Listening to James Blake and avoiding people. I’m kinda awesome at it.
I’m an astronaut without a mission.
I type these words on the only working console in the dim-lit, womb-like control room of the space station Minor Chord, circling an unnamed moon of an unnamed planet in an uncharted galaxy.
I await my orders.
I was never like other boys. I never wanted to be an astronaut. I was always too afraid of this world, let alone any others. I was trained and selected for this mission without my knowledge. I went to sleep in my own bed, beside my husband. I woke up here, out here, alone, save for the chihuahua that we’d rescued from the streets of central California. My husband brought her home and we named her Agnes of Bakersfield. Apparently she was selected for the mission too. Or she selected herself.
She took to me immediately, followed me around our house back in San Francisco. (When I type the words “San Francisco” I have to close my eyes and steel myself against the longing.)
Agnes now follows me as I pace the long empty corridors. The lights flick on and off automatically, marking our progress. She’s my sole companion. Agnes curls up at my chest at night, a small, soft source of warmth. When she curls up she makes a noise that kills me. It’s the noise of surrender, the noise of a creature who feels safe.
I want to cry when I hear that noise. I do not feel worthy of such trust. But I’m unable to cry. This is an issue that I would like to rectify.
Before bed each night I talk to my husband through the video screen in the control room. His image flickers and his voice comes to me across a hundred trillion miles, full of space dust and distortion. I’m an astronaut who nearly failed high school physics, and every night I smack the side of the monitor. My husband continues to flicker. I’ve put in a work request through the proper channels but my anonymous employer has yet to reply.
“When are you coming home?” my husband used to ask. A year later he no longer asks. Still he remains optimistic. He tells me that all of this is a temporary setback. He tells me to be patient.
Every three weeks I’m allowed a twenty-minute video conference with my appointed psychiatrist. She has dyed hair and tattoos and a statue of Buddha on the shelf behind her. I’d like to think that in real life we’d be friends. I’ve asked her where she lives, where she speaks to me from, but she always deflects my attempts. “Why don’t you tell me about yourself instead,” she says. A stopwatch on the margin of the screen counts down our remaining time. Seventeen minutes. Twelve minutes. Three.
“I feel like a ghost,” I tell her. “I feel like I’m already dead.” She makes a note on her pad.
Drones deliver my new medications, along with boxes of Triscuits, Life cereal, and countless packets of Crystal Light.
I would like to be a Buddhist. I’ve read about and thoroughly understand the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of meditation but can’t stand being alone with my thoughts – I’ll do anything to distract myself from my own head.
Sometimes after my psych appointments I scroll through the medical records to which my anonymous employer has given me access:
- ASYMPTOMATIC HIV INFECTION
- HYPERTENSION (HIGH BLOOD PRESSURE)
- GERD (GASTRO-ESOPHAGEAL REFLUX DISEASE) (HEARTBURN)
- MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT
One day I log on to find that MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT has disappeared from my record. In its place is a new entry: CHRONIC POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER.
I scroll back and forth to be sure. It’s gone. Maybe you are only allowed one of the two.
For a few days my record is clear of MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT. I resolve to ask my psychiatrist about this, but keep forgetting. My short-term memory has been severely compromised. Another temporary setback, I hope.
A few days later the MAJOR DEPRESSION, RECURRENT appears again, above the CHRONIC POSTTRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER. I keep forgetting to ask what happened to it.
At night I climb into my bunk and roll onto my side. Agnes jumps in and curls up next to my chest. She makes that noise I told you about. I used to lay awake for hours, tossing and turning, always picking up the chihuahua with calm hands and placing her again at my chest. But a new medication arrived, and I fall asleep quickly now.
…It gets worse before…
……………………………….it gets better.
I heard these words as I fell – an astronaut sucking on a near-empty oxygen tank
plunging down a rabbit hole.
Who said them? I can’t remember. Ground Control, maybe, on whose couch I’d been riding for 60, then 90 minutes a week, spilling my guts for the discounted rate of six 20-dollar bills, which I’d remove from an ATM up the street on Castro before each session, later ducking into Walgreens for a Cherry Coke Zero, all the while feeling like someone behind me was getting set to toss a grenade at me. Do people get grenaded on Castro Street? I mean literally grenaded? No. But reason couldn’t touch me in those days, just after I’d found the father-son-incest-erotic-skincrawling-get-the-fuck-away-from-me stories on the fucking internet.
