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schizophrenia and the writer: the curse of the self

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Certainty kills one’s curiosity and blinds one’s mind’s eye to the wondrous questions we need to ask ourselves as we write. Uncertainty should be our guide. Likewise self-doubt is something all serious writers worth their salt wrestle with. Without some self-doubt and uncertainty one would descend into a self-satisfied mediocrity. Yet for someone who endures the ruin of madness self-doubt can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Here is a conversation between my two voices:

Look at the slutty, slutty, slag, bitch, Sandra, rails Tweedledum. What a fucking hopeless loser, the bitch should kill herself, says Tweedledee. Yeah, the bitch should kill herself now, pipes in Tweedledum. She thinks people like her, mocks Tweedledee. Her body oozes evil, she’s all impurity, a gross pox on everyone, pronounces Tweedledum. Kill yourself now bitch before you destroy the world, yells Tweedledee. She pretends to write, the pathetic bitch, her words are vermin, feeble, pitiable, hag, slag, doggerel witch, spits Tweedledum.

Schizophrenia is tantamount to mind rape or worse, it is the soul consuming itself leaving a hardly recognisable shell. A psychotic episode is a hideous nightmare from which you cannot wake. One could be a twisted creature in a Brueghel or Bosch painting, or a dissonant set of notes in a Webern quartet. One is lost in a Kafkaesque world of bizarre and peculiar places where shadows come to life. Psychosis is a horror story, a fantasy of demons and angels, a pageant of lively characters from a side-show, a procession of heroes and villains sent to give cosmic messages. We are shades from the underworld and prophets of the apocalypse. We are poets of the mad mind’s eye seeing the world through a prism of distorted darkness and light. In madness we can appear inspired because our imaginations are in overdrive; we are at the limits of our creative capacity. However, psychosis is a deranged work of art where ultimately it is only meaningful to the person who created it. It is a world we are unable to share with the rest as we are lost to the hallucinatory fervour of a fractured mind.

The self-doubt I suffer is magnified one hundred-fold by the constant carping and denigration of my voices and the imposition of distorted, delusional thinking. When I write I struggle with an awful sense of worthlessness. Who cares about the ravings of a madwoman? Mental illness strikes at the very core of who we are. One’s confidence is eroded away. If I have a mind I cannot trust because it has taken me to unimaginable places where pure terror invades every waking moment, how can I trust it to create a piece of prose or a poem? What compels me to start writing and what keeps me going?

It is the wondrous alchemy of creativity that makes me write. When I am compelled by a force which is sometimes more powerful than my madness to delve the well of experience, it is irresistible. The excitement of being captured by the creative spirit can never be underestimated. Being in the moment of a poem, in spite of my mind’s tricks and deception, is to feel fulfilled. And such fulfilment is enough to want for more. I have a world I do want to share with others. Much of my writing has been to interrogate the mad world and make sense of it. My poetry has been a window through which others can see the machinations of the mad mind. Surprisingly to me there has been validation of my work which has to be weighed up against the destructive scorn of my voices.

Here is part of a review by Samantha Ryan of my first book of poetry, Poems from the Madhouse, first published by Spinifex Press in 1993:

The poetry goes beyond catharsis…beyond a description of the terror and emotional anguish of schizophrenia…to a creation of poems which are touching and ethereal…The eloquence and sensitivity of thought and language in Jeffs’ poems make the reality of schizophrenia vividly real. Jeffs’ poetry gives the frustrated and often unheard pleas for understanding from the mentally ill a new, clearer and poignantly beautiful voice.

If I were to listen to my voices then I am the most heinous woman that walked the earth with nothing to offer the world except my contaminating body and the pestilence that I will eventually bring upon everyone and everything around me. Yet the review depicts a completely different person. It shows someone who writes poetry that reaches out and touches people in a positive and profound way and has something worthwhile to offer the world. How to reconcile the hag, slag, doggerel witch with the poet who writes a poignantly beautiful voice? Indeed, who to believe?

By Sandy Jeffs

For Sandy Jeffs, a diagnosis of schizophrenia in 1976 was tantamount to a death sentence. She was an inpatient at both the Parkville Psychiatric Unit and the Queen Victoria Hospital. In the opinion of one of her doctors, she was a “walking contradiction, capable of many things, but of nothing.” Despite this setback, she has written five books of poetry and one memoir. She has been shortlisted for The Age Book of the Year Award, received the SANE Book of the Year Award, and a Commendation in the Australian Human Rights Awards. She is a community educator who speaks to schools, universities and community groups about what it’s like to live with a mental illness. 

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