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Face, Velvet, Church, Daisy, Red by Marilyn Hope


“Face, Velvet, Church, Daisy, Red” by Marilyn Hope is one of two pieces selected as Editors’ Choice in the 2020 inaugural CRAFT Creative Nonfiction Award. Our editors chose pieces that showcase the range of forms and styles in creative nonfiction.


“A woman in a spruce-blue tracksuit enters my bedroom with a pickaxe and chips a hole in my wall.” From the very first line of Marilyn Hope’s creative nonfiction piece “Face, Velvet, Church, Daisy, Red,” the reader is planted into the narrator’s mental illness, a frightening counter-reality brought about by hallucinations and mood swings.

The essay is structured into fragmented sections, each providing a window into the narrator’s experience over the course of her early adult life—her first hallucinations, her psychiatric stays, her paranoia about technology and carbon monoxide poisoning, chronic nightmares, and her electroconvulsive therapy. These moments of madness are rendered with a concision necessary when writing about the abstract or illogical. There are many jumps in time in this essay, building tension between the form of the piece and its content. These fragmented moments reflect fragmented times for the narrator, like memories conjured suddenly from the ether.

Hope chooses her images with intuition—the narrator dreams in fractals, she touches socked ankles with her “psych ward sweetheart,” buys herself a Hello Kitty boxcutter. These little details feel so vivid one might forget the narrator’s own slippery grasp. Hope grounds readers in her scenes with exquisite detail and lines almost aphoristic in their sharpness: “Sometimes we have to pretend there is romance in trauma,” she writes in the last line of a section describing the narrator’s romance with a girl she met during her second stay at the hospital. A line with this magnitude not only provides a summation for previous scene, but clues readers into what this essay is really about.

This is a story about trauma, but is also intrinsically a meditation on love and memory. Hope doesn’t let us forget these things are inseparable. This is the perennial challenge of creative nonfiction writing, the sheer weight of responsibility when tasked with telling a story truthfully: How does one write about pain? How does one hold themselves and others in love when doing so?

This essay’s greatest success lies in its dedication to portraying mental illness with honesty and care, both for the ill and their loved ones. Among many stunning lines is this one balancing stark honesty and sensitivity: “Mom calls me ‘prickly.’ Dad calls me ‘explosive.’ Both are endlessly patient.”  —CRAFT


Content Warning—mental illness and self-harm


 

A woman in a spruce-blue tracksuit enters my bedroom with a pickax and chips a hole in my wall. She collects smooth, fist-sized rubies from between the studs and places them in a music box, ribboned with dark grain, like the one I made in sixth grade shop class. It’s 2013. I call her Watson now, and she is my earliest hallucination.

“You always remember your first,” they joke on the forums, people who received signs from Greek goddesses, people who heard soliloquies in radio static, people who tasted rust, smoke, ammonia, dust.

Reality begins to skip apart at night. Children giggle in the living room. I perceive babies that melt in my arms like soap, waxy water dripping away to reveal soft, unossified ribs. The sun seems artificial when it washes through my curtains in the morning; does nothing to wake me. I’m foggy all day. I record my dreams in a Word document titled, “things I will only write about once.”

Here we are.


My medications feel as arbitrary as handfuls of Halloween candy. I try dosages and combinations of fifteen different pills, things that end in –ine and –ix, and Mom carefully cuts the ends off the forty-milligram tablets to approximate thirty milligrams for me to take with breakfast. Mom calls me “prickly.” Dad calls me “explosive.” Both are endlessly patient. Some things never change.

In September, the security staff at Porter Hospital confiscates my shoelaces. When I ask for something to draw with, I am provided with crayons. Mom, Dad, Aunt Leslie, and Uncle Paul visit me one at a time, turning out their pockets at the door to prove they aren’t carrying switchblades or pipe bombs. A doctor places me on a seventy-two-hour psychiatric hold, checking the box beside “a danger to self” on my intake paperwork.

My family visits me every day. They smuggle me a ballpoint pen that is quickly expropriated. I am asked to make a list of my goals, and, with a golf pencil, I muster up two ambitions:

  1. Sleep on time.
  2. Write a page every day.

“I think there’s a carbon monoxide leak,” I tell Kaomi.

“There’s no leak,” he assures me again.

“Something is wrong,” I say. “This house is poisoned.”

It’s always too cold upstairs. The lights flicker minutely, but only when no one else is looking. I cover my television with a sheet and smooth a square of painter’s tape over my laptop’s webcam, hoping to mask the eyes.

When the app appears on my phone, I’m convinced it’s recording me. “It’s just a software update,” Kaomi explains gently, but I can’t uninstall it, and I slam my door so I can panic in private. Kaomi texts me from his room: “lyn im not snapping at you. you are overreacting to the new update and the icon. theres really not much to do about it now.”

Kaomi shoots square, and I trust him for it. This day, I explain to him for the first time that my diagnosis is accompanied by delusions.

“I never was really good at talking to you about your troubles,” he says. But he continues to check the carbon monoxide detectors whenever I ask him to, and a few days later, the icon disappears again.


In my dreams, something is always expanding: humans stretching to the size of skyscrapers, apartment bathrooms becoming ballrooms, cities populating themselves with infinite strangers. Dad teaches me the word fractals. “Some are really beautiful,” he says. And so are some of the dreams. I see new colors and hear new chords. Atoms vibrate candy-bright, and I’m aware of each of their trillions. But the disproportion always becomes nightmarish, and there’s an inexorable danger in dreaming, its scope chemical-feeling and out of control.

My limbs are numb and heavy one night when I open my eyes on Tommy’s couch. After these richer realities, the waking world is cold and sudden and blurred around the edges. Kore is softly saying my name. He and Varis are putting on their coats.

“You all right?” asks Kore.

Varis drives me home, then. Tommy messages me the next morning: “Kore mentioned that you had a nightmare on my couch. Are you okay? I hope you’re not too spooked.” And today, I’m not. I am never safer than I am in the shelter of my friends’ kindnesses.


Over New Year’s, C and I hold hands between Get Happy sessions at the behavioral health center. It’s my second hospital stay this year, and she’s the second girl I’ve ever kissed. We’re both hazy and forgetful and medicated wrong. Can’t quite get the correct words out. “Marilyn,” she writes to me later, “I kept trying to say, ‘Never give up hope, always try. Now I see your middle name is Hope. You have many, many mysteries. That’s okay. Be you.'”

I like this idea of me. The thing with feathers, the psych ward sweetheart. After we are discharged, I hide from C, hoping she’ll hang onto the memories of me sipping decaf and doing puzzles in my pajamas, our socked ankles touching.

Sometimes we have to pretend there is romance in trauma.


I dye my hair blue, then darker blue, then pink. I get a job at a local art store. I buy myself a Hello Kitty boxcutter so I can unpack shipments of canvas and paint and newsprint, smelling everything, greedy to create. It’s a good year for watercolor work: I discover an earthy, pigmented red that produces gorgeous blooms and backwashes, branching out like the roots of a tree, or veins.

My arm veins are deep and difficult to access. I discover this when I begin electroconvulsive therapy the February after I turn thirty, and the nurses favor the fat vein on my left wrist, where I carry my semicolon tattoo. The IV leaves a crescent-shaped scar that I fear will never go away. But it does. The skin there is smooth again, and I get another tattoo there, secret Latin in Courier. One of the as is offset slightly, like the typebar twisted on its way to my arm. It’s fine, I tell myself. Machines can have demons, too.


“You won’t remember much from this part of your life,” says my psychiatrist, and she’s right: I lose the good parts of the Race Street house and Updike’s Rabbit, Run; I lose the route to the grocery store; spring; context for the few photos I have from March. Kaomi took one of them. In it, I am asleep in bed, swaddled in cats. Animals can sense fragility, and those were strange, crumbly times.

I pass the Montreal Cognitive Assessment twenty-two times between February and June. Subtract by seven, five times, beginning with one hundred: 93, 86, 79, 72, 65. Repeat: “I only know that John is the one to help today.” Remember these words: “Face. Velvet. Church. Daisy. Red.”

(It’ll be almost three years before I begin to feel perceptive again. Three years of vapor, of misidentifying concepts, of “please remind me.” I’ll feel robbed of retention, sharpness. Humor. Time. I’ll hallucinate a man standing on the back porch and wonder if it was worth it, the cost of the anesthesia, of experiencing the same repeated five-minute nullity as Pirsig, Plath, Wallace, Hemingway. I’ll think of mental wellness as recursive, like writing.)

“Can you repeat the words to me?”


On June 21, 2018, after a procedural three hours in recovery, I have breakfast with my father in the medical plaza’s cafeteria. I ask him where I am and what I am doing here, if I’ve undergone this procedure in the past.

“Yes,” he says, for the twenty-second time. “Yes, we have done this before.”

 


MARILYN HOPE is a queer writer and visual artist who studied English literature at the University of Denver, where she was a recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize. Her watercolor and oil portraits were featured in Chapiteux’s 2016 Winter Solstice Art Showcase. In 2019, she received first place in the CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, and has recently completed a speculative fiction manuscript. She has work forthcoming in Mud Season Review.

 

Featured image by Hans Eiskon courtesy of Unsplash

 

Author’s Note

My father and my friends helped me cobble together this narrative through paperwork and memories, and it was a very therapeutic and painful exercise for all of us. I deeply appreciate each person’s willingness to return to such a stressful time in our lives. The last three years have been blurry, and writing this piece felt like a constructive and appropriate way to actualize them, especially since the only real record I have of that confused time is my writing. None of it speaks to the emotional and cerebral cloudiness I experienced at the time, and I’m glad for that. It’s comforting to believe I was faking focus in at least one area of my life.

I never thought I’d talk about myself in the same breath as David Foster Wallace and Sylvia Plath, and I’m still embarrassed to have the nerve, but it’s true that a large number of my favorite authors have had electroconvulsive therapy after years of difficulties with their mental health. Their challenges include depression, psychotic disorders, and self-harm. Obsession with detail, too, and I’m far from the first one to believe that perfectionism is a symptom of being a writer, or maybe writing is a symptom of being a perfectionist.

I think fellow creators would agree that this sensitivity is both a blessing and a curse. I suspect that most of them would refuse to part with this attention to detail and ability to be moved, if given the opportunity. It’s part pride and part prerequisite, maybe. I love that about writing, even when it makes me feel vulnerable or interrupted.

After writing “Face, Velvet, Church, Daisy, Red,” I don’t think any creative nonfiction is “safe.” I have only written one other piece that falls in this genre, and even though it was an innocuous two-thousand words about my high school marching band, it made me feel terribly overexposed. Writing, for me, is partly about escapism, and creative nonfiction is its antithesis in several ways that involve a revisitation, stylization, or “dressing up and down” of reality. People who admit to factual honesty when they create open themselves up to a type of defenselessness that I find very courageous. I thank every writer who is willing to do this. The world is better for your candor.

 


MARILYN HOPE is a queer writer and visual artist who studied English literature at the University of Denver, where she was a recipient of the Academy of American Poets Prize. Her watercolor and oil portraits were featured in Chapiteux’s 2016 Winter Solstice Art Showcase. In 2019, she received first place in the CRAFT Short Fiction Prize, and has recently completed a speculative fiction manuscript. She has work forthcoming in Mud Season Review.