writing about mental illness

I’ve been participating in NaNoWriMo all through November; for those of you who might not have run across this thing, that’s National Novel Writing Month, and the goal is to try to write 50,000 words in a month, or roughly 1,667 words per day.

I had a very specific goal in mind, which ran a little bit counter to the goals of the NaNoWriMo creators, who were thinking about having people writing new work for a month. I had a draft for a novel that I’d written more than ten years ago, and I wanted to revise it, but I couldn’t bring myself to look at it, so I wanted to use November to power my way through a revision.  I was able to revise more than 50,000 words of it, and though there’s probably another 35,000 words left to go, I feel confident that I can finish up this month.

What really struck me about it as I was working on it, though, was how intense the portrayal of eating disorders is. I don’t really know how many people will want to read it, because it talks about the condition in pretty gross detail. I have to think about that, and what I need to do next is do some reading and see what other novels there are about people with depression and eating disorders. But what made me happy about reading it is that I wrote it when I did. Reading through it reminded me that I need to write about things as they happen, because I may later fictionalize them to a greater or lesser extent, but if I don’t write about them in the moment, I’ll lose a tremendous amount of detail that I’ll never be able to recover in the future and that may be important to me in writing the story.

So this story started out with my experiences as a young Buddhist, traveling to Japan to teach English. I naively thought that my new religion would somehow cure me of my depression, my anxieties, and my eating disorders. That’s why I’d started practicing. But I also had some doubts about the group I belonged to, and I wanted to go and spend some time in Japan and study more intensively.

As it turns out, going to live in a foreign country where you don’t know anyone and can’t speak the language all that well is not a prescription for good mental health.  Or at least it wasn’t for me. And I was young enough not to have worked out how I was going to manage to get the few meds I did have over there (this was still before we had any anti-depressants that worked for me). So I wound up being a total mess in a country that still doesn’t really recognize mental illness.

I’m thinking about posting the novel in this blog. I’d love to have some feedback (I had abandoned it, because I was told by a couple of agents that it was good, but no one wants to read anymore stories about coming of age in Japan…but now I wonder if I don’t have a particular audience in that I’m talking about experiencing mental illness in Japan. Plus, this book serve as a lead up to the second one I’ve written about being a person with mental illness and parenting people with mental illness). If anyone has thoughts, I’d love to hear them.

San Francisco on Black Friday

I didn’t mean to go shopping on Friday; I had thought that I might go out and get a few fresh vegetables, but my main plans were to write for a few hours and then to do a bunch of cleaning. Between work and writing and the basic rounds of parenting, including Martin’s visits to the psychiatrist and his blood tests for one of his medications, there hasn’t been a ton of time for cleaning.

But then on Thanksgiving, Pete asked me if I could help him meet up with his girlfriend who lives pretty far from here.  He hasn’t asked in quite a while, and seeing her usually involves driving five hours each way, so I was willing to do anything within reason. The plan had started out a little bit complicated. Because our house is both tiny and a mess, he wanted to meet her at my boyfriend’s house, which is bigger and much tidier than our apartment.  He also doesn’t have neighbors like we do at our apartment.  Our apartment has two floors, but the other units in the building are on one floor. So the first floor of the our place is next to a guy who spends part of his time yelling really loudly at his computer and another part having even louder sex with one or more girlfriends. I think most of this noise is directed at his upstairs neighbors, our second floor neighbors, who have two dogs: one big and one small, who spend a lot of the day growling and yelping when people approach the building.  Recently, they had a baby, so now there’s a two month old baby’s crying added to the mix.

None of this bothers Martin and Pete too much most of the time, because there’s a wide hallway between their bedrooms and the neighbor’s apartment. But when they became old enough that I thought that they each needed a room, I moved out onto the landing that extends beyond the staircase. It’s just wide enough that my bed fits with one end on the wall of Martin’s bedroom and the other end on the wall next to the neighbor’s apartment.  This was years before the neighbor had dogs or a baby or even the current girlfriend.

