At the age of four, I was going to fall out a third-story window. I would wake up from my nap without my parents noticing, climb on the windowsill, hold my teddy bear out the open window to air it out, lean too far and slide out.
Only I didn’t fall. My dad came to the room to check up on me and saw my toes right on the edge of the slippery windowsill, the right big toe peeking out from a hole in my purple pantyhose. He crept behind me, silently so as to not scare me, grabbed a hold of my ankles, and yanked me inside into his arms. I smiled at him and said I was airing out Paddington. His shirt was drenched with sweat, and he held onto me for a long while. I listened to his frantic heartbeat, my body safely cocooned in his arms.
Later I believed that I was meant to fall. I was meant to plummet towards the grey glass fiber dumpsters as the neighbor’s ten-year-old son’s round face growing larger upon my approach. I remember his upturned face, his mouth a red ‘O’ as he shouted a warning at me.
“You’re gonna fall!”
“No, I’m not, I’m just airing out this teddy bear!” I replied, with the certainty of an only child, to whom the world was a safe bubble held on Daddy’s broad shoulders in the manner of Atlas. After that non-fall, I’ve fallen down in every manner possible. I’ve fallen down on my bike. I’ve fallen off a swing set. I’ve fallen off a horse several times. I’ve fallen off a bunk bed head first, and a Lego brick stuck into my forehead. I’ve fallen off a snowmobile and got buried in the snow. Anything you could think of tripping on I’ve tripped on. The dog, a doormat, a toy, a child, my own and other people’s feet, and sometimes I would simply trip on thin air, it seemed. The world was a constant funhouse filled with distorted walls and perilous surfaces.
Something shifted in my dad after he saved me from my fall. It was like we were both trying to stay on the same unpredictable conveyer belt, constantly shifting direction. He got back to his old faithful drinking habit, and my jerky movements seemed to mirror his drunken gait. His eyes remained full of love, and his arms remained strong, but my world no longer felt securely supported on his shoulders.
Since then, I have a reoccurring dream. In the dream, I shoot down a tunnel—like Alice down the rabbit hole—and I try to grab hold of things but my hands keep slipping. Sometimes I stand and massive objects like armchairs and bookcases fly towards me. The dream comes and goes, most often when I’m overtired or stressed, and sometimes it even starts when I’m only half asleep.
My parents took me to the doctor to find out what was wrong, and I was prescribed glasses. They didn’t make my daily life more stable, but at least I could see the approaching earth better. The doctor suspected a calcium build-up that ailed my inner ear, disrupting my equilibrium. My instructions for head-rotation exercises were a stapled leaflet portraying a sexless stick figure in unflattering contortions. I half-heartedly tried the exercises once or twice, stuck the little pamphlet in my drawer and continued to stumble my way through elementary school.
At the age of 13, I discovered alcohol. That lead to more imaginative, but also more easily explained tumbles. Being drunk made me feel more normal somehow, like my unbalanced existence was finally validated. The drinking gathered speed, and I fell into the inebriated weekends like I was born to do it. Daddy’s girl wanted to drink like Daddy: excessively and extravagantly. I teetered in 5-inch stilettos on the icy winter streets, fueled by Shiraz and sass, or rode my bike in strappy sandals and short shorts. During one Woodstock-like Midsummer feast at a cabin in the middle of nowhere, I ran down a path holding a beer and a lit cigarette. My foot struck a tree root, and I took flight to the bright summer sky. My flight fell unsurprisingly short, and I landed on my face, not spilling a drop of the beer, cigarette still lit in between my fingers.
I developed a strong wanderlust. I loved being in transit: in a bus, a car, on a train, on a plane, it didn’t matter as long as I was on the move. The horizontal movement countered the spiraling feeling I had inside me. As long as I was on my way somewhere I wasn’t on the way down. New people, new places, new things to see and do—none of that was really my reason for traveling. I felt the best when I was leaving or returning, always en route, dislodged from my daily shaky ground.
The more I tried to stay upright, the more I fell. Falling on the ground turned into falling into people. I lost myself in people, and I tried to grab hold of whatever I could, but eventually I fell again, and I was left with a little less than I started with each time. Nobody took hold of my ankle to stop my fall, and I was too proud to ask for a helping hand. I was a good time, always up for a party, Teflon-coated, brush it off and keep moving kind of girl. I started to believe my own myth, and I kept cascading, laughing on my way down. I fell in and out of love, I fell in debt, I fell out with people, I fell into a deep depression, I fell onto sharp objects, and I finally hit bottom after almost two decades of free-falling through life.
