Mad Woman In A Surreal World

I feel asleep last night thinking I’ve gone mad. I’ve gone mad. It’s finally happened. Again. I’ve gone mad. 

Future poetry compilation by yours truly entitled: Woman Gone Mad

or Mad Woman In A Weird World

or even Woman Going Mad Gone Gone Bye Bye Brain World See Ya Suckas I’m Off Wooey Hooey Hey!

I don’t mean to romanticize the feeling of delving into insanity. Because even though some of the mad geniuses I know periodically take trips into the deep end, and I’ve made my home there many a time, it is not a place of safe staying. It’s not like going to the movies where you can sit down in a plush seat and munch on salty treats while your mind and emotions are titillated by a story intentionally meant to temporarily mesmerize you.

No. It’s more like you look at your hands and you suddenly don’t recognize them as your hands, and you take these alien hands and you try to make them peel an orange, but they simply won’t listen, and then you start thinking, Impertinent hands! Whose bold joke is this to make hands that do not function? and at that point, some switch in your brain goes Okay, it’s started. Here we go, we’re in for a ride! The disconnect has begun and honey, you’re a captive passenger in a jankity cart headed straight to hell. Everything that you once knew becomes silly putty. Every person, every moment, every special belonging in your life dissipates into a vacuum of ethereal absurdity. How long it lasts varies. Sometimes it’s only a couple of hours, but I’ve survived there for weeks on end. My eyes are no longer my eyes. My toes not my toes. The world gets misty with a saturated detachment and the far away part of my brain that can still process cohesive thoughts nonchalantly looks on and wonders whether anyone notices I’m not all there. How good am I at passing.

I recently identified with the quote, “A writer is many people trying to be one person.”

As much as I revere geniuses like Hemingway and Faulkner (who wrote As I Lay Dying in a mere six months and was drunk every night doing it), it costs a lot to venture where the greats do. How many people walk around with imaginary straight jackets reeling in their octopus limbs. How many wrestle with the resistance of the deep end. How many people are in my head alone. How many want to come out and see the light.

No, I’m not romanticizing the feeling of the brain splitting apart into multiple compartments, each one screamingly disconnected from the others. My grandmother, though I never met her, was apparently schizotypal (very similar to schizophrenic) and, consequently, my father is a psychologist. Consequently, sometimes I think I am insane. I have too intimate a relationship with the schizo framework for it to be any way romantic to me. If it weren’t so real a possibility that someday my brain chemistry may flip a switch (my brain is constantly flipping all kinds of switches) and send me into mental paralysis, I might not resist the deep end so much.

Because.

That’s where the diamonds hide.

It’s only in those moments of departure that I feel the world whispering secrets too heavy for everyday existence. It’s only then that I take my shoveling hands and dig straight down into the dirt of reality, intending to pull up some gnawing roots. It’s not always dark, either. Sometimes, I’m so light I could fly and I tap into the common fabric of consciousness with delight. But they’re both extremes with a high price. The price is living outside the regular rhythm of social life.

I just finished reading a brilliant little novel called Hunger by a late 19th-century German writer Knut Hamsun. He spent his entire life poor, eking out a living as a schoolteacher, store clerk, farmhand, road laborer and various other odd positions before winning the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1920 — and dying in poverty in 1952. The novel is fast-paced, absurd and at times pathetically hilarious, chronicling an impoverished writer on a journey into irrationality as hunger, cold and misery become his closest friends. His mind, which he prizes as his greatest asset, starts to dissolve along with his body. Why live this way? Because he is a writer.

Toward the end of the story, a landlady who has housed him for three weeks on credit, starts becoming suspicious he will never pay her.

Their conversation goes:

“But you won’t ever finish that article, will you?”

“You think so? I may feel inspired to write tomorrow, or maybe even tonight; it’s not at all impossible that the inspiration will come sometime tonight, and then my article will be finished in a quarter of an hour, at the most. You see, it’s not the same with my work as with other people’s; I can’t just sit down and get so much done every day, I have to wait for the right moment. And nobody can tell the day or the hour when the spirit will come upon him. It must take its course.”

