The crazy thing about psychosis is how misunderstood it is in the popular imagination. What does it mean to have and how do the symptoms manifest?
For those who have been following my blog for years, you’ll have noticed I’ve taken a bit of a hiatus—emerging every so often to post a vulnerable little missive on heartbreak. It shouldn’t be too difficult to piece together the story of what happened, but since then, I’ve kept a promise to that teenager I tutored and subsequently lost when their mother and I were forced to part ways. Back then, I decided to go back to school to earn my degree and eventually become licensed to practice therapy to help others—a goal I had shared with both mother and child. What inspired the change of career path for me was that teenager and the struggles they dealt with while navigating an unsupportive family life as an openly trans kid. Eventually, the pressure and stress of constantly fighting with family led to mental health issues for that teenager which resulted in hospitalization at a psychiatric clinic. There, they shared their experience with symptoms of psychosis with doctors.
Psychosis is defined as an experience that denotes a break from reality–this can range from delusions, hallucinations, and/or bizarre behavior such as disorganized speech. It is a symptom, not a disorder, and can be featured in diagnoses such as Schizophrenia or Major Depressive Disorder. Causes can range from extreme stress, and substance use, to genetic predisposition.
I felt helpless at the time and a little bit scared. What does it mean if someone I love and care about like my own child, hears voices that tell terrible, self-degrading things? What could we do to help? Would they be okay? Part of that promise was doing everything I could to involve myself in uncovering those answers. And though, per their mother, I am not allowed contact with that teenager any longer—I can do everything in my power instead to help those like them. The reason that I have been unable to update this blog is that I have been busy working at a psychiatry clinic since last year and becoming part of the team at our university that specifically treats patients dealing with first-episode psychosis and the research meant to provide hope for the future.
Basically, I’m doing the damn thing. Sempre ❤️
This is, however, my history blog playground for my research dumps where I can humorously recount the things I’ve either taught myself or felt like sharing with the public. Now feels like the perfect time to merge both passions, exploring the presence of psychosis in well-known historical things, events, or people. From the Oracle of Delphi to insanity contextualized historically, to any excuse to write about how much I love Joan of Arc. Famous individuals and artists in history have experienced psychosis and come out making some of the most beloved works in the world…one of them cut his own ear off for good measure too. Many Kings, Queens, and rulers have also suffered and so have others when the consequence of mental illness often leads to wars of succession. Mostly, I hope to also provide a picture of psychosis that is less terrifying–to shed light on its frequency and treat it with the comfort we have in more common mental health struggles like depression. Let’s de-stigmatize. People with psychosis are unwell but they are not inherently dangerous nor should they be treated as such. Let me show you all the brilliant people in history who had it and went on to do extrodinary things, like inventing calculus. Though, I suppose you could say someone would have to be a little mad to make sense of it in the first place.
‘Madness’ in history hadn’t always included the modern concept of psychosis. The term itself was introduced to psychology in the 19th century, and it’s important to remind the audience that some experiences in history will fit the definition of psychosis but may also fall under the umbrella of a cultural or religious phenomenon for some. Think of the prophets and saints, those who prayed and spoke to gods or heard prophecies, or perhaps figures who developed a grandiose view of themselves and thus the confidence to back it (Did Alexander the Great experience psychosis then? Let’s discuss.) Part of this series will be meant to think about the causal relationship between psychosis and ‘normal’ experiences like superstitions and ghost stories. And some of it will be debunking the usual tomfoolery of myths like the Schizophrenogenic Mother or taking a look at the Four Humors theory of the ancient world. Naturally, we’ll need to dismantle ‘hysteria’ and talk about how Nellie Bly should be everyone’s hero. I’ll pick and choose the order, no rhyme or reason most likely, but know that psychosis and mental illness will heavily feature–and we’ll find a way to have some fun with it.
It’s a devastating realization, to be standing in the middle of a beautiful Italian city and…feel nothing at all. An emptiness. A resentment for the cultural idea of love and passion—to witness the gentle way a couple will hold and kiss the other and to have your heart squeeze not in adoration but envy. Fuck that. It’s not real. This whole thing is a lie.
The knowledge of a language and a people—to have no interest in exploring that again at all. My brain is thick and gunked up in pain, there is no use for the words I learned from my betrayer. An absence in trying.
La Prima Cosa Bella came on the radio while eating at a restaurant and there I felt something. Anguish. For the connotation and the memory.
How she tried to find the song in my phone by typing in a lyric about suonare la chitarra and I went—OH! You mean this one? And we played it together and just looked at each other in amazement. How did we both know we meant the same song?
And she giggles and tells me—“You’re the first beautiful thing!” That night surely was for me as well.
And I can’t stop the single tear that escapes me in this recollection. I hate this song. And I hate this place. And I hate that the romance is now gone.
BECAUSE I DIED on the phone with you that day and I think you know it too.
Saying what you knew would obliterate my heart in the hopes that I would stay away. To sacrifice the one for the many, “This is best for everyone” you said. But is it or is it just best for him? Because you, me, and your child are casualties in this too–and what’s best for them might very well be me and you. Surely the three of us all suffer the loss of each other in this, but it’s what you needed to do.
You didn’t feel anything, you don’t love me you claimed through shaky tears–still holding me to your ear for 30 excruciating minutes longer than necessary if these words were true, as I begged for us to still be friends. But we both know that’s impossible, because were we ever really just friends? Your words made little sense then–in stark contrast to every lingering embrace we shared, those leg touches and face caresses, how you moaned against my lips after asking “What is this?” or the beautiful way you shuddered while meeting that wonderful crescendo of pleasure.
