When I can’t sleep, I self-diagnose. I don’t count sheep or pray or drink warm milk. I try to figure out all the reasons why I don’t belong in society.
Initially, I just thought it was just a social anxiety disorder, but that’s so blasé. I have the classic symptoms, of course- I hate speaking in public, I don’t go to the restroom when other people are around, I cover my mouth with my hand when I eat, the usual. But social anxiety disorder just isn’t cutting it. Not after David left.
David didn’t leave, actually. David was given a directive, issued by me. David was talking vaguely about commitment while eating a subway churro on the platform of the F. He seemed to be building up to something- his phrasing got very poetic for an actuary. I had to shut it down-
“Please don’t propose to me on the subway. I know that you’re trying to be romantic, and you think it’s sweet that we’re ‘moving forward’ metaphorically while traveling uptown, but please don’t do this here. To be perfectly honest, I hate the subway. I’m SCARED of the subway. I’ve been scared of the subway since well before terror alerts. I’ve always been sure, from the second I left Iowa for New York, that the subway was a haven for domestic terrorism. It’s too far down in the earth, and it’s shaped like a coffin. Well, a chain of coffins. It’s bad, it’s bad, it’s bad. Don’t do this here. Every time the train stops mid-tunnel, even for a second, I get panicky. Not minorly-concerned-but-it’s-probably-okay panicky. Can’t-breathe-need-water-start-reconsidering-religion-and-reciting-the-beginning-of-the-rosary-because-that’s-all-I-can-remember panicky. Every time I hear the E-C pitches of the doors closing, I cringe just a little bit because it means now I can’t get out. I have to go through with this for at least 8 more blocks. I have ridden the subway almost every day for 16 years, and I’m still scared.
“If you have to propose to me on the subway, can you do it on the 7? Not at Willets-Point, because I don’t care for the Mets or baseball or anything like that, but the 7 is definitely preferable. Yes, it’s in Queens, which is acutely aware of how awful it is for being named after royalty, but it’s also ABOVE GROUND. Sometimes, it’s even beautiful. When you come up from Vernon to Bliss Street on a winter day, the dusting of snow that hits the roofs uncontaminated against the graffiti, it almost works. It’s almost normal. Yeah, the J is also above ground, but the J is also the pipeline to scary, shitty neighborhoods. Is that what you want for the start of our life together? Jamaica Avenue? No. No. You certainly do not.
“And what kind of story is this for our future kids, anyway? ‘I got down on one knee and said ‘Please watch the gap, will you marry me?’ and that’s how I proposed to your mother, kids!’ What kind of framework is that to raise children in? Not that I’m thinking about kids; I’m not thinking about kids. I’m not pregnant or anything and I don’t know what I’d do if I was, because I just recently found out that things tear when you give birth. They tear. Do you understand that? I don’t want things on me tearing. I know things stretch and wrinkle and eventually we shuffle off this mortal coil and all that stuff, but I don’t think I can handle the tearing. So, let’s not have kids right now. And please don’t propose to me on the subway
“In fact, please don’t propose to me at all if you don’t have to. Let’s face it, this is going too well. We like the same foods and we’re proportionate heights and we’re compatible sexually- something’s amiss. If you were a pervert or a thug or a lepidopterist, then, yeah, fine, at least something would make me uneasy. But, I fall asleep next to you and I wake up with you still there. Do you want to really do that for the next 50+ years? I think not. You should be having torrid sexual affairs that you cover up when it comes time to give your daughter ‘the talk’ in fifteen years. You should be contracting venereal diseases in 3rd world countries. Well, developing nations. You shouldn’t be here, proposing to me on the subway. Understood?”
“Umm. I wasn’t going to. Are you okay?”
Of course I’m not okay. I’ve never been okay. I don’t know what the state of okay-ness is or what I would do to get there. But even that, David was okay with. David was okay with everything, and that was…almost nice. So I guess that’s not why he left me. Maybe he didn’t’ leave me at all and I’m just paranoid because he took the job with the fancy offices and better salary and socialized healthcare. Maybe he just had to move to Toronto and I had to stay here and that’s the way it goes sometimes.
