Literary prescription: The Sound of Things Falling

I am now a few weeks beyond the significant manic episode that has ground my life and work to a halt and precipitated a sudden crash into depression, anger and frustration. The crisis did not happen overnight and the healing will take time but I feel some measure of relief that my ability to lose myself in a book has been returning. Some additional anti-anxiety meds are helping too but I am trying to remain open to literary whims – reviews, suggestions from readers I respect, stray quotes that catch my attention. It seems to be critical medicine for me.

Fortunately there is also that wellspring of rewarding fictional riches, The International Impac Dublin Literary Award. Each year nominations are commissioned from public libraries around the world to create an extensive longlist from which a shortlist of 10 titles is ultimately drawn. It is inevitable that works in translation tend to feature prominently both  in the shortlist and among the archive of winners. Purists can argue over the Booker all they want, this is the award I watch.

winner_slide_2014This year’s winner, just announced in June, is The Sounds of Things Falling by Colombian author Juan Gabriel Vasquez, translated by Canadian Anne McLean. This book had been waiting on my ereader for some time, but in light of its recent honour, I thought it might be time for a closer look. A few pages in and I was hooked. Billed as a literary thriller I was expecting a perhaps an entertaining diversion from my own troubles but in truth I soon found myself  deep in a remarkably intimate account of the impact that traumatic experiences have on those directly effected and those around them in ways we often are powerless to predict or prevent. Whether the trauma results from actions chosen or events over which an individual has little or no control the fallout over days, month and years can lead to fateful decisions, ruptured relationships and deep wounds. At the core of this novel are two strangers, brought together through an act of violence who find temporary refuge in a sharing their own experiences of coming of age in Bogota at the height of the drug fueled wars of the 1970 and 80s.

Personally, as I struggle to make sense of the pressures, stresses and events that collaborated to make such a mess of my recent months, it is difficult not to vacillate between anger and regret. Although I know that mood disorders play havoc from the inside out and that the person who is suffering knows something is wrong, they may be slow or even unable to define the nature of the condition, and most certainly incapable of stopping it on a dime. Playing the “if only” card serves no significant benefit. As Vasquez’s narrator Antonio muses as he sets to record the experiences he wishes to share:

“There is no more disastrous mania, no more dangerous whim than the speculation over roads not taken.”

I was able to lose myself in this novel but it did not serve as quite the distraction I expected from a “literary thriller”. There was a disturbing real world resonance that I could not have anticipated. The Sounds of Things Falling is more than simply a title, it is an experience repeated and echoed throughout the novel. From a airshow stunt gone terribly wrong, to a fatal drive by shooting, to the devastating crash of a jetliner. Because a key character was a pilot, de Saint-Exupéry‘s The Little Prince also features as a beloved childhood tale. It was disturbing to imagine the little prince asking the pilot if he also fell out of the sky when bodies were literally falling out of the sky as Malaysia Airlines MH17 exploded over a disputed region of the Ukraine.

Trauma, small and personal or wide-reaching and global and all shades in between have always marked human existence. It divides and unites us in large and small ways. the complexity of that experience is, for me, one of the primary themes explored in this worthy literary award winner.

Negotiating tangled emotions

The aftermath of madness leaves its own measure of grief.  Because the manic end of the bipolar experience is by nature expansive, the episode is rarely one that occurs in isolation. At the very least, strange, anxious and pressured calls are made. Sometimes to strangers. Sometimes to those you know. Friends and families may observe the cracks as they start to spread. The first tremors may be intermittent. They can look like occasional or periodic moments of stress – the bad days anyone can have. When things start to spiral out of control I suspect it is already too late. For the person inside the experience, the pressure, the racing thoughts, the inability to sleep or find relief from the escalating crisis becomes a space in which all perspective is lost.

And generally there is damage.

At the most severe there can be serious physical harm, violence toward the self or others. More typically major manic episodes impact relationships, bank accounts or jobs, sometimes beyond repair. Yet in the middle of it all is a person who is very ill, who will need time to recover physically and emotionally for whom there is frequently very little understanding or sympathy. Especially when they are isolated.

14629062611_de5f459467_zAs I struggle to cope with the rotating cycles of sadness, embarrassment, anger and fear following my recent breakdown I am aware that because no one from my workplace has contacted me, no one has any idea how severely ill I have been. They just remember the last days of fractured functioning before I was finally able to get away from the office. Four weeks later I am exhausted, still unable to regulate my sleep and uncomfortable driving beyond my immediate neighbourhood. When I am deemed well enough to return to work my employers will be able to imagine this “illness” was all a convenient ruse and I have reason to believe it will be held against me. The nine years I worked there and the senior management position I held under increasingly toxic work conditions will mean nothing because it was always an environment in which your work was never acknowledged or appreciated. My mistake was to care enough to stay because I believed in the work we were doing.

The emotional roller coaster is the worst. It is interfering with the comfort and enjoyment I have always found in reading and photography. It finds me moaning and wallowing in self pity when I’m not trying to push grief and anger behind me. And my young adult kids and 80 year-old mother deserve a break from having to listen to it all.

And I would much rather be blogging about books and ideas, not the black heartache of depression.

Reining in the manic mind

Manic thinking is big thinking. Massive. As mania progresses it becomes impossible not to become overwhelmed by the hugeness of the circumstances you perceive them. It is not unusual to feel caught up in the frantic spin of galaxies, astronomical or closer to home. Thinking is logical but as speeds ramp up, your judgements and interpretations can slide off the rails. The first time I was seriously ill, back in my 30s, I am sure there were some very grounded personal and even hormonal factors at play but, in the spectacular end I was experiencing definite delusions.

They say you mercifully forget those moments of rambling, crazed phone calls, strange behaviours. The kids crying in their rooms. The morning the ambulance finally arrives. I have not been blessed by such amnesiac elements.

With my recent breakdown, the stressors building to the moment of collapse were situational, profound and prolonged. They built over months, a year maybe. Then the roller coaster crested and the decline came on rapidly. And I was the last to notice. My workplace had been through a period of turmoil but as we tried to move forward I became increasingly obsessed by the massiveness of the work that I felt needed to be done to pull the agency together and make up for years of underfunding and failure to plan for the future.

My anxieties may not have been entirely misplaced. But I could no longer stop and see the good, to measure the necessity to take one step at a time and realize that moving forward is a process, not an emergency. I was so consumed with the forest that I lost sight of the trees.

Rainy day solitudeAs I am beginning to heal I am aware that I am still prone to a significant measure of massive thinking but I am also starting to doubt myself. I find myself wondering if the entire nightmare was of my own making. I have to remember that I was not the only staff member to express serious concerns, and that everyonewas impacted by the stress. One co-worker has battled stomach ulcers, another who is never ill was laid low by the flu for weeks.

I almost lost my sanity.