by Elliot Gavin Keenan, 11/29/16
Originally published in gravel magazine in 2017; as of 9/24/21, no longer available on their website.
Mozart was crazy. Flat fucking crazy. Batshit, I hear. But his music’s not crazy; it’s balanced, it’s nimble, it’s crystalline clear. There’s harmony, logic. You listen to these, you don’t hear his doubts or his debts or disease. You scan through the score and put fingers on keys and you play. And everything else goes away. Everything else goes away…
— “Everything Else”, Next to Normal
My favorite confessional poet is Anne Sexton, who committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning at age 45. A book of her poetry, published posthumously, featured her therapist:
I have words for you, Dr. Y., / words for sale. / Words that have been hoarded up, / waiting for the pleasure act of coming out, / hugger-mugger, higgiliy-piggily / onto the stage.
When I was in kindergarten, a boy hit me in the forehead with a toy truck during playtime because I asked to play with him. I sat in the corner and cried. Eventually, the teacher called me over. What’s wrong? she asked me. I don’t have any friends, I replied, sniffling. The teacher called all of the kids to the front of the classroom and asked them to raise their hands if they were my friend. Everybody raised their hands. I don’t know why, but this was probably the moment that I became crazy.
Or maybe I was crazy all along.
She laughed when I told her this story. She said it was incredibly sad and funny. I’m glad she saw how funny it was. Then she asked me, have you ever written about this?
Eunoia is a dated term for mental health. Literally, it means beautiful thinking. However, some of the most beautiful thinking has been done by people with mental illness. Consider the incredible artistic achievements of people like Vincent van Gogh, Virginia Woolf, and Sylvia Plath. And if you look for mental illness in artists, writers, poets, musicians; the list goes on.
We were running about Whole Foods. I say running because she kept forgetting things on her list and going back. We probably circled around the store three or four times, picking up various items along the way. She was in constant motion. Couldn’t stand in one place. Got excited over a jug of coffee. Perhaps she didn’t even notice, but I did: a slight fidget, balancing on one foot at the cash register. We looked at the things she’d ended up buying and laughed. Talking constantly. I am attuned to these kinds of things. She had told me, though, that she felt manic. I wished I felt as manic as she did, but I was not; rather, I was plagued by a familiar moroseness, a heaviness.
Asked about JS, I mused well, I think you’d win a fight with her.
A few months after the breakup with JS, I fucked a fashion designer from the city. He was kind of cute, dyed hair and a stutter. He slept in my bed with his arm around my waist. I slept uneasily. In my dream, I saw JS. It was the first time in a while I’d seen her face in my dreams. I don’t remember what she said, but I woke up all at once warm and shivering, cold sweat dripping down my forehead. I snuck out from the boy’s grasp and went into the bathroom and splashed cold water on my face. Looking into the mirror, I thought how strange it was. I started to cry. He gave me his shirt afterwards.
I don’t usually see people’s faces in my dreams. I rarely ever learn a person’s face. This is a condition known as congenital prosopagnosia. In fact, I only come to individualize the faces of people I’m in love with. When I told her this, she said it was very romantic. I did not tell her that I had come to know her face.
There is a thing known as a flow state: when words come out of your brain like blood seeping from a tapped vein, an insatiable passion for the task at hand. Manics often get into flow states. The world is poetry, you breathe it like air. Maybe this is part of why we are so successful in art. Love is also like a flow state.
She’s a doctoral student in the psychology department. But she told me that she used to write as if seized by a certain fervor for it, for the language, for poetry. I imagined Van Gogh and his passion for painting, his insatiable hunger. I thought I wanted to kiss those lips stained with yellow paint. Yellow, the color of the edges of a street, the boundaries of a self crossed like two neurons, the actualization of a synesthetic dream. To imbibe it is to take all of that in, the passion, life thrust under your tongue. I wanted that.
