Saved by Imagination: How Reading and Writing Restored My Mental Health

Saved by Imagination: How Reading and Writing Restored My Mental Health
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Author’s Note: I entered this essay in the American Association of Suicidology’s annual Paul G. Quinnett Lived Experience Writing Contest and urged City Voices readers to submit their essays in next fall’s competition. The confidentiality rules require that individuals or organizations not be named.

For my wife and other angels

I inhabited a territory of loneliness that I think resembles that place where the dying spends their time before death, from where those who return to the world bring inevitably a unique point of view that is a nightmare, a treasure, and a lifelong possession.

Janet Frame, An Angel at My Table

At 70, I have lived with bipolar disorder for 50 years, through suicide attempts, hospitalizations, divorces, job losses, and school withdrawals. Plus, I have/had family members, friends, and peers with mental health challenges who tried to or did kill themselves.

Between the summers of 2005 and 2006, I hurtled through highs and lows like a subway train out of control before landing on the tracks of my worst depression. You know the song, “Take the A Train.” Well, I hopped on board in Brooklyn and crashed.

Depression is a double whammy. Negative thoughts and feelings flood in—the positive dissolves in a sea of self-doubt. During five unrelenting years, I felt strangled by my psychological innards and as immobilized as prey in the jaws of a predator. I quit my job and school, ditched volunteering and hobbies, steered clear of family and friends, and abused mind, body, and soul.

Most painful of all, I gave up being an arts reporter because writer’s block prevented me from channeling the creativity of my subjects. Lying down on the living room couch became a refuge, like clinging to a raft of calm on that ocean of bad thoughts and feelings. As I turned into a recluse, my wife, a horticultural therapist at a state psychiatric hospital, took over my share of the household chores and warded off unwanted intrusions.

What led to this condition? After 25 years as an urban planner, I became a peer counselor at a psycho-social clubhouse, where I worked with the most members. We peer counselors are folks living with mental illness who are trained to help our peers living with theirs.

I was running our co-op building as board president, writing fiction and journalism, helping my wife with a new gardening business, and preparing for social work school full-time, in addition to my job. And I believed the God I had lost faith in, after a semi-observant Jewish upbringing, had inspired me to join the Religious Society of Friends (aka Quakers) because the death and resurrection of Jesus fit my psyche so well.

The honors I had earned over the years suddenly weighed more heavily on me than the medals pinned to a four-star general’s chest. I was supposed to be a role model for clubhouse members down on their luck but never admitted the privileges I enjoyed as a middle-class, well-educated, straight White male.

Then, one day while preparing to lead a workshop on peer counseling, I was overwhelmed by a panic that felt as if I had fallen through the ice on a lake and gotten tangled in the weeds below. Perhaps, if I hadn’t stopped attending mood disorders support groups, I might have been able to let my guard down enough to accept help from peers.

What’s the origin of my depressions? My only childhood trauma was having a younger brother with severe mental illness. As the oldest of four, I was expected to outdo my father, who graduated Yale at 19, but, perhaps as the fifth of six children, lacked the chutzpah to become a lawyer, working instead in his father’s scrap metal business.

Thus, I led a double life: As a small-town over-achiever (valedictorian, Eagle Scout, and synagogue youth leader) and as a small-time juvenile delinquent (vandal, thief, and runaway), conditioning me to sacrifice, self-doubt, and shame—key ingredients in my suicide attempts. However, my parents were enlightened enough for the 1960s to hand
me over to a psychiatrist rather than the police.

Rejected by the Ivy League, I started pre-med in a second-tier college. Still, I discovered writing was more cathartic than dissecting dogfish sharks. Yet, in my senior year, I skated on such thin ice professionally with a potential comparative literature degree that my mind froze, and I dropped out without telling anyone.

How did I get the idea of killing myself? Maybe from my favorite author, Virginia Woolf, who drowned herself. Or maybe, as psychologist Paul Quinnett suggests in Suicide: The Forever Decision, I was like a bug stuck in a cup who forgot how to climb, jump, or fly out.

