Jacquese Armstrong

In Walked Mania by Another Name… (and It wasn’t Bud)

     I always told myself, “If I could just finish college.” Then, “If I could just move.” And then finally, “If I could just find a job in my major and work.” The voices would stop then. But they didn’t. I finally had to admit to myself this was a for-real lifelong struggle. I wasn’t ready to handle that, and death was my contingency plan.

     …Blue night dog howls when ancestors meet my depressed state, cry blood tears with me. We understand the feeling. We touch hands through centuries. They clustered at my bedside when I lay in catatonic blue and for that I cannot forsake what they endured, set them free in my verse. Accentuate their wails from ship to shore. They are my own.

     They rocked me through the psychotic blueness of howling dog years. I will never forget that…

     This long oppressive journey began with a psychotic break at 20 in my junior year as I was studying to be a chemical engineer, a burden laden battle ensued from revolving door participation in college to graduation with a journalism degree at 27. I say I was on the revolving door plan because once I was able to go back to school, I was in and out, balancing admissions to the psychiatric hospital with any upcoming quarter’s admission to school.

     The voices had interrupted my budding engineering career first in allyship. The first was an ancestor who had crossed the middle passage and he dictated poetry as I was trying to study. I remember many poems written on the green engineering graph paper I did my homework on. It would have been okay if it had stopped there. However, there were more in time, and they entertained me and made me laugh. They weren’t ancestors though, but I thought they were friends until they turned on me. After a while, I determined they were demons.

     That is when the personal hell began. I could not distinguish my own voice in my head, and they castigated my every move. They communicated to me in such a way as to make me extremely paranoid to the point that I was scared to leave my apartment in the end and go to class. I was their prisoner. The African man gave me some sense of stability though.

     As I iterated, the voices didn’t stop when I finished college, although I had deluded myself that they would. I tried to find a job in journalism in the town where I lived to no avail and was so depressed and distraught that my parents decided to help me move to D.C., where I knew journalism jobs were plentiful.

     In my estimation, the voices should have stopped then. But I still heard the blue dogs howling in the night trying to entice me to death out of the sheer frustration that comes with a complex mind out of order.

     From what I observed in those years, psychiatry is a fairly inexact science. They may say “try this for a couple of weeks and see if it works” or “I prescribed this and so it should work for you.” Or one prescribed Xanax, which is addictive and only masked the symptoms. And even better, their love is ECT (electroconvulsive therapy) when all else doesn’t work. I’ve often wondered if they were in peril, would they come up with a better choice than administering voltage to the brain.

     Mine was simply a deluded young mind trying to keep some semblance of hope. So, it had to stop when I started working in my major right?

     Wrong on two counts of failed journalism positions because of interrupting voices, delusions, acute paranoia, and panic attacks. And by that time, I was beginning to see my relatively young life as a burden on not only me but my family. That’s when I reached for the contingency plan, ten years into the struggle. I thought I had exhausted all my options…

     I ended up back at my parents’ house and after some time began to look for a job again, any job.

     Because I wanted to buy a little space of mind, I had taken to wearing earphones piping in music 24/7 to discourage the voices. They had all but taken over again. But I, Jacquese, the warrior princess, fought on despite it.

     Luckily, I can’t get bored with music; I like too many types. I listen to Mozart and Miles, Holiday and Chrissie Hynde, Joan Armatrading and Dinah Washington. And Abbey Lincoln cannot be listed with anyone, she is in a class far beyond the “normal” realm, Al Jarreau and Jimi Hendrix, Stevie Nicks and Bill Withers, Donnie Hathaway and Thelonious…Well, you get the picture.

     This was a day like any other day in this season of my life. I was once again trying to work a job, any job. Today it was telephone marketing for a museum. Unfortunately, on this occasion, I thought I had a blatant thought overflow that was disrupting the room. So, I left abruptly (which is my per usual if I’m not well) in tears that I tried to hide as I walked hurriedly out and down the street in complete agitation like Sally Fields’ Sybil, I guess.

     A bench was waiting for me at the bus stop, and I stopped to put headphones on once again. The tape I chose to play was music I thought to be inspired by Harriet Tubman’s Underground Railroad.

