Altered States

Blades of sharp, wet grass nettled between my bare toes as I stood dumbfounded, supporting my right arm at the elbow, trembling with fear on the mottled, unkempt lawn. The tissue-thin, cotton t-shirt I wore did nothing to protect me from the frigid mist saturating the night air. Trembling turned to convulsive shaking as the pain set in and my mind unravelled.

10pm, the first coherent thought I could pluck out of the shrapnel left behind by a shattered peace.

Move, said a tiny, distant voice.

No, answered my limbs.

You have to get out of the cold, said the tiny voice.

Can’t move, said my limbs.

Builders no longer routinely installed doors as heavy as the one in front of me. There was no weak crack made by cheaper hollow doors. No, this door had to be sealed tight when closed, and then pressed tight again while locking. But he had done it. He’d closed the door so hard that it made that sick, angry sound, followed by the unmistakeable clicking of an old deadbolt.

My keys, another coherent thought. After a minute, the unravelling slowed. Get your keys. Only five steps to the door. The door was still locked and my keys were inside.

Cold and terror had turned my legs into marbled pillars, mottled red and heavy.

The neighbors, another fragment that made some sense. They won’t call the police. Priorities had realigned as I stood frozen in the front yard. Terror had mushroomed and with every blast of blood through my temples, anger mushroomed with it. I seethed. All of the fragments began to coalesce into a single, purposeful thought.

You will not survive this if you stay.

I had watched an intelligent, educated man decompensate before my eyes. I witnessed the physical manifestation of a complete loss of emotional control usually attributed to children under five. I found myself barreling down the mineshaft, dragged along behind the speeding rail car of his rage and I was entirely powerless to stop it.

All I had said was, “I’d rather not go out tonight, if that’s alright.” A perfectly reasonable thing to say.

Within ten minutes, he’d grown so angry that he’d gripped the back of my neck and thrown me out of the front door of our house. I landed with a sickening thud on the concrete stoop, all my weight falling directly onto my right elbow and wrenching my right shoulder. There was no sound, but something came apart. Many somethings came apart.

Go to the neighbors, adrenaline had started to motivate my muscles and they began to move, slowly. My head began to clear and the plan to leave fell neatly into place.

Time passed, but no amount of time would stop the shaking. That would require distance. I knew I had to go back and keep things quiet until I could leave. Wait until he falls asleep, I thought. And he did.

Find your damn keys! I had enough time. It took only minutes to gather a blanket, my pets and some pants. I got in my car and made my way to an apartment I’d secretly been keeping for months. I didn’t care that I’d be sleeping on the hard wood floor. I only cared that I was safe. The following morning, I would begin the healing process, both physically and emotionally.

Pain has a way of telescoping our emotions. Each and every time I aggravate or re-injure my shoulder, I become someone else until the pain subsides. I become altered. I can feel myself grappling with it. I am transported back to that cold night and as my shoulder heals again, I crawl back from that helpless moment.

Each time, I am reminded that one night, a long time ago in a fit of rage, a man who claimed to love me tried very hard to hurt me. It had happened before but I had decided that it was not going to happen again. Over the years, I mastered compartmentalizing my feelings. My success at surviving an abusive relationship has had everything to do with remembering that I did not create him and it was not my sickness.

There are many reasons why I was able to leave and eventually move forward. Any counselor can tell you what makes it possible to thrive after that kind of experience. But they should also tell you that not all scars are visible, and how you choose to use yours will define your existence for the rest of your life. They will be part of your new normal; they will occasionally force your altered states.

My altered state is short-tempered, impatient and surly. I abhor that state, so I seek immediate and effective remedies for the pain. I cannot help that for a few moments, when the pain is the worst, I remember that young woman again, seething and helpless. But I draw great satisfaction knowing that I’ll never be her again.

Late to the Party

Of my five favorite teachers, four were my literature teachers. I remember each of their names and faces, well. I remember their passion. The youngest of them is partially retired now, but is among my Facebook friends. The three others, already vintage when I was in high school, are no doubt in grilling Hawthorne, Hemingway and Conrad as I write this.

Years later, I wish that then, when I had access to them, I’d had my current maturity and capacity for understanding. So much of the required reading went unread, and now, I plan to fix that.

“Writers read,” as my friend says. It’s true, studying the masters is the best way to learn your art, no matter what form it takes. Each writer has a list of their favorite influences. I wonder what that rarefied list will look like for me? Such a list should surely include Shakespeare, for Lady Macbeth, Proust, for his madeleines, Orwell, for his Victory coffee, or Flaubert, for Madame Bovary’s lovely shoes. And contemporaries, as well, which to my delight, my literary friends are suggesting faster than I can read them. Perhaps it will be one master for each literary device.

