Please welcome guest author Gary Carden. Carden’s autobiographical “Mason Jars in the Flood” received the AWA Book of the Year Award in 2001. He received the NC Folklore Award in 2004, and an honorary doctorate by Western Carolina University in 2008. In 2012 he was awarded the North Carolina Literature Award….the highest honor awarded by the NC Arts Council to an individual.
Robin Williams has been much on my mind because, like him, I suffer from depression. Compared to Robin Williams, my talents are small, but I sense an empathy.
As a child, I always felt like a visitor. I think this is a familiar experience for all abandoned children. I had lost both my father and my mother, and although I was clothed and fed by my grandparents, I always had the feeling that I was not “of the family.” I was never embraced or treated with affection, but this is a familiar experience to many Appalachian children.
When I told my grandmother about the demonstrations of affection I witnessed in the homes of my playmates, she said, “Get used to it, Gar Nell. We are not huggers and kissers.” Indeed, they weren’t. The only time I saw my grandmother embrace her own children was when Uncle Albert came home from the Navy and she hugged him when he appeared on the porch with his big duffle bag. I remember that day vividly as it was Christmas Day.
My first encounter with movies was disturbing since they were filled with demonstrations of affection for both children and family members. I remember my grandmother weeping in the movie, “How Green Is My Valley,” when Roddy McDowell was badly beaten by a brutal teacher. Ironically, the same thing happened to me in (I think) 7th grade when an unstable teacher beat me with a broomstick until I fainted. Did this really happen? Yes, it did.
I remember fantasizing about my uncles rushing to the school like Roddy McDowell’s older brothers and taking vengeance on the teacher, but that didn’t happen. Now, at this late date, I actually wonder if I told anyone. Like many children who are abused by bullies and teachers, I remember feeling that I had been justly punished. That wasn’t true. The beating, as I remember it now, was an act of terrifying rage and it only stopped when another teacher (Miss Gisler) intervened. My offense was that I had arrived late, and finding the hall door locked, I …rattled it.
Make no mistake about it, I had a wonderful childhood filled with books (and Sadie Luck, a librarian whom I loved), movies, eccentric relatives, comics, radio shows and a few uncles who took an interest in me (especially one named Stoogie, my mother’s brother who came home on furloughs and took me on wild trips to carnivals, the Indian Fair, and movies, and who gave me a “pink radio” that he won at BINGO.) He let me ride the Ferris wheel until I threw up, and I loved it.
The only serious flaws were personal …. a sense of being an “inconvenience,” a painful shyness and a sense of guilt for being what I was. I had an aunt who often assured me that I was stupid and inept, but there was another one (Ruby, my mother’s sister) who took me to my first movies and bought me stacks of comic books. There were reaffirming experiences, like the first play I was in, the discovery that I had a talent for telling stories and that people “paid attention to me.” Being a part of theatrical productions in college was a kind of miracle, and although I went to college on a vocational rehabilitation scholarship (I had a touch of polio and a spinal curvature), even this had a dual effect. I was able to go to college and become a teacher…..yet, I was reminded that I was “defective.”
Let me sum all of this up by saying that I have had a full and rich life. I loved teaching and I think I thrived in the classroom although some of my most painful experiences took place while I was teaching. Probably, my most gratifying experiences happened when I worked for the Eastern Band of the Cherokees (15 years)….yet, always, there was a darkness that began occurring with growing frequency and it was always linked with a sense of being …irrelevant. Usually, this simply lead to a kind of desperation that prompted me to take on difficult projects…what some psychiatrists called an “overachiever” complex. I began to have anxiety attacks and was plagued by sleeplessness.
I began to have episodes of uncontrollable weeping. They would take me by surprise, frequently when I was driving. I had an image of being “filled with tears” like an overflowing container and I had to guard against an attack that would cause the tears to spill over. While I was working as a grants writer for Region A in Bryson City, I would sometimes pull off the road with weeping bouts. I was deeply ashamed. This kind of weeping is a sign of weakness. Sometimes, I would be overcome by the belief that the world was a vast pit of misery and I would be overcome by images of cruelty, especially the suffering of animals that were being slaughtered all over the world and that if I listened I could hear their cries.
Once, when I was driving through Granny Squirrel Gap, I had the sensation that I had “surprised” the world by driving into a section that was not “ready” for my appearance and there was a void there. Then, the world began to
appear again…..mountains, color, the river, etc. And I thought that actually there was nothing there until I blundered into a world that was frantically trying to “create” itself before I saw the truth.
I once ended up in a crisis center at Pardee because I finally stopped functioning. There was a period where too much happened. I was divorced, then I lost all of my teeth and could no longer speak clearly.
When my teeth were replaced, my station-wagon burned in a freak accident on Cowee and I lost all of my teaching notes (I was an Elderhostel teacher at the time). Suddenly, I was without transportation, and I lost my Elderhostel jobs. My clothes had burned in the fire, and without work, I began to rely on my credit cards.
Then I had a series of operations at the hospital, and I was home, out of work and deeply in debt when I suddenly hit on a solution. I would quit. I did. I was living alone when I began to have the sense that “something” was living with me. It was dark and existed just out of the range of my vision, but it followed me from room to room and when I sat on the couch, it sat with me. The phone would ring, but I was unable to talk. For almost a week, I sat on the couch only rising to go to the bathroom.
This is where another storyteller found me. Marilyn McMinn McCredie called my mental health advisor, who advised that I be placed in a crisis center. The first two that Marilyn contacted were filled to capacity, but Pardee accepted me provided that I come immediately. It was not an easy process, and when we got to Pardee, there was a line of potential patients that extended out of the hospital and across the parking lot….people in bathrobes with their toothbrushes.
I stayed a week in a room with the lights on, the door open and a nurse’s station across the hall. I was considered “at risk.” There were sessions with psychiatrists, group therapy, medication, etc. I was content because all of those problems had gone away……or at least, they were at home.
After a week, they told me that I had to leave because “they needed the bed.” I asked if I was “cured” and they said no, but I had to leave anyway because there were others in worse shape than I was.
I asked, half joking, “What if I refuse to leave?” and they replied, half-joking, that their security officer would take care of that. I called a friend, Mary Wilson, to come and get me and I came back to a world of debts, work and hungry pets. I decided to stop taking my anti-depressants…Zoloft, lithium, Prozac… because although they banished depression, they left me a grinning fool who could not read a book, watch a movie or carry on a discussion because all required the ability to remember what was just said.
That took a while.
I was urged to find a replacement for the drugs…..what would that be? Work, distraction. I began to paint. Acrylics on cardboard. It seemed to work. I did some sixty paintings…all large, foolish, cartoonish.
I gave some away and then people began to buy them. I began to tell stories. I wrote several plays and one of them was filmed and went to PBS. So here I am. Nothing dark follows me from room to room now, but I suspect that it has merely moved to the attic. I am pretty sure that it is up there.