I mentioned last week that I had an essay in a new book anthology called Show Me All Your Scars: True Stories of Living with Mental Illness (In Fact Books, 2016). I felt like a million bucks when the essay was accepted. I’d responded to a call for submissions that a friend sent with a lightning bolt of an idea, and then I wrote the essay with something of that same lightning-bolt intensity. There is nothing better than those moments, when you’re a writer, when the work kind of pours out of you and you can feel that it’s good, that it’s powerful, that it’s flowing. To have that recognized, with an acceptance letter from a reputable literary journal—there may be nothing better. When I learned that ultimately, only 20 essays were chosen from over 600 submissions, and mine was one (I think publishers like to tell writers stuff like that to stroke their very fragile egos, and it works!), I felt, again, just great: proud and honored and humbled and grateful.
But when the book arrived last week, there was that title staring me in the face: True Stories of Living with Mental Illness—and a catchphrase that went something like: “In these pages, you’ll meet twenty people surviving mental illness”—and I was one of those twenty people. It was enough to make a girl feel a little, well, vulnerable, especially when I excitedly emailed my mom and my mother in law and people close to me to tell them and then wondered if I’d freaked them out.
“What interesting company you keep!” my mom said. I understood her hesitation to be really excited for me; if L. published an essay about something deeply personal I’m sure I would feel a similar sense of disquiet. So I immediately felt this urge to qualify, e.g.: “the essay isn’t about MY mental illness, of course…”
But of course, it is.
The mission of SMAYS is to demystify mental illness, which is still, in this country, roundly feared and loathed. To talk about it. To admit to it. And so, while my essay in the book, it’s true, is much more about someone else’s mental illness—about a romantic friendship I had in my twenties with a guy who’s a diagnosed schizophrenic—it is also about my anxiety, and my belief that at the end of the day, even those who suffer from the deepest kinds of madness have something in common with those of us who suffer from more “acceptable” forms of it (depression and anxiety).
As I say in my essay, “We are all at least a little bit crazy.”
Last August, right before I left California to spend two weeks with my family in Maine, I got an email from an editor at Creative Nonfiction (the literary journal that houses In Fact Books) saying that they liked the essay I’d written and were interested in publishing it, but that they needed me to strengthen and revise one part before they decided for sure. So off I went to the East coast, to be with my close-knit and very boisterous family, all of whom were on vacation, while I also had a two-week deadline to revise this incredibly personal essay that I’d come to care very, very deeply about. And so, for those two weeks, I lived a double life. I was half-present with my family, drinking wine in the evenings, laughing, joking, going for paddle board rides in the ocean and attempting to relax, but inwardly, I was completely obsessed with the essay. Every spare moment I had, I was holed up in my room, writing. Or at least, shifting commas around and looking for entryways into what felt like dark and difficult territory.
Then I’d emerge, smiling and happy and in my bathing suit, ready to go for a swim.
It was all a bit jarring. What felt so difficult about it, I think, was that even then, in the writing stage, I felt some sense of shame for the work. I was writing about meeting a man who was obviously troubled, at a time in my life when I decided to take on some of his trouble, because I was troubled, too. I was in grad school at the time we met; I was learning that I suffered from anxiety; I had bestowed upon myself this weird eating disorder that involved not consuming an ounce of fat and running for an hour every day; and I was also learning how to be an adult (read: making choices I wasn’t sure my parents would approve of). I was learning that something that sounds just terrible, and terrifying, on paper—I am sleeping with a diagnosed schizophrenic who’s on welfare—can, in reality, be something safe, real, and very much okay.
It had taken me fifteen years to get the opportunity to really reflect on this strange and powerful friendship that I had kept from most of my family at the time, sure that they wouldn’t understand. And there I was on vacation with them, writing about it.
But I did it, and the revised essay was accepted.
And so, at the great risk of freaking out my mom, here is a short excerpt from my essay “A Little Crazy.” Thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll consider buying the book (details below). It’s full of powerful stories.
“My friend did not seem like the stereotype of schizophrenic that I knew from movies and television. He did not hear voices anymore, at least as far as I could tell, and he was never violent. He was obviously depressed, though—depressed in a way that suggested sadness from some place far beyond the present. Sometimes, he became slightly manic, and he frequently became confused. Often, when we talked, I wondered if we were having two separate conversations. He might, for instance, lapse into sullenness, into silence, as though he’d forgotten I was there; then, all of a sudden, he’d brightly ask a question only tenuously related to what we’d been talking about. Some days, his veneer seemed so thin he was almost translucent, like the smallest insult or hurt would break him.
“Many times I wondered if our friendship was worth it: the bad moods, the sudden decisions that our evening was over, the weird outbursts of criticism.
“But at other times, Will behaved like an endearing child, entirely genuine. Unlike most of the guys I knew, he did not resort to ironic retorts or mannered responses. He had the laugh of a ten-year-old, this sweet, bubbling peal. One day, he invited me over to play a rented video game. It was a Saturday, and I had planned to spend the day relaxing after a week run like boot camp: exercise, teach, fast, write. So I said yes. Will couldn’t handle any hint of violence, and the game was a lush but G-rated fantasy, something about a princess who needed to travel through a maze to reach her castle. We played it on his aging, thrift-store television for hours. I remember the day as though we spent it happily, goofily stoned, but we couldn’t have been: Will didn’t put any substances into his body besides chromium picolinate and copious amounts of vitamin C. But being with him sometimes felt like an altered state.
“And after we’d played the video game, we pushed aside the controls and had sex on his bed. We had this implicit understanding: that we would still have sex. Not always; months went by when we were, simply, platonic friends. But then we’d fall into bed together again. I welcomed this. I had no compunctions about it, no hang-ups. I didn’t care or know if he slept with other people. I didn’t possess jealousy or longing where he was concerned. For the first and the last time in my life, I didn’t equate a sexual relationship with love or the pursuit of partnership.
“Not that I didn’t love Will, in my way. We shared a rare kind of intimacy. We made gluten-free toast in his kitchen at 2:00 a.m., eating it, giggling, in our underpants. I saw him through a fractured, dissociated breakdown in my apartment after a thunderously loud Lucinda Williams show, the only time I saw him approach behavior I might call aggressive, though all he did was yell. We wrote an article together once. (He insisted I take the whole byline, though he had paced around my apartment feeding me lines like I were his secretary: “No wait, write this, write this…”) I watched him engage with the world as if he were doing everything for the first time: trying out a job, losing a job, finding a new apartment, beginning a new project. Because Will’s life had once shattered to pieces, he didn’t care what it would take to make it presentable, defendable, normal. For me, every venture felt like an obligation, a step on a ladder that led somewhere I was supposed to want to go. With my anxiety and my stupid eating disorder, I spent all my time climbing, and climbing, and climbing. What was at the top? I don’t think I knew.”