Here in this courtyard with its garden chairs, washing line, grass shooting feebly out of the ground, a patio for the semi-productive crazies, there is a line beaming through all the hospitalized residents. Outside I can feel the wind move through me. In the impression of the wisps of it touching my hair, the nape of my neck, I can feel the design of a dream, the architecture of a foundation. If I write about this foundation and how much it hurts as it locks its bipolar self into place, it will nourish the sum parts of me, the portions of my estranged soul from my spirit, missing history, perhaps I won’t be a case study for long, under observation, aware of a feeling of futility, sadness, pent up rage and frustration. There I was, queen made of ice, eyes glittering picking a name for the frustration. It took a miracle to get me here and now all I want is to get out of this place, escape this effortless order and routine, the nurse in their flash of white, this gated community. I had to learn to heal myself as my struggle and my future became more and more certain.
The illness laid bare the material that made up the psyche of the rest of my family, a sister, a brother and a mother. But I knew really, in my heart of hearts that I was not one of them. I could only write, stop time and place in their tracks. It stopped the pathways of nerves of hurt from navigating through me to my oftentimes dark and intense soul. As if the illumined blue pearl of my world was caving in, like I was hitting my head against a brick wall with glitter snowing down all around me, like I didn’t get the fairy-tale ending or like I was just diagnosed with orphan abandonment issues as if I was some case study at a state hospital. Some days bipolar was a monster too tough for me to girl-fight it out.
I would be evil and cantankerous. I would just be waiting to explode like a volcano at the turn of a switch. Anything would, could set me off, anything that would touch the surface of my world, my equilibrium. There were days when I didn’t like the mirror.
I have carried illness inside of me for the longest time, exploring the tiger balm of recovery like the way I read, poised, sometimes numb to the perfect order that other women would call routine and which female writers would chronicle. The emotional, sensitivity, the intimacy drawn in the fiction of those writers would always be dramatic, children in the background placing their footsteps obediently where their mother would tell them, husbands hovering, husbands drinking over the weekend, hiding their bloodshot eyes, the smell of beer in the air while a wife would scream blue murder in return to hisses, punching the air with curses. I was always mindful of expectation of the collective experimental flooding my brain, exploring that dry, unknown field, walking across it already as a condemned girl-woman with the impulse of flight, ready at the turn of a switch across the beating abstract metaphor of it. The pulse of the field glimmering like waves of heat, dust rising, being kicked up by my heels in this a field of dreams.
And then there was the stone voice.
All that time away from it I thought it had gathered dust, was of no more use to me but now released, after I aimed for it in my cells I discovered it belonged to me more than ever, my head, a head that was a fragile mess. Still, it had a centre albeit that it was an overworked one. The voice itself had intelligence. While inside of me it felt like a stone washed by tides, waves constructed to dance and whirl, stone set to the rhythm in a river.
I was a child breathing in the positive air of that divine realm, breaking the myths that it carried. What is the voice like of children, who write, create and why is it that what they write and create is just so striking? Where does it come from, that stone voice? Does it come from the infinite space, a sense of a kingdom (theirs) that is an intimation of where they are going, where they are going to end up? Until finally when childhood becomes just a remnant, like birds flying high out of reach, out of sight, of mind, where does the fire and rain of inspiration come from next, if not love, the experiences of returning love with that same gift? What condemns a girl-woman if not the force of her vulnerability, her future and present relationships with both males and females? Childhood that did not merge with adulthood and the knowledge of the awakening of death is what finally condemned me.
Physical health figured with strength in my early life. As I grew so did the night. It gave me hell.
The resident evil of that hell soon became in part the sublime. As swiftly as illness descended upon me I took to writing about that life experience. How invasive is the blackness of depression, of tiredness, of doing the simplest of all things, peeling a Granny Smith, of suffering in silence when time does not fly by. Instead it’s a glass case, a sealed box I am encased in with oxygen tanks a-plenty. Quiet all around can haunt, hurt my ears, tears blind me bleeding their salt into the lines of my moon face. They become all things turning, turning tied with a knot to silence. Its nothing is blinding. It begins with a cry for help and you have to wait, for there’s a substance to it at first glance, a faint, small, chain of breakthroughs coming through the fog, a spiritedness, congeniality that was not there before, laughter ringing in the air, mitigating circumstances to explain away, brush away the ill feeling metallic as blood. I was a tiger waiting to jump, leap in thirst. ‘Touched with madness’, there was a perfumed lightness in every step I took there that seemed to smell like flowers.
I was a child who wrote who became a grown woman who wrote.
Language was my summertime, my rainy days and Monday blues. When I sought closure it, writing delivered that and gave me closure and I found a worthy ally and opponent within her. The onset of a novel season would seem to tilt me sideways, put me off the beaten track and the only way I could revert to normality was if I became conscious of people and animals, dogs and cats in particular, since we had always had them as pets ever since I was a young child. Writing was also a bellyaching affair. It gave me nerve, sleepless nights of tossing and turning where I would find one end of a string of jumbled words scribbled or rather suspended like my daily reality often was and eventually I would give up, quit and lose the end of the string of words at the core of it. I told myself I should become more spiritual than I already was. It would help my writing more if I believed more in community and did more and came out more often into society.