     While I’m listening, I’m trying to figure out my being able to read minds and the thought overflow thing. Just then, two voices came together in unison. “…a nation of people anticipatin when the other shoe is gonna fall for so long, started reading minds.” The voices were mine and the musician. (Yes, a prominent jazz artist made a cameo in my rather dull deranged little life.)

     …blue night dog howls when ancestors meet my depressed state, cry blood tears with me. We understand the feeling. We touch hands through centuries…

     You see, I had held this theory since the first major break, that only black people could read minds. It was an evolutionary thing. We had anticipated the shoe falling for so long, we got to know how to read minds… (Yes, I lived in a science fiction, black history, fantasy world.) I for some reason didn’t know how to control the overflow of thoughts and needed to find a remedy to that and a white mental health professional couldn’t help me with this. I didn’t even try to discuss this aspect with them, nor did I tell them about the musician.

     If you know anything about the realities of trying to find African American mental health professionals, especially in this era, the 1980s and 90s, it was next to impossible in some places. When I first got “sick,” I and the ancestors demanded a black psychiatrist and my parents tried to find one. We met with the reality that only two percent of the psychiatric population were black and there were none where we lived at the time.

     The thought-overflow scenario, however, still plays out in my life, especially in work settings and places where I face the same people on a constant basis.

     But my theory formed my life into a poetic quest to find out what happened to me and preserve the sanity of those black people to come behind me…This meant preserving and telling ancestors’ stories as they were dictated to me in the form of poems.

     …Ancestors clustered at my bedside when I lay unable to speak in catatonic blue and for that I cannot forsake what they endured, set them free in my verse. Accentuate their wails from ship to shore. They are my own…

     It was incumbent upon me and whoever else could help me figure this out.

     It is important to note that my parents constantly told me that no one could read minds. However, I thought they were just naïve or unevolved.

     So, I became obsessed; thinking this jazz musician knew more about “specific” Underground codes than I did. Then after a couple of cycles in my now manic impaired brain, it became him having the key to stop the over-the-top turmoil in my brain.

     My voices, being very demure when it came to communication with others, always insisted that these things never be discussed literally. They insisted on metaphor and understatement. So, I politely wrote a letter to this jazz musician for the inspiration behind the notes on the album. No mention of saving me from a barrage of voices, just a polite little letter that I sent with a poem that was dictated by an angel specifically for him. (of course, I had to make sure that it was delivered; and of course, I never mentioned the angel except in metaphor in the poem…of course.)

     I must insert here that this occurred more than a couple of decades ago and some details may be in wrong sequence, or an imagined part of my distress. It all makes for good theater though.

     In retrospect, I have to say, he was very nice at my micro-invasion of his life. He wrote me a very nice note that I read ovah and ovah and don’t remember one word on it. I also talked to him by phone a couple of times and sent endless poems, even when I got no answer. I thought we could be like the Harlem Renaissance poets and musicians and correspond through letters…Yeah, I was gone.

     By this time, in my racing thoughts, I was sure I could slow walk him down the aisle and we could be an artistic force to be reckoned with…a younger version of Ruby Dee and Ossie Davis at that time…Yeah, I was gone. And I must admit, the whole scene amused me. Especially the fact that we could communicate through our minds…Yeah, I was gone.

     So, if you know anything about Mania, you know that he had already walked in, and other symptomatic traits made the doctor concerned. I was placed in the hospital where they probed and changed medication to no avail and finally decided that my only saving grace would be a series of shock treatments. But not before I tried to bust out of the place. This story my father so lovingly recalls as his “driving the getaway car” story…

     It played out this way.

     In the nineties (yes, the nineties), when they still let you smoke in the hospital, at least in psych wards, they would allow you to sign yourself out for a couple of hours to walk around the grounds. Of course, this was a “privilege” you had to “earn.” So, of course being the good patient that I was, I had this “privilege.”

     I’d like to tell you that on this day, the sky was blue, and the birds were singing merrily in the trees and that I saw a cardinal and a crow conversing. But I can’t. I don’t remember any extraneous info. I checked out to walk around and then I thought, I’m bustin out of this joint.

