This morning, rather than getting down to writing first thing, I picked up Anne Lamott’s book Almost Everything: Notes on Hope which has been sitting in my library pile for a couple of weeks.
I can order almost anything into my local library from the larger network, but often there are holds on what I want to read, and so I order everything I might otherwise buy on Amazon with some abandon. It’s like a form of shopping that doesn’t cost anything and I think it’s the single best thing about the modern online library system. It also results in occasions where a whole stack of things I’ve ordered arrive at once, and then I have to push my giant to-read pile aside and get down to the stuff that has a time limit. So it is with Lamott’s book. I realized today that I have only a few days to read it and the new Zadie Smith essay collection – and though they are both slim volumes I better get down to it.
On the second page of her introduction, Lamott us about a kind of intrusive thought she has, one where she thinks about jumping when she is in high towers/cliffs/mountaintops, or veering her car into oncoming traffic while driving on a busy highway. She asks/tells us “So why have some of us felt like jumping off tall buildings ever since we can remember, even those of us who do not struggle with clinical depression? Why have we repeatedly imagined turning the wheels of our cars into oncoming trucks? We just do. To me, this is very natural. It is hard here.”
This is not all she talks about in the introduction, but this admission of self-harming thoughts unlinked from actual intention hooked me right away because I know exactly what she means. I have these kinds of thoughts too.
Lamott and I diverge in our diagnoses – she has been diagnosed as OCD and has an anxiety disorder, I have had a depression diagnosis *and* more than one suicidal period in my life (both in the distant past now). But we seem to share a similar condition of intrusive thoughts about self-harm, and I suspect we’re not alone. A few years ago I did hear an Invisibilia episode* about violent intrusive thoughts as a form of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and at the time thought it sounded very much like the kind of thing I experienced. That is, thoughts disconnected from any intention, but tormenting nonetheless because they make you question yourself. If I think these things will I do them? Do these thoughts reveal something about inner desire?
It’s not the kind of thing you can really talk about with people who don’t share this quirk of the brain because it sounds so odd (the fact of these impulses can be truly disturbing to those who care about us). I once brought it up with a therapist who had clearly never heard of such a thing and didn’t believe I had no intention of acting on my thoughts. Her alarm was such that I never went back to see her again.
Lamott’s admission feels bravely honest in the face of this, a kind of relief to me. If she can speak this out loud, commit it to print, perhaps it’s not such a shameful (weird, secretive) thing after all. Perhaps it’s just on the spectrum of human behaviour, linked to anxiety (as I have come to realize mine is – they are worse during periods of high-tension, and for the most part regular meditation practice keeps them at bay), and not indicative of dark desires. Her psychiatrist suggests the best way to address them is to bring the thought into the open, to speak it to whoever she is with – and she dutifully does – but while it dispels some of the anxiety for her, she notes that it often unsettles her companions.
I am not talking about this to confess my own strange turns of thought, but as a reflection on the power that sharing our stories, idiosyncracies, shadow sides, and enlightened ideas has on others. Lamott’s words are powerful and interesting because they form part of a truth she is willing to share with us. Her words beg the question of the writer-me, “what is the truest thing you can say?”, her work a demonstration of how a crafted truth brings the messiness of the human condition to light, and forms a bridge between isolated experience and shared understanding.
Something I know from my own writing life, which I have been publicly at since I started a ‘zine in the 1990s, is the truer the thing I share, the more connective response it gets. Private messages, blog comments, and more than once I’ve had a total stranger tell me that one of those more honest pieces was helpful to them in the way of feeling not so alone. A primary purpose of art is connection after all, and the more we get to the heart of what we are feeling, thinking, and experiencing – the greater the chance we reach others where it counts. This is what I want to do in my work: stare down the hard truth, the difficult stuff, and find a way to craft and share it to connect with others. Which doesn’t mean there isn’t room for lightness and textiles – but that I’m going to work harder at getting into the heart of things in my writing here and elsewhere. We’ll see how it goes!
* The episode of Invisibilia – “The Secret History of Thoughts” contains a recounting of violent thoughts, quite different from what Lamott is relating or what I experience, though they both fall into the category of “intrusive thoughts” which can be a symptom of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder.