Words of Disaster

BY Minhae Shim Roth | Pandemic Diaries

The first time I attempted suicide, I knew I was going to be a writer. Through that radical act of self-harm, a chasm opened up in me. Like a hard stone above a spring, I cracked open and words poured out in a stream. After being released from the treatment center, I rode a wave of voluptuous energy and stayed up all night, typing furiously, smoking American Spirits. I’d write pages of stream-of-consciousness poetry and psychological prose, tape them in my study cove, and scribble edits and sketches all over them. Writing helped me learn how to live after chasing death. Commanding language became the ribbon that held me together. 

When the pandemic descended, I recognized the suffocating mist of desperation, the gnawing of uncertainty. Cloistered at home, my body recalled pacing too many antiseptic halls before I received the manic depression diagnosis. This global crisis regurgitated the personal state of emergency that defined my life. A pandemic has the capacity to throw you back to your old haunts. Disaster stirs up disaster. Now, like back then, the words churn.  

After I was diagnosed, I learned how to discipline my writing, to reign in the voluble habits and hone the impulses to develop a career as a writer. With medication, I left behind the sleepless nights, the hyperbolic dips and surges in mood, and the unrelenting death drive. But the urge to produce stayed with me. There was always a voice that needed to vibrate; it just had to tear through me first. Even now, feeling the acoustic clicks beneath my fingernails recalls the warm embrace of the blinking cursor that wiggled its fingers at me when I was in a devastating solitude.

In 2017, Hurricane Irma careened through Miami, where I was working as a reporter for a local newspaper and finishing my master’s degree. I lived on the 19th floor of a high-rise building downtown and, because of our precarious location, we were required to evacuate. It started raining hard and as we were packing up to leave, I received an assignment from the newspaper for an article on how to stay calm during the hurricane. As we loaded our car in a blur, paralyzed and energized by the shock of a natural disaster, I was on the phone with local yoga teachers, psychologists, and medical doctors to turn around the story in two hours.

The sense of urgency, the breathlessness, the pounding anxiety of trying to escape while writing on deadline revved my adrenaline. I was wired as we drove through bottleneck traffic out of the Florida panhandle into the French Quarter 20 hours later. Writing wasn’t a distraction from the natural disaster; it was my sidekick.

When coronavirus hit, my journalism work skyrocketed. Since we’ve been in isolation, I’ve been writing more than ever before. Shelter-in-place, however, meant that the whole family was home. My toddler, who had been in daycare during the week, was now home all day, needing to be fed, played with, and cleaned. I became the primary caretaker along with my other full-time jobs as a PhD student and freelance writer. I’d attend my three hour seminars in front of the screen while my partner babysat, care for my kid every other hour, and then work to fulfill my writing projects and start homework after his bedtime until the early hours of the morning. 

Now, I sip green tea instead of smoke cigarettes when I work late. But at 2 am, I discover again the chatty energy from those fledgling days of my writing. The things that accompanied me through my recovery — sleepless nights, the flow of words, the frenetic creativity — whisper a familiar hello to me now as I write through this pandemic. I can only comprehend crisis through the clicks of the keyboard, the inscrutable scribbles on the thin pages of a notebook. The more incapacitated, despairing, and exhausted I am, the more the words come, dripping off my lips, my fingers, my temples. I don’t write to forget the feeling of fear. Rather, writing makes me feel whole, in control, and ready to take on the fear. In times of catastrophe, writing is the only way through. 

Minhae Shim Roth, freelance writer, PhD student, Architecture