Interview with Marin Sardy

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Marin Sardy’s essay, “There Is the Urge to Find Meaning,” was published in Sweet’s 8.3 issue, and since then has developed into a riveting new memoir titled The Edge of Everyday: Sketches of Schizophrenia. Sardy’s new memoir confronts her lifelong connection with mental illness, the effect mental illness had on her family, and how she learned to understand these relationships. In this interview, Marin discusses these themes along with the writing process before and after grief, femininity, and mental health today.

When writing this memoir, and dealing with strong themes such as mental health, personal identity, and family dynamics, what was the writing process like? How did you decide which memories to write about and which to leave out?

For one thing, in order to frame and balance the intense personal stories I tell in the book, a lot of my process involved research on schizophrenia—science, medicine, history, philosophy—which was incredibly helpful in anchoring my experiences, since it’s such a difficult and misunderstood topic. Previously, most of my knowledge of schizophrenia came from direct observation and interaction with my mother and brother, so the research gave me a framework in which to think about how the illness has affected us all. And I felt it was important to speak responsibly about schizophrenia—to not accidentally promote stereotypes or misinformation, for instance. And I needed to think deeply about the illness in order to understand how to do that.

Deciding which memories to include was in some ways very intuitive for me, but it also had to do with finding the right pairings between personal material and other topics. For one, I went with what felt necessary in the moment. But also, I developed a process in which I would start with usually two topics, one personal and one external—my brother’s death and deep sea ecology, for instance, in “Nix.” Then the pairing became an organizing principle, guiding me in determining what was relevant. I just followed my own musings to make these choices. After my brother died, I kept having visions of the bottom of the ocean—it felt urgent and seemed to symbolize something to me about his life and death. I suppose that’s how my mind works. I often experience ideas as kind of dream-like images before I actually find the words for them. So I started studying the ocean floor, watching nature videos and reading science articles and taking notes. Eventually one day I understood that this could help me talk about how I coped with my brother’s suicide.

I’ve tried a number of times to write about aspects of my life that didn’t feel pressing at the moment of writing, but I always find they end up feeling flat. I once met a poet, an older woman (whose name I’m sorry to say I no longer remember; it was a long time ago) who said, “Never try to write about something that you’ve already worked through and sorted out in your mind. It will be dead on the page. It has to be alive inside you at the time of writing.” So I’ve actively resisted the kind of narrative shaping that requires getting into things that haven’t grown from what was alive inside me at the moment of writing (aside from what’s necessary to keep readers from getting totally lost, of course).

And I think that has allowed for delving deeper into the moments that still do resonate with me deeply. I’d rather follow the ripple effects of events in my life, doggedly, to see where they lead. When I write I’m always pursuing a question. For much of my book, it was: Why did my brother die? And to answer that in any way that felt remotely adequate, I needed to go all the way back to my great-grandmother and the multigenerational lineage of mental illness in my family. This is the part of the process that stimulates me intellectually the most—finding the connections between my life and other topics that interest me and weaving them together in ways that are revealing and surprising. And I find that this feels truer to the way my life has unfolded: Schizophrenia has always been this sad thing happening, but often it’s been in the background while I focus on other things. I wanted my book to capture that multifaceted quality and not focus too tightly on a single topic.

One aspect of mental health that you discuss in the book is mental health resources- in Vagabond you discuss the disappointment you felt because of the mental health system and then in That Fragile Space you write about two public programs developed to help the mentally ill, which were not implemented yet while Tom was alive. Do you think the country is moving in the right direction when it comes to mental health? What problems do you think still need to be addressed?

I do think this country is moving in the right direction, but there remain enormous barriers that prevent people with schizophrenia from receiving adequate treatment and care. The place where I see the most positive change is in the cultural realm. There’s an exciting pushback happening against stigmatization of mental illness, which has gained traction in the last decade or so. I see organizations popping up on college campuses, educating students about mental health and suicide prevention and encouraging people to not be ashamed to have a mental health diagnosis. This is wonderful—I think about what might have been different if my brother could have felt, when he was in college and his symptoms were just beginning to emerge, that he could talk freely and openly about what he was going through. But I’ve also noticed that this increased awareness rarely extends to schizophrenia. One organization, for instance, didn’t have the words “psychosis” or “schizophrenia” anywhere on their website, although nearly a dozen other conditions and symptoms were discussed in very empowering ways. I was like, Oh I guess it’s still not okay to say schizophrenia out loud. So I’d really like to get to where we can stop sweeping it under the rug like that.

That said, the inadequacies and failings of the mental health care system, particularly as relates to people with not only schizophrenia but any severe and persistent mental illness, are still dramatic—and frankly horrifying. Many people, like my brother, end up in solitary confinement in correctional facilities, where they only deteriorate further. And this occurs in no small part because there are simply not enough psychiatric beds, not enough funds, not enough housing facilities, etc. to allow people with schizophrenia to get enough consistent care to actually make a difference in the long-term course of their lives. Our insurance system is largely to blame for this, with hospitals unable to allow patients to stay long enough to truly get stabilized because insurance companies won’t cover it. The current insurance system also undervalues non-medication treatments, which can be life-changing for people with schizophrenia. The lack of political will to provide public funding is also a big part of it, especially for the uninsured. And there’s no excuse for that. The fact that this kind of help is often made unavailable for financial reasons goes far beyond stigmatization; it’s flat-out discrimination.

And lastly, I’d like to see a shift toward thinking about mental illness as a family issue. Our culture has long framed schizophrenia in individual terms, the classic image being a patient on a psych ward, known only to the doctors, receiving no visitors, having no connections to the outside world. But this is simply not the reality anymore—if it ever was. People with schizophrenia are loved. They have people who care about them and want to help them, and their illness harms lives beyond their own. Mental health providers do understand that family support is integral to recovery for people with schizophrenia, but resources to educate and empower family members to care for them, and to care for themselves in the face of the enormous stresses involved, are still paltry.

 

Marin Book Photo

You talk about your personal struggle with femininity and the female body in the essay Break My Body. How has your relationship with your body and female identity changed since your adolescence? Did writing this memoir change that relationship, or teach you anything about your identity as a woman?

I think my relationship to my femaleness can be described as a long, slow evolution away from understanding myself in terms of anyone else’s notions of what it means to be female. On some level I feel that, at my core, my relationship to my female identity is exactly the same as it was in adolescence. I see myself just as myself, first and foremost, and always have. But back then I didn’t know what to do with that. I was never very invested in being what others wanted, but for a long time, I didn’t know I had a choice. I didn’t know I could choose not to perform femininity as I was taught it should be performed—and I wasn’t taught a very hardcore version of femininity, but it was something imposed on me externally nonetheless. I wrote Break My Body in part as a way of rebelling against the idea that I need to have any sort of relationship at all with “femininity.” I don’t even understand what the word means. All it is to me is other people talking. The term is so loaded with the weight of oppression, so built around the male gaze, I can’t even picture what it can or should mean in a context that does not place men at its center. It feels too external to the realities of being female. Which is why I prefer to say “femaleness,” which to me gets at the inner experience of being female. And I have always felt myself to be definitely female, but not really in any way that I can easily point to in anyone else.

The writing of BMB occurred when I was finally becoming able to articulate these feelings, and it was a great relief and a great discovery to get it down on the page. It was first published as an essay, in Guernica, and when it went live I was honestly worried that other women wouldn’t relate to it. I just thought, maybe other women are so much more comfortable in their femaleness than I am. Maybe they’re going to be mad at me for talking about my ambivalence. But the response was the opposite—women posting on social media saying they felt it deeply, they saw themselves in the essay, etc. So that was incredibly validating and rewarding. I think we as a society are still figuring out that women can be as many different things, in as many different ways, as men can. I feel like I’ve been understanding that more deeply in tandem with a lot of other women.

You express throughout the book how your family members viewed and were affected by mental illness (either directly or indirectly) specifically in the chapter titled Conversations with Family. How has mental illness impacted your family’s relationship specifically between you and your father? Through your losses do you think your family is closer, or has it caused tension?

My younger sister, my brother, and I were definitely brought closer together by our mother’s schizophrenia. Living with her, we had to look out for each other and to collectively look out for her as well. And this created between us a loyalty and trust that felt unshakeable, which is part of why it was so devastating for me when Tom became ill.

But overall, in my family, schizophrenia has caused far more tension and distancing than closeness. And I think this is, unfortunately, typical. Witnessing a loved one descend into psychosis is an extremely traumatic experience, and with schizophrenia, it’s rarely an experience that just passes. It stays with you, it keeps happening, a lifelong thing. And people often just do not know how to cope with this and so yes, it can drive them apart. The denial that occurs on every level is part of this, and one thing I wanted to make clear in Conversations was how pervasive denial can be. And also, how mundane it is—even when you accept that a loved one has schizophrenia, there are so many ways to be in denial about their circumstances or about the implications. And of course, when you don’t know what to do and can’t figure out any way to make a difference, denial can protect you from your own suffering. So everyone ends up with their own private take on what’s happening, and everyone also has different ideas about how to help and what will work. And then there’s just the extraordinary stress and pressure involved in watching someone suffer. And all of that contributes to tensions, which is very true of my father and me. I do suspect he and I would have an easier relationship, in a life without schizophrenia. But the illness has been profoundly shaping both of our lives for 35 years, ever since my mother became ill, so I don’t know that it’s even possible to guess what kind of relationship we’d have without its influence.

You mention not being able to write for a long time after Tom died. How did you overcome this grief? Was there a spark that allowed you to start writing again? How was the writing process different after experiencing this loss than it was before?

I don’t really know how I started to be able to write again, but it was a slow and sporadic change. At first I just worked in occasional, short bursts. And I didn’t write about mental illness for a few years. During that time, I wrote about Tom’s death but not his life, and I wrote about other things that didn’t at first seem connected to mental illness, but which I later realized were very connected to it. Most of that stuff found its way into the book eventually.

I don’t think I overcame the grief so much as I eventually journeyed all the way through it. And writing the chapters about Tom in the book were part of that journeying. In the final two years of working on the book, I felt completely and deeply haunted by my brother. I had an image of him as a ghost in my house—not my actual house but a house like you might see in a dream, the house of myself, maybe—and I had a sense that I needed to find a way to exorcise his ghost. But I knew I couldn’t do that—couldn’t tell him to go, demand that he go—unless I also offered him something in return. The Vagabond chapters became that offering, because I felt I owed it to him to tell the world what happened to him. And once I had done that, once I had done him justice on the page and made sure everyone could understand exactly how much he didn’t deserve his fate, I felt like I could be okay with letting go. And perhaps more importantly, I could not move on from the loss of him until I could be assured that he wouldn’t be forgotten, and that his suffering wouldn’t be for nothing.

Almost 20% of the country struggles with mental illness to some degree. What did writing this memoir teach you about either your relationship to mental health, or mental health on a broader scale? What advice would you give to families who care for someone fighting a mental illness?

Wow, so much. In the book I talk about my effort to understand what it feels like to have schizophrenia—wanting to connect more deeply to my mom and brother’s experiences of psychosis, delving into how psychosis reshapes experience and alters time. And one thing I learned, maybe the biggest, had to do with my own ideas about schizophrenia’s supposed incomprehensibility. The more I have studied and read and written about it, the more I think that’s just a story people tell. There is a tendency to set schizophrenia apart, to treat it as some kind of other order of phenomenon. It is a mythical illness. And while it is clearly unique in many ways, I think we’ve largely let its mythos overtake its reality. It’s not even a rare condition. So what I’m coming away with lately is that I think it’s time to start letting schizophrenia, and psychosis, be ordinary. Not to diminish its intensity and difficulty, but to think of it along the same lines as, say, cancer or diabetes. They’re just things that happen to people sometimes, just part of being human.

For families with loved ones struggling with any kind of mental illness, I would recommend putting in the necessary work to understand as much as they possibly can about it, as well as putting in the work to really listen to their loved ones. People start at such a deficit of not only basic knowledge but of how to conceptualize the mind and brain, and getting a handle on that is important. Beyond that, what families can and should do varies dramatically depending on the illness. Often, finding healthy ways to keep struggling loved ones connected to the support of friends and family is also key. It can be difficult to maintain healthy boundaries when mental illness is involved. There are no easy answers. But I think education and connection can go a long way toward finding what works best for each situation.

Your time as a gymnast and your love for the sport play a large role in your memoir, so hypothetically if you could put together your five woman dream team for gymnastics (dead or alive, competing or retired) who would be on your team?

I love this. As anyone who reads the chapter “A World of Absolute Order” will know, I can’t simply go with who I think would get the highest scores, because that would be boring. But even the brightest stars of the ’70s and ’80s (like Olga Korbut and Nadia Comenici) can’t hold a candle to what’s being done in the 21st century, so I won’t include them. I’ll pick gymnasts who could handle great difficulty and who did so with beauty and flair—who in some way have made the sport their own.

For vaulting prowess, I’m going with Yelena Produnova (’00 Olympics), inventor and best-ever practitioner of the infamous “vault of death”—the dangerous and nearly impossible Produnova. Even twenty years later, few have ever landed it in competition. For bars expertise, I’ll choose the Chinese miracle He Kexin (’08 and ’12). Her routines were breathtakingly fluid and always surprising. For beam, it’s got to be Nastia Liukin (’08), the American daughter of two former Soviet champions. She was stunning—elegant, impeccable, and completely original. For floor, as much as I would love to choose Svetlana Boginskaya (’88, ’92, and ’96), the Goddess herself, her routines were just too easy compared to what’s being done now. So I’ll give this one to Aly Raisman (’12 and ’16), whose tumbling was top-level but who also performed with personality, grace, and a good dose of flash. And as team captain, I appoint Oksana Chusovitina, for sheer longevity. Once a Soviet great, she has competed in seven Olympics (’92, ’96, ’00, ’04, ’08, ’12, and ’16), most recently for her home country of Uzbekistan, at the age of 43, against gymnasts younger than her son.

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