another variation on not-so-sane

Today I’ll share yet another poem I wrote during my 1990 admission to Parkside Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

If yesterday’s poem demonstrated how my associations had loosened (in the psychotic sense), if it betrayed the way my brain was processing (or not processing, as the case may be) something we’ll loosely call information, then today’s piece provides the same kind of evidence, indicating even more strongly how strange my “thinking” had become. 

parkside hospital       

     “I am in my own mind, / I am locked in the wrong house.”

      —Anne Sexton, “For the Year of the Insane”

you wonder why I am sick but
you must come to understand
that apple trees drop apples
before they’re ripe and the
apples rot.
you must come to understand
that I am made to think of
kitchen utensils and screwdrivers
which belong in separate
drawers but which for me
are all mixed up with cotton
balls and alcohol and clothes
pins that are used to
hang laundry on the line.
doing laundry is a difficult
chore.  i have trouble getting
the spots out, getting blood
out of panty crotches, so that
when they dry, they dry stiff
more like cardboard than cotton.
(25 march 1990)

I apparently went round and round with this during my stay at the hospital, as I have several variations in my journal.  I won’t bore you with the embarrassing awfulness of any others.

Please know though, that I have no earthly idea what this means and will rightly claim the insanity defense, for what it’s worth.  What was I thinking?  Likely, a strong case could be made that I wasn’t thinking with anything remotely resembling reason, let alone sanity.

But then again, maybe I’m looking at this the wrong way, maybe my inability to make sense of this is a lesson in learning to develop empathy for myself, for who I was at that time.

How scared I must have been!  How confused! 

And what about others, the ones who are still struggling, right now–in real-time? 

Let’s remember them————————

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
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

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?

Asylum Seekers (Another Chapter in the Chronicle of Crazy)

Note: This piece continues the story of my psychiatric hospitalization in the spring 1990 (begun two posts back).  To read part 1 of this sequence, “Another Chapter in the Chronicle of Crazy,” click here.  To read part 2, “Forgetting the Seclusion Room ,” click herePart 2 concludes with the following sentence:

But mostly I walked that hospital hall alone, alternately fighting and forgetting a psychosis that whiplashed between extremes of nothingness and nowhere . . . .

. . . . This whiplashing made me acutely aware of my own nothingness, the fact that at the center of myself a huge hole swallowed and indeed devoured all I thought I knew about myself and the world around me.

I was nothing.

The world around me a vacuum—nothing but emptiness sucking.

Suddenly my experience of myself shifted.  I was not who I thought I was.   

I was nobody.

I was nowhere.

I saw myself stripped of all seeming substance, of all that seemed solid and predictable in the face of free-fall.  I was naked and drowning—bare to the glare of what others called crazy.

If I was indeed, out of touch with reality, as the doctors told me, what did that mean?  And if I couldn’t trust my own mind, what could I trust? 

Inevitably, this possibility that I couldn’t or shouldn’t trust myself terrified me.  And my mind, though insane, was adaptive enough to not consciously fear itself.  Instead, I displaced this terror in all directions, becoming terrified of everything—terrified of nothing.   I couldn’t articulate at the time exactly what I feared.  I was only and always overcome with dread.  I knew something was terribly wrong.

As I look back on it now, I imagine I wanted out.  But not so much out of the hospital, as out my own mind, a mind that, if insane, was no longer an asylum in its own right.

As Anne Sexton said:

O mother of the womb
did I come here for blood alone?
O little mother,
I am in my own mind,
I am locked in the wrong house.  (“For the Year of the Insane”)

So in the end, it was terror that made me walk that hospital hall alone–alone in the most existential sense–exiled not only from the rest of the world by mental illness, but exiled by mental illness from myself.

This is the terror of mental illness–terror from which we seek the ultimate asylum–an asylum that ends stigma, increases awareness, guarantees hope for all who suffer.

