I keep circling back to this observation my friend ZH offered the other day, nodding towards the yearly school photos my mom has framed in order on her office wall. He said you could track our generation’s fashion trends through my wardrobe choices / changes in each photo, whatever trickled into our small town as popular, often a year or two behind, slightly used, slightly askew, the trend of the year. See the Nike swoosh on my glasses. See the pale Hawaiian shirt & frosted-tip hair. See the oversized polo shirt. See the undersized pop-punk band tee & swoopy bangs.
The first one, though, is the one that catches my eye today, the kindergarten photo, me wearing a blue suit, the only suit I might ever wear, minus the tuxedos I wore for the five proms & the first wedding. My father says I look like a preacher man. I have no idea where the original desire bloomed from, but I know my grandmother bought it for me, as she later would the Stone Cold Steve Austin-inspired leather vest & the camo bandanna, which would be the cornerstone of my nine-years-in-a-row Rambo Halloween costume. Anytime I glimpse that photograph, I spy the first stable identity I remember landing on--Grandma’s little man.
I have spoken of it often, here & elsewhere, but her death was the last of what we call the Three Losses. First was my half-brother sent back to his mother in North Carolina when I was four years old. Next came the death of my Uncle Ricky via car wreck in North Carolina, with corresponding sympathy chest pains I suffered across the distance, an 8 year-old in a green camper, & then the following year, my grandma died in the same bathroom where just a couple days before she sat as I was overtaken my paranoid visions of her death. The years between that suit-clad photo & her death had blossomed our ultimate bond, a connection built on cooperation & trust.
Not long after that photo, grandma had her leg amputated, a complication with diabetes. Mostly dependent on a wheelchair, she struggled with once simple tasks, like reaching up into the cabinets, which is where I could enthusiastically help. I would climb onto the counter & stand on my tip-toes to reach what hid up high. Tied together in our world, we were unstoppable, her doing the adulting--driving, cooking, keeping us alive--& me supplying the energy--the aforementioned climbing, folding up the wheelchair in the van, pointing towards the fun. We played at the park, stopped to the store, baked stoplight cookies, & played dominoes, while my grandfather worked the fields, my dad drove the truck, & my mother hoped to churn out the doctors & psychologists who would help what would eventually get us stuck.
It is one thing to lose a grandmother, especially if she’s also babysitter, best friend, & primary companion; the stakes grow gargantuan when that death is predicated on a premonition, a prediction that would haunt me with visions, guilt, & grief for the rest of my life. Being the third strike, it began to turn the flavor of my fault, simultaneously an inadequacy & a power never asked requested, certainly not known how to handle. Every headache, each hiccup, even a moment of silence was signal that someone was dying, someone was leaving, something had gone terribly wrong. This, I realized in therapy the other day, was the beginning of my difficult-to-control irrational worrying & inability to trust commitment throughout my life. “You got storyline fever, storyline flu / It's filtering how everything looks to you” is how David Berman sings it on his Purple Mountains album, nodding at the sickness that threatens us all, exponentially greater if one is prone to delusional thinking, self-consciousness truly an awareness of how others are conscious of that particular self, one’s journey, aches & triumphs uncontrollably tied to others.
We can laugh about it now, but following these three losses, my behavior spiraled into strange directions, chiefly excessive, compulsive behavior. I became so obsessive with reassurance that I would tell my parents “I love you” hundreds of times a day, would ask “are you okay?” over & over. At K-Mart here in town, I would be fawning over the newest WWF action figure, glance up to find my mother gone, & the panic would set it; she had been kidnapped & she had been murdered, or she had fallen over with a heart attack & they hauled her away in an ambulance, not knowing I was there, or she had simply had enough of me, my premonitions & my endless questions & my shaky leg, & she had left me to start over, to try again.
Of course, she did not leave me; she was in aisle 12, debating between the teal & the yellow bath towels. But it had been broken, this once-solidified stage; the first on Erikson’s model of development, Trust vs. Mistrust, it had been altered, reversed, shattered by these three losses. My new therapist here in town, a chatty older woman stock-piled with approximately 28,136 trainings, certifications, & degrees, as she often reminds me, wrote a simple word equation on the board: thoughts + feelings = actions. The addends are beyond our control, she claims, but the sum, the action, is where choice reveals itself.
Except for me, it does not often feel that way. Actions happen--I threw my bike in the ditch, I crafted these clay figures & this puddle of tears in the closet, I choked my girlfriend in a parking garage, I wrote in blood on the wall—& I would have the faintest fog of a memory of it happening, no sign that I chose to do it. Regardless of my diagnosis, it is clear that my disfunction is close to what Esmé Weijun Wang describes in her book The Collected Schizophrenias as “an illness not of accrual but of replacement & deletion.” I say this not as an excuse or to be let off the hook, but rather as a contextual reminder & an honest portrayal of my experience.
