The Sadness And The Nerves

Blogger’s Note: This is a chapter from my story The Education of Chris Truman, which I’ve only just begun and may never finish.

In September 2019, after four months away from treatment, Chris Truman was glad to be back in therapy. He couldn’t manage his daily struggles with the Sadness and the Nerves on his own. Out of ideas, he hadn’t updated his blog, Creative Type, in a while. He feared the stories he told himself about himself belonged to someone else. He saw his face for what it was: a mask he couldn’t remove. As Jean-Paul Sartre might have said, Truman was what he wasn’t and wasn’t what he was.

A blog, like a psychological history, sees many revisions. Inspiration takes time. Truman sometimes went weeks without writing anything, but then, out of the blue, he wanted to share his entire life story with the world. His output depended on his moods, and his moods changed rapidly. A single thought could lift or crush his spirits. The ups and downs were exhausting. How would he ever make a living as a writer if he couldn’t write every day? Revising is important, but eventually a writer needs new material to revise.

Returning to therapy reminded Truman of his first hospitalization for mental illness, on February 21, 2003. After suffering a breakdown at work, overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of his position as a receiving clerk at a grocery store, Truman felt like his brain was on fire. His body, too weak to carry his soul, fell to pieces. Barely a year out of college, he couldn’t cope with the real world, which didn’t give a shit about how well he did in school.

After spending three hours in the emergency room, Truman found himself on Five Center, the psych ward at Woodview Hospital. Robert, a disheveled young man dressed in a pink robe, greeted him in the hallway.

“My moods have a mind of their own,” Robert said. “If I lived in a zoo, I’d be a bipolar bear.”

Truman didn’t care much for puns in his condition. He was too busy obsessing about his failures. He wasn’t a high school English teacher, his plan before college. He wasn’t a graduate student training to become an English professor, his plan after college. He was a writer, but his poems and stories were too self-conscious, too cerebral. Rather than expressing himself naturally, he tried too hard to sound profound.

After examining his thoughts and judging his choices, doctors determined Truman was an Existentialist with a serious case of the Sadness and the Nerves. They gave him medications that stifled his creativity. He was expected to return to society, which eventually he did, but not without questioning the merits of his discharge instructions. He was told to be a man, to work hard, perhaps in an office, and, above all, to be happy. Truman knew he couldn’t meet society’s demands to take charge of his destiny and reach his full potential. He knew that, in an act of defiance, he was going to write a book about his inability to lead a normal life—a book in which he’d try too hard to sound profound.

Recalling his experiences at Woodview Hospital got Truman thinking about Chuck Snoad, a fictional character who was really Chris Truman in disguise. Inspired in college by Henry Adams’s autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams, in which Adams refers to himself in the third person, Truman created Snoad in 2001 as his literary double.

Whereas Truman graduated from Pinehurst College in 2002, worked at Gem Foods, and loved a woman named Penny, Snoad graduated from Elmhurst College in 2002, worked at Jewel Foods, and loved a woman named Jenny. Told from a third person limited point of view, Truman’s self-conscious (auto)biography, The Education of Chuck Snoad, gave him countless opportunities to mock himself for knowing so little about the real world.

Snoad was also a writer. His struggles were Truman’s struggles, and vice versa. They were the same person(a). Both tried to describe, in their own words, the ups and (mostly) downs of living with the Sadness and the Nerves—knowing full well that it’s impossible to speak of madness without going mad.

Either I

Stuck in the past, I go from happy to sad and back again in a flash. I feel too much, much too fast. I have poems to write but not enough rhyme.

Robert Frost is on my mind. There are two trains at my station but only one for me to ride. I can’t for the life of me decide between them side by side.

Beyond the blue horizon lies a sky within a sky. I can’t see myself on either train with either I.

Language Artist

When I was teaching, I tried to induce among my students a functional understanding of the distinction between “lay” and “lie,” or between “who” and “whom.” I tried to show them the advantage of learning grammar and using a dictionary. But many of even the most intelligent writers in my graduate workshops, and for that matter many of my colleagues on the teaching staff, could not take it in. Why? they would say. What’s the difference?

When I told them that love and devotion are the root of it, they merely looked askance.

You choose correctly between “street car,” “street-car,” and “streetcar” not because the choice makes a substantive difference—it doesn’t—but because you care for language, you are in love with it. A good carpenter cleans and puts away his tools properly, so does a good gardener or a good cook, and no one will ever convince me that a worker who ignores his tools will do satisfactory work.

–Hayden Carruth, Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays

Like Carruth, I choose my words carefully. As a writer, I’m imperfect but never sloppy. Every human(e) word I use, in the end, is the Word of God. In my writing, however, I’m not seeking the Truth but speaking my truths.

I’m Not A Robot

The cable company
faxed me a chain letter
about smooth operators
spoofing my home
phone number.

