Just Another Day, Maybe

It’s been a long day.  Hard to say why.  

Part of me wants to say it’s just being on my period, and I can’t tell if that’s strangely logical or minimizing my own feelings. It could be that my best friend, more like family, left for a job in another state today. It could just be a long day. 

I feel like I was unfocused a lot of this morning, though I also got some important things done, scheduling classes I’ll be teaching in the new year, and even almost winning a game of ping pong with my wife (getting close is an accomplishment for me and most people). 

But by late afternoon, I was wallowing in angsty daydreams.  Making dinner went like this: put water on to boil. Set timer. Sit on couch, dissociate into my characters’ distress. Timer goes off.  Stumble over and add pasta. Set timer. Sit on couch, return to daydream. Stare, sniffle a little. Timer goes off. Stir pasta, mind still half somewhere else. Set timer. Sit on couch— 

By the time I got dinner on the table, I was on the edge of tears. Over… nothing in particular, or maybe things that happened to my characters that were not even quite canonical in their universes, dramatized montages, and certainly fictional in ours. My wife prodded at it—asking about both of the potential reasons for a long day I started with—but I shrugged it off, wasn’t up for much conversation, and mostly wanted to be left alone to fully return to my other worlds. I asked about her day instead. 

Finishing up dinner, unable to control the tears, I sat on the floor in the bathroom with the door closed and let them fall. It’s hard to explain the kind of tears you don’t really want to be soothed out of, especially when you’re not sure they’re over anything in particular, whether real or fictional. It’s like reading a sad book, or watching a sad movie, that is sad, yes, but good, so you don’t want to be interrupted. But not like, the tragic ending, or an especially climactic character death. More like one of those sad establishing character montages, like the exposition behind Do You Want To Build a Snowman, or the notorious, silent first minutes of Up. 

But in any case, I wasn’t ready to be done wallowing, so I hid for a few minutes until they came back under control, and my wife had gone upstairs. 

Then I went and did the dishes and cleaned up the kitchen, some other evening tasks, before retreating to my office, door shut, which isn’t super frequent and is usually for focus (really, to keep the cats out and not on top of my notebook or keyboard). And wallowed on the floor again. 

To complete the wallowing, I heard the vaguely sad piano music. This wasn’t so surprising, for a second, as in place of my usual rain sounds or Harry Potter themed ASMR, I’ve been using a calm piano Spotify playlist as my office background noise the last few days. Except I was ninety-nine percent sure that my phone wasn’t playing anything—I had just brought it up from downstairs with me, where I’d shut the music while using the phone as a timer.  But there was the piano, clear, but soft, barely rising above the hum of the air conditioner. Not any tune I recognized, nor anything coherent. It would pause, then pick up with a different key or melody or volume, or I would just hear a random isolated note here or there for a minute. Finally, I threw myself up off the floor and checked the phone. Nothing. Not coming from the phone. Just me. 

This struck me as interesting. Previously, I wrote about going down on my medication and hallucinating the Evanescence song I’d had on repeat. I was—back on my regular med regimen—again hallucinating music, but it was a hodgepodge of the (sixteen hour) instrumental playlist I’d had on shuffle. I’d wondered before if I’d done something wrong with the Evanescence besides the med changes. If perhaps something in it emotionally was a trigger (some of the chorus lyrics included can you hear me, can you hear me which was almost begging to be hallucinated), or if I just really needed to lay off the repeat button. But here I was again. 

Back on the floor, pondering that, finally distracted properly from the daydreams, I also noticed something else. I don’t remember where it began now—just a few hours later—but I had the thought, I’m still at the Marriott, and it was becoming more and more gripping. 

So, as context, in May, I used some of the extra Marriott rewards points my wife and I had sitting around from pre pandemic business travel, and had my own writer’s retreat/staycation at a nearby hotel. It was supposed to be three nights. I—and my wife—had anticipated that things might get a little weird. That I would stay up a bit late, snack on a few too many cookies, and get super absorbed in my fictional worlds, using the retreat to block out distracting reality for a few days. But things got a lot weird.  

