Capturing madness on the page

I started this blog in a fit of manic energy not realizing how very close I was to running over the edge into full blown madness. And now I find myself writing in and around the experience as best I can, unpacking and worrying myself into the future with a level of anxiety that seems to greet me refreshed every morning before I even crawl out of bed.

Taken in the aftermath of major flooding last year this looks like how I feel sometimes... Copyright JM Schreiber 2013
Taken in the aftermath of major flooding last year this looks like how I feel sometimes…
Copyright JM Schreiber 2013

With my original diagnosis I read all the available materials and although it was pre-internet (imagine!) I spent a lot of time at the library. This time around I find myself in world where so many fellow travelers on the road in and out of sanity are busy scribbling their way along. I have been and will always be selective in what I chose to share about myself with others. Great for maintaining privacy, not so great for making new friends. So I struggle every day with how or what to add to the dialogue.

I think I am personally drawn to creative expressions… photography, poetry and writing but am not sure where to start. I suspect madness, sanity and that huge area in between is best met sideways. So no memoirs for me. Photography is good outlet but I lack the discipline to take it to the next level. I would like to capture that moment when reality and one’s experience of reality begin to part ways. It is such a subtle process with manic depression the way I experience it and I imagine I am not alone in this regard. To those outside, unless they are highly attuned to changes in your patterns of behaviour, the transition can be unnoticed for a time.

And then before you know it you are picking up the pieces or retreating from the world or both.

To date, the finest literary account of slowly growing madness, that I have read, is William Golding’s The Spire. This novel imagines the construction of a 404 foot spire atop a medieval cathedral (inspired by Salisbury Cathedral in England) and is narrated from within the mind of Dean Jocelin. The dean is a man who has attained his position by curious family connection rather than earning it on a solid foundation of faith. As he envisions and directs the construction of the spire, tuberculosis in his spine advances to the point of driving him into a psychotic state. At first he interprets the sensation caused by his infection as angels at his back, sure evidence of God’s blessings. However as his pain and madness grows he becomes increasingly erratic, unstable and irrational. It drives him to conflicts with the master builder, sexual obsessions with a woman, paranoia, jealousy and possibly murder.

William Golding - The SpireReading with an online reading group added to the richness of the experience of this novel, but for me personally it captured so vividly the sensation of gradually and fully losing grip on reality that I had during my first severe manic episode. By the final moments before the ambulance arrived to whisk me away I was no longer able to distinguish between what I had interpreted as a mental breakdown that I could handle and the creeping fear that the Devil was tormenting me. It was a horrifying moment.

For poor Dean Jocelin because he is not only mad but dying of tuberculosis, his last days and hours are vivid mental and physical torment. It is up to the reader to decide if his soul finds any peace at the end.

Luckily my more recent manic episode did not end with as much drama as the first because someone finally commented on how fast I was talking and I had the shocking realization that I was sick. But the damage was already done all the same. I just wish I could help those who experienced my behaviour understand but I am not certain they wish to listen. And honestly, can I be a more reliable narrator of my own manic experiences than The Spire‘s mad dean?

Time – too much or never enough

During the past year, I was haunted by an overwhelming pressure that I needed to be able to slow down, take stock of my feelings. I was becoming aware of a wall coming down between myself and my emotional grounding.

At work a toxic environment was brewing as our director became increasingly paranoid and unstable. My daughter was trying to impress an unreasonable employer at her own workplace while, at home, my son who has long struggled with his own mental health and addiction issues was going through an especially difficult, potentially violent series of conflicts with friends. Just to keep my head above water I was going through the paces. A familiar process. Single parents tend to develop this coping skill.

It is strange how life gives you time to reflect when you need it the most.

Summer grassAlthough I have lived with the ups and downs of a mood disorder for most of my life, a full manic break and diagnosis did not come until I was in my mid 30s. Until that time I felt like I was lost at sea, battling waves I could not put a name to, but hanging on and, as much as possible, faking my way through the years. After all, unless you know better, you figure that everyone else is essentially doing the same thing.

