Disclaimer: If I was a coward or a sensible human, I’d post this as some sort of fictional work. I am neither. But if you know me and would rather pretend this post isn’t real, for the sake of our friendship, that’s cool.
I’ve been trying for days to figure out how to write this post without sounding like a bitter, unfeeling hag. Then, I realized, more than that, I have to find a way to say what I mean to say without sounding like a pitiable, whiny, woe-is-me turd. Finally, I came to the conclusion that I just need to say what I’m going to say, post this “review” and let it sound however it will sound; because ultimately, though I am a writer and can be precise or flowery with my words, I cannot control how you hear/ read them. I am not that powerful. Maybe that just means I’m a terrible writer, but we’ll let those insecurities ride for another day…
I finally read The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath. It was my dead friend’s birthday and I thought he deserved a proper wallow, what better way to have a healthy wallow than to read a classic novel written by a woman who put her head in an oven?
So I took a bath, all appropriately scalding hot, and settled down into this:
There must be quite a few things a hot bath won’t cure, but I don’t know many of them. Whenever I’m sad I’m going to die, or so nervous I can’t sleep, or in love with somebody I won’t be seeing for a week, I slump down just so far and then I say: “I’ll go take a hot bath.”
This, of course, made me giggle at the wisdom of my selection.
Mostly, though, I felt a familiarity about the book, the characters, and all the feelings, that just outright angered me. She talks about things that make her sad and tired, and then how thinking about being sad and tired makes her more sad and tired. I found one of my own personal college friends in Doreen, the party girl from the deep south. I found myself in the narrator’s alter ego, inspired by an outing with Doreen, the party girl.
As I read, I got deeper and deeper into the narrator’s not-so-dark and twisty brain and followed her around as she thought about killing herself and received shock therapy while being hospitalized with the other crazies. I thought of Girl, Interrupted and Susannah Keyson and realized why, exactly, this book was familiar, and enjoyable, but ultimately a deep itch under my skin.
Everyone feels that way – the way Sylvia Plath’s autobiographical character feels. Everyone struggles to live, and if they don’t then I’m shocked. Reading The Bell Jar I just wanted to scream at a very dead Sylvia Plath, and every other depressed person I’ve known, and even the depressed person I’ve been and sometimes still am:
WHAT MAKES YOU SO SPECIAL? What makes you so special that you get to bask in your insanity? Nothing. That’s what. You’re just taking advantage of living in a world that works harder than you to exist.
That’s probably unfair, and shows an utter lack of compassion, but it’s how I feel.
Because it is hard work. Getting out of bed every morning is a mental exercise. Keeping yourself from crawling back in – or worse being a drunk slob for the hours you’re awake – is a physical exercise. Every day you have to create and maintain specific habits to keep yourself from sliding into the glorious abyss of a terrible wallow… a wallow of anxieties, simultaneously deep and restless sleep, an attitude called The Mean Reds (thanks, Holly Golightly), and a conflicting desire to both eat yourself into obesity or starve yourself to death – it could go either way.
Every day is a challenge to make the counting in your head stop. And with all this counting, it’s a struggle to actually sit down and count the things you’re supposed to. My drawer was ten cents off at work the other day, which naturally (and I would have said the same thing to anyone else), they teased me about not being able to count – because it wasn’t actually off, I had just documented it as off. Want to know what that sounds like? If your brain is anything like mine, which for the sake of this entire post I’m going to assume that for many people it is, my brain processed the comments a bit like this…
A Rising Panic Attack
Recognition that this was a joke
Panic Attack Subsides, only to start up again wondering if they think you’re stupid, or, worse…
Did they catch on to the fact that you were counting dimes over top of the counting already happening in your head – the one that finds itself ticking in time with any and every clock on the wall, the one that falls in tune to your steps as you walk across tile floors, still looking at your feet when you walk even though you are now in your thirties. The rhythm that helps you get your work done fast when you’re methodically shelving and alphabetizing, but might trip you on the street if you encounter a crack in the sidewalk – because you’re never sure if that day is a no crack day or a step ON the crack day… not until you do one or the other and the part of you begins to panic. Did they notice this?
While all this is happening in your head, you realize your rhythm is gone. Your heart was racing, but now it suddenly stopped altogether and you find yourself both mentally and physically trying to catch your breath, but you play it cool when you remind yourself that even though you *feel* like your head has bubble wrap duct taped around it and that you’ve been thrown into a swimming pool – that’s not what you look like. No one sees your bubble wrap face. They also don’t realize, hopefully, that you can’t hear them right now.
