It’s early. I’m nervous. I’m waiting out the morning rush hour so I can drive to high school. It’s not my high school. I’m 33. It’s been ten years since I taught high school and fifteen years since I attended high school. I’m going to a high school to talk about mental illness, which is a thing that I have. I’m going to an AP Psychology class.
I check my outfit. I ask my boyfriend if it looks okay. He says yes. I don’t want to look like the hippie art teacher but I also don’t want to look like the old chick who is trying too hard to be hip. I wear black skinny jeans (I am not skinny — they are XL—extra weight from the drugs, but I’m used to that now), a blue and white striped button down top, a red belt, and red cowboy boots. These boots are like my security blanket. I wear them whenever I travel, and the airport security workers always compliment them. This happens everywhere—in Newark, at JFK, at LaGuardia, at LAX, at Burbank. You know, everywhere.
I guess most people don’t wear red cowboy boots to the airport.
It strikes me that most people probably don’t wear red cowboy boots to give a presentation in an AP Psychology class in high school. I wonder if I should change them.
No. They are my security blanket. I will keep them on.
I take a deep breath. I check the bathroom once, twice, three times. I know that if I check it three times, everything will be fine. Everything will go well that day. I look at myself in the mirror. I make eye contact.
“I love you,” I say. If I don’t do this, the day will go badly. If I do do this, the day will go fine. I have to do this every time I look in the mirror, or something bad might happen. Will happen. Or something good won’t happen. I’m not sure which. I’ve never been sure which. I just know that I have to do it.
I remind myself: If the kids don’t like me, or if I say something stupid, or if (God forbid) I panic, I get to leave. My friends are still my friends. They don’t go to high school anymore.
I am 14. I am crying in the front office at the school. This is the Lower House front office, in the building where freshmen and sophomores dwell. It’s a big public school, 2000 kids. The biggest in the county. I am crying.
I am not sure why I am crying, except that I can’t stop. I am late to school because I was crying and couldn’t stop.
The secretary looks at me sympathetically.
“Maybe you’d better talk to Mrs. Smith,” she says. Mrs. Smith is the school guidance counselor.
“No,” I say through heaving tears and snot. “I’m okay.”
“Well, ask her to sign your pass, anyway,” the secretary says. Very tricksy, that secretary.
I nod. I am obedient. I am the class vice president. I get A’s, mostly. I am on the flag squad, even though that is dorky and embarrassing, but I still manage to be reasonably popular. I’m funny. I wear a lot of J.Crew, which is what you wear at my high school.
I like to figure out how to talk to certain people and invent a language and catchphrases of our own, inside jokes that bond us together. I make a lot of eye contact. I listen well.
I do what I think will please other people.
I smile and nod again and I go into the counselor’s office.
She says the hall pass can wait for a minute. She says we can talk.
I stare at my boots and blink three times. This is a thing that I do to make sure everything is fine.
She shuts the door.
I am 16. The pediatrician says I can take the drug for the panic attacks and the depression. He says it will help. I look at the pills uncertainly and decide I will never, ever, ever tell anyone about this. I thank him for his help.
My dad says maybe I’ll just take them for a little while, just to get me through this rough patch. The pediatrician says a lot of times this disappears when someone gets older.
“Does it really get better?” I ask him.
“Yes,” he says.
I cannot wait to get older.
I am 21. I have not left the house in days, or maybe weeks. I still take the drug every day.
The drug is not working.
I am afraid to use the bathroom. I am afraid to eat. I am afraid to leave my bedroom. I live alone, thank God. Thank God.
My bed is my safe space. I lay in bed all day when I am supposed to be at class. I constantly think, “I want to die. I want to die. I want to die.” This does not concern me. It is a constant drumbeat in my head and you can get used to a constant drumbeat, the same way you get used to that dripping sound in your bathroom or the endless barking of your neighbor’s dog.
