Three years ago on a night pretty much like every other, I thrashed around in my bed, unable to sleep. My breaths came quickly, my heart beating too fast. A combination of circumstances and compulsions chattered away inside my insomnia-addled head.
“Intrusive thoughts” was a brand new addition to my lexicon, though I’d experienced them for at least thirty years. I thought everyone’s mind worked like mine, an endless chattering of unwelcome thoughts that had to be sorted, processed, and dismissed. Earlier that week I was sent home from the emergency room with a bottle of painkillers after a bicycle accident. When I took them my mind quieted, a relief similar to what one feels when the smoke alarm stops its shrill scream, but this one had been wailing for three decades and only I could hear it.
I had no interest in developing a pain killer addiction, though, so I took them as prescribed and then returned to my insomnia, compulsions, and the constant busy-ness of my chattering mind. And that’s why I was tossing and turning in the dark three years ago on a night pretty much like this one. The anxiety was running high, bordering on panic. It probably was panic. I didn’t want to think anymore. I was tired of feeling raw. I couldn’t handle another intrusive thought or another ritual to quiet them.
I threw on my running clothes and headed out the door. The night was moonless and still, the occasional porch light smearing the darkness. I cut through my neighborhood and crossed the bridge. On the other side I planned to drop down and run the horse trails winding along the river. There I hoped to surprise a mountain lion or rattlesnake, or maybe a starving coyote. I was willing to settle for a twisted root that would shatter my ankle and topple me into the rushing water. Anything to make the batshit crazy stop.
The probability of running into a wild animal or murderous tree was low, even in the dead of night. I kept running toward the nearest busy street, a main artery that carried suburban commuters to their downtown jobs, but rush hour wouldn’t start for another three hours. Until then I’d run along the ribbon of pavement and hope that a drunk or an exhausted shift worker wouldn’t see me. I ran and I ran, the occasional car blinding me with its headlights before calmly veering out of my way. The road had no shoulder, so I slipped off of the asphalt a couple of times and opened up my bike wounds and created some new ones.
I kept running, no accident or act of nature willing to permanently quiet the anxiety and the crazy. I hit a short stretch of sidewalk back lit by a distant light. I made out two men walking toward me. The time couldn’t have been later than four a.m., much too early for two guys to just be hanging out. I slowed to a walk and centered myself on the sidewalk. As they neared both their size and their youth became evident: twenties, with all of the testosterone and territoriality that conveys. I squared up and waited for them to close the distance. I had nothing but my clothes, nothing worth stealing but this small patch of sidewalk. If they couldn’t have anything else they were sure to demand that.
They were almost on top of me before they split, flowing around me like water around a river rock. One even stepped into the street to avoid me. Their conversation never missed a beat. Death refused to come.
I struggled through the day, and that evening I turned to someone for help. This person was dear to me, an intimate who knew my darkest secrets, my most profound vulnerabilities. This was a person with whom I’d entrusted my love and hope and sex and dreams and who I now leaned on, shattered.
“Your mental health is not my problem,” the person said, flowing like water around the rock. The next day I did the thing that people with broken brains find hardest to do: I called for help.
“Have you seen the doctor before?” the voice on the telephone asked.
“We can get you in in eight weeks.”
“I can’t wait eight weeks.”
“I’m sorry, but that’s the earliest I can schedule a first appointment.”
“I’ll be dead by then,” I said.
“If this is an emergency, please go to the nearest hospital,” she said.
“Fuck you,” I said. I called the nearest teaching hospital and made a near immediate appointment. My psychiatrist was a resident who looked to be twenty years my junior.
“May I videotape this conversation for teaching purposes?” he said.
“No, I have a fear of cameras.”
“The video will be confidential. I promise it will only be reviewed by my adviser and me.”
“No,” I repeated. “I can’t handle cameras. Do you want me to leave? How can you ask screwed up people such a question?”
“I’m sorry,” he said. “What brings you here today?”
“I need to be medicated,” I said.
“And why do you say that?” he asked. He’d already learned the condescending doctor smile.
I laid out my case: the years of talk therapy that amounted to nothing; the intrusive thoughts and compulsive behaviors; the anxiety, depression, and panic; the cool calm of painkillers and the four hour run in search of accidental death.
“Hold on, ” he said, and he left the room. He returned a few minutes later with an older woman. She asked me a couple of questions and then wrote me a prescription for little pink pills.
I never wanted medication. Not only did it seem like some kind of existential failure, but I feared that my creative sense would be deadened. I was a failure as a human being—creativity was all I had left. That I’d only been able to write and paint in fits and starts over the last twenty years didn’t occur to me.
The pink pills took a few weeks to establish their beachhead, but when they finally did I felt the cool calm of the painkillers again. With the smoke alarm quieted, I could hear how alone I was. The smoke was gone, but there was no one that I could talk to. Your mental health is not my problem.
I began to write again. I wrote to everyone, no one. I wrote to my children so that someday they might understand why it all matters, how everything is interconnected. I hid a lot in the pronoun “it.” On the surface “it” was music, and that organizing principle kept me on track while my broken brain healed and my shattered self esteem reassembled itself.
During my first month of tossing bottled messages into the digital river, I received 79 views. Almost all of them were from a dear friend and her husband, two people who recognized the fragile peace I’d negotiated with sanity. They understood the power of kindness and encouragement.
Another couple of personal friends followed, and then an interesting thing happened: I began to make new friends. Most of them never introduce themselves, but I see them lurking in the traffic patterns. They show up on Mondays and read my blather, and then they go about their weeks. I am grateful to them, to you.
All of this is just to say happy birthday to Why It Matters, and thank you to every single one of you who have indulged my pink-pilled rambling. Writing requires at least two people: one to lay it down, and another to pick it up. Without you I am incomplete.
These last three years have been my most prolific. The work may not always be good, but writing is better than staggering along, staring into the headlights. Thank you very much for all of your time and kindness.
***SUPER DELUXE BIRTHDAY BONUS TRIVIA***
1) I cribbed the title Why It Matters from a group of poems I wrote in my mid-twenties, all titled “What It Meant.” Each poem was the aftermath of some life event, but the event itself was never described. I don’t know whether I still have them somewhere, but I recycled the imagery from one of them for a Good Men Project thing.
2) Almost every Monday (numbered) piece has song lyrics for a title. This entertains me, but I’ve also held out hope that some industrious reader would someday Google the lyric and squeeze a little extra meaning out of, or into, the story. This little “happy birthday to me” is no exception: