Monday, August 02, 2010

Visible, But Unseen

Some of my friends are intellectuals. A lot of people claim to be an "intellectual" these days. For me, however, an intellectual is someone who actually gets paid to chew things over, as it were. Hard to imagine that anyone like that would give me the time of day, but many do. You know who you are, and don't try to hide, I can hear you thinking.

I'm going to eschew labels when it comes to mental illness, as they have been robbed of meaning through casual use. Consider Lindsay Lohan spontaneously becoming "bipolar" because she doesn't want to go to jail. She's working an angle. While I understand her motives, it gives the rest of us a bad name. I'm not smart enough, or even practical enough, to embrace a label for such a purpose.

My general approach to life has been this: Try to look like you understand until you can figure it out later. In high school, my goal was very simple, to get out of high school as fast as humanly possible. So I did, I bolted. My adviser seemed confused when I left. On my way out the door, literally, she begged to know why I was leaving. So I told her that it had more than a little to do with my weighing 430lbs and there being a physical education requirement. See? It figures.

From there to years in a crappy job as a grill/short order cook at a local college. One day, a co-worker left a paper he was writing in plain view, and I read it. It sucked...really sucked. I was standing in the coat room when it hit me; I really need to go to college. So I took the SATs and, since I got my name right, did well enough to go to either Northeastern or UMass Boston or...well, you get the idea. So off to UMass Boston I went.

Pure heaven, even when I was working the overnight shift at the Fairmont Copley Plaza full-time and was mostly unconscious during the day. Dr. Gibbons took an interest, and over lunch we would talk about the ovarian bursae of the tree shew and what that meant to primate taxonomy. And women. Not in that order. Dr. Gibbons was also a fighter pilot in Vietnam, and still worked as a test pilot. He loved women and they seemed to love him. He liked to give advice, and I liked to take it. So we had a lot of lunches together.

Women and apes and shrews, oh my!

The wheels started really coming off my little bus over several years, but I remember a very specific moment of unique terror. A few months into a job at a medical bookstore, where I could finally put to use my knowledge of what is a xiphoid process, I gave my notice for no reason other than an inability to function. No one is ever happy in a job, because a job is a place you must go. Humans don't like to be forced into anything. This wasn't difficult, it was totally impossible.

So you might say that I was content in my lack of contentedness. Like just about everyone else. But at some point it devolved, and everything became less real. This is pure function I'm talking about, not ennui or general dissatisfaction. Everything became strangely urgent and incredibly noteworthy, but meaningless at the same time. The unspoken judgments of others became sharp and almost constantly heard. The soundtrack changed, as well. It was frantic. Fast and furious.

And then I took the job at the Massachusetts Bankers Association. Things were looking up. It was a good job, and my boss left me alone to do it. However, it was not to be. And I really wanted it to be.

All incoming information started to get processed a little differently. Stability of thought and action disappeared. There was some property damage. Police were involved. Being in restraints in a psych ward began to feel more normal than having a job.

So, without using labels like "bipolar" and "borderline personality disorder," does any of this sound planned? Was I happy and carefree, until the application of these magic words could get me out of trouble? No. Mental illness was a total blind spot. I hadn't studied it in college, and when they started coming up with labels, it was like another language. You mean they have a name for this? That's nice.

Names are nice.

But there are no names for what happened to me last week. It's not easy to fix a label on putting an extension cord in my pocket and heading into the night. On walking 7 miles like it were 10 feet and finding a dark city park, a tree and solitude. And I can't quite affix the proper words to how it felt to wrap the cord around my neck, then around the tree branch, and then stand as a self-condemned man on the edge of the Void.

Can't find the words for why I didn't jump, and thus hang myself.

And it is impossible to digest how it felt, never mind explain, what it was like to get home around 4am to find that not a single soul noticed my absence. One imagines tearful friends and family, wondering why this had to happen. But to somehow survive the scariest, loneliest and most painful night I could imagine, only to find that nobody noticed or cared...there sure as hell aren't words for that, whatever that is.

The closest I could come to describing it is to say that I felt like a ghost. That I had already died, a long time ago. A ghost walking on the bottom of the sea. Unseen even when visible.

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