Until a few years ago, I was unlikely to endorse psychiatric treatment as a positive influence on my poetry. Writing became a cornerstone of my identity when I was a little girl, long before the initial appearance of my mental illness, and my love of words has carried me through some rough times. I am unsure whether my experiences with bipolar disorder (manic-depression) enhanced my writing, but I can say that my poetry helped me live through these experiences.
I survived to write because I wrote to survive. I’ve heard many times that a certain amount of emotional instability is associated with an artistic temperament, but it is unknowable whether poets like Anne Sexton, Robert Lowell, or Sylvia Plath could have written more brilliantly if they’d received adequate treatment for their disorders. Much has been written about poetry as therapy, but little investigating the effect of therapy on poetry. I talked to a number of local poets and artists who’ve been diagnosed with a mental illness and all agreed that their creativity was essential and therapeutic, and most agreed that it would have been impossible for them to live and work without some form of intervention.
Had I not received help, I would not have survived several near-fatal suicide attempts, and I would not have been able to enjoy my present recovery. I’m pretty sure that if I’d died, I would be writing less poetry.
During my sophomore year at the University of Iowa, I found myself in a tumultuous and confusing world that I had no name for. I dropped out of school and went back home to Omaha, Nebraska, where I sought help from a psychologist who diagnosed my problems as schizophrenia. Engaging me in an unhealthy and highly unethical relationship, he convinced me that any medical treatment for severe mental illness “masked the deeper problem” and was “a coward’s way out.” After three years of intense therapy (which he originally claimed was enough to induce a “cure”), the yank and shove of my emotional states only worsened. Though I wrote constantly, little remains–I frequently burned my work as a prelude to suicide attempts.
1980, my 22nd year, was a series of firsts for me: My first psychotic episode and exposure to psychiatric medications, my first involuntary commitment to a state hospital, and my first ECT’s (electroshock treatments). All marked the true beginning of my 25-year battle with what I called “The Normalocracy,” which governed the consensual reality most people shared.
My role in life, I believed, was to experiment with the tension between the “real world” and the “sub-real world” I inhabited alone, determining the destiny of the Universe. One fall day, I set fire to a pile of boxes in a public park, symbolically destroying the world so I could recreate it. However, the Normalocracy defended itself with the local police, who locked me up in a hospital before my ceremony could be completed.
I was forced to endure injections of Prolixin, a powerful antipsychotic medication, and I spent eight months in its suffocating grip. I desperately wished I could escape the wet blanket of sedation and be someone–anyone–else, a situation I later described in the following poem:
Wishing I Were Anyone Else
For example, that man I pass on the street,
his grey trench coat pulled tight around his ears
like a shell, shielding him from the urgency
of my wishes. His tall form is a clipper ship
in full regalia–he’s both ship and
the sailor in the rigging, pitching in a gale,
each essential to the other.
I’ve grown tired of my tiny island.
Or the woman at the checkout with her cart of
beans and bread, green tea and a pint of Rocky Road,
counting out her coins and smiling
though she gets no change.
I’d take her battered shoes,
tight and worn, for this lead
that drags my feet.
Or my friend with her long dark hair
and glistening eyes, her widow’s peak pointing
to the purity of her complexion,
and though she has pains in her stomach, I’d gladly
exchange those to taste life as she
tastes it–a sip of coffee, round and full, a
symphony in her mouth that I no longer hear.
Her spoon clinks on the edge like a little bell–
a reminder that the present is as clear as that.
I wake every morning to a day fuzzy with fog, trapped
in the soggy net of this medicated mind, and not even
coffee can speed my thoughts, which fall singly
like the maddening drip of a faucet.
Maybe if I wish hard enough I can change.
Then I’d be anyone else but me,
out here walking in the mist past the houses
with their squares of yellow light.
