Before I went through psychosis and schizophrenia myself, there were some precursors to my experience. After all, there are other people out there who are going through it too, and the odds are that you might know some people who did.
When I worked as a beginning editor, one of my duties was to go through the slush pile, which is what we called the small mountain of submissions we received each week, and I had to pick out the serious contributions from people outside the company and write responses to everyone. As a task it wasn’t so much difficult as it was simply time consuming. Aside from the fact that most of the submissions we received were unsuitable for publication and that the best I could do was to turn these people down gently, what I remember most of all is the crazy letters we received. Somehow, inmates of various institutions kept getting hold of our address and, having decided that there was something they needed to communicate, they would send us long, cryptic messages whose point was almost never clear. Every few days we would receive one of these desperate missives, diatribes and manifestoes written front and back and top to bottom in handwriting so small and scratchy that it looked like the tracks of a beetle dipped in ink. Many were written on unnumbered pages torn from a single tablet, folded loose together or held by a straining clip, but others were cobbled together from odds and ends of paper torn from brown paper bags and envelopes and old grease-stained receipts; one was on the back — and only the back — of some hospital stationery.
I would pore over these heartbreaking submissions, trying to pick up whatever thread of sense I could — looking to break the code, as it were, of these people’s souls — but the images they presented were as fragmented and as varied as bits of shattered glass. Their only feature in common was an intent desire to make a point, which their length — as many as twenty or thirty handwritten pages — made all too clear.
You always wondered what number of these people engaged in suicide in the end.
I used to have a piece of art that my friend Ann gave me in college, a cigar-box lid with pieces of paper, mostly words cut from magazines, pasted all over it and with all the vibrant cigar-box illustrations showing through between them. The words are arranged in sentences — the kind of odd, indecipherable sentences which are characteristic of Surrealist poetry, like The wicked goose asking for water found it all locked in the garage subterranean or That’s when the innocent postman realized it was all a grotesque marriage. It’s strange, and it’s evocative, and it makes no sense at all, and I’ve taken it with me everywhere; even when I was moving cross-country and couldn’t take a whole lot of things with me, I’ve found a place in my bag to stow it away. Many years ago I poked a hole in one corner and started hanging it up by a string, and people would come along and pick it up and have no idea what to say, though they all, without knowing why, seemed to love it. The only sad fact that I have to report is that I don’t know where it is anymore; somehow, I lost it, somewhere along the way. Maybe someone liked it so much that they stole it.
I say that Ann gave it to me, but the truth is that I simply received it, that I had not even met her yet; it just showed up in the college mail one day, unexpected, without explanation, and in this it was exactly like Ann herself, the kind of gesture she so often made. Ann was paranoid, “psychotic,” something — that was painfully clear. Like all those letters from psychiatric inmates that I had to read later on as an editor, and like her own works of art, there was something about Ann that actively resisted understanding. She wore nothing but black, and was painfully shy; in the dining commons she would carry her tray as far back into one corner as she could, and most often sat there unjoined by anyone. She did not have many friends. Besides me, as far as I knew, there were only two others.
One night we had a disagreement; it was late in the year and I didn’t see her again before the summer break. I spent the first half of that summer in Europe, looking around at another world, and the other half back in my hometown, feeling constrained and frustrated and trying to learn to write every day as I sat at an old-fashioned typewriter in a hot, humid cellar. That September I went back to school, but Ann never did. She tried to go back, and she even made it as far as the school itself, but once she had arrived, from what I heard, she had some sort of panic attack, and she took the train back to Chicago, and, once there, jumped off a building.
After Ann jumped, and for the next several years, I wondered what it was that made her do it, what made that choice so compelling. It is not an easy choice to kill oneself. And for a long time I thought, as so many people must think, that it must have been one thing that did it — that whatever it was had one clear cause that you might be able to understand. Since then, of course, I have come to see the mind rather differently — not as an open field in which one might choose whichever course you wish, but as a series of paths along which, once you have somehow been committed to it, you will be dragged all the way. I realize that in this I am disregarding the whole idea of free will, but it seems to me that the idea of free will has gone too unquestioned — that it exists not so much as a reality but as a kind of myth supporting our vanity, allowing us to feel a false assurance about that which we do not understand.
Of course one wishes for an easy answer, but the things that conspire to drive a person over the edge are too numerous and varied ever to point and say, it was this one; one can never really be so certain. No one can say it wasn’t that one, or that it wasn’t really all of those together, or that, when it came my own turn for “insanity,” I wasn’t standing halfway over the edge already, with one foot extended out over the edge of the cliff like some kind of old-fashioned cartoon character, resting improbably on the air, waiting for gravity to kick in and for me to fall.
I am still astonished to discover that I have ended up being more like Ann than I ever thought was possible.
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.