The first Wednesday of every month, writer Jeff Bowles muses on life, creativity, and our collective destinies as makers of cool stuff. You’re a writer, but have you ever thought about how or why? Here are some words to live by.
Losing My Mind (in Real Life)
At three-thirty in the morning, I’m screaming at demons. There’s something inside me, something over which I have very little control, and it’s been at my throat for months. Somehow I’ve convinced myself the voice in my head belongs to a friend from graduate school, that she’s speaking to me telepathically over a great distance. She’s crueler than the person I remember, always mocking and deceiving me, but I don’t do the simple mental math. The voice tells me all sorts of things, and this is the first time I’ve ever been crazy, so I don’t necessarily understand I’m not supposed to listen.
Though I sleep dismally, I call her the very next morning. The real person I mean. I say crazy things, most of which I don’t remember now. A few days later, something even worse happens. An incident with the car in our driveway. My wife, she gets hurt. The voice told me she was trying to kill me, and I believed every word, so I attempted to flee the house and she ended up with six fractured ribs. God, some days are made in Hell. If I close my eyes, even five years later, it’s an easy vision to conjure, and it lays me low every time. This happened, it was real, and I was crazy, crazy, crazy, an animal, a lunatic, someone completely undeserving of justice or fairness or something simple and clean like compassion.
I made a mess of my life, ended up in jail, in court, on a psychiatric ward, and I have had to cope with a version of myself from that time I cannot excuse, someone vulgar and unhinged, someone barely hanging on. I won’t go into details that are still too painful to write in blunt, unadulterated language. The pressures of life had gotten to me, an unexpected barrage of one thing after another, as life is known to dish out. Unexpected health issues, loss of a job, unable to pay the mortgage. No, I’d never heard voices before, but that doesn’t mean I’m worthy of forgiveness. My loved ones keep telling me I should finally let go, be kind to myself on this front, realize people make mistakes, that these things can and do happen and that none of it makes me a bad or dangerous person. I find it difficult to believe what they say. Scratch that, I find it impossible. It’s a miracle no one was killed.
Many prominent creative voices throughout history have commented on the clear and seemingly causal link between mental illness and creative genius, but not every dork with a science fiction and fantasy fetish and a couple of short story sales goes full tilt into lunacy. It’s not in my nature to describe myself in lofty terms. It’s not in my nature to think of myself very fondly at all, and that’s perhaps where dark things like this take root. Whatever creative abilities I’ve been granted and have spent years honing seem to have come at a cost. I knew I had depression at a very young age, but schizophrenia, I didn’t even know what that was.
It’s like this: you can’t trust your thoughts, your senses, your worldly experience. You will hear voices and smell phantom aromas and see things that aren’t there. You’ll think delusional thoughts every once in a while, strange ruminations and lines of logic that make perfect sense at the time they occur. If you’re lucky, medication will help, and counseling will teach you skills you can lean on that boil down to keeping it real, keeping it present, leaning on others if you’re having a truly difficult time distinguishing fantasy from reality. Don’t listen when you think you hear your friend from school. Don’t listen when you think you hear your friend from school. Don’t listen when you think you hear your friend from school.
There were nights I was so terrified I couldn’t imagine surviving till morning. These voices, they torture you in all sorts of creative and intimate ways. They make fun of you in the toilet, in the shower, when you’re dressing in the morning. They con you into driving recklessly in city traffic, convince you your counseling appointment has been canceled, and that in fact, you don’t really need counseling anyway. At some point, the ruse couldn’t sustain, and I finally realized I wasn’t speaking with my friend. Sensibly, tardy as usual, I asked to whom or what I was in fact speaking, in my head, in the room, just out of sight.
It said it wanted to be called Dave. Just Dave. And the more my wife and I used the name as shorthand, the more it seemed appropriate. Dave, like some faceless person who could be anyone or anything at any time. Dave, a personality that might be normal or might be abnormal, just depended on the day. And now when I write, even a simple essay like this one, I feel as though Dave is guiding my fingers over my laptop keyboard.
I can feel him looking out my eyes sometimes. He wiggles my toes and fidgets when I’m barely paying attention. He’s in me, he is me, yet they say he’s not the conscious, aware me. If my id expresses itself thusly, what the hell is wrong with me? Is it any wonder the book I wrote about that insane, scary time depicts Dave as a full-stop demon? Not a biproduct of janky biochemistry or a brain or emotional disorder, but rather something separate and inhuman? Took me two years to write that book. I still can’t stand to read a single word of it.
