Hypergraphia: The opposite of writer’s block. An overwhelming compulsion or urge to write. Hypergraphics will keep rambling journals, jot thoughts on scraps of paper, draft long letters, compile dictionaries, and often write on any available surface. Some alleged famous hypergraphics: Sylvia Plath, Steven King, Joyce Carol Oates, Dostoevsky.
Have mercy so that I may find words.
— St. Augustine
I’m reading through old poems, diaries, and journals.
The oak box my mother called my Hope Chest is full of papers. Yellow legal pads held together by staples and scotch tape, edges curled up, pages full of bleeding teenage angst and broken heartedness, typewritten poems meant to convey the unbearable pain of being me, fragments and letters and stories.
I don’t know why I’ve kept them all. Reading them results in an over-heated mixture of embarrassment and nostalgia. I would’ve said that diary keeping disappeared in my years between 18 and 30, but I just found some journals from my late teens and early twenties. They are particularly difficult to read. Remnants of a tumultuous relationship that resulted in a nine-month-long marriage and broken doors and dishes. Months and months of starving myself; pages upon pages of proud meditations on my shrinking body.
My journals became disjointed and unpredictable between 30 and 34. This year, I opened up the soft black cover of my Moleskine notebook and re-read the lovely inscription written by a woman I greatly admire. Here’s to looking back to move forward, she wrote.
I took that to heart. I began writing.
It’s not quite full yet, and it’s front-loaded with negotiations about suicide. Ramblings and affirmations that would embarrass me if it weren’t for the fact that they were intended to help me find reasons to not die. You can trace my path from madness to wellness through the pages, though not without the occasional backward slide. My writing is not contained only in between the covers of my journal, but it all exists in places I can find it, religiously categorized and transferred to appropriate electronic homes if needed. I write, constantly, feverishly sometimes.
Two pieces dominate my time right now: one on time and liminality, and one on beauty and pain.
I just want understanding. That’s why I write, I tell myself. Truthfully, I just can’t stop.
I’m listening to The Cure.
When we look back at it all as I know we will
You and me, wide eyed
Will we really remember how it feels to be this alive?
The first song on Bloodflowers is called “Out of this World,” and it’s a song I decided on a long time ago as the one that I would want to play at my funeral. This was back in a time when my friends and I would say things like that, though most of them wanted “Stairway to Heaven” or “Free Bird” or other super obvious songs for their funerals. It was a time when I kept losing young friends and classmates – accidental cocaine overdose, car crashes, cancer – so I attended my share of funerals. It was a time when I often daydreamed about my own funeral – who would come, what they would say about me, how hard people would cry during the slideshow of photographs taken over the years of my short life. That others also had their funeral songs chosen made me feel better. It told me that I was not alone in my fantasies. I still imagine my own funeral sometimes.
I’m trying to write about beauty and pain, the connections between them. My hatred for them. I feel haunted by both, that’s what I keep saying. I think I have important stuff to say about each. But I keep realizing that other writers have said most everything I want to say. The essay has become colossal, competing with my other essay on time and liminality for both size and lack of resolution. I keep writing and writing these things, hoping to figure it all out, hoping to stop being obsessed. Praying to find myself and also to shut the hell up.
This is my problem, I think: I’m always trying to tame the abstractions.
My beauty and pain essay is trying to divide itself into the things “we” talk about and the “unmentionables.” But, stepping back, I know that I am the one who creates a binary. I am the one who feels like I can’t talk about what I need to: anorexia, my breasts, guilt, the pain of depression, suicide. I keep returning to writing about the neon boneyard and shipbreaking, hinting at the metaphors, because I can’t say what I want to say.
I can’t talk about XXXX.
I can’t talk about starving myself.
I can’t talk about my fascination with death.
(The famous signs become a Lazarus of the modern era, brought back from the dead by skilled hands and nostalgic investors. / In ports across the world, vessels are deconstructed in ship breaking yards.)
I’m calling my beauty/pain essay “Immateriality.” (We eat up the beautiful pain.)
I frequently open Google and type in that word. Stare at the meanings and try to decide which definition I’m using.
- unimportant under the circumstances; irrelevant.
- having no material or form
- spiritual, rather than physical
Reading back over what I wrote in “Immateriality” about breasts, I wonder why I feel compelled to write about them, to write about my “issues” with my breasts and the way I’m constantly looking for further meaning about my issues, even though I can see the origins. Breast cancer. Anorexia.
I’m reading about quantum entanglement again, this time in WIRED. The words are familiar, but together they construct sentences that I feel rather than understand.
When two particles interact, they can no longer even be described by their own, independently evolving probabilities, called ‘pure states.’ Instead, they become entangled components of a more complicated probability distribution that describes both particles together.
This interest in mysterious mathematical equations and physics theories is relatively new. I understand that part of it stems from XXXX a good friend who shared his fascination with Jupiter and physics with me. I’m building an arsenal of things I don’t understand but am inexplicably drawn to. We are made of the same starstuff, I told him.
The beauty of the sentences I can’t quite fathom make me ache, with both longing for the particles I am entangled with, and for the desperate desire to understand physics. I want science to explain love and pain and beauty and connections to me. I want science to be a deity, one I can pray to and have my pains taken away, to lift the blinders from my eyes. I want to know what comes after life and whether I should stay or go. XXXX.
I’m listening to “Feels Like Fire” again and I keep changing it to this song. My cheeks feel wet and I touch them and realize I’m crying. Not sobbing, not any sort of aching crying, but the words. The words are getting to me.
It’s that part where he’s starting through the screen, the emphatic way he says, “Looking back at my fucking life.”
I’m feeling the pain of lost loves.
We talked about birds and he called me an albatross. The poets were albatrosses, exiled from the skies and then weighed down by their giant wings. This still doesn’t make sense to me right now, but I write it down anyway.
I’m hanging the pictures I’ve avoided for months, maybe years. Family pictures, photos I took that tried to capture the near-oppressive beauty of nature. I went through old prints and felt a bit of a stab in my heart when I found pictures of her.
I feel free from the weight of insanity. I’m weightless, weighed down only by my giant wings.
I’m always using these words to describe depression: debilitating, crushing, harrowing.
I keep writing, “It sounds melodramatic,” or, “I can’t describe the pain.”
I write about my eating disorder, but I hedge, over and over again, no matter where I write it. I keep wondering, how do I write about it, without writing about it?
I’ve gained back almost all the weight I lost this last time.
I’m staring at my essay again, the one titled “Liminal.” The one about time that stretches on for 6000+ words. It’s twisty and it backtracks, splits off into different directions and reconvenes a few pages later. I’m mad at it. It’s not working and I write and I write and I don’t know what I’m writing for. I make references to Nietzsche, to the demon at the end of his bed which is the same demon at the end of mine; I talk about liminality and rites; I talk about my fear of being old and working in a grocery store. Nietzsche’s fear was of cyclical time. Mine is of linear time. Cyclical sounds nice: you know what’s going to happen. It’s all happened before! Who cares! I’m sick of uncertainty.
I found that I have no words to add to my essay. This is partly because today it really struck me that I have been expecting this document to resolve my issues about time. I have put unbelievable pressure on this piece. I have expected a miracle.
That’s too much to expect from a piece of writing.
(The Relativity Effect: Time Dilation. Time passes slower at higher gravity fields. Next to a black hole, the clock ticks much more slowly. Some days I think I should like to find a black hole, sit down next to it, and figure out my life.)
And fuck time fuck time fuck time fuck time fuck time fuck time fuck time fuck time my issues with time will probably never be “resolved.” Because time will never stop. And because I’m thirty-five goddamn years old in a little over a month. And I remember my mother at that age. I thought she was old.
I’ve been writing nothing but poems that say the same thing.
When I try to return to my beauty/pain essay, the words of others demand my attention and I can’t find ways around them to access my own words.