Whatever it looks like, it will be my list. It might even include books I hate, but understand are literary genius, nonetheless. Each writer has a list as individual as the route time takes across his or her face.

While, like Bukowski, I am very late to the literary party, I’m quickly becoming intimately familiar with the guests. I’ll try to spend every possible moment immersed in private conversation with each one, and maybe someday, I’ll hit a vein of genius and feel like even if for just a moment, I was, in fact, a writer.

What is ‘what is’?

Naturally, I was seated in the first desk.  It was the only way I could stay awake. It wasn’t that Mr. Givens wasn’t interesting. Quite the opposite, actually. He was a quietly elegant man. Average height, slender, very late sixties, and full of a love and knowledge of literature that I’ve perceived rarely since.

He stood at the blackboard, grinned mischievously and asked the class to write four words at the tops of our papers: “What is ‘what is’?” I remember, clearly, the terror that bounced around my brain like bee-bees in a kettle drum and the pyrotechnic spinning wheel burning in my chest. Even I knew that I couldn’t possibly have anything worthwhile to commit to paper. I knew that I had neither the maturity, nor the command of concrete thought that it was going to take to answer such a question in an innovative way. Perhaps, had I just written that, had I just said that my ‘what is’ was a profound fear of not having the right answer, of sounding trite or glib. Then perhaps I’d have been able to write an answer that pleased Mr. Givens. But instead, I sat frozen, increasingly aware of the clicking of the second hand on the white, industrial clock on the wall and the furious scratching of pens all around me. I continued to stare at those four words, dodging the bee-bees. Staring. Staring harder. Squeezing shut my eyes. Searching my mind for a spark of clarity. Nothing. Nothing at all.

I knew that all of the brilliant kids around me were far more self-aware than I. Actually, I’m not sure that I knew to label it as self-aware. I just knew that they seemed to thrive. I was clinically depressed. Only, at the time, no one around me knew what that looked like. Looking at a teacher, hearing what they said, and trying at the same time to stop the bee-bees in my head and the spinning wheel in my chest; it was very hard work and I was exhausted all of the time. I couldn’t remember what I’d heard just minutes before, even though I’d done everything I could to focus on it. My grades suffered; my family suffered around me; and I began a slow decent into that state where feeling all of the time left no energy left to think. The bee-bees got louder and the spinning wheel hurt more. “What is” for me was just four words, written in perfect Catholic school penmanship at the top of a piece of cheap notebook paper with blue lines. To this day, that is all I remember writing.

The paradoxes of my life were many, and varied, and kept me from feeling like I had a place, much less a path. I didn’t understand what was happening to me and I knew that I was very much alone in it. I longed to identify with and belong to anything, but with all the “noise,” there was no room for anything else. I would get close and then my “what is” would stop my progress. My “what is” was debilitating fear.

Now, the word depression is often associated with images of people who won’t get out of bed or celebrities who drink themselves into oblivion. I showed up every day, and tried, but without the tools I needed to get past the “what is” that handicapped me. Long ago, I learned to cope with it. I understood the idea that depression is the emotional “snow in the TV screen,” as it was eventually described to me when I was finally diagnosed and treated several years later. In fact, when I admit to people now that I’ve dealt with it my entire life, they look at me as if I have three heads. “What???” they say, shocked. “How can you be depressed? You seem so happy.” Well, these days, my ‘what is’ is vastly different than it was for the teenager sitting at that desk, staring at that piece of paper.

Thirty-two years later, that scene still bothers me. Out of sheer curiosity, I’d love to know what all of the other pens scratched out on paper that day. If I had to write the same essay today, naturally, “what is” would be “perception.” I might, in a flare of drama, write only that one word. It really is no more complicated than that. The sky could be a perfect cerulean with big fluffy clouds, but a hundred different people will see a hundred different shades of blue. Depression dulls all the colors, covering everything with a veil of grey. A few years ago, I chose to live a life full of color and I’ve managed my ‘what is’ as best I can ever since. It isn’t always easy, and some never make it to this point. But it begins with avoiding triggers and then follows with tiny choices. I choose what takes up real estate in my head. I choose to spend time with people that add color to my world. I choose joy. I choose to explore, experience and thrive. I choose my “what is” every day. 

So, now ask yourself, what is your “what is?”



