The strata of five snowfalls cover the ground as I climb out of bed one February morning. Ice-powder-ice-powder-ice: they lie according to the usual pattern of Iowa winters, when the days between storms bring just enough sun to melt the top layers, and the nights refreeze everything into a temperamental crust. Any trip across the lawn — from door to mailbox, from mailbox to car — is likely to be punctuated by falling. Only sometimes will the ice hold my weight.
I set about making tea, gently assessing my own internal strata. I pull the screaming kettle off the range, fill the teapot, and carry it to my desk, where I idly shuffle some papers instead of starting work. A few fat flakes drift past the window. I’ve been trying to hate my mental illness less, to be less divided, to not view my anxiety as a scrim separating me from myself, from the life I could be living. The one I’m caught in is marked by paralyzed muscles, quickened breathing, racing thoughts: Think, Annie, think, what a mess you are in, how on earth will you get yourself out this time.
The flakes blow loosely over the crust of what’s already fallen. Still putting off emails, I tug one sheet of paper from the stack I just made and scrawl idly in the margin: “The particular latitude of your mind invites many storms.”
In Pain Woman Takes Your Keys, Sonya Huber writes about the rheumatoid arthritis that began plaguing her with near-constant pain in her thirties. She notes that living with a chronic illness can heighten a common mental trap: the tendency to treat our imperfect existences as if they were the shadow sides of our “real lives,” the ones we would be living without the arthritis, the jobs we hate, the mountains of debt, the mental illnesses spinning us round and round. Huber’s pain-free self is a woman in a lamé bodysuit, distinct from her but close enough to touch: “I saw a glimpse of her silver cape outside my window as she sped by,” Huber writes. That self is “blithe, less bitter, more well-traveled; she has a much better wardrobe and is never irritated.”
Mine is also better traveled, and more well-read. She responds to emails the day she gets them, sleeps through the night, would never count a few carrot sticks hastily gnawed before bed as her vegetables for the day. If she spends four hours watching romance dramas, she does so with a sense of silk-wrapped luxury and without an ounce of shame. It’s a treat she doesn’t indulge in very often.
In reality, I often wake to diffuse, directionless days. High, milky clouds cast themselves heavily over a Midwest sky, but the snow reflects everything in such a way that the light seems to come from everywhere and nowhere, the whole world glowing. Sometimes I swear I can hear the faint, familiar buzzing of fluorescent lights: magnetized copper wires in transformers squeezing their own iron cores, causing themselves to vibrate. Lying in bed, my brain wanders: the shower I haven’t taken, the twin notebooks stacked on the couch where I failed to lesson-plan, the empty refrigerator I neglected to fill. I am also squeezed to the point of vibration.
Some days I wake up, hear the buzzing, see the light bouncing off the snow, and immediately go back to sleep.
About the fight with the prostate cancer that would eventually kill him, Anatole Broyard wrote that “every seriously ill person needs to develop a style for his illness…only by insisting on your style can you keep from falling out of love with yourself as the illness attempts to diminish and disfigure you.” His stance was that illnesses — especially chronic ones — must not only be internalized and considered parts of ourselves, but also made beautiful. In some ways, transforming illness into something poetic may be a radical way of carrying on.
For Broyard, style could be conjured in the smallest details: after his diagnosis, the whole world seemed to glow with lyricism and meaning. Going to the grocery store was the stuff of sonnets, and taking a nap meant entering the realm of Greek epics. “I am infatuated with my cancer,” he wrote. “It stinks of revelation.” By comparison, healthy people shuffling about their chores seemed gray and lifeless to him. “As if they had all gone bald overnight.”
As soon as I feel the anxiety coming on, my brain sets to calculating the collateral damage: hours of writing lost, hours of grading lost, hours of exercise lost, hours of sleep lost, hours of joy lost. This makes the problem not my own suffering, but what my suffering will do to my career, my relationships, my pants size. The arithmetic is so simple, so self-evident, that outsmarting it, wriggling out of its ever-constricting grasp, requires feats of acrobatics.
I stand in my office, the hasty winter sun dipping beneath the hills. The streetlights flicking on feel like divine judgment. Look how much time you have wasted standing here — but I don’t, in reality, know how long I’ve been standing here. I can’t move. Not toward the door, or up the long five-lane street of howling traffic to my little apartment. Not toward the refrigerator full of things I don’t want to eat, toward the laptop full of work I don’t want to do, toward the shelves of books I wish I wanted to read. Look at what you are becoming.
