Thursday, August 13, 2009

a heart pre-set to detonate

I was going to write about some article I read in The New York Times the other day, when a dear dear friend of mine sent me this poem by Rick Hilles, called "Flashlight Stories." It is a long, beautiful poem, but I will share the two parts that resonated with me the most:

9. The Temple

Before they even knew what
it could do to you, they pulled back
my mother’s lovely midnight hair,
a moon and its reflection rising
at each temple, two strong men
pinned her down, put electrodes there,
a pincher here—cold metal on teeth
on tongue—and fired up the furnace

to her brain: the shock, electricity,

shrugging through her body, oh, oh,
she told me she heard the woman in the bed
beside her moan, as if on fire, already bending
at the knees. She still hears the woman screaming
sometimes at night, the screaming wakes her
and she says, herself, "My God, it’s me!"

10. Alarm

By your thirtieth year they say
it should manifest. If not, in most cases,
you have been spared.

But there are exceptions.

Even two years beyond my third decade
the dormant, snaky coil of DNA
might hiss itself

awake, snap its distorted spine
and strike. But my mother says: Honey
as long as you can point to
a reason you feel a certain way

you don’t have what I have. And even now
I am afraid I feel the alarm about to go off in me,
the harried beating in my neck’s

carotid artery, the green branching veins

inside my wrists. See now, if you can’t feel it here,

the second hand ticking its true course,

a heart pre-set to detonate.

(You can read the whole poem online here.)

I am struck not only by the way Hilles uses language, but also how true part 10 rings. It's something I've tried to write about before, though certainly not so eloquently, and something that still haunts me, especially when I'm having a bad day and just want to listen to this song on repeat. Sometimes I think I have seven or eight more years till I am out of the woods, but now I realize that is naivete--just like thinking a diagnosis, having a name, would change everything. It didn't and age won't. But I wonder if you just learn to live with it or learn how not to be scared by that possibility.

I am reminded of Christina Applegate, and how she got a double mastectomy when she found out she had breast cancer in one breast and had tested positively for one of the BRCA genes. For as much as I hate uncertainty, I don't know that I would do something similar if anything were ever available for mental illness.

Not to say the loss of body parts is not a big deal, especially parts of you so much equivocated with femininity in our society (I don't know if I could get a mastectomy unless that was the only way to prevent the cancer from metastasizing to the rest of my body), but messing with your mind seems quite different. Who knows how something like that could affect your personality? We already know that lobotomies and traumatic brain injuries can cause some similar problems.

Sometimes it's not the things we can't control so much as the things we think perhaps we can.

Unlike Huntingdon's Disease, most conditions or illnesses for which there are genetic markers are not based on definitive have-it-or-you-don't genes, just genes that make you more susceptible to getting them. And just because you don't have those genes does not mean it is impossible for you to get them. We are just gambling on where beneath the bell curve we will fall.

Would you take preventative measures against developing mental illness if there were, say, only a 50% chance you would get it without said preventative measure? Let's assume this is a relatively new procedure and little if anything is known about side effects or long-term effects. What about 95%? Or 25%?

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