Liesl Jobson

Listening to the Voices

Angels, the voices,
don’t like prozac
don’t like lithium
don’t like doctors
presupposing they know
the things I hear, and other
dangerous assumptions.

Angels, the voices
want to be heard,
to be reassured
they won’t be ignored.
Because, when heeded,
angels, the voices,
made me better.

In a writing workshop, the facilitator hands out fat wax crayons in jewel colours and large crisp sheets of butcher paper. “Draw a picture,” he says, “of a significant event from your past, using your non-dominant hand. Take ten minutes. Go.”

At first I feel panic. I don’t know what to draw. I can’t remember my childhood. I don’t want to do this. I hate groups. They’re too much like school. I want to be alone. Then a small voice breathes, “Draw the candle that flickered on the altar in the corner of Sr. Sheila’s classroom.”

The flame is an orange wobble, the candle a blue cylinder tilting as if it might fall over and start a fire. I loved the smell of the smoke hovering in the sunlight after she blew it out. She said children’s prayers went straight to Jesus’ heart.

My left hand veers out of control. Beneath the candle I draw the yellow table cloth, but the crayons are too stubby, my fingers too clumsy to capture the embroidered roses that edged the cloth. A tiny girl with a round pink face and a too-large blue uniform emerges and beside her a great big nun in a soft grey habit kneels in prayer.

“Now write up the story of your picture,” says the facilitator, “also with your non-dominant hand.” Oh no! My hand hurts already. I’m not in the mood. “Take ten minutes. Go.”

In a spiky script, my seven-year-old self recalls:

A candle is lit in class every day for prayers. All Catholic children go to Catechism. I tell Sr Sheila I am Catholic. Methodists have no angels or saints or the Holy Mother Mary. Sr Sheila won’t allow me to go to Catechism. I am a second class citizen. I want to be Catholic too. I beg my parents. They refuse.

Anne-Marie says you must tell the priest all your sins at confession. All, I ask? Every last one, she says. But I have too many sins. Even if I was Catholic, I couldn’t remember them all. I start a list but I’ve done too many bad things. It’s just as well I’m Methodist.

Years later, I play piano for First Holy Communion services at the Catholic school where I teach. At 40, I still envy the little brides of Christ in their beautiful dresses, with white roses in their hair and patent leather shoes, all shiny with hope because they remembered all their sins and have been forgiven.

The facilitator says, “Change to your dominant hand now. Record the feelings that arose while drawing and writing with your other hand.” I hope we won’t have to read our work aloud. Can I keep it light? Can I, for once, not let every thing hang out in public? “Take ten minutes. Go.”

This exercise took me back to when learning to read and write was a furious passion, a voracious hunger, an almost physical lust. I was sure that once I had those skills, the world would have meaning. It would cease to be bewildering and confounding. The frustration of holding a pencil that jumped from my grasp and skidded haphazardly across the page would be worth it.

I wished my pictures and letters were prettier, like other children’s, but the teacher praised my effort. At that first school I felt special and clever.

An earlier memory of watching my mother write surfaced too. I held a letter she had written, studied and copied it. I mimicked the start-stop-start flow of her hand across a page in evenly spaced loops. I asked her to read it to me, but she was busy with the babies and I couldn’t wait. I gave it to my grandfather and asked him to read it to me. I had mastered the art writing. It was reading that still eluded me. He told me it wasn’t writing, but scribble, and returned it unread.

A great sadness wells up in me, for the sinful child, so burdened with her own imperfection, who would soon experience a lengthy and crippling depression. I feel sorrow about the inadequacy of some of the adults who peopled and patrolled her world. If only that grandfather could have responded with, “Once upon a time there was a very clever girl who had a magic pen…”

I recognise with pride the small storyteller who knew instinctively that language and fiction were a path to survival and making sense in an alienated world. I recognise that small voice that has always been with me is back. It’s been gone for a while, but I hear it again, leading me on as I write.

The exercise takes me on a journey inwards, to the origins of my own writing that took root alongside my earliest feelings of guilt and unworthiness. I travel towards a fresh awareness of the link between storytelling and my own ultimate health.

I grew up as a South African child in the 70’s. My parents belonged to the Christian organisation founded by Beyers Naude and banned under the Apartheid government. When my mother listened to the radio, her face became grave, she shook her head. My father bit his nails, threw his hands in the air. Without understanding the words, I knew that bad things were happening and good people were powerless against a shadowy terror. At 7, I left the convent to attend a series of government schools where rigid conformity was demanded and punishment was a constant threat.

Angels, the voices
don’t take flight,
like disturbed friends, crows
who don’t want to catch
the thing I have.

By the age of 14, I was sleeping 16 hours a day. I couldn’t concentrate in class and my academic work slipped. We’d moved from KwaZulu-Natal to Cape Town to Connecticut, USA. Letter writing was the one thing that made me feel better. I lived for the postman each day. Each new delivery was a confirmation that I was still linked to the world. As I wrote to friends back home, I poured out my heart, feeling alive. Writing was a relief, a release, a way of trying to understand what was happening to me. I heard a voice in my head as I wrote. People loved my letters, calling them warm and witty and interesting. As I retreated into silence in the real world, I found a way to articulate myself via the pen.

