The Far Side of Sanity (notes from the edge)


When I invited readers to ask mental health questions last week, several of you wondered, not only whether I was aware of my own decent into insanity, but to what degree and what the stages of that decline looked like.

I had described a huge disconnect—said that I watched myself go crazy, almost from a distance, completely powerless to interrupt the process.

Actually, I don’t think there’s anything typically bipolar about this experience.  I suspect I have an added dissociative dimension to my illness that may or may not have anything to do with the common symptoms of manic depression.

However, over this past weekend I came across a journal entry that describes one of these experiences from 1988.  I wrote my way through much of this decline into craziness in an effort to hold onto my sanity.  That may have been a futile effort at the time, but now this passage offers an instructive reminder of what it’s like to be terrified, not so much “out of your mind,” but of your own mind—to watch the boundaries of your psyche disintegrate:

I’m . . . afraid to be a person—afraid to be alive—afraid to simply be!!!  Shit that’s so much the center of me—I’m afraid to simply be—terrified!!!  I’m terrified by me!!!  . . . .

I don’t even know how to be me—how to do it.  I feel like I’m starting from scratch . . . . I’m 26 years old & I don’t know how to be a person—God it overwhelms me—I want to cry—to weep—suddenly I feel like I’m on the other side of something—I’m another person—I feel pain—real deep—excruciating pain for the first time in my life . . . . I can never communicate this, what it feels like to not know how to be a person—that’s the pain—the unalterable pain at the center of the universe . . . .

I lay here crying—hysterical—“I didn’t mean to do it—I didn’t mean to do it–__________, I didn’t mean to do it—“

I breathe—I breathe—I breathe—I can’t get back in the now—I can’t get back in the now—I breathe—I breathe—I  open and close my hands—I breathe—I’ve got to get back in the now—I’ve got to get back in the now . . . .

Kathy, get back in the now—get back in the now.

I did a wrong thing—I did a wrong thing—I feel sick—I feel sick!  Breathe—Breathe Kathy—Breathe . . . . Stop Kathy—Stop—get back in the now—your environment—get back  in your environment—the floor, the wooden floor—the boards are in a row—I need to clean the floor—the floor—boards—I’ve not to write to make it real—to make things real—to get back in the now . . . .

This is what I always try to climb up out of—up out of the pain—this crazy place where there are all the me’s—the me’s crying—saying strange things—words come out of my mouth from nowhere—words I don’t expect . . . . I’m afraid—It’s those voices from in me—voices crying–& then I can’t get back in the now—

a primitive effort to image the voices, to map them

I feel like another person—in the dark the room shakes—bulges and contracts & I feel like I’m another person—“No, you’re you”—“But I feel like I’m another person—the other person I know I’m being when I’m not being me—or I would be her—if I let myself go—I become that other person I don’t know—that child crying from nowhere . . . .

It’s so split—It’s so split—I’m like another person—I feel sick—I don’t know what’s real—I’m confused—that person today who worked—was she me?  It’s like I felt that pain this evening & I split—I don’t know who me is . . . .

I just don’t know what’s real—the real hurts too much—I need to get away from the real.

I’ve got to hold on to being sane—but the other person feels real—she feels real—I don’t know what’s real—

I go to the bathroom—you’re Kathy—you’re Kathy, you’re Kathy, Kathy, Kathy, Kathy—I open and close my hands—looking at my hands saying KathyKathyKathy—

I’ve got to get back—I’ve got to get back & believe that I’m me!  I open & close my hands—I’m me—I’m me!  I open & close my left hand—three times—I’m me—I’m me—I open & close both hands—looking at them—“You’re you—you’re you.”  I can’t keep hold of me—I keep slipping back . . . . I’m so afraid—I’m so afraid.  “Stay here Kathy”—I don’t know where here is—I don’t know which Kathy is me . . . .

I shouldn’t have let Kathy feel the pain—I should have known she’d split—I should have known we’d lose her–& there’d be us—

I’m so afraid—I write to try to get back the real—to make me real!