So, on New Year’s Eve 1973, when I escaped unscathed after totaling my dad’s car by running it off the highway into a stream, he sent me to a psychologist. I recovered in time for the spring semester and eventually graduated with honors. In 1978, during a separation from my first wife, I froze again while writing the biography of a famous literary critic. Doubly demoralized, I shoved rags into the tailpipe of our car at a rest stop, hoping to asphyxiate myself; they popped out after I turned on the gas.

When my wife asked me to leave for good, I cut my neck and stumbled to the ER, where the doctor who stitched me up said I had just missed my jugular. My therapist transferred me to a psych hospital. After a month there, I moved in with my best friend before finding a new job and place to live.

Three years later, writer’s block struck in the midst of a manic episode, and I dropped out of public health school after the first semester. I thought freezing in a park would be a fitting end, but I got such cold feet I skulked home. Spring renewed my literary voice when I volunteered for a health journal and gained admission to another school.

Back to the future of Brooklyn in 2006: Mirroring my psychological downturn, I was hobbling on crutches from a running injury.

So, too ashamed to seek help, and like Alice in Wonderland plunging down the rabbit hole with the evil queen waiting to chop off her head, I swallowed what I thought was enough Ativan (40 pills totaled only 20 mg) to lay me to eternal rest. When I awoke two days later at one of the borough’s private hospitals, my wife introduced me to my suicide minder. I pleaded for my psychiatrist and was transferred to the hospital, where she headed the inpatient department.

There, I described for a doctor my short story about a homeless man who slams a social worker’s head into the floor of a subway car by yanking the emergency cord—whether as a silent cry for help or in anger at his lot in life. (My mother was a social worker who likewise couldn’t save me from a (manic) crash.)

After three weeks on suicide watch and sleep walking through activities of daily living, I was discharged when my insurance ran out. Still, in a funk in November, I left my wife a note—next to all our financial documents—that I was going to our subway stop to kill myself. Then, I lurched toward what I thought would be the last ride of my life.

After climbing down to the tracks, I placed my hand on top of the third rail, hoping for immortality. Nothing happened. I didn’t know the electricity ran underneath. Like some over-the-hill pitcher who had thrown a wild pitch, I returned home in despair.

Ever vigilant, my wife had called a mobile crisis team. They whisked me back to the hospital that treated my overdose; I stayed for two months. The psych unit was like a foreign country where the guides talked in terms of “triggers” and “triage,” and such “baseline functions” as “decompensation, suicidal ideation, and non-compliance.”

My wife visited daily. We played Scrabble as if I could discover a vocabulary to define my bare existence—mostly four-letter (swear) words. Paralyzed by my breakdown, I feared ECT and being shipped to a state hospital for other “repairs”, but she argued successfully against such fixes.

Before, I needed a catheter to pee because I was so uptight; now, scared shitless, enemas were the only relief. No wonder I buried my head in mystery novels from the hospital’s library to avoid doctors and patients spying on the chaos in my heart. Their ingenious, often gruesome murders allowed me to vent my anger at the world.

Eventually, I was released with a bag full of meds and instructions for day treatment. The discharge papers might have read, “No longer an endangered species!”

My psychiatrist increased the doses so I wouldn’t do anything “disastrous.” This was like the National Weather Bureau recognizing global warming’s insanity…by changing the names of hurricanes to brands of psychotropic drugs. In alphabetical order, mine were Abilify, Depakote, Klonopin, Ritalin, and Zoloft.

Next, I frittered away two years in day treatment, avoiding confessions in group therapy of how dead I felt (in fear of landing back on the inpatient ward). Thus, pretending to be healthy earned me outpatient treatment—for the next two years.

Reading continued to be a saving grace. And when I withdrew movies from the library, visits there, like my outpatient appointments, became another social outlet and way of reaffirming my intellectual prowess.

I sublimated my death wishes in Six Feet Under, a TV series about a funeral home, and entertained rebirth on This American Life, featuring common people doing uncommon things on National Public Radio. I went to other extremes with Tyler Perry’s Madea movies and Bebe Moore Campbell’s novel, What You Owe Me, about a Holocaust survivor who betrays her Black friend.

Even if not like mine, the (auto-) biographical double lives of Emily Dickinson, Billie Holiday, Langston Hughes, and Woody Guthrie also inspired me.

If depression were now a curse, I recalled past hypomania with hope! Or perhaps because I never won an argument with my dad, thinking for myself became the hallmark of existence I was clinging to like Sisyphus, who, because he cheated death twice, was condemned by Zeus to forever roll a boulder up a hill in Hades.

In that sense, I was seven times (un-) lucky. In addition to the six previous suicide bids, anorexia now bit 30 pounds out of my normal 135.

Then, one day I borrowed a movie called An Angel at My Table, based on Janet Frame’s autobiography by the same name. Misdiagnosed with schizophrenia after a suicide try, Frame survived years in mental hospitals during the 1950s, enduring more than 200 electroshock treatments. She became New Zealand’s most famous 20 the-century author.

Knowing that writing had saved me before, my therapist encouraged my analysis of An Angel at My Table. To Janet Frame, the angel symbolized literary inspiration. I called my essay “Saved by Imagination”—hers and mine.

Thanks to Frame, who bequeathed me a legacy of unprecedented struggle, I had cracked a five-year writer’s block. She was the medium for the message that “recovery is possible.” Henceforth, I drafted other stories about my trials and triumphs.

But a letdown often followed the success. So, I trashed all my writing. And there were other examples of the waters of depression receding only to swallow me again. By September 2011, an old obsession returned. I didn’t need to take my life because I would drop dead at any moment—from a dizzying array of physical conditions. (Yes, the mind-body connection is real.)

I began to organise my affairs by filing all the financial papers scattered about our apartment (again). Next, I cleaned from top to bottom as if clearing the way for my demise.

And then, I received an invitation to an exhibit by one of my favorite Brooklyn artists. So, I called my old editor, as if five years had passed in a day, and convinced him I could review the painter’s work. Once completed, I interviewed a novelist about her brushes with mental illness.

After years of grim expectations, I found the summer of 2011 alive with hope. A supported employment program helped me return to peer counseling. One afternoon my wife had me trim an overgrown rose bush in our building’s backyard. As if putting behind me an unruly period during which I had earned what amounted to a PhD in suffering, I gently placed the thorny branches in garbage bags.

Although my “life sentence” of manic depression has not lifted, the five years I put mind, body, and soul through a form of house arrest has earned me time off—to practice loving-kindness towards myself and others. I may not be a victim of abuse, but I am my worst enemy. Without so many angels at my table, I would have eaten myself alive.

Much as overachievement underlies my bipolar disorder, I had believed that my suicide attempts expressed the desire to succeed at all costs—hence, seven different methods. Yet, if I had perfected one, I wouldn’t be here today! Now I recognize them—whether planned or impulsive, sublime or ridiculous, induced by depression or mania—as cries for help to people who had my back rather than showing serious intent.

While frequently having nightmares of being so lost I can’t find a home, so incapable I can’t do anything, and so depressed I feel dead inside, I never dream of killing myself. Rather, I believe self-destruction is expressed as homicidal rage and self-defense against “monsters,” i.e. my unconscious is protecting me from re-experiencing what I did.

I learned as a peer counselor that what was the exception for me—severe mental illness and multiple suicide attempts—is too often the norm for peers who don’t have my advantages of well-financed care, inside knowledge, and ready social supports.

I now keep my demons at bay by working for a crisis line, writing about recovery (sometimes as a stand-up comic), advocating for better (especially geriatric) behavioral health, and practicing what Quakers call “moral treatment.” Activity remains my antidote to couch surfing, but I try to set limits, which is why caring for my (unlicensed) therapy
cats are the greatest balm.

In Toni Morrison’s Sula, Shadrack, a shell-shocked Black veteran of World War I, conceives Suicide Day as a celebration of survival that turns into a mass sacrifice because he’s African American community is so downtrodden. Yet, the suicide rate for most people of color in the U.S. is lower than for Whites. Perhaps that’s why Morrison, in her writing, focused on resilience as the antidote to racism and its resulting trauma.

Virginia Woolf also exemplified the complexity of the do-or-die dilemma. An upper-class WASP who married a “penniless Jew,” she turned out after childhood sexual abuse to be bisexual and bipolar. And in Between the Acts, completed just before this English pacifist killed herself during World War II, Woolf imagined a future when outsiders would be celebrated not just tolerated; to me, that means all hues of the suicide spectrum.

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