Image by James Cousins

Beyond the Glass

cw: psychiatric hospitalization, suicidality, psychiatric medication

The other day I gathered all my empty psychiatric medication containers, a veritable horde of orange plastic pill bottles. I meticulously spaced them out row by row inside my bathroom cabinet just for fun. Surprisingly abundant, they filled every shelf and then some. I really wasn't sure if I should admire this project or not, despite finding the aesthetic visually appealing. I sometimes wished I suffered from melancholia in the days of hand-blown glass bottles distributed through my local chemist. I would honour the craftsmanship and delicately place the glass bottles in curio cabinets with glass doors.

            Perhaps if I was feeling particularly immune to the perceived stigma surrounding my disorder from a hypocritical society, I’d even venture out to a small florist and pick up a lovely flower arrangement before hurrying back to safety. I’d fill each amber glass with water and tuck a tender single-stemmed blossom inside each bottle.

            I'd also defeat winter in this way. I'd capture spring inside my bathroom, despite the lack of windows and a poorly operating exhaust vent in my postwar apartment building. I often vent inside a bathroom with a vent that doesn't do much venting. Much like I’m doing now.

            Sometimes, in certain mental states I entertain ideas which must immediately become realized. I bring one to fruition in a creative frenzy—what was I supposed to have learned through this act of compulsion? Still, these experiments show promising signs I'm on the mend. I'm not destined to experience suicidal ideation forevermore.

            The fear of how my mental illness would manifest seized me quite strongly, even from a young and impressionable age. The testimonies passed down through the generations of my family, instilled in me the understanding that mental suffering would be an eventuality and not merely a possibility. I was unable to accurately explain my darkest fears with the proper words as a young child, despite being a precocious reader. Now, I can name the unsettling and nameless dread; one day, the curse would be unlocked, setting in motion a series of inevitable misfortunes that would destroy my ability to think rationally and intelligently. 

            My preconceptions about mental health had been formed piece by piece through unverified stories passed down our family line. There were those who cruelly manipulated my more undesirable family members, who’d “put a padlock on their mouths” if there was any hint of shattering the idealized image of our harmonious family. Others grudgingly acknowledged some form of mental health struggle, but most denied how prevalent such suffering flowed through our generations. Instead, we focused on optimism, personal and economic growth, consistent progress and innovation: seen by my family heads as the ideal solution for everything.

            But, I knew otherwise. I developed an obsession with my third great-grandmother, who, despite her incarceration at the first Provincial Lunatic Asylum in Canada, found freedom to assert her agency through written testimonies. I stumbled upon these precious insights through an unexpected and priceless gift. My cousin mailed me a cache of old family letters, haphazardly held together with a few rubber bands, but still intact. Some of the letters I was shocked to find unopened, which I attributed to my family’s disdain for mawkish sentimentality. When our grandmother passed, my cousin volunteered to help organize things while granddad was out working, at the age of ninety-three, as a parking lot attendant. Such has always been the way of our family, clinging to an ideology of a bygone era: At the end of the day, a man provides. You will work until you die.

            Around the time I received these letters, I was being treated for my own re-occurring episode of major depression. It became imperative I was facing a medical necessity during my late teens, as my emotions hindered my ability to function normally. I was hyper-aware of my fluctuating mental states because my mother had suffered from depression for as long as I could remember. Even as a child, we never fully bonded. I longed for synchrony with my mother, to experience the purest relationship comprised of unspoken understanding and profound connection. I’d seethe with jealousy at the mall, at mothers and daughters with matching Lululemon bags. I hated them, but really, I was hurt that this was not the life for me. We were also poor. My mom supplemented her welfare cheques with a part-time job as a leasing agent, paid under the table. I became hungry. I couldn’t take anything for granted, like secure attachment bonds.

            Throughout the years, I stubbornly ran the gamut of all the worst ways one could possibly treat their emotional pain. I couldn’t fathom why taking the edge off with low-quality boxed wine, all-day snooze fests, a fastidious doughnut-and-potato-chip-eating-regimen, and mall retail therapy, replete with vacuous conversation and Michael Bublé’s Christmas album on repeat, just wasn’t working out for me. My mask became harder to put on each day, as fatigue and malaise contributed to my constant undercurrent of overwhelm.

            In acute psychological distress, I divulged my struggles to my family doctor. I was put on various courses of selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors, followed by anti-psychotics, each with their own uniquely adverse side-effects. The structure of each drug meant my reactions were highly varied and complicated and much less magical than intricate snowflakes.

            While medicated, I tried to meet the world on stoic terms and chalk up my depressed moods to irrational thinking and normal existential suffering. The cure seemed simple—if I just made better decisions, I’d be happily rational and able to lead a virtuous life. Not so. I soon learned that no matter how hard I tried to detach from my emotional reactions to the world, I had too many powerful and unruly thoughts and perceptions.

            Why would I feel immense joy seeing strangers feed pigeons at Bathurst station?

            Why did I choose to persevere in love, against fortifying walls to protect my heart, even when deeply wounded?

            To fiercely hope for all good things, even if affection had disappeared in the heart of another?

            My emotions penetrated much deeper into my psyche than I could ever understand. I didn’t want to completely eradicate this part of me. I just spiralled further into the bleak world of depression.

            It was in my mid-thirties, when feeling particularly stuck due to my treatment-resistant depression, that I received the letters that changed my overall perspective. I’d been struggling deeply—Paxil made me do handstands in parks, but only during the summer. Citalopram helped me see joy, but also a rapidly expanding waistline. Wellbutrin zapped every single emotion, so dear friends informed me when the joke train had gone by. I’d laugh by myself, 10 minutes later, in the presence of crickets. My robotic self tried to handle these side effects so I could one day live long and prosper, but winter blues crushed me. Wishing for snow-plowed sidewalks—apparently a rich request. March and April were particularly agitating, because sometimes it rained and sometimes it snowed, and I could never be certain what we’d be in for.

            I was receiving my 40th session of repetitive transcranial magnetic stimulation, a non-invasive treatment that tried to teach my brain to think differently. The goal was to create healthier pathways than the highly emotional avenues my brain frequently traveled. I was skeptical that pressing magnets to my ramshackle skull would be the miracle cure; still, I submitted myself to the shiny new room in the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health (CAMH), and 600 magnetic pulses per session, two sessions per treatment. I told myself I was going to stick with the full round of treatments, that consistency was key to getting healthy. My personal goal was not to be fully cured, but to feel mostly okay. Sometimes that’s enough.

            Exhausted from treatments and from trying in general, I’d shuffle home, make tea to celebrate making it through another day, and curl up in bed with the letters. As a reward for continuing treatment, I’d purchased an elegant album with which to preserve each precious piece of history, including the clump of sticky rubber bands. While reading, I’d been systematically organizing the letters in chronological order. I carefully opened another envelope, and slowly unfolded and flattened the slightly brittle and yellowed papers.

 

 

Asylum for the Insane, Toronto, Ontario,

Wednesday, Sept. 15, 1875.

            My dear Francis,

            Despite my wallowing, I will take pains to keep this letter neat. Surely some good angel will keep my course. My mind has been without an anchor for quite some time.

            Though it may be futile to write this letter due to the rumors of censoring and confiscating our letters as of late, I pray that since you are my closest relation the asylum attendants will approve this letter for mailing. Otherwise when I die, my musings, written on newspaper clippings, will surely make their way to you if there is any hope for redemption in this world.

            I have been feeling badly on this day; my temper is irritated. I am not always allowed standard paper in which to write. This simple request could have cured my frustrated spirits.

            Though, I try not to complain, as I have heard rumours of far worse conditions. Stories of older asylums, an insidious presence within. Moon faces illuminate distress, neglect, and devastating impacts of malnutrition. Their suffering has left an indelible mark on my psyche, for having heard their stories.

            I am sure many in our family have breathed a collective sigh of relief that I am no longer their problem anymore. As you know, and tried to valiantly argue on my behalf, my family fervently believes that we, the mentally ill, belong in the hands of the medical profession. We were treated with an ideal vision of the asylum, an image I would not have questioned had I not otherwise lived it. A new, clean, proud looking structure, imbued with early-century optimism. I am in a miracle building; I will surely be cured. For my family, the world looked bright.

            At the same time, the public also seems to have a romanticized impression of our suffering. Our institution is a site of wonder and curiosity, a source of city pride. Why, we are on a list of attractions to visit in the local newspaper! It is said our asylum’s orchard is a consistent source of delight. Meanwhile, we are made to feel like a public spectacle, a sideshow. No one asks how we feel on the inside. The institution subsumes our identity.

            We are made to sit upright on benches for an undetermined amount of time, involuntarily consigned to a life of performing as living statues. The morbid curiosity seekers, often a man wearing a top hat who guides his bonneted wife, views the occasion as an opportunity to indulge in a novel learning exercise.

            “Look at how still that one sits, with a faraway look in his eye,” one might muse to another.

            “This one: surely a deep-thinker.”

