Plagueless II: Scary Books

Continuing on toward Beautiful Boy:

Before getting to one of the more serious jags in my recent readings, I want to share with you one of the most delightful bits of silliness that I have had the opportunity to read (using the term in a fairly loose sense, anyway). I read it before Lent–I can’t recall when I bought it precisely–, but if you were remotely attached to any hair/glam band of the late eighties, you must check out Neil Zlozower’s Fück Yöu: Rock and Roll Portraits, a glorious visual ode to perhaps the most ubiquitous of all rock poses:

the bird* (thank you, wireimage)

Ah, bliss.

Okay, back to the musing:

Wright’s Black Boy is likely the most disconnected of the various texts I’ve been reading of late, in so far as its themes are relatively divergent from the others, at least superficially. It is, however, one of the myriad books which I feel like I have put off reading for far too long (and how it never ended up on any of my undergraduate or graduate reading lists is beyond me), and I am glad to took the time to read it, as Wright is a favorite author of mine–I love his voices. Thematically, the book did, it turned out, fit in with many of my Lenten themes, not the least of which is his working out how to live in the world. In addition to Wright’s discussions of the racial struggles of his childhood, teen, and young adult years, he encounters his own addiction and redemption story when he falls in with a crowd of adults who find the cursing of a young, drunken lad to be terribly entertaining. That scene was among many of the uncomfortable indictments included in the text regarding race and class (and it is so incredibly clear how the two are conflated throughout). Imagine this moment, if you will. A young boy, perhaps six years old, dirt poor, bored, and lonely is pulled into a saloon, where he is plied with drinks and taught the language of the drunken:

To beg drinks in the saloon became an obsession. Many evenings my mother would find me wandering in a daze and take me home and beat me; but the next morning, no sooner had she gone to her job than I would run to the saloon and wait for someone to take me in and buy me a drink….But the men–reluctant to surrender their sport–would buy me drinks anyway, letting me drink out of their flasks on the streets, urging me to repeat obscenities. (21)

The language of the saloon, which he learns by sound, if not by meaning, eventually catches up to him, when he flings them out at his Grandmother. This marks his first (and certainly not his last) encounter with the manipulation of language in the various places and spaces he will inhabit.

His narrative ends with the following remark: “I would hurl words into this darkness and wait for an echo, and if an echo sounded, no matter how faintly, I would send other words to tell, to march, to fight, to create a sense of the hunger for life that gnaws in us all, to keep alive in our hearts a sense of the inexpressibly human” (384). Exactly. Throw them into the void for someone, anyone, to hear and resonate with. This is why we tell our stories–whatever they may be–isn’t it?

Much of my recent reading swirled around bipolar disorder (BSD, or bipolar spectrum disorder). I read them because BSD (Bipolar Spectrum Disorder) is one of my most nagging fears, and part of my Lenten (and post-Lenten) reading disciplines is to face those “places that scare” me. I have worried about the genetic links to BSD since my mother’s diagnosis (and, indeed, before her formal diagnosis, since most of us “knew” about her before we were told). She was misdiagnosed as clinically depressed for years and treated with Prozac (and self-medicated with alcohol, because, guess what…Prozac alone doesn’t help the bipolar brain, and can trigger mania ). And it’s not just idle paranoia** either, because of my own substance abuse troubles and the hypomanic experiences that have driven me to do little things like, well, become confident (ha!) enough to drink again. I generally describe these periods as “hyperactive.” I prefer the term; it’s relatively accurate in so far as my habits and actions, but I am also aware that I have several of the “manic” habits–rapid speech, lack of focus, uncontrolled anger, “expansive” moods (the “I believe I can do anything” routine), addiction…you name it. My mother’s diagnosis is Bipolar II; she presents with significant depressive symptoms (and has had several episodes of major depression over the years) and hypomania, though I would argue that her suicide attempt of a few years ago was a result of a manic episode, not a depressive one, but I don’t know how honest she’s been with her doctor on the matter, either (such would likely pop her diagnosis over to Bipolar I).

