Girl, Interrupted

After writing Borderline Between What and What I felt inspired to put Girl, Interrupted (by Susanna Kaysen) on my library list, since I’d never read it.

Girl, Interrupted was published in 1993, though many people are more familiar with the film based on Susanna Kaysen’s memoir released in 1999, featuring Winona Ryder and Angelina Jolie.

When it was released, I was obsessed with the film. In fact, I was obsessed with the film all the way up to the point where I was admitted to my first psychiatric hospital. After that, I felt like I was practically living in the story (though in a different time-line) so it kind of fell to the wayside.

The premise of the memoir begins in 1967, when Susanna Kaysen (who was 18 when admitted) spent two years in a psychiatric hospital.

I’m not sure what I expected, maybe a simple, chronological account of what happened, but what I read was so much more!

Every few chapters I’d read something that punched me right in the guts, something that I had felt or thought or said before. The pages are littered with post-it notes that I kept using to mark passages I liked, and now that I’ve finished I’m impressed with how much I marked. Kaysen doesn’t even have bipolar disorder (her diagnosis was borderline personality disorder) but there is definitely a little something for everyone in her memoir.

Here’s a little snippet of one of the first things that stood out to me because I said to myself, “ooh ooh, me too!” She describes one of the two “preconditions” that existed that led to her hospitalization.

“I was having a problem with patterns. Oriental rugs, tile floors, printed curtains, things like that. Supermarkets were especially bad, because of the long, hypnotic checkerboard aisles. When I looked at these things, I saw other things within them. That sounds as though I was hallucinating, and I wasn’t. I knew I was looking at a floor or a curtain. But all patterns seemed to contain potential representations, which in a dizzying array would flicker briefly to life. That could be… a forest, a flock of birds, my second-grade class picture. Well, it wasn’t -it was a rug, or whatever it was, but my glimpses of the other things it might be were exhausting. Reality was getting too dense.”

Susanna Kaysen, Girl Interrupted (page. 41)

This is a phenomenon I’ve been subject to my entire life, and I have often had a very difficult time describing it to doctors and nurses, even other people with bipolar disorder. They aren’t hallucinations, just objects acting or looking like another object, so I’ve never made a big deal out of it. Imagine my surprise when I stumbled upon an account of it!

Anyway, her writing is amazing, and her ability to describe the indescribable is equally as amazing. I would highly recommend this book to anyone with a personality disorder, mental illness, or anyone who knows someone in either of those categories. Heck, even if you’re just curious to know what this sort of world is like, check it out!

6 responses to “Girl, Interrupted

  1. Seriously, I almost jumped out of my chair and screamed, “Oh my God!” when I read this! I experience something so similar sometimes! I have a big problem with the grocery store. I used to try to describe it to my husband. Something about the shiny floors and the florescent light that seems to bounce off of each other, and the long, shifting aisles of patterned tile.

    It came in attacks. I would know one was coming when the light changed. The light didn’t actually change, but my visual perception thought so. Everything would take on this very sharp look, high contrast. It hurt my head and my eyes. My mind would start to get confused, and it felt like reality was slipping out of my hands. The way time moved would change, in disjointed pauses, skips, and fast-forwards.

    I only remember it so vividly, because I worked in a grocery store for a combined two and half years. That’s where it would happen the most frequently. Noise would muffle, as if I were sinking under water. I could hear myself speak as if I were inside myself, right next to the speaker. My mind sounded so loud, as if it were actually outside of my head, but I knew it wasn’t.

    Is that similar to yours? Doctors always told me it was dissociation, but the disembodiment didn’t always happen. It felt like I was caged inside of myself more than anything. Everything was saturated beyond it’s capacity. It was like the world was too full and my brain was overloading.

    • I think I have experienced what you’re talking about with the muffling of the noise, though for me it was more of an out of body experience. Sort of similar to when you faint and for a moment the outer reality doesn’t seem to match up with the internal reality. Honestly I find it scary as all heck, and I’ve had it linked by my doctor to something that resembles a panic response. I can definitely imagine that seeing certain things or certain environments would trigger that.

      For me, that sort of thing doesn’t normally occur with these sorts of pseudo-hallucinations, maybe because I’ve never really let them bother me very much (or to the point where they triggered anxiety? Just a guess.). So what if I’m walking down the beach and suddenly each shadow in the sand is skulls? Or anytime I look at the linoleum in the bathroom I see a girl chasing a dog? I didn’t take the time to tell anyone about the phenomenon until this last hospitalization because I always just considered it an over-over-active imagination. The multitudes of faces around me (in wood grain, fabric patterns, and even flesh wrinkles sometimes) didn’t hurt anyone, so I’ve always just let them do their own thing.

      For me it is almost like living in a Jim Henson production. The weirdest damn things will suddenly have faces! Thank God they never say anything.

      • Maybe God (or whoever is up there) did me a solid by giving me awful vision. I realized that my lack of clear vision as a child hindered my imagination. Not to say that I wasn’t imaginative. I would imagine conversations and close up images. But, I could never get scenes. I still can’t. And, that’s probably why I don’t do so well at those trick image thingies. If my vision was better, I would probably have some of the same.

        Doctors always likened the experience to dissociation, although I am not officially diagnosed with any anxiety disorder. I had social anxiety as a child. Teachers would remark to my mother about it. But, now I have strong fear responses, occasional episodes of frequent panic attacks, and other anxiety related issues. Maybe GAD? More likely to be PTSD, though I don’t want to admit it. That’s probably why my doctor treats the symptoms, but doesn’t stick a label on it.

        These episodes weren’t like my panic attacks. My panic attacks always start with a feeling. Sometimes it’s a click in my head. I literally feel a click. Sometimes it’s a creepy crawly feeling in my solar plexis. But, there’s always a physical sensation before the symptoms come on.

        These episodes are a sensory problem that seems to occur. I’ve described them to doctors, and the only other answer I ever had was the possibility that I had some undetected, mild seizure disorder. I never did follow up on that – where would I have possibly gotten seizures from? There’s no one in my entire family that has seizures! It’s like a surge in my sensory area that either starts shorting things out, or blowing stuff up. And I’m more inside myself than ever before, just out of sync with reality, like a nanosecond, just like you said.

        Thanks for writing this post. You inspired me to draft something up about it. You really are a serious inspiration for some of my writing.

  2. This book has been on the To-Read pile for years. Thanks for posting about it. I’m moving it to the top of the stack 🙂

  3. Not withstanding that movies usually shred the books they are based upon, I might not read the book since I have already seen the movie many times. What draws me to the story is Lisa. Lisa is only a tenth of the manipulative, sociopath that my older sister is. It’s refreshing to see Lisa’s bluff called and her admission of humanity. It is pure fiction to think my sister will ever surrender her facade. I haven’t seen her in 15 years, don’t want to.

    • Lisa’s role in the memoir isn’t quite as compelling as it is in the film, and I was completely enthralled by Lisa’s character in the movie when I was younger.

      What’s funny to me is that there was a girl with a very similar disposition in the hospital when I was hospitalized at 16, and I was completely enamored with her. But I’m sure the romantic notion of being in a “mental hospital” didn’t hurt when it came to how I viewed her.

      I’ve made the distinct decision not to have people of that caliber in my life, becuase I become obsessed with them. It has happened, unfortunately, several times. It is unfortunate that is the relationship you have with you sister, but I can definitely understand why distance would be preferable.

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