Today I feel restless, jittery. I had a desire to go to the Laing Art Gallery, which I have passed so many times but never entered. This impulse is arrested, just as I decide to write it down. I receive a call from a psychiatrist who wants to see me at home as soon as possible. I won’t have any time left to visit the gallery after our conversation. I feel unusually stressed and disappointed by this. I’m not sure how I am supposed to fill the rest of my day.
As I wait, I start reading Kate Zambreno’s Heroines and feel the same deep attachment to the wives of modernism. She too reads Nin and Miller and feels the same pull of sexual liberation that Nin so powerfully put into words, that fills me with a fire of sexual promiscuity:
Reading Anaïs Nin’s diaries and Henry Miller’s Tropic of Cancer in tandem makes me want to have affairs… Because of the mythical lothario conjured in Nin’s journals I’ve always fantasised about having an affair with Henry Miller, who can’t keep his hands off me, who will back me over a couch and go at me, who will fuck me so I stay fucked.
Perhaps it is yesterday’s brush with self-destruction, but despite the free love of this city plunged into in recent weeks, I feel a deep anxiety now reading these words of lustful connection.
Still, the lingering fantasies of Zambreno’s lust inverted: I’d rather be pegged by Nin. All these women already have me pegged. Their experiences, their inner experiences, feel far more relatable than those of men indifferent to the women and the world around them.
“I distrust the Feminine in literature,” T.S. Eliot once opined. A fear of the feminine in writing — of the hysterical, the emotional, the violent. Much as we fear women’s rage and tears.
I remember the fear my mother brought to the family home when I was growing up. She was candid about the extreme emotions she felt every month. Premenstrual tension, she said, perhaps truthfully or perhaps internalising the patriarchal pathologisation of her own fury. In time, we began to mirror each other. My puberty synchronised with her menopause, a most volatile time to be at home.
Zambreno comments on Eliot’s famous essay on Hamlet, in which he theorises the mad prince’s excesses and the literary lack of an “objective correlative” — the way a poet correlates the emotional states of their characters with objects or causal events that appear from without: proportionate and external containers for inner experience, transmuted to audiences, to the spectral and spectating other. Hamlet fails as an artistic work because the protagonist’s emotions far exceed “the facts as they appear”, he argues. But Zambreno notes how Eliot wholly ignores Ophelia’s despair, does not consider her objective correlatives. It is a mistake, in Eliot’s eyes, for Hamlet to emote to excess; for Ophelia, it is presumably to be expected. “Nothing is objective to Ophelia”, Zambreno continues. “It is all, so so subjective. She takes things so personally.”
I often worry about the compulsive subjectivity of my own writing, the attempts to express emotional excess in language. In my current state of illness, psychiatric professionals repeatedly talk about my clear emotional dysregulation. And yet, though it may simply be a meaningless factor in the context of my social circle, I find my experiences best understood by the women in my life. (This is no comment on any essential feminine constitution; I simply know more women than men. And the men whom I adore are adored precisely for a sensitivity that feels so rare in this world.) They offer excellent advice, informed in a few cases by diagnoses with various acronyms, that come to resemble in speech a kind of short-hand for errant chemical compounds that dysregulate their lives — ADHD, OCD, BPD, PTSD. Many of these diagnoses feel innately gendered — only the women in my life seem to have acquired the documentation and official recognition I’ve sought for years. I wonder often about how my sudden fast-track through mental health services has occurred alongside an inconsistent affirmation of a non-binary gender identity.
My own recent adoption of they/them pronouns has been understated socially, with a close circle of friends adapting to the change with ease — whether out of support, politeness or a deeper recognition, I do not know. Sometimes even I forget, not yet out of the habit of referring to this masculine body in my possession. I often think about what this means for me in the present. It is, of course, offensively reductive to suggest I feel things like a woman does. But a life of finding friendships with women effortless, more comfortable; a persistent identification with women’s writing; all this sketches out contours of an elusive truth, the ambiguous affirmation of which makes me feel more at home in my world, in my skin. Set against the patriarchal structuring of the world, its cultures, its standardised selves, I continue to refuse to be a man in all but appearance — a mode of expression not yet explored with any confidence. At present, it is only a “women’s writing”, historically understood, that feels possible to affirm with an open heart.
The repetitive early afternoon appointments with crisis teams, psychiatrists, counsellors, nurses. “Have you heard of Andy’s Man Club?” A place for men to find community, to speak together, as men are seldom said to do. They generalise. This is not my problem. I serve a compulsion to narrativize everything, to share the all too personal.
Finally, a meeting with a psychiatrist for the purpose of a medication review. First, resistance to the idea from all sides, then acquiescence after yesterday’s overdose. A suicide attempt one month into the maximum dosage of citalopram suggests the drugs don’t work.
We talk for two hours, then he provides me with a whole new regimen of medicines to be rapidly transitioned to. Still the zopiclone, then a rapid descent from citalopram; diazepam to replace the calm I look for in drink, then a shift to sertraline, quickly ramping up the doses every three days.
I embrace it. I pick up a new set of prescriptions immediately. I spend the afternoon in the sun. No alcohol today; the end of a prolonged bender. Just Valium and vitamin D.
The series of tableaux that begin Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, her treatise on the material conditions that could allow a woman to write, to write well. Her scenes illuminating women banned from the grounds and libraries and luncheons of the fictional college Oxbridge, to show that a woman of her time would be banned from all the public spaces of reflection and socialization and higher learning that Woolf argues are important in order to begin to have the interior space to roam about in, to think the lucid thoughts that foster Great Texts.
But then the fear of interiority, the rooms of quiet afforded by institutions, now open to Zambreno but suffocating; the room of one’s own afforded by marriage, by domestication. Insufferable. Only drifting, wandering. Woolf knew of the same experience. “The first years of Woolf’s marriage ‘beset by arguments, extended periods of alienation.’ Virginia’s suicide attempt the second year.”
The anxiety of freedom. The pursuit of connection, unencumbered. In Huddersfield, I felt incapable of leaving the house, always wanting to work, to write. No real desire to furnish the writing with experience; with the hollow wanderings done purely for exercise, it often felt, prescribed by government during lockdown. In Newcastle, a constant restlessness at home. Every morning spent in the garden, in the rising sun; every afternoon in the Ouseburn Valley.
I spend a few days obsessively lugging around a tote bag of Nin in the intensity of a July heatwave. I flirt with the idea of dancing, discos, club nights, always slightly embarrassed to walk in with a bag heavy enough to constitute a health hazard or weapon; the comically large para-academic equivalent of a bar of soap in a sock.
People occasionally ask what I’m reading. I don’t want them to know. It feels like there is a discrepancy of power at play. No matter how I may identify, always the baggage of a masculine body, no matter how violently rejected I have often felt by peers in patriarchy. “I begin to cannibalize these women, literally incorporating them, their traumas, an uncanny feeling of repeating, of reliving”, Zambreno writes. I feel uneasy about my desire to do the same. “Read women”: the persistent refrain hurled at masculine adherents to a masculine canon. What does it mean to do more than that?
Zambreno, or at least her semi-fictionalised self, rails against her equally fictionalised husband John in the midst of depression and sinusitis. Still relatable, I am afflicted by both. The latter is chronic and self-inflicted — too many tabs. The former? It is harder to say.
Zambreno, in railing against her literary husband, describes how he “Leonard Woolfs me.” I feel like both Virginia and Leonard in one body. I relish it, distrust it, enjoy it perversely.
Perhaps what I find oddly enchanting, oddly relatable about these narratives is the archetype of the invalid wife. My last relationship, with ten years spent together, was always regrettable defined from the start by own unwellness. I remember an early moment of intimacy, a gentle hand caressing the scars that cover my arm. I dismiss them as marks from the past, denying the reality that the feelings released in the process were always bubbling under the surface, barely contained.
This was similarly true of the relationship before this one. Always the initial moments of intimacy, fingers tracing skin that is cracked like porcelain, remade, chunks still missing. My own fragility is always predetermined, made abstract and perhaps even being attractive, to some extent: the discomfort of appearing, on the surface, like something to fix. But then the reality, the lived experience of implicit unwellness, the shifting relation, from care to resentment, of someone who may need to be fixed, but who in fact never asks for anyone to take on the burden of repair. The desire to be needed meeting the reality that I can contend with this on my own, or rather I must. I cannot live for someone else’s sake.
I find it all triggering: the ways that people insert themselves in life as a new kind of “primary caregiver”, troubling the relationship from within, filling me with a growing fear that this person, like so many other caregivers, will eventually leave. I don’t need care. I need stability. Estrangement is the constant result. The heteronormative and patriarchal relation of nurse and patient, simultaneously fallen into and rejected from both sides. It is a horror to me every time. I don’t want to roleplay it, I don’t want to live it. I want to share my life — it is only unfortunately that it is one I have found quite difficult.
