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|Here in this courtyard with its garden chairs, washing line, grass shooting feebly out of the ground, a patio for the semi-productive crazies, there is a line beaming through all the hospitalised residents. Outside I can feel the wind move through me. In the impression of the wisps of it touching my hair, the nape of my neck, I can feel the design of a dream, the architecture of a foundation. If I write about this foundation and how much it hurts as it locks its bipolar self into place, it will nourish the sum parts of me, the portions of my estranged soul from my spirit, missing history, perhaps I won’t be a case study for long, under observation, aware of a feeling of futility, sadness, pent up rage and frustration. There I was, Jean, the ice queen, eyes glittering picking a name for the frustration. It took a miracle to get me here and now all I want is to get out of this place, escape this effortless order and routine, the nurse in their flash of white, this gated community.
If I write about what hurts me the most as an experiment perhaps that will assuage some of the pain I feel. The way of pain is cruel and bitter. It has an unstable core. Insecure and conscious of the darker voids within me can burn the edge off any kind of natural high I feel. Most of those highs were to be found in the pool next to the mansion, (the grounds of the hospital were extensive). I imagined my life as a fish stroke for stroke swimming next to the pale ghost of a bone-thin girl. It would suit me well to have gills, fins, webbed feet, swimming with a school. If that happened, nothing would be able to touch me, if only officially I could be more educated, smarter and funnier, if only there was something more elemental about this day, I would feel more real, suited up as a human being. Even the lifeless page is not so lifeless after all–cool and blue to the touch of a pen’s scraping. Even though I knew deep down that all of that cigarette smoke was bad for me, it made me feel like jazz was flowing through me and all that would seem to spirit itself, spirit me to some far off eternal paradise where life and living seemed more peaceful and ordered.
I have carried illness inside of me for the longest time, exploring the tiger balm of recovery like the way I read, poised, sometimes numb to the perfect order that other women would call routine and which female writers would chronicle. The emotional, sensitivity, the intimacy drawn in the fiction of those writers would always be dramatic, children in the background placing their footsteps obediently where their mother would tell them, husbands hovering, husbands drinking over the weekend, hiding their bloodshot eyes, the smell of beer in the air while a wife would scream blue murder in return to hisses, punching the air with curses. I was always mindful of expectation of the collective experimental flooding my brain, exploring that dry, unknown field, walking across it already as a condemned girl-woman with the impulse of flight, ready at the turn of a switch across the beating abstract metaphor of it. The pulse of the field glimmering like waves of heat, dust rising, being kicked up by my heels in this a field of dreams.
And then there was the stone voice.
All that time away from it I thought it had gathered dust, was of no more use to me but now released, after I aimed for it in my cells I discovered it belonged to me more than ever, my head, a head that was a fragile mess. Still, it had a centre albeit that it was an overworked one. The voice itself had intelligence. While inside of me it felt like a stone washed by tides, waves constructed to dance and whirl, stone set to the rhythm in a river.
I was a child breathing in the positive air of that divine realm, breaking the myths that it carried. What is the voice like of children, who write, create and why is it that what they write and create is just so striking? Where does it come from, that stone voice? Does it come from the infinite space, a sense of a kingdom (theirs) that is an intimation of where they are going, where they are going to end up? Until finally when childhood becomes just a remnant, like birds flying high out of reach, out of sight, of mind, where does the fire and rain of inspiration come from next, if not love, the experiences of returning love with that same gift? What condemns a girl-woman if not the force of her vulnerability, her future and present relationships with both males and females? Childhood that did not merge with adulthood and the knowledge of the awakening of death is what finally condemned me.
Physical health figured with strength in my early life. As I grew so did the night. It gave me hell.
The resident evil of that hell soon became in part the sublime. As swiftly as illness descended upon me I took to writing about that life experience. How invasive is the blackness of depression, of tiredness, of doing the most simple of all things, peeling a Granny Smith, of suffering in silence when time does not fly by. Instead it’s a glass case, a sealed box I am encased in with oxygen tanks a-plenty. Quiet all around can haunt, hurt my ears, tears blind me bleeding their salt into the lines of my moon face. They become all things turning, turning tied with a knot to silence. Its nothing is blinding. It begins with a cry for help and you have to wait, for there’s a substance to it at first glance, a faint, small, chain of breakthroughs coming through the fog, a spiritedness, congeniality that was not there before, laughter ringing in the air, mitigating circumstances to explain away, brush away the ill feeling metallic as blood. I was a tiger waiting to jump, leap in thirst. ‘Touched with madness’, there was a perfumed lightness in every step I took there that seemed to smell like flowers.
