Some people are predisposed to feel like a gas-soak tennis ball filled with match heads, hurling toward a wall at 20 miles per hour. I’ve seen this happen before; growing up, a boy in my neighborhood- pudgy, rebellious, and in need of quite a bit of attention- wanted to try it. Luckily his parents never found him out, and he was able to continue on with his life of mischief well into his 20s, I imagine. Watching the event unfold spoke to me in a way I can’t describe. If one considers what a match does when introduced to friction and also considers what fire does when introduced to gasoline, the fact that people can get to this incendiary mental state is considerably disturbing. How must that tennis ball feel between release and impact, unaware of when that wall will blink it out of existence? Without all of those matches, it would have just been any other soggy ball.
I find myself unmistakably a member of this category. It was all of those match heads that brought me to my local mental. Not two years ago, a paunchy, middle-aged woman with a big nose and clipboard told me that I suffered from depression, panic disorder, and anxiety. It was nothing I didn’t already know. Intelligent people have always seemed to revel in withholding relevant information, dancing around the things you really want to know. I knew I was depressed, anxious, and violently panicked. What was I to do? That is what she never gave me any clear answer to. I was instructed to come back Tuesdays and Thursdays to find the answer.
Tuesday came, and I returned to her office and took my place on her yellow floral couch. I made myself comfortable in her blindingly bright colored office, and acquainted myself with its cat motif.
“How do you feel today?” she looked up from her clipboard momentarily.
“I feel like crap. I didn’t sleep. I tried.” My reply sent her into a frenzy on her clipboard.
She looked back up past her nose, “Was something troubling you? Something on your mind?”
“I was alone last night. My boyfriend, Shawn, didn’t come home until 4 am. I don’t like his friends. I don’t like being alone.” She began scrawling again.
“What don’t you like about it?” she began to tap her pen on her desk.
“Does anyone like being alone?”
“I like being alone. Are you comfortable with who you are?” she continued with the tapping, and slightly increased the tempo.
I began to feel a choking sensation. The cats stared at me, unmoving, waiting for an answer; most appeared grim and unsympathetic. I looked at the woman, laboring to think of a satisfactory answer to her question, and shifted my attention to a kitten she had hung on the wall at her left. The poor thing was dangling helplessly from a tree branch and with a single paw, desperately trying to hold on. His caption read: “Hang in there.”
Tap, tap, tap. “Is there something about yourself you don’t like?”
“I don’t like being alone because it makes me sad.” She scribbled. “I get worried that I’ll be abandoned, and then I get angry.”
“Have you ever had thoughts of hurting yourself?”
I wished I could plead the fifth; I felt like I was being interrogated. “Just shoot me now,” I thought to myself. My hands were moist. I rubbed them on my pants, curled them back into fists and returned them to my sides. “Yes.”
Thursday came, and I returned to her office and took my place on her yellow floral couch.
“How do you feel today?” she reviewed her clipboard.
“I feel like crap. I didn’t sleep. I tried. I kept having a nightmare.”
“Do you have one nightmare or many different ones?” she flipped the page over on her clipboard and began again.
“I always have the same nightmare.”
“Is there something troubling you? Something on your mind?” She rubbed her large nose, and sniffed a little.
“My boyfriend, Shawn, didn’t come to bed until 4 am, even though I was alone and I was crying. He was playing video games.” I looked down at my hands; I was playing with my fingers to avoid looking at her nose.
“How did that make you feel?”
I looked at her, trying to keep my focus to her soda-glass lenses, and not her nose. “It makes me feel abandoned. It makes me feel all alone.”
“Is there something about yourself you’re not comfortable with?”
The choking feeling returned. I didn’t understand the importance of that question. Of course there was something I didn’t like about myself. I had come willing to her office because I knew I didn’t like anything about myself. I wanted to ask her: “Is there something that you don’t like about yourself?” I had the sneaking suspicion that she went into psychiatry to help other people with their problems, and thus escape her own.