So anyway, Pete didn’t want to take her to our apartment…but after he’d gotten himself thoroughly wound up about the planning and missed a few hours of sleep and before the plan to take her to my boyfriend’s went into effect, he got another text that said they should meet in San Francisco and then he could Uber back. Now Pete is getting close to 18.  Perhaps some boys his age would have taken off on the train, and I would have heard about the adventure later, but Pete is really anxious like me, so he didn’t want to take BART, not even with me.  He wanted me to drive him. My boyfriend’s son and his girlfriend were at the house, and they were trying to tell us that it was crazy to drive in to SF on Black Friday, but I understood Pete’s feeling, so we hopped in the car and took off. Having a lot of extra people around would have made things just too much more intense.  We needed to be alone with this new plan.

“So where are we going?” I asked.

“I’m not quite sure yet,” he said, fidgeting madly with his phone. This is the sort of conversation we always wind up having when the two of them are making a plan. Finally he said, “It’s someplace called Union Square. Do you know where that is?”

“Union Square? I know where that is…I’m driving to frickin’ Union Square on Black Friday?”

“Sorry, Mom. I’ll get you the directions if that’ll help.”

“Oh my God, Pete, this is some sort of nightmare.  She’d better be really, really wonderful.”

“Uh, yeah. Uh huh. You’re going to exit the bridge on the right.”

At least we had a really nice time together, driving across the bridge and then driving in circles through the one way streets to get him to where I needed to drop him off. And then, right after I dropped him off, I saw a parking garage that miraculously was not already full, even though we’d arrived past noon, and the huge lot on Fifth and Mission was full already. I pulled across an entire empty street of the financial district to get to it.

So that’s how I wound up, an hour and some later, walking southwest to the shopping district of San Francisco on Black Friday.  I was looking for a bathroom, and the one in the coffee shop where I had been writing until they kicked me out, saying they were closing, said “Employees Only.” So I started walking down Market Street toward the huge mall at Fifth. I knew they had bathrooms there. The first couple of blocks were pretty empty, inhabited on Black Friday mostly by homeless people and smelling of urine. Starbucks and Bloomingdale’s weren’t going to welcome them in to use the facilities. As I’d come up from the garage, I’d found myself in the Galleria, one of the fancier sets of shops in the financial district, but most of them closed today. As I walked toward the opening on Sutter, I’d started to notice a bad smell, which did and didn’t register as I stopped to use my phone to look up directions. Someone had not only left a gigantic mound of feces right by the front signage, they’d left their underwear as well. Just a mess, or a protest of what this day did to the poorest?  Where would they normally go?

I kept going, and the crowds grew thicker and thicker with more and more stores open, at first just all kinds of drug stores side by side: CVS, then Walgreen’s, then Dollar Store. Then the stores started to run rapidly upscale, and I started to see police lounging around the sidewalks. I could smell the pot in the air, along with the sausages that were being sold by vendors every few feet. There was a band playing loudly at the corner of 4th and Market, and people were crowded around to listen.  Across the street was the intersection where people stood in line for the cable cars.

I had to really push to get into the mall, and I had a few moments of real anxiety, thinking that this was probably not the smartest place to be.  If there was someone who wanted to make a statement about their hatred of consumerist American culture, this would be a pretty perfect place to strike.  Perhaps that was why there were so many police in evidence everywhere.  Even if I hadn’t been nervous about that, I think I would have wanted to get out quickly.  I used to like to shop in malls when I was younger, but it was so loud and flashy in there. I just went upstairs and found a bathroom in the Bloomingdale’s and then I left. I was sort of amazed that I didn’t even want to go into one store, but all I wanted to do was leave.

