Autoethnopathography: 3, Messy Texts

February 7th

The challenge of telling any story truthfully is to be open about which parts of the story will not be told, which perspectives will be left out, which details will be omitted. I have tried, on a few occasions to record every aspect of my subjective experience as I move through an entire day, but I often ‎only manage to write my way through a small segment of morning, thousands of words to describe a seemingly uneventful drive to work, a woman in her car, listening to the radio as the sun comes up over corn fields, felled to jagged stalks in the winter frost, and the fog hugs the mountains like ghosts.

There are always parts of the story that are left out.

(…I am sitting in that old white rocker, with a cigarette between my fingers, typing with my thumbs, holding a phone while the black and white dog walks around down in the yard that we need to clean up, we need to clean up. My hair is mussed and I can see it around my face, brown and gold, a lot of sun this morning, I am not yet old, but my mouth is sour and I don’t feel especially young, or healthy. I remember, this morning, I thought for a moment that I might be getting cagey with this project in an effort to avoid the reality of how much I am still struggling to find my way back to a life in which I can feel at ease, a life that I am able to be myself. I still wonder sometimes if I should, after all, just let it go, tuck it into a seldom-mentioned past, sever that part of myself that believed so heartily, so thoroughly in the beauty of the world, the miracle of story. How can I do that? Why should I do that?)

I flipped through Appendix I, in Carolyn Ellis’ (2004) The Ethnographic I: A Methodological Novel About Autoethnography, which includes a number of lessons and exercises in the context of Ellis’ autoethnographic story about teaching a class on autoethnography. Guidelines for Personal Writing Papers.

“Hmmm, seems to be a lot about coherence here…”

I felt my doubt rise, the increasingly familiar fear that maybe my mind doesn’t work so well as it used to, that I am not as able to think as clearly I could, hold so many different things in mind, communicate with such seeming ease, or – at the very least – less effort than is currently required in simply having an everyday sort of conversation.

Sitting on the old red couch, I made a slightly audible sound of wry amusement – “Heh.” – reading through the guidelines. I could have saved myself a lot of squinting and agonizing, thousands of words, had I read these appendices a few days ago.

30. Think about the ethical issues in doing your project. Protect the identities of your characters, where appropriate. Use pseudonyms when necessary. Get consent if possible. Be aware of ethical issues involved in writing about people who don’t want to be written about. (Ellis, 2004, p. 367)

I don’t think I have admitted that I am scared, that this project intimidates me, challenges me. I don’t know why I am nervous; I guess I know that this project is important, even if I can conceptualize a reality in which this project and the stories that will be told through this project don’t matter at all, not in the slightest. I can imagine a possible world for myself in which I am able to forget what happened, think more slowly, settle into a life of little storytelling.

It would not, at this point, take much for me to disappear entirely from the consciousness of the networks that I am a part of, become an only occasionally remembered figment, a partial self, poorly recalled, confused with other people who had come around for a while, people who had been momentary bright spots in a constellation, folks who had faded after a few seasons, disappeared.

I could just work at my job as a peer in a state-funded recovery education center in the western region of a southern state, over in the mountains, and spend time with my kids, only talk with family and work on learning how to make better hats, paint pictures and know that I don’t need to post them on Facebook in order to prove my existence.

I know that I don’t have to do this project. I don’t even need to finish my degree. It’s just something that seems like it would not be a particularly terrible thing to do, something that might be useful and offer some resolution to my heretofore unending status as a graduate school drop-out. It wouldn’t be particularly bizarre for me to accept that I could not/did not finish my degree, that I tried multiple times, but that it just didn’t happen; I just couldn’t do it. I dropped out of highschool, too, after genuinely trying to tolerate it and to learn something that I couldn’t learn anywhere else, other than how to put up with daily aggressions and assaults upon one’s consciousness, body, and senses.

I think that I will be able to finish this degree, if only because autoethnography exists.

Today, I picked up the copy of Denzin’s (2014) Interpretive Autoethnography, and found myself on page 39, which includes the following passage:

“A deconstructive autoethnography problematizes the writer’s authority and all-knowing presence in the text, We seek de-authorizing devices, such as messy texts, shifting counter-voices, voices talking over or past one another, split texts, stuttering voices, repetitions, silences, mimicry, exaggerations, mischief-making talk that disrupts and disguises itself.”

“Well,” I thought, “thank god for that.”

Autoethnopathography: 2, The Validity of Voice

I am not saying that I wasn’t mad, nor am I questioning the matter of my having met diagnostic criteria, as outlined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, IV-Text Revision, for w/ psychotic features.  I am saying that there are many different words that could have been applied to my experience. The term psychosis is a problematic word, because it doesn’t do what words are supposed to do, which is offer explanatory and definitive information about a state, place, or thing.

Psychosis indicates or suggests the experience of states of reality that are non-usual and disruptive of cohesion with consensus reality. That tells me very little about the actual subjective state of the individual, what the individual is actually experiencing, and what it feels like to be within those uniquely, deeply personal experiences, what their world is like.

Because this word – psychosis  – is attached to me – the researcher – in medical records, in writings, in quiet-voiced conversations about who I am, what my story is, I feel like I have a right to question this word, to put it into quotations, to place qualifiers and excluders around it, to reinforce, again and again, that this is the word that was applied to me, that this word does not necessarily say anything about me.

This word, attached to me, communicates that at some point, in someone’s perspective, I possessed a mind that does not hold well to the agreed upon and socially acceptable reality, a mind which may become unreliable. This suggestion has the propensity to functionally undermine my validity as a thinker in the formal realms of thought.

I am able to imagine that I can imagine the perspective of a traditionally (c. 1950-recent past) trained psychiatrist, as such perspectives have been placed on me many times. I cannot seem to get those psychiatric perspectives out of my head and so I think I know what the anonymous they, the generalized they, the un-nuanced they, might think.

“Here is a person, oh unfortunate and delusional person, so clearly intelligent, but – oh – you can see the effects of the illness in the expression. Can you believe that this person thought such things, thought in such ways? The loose association is apparent, the evidence of delusion. This person is caught in the illness. This person needs treatment. This person should be on medication, these symptoms are not desirable. A person cannot exist with such illness unabated. It is too dangerous.”

Okay, maybe I went a little over the top there at the end. That’s been known to happen, to bound from reasonable surmise to hyperbolic alarmism, the current of fear that pushes the perspective, compels the lens.

Are some thoughts dangerous? Is it dangerous to inhabit certain realities?

I am not suggesting that it is not, I am asking if it is.

I am not suggesting that my thoughts are not always ordered in the usual way, and that my attentions are not always attuned to the things that people would like my attentions to be attuned to. I am not saying that I am not prone to experience somewhat altered states of consciousness and ruptures of reality.  I am saying that I don’t think that tendency in my ways of being necessarily discredits my voice or diminishes the value of my experiences as part of my own story and also as part of larger social and cultural phenomena related to sanity and stigma.

Part of the complication of telling one’s story in a way that is going to be remotely representative of anything real about a person is that there is – at the end of the day, as in the beginning, driving to work – simply too much to tell, some of which I have no right to tell. So, my current state of confoundment as to how to proceed with this is not only a matter of doubting my own mind, my own ability, both out of stigma and due to the reality that I genuinely am troubled by my seeming inability – without great effort and discomfort – to write a coherent narrative of self and intent, a simple overview, an outline, a list of references.