Mental Health & Writing: A Bad Son Letter to the World
When I was a boy, I became obsessed with a Civil War officer named Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain. I acquired and devoured every biography written about him that I could find (there are a LOT), watched Ken Burns’s epic “The Civil War” documentary around four times (it’s eleven hours and thirty minutes) watched “Gettysburg,” featuring Jeff Daniels as Chamberlain, many, many times. I dutifully memorized facts about his pre-war life (fluent in 10 languages, sang in choir, mother wanted him to become a preacher), his military career (hero of Little Round Top, shot six times, one of only two battlefield promotions bestowed by U. S. Grant, commander of the surrender ceremony at Appomattox), his post-war endeavors (president of Bowdoin College and Governor of Maine for four terms, died in 1914) and I visited Chamberlain’s stomping grounds in Maine with my wife, years after the intensity of the obsession had, I guess, somewhat subsided.
I don’t have “interests.” I have obsessions.
I mention Joshua Chamberlain for a couple reasons, one of which to illustrate the depths of my propensity to obsess and accumulate as much minutiae about the person, place, incident or whatever it happens to be that lights my fire at a given time, but also because one of the interesting things I learned about Joshua Chamberlain was that, every year, on his birthday, he would write a letter to his mother. Of all the tidbits I uncovered about this extraordinary man; that one really stood out for me and, at around age thirteen or fourteen, it was a habit that I began emulating.
While Chamberlain’s letters to his mother were eloquently-penned, Victorian odes of gratitude, mine became affectionately dubbed by my mother, “Bad Son Letters.”
“Oh,” she’d say, peering down at the business-sized envelope staring up at her, surrounded by presents from her more emotionally-adjusted family and friends, “another ‘Bad Son Letter.’ I can’t wait.”
I don’t know exactly for what sins I was trying to atone in these letters, but I knew, intrinsically, deep, deep down, that I was bad. A bad son, brother, nephew, student, citizen, driver, shopper—whatever it was, I was bad. I had convinced myself that not only was I desperately foul inside—in my heart and in my brain—but that apologizing for this insidious wretchedness to my mother every year was a terrific way to celebrate her birthday. I mean, what mother wouldn’t want to acknowledge turning another year older than by reading a single-spaced one-pager from her only son about what a 9.4-on-the-Richter-Scale fuck-up he is?
I’ve neglected you.
I’m the reason the family is coming apart.
I don’t try hard enough to connect with my sisters.
I’ve become too insular, to self-involved, too narcissistic.
I’m crass, vulgar, mean. Incompetent. Ugly. Bad.
It was only after years of therapy and some deep soul-searching that I recently abandoned this practice in favor of presenting her with movie theatre tickets.
But I have to admit and acknowledge that there was something about the process of writing these letters, something about unrelentingly excoriating myself, exploring sins and failures through the written word, putting it all down on paper, which appealed to me. I doubt very much that it appealed to her at all, and I know she’s very happy to not be receiving them anymore. I guess my writing them at all is another reason I can identify as a bad son, but I’ll try to resist that urge, at least for the purposes of this essay.
When I worked at an inpatient psychiatric hospital, one of the groups that I started there and greatly enjoyed facilitating was Creative Writing Group. We would meet in the Women’s Day Room, which was a quiet room festooned with several large plants and a beaten up (literally) piano, where comfortable, cushioned wicker rocking chairs mixed with the traditional stain-proof hospital seating appointments. I would give the patients creative prompts, some of them I made up myself, others I stole from teachers and professors I had known from my past. On these groups, the patients explored the fantastic, the surreal, the painful, the comedic and the transcendent—just like any other writers, really, except that some of these scribes wore hospital gowns and all their musings were composed with little golf pencils.
“Writing is therapeutic,” I assured them, not really believing that myself. What the hell does that mean anyway? Is something “therapeutic” if it makes you feel better? If it gives you pleasure? If someone with a Master’s degree, eyeglasses, an I.D. badge and keys tells you it is? If it takes the demons away for three seconds? If it puts those demons in a blender and mixes them with the angel who you were when you were four and throws in some anxieties and passions and secrets and then spews out something utterly unrecognizable or unutterable on the page before you?
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Were my “Bad Son Letters” therapeutic? Is this essay therapeutic? For me? For you?
