There Be Mental Illness Here

Today’s blog is from Deborah Vlock.

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Recently my brother, who is also a creative type, said to me, “Thank God your life is so fucked up. You’ll never run out of things to write about.”

Ten years ago I would have been outraged by this. I would have recited my Homeric catalogue of near-misses. Near-publication in the New Yorker (this is true to the best of my knowledge, but it was many years ago when such things were more possible for unknown writers with two x chromosomes). Near-employment at an Ivy League university.  Multiple almosts with a couple of novels and a variety of major publishing houses.

Ten years ago, things were already going steeply downhill but I was not prepared to admit it.

As my brother made the comment a couple of weeks ago and not in 2002, I simply thought about it for a moment and then congratulated myself on my fucked-up life. Because I will never run out of writing topics, and they are the kinds of things people love to read about but not to live.

My family inhabits an unmapped region in the far-reaches of normal.  There be mental illness here.

Is it even possible to BE a writer in the interrupted and fragmentary ways a person like me attempts it? How does one write at all when one’s diurnal cycles are disrupted by a child’s mania, and one’s equanimity shattered by the subsequent, profound grief of that same child when life yawns dark and empty before him? When days are spent driving to hospitals all around the city, and nights sometimes, too. If you know for a fact that blow fish and octopuses swim the walls of the pediatric emergency room at Mass General, and that the theme continues at the Franciscan Hospital for Children, which is where Mass General will send you when your kid drops out of life or hears voices or sees weird pictures in his head, and if you are certain that Children’s hospital favors marine life as well – but real fish, swimming in a ginormous tank in the lobby — if you have all this knowledge about interior spaces of hospitals you are probably not on the fast track to literary fame and fortune.

I have been on the mother of all mommy tracks for the past eleven years.

It was always my fantasy to write full time. Before I had children, I had my ambitions. I was going to be an academic star and a literary star all at once, simply because I thought I could. I spent weeks at a time in archives at home and abroad, writing the dissertation that would become my first book.  I wrote when I was not teaching or sleeping. Driving was not an impediment; I was adept at groping around the front seat for a napkin or an old receipt and positioning it in the middle of my steering wheel so I could jot down notes while driving. I had to write very small and without looking, because sometimes words will not wait.

I wrote a few scenes of an opera libretto based on Robert Browning’s long poem The Ring and the Book while motoring down the Massachusetts Turnpike. (As far as I know I did not main or kill a soul in the process, although I might have scared the daylights out of some less brazen drivers.)  I routinely pulled off roads to scribble down first lines or map out scenes before they were sucked into the maelstrom of racing thoughts in my head.

In those days I was accountable to no one but my art.

At some point, before psychiatric disorder began to dominate our lives, writing became more important to me than anything besides the commitments I kept to the people I cared about. I began scheming about doing it full time. I lurked on listservs dedicated to writing and research, feverishly seeking the answer to how you could write full time and also eat. My husband, who had left academia for a software job, told me I could not write full time and also eat. So I kept working, and writing at work and while driving and in bars and eateries when my husband was not into talking. Earning my small change so we could buy diapers and food.

Because I was going to publish a novel. And then, things would fall into place. The hints of disorder in my toddler son would recede, my skimpy purse would be thick, suddenly, with bills, and my star would ascend to the tippy-top of the heavens.

There was an urgency to writing in those days that I reserve now for the things that keep my family afloat. Triaging psychiatric crises, negotiating Boston traffic with a twelve-year-old in the back seat who fears for his life every time he sits in a car (residual PTSD from a break-down on the Mass Pike when he was seven). Scrounging for sources of financial aid so my teenaged daughter, a serious classical vocalist, can feed her music habit. If I do write it’s early in the morning – as in three or four o’clock – when my fears for my child keep sleep at bay, or in waiting rooms on the margins of manuscripts. I submit stories and essays in those ten-minute intervals between WebMD and the real MDs who call me, or whom I call, on a semi-regular basis.

I am not the writer you think of when you think of people who publish things. I am not connected to any writerly community except for my writing group, which I have not been able to attend for the past few months. I haven’t made it to a reading in years. I don’t go to conferences – I can’t afford them, for one, and I can’t be spared from a household which contains a very sick child, another child who is not sick but occasionally needs something, and a spouse whose job grows more consuming, and more necessary, every year.

(I have charmed the pants off of Boston’s finest medical and mental health practitioners while not attending readings and conferences, for what it’s worth.)