No, I was being foolish. There is no being friends after this. Which is why he asked you to throw me away and you knew it had to be done too. Especially after I confessed my love, thinking even then in my naivety that it was all just me–it had to be–how we both surprised each other with this possibility but I knew all along as I hid my growing feelings for you. Blaming myself for it, “I’m so sorry” I cried when I said it out loud finally. Could you forgive me for it, this shame I felt for never knowing I could love another woman–for ignoring the signs all of my life and thus putting us both willfully in danger. This was all my fault, I thought. I should have done more to protect us from spelling our own doom–as inevitable as this accidental crossing of the line felt, so consumed in the moment of a mutual truth, I didn’t stop to realize that you weren’t being honest either. Stupidly thinking you had his permission in this too.
How many times you questioned if you even deserved me, perhaps knowing you were capable all along of the ability to destroy me. That you might have to, for their sake but not ours. You were already saying goodbye to me, weren’t you? Afterwards, when we cried about it–what we had done and the people we would be hurting, how we had to bury this–the way you traced your fingers lovingly along my cheek just smiling and gazing into my eyes for what felt like an eternity. Perhaps to commit me in memory, the way I was then, not letting me look away when I tried–“Hey, sweetheart…” lifting my chin so that I would keep looking back at you. I would like to thank you for it now, having not seen your beautiful face for over a year. I can still feel and remember this moment, how happy we were in that shared intimacy together–to have that truth in closeness resting between us.
“We have to forget about each other.” You cried. And maybe this is what I deserve, for the mistake in thinking to love someone altruistically could ever be without sorrow. But I’m so sorry for all of it, for the anger he must have felt when you tried to make it all right after, for the suffering your child went through when I was ripped from their life and never knowing the real reason why, and for you too–because I suspect that now you’re hiding more than just the truth of us.
So maybe I deserve to be dead and forgotten, perhaps best for everyone–to never see or speak to each other ever again, like you said. “If you really want to help me,” you begged, “Do this for my kids.” Knowing I would, because I would do anything for them and for you. Even if that means lying down in my grave and letting you bury me without a headstone. Here Lies This Tragic Mistake. And hoping you all go on to live and be happy together, forgetting me and my presence there.
But a part of me still hopes that my love will continue to haunt you long after I’ve been gone. Because I will never forget you and I will always love you. To hold my memory in your heart knowing that someone out there–even if they are dead and gone and no more of your world–still thinks of you and cherishes everything that you are. All of the good and all of the bad, embracing you fully and holding you dear–to give you strength and self-love. To know that you do, in fact, deserve it anyway.
And I suppose this is why I love history, because though I am nothing now but a faint figment of dust, I will forever exist as something that happened once. That is where I will live now for eternity, as a piece from your past.
In the words of the eminently fictional Don Draper from Mad Men, “People do things.” We each live our own stories adjacent to one another, some of us more headful than others in our actions and choices. Sometimes, no matter the rationale or forethought, events and situations befall and unfold around us. If we truly are the hero of our own journey, there is a certain amount of agency we ascribe to ourselves–and yet, when tragedy does strike us, we can sometimes be left in bafflement over how we got here. Were we not careful? Did we not consider the risks? How could this have happened to us, aren’t we good people? Why would karma do us dirty like this?
Instead of spiraling into a shrieking cacophony of shame and blame because it happened to you, most people with their wits (and counseling degrees) will rightly point out that though tragic, life gives us lessons and there is something to be learned from our mistakes. If we are to consider these moments of drama a part of the woven story that makes us who we are–the art of our life–then perhaps we should consider ourselves a character in a Greek tragedy.
[A Greek Tragedy] is a play in which the protagonist, usually a person of importance and outstanding personal qualities, falls to disaster through the combination of a personal failing and circumstances with which he or she cannot deal.
Scholars disagree precisely on the exact origins of Greek Tragedy (it doesn’t help that we’ve lost a lot of work), but the earliest study of the arts of poetry, tragedy, and comedy come from Aristotle’s writings on Poetics detailing the traditions from Athens which could be found around the 5th century B.C. Aristotle theorizes that the purpose of poetry comes from our innate urge as humans to learn life lessons through imitation and that through this imitation in learning we find great pleasure. Thus, it seems only reasonable that the art of poetry would be born to impart this desire. The Epic (Heroic) Poem is a literary device that far pre-dates Greece, but it’s influence on the development of Greek Tragedy is not lost on Aristotle. But he insists on the distinction where tragedy becomes not just an imitation in narrative like a poem, but in action that is “serious, complete, and of a certain magnitude” and displayed through the agents of “pity and fear effecting the proper purgation of these emotions”.
For Tragedy is an imitation, not of men, but of an action and of life, and life consists in action, and its end is a mode of action, not a quality…
He goes on to suggest that a successful tragedy is told in which a protagonist who is good suffers an event not out of misfortune, but from error or frailty in character which now brings the prospects of that main protagonist to unfavorable. And to expand on just what he means by a tragic hero being inherently good in order to feel the full weight of this pity–it is one who is morally expressed in virtue(s), consistent, has informed propriety (values with meaning rather than for the sake of it), and one who is realistic (no Superman or impossibly perfect persons). Just imagining someone of these qualities finding themselves dealing with the pain of tragedy because of an error in judgment should already be pulling at your heart strings. Who is the best person you know? Now imagine that person, trying their hardest to do good, ends up losing everything they care about. That’s pretty sad, isn’t it?
So again, what’s the point of tragedy? Especially in story telling? Well, Aristotle pointed out that part of the focus is learning through life imitating art–but there is also another component to this kind of drama known as Catharsis which ties the purpose all together. Catharsis in Greek Tragedy involves an ’emotional cleansing’ which occurs due to the empathy invoked by the pity and fear experienced upon witnessing the tragic unfolding of a good person experiencing catastrophe of their own doing. It’s a psychological phenomenon that goes beyond art–emotional release has its foundation in Freudian theory as well, an aid to relieving stress and unconscious tension. Not to mention a ‘good cry‘ releases endorphins meant to make you feel better and more calm afterwards, so there are benefits surely to experiencing tragedy as an audience member.
