This Is What Schizophrenia Feels Like

This is what schizophrenia feels like,

It’s hearing a crowded coffee shop in a silent office, and hearing nothing in a crowded coffee shop 

It’s a fake flash of light here, a fake bit of white noise there

It’s an object looking upside down, wider, shorter, three inches to the left, and back again, and back again 

It’s turning down the music and realizing half the volume’s in your head

It’s something always in your peripheral vision that’s never really there  

It’s my “dog” that never needs feeding but can trip me on the stairs

It’s the “corpse” that I can’t shake in the empty spot in the bed 

It’s the “demons” that dance in impossible lines 

It’s real shadows taking shapes and shadows forming from no real object 

It’s putting on noise cancelling headphones that can’t cancel what’s in my head; oh

This is what schizophrenia feels like,

It’s real and it’s not real. 

This is what schizophrenia feels like, 

It’s the, “Even schizophrenia doesn’t make you unworthy of love,” like I thought it was the exception

It’s the caricature of a shouting schizophrenic racist like that’s all we are

It’s the, “Cat? I don’t see a cat,” even when you know it breaks my mind

It’s the romantic tragedy trope for no reason because it sounds extreme

It’s the, “I’m not qualified to help you,” from someone with a wall of degrees and a fake smile

It’s the no, I wouldn’t cure myself if I could

It’s the no, I don’t know if I’m hallucinating—

It’s the no, I can’t explain—

It’s the, “Did you take your meds today?” 

It’s the playing pretend at first, then 

It’s the uncomfortable expression; when you started talking mental health, you expected depression or anxiety; why?  

This is what schizophrenia feels like, 

It’s too much and it’s not enough. 

This is what schizophrenia feels like, 

It’s the pharmacy isn’t real and neither are you

It’s I have to protect my telepathic notebook

It’s I have to flush the meds flush the meds FLUSH THE MEDS—

It’s you want to hurt me and it’s, Let go of me—!

It’s I have to run away

It’s but only the house is safe

It’s I don’t even know anymore 

This is what schizophrenia feels like,

It’s true and it’s not true. 

This is what schizophrenia feels like, 

It’s staring at the wall seeing nothing

It’s staring at the wall seeing everything you can’t

It’s sinking into a daydream the way I’d sink to the bottom of the ocean

It’s the deeper I sink, the harder it is to surface

It’s but sometimes it’s beautiful down here

It’s characters three steps ahead of my mind

It’s the whole room doesn’t go away for you? 

It’s not noticing fingers snapped in front of my face

It’s limbs going limp 

It’s you’re supposed to be able to control waking dreams?

It’s how do I get back? 

It’s no I don’t control who my characters are 

This is what schizophrenia feels like,

It’s story and it’s fact.  

This is what schizophrenia feels like,

It’s a poem I’ll never get right. 

I Went Off My Medication and Hallucinated Evanescence

What it says on the tin.

And it was, honestly, probably the most emo thing to ever happen to me.

Let me back up and elaborate.

I didn’t impulsively and abruptly go off the med (though the occasional flush all of it! urge is strong). What happened was this:

When I started Seroquel about a year ago (the only psychiatric med I’ve been on in years), I was prescribed 100mg, one pill at night. It worked like a charm for several months, but then I started getting the token grogginess in the mornings. At the advice of my psychiatrist, I went down to 75mg. Except that they don’t make Seroquel in 75mg tablets, so I actually took three 25mg pills at night. Okay, so that was fine. Grogginess gone, but sleep was still good, along with mood, psychosis, etc. I was told that if need be, I could go back up to 100mg and give her a call for a new prescription. 

During a week about two months ago where I was having trouble sleeping due to other factors (noise pollution, chronic pain), I went back up to 100mg, taking four of the 25mg pills. I kind of meant to go back down after that week or so, but the 100mg was working well and the grogginess hadn’t returned, so I stayed, and was given a new prescription to go back to 100mg.

Now, I was back to the one, 100mg pill, again free to go down again if it was too much. This pill still seemed to “hit me” differently than the four 25mg way and I felt the grogginess return.  I wasn’t sure if this was again other factors (bad chronic fatigue week, all that) or the meds, so I tried cutting the 100mg (half, then cutting one of those halves in half again) and taking 75mg. (Bear with me through the numbers for a minute.) 

I did eventually attribute the extra grogginess to probably external factors, but I also didn’t feel any worse for taking the 75mg, and my psychiatrist had emphasized again and again taking the lowest effective dose, especially since you can develop a tolerance to Seroquel over time. So I took the 75mg for a few weeks. I felt stressed a lot, but attributed it to having a lot to do. I was still writing like crazy, and mostly keeping up.

Then I got curious, and went down to just taking the half (50mg). I again noticed no difference. In hindsight, my mood, focus, and energy had really begun to drop, but nothing crazy.  There was no difference in my sleep.  I fell asleep promptly enough, slept relatively soundly, dreamt (for better or worse), and woke with as much ease as ever. Now, I’d never been on only 50mg before and I didn’t, at the time, notice a difference. 

Thinking that odd, I kept going and went down to 25mg (a quarter of the pill, being all out of the former prescription). I did that for a few days and felt terrible but didn’t attribute it to the meds.  I was depressed and irritable as hell, but had attributed this to another problem. (I did have… something during that time frame I’m still not sure of. Stomach flu? My wife got a version too, whatever it was. That definitely wasn’t the med’s fault, but it was a separate set of symptoms.) I again didn’t notice anything different in my sleep, the thing I felt so sure I was going to notice a change in if the meds were doing anything useful. When I went on the Seroquel at first, it was the sleep I noticed. I still had some energy, and although it was too hot for my usual walks most of the time, I still enjoyed long swings on the swingset in the yard, this week to the soundtrack of a newly discovered old song by Evanescence I was really enjoying. 