“I wish he would at least pretend to care. I try so hard to make him happy.”
“I’m going to ask you an uncomfortable question. When is the last time you had thoughts of hurting yourself?” she looked to me with a perfect poker face, and began tapping her pen.
Tuesday came, and I returned to her office and I took my place on her yellow floral couch.
“How do you feel today?” she asked, reviewing her notes from Thursday.
“I feel like crap. I got to sleep, though, so this time I just feel like crap.” I looked down and my hands clasped the sleeves of my favorite over-sized jacket, much like a child would cling his security blanket.
“Do you feel any different today?” she questioned, and again began to tap her pen. She was left handed; her tapping drew my attention to her barren ring finger.
“No, I feel like crap. I’m always alone. I don’t like being alone. I get angry and then I feel like I can’t see the point of anything, even living. When I panic, it hurts. It really hurts.” My confession once again sent her into a frenzy on her clipboard.
She halted finally and looked to me. “What makes you panic? Is there something about yourself that you don’t like?”
“I feel like a different person when I’m upset. Sometimes I don’t remember do some of the things I do. My boyfriend says I became unhinged and put a hole in the wall with my alarm clock. I don’t know what makes me panic. Everything.” I looked down in shame. Small pools of tears welled up in my eyes. I left them. I couldn’t wipe them away and pretend they weren’t there. As they began to fall, my eyelashes smeared some drops across the lenses of my glasses. The corners of my mouth drew downward and my lip began to quiver.
She wrote again on her clipboard, and then carefully and neatly set it down on her desk. Her tone became softer after that. “I’m diagnosing you with borderline personality disorder, along with all of the other diagnoses we’ve already established. On Thursday, I’m going to send you to another mental health professional that we have at this facility to prescribe you some medication for your panic and anxiety, but in the meantime, I have something I’d like you to try. I’ve found many of my patients have had success with this method, and I, myself, have even benefited from it. It’s called tapping; I found it in one of my mental health journals.”
She began to describe to me her answer to my problem. The method advocated tapping certain parts of the head and face for a calming effect, while verbally reiterating positive messages to and about oneself. I was told to tap where I felt pain from tension when I was panicking, which has always been my temples, just to the side of my eyes; simultaneously, a person of my disposition may repeat to themselves an affirmation such as: “I’m okay when I’m alone.”
In every way due to the Khuleshov Effect, the cats seemed no longer apathetic, but rather confident. I felt confident. I had found my answer. I left her office with my head up and breathed the fresh air as I walked to the bus stop. The sunset was beautiful that evening; warm colors- hints of pink that danced amongst the red and orange sky- starkly offset and resisted the gray dusk. “I’m so glad I’m alive to see this,” I whispered to myself.
I reached the bus stop northbound stop just in time for route 200 to arrive. Instead of boarding and going home, which would have spared me my nerves, I left. “I think I’ll go to surprise Shawn tonight.” Just two more blocks away was the train to Sandy. I walked them self-assuredly, despite the dusk that was slowly, unnoticeably replacing my good day.
At the station on California Ave, I boarded the southbound line. The train smelled of sweat from the day’s shuffling back and forth of passengers. I peered around the train, in search of a suitable seat, a safe distance away from others on the train. There were a few people here and there, keeping to themselves as I tried to do. As I walked to a secluded seat on the left, the train squealed and began to accelerate. I lurched forward, and grasped the hand rail to regain balance, then took my place on the train car near one of its inhabitants. He was in his fifties, and it seemed that those years had taken a toll. He was slumped over the back of his seat holding a bottle labeled mouthwash. You could tell the bottle’s former contents had been drained or used and substituted with Vodka. My seat was cold, but the 45 minute ride to Sandy gave me time to warm it, and more than enough time to study the drunkard as he sloshed from one side of the car to the other, asking people for money as well as their opinion on dated topics, such as Vietnam. His face was wrinkled and worn past his years; his plaid shirt and jeans that were saturated with dirt and worn down to rags.
