In the aftermath of Robin Williams’ suicide, a plethora of articles and blogs have been published on the topic of mental illness and depression. As a writer whose work often directly or indirectly addresses mental illness, do you think this sort of mass response is helpful?
In some ways, yes, absolutely, the mass response is very helpful. The cultural silence around mental illness, without a doubt, made my experience as a child of someone with schizophrenia far worse than it needed to be. I had no one to talk to about it and no vocabulary for it even, and so that silence stunted my ability to even do my own thinking about it. In a culture without open conversation around mental illness, I was cut off from social support that could have helped enormously. So I’m pretty much glad across the board whenever anyone is openly discussing it. But with this I’ve also been glad that most of it seems to be aimed at educating people and fighting stigma.
What’s harder is when I come across examples of the sort of casual ruthlessness that our culture displays toward people with mental illnesses. I’ve been tuned in for a long time to the words that get used—calling a man with schizophrenia a “monster” for instance, or referring to the homeless mentally ill as “crazies” or “whack-jobs”—and it’s all so upsetting that I can’t let it get to me every time. So, the negative stuff is a lot like background noise for me, and then I get excited when there’s more of the positive.
The other thing is that I perceive a disconnect between the growing acceptance of mood disorders and anxiety disorders, and the continuing stigma against psychotic disorders. As thrilled as I am that people are talking about depression with compassion and care, I have yet to see that compassion extended to people with schizophrenia, or to anyone in the grip of psychosis. I have struggled to understand why this is, and I may never understand it.
When you and I first met, your writing was often in the genre of arts criticism. Can you describe your trajectory to writing more about your experiences with your mother and brother’s mental illnesses?
Partly, I’m just a generalist, interested in many things—art, biology, history, etc. I loved writing art criticism, but it was different from writing about mental illness in that it was an external thing that I followed my interests toward. Mental illness, on the other hand, was this thing at the core of my life, in the core of myself, that for two decades I tried to avoid thinking about. I had been so traumatized by mental illness, and was so afraid of it, that just reading about it was stressful. So writing about it was something I had to tackle in very small pieces. But I wanted to tackle it, because it was always there at the center of things, and avoiding it just meant bending myself into all kinds of bizarre shapes to work around it. Having a mentally ill parent has informed absolutely every perception I have probably ever had, so I wasn’t going to be creatively free until I figured out how to wield that as part of my intellect. Which I’m still doing. I wonder sometimes if I’ll ever “move on” from writing about mental illness, if it will become just another topic that interests me, or if it will remain an enduring artistic obsession for the rest of my life. I honestly don’t know. I didn’t choose it—it chose me. And now I wrestle with it, and I feel more myself and more human for doing so.
Your essay on experiencing PTSD in response to your mother and brother’s schizophrenia was deeply moving to me—in part, because my husband’s mother had schizophrenia and committed suicide. It made me think about the lack of a dialogue and even lack of vocabulary around the way in which mental illness, and sometimes its aftermath, is not isolated to the first person, or even the immediate family.
Your husband’s experience sounds rough. From what I’ve learned in conversations with others in families that have coped with mental illness, it seems that intense anxiety is a common theme. I think of it like, humans form webs of relationships that become their safety nets in life, and mental illness blasts holes in those webs in various ways. Psychosis and depression are both inherently isolating experiences, for instance, because they tend to involve the shutting down of a lot of social and cognitive capacities. This affects everyone involved, in that it often causes a loss of a sense of safety within families. There’s a feeling that the other shoe could drop at any moment, or a small problem could snowball into an enormous problem. Sometimes things can turn suddenly, shockingly bad. As a family member, you can easily begin feeling like everything is just impossible. That’s a hard place to live, mentally. So mental illness often destroys the most important relationships in a sufferer’s life. The irony is that families are the best supports for people with mental illness. But that can be so taxing and overwhelming.
