October 1, 1995
“You have the mind of a 30-year-old.” So says the crazy man sitting across from me in Southeast Two Ward of the Northern Pines Mental Hospital. His name is Nick Spanos…, and he is a frail, withered carcass of a man. His dingy hospital gown hangs limply from his bird-like frame, swallowing him up in a puddle of gray.
“You have the mind of a 30-year-old!” He is much more adamant this time, almost as if he is scolding me. I am not sure what to make of this observation. Seeing as how I am only 22, I take it as a compliment. I’ve been accused in the past of being an “old soul” – and I guess this is this particular mental patient’s way of telling me so.
I am unsure of where to take the conversation from here. I am new to the whole mental-hospital circuit and I don’t know what passes for small talk between residents. But, being the well-mannered, courteous young man (with the mind of a 30-year-old) that I am, I make an attempt.
“Thank you, Nick. So, Spanos… is that greek?” Nick responds affirmatively by thrusting his bony index finger up in the air. “See what I mean?” By guessing the origin of his surname, I have apparently proven his point that I do, in fact, have the mind of a 30-year-old.
“Eight hours work; eight hours sleep; eight hours play.” Nick shouts out this mantra to the entire ward, although I can’t help but think he is talking to me. My daily triangle usually works out to something like 8 hours work, 8 hours sleep, and 24 hours of worry. “Play” hasn’t entered the equation for what seems like several months.
I listen intently, waiting for Nick to expound on his shockingly sane 8 hours work/8hours sleep/8hours play postulate, but he does not. Instead, he suddenly, inexplicably, shoots me a look as if I just insulted him. He even gives me a snake-like hiss as he lifts his creaky bones from the couch and wanders off in anger.
Under normal circumstances, I would feel a wide variety of emotions – anger, confusion, insult. But these are not normal circumstances, so I laugh to myself and write it off to your typical mental hospital shenanigans.
Then, I feel a tap on my shoulder. I turn around and see that it’s my Mom. I begin crying uncontrollably.
September 28, 1995
I am 22 years old and 4 months removed from graduating from a major southern University. I have a job writing advertising copy for a large direct marketing firm and I’ve just moved into Manhattan’s West Village. My salary is meager, my apartment is tiny, but all the pieces are in place for what’s supposed to be a happy existence. On paper.
In reality, however, I am feeling anything but happy. And the worst part about it is I don’t know why. It’s all happening very quickly. What exactly is happening? I’m not entirely sure. But there’s some sort of virus inside my brain and it’s metastisizing at a rate in which my mental immune system cannot keep up.
I’ve stopped liking… things. Things I used to like. Things like movies and baseball and going out with friends. I’m avoiding them now. I’ve been favoring naps on a Friday night over a few beers with the guys. I can’t find anything that brings me joy. I can’t find anything I WANT to do. Sometimes I go through the motions, sometimes I avoid them altogether.
It’s even manifested itself in the work arena. I’m not enjoying my job anymore. Granted, writing ads for Cat Fancy magazine hardly amounts to a dream job, but it beats crunching numbers all day, and I certainly had been enjoying the 8-hour-days I was been working. Recently, however, the 8 hours have become 10 hours, and now I’m up to a solid 12, plus a few hours on Saturday.
Again, I don’t understand why. My bosses aren’t burdening me with any extra work, but the tasks that usually take me one day to finish are now taking three – if I’m lucky. And I sweat through them, painstakingly checking and re-checking every detail for fear of missing something. I rewrite the same paragraphs over and over again, trying to come up with the absolutely perfect way to convey my message.
I’m scared. I can’t tell you what I am scared of, but I’m absolutely frightened by it. And overwhelmed. That’s really what I’ve been feeling. And by “feeling”, I mean literally feeling it on a physical level. I find myself walking with my shoulders tight and high up my back, practically touching my ears. I’ve been getting winded a lot, after virtually no physical exertion. My brain literally hurts. Goddamnit, my brain hurts! It’s as if someone has taken the muscles in my forehead and twisted them into a knot.
The recurring image I keep having is that of an old-fashioned phone cord. You know, the kind that used to connect the handset to the phone itself? My brain is this phone cord that’s gotten tangled, and no matter what I do, I can’t smooth it out. Still, I try. I try to think my way out of it, to rationalize it, to look for a reason. But each time I try, it only makes it worse.
I guess the trick is to not think about it. That’s it. I’ll let myself just “be”. But I can’t do that. It becomes the pink elephant in the room. Only this particular pink elephant is incredibly anxious and scared.
When I sleep, I’m free. It’s the only respite I can get from all of this. It is the one and only way I can keep the virus at bay. It’s eight hours of pure nothing. It used to be, anyway. Much in the same way my work hours have been increasing, my sleeping hours have been decreasing.
I have no trouble falling asleep, but staying asleep has become more and more of a problem. I wake up at 4 in the morning, almost on cue. My mind immediately turns to work. At first, it’s simple anxiety, focused on some minor detail, like whether or not I wrote the right price down for a 2-year-subscription to Marie Claire. Then the anxiety becomes much more broad and generalized. I worry that my ability to write is slowly eroding; as if there’s some limit to my talent… and I’ve already reached that limit. I worry that there are only so many phrases I can turn, so many headlines I can conjure up, and I’ve already exceeded that limit. It’s as if I’m determined to give myself writer’s block.
It’s ludicrous to imagine someone doing this to his or herself. No one would consciously give himself writer’s block, would he? Even more to the point, is it even possible to self-impose such a thing? Well, apparently it is, and I am living proof. I beat myself up with this notion. This is what I’ve been spending the wee hours of the morning thinking about. These are things that wake me up with a cold sweat.