I mean, the next obvious diagnosis, to my mind at least (which perhaps isn’t valid at all given the circumstances) is an adjustment disorder. I mean, clearly there’s been a major rupture in my life, because the toothbrush holder only has 1 toothbrush in it instead of two now. I bought another toothbrush to replace David’s, but I know it’s not his- his had Buzz Lightyear on it. So when I’m getting ready in the morning, the toothbrush holder is judging. It’s telling me not to bother straightening my hair or cleaning up the brown frizzy hairballs that come out of the brush or even having hair because I blew it. It’s telling me to skip the eyeliner and the concealer and the contact lenses; it’s telling me I’m not fooling anyone, that the clock is ticking and I haven’t gathered my rosebuds quickly enough. The toothbrush holder is mocking me.
Let me clarify- the toothbrush holder is not literally mocking me. That would be the sensation of aural hallucinations and that would be indicative of schizophrenia, which really gets a bad rap considering how many amazing people have had it. I know I’m not schizophrenic; that never even made it onto the short-list. I don’t hallucinate, and I’m not acutely paranoid, I think. I also am apparently one of the few people who recognizes that schizophrenia is NOT synonymous with MPD or dissociative identity disorder.
I don’t really dissociate either, which is disappointing. Not that I’d want to be in a fugue state or anything- forgetting is scarier than subways. But it might be nice to dissociate for a while, to be someone else, to function in another place or time. I’m just not imaginative enough for that. The friends I have are all real, and always have been. I was the only person in my kindergarten class who didn’t have an imaginary friend, and it made me feel like a third wheel on play dates. Alex and his imaginary friend Harry the Hippopotamus were always very hospitable, mind you, but I know when I’m not wanted. I was glad when Harry left the picture. He was holding Alex back.
Alex is still a good friend, although now he practices corporate law in Westchester rather than cartwheels in Sioux City. He is constantly advising me into the private sector, something I cannot imagine given my disdain for soirees and galas. I know there probably aren’t many soirees and galas that I’d have to go to, but there are probably some, and that I cannot handle. Small talking isn’t as scary as forgetting or subways, but it means I have to measure time between when I eat the cheese and crackers and when I have to respond to vague questions about my life while wearing a cocktail dress, all of which I’m not very good at. If I dissociated, I probably would be.
Perhaps there are dissociating classes I could take. My roommate in college was an actress, and she took on the tics and mannerisms of whatever character she was playing at the moment. It was okay when she was playing Nora Helmer and she had macaroons all the time, but less so when she played Ophelia and ran the shower for hours on end. I actually never knew her first name, because she would introduce herself in character. She was a little intimidating, but it was nice getting a new roommate every four weeks or so.
When she wasn’t in character, she slept around. I’m sure she did other things, but I only remember her sleeping around. Apparently, she slept around with homeless men, because everyone always came back to our apartment and left their shoes on our floor and used our dishes and had sex in our bedroom. I got used to sleeping on the couch, mostly because I didn’t want to bother anyone, but there were days where I’d have to sneak in to get my clothes from my bureau in order to go to class. I never woke anyone up, due in part to my smallness and aptitude for invisibility, but the fear of having to make small talk with a naked man in Nora-Ophelia’s bed was consumptive.
Impulse-control disorders looked really promising for a while, and I may return to that if all else fails. My problem is mainly that the impulses I can’t control are, by and large, considered positive. When I’m very stressed, I bake cookies. Baking is consistent, with every batch making a precise number of proportionate cookies. I don’t actually like cookies, so I bring them to work or to a friend or to hobos. Giving cookies to hobos is tricky, because sometimes they want to talk to me, and I just want to get rid of the linzer tarts in my bag.
I’ve dabbled in other impulse-control disorders, but none of them took. The only thing I’ve ever stolen is a pen from a restaurant when I’m signing the bill. I can’t even light a match properly, so pyromania is out. Trichotillomania, compulsive hair pulling, is not so much soothing as painful, and intermittent explosive disorder would almost certainly lead to people paying far too much attention to me for comfort.
