Read Loud in the House of Myself Online

Authors: Stacy Pershall

Tags: #Biography & Autobiography, #Personal Memoirs, #Psychology, #Personality

Loud in the House of Myself (11 page)

BOOK: Loud in the House of Myself
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That night the aliens came again. There was a new book out called
Communion
by Whitley Streiber, which I remembered because I liked the sound of his name, and I liked how it had four syllables that go DUH-duh DUH-duh. It was about aliens who looked just like the aliens in my dreams. In that night’s incarnation of the dream, the spaceship went back and forth past the window a few times, then stopped, and one of the aliens looked out the window and gave me a little army salute. It winked at me and clicked its tongue, as if to say,
Here’s lookin’ at you.
It shot a beam of light into my room and sucked me into the spaceship, where we once again ate blueberry pie.

Every day after I had the alien dreams I would see this book
Communion
. It was like it found me and snuck up on me. I’d just be walking along, and I’d just happen to turn my head, and there in the window of a bookstore would be
Communion
. Or I’d be walking through Hyde Park and just happen to see someone reading it on a bench. Of all the benches I could have turned my head and looked at, it was always the one where there
just happened
to be someone sitting and reading
Communion
. I was certain someone from another dimension was trying to tell me something—another blurring of what was in the world and what was in my head. I told myself,
It’s just coincidence,
and something in me responded
No it’s not
. I didn’t know this other voice living inside me, but I knew it was an intruder, and I didn’t like it.

On top of all this, Dustin Hoffman was in the stage version of some Shakespeare play and living in my neighborhood. Geoff said he jogged in Hyde Park a lot. Sure enough, I began to see him everywhere, or at least to think I did, and I thought that was a sign from the aliens as well. Saying what, I don’t know; my thoughts were going too fast to figure that out. I thought I saw him in several different locations reading
Communion.
I knew that surely this could not be real, but my brain had never gone that fast. I knew things I had never learned. It is easy to believe you’re superhuman when you suddenly become extraordinarily facile with words and numbers, and when you receive messages everywhere you go.

That weekend, I went for my second ride on an airplane, this time with Yael. The sound of the propellers did that breaking-apart thing—and from here on, my memories of Europe are mostly colors and sounds and lights on the back of my eyelids. Barcelona was, as I recall, mostly bright green. It was a bright green city. They liked the bright green there, in Barcelona, a lot.

Snapshots: there were transvestite hookers outside our hostel. Inside, the lights were on timers. The bathroom was at the end of the hall, and you had to push a button and run for it to get there in your allotted portion of light. The floor was covered with cockroaches as big as a human hand. Yael said, “Fuck that,” and peed in the sink. She slept wearing a T-shirt but no underwear, which meant that I saw a lot of her vagina. One morning she slashed the big vein in her ankle by accident, shaving, and when I opened my eyes her bloody foot was on my pillow, and she said, “Is this an important vein?” and I looked up and saw her vagina.

I wandered through Barcelona for four days, and sometimes Yael was there, and sometimes not. At some point I fell asleep on a beach, the first sleep I’d had since we got there. I woke up covered in sand, wearing a bikini, with a vague memory of meeting some Swedish guys in the plaza and eating chocolate ice cream and agreeing to go with them to a town called Blanes. We were in a car, a sports car, a convertible. How long did it take? An hour, two? Where were the Swedes now? Where was Yael? Were we in Blanes? Where did Barcelona go? I laughed. As if cities could just disappear! You’d really have to be crazy to think that.

Although I don’t believe in a God with nothing better to do than watch out for us idiots, something certainly kept me from dying in Spain. I am, on reflection, amazed I survived. I really have no memory of getting from place to place, or of the passage of time. I know I was in Spain for four days, because I have the boarding passes in a scrapbook, but in my mind the trip is both a tiny speck and an epic journey. (Both borderline personality and bipolar disorder have as a significant feature the occasional fluxy sense of time, another reason I strongly believe they belong on the same continuum.) It seems as though I was in Blanes for a long while, but in reality it couldn’t have been more than a day.

I decided the reason my thoughts had started going so fast as soon as I got away from home was that I was making up for lost time. I was educating myself, compensating for eighteen years of not being educated in the way I would have liked. Here, I would not be called a snob for wanting more. I was not a snob, I was a genius, and my thoughts were finally moving at genius speed.

I wasn’t crazy, I was just in a hurry.
A hurry flurry with cream cheese and squirrel on top,
shouted the part of me that suddenly delighted in ridiculous strings of words. I laughed. I was a badass. I was, in fact, such a badass I was sleeping topless in a paisley diaper on some beach that might or might not still be in—what was that country? Spain? Ah Spain, yes—Barcelona, Spain, the green place, and now Blanes, which appeared to have quite a cliff-diving scene. People flung themselves off steep rocks, doing flips in the air, and it was suddenly and wholly the most beautiful thing I’d ever seen. It seemed that the aliens must surely have brought me there to jump off a cliff. If everyone else was doing it…

Yes. Why yes, it seemed that I would.

