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Mental Illness in the Wards of Elizabeth Donkin Mental Illness in the Wards of Elizabeth Donkin
by Abigail George
2015-01-04 13:05:19
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I am a patient at the mental hospital Elizabeth Donkin. I am here because I am not coping anymore. I am not coping because I am not the doctor. Because I am not the pharmacist with their jagged little pills. With their pharmaceuticals. Because I am not the one who is fluent in the doctor’s language no matter how hard I try. How will I be able to benefit from wearing that white laboratory coat, stethoscope around the neck, with that particular bedside manner?  Where is my infinite piano? Watch this. Watch this romance. It is clever math, no, it is elegant math with all of its violent alertness under my fingertips. What is the weather like in Los Angeles?

What is a winter like in Los Angeles? What will my head say to my heart as I walk on that beach, or breathe in that valid air from that Parisian meadow with my moral compass to navigate me on those open roads, the wide open spaces of the Midwest? What will my limbs say to each other in London if I ever get around to having that London experience forgoing all my responsibilities as a writer and a poet in South Africa? For isn’t that what I am first and foremost. A South African writer and poet living in a post-apartheid apocalyptic city. City life as opposed to life in the rural countryside.

 

Searching for greener pastures in the asphalt garden where everything is golden and chameleon-like. I have never wanted the experience of loss. The measure of loss but life has given me that responsibility. Sutures too. And panic and I have had to thread both against threadbare knuckles. I have covered myself up with an American quilt. It has become my shroud. It has become my cover in other poetry. But I feel it all the time now. The warmth of anxiety. I feel it humming, humming, and humming in my bones. Singing to the leaves on the winter trees. Guests every one. They’re like bees. They’re a rapturous swarm.

What do I know without having a sophisticated culture, a knowledge and education beyond this tidal moon and sun and then I think of the planets. How like the planets I am? I know my place. I know my place so well now that I cannot give it up. And why would I? There will never be a case of mistaken identity. All I will ever know about life is the predictions of Sappho, poetry and writing. And how sometimes how beautifully unpredictable life can be otherwise. There are storms in the dark and we need to speak about the acute pain from those storms in beautiful and wonderful ways. Mostly the image of depression is that of a wild thing.

When I’m crazy I know that is when I am most alive. When I am not crazy, when I am most sober is also when I am most alive but I don’t know it. All feeling leaves me and I long for the stress of crazy. I long for someone to tell me I’m beautiful. And to the mock wife that I would give my eternal screaming life for. You are mine. The pain of Sarajevo is in my blood. Mingled there in my blood. Staring back at me in my blood and but what can I do but stare back at it? The door was somehow left ajar for me and my heart was bursting. It ready to be split open like a pomegranate. Seeds everywhere like seawater.

I found wild oblivion, the safe passage from suffering in those seeds. At first I could not speak of the fantasy that I held in my hands and that my head wished for so ardently. I could not interpret those promised lands that my mocking husband returned from. I needed land and yet I needed to be reborn as well. I needed stress, a tour of the flesh like I needed the back of my hand. I flickered and then I was buried once again amongst the flowers. And with dirt upon my head I soon realised that I was supposed to be the beautiful keeper of the vanished and the unexamined. The apprehended. I do not want to age.

To age means to give up your mortality like an artist giving up their brushes. To age means to give up everything. To age means that you are not bold anymore and that you don’t have anything to be brave over. It just happens to be in your blood to think these things. Never mind how you try not to. I need to write to you of the quiet courage of our mothers and our grandmothers. So pay attention to my birthday notes. Grief is only a warning. Denial too. I need to find out why the brightness dies so effortlessly and with artful commitment. The heart of commitment. And the flowers heads. Every one. The night is blue. The night is dying and whatever flame of light and love I have treasured in my hands from the smiles of my children with bars of chocolate in their hands those are the walls of my prison cell.