As a teacher (and a writer), I try to reject romantic ideation around depression and the creative process…I guess because I don’t want my students romanticizing suicide, for obvious reasons. Williams’ death has sort of re-sparked that conversation (For example, this recent article by Kay Redfield Jamison (I actually took David Foster Wallace off my syllabus one semester because I felt like I was sending a bad message, but then I put him back on because, you know, the writing is too good). What’s your response to this part of the conversation around mental illness?
My position on this has two major components. The first is that it is awesome, awesome, awesome when some mental illnesses, sometimes, for some people, have an upside. And I do I tend to agree with Dr. Jamison’s hunch that there’s something to the idea of a link between mental illness and creativity. But the rest of that idea is that the existence of an upside doesn’t usually counterbalance the amount of pain, suffering, and grief that mental illness causes in both individuals and families, not to mention lost productivity. My mother’s mental illness certainly comes with positive elements, not least of which is the beauty of the world she inhabits and, for me, the beauty of our conversations. But when you tally that up beside everything she has to cope with and everything she’s lost as a result of her illness, it’s staggeringly uneven. So when people romanticize mental illness for its contributions to creativity, I just think about all the supremely gifted mentally ill people whose illnesses destroyed their ability to make use of those gifts. Having incredible talent and creative ideas doesn’t get you anywhere if you don’t have the energy, focus, and psychological stamina to turn that into art. And all of those things are real challenges for someone with a serious mental illness. Let’s not forget that DFW lost his battles against those challenges.
I keep thinking about your essay, “Chokecherries,” when you write:
‘ Mental illness and madness are not the same thing. Mental illness is a set of brain malfunctions with psychological effects, like paranoia, delusions, insomnia. Madness is a state of incoherence—paradoxical, or nonsensical, or untenable. Madness sometimes arises from mental illness, but it may arise in other ways, as well. This distinction is important because mental illness is not contagious, but madness often is.’
Can you say more about why you see this distinction as important, and how it’s been important in your work?
The more time goes by since I wrote those words, the more I feel them to be fundamental to my understanding of not just mental illness but the whole world. And I think that idea gets at the heart of the difference between how I personally understand mental illness and how our larger culture does. I taught creative writing to high school kids this summer, and at one point so many of them had written stories about weird, vague, undifferentiated psychoses that I had to give a little speech in which I explained that there is no generalized “crazy.” “Craziness” is not a mental health condition. It’s a hazy idea that can mean all kinds of things, and in my experience it’s more useful in describing human social institutions—like politics—than in describing mental illness.
For me personally, making the distinction between madness and mental illness was integral to my being able to understand my mother, as well as how her illness shaped my family. There’s a lot going on in schizophrenia besides “madness,” and its less spectacular symptoms are often the most crippling. My mother’s memory, for instance, is shot to hell. And that sucks. Also, even psychosis is less incoherent than it initially appears. It generally follows a set of patterns, and delusions have a certain logic to them, and when I began to grasp all this it became much easier to understand my mother.
As for madness: While my mother’s illness was often the origin of the chaos or rage or confusion that plagued my family, I could see that it had a way of continuing on without her, propagating itself by making us agents of its propagation. And sometimes her actions weren’t even a part of it. Our own beliefs and fears and misunderstandings of her illness made our situation feel far more incoherent than it otherwise would have. So that’s empowering to me. It means we can mitigate a lot of the damage and difficulty that comes with mental illness, and I think compassion and open discussion are really the starting points for working toward that.
Your essay “Disintegration, Loops” delves into the issue of memory and nostalgia, as well as that of forgetting. Do you consider the writing you’re doing memoir? And do you think the genre of memoir inherently requires the kind of losses you examine in the piece?
Well, some of the essays, yes. Hmmm, it gets tricky trying to parse the distinctions. I would call all of the pieces I sent you personal essays, and maybe DL is so heavily weighted with memories, and considerations about memory, that it qualifies as memoir. I do feel that I’m a memoirist in the sense that the writing process for these essays requires me to really fall back into the past and translate that now-distant life into words.
