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Writing with the Left Hand

At age 22, I was a junior at Barnard College in New York City, experiencing anxiety, panic attacks, and facial pain from TMJ (tempero-mandibular joint). Little did I know at the time that I had post-traumatic stress (PTS) from an infant surgery for pyloric stenosis, a stomach blockage, at 26 days old. Naively, after the spring semester, I hospitalized myself because I felt suicidal. Wrong.

The place was merely a holding tank until one was transferred to a longer-term facility. Even when my parents told the staff about my history with the early surgery, no notice was taken. My records mentioned hormone imbalance as cause of depression.  One of the social workers told me that I just needed a husband. Compared to patients “poking pencils into their eyes,” I shouldn’t be admitted, the intake worker inferred.  Hmmmm…..so much for 1974.

In fact, the hospitalization in the psych ward re-traumatized me. The place was about punishment and fear. There were some well-meaning and friendly volunteers and social workers, but the nurses and the psychiatrist just didn’t have a clue. Their methods were all about changing people’s behavior and I knew, even in that depressed condition, that my problems went deep. In fact, I thought I could mine what was troubling me there with the help of trained professionals. Wrong.

I’ve written many times about the psych ward but often, the pieces comes out cliche. How to really capture the experience? I brought yet one more attempt to my poetry group. Again, no soap. Ditch the draft was the advice. But one poet gave me an invaluable suggestion, one that I’ve given my writing students from time to time. Write about the experience with the left hand. Here are my two drafts:

Pennsylvania Hospital 1974

In the psyche ward

we wallowed, we swallowed

a soup of fear

breakfast, lunch, dinner.

Stress hormones raced

as we watched Cynthia

lying on a gurney drooling

just back from electro shock—

the place we’d go

if we were bad.

Cortisol raced

as we passed the isolation

room and heard the banging,

looked into the tiny square

window and saw Matt

bound by a restraint jacket

hitting his head against the wall.

Terror topped out

as we passed “Mushroom Man,”

George, brain blown out by drugs.

He rocked and rocked and rocked,

sitting alone daily in the day room

in his white paper gown.

I came to the psyche ward naively

to be healed, to sit quietly

and let the demons make their way

out my throat. To drink an elixir of

self-understanding.

But the sizzling in the pan,

the high heat, the lid too tight,

sent me to the streets again,

looking for a place where

I could say I am. Where

hope was offered, trust,

and repair on the menu.

 

Psych Ward

Pennsylvania Hospital, 1974

Tiles of waxy shine

we sit in hallways

floating

meds drip from lips

inert medicine ball on porch

caged, suspended over

crowded tenements

flocks of pigeons coo, burble

lumps of men paper-shoed

knives of sarcasm

wastings of words

we watch a movie

about Alaska, Kona

of the Wild, a wolf

free while we

chained to ideas about

ourselves, light cigarettes

watch our thighs jiggle

as night turns day

and day burns night

the windows barred

so the dead stay alive.

Guess which one is written with my left. When we write with the non-dominant hand, we access material that is stored in the part of the brain that is often referred to as “right.” It’s the emotional, visual, sensual memory; the body or somatic memory; the smells, touch, tastes, sounds and sights. The “left” brain is the logical, analytical, chronological, narrative-focused part. Can you see the difference? One is more distant.

Try it. Write about something with your dominant hand that you’ve been wanting to understand more deeply and then, try with the other hand. Read them (a challenge, for the non-dominant handwriting will be chicken-scratchy). Left-hand writing gives a fresh, more immediate perspective. Left-hand writing may give you the answers you are looking for.

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