Inside my head there are brick walls. In my arms there are cells too like the laughter of clowns. The pathetic frustration and laughter of clowns that will never be enough. Nobody deserved this. Nobody deserves this depression and the lid of this pressure that catapults them from yesterday, today and tomorrow. I find myself at the local swimming pool. The air is cool. The temperature is freezing as I pull the sweater over my head. My limbs have found freedom in a sense. My children have already found themselves in the water. I can hear them laughing. It makes my heart smile. I leave the stressors of the daily grind behind me.

I long to pull away from the wall and to kick my legs as if I was swimming in my childhood quarry again with my friends. I can feel my heart hammering inside my chest. In the water my limbs find a harmony. I find a harmony. This is something precious. A father spending time with his children. My oldest has a faraway look in her eyes. She has just started high school and every pang, every hurt that she feels I feel it too. The other two are just babies. They know nothing of the grown up world and I thank God for that. That they will remain children and innocents for a while longer.

I wish this with my whole heart but already I feel that I have damaged them irrevocably in some way. I wish I could turn back the past but I can’t. It is out of my hands now. I do not know what will happen in the near future. I know nothing of my failure as a parent to protect them from the dangerous and shark infested waters of this cruel world. I know nothing yet of their own failures.

They’re so innocent. I look upon the magnificent angelic shine on their faces. Those were the days I worshiped the ground their mother walked upon. I climb down the steps at the side of the swimming pool. I feel as if I am an authentic unique. The water gets a hold of my legs. It takes a few minutes for me to gather my bearings. I feel the weight of water around me. My older daughter’s face is sullen. She has not become rebellious yet but I know that one of these fine days she will refuse to pray with us. She will give me the silent treatment and the cold shoulder as the chip that she carries on her shoulder grows and grows.

She will no longer be the loving dutiful daughter she once was and tell me all her secrets. She will no longer think of herself as being beautiful and wonderful. She will begin to see herself as less than perfect, less than extraordinary, less than beautiful and wonderful. She will, and it breaks my heart to say this, begin to see herself as flawed. Her mother will become less familiar to her because she will find it therapeutic to spend quality time with her other children who see no wrong in her. And then she stretches out her arms and begins to swim elegant stroke after elegant stroke. She loses herself in the womb ceremony of the water. She finds herself here.

My wife and I have never discussed having prodigies for children but prodigies they are but aren’t all mother’s children prodigies? I have been an educationalist for decades now so I am the expert. I know what I am talking about. I have met many gifted children who have had no one sadly to believe in them and so they have been lost through the system and the establishment. These gifted children have had no platform and so they have in return become delinquent and criminal.

The girls have become shop assistants and lovers and the young men work at menial labour toughening themselves against the injustices of the world that they find themselves in. They get married too early. They have those kids too early and sometimes they become fathers when they are mere children themselves. Their sunny road is not sunny for long and so they turn to alcoholism and the insanity of addiction and sometimes become demagogues yielding violence and brutalising their wives, their children and their families. I have met all of them in my teaching career and I saved those that I could save.

I saved those that were in my power to save but unfortunately I could not save every one when their parents themselves are lost too. There were times when I came too late on the scene, on the scenario.

Madness is a hands down bloodied affair. Madness is much more than searching with your whole heart for sobriety from addiction. This time around my stay at Hunterscraig was a few weeks. I sat and listened to my children my muscles tired, aching and sore. Afterwards we would get cool drinks for everyone. Sometimes ice lollies, popsicles, sweets, caramel popcorn and bubble gum. Things that children would enjoy. I would get the morning paper if I had not read it yet at school with my morning tea and sandwiches. Under water the images I had of other people, other people and my children’s reality would appear blurred, unnatural and disturbing. They would all appear surreal, Dadaist, subliminal.

The love a father has for his children will make him weak at the knees. It will make him realise his own limitations, his own flaws and his own weaknesses. I will always remember the touch of my first love, that first empty page, those clean lines of that notebook that I filled with scrawl scribbling away, my dogs, my children’s birthday parties, the wards at Hunterscraig. High care, the discreet nature of madness. How ordinary madness could be, how cool it was for the James Deans of the world but not for you and the wuthering heights of it. I thought of Bethlehem a lot. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it was because of the illness, the nature of it.

