I don’t want to talk about mental illness right now.
I want to talk about other parts of me, because maybe I am a little recovered, and that means that there are other parts of me than just the endlessly complicated swirl of incorrectly formulated cells in my brain.
Well, maybe there isn’t, but superficially, yes. If I wish to compartmentalize and categorize, and I almost always do, then I can section off the emotional intensity, the vivid reimaginings, the distorted, insistent, thinking. I can put warning tape around it, and label it “my mental illness.” I can tiptoe around it, like Cerberus, lightly slumbering, and with desperate hope, present it with a variety of tasty, soporific treats – Medications, enough sleep, consistency, exercise, socialization – in the hopes that it will not awaken and rage, rage, rage.
Even if sometimes it doesn’t rage, but dance. Maybe a bit too fast, and too greedily, but still it dances. Those rides I have, precariously perched on its back, as it twirls through meadows, and rainbows, taking me through evanescence, and glistening waterfalls of verdant sexuality, piquant loquaciousness, and forests of shooting, impossible ideas. Those rides are some of the most incredible experiences of my life.
And well, maybe the beast has bits of powder, and, with it, has irrevocably influenced other parts of my brain.
Namely, to circle back, writing.
Books have always held me in their thrall. My dad suffers from and delights in tsundoku. I found this word in one of those “10 most fascinating words” lists, and it perfectly describes his affliction. Collecting books by the thousands, no real intention of reading them, with the sole purpose of being surrounded by the “great” works. Growing up, I idolized my eccentric father, and his incomparable, seemingly endless, library. There Dickens, up there Tolstoy, Socrates, Proust, Wilde. If ever I needed a book, I could call on my father, and he would scurry to some corner of his library – our whole house – and retrieve the precious tome. The books were, almost exclusively, acquired second hand, and they smelled deliciously musty, with bindings that were breaking, and my dad’s meticulous, tiny script on the title page indicating date of acquisition, where, and for how much. Usually, less than a dollar.
To me, his library was perfect.
Inspired by this, my favorite character in my youth was Belle from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast. I related to her on a number of levels – though I could never claim her beauty or soprano voice – : she was bookish, misunderstood by her community, randomly broke into song, had a peculiar father whom she loved dearly, and, when the Beast wished to impress her, he gave her an astounding, multi-story library. I worshiped her.
Though to be perfectly frank, her Stockholm Syndrome, and the ability to turn a misanthropic, abusive beast into a prince through the pure power of love dangerously misinformed my ideas of romantic relationships. Likely, this set me on the course to become a damsel in distress, waiting for the abusive man who had captured me to become the prince I knew he could.
But that’s a story for another time.
Books also became for me a sort of escape, as they often are, being entertainment, after all. When I was friendless and very lonely in my pre-teen years, I turned to The Baby-Sitter’s Club, much to my father’s chagrin. But there I could imagine myself in Stonybrook CT, perhaps not too far away from dull Bethlehem CT, and be Mary Ann Spier. Quiet, measured, with a gaggle of friends who understood and appreciated her for exactly who she was. I dreamt of Claudia, and Dawn, and Stacey. I wished hard for them to come into my life, and for my confusing, isolated existence to be transformed into a universe of predictability, with a multiplicity of money, and iron-clad friendships that never deteriorate.
Books could be the friends I never had. They didn’t judge, or at least not the ones I read, but just sat there, patiently, waiting for me to open their pages and hallucinate their words into being. Me and them, them and me. Inseparable.
In school, my favorite teachers were always my English teachers. Funny, that I ultimately turned to science when picking a major, but that’s probably because somewhere in early high school, the creative writing that defined English class that I so loved turned into three part five paragraph literature analysis. I detested this, and though was ultimately good at it, the process to produce one of these essays was torturous, time-consuming, and fraught with crippling anxiety.
And because of the analysis, books became not sources of joy and escapism, but filled with judgment, critique, and terrible, deeper themes I had to painfully search for and expose.
Also, the books were almost exclusively depressing.
I once asked my junior year English teacher why this was so, why Hemingway, Faulkner, Fitzgerald, Shakespeare’s most lauded works, always had such unhappy endings. He said something about the human condition that did nothing to inure me to the “greats” of literature.
I had fucking enough of the human condition by that point, having already been diagnosed with bipolar disorder – with two suicide attempts, and a restraining order under my belt. I did not need to be reminded that life was messy, and cruel, and unfair. I already knew that well enough. I needed hope. And there was no hope in Hemingway, as far as I could see. The man ended up shooting himself in the mouth with a double barreled shot gun. What could I learn from him that would help me stay in this life? I avoided him, and the litany of writers who had committed suicide: Wolfe, Foster Wallace, Plath – the Wikipedia entry listing JUST novel writers who have committed suicide is two pages long – like the plague.
Maybe that’s why I didn’t pursue writing as a career, even though every time I submit something that I have written, or read it aloud, I get nothing but ardent praise. “You’re so talented.” “Don’t waste it.” “Write every day.” Or even, “you’re a genius.” I was and still am scared of the link between mental illness, suicide, and creativity. I want to stay.
And also, maybe I think it’s audacious of me to want to write. Writers are deities to me. I stare at my bookshelves, mostly lined with comedic science fiction, fantasy, psychology, Buddhism, and memoir, with a dash of the “great” novelists and poets, in reverence. Running my hands over the spines, opening a book at random, say Crime and Punishment, and being instantly transported from the cape in CT to the French Bastille. Just through the power of the wordsmith.
Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous?