Thursday, October 8, 2020

A Personal Experience with the Power of Literary Fiction

I am reading a well-received novel called A Little Life by Hanya Yanagihara and loving every second spent in its thrall. I bought the book because of its reviews. I knew nothing of the plot, but as the details about one character, Jude, emerged, I got more and more interested in the novel and his particular story. 

Yesterday, my reading took me to a plot twist that immediately—and I mean immediately—sent me into a seizure. My unexpected and powerful response to a fictional plot twist stunned me. It also gave me something to ponder, so, I went for a walk. It’s my preferred way to think and, possibly, learn, and I reached a startling and insightful conclusion. Isn’t that great? Isn’t it great that art can be so redemptive and transformational?

That’s it. That’s where I should stop, and you should skip down to the photo of the mushrooms and carry on from there. However, if you like to analyze your own belly button, you can keep reading about what I found in mine.

I’ve always used walking and writing to understand my challenges. Writing, first in my diaries and later in blog posts such as this one, helps me organize what I learn on my walks into a narrative that best explains my experience to others. (This was a practical habit that Dr. Shoja appreciated.)

In Yanagihara’s novel, there’s a character named Jude. He’s highly successful professionally and totally fucked up emotionally—not that uncommon a literary convention—however, yesterday I read that he had been surrendered to an orphanage by his mother, never knew who his father was and suffered at the hands of his caregivers. Does that sound like anyone we know?

He’s also a law student who’s patronized (in the greatest sense of the word) by a retired law professor named Harold and their relationship grows into their personal lives, leading Jude, Harold and Harold’s wife, Julia, and even Jude’s friends, the protagonists of the novel, to becoming fully integrated.

At this point, I was just over two hundred pages into a novel I was thoroughly enjoying. But it’s just a novel, right? It’s distant, a diversion and not anything real, right? And then suddenly the plot twists: Harold and Julia ask Jude if they can adopt him and, as soon as I read that, I immediately started to hyperventilate and then I had a seizure.

What the Hell was that, I wondered once I was on my feet and walking with Sheba in the forest. And I realized how badly I wished something similar had happened to me. I envied Jude and my envy led to wondering what it might be like to have parents who, in word, tone and deed, revealed love. 

It was an “a ha” experience, that imagining. 

I have often said the words, “they didn’t love me,” referring to the Tyrells. But finding myself trying to imagine what it feels like to be loved somehow rendered Dr. Shoja’s diagnosis meaningful and clear: I now truly emotionally understand how healing love can be and how destructive it can be in absence. I owe Hanya Yanagihara. 

And of course, I owe Dr. S. I didn’t disbelieve her; I considered her diagnosis (PTSD) and hypothesis of its cause (parental indifference/absence) a lifeline. It was credible and it explained the mysterious and debilitating symptoms that overtook my life. 

But was it the truth? I didn’t know. Did it matter? Not really, because her thesis explained my symptoms and took my shame and guilt. It meant that my breakdown wasn’t my fault—it wasn’t because I was weak. 

A huge part of my experience with a mental ill health diagnosis has been how hard it is to understand cause and effect. It’s much harder to understand than the cause and effect of corporeal disease. But Jude’s story has somehow done what facts and diagrams and lots and lots of talk, couldn’t: It’s brought me a deep, meaningful and powerful understanding of the key aspect of Dr. Shoja's diagnosis.

Above: One of roughly thirty clusters of Mushrooms that are covering my front lawn—and this isn’t even close to one of the biggest ones!  

Wednesday morning began as has every morning of late: After being clear all night, come sunrise, the fog rolls in bringing darkness and gloom. But as the sun rises, the fog burns off and the day brightens and heats up quickly. I’m a temperature pussy; I hate being cold or hot, so I would not be out in shorts and a tee were it not Summer-like right now.

I walked with Regina and her two dogs, yesterday. Di was in Nanaimo. And then, after the walk, we went directly into the village to do some grocery shopping.

Later, we went to Patsy’s to pick her up for a drive about. It’s days like yesterday that make convertibles ideal. But it started badly. My poor friend, who’s my age and with compromised mobility, fell whilst shifting herself from her walker into the car, and I could not lift her up. 

But bless her! My friend is a strongly spirited woman: She got herself turned over and onto her knees and with my help we got her safely into the car. Then the three of us­—Sheba in the back—had a great two-hour drive about on an absolutely glorious afternoon.

We went from one end of the island to the other, and back, talking the entire time. We saw places she hasn’t seen for a long time, and I learned things about the island that I value knowing because I intend to be here for quite a while.

It’s only twelve degrees and there’s thick humid fog turning the air blue this morning. It’s as though Summer ended overnight; it’s only twelve degrees and when I went out for wood, I could actually see huge water droplets gently floating to the ground. But it’s not rain, it’s thick, thick super moist fog. If it clears, we’ll have another nice day.

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