Available at Amazon.com here (dont worry about the different covers, it is the same book!):
Although most of this post was written and posted back in 2011, I have both edited it and written an addendum, especially for the students in Holly C’s course, with whom I will be doing a Skype class on Monday. If others do not want to reread the post and wish to skip to the end where I have placed the addendum, feel free.
First though, please be aware that descriptions and names of places and so forth have been changed back to their originals except for the names of some people involved, such as my doctors. Those names are somewhat similar, but still disguised. In Divided Minds, we were forced by the publishers to completely disguise everyone, including their physical descriptions, and to make amalgams in some cases, taking two doctors and blending them into one. In Blacklight, by contrast, I am determined that my descriptions of people, previously altered in order to “protect them,” will be honest and forthright, rewritten so that while their names may be changed, their descriptions are as aboveboard as memory makes possible. After all, I write nothing but the truth as I remember it. I wrote a fair amount in my journals at the time and I referred back to my notes there in writing this. What is more, I intend no libel and in fact, I want only to be fair and to bend over backwards in giving as much credit as possible where it is due.
The Ogre Has ECT: 2004
I am delivered like a piece of mail to the Hospital of St Raphael’s, on a stretcher, bound up in brown wool blankets like a padded envelope. It’s the only way the ambulance will transfer me between Norwalk Hospital and this one. The attendants disgorge me into a single room where de-cocooned, I climb down and sit on the bed. All my bags have been left at the nurses’ station for searching; this is standard procedure but I hope they don’t confiscate too much. An aide follows me in to take my BP and pulse, and bustles out, telling me someone will be back shortly. I sit quietly for a half an hour, listening to the constant complaint of the voices, which never leave me, sometimes entertaining me, most of the time ranting and carping and demanding. A thin, 30-something woman with curly blonde hair, rimless glasses and residual acne scars that give her a kind of “I’ve suffered too” look of understanding, knocks on the door-frame..
“May I come in?” she asks politely.
“I can’t stop you.” My usual. Don’t want to seem too obliging or cooperative at first.
“Well, I do need to take a history, but I can come back when you’re feeling more disposed…”
“Nah, might as well get it over with.” Then, nicer, I explain, “I was just being ornery on principle.”
“What principle is that?”
“If you’re ornery they won’t see you sweat.”
“And they won’t expect you to be medication-compliant right off the bat.” I shrug my shoulders but grin, I want to think, devilishly.
“I see you have a sense of humor.”
“You should see me…”
“I’m sure we all will. A sense of humor is very healthy. But it worries me that you already plan not to take your meds.”
“I’ll only refuse the antipsychotic. Look at the blimp it’s turned me into.” I haul my extra-large tee-shirt away from my chest to demonstrate. Fatso, Lardass! Someone snipes. She doesn’t know it but you really believe you’re thin. Ha ha, you’re a house! Look at yourself! LOOK at yourself! Ha ha ha ha! The voices are telling the truth: I know the number of pounds I weigh is high, outrageously high for me, having been thin all my life, but I haven’t lost my self-image as a skinny shrimp, so I can’t get used to being what others see. The voices love to remind me how fat I really am. Only the mirror, or better, a photograph, reminds me of the honest to god truth, and I avoid those. I avert my eyes, or search the concrete for fossils, when approaching a glass door. Anything not to be shocked by what I’ve become. Pig! Glutton! It seems they don’t want to stop tonight…
I realize suddenly that I’ve lost track of the conversation.
“I don’t think they’ll allow you to do that for long.”
“Don’t you remember what we were talking about? Were your voices distracting you?”
“Just thoughts, you know, plus some added insults.”
“You’ll have to take all your meds eventually.”
“Then they’ll have to switch me to a different pill, even if it’s less effective.”
She sucks the top of her pen and looked down at her clipboard. “So,” she starts the formal intake. “What brings you here to St Raphael’s?”
The voices break in there, again, confusing me. When I can get my bearings I tell her what made me transfer from Norwalk Hospital and why I opted for shock treatments. She takes a closer look at the mark of Cain I’ve burned into my forehead, writes something, then corrects me.
“We like to refer to them as ECT here. ‘Shock treatments’ brings to mind the terrible procedures of the past. These days you feel nothing, you just go to sleep and wake up gently. I know. I assist at the ECT clinic.
“Oh, I know, I know. I’ve had ECT before. I know what it’s like and it’s a snap. I asked for this transfer because I hope it will help again.”
We talk some more about why I’m here and what I’ve been through and the voices keep to a minimum so there’s not too much interference. She says she’s going to be my primary nurse and that she thinks we’ll work well together. I nod, thinking she’s pretty okay, for a nurse.
I’ve arrived after lunch, which is served at 11:30am so someone brings me a tray and I pick at it in my room. People come in and out of my room but only speak to me a second or two before they leave, a doctor does a cursory physical, someone takes me down the hall to weigh and measure me. I return to my room, too scared to do otherwise, constrained by the Rules of the voices. The first break in the afternoon is medications in the late afternoon, when someone tells me to line up in front of a little window near the nurse’s station. When it’s my turn, I look at the pills in my cup. Ugh, 20mg of Zyprexa, an increase, plus a host of other pills I can’t remember the names of. I hand the pill back to the med nurse. I’m not taking this, it makes me fat, I say. Give me Geodon. at least I don’t put on weight with Geodon.
“Sorry, Dr Kroeder has ordered this one. We can’t just go around changing doctor’s orders. You either take it or you refuse.”
I was in a quandary. I hadn’t even met the doctor and already I was fighting with her? Should I take it and argue with her later? But then I’ll eat my whole dinner tray and more. Better to start off with my principles intact, so she knows what I’ll take and what I won’t take. I hand the pill back. ”Sorry, I won’t take it.”
“If you decompensate further we will have to give you a shot, you know that, don’t you?”
“I’ll be fine.” I do a little dance step.
“Yeah, and look what you’ve done to your face. Come closer.”
Wondering what she wants, I lean in gingerly, fearing her touch, but she only takes a tongue depressor and smears some ointment on the big oozing sore.
“You’re done.Go eat some supper.”
At 4:30? That’s pretty early. I can’t cross the threshold of the dining room, the Rules the voices make forbid it. I cannot enter the milling crowd, suffering little electric shocks every time my body makes contact with another. Instead I retreat to my room. Sitting on the edge of my bed again, I wonder what to do. How can I get supper, or any meal, if the voices won’t let me go into the dining room?
Just then, the thin blonde nurse with the glasses, what’s her name, leans into my room. “Aren’t you hungry? There’s a tray for you waiting outside the dining room.”
“They made a rule I can’t eat with other people, and I can’t get in the dining room…So I can’t eat.” I read her name tag. “Prisca.”
She smiles and glances down at the tag on her chest. ”Oh, just call me Prissy, everyone else does. I hate it, but what can you do? What are you talking about? There’s no such rule. For now, I guess I’ll let you eat in your room, but that is against the rules and we’ll have to get you into the dining room eventually, whatever the voices tell you.
She brings in the tray: white bread with two slices of bologna and a slice of cheese tossed on top, a packet of mayonnaise, a small green salad in a separate bowl, with a plastic slip of French dressing, and a packaged Hostess brownie for dessert. I didn’t eat lunch, though they brought it in, so even this impoverished repast looks good to me and I eat everything, despite not having taking the hated Zyprexa. I curse myself for it, of course, and do some leg lifts and crunches for exercise afterwards. Ever since I’ve been refusing the drug, I have lost weight. Now I am down to 155 lbs from 170 the last time I weighed myself and I intend to get much thinner, since I started at 95 before medications over the years slowly put weight on me.
After supper the voices start in again, louder and louder, telling me how fat I am, how disgusting and terrible I am. I notice the clock hanging on the wall, which ticks audibly punctuating each sentence. The voices were carping, now they are threatening, and demanding…Finally, their all too familiar sequence segues into telling me I’m the most evil thing, and they don’t say person, on the planet. I’m the Ogre that ate Manhattan, I’m Satan, I’m a mass murderer, I killed Kennedy and deserve to die, die, die!
I’m wearing a heavy pair of clogs with wooden soles and almost before I can think about it, I know what to do. I heave one up at the clock, hitting it dead center. It crashes to the floor. Scrambling to grab a shard of the clear plastic cover before the staff comes running in, I lunge towards where I saw the largest piece fall, one with a long jagged point. I have my hand closed around it when someone tackles me from behind. He’s not very big and I can feel him struggling to keep me pinned. I almost succeed in stabbing myself, but he manages to engulf my hand with his two and press them closed against the flat sides of the shard.
Other people crowd into the room now and they pry the shard from me and grab my arms and legs so I’m completely immobilized. Then at a word murmured by one of the male aides who have materialized out of nowhere, they swing me up onto the bed, like pitching a sand bag onto a levee. I scream but they ignore me and strap my ankles and wrists into leather cuffs which have been rapidly attached to the bed frame: four point restraints.
I continue to scream and scream, but nobody pays attention. A nurse comes at me with a needle, saying it is Haldol and Ativan and proceeds to inject me. Although I am still crying that I want to die, that I’m Satan, the Ogre that ate Manhattan, that I killed Kennedy, I’m the evil one, the room then empties, except for a heavy-set café-au-lait sitter, who hollers louder than I do that her name is Caledonia. She pulls up a chair in the doorway, pulls out a cosmetics bag and proceeds to do her nails in spite of me.
I am told by Prissy that I scream most of the evening and keep the whole unit awake until given a sleeping pill and another shot. All I remember is restless twilight sleep coming at last, broken when a short sandy-haired woman, dressed in a sweater set and skirt, comes in and takes my pulse. I’m groggy with medication but she speaks to me nonetheless.
“I’m , Dr Kroeder, your doctor. You’ve had a bad night I see. Well, perhaps tomorrow we’ll get a chance to talk.”
“Get me out of these things!” I mumble angrily. I can’t sleep like this!”
“”Not yet. You’re not ready. But try your best to sleep now. We’ll re-evaluate things in the morning.”
Then she turns and is gone.
As I get to know her, I will like Dr Kroeder for her kindness, toughness and honesty, but I will hate her too for opposite reasons and it will be a long time before I know whether the liking or the hating or something else entirely wins out.
The first thing that makes me know ECT is going to be different at St Raphael’s than where I had it before is that we all have to get there on under own steam rather than travel in wheelchairs, the way I’ve known since childhood all hospital patients must travel. We walk there, all of us, down interminable corridors, around several corners, through doors to more of the same. In short by the time we get there I have no idea where we are. I said it was a snap when I had it before, but now I feel like a prisoner going to the hangman, a “dead man walking.” Something about our going there in a group voluntarily, by choice and yet somehow not totally by choice, makes it feel like punishment, like having to cut your own switch, not a medical procedure at all. This sets my nerves on edge. When we finally get to the rooms clearly marked “ECT Suite,” instead of the doctor being ready for us, no time to anticipate or fear what is ahead, we have to wait and wait and wait. We’re told the outpatients have to be “finished up” first. My apprehension grows. I’m used to getting to the ECT rooms and immediately climbing up on the table and getting it over with. Waiting and having time to think about it brings me close to tears.
Finally four in-patients are to be taken. I think the nurse calling us in senses I am too anxious to wait any longer, for she makes sure I’m with the first group. I clamber up on the table, and see Dr Kroeder looking down at me, smiling. I notice how white her teeth are and the little gap in her shirt across her chest as she bends over me, strapping something over my forehead as Prissy puts a needle into the heplock already in my arm. I feel my arms and legs quickly cuffed down by others in the team, a mask clamps down over my face and I’m told to breathe, breathe in deeply and I breathe and breathe and a chasm in hell opens and the demons reach out and scream as I plummet past into a terrible inky blackness…
I wake up a second later and immediately vomit into a kidney basin hastily held out by a nurse. “Why didn’t you do it?” I cry out, confused. “Why didn’t you do it, why did you made me wait? I can’t go through this again!”
Strangely, Dr Kroeder has disappeared, and so have Prissy and the nurses that had surrounded me just an instant before. Instead a plump, baby-faced older nurse smiles as she takes away the kidney basin and says, kindly, “You’ve been sleeping soundly for an hour. They did the treatment already and you’re waking up. How about trying to sit up now?” Slowly, I push myself to a sitting position and swing my legs over the edge of the table. No dizziness, no more nausea. I feel okay, except for a slight headache. So I slide off the table and ask where to go. Surely they won’t make me stay a long while this time. The nurse leads me to a wheelchair and asks an aide to take me back to the unit. Ah, a chair at last. At least I’m not expected to walk on my own after that ordeal.
ECT Takes place on Monday, Wednesday and Friday each week and though I vomit many times upon waking up, that is the least of it. What I dread most is the anesthesia, how I plunge from perfect alertness into the dark pit and feel like I wake a second later, sick and confused. I grow more and more afraid until, at the end of a series of 8 sessions, I refuse to go on to a second series. I thwart this by grabbing something to eat every morning, which is forbidden as you cannot have ECT if you have eaten or drunk anything within 12 hours of hte procedure. Because my symptoms are still severe and Caledonia comes to sit with me one to one more often than not, Dr Kroeder tries to persuade me, but I am adamant. I am not depressed (quite despite what she tries to convince me of). ECT hasn’t helped my obsessive intrusive thoughts/hallucinations this time so no more of it. No more! Then she threatens to have the next series court-ordered and to add insult to injury, she says she will force me to take Zyprexa as well, the drug I so hate. I explode.
“What! You f—ing can’t do that! I’m a free citizen, I’m not a danger to myself or anyone else.”
“In fact, I can do it, and I am going to do it, whether you like it or not. You need more ECT and unfortunately you refuse the only drug that is effective for you. Pam, look, how can you say you’re not a danger to yourself? Look at your forehead! That’s not the mark of I it’s just self-mutilation. Look at where you carved that mark into your hand when we weren’t watching you carefully enough. Isn’t that danger enough?”
“But I’m NOT going to kill myself. I don’t want to die. I just want to be disfigured so no one will want to be around me and they’ll stay safe and uncontaminated.”
Dr Kroeder’s eyes suddenly glitter and she has to blink a couple of times. “Well, I’m not going to let you continue to do what you want. Period.”
She was standing at the foot of my bed, one foot on a lower rung, casually holding a clipboard. But she moves closer to me, standing to one side, the clipboard clasped business-like across her chest. Gazing intently at me, she shakes her head in what appears to be sadness. I’m not sad, I know what I have to do. I don’t understand why she feels this is so terrible, but I know enough to remain quiet. Finally, she turns and quietly slips out of the room.
This alarms me; it shocks me. I know she means what she says. Worst of all, Dr O’Maloney, my outpatient psychiatrist, has signed off on it well, agreeing it is the only thing left to do, that already I’ve been in the hospital two months and little has changed, that the situation is desperate. Their only problem is that to get a court order they have to get me a conservator who will agree to it. They want to appoint my twin sister and they discuss with her whether or not she’ll agree to forcing more ECT on me, in addition to Zyprexa. Despite fearing that I’ll hate her, she too is convinced there are no other options.
So Dr Kroeder wins and I endure eight more ECT sessions. Finally I’m discharged a month later, much improved, so everyone says. As a condition of my release, I promise that I’ll continue to take Zyprexa. Forced to, I do promise, even though my history clearly suggests that I will not. I’m also supposed to return once every two weeks for maintenance ECT treatments and Dr Kroeder threatens me with a police escort if I don’t comply. But this time I thumb my nose at her. So, she’s going to get both the Hartford and the New Haven police involved? She thinks they are going to bother to arrest me just to drive me down to the hospital for ECT, something they themselves probably consider barbaric? J’en doute fort. I doubt that big time! In fact, after a call to the Legal Rights Project, I learn that any conservatorship was dissolved the moment I was discharged from St Raphael’ s and that the doctor has no power over me at all now, zilch. So I write Dr Kroeder a nice apologetic letter — sorry, doc, but no more of your ECT for me. Ever.
Several months later, hearing command hallucinations, I pour lighter fluid over my left leg and set it on fire. So much for the restorative powers of shock torture, excuse me, electro- convulsive therapy.
Addendum: not part of Blacklight
ECT in 2003 (after DIVIDED MINDS ends)
The first time I had ECT was in 2003 at John Dempsey Hospital, which is connected to the University of Connecticut’s medical school. There, in desperation, because of an “obsession” — and I say that advisedly, because I was not so much obsessed as consumed — with the face that I saw in the biohazard sign (which we called the biohazmat man in DIVIDED MINDS) as well as a little red figure I saw running through it, I asked whether something like ECT might help me. The head psychiatrist of the unit wasn’t certain, it wasn’t commonly used for that. But he was willing to try it nonetheless. It took some doing. I was very scared, and the procedure scared me even more, as it turned out that a “heplock” had to be placed in your arm hours beforehand, so a needle could be easily inserted and anesthesia given later during the procedure. But this frightened me and I balked. I also balked at signing various papers. I almost backed out, and rescinded permission at least once. But finally I went through with it.
The actual ECT was near torture, both because of my terror of anestheisa and also because at Dempsey Hospital absolutely no attention was given to the comfort of in-patients, so that we were made to wait until afternoon before our treatments, meaning that we could eat neither breakfast nor lunch on those days. Or at least we could not eat until the treatments were given. Since meals in-hospital loom large in importance, especially when there is little else to do and one’s medications induce hunger, this was a huge problem, particularly when I was already very apprehensive. I never did understand the rationale behind this. It seemed to be particularly bad planning to have any ECT patient have to have treatment so late in the day, given that fasting was essential. But hey, who was I but a mere mental patient? I had no rights, I just had to do what I was told!
Anyhow, I suffered the agonies of hell, but I went through with it, hating each session, until, after I’d undergone five of them, I began to complain that my memory was being affected. I decided to stop, but I noted at the same time, strangely enough, that the biohazmat man had also disappeared from my radar. Weird! It seemed to have worked, ECT had broken the back of what had been consuming me. In point of fact, ECT at that time worked so well that the biohazard sign has never bothered me again in such a fashion. Which is close to a miracle in my book.
Memory is fiction. I wrote that in 2005, believing I read it in the New Yorker somewhere. Memory is fiction. It’s not that we make our memories out of whole cloth; we believe we remember things clearly, but the mind is a funny thing and what we recall happened, and what “really” did are two different things. Of course, in the end, there is little way of knowing what is correct, unless the event was a public one and well-documented. Unless? Hah. Just think of one of the most public and most highly documented events of the 20th century, the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and try to come to some conclusion from the “evidence, the facts, about what “really” happened. The truth is, no one can tell you what really happened because everyone’s memory is different, and in that sense even though the objective evidence supposedly remains the same, each witness interprets it differently, through a different viewpoint and a different political and sociological lens. So where lie the facts of “true memory” and where is the bosh of “mere fiction” in that public event, those historically documented facts? Answer that and I am certain there must be a big prize out there somewhere for you.
But I suspect the truth is that this notion of “really happened” is just a big brainwash by those in power who have cornered the market on their own version of it. In truth (and these words all get so sticky here), if I believe something happened one way, and this belief has informed my life and behavior, isn’t that the most important thing about the event, more important than any theoretical “facts” of the matter? Given than no agreement has been reached about something so public that it ought to be obvious, Who killed President Kennedy? how can anyone tell me that an XYZ in my own little life that I remember clearly, happened rather in the fashion that they recall and not as I do? What gives their memories more weight than my own?
You can indeed turn it around and say Fiction is memory, and be just as correct, meaning that in all the stories we make up about the world reside parts of ourselves and our lives, that nothing is ever truly “made up” or completely foreign to our experience, however outlandish the characters or strange the events described . There is a truth behind the settings and deeds that derives from one’s center, making fiction a personal memory of the deepest sort.
People have asked how I could recall with such clarity events that happened 20, 30 or 40 years ago, even down to dialogue, the way I’ve written it in DIVIDED MINDS or prospectively in BLACKLIGHT, and all I can say is — aside from the fact that out of 40 years I remember very little all told, even though what I do recall, I recall with great vividness — that I feel I remember every event I recount as clearly as if it happened yesterday. There is no guarantee, mind you, if indeed memory is fiction, that I recall anything with factual accuracy, whatever that is! I can only claim to capture what memory remains of those years, to capture my memories, no matter how time has embellished or hardened them, or in fact hardened the embellishments.
As to DIVIDED MINDS, I remembered a great deal more than what I wrote, until the book project was finished, at which point I pretty much lost it all. Once it set the years down as “my story” I feel as if I mentally deleted all other remembered events as less important, therefore forgettable…I wish this hadn’t happened as there was much I used to and wished to recall. Perhaps I have earlier versions of my book without such deletions, on my hard drive to jog my memory, but it is as Annie Dillard, author of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek wrote, (I paraphrase) If you prize your memories, don’t write them down (because that solidifies them forever in a form that freezes out all others).
Nevertheless, not a word I have written either in DIVIDED MINDS or in BLACKLIGHT has been deliberately fictionalized. I remember each and everything that I have written about, though whether my memory be factually accurate or not is anyone’s guess.
