Tag Archives: literary pretentions

Nostalgia Machine: On Re-Watching Girl, Interrupted

1 Apr

Those of you who are fairly new to my blog may not know this, but on days when I’m not busy kicking the patriarchy square in the nuts or deconstructing inaccurate Facebook memes, I like to indulge in a little bit of nostalgia. Well, maybe a lot of nostalgia. Then I tweet extensively about my my indulgences, and sometimes end up writing about them here.

Which is all to say that I re-watched Girl, Interrupted the other night and now I want to talk about it.

I saw Girl, Interrupted in theatres, when it first came out, and it gave me a lot of Feelings. Actually, it gave me one main Feeling, namely that I basically was Winona Ryder’s character, if slightly less gamine and winsome. I mean, I was a depressed teenager who had a) frequently contemplated suicide, b) felt lonely and isolated, and c) wrote obsessively in serious-looking leather-bound journals. Of course I identified with the film version of Susanna Kaysen.

Every single scene, every thought, word, and action in that movie struck me as being perfectly, achingly true. Every time Winona Ryder looked at the camera with her wide, tearful eyes, every time her mouth trembled with emotion, every time she stared sadly off into the middle distance, I thought, yes. Yes, I get this.

Then, a few years ago, I bought Girl, Interrupted on DVD, fuelled by memories of how important it had been to me. But after watching it for less than an hour I had to turn it off. It was awful, unbearable even. The performances were overwrought, the dialogue ridiculously, almost comically, dramatic. I was embarrassed that I’d ever even liked this movie, let alone identified with the main character. I put the DVD back in its case, stuck it on the shelf and didn’t touch it again.

Or rather, I didn’t touch it until earlier this week, when Catherine, my sister and frequent accomplice in nostalgic endeavours, suggested that we watch it. Sure, I said, figuring that I could hate-watch it and then later make fun of it. Maybe we could even invent a drinking game, like, take a shot every time Susanna cries over how hard it is to be a white, middle-class American. Hilarious, right? I mean, right?

Except that on re-watching Girl, Interrupted, I discovered that it had, in the last five years, somehow gone past bad and straight back to good again.

At its core, this film isn’t really about mental health, or suicide, or Susannah Kaysen’s stay at the famed McLean Hospital. I mean, of course it is about all of those things, at least peripherally, but at its heart it’s about friendship. Specifically, it’s about a sort of intense, parasitic friendship that seems to exist only between young women, those deceptively bright, canny girls just on the cusp of entering the adult world.

And maybe this isn’t the type of friendship that every girl experiences. Maybe this is just me, projecting my own pathetic history onto the blank canvas of Winona’s smooth, perfect face. Maybe I’m the only one who sees this when I watch this movie. But I know that this is a type of friendship that I’ve engaged in not just once but over and over, and maybe I still do, to this day. It’s possible that it’s a pattern that will play out for the rest of my life, or at least until I grow up and finally get some sense knocked into me.

Can you believe that I’m thirty and still talking about growing up in the future tense?

The dynamics of this specific type of friendship are as follows: half of the friendship, let’s call her Girl One, is a strong, loud, brash character who doesn’t give a shit about what anyone thinks, says whatever’s on her mind and gives very little thought to the consequences of her actions. The other half is someone, call her Girl Two, who is almost the photographic negative of the first – quiet, reserved, terrified of how other people see her.

Think Peppermint Patty and Marcie from Peanuts, except amplified, grotesquely exaggerated.

When I say that this friendship is parasitic, maybe what I really mean is that it’s symbiotic. As a lifelong Girl Two, I’ve always thought that I needed Girl One more than she needed me, but I wonder, now, whether that’s true or now. Maybe we’ve needed each other in equal amounts. I’ve needed someone to act out all of the things that I would never, or could never, dare to do, someone whose own loud voice might give me permission to raise mine, someone who would never sugarcoat whatever they wanted to tell me. But perhaps my friends, in turn, needed someone to occasionally hold them back, someone to steady them, someone who would listen to them and not pass judgment.

The truth is that I don’t know why or how much these other girls loved or needed me, but I do know that I loved and needed them with an intensity that sometimes bordered on obsessive. Because these girls, these loud, strident girls, had both a popularity and notoriety (not that my teenage self could differentiate between the two) that I could only dream of. People either fiercely loved or passionately hated these girls; as for me, they didn’t even bother to notice that I existed.

But these girls noticed that I existed.

And the fact is that as much as I like to think that I’m the type to stand up for what I believe in, the type to shout down the misogynists, the racists, the homophobes, the transphobes, I still sometimes need someone to give me a push. I need someone to raise their voice first, show me how it’s done, teach me not to be afraid. Because for whatever reason, these gifts don’t exist inside of me, or if they do, they lie perpetually dormant, and need to be awakened again and again and again.

On my own, I am not good at challenging authority. Not really. I need other people, people like Angelina Jolie’s character Lisa, to egg me on. And, much like Winona Ryder’s Susanna, I’m not always good at figuring out when the Lisas in my life have gone too far. I put too much trust in them, and then end up places, sometimes frightening places, that I never intended to be. I let myself be blinded by love, or at least by longing and envy, and don’t notice that some of these Lisas are downright bad news. Or rather, I don’t notice until it’s too late.

So yeah, maybe at thirty years old I do still get Susanna. Maybe there are more layers to the similarities between us than I’d originally thought.

And all that absurd dialogue and overwrought acting? This time around, they seem to me to be a painfully realistic portrayal of how teenagers actually behave. When you’re in your teens, everything that you feel is so intense, so immediate, so overwhelming that you can speak only in terrible, laughable clichés. My mother has always said that teenagers are like toddlers with better language skills, and now, watching my son struggle to express frighteningly huge emotions with his sadly inadequate vocabulary, I’ve realized how right she is.

I’ve realized that when I watched Girl, Interrupted a few years ago, what embarrassed me the most was the idea that at one time I might have spoken or acted in any way that resembled Susanna. Surely, even as a teenager, I’d been too smart, too articulate to ever behave so pretentiously. But the truth is that I was ridiculously, probably amusingly, pretentious. I just didn’t recognize this trait because all of my peers were just as overwrought and dramatic as I was.

All of this is to say that I’m now back at a place in my life where I can like, maybe even love, this movie, if only because it seems like a neatly preserved time capsule of how I thought and felt half a lifetime ago. I remember what it was like to be where Susanna was. To suddenly find yourself at the end of high school faced with choices, choices, choices, and yet not to see any of them leading anywhere. When I was a teenager, I lived in terror of being “normal,” because I worried that choosing a normal path and ending up with a normal life would make me just as grey and miserable as all of the adults that surrounded me. There would come a time, of course, when having a normal life and a nuclear family and a nine-to-five job would seem wonderfully, almost exotically appealing to me, but that came much later. When I was in high school, I didn’t understand that opting out had its costs, some of which, it turned out, I wasn’t willing to pay.

And sometimes I miss my teenage self, because even if she lacked her own voice, she still somehow managed to be totally steadfast and uncompromising in her beliefs, even if those beliefs made her feel miserable and isolated. But mostly I’m just glad that I’ve learned how to trade off one thing for another, to give a piece of myself away in order to be able to keep a different part that is more necessary, more valuable. I’m grateful to the Lisas in my life who have taught me when to stand up mouth off and, somewhat by extension, when to sit down and shut up. I’m thankful for every time I’ve had to learn the lesson that it’s important not to trust the Lisas out there too implicitly, and that I need to learn how to think for myself. It’s a hard lesson, and one that it feels like I’ve had to learn often, but it’s a good one.

