In February 2016, I had to be hospitalized for psychosis. Writing about it makes me feel better, and my experiences might be of use or interest to someone else, which is why I’ve put all this out on the internet.
Losing one’s mind compromises any sense of privacy. While I was nuts, I had no control over what I said, or what I told whom. Consequently, I have no more secrets to keep from the people who were with me on Crazy Night. It’s been an enormous weight off my shoulders, and since then, I mostly haven’t cared who knows what about me. Once you’ve spent a night chained to a hospital bed, yelling at anyone and everyone who sees you, you stop giving a shit about a lot of things.
One of those things I’ve stopped caring about is whether or not people think I’m crazy. Apparently the answer is yes, I am crazy (or have been, at any rate), so it seems pointless to hide it or care if people have problem with it. I can’t change my reality, and I find being open and honest about it much easier than trying to hide myself. So, I’m going to talk about my reality. You can understand it (and me) in whatever terms you want. You don’t have to believe any of it is true. You just have to believe that for my life, it is true. Whether or not the things I experience are real is immaterial– their realness doesn’t change their presence in my life, and what I experience as reality every day. This is what it’s like to live with a mind the world says is abnormal.
There’s another person in my head, and he’s been there a long time. Most people know him as the red-eyed protagonist of my work, who goes by the name of Lask. For me, he’s been an invisible companion in my life since I was a child. I first started seeing him when I was eight. Even then, I knew most people didn’t experience things like him, and it felt dangerous to tell anyone– I didn’t want to be passed around to various doctors, didn’t want to be teased or bullied, and didn’t want someone to try to “fix” me. Perhaps the difference between me and people who suffer from disorders like schizophrenia and dissociative identity is that I’ve always enjoyed my experience, and generally haven’t found it to interfere with my life. Even if Lask is a delusion, we’ve always been friends. Growing up, he was a quiet friend and mentor, and even as I’ve grown older, he remains one of my closest friends and advisors. I’ve never felt like he has negatively impacted my life, therefore I’ve never gone looking for treatment. Even if I’m totally off my rocker and he’s nothing more than the delusion of diseased brain, I wouldn’t want to lose his presence in my life. He’s helped me become a powerful woman, and continues to inspire my best creative works.
Life with an invisible companion can be difficult to navigate. No one I’ve ever met experiences life the way I do. Sometimes it’s difficult to “act natural” when there’s a 6’3″ spirit milling about my work office that no one else can see. Sometimes it’s hard to explain why I pass up on social invites from friends and coworkers– how do you tell someone you’ve already made plans to watch a movie with your invisible friend later? Sometimes it’s hard to feel like I have anything in common with other people when my life is so different from theirs.
My life has been shaped by the secret of my invisible companion. Until I met my wife, I never told anyone about him. To the rest of the world, he was only a “fictional character” in my creative work. From an early age, I learned to keep secrets, and being secretive turned me into a reclusive, socially awkward person, who is perhaps overly-guarded, and difficult to get to know. For a long time, I felt like I couldn’t let anyone close to me, lest they find out how weird I really am. I was worried about being thought of as crazy and getting sent off to the local mental hospital, or giving the people who bullied me in school one more reason to torment me. Sharing things about myself felt dangerous– too much information might prompt questions I couldn’t answer, so I solved that by not sharing much about myself at all. To this day, the habits of being closed off to the world remain, even if I’ve gotten better at faking openness and social competence in day-to-day interactions.
Secrets are weighty things. They have a way of consuming one’s life and defining one’s approach to many things. I spent most of my life hiding a huge part of my experience of life from the rest of the world, and it colored who I grew up to be. I don’t know what life is like without having enormous secrets hanging over me, so I’m looking forward to seeing what things are like now that I’ve stopped caring who knows about the parts of my life that may or may not be crazy. In that regard, going crazy has been a liberating experience. I can stop wasting energy on worrying about whether or not I’m nuts, and what people might think of that, and spend that effort on more productive things– like moving to a new house, engaging with my family (including my invisible companion), writing new books, and producing new art… aka the things that matter.
