I’ve handed in the following paper for my creative writing course. For once, I am happy with my writing (but you can still leave comments about how awesome I am). I realize that I need to do a lot more research on PTSD, BPD and MDD. The section in which I talk about the psychobiology of PTSD came out chatty and I didn’t cross-check. But it’s really nice to have made a start on one of the chapters for the book about my life with mental illness that I’ve been talking about (rather than working on) in the last year. I feel like this chapter can really evolve now and I hope to expand the part on mental illness. Perhaps 50/50, half autobiography and half science would make a nice balance. In a 1,500 word assignment there are obvious limitations. But this is really exciting!
You will be reading ca. 1,500 words of autobiographical prose in part 1 and ca. 500 words of commentary on the writing and creative process in part 2. I am also including the references some of which are wonderful (I have added the books by Marsha Linehan and Rachel Yehuda to my resources page).
Warning: violence and explicit content in this blog.
Part 1 – a passage of prose life writing: A Million and Five Mirrors, extract from “My Life with Mental Illness”
( W a r n i n g : e x p l i c i t c o n t e n t )
“Tonight I’ll shave the mountain
I’ll cut the hearts from pharaohs
I’ll pull the road off of the rise
tear the memories from my eyes
and in the morning I’ll be gone.”
Tom Waits/Kathleen Brennan, I’ll Be Gone
I looked down at the cream-colored table cloth next to my soup bowl. There was an awkward silence. I had just told my mother, my father and my brother that I thought I might have found the one; that, in fact, I was sure I had found the one. The following day I was going to make the long trip to Berlin to see the man of my dreams. We were going to spend our second weekend together – he had flown me in just a week before this one. He was going to put me up in a four star hotel and wine and dine me in a showcase of flawless courtship. It was the beginning of a perfect romance.
My father broke the silence with a remark about the fact that someone actually wanted me, who would have thought.
My brother laughed through a mouthful of food: “I give you three months,” he said, still chewing, “max!”
My mother just looked at me as she considered the news. I had given her reasons to worry in the past. But this time it was serious.
I swallowed and quietly said “you don’t even know the guy.”
“Neither do you!” My brother laughed.
I couldn’t entirely dismiss it: a mutual acquaintance had given my phone number to a stranger after he had laid eyes on me in a restaurant. All I had were hours on the phone with him. But magical they were. I loved his deep, raspy voice, his accent, his laugh. It was like we’d known each other from another life: instant recognition. He was the other half that they say we spend lifetimes lost and looking for. Nudged on by said acquaintance, I had agreed to a blind date.
On my first visit we had taken a long walk with our arms linked and I had slowly started leaning into him, enjoying the warmth that was radiating from his body. He took me out to a romantic restaurant. By the time he checked me into the hotel I was lightheaded with admiration. I kissed him on the cheek, thanked him for the wonderful time and said farewell in the lobby of the hotel. My heart raced as I walked away. The next morning I flew back home.
I shrugged, “I just know.” I was going on this second journey with ebullient confidence.
When I arrived in Berlin the next day, I drove through the streets with a smile, loving the buildings, the golden afternoon sun glistening on my skin. Soon I was in my hotel room, humming and getting dressed for dinner. I had an hour before going downstairs to the hotel bar. I was leaning into a multitude of bathroom mirrors while I was putting my makeup on when there was a knock on the door.
“Who is it?” I asked.
“It’s me,” I heard the voice of my aficionado. A bit early; and why here, I thought. But I smiled and rushed to open.
There my diary entries end. The door slammed shut in a distance.
What follows are blank pages. What happened in the blank pages went lost, lay dormant and deeply buried under layers of neurons whose only purpose was to seal the chapter shut.
Three years later
I am sitting under a table in the psychosomatic ward of a major hospital and am crying incessantly. No one must touch me lest I kick and scream. Earlier, I had jumped off the bench during a massage and ran to hide under the table in panic. Everyone has left the room except for a young female psychiatrist who sits down on the floor and talks to me in a calm voice. She is inching closer and I let her. I agree to give her my arm for an injection that lets my irises melt into the back of my pupils and that sends me to an open-mouthed, dreamless sleep for several days.
Memories hit me like an avalanche.
I had presented at the hospital with debilitating PTSD stemming from witnessing a fellow student’s violent, bloody suicide attempt and had been admitted for a stay of three months. But suddenly it was also the Berlin weekend that featured in my emotional outburst. My brain had truncated the string of neurons associated with the memories of it and buried them somewhere deep within for several years. Neuroscientists know that this type of dissociation and avoidance is typical of patients who suffer from PTSD: the suppression of the trauma to the degree of emotional numbness is an effective strategy of survival. Memories of trauma can be incapacitating, somersaulting in the brain of the PTSD patient like a record on repeat mode. They instill the person with fear edging on constant, incessant panic in a disorder that often cascades into a disabling psychiatric condition. Various neurotransmitters and hormones associated with fear and anxiety such as adrenaline send endless hormonal “run-away-NOW”-messages through the body and the brain.
A rush of fear, for example when you notice a car coming towards you at great speed, will make your hormones jump to red alert. And you do just that: you jump for your life. You’ll agree with me that in this situation the sudden impetus of fear is tremendously useful. It’s one of our primal instincts. Physically, red alert might leave you feeling so queasy that you’ll need to sit down until your heart rate has gone back to normal. You’ll shake your head and say “phew!” before you move on. The process of winding back down might take anywhere between ten minutes or two hours, depending on how strong the hormonal response was. PTSD patients cannot do that, wind down. The intrusive memories of the trauma repeat themselves over and over, along with the “primal fear” hormonal responses.
