original nonfiction by Amanda Gannon • “The signs were there from my first hour. It was a full moon when they cut me from my mother. I was grinning and covered with fine, wolfish hairs.”
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WALKING WITH THE BEAST
by Amanda Gannon
copyright © 2008 / May not be reproduced without permission
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It was scary, being a werewolf’s child.
My mother was a creative woman with a very animal ability to find delight in the strangest of places. She was fearless and full of adventure. But sometimes she became savage. Then it wasn’t hard to see the fur and fangs. Domesticated life in the midwestern suburbs — two kids, two cars, and dinner on the table at seven — didn’t suit her. She tried, but it made every day of her life into a struggle against her own nature. Like trapped creatures often do, she lashed out. Sometimes when the pressure became too much she would run away for hours, days at a time. As she grew older, a kind of caged sadness came over her. I never doubted that she loved me, but being her daughter was not easy, especially because I am a werewolf, too.
The signs were there from my first hour. It was a full moon when they cut me from my mother. I was grinning and covered with fine, wolfish hairs. A skittish, quiet, grubby child, I felt more kinship with animals than with other children, and something in me inspired an almost preternatural friendliness in anything carnivorous and furry.
Humanity’s strange history gives us tales of feral children raised by wolves, like the wild boy of Aveyron. But there I was, the inverse, something wild raised to be like a human child. To this day I have not lost the habit of growling at strangers or snorting in annoyance. I sniff my friends when I greet them. I have hairy toes. I sleep on the floor.
And no matter how violently I fight against them, I share my mother’s violent shifts of mood. I have passed in and out of depression’s black forest a dozen times. Between, there are ecstasies where the world seems to bare its throat to me in surrender. I snatch sleep in fitful bursts, fueled for days by a restless energy that spends itself in creativity and aggression. And sometimes, there come terrible fugues when both excitement and despair war within me; interminable days spent pretending to be human, sleepless nights spent wandering my neighborhood on foot, trying to escape the pain that dogs me.
It is a terrible cycle, its tides compelled not by the moon, but by some inscrutable chemical waxing and waning within the firmament of my brain. And it is crippling. Like my mother, I feel unsuited to this life with its confusing, impossible rules which seem designed to stifle all of my wild joy and which make no provisions for my pain.
At the beginning of my fourth decade, I became dangerous; not to others, but to myself. Thirty years of asking the wrong questions and seeking the wrong solutions had not enabled me to change what I was. I sought help again, resolving to try a final time to try to cure myself, stand upright, and act like a “normal human being.”
I did not, of course, acquire a cure. I acquired a diagnosis. The grimoire of the mental health profession is the DSM-IV. It categorises the human soul’s many angels and demons — and its beasts. It defines them in human terms, for this human world. And now I can point to my own inner monster, 296.89, Bipolar II Disorder. Quite a pedigree.
All of my failures to shove my hairy emotional paws into humanity’s silk slippers were not my fault. My leg-gnawing sorrows are depressions. My frantic moonlight dances with art are a particularly intoxicating variety of hypomania. And my madness, when the two seem hopelessly mingled, are mixed states, and dangerous.
I had always hoped that I would one day grow out of this or be able to outwit it, but now I know that I’m cursed with it forever. No matter how long and far I run, I will eventually find myself back in that same bleak wood, howling the same madness from the same wild mountaintop. In those first days, it felt like all my hope had been kicked into a bottomless hole, dragging the rest of my life in after it. How could I live another fifty years like this?
I didn’t want my personality, shaped so much by this thing I am saddled with, to be reduced to nothing more than a constellation of symptoms. My feelings are epic, and no less real for being typical of some illness. The reduction of my essence to a single, inadequate word seemed to reduce me as well. I felt such terrible shame. Worse than a failure, I was fundamentally flawed.
My husband, who draws me through the worst of the blackness, who sees me at my foaming, animal worst, has never believed in my worthlessness.
“You’re not broken,” he told me. “You aren’t screwed up. You just . . . you are what you are.”