As an aside, I know all too well how false memories may be unconsciously confabulated. When I lived at the Transitional Living Facility in Hartford in the 90s, the staff there and at the nearby hospitals were so intent on ferreting out “multiples,” the newest fad diagnosis, short for persons with Multiple Personality Disorder, that I am absolutely convinced they induced many if not most of the residents there to “remember” early childhood sexual traumas, incidents which they might never have “remembered” and which likely never happened. For instance, my friend Joe latched onto the “fact” that his father “molested” him — but the only evidence he ever gave for that was that he put his hand on his knee once while driving…Now, I never bought it, since it seemed a fatherly thing to do, a father putting his hand on the knee of a young boy! And Joe never once said that anything else ever happened between them. In fact, he always said that his father was a womanizer, if anything. Be that as it may, the residents were made to confabulate these false memories and this was a necessary prerequisite for the psychologists there to proceed to “uncover” the desired dissociative disorders, i.e. closet multiple personalities. I am telling you, it was a huge fad, and MPDs were coming out of the woodworks. I am convinced that many so-called multiples today, most of them, are residual from that terrible decade of the 90s, and they have not been able to let go of that diagnosis. Furthermore, no one, no doctor or therapist has been brave enough to deal with the lie that they were induced, even forced to buy into, and so the “fiction” is being perpetuated and their lives and no doubt others connected to them destroyed.
Forgive that tangent, but it is one aspect of memory — induced false memory — that does upset me, because it has destroyed so many lives, continues to, and no one is held accountable.
Nevertheless, for most and in most lives, those not deliberately ruined by multiple-personality-mad psychiatrists and/or overzealous psychologists, the “facts” whatever they may be don’t matter as much as one’s memories, as I’ve pointed out. Certainly for me, I’ve lived my life through my memories, and the memories have been what has influenced me, affected me, changed me and made me into the person I am today, for good or ill.
I have some other thoughts on this, but it is getting very late so I must quit for now and go to bed…TTFN (ta ta for now).
You should know that what follows is just a tiny scribble of what I have written, and it might not even make the final cut once I finish writing the book. But I put it here as a little enticement for readers, a tempting snack to “grow the appetite for more” when it comes out. That said, I must warn that in addition to alerting you that the passage below might end up on the cutting floor, if it does not, it still may not start the book. But here I am hemming and hawing and making excuses. Nothing wrong with posting what I have for now, for the nonce, even though I may remove it later on. Comments on subtitle would be greatly appreciated. If you have suggestions for improving it — the subtitle, i mean — so much the better.
BLACKLIGHT: a memoir of one woman’s fight to recover from schizophrenia
Blacksoup, tarstew, coffeecombs – submerged in the darkness of things I cannot face by light, inky, skeletal, reaching-out things that pinch and grasp and touch, I fight to swim away, even though away means into a blinding headache. I am sucked down again and then again, until through pounding surf, someone calls my name, almost too faint to hear. Desperate, I thrash upward, cracking the surface of the day and open my eyes. It’s well after dawn yet all the lamps in the room burn brightly.
“Pam, wake up. Unlock the door. I’m here,” someone shouts. The door thunders on.
What time is it? What day is it? I must have plunged into sleep the night before without awareness, for all I know is that I break into daylight like a common mole nosing into what feels like leaf litter and detritus, the remains of an old picnic. Popcorn is strewn across my lap and chair in a white rash. Resting on its side halfway off the night table, a cup of coffee, now empty, its contents on the carpet. I hoist myself off the recliner with a groan, trying to shake off my shoulders the gargoyles of nightmare. I sleep in my clothes but I never go barefoot –too liable to be bitten by the inanimate fang of a tack or discarded fork– so it takes me a minute before I can home in on my flip-flops.
“Sorry, sorry, sorry,” Wrenching the deadbolt, I yank the door open. “I didn’t hear you. You’re early today.”
“It’s 8:30. No earlier than usual.” Elissa, her dark hair pulled back from her face, carries her big nursing bag and tablet computer. She wears slim, tight jeans and a ruched tee shirt that make her look thirty-five at most, not the forty-something she rarely admits to. She assesses me quickly before coming in and asking, “How did you sleep? And did you eat last night?”
Almost every morning begins this way, not with the bleep, blurt or blare of an alarm, on which I can mash the snooze button. Not even with the sweet sun-rising tones of my favorites song on iTunes, no, my morning begins with this won’t-take-no-for-an-answer Thor at the door. It’s not Elissa’s fault. Sometimes I leave my door unlocked before I cliff-fall into sleep so she can come in on her own the next morning and gently wake me. But not always, and then what can she do but hammer at the doorway of Oneiros, because nothing else will rouse me.
Elissa has been my primary visiting nurse for more than 10 years and she is the one who checks on me every morning, rain or shine, snow or hailstorm. She can read me by now the way a farmer reads the sky, and just one look or something in the tone of my voice tells her when things are copacetic and when they are not. She has seen me well and she’s seen me precariously ill and she’s the first to recognize when I’m somewhere in-between, headed in the wrong direction. Her main job is to keep track of and make sure I take my medications, but when paranoid, I have yelled at her or been snappy and high strung and irritable. She has never taken it personally. I no doubt have driven her nearly to distraction but she flicks all away as no big deal. I must say though that even though I wouldn’t admit it at the time, she has in more than one instance saved my life.
She keeps returning with a smile nevertheless and now instead of telling her how glad I am to see her, I turn away, mumbling that I had a lousy night. It’s true, but I feel like a lout for saying so. Or at least for saying so first thing.
Argh, now all I can see are the faults, but I will leave it as is, and not panic or take it down at once. I have learned that there is no terrible tragedy is letting people see rough drafts or the work-in-progress, though it be only that, a rough draft, not the polished version. If nothing else, it proves that I too am a human being who must write and make mistakes before editing and rewriting my copy. In fact, I rewrite a zillion times before I am happy with what I have written. Each poem takes at least 20 rewrites, at a minimum, and most take at least 50 while some over 100. As for prose, well, I cannot even begin to estimate how often I rewrite or revise each passage. but needless to say it is well over 50-100!
Not only is there no shame in revision, I take great pride in how much rewriting and revision I do. It is a point of honor with me that I take this much time with my writing and do not hurry it — ever. People who believe that the first words that come out of their pen or mouth or computer are sacrosanct are likely to not be real writers, only dilettantes who play at writing, but never take it seriously. Who want to write, but who never really do so, except for in the pages of a journal or doggerel between friends and family.
Do not get me wrong, I do not disparage this sort of writing. In a sense ALL writing counts as writing. And all writing is good for a person. But not all writing is publishable or suitable for the public consumption, and that is what I mean by writing done by a “real writer.” Someone for whom writing is what life is all about. Someone for whom life would not be worth while if she could not continue to write. Someone who knows the value of editing and revising and rewriting and who knows that a good editor can a writer’s best friend.
Poems can express many ideas and experiences. In my first book of poems, We Mad Climb Shaky Ladders, part of CavanKerry Press’ Laurel Books literature of illness series, I tried to express how I felt both during psychosis and afterwards. I also often tried to put myself into the experience of others who experienced symptoms that I might not, but which I could imagine.
One thing I know, having had this illness for so long, is that misinterpretation is rife. I mean things when I do things, just as anyone else does. But people simply make assumptions about my behavior and forget that they might need to ask why I do what I do. I have often asked others why they did whatever strange or seemingly outrageous thing they did, and lo and behold there has always been an understandable rationale behind it. For instance, when I stripped naked in that freezing seclusion room, I was neither “acting out” nor totally around the bend, no, my reasoning was that if I were naked they would have to give me something to cover myself with, i.e. a blanket, which is what I had been begging for all along. But they never asked me why I had taken off my clothing — a flimsy tee shirt and lightweight jeans. They just assumed — whatever they assumed. Ditto for almost every other interaction I had with them, and the same almost uniformly went for other people when they behaved in a way that was somehow contrary to expectations. The meaning of their actions was reasonable, given the context.
I tell you this because in my poem, Word Salad, even though it appears to be, well, “word salady” and incomprehensible, in truth there is “method” to it, and in fact if you read it with a mind towards understanding the links, you would appreciate them. But you might have to “surrender” to getting it, and let it in without trying to rationally, intellectually understand. Only afterwards could you perhaps try to figure out what precisely is being done and said in the poem. One clue you might need, if you have not been subjected to this directly is that often, at least in the past, “patients” of a certain kind were asked to interpret proverbs. “Can you tell me what, ‘A rolling stone gathers no moss’ means?” or “What does ‘People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones’ mean?”
As for Grandiose, the same thing holds. Read it aloud and try to get the sense of it, how it reads. Then you may in fact understand what is going on “in one blow,” so to speak. It is full of double entendres, on purpose. Remember that “live” can be pronounced in two ways. Both of these hold.
“Word salad,” a term used for the completely disjointed, incomprehensible language sometimes seen in schizophrenia
Unpinned, words scatter, moths in the night. The sense of things loses hold, demurs. Everything means. Numbers soldier with colors and directions, four by four in a pinwheel: this is the secret wisdom. I inscribe it on sacred sheets of paper. The Oxford Dictionary holds not a candle. The self reduced to a cipher, a scribble, the Eye is all, with a Freemason’s lash, and 26 runic hieroglyphs to share how a stitch in time saved the cat and if a messy rock gathers no stones, clams must surely be lifted higher by the same rising boats. Why, why not throw glass tomes at grass huts? It is a question of propriety: grass is too dignified to lie down before gloss. Whirligig! How to pull the center back into the world? It would take all the OED to recapture the moths, all Harcourt’s English Grammar to pin them again. GRANDIOSE He says: I was always more important than you though with your cutting me down to size quarrel about just who I thought I was. I thought I was with my long dark hair and beard and rough working clothes John the Baptist, prophet of God wild man of the wilderness and would have to preach the word of a savior I didn’t quite believe in. I mentioned my conviction to a friend who told me to make friends with a mirror, discover which John I really re-incarnated. Lo, I looked and saw the more famous than Jesus John staring with his small important eyes behind his too small eye-glasses at me staring into the mirror at myself, yes, I wrote the songs you grew up on: Yesterday, Give Peace A Chance, Eleanor Rigby— yes, I was the one you swooned over and screamed for, yet now you only shriek at me, taking me down from a peg on the wall. Why do you yell, Get lost, baby? Imagine all the people who would rejoice to see me live once more.
As may be obvious from the brown paper at the sides, this collage is very much unfinished, both as to content and as to medium. What I mean is, this is a kind of painting with paper, so I am so far dissatisfied with, say, the blue curtain with yellow lining, because it still looks rough and is not clearly a curtain blowing in the air coming through the open window. Ditto, the open window, which is not clearly even a window, except by virtue of my titling it such. But when I finish with it, I hope all these mysteries will be clearer, including the surreal placement of a hand mirror outside an upper story window! (I said it was surreal, didn’t I?) But what I cannot help is whether or not the viewer recognizes what it is that is on the bed. Some people simply do not know what restraints look like, and have variously interpreted them as guitars or snakes or what have you. To me, it is obvious. But I guess most people have not been in such a situation, and have no conception of what they might be looking at. Perhaps a more suggestive title would help?
Another important feature of the “painting” is the frosted glass window, with the mysterious something going on behind it, again left up to the interpretation of the viewer. If you understand that this is a restraints bed, and that the window is open…what could be going on outside the seclusion room? And why is the window open? Should the bed be empty? If you could see this very large collage – 5 feet by 5 feet — up close, you would see that the mirror overhangs a very detailed garden, with all the trappings of well designed backyard floribundance, so to speak. There is a little table and benches and other accoutrements, but also a path leading up to — a garden gate, which opens onto a field and freedom.
As I worked on this collage, I was in a state of acute anxiety — with tremors and shaking and palpitations I did not understand. And every night I would weep with bodily but not conscious memories of the recent brutalities I experienced at Manchester and Middlesex Hospitals. At Natchaug they understood how degrading and traumatizing such treatment had been, and indeed how re-traumatizing. Because indeed, I had already been traumatized many times before in the 80s and 90s and early to mid 2000’s by what I thought was SOP use of such measures. Instead, when those recent hospitals used them, cruelly and inappropriately, at a time when I knew their use was frowned upon and had been severely curtailed, it not only re-awakened the original trauma, but in a very real sense put me in emotional touch with it, the pain, the terror, the horrendous humiliation for the very first time.
I am not by any means over it. As I work on my memoir sequel, BLACKLIGHT, I am also slowly going over my hospital records with Dr Angela, aka Dr C, and it is a gut-wrenching task that leaves me drained and tremulous. But if it succeeds in returning my memories to me, all of them, I shall consider it worthwhile.
I wanted to write a bit about the artworks that I posted yesterday without any explanation. The first one was the only one I planned in any sense of the word, and even then I cannot say I really knew what I was going to do when I started it. My process in these drawings is to simply start with an image, say, in the first one, I started by drawing an eye, and then to see where my subconscious takes me. Once I have established enough images – just a few usually — that are coherently related to one another on the paper (or not) then I look to see what is in the “negative” spaces, which fill up with images too. You can see this most clearly in the middle and third works. I know how the pictures were made, since I drew them, but in looking at them objectively now, I can see that an observer might not see anything conspicuously “unintended.” And of course, what does “unintended” mean when it comes to the subconscious?
But in the picture I will post below, this “technique” if you will, predominates. (You either like it or you hate it) I hesitate to call it a technique because that sounds like something consciously adopted, where I feel it simply reflects an unconscious change, something that happened co-incidental with Joe’s final days and then took on a life of its own after the trauma of his death. But let me post the picture I am talking about, the one that I started on the very day they took him off the ventilator, and then I will continue.
All I can say about this is that a person here is cutting the cord that is connected to a heart and a pot and is not plugged in…and the person with the scissors is a little excited by this in a way that implies pleasure…I am saying no more, except to reiterate that I drew it, or started it the day Joe died or more accurately was killed.
After that, I started doing more and more “honest” pictures, pictures where I did not try to please anyone, but was simply drawing and painting what I felt like. The next one after this one was the Beauty SLeeping with Bugs one, which was in the post yesterday. And then the self-portrait series, which began with the earlier Dead Meat one, Goon Squad: First Responders. In that notebook, I endeavor to draw only “self-portraits” though not likenesses. I am not sure what to call them, conceptual self-portraits perhaps? The second one is a very loosely drawn portrait of me as an animal, done in a different sketchy style (I haven’t photographed it or I would post it.) The third is Pam as Ornament, which I will post below, and once again I had nothing in mind when I started it, except the concept. The Santas came out of nowhere, esp the one that is only a head on a tray!
I guess I have nothing more to add for now.
I have been working on my memoir, which I have tentatively titled “BlackLight: a Memoir of Madness and One Woman’s Struggle for Recovery” — so far after only about 5 days work I have 27 pages done (more, really, just not organized and polished). Would be happy to hear any comments or suggestions for a better title (which I believe is a request I have made previously).
In truth, of the following poems one is not really new, since it was published some years ago in a volume called “Three Poets” (no longer available) put out by the Tunxis Poetry Review of Tunxis Community College in Connecticut. But I have always liked it. I will be including both in my second poetry collection, so I am putting them here as a kind of enticement, even though neither is about mental illness and/or schizophrenia. (Those I hope to “pre-publish” before the book is out…maybe…)
BTW: A few notes for clarity and in case you are not familiar with a few words, forgive me: “lieder” means Romantic songs, in German, “Bawds” comes from the same root as “bawdy” and means, essentially, “bawdy women”, “a water strider” is an insect… “la nostalgie de la boue” translates as “a longing to be back in the mud.” Also, I am sorry that I could not space it better, but the cut and paste option did not allow it.
CONSIDER THE BULLFROG
night and day
to a teetotaling
bog; whose noisy
lieder of drink
and bawds last all
of water striders
dimpling the surface
of the black pond
with the quick ribbon
of his tongue;
who after all
is not a Prince
in disguise; who
suffers himself to be
pithed for science;
mud in la nostalgie
de la boue; who
is Frog among frogs;
who needs no god;
who does not know
he will die.
The other poem, which is new but which I do not believe I will publish before I publish the book, is this one, a “nature poem” of a sort. It was written for my writing group “prompt” on the word “song or singing” as I recall…
“For the listener, who listens in the snow...Wallace Stevens
In those days I was always cold
as I had been a long time, mindful of winter
even at the solstice of my high summer days
always, always the crumb and crust of loss
and near-loss of everything held dear
before the saison d’enfers and the ice to come
There was always the wind
There was the wind making music,
and I, at one with the quirky stir of air
bowing the suppliant trees
bowing the branches of those trees for the sound
of songs long held in their wood
Changes change us: rings of birth, death, another season
and we hold on for nothing and no reason
but to sing.
Joe has rallied some, yes! yet again, though he is clearly in a terminal decline. Last Thursday, a week ago, we thought he might survive only a day or two, as he was in and out of consciousness and looked frankly terrible. But the following Saturday he was surprisingly alert again, and so it goes.
I was unable to visit him until yesterday, due to sheer exhaustion, and an inability to get a ride there so that I didn’t have to drive myself in an unsafe state. But when I saw him — that is, Friday — he was actually able to manage a bit of a smile, and appeared happy to see me. His first words in fact, spelled out on the letter board, were not about him but instead were, “You are beautiful” — what a sweetheart! When I asked him how he was, he spelled only that he was tired. He did tell me that he had trouble hearing, and when I offered to get the nurse to clean out his ear and fix the towel that blocked his other ear, he was grateful. But we couldn’t talk long as he grew weary after a scant twenty minutes. I offered to cut my visit short and return on Monday. That turns out to be easier on both of us anyhow as the letterboard is difficult for each of us in different ways.
joe’s level of consciousness remains variable. The irreparable and growing leak in his stoma (a “stoma” literally means a hole, which in this case is the hole in his throat and trachea that holds the tube through which air flows from the machine into his lungs) means that his O2 — oxygen — levels vary tremendously. The fact that he is also very “tired” is also an indication of lowered O2 concentration, though he may not understand this.
He did as I reported last time agree to the DNR designation (Dr O, with whom I have been in touch, because she was so helpful with Joe early in his illness, told me that this is now called AND — Allow Natural Death). I do not think he completely understood its meaning, though, as he asked me two days later. I had to tell him it meant no heroic measures “like cracking his chest and massaging his heart” to make it truly clear to him, even though, if true, it also sounds a little extreme…After all, artificial ventilation is already a heroic measure!
As it is, unless the fistula forms (in his case a pathological kind of tube or passageway) forms between an artery that branches off of his aorta, and his weakened tracheal walls, which would cause nearly immediate death (with hopefully immediate unconsciousness without suffocation or any “drowning in his own blood” sensation), it looks like he will die of slow oxygen depletion and carbon dioxide build up. This would probably be the best way…Although his cousin tells horror stories about “hypercapnia” I think he has been researching traumatic and acute cases of such carbon dioxide excess and not the slowly developing kind that Joe is experiencing. From all I muyself have read about ALS and respiratory failure, Joe’s dying should be painless and “easy.”. Especially if he only gets more and more tired and simply falls asleep…
I have been very weepy about this, esp when Joe has not been able to be very alert and it looked like death was near. But on Friday though he was “tired” he actually spent more time asking me how I was doing than talking about himself…He “talks” mind you, by spelling via the letterboard. Which means that he looks at me to say yes, and away to say no, while I go down the board by row, and then across the letters, saying them by name…It is very laborious, less so for me because I have memorized the board, than for him because it is clearly tiring. I no longer stay more than a half hour, and try to keep it to 15 minutes. I try also to visit more often than once a week, and if I can, I go every two days or so. Still, as you can imagine, it can get exhausting.
I hope I haven’t repeated myself several times in the above, but if I have, forgive me. I too am tired, though hardly as tired as Joe and not for anything near the same reasons. It is only the stress of having two dear friends “in extremis” so to speak, Joe near death, and Cy seemingly having surrendered to “fading away.” I know that Cy is 92 and lost his beloved wife three years ago, and it is, I suppose, his right to want to “fade away” but goddam it, his physical health is pretty damn good, but for his own deliberate neglect of it. And it pains me to see that, if nothing else, he is just allowing himself to abdicate living and not even trying to accept treatment, either for his physical ailments nor for any depression.
Anyhow, I myself am not depressed at all, sad, yes, weepy as I said, yes, but in general just tired, sometimes headachey, but well enough. I just need to carve out enough time for myself to recuperate each week and NOT visit so much that I cannot do so. I know I need to find enough time to write and do art, as both replenish me in ways that spending time talking with others does not always do, much as I love my many friends. Hey, just writing here has done something towards that end. So thanks for listening, all you, and I’ll be Bach if you’ll be Beethoven for me…(okay that’s a stretch but I hope you’ll be waiting for me, nonetheless.)
My newest artwork is what I call The Painted Woman, for I think obvious reasons.
It is not meant to be a parody or an insult to any sort of woman, just a study of an overly made-up “older” woman who might drink a bit too much and get loose around the edges when she does. I think it is clear that she has had plastic surgery, though it hasn’t done a lot for her, with her artificially plumped lips, which do not work at all with her boozy aged face that the exaggerated make-up only serves to enhance in the worst sense of the word. If her botoxed brow doesn’t disguise her real age, neither do her drawn-in eyebrows, which is something women do that I never did understand: Isn’t any sort of eyebrow better than the kind that are just a line drawn or painted on? even Frida Kahlo’s eyebrows!
I love those eyebrows, full of character and strength, and the portraits, which could be seen as brave and wonderfully lacking in vanity, I prefer to think Kahlo painted because she saw herself simply as beautiful, eyebrows and mustache and all, and painted herself on that account, not at all “in spite of” her flaws…
That said, I do not believe that my painted woman is beautiful, perhaps for much the same reason that I hope Kahlo felt herself to indeed be beautiful: this, my pictured woman, is not only artificial, she is desperate, pathetic and even tragic…I feel sorry for her, who is, after all, my own creation!