Kevin, my older brother, suggested addiction. To him, it was the most convenient, efficient mental disorder.
“You can pick your poison, so it’s not like you’re being forced into anything,” he reasons over Skype from Detroit, where he has recently bought six foreclosed buildings. He was always the slumlord when we played Monopoly, so this was not a surprising move.
“Yes, but then I don’t have any control over what I do in order to get my fix, from what I’m to understand.”
“Ellen, you’re being overdramatic. Get moderately addicted. You don’t have to develop a full-on heroin addiction.” He gestures a needle into his right elbow, using the opportunity to show off his new tattoo of the family crest on his forearm. Unfortunately, the Cramer family crest involves a lot of yellow tendrils stemming from a suit of arms, and combined with Kevin’s fair complexion, the tattoo looks like he has a bizarrely hair wrist. “ Nice ink, Kev. Very Anglo-Saxon.” I try to be nice.
“That’s what I was going for. Ideal. Anyway. If you were to pick a drug, what’d it be? And you can’t say pot. No one gets hooked on pot.”
“What do you think about ecstasy?” I ask, hoping that if I have to get addicted to something, at least I can feel really good in the process.
“You can’t get addicted to molly. You just get really depressed after using it, if you don’t die during your trip.”
“How do you know?” This definitely didn’t come from firsthand experience. Despite dealing, slumming, and pimping, Kevin has been the self-appointed designated driver since he was 14. He won’t even drink coffee, because at 36 he still gets carded for R-rated movies and he doesn’t want to cede his youth just yet.
“From my friend Molly.”
“Is that a euphemism?”
“No,” my big brother scoffs, “I have a friend Molly who covers the rave scene in Santa Fe.”
“Doesn’t that get confusing? And is there really a rave scene in Santa Fe?”
“No. And there’s a rave scene everywhere. You just need to know where to look for it. Molly has cornered a niche market on molly. When’s your next vacation?”
“Never. You know where I work. Why, are you going to try to hook me up? Creep.”
“It’d just be nice to see your piggish face now and again, SuperTwerp. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have tenant who is willing to swap certain sexual favors for next month’s rent. Take care, kiddo.” My big brother, the entrepreneur.
When I fact-checked this with Tiffany, the gynecology student in the next-door apartment, she agreed that you couldn’t get addicted to molly or pot, but that gambling and sex count as addictions too. I’m afraid I don’t have enough money for that. She sees a lot of the aftermath of the latter, and carries around pictures of her patients. I’m not sure it’s entirely legal, but she assures me that the doctor she is shadowing does it all the time.
“He’s a great doctor, except for all the crack whores,” she defends.
“He gives crack whores free checkups, because he feels bad about where their lives have taken them and he thinks if he can nip some of those diseases in the bud, he won’t have as many problematic patients in the long run, “ she explains.
“Yeah, except, then they’re always in the waiting room. And when they’re always in the waiting room, they bother the paying patients, and the paying patients bother me to get rid of the crack whores. It gets very messy very quickly. “
“Isn’t your whole line of work messy?” I joke.
“That’s not funny, Ellen. Vaginas are serious business.”
Tiffany takes a moment to pull out a tiny satchel from her bag and roll herself a cigarette. Her fingers deftly pinch the loose tobacco, tuck in the edges of the rolling paper, and form a perfect cylindrical tube to suck down carcinogens with. Clearly, she’s done it for years, although the healthy glow of her hazel skin would argue to the contrary. Somehow, health professionals seem to do unhealthy things for years with no adverse affects. She straightens to full height and we continue our walk through Forest Park and back into safe, comfy, reliable Forest Hills. Right before we get in the doorway, Tiffany has a seemingly brilliant idea.
“Why don’t you go to an N.A. or A.A. meeting and see what all those people are doing wrong, so you can do it wrong, too,” she recommended, juggling her bag of bodega groceries, her phone, the cigarette, and her apartment keys. She flicked her wrist at me, an offhanded goodbye.
