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.

I Want To Hold Your Hand

I remember navigating the perilous parking lots of Randhurst Mall with my father as a child. He’d sing “I Want to Hold Your Hand” by the Beatles whenever cars got too close, a gentle reminder to hold his hand. I trusted him because he was a certified crossing guard in grammar school, “an expert in pedestrian safety and playground traffic control,” as he told it.

I also remember my father teaching me how to drive in the parking lot of our favorite restaurant, the Prime Minister, before the lunch crowd arrived. I had plenty to learn. A few minutes into my first lesson, the car stalled because I wasn’t giving it enough gas.

Of course, hazards aren’t confined to parking lots. Life is full of obstacles both visible and invisible. Sometimes we block our own paths to freedom. We overeat, drink too much, abuse drugs. Unhealthy coping strategies compound our pain.

I remember watching my father slowly kill himself with cigarettes—two packs of Pall Mall or Chesterfield per day. I begged him to stop. He said he would. He never did.

Our house smelled musty all the time because he refused to smoke outside. Our living room drapes turned yellow. There were burn holes on the carpet in front of his favorite chair.

My mother and I suffered breathing problems and sinus infections. When I showed up smelling like smoke at the doctor’s office one day, a concerned nurse told me to quit while I was still young. Embarrassed, I told her I never smoked, but my father did. She said I was basically smoking too, just by living with him.

When my father sang that Beatles song in the Randhurst parking lot, he was already thinking about his next cigarette. Thirty minutes into every movie we saw, he left the theater for a drag. Thirty minutes later, he left again. I had to explain everything he missed.

The steering wheel of his Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme was so sticky I had to wash my hands when we got home. After my first lesson, I asked if I should empty the car’s ashtray because it was so full. He told me to wait until the ashes cooled.

My father smoked for fifty-five years. I was alive during the final twenty-five. His powerlessness to quit led me to question how much control I really have in my life.

The last time my father rode in a car, my mother was driving us to the hospital. I sat next to him in the backseat, holding his hand as he struggled to breathe. When we entered the emergency room, I asked a security guard for a wheelchair.

“I think I have emphysema,” my father told a nurse. He died twelve hours later.

I love my father dearly. I just wish I could’ve saved him from himself.

Memoir Seminar

Jean Baudrillard: “Cipher, don’t decipher.”

Translation: Keep to yourself. Keep something of yourself for yourself. Keep something of yourself from yourself. Commit silence.

***

How shall we write silence? How shall we write in silence? In what tone does silence not-write?

Knot-writing. Bound books. Unsafe words. Writing is seen as emotional release. It’s first and foremost a building of tension. Writing complicates. Writing frustrates.

***

If you must write a memoir, don’t spill your guts. Deflect reflection. Let sleeping Freudians lie.

Engage like a mistress in tease and denial. Put a hand over your mouth. Hand over your mouth. Muffle your dreams.