I suppose it all hearkens back to storytelling, to this ancient desire we have to relate something to others, to share a piece of ourselves. It’s why we create art, music, opera, dance, and, yes—stories. To let people know who we are, or were, or wish we were, or fear we are. I’m always afraid that I have run out of stories to tell but then, I’m always afraid of everything. The truth is, I’ve got stories by the thousands, and many of those stories that I long to tell have to do with my anxiety, my depression and, yes, my obsessions.
In 2008, I wrote a personal essay called, On Worry, where I expounded on the intricacies of being a worrier, and I rambled on about the various ways in which I worry, ways in which people tell worries not to worry, and the things about which I was worried, at the time, which ranged from sex to the lump under my arm, which I was certain at the time was cancer. Turned out that it was a dermatological reaction to a new brand of deodorant I was trying out. I just re-read that essay and it’s lousy. I can’t imagine I’d like any of the “Bad Son Letters” if I re-read those—good thing I don’t have the courage.
I suppose my most anxiety-laden writing project was a manuscript called, Oh, The Things You Will Know— an unpublished (thank God) book I had written to my “as-yet unborn children”. I started writing this in 2003. My children weren’t born until 2011. The book, as I recall it (again, not opening up that Word Doc tonight!) was hyperventilating, terror-stricken disaster—a hedonistic desire to tell every single story, bare every truth, confess every sin, un-turn every stone, unearth every corpse from my own and my family’s history and impart any kernel of wisdom I could to my children in case— well, in case I somehow died before they were old enough to have mature, grown-up to grown-up conversations with me. That, I think, was maybe the underlying fear behind that book. I had to leave something for them in case that happened.
That happened to my nephew. His father died when my nephew was three — brain cancer. I don’t think he left anything behind for his son except for some pictures and his ashes. He wasn’t a writer, and even the seeming permanency of the tattoos upon his skin is all gone now.
My children won’t ever read Oh, The Things You Will Know, but I hope, one day, they will read this essay, and I hope it will give them a little bit of a window into why I write, and what writing means to me as someone who lives with mental illness. I have written in ways that gave fuel to the fire of my cognitive distortions, and I have written in ways that challenged those warped thoughts, unhealthy thoughts about me and about others. Sometimes I have to see my thoughts typed out to really stare at them in the face and see if I believe them or not. In therapy today, I ended my session by saying that, “by the time we’re adults, thanks to our parents, our siblings, our friends, neighbors, bullies, teachers, principals, religious figures, we’re all so fucked up—I mean, you think people are okay, but try living with someone. Scratch below the surface—then you’ll see. We’re all awful.” And then I caught my therapist’s eye, and I sighed.
“Right,” I said, “and we’re all wonderful, too.”
I recently had the privilege of being asked to become editor in chief of OC87 Recovery Diaries, this great site that is devoted to telling stories of mental health, empowerment and change. This site that gives voice to authors, poets, artists, bloggers, performers, actors, soldiers, nurses and everyday folk who are living with mental illness and who are kicking stigma’s ass by telling their stories. Being offered the opportunity to lead this effort really took my breath away, and I had to shelve my instinct to vomit out all of the reasons why I was the totally wrong and inappropriate choice for this position, why I was not worthy of this mission. Sometimes getting out of my own way is the hardest thing for me to do. Frequently, actually. But, even with all my doubts, I knew one thing very clearly: I love what we do here, and that is probably the most important thing—so I accepted the challenge.
When I look around this site and read the extraordinary works featured here, I have to admit that I do feel like a sort of imposter. I get a sense that I’m faking it, or that my experiences and my stories don’t measure up. I feel like… well, a bad son. I don’t know—maybe this is my “Bad Son Letter” to the world. Funny how something so intensely private, a letter between a boy and his mother could go so far the other way. Hello, world. Happy birthday.
You know, when I was 10 years old, I watched way too much ABC Nightly News. Back in 1990, there was much talk of Irish Republican Army bombings and shootings. At night, I lay in bed for hours on end, staring up at my ceiling, worrying about Irish terrorism, about men in black ski-masks opening fire on unarmed police constables and blowing up cafes. I coped with this anxiety by writing an elaborate story about the IRA kidnapping Queen Elizabeth and hiding her in the bell-tower of Big Ben, where she was rescued by commandos from Scotland Yard in a dramatic night-time raid. I was awarded some kind of prize or something for the story, and I still have a picture, somewhere, of me standing with my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Markloff. She has her arm around me and is positively beaming with pride.
I’m barely mustering a smile.