I try not to think of the most disturbing things that I felt and that I saw and that of course happened to me. The sodomy. The rape of a young man. A man who was younger than me and clearly out of his sane mind. He did not realise what was happening around him. I did not try and encourage myself to remember anything when I left the hospital or that posh clinic. I wanted to leave it all behind me. I wanted to embrace the life I had with my wife and three children. I had worked hard for it. I had sweat blood and tears for it. I needed to do the right thing by my wife.

She had stood by me so now it was all up to me to stand by her. Rituals are intensely felt especially religious rituals.

And when I want to calm the anxiety that rises again and again like sweet waves with those jagged little pharmaceuticals this is how I remember Helen Martins. The Magi and the Owl House; their tethers tug like flame at my heartstrings and I wonder about her wounds, her coy magical healing, did she ever prepare a delicious, warm cake for her friend, that social worker that Fugard spoke so highly of. What stalked her for so long; a lifetime and then she had to go and die still so young, fighting fit? Oh, suicide is a forlorn, lonely way to go. Don’t do it, I would have said and she would have looked at me.

Our eyes, I imagined would have connected the way the white sunlight connects with the angles and corners of shadows of furniture, against the wall, against the panes, against panels and cupboards, on summertime afternoons and then I would have understood her motives, the intention behind it all, the mystery, the spell that ‘it’, suicide, had cast over her, her life’s work and as I wander through her house I can feel her presence. Her perfect presence. She was that most perfect thing. She was that most perfect artist. I don’t think her unstable. She doesn’t haunt me, my waking thoughts as much as her body of magnificent work, her ‘art’ does; if I can call it that.

Writers write, poets lose themselves in translation, philosophers who pose as academics during the day intellectualise debate over wine and sushi until the early hours of the morning. When did she know her jig was up, that her time had come to bid this cruel world adieu in the worst possible way? Who found her with her insides eaten away? I read Fugard’s The Road to Mecca. I was jealous. Jealousy and cowardice are in the sticky blood of every writer and it simply does not boil away to a faint, hot zone of grieving nothingness, fumbling bits and pieces like crushed autumn leaves dead in the centre of the flushed palm of your hand.

Helen’s Mecca cast its own spell on me. To me it felt magical. A love spell launched into the language of the pathways of a warring fraction of nerves, anxious to please like a child with the limbs, eyes, soft, sweet-smelling tufts of hair and a smile of a doll’s features and yet, a spell that was blank up front, to take comfort in that blankness as if it was purified like a chalice of Communion wine and it was also a spell that spelled, ‘be faithful as a servant of God, a man of the cloth’. So what if I am not the Doctor. So what if I am not the pharmacist. I am in a ward of crazy thirsting for sobriety.

He, Fugard, seemed to craft the impossible in a way that did justice to Helen, the insecure, little, belittled bird afraid of the outside world; Helen, the Outsider in a way I knew I could never because I did not get the ‘hook’, the ‘bait’ but fishing for information, our keen sense, our powers of observation of human behaviour is what writers and poets know best as we drink our coffee, brew pots of tea, grow a hunched back bent over our ancient computer. How did she, Helen who was not so insecure after all, build that wall around her? How did she approach each subject, each project; as an assignment?

Did she miss the feeling of the warmth in her bedroom of another human being? The company of her dead husband, their daily rituals filled with breakfasts, hot, buttered toasts, meals that came out of cans, processed foods that could easily be heated up and eaten with bread like pilchards or sardines. They would probably have imbibed hot drinks during the day; warm milk at bedtime, lukewarm tea when it was called for, the bitter taste of coffee with grounds at the bottom of the cup in the morning. I think she had an inkling she would live on even in death and in her gift that she left to the world, was the method in her madness.

Colour Me In. Colour in those apparitions. Did these apparitions that came to life see her as a mystic; a prophetess bound for crucifixion and resurrection, with her own shroud of Turin, God forbid, did they come to life under her splayed fingertips, come to her from above, heaven-sent, as natural as night and day?