I can’t combat it. I try all the things insomniacs do. I read, I watch CSPAN… but nothing works. I even stand up and start pacing around the bedroom, rubbing my head as if I can physically remove this unknown agent of self-destruction.
My alarm clock rings.
September 29-30, 1995
It is Saturday morning, and it is bright outside. It’s been bright a lot lately, but not the good kind of bright. It’s the kind of bright that shocks you with blinding bolts of sunlight and exposes you to the world. It also mocks me, for my days have been anything but “bright”.
I’m staying at my parents’ house on Long Island. I don’t want to start the day. I bury my face into my pillow. I’ve been feeling lazy lately. This is uncharacteristic for me. I just finished college in 3 years – my work ethic has never been in question. But maybe that’s the problem. Maybe I’m just tired of working so hard. I didn’t sleep much during the past 3 years. I spent many long nights reading and analyzing romantic poetry. Sure, I also did my share of “partying”, but even that was not restful. It was almost as if I had turned partying into a job, another thing a college student is supposed to do. Everything is work with me. And then I went straight from college into this job. This stupid, fucking job.
I should have taken a few months off. I should have backpacked through Europe, or done whatever the fashionable cliché is for college grads to do these days. I should have taken time to “find myself”.
Now I’m paying the price for all of this… business. Perhaps my brain is just saying, “Enough!” That must be it. A nice, long day of sleep will take care of everything.
Today is not a day for sleep, however. Today I will be heading into Manhattan with my family for some sightseeing and a nice dinner. I don’t want to go, but I have to. My little brother, Michael – 15 years my junior – really wants to go and he really wants me to come along. So, I force myself to step out of my sweatpants and head to the shower. I try to do it quickly, while I still have the energy.
My hair is a nappy, tangled mess from all the sleeping – or more accurately the not sleeping – I did last night. I feel gross. I look in the mirror and hate what I see. I’ve never been a big fan of my face. My nose is too big, my cheeks too puffy. But today it is pure loathing. I have to avert my gaze while I perform my ablutions.
That feeling is still there. The knot inside my brain seems stronger and tighter than it’s ever been. As I take my shower, my thoughts immediately turn to work again. I have a relatively easy assignment due on Tuesday. Considering my current state of mind, however, I know Monday is not going to afford me enough time to complete it. I will go in tomorrow and get a head start. Tomorrow is Sunday, but who cares? I hate Sundays anyway. You have a whole week of work staring you in the face. How can anyone possibly relax on a Sunday?
My family and I spend the next few hours doing the things suburban folk do before heading into the big city. We dress in layers. We bring an umbrella “just in case”. We drive to the train station. We find a parking spot that is close to where we will disembark later tonight. We walk to the track 10 minutes before the train is even in the station, “just in case”.
I am physically present as I run through all of these motions, but I’m not there. My head is a million miles away, or more accurately 36 miles away, in my office, trying to complete my assignment. I can’t remember exactly what I’m thinking about on the train ride into the city, but I can sum it all up with two words: I worry.
My father and I are standing inside the top of the Statue of Liberty, taking in the views of New Jersey and Manhattan. I, however, keep returning my gaze back to Long Island, in the approximate vicinity of my office. The cool, fall air whips through the inside of Lady Liberty’s torch and the sun, the bright, unforgiving sun, again exposes me. Everyone can see the fear inside of me. Everyone can see that I’m going crazy.
This is the only explanation for it. I’ve never felt this way before, and there’s no actual reason for me to feel this way. I’m going crazy.
My father notices something is up. He asks me what’s on my mind. What’s on my mind?! The more appropriate question would have been: “What isn’t on your mind?” Everything is on my mind. And it’s not on my mind, it’s in my mind. What is “it” anyway? I don’t know, but I can tell you it’s in there. And I can tell you it doesn’t feel like it’s going away anytime soon.
I tell my Father none of this. Instead I just tell him that I don’t feel well. This apparently doesn’t satisfy him. He must know! He knows I’m going crazy!
“Whaddaya mean? You feel sick?”
“Kind of. What does that mean, ‘kind of’’? Either you’re sick or you’re not.”
“I feel nervous.”
“You feel nervous? Why? You afraid of heights?”
It would have been easy. It would have been so easy to just tell him “yes”, “yes I’m afraid of heights.” But I don’t. For some reason, I feel the need to say more, which is odd because I don’t usually confide in my Dad for personal stuff. We talk about work, the news, and why the Mets suck. We never talk, really talk, about anything substantial. I usually turn to my Mom for that. But the pressure needs to be released. I have to tell someone.
“I’m feeling nervous about stuff. About everything, really. About work, I guess.” My Dad works at the same company I do. He’s an art director and we often work on projects together.
“Work is bothering you? I can help you with that. What’s the problem?”
“I don’t think I can do the job anymore.”
“Whaddaya mean, you can’t do the job anymore?”
“I mean, I can’t do it. It seems too daunting..” Daunting. That’s a good word. What I don’t tell him is that everything feels daunting. Working, sleeping, waking up, taking a shower, eating… breathing. I’m overwhelmed by even the involuntary acts.
My Dad laughs. “How can it be too daunting? You’ve been doing this job since you were 19.”
“It’s different this time. It’s like I don’t feel smart enough anymore.”
“That’s just crazy talk.” No kidding.
“I can’t help how I feel.”
“You’re just feeling stress.” Stress? I’ve felt stress before and it never felt like this. It never felt so pervasive and all encompassing. It never physically hurt before.
“Welcome to the club.”
“It’s not just work anymore. I can’t have fun anymore. I’m too preoccupied to have fun, and it’s scaring me.”
“What are you afraid of?” Everything.
