This music crept by me upon the waters,
Allaying both their fury and my passion
With its sweet air: thence I have follow’d it,
Or it hath drawn me rather. But ’tis gone.
No, it begins again.
— Shakespeare, “The Tempest”
This is Part 1 of a series.
“It’s not really called a ‘nervous breakdown’ anymore,” my downstairs neighbor, Jack, laughed — a little condescendingly — when I told him I was having one. I’d just gotten home from my final day of struggling through teaching a three-week summer fiction workshop, and we were sitting in our Brooklyn back yard on one of the cooler evenings that June. Twenty-five years earlier, when I first moved into the apartment, the back yard had been nothing more than a cracked cement patio with a dirt trim, a couple of ghetto palms and a vista of old lady panties on clotheslines as far as the eye could see. Over time, Jack’s partner Chris had transformed the concrete-locked square into a shabby-chic sanctuary where we’d enjoyed, along with my husband David, lovely summer nights (and a few lovely dawns) drinking, grilling and talking under twinkling Christmas lights twining up the honey locust trees. The old lady panties disappeared as the old ladies passed away and affluent young couples moved into Park Slope. Sadly, I hadn’t taken much advantage of the backyard that summer — my last summer in that apartment, as it would turn out — because the “nervous breakdown” (or whatever the proper clinical term was) that had seized control of my psyche on March 23, 2011 made it impossible to be outside in bright light. To be in any kind of light. To be anywhere, everywhere. It had made me a prisoner of my mind’s most primitive fears and anxieties.
I quickly reassured Jack that, oh yes, this most definitely was a nervous breakdown: every familiar thing about myself and my life had been broken down, broken apart, utterly deconstructed over the course of three months by the constant, unrelenting anxiety of what felt like a 24-7 panic attack. It felt like my flesh had been flayed, my façade stripped, every nerve exposed and vibrating. The way an angle of light crossed a building made my heart palpitate; the music I once loved to listen to made my hands shake; every morning an adrenaline rush would pop me up in bed and, as the day wore on, make me want to commit suicide so it would stop. I couldn’t even remember the way my mind had once worked. The onset of all this? It was ridiculously, unbelievably minor: my dentist telling me over the phone that my root canal-in-progress had gotten infected. Once the words were out of her mouth, a mountainous wall of panic arose and blocked all other thoughts, feelings, experiences.
“Makes no sense, does it?” I asked Jack, shaking my head and looking up at the sky, which was just beginning to (thankfully) take on the longed-for indigo that would finally obscure the setting sun’s searing orange. It was the moment I lived for, every day, when I could finally relax a little, knowing that the bright horror of daylight would soon be swept away by merciful, concealing Night.
“No, it makes perfect sense,” he said, which didn’t make me feel any better. He himself had had a psychotic break a few years before, which was why I was confiding in him. “No one really knows why the psyche finally decides ‘Okay,enough.’ There’s a series of stresses, and you get through those, but then there’s the proverbial straw that breaks the camel’s back. That’s what happened to me, and I’ve seen it in the literature, too. That’s pretty much how the DSM describes it, actually: ‘acute reactions to stress that do not resolve after removal of the stressor’.”
“Yeah, but the stressor’s been removed — the root canal’s way finished — and I’m still feeling the same panic and horror and fear that I did three months ago.”
“I told you before: this isn’t about the root canal. It’s about something else. I think it’s your sister’s death. You know, two years is nothing. You’re probably still processing it. The DSM says that ‘mental breakdowns’ — which is really the correct term — have some aspects of ‘mixed anxiety-depressive disorder.’ Which is what I had. There’s also some relation to PTSD. But those are chronic; what I’m seeing with you looks like it will probably be short-term, because it’s so intense and sudden and so out of proportion with the trigger. And I wouldn’t try to figure out what caused it. You’ve been through a lot, starting with your sister, and then your accident in Moscow. And then forfeiting a Fulbright? Come on. Just try to get through it, then maybe figure out what caused it when you’re in a better mind-space.”
