Fast Car out of the Asylum

I no sooner say writing a memoir will be the death of me than—what happens?  I write a memoir post that doesn’t come close to killing  me, hoping I can access part of my story via a poem I wrote in December of 1990.

Here’s a bit of background—

Once I was admitted to Parkside Hospital in March of 1990, I never returned to work—mostly because the side-effects of anti-psychotic drugs left me largely unable to function.  I can’t recall whether I was taking Navane or Stellazine at the time, but, regardless, the side-effects were debilitating—especially for someone who made their living teaching college English and was no longer able to read.

The medication left me feeling thick-headed in the extreme, dull, bored and boring—mostly unable to carry on a conversation.  I couldn’t focus my mind.  I could not concentrate—

—At all—

Getting to my own thoughts and feelings felt impossible, like swimming in deep water, like fighting a thick fog to identify a single emotion, to trace a series of ideas as they added up to meaning.

And not being able to follow a conversational thread isolated me socially—as did my sudden removal from the workplace.  I describe how this all affected my self-esteem in a journal entry from December 1, 1990:

I’m feeling bad about myself this evening because I seem so dumb and stupid and thick-headed.  Everything about me is a struggle.  I feel like I can’t even read—like I can’t write—all is awkward and clumsy and out-of-joint.

I greatly grieved this inability to read, as it left me isolated from the fabulous writers and thinkers whose company I had enjoyed my entire life—augmenting my sense of literal loneliness in literary terms.

However, even as I was lamenting my struggle to read on December 1st, I wrote a poem the following day, celebrating my first complete reading of a book in 8 months—a biography of Gertrude Stein by Janet Hobhouse, Everybody who was Anybody.

see New York Times article by Holland Cotter (

It seems appropriate that my first book would be about Stein, as I associated her attempt to create a “continuous present” in narrative terms with my own efforts to unravel the undermined sense of syntax I heard in the chorus of sing-song voices echoing in my own head.

So on Sunday, December 2, 1990 I wrote:

on reading gertrude stein

 i am untangling the blue—

the dust ruffle and

the creased corner—

a book left open to the page

where we undo the circumstances

that have gotten us thus far—

into the forest, i should say—

deep into the thick of things,

where we eat orange marmalade

on thin toast, and when break-

fast is over, find ourselves

once more—

fast car out of the asylum.

To me, now, this poem makes less sense than it must have at the time.  I don’t recall exactly what the images allude to other than the Tracy Chapman song “Fast Car” that I listened to obsessively at the time.

However, the poem marked a moment of triumph in the story of my illness, as I was finally able to read an entire book, to reassume the driver’s seat of my own literary life—completing the biography of an amazing mind—a slightly eccentric mind I surely associated with my own, a mind that unraveled language into a syntax of seeming madness—

—“fast car out of the asylum.”

33 thoughts on “Fast Car out of the Asylum

  1. It’s moments like these that I just feel so much gratitude, respect, and awe for the project you’ve committed to. Thank you for going back and re-membering the past, Kathy. I really feel that what you’ve done so far is gift enough, and what you will do in the future will be a deeply rewarding added bonus. 🙂


  2. Kathy, you are a big deal. Let me clarify. It takes a whole world of talent for someone to so clearly make a reader understand such a dark and murky experience. You do this every. single. day. Thanks 🙂


    • Thanks so very much, Tori! It actually helps to hear this, as sometimes it’s hard to tell what’s working and what’s not working. I’m a little too close to my work to have any meaningful perspective, I think.


  3. beautiful and bright and glorious–I love the way you were able to break free from the swim in pudding and catch a glimpse of bright sky in your journeying…

    thanks for sharing…


  4. I have to agree with Tori’s comment above. What an incredible gift to break open the convoluted, confusing, and sometimes contradictory world of mental illness for everyone to see– plain as day. Brava, Kathy– another excellent post! 🙂


    • Gosh, Dana, this is a hugely helpful comment. I hadn’t thought of mental illness as something that needs to be broken open–but, gosh, I guess it would. Like I said to Tori–I’m so close to my subject, sometimes it’s hard to gain a decent pespective. Thanks so much!


  5. I was thinking Tracy Chapman too, the moment I saw the title. Maybe a collaboration between T.C. and Guns ‘n Roses (although that was a jungle, not an asylum).

    I second what Tori and the others have said. Your posts help make perfect sense out of a senseless situation. Keep up the good work!


