Listener Katie was literally a red-headed stepchild. Though her blended family was large (7 kids), her stepfather was not Mr. Brady. He was, in her words Machiavelli. Attacked by a stranger at 15, something in her snapped. It would be years before she dealt with the pain, as she tried to numb herself with sex, drugs, shopping and men who treated her like, yep you guessed it, her stepfather. Topics include PTSD, Bipolar II, Attachment Disorder, divorce and mothering. Paul reads some listener emails that are critical of him and the show, as well as one from a girl who credits the Teresa Strasser episode as the beginning of her healing.
The crying started my third or fourth day back from the hospital.
I was in the shower, the first time I let water hit my incision. I’d been shielding my chest even after they said I didn’t have to. But I finally rubbed a bar of soap across it, finally touched the bumpy red scar, 9 or 10 inches long. I could feel other lumps, too, under my skin, the titanium wires that held my breast bone together while it healed. Those were permanent. I looked down but couldn’t see where the scar started. I could see it ended at three pink puncture scars where tubes used to stick out from my lungs.
Instantly, uncontrollably, a wave of emotion bubbled up inside me and burst out and I wept. It was a pressure pushing on my head and the rest of my body. Sadness or fear or despair or all of the above. I felt people digging around inside me again; my chest was open and they were touching my heart. I pictured myself flat on the operating table under harsh, glaring lights, laid out like a frog in biology class, naked but covered in green, sterile sheets. They shaved me, messed around with my genitals to put in a catheter. People I didn’t know, people I’d never met. I pictured them cutting into me, slicing my skin, sawing my bones, prying me apart. They reached in and dug around. They gutted me for parts, pulled veins from different places, chopped them up, then sewed them onto my heart, turning it into a contraption of some kind.
Deep and primal, the emotional wave washed over me then let up and I could breathe again. It left me with an overwhelming feeling of doom. My life had completely changed almost overnight. In the blink of an eye I was finite.
The New York Times says up to three-fourths of patients have uncontrollable emotional outbursts or depression months after a bypass like mine. Doctors think it has something to do with cooling their heart for the procedure, the heart/lung machine, or the prolonged anesthesia. Maybe the operation itself dislodges chunks of plaque that finds its way to patients’ brains. The doctors couldn’t be sure; they had theories. They needed more studies.
A physical rehab nurse spotted my problem when she asked, innocently: “How’re you doing, Walter?” as she took my blood pressure. I looked at her, still keeping pace on the stationary bike. That same, familiar sadness bubbled up inside me. I tried to hold back the tears and give her a stoic answer but I couldn’t. “I’m… o-kay,” I told her and burst into tears.
The other guys in rehab, guys and one woman, were all jokey, happily trundling on their gym equipment. Most of them were mid-60s at least. They called the nurses Sweetie. They made cold enough for ya? jokes and shouted at Wheel Of Fortune on the overhead TVs. Not one of them bawled like a baby.
“Here’s somebody who can help,” she said and handed me a business card: Dr. Julie Cooper, neuropsychologist. Yeah, okay, a shrink. Why not? They dug around inside my chest, I guess; why not dig around inside my head?
I went every Wednesday.
I talked. I cried. Dr. Cooper listened.
She suggested a prescription for Wellbutrin.
She told me I was in mourning, grieving the loss of my former self. I was also experiencing a bit of Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. Over the course of our sessions together we worked through the immediate why me? heart-related stuff then went beyond to uncover a few other issues that had risen to the surface along the way.
I had self-esteem issues. I didn’t feel worthy of her attention for one thing. Other people had more important problems than me. Plus, over time, I had grown to expect criticism but rejected any kind of praise.
I had Daddy Issues. My father was an alcoholic who ignored me when he wasn’t calling me a prick.
I have what she called a “melancholic personality.” I downplay good things that happen to me while expecting the worst. This could have something to do with my dear ol’ dad, too, and his words of fatherly advice: “Don’t worry about a thing,” he’d tell me. Followed with a laugh by: “‘cause nothin’s gonna be alright.”
Dr. Cooper used a technique called Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing to unlock memories that had been stuck, festering in my head for a long time. EMDR is sort of like hypnosis without the eyes are getting heavy, squawk like a chicken part. She had me stare at her finger as she moved it side to side, guiding me through thoughts with verbal suggestions. It dredged up childhood emotions trapped in an endless feedback loop so I could reprocess them as an adult.
After three years with Dr. Cooper we both felt we were done. Done-ish, anyway. I’m as “cured” as a patient who feels nothin’s gonna be alright can be.
That was eight months ago.
Sometimes I think I should still be seeing her. We didn’t solve everything, not that everything was solvable. I still get flashes, vivid mental pictures of my heart. It’s a mushy thing as I imagine it with tubes coming out like a steampunk, cyborg heart from a 60s Jules Vern movie. Sometimes I image the tubes coming off and squirting blood everywhere like a child’s backyard sprinkler toy.
I still inexplicably tear up from time to time.
I drink too much.
Sometimes I imagine myself dead. Not in heaven dead. Non-existing dead. I’m not an atheist, but no one’s convinced me they know what happens to you when you die. My bypass made me see that it’ll happen some day and there’s absolutely nothing I can do about it. So in bed, late at night or watching TV or on the train to work I’ll get a jolt of being dead. Anxiety fills me from inside, full-blown panic, until I can fool myself into thinking about something else.
Stuff like that.
My one-year follow-up with Dr. Cooper is in March. I should be able to make it ’til then. But then again: nothin’s gonna be alright.
Walter Michka is a Chicago writer and comedian who’s performed on numerous Midwest comedy stages, written for national TV (NBC and Jenny Jones), local radio (WLUP), and major ad campaigns. Clackamas Literary Review fairly recently published his short story “Gut Feeling” and is eBook “Thought Nuggets” is available for download at fine e-retailers near you. You can read the recovery journals he wrote during therapy as well as his weekly Open Heart Blog at www.somethingswrongwithwally.com.
The year was 1989 and Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” anti-drug campaign was in full effect. Weed was getting harder and harder to find and becoming a lot more expensive.
I had just started supporting myself doing standup fulltime and since I only had to work an hour a day (plus another hour or two writing new material and taking care of the business side), I decided I would grow my own.
Be careful what you wish for.
Like most things I do, I either get discouraged immediately and quit, or see a ray of light and go full bore. For some reason, I believed I could grow my own pot. Not sure why my self-confidence chose an illegal activity to make a rare appearance, but I was glad to feel inspired.
I tried using a fluorescent grow light that couldn’t have been more than about 50 watts. I’m not sure what that light was equipped to grow but it wasn’t weed. The seeds I had planted in Styrofoam cups barely sprouted then quickly died.
I was in Barbara’s Bookstore on Wells in Chicago’s Old Town neighborhood and found a book on how to grow pot. I soon discovered I needed better equipment; much better equipment.
My wife – at that time my girlfriend– was a little nervous, but I assured her everything would be okay. She reminded me that with the new harsher drug sentencing laws in addition to doing jail time, they could confiscate everything we owned. I reminded her that we didn’t own anything. That’s not entirely true. In about four days we would own a valuable light that made free pot.
I also felt that being a white, college-educated male from the suburbs with no criminal record even if I was caught I probably wouldn’t see much, if any, jail time.
The book suggested buying anywhere from a 250 to a 500 watt metal-halide or sodium-vapor light. Which do you think I bought?
The 1000 watt metal-halide light arrived. It could easily have been mistaken for the sun. It was gigantic. The bulb alone was the size of a basketball. It gave off so much heat it would roast the plants if they grew too close to it, so I attended to their height by pruning them daily.
I set it up on a timer to simulate the shortening of the seasons, which is what triggers the female pot plants to bud and release their sticky THC (the part that gets you high), and the male plants to release their undesirable pollen, which creates seeds when it lands on the sticky female buds.
With the new light, I was shocked at how easy it was to now grow pot and soon our spare bedroom had a half dozen foot-high plants.
My wife was cautiously happy. I was giddy. I had two things rarely found together; weed and a sense of accomplishment. I set out to do something I knew nothing about and did it. I had made and completed my first adult to-do list! And committed my first felony! I was on a roll.