Zambreno discusses the literary trope of hereditary madness, passed along the maternal line from mother to daughter. I have always thought of motherhood as constituting an innate form of madness, the reproduction of self bringing joy before this fragment of genetic material must then go its own way. “Empty nest syndrome”, it is sometimes called. When does this begin exactly? No doubt far earlier than we think.
Always an innate misogyny to these pathologisations of life’s progress, of the maturation of selves. But I do not feel free from the nest. Home haunts me. An uncanny home; an unheimlich heim. I am painfully aware of neuroses past down the maternal line — from grandmother to mother and then, the aberration, to the son. I have been shaped by these women more than any of the men in my childhood. It makes me feel like a strange daughter to a stranger mother, dressed-up as a son but never son enough.
I get the bus into town and sit outside the Tyneside Cinema but forget to bring a pen. I ask the woman behind the reception desk if I might borrow one. “Yes!” she says excitedly. “But it’s my favourite, so I’ll need it back.” It’s a girthy thing that contains nibs for ten different colours. I think I hate it. I write this down and then give it back and leave.
Having lost the ability to write leaves me bereft. I sprint to a stationary shop, leaving all my belongings on a chair in the street so as not to lose my perch. Having an implement of my own with which to write becomes more important to me than any other worldly possession.
Zambreno notes how, during the nineteenth century, and under the control of Phillippe Pinel, “the French asylum espoused physical discipline and a detailed schedule as a way to become well again.” Cold showers were recommended as a particular treatment for women’s hysteria. It is jarring to read these words, which are scathing in their assumed disciplinary pseudoscience, knowing that the same advice has been given to me repeatedly of late.
The cold showers work, it must be said. The self-discipline is less palatable. Because it is more than just self-discipline, of course. “This philosophy of traitement morale, or moral management.” Stoicism, on the contrary, entails a certain perversion in the face of causal and acausal events, a “turning-through”.
When I feel well, no matter how momentarily, I want to feel alive. I want to make the most of every good feeling, not knowing how long it will last. The comedowns may only make my depression linger for longer, but mere tolerated and striated existence, constantly time-keeping, feels like no road to recovery from suicidal ideation. Always the errant and seemingly amoral desire for more.
“This idea that one must control oneself and stop being so FULL of self remains a dominating theory around mental illness,” Zambreno notes, “and, perhaps tellingly, around other patriarchal laws and narratives, including the ones governing and disciplining literature.”
But always the anxiety that this journaled candour might be interpreted as a symptom. “Enjoy your symptom”, as Žižek says. What else is there to do? “A diagnostic label becomes a sort of straightjacket” for Zambreno — “one learns to self-discipline, to watch over oneself for signs of dis-ease, and any symptoms are read through this filter (energy is suspect, excitability is to be dulled down, how did they get up the nerve to do anything”, these women of modernism, “let alone write?)”
Not only how women should behave, but how writing should behave.
Cixous’s écriture féminine comes to mind, an approach — a politics — of writing that seeks the unsayable, those experiences of excess that exceed the tenets of structuralism and plunge themselves into the stream of consciousness, eluding masculine modes of language.
I think inevitably, narcissistically, of fleeting critics of my own approach to writing who, from time to time, have dismissed it as too subjective, constituting little more than a “self-help” philosophy. But always the desire to allow language to play off and around the self prevails. Is this self contained in a female body? No. But to what extent, then, if any, can an écriture féminine be embodied by someone like me?
In writing, of course, the disembodiment is so often the point
Hysterical women were often pathologised “because of this belief that illness came from deviating from one’s natural sex role.” From the other side, always the recommendations that I should enter community groups, talk to other male-bodied persons who struggle to talk but bottle things up. There are posters plastered all over A&E at the RVI — something along the lines of “telling someone to MAN UP can result in a man DOWN.” What to do with this feeling, not innate but structured from without, that I may suffer from a more “feminine” form of mental illness? Is this anything to affirm, or just a sense of displacement within the still depressingly patriarchal structuring of mental health discourses, the misogyny of yesteryear ever present, only dissolved into so many euphemisms, with every recommended treatment unable to shake off the echoes of its gendered histories?
Compose yourself. Compose yourself. They are supposed to hold it in. To control themselves. Perhaps the fury is one’s own containment. If one wasn’t so contained, one wouldn’t be so furious.
