Manic Implosion: Venturing into the third section of Damon Galgut’s In a Strange Room without warning

About a month ago I had an opportunity to talk briefly with Damon Galgut following his appearance at Wordfest here in Calgary. He published his first novel at 18 and I shared that I had wanted to write when I was younger but wanted to live first, completely unprepared for the messy and complicated path my life would take. So we spoke about the challenge of winnowing out a story that runs close to bone from the detritus of life lived. He pointed to my newly signed copy of In a Strange Room, his 2010 Booker short-listed novel, and admitted that in this, of all his works, he felt that he had most closely captured the essence of his self. And he achieved it, I later learned, by telling three tales which recount actual events from his life and feature a character named Damon from perspectives that often shift from first to third person to a detached observer, sometimes within the same sentence or paragraph.

So far so good.

7199962The first two sections involve travel and more or less unresolved interactions and attractions between the remembered Damon character and people he meets while he frets and wanders through parts of Europe and Africa with a restless inablity to settle himself. The prose is tight and evocative with the open ended reflections and ambiguity that feature in my favourite of his writings. But I was sucker punched by Part Three: The Guardian. Not only is it harrowing in its intensity, but the devastating action centres around a woman in the throws of a full-blown suicidal manic pychosis. I could not help but relate as a caregiver but more critically as someone who has experienced the full impact of manic psychosis from the inside. My blessing, if there is one, is that I have never been especially suicidal or inclined to self-harm, nor do I drink or use drugs. All of those factors are added to the mix in this account.

And it takes place in India.

It is not a secret that his close friend Anna is not in a good way, when Damon agrees to allow her to accompany him on the first part of a trip to India. He has been before and intends to stay and write for several months, but it is thought that the change of scenery might be a positive and healing experience for Anna. Her life is beginning to unravel around her and the creative, vivacious woman he has known for many years is tipping dangerously close to the edge. With a stock of mood stabilizers, tranquilizers and sleeping pills she promises not to drink or indulge in recreational drugs on this excursion – a vow sullenly defied as soon as they take flight. Her mood escalates, and behaviour becomes increasingly frenzied and unpredictable from there, culminating in an intentional overdose while her already weary guardian is close at hand but not paying close attention.

Throughout this process and the weeks that follow, Damon’s concern is stretched beyond affection to annoyance to guilt and back again. While Anna fights for her life in ICU, a British nurse and another couple from the village where they are staying are co-opted into a tag team to provide support and relief for Damon at the hospital where cockroaches and rats scurry about and, although care is free, all supplies from bandages to drugs to all other medical items much be purchased by friends or relatives who trek back and forth to the pharmacy with lists. As Anna begins to recover and relocate to more crowded and unattended wards, she not only becomes increasingly volatile and unpredictable, but her erstwhile crew of attendants have to attend to all her care including propping her over the bedpan and cleaning up the splashing mess afterwards.

Care for her actual mental health concerns is not part of the treatment plan.

To make matters worse, attempted suicide is a criminal offense in India and the police are awaiting Anna’s release so they can detain her. An escape must be planned and executed. Finally she is safely returned to South Africa, but she and her support network are shattered and strained at both ends. Sadly her successful suicide is only delayed, not avoided. And her traumatic spiral leaves those who love her and even those who get caught up in her whirlwind of self destruction, with wounds that will take their own time to heal long after she finally achieves the rest, or self martyrdom, that her illness drives her to desire.

No one wins.

My own manic psychosis was maintained to my home where the refrigerator filled with inedible meals and my children destroyed the yard while I struggled to make it through the days. As my grasp on reality slipped and the long standing issues I had been fighting off for years bubbled and distorted in my mind, a month of growing horror ended in a morning of escalating fear and violence before the ambulance finally arrived. Diagnosis and treatment of my bipolar disorder helped explain much, but in the end the very real issues of identity that had haunted me for most my life still existed. The difficult years that followed would see the end of a long marriage and, the beginning of a new authentic existence for me.

Anna was committed to death in her madness. In mine I found life.

I finished reading this book late this afternoon at a cafe where I frequently go to clear my mind and write. I could not put it down until I reached the final pages. As I stumbled out of the cafe into the biting cold and snow of this premature winter evening, I felt devastated and emotionally wrung out. As painful as it was to read, for those of us who live with manic depression or care for someone who does (and I do both), the third part of In a Strange Room is essential reading.

But consider yourself warned.

Want to write? Start with reading.

It has taken me over a week to come down after volunteering with and attending events at our recent word festival. I entered into the week slightly down and was spiraling up within a few days. If it was a test of my ability to return to regular work, this is clear evidence that my mixed state is still far from stable. But I would not have missed it for the world.