All that aside, the reasons that I have not written are several, including my having to get that poetry book manuscript rewritten and out by the 15th of October (not that I have a chance to win a contest that is judged non-anonymously, but it does no harm to try, so long as it doesn’t tie the book up for the next 6 months…). Then I had that Life Drawing class at the Creative Arts Workshop, which is still difficult for me, partly because I cannot see well, and cannot translate what I see to a large piece of paper on an easel…I don’t have any difficulty with the gestural drawing, the loosening up exercises, actually, I have more difficulty with the longer drawing periods. The trouble is that I do not want to take the time to do a drawing for only 30 minutes that I know I cannot do in that short a “long” period, and also, I find it hard to stand on my feet for that long. The class is 3 hours long in fact, and all of it is standing at easels, while when I do my portraits I mostly just sit in my recliner or at a table with my paints and canvas on a table or at most at a little broken table easel that I bought at the CAW tag sale and fixed myself.
Nevertheless, it has been a good experience, if exhausting. I drive to New Haven then stay overnight and drive home on Tuesday morning. So the night spent away from home feels like a big deal every week, not just a mere evening away…though I could treat it as such, I suppose.
ALSO, Dr C wants to see me twice a week for the time being — actually for more than just “the time being.” It is a very complicated situation that I cannot go into here, but this 2X a week set-up may not continue, I dunno, I would like to, and I know it kept me out of the hospital in October, but but but…I am simply getting very mixed messages from certain people (decidedly not Dr C) about it, and it is hard to know what to do. I sometimes think that it was easier for people to have me in the hospital twice a year, despite their protestations, than to keep me out if keeping me out entails my seeing Dr C 2X a week. It is certainly less expensive to hospitalize me, since it saves money coming out of their pockets ( I am not a drain on the “system” otherwise, because I do not need public mental health services or ask for anything from those strained agencies, for which fact they ought to be grateful…though not for my hospital stays, of course).
But no more on that subject, which is utterly confusing to me and frightening to boot. I cannot bear the thought of ever being forced into a hospital again, where I am ALWAYS ABUSED and BATTERED by the staff, despite being tortured by myself and my own demons already. Even thinking about it makes me tremble…
Will be returning to Wisdom House in two weeks, for another weekend. I hope to write some more poetry, and perhaps “fix” the ms, by writing up an introduction and putting in some divisions between groups of poems, rather than the vague segues I have now. I thought they were obvious, but others do not seem to “get” why one poems transitions to another…So I will group them better, and put what feels like artificial divisions between them. That way, readers will feel there is some shape to the book, a clumping, rather than a thread that one must follow…
There is much I would like to say, but it is already 2:45 in the morning, so I needs must cease and desist and get to bed. I will try to write as soon as I can, but if nothing else, I promise to write when I am at Wisdom House on the 19-21 of November.
The following is a poem I wrote last year, and put one version here then, after I went to a vigil for the organization 350.org, a website devoted to the cause of getting our atmospheric CO2 levels down to 350 parts per million, because that is the level at which life continues to be possible…whereas if we continue to let it go up, global warming will continue to such an extent that life on the planet will be impossible.
But that said, here is the poem, for what it is worth. If it sounds familiar, it is, but I have also reworked and changed a lot of it…
FRIDAY NIGHT VIGIL
Shivering in the wind, we fight to light our candles
as we gather in the darkness of an approaching storm.
But the icy blow keeps snuffing out each flicker
so we just stand, our signs alone aloft to passing traffic,
standing for the stand we take: for the changing world,
for a last chance at change. We smiling stand for photos,
taken from across the streaming street –
and smile into the night, display our handmade signs.
One car beeps, a driver gives the V-sign in support.
But most drive on without a single word or sign
that they have heard or seen a thing, or even recognized
we’re standing here for something save a hopeless cause.
My hands freeze stiff, release their glass and candle with a crash,
a glint of shards, a splash upon the sidewalk. Someone
with safer gloves stoops to sweep the shards away…
I think, How lovely is the world today, even dying.
Though it’s all we have (and lord knows, it’s more
than we can handle) we stand here in this freezing dark
against the darkness and light one candle.
I hope I am not encroaching on Sr Jo-Ann Iannotti’s copyright, by sharing this photo, but if I am I trust she will let me know. In any event, this is one of hers and it is everywhere at Wisdom House. I believe it is a beautiful example (if that is the proper word for it) of the spirit of Wisdom House. Of course, the physical labyrinth, is stunning by itself, but somehow this photo captures the experience of walking it and the process of meditating and “being there” in a way that mere words describing likely could not. Surely, if nothing else, this photo alone is a wonderful way to “advertise” Wisdom House, if it ever needed such a thing. If you can, visit http://www.wisdomhouse.org and look at the virtual tour photo gallery. That way, you will get a good idea of what the place looks like, and perhaps get something of the flavor of people’s first impression. I know that even the first time I came here, despite my misery concerning all that silence, I knew it was a special place…
Jo-Ann says she has no idea who the woman in the labyrinth center is, that it was a fortuitous shot and nothing more. Frankly, though, I suspect getting the photo took more than mere luck, even just to have been there to capture it! It exquisitely represents both the spirituality of this place as well as peace and peacefulness.
Clearly, you can tell where I am: at Wisdom House again, having a good time this time. I only wish I did not have to depart tomorrow.Even though I spend most of my time alone, the mere presence of other people, laughing and talking and obviously having a great time, buoys my own spirits and makes me laugh aloud myself. I think it is great that they are laughing so uproariously, and it is great to see everyone with their doors wide open, people, women my age, sitting on each other’s beds, gabbing like college girls. The lovely thing too, about Wisdom House in general is the absolute faith in people’s basic trustworthiness: NO one has a key to their rooms, and no one seems to feel worried about anyone entering or stealing a thing. I frequently leave my computer and writing equipment right out in the open on the sun porch, without the least qualm, feeling secure in the knowledge that everything will be just as I left it when I return. Indeed, the sense of trust that I know Jo-Ann has in people is infectious, and I somehow know that everyone who comes here is trustworthy at least for as long as they are here, even if they might not be all the time when they are not.
Now, I may be naive, but I too have been known to be overly trusting, and I think that is a better option than not trusting people. At the same time, though, I can be extremely paranoid as you know, and I do mean “at the same time…” I suppose that is difficult to comprehend: I will simultaneously give away whatever I can, if I feel I own too much and yet also feel as if people are secretly stealing from me, taking things I need out from under me, without even asking or telling me, which makes me angry, because I am already generous, and never ask for a single thing in return, but I’m sorry and feel bad to admit it, but somethings I am not ready to simply have things taken from me without my say so! I feel guilty about this, though, as if I am so attached to material things that I cannot part with something that someone else needs more than I do (for why else would someone resort to stealing it???). Why do I need to be so attached to anything, that is, to any mere object? It will never save your life or your soul!
I am drifting though…forgive me.
One great thing about this weekend here is that despite my having slept till noon today (after spending several days before last night with very little sleep, and even last night beginning to fear for my brain and my sanity due to sleeplessness as I was up till 4am involuntarily) I have pretty much gotten the book organized and put together. Now, that means only that I have made the organizational decisions, which is the major part of the problem. But I needs must (!) still go through the actual computer manuscript and change it, to make it conform to these editorial decisions. Not extremely difficult, just time consuming. At the same time, certain poems need editing and some rewriting/fixing. This I enjoy, the perfecting of the lines I don’t feel are quite right yet, but it takes time and energy. (I even have a two relatively new poems to add!) Alas, I will not be able to come up here to take the time for myself to do nothing else. Too bad, as it has been very convenient and much more than that. It has been, well, useful in the sense that I have been productive “to the max,” able to say NO to email and phone calls, not even walking with Diane L or doing laundry or cleaning or shopping, just writing all day. I suppose taking my usual 2 miles walk would be a good thing, but for just a weekend here, I would rather not…And although I brought art supplies just in case, I haven’t even taken out my sketch book, that is how good the writing, and the editing, have been going!
Speaking of the labyrinth at Wisdom House as I did at the top of the post, let me segue into a few words about paranoia: I have not walked the labyrinth, nor even approached it. The closest I have come is to sit at the top of the stairs looking down at it relatively from afar. The very idea of “doing it” makes me feel both rather shy and then scared to do so. I am in fact scare that God might strike me down, should I have such temerity as to try it. I am also squeamish, not sure I could relax and not feel paranoid, not feel so much on display that I could not concentrate or let myself be “unaware of being observed” — whether I am in fact under observation or not.
That of course is the essence of paranoia: it matters not a fig whether something is really happening, it matters not another fig if someone’s really after you or really against you: if you feel it, if your amygdala is working overtime to generate that feeling, the intense feeling of fear that it is meant to generate, well, that’s it. That is how you are going to feel. And “the feeling is primary.” That’s what Dr O told me time and time again. You feel the fear first, and primarily, and then the story or reason for feeling it attaches to it. But if the fear gets entrenched or doesn’t go away, the story,, that is, the brain’s explanation for the feelings of fear only gets more entrenched, because how else can you deal with fear? It is extremely difficult to feel fear unmitigated without somehow understanding it as coming from somewhere, or being stimulated by something, having a cause or reason. The brain always wants to make sense of things, and it does this whether one “wants to” or not.
So even though I am aware of what paranoia is, I have never been able to control my thoughts when it is happening. It is only after the fact that I can, now, sometimes, look back on a difficult situation and with a clearer head understand how I might in fact have been paranoid in my behavior due to my fear- induced understanding of what was going on. It is very very difficult to override such feelings, esp on such a fundamental level.
I wish I could write more now, but I’d better to get back to my writing before I have to get back to sleep. As it is, it is 1:50 A.M. and we — Ann W drove here with me — the other fellowship person — have to drive home tomorrow around noon. I wish dearly it were not so, but there you have it. For now, I will leave you with a poem that will go into the manuscript of my second book of poems, which I call at least for now (several people have been enthusiastic about the title, except my father), LEARNING TO SEE IN THREE DIMENSIONS. I share it with you now, because while still unpublished, I do not think I will seek publication for it elsewhere, separately…The first one, for my old (and former, but possibly dead now) friend Roland, was previously published, but in a much different version. I apologize if the lines come out with large spaces between them, but the cut and pasting function never seems to allow single spaces… OR stanzas for that matter, as this poem was originally broken up inot five different stanzas but now appears to be in only one long one… The second poem is about Joe, and describes my own encounter with fear of botulism, which has similar symptoms to ALS — so I feared — and my nostalgia for his voice, which I will never hear again, except on his answering machine, and on one or two micro-cassette tapes we made some years ago…
FOR A FRIEND SUCCUMBING TO AIDS, 1980s
This could be your whole life,
thumbing a ride to wherever the cars are going,
the casual, tossed out hellos and good-byes
that turn around the axle of your quick life —
that far, just that far, and then you will stay,
forcing a stranger’s town into the shape of home.