But therein lies the problem: how to get through it? At some point early on I’d made a decision to eschew anti-depressants, despite Jack’s advising getting on SSRIs, as they’d saved his life. My gynecologist had also suggested anti-depressants, in addition to hormone replacement therapy. “Basically, when the estrogen goes away,” she’d said, “the adrenalin comes out to play.” Actually, before she said that, she pretty much yelled at me: “You need to be on anti-depressants!” But I was resolved not to go that route. I didn’t want my mind-body chemistry altered even further by the medication merry-go-round I’d observed in several of my friends. My conversations with one particular friend would often commence with her saying, “So I talked to my psycho-pharmacologist yesterday after I saw my therapist, and I told her that my therapist and also my internist had suggested that I should maybe up the dosage of … ” After that, an exhausting-to-listen-to description of drug combinations that had failed, and so were jettisoned for new combinations (which, at some point, would probably also fail and be jettisoned as well). About two years back this same friend had triumphantly debuted her effusive poem, “Celexa” at a reading; a year later she was on the Web researching how the drug, now ineffective, could be combined with another, and visiting (and reporting back to me about) the psycho-pharmacologist’s recommendations. Also figuring into this was the example of my clinically-depressed, born-again Christian brother-in-law: the most Tom could manage in a day was navigating the goat paths from his room, his childhood bedroom, to his mother’s room to watch Lawrence Welk reruns with her every evening. He couldn’t leave his room before 5 p.m., and needed to build up to it by watching television in bed all day. The last time I’d seen him, Christmas Eve 2004, after not seeing him for maybe two years, he looked like he hadn’t changed his jeans in all that time: the seat was coal-shiny from constant wear (even to bed, I imagined), and the sour milk smell emanating from him made me nauseous. During his twenty-five years on medications he’d been gradually increasing their strengths, and now his high dosages of Seroquel + Geodon + Cymbalta, plus six Klonopin to get to sleep (and a couple extra to keep him calm whenever he had to manage new situations), had caused dyskinesia: involuntary movements of the limbs. Opening the door when David and I arrived that Christmas Eve, he stood stock-still in front of us, unblinking, his right hand configured like he was holding a gun, his legs oscillating back and forth like a little kid pretending to be cold.
“Hi, Sharon, Hi, David,” he said without inflection. My feeling, in better days, was that his real problem was a combination of shame at being gay, compounded by a stifled imagination and curiosity: once, when I’d suggested he take a look at Thomas Moore’s Dark Nights of the Soul, he’d thanked me but demurred — he said it was against his religion to read something by a Catholic. There was also, I thought, as he stood in the doorway, a performative, acting-out aspect to his situation, a commandeering of family attention by creating a persona of total incapacitation, perhaps as a kind of vindictiveness: “You all can take care of me now because you made me this way.” He once told me he’d never really had proper role models as a child (“deprived of guidance” was how he’d described it), and believed that that was the source of his depression: his inability to effectively navigate his own life. He was still hurt by a first grade classmate who’d ratted him out for being in the wrong line — the girls’ line — for the bathroom after lunch.
“Sometimes I wish I could find that woman and make her apologize,” he’d said. “I wonder if she ever thought about how she affected my life.”