The implications of going crazy are terrifying, but probably not for the reasons one might think. The thing I find more disturbing than anything– worse than the madness itself, worse than the stay in the hospital– is the sudden and thorough loss of freedom. It had never hit me how fragile an idea freedom is. In the course of a day, people came into my home, put me in handcuffs, and walked me barefoot into the rain, over the pavement of my street, put me in a police car, and I stopped having choices about my life. For the next 24 hours, I was at the mercy of the police and the medical professionals attending me. And all because something went wrong in my brain– not because I had done anything wrong. It’s like I always thought if I just followed the law, I’d never be at risk of losing my freedom. That’s not true. I can be imprisoned for something I can’t even control, or at least, couldn’t control at the time. Nonetheless, and no matter how much it was necessary, it’s a big shock to realize your life can be taken entirely out of your hands even though you haven’t done anything wrong.
I took the picture on the left on February 25th, three days after I got out of the hospital. I decided to take a few selfies in the hopes of getting a good shot for my Facebook profile, just for something to do while I spent a week at home. I hadn’t intended to take a picture like this. When I looked at the raw shot on my phone, I knew I needed to keep it, but not for the reasons I thought I would. I look good, sure, but that expression was new to my face. The first time I looked at that woman, I hardly knew her. There is something raw about me here, a predatory sharpness and defiance I’d not shown before, and even here I stand with my arms tucked back– I think part of me was still feeling the handcuffs. Perhaps part of me feels them still.
As much as I realize this was necessary– hell, I scared myself even at the time!– it’s chilling to realize you’re nuts, and then not be able to stop being nuts even after that realization. It’s like being trapped inside yourself while your body runs around without you. The feeling of being cuffed and hauled (by no less than three police officers) through the street, in the dark and the rain, and taken away from everything that was familiar, not knowing when or if I would get another say in what happened to me, waking up feeling totally normal in a locked ward full of actual (and potentially dangerous) permanently crazy people, not knowing when or if I’d get out again– that feeling will stay with me. It has yet to fade, and I doubt it will for a long time. It may stay in the back of my mind forever. I wasn’t raped, and can’t pretend to understand what rape victims go through, but the loss of control, the level of helplessness in my own life and circumstances– I imagine it rings with a similar tenor.
When the police transported me to a behavioral hospital in Richmond, I felt more unsafe in that ward than I have in a long time. I smooth talked whomever I needed to get out. At first, my family thought my release was my wife’s doing, but it wasn’t. All she did was show up and wait. I got myself out by my own efforts– by hassling people, stubbornly staying in people’s work spaces, talking at length to every person who had a say in what happened to me, and telling them whatever I thought they needed to hear to convince them to let me go. Whatever I needed, I knew I wasn’t going to find it in that ward. I felt the burning need to get out before things got any more out of my hands and I ended up permanently damaged— whether by the other crazy people, or a mishandling of my situation. I succeeded, getting myself discharged before they had even finished processing my admission, leaving the behavioral hospital within four hours of my inglorious arrival by cop car. I got myself out of there– standing in embarrassing pajamas, barefoot, running on about three hours of sleep, still hazy from meds, emotions, and whatever else was left over from the preceding hours of insanity– with nothing but my words, charm, and knowing what buttons to push and with whom– which should be proof enough of my faculties.
I live now with the knowledge that really all it takes is a phone call, and my freedom can be taken away. My entire life, it’s been drilled into my head that I’m an American, and that means I’m free. I must make my own choices, be my own person, stand up for myself, choose my own path. All those ideas are so close to the core of me, and yet in a single night, I was shown how thin those things are, how easily life becomes something else. I’m only free as long as I seem sane. After this episode, that could be even more tenuous. There’s no denying my life, my experience of reality, is very different from many people’s. I’ve never been able to look at the rest of the world and use it as a measure for myself– not when I was younger, not when I thought I was sane, never. There is no one like me, and even on normal days, my experience of life would no doubt look crazy to the outsider. For so long, I think, my life existed in places most people didn’t see it or didn’t pay attention, and now suddenly everything I do is subject to intense scrutiny. At what point will people feel the need to call “help” for me again? How sane am I now? Was I ever?
These are the questions that haunt me. I feel fine. In the past nine weeks, I’ve not yelled, not banged on any walls or doors, haven’t thrown anything out of the house, haven’t felt like the entire universe is crashing through me. I totally recognize I wasn’t normal then, not even for me. The things I was doing were not the actions of a sane person. I slipped so easily into them, though, that I find myself wondering if I’m not a little mad all the time, and the switch just got stuck on high for a while. I haven’t figured out what flipped that switch– turned it on, or off. I felt strange for a few days, but I was still sane right up to a certain point, until something pushed me past that threshold. Maybe it was lack of sleep (I hadn’t slept in about four days), or maybe it was a chemical imbalance, an infection, the result of a seizure, or something else entirely. I also don’t know what made it stop. I passed out crazy in the hospital, and woke up feeling as normal as I do any other day (just really freaking tired). I don’t know if sleeping made it stop, or if they drugged me up so much it jostled my brain, or if realizing what was happening to me through the haze was enough to shake me out of it. I don’t know, but I wish I did. It would be nice to feel like I had a clue how to get myself out of that place should I find myself there again. As it is, I passed out as a madwoman and woke up as my usual self, and I don’t have an explanation for that.
One question I haven’t been able to escape is: why? Why now? I’ve lived a different sort of life my entire life. It’s never driven me to physical madness before, so my main question is why now? What caused this? Is it really as simple as a perfect combination of infection, exhaustion, and stress? Or did those things just make the mask slip for a while? Do I have some disease lurking in my brain that’s just now showing its true colors? Have I always lived with a brush of madness, and until now, I’ve been able to hide it? I honestly don’t know. I feel like I can’t trust my judgement of myself anymore, and that’s a strange feeling.
I don’t know which of these questions I should be most concerned with. I’ve seen a counselor, and a psychiatrist. I’ve talked to lots of doctors. Everyone close to me has their thoughts, fears, and opinions. In this equation, though, no one can see the inside of my head but me. No one knows me but me. No one knows what feels normal to me, and no one wants to think about what it means if my normal and their normal don’t match up. For the most part, though, I don’t worry about other people. I went crazy for a weekend, had a horribly traumatic experience, and a week later, I was sitting in my work office, holding down my job, engaging with the world, functioning as a capable adult– if that’s not resilience and courage, then I must never have either in me. In the midst of it all, I don’t think anyone really noticed how I hauled myself out of that, shook it off, and hit the ground running within days of being discharged from the hospital. I could be embarrassed, I could be cowering in fear, I could be crying in my bedroom about what happened to me, I could be having panic attacks, but I’m not and haven’t all along. I’m living my life, picking up pieces, doing what needs done to take care of myself, all while balancing my full time job, living situation, and the needs of my wounded family. This part of my reality is what reassures me that I’m not crazy right now– a crazy person could not live this life as seamlessly as I do.
It’s not painful for me to think about what happened happened to me. Starting from the day after Crazy Night, I’ve gnawed furiously on what happened to me. Some people would say I shouldn’t pick those scabs, or at least not so soon, but I don’t tend to form scabs as readily as most people. In fact, I find it more useful to really look at it, examine what I did or said while I was nuts, and try to pick apart why, what it might have meant, what triggered it, what I can pull out to watch for in the future, etc. All knowledge is worth having, and I tend to analyze the shit out of things that happen to me– this is no exception. The better I understand what happened to me, the better prepared I’ll be to keep it from happening again and/or handle it better if it does happen again.
Here are the things I remember most clearly from while I was crazy: I remember a rhythm, like the beat of a heart, which I was trying to keep going. I remember counting, chanting, beating on things in time. It seemed like if I could just not lose that rhythm, everything would be fine. It felt like I was the only person in the world hearing it and keeping it going. It felt vastly important– bang, bang, bang– to not lose the beat. I don’t know why exactly. It’s like I thought I was keeping something alive by keeping the beat going.
