cw: suicide, schizophrenia, domestic abuse/violence, drug use, descriptions of psychosis
There are some theories that the world is simply not ready to hear. In 1865, Ignaz Semmelweis theorized the idea that hand washing could help prevent the spread of disease. Semmelweis was then committed for insanity. People could not see germs or bacteria, and therefore did not believe him. There are forces in this world that are unseen that create dangerous changes like germs and bacteria. Almost 200 years later, I have come to realize that mental illness has the same effect. To clarify, I am not referring to a new strand of microorganism that spreads mental illness. Rather something much more unstoppable than contagious germs and bacteria.
Echophenomena is a common characteristic of mimicry found in not only humans, but dogs and chimpanzees. This phenomenon is a scientifically proven fact and is seen in things like a yawn becoming contagious. I think the infectious ability of mental illness is similar to that of a yawn. I have seen firsthand the rampant spreading of madness. The loss of control experienced by one that leaps to others unnoticed, creating more and more chaos. For a period of several years, I experienced this phenomenon of the touch of madness.
Freshman year at Malone University I was in a two-year relationship with a girl named Maggie. One winter day, she drove the hour-long drive from my hometown to come see me. We attended a live performance of music put on by students. When it was night, I asked if she wanted to come to my room.
Most of the night she had been extremely quiet. It was unusual for us to not have something to say to each other. This night was different: this night, she told me with searching eyes that she could not see me again. She explained something was wrong, and we had to separate before it was too late.
That was the last time I saw Maggie for many years, but I’ll never forget the look she gave me before she left. It was the look of a lost child who has been wandering where everything looks unfamiliar.
Break-ups are usually always messy. Even if it is mutual, there is always clean up. This break-up between Maggie and I was different. I was completely ghosted. I received no calls or texts after that night of silence we shared. I was left alone with my thoughts, and I couldn’t explain it at first, but I felt changed. The kind of change you feel after you become angry. The thing about this change is that it never went away.
My sophomore year at Malone, I met a boy named Matt. Matt and I began a relationship that was mostly built on good intentions. Matt had introduced me to Adderall.
Before the onset of my initial symptoms, I had been relatively medication free. I had dabbled in receiving counseling before and the only drug prescribed was Prozac for my depression. However, due to my reluctance towards being stigmatized, I ultimately refrained from getting help for my seemingly insignificant mental illnesses.
It wasn't like I was a ticking time bomb of schizophrenia, right?
About three months into our relationship Matt asked if I would come with him to visit his sister in Washington. I said yes. We were set to leave in a month. A week or so before the set date of the flight, we attended what would be my second-to-last interaction with Matt’s friend group: Tyler, Adam, and David. It was a wedding reception thrown late for Adam at Tyler's home.
I was speaking with David in the kitchen. Tyler approached me. I still assume Tyler was extremely intoxicated but to this day I am unsure. He had a knife in his hands. He held it to my throat and told me he could "cut me and end my life."
After a moment of silence from everyone, Tyler backed off with no persuasion from anyone. Directly after his threat, Tyler asked if I would follow him somewhere alone. I naively felt it was safe and I followed him to the back of his house.
He showed me a pitch-black room. I could barely see into it, but it appeared to be lined with cages. Faint sounds of rustling confirmed this.
He told me, "This is where I sleep."
His voice was full of sadness. I told him,
"I'm sorry." It was all I could say.
We sat in silence for a few minutes, and I returned alone to the party when nothing further was said.
If I had known he needed help then… I would have done anything. I turn this regret over and over. It's bloody-minded.
It was a Sunday. Matt and I's flight to Washington was six days away. Matt had called me several times while I was attending one of the many classes I often skipped. I eventually called Matt back. It was a short and solemn phone call. Tyler had killed himself. The details weren’t available nor was I interested in them at all. Tyler’s untimely death made my stomach turn. I began to turn over the event of the previous night till my eyes blurred hot with tears.
The day of the flight to Washington state, I was nervous. I drank gin on the flight to calm my nerves. We had a contact in Washington: an old friend of Matt's, Tom. Tom and I connected right away. He seemed genuine and hospitable. We both smoked cigarettes, the same ones, in fact. Tom and I decided to walk to the nearest gas station to get more cigarettes. We bonded between puffs and small talk pleasantries of the beauty of Washington state.