But since we’re entertaining the thought experiment, what if it feels like you’re hypothetically the tragic figure in your own tale and you’re struggling to reason out what happened to you and why? Oedipus, Medea, Antigone, and more famous characters all spelled about their own undoing in different ways but they weren’t ‘bad’ people though they made horrific mistakes (Well, Medea makes a hard case against her on this one…) These figures were known to harbor admirable traits–strengths and virtues, yet in this case, presenting as tragic flaws.
Now in looking over the above, these all sound like good things right? Well, that’s because they are. BUT do they always lead to ‘good’ things? Not necessarily and therein lies the tragedy–what if someone (or you!) exemplifies one or more of these qualities but in enacting the principle it leads you to pain and suffering? Were you wrong? Maybe. But are you bad? Hell no.
Listen, life is a god damn mess and hard to figure out, that’s why we have stories and art to tell us a little bit about how things can go horribly wrong–even to good people who are simply trying their best. But it might be helpful to try and figure out where the error in judgment came from on your end and decide how to continue walking ahead as the good person you are, not let the tragedy break you, but let it define you in how you move forward in resiliency and compassion. Holding true to your good nature and accepting your loss with grace and accountability.
Did too much patience lead to something walking away from you indefinitely due to inaction? Were you too honest and truthful about something that would have been better left unsaid, something that spelled your own doom once spoken out-loud? Did you give too earnestly, too much of yourself to someone who maybe took too much from you in the end? And maybe you did all of these things anyway because you were too trusting and brave with your vulnerability, only to get hurt badly in the end?
It certainly might seem like your fault when looking at it on the surface–an err in judgment sort of warrants a responsible actor after all–but instead consider it as a learning experience, your life being art. And try to think of how to tell your story in a way that can perhaps also help guide others to not commit the same folly. Your terrible loss and tragedy might just be the thing that saves someone else. Or even you, once you learn the lesson from this and keep on living.
If there’s one thing that you need not be Greek in your tragedy aside from pain and suffering though, is in how you choose to live the ending–you don’t really need to cook your own kids, hang yourself, or marry your own mother to learn anything from your mistakes. Leave that kind of high end drama to the playwrights.
We feel lucky enough to have it for a brief fleeting moment and then immediately regret it when we find ourselves flailing on the bathroom floor in a pool of our own tears, clutching our hearts and wearing headphones with crooning lovelorn songs from Andrea Botticelli in our ears. It’s god damn painful and no amount of Chunky Monkey ice cream is enough to numb the ache. Phone-calls to therapists who insist you should stop checking their social media page and bitter, passive aggressive tweets are part of the processing. Going to the gym, out with friends (and binge drinking), and plenty of questionable credit card purchases are all part of the healing. But you’re not the only person to suffer a love lost, to be destroyed by the one person you trusted above all to guard your heart. People have been getting crushed by heartbreakers since humanity invented the ability to string together words in poetry to complain and write about it. So how the hell did people in the past get over this shit before Spotify playlists were a thing?
The famous Latin poet Ovid might just have the answer. While romping around 1st century Rome under the reign of Emperor Augustus, Ovid made quite a name for himself with his poetry in love and heartache. One of his first works was a collection of lyrical tales about legendary heroines and their lost loves, including praise for Sappho. He wrote his own love poems for his muses and then further clarified his passions with The Art of Love. And, naturally, he began to write about the pain and healing needed afterwards when it all goes wrong in his work the Remedia Amoris or The Cure for Love. So with the help of Ovid (and me) here are some classic ways to overcome heartbreak:
"Come to my teaching, who've been deceived, you whose love has utterly betrayed you."
Don’t Suffer For It
Love, having read the name and title on this book,
said: ‘It’s war, you declare against me, I see, it’s war’.
‘Cupid, don’t condemn your poet for a crime, who has so often
raised the standard, you trusted him with, under your command.
Ovid, Part 1: Words with Cupid, and the Task
Ever feel as if you were being punished by the person you loved? As if the simple crime in having feelings is why you deserve their cruelty and to suffer the pain for it. Yeah, me too–people suck more than heartache sometimes. But remember–there is nothing wrong in loving someone. Love is a gift, always. It is not your fault and even if their words cut you deeply, left you with fresh wounds, someone unwilling to accept love has their own issues to sort out. As Ovid would say, “Let him rejoice in happiness, any eager man who loves and delights in love: let him sail with the wind…why should any lover hang from a high beam, a sad weight, with a knotted rope round his neck? Why should anyone stab himself with cold steel?” And further, “You, be content with these tears, with no guilt for death: it’s not fitting for your torch to plunge beneath greedy pyres.”
The take away? It’s their loss. Don’t lose yourself too. Love is good and it’s a blessing to have it.
Let your swift mind encompass what it is that you love, and withdraw your neck from the collar that hurts you. Halt its beginnings: it’s too late for the doctor to be called, when the illness has grown stronger through delay.
Ovid, Part II: Treat it Early: Fill Your Time with War or Law
Alright, so people in the Classical Era were probably not stalking each other on Instagram, but certainly there were plenty of ‘accidental’ run-ins at the market or pleading for reconciliation through open windows. This is essentially the leave it and don’t wallow too much phase. Ovid insists that the sooner someone tries to move on the better–that the longer one puts it off, the more danger there is in prolonging the pain. “When tears are over, and the sorrowful spirit’s done, then grief can be given expression in words. …so when you’re ready for my medical arts, first ban idleness, on my advice.” He suggests that coping in gambling, drinking, and languid sleeping won’t help either–the best bet is to dedicate yourself to learning or a craft. Bettering yourself is part of the cure.
Don’t dwell too much in the agony, start immediately by loving yourself.
Get in Touch with Nature
Any care will give way to those cares. …sow the seed for your harvest, in the earth you’ve ploughed, see the branches bowed with the weight of apples, so the tree hardly bears the weight it carries. See the flowing streams with happy murmurs: see the sheep grazing on the fertile grass.