Rereading this passage reminded me instantly how harrowingly terrifying this particular experience was and helped me realize I was having these kinds of episodes nearly a year and a half before my first psychiatric hospitalization.  I don’t know how I got up the morning after this incident and went to work, teaching college English, but according to the journal I did just that.

The bottom line is this:  writing a memoir about recovering from mental illness will obviously not be easy, but it does give me a degree of empathy for the “me” of more than 20 years ago who fought so hard to hold onto sanity and has been writing ever since to continue recreating a sane space—the breathing, blooming sanctuary of sanity I can never take for granted.

Thanks to all of you, my wonder readers, for joining me on this journey of discovery, grace and growth.

(Special thanks to Wendy at Herding Cats in Hammond River and Paul at The Good Greatsby for variations on this question.)

21 thoughts on “The Far Side of Sanity (notes from the edge)

  1. Amazing, Kathy. Simply amazing. This journal passage is so raw and terrifying, but it provides an INCREDIBLE view into a process that many of us have not experienced ourselves, let alone understood from the outside looking in. (Do we even allow ourselves to *try* to understand, or is that too painful and frightening a possibility still?)

    Your account reminds me of my dear Baba in a way, who feared nothing more than “losing her mind” in old age. One time, her smoke detector battery was low and the alarm kept beeping intermittently to remind her to PLEASE CHANGE THE BATTERIES. She thought (with horror) that she was imagining things/losing her mind and so she ignored the annoying sound for *weeks*. She was afraid to tell anybody about the beeping noises she was hearing, just in case they were all figments of her imagination. 😦

    How does this story relate to your post, you might wonder? 😉 I think all of us, as intelligent and rational beings, fear not being in control in general, but we especially fear the idea of not being in control of our minds. Reading this old journal entry of yours is like reading the articulation– the very embodiment (FINALLY)– of what most of us would even be afraid to whisper, lest the mere utterance of *illness*, *dis-ease*, *something not quite right* call it into being.

    I am haunted by this post, and I am more convinced than ever that your memoirs will be a godsend to many, many people who struggle with mental illness and the associated stigmas on a daily basis. You have been chosen, my friend– consider your memoir writing project a divine calling. Brava!

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    • Dear Dana–I would love to think that I’m called to write this memoir and, in fact, believe it. As terrible as the entire experience of insanity was, I really wouldn’t trade it now–it has demanded more of me and made me a more caring, thoughtful and compassionate person. I know that may sound cliched, but it’s the truth. Plus, it has given me a window on suffering I would otherwise have missed and allowed me to develop an empathy that is experientially-based.

      Thanks so much for reading, Dana–I SOOOOOOOO appreciate being able to share my story with you!

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  2. My heart hurts reading that entry. It is truly a powerful, terrifying and magnificent experience.

    I want to point out something to you, my dear friend Kathy. You are doing it . . . you are writing your memoir. Each post you makes is another chapter, or at least a section of a chapter. Your story is riveting and important. Keep up the powerful work.

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    • Thank you, Lisa. Sara said the same thing, yesterday or the day before. I am cranking it out a post at a time.

      But I’m glad you think it’s a powerful read. I know it was (obviously) a life-changing expereince for me–strangely foundational to who I am today.

      Thanks so much for reading, my friend! Thank you!

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    • You are so welcome, Wendy. But thanks for asking about support. The short answer is that I had good support from friends and none from my family. I was living in Oklahoma and my family was living in Europe. However, as I got sicker, it became more and more difficult to reach out to friends, as well. This would be a good topic for a post–thank you!

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  3. I’m sorry, Kathy. It must have been difficult to read a passage from such a terrifying time of your life. I’m struck by how steadfast you tried to cling to your slipping reality.

    After reading this piece, I wanted to ask this question: When you began to experience these episodes, did anyone around you notice right away? And was there anyone you could tell or turn to for support? I know there was a certain level of awareness around bipolar disorder 20 years ago, but I’m wondering how the way things back then compare to today.

