Fiction

Tuesday, 17 Nov 2015 @ 5:36 PM. By Elizabeth Han.


The stigma against mental illness has always affected how free we are to speak about it. But in fiction — poetry and prose — I think there is a tremendous opportunity to discover a community of shared experience.

Some of the greatest minds in literature have struggled with some form of mental illness and written about issues of medicine, institutionalization, various therapies, and the everyday grind of conditions that cannot be seen and are often forced under the radar.

I have compiled here some of my favourite and recommended reads. And if you have any inclination at all towards writing, I urge you to give it a try, perhaps starting with one of the tools listed here.

Contents:

  • faith
  • loneliness
  • love
  • medication
  • mindfulness
  • struggle

THEME: FAITH

“Small Wire” by Anne Sexton

My faith
is a great weight
hung on a small wire,
as doth the spider
hang her baby on a thin web,
as doth the vine,
twiggy and wooden,
hold up grapes
like eyeballs,
as many angels
dance on the head of a pin.

God does not need
too much wire to keep Him there,
just a thin vein,
with blood pushing back and forth in it,
and some love.
As it has been said:
Love and a cough
cannot be concealed.
Even a small cough.
Even a small love.
So if you have only a thin wire,
God does not mind.
He will enter your hands
as easily as ten cents used to
bring forth a Coke.

 

Love? Be it man. Be it woman. It must be a wave you want to glide in on, give your body to it, give your laugh to it, give, when the gravelly sand takes you, your tears to the land. To love another is something like prayer and can’t be planned, you just fall into its arms because your belief undoes your disbelief.

— “Admonitions to a Special Person” by Anne Sexton

 

“Self-Portrait” by David Whyte

It doesn’t interest me if there is one God
or many gods.
I want to know if you belong or feel
abandoned.
If you know despair or can see it in others.
I want to know
if you are prepared to live in the world
with its harsh need
to change you. If you can look back
with firm eyes
saying this is where I stand. I want to know
if you know
how to melt into that fierce heat of living
falling toward
the center of your longing. I want to know
if you are willing
to live, day by day, with the consequence of love
and the bitter
unwanted passion of your sure defeat.

I have heard, in that fierce embrace, even
the gods speak of God.

THEME: LONELINESS

“The Fury of Abandonment” by Anne Sexton

I’ve been abandoned out here
under the dry stars
with no shoes, no belt,
and I’ve called Rescue Inc—
that old fashioned hot line—
no voice.
Left to my own lips, touch them,
my own dumb eyes, touch them,
the progression of my parts, touch them,
my own nostrils, shoulders, breasts,
navel, stomach, mound, knee bone, ankle,
touch them.

It makes me laugh
to see a woman in this condition.
It makes me laugh for America and New York City
when your hands are cut off
and no one answers the phone.

“A Sad Child” by Margaret Atwood

You’re sad because you’re sad.
It’s psychic. It’s the age. It’s chemical.
Go see a shrink or take a pill,
or hug your sadness like an eyeless doll
you need to sleep.

Well, all children are sad
but some get over it.
Count your blessings. Better than that,
buy a hat. Buy a coat or pet.
Take up dancing to forget.

Forget what?
Your sadness, your shadow,
whatever it was that was done to you
the day of the lawn party
when you came inside flushed with the sun,
your mouth sulky with sugar,
in your new dress with the ribbon
and the ice-cream smear,
and said to yourself in the bathroom,
I am not the favorite child.

My darling, when it comes
right down to it
and the light fails and the fog rolls in
and you’re trapped in your overturned body
under a blanket or burning car,

and the red flame is seeping out of you
and igniting the tarmac beside you head
or else the floor, or else the pillow,
none of us is;
or else we all are.

THEME: LOVE

I could see how you could do extreme things for the person you loved. Adam One said that when you loved a person, that love might not always get returned the way you wanted, but it was a good thing anyway because love went out all around you like an energy wave, and a creature you didn’t know would be helped by it.

— The Year Of The Flood by Margaret Atwood

Finally, in a low whisper, he said, “I think I might be a terrible person.”

For a split second I believed him—I thought he was about to confess a crime, maybe a murder. Then I realised that we all think we might be terrible people. But we only reveal this before we ask someone to love us. It is a kind of undressing.