I am also not the writer you think of when you think of people who publish things, because I don’t read – except for listservs devoted to parenting children with special needs, and Wikipedia articles on stuff that gives me nightmares. (DO NOT EVER research “Prion Diseases.” Just don’t, even if you get it into your head you or a loved one might have one.) I read articles from psychiatric journals sometimes, too, and I read blogs.

So I guess I do read, but not much of the stuff that you try to read when you want to write, say, a novel.  No fiction, no poetry. The focus of my life has tilted toward this off-kilter world inhabited by my son, and all those things I once assumed  make one a writer – oh, writing, for example, and reading, and consorting with other writers — take place in dribs and drabs when I can fit them in. This is not the path I would have chosen for myself. I would have chosen a faster path, one with a more certain ROI. And who wouldn’t?

Ironically, though, I am more certain now than ever in my writerly identity. Work has fallen away. Sometimes I do not connect with other human beings who are not my child’s clinicians (or my family) for weeks at a time. The one variable I can count on in life, besides the love and support of my family, is writing – even if it occurs infrequently and on no discernible schedule.

Writing is my life raft, just as I am the buoy that keeps my family afloat.

About a year and a half ago I found myself at a creative and psychological crossroads. I could not finish the novel I’d been working on, even though I was way over the halfway hump. Writing fiction no longer moved me. And all of a sudden I realized why: life in our household was far wilder than any plot I could invent. The hours I spent shadowing my son as he moved about the house, so I could prevent him from harming himself. The daily visits to the psych ward when he was inpatient (the first time a little chit of a nine-year-old boy), wincing at the unearthly screams of some broken child trying to kick her way out of the “quiet room.” My desperate attempts to shield him from the sheer horror of it all and realizing with a shock that this was his new normal. The many times we had to accept that he preferred the locked ward to our home, because of the extreme structure of the place, the top-heavy staff to patient ratio, the sense that what was frightening about the outside world was banished from those corridors.

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That was crazy, crazy stuff, if you’ll pardon the expression. That was something to write about.

And so I started a blog about parenting a child who wanted to die. I think I wrote more over the first six months of blogging than I had in the preceding four years. I built the blog and readers came. Some of my happiest moments are when people I don’t even know comment on my posts, reach out to let me know they’ve got our backs. Or to share their own experiences with disabilities and illnesses of various sorts.

Those are My People. And knowing they were out there, reading about our challenges, mourning our losses and celebrating Benjy’s triumphs with us, helped me to re-imagine my creative identity. I had already made several generic leaps – from the short fiction a New Yorker editor was soliciting in my early grad school days, to scholarship, to novels, back to short stories – and finally it seems I have found my niche: creative non-fiction.  I am gaining more satisfaction from my writing now than I ever really did. With each essay I sell, and a terrific agent firmly supporting these new endeavors, I feel more comfortable casting some light on those far reaches of “normal” my family inhabits.

While I can’t quite bring myself to thank the Universe for the bounty of writing material in my life (the brunt of the suffering is borne by my beloved boy, after all, and I would give anything – my hands, my eyes, even my life – to ease his pain) I am trying to transform illness into something creative and productive. My writing serves the dual purpose of personal catharsis and a place for others enduring similar trials to find solace in the words of a fellow traveler.  I protect my family’s identities as best I can. “Benjy” knows I write about us, about him, under different names. My husband and I have “normalized” disability since our children were tiny, and consequently he feels no shame over his challenges, or over my capturing them in writing.

Everyone has a challenge, I always tell my children. Some people’s challenges are more obvious than others’. What we are, as people, is the sum of all our parts, even the parts that give us trouble.

I am finally beginning to acknowledge and write about my own troublesome parts, as well as Benjy’s. As usual, my brother was right: I will never run out of things to say. The last thing I want to say here, in this moment, is that there are all kinds of people creating art out there, quietly, patiently, under the most inauspicious and unexpected of circumstances. We may be taking the scenic route, the local roads – walking, sometimes crawling, instead of driving – but we’re making our own way to the finish.

Deborah Vlock is the author of loads of scholarship, Pushcart-nominated fiction in Hunger Mountain, and essays that are forthcoming in O, the Oprah magazine, and Literary Mama. She is currently working on a collection of essays on living, and writing, on the far-reaches of normal. Deborah blogs about parenting a child with mental illness at www.thestripednickel.blogspot.com. Visit her website at deborahvlock.com.