But lately it has changed a little. “I want to die” has been replaced, sometimes, with “I want to kill myself.” And this is a different thing entirely. Death can be passive; something one receives; a gift or curse from illness or accident or simple old age. But killing oneself is active. It is a choice. It is something I can do, and I might do it, because the pills don’t work and I’m tired of pretending that I am still class vice president, good-natured and funny, always with the inside jokes and the eye contact.
I haven’t been eating. I haven’t been bathing. I am skinny and stinky. My friends don’t hear from me anymore.
I still drink water. I get it from the sink in my studio apartment. The sink is in my bedroom, along with the mini-fridge and the hot plate. And because I still have water, I have to go to the bathroom. Only I am afraid to go to the bathroom, because I’m afraid to leave the bedroom, or the bed, except to drink water. I can’t tell you why I am afraid, except that I know that if I go to the bathroom, if I do anything outside the bedroom, something bad will happen.
I grab a bowl. I squat over it in my bed, and I urinate. Most of the urine makes it into the bowl.
I put the bowl under my bed. I’ll dump it in the sink later, when I have energy. I don’t have a lot of energy these days.
I go to sleep. It is 3 p.m. on a Tuesday. I will not wake for twelve hours.
“Look at the raisin,” the psychiatrist says, and we all do.
“Smell the raisin,” the psychiatrist says, and I laugh.
“What’s funny?” he asks, not in a mean way.
“I just don’t think raisins smell like anything,” I say.
“Try it and see,” he says.
I am learning to eat again, which apparently entails sniffing fucking raisins in front of a group of similarly broken humans.
I am 22. I take pills every day, but these are different pills than the ones I used to take. They give me a headache and they make it hard to sleep at night, but to my surprise and my parents’ delight, they are starting to work. I don’t feel like a zombie or anything – I still cry all the time – but I cry less. I can think straight. I even want to eat, sort of, sometimes. I drink a lot of smoothies, because the mushy food is like baby food, and I find that comforting.
I never put raisins in my smoothies.
I never put raisins in anything.
Raisins are gross.
But I oblige people. I do things for them.
I sniff the raisin.
“I guess it smells like a raisin,” I say.
“Put the raisin in your mouth, but don’t chew,” he tells us. “Roll it around on your tongue. Feel the texture. Rub it against the roof of your mouth with your tongue.”
This is seriously the dumbest thing I have ever done, and I have done a lot of dumb things.
He tells us to think about all the people who worked to bring us this raisin: the people who planted the grapes, the people who harvested the grapes, the people who dehydrated the grapes (or whatever the fuck they do to make raisins—I kind of zone out for a few seconds here), the people who brought the grapes to market. And so on and so forth.
I get it. The food chain. Circle of life, and all that. I like what he’s trying to teach us. I don’t like raisins, but I like thinking about how interconnected we all are, and how I’m part of a big web of humanity strung together by love, or whatever it says in the self-help books I am reading as fast as I used to read my college assignments. I live at home and I don’t have a job yet so I’ve got plenty of time to read and meditate and do yoga and think about raisins. My mom drove me here today because I’m still not good with getting out of the house and into cars, but I didn’t have a panic attack in the car this time. I practice every day walking to the end of the driveway, holding my parents’ hands. Tomorrow we’re going to the grocery store. I know I can do it.
I am lucky. I know I am lucky.
I am better, mostly, for a long time.
I go to a new school. I go to graduate school. I become, of all things, a stand-up comedian.
I write a book. The book is about high school and college and the raisins and other things.
I always wanted to write a book.
I still take the drug every day. It’s The New Drug until it isn’t.
The No Longer New Drug works.
It works for years.
It works great.
Until it doesn’t.
I am 31. I am sobbing uncontrollably in a conference room at work. The conference room has glass walls so everybody who passes can see me sobbing.
It’s a start-up office. It’s fun to work there. I do stand-up at night and wait for The Book to come out, and in the meantime I earn money writing about books at the book start-up. It’s pretty great.