“I don’t know. Most of the time it’s about work, but sometimes it’s not.”
“It’s just stress. Trust me. You’ll be fine. Just try and enjoy the day.”
My Dad gestures to the admittedly impressive view beneath us. “Look at this. This is beautiful. Just take a deep breath and enjoy the view.”
I do what he says. I take a deep breath and it actually startles me. Everything releases. The muscles in my shoulders relax and my face no longer feels tight and contorted. It then dawns on me that I haven’t breathed like this in days. Maybe weeks even. I didn’t realize that I’ve somehow been surviving by taking thin, shallow breaths, almost as if I was drowning. Maybe the old man is on to something.
“When we get home read the paper or something. Get out of your own head. Take your mind off it.”
“I can’t read.”
“I can’t read!” It’s true. I literally can’t read. I get too distracted. I’ve started 3 different books in the last month or so and haven’t gotten past the first five pages in any of them. And I can’t remember anything I’ve just read. It’s too hard. It’s too overwhelming. All I see is 400 pages that I’m going to have to slog through. It’s too… daunting.
“Well, I don’t know what to tell you, Timothy.” My Dad then turns his gaze away from me and back out to the large, steel-gray expanse of the Hudson River. I do the same. He looks frustrated. I look crazy.
My family and I are walking through the Village towards my apartment. At least I think that’s what we’re doing. The storm that was brewing in my head all day has finally realized itself, showering my brain with some sort of mixture of sleet and acid rain. I have no umbrella.
My mind is racing at a dizzying rate. I’m now convinced that I’m never going to be able to finish my assignment and I will be fired. Wow. How did I get here? It’s as if my brain has gone from zero to crazy in the span of one day.
I’m pretty sure we’re getting close as we turn down a road that looks vaguely like Christopher Street. Everything looks vaguely like it did before. Only now it’s grayer and feels somehow foreign.
It’s cold. Freezing, actually. It feels like I’m witnessing the changeover from fall to winter right now, right in front of me. My Mom is happy that we dressed in layers, “just in case.”
I think my brother is running out in front of us, playfully marching like a soldier, but it barely registers in my mind. It’s getting hard for me to see as my brain is moving so fast that it is unable to process even the simplest of images.
“You know what? I don’t feel like staying here tonight. Do you mind if I stay with you guys again?
My Mom seems thrilled at the possibility. “Of course! And I even bought some extra soda yesterday just in case.”
My Dad seems less enthused. “You could have told us this earlier. We were right near the PATH train. We could have taken it straight into Penn Station. And it’s cheaper than the Subway. Yeah, by fifty fucking cents. You’re going to save two whole dollars by taking the PATH.
I am mad at my Dad. Madder than I should be. So, he wants to save some money. But at this point I am looking for anything to take my mind off of what I’ve been thinking about all day.
“You’ve looked distracted today. Is everything okay?” Mother’s intuition, I guess. “What ‘s on your mind?”
I’m going to fuck up my assignment, get fired and then I’m not going to be able to afford my rent and then I’m going to go crazy and wind up in a mental hospital and then my insurance is going to run out and then I’ll be out on the street, begging for quarters.
“He’s feeling stressed about work”. My Dad answers for me.
“Have you tried reading a book or something? Get out of your head for a little while.”
“He can’t read.”
“What do you mean, you can’t read?”
“I asked him the same thing!”
I need to step in and end this nonsense before my brain gets even more scrambled. “I’m just having a hard time with things. That’s all. I have a lot on my mind.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“No. I don’t know. Yeah… but not on the corner of 7th avenue and Houston.”
“Well, let’s get you home and in your bed and we can talk about it in the morning.”
Home. My bed. I’ve been having a hard time with concepts like these lately. Technically, I’m two blocks from my “home”. But it doesn’t quite feel like home. Then again, I could also consider my parents’ house “home”, too. Yet, that doesn’t feel like home either. I feel like a man without a country. I feel un-tethered, but not in a good, liberating way.
We take the 1 train back up to Penn Station. I point out the murals on the wall so my brother can see them. I look at the ads running the length of our subway car. I’m trying anything to take my mind off of things. I’m getting desperate.
We get home from the city and it’s about 9:30pm. 9:30pm on a Saturday. 22 years old. This equation is supposed to equal fun. I should be at some awful bar on the Upper East side, with all the rest of the newly minted graduates. I should be working on a pretty good buzz by now; about three beers into the evening. I should be staring at some girl who smiles at me, but I don’t have the guts to talk to. There’s any number of things I should be doing, but I am not. Instead, I am at my parents’ house. At 9:30pm on a Saturday.
But really, my parents’ house seems like the only safe place to be right now. I just need to sleep. I know if I can get to sleep, this will go away in the morning. I’ll wake up refreshed and ready to go. Then, I’ll go into work, bang out my assignment and treat myself to dinner at some greasy spoon near my apartment. Easy.
These positive thoughts bring me temporary relief. I’m not entirely sure where I am able to summon them from, but they’re there and that’s a good sign. Maybe I’m not going crazy after all. I mean, really, what was I thinking? Like my Dad said, it’s probably just a little stress.
What was I thinking? I can’t even remember anymore. I’m just going to let myself drift off to sl… oh yeah, now I remember what I was thinking. Almost as if a switch has been flipped in my brain, my mind turns to work once again. No. Not this time. You’re going to go to sleep.
I don’t go to sleep. I spend the next hour re-tangling the phone cord in my brain. There’s the assignment, but there are other things. That girl at work. I like her. We’ve gone on two dates. I like dating girls at work because we can talk about work.
We’re supposed to hang out on Tuesday night. But Tuesday night is my basketball night. It’s an important game; against some other large company.
Oh Jesus why did I schedule a date on basketball night? What was I thinking? I’m going to have to cancel one of these things. But which one do I cancel? Okay, I can’t cancel the basketball game. They’re going to play the game without me. But they can’t play the game without me. I’m the only one on the team who can dribble with both hands, for chrissakes! I’ll be letting down the other guys. I can’t cancel the date, either. She’s going to think I’m not interested and then she’ll just move on. That’s what girls in their early twenties do, right? So, she moves on. So what? Shit. I have that wedding in November. Another one of my cousins is getting married. I’m going to need a date. Another one is getting married in December. I’m going to need a date for that one, too. Oh God. I just remembered that I have to send in the invitation. I hope it’s not too late. Damnit. I can hear my cousin right now, “What’s up with Timothy? How hard is it to check “Yes” or “No” on a simple goddamn invitation? He’s being such a pain in the ass.” Oh, and then there’s the…ENOUGH!
I’m talking the crazy talk again. If there’s something to worry about right now, I will find it. I try taking another deep breath. I inhale and hold it. I exhale. It feels like I’m exhaling the entire day from my chest in one breath. It’s remarkable. I try another deep breath but it doesn’t feel natural. Now I can add breathing to the long list of things I have to worry about.
I alternate between worrying about my assignment, and anything else I can worry about in order to take my mind off the worry about the assignment. Fighting worry with worry, if you will.
At sometime around 2:30am, I get a brilliant idea. I’ll just work on my assignment now! Sure, I don’t have a computer nearby, but I can write the copy freehand and then just retype it on Monday morning!
I find a notebook and a pen in my old desk. I have to write a brochure selling 10 magazines. Each magazine needs a headline and a “blurb” about 4 lines of copy long. This is something I could normally knock out in a few hours. But that was before this. Before I was losing my mind.
I sit down at the desk and try to remember what magazines are going to be on the brochure. Okay, People magazine. I can write 4 lines of copy about People magazine in my sleep. “In my sleep.” Ha! That’s actually what I’m doing right now!
I chuckle to myself. That’s good! You’re laughing! This is a good sign! With a smile on my face I start writing the blurb. Okay, first you need a headline. That’s easy. There will probably be some large savings. So I scrawl in “XX percent off!” Nothing gets a costumer’s attention more than saving money. Good. Well, wait a second. What if there’s a Free Gift? I decide to lead with the Free Gift. But I can’t remember what the free gift is. And what if there is no Free Gift?
Beads of sweat begin to form across my forehead and I can feel the muscles in my neck seize up with tension. I try to think of another magazine that will likely be on the brochure. Woman’s Day. That’s a good one. I’ve probably written sales copy for Woman’s Day 50 times before. This should be easy. I should be able to bang it out in 20 minutes, tops.
My stomach rumbles angrily. I haven’t eaten anything in about 12 hours. But I really don’t want to eat. I want to get this fucking brochure done.
I sit there and my mind begins to race again. I write a line but it doesn’t feel right. The problem with having written Woman’s Day copy fifty times before is that I’ve written Woman’s Day copy fifty times before. There are only so many ways you can sell sensible advice to soccer Moms, and I’ve run out. I mean, at some point an infinite amount of monkeys sitting in front of an infinite amount of typewriters will eventually exhaust all the possible ways to describe Woman’s Day. And I convince myself that today is that day. That’s it. l’m screwed. I’ll never be able to finish this brochure – because it’s not even possible thanks to the monkeys – and now I will lose my job and won’t be able to pay my rent and I’ll wind up on the street physically selling old copies of Woman’s Day from a dirty knapsack I stole from some other bum in Times Square.
I throw the notebook in frustration. It smacks hard against the wall and drops to the floor with a thud. My scalp suddenly starts to feel hot and itchy. I scratch it furiously for a solid minute and it feels really, really good. If for no other reason than that it takes my mind off of everything that’s been bothering me. I focus on the itch and the ecstasy I feel as I slowly and completely remove it from my scalp.
There’s a knock on the door. I open it to find my Mom standing there half asleep in her bathrobe.
“I can’t do it.”
“Can’t do what? What’s going on in here?”
“I can’t do my job anymore.”
“Timothy, it’s 4 o’clock in the morning.”
“I know, but I’m finished. I can’t do it. I can’t go into work on Monday.”
“I don’t understand any of this.”
“Neither do I.”
“Let’s go downstairs. I’ll make some coffee.”
So, it turns out coffee is the last thing you should drink when you’re losing your mind. Every synapse is already firing at breakneck speed and caffeine only makes the whole thing go faster, until the wheels eventually come off. My wheels have come off.
It’s as if my brain has seceded from the rest of my body and become its own separate entity. It started off as some minor discomfort that I thought would eventually go away on its own. Now, it seems apparent that this is more than just a temporary infection. What originally felt like a virus now feels more like a permanent, malignant condition.
As I sit on the couch across from my Mom, I start entertaining suicidal thoughts for the first time. It’s not because I feel like a loser, or life no longer feels worth living. It’s because it hurts. I don’t know what’s happening to me. I don’t know what’s causing this pain. I just need it to stop, and suicide feels like the only action powerful enough to snuff out the fire in my head.
I get up and start pacing. It gives me some relief. For whatever reason, being in motion helps to distract me from what I’m feeling. For the first time in my life I am conscious of the act of walking. It no longer feels like an involuntary action. I have to think about it. I have to concentrate on each movement.
I break each step down to its fundamental elements. I contract my quadriceps to lift my leg off the ground. I move my foot slightly forward and then release my quad to allow my leg to return to the ground. I then start the whole process over with my other leg. I feel like a toddler learning how to walk.
