This is a passage from the novel-in-progress, Wrecking Ball. In it I am discussing my first psychiatric hospitalization at age 15, and also my first sexual experience. My mother and I are now writing a book jointly. The premise is that of a personal memoir of my life, especially focusing on how my illness affected my nuclear family. It includes my history of bipolar disorder along with her parallel recollections of everything that happened.
Waking Up and Getting Up Has Never Been Easy
The whole of the worst times are a blur. This is a survival mechanism for those in acute states of crisis. For some reason, the psychological pain I experienced was always augmented by a sharp stabbing physical pain in the middle of my forehead. Often I lay flat on my stomach in the middle of the carpeted floor. Seeking to rid myself of the agony any way I could, I slammed my head down hard against the ground, repeatedly, deliberately. The pain lasted all day at times. If I was lucky, it lifted unexpectedly, miraculously, presenting me with opportunities to escape the house.
Nothing felt more freeing than to get in my car and drive to the record store. I spent almost the entirety of my adolescent income on CDs. Music had always been a reliable solace for me from as soon as I could remember. My mother had been an avid collector of LPs in her own youth, and I benefited from the stockpile. One of my earliest memories is of listening to the Nutcracker by Tchaikovsky while dancing energetically across the room.
Because music was a passion, I obsessively memorized details about my favorite groups. In the early days of the Internet, I frequently used the resources found within what was then still referred to as “The Information Superhighway”. Cyberspace (another period synonym) was an excellent source of knowledge, one that informed about bands and artists that would have otherwise remained unknown to me. It was fun to me to uncover, through my own detective work, obscure sounds and genres.
My thoughts also lingered on another subject, one far less obtainable than the latest weekly release or music review. The people with whom I kept company knew this fixation well. In other words, I was hopelessly obsessed about finding a girlfriend. I’d felt separated from the rest of the world already, but now I felt a new challenge. Now, the pressure was on to couple up with someone else. I felt regularly abandoned by the other sex when seeking someone to date, but relationships were admittedly only part of the equation. There was something else much baser I wanted even more.
Hospitalization was one of the few constants in my life at that time. For a time, I rarely went three months without having to be readmitted for another stay. Depression had returned. In my teens, I had yet to experience a manic episode, but I knew well the dull ache of depression. I knew the way it slowly suffocated a person, each day removing energy, enthusiasm, and the very will to live.
Here I am, back again, I thought to myself. I felt my presence somehow scripted and scheduled, as though I was a performer on a six-month tour of the country. Though not usually the kind of person who caused trouble, at least not without first covering his tracks, I took a shine to a fellow patient. I justified it to myself easily. My illness had kept me prostrate for years. I deserved the right to flirt shamelessly.
If I’d had the benefit of hindsight, I would not have even bothered. Hindsight, unfortunately, comes with experience. Experience was something I was severely lacking. Starting out of the gate, I’m sure we’re all a little naive and unpracticed. If there is some silver lining, it is that at least her feelings for me were mutual. Guessing wrongly and being disappointed is never pleasant in any context. Rejection is unsettling regardless of age.
TLOAs (Temporary Leave of Absence) were sometimes granted to patients by admitting psychiatrists at this particular hospital. The object of my affection was granted a few hours away from the ward every other day. She always returned stoned, drawing a series of crude ink pen renderings of marijuana leaves on notebook paper. They looked like some kind of unorthodox wallpaper design. If these were warning signs, I took care to ignore them.
We barely spoke in our verbal correspondence. There was really no need to confirm what the both of us felt for each other. Emotions and desire can be expressed by general proximity as well as speech. My frustration with being trapped inside a locked unit paralleled my past experiences with women. If anything, it seemed like a sort of perverse analogy. Once imprisoned by my mind, I was now imprisoned bodily. My illness had kept me restrained for long enough; now it was my time to break out and do what I wanted.
I decided to sneak into her room.
“What the hell are you doing here?” This was said with a strongly slurred southern drawl.
“Don’t you know how much trouble you can get into?”
I indicated that I didn’t much care. In constant, daily, pain I was seeking a temporary, but hopefully intense distraction.
Previously sitting on her bed, legs swinging off the mattress, she stood to face me directly. I moved towards her, noting by her own body language that she was receptive to an extremely verboten public display of affection. We kissed, awkwardly, the way that the young and unpracticed do. We could have stopped there, but I wanted to push the envelope as far as it would take me, and I suppose that’s not at all atypical for teenage boys.
She reached down to my sides, and took hold of both of my hands. Guiding me, she forcefully pushed them across her breasts. The development was not unwelcome, but the gesture was unexpected and abrupt. I felt out-of-control, off-center, wobbling, unable to anticipate and formulate a proper response, to let her know I enjoyed the sensation but was knocked sideways by it.
The awkwardness made me recognize how impulsive this act had been. I turned away and fled, but a nurse saw me beating a path back to my own room. By the expression on her face, she was not pleased. I was given a lecture and told in no uncertain terms to ever try a thing like that again.
A couple hours later that same nurse told me a particularly incriminating bit of advice. “You do know she has a boyfriend, don’t you?”
This was said to imply that I was merely wasting my time. Perhaps she was also indicating the fellow patient's lack of mental health. Had I purely been seeking a relationship, then I might have felt repulsed, betrayed somehow. But I couldn’t help but feel victorious. My world was catch as catch can. Or, as it is written in the Old Testament, “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
People in states of imminent disaster, devastation, or war know something of how I felt. Plainly put, I had no future. I only could live in the here and now. When the pain is omnipresent, one loses sight of what we’d ordinarily call a normal perspective. I wanted a sexual outlet, so I made the most of the opportunity. Holding oneself back for any reason, for anything, was a luxury. To me, it was a fanciful notion held by those who can afford to prepare for tomorrow.