Above A Whisper

I walk on blades of grass
around my father’s grave,
avoiding sunken markers,
careful not to wake
the dead.

I want to say
I found a teaching job,
my own apartment,
a patient woman
who loves me
as I am.

But if such things
still happen,
they haven’t happened
to me.

When I tell him it’s spring
and Vegas likes our Cubs
to win the World Series,
my voice breaks like mist
above a whisper too soft
for sparrows perched
on marble headstones
to hear.

Too Much Information

I sleep too often
alone. I slip
into my sheets
like a knife inside
a sheath. I skin
my knees in falling
dreams.

I’m a freelance
night priest. I write nun
fiction books to fall
asleep. I trace
strongly worded
letters. I mark
typos on my toes
with red felt pens.

I fix comma
splices, I hate
comma splices more
than gondola rides
and square root
canals.

I sleep too often
alone with my phone
on gyrate slipping into
dreams like a knife
inside a sheath.

I wasted four years
in military art school
drawing blood baths
then reversed course
on my high horse mid-
stream of consciousness.

I’m so fucking
alone. I told a priest
my tongue is sharper
than a knife
between my teeth.

Embracing Resistance

In Reluctantly: Autobiographical Essays, Hayden Carruth states, “Everything I know as a writer and critic, everything I know about poetry and life, tells me that the effort to analyze a feeling makes that feeling stronger, not weaker” (60).

As a confessional writer, I analyze my feelings often, but compulsive self-analysis can turn into self-judgement when I label certain feelings “unacceptable.” Debilitating sadness is unacceptable. I need to toughen up and become a productive member of society. Chronic anxiety is unacceptable. I need to loosen up and take charge of my life.

I assume that Carruth, who battled depression and anxiety for decades, understood the power of shame to compound suffering. Living with mental illness is hard enough. Fighting the stigma of mental illness, the shame I’ve internalized, is equally daunting.

Shame stifles my creativity and restricts my being. I write best when I acknowledge, without judgment, how I really feel. When I’m depressed, my body feels heavier than a pile of anvils. When I’m anxious, my body feels like a desert trapped in a grain of sand. I worry that sharing details like these makes me look bad, but if my depression and anxiety won’t shut up, why should I stay silent? To write freely, Carruth might remind me, is to heal.

But where my body is concerned, I’ll never have the last word. In the throes of a depressive episode, my body won’t get out of bed. Nothing and no one, not even me, can force it to rise. There’s an anger immune to reason flowing through me, a defiant inner child reclaiming his power.

When it’s fed up with the world, my body says no. It accepts that it doesn’t work right. My body owns what it lacks. Rejecting the false memory of a unity it never had, my body challenges society’s bogus requirement to always be rational, driven, and self-sufficient. My body pushes back against the double trauma inflicted upon it: the trauma of having a mental illness and the trauma of feeling ashamed about having a mental illness.

I keep using the word shame, but defining it isn’t easy. On my worst days I feel like my soul is damaged. I blame myself for being depressed and hate myself for hating myself. Hearing people I care about tell me they love me doesn’t stop my internal critic from judging me. I feel unworthy of love and acceptance despite the fact that everyone, by virtue of being alive, deserves both.

Depression is hidden; it doesn’t look like a broken leg or third-degree burns. People fear what they can’t see and judge others for exhibiting odd behaviors they can’t explain. We’re aware of the stereotype of the madman or madwoman. I know how alone they feel.

No matter how society tries to define me, I live my depression in my own way. I’m free to write that I feel like my soul is damaged, but I can’t prove it. I can’t prove that I have a soul in the first place. But writing that my soul is damaged is my (hyperbolic) statement; it is unique to me. Everything I write is an expression of my singularity. My resistance, too, is an expression of my singularity. Everything and everyone I resist, I resist in my own way.

If I wake up one morning and my body feels like a pile of anvils, the first step I should take to get out of bed is to not get out of bed right away. Stay numb. Be one with my mourning. When I feel depressed, to feel better later, I must do depression well.

It’s important to challenge negative thoughts, to take my meds, and to go to therapy, but it also helps to recognize that parts of me haven’t healed, can’t be healed, or refuse to be healed. My body is stubborn. I need to embrace its resistance.

The Sadness And The Nerves

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

In November 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.