A Strange Condition

Kathleen Kilcup

Two years ago, I lost my mind.

The day began with eggs and coffee and a subdued “hurrah.” It was my birthday—32, not a majestic number, but my family and I were spending a long Thanksgiving weekend with my brother in Chicago. That morning we basked in the reassuring smells of sleep and family and yolk blistering in butter.

Maybe I was little irritable or disoriented. Maybe I already felt something of the blinking film that would soon divide me from myself. It’s impossible to say in retrospect. All sorts of things might feel like the first murmurs of madness but are not.

If you’d asked me before my 32nd birthday if I’d ever been crazy, I would have said “yes.” I had struggled with depression most of my life, alcoholism since adolescence, an eating disorder that took hold during the years I spent in the Army. Each of those had communicated something of insanity to me: the slow, suicidal course of addiction, the semi-conscious rejection of life on its own terms. Pathologized as I was in the intervening years, though, I still “had” my mind. It might have been a strange one, at times ill-suited to relationships and work, at times bent on tunneling into the most peripheral, chilled, and lifeless corners of itself (to hide from what?), but at least “I” tunneled.

All madness is practice in death. As Foucault put it, “The head that will become a skull is already empty. Madness is the déjà-là of death.” Meaning presumably that madness is a foretaste of death, an encounter with the emptiness of thought. This would seem like bad philosophical poetry if it weren’t true. The mental illness of my young adulthood was practice in spiritual death—necrosis of the soul, to use Hieromonk Gregorios’ term. But on this day (and many after), I experienced death in another sense.

As I said, the day started out pleasantly. Mom loves to sing, and I think she sang to me that morning. After breakfast, we all caught a bus to the Art Institute. Somewhere between coffee and Chagall, a switch started fluttering on and off. On the bus, the seats were noticeably, excessively blue. Gross blue, and the air was caught up in the wrong kind of light. Anyone could see this, but only I seemed to feel the full weight of the problem. It was as though I were slowly tipping over into a pool. Or, as though a feeding tube had been placed directly into my skull. Bit by bit, the painful world came at me like splintered bones and unchewed carcass—a malfunction of digestion.

At the museum, there were too many people. Something made me want to clap my hands and roll my neck. There was an awful ticking, a cacophony of sneakers.

Standing in front of a too busy, too complicated portrait, someone brushed against me. Mom. Her hand on my arm filled me with dizzying repulsion. Something compelled me to crinkle my face, bend over, and beetle away from her.

The “I” that might reflect on such an experience could not be said to be present then. It’s not that my capacity for thought had been diminished, as when pain makes thought mute, but that “I” was not home. If I had been set up to a brain-imaging device, the whole section of my mind responsible for what we call human consciousness would have been blacked out; while the lobe responsible for sense perception would have shown in great, spiraling, contractions. The “I” I know as myself, the thinking, linguistic “I,” had been reduced to a kind of moth fluttering in the attic.

I watched myself scuttle farther and farther away from her until I was in a corner, not alone, but alone all the same. A sequence of paintings hung in front of me. Monet’s haystacks, each calm, each a pale element bodying forth across some inestimable distance. I observed myself following the soft curve of space and simple shape. The haystacks did not seem beautiful to me (I was too far away), but for the moment something—spiritual or what, I don’t know—worked a salve over my eyes, and through my eyes, deep into my pained mind.

Without knowing what else to do, my family made a pragmatic choice: we would walk to Mercy Hospital. Once the Institute doors shut behind us, I began stretching my face into abnormal geometries and pacing the sidewalk. When my brother approached me, I bellowed at him.

Months and years later, I’ve imagined what it would be like to watch someone you love disappear. In her place, an alien appears, grotesque and babbling. I’m not sure what kind of fear that would be—of the death of a child, the birth of something demonic?

The journey took us two or three hours, during which time each of my family members had a job, such as keeping me out of traffic, or apologizing to people we passed. From time to time I began undressing on the sidewalk despite the cold. Sometimes, I stopped to hide. While hiding, I would tap my foot several hundred times—presumably until something had been stamped out. Sometimes, I watched myself crouch and flap my arms like great pale wings. Sometimes, though, my familiar self seemed to wrestle back into the driver’s seat, and I would wail, “What’s happening to me?” and then, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry. Please, it’s not me.”

I’ve never asked why we didn’t just get an Uber. Maybe my parents hoped I would get better before we reached the hospital. Maybe they didn’t want to give up the little rituals of efficacy suddenly adopted in the face of bewildering uncertainty.

At one point, they must have decided to catch a train because we were on one. What the moth remembers is that a heavy man sat across from me. In his lap, he held a phone, and from the phone came noise. Each note tortured me. I wanted to punch him. What kept me in my seat, peacefully clapping and chanting “No, no, no, no, no”? What mixture of selves resulted in that strange moment of simultaneous self-control and abandonment? Was I there or wasn’t I? Who was in charge?

I would later discover that the hospital referred to this episode as “psychotic.” Other doctors would suggest that it had been a form of epilepsy or a dissociative condition. Finally, it would be explained (and it struck me as a relief) that no one knew what had happened. The symptoms were strange. A strange condition, one VA neurologist would say.

Estrangement is, in a sense, the definition of mental illness—self from self, self from society, self from God. The alcoholic is insane in the sense that her will is divided against itself. The artist and mystic are divided from the world of “ordinary” perception, the lover from common sense. And while the narcissist is alienated from the truth of the other, the holy fool is lost inside it. Or, as Saint Anthony put it, the holy fool is alone sane in a mad world: “Here comes the time, when people will behave like madmen, and if they see anybody who does not behave like that, they will rebel against him and say: ‘You are mad’, because he is not like them.”

But my weird flapping was not holy rebellion. I had no mystical revelation to share with family and friends afterwards. The episodes were painful, yes, vivid and splitting, but I was basically the spiritual equivalent of a kid with mono.

There’s not much else that I remember of that day: the hospital, hiding from doctors, a dark room. They shot me up with something that put me to sleep. Then my brother and parents folded me into a taxi. At my brother’s apartment, there was pizza and some kind of dessert. It was a birthday, after all. But I was heavily drugged and soon fell back to sleep.

Over the following months, I settled into the fact of the pills and the periodic desire to bark. I grew accustomed to the idea that inside me there is an empty chamber, a hollow of potentiality in which I am not.

But far from unraveling my sense of self, this practice in death unearthed a sense of living paradox. Someday my head will be empty, it’s true. And when I am suddenly shuttered out of myself, that future is unmistakably present. But somehow, miraculously, that future has also been postponed. You are a stranger here, my madness says to me.

Kathleen Kilcup’s poems have appeared in Pretty Owl, Boston Poetry Magazine, The Watershed Review, Bird’s Thumb, Saint Katherine’s Review, The Poet’s Billow, and elsewhere. She was a finalist for the Atlantis Award and Pangea Prize in Poetry, and she has been nominated for both a Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net Award. She holds an MFA in Poetry from UC Riverside and is currently pursuing an MA in Religion, Literature, and the Arts at Yale University.

Photograph by Simon Cygielski.