Writing ‘Bottle Gardens’ / Paul Whyte

Paul Whyte discusses his short story, ‘Bottle Gardens’, featured in Issue Ten of The Lonely Crowd.

I’ve lived with a relatively severe anxiety disorder for most of my life. It’s a part of who I am, and that’s ok, over the years I’ve come to accept it. Thankfully, I seem to be managing it pretty well these days, using a combination of medication, exercise and cognitive behavioural therapy. That being said, to some degree, it still informs almost everything I do. Every decision, no matter how insignificant, must be signed off and approved by the mysterious little micro-manager in the back of my head. He’s not as mean, or as ruthless as he used to be, but he’s still there all the same.

What does it feel like to live with anxiety? Right now, at its most manageable stage, I can best describe it as a constant feeling of intense, psychic unease. At its most brutal stages, well that’s different for everyone. For me it was, intense. Attacks in particular were an ordeal, and included physical symptoms like vomiting and an uncontrollable shaking that would often end with me hyperventilating until my limbs became numb. Even in the days after an attack, I would wake with a jittering that would last for hours, while at the same time being captured by a thumping sense of guilt; a guilt that would later emerge as a pretty serious symptom in itself.

This is one of the creepier aspects of living with anxiety. It has a cruel, fractal nature to it. This thing is turtles all the way down.

Over the years I’ve worked on dismantling an entire network of bad habits I had sutured together as a way of managing my symptoms. In ‘Bottle Gardens’ Win develops an eating disorder because the vomiting associated with her anxiety has become so debilitating that the only way she can take back some control, is by not having anything in her stomach to bring back up in the first place. If she doesn’t eat, there’s nothing to bring back up. This is the logic. And in 2008, during my darkest battles with mental illness, this was one of the many logical fallacies my anxiety was using to control my life. And of course like the most ingenious methods of control, I was convinced that I should hand the keys over voluntarily, and without incident.

William Burroughs was right, certainly in my case, the functioning police state requires no police.

Clearly anxiety was one of the concepts I wanted to explore in ‘Bottle Gardens’. I had never written about my experience with it before, not consciously anyway. It had shown up here and there, but it had never directly informed a narrative. I was concerned initially that I was about to write a story with an overt point to it. This in itself is not a bad thing. The concern lay more in the fact that this is not an easy thing to do well. Especially since I wasn’t even sure what that point was. But as is often the case, that same feeling of resistance was what drew me in. I wanted to know if I could pull something like this off without it coming off pretentious or boring. If I could inform a story with such personal experiences, without receding into the overly sentimental. Win’s story had to come first, any messageor pointbehind the narrative, had to come second.

So, as well as that vague sense of a theme, I had a number of character and story beats I knew I wanted to play with. Images like Win’s notebook, and threads like the system of odds that inspires her escort agency for terrified flyers. These were all here from the beginning. Others, like Simon and his gross eating habits, or the violence in the finale all emerged as I started to live with the story over the weeks.

Natural systems and networks seem to be themes I come back to a lot. In this story I focus on the places between systems, the glass in the bottle garden. Glass was another image that cropped up in early notes. I considered writing about a reoccurring dream Win was having. She would dream about her form being blown and sculpted in clear hollow glass. Exotic plants would grow inside this space, flowering bodies congesting every limb and feature. While looking up what terrarium plants I should use, I stumbled upon the very pronounceable ‘fittonia albivenis’ sometimes referred to as the ‘nerve plant’, because of the bright red bifurcation on its leaves. A feature that looks unmistakably like a nervous system. I imagined this plant sprouting up through the statue – systems stacked on top of systems. That’s the sort of apophenia that’ll get a man up in the morning. It was sort of pretty, and maybe even interesting but it was also intensely pretentious and clunky, and if there is one molecule of wisdom I can impart on to you as a writer, it is to relentlessly search for opportunities, to call yourself out on your own bullshit.

Structurally I wanted to try and build a narrative that would subtly mirror the disorder of Win’s internal world. So I played a little with timelines and flashbacks. It didn’t really work, so I scaled this back and edited away the threads that felt forced, though I’m glad I at least tried.

Win’s anxiety soundtracks how she thinks about the world and the characters inhabiting it. She can’t just dislike her housemate Simon; he has to be psychoanalyzed to the point of obsession. She can’t just doodle in a notebook; she has to fill a half-dozen of them a month. There is this addictive quality to her behaviour, both physically and mentally that I was very aware of as I was writing. At times I felt as though I was self pathologizing my own mental health along the way. Look, I don’t want to be that person – writing is not an alternative to therapy.  But truthfully, when I finished this story, I felt a relief from a tension I didn’t know I was carrying. I reflected, almost accidentally, on parts of myself I don’t think I ever have before. Now I know I have more to do, more to figure out. I’m left with an urge to understand what deterministic forces moulded me into who I am. Turtles all the bloody way down, that’s for sure, but I want to know how it started, I want to knock on the very first shell.

Ultimately, this is what I took away from writing my story with a message.

I won’t say I learned any lessons, but I will say I was reminded that there are questions still left to be asked. And there is value in that. Enough to wonder if maybe I’ll try it again someday.

Until then, here is one last message: If you, or someone close to you, suffers with any form of anxiety, I would encourage you not to do what Win and I did – do not ignore it, do not normalize it. Do not diminish its effect on your life. Your sense of wellbeing will inform everything you do. Down to the ones and zeros of your interpersonal economy. You deserve treatment, you deserve care. Seek help if you can, and never, ever, ask for it quietly.

Paul Whyte is an Irish writer. Originally from Tipperary, he currently lives in Dublin with his wife and three children, where he’s working on a short story collection. Paul has been writing for about 10 years, mostly working on speculative and literary fiction. His stories can be found all over the place, most recently though you’ll find him in places like The Moth, Rose Magazine, and The Bohemyth.

© Paul Whyte, 2018. Image © Jo Mazelis, 2018.