This is how I realize I’m not up to the challenge.
I tumble out of bed in a panic like I do every morning, searching for my phone, which I can’t find, as usual. Its alarm is going off, but it has fallen off the side of my bed and is buried in a sea of books and dirty clothes, so I stumble over to my computer, which I leave on every night because it’s old and takes ten minutes to boot up. I know this is good for neither the environment nor the computer, but when I wake up I know I likely won’t find my phone until I’ve drank some coffee and popped the Xanax the therapist tells me to take. And I can’t do anything until I check my email and the news to make sure everything is okay, knowing full well that the news will assure me that the opposite is true.
But as I run my hand over the touchpad to bring the screen alive, an open miniature paper notebook off to the right of my computer catches my eye. Now I’ve forgotten about my email and phone, even though the alarm is still going off. It’s one of the little journals I bought from Walgreen’s when I didn’t have enough money to buy a nicer one, with that black and white textured school binder cover and binding made of glue that falls apart the second I touch it. I like journals just the size I can fit in my pocket, so I can take them everywhere, even though half the time I forget a pen. They are perfect for lists and stray thoughts. This notepad, I remember, is mostly full of to-do lists from my several jobs, none of which pay me enough to take care of myself.
The notebook is open. On the page it’s open to, there is no to-do list. There, in capital, shaky letters unmistakably written by me, I find the words:
The word CHALLENGE takes up the entire bottom half of the page.
I have no memory of writing these words. I am slightly hung-over, which I could ignore, except that this note is sitting here, reminding me that alcohol is not good for me, that it might have caused a blackout.
But I also know this is wishful thinking. I’d barely drank anything the night before. I’d had a couple glasses of wine, maybe, and I’d chatted online with my friends, because that’s what I do now, now that I’ve moved to Los Angeles: I sit in my room and chat with people on the Internet who live far away, in Oaxaca, in San Francisco, in Denver.
On the opposite side of the notebook, I’ve written something worse, something so whiny and full of angst that I’m ashamed it’s also in my handwriting. It says, “What if I could just disappear? What if I could just make it so I never existed?” This writing is even less clear; it is scratched in letters only I could read, and it is a thought I’ve had many times before.
I loathe suicide. In college, at Santa Cruz, I was playing pool with my friends in the lounge, and I was probably losing, like I always was. I heard a loud crack. Everyone said, “What was that?” But I thought nothing of it. Then someone came in—I can’t remember who—panting, and they said someone had just fallen off a balcony and died. We all sat there, stunned, not sure how to react. Eventually, the woman I was dating asked if I wanted to go with her to her kitchen to get something to eat.
We thought the body would have been removed by then, but we were wrong. Most of it was covered with a sheet, but the top of the head was not. The body—a man—had his head blown out. The crack I’d heard, it turned out, was a shotgun blast from a fourth floor balcony. I later learned he had an American flag tied around his ankles. It was dark or dusk as we walked by, I can’t exactly remember that either. There were little bits of shadow around him, little bits of what I imagine were flesh and brains and blood but could have just as easily been kicked-up dirt. I felt no sadness or shock as I walked by the body. I felt my heart speed up, but besides that, there was nothing.
The woman I was going to the kitchen with said, “Well, I didn’t need to see that.”
“I didn’t either,” I said and excused myself to my room. The school hired therapists outside for us to talk to. I did not talk to them. I hid under my sheets, unable to move until the next day. I don’t think I moved that entire night.
The whole next day, friends of the man who committed suicide played Sinatra’s “That’s Life” on repeat at top volume into the quad. It rained even though I couldn’t see the clouds, a strange phenomenon that sometimes happens in Santa Cruz because of where it sits between the mountains and the ocean. I later heard that the night proctor Wayne, a former cop, local legend and friend of every student in the dorms, had been given the task of cleaning the brains off the ground. The next time I saw him he had cut off his trademark long hair.
I still wonder about the man who committed suicide. Was he trying to be cruel? Or was he just trying to make some kind of statement? Was he trying to warn us of something?
To this day, when I think about seeing the body, I feel nothing. But when I think about Wayne scraping up the brains, I feel nothing but rage.
I feel like my mind has been unraveling slowly, and this angers me.
Three of my parents are psychologists, and one is a psychiatrist. Yes, all four: my dad, my mom, my stepdad, and my stepmom. I love each of them. Still, I feel like having any form of mental illness means they somehow won, that they had been right every time they were “worried about me,” that they had used their science to understand me better than I understood myself, that I had been wrong to resist their worldview because I resented so much feeling like a specimen. At one point, I was literally a subject in something called “The Nice-Mean Study,” which is about what it sounds like. I’m angry about this, but I don’t blame them; I think they thought of it as a kindness, that I could be a part of their lives that they cared about so much. And, of course, they believed their professions were beneficial.
