A Poem from Parkside Hospital (for Mental Health Awareness Month)


Today I’ll take the story of my 1990 admission to Parkside Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma, one step further, passing along a poem I wrote as a patient there.

One of the things I find most striking in the poem below is evidence that my associations had loosened–a common symptom of psychosis.  Here, in fact, they’ve loosened  to the point that the poem, I think, lacks cohesion in literary terms.  However, I believe the piece provides some clues about the way my mind processed information at that time and how my sense of reality was largely based on loose leaps in logic.

mental illness

the edge of this
is not like other
edges.  I approach
it from the angle
we associate with
bent sticks stripped
of bark and the inner
coating which comes
off in layers against
the flat edge of
fingernail pressing:
     paint peeling
     orange peeling
     skin peeling after
     sunburn
and all of this only
to reveal error and
a false start.
 
so stripped i enter
naked into the oblivion
and am washed
ashore along with tomb
stones on which we read
about the deaths of
certain navigators.
sailors are a special
breed of the explorer—
straining toward the edge
of anything—crazy to
believe in spheres
they say—all is as it
appears to be—flat as
slate and born of one
dimension—folded not
pleated—pleats are
said to complicate the
matter.
 

Notice that an image I now call the “event horizon”  has crept into my description of mental illness–“the edge of this/is not like other/edges.”  I seem to believe I’m approaching a kind of emotional frontier, not knowing what’s next, what’s beyond, comparing my experience of “crazy” to that of the early explorers fighting the misperception that the world was flat.

I wish I were able to recall more clearly and concretely what I was thinking during these weeks in the hospital.  However, most of what I wrote was like this poem, a web of loosely linked images, a gauze in the guise of information, more evocative than overt.

Does anything about this poem seem important to you?

28 thoughts on “A Poem from Parkside Hospital (for Mental Health Awareness Month)

  1. Oh oh yes. I actually feel hope, beyond that edge – you enter it, you’re willing to surrender to it no matter that you are washed ashore. Maybe even then you could see over that horizon? You were then and are now an explorer. God but it’s good!

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    • Oh, thanks so much, Penny! I’m glad you think this works on some level. It’s so stranger for me. I just imagine myself believing my perspective was as real and right as those who insisted the world was round–despite centuries of belief that it was flat. I must have been so confused–or maybe not. Maybe I thought I knew a bigger. deeper reality. Maybe I did–who knows.

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  2. I agree about the hope theme. At some very basic level, you are fighting for hope and health. The inherent belief that the world is round in spite of centuries of ignorance is such a perfect example of that. For me, this poem is a message within a message. We operate within the context of society’s “norm” but we do exactly the same thing internally. We have our own “norm” and “not norm” that are often in conflict.

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  3. I think the stripped imagery is important, too. The edge being a stripped bent stick–no illusions left, no protection. Then the speaker enters stripped.

    I think the word choices of “error and a false start” and “oblivion” tries to take the poem in a different direction, when the poem is really about perspective.

    My two cents.

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    • Wow–Sandy Sue, that’s a powerful reading! You’re correct that the “stripped” part is important–no illusions left–exactly. I wonder if it would be unfair to who I was then to rewrite this piece. Yes, I’m a poet and know revision is necessary, but maybe I could retain two versions and move this in the direction you suggest. Interesting—————— Thanks soooooooo much for your perspective!

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      • Probably true! I’m not really inclined to change them–I just wondered about their worth in literary terms–if I might make them salvagable poems. I’m inclined to agree with you. Thanks so much—————-

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  4. I think it is interesting that you don’t see cohesion in this poem. Perhaps it is free flowing and doesn’t follow specific rules of poetry, but each image makes sense in layers of meaning. I agree with everyone’s observations. There is a feeling of hope. There is a sense of perspective and trying to accept that your perspective is outside the “norm”. This poem is full of raw truth, that you accessed in a different way.

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    • Yes, I hadn’t even thought of that, but that seems impossible–or maybe that’s the point–seemingly impossible things kept happening to me, at least cognitively. Interesting observation, Wendy. But, you, are right–this is the kind of thing that seems not to work.

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  5. Just the fact that you were able to write such a powerful poem under those circumstances is remarkable. 🙂

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    • Glad you think it’s powerful, Mark. Maybe it was unusual to be writing at a time like that, but then again, that’s the nature of bipolar disorder–unusually strong burst of creativity–bizarre bursts, even.

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  6. “tomb
    stones on which we read
    about the deaths of
    certain navigators.”…. I can’t help but sense some fear in this bit. Like you understood that this illness had conquered people before.

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    • Exactly, Charles–I was feeling exposed! Your comment is interesting and a bit of a reief, because that was the image in the poem that worked the least well for me–at least now–20 years later. Thanks so much for reading, my friend.

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    • So, so true–despair does grow poignant art. I’m glad this poem spoke to you. Thanks so much for reading and taking the time to comment! I hope you’ll come back again soon. It was great having you!

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  7. Well, besides all of it, the beginning, the middle and the end, I’m struck by the fine line between brilliance and sickness. You were walking a tightrope and seem to have fallen to the sickness side, but just as easily could have fallen to the brilliant one.

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    • Gosh, that’s true, Deanna! And “they” say–experts on these kinds of things, I guess, that people who come close to brilliance when sick, actually write much better when well, even though it feels more challenging–like more of a struggle.

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  8. well, Kathy–
    your poem made PERFECT sense to me :)…I loved the visuals and all the things that popped into my mind and senses as I read it…

    you are a navigator, certainly–the tomb stones washing up–could be your life experiences, those you’d like to bury and forget, and yet they come, they come, they wash up to the shore…too heavy for one woman to handle alone…

    thanks for sharing another piece of your soul with us.
    blessings
    jane

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    • Goodness, Jane, thank you for this reading. How ABSOLUTELY true! Wow, this comment blows me away. Thanks for your brilliance as a poet, and you incredible intuitive gift. Big hugs to you, my friend.

      (And guess what, my “Next to Normal” CD arrived in the mail a little while ago. Haven’t had a chance yet to listen, but I’m looking forward to it!)

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  9. Funny, I’m hardly spiritual or religious, but I sense a sort of Baptismal awakening here. Stripped, naked, “washed” ashore, “born” of one dimension. Maybe that’s a stretch, but it all kind of jumped out at me.

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