From the Desk of Hannah the Scribe

Flash memoirs from my notebook during 2020.

… 

I started to worry about living today.

I was worried before about surviving.

Food.

When will it run out?  Where will it come from?  At what cost?  At what risk?  For how long?  Who will it feed?

Water.  Soap.  Medicine.  Toiletries.

Today… 

Will I pretend everything is okay enough that I can write?  Read?  Crochet?  Make a font, make something fun to eat?

Even some of the worst apocalypse novels are told via diary.

What if I run out of yarn and electricity and paper and pens and books?

Before I run out of food?

… 

I dream about Dad a lot, dead or alive.

It’s not usually really him, if dead.

Sometimes it’s Mom.

Sometimes it’s Grandma.

I think about the email he sent my mom about fleeing, about the box in his garage with outdated first aid gear.

And he said, “It’s irresponsible not to be prepared,” about living and dying both but— 

Bold words from a man who died without a will. 

… 

Sometimes Dad’s alive in my dreams but I know he’s not; sometimes I dream about the grief itself. 

I fall asleep in my bed; I wake up standing next to the body again. 

I zone out in my room, snap out of it in a flashback, standing next to the body again.

Standing next to the body again.

And again.

… 

How do I tell Mom I’m finally starting to fall asleep with my eyes closed, that I jump just as much when startled but I’ve never screamed, that when I blink in daylight it’s usually okay, that white linens aren’t as frightening now, that I went into the bedroom while my girlfriend was sleeping without thinking, that I don’t sleep on the couch as much?

If I talk about getting better, she’ll say the same, “It should’ve been me,” and I’ll say:

“That’s a noble game,” or, “But it wasn’t,” or, “But I’m glad it wasn’t,” or, “No, Mom, it really shouldn’t have been you.” 

Mom’s never seen me cry over it and she’s not going to.  

… 

I’m still trying to think my way out of that room.

There’s a dead bird I’ve passed on my walk at the curb for a few days now and I keep thinking I’ll walk the other way or not look and then I don’t, and it’s decaying into liquid, decaying, decaying, and I think of Dad, and how I thought I wouldn’t sit with Grandma’s body, either. 

… 

Morning.  It’s sun warmed, bright, sunlight patches on light carpet, sunbathing cats, warm fur, stretch, purr, yawn.  Smells like sunlight on light dust.  Sun, sun, sun.

… 

My walk—everyone else is in pairs—you can tell who dragged whom.  It’s almost cold out.  Crisp.  Fresh.  No hot pavement scent yet.

… 

Brunch.  Clear glass bowls of chopped fruit still wet from washing.  A few flowers remain alive in the vase.  Stripes of sun through the blinds on the tablecloth.  Sweet strawberries and Nutella, the crunch of toast.  My best friend is bedheaded and in pajamas.  My wife to be is dressed in black.  We all talk and laugh too much and too loud. 

My fiancee and I cook dinner together.  Evening slats of sun.  The broiler, the frying, the oven, the stove—hum.  It’s hot.  Everything smells delicious.  She is so beautiful.  The potatoes are colorful, the pork chops shaping up to the right hue.

… 

Today’s the kind of mental health day where you listen to Evanescence and hope for the best.  Time and space happen to me strangely.

It’s 9:30 AM and I’m nonverbal, and it feels like I shouldn’t be—it’s too early, too much of a problem.  Nonverbal, like drunk, happens at more like dinner.  But I woke up like this, and I don’t drink.

… 

My dearest fiancee,

It is May 2020.

The world is ending.

And you have asked me to marry you.

… 

It’s late afternoon, hot, dry, the sun just starting to cast long shadows.  The pool water is cool and clear, has to be eased into, but refreshing.  Mom is drinking white wine out of a Dixie coffee cup.  All of the neighbors are in their pools too, cannonballs and voices carrying over.  My mom and my best friend and my fiancee and I splash each other, blow water through pool noodles, throw a ball around.  Everything smells a little like chlorine.  My fiancee and I lay on the bed in the afternoon and cuddled and talked about the future earlier.  Later, we all eat dinner still a little wet, but in dry clothes, and pick at desserts knowing we’ll sleep well.  All the people I love are happy.  We talk about the engagement.  The AC isn’t too cold.  The food is good and plentiful.  I stepped out of the pool and started dinner wet and still in my underwear.  And life is good. 

… 

I have started to hallucinate a golden retriever puppy regularly.  Her name is Farrah. 

The smell of heat on pavement.  Sweat.  Water getting warm in bottles.  Swings creaking.  Gas station snacks eaten on the side of the parking lot in a patch of shade.  Kids yell in the distance.  My best friend’s voice.  The chime of the gas station door opening and closing.

… 

I woke up from my first dream where people were just… wearing masks.  How weird is it to adjust?

I wake trying to scream and batting at a corpse that isn’t there. 

