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Author Zan Bockes talks mental illness, creativity

When Missoula author Zan Bockes was 22 years old and living in Nebraska, she stole the Omaha fire chief's squad car. While wandering around on foot, she walked into the fire station undetected, where she found the chief's squad car with the keys in it (and, she'd find out later, $10,000 worth of fire detection equipment in the back). She jumped in and drove off. "That was in a manic thing," she says. "And then I had some fun with that, I drove around with the lights and the siren on. Thank God nobody chased me or anything, because it could have been really bad," she says.

Bockes ended up driving to her apartment and parking the car. The next morning, cops were swarming outside. "They were going to put me in jail, but I was obviously out of my mind so they put me in a hospital," she says. "And dropped the charges, which is fortunate, because that could have been like three to five years in prison."

click to enlarge Missoula Independent news
  • Photo by Cathrine L. Walters
  • Missoula author Zan Bockes has been forthright about her struggles with bipolar disorder. Her new poetry collection, Caught in Passing, was released this spring by Turning Point Books.

Bockes says she first noticed the symptoms of what's now called bipolar disorder around age 19, but denied it for years. She experiences what psychologists call "mixed episodes," which rapidly cycle through mania, psychosis and depression, and spent years of the '80s in and out of psychiatric wards.

On a recent afternoon, Bockes, now 55, looks like the picture of calm while sitting in her cozy, 1920s-era Northside house, wearing tennis shoes, jeans and a button-up shirt, housecats sniffing around her legs. She's published fiction, non-fiction and poetry in magazines like Cutbank and Phantasmagoria, and has been nominated four times for the Pushcart Prize, which honors small-press authors. She holds two bachelor's degrees from the University of Nebraska, in English and creative writing, and earned an MFA from the University of Montana in 1990. She chose Missoula for grad school "because it seemed like the more interesting place," and has stayed ever since.

Bockes' latest poetry collection, Caught in Passing, released this spring by Turning Point Books, is a thoughtful, gentle work portraying a series of events around the death of her parents. Her phrasing isn't often flowery, but subtly expressive. "Velocity of Love" calls up a tense moment with her father, beginning, "So still we sit / in chairs that mold our breathing, / frightened birds / with feathers slimed in oil / fish in nets, bodies pressed against the figure of their deaths. / We haven't spoken / for an hour. Your last / word digs holes in the air and hangs."

Reading Bockes' poetry requires taking a breath, slowing down and enjoying the measured, mature voice and the big emotions captured in small phrases. It's born out of a stability that's been a long time coming for Bockes. "Back in the '80s, they were just starting to get medications that were more effective, but they totally sapped your personality," she says. "They zombified you."

Bockes is grateful for good medication that keeps her episodes under control, and for the support of her partner, whom she met in 1990. "His support has just been life-changing, really. I don't think I could have done it without him," she says.

Many writers (and psychologists) have explored the link between creative output and mental illness, particularly bipolar disorder. The extensive list of authors known or suspected to have mood disorders includes Henrik Ibsen, Mark Twain, Leo Tolstoy and Mary Wollstonecraft.

Bockes pauses for a long time when asked about the link between mental illness and writing. "It seems like people who have maybe a diagnosed mental illness have a different perspective on things," she says.

But she's found that she can't harness that creativity without being stable. "There's no way to tell whether people like Sylvia Plath or Robert Lowell or Anne Sexton—no way to know if they'd been more productive if they'd been on good meds or not," she says.

There's nothing romantic or glamorous about mental illness, but there's something to be said for how people with mental health issues have contributed so many great works to society. And after much deliberation, Bockes adds, "Mania is great for rough drafts."

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