A Creative Mind in Crisis

Warning sign in Norway

My memoir, Hope and Other Luxuries, tells about my attempts to cope with my daughter Elena’s anorexia nervosa. But it also tells the story of my creative life from the beginning of my writing career. I’ve decided to share those sections of my memoir that deal with creativity, writing, and publishing here on my blog.

The episode below begins on page 159 and describes one of the worst nights of my life. Elena had just been medically evacuated from Germany to the United States. Her heart was very fragile. I had been staying with her in the ICU in Germany, where there was no bed for me, so I hadn’t slept in a couple of days. Elena’s new room in the United States was in a children’s hospital, and I had been thrilled to learn that there was a pullout bed in it for parents to use. We had just settled in, and I had taken out my contact lenses and lain down. (My vision is terrible without them.) Then Elena went into crisis. The staff raced her out of the room for tests and then raced her over to their ICU. I raced after them, almost drunk on sleep deprivation and barely able to see. None of us had any idea what was wrong.

But that’s not why this excerpt is here. It’s here because of what happens at the end. I routinely spend time with my characters in my imagination as a way to distract myself and calm myself down; it gets my head out of my daily worries. But during this horrible night, my imagination didn’t work properly. My characters, for the first time in my life, simply didn’t live.

I can’t express how bizarre this change felt. If my characters live in my books—if they seem like real people you could follow around—it’s because they’ve seemed real to me and I’ve followed them around for years. Before they come to life on the page, they’re alive in my mind.

But not that night. For the first time, most of my characters were the puppets readers imagine them to be.

This episode was a small taste of the severe writer’s block I developed later. That later writer’s block also came about as a response to a severe emotional shock. There is a relationship between good mental health and a properly working imagination. I don’t understand the technical aspects of it, but I’ve lived through what happens when good mental health goes away, and its effect on the imagination is devastating.

I suppose Jung would say that my character Marak is a manifestation of my animus. I’m well aware that the ugly goblin King is an important part of who I am.

Elena’s gurney stopped in a vast room without edges that I could see. A white shape detached itself from the vague scenery and approached me.

“You can’t stay here,” the shape told me. “No parents are allowed in the ICU at night.”

Completely bewildered, I tried to process this unexpected information. My brain felt for the edges of this new obstacle, but nothing like a useful idea came back. I couldn’t stay here: a big blank wall that my thoughts couldn’t get past. Dead end. It was a dead end. I was at the end.

“Where can I go?” I blurted out. “Where do I go?”

“There are waiting rooms and sleeping lounges,” answered the shape. Then it walked away.

I was standing beside the gurney. The only thing my poor eyesight could decode was the still form lying on it. Only my sleeping daughter had a face, half bad vision and half good memory: that face I had known and had watched for every quicksilver change of mood—for how many years now?


That face was the only familiar thing left in my scary world.

I leaned in, close enough to see the face clearly. My sparkly daughter. My youngest child. But the face didn’t move. It didn’t respond.

I didn’t think I could bear it. My heart was going to break.

“Elena,” I whispered. “Elena! Please come back.”

My daughter didn’t stir. She was breathing quietly, frowning slightly: still, remote, and utterly impassive.

I couldn’t help myself. I started to cry.

“Elena, please don’t leave me like this!” I whispered. “I’m alone here. I’m all alone. Please don’t do this to me. Please don’t leave me here alone.”

Elena’s eyes didn’t open. But she rolled over, like a sleeper who has been disturbed. One thin hand reached up to touch my face.

Then the white shape was back. “You need to leave now,” it said.

So I went.

I blundered out into deserted hallways, where featureless black night pressed up against the windows. Somewhere in this building was a foam bed with sheets on it, all made up for me, but I had no idea where that foam bed was. It didn’t occur to me, in my sleep-deprived state, that I could go back to that room and that they would let me sleep there, even though Elena was somewhere else. It didn’t occur to me that I could go to the front desk and ask for my daughter’s room number. I was beyond such practical thoughts.

So, once again, I wandered hospital halls, as I had done on the night Elena was born. I met no one. I recognized nothing. Nothing disturbed the misery of that journey.

Dark glass windows lined the wall to my left. Night. I glanced outside. But I wasn’t looking outside, I was looking inside, into an unlit room. My bad eyes could just make out rows of foam chairs like the one in Elena’s room by the window.

For a little while, my slow-moving brain computed. Then it spit out an actual thought:

This is a sleeping lounge. It’s here for people like me.

I found the door and tiptoed inside.

One other person was using the room. A man lay cocooned under a dark blue blanket nearby, on a foldout chair of his own. He had the blanket pulled up over his face. I tiptoed past him, found stacks of those same blue blankets near the wall, and located a pile of pillows as well. I took a set, tiptoed to a chair that seemed a suitable distance away from the sleeping stranger, and arranged myself for the rest of the night.

My waistband pinched. I hadn’t taken off my shoes. But I couldn’t do anything about that now. I had gone as far as I could. I rolled onto my side, hugged my purse like a teddy bear, and closed my eyes.

No one was there for me—not my family and not the collection of kind staff members I had left back in Elena’s hospital room. That hospital room now seemed like a star hovering in the dark sky nearby, and it formed a constellation with the other star, the room without edges that held Elena’s motionless body. I felt those stars, not intellectually, but viscerally, as points of reference toward which I could navigate. But my exhausted brain and body both agreed: I had no strength to reach them. Not anymore.

Those stars were sealed off from me. I would find no comfort there. So, in a last blind, muddled attempt to shield myself from bone-shaking loneliness, I reached into my mind, toward the characters who had been my friends and companions over the years.

But even my characters wouldn’t meet me halfway. They stood around the walls of the pale gallery of my imagination, half wax doll and half astonished, so influenced by my own state of shock that for the first time, they had no life in them.

Only Marak, the old, ugly goblin King, the oldest of my character children, still had the strength to come to my rescue. Only Marak, that brilliant, pitiless schemer, still had a mind of his own. He assessed me through his tangle of rough, striped hair, slightly amused and a little worried and very, very wise. Then he came and lay down beside me and wrapped his strong, bony arms around me, and I could feel his hands with their knotted fingers clasping my own hands as they clasped my purse.

I’m safe now, I thought with more optimism than logic. Marak will protect me. He’ll do the planning for me. That brilliant mind is never without a plan for long.

I closed my eyes and sank without a trace into the dark, sad, featureless night.

Text copyright 2015 by Clare B. Dunkle; text courtesy of Chronicle Books. Photo of a warning sign in Norway copyright 2014 by Joseph Dunkle. To read my latest blog posts, please click on the “Green and Pleasant Land” logo at the top of this page.

This entry was posted in Anorexia nervosa, Characters, Creativity, Hope and Other Luxuries, Jungian archetypes, Writer's block, Writing craft. Bookmark the permalink.

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