The Small Psychoses: Erasure
My mother, as her dementia grew, never forgot me, but she did erase me. She recognized my physical presence until the end. She erased me from her memories, with a conviction that was far-reaching and unshakeable, though her long-ago was otherwise intact. I disappeared from trips, from events, from holidays. She replaced me with my brother Chris. If my father mentioned I’d been sick on a family trip, my mother would say, what a shame, that Chris was so sick on that trip. But where was Susanne? Why didn’t Susanne come with us? When I visited, she’d keep telling my father, if I wasn’t in her line of vision, that I had left. Susanne’s gone to the airport, she’d tell him with conviction, even if I’d just arrived.
My father on the other hand chooses people—women and, in one case, a nearby girl—to be replacement me’s. They become his daughter. Two of these have been home aides. With one home aide, Yelena, my father forwarded me her emails to him, which were strange and overbearingly affectionate, once calling my parents “The Best People in the Whole World.” Actually she wrote it as “hole” world.
Do you see how much she loves me? my father would write as he forwarded Yelena’s messages. That’s just a taste of her. Her holiday roses were always more beautiful than my roses. More lasting. My roses, he felt, had been too long. Her bouquet, he once wrote me, was “an appropriate size.”
Besides being his daughter, Yelena was my father’s angel on earth. When Yelena went beyond just being daughter my mother got jealous, but you could only tell by the kinked offramp of her lips. Yelena disappeared from my father’s life in what I understood from my father’s mutterings was some kind of terrible betrayal, though I never learned what it was.
Now my father has taken on the girl, thirteen, another daughter, who sends him little notes in return for sums of money. Her name is Stephanie, and a year ago he overpaid her for Girl Scout cookies. She wrote him a thank-you, then he gave her $100 for her birthday. Now the notes are weekly; the checks, how often I’m not sure. She’s his little angel. She sends him pictures, like a pink paper heart glued to construction paper. He puts these all over his living room. The door opens and they flutter like a regatta of paper sails.
I swear, I have been a dutiful daughter. I visit, I cook, I load the freezer with plastic lozenges full of food. And I know the thirteen-year-old situation, with my ninety-two-year-old father, is not healthy, but they rarely see each other, mostly just slips of paper pass between them.
The truth is that my father wants a daughter but not the daughter, not the one dealt out to him, the one with, as he calls it, the “up-down thing.” Neither did my mother. There’s no one else like you in the family, my mother used to tell me, though her grandmother was bipolar, as were a niece and a nephew, three of us in a family of eight cousins. I couldn’t remind her of this fact about my cousins, even when her memory was fine. Mark? she would say. Melinda?
Up-down thing? Up-down thing.
The question for me is, is psychosis a kind of erasure. Or is it, on the other hand, an addition, a filling in. Sometimes when it’s over I feel like an uncrayoned drawing in a child’s coloring book. A Stephanie-antithesis. Maybe it’s a picture of a girl holding out wide skirts, the skirts a triangle in her hands. She has no hair color, no eye color, no depth. The triangle of her skirts is empty. The black lines are a sham; they make a pointless distinction between the page’s background and the space inside the drawing. If you erased them—which would take seconds, a pink tip and quick fraying off of paper—nothing would exist.
The birds talking. The leaping colors. The people crowding around me that no one else can hear.
Of course, when it’s over I’m exhausted. Maybe that’s all this feeling is. Or maybe I miss feeling bright, over-colored, exaggerated. There is terror but there’s also that brightness, that can’t-look-away, that no-one-could.
The Small Psychoses: Nothing Much
My hallucinations are mostly auditory. Birds speak, people whisper about me under my window. They’re waiting for me to come out. This is frightening in the way middle-school whispering, when you know it’s about you, is frightening. There’s no knife in anyone’s hand, but it shreds away your sense of yourself.
A semi-truck drives through my yard, a newscaster drones all night. I develop hypnogogic and hypnopompic hallucinations, hallucinations that happen right before and after sleep. These types of visions aren’t in themselves psychosis but in psychosis I experience an abundance of them, constant, bright. Glass crashes all over my body from the window. A bouquet of red roses appears above my head. I reach for it and say, thank you.
Bruce my husband says, there’s nothing there.
Then the birds start: Nothing much, nothing much.
It’s a landscape derelict in some ways, but full of wonders. Technicolor, with the exaggerated depth of 3D. Roses the red of lips in a Glamour ad. The bunch went through my hand, not by lack of substance, but by too much.
I haven’t ever written the word hallucinate. Not in regard to myself. Even here I want to excuse myself: I’m mostly fine. I mostly function. They’re small psychoses. I don’t imagine I’m being controlled, that I’m Jesus, or Kim Kardashian in a black dress.
I’ve become obsessed with the research on hallucinations. They may mean a reduction in the brain volume, the gray matter, in the auditory cortices. Hallucinators strain to judge whether they’ve just thought something, or said it aloud. They also strain to judge when they are touching themselves or when they’re being touched.
Actually, it’s not so much that hallucinators don’t know the difference between touching themselves or being touched, as that they don’t rank the pain or pleasure or irritation they feel as different in either case. As why should it be. To me this self-other distinction is pointless. A hand on the arm is a hand on the arm.
Bereavement, I read, is a common cause of hallucinations. Even normal people may hear the lost one calling or moving around. The night my mother died brought on the newscaster—a male voice, flat and utterly without pause. When I could make out his words they were so mundane I don’t recall them well, statements about weather and traffic. At times the voice was unintelligible but in a radical way—not slurred or imprecise but too clear, too phonetically pristine, to be intelligible. The way the roses had too much presence to have substance. This aspect of the voice was terrifying.
Oddly enough, my old poems are full of hallucinatory signaling—that I can’t tell the difference between what I’ve said and what I’ve thought, that I can’t distinguish between myself and a sunrise. I do think poetry made things safer to say. It’s just imagery, if it’s in poetry. Nothing is literal. The hand lands safely on the arm from its launching pad attached to another body. It feels like caution or affection or even lust. Of course, of course.
Susanne Paola Antonetta’s latest books are Make Me a Mother (W.W. Norton) and Curious Atoms (Essay Press). She is also author of Body Toxic, A Mind Apart, and other books. Awards include a New York Times Notable Book, an American Book Award, and an Amazon best memoir of the year listing.