Despite the creative burst of her Logia writings, Martha began the new year of 2011 in deep depression. On January 28, she was on the verge of killing herself—I don’t know how. I know only that the next day in her journal, she wrote, “Yesterday I was almost brave enough to die; today I am hardly at that level. It terrifies me to think how close I came yesterday….I do not understand how anyone can want to live.”
Silver Hill Hospital, site of Martha's second psychiatric hospitalization in 2011
Two days after that entry, on Monday, January 31, Martha was admitted to her second mental institution, Silver Hill Hospital in New Canaan, Connecticut, a fifty-minute drive from Dobbs Ferry. She was admitted after telling a school counselor that she was planning to kill herself by cutting her wrists with an X- knife we had at home. Later, she wrote that she doubted she would really kill herself, but she was tired of the limbo between life and death. “I was sick of the possibility of suicide hanging over my head like the sword of Damocles.”
The counselor called me immediately at work and told me what had happened. She was alarmed and disapproving that we had allowed things to get to this state. She insisted that Martha needed hospitalization and that I must talk to her psychiatrist about it at once. I did, and Dr. Abrams referred us to Silver Hill, the best mental health facility he knew in the tristate area. We got her admitted that night.
Silver Hill was an extremely swank place designed for the troubled scions of rich people. Rumor had it that the daughter of a certain celebrity couple was staying there. The hospital didn’t take insurance and we had no idea how we were going to pay for Martha’s five-week stay. The retail price was $28,700. Because we weren’t rich, we were able to get a discount (they called it a scholarship) and pay about $7,000.
Martha hated Silver Hill at first. There were a lot of rules, including restrictions on how much phone time she could have to call us, and because of the distance from our home we could only visit on the weekend. But her suicidality seemed to diminish. She no longer wanted to be a supernova and black hole. She no longer wanted to believe in Aleksei. “No love is worth dying for, at least not for me. But self-love and love of family and friends are worth living for.”
Adopting my pragmatic way of talking about religion, which I had picked up from Richard and discussed with her, she considered religion not to be useful to her. As an atheist, she didn’t believe in any absolute meaning, but that didn’t mean there couldn’t be meaning. “In a sense nothing matters, but that is only in an absolute sense. To each person something matters.”
She also wrote, “I would love to be happy but I do not know what happiness is.” She thought about Ying a lot, but she understood that he didn’t love her. She was ready to accept him as a friend, not require him as a lover. “I am sick of suffering. I will get better. I will return to school. I will love again. I love my parents now, I love Ying with a residual passion, and I will love a man again.”
She wrote, “I am tired of being in love with people who do not love me in return. Moreover, I am tired of being depressed and suicidal. Ultimately sadness becomes boring.” But the next day she was suicidal again. “I wish I could starve myself. It seems like a decent way to die if you have the will power.”
Martha didn’t believe she could ever be cured of her mood swings. “It is a comforting fiction to believe that my extraordinary moods are anything less than a part of me. If you could separate me from them, I would die, just like Dorian Gray.” In another passage, she wrote: “The darkness in me is embedded deeply so that it is impossible to remove it without killing me.” She did not even think she would want the darkness removed. “It…gives me a potential for greatness even if it is based on a purely inwardly twisted will to power…I do not want to get better.”
Martha didn’t think she would ever be happy. Speaking of her family, and maybe her doctors and healthcare workers, she wrote, “The poor things want me to be happy, not realizing they are wishing for the impossible.” It didn’t matter what she did—marry, go to Columbia, become an English professor (her favored career at the time), or not do any of those things. “The best I will be is miserable.”
She couldn’t even say she would never be happy again, she said, because “I have never really been happy.” Of course, I know that in early childhood Martha seemed happy and said she was happy. But from at least seven she had known extended periods of sadness, and since her middle school years depression had wracked her. “Happiness is a lie,” she wrote.
Despite her bleak outlook, she mostly rejected suicide: “Suicide is a way to avoid love.” If she attempted suicide and failed, that wouldn’t make her happy; nor would attempting suicide and succeeding. “I would not be happy if I attempted suicide and succeeded. I would just be dead.”
At Silver Hill, they treated Martha with dialectical behavior therapy, or DBT, which she regarded as so much “positive thinking.” She had contempt for DBT: “I can almost tolerate life here but not the philosophy behind their therapy.” She hated being told her behaviors were unhealthy. “Unhealthy is a fancy word for wrong.” The staff were good to her, but useless. “Why is such a lack of utility accompanied by such a good nature?” They were trying futilely to change her nature. “Sanity is statistical and I am an outlier.”