… 

The Christmas tree with rainbow lights.  Wrapping paper, stockings, pillows, blankets—everywhere.  The fireplace is on.  Games and snacks line the table, brunch abandoned.  Instrumental Christmas music plays.  I lie in the pile of wrapping paper and blankets wearing my Santa dress, head on a bathrobe gift, my wife next to me, my best friend next to her.  We laugh.  Mom is close by.  I’m home.  It’s Christmas morning.

On Growing Up in a Violent World

Seventh grade, age twelve.  There’s a swastika duct taped—really, not spray painted, duct taped—on the ground on the basketball courts, and so PE is moved to the soccer field.  We also could’ve moved to the indoor basketball court, or the pool room, or the gym room, or the track, or the tennis courts, or—God, this school is a lot.

The swastika concerns a lot of my classmates more than it does me.  They are both easily impressed by threats at a school swarmed with security guards and features, safe from the outside world, sheltered, and also acutely aware many of them are worth nine digits, sometimes more, in ransom.  Serious security as a school feature is new to me, the outcast public school transfer, and I feel relatively safe even though I know security is not going to be focused on protecting me, because I also know that no one’s coming here for me.

B jogs up to my side as we run warmup laps, looking up at me with wide eyed concern.  She’s nearly a foot shorter than I am.  “What do you think?  How did they get in?” 

“Hopped the fence last night?” I guess. 

V jogs up on my other side.  Her last name is a brand plastered over nearly half the stock of every grocery store in America, and she flies planes with her dad on the weekends; when I go over to her house, I try to keep out of the way of the staff, hanging out on the nearby golf course or in her “bedroom” instead, the entire second floor, probably more than 1500 square feet.  Her dad has an at home high tech weather station he showed me around and gives me his meteorology magazines when he’s done with them.  I’m an aspiring meteorologist at the time, but only as a day job so I can write, which is what I bonded with his daughter over.  I can’t imagine what she’s worth in ransom, but having read her fiction, which has gore to match and surpass my own, I wouldn’t want to piss her off.  “Yeah, the back fence is way easier than getting around anything in the front,” she says with a frown, “and it’d get you close to here.” 

The three of us, in Hunger Games fandom fashion, call our friendship an alliance that includes one other friend, a boy who’s over in the other PE class right now.  Allies are more important than mere friends in a questionable world. 

… 

“THIS IS A SHELTER IN PLACE.” 

Eighth grade, age fourteen.  The rest of the pre-recorded message blares over the intercom in the middle of third period geography.  I once told my school counselor I would rather carve my own eyes out with a rusty spoon than attend this geography class, but if anything can make the class worse, it’s a shelter in place.  The classroom is in a free standing portable, not a nice one; there is one door; we are cornered, trapped here, if it’s ever real.  I almost miss my last school. 

A few of my classmates groan; we all slip under our desks—in this class, shared tables, three rectangles pushed together, one horizontal and two backing up to it vertically, not desks.  I look over at a boy we’ll call S, who sits next to me in every class except PE.  He slides under our table with his knees tucked to his chest and we exchange a tired look as I curl in next to him, our legs brushing.  On my other side, the girl who sits around the corner of the cumulative table from me looks like she’s going to cry, again.  She always cries when there are drills, and they keep doing them in third period when I’m there to see it.  She cries when we watch a sad documentary in class.  She’s very sweet and tries desperately to make small talk with me every day before class starts, but God, I swear there’s nothing going on in her head.

I look back at S.  After one of the last third period drills, we’d talked in a later period—sixth, the last, when we were both student aides in the front office, running errands or doing homework, or something that looked like it, and chatting.  I’d said, “God, we’d be better off running.  Why would the shooter come for the portable first?  We’re in the back.  We’d have time.  Just run off to the Smith’s.  No fence.  Have better odds on the move than trapped in that portable.” 

“I’ll come with you,” he’d said dryly.  

But neither of us thought it was more than a drill today, as evidenced by us obediently climbing under our useless table instead of running for our lives.  In a few minutes, there’s pounding on the door, loud and fast.  The principal—I recognize her voice; we both do, as office aids—shouts, “Let me in!” and similar phrases.  

“Ignore it,” our teacher stage whispers from under his desk.  “It’s part of the drill.”

Still, S and I share a concerned glance.  The girl on my other side finally cries.  I offer some kind of shushing sound.  We know to ignore the shouting—the principal could have a gun at her head, the teacher explains later, and is being used to lure us out.  Same for the fire alarm.  

It’s just a drill—another drill—this time.  Still, when S and I part ways for lunch and PE, before we’ll see each other again in fifth period English, I can’t help but worry, as I always do after drills, that there’ll come a day that class transition is the last time we’ll ever see each other. 

We don’t get any talking in as we settle into English, because our teacher is already lecturing the class again about the fight that broke out in the bathroom during lunch yesterday.  The door locked by one of the students from the inside, it took a long time for staff and emergency responders to get in and take more than one student to the hospital, one with a knife in his stomach.  No one in the class was involved, but I understand the teacher’s need to say something.  Still, I got the lecture from my second period algebra teacher and tune half of it out.  

