Moments of Madness Flooded Into a Book, by Jen Soriano

Published: May 28, 2024

Categories: Artist Stories

Jen Soriano headshot
NERVOUS by Jen Soriano

Jen Soriano, NERVOUS now available through Amistad/HarperCollins. Headshot by Robert Kozeck.

Moments of Madness Flooded Into a Book

By Jen Soriano

This is one of my happiest moments of the past five years: I locked the bathroom door. I turned on the shower and sat cross-legged underneath the showerhead. Steaming hot water poured down on me like a waterfall. I tilted my head back and opened my mouth to let the water fill me inside as well as out. I hugged my knees to my chest and rocked like a child. I needed this: to be alone with water. To be transported to another universe where it was perfectly normal to live in the bath. I stayed there for nearly an hour, till long after the shower ran cold. I kept my clothes and shoes on the whole time. My sweatshirt and sweatpants ballooned. My shoes seeped rivulets between laces and eyelets.

I think of myself as mad. Though I am privileged to not have what is classified as a “serious mental illness,” I am a highly sensitive person who lives with generalized anxiety and complex PTSD. I am prone to moments of inexplicable behavior, like my hour in the shower fully clothed. I sometimes hear voices and have struggled with suicidal behavior and ideation. I also walk the path of the thin veil. That is to say, the lane between my world and the spirit world is narrow—not so narrow that I navigate it like a babaylan, but narrow enough that spirits sometimes speak to me. They speak to me in messages and music, and through revelations that feel given rather than earned. Sometimes I feel possessed or delusional, but often this spirit talk comes to me like wisdom. Since sharing commentary from wisecracking ghosts can tend to freak people out during happy hour, I channel these spirit whispers into art.  

Over the past eight years I channeled spirit whispers and inexplicable impulses into my debut book on ancestral trauma and mental health. The hour I spent fully clothed in the shower happened during a particularly heightened moment of writing this collection, NERVOUS. I was working on an essay about suicidality, and while writing it I was buried in what I call “the pit of writerly purgatory.” This is a pit where the deepest of personal insights lie. Why had I attempted to take my own life at a time when I was starting to heal? I sat at my computer, trying to solve this tender puzzle. Suddenly, I was yanked from the pit by an argument outside my office door. I poked my head outside to find my partner and kid exchanging frustrated words. I got into the mix and made it much worse. Brain fog and dizziness overwhelmed me, as well as a conviction of shameful failure that pulled me to the ground with a force stronger than gravity.  

That’s when I locked myself in the bathroom and surrendered to the shower. 

My eight years of writing NERVOUS were peppered with moments like these. Moments when my madness required retreat as well as treatment, as well as times to rest and lick my wounds. After finishing the collection, an old friend asked me how my health is now, and did writing the book help my healing?  

Writing the book did not feel like healing. It felt like following my madness into a liminal space where every day is Groundhog Day and all you do is tear off band aids and poke at open wounds. Why was I doing this? I could point to an assortment of noble causes that might justify the masochism of writing such a personal book: to normalize mental illness, to help people not feel alone, to find catharsis and meaning in constructing a disability justice and trauma wise narrative. But perhaps the most honest answer is: I wrote the book because the spirit whispers in my body told me to. If it’s the worst thing these spirits ever tell me to do, I think I’ll be okay.  

With the book now done, I can look back and say that in the end the process did help stabilize my mental health. While the writing was difficult to do, constructing a narrative, albeit fragmented, about the connections between my mental health, physical pain, an ancestral history of colonization and migration, and community-based healing, has made me feel more whole. Writing NERVOUS gave me a space to channel internal voices and silenced experiences, to create something out of my madness in a way that has eased my own suffering. In doing so, it has also created opportunities to connect with others who might feel the same.


About the Author

Jen Soriano (she/they) is a Filipinx-American writer, performer, and movement strategist with more than 20 years of experience working at the intersection of grassroots organizing, strategic communications, and art-driven social change. Jen’s essays have received the International Literary Award in Nonfiction, the Fugue Prose Prize, and fellowships from Hugo House, Vermont Studio Center, Artist Trust, and the Jack Jones Literary Arts Retreat.

Jen is author of the chapbook “Making the Tongue Dry” and co-editor of Closer to Liberation: A Pina/xy Activist Anthology. Their first full-length book, Nervous, an essay collection on historical trauma and the neuroscience of healing, is now available through Amistad/HarperCollins. They write about mental health, colonization, race and gender, history and science, and social justice issues at large, to shine light on marginalized stories and to share radical worldviews through an artistic lens.

Learn more:

AANHPI MonthArtist StoryJen Soriano