Simple, he said.

There I stood on the platform, thinking I’m a pretty smart woman. Why can’t I figure this out? I looked at the map, repeatedly, tilting my head as though that would help me make sense of all of the pretty colors. I had two apps on my phone, and I knew I’d started with good information provided by two highly intelligent guides before I descended into the white-tiled hell in which I stood. But somewhere in my psyche, there was a disconnect between my navigational skills and what had been easily distilled by the sea of humanity milling around me. I was standing amongst at least 200 people and I felt utterly alone. I hated and loved it all at the same time.

The problem sprang from a lack of basic information, which was then complicated by simple things: multi-level platforms, express versus local trains, which boroughs were where and the piece de resistance, apps that didn’t work in the subway. All finally culminating in a transportation failure of epic proportions.

I was genuinely, comically lost in a New York City subway.

It hadn’t escaped my attention that I’d come to New York to find something I didn’t think I could get at home. I am creative: constantly seduced by ideas and a pathological need to focus and massage them into something brilliant and new. I’d come to immerse myself in a new place, new people and their ideas. As I stood on the platform at Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, trying to find the N train into Manhattan, I began to realize that I had no idea where to start.

I stared down the long corridor, marveling at the contrast between the white-tiled walls and the grimy concrete floor of the tracks. I chuckled at the pretty blue tiles that interrupted the long white walls, letting riders know which street was above their heads. Because my problem was direction, knowing what street was above my head did me little good.

So, finally, I surrendered to something I knew. I smiled sweetly and asked the closest friendly face if I was in the right place to get to Central Park. I engaged his eyes. He didn’t look away, and returned the smile. “Yes, you’re in the right place.” Still engaged, I said thank you and stayed where I stood. Moments later, the N train arrived and I was on my way to 77th & Lexington.

Having now found my way onto the right train, I still needed to find my way off at the right stop. My friend had said, “It’s simple. Just get off at the 77th Street stop.” Simple. Nothing so far had been simple. I looked at the app on my phone to review how long this ride should take. 25 minutes. No problem, simple, sit here and read. I buried my head in the book and so relaxed was I now that I was moving in the right direction, that I lost track of time and completely missed my stop. I looked up just in time to see that I had ventured into South Bronx. Jesus! I’m leaking IQ points 10 at a time. I scrambled out of train, and up to the street. Checking the app again, I was certain I’d get instant and useful information. I imagined Alexander, leaning on his sword as I stood and stared at a phone that had frozen in defiance. I looked up at the sky; having fun testing my mettle? I was on my own for the moment. Focus! I thought. Just focus!

I had a small epiphany when I realized that all I had to do was cross the street to get to the other side of the platform where another train would simply take me back in the right direction. There it was, the first of the simple things that even New York children understand. I was getting closer. It was just three stops.

Triumphantly, I stepped out of the subway and onto the corner, now entirely panicked because there was no way for me to call the one person who could rescue me from this oddysey. Think, I repeated to myself. Reset your phone, moron. My inner voice, however rude, was right. I pressed the right buttons and waited and just as the little white apple appeared on screen, I looked up to see that, knowing where I should be standing when I exited the subway, my friend had found me. Relief came in a heavy sigh as he wrapped his arms around me in a solid and much needed embrace. I couldn’t help but burst into hysterical laughter at both my misfortune and my relief at finally arriving unharmed and enlightened at my final destination.

Other subway disasters followed this first Gordian foray into the city but that first day was the worst. Finally, after two days, I was able to ride with one of my native friends. I learned a lot by watching him, which is my strong suit. Things began to crystalize after that night, despite the volume of tequila I’d consumed. I began to connect to my adventure and sense it as it wrapped itself around me. Slowly subsided the fear of taking it all and I began to focus on how within twenty feet, I heard five different languages; how people who wore pedestrian, western clothing came in every color, shape and size; how cologne was as familiar to some as was body odor to others; and above all, how around me were hundreds of people who carried just as much baggage into that subway as I did.

Sometimes knowing how to navigate means more than an ability to read a map. Sometimes, it’s knowing how to read people. It’s knowing when you need them and how to ask. It’s connecting to someone on whom you’ve never laid eyes, but whose heart you’ve been able to see through words. In the future, I’ll venture into the subway again, and it will likely be to get to a new place. It’s very likely that I’ll get confused a few more times before I know it well. But as long as I have something waiting on the other side, something that makes me quake with anticipation, then I’ll muddle through what I don’t know using what I do know, simply because the payoff is priceless.