Finally, I said, to hell with it, and one night skipped the med altogether.  And I lay there. And lay there. Sleep wasn’t coming. Even sleepiness wasn’t coming. I was irritable, depressed, mildly panicked, and incredibly restless. My head was pounding to the beat of that Evanescence song and it was stuck in my head playing on full blast, drowning out other thoughts.  Sensory overload coming from inside my brain. But it felt mostly just like having a song really stuck in my head, which for me I know always works a little more like hallucination than it does for other people. (You ever tried describing having a song stuck in your head to a hypothetical someone who has no idea what that means? Now there’s a thought exercise about sanity.) 

But I realized something was up, caved, and took the full 100mg, the last dose that I knew I had felt good on, and had only started going down from because of grogginess I now attributed to something else. Within fifteen minutes or so, I was calm, half asleep, and the volume of the Evanescence song had gone from 99 to 5.  It was like someone just whoop turned the volume dial down in my brain.  Still there, all the same qualities, but at about five percent of the volume. I could hear other thoughts. 

Oh.  So that explained a lot.

So, I’m back at 100mg.  I’m open to going back to down to 75mg depending on if the grogginess seems to return, and if my mood changes if I do go back to 75mg. But for now, back at square one. 

I think it was a worthwhile experiment even if it didn’t go super well—and even if it took me a while to realize it hadn’t gone super well.  No tragic consequences; it wasn’t really done recklessly, and I do believe in finding the lowest effective dose and not mindlessly “settling” on the current med regimen, even if it’s just proving where you’re already at; it also gave me some more confidence in the meds do important things for when I get those med flushing urges.  Today, I’m thinking, God bless Seroquel, but I’m sure that urge will come back at some point.

Besides, I went off my medication and hallucinated Evanescence should really earn me my official Emo Kid Card. Rock on. 

End Note: Want more of my content? Check here. I’m also writing schizophrenia related fiction here.

Tracking My Fiction vs. My Mental Health at the Time

I’ve been working on my fiction novel, Contrivance, since 2011.  Numerous drafts, huge changes, shifts of universes, new plots, evolving characters, and total do overs.

My goal here is this: trace those changes along with my mental health state at the time.

December 2011

Contrivance is born of a massive Hunger Games fan fiction project.  I’m now creating the characters who will ultimately become the main characters of Contrivance, though, at the time, they’re simply original characters to play a background role in the fan fiction, the Gamemakers, who create the titular Death Game, the Hunger Games.

It’s the holiday season, and I’m running around town, shopping with my dad.  I lean a back to school sale composition notebook on the back of our shopping cart and start on basic character profiles.  Pull names from a list I’ve kept of ideas.  Write interactions to test how these characters go together by the fire and Christmas tree at home. Lavender, my eventual main character, currently the Head Gamemaker, already technically exists, but not in any recognizable form. 

It’s Christmas break of eighth grade.  Days before school let out, I had my first panic attack while working on this series in free time during Algebra I.  Rushed to the nurse’s office and then the ER, I went home early that day, took a day or two off, and went back for the last day before break.

These characters catch my interest quickly.  By New Year’s, I’m on chapter three of the companion story to the series I’m writing that introduces them, distracted from all of life’s new questions.

July 2012

I’ve begun therapy and medication for anxiety.  I’m working on a different companion story to that big series. This one introduces Justice as a character (which we won’t come back to for a while).

I write an original short story, “Contrivance”, using “the Gamemakers”, for a summer program for gifted kids, where I basically take a semester of Creative Writing in three weeks at the local university.  

The universe concept is that in a world where everyone is assigned a job by lottery, promising young people get a chance at the best jobs by proving themselves in a VR simulation called Contrivance, which also matches them to the field where they’ll do best, personalized testing based on analysis of their dreams, which can be recorded.  The short story basically tracks one run of Contrivance the game, taking a few weeks.

A few names and appearances shift with the universe change, suited to something that’s not the Hunger Games’ stylized Capitol.  Some don’t stick, but the ones I feel the need to change here eventually settle out to something new, among other minor changes.  I have to submit two short stories for review over the course of the class.  The instructor tells me that the other is good, but “Contrivance” is clearly where my heart is. And maybe it’s more than a short story. 

April 2013

In January, I had my first psychotic episode, terrifying demonic hallucinations.  The episodes keep coming, hallucinations paired with paranoid delusion or catatonia, tears or panic. 

I begin writing a novel draft of Contrivance for Camp NaNoWriMo, a challenge to write 50,000 words of fiction in one month.  I end up writing over 77,000 words that month.  It goes from Lavender’s job interview for Lead Deviser (the “Head Gamemaker” equivalent) to the completion of the first time she leads Contrivance, about a year later.

I’m permanently stressed and sleep deprived by the magnet school I’m at.  In late March, after receiving a poor grade from a spiteful instructor for a special project that halts all normal classes, I panic, knowing it’ll be incorporated into my English grade.  I ask my English teacher if I can submit a novel I’m writing next month for extra credit.  He’s a little baffled, but says yes.

In this draft, Lavender inherits my psychosis.  It fades in and out in a few more drafts, but mostly doesn’t last. 