It was an absolute thrill to mingle with people who are passionate about books and listen to Canadian and international authors talk about their craft. Whenever an author was asked about his or her influences, a love of the magic of books and literature shone through in their responses. If asked about advice for want-to-be writers, the common answer was read, read, read… read widely and drink deep from the wealth that books have to offer.

The stash of books I bought at the event, not including the titles I purchased or read in advance. Volunteering in the bookstore can be expensive!
The stash of books I bought at the event, not including the titles I purchased or read in advance. Volunteering in the bookstore can be expensive!

And so there was this man I crossed paths with at various venues throughout the festival. He told me he was a writer. Patting the breast pocket of his jacket he indicated that he felt he was getting ready to pull together his work. He had a gold pass so I saw him a number of times but always alone, ordering a coffee or buying a glass of wine at the bar. He would acknowledge me and we would exchange a few words on whatever interview or panel we was waiting for. But I never witnessed him engaged in animated discussion with fellow attendees.

The solitary man at a venue where excited discussions about books were regularly erupting between strangers is an anomaly.

On Saturday afternoon I encountered him in the lobby. He was carrying a copy of Sweetland by Michael Crummey. I got the impression he was done with the festival regardless of the major authors still to come. He said, “I have decided, this is the one that impresses me. Let’s see if he writes as well as he talks.” I responded that I had recently obtained a copy of his previous work Galore, the novel Crummey described as the one he feels he was born to write and that I wanted to read that first. He looked at me with surprise and said, “You mean you have heard of him?”

Suddenly it dawned on me that this man, the self-described writer, does not read at all. I suppose he thought he he would be able to absorb all the final inspiration and direction from this one book. If he did not know one of the best known Canadian contemporary authors and poets, even if he had never actually read one of his books, I could not help but wonder how he imagined himself ready to pull his accumulated scratchings into a final product.

With a full evening and day still ahead, he had selected his role model. I never saw him at the theatre again.

Even if it left me swinging up on my attempt to stablize this recovery from my recent manic episode, I was deeply inspired by the talks I attended, delighted by the company of fellow book lovers and especially grateful to a few authors who took a little extra time to encourage me as writer. I was regularly reminded that it is never too late to start.

And I am never lacking for books. In fact they seem to multiply in my life on their own as any truly avid reader knows.

Further reflections on the void left by suicide: deeper appreciation for Miriam Toews

Miriam Toews is one of Canada’s most celebrated novelists. She has drawn heavily on her Mennonite heritage filtered through the ability to explore the messiness of ordinary life with a wonderful sense of humour. Recently I reviewed her Giller nominated All My Puny Sorrows, a novel which is deeply inspired her sister’s suicide. The novel itself, while wicked funny in places, left me wanting more of a connection to Elf, the deeply depressed character. Her “healthy” sister, the narrator, never really seemed to understand but rather struggled with her own reactions – the practical and the reckless.

Tonight I had the good fortune to attend a panel called “Darkness Visible” in which Miriam participated. The theme explored by the three somewhat diverse novelists was focused on looking at whether dark themes, personal or political, can be fully examined in literature. The consensus I suppose was that despite the challenges and limitations, the ambition is valid and important.

swing lowBecause I already own a digital copy of All My Puny Sorrows I purchased a copy of Swing Low: A Life for this event. Written in memory of her father, a well loved teacher and pillar of the community who took his own life about a decade before his daughter followed suit, this slim volume deals more explicitly with manic depression and suicide. I only recently became aware of it. Given my own recovery process I am thinking this is more the story I was looking for with All My Puny Sorrows. Coincidentally, an audience member at the event had grown up in the same Manitoba community as Toews. Her father had been his teacher and he began to cry as he shared his shock when he had learned how much pain and sadness the family was going through. Miriam had to dry her eyes as well.

That is the true impact of suicide and it spreads beyond families.

When I had the pleasure to speak to Miriam after the event I confessed my experience with All My Puny Sorrows, explaining that I was reading it in the aftermath of my own breakdown and, sadly, in the light of Robin William’s suicide. I told her I suspect that the book I was hoping for probably lies in part in this earlier, more serious volume. But then we both admitted that unless we are ourselves are burdened with the desperate desire to let go of this life, we can only ever observe from the outside. We also shared our mutual fears for our children inheriting the same genetic disorder.

I am deeply impressed with Miriam Toews’ desire to speak about mental illness and with her wide appeal in this country, hopefully her message will reach an audience that needs to hear it. I am looking forward to finding out how she explores the bipolar disorder in her family through her father’s story, unaware at the time of course, that the same event would strike her family again.

