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  • katherine halligan

The Cliffs of Insanity

If you worried during my recent and increasingly long stretches of radio silence late last year that I’d succumbed to some sort of illness (especially THAT illness), thankfully you would be wrong.

Unless, that is, you’d suspected I’d become a victim of mental illness, in which case you would be somewhat correct: I spent the final several weeks of 2020 pinned, glued, pinioned, plastered, and otherwise and in all ways firmly affixed to my younger child’s side for what felt like 27 hours a day, and as a result I began to wonder whether I was actually, finally, truly losing my mind.

Having misplaced it for large stretches of the summer, I’d found it again (my mind, that is) sometime in late September, and was feeling pretty chipper about having my wits about me once more, since the previous six months had involved long stretches of time where I felt certain that my sanity was dissolving around the edges.

Imagine, if you will, the Cliffs of Insanity as depicted in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (and if you haven’t memorised the entire film script as I have, with dozens of viewings as a teenager and again as the mother of two avid young fans, please watch it tonight; you will not be disappointed). Sometimes, over the past year, a mere pebble of my mind would slip down those cliffs, as I dangled from my fingertips Westley-like and undeterred in my quest to reach the firmer ground at the top. Other times whole sections of my previously highly functional brain would come crashing off those cliffs in an avalanche, and I felt plunged instead into the Pit of Despair.

Little did I foresee how the whole country would soon fall prey to a similar experience, as the very foundations of our democracy threatened to crash down those cliffs when Prince Humperdinck did all in his not-inconsiderable power — and more, for his hunger for an imperial sort of omnipotence broke nearly all the norms of the office — to destroy the electoral process and the trust of the people along with it.

(It’s worth pointing out here that I actually wrote this post in late November, well before things slid from profoundly disturbing to downright terrifying; little did we quite imagine — despite a nebulous, amorphous fear surrounding the transfer of power — how deeply destructive that utterly unprincely prince would turn out to be.)

Now, lest you worry further about me, allow me to reassure you that I am not wild-haired-woman-running-through-the-streets-in-her-nightgown crazy (or King-of-Florin crazy); I’m merely COVID-crazy. I’ll talk more (because of course more is more) about the specifics of that in another post, but for today, suffice to say that the relatively-few-of-my-previously-many marbles that have been lost of late have simply vanished because of this pandemic and because of the political poo-fest that is this country. So it’s been a totally healthy and rational descent into madness. We have all been losing our minds, to greater and lesser degrees, for entirely logical reasons.

But this particular teetering on the edges of the Cliffs of Insanity was precipitated by our pulling our younger daughter out of her physical school, thereby condemning both her and myself to the torture of virtual school. And so it was that my mental health, fragile at the best of times this past year, suffered once more.

If you have never sat through an entire morning of virtual second grade with a seriously frustrated child by your side, then return with me to those Cliffs of Insanity for a moment. When she returned to physical school in early October — brief though that doomed experiment was — it was as if I had nearly reached the top of the cliffs, having hauled myself hand over hand up the rope over the summer months; I was ready to parry with Inigo Montoya or whatever else might face me at the summit… and then Vizzini cut the rope and I plummeted down towards the rocks.

Like Westley, I held on by my fingernails, but that fall was rough and my arms hurt. Unlike Westley, I was neither magnanimous nor charmingly jocular in my near-defeat. Even knowing that I was here to rescue my princess, I sighed and harrumphed and was utterly ungracious, and once (or possibly thrice) I even shouted at my small daughter, and so I am forced to admit that my patience is even more limited in its capacity than I had previously feared.

But then, at long last, I began to feel like I had truly arrived at the top of those cliffs once more. We had negotiated a way of working that meant we could, occasionally, function in separate spaces; she was managing the monotony of entirely digital education admirably well. My Buttercup is brave and was proving herself entirely able to contribute to her own rescue — as I’d known she could. And so I pulled myself from the vertical cliff face onto the horizontal plane of terra firma, and heaved a sigh of relief.

With my feet on solid ground again, I felt ready for sword fights with charming-but-vengeful Spaniards and wrestling matches with giants, ready to befriend my kinder enemies. (And as for that battle of wits with an evil Sicilian, well, the good guy prevailed, and the bad guy got a taste of his own medicine.)

We have all ventured through the Fire Swamp, dodging the flame spurts, escaping the lighting sand that threatened to drown us, fighting off the Rodents Of Unusual Size who attacked us but could not destroy us.

(Or most of us. Because of course some in our number — half a million in the US and 2.5 million worldwide, numbers which are truly tragic in their magnitude — did not survive those terrors. We are the lucky ones, who are coming out the other side of that swamp.)

And even for the lucky ones, our stint in the Pit of Despair has robbed us all of very-nearly-a-year of our lives. Or more. For, just as Westley’s time on the rack stole years of his future, we are learning that American life expectancy has, since the advent of the pandemic, dropped by a year (for the lucky ones), by two for Latinx people, and by three for Black people, whose tortures have been greatest and who have been robbed the most.

I know that I am not alone in having felt mostly dead all year. But, as Miracle Max reminds us, “There’s a big difference between all dead and mostly dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” As we all jostle for our place in the queue for Miracle Max’ special cure, we can begin to feel the life flowing once again in our floppy limbs; we can truly begin to celebrate being slightly alive.

So let us hope that there will be a happy ending for us, as there was for Buttercup and Westley, as we ride off into our future, whatever that may bring.

It feels, finally, like we have a future once more, that sanity has been restored, that we might live happily ever after, after all. Or if not happily ever after, at least better ever after.

Because the future won’t be perfect, but it’s life — and for those of us still living it, we can be grateful. The road ahead will not be easy, but we are here to travel it. There will be more battles to fight, more demons to conquer, more justice to pursue.

But we’ll take that life, thank you very much.

For, to quote the final lines of Goldman’s novel (if you love the film, you must also read the book), “I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”

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