Yet you’ve lived a dozen lives — in the Keys
with the one you finally loved, in western Portugal,
Nova Scotia. Last year, already marked, you spent
the winter in your bed,which just fit in a backyard shed
in Vernon, Connecticut. And there was a life
to accommodate each place, its sweetness and pain.
When we met, you taught me the local architecture,
the difference between Georgian and Greek Revival,
and you thanked me for the poems you gave me.
Then you called late one night, drunk enough to over-
dose. Thoughtlessly, I rescued you, a dying man…
You never forgave nor spoke to me again.
Now once in a while a car slows, pondering
your beard, your emaciation, the known and unknown
risks, sees you finally, and explodes away from the shoulder
where you stand, all its doors locked simultaneously
against those Kaposi’s inflorescences that stain
your dying…Roland, Roland, don’t you know
we all die in shame and alone? We die, perhaps,
not far from home, or perhaps, like you, wandering,
waiting for the one car to cross the bridge
whose toll is so high we all pay with our lives.
Tonight I’m up late worrying
about a badly canned chestnut puree
and botulism, which is useless
since I’ll know soon enough from
what the Merck Manual describes as
“difficulty speaking or swallowing,
drooping eyelids, double vision,
lassitude and weakness progressing
to paralysis” that I have it
or not. Not very likely with only
130 cases in the U.S. in a year,
but as I said, I worry, and worry attaches
to anything: leprosy, asteroids falling
from the sky, dirt on your hands.
Most people worry too much
about things that won’t matter
after six months. My friend doesn’t
have to worry about those. He is
losing his speech to Lou Gehrig’s. In six
months who knows what won’t work
any longer or which will matter
most. His assistive device says
the words he types, but how I miss
the sound of his voice, which I’ve forgotten
except when I call and the old
machine picks up: Joe speaking.
I can’t answer the phone right now
but I’ll call you back as soon as I can.
I have decided, with Sr Jo-Ann’s help, to arrive at the Writer’s Fellowship on Sunday morning, rather than Saturday evening, so that she can meet me, rather than have me face a crowd of fifty (silent) people alone. It was in fact her idea, but she offered to take me individually on a tour, and show me where to go and so forth, introduce me, which she thought she would have more time for on Sunday morning than on Saturday when everyone else was arriving. This also was a relief for the simple fact that I am so frantic with things I have to get done that it helps to know I have all of Saturday simply to relax and if I haven’t done so before, to pack. It isn’t as if I am bringing a great deal, not many clothes or “stuff”– after all, I am mainly going there to write. But that in itself entails bringing such things as my computer, a printer and a ream of paper at a minimum, and I want to bring a small hot pot and cup and coffee as well, since I cannot rely simply on sheer excitement to keep me awake, no more than I ever can. Not even Ritalin, which as you may know I have taken for decades to combat the nearly constant and excessive daytime sleepiness of narcolepsy, really keeps me alert. In fact, often coffee does a better job…On the other hand, I intend to take Zyprexa every day I am there too, which is sedating. This is just so that I know I will be able to read and stay as unafraid of things as possible. Once I get home, I’ll stop taking it, but why not keep on top of things as long as I am there?
I have written several poems in just the last week, but alas, I am unable to share them here. I have learned that many contests and publications do not allow the appearance on the web of poems you want to submit to them or enter there, or else they will be disqualified. Thus I can only post ones that I am certain I will not try to publish or else that have already appeared in my book or previously in another journal, review or magazine. I wish that were not so, as I am thrilled with some of these poems. I also wish that I had not been so quick to enter a few of them into a certain contest, as with a little more rewriting, say, the 110th version rather than the 100th, I might have felt even better about them. Ah well, too late for recriminations. If a given poem is not accepted where I sent it, there are a thousand other venues that might take it when I submit it again.
Enough for now, it is already late and I needs must (how’s that for an archaic expression?) get to work finishing up the dishes and printing out poems. I will need at least 60 for my second book and I have to have copies I can work on at Wisdom House. There are a dozen other things to do before I go to bed tonight…zo I will bid you adieu, au revoir…
I hope I can post something from Wisdom House next week, but if not, I will do so when I get back. Hasta la vista!
Okay, all you poetry fans of mine, and anyone out there who reads this in general! This is a rather late announcement, but this Sunday at 5pm Eastern time (you will have to make the proper adjustments if you live in other time zones) Jane Crown, at http://www.janecrown.com will be doing a 90 minute interview with me http://www.janecrown.com/archive_radio/Pamela_Sprio_Wagner.mp3 that will be part personal interview and part poetry reading both from WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS as well as new poems, and she may possibly include some reading and/or discussion about my memoir DIVIDED MINDS: Twin Sisters and their Journey Through Schizophrenia. I hope as many of you as possible will listen, and if you are not interested in poetry will listen out of interest in schizophrenia, as we certainly will speak of that.
By the way, Jane tells me that the show will be archived and “available forever” so if you cannot sit and listen for 90 minutes this Sunday, do not worry as you can do so at any time and for any length of time. Just follow the link or do a search for Jane Crown and radio or poetry and you should find it without trouble.
Now for an update: Well, first of all, let me say that I want to write an update but first I need to start my review of the poems I am going to read on Sunday, and read a little of DIVIDED MINDS, so I can recall what got into the book out of my 400pp original manuscript and what was cut. So forgive me if I put the update and rest of this post off for a few hours and get back to it maybe after 11 pm tonight. Or if not then, as I must get up early tomorrow, then I will write a new post tomorrow. For now, suffice it to say that I feel extraordinarily HAPPY!
Apparently We Mad Climb Shaky Ladders (CavanKerry Press, Feb 2009) my book of poems about living with schizophrenia, has been nominated a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s 2009 Book of the Year (in the Poetry category). I dunno what this means, and I doubt highly that it will win, but I am very happy and grateful to have been made a finalist at all. The results will be announced on May 25th at the BookExpo American, wherever and whatever that is. I’ll keep you posted, or perhaps you can keep me posted…
Here’s the cover of the book just in case you don’t know what it looks like:
Here are a few sample poems from my new book WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS, (which, despite what many have been told IS available from Amazon and B & N and upne.com so keep trying if you have been told it is not…I know as I just got some extra copies from amazon). Here is just a teaser to get people interested:
These first two are from the first section, which concerns my childhood and the first intimations of illness. Here are the first indications that touch is difficult, even threatening to me. In the second poem, I describe my twin sister’s wholly different attitude towards her body, how in a more innocent time, wolf whistles by teen age boys were considered harmless, complimentary even, and wearing tight jeans was not an invitation to anything but, as in this poem, pleasure on the part of both young men and the young woman described…
Touch me. No, no, do not touch.
I mean: be careful —
if I break into a hundred pieces
like a Ming vase falling from the mantle
it will be your fault.
Cool as Christmas
plump as a wish
and simonpure as cotton
You stroll the avenue
mean in your jeans
and the boys applaud.
You toss off a shrug
like a compliment
with a flicker of disdain
Catching the whistle
in mid-air and
pitching it back again.
“Eating the Earth” is more or less a true story insofar the little boy in a nearby neighborhood did rub a certain little girl’s face in dirt for telling him where babies came from and she did dream the dream descrbed. What this all means is up to the reader to decide, however.
EATING THE EARTH
After Tyrone, the little boy next door,
makes her eat a handful of dirt
for telling lies
about where babies come from
her father says it will do her no harm.
You have to eat a peck of dirt
before you die, her father says.
He also says she hadn’t lied:
babies do come that way.
She cries after her father
leaves the room and she sleeps
all night with the lights on.
Her father tells her other things,
that earthworms eat their own weight in dirt
every day and that their do-do
(he says “excrement”)
fertilizes our food.
She makes a face over that
and doesn’t believe him.
Besides, she says, we’re people
And we’re so great, huh? he says.
Well, I’d rather be a girl than a worm.
He says nothing.
He is grown up and a doctor,
he doesn’t have to worry about
being a worm.
But she does.
That night she dreams that Tyrone
dumps a jar of worms down her shirt
and that their dreadful undulations
become hers and she begins
and liking it,
the cool coarse grains of sand,
the spicy chips of mica,
the sweet-sour loam become her body
as she lives and breathes,
eating the darkness.
It was a frying pan summer.
I was playing croquet by myself,
missing the wickets on purpose,
rummaging my pockets for dime-sized diversions.
It was a summer of solitaire.
I laid the cards out like soldiers.
I was in command.
Then you came out
with a mallet and a stolen voice
that seemed to rise disembodied
from the gorge of your black throat
and you challenged me to a game.
You ate me with your mosquito demands
though I, I didn’t want to play with anyone!
I hid my trembling in my sleeves
refusing to shake your hand.
I thought: this is how the Black Death was
transmitted, palm to palm, hand to hand,
a contagion like money.
You smiled the glassy grimace
practiced for boys all summer in front of a mirror.
If I looked you in the eye I would die.
I knew then all the sharp vowels of fear.
It was late in the afternoon
and I was frightened
when our shadows merged.
OUR MOTHER’S DAUGHTERS
I dreamed my mother cut off
my baby toes, the suturing so perfect
she left no gangrene, no scars, just a fine line
of invisible thread and four toes on each foot
instead of five. The job done, she left me
at the “crutches store” on Whitney Avenue
where I could find no crutches to fit
and so hobbled back toward home
alone and lopsided.
This is true, and she was a good mother
most of the time, which meant
that I never lacked for anything
she could buy, yet still I grew up lame,
disfigured (though not in any
noticeable way) and always with the sense
I had been abandoned before my time.
This has all been said before: our mothers
leave us, then or now, later or sooner,
and we hobble like cripples
toward the women in our lives
who can save us. Or else we limp homeward
knowing we will never make it back
before we wake up. And when we do wake up
we find we, too, are mothers, trying desperately
to save our daughters’ legs
by amputating their smallest least necessary
toes, taking the toes to save the feet
to save the legs they stand on
in a world where we ourselves
are not yet grounded.
You know something is going on.
It is taking place just beyond the range
of your hearing, inside that house
on the corner needing paint and shutters,
the one with the cluttered yard
you always suspected sheltered friends
in name only. It may be in the cellar
where the radio transmitter is being built
or the satellite. A cabal of intelligence
is involved, CIA, MI-6, Mossad.
It is obvious plans are being made;
didn’t your boss arch his eyebrows
while passing your desk this morning,
grunt hello, rather than his usual
“Howahya?” There are veiled threats
to your life and livelihood. Someone
is always watching you watching
and waiting for whatever is going
to happen to happen.
THE CATATONIC SPEAKS
At first it seemed a good idea not to
move a muscle, to resist without
resistance. I stood still and stiller. Soon
I was the stillest object in that room.
I neither moved nor ate nor spoke.
But I was in there all the time,
I heard every word said,
saw what was done and not done.
Indifferent to making the first move,
I let them arrange my limbs, infuse
IVs, even toilet me like a doll.
Oh, their concern was so touching!
