From Ultima Thule:
After Tom died, I read parts of his journals from the years leading up to the onset of his illness. I couldn’t get through them—his near-frantic distress about the way his life was going, how long he had struggled before full-blown psychosis set in. I could feel from the page his aching depression, a stinging kind of loneliness. Nothing he tried seemed to work out, except working out, which he did obsessively. He wanted to study but was failing at school. He wanted to attract girls but couldn’t connect with them. And he didn’t know why. He felt deeply that something was wrong, but he couldn’t figure out what it was. No wonder, then, that when psychosis came in with all its colors it felt like salvation.
There had been a lover, back some time before. We didn’t know until long after, when Dad took a wilderness first aid course and she, the instructor, approached him. She had seen the last name on the roster and asked if he was related to Tom. They talked a little while. She said, “He broke my heart.” I later found among Tom’s journals a note from her with a beautiful drawing of some mountains. Her language was precise, lovely. Why he broke it off, why he never mentioned her—
Among other things, one’s perception of time is heavily altered in psychosis. Time loses its continuity, becomes episodic, fragmented, gaping. Much is forgotten, or remembered only as a mood, an atmosphere. Sass noted that people with schizophrenia often speak of “the immobility of time, of the loss of past and future,” of difficulty recalling events in the correct order. Events are not processed, integrated, linked to one another in succession, but rather become, as other researchers noted, like “a series of stills.” One man with psychosis described it as “the infinite present.”
Recently my mother asked me where I went to college. If I had ever lived in Europe. She sounded apologetic, a little embarrassed.
I once met an oral historian who spoke of a “narrative crisis” occurring in people with mental illness, the result of drastic disruptions in the trajectories of their lives and in their recollections of events—a sense of loss of agency, loss of control over not only their lives but also their life stories. Loss of the capacity to shape a life into a story.
By the time Tom was homeless, I had left Alaska for good, chasing down a vague but persistent notion of myself as a writer, following it from Bozeman to graduate school in New Hampshire, then to Santa Fe, where I found work at a magazine (and Will), before moving on to New York and finally Tucson. I only rarely got back to Anchorage, and never for long. In Tom’s eight years on the street, I would see him only four times on two visits home—twice for an hour or so and twice for just a few minutes.
One of those times, I spotted him while riding in a friend’s car down on our neighborhood’s end of Northern Lights Boulevard, the main artery through our part of town, in the residential section that was lined with landscaping of grass and birch trees. We pulled over and I jumped out, but my friend’s presence disconcerted him and after only a few exchanges he said he had to go.
Experience can be defined, as anthropologist Robert Desjarlais has suggested, as a reflective process of interpretation and assimilation of our encounters through time. If this is so, does psychosis create a vacuum of experience? What did Tom make of our encounters? Did he absorb them, consider them, remember them?
Riding away, I fretted in silence, wondering where he was walking to. Maybe he would head all the way out past Mom’s old duplex to where a high barbed-wire-topped fence divided the houses from the boggy woods surrounding the airport. Maybe he would cut over into Earthquake Park and go out toward the seaside bluffs on the Coastal Trail, as we all had long ago, on bikes or Rollerblades or running shoes. Maybe he would follow the shore and its wide, wild mudflats out to the overlook at Point Woronzof, where Cook Inlet rolled into Knik Arm and on a clear day you could see all the way to Denali.
Where does experience go if it can’t proceed forward? For the homeless mentally ill, Desjarlais proposed, it tends to dissolve into an ongoing succession of shocks and surprises—distractions interspersed among months or years of an unmoored kind of stasis.
I have a memory that keeps surfacing. In high school, on overcast nights in winter, the clouds and the snow would trap in the orange light of the streetlamps, making the sky glow a dense pinkish orange-brown. Evenings, desperate to get out of Dad’s house, I would sometimes take the Wagoneer and drive west on Northern Lights near where I would see Tom walking so many years later—out beyond the airport, past the runways, to where the city lights ended and the clouds faded to a deep blue-black, turned invisible. I would look up as I drove, watching for the moment I got out from under that toxic sky. Then I would park at a pullout and turn off the car lights and just sit alone in the darkness, listening to the radio.
Was he beset? Was he thrown wide? Was psychosis a land of many promises? Did he know he was a prisoner there?
Copyright © 2019 by Marin Sardy. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.