When the therapist says the addends, my thoughts & my feelings, are out of my control, I am not sure I believe it. While I can certainly say my thoughts & feelings often burst forth, unannounced & unwarranted in wild, weird, & wacked-out ways, I am compelled to emphasize input--what art / media I consume, what kind of conversations & activities I surround myself with, what ways I exercise that input once it becomes stuff of the mind. It definitely has a particular effect on both the addends & certainly the sum. How does reading poetry two or three hours a day affect my feeling / thought processes versus the same time of watching dramatic, absurd, or even violent television? What might meld to be felt / thought if my coworkers or friends carry & share much aggressive bitterness towards our boss or their spouse? How might I best process all this gunk?
I cannot pinpoint exactly when it started to program, but in tense & terse situations, my mind often offers Who-Wants-To-Be-A-Millionaire-type formatting. “This guy just yelled at you;” would you like to A) utilize deescalation tactics to reach a mutual understanding B) tell him to “fuck off” C) curl up in a ball & cry for your momma or D) Scream erratically & begin tearing down whatever is near. I imagine this a typical thought process, though perhaps with less extraordinary construction. However, my true trouble comes as the mistrust, paranoia, & delusion begin to rain; it all becomes answers, the four actions swirled into a whirlwind of happening, as chaos begins to reign.
As David Berman sings later in the same song, “You got storyline fever, storyline flu / Apparently impairing your point of view / It's making horseshit sound true to you / Now it's impacting how you're acting too” & through my blur, that impaired point of view & the resulting impacted acting can range in an array of minor ticks to major spells, isolated incidents to incessant problems. I am beginning to see more clearly in terms of how my self-consciousness dances dangerously close to self-delusion in how my brain naturally responds to stress, exhaustion, & its own warped reality.
Maybe I watched too many movies at too young an age. Maybe it was a result of being especially empathetic / sponge-like. Maybe it was that barely solidified Trust vs. Mistrust stage being shattered by the Three Losses. Whatever it was, I am often under a sort of hypnosis.
Like often happens, it had to be written in a book to have me believe it. How odd to relate to Jia Tolentino’s essay “Reality TV Me” , her reflections on her teenage summer on the reality show, GIRLS VS. BOYS, from her book of essays on self-delusion, TRICK MIRROR. Of her experience, she said, “I was learning that in the twenty-first century it would sometimes be impossible to differentiate between the pretext for an experience, the record of that experience, and the experience itself.” (48) To borrow Sherri Kramer’s theater term, it is no wonder it was “in retrospect inevitable” that my immersion in the poetry world, the increasing pace & visibility online, & the move to Austin would be the blade that cut the final thread on my sanity.
There is an overwhelming consumption that happens when my horseshit doesn’t only sound true, but looks true, feels true, tastes true, heats true. This is not a conspiracy theory like the moon is made of cheese, but rather a paranoia that what appears to be true is not true, cannot possibly be true. Or is it, rather, that the thing I know cannot be true, the smirking face, the wild concoction my brain cooked up, actually is true, is coming to overtake me? I am finally being completely honest about this struggle. I have a habit of out-of-body experiences. I felt like I was in a Truman show situation for many years. I often see figures, hear voices, have memory-loss, can find the edge between fact & fiction. Both in waking & in sleeping, I am often overcome with paranoia, voices, & delusions.
Piece by piece, though, I have found some strategies for success in recognizing these elements as not real — positive self-talk, living candidly with loved ones, daily meditation & walks. As Wang said in the first essay of her collection, “After all, it is easy to forget that psychiatric diagnoses are human constructs, and not handed down from an all knowing God on stone tablets. To have schizophrenia is to fit an assemblage of symptoms, which are listed in a purple book made by humans” (12). Oddly enough, I find it most helpful to remind myself that I’m an idiot.
Again, this is not a mechanism to degrade one’s intellect or throw the hands up in defeat. It is a reminder to be so unflinchingly curious & honest about the self-in-process as to not be fooled by any claim to the contrary. The other day, the sweet bag boy at the grocery store here held up my bunch of kale & asked, “You have a lizard, too?” You see, he only knows kale exists because it is what he feeds his pet. I now live daily with the hope that somewhere he feeds his lizard, glances around his room to be sure he’s alone before slipping a sliver of kale into his mouth.
I cannot be that naive, that ignorant, that young again anymore than I can be not psychologically atypical, but I can be that honest & that in the moment about my own situation--the paranoia, the intense longing for connection, the insatiable energy for doing. As Sam Harris says in Waking Up, “It is within our capacity to recognize the nature of thoughts, to awaken from the dream of being merely ourselves, and in this way, to become better able to contribute to the well-being of others” (206). The opportunity to build this Future Barn provides access to such awakening & in that gratitude is where I rest today.