Renoir: La douleur passe, la beauté reste.
Gibran: Beauty is eternity gazing at itself in a mirror.
Even John Green: That’s the thing about pain. It demands to be felt.
And then, of course, Camus: Beauty is unbearable, drives us to despair, offering us for a minute the glimpse of an eternity that we should like to stretch out over the whole of time.
I guess I think beauty is overwhelming – or should be. It should be the kind you feel (It’s too pretty. I can’t stand it).
Maybe my issues with beauty have to do with hating the pursuit. But then I fall into the trap, too. And I miss it in my pursuit to hate it, to dismiss it.
I stared at myself in the mirror for what felt like an eternity.
I’m thinking about how people complain about “depressing” nonfiction. But life is depressing. Life doesn’t offer happy endings. Nonfiction works to show the truth of a certain reality. And that reality is seldom a pretty one.
As I stare at my documents, “Immateriality” and “Liminal,” I realize my constructed reality is melancholy. I want to wallow in my sadness. I find a song that always makes me wish for sadness and I listen to it and consider pushing out tears. I feel like a good, cathartic cry might do me some good. Why can’t things just be good for a while, my therapist asked me. Why does there always have to be something lurking?
I wonder if maybe I can’t finish the essays because we’ve been taught that stories have happy endings, or at least resolutions. My stories aren’t done yet. I have no resolutions. Happy endings seem impossible.
I’m trying this thing my therapist suggested. She wants me to write a letter to my younger self. She loves that I am a writer, says it’s great therapy. I wonder if she would still think that if she actually read what I wrote.
I keep trying to write to young me (looking back at my fucking life), but I think of her, blunt bob, unruly bangs, big glasses, painful shyness, and I don’t know what to say to her. You’re doing a good job, she might want to hear. I’m proud of you, is what she wants to hear from an adult, but I wouldn’t suffice, I don’t think. Because she can’t ever – still can’t – ask for what she wants. So for me to say, I’m proud of you, won’t count because I know she wants to hear that. So, unfortunately, she’ll have to wait until she’s 20 to hear those words and it won’t really count then either. She’ll be left hungry for a long time.
I’m thinking about writing more about my breasts. This is the story I always start with when I write about/tell myself about my breasts:
My coworker was pregnant. We congratulated her and watched her body change as the life inside of her grew. At each milestone, it seemed, she lamented her breasts. Her enlarging breasts were “gross,” she said. The rest of us laughed with her – she knew how ridiculous it sounded, but she didn’t care. She hated her breasts. I found myself with a heightened awareness of my own chest because of her seething hatred.
And then this happens:
Years later my grandmother faced breast cancer. I visited her as she was recovering from her mastectomy. She showed me the absence of her breast, grabbed me as I went to hug her to guide me to the proper position. I didn’t cry as I held her broken body. I went home and threw out my bras, switched to bralettes and things that look like the training bras I wore during puberty. My breasts ache all the time. I look up my gynecologist’s number at least once a week and consider calling to get them checked out.
I wonder if your missing breast can cause something like phantom limb pain. Thanks to the sexualization of breast cancer, I wonder if you think, even if you don’t say it out loud, that maybe you are less of a woman when one of your breasts gets chopped off.
I found out that my “problems” might stem from a thyroid imbalance. I have a lab order from my psychiatrist. I tried to get into places I’ve been before, smaller clinics, places that don’t incite panic in me. I couldn’t. I have to go to the hospital for a blood draw.
You write goddamn beautiful things, he once told me.
If you become entangled with another being, how do the two of you function independently of each other? What is the best way for us to live without one another? How do I make up for the wrong I’ve done and where do we go from here?
My The geese are gone from campus – is that symbolic?
I wonder if/when I’m going to write about birds. Why does some material demand my attention and other peculiarities are allowed to exist without me picking at them?
I suffered the atrocities of depression. I don’t know where I fit anymore.
Why are some scabs more appealing than others?
I’m reading about anorexia, in a safe way, a way that doesn’t trigger. It makes me feel stupid for thinking I’m different in my disorder. I lost fifteen pounds in six weeks! I kept saying, appalled by my inability to eat and also disgusted by the pride that edged its way in.
I didn’t know my thoughts were so similar to others’ thoughts and words. I thought my mostly-private poetry (with names like “Bones” or “Remarks on Thinness”) and my metaphoric jabberings were unique to me. I didn’t realize that they performed valorization, that it was obvious. I thought I was being clever. I thought I wasn’t stylizing.
Eating disorders have been embraced by society as examples of our unnatural, unattainable beauty standards. And I want to tell everyone off because no one knows what mine’s about. I cry in my head, mine isn’t about that! It isn’t because of beauty standards! I have real reasons and my sickness is real! Incurable!
(I sliced carrots into tiny pieces and dipped them in salt. I made myself chew each piece fifteen times. They dissolved into mushy fragments before I could even swallow. The salt hurt my gums.)
None of this matters, of course. Because what I continue to learn is how not unique I am in my disorder. This makes me feel better, but it also makes sick-me feel worse. It also doesn’t get down to the roots of my sickness, my pain. And I don’t know how to do that properly, without breaking my own rules, without triggering my own obsession. XXXX
What if my writing stops? How will I make it through everything? What am I if not a writer? Why can’t I figure anything out? Am I going crazy again?
I think I can define myself, only to have my definitions ripped from me. I think I can categorize my thinking, my writing, think I am just about to touch understanding with my fingertips, only to find myself at the edge of oblivion again.
I’m staring at the backs of my hands. They look old tonight. I didn’t have any RA flare-ups this winter which is such a weird thing to be thankful for. Because I also didn’t get even a cold. “All I had” was depression. I never got “sick.”
I used to read palms. On the sidewalks in Seattle with a bass player boyfriend whose name I can’t recall. I can’t recall how to do the palm reading anymore, either. I know the major lines – head, heart, life – but that’s about it. I wonder if my lines have changed.
I wonder again if time is constructed or inevitable. I wonder why we use the sun to mark time – why that’s our constant. I wonder how to use a sundial. I’m pretty sure I made one once but I don’t remember for sure. I feel the medications coursing through my veins. My palms look more wrinkled than they used to. The veins are pronounced. I pretend I feel the blood flowing and that I can hear my heart beating. I am I am I am.
I’m feeling so confused by beauty. I simply can’t figure it out.
Some think there is a mathematical equation that explains beauty. The Golden Ratio: a/b = (a+b)/a.
Miłosz: Calm down. Both your sins and your good deeds will be lost in oblivion.
I had words tattooed on my wrist to remind my brain that my body wants to live.
Pain. Of depression, of my relentless writing about it, I said:
I keep talking about it, to myself, in my journal, I keep writing about it because I don’t want to forget. The most harrowing months of my life will stay at the forefront of my mind because I’m scared to death of it happening again. Because I hate taking my medication, hate the diagnosis of “bipolar” that the psychiatrist gave me, hate not being able to control my own emotions. And, without that constant reminder…
I could easily be dead.
But I don’t believe myself. I am continually making excuses to everyone – including myself – about why I am harping on mental illness. And other things I can’t stop writing about.
(She writes and writes and writes and it feels like bloodletting.)
My obsessive need to write morphed into an obsessive need to read about my obsessive need to write – hypergraphia. The creative mind and bipolar disorder. Trying to define my writing. Is it real or is it illness? Does it matter?
I’m staring at the veins on my arms. They are good veins – pert and interesting. I feel like everything hinges on the answers my blood will provide.
I finally forced myself to go to the lab.
On the drive to the hospital I watched the drivers around me and tried to guess their sicknesses. The lone man without a wedding band has the largest broken heart. The woman in her early twenties with stringy hair and a dirty car is contemplating death. The old woman in the Cadillac feels so lonely that everything is tinged with the saddest gray.