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    • Great questions, Maura! I had friends put me in touch with a therapist–though I brought the subject up. They did not. I don’t know how much folks noticed at the time, to be honest. I tried pretty hard to pass for normal. The problem with treatment back then was the lack of medications we have today and a less sophisticated understanding in the medical community about brain chemistry. Also, I spent a lot of time being misdiagnosed, which certainly didn’t help. This is actually another great topic for a post! Thanks for asking!

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  4. I’m with slpmartin. I can’t…articulate what I’m feeling right now. I just want to sit next to 26-year-old Kathy and hold her hands and look in her face. My demon was always depression. This…feels a great deal more terrifying than depression. Not knowing who represents “I”…it makes it difficult to say “I am sad” or “I hurt.” This feels more…MORE than just depression. And I think it’s a valuable representation to offer the general public.

    Thank you for reliving this for us. With us.

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  5. I can feel the frantic terror in that entry and it makes my heart hurt. I cannot imagine the fear of feeling yourself slip away from you and the strength it took for you to get ‘you’ back. Such a powerful and eye-opening post, Kathy. Thanks for letting us tag along 🙂

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  6. My mom was just starting to create a stable routine from herself after years of struggling with schizophrenia when she was diagnosed with cancer. She lived about nine months after the diagnosis, and I struggled with anger for several months. How could she be so close to finding living peace only to die? In the last few months, it’s been easier to see the good in her life, and I hope that continues to be the case.

    I wish I could know what it was like in her head. I thought I’d be able to read your excerpt from 1988, but I could only jump over a few words here and there with great effort. Still, I’m glad I found your journal. Perhaps in time I’ll gain the strength to take that closer look and not feel it so excruciating. If you could live it first-hand and yet have the strength to face it anew, I’ll hopefully be able to find a similar strength. I could certainly only be better for that.

    Thanks for sharing this journey!

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    • Wow, Deborah, this comment breaks my heart. I think it’s always more painful for the ones who love us to see our struggle than it even is for us ourselves. Then to have lost your mother just when things were getting better must be terribly, terribly painful. Thanks so much for reading. I can’t tell you how much your comment means to me. I hope you’ll come back by–I’d love to have you—————–

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  7. “I should have known we’d lose her–& there’d be us.”

    This is what really drove home for me the fear you were feeling. I never realized that fear would be such a large part of bi-polar disorder.

    You’re brave to write this and to revisit those fears.

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    • Yes, there were times when I was terrified, and actually I’m remembering more about this the more I go through my old journals and find stuff I’ve written. In rereading it the memory comes flooding back. I’m glad this post spoke to you, TerrI! Thanks so much———————–

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  8. The things you have been through are both amazing and downright scary. I can’t imagine the feeling of watching yourself slip away and being helpless to stop it from happening. There’s no doubt if you are able to complete the memoir, it’ll be a fascinating read.

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    • You’re right–it was a really scary time–terrifying at times. But, gosh, it is amazing to me how far I’ve come. Truly no one would ever know now. But I have to tell the story. Thanks for reading, Mark!

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  9. Hi Kathryn, It was very hard for me to read your post. My daughter has type II bipolar disorder. It manifested when she was 14. Although I consider it the single most frightening time of my life, I know it was even more terrifying for her. I’m so glad you are finding health, as is she. Writing your memoir is a very important thing to do. You have the ability to give hope and understanding to others struggling with bipolar disorder, as well as to their caregivers, friends and loved ones. I wish you great, great success and continued good health.

    I’m a great lover of books–here’s how they helped me during my daughter’s time of illness: http://howcanicomplain.wordpress.com/2011/03/17/how-j-k-rowling-saved-my-life/

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    • Wow–thanks so much for this comment! I can’t imagine what it would be like to see your child go through something like this–maybe more painful than for the child themself, as you must have felt so helpless! I can’t tell you how much I appreciate your stopping by and taking the time to comment. I will check out your blog and hope you’ll come back!

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  10. Pingback: The Sunday Paper: This Post Smells Like Crying « The Ramblings

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