I’m writing a series of first-person monologues titled “Unraveling (prelude to a breakdown)”, that looks at public performances of mental illness. Having had intimate encounters with those vertices, I needed to write around my experiences as both participant and witness. The following are fragments from my writings, completed over the past two weeks:
“Empty spaces, what are we living for?/Abandoned places, I guess we know the score” – The Show Must Go On, Queen (1991)
“I cried in the sunlight/Would I fake all the times I loved you?/Just to play in a game of twisted with you” – Twisted (Everyday Hurts), Skunk Anansie (1996)
I went to visit him in the psych ward. He couldn’t stop crying. Even when he was laughing, tears were coming. He cried for days. He only stopped at night, when they gave him sleeping pills. They wouldn’t give him the pills during the day, even though he asked. I visited him daily even though he revolted me, and I pretended I pitied him when really I feared ending up like him. Pathetic, shrunken, wearing the stigma of mental illness. Each time I left, I would walk down one flight and lock myself in a bathroom. Sometimes I would throw up with the effort of holding back my own tears. I couldn’t allow myself to cry because that was weak, it was sad, and it was the inevitable prelude to a breakdown. After all, he was admitted because he couldn’t stop crying. After my last visit, I started hyperventilating in the washroom. I was in there for almost an hour, until the panic attack had passed. I couldn’t go back after that, it felt like too close a call. And that’s why I don’t permit myself to cry.
My outlines have started to blur – the steadiness of my movement is gone. Handshake in tremolo. The body interprets emotion, manifests sadness through an inability to keep up. The background of my life has been thrown into a negative and what’s black shows up as white, what’s green shows up as red. It’s hard to hold on when the mental is in turmoil. It’s hard to hold on when the ground shifts. It’s hard to hold on when you’re not with me. You’re now a lifeline, this is now a reversal, and I am now unhealthy.
I don’t let myself cry, but recently, I haven’t been able to suppress/oppress tears. People close to me draw back and I don’t blame them. I’m intense on a good day. Those around me need to protect themselves from my lows. I see my friends withdraw and I can’t even be mad at them. I see how my hurt affects them and so I repress to spare them the pain. I feel like a character in a Bachman story, holding in my guts as they spill from a gash in my abdomen. I tell everyone around me that I’m okay, it’s just a skin wound. And feeling so alone when they all choose to believe that, choose to believe that I’m not unraveling despite what they see. I absolve them of responsibility with “I’m okay.” They don’t even have to witness.
In the absence of safe space provided by a lover, I turn to the city as a cold, mocking substitute. Queen-sized beds are replaced by park benches and street corners function as living rooms. The corner of Dundas and Dufferin, specifically – that intersection is a short walk away from a hospital, CAMH, and my home. I’ve tricked myself into thinking of the city as safe, and once I can believe that, then I can let go. Maybe it’ll happen in a restaurant, a coffeeshop, a club, a gym. No shame, no boundaries. I’m holding on with everything I’ve got. Until then, I seek refuge in my addictions, but those crutches can only take me so far.
Calvino says: “The city, however, does not tell its past, but contains it like the lines of a hand, written in the corners of streets, the gratings of the windows, the banisters of the steps, the antennae of the lightning rods, the poles of the flags, every segment marked in turn with scratches, indentations, scrolls.”
Like Zaira, I hold my past within my body that can barely sustain itself anymore. It’s a feedback loop – emotions express in the physical, and the body’s memory acts out in the mental, emotional, spiritual. My spatial clumsiness reflects an inability to handle feelings with finesse. The bruises, scratches that appear unexplained on my body are mirrored in my psyche. I still don’t know which came first, and it scares me that the memories I retain may not be only mine, but of those who came before me.
I’m walking south, toward the lake. Toward the water and Ochún. Mentally preparing a ritual to release. It’s not going to work because I don’t want it to work. Or something. This enacted martyrdom is tinted with self-loathing. Before I cross the tracks, before I reach the lake, I stop. I walk east with the CN Tower as my guide, the blinking lights creating cheer in anticipation of the Pride parade. I stop again, and sit on a bench, staring straight ahead of me. I only move when my body is cold and wants to go home. I hear your smile in my head.