Preamble: Could features of a bipolar disorder previously linked within psychiatry to prolific, creative writing, manifest in behavior that incurs trouble with the law? She Said, He Wrote raises the issue and attempts to answer it by way of an incident that occurred following the meeting and casual dating of two academic colleagues on a college campus in Wyoming in 2015-16.
Wyoming as a place, Matilda as a name, and art history as her academic pursuit all were chosen to shield the identities of the story’s real-life setting and female antagonist.
Part I: “What Kind of a Guy Inhabits this Poem?”
Speaking for myself, the questions which interest me most when reading a poem are two. The first is technical: Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work? The second is, in the broadest sense, moral: What kind of a guy inhabits this poem? What is his notion of the good life or the good place? His notion of the Evil One? What does he conceal from the reader? What does he conceal even from himself?
W. H. Auden (inaugural lecture as Oxford Professor of Poetry, 1956)
“This is a 58-year-old teacher at the Univ. of Washington who reports an unstable mood and would like a second opinion about the diagnosis and treatment. He is a very prolific writer of both creative fiction and non-fiction and is unable to throw away what he has written….”
Dr. D-A, Seattle psychiatrist (from Feb 2019 consulting notes).
A “Pleasant Hypomania” in the Morning
“He (the patient) has noted that sometimes when he has been exposed to bright light—a September in Wyoming—he becomes activated.”
Dr. D-A (case notes from 2019 consultation)
Something happened in Wyoming. It happened at one of the state’s land-grant colleges. It happened six years ago during a year-long visiting lecturer stint I performed in the state university’s Psychology department in a college town. It happened on the very first day of my adventure there that I met a woman—tall and blonde and brilliant—named Matilda, as I occupied the window seat of a coffee shop.
She walked through the far door, and ordered a to-go cup of coffee, as I hurriedly scrawled down notes to my first lecture. I had arrived by car from Western Washington the previous afternoon and stayed overnight at a colleague’s apartment.
She peered sleepily through the steam the hot drink condensed and wandered over to the coffee condiment bar, adjacent to my temporary perch. Sensing the coffee shop was for her only a pit stop, I got up and introduced myself. We chatted briefly, and I found out she was an assistant professor on the same campus where I would be teaching, and we exchanged contacts.
Within two weeks, once I had forged a routine around my lecturing, I emailed Matilda, and she invited me to her office. She told me about her research interests and academic pursuits and I was initially somewhat put off by her. She seemed to be too strong, too loud in her demeanor. She blared her interest at me as I sat there. My only reply to her onslaught was: “You seemed to be enamored of that topic…”
I left the art department that day deciding I would have nothing more to do with Matilda, ducking an invitation she extended to attend an evening student artwork showing. I thought nothing more about her until my Psychology department office-mate forwarded a message from her that she had an interest in tachistoscopes and how they had been used in psychological research studies.
I took Matilda’s feigned interest in a relic of my own cognitive science to signal her interest in me.
This kind of exchange—of her inviting me to collegial get-togethers—a Sunday-themed brunch at her duplex apartment, and me reciprocating with invitations to the ranch house where I was staying to make an authentic Thai dinner, marked our casual friendship that early autumn.
When Halloween arrived, our colleague friendship expanded into a casual dating relationship, as we had an afternoon outing at a pumpkin patch, which was highly scripted by Matilda, including Italian aperitifs served at her apartment. While I, being older and rustier at dating than Matilda, bungled that date, I recovered later in that week by writing her a first poem titled “Rural Pumpkins”. I mailed the poem to her college-town apartment address.
So many rural pumpkins, bidden in a row.
With none to do much buying, no one to take them home.
‘twas all on Hallow’s eve when those Jack-o-Lynns took flight
They tilted down the gang-plank and fled,
Turning terror into night.
Matilda liked that poem so much that she magnetised it onto her refrigerator door.
At Thanksgiving break we two shared red wine at Raven on the main street, warming ourselves by the red-brick oven at the rear. I read her Tarot cards, which seemed to amuse her.
