Friday, November 13, 2009

Talking the Walk (3)


Before Came After was the title a poet I once knew gave to her first, self-published collection. It stayed with me as a truth about (at least) the psychic order of things: you have to be on the far side of something to catch more than a glimmer of its approach. Saying that, though, casts doubt on all the conventions of sequence and finality embedded in our language. The far side? The far side? Or just...another side? They are conventions we need, of course. The narrative of beginning-middle-end is one of the most profoundly practical of human inventions: the equivalent of fire or the wheel, in terms of helping us shape and use experience. Saying A led to B led to C–though we know better; know, as the best stories always imply, it could not be quite so simple–allows us to mingle timeless truths with the timed necessities of tigers and ticket-takers. But it never hurts, as a refinement of that fire-wheel, to remind ourselves of the inescapable circularity of all processes. Before comes after. After comes before. There is no such thing as a conclusion, but if there were, it would double as the ideal introduction.

I want to pick up my story on the other side of crisis, that first episode as it’s sometimes called, which in my case was very protracted. Whatever treatment is used, even if it’s old-fashioned time, the easing of crisis is not a return to health, but only the first step in such a return. It is that dazed mixture of relief, exhaustion and bewilderment commonly called the aftermath–a fragile condition, a thin soil in which hope may try to put down roots. A passage in the second section of The Lily Pond describes this state of aftermath. I’m not alone in the passage, appropriately, since the emotions of aftermath, like the emotions of crisis, ripple out to affect everyone close to the patient, especially family and friends. A feature of aftermath that I don’t think is talked about often enough is the intellectual challenge it poses. Most people can imagine the emotional blow that trauma inflicts, and that is what most accounts focus on. But what has also been damaged, perhaps even shattered, is the personal narrative of self and life we are all telling ourselves, which must now resume with drastically altered prospects and circumstances. Simply put, serious mental illness poses a constant question that is very hard to answer, but which must be answered in some fashion: Who am I now in the light of that? What can I now expect? What can I do?

In May of 1979, the water level of French River reached its highest point in living memory. ...I came north with my parents to open the cottage; I remember loading the boat as it floated beside the gas pumps at the marina, three or more feet above the usual docks even at high water. I remember little else about that springtime trip; probably there was little of me left to remember with. I had only recently been discharged from a psychiatric ward after a year-and-a-half siege. It was really a siege of seven years, beginning with my first serious depression and psychiatric treatment at age seventeen, which cut short my last year of high school and inaugurated a long, chaotic slide away from active and communal life, culminating in the self-mutilation that earned me a diagnosis of schizophrenia and embarked me on the hospitalized ordeal of neuroleptic drugs, electroshock treatments and hydra-headed symptoms that came close to killing me, and, in the sense of obliterating all vestiges of my former life, in a way did kill me. My amnesia of that springtime trip north with my parents seems fitting; I could not have accompanied them except as a dazed and depleted survivor, a convalescent with tremors and scars and a battered brain, a broken and wide-eyed child though nominally a man of twenty-four, gaping at the debris left by the flood.

Floodscapes present ambiguous vistas–at least to those Noahs lucky enough to survive them.

There is destruction, obviously.

But, also, new shorelines.

Deep (fertile?) mud.

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