With the diagnosis and other critical underlying issues that subsequently came to light, my life started to make sense. I felt I had some answers, some sense of a guideline. It was not an easy prescription and there were costs, including the end of a long marriage, but I prided myself that I had persevered, that I had survived. Although I was late to the game I was able to build a career that allowed me to support my children, buy home and start to put away some money for the future.

Now the reality of the diagnosis has cruelly returned to confront me leaving me unable to know if returning to the job I had is either possible or even desirable. I find myself re-evaluating what I want for myself.

Something that haunts me this go round is the notion that people with mental illnesses, bipolar in particular, have a shorter life expectancy. Although the reasons, methods of study and populations under consideration is not clear this is not a factor I ever considered before. Funny thing, we are bombarded with the message that we have to be prepared to support ourselves financially for longer than previously expected and yet we see people die prematurely – of natural or unnatural causes – all the time.

Fact is, life offers no guarantees.

Read. Travel. Write.

Either everything has meaning or nothing has meaning.

Too anxious to read?

It should be a luxury to be freed from the demands of a regular work schedule, with no shortage of books to read and time to stop and reflect on where one is at in life. In fact that is the mandate, so be it, of my present circumstances. I am on sick leave with no pressure to return to the workplace and an expectation of a reasonable income to see me through the next few months. At the moment I know I am too fragile to consider working anywhere and my employer has been less than forthcoming as to whether they foresee a place for me in the future. I just know it would be reckless to engage in any employment related discussion or decision making for a while yet. So I find myself with time on my hands.

I should be reading more. Yet I feel like I read more when I had barely a minute to spare.

I have been cocooning myself with stacks of books and, like any book addict, have continued to browse for and purchase more. I have four underway – two old school paper format, two electronic – one serious literary, one non-fiction, one genre fiction and a collection of short stories. Each one is excellent but I seem to be struck with some inability to stay put without great anxiety building and the sense that I should be somewhere else. Or rather in some other book. So I put down one and pick up another.

Sometimes I try to take a walk, grab my neglected camera hoping to find inspiration, or at least distraction, in these gorgeous summer days. That’s what I did today, but I happened across a sidewalk sale outside the most fantastic bookstore along my way and came home with six more books!

I’m not used to anxiety. It seems to eat away at an ability to focus in a way that neither the ups or the downs of my regulated mood disorder ever has. The overwhelming sense of unease, the unknowns, the uncertainties appear to be keeping me from finding solace in the written word.

Boardwalk into the darkHopefully this shall soon pass because it would be a crime to worry away such valuable reading time.

Reflections on a most intriguing Booker nominee – The Wake

6898212431_742cf14ae7_zSo the Booker Prize Longlist for 2014 was announced this week and, as much as I like to think that this is a list that does not hold quite the same seal of approval and impact that it once had for me I must confess that I am a sucker for these lists all the same. Generally, over time, I do manage to read more more than a few of the long and or short listed titles, and in doing so, I am invariably exposed to authors I might not have otherwise read. I am not likely to radically alter my looming to be read list just to have a go at a few of these titles in advance, but I did want to take a moment to look back on the most unlikely contender and, as it happens, the only one of these books that I have already read. The Guardian review that brought this title to my attention was so deeply intriguing I just had to read it as soon as possible. I have only just learned that it was a crowd sourced project, a factor that makes its appearance on the Booker Longlist that much more, shall we say, against the norm.

The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth is an historical novel set in the years immediately following the Battle of Hastings from the perspective of the very ordinary and simple farm and townspeople who were watching the world they knew turned upside down by a foreign invader. The magic of this amazing tale comes through a very creative and effective use of language. It is written entirely in a shadow tongue designed to evoke the feel and mindset of Old English while retaining accessibility for those of us who are not OE scholars. It may sound like a gimmick but the approach actually affords a unique immersive experience.