April 2014

I do NaNo two more times in the middle.  In July, I write over 93,000 words, a sequel to Contrivance titled Trial, named after a feature of the in universe game.  In this one, the Contrivance test takers are kidnapped by rebels, though Lavender teams up with the usually evil Contrivance Director (who oversees the more administrative/financial side of Contrivance) to rescue them.  To discourage revolution, Contrivance is toned down a bit.  

I’ve started frequently pairing Lavender and Francisco, one of the Devisers, off at the end, though it’s always strangely sudden, and sometimes even in the epilogue, they split up again. 

By April 2014, I’m ready for another draft of Contrivance itself.

A lot of the characters are taking very recognizable shape by now.  Not so much a contradiction of what they were before as a solidification.  Lavender and Malka still have a long way to go, but their relationship is starting to take on the more formal mentor/apprentice turn.  Malka is the former Lead Deviser (the leader of the Devisers, who create Contrivance) and has a lot of advice for her replacement as she steps down, preparing to fully retire.  In this draft, there’s a formal office mentoring program for new employees; Kaye, hired at the same time as Lavender, is involved as well, though from even the short story, Lavender seems to unofficially look out for her.  Here, Lavender and Malka (and Kaye) don’t meet before Lavender’s job interview, though it’s clear Malka’s had her eye on Lavender for the role for quite some time as she went through training.

Meanwhile, my psychosis is getting out of hand, and I leave school, too agoraphobic to leave the house.

July 2014

My parents have gotten a divorce.  I’m planning to homeschool in the fall.  To overcome my agoraphobia, I’ve started going to the weekly NaNoWriMo meetups.

In this July’s NaNoWriMo, Lavender’s hostile relationship with the Contrivance Director (who in previous drafts frequently would do things like use torture just to send a message) comes to a head when the Contrivance Director tortures and plans to kill Kaye, nearby but outside of Contrivance Headquarters, which at this time was an isolated complex in the middle of nowhere.

Lavender and the other Devisers thwart this plan, ending in Lavender killing the Contrivance Director.  Realizing that the people inside the complex are not on their side, they flee into the wilderness, hoping to make it to the actual Contrivance Testing complex to get a hold of the right government officials.

Once they do, Lavender is on trial for voluntary manslaughter, though sentencing gets reduced to probation and fines due to government official standing.  Contrivance’s staffing gets an overhaul to prevent people like the Contrivance Director from getting in, and the Deviers safely return to Contrivance Headquarters, though Lavender is suspicious of the new, innocent Contrivance Director and doesn’t seem to fully recover from all the events, developing severe PTSD.  

This turns into a nervous breakdown and she ends up in a psych ward for part of the novel later.  Malka is effectively the interim Lead Deviser again, as Lavender’s supposed to focus on recovery and not her job (something she struggles with, though she starts to grasp the importance of it).

There were a lot of issues with this draft (see the gaping plot holes), but it got into some interesting themes.  We really start to question the Devisers’ morality outside of even Contrivance, see mixed factions within the government, and explore a lot more mental health themes. 

November 2014

I’m still trying to get the above kind of outline to work, but failing.  Most of the plot is eventually scrapped, along with the role of the Contrivance Director. I don’t finish NaNo. Mostly non verbal for nearly a month due to a mix of dissociation, disorganized thoughts, and distracting hallucinations, I myself almost end up in a psychiatric ward, though in the end I simply commit to sorting out my meds.

February 2015

Writing continues, heavily focused on Lavender and Kaye’s friendship. I’m starting to realize that I care more about the Devisers’ relationships than about any world or plot issues.  

I develop a self-harm problem.  Interestingly, self harm and suicidal ideation are the key mental health issues that plague Kaye. In many early drafts she even attempts suicide, usually towards the end of the novel/series, and successfully. (Rissa, another Deviser, does too. This was in drafts where Malka usually died first of fairly natural causes, resulting in emotional chaos for the Devisers.) 

September 2015

I’ve started community college classes, but it’s not going well. I attempt suicide, an ultimate low point, though it actually turns out to be a key turning point.  I swear off self harm and with only a a few relapses in the next several years, quit entirely.  I’m also around this time diagnosed with autism, schizophrenia, and anxiety.  I’m working on new Contrivance ideas. 

November 2015

This is the first time I finish NaNo again despite a hectic month of family medical issues, though my own are improving, working on Contrivance, but exploring new ideas and writing in random orders, not going for a full draft.  I’ve scrapped the job lottery/ability testing idea for worldbuilding issues, and go for general unethical experimentation instead.

Somewhere in here, I know Malka’s aged moved up a little, about sixty to about seventy. 

In the past year or so, Malka and Lavender’s relationship has become increasingly hostile in every draft.  Malka seems to no longer be there with just perhaps unnecessarily high standards, but seems to exist to criticize and cause problems.  Rather than trying to follow Malka’s advice out of respect for her abilities, Lavender seems to be just trying to tread water. Malka especially interferes in Lavender’s connection with Kaye. 

By the end of the month, I’ve done my first official experimentation with the idea that there’s most history between them than meeting at Lavender’s job interview, starting to roll with the childhood apprentice idea.   

January 2016

Still in a bit of a low spot, I try a collaboration in which the Devisers go on a quest for the government by travelling between universes to meet with my co-creator’s characters, powerful magician sorts working for a military in the other world.  The Devisers will bring them modern war technology and strategy in exchange for magical training.  It’s short lived, but kind of comes back later… 

I’ve started experimenting with the idea that Kaye is autistic, and she occasionally comes into Lavender’s new backstory with Malka, though I can’t seem to make her stay there. I think this is around the time Malka either developed a military backstory or it really became relevant. 

