After finding himself in a nonfiction writing course shortly after his bipolar diagnosis, one young man discovers the cathartic power of personal narrative.
By Vincent Scarpa
A month after my first manic episode, I found myself in an undergraduate nonfiction writing workshop. Which was odd, as what I had gone to college to write and study was fiction—imagined latitudes, fabricated worlds, invented selves.
In my teenage years—a period characterized by paralyzing depression, unremitting anxiety, and a propensity for self-harm—I’d found something adjacent to comfort in many memoirs that sketched in the experience of mental illness.
I treasured Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Prozac Nation, a book I returned to again and again—and still do—for its stark and undecorated rendering of the depressed self. I felt similarly about Marya Hornbacher’s Madness, William Styron’s Darkness Visible, and Susanna Kaysen’s Girl, Interrupted.
Those books were generous and reliable companions to me, and I was grateful to their authors, who had clearly called upon reservoirs of fearlessness and radical openness that, at the time, I couldn’t imagine myself ever accessing.
It was my private war, and I didn’t want any spectators.
I was still a few years away from receiving my bipolar diagnosis, but I was already well-acquainted with the swirl of shame and humiliation many of us with psychiatric disorders know. It took much prodding for me to open up to my own therapist; I had no designs on inviting the world into my life via the act of writing. It was my private war, and I didn’t want any spectators.
This is essentially why fiction felt safe to me: no matter how much the events in the work might appear similar to events in the writer’s life, the genre designation served as a scrim, as an alibi.
How, then, did I find myself in that nonfiction writing workshop, a class in which I was expected to produce personal essays for my fellow classmates to read and critique? Well, it just so happened that course registration took place at the very same time as I was losing my mind.
It was the summer of 2010 and I was living in Somerville, Massachusetts. I was unmedicated, a heavy drinker, and had a “just say yes” policy to any recreational drugs offered me. I rarely ate—I’d managed to shed 30 pounds in two months—and I slept even more infrequently, too busy chain-smoking day and night in a subleased basement, writing what I thought was the next great American novel.
This, of course, was mania—which I’d only recognize in hindsight, after the bottom had fallen out—and when one is manic, it’s terribly easy to disregard a generic email reminding you to register for next semester’s courses. I’d get around to it, was my thinking.
And get around to it I did, many weeks later—after the mania had flipped like a coin overnight into stultifying catatonia, after I’d called a suicide hotline once or a dozen times, after I finally got the help I’d avoided for so long and went on the medication I so desperately needed to make my life a livable one.
I was happy and grateful for the newfound stability that increasingly became my norm, but it didn’t change the fact that, by that point, all the fiction workshops were full—the poetry workshops, too—and I had no choice but to enroll in a course that I knew would demand vulnerability. I would have to part the curtain behind which I kept my life.
I would have to write it.
That workshop is now 10 years back in my rear-view mirror. And though I remember well the fear I harbored about making myself and my lived experience of bipolar disorder legible on the page, what I remember far more vividly—what I get to experience still to this day, as a writer predominately of nonfiction—is the ineffable, fortifying catharsis that writing can deliver me. Even more fulfilling is the prospect of something I’ve written becoming as meaningful to another as those memoirs I loved in my youth were to me.
Printed as “On My Mind: To tell the truth”, Fall 2017
Vincent Scarpa, who recently earned an MFA from the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, crafts award-winning fiction, literary essays, and nonfiction pieces “about how bipolar disorder calibrates our lives” at his home in New Jersey.
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