Me and Her
Red and White, Edvard Munch, 1899 – 1900
by Jenny Diski
It’s spring again. I know that because the frogs are furiously at it in the pond and the faintest of greens is appearing on the birch tree. There’s even a hint of sun after the Cambridge morning mist has passed. Why am I sunk in gloom, barely able to get out of bed? Certainly not before morning has almost passed into afternoon. Why am I dreading the passing of the week because it means there’s another one in store? Waking in the morning with a concrete block of dread inside my chest weighing me down? Looking forward only to the moment in the evening, much too early, when I turn off the light and that brief startling relief that I am in the dark and can let myself, with chemical assistance, fall asleep – until I wake every couple of hours during the night?
Well, chemistry might answer those questions. I’ve been here often enough before, both with and without real life events to trigger the condition. It’s my character, my type, my destiny, the way the molecules fell and the cookie crumbled at the fertilization of the egg that became me. The blackness falls over me regularly, although, in the last twenty years during which I’ve been medicated, usually better controlled and for shorter periods than at present. It lurks in the ingredients of my brain recipe. There’s also what they call environmental factors. A weird childhood that caused one psychiatrist to say I was lucky I haven’t turned out psychotic. I’d be crazy not to be a depressive, another said to me. In addition, there’s the death of four people, three who I’d known since my teenage years, one my oldest friend, two of them and the arrangement of their funerals within the last four months. And still the deaths continue and the past is chipped away.
You can mix and match the chemical and environmental reasons every which way, or take just the one or the other. It doesn’t matter, there are very few choices in the management of this thing, even if you include alternative therapies, whatever the cause. I’m too self-aware and armoured, apparently, for talk therapy to be much use. CBT, even if I had the energy for list-making, box-ticking, and contract writing, doesn’t inspire me with any confidence. So only sitting through it and medication remain. I’ve gone for medication – new and different anti-depressants – because I know that sitting through it is not only agony, but dangerous, as well as very difficult for other people to deal with. Actually, the medication option includes sitting through it, because of the way that antidepressants famously don’t start to work for a month or so, and often make you feel worse, with mind numbing side effects. And then, of course, it might turn out that they are not the right pills for you. So start again, another month of sitting through it. At some point, one is too old for the wait to seem worth it.
Another question is how does it come about that I am writing this, and have written a couple of long articles since the dark settled over me? That’s two questions really. First, I seem to have a ‘writing head’ that clicks on when I set my hands on a keyboard. Writing has nothing to do with the daily living me, even if it uses the daily living me as a conduit. It’s a mystery to me, really strange as I watch myself do it, but the psychiatrist I saw said that she thought I’d probably always been ‘disassociated’ and wasn’t surprised that I could write while I could hardly talk or move. I didn’t go into it any deeper than that. It rang true to me, but I don’t want to think about it too much. I don’t like mystery and magic about writing and ignorance easily settles for mysterious.
The second part of the question is why on earth would I write such intimate stuff about myself when I could be writing about the state of the world, the latest must-see US TV series or whether street fashion echoes the fractured structure of the government coalition. Why take such an unwarrented interest in myself? And why expose myself? One answer is simple narcissism. People who write, especially people who write novels and memoiristic non-fiction must by definition be narcissistic. Another answer, which might be the same one, is that everything I write is writing about me. The state of the world as I write it, is happening through my eyes, inevitably; filtered by my mind, turned into opinion and sentences by my fingers. I don’t have a sense of me in here and it out there as a writer. The writer and the state of the world are both in here and out there together. For the non-writer me, part of the darkness is a refusal to turn on the TV news. To refuse to acknowledge the world. Yet at the same time I’m unable to stop myself reading intently online about mean and vicious world events, which are as bleak and warlike as myself at the moment. The world perhaps always reflects one’s state of mind, although it’s hard for me to imagine observing the events in the Ukraine and Crimea in a happy, cheerful mood and coming away optimistic. The world always looks bleak to me, and always has. I understand that this is not the case with everyone, although I can’t imagine it. It might be that my lurking darkness exists in that way all the time, even when I’m perfectly ‘well’. Most importantly, if writing matters, it matters that writers write about the world, and that there is always and only their view that you are at any given time reading. My writing for publication of any sort, is not the beginning of a dialogue. The round-up piece of everyone’s views is useful, but it’s not writing as I mean it and do it. In whatever mood, (though unfortunately I don’t have many so my work is hardly kaleidoscopic) I reject the idea that I should not be included and include myself in whatever I write about. How could I uninclude myself?
But what about privacy? Don’t I mind about exposing my inner state to anonymous readers anywhere in the world, whom I don’t know and who don’t know me? The answer is, I’m not. I’m sitting here in bed writing this on my screen in silence in an empty house (the Poet is having a break, giving a paper in Oxford). No one is reading this except me. That I know some people will read this (those that don’t turn to other less narcissistic matters) doesn’t matter. Forgive me, I know you are each an individual with a live mind and a beating heart, but to me as I write you simply don’t exist. I am talking to myself. The ‘you’ I address right now is me-as-reader. Nothing gets beyond these four walls. Sometimes, to my surprise, I get messages from readers talking about a piece I’ve written or books of mine they’ve read, and it really does shock me, for all that I understand the reality. Someone read that, and is talking to me! Or they think they are. They are, of course, really talking to the me that goes about in the world. The one who reads the emails. The writer-me isn’t available, all she does is write. Sometimes though she hears the faint sound of world out there, and it’s a shock when the fraction of the world that reads me makes itself known. When I started writing and people came up to me to say they’d read something of mine, I had to stop myself reacting as if they’d stolen my private diary and remember that I sent the writing out into the world. Very inconsistent. But there it is. I don’t mind being that. We are, all of us, difficult, inconsistent creatures.
I’ve chosen not to look up ‘dissociation’ in the psychiatric diagnostic books, but the word does make some sense to me. As a handhold on reality, I think I should be grateful for it. There have certainly been times when I’ve been in this condition, when I have been silent and unmoving for months on end, taking most of the day to get the energy even to have a pee. As black and bleak as I can ever imagine it being. But since I’ve been ‘a writer’, I’ve been able for short periods to keep my hands moving on the keyboard and focus through some small hole in my mind on the words appearing on the screen. Dissociation works for me. I wonder if integration is the opposite of dissociation. I imagine so. I also imagine that an integrated me would be silent. In writerly terms it would be an absence of words, a full stop. I think the silence of an integrated self must be akin to the perfection of the terminal point without a word before or after it.
Piece crossposted with This and That Continued.
Originally published in Swedish in Goteborgs-Posten.