It was a good idea, in theory, and one I followed up on with some creative research. I couldn’t look it up at work for obvious reasons, so I had to make due stealing wifi from the neighborhood Starbucks by perching on their outside ledge, balancing my laptop precariously on one knee. The concept that all IT people have super- advanced, state-of-the-art technology at their fingertips 24/7 is a myth. I don’t even have a smart phone. I do, however, have some phenomenal hacking skills that I don’t use to my advantage.
The closest group that I could attend was the Whitestone Sober Squad, inconvenient but not impossibly located. The meeting was held at 8 o’clock last Thursday. Scrunched into a kindergarten classroom at St. Cornelius’s Elementary School and Soup Kitchen, we sat in a circle in tiny desks and started with the prayer-ish thing. I mumbled along, concerned that I would be ousted. Everyone else there was at least 15 years older, male, and belonged to some kind trade union- plumbers or contractors or MTA employees. The confessional portion of the meeting proceeded, with everyone sharing something about themselves and their struggles. There was Bart, the HVAC technician who habitually chugged Listerine and vanilla extract after his wife removed all the liquors from the house. Carl spoke about his attraction to absinthe and the fascist ostrich that chased him whenever he drank it, which led to him falling off a roof on the job. Enrique only spoke Spanish, but the gist of his confession had something to do with spiking all the orange juice in the house with vodka until his daughter accidentally drank some. Allen drank between classes as the vocational school he worked at, almost slicing his thumb off with a buzz saw more than once.
They all spoke about stress and anxiety and release, which made sense. It wasn’t anything I could work with, though. The group leader, a hairy guy in a v-neck tee shirt named Fabian, finally turned to me. I had forgotten this part. I didn’t have a plan.
“Hello, newcomer! Briefly give us your name and share your struggles with the group. We always welcome a new, delicate looking face to the Sober Squad.”
I panicked. What the hell was I supposed to say? I stared at my boots. I realized that seemed dishonest, so I tried to make direct eye contact with Fabian. This proved difficult, as one of his eyes was artificial. I’m not sure which one, though.
“Hi. I’m Ellen.”
“Hi, Ellen,” the group droned.
“I’m 31 and I’m a petty officer, a 25E, actually, in Information Systems and Networking at Fort Hamilton. And I’m here because…”
Why am I there? Why am I there? I’m no good at thinking up truths on the spot, much less lying. Cross pathological liar off the list.
“…I’m here because I got alcohol poisoning and had to get my stomach pumped. I want to stop this destructive behavior.”
This is entirely untrue. I don’t get drunk; I don’t like the feeling that I’m out of control. In fact, the only time I’ve ever been drunk was during my sophomore year at Rutgers, when I was asked to serve wine at a fundraiser as part of my work-study with the Philosophy department. My supervisor, Dr. Ugoretz, didn’t believe in age as a concrete reality, and insisted that I take home 2 bottles of leftover wine, to drink immediately. I tried to explain I was 20 years old and thus underage, but he insisted. My reluctance at having the bottles in my dorm prompted him to open one bottle, pour half the contents into a Descartes Decanter, and insist that I drink it right there.
“Vivez, “ he said, “you are too new to this earth to not enjoy her fruits.”
He proceeded to drink straight out of the bottle, and, as I didn’t want to disobey a professor, I chugged the decanter. Unfortunately, this was during finals week, and I had neither ate nor slept in 72 hours. I staggered out of the banquet hall and fell asleep somewhere on the side of US 1. I woke up to a truck driver poking me in the stomach with a stick. I threw up on him right there.
The Sober Squad applauded my gusto as I renounced alcohol and sat back down in my undersized chair. Afterwards, over stale cookies and watery coffee that smelled like lox, Bart cornered me and asked for my number. I gave him the number at the base. That number is disconnected indefinitely, due to a recent scare from Anonymous.
I cannot become an alcoholic, and that’s frustrating because I’m running out of options. A few times, as I tried to drift off to sleep on my crunchy IKEA bed, I thought I might perhaps have a sleep disorder- insomnia or narcolepsy. I would wake up cursing the regularity of my REM cycles. Sleep is dissatisfying not only because it brings about the end of an option, but because of what goes on in my sleep. I’m a lucid dreamer. I don’t mean to be, I just am, and I don’t like it at all.
