Saturday, March 9, 2013

Insania Sicut Tropum/Literary Misuse of Mental Illness

I never intended this blog to be about me.  No, this wasn't ever supposed to be a daily ledger of How Ted's Feeling.  Why not?  I'll get to that later.  But for now, I'll say I always wanted this to be something of value to writers and lovers of horror. 

But experience is always powerful and makes for better writing. 

I'm a huge fan of Tom Piccirilli.  His novel A Choir of Ill Children is perhaps one of the most hypnotic works to come out in recent years.  The voice is so beautiful that it slides us through the horror being described.  But for me, something he wrote that stands out currently, is his novella Every Shallow Cut.  It's gut-punch writing where we tag along as the character drifts out of sanity.  Tom makes this character believable and sympathetic, which is hard to do when dealing with breaks from reality. 

This is something that bothers me about fiction.  Not many describe it very well and sort of mumble through it.  I've always hoped I could add something to the genre and I guess this might be it.  

Breaks from reality, psychosis, do not simply happen.  It's not as if the person is walking down the street, sees something bad, and suddenly forgets who they are.  Nope! 

I'm rapidly approaching the 19th anniversary of my dad's suicide.  March 30.  This was not a sudden event that took everybody by surprise.  In fact, for almost a year it seemed like a fate chiseled in hard stone, and inescapable. 

My dad was going to die.  The booze won.

Looking back on it, nobody was really shocked, just disappointed.  Sure, his side of the family was living in such denial that it was a massive blow to them, one they never recovered from.  But for those of us who lived with him and everybody who knew him, there was a large marching band leading him towards this end, and we all saw it.

I stopped thinking about it in terms of retrospect because it always brings about feelings of guilt.  Why didn't I stop it?  If I'm so damned smart and everything was so clear, why didn't I intervene?  Why did I allow him to die? 

The answers are awful, as simple answers tend to be.  I was in my own Hell at the time and incapable of helping.  Just a few months previous I had an extreme and prolonged disassociation event.  In simple terms--I was no longer living in your reality and had created my own for an extended period of time. 

I'm not going to go into the horrid details of this.  Those are mine to keep.  But I will share a few lessons because I've grown tired of the over-use of "insanity" and other various tropes.  Or my personal favorite, "living on the edge." 

Bubba, you don't know what the edge really looks like.  Let me draw you a picture. 

First, it is very true that if you are not sane you don't realize it.  I thought everything was just fine.  In fact, better than fine, I was the happiest I'd ever been.  Stephen King's novel The Dead Zone had a psychic MC connect with somebody's clothing who was slipping away.  He described it as touching a pit of writhing snakes or some shit like that. 


When you break with reality, your brain does something really weird--it releases chemicals that create happiness.  That is the whole point of breaking with reality.  Reality sucks, construct something new and make it a happy place.  I was thrilled!  It felt like I had just discovered what happiness was and for the first time in my life I walked around with a smile on my face.  I felt great.  I laughed and joked, listened to happy music and saw the beauty in the world around me. 

I have a good brain.  Sure, it might not function all that well, but it has good intentions.  It created the happiest place it could for me. 

Second, you isolate.  This is the other part of break from reality.  I've always been a reclusive type of person.  Even at a very early age I spent most of my time alone and inside my own head.  My dad used to make fun of me for it.  At first he said it was because nobody wanted me around.  Then he tried to bait me by saying the reason I didn't have any girlfriends was because I was gay and didn't like women.  My mom cut that one short because she was constantly snooping around my bedroom and found the magazines every 15 year-old boy has.  Had I known then what I know now, I would have filled those searched areas with all kinds of the craziest stuff I could find.  Let her stumble upon that! 
So yes, you isolate yourself from the outside world.  I liken it to an animal going into a cave or crawling under a porch to die.  Because you are indeed dying.  You don't realize it, but the end is coming.  It's like the brain is creating this special shield around you so when you do smack into that brick wall at Mach 1 it feels like walking into a warm hug. 

Just a few months before all this mess went into high gear I had been recruited into an extreme political group by a government COINTELPRO operative on campus.  The day he got me drunk and told me I was a "Good American" I was His and would do anything he said.  Nobody had ever told me I was good at anything and certainly not a person of value or worth.  I had always figured something was intrinsically wrong with me.  And here a man I respected was complimenting me for my character and who I was! 

