Marin Sardy’s mother talked often about the universe. How it existed in two streams. One stream was the everyday world we can see and the other exists inside of us — the realm of the imagination and spirit. The Earth, she said, contained a special force that sorted people “according to where we belong.” Sometimes her beliefs propelled her to cover the ends of their television antennas with balls of aluminum foil to protect her children from radiation. At other times, Sardy’s mother covered her face with bandanas so that only her eyes were visible.
Sardy grew up with these dueling realities. There was the life of school, friends, and gymnastics practice outside of her house in Anchorage, Alaska. And then there was life inside, with her mother, who was mentally ill. Sardy tried to keep the two realities separate, but the stress was profound.
“The months when my mother didn’t seem to eat anything at all except cheddar cheese and green onions. She would stand in the kitchen over a cutting board and take a bite of one, then the other,” Sardy writes in “Strange Things I Have Encountered,” the first chapter of her experimental, essayistic memoir, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia, (Pantheon Books, 289 pages, $25.95).
The chapter is composed of fragmented memories, experiences, and observations that might seem unnervingly random to a reader who has never been intimately connected to madness. When she was a young child, it wasn’t always clear to Sardy where her own thoughts ended and her mother’s delusions began.
“Eclipses of my mind, which happen at times for no apparent reason. I am walking and then I am falling. But I am not falling,” she writes. “I have gone black for a fraction of a second, and in that time I lost my sense of my position in space. Then I become afraid that at any moment I will pass out and fall.”
Sardy effectively conveys how schizophrenia upends the life of the sufferers and those of most everyone who loves them. Her mother was deeply paranoid — of radiation, thieving relatives, the untrustworthy tectonic plates she believed were shifting under her feet. And as she tells it, Sardy had to keep so much inside of herself that it was difficult to feel connected to other people. Because she couldn’t depend on her mother for guidance or stability, every day came with a sense of risk.
She wrote a memoir because she wanted to integrate the inside and the outside of her house, so to speak. But the story Sardy tells is larger than her experience with her mother. Sardy’s younger brother, Tom, developed symptoms of schizophrenia and became homeless when he was in his 20s. She reveals early in the book that Tom is now dead and then arcs a roving series of chapters toward the moment of his demise. Her sometimes disjointed prose reflects the way a schizophrenic’s mind works, as well as her own interior monologue. She said that her thoughts are quick and associative, and a linear approach didn’t seem the right way to convey her experiences in the book.
Sardy reads from The Edge of Every Day on Wednesday, June 26, at Collected Works Bookstore.
Though she grew up in Alaska and now lives in Arizona, Sardy has roots in New Mexico. Her grandparents owned the Circle Diamond Ranch near Roswell. Her grandfather’s business interests brought him from Chicago to the oil fields of the desert Southwest, and then, in the 1960s, to the high-rises of Los Angeles as the CEO of the Atlantic Richfield oil company, known as ARCO. Her mother lived on family money for years until it ran out. Sardy and her mother have both lived in Santa Fe; Sardy was the editor of Santa Fean magazine in 2009, when she was in her early 30s. She left to earn a graduate degree in nonfiction writing at Columbia University.
“I went there thinking I was going to write about more external things, but every time I sat down, I just wound up writing about schizophrenia,” she said. At that time, her brother was still alive, so although she wrote essays about him, she did not intend to make him such a large focus of her memoir. “If he was going to come back indoors and try to recover from schizophrenia to whatever degree he could, I didn’t want to have written a bunch of stuff about him that could upset him at some point in the future.”
But then he died and she was thrown off course. In the years that followed, his life was all she could think about. In the book, she recalls witnessing Tom’s descent into his disease when she was 27 and he was 24, and they traveled together to Costa Rica. He was an intelligent, active young man who had dropped out of college and stopped doing the things he loved. Sardy’s antennae were up, alert for signs of schizophrenia.
Tom told her that he was having trouble with his face. His jaw was disconnected from the rest of his head and he had spent hours trying to reattach it. “It’s not all sticking together and it’s so annoying,” he said. He revealed other delusional ideas, such as his plan to swim from Alaska to Japan. Sardy spent the trip drinking, smoking pot, and hooking up with a local guy in an effort to pretend Tom wasn’t getting worse.
“Several years later, after the doctors and medications and our help have achieved little, after Tom has denied his illness and turned us away and landed in the soup kitchens and homeless shelters of downtown Anchorage, I’ll know this beach is where I lost him,” she writes.
Schizophrenia runs in Sardy’s family, affecting not only her mother and brother but earlier generations as well. She grew up hearing stories about her colorful relatives, although the illness generally went unnamed — and in her mother’s case, undiagnosed until she was elderly. When Sardy was living in Santa Fe, she frequently visited her grandmother in Roswell. There, she learned that her grandmother’s supposedly eccentric brother, Perry, had in fact had severe psychological problems that doctors in the 1940s and ’50s thought was manic depression (now called bipolar disorder). In hindsight, his symptoms align with those of schizophrenia.
“From my grandmother I got a sense of the misinformation and lack of knowledge she dealt with. I could see how deeply confused she had been over the decades,” Sardy said.
People have asked Sardy if she fears becoming schizophrenic. Though she understands that it’s a possibility, her real fear stems from a much deeper place that comes from the trauma of being raised inside someone else’s delusions. “What I fear — and this is totally irrational — is that I’m already psychotic and out of touch with reality, and I just don’t know it.”
Sardy hopes readers who have schizophrenia in their families can relate to The Edge of Every Day and feel validated and empowered by it. She has become increasingly more open about mental illness over time, and whenever she does readings or speaks publicly about schizophrenia, strangers confide in her. “There are so many people and so many stories about schizophrenia,” she said. “I want this to help them. I also want this book to make things better for people like my brother — people who end up on the street or in the prison system, people who end up cycling through psychiatric hospitals without getting consistent help and support to actually recover. I want this to motivate people to make the system better.” ◀
▼ Marin Sardy reads from her memoir, The Edge of Every Day: Sketches of Schizophrenia
▼ 6 p.m. Wednesday, June 26
▼ Collected Works Bookstore, 202 Galisteo St.
▼ Free; 505-988-4226, collectedworksbookstore.com