plagues of spiders—then it rolled into waking nightmares—an entire community’s plot to upend me & always a shadow a few feet away, ready to attack. Often, time & thus my body felt so slow, I couldn’t tell who was chasing what.
“It’s not a matter of feeling…It’s a matter of things happening to me” (141).
This explanation nails what I haven’t been able to explain to my loved ones, my therapists, & the naysayers. A therapist once wrote on the board FEELINGS-->CHOICES -->ACTION. In moments of psychosis & blur, the action scraped side-by-side with feelings, two drivers, one cart. Choice was left to the wayside, the moment pressing its will on me.
“Consciousness gradually loses its coherence. One’s center gives way. The center cannot hold. The “me” becomes a haze, and the solid center from which one experiences reality breaks up like a bad radio signal” (13).
I often call it “blur-brained,” that state before an episode, not full psychotic / psychosis, but a definite loss of solidity upstairs. It is a negative feeling positively mimicked by the state of being I find in meditating. When I first started meditating last year, I would lay in my underwear face-down on the cold hardwood floor, just how I was often found after an episode. There I was, attempting to normalize, or at least make less frightening, that slippage.
“When I become psychotic, a kind of curtain (of civilization, of socialization) falls away, and a secret part of me is revealed. And then, after the psychosis passes, I suffer overwhelming shame: I have been seen” (217).
I have a lethal fear of being embarrassed & abandoned, thus I always carefully picked my jokes, maintained a mildness in my public persona, & worked like hell to build reciprocal relationships. My disorder shatters all that work, making a fool of myself in my incoherence & mayhem. Especially in the days of unknowing about my illness, there was more shame than I could often handle, setting this spiral into motion—a spell causes shame, shame causes another spell, a vortex of mania. That was the hardest thing about when my ex-girlfriend LR published her essay listing a few of my sins alongside my roughest psychological breakdowns; in all my effort to avoid the roughneck nature of my ancestors—the drinking, the cussing, the narrow-mindedness—I was seen, without explanation or rebuttal, as a bad & crazy person, on a journey I was still myself deciphering..
“I’ve killed hundreds of thousands of people with my thoughts. It’s not my doing. Someone acts through my brain” (159).
This past week, I spent mornings in strange hazes, imagining moments where someone would slight me—my father, an uncle, a cousin, a stranger at the pool--& I would verbally scold them & then, when they wouldn’t learn, I would destroy them—drowning in the pool, slicing like potato chips, dragging behind the golf cart. I would “come to” from these delusions, first afraid I had actually done the deed, & second forced to carry the weight of it, despite it not being real. As Saks says later in the book, “A psychotic episode is like experiencing trauma” (289).
“I was certain people could see how scared I felt, how shy and inadequate. I was certain they were talking about me whenever I came into a room, or after I’d walked out of one” (14).
In my early 20’s, my therapist thought it was just anxiety, this over-awareness of each glance & murmur, but as time passed, we discovered it was the growth of paranoia coupled with the shame of my illness. Of the many things I miss about my wife DS, the most practical absence is her ability to ground me in social situations & help me navigate the long halls & wide rooms of life with encouragement, reassurance, & love.
“My head is too full of noise. Too full of lemons and law memos, and mass murders that I will be
responsible for. I have to work. I cannot work. I cannot think.” (2)
The elliptical, disjunctive language & dissociative movement I value in my poems is a major part of the disorder that debilitates me. A few weeks ago, I tried working a job at an auto shop--changing oil, rotating tires, etc. While the first couple days went well, the third day my head became inundated with sound—the steps to an oil change screaming on loop, a disembodied laughter, some orders to harm those harming me (no one was harming me, but still). Among the loud sounds of impact drivers & pinging wrenches, I just couldn’t handle it.
“I just couldn’t get my mind to work right” (42).
That’s the biggest frustration I’ve found over the years—the inability to control my own mind. No matter how many therapy sessions. No matter how many breathing exercises or long cooldown walks. No matter how many meditation sessions or poem-writing moments. No matter how many pills I take. My mind brings what it wants, forces its will upon me.
