Diagnosed as manic-depressive before “bipolar” became the fashionable term, my mother always seemed to be struggling against a dark and overwhelming psychic inheritance.
After coming out of a coma following a nearly successful suicide attempt, she told me in whispers that she had felt “someone leave my body”—someone who had always been there without her knowledge or permission.
I was struck with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome at the same age that my mother had first become ill.
Our symptoms, experienced more than twenty years apart, were remarkably similar.
I was lucky not to receive her psychiatric diagnosis, but still spent seven years finding my way to the end of chronic fatigue syndrome through diet, meditation, some mild conventional drugs and above all, a sustained discipline of forgiveness.
When I went through a brief period of the insomnia that plagued my mother her entire life, I recognized our common inheritance. I also realized that the major opportunity provided by my illness was the chance to end a long, inherited haunting.
This poem marked a major turning point in my illness.
On Sleeplessness (for my mother)
Very early, your heart burst open
like an overstuffed suitcase, and the clothes,
jewelry, well-worn dolls, watches, crutches
and cameos of your ancestors spilled inside you.
Your soul was draped with grief before
you could speak, and no one could see
that your first lullaby should be a threnody.
The unhappy dead are petulant beings,
peering through the eyes of their living kin
to glimpse the light at the end of the tunnel.
No one told you who their voices were,
and why they murmured of so much bitterness
and fear. No one taught you that
the lost ones need first to be heard,
then forgiven and released.
And so, drawn
by your strength and independence, these spirits
rushed in through your broken heart like
a river flooding the breach of a dam.
They took back the clothes and jewelry,
putting on whatever they found at random,
shoving and fighting each other to try on
precious things that might prettify their misery.
Feeding on the life that should have been yours
alone, these desperate souls of many disguises
then possessed you. It is they who,
unable to rest, have stolen your sleep
for so many years.
You know, they thought
I was an open door as well. Lately they
have brought their morbid partying
into my stomach and my dreams –
but when I awaken in the night, I know them.
Not their names or faces, but their truths
and traumas: Someone starved. Someone
was born dead and, like a turtle trapped
on its back, struggled to move in a useless body
and silence the screams of his terrified mother.
Someone murdered, someone was slain, a father
ignored and abused his daughters with an anger
he inherited. I recognize a family, like any
human group, with a legacy of pain and
unspoken longing. And by watching you
I have learned their desire…
I can bring them peace,
but they must give up thieving
the sleep of the living. I am the poet
and the storyteller, their voice and
their master. I will honor them,
but I will put them to rest.
Like elephant literary journal on Facebook.
Ed: Catherine Monkman
Excerpted from the e-book THE PERFECT MOTHER