The seeds I had planted came from two different strains of pot; some high-end Hawaiian and some low-grade Mexican.
For some reason the Hawaiian didn’t grow indoors very well, but the Mexican seeds were thriving and were no longer looking low-grade.
But when I cut their light cycle back and they began to bud, I was disappointed. The buds didn’t look like the pictures in the book. So I reread the book.
The author had stressed that a plant will only be as healthy as it’s weakest link (light, water, air, soil/nutrients). Well I knew I had plenty of light, water and vitamins. The weak link must have been the air it was breathing.
CO2 is to plants what oxygen is to us. It’s also the bubbles in drinks, so it’s widely available, but I still felt nervous buying a tank of it in person.
Salesman: That’s a lot of CO2.
Me: I love soda.
I was sure he knew why I was buying the tank of CO2. I used a fake name and paid cash. Driving home I checked my rear-view mirror.
I got the tank home and hooked it up to a timer and a loop of plastic tubing with holes poked in it to disperse the CO2 around the room.
My wife didn’t like it. It looked like a huge bomb. She was sure it would explode, killing us. I assured her it was safe and then casually mentioned to not spend too much time in there when it’s putting out CO2 because you could suffocate.
I went to bed.
I woke up to something out of a comic book. It was like a magic wand had been waved over the plants. They grew more overnight than they had in an entire week.
Within three or four days, the buds exploded in size, color and thickness. They looked like the pictures in the book. The buds were the size of the erection I had looking at them. I inspected the buds through a magnifying glass marveling at the colored hairs and especially the ridiculous amount of THC, which could be seen in the clear, tiny bubble-topped stalks that held it.
By then it was obvious which plants were male and which were female and I got rid of the males, since all they produce is pollen which makes seeds, and I wanted to grow seedless pot, also known as sinsemillia, the most highly sought-after kind.
Harvesting the buds was comical. It was like I had dipped my hands in glue. I could literally press down on a bud with my open palm and pick it up. I hung the branches upside down in our pantry to dry.
I must have opened that pantry door a thousand times, and just gazed in admiration at my accomplishment. I got a kind of a high just looking at them.
The first harvest was probably ¼ pound of the highest-grade pot I had ever seen. I would repeat the process every three to four months for the next year.
In case I needed more reasons to never leave my apartment, Nintendo became popular that year. I would tend to my plants, smoke weed and play Nintendo, only leaving the apartment to do standup, rollerblade with the dog or get food.
I remember looking at the bags of weed in my fridge. I would pull them out and smell them, examine them. I laughed out loud. I would never run out of pot. Ever. And never pay another dime for it. That thought boggled my mind. I knew I could escape any time. forever I felt at peace. I felt safe.
I loved the look on friend’s faces when they’d see the plants and the bags of incredibly potent pot they produced. I would open up our crisper drawer and show them the bounty. Their jaws would hit the floor. I felt smart. I felt tough. I got high from the weed but I also got a high from feeling I was impressing people and that they looked at me as kind of an outlaw. I felt dangerous and clever.
I had decided early on that I would never sell any of it. I knew with my addictive personality that if I started to, I would always be trying to outdo my previous sales and that would get me busted. I also knew that if I were caught, the fact that I had never sold it would lessen my sentence.
I gave away a LOT of pot. You can’t imagine the look on a stoned person’s face when you hand them a free ounce of really good pot in a bone-dry market. I wish I had taken pictures.
Needless to say, I became popular; too popular. It got hard to get people to leave our apartment. I guess they didn’t want it to look like they were just coming by to get free pot, which most of them were, but I didn’t care, I could only smoke so much, and I didn’t know what to do with the rest. I just wanted them to leave so I could retreat into the cocoon of weed and Nintendo I had created.
We lived in a four-unit apartment building in Chicago’s Lakeview Central neighborhood. Fortunately I knew the people in the other three units and they all smoked. If they hadn’t, I surely would have been busted from the smell.
The potency of the pot was so great that one or two hits of it equaled ten or twenty hits of regular pot. When the plants were budding, you could smell the unmistakable skunky scent the second you walked in the door to the apartment building on the floor BELOW us.
Bees even started hanging around me. One day I opened the door to the grow room and there were 50 bees swarming around the plants. To this day I have no idea how they got into a completely sealed room.
My favorite Nintendo games were Mario Brothers and the Legend of Zelda.
I would play for hours, not getting up to eat, shower or even pee, just holding it in, wasted out my mind, intent on finding Zelda’s next hidden treasure, hoping to not be killed by a dragon.
I remember one night my wife left around dinnertime, did three shows and came home to me in the exact same spot. I hadn’t budged in eight hours. She gently tried to point out how unhealthy this was. I pretended to hear her.
My health started to suffer. My back started going out, I’m sure triggered by sitting paranoid and full of pee for hours on end, too focused on Zelda to move. My bladder must look like a weather balloon.
I remember the moment I realized I had a problem.. I was on the phone with my brother, who was annoyed with me about something, and my wife was in the kitchen disappointed about something else, both were talking to me at the same time, and I suddenly broken down. I hung up the phone with my brother and started to cry.
I couldn’t take it anymore. The blunt tool of escaping wasn’t working any more. It worked great for a couple months, then like all addictions it stopped working and made things worse.
It would be years before I would call myself an addict and get help, but I quit smoking pot that day and gave away all my equipment. Years later I would start smoking pot again, but it was the first time I realized getting something you really, really want isn’t always good.
Months later I started going to therapy, and soon discovered the relief of a tool that didn’t have side effects.
It’s ironic I was playing Zelda, which involved exploring a darkened map, square by square, illuminating each one, sometimes finding treasure, sometimes something awful, like a dragon.
I wasn’t ready to explore my own dark squares in 1989. When I finally did, I discovered huge amounts of pain, rage, guilt, fear, sadness and despair; an Irish Catholic casserole. Many, many times I wanted to die, because I truly didn’t believe I would ever get through it.
Nothing presents the opportunity for growth like pain, and if we avoid getting stuck in its two major trappings, self-pity and self-righteous anger, pain can leave some great things in its wake, clarity, compassion, humility, vulnerability, trust and even joy.
We wouldn’t have a word or even a concept for what light is if we didn’t experience darkness.
Most of our actions in life are driven by the feelings at our core, the ones we can’t even put into words; the ones that run the show. If we don’t go in there and identify them and process them we will be unconscious slaves to them for the rest of our lives.
I have lived in that prison. My core belief was that I don’t matter. If you had stopped me on the street and asked me if I thought I mattered, I would have said yes, and thought it was a ridiculous question. But at my core, I didn’t FEEL it. My actions proved it. I had spent my life trying to stand out. I was constantly trying to impress you. I had trouble speaking up for myself, and I didn’t think I deserved a better childhood.
I began to hang out with people who treated me like I did matter, (mostly friends from support groups) and I began to avoid people who didn’t. I began to heal.
I ran around for years thinking the right achievements would bring me love and then I would be able to relax and turn my spinning brain off. Turns out what I needed to relax, was to just give myself permission to do it. But to give myself permission, I had to believe I’m okay exactly as I am. And to believe I’m okay I had to EXPERIENCE living through something terrifying, like processing my past, and coming out the other side okay. And that could only happen by asking for help.
There is no place in the future that is safe from pain.
All we have is here; this moment, this little Zelda square. Explore it. It’s your map. The universe gave it to you.
We all have great things to discover inside ourselves and most of it is guarded by dragons. I have wanted to turn and run hundreds of times, and I often did, but I kept coming back for help. I don’t know why that is. Maybe deep down there was still a tiny part of me that believed I matter.
Ask yourself, “Am I worth working on?” If the answer is “yes”, start doing it tomorrow. If the answer is “no”, start doing it right now. If money is tight, Google “low fee therapy” and the name of your town/city. And most support groups are free. A great resource for any questions is www.helpguide.org.
Break out that broadsword and start exploring. Holy fuck is it an adventure. I’m not bullshitting. Like my support group friend Tim says, “We have no reason to lie to you, you’re not that important.”
You’ll be amazed what you’ll find if you can let go of where you think you should be, what you think you should have, and who you think you should be.
Some find actor / comedian / filmmaker Ted Lyde’s honesty about being a parent refreshing, some find it off-putting. Ted talks about the sacrafices and compromise as a father and husband, that lead him to state, “I don’t recommend it and I wouldn’t do it again.” He also opens up about his disabled son who was born with Muscular Ataxia. Paul reads an email from a listener who found last week’s episode anything but inspiring.
I have no shame or embarrassment anymore about having and living with mental illness. The topic of mental health seems to be one of the last taboo’s of our society and yet the reality is more than one third of our population suffers from mental illness. Most never speak out, seek treatment or even acknowledge that something is off in their thoughts, moods and over all mental health.
I had no idea I had mental illness. Hard to believe, I know. Three medical labels, a team of emotional and mental wellness professionals and never once did I even consider the fact I suffered from mental illness. I was sent to an out- patient program called “journey to wellness”, and it was there I realized that I wasn’t just a person struggling with major depression, anxiety and PTSD; I was also a person living with Mental Illness. I actually asked the facilitator what she meant when she referred to us as having mental illness. Mental Illness is a broad umbrella term used by professionals that includes most if not all mental illness including but not limited to bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia, borderline personality disorder, all anxiety, clinical depression, major depressive episodes and mood disorders.
At first when referring to my illness I would always either put mental illness in quotes or call myself crazy sarcastically. It really wasn’t until my youngest sister Sarah mentioned to me that when I did those things it gave the impression I was making fun of it.
She was right. Old habits die hard – especially when you don’t want them to. I didn’t want to be stigmatised, I didn’t want to be attached to the label of Mental Illness. I was ashamed, felt like a failure and weak for not being able to handle this and “just get over it” as I was told many times by many family and friends. I also knew being ignorant and not being taken seriously was not what I wanted. So I changed, and owned it.
Mental Illness does not go away. There is no cure or quick fix. Once recognized and diagnosed, a lot of mental illnesses can be managed through treatment such as medication and talk therapy. Sounds simple, but it isn’t. Even with regular treatment lapses are a real possibility and personally I have had more than a few. I am always battling my emotions, trying to manage them or figure them out. Consider the idea of consciously trying to change your thought process and perceptions constantly. This involves learning to change the tapes in our mind that have always been there. Self talk is something we all do but not something that can be changed overnight. It is an on-going process, day in and day out and it takes a lot of energy and focus. Even after 18 months I still need to work on this every single day.
My reality is I will re-lapse in and out of depression for the rest of my life. I deal with anxiety each day. Some days are good, and others are nothing less than torture. Sometimes I shake and shiver so intensely I can’t button my coat or even hold a glass of water. At its worst, I can’t bear to leave the house, or even my room. Sounds silly – but the feeling is overwhelming. Just thinking about it now makes me want to vomit, that is how overpowering it is. I have medication to help however it is highly addictive. I only take it when absolutely necessary. More than three days in a row and I have with drawl when I don’t keep taking it. In the last 18 months I have had three bouts of dependency and therefore three withdrawal periods. One also included other prescribed medication and was the worst lasting just over 7 weeks. The anxiety is tied into having PTSD. I now know some triggers but they still unexpectedly present themselves to me. Random smells, sounds and sights have all sent me into unexpected and unexplained panic and cold sweats.
Revealing my story, thoughts and experiences on here will hopefully help someone. Help them know they are not alone, or help someone understand what living with mental illness is like. Check back often as I will periodically post snippets of my life and journey.
If you think you might be suffering – please get help. Please check my resource page for information on how to get started in your journey to wellness.
Read more of Andrea’s writing at her blog http://thegreat38.wordpress.com/
Hi Paul. I don’t know where to start. I guess, first off, I’d like to thank you for this blog. I’m going through a pretty stressful time in my life right now, and the podcasts I’ve listened to in the past week have really helped me out. It’s comforting to know that I’m not alone, even if I have to connect with people who aren’t actually here in order to feel like it. I’ve been feeling a sort of low grade depression for the past couple of days, which makes studying for finals pretty hard. I thought maybe sending you an email would help more than just typing this to myself. I apologise if it seems a bit disjointed, I don’t think much of my ability to get my point across in writing. I’m a university student at a university in South Africa. I’m female, and in my twenties. I’m not from South Africa, but I am from a SADC (Southern African Development Community) country, so I’m pretty close to home. I had what I always term a “nervous breakdown” when I was 19, attending a different university than the one I do now. I had always been what my family termed “sensitive” – I remember months of primary school (what you’d call elementary school, I guess) when I would come home from school, and cry every fucking day. I don’t even know why. When I was 19 though, I was suicidally depressed. I hate looking at those words written down, because they remind me of the deep hole I was in. I remember thinking that I would never see my parents again, and that they would have to come and collect my body when it was all over. And I didn’t care. I couldn’t get out of bed most days. On the rare occasion that I went to class, I felt like a Spotlight of Suckiness was trained on me, and that people could see how worthless and broken and jagged I was on the inside. I pushed the people I knew away, because I didn’t want to infect them with my poison. Eventually my best friend got me to call my parents and tell them what was happening. To my honest surprise, they were loving and supportive and just wanted me to come home. I was sure that they wouldn’t see the point in trying to help me; I sure didn’t. The next 18 months were a struggle – I had to find a decent therapist (I’ve had a couple that just did not fit), try to finds meds that worked (the struggle continues) and start working through all the shit in my head. I eventually came back to school, in another city, to study a different degree. And I’ve been happy here, for the most part. I was born to be a Humanities student, I think. It’s given me a sympathy for the world, and for myself, that I doubt I would have found in other faculties. But being a student again has also been a huge struggle for me. I’ve always been a smart kid. I taught myself to read when I was barely 3. I helped write a high school textbook when I was still in high school. Before my depressive episode, I never had anything below an A average. (And I mean that literally – I’ve failed one test in my whole life, a Social Studies quiz in Grade 3 for which I got 3 out of 8. That is the only thing I have failed in my 16 year academic career. I think it’s actually pretty sad – failure forces people to accept their limitations, right? That’s something I definitely want to work on.) I’ve always taken pride in my brain, and it’s one of the things that I’ve received the most praise about. In fact, I would go as far as saying that it’s probably my identifying feature. People refer to me as That Smart Girl. Which is why psychiatric medicine has fucked me over. I take lithium, among other things. One of the side effects my psychiatrist mentioned was “mental dulling”. Doesn’t sound so bad, right? During my entire first year of my new degree, it felt like my head was full of cotton wool. I wasn’t quick anymore, I had lost what made me me. I wasn’t That Smart Girl. And the worst part was, everyone tried to make me feel OK about it. My parents, my friends, they all acted as if that was the sacrifice I would have to make for mental health. But I couldn’t be mentally healthy if I didn’t even feel like myself anymore. I’m about to write my final undergraduate exams. In fact, I have one tomorrow. I didn’t think I would make it this far, to be honest. It’s been harder than school has ever been for me. There have been hypomanic episodes, manic episodes, visits to psychiatric hospitals. But the mental dulling has… well, dulled to a large extent. I still don’t think I’m as smart as I used to be, but I’ve sort of come to terms with it. I’m more than just That Smart Girl. I just don’t really know what else I am yet. Thanks again for the doing the podcasts. We’re not alone. That’s a beautiful message. Dee
i. In The Elevator
I heard a rumbling. I thought the other guy heard it too, the old man with the shopping bag, wearing a sweater vest and a hat that used to have some kind of special name when he was younger, before my time— fisherman’s cap. No, sandcatcher. Something like that.
It was a special rumbling. It’s always a special sound, when I think I’m going to die. I wanted to ask the old man, can’t you tell that there’s something different about that, that it’s coming from the bowels of the elevator shaft? He’s older than I am and has probably been riding elevators since they were made differently. Maybe rumbling louder than this was what an elevator ride used to sound like; maybe you were taking your life in your hands every time you set foot inside one of these, and they had a cute name for them, death boxes or the devil’s dumbwaiter. I’m just guessing. I would have asked him. It would have been the last thing I ever learned.
I argued with myself for what seems like an hour in the still darkness of the tent. If I speak, I thought, I will be destroying the silence and everything about it. That will be on me. “Just because it’s a cliché to get mauled by a bear on a camping trip doesn’t mean it can’t happen,” I said.
“Ssssssh,” everyone said.
iii. In My Desk Chair Late At Night
I found a dot I’d never found before. A spot. Irregularly shaped. On my thigh. I’d never seen it before. Maybe I had, but it looked different this time. Difference— the silent killer. I asked the Internet, over and over again, and it grew later and later and the spot looked more and more irregular. I touched it, trying to make sense of an unknown illness with my fingers. Nothing made sense.
When I closed my laptop and shrunk my room into darkness and crawled into my bed, it was because I remembered I was already on the lookout for cockroaches and bedbugs, and I’d promised myself to keep it to one thing at a time for a while.
iv. On the Subway
I was feeling good. But isn’t that always when it happens?
v. At a Play
I would have the good fortune to sit directly in front of the guy with photos of John Wilkes Booth plastered all over his bedroom walls, newspaper clippings from that day saved in a scrapbook with his baby pictures. He’s been waiting his whole life for this moment, and here I am.
vi. In Bed, Late at Night
It must be an instinct, staying up until sunrise, because my parents didn’t teach me, and I didn’t learn it in school. Somewhere I can’t remember, I was trained to interpret shadow shapes on the wall and to pluck out the noises other people can’t hear. At some point I absorbed the knowledge that a human being, armed and with an intent to kill, can make themselves as silent as an empty house. Two voices have been arguing with each other since I was born: One says, Remember this morning? You woke up in this bed. The other one says, This time, I won’t.
vii. On the Airplane
“Just because it’s a cliché to be afraid of flying,” I whisper to the person sitting next to me, “doesn’t mean people don’t die in airplane crashes every day.”
viii. Having Sex
I hope people will allow themselves to think it’s funny, after an appropriate amount of time has passed. I hope someone will point out the fact that my last living act was to make someone a necrophiliac for a few seconds. I hope that someone else will act offended and tell him that the remark was in bad taste, and that later a third person will find him and whisper that she thought it was funny.
ix. At Work
Who would discover me at my desk? Not Cheryl, please, God, not Cheryl. My mother brought me into this world— my mother, lovely, soft-spoken, self-deprecating, patient, generous, my mother whose hands smelled like lemons, who got a thousand paper cuts a year, who’d only wear her pretty paisley blouse for special occasions, who hummed songs from Bye Bye Birdie while she washed dishes and didn’t think anyone could hear, who bought me a box of colored pencils for my eleventh birthday and I didn’t know until I opened it that it was exactly what I wanted, who shushed us in the car while she was trying to listen to NPR, who let me lie on her stomach while she watched TV— and now Cheryl who stares at the blank wall in the copy room while she waits for a fax to go through was going to be there as I left it. Not bloody likely.
xi. Directly After My Broken Heart
It would not be a coincidence. Or would it? He’d never know. He’d wonder and wonder. It would torture him for the rest of his days. He’d excuse himself from the funeral reception to walk outside and sit on a rock and stare at the road. He’d visit my grave and speak to it, to me, and maybe once he’d even sleep there.
That would be nice.
xii. My First Time Doing Mushrooms
“Just because it’s unusual to get a fatally bad batch,” I whispered to my roommate’s asshole friend who got these for us, “doesn’t mean it never happens.”
He sneered at me like I was ruining everything that’s ever existed.
xiii. In the Jardins de Luxembourg
I’ve watched the same boy try and fail to grab the gold ring at the edge of the carousel four or five times now, and I can’t read the expression on his face, which is killing me. I need to know if he’s frustrated or crying or doesn’t care because he’s a child; maybe he’s smiling and laughing, because that’s what the carousel’s for. The not seeing is making me sad; nothing seems right today at the Jardins de Luxembourg. My little green chair isn’t in quite a scenic enough spot, and there was a lone duck on the lawn outside the palatial building whose function I still haven’t bothered to learn, where all the pigeons hang out, and it must have been lost and no one could do anything about it, and every one of these children looks ready to fall at high speed because the ring is just that far out of reach. I’d almost rather meet my end here than sit in the middle of this neat stack of imperfections, knowing it will follow me out into the street and who knows where after that.