She told the audience that if writing her most recent book taught her one thing it is to hold tight to the joy in life.

A worthy goal for us all.

Good words and a smile (oh and a good book too)

Wordfest, our annual literary festival is underway. After several months struggling with the fall out from a serious mental health episode this week is my first serious self test, my chance to explore my level of stamina and commitment. It is also an opportunity to spend time with people who love books and listen to great writers talk about their work.

I started with two volunteer shifts and some selected presentations I wanted to see and, as you might suspect, the volunteer commitment portion quickly expanded.

Am I exhausted yet? A little. I will likely sleep for a day when it’s all over but I have so desperately needed to get out in the world. Admittedly I am buffered with medication but the creeping anxiety stays in the car when I get into the venues.

Now if I can find a way for the medical system to prescribe a literary solution I might just be able to live with this bipolar beast. I just have to be able to afford to eat too!

Today has lifted my spirits more than I can remember in months. I had one single volunteer shift as a bookseller at one of the smaller venues, but I was nervous simply because I was expecting a panel discussion featuring one of my favourite authors. When I arrived to discover that the other writer had been forced to cancel at the last minute, the presentation had been redesigned as an hour long one-to-one interview with South African novelist Damon Galgut.

The host was scrambling but I could not have been happier.

American edition of Arctic Summer in case anyone is wondering -a nicer cover than the Canadian/UK I think.
American edition of Arctic Summer in case anyone is wondering -a nicer cover than the Canadian/UK I think.

I have always been apprehensive about meeting my heroes, for fear of disillusion. Nonetheless I had come prepared to have my books signed and hopeful for even a few words with a writer whose works I admire so much. Although we did have books to sell I noticed that I was not the only person who had arrived with their own copies of his latest work, Arctic Summer, already in tow. This novel is an imagined biographical account of the complex personal and emotional factors that led E M Forester through the extended  writer’s block that ultimately produced his greatest work, A Passage to India. As an historical novel it is a departure for Galgut (and one he admitted he would be in no rush to repeat) but rich with a deep affection for India and the driving forces of unrequited desire.

I confess I abandoned my post presentation bookselling duties early to make sure I didn’t miss out on the opportunity to have my copies of In a Strange Room and Arctic Summer signed. To be honest I have yet to see an unpleasant author at any of the events I’ve helped with, but it meant more than I can measure for Damon to take the time to, ask me about myself and encourage me that it is never too late to start writing. I am grateful for his kind words.

This experience, simple and important for me, has lifted my spirits in a way that feels healthier than the meds alone. It feels good to be human again. I have commitments with Wordfest right through until Sunday evening, but for now I am enjoying this warm feeling.

Aiming to see the bright side

For someone who recognizes the swings of bipolar disorder reaching back into late adolescence or early adulthood, I have had precious little acquaintance with depression. Unfortunately I remember it best as a stepping stone on the way to hypomania and, at worst, the door into a hallway leading up to eventual mania.

Now, on the heels of a drawn out period of manic and mixed state agitation I am settled into a pit of anxious depression. Bone weary I find it hard to sleep. With long days to fill I find it hard to focus. Plans and decisions loom on the horizon but I find it hard to concentrate. I make an effort to go out somewhere everyday but before long I feel nauseated and eager to get home.  And now my psychiatrist is unavailable so my faithful doctor has set about looking for someone else to help me assess the effectiveness of the medication I have relied on for so many years, just in case it is time for a change.

And the thought of a medication change is about as comforting as the thought of having the carpet pulled out from under me without warning.

Copyright JM Schreiber 2014  No sign of last week's storm
Copyright JM Schreiber 2014
No sign of last week’s storm

Today I made my own small effort to take back some control. It was a glorious warm September day, with only the piles of branches that litter the streets, sidewalks and parks giving testament to last week’s unexpected snowstorm. I made my way downtown to the offices of Wordfest, our annual literary festival, to see if they might still have a need for any volunteers.

One advantage of my current inability to work is that for the first time in years I am free to take part in this major festival. Typically it coincided with the busiest time of year at my former job, so volunteering or attending events was impossible. Now I am committed to helping out with two events on the 14th of October. I was cautious to warn them that my energy reserves are uncharacteristically  low at the moment but it is my sincere hope that in a month there will be a little more juice flowing. I can’t quite picture it getting worse.

In the meantime I have a plenty of reading to occupy my time in advance of the special visiting author events I hope to attend over the course of the festival. The support of my doctor and therapist is vital, I know, but Wordfest gives me a tangible goal to look forward to – an essential light at the end of the tunnel when everything else seems so uncertain.