“Sit down, honey. You’re making me nervous.”
“No, I need this.”
“Well, let’s take a walk then.”
It’s still early – maybe five in the morning – yet it feels much later. That tends to happen when you’ve been awake for 24 hours, I suppose. We walk up the block in silence for a good two minutes before my Mom breaks the ice.
“This happened to me once, you know.”
I don’t know this. In fact, I’ve never heard her talk about anything remotely similar. She explains that, after my older sister Ellen was born, she went into a deep depression. My sister is mentally retarded and cannot function on her own. My parents have to do just about everything for her, including changing her diaper. After Ellen was diagnosed as mentally retarded, my Mom went into a tailspin. She felt like she wasn’t up to the task of raising a retarded child. She explains that caused her to go into her depression.
Could this thing actually be genetic? Interesting. There’s something comforting about this notion. For some reason it takes me off the hook. I thought I was causing this. I thought I was consciously bringing about my own self-destruction.
“So, how did you get over it?”
“Time. And doing things. Going through the motions. It’s the only way to keep it from getting the better of you. You keep doing the things you have to do and eventually you push through the wall.”
That’s just the thing, though. I feel like I’m too far gone to go through the motions. More to the point, I don’t WANT to go through the motions. Despite the fact that my brain is working overtime, the rest of me feels lazy. I don’t want to do anything. I just want to sleep.
“You have to go to work tomorrow.”
No. This isn’t an option. I can’t do it. I can’t let anyone see me like this. They’re going to know that I’ve lost my mind. And now that I’ve lost control, who knows what I might do? What if I completely break down in front of everyone? What if I literally fall to the ground and crawl into a fetal position? What if I start babbling and running around the halls like a maniac? No, I’m not going into work tomorrow.
Besides, even if I don’t have a complete nervous breakdown, I am incapable of doing my job. No matter how hard I try to hammer this point home, my parents don’t seem to understand. I am dumber. This has made me dumber. It has also taken away any talent I may have thought I had. I would be useless if I went to work.
So, what are the other options? Call in sick? No, that would only put me further behind schedule and I’d have to scramble even harder to make up for the lost time. Quit? Maybe. Quitting would probably make this all go away. As soon as I remove myself from all this pressure, it will go away. I could then take some time to just sleep it off. Once I’m over it in a few weeks, I could start looking for another job.
I offer this idea to my mother. She parries it before I even get the entire sentence out.
“You can’t quit.”
“Because you’re not going to give up, Timothy! If you quit, you’d be giving up. You’ve never given up on anything – since when did you turn into a quitter?”
She has a point. I’m not the quitting type. When I start something, I inevitably feel the need to finish it, no matter how difficult the situation may be. Quitting just isn’t in my nature.
Until now. Now it seems necessary for my survival. Quitting seems like the most humane thing I could do for myself. This decision – and the fact that I’ve come to a decision – calms me. I’m going to quit.
I can’t quit. What if this really is only a temporary thing? What if it goes away in a couple of days? Then I’d be unemployed for virtually no reason. And then I’d be forced to go through the awful process of finding a new job. And then I’d really have something to worry about.
It’s lunchtime. I don’t feel hungry, despite the fact that I haven’t eaten in over 20 hours. I’ve lost my appetite. I’ve lost my appetite and my mind.
“Why don’t you have something to eat?”
“I’m going crazy.”
“What?! You’re not going crazy. Trust me.”
“How do you know?”
“Because crazy people don’t know that they’re crazy. They think they’re perfectly normal. They don’t worry about a thing. You know this isn’t you. The very fact that you’re worried about going crazy proves that you’re not crazy.”
Feh. It sounds logical, but my brain refuses to accept it.
“What if I’m headed down that road? What if I eventually do completely lose it?”
“Because that’s not how it works.”
“How do you know?”
“Because I’m your mother. You may be smart, but I’m wise. You’re going to have to trust me on this one.”
“So what do I do?”
“We’re going to go to take you to see your doctor tomorrow and maybe he can get you on one of those anti-depressant pills.” I‘ve heard about Prozac, but don’t know much about it.
“So, there’s a pill that will make this all go away.”
I look at her face as she says this. She’s lying. She doesn’t know anything and she’s just telling me this to make me feel better. She’s just as scared as I am. I can see the fear on her. She can’t look me in the eye. She starts preparing a sandwich in an attempt to make it seem like everything’s just fine. It’s not.
This thing has gotten bigger. It’s no longer just about work and an assignment and a job. This is about every choice I have ever made. I begin taking an inventory of my life. Everything seems like the wrong choice. Everything seems to have contributed to my arriving at this point on this day at this time.
God is punishing me for all of my sins. It’s the only explanation. I start reliving every bad thing I’ve ever done. In the grand scheme of things, I haven’t done a lot of bad things, but the bad is all I can think of. I ignore all the good stuff because it doesn’t matter. Big deal, so I’ve been a relatively good person. That’s not hard to do. Anybody can be a good person.
But the bad stuff… that’s uniquely mine. I start recalling transgressions from as far back as 1st grade. I remember making fun of a kid named Greg for having a Cabbage Patch doll. Why? Why did I do that? It was so silly and unnecessary. I start to think about how Greg is doing today. I wonder if he’s all fucked up now and emotionally stunted because I decided to make fun of his Cabbage Patch doll. Maybe my mocking started him down a road of shame and self-loathing.
I think about my pre-teen years and how I hated my sister because of all the attention she got. I hated my sister because of the way people would stare at us when we went grocery shopping. I hated my sister because my friends were afraid of her and never wanted to come over my house to play.