When I was a child, my dreams could be scary or funny or strange. I would get the normal gamut of sleep experiences: falling indefinitely, being lost in a maze, killer clowns, spaghetti for hair. As I got older, though, I found that I could control my dreams. This was pleasing until I realized the ramifications of calculated fantasizing. Lucid dreams mean that I am always accountable. So, when I dream of being at war with a flock of penguins, I’m very actually being violent to some degree. When I dream about food, I’m actually being gluttonous, even if nothing goes in my mouth. And, of course, when I have a sex dream, I might as well be raping the person. (Is that possible? Can I be responsible for theoretically assaulting someone because I conscientiously chose to do it with him subconsciously? Is there a way to ask for sleep consent?)
Maybe all this lucid dreaming points to megalomania, or to an excessive need for control. Maybe my obsessive need to always handle everything is a product of an overworked, calculating mind that has malicious intents. And maybe this means I need to be locked up and put away forever. I certainly hope so. Then, at least, there would be something wrong with me.
Because if there’s nothing wrong with me, I’m getting deployed to Egypt in 23 days. And if I’m getting deployed to Egypt in 23 days, then I’m in big trouble. I don’t speak Arabic; I don’t know the geopolitical situation of the area or of any area outside of the 50 states, for that matter. I don’t even know where exactly Egypt is. All I know of Egypt is what I’ve seen in movies, like that one where Val Kilmer plays Moses and God at the same time. I don’t think there are going to be perfectly tonal choruses by Hans Zimmer playing in the background of my active duty tour. If there were, I could probably claim auditory hallucinations and go home.
I signed up for the Army as a way to pay for college, and I majored in computer science because that seemed safe. You can do computer work from anywhere in the world. You can’t get hurt by computers. When I graduated from college, they put me through 3 weeks of boot camp where I failed every physical examination beautifully. I can’t do push-ups, sit-ups, run or climb rope. In all technicality, I got a negative score on my shooting range test because I almost shot my commanding officer trying to load a BB gun. They didn’t even both with a rifle.
But none of that mattered, because I can code and detect and debug and reprogram, and I was under the impression that that’s all Uncle Sam wanted me for- keeping the generals’ emails out of the public eye and stopping hackers before they stop us. Now, my commanding officer, who took me under his wing 9 years ago and was supposed to be like a father to me, talks about nothing but the glorious mission. This is all some grand adventure for him, in which the noble and just Americans bring Promethean wifi back to the backwoods citizens of Hurghada and beyond. He doesn’t care that I’ve never been out of the country. He doesn’t care about sunburn and social lives and traditional dress and enemy combatants. He pretends he does, but it’s all a cover.
Talking to the therapist on staff last week for the third time, I tried to display particularly erratic behavior, to no avail. I nibbled on a pen cap. I screamed a lot of curse words. I even claimed to have suicidal ideations. Dr. Pharez remained unfazed, and tried to reassure me that these were natural feelings to have before a first tour of duty. She’s no help. I need her to write “Unfit For Duty” all over my records.
And I know you only asked me if you could buy me a drink, and what a little lady like me was doing all alone at Dirty Pierre’s on a Monday night, but I think you deserve to get a proper explanation of the situation at large. I will lie awake at your place tonight after you’ve exhausted yourself and try to figure out what the hell could be wrong with me. I won’t toss or turn or talk in my sleep, but I’ll stare at the ceiling in your over-sized tee shirt that inevitably has a witty, ironic statement like “Socialist Butterfly” and I’ll run through the list of pathologies in my head. And if I don’t succeed, I’ll be headed for Cairo in 22 ½ days. And if you’re all right with that, I’d love an Irish Carbomb.
About the author:
Lisa Maher is a person. She is a recent graduate of MHC, is in pursuit of her MFA at Columbia, and teaches at SJHS in Brooklyn. In her spare time, she is a freelance stage manager, epee fencer, lover, fighter, ballad writer, and vocalist. She is also a proud member of Freudian Slip Films. She occasionally lives in New York.