chronic illness

A Character Sketch


Did you ever come across something you wrote years ago and wonder, where the hell did that come from? What was going through my mind at the time? The kind of stuff that is totally unrelated to the person you are today.

It was another bitterly cold day, the kind of cold that cuts to the bone. I was sifting through some folders of stuff I had dug out a few weeks earlier in my basement and happened upon my writings and notes from my community theatre days, at least 15 years ago. Found a character sketch that I put together for one of my Theatre Skills courses and couldn’t help but be drawn by it, even a little shocked. To give you some perspective, I was recuperating from a chronic illness at the time that had put me on disability and had transformed my typically fit, svelte figure to an unwieldy 297 pounds. I was miserable, depressed, and overwhelmed. I was trying desperately to gain some control over my health, my appearance, my life. It was a very grim time and theatre and writing were a welcome release. So although this sketch isn’t autobiographical, much of the emotion driving it is.

Here is the sketch in its entirety:

Constance always had her ups and downs. As a small child, her moodiness was remarked upon as often as her defiance. Pale and sullen, she was often at odds with her parents and peers.

At an early age, Constance found welcome refuge in music and books. By the time she entered her teens, Constance had retreated mostly to the basement where she fantasized to new wave, punk, and grunge music. She read voraciously by a single, low watt bulb as her father wouldn’t allow her to use the fluorescent lighting, saying it burned too much electricity, besides he thought she should be outside with the other kids, what the hell was wrong with her anyway?

So in the muted light, Constance soared with her mind, as talented and hip as any rock star, writing and singing the words she didn’t dare articulate out loud. Her father nicknamed her “The Bat.”

By her early 20’s, Constance was diagnosed with chronic, clinical depression and atypical bipolar disorder. She missed out on the keening heights of mania, instead experiencing alarmingly swift descents into depression and fearful anxiety. Grunge was the soundtrack of her despair and the only recognition she sensed in her abyss. Her mind was surrounded by impenetrable darkness and her forays into the public were behind a shield of seething sarcasm.

She began to cut herself. Not to die, just to lessen the tumult within. She couldn’t sing and found it hard to write about her pain. Her parents backed off in horror and her psychiatrist prescribed more medication and a red marker. Perhaps drawing the angry red lines on her arm would be an acceptable substitution to the cutting of flesh. Constance swallowed her pills and dutifully drew on her arms.

Constance hears on MTV that her “grunge-man”, her secret, tortured soul-mate, Kurt Cobain, has committed suicide. Constance’s world is rocked off of its crumbling fulcrum. How could he, when he had so much, with his legions of admirers, his tremendous talent, take his own life? How could HE give up? She questions her own tenuous hold on life. With the superstition of the mentally ill, she fears that this event signals her own demise, by her own hand.

Armed with her red marker, she writes, in her journal and on her arm. Last ditch efforts against a final farewell. It is at this moment we meet Constance in her psychiatrist’s office, holding onto her anger and journal for strength. She has told no one of her shock and grief over Cobain’s suicide or her own terror. She is desperate for a reason to live.

Wow. And what the hell? I cannot believe I came up with that. I have to say I wrote down some cool musical selections for it: “Privilege (Set Me Free)” by Patti Smith Group, and “Angel” by Sarah McLachlan.

There are pages of stage direction, prop descriptions in Part II that I won’t go into. All kinds of detail.

I did a performance piece based on that character for the class and did a lot of research into emotional cutting, depression and bipolar disorder. I remember being psychologically spent after the performance. Kurt Cobain’s death was still very fresh in everyone’s mind and in the media.

I remember thinking I should flesh out the character more, turn it into something. But the abject loneliness and desperation of the character scared me a bit. Once I wrote, then performed the piece, I shelved it. I didn’t even realize I still had the material until I chanced upon it the other day.

A lot of the dark stuff, journal entries, character sketches, written when I was really sick, somehow feels disconnected from who I am today. Now that I am healthy, productive and doing well, with my illness under control, it is interesting to look back and see my state of mind so many years ago. I feel empathy for the person I was back then and for what I was going through.  And feel the relief that I am here today, thriving, and living joyfully. One of these days, I’ll explore my illness more fully in a post, but right now, today, I just want to feel good, think happy thoughts, and feel so fucking grateful to be alive.

About Me

I kicked chronic illness in the teeth and lived to tell the tale. Now I blog about life and remember not to take it all so seriously. My intent is to be genuine and heartfelt about a variety of subjects. Welcome and thank you for joining me.

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