In December, we two shared a birthday week, and I attended her “group” party at a drafty cellar tavern. I bungled that occasion as well, in such a way that Matilda would put me at arm’s length all during the next few icy, Wyoming months.
I continued to write Matilda poems: during the remainder of that term we both spent in the Wyoming college town; in the year following, when she left to pursue the adventure of a Harvard fellowship and I returned to Whidbey Island to commute to teach at the UW (the “UDub”); and I did so up until two Novembers ago, at a clip of three to four a year, when, within a few days of mailing my annual Halloween poem to that same campus office, I received a call from an Officer Brennan of the college’s campus Police.
His brief phone message indicated he “needed my help with a case he’d been working.”
While my initial thought was that perhaps someone had murdered my ranch house landlady from a few years earlier, I got an uneasy feeling from the officer’s message. When I summoned the resolve to call him back the next day, I learned that he wanted my help with the case involving those poems I had been mailing Matilda.
He also passed a message to me composed by Matilda herself, which, given its personal content, sounded gruff and impersonal coming from the Officer.
For one, she wanted the emails and “anonymous” letters to end.
She wanted to have no relationship with me, for two.
(The third part of that message was not memorable in the least; it might have been that I had two unreturned items at the campus library).
To close out the abrupt conversation, the campus officer asked if I had any message to pass back to Matilda.
Stunned by being apprehended, I blurted out in a feeble voice:
“Tell her I’ll take her off of my mailing list.”
This story is about those seventeen poems and the trouble they brought me with Wyoming law that culminated–two and a half years after Matilda and I left that college town–in Officer Brennan’s “no-contact order” he duplicated in a certified letter sent to my postal box.
I begin my story with the “triggering poem”, the final of the seventeen poems I composed or sent with Matilda in mind. It is the one that launched Officer Brennan’s inter-state warning. It was my best-ever Halloween poem I titled “The Pumpkin Graveyard”. I shared it with friends and family alike and even brought a handful of copies to my UW lecture class. A Korean woman—a former undergraduate art major and current SeaTac airport casino dealer—thought the poem “beautiful.”
It was a poem I sent to Matilda only as an afterthought when I never should have.
The Pumpkin Graveyard
Stands back of the plant nursery, where you wouldn’t notice its silhouette,
Unless you were perched on a bench and your eyes wandered to its fringe.
That patch is filled with the daily discards of the Halloween season, flung there to nest,
To wither alone towards a shriveled end.
With no child of adequate temperament to wander into that back-yard plot,
To snap off a stem or two, To fumble with their heft,
Stumbling over them to lift them out, to bring their full-bloom Orange aspect into full view.
Depositing them on their front porch stoop, with an audible pumpkin sigh of relief,
Even for one misspent, Hallow’s eve.
With no artist’s hands to carve out and backlight their funereal, wide-mouth grins,
With pumpkin tracks leading into their beleaguered midst,
Signifying some having been dragged in, against their will.
Though with no path of any kind leading out of that half-filled grave,
(And not a single, crooked smile carved out, among the lot).
Dropped there, abandoned to their panicked nest— decorating death’s doorstep.
“Dear Campus Police Chief:”
(A Wyoming campus police complaint filed by Matilda herself in early November ’19 indicated that a series of letters had been mailed to her from a Washington state post office by a person she believed to be Mark Calogero. While she didn’t feel physically threatened by the content of the letters, she complained about having been treated as a “muse of some kind” by him and disclosed that she had felt increasingly uncomfortable with their friendship during the year he’d visited the college-campus town. Out of the complaint process, she crafted a three-part message to be delivered by Officer Brennan.)
CBT to the Rescue: Session 1 (of 2)
My CBT therapist, the highly-trained person I have sought out in the past through my own university’s mental health care clinic, is in my view, clinical psychology’s version of RBG (Ruth Bader-Ginsburg). Dr. B-G–a fit, raven-haired, east-coast walks the same, legendary, “bad-assed” walk as the famous jurist between the patient waiting-area and the sparse clinic consulting room. Her own version of the walk seems aided by years spent in cross-country training. And at forty plus a few months, she still looks like she could traverse a 10-k in under an hour.