At Santa Cruz, one of my parents sometimes sent me care packages full of SSRI antidepressants in the mail. I never took them. I held on to them, though, and at the end of college, I threw a party where I put all the pills in candy bowls. I did not encourage people to take them. I was just making a statement. One guy did take a few of them. Nothing happened.
It was a good thing I didn’t take them, my therapist later told me, because the antidepressants would have made me the kind of crazy where I wouldn’t have been able to stop laughing, where I wouldn’t have needed sleep, where I would have woken up on the other side of the world not knowing why I had a bucket of gold Krugerrands. SSRI’s are harmless to most people, but in the wrong hands, they can ruin lives.
If the wrong person had taken those pills, I could have destroyed someone, but that wasn’t what I was thinking about. I was thinking about making a statement. I wish I could say it was a remotely intelligent statement. Maybe something about the overuse of antidepressants, the fact that we use so many they are ending up in our water supply, or that we as a society need to learn to deal with our problems without making everything into a disease. I knew about those arguments, sure, but what I really wanted to say was something much simpler: I didn’t need any help. I could do this on my own.
Upon moving to LA, I was greeted by this city like—as my friend put it—a proctologist greets his patients. The day I arrived at the place where I’d be housesitting (which was, to its credit, beautiful, and a kindness on its own), a woman I liked showed up with a six pack of beer to tell me she not only had a boyfriend but also had fucked another good friend, someone from whom I’d been getting advice about her. My situation did not improve from there. Soon, I found myself unemployed, moving from couch to couch, and eventually, I had to rent from someone I had just started dating, which worked out about as well as you might think it would.
Desperate not to have to move home, desperate for anything to work, I swallowed my pride and scrounged up money to see a shrink. She told me that I was severely depressed and suspected I had bipolar II, which is like bipolar light, except it makes me more likely to kill myself. She gave me pills, ones that made the people I was sleeping with think I was having nightmares about wrestling lions. The pills were originally meant to stop epilepsy, but it seemed they were giving me seizures. When I told my shrink about this, she suggested the pediatric dose. The pharmacist looked at me, concerned, and said, “I hope these help your little one.” They were chewable and tasted like Flintstones vitamins.
The pediatric dose did not stop the fits.
Finally, she gave me a not-dangerous kind of antidepressant and some Xanax. I was able to get my shit together, moderately, at least, until not remembering writing that damn note.
The day before the not remembering, my therapist mentioned four letters in passing: PTSD. I was talking about my struggles writing, about how I just had too many things coming up, that I felt like every time I wrote I was just listing shitty things that happened to me, that I wanted nothing more than to write a funny essay about farts. My writing was becoming lists. Just lists of horrors I’d lived through. Lists like this, lists that are hopelessly incomplete, lists that (I’ve counted) go on for twelve handwritten pages, lists that, on top of that suicide, include:
1) One of the first women I ever kissed—I was thirteen and the only boy in a game of spin-the-bottle—was stabbed 31 times and strangled with a belt by her boyfriend. This was 13 years later. It was broadcast in the papers because he was in the country illegally. No one called to invite me to the memorial because I hadn’t told any of my high school friends I was in town.
2) My childhood best friend had his life altered terribly by a car accident caused by black ice and a sociopathic passenger. I went to visit him in the hospital, and saw part of his skull plate missing, which meant at one point I actually saw his brain. Even though he was nonresponsive, I looked at his brain and talked to him for a long time, because the doctors said hearing friends’ voices might help. Try as I might, I can’t remember what color the brain was, but I do know that he survived, even though they all said he would die.
3) My neo-Nazi cousin nearly killed a man with a bow and arrow right in front of me, just because that man was black. But he did not let go of the arrow, thank God, and now that man is still alive. I can’t stop thinking about it, even now, even thirteen years later.
None of these things actually happened to me. They happened near me. Shouldn’t I be tougher than this?
My first reaction to my shrink mentioning PTSD was that I hoped my insurance company wouldn’t find out. Then I thought of worse things that have happened to people I’ve known or loved, that my list didn’t count because it’s not as horrible, because there is always something more horrible.
Then I thought about how everything seemed to touch me somehow, just a little bit, about how I used to film lacrosse games for extra money, sometimes at Columbine, which was just a few miles from my school. The massacre happened one year after I graduated high school. I walked into my dorm room where my roommate was watching it on TV and saw a bloody body fall out of a building I used to see all the time. A distant acquaintance, I later learned, was among the dead. I remember the mass depression that overtook the country, but especially my family and friends in Colorado, just by virtue of proximity.
Then I thought about the attack on the World Trade Center on September 11, which also happened when I was a student in Santa Cruz. A family friend had been in the first plane, though I had only met him once, and I’m not even sure if it was him that I met. But I do know that my family was very shaken up by it. I told my professor—who was angry at imperialism instead of the terrorists—that talking about imperialism wouldn’t bring him back. She bought me more drinks and said she was worried about me, that she thought it wasn’t really him I was upset about.