S and I walk to the front office for sixth period in silence; the hallway is a roar around us, and we don’t try to talk over it, walking quickly to make the bell.  S and I share a single digit class rank and he’s the state’s junior soccer star; he’s boyishly handsome, puppy dog brown eyes and golden hair, physique toned by soccer practice routinely running until after 10 PM on school nights.  Every girl in the school wants him; they tell me this in the same breath they tell me, “But he only looks at you.  You go everywhere together.” 

As we do now, swift strides down the hallway to the office.  We settle in.  He pulls out algebra homework.  I tap my mechanical pencil against my composition book and frown at the Hunger Games fan fiction chapter I’m writing, a sword fight I can’t get to work.  “You look tired,” I tell him, when he’s staring at the numbers on his page more than he’s solving anything.  I tell him this maybe once a week.  “You always look tired,” I add dryly, which is because R, another student aide who usually adds that bit, is preoccupied, and because it’s true.

“You always look tired, too,” he tells me, with a smile that’s fond or tired or amused, as he does about once a week.  I think we started that game after I started having the panic attacks that landed me in the nurse’s office nearly blacking out from lack of air, being offered water in a paper cup by EMTs.

“THIS IS A SHELTER IN PLACE.”

“Jesus,” he mutters, rubbing at his neck.  “No wonder we’re so tired.”  

“God.” 

R looks up.  We climb under the one round table we all share, the three of us and three more student aides.  We’re not really all meant to fit under here, even pushing our chairs and backpacks and messenger bags into a protective ring behind us as if they’d do anything.  There’s a Swiss army knife in my bag that I pretend might help one day.  

The message over the intercom abruptly cuts off.  

“What if it’s real?” R whispers, wide brown eyes even wider, glasses magnifying the effect.  “They wouldn’t do two in a day, would they?”

“And it cut off…” another girl adds.

“This is how we die,” a boy on the other side of S mutters into his knees.  “They always come for the front office.”  

“It’s not real,” I whisper back.

“It’ll be fine,” S echoes, though we share another glance.  We’re kind of the parent-friends of the student aides, and the glance is a prayer that our entirely empty reassurance to the others is true.

“—False alarm!” the principal trills over the PA system.  “Ignore!  Hit the button by accident.” 

For some reason, we’re allowed to take heed of this over the PA system but not when she’s pounding on the door, so we hesitantly climb out from under the table, though we’re a bit skittish.  S patiently explains the math homework to R in even simpler terms for the thousandth time as the final bell rings.  I gave up on her last semester.  He’s kinder than I am.  I envy the trait and also think his compassion is only making him more tired.   

The next day, we sort out a pile of detention slips to run to students in different classrooms, while the other student aides get in two more minutes of homework. Done, we sigh and take first the piles that the others are unwilling to run—portables, a hassle, or teachers who don’t take kindly to the interruption. I’m not looking closely enough and pick up the pile for the boys’ PE class. They’re out of the locker room by now; I can find them in the gym or outside; but I always got half a dozen or so rape threats shouted at me—oh, the things they want to do after school—and now S always takes that pile. If I insist, sometimes he’ll trade, give me the girls’—they shout similar things at him—or he’ll insist on taking both. We both get fewer, but some, threats from our own gender.

He notices the paper clipped stack in my hand and slips it out of my grasp, adds it to his own pile. I take the girls’ stack from his and he shakes his head but lets me. An adult office aide, aware of the whole situation, cautions us on the way out that the girls’ and boys’ PE classes are both using the outside field today, something S and I had both forgotten since fourth period. S holds out his hand for the girls’ stack. I sigh and give it to him. We can play this game all day. “Thanks.”

… 

Tenth grade, age fifteen.  “C is gonna kill us all one day,” M mutters as we settle back at our pair of lab tables in environmental science.  It’s our program class, our high school major.  She sits across the two back to back tables from me.  J, next to me, half laughs, sounds off.

“Five bucks says you’re wrong,” says E, always ready to disagree, rounding out the four of us to the table pair, slapping it on the table a little loudly considering C is still across the room, where he recently went off in one of his twitchy shouting fits after giving a presentation in the lab next door. 

“If I’m right, I’ll be dead.  He’s always looking at me weird,” says M, shoving the money back at E.  “Who’s your bet on?” 

“Oh, we all know it’ll be Hannah.” 

I, Hannah, laugh.  J does again, too, still sounding off, leaning on my shoulder.  “I’ll keep it to the writing.  Guns are too loud.  I’ll just stab you in your sleep on camp weekend.  Quieter.” 

E laughs.  “You’re right.  You’d be the dumbass charging in here with a knife instead.” 

“Thanks, E.” 

“Anytime.” 

