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—
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.