The next month or so, I relapse once on the self harm. 

March 2016

I’m improving mentally, but still stuck on what the plot for Contrivance actually is, so I take a break from it as a serious original fiction project and throw the characters back into something like fan fiction.  I’m wrapping up the fan fiction universe the “Gamemakers”/”Devisers” still do exist in, in their original form, so I try something new.  

It’s still kind of original fiction.  The Devisers, doing experiments for the United States government, conduct their most questionable one yet, based on a now old dystopian novel: The Hunger Games.  Could such a thing really happen?  What were the effects on society?  How did people just let it be? 

I called it Contrivance Chronicles.  There were several more playful, lighter touches here.  Justice joins this cast for the first time, though she’s not a Deviser. In the fan fiction universe, due to character deaths, two new Gamemakers had joined the panel, Zeely and Laya (who’s the sister of one of the Devisers, Thespian, sometimes seen as an intern).  They both appear in Contrivance Chronicles as well, though neither lasted long in most original drafts of Contrivance. Laya got cut altogether by the current draft.  Another character named Jorah sometimes appears briefly, though in about two scenes ever written. A very changed version of them later appeared in a different, currently on hold original project. 

Justice is a secret revolutionary against Contrivance, though she’s conflicted as she volunteers at a community theater, working on putting on the musical Annie, staring all actual talented orphans.  Thespian is her co director, a Deviser who volunteers on his off time.  They bond unexpectedly, and Justice even subtly warns him of an upcoming attack, telling him to keep the Devisers away from that location the day of. Contrivance Headquarters is now set in NYC. Justice keeps some of her revolutionary friends from her original universe, but most of them are starting to fade in importance. 

Meanwhile, Malka pressures Lavender to adopt/apprentice one of the children from the show.  Lavender likes the child, but doesn’t feel ready to be something like a parent.

The project didn’t get terribly far.  There was a lot of silliness here, though some important things start to crop up. 

January 2017

I’m still in a rut on, “What is the plot of Contrivance?”  For the first time in a long time, I start some new original fiction projects that actually get somewhere that aren’t Contrivance, though Contrivance is still what mostly seems to play in my thoughts.  I believe Malka’s name started to change (to Malka) around here or a bit later.

My mental health is mostly improving, and I’m making plans to go to college. 

October 2017

I’ve attempted to go to college in Boston, and things aren’t going so well, and I’m in a psych ward.   

I pretty much have my notebook for company, and I start trying out a new idea, combining Contrivance with one of the projects I started around January, which ends up looking a lot like the collaboration: traveling across universes.  Even Justice finds a place as someone who had left the dark magical group and was now forced to return as part of the deal with the modern US government.  I never actually write much of this, but the ideas were interesting in my head.

I leave Boston in early November and go home.  Eight days later, I meet the love of my life.

April 2018

I moved in with Kate in January, and I’ve even gone off meds.  Everything is looking up, except for a set of mysterious physical health issues no one can diagnose.  I barely write, exploring a few new projects, but barely anything goes on paper. I’m thinking I’ll stop the weird experiments and try to get back to the core of what Contrivance is. 

August 2018

Ah.  So the house I moved into is full of toxic black mold, and I have a pre-existing respiratory condition (a severely deviated septum that means I don’t get as much oxygen as I should).  This gets remediated, though even more time passes as I fully recover. I stop going to NaNoWriMo events locally, though I still want to write for the challenge, despite a slow few months. I’m eager to start sorting ideas out again. 

July 2019

Writing is still slow as I deal with lingering health issues. I got surgery in April for the deviated septum/enlarged turbinates.  I recommend my dad (who I got the nose from) to my ENT.  My ENT looks at my dad’s general medical file and says, “I’m surprised you’re not seeing ghosts.” 

My father abruptly dies at home a few weeks later. 

But all I know is he’s not answering his phone, and now my mom says mail is piling up in front of his obviously unopened front door.  Grandma says he didn’t put the trash bins down on trash pickup day.  Something’s not right.

I use my spare key to get into his house when he doesn’t answer my knocks.

Yeah, something’s not right: he’s been dead for ten days.

August 2019

Coming back from a trip, a long car ride, I start trying to figure out some details for Contrivance again.  I’ve figured out how to get Justice involved, as a former Deviser who left for the revolution and returned, much as she’d left the magicians in that one draft.  Her primary Deviser relationship is not her friendship with Thespian (as it was in Contrivance Chronicles; Thespian appears much closer to another Deviser, Trace, here). Instead, Justice is focused on her romantic relationships with Rissa and Ritter (Rissa’s husband). Her age shifts slightly as needed. The revolution is becoming an important theme again. 

I start to sort out Lavender and Francisco’s relationship.  While he pines, she just doesn’t feel that way about anyone, but she’s aware of his feelings, lending a strange edge to their otherwise close friendship. At least I’m not just throwing them at each other in the epilogue. 

I’ve spent the last several months handling my father’s estate amongst the new trauma.  I’m busy, but I’m creating again. 

November 2019

I finally have tenants move into his house as a rental on the first of this month.  Things are slowing down.  I can work on other things now.

It’s NaNo again, and I haven’t finished it in four years at this point.  But it’s not like I sleep at night anymore, so I may as well write.

The first few days are slow.  I go for miscellaneous Contrivance pieces, which is what I did the last time I finished.  Some interesting ideas are coming out, but nothing of real substance. 