(A Chaos of Angels anthology, 2006)
My first therapist claimed that pills and hospitals could only “take my life away,” and unfortunately, this rang true for many years. No matter how I struggled with side effects of various medications, recurring symptoms arose whenever I discontinued the pills. When ill, I heard voices in my head shouting at me: “Liar!” “You phony bitch!” “You’re bullshit!” These hallucinations drowned out my own thoughts, ordering every move I made and commanding me to “off myself.” My vision was impaired by a shifting curtain of colors where dark figures advanced in the periphery. I smelled a strong odor of blood, felt bugs crawling on my legs. My tiny shred of consciousness cowered inside the rubber shell of my skin.
Besides these psychotic symptoms, I had episodes of mania, characterized by overwhelming awareness, acute perspicuity, and joy so intense it was almost painful. I spoke continuously to myself and nearby others, unable to stop the torrent of words, and sometimes the voices in my head began coming out my mouth. My thoughts careened at incredible speeds in this vibrant and shimmering world, and I had no use for food or sleep.
Several manic episodes involved law enforcement personnel. I was arrested for disorderly conduct several times and for stealing the Fire Chief’s squad car from the Omaha Fire Department. Racing down major thoroughfares with lights and siren blaring is an experience I’d be reluctant to give up, even though I spent three terrifying weeks in a maximum security cell at a county hospital.
Had I been allowed pen and paper, I’m sure I would have written some semblance of poetry. During these episodes, I wrote so compulsively that my behavior was categorized as “hypergraphia,” the relentless push to scribble everything down. But I could only produce fragments which, upon examination, fell to pieces like shattered glass. I truly felt more creative, but my disinclination to revise or finish anything gave me little advantage. The longest fragment that has been published follows:
I tasted my arm last week in an arm sandwich I ate just
before going out the door to play in the pond outside where
fish are bigger than the trees and their fantails stream in
the breeze like the breath of death–caught a whiff on the
stairs. It smelled like buckwheat flap jacks and antifreeze.
I could not help but laugh, for the last time I poured
antifreeze on my buckwheat flap jacks, it spilled on my
trousers and opened a curiously wide hole there into a
moonlit place behind someone’s garage. The children were
watching each other, rapt with fascination, as they defecated
in a performance-style show based more on quantity than
quality. I guess we’d all like to be in that picture with
our sticks in hand, poking the faintly steaming mass and
making faces. Such art cannot be sold in the store where I
work. We do not sell that there. We only sell skullcaps
for the workers, overflowing with guitar strings and posies
that force their way up from the roots of all people’s
sorrow. We sell those for 25 cents a piece, and they sell
like hotcakes that have burned so thoroughly they make better
mortarboards themselves, though we don’t sell those out of
season. What brings me back to the point I get lost from is
a sense of embarrassment about my pride, or pride about my
embarrassment, all of which is based loosely on the
profoundly human notion that my nose turns slightly skyward
every time I introduce myself. I’m a bear talking backwards
in the night.
(Another Chicago Magazine, No. 31, 1995)
I wrote dozens of these “muse-ments,” a new genre I developed that “looks like prose but tastes like poetry.” I focussed my energy on the physical sensation of mind flowing to pen and pen to paper, an activity I’ve always found soothing–linking loops and curls to open new worlds with every word. But these exhilarating periods were often followed by depression–an anvil of sadness burdened my chest, rendering my vision grey and fuzzy with tears. I wrote little poetry in this state, but the theme of darkness and death asserted itself many times in my work. An example is my poem “Nine.”
Nine black maids in an empty corridor–
these are the days that have passed.
Threes are the threads that sew them together;
a father, son, and someone’s ghost
are on the road tonight,
eating by matchlight,
sleeping in the ditch.
Each darkened maid could have had a spouse,
each father’s son has a ghost of a chance,
but I have gone too far these days–
dampened my matches, lost my ditch.
The thick black snakes choke on their tails;
I eat myself and cannot swallow. Three
bites, and I take nine breaths,
one for each life I’ve lead.
I’m on the last one.