We all kind of wander away from each other as we’re given time to work on the assignment or do other homework.  The Aurora shooting last year still has a lot of people on edge, and Sandy Hook over last winter break solidified it.  We make dumb bets, or don’t, and we say that your real friends are who you jump on top of in a shooting.  

“Hey,” E murmurs to me from behind later, making me jump; “J is freaking out again.  She wants you.” 

I kind of laugh.  E, knowing, offers a shrug to rescind that last statement.  J doesn’t want me; I’ve wanted her since near the end of freshman year and every time there’s another shooting somewhere else, or another drill or scare, I think that she’s the one I’d be lying on the ground over.  I have nightmares that it would be too late, that I’d be watching the life drain from the angelic blue eyes I spend half of my classes staring at.  But still, I’m the mom friend at a new school now, and when J is “freaking out again” I am the one people come to seek.  She cries into my shoulder when our tight knit class fights and when there’s a Holocaust survivor speaker and holds my hand while we, the environmental science students, circulate the school to collect recycling bins on sunny Friday afternoons, and while we hide under our desks while school district employees pace the room.  If we make eye contact with them, our school fails the drill.  They circulate the school for an hour and a half while our legs cramp under more tiny shared tables. 

I sit with J on the floor in the walk in supply closet off the lab and listen while she talks about her worries that one of these days one of us, dead or hurt or traumatized at least, will win our dumb bets.  “It won’t be us,” I tell her.

“How do you know?” 

Well, it won’t be you, I think, heroic, romantic, realistically hopeless and deadly plans flashing through my mind.  It’s an open campus; greenhouses and acres of empty desert land for the environmental sciences students to play in; perhaps here, too, we could run.  “I just know.” 

… 

2016, aged eighteen.  “I hate thinking that we’d be fish in a barrel here,” says K.  “I hate that I should think that.” 

We’re in the local LGBTQ center, crowded, as K put it, like fish in a barrel.  The Pulse shooting happened the night before, and our group of friends—writers, queer—crowds in near the back.  Near the door.  It feels cowardly to stay home.  I tucked myself into the backseat of K’s husband’s car with Hamilton blasting on the radio singing and talking and rapping of change and change I have yet to see. 

“But we can get married now,” says another friend, T, dryly, “so really, what the hell are we complaining about?  What else could we possibly want?  To not get shot at?”

It’s a touching memorial, except for the part where the mayor gets on stage and says that if only people were aware of where the exits were, tragedies like this wouldn’t happen.  

We know where the exits are.  There are double doors, open, behind me, a few people deep, leading to another room with a set of two glass sliding doors that go out.  

She is escorted out the other nearest exit, a single security door behind the stage, as the room gets close to a riot.

… 

2017, aged nineteen, having a go at college.  I don’t understand what my friends are on about.  I’m bleary eyed and half awake doing a morning message check, not sure why all of my group chats are blowing up.  Shooting?  Festival?  Country music? 

I open Facebook.  Oh.  Oh, no.  Oh, shit.

I am safely in Boston, Cambridge, college, but there are dozens of people lying dead in the Vegas streets.  Or they wouldn’t be, by now.  Maybe.  I hope not, imagining the October heat of home.  

I am out the door of my dorm, in the hallway with only a vague memory of shoving something like clothes on and grabbing my bag, before it occurs to me that it’s useless.

No one here can do anything.  No one here knows anything.  

I am sending texts frantically.  I am typing and deleting several times to make enough words be spelled right for the question to make sense.  I am calling.  I am not getting answered.  My texts are delivered and unread.

Dad.

He is my first, terrifying thought.  The day before, he had sent me a selfie of himself in a little spotlight basket high up in the air over the very festival that now has dozens dead.  Hundreds of feet in the air, him and a spotlight, trapped.  Off to work shooting that light and another kind of shooting altogether and never home again.  I am sure of it.  You can all but see the shooter’s vantage point mentioned in the articles in the background of his innocent selfie.

I am in the school’s little security office.  I am a familiar sight to the few employees there; I bring them chocolate chip muffins I bake from scratch in the awful shared dorm kitchen upstairs; they let me in the technically forbidden elevator when my grocery bags can’t make it up the six flights of stairs.  I am panicking, crying; I am being told to sit down, to breathe, to drink some water out of a little paper cup.

He is not answering.  I call my grandmother.  She lives next door, with Mom, who is already off to work.  Off to work in a school building with few exits and no windows and no chance.  I had spent so many worried thoughts on her or Dad simply falling from his station in an accident, I had underestimated the danger of the public events he worked altogether.

Grandma is bleary from sleep, three hours behind in time zones, and sleeping medications.  “His car’s there,” she yawns.  “So’s his girlfriend’s.”  She kind of trails off eventually and hangs up.  I am not communicating well, either.  

The car means nothing to me.  Dad frequently had trouble with it and carpooled to work.  His girlfriend could’ve spent the night there without him, waiting for him to come back from the late shift he would never return from.  She could’ve gotten worried and gone looking for him in an empty house.  I don’t know.