That night, I walked to my girlfriend’s house, tearing down every miniature American flag I saw—probably about two dozen of them—including one where I accidentally ripped off a car antenna along with the flag (I left a note of apology for the antenna and a ten dollar bill—it was all I had) until I got to the full-sized flag at the entrance to the Motel 6 by the Santa Cruz Boardwalk. I started tearing it down, and the Pakistani woman who worked there ran out and looked at me.
She said, “What are you doing?”
I had no answer, so I left the flag hanging there all limp on its now-bent pole. I went to the beach and slept there for about an hour. But it was very cold, so I went to my girlfriend’s apartment—where she literally slept in a closet. She woke up to open the door, said nothing and let me cuddle up next to her, no questions asked, sand in my hair and all over my clothes.
And now here it is, twelve years later, and I’m spending days in bed, even though I can’t, even though I am working 50 to 80 hours a week, doing a damn good job when I’m there. But still, somehow, I manage to spend entire days in bed, in silence, staring at the ceiling, not listening to music, not cruising the Internet, just staring, cursing every time the ice cream truck drives by my window because of that God damned song. It’s not even that it drives by; it actually parks in front of my fucking house just to make me crazy. My therapist calls what I’m doing “dissociating.” I want to pour a coke in the engine of the ice cream truck. I want to take a sledgehammer to its speakers. For a moment, I want to be cruel. It is ruining everything. I don’t know what this is. I just know I can’t control it.
That’s the thing I hate. I can’t control it. I can’t control that I can do nothing but sit inside in that goddamned room and stare at the ceiling. I have no idea who wrote that note, even though I know it was me.
So now what? I wish I could write: “Oh, wow, those times were hard, but now that I’ve finally gotten on the right medication, and now that I’m well-adjusted and my skin is shining the sheen of the healthy and I never forget to take my omega-3, and I’ve popped out three kids with a beautiful partner and am drinking carrot juice and ginger smoothies in Park Slope, Brooklyn, now I can tell you this story and laugh and explain everything.”
But this is not me yet, if it ever will be, because right now, I am the definition of “mentally ill.” If I write this essay, I have to ask: Will I survive? Will my twenty different bosses fire me? Will whatever “respectability” I have as a writer or adjunct or teacher or tutor or nonprofit professional go to shit? Will my health insurance find the article and raise my rates? What’s worse, will I turn into a social leper? Will people be afraid of me? Will anyone ever want to sleep with me again?
Will anybody read it?
Lately, for unspeakable reasons, everyone has been talking about how everything in the world is terribly wrong. People are blaming guns and poor mental health services, but I get the sense that these are not the only things wrong, that there is something more.
It goes beyond this problem of “the stigmatization of mental illness.” Sure, that scares me, but there’s a thing that runs deeper. I can’t name it, exactly, and I certainly don’t know what to do about it, but I think it has to do with how we think about compassion and empathy and cruelty and survival.
I see it in the bloody newscasts of school shootings and disasters with special graphics and Hollywood effects for ratings. I see it when I donate money to a President who kills innocent children with drones. I see it as I take money from people I shouldn’t be taking money from because I have to pay rent. I saw this in my cousin’s swastika tattoos, in his pulling out his bow in arrow, in his not letting go. I saw this in the way I and so many of my high school alumni rallied around my friend after his accident, and in the way we turned away from him in the years after because we “had to move forward.” I saw this in the cruelty of the newspaper articles when one of the first girls I kissed was murdered, in the way the reporters would not leave her mother alone, in the way I am now writing about it still.
It all makes me want to make a statement. I want to write the world off as brutish and cruel, to go all Gordon Gecko, or maybe Don Draper, to stop worrying about the people around me and start looking out for number one, maybe learn Parkour, or at the very least learn to throw a punch. At first, the world seems a lot less maddening when I start to think this way because I think it gives me some control.
In parts of academia, in a staggering act of linguistic defeatism, social scientists call those who believe that people are inherently self-serving “realists.”
Fuck them. I’d rather go mad than be a “realist.” There is something I can control.
I know for a fact it’s more complicated than that.
Once, I saw a woman with her left eyeball popped out of her head at a concert, dangling from its socket, with surprisingly little blood on her face. Whenever I think of it, I can’t forget her look, the shock of having her body altered permanently, that one of the most important parts of her had just been removed and would never work the same again.
I hope they found a way to reattach her eye. I hope she can see perfectly now. All of her friends had abandoned her. People were walking on the other side of the hall, as far from her as possible, including me. Except for the bouncer, she was completely alone, and what scared her most, I think, was the fear in my eyes, in the eyes of the people walking near me.
The bouncer stood there next to her, smiling, telling her she’d be okay, that help was on its way, massaging her shoulders, dabbing as much of the blood away as he could.
Maybe that’s what it means to be up to the challenge.
Rumpus original art by Jason Novak.