Nevertheless, she gradually began to settle into Silver Hill. She was coming to accept that she was not superhuman but ordinary. “I have to accept that I am not a tragic heroine.” Yet she resisted becoming happy. “Happiness does not make for an interesting story. I must choose between an interesting journal and a tolerable life. I would be better off choosing a tolerable life.”
On February 22, we learned that Aleksei had reappeared. She was in love with him again, believed he was real again. I was dismayed but not surprised. I thought he would come back, because he was in her—he was her, in a way. Yet he scared me, because he seemed to be death itself stalking her. She knew nobody wanted her to love him, but she loved him. “You are the one who has given the most poetic meaning to my life,” she told him. “I am a poet; you are my muse. I need to write because I love you, and I love you because I need to write.” Indeed, it was at Silver Hill that she wrote one of her best poems to Aleksei, “Desire,” which began:
perhaps I have been unclear
I do not want you to treat me like my father treats my mother
I want you to drag me to the top of a fiery volcano
and kiss me inches away from the scarlet streams of lava
Aleksei was part of her life, as much a part of it as we were. “I have realized that home is neither a place nor a group of people. It is a state of mind. My state of mind is loving you and my parents and being creative and dark and intellectual. That is home for me.” Yet she recognized that Aleksei came and went from her life “like a wave or a universe popping in and out of the quantum foam.” She fell in and out of love with him “like the sun going in and out of the clouds.”
The staff at Silver Hill must have disapproved of her return to Aleksei, because she said she felt stigmatized for loving him. All the “ladders and anchors” she used to try to pull herself out of her black hole were regarded as “unhealthy”—not just Aleksei but her solitary habits. Silver Hill was a trap, the world a prison. Suicide would be a noble death, but she didn’t think she would succeed at it; she hoped at least somehow she could live nobly. Still, she kept hoping for death. “Maybe if my heart stops beating it won’t hurt this much.”
Against the people trying to change her and rob her of Aleksei, she could rebel only by remaining unhappy. “I have no means of rebellion beyond hurting myself. I am sick of people telling me I will get better. Such words encourage me to rebel and stay miserable.”
Meanwhile, she kept loving Aleksei. She returned often to her stream of consciousness style, without capitals or punctuation, her preferred means of communicating with him. In one of her most frequent messages to him, she wrote, “possess me ruin me do not forsake me.” She directed the same message to Death in “Love Poem to Death,” suggesting that in her mind Aleksei was Death personified.
She returned to belief in God, who usually returned when Aleksei was present because Aleksei believed in God and because she felt God must exist to provide Aleksei with an afterlife. “Life is beautiful. Death is beautiful too. All God’s creation is beautiful,” she wrote. She was willing to die for Aleksei: “A love not worth dying for is hardly a love at all.” She wanted to be his wife forever and hoped to have sex with him after the resurrection of the dead. She wanted the chill of his arms around her. “I do not care what is healthy or unhealthy; I care what is right and wrong, and nothing has ever been so right for me as loving you.”
She begged Aleksei not to leave. “I gave you up for a cheap imitation of sanity. Please do not let me do that again.” The visible world was “mundane,” the spiritual world “exciting.” But in March, she felt her love for him waning. “My love for him is like a dying light, flickering on and off.” Again, Aleksei disappeared. She stopped writing to him in her journal and wrote instead about her Logia characters. When she left Silver Hill March 8, she was Aleksei-free.
Before she left, we met with the staff at Silver Hill. They did an assessment that showed she was, as we already knew, intellectually far advanced but socially immature and emotionally fragile. They recommended that she be transferred from her high school to a therapeutic day school designed for the mentally ill. We considered it and talked about it with Martha, her psychiatrist, and her school principal. In the end, Melinda and I decided to leave her in her high school. We feared having her tracked into a mental illness ghetto and losing the bright academic future and career prospects we saw for her. We wanted desperately for her to be normal—at least as normal as I was, bipolar but high-functioning, able to get by in the world while making relatively few concessions to insanity. Very likely she would be valedictorian if she stayed in her high school, and win admission to an elite college. If she could just stay alive.
After Silver Hill, Martha returned to school and to activities with friends. Minoo, the Iranian girl who wore a head scarf, was her closest friend. Minoo was still a devout Muslim and Martha was no longer religious, but people who have once been religious have something in their souls—a hunger for meaning, perhaps—that ever after gives them an affinity with those who are religious.
Martha kept writing Logia stories fervently, later reflecting that she replaced love with writing and God with scholarship, and thereby had everything she needed at that time. She was especially excited about a novel she conceived called Isabel Reynor, of which she wrote several chapters. “This novel will be my child. After three years of waiting for parthenogenesis, I can finally see growing in my mind the child who will be born of my brief union with Aleksei.”