And so unnecessary. As if I needed anything
but the viscosity of air that held me up.
I was sorry when they cured
me, when I had to depart that warm box,
the thick closed-in place of not-caring,
and return to the world. I would
never go back, not now. But
the Butterfly Effect says sometimes
the smallest step leads nowhere,
sometimes to global disaster. I tell you
it is enough to scare a person stiff.
Yes, I finally hold it in my hands, We Mad Climb Shaky Ladders, published by CavanKerry Press. Below is the cover illustration (minus the Spiro, which is on the final version) and the press release:
NEWS from CavanKerry Press
6 Horizon Road No. 2901 • Fort Lee, New Jersey 07024 • phone/fax 201.670.9065 • email@example.com
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
Contact: Florenz Eisman — 201.670.9065
WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS
Pamela Spiro Wagner
With Introduction and Commentary by Mary B. O’Malley, MD, PhD
Foreword by Baron Wormser
For forty years – longer than her entire adult life – Pamela Spiro Wagner has been affected by paranoid schizophrenia, a plight she eloquently explored in her award-winning book, Divided Minds: Twin Sisters and their Journey Through Schizophrenia, co-written with her twin sister, psychiatrist Carolyn S. Spiro, MD. Also an accomplished poet, Wagner has long utilized the language and emotion of poetry to express the individuality of her mental illness, capturing with vivid candor her singular inner world. In WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS, the latest volume from LaurelBooks, CavanKerry’s Literature of Illness imprint, Wagner for the first time collects her poems, presented with commentary by her psychiatrist, Mary B. O’Malley, MD, PhD, that elucidates the clinical roots of the poet’s art.
WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS “is much more than a testimony to a diagnosis or pathology or terminology,” writes Baron Wormser in his foreword. “The poems emanate from the place of the poet’s illness but they are resolutely poems—well-written, sensually alert, quick to turn and notice and startlingly honest. They dwell on both sides of the equation of life and art: testifying to the powerful and tenuous links between the two and demonstrating that art is capable of holding its own regardless of circumstances. Some of those circumstances have been shattering. The sheer tenacity that it can take to write poems makes itself felt here in ways that are both uncomfortable and reassuring.”
Wagner’s often harrowing struggle with life, as reflected in these poems, has been marked by psychological turmoil – periods of total debilitation, as well as intervals of recovery and hope. Her battle with paranoia hovers over the work, such as in “Poem in which Paranoia Strikes at the Grocery Store” where the simple act of shopping becomes a waking nightmare: “Who/gave you permission to enter? No one/wants you here. They are all watching….You are being followed./You are on your own.” Wagner captures the voices in her head with terrifying urgency. In “Offering,” Wagner’s very first poem, written in 1984, she writes of her compulsion to burn herself with cigarettes with a haunting remove:
The tip of the cigarette glows and grins
as I lower it to you,
At Dr. O’Malley’s urging, Wagner has also included three poems she wrote during the heights of psychosis, and these are filled with scrambled ideas and garish imagery that are shocking in their raw, unguarded unveiling of the poet’s troubled mind.
Divided into five sections, Wagner’s book covers childhood and the earliest indications of illness, the years of illness, recovery, coping, and new beginnings. As with most poetry grounded in autobiography, there are important familial relationships that seep into the poems – father, mother, sister, friends. Here, these relationships are filtered through the poet’s psychosis, colored by hallucinations and delusions, yet grounded in the emotional truths that any complicated relationship engenders. In her most widely known poem, “The Prayers of the Mathematician,” which won First Place in the BBC World Service international poetry competition judged by Wole Soyinke, Wagner moves beyond the personal with an eloquent poem about John Nash, the schizophrenic Nobel Prize winner who was later immortalized in the movie, A Beautiful Mind.
“These poems are the work of a first-rate writer” says surgeon and best-selling writer Richard Selzer of WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS, “one who has sounded the well of her own suffering to retrieve the wherewithal to transform pain into the most powerful and moving literature.”
About Pamela Spiro Wagner
A prize-winning writer and poet who suffers from schizophrenia, Pamela Spiro Wagner attended Brown University and went to medical school for one and a half years before being hospitalized for psychiatric care. She won First Place in the international BBC World Service Poetry Competition in 2002, and co-authored, with her twin sister, Divided Minds: Twin Sisters and their Journey Through Schizophrenia, which won the national NAMI Outstanding Literature Award and was a finalist for the Connecticut Book Award. Currently she writes at http://WAGblog.wordpress.com. She has lived in the Hartford, Connecticut area for 33 years.
CavanKerry Press would appreciate two tearsheets
of any review or feature you publish about this book.
WE MAD CLIMB SHAKY LADDERS by Pamela Spiro Wagner
Publication Date: 2009
Price: $16.00; ISBN: 978-1-933880-10-5
Distributed by: University Press of New England (UPNE), 1-800-421-1561 or 603-448-1533, Ext. 255
Author is available for speaking, readings, and workshops.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com
Dear Dr C:
Today when I left your office, I had to get natural bug spray as I walk at the State Park at least once a week and I usually forget to use it for the mosquitoes and ticks…Well, I went in, made a beeline for where I thought the display would be (having really no idea, I had to traverse the whole store before I found it, unfortunately, given that people there — as I told you — were talking and thinking about me and looking at me and wanting me not to buy or to buy certain things as usual…). ButI found it finally. Luckily there were not too many choices and the choice was made for me when I saw the word “local” and “made in Connecticut” as I knew that would please the “locavores” who were monitoring my purchase — a locavore being someone who eats only from local sources.
Despite the fact that it was the most expensive bug spray on the shelf I took the bottle and found the shortest line…No, actually, the line I stood in was the one where the woman before me actually looked at me without a frown, and in so doing gave me permission to stand behind her. I paid with my last ten dollars, though the cashier made everyone wait, impatiently I am sure, because he didn’t believe it cost $9.99 and he “didn’t want to overcharge me.” Hah!
Finally, I emerged from the store safely, shouldered my bag, and headed for the car. But as I stepped near the curb, a red Mini- Cooper drove past me and I understood immediately that this was your car, Dr C, and that you recognized me coming from Whole Foods. This seems entirely reasonable to me, since there was not another patient waiting in the waiting room when I left, so it seems likely that you were heading elsewhere after I departed…And suddenly a red Mini-Cooper seemed only rightly and properly “your car.” But somehow this conjunction boded very ill to me and I immediately became apprehensive, or what my sister, Dr O and my friend Josephine all called paranoid.
On one level I see what they were saying. But on the most profound level, I KNOW that what I know is truer than their objective observations. I was/am certain beyond the faintest doubtful smudge that you are in with Them, capital T. Who are They? They are the osteopaths of H_____, who have had a conspiracy against me for years.
Lynnie – Carolyn — told me I should talk about this with you, so here you are: this is only one of the big problems I have with you at the moment. Another one, which may be insurmountable in the end, is that I want to know why you sit where you do, I mean, way across the room from me. I do not want you to change. Do not suddenly get up and sit elsewhere. I just wonder why your natural choice is to sit, what is it, 10 feet away? Do I, as I fear, repell you? (If yes, is that because of the Osteopaths and what they have shared with you?) Do you fear me? Fear something? I can barely see you. I feel like you cannot see me, which is more to the point.
I need…I need…Oh, Lynnie tells me to do something different from what I “usually do” – be brave enough to ask questions when I should then sit still and listen to the answers, and ask for clarification if I still haven’t understood. To discuss what I feel rather than letting my paranoia get the best of me, not simply accept it and go with it full speed ahead. But I do not know HOW to fight the absolute certainty that things are going on, nor the special knowledge that I have. Zyprexa helped more than anything, but that is utterly unacceptable. Nothing else has made a dent. Except possibly the 35mg of Abilify, which I went back on tonight, just in case…We’ll see.
Enough is enough. I hope you don’t mind that I wrote this. I didn’t want to leave a message on your phone nor ask to have you call me. In fact, though, I may keep this until the 13th and give it to you then, as I am afraid you might consider it a burden to read a letter “off duty.”
Now, that is what I wrote him, after the incident recounted in the letter, but in fact, I have found and called an APRN therapist, a female, who sounds and “feels” more to my liking, though I have not yet met her. Maybe I simply get on better with women than men? But that is not true, as I have had male docs in the hospital I preferred over the female therapists by far. I think, as I discussed it with Dr O, I found Dr C not so warm nor “safe” in the end, nor responsive to what I said. I had trouble talking with him, because he did not actually talk with me, only listened, which is not what I want in a psychiatrist. I do not want that sort of “therapy” — I don’t want to delve into my past or my inner feelings. I have a hard enough time dealing each week with what is happening in my life, let alone the deepest darkest secrets that my mind hides from me and in which I have no interest…My goals in therapy are mainly two: to gain some self-esteem and self-confidence, which despite how I may sound here, I have almost none of, and two, to somehow, somehow, if possible, learn how to cope with and not be so chronically paranoid. Of course, those were Dr O’s aims with me all along, I imagine. But perhaps if I myself commit to them and learn how to work at them, more headway can be made. I sort of think, now that I know what paranoia is and how to recognize it, finally, that I need concrete exercises to practice how not to succumb to my tendency toward it. Ditto self-esteem, which tendency is just as strong, if not stronger, since it produces as much paranoia as grandiosity does. I cannot imagine what form such exercises might take, but I can imagine that they exist. I cannot be the first person to need them, after all.
WE MAD is at the printers but apparently it takes a month to come out from there, so it won’t be finished until May 28th! Geeze, and I thought it would take a week at most…This is going so slow. I cannot see how they could possibly have gotten the book out in February, even had I not been ill and taken a “month off”. At best they would have gotten the book out in April! I should have known that anything a publisher says with a deadline has to be taken with a grain of salt. But I cannot seem to get that through my thick skull and so I still keep on expecting things to be done on time, and keep meeting deadlines that no one else ever does.
The day our book, “DIVIDED MINDS: Twin Sisters and Their Journey Through Schizophrenia” came out, in mid-August 2005, Carolyn/Lynnie, my twin sister, and I had three engagements scheduled, including a radio interview, a TV appearance, and, that evening, our first public speaking/reading engagement at a local library. Due to advance publicity and widespread interest, it turned out that the venue had had to be changed to accommodate all the people who had called ahead indicating they planned to attend: instead the usual small room at the library, we were to speak in the auditorium at the Town Hall.
I made it through the day all right, but by evening, I was beginning to become symptomatic, hearing people unseen whispering over my shoulder and seeing familiar dancing red particles I called the “red strychnines.” Nevertheless, I was determined to make it through the final “gig” of the day in one piece. I was, however, getting more and more nervous, despite taking my evening medications early. Finally, Lynnie suggested I take a tiny chip of Ativan, not enough to make me sleepy but enough to calm my anxiety. I resisted up until the last minute, when, finding the stress unbearable, I agreed to it. She ran to get me some water, and came back with two cold bottles that had been set aside for us all along.