     So, having newly moved home again for the who knows what time, ten years into the illness, I was unfamiliar with the town my parents lived in. I knew no one. This was lucky for me in my mental health state; I called my dad.

     I called my dad from the pay phone in the pharmacy of the hospital and told him that they released me, and could he please come and pick me up now. My father, being the astute scientist that he is, knew something was up and called my doctor.

     Meanwhile, to let you know how well thought out this plan was…I never thought about how I was going to get my things. Or the fact that my dad was bound to find out sometime.

     My dad told me how it played out years later. When he called, the hospital was concerned because I had not returned and was hours overdue from my “privileged” sign out. “Where is she?” (They were frantic.) He told them our scheduled rendezvous point and that is where the male nurses in their white jackets found me and escorted me back to my hospital room. And I thought, damn, foiled by my own father. Of course, I was never to be “privileged” again by this hospital. I was escorted everywhere by a nurse after that.

     We still laugh about this…

     But I want to take a pause and talk about something very serious that I’ve been through a series of twice, asked numerous more times to repeat and occurred in my treatment this time around, ECT.


By Mayo Clinic Staff

Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a procedure, done under general anesthesia, in which small electric currents are passed through the brain, intentionally triggering a brief seizure. ECT seems to cause changes in brain chemistry that can quickly reverse symptoms of certain mental health conditions.

ECT often works when other treatments are unsuccessful and when the full course of treatment is completed, but it may not work for everyone.

Much of the stigma attached to ECT is based on early treatments in which high doses of electricity were administered without anesthesia, leading to memory loss, fractured bones and other serious side effects.

ECT is much safer today. Although ECT may still cause some side effects, it now uses electric currents given in a controlled setting to achieve the most benefit with the fewest possible risks.

     The preceding is an overview of ECT I found on the Mayo Clinic website. Let me give you a personal view.

     When I had the first psychotic break at 20, in 1982, I had a series of ECT. I was catatonic and they could not bring me around. I responded to no medication on the market at that time. This was the last-ditch effort. Of course, I guess after some deep consideration, my parents went for it, what else could they do.

     I don’t care what they say about a kinder gentler version of ECT. I lost a part of my mind with that procedure. When I returned to school, after about a year more of catatonia, I could not do engineering work. I could not manipulate equations and grasp concepts as I once had done with ease, and I was classified as a junior in chemical engineering when I had the break. Not only that, there are still some memories that friends remind me of that I no longer have. I was effectively a zombie coming out of the procedure.

     So much was I in a zombie state that they wanted my parents to sign me over to a long-term state facility. Just like that, they gave up hope on a 20-year-old. I thank God my parents love me. They wouldn’t hear of it. If this had happened, there is an overwhelming chance I would not be writing this piece today. I wouldn’t be coherent enough if I was still around.

     This was the first time.

     The second time was this time, in the 90s. I made the decision. They assured me that ECT was even kinder and gentler than when I had it in the 80s and that this was a last-ditch effort to bring me down from mania…hmmm…racing voices not my own or memory loss…hmmm.

     I had already fought my way through college to a Journalism B.A. and had a real aversion to going back. I couldn’t work in the shape I was in. My doctor at the time, whom I trusted because he was the first to treat me as a human with a life and not a lab rat or a ticket to my parents’ open wallet, with a sorrowful serious look on his face recommended it. So…I bought some more misery.

      My view on this procedure now is this. I think it inhumane to try to jumpstart somebody’s brain at the risk of disturbing their lifelong dignity and memories. I have seen some people that have been persuaded to do a series of ECT on numerous occasions. It’s a sight that makes you want to cry. I must also say that I have met others who swear by the procedure. However, I think if the doctors who are proponents of this therapy had to contemplate using it, they would easily come up with another solution.

     So, as I said, I bought some more misery. I elected to undergo ECT again. I did come down from the mania. However, I was a Stepford wife for some weeks after. I had the trappings of a princess and my mind was a black hole. This is a 180 for me because I am very opinionated usually (at least around my family and on paper) and full of myself at times. In this state, I left the hospital and was greeted the next morning by a call from the jazz musician. Would I like to come to a concert? They were in town. I couldn’t conceal my glee…

     There was some misunderstanding about the night, and I missed the concert, much to my chagrin. He never again answered my calls or poems. I tried periodically for a century it seems. I mean he is a great-looking genius and used to be so outspoken. I loved that about him…hmmm.

