New poem by Elinor Clark
Oh strange, spiky plant.
Though stunted, you still stretch upwards,
Desperately digging in roots.
But with each growth remember the tub that you’re held in.
Nowhere to go.
Thick, plastic looking skin
Inflicted with some serious malady.
Will scare anyone away.
Put the spikes up.
Pretend that’s what you want.
New non-fiction by Rachael Ikins
It was all my fault, the nervous breakdown, the tossed salad of diagnoses and medications that followed and left me a confused stumbling mess for ten years. My family made that clear to me by abandoning me to my elderly ailing husband “because he is a doctor,” and of course, he would know why I was so angry and knew what to do about it.
“We didn’t know what to do” was a later refrain. Furious at my behavior, my obesity and my drug-induced allegiance to the therapist who was treating me they raged at me. Rather than band together to reach out to my husband to help, they abandoned me. I was truly alone.
My husband had no idea what to do. He was a surgeon–act and cut–not a psychiatrist. All he knew was that the “treatment plan” was making me sicker and sicker as relatives got drunk at cocktail parties without us. Because some of the medications acted adversely on the parts of my brain that create inhibitions and control, I couldn’t stop spending money. I couldn’t stop eating. I was in a constant state of fight-or-flight, wanting to hit the road with my cat in a carrier running away from…something.
Instead, a new psychiatrist and the original therapist’s retirement resulted in my getting off the stew of drugs. I almost died. What I was left with was a combination of side effects and adverse reactions that the doctor had no experience with. My mind, however, was suddenly clear. I looked around me one day, and I sobbed. Memories long suppressed by chemicals flooded back.
I shambled stubbornly behind the vacuum cleaner to learn to walk again, and waved long chef’s knives around as I relearned to cook. Nutrition and the order of recipes, therapy for a healing brain.
My former sister-in-law said, “I told your brother that therapist is not doing your sister any favors.”
When my mother and I finally reunited, her comment, “Oh, they did you dirty.”
Did me dirty? They almost killed me. I had seizures and heart rhythm disruptions the night of that last dose and was unconscious as my husband lay beside me making a decision not to call an ambulance because, “They would’ve just put you back on all that shit. I knew you would make it.”
Six months later, the one cat I could not live without, the cat I’d wanted to run away with, died unexpectedly. I had insomnia. An hour of sleep a week was about it. She used to sleep with me and without her, the bed was a black hole. My only emotions were rage and grief. Truly I had much to feel that way about.
A year after my cat’s death, because my husband lied every time I asked him, “Are we going to lose our house? Are we going to lose our house?” I found myself alone in his investment counselor’s office where a busy-body assistant bustled out to tell me our money was gone. Her predatory grin and twinkling eyes kept me upright on the couch even though my vision went black for a minute.
When I stumbled to the car, I screamed so loudly my vocal cords were injured. Phillip’s unbelievable solution was to ask my mother for money. Within eight months we sold our house and lost the majority of the contents. We ended up in a small, poorly made camp halfway up the side of a mountain, a forty-five minute drive from where we began married life.
According to my family, all of this was my fault and my husband, the innocent victim. It is not self-pity or unwillingness to own my mistakes that I write this. It suited them to blame me. Only one person apologized years later and with the rest there is no relationship.
It’s a wonder how a thirty-five year old woman who wanted to get pregnant, was instead, drugged and used by a professional who planned to become the second “Sybil’s” shrink, did not die.
My life spiraled into a decade of darkness. At forty-five I “woke up” only to take two of the worst hits since my dad’s death, Nestlé’s loss and the house we were married in over twenty years ago. To be told by those who should have had an ounce of common sense, that I was responsible. Hurt, shame, anger set in. I would have given anything to go back in time, for just one person who said they loved me to have stood up for me.
The new house was surrounded by woods and fields. Since we’d lived in the city not far from the hospital complex when my husband was working, I had not been surrounded by wilderness like that of my childhood family camp for many decades.
It was a hard life. Not quite poor enough for food stamps, but poor enough to run out of food one March, I cut firewood from dead trees for heat. Raided piggy banks to pay for my husband’s heart medicine.
One bitter winter evening, I went to the barn for wood. As I grabbed some logs I thought, “I’m having a nervous breakdown.”