On returning to South Africa, I discovered that the people with whom I’d enjoyed intimate and enthusiastic correspondence were not warm and open face to face – and neither was I. The writing connection didn’t translate. I found solace briefly in letters to American friends but as the depression deepened, I descended into a tyrannical silence. The gentle voice I’d heard at my writing pad was drowned out by a host of screamers urging me to do the vilest thing. I pondered daily ‘the unforgivable sin’. I asked the minister what was it precisely that might put one beyond the reach of redemption. He assured me that as I was obviously concerned about committing it, I was actually in no danger of doing so. He still didn’t tell me what it was.

Angels, the voices
carry me over
frothing evangelicals
who speak in tongues,
drooling crazy spit,
who weep, and fit.

At the age of 21, I finally received psychiatric treatment, by which time I was married and suicidal. For the next 10 years, I got gradually worse. Initially medication seemed to make a big difference, but in time, the well periods became shorter, the ill periods longer. Despite the combination of Lithium, Prozac and Emdalen and therapy twice or three times a week, I remained trapped in all-consuming silence of depression. Throughout this time I wrote sporadically to my family and in my journal. Soon I had two tiny children and I knew my marriage was a terrible mistake but divorce was not Scriptural. When my doctor proposed ECT, a well-meaning friend took me to a healing service at her church. She was a Baptist.

A lady with big blond hair and cowboy boots led the service. We started with spiritual songs in a Country Western style. She had a fake American accent and told us to clap our hands very loudly as we sang to chase away the demons. Beside the podium were stacks of empty ice-cream containers without their lids and many boxes of tissues. I’d never seen such odd accoutrements to worship in any church before. I asked my friend what they were for. She said they were for the demons. The singing and clapping were very loud. I wasn’t sure I’d heard right. For the demons, I asked? She nodded and said I’d soon see.

Those who needed healing were called to the front. I thought it was time to leave. The drummer was sweating. Dolly Parton was almost frothing. My friend pushed me forward. Soon I was enveloped by four pairs of eager arms, scrutinised by four earnest faces. The team leader asked what was wrong. I said I was there because my friend believed I was ill, but I knew there was nothing wrong. I hoped Jesus would forgive my outrageous story. Everything was very wrong indeed, but this was not the place to disclose my troubles. The leader said we would ask the Lord for a sign. I consented. I couldn’t do much else. I sat on a low chair in the middle of them. My friend smiled, waving from the congregation.

While they prayed, their heavy hands on me dragged down my head and shoulders. My back sagged, the chair was wonky. I looked out under somebody’s armpit as the lady to my right shuddered and heaved. Perhaps she was having a fit. Two of her healing team held tightly to her arms as if she might escape. They prayed loudly, callin’ out Leviathon, callin’ out Satan, pledgin’ the blood of Jesus over their sufferin’ sister. A third held the ice-cream box below her mouth to catch her drool. He wiped her mouth with a wad of tissues. She made to bite him. The fourth member gripped her head as if in a rugby tackle. I hoped she wasn’t suffering from a neck injury beforehand.

I turned away and peered out through another armpit. There was a man puking out his demons with his last meal into the ice-cream container. My bile rose. It wouldn’t be long before my lunch was also on public display. I was quite sure that wasn’t the sign the Lord intended so I wriggled out and waited for the service to end in the car park.

Angels, the voices
dig holes in unlikely spots
to bury bad pills
and toxic religion.
They plant rose bushes
on the sacrificial mound
bearing bouquets of hope
for the emerging guest.

My therapy was a weekly telling of my life story. Hour by hour over eleven years, I worried about the future, seethed about the present and railed against the past. I wrote down my dreams and read them aloud. Something eventually began to shift. I questioned everything: my religion, my diagnosis and treatment, my reasons for marrying at 19. Why had I not seen beyond my devout Evangelism, that living in sin would have been an infinitely more sensible option than marrying as a teenager? I moaned about my parents, I bewailed the way I parented my own children. Eventually I left the church. Then I left my marriage. By that stage, my therapist had cancer and her end was near. She died the week my divorce went through.

The facilitator says, “The point of this exercise is to feel your writing run ahead of you. Typically, your dominant hand controls everything. In the coming week, you are to practise relinquishing control of your writing. Let your conscious mind get out the driver seat. Let whatever wants you to write it emerge. Start listening to your own voice.”

This year I’ll finish a MA in Creative Writing. It’s nearly five years that I’ve been off anti-depressants and am well. I see a therapist once a week and a (different, far more respectful) psychiatrist twice a year.

Every day I write for a host of reasons: for balm, calm and clarity, to rekindle hope and gain perspective when I’m overwhelmed and overextended. It’s a path to intellectual freedom and a way of sharpening my wits. It is an act of preventive health care and a spiritual discipline. It is the medium wherein I become an artist and grapple with the essence of my self and soul. And with great delight and gratitude, I am proud to say that my writing has finally become a means of financial support.

Angels, the voices
remove their gardening gloves,
take out their trumpets
announce the celebratory song,
the emerging quest – recovery’s
arrival at a safer space.

Back to Top of Page | Back to Essays | Back to Volume 13, Issue 4 – December 2019

About the Author

Liesl Jobson is a writer, photographer and musician. Her collection of prose poems and flash fiction, 100 Papers, won the 2006 Ernst van Heerden Award and was translated into Italian as Cento strappi. She is the author of a poetry collection, View from an Escalator, a short story collection, Ride the Tortoise, and three children’s books. At dawn, she is a single sculler. By day, she is a communications officer for enterprise development specialists, Fetola, and in the evening, she plays the contrabassoon for the Cape Town Philharmonic Orchestra – but only when the planets are aligned.