Kate, her friend/coworker, and I go to California on a business trip.  In the car on the way there, I blare Evanescence through my headphones, stare out the window, and will myself to come up with something. 

I’m exploring Malka and Lavender’s relationship a lot again.  It’s… less hostile.  It’s still deeply fucked up for sure, but there’s a norm of a superficial layer of civility at least, and there’s obviously a lot of love somewhere in the messy mix.

So I try writing down ideas for things that could’ve happened in backstory.

One concept jumps out at me.

I do little but sit in the room and write the whole trip.  My hands barely leave the keyboard.  I don’t sleep, I eat only something in the morning and then whatever I made for dinner for Kate and her friend, and I’m distracted whenever I’m not writing. 

This was when the practice interrogation was born.

It’s a gripping idea.  An especially dark take on the world the Devisers live in, the very real threat of a revolution.  People out there want the Devisers hurt or dead.  That’s pretty much always been true, but more of an emotional factor than a logistic threat.

But in this draft, I say, So what do they do about it?

Of course, they have government security, all of those good things.  But backstory for Lavender, at least, starts to include combat training and practicalities.  I kind of skim over these things while I’m gripped by the interrogation idea, but I come back to the full depths of those later.

So I add into backstory that Malka prepared Lavender for a capture scenario.  Gave her some data to keep a secret and spent sixty hours trying to get it out of her.  In various eventual drafts, there was a little bit more preparation before this, or the idea that this was supposed to be more of the start, not the end, of this curriculum. In the end, it’s a bit of both.

As I finish that up, along with a lot of the fallout, the next thing to explore is, of course, the payoff of this.

So I start a new document called “The Devisers Are Captured”.  Later, this becomes the opening scene of Contrivance.  The Devisers are thrown into a hostage situation, this time in Contrivance Headquarters as set in Washington, DC.  Offered the sadistic choice of picking who will get interrogated for information first, Lavender steps up.  The others refuse to quietly agree, many claiming they should go, and Lavender says they should vote.  Everyone votes for themselves, except for Malka, who votes for Lavender. 

Lavender quickly gets separated from the group while the Devisers round on Malka for answers.  Malka reveals the practice.  A book of emotional chaos ensues.

December 2019

Needing worldbuilding that adds up, I change what Contrivance is again, this time opting to go back to the Death Game genre origins, an annual televised simulation of a social collapse scenario, participant households chosen at random, and one surviving, while keeping it original fiction.  I have an awful cold a lot of the month, and so lie around and write a lot.  I sleep from about 10PM to 12AM, and 4AM to 10AM. In the middle, after the nightmares, I write.

February 2020

Just starting to see the PTSD calm down for a bit, I keep rolling with my current Contrivance train of ideas.  Eventually, I run into a wild take on the fallout of their capture, which is, What if they did the practice again? 

But it’s different this time.  Lavender, paranoid that, while their capture and rescue did not result in any leaked information, it would be easy to get information out of her in the future if only their captors tried to play the Devisers against each other, hurting someone she loved and asking her the questions, asks Malka for a new curriculum: resisting the other Devisers being in pain, though without letting any of them know this is happening.  They’re still furious over finding out about the original practice, and none of them would agree to help.  Besides, Lavender doesn’t want to expose them to it. 

Lavender definitely is more than just a victim here, a direction she’s been heading in for a while, much more of an active participant and instigator in the questionable activities her and Malka engage in. 

All kinds of subplots come out of this, and of course, the question: how does this one pay off? 

May 2020

There’s a pandemic. Talk about my novel now being timely. My grandmother passes shortly after the beginning of quarantine. Kate and I are engaged. 

Meanwhile, I start posting Contrivance on a website of my own, snippets that are out of order, presented as a bit of a puzzle.  A lot of it doesn’t go neatly together yet.

July 2020

My mental health declines.  The PTSD at the one year anniversary.  Grandma’s death. The psychosis.  I go back on meds, though I stop attending therapy (now on Zoom) a few months later as I improve.  I’m still working on multiple projects and producing a lot of words.  

December 2020

Kate and I got married last month. I’m doing well, really. I published my first book, a non Contrivance “side project” that got out of hand and is now a popular series of its own. I’ve taken down the Contrivance website and post Contrivance online chapter by chapter as I did the other project, now officially starting for basically the first time since the fan fiction universe somewhere other than Lavender’s job interview: with “The Devisers Are Captured”.  This ages Lavender up a little. I try to make it linear, sensical for new readers, and kill my darlings.

To Be Continued… 

My Schizophrenia Story

When I got my first definitive sign I had a mental illness, I was writing.

I was near the cusp of fourteen and in Algebra I.  December 2011.  Given some time to do homework or such at the end of class, I, as I often did, took to writing.

I was writing a character death scene in which the character in question drowns.  In the ultimate irony, the character in question was schizophrenic—but we won’t get there for a while.

The important thing at the time was that I had a near lifelong fear of water.  Being a desert dweller, it didn’t come up much, but the ocean, especially, or even lakes—drove me into a panic.  I had recurring nightmares about tsunamis or storm surges, drowning.  This scene was close to home.

At some point while writing about this character running out of oxygen, I snapped out of my zone and realized that I actually couldn’t breathe.

Things went quickly from there.  I was rushed to the nurse’s office and then to the ER, hyperventilating on the edge of blacking out, vision going dark, limbs too numb to stand, clutching at the chest pain.

I was diagnosed with my first panic attack.

And after the first, they kept coming.  Over the summer, I started therapy and medication.

