Intelligent Progress, Alien Perspectives And Preparation For Illness

I see life through a blue filter. Light is filtered out and all I can see is shadow. In shades in the dark something spiritual is manifested. I watch my parents eat fruit cocktail, the cherry floats in canned juice now in their bowls, covered in the wedding-meringue foam of cream. I am striding across the pages of a screenplay that releases something primal within me, and a novel that is begging me to get done with it. I wish to improve on my own relationships. On my own writing. The relationships of my characters in my books are dysfunctional. They are manic depressive. They have a chemical imbalance. I dare them to be happy, but they tell me I am too sentimental and naive. There’s a barrier. I think like my father, but I also don’t think like him. I live in the shadow of Hemingway, Steinbeck and Rilke. I feel too much. I can only remember a tall and thin boy whose name was Paul from film school. Does anyone remember me, think of me as artistic, bored, jaded ingenue from that time?

I can hear the skies open up. The rain pours down. Thunder and lightning crash through clouds. My mother eats a small peach with care. Thoughtfully she peels it and slices pieces off, popping them into her beautiful mouth. I think of how far away I am from the Salvation Army and the shelter for abandoned women and children of my early twenties. I was homeless and not ashamed of it as I am now. Nobody told me that I had to make money. That I had to get a job. This must happen to other people. People who are loved. I was desired in a different way. It was desired that everything that happened to me hurt me, damaged me, wounded me. I can’t count on my mother; my father leaves me alone and they are both elderly now. What do I do now? I am frightened and alone. Perhaps this will be my last year in my childhood home. I realize now that I will never grow up completely. That my parents did try to help me but that it was I who left it too late. I thought I had all this time and now the clock is ticking, left to my own devices there’s no time left. There’s been so many relapses and episodes of falling ill. I think of the man making his way to my house in his huge silver car with the intention of breaking my heart. I think of the deep unhappiness that leaves me exposed. This futility I write about, the solitary hour, the loneliness I find in the educated guesswork of the day turning into evening, light turning into different shades with subtle meanings and truth. My truth is all that I have. Something is hidden in the moonlight. It glows with such a despondency but with a science as well. I did not know that I was preparing for illness already in childhood. There’s a bite to the day. It’s as if I’m biting into an apple. The taste is sweet and fresh but when I reach the core it’s rotten.

Sobriety is important to me and it’s a significant part of my life. Most days I feel fragile. My psyche, intellect, my body, on a cellular level, biological and physiologically feels wrecked or perhaps wretched is a better word. This is all that’s left of me. Writing. The writing frees me. The pages where I bare my soul and nuggets of truth. The rain pours down. Thunder is close by, then distant. It rumbles overhead. Lightning zigzags through the air. You won’t believe how unhappy and lost I feel. So unseen. Quiet is a part of my life. No one talks to me. I see no one but I prefer it that way. I have been so hurt by the world. If my father had not been so sudden, so unexpectant in letting go of me so young my female personality would have developed. I am certain of this. There would have been joy and happiness and control. I would have had self-control over my thoughts, my feelings. I would not have been so angry. My rage spilling over into night and day. I see sadness and loneliness staring at me from the page of an Anita Brookner novel, in Salinger’s voice in “Nine Stories”, in a gardening show projected on the screen up in front of me, in the restless sunflowers on the kitchen counter, and there’s something so precise about my feelings. Updike brings tears to my eyes which are cold and hard and brown. I am masterful at not disclosing how I feel but I do say how I feel when I feel that I have the upper hand. When the moment passes, I freeze. Whatever passes through me is somewhat like a flower. It withers and dies, and the root is left behind. Like water I know I live in poverty. I’ve become a vessel that attracts insects to it. Ants crawl on the counter, on the pages of my books as if they were tiny princes. If it weren’t for my parents, I would be alone, I would be living in a shelter. I would be abandoned.

I download an app. I read samples of books that I have read before and samples of my own books. It’s a few days before Christmas. We have to get the house in order. Floors have to be mopped, the counter wiped down, the dishes have to be cleared from the table. I watch American movies, but my heart is not in it. I think of all the screenplays I have written over the past two years. How none of them were made. There’s no short film to distinguish me. I think of resolutions made and broken. I am growing older and not necessarily wiser or more knowledgeable. My family stands on the brink of a new year. I feel somewhat dissatisfied. I feel as if I could have done more this past year, but this is my life and I tell myself to accept these events however sad they might seem to be. The day has a psychology to it, and everything seems slightly pathological and out of sync but the light is bright. I discuss recipes with my mother and what we’ll be having for Christmas day. I think of the poetry I have written for poet friends but how those same people are not in my life anymore. They’re there but also not there. A sad love affair is over. Was it love? I ask myself this now with tea in my hand. Soon I’ll have a sip of my brother’s beer. He’ll allow it. He’ll watch me reach for the bottle in the refrigerator and we’ll talk, laugh, smile at this, at my display of behaviour, of me wanting to be strong, fierce, different from who I really am.

It’s late. It’s nearly midnight but I make my way in the dark with the light on on my phone to the front of the house to wrap the children’s Christmas presents. I switch the lights on when I reach the sitting room. I didn’t want to disturb the other inhabitants of the house by switching on lights in other rooms. There are two gifts for each child. Afterwards I look at my handiwork. The presents look sad and this scene fills me with a kind of despair and heartache. I know hardship well. The writing life informs this way of thinking. Despair, hardship. I go to bed.

Day breaks. I look out at the landscape, the dogs snarling at each other, the dry branches that need to be taken away, the city in the distance, the traffic lights blinking red, green, orange or amber (I can never tell which name to call it). My brother teaches English to a variety of students. It’s something. It’s something. These days there never seems to be enough money. There’s never enough food in the house. My mother belongs to a grocery club. In December she gets extra groceries but with inflation and the rising cost of goods it gets fewer every year. She cleaned the yard yesterday while I sat in the sitting room feeling ill because of the heat. The heat had been frightful. Quite sickening.

I remember how my aunt used to drink beer from the can. How I would find the cans in the garden. I would find them lying on the grass and think nothing of it. I find her helpless with indignation at every situation in her life now that she isn’t around anymore. Something of my own personality is buried with her. I could hear her in my room. I could hear her drinking. She would stand outside my window, and I would hear the metal spring back between her fingers as she opened the can and took her first sip. I would lay on my bed in my school uniform in the afternoon heat feeling like the outsider. I would feel sad and forlorn and maybe all that I needed was that I needed to be kissed by a boy or for my hand to be held or to be loved. I know now in retrospect that I needed to be loved. I read the opening pages of a novel by Jhumpa Lahiri. I too feel exposed like a giant tap root and like my mother as she sits across from me in the sitting room. My father is reading. They have nothing to say to each other. They sleep in separate beds.

“Your mother doesn’t want to have sex with me,” my dad says. I want him to shut up. Badly.

I sit across from the man. The man who called the most important male figure in my life “the informer”. The man is my father. He has a misogynistic attitude these days towards me. My sister’s features are lovelier than my own. She is in faraway Europe on a break in Salzburg. The people she is traveling with have family who own a restaurant. They take her for drives in the country. My father is mentally ill. It is two days before Christmas. In this moment I hate my father. He is talking to me of a new mental hospital opening up in a white part of the city. He says nonchalantly that he wishes to go there for a rest. He wants me to go with him, he says. I know what that will mean. That it means institutionalization. The medical fraternity, they decide when you come home. They decide how long you rest, how much medication you take.

My brother takes a shower. My mother disappears into her gardening and cooking shows while I fade into the background in my room. Reading, always reading. My father is listening to Mufti Menk. In his late seventies he has decided to become a Muslim.

When my father talks to me it’s as if I am slowly losing my mind. He fills me with poison. This poison has a sense of urgency. When I was a child, I didn’t think it was poison. I think it is poison now. Where was my mother in all of this? She deserted me. Her abuse inflicted upon me, mental, emotional and verbal led to the mental enslavement of my mind. What couldn’t I have done and achieved with a mother’s love if she had done everything with intention?