The vacation was going smoothly. We saw the rainforest. We skinny-dipped in a secluded alcove in the ocean. We attended pride in Seattle, and I got to see Fall Out Boy courtesy of Matt for my birthday.
Toward the end of the vacation, I was posed with an opportunity. Matt's newly single sister needed help with caring for the children and help with her fledgling real estate business. We had been driving for her business during vacation, taking pictures of houses that were soon to be on market. She offered us a part-time job and a place to live.
For some reason, I never second-guessed this opportunity. It meant I was going to drop out and drive my car across the country. On my return home from vacation, I broke the news to my parents. They advised me it was a poor decision. They knew there was no stopping me. I was dropping out to become a Washingtonian.
I was babysitting with Matt after arriving in Washington from a semi-treacherous two-and-a-half-day drive on Adderall. His sister's two daughters were rambunctious, to say the least. One of them, Allison, the youngest, was hiding from us outside and trying to run down the road. I scolded her. It was wrong of me since I had no idea how to parent. She got me back, however. Her mother returned home. She leaped off the stepping stool in the front driveway, and as her mother rounded the corner, she bounced off my torso and fell to the ground. Even on sixty milligrams of Adderall, I was not paying attention enough.
She started to cry and shriek. Blaming me and telling her mom I just pushed her. Her mom believed it. The next morning, early, we were interrupted by Matt's sister busting into the guest room and arguing with her new boyfriend. They dropped a heavy torch used for lighting dabs on my head. I did not initially take this personally. Although, it was the same day I, solely, was kicked out of the house.
I felt used. What more could I feel? I was alone in Washington, and my car would certainly not survive the drive home. I was a vulnerable puppy in a box on the side of the road. This is where Tom saves the day. He told me I could stay with him at his mother's as long as I felt safe in his bed. Of course I did. How else should I have felt?
Today, the road cast swirling-river-water mirages from the heat, and I had had enough of turbulent waters. Matt and I's arguments were near constant after I got kicked out of his sister’s house. During one fight, Matt and I were sitting parked, arguing. I finally mustered up the courage to break up with him. He refused to leave the car and call his sister for a ride. I took Matt's phone from the center console, exited the car with my keys, and placed it on the sidewalk in front of the car. I told him to ‘go get his phone.’ He begrudgingly did so. I quickly reentered my vehicle. I locked the doors and turned the car on.
Matt then jumped on the hood of my car and refused to budge. I rolled the window down. I told him to get in. The argument continued on the winding roads of Washington as I was going fifty miles an hour in a forty-five down a hilly road. Without warning, I was punched. Matt's punches came successively. I lost control. I tried to grip the wheel tight and come to a stop. He wouldn't let me. Matt grabbed my neck in his arm and choke-pulled me out of the driver's seat. He pushed my head against the passenger seat. Matt hovered above my body, crammed into the passenger seat, his butt against the dashboard. He started dropping elbows onto my ears and face. The car was careening towards the guardrail. I managed to grab the wheel behind my back and peer onto the upcoming road. There was a brick wall approaching. It was attached to a gate and an entrance to someone's driveway. I reached with my left foot and kicked the brakes. The car screeched and slowed enough to coast into the brick wall.
The violence continued. More punches, more elbows. I looked out helplessly through the passenger window. There was the man who owned the brick wall. He was sauntering down his driveway holding a shotgun. I informed Matt of his presence. He did not stop hitting me but glanced over. It was enough for him to cease the attack.
I seized my opportunity and floored the gas pedal, slamming Matt back into his seat with force. I didn't drive far before pulling off on the shoulder twenty yards from the house with the man and the shotgun. I knew Matt wouldn't misbehave with him watching and I wanted him, no, I needed this stranger with a gun, to stay in sight.
Matt backed off and wandered away from my car.
Hiking in the direction we came from.
I met with Tom immediately after. I explained the attack and he took pictures of the injuries. I explained that I didn't want to report Matt. I was in denial. My depression overwhelmed me. I started to feel off...like watching myself in the third perspective, cold, floating away on a piece of a ship's wreckage in the Pacific somewhere.
I kept replaying the altercation, and something peculiar stuck out to me. The way Matt had suddenly become consumed with rage was completely out of character. From what I knew he was never a violent person. Tom was shocked, as well.