As for whether I think great loss is a necessary component of memoir: No, not at all. I see memoir as an exploration of the relationship between language and experience, and of the nature of human perception and memory. And those kinds of explorations can be done with memories that do not involve profound suffering or loss. I do think that the motivation to write one’s memories is often linked to a need to make sense of the difficult ones, but I wouldn’t call it a prerequisite. Often, for me, the motivation comes more from a disconnect between what I’ve experienced and what kinds of stories are being told by others (or not told at all) about those experiences. The motivating tension for me is typically in the lack of alignment between what I see and what I perceive the world to be seeing. It’s like, I write these essays to break through other people’s perceptions in order to find and, I suppose, try to validate my own.
You mentioned wishing the discussion about mental illness happening wasn’t in response to Williams’ suicide? Can you elaborate on that? I know that there is an irritating aspect to celebrities’ receiving more attention than everyone else, but is there any value to public mourning?
What I meant when I wrote that was not that I feel people should not be publicly mourning Robin Williams, and I have in my own way mourned the loss of him as well. What bothers me is that the social stigma against mental illness, the silencing that happens, and the drastic shortfalls in the mental healthcare system that have been made possible by that silence over the last 30 years—all of this has been going on for a very long time. What I feel is unfortunate is that the facts about mental illness, and our cultural relationship to it, seem to only become serious topics for public discussion when something dramatically tragic and horrible happens. Like, after Sandy Hook or Robin Williams’ death. On the one hand, I’m thrilled to see so many people talking about it. On the other hand, it saddens me that the ongoing problems in how we as a people behave around mental illness fail to get the necessary attention unless there’s a spectacle involved, whether that’s the spectacle of mass violence or of celebrity.
Your recent essay in The Missouri Review, “A Shapeless Thief” about your mother’s illness is so beautifully rendered. You write that one of the hardest losses you’ve witnesses are your mother’s lost relationships, and her loneliness because of it. I can’t help but think the compassion you express isn’t always so easy to come by when people have family members and friends suffering from severe mental illness.
That compassion certainly wasn’t easy to come by, but this brings up a few important points for me:
One is that everybody’s situation is unique, and in my unique situation, my mother’s illness never prevented her from being nice to my siblings and me. Mom’s really nice—not always to everyone, but always to her children. Because of that, even when she was failing miserably as a parent, I always maintained an awareness that I shouldn’t be getting mad at her. As a teenager I got mad about a lot of things she did, but as I matured and became able to separate my anger toward schizophrenia from my feelings toward her, it at some point became quite easy to feel so much compassion for her. I saw that having a mental illness is really, really hard. I saw that a huge amount of my mother’s energy just goes into surviving, getting through from one day to the next, and keeping her symptoms in check. That must be exhausting. I feel sympathy for anyone who has to go through that. I don’t want to minimize the difficulties of being close to a mentally ill person. It is frustrating and incredibly stressful. But the difficulties aren’t the only things that are happening.
Another thing that I think plays into this strongly is the profound ignorance many families live with regarding mental illness in their midst. When I began to learn more about schizophrenia, and began to make sense of some of my mom’s bizarre behavior, it diffused a lot of my impatience with her. In ignorance, one falls back on whatever vocabulary is made available by the larger culture, and the cultural attitudes that I came across were all negative and unsympathetic. In many ways that really wasn’t reflective of my experience, which involved a much broader span of feelings. As much as I was hurt by my mother’s illness, I was also very protective of her. As her child sharing her house, it was hard not to see that she was suffering, and struggling. I was intensely aware of what she went through. And I don’t think that’s uncommon.
One last thing is that I was lucky to have a guide in understanding how to empathize with my mom, and that was my younger sister, Adrienne. Nobody taught her, she just came by it naturally, but she has always been gifted at seeing through the illness to the deserving person inside. And her perspective has influenced mine, largely just in leading by example.
MARIN SARDY‘S essays have appeared in the Missouri Review, Post Road, Bayou, Lumina, Phoebe, and several other journals, as well as in two books published by the University of New Mexico Press—Landscape Dreams (2012) and Ghost Ranch and the Faraway Nearby (2009). Sardy has an M.F.A. in Nonfiction from Columbia University and is the nonfiction editor at Cactus Heart Literary Magazine. She is currently writing a memoir.