Mostly, though, I’m glad that I’ve found my way to where I am.

Girl--Interrupted-winona-ryder-154518_1000_667

On Writing Fiction

23 Mar

Let’s begin with the assumption that I am a fairly talented wordsmith.

Before I say anything especially important, I have a few small digressions to make:

Digression the first – why wordsmith? Why not wordwright, like playwright or shipwright? Wordsmith makes me think of blacksmiths hammering out cold, dead things like horseshoes and nails and old-fashioned hinges. Shipwrights make boats, the best of which have delicate wooden ribs, can slice through the cold saltwater like knives, and creak and groan like living things.

Maybe bookwright is the word I want. Think we could get that into the OED?

Digression the second – I say “assumption” because, of course, talent is subjective. For instance, reading Wally Lamb’s She’s Come Undone made me want to claw my own eyes out, but I know a lot of smart, well-read people who sincerely enjoyed it.

No, but seriously, that book is terrible. It was so bad that it went past good and then all the way back to bad again.

Digression the third – I also say “assumption” because even after all the positive attention, all the accolades and kind words, I still don’t really know that it’s fact. And yes, I Am Not Your Wife was reposted to the The Believer‘s tumblr, Thought Catalog, The Frisky, and Huffington Post, and yes, those things are huge, but I still don’t feel especially talented. Maybe the problem is that those things are too huge, and it’s overwhelming.

Like, fuck. The Believer. Are you fucking kidding me right now? Their contributor’s list is basically a list of ALL OF MY FAVOURITE LIVING AUTHORS EVER. Being published in The Believer is a writer’s wet dream. And I somehow managed to get on their tumblr without even trying?

And for sure there’s a part of me that thinks that all this recognition is fantastic, and it’s only going to lead to better things, and blah blah optimism blah, but there’s another part of me, and admittedly much larger part of me, that thinks that this is all a fluke. That I’ll never write anything as smart or interesting or touching as I Am Not Your Wife, and now, at the age of 30, I’ve reached my peak of greatness, and now I’ll begin my slow decline.

In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes, etc.

But enough digressing. What I really want to talk about is my love-hate relationship with writing fiction.

So.

Let’s begin with the assumption that I am a fairly talented wordsmith.

I am also someone who likes to write fiction.

And I guess that for a long time I thought that talent was all it took to write a good short story, or poem, or novel. I didn’t really think about writing being something that you would have to study or practice or learn. I thought that you were either talented, or you weren’t, and that determined whether or not you were going to succeed.

Then, in the summer of 2007, I took a creative writing class at the Humber School for Writers with Miriam Toews and she was fucking amazing. She had so many nice things to say about my writing, and even recommended me to the Humber School for Writers’ in-house literary agent, and I left that program feeling like a fucking rockstar.

Anyway, on one of the last days of the program, Miriam and I were having a serious writer-to-writer talk (because I was sure that I was a serious, for-real, grown-up writer) and she told me to forget taking classes and workshops, forget trying to learn the craft of writing, and to just go home and write. And this seemed like excellent advice, because she’d never taken a creative writing class in her life and she’d won the Governor General’s Award for English Fiction. So clearly, she knew what she was talking about.

I took her advice, and I went home, and I wrote. I wrote like a motherfucker (digression the fourth: how does a motherfucker write?) and ended up producing a folder full of short stories and a novel.

And I couldn’t get a damn thing published. I mean, I came pretty close, but still. No cigar.

(Digression the fifth: when I was a kid my mother would always say “close, but no cigar.” This made me think that cigars were fantastic and wonderful and  possibly delicious, which, in turn, made me believe that if I could just get something right for a damn change, she would give me one and my life would be perfect)

After querying and re-querying every damn agent and publisher and literary magazine on the continent, I quit. I was done. I just couldn’t take the heartbreak anymore.

Now, when I say heartbreak, a lot of people think that I mean the pain of rejection – and that’s fair, because that’s part of what breaks my heart.

But the truth is that the bulk of my heartbreak comes from the thought that I’ve somehow failed my stories. Because it’s not the stories themselves that are the problem – in theory, they’re sound enough – it’s the wording, the structure, the believable setting and the fleshed out characters. In the hands of a better writer, these stories would have lived. But mine didn’t.

All my poor, innocent stories were all stillborn. I’d tried my damnedest to get them to live, but I couldn’t. I didn’t know how.

I fell in love with each one, and each time I had my stupid heart broken and my foolish hopes dashed.

And I get that it’s about practice. I get that you have to hone your craft, and that suffering for your art doesn’t mean starving somewhere in a cold garrett but instead the grim misery of grinding away at your craft day after day after day. I get that no one is successful right away.

But what happens to all of those stories that I wrote and loved? Are they just collateral damage in the fight to become a good writer? Do I forget about them? Pretend that they never existed? Delete from from my hard drive?

How can I keep giving my heart away, over and over again, to stories that will never see the light of day?

But I want to write fiction. And (perhaps more importantly) I feel happier when I’m writing fiction. So I’ve started that up again, and sometimes it feels amazing, and sometimes it feels terrifying, and mostly it feels like both things at once.

But the thought of trying to get my stuff published again, the thought of going through all that rejection again, scares me shitless.

It doesn’t help that I feel like I’m running out of time. Most of the people my age have Serious Grownup Careers that they’ve been building since their mid-20s, and meanwhile here I am without a single published (fictional) word to my name. How do I ever catch up?

And, I mean, never mind catching up, how on earth do I ever compete with everyone else, all the amazing writers and wannabe writers on the internet? What sets me apart from them? Most of the time, I think that the answer is “nothing” – I’m just another faceless, nameless word-o-phile floating in a sea of fellow literary junkies.

These past few years have been rough. I’ve had a few friends and acquaintances, all people my age, die within the last year or two. There was Artem, of course, who was only 27 when he died of cancer. Then, a few months ago, there was Ryan, who I’d gone to university with; he died in his sleep of unknown causes. Most recently there was a friend-of-a-friend who died of a massive heart attack at the age of 32.

I think I might be running out of time.

So with that in mind, I’m going to try to find a good writing class. I’m going to find someone who can help me iron out the plot and pacing issues that plague all of my writing. I’m going to grind away at this like I should’ve been doing all along. I’m going to do this. Because as much as I love Miriam and think that what she said was right for her, I’m not sure that it was right for me.

In light of that, if anyone has any recommendations for good creative writing programs, preferably in the GTA, but I’m willing to travel, I would love to hear about them.

And to anyone who writes fiction – I would love to hear about your experiences, be they failures, successes, or something in between. I would love your commiseration. I would love to hear how you keep yourself going.

Most of all, though, I want someone to tell me to keep going, that this is worth it, and that I’ll get somewhere eventually. Because right now it feels like I’m driving round and round in circles, and I’m in danger of running out of gas.

Anne Sexton, at her typewriter

Anne Sexton, at her typewriter

Three Memories

17 Mar

1. It’s a grey, dreary Saturday afternoon in early August, 1997. I’m at my friend Liz’s apartment; she’s throwing me a party for my fifteenth birthday. It’s not a big party – more of a get-together, really, with a handful of friends sitting around on Liz’s living room floor. Somebody has brought the obligatory cake, and there are gifts, too, but those are beside the point.

My real birthday present is that Liz has somehow convinced her mother to rent Trainspotting for us. Not only that, but her mother has actually left us alone to watch it.