I think because I underestimated the physical neglect. On my last full day, I realized I hadn’t brought any water, and had only had a mouthful of tap water to take my meds, and milk, since I arrived. I remedied this with a bottle of water and a Gatorade from the sundry store, but I mostly forgot about them after a few sips of each. I had neglected real food almost entirely, despite the fact I teach a class about cooking on the road. When I did the pre pandemic business travel with my wife, I made us nice crock pot meals and simple side dishes in a hotel room with nothing more than an old microwave and leaking mini fridge. At home, I eat at least two scheduled meals a day. Yet, alone and lost in writing, I had stuck mostly to toast, fruit, cereal, and dessert. I also acquired a microwaveable mac and cheese cup as something closer to real food, but I later found it mysteriously still sitting in the microwave, filled with water to the right line, but uncooked and abandoned. 

I had stayed up almost all night the first night, despite my usual at home bedtime of 9:30, then dragged myself downstairs early to check out the continental breakfast.  My sleep was weird the next night, too.  By that last full day, I uncharacteristically impulsively took an extra caffeine pill (another 100mg) midday as someone sensitive to caffeine but who finds it one of the only effective things for managing my chronic pain (usually, the 100mg first thing in the morning). I had, realizing how late I’d stayed up and that I didn’t want to be in a coma all day, not taken the full dose of my antipsychotic med at least one night, either. 

I became a total wreck, and failing to find anything better available, had started self harming with manicure scissors, for the first time in almost four years. I calmed down enough to throw on some antibiotic ointment and call my wife and tell her all this. She was calm, appropriately concerned but understanding, and asked if I wanted to come home. I wasn’t sure. I tried to write some more. But by midnight, I realized the words had stopped coming that morning. After another phone call, she picked me up and took me home. 

Anyway, you can see how this makes sense as a source of a delusion. There’s a lot of stuff already wrapped up in there. Lying on my office floor tonight, I felt myself sinking into the idea that I had never left that Marriott.  That everything after was a hallucination, a dream, a… I wasn’t sure what. 

But we went to Tahoe, I thought, over and over, trying to counter the issue with more travel. In July, we took a trip with a friend and my Mom (a delayed Mother’s Day present for the busy schoolteacher) up to Lake Tahoe, got a beautiful Airbnb with gorgeous views and regular meals and sleep and meds. (Yet, it’s a picture of the Strip I took from my twenty-third floor Marriott room that lives on as my desktop background; I spent almost the whole time in front of that window, watching over the top of my notebook the flashing lights, the monorail passing by, the High Roller going around. The crazy city I’ve always called home.) It was like the never left the Marriott theory had come in a flash of enlightenment, but I was still thinking my way through it.  But… Tahoe. And everything else. 

I also had a slight grip, in a way, on the fact that the never left the Marriott thing was the actual delusion, and I was trying to avoid sinking into it, but also desperately mentally countering it, as if it needed to be countered and not ignored. I felt a phantom burning in my wrists that is usually a you want to cut kind of physical manifestation, but I thought, Or I’m dreaming. And they would hurt in real life because of what I had done with the manicure scissors that afternoon. 

And then, strangely, lying on my office floor, it all kind of went away. The daydreams were a vague temptation, but had no strong, magnetic grip on me. The piano notes grew further and further apart, then quieted, and there was just the neighbors talking in their yard on the other side of the wall. The Marriott theory was like something I’d read in a book once—interesting, but not demanding. The phantom burning subsided as I eyed the long healed faint marks. 

I took a swingset break, made us some Rice Krispie treats, cleaned the kitchen again, checked the Internet, started writing this—the most I’ve written all day—and got ready for bed. 

Well, let this weird day be over, then, and we’ll see what tomorrow looks like. I imagine I’ll be posting this then. 

(It is tomorrow now. I have been physically very woozy and off balance, but it was a good day. I went out with my mom and her dog to lunch and errands.) 

Images You Can’t Shake

I’m in a dream. There was a beginning, but now I’m rapidly pacing through the private school I attended so many years ago, turning the corner at the landing like it was yesterday.  But this portion of the hallway isn’t quite right—there are doors, doors, doors, on one side, and I’m throwing them open as I go, getting flashes of what’s in the room.  I know I’m looking for something, but I’m not sure what.  Each room seems to get me closer.  They become more and more disorderly, and more and more frequently feature a bed.  Then a few things happen almost all at once:

I realize I’m dreaming. 

