My True Story of Living with Mental Illness

My True Story of Living with Mental Illness

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 Backstory.

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.”

The?Process.

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.

The Excerpt.?

“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.”


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A Room of One’s Own: My Very Own Writing Studio

A Room of One’s Own: My Very Own Writing Studio

First there was this.

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Before.

Just this junky old room with moldy?brown carpet and three flavors of paint (one puke green, one puke pink, one puke indeterminate).?This was the studio adjacent to our apartment, which had sat empty?for years and years on end, except as a dumping ground for various items of hardware that had been used in the renovation of our place. When we moved in next door, the landlord told us he was planning to renovate the studio?for Maya, the eccentric and kind older woman who gardens here every Tuesday. Of course neither B nor I particularly wanted anyone to move in next door, but what could we do? Maya is very nice. Our landlord said he would begin fixing it up in January.

Then it was February. Then March. As May arrived, we realized he had no intention of ever getting to it?or at least, not any time soon.

And then one day Maya announced to B that she had found a different place to live, and it occurred to me that?without the incentive of fixing it up for Maya, George really might not get to it for a while. In other words, right next to my house was a small sunny room with its own bathroom that was….

Empty.

Available.

Unoccupied.

And perfect to become a writing studio.?

I emailed George and asked whether he would consider letting me rent it. I can’t pay you much, I said, but it’s more than you’re getting now, and I’ll do all the work. And after an agonizing two weeks, he wrote to say he thought that would be fine. (!!!) Then?he agreed to let me paint, pull out the carpet, and generally make it mine. And so, a few weekends ago, I got up early and went to work. I sanded the walls and painted them a soft, soft gray. We hauled the nasty carpet out to the driveway. I scrubbed?the floors, cleaned the bathroom, put up a shelf, washed the cover on the dusty old futon that lives here. I moved in a lamp, a chair, some throw pillows, a rug, and finally, a desk.

And here I sit, writing this blog post.

And after.

And after.

I have wanted my own writing space for?well, forever. In grad school, in Northampton, Massachusetts, I had a pretty great two-room apartment with large windows and high ceilings and lots of space, and I had an office there, though it was one half of the room I used as my bedroom, so not totally ideal. Since then, though, we’ve never had the extra space, and I’ve worked in coffee shops and at the library or, occasionally, at the kitchen table.

The trouble with any of these places, of course, is that they’re noisy and you can’t pace around reading things out loud or debating the finer points of a sentence or shouting “why is this so f%^&*#g hard?!” You can’t hang up on the wall all the bits and baubles of paper and notes and whatnots that have come to you in brilliant moments or procrastinating moments. You can’t casually leave your laptop and go make a cup of tea, because someone might steal your last five years of work.

And at the kitchen table, it’s far too easy to feel guilty about the dirty dishes or the bills that just came shooting through the mail slot and get distracted.

None those places are yours and yours alone, your place to write, to think, to procrastinate, to mess up, to be.? Share on X

But this place is. Mine.

You’ll see, on the wall to the left of the desk, a series of pieces of paper. To christen my new writing studio, I hosted the Creative Women’s Cocktail Hour here last week, and we did an exercise:?we used a couple of one-word prompts and responded to them using paper and pens and crayons and markers, scissors and collage and glue.

The Lion Prompt

The Lion Prompt

The first prompt, given to me by a certain five-year-old, was “lion.” I loved the way these all looked next to each other when we hung them up, like they all spoke to each other somehow. I could feel the space warming up with color and words and intention.

We went on to do more; we riffed on “illness,” on “middle.” We worked independently but all together, and eventually, we?filled the whole space with paper.

It reminds me of a poem from a mentor I miss, the terrific late poet Agha Shahid Ali:?

Stationery

The moon did not become the sun.
It just fell on the desert
in great sheets, reams
of silver handmade by you.

The night is your cottage industry now,
the day is your brisk emporium.

The world is full of paper.
Write to me.

? Agha Shahid Ali

 

Yes, the world is full of paper.