WakeKingsnorth relies on much authentic vocabulary without being unnecessarily rigid, while recreating the syntax and common spellings of Old English (using only the letters in use at the time). As a reader it takes a while to develop a feel for the language. At the beginning I found myself translating the directly in my head, the way I do with my rudimentary French, but soon that process fell away. It helped when I discovered that there was a most illuminating author’s note on the reasons for his approach to creating this language and I would suggest that a reader review this early on. I read the book on a Kindle as that was the only edition readily available in Canada at the time so I did not realize the supplementary sections, glossary and extensive bibliography existed until I was well into the book!

What takes this small novel beyond a purely literary or historical exercise is the skill with which Kingsnorth brings his chosen narrator to life. Buccmaster of Holland, is a proud socman or freeman landholder, who leads a small band of self-styled greenmen in guerilla warfare against the Norman invaders. They make for a rather motley crew and our leader is no Hollywood inspired superhero. As the tale unfolds we become increasingly aware that this coarse, paranoid, prejudiced man is clinging to a deeply superstitious tradition that was on its way to being replaced by Christianity long before the French arrived. We find ourselves bound to an increasingly delusional man with dark secrets of his own. Kingsnorth himself describes this novel (his first) as a post-apocalyptic tale set 1000 years in the past. Of course it also has strong echoes in the vast number of occupations and conflicts, large and small, that continue to haunt communities and cultures throughout the world today.

I first read this novel three months ago and loved it. However I look back on it with some measure of discomfort as I now continue to come to terms with the fall out of from a serious manic episode. In the leadership role I held at my workplace I became increasingly stressed under mounting pressure and, although I can’t remember, I must have seemed erratic, irritable and well, unstable. The truth of madness, is that you cannot see it from inside. For a long time you may sense that something is wrong but in the end you lose all insight and judgement. The narrator who guides us though The Wake, is a complex troubled character, but given his challenges and his panic at seeing his world – on the fundamentally economic and spiritual level – slipping out of his grasp, his sanity is at stake. I cannot imagine I would have fared any better.

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.

Stubbornly reading through a breakdown

With sincere apologies to David Mitchell, I have been reading myself through the crest and early weeks of the fall of a mental health crisis with his novel The Ten Thousand Autumns of Jacob De Zoet. Probably not fair to him or me. I am not a speed reader but I can7141642 generally manage 4-5 books a month. I embarked on this voyage with the Guardian Reading Group in early June and finally closed the last page today.

I know that reviews were mixed when this book was published in 2010 but I would not suggest this as a companion for a manic episode. It was not bad or entirely uninteresting (though I confess I preferred the graphic turn of the 18th century medically graphic scenes, shades of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey–Maturin novels where you have to wonder how anyone survived the surgical interventions, let alone the nautical warfare). Although the era and setting of this historical – and for Mitchell of Cloud Atlas fame –  remarkably straighforward tale I think it could have been much more coherent and tightly paced.

I think that I stuck to this book more as a testament to myself that I could pull myself through this period of turmoil which has left me depressed, angry and confused as I sit on sick leave and wonder if my career is in shambles. I was afraid that if I stopped reading, even with the idea that I might return at a later date, I would be giving in to the mass of tangled emotions that my breakdown has left me struggling with. Some level of normalcy has to be maintained and, at this time it has meant reading.

So where now? Something shorter, something magical I should think.

Note to Self

Many years ago I promised myself that someday – someday – I would write. But first I would need to live more, explore more, expand my world so that I would have experiences to draw from. And I would have to read, widely, to learn from the masters.

So I set out to live and I continued to read. The life I have been living has not been the one I imagined. It has been at once more ordinary and more weird that I have ever could have expected. Yet when I think about writing about my own experiences, I am no longer certain just how much I am comfortable sharing. And the more I read, the less confident I am about my own capacity to commit words to page.

Has reading humbled those ambitions of my much younger self?