[Behind the Book]: Revisiting the Abyss
Written by
Deb Brandon
December 2017
Written by
Deb Brandon
December 2017

When I write, I walk into the abyss with my eyes wide open, knowing it’ll be hard. Sometimes I stumble into it by mistake, not realizing that it might reduce me to a blubbering mess.

It didn’t even occur to me write about it. It wasn’t as if it was an important part of the story. In fact, it was practically irrelevant. Yes, I had suicidal thoughts, but I didn’t have it in me, as I’d told the neuropsychologist who was evaluating me after my brain surgeries.

I have cavernous angiomas, clusters of malformed blood vessels in my brain, and two of them had bled. The only way to prevent further bleeds was to surgically remove them.

After the surgeries, I spent a week in inpatient rehab. Upon arrival, the neuropsychologist began her evaluation by asking me about my occupation and reading habits. I only realized this wasn’t idle chit-chat when she asked whether I’d thought about suicide.

I hesitated. I wanted to be honest, but I didn’t want to raise unnecessary alarms.

But as I wrote about it, I felt a tiny wisp of a doubt.

My immediate reaction was to investigate.

That was when my inner critic, Shoshana, jumped into action, working to convince me to move on to the next scene in my memories of inpatient rehab. She flitted about in my mind in a panic. I tried to calm her down. It’s okay. I’m just curious. My thoughts of suicide were unimportant. There’s no need for concern.

Alarmed, she yanked on her frizzy, dirty blond hair, and told me that it wasn’t worth risking it. My stubbornness kicked in: I have to explore in order to maintain my integrity as a memoir writer.

Disheveled and defeated, she surrendered—she knew that once I pulled the integrity card, it was hopeless to argue.

So I explored and found there was more to my "unimportant thoughts of suicide." My writing jerked me out of denial—I did have it in me. And I realized that contemplating suicide hadn't been a one-time thing.

That realization reduced me to a blubbering mess.

Shoshana managed to refrain from saying that she told me so, even though she was clearly tempted. Instead, she tried to comfort me and guide me away from the abyss.

She didn’t realize that in doing so, she gave me the respite I needed to regroup before I continued writing. I was on a roll and didn't want to stop. I knew that digging through these emotions would make for strong writing. I knew I’d probably end up in really bad shape, but the compulsion to proceed was extremely strong. However, I did need a break before I resumed my digging, and Shoshana helped me do that.

Throughout writing my memoir, But My Brain Had Other Ideas, I found myself nearing the edge of the abyss again and again. At times, I did so without advanced warning, but more often, I was fully aware of where I was headed.

Sometimes I listened to Shoshana—I was too tired to continue, I had laundry to do, the dirty dishes were piling up in the sink. Other times, very much in tune with me, she sensed the danger long before I became aware of it—when I first read through the poems Dad wrote to me while I was in hospital, when I reminisced about dragon boat racing. She did her best to distract me, with chores I needed to do, lectures I should think about. Not seeing the danger, I pooh poohed her fear.

Sometimes she proved to be right, but in most cases her alarms were false. Or was I able to shore up my defenses because of her advanced warnings?

Occasionally, she was successful in turning me away from perceived danger. But when I moved on to a safer topic or allowed myself a break from writing, I always came back to the difficult pieces. Though I was fully cognizant of the risks, I egged myself on, keep writing, peer into the abyss, this is good stuff.

I have learnt that writing my way through the tough stuff leads to many Eureka! moments, moments that I wouldn’t miss for anything. Those times not only lead to good writing; they also teach me valuable lessons about my self.

Shoshana has become my canary—when she starts to act up, I know to question her. Why is she trying to steer me away? Sometimes I have to bully her or trick her into telling me. Once I understand the issue, I dig deeper. I have to.

I now know to gauge the danger. Can I dive in right away? Or do I need to take a break?

I’m fully aware of Shoshana’s role and its importance. I know that risks to my emotional well-being bring out the yidishe mama in her. She is only trying to protect me. I empathize with her. I, too, am a yidishe mama to my kids. I know how it feels. But I also know that there are times when a yidishe mama has to step aside, to allow her kids to grow.

Shoshana is fully aware of my passion, my love of writing, whether the scenes bring me joy, anguish or despair. She realizes that the memoir writer in me will eventually win out, and that no matter how hard she tries, she will have to step aside. And I will write, no matter how close to the abyss the story takes me.

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  • Deb Brandon Publishing

    Patricia. I can see how "fictionalizing" the tough stuff could make it easier to write, though I suspect it's still painful. I only revisit the maw when I'm ready. But perhaps as a memoir writer, my mindset is different in terms of "pushing" myself. A big part of it is that it helps me process stuff. Also, I have a bit of a soapbox thing about being open about the stuff stuff because it helps others open up and thus heal/process. At least that's my experience. That being said, there are plenty of topics I am not yet ready to revisit, e.g. my daughter's addiction issues (I'm not sure I'll ever be ready), my journey through puberty, divorce, grief. There are some I am just starting to be able to touch on. Not easy stuff. If you want an ear/shoulder, I'd be happy to provide.

  • Patricia Robertson

    Thanks, Deb. I have an "abyss" that I have partially revisited in my current novel. Since I'm writing fiction, not memoir, that makes it easier. I skirt around the edge of the abyss. This character is not me and so it is not as painful to enter this space. I also think that I have gotten easier on myself as I've gotten older. I'm not as pushy about entering that abyss. I entered that abyss many times when I was younger in order to find healing.

  • Betty Hafner

    Great piece, Deborah. I loved hearing about your inner critic, Shoshana.