Zambreno on Madame Bovary: “instead of destroying something (not permissible) she sets off to systematically self-destruct. Or to live intensely. Or perhaps those are the same things.”
Does being well mean not living intensely? I fucking hope not. The challenge perhaps is not to be overwhelmed by the intensity of one’s own experiences. Writing becomes a tightrope strung between two points — life and death. A thrill like no other, but no doubt unnerving to watch.
Beauvoir: “The boy can become a subject, the girl knows she cannot.” Zambreno: “To be seen primarily as an invalid is to be invalidated.” Cixous: “The hysterics are my sisters.”
My first blog, or succession of blogs — one on Blogspot, one on Tumblr — were all called The Wahnbriefe. A pretentious Nietzschean nod at the height of adolescence, but still now the anxiety that Zambreno expresses is ever-present: “Days I worry, wonder — what if I’m not a writer? What if I’m a depressive masquerading as a notetaker? Is this the text of an author or a madwoman?” People seem to think I’m a writer, and quite a good one, although I think this is more a comment on the quantity I produce over a consistent quality.
I have a conversation with Dan about not feeling very imaginative, finding it impossible to make up stories. A frustrated painter, I turned to photography, and even today I feel like a photographer who one day picked up a pen. Writing in journals — another sense of the journalistic. “Not the incandescent state of mind that produces great literature… but one that was able to look down upon the car crash and take notes.”
I recently heard, following the dramatic reacquisition of Zer0 Books by Repeater Books and the public falling-out among factions that ensued, that some of those writers most aggrieved at my public critiques of their work, their incessant and useless wading into the Culture War for clicks, took to trying denounce me more in private than in public. Mike Watson thinks I’m mad. The usual suspect. Why would Repeater work with someone who is mad? Continue to work with me instead. Tariq Goddard, who relays the exchange at a luncheon, not long after a suicide attempt, laughs when I lightly affirm this. Of course I’m mad. I’m mad even when I’m not ill. There are good sorts of madness.
Personally, I’m not sure how I would write otherwise. I’m not sure I would write at all. There is something quietly amusing about spiteful writers denouncing each other’s sanity. Who writes who isn’t mad to some degree? Not madly incoherent, nor madly unintelligible. Rather having a talent for madness. Good with it, sharp with it, weaponizing it against a mad world of mediocrity and dissonance. Repeater’s mantra: “We are alive and we do not agree.” Mad angry, oscillating between setting one’s own world on fire and setting the world to rights. To be sane is to be uncontained. Who wants to be contained?
I use the term ‘madness’ here to describe these women’s alienation, because I see their breakdowns as a philosophical experience that is about the confinement, or even death, of the self.
The horror of citalopram. Is it working? My emotional excesses feel constrained, still present but as if compressed in a container that I find easier to carry. Like a Ghostbusters exorcism — not banished but boxed. But still the recklessness, the suicide attempts. Moments of overflow. Containment becomes a new kind of psychic torture. All the better to be coming off that bastard drug now and feel more capable of living in a more seductive intensity.
“The voice unedited, wild, wanting.” The talking cure. Communication contained, transference analysed. Better to write it and fling it outwards.
I address no subject, no audience in particular. No stable self communicated, no stable self communicated to. How it should be? Often just how it is.
L’écriture féminine, which has such a close link aesthetically to automatic writing — writing of and through the body, privileging the raw and emotional over masculine logic, and more than anything defined by VOICE.
I think about Mark Fisher’s lectures on “vocalities”.
What Cixous calls La Genet, her name for the feminine outlaw writer, after the famous French writer and criminal who wrote of social outlaws and misfits. Also a play on words, for La Jeune Née, the newly born woman.
Feminine or queer utterances? Uttunul channelling… The self I am not that writes through. Automatic. Aleatoric. “Writing as a nervous system, as Deleuze writes in his chapter ‘Hysteria’ in his book on the painter Francis Bacon.”
The Great Men fetishized the hysteric, they channeled hysteria both in style (automatic writing) as well as in their writing of these female characters, yet in their material lives these men were not objects, but authors, subjects.
Perhaps that is the source of this new affinity with the women, the repressed wives, of modernism. I detail the schedules, regimens, routines of psychiatric treatment to friends, nurses, doctors. “How do you feel about all this?” I don’t know, I say repeatedly, ad nauseum. I’m just doing as I am told. Not subject but fractured object, trying to wrestle back my own agency and struggling constantly to do so. Only when writing do I feel comfortable with this abject estrangement from self.