When I was a child, I sat by myself at recess. The teachers saw that I was always alone; they gave me chalk to draw on the sidewalk. My hands dusted with pastel yellow, I would watch the other kids play. It’s not easy for me to admit, but I hated them. I truly hated them. My heart was so full of hate that I couldn’t bear to watch them anymore, and I would go to the bathroom and cry. I’ve never been a good person.
Sadness is part of the human condition, said one of my writing professors, a woman who seemed perpetually rather flummoxed by the world. Without it, you’d be a monster. I wanted to ask, with sadness, am I not a monster?
For me it was different. I, too, was seized by passions; but they occurred for me in successions, a pattern sometimes disapprovingly called serial monogamy. I was like that with my writing, too. But when I was engrossed in the page, or lost in her eyes, everything but the space between my canvas and I disappeared. Everything else goes away.
I wrote constantly when I was in love with JS. Everything I felt was transferred to the page. She was my muse; she was the gasoline to the fire behind my eyes.
Kay Redfield Jamison wrote an entire book about the connections between mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder, and artistic talent. It’s called Touched with Fire.
My heart has holes in it. They’ve been there for a long time; before JS, I’m sure. But maybe I could have ignored them before that. Not anymore. I wanted to patch them up, fill them with cement, or gorilla glue the pieces back together and pretend that it was the same as it was before. A clean canvas, a blank page, a fresh start. But it’s never been the same. I’ve always been different from other people. Maybe that is why I write. To escape the sadness of being alone. The desolation, the emptiness, the misery of a life condemned to this certain loneliness.
Sometimes I try to fill the holes with other people’s loneliness. It never works. I knew right away that she wouldn’t be a suitable shape to fit there, like a square peg in the round hole of what I really needed. I was filled with this dread of knowing. But when I looked at her I would forget.
Everything else goes away.
I was ten years old when I first decided I was going to kill myself. I wanted to slice off my arm with an old circular saw, patched with rust, and die in a pool of blood on the hard cement floor of my garage. I daydreamed about it, wondered endlessly what it would be like to die there, cold and alone and smeared with bright red, a baptism in blood.
It was Anne Sexton’s therapist, Dr. Martin Orne, who encouraged her to write poetry. Perhaps he thought that poetry would be a form of healing, a way to expel her demons through the pen, exorcism in the act of creation. Put your ear down close to your soul and listen hard, she said. I am a collection of dismantled almosts, she said. Suicide is, after all, the opposite of the poem.
But suicides have a special language.
Like carpenters they want to know which tools.
They never ask why build.
Lithium is like an emotional straightjacket, or at least like wearing a shirt that’s too tight. You can’t breathe. You can’t feel the way you felt before, not manic or depressed or happy or sad or anything. You wonder if you can even write. I didn’t write for months after I started taking it.
She told me she feels sadness only fleetingly. We’re opposites, I guess; two sides of the same coin. I live in a state of melancholy permeated briefly by manic interludes. But I wonder if mania is really like happiness. Or is it like a saccharine substitute for happiness, itself almost a deeper form of sadness?
I remember hanging upside-down on one of the hospital couches and pacing up and down the long hallway, smiling cheerfully at anybody I passed along the way. The doctor informed me point-blank that I was manic. I’m happy, I said. There’s nothing to be happy about, she told me.
Although the official diagnostic term was changed to bipolar disorder in the DSM-IV, maybe this is why some people identify more with the older term manic depression.
Vincent Van Gogh’s stay at the little yellow house in Arles, France, from February 1888 until he was committed at the St. Remy asylum in 1889, was arguably the most prolific period of his entire career as a painter. He believed that the growing disruption of his inner chaos stirred within him this compulsive creativity: The more I am spent, ill, a broken pitcher, by so much more I am an artist… a kind of melancholy remains within us when we think that one could have created life at less cost than creating art. His time in Arles culminated in an episode wherein he cut off a portion of his left ear and attempted to give it as a gift to a prostitute, requesting she keep this object like a treasure.