On Thursday nights we have wine hour, which means a couple of hours, which also means cocktails, and fresh-baked bread and fancy cheese and whatever else anybody feels like bringing in. It’s an open floor plan in a big loft space on 18th Street in Manhattan. The people are nice. The programmers play video games on the big screen on Thursday nights.
It is not Thursday night. It is Monday morning. I can’t blame the crying on it being Monday.
“I think I need some help,” I tell my boss.
“The best thing about being a freelancer,” he says, “is that you get to make your own hours. Choose your own workload. And take care of yourself as best you can. Go home. Do whatever you need to do. You let me know when you can work, and how much you want to work. I want you to be healthy first.”
My boss is great. He’s really great. I leave for the day, closing the door to the office behind me. I look at it to make sure it’s really shut. It looks shut. Is it really shut? I hope it’s really shut.
I walk downstairs. The sound of my boots clacks in the stairwell.
I call my parents in New Jersey.
“I think I need to come home for awhile,” I say. “It’s happening again.”
“We’re coming for you,” they say, and they do.
My psychologist says I’m bipolar. My psychiatrist says no way. I have major depressive disorder and I have panic disorder and I have agoraphobia. My psychiatrist has excellent hair and a medical degree. I decide to go with what the psychiatrist says, because it’s what all the other psychiatrists have said over the years.
My psychiatrist with the excellent hair has a subspecialty in fertility issues, which do not apply to me because I’ve determined I will never pass these genes onto another human being. Also, I’d probably have to taper off the meds or at least go on a low dose if I got knocked up and kept it. That does not seem like a viable option—tapering off the meds, or keeping it.
My psychiatrist wants to add a drug.
“It’s like a booster for the antidepressant,” she says. “In low doses, it helps it work better.”
This new drug has a nice name and nice television advertisements. It is an atypical antipsychotic, but my psychiatrist says not to get hung up on that. It will help.
It does help.
I gain weight, but it helps.
I go back to work.
I am 33.
The high school that is not mine is 3,000 miles away from the book start-up.
I live on the other coast now. Someone wanted to make The Book into a TV show, and I thought that was a good idea, so I came out here to write a TV pilot, and another book, and then another book, and soon I will start writing a fourth book. I travel to speak at colleges about my brain and what happens in it, because I think maybe this will help the kids feel better about their brains and what happens in them. Also, I get paid to do this, which is very nice.
I am not getting paid for the high school thing. The high school thing is a favor for a friend. I am not scared of college students but I am scared of high school students.
I have a boyfriend. I have a puppy. And thanks in large part to the atypical antipsychotic with the nice name, I have about 30 extra pounds on my stomach, thighs and butt. I stare at it in the mirror sometimes, right before I make eye contact and say, “I love you.”
I pull up outside the high school and I park. This is a huge high school, twice the size of my own.
I go inside. I talk to the secretary in the front office. I get a hall pass. Kids are milling about everywhere. I am terrified, but only slightly.
I use the bathroom.
I go to the right classroom.
I look at 30 unfamiliar faces. They don’t look evil. I take comfort in that.
A kid tells me he really likes my boots. I say thank you.
And then I talk. I talk for forty-five minutes. I talk about everything but the peeing in bowls; I figure I can leave that part out. The kids ask questions, good questions. I give answers, good answers. Honest answers (except for not telling them about the pee).
I tell the kids that I’m crazy, but in a good way, and that crazy doesn’t have to mean what you think it means, and that you can reclaim that word and make it your own.
There is no shame in crazy.
There is only shame in pretending that everything is okay.
Everything is not okay. And that’s okay.
The kids ask more questions.
When we’re done, they applaud. It’s nice.
I give a copy of The Book to the teacher. She says she’ll read it. I hope she likes it.
Class lets out. I exhale slowly. I did it.
The kid who liked the boots stays after. He comes up to me with tears in his eyes. He twists his hands together. He is beautiful.
“Does it really get better?” he whispers.
“Mostly,” I say, and then we talk for a long while.