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.

Me And My Shadow

Chris Truman found himself on the fifth floor of Catholic General Hospital. He had fallen ill at work, overwhelmed by the frenetic pace of his position as a shipping and receiving clerk. Doctors admitted him without a second thought.

The patients on his wing had no names. They went (for insurance purposes) by their DSM-IV codes alone. Many had a number of issues. The staff dispatched their fears with pills. Most were government approved.

One patient played the piano and sang in the recreation room every night. He was full of energy and carried a lively tune. Truman wrote a poem in awe of his stage presence. He preferred Robert over 296.40 and told the artist so.

Truman didn’t care for diagnoses. He had enough problems. What was he after all? He wasn’t clever enough to play the role of doctor. He felt unlike a normal patient. Truman, in a flash of insight, convinced himself that he was Catholic General. Concrete and studs, glass and bricks. The structure itself, housing many levels of pain. Just out the window, what a shadow he cast.

He was everywhere he went. The world he fit inside his head. Thoughts defying logic, refusing to be held. He was full of material, a mix of chemicals. So many words with nothing to say.

As he lay in bed Truman contemplated his current project. How to begin the next chapter on his fictional friend Chuck Snoad? He’d be discharged eventually. What did all this mean? How did Truman’s struggles with the Sadness and the Nerves speak to his character?