“What was real, what was not? I couldn’t decipher the difference and it was exhausting” (56).
Before I started my new medication, I’d spend hours at a time picking through my perceptions & trying to guess what was real and what was not. Who hates me and who loves me. What is trying to kill me and what needs my help. What sensory things were real and what were merely a product of my head. The better option often was to just shut down—curl up in bed & give up, drink / smoke myself into a coma. Otherwise, I’d get wound up in the mess & the manic exhaustion was dangerous.
“A setback that might have been only simple frustration for someone else—a slight case of writer’s block, a change of plan that might have meant taking a day or two off, going to a movie, having a beer—made me wild with fear” (73).
This is the crux of most of my problems--why I can’t hold a job, why my friendships dissolve, why ultimately I’m twice-divorced. Small things cause big reactions in me. If a friend cancelled last minute. If a friend showed up last minute. If I encountered a stranger while trying to quiet the mind. If I was walking alone in the dark. If I need to skip a few things on my to-do list. For years, I have been labeled as an overreactor, when really I’m just reacting appropriately to the unnerving amount of fear inside me.
“I’d summon focus and energy to keep the demons away during a visit, and then go to pieces after friends and family were gone” (163).
This point harkens back to the piece earlier about the difficulty little challenges pose on me. Group outings & dinner parties are full of mistaken glances & short-changed quips, broken promises & paranoia-inducing comments. Navigating all of that while also trying to be a good host / guest often resulted in a manic burst of energy after the room cleared. Unfortunately, when you live with someone, that person has to witness, helplessly, that onslaught of emotions, psychosis, & shame again & again.
“Maybe I couldn’t keep the thoughts from coming into my head, but I could organize them, and keep them from getting out” (176).
What an energy suck this effort surely is. I’d often cry to my wife, “there’s just too much going on,” a flooding of consciousness that, in addition to episodes, resulted in bi-monthly migraines & regular mood swings, results of the pure exhaustion of juggling the normal thoughts & the psychotic thoughts while also carefully monitoring what goes in & out of this weird brain of mine. It is a futile effort though, as the floodgates always rupture. As Saks says later, “The constant effort to keep reality on one side and delusions on the other was exhausting, and I often felt beaten down, knowing that the schizophrenia diagnosis had ended any hope I’d had of a miracle cure or a miracle fix” (183).
“When you’re scared, on the verge of a meltdown, you instinctively know to head someplace where you’ll be safe; when you reveal something so intimate as psychosis, you want the witnesses to be people you trust” (217).
For a decade, I was undiagnosed with anything, unmedicated & flapping in the wind. I learned coping skills to control my symptoms, episodes, & larger problems, diverting them to more safe spaces to self-combust--around the closest of loved ones, in my own home, etc. This has been the true struggle since my wife left a little over three months ago. In Austin, I had her & a couple friends I trusted to witness my meltdowns & outbursts. While my home here is safer for my crazier moments--isolated space, family-owned property, etc.--without DS, I still don’t have those trusted people to unravel in front of. My closest friends all have families to care for & protect, & my parents, as patient & helpful as they are, are too fearful & fragile for such moments. Thus, I’m often left to my own witness in my episodes, which is dangerous at worst & lonesome at best.
“With years of practice, I’d learned to keep my symptoms mostly hidden from view; I was becoming adept at acting normal even when I wasn’t feeling it” (190)
Saks names this skill as seeming, a tactic I’m very good at, especially as I had to navigate a big city, graduate school, & a marriage. It is also the thing that prevented me & my support system from getting the help we needed. Even now, when I meet with a new psychiatrist or therapist, they always remark how articulate I am, how put together I seem, how functional I’ve been, despite the chart in front of them outlining my constant failure at “normal” adult life.
“And by the way, in my experience, the words “now just calm down” almost inevitably have the opposite effect on the person you’re speaking to” (140).