I headed for the cliffs. I had to climb up to where the divers were, just had to. I was compelled in a way I’d never been before in my life. In that moment, I was certain the whole entire reason I was put on earth was to go up that cliff and fling myself from it. At the top there would no doubt be an epiphany, I was certain of it.
Epiphany is an awesome word that would make a good middle name,
shouted the clever thing inside me. And because “Blanes” and “Barcelona” had five letters in common, a fact I realized in a flash, I knew I was doing the right thing. It was a sign, like all the other signs bombarding me. So many signs. They had to mean something.

The rocks were slippery. They felt like eels beneath my feet. The tactile sensation was so real I began to think the rocks might actually be made of eels, and then I had to hop around trying to see how much of my weight I could balance on how little of my foot. Eel feet, ew. I had a sudden, violent thought of killing eels and I walked, and it was so vivid I almost started crying out of pity for every animal that had ever been killed. But just as quickly the sensation passed, and finally I got to the place where the divers were, and they were all boys, and they were glad to see me, as boys usually are when you’re a girl in a bikini. I told them in what I thought was some universal language that I wanted to jump, and because I was nervous I tugged on my earlobe and realized I’d lost one of my silver earrings. The little dangling silver balls, my favorites. I was used to how they felt and the way they kept my head balanced, and now my head would be unbalanced, and again I almost cried for my lonely little earring lost at sea. I freaked out and remembered, with sudden clarity, that I was deathly afraid of heights.

I tried to run but the boys put their hands on me. Lots and lots of hands, trying to keep me from slipping down the side of Eel Mountain. They said what I believe amounted to “Jump, jump,” as if this would somehow be preferable to the situation I was in right now.

I got down. How? Did I jump? I have no memory. If I did jump, if I did actually manage to cliff-dive at some juncture, I would like to know about it. C’est la vie.

In the next snapshot I was on a boat, having met two more Spanish guys. They were fishermen, and they spoke no English. But we were somehow communicating, and we were laughing, and there were fish in nets, silvery-red, and they were flipping, flipping, and we laughed because we couldn’t speak each other’s language, and the fish flung themselves about gasping for air they would not get, and we laughed—mine terrified, seeing but not fully comprehending that animals were indeed dying before my eyes—and finally the fish gave up and their eyeballs went milky and the boys and I were still laughing. Because, apparently, not speaking each other’s language is funny.

Things died. I lived.

The Spanish boys’ father owned a restaurant on the beach. That much I could translate. They would like to invite me to dinner, they said. One of the boys had a gold name bracelet with a ropy chain, the kind that were popular when I was in fourth grade, that said
Alex
. “Ah-LEESE,” he said, and I said,
En inglés, Alicks
. I must, said Alex, eat with all his brothers and his father. I hoped they wouldn’t mind that all I had left was my bikini. I had, apparently, discarded my silk bloomers before I climbed the mountain of eels. I imagined them, and my earring, washed out to sea, missing me, drowning.

That night I wore a bikini at a dinner table as if it was perfectly appropriate attire in which to meet a young man’s family. I had no shame, and it continued to decrease the more of this ouzo thing they gave me. Alex poured some into a little glass of water. It made a brown swirl that looked like the corkscrew slide at White Water in Branson, the one that ripped up the butt of your swimsuit.
Bebelo,
said Alex. Drink. I did as I was told, repeatedly. They brought out the
paella
and I started to go for it, but first:
bebelo
. Next course, roasted chicken,
bebelo
. The Spaniards seemed mighty delighted to liquor up the redneck. But hey, when in…wherever I was. I drank.

When did the ouzo run out? How did the Swedes find me and drive me back to Barcelona? This I do not know, the memory irrevocably erased from my brain, but suddenly I was there, and Yael was brushing her hair before the mirror over the sink in which she peed. That night we sat in the same plaza where we sat the first night, eating ice cream, and I was babbling feverishly about something when I looked up and realized there was a giant pink Ferris wheel on a mountain in the distance. I lost my shit completely. Another mountain, another sign. What did this one want from me?

“Oh my god, an amusement park!” I shrieked. “Have you seen that?”

“Yeah,” Yael says. “It’s called Tibidabo.”

I thought that she had said
Tippy-top-oh,
which of course it should be called since it was at the top of the mountain, and I was compelled to go to the Tippy-top-oh to ride the Ferris wheel. Its lights beckoned to me like beacon flamingos, like a gravity-defying trailer park.