Ovid, Part III: You Can Also Farm, Hunt, or Travel
Love and loss are a part of life. Reminding yourself of your place in it is crucial. You are a human being that can think, feel, and be. You are part of this process and journey permeating in this universe and you are alive for it. Surrounding yourself with the reminder of other living things as you–things that are simply being will remind you to appreciate your ability to do the same. Also, go somewhere new, take yourself out of your comfort zone and experience a different perspective. Get out of the place you are in now to find a new you. “You only need to journey far, though strong chains hold you back, and start to travel distant ways: you’ll cry, and your lost girl’s name will oppose it, and your feet will often stop you on the road: but the less you wish to go, the more you should go: endure it, and force unwilling feet to run.”
Life is also a gift and to be a part of this process, is itself, an art. Take yourself willingly on this journey, face it with bravery, and don’t allow fear to hold you back from making the changes to take new steps forward.
Don’t Bother with Tricks
No pains will be charmed away to ease the heart, conquering love won’t be put to flight by burning sulphur.
Ovid, Part IV: But Forget Witchcraft!
Back in the day, there was plenty of rituals and sacrifices to be made to gods and spirits. Love potions, charms, you name it. They didn’t work. Today we have workshops and internet experts declaring their services to help you ‘win back your ex!’. Manipulation tactics, no-contact rules, and player’s handbooks–none of this allows for healing if you’re holding out hope and trying to play games.
Don’t do it. It’s unproductive and doesn’t help you grow.
Nobody is Perfect
She prizes others, despises my love…let all this embitter your every feeling.
Ovid, Part V: Contemplate Her Defects
Remember, they hurt you. Rejected you. Threw away your gift and stomped on your heart like you were nothing. That’s not cool, right? So why keep pretending they were this wonderful person when they treated you poorly in the end and don’t appear to care about you anymore at all? Take your care for yourself instead. Ovid seems to take it to extremes on how to deflate the idealized version of your former lover, fresh with insults and other admonishments, but I think reminding yourself of what they did is enough (and far more healthy).
Don’t hold on to someone who has shown you that they don’t deserve you.
Date Someone New
So far I’ve answered Envy: tighten the reins, more resolutely, and ride your course out, poet.
Ovid, Part VI: Now About Sex
Listen, we all know the adage “the best way to get over someone is to get under someone else.” Ovid suggests the same. In fact, he encourages many.
Do you and do everybody else too, I guess.
Don’t Let Them See You Bleed
Pretend to what is not, and that the passion’s over, so you’ll become, in truth, what you are studying to be.
Ovid, Part VIII: Be Cool With Her
Be Chill. There is nothing more unbecoming than someone ripping their heart out Indiana Jone’s Kali Ma style and shoving it in their ex-lover’s face so they know just how badly they hurt you. Listen, unless they are a psychopath or a narcissist–they likely know. And if they don’t? Go back up to the other parts where you need to remind yourself how cruel they are then and they don’t really deserve any more of your attention. “Don’t let her be too pleased with herself, nor have the power to despise you: be brave, so she gives way to your bravery.”
Take back your power and hold your head high.
Let love fail, and, vanishing, dissolve into thin air, and let it fade away in gentle stages. But it’s wrong to hate the girl you loved, in any way: that conclusion suits uncivilised natures.
Ovid, Part XI: Now, Keep Away From Her
In the process of healing, this person still has the power to hurt you. They are unsafe. More poisonous words could infect you, false hopes could set you right back to the beginning, or their indifference could result in its own unique kind of pain. Don’t hate them, don’t treat them poorly if your paths are to cross–you both shared something special with one another at one time. But be careful not to open yourself up to more pain on their behalf, especially if they still have enough influence over you to cause further harm.
Stay away until enough time has passed for full healing. Show them your scars, not your fresh wounds.
Be Healthy and Eat Well
So don’t drink at all, or drink so much your cares all vanish: if it’s anywhere between the two it’s bound to do you harm.
Ovid, Part XVI: The Doctor’s Last Advice
The best way to feel better is to feel good. Mind your diet, eat healthy foods and though Ovid doesn’t mention it, get your sad butt to the gym and make it a fab one instead. There are plenty of foods that increase dopamine and serotonin production which will surely make you feel happier. Also, limit drinking and avoid falling into the trap of numbing yourself.
Heal the heart by healing the body.
And another suggestion from me? Write blog posts. I’m sure Ovid would approve.
How many of us have woken up the next morning questioning ourselves–“Did I really just do that?” Those drunken speeches in jolly confessional that were regrettably recorded on video, the inebriated passion in the throes of another’s embrace, or phoning your ex while intoxicated to express exactly how you still feel about them. Sure, blame it on the alcohol–most people unwilling to accept personal accountability for their secret thoughts and desires will be the first to do so. It meant nothing, I didn’t mean it. But turns out, people have been using this excuse since the dawn of civilization and ancient historians have been calling us all out since the beginning. Drink up, losers, we’re going truth shopping.
…Then it is that all the secrets of the mind are revealed; one man is heard to disclose the provisions of his will, another lets fall some expression of fatal import, and so fails to keep to himself words which will be sure to come home to him with a cut throat. And how many a man has met his death in this fashion! Indeed, it has become quite a common proverb, that “in wine, there is truth.”
Not unsurprising, but we can find allusions to the value of drunk minds speaking sober truths all the way back to the 5th century BC. Herodotus, ever the perennial scholar of cultural practices to gawk at, details a custom observed by the Persians in his Histories. According to him, it was common among the Persians that if there were a judgement to be made about a serious decision, it should first be talked over while completely smashed on wine. Afterwards, the decision would then be reviewed the next morning while sober before anyone made any final approval on the matter. If it all still sounded like a good idea while kneading a hangover headache, the measure passed. The same went for the other way around–anyone with a decent thought in the light of day had to wait for everyone to reconsider it first while drunk, you know, just to make sure. [Herodotus, Histories Book 1, 133.] Anyone envisioning any sort of impracticality with this method should be reminded that these tipsy Persians held down an enormous empire for at least 200 years with much success–and would have gotten away with it too if it weren’t for that meddling Alexander the Great.