Pete texted me an hour later, and I managed to drive around in circles, very slowly this time, until I saw him on the curb and honked, and he was able to come over and jump in, and we drove (still very slowly, the police working at each intersection to prevent total gridlock) to a place where we could turn and get out of the shopping district.  His girlfriend’s family had taken him to the Modern Art Museum, which the young people had all hated.  I should have thought to go there too. It was three or four blocks from the coffee shop where I’d been sitting.  I would have liked that a lot better than Bloomingdale’s. Still, it was fun spending time with Pete; we stopped on the way home and had Peruvian food for dinner.

Photo by Andrea Cau on Unsplash

 

 

 

 

how to write your christmas letter

With Thanksgiving rushing down upon us, it’s time to fire up the computer, drag out the camera and get everyone dressed up for the photo to go with the holiday letter for friends and family. The imagery around the idea sounds stale, and I think the last time I sat for one of those photos was back in the mid-1990s when my then-husband and I were living with another couple, trying to see whether four adults could handle one incredibly energetic little kid.  Our son did not, as yet, have a diagnosis, but he wasn’t making a habit of sleeping much, and when he got wound up around the holidays, it would make everyone a little crazy.

I get a sick feeling whenever I run across those photos, and I really don’t know why I haven’t thrown them out, except that tossing them won’t make that period of our lives go away. All of us smiling, but there was so much unhappiness in that household.

Every year I receive a few of those holiday letters, and I feel somehow guilty for not sending one in return. But there are some family situations that you simply don’t write letters about. Unless you just want to lie, and I’m not a fan of lying. My sons and I have spent a couple of Christmases sitting around, thinking what we could have written if we had sent out a letter:

Dear Family and Friends,

We hope that you have had a wonderful and fulfilling year. We are enjoying reading the letters that we have received, and we have been feeling badly about not sending a letter for the last few years, so we wanted to let you know what we’ve been up to.

Martin has graduated from high school a year ago, after seven years at his terrifically supportive school. He had planned to start taking classes at community college, but his anxiety has made it very challenging for him to do so. We have been experimenting with new medications to reduce his anxiety, but some days he thinks that he just doesn’t want to go to school anymore.  He’s been spending a lot of time walking, up to 10 miles a day, and he was also walking at night, but a couple of months ago he was mugged by a couple of guys with a gun. He refused to give them his wallet, so the man with the gun hit him a few times. He had to have several stitches for that, but on the way to the hospital, he was able to identify the guys who mugged him, since the police had caught them by then.  He’s since had trouble with more anxiety, but his face is healing well (see photo).

Pete is still unschooling and would be in 10th grade if he were in school. He knows lots of things that I don’t know, so I’m confident he won’t wind up working at Burger King, which is his father’s great fear. He’s a very modern kid and spends time talking to people from all over using headphones and a microphone.  He even has a girlfriend who lives up north and is also homeschooling because she’s too anxious to go to school. The good thing about them being so far apart is that I don’t have to worry too much.  Occasionally I take him to see her, but it takes five hours to get there. Everyone says I should make him ride the bus, but he’s too anxious for that.

I am still working for the university. I am able to use my degree to help them write things better. When the boys get older, maybe I will have more time to write the things I’d like to write.

The cats are as unmanageable as ever and send you all their best. I enclose a photo.

Happy Holidays!

So what do you do? Do you write fiction or fact, or do you send nothing at all? I feel better about the fact that I get fewer of these letters every year.  Either they are becoming passe or people are crossing me off their list.  Either way, they are saving themselves from the possibility that I will compose something like the above or even worse…I could become really bad and make the ridiculousness of the exercise more painfully clear.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

it starts at home

I’ve been reading yet another story about some women finally speaking out about their sexual harassment and abuse. It seems to be a moment when we all feel empowered to speak about our experiences without worrying about the repercussions quite so much.

The focus, however, is on famous men who have taken advantage of their fame and the power that it gives them to treat women without care for their feelings. First of all, I cannot think why this tidal wave has not yet rushed back toward that tape of our Commander in Chief revealing that he reveled in grabbing women by the most intimate parts of their anatomies.  Why does he get a pass on this when so many others are being called to account?