I was a child who wrote who became a grown woman who wrote.
Language was my summertime, a stolen liqueur chocolate from Daddy’s birthday present to Mummy or to say he was sorry, wrapped in coloured foil bursting with tart sugariness. When I sought closure it, writing delivered that and gave me closure and I found a worthy ally and opponent within her. The onset of a novel season would seem to tilt me sideways, put me off the beaten track and the only way I could revert to normality was if I became conscious of people and animals, dogs and cats in particular, since we had always had them as pets ever since I was a young child. Writing was also a bellyaching affair. It gave me nerve, sleepless nights of tossing and turning where I would find one end of a string of jumbled words scribbled or rather suspended like my daily reality often was and eventually I would give up, quit and lose the end of the string of words at the core of it. I told myself I should become more spiritual than I already was. It would help my writing more if I believed more in community and did more and came out more often into society.
And with the promise of love or a girl-woman’s infatuation came the violent letting go of blissful goals that would always be determined by inexperience, the fall-out of marked expectations. The voice that sustained me was the one from my childhood. The voice that tasted of devil’s smoke, Blake burning bright, flame and moth, a mother’s depression, anguish and rage, all her secret hiding places revealed, a father’s mental illness, friends that I knew in another inner world, a space and lifetime away who were flushed with the imprint of history. It would be live-men, so much more virulent, funny and wise than I could ever be, men who for the better part of their grown lives would be manipulative and keen at the same time to mentor the young, men who were promiscuous in their dealings with the inexperienced opposite sex. They would show me the cause and effect that illness would have on me in later years. They taught me that it would be my safety net. Even if they didn’t know it at the time, they were offering me the world on a silver platter.
The mystic in me plays at an unfinished game of hangman, noose planted around my neck remembering Mr Smith’s brown shoes, lace-ups under the table where he sat, the master and commander of the class, skin olive and pink from a touch of the sun. Even my father did not wear brown shoes. I imagine his foot in that brown shoe. It must be a well-rested foot for the most part. Not one that has to walk all the time where he has to get to, one that communicates pain and blisters like mine sometimes do. It is a foot that has a sense of the material world and of peaceful belonging. It is a foot that belongs to a body that pilots an educated mind that has experienced both pleasure and priviledge at the hands of lesser men and women. He is a man who did not grow up with prejudice. I knew nothing then as I know nothing now of his life outside the school, his ‘England’. I just dreamt of inhabiting the aura around him. As if I could connect with him somehow on a spiritual plane. It was a lesson in love for me, poor Jean, terrified, scared to death of it.
Whenever madness (a wild-haired, locked up in the attic Mrs Rochester), was temporarily conceived in the characters I read about, I relished it. My own life just off of a few years to follow suit, to mirror my father’s life of wards, canteens, sitting on benches waiting for family visits, pills like bees in the hive. The stone voice was still there. My fingers would linger on the spines of books in the library, touch the titles, the names of the authors as if I was leaning against from where they first came from, a tree, as if I was in a forest full of them watching the hours pass by, God’s hand in the air. It would be years before I watched my brother grow into a flock of suits and ties and sharply pointed shoes for work in an office space, my sister growing into another country, swiftly cold and distant, a faraway voice on the end of a telephone line while I floated, or rather pretended to in the bath of now cool water, shivering, dipping my face underwater and smelling of soap. My old life is null and void at the worst of times. I have to reach formidably for health.
Worst being the prickling loneliness, the loose pain I have internalised killing me, carving flashes of a covenant between despair, mania and the highs of euphoria until I am still, still like black pine branches after they have mourned a passing season, still like my skull. It is not natural for human beings to be truthful, it feels more natural for them to be swayed by what they and their heart wants to hear. The stone in my voice is old, ancient. It is the voice of children and women, female philosophers who have passed on, their blood and bone in the vision of their thinking for the world to see. This stone is made up of a supply of part ingenious mortal thinking and the other part, forest, forest that will never feel the need to commit itself to suicide or evaluation because although a tree is a living thing, it does not have a mindset that is programmed to be introspective, to talk, walk, observe, describe and contemplate. The forest that I find myself in, in that other dimension is where magic races through me when I touch a spine of a book, run my fingertips across the letters of the name of the writer.