So, in the course of that reading, I finished one of the most frightening books I have ever read. As most of you are aware, I’m a bit of a horror addict, so, as you might imagine, this was not a zombie tale (not that there are scores of those in print anyway), vampire story, or ghost tome. It was Marya Hornbacher’s Madness. I can’t say I would recommend it in general terms, but if you have ever wanted for insight into the bipolar mind, this book is it. Several pieces caught my attention in her book, not the least of which was her fluid interpretation of the manic mind–her narrative voice captures the speed (and, eventually, paranoia) associated with such episodes–I’m particularly fond of her overuse of the exclamation point, since in mania, so often, Everything is splendid! (Her digressions feel quite familiar. So familiar):

I report–and believe–that everything is going well, better than well, so he has no reason to think anything’s wrong. I brush of his incessant questions about whether I’m doing too much…How could I be doing too much when everything is right? The meds are obviously working brilliantly, as anyone can see….(168)

Indeed, they are. Her use of dashes and the freeflow of superlatives heighten the effect of the mania–sweeping the reader into her madness.

Kay Redfield Jameson’s An Unquiet Mind is likewise a personal account of biopolar disorder, though the narrative voice is considerably more staid and calm, even as Jameson delves into her manic psychosis, which befits her own characterization as the intellect drawn to study the very mood disorder that haunts her and her family. As a consequence, her voice is often reserved and, superficially at least, objective. Her insights (and I would argue that many of these insights ARE borne out of the objectivity she had to develop as a researcher) dance between the image of the bipolar patient has of him or herself and those held by others. She captures, at the outset of her chapter “Flights of Mind,” the separation between the perceptions of the bipolar mind and those of the people who live with the bipolar patient:

It goes on and one, and finally there are only others’ recollection of your behavior–your bizarre, frenetic, aimless behaviors–for mania has at least some grace in partially obliterating memories. (68)

One of the central arguments for each writer is mania is itself addictive–those behaviors that are read by others as frivolous, batty, or annoying, are products of a feeling of unconquerability and pleasure–at least until the paranoia becomes unmanageable. Both authors also discuss the heavy reliance on others for survival–that the ways in which the bipolar patient is treated by the world (family, friends, etc.) can make all the difference, but, as Hornbacher makes clear, such reliance takes a toll–the caregivers often suffer mightily in the face of the disorder, forced from superhero to sidekick and back again, over and over and over. She remarks of her husband

He doesn’t know how to relate to me. He has grown used to my being sick. He gave up on getting me back and got used to playing savior. Now he is tired of that role; but at the same time, he has forgotten everything else. In some ways it is simpler to be married to someone who is all need and no give. It’s an enormous drain. But there is a benefit too: you become the hero, the center of someone else’s existence. You are the saint. You have, in this sense, a great deal of power. (222)

The remark, like hers about losing the ability to write to the darkness, struck me cold and familiar. I wonder just how often I left G in such a predicament. Being a functional sort, he was never pushed to exactly these lengths, but he certainly lost the ability to know what and how to deal with me in the first go around of sobriety. I pulled away–didn’t know how to react to or with him, wrapped up as I was in surviving the everyday. He, in turn, locked himself away from me, through various means, and I often wondered if it was in part because I wasn’t as weak as I had been…I don’t know. The idea crossed my mind on more than one occasion, but it could have as easily been my own projections of my fears of being needy (which isn’t the case. An attention whore, maybe, but I can damn well take care of everything else). And I struggle with that appearance of neediness; I deeply fear not being independent–to be beholden to another for my material or psychological well being is terrifying, which is why, I guess, I am so caught up in the fear of a genetic inheritance from my mother–because bipolar, if it does nothing else, forces the patient into the role of reliance…on drug therapy, talk therapy, and on friends and family.

Such reliance is the essence of what I avoided in Beautiful Boy, but I need to make a small digression before we get there. A nod toward an idol and his craft. And a thank you to a new person to my world, who happily provides me with intellectual fodder and teengirl gaiety.


*I am horrified, just horrified, that of all the pictures I have of Duff McKagan on my computer not one had him posing with the big bird. Not one. The picture you see above is courtesy of the Loaded site, where, thankfully, someone had the decency to post Duff in his natural habitat.

**I initially typed “idol paranoia.” Given how often I’ve used the term idol in reference to Duff of late, I had to laugh at that phrase. How the hell would that look?

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