After twenty minutes of feeling like I might split in two, I manage to put on my coat. I walk up the long hill from the river to my home, the cars hurling rain in the drizzly dark. I pass through the door and strip off my wet things, pull out the spaghetti and tomato sauce I tell myself is not an “every night” dinner. The couch enfolds me like a friend who holds your hair while you retch up cheap Manhattans.
A month after the worst of it, the thaw has come, then gone, then come again. The whole world clicks and clacks with the quiet tattoo of water falling, bit by bit, from higher places to lower ones, each drop a small plosive of surface tension against dirt, wood, snow. I sit at my table with tea and think, This is a good metaphor.
In her essay “The Pain Scale,” Eula Biss notes that the diagnostic words we use to describe physical pain are all metaphor: “burning, stabbing, throbbing, prickling, dull, sharp, deep, shallow.” So, too, are the words I use to describe anxiety: stuck, scattered, heavy, leaden. We use these metaphors so freely, we don’t even think of them as such.
Metaphor provides a scaffold to build into the spaces beyond our comprehension. When we struggle to describe a physical sensation, we use a comparison; when some scientists seek to explain the interactions between neurons, they liken the brain to a computer. By doing this, we put the unknown in terms of the known, in an act that both illuminates and obscures: after all, a brain is both like a computer and not. Metaphor rushes in to fill gaps, to make meaning, and to conceal.
Susan Sontag notes a similar process of metaphoric meaning-making in the language surrounding illness, in her seminal book Illness As Metaphor. “Any important disease whose causality is murky, and for which treatment is often ineffectual, tends to be awash with significance,” she writes. “The disease itself becomes a metaphor.” In the nineteenth century, that disease was tuberculosis, equated often with spiritual and artistic transcendence: Keats, frail and ethereal, drowning in his own blood at the age of 25. In the process of assigning metaphor, we use familiar concepts to partially illuminate what we cannot understand, while ushering the rest out of view. This rescues us from uncertainty. It comforts.
Once scientists developed effective therapies for tuberculosis, a century after Keats died, mental illness took its place in the cultural imagination as the ailment of the creative, the romantic. Mental illness remains shadowy and indistinct, its causes and contributing factors — trauma, genetics — uncertain. This makes it ripe for metaphor.
For me, the problem with assigning romantic metaphor to mental illness is not that it’s incorrect, exactly, but that it flattens a dynamic reality into something static. It cannot communicate that, in order to write about the leaden days, I need the days of abeyance, nor that the illness does not bequeath me poetry as some sort of recompense. But the metaphor is everywhere; the world has already drafted and consigned it. When we use metaphor to conceal the unknowable, we make symbols out of human beings and allegory out of experience. We reduce our own pain to a precursor, a line item, a weather report.
Broyard demonstrates the danger of this as well as anyone. In the final section of his book, he sits at King County Hospital with his father, who is dying of cancer twenty years before Broyard would succumb to the same. As he keeps vigil, he notices a beautiful nurse: “Her complexion was so fair, her lips so red, her eyes so blue, that she reminded me of a patriotic image in pastels.” He desires her as an image, as an ideal, but as her beauty continues to juxtapose his father’s pain, he begins to hate her.
When he passes her one afternoon, giggling at the nurses’ station and wearing “that infernal smile,” he resolves “at any cost, to wipe it off her face.” Days later, he takes her out for drinks and persuades her to come back with him to his apartment. Once there, he “seized her in a death grip, bore her backward toward the bed,” and “took her with her clothes on.” The nurse is a character caught in the tragic glow of his father’s death, even before he puts pen to page. He works out his rage violently upon her body.
There is a cost to romanticization, to needing metaphor too much. Things — people — are easier to destroy when they’re an abstraction.
The calculus I’m caught in — of time and productivity lost — is also, I realize, metaphor. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson point out that, while we often think of metaphors as devices “of the poetic imagination and the rhetorical flourish,” they actually structure our thoughts and thus play “a central role in defining our everyday realities.” How often do we ask how someone spent their afternoon? As if hours were dollars to be doled out on game tickets, or steak dinners, or suit jackets? One of my students revealed to me that recently he cut down on his drinking because every time he went to the bar, he couldn’t stop picturing how long he’d have to stock grocery shelves to account for his revelry.
“The essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another,” write Lakoff and Johnson. And, indeed, the metaphor of time as money structures our society, our thoughts, our experience of the world, even our actions. This might also mean that the right metaphor, the right stylistic flourish, could reshape perspective in a way that is productive instead of stifling.
