Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Talking the Walk (11)

Catching Up to Yourself (Part 1)

I sometimes wonder whether interviews wouldn’t be a good therapeutic tool. The several I have done, whether in person or in writing, have proved almost disorientingly informative (to me, at least); I left them with a wildly buzzing brain, as if I had been hooked up to one of those sci-fi learning machines, which transferred information into my head that I must have known before, but hadn’t known I knew.

For days afterward, I wandered around remembering some of my answers, thinking: Do I really believe that? Think that? Feel that? Yes. For how long?

You have a sense of catching up to yourself. Becoming aware of things you already think and feel, but have never clearly articulated before.

How do you know you’re not spinning a line–putting across the image you want the other, or yourself, to believe?

Same way you always do. Revisit the statements, examine them from different angles. (You’ll need to keep a transcript to do this.) Give it time. If they still sit right, and keep sitting right, they probably are.

What are the conditions necessary for a good interview?

Two people who want to find out something.

After The Lily Pond had been out for about three months, I did an e-mail interview with the Danforth Review which helped to clarify for me some aspects of what I’d learned, and hadn’t learned, about mental illness.

When did you begin outlining this book?

I plunged into writing it, without an outline, in November 2005. I describe the initial impulse in the third section of the book, “Leavetaking.” The first words of the first section, “Two Rooms,” came into my head, then joined to other sentences. The writing came steadily and quickly...but calmly, too. That last part surprised me, given the often harrowing nature of what I was describing. I was already well into the writing when I saw how the different sections might fit together. In some ways, it seemed to come pre-formatted...which might mean it had been taking shape in my mind a long time before I was aware of it. I find that’s often true. What you focus on at any point is what’s in front of you on the work bench, but all around the shop are pieces at various stages, from half-finished to mere raw materials...and you sometimes catch glimpses of these, too.

When did you first notice a cohesive (if that was the case) pattern to your mood swings?

It was only about 5 years ago (I’m 53 now) that I fully accepted the diagnosis of bipolar affective disorder, or manic-depression in the old terminology. And that’s after psychiatric treatment starting at age 17, eighteen months in hospital at age 22, multiple “breaks” and breakdowns...throughout all this turbulence, I still resisted a label, fearing it was somehow destructive, reductive. I’m still wary of it; I think of it mainly as a working hypothesis. But finally it seemed even more destructive to keep turning over rocks in my own life, looking for “exogenous” factors, problems in my life or relationships ... when it was obvious, and had been for a long time, that I roared up or crashed down regardless of what was happening in my life. When did it start? By my late teens I knew that something was awry internally. I had no language to use about it then, so I just thought of it as something “off,” “wrong,” “alien.” At that stage, the worst periods were notably seasonal: speed-ups in early fall and spring, followed by depressive crashes. But the pattern still wasn’t clear to me, I think partly because my states are so often what they call “mixed,” e.g. high, driven energy combined with very black mood. Is that high? Low? It’s elements of both. That’s why “mood” is such a crude term. Energy, both psychic and physical, and in terms of both quantity and quality, would be more accurate. And although I’m wary of the current eagerness to identify “the bipolar child,” I do see signs that my own swings began early in my life, certainly by the time of adolescence. I talk about that in the book’s second section, “Hunters in the Snow.” But it takes–or it took me at least–a long time to see any coherent pattern in something that seems so chaotic. For instance, it’s clear to me now that the main reason I kept bombing out of school–it took me 13 years to complete my B.A.–was the neatly horrible overlap between my worst times and the crunch-times of the university year: late fall, spring. My mind would be failing on me–the words I was reading going dead and senseless–and I kept assuming that I simply had no interest in what I was studying...and then quitting, or just scraping by on past performance. Yet the words I couldn’t understand in late November were the same words I was excited by, charged up by, in September. This is something I’ve learned to accept, but with difficulty: going through “spells” of six weeks or more where not only do I have no desire to read my favourite books, but on the most basic level, I can’t even understand them. Can’t track a sentence to its end and know what it said. With all the multiple strategies I’ve learned, the awareness I’ve developed...I’m able to manage these periods better, perhaps level them off slightly...but not change them fundamentally. Could there be a better proof of a biochemical disorder than that? Unfortunately, in some ways the cycles are becoming more random and faster, something I’m told is typical with aging. I’m sorry, I thought this was going to be a very short answer. It’s complicated. It’s taken decades to sort out even these basics.

Did you ever feel while writing this that the simple barebones “non-fiction” element was too close to home. Did you fear it would trigger a negative outcome?

Actually, it felt more like relief to concentrate on just my own story, understanding and telling it as well as I could, without the need to create characters and invent things for them to say and do. At the same time, it felt, if anything, more deeply imagined (as opposed to invented) than fiction: there was a need to find the underlying patterns and structures that could link true events. But I guess you’re asking more about personal risk. That was something I was not so aware of at the time–when I felt mostly exhilarated to be recovering the past–but have become very aware of since. More aware every day. I think there have been, and will be, many negative outcomes for me from writing this book. They’re hard to name and harder to quantify, but I feel them, certainly. Writing names things, which can sound like taming them; but in another sense it gives them new substance and power: it bodies them forth. It’s daunting as well as strengthening to take the true dimensions of an enemy you’ve been battling...especially when there's no sign of an end to the battle. At one point, when we were discussing the manuscript, my psychiatrist advised me to be cautious in dealing with what I had recalled. I quoted her for a piece I wrote about dealing with what I had written: “What you wrote may have unearthed a box. It may have been sealed for a reason...so you could keep functioning. Now it may be time to open it, or at least peek into it. Cautiously.” This is the first time for me as a writer that the period after writing has proved far more difficult than the writing itself.

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