…As soon as I was alone, I sprang up and started tearing my hair in despair. No, there wasn’t the least hope for me, no hope at all! My brain was bankrupt!

Oh, the manic exaggerative hopeless compulsion of the writer captured in its most basic essence! Oscillating from extreme arrogance to the deepest self-pity! Why have we chosen this life? Or has it chosen us?

Last night, I was there. My brain was bankrupt, unable even to tell my body to get out of this messy, vapid depression enough to form coherent thoughts. And my thoughts! My thoughts are all I have! What am I without searingly true thoughts? What kind of writer can’t think? And the unique dilemma of not being able to force oneself to think in a way that is conducive to producing words on the page is downright debilitating. Then what am I?! I couldn’t do it. There was nothing I could possibly to do to force myself to write the things I needed to write.

This makes for a very unstable way of living.

Also, at this point in my life, a very, very poor one. All I ache to do is let the winter erupt in some zig zagging vernacular, but that won’t pay the heating bills! Still, I’ve chosen it. I am sitting in a living room that pulses like a freezer but my hands (those hands that last night were not my hands) just type away with the frenetic energy of a bundled up Virginia Woolf. Right now, I’ve chosen this way, this meager living that allows me the afternoon freedom to let play out all the tap-dancing fantasies of inane thought patterns, and for that I can be proud.

I haven’t always been able to choose this way. I have always been poor. Grew up in a small room with no common windows to light the way. But that’s another story for later. Though I choose this way, there is zero romanticism in poverty.

“Poverty itself is only romanticized by fools.” -J.K. Rowling

Yeah, she may be a quadraple-billionaire now, but Rowling was scraping by with canned soup and welfare supporting a child in abject poverty before she became renowned for Harry Potter. There’s nothing glorious about existing in nothing.

Nonetheless, there is a rich vein of truth that only appears in those decrepit, crawling moments of mad possession. When the senses are on high alert to every passing bird, every roaming leaf carried about on the wind, every shaking thought seems drenched in gold. In these moments, everything is surreal and somehow truer than before. Walking around like there’s a vacancy in my eye sockets but some inner light inflamed somewhere else.

The main character of Hunger relates this bit, a little after being kicked out onto the street again:

In all that I observed in this way there was nothing, not even a tiny incidental circumstance, that escaped me. My attention was most alert, every little thing was sensitively picked up, and I had my own ideas about these matters as they occurred. So there couldn’t possibly be anything wrong with my sanity. As things were, how could there possibly be anything the matter with it?

Now, look here, I said all of a sudden, you have been bothering yourself about your sanity long enough, making yourself anxious on that score; now let’s put a stop to these tomfooleries! Is it a sign of insanity to perceive and understand all things as accurately as you do?

What great things come to life in the madness of absence! Absence of food, absence of sense, absence of sleep and of security. I’ve been swinging on this pendulum for more than a decade now, not always freely, but these are the crevices I now give myself permission to explore.

Portrait of the Artist as a Young Woman — mad genius! I am nothing short of a mad genius! Nothing short of a pitiful fool! All I have are the words, the words, the words. Catch me in a spirit of nonsense and you won’t recognize me from the grounded body I normally inhabit. There will be no editing of this post! I’m amazed I still remember to capitalize! How deeply ingrained some things are. How to shake even those. How to rebuild in the fire. How to emerge with some granular morsel from the depths, hunched over and protecting a shoddy bit of rough dirt that, once scraped away, might reveal something worthwhile. How to do this.

How to write not in your right mind! What genius is there in drafts?

What truth smoldering in the ash of the common! Pooey on psychology. Pooey on deadlines. Pooey on supposed to be.

No, there is no romanticism here. Only a compulsion to sift through toward understanding. Only a coping mechanism that is born out of some of the deepest despair. These may not be the words that shine toward truth, but at least they are words. They may be the precursor to some great awakening, who knows. After a night of delirium, at least I have these words on the page, however trite they may be. How to get productively lost in the process. How to see.

How madness can be transformed — that is all there is. You need only to cultivate return.

J.K. Rowling Speaks at Harvard Commencement from Harvard Magazine on Vimeo.

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