Grenades at work, grenades on Market Street, grenades on MUNI. They were all flying my way, the poor astronaut in a sweat-soaked business casual shirt. More than once Ground Control found me hiding in his waiting room a good 90 minutes before our session. I’d wave my iPhone at him, ear buds firmly in place, as I pretended to rifle through my bag. “Don’t worry, plenty to do here, I know when our session starts! Haha!” Truth was I just felt safer in there.
Maybe I heard those words from some other poor rabbit-hole-plunger, one of the shut-in dudes I’d chatted with in online forums where those of us in various stages of the shut-in process hung out, dudes who spoke their own shared language, using words like perp, as in, “Who was your perp, bro? Mine was my uncle.” Or simply letters. T for therapist. As in, “My t tells me it gets worse, bro, before it gets better. Meanwhile my disability is about to run out.” I got pretty good using bro in a sentence without irony.
I kept falling. I told Ground Control that I couldn’t remember what a feeling felt like. He eventually figured out that me getting molested by Hank the Blank at the age of nine was merely one event in a chaotic childhood. That my favorite childhood memories were the ones where I was alone. That all I felt growing up was lonely and that today I only felt empty. That I couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t focus, couldn’t get my work done at work, couldn’t write, couldn’t find the word for..for…fuck it.
But I could talk on his couch, that much I could do. For 90 minutes I’d fill that oxygen tank and hope it would last me the remaining 6 days, 22 hours and thirty minutes…
Then a package arrived from my father.
I had a feeling. I just knew he would send me something. “How did you know?” asked Ground Control, after the fact.
“I just sensed it coming.”
Hank the Blank had disregarded my plea to leave me in peace for the rest of our lives, and sent me a package that contained everything, he said in the accompanying letter, that he could find in his “Mike File.” Old family photos, graduation ceremony programs, newspaper clippings. He told me he thought I might want these things, as if what he were giving me was a gift, though it felt like a sucker-punch. Here’s everything I have of you. I don’t want it.
The rest of the letter was such a masterful example of…what’s the word? I can’t…can’t… fuck it, here’s what he said:
1. Hank the Blank was in a lot of pain because I no longer wanted to talk to him, and he really wanted me to know exactly how much pain he was in, and how all of it was my fault.
2. He would like to have a relationship with me, but only if I agreed to “shield” him from my anger.
3. He and my stepfather were getting married in the spring, and all the family would be there, but I wasn’t invited unless I could agree to number 2 (see above).
4. He hoped my therapist would help me see the “big picture,” a.k.a. all the things he had brought into my angry, ungrateful life aside from child molestation.
5. He assumed that I no longer expected to be included in their will. In either case, he and my stepfather agreed that I shouldn’t be “rewarded” for blogging about this very delicate matter, which I had entirely misconstrued and then advertised to the internet.
6. No matter what I said or did, he’d still be my father.
I’d like to say that I was all like, psssht, no sweat off my…don’t let the door hit you in the…
And maybe I pulled that off for about 48 hours. But I kept falling
Couldn’t think for shit at work. Sat paralyzed at my desk, as if I getting up and moving would lead to my death. Sometimes got up and moved and didn’t die but found an empty office, closed the door, barricaded it, turned off the lights, and lay on the carpet for two hours.
Went home at night on BART checking my six for grenade-tossers, locked the front door behind me, climbed the stairs, took the dogs out back to pee, then back upstairs, into the bedroom, closed the door, pulled the blinds, lay in bed getting kissed by dogs, flipped on Netflix streaming and watched docs about soldiers coming home all fucked up from Iraq.
Then one morning I pulled myself out of bed and emailed work and said that I couldn’t come in for a while, I wasn’t sure how long. And for the second time in a year I went to Kaiser and told them that despite my totally amazing husband and my loving dogs, and my house, and my friends, and my punch card at the pharmacy, that I couldn’t stop thinking about ending it all.
February, fell down a rabbit hole. Turned around to take a hard look at some hard times and fell head-first.
falling. Every time I thought I’d hit the bottom I just kept going. I honestly didn’t think it would be this hard.
I’m crazy now. Or crazier, maybe, than I used to be. Me and Alice, down here in the hole. Mentally ill by definition. No straightjackets down here – I tried to get a bed in the loony bin, forgetting that we’d already shut them all down.
So I sit in a law firm by day, sipping my tea with all the Mad Hatters, quietly going bananas in a Banana Republic shirt. I do make this look pretty good.
Chronic PTSD, that’s the label they’ve pinned on me / I have a punch card at the pharmacy.
That’s the lullaby we sing at night, down here in our rabbit hole. It’s been a while – since we last spoke I’ve kept my husband and said good-bye to most of my family. But to you I wanted to say hello.