I remember feeling like a track switcher, like something in my head was capable of flipping back and forth the way no one else’s could. I remember thinking, “this is what I’m supposed to do– flip back and forth– flicker.” I would wink alternating eyes, paddle with my hands to make the handcuffs slide up and down the hospital bed rails in alternating time. Something needed to be moving, pumping, switching rhythmically, like a heart. It felt like I was the sole carrier of that task, and it was an important one. (God only knows why; I don’t pretend to understand. I think “why” is irrelevant when we’re talking about something out of whack in my head– there is no “why,” that’s why it’s crazy.)
I remember doing math in the house. Not math with numbers, but math with objects, symbols, and meanings. I moved things all over the house, pitched things out, shuffled things multiple times in multiple places, like an abacus, shuffling everything around me to calculate something very important. It’s like my entire world was an equation, and I was trying to make something click. It was like I was trying to figure out how to fix something wrong in the world (and on a scale much bigger than just me and my life– I remember thinking about Black Lives Matter, about Syria, and a bunch of other current events and problems), and I was frantic to make something right. Possibly I was trying to calculate a way out of the madness, but it felt much bigger than that, cosmic somehow– if I could just do something in particular, I could put the world back on its track, and things everywhere would eventually work out ok. (For what it’s worth, I remember thinking I had succeeded.)
It felt like experiencing the mind of God for a while. It felt like running through the Library, frantically pulling out books and reading, searching for answers while the door was open. It was like I had been thrown out into space, into something vast and deep and all-expansive, and all the knowledge in the universe was whizzing past me at once. I had to snag what I could and get it out into words or speech or anything so I wouldn’t lose what I was “discovering,” things that seemed profound and important. That’s why I couldn’t stop talking for days, and if I weren’t talking, I was typing or scribbling. I don’t remember all of it now, but I can trace threads and see clearly I was trying to puzzle out a lot of “deep thoughts” about God, the world, and the connections therein. It felt like things were being revealed to me, and I was powerless to stop it, or cope with the sheer volume of thought pouring through me. As I’ve said before, it was like someone turned on a tap in the back of my mind, and over the course of a few days, the tap was turned more and more, until it got stuck on full blast and I couldn’t turn it off. I can’t do justice to the speed and volume of thoughts during that time. It’s like my brain was operating on a faster time than the rest of the world, frantically trying to process all the things pouring through it at once.
Speaking of time, I lost all track of it. I didn’t register hunger, or tiredness, or the passing of day into night. It was like living outside of time, as if for a moment I was unfettered from normal human existence and driven mad by the scope of what I could see across the horizon. The universe seemed a vast place, and all the hurt in it seemed so full and present. I feared for lots of people– I remember begging my parents to leave me and go check on my grandmother, whom I feared to be dying. For me, it felt like it was the time when my father found her nearly dead on the sofa in her house– I thought that was happening right then, and my dad was with me instead of being there to find her and call the ambulance. I was terrified she would die before anyone got to her. It’s like I forgot those moments had already happened and been taken care of, or in some cases, perhaps they hadn’t happened yet. I felt all night like my great aunt was somewhere in the hospital with me, that she had been brought there because of her heart, but she wasn’t there. She wouldn’t be brought to the hospital until a week after I left. I haven’t been able to shake the feeling I knew she was in trouble and would end up in the hospital soon. I just wasn’t living in the right timeline. It’s like my train got switched over to some track that runs outside of the rest of the world, and for a brief time, I had a wider view of things than other people. (Not saying that’s true, only what it felt like.)
In the midst of all this, I wasn’t always myself. I will explain this in more detail later, but there has always been another person in my head– he’s been there since I was a little girl. Normally, we can control if and when he is “on the surface,” and we usually coexist in a very symbiotic relationship, but whatever caused me to go crazy for a night also affected the other mind inside me. I had only ever told my wife about the other person in my head, so imagine my family’s surprise when they encountered someone else where I should have been– a voice with a different accent roared out of me, barked orders to the hospital staff, and raged against the loss of our freedom for the night. Lots of secrets came out during Crazy Night; in that regard, losing one’s mind is incredibly liberating. Everything I’d ever hidden from anyone was on full display. It’s been a little awkward sometimes, but for the most part, it’s been refreshing to not wear so many masks around the people who are close to me. Carrying secrets one’s whole life is an exhausting endeavor; I look forward to when life settles down enough I can enjoy the absence of that secret weight.