What kind of awful, deranged human being hates their sister?! Especially a sister who is retarded. It’s not her fault. She didn’t do anything wrong. Yet I hated her. And now God is paying me back for all that hatred. This must be what hell feels like, minus all the demons and the fiery stakes and whatnot. Or maybe I’m actually dead and this is hell. At this point, I can’t rule anything out.
My Dad is watching a ball game in the living room. I sit down on the couch and try to watch. I can tell that it’s baseball but as for the score and the teams playing, I have no idea. I don’t care. I get up just as quickly as I sat down.
The walk to my bedroom is brutal. I have to pass all the family pictures. I concentrate on the ones I’m in. Who is that guy? He looks a lot like me, but he’s smiling. I can’t believe that I’ve ever actually smiled. I stare at one of the pictures and start to get jealous. I’m actually jealous of my old self. Why can’t I be that way right now? I believe there’s a strong possibility that I’ll never feel that way again.
I flop down face first on my bed and then try to grind my head into the pillow. It’s another desperate, pathetic attempt to eradicate the virus from my brain. It doesn’t work. I immediately jump up off the bed. I start pacing around my bedroom. I can’t stay still. I can’t just “be”. This must be what people mean when they say they’re uncomfortable in their own skin.
I have to make it stop. Now. I can’t take any more of this. I look around my bedroom for something, but I have no idea what I’m actually looking for. I just need to find something. It is unclear to me what that something is and what I expect it to do for me, but I need to find it.
I open the drawers of my dresser, looking for it. I then rummage through my desk and there it is. A small, square razor blade. So this is what I was looking for. I then look at my wrists and rub my fingers along the length of each vein. I immediately shut the drawer. I can’t do it.
“I’m having some weird feelings.”
“What kind of weird feelings?”
“No, I don’t.”
“Please don’t make me say it.”
“I want to kill myself!!!” I scream at her. She looks startled. It’s hard to say whether it was the content of the statement or the force in which it was delivered that scared her.
There’s a long silence. My Mom can’t look at me. She has the entire conversation with me without looking up from the stove.
“Did you try anything?”
“No. But I really want to.”
“Is this all because of that stupid assignment at work?”
“Well, that started it, but it’s so much more now.” I didn’t want to tell her all the details. She doesn’t need to hear about Greg and his Cabbage Patch doll. And she sure as hell doesn’t need to know that I used to hate her daughter.
“And you really want to kill yourself?”
“It’s the only way to make it stop.”
She takes a long, deep breath then walks out of the kitchen into the living room. She instructs me to wait for her. I pace back and forth in the kitchen while I hear her whispering to my Dad. The whispering is very loud and quick, but I can’t figure out what is being said.
After a few moments, my Mom returns with my Dad in tow. Their faces look gray and ashen.
“Your Father and I think you should go to a hospital.” This is an interesting option. An option I hadn’t considered. It doesn’t seem like a particularly helpful one.
“Why? Do you think I should get blood tests or a physical or something?”
“Not that kind of hospital.”
I pause for a long time as I try to process what they are suggesting. I feel a jolt of adrenaline run from my toes up to my brain. It’s a nervous energy, almost as if I am having a panic attack.
“Oh no. I’m not going to one of those. Besides, I’m not really going to kill myself. I just had some thoughts, that’s all. I’ll just stay here and sleep it off.”
“Actually, you don’t have a choice.”
I’m driving. This makes me feel normal. This is what normal people do – they drive places. Just not to mental hospitals.
All of a sudden I find myself parking the car in the lot of the Stony Brook University hospital. I just drove 20 minutes, but I don’t remember any of it. Now that I think about it, driving wasn’t the smartest thing I could have done. I insisted on doing it, however. I needed to. I need to hang on to any shred of normalcy I can.
My Mom and I enter the Emergency room and I immediately feel safer. The presence of nurses and doctors in their scrubs sets me at ease. It isn’t long, however, before the usual chaos of the emergency room smacks me hard in the face. I can’t take all the activity. And the noise. The myriad sights and sounds literally make me vibrate and leave me more unsettled than before. My vision is starting to deteriorate. Everything looks dull and sepia toned. Someone seems to have replaced my eyes with some sort of old-timey, daguerreotype lenses.
The woman at the front desk looks as harried as I feel. I wait in line behind 3 people, all with an obvious physical ailment. I, on the other hand, show no physical symptoms of anything, aside from the look on my face that screams “crazy”.
Without looking up from her paperwork, she calls me forward. I approach the desk as calmly as I can.
“What’s bothering you?”
“I feel suicidal.”
“Okay. Just fill out this form and have a seat in the lobby. Next!”
That’s it? No words of sympathy? No, “Hang in there, buddy, our doctors will take care of you?” No eye contact?!
I can’t tell you why, but her nonchalance actually makes me feel better. I guess if she really felt I was a threat to myself, she would have acted differently.
My Mom and I find two seats in the back of the lobby. I sit on the edge of my seat for fear of missing my name being called. She picks up a People magazine. How can she read a magazine? I’m suicidal and she is reading a magazine?! And does it really have to be People of all things? That’s one of the magazines on my brochure. This is all one big cosmic joke – and I am the butt of it.
“How are you feeling?”
“I don’t know. The same. I can’t believe this is happening.”
“Well, they’re going to take care of you here. Just try and relax.” Relax. Sure. That is exactly what I will do. Maybe you could lend me your People magazine.
“You know I haven’t slept in over 36 hours.”
“They’ll probably give you something to help you sleep.”
“You mean a pill?”
A pill. One pill. Suddenly that’s all I can focus on. I envision what the pill will look like. I decide it will be a capsule of some sort. Green and white. With little beady bits inside.