“How do you get there?” I asked frantically. Yael spoke enough Spanish to ask somebody. He told us that something called the funicular (funicular! To transport one to the fun! Of course!) could usually take us, but since it was late at night we’d have to take a taxi to get there before it closed. Then there were some blotchy lights that may or may not have been real, and some loud music that also may or may not have been real, and I realized I was going very fast in a cab, and Yael for some reason was not there, and we went up up up. Maybe
this
was the mountain at the top of which I was supposed to have my epiphany.
It must be,
I thought.
This one has rides
.
It has a Ferris wheel on top, to get me even closer to the sky, where the aliens live, where I am supposed to be.

We drove and drove at what seemed like a 90-degree angle. I closed my eyes and for a moment thought that when we got to the top we would be in Eureka Springs, a little hippie town in the Ozarks about an hour from Prairie Grove. Lately it had seemed entirely possible to me that when you closed your eyes, you might open them and find yourself somewhere else. Like, for example, on a spaceship. On another planet. Arkansas: another planet. I was not sure where I was or how I had gotten into the taxi. I focused on my breathing:
in, out, in, out,
if I counted every breath, I couldn’t fly off somewhere else in my head. Or for real. Or whatever.

And then the car stopped and I stopped counting and opened my eyes. It was beautiful. I was on top of the city, I had made it to the very top of Barcelona all by myself, I did it, I did it, I got away. There didn’t seem to be anyone else there, which must have been because the park was either (a) a hallucination or (b) all for me. (When, years later, without knowing the story, a friend showed me a picture of her parents standing in front of the Tibidabo sign, I was stunned to learn that it was in fact a real place.) Either way. I breathed it in. I could smell the lights. I loved the way lights smelled. I felt very sorry for all the people who couldn’t smell lights, who didn’t have my magical powers. Later, I would learn that this was a Symptom, and would think, like so many medication-noncompliant mood-disordered people before me,
Well, it’s kind of a fun one
.

But just as I started to walk toward the park, to dive into it, the lights started going out. One at a time, they vanished, like burst bubbles. I said “no,” but then all the remaining lights went off at once and it was just me, alone, at the top of a dark mountain with no hands to hold me back.

They were turning it off, turning it off, I could smell it going out, it was like a million cigarettes extinguished at once, swallowing everything beautiful in leftover smoke.

“No,” I said, “no, no, don’t take it. Please don’t take it.” I was having trouble breathing because of the smell of the lights combined with the bass that was still stuck in my throat.

But it was gone. And I was alone. And I was way up high, with absolutely no idea how to get back down.

8

THE TATTOO PEOPLE
ask about the most is the Sanskrit that snakes around my neck. It’s a yoga sutra,
Vitarka badhane pratipaksha bhavanam,
which means, When disturbed by disturbing thoughts, think of the opposite.

I got it to remind me how lucky I am. I got it so that when I’m crying over some stupid breakup or lack of money or whatever passing bullshit is making me cry at the moment, I can look in the mirror and say to myself:
Think of the opposite.

 

The trouble with mania of course, is, that depression always follows.

By the time I came home from London in August of 1989, I was so depressed I could hardly walk from the plane to the car. I was bloated and constipated from eating almost nothing but potatoes for the previous three weeks, a decision driven by a triumvirate of factors: one, they were the only alternative to the meat in the cafeteria, which was either gray or bloody depending on the day; two, I’d run out of money, so I couldn’t afford to eat anywhere
but
the cafeteria; and three, it was what the aliens wanted me to do, having decided I’d had enough blueberry pie.

When my dad came to the Dallas airport to pick me up, I was all but catatonic. I had a backpack full of books, ticket stubs, and two mismatched shoes that had lost their mates somewhere along the way, and I was wearing the same tattered men’s vest and white dress shirt I’d been wearing when I left. It was as if the trip had never happened. During my last week in London, knowing I was headed home, I assessed the situation and realized I hadn’t changed as much as I’d wanted to. I wasn’t going back to L.A. like Yael or an Ivy League university like Geoff or Africa like Lali. I was returning to Arkansas, where I had to pack up to go to college. I’d been accepted to Hendrix, the same place I’d gone to Governor’s School a year before, and had gotten a full scholarship to cover my tuition. Even though it was four hours away from home, it was still in Arkansas. I’d applied and been accepted to Tulane, in New Orleans, where I wanted to go because it was Phil’s alma mater. Though I’d spent my senior year applying for every scholarship I could find, the sum total of what I received was not enough that I could afford to attend school there. As I listened to my friends in London talk about Harvard and UCLA and Brown, I knew there was still a world of difference between us—they had money and came from a place where it was expected that one would go to a good school. When I told Yael I would be the first person on either side of my family to get a college education, she said, “No
way,
” and proceeded to ask me if most people in Arkansas were illiterate. “Are you weird there because you wear shoes?” she asked. “If I moved there, would they burn a cross in my yard because I’m Jewish?”