Perhaps, in the end, this is the ultimate display of love: to give a piece of oneself to the other. To be something more than a memory, something tangible, something real. It’s a distinctly human error, this drive to be treasured.
I was sitting across my kitchen table from her. She was wearing my pajama pants and my sweatshirt, an oversized blue one that falls in folds around her thin wrists. I thought it looked better on her than it did on me. She had a look of deep consternation as she studied. I was quiet. I was watching her mannerisms, an absent-minded gesture of her fingers as she stared into the screen. The harshly azureous light of her laptop illuminated a sharpness in her almost perfectly symmetrical face, a ubiquitously beautiful face.
Perhaps it is not simply that the artistic temperament comes in tandem with emotional pitfalls, but that inner turmoil fuels the creation of art. If Van Gogh had not been crazy, would he have painted at all? Perhaps, like his brother Theo, he would have settled to be an art dealer, and never dirtied his hands with the business of creation.
Do you ever feel like I do, that you know a lot of people, but you’re still very lonely? But sometimes, maybe just when the stars align quite right, I meet someone that sees me. That looks at me like I’m not invisible.
She came up to me in the courtyard one day, a small green space in between the psychology buildings that’s mostly overgrown with ivy and shrubs. I was pacing back and forth, taking long drags and blowing smoke into the October sky. She asked me to bum a cigarette and smiled and said, I’ve seen you out here. You have a very thoughtful walk.
You always say the right thing, Elliot. You toss out aphorisms like you’re handing out daisies, she said. (Aphorism: either a pithy observation that contains a general truth; or, a concise statement of a scientific principle.)
And you know it’s just a sonata away. And you play, and you play. And everything else goes away. Everything else goes away. Everything else goes away…
She says she finds solace in her loneliness. I wonder if I could ever come to view things the same way. I’ve been alone for a long time, since my childhood. It wasn’t a tragic childhood. But it was solitary. For my whole life, I’ve wanted to find whatever it is that breaks down this invisible wall that divides us, that brings the fragments of people together into one, into a mosaic of shared humanity that I’ve never quite fit into.
I feel like I can tell you anything, she said. You’re very understanding. I feel like you understand me. I smiled sadly.
Is talking easily about something the same thing as healing a wound? About her family, about foster care, about the scar on her thigh? She gave a small laugh, like it wasn’t really a big deal. It’s not my place to say something like are you really okay? No. I couldn’t heal her. She couldn’t heal me. I just wanted to listen, to understand you in the way I have never been understood. That’s why I write.
Balanced there, suicides sometimes meet,
raging at the fruit, a pumped-up moon,
leaving the bread they mistook for a kiss,
I thought to call JS. It rang only twice; I knew she’d blocked my number months ago. I wanted to say, but I was always there for you. I wanted to say, but I loved you. I wanted to say, but I need you, I need you, I need you. Please. Two rings. Silence.
leaving the page of the book carelessly open,
something unsaid, the phone off the hook
and the love, whatever it was, an infection.
She told me about enneagrams, a theoretical model of personality. She told me that I was a type four, the individualist, which she qualified as the suffering artist: expressive, dramatic, self-absorbed, temperamental. In love chiefly with my sadness. I wanted to say, and you are not?
I’ve changed, she says.
But why are you still here?
We read Maggie Nelson’s Bluets. Her voice grew incredibly impassioned as she read aloud: I say something about how clinical psychology forces everything we love into the pathological or the delusional or the biologically inexplicable, that if what I was feeling wasn’t love then I am forced to admit that I don’t know what love is, or, more simply, that I loved a bad man.
Sometimes I would wait in the spot where JS and I would always meet together before class, as if she’d appear there again if I waited long enough. She never did. I found myself there, cold, alone, staring at the sky in its seemingly infinite vastness. Eventually I stopped waiting.
I want to write again, she told me one day, sitting outside the front of her house, smoking a cigarette. The smoke drifted into the gray sky and faded like the unintelligible, inexplicable fragments of a dream upon waking. You should, I said. It was the best healing I knew of.