I am a newer version of me with two sides. If the mania makes me seem vivacious and spirited, the depression masks that. The life I live now is a life where I went from being hospitalised for depression, the terror of sadness forming patterns in a pensive mechanism. Slowly I became used to hospitals, wards, psychiatrists and therapists. My life from my twenties to my early thirties is one where I had no control, no say except to listen to the doctors and the treatment they prescribed. The first time I realised I was different was when I met the other women in my room at the hospital. Four beds to a room. My new life became one where I would lie on the grass with the other girls from the other wards, usually younger than me, shorter, who bodies seemed fused to play hockey, swim in galas and play tennis. Bone-thin girls who were hospitalised for eating disorders, who came out homes where there was abuse, the physical kind aimed at their mothers and usually the emotional scarring would not escape them. All of us would stretch out in the afternoon sun bathing in its light, trying hard not to stare into the brightness up at the chameleon sky.
When I came home-home I was always hungry and would escape into the kitchen to dazzle myself, preparing meals my mother would not touch.
‘It’s too spicy. The curry was too hot. Is there salt in here?’
After my bath in the evenings I would write on the steamed up bathroom mirror love letters. The skin of where my fingerprints would come from wrinkled. The weight of water would meet me in dreams. I would often float on my back when I went to the swimming pool. It made me feel as if my bones were more than lovely; they were immortal in some way. Floating, arms at my sides, a still life in the water I pretended I was dead and in one sense I was. Outside as my life world gathered like confetti or rice, anger built up inside of me, whirling like a nimbus, tasting like a cake that had been too long in the oven, I would drown in that voice that was above all others and Johannesburg, Tara, Hunterscraig, Garden City Clinic, Helen Joseph, Swaziland and Port Elizabeth all would merge and dance so fast until their bodies shifted into blurred figures and I could once again be Jean. Like at the scene of the discovery of minor shock, all I could is do is sigh and wish the trauma away. We are all tenants in this major society. How we live in the end is up to us in the final analysis of it all.
I was bitten by islands on maps, the lifespan of lies in pools of truth and I wondered how that could serve me in my audacious quest for sanity, hoping that I, Jean would remain intact through everything. There is a lonesome motion in being, playing at numb. Instead I began to see life from God’s point of view and although life is cruel, there’s a majesty that coexists in every emotive curve, in the known and the unknown symmetry of humanity. When I feel tired I rest. When I am full I stop eating and I remember those bone-thin girls that I met when I was 21, with their shiny, rinsed hair, laughing and joking, playing at being half-productive zombies, drinking warm soda and passing it around in the group and the fact that just about everything about them seemed so delicate as if they could break when they fell. Girls who looked as if they could fit in the picture of a magazine, who with one taste of chocolate that passed their lips would throw it up. They were girls with a pink rose in each cheek, pinching inconceivable belly fat, searching for flab. For awhile I became one of them.
I was made to understand children, adults and youth with the mind of a child even if they weren’t my own. And discovered that what is right about family is only found in theory. I found a modern unit and sense of family everywhere I journeyed with the onset of maturity. It is only the rain that flickers out of the corner of my eye. I don’t cry. I don’t have the energy for it anymore and its unceremonious intrusion. In seeing things around me I became a saint in motion. Nothing could touch me unless I gave that force or person permission. All I had to do was believe that I was here to follow the light, be an instrument of peace.
Every day at the hospital, walking from room to room in the ward is a day in recovery, it can inspire. You’re free to dream. No one can say anything if you do. The bright lights of the big city can hardly be seen from anywhere on the grounds. I’m shielded by high walls and trees. With illness, you can go from feeling like the most capable human in the world and then when that goes you feel extraordinarily incompetent, the introverted nature of being ill assumes fierce control and you are left retiring and docile, cooling your heels. My bright shouts draw a red line of emotional self-destructive behaviour through me. It doesn’t take much to get me to a plane of being piloted by the life lessons depression leaves me with. There is something of a sweet dream about it. I’ve grown to love to fall into that sleep. It’s a skill.