     Life, however, whether you want it to or are ready for it to or not, has a way of charging on. The mania left, but the voices remained in what they had made their home, and I never knew my true voice again until I was 44, 24 years and hundreds of jobs after the initial break. But then, I was left with the rest of the company to deal with as well as the grief for having missed so much of my life and having no tangible accomplishments up until that point.

     Today, at 59, I make it my business, literally, to speak and write about the stages of my recovery process. In addition, I create workshops centering on mental wellness and self-care. I place a certain importance on normalizing talking about mental health challenges. It’s the only way we as people who have visited this parallel universe in the mental health system are going to be welcomed back into society without the task of hiding and/or having to be silent about it. We have assignments to complete also. No one is going to shame me into a hole. I’ve already known too many and I don’t have plans on becoming acquainted with any others.

     Because now, the ancestors shed raindrop tears of travelled remorse with me, we laugh, and we dance.



This piece, “In Walked Mania by Another Name… (And It Wasn’t Bud),” is an essay from my memoir manuscript, Underground Railroad of the Mind. It is an illustration of what it’s like to walk with a distress that obviously needs to be addressed by culturally responsive mental health professionals. I didn’t feel I had any at the time. Even the voices in my head cried out for a Black psychiatrist, which as I remarked in the piece was an impossibility where I was. Therefore, I had a fear of telling the truths about my distress for fear of being misunderstood and/or locked up. I never even wrote or told a soul about the African man dictating poetry or the ancestors dictating poetry when I didn’t respond, until a decade ago; three decades into the trauma I was going through, with or without voices.

I used to say that my only trauma was the “illness” I was going through. Recently, I’ve been working with a great therapist for once. She is Black and culturally compatible with me and gets me. She is very keen on just keeping you talking and I went back and identified trauma I had covered up. Perhaps, I was just ready for this now.  But perhaps, if I had had the care I needed ages ago, I could have been on the brink of some semblance of a life before now. I’ve decided not to dwell on the past.

Although I am 60, I feel young. Because of the latest work I’ve done with the therapist (I did a whole lot of work on my own), I got a new lease. I am working on being released from the tyranny of medication. However, after 40 years, realistically, that may not work. For so many people in my generation who had what they call SMIs or Severe Mental Illnesses, to use their terminology, we have been medicated and/or over-medicated for a long period of time. A lot of us have also been coerced into ECT treatments and hospitalized more than we care to admit. It’s been a way of life, unfortunately. This within itself is trauma and a form of oppression.

However, I want to be that voice that says it’s never too late to regain that sense of self, hope and joy. I found mine through a holistic approach, despite all the medication.

I first began creating wellness workshops from an artistic approach for myself because my therapists weren’t addressing my needs. I knew I needed some type of help outside of the medication that wasn’t working. I then passed the resulting product to my peers. With an emphasis on the 8 dimensions of wellness and mindfulness, the workshops at least guided me to a better place in my recovery journey. Gratitude Workshops that I developed also played a key role. And my Spiritual belief in a Higher Power anchored my presence in the storms and transition period.

It was a lengthy process. However, I’m sure that if you’re seeking, you can find that sense of self, hope and joy also.

Jacquese Armstrong, author of birthing yourself naturally: motivational reflections on a mental health journey (2022) and blues legacy (Broadside Lotus Press, 2019), was the recipient of the 2019 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award and 2015 Ambassador Award from the State of New Jersey Governor’s Council on Mental Health Stigma for promoting wellness and recovery and reducing stigma through the arts.

She served as a 2022 Black Fire—This Time Anthology Summer Fellow and has been a cast member of TMI Project’s storytelling performances Black Stories Matter: Every Word Spoken and Alone Together stories of COVID-19 in quarantine.

Her work has been published in MAD in America, midnight & indigo, Ourselves Black, Stellium and others.

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