The idea of the truth being found at the bottom of a glass of booze is so pervasive, that some form of In Vino Veritas exists across most cultures around the world in some lyrical thought. “After wine blurts truthful speech”, “What the sober hold in their heart is on the drinker’s tongue”, “A drunken mouth speaks from the bottom of the heart”, the implications here are endless.
So howmuch honesty really is in the events and words spoken when inhibitions are down, when a person has no reason to stop actions from tumbling out after a tonic of Gin and truth serum? Idioms are one thing, but is there any science or psychological backing to tell us that being an idiot in our drunken moments is exactly who and what we are deep down?
One recent psychological study measured the difference between how someone would rate themselves sober versus who they thought they were while drunk…compared to observers who really didn’t notice a change in personality at all between the two states, actually. Except, of course, in being a bit more openly social. Which is exactly the idea behind being more of your true self while intoxicated. [R.P. Winograd, D. Steinley, S.P. Lane, & K.J. Sher 2017]
And despite this, the correlation between using alcohol as ‘an excuse’ for sexual behavior and as a justification for the action itself can be easily measured too–and it turns out, according to this study, a lot of people intentionally use alcohol to lower sexual inhibitions AND to also use it as the blame both before and after the consideration. [T.V. Ven & J. Beck 2009]
So, no, getting drunk doesn’t make you a different person AND we also know people are intentionally pretending otherwise to justify behavior they would otherwise not want others to assume they were always capable of while sober. What we do know about alcohol’s effects on the brain, however, is that it results in a surge of dopamine and serotonin (feel good hormones) and it also effects the limbic system which is the seat of the brain that aids in behavioral responses to stimuli and is thought of as primal–the part that would result in lowered inhibitions and any ‘fears’ of expressing the true self. [Hackensack Meridian Health] Essentially, alcohol forces us to be in an Eckhart Tolle ‘here and now’ present where impulse control is minimal, everything is keenly felt in the moment, and with the courage to express it without thinking it through.
For once, the ancient wisdom on the matter may actually have some scientific credibility. So next time you’re facing down a person leaning heavy on the self-preservation that comes with denying their intentions last night because they ‘drank too much’ (or if you’re the one in self-denial) you can either point to the PhD’s or long dead scholars of history. In Vino Veritas.
I’m not bitter but the truth is. Or maybe that, too, is the wine.
Plan your visit (and reservation requests) accordingly!
The given address goes to a Steampunk cafe specializing in games and coffee–another novelty era ripe for nostalgic yearning but not the one we were looking for. Where the hell is this place? The first time I had visited Volstead’s Emporium in Uptown, Minnesota I was accompanied by a friend who was already privy to the location. Half the appeal of a secret speakeasy hidden away in a niche part of town already known for it’s fanciful coffee-shops, coin operated video game arcade clubs, and ‘hot yoga’–is that it’s a destination prided on the fact that you kind of already need to know where you’re going. Like being a member of an Eyes Wide Shut sexy, Eleusinian Mysteries kind of cult meeting or a pirate marauding around the Caribbean looking for the Isla De Muerta–an island that cannot be found except by those who already know where it is. Being ‘in the know’ about Volstead’s Emporium adds a lot to its notoriety. Going to their website offers no assistance–there is no address, no online menu, no pictures or an extensive proselytizing ‘About’ page. It’s tough to know this place even exists, or what it is, unless you become one of the initiated via word of mouth.
We were driving around Uptown one evening where, during a traffic stop, I recognized the location we were at–and that down that seedy, familiar-looking alleyway nestled behind the Steampunk cafe was the secret speakeasy I had wanted to take my boyfriend to for ages. It felt like a re-discovery and I hastily tried to remember where it was for next time, when we would plan our visit and get to transport ourselves to a faux, 1920’s era den of libations.
For those who need a quick History lesson to refresh–the Temperance movement in the United States won a political victory from 1920-1933 when the entire country went “dry”. Meaning, the 18th Amendment to the Constitution was drafted and the production, sale, and transportation of alcohol was banned. To enforce this draconian rule, the government passed the Volstead Act (Where our friendly Emporium likely took its name from) which went a step further in defining the intoxicating substances that were banned and the punishments that came with breaking these laws. The rise of bootlegging, gangsters, and speakeasies–secret law-breaking establishments selling banned booze–became a direct consequence and the 1920’s is forever remembered with these associations.
Unfortunately, memory is only as good as it is served. Turns out, when the summer construction is hazardous and the Happy Hour besought motorists are honking more persistently than a skein of geese, it can be a bit frustrating to try and remember a scattering of location markers after finally getting lucky finding a parking spot. Had I known that the large, neon gleaming sign for beer and bratwurst king New Bohemia resided across the street from our desired crime scene alleyway, our journey on empty stomachs might have been easier to bear. Once found, walking down said alleyway gives off an appropriate air of sleaziness, and as sweltering as the heat often gets in the summer, I was just thankful it wasn’t garbage from the line of dumpsters that marked our path. Hanging a left midway, there’s a smattering of apartment balconies claustrophobic-ly clustered together and in the small back of the building obstructed by vents, there resides a large bolted metal door with a creepy red serial killer light hanging above it. A most welcoming destination, if I ever saw one.
Yeah this seems…
“It’s all you, babe.”
I took this initiative with the fervent composure of a Flapper girl, who had likely already spent most of the evening dancing the Charleston to extinction, and rapped the door with my knuckles like I knew exactly what I was getting myself into. The slot in the door opens and a pair of eyes greets you–“Yes?”
“We have a reservation for two!”
