Last week I spent a couple days cycling through psychosis & depression & dissociation in one of my regular bipolar episodes. During that time, I found great comfort in communicating via text with an old friend. The language of those messages captured the visceral nature of my episodes, how I see & feel & disperse in the world while in those states. With a light touch, I've crafted that conversation into a poem that I think mimics the shame & worry & sincere panic of my episodes & its aftermath. I thought it might be helpful to contain such motion here.
APOLOGIES TO THE HELP
The night hours did tick, but little comfort
Did I find. I fell from the bed, half-jostled
Awake with arms out like Jesus then face-
Planted on the hardwood floor, & hurt
My back, the space around my body loud
& blurry. I try to ride it like a skateboard
But you know, the occasional scraped
Knee. I am a tumble. I am a frost, a slick
Hillside. I am an ancient hole. I am a forgotten
Tune, sailed back pleas. Shut it down,
I say through my fingers. To deescalate.
To deflate. Let’s wake up & witness how
The colors mix in the morn. Lots of blue
Anthems, now browns. The loving scratch
By the barbed wire of worry. I don’t complete
Them, then incomplete I am. I don’t reconstitute
Then destitute I am. It is like he said, The clouds
We are and terrible things inside happening.
Why am I this way? Why aren’t I a pelican?
But who deserves a hug & how can this
Sandwich even care? What a mess. What a man.
I am covered in pudding while everyone else
They cry into their corn salad. It is truth
But you might rather eat a stick of butter. Classic
Safe word, when it is not safe here, the howling
It gets loud, the elbows bumpy. Plus I smell
Horribly from a day that does this. I might
Try to pick some flowers into the morn.
I wish this poem might land, but nothing but
Seizured bits & ankled syntax. You wouldn’t
Believe this exhaustion. Part liar, part illusionist.
My hands stink & are sticky. Okay, this is when
It happens. The wife leaves, friends disintegrate.
Even my mother went whoa. The blabber & the blur
Disrupt & chop. Sorry to lose you. It was a deal,
Respect even in the weeds. Yes, but are there you
Or though not. It rattles too loudly. I am a foot
For trying. This life aches too loudly for my liking.
Oh supposed so. I’m just tottering on the edge
Of madness, not a new thing. Yes, the grinding
But I have some skills in balance. To not jab you.
To not spook you. Time helps & honoring
My five senses, or more, helps & lemonade
Helps & sleep, if it ever comes, helps, & tight
Teeth helps. Just letting myself squirt, beaten
By the sound of the taste of the worry. It is
A real breakdown, cracked almond. I should go
Feel some grass, hear an owl. I fluster, so don’t
Worry, don’t decade, do song if ever I don’t return.
My Grandpa, Frederick Lewis Tyner, died in the early hours on the last day of July. He was my mother’s father, the last living of my four grandparents. I spent many hours on his property, rolling around in the dirt, riding on tractors, & making applesauce with my grandmother, his late-wife JoAnn. Now, it is this same property where I live my days, the house & patch of land I moved back to last year; it is the same homestead where I will likely spend my remaining days, as he left the house to me, a privilege beyond my capabilities for expressing gratitude.
Since his death, everyone has been giving me the side eye, waiting for me--the mentally-disordered wild card of the family--to blow-up, to go off the deep end, to end up hospitalized again. Like I said in my eulogy, I will probably go collapse again soon, but it won’t be because of the death of Fred Tyner. My mother grieved hard at the funeral & has a good support system in that grief, I am validated in my moving home to be near him last year, & the rest of our loved ones have shared great insight & important memories in his wake: thus, I’m feeling at peace with his death.
Another reason I’m feeling at peace is because of the great honor I got to hold in being the elected family visitor to be with him in the hospital his final day. When he was first admitted to the Elwood Hospital that Thursday morning, I joined him as he drifted in & out of sleep, watching President Obama’s eulogy for Representative John Lewis; as grandpa’s conditions worsened, I began to reflect on this idea of legacy, what we leave behind in our (hopefully) long lives & what I might say during my own eulogy, if it came to that, for grandpa.
After he was transferred to Anderson, I resumed my position at his side, holding his hand, adding blanket upon blanket to his cold body, & updating my family members as his breathing worsened, even with the aid of a by-pap machine. I chuckled with the nurse, as we had to remind grandpa to not tug at the breathing mask, as he whimpered & shivered, that we really all do turn back into children as we age, as we die. I sat in awe of the man who had done so much in his life--from selling insurance to service in the Army, from hosting exchange students to volunteering at the school--for other people.
