There was a beautiful woman who appeared on our doorstep one afternoon a few months after we moved into the house. Maybe it was September. We opened the door. She hesitated for just an instant and then rushed in.
“I have some stuff in your garage,” she said. “Your landlord has let me keep it there. Would you mind if I cleared it out sometime soon?”
“Sure,” I said.
Scott said, “Can I get you something to drink?”
She seemed warmed by our hospitality. She moved further into the room and sat down on the couch beside me. I looked straight at her and smiled. Her eyes filled with tears.
“You are so kind,” she said.
Scott appeared with the glass of water.
“You are so kind,” she said, “both of you, to welcome me like this. You don’t even know me and you welcome me.”
“Of course,” I said.
“No,” she whispered. “Not everyone does.”
Then she began talking about how the world was in trouble and how she wanted to restore peace. She planned to contact Hillary Clinton. She drank her water and tears were running down her face.
“Everything’s coming together,” she said. “It’s all coming together. Just wait and see. Now I must leave. I’m so sorry to disturb you.”
And she vanished as suddenly as she’d come.
I don’t really remember what the woman looked like. She was maybe in her thirties with long brown hair. None of that mattered. What mattered was her extravagantly open spirit. Her reach made her beautiful. The rest was superfluous. It was Scott who identified it. “That woman has stuff going on.” Stuff going on. That was our phrase for someone going through what is commonly known as a psychotic break. Scott had been standing in line at the post office recently and there was a tall man in line dressed completely in purple. He kept spinning one way and then the other. Scott told me about this man and how he had stuff going on. We both knew the perils of such a state. It was not so much escape as a strenuous undertaking. It could bring terror. And a radical aloneness. There was also abundant room for insight, revelation. It would’ve been extra hard to go through such a passage alone; I was fortunate enough to have Scott as a companion, a co-traveler.
“That woman was in an extraordinary state,” I said. “She was so open and beautiful.”
There was a pause and then I asked, “Was I like that?”
“You were different because you’re a different person, but yes, you were open and beautiful.”
“A part of me deeply believed in myself when I went mad,” I said. “But then another part of me believed I was far gone. An embarrassment. Especially when I looked back on it all.”
“That’s the societal prejudice you’re carrying,” Scott said.
“Do you think that altered states make people open and beautiful?”
“They can,” he said. “But then there can be a lot of wariness and fear.”
“Which isn’t beautiful?”
“It’s just different,” he said. “It’s not that glow. It’s more like a trapped animal.”
“It makes me so sad, that this state is completely misunderstood. That woman was more radiant and gentle than anyone I’ve met in ages. And crying like that. She was so exposed.”
A few days later, a card was slipped under our door. On the cover, an angel with one wing in light and one wing in shadow. Inside she’d written: “Dear Souls, Thank you for your every kindness and please accept my apologies for forgetting your # and coming over unannounced. With love, Linda. P.S. Please save this card—I’ll tell U Y later.”
Then we got the call from our landlord. I picked up.
“I hope that woman Linda hasn’t been coming around pestering you,” he said. “I let her store some stuff in the garage to your house and she’s hoping to clear it out. But she’s on some kind of bend. She’s a real nutcase. A manic depressive.”
I felt the familiar sickness. I didn’t want to hear any more, I wanted to tell him to shut the fuck up, but I remained silent.
“Don’t answer the door when she comes by,” he went on. “It’s best to send her a message, to keep her out.”
I knew I should get off the phone, but I’d lost my voice entirely.
“She’s got some notion about Hillary Clinton and how Hillary Clinton is going to help her orchestrate world peace. Goddamn delusions of grandeur.”
How could I tell him that when I went mad I wanted to contact Hillary too? She was one of the most visibly powerful women in the world after all. Later, I realized that I would not have gotten very far in the direction of Hillary.
“So I apologize,” he went on, “for her disturbing you. Like I said, don’t answer the door. She’s gone off the deep end. She’s out of her mind.”
But she was so beautiful. Did you ever see her face? Did you ever see?
I carry an invisible identity. No one can see me. I’ve often thought of Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man. I am The Invisible Woman. Unlike Ellison who was passed over for the color of his skin, I am readily accepted based on my appearance. One of us. A woman with a nice enough bag, a calm demeanor, and well-put-together clothes (they are not “odd,” they attract no attention). You might see me walking my dog near where I live, smiling at my neighbors, making small talk. I’m certainly not one of them. People make all sorts of comments to me about the crazies. They go off on lunatics and nutcases and whackos and freaks. It never occurs to them that I might be among this so-called population. They have a preconception of what a crazy should look like and I don’t match it. It never occurs to them that I was one of them. I am one of them.
For I have not abandoned myself. In my mind, I carry a dual citizenship—in which the two citizens engage with and understand each other. I know people who have gone mad and they turn against that self; they embody the prejudice. I wasn’t one of the crazy ones. I am manic depressive, but I am not schizophrenic. I am not totally far gone. Off the map. You should’ve seen the real freaks I was subjected to in the ward. I don’t entertain these hierarchies. I was after all the ultimate “freak” on the ward. That one who went all the way around the bend. There was no one “worse” off than me. I was confined to the observational room. That third eye watching me. The trouble is, no one could see me. They didn’t see me then and they don’t see me now.
Then, they mistook me for hopelessly confused at best and destructive at worst. They were wedded to a construct that didn’t exist. They stared not at me, but straight at their own invention—which they relied on to remain stable in their vision of themselves. I had to house everything they rejected, despised. The unwanted territories of self: ungovernable, violent, primitive. They came to save me in my misguided, passionate, foreign landscape. They bound me with leather straps and plunged needles into my body. Within this time, I was disassembled, rearranged, practically destroyed.
We didn’t hear from Linda again for a time. It was about a month or so later that a car pulled into the driveway. I opened our front door and saw an older woman in the driver’s seat and Linda in the passenger seat. I took the older woman to be Linda’s mother. Linda opened the car door and stepped out. She was in her bathrobe and flip flops. I raised my hand in greeting. She scarcely nodded.
“I need to get my stuff out of the garage,” she said in a flat voice.
She was hunched over and beaten down. I didn’t know if it was the drugs, the hospital, everything. She was clearly being chaperoned. She looked dead, a shadow of herself. It looked like she was broken. Her spirit: gone. A temporary knockout one could only hope.
The contrast between the live soul who’d entered our living room with world peace on her hands and tears of gratitude running down her face, and this husk of a woman—dull-eyed, impassive—was hard to take in. I went to the garage and opened it for her. She didn’t look at me. She went inside and started shuffling through boxes. Her mother remained in the car. I never saw Linda again.
I didn’t like to have any contact with our landlord after that. I felt that I should have spoken up. But I knew this was naive. In the first years, I had spoken out over and over. It’s a dangerous proposition. Most people are fools when it comes to this issue. They do not understand, they turn away, they make a discriminatory remark. There’s only so much I can subject myself to. It is not worth the risk. I bargain with my survival. I carry around my hidden identity like a secretly beating heart, like a child I must shelter. Like a veteran who’s seen it all. And who won’t say a word to the prejudicial public.
R.D. Laing wrote in 1967:
Sanity today appears to rest very largely on a capacity to adapt to the external world—the interpersonal world, and the realm of human collectivities.
As this external human world is almost completely and totally estranged from the inner, any personal direct awareness of the inner world already has grave risks.
But since society, without knowing it, is starving for the inner, the demands on people to evoke its presence in a “safe” way, in a way that need not be taken seriously, etc., is tremendous—while the ambivalence is equally intense. Small wonder that the list of artists, in say the last 150 years, who have become shipwrecked on these reefs is so long—Holderlin, John Clare, Rimbaud, Van Gogh, Nietzsche, Antonin Artaud . . . .
Those who survived have had exceptional qualities—a capacity for secrecy, slyness, cunning—a thoroughly realistic appraisal of the risks they run, not only from the spiritual realms they frequent, but from the hatred of their fellows for anyone engaged in this pursuit . . . .
The outer divorced from any illumination from the inner is in a state of darkness. We are in an age of darkness. The state of outer darkness is a state of sin—i.e., alienation or estrangement from the inner light.
Linda was all inner light when she appeared on our doorstep and sat so close to me on the couch. And then the tears started running down her face when she realized she was welcome. She would not be turned away, banned.
I agree with Laing that there is hunger and ambivalence and hatred for the inner realms. Which madness can encompass. And yes, his assessment that survival depends on a capacity for “secrecy, slyness, cunning” is something I’ve been forced to learn in the face of all my natural instincts to impart. To confess. I’ve been forced to learn to hide. Over and over. To be secret is to consent involuntarily to invisibility. To speak (to the “normal” public) doesn’t necessarily make one more visible. It can lead to another sort of invisibility. The sort Ellison wrote of. The despised skin color or the despised crazy: passed over. Not seen. Seen through a tragically distorted lens. Not seen.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.