I realize what’s behind the last door.

I throw open the last door before I can stop myself anyway.

Dad, of course, dead for ten days, of course, in the dream and filling my vision as I bolt upright, gasping, a scream diffusing in my throat.

And, I’m pretty sure lastly, my morning alarm goes off. 

So, 7:20. I take the same caffeine pill as always and sleepily breeze through my morning checklists as it kicks in.  Wash up, same clothes as always. One mile walk.  Wave to the same group of retirees and dogs as usual.  An hour of notebook drafting. My daily housewife routine.  Brunch, toast as almost always, at 9:30. Create stability where you can, y’know. And my autism loves routine. 

Still, my mind finds time to come back to the dream, writing about it, pondering sources—a visit at my mom’s house yesterday, rife with family pictures of those long gone, or maybe a recent pre Halloween Goosebumps story rewatch that featured decay—and putting on one of my Mental Health Mood songs— 

And I can’t tell if I’m drowning or floating

So I just keep on going, going 

And I’m running just to hide 

And I’m hiding just to breathe

And around every corner is the same night on repeat 

—and generally wallowing. 

Nothing dramatic, but feeling, over two years later, still desperate to shake the one image I can’t get rid of, nightmare, flashback, hallucination, or otherwise.  One of my characters said in a recent chapter, of her own trauma, “Of course I have to do it again.  I do it again when I close my eyes. (…) I do it again when I zone out too hard. Don’t you get that?” 

I get that.

I knew when I found my father that I wasn’t going to be able to shake that image.  It’s not really one of those visuals that you process in the moment.  It’s one of those… we’ll need to keep coming back to this, do it again, and again, to process. 

I felt very calm in the moment in a way (returning to the car where my wife was waiting, she thought all was well based on my body language)—and very determined that no one else see that image who didn’t have to, swearing to myself as I walked back down my father’s stairs, professionals only, and very aware that I’d decided to get here before my mother’s planned check in later—perhaps dissociated, but despite my day to day anxiety, I’ve always been strangely good in an emergency—and also very aware that it was all going to hit me later. 

I just kind of figured, I’ll have PTSD now. That was a trauma angle I hadn’t really thought of before, researching and writing it in fiction: the awareness at the point of the trauma of the future effects. I still don’t think I processed it fully for some time. 

Now, I’m working on a backstory companion piece in which someone asks the same character mentioned above, very shortly post trauma, what it is she’s feeling. 

She responds that while she’s not sure, it feels like grief (though no one has died), and when asked for what, she says, For before

I know I felt grief both for my father’s actual death and for before.  Before the trauma, before the PTSD, before the nightmares, the extra hypervigilance, the flashbacks, the ones that became hallucinations. For before that image. I grieved my father but also something I had never defined enough to know I could lose. 

It wasn’t any traditional loss of innocence grief story, and I don’t really think of it that way—I was still an adult with an awareness of the world at the time, though I think I aged a lot in the months after, not only trauma but adulting logistics (probate court and beyond), the independence to pursue my own projects, whatnot—but some people certainly might see it that way.

… 

Maybe it’s masochistic, but in a way—simply as a long time writer of trauma and PTSD and images characters can’t shake, and as a person who questioned my own resilience—I’m almost grateful for the experience. 

Maybe that’s screwed up, but it’s at least a better emotion than only sitting around going woe is me and I certainly wouldn’t wish the experience on my mother or anyone else who might, in some parallel universe, have walked into the house that day, or, I guess, in the ten days before it. The house was up for sale. I’m not sure if the realtor had access to the house without being in touch with my father—we were, strangely, ultimately not in contact long—but some home buyers to be may have seriously dodged a bullet. And if my father had to die, then I can only suppose it was all the same post mortem to him, and it appeared he passed in his sleep, at home, which many people would consider—if you must die one way or another—basically ideal. 