I have been dying to see this movie ever since it came out the year before. I own the soundtrack (well, I own a taped copy of the soundtrack that my friend made for me). I have postcards showing scenes from the movie stuck on my wall. I’ve cut out every interview with Ewan MacGregor that I can find and pinned them to my bulletin board. My friend Emily somehow saw Trainspotting in theatres (in spite of the fact that she was too young for its R rating), and I’ve made her give me a play-by-play of all of its scenes.

I am so fucking ready for this.

I sit there and watch the fuck out of that movie, my fingers dug deep into the grey pile of the living room carpet. I drink in everything, even, maybe especially, the things that I don’t understand. I don’t flinch away from the achingly awful, sometimes sickening parts that I later won’t be able to watch as an adult. I watch this movie like I’ll be writing a final exam in which 100% of my grade is based on a essay regarding Mark Renton and his life choices.

I am fifteen. I am a virgin. I’ve never even smoked a cigarette, never mind fucking around with heroin. I don’t cut class. I don’t break my curfew. I try so hard to be good.

But in my whole life I have never had something speak to me the way Mark Renton’s opening monologue does:

Choose Life. Choose a job. Choose a career. Choose a family. Choose a fucking big television, choose washing machines, cars, compact disc players and electrical tin openers. Choose good health, low cholesterol, and dental insurance. Choose fixed interest mortgage repayments. Choose a starter home. Choose your friends. Choose leisurewear and matching luggage. Choose a three-piece suit on hire purchase in a range of fucking fabrics. Choose DIY and wondering who the fuck you are on Sunday morning. Choose sitting on that couch watching mind-numbing, spirit-crushing game shows, stuffing fucking junk food into your mouth. Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pissing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourselves. Choose your future. Choose life… But why would I want to do a thing like that? I chose not to choose life. I chose somethin’ else. And the reasons? There are no reasons.

Because already I know that I’m not going to choose any of those things. I don’t know what I want in life, but the list of things that I don’t want is long and involved. I’m fifteen, so compromise doesn’t yet exist.

I am going to take the fucking world by storm, and I am not going betray any of my values along the way.

2. It’s a bright spring day in 2003. I have recently sort of, maybe started dating my friend. We have been on one, maybe two dates, but we haven’t kissed yet. He comes over to my house and we watch my favourite movie, The Red Violin. I lean against him and put my head first on his shoulder, then on his lap. I am so tentative, so nervous.

I am so in love with him.

Afterwards, he walks me back to the Dalhousie campus. I have to go work at the school call centre, where we try to convince alumni to donate money to the university. We end up wandering over to the stairs leading up to the Grad House (a misnomer of a pub where undergrad students are totally welcome) and I stand on the second step, so that I’m the same height as him.

Suddenly, he leans in and kisses me, then grabs me and spins me around until we’re both dizzy and giggling.

“Well, that makes things less awkward,” he says.

I bury my face in the front of his coat. I can’t stop smiling. In that moment, everything is sharply, painfully perfect. It doesn’t matter that in a little over two months’ time we will end up lost in a blind alley of shortcoming and fears and hurt feelings. It doesn’t matter that our friendship will end, not even with a bang, but slowly, painfully, spluttering and gasping to its death over the course of the next two years. It doesn’t matter that he will break my heart, not just once, but over and over.

It doesn’t matter, because even if someone had told me all of the awful things that were to come, I still wouldn’t have traded that one wonderful moment for a calmer, happier, but ultimately emptier world.

3. It’s a hot, sunny summer day in 2004. I am wearing a brown tank top and a skirt that my aunt bought me for my birthday. The skirt, which hits just below the knee, is cream with a brick-red pattern of swirls on it; it’s made of jersey cotton, which means that it moves with and clings to my body in the best way possible. The waistband is a thick elastic, in the same brick-red colour, and it dips down into a v in the front. I love the cut of this waistband an unreasonable amount.

I am walking next to Citadel Hill in Halifax. I have my discman in my purse, and I’m listening to my roommate’s copy of Hawksley Workman’s (Last Night We Were) The Delicious Wolves. Specifically, I am listening to Striptease. The sun is hot on my face and shoulders. My hair hangs long, dusty, tangled down my back. I am swaying my hips, wiggling my shoulders.

For the first time in a long time I feel perfectly at home in my body. I feel sexy, in a dirty, earthy way. I feel like someone who might be desirable.

I look down and notice that my skirt has slipped enough to show off the top of my black thong. I barely pause for long enough to hike my skirt back up, and then I keep going.

renton_tracks

Nostalgia Machine: On Re-reading Sandman

11 Mar

Matt and I have recently been re-reading Neil Gaiman’s Sandman series, something that I’ve been putting off doing for a few years now.

I’m not sure why we decided to dive back into those books now, exactly – I guess part of it might be because I recently started following Mr. Gaiman on twitter and suddenly remembered how amazing he is. It’s also probably due to the fact that we just recently found the last couple of volumes needed to complete our collection for cheap at a discount bookstore. Mostly, though, I think it came out of how much I’ve been thinking about my friend Annie lately.

The thing is, I’ve been missing her like crazy, and I can’t think about the Sandman books without being reminded of her, and vice versa.

Annie moved in with me in the spring of 2004, just at the tail end of my annus horribilis. She was a friend of a friend, someone I barely knew, but I desperately needed a roommate, and she desperately needed a room. Although I’d met her a handful of times, at parties and theatre department events, I’d only ever spoken to her once. At some get-together or other I somehow found myself standing next to her, and I figured that I should try to make conversation. I racked my brains for something to say, and wound up complimenting her on this pin on her bag that said, “Go Fascinate Someone Else.”

She looked at me as if I’d said the most mundane, meaningless thing possible, took a drag from her cigarette, and said in her smoky, vaguely European voice,

“Yeah. I like it too. Obviously. Or I wouldn’t be wearing it.”

What I want to make clear here is that Annie was a super badass who dressed all in black, smoked like a chimney and never refrained from speaking her mind, even when she knew it was going to get her into trouble. She was a brilliant actress with a mysterious Soviet past and a deadpan stare that could wither just about anyone. Half the city admired her, half the city was afraid of her, and half the city wanted to sleep with her. And no, I didn’t accidentally say “half” instead of “a third” – I just mean that there was a lot of overlap between all three categories.

I had no idea why she would ever want to be my roommate.

I would estimate that there are four people who have had an enormous influence on my outlook on music, clothing, art and life in general. The first was Emily, who I met at a performing arts camp when we were twelve and who introduced me to vintage clothing, the Kids in the Hall and, music-wise, everything from Ani DiFranco to Sonic Youth. The second was Kat, who had first hated then later befriended me in while we were at university, and who is responsible for introducing me to pot, Sylvia Plath and the joys of being loud and obnoxious in public. The most recent one was my friend Audra, who has helped shape my take on third-wave feminism, internet activism and dance movies. The fourth, of course, was Annie.

I’m not sure, exactly, how Annie and I became friends. I think that it happened slowly, by degrees, with me making tentative friendly overtures like buying her beer and lending her books. Then she invited me out to her birthday and I went, bravely talked to a few of her friends*, then left early. I’m not sure what time she came home at, but the next morning she was still drunk. When I got up, she was lying sprawled out on our couch, her tank top askew and her already-short skirt hiked up even higher, and she kept giggling over everything I said. I made us both breakfast, and then suddenly, magically, all of my awkwardness melted away and it was like we’d known each other forever.