I am in the counseling center.  I am not a stranger here, either, again the muffin girl, and a patient.  My usual counselor is friendly, but there is nothing he can really say.  He doesn’t see a lot of hope, either.

I am somehow in my first class of the day, anthropology.  I am staring at my phone.  I am refreshing tabs.  After Dad, I realize that everyone I’ve ever known save a few are in that city.  Enough music lovers and festival goers.  Did I really know where all my friends were?  The ones who were always off to concerts?  I have vivid flashbacks to T, who asked what we, “the gays”, could want other than the right to marriage at the Pulse memorial, blaring country song after country song in her car with the windows down on hot summer nights. I think of how many people I am out of touch with, would never know if they were going.  People are marking themselves safe on Facebook.  Kids I have not seen since elementary school.  Middle school.  High school.  My cousins.  My sister.  My friends.

But not my dad.

I apologize to the professor briefly at the end of class for staring at my phone, telling her I am waiting on news; she knows I’m from Vegas and knows about the shooting—not everyone does, yet, safely in New England.  I am one of two students in the entire school from Nevada, and the other, I’m told—we’ve never met; it’s a big enough school—is from Reno.

I run into the longtime Internet friend who brought my attention to this college in the shuttle heading towards the other campus for my next class.  I am listing names she has never heard at her, who is safe, who is not.  She asks what I’m on about.  “There was a shooting,” I get out.

“Oh.  Oh, no.” 

The words being screamed in my head are just that.  There was a shooting.  This isn’t a drill.  This isn’t a drill.

My professor and TA in my next class all but shoo me out of the room, already aware of the situation.  I am in the counseling center again when Dad texts me that he impulsively took the night off to spend time with his girlfriend.

I am still checking names and lists for days. 

… 

2019, aged twenty-one.  When my dad does pass, years later, in his sleep, at home, I am looking around for a weapon that isn’t there.  I am being offered a paper cup of lukewarm water on his front lawn by a fireman.  Kate holds my hand.  

I left Cambridge after a psych ward stay the counseling center talked me into.  I met Kate eight days later, like fate.  I remember the hospital, turning in a borrowed tablet to the nurses that had a browsing history of how do you kill yourself in a psych ward basically over and over; I remember staying out of swinging range of violent patients; I remember watching a man bolt for the elevator room in a failed escape attempt and wondering how to do it better.  In the ER there, too, they offered me water in a paper cup.

Contrary to procedure, paper cups of water don’t solve years of worry. 

On “Are You Hallucinating?”

“Are you hallucinating?” 

It sounds like such a simple and important question.  But there are several catches that people don’t realize when they want to hear yes or no.

First question: do I know I’m hallucinating?  I usually have a pretty decent grasp on that for the big stuff, but not everyone does.  Corpse, not there.  Dog I don’t have, not there.  Hallucinations.  

But is that flash of light in the corner of my eye from traffic out the window, or my own mind?  Is it just a trick of the light?  Is staring at a trick of the light unsurely for way too long a hallucination?  

What about changing real objects?  Is that cup upside down on the counter, or right side up?  Well, if I just confirm: is there a glass?  That’s not useful.  Sometimes it is Alice in Wonderland like distortions, larger, smaller, some more subtle than others until your fingers flit through the top of an object that doesn’t quite reach there. 

Is there a slight aura around that lamp, or just me?  Is the cat messing around upstairs making hard to describe noises, or is it in my head?  Neighbors talking indistinctly, or just me?  

Should I start describing everything in the room to you to make sure we see all the same things?  Hear?  Smell? 

What about the fact that my sensory processing issues mean I frequently hear very real sounds that other people don’t pick up on until they really listen for them?  What then? 

I remember in a bad psychosis phase putting on noise canceling headphones and realizing how much noise I still heard.  But it was just that: noise.  Like a white noise machine.  Like very steady running water.  Like the sound of a crowded restaurant when no table is drawing attention in particular.  Like the cats making a ruckus upstairs.  It just kind of added mental decibels to what was really going on around me (which, as someone with sound sensitivity, is its own very real issue).  But how to describe that? 

Also consider that my line between reality and hallucination, or even fantasy, is jagged and thin and I’m highly suggestible in that way.  If you say, “Are you seeing Farrah right now?”  Well, I wasn’t.  Until you said her name.  Now I kind of got a flash of her, my little recurring golden retriever, like a mental flashback.  But is that the normal helpless visualization that comes from people talking?  What if, three minutes after you said that, she hasn’t quite gone away yet, flickering in and out, under a real chair in the room?  “Ah, now I am.  Nope, not anymore—wait, there it is! Oh—nope.  Hold on—ah, there—no.”

Is my daydreaming over the line of hallucinating when it sometimes slips a few seconds ahead of my actual thoughts?  When characters can do things unexpected?  When I can’t snap back out of it?