About a year later, I was taking a Biology exam when I started being taunted by red, blobbish, demonic figures drowning images of those I loved—down to my cat—in blood, singsonging gibberish insults.

I began having such episodes as frequently as the “old” panic attacks.  I was often delusional—paranoid, physically lashing out at anyone trying to comfort or move me—or catatonic—my arm dropping limply if you lifted it—during.

By spring semester of tenth grade, 2014, it was far too much—especially at this high pressure magnet school—and I left school for a year of homeschooling before I was able to get my high school equivalency a year early.  I was too agoraphobic to leave the house for a while.  It was a critical time for me in many ways.  My parents got a divorce.  I made my first adult friends—all writers—and got into my first serious relationship. I attempted community college for creative writing and made a few bucks writing clickbait.  I volunteered and got involved with NaNoWriMo.  Mostly, I wrote. 

Parts of what at first seemed like—maybe, at the time, were—isolated episodes, became patterns, habits, and day to day, on a much lower level.  Some things, in hindsight, had been with me my whole life.  I sought another diagnosis by now, besides the anxiety and schizophrenia—autism.  I spent most of a month nearly nonverbal, and was almost hospitalized.    

When things got worse, my mood plummeted.  For most of 2015, I fell into patterns of self harm and suicidal ideation, or at least the urge to run far away.  I attempted suicide that September, and it was a turning point.  I swore off self destructive urges, save a few once off relapses I could count on one hand years apart, and threw myself into change.

In the fall of 2017, I left to attend a private four year liberal arts college in Cambridge, MA.  I loved the school.  I loved the town; I loved the people there; I loved my classes.  That wasn’t the problem.

Being too far from home, maybe, on my own, or meds that needed to be adjusted—whatever it was, I landed in a psych ward—finally, after a lot of near misses, hospitalized for the first time, less than two months into the school year.

I tried to stick it out for a while, going back and forth on my decision, but within a few weeks, landed safely home in Vegas, at a loss for what the future looked like.

Eight days later, I met the love of my life.  That changed everything. 

Now, the timing, of course, looked horrible.  But three years later to the day, 2020, we were married in a ceremony in the beautiful home we own, surrounded by people we love, as people pursuing our passions.  I was about to self publish my first book, which would be quickly followed by my second, and was soon to start teaching alternative sexuality classes via webinar (within months, I’d also be running a related local group).  I was going to start taking a household management course online, and was learning how to be an effective landlord.  And, I was a happy housewife who got the girl, the two cats, and the house on the end of the cul de sac.

In the ceremony, our officiant mentioned that we had packed thirty years of marriage into three years of courtship.  Two deaths in my family, and estate handling.  A pandemic.  I almost died of black mold poisoning, all but bedridden for months.  We moved.  I had surgery.  I went off and then back on meds, though I eventually left therapy, for now.  We thought, briefly, my wife might lose her job. Medical emergencies or surgeries for the cats.  Mental and physical health issues.  Panic attacks, sensory overload, hallucinations and delusions, dissociation, depression, chronic pain and fatigue, hypervigilance, flashbacks, and nightmares.  For all the health issues I brought in, I also now had PTSD from one of those family deaths in Summer 2019.

Is everything perfect now?  Is everything solved?  No, but I’m writing on a laptop in front of me with a warm cat in my lap and my beautiful wife three feet away.  The sun is shining; the neighbors’ son plays with his dog outside.  We saw friends and family yesterday and we will today. I have things to do I can’t wait to get to.  In a few months, we’ll vacation in Lake Tahoe—I guess I overcame that water phobia.

And life is pretty good.

Turning Hallucinations into Characters: Are They Any More Real?

She’s here again, so I’m not having as okay of a day as I thought.

The backyard is mostly dark, but she’s there in the shadows of the bushes, darting or teleporting around.  Compared to what I usually see in dark shadows when my mind turns on me?  I’ll take the puppy.

“Hi, Farrah,” I deadpan from the swingset in the AA tone.  It has been a long day, and I no longer care if the neighbors can hear me.  Still, I take out one headphone, still blaring Hamilton, like it matters.

Farrah smiles at me in this way that real dogs don’t really smile, wags her tail and bounds over, under where I swing.  Back through.  Again and again.  Like she’s trying to get me to kick her full speed.  She’s worse than the little kids at the park.  I sigh and, properly distracted, stop swinging.

My darling hallucination races in circles around my feet.  A lot of energy for the evening.  What? I ask her mentally.  You’re not a herding dog.  But she wants me inside, much the way the real cats start herding me to the bedroom around this time.

But it doesn’t seem to be sleep she wants.  I’m determined to sit in the living room and write down an idea I had on the swing before I do anything else.  When I do, Farrah settles down.  I can feel this weird sense of relief on her, like I feel it as my own when I get the idea safely on paper before my mind gives up completely.

I look at my notebook.  This was what she wanted? 

I look back up.  She’s gone.

All right.  I’ve accepted that Farrah’s basically a mirror of my own emotions most of the time, and if everything about her says, “Write now now now,” then I guess now is the time.

… 

Writing Dream Me a Reality is hard at times. There’s a lot of me in it, even more than in most of my fiction, and in a trippy, intimate way. There’s a lot of Farrah in it, too—even more literally.  I give her, from chapter one, the same role in the schizophrenic main character’s life as she has in mine.  So now she’s not only my schizophrenia tamagotchi, but one of my characters.