I always wanted to do research via experience where I could, or utilize past experiences as research for fiction. I made trips to the archery range to try it out back when I was writing Hunger Games fan fiction; more recently, I responded to a reader’s comment of appreciation on a requested companion to one of my original fiction series: Someone should, I bought a damn shock collar to research this scene and yes it was set to 99. Thank you! (To be amply clear, this was an alternative sexuality erotica piece and the product was safely tested on myself in that context, not an animal.) 

And I’ve thought about doing more out there things in the name of research—if there’s value in recreating my characters’ specific traumas/if it could be safely done myself. Things like that. 

So sometimes I feel like I’m experiencing my real trauma through the lens of writing, research. There are novelty tees and mugs out there with a message like, Warning: I’m a writer. Anything you say or do may be used in a story. And that goes for me, too. A distressing symptom can still have me running for a pen. 

Or a blog post. 

Psychosis and Beyond as Self Soothing

Farrah, my recurring puppy hallucination, often appears when I’m in distress.

While I don’t qualify as something like schizoaffective, which is different anyway, the state of my emotions and the state of my psychosis usually line up in some way.  Negative moods lead to more obvious psychotic symptoms than positive ones.

If Farrah appears without me being in distress, I frequently wonder if, subconsciously, I am.  Sometimes the answer was yes all along.  Sometimes I’m now so worried about finding the (perhaps nonexistent) source of the problem/the psychosis itself, that, in any case, I’m upset now.  Sometimes, I accept the hallucination as random.

Still, I have often wondered, Why Farrah? She is my only specific recurring hallucination that I don’t understand the source of.  The ones that are basically PTSD flashbacks gone wild—make sense.  But why the dog?

Recently, feeling stressed and with no such appearance from Farrah, I realized that I kind of missed her, would have liked her there.  Even if we want to label all psychosis as bad, she’s a free, ethical forever puppy that can’t really eat or poop, and who doesn’t want that?

I wondered if Farrah was a psychotic/automatic self soothing technique.  I can’t control it, but maybe some dysfunctional chemicals somewhere in my brain are saying, “Hey, man; chill out.  Here’s a puppy.”  Or, Here’s some free dopamine.

I’d much rather the dog than the ringing phone that I heard most of that day, at least.

I had to think about other psychotic symptoms as forms of self soothing.

Dissociation is not usually defined as psychosis by itself, but I feel like it’s a key part of my psychosis experience, so to speak. My early psychotic episodes frequently involved dissociation that manifested as akinetic catatonia.  Dissociation very commonly has origins in maladapted self soothing, mentally separating yourself from an upsetting or traumatic situation.  Dissociative Identity Disorder (formerly Multiple Personality Disorder) especially frequently has roots in traumatic stress early in life.

Dissociating was something I did frequently before I showed definitive signs of psychosis, and still do, mostly in the form of intense daydreams at the time. Maladaptive daydreaming is also not technically seen as a form of psychosis (and is not widely recognized) due to the separation that remains between fantasy and reality—but my lines there do get very blurry due to other psychosis symptoms. 

In any case, these daydreams take over my head somewhat beyond my control when something in me wants to escape. They’re certainly addictive and can be a disabling distraction, but also feel crucial for me as a fiction writer who escapes to my stories’ worlds.

One of the first symptoms my parents reported to mental health professionals was my tendency to spend multiple hours per day swinging on the swingset in our backyard, listening to a song on repeat with headphones, totally spaced out.  Daydreaming.  How upset I got when this was not possible for one reason or another.  This has followed me throughout my life. 

Even last summer, before my wife and I got a swingset in our new backyard, I walked to the park and back daily, sometimes multiple trips per day, to spend hours on the swings, with a song on repeat and my daydreams.  It was about a mile walk each way and the temperature regularly approached 120*F.  I was not deterred.

Some daydreams, the type I have on my office floor in dissociative states, tend to be cathartic wallowing on a character’s behalf.  They don’t echo the situation I’m upset about exactly, but branch out from the specific core feeling I’m having.  They won’t echo just sad nor exactly there is a pandemic and I can’t see my friends, but maybe lonely.  Sometimes these daydreams allow me to cry or fully experience emotions that I hadn’t been able to release or wallow in initially.