Mostly it feels like Annie and I have the kind of friendship that twelve year old boys have. I mean, you know that part in Stand By Me when they’re sitting around the campfire talking about pez candies and Wagon Train and whether or not Goofy’s a dog? And then narrator-Gordie says, “We talked into the night. The kind of talk that seemed important until you discover girls.” That’s what our friendship felt like then, and still feels like now. And if you’re an aficionado of Stand By Me in the same way that Annie and I are, I probably don’t have to explain that she’s Chris Chambers, and I’m poor old Gordie Lachance with the leech on his balls.

Anyway, that summer, the summer of 2004, Annie introduced me to the Sandman series. And as I worked my way through them, she re-read them, and together we fed each others’ obsessions. We would sit out on our North End stoop as the late afternoon cooled into evening, drink whatever we had on hand, share Annie’s pack of cigarettes and try to pull apart the Sandman universe. We teased out each layer, or at least the layers that we could find, and laid each thread of plot bare to examine it. We researched everything, trying to figure out which characters were historical figures and which were just plain made up. I think at some point we even made a flowchart or graph to keep track of our discussions. It was perfect.

That summer was like gorging on everything wonderful in life all at once, and if I could bottle it up and sell it, I could be a millionaire, like, tomorrow.

We eventually started casting ourselves and our friends as the Sandman characters. Annie, at the time, was a dead ringer for Death (PUN SO INTENDED):

annie_death

tumblr_m7op1mAbYW1qbgs7po1_1280

And I felt a weird kinship with Delirium:

gunky

I’m not including a picture of myself because I look nothing like Delirium, but when I first read those books, I felt like her. I understood the stuff she said, even when most other people, both fictional and real, seemed to have no clue.

I loved Delirium. Loved her. I think my adoration for her was part of the reason I put off reading the Sandman books again for so long – because, of course, it’s dangerous to revisit anything that you’ve known too well, loved too deeply, or somehow view as having helped shaped who you are. It’s dangerous to expect something to feel the same after years and years of memories and expectations. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, those old books, movies and places are able to stir enough nostalgia to allow you to overlook all of the failings you’re suddenly able to see, but mostly going back to the things that you view as influential and formative is nothing but a disappointment. First of all, they can never live up to the hype that’s built up in your mind for the last ten or fifteen or twenty years, and second of all they’re often just plain terrible and end up making you feel as if a huge chunk of your childhood or young adulthood is somehow tainted.

And, see, Delirium is a character who would be ripe for this kind of adult realization. I was worried that, as a 30 year old, I would find her character to be ridiculous, and my love of her incredibly pretentious. I was worried that re-reading Brief Lives, my favourite Sandman of all time, would leave me rolling my eyes SO HARD at my younger self and her habit of being overdramatic about, well, everything. I was worried that, this time around, I would hate Delirium, or at the very least no longer love her and know her the way I had. And somehow, that would feel like a huge loss.

But you guys? Sandman is still amazing. And Delirium is still amazing.

Maybe it’s because when Annie moved in with me, I was just coming out of a major depressive episode, and I’m in a not-dissimilar place in my life right now. Or maybe it’s because I haven’t changed as much in nine years as I’d thought. Whatever the reason, Delirium still kills me in all the best ways possible. She says things, and I think, ohhhh, I get that. I’ve felt that.

Like this:

“I feel like … I don’t know. Someplace nobody ever goes anymore.”

Or this:

“It all keeps moving and it won’t stop and I just want it to stop and then I think what if it gets worse? You know? What if it gets worse?”

Or this:

“I like airplanes. I like anywhere that isn’t a proper place. I like in-betweens.”

Or this:

“What’s the name of the word for the precise moment when you realize that you’ve actually forgotten how it felt to make love to somebody you really liked a long time ago.”

Or this:

“You’ve never apologized to me. You just act like you know stuff I don’t know that makes everything you do okay.”

Ahhhhhhh (that is a sigh of total satisfaction after having a fictional character explain what’s in my heart)

I’m not really sure how to end this, except to say that I find myself back in the same curious, dreamy state that Sandman put me in the first time. I mean, it’s probably not just the books – it’s probably also the fact that spring is so close that you can taste it, and that my house is clean for once, and I ate some really transcendentally great yogurt today. But whatever it is, I’ll take it. I like this feeling. I’ve missed this feeling. It makes me feel floaty and insubstantial and wondrous in a way that I haven’t felt in years.

I just wish Annie was here to share this all with me, instead of being half a continent away.

I wish we were back on our stoop, eating Rassy’s pizza and drinking Kahlua cocktails and watching the sparrows hopping around eating our crumbs.

I wish I knew what to do with this feeling, now that I finally have it back.

———————

*It was actually only one friend, the nicest guy imaginable who would deliberately seek out shy, awkward people and talk to them at social gatherings. Seriously. The nicest.

An International Women’s Day Alphabet

8 Mar

A is for Austen, the Regency hellion

B is for Boudica, who raised a rebellion

C is Cleopatra, fierce Queen of the Nile

D is Diana, whose voice does beguile

E is for Ella, breaking down barriers

F is for Franklin, who made DNA merrier

G is Gloriana, anything but conventional

H is for hooks (lower case is intentional)

I is Isadora, who loved modern dance

J is Jo March, who wrote and wore pants

K is for Kennedy, who understood duty

L is Lamarr, who mixed science with beauty

M is MacPhail, political and proud

N is for Nellie, strident and loud

O is for Olave, keen about guiding

P is for Parker, whose wit was so biting

Q is Quvenzhané, who lights up the screen

R is for Rosa, who sat like a queen

S is Suu Kyi, the political prisoner

T is for Tubman, slavery abolitioner

U is Uhura, who kicked ass in space,

V is Victoria, who kept a stern face

W is Wollstonecraft, vindicator of rights

X is Xiang Jingyu, who fought the good fight

Y is Yousafzai, who refused to be rattled

Z is Zoë Washburne, ready for battle

We Can All Do It by Soirart

We Can All Do It by Soirart

Checking In

20 Feb

I know that I haven’t written here in a while (SIX WHOLE DAYS, LIKE, YOU PROBABLY THOUGHT I’D QUIT BLOGGING OR SOMETHING), and I just wanted to check in and let you guys know that I’m doing all right.

More than all right, actually. I feel better. Frighteningly, miraculously, tentatively better. It’s so new and so strange that I’m a bit hesitant to write about it yet or even say it out loud – like I could jinx it or something. But I also want you to not worry about me, so I thought I should tell you: I feel better.

I don’t know if I would say that I was happy exactly, but then I’m not sure that “happy” is the opposite of “suicidal”. I’m coming to distrust the idea of being happy anyway – I hear the word thrown around too much, hear too many people talking about how they deserve happiness. But I’m not sure that anyone deserves happiness, you know? There’s a quote from Zadie Smith’s White Teeth that the cynic in me has always loved, and I feel like it might apply here:

You hear girls in the toilets of clubs saying, ‘Yeah, he fucked off and left me. He just couldn’t deal with love. He was too fucked up to know how to love me.’ Now how did that happen? What was it about this unlovable century that convinced us we were, despite everything, eminently lovable as a people, as a species? What made us think that anyone who fails to love us is damaged, lacking, malfunctioning in some way? And particularly if they replace us with a god, or a weeping madonna, or the face of Christ in a ciabatta roll—then we call them crazy. Deluded. Regressive. We are so convinced of the goodness of ourselves, and the goodness of our love, we cannot bear to believe that there might be something more worthy of love than us, more worthy of worship. Greeting cards routinely tell us everybody deserves love. No. Everybody deserves clean water. Not everybody deserves love all the time.

I’m starting to think that maybe not everyone deserves happiness all the time. Actually, I think I’m just getting tired of hearing people talk about deserving anything – I’m tired of people’s sense of entitlement, their willingness to trample over others in order to acquire something they feel that they deserve.

But anyway, I digress.

I’ve been trying to follow the hospital psychiatrist’s orders and prioritize things that make me happy, and I think that by and large I’ve been succeeding. I’ve started keeping a proper, paper journal again, and it’s actually wonderful to be able to write without thinking about having an audience (except that I basically always think about having an audience, but I’m figuring that no one will read my journals until I’m dead and thus don’t care). I’ve been taking time out of my day to go to hip cafés where I sit and scribble happily in my notebook while sipping a latte, feeling like everyone looking on must know that I am a For Real Serious Writer Lady.

I’ve been doing other things too – things like spending an hour or two at the art gallery, or wandering around Roncesvalles and checking out the cute shops. Today I went to a friend’s place and lay on her couch for three hours, sipping gin and tonics, dissecting Salinger books and watching Star Trek. It was nice – more than nice, really. And I felt like myself, for the first time in a long time. But I also felt guilty.

Let me see if I can explain the guilt. It’s like this: I constantly feel like I’m running out of time. I don’t just mean that there aren’t enough hours in the day to get things done (although I do feel that way) – I also mean in general, in my life. I feel like I spent too much time fucking off (read: being depressed) in my early 20s and now I’m 30 and all of my peers are ahead of me and I’m struggling to catch up. And I know it’s not a race, but it still feels like one, and I feel like I now have to work extra super hard just to prove that I should even be allowed on the track.

Anyway, what all this amounts to is that I have a hard time doing anything that I don’t view as useful or productive. Even spending time with Theo fits into this category, as I see parenting as a way of creating and shaping an awesome future adult. And yeah, being Theo’s mom is pretty rad, but sometimes that seems more like a pleasant side effect of parenting rather than the main point.

I also feel guilty because it’s like, who am I to get to do all these nice fun things? Like, why do I get to go out and see my friends and hang out in coffee shops while Matt has to stay home and parent? How is that fair? What if he starts to resent me?

Do I actually believe that being depressed gives me special privileges or something?

And then I think, if I were sick with anything else and the doctor’s orders were to take it easy, would I feel guilty?

No, probably not. But if I were sick with anything else, there would be blood drawn, tests run, and hopefully some kind of irrefutable scientific proof that I was sick. But with depression there is no proof, not really. You all have to take me at my word that some days, I feel like dying.

And what happens if you ever stop taking me at my word?

After years and years of talking about suicide but not actually dying, won’t I start to seem like the boy who cried wolf?

I don’t want to lose you guys. Because I love you. Because I’d be lost without you. Because your support has mostly been what’s kept me going these past few weeks.

Anyway, all of this is to say that you don’t have to worry about me, because I’m feeling better.

And that means that, at least for now, I don’t have to worry about losing you.

xoxo

Annabelle

P.S. On a lighter note, just in case you were wondering what a Shrevolution looks like:

shrevolution!

Sylvia

11 Feb

Today marks the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death.

Is this something that people do? Celebrate the anniversary of someone’s death? Certainly celebrate is the wrong word – mark is probably better, or even observe.

Today I am observing the 50th anniversary of Sylvia Plath’s death.

It’s no secret that I love Sylvia. I mean, I named my blog after her only novel (actually, I named it after what I would have called my all-girl rock band if I’d had one, but the band was named after the novel, so really it all amounts to the same thing). I’ve read everything she’s ever written. I have a weird sort of embroidered picture of her hanging on my dining room wall.

I’ve even joked about being her reincarnation. I mean, there are a few similarities between us, right?

We’re both depressed, oversharing lady-writers, for one thing. We both come from families whose finances went into decline at some point during our childhoods. Her father died when she was eight; mine left when I was thirteen. Of course you can’t compare death to a divorce, but I think it would be fair to say that those events left us both dealing with what are colloquially referred to as “daddy issues.”

Oh, and my son shares a birthday with her son Nicholas. So there’s that, too.

Of course, this is basically where the similarities end. Sylvia worked hard throughout high school and ended up attending Smith College on a full scholarship. She then went on to receive a Fullbright Scholarship to Newnham College, Cambridge. Meanwhile, I burned out early in high school, too tired and sad and stupid to get my shit together, and went from being an honour roll student in grade nine to receiving mostly Cs and Ds in my final year. I did get into Dalhousie University (though just how I managed that, I’m still not sure), and while there had all As and Bs, but still, I was never the academic star that Sylvia was.

Sylvia published her first poem when she was eight, and went on to publish several poems and short stories before she finished university. One of her stories, Sunday At The Mintons, won her a coveted spot as a guest editor at Mademoiselle magazine in New York.

I published my first poems and short stories, well, never, and I can’t even properly edit my own stupid blog, let alone a whole magazine. I’ve also never been to New York, although I have watched a lot of Friends and Mad Men, which is basically the same thing, right?

I guess that, all in all, Sylvia and I aren’t much alike, at least not on the surface. But when I read her writing, I feel that, as The Bell Jar‘s Esther Greenwood says about her friend Doreen, everything she writes is like a secret voice speaking straight out of my own bones.

I get Sylvia Plath. I mean, I get her. I get her dark, sad, humour, and I get her anxieties, and I get her hopelessness. Up until now, I’ve used her as a sort of guide in the darkness, reading and re-reading my well-thumbed copies of her books, looking for passages that will get me through my fits of sadness. A paragraph here, a stanza there, a kind of spiritual sustenance to tide me over until things get better. For most of my adult life, I’ve looked up to her.

But then, for all of my life until now, she’s been older than me. Wiser, hopefully. Maybe even more mature.

What do I do now that I’m about to out-age her? She’ll be thirty years old forever, but I’ll only be thirty for a few more months.

How do I continue to look up to someone who will soon be younger than me? Will I still love her writing in 10 years’ time? In 20? Will I look back someday and, instead of finding inspiration in her words, discover that all along she’s been a boring, self-obsessed, talentless hack?

What happens when you outgrow the people you admire the most? Probably nothing. Probably it’s normal.

But in a strange way I feel that by letting go of Sylvia and moving on, I’ll be abandoning her. In a funny way, I feel that she needs me, as much as I need her.

I’ve been thinking a lot about her last few weeks alive. Not much is known about what was going through her mind, since Ted Hughes burned her last journal, but we do have a handful of poems dating from late January and early February and, of course, a few firsthand accounts.

We know that the quality of her poems changed in those last weeks, becoming less about the self, their mood more disembodied, alien. We know that her incandescent poetic rage, that rage that has made her so famous, had begun to fade in her works, replaced by a sort of resigned hopelessness. We know that she worked feverishly, producing poem after poem, trying to translate her tangled thoughts into perfectly-ordered words.

We know that Sylvia went to her doctor and told him that she felt as if she was heading for a breakdown. We know that she began taking antidepressants and sleeping pills. We know that she reached out to her friends, Jillian and Gerry Becker,  for help and a place to stay. We know that several days before she died, her doctor began trying (unsuccessfully) to find her a spot in the hospital.

Each night that she stayed with the Beckers, Sylvia would take her sleeping pills and recite a sort of monologue about all of the people who had wronged her, all the men, beginning with her father, who had deserted her, and how utterly miserable she was. She would go on and on, ignoring any questions that Jillian put to her, as if she was in a trance. Eventually she would pass out.

Having Sylvia stay with them began to be a strain on Jillian – she had to do everything for Sylvia and her children, cleaning, feeding and entertaining them. When Sylvia announced on Sunday, February 10th that she wanted to go home, Jillian didn’t press her to stay. There was supposed to be a nurse coming to help Sylvia the next morning, and besides, surely the doctor would find a hospital bed for her soon. And also, as Jillian said in the article I linked to above, pity tires the heart.

Gerry drove Sylvia home Sunday afternoon, and she wept the whole way there.

That night Sylvia left the window in her children’s room open, and shoved cloths and towels underneath their door. She also placed tape all around the door frame, to stop up the cracks. She then turned the gas taps in her oven on all the way and, placed a little folded cloth in the oven to act as a pillow, and laid down.

She was found the next morning by the nurse and a handyman working on the property who broke into her flat when no one answered the door.

By that point, she’d been dead for several hours.

Her children, though cold from having slept next to an open window in February, were fine.

And pity tires the heart.

I think that there’s a state that you sometimes get into when you’re deeply depressed. You feel as though you’re walking along a sort of knife’s edge between artistic inspiration and suicide. In an instant, all the dead, flat hopelessness you’ve been feeling gives way to an ecstatic misery. You suddenly feel as if you’ve been given a special insight into how the world really is, and you work like mad to get that insight down on paper or on canvas or whatever. And you know that you’re playing a dangerous game, but you also think that it’s worth it.

It’s worth it to go that close to the edge, if there are rare, exotic gifts to bring back.

It’s worth risking death, so that you can tell everyone else what it was like.

It’s worth almost everything, if it means that you’ll write something great.

It’s like circling round and round a black hole, getting a few inches closer each time. You’re discovering all kinds of amazing things that no one has ever known before, but you never imagining that you yourself might be drawn in.

It’s like standing at the edge of a lake of poison, and knowing that the poison, if taken in small enough quantities, will give you brilliance and genius that you’ve only ever dreamed of. The poison, if taken one spoonful at a time, will give you an enormous drive to create. And you want that. Oh, how badly you want that, want all of it.

But even though you know that the poison could kill you, you’re not overly wary of it. You’re that you’ll be able to set limits. You’re confident that you’ll be able to stop when you need to. But after taking one sip, you talk yourself into taking another, and then another. And you feel fine, not sick at all. You drink and drink and drink, and maybe even dive right in.

And it’s not until it’s too late that you realize what a mistake you’ve made.

And maybe there’s no one to save you. Because pity tires the heart.

I am trying so hard not to tire all of your hearts.

Sylvia, I am thinking of you today. I promise that you do not tire my heart.

sylvia_kids

Patti Smith – Camera Solo

6 Feb

When the Art Gallery of Ontario announced that they would be doing a major exhibition of Patti Smith’s photographs, I can’t say that I was overly excited. We’re members there, so I figured that I’d see it eventually, but I wasn’t going to make a special trip for it or anything.

I have to admit that before today, I didn’t know much of Smith beyond her status as the godmother of punk and her seminal 1975 album Horses. Part of my disinterest in her show probably stemmed from the fact that I often don’t trust artists who dabble in other forms of art – actors who put out an album, say, or musicians who try to be novelists. I guess that part of my curmudgeonry is because they don’t have any obligation to be talented in fields other than their own – some label will release David Hasselhoff’s album because he’s David Hasselhoff, not because he’s good. I figured that Patti Smith and her photography had a similar story.

Then today, I scheduled myself two hours of do-something-pleasant time (which is a thing I’m trying to do lately) between 11 and 1. I decided to go down to the AGO, wander through the galleries, and maybe park myself in the members’ lounge (actually several shabby-chic rooms in a Victorian mansion that’s attached to the gallery) and write in my journal. But when I got to the AGO and showed off me membership card and ID to the woman working at the desk, she asked if I’d come to see the members-only preview of Patti Smith’s show. I told her no. She asked me if I wanted to see it. I shrugged and said sure, because I’d already seen just about everything else in the gallery.

Smith’s show was a revelation. After making a tour of the main room, I sat down in one of the comfortable old wooden chairs provided (tastefully arranged on an oriental rug) and started scribbling in my notebook. The first words that I wrote were, “miniature & melancholy & perfect,” which seem like an accurate way of summing up how I felt.

The exhibition is made up of approximately 70 photographs taken with Smith’s vintage Polaroid camera, presented there as gelatin prints, as well as a handful of personal objects, and Equation Daumal, a film Smith directed which was shot on 16mm using Super 8 film.

The room is bare and white, with the rug and chairs occupying the floor space along with a large piece of artwork constructed by Smith. The photographs that line the walls are tiny (as you imagine vintage Polaroids would be) and are displayed in groups of four or five, sometimes with cases full of related objects underneath.

Some of the photographs are self-portraits. Some are of Smith’s children. Most of them, though, can be summed up by this quote by Smith, which is posted on one of the walls:

I have a strong relationship with the dead, even a happy one. I get pleasure out of having their things and sometimes photographing them.

Some of the dead are people she knew – Robert Mapplethorpe, for example, the well-known photographer and her one-time partner who died of AIDS in the late 1980s. Most of the photographs, however, are of people who inspired her and the various objects they owned.

There’s Herman Hesse’s typewriter. The river Ouse where Virginia Woolfe drowned herself, her pockets full of stones. A stuffed bear belonging to Tolstoy that served to hold calling cards in its outstretched hands. A funeral wreath. William Blake’s grave. Nureyev’s ballet slippers. Virginia Woolfe’s bed. Victor Hugo’s bed. Frida Kahlo’s bed. So many photographs of beds belonging to dead, famous people.

Why beds? I wondered, then realized all the various uses we put them to.

Beds are places where we sleep, yes, and also dream. We fuck in beds. We eat, read, maybe write in bed. Beds are places where we fight with the people we love the most; beds are places where we make up those fights, with whispered reconciliations, skin brushing against soft skin. Sick days are spent in bed, sleeping, Facebooking or watching old movies. Nearly all of us are born in a bed; many of us will die in one, too. Beds are equally places of pleasure and pain, but even more than that, they’re places of transition. Beds are where we make our way in and out of this world, making them a sort symbolic doorway or portal.

There are objects in Smith’s collection, too. Her father’s chipped white bone china mug, a cross that belonged to Mapplethorpe, and a sort of totem Smith made for Brian Jones. There’s a pair of slippers belonging to Pope Benedict XV, the man who canonized Joan of Arc. There’s a stone from the river Ouse.

There’s an entire section devoted to Arthur Rimbaud, photographs of his bed, the path near his house, his grave. There are drawings that Smith has done of Rimbaud, black lines with a few dabs of colour. The large object in the middle of the room is a reconstruction she’s done of the litter Rimbaud designed to carry him 100 miles across Ethiopia, to a place where he could seek medical treatment after falling ill in the jungle.

As I walked around the room, I thought, yes. Yes. I live here. Here, in this grainy black and white land between living and death. I know the holiness that surrounds the grave of a painter or poet that you love. I know the happiness of holding an object that someone I love once cupped in their hands. I know this place. I live here.

The whole exhibit was a sort of communion with the dead. It was about the ways we connect with those we’ve loved and lost, through sight, through touch. It was a reminder that love still exists, even after death. And what do you do with all that leftover love, the heart-searing shit that’s left behind when you lose someone you care about? What do you do with the love you have for a poet or painter or musician who has greatly inspired you but died long before you were born?

You channel it into something, even someone else, I suppose. You put it into your own art, or your work, whatever it is, or into your children or your lovers or your friends. Or else maybe you waste it, let it drain out of you, use it to feed your loneliness.

I’ve been thinking all afternoon of the things that I have that once belonged to people who are now dead. My names, for a start – Annie, after my great-grandfather’s sister who died of tuberculosis when she was 16, and Rebecca, from my mother’s beloved Nana Kelley. I have a scarf that belonged to my Grampy, an old wool plaid affair that’s looking rather moth-eaten these days. I have my grandmother’s father’s Latin grammar book. I have a photograph of my Poppa in his RCAF uniform from when he served in WWII. I have a letter that my father’s grandmother sent to my mother when she was pregnant with me, a note that has my great-grandmother’s name, the date and “Halifax City” written neatly in the upper right-hand corner.

I have things that belonged to people I’ve never known, too . A blue vintage dress printed with purple and orange flowers. An American 1st edition of Camus’ The Outsider. My antique engagement ring. I have all the words of the dead that line the walls of my living room, shelf upon shelf of well-loved books. I am surrounded by the dead.

I still feel breathless, almost light-headed, even several hours after seeing the exhibit. I wish that I had sufficient words to explain how it affected me, but every sentence in this post, though carefully and meticulously constructed, somehow seems flat and emotionless.

I can tell you this: it was lovely. You should see it. And then you should sit down, and think of your beloved dead.

Patti+Smith+beautiful+with+camera

Dispatches From The Dark Side

1 Feb

Trigger warning for talk of suicide

If I was writing about almost any other health issue, I wouldn’t hesitate to post this.

If I had diabetes, or cancer, or liver failure, you wouldn’t feel strange reading this.

If I started out by saying, “I went to the hospital last night because I had the flu,” no one would think twice about this. No one would call it oversharing. I wouldn’t feel ashamed or embarrassed.

But I didn’t go to the hospital because I had the flu.

I went to the hospital last night because I wanted to die.

I mean, I say that, and that’s how I felt, but the truth is that I didn’t really want to die, did I? If that had really been my intention, I would have just done it. I wouldn’t have talked about it, wouldn’t have told anyone, and certainly wouldn’t agreed to go to the hospital.

Intention is tricky, though, slippery, even, all tangled up with impulse, drive and desire; I don’t think I’ll ever understand what it is that I actually want. It’s like peeling an onion, folding back layers and layers of truths and semi truths, never able to really get to the core of how or why I feel these things.

I’m not writing this because I want your pity, or comfort, or advice (although you can offer them if you want to).

I’m writing this because I want to be honest. I want to be like someone who paints their self-portrait and doesn’t spare any details; I want to show you my pimples, the dark smudges under my eyes, the crease that bisects my forehead, evidence of a lifetime of squinting because I didn’t want to wear my glasses.

I’m writing this because I don’t want to be embarrassed or ashamed anymore, and for some reason saying these things publicly makes them easier to bear. It’s like racing to tell all of your darkest secrets before your ex-best friend can betray your trust; you get to keep some kind of control over the situation. Sort of.

I’m writing this because I want to talk about it, and this is the only way that I know how. I’ve developed this online voice, this sort of character that’s both me and at the same time an amplification of me, a louder, brasher, more combative version of myself. It’s easier for me to write about this in this character; I would never be able to look you in the eyes and say these things.

I promise that we don’t have talk about this in person. The next time we meet, we don’t have to refer to what’s written here.

But right now I do want to talk about wanting to die. If you’re not up for that, I totally give you permission to stop reading right now.

I wish I could tell you why I want to die, but I can’t. The truth is that I have a good life, maybe even the best. I’m married to someone that I love a whole lot, someone who loves me in return. My son is amazing; I’m not even sure that there are words to describe how great he is. I enjoy my work. I like where I live.

On paper, I should be very happy.

But still, I want to die.

I can’t tell you why, but I can tell you what it feels like.

It feels like all of the days ahead of me are grey and blank and empty. Not empty in the sense of possibility, but empty in the sense of being hopeless.

It feels like wearing a shirt that’s rough, scratchy, uncomfortable, and that shirt is my skin and I can’t take it off.

It feels like discovering that all of my favourite foods suddenly taste like cardboard, but I eat and eat and eat anyway because I need something to fill all that empty space.

It feels like standing in direct sunlight, feeling in on my back, my shoulders, my head, but never having my brain think sun. All it can think is heat. Like there’s this distinction, this appreciation that I can’t make anymore; everything is broken down to its most basic elements. Nothing is good or beautiful – everything is awful and dull in its own way.

It feels like the life-support system in my brain failed, and no one bothered to install a back-up. So now the ship is going down and the lights are flickering and we’re running out of oxygen and everyone is panicking.

It feels like being tired all of the time, like never being able to get enough sleep. I just want to sleep.

I do things. I go out, and I spend money on things that I used to enjoy, in my former life, the life that, on the surface at least, is nearly indistinguishable from the one I live now. I don’t enjoy anything anymore, though, and spending money that on things that don’t make me feel better only adds another layer of shame and guilt onto what I’m already feeling.

At home, at night, I feel trapped. The lights are too bright, the air too dry. I can’t sleep. I can’t read. I can’t watch TV. I can’t write. I can’t talk. I pace and pace and pace, trying to get rid of the prickly, irritable energy that’s building up in my veins, in my bones. I think that I could feel better if the apartment was clean, if the dishes were done and the bathroom sink scrubbed, but I don’t know where to begin, so I pace some more.

I just don’t want to feel anything anymore. I don’t even want to feel the good things. I just want to go to a place that’s beyond feeling.

And I know that suicide is selfish. But I also know that if I was dead, I wouldn’t care about anything anymore. I wouldn’t have to feel guilty about the people that I’ve left behind.

But I can’t help imagining Theo, what it would be like for him if I were to die. How he would cry and cry for me. How he would never be able to understand that I wasn’t coming, not ever. I think about how I would break his heart, think about the fault lines that I would trace along that tiny, powerful muscle, cracks that would break over and over for the rest of his life and never, ever heal.

I don’t really want to die.

I just want to sleep and sleep and sleep forever.

But it sort of amounts to the same thing, really, which is why I went to the hospital last night. Because I love Theo and don’t want to leave him. Because even if I couldn’t feel anything anymore, I would still find some way to miss him.

I live in a big city, so there’s a special hospital just for head cases like me. It even has two sites, one downtown and one in the west end. I went to the one downtown.

They lock you into the ER waiting room. There is a sign on the door that says AWOL Flight Risk. I wanted to take a picture, but I didn’t think they would like that.

There was a woman screaming in a room at the end of the hall.

There was a young man in a suit brought in by two police officers.

There was an unconscious woman brought in on a gurney. Her feet were bare.

There was a girl on the bench next to me, lying with her head on her mother’s lap. Her father was there, too. He said,

“You said that at the last minute something told you not to jump. What was it?”

But she didn’t answer.

While I was there, two code whites were called, which means that there’s a violent patient somewhere in the hospital. One of them, according to the man on the intercom, had a weapon. Both calls sent the ER staff into a flurry, running for doors and phones and elevators.