“She left the world with nothing,” I imagine the eulogist intoning, “And no one was surprised.”
xv. On Vacation With My Family
I was maybe seven, and we were staying at this cabin practically in Lake George. There were a bunch of other families there and our cabins were all nose-to-nose with each other and we just swam all day, and into the evening. My sister and I made hour-long friendships with all of the kids there, easy as you please— what’s your name, how old are you, and we’d be set. We only brought one bathing suit apiece— mine was red, a little big in parts and a little tight in others, and every morning I’d pull it on even though it was still wet. My father became the most popular guy there, because he’d toss all the kids around in the water and he’d take requests for their style choice— one was called the cannonball, and one was the javelin, where we’d stretch our little bodies out across his arms and put our hands in prayer position above our heads, and he’d launch us out and we’d go, it seemed, for miles.
The sun would set spectacularly, the kind of sunset you’d pay to see, and we were right there at horizon-level, so close we could touch it, like it was just for us. That week felt like undeserved special treatment; there was nothing to it, there was no reason.
At night, the four of us would lie together in one room and I’d know that everyone was smiling in their sleep and it was dark and close and safe, and I’d stay awake, thinking, This can’t be. This can’t last.
xvi. After A Joke
It was finals and we were in the dining hall, me and my freshman year friends I could practically see smiling noncommittally at me when the new semester began and finding better people to spend time with. I was hanging on for dear life.
Stephanie complained that it had been raining all week. “You should write a strongly worded letter,” I said, and everyone laughed.
Like a movie, things slowed down for a moment and I looked at their faces one by one. I felt so good, and then it was there again, the death voice, and this time it said, At least you’ll go out on a good line.
xvii. Watching a War Documentary
It’s all so absurd and so true, that some people will never fully wake from a lifelong sleep and then slip on something and it will end like well-crafted punctuation, and some have seen bodies piled in the streets. It’s so far removed from me that I can bear the sight of limbs piled in mountains, twisted arms ending in hands reaching up towards nothing. It doesn’t move my guts at all, I don’t have to choke anything back when I see it.
I won’t make it all the way through without experiencing something like this, I think. One of those things filling in space on someone’s screen will be me. I’ll learn it that way.
xx. When I Almost Died
The other car came out of nowhere, it seemed. My sister sucked in her breath with this fluidy choke that didn’t sound human and I thought, This is something I never thought I’d hear, and it’s the last thing I’m ever going to hear. My hand went for the handle above the window, but her car doesn’t have one, so I just groped the air, which almost made me feel better. When I closed my eyes I saw white, so I was sure there was a flash of some kind, and I heard a screech of tires and it all made sense, this was what I’d seen before, on TV, in movies, what I’d been waiting for, that panic moment when nothing can stop what’s happening, and I knew I was right all along, that death comes on wings of inertia, for better or worse.
And when I opened my eyes the car wasn’t even stopped, it was still going. The stop light receded behind us and there was the Stewart’s, the post office, places I knew and had never thought about. My sister was speaking. “Hey,” she was saying, “hey, we’re okay.”
And I nodded and choked something. The air conditioning woke up the wet skin on my cheeks; that’s the last thing I would have expected, to cry at a moment like this. I would have thought that all liquid in my body would freeze, like time.
“You’re so skittish,” she said, and even laughed a little. Laughed. The sound was like a door opening at the back of a funeral. “You always were.”
The other car wasn’t around anymore. We were just driving to the mall. It was the most normal moment I’ve ever been in, as normal as waking up in the morning.
Raphaela Weissman is a writer and teacher based in Seattle, Washington. Her fiction has received the 2004 Herbert J. Rubin Award for Excellence in Prose from Gallatin Review and won L Magazine‘s 2007 Pocket Fiction competition. Last year she completed her first novel, Monsters, and is currently at work on a second. She teaches remedial reading at an inner-city high school in Seattle. You can read more of her work at her website www.raphaelaweissman.com