Then, we were on. Lynnie had done some speaking before, and seemed to me to be amazingly relaxed in front of the 340 people who overflowed from the first floor onto the balcony above. When she introduced me to read a section of a chapter I had rehearsed over and over until I could do so with the proper ease and feeling, I got up, trembling, and walked to the podium, wondering if my voice would tremble also.
In the book’s margins I had everything written out, from my introduction to the passage to instructions to myself on where to slow down, where to raise my voice, where to pause and so forth. I raised my head and looked at the audience, then looked down at the text and taking a breath, began.
I was surprised to hear my voice sound as strong as it did and wondered how long I could keep it up, knowing how fatigue and awareness of the audience could make it weaken and go tight on me. Indeed, after a particular spot in the book brought painful laughter from some in the audience, I could barely speak. I had coached myself for this eventuality: Breathe, I told myself silently. Breathe through it, keep reading but breathe slowly and calmly as you read and your voice will relax and stay loose. To my intense surprise and relief, it worked. I made it through the entire segment. “Thank you,” I murmured, indicating that I was through,” though it was obvious from the text that the piece had come to its natural end.
The audience burst into applause. People stood up, all of the audience stood and clapped. I didn’t know what to do. They were applauding me? What had I done to deserve this? Even Lynnie was on her feet and smiling. She nodded at me, telling me it was okay. Her eyes seemed to sparkle, as if they were full of tears. My own eyes were wet and I was too embarrassed to wipe them…
Lynnie then gave a speech of her own, a wonderful speech, ending with her asking me to stand up. and this too received a standing ovation. We looked at one another.. Who’da thunk? our eyes asked in pleased but puzzled amazement. Then it was over. But not quite. There was still a long line of well wishers with books to be signed and many people who wanted to talk to us. I was so tired that I let Lynnie field most questions, and hid behind her or busied myself signing and pretending to pay attention to her, so I didn’t have to talk myself. In truth, I was exhausted, and though elated the evening had gone so well, on the verge of tears from sheer relief…
When we left, there were only a few people remaining in the hall. The library employee who had given us the opportunity to speak, told us it was one of the best attended events he had ever scheduled. We thanked him or Lynnie and Sal, her new boyfriend, did, I mostly lagged behind, and followed as if in a trance. Then we headed out into the warmth of the August night.
After the success of that night, the book tour, and later our paid (Lynnie was paid, I was not, as she had to take time off from her practice to do so) engagements became easier and easier, especially after we worked up speeches of our own and developed a rhythm and interaction with one another that seemed to work well. But it was wearying, and I wasn’t always taking my medication as I was supposed to. I still hated Zyprexa, which we had cut to 2.5mg plus Haldol and Geodon, and so I skimped on it as often as I could, as well as the deadening Haldol. Geodon was the only antipsychotic I was on that seemed to have no objectionable side effects, but it clearly was not effective by itself. So even as we made our way out to Tucson, AZ I was skating on the edge.
2006, fall. I had made it 18 months since my last hospitalization but fatigue and exhaustion and it may be (I do not now recall for certain) not taking all my medications as prescribed conspired to allow in the same hallucinations that had such devastating consequences back in 2003/4. I was to set my whole body on fire, they told me, not to kill myself but to scar myself so badly that all would shun me, leave me alone, which was what I deserved, and what they ought to do in order to be safe. Because I could not promise not to act on these commands, I was hospitalized not far from where Lynnie lived at the time. I spent a month there, a very difficult and painful disruption in my life about which I have written earlier (see the entry about “trust”).
I was hospitalized it seemed every five months after that, until 2008, when I managed another 18 months. But life in between those stays was improving. Although we still did occasional speaking “gigs” we slowed down on those a great deal, so my time was more my own. I had made a papier mache llama once in 2004 when I was hypomanic, and it had taken all year to paint it, after I’d come home from the hospital no longer high. But the fun of it had stuck with me and in 2007 I made a turtle, a huge tortoise and took a couple of months painting it. In between I created some small objects. Then over December 2007 and January 2008 I built and painted my first large human, the Decorated Betsy. I was off and running, with Dr John Jumoke coming in April, May, and June of 2008 and the Shiny Child Ermentrude started in October of 2008 and finished in early January 2009.
Also in this period of time — between 2005-2009 — I put together my first manuscript of poems written over a 20 year period about living with schizophrenia, and another manusript of more recent poems, not about schizophrenia, and sent the first one off to the press which is publishing it, in their series on chronic illness. Once it comes out, probably in March, I will be free to finish work on the second. I will send that one out and hope it too gets published as I prefer those poems to the ones in the first, though I have had rave reviews on that one, at least from the people who have seen it so far. I, of course, as the author, can only view it through the jaundiced lens of self-criticism and self-hatred…
Plus ça change, plus la meme chose. (and some things never change…)For all the seeming success I have had in these past three years of recovery, I still struggle with abysmal lack of self-regard, and chronic paranoia. If and when I find myself a new therapist (I must soon leave Dr O, as the travel time 1.5 hours there and 1 hour home has become too much for me, and too it may be that she will no longer be continuing her practice, though I do not know that for certain…But in this economy, I can no longer afford the ride there as well as her fee. And I think too it is time to move on…both for her sake as for mine.) ..if and when I find a new therapist, it is those two things, self-esteem and the very right to have it, and paranoia — how to either end it, or live with it, are my two major goals I want to deal with, head on.
But then, maybe that’s all we have ever done, Dr O and I, dwelt forever on my lack of self-esteem and my paranoia, getting nowhere for all that. Perhaps she had the wrong tactics, the wrong methods, or else perhaps I am hopelessly mired in my own worthlessness and suspiciousness — for lack of a better word, though paranoia means so much more than that…
In any event, I have tried here to describe in one entry a little of what has gone on for me since the book came out, since the beginning of my recovery. But my recovery truly began when I’d started Xyrem some months before. That is the drug that caused Lynnie to exclaim upon seeing me, two months after I’d started it, “Pammy, you’ve changed. You look wonderful, you’re back.” Xyrem, book, papier mache, poetry…all together gave me parts of a life that became somehow worth living, and it is worth living, even if at times of dark forgetting, as in February, I lose track of the one fact I need most to remember.
I am trying to start a new book, another memoir. This is an exciting endeavor but I’ve gotten stuck on the problem, a perennial one I imagine, of how much does one really remember, and how much does the mind “make up,” that is, remember improperly? I know that some writers of autobiography — to my mind a more stringent form, requiring research and some historical context –and memoir make the claim that every word they have written is factually accurate, to the extent that they have checked each one against the memories and records of others. Then there are the infamous ones who have played so fast and loose with the truth as to have lost all semblance of it. These have produced literary scandals (as well as books that probably earned their authors much more income than if they had actually stuck to the facts) and more or less short-lived discourses by the punditry on the nature of truth and memory: what can we really know? Since I am something of a sucker I tend to take both of these at their words, when in fact I daresay that neither of them ought to be. True enough, the one has done more work than the other, and has made an honest effort to search for the “real facts” in his or her history, but my question is this: Can it be done, one, and two, why should the collective memories of say, ten people chosen by the author (biassed) be more “objectively real” than the simple truth of what the author herself remembers? Yes, you might build up a larger group of pieces-of-the-elephant if you have ten blind people who feel only one part. But unless you have someone who knows how the pieces fit together, you still only have elephant pieces…And so ten pieces are no better than the one in the end.
What I am saying is this: the author, the person who lived the life has to be the one to make sense of it. She might have a thousand “elephant pieces” — memories given her by ten people, yes, or only her own memories but in the end she must construct what the elephant – her life–looked like out of them. In some sense, there are facts and there are facts, but the work, and the life, and the living is all in the interpretation; always was and always will be.
That said, I am having trouble getting started, because I don’t know whether I want to use more “objective” sources or evidence this time, or not. I am perfectly comfortable using what is close at hand: my journals, my photos, the people I can easily consult. And I do feel very uncomfortable with mining deeper records: I do not particularly want to see what is written on my hospital charts during months-long stays when I was ranting and screaming for days, or engaging in outrageous behaviors like taking a dump on the floor of the seclusion room, or disrobing and…I can scarcely bear to think I did such things, frankly, and do not want to read what was written about me at the time, knowing nothing can be corrected or updated to show them the “new me”. A sad fact about hospital records and workers: they only see you when you are at your worst; they rarely get to know if you get better. Much less get to know you when you are well. And if you ever wanted to sit down and tell them what was actually going through your brain at the time they believed XYZ, but in fact QRS was happening, well, forget it.
So, I am loathe to overturn those stones, growing mossy as they nearly are now, some four years later. It pains me even to bring my mind across the memories of them. I have no wish to flagellate myself. My own journals say little, but it’s about all that I want to know. At the same time, my own brow-beating conscience tells me, NO, you must do what you do not want to do. The very fact that you do not want to do it means that you should. No pain, no gain—
Oh, I just go on and on. I would make this next book a torture to me, nothing of pleasure at all, just to serve my scruples. Be gone! If the writing is only to torture me, why do it? I’d be better off with my artwork and sculpture. But writing nurtures me, so long as I do not let my illness turn it into a punishment. Is there any need for me to use the historical records in telling the tale of my life? Did my first book lose anything in my not doing so? I would change a lot in DIVIDED MINDS, if I could go back and do so — add scenes here, take out one or two, most certainly make better transitions — but except for appending a much clearer discussion of this very issue, and also a better disclaimer, I wouldn’t change the way we wrote it.
So I might have talked myself to a place from which I can start, allowing myself the freedom not to have to delve into the official records or consult professionals involved in my care unless I am currently in treatment with them.
Your past after all resides as much in what you remember as it does in anything documented. You are mostly what you remember, and what you remember is sculpted by time and changes over time. If you think your memories remain the same, read back in a diary you haven’t read before, and recover the accounting of a incident you thought you’d recalled with accuracy…You’ll see how inaccurate your “memory” was and how formative this memory had been nevertheless. Then remember that the accounting is itself a memory, tainted by emotion and interpretation and consider those “ten people with their elephant pieces” who tried to give you objective memories of your history. Were they truly objective? Were their memories, even collectively, any more factual and objective than your memories?
In the end, memory is fiction, as someone once wrote in The New Yorker magazine, memory is, well, made up, not real, imagined. I agree, but it is all we have. Literally. Without memory we would be without anything at all, no culture, no civilization, no nuthin’. So let’s not pretend that the fact that memory is fiction isn’t critical. We need memory, and memory is, well, fundamentally untrustworthy, which is why we need thinking, and thinkers and writers to interpret history and memory… Memory is the most important thing we have, the most important attribute we can impart to anything: in almost every sense of the word, when we remember something we keep it alive. Maybe not literally, but then again, it is memory that keeps a conversation going on longer than five minutes. If you forgot what you were talking about ten minutes ago, or to whom you were speaking, nothing much would get said…