Dissociation from the traumatic event is a lifeline. But that day my memory came back. It flushed over my body like a heavy, burning blanket as I lay under the hands of a masseur.
“It’s me” I heard the voice of my aficionado. A bit early; and why here, I thought. But I smiled and rushed to open.
There he was, swinging into the room with the door and kicking it shut behind him. There was no hello, there were no words spoken before or after I found myself being pushed against the wall. I resisted. I struggled from the instant I felt his breath on my face and was groaning with protest against the lips that were sealing my mouth. His hands were everywhere. I tried to push him off me but he was strong. He flung me onto the bed. Tights ripped. I fought like a wild young deer, for my life. At one point I actually struggled free and leapt off the bed, head first. But I was on the far side of the room and was pulled back onto the mattress by my leg. When I surrendered, I was being pushed down with my head in an angle against the headboard of the bed. I remember seeing the ceiling in a corner of the room above me.
But what I will remember most is the sound, like that of synchronized clapping hands for an encore, or like that of a wet towel that a kid throws at another kid in the outdoor swimming-pool in summer—but on replay: again and again, in quick succession.
Then he got up, zipped up his jeans, and left without a word.
I lay still for a while with my legs open. Down below was the mouth of a marinated fish. The lips of fatty tuna, squelching and squishier than you’d normally have your sushi. I slowly rose and walked to the bathroom. There were numerous mirrors in the bathroom, three of them above the sink and across from each other in a way that I could see my own reflection repeated in the other mirrors’ reflection a million and five times. I stood with the black tears of smudged mascara and muddied makeup running down my face, a million and five tears. My face was hard and cold beneath them; like a rock that lies unmoved, looking up from the bottom of the river.
I called my accountant and told him to come right away and get me. When he arrived I needed him to settle my hotel bill, and he did without asking questions. I asked him to take me to another hotel for the night. And he did. I requested that he stay with me. And he did. I spread a sheet to make a bed on the floor because the mattress was so awfully soft. He grabbed a pillow and lay on the floor next to me, holding me in his arms all night. He just held me, doing the right thing purely on instinct because I don’t think I spoke a single word until I left Berlin the next morning.
Part 2 – Commentary on creative process
You have read an extract from an autobiography I might write about my life with mental illness. My objective is to combine experiences that have been relevant to my mental health with the science on mental health. My aim is to illustrate in all the necessary detail what has led to my severe depressive illness as well as borderline and posttraumatic stress disorders, to explain the science of these illnesses to the layman, what effect they can have on a person’s life and what coping strategies might be available.
I first went public with this particular story on my blog heikewrites.com in 2011 in a different context and I feel that this assignment shows how my writing on the topic has evolved throughout our course.
One description in our readings jumped out at me: In her travel diary In Ethiopia with a Mule, Dervla Murphy describes the soles of her feet as so sore that they looked like “two pounds of raw steak” (Murphy 1968). I was impressed with the effect this had on me so much that it prompted me to include a description of my abused vagina as a marinated fish, a metaphor I had originally edited out of my piece because I thought it too graphic. But I was glad, empowered somehow, to find that it belongs in my text.
Our course material also inspired me to think more about through lines rather than to focus on what’s news. I always have the headline in the back of my head. Thinking about through-lines helped me focus on my very personal angle of what it is like to live with mental illness.
With regard to other workbook texts, I was taken aback by the light approach to research. Devoting one page to research in a section of many chapters deserves reconsideration by the editors. The suggestion to ‘maybe check a date’ made me bulk (Anderson 2006, p.326). “When writing the previous exercise you might even have found it necessary to do some research” and “It might be necessary to locate precise details about an episode” (Anderson 2006, p.326) – these are awesome opportunities for putting the rules down, missed. Research is the most important part of the work on a biography or autobiography. The blending of fiction and reality is out of place in this section of our book. If you can’t remember it and can’t prove it, then say so or drop it. Otherwise that’s fiction and should be labeled as such. Jodi Kantor, author of The Obamas says in her chapter “Notes on Reporting”: “To counter the dangers of anonymous reporting, I checked my material and then cross-checked it, taking a story I heard from adviser A and asking advisers B and C and friend D: is this a fair way of describing it? How do you remember this? […]. I used quotation marks only when sources recalled statements clearly; otherwise, I used the source’s closest approximation without quotation marks.” (Kantor 2012, p.335ff). So simply put, but that is the procedure and that’s what I expect a university course to lay down for me as the basics of research.
Anderson, Linda (ed.) (2006) Creative Writing: A workbook with readings, Milton Keynes/Abingdon: The Open University in association with Routledge.
Heike. (2011). good music, pulling weeds, the stuff i like [online]. Available from: http://heikewrites.com/2011/05/17/322/ [blog posted 17 May 2011: Accessed 11 April 2012].
Kantor, Jodi (2012). The Obamas, New York: Little, Brown and Company.
Linehan, Marsha (1993). Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder, New York: The Guilford Press.
Murphy, Dervla (2006) in Linda Anderson (ed.) Creative Writing: A workbook with readings, Milton Keynes/Abingdon: The Open University in association with Routledge.
Waits, Tom and Brennan, Kathleen (1987). ‘I’ll Be Gone’, in Frank’s Wild Years, audio recording on CD, USA: Island Records. Available from: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z9mTewstGlU [Accessed 11 April 2012].
Yehuda, Rachel (2002). Treating Trauma Survivors with PTSD, Arlington: American Psychiatric Publishing.
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