The second thing that overwhelms me is the sense that I have been one of the multitudes of women who has been keeping my story a secret. I wrote about it a little bit in the novel I want to publish next year, but I didn’t spell it all out, because I felt ashamed, and I wanted to protect my family. My sister finally sent me mail in the middle of all of this, suggesting that maybe this was the moment to speak. This is my sister who helped me to confirm for myself that I hadn’t just blown my memories out of proportion, that my father really had crossed the line with us. My middle sister is inclined to push sand over it all. She shared a room with me, and he tended to head over to my bed.

I finally asked my youngest sister whether she felt that he’d been inappropriate, whether there’d been too much kissing and touching. She told me that every night she’d set up a line of her stuffed animals along the outside of her bed, trying to prevent him from sitting down when he came to kiss her good-night. I would pretend to be asleep, but it never worked.

My middle sister tried to tell my mother that my father was being too affectionate with us. My mother wouldn’t listen. She said that it was our fault for wearing skimpy clothing around the house (which we didn’t any more than any other teenagers). My father complained to us that he couldn’t be sexually attracted to someone as fat as she’d become. We couldn’t figure out how to extricate ourselves from their sexual problems.

Later, a therapist told me that my problems exercising boundaries with men come from that initial example of really bad boundaries. If there isn’t a really clear line saying no sexual contact between parent and child, then where should there be a clear line? That’s the simplest case of a person having more power in a relationship that there is.  For the child, the parent is the person who gave you life. Maybe that’s part of why I never spoke about this period in my life. I cannot believe that my father made such a terrible mistake. He never spoke of it, and we always acted like it never happened, though it went on for a few years while he was mixing his evening drinks with tranquilizers. When I got to be 18, I begged him to stop mixing wine and Librium, and he did stop.

But the reality is that the damage was already done. My youngest sister and I were really messed up about sex for a long time after that. For me, it took years of therapy to get to where I am now (and maybe I’m still messed up, but it seems better). Both my youngest sister and I have been divorced twice. I kept trying to have deep relationships with men who weren’t attracted to women…just get that sexual element out of there. Except that they did have sexual feelings, just not for me. My sister’s second husband quickly started the process of becoming a woman. So again you dodge the sex issue in one way, but it’s certain to come up in another.

Photo by Scott Webb on Unsplash

 

happy holidays

We’re coming up on the holidays now, and I’ve been reading in a number of blogs that people are already feeling some trepidation and making plans not to have the awful times they’ve experienced in the past.

I’ve had really good holidays and really, really bad ones, both due to my own mental health issues and because my son’s illness was in a bad place (almost certainly mixed with where the rest of the family was, mentally-speaking, at the time).

My mother was the sort of person who used to cook her way through to the perfect holiday when I was a kid. There were years when we made ten kinds of cookies plus the fruitcake and then all of the ritual foods for the different days. When she started to drink more and more, and she started to say that she was too tired to cook, at first my younger sister and I just filled in and did the baking. But you can’t pretend forever that the person parked in the La Z Boy with the glass in her hand is the same person who used to take care of all of the holiday cheer.

I’d been dieting on and off since my early teens, since I spent my life reclining and snacking, reading and reading, and even then my metabolism sucked. So I’d periodically take my calorie intake to near zero and deal the system another death blow. When I got to be 18, I decided it was time to get serious and take this not eating thing long term. That’s when my weird eating became clinically disordered. I didn’t last long as an anorexic, but I learned about bulimia, and those behaviors lasted for many years. For many, many holidays after that I was calculating which stores were open (usually only the 7-11 on Christmas at that point, which shows you how old I am) and how I could get away without having to offer endless explanations, so I could buy Ex-Lax. These days it would be so much easier. I could say I was off to Black Friday. I hate Black Friday, but oh well. I was counting on those guys who were working Christmas back in the old days.