They fear my laptop
suffered a silent
keystroke in the middle
of a critical update.

Have I tried turning
the TV on with my pinky
toe then shouting
the Lord’s Prayer into
my voice remote?

Have I waited
ten seconds before
dropping my drawers
and shaking
my fist at the Wi-Fi?

Have I stopped
sucking my thumb
drive or piercing
my rabbit ears?

As a full-time
confessional poet
I know nothing
about password
protection or open-ended
secret questions.

I can’t prove
I’m not
a robot.

The Milk Of Human Kindness

When I say I’m allergic to milk, people ask if I’m lactose intolerant. It’s much worse. If I eat anything with milk in it, I can go into anaphylactic shock. You know how bee stings kill innocent children at amusement parks or Fourth of July barbeques? That could be me but with pizza, frozen yogurt, French silk pie, or bite size Milky Ways.

I can’t eat cake and ice cream at birthday parties unless my mom made the cake from a dairy-free mix and topped it with soy ice cream. Cross-contamination is my kryptonite. Every time I go out to eat, even at my favorite restaurant, where I always order a chopped steak and plain baked potato, I’m tempting fate.

In fifth grade, I almost died while working on a science project at my friend Paul’s house. We were building a Styrofoam model of the solar system in his basement. Back then, Pluto was still a planet.

I rarely ate at friends’ houses, but Paul’s mom made tomato soup for lunch and insisted I try some. My mom had made me tomato soup before, so this seemed like a safe bet.

After my first spoonful, I felt a slight tingle in the back of my throat. This happens when I start to eat sometimes, but then I’m fine, I thought. I wanted to be a good guest, so I took another spoonful. Then another. More tingling. I told Paul’s mom the soup was great, but I had a big breakfast and wasn’t that hungry. When I took my bowl to the sink, she asked why I hadn’t touched my glass of milk.

“Oh, I’m allergic to milk,” I said.

“But I put milk in the soup,” she said.

Apparently, cream of tomato soup is not the same as plain old tomato soup.

Stunned, I reached for my backpack, where I kept tissues, my inhaler, and a small bottle of Benadryl. For some reason, I thought two teaspoons of Benadryl would counteract the cup of poison Paul’s mom had unwittingly given me. Denying the gravity of the situation, I told Paul the medicine would kick in and I’d be fine. I didn’t want to alarm anyone, even though my body had already gone into attack mode.

First, there was the uncontrollable sneezing. Then, as if stuck in a vice, my chest began to tighten. My lips swelled. Hives formed around every part of my body that bends—under my arms, between my fingers, behind my knees.

Rather than calling my parents or asking Paul’s mom to drive me home, I decided to walk the two blocks from Paul’s house to mine. This decision wasn’t out of character for me. I didn’t want to bother people or feel like a burden. That day, not asking for help almost killed me.

Out the door I went. It was January and the sidewalks were covered in snow, so I stayed in the street, sneezing my head off. Half a block from home, I started running and almost collapsed. Somehow I made it to my front door, barely able to speak. My mom called 9-1-1. The paramedics brought me to the emergency room where a dedicated team of doctors and nurses saved my life.

Thirteen years after the tomato soup incident, I almost died again. Struggling to find a path in life after college, I fell into a deep depression. After months of feeling sad, anxious, and hopeless, I swallowed a bunch of pills and called my mom at work to tell her I was in trouble. She rushed home, as did my father, who drove us to the emergency room where another dedicated team of doctors and nurses saved my life.

In the psych ward the next morning, I was surprised to find a carton of milk on my breakfast tray. Convinced the universe was playing a cruel joke on me, I gave it to a nurse.

“This could kill me,” I said.

The staff probably thought I was paranoid, but I was thinking clearly. Kind words from an ER nurse who cared for me the day before had struck a chord.

“You’re so young,” she said. “You have so much to look forward to.”

I did have a lot to look forward to, and thanks to her, I still do.

I know I’m a sensitive person. I haven’t outgrown my milk allergy and I’m still in treatment for depression. Sometimes I think I’m weak or damaged. In truth, I’m a survivor of two potentially life-threatening medical conditions.

My mom taught me to be kind towards others. With the love and support of family, friends, doctors, nurses, and therapists, I’m learning how to show myself kindness. Dare I say, the milk of human kindness.

Women’s Liberation

I’ve met a number of smart, talented, successful women who, despite all they’ve done in life and all the obstacles they’ve overcome, nevertheless doubt themselves or, worse, dislike themselves. It breaks my heart to see these women discounting their accomplishments, denying their own power, or worrying they aren’t pretty or thin enough.

I don’t have a solution to this problem. I don’t pretend to know how it feels to be a woman living in a patriarchal society like mine. I’m not implying that women need my validation. And, to put it crudely, I’m not looking to score points with women in the hopes of “getting laid.”

I simply want to tell these women that I see you, I respect you, and I’m rooting for you.