Manic MFA: How My Degree Almost Cost Me My Sanity
You don’t stop talking to no one the entire three-hour drive home. You gesture wildly with one hand as you drive, pausing only to take sips of your fourth coffee of the day. You haven’t slept a full night in over a week. You’re shaking; mind and body abuzz. You’re writing a book out loud. You want to call it your manifesto. You know how that sounds. Everything appears in sharper focus— lights and colors bright and shining. It’s never been this bad before.
I am on my way home from my third ten-day intensive residency for my MFA program at the Bennington Writing Seminars. There are too many triggers there and I feel naked; the anxiety and depression I try to hide, my “craziness,” as so many people have called it, exposed to the world. I lack my usual comforts— my dogs, my own space, therapy, and alone time. I have left all three residencies I’ve attended; manic.
During the first residency, I was bursting with energy, excitable and itchy. I couldn’t sleep or slow down. I hadn’t realized how isolated I’d been. I had chosen to live in rural Vermont, chosen our home with the big yard, chosen the solitude and time to write, and yet, I was lonely. We lived far from most of our friends, so it was mostly just my husband, Dylan, and me. I looked forward to my writing group each month, the energy I got from connecting over literature, something I did not do with my husband. At Bennington, I was overwhelmed by that energy all the time. It was thrilling to be around people who shared my love for words. Plus, master classes and workshops and readings—I didn’t want to miss any of it. I barely slept in those ten days and lost my voice from talking so much. It was exhausting, soaking up every second of creativity and interaction. I came home both drained and energized, overwhelmed and fulfilled.
During my second residency, Dylan and I were fighting, or, at least, not talking. I was at Bennington for two days before coming home for a wedding. I hadn’t realized how far apart we had become until I was away for a few days. Back at Bennington, I was relieved of tension within my marriage that I hadn’t realized I’d been carrying. When I walked into our house after two days away and Dylan didn’t even look up, I knew something was wrong.
Dylan and I hadn’t spoken or texted since I’d been gone. It hadn’t occurred to either of us to check in. We felt separate. I’d been focused on school and issues with my mother and he didn’t seem interested in hearing about either. He pulled away and I couldn’t reach him.
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Things were rough between us at the wedding. On the drive home, I tried to bring up what was going on, but he snapped at me and I cried the whole hour-and-a-half drive home. He didn’t say anything. I tried talking to him before I left again, but he refused. I thought that there was no way to get through to him, no way for us to move forward. I was convinced that our marriage was beyond repair, that it was broken as I was.
I spent the week at Bennington crying, having panic attacks, pacing all night, talking to myself, barely eating, and drinking too much. I was dissociating and nothing felt real. I can remember almost nothing from those ten days. I skipped nearly everything—readings and lectures and master classes I wanted to go to —except the mandatory workshops.
I had four panic attacks that week. Anything set me off. At a picnic, my friend mentioned something about her husband, which made me think of my husband, and the tears came suddenly. I ran into the woods, where I sat on a log and tried to catch my breath, crying uncontrollably, hyperventilating, terrified of someone seeing my breakdown.
At a restaurant one night, I suddenly felt trapped and had to get out immediately. All the people around me, the noise, everyone having a good time while I felt far away—it was too much. My chest tightened, the room was spinning, and I nearly passed out. I ran out of the restaurant and my closest friend followed. She chased me down the street as I tried to find a place where I could sit away from passersby. On a bench in a church courtyard, she held my hand and told me that we were holding a baby blue blanket, aloft in the wind. I took a deep breath as the imaginary blanket rose and exhaled as it fell. My breath slowed, tears subsided, and I began to calm down.
I floated through that residency, lonely, desperate and empty, unmoored from reality. I clutched my knees to my chest on the shower floor, crying. I bummed cigarettes from strangers in an attempt to calm myself down.
I was distraught at the prospect of my marriage falling apart and furious that I couldn’t be fully present for the residency. Going back to school was an investment in me and my dream, and here I was; missing it. I refused to let that happen again. I went home and left my husband. I was devastated and lost. It felt like nothing mattered anymore.
We got back together a few weeks later and worked hard to learn how to communicate better. We’d been going to couples’ therapy and spending more time together. We were much closer than we were just a few months prior. And yet, I still worried that being apart would undo us.