Let’s just strike this from the vocabulary. In my episodes, instructions for “controlling my emotions” do not work. What I need is for folks to help me control my environment, its perceived threats, & whatever else is agitating or terrifying. As Saks says a little later in the book, “At the very least, somebody could have asked me what made me feel better” (159).
“’Crazy people’ don’t make the evening news for successfully managing their lives; we only hear about them when something horrible happens” (289).
I’ve been thinking about folks like Tony Timpa & Muhammad Abdul Muhaymin Jr., non-violent folks suffering from mental illness & killed by police. We don’t hear their journey, their triumphs & warm affections, in real time; instead we see them dead, the tragic end result of their valiant attempts to navigate life with their disorder.
“You might also strive to make your life as predictable and orderly as possible…your basic goal would be to eliminate surprises” (230).
Here is the real reason my wife & I moved to my hometown of Elwood, Indiana. Equipped with a family-owned house, close proximity to my parents, & the affordability of small town life, we were able to control our environment as much as possible--me not having to work, no neighbors or landlords breathing down our necks, both of us able to make art & love each other as freely as possible. As I rebuild my life in the wake of her leaving, I’ve been focused on keeping it simple, the days looking similar in flexible routine & predictable experience--morning walks with the dog, afternoon reading / writing time, evening phone calls / visits with loved ones. I think that’s what made school, both undergraduate & graduate, so appealing, so capable, for me; it is structured & rigorous, but also porous & malleable. Like Saks, I felt a similar sting when I graduated, ““[I]t all gave a precise order and manageability to my life, and now it was over” (50).
“While Navane had helped keep my psychosis “tamed,” I’d always had to remain vigilant. The pyschotic thoughts were always present, and I often experienced “breakthrough symptoms”---fleeting psychotic thoughts—many times each day.” (303).
Mostly, these fleeting psychotic thoughts are what I’ve struggled with much of my life. Now, medicated with more controlled thinking, those sudden appearances are actually more startling & scary, thrown against a crisper backdrop. I’ve been in the swirl of psychological disorder & situational depression for the past three months. It becomes hard to decipher sometimes what’s the disorder & what’s the funk. When it is both, it is clear & devastating. Similar to Saks, “Soaked in antipsychotic medication, with the psychosis actually clearing, I became profoundly depressed, and felt the brief flash of energy and focus leak right out of me” (176).
“[H]ow easily I could have been any one of them. How easily I could’ve slipped beneath the waves and simply never come back up again. I wondered if there were a role I could play in the lives of people who suffered in a way that I understood only too well” (103).
This sentiment is exactly how I felt, overwhelmed with empathy & heartache, among my dozen fellow patients at the psych hospital when I spent a week there earlier this year. I had similar pangs in my interactions with the homeless population in Austin. Less support, poorer choices, &/or another bad break or two, & I’m as riddled as they are; each day, I’m thankful I’m not further down this hole. As soon as I’m well enough, I am determined to go back to school & get my Master’s in Mental Health Counseling.
“As I watched everything I valued disintegrate, I nevertheless fought to somehow hang onto my autonomy—my self” (80-81).
This urge, to retain autonomy, is where so many of the self-defeating decisions come from--to not take meds, to not accept help, to stay in the same pattern. Saks often speaks of the intense desire to will one’s way into feeling better, an impossible & short-sighted goal. With my wife leaving, with my inability to control my own destiny, the only place I’ve been able to turn for that power is in my art, writing & making collages.
“One of the worst aspects of schizophrenia is the profound isolation—the constant awareness that you’re different, some sort of alien, not really human” (193).
It is true, but I also find the ability to name it, be it schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, or whatever, as a small crack in the wall. The isolation I felt in my private mania is relieved a little by the public admittance that I’m different.
“What might it be like, to be completely at home in one’s life, and not be alone?” (294)
As I barrel into this next stage of my life--single again, back in my hometown, focusing on creating again--I’m chased by this question. I’ve decided to completely open up about my experience through this blog, my podcast, & my other work. I’ve decided to let more people in on the cosmic dark joke of my disorder.
