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I Start Behind

Here I am again. Here we are again. I wanted to write a story of transformation, but I haven’t learned to transform. No, that’s not it. I haven’t learned to love myself. No. That’s not it either. Let me explain. Rather, let me show you.

I can’t be someone I’m not. So who am I? A freezing cold creature in the darkness. Having to apologize for myself, for being myself. Having to apologize again for hurting you by hurting myself. I’m still not saying what I want to say.

What I want to say is this. I hear the wisdom teachings through a thick gauze of self-recrimination. I take the truth as a blame. The state of being is beyond words. The personal battlefield of emotion.

Sunday afternoon I melted down again. Now, Monday morning, I reconstitute myself, attempting sanity again, or approximating it. Pretending, if nothing else, because I have obligations to uphold.

Yesterday evening it was so clear, what to write here. Try and say, this is what the failure feels like. Stay very still, or else explode. There isn’t an easy way to die. Die to the failure, die to the devastation. The comparisons pile up like lead weights, pressing me down into myself, irrefutable proofs of something beyond easy words. I don’t have the language for this. It’s easy to say ‘your thoughts and feelings are not real.’ But when the tipping point is reached, the truth of that doesn’t matter. I’m already too far gone. There is a place beyond rational mind that is beautiful, but there is also a place beyond rational mind that is nothing but devastation. And every time I find myself there again, I feel nothing but despair.

I wanted to tell a story of transformation. That supposes starting somewhere and then moving on. But I have avoided naming that place. I hide it from my colleagues, I hide it from my friends. I hide it from my loved ones, I hide it from myself. I don’t name it because I am afraid of sounding trite, or simplistic, or simply pathetic. I don’t know the language to name this. A moment ago I was warm. Hot from my temper rising, hot from the rush of anger and the breath of anger shouting, rasping against my throat. Leaving me hoarse and shivering in the aftermath of fear. My breath comes shallow and sore. My shoulders are tight. Anger is uncreative, but it’s the only fire that can warm me when I’m cursing my desolate existence again. Time stops making sense. When the moment comes, the thought that carries it is, ‘here we are again,’ as if it were only a matter of time. As if only this failure is true. As if I’d escaped it, for a time, but that was just a mirage, and this desolation, the only real ground to return to.

My glasses are spotted with tears, blurring my perception of the world, further distorting an already distorted view. This is not a metaphor. My brain is bruised again from the impact. First I took my glasses off. Then I smashed my head onto my table. I know better than to hit my head against things. That knowing doesn’t stop me. When my forehead meets the wood, the feeling is sharp. The pain concentrates itself to a point. It is a brief relief. A small moment of embodiment that stops my thoughts. The opposite of sublimation. Is it enough? No. The deconstruction continues. I am a wrecking ball, careening through the architecture of my own best attempts to reinforce, to conceal myself. In this moment it feels like the only thing that is true is that I carry this demon inside me. She has always been there. Old as time, gathering strength with each generation of unresolved pain, asking me to be the one to do something new. And I am failing.

After the table I try to go outside. See a break in the clouds and a beam of sunlight piercing through the rain. A piece of me thinks, there must be a rainbow. Go and see it. This is (still) a magical world. Tearing off my clothes just to keep them dry, I cast them on the floor then burst outside, naked, looking towards the light. But I don’t see a rainbow. Only this naked body, shivering in the afternoon cold. Pathetic. Beside herself. The sky is blue directly above me, and for a moment, there is no rain. It is almost a disappointment, because I am still looking for something to shock me. Interrupt me. But there is no water to freeze me, no cold to immerse within, forcing me to catch my breath, nailing me back into my body, where, theoretically, mingling with or else somehow beyond altogether the reach of this pain, wisdom is said to reside. I am not in touch with this wisdom. I am only in touch with the despair. Let me try again.

I tend to avoid the language of mental illness. The myriad misleading labels that all fall short of actual revelation. Too tainted by the use and misuse of a culture that has lost itself in a legacy of rejecting the fullness of existence. I’m just trying to describe a single tantrum, to find a single entry point of specificity into the landscape of depicting what I’m trying to say.

After the table and the not-rainbow and the not-rain, I rush back inside. Clumsy and desperate in my still-raging attempts to escape myself. Now I am on the floor, pulling on socks, slippers, sweatshirt, fingerless gloves. And the floor is hard, and I am on my knees. I bang my forehead on the floor. The thin area rug does nothing to cushion the blows as I crash my head down again and again against the tiled floor. Tiles are a hard thing to bang against. I know this from experience. We had tile floors in our last house. Knowing this does not stop me. I think of football players and military vets. Of CTE, chronic traumatic encephalopathy. The degenerative disease resulting from head traumas, that can only be diagnosed by slicing a brain after death, and reading its cells in thin sheets under a microscope. Reading them like slides, each slide a page in the story of everything that ever went wrong. There is no surviving this. There is no surviving myself. Nobody gets out alive.