Tom and I started living together, and got our own apartment. Tom didn't make me feel unsafe, but there was still a lingering uncertainty. I began to question things I didn't question before. Tom didn't seem concerned that I had started to grow distant. After all, Tom did not know me well. Tom and I eventually started to date. Tom and I kept things light. We kept things so light that we hardly knew each other. It's strange then to think that we soon got married.
I was losing track of time. In fact, I was losing track of myself. The sadness that always nagged at me since youth started to mix with my new found paranoia. I didn't trust anyone.
Not only did I not trust, but I did not trust anyone because I thought they meant me harm. The stress of feeling constantly in danger made me start to loathe social interactions. I withdrew from everyone. Even in Tom's presence I was withdrawn. I withdrew so much that I didn't even know who I was anymore.
I began staring into the mirror, only staring. I didn’t recognize myself on the inside, so I was confused why the mirror didn't reflect this in my physical appearance.
We had sleeping pills. I started to take them to stay asleep and away from my waking nightmare. I didn't like who the mirror showed I was becoming. I slept for almost two weeks straight. The few moments I was awake. I would pace. I felt like at any moment my death would come. I thought Tom was a god reincarnated and he needed me as a blood sacrifice. I was wasting away. Tom did not know what to do. I started to come out of my sleeping pill coma, but I was forever changed.
Gay marriage had recently become legal in Washington. I didn't really care at the time about politics. I didn't care about anything. However, it presented an opportunity for me. At this point, I had conspiracies in my head and danger around every corner.
One day, Tom was showing me his baby pictures. I thought it was a good time to ask Tom if he would marry me. It was a casual request with a hint of fear and paranoia. For some reason, I thought if he married me I would feel safer. He told me he would. We drove to the courthouse mostly silently except for an argument.
We had two witnesses from my previous call center job. None of his friends supported this hasty marriage, and I didn't blame them. I wore a dirty button down I found in the closet to the courthouse and a pair of old jeans. Tom wore his clothes that were hung up and formal. During the ceremony the judge commented vaguely,
"Ones wrinkled, the others not."
As we repeated after him, Tom started to sob loudly. It was not a happy cry. The drive home from the courthouse was silent. We didn't speak the rest of the day, and I didn't feel any safer.
Tom eventually hung the marriage certificate in the living room. Things between Tom and I became more tense and confusing. One evening, I was sitting on the couch in the fetal position a couch length away from him, as was usual since the Adderall and the self-inflicted-coma. We were watching a scary movie that I couldn't pay attention to. I was already filled with unspeakable horrors. Tom stood up and screamed running at me with his arms out. He was trying to get me to react, to act 'normal'.
The horrors I was struggling to keep at bay swarmed me. He didn't stop. He grabbed the framed marriage certificate off the wall and smashed it against the ground. He got on his knees and fondled the glass. His hands started to bleed.
The next day while he was at work, he told me to get a taxi and take a flight home. He explained it was over and he wanted a divorce. I told him I was unhappy and suicidal. He angrily texted me to "spill my filthy blood."
I was in hell, experiencing full-blown schizophrenia.
My parents were worried. I sat in the airport watching a TV news report. The woman news anchor stared into my soul. She spoke to me, she spoke at me. She knew every evil I had committed, although I had done no evil.
My parents did their best to try to get me committed. I found a picture one day of me as a baby sitting in a field holding a sunflower. It mirrored one that Tom showed me of himself doing the same thing. A paranoid thought bubbled up that somehow, someway we were set up to be together. A nursery rhyme played relentlessly in my head, the one where you flick the top off a sunflower and sing:
"Momma had a baby and it's head popped off."
My head did pop off. I panicked. I ran downstairs wielding the photos demanding my parents to confess. They couldn't. I felt helpless and I idly threatened them by saying "I will shoot up a police station."
My threat to 'shoot up a police station' was caught on video by my mother. The police officers in Ohio had the ability to pink-slip me. I am still grateful that they did.
One afternoon, I was in the cafeteria. I was alone and nobody knew me, or so I thought. I heard someone young and familiar call my name. It was the girl I was dating just before Matt. Maggie was in the psych ward with me.
We spoke at lunch and into the community smoke break in the blustery cold of Ohio's winter. I asked why she had ghosted me after my freshman year at Malone. She told me she left because she was searching for something. I didn’t want to know what it was she was searching for. I only asked her if she ever found it. She said,
“I have found what it was, and realize now why it was lost.”
IAN LAX is a homosexual schizophrenic who is previously published for poetry.