And I thought, I don’t belong here. I am not having an emergency. These people are having emergencies. I am someone who is fine, only a little sad sometimes. I am coping. I get up every day, go to work, take care of Theo. I am fine. I just have to be stronger, better, less self-indulgent.

And I wanted to leave, but I didn’t.

Finally it was my turn to see the doctor. She was young, kind. Her outfit wouldn’t have looked out of place in my closet, and I coveted her glasses.

She listened to me, took a few notes. Recommended a few things. She said that her main prescription was to try to prioritize things that make me happy.

I’m not sure how easy that will be to execute, but I like it anyway. I’m strangely pleased that instead of having me try another pill, a different pill, she handed me a piece of paper telling me to prioritize my own happiness. It seems like something that would happen in a book, or a movie, and I’ve always wanted to live in a book or a movie.

So how do I feel now?

Raw, I guess.

The same, I guess.

Maybe a little more hopeful, so that’s a start.

I still can’t stop reading Anne Sexton’s Wanting To Die.

I still can’t stop reading Ted Hughes’ book Birthday Letters, or poem his Last Letter.

But maybe I’ve read them a few times less today than I did yesterday.

I am trying to find some happy way to end this post, but I can’t think of any. I want to offer you some kind of hope. Then again, if I had cancer, or diabetes, would I feel that same urge to comfort you, to take care of you? Maybe. I don’t know.

I will leave you with this, one of my favourite quotes from the Bell Jar. It’s as true for me now as it was for Sylvia Plath when she wrote it more than 50 years ago.

“Don’t you want to get up today?”

“No.” I huddled down more deeply in the bed and pulled the sheet up over my head. Then I lifted a corner of the sheet and peered out. The nurse was shaking down the thermometer she had just removed from my mouth.

“You see, it’s normal.” I had looked at the thermometer before she came to collect it, the way I always did. “You see, it’s normal, what do you keep taking it for?”

I wanted to tell her that if only something were wrong with my body it would be fine, I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my head, but the idea seemed so involved and wearisome that I didn’t say anything. I only burrowed down further in the bed.

I would rather have anything wrong with my body than something wrong with my head.

But since I do have something wrong with my head, I’m glad I’ve got all of you to listen.

For anyone who is in a state of mental health crisis, here is a link to the Mental Health Crisis line. You can also call Telehealth, if you’re in Ontario. If you are experiencing any kind of depression or are having suicidal thoughts, please, please call one of the numbers above, or else contact your doctor or local mental health crisis line.

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What It’s Like To Live Here, Part II

25 Jan

You start to think about hitting rock bottom, what that means, what it would feel like.

You picture it like this:

You’re walking through the woods, along the same path you’ve taken a thousand times before, and suddenly the forest floor gives way beneath you. You fall, for what seems like ages, until you hit the ground. You look around and discover that you’re in some kind of underground cavern. The walls are smooth, the hole you fell through far out of reach. There’s no way you could ever get out on your own.

It’s awful at first, but soon, surprisingly soon, you get used to it. You sleep a lot. You tell yourself stories. You sing, or talk, or shout, just to hear the sound of your own voice. For a few hours each day the sun climbs high enough for you to see it, its rays filtering through the grasses and leafy undergrowth on the surface, throwing strange patterns on the floor.

Sometimes your friends come by. They call to you, but you can’t make out what they’re saying, because they’re too far away. They bring you things: food, books, a blanket. Useful things. Things that would have mattered to you in your old life, in the world above. They don’t seem so necessary anymore, though. You’re not cold anymore. You’re not hungry. You don’t read. That’s not your life anymore, you’re beyond wants, beyond needs. You just lie there, sleeping and singing.

Depression is easy in many ways, often easier than happiness. It doesn’t require much of you, doesn’t ask much of you. All that it wants is for you to suffer, but after a while that suffering feels familiar, comforting almost. Depression is the place you come always back to, and though its landscape is ugly, the colours muddied and muted, it feels strangely like home. Though its’ terrain is bare and uninviting, you know every inch of it, and you derive a sort of satisfaction from that fact. After a while, depression starts to feel normal.

Happiness, by contrast, begins to seem garish, the colours offensively bright, the people too loud, too smiling. While depression saps your energy gently, quietly, happiness is exhausting in a different way.

The other problem with happiness is that it never seems like a real place. You know from experience how quickly the landscape can change around you, melting and shifting like objects in a Dali painting, slowly but surely transforming itself back into that place you know best.

Happiness can’t be trusted; it’s tricky, elusive, and undependable. Depression, whatever else you might say about it, is as regular and predictable as a Swiss clock. Depression, whatever else you might say about it, is honest. It tells you how awful the world is; it doesn’t spare you any gory details.

People tell you not to listen to depression. People want you to think that depression lies.

“Who are you going to trust?” asks your depression, “Some stranger on the internet, or me, the thing you’ve known for almost your entire life? Come on now, be reasonable.”

You want so desperately to be reasonable.

You tell your therapist that you think you need to develop some coping skills. This is the kind of terminology they use, right? Coping skills? You hope that by saying this, you sound like someone who actively wants to get better, someone who’s trying her hardest.

Your therapist tells you that she thinks you already have them, those magical coping skills. You leave her office thinking, what the fuck does she know?

Then you remember what life was like before you felt any kind of ability to cope. You remember crying, publicly, humiliatingly, your sobs coming in huge, heaving gasps that left you unable to breathe. You remember being unable to get out of bed. You remember the world ending, over and over again, all day, every day.

You thank whatever god is out there that you’ve developed coping skills.

Then you get angry, because even though you’re coping, everything still really fucking sucks.

You call your mother and tell her that you’re having a tough time.

“Think of one thing that you’re grateful for everyday,” she tells you. “Write it down.”

After you thank her, politely, and say goodbye, and tell her that you love her, after you’ve hung up the phone, you think, fuck gratitude.

What has gratitude ever gotten you?

Probably lots of things, maybe everything, but you don’t care. You don’t feel like considering that right now.

You don’t feel like considering anything, or anyone. You just want to be left alone, forever. Seeing people makes you feel as if you have some kind of obligation to get well, but you don’t want to have any obligations anymore.

You imagine that at rock bottom there are no obligations.

You start to avoid people, your friends, your family, the strangers who smile at you on the street. You tell yourself that you don’t need human interaction. You tell yourself that you don’t want it.

Then one day you’re crossing the road, and there’s a policeman directing traffic. He motions to you to wait halfway while he lets a car go by, then puts his mittened hand on your back, in the space between your shoulder blades, and says kindly, “Go ahead now, honey, it’s your turn.”

For some reason that one small act is so nice that you think you might cry.

It’s winter, always winter, and you know that this year, spring is never going to come. Fuck logic. Fuck science. Where you live, those things don’t apply. You know that there won’t be a spring in the same way that birds know to fly south in the fall, the same way that spiders know how to build a web. You know it more surely than anything you’ve ever known. You know it in your very bones.

You haven’t hit rock bottom. Not yet. If you did, that would be the real emergency. People would be called. Help would come. You feel guilty about how badly you want help to come. You feel guilty about how appealing rock bottom seems, sometimes. You feel guilty about just about everything.

You fall. And you fall. And you fall. And sometimes you snag a passing tree branch or a rock jutting out into space, and sometimes you even start to pull yourself back up, just a little. But the branch always breaks, and the rock always crumbles. And then you go back to falling.

You wonder how long and far a person can fall.

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