The door is unbolted and we entered into a stairwell devoid of any identifying features aside from the bookie wearing a surprisingly dapper get-up. “Enjoy” is all he says as he goes back to manning the door. It’s up to us to take ourselves down the stairs and to the basement where we stand momentarily confused, there are at least three doors to choose from–not one of them marked with a sparkling Go Here to Drink sign to help us out. We could just make out the muffled sound of chatter and glass clinking enough to try Door Number 1–which ended up leading us into a time machine.
Managed to capture before the place got packed!
An oft overlooked aspect of any dining experience is the ability to transport a patron. This can happen with really good food–it’s much easier to feel like you’re on the coast of Sorrento enjoying a bowl of pasta in a white wine sauce when the spaghetti is al dente and the clams are cooked to perfection and you’re even given a shot of limoncello to chase it all down with. But atmosphere is just as important too and at Volstead’s–you do feel like you just stepped into a 1920’s speakasy which would make even the most classy of bathtub gin stirrers proud.
There are no windows and the establishment is dimly lit, there’s a piano and a jazz player in the back corner strumming soft melodies with the tempered line of the bartender shaking drinks. People are laughing uproariously all around, likely amplified by the low ceiling and general jovialness that comes with a really well mixed cocktail. It’s welcoming–and cuts the tension had while trying to find the place to begin with.
The Old Fashioneds here are one of my favorites in the state: Bourbon, applewood smoked demerara, and house blend bitters.
We were seated at a booth across from the parlor tables, draped with curtains we could easily pull for more privacy. It felt like we were only missing poker chips and the acrid smoke of cigars hanging in the air to set the mood into one in need of a police raid. For another brief moment, I felt like a femme fatale who was clandestinely meeting with a surly detective across from me, who was cloaked in a make-believe fedora and interrogating me on my whereabouts the night Tommy the Gun was murdered–all under the veneer of a heavy sepia filter. Or that was just the Old Fashioneds talking.
Volstead’s is a novelty experience, a way to feel like you’re in a piece of history for the night–surrounded by good drinks and food to boot. There’s a library room where you could sit and partake in a re-imagined game of Clue wearing monocles and dinner jackets, a large dial safe loitering under the stairs where surely the funds of nefarious mobster money ventures is well hidden, and there is even a telephone booth in the back by the restrooms for even the most ardent Doctor Who fan to enjoy. Voldstead’s is straight up cool so put that in your pipe and smoke it.
The scene of the crime, where Mrs. Peacock allegedly bludgeoned Colonel Mustard with a copy of Marie Kondo’s Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.
No one warned us about the framed mirror on the wall of our booth, that it would swing open and the waiter would grin as we jumped in surprise, serving as a portal in which to take our food and drink orders. I think the waitstaff probably finds most of their amusement in this gimmick–and it’s certainly a fun experience to team up with your waiter on. There is a buzzer under the mirror when you’re ready to order and there was at least one more incident where the frame creaked open like a horror movie prop with no waiter to be found, only for him to pop up into view a second later and ask what we’d like–to more jump scares from us. It’s hilarious.
Now all of this is fine and dandy, right? But the main attraction of any dining establishment is the food. And oh boy, does it not disappoint. The first time I went to Voldstead’s, I chose a guilt-free zucchini carbonara with added shrimp that was surprisingly complex and topped off the evening with warm, gooey bread pudding. This time, I went with the usual favorites my boy detective and I usually partake in at other restaurants–the first test for us being the charcuterie plate. I finally learned how to properly pronounce “charcuterie” when I embarrassingly ordered it incorrectly and my windowed waiter set me straight–not sure whether he was smirking at my inability to speak French or because I was recovering from another fun jump scare. Not to be a gerkin (no old fashioneds were consumed in the making of this dad joke), but I’m pretty easy to satisfy when it comes to charcuterie plates–the server had me at spicy salami, spec, and capicola. I was so excited I didn’t even pay attention to what the cheeses were.
Next, I ordered the most basic sounding ‘Steak & Potatoes’ which was anything but and I got it cooked a beautiful, medium-rare despite ordering it just medium, but hey–they were just looking out for me and my philistine steak preparation ordering ways. This is one of the better steaks I’ve eaten and I didn’t need to drop a $500 tab at Manny’s to enjoy it–this gorgeous hunk of meat is up there with the bavette I had at 112 Eatery and the steak I had at a (now closed) restaurant outside of New York City I had visited in high school that was apparently one of Elvis’ favorites.
8oz Bavette, herb potatoes and grilled asparagus with peppercorn cognac sauce. #NeverForget
Though any sane person would be full at this point and I was working on my second cocktail (Like Clockwork–Cognac, Bourbon, Dolin dry, Amaro Nonino, Orange Bitters, Expressed Orange–definitely got me all good and “bezoomny”!), a place can’t be sufficiently done and tried until you order a dessert and a regular, black coffee. Now, it should shock no one to know that I can be a bit of a pedant about certain things–and coffee is one of those things. I’ve worked in and out of the coffee industry for the better part of 8 years as a barista and on the corporate level slinging office work. It’s not particularly hard to find quality, well-sourced beans and it is even easier to brew them right. A restaurant can tell me a lot about how much they care about every aspect of their commitment to quality and food by how good their regular brewed coffee tastes. I’ve been disappointed in establishments that otherwise provide good meals but then serve up bitter, black water mudd that tastes like it had been sitting for more than 2 hours in back. I move from disappointed to irritated when this crime is committed by an authentically-declared French or Italian restaurant where ending your meal with a good coffee is tantamount to the cultural experience. One sip from Volstead’s chosen brew and I knew this place really was every bit as great as I knew it to be.
Tiramisu because I’m ‘basic Italian’
The tiramisu I ordered for dessert wasn’t bad either–and as your resident swarthy Italian-American, I’ve had plenty of tiramisu in my day. The only thing about it I found particular to note, was how the lady fingers weren’t soggy and absolutely drowning in booze and/or coffee. Unlike me this evening, of course.