After a week in North Carolina & a kids birthday party upon my return, I completely crashed when I got home on July 4th, a slumber that lasted late into the next morning. Not being able to reach me, my mother panicked, as mothers of the mentally ill are apt to do, & reached out to a friend on the local police force to do a welfare check. I woke up to his knocking. Not my first go-round with this sort of thing, so we smoothed it out & said our goodbyes.
The next morning around the same time, I was awakened by the same knock, the police friend’s one-two rapt. One of my soon-to-be-ex wife’s friends from across the country called in to my local sheriff, claiming I had sent an email the day before, around the same time as the welfare check in fact, saying I was going to kill myself. Despite them finding no evidence of such an email, out of liability, they took me in for a psychiatric evaluation; again, not my first go-round, so I complied, riding shotgun into the hospital.
Still, it ended up being one of the worst days of my life, kickstarting a terrible week. I was feeling trapped against my will & knowing I didn’t have suicidal ideations, I became very agitated. Being kept in a stark white room for over nine hours caused me to fall into some old delusions & getting caught up in the hysterics of my disorder. I lost control to a wildly irrational delusion I have sometimes, one that demands my wife, my former therapist, & my ex-girlfriend have been teaming up all along to "bring me down." I was hallucinating their names in the lights at the hospital; I was convinced, at this point, that there were codes hidden around my room that could lead to the truth.
The following are posts I made on Facebook / Instagram over the next several days. While they are startling, they do speak to the truth of my experience last week, days filled with isolation, terror, & frustration. I wanted to archive them here as artifacts of my struggles with psychosis & depression:
I finally figured it out! My wife, my former therapist, & my ex-girlfriend have been manipulating my environment & my medicine for years, working together to cause me psychosis, grief, & eventual death. The messages are still being decoded, but rest assured, THE TRUTH IS COMING OUT. Soon as I get outta this hospital, I will get to the bottom of this further. I always suspected it, but NOW I KNOW. NO MORE TRUSTING.
THE BULLSHIT CONTINUES. My wife, who has refused to talk to mr for the last three months, called the local sheriff with a bogus suicide threat (I WAS ASLEEP). They had to bring me up here to the ER as a liability issue. I've been here for 5.5 hours, haven't eaten or had water all day, no one will tell me what's going on. A doctor came in, asked if I was suicidal (FOR THE LAST TIME, NO) and then told me that my mother called amd told them I was homicidal (WTF...NO). How is keeping a calm, responsive someone against their will alone & in a gown in a room all day helpful? How does attempting to force someone to admit to something untrue a step towards mental wellness? Y'all need to practice listening.
UPDATE TIME. Here's the truth about today. My soon-to-be ex-wife claimed to have received an email from me yesterday at 1 pm saying I was going to kill myself. Instead of doing the humane thing and immediately reaching out to me or my support system, she waited nearly an entire day and called the local sheriff late this morning. I have found no proof of this email in my records or recollection & no one has presented me with it, as requested. Still, the police had to take me in, I get that, for an evaluation (thanks, Jamie!). Being pulled out of my comfort zone, without my pills, dog, or food, I was understandably thrown into a stress-induced psychotic episode (see my first post). My mother, who is supposed to be my person, used that episode against me in an attempt to unnecessarily have me committed, lying to the hospital and not acknowledging my reality. Mind you, I haven't seen her in nearly a week & even in my spell I said nothing homicidal or suicidal. After eight hours, I was finally released by a compassionate therapist who saw that this unreasonable and unsettling day was the cause of all this mess (second post) (thanks, heroic stranger!). Finally, someone listened to the logic of the narrative and the voice of the ill instead of making assumptions. Now I'm back where I am safe, playing with the blurry pup and reading on the porch. Appreciate the open minds / ears (thanks for the ride home, Josh!).