“The First Bad Man” by Miranda July

But, like ivy, we grow where there is room for us. She seemed to have room for me; she never turned away in the pauses that allow for turning away. She never inquired, but she never recoiled, either. This is a quality that I look for in a person, not recoiling. Some people need a red carpet rolled out in front of them in order to walk forward into friendship. They can’t see the tiny outstretched hands all around them, everywhere, like leaves on trees.

“No One Belongs Here More Than You” by Miranda July

THEME: MEDICATION

“The Addict” by Anne Sexton

My supply
of tablets
has got to last for years and years.
I like them more than I like me.
It’s a kind of marriage.
It’s a kind of war where I plant bombs inside
of myself.

What a lay me down this is
with two pink, two orange,
two green, two white goodnights.
Fee-fi-fo-fum-
Now I’m borrowed.
Now I’m numb.

THEME: MINDFULNESS

The only way you can write the truth is to assume that what you set down will never be read. Not by any other person, and not even by yourself at some later date. Otherwise you begin excusing yourself. You must see the writing as emerging like a long scroll of ink from the index finger of your right hand; you must see your left hand erasing it.

“The Blind Assassin” by Margaret Atwood

Permit me the present tense.

“Is/Not” by Margaret Atwood

 

I walk the room, surrounded by the time I’ve made; which is not a place, which is only a blur, the moving edge we live in; which is fluid, which turns back upon itself, like a wave. I may have thought I was preserving something from time, salvaging something; like all those painters, centuries ago, who thought they were bringing Heaven to earth, the revelations of God, the eternal stars, only to have their slabs of wood and plaster stolen, mislaid, burnt, hacked to pieces, destroyed by rot and mildew. A leaky ceiling, a match and some kerosene would finish all this off. Why does this thought present itself to me, not as a fear but as a temptation?

Because I can no longer control these paintings, or tell them what to mean. Whatever energy they have came out of me. I’m what’s left over.

“Cat’s Eye” by Margaret Atwood

excerpt from “We Are Hard On Other” by Margaret Atwood

A truth should exist,
it should not be used
like this. If I love you

is that a fact or a weapon?

iv.

Does the body lie
moving like this, are these
touches, hairs, wet
soft marble my tongue runs over
lies you are telling me?

Your body is not a word,
it does not lie or
speak truth either.

It is only
here or not here.

If you were wise enough to know that this life would consist mostly of letting go of things you wanted, then why not get good at the letting go, rather than the trying to have?

— “The First Bad Man” by Miranda July

THEME: STRUGGLE

‘Gone mad’ is what they say, and sometimes ‘Run mad,’ as if mad is a different direction, like west; as if mad is a different house you could step into, or a separate country entirely. But when you go mad you don’t go any other place, you stay where you are. And somebody else comes in.

— “Alias Grace” by Margaret Atwood

 

“The Poet of Ignorance” by Anne Sexton

There is an animal inside me,
clutching fast to my heart,
a huge crab.
The doctors of Boston
have thrown up their hands.
They have tried scalpels,
needles, poison gasses and the like.
The crab remains.
It is a great weight.
I try to forget it, go about my business,
cook the broccoli, open the shut books,
brush my teeth and tie my shoes.
I have tried prayer
but as I pray the crab grips harder
and the pain enlarges.

I had a dream once,
perhaps it was a dream,
that the crab was my ignorance of God.
But who am I to believe in dreams?

 

The truth is I don’t want him watching me while I eat. I don’t want him to see my hunger. If you have a need and they find it out, they will use it against you. The best way is to stop wanting anything.

— “Alias Grace” by Margaret Atwood

The funny thing about my procrastination was that I was almost done with the screenplay. I was like a person who had fought dragons and lost limbs and crawled through swamps and now, finally, the castle was visible. I could see tiny children waving flags on the balcony; all I had to do was walk across a field to get to them. But all of a sudden I was very, very sleepy. And the children couldn’t believe their eyes as I folded down to my knees and fell to the ground face-first, with my eyes open. Motionless, I watched ants hurry in and out of a hole and I knew that standing up again would be a thousand times harder than the dragon or the swamp and so I did not even try. I just clicked on one thing after another after another.

— “The First Bad Man” by Miranda July

I walked down the hall and saw that she was sitting on the floor next to a chair. This is always a bad sign. It’s a slippery slope, and it’s best just to sit in chairs, to eat when hungry, to sleep and rise and work. But we have all been there. Chairs are for people, and you’re not sure if you are one.

— “No One Belongs Here More Than You” by Miranda July