I wasn’t myself. It must be a constant reminder, or the truth is the person I am today, the person I’ve always believed myself to be, he’s a lie. And this is something I can’t accept. You must take action when your own wounding wounds others. It’s a teaching moment, a failing you can catch like a falling aspen leaf. It was a shot across the bow, an opportunity to reorient myself, look at my life and everything I’ve created and done not as the end-all-be-all, but as a small component of who I am in full. Each and every time Dave speaks to me, I can silently rebuke or ignore him and remind myself what real humility and humanity look like.
They look like the patients at the psych hospital who’d just survived suicide attempts and psychotic episodes. How gentle and caring they seemed. Not like me, strapped to a hospital bed, screaming my head off, trying to cut my wrists in a pretty useless fashion, thinking the Velcro ties would do the trick. Humility and humanity look like the caregivers—yes, even the guards at the county jail—who could’ve condemned me but instead took pity on me, tried to protect and treat me.
Even five years later, I awake sometimes from nightmares. He’s always there, but thankfully, so am I. Watchful, careful, repentant. Honestly, not at all interested in returning to that place ever again. I could’ve lost so much. It all could’ve ended so much worse. My blessings, I do my best to count them, but I know I could do far more. Recovery is a long process, or at least it can be, and it’s a bumpier ride than most people give it credit for being. But I have to go through it. It’s an imperative. Being better to people, hoping one day to learn to be better to myself. Leave the creative stuff aside. In fact, leave everything aside that is surface-level and cheap. Maybe it’s what I came here to do. Maybe it’s what we all came here to do.
If you or anyone you know is suffering severe mental health issues right now, I urge you to seek help. Especially in the middle of this pandemic, it’s a huge issue for many, and we owe it to ourselves, our friends, and our family to treat it with respect. There’s hope, there’s survival, and there is recovery. I’m proof of that. We all deserve to be the best versions of ourselves. All of us. I pray and hope for the best life has to offer, and I pray and hope the same for you as well. Safety, happiness, generosity, and love. Sanity most of all, my friends. Until next month.
Jeff Bowles is a science fiction and horror writer from the mountains of Colorado. The best of his outrageous and imaginative work can be found in God’s Body: Book One – The Fall, Godling and Other Paint Stories, Fear and Loathing in Las Cruces, and Brave New Multiverse. He has published work in magazines and anthologies like PodCastle, Tales from the Canyons of the Damned, the Threepenny Review, and Dark Moon Digest. Jeff earned his Master of Fine Arts degree in creative writing at Western State Colorado University. He currently lives in the high-altitude Pikes Peak region, where he dreams strange dreams and spends far too much time under the stars. Jeff’s new novel, Love/Madness/Demon, is available on Amazon now!
Check out Jeff Bowles Central on YouTube – Movies – Video Games – Music – So Much More!
Want to be sure not to miss any of Jeff’s “Words to Live By” segments? Subscribe to Writing to be Read for e-mail notifications whenever new content is posted or follow WtbR on WordPress. If you found this useful or just entertaining, please share.
Letters of May is, to my knowledge, a unique collection of writings, poetry and artwork which offer glimpses of mental illness from an inner perspective. I can see how someone afflicted with any of the mental illnesses addressed within it’s pages might be grateful to find others who relate with them and the knowledge that they are not alone. These authors have vowed to fight against the stigma of mental illness and share of themselves openly.
For someone who is not afflicted, they offer opportunities to step into the authors shoes and see the world as they do. For the authors and others who are afflicted, dealing with their mental illness is a way of life, encountered on a daily basis. For me, they were a learning experience, identifying some things, but also exploring worlds foreign to my experiences.
These pages might be empowering to some, and enlightening to others. This collection was compiled with the intention of raising awareness of mental illness. Their message above all else: Those with mental health issues are more than their illness. They are still human beings and deserve to be treated with dignity and understanding. This book has much to offer all readers. I give Letters of May five quills.
Kaye Lynne Booth does honest book reviews on Writing to be Read in exchange for ARCs. Have a book you’d like reviewed? Contact Kaye at kayebooth(at)yahoo(dot)com.