Ultimately, this is what it means to “reinvent the event horizon”–to bring back from the brink all who suffer, all who are marginalized by any stigma, especially the stigma that is mental illness.


Since May 1st marks the beginning of Mental Health Awareness Month, I will republish this entire 3 post sequence as one on Monday, May 2nd, along with art that illustrates my journey.   In an effort to raise awareness and erase stigma, please share these posts with those you love sometime over the next month.

Forgetting the Seclusion Room (Another Chapter in the Chronicle of Crazy)

(To read the post that precedes this, click here.)

I don’t remember arriving at Parkside Hospital, a psychiatric facility in Tulsa, Oklahoma; neither do I recall anything about the admissions process.  I don’t remember how my Maltese Lizzy came to be kenneled at the vet’s office, who took me to the hospital or if it’s possible I even drove myself.

Indeed, it’s these gaps in memory that I remember most. And this fact of forgetting remains my ongoing issue with memoir.  How does one memoir without memory?  How does one write the empty space where the story should be?

These gaps complicate the writing process, and the effort to fill in the details, to flesh out the facts, force me to depend on journals I kept at the time.  For example, the night I so unceremoniously removed the carpet from my living room, the night before the hospital admission I allude to above, I described an intense sense of alienation and confusion:

I know that other people must not experience the world in the way I do, because if they did, the world would be a very different place and I wouldn’t feel so strange—so marginal—so near the edge and falling off.  I have a kind of hyper-consciousness that nearly drives me crazy.  I feel driven.  I feel haunted.  I feel so alone in my experience . . . . I feel out of control and at the mercy of my own mind . . . . I’m so alone and so afraid . . . . I feel like a bad human being—like I’m just not good at it.  I feel like a failure.

I can’t control my thoughts.  I think thoughts I don’t want to think.  I feel out of control.

I feel like I can’t be true to myself and live in this world, like I want to wear bones on my clothes—on the outside pinned to me.

I don’t remember anything about this bizarre urge to “wear bones,” but skeletal fashion statement aside, I also don’t recall the particulars of this admission to Parkside in March of 1990.  However, by the time I left Tulsa in 1995, I had been admitted to this same facility any number of times and do recall a few facts about the place.

The building had three floors, for example, and a basement—the first an intake unit and small lobby, the second a locked but moderately restricted unit, and the third a locked but highly restricted one.

I was admitted to the third floor.  I remember a day room at one end, 4 dormitory style rooms at the other, and a hallway connecting the two. The hall had a nurses’ station along one wall, an elevator on the other. 

With windows along two walls, the day room was large, filled with square wooden tables with white Formica tops, four chairs at each.  We patients spent most of our time in this open space: played games, watched television, ate meals. 

The patient rooms were bare and barrack-like.  With a partition down the middle, two beds on one side, two on the other, each room also contained two desks and four small wardrobes.  Bathrooms, one per room, boasted, a toilet and shower stall, not to mention a metal mirror above each sink—no glass allowed, lest patients break it and purposefully injure themselves.

Behind the nurse’s station was another hall that was locked and off-limits to patients.  Here were a number of seclusion rooms, each with a single bed bolted to the floor in the center of the space—each equipped with 4 point restraints—wide leather cuffs that strapped wrists and ankles to the bed.   I spent time alone in these rooms when I was particularly distressed, but only once in 4 point restraints. 

I walked the hall between these dorms and day room, repeatedly, regularly.  The antipsychotic medication made me restless, so I paced, feeling the walls with my palms, an effort to comfort myself, to calm the cacophony of crazy that worsened every evening. 

One nurse was kind and would sometimes walk with me, attempting to reassure me, to lessen the aloneness, to quiet the chatter in my head, the echo of children’s voices saying senseless, sing-song rhymes.

But mostly I walked that hall alone, alternately fighting and forgetting a psychosis that whiplashed between extremes of nothingness and nowhere.

(to be continued)