Is seeing a blur out of the corner of my eye that’s never there when I turn a hallucination?  Is it a hallucination if I sense something that isn’t there, but don’t strictly see it?  

What if the real issue is delusion—times I think I’m hallucinating something that’s very much there—like the person asking the question? 

“Are you hallucinating?”  It’s not really a yes or no question.  No is a simple, soothing answer, if temporary by nature.  Yes means something definable has gone wrong without doubt.  But it’s not really hallucinating or not hallucinating—or, for my Hunger Games fans—real or not real.  

The answer for me, sometimes, is definitively yes.  But I’m not sure I’d ever give a definitive no—because what do I know?  Who am I, the schizophrenic one, to answer that?  I don’t trust my perceptions any longer.  And how long do you have to think you’re not hallucinating for before it counts?  If Farrah was here three minutes ago and isn’t now, can I say no?  An hour?  A day?  A week?  Ah, gerunds.

I don’t really have a better question to propose.  Just some things to keep in mind.  It’s tricky in a lot of oft overlooked ways.  That’s the thing with schizophrenia—it’s not a real or not real game—even when it is mostly episodic, you are always questioning.  Every flash of light, every distant conversation, every dog, every bump in the night.  Real or not real?  Might want to ask someone else. 

On 2020, and More

2020 has been a hell of a year for everyone. 

For me, it meant turning twenty-two, buying a home, getting married, writing accomplishments from a tenth NaNoWriMo to self publishing, pandemic quarantine keeping me from my library volunteering, my best friend moving in and then out, going back on meds, reading dozens of books, crocheting dozens of projects, pursuing the idea I might be having seizures (I don’t), losing another beloved family member, trying new recipes, making new fonts, the US election, taking some writing workshop classes, riots in the streets, trying new photography techniques, exploring being a landlord, growing some plants, wrangling the cats, and so many other things.

It’s been a wild year for literally everyone I know.

2019, I reflected recently, was also a wild year for me. Respiratory surgery, losing my father, becoming a landlord, starting to volunteer at the library, more NaNoWriMo, reading, crocheting, pursuing possible autoimmune or allergy issues (none), recipes, fonts, photography, cats.

2018? Moving in with Kate eight weeks after we met, trying out a tech job, trying a community college class or two, getting one of the cats (and becoming step mom to the other), four months all but bedridden by toxic black mold poisoning, leaving a toxic primary friend group or two or three, reading, recipes, writing, photography. 

2017? A community college class or two, my first trip by myself, leaving for college in Cambridge, my first psych ward stay, coming back from college in Cambridge, meeting Kate eight days later, pursuing our relationship, writing, reading, photography, recipes. 

Yeah, when our wedding officiant, a good friend, said Kate and I had packed thirty years of marriage into a three year courtship: he was right.

And my mental health was very rocky over the summer or so, and with time, meds, circumstance, effort, so on, it’s vastly improved.

There are bad days. There are days I lie on my office floor and dissociate until Kate finds me and brings me some tissues and water and a snack and a blanket and hugs.

There are bad nights. Nights I forget to close my eyes to try to fall asleep because I’m so used to keeping them open to keep the images at bay. Nights I wake trying to scream. Nights I sleep on the couch because the bed is too much of a trigger.

There are good days. There are days I cannot put words on a page fast enough and days I spend outside happy to mostly swing on our swingset and admire the weather.

Sometimes, those days are back to back. Sometimes, a rough morning becomes a great afternoon. Sometimes, a long, dark night becomes a sunny, beautiful morning.

I had a dream that was one of those fine until it’s not dreams. I stood in the living room of my childhood home, now my rental, but it looked as it did when I was a kid, or maybe as it did early on when it was just my dad living there. But it was still that Wizard of Oz yellow. With me were my mom, my dad, and my grandma. 

I became aware it was a dream, but in a pleasant way. My dad and my grandma have passed, and I focused on getting to “visit” with them. First, my grandma. No one but me really said much but she kind of nodded and smiled as I said all the right things. All the things I did say before she passed, but always want to say again. I love you; thank you. I miss you. 

I turned to my dad, and realized that this was no longer a dream, but now a nightmare. He was beginning to transform into the image of the corpse that comes to me far more often than an undisturbed image of my father, and at the first tinge of black on his flesh, I snapped, “Don’t try any bullshit,” and immediately woke up.

I nearly laughed.  Don’t try any bullshit would not exactly be what I would say to my father if I could, but I didn’t think the dream was some kind of a religious experience or real visitation, and so to say don’t try any bullshit to what is merely a manifestation of PTSD struck me as very funny. As I got over that, I realized the day I had woken up on. And I indeed didn’t have any time for bullshit that day. It so happened to be my wedding day.

Kate and I were married on our third anniversary (of meeting), at home, by a good friend, with a small audience of dear friends and family. We exchanged not only rings but daggers and cloaks, symbolic gifts, and I mean, who doesn’t love daggers and cloaks? We cooked our own reception dinner for a total of ten and ate mostly on the patio. It was wonderful. 

