WARNING: This entry contains triggers. Hang on to your hats.
In 2003 I had the opportunity to spend time in a facility dedicated to helping extreme cases of potential health hazards.
This is a flowery way of saying I spent a week in-patient at a local “behavioral health hospital.” And another two weeks out-patient.
I walked in of my own accord. I am still undecided if it was an act of strength or an act of cowardice. But it is certain that, had I not gone, I would have died the next day.
You see, life back then was what I referred to as ‘a tornado inside a concrete bunker…with the walls closing in.’ I was in the final throes of a marriage I never should have been in, having an affair with the ex-girlfriend of my then-best friend (who was taking up space in my house – AKA rooming there without paying a bloody red cent). I had just received a promotion that required a completed Master’s degree…and I was four classes away from finishing it, so I’d been required to take a double course load with the threat of termination hanging over my head to get it finished and keep my job. And it was the darkest, coldest, most snow-laden winter we’ve seen in the entire 30 years I’ve lived here.
I was in misery, and every bit of it was of my own doing.
I’d attempted suicide before. Once when I was nine and again when I was sixteen. In the first case, I failed to make a credible noose. In the second, the pills I took did nothing but make me vomit.
This time was different. I knew how to do research. I knew what I wanted, where I wanted, and when I wanted. I skipped my classes, instead driving thirty miles in the opposite direction to a place I had worked before and still had a key to. I went in, sat down at my old desk, and drafted my will. I printed out directions on how to actually make a noose [side note: did you know that the idea that nooses traditionally have 13 coils is a myth? Most of the time, they made do with a simple slipknot or a noose with a couple of coils. Executioners weren’t picky as long as the job got done]. I’d stopped at a hardware store on the way to the old job site and had 50 feet of brand new hemp rope in my trunk, which I brought out and learned to tie into a real noose, all 13 superfluous and symbolic coils. It and the completed will went into the trunk of my car.
Sparing you the details of where and when I planned it, besides saying I needed to wait for nightfall, I went home. My then-wife took the car and went to visit her family. This was unusual, since she had her own car, but for some reason, that day she needed mine. My timetable was taking a beating: she was gone until nearly two in the morning.
She hadn’t found the noose, but she did find me still awake and acting strangely. A conversation ensued. I was so far gone that I didn’t care enough to keep silent. I told her that there would not be a sunrise for me. After another two hours, she convinced me to call a suicide hotline.
Those poor folks don’t get enough money to deal with what they have to deal with. They can’t actually do anything. All they can do is talk. It must be maddening to be so helpless in the face of someone else’s pain. The person on the other end teamed up with my wife and together they talked me into checking myself in.
You don’t realize some of the tiny things in life that represent the difference between freedom and captivity. Shoelaces. Belts. Boots. Metal shower curtain holders. Mouthwash. Those who are free may have those things. Those who are captive may not.
I was assigned a doctor, but since I came in at 4am on a Sunday, I wasn’t to see the doctor for another day or so. When I did, he gave me the diagnosis of bipolar disorder. I was surprised. It was only a slight variation on the diagnoses I’d had before. The ones whose accompanying medication and therapy had done precisely jack shit for me in the fifteen years I’d been using them.
I was even more surprised when he told me that I lived vicariously. That I seemed to have no life of my own. I used quotes and songs and books and movies to express myself, not actual feelings or actions of my own. Looking back, I have no idea how he missed the dissociation and depersonalization I was really experiencing.
It’s difficult for me to express to anyone close to me in my life exactly what depersonalization is. Apparently, the specifics of it vary from person to person. Hell, I didn’t know that was what was happening to me until sometime in 2011. I was away on a vacation with someone I’d been dating. There was pressure on me to be sexual with them, which triggered my PTSD and dissociation (which I also didn’t understand that I had. By this time, I’d remembered what had been done to me as a child, but I had no real context for it and no idea how it had informed most of my life. It was new and raw. And my therapist was still treating me for bipolar disorder).