It was in that moment that I felt like an adult, not just in age, but also in strength, in stamina, in ability to be present for the sake of others. Since my wife left & even much prior, it has been years since I truly felt like an adult, needing help to regulate my moods & perspectives, having my wife remind me to take my pills & go to bed / get up, & depending on others for money; call it whatever the age version of emasculation is. In those months between my wife leaving & my grandpa passing away--no job, no family of my own, sulking in my reliance on others--my fragile psyche left me feeling like a small child again.
I guess that is one of the good challenges that came out of that sad week--getting to step up & be an adult. I had to be composed & precise in communicating with doctors & family members as my grandpa battled his illness. I had to be mindful & selfless in showing up for others. Like my time at the hospital, I was able to practice the importance of presence the entire week, engulfed in family time. He wasn’t just my Fred Tyner, this wasn’t just my loss, & this wouldn’t just be my grief.
At the funeral, people I hadn’t seen in years were asking me, “How old are you?” For the first time in months, I could proudly say, “Thirty-one.” People would ask, “What have you been up to?” & I could say without shame that I spent the last year being present for grandpa & my parents, visiting as much as I could, working to regulate myself, & starting projects--the FUTURE BARN podcast, a forthcoming artist residency, organization of my grandpa’s life’s worth of stuff on the property--that shone good light on his legacy.
I have had a revelation about adulthood, how to manage it successfully one must hone (which I’ve done), maintain (which I’m trying to do), & put into good use a skill set. For me, it is some combo of problem-solving, connecting, & writing/performing. Two of my aunts on my dad’s side showed up from North Carolina, a sweet gesture, but one that threw my mother for a loop, not expecting to host guests during her father’s funeral. I was able to step-up, bringing take-out to the house to cover meals, showing up with stories to entertain & a spare room to offer. At the funeral itself, I was able to lend a listening ear & space for others to share & grief, saving my grand burst of reflection for the eulogy at the end.
Also, in order to maintain this functioning adult mindset roll I am on, I must be aware of my triggers & make appropriate choices to avoid / manage them. For me, it has always been embarrassment & abandonment that blur the brain & tilt the train off the tracks. In the midst of grief, crowds of people, & excessive family time, both of those pests will shake the tress, but I am happy to report that I handled the back-end of these awkward moments well. Be it a family member saying the n-word in casual conversation or me flubbing a name in introduction, these things I would have once dwelled on, that would’ve once shoved me into a deeper despair, were minor blips on the radar.
Because I felt wholly grown, I was able to be present with myself & the moment, showing grace, being gentle & kind all around. In my meditation practice on the Waking Up app, we often enact metta loving kindness, the compassionate extension of feelings of well-wishing & hope-for-happiness to others. In these times of grief, I realized the importance of extending metta loving kindness to the self, as well as to others. It has allowed me to concentrate on the right things--my mom’s grief in losing her father, my responsibilities to the logistics of the moment, & my grandfather’s legacy. As I said to end the eulogy, punctuating the generosity & openness of grandpa’s living, “May we all be so kind.”
“Write what you know,” said approximately 1.43 million nervous creative writing instructors. “You just go on your nerve,” suggested Frank O’Hara. In these poems, Shira Erlichman does not panic in an attempt to communicate what she has experienced in her journey with bipolar disorder, but rather, she turns attention to the very drug meant to calm her in a concerted, fruitful effort to capture the nature of the happening. It is important here to remember the words we use to label this journey--bout, battle, struggle. These are acts of conflict, aggression, & difficulty & we mustn’t forget it.
“What they don’t want of me lives. It sees through my eyes that they would prefer it dead. It knows better than to whimper, or show defeat. What they don’t want of me breathes.”
I’ve learned first hand how wild it is to attempt to convey to folks how it feels to be mad, to be drugged, to be blurry-between; you can say the who & the what & the why, but it doesn’t capture the visceral excess of the experiencing. In these odes, which also take the form of sonnets & prose poems & ghazals & etc., I kept remarking on how the poems show great skill in repossessing the language of mental illness in the container of poetry’s various forms. Dean Young would call it shoving fission material in a reactor; I would call it putting wolves inside a fence. Regardless what you call it, these poems succeed in capturing the visceral nature of mental illness & the shape of experiencing it.
“Have you ever seen the dark split / into two peaches? Sickness is a lot like that. / To the uninitiated it looks like fruit.”