And my characters, like Farrah, have a little bit minds of their own.  Many authors think of it like that, but for me it’s even a little more true, I think.  My characters jump ahead of me both in plot outlining and in daydreams that slip away from me.  I fade into a somewhat omniscient position in their world and often find it hard to come back whether I want to or not.  When I do, it’s often disorienting, especially if I totally lost track of the real world and snap back abruptly due to the doorbell ringing or dissociation suddenly clearing or such. My world, the real world, goes away entirely, and here I am in theirs, less and less in control the longer I stay in and the emotionally deeper I dive. 

It’s kind of like Ahtohallan in Frozen 2.  You can go deeper and deeper into this world of sensations and memories that are not your own.  To a point, you can get back out, though the journey back gets longer and longer.  After a point, well: 

“Dive down deep into her sound

But not too far, or you’ll be drowned” 

So what does it mean now that Farrah—originally, and, still, a recurring hallucination—is now a character in one of those worlds my mind vanishes to?  Does she get to play a double role in my psychosis, not only entering my world—which my characters don’t—but finding me trapped in one of hers?  Is that why she beckoned me to the notebook—like asking me to come home? 

Usually, when I write, it’s taking something only I can see—the story in my head—and turning it into something other people can read.  It’s creating—Real from Not Real, in a way.  Completely imaginary concepts floating through my brain turn into hundreds of pages I can hold in my hand.  It’s not making the story Real, but making that dreamscape in my head widely accessible, like handing out a key, a map—in the form of a book.   

But if I take something as deeply Not Real as Farrah, and give her that quasi Real form… does she become any More Real?  What if other people can “know” Farrah too—by the power of words on a page?  Does that make her less just a quirk of my brain chemicals?  Someone saying that they hallucinated Harry Potter, for instance, would be much easier to communicate with—in this socially acceptable form of quasi Real—than someone hallucinating some boy with round glasses and a lightning shaped scar who could do magic, with seven books’ worth of story that only they could see.  At that point, we might not share the exact vision of Harry—but I sure have a clue what they’re talking about and the seven years of magic seems a lot “saner”. 

When I write and get feedback, people tell me their thoughts on my characters.  They might have a different opinion than me about their moral stances, or a slightly different picture of what they look like.  They might even go off and have them in their own daydreams, their own versions of them that don’t just follow the script, but are based on their identity more than their role in a plot.  People tell me about gasping when my characters are surprised, holding their breath when they’re afraid, crying when they’re upset, developing crushes on their love interests.  

These characters aren’t just concepts in my head at that point.  They’re out there in the world and I can talk about them with other people the way I talk about people I know in real life, or about Harry Potter.  It’s not uncommon for my wife to walk into a conversation I’m having with my writer best friend and ask, “Wait, are we talking about real people?” (The answer is usually no.) 

So what about Farrah?  If I make her just as accessible as any character—if others can talk about her like someone they know, or like any known fictional figure—is seeing her “saner” now?  Is her identity something like a socially acceptable shared delusion, when we can both hold the key to her world in our hands?

If she got as popular as Harry Potter?  Probably.

The Stories We Tell Ourselves: Narratives, Trauma, and My Childhood Dog

My wife told me that her version of the story starts here:

We’re sitting in the car, driving to my dad’s house. We’re passing the Walmart and the AC is fighting the Vegas heat, the stifling air quality two days after the fourth of July. She takes my hand. “I’m sure it’s fine,” she says, then grimaces. This is a validating aha moment for me at the time—she has doubts. Later, she says she regretted the words the moment they were out of her mouth. But what if it’s not fine?

But for me, the story doesn’t start in the car.

As a writer, I like to start in the height of the action—I would open this story with me standing over the body.

But that’s not where my real version of the story starts. The one I tell myself on long walks and long nights like a lullaby.

No, the story starts with Ziva.

Ziva came to me as an awkward looking Dutch Shepherd puppy as I was finishing the fifth grade and embarking on the terrifying journey that is middle school.

She stayed with me through panic attacks and psychosis, self harm and delusion, lost chances and bad breakups, my parents’ divorce and leaving school several times over.

When I’d attempted suicide at seventeen, my best friend’s mom, a psychiatrist, told me I had to hang in there because Ziva would never understand why I left her.

So I hung in there.

Ziva, however, passed in the spring of 2019. I had a lot more, or understood I had a lot more, to hang in there for by then, and hadn’t felt like I’d been just hanging in there for years; no cutting, no attempts. I was in the relationship of my dreams and surrounded by people who loved me.

But one morning, a few months later, Ziva came back to me in a dream.

In the dream, I was in my childhood home. My dad’s house, at the time, in reality. Ziva entered through a burst of white light.

I understood in the dream that she was dead, but in the grips of sleep, believed that she had come back to visit me. She wagged her tail and spun around. I gave her lots of scritches and told her all of the things I could want to say.

But Ziva kept looking back at the white light she’d come from, antsy. Like she was trying to tell me something. Maybe that she had to go again. I let her run back into the light. I woke up.

That morning, it became clear no one had heard from my dad in some time.

That morning, we were in the car. “I’m sure it’s fine.”

That morning, I stood over the body, and wondered if something in me had already known.

I tell myself the story a lot.

Ziva. The messages with my mom. Why were heat sensitive packages piling up propped against Dad’s unopened front door for days? Why had he not put the trash bins down at the curb on trash day? Sitting in the car. Knocking. Using my spare key to open the door. Thinking that I am the only one with a spare key. Mom, now his next door neighbor, was thinking of checking on him when she got back from an errand. I have the key that was hers. Yelling for Dad in a house where I am the only thing living. Walking back out, down the stairs, swearing I will not hand the key to anyone else who’s not a professional.