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Between putting our marriage back together, tensions with my mother, and my grandfather dying, I hadn’t been able to focus on my writing. I was frustrated at not submitting better work, for not being able to fully commit to this thing I loved. I worried that I wasn’t good enough.
At my third residency we analyze a rape scene in workshop, which makes me think of my assault. We read mother-daughter stories, which make me lament my strained relationship with my alcoholic mother. Someone asks if I ever finish a plate of food, which makes me feel like I’m thirteen and anorexic again with everyone in the cafeteria watching me eat or not eat. My dorm room reminds me of the teen psychiatric ward I spent time in years earlier. The feeling of being trapped in that small room and in myself feels the same. Though my body no longer displays my illness as it did when I was hospitalized for an eating disorder at seventy-eight pounds, it has grown curves and rounded out into the shape of a woman, it still feels broken inside.
I go to as many lectures and readings as I can. I have to walk out of a class I’m interested in when the lecturer talks about his mother not accepting him as a gay teenager, and I am reminded of my teenage struggles with depression, anxiety, and an eating disorder. My parents couldn’t accept what felt wrong with me. They wanted there to be an explanation for my pain and there wasn’t one.
The tears come quickly and I have to get out of that classroom, but in my panic, I pull when I should push, and the door rattles. I feel everyone staring at me. I pace in the hallway outside the lecture hall, where I’m sure everyone is watching me through the windows. I’m ashamed of the panic and anxiety boiling over in me. I don’t want to be like this.
I’m shaking, itching, snapping my hair-band on my wrist repeatedly, talking to myself. I’m usually able to hide my anxiety better in front of people, but now I look like a real crazy person. I’ve gotten pretty good at pretending to be normal. Usually, if I get like this, I excuse myself and go for a run or cry in a place where no one will find me— but here there are people everywhere; no safe, quiet spaces. Even in my room, I can hear other people around me and don’t feel safe to let out the tears.
I take my emergency-only meds, and at first, it works immediately. I can breathe, slow, let go. The next day, when I cry in front of my professor while talking about my previous semester, I take another, and then the next day, when I feel trapped in a room full of friends, one isn’t working anymore, so I take two. The bottle says “Take one to two as needed,” and this feels needed. My hands shake so much as I struggle to open the bottle that a few spill down the vent in the floor. The person I become on them scares me and, after not taking any for a few days, I have itchy skin, shakes, paranoia, panic.
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I don’t feel in control of my body, but somehow, make the three-hour drive home. I stay up all night and write two hundred pages of nonsense. I post long diatribes on Facebook. I’m so excitable I’m leaping out of my skin. It feels like everyone around me is moving in slow motion. I feel like I am finally myself, my brightest self. Dylan is afraid of me.
“I feel like you still haven’t come home,” he says a week later. At our therapist’s he confesses what I have always suspected, that I am too much for him. He tells me how difficult this is for him, how he has barely slept. I try to explain that I’m doing my best to protect him from myself, but I need help. My mental illness feels like a weight I can’t carry anymore.
Dylan wants me to promise that things will get better, that I will never be like this again, which is a promise I can’t make. I tell him that I will get better and almost believe it, but I know there will be more days like this. “I can’t put up with this,” he says, and I hear, “I can’t love all the broken parts in you.”
I am diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which is a relief to have words for what’s “wrong” with me. My medications are adjusted and eventually things feel in my control. I learn to talk to Dylan when I’m anxious and he learns to listen. I take deep breaths, exercise when I get too worked up, and reach out when I need help.
I’m vigilant about self-care during my final two residencies. I go to bed early and drink no more than two drinks. I take breaks when I need to, which sometimes means I skip things I want to attend. I go for walks in the woods. I run. I talk to Dylan most days. He sends me flowers.
I become more open about my mental illness. For my graduate lecture, I talk about representations of mentally ill women in fiction, which I begin by talking about my institutionalization when I was thirteen and my eventual bipolar diagnosis. Talking about it feels freeing, like I don’t have to hide it anymore. I feel less alone.
I still struggle with anxiety and depression, but with psychoanalysis, the right combination of medications, and a support system, I manage my mental health and complete my MFA. The Bennington Writing Seminars pushed me in all the ways I needed. Though difficult, it forced me to reconcile with my mental health. I’m learning to love all the parts of myself, even the ones that feel broken.