Dr. B-G is clinically trained in the same Guthrie Hall psychology department where I took my own cognitive psychology training; however, she is both knowledgeable and has received extensive supervision in treating a wide range of clinical disorders. Notably, she is a 10-year experienced, state-of-the-art trained practitioner in cognitive-behavioral therapeutic approaches, specializing in PTSD.
I had two-summers earlier utilized her clinical skills and CBT approach and during those five sessions I took, I came to recognize Dr. B-G as a highly-skilled professional.
Dr. B-G’s clinical pedigree is also notable and I knew my therapist’s clinical advisor from my days as a Guthrie Hall graduate student and psychology lecturer. She was Dr. Marsha Linehan, (and is, in the present day) the world’s expert at treating the untreatable and sometimes deadly (by suicide) Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), who has herself in recent years become an acknowledged member of that clinical population. Needless to say, even though I was presenting neither PTSD nor BPD through my behavior, Dr. B-G’s clinical pedigree left me feeling in good hands.
We two got right down to work in a manner that a CBT person, but not a psychiatrist, does. The latter will meander along with their client, reluctantly trailing after their diatribe with shrugs and raised eyebrows or a darted glance. But a CBT person, highly skilled as mine was, will come out with guns blazing, targeting one neurotic impulse or tendency after another, blasting them senseless, reinserting the rug that’s been pulled out from within their client’s faltering psyche.
The first of our brief two sessions were aimed at diffusing the spike that had manifested within my psyche due to the stark warning issued the week before by the Wyoming campus police officer. I briefly filled Dr. B-G in on what my relationship had been with Matilda during my academic adventure year in the college campus town.
She in response, appropriately characterized the relationship as having been of the “casual dating” variety.
I recounted the collection of poems I had sent along in the months and years since and I handed my clinician a copy of a poem, titled “Sinister Salad”. My CB therapist glanced at the poem and then immediately turned her focus onto the question of whether I had intended to do Matilda any physical harm. She interrogated me about this through a series of questions that polled whether I had concrete plans to return to and confront Matilda.
She circled back to this line of querying at least once during that first session.
(The physical threat to a person outside the clinical dyad, if found to be present and evident, constitutes one of those rare instances where client-therapist confidentiality can be breached, in order to warn that person whose life is under threat).
I, in turn, gave her my assurance that I meant Matilda no physical harm whatsoever. While I had thought often about returning to Wyoming, and imagined I might encounter Matilda if I should, I had no thoughts about confronting or hurting her. In fact, the year before, I had ruled out a return holiday trip based on the very notion that Matilda, by herself, was not enough of a draw to cause me to return. The Wyoming I had experienced during my adventure year there had a tapestry of episodes and events. That same tapestry—consisting of an offer of a year’s teaching, a charming room and a shared gourmet kitchen at the ranch house at the foot of the mountains, as well as budding friendships with colleagues and students, including Matilda–was now a thing of the past.
Once we diffused the issue of intended harm through her questioning, we moved into a discussion of what had been Matilda’s and my relationship during that academic, adventure year. I don’t recall too much about the content of the remainder of our session–only that as an after-effect, the session prompted two discernments by me.
One was that a critical miscommunication had likely taken place between Matilda and me, some a year earlier. She might have texted me to stop sending her things, but I had lost my cell phone on a metro bus the previous year.
The other discernment concerned the role a long-time friend named Erin had played in Matilda’s and my exchange during that spring of my visiting year. Erin was a former psychology student of mine and subsequent, long-time friend, whose Wenatchee orchard wedding I had attended. She had turned up in a phone call on the very March day I bumped into Matilda outside the college-town Coop. My discernment about Erin’s role was prompted by Dr. B-G asking during our session whether anybody else had known about my relationship with Matilda.
A therapy session like ours should always produce such an “after effect”; as Dr. B-G put it, “otherwise, it wasn’t therapy you received.”
Needless to say, I was most grateful for Dr. B-G’s skill and acumen as a therapist and gave my full attention to our session work and to the psychological residue that afforded me insights about what had gone awry in my own behavior leading up to the warning.