A few months later, when I broke away, it felt the same way.  I had purpose and I was a good person again.  It didn't matter how many rules of logic were broken.  It didn't matter if the known universe was contrary to what I saw, felt and heard.  I was happy. 

No, when you are gone from the mutually-agreed upon reality, life is good.  But like the cliche catch-phrase goes, it's not the fall that kills you--it's the landing. 

The best way to describe what it feels like to come out of that break and realize that the past few months were not real is to say that it is the most horrific thing I have ever experienced.  That moment when the lights come on and you have that first moment of clarity hurts emotionally and physically.  The physical part is something that never gets addressed.  My brain felt physically different. 

If you can imagine, I could actually feel my brain inside my skull, and it shifted.  It felt like ants had crawled inside my brain pan and pushed things around.  And afterwards, things looked, smelled and tasted different.  Yellows were more vibrant and edges were harder and better defined. 

But the emotional toll was worse.  My spirit was crushed into powder.  I was fractured into a thousand pieces.  The realization that everything had been a lie and the grim reality I had escaped was not only still there but just as bad as I had feared destroyed me.  The best way to describe it is to say I felt like I had died and my soul was gone.  I was a corpse still alive and couldn't figure out why.  I felt forsaken by God and left behind to suffer deathless life.  I couldn't go near a church without breaking down because I thought God was pissed at me.  And I felt so sorry and ashamed for what I had done and become.

These things always seem to be so religious!  Time and again, when talking with others who have had similar things happen, religion and spirituality comes into it somehow.  I think that's because while our brains are splintered off, each piece is scrambling to stay afloat.  One piece takes charge of sounds, while another piece creates a religious storyline.  I always imagined them looking like mini star ships with a crew.  The captain was shouting orders while the crew on the bridge was thrown from side to side as klaxon horns sounded. 

There is a fail-safe deeply rooted in all life that screams out to stay alive despite the horrors around us.   I think that's why I'm still here.

I spent years putting my head back together.  Dad's suicide didn't help much.  But I did it. 

Sort of.  Kinda. 

I'll admit, my head has duct tape on it in a few places.  Some shit just can't be fixed.  You never really recover from those breaks.  There is always a piece missing and you never honestly trust what you see or hear for a very long time.  Everything is suspect.  And when you are in the company of normal people you feel flawed and unnatural.  It's like people see you and know instantly just how far gone you are so they keep wary. 

I didn't really believe I was even a human being for many years before and after this.  I felt like something less-than, beneath the rest of you, subhuman. 

Recently, I've been working on my own gut-punch novella.  I'm using Every Shallow Cut as inspiration.  My character is going to eventually do some bad things and I want to be very careful about how he does it.  I don't want to use insanity as a trope.  It has become duct-tape in the fiction world and especially in the horror genre.  It's important for me this novella is, above all, honest.  I'm striving for more honesty in my writing. 

The other day somebody e-mailed me that folks were worried about me.  It was the third person to contact with me concerns for my well-being.  And my first reaction was to tell them I feel fine. 

Wait a minute...

Now I'm having to re-trace steps and go through all of those self-diagnostics I've learned to do just to make sure I'm still functioning under nominal parameters.  And I guess that is the ultimate lesson in all of this.  You are never fixed.  You are damaged goods and everybody can see it.  It is impossible to hold it all together for an extended period of time and every so often things will begin to fall apart. 

I feel fine.  I'm not overtly happy, but I'm not planning on eating a gun, like Dad.  Reality shifts sometimes.  I know it's perception, but I've learned to accept that.  It's been 20 years and I've gotten used to this reality.  Besides, all the characters, real and imagined know me here and we get along just fine. 


  1. Ted, That is incredibly brave to lay yourself bare like that to the world. Thank you for sharing yourself with us, the funny and the real. Please don't shut yourself away, I for one like reading your thoughts and stories. I hope you get through this anniversary with the best memories of your father.

  2. Hell of a blog post, Ted. I applaud your honesty. It couldn't have been easy to write. Very brave and very real.

    I respect you all the more now. Thank you for sharing this part of your life. Good luck on your book. If you pack half the honesty into it as you did this blog post, it will be a best seller.