More recently, I’ve needed to sideline my issues, because my sons have needed so much of my attention. I see that as both a good and a bad thing. I’m so sorry that they have to suffer with mood disorders, and I’m glad that I can see well enough to drag myself out of focus on self. Martin has graduated from high school now, but one of the big stresses used to be that shift out of the rhythm of school and into the blank time of vacation. He’d always think that he wanted it, and he counted the days toward it, but once he was in that open space with no markers for what to do next, he’d flounder. Then as the beginning of school approached again, he’d get terribly anxious about going back. The anxiety was so intense that it made it hard for him to focus on the celebratory aspects of the holidays themselves. For Christmas, for example, when I would ask him what he wanted, he’d think of something, and then he would be in such a state of anticipation and anxiety about how long it was taking to get whatever it was, that Christmas became a state of pain for him. If I didn’t ask him, though, then invariably I’d get him something he didn’t really want, and he would be disappointed. Now that his younger brother is old enough, I’ve taken to asking him for ideas.

Pete, my younger son, tends already to be a pragmatist and a cynic. He’s got his own extreme anxieties to cope with and then he’s an expert at working with his older brother. When I’ve run out of patience and am ready to start yelling back at Martin (worst thing to do with a person with bipolar, or certainly with my son…it only escalates the situation), Pete steps in and deescalates the situation. Infuriates me when I’m feeling feisty, but it’s just what Martin needs. Fighting with his mother is not. Pete loves Thanksgiving more than any other day of the year, but it needs to be done just so. He has rituals that need to be adhered to to make it feel right. I like that he’s picked a day where nearly all the rituals have to do with food, because food is relatively easy, but then again, this is me, so food is never really easy. I’ve been a vegetarian for the last six years, so sitting next to an enormous bird is less than great. But I’ll do that for my sons. What’s growing even more problematic is that he wants Thanksgiving with his Mom and Dad. Every year I think, this is it. We separated so many years ago. I am not doing this again, and then there we are, performing Thanksgiving again. I love my sons so much, and this year my partner is going to be overseas, but I’m thinking this ritual seriously needs an overhaul.

Image Credit: Annie Spratt

stones in my pockets

I’m in a relatively new relationship, and it’s had me feeling happy for many months in a row. I’ve been in a few relationships before, and I know by now that this feeling is both wonderful and transient. The euphoria of the first few months isn’t going to last for years on end.

So the last few mornings I’ve been waking with migraines and finding it hard to drag myself out of bed. The pain isn’t awful, because I take a daily medication that quite good at blocking it, but I definitely don’t feel good. At first I thought that that was why it was hard to get up, but then I began to recognize that slow, sleepy feeling that doesn’t quite want to leave no matter how much coffee you drink.

I don’t think I have particular reasons for being depressed, though once I am, my mind starts looking around to see what’s happening that I might pin it on. I do think that the shift when Daylight Saving started might have played a role. I’ve always been curious about whether the changes in light affect me, since I know they affect some people. I’m always the happiest when the days are long, but it’s not summer: spring and early fall. I love the light of the early morning and late afternoon. But since last Sunday, by the time I leave work, it’s dark.

I keep thinking I’ll buy a light box and see whether it works. While I’m at it, I should buy one for each of the boys, since they share my genes, and at least Martin seems to get more depressed during the winter.  It’s hard to tell with his younger brother, Pete, since he does that thing of staying up most of the night talking to people from all over on the computer and then going to bed right around sunrise. He certainly doesn’t get a lot of sunlight that way, though we drag him out periodically for day trips.  He makes vampire jokes.