As our anniversary was halfway through November, this meant that it was two weeks on the heels of Halloween. October had been a rough month in a few ways, ups and downs, but let me just say: Halloween is a rough holiday for someone with corpse trauma, man. Let’s face it: for a lot of people, it’s literally just a contest to place the most disturbing or realistic looking fake dead bodies in your front yard. Or hanging out the trunk of your car. Or in the windows of your business. Or anywhere else.

I was so on edge that when I stumbled across a man lying between two cars, half under one of them, by the curb of our street, I almost screamed. Not in the way I do out of the PTSD’s hypervigilance (and I do wonder about having the hypervigilance as someone whose PTSD is from an event where it absolutely would not have been helpful. I joked to the 911 dispatcher, “I mean, no rush, I guess.”) He was silent and very still, no signs of motion, no big tool box nearby, no friend or music keeping him company, and half under a vehicle. As I approached, coming back from my walk and about to have a heart attack of my own, I realized that he was working underneath his car, tools beside him, motions very close to him and totally under the car. He gave me a kind of confused look, one that said he understood my initial panic and then not just how strong it was. I nodded, still a little unsure that he was okay, but he was quiet and nodded back, and I moved on, heart pounding for another forty-five minutes though my front door was less than two minutes away.

I haven’t been seeing my therapist, though I’ve texted her a few pictures from the wedding, a Happy Thanksgiving. A brief phone call to my psychiatrist now and then. A trip to the pharmacy or two, though it now seems they’ll send my med via mail, which is nice, as we’re still trying to largely quarantine. And, skipping the weight, the consultation that literally asks, “Is it for sleep or something else?” You’re a pharmacist, my dude, you can say the word.  Schizophrenia.  Seroquel, my current medication, is prescribed often for simply disturbed sleep, and frequently for bipolar. And, also, psychosis. 

But yes, days, weeks, months, years, have their wild ups and downs. Soon we’ll see what 2021’s will be. 

On Assorted Illnesses and Language (A Conlang Concept)

As someone into grammar and linguistics, who debates the requirements of a split infinitive and the correctness of implied antecedents and whether you can punctuate dialogue with semicolons, for fun, language is in my head a lot. 

As someone with schizophrenia, not to mention autism, language gets messy. 

I’ve pondered making a mini constructed language (conlang—a language artificially created rather than naturally evolved) based on superlatives. 

Tired, tireder, tiredest.  

The thing is that the difference between “tired” or “very tired” or “sleepy” or “exhausted” can mean very different things to lots of people. 

To me, “exhausted” clearly meant, “I am about to fall asleep on my feet and it is hazardous for me to stand up.”  I found out that apparently, other people use exhausted to mean what I call pretty sleepy—a strong urge towards going to bed as things got hazy. 

Additionally, I separated mental and physical energy in a way a lot of people apparently do not.  I can be ready for a long, productive writing session while barely able to sit up.  Much less frequently, on the other side, I can be nonverbal and ready to run a mile.  Their correlation is low if not nonexistent. 

Plus, it can be hard to describe things that are incredibly subjective or an uncommon experience.  How dissociated are you?  How intrusive are the hallucinations?  How bad is the sensory overload?  This isn’t a new problem—say, pain—if you’ve ever been to a doctor’s office, you’ve seen a chart of smiley faces and numbers desperately trying to solve it.

So I pondered a sort of mini logical language—a conlang meant to remove ambiguity—that would use some extremely simple ways to describe certain spectrums, to be used between me and people its relevant to.  I faced the reality that they would go “which one was that word again?” and I would tell them the definition, which meant I should just start with that definition.  It still might be useful for journaling or something, and it’s still in my mind. 

Say, tired, tireder, tiredest, sleepy, exhausted, mental and physical energy. 

It could be given a rating system, maybe 1-5. 

MentalTired1 – messing up a few words now and then, a bit slow to catch hidden meaning or jokes, not coming up with brilliant ideas. 

to

MentalTired5 – nonverbal, non-responsive to language input, likely crying. 

or 

PhysicalTired1 – notable muscle fatigue, depending on cause, might be slightly short of breath/sweating. 

to 

PhysicalTired5 – it is hazardous for me to be sitting up unsupported; will be asleep shortly. 

Etc. 

There’s also the kinds of overlap—mental distress that creates physical symptoms.  Anxiety and muscle tension, nausea, chest pain.  Depression and lethargy.  Hallucinating and dizziness.  Sensory overload and headache.  Things that can be hard to explain in English if you have only ever experienced the symptoms independently, or only the physical side. 

When tested for diagnosis, I took an IQ test, which I don’t find to be the one true measure of intelligence or all of what it’s sometimes made out to be, but it was interesting, and an example here—  

My verbal reasoning?  130. 

My spatial reasoning?  92. 