Sometimes you think the journey of the illness renders you invisible like air in your addiction for the tiny ball of golden light of health. So even if you’re self-conscious of any small mistake you make, it makes you feel beautifully humanoid as if you weren’t constructed by glorious organs, perfect tissue, cells, platelets, blood and bone and the image of genes in a jungle of veins. The doctors would like to think of change from being ill to an undeniable state of physical wellness was instant but I think that happened for the most part only in their dreams. Here, in this nameless, shapeless country, there were scenes of looking out into darkness, badly drawn addiction, the act of alcoholism that had played a role in someone’s life, the life of a family. Sufferers and victims and survivors bonded over a meal, gossip, the chit-chat of small talk. We were all joined together in the pursuit of becoming an out-patient. Of escaping what so easily we had come to think of as a route to follow to reality, normalcy.
I was a discoverer of the fractured known and the terrible force of the unknown. The flow I had to come to grips with clasped battle lines. For the most part I felt like a pin in a pincushion, snow falling and given room to grow spreading itself across the landscape.
The jewel of mental health is to keep your spirits up. You are at the mercy of the honesty of the illness. You’re always curious to succeed even though you’re at your most fragile. Humanity, normality still had the power to seduce. I had not completely abandoned that trail of thought. Hunger and hell became equals. The colour of the day was usually intensely blue (when I felt the depression articulate its nightmarish self), white (when I spent most of the day reading paperbacks, feeling medicated acutely and that it was the most unnatural feeling that I had ever felt) or red. That was when I couldn’t put my rage, frustration and pack it into words. The only thing I could do was that I had to store it up in reserves. It gave me energy. But that energy was temporary like a fuse that blows or a spark.
When I left the hospital all I wanted to do was read books that doctors had written about depression, that pharmaceutical companies printed in their bright little pamphlets filled with colour and magazine models demonstrating ‘sadness’, ‘family life affected by depression’ and the symptoms. I could tick them all off one by one. In no uncertain terms square-shaped boxes told me for certain I was depressive. I read books on depression in which the detailed, uncompromising text left me reeling and scribbling away with a compelling and affecting urgency. I picked up memoirs or books on the lives of creative people who had suffered just like I had and found myself being reflected back at me in a novel yet disconcerting way.
The bottom of depression usually sinks further and further away into an abyss of nothingness. There is nothing I can do about it except stare into space until my eyes hurt and start to water or close them and wish the spell away. Once I was a city type of person rushing everywhere I needed to go but it soon paled. Poetry never did. And although poets were people whose lives where often not sanguine or bliss I believed in them, worshipped them. I discovered there were walls everywhere. To keep me in, protect me, to keep the death of me out.
I watch my weight constantly as if I’m under surveillance. I pick at my food. Nothing is good for me. I swear I eat in little bites as if it would help me in some way as if there is no dietician watching over my shoulder to tut-tut at the portion size. I don’t keep it down for long. My throat burns as I run water in the sink in the bathroom. Nothing is good enough, filling, delicious and nutritious. I never had a healthy, nourishing relationship with food even when I was a child. As a child, I would never say no to second or third helpings. I devoured the heaps of food on my plate with delight, savouring every crumb. All through high school I was skinny. But the world turned on me. Soon everything began to hurt like the plague.
Why couldn’t all my eccentricities translate itself into something that was not touched by madness? Wherein I could find solace in something reasonable. But there is a powerful triumph in all of this – I can still write. It became my source.
I wished I could shrug off blood, sweat and tears in high heels, with alluring self-confidence in an office space. But that is not me. It would not increase my knowledge of this planet; make me worthy of being in competition with my contemporaries.
It is disheartening feeling, thinking that you are never good enough. Never perfect. It came from a padded childhood and the reward of that had already shown up in my life. Already I had convinced myself I was less than zero – a blurred negative, shallow and vain. Imagine thinking so little of yourself that you thought being self-destructive was redemptive in some way. I cannot shrug off the memory of blood, of devilish ‘cutting’, the target my soul. Something that says, ‘I no longer can take care of me.’ Love and worth is a wasteland to me. They’re difficult for me to imagine. Only the negative, only the shared pain on this planet seems real enough for me.