“And what am I?” I demanded, because at that point, I honestly didn’t know anymore.
“You’re a lycanthrope.”
“A lycanthrope. You have these… episodes. You turn into this beast. But it’s a part of you. A perfectly okay part.”
Anyone else might have been insulted. Instead, I felt a glimmer of hope. Of course I was not a broken person. I was a werewolf.
My violent mood swings are very much like the unpredictable furies of the horror-movie wolf-man. He cannot control the transformation. In fighting and denying his nature, he lashes out and hurts those closest to him; his beast eventually destroys him because he cannot learn to live with it. I had also rejected my own nature, and now the fear that my beast might destroy me was very real.
I could not cure myself of it any more than it could cure itself of me. We are the same. No, I had to learn to live with it. This chemical rage was more than therapy alone could help. I had tried drugs before, though, and in blocking the path into that black forest, I had also lost the wildness that is the source of my strength. I imagined drugging the beast with antipsychotics and mood stabilizers, thrusting it into a cage again. I imagined it made small, staring numbly out at nothing. There is nothing more pitiable than a wild thing robbed of its wild.
Obviously, I feared treatment as the transfigured wolf-man must fear the silver bullet, but the alternative was letting it spiral out of control until I destroyed myself. Long periods of depression aside, I really do love my life, and so I chose to try drugs rather than risk losing it all — beast, forest, moon and muse, fear, joy, self.
There was still loss. During the months from midsummer to winter’s sudden fall I tried and failed and tried again. The first drug physically exhausted me until I couldn’t walk around the park. The second strangled all feeling, and I moved in a dead fog. The third undercut my self-control, and I could not function because I could no longer place need above want.
As I write this, six months after my diagnosis, I am on a fourth drug. We are both tolerating it, my beast and I. It gives us the strength to weather the more monstrous shifts of mood, but still allows us to feel. Yes, some days I still feel hollow. Some days there is great pain. But this is a start. I’ll never leave this forest, but I believe that I can live here.
I don’t believe this because I am an optimist, or because I have read all the right self-improvement books, or because my therapist tells me that I am making progress. I believe it because my bipolar friends are all remarkable, gifted people. Their example reminds me that life as a werewolf is worth living. They are teaching me, at last, to be what I am. They’ve nicknamed me Wolfchild, and though any mental disorder is by nature isolating, I have seen that we all roam the same forest. We are lone wolves, but our paths cross, our songs reach one another.
I also have many friends who are not bipolar, and they have not run from me; they are at peace with my wildness and they do not want me tame.
Werewolf and human alike, they share their poems and their pictures and their stories and their lives to show me what is possible, what is best in both sides of my nature.
My mother was never diagnosed as bipolar, though the signs were there. She died without knowing she was a werewolf. Perhaps… perhaps if she’d known, she would have lived a better life not in a cage of her own making. I hope that is true of me. Knowing what I am saves me from trying to be what I thought I should have been. I am not trying to fix a broken person, I am learning to live as a healthy werewolf. I am not there yet, but I have found a little acceptance.
Most nights I leave the house and wander on foot down familiar streets. I listen to the highway’s roar and the howl of distant trains. The familiar stink of garbage, car exhaust, of leaves and wet pavement surround me. Sometimes the trees wave in the wind and their shadows bound in the streetlights’ sodium glare, and for a moment this human city seems wild. I feel the beast stir deep within me, and my humanity lays down beside it. In those moments I am filled with something that I cannot name. I feel on the verge of becoming what I was meant to be.
That’s the big lycanthropic secret: that no matter how terrible, being what you are can be beautiful.
Amanda Gannon, WEIRD TALES’s new arts & culture editor, is a writer and artist living in Oklahoma with her husband, known as Sargon the Terrible. Their house is full of snakes — deliberately — and is also host to one catbot called Sif, a real cat named Fish, and one formless spawn of Tsathoggua, Tazendra, who for reasons both sinister and unfathomable is only pretending to be a cat.