These poems take a razorblade to the moments to carve something truly expressive & connective for the ill; for the allies & uninformed, these poems can make crisp the state of experience otherwise cloudy for them. As Dean Young said, “The great accomplishment of consciousness is the imagination, & the greatest accomplishment of the imagination is empathy.” I’m reading Against Empathy by Paul Bloom, in which he dismisses emotional empathy--the attempt to feel what another is feeling--though not necessarily cognitive empathy, the informed, rational understanding & sympathy for what another person or group of people is going through. These poems achieve a empathic middle ground of entry for readers.
“Chicken wire undulated behind my lids / & the sky looked beat to death.”
These poems use an inventiveness that might only be available to the mad, the variations & the twists, the jumbles & the jams that we have, in our own cognition, been terrorized by, dealt with, & hopefully managed. In “They,” Erlichman deals with the difficulty of being two days removed from a psych ward, attempting to navigate small talk & conflict at a friendly dinner party. In many poems, she lives with the sights, sounds, & flesh of the people she met in the psych ward, both of versions herself & others. Never do these poems ask for pity, but instead, earn witness with their honest & startled lens.
“I retreated to my small room to sleep / two days on a wiry bed frame on public sheets / that had belonged to others’ private sweat.”
A bit over six years ago, my struggle with mental illness found its new level, a rock-bottom, resulting in my assaulting my then-girlfriend LR in the parking garage of our apartment complex in Austin, TX. I still have no memory, no words, no excuse for what she witnessed & suffered that day. Regardless of its relation to my later-diagnosed mental illness, I will never forgive myself for the pain I caused her & the traumatic legacy that endures.
As I’ve continued on this journey, I’ve learned much about the triggers, symptoms, & treatments for what has since been diagnosed bipolar disorder--with a good bit of psychosis to boot, possibly of the schizoaffective type--the mechanism that allowed that madness to occur. It is not justification, resolution, or even forgiveness that I seek. Within this contextualization & the passage of time, I aim to better position where poetry rests in life, as a tool for community, comfort, & rehabilitation. Maybe in that, we can find those other bits.
When that incident happened, poetry was not a part of my life, it was my whole life. I was about to start the MFA program at the University of Texas-Austin. I was publishing regularly, including my then-forthcoming debut collection of poems, MORE WRECK MORE WRECK. I was hosting a monthly reading series, working at a bookstore, & editing a literary magazine. The majority of my friends were poets. I was joyfully neck-deep in the poetry world.
With LR’s essay (since unpublished) about my struggles, the social pressure in response, & my continuing heightened psychological demands, I stepped away from the poetry community in 2016. The poetry circle I once ran within closed without me in its circumference. I say this, again, not as a pity party, but to contextualize the poet tip-tapping these words out right now. I was humbled by the necessity of stepping away, yet Poetry--the act, the spirit, the machine--wouldn’t leave me be.
My life has reached another great convergence--the era of COVID-19 combining with a life-threatening mental health crisis this spring--that has propelled me into another chapter of my journey with mental illness & its relationship to poetry. Struggling to get out of bed, to string more than a few good hours together, to convince myself to keep going, I was saved, yet again, by poetry, its ability to provide a safe space to place the wild, extra parts of myself, unfit & unfeathered for the modern world.
I have spent the past five months dealing with the worsening of my condition--more frequent episodes, longer depressions following, a dangerous mania--which has totally uprooted my life with a series of losses & changes that just adds weight to the worry. The escape into poetry, both as a reader & writer, unlocked a chamber of recovery that I had forgotten. Editing poems at the kitchen table, reading poems in my blue chair, talking to my friend BM about this or that new collection of verse literally gave me something to do besides be crazy & off myself, to put it bluntly.
With a renewed affection for Poetry & a better grasp on the self, I have decided to revisit an important part of my past life--submitting & (hopefully) publishing. I know this decision may upset a few folks, but I hope I’ll be heard. This next step is a crucial one towards me feeling whole again, an act my therapist & psychiatrist support. The act of editing, submitting, & (again, hopefully) publishing a poem gives self-worth to the process otherwise lacking; instead of the catastrophic cycles of my mental illness, it is a positive cycle of valuable effort, self-affirmation, & reciprocity.
I totally understand if someone doesn’t want to publish my poems because of what happened in that parking garage, because of how my actions have affected LR. I sympathize if there is a worry about backlash or a loss of reputation by associating with me. I especially support not publishing or reading my poems because you don’t enjoy them, don’t find a necessary oomph there. But if you do like my poems, I hope you’ll give them a nod, how I am giving them a chance again to hold myself up.