CBT to the Rescue: Session Two
The second CBT session between Dr. B-G and I opened with me providing an answer to a question she had asked during our first session. I re-established that I had meant Matilda no harm.
As our second session wound down, and the edges around our reflection on what had been the colleague-friendship faded, Dr. B-G used the word “stuck” to describe how I had held onto Matilda. This made me feel remorseful about the amount of time that had elapsed since the time I had put down that very first Halloween poem, standing along the college town’s wintry, main street. It was evident to me how one-sided the relationship had become since leaving Wyoming. At this, I felt embarrassed.
Dr. B-G also pointedly used the term “moving on” to describe the progress I had made during our two, short sessions. While I felt her prodding, it also felt premature to describe myself that way.
I conclude my treatise on the corpus of poems I composed and sent to Matilda with an epithet. I return to W. H. Auden’s criteria for evaluating a poem. But this time I do so with a decidedly clinical slant.
Epithet: What Kind of a Guy—Clinically Speaking—inhabits this poem?
Speaking for myself, the questions which interest me most when reading a poem are two. The first is technical: Here is a verbal contraption. How does it work? The second is, in the broadest sense, moral: What kind of a guy inhabits this poem?
“This is a 58-year-old man with probable Bipolar II disorder or at least a Bipolar variant. He has recurrent depression but also hypomanic periods lasting four days or more, especially in the spring and summer. The ‘biphasic’ periods he describes are consistent with the Bipolar II diagnosis. He describes a pleasant hypomania in the morning and then passes into a more irritable state later in the day. His thoughts feel “frenetic”. His hypergraphia, creativity, activation by bright light, and failure to respond to antidepressants all point to bipolar disorder.” Dr. D-A (from Feb. 2019 consultation notes).
I can offer many things as an explanation, or even as an apology for the persistent poetics I displayed in relation to Matilda. Though one explanation moves to the fore. Three years ago, for the first time in more than thirty years of suffering a debilitating disease state that has been only recently diagnosed, I learned that a unique variant of bipolar disorder inhabits my brain.
Psychiatrists have historically understood the clinical disease state as a kind of “writer’s disease.” (See e.g. Jamison’s of Johns Hopkins writings). William James and his brother Henry endured the disease state and both achieved greatness within their respective disciplines of psychology and literature.
Emily Dickinson,, in her frenzied production of some 500 poems within the span of a single year, appears to have suffered from a form of the disease. (Her writing journals reveal a depression, to be sure, but the frenzied activities of her poetics could indicate a mania present; the compression of thoughts displayed within her poems reveals an otherworldly speed of thought she employed in crafting couplets).
My own Type-II, sunlight-activated variant is not the same as the Type-I version that hospitalized Robert Lowell on six occasions during his shortened lifetime. Its “forme frustre” hypomania (Charcot’s term) doesn’t stretch over days, extending through the night (in fact, the diagnosing psychiatrist thought it remarkable that I exhibited few sleep disturbances). But the shorter hypomania phases are a constant, daily presence in my life, and the biphasic nature of the disorder is evident. Like Lowell and Sylvia Plath both, I have learned to write on my own (“sunlight-enhanced”) mania. There’s no question within my own mind, after thirty years of writing creatively, that the manic episodes fuel the writing, or that they can at least be channeled in that direction.
A Privileged Tinge of Blue*
Aren’t you Harvarded-out by now?
Won’t you return to Wyoming soon?
Haven’t those blue bloods, with their trappings and yachts, and clubs,
Quite bored you stiff?
And don’t you realize the Crimson itself
Harbors a privileged tinge of blue?
*Composed in the style of Ogden Nash. Emailed to Matilda in Autumn 2016.
“Patient and I discussed continued emotional effects from the recent stressor with his ex-colleague. We discussed the progress he has made since December…..He did creative writing on the experience, particularly on how he perceives symptoms of bipolar disorder/hypomania to have contributed to his behavior….”
(from Dr. B-G’s “tele-session” notes, May 2020)
“The case is closed.” (from Officer Brennan’s report dated Nov 2019)