I ran into the trees and fell in the snow. I was so angry. So much had happened, life literally turned upside down, faster than my damaged nervous system could absorb it. I lay in the snow looking up at uncaring stars and thought, “Go ahead. Have your breakdown. Nobody gives a shit. No shrink, no relative. You have lives in the house that need you. So, get it over with and pick up that wood.”
My former therapist had a way of triggering anger in me. Then she’d tell me how awful my anger was. The more she abused me with chemicals and her training, the angrier I became, unable to defend myself, lost in a sea of drug interactions. This moment in the snow, after all that had happened, was the first time I realized: anger is not bad—mine was justified. Anger also is a flame that sustains. I got up and went in to stoke the stove.
The next day our nearest neighbor’s son was going to install a new door for us. I remember how cold the day was. He let me help with the nail gun, but my bare fingers quickly numbed. The next morning he finished which brings me to this moment:
“Lunch is ready.” Phillip’s voice floats from below me. The back door slams behind him. I stare into the horizontal snow pecking at my face. Last night ice dammed on the flat living room roof. A lagoon blossomed as heat leaked through. Water poured in at 10:00 p.m. I am on the roof, hammer in hand to pound the ice.
I’ve been hammering awhile now: my shoulders cramp, right hand aches with lactic acid buildup. Each time the head of the tool connects with the thick ice, pain jolts up into my shoulder, neck and head.
Hot and sweaty despite the weather. A two inch channel is all I’ve created, but enough for water to sluice to the ground. If only it would stop snowing. Phillip worries I will fall.
I imagine my relatives clustered around my casket. Their polite murmurs of, “What a shame it was, she never amounted to anything. That silly poetry stuff.”
I don’t disown my part in our circumstance, but I did not deserve that abuse. My fantasy encourages me to be careful if only for spite.
I move crab-wise across the ice, my half-frozen sweatpants chafe my skin. Only a tee-shirt on top, sopping with sweat and melting snow. I scrub snow out of my eyes with my right fist, hammer stuck to my hand. I roll onto my belly, feel for the ladder with numb feet.
I ease down one rung at a time. My husband puts his arm around me as we head for the back door. I’m glad we’ve just replaced the old one.
The knob won’t turn. Maybe my hand is just weak. No, it is locked.
“Phillip, you have the key?”
He pats his cotton shirt pockets and his jeans.
“No. I forgot.”
My husband has had 3 heart attacks, stents and quadruple bypass. He is slender and frail. It didn’t occur to him to prop the door, that it would automatically lock.
My first thought: 20 degrees out, a northwest wind blasting horizontal snow, have to get him inside. I race to the barn, our car. Locked, too. Keys, cell phone in kitchen.
We can see our breath in the dimness of the barn.
“I’m going to have to go for help.”
“Look inside these boxes, maybe there is an old jacket or something.”
I root through the packing boxes piled there from last September’s move. Paper, pots, no jackets, nothing but a ripped, stained beach towel. He insists I take it.
“Stay in here.” He shivers in his cotton shirtsleeves.
I trudge down the driveway towel around my shoulders. I can barely. I slip and fall, skin my elbows raw. I sob out loud, “FUCK!” drag myself out of the drift as I yank the damp towel on my shoulders. If I am bleeding, I can’t feel it. I hate everyone in this moment.
Should I go up the hill or down? The nearest neighbor lives over a quarter of a mile away. I head uphill into the blizzard. Every third step I slide, my sneakers full of slush. Frozen hair icicles clink against my glasses, lenses so covered I can’t see much. I wonder if I will die of exposure. Fuck that. I have to save Phillip.
I pray no snow plow hurtles out of the squall. No jump to safety; drop-off on one side of the road, a head-high drift on the other.
A surge of anger heats my middle. Really, God?
Just then I think I hear the sound of an engine over the howling wind. I stand still.
Yeah, it is a vehicle. I step out onto where I think the crown of the road is, snow up to my thighs. Behind me, woods. Ahead, state forest.
A dirty white Jeep coalesces from a cloud. Oh. It’s the letter carrier! Shit! She acts like she doesn’t see me. I step right in front of her. I look bizarre, a ghost in a blue and green beach towel. She grinds to a halt.
I lean in a window.
“We’re locked out of our house. My husband has heart disease. He’ ll die. Can you help us?” I point down the road.
She digs her cell phone out of a pile of mail in a box on the passenger floor. My heart leaps. Our eyes meet as she punches 911. Her eyes widen.
