My Life In Plathitudes
Last weekend, I reached a new low. Maybe it was the fact that I was talking to the snot-filled tissue in my hand. Maybe it was the fact that I was wearing my thirteen-year-old sister’s pajamas, or that a cancelled trip to New York City was all that it took to reduce me to this whimpering blob of self-pity. I was suddenly convinced that in the game of life, I was losing. Badly.
My first year of post-grad life was not supposed to look like this. I thought I’d made great choices.
My grandparents and I have always been extremely close, so helping my mom take care of them, (my grandmother is in the late stages of Alzheimer’s Disease), seemed like an excellent decision: invaluable life experience, a priceless act of love, great karma points, and plus the free room and board would help me save up for a move to NYC. To make money, I’d be a caretaker for a mentally and physically impaired young man–a job that includes the hours of downtime that I need to dutifully draft my fiction. A perfect set up!
A few months later, here I am, cleaning my grandmother’s poop as she attempts to rip my ponytail from my scalp, swallowing my mounting aggravation at my senile grandfather’s daily interrogations: is my car working? Did I remember to put shoes on?
I didn’t realize that living at home would be a constant test of my patience. I didn’t realize that I would start to treasure my hour commute crawling through I-95 traffic, my only time outside of the two special-needs households between which I bounce like a pinball. I didn’t realize that care-taking would not feel like a job, nor a succession of kind deeds; it is an inescapable, all-consuming vortex–one in which creativity apparently does not thrive. Instead of drafting my fiction, I scribble furiously in my journal to quell my career-related anxieties. Sometimes it helps, sometimes it doesn’t. But it is my best bet. The alternative is to speak to someone, and the people with whom I interact during the week are mentally impaired, lost in dementia, utterly senile, or my mother.
And that is why, when a cold prevented my fleeing to NYC last weekend, I found myself talking to a snot-filled tissue.
In his book On Writing, Stephen King argues that writing is a form of telepathy, a way to transport ideas across time and space. I was fascinated by that idea in high school, and continue to be, even after being exposed to those Debbie-downers, the post-structuralists. That evening, I remember mentally sticking it to Foucault as I turned toward the bookshelf. Fiction was just as good an escape as metro north—even better, actually. What I really needed that night was not a change of setting, but of identity: I needed to escape my own mind, enjoy a little excursion into someone else’s–hopefully someone a little less nuts. I felt a glimmer of hope as I scoured those shelves for a new adventure, eventually happening upon something that I hadn’t read before, by a famous author whom I had recently heard praised as brilliant. New territory, uncharted and promising.
When I opened the first chapter, I found…me! Why, this protagonist was most certainly just like me! Just like me, she was a recent grad from a liberal arts college, a lit major, a want-to-be writer. Just like me, she was riddled with self-awareness that bordered on neurotic and battled wavering self-esteem despite her past accomplishments. Just like I hope to do in the very near future, she was taking her first leaps into the world of New York City journalism. This was perfect! This was my life! Okay fine. Unlike me, she was an intern at a very illustrious magazine. My life in a year! Or in an alternate universe! I had found my escape. Here is the life I want: one of independence, accomplishment, and sanity. I devoured the pages in a state of giddy exhilaration. I saw myself in her. I wanted to be her.
…until she almost succeeded in committing suicide and then underwent institutionalization and shock therapy. I was reading The Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath, a fictional representation of an autobiographical suicide attempt that occurred when the author was in her twenties.
Talk about a buzz kill.
Depression and suicide are not issues to be made light of, and I understood this better than ever after Sylvia Plath’s unflinching account, but the fact that I had come upon it during one of my lowest moments in this year full of lows felt very much like a cosmic joke. Here I am trying to escape my own sorrow by plunging into a randomly selected novel, and it just so happens to feature my doppelgänger living my dream life—who then spirals into suicidal depression? If this has ever happened to you, you will understand the urgency with which I scoured the info about the author located at the back of the book.
I was expecting to find the depression part, the suicide part, all that uplifting stuff. I was not, however, expecting to discover that Sylvia Plath, who had been publishing work and winning serious accolades since before she graduated from college, never thought that she was a good writer. That was shocking. Then, very quickly, it was not shocking at all.
Sylvia Plath was a writer. Now I know my experience is limited, but from what I can tell, good writers do not tend to read over their work and exclaim: “Oh my God! That is fabulous!” I never did, even back in college when writing assignments had clear sets of rules and were easily conquered. Wait a minute. When I thought about it, those assignments were only “easily conquered” after I had conquered them. While writing them, I was almost as much of a mess as I am now when I try to draft my fiction…
I saw the pattern. I realized that my worries were not going to end once I got a good job or published a book. In fact, they were not going to end. Ever. Every new situation—including the grandest success imaginable–would come equipped with its own anxiety-inducing realities.
So, thank you, Sylvia Plath. With your devastatingly good prose about your devastating depression, you have shown me that my grays are not post-grad at all, but potentially life-long!
Maybe it is a little sick, but after reading The Bell Jar, I was in a very good mood. Plath reminded me that self-worth and happiness are not products of talent or success, but of one’s inner life. Therefore, peace-of-mind is just as accessible to me now as it will ever be. I suddenly saw my situation quite differently. This experience is actually a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity—a boot-camp of zen, if you will. And I am getting buff. If I can learn to maintain a sense of well-being now, (as I answer that no, I don’t really want to read that pamphlet from 1984 about voting rights for the third time today but thanks anyway, Grandpa), then I am quite likely to enjoy a relatively happy future, even if that future is schlepping coffees at an unpaid internship by day, waiting tables for bad tips at night. I’ll be grinning like a madwoman.