Sonya Huber decorated her cane — a tool she never thought she’d need — with stickers. Friends brought her smiley faces and plastic gems, unicorns and bottles of wine, Frida Kahlo and the Arc de Triomphe. “Even when healthy,” she writes, “I never would have described my body as conventionally beautiful, sexy, or fabulous,” and yet she describes her cane as such. This allows her illness to transform her experience — of the world, but also of herself.
Another morning, I wake to a powder-blue sky fringed by dense stratus. No rain yet, but it waits on every side. The anxiety, in much the same way, is not yet on me, but I feel it hovering at the corners of my day. I walk onto the porch and look up through the ring of clouds, take a grateful breath into that held-open space: an abeyance of sky.
I want to live with my illness. I want to not hate the fluorescent-lit days, not to look around at the weeks and months and say, “Look how much I have lost.”
Where Sontag argues that “the healthiest way of being ill” is to become “purified of metaphorical thinking,” I wonder instead if the answer is not to abstain from metaphor, but rather, each time society tries to wheat-paste an ill-fitting metaphor over our lives, to offer one of our own.
I collect them: latitude of many storms, thaws that come and go, clouds that squeeze. I often think about mental health like weather because we can predict it but not precisely, because it can drown cities and raise bounties. It has a random caprice — the moment when a summer day upends into storms — and it requires preparation: stock the pantry, lock the windows, step onto the porch to gauge the wind, hunker down. We can see it coming but can’t stop it. We shake our fists at the sky.
Then, if we are wise, we buy a good coat and get out the snow tires. As Broyard writes: “Poetry…might be defined as language writing itself out of a difficult situation.” I wonder if new metaphors — metaphors we create for ourselves — might make for a sturdy pair of snow boots.
In a strange way, thinking about anxiety as weather lets me slip past society’s questions of why, and how long, and are you seeing someone about this? It sets me loose from the terrible calculus of justifying my minute-by-minute expenditures. It leaves those unanswered questions of cause and cure off the table. We wouldn’t stare at a thunderhead and ask, “Why is this happening to me?” nor regard the bright disk of the August sun and think, “Can’t something be done?”
I picture myself like the woman in Mahmoud Darwish’s poem, “Helen: What a Rain.” Those around her want her to make an account of herself. They want her to discuss the fall of Troy, the battles and the bloodshed. They want her to explain her part in the tragedy. They say to her: “If you stare, Helen,/ into the water of our dreams . . . you’ll find/ the dead, on your two shores, singing your name.”
Like nineteenth-century writers turning tubercular bodies into poetry, the strangers want to make her a symbol: a trophy of valor, a field of conquest. She ignores them, talking instead about the weather. “What a rain!” she says, “What a rain!” They try again: “Helen!/ How stern the Greeks were then/ How tough Ulysses was, a solitary driven to travel/ in search of his myth!” Again, Helen dances away: “What a rain! What a rain!” I imagine her laughing a little, swinging her hips, letting their words and their stares slide off her like so much water.
One night when I was a child, my mother woke me and my sister up in the dead-asleep hours between midnight and dawn. “Come on! Come on!” she whispered. “You won’t have school tomorrow anyway.” We stumbled into our snow pants and coats. She urged us along as if, at any moment, the clock would strike and the spell would break.
We hurried down the stairs of our apartment building. When we stepped into the electric dark of that January night, it was like coming into a newborn world. A storm had left a foot and a half of fresh snow across the ground and moved on to reveal a moonless sky.
Every object of our known world — the benches, the bushes, the sidewalks, the fences — had been remade. It was all smooth white, blued with shadow and backed by inky sky. We walked toward the river, its curves turned mercury in the dark. Following its path, I became an explorer in an unknown kingdom, a quiet traveler in some ante-chamber of the moon.
Who would dare question such a storm? Not my mother, my sister, or me, able only to revel in its beauty. Like the weather, my inner squalls are meaningful for their mere existence — true beyond all explanations, beyond calculated gains and losses, beyond cures. It can be powerful to center experience over explanation, to reject ill-fitting assumptions, to stylize perspective. To write one’s way toward something different.
I’m not sure how long we walked that night, but I remember coming home just as the sky became a discernible shade of blue. We piled our wet gear into a sodden heap by the door and fell asleep on the couch. Soon after, the snowplows would clear the streets and teenagers would begin to throw snowballs in the park. I had learned what I needed, and I kept it with me. The storm had transformed the world I thought I knew, and even myself within it.