Nine months in Mama’s belly,
nine years ducking my father’s fist,
nine years since he became a ghost,
nine years more he’s haunted me.
Father, son, and someone’s ghost
are on the road tonight
and I cannot last one life more.
One more night of rain,
one more bite of flesh,
one more night waiting
to be murdered in my sleep–
I lose count.
The alchemy of my imaginings makes Hell
seem so deep; the cycle turns, with no
shadow and no sleep.
(Visions International, No. 53, 1997)
After all this, it may be difficult to understand my objection to the medicines I was required to take. Often, my court-ordered outpatient commitment involved injections and close supervision by mental health authorities. I was threatened with incarceration if I did not comply with their wishes. The tumult of my symptoms was unpleasant, but familiar. I knew of no other self. And the side effects of the older medications nearly destroyed my life–extreme weight gain, a need to sleep 16 to 18 hours a day, drooling, incontinence and a stifling sense of boredom. My curiosity and ability to write vanished, every emotion dulled by this chemical lobotomy. I was in a double bind–damned by the disease I was told I had and damned by the side effects of the “cure.” But I refused to compromise and so spent many years bouncing back and forth between illness and soggy “reality,” between bland complacency and defiant “noncompliance,” with one foot in the gutter and one foot on the curb.
In the world of money and responsibility, I lived my twenties in poverty, unable to keep a job for more than a few weeks. I was homeless for several winter months. I worked a string of lowpaying jobs as nurse’s aide, janitor, bus girl, manual laborer and shift worker at several factories. I donated plasma to afford groceries.
Finally, when it became clear to others that I was not capable of supporting myself, my father filled out the forms for Social Security Disability benefits. I reluctantly signed my name. Within a few months, I received label “disabled.” Although I was told by several doctors that I could never return to college because I’d “never be able to concentrate,” I
finally graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in English from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, nine years after I’d started my education in Iowa City. Despite numerous dropouts caused by illness and hospitalization, I also earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the same school and a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing at the University of Montana in Missoula, where I met my husband in 1990. Mike has been a steady companion since then, patiently weathering the storms of my repeated episodes. His loyalty and support have offered a stability that has long been integral to my recovery.
From 1978 to 2000, I averaged two to three hospitalizations a year, some for a week, others for months, and had little time for “real life.” But my condition has improved remarkably in the last five years, partially due to new medications with fewer side effects. I’ve finally “evened out,” which has proved essential for the growth and discipline of my work.
I also contribute in other ways: I regularly co-teach poetry and writing classes in a day treatment program for mentally ill adults, act as mentor for a recovery education course, and work part-time as a “Residential Sanitation Specialist” for my own cleaning business, “Maid in Montana.” I’ve found I can induce the playful inventiveness of my muse-ments through meditation without the looming threat of becoming ill. My creativity is under better control, despite the romanticized notion that these two terms cannot coexist. I am finding great rewards in producing more quality work than I could possibly have done before.
Wordsworth’s quote comes to mind: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” When I was in the midst of a maelstrom of symptoms, there was no tranquility in which to reflect on the emotions. I feel I owe a great deal to my experiences with bipolar disorder. The screaming highs of a world drenched in beauty and the wrenching lows of a dark and sinister universe form a frame of reference from which to write. Living on the edge of “reality” has been a gift.
Gabriel Heatter, an American radio commentator, said: “Life is never so bad at its worst that it is impossible to live; it is never so good at its best that it is easy to live.” I believe that being in touch with the best of Heaven and the worst of Hell fosters compassion for humanity, and communicating this to others is the highest form of love. I sense that I’ve finally “come out on the other side,” as I sought to do in recreating the Universe.
Poetry has helped me make this transition, and I continue to gather strength from the power of words–the enduring bond that links us all.
Zan Bockes earned an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Montana. Her fiction and poetry have appeared in Cutbank, Poetry Motel, Visions International, Phantasmagoria, and The Comstock Review. She has had three nominations for a Pushcart Prize.