  6. wow, what a great personal story and recovery testimony and a book too! I am so proud to know you. Very inspirational. I have problems with Paxil and need to get off it…Ugh.


    • How great to hear from you, Jackie! I’m so pleased to know you find my story inspirational–hearing these things helps keep me going in this tedious task. Thanks so much for stopping by and taking the time to comment–and thank you, thank you, thank you for subscribing Can’t wait to hear more from you!


  7. Yep. Uh huh. Check.
    Losing the ability to read scared me more than losing my memory after ECT. Like you, I identified myself as a reader, a consumer and companion to books. Reading is still difficult and not the joy it used to be, which I mourn.

    What brought it back for you? Different meds? Hard work? I’d love to know.


    • I’m so, so thankful I never had ECT! But the reading thing scared the shit out of me, as well. To answer your question about how the ability to read came back– I don’t know. It was a slow process. When I was finally able to read that first book, I celebrated, not because it was easy to read in the least, but just because I had made myself and gotten through. Reading is still a struggle if there is ANY background noise to distract me. I have to have complete silence. I have to be comfortable and relaxed. For example, I can’t read on a plane or beach. I suppose the better medications have gradually made reading easier–though not effortless.


  8. At least you kept notes of your thoughts and struggles. I’ve just got notebooks full of random sentences – things I needed to remember at that time and which now no longer make any sense.

    I started listening to podcasts and audiobooks during the period when I couldn’t read at all. Somehow it was easier to listen, than to read.


    • The books on tape idea is a great one. Unfortunately, there were fewer of those back in the early 90s when I needed them most, and what there were I couldn’t afford to buy since I was so poor. (oops, I mean audiobooks–I’m showing my age here!)

      Yes, I’m greatful to have the journals I do–so, so thankful! (I’m wondering if any of this has affected your memory–mine is shot to hell!!)


      • Oh yes, I forgot those things weren’t available way back then! 😉 My own really bad period only started in 2006.

        From about 2006-2009 my memory was so bad that I had to write down EVERYTHING. But it is getting better. I still have my phone programmed to tell me when to take medication – because I take doses a couple of times a day, I always forget if I’ve taken it or not. And I use my computer diary to help me remember important stuff, but I don’t rely on it as much as I did. It feels like the fog is lifting.I do still forget stuff though – silly stuff, like calling somebody to tell them something and then forgetting it the moment they answer.


  9. It has been my own personal experience that when I am most depressed or not somehow right with my self, I lose the ability to use words. Not only can I not read, but I can’t even express. Someone can ask me the simplest of questions and I find myself searching for the words to answer. It is as if my self retreats to the most inner core; to the very center of me; the me beneath thought to regroup and heal.

    There is power in silencing all the outside noise we are constantly bombarded with. Our mind (and by mind I mean basic self) knows when it can’t handle the extra input and does what it can to protect itself until such time it can. Retreat is sometimes the only answer!

    It has also been my experience that once the basic self does what it needs to do to heal, it comes back stronger than ever. My most creative moments often seem to be a sudden explosion of words emerging from their seeming absence. As if my mind has said, “Yes, they ARE mine!”

    Now I am sure my experience just touches the surface of yours, but I guess it makes sense to me! Sometimes one has to climb through the deep dark to really appreciate the light again!


    • Yes, Steve, absolutely–one appreciates the light more having been stuck in the dark! Your description is fascinating, as sometimes for me, at least, I lose my ability to understand language at times like this. I hear the words and I know what each one means individually–but somehow they don’t make sense when put all together! Is that anything like what you describe?


      • Actually very like that. It is as if don’t understand what is being said even though i know the definitions of the words. Even my own thoughts lose meaning to me sometimes.


  10. I have a good friend who is BiPolar (Dx). He is on medicine but still runs quite high – and hard to be around for both friends, family and children. He is resistant to managing this as he would rather be high and is afraid of the “low” place he has been. Did you experience this? And if it was your friend, what would you say to him to help him be more aimable about working more closely with his doctor to manage his high?

    From a friends point of view, what would you say to him?

    Thanks my friend. And, I will hear this as your POV.


    • Great to hear from you, Marlene! I wish I knew how to advise you about your friend. This is one of the thngs that makes treating bipolar disorder so difficult–non-compliance with taking meds! I have been more fortunate in this regard, as I have complied more willingly than most. I don’t know what to tell you. This is such a personal issue, and I think drugs affect some people more negatively than others. Only he can know what feels worse–the sickness or the cure. (As you might know just now yourself!)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s