If I sleep the whole day it is only because I need my rest. If I need silence, it is because I can’t stand the noise, there’s too much of it. If I dream while I sleep, my mouth open, hair unkempt in a parallel dimension of the world I live in, the other one pinpoints from my subconscious what I should be living for.
When the world went black and the sky became hard, wrapped in stone, magic would course through me, my fingertips tingling, promising me a slight reprieve in my bed at home. Trauma felt like thunder and unravelled me in seconds. There is a record of all of this in diaries that I have kept for years. As a child letting go, set loose upon the world and a grown up.
Somewhere in the picture would be my family like a fossil that you would have to dig deep for, have the ‘eye’ for some prehistoric dinosaur bone, just one in a million other fossils, stuck grounded by the dynamic of gravity, one in a million of other families struggling to put food on the table, struggling to survive as a unit. They were never enough for me, with all their itineraries, constraints they placed upon me to ‘behave myself’ because even as a child I felt my bearings were connected to something within me and not to the external. I would find that when I was still, quiet something would shift inside of me hectically like a fish whose very life, the internal was being snuffed out like candlelight by a fisherman’s hands.
I would as an adult begin to search for truth in my writing. I always thought of myself, even as child, separate from other people, other mother’s progeny. Officially I wasn’t educated, I had never followed the right roads, when I found inner harmony, the peace I sorely craved I changed direction and soon became masterful at that. My world was as stable as an elastic band. I had to learn to heal myself as my struggle and my future became more and more certain, roles were locking themselves into place around me and the universe gave me kindred spirits when I found that they were sorely lacking. I was grateful for the ability to search in the pit of the dark fire of difficult melancholy yet it was still inspiring to delve deep into that abyss and come out reaching and formidable. I observed to live, to describe, to journal, to experience, to daydream in my youth and to reach out to others vicariously.
But I knew really, in my heart of hearts that I was not one of them. I could only write, stop time and place in their tracks. It stopped the pathways of nerves of hurt from navigating through me to my oftentimes dark and intense soul. The illness laid bare the material that made up the psyche of the rest of my family, a sister, a brother and a mother. There were questions only answered later in life and I found out that it did hurt me as if the illumined blue pearl of my world was caving in, like I was hitting my head against a brick wall with glitter snowing down all around me, like I didn’t get the fairytale ending or like I was just diagnosed with orphan abandonment issues as if I was some case study at a state hospital. Some days bipolar was a monster to tough for me to girl fight it out but it was easy enough for those close to me to notice a change in the air. Any negatives and I would be down, a fussy eater who pushed the food around on her plate wanting, waiting to gorge herself on chips and fizzing soda with a stream of bubbles bursting like ripe pomegranate seeds on my tongue.
I would be evil and cantankerous. I would just be waiting to explode like a volcano at the turn of a switch. Anything would, could set me off, anything that would touch the surface of my world, my equilibrium. There were days when I didn’t like the mirror. When I wrote especially into the early hours of the morning I felt something come alive inside of me, something rather splendid and unbreakable. It came with pangs of love, although I wouldn’t call it a childhood love and from my brain’s pale depression, its ‘crown of thorns’, that wasteland, that wilderness of dying to belong had finally brought me to something greater than myself. All my life I had been the chaser of dreams. There was now urgency; a quest lay in front of me, a novel and almost poetic intensity to my dreams and my goals now. In water, it held me captive. I could feel a current flowing through me with a bright force. Words still had the power to render me speechless. I was determined to work at this, to perhaps make something of my life with it. It had cast a spell over me, my mind and I had found in my imagination a home, a path set in stone and roots.
People stayed away, the family on my father’s side stayed away and the more they stayed away, the more aware I became of how I did not fit into society, the more blurred around the edges ‘normal’ became. No one came to see us; no one came to the house except my brother’s friends who came to see him. They traipsed into our house all hours of the day and night, sneaking beers into his bedroom, walking on tiptoe to the bathroom, up and down the passage, keeping my mum and my dad and me awake in our beds the whole night. They usually left in the early hours of the morning, the same way they came, through the front door, usually a bit unsteady on their feet. I began to dream at all hours.
So darkness opened up full circle. It speaks to me. As I wait upon the world it says that there’s a voyage out there awaiting me. I must write.
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