May 13, 2009 / Creative Writing
I watched Rebel Without a Cause on TV late one college night when I learned …
November 19, 2015
List your accomplishments. All graduate school applications want to know this. I made a Word document to catalog them. Five extra curricular organizations, president of two; appointed leader of student ministry; multiple academic and writing awards; winner of full scholarship; impressive amount of volunteering; Honors program; summa cum laude.
That was two years ago.
Yesterday, I did a load of laundry, remembered to eat dinner, and didn’t have to take any of the small, white pills that remind me where I am. This counts as a good day.
“How long until it gets better?” I asked. I refused to ask if.
“Your brain is on fire,” he told me, looking up from his legal pad. “We need to put out the flame before we try to rebuild. That is what the new medication is for.” He turned back to his notes, making a mark about a third of the way down the page.
It’s never a good sign when your psychiatrist tries to tiptoe around your question. Even most of us crazy people can figure that one out.
“Better may not look like you want it to. And it won’t be as soon as you think it should be,” he continued, still scribbling. I felt my shoulders sag. “Trying to do too much will only make things worse. For now, you need to rest. Take incompletes in your courses, give your brain a break.”
I dropped my head and listened to the scratch of his pen against the paper, a sound I had learned to hate by our second meeting. “I don’t think I can do that. I’m here to do school. I have a scholarship that says so. I can’t just stop.”
“But you have to. The school will understand.” More scribbling.
I noticed my nails clawing into the arms of my chair—not the best way to convince someone you’re mentally stable. I relaxed my hands. “I don’t want to act like it’s as bad as it is.” I could feel my voice breaking on the last two words and hated myself for it.
The scribbling stopped. “Well,” he sighed, leaning back in his seat, “you’re going to have to get over that.”
I kept my stare on the half-moons in the chair’s leather. They hadn’t disappeared yet.
Here’s how it goes:
Concentration begins to flicker. Eyes start to stray. Sentences wander off.
If I catch my lucidity drifting before it’s out of my reach, there’s a chance I can coax myself back to a rational space, like the time I left my class to go sit in the window of the next room, rocking gently until my surroundings came into focus. But half the time, I watch everything float away. I can only hope to take one of my tranquilizing pills before things disappear entirely. If not, I hit stage two: I twitch and gasp and cry. I shudder and plead and curl up in a fetal position. I am paralyzed.
But sometimes, to keep things interesting, I skip directly to stage two.
The doctor said to inform a few people of my condition so they could “keep an eye on me.” I told him I would rather gnaw off my own hand. He didn’t think this was an acceptable swap.
“I don’t want pity,” I barked at one friend as soon as the story stumbled off my tongue. It was a cool day for spring, and I was huddling into myself as we walked down a familiar street. I kept moving forward, not even turning my head to see the reaction I hadn’t given him time to have.
He slowed his pace, and we finally came to a halt. I kept my eyes on the concrete ahead of me as I talked. “I’m not supposed to go anywhere alone,” I said. I saw him nod out of the corner of my eye. “Even if I say I can, you’re not supposed to believe me. So I could use some help with that.”
This friend became my chief walking partner and bore the brunt of my stubbornness. One day he found out I was trying to get home from the doctor’s office alone. The confusion was beginning to take over when he called. “Stay there,” he told me over the phone. “I’m coming to pick you up. Don’t go anywhere.”
I was too mixed up and nervous not to listen to him, so I stood on the crowded corner, only two blocks from the office, and attempted to slow my breathing. Hurried strangers brushed past me while I concentrated on the waves that rolled in and out of my body.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Only as a burden is the other really a brother or sister and not just an object to be controlled.” My pastor quoted this line in a sermon last year. I sat nodding in the pew, my mind wandering from the theology to thoughts of a man I had loved. I saw nights of held hands and quiet endurance as his family unraveled, his eyes watering as he spoke of them. Mine remained bone dry until I reached my car, where I would grip the steering wheel as tightly as I could between hard sobs.
I didn’t know what to do for him. I only knew that I’d started reaching for his hand more and that all I wanted was to make it easier for him, to keep him from breaking under this weight. Just let me hold some of it for a while, I started praying.
“It’s going to be OK,” I told him one particularly painful evening.
He shook his head. “I’m the one who’s supposed to say that. I’m supposed to be the strong one.”
“We’ll take turns being strong,” I said, placing my hand on his face. “I think that’s how it works.”
The cracks in my mind were small enough to ignore back then, so I could talk big.
That’s how it goes with post-traumatic stress disorder. It starts with a few cracks, the fissures spreading, the edges weakening. And then some harmless event, just the shadow of a memory, causes reality to rupture. One moment you’re calmly standing in line at the grocery store, and the next you’re crumbling into the oblivion of stage two. Doctors give you a name for what has happened to your brain, pills and other treatments for damage control.
But there’s no reversing or ignoring it. Something broke. I am broken. Now what?
My mother begged me to come home after the doctor told me to go away for a few months. I told her I had been getting better, but my father witnessed a panic episode when he visited me in Connecticut. Even while I asked him not to tell Mom, I knew it was futile. So I went to Nashville for a few weeks, where my mother had a surprise for me. She could barely walk.