I’d wondered if he were hanging on to that ancient hurt to fuel the feeling of victimhood that in turn fueled his ability to create the persona of a special person needing special considerations, someone who was denied guidance and was now, as a result, too sick to be expected to function normally. I’d been severely bullied and emotionally wounded by my grammar school classmates myself, but once I discovered rock and roll I adopted role models like Janis Joplin and Jimi Hendrix, former misfits and outsiders who’d created powerful, charismatic personae based on being special in a different way: brilliant and fabulous precisely because of their quirkiness. They’d used their marginalization (actual or imagined) to become observers. And so because I was odd and had no friends I spent time normally devoted to socialization on reading, writing, listening to music, researching what I wanted to be in the adult world: proud of being extraordinarily different, and thus extraordinary. By the time I got to college I was dressing punk and taking lots of shit for it in Back of the Yards, my working-class neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, named for its proximity to the infamous Union Stockyards. It hurt, but I just kept imagining myself at my 30-year grammar school reunion (did grammar schools even have reunions?) giving a speech wherein I called out Lori Kulikowski, my main bully, reminding her that she’d once called me “Palsy,” “Nigger Lips,” “Titless.” Then I’d whip out my shiny Pulitzer (in my mind it looked like an Emmy) and say, “Make up a name for this, loser!” Of course, I was using my woundedness like Tom was, only in a different way: to fuel my ambition. But as the anxiety tightened its grip on my psyche, I understood more clearly why Tom had withdrawn from the world. I was doing the same thing. I was even fantasizing about watching Lawrence Welk with him and my mother-in-law in her bedroom at the same time every day.
In all honesty, I was wondering who that “I” was. This new “I” was not the same person who drove from Chicago to New York in 1988 with $500, a box full of books and a granny-square quilt to study with Allen Ginsberg in Brooklyn College’s MFA program, who once trekked for two weeks in the foothills of the Himalayas in ill-fitting, second-hand Keds purchased from a street vendor in Kathmandu. And it certainly was not the same person who once kicked an undercover Chicago law enforcement officer in the groin. It most definitely was not the person who had written the poems “Annoying Diabetic Bitch,” “I Never Knew An Orgy Could Be So Much Work,” and “A Unicorn Boner for Humanity.” That person had been buried by whatever force had taken control on the afternoon of March 23, 2011, when my dentist told me over the phone, with a matter-of-fact sigh, that my root canal had gotten infected. The feeling of continuity between one day and the next had been destroyed, and concentration on anything but the anxiety and pure fear was impossible.
But what I couldn’t have guessed at the onset of the anxiety, and in the horrible bald-bright months that followed, was that time would bring unexpected, perfectly-fitted gifts, and deeply-held wishes fulfilled. Looking back now, I think some part of me understood that, and fit itself to that hidden truth all along, eschewing medication in favor of having faith in … something … and being a witness to what was happening. I’m not even sure I know now what pulled me forward. I call it “being mindful,” but it was connected to something so deeply held within myself I lacked conscious access to it. But I foresaw none of that that evening in June with Jack in the backyard. It’s hard to see the path when you’re on it. The big surprise? That renewed contact with my grammar school bullies over the destruction of something we all held precious could provide the healing and the continuity with the past that I so desperately longed for. The even bigger surprise? That myths of descent could be as true and vital today as they were thousands of years ago as long as I stayed mindful of the markers along the journey’s unmapped twisted path. The not-so-big surprise was that poetry was there, too, as it had been all along, even though I’d pretty much buried the things that drew me to it in the first place, in order to make a living. Those things took center stage.
Sharon Mesmer’s most recent poetry collections are The Virgin Formica (Hanging Loose 2008) and Annoying Diabetic Bitch (Combo Books 2008). Fiction collections are In Ordinary Time and The Empty Quarter (Hanging Loose 2005 and 2000) and Ma Vie à Yonago (Hachette, in French translation 2005). Other poetry collections include Vertigo Seeks Affinities (Belladonna 2006), Half Angel, Half Lunch (Hard Press 1998) and Crossing Second Avenue (ABJ Press, Tokyo 1997). Four poems appear in the newly released Postmodern American Poetry—A Norton Anthology (second edition) Her work has also appeared in Poetry, The Wall Street Journal, New American Writing, The Brooklyn Rail, Women’s Studies Quarterly, West Wind Review, Abraham Lincoln, esque, Poets for Living Waters, and The Scream. An excerpt of her story, “Revenge,” appears in I’ll Drown My Book: Conceptual Writing By Women (Les Figues). She teaches at NYU, the New School, and online for the Chicago School of Poetics.