Were they angelic utterances whispered in her ear while she slumbered, as she turned in her sleep, twisting the sheets between her legs until finally she dreamed until daybreak or were they the of hallucinations induced by the isolated landscape, the barren countryside which surrounded her, the wilderness of her antisocial behaviour of her own making, induced by the mind of a woman slowly going mad, losing common sense, lacking that quintessential backbone of what made the English, the liberal-minded, so organised in their group or sporting activities like tennis for example, cricket or high tea; activities that required teams and cliques, so formal even in their games, proud of their progeny that followed in their footsteps, productive in the world, a world of their own making that was to a certain extent selfish, self-absorbed, not welcoming and friendly to people they considered to be not a fit partner in their climate; so genteel were they and conservative in their broad outlook on life.

When I read of how people take their lives into their own hands I wonder what will happen, if there will ever be any substantial record of proof of their life here on earth. In the end, does it really matter to them, I question, yes, perhaps I judge their actions harshly and too quickly but to me it does matter because I was brought up that way; to believe that there is something holy and godlike about your spirit, your soul, your physical and emotional body and to take what does not belong wholeheartedly to you is stealing and there is nothing pretty about being caught after the act.

If only, I imagine people who stumble across, infiltrate the place where the deceased lays, the body arranged in death, find the fragile creature as if taking a nap, resting, face composed, still, nothing amiss except the silence in the room where the unfortunate act of defiance, of quiet desperation had taken place without anyone’s knowledge. You learn and you live to surrender. You learn to let go of the past and live. If only, I had come sooner, not said this, said that in a moment when all my thoughts were focussed perfectly, perhaps if I had acted swiftly but depression is both mean-spirited and long-suffering and there is no escape from that if it is passed down from generation to generation, inherent in the highly feminine woman prone to emotional outbursts, hysterics, tantrums, panic attacks, melancholy, mania, self-medication with painkillers and potions brewed with herbs and the effeminate man.

Most people live in altered states of minds when something traumatic has happened to them. Most people think that therapy can help them with this. Sitting down face-to-face with someone who has studied the maladies of the mind for years and years they bare the deepest, darkest secrets of their soul and then leave, feeling relieved, as if they have just done something noble.

They think they will find the answers their soul is seeking once a week ongoing sometimes for several years or for their natural life. They find someone who they feel is suitable, someone motherly, fatherly or someone young who reminds them of a loved one, someone they lost or who even reminds them of their own children or a substitute for the absent parent from their childhood and adolescence and young adult life. But I was really writing this about Helen Martins and for her, in defence of her and of the life she lived. Some people just can’t help making waves and the more flawed they are, the more they can’t stop making waves.

Perhaps she found the answers she was looking for, the elegant solutions she craved like scientists or mathematicians craved in their own work, in her art, her sculptures, her friendship. I wanted to make sense of her thinking. What was it, inside her head that was making her tick insatiably, behind her eyes that was making her see, what exactly was her fruitful, the blooming flowers of her subconscious telling her to do, willing her to do consciously, conscientiously, consistently, efficiently and at a time unbeknownst to the world at large while she was still alive. In death, she has survived it all that she couldn’t in life and yet she is still remembered as a woman made of skin and bone; a bone-woman, shapeless, caught in a thoroughfare like kittens to be drowned in a bag; her features like a sandscape, opening and shutting, through which seawater spills. Martyrs are made of this.

And whenever I am troubled my thoughts turn to Gethsemane and whatever was deathly illumined there. I lived in a brutalised society when I was a child. I witnessed my mother and my father arguing back and forth sometimes, back and forth relentlessly. I think of my own violent alertness when it came to anything cultural, knowledgeable and educational.

It is both an explosion and a stagnation. The church. This dream world at large that is both poetry-flecked. How my golden flesh and the notebook from my heart that rhythm vibrates and resonates and I want to say to God. The living God that I worship and can find no wrong with. I want to say to this angelic host that he is my earth, my stone and rain and that he is most of all is my Sappho. He is the frame of my spirit. And of course all the tenderness of the natural world. Madness is just another sickness that will make you tremble. That will make you weep Remember this. That there will never be anything extraordinary about that.