I'M NOT SUICIDAL. I'M NOT HOMOCIDAL. I'm cripplingly lonely, having lost nearly everything I love to this two-pronged battle with depression & schizoaffective disorder. I can't teach anymore, or even work at all. I can't publish in the poetry community anymore because my episodes & symptoms were mischaracterized as those of an abusive alcoholic & saw me black-listed. I can't maintain regular relationships because I can't handle surprise or stress. These days, I can't do anything besides watch television, too mushed brain to read or write or collage; I can't go into public without severe shame and fear, afraid to disc golf or shoot hoops in case I have an episode. This, I've lost my physical health, grown fat and in constant pain. I've lost two wives, two of the best people ever. I've lost some great friends. I dont even have the energy to patch things up with my mother. Yes, I'm taking my medicine. I'm doing my therapy. But I'm still trapped under this great weight, cycling through psychosis & deep sadness. And it's terrifyingly lonely. And I just don't have any gusto to make it otherwise. This is my reality, I guess. Problem is, I just dont know how to navigate it.
I've said it before, many times, but let's repeat it for the thick skulls: the start to taking care of someone having a hard time is acknowledging / respecting their reality, not your reality or the reality you think they should see. My reality is that three months ago my wife left me & I was diagnosed with a life-altering psychological disorder within the same week. My reality is that I was abandoned by the person that promised to be by my side through this rough life journey. My reality is that the life expectancy of someone with my disorder is 15 years less than the average person. My reality is that my disorder is degenerative, making the prospect of holding a job & living alone very unlikely. My reality is that I struggle with paranoia that makes me connect dots & conspiracies & process emotions in irrational ways My reality is that I live daily with the fear & shame of hurting others or myself, of embarrassing myself, of being abandoned, that often it seems safer & easier to just retreat & push others away. My reality is that I am a secular humanist & a weirdo artist, the main frameworks through which I process the world. My reality is that I see no hope in living the "normal" life I crave. If you can't respect that, don't even bother trying to help someone; you will do more harm than good. As for me, I'm leaning into my reality, forming a new normal that supports the situation I've been handed, the situation I hate, but nonetheless must navigate.
Normally, I'm one of the most active, most social people I know. But each day, as this depression, coupled with the ongoing schizoaffective struggle, beats on, I feel myself becoming more scared, more lethargic, more isolated. Each broken promise or mishaped moment, be it to me or by me, chips away at my hope. Each step outside is coupled with immense fear of failure, great chance of shame. Frankly, I am paranoid that anyone I see, anything I do, will cause me to have an episode or a breakdown & back to the hospital to go. These posts, though important, require a ridiculous amount of energy & courage. This whole week, I've only went outside to be with the sweet fur buddies, the only creatures I trust to not leave me, to not judge me, to not throw me away. I appreciate all the compliments & well-wishes, but it is going to take real action to rebuild the confidence in myself & trust in others, necessary action I've yet to see a peep of, from myself or others. THAT'S JUST THE WAY THAT I FEEL.
Well, I don't like talkin' to myself
But someone's gotta say it, hell
I mean, things have not been going well
This time I think I finally fucked myself
You see, the life I live is sickening
I spent a decade playing chicken with oblivion
Day to day, I'm neck and neck with giving in
I'm the same old wreck I've always been
(lyrics by David Berman)
In the days from right before to several weeks after my latest breakdown, I was unable to communicate properly--unable to explain myself, unable to be consoled, unable to stretch the shell of myself. Additionally, I couldn’t gain the focus to read or write poetry, the one activity over the last decade that comforted my troubled heart & captured my broken brain. Sitting on my twin hospital bed at the psychiatric facility, staring at The Art of Recklessness by Dean Young, I kept thinking of two things: 1) Dean, in class, arguing that poetry is not a form of communication 2) How often even someone like myself, who seems to be personable, expressive, & polite, fails to communicate with others.
