Who has not thought on occasion, “I must be losing my mind”? This occurs to me when my husband reminds me of a conversation we had that I truly cannot recall and I wonder, is he trying to make me feel crazy?
Thoughts of the sporadic mental misstep came to me as I read N. Daniel’s first memoir Corners Untouched by Madness and found myself pondering how the narrator’s paranoia and delusions initially didn’t seem too far beyond the realm of typical experience. I could relate to the author’s musings to a point. His obsession over a girl he once knew, his concern that his job was in jeopardy, questioning his friendship with a former drug user he felt certain was clean until seeds of doubt were planted. But eventually, the lines became less crisp, the boundaries blurred. The obsessions were suddenly too much, the paranoia more than just an active imagination, and I realized an invisible border had been crossed.
The narrator, Daniel began his story at a place in time when he was traveling with the herd, coloring within the lines. He had followed the prescribed plan laid out for the masses: he’d graduated from college, landed an office job, moved into his own apartment, kept a few close friends, and even had a pet cat to care for. But as his responsibilities began to overwhelm, and pile on him, it began to feel as if people were turning against him. He became uncertain of who to trust, and where to go. He had dreams, nightmares really, which were surreal and violent and which became increasingly more persistent, vivid, and frightening. Concerned friends and family tried to right his course. The police were called in to collect, confine, to corner if you will. So began Daniel’s odyssey into the mental health system, his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and treatment. Or was it mistreatment?
Upon learning that the weakness and nausea he’d been experiencing were side effects of his medication, Daniel wrote, “The entire psychiatric profession was quackish. Bipolar Disorder was just another description for having feelings. Wasn't it? I couldn't really argue at this point though, so I took the slip of paper and left him to carry on poisoning others.”
Should a patient be forced to take medication against their will? Or does this strip them of their freedom one pill at a time? The narrator’s doctor told him, “You need medication to function normally. You either take what is prescribed or face hospitalization. If I take you off medication, next thing you know you'll be in Mexico trying to write the great American novel.”
He was mistaken about the Mexico part, as the author penned his novel in Minnesota and used pencil for the final act. “For days I wrote, walking the short distance to the nurses every fifteen minutes to sharpen the pencil.” This was a prophetic moment when I realized I was reading a story about the author writing the very story I was reading.
Daniel conveyed clearly when he said in response to his doctor’s insistence on medication, “I feel like, as a society, we have set a standard for ourselves. Our idea of normalcy has become like an island only a select few can fit on. The rest of us have to take pills. My question is why? We need to redefine normal in order to move forward, not declare everyone imperfect who doesn't act a certain way.”
The idea of painting people into two separate groups, those with clinically diagnosed mental illnesses and the others, the mentally well, brings to mind another memoir, published in 2010, Just Like Someone Without Mental Illness Only More So by Mark Vonnegut, M.D. Mark Vonnegut is the son of author Kurt Vonnegut Jr. who mentioned in various novels how mental illness was rampant in his family.
Mark Vonnegut echoed his father’s sentiments in his memoir: “I can trace manic depression back several generations. We have episodes of hearing voices, delusions, hyper-religiosity, and periods of not being able to eat or sleep. These episodes are remarkably similar across generations and between individuals. It's like an apocalyptic disintegration sequence that might be useful if the world really is ending, but if the world is not ending, you just end up in a nuthouse. If we're lucky enough to get better, we have to deal with people who seem unaware of our heroism and who treat us as if we are just mentally ill.”
Mark chronicled his own experience of being repeatedly hospitalized for delusions, his diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and once he learned how to live with himself and his diagnosis, his eventual decision to become a pediatrician.
The choice for these authors to share their own stories through writing is both courageous and important as it helps to gain insight into their unique struggles. N. Daniel’s writing is both beautiful and accessible. Even though you know this will be a bumpy journey, he crafts words that carry the reader along easily.
“Thoughts drifted like passing clouds and I made no attempt to determine the shapes they formed -- forever changing, morphing into opposing points of view.” These thoughts came to him as he journeyed to a Buddhist retreat and contemplated his experiences in different religions. The man he was traveling with had been in the seminary for several years before pivoting toward Buddhism. When Daniel inquired about the man’s experience there he was told, “Well, you know, Jesus this and Bible that. Six years is a long time to study one man.”
While there is humor sprinkled throughout, this memoir largely maintained a darker, melancholy undercurrent, understandably so as the narrator was navigating weighty topics. Freedom to choose his religion, freedom to manage his medical care, the court system, medical malpractice. Yet there were moments where the absurdity of the system he was up against, was so nonsensical as to be comical. Such as when Daniel was told the county was considering commitment and he was offered some literature to read on the topic. “Literature? If I can read and understand literature on commitment, wouldn't you think I am a bit beyond it?”
It feels inevitable that navigating the well-worn route forged by conventional society will result in some souls being pushed to the margin, existing on the fringe. As if in a pinball machine, they will be jettisoned as they bump up against a version of normal in which they don’t see themselves reflected. How can society most effectively and gently catch the vulnerable as they fall? Where should they go from there? These are the questions that lingered for me long after reading, and for which there are no easy answers.
As a reader, I feel enriched having witnessed this chapter in Daniel’s life. There will be more, and in fact, he has already written another memoir about what happens next. All the more illuminating that a diagnosis of mental illness is by no means the end, but a different sort of continuing.
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Find out more about the author here: https://www.ndaniel.us/