This is the story I performed at the Storyzilla showcase on 10 September. My therapist quibbles over whether I have psychotic or dissociative episodes, but it doesn’t matter for our purposes. I massaged a couple details in the story to bring it in on time.
It’s 2002 and I am molasses. I am congealing into my mattress, becoming one with the bed, as I’m sobbing uncontrollably. He’s just left me. And you know how it goes: “I’m fat! I’m ugly! No one will ever love me!”
But I get my ass up and I determine I just need to try harder. I come up with a plan (I’m a Capricorn, I am all about plans). It’s a two-parter: I’ll take three months to get my shit together, and then the next three months will be dedicated to dating. Now, I don’t date. I find that whole, “Hey, how are you, let’s do coffee, wanna see a movie” thing completely bizarre. I have a relaaaaationship. Then I have another relaaaaationship. Serial monogamist. But I figure it’s time to turn over a new leaf, try harder, and make myself better.
So I get myself a new therapist and start working on my crippling depression. I wake in the morning crying, I drag myself to my desk to check email, I sob back to the bed, I watch Lord of the Rings on my laptop, twelve inches away from Rivendell. Rinse and repeat.
My three months are up and I’m worried because I don’t seem to be getting better. But, by the gods, my three months are up and it’s time for: Match.com! But I’m still weirded out by the whole “””dating””” thing, so instead I seek out friends. I write an innnnteresting profile and write innnnteresting emails and soon I have about seven people who want to meet for coffee and hey how are you and let’s go see a movie. But once we meet in person, we don’t quite jibe. I don’t know if they can tell how fucked up I am, but the whole thing turns into a disaster. One by one they all drop off the face of the earth. I am devastated. I am being sucked into the black tar of quicksand and I’m grasping a rock with all my might to keep from being dragged in.
I am setting in my therapist’s office and I am telling her, “I’m really worried. I’m beginning to feel like I can’t feel my ‘I’ anymore. I’m not really sure what’s real anymore.” And my therapist, who is holding my kite string to keep me from bobbing around erratically, says, “You’re having a Buddhist enlightenment experience! Don’t you feel free?” She has just cut my kite string. Snip snip. I spaz around in the sky before divebombing into the ground.
I get worse.
There is a morning where I get up out of bed, I take a few steps, and then
A tiny pinprick of white light appears in the back of my brain. As it comes into being, I slowly become aware that I am lying in the fetal position on my floor, and I have been talking for a very, very long time. I can’t even tell if I’m speaking English. The little white light says, “This Is Not Rational.” It goes away.
The thing about having a psychotic experience like this is it’s impossible to describe. You can’t say, “I’m standing on the edge of a cliff” or “I’m looking up from the bottom of a black chasm” because in this kind of episode there is no “I.” You can’t even say, “There is nothingness,” because that assumes there’s an “I” that can observe nothingness.
The pinprick of light comes back. “This Is Not Rational.” It goes away. Over an unknown period of time it comes back with more frequency and stays longer each time. I slowly become aware of how stiff I am from lying clutched on the concrete floor. The light stays. I become more aware. And it says, “Check Your Insurance Policy.” This is the most rational thought I’ve had in nine months. I get up.
I go to my black metal filing cabinet, the repository of all the detritus of my life, and I pull out my insurance policy. And right there, it says, “Mental Health Hotline” with a number underneath.
I ring the number and try to explain the unexplainable experience I’ve just had, stumbling over myself, getting more agitated as I chronicle the downward spiral I’ve been on for almost a year. They say, “You need to go to a hospital immediately for evaluation.”
I am in the Meadows Hospital parking lot. I am terrified. I have just had the most terrifying experience of a life filled with terrifying experiences but the day is not over. What you need to understand is that mental illness runs like a long, black, oily river down the bloodlines of my family, infecting generation after generation. I have two ancestors who were committed to Longcliff Asylum for the Insane in the 1920s and their names were never mentioned again until the day they died. They were disappeared from the family. And now I am setting in the parking lot of an asylum, in the throes of total panic, terrified that I will go in and never ever come out. Padded rooms, straightjackets, electroshock treatments. Nightmares come true. But I’ve got to keep going, I’ve got to try harder, it’s this or die.