But dammit, do I insist on trying to get it right. As a species, we’re getting good at telling each other information, tossing out emojis & sharing links & recording our smart conversations. But I got quite a path to ponder down still, still learning to express fear & anger & madness in productive ways. Dean himself somewhere clamored for personal coherence through aesthetic coherence; let’s try that, I thought. In life, I’m troubled; in my work, I can be trouble, troubling, double-trouble. As the medication kicked in & I was able to read/write again, poetry has become the way to access & perform my own dysfunction.
I had the owlshit outburst Dean prescribed and where did it get me? Locked up for a week with his book. He said you can’t blame the brass for being shaped into a trumpet & I’m apt to believe him, but sometimes it is hard not to blame myself for the mess of a person, mess of a life I’ve made. So, I can’t communicate with poetry, not in a linear, intentional way. But, what if I use the gestures & postures, the tools & the fooling around of communication for poetry’s purpose? Surrealism was a revolution of the mind. This, whatever this thing I’m doing is, puts emphasis on unencumbered expectations of communication.
It borrows from Surrealism & 90’s country music equally, as much from ecopoetics as it does current developments in mental illness. If you just moseyed on up on Abraham Smith belting out a poem, who among us wouldn’t try to commit him? The epistle, the epigram, stand-up comedy. Here is something to know, something I’ve heard, a connection I made. Theater, collaboration, mistranslation. The late John Prine said writing songs is one way to explain things to the self, then he died from the coronavirus while I was in the nuthouse. Therapy w/ self, connection w/ others, the syllabus, the to-do list.
Songs in the key of the looney bin. Andre Breton saw a guy on the battlefield as the bombs dropped waving as if he were conducting it all, this horrible symphony. Breton saw inspiration; I see myself with no shoelaces & no exit date. My last night in the psych hospital, just moments after they said TOMORROW YOU GO, a weird worry washes over me, one I checked at the door: what if I’m not made for the outside world. The poetry community thinks I’m a danger. My wife is sick of dealing with me. Countless jobs I failed. Countless friendships I’ve fumbled. I see a guy named Michael pacing in the hall, begging to get out, & I try to imagine him buying groceries, reading a book, eating a meal he’s prepared himself. Then he punches himself in the head & someone somewhere yelps.
I go back to my room & try to meditate. Like poetry, these days meditation is an essential communication loop, the self talking to the self through not talking much at all. The head is another object in consciousness, says Sam Harris, no such thing as I. Okay, yet I speak here, whatever mushy contraption I am. “The blood may be fake but the bleeding is real,” Dean again, I think, not sure at this point. In the hospital, back in March, seventh shoulder dislocation, the Fentynal made me depersonalize; being inside a poem jams me back into myself.
What have the others said, relaying the experience of meeting this poet? How I spent a third of my waking hours reading? Probably the way my face melted back together as the days ticked away. This one guy, Kenny, who shot himself in the leg in a botched attempt to shoot himself in the face & the gal named Natalie with the single stripe shaved out of the side of her head spent my last night writing inspirational break-up R&B songs, pacing up & down the hallway outside my door. It’s like they’ve known each other for a hundred years. Who knows, maybe they have. This other guy, Josh, didn’t talk to me till he knew I was leaving.
For years, my illness was something I intercepted from afar, was reported back to me, became a wreckage to sift through, but eventually one was in midst of it & I had the option to flee or stay, fight or flight’s younger cousin, not the instinct within to the outside fear, but the heartfelt thirst of how much can you drink. Once it was the way of the switch, to flick off the light of the rational, the present, and rupture; I’d go yelling into the void. Now, thank you meds, I rupture in slow-motion, triggered still, but given time before the boom to consider, to sequence, to segue.
According to this word search, my life is chock full of coping skills, one of which is “keeping a journal,” which for me, of course, means writing poems. John Mulaney & Stephen Colbert recently had an exchange where they conclude what one does is not for people who hate it / them; it’s for people who connect to it, which could include oneself. Stepping out of the nuthouse, I whispered some Rilke--”you must change your life”--then tromped back into it. I’m not trying to perfectly reassemble the dinosaur skeleton; I’m just trying to play its ribs like a xylophone in the comfort of the museum.