Your left pinky finger starts to tingle and you crack the knuckle to make it stop, to regain feeling. Only this time it hurts and you look down and see it is more bent than usual. Long ago it was broken, right now it simultaneously feels numb and broken. You wonder if you re-broke it sometime this week and didn’t notice.
The Heart Flutters.
Post-it notes are raining on your head, but they are in teals and oranges and easily arranged and filed into your handy-dandy mental filing cabinets – alphabetized and roughly dated. (Yes, I have those. If I’m too terribly distracted, the notes turn yellow and green, they’re only their orange and teal shades when I’m looking directly at them. The filing cabinets are the old metal kind, the ones you find on the side of the road or in ancient school building, rickety and decidedly thrown away by someone more sane than me.)
During all of this, life goals and contingency plans are running in the background. What if my husband dies? I could come back to work full time here. We’ve accomplished x,y,z so it’s probable. But I can’t count dimes, that might be a problem. If he died by car crash, I go _____. If he dies by _____, I go ______. If I die, he does not die…. If this than that. It takes me 30 seconds to map out a life plan from a newly presented scenario. It takes another 30 seconds for me to make a list of resources I think I need to implement this life plan effectively. Life Plan 3,069 logged away in filing cabinet 192, June 2015.
Your ears pop – as though you’ve ACTUALLY been under water, which briefly makes you wonder. Wonder about what? The Matrix, of course, are you in The Matrix? Or God’s brain? My husband thinks we are all synapses in a giant God-head’s brain. I ponder the biology of that while I – or you – think about The Matrix and how Neo didn’t realize he was stuck, naked, in a bubble of goo while his brain was plugged in to what he thought was real.
Suddenly, you’re cold all over and briefly wonder if you might be in goo too. Then you realize that for some inexplicable reason (the smell of old books? the comfort of the books? the smell of the person who just passed you by?) you’re not in goo, you’re just horny and why haven’t you ever had sex in a library or a bookstore? Oh, because the NSA is watching, yes, that’s why.
Less than a minute has passed since you were teased about the dimes and your inability to count. People have been talking around you, and you’ve even piped in – whether sensibly or not, you can’t be sure – and finally a customer asks you a question. This part is easier. The question is a book title, or an author. (I honestly don’t remember now.) But when someone asks something like this, it’s easier to get around all the warehouse like noise in the mind. The color coded post-it notes of fragmented thoughts are discarded, the flow-charts of contingency plans for life are swept momentarily aside and you consult your filing cabinets and bookshelves for the answer to their question. Maybe they asked you about dystopian fiction and you’re walking them through a list of your favorites. Maybe they just want a book that reminds them of red fields of grass, which they have to read for sophomore English – naturally you pluck up Catcher in the Rye by Salinger and they marvel at how you knew, or (depending on the customer) take it for granted that of course you knew exactly what they were talking about because they described the book so well.
The point is, this is constant and every day. Everyone has a thousand things happening in their heads that no one knows about. And frankly, not everyone needs to know about. When I’m having a hard time quieting the characters for my fiction, who like to gather around my filing cabinets and gab at me, or making the what if flow charts stop, when I can’t seem to stay out of the damn bubble wrap pool party – I chatter. I get clammy and chatter to whoever will listen. Because if my mouth is running, then I don’t have to listen to the chatter in my brain as much… I can ever so briefly shut them the hell up. The point is, I’m not sticking my head in any ovens. I make do.
It’s not fun. It’s not easy. It’s down right exhausting. It’s noisy, and it’s lonely. It is an effort to remember to feed myself and to feed others, and when I eat – not to eat too much. I am held together by the fact that I must sweep and mop this floor every day, that the things happening in my husband’s head are far worse than mine so someone has to keep it together. That some people out there have worse problems – like being raped and or being torn from limb to limb as they refuse to renounce Christ.
Yet, this twat, who was an amazing writer and artist, who had two kids that needed her… stuck her head in a freaking oven. Would that be easier? Yes. Was she crazy? Yes. But no more or less than anyone else, in my self-admittedly judgmental opinion.
Despite all that, I checked out her Bed-Book and read it to my daughter – it’s a lovely children’s picture book, and am currently reading both her diaries and her letters to her mother. Because I like her, I do. I feel like I know her and have been her. I feel like if I am not careful, I could be her again – but at least I’ll have the sense to keep my head out of ovens. (Although, when I was a kid, I used to bend over in the laundry room, holding a button down, to dry my hair in the clothes dryer – very effective…)