I am setting in the intake room with a woman who is asking me questions. It’s a small, dimly lit room and we are talking over a small round table. And as I talk I get increasingly agitated, voices screaming in my head, lights flashing. And then suddenly there’s my great-grandfather looking through my eyes and then, wait a minute, now he’s talking through my mouth and I’m over to the side observing myself and I’m like, “What the hell? This is my body!”
We get to the end of the evaluation and she gently tells me, “You’re going to need to stay here.” And I say, “You don’t understand, I’ve got a client meeting in twenty minutes. ” She says, “No, I don’t think you understand, you’re having an emergency, you need to stay here.” “No, you don’t understand, I’ve got a client meeting in twenty minutes.”
I leave. She’s not happy. I gather the shreds of my game face. Try harder.
I’m in the meeting with my client and there are voices shrieking in my head and lights flashing all through my brain and my nerves have been absolutely bathed in acid, I’m on fire, and through my eyes I’m screaming, “I’m insane!! I’m insane! I’ve just been thrown into an insane asylum!” and out of my mouth come the words, “I think if we use some pull-quotes here it would really draw the eye through the layout of the brochure. And if you could get some photos of the students, focus in on the eyes. Focusing on the eyes really draws people in.” And then I’m screaming at myself, “Don’t mention the eyes! She’ll look at your eyes and she’ll see! She’ll see!” And out of my mouth comes, “And if we could get this on iridescent paper, that would really make it pop!”
The meeting is over. I am walking down the hall with her. She hasn’t seen me for two years. As we walk down the stairs, she turns to me and says, “You look great! What’s your secret?”
I have one of those out-of-body experiences where I’m all “What’s real here, is it what I’m feeling or what’s being reflected back to me, what if I’m totally normal and just imagining things are wrong WHAT IS REAL??!?” And out of my mouth comes, “Just good clean livin’!” She laughs. I leave.
I go into Meadows. There’s a whole long story here which we’ll skip because we don’t have all night. Suffice it to say I am beyond hope because I can’t remember the beginning of sentences by the time people reach the end of them. So they say something, I ask, “What?” and they repeat themselves and I ask, “What?” and they repeat themselves and I ask, “What?” and they go away.
I am in the office with the all-important psychiatrist, the one who will diagnose me. And I am determined to try harder, to keep it together and rationally relate the last few days, the last nine months, the last twenty years of my life. He sets with his hands calmly folded over his clipboard. He’s not taking any notes. And then he says, “I don’t think there’s anything wrong with you,” at which point I start screeching at the top of my lungs, “YOU HAVE TO HELP ME! YOU HAVE TO HELP ME! I AM GOING TO DIE!!!” He starts taking notes.
I am taken to art therapy. I cut out pictures of babies which I will never have and when I find photos of smiling women I cut out their eyes so I can make a lovely collage of their mutilated faces for the folks back home. I am in total chaos with the screaming and the lights and the acid and the inability to wrap my brain around the simplest concepts snip snip babies eyes holes glue scissors nurse, nurse in the doorway, little paper cup in one hand, a clear plastic cup of water in the other and I know this is the moment, this is the time when I will have to take the meds will I be me anymore? will I be addicted? will I have to be on meds for the rest of my life? TRY HARDER take the pill, it’s an eighth of a milligram of Klonopin, I swallow down its pink antisepticness and twenty minutes later there is
s i l e n c e
blissful s i l e n c e
All the voices are silenced.
The lights are gone.
My blood is my own again.
And my first thought is:
“It’s not my fault.”
It wasn’t a matter of trying harder, of outsmarting it. I have a chemical imbalance in my brain. I inherited it. It’s part of who I am. And as long as I take my 17 pills a day, I can manage. There is…a floor to this downward spiral. The ability to cope.
Having some types of mental illness is like having diabetes. It’s a genetically influenced, chronic, potentially life-threatening disease that is treatable through medication and consultation. It’s not about trying harder.
It’s Not Your Fault.