I should probably think about seeing a therapist again, since I haven’t seen one for myself in quite a while. I get into this frame of mind where I think I’m fixed, that I can just coast along with my meds and my spiritual life, but my habits aren’t so good that I can’t get pushed out of alignment by a long period without having someone outside my skull to check in with about the things that tend to make me a little nuts. You know, climate change and people’s denial thereof, the horrible injustices meted out to some of the people in this world, the fact that my sons still don’t do their own laundry, and their father tells them I’m a neurotic mess. The things that incense people everywhere.

If I don’t take care of this, I can get stuck, sitting in my chair and going over the steps I should be taking but am not: exercising regularly, eating right more than I am, giving up my Coke habit quicker than I am. It’s just so frustrating to find myself back in a place that I remember being in fifteen, thirty,  even forty years ago (I think my first major depression hit when I was sixteen…I was supposed to be excited about finishing high school and going off to college, and I spent the entire summer crying every day).

Antidepressants have generally made this all much more bearable than it was. I doubt that I will walk into the river with stones in my pocket. But still it sometimes sucks to have to get up. And I’m glad that I have a boyfriend who is not depressive, who always gets up early, and who will come back and get me if I go back to sleep.

Image Credit: Krista Mangulsone

pure gold

I’ve been reading a recent novel by Margaret Drabble, The Pure Gold Baby, which I didn’t find by searching for novels about mental illness, though I have been reading rather a lot of those, since I want to see what else has been written besides the books I have been writing. I was reading Drabble, because she is one of my favorite authors and someone I have written about at some length. I had just read her most recent novel and realized that there were a couple that she’d written since I last read one, so I wanted to catch up.

I’ve let this lapse happen, because I think, in general, her later books are not as good as her earlier ones were, and I definitely think that Pure Gold Baby follows this pattern. There are long sections where nothing of any substance occurs and there’s a great deal of near repetition. Drabble is making a point here, which is that the life of a family with a special needs child is likely to be highly scheduled and lacking in a lot of dramatic action for the parent.  The parent needs to be available to parent.

The ideas here are interesting, but they don’t seem to gel into fiction. As with Drabble’s other novels, readers are given quite a lot of background information, here about the history and current state of treatment options for the mentally ill and developmentally delayed. These are delivered as research that Jess, the titular “baby’s” mother, is doing largely out of interest created by daughter’s condition.

It’s never quite made clear what the condition of the main character’s daughter is. Drabble says that Anna doesn’t have Down Syndrome, but she seems permanently at a very young mental age in terms of her intellectual capabilities and her understanding of what is going on around her. She spends time at an institution and time being cared for by her mother at home. Drabble’s point seems to be that she is fortunate in that her disability leaves her, on the whole, happy. She becomes anxious sometimes, but she is not a depressed person like some of those her mother meets in the various institutions she visits. She is pleased by small things. But in the end, there remains the question of who will care for her after her mother dies.

I found the descriptions of the way that England has worked with their mentally ill interesting, though they didn’t quite blend in. Anna doesn’t have a condition that requires medication, and another person that her mother becomes involved with, Steve, is treated by a doctor who is using an approach that does not involve medication, so there is not much discussion of medication in the novel. Drabble does talk about the use of institutions, relationships between doctors and patients and issues of aging. She has discussed institutions in a number of her recent novels, a topic that really interests me. Her most recent novel discusses aging and how the state responds to the aging in England.

Drabble has always been a novelist interested in taking on political issues, and perhaps because this is a novel centered on Anna, a girl and then a woman, who not only can’t understand such issues but becomes anxious if she’s exposed to them, they remain repressed throughout much of the novel, as though we’re tiptoeing around what we don’t want the children to hear. Direct communication is also difficult, because large parts of the novel are told through the first person point of view of Anna’s mother’s friend who is not present for a lot of the action but hears about it later from Anna’s mother or some other friend.

Overall, I’m glad I read this novel, even though I wouldn’t rate it nearly as highly as a book like Drabble’s Gates of Ivory. The topic is especially interesting for me at this time, though. Others may find the flaws simply annoying and put the book down.