In the course of my life, I’ve had my fair share of mental-health “vicissitudes,” let’s call them. I’ve never been medicated for any of them, although at one point a psychiatrist strongly urged me to go on lithium. At another point, my best friend and mother strongly suggested some sort of antidepressant. I fear brain meds with the superstitious abhorrence of a “primitive” who doesn’t want his photograph taken for fear of losing his soul.
So I’ve endured these various episodes without anything stronger than booze, food, and books to help me. That might be why I view all my memories through gels that are colored by whatever strange weather was going on in my brain at the time. Sometimes I cringe. Often I cringe. Bad weather influences behavior, especially when there are no meds to act as umbrella, sunscreen, hurricane shelter.
I was manic for the five years it took me to leave my marriage, recover from it, and fall in love again. Mania is a particularly fearsome system because it allows for all manner of outrageous excesses – of consumption, flamboyance, expression – while its high hard winds and blinding sun block rational conscience and regulatory thought.
For the five years before that, I was depressed. For a while, I couldn’t get out of bed or stop crying. I had what I now see was a bona fide breakdown for a number of months. Then I managed to pull myself together enough to go about my daily life again, but I was still not feeling well at all, inside. I remember being interviewed at the Brooklyn Public Library during this period by a local NPR radio host named Leonard Lopate. He teased me about how horrible all the characters in my latest novel were. This came at me like a knife in the chest; I had lost my sense of humor entirely by this point, many months into an unrelenting black fugue state. “I hate nice people,” I blurted, like a two-year-old. When he asked what I was working on now, I said, my voice trembling on the verge of tears, “I’m not writing anything. I can’t write.” He was flummoxed, understandably. This was not a therapy session, that he was aware of, anyway.
And of course there have been all those other mental storms, less extreme than mania or depression, but strong enough to bend my un-medicated, unmediated mind to their force fields – corrosive rage, demented passion, dizzying confusion, panic attacks, anxiety attacks, and so forth. Even simple unhappiness has been dangerous, when a swamp of resignation and malaise hindered an urgent need for action and change.
But the most precarious state of mind, in my experience, is always smug complacency, those times when I feel pretty okay about everything, in a warm-oatmeal, chamomile-tea, down-comforter, footie-pajama kind of way, as if I were sprawled on a billowing couch, looking out the window at life going by, almost drooling sometimes with a wholly illusory, borderline-infantile bonelessness.
Invariably, luckily, just as I’m settling in for a long winter’s nap, the gods splash a bucket of ice water over me and I jump up shrieking, dripping and shivering and properly awake again.
My relationship with food always changes radically right along with my mental state. When I’m manic or depressed, at those far extremes of internal human experience, I don’t eat much at all; I can’t. Food attenuates for me into a remote, untenable idea of something I used to love, and still love, in theory, but can no longer tolerate or understand. When I’m anxious or unhappy, I tend to eat whatever comes to hand, standing up, on the fly. In those extremely fleeting, rare states of calm, focused, centered, balanced serenity, I eat thoughtfully and without fanfare, like some species of Buddhist monk, for nourishment and social communion. This almost never happens.
Smug complacency makes me wallow in food, obsess about it, become a glutton, a gourmande. Food nestles at the center of my nice safe life, forms the heart of my warm, fuzzy day. I find myself participating fully in the current national collective obsession with food choices as a way of pretending we have any control over anything at all. Organic, gluten-free, local, wild-caught – these decisions begin to feel political and meaningful, crucial and important. Some evangelical, proscriptive, black-and-white way of thinking, engendered by reports of food-industry horrors, causes me to scan labels, davening with nitpicky ferocity, to interrogate meat-counter guys and eschew all canned food, even organic enoki beans.
Eventually, the gods throw a pie in my face. A pie made with processed, bleached white flour, lard from pigs raised on antibiotics and offal cooped up in tiny, shit-filled pens, artificial chemical flavorings whose cancer-causing properties are indisputable, and genetically modified high-fructose corn syrup.
And there I am, back in what I think of as my “real life,” the one in which there are no down comforters, the one in which I don’t tend to drool, the one in which I’m as crabby, uncomfortable, and aware of my own absurdity as the next guy.
The other night, I coated a few fillets of haddock in a harissa rub, a lovely amalgam of various spices that comes in small plastic tubs from Whole Foods. I broiled them and served them over coconut jasmine rice with steamed red chard alongside.
“This is Harissa Haddock, BBC News,” I said in a fake British accent as I pulled the fish out of the broiler.
I instantly had to email my friend Rosie about this. “Harissa haddock,” I wrote to her. “Dish? Or BBC News announcer?”
“Wait,” she shot back, “I thought she was the tragic, much preyed-upon, oft-violated young heroine of an extremely long 18th century novel.”
“Moll Flounders,” said Brendan.
And then we ate.