            “This one has practiced ‘Total immobility,’” someone says. “I think the story being conveyed here is that he has found his inner peace.”

            I can hear many other thoughtless comments from others. They are not perceptive to the deadening boredom of our life. If we mutter to ourselves, to help pass the time and quiet our restless minds, we only further confirm our status as aliens, ascribed to us through our resident alienist. We long for just the smallest amount of human kindness to liven up this listless climate. The public visitor simply seeks a bench with which to offer repose and observe safely on the other side of the glass.

            It is easy to view those through the dimmed glass as ills of society, when one assumes the insanity certification was not doctored in some of our cases. We often do not have the opportunity to challenge our diagnosis, because life in the asylum is written from the perspective of those in power.

            But, they do not tell our whole story. Not all of us are hysterical and pests, seeking to destroy the comfort of everyone around them. We are not so very unlike them, and yet we are the ones confined. My life has been downgraded as less worthy than others who were not confined as mad.

            It is almost certain that I will live, work, and die here. I toil in laundry and sewing. The men are building a wall around our grounds, as the city encroaches us. Our views of the outside world were already so severely limited. I consider rushing out to the brick wall and etching my name into it for posterity. This is the only other way I know to leave my mark. I wish to build a foundation for the other side of history.

            What I have learned is the easiest thing to do is lock the insane in cells. The hardest thing to remember is how each of us carries a spark of humanity.

            I am reconciled to the fact that I do not know when I will next see you. I take comfort with the possession of your heart. Be careful of yourself, dear Francis, for if any misfortune happens to you, I should not long survive it. May God’s will be done!

            Yours affectionately and forever,

            May

            May is inside my head. No one else has ever expressed so perfectly the groanings trapped inside my chest. To know that others before me have understood the deep ache and burden that had to be carried without the comfort of understanding...or worse, that people did understand, but did not want to enter these dark places. I’ve always invalidated my own feelings. I don’t have to, anymore. 

            I put the letter aside and let my eyes glaze over for a while, reflecting on the differences between how May was treated and how I am treated now. I am in a new age of innovation in healing the mentally ill. But with so much stigma that has existed in this area, I wonder if we truly know how to serve all of humanity.

            I never wanted to identify myself as a quirky oddball—if I reached out for help, I would surely end up in a psychiatric ward, and lose all my friends and family. If I divulge my struggles to someone I love, I am afraid of being feared and avoided. I have heard so many distorted concepts of the mentally ill, and I’ve just grown to embrace them all.

            Sometimes I wonder what the world would look like if we all accepted that we were crazy.   That the borderline between abnormal and normal is vague and unclear. There is not a sharp dividing line between you and me.

            These are the questions that remain in my mind:

            What would have happened if May had not solely received impersonal medical care, instead receiving psychiatric intervention as part of a holistic health treatment, which included compassion from loved ones?

            In darker moments of reckoning, how have I played a role in shaping another person’s mental landscape?

            I seek to further humble myself, in a world that has already humbled me. I’m informed of my less-than status, due to honest confessions of my sometimes inability to cope in such a world. Yet despite being someone with a first-hand experience with an altered state of mind, I don’t fully understand the experience of mental health. I don’t always have the right language to convey my own perceptions and thoughts, much less fully understand someone else’s point of view.

            I know that when I am in community and experience positive social interaction, I feel more human and whole. I know if the tight social ties of collectivism neglects suffering individuals, I feel ignored and invisible.

            The face of the aging institution has nearly receded from public consciousness. But at least for me, my fears threatened to entrap and prevent me from seeking help I so desperately needed for so long. The history of madness needs a new narrative that is consistently hopeful.

            Maybe I will ask my best friend Carolyn, who knows and loves all things vintage, to meet me after my next treatment and help me track down coloured glass bottles. I will tear down boundary walls, share with others my struggles, and hope to be a safe person for them to ever do the same, if needed. And my pal, thrilled with a good old-fashioned vintage find, will regale me with stories of how this antique survived as well.

Currently residing in Toronto, Ontario, TAMMY STOREY’s work has been featured in Seagery Zine (Vancouver), Dot Dot Dot (Hamilton), and Pocket Baby Zine (Meanjin/Brisbane). She is currently studying Creative Writing & Publishing at Sheridan College, and completing her internship with Ars Medica, one of Canada’s first health humanities journals. Through her freelance editing work, she particularly enjoys helping people with memoir and nonfiction pieces and manuscripts, and has a profound interest in pathography (illness narratives): a specific genre of literature comprised of stories of being sick.