I posted a more shorter version of this a while back. Here it is in more polished form:
I wore contact lenses in my twenties and thirties, and even now in my fifties, contact lenses haunt me in my dreams at night. My eyes are blue, and so are these lenses tinted slightly blue, though some are brown; they appear in dusty corners of rooms, in the backs of drawers smelling like moth balls, rolled up in socks, in toilet bowls flushing around with piss, always in abundance–say, ten or twenty of them bunched together–and these lenses of my dreams are always larger than my eyeballs; or should I say they are larger than my “I,” because they represent a lie, namely, “No, I don’t wear glasses; I’m not one of them; I don’t have this appendage on my head that makes me look like I’ve got windows strapped to my face–no, not me!” I wanted to portray a picture of normalcy to the world, stating that my “eye,” or rather, “I,” saw clearly, I held the true view, the popular view. I was not ill. Delusion, after all, is belief in an unpopular idea, and I was made popular now that I had contact lenses. I was a geek no more.
To understand the immensity of my feelings, one has to understand the larger picture and come back with me to age seven, when I started wearing glasses. I had picked out baby blue teardrop frames with stars and sparkles at the temples; quite stylish–for a young girl in the early 1960’s, I suppose–and as soon as I tried them on at Gordon Optical, where my mother simply couldn’t stop talking to the owner, I was delighted that I could see again. And just as delighted was Miss MacDonald’s second grade class, because now they had someone to ridicule. Someone shouted, “Look, Julie Greene has glasses!” and the class burst into curdles of laughter, especially Robbie Blake because he was mean.
However, everyone sees the world through lenses, even Robbie Blake. If one doesn’t wear glasses or contact lenses, there is the lens in one’s eye that one looks through. The shape of this lens determines the sharpness of vision as does the shape of one’s eyeball. The lens focuses incoming light on the retina in the back of the eye–or doesn’t focus it–depending on how well your eyes work.
We see the world through the camera lens, which focuses light onto film for a split second, or records the light image on digital sensors. We see the world through the TV camera, which they say makes the one ten pounds heavier than one really is. They used to say that one shouldn’t watch TV for too long or too close or one may wither and go blind.
Miss MacDonald taught us the meaning of the words “fiction” and “nonfiction” as they applied to books in the library. As a second grader, I thought the distinction was clear, because the books were on separate shelves in the Franklin School library, unless some older kids played a trick and mixed them up. When I was an undergraduate, Bill Holinger, my first college fiction teacher, told our class that fiction is a lie and an exaggeration. I thought about this constantly that year. I say memoir is the biggest lie and exaggeration of all–it has to be, because of the “I” factor. Memoir is written by “I” who has eyes that have their own peculiar lenses; although “I”’s vision may be what they call “normal,” who’s to say that what “I” sees is the same as what “you” or “he” or “they” see? Do we really know what Robbie Blake perceived when he saw me wearing glasses for the first time? He may have seen something ten times funnier than I looked to others. Do we really know that dogs don’t see in color? One thing we can say is that in memoir, the “I,” as the one with the eyes, the eyewitness, the point of view character, and letter of the alphabet is taller than “you” or “she” or “them.” There is no such thing as “creative nonfiction,” nonfiction, portraiture, or even photography without lies because of the different lenses–and therefore the minds behind the lenses–that we all see through.
Hypergraphia is a psychiatric term meaning the “overwhelming desire to write.” It has been said that Vincent van Gogh had this characteristic, as did composer Alan Hovhaness. When I have been very ill I have written compulsively for hours on end. Was I writing to cope with my mental illness, or was I compulsively writing because talented people are driven to develop their abilities? I wrote voluminously in my journal at the time, but I also wrote a handful of essays.
Here’s a short one:
“The following are reasons to disbelieve in God:
Life is unfair.
Bad things happen for no apparent reason.
Good things happen for no apparent reason.
Self-control is useless.
Nature is cruel.
It is through our suffering that we are healed.
The above are also reasons to believe, with all conviction, in the power and love of God.”
Shortly after writing this essay, I stopped wearing contact lenses and went back to glasses.
Writing is a way of deciphering what we see, and rehearsing our lives. The Bible is a work of creative nonfiction. Someone needed to decipher what he or she saw, and needed to rehearse his or her life. We read the book. Religion is belief in something that cannot be scientifically proven to exist.
Delusion is belief in an unpopular idea. Some say people with mental illnesses are looking through the wrong lens, or the lenses they have don’t work right. The answer is one or more of various “cures” for the eyes to make sure the ill person sees clearly, just like everyone else does, free from the unpopular ideas he or she previously held, free from what the majority may feel are delusions.
Rebels may argue, “Who is to say which is the correct lens? Perhaps the world is topsy-turvy! There is no such thing as mental illness!” I had a weird roommate who saw the scars on my arms from cuts I’d made with razor blades, and remarked, “Cool! You made tattoos!” If I recall correctly, she wore some pretty weird glasses.
Which brings me to this question: Are people with mental illnesses just “different” from the general public? Are we more “artistic” or “reclusive” or maybe just “weird”? Or does something need to be done;” is our “crazy” way of viewing the world totally wrong–does it need to be corrected, as my vision needed correcting in second grade? Taking this a step further, what’s worse–the poor vision or the treatment itself? Or perhaps what’s worst of all is the public’s reaction to the way we look. “Julie Greene has glasses and a Thorazine sunburn and scars on her arms and she doesn’t know how to dress and she talks out loud to her dog and she walks around looking lost all the time and she’s always writing–what a nutcase!”
My answer is this: Everyone looks through a lens or lenses. It’s not a matter of correct vision, incorrect vision, different vision, or even no vision. Let’s go back to my dream. Imagine contact lenses popping up in bread dough while one kneads it. Imagine finding contact lenses in one’s armpits. In one dream, I found a lens as big as my fist. I tried to put it in my eye. We forgot about something very important, and when I repeatedly tried to put that hard, giant, jagged-edged blue lens in my eye, from every angle I could think of, I knew exactly what we’d left out.
A person with a mental illness wears an ill-fitting lens, a lens that hurts. Mental illness hurts. Perhaps the lens was scratched early on by poor handling. Perhaps the lens curvature or size is wrong, or the lens could have dust or dirt particles on it. A person with a mental illness may have a scratch on the cornea, on the “I,” that only time and patience will heal; for others, a lens correction is necessary. Mental illness isn’t an alternative, and has nothing to do with morality or right and wrong. Mental illness is painful; mental illness hurts. There may be more than one way to see things, but let us not forget suffering.