When the nurse took my blood it pinched and I didn’t watch. After, I felt the ache’s center and noted how the ache rippled away from the centrifugal force. My blood looked foreign and beautiful in the tiny vial and I said goodbye silently as she carried it away.
I don’t know what I want the results to say; this is a lie. I want it to come back with a scapegoat. I want the results to beam bright against the dark and tell me that I have one thing to blame for all of it. I know, though, that still I will feel the familiar lapping waves of anxiety and that my blood cannot give me all the answers I want it to. I already miss the blood that she took away and just want it back in my body.
Making my way back to the front of the hospital, I looked into all the doors that allowed my gaze, despite my usual method of looking straight ahead only. It was quiet and smelled like hospital and I felt panicky as my body remembered all the horrors that hospitals hold. A memory that is not mine but that was given to me: my mother emaciated and dying, lying on the hospital bed as tiny-me stared at her and the room with big eyes. A memory that is mine: my aunt’s damaged body wrapped in white sheets after she intentionally wrecked her car, my cousin standing above her, brushing her still-beautiful golden hair – it was uncomfortable and my feet itched to run. My uterus remembers the births of my two children in hospitals that look very different but smell the same – their births were not misfortunes, but there was definitely pain.
I try to remember my time in a mental ward when I was a teenager. Mainly I remember sensations, but I do remember having a roommate who spit paper at the ceiling. I remember not eating anything except pudding. I remember fear, but not fear of being in – it is fear of getting out.
Pain, beauty, time, mental illness. All of it spills wildly onto pages. I don’t know why I need to unearth my motives behind writing and thinking what I do. I want to just write what I want to write, I want to just be.
I’m sick of my life revolving around mental illness. I’m sick of questioning everything I do/say/feel/write because I feel this dark monster within me. I can’t keep questioning the roots of it all. I’m tired of trying to separate and categorize myself, to find answers and understand everything.
Bloodletting was a common remedy in ancient Greece, advocated by important figures such as Hippocrates, Erasistratus, and Herophilus. Eraistratus believed that plethoras – overabundances – caused most ailments. By sweating them out, vomiting them out, or bleeding them out, the plethoras could be eliminated. Bloodletting was modeled on menstruation; Hippocrates believed menstruation purged women of bad humours.
Adrienne Rich: When a woman tells the truth she is creating the possibility for more truth around her.
I’m feeling suffocated by truths. I’m feeling crushed by uncertainty. I say that all the time, too.
Sultry summer; the dog days. I keep trying to tell you I’ve gained clarity, that the high sun burned off my insecurities and brightened the dark days, leading me to light. That blood test results and medication and therapy have renewed me. I’m lying if I tell you anything like that. I place Band-Aids on the self-imposed wound, the one I keep opening and reopening and pretending to suture.
Here’s the thing: I could pretend my quotidian suffering is silly, that I recognize it as agony that is simply less than another woman’s. One recovering from cancer, say. But, no. I own my agony, and it’s as real as anyone else’s – I can’t seem to care if I am sympathetic or not.
My poems and my prose have this narrow gaze, and I can’t for the life of me widen it. Until I stop bleeding, until I find a way to resolve my issues with time, with my body, with mental illness, with life, I will constantly find myself stuck in the orbit of a monstrous barycenter of my own making.
But here’s another thing: my confusion and suffocation does not close me off from the rest of the world. Instead, I find myself opened up – feckless, unending wounds – to the pain of those I know and do not know. Maybe it’s empathy, I don’t know. Maybe it’s that the gravitational pull of suffering throws me off kilter for a while. Maybe. But maybe we could bleed, together. Because maybe what we actually need is to place our wounds together, let the blood leech off of us, pool together, make us blood brothers and sisters.
I have a new thought:
When we bleed we open up more possibilities to heal.
Emery Ross is a writer and graduate student living in Boise, Idaho. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Jersey Devil Press, Gravel, and Breath & Shadow. Find her at emery-ross.com.