I want to take the pill now. I NEED to take it now. Just the suggestion of the pill makes me feel sleepy. This will work. This is all that I need. Forget the mental hospital, forget the anti-depressant, if I just get one good night’s sleep, I will go into work tomorrow. I promise.
I continue to negotiate with myself when my name is called. I jump up from my seat and follow a woman inside. I don’t even look to see if my Mom is following. I just want that fucking pill.
The woman is beautiful. I don’t know why I notice this. I haven’t felt anything resembling a sex drive in what seems like months. I don’t think it’s sexual, though. I think I’m just looking for anything that will make me feel better, anything that will calm me – and a pretty face is as effective as anything else at this moment.
“So when do I get the pill?”
“The one that will help me sleep.”
“Umm… why don’t we wait and see what the doctor says.”
She leads me through a maze of hallways. The way she is carrying her charts makes it appear as though she is a waitress with a handful of menus, leading me towards a table.
“I’d like a booth near the window. Non-smoking, please.”
“Oh, it just looked like… you were… oh, never mind. I’m going crazy.”
What the fuck was that?! Was I attempting to make a joke? Sure, it was a lame one, but it was an attempt at humor nonetheless. So, I’m not crazy after all. Phew. But wait a minute. Didn’t my Mom say that crazy people don’t think they’re crazy? Uh oh. I no longer think I’m crazy… ergo I must be crazy! Goddamit, where is that freaking pill?!?
We walk farther down a long, dark corridor. It smells like hospital. I hate this smell. Not because it smells bad, per se, but because it reminds me of death. The only time I ever go to a hospital is to visit someone who is about to die.
I expect to be put in a regular hospital room with a scale and a bed covered with a piece of paper. Instead, the woman leads me into what looks like a police interrogation room. I take a quick scan of my surroundings. No pads on the walls. That’s good. No art on the walls, either, a very antiseptic environment. God, it must suck to work here.
It is then that I notice it. A camera. Up in a corner near the ceiling. They’re watching me, waiting for me to exhibit some sort of deranged behavior. I am now aware of every moment I make. I slouch a little in my chair. No, they’ll think I’m not taking this seriously. I sit upright. Now they’re going to think that I’m too eager or something. I lean forward, with my arms outstretched and my palms resting on the table in front of me. No, this looks insane. They’ll throw me right in the hospital. If anyone is watching this, the only possible conclusion they could arrive at is that I’ve completely lost it.
As I continue to run through the littany of possible poses, something dawns on me: What do I want? What do I hope the outcome of this whole thing will be? Do I want to go to the hospital? Do I want to be declared “sane” and sent home with a pat on the back and a sleeping pill? If this was a movie script and I was a character, you’d wonder what my motivation is.
But I have no motivation. I have no drive. I have wholly and completely put my fate in the hands of other people. There’s something freeing about this. It somehow takes me off the hook for this entire episode. It somehow makes me feel better.
45 minutes. That’s how long it takes before someone finally talks to me. And it’s not just one person… it’s four. Sweet Jesus on a jelly roll! I must be nuts if they need 4 people to interrogate me!
“Hi, we’re the team that will be evaluating you today.” The “team”. Why couldn’t they have sent the Mets instead?
I get up to shake their hands. Okay, I need to show them that I’m a normal person. But I’m not a normal person. At this moment, I’m a deeply disturbed individual. So, should I act that way? But I’m not sure if I want to go to the hospital. And if acting the way I truly feel will send me there, I need to present myself in a more “normal” way. But there are so many options here. Should I give them my name? And if I give them my name, should I give them my full name? Or, do I just shake their hands and sit down? And do I smile? It would be the cordial thing to do. But this obviously isn’t the happiest of occasions. Oh God, what about the handshake itself? Should it be strong and confident, or neutral?
“Hi, I’m Timothy. Good to meet you.” Neutral. Nice. I didn’t give anything away.
“Wow, you look like you’ve had quite a day. Shit! I should have gone with the strong, confident handshake.
“Well, I’ve been up for like, forty eight hours.”
“That’s a long time.” Damn, these guys are good.
“Yeah. Look, if you could just give me something to sleep, I’ll be fine. I don’t need to go into the hospital or anything.”
“I think it’s going to take more than that, Timothy. Otherwise you wouldn’t be here right now.”
Another doctor jumps in. “Well, let’s give him a chance to tell us how he’s feeling.” Ooo, I like this one. She’s on my side.
“I’m just saying that I think we should be honest with him. He’s going to need more than just a sleeping pill.” Aha! They’re doing the old Good Doc, Bad Doc thing. I’m not going to fall for it.
“Tell us how you’re feeling.”
“Well, I feel like my mind is racing a mile a minute. I can’t slow it down. I just want everything to go slower, y’know?” Fuck, I fell for it.
“Tell us more about this business of the ‘racing mind’”
“That’s it, really. It’s just racing. Lots of different thoughts shooting through my mind, rapid fire. And most of them are bad.”
“Tell us more about the bad feelings.”
“It’s guilt, mostly. I feel guilty about all the bad things I’ve ever done.”
“Tell us more about…” I swear to God if you say, ‘Tell us more’ one more time I’m going to kill you.
“I’m sorry, could you repeat that question?”
“Sure. Tell us more about the guilty feelings.” Sonofabitch, he did it again! And that’s not even a question!
I don’t have it in me to deal with these people. At this point I just want to go to sleep. Whether it’s my bed or a hospital bed is irrelevant.
“Timothy, what about the guilt? Have you harmed anyone?” I wonder if I should tell them about the Cabbage Patch doll.
“Have you been thinking about harming yourself?”
“And how long have you been having these feelings?”
“I don’t know. A few hours or so.”
“Have you thought about how you’re going to do it?”