So, dear reader, consider yourself well and in the know about Volstead’s Emporium in Uptown, MN. I’ve now passed on the secret to you–and if you’re in the area or visiting the Twin Cities, I hope that you take a moment to stumble around W. Lake St. attempting to find it. But shhhhh–don’t tell your dinner companion(s) about the mirror window.
While there are legitimate concerns out there over the authenticity of cultural cuisines and our American foundation of fast food and franchise chain restaurants, taking what is not ours and spinning for profit–it’s easy to get caught up on what is “real” food and what isn’t. One conversation, however, that I feel myself irked by consistently, is what makes Italian food authentic here in the United States. It’s a fair question, after all, because you’re not likely to find meatballs, Alfredo sauce, garlic bread, or a “Hot Dago”  back in the Old Country of Italy. But there is a distinct difference in what is Italian and what is Italian-American. After all, the cuisines of immigrants who came from Italy was heavily influenced in not only their fellow foreigners and adjacency to other cultural cuisines, but also in being forced to adapt old dishes to new based on the availability of foods in The States at that time. What we have here is a hodgepodge of old Italian with a distinctly American flair. How do you make do without olive oil? Butter up that bread instead and use plenty of garlic. And what do you do when you show up in a country that’s brimming with cows? Pack up those meatballs like your friendly neighborhood Swedes and toss them in the sugo! And, speaking of sauce, pretty much the only kind easily made was red because canned tomatoes were the only thing easily found in markets at the time–until you got to Alfredo sauce. “Who is Alfredo?” Native Italians will ask–well, he was a chef in Rome back in 1914 who made a white sauced based dish that happened to be served with fettuccine noodles that day when two American Silent-Film Stars dined at his restaurant. They loved it so much, they took the recipe back home which became a hit among the elite, solidifying its popularity in Olive Garden’s across the nation after Alfredo’s family later opened a few restaurants showcasing the dish stateside in the 1970’s.  So perhaps you can’t find meatball sub sandwiches in Italy, but these are authentic to and traditional Italian-American foods that were invented right here in the United States due to the unique cultural experiences of Italian immigrants at the time.
And probably nothing more storied to this unique experience of cultural history exists in Minnesota than Cossetta’s Market–a pinnacle of Italian-American cuisine and heritage here in St. Paul.
If you could live anywhere in the world, where would it be?
That’s a question many people ask one another, especially when first getting to know each other. It goes along with other lofty dreams and ‘get to know you’ questions like if you could be anything in the world, what would it be? Having an answer to these kinds of inquiries are automatically idealized, they have to be, because typically one has never actually lived in that place or worked that dream job to know whether or not it’s something worth even placing on a pedestal to begin with. We fall in love with a picture or in what we imagine life with no worries to be like–to be completely absorbed in the local of our choosing and nothing else. How many people answer Paris or Italy, or on a beach somewhere in Florida, or maybe even Japan? Why do those places seem more desirable than the one you’re living in right now? Likely because those other places feel like a perpetual vacation. They’re new, they’re more interesting, and they are filled with culture and history ripe for exploring.
Old train tracks in Northeast Minneapolis
But while most of us are busy looking across the ocean or horizon for something better, some unknown adventure that supposedly exists somewhere outside of our own per view–all of that could be lying in wait in your own hometown waiting for you to explore and appreciate like any ordinary tourist would.
When I was younger, I used to abhor living in Minnesota. Half of the year is dedicated to being an icebox and the other half is so grossly humid and hot, we’re all begging for a blizzard again. It never made sense to me, why anyone would willingly choose to live here–those exasperated statements more common in the throes of polar vortexes clocking -40 degrees Fahrenheit. I thought it was nothing more than a flyover state, shameless in its midwestern lifestyle and stalks of corn and farmland everywhere. I wanted to be anywhere but here and dreamed of traveling and living among the world–where surely culture and history ran rampant.
Minneapolis lookin’ like a green screen
The first time I left the country, I spent three weeks road tripping through France and Italy. Even though I thought they were lovely countries and have since been back to both, when my flight was about to land and I glimpsed the cityscape of Minneapolis, I started to weep. It was then that I realized, Minnesota all along was actually a wonderful and beautiful place to call home. It had everything I needed right here–It’s a perfectly acceptable place to live with its own plethora of culture and great food, Instagram worthy landscapes–and, of course, history.
Chess & Coffee at Blue Ox Coffee Company
There’s Glensheen mansion in Duluth, our own little Downton Abbey–or wait, is that the James J. Hill house in St. Paul? There’s the North Shore and the sinking of the SS Edmund Fitzgerald. Stillwater and the rock caves, Bemidji and the legends of friendly giant Paul Bunyan and his blue Ox Babe, Rochester and the Mayo family. Local legends like F. Scott Fitzgerald, Bob Dylan, and Prince–all born and raised here. Their footsteps walkable, their hangs and, in Prince’s case home/studio, all view-able. Our local scene of music, food, coffee, etc. is no joke either. The Twin Cities being an incredibly underrated stomping ground just as worthy of anyone’s attention as Chicago, Houston, Miami, and other major metropolises. Yeah, I said it.
Milwaukee Avenue Historic District
So why am I telling you about how awesome Minnesota is? Because I’d like to show you. Traveling and writing about my experiences abroad is something of a living dream for me–and getting to indulge in history my passion. My next trip won’t be until next Spring, where I’m planning to visit Athens, Greece for the first time–but until then, let me take you on a journey through my home state’s local tourism. If you ever find yourself on this side of the country, I hope I can help show you the very best places to visit when you do!
And, of course, my history posts will still continue as I find time to fit in some good ol’ research on top of it all.
This time last year, I had the pleasure of witnessing the majesty of Notre-Dame Cathedral for myself–unaware at the time of how startlingly ephemeral this experience would be.
There is a Latin verse from the Middle Ages that goes, Niteris incassum navem submergere Petri / Fluctuat at numquam mergitur illa ratis — “In vain you strive to submerge the ship of Peter / this vessel rocks but is never submerged.” Simplified to Fluctuat nec mergitur — She is rocked by the waves, but does not sink — this motto came to be associated with the city of Paris. From coins, to the coat of arms, the official adoption came at a time during the 19th century when much of the old city was destroyed to make way for new, modern renovations.