* * *
There’s something you need to know about the bottom. The phrase “I hit rock bottom,” sounds like it’s not really rock, but instead, it’s some kind of trampoline that bounces you back up like an elastic turning point. Well, it’s not. Rock bottom is rocky. It’s dark, treacherous, and sharp; it scars you and is very, very hard to climb out of. It’s the bottom.
* * *
Emotionally Unstable Personality Disorder. That’s what the psychiatrist said in the acute care:
Emotionally Unstable (Borderline) Personality Disorder can cause a wide range of symptoms. These symptoms can be grouped into four main areas.
The four areas are:
· emotional instability (affective dysregulation)
· disturbed patterns of thinking or perception (cognitive or perceptual distortions)
· impulsive behavior
· intense but unstable relationships with others
She had red-rimmed glasses and short, straw-colored home-permed hair. Her eyes looked tired, and she kept glancing at her phone while she talked to me in a brightly lit hospital room. I sat in mint green hospital pajamas, my feet in taupe plastic slippers, my wrists stitched and bandaged, the white gauze like cuffs under the jersey-knit sleeves. I imagined a tightrope stretched over a dark abyss, and me with my Unstable Personality trying to walk it, trying not to glance down into the gorge below me. No wonder my feet kept slipping and my head was dizzy. She wanted to put me on medication. I said no.
Dad picked me up in his old BMW, and we listened to Creedence Clearwater Revival. His shoulders were rigid, and I saw his jaw clenching as he ground his teeth. He took my hand, and I held his tight. He had big hands that looked like shovels. I peered through the side window at the streets of my childhood neighborhood, the leaves pale green in the early spring light.
* * *
We spent that summer at my dad’s childhood home, a little cabin in the woods, just the two of us. The house was perched in one corner of the small yard, surrounded by near-impenetrable pine forest. There was only one story, and the windows were very low. The summer sky was high, and the silence was like a blanket over you, pierced only by the shrieks of swifts circling over treetops. The black-and-white TV received two channels, provided you go outside to adjust the antenna when you want to change channels.
“Just a little more to the left,” Dad yelled out the window while we watched Every Which Way but Loose, “I can almost make out Clint Eastwood’s face! He’s either smiling or grinning. No wait, it’s the orangutan.”
We fell into a steady rhythm, chopping wood, cooking, walking in the wilderness, drinking coffee and reading John Irving in the swing. Slowly I regained my balance. I still felt disoriented and sad, but I no longer had the feeling of falling. Dad’s shoulders started to relax and he stopped grinding his teeth at night. I slept whole nights and the falling dreams became fewer and further between. Mid-August we drove back into town and I went back to work. I learned to regain my balance whenever I felt overwhelmed and woozy. I kept the curtains open at all times so I could gaze through the window if I needed perspective.
I still trip over things, and many of my pants have holes in the knees. I’ve learned to keep my eyes focused on the distance, because staring at things that are too close make the world appear warped. I prefer to take the stairs: riding in an elevator makes me feel like I’m in my dream, plummeting down.
“Walking the tightrope requires balance and focus, but anybody can do it. Have someone help you up on the rope. Start in the middle first. Look forward and not at your feet. Work on keeping your balance from your hips. Keep your arms out straight and move them to maintain your balance when you place your other foot on the rope. Hold something in your hands to help you balance. Practice standing at first. When you are able to stand without wobbling too much, take a step, stand again, take a step, stand again, until you reach the end of the rope. Do not look down at your feet.”
I would also add that it’s imperative to stay sober: you understand how hard it is to stay on that thin line when filled with Shiraz.
Dad calls me regularly. Even now, from across the Atlantic, he can hear it in my voice if I am feeling loopy and unbalanced, and I tell him about the dreams now when they come. I think he is trying to hold on to me as if I’m perched on the windowsill, his big hands gripping my ankles as tight as they did 33 years ago. He quotes John Irving to me: “Keep passing the open windows” and I do.
About the author:
Katja Huru is a native of Finland and graduated in May 2014 with a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies Degree from the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Katja’s main area of research interest is fantasy literature from a gender studies point of view, which what she focused on when writing her MALS final project. Her essays for the project were featured in PopMatters. Katja is currently doing desk duties and day-dreaming. She does not like chocolate, but loves coffee, cake, and vampires.