Plato overstated his case when he called poetry a form of madness, and he didn’t see modernity coming when he suggested banishing poets from the Republic. Annoying as they—we—are, poets can promote a society’s mental health as well as their own by integrating experience, particularly in a time of fragmented knowledge. Christopher Smart and Sylvia Plath, among others, suffered in spite of their gifts rather than because of them, and exercising their talents may well have served to mitigate those sufferings. Those who inarticulately fill psychiatric hospitals and homeless shelters seem to fare far worse.
But madness—or, nowadays, mental illness—can inform and even engender art; if art springs from a wound, mood disorders are among the least obvious lesions.
Until recently they were invisible. In the tract of aluminum-sided starter homes where I grew up during the sixties and seventies, neurotransmitters and their discontents were not discussed. Still, I knew things felt worse than they should. I was well-fed—overfed until junior high school —well-liked, and enough of a prodigy to inconvenience my teachers; gifted education, like psychopharmacology, enjoyed little currency. The sense of imminent triumph peculiar to early life should have been mine, but even before that sense could be replaced by experience my days lacked the flavor available to those who stayed fat or took their first steps on the vocational track.
Before learning of infinity plus one, or the statement “I am lying,” I discovered paradox in answering the question “What’s wrong?” Nothing and Everything both seemed like honest answers. To this day I am perversely relieved to be afflicted with only a cold, a stomach cramp, or a muscle pull. They are easily explained, and they bear no stigma.
Unlike other maladies. Diagnoses of biblical lineage, sloth and despair, sometimes suggested themselves to me. America’s alternative medicine of the spirit indicated other causes. The most obvious was nonconformity—the amorphous crime of de Tocqueville and Emerson’s eras or, in these latter days, a crime against the amorphousness in which everyone consults and no one works. I may have further sinned by failing to think positive thoughts, as prescribed by the Coueism industry whose infomercials guarantee its promoters positive thoughts—and cash flows—through book and video sales.
To such real or imagined accusations I can only plead guilty, as any sinful and imperfect person should. In my defense I can only cite mitigating circumstances: those who haven’t experienced clinical depression have no idea what it feels like.
Not what it is. Everyone suffers earaches and paper cuts in more or less the same way, but in depression reality and perception part ways. More to the point, perception means reality. Menus of possible symptoms fill pamphlets and advice columns, but no two depressives, served a la carte, will describe their condition in quite the same way. A cheerleading squad with small vocabularies, and no sense of meter, could proclaim the only common ground: What is depression? A bad thing! How does it feel? Really bad!
Beyond this point, objectivity fails. A tailored hair-shirt, depression attaches itself to every aspect of life; alternatively, it is a chess computer anticipating a novice’s every move. Larger doubts thus pile on lesser ones. If I can’t think clearly, I am clearly stupid. If I have no appetite, it’s just as well: there is no point in feeding a waste of flesh, a walking corpse.
This condition’s amoebic shape-shifting and absorption of anything in its path eventually eludes definition, except as a syndrome of simile and metaphor. Shall I compare it to a summer’s day? Not likely. While some report feeling stuck in mud, that image doesn’t speak to me.
Plenty of others do. Sometimes malign white noise spins from a flywheel that isn’t braked by good news, the care of loved ones, or even my excellent, undeserved good health from the neck down. A second wheel, shod in a tire, spins in a snowbank and finds no traction while transmission fluid burns, in the middle of the night, in January. Or I am colorless, even invisible, in a world of the vivid. It is sealed from me in a plexiglass bubble if I am not, in another bubble, sealed from the world. The bubble’s atmosphere fills with dust borne on no wind, and my bloodstream, like a canal in disuse, is silted with it. This atmosphere, my atmosphere, bears down like deep water on a sponge diver. I can meet horizontal resistance as well—the wind into which mimes walk, or the unseen hand that pushes against Giacometti’s gaunt figures. Other moods wait for their images.
Responding to those moods, as well as days of wonder and peace, or suffering exponential to my own, I try to make sense of the whole thing with words. Addressing symptoms, a character’s thoughts, a cross-country drive, I attempt to emerge from the ineffable shell of my skin and my skull, and convey to others that in those experiences, among others, they are not alone.
By: J.D. Smith