Tuesday, July 7, 2015

Mental Health Memoir

In the last few months, I have found myself coaching four separate people working on memoirs about mental health struggles. The more I work with groups and individuals on these issues, the more it becomes clear to me how essential these stories are. How rarely they are told with accuracy, total honesty, and just how hard it is to express the experience of struggling with reality, or what you are told is reality, in a way that can be conveyed clearly.

I asked one student recently if she could explain more clearly, for instance, what is it like to lose time? She experienced a manic period a few years ago, and for a month or so she couldn't seem to track time. I asked her if this is considered normal - not because I needed to normalize her experience, but just to give some context. Yes, she said, but she didn't know that until later. She's reluctant - understandably - to explain what was going on since at the time she didn't know. It feels truer to her experience to just tell it like it was, which is to say that she not only lost time but wasn't particularly aware of it, much less losing it.

The only issue was that I couldn't tell, by reading it, what that experience was. Too much of a gap between her experience and my reading of it. We needed something - likely some descriptions she'd come up with after, not during - in order to bridge that gap.

This is a common issue in memoir - even if we don't have a narrator who comes in and says, "This is future me explaining what I later learned was happening here*," we still need some of that flavor. We won't know, as readers, whether or not she knew it then (unless she tells us) but we do need some kind of larger picture, even if it is not a diagnostic explanation.

"Well, there were times when I came back home and had no idea how the house got so messy, for instance," and I nodded. Yes. Exactly. "And times when I was knitting or reading or something and I thought I was doing it for an hour but it turned out four hours had passed," and I nodded again. Yes.  Now we are getting somewhere. And what did that feel like, I asked? Hard to describe, she noted, since she often wasn't in her body at the time. But after a bit, she said "Reeling, spinning and reeling." Great. Even if that is not how she would have described it then - if she could have described it at all - that helps.

I recently finished Alexandra Fuller's latest memoir, Leaving Before the Rains Come. She has so many wonderful things to say about "sanity" and women's minds, I wanted to share some of them. I think they also address these issues, these gaps and struggles to try and get down on the page something that is outside of most reader's direct references. Not to mention when what we experience is outside of our own expectations or references.
I'd always known my mind could hop logic and bypass tedious necessities. I was good at instinctively knowing when to dive for cover, and when to leap to my feet. I wasn't afraid of doing things other people would have thought crazy, illogical, or risky. Of course, I realized that I simply had a higher than usual tolerance for eccentricity, but I also hoped I would know when I had crossed into madness. When I crossed into madness, I trusted it wouldn't be my usual brand of inspiration. "A queer, divine dissatisfaction," as Martha Graham would have had it. "A blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than others." When I finally and profoundly slipped my mental moorings, I believed it would manifest as an accursed wreck with me crumpled and undone at its center.
And yet she finds it isn't that clear, not that straightforward. While things get hard, they aren't as unassailable as all that:
I was a woman on the brink of free fall, and it was hard to be a good, acceptable woman in any language or in any place when simultaneously contemplating becoming undone. For the first time, I was beginning to see that for a woman to speak her mind in any clear, unassailable, unapologetic way, she must first possess it.
And what an irony it can be, to try and speak clearly when things feel so asunder!

But there is a fundamental view in the Karuna Training** program I am taking that points to the inherent, brilliant sanity of all human beings. Instead of seeing "insanity" as a concrete block, seeing psychosis as something that kicks in and exists until it ends, we can see how our lives are actually a constant intertwining - an interdependency, even - of mental health struggles and stability. Even for those of us who have never been diagnosed with anything related to mental health.

Fuller describes her mother beautifully this way:
I watched my mother go mad. Afterward, when I tried to put a time on it I would have said her mind left her when I was around eleven and she did not conjure, or will, it back in a robust and enduring way until I was in my late twenties. But my mother’s absence wasn’t anything like a solid wash-out, a Boofy-like obliteration. It was drier than that, more as if an internal current had shorted, and flickered outages would occur, only to suddenly trip on again. And in those times, as if to make up for her gone days, my mother was a prism of creative clarity: compassionate, witty, capable, and fierce. I could feel myself slipping into the deep grooves of her influence; her passion for books, her appreciation for art, her addiction to the BBC, her obsessive love of dogs inherited in turn from her own parents.
Above all, one of the hardest things for the majority of readers to understand is also that which is hard for the majority of society to understand. Mental health struggles are not a one-time thing, and once one has been declared/diagnosed/found to struggle in a particular way, it is also not a definite, absolute state. And this is, understandably, one of the things my student/clients fear most. If they share this, publish it, under their own names, even with all they have overcome, will they be ostracized? Stigmatized? Will others assume that once they "went insane" there's no coming back, and so they can no longer be trusted?

For the brave, it is a risk we have to take. These stories - with their extra layer of difficulty in communicating - are so essential. I am happy to be supporting their expression, and, hopefully, publication.

*Sven Birkert's book The Art of Time in Memoir is a lovely literary analysis of this phenomenon.

** And is it auspicious coincidence that I am working on a certificate program for contemplative psychology as these assignments are arising? Powerful co-teaching going on, that's for sure!

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