I experience other types of dissociation, too.  Some distressing.  But frequently, there’s the blank dissociation where my mind seems to go nowhere or into the void or however one might phrase it.  This might be the anywhere is better than here dissociation, where the daydreams are not coming (yet, anymore, or period) but I’m sure not ready to go back to reality. 

Other symptoms—delusion.  Now, delusion in the colloquial sense is very often a form of self soothing, especially in the form of denial, which is also a stage of grief.  But some delusions are distressing, especially the paranoid kind, and while that is true for me, others can, in a backwards way, be comforting.  

Reality breaks for me easily.  The feeling some people get from watching things like The Matrix or Inception, times ten, is easy to induce in me.  And when it happens, my brain needs an explanation, fast.  There is no time for logic—that something was fiction, a joke, a lie, a coincidence—and so my brain grasps at straws to explain the thing away.  While false and sometimes overly convoluted, the delusion fills that need—creating a “logical” if sometimes distressing reality—until the real world can set back in. 

Psychosis and other symptom sets are often not just a dysfunctional coping mechanism—and some of these automatic self soothing techniques only attempt to solve the problem another symptom created. But it’s still interesting to look at some incidents of symptoms in that light. 

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. 

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 the schizophrenia fiction piece I’m working on 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.

The Notebook Universe (Delusion)

My wife and I went to the dentist recently (a thrilling start to any story, I know).  I was just in for a routine cleaning, her for the first of a series of more involved appointments.  But that day was just an exam for her, and, finished before I was, she sat near me and made small talk with the hygienist while I made garbled sounds around the vacuum, water, and polishing tools.

At some point, while I was—understandably—distracted, she had an idea, and, with nothing else to write on, jotted it down in the back of my nearby notebook, sitting with my things on the counter.

But I didn’t notice this. 

Flash forward a few days, and I—somehow for the first time—noticed the note.  A mundane investment strategy to look into.

The thing was that I didn’t write it.  Or I didn’t remember it.  But there it was, in my notebook, in my pen’s ink.  Not in my usual handwriting, I was pretty sure.  

And reality broke.

I showed it to her.  “I can’t remember writing this,” I kept saying, distressed, convinced I had left myself a note I had no recollection of.  It was not on my next page in line, it wasn’t dated, the page wasn’t numbered, it wasn’t in my table of contents; at the moment, it just made no sense to me.  

A friend was over; I was just with it enough to insist we didn’t have this conversation in front of him.  We didn’t.  

She thought at first that perhaps I was upset she’d used my notebook without asking.  But she grasped quickly that this wasn’t a roundabout way of communicating I was upset; reality was just broken by the surprise, something that occasionally breaks my concept of real.  The unexpected twist in reality.  I had no problem with her using my notebook.  

She explained that she had written it.  Several times.  The dentist’s office story.  But I couldn’t grasp this.  My mind was already off in the alternate universe it was building without me to explain this, while ignoring all easier logic.  In this reality, everyone had Their Notebook.  Like you had fingerprints or a social security number.  And only you could write in your notebook.  I don’t know how this formed or why this made more sense than her borrowing mine.  But in this world, this meant that she had to have written this note in her notebook, but, due to our deep connection or legal marriage or something, her notebook had in a way “hacked” my notebook psychically, transporting notes between them.

That wasn’t so bad, but my mind was spinning with possibilities.  Did that mean that anyone could get into my notebook from a distance?  I didn’t want literally anyone in my notes.

And I was off investigating locks and privacy measures (which apparently stopped psychic transports). She let me.

Reality slowly returned as I tried to focus enough to make sense of Amazon reviews.

(In the end, I did decide that a bit of security—against real dangers—wasn’t my worst idea, and got a fire and water proof accordion style folder—a type I’d been considering for my notebook and pen and loose papers anyway.  We already have a fireproof safe for important documents, but nothing portable.) 

So went the notebook universe.  Would’ve been a cool story premise.  (I did end up writing about a non magical stolen notebook shortly after, this time about an existing character with actual privacy concerns.)

But, thankfully, I grasped within hours that the premise wasn’t reality.  And so episodes go.  

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.