Back in February, I went crazy. Mad, bonkers, off my rocker. I guess I shouldn’t have been so surprised. It seems like all writers are crazy in one way or another. How else would we be able to bridge the gap between mundane life and the vast expanse of the artful imagination? You can’t be normal and make up things for a living, let’s be real. I’d known for a long time I wasn’t normal, and that my experience of reality was very different from most people’s. Until recently, this wasn’t anything that caused me concern, or left me feeling uncertain about my own sanity.
Being insane was a wild experience for lots of reasons, many of which I plan to write about in more detail in other posts. I had to pick up where I left off with my life, but everything feels a little different now. I plan to blog about my experiences, both with going crazy, and with life afterward, under the title “Life After Crazy.” I figure if nothing else, it might be useful for someone else to hear my experience. Mental illness is not often discussed or handled well in this country, and many of the people who struggle with their mental health are otherwise normal people with normal lives. I plan to talk about my experience because if this happened to me– a relatively well-adjusted and healthy 26-year-old with a solid full-time job, a house, bills, cats, and regular life– then it could happen to anyone. Personally, I don’t find anything that happened to me something I should be ashamed of, and others shouldn’t either. The brain is an organ like any other, and prone to malady like anything else. My brain sent me on the ride of my life.
For a week or more, I hadn’t been sleeping well. There were a few nights I didn’t sleep at all. I felt overloaded with thoughts, but it didn’t feel particularly different than when I’m on a good creative streak, with my brain churning through ideas and complex plot structures for a few days at a time. On February 18th, I passed out in the shower. It didn’t last long; I seemed to come to and be fine within a few seconds. For the next few days, though, something was wrong. I couldn’t put my finger on what, but it felt like a tap had been turned on in my mind, and I couldn’t turn it off. For days, the flow of that tap picked up speed. Thoughts raced through my head; I could barely eat or sleep. If I wasn’t talking, I was typing or scribbling madly– anything to get the massive influx of thoughts out of my head. I went to work on Friday, then spent Saturday in the furious haze of trying to capture some of the things flying through my mind. It was a constant stream, and it all felt important, but there was no way I could record it all.
On Sunday the 21st, the madness peaked. As the day wore on, I became more and more lost in myself. By evening, I was gone. I was swept in a madness I will detail later, in which the outward manifestation was I ran naked through my house for hours, screamed at the top of my lungs, moved things around the house, threw things outside, trashed our home, and frightened my wife into cowering terror. As midnight neared, my wife called my parents, my parents called the police, and sometime later, three policemen arrived, put me in handcuffs, and walked me (in nothing more than pajamas pants and a thermal shirt) out into the night, into the rain. They didn’t pause to let me put on shoes. I walked down the wet pavement of my street, babbling and shouting endlessly. They put me in a police car, and took me to the emergency room, where I spent the night handcuffed to a hospital bed.
In my delirium, they took lots of blood samples from me, ran a CT scan, and probably myriad other tests I was too out of it to know about. Lots of words and possibilities were thrown around: maybe I’m manic-depressive, bipolar, epileptic, have dissociative identity disorder. I was later told by a psychiatric doctor I probably don’t have any of those things. Maybe it was because my white blood cell count was three times what it should have been due to asymptomatic infections I didn’t know I had. Maybe it was a delirium brought on by not sleeping for over 96 hours due to my chronic insomnia. Maybe it was because I hadn’t eaten anything of substance or had much to drink in nearly three days. Maybe it was stress because my job’s workload had been twice what it should have been for months, or because my landlady died at the end of January and my living situation was the definition of uncertain. Maybe it was all just a perfect storm of crazy, and I don’t have any serious mental disorders at all. Nobody knew then, and nobody knows now. The only thing that’s known for certain is that for about 18 hours, I was thoroughly out of my mind, and the next day I walked out of the hospital on my power, seemingly as sane as ever. Life has returned to normal, but I still find myself wondering: what is sanity? Where is the threshold of insanity, and how does one know if one strays close to it before it’s too late?