In suicidal depression there is a message of hope. My dad is in the autumn of his years. Slack jawed and sleeping, the dark is out. Dawn yonder. It is early in the morning. The animals are asleep. The boys are asleep. The inhabitants of the house sleep through loadshedding which is into its second hour. I post to social media in the dark not wanting to let go of my father. “We still have so much work to do,” I say brightly. I tell him this as if we have forever. Of course, we don’t have forever and this makes me unbearably unhappy. It makes me sink into despair until I can’t quite keep it together and have to tell myself to hold on. Just breathe. It will be alright in a minute. I sometimes find myself doodling catch phrases that come to mind. Notes to work on that I can develop into a series of twelve haiku or a poem or an essay or a short story or a novella. My father has been there with me cheering me on from the sidelines all this time through these years with every submission, acceptance and rejection. At the back of my mind was the unthinkable. The succession of deaths that would follow.

Today was a good day. Better than most. It’s not often like this. He wears adult diapers, wets the bed and suffers from incontinence but he is my dad. He’s manic depressive and these days suffers from suicidal depression. I have to try so hard sometimes to love him whether he’s blue, unwell, sick or under the weather. I love him. What else can I do but show my love and respect and admiration for him in a million different ways in a day. I want to make his life more comfortable now. It’s my duty. Finally, it’s my turn to pay it forward in the days that follow. I am a grown ass baby who can’t let go of anything. Not puppies, and certainly not exes who are afraid, “to show and demonstrate love”, as Sara Bareilles sings. I am time poor in my forties when it comes to relationships.

According to the clock that I live by, the hands of time that mark my passing days, weeks and years, falling ill is the same thing as growing old. You can’t live with one and not the other in my case. I fell ill with the first adverse childhood experience in my life never to return again to cognitive reasoning, the parental familiarity of dogs, mum, dad, swing and siblings. You grow wise or rather become accustomed to this obstinate state of affairs that has altered the intuition you were previously exposed to. You let it go. You let go of the idea of suffering, of your own suffering, the downward spiral into the torment of physical pain, mental and spiritual anguish. Sanity overrides your vanity. I am a machine like any other. I have cogs and wheels that need to be oiled but the cogs are no longer in working order and the wheels have seen better days. Is it a mental death or a spiritual death, a melancholia or disability, chronic illness or fatigue, chronic kidney disease or gout, cholesterol or a fungal infection in my left foot’s big toe, hypothyroidism or high blood pressure or all of the above? I am a pause between acts, the tide at rest, the Cuban missile crisis from the distant past coming into view through the acute lens of textbook knowledge. I remember health but it is a small nation now. I look at the rainbow hill of psychotropic medication awaiting me. “Smarties” of every inconceivable shape, form, texture in my mouth. They are going to help me get better. They promise me this, but they cannot completely erase the manic depression nor the relapses, the hospitalizations or the lengthy periods away from home, the time spent in recovery. The challenge was to live and not to face death but to high five it. This is my inheritance. The death of my ego and shame, the surrendering of my body image to the Botticelli figure, the downfall of my aptitude for what the difference was between self-love and familial love.

I now had to accept and reconfigure my sense of selfhood and a multiplicity of goals, plans that I had set forth in the world to create, co-create and achieve with gumption and veracity, fortitude and chutzpah, wishful thinking and intelligence, seduction and high art. What it comes down to is this. I began to tell myself (so that I in turn could feel better about it) that chronic health problems was a test and began to eat my healthful meals. Though not always. I still ate bread, indulged in cheese and pasta and ate things that were not good for the ailments that I now had to contend with.

Being in nature soothed me somehow. I didn’t do what my mother did (which was lose her cares and burdens in gardening), I wore my flip flops in the garden, spread Vaseline liberally around my neck, hands, arms and face and sunbathed. Whether this was good for me, I do not know. It made me feel good. That was what the entire point was, which was to make me feel good. And when I felt good about myself, I forgot about the hospitals, and nobody coming to visit me or answering my phone calls or when they were coming to fetch me because I had been discharged. When I felt good about myself, I began to think about happier moments in my life and feel much more positive. I didn’t think about growing older or wiser or that there was a “Prozac Nation”, (as Elizabeth Wurtzel once coined the term) growing inside of me and spreading like a cancer.

Abigail George
Abigail George
Abigail George is a researcher and historian. Follow her on Facebook, Linkedin and Instagram @abigailgeorgepoet.