And seemingly forever at the epicenter of Paris, the beating heart of Ile de la Cite, stands Notre-Dame Cathedral. This small island is likely where the first building blocks of what would become Paris arose–back when the settlers there were but a small Gallic tribe of ‘Parisii’ embattled with Romans. As the story goes, it was here in the 5th century AD that the patron Saint of Paris, Genevieve, led the city in prayer to save themselves from Attila and his Huns. And later, as the invasions and sieges momentarily cooled–there began the construction of a cathedral that would eventually become Notre-Dame, at the point where all roads in France meet, and where–despite the persistent wars and losses over centuries–it has remained.
“The church of Notre-Dame in Paris is doubtless still a majestic and sublime edifice. But, however beautiful it has remained in growing old, it is difficult to suppress a sigh, to restrain a feeling of indignation at the numberless degradations and mutilations which the hand of time and that of man have inflicted upon this venerable monument…” – Victor Hugo, The Hunchback of Notre-Dame, Ch. 14″
Affectionately known as ‘Our Lady’, Paris saw the beginning of Notre-Dame Cathedral’s construction in the Spring of 1163 AD where both King Louis VII and Pope Alexander III were present for the first stone laying. Maurice de Sully, the Bishop of Paris, was eager to oversee the building of a grand church set in the new style of Gothic–but he would not live to see its completion. It would take another 200 years or so for that day to come.
And since then, Notre-Dame Cathedral has looked upon more than 850 years of history–some good and some bad–all while standing resilient, never sinking. Even before construction was finished, France saw the breakout of The Hundred Year’s War where the Plantagenet kings of England saw the kingdom of France as their rightful claim, having been decedents of Norman kings, when Charles IV of France died without heirs. During the course of this 116 years of conflict, France saw many victories and many defeats against the English crown. One of the famous heroes of these events was Joan of Arc, who bolstered French morale after aiding in the siege of Orleans and ultimately helped lead to France’s inevitable victory in the war. After being captured by the English and summarily executed, Joan of Arc was later beatified in 1909 by Pope Pius X at Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris where a statue bearing her likeness resides. There was the French Wars of Religion which led to the riots of the Huguenots in the 16th century, a band of Protestants in opposition to the Catholic Church, who committed iconoclasm upon many of the statues of Notre-Dame. The Black Death swept through Paris repeatedly, coming in waves of plague through the ages, a particularly brutal one occurring between the 16th-17th centuries which likely saw many Parisians finding solace and seeking salvation within the church walls. The long and prosperous reigns of both “The Sun King” Louis XIV and his son Louis XV saw the removal of original stained glass windows in favor of white glass which would bring more light within Notre-Dame along with many other internal altercations more congruent with their period’s style. The iconic spire, which many of us watched helpless and aghast fall to yesterday’s flames, was not even the original–this had been previously removed after having been wind damaged.
Lighting a candle for my dear Joan.
Notre-Dame Cathedral also bore witness to the French Revolution in the late-18th century and saw itself, along with the monarchy, become a target of the new Republic. It became temporarily the house of the Cult of Reason and was plundered of its treasures and had many of its religious iconography destroyed–statues of biblical kings beheaded by the guillotine like French monarchs. It became nothing more than a beautiful, Gothic warehouse for food until Napoleon Bonaparte liberated and restored it as a church–holding his coronation as Emperor of France there in 1804. But by the time of Victor Hugo, the cathedral was largely in disrepair and rapidly decaying–prompting Hugo to feature this relic of Paris in his novel The Hunchback of Notre-Dame. The popularity of this book brought with it renewed love and attention, prompting King Louis Philippe to order Notre-Dame’s immediate restoration with the help of renowned architects Jean-Baptiste-Antoine Lassus and Eugene Viollet-le-Duc. They re-created much of the sculptures and glass that had been previously lost and were responsible for the reconstruction of the spire, which will undoubtedly be remade again after yesterday’s tragedy. Notre-Dame Cathedral was also there for both World Wars, the second which saw France fall to Germany in 1940. It was the liberation of Paris in 1944 where Notre-Dame took a few literal bullets for its people.
And yet, Notre-Dame Cathedral has remained through all of these events, housing treasures such as the Crown of Thorns, a piece of the True Cross, and a nail from the crucifixion. Relics from St. Denis, St. Genevieve, and the tunic of St. Louis. All irreplaceable and at least the Crown of Thorns and St. Louis’ tunic confirmed to be saved from yesterday’s fire. The Rose Windows, breathtaking feats of stained glass from the 13th century are remarkably said to have been saved from complete destruction along with the Great Pipe Organ. Though the catastrophe of the fire has yet to be fully assessed, there is some solace to be found in that Notre-Dame Cathedral is still standing and the people of Paris and the world with it.
I, too, watched in anguish yesterday as the fire ate away at the cathedral–scared of what could have possibly been the complete destruction of a monument of world heritage and history, and dismayed at how helpless I felt in those moments. I’m not naive enough to think that anything lasts forever and it can certainly not be the case with history–but I am relieved that the greatest tragedy has been averted and that is in forgetting Notre-Dame Cathedral existed at all. So many things in history have been inexplicably lost to us forever, both in physical wonder like the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or the Colossus of Rhodes, or in lack of memory such as to the contents of the Library of Alexandria–but Notre-Dame will not be forgotten and certainly not after today. Watching the world stand up and cherish what this cathedral means to the arresting spirit of humanity and our desire to build on beauty, or the solidarity of Parisians as they came together to sing hours worth of hymns and to aid in the saving of artworks and relics from inside, the motto of Paris chimes particularly loud today while the bells of Notre-Dame Cathedral take their momentary rest:
She is rocked by the waves, but she does not sink.