I don’t need to love or be loved in return As much as I need to swim towards the light. Towards the illusion that is both honesty and hostility keeping the dog on the leash as he discovers the minutia in the essences of humanity.  Children playing in the child’s world in childhood dirt. The gardener planting, soil erosion, the fields, the roses and the altered states of mind that keeps humanity under wraps. For is not the church not another country?

Far and away beautiful and lovely. A bride holding a book. The pages majestic. The pages smelling of roses. And together we will discover why humanity is important to humanity? Why is poetry needed? By poets and humanity alike? And night I make tea or my daughter and we escape to the sitting room.

I wonder at the bittersweet oranges we use to make holes in when we were children and suck the juice out of them. Why skin and hair? The tapestry of flesh. I need trees and leaves Grass and the seasons. Precious mountains and wild life with all their simple orchestrated movements. The unmistaken frame and rapture of it all.

There’s beauty in everything in the simple ceremony of pouring tea. Drinking it primitively. The sunrise is in the image of a woman. Her femininity. What would we call that muscle? Would we call those wings lungs? A well of tidiness. Springing up relentlessly. There’s blood in the old life. Blood in the new one. Prospering breath after breath. So empires are built.

The crown of laughter Poetry and studying the poem’s death underneath the surface of it all.  Whatever is in the nature of praying meditatively and of discovering happiness behind the aloof façade of illness and mental sickness? Sickening creative ritual and impulse is where I live now. I live yonder. I could not choose words.

Because I did not have it within me to possess me. I only had everything that glistened. When will this impulse end? I did not call for it. I did not want to possess it. Although I know now that it wanted to possess me infinitely. The only response that I had was to shed tears, was for my physical body to be wracked with sobs and with every sob and with every story a light would shine on this illness.

I needed hysteria. I don’t know why. I just know this. That I needed it. And then I found a leap of faith. The beginnings of a leap of faith. And I turned towards the face of God. I found honour and privilege there. And in the whine of language I found something else. Writing soothed my soul like nothing else did. Writing calmed the storms with black clouds that still had those patterns of silver linings within my heart. Hysteria is fashionable. Do you know how fashionable it is? Grief is fashionable too. Grief for your old life and your old ways of thinking. I am still here. I am a father and a grandfather. I am no longer a son. I have to fight.

I have to fight this mental sickness. And that is why I have to fight because I am loved and because I love and because I am surrounded by the face of love. Illness will never dwindle in my life. It will always have its own turning point. It will always have its own pawns and revolutionaries. I know I need to make adjustments to my character and my personality. To cope, to live, to rejoice jubilantly that after all of this with my heroic friends that have passed on to the hereafter, my friends who have crossed over that I am still here. It is night time. It is night land in this posh clinic at the end of the world.

I of course only think that it is at the end of the world. I cannot fall sleep. I have been here for weeks now. My children are put to bed at night by my wife. I cannot know of course what she is thinking, feeling and dreaming. I only know that perhaps she carries all the burdens of the world on her shoulders tonight. I love her. God knows how I love her. But I don’t quite know how she loves me. She does not know yet how to let go of me. She does not yet know how to surrender me to the fabric of time and the tapestry of the universe. I do. I do. I do. But we have taken vows in a church in front of our family and all of our friends.

All of those unified lethal elements. It is cold. It is a winter’s night. I drink a glass of water and wonder what it is made of. I think of the Periodic Table. Teaching it to a classroom filled with misfits who have no idea of their own genius and potential. Once upon a time before I was a principal of a school I was an inexperienced chain-smoking manic depressive teacher. I didn’t think then that I had it in me to be a principal of a school. I didn’t think I had it in me to be a leader but I became one in the end and was it because of everything I experienced or in spite of those challenges.

In spite of those obstacles that turned out to be opportunities in disguise throughout everything. I don’t know. All I have now are conversations that I have with my daughter Abigail to keep me sane, from the wreck that is my ego, the illusion of the man and his illness.


      
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