“Battery’s dead. I’m so sorry!”
Oh. I drop my head. “Thanks.”
I face the wind. “It’s you or me, fucker.” The storm swallows the sound of her engine in seconds. The wind whistles, tugs away my body heat. Our closest neighbor lives on the left side of the road. Must be halfway.
Bowing my head I pull the towel to shield my face, and slog on. Out of the gloom I make out the shape of a maple tree. Leaves were brilliant red last fall. Roy’s house is close. Wonder if Julie is home. They introduced themselves last October.
I stumble and stagger toward the house like a drunk. Her vehicle is parked in front of the garage. I lift one foot up the porch stairs. My fingers slip off the railing ice. I raise a hand to knock or press the doorbell when the door opens inward, and I fall into the heat of their house with the momentum.
Soon we are bundled in her truck, skidding down the hill to rescue Phillip. She drives us back to her house. Hot coffee and wood stove heat brings roses to his cheeks. Julie phones a friend to see if he can help. His name is John, a retired fire fighter. She lends me parka, boots, hat and gloves for the journey back down the hill. We crunch around the yard’s perimeter. Even the upstairs bedroom windows are locked. We could’ve maybe gotten the ladder from the barn and climbed up there to open one. John doesn’t shame me, simply assesses the situation. It occurs to me that maybe everything is not my fault. Maybe others feel guilt for their behavior. Maybe sometimes shit just happens.
Finally John grabs a screw driver from his truck, pries the storm door out of its track and kicks in the front door, the shreds of my notion of security blasted open by a single blow.
Later hunched over a hot chocolate in front of the fire, my husband safe and bundled up with a book, I feel gratitude for the rage that stoked me and kept my feet hiking up that hill into an unknown. Anger can consume the user, no doubt, but as a tool used with care, like fire, it can save your life.
Behind the Yellow Wallpaper: New Tales of Madness.
Ed. Rose Yndigoyen.
New Lit Salon Press, 2014.
Review by Sarah-Jean Krahn, Managing Editor, don’t die press
This quirky, ultra-readable collection, riffing off the quintessential madness fiction by Charlotte Perkins Gilman, opens with a piece that alludes to madness as an act of defiance for women. There is something appealing about madness when it means you tear your body out of the current realm and present it to The Gaze as unintelligible. Each remaining story tampers with this motif via some unique twist that confuses the spectrum of feeling, from insidious numbness in “The Safety Pin Patient Test” to traumatic intensity in “The Color of Nothing.”
When emotional ferocity seizes women consumed by husband or children, at first glance some feminist readers may be turned off. However, with careful consideration we can see that, for the most part, this is the choice that has been presented to the characters as most meaningful. For example, in “Waiting for Jordan,” the single sentence “This is all her fault” reveals the double-bind of women locked into a nuclear family life, yet who themselves earn the blame for apparently locking men into the same patriarchal ultimatum. Meanwhile, the protagonist’s dreams of the 72 virgins calling to her hint at an unfulfilled queer curiosity that won’t allow the reader satisfaction with the suggestion that she is irreparably depressed at being separated from her husband on military tour.
The stories that recreate women characters responsible for murder reveal a frantic need in the feminist imagination to destroy the smelted, inflexible and punishing casts of patriarchal rule. Still, some readers may find these, like some of the photographs depicting the bloody saturation of madness, disturbing. The allure of the photographs is that they have been designed to match each story, and so reflect the desperation, obsession, downfall; the grit, ingenuity, sincerity of the characters. So, keep reading, and notice the overlay of trip wires and drone strikes that drive the characters to their betrayal or brutality. The later story “Thread,” while starring a character of innocence in action but acumen in human agony, unwinds these stealthy tricks of the patriarchy and lays them bare for reckoning.
The collection would not be complete without those pieces which implicate, as Charlotte Perkins Gilman does, the noose that madness itself can be when it is fastened to women by men. Men who doctor, men who mind-doctor, men who dictate women’s futures; men who abuse, men who slut-shame, men who extol women’s obedience—they are the origins of true madness, and the patriarchy benefits when women comply with lobotomized tranquility. In “Behind the Yellow Wallpaper,” women find comfort in a madness all their own when the straitjacket of patriarchy fails to conform to their bodies. Madness is a homecoming, a relief, a joy, as the characters alter not their bodies but the time-space around them to provide habitat that better suits their needs.