Non-fiction selection from the 2006 issue
Chaos and Composition
by Tracy McCabe
When I was nineteen I began to believe that I would die in mid-August on the date my grandmother had died five years earlier. I had a lot to get done before then, though, since I was the messiah. Many instructions to send to family and friends, my high school history teacher, the Pope, the President. Many people to persuade of my message, the one that was confirmed by headlines in the paper and rhythms on the radio and how the red in the poster in my bedroom exactly matched the red of the first shirt I pulled out of my drawer. It all fit. And I knew why. And I was going to tell everyone.
It had come on in June, this first mania, during exams. I didn’t need to study for that one in twentieth-century drama, because all the answers were in me and I knew they would pour into my bluebook and they did. During the trip home from college, I closed my eyes briefly while driving. The car didn’t crash, which proved my extraordinary powers. Back home, I revealed to my best friend why her birthday was on the second day of the second month and mine was the fourth of the fourth. I demonstrated to my boyfriend why the alignment of my knees confirmed my special role as messenger of truth. Glissandos of words gushed from my mouth and pen.
One day my mission drove me to a nearby Episcopal church. I festooned myself in a gaudy embroidered skirt and my mother’s sandals. I left my suitcase with an usher and looked for the priest, but he asked if we could talk after the service. When the plate was passed for the offering, I watched my hand place into it a few of my notes to world leaders, rolled up tightly and inserted into a green, enamel ring. I knew they would find their intended readers. After the service, I didn’t stay to talk to the priest after all, but I did take a hymnal to annotate with magic markers later. I left my mother’s sandals in the collection box for canned goods, and when I got home discovered the ring with the notes still in the suitcase. Years later, I realized I must have hallucinated the image of my hand putting the ring in the plate. I had so yearned to spread the word that my brain perceived the gesture, even though some shred of—what? propriety?—actually stopped me.
Sanity crept back after a few weeks. When I shut a drawer, a lamp on the bureau turned off, and my heart hammered. A new code for me to unravel? But then I checked the bulb. Loose. The vibration from the closing drawer had turned it off. I gave it a twist, and the light returned.
By the time I resumed college in September, only grandiose dreams remained. I hung my high school spikes from a closet doorknob as inspiration to go out for track. But soon quicksand engulfed me. A professor’s mild rebuff stung. My years of piano training had shriveled, and I couldn’t hear the simple motifs pointed out in a music appreciation class. The phrases broke into senseless fragments that hung in the air: isolated, inaccessible. I cheated on the midterm. When I tried to write a short essay, the paper lay sterile and empty, a vast desert. What had become of the symphony of meaning exploding in my brain, untamed streams of sound and colors and words? Mud stuffed my skull.
After I dropped out of school, it eventually made sense to die. Others insisted that some earlier version of me would return from the numb silence. But I knew the truth. I really was a useless mute. Everyone would do better without me around. I squeezed out a note in cramped, wispy letters on a page of my diary, swallowed a handful of sleeping pills, and went to bed. I awoke queasy in the middle of the night, considered getting my parents, then decided to hope I would still disappear in my sleep and lay back down. In the morning I awoke feeling merely hung over and foolish. Failed at that, too, I thought. Maybe I’ll try again.
A few weeks later, after starting medication, I soared up the side of a building in a glass elevator. The river’s ripples glittered in the sun. The sky’s blue expanse called me, and my heart chimed in reply: beauty. I remember beauty, I thought; I’m back.
I didn’t know that my moods might whip again someday. Ashamed, I resumed college and pretended they never had. Nine years later when I saw my younger sister intently scrawling in notebooks, a muffled alarm went off in my head. But it wasn’t until she thrust them at me, saying they would explain everything, that I remembered my own frantic writing, and knew. She remarked, when we visited her in the hospital, that I was wearing a shirt of hers. The nurse joked about how sisters steal each other’s clothes. I imagined, though, from my sister’s suspicious eyes and my own memories of paranoia, that she was thinking something like: “They’re trying to replace me with Tracy. I’m going to be locked in here forever.” Our father was thrilled that my sister was doing a crossword puzzle: safely discovering meanings, ordering words into a careful design. I didn’t point out that she was just free associating to the clues and filling in words that stretched far beyond the squares given, answers that had meaning only for her.
Eleven years later, jazzed in a hotel room at four in the morning, I frantically scribbled in a notebook. My handwriting nearly decomposed into illegible, vertical spikes. Every idea triggered a swarm of others, like dominos cascading into endless, psychedelic loops and curves. It was happening again.
Like a drummer on speed, my mind had been cranking up for several days: Igulped drinks, ignored food, babbled nonstop, hooted and punned wildly. I read from my notebooks to a colleague, divulging too much. Christmas lights glared so brightly they stung my eyes, as though my pupils were dilated on a sunny day. Back home I tried to land. Resisting the urge to spend hours at the piano playing lush Romantic music, I lay on the floor listening to Bach. The elegant patterns of the lines, like a wrought iron fence, restrained the discordant babble in my head. The intense imagery in my bedtime reading kept me awake, so I substituted the brisk dialogue of Jane Austen; it poured over my brain like cool water. I avoided writing because the resonance of every phrase set myriad mental strings vibrating. Pursuing all the potential melodies would only prolong the cacophony, which finally faded.
By now, six years later, I understand more about manic depression. That the illness runs in my family. How the brain’s chemistry causes these swings. That medication saves. But folding these experiences into the story of myself is much harder. They seem like doodles I want to confine to the margins of a more sensible narrative. Or long, messy passages I would rather cross out.
Last Christmas, while sorting through old schoolwork and memorabilia in my childhood bedroom, I came across what I had long been trying to forget was there: remnants from my first manic episode. The church bulletin from the service to which I made my pilgrimage. Carbon copies of my letters. The exam from that drama course. My heart pounded at what felt like messages from a crazy girl to the middle-aged woman I am now.
I shoved the papers into a trash bag unread. My tears sprang partly from the shame of having written and believed and done such bizarre things, a shame probably intensified by letting the experience stew so long. I felt angry, too; maybe at the mania itself, maybe at myself for letting the memories oppress me. But I also felt a kind of triumph. With each batch I consigned to the garbage, to commingle with ancient piano recital programs and science notebooks, I was saying: I am bigger than these scraps, they are not my secret core.
How was I able to finally throw them all away? I think the key was that I had already written most of this essay. I had described that mania, as well as the later swings. And in so doing, I drained those crazy writings of their power over me. I learned that the writing whose power I want to embrace issues from a sane imagination and conscious craft.
Through writing, I can remember the experience of manic depression. I can render those bursts of insanity as brief, odd chapters of my life, rather than discard them as embarrassing, pointless, dead-end drafts. I am the arranger, though: I can orchestrate the memories of my mind’s dissonant blips so they are most resonant to me. Manic depression is a mystery I will never completely solve—the crossword without enough spaces or clues. But in writing, I compose myself.