It usually only takes a handful of smashes before I stop. Partly because I’m startled. Dismayed and shocked that I’m doing this again. Partly because I’m hurting. The concentrated pain streaking out from my forehead, blossoming into a headache that I know will last the rest of the day, and judging by the feeling, well into tomorrow and beyond. Partly because I’m scared of the new damage that I’m piling onto the old damage that I was trying to escape in the first place. Afraid of the cumulative effects of all this smashing. Of the literal injury that I am causing my literal brain by self-inflicting these literal impacts to my head. I can’t imagine telling people that this happens. My wife knows. My therapist, well, my old therapist, because now we’ve moved and I can’t work with her anymore, which leaves me with one less resource to navigate my existence, or, that is, one more resource that I need to replace so that I can better navigate my existence. She knows. I’ve promised both of them not to do this. But I do it anyway. It’s just like promising not to yell. I can make a promise but even making it, I don’t believe I can keep it. When the moment comes, the promise doesn’t occur to me. There wasn’t even an inkling of a memory of it this morning. It only took twenty minutes between waking up and screaming and crying again.

This is what happens.

The alarm goes off. I immediately swallow my pills. The levothyroxine for my thyroid. A vital organ. Which, when under-functioning and left untreated, can create a constant struggle with coldness, joint pain, depressed feelings, dry skin, brittle hair, low energy, lethargy, in short, all kinds of debilitating sensations and chronic conditions that only exacerbate the swamp of misfiring neurons I have to already wade through to start my day. The other pill is Adderall. From my tiny stockpile that I have carefully assembled over the years by rationing my doses and always ordering my refills on time. Because this medication, which spells the difference between chronic crisis and basic executive functioning, is so highly controlled as to be always, always difficult to access. Especially now, in this new place, where I cannot find a pharmacy that even carries the brand of the pills that I can rely on to work for me, it has become impossible to source. The dwindling stockpile now representing, rather than a triumph of my resourcefulness, a measurable indicator of the threat. Impending self-destruction that will be kept at bay only for so long. Fuel that I will burn through too quickly, because I am living under siege.

The brutal irony, that the distribution of these pills is controlled endlessly, but the manufacture of them is so unregulated that most generic formulations simply do not work, is crushing to me. The worthless ones are just as hard to access. But that’s a distraction. What I’m trying to say is, I take the pills first thing. Knowing it will be an hour before I start to feel my perception fall into reliable routes, channels that can carry me into productivity or insight, or even joy. Amphetamine salts work like this: they properly stimulate my chronically under-stimulated brain, so that it can stop looking for stimulation in every distraction, every sound or sensation, every object of perception, turning each stimulus into a crisis and then flying into action to arm against the supposed attack.

Mornings are the hardest. There is no discrimination. Undone dishes, the mewling of the cat for her breakfast, a single uttered sentence from my wife, a fleeting thought of the list of things that I want to accomplish today, compared to the destruction and falling apart that I unleashed upon myself yesterday - any and all of these are shots across the bow of my existence. So I must tiptoe through my own waking.

Mondays are the worst. Facing a theoretical week of overcoming my own failures to self-regulate. Especially after a Sunday afternoon like yesterday’s, ‘daunting’ doesn’t even begin to describe the sensation. I try not to think. Just swallow the pills. Don’t judge myself for needing them. Don’t give any energy to the stories I would tell. Carefully guard against the momentum of that narrative of my brokenness, so old and tired and convincing, despite any argument or proofs that you might think I could offer to resist it. It doesn’t work like that. The only way out is through, which means, I have to survive that first hour.

I hit the snooze button on the digital alarm clock, buying myself nine minutes of silence before I’ll get up. Sometimes in that silence, I can successfully hide from the thoughts, and there’s a stillness inside that mirrors the early morning quiet. Sometimes it almost feels like freedom, especially when I wake up before the alarm altogether. The silence feels like possibility. The day ahead full of promise. But not today. Today, my head already hurts, aching with the memory of yesterday afternoon. It hurt all night, as I rolled my head against the pillow, side to side. Now my forehead is tender to the touch. The lump isn’t visible this time, but there is a discernible bruise. Every time I touch it, pulling down my knit cap against the morning cold, it taunts me. Daring me to try and defy my own inescapable darkness by rising and setting about the work of doing what I said I would do today. Being alive.

This is what I mean when I say that every time I start my day, I start behind. The simple act of waking up and reconstituting the broken threads of feeling and perception into a functional version of myself is a massive effort of will. Which means, waking up each morning is a recovery. An effort that I then have to recover from...


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