“I didn’t want to worry you,” she replied to my shock, echoing the phrase I’d muttered over the phone to her weeks after my own diagnosis. “I’m sure it’s just that old knee problem flaring up again.”
It wasn’t. Rheumatoid arthritis had taken over her body in a matter of weeks, finding its way into every joint before the doctors knew what to call it.
One night when my dad was away on a business trip, I noticed her bedroom light on much later than usual. I entered to find her sobbing in a chair several feet away from her bed. I crouched to her level and touched her swollen knuckles. “It hurts,” she whispered. “I can’t even get to bed on my own.”
I started helping her lie down at night and get up in the mornings. She was careful to put as little weight on me as possible, doing her best to support herself on her better leg. Rarely did I even feel like I was exerting myself. She mostly just needed someone patient to hold onto.
In this case, a name for the disease also meant a treatment. That meant an alarmingly large pile of steroids. The steroids gave Mom the freedom to walk at the pace of an eighty-year-old woman while leaning on my arm. It also gave her personality a bit of a kick. She took to stating her opinions outright in language she would punish my younger sister for using. Even better, she began making sexual innuendos I was shocked to learn she knew. If she noticed my surprise, she gleefully shouted, “Steroid privilege!”
When the drugs began to wear off, though, Mom became a puddle of embarrassed apologies, for both her words and her condition. I laughed while helping her up from the couch and told her I’d never liked her so much.
I’m not much of a hugger, but one day I gratefully received a hug from my walking partner when we reached my apartment. I couldn’t control my trembling, but his arms helped contain it. I stayed in the little circle of stability until I began to feel creepy.
I apologized for holding on so long. He asked me to stop apologizing all the time. Just accept a hug every once in a while.
My God, does he know how hard that is, for a stack of shards to let someone so gentle expose themselves to these edges? And what kind of lunatic asks to put their arms around this mess?
I still find myself shrinking away in suspicion. I turn from the embrace, the outstretched hand, the kind word. I’d rather keep them all at what I consider a safe distance, though I know they mean healing, not harm. But knowing things isn’t always enough.
Mary Karr has a poem about a dying tomcat, a once savage creature made docile by the weakness of old age. Karr wants to approach God like a dying cat. So she prays,
Let me cease to fear
the embrace that seeks to still me.
Why is it so much harder to tell someone “Thank you” than “I’m sorry”? Why is it so much easier to offer a shoulder than to fall on one?
My doctor agreed I was stable enough to nanny an infant for the summer. His name was Judah, like a lion.
At four months, Judah’s newest accomplishments included being able to hold up his head for a minute and a half and choke out something like a giggle. I knew that these moments of development were cause for great celebration. My roommate, however, did not share my enthusiasm. She doesn’t like babies who are in what she calls the blob stage, that stage before they can walk, talk, or hold their excrement. Blobs can’t do anything on their own but make messes.
But what if the blob stage doesn’t end when you reach the age of two? What if it returns in your midtwenties, after years of enjoying a less bloblike existence? Is that allowed?
I considered this one day as I held Judah on my lap. “I guess I don’t know why I like you so much,” I told him. “You’re cute, but more in an alien way than a human way. And to be honest, you’re pretty useless.” I immediately cringed at my own use of the word. Useless. I said it to myself almost every day, but it felt cruel to apply it to this child. This baby who needed me not only to feed him but then to clean it up later. Not even useless, I thought. A burden.
I shuddered. He smiled at the sensation, letting out a string of drool.
“But it’s OK that you’re a blob,” I told him, voice stern and eyes tearing. “You don’t have to do anything. I love you anyway.”
At this sentiment, he vomited on me for the second time that afternoon. Oh well, I’d gotten used to worse. Love covers a multitude of shit.
God seems to be especially fond of shit. In fact, it appears to be his favorite material for molding. So often in the Bible, he sees a weakling, a prostitute, a thief, a murderer, a madwoman, and he says, “This one. I want to use this one.”
Most of the time, they reply, “You’re mistaken. I’m out of commission.”
To which he says, “You’re going to have to get over yourself.”
For the last few months, I’ve had a recurring vision. I’m sitting on a wicker chair in a white dress, something like a hospital gown but less depressing. I hug my knees to my chest. Behind me, someone is brushing my wet hair. At first, I think it is my mother, but I know she wouldn’t be so gentle.
The chair faces a window or an open door which lets in a cascade of white morning sunshine. It’s so bright that I can’t see exactly where I am or the face of the stranger brushing my hair.
I feel a burning in my chest, some blend of longing and fear. It’s the kind of sensation that kindles at the approach of a new lover, before something like faith has settled in. But I am not bothered by the feeling. I just sit still and let that someone work at my tangles.
 Bonhoeffer, Life Together, trans. Daniel W. Bloesch, in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, vol. 5 (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1996), 100.
 Karr, “For a Dying Tomcat Who’s Relinquished His Former Hissing and Predatory Nature,” in Sinners Welcome (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2006), 47.
Whitney Williams is a recent graduate of Yale Divinity School’s religion and literature program. She now teaches English at Union University in Jackson, Tennessee.