“Yeah. I was probably going to use a razor blade. Look, I don’t think I’m going to actually do it. It was just a feeling.”
“Are you hearing voices?”
“Yes, I can hear you guys just fine.” What a dumb question.
“No, are you hearing voices in your head? Other people’s voices? Oh God.
“No, just my own. All the time.”
“Do you abuse drugs?”
“What about alcohol?”
“No. Just the occasional beer at parties and stuff.”
“On a scale of one to ten, how badly would you say you want to kill yourself?”
“I don’t know, like an 8.5.” This causes all the doctors to scribble furiously in their notebooks.
“Guys, can you just give me a sleeping pill – or Prozac or something?”
“Will you excuse us a second?”
Finally! I am going to get a pill and go home. A wave of relief washes over my body. This is all I need. I was just overreacting. A good night of sleep will take care of everything.
About 10 minutes go by before one of the doctors, or whatever the hell she was, came in to talk to me. She was the kind one. The one who was on my side.
“Timothy, would you be interested in spending a couple of days in the hospital?”
“Please. Just listen to me. If you just give me a sleeping pill or an anti-depressant, I’ll be fine in a couple of days.”
“First of all, anti-depressants take weeks to take effect, and you don’t really have a choice about the hospital.”
Wow. That’s exactly what my parents said. I can’t respond. I just stare blankly, past the doctor, for at least a minute and a half. Suddenly this whole thing seems real. I’m going to a mental hospital.
“We’ll give you the opportunity to sign yourself in, so this way it looks voluntary, which looks better. You will also have the opportunity to sign yourself out whenever you want. But we really recommend you stay in the hospital for at least a few days to just relax and settle down a little.” Ah yes. Relax and settle down. That’s so easy to do when you’re surrounded by a bunch of nut jobs in straight jackets.
“I have one last question.”
“Why did you give me the option of not going to the hospital, if you knew you were going to send me anyway?”
“Good question. We wanted to preserve your dignity by making you feel like you were making the final decision.” Fantastic.
I’m waiting. And waiting. And waiting. Our “mutual” decision to go into an actual mental hospital was made at 4pm. It is now 8:30. Passing 4 and1/2 hours is a difficult task in and of itself. Do it alone with extreme anxiety and it becomes monumental. The only time I’ve ever waited this long was for Space Mountain, and where I’m going ain’t exactly Disneyland.
Good God, there is nothing in this room. It’s empty of art, life or feeling. Maybe it’s purgatory and I really am going to hell. If the waiting serves anything however, it is to confirm to me that I actually do belong in a hospital. I don’t know much about depression, but my symptoms certainly make me feel as if I have it.
I can’t think of anything that would make me happy right now. Everything seems irrelevant or trivial. A trip to Europe? Too much work. A date with Miss Universe? Eh. Unless she feels like taking a nap, I’m not interested. I decide that if someone would walk in this room and give me 10 million dollars, it wouldn’t make me feel any better.
There is movement outside the door. The team must be mobilizing. I do my best to look as normal as possible. Maybe if I present myself better than I’m actually feeling, they’ll think twice about sending me to the hospital. Even though I know deep-down inside that I belong there, I’d still like to avoid it. It’s not the kind of thing I want on my resume.
“Mr. VonWinklebottom, your transportation is here.” “Transportation?! Who are you, my butler? I get up from my chair and my ass hurts from sitting so long. It’s a dull pain that reminds me of how long I’ve been sitting in that chair. It’s nice to actually feel something.
Two guys roughly my age walk in. They are wearing EMT uniforms. They look like nice enough guys. I follow them out.
“Why can’t I just drive myself?”
“This is standard procedure.” I don’t like standard procedure. They could have at least let my Mom drive me.
I am led out to a small ambulance. I assume this must be for someone else until one of the guys opens the back doors and asks me to climb in. Again, standard procedure.
This is starting to get embarrassing. Check that. It’s getting more embarassing. I just really didn’t expect all this pomp and circumstance for a trip to a Mental Hospital. It’s not like I have any physical injuries. Unless a broken brain counts.
I climb in the back and see a stretcher waiting for me.
“This is a bit much, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, but we have to do this. Don’t worry, Dude, we won’t turn on the lights or the siren or anything.” They know I’m scared and they know where they’re taking me, yet they ‘re treating me like one of the guys.
“Where are you taking me?”
There is one answer I don’t want to hear. An answer that I’ve feared hearing since I got into the Emergency room. I don’t want to go to Pilgrim State. It’s a state-run facility in the area and it has a reputation. Since I was a kid, everyone knew about Pilgrim State, and everyone knew they didn’t want to go there. Allen Ginsberg even mentions it in his poem, “Howl”. That poem has been stuck in my head for the last few hours. “I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical.” It truly is the perfect poem to have in my head.
“We’re taking you to Northern Pines.”
“Sounds like a retirement home or something.”
“Yeah, but you won’t be there long. It seems like you have your shit together.”
“Thanks, but I’ve got a lot of problems to work out – and I haven’t slept in over 36 hours.”
“36 hours?! You are fucked up. Just kidding, you’ll be fine once you get to the hospital and get some sleep.”
We continue driving. We’ve just passed a Hooters. One of the guys jokes that we should stop for a beer. I don’t think this is such a bad idea. Unfortunately the driver doesn’t agree. I guess the normal modus operandi is from bar to hospital, not from hospital to bar.
We arrive outside Northern Pines. With its lush green grass and neat quadrangle of buildings, it looks like the campus of a small, liberal arts college. I feel slightly better.
Standard procedure mandates that they wheel me up in the stretcher. They deviate from standard procedure and let me walk in on my own. This is the first real dignity I have been afforded all night.