It’s not fine,” I tell my then-girlfriend, now-wife through the passenger window of her car. She’s confused, not having gathered from my demeanor that it’s not fine, though I’m not making much sense verbally. “There’s this thing in my dad’s bed. It’s not my dad. But… I think it used to be.”

I had left the door open behind me, the key more about blessing than physical entry. The smell wafts out of the house. She gets it.

Calling my mom. How do I tell her? She is out at lunch with Grandma, on break from considering puppies at an adoption fair. Calling 911. “No rush, I guess.” Enough firefighters for a calendar, who just keep offering me water while I try not to puke on the lawn. Police, and a report written at my mom’s kitchen table. What can I say?

I call my best friend in the bathroom. “My dad’s, kinda… dead. I think he’s… been dead, for a while now.

Grandma tells me, “Oh, Hannah, I just knew something wasn’t right. I just knew it wasn’t right when he didn’t put the trash bins out that week…”

The coroner. “You look really young,” she tells me over and over.

Twenty-one,” I say, unable to think of anything else.

And a counselor who is so high empathy I think she might now be having a worse day than I am.

First we have to identify him,” the coroner is explaining to my mom, as we fill in details.

You can’t just…?

It’s not… really… a visual thing.

Well, what about fingerprints?” My mom loves crime shows. She knows how they ID a body at various stages.

This isn’t really…” The coroner is trying to be gentle here. She looks at me, the known witness. “This isn’t really a ‘fingerprints’ kind of situation. Do you maybe know who his dentist was? For the records?

My mom has a white knuckled grip on my hand. The volunteer counselor looks like she might cry.

After the coroner leaves, my mom examines a picture she took of my dad in his youth, in a collage frame in her room. He is victorious, standing on a rock at the end of a long hike, arms thrown to the sky. Yosemite at sunset is the backdrop, their favorite beautiful place, the place they met, lived, worked, and fell in love.

Cheers,” my mom says to the sky, to the picture of Dad, holding up her gluten free beer. Some of Ziva’s toys still line her floor.

I think parts of the story have been compromised by time—my private game of telephone. Other parts, by flashbacks, by nightmares, by hallucinations—all blurring the narrative.

Sometimes I try to change it. I don’t start with Ziva. I go back to the day my father almost certainly actually died. Ten days earlier. We’re sitting on his couch. I’m in the neighborhood to bring in Mom’s mail and check on a few plants while she’s on a trip with Grandma, pick up a few items I left when I moved out.

I visit with Dad. We sit on his couch. He says he has a headache. We talk about anything. He says he doesn’t think that anyone really kills themselves. Evolution wouldn’t allow it. Depression is what kills them. The parasite that pulls the trigger—that’s not you.

But that adds up to the beginning of a very different story.

My father didn’t kill himself. I shook the pill bottles on his nightstand, all as full as they come. I looked for a note and found nothing. I found his guns stowed safely in his closet.

No, my father had a heart attack.

And I cannot quite bring myself to tell the story that’s not so neat, that has false leads. I always come back to starting with Ziva, with the narratively neat omen.

But that’s not how life works.

In one of my writing projects, a character with PTSD seeks and gets a chance to watch video footage of one of the most traumatic events in her life.

It’s re-traumatizing to watch, but she’s obsessed with what details the following flashbacks, nightmares, time, retellings, and additional trauma have blurred.

When asked if seeing the “truth” made her feel better, she says it’s complicated.

I understand that. The sequence is definitely something born of my own emotions.

I wonder what I would do if I had the same opportunity.

Really, I know I could never resist. I know it would be traumatizing all over again. I know my final answer would be it’s complicated.

Still.

I have three basic PTSD nightmare templates that seem to cycle on a loop, though inconsistently.

In one, we’re moving, or buying a rental property. In any case, we’re touring a house, sometimes empty, sometimes model home. Either way, there’s always a bed in one room with a corpse in it. And it’s never addressed in the dream, really. A sigh of, “We’d have to get a biohazard team in again… the ozone machine…” as if we’re fixing a plumbing issue.

In another, someone dies, and it’s dramatic but often off screen. It’s emotion based, a montage of the trauma, grief, and logistics to follow. Pro se probate court and handling of possessions, telling people, paperwork, and the talking, talking, talking. I’ve been through the process enough. Dad. Later, Grandma, too, lies, lays, all too still in her bedroom, but it’s been minutes, not days, and family talks around her.

In the most common dream, though, I’m talking to my dad. Sometimes someone else, but most often him. Sometimes he prods me to remember something. Sometimes, it hits me all on its own. “You’re dead,” I’ll remember, often aloud, in the dream. And he’ll immediately decay, turning into the ten day old version of his corpse.

I can run down the templates easily. I’ve done it so often, my best friend had a nightmare identical to the third version, though they never met my father, dead or alive, just heard about a hundred versions of this dream. They woke from it once in the way I’ve woken from it a hundred times: bolting upright, in a cold sweat, panting, shaking, and desperately trying to scream.

Narrative therapy is supposed to address these stories we tell ourselves. By editing that narrative, we edit our outlook.

There’s a lot of potential I see here, as a mentally ill writer.

Change the narrator—cue empathy.

Change where it begins—add context.

Change the focus—change the moral of the story.

Change where it “ends”—add hope.

Changing your fate is a common theme in fiction.

I don’t feel like the story I tell myself really has an ending. It fades into other thoughts at various points. Probably for the best.

But soon enough, I always find myself back at the beginning: with Ziva.

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.