She let me read the unfinished Isabel Reynor. I praised it and gave her suggestions. Martha had shown me pieces of her writing all her life—stories, poems, school papers—and I had always encouraged her, impressed with her literary ability and the strength of her urge to write. Yet, in her diary, she questioned the quality of her writing. “My writing is not very good. The mediocre elements are formulaic and the inventive elements are bad.” Still, she knew how good she was compared to her peers. “I may be a bad writer, but I am still the best writer in the school.”
Martha and I kept having the type of conversations we had always had, about literature, philosophy, and our feelings. She kept sharing my snack with me when I came home from work. Sometimes after dinner I would flop on my bed, exhausted, and she would flop beside me, and we would talk more. Sometimes we would talk in the living room—me in my striped armchair, she on the tropical flower sofa, or, if she was excited, walking in circles around the Oriental carpet, waving her right hand up and down, bending it at the wrist, her voice breathy, her speech slightly slurred. I would see her walking that way sometimes when she was on the phone with Minoo or another friend. Martha and I both liked to walk when we talked on the phone.
In her diary, she recalled one of her favorite lines of Maria’s in West Side Story: “Loving is enough.” Martha commented, “Loving is not enough. Loving will never be enough. Never, if I live a hundred years, will love be enough to save me.” She was no longer in love with Aleksei, but she still wore black clothes and was proud of herself for having loved. Even when she wore clothes of other colors—her light-blue fleece jacket, for example, or her tan UGG boots—she often knotted a black scarf around her neck.
She compared herself to Anna Karenina, and her beloved Aleksei to both Vronsky and Anna’s husband Karenin, both of whom were also named Aleksei. “Did you know that I am the lucky one? I am lucky because I loved. I am great because I loved. Anna, the suicide, is the lucky one. Vronsky was never as wonderful as Anna; indeed, he and Karenin did not approach her greatness. How strange and terrible that they should both be called Aleksei! Ultimately, they are the same person. Both are tied to Anna, and both pale in her shadow.”
In her journals she wrote mathematical equations, the periodic table, and snatches of songs. In the summer, she saw the terrible superhero movie Green Lantern—with me sitting several rows in front of her so as not to disturb her and her friend—and the ballet Cinderella. She set herself reading assignments—Hardy, Chekhov, Simon Schama. She played the computer game King’s Bounty. She reflected on her disbelief in God. “I really do not believe there is anything worse in the world than physical pain. That is why I am not a Christian. Christians believe disbelief and vice to be worse than pain, and I disagree.”
She developed a habit of riding the commuter train into New York City to visit Columbia and take long walks from there, sometimes as far as South Ferry in lower Manhattan. She loved walking. She often took walks with me around Dobbs Ferry, walks where we talked about books and philosophy and her feelings. We said hello to the family of hillbilly types whose front concrete yard was decorated with a Budweiser beach blanket; we petted Niger the black cat who liked to laze in his driveway. Martha walked fast, leaning forward, so I had to step lively to keep up. Sometimes I saw her walking home from school, pitched forward as if into the wind, her green backpack strapped to her, earbuds in her ears as she listened to her iPod.
That summer she was happier than she had been for some time, especially on her long walks in Manhattan and her visits to Columbia. She felt less regretful than at any time since her attempted suicide. “Everything is beautiful,” she wrote on one of her Manhattan trips. “I have an inquisitive mind. Columbia University is where I belong. I love almost everything about the commute from my house to the gates of Columbia University.”
In an extended passage, she meditated on beauty, happiness, and God:
“When I am in love with the universe, everything is beautiful.
“I cannot keep my mind on one thing. The only thread uniting my thoughts is beauty. How precious life is! I treasure every moment of this day. It is amazing how happy I can become in the summer….
“I am a daughter of God. No, I am more than a daughter of God. I am a manifestation of the divine. The mind is my province. Ordinary men live on the earth, but we live in the mind, and the mind is the gateway to the heavens. In grimy city sidewalks and luscious oil paintings I see God. In the rain of Riverdale and the sun of Main Street I feel the same thrill.
“We are not Christians; we are Christs. The greatest among us are wretched to the world and glorious to the stars. We are stars. The dust of our explosions gives birth to our reincarnations. Even after the physical universe expands or contracts into nothingness, the form of beauty persists. It makes its home in every galaxy and atom of the universe. Love is one of its greatest manifestations, but it is not the only one."
Copyright 2020 George Ochoa.