“You probly tsink U’m Crazzy, don scha?” He stumbled into a sitting position next to me; both the man and his diction were garbled and incomplete. I didn’t know if he was just talking or talking to me; I didn’t answer.
I arrived at my planned stop about 30 minutes after the night had completely set in. The colors were gone and the streets were left black and gray, almost as if I were looking at an old photo of the world. Only the occasional street lamp revealed any color as I wandered past, however minute. I ended my walk at a short wall, usually red during the day, but now a gloomy gray. I had not come upon Shawn yet. He was already supposed to have passed by. “He might just be late getting off work,” I said to myself bravely, “I’ll just wait a little longer.”
“Maybe he’s just taking his time walking.”
“Where is he?” My confidence began to wane.
I waited. In my growing distress, I decided to call him. It would ruin the surprise, but provide me with peace of mind. The phone rang. It rang again. There was no answer. It rang again. I imagined myself in a black void, alone; the ring tone was my voice, crying out to anyone, but going unheard in the abyss. The ringing cut off, and I was instructed to leave a message. My brow began to furl in distress and all the while my heart sank in my chest. Once again the corners of my mouth turned downward. My revelation of mental health had all but vanished in an hour, and again my eyes steadily flooded with tears. I waited.
“I’m okay by myself,” I tried to reaffirm. “I’m okay by myself. I’ll be alright. Just because I don’t know where he is doesn’t mean anything. I’m okay by myself! I’m okay by myself!”
In that moment, I was overtaken by my panic. My heart began beating faster and faster; soon it was throwing itself against my rib cage, and did so simultaneously with the throbbing at my temples. A familiar queasiness began to set in as the throbbing continued. As fixed with panic as I was, I managed to pick myself off the wall, and begin my tearful, blurry walk back to the train platform.
The train arrived and I boarded once again. On board, I found anonymity a little harder to achieve. Red faces, tears, and stifled hysteria never have gone long unnoticed. There were fewer passengers on the train car then when I had boarded earlier. There was a young mother, with her stroller and crying infant, travelling home for the night; a quick glance and I knew she was expecting another. She seemed not much older than I was at 18. There was also a young man on the train; he was dressed all in black, listening to his grunge music and grimacing. He had so many piercings I wondered as I saw him if he had ever made it through a metal detector. The drunkard, to my surprise was still on the train. I sat down at the end of the train car, as far from everyone else as I could, and slumped down in the seat.
My panic attack was now in full swing. Its full force hit me like a freight train, and then continued to carry me faster and faster down the track. I curled up on my seat and began to tap my temples. “Remember what she told you. Say good things. I’m okay when I’m alone. I’m okay when I’m alone. I’m okay when I’m alone.” I didn’t believe myself, so I began to tap a little faster. “I’m okay when I’m alone. I’m alright. I’m alright. I’m alright.” The tears continued down my reddened cheeks. I looked over at the woman with the sobbing infant. She was rocking him in her arms, calming him. I began to rock slightly, tapping and reaffirming. “I’m alright! I’m alright!” I closed my eyes and continued, “I’m alright! I’m alright!”
“Arrrr you awright?” I smelled Vodka, and felt someone sit down in the chair next to me. “It sems to me that you ‘wer might be hafin a bad day, ma’am. Arr you awright?”
I looked up at him with my teary eyes, realizing that my psychiatrist’s advice made me look like a lunatic. My vision was as muddled as he was. I removed my glasses and wiped the tears from the lenses. Putting them in their place again, I realized that everyone was looking over at me, staring at me like the cats from the office; to my surprise, they weren’t looks of distain.
“You know, peol’ tsink I’m crazy. I don tsink you ‘wer crazzy. You ‘wer jus hafin na bad day. You know? Hassit ben a bad day?”
“Imagine you’re a gas-soaked tennis ball filled with matches and hurling toward a brick wall at 20 miles per hour.” I looked at him, and he looked back with glazed, yet kind eyes.
“That sounds sbout rright.” With the teeth he had left, he smiled.