I’ve almost assuredly written millions of words of fiction in my life, never gotten a B in English, but I both miss doorways for walls and still have to do the L thing with my hands to find left and right on a daily basis. 

The difference between skills like that also influences how some days I can write a book but not sit up. 

When those physical and mental lines get blurry and when adjectives don’t describe symptoms, language gets tricky.  At least English—I may have to look into others. 

What seems like a long time ago, I pondered going into a very specific form of being a therapist as a career based on what I would call constructed language therapy—like art therapy, but creating with language.  While being a mental health professional is not for me, and I have no idea if that as a therapy type would’ve been really feasible, it was an interesting concept. 

Words make people feel powerful.  It’s why we reclaim slurs, cling to favorite quotes and lyrics, wear some labels with pride. 

Surely there’s something to a therapy practice of building yourself up by making language that has failed you, work for you. 

Just a thought. 

On Hindsight and Blinders, for the Queer and Mentally Ill

Quarantine has made a lot of people get back in touch with each other, and in the year before quarantine, I delightfully seemed to keep ending up with sudden messages from old, out of touch friends. 

This always begs the question—what do you say?  

Sometimes I start where we left off and bring them up to speed; sometimes I focus on whatever it was that brought us together to begin with; sometimes I give a summary of my life now and backtrack where it would be confusing. 

Often, mental health comes up. 

Relatedly, a pretty frequent experience for people in the queer community is that before any of you realized your gender, sexuality, so on, your group of friends bonded together over something else and all, later, turned out to be queer. 

Mental health I think frequently goes the same way. 

Two out of the three people I was closest to in high school turned out to be bipolar (and heteroflexible).  The general group I went to for writers turned out to contain more mentally ill queer people than not.  My closest Internet friends were often eventually one or both.  (Once, when I mentioned I was living with my girlfriend to an old Internet friend who got back in touch, I had a moment of hesitation; she responded that she was marrying a woman that weekend.)    

This is true time and time again.   

This begs another question—if something can draw you to certain people before you know what it is—is it unlikely to be a surprise when someone you used to know turns out to be mentally ill later in life?  Is there a way of just knowing that something is off before diagnostic checkboxes get checked and labels get slapped on?  If I mention my mental health as of late to someone getting back in touch, should they be that surprised?  

Some of my diagnoses were belated.  My autism symptoms were nigh life long, arguably my anxiety too.  My schizophrenia manifested for the first time years before it was diagnosed, also at seventeen, and as I poke more at how the average person connects to reality and daydreams and mental processes, there were always at least internal signs of… a predisposition?  Something not quite right?  More than maybe an overactive imagination or the proclivities of a writer?  

Hindsight’s 20/20 and normalcy of any kind can be a hell of a blinder. 

Once, in middle school, I found myself breathless with worry, and wondered—for a very short moment—if I was having a panic attack, which at the time was this abstract concept some of my Internet friends talked about.  I immediately brushed it off, thinking, “I can’t be having a panic attack; I don’t have an anxiety disorder because I’m not mentally ill.”  

That simple moment of thinking of mentally ill as a huge phrase—so easily brushing off this identity that simply could not be mine—convinced me I was fine.  Maybe I was having a panic attack; maybe I wasn’t.  I did not have what I think of as my first proper one for another year.  I accepted what that was fairly quickly once they were handing me papers at the ER that reassured me I wasn’t having a heart attack at thirteen.  

The idea that I could be something that wasn’t heterosexual had not even crossed my mind as a question until I was fifteen, despite obsessions with female fictional characters of a very specific sort, uncommon feelings for some female friends (mostly ones who later turned out to be queer themselves), romantically coded daydreams that seemed to come back to the female characters quite frequently. 

Yet, all it really took was feelings for one girl that skyrocketed beyond what an internal heteronormativity blinder could hide, that took a veil off of years of emotion and threw it aside for the future. 

I don’t remember first developing my suspicion I was autistic, but I was self diagnosed before I saw a psychologist.  I was probably researching mental health issues for my more known ones, and came across a diagnostic list that sounded very relatable and brought a lot of ohhhhh at the hindsight.  I think I continue to frequently find more moments of ohhhhh still—oddly, because I seem to have finally fallen into a crowd more neurotypical than I am—and when they don’t relate to a thing I do—I go ohhhhh.  So that’s a me thing. 

When I first started having psychotic symptoms, they were episodic and tied mostly to severe panic attacks.  Schizophrenia as a label I also don’t remember first accepting, realizing, but I assume it came as I had or realized more symptoms that came outside of the purely episodic; I also was self diagnosed with this before I saw a psychologist.  This, too, I still frequently have revelations about.  It was just recently I found out how the average person’s daydreams work, and that they sound a lot less like psychosis than mine, once described.  But, who thinks to describe some of these things, until you have a reason to ask?  The more I know, the more reasons I have, the more questions I ask.  

I think that’s the only real way to lift the veil, to realize things before it is even further in hindsight.