I gave in to their demands for sex. They fell asleep afterward, and I just lay there in bed, staring at nothing. I started reading the book I’d brought along, Ozzy Osbourne’s autobiography I Am Ozzy. I didn’t sleep that night. By the time my date awoke in the morning, I’d read most of the book.
And I was feeling…floaty? Like I wasn’t actually in my body, but hovering just above it. My skin buzzed with numbness, little trickles of it running up and down my shins and the outside of my hands. The emotions that the book evoked were the only emotions I felt. I knew I wasn’t Ozzy Osbourne, but I still felt like I’d sat down and written what he had written, that his experiences were mine. That his feelings were mine. My real ones weren’t within reach. It was like they didn’t exist, so the vacuum had been filled with the things in Ozzy’s book.
When I tried to explain it to my date, they were utterly dismissive and indeed a bit angry with me. I wasn’t Ozzy Osbourne, so how in the hell could I think that I felt his feelings and lived his experiences? Well, I didn’t exactly. I still knew I was me and that what I’d read wasn’t my story. But there was no way to express that to my date and still express the sensations of feeling like I wasn’t me or was outside of myself or whatever. After a few minutes of ridicule and dismissal, I stopped trying.
Now, I went to the trouble of telling that long story because it’s never stopped happening.
I’ve been properly diagnosed and treated for a long time. I’ve lost track of exactly when I started with the therapist who diagnosed me correctly and got me in touch with the psychiatrist who gave me the right meds to combat the PTSD, depression, anxiety, and the score of comorbid behaviors and traits that go along with it.
But none of that matters when I get triggered.
Recently, it’s been happening to me a lot. I just got done an amazing book (Milena McKay’s A Whisper Of Solace. Highly recommended), and I had that floaty, buzzing skin thing going on again. It happened many times during the reading of this book. I had to pause my reading when I knew the next chapter was going to set it off. But it was too good to stop for long, and I returned to it sometimes only an hour later.
I didn’t fall into the full-on depersonalization, I just cried a lot. I thought the story would take a turn that would wreck me but it didn’t. Well, the turns happened, but I didn’t get wrecked.
Now I’m slamming my way through a couple of dense non-fiction works in an attempt to put some distance between that experience and the me that keeps taking a back seat. I still find songs and quotes to say better what I’m thinking and feeling than my own words. I have to fight that in order to have real, meaningful conversations with my partner.
The dissociation and depersonalization come with a bonus: the Black Hole. [side note: Disney’s The Black Hole remains one of my favorite movies. Creepy and campy as all hell and I love it. It’s inspired me for years.]
I don’t know how other folks experience this, but for me, it’s like a dense, spinning, cold thing the size of a golf ball sits behind my sternum. And it pulls everything into it. When it’s pulled all of my energy and my feelings in, it starts wanting other things to fill it: sex, alcohol, comic books, video games, and – mainly – food.
I don’t really want those things. I want the sensations that accompany them. With the food, it’s more about craving a taste than having a real need to eat. With alcohol, it’s the desire to get buzzed and truly feel floaty than it is about partying or taste or blotting out my mind. I blow through things without really paying attention to their substance. It’s like reading a novel and only paying attention to the passages in quotations, where the characters are speaking.
And it happens when I write. Writing requires feeling. And when I know what I’m writing is going to yank me around emotionally like a Thunderbirds puppet, the hole starts spinning and pulling.
I crave the sound and feel of the keyboard, but the characters are lost in the black hole, and the outline makes no sense because the nonexistent characters don’t want to do anything anyway. I get down on myself for not writing, not powering through the miasma because dammit I need to write! I’m running out of time. Sitting here, staring at the empty screen is wasting time. Nevermind that, for most of the past year, I’ve been incapacitated by cancer and pain and haven’t written because of that. Nevermind that I have a full-time job that sucks the life out of me so bad that I go home almost every day and collapse.
Nevermind that I actually finished the draft of Fixit.