Show Me All Your Scars
True Stories of Living with Mental Illness
Lee Gutkind, Editor
(In Fact Books)
I found myself going from story to story awaiting the next shocker in Show Me All your Scars. From a would-be suicide (an author who attempts it ten different times and ways) to one who tells us, "Trying to find a new therapist while nursing a slit wrist is like trying to sell a condemned building."

Andrea Rizzo writes of her mother who claimed "There's nothing wrong with me except I have bad dreams" despite the fact that when she was young, mother would wave to an invisible millionaire pilot in a plane which was following her around . . . "secretly in love with her."

At one point in her life, Jennifer Metsker became an angel and, when she wanted to be invisible, all she had to do was to close her eyes. She comments on the sheer effort it takes to be mad. People are "denied recognition for inventing the helicopter or the pop-up toaster, they are loved by pop stars or their doctor, or that their partners are conducting numerous affairs despite compelling evidence to the contrary."

    For those suffering with psychosis the world is distorted, but they still want to take part in their story, whether they seek recognition or an explanation for their collapsing world. They are not just trapped inside a story created by their illness; they are trying to save their own lives. If you were susceptible to slipping into a fictional world, wouldn't you try to be the hero of that world?

"Whether we become angels or messiahs or aliens, it's all in the interest of escaping something that seems scarier - - - a life with an illness that makes it difficult to take part in the ordinary stories of the world."

Ryan Bloom, a writer who has published his own translation of Albert Camus' Notebooks 1951 - 1959 has an article on OCD - - - his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, including what he calls his "Not Voice." At first the very style of it puts you off, paragraphs squeezed within paragraphs, both packed with underlinings and brackets filled with crossed out words, notes (apparently) to the author himself jammed in the midst of a sentence "the repetition so incessant that the only option, despite Not Voice not becoming real, is to, as quietly and surreptitiously as possible, white-knuckle the railing of the arms of the metal seat or whatever is available at all [explaining pretending to be dizzy, and other lines of reasoning used in this situations, or no?

    because even though the problem may be one of simply paying too much attention to a rather mundane and quotidian thought, still, nonetheless, Not Voice knows that if I'm willing to one, two, three, tap the right bedpost one, two, three, tap the left bedpost, circle the mattress, tap, circle the mattress, get in bed, take two sips of water from the jug on the dresser, then, finally,
                                                    get ready for sleep - - -

And here we know that Bloom has showed us in an elegant graphic form, on the page, what it is like to be haunted day and night by what they call OCD. To the point that when he reaches the word "jump," he repeats it fifty-three times on one page and then curls it down half of the next page. Here he is speaking about one of the most disarming things about - - - -> his < - - - - OCD, which, he, tells us, "it's not so hard to understand how a person, a doctor or friend, may not realize that every single time I get near a ledge [+ approaches], whether attached to a high-rise balcony or a baseball stadium bleacher, Not Voice whispers - - - [box] jump - - - not once, not simple, staccato jump, but a steady [box] droning, pounding, bleating rhythm of jump, jump, jump [repeat 50 more times].

"In other words do I have to paint a picture for you?"

I am giving stars to much of this book for the sheer ability of the twenty authors to lead us in (and not necessarily out) of what are the scariest psychic catastrophes that humans can undergo at their own hands . . . psychosis, OCD, suicide, schizophrenia, autism, voices, bipolar, pills, "self-injury" (what they call "cutting"), and growing up with mad relatives (like a mother who refuses to emerge, ever, from bed).

And we should give honorable mention to those like Ryan Bloom who deliver it to us so straight - - - in the gut - - - that we are there [whether we want to be there or not!]

This would include Jessamine Price who spent a week "lying awake at night, tense and still, afraid to roll over in bed, afraid even to shift position slightly" because of the fear that her "loft bed, homemade from two-by-fours, would suddenly collapse and send me plummeting to the floor, causing me some horrifying injury. I would be paralyzed, I was sure."

Or, Beazie Griffin who says the pills that let her be free from OCD are not "happy pills" but "not-constantly-feeling-overwhelmed pills."

Or Peg Quinn's daughter who is hearing voices that "want me to do something, but I don't know what." Quinn learns soon enough that "most caretakers of the mentally ill end up on medication themselves. That helped explain all the silent parents who spent the evenings staring at the table." Her daughter's friends?

    Mark knows her well but is depressing to be around. Ken, the platonic friend, is adorable but caught up in the drug culture. Then there's Clark, to whom she can't entirely open up. For example, she says, "I can't tell him about the night Ed and Ken and I stayed up all night cutting each other. It was so psychotic, and Clark couldn't handle it.

Joyce O'Connor, telling of her autistic son Henry, nine years old:

    But just when I cannot take another moment of Henry's autistic tantrums, he says or does something ridiculous yet appropriate, and all the other stuff melts away. It is in these moments that I am absolutely smitten with whoever is inside this boy, an individual with no social filter who speaks only the truth.

Of his need, apparently to repeat, endlessly, a certain vulgar line from the Broadway megahit The Producers. She then says, "He is a little potty-mouthed Buddha."

And finally, Beth Wiles, who takes us in this book from several tortured individuals to the universal, discovering one carefully hidden truth of an American lie that still goes on. That the wives and children of combat veterans are those who suffer the most from their father's PTSD, which grows mostly from their combat experience.

She points to Fort Bragg, North Carolina which covers "more than 251 square miles in four counties and is home to almost 10 percent of active US Army forces." When word leaked out in 2002 of the high rate of familial violence at Fort Bragg, CNN reported 'army sources' stating that "there's no common thread among the cases and suggest it may simply be an 'anomaly' that so many incidents have occurred together." Including suicides.

"Dr. Ira Katz, head of mental health service for the US Department of Veterans Affairs, testifying before a congressional committee, denied a suicide epidemic. He told CBS News there had been 790 reported suicide attempts among veterans in the VA's care in all of 2007."

    But then an email came to light. One that Dr. Katz has written to a colleague in February 2008. "Shh! Our suicide prevention coordinators are identifying about 1,000 suicide attempts a month among the veterans we see in our medical facilities. Is this something we should (carefully) address ourselves in some sort of release before someone stumbles on it?"

--- Pamela Wylie
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