And with the promise of love or a girl-woman’s infatuation came the violent letting go of blissful goals that would always be determined by inexperience, the fall-out of marked expectations. The voice that sustained me was the one from my childhood. The voice that tasted of devil’s smoke, Blake burning bright, flame and moth, a mother’s depression, anguish and rage, all her secret hiding places revealed, a father’s mental illness, friends that I knew in another inner world, a space and lifetime away who were flushed with the imprint of history. It would be live-men, so much more virulent, funny and wise than I could ever be, men who for the better part of their grown lives would be manipulative and keen at the same time to mentor the young, men who were promiscuous in their dealings with the inexperienced opposite sex. They would show me the cause and effect that illness would have on me in later years. They taught me that it would be my safety net. Even if they didn’t know it at the time, they were offering me the world on a silver platter.
The mystic in me plays at an unfinished game of hangman, noose planted around my neck remembering Mr Smith’s brown shoes, lace-ups under the table where he sat, the master and commander of the class, skin olive and pink from a touch of the sun. Even my father did not wear brown shoes. I imagine his foot in that brown shoe. It must be a well-rested foot for the most part. Not one that has to walk all the time where he has to get to, one that communicates pain and blisters like mine sometimes do. It is a foot that has a sense of the material world and of peaceful belonging. It is a foot that belongs to a body that pilots an educated mind that has experienced both pleasure and privilege at the hands of lesser men and women. He is a man who did not grow up with prejudice. I knew nothing then as I know nothing now of his life outside the school, his ‘England’. I just dreamt of inhabiting the aura around him. As if I could connect with him somehow on a spiritual plane. It was a lesson in love for me, poor Abigail, terrified, scared to death of it.
Whenever madness (a wild-haired, locked up in the attic Mrs Rochester), was temporarily conceived in the characters I read about, I relished it. My own life just off of a few years to follow suit, to mirror my father’s life of wards, canteens, sitting on benches waiting for family visits, pills like bees in the hive. The stone voice was still there. My fingers would linger on the spines of books in the library, touch the titles, the names of the authors as if I was leaning against from where they first came from, a tree, as if I was in a forest full of them watching the hours pass by, God’s hand in the air. It would be years before I watched my brother grow into a flock of suits and ties and sharply pointed shoes for work in an office space, my sister growing into another country, swiftly cold and distant, a faraway voice on the end of a telephone line while I floated, or rather pretended to in the bath of now cool water, shivering, dipping my face underwater and smelling of soap. My old life voids at the worst of times. I have to reach formidably for health.
Worst being the silence, the loneliness, the loose pain I have internalised killing me, carving flashes of a covenant between despair, mania and the highs of euphoria until I am still, still like black pine branches after they have mourned a passing season, still like my skull. It is not natural for human beings to be truthful, it feels more natural for them to be swayed by what they and their heart wants to hear. The stone in my voice is old, ancient. It is the voice of children and women, female philosophers who have passed on, their blood and bone in the vision of their thinking for the world to see. This stone is made up of a supply of part ingenious mortal thinking and the other part, forest, forest that will never feel the need to commit itself to suicide or evaluation because although a tree is a living thing, it does not have a mindset that is programmed to be introspective, to talk, walk, observe, describe and contemplate. The forest that I find myself in, in that other dimension is where magic races through me when I touch a spine of a book, run my fingertips across the letters of the name of the writer.
My new life became one where I would lie on the grass with the other girls from the other wards, usually younger than me, shorter, who bodies seemed fused to play hockey, swim in galas and play tennis. Bone-thin girls who were hospitalised for eating disorders, who came out of homes where there was abuse, the physical kind aimed at their mothers and usually the emotional scarring would not escape them. All of us would stretch out in the afternoon sun bathing in its light, trying hard not to stare into the brightness up at the chameleon sky. That’s what we became in the end. Chameleons. Chameleons lying in the sun.
People stayed away, the family on my father’s side stayed away and the more they stayed away, the more aware I became of how I did not fit into society, the more blurred around the edges ‘normal’ became. No one came to see us; no one came to the house except my brother’s friends who came to see him. They traipsed into our house all hours of the day and night, sneaking beers into his bedroom, walking on tiptoe to the bathroom, up and down the passage, keeping my mum and my dad and me awake in our beds the whole night. They usually left in the early hours of the morning, the same way they came, through the front door, usually a bit unsteady on their feet. And I began to dream at all hours. To write. I was determined to work at this, to perhaps make something of my life with it. It had cast a spell over me, my mind and I had found in my imagination a home, a path set in stone and roots.
As I wait upon the world it says that there’s a voyage out there awaiting me.
Pushcart Prize nominated Abigail George is a South African-based
blogger, essayist, poet and short story writer. Recipient of two
grants from the National Arts Council in Johannesburg, one from the
Centre for the Book in Cape Town, and another from ECPACC in East
London, she briefly studied film at the Newtown Film and Television
School in Johannesburg. Her novella “The Scholarship Girl” was
serialised online in the States at Piker Press. Her work has
appeared in various anthologies, numerous times in print in South
Africa, and online in zines based in Australia, Canada, Finland,
India, Ireland, the UK and US, and across Africa in Kenya, Ghana, Zimbabwe, Turkey, and Nigeria. Her work has recently appeared online in
“Africanwriter.com”, “Anti-heroin chic”, “Bluepepper”, “LitNet”, “Mortar Magazine”, “Off the Coast”, “Scarlet Leaf Review”,”Spontaneity”, “Synchronised Chaos”, “Tuck Magazine”, “Where is the
River”, and “Willawaw”.