We were gathered in someone else’s dorm room at the time, a group of us American kids and our British friends, and everyone laughed. Yael said, “No, I’m serious,
would
they?” and everybody laughed more. Having British people laugh at me was mortifying, and thereafter I retreated to my bed—exhausted, broke, a hillbilly rube who didn’t deserve to be there. I slept through my classes that last week. Upon returning home, the last thing I wanted to do was go live with yet another stranger in yet another dorm room. I wanted to live in a hole by myself. I was a groundhog, a gopher, a mole. I was so tired my bones hurt. All I wanted was peace and quiet and to sleep for eons.

I was sullen on the daylong road trip from Dallas back to Arkansas, dozing off and then snapping back to consciousness in an unexplainable panic. I could barely keep my eyes open, but I couldn’t keep them shut either. It didn’t seem worth sleeping, it didn’t seem worth being awake. It didn’t seem worth eating, communicating, or giving a shit. The thought of having to do those things ever again exhausted me to such a degree I felt like crying.

Back at my parents’ house in Prairie Grove, I took a long bath, falling asleep and waking as I slipped underwater. I didn’t feel like expending the energy required to pick up the soap, it seemed so pointless. I just wanted to lie in the hot water like a fetus, curled in my protective sac, with no responsibility to do anything except take in nourishment and kick once in a while. I stayed in until the water got cold and my skin wrinkled, sucked into itself as if I were vacuum-sealed inside. Then I got out of the tub and, without bothering to dry off, stared at my naked reflection in the mirror.

Ugly. That’s what I was, fat and bloated and ugly and dull with a useless tongue as thick as a slab of butter. How was I supposed to go get a college education? I had nothing to say. I couldn’t fit into any of my clothes. I couldn’t learn anything. I didn’t care. I had no questions, no ideas, no desire, no hunger. I thought about all the years of reading, of walking to and from class, of showering and eating surrounded by other people, of pretending like it meant something. I was supposed to go someplace and make something of myself, when I didn’t even know if I had the energy to reach into the closet for a towel.

I went into my room and I lay on my bed, still naked and wet. I stared at the ceiling and I thought:
Today is the first day of the rest of my life.

It made me cry.

I could swear the world was wrapped in a brown cloud the day I left for college. I felt like Pig-Pen in
Peanuts,
the kid whose vision is always obscured by his own filth. It was late August, with a high, bright sun, and kids were riding their bikes, and people were enjoying the last days of swimming pools and barbecues. I sunk into the backseat of my parents’ packed Mercury, angry at my new comforter for being in a plastic bag that kept sticking to my skin. I could smell the mall coming through the bag, and I thought about the mall and all the people in it, about the act of going somewhere and picking something out and waiting in line to pay for it and listening to other people’s children scream and stomp because they weren’t getting whatever stupid plastic thing had last entered their field of vision. My head pounded.

My roommate-to-be, Lindsay, had called me excitedly the day after I came home from London, bubbling about matching comforters and doing the entire room in black and white, and what did I think about that? I said sure, whatever. Turns out they had black-and-white bedding at JCPenney, and Lindsay had already picked it out, and it cost blah blah blah, and the sheets were blah blah blah, and beanbags and lamps blah blah. My mom took me to Penney’s and bought me the stuff Lindsay picked out, which made me feel guilty. I did not deserve an education—after all, compared to my friends in England, I was just some ignorant hill person going to an ignorant hill school in an ignorant hill town, what could I possibly have to offer the world? By the time we got to Hendrix, my parents and I were barely speaking—at issue was something about me being an ingrate—and I trudged up the stairs carrying boxes of things I ostensibly needed. I wondered whether it was too late to ask if I could live in a storage room and just sleep on a stack of books.

I was indeed an ingrate, and Hendrix was and still is an amazing school. But my depression obscured the truth. This is why I feel frustrated now when I hear people referring to suicide as a self-centered act: of course it is. Nobody would commit suicide if the pain of being inside herself, the agony of the sleepless, tortured hours spent watching the world get smaller and uglier, were bearable or could be relieved by other people telling her how they wanted her to feel. A depressed person is selfish because her self, the very core of who she is, will not leave her alone, and she can no more stop thinking about this self and how to escape it than a prisoner held captive by a sadistic serial killer can forget about the person who comes in to torture her every day. Her body is brutalized by her mind. It hurts to breathe, sleep, eat, walk, think. The gross maneuverings of her limbs are so overwhelming, so wearying, that the fine muscle movements or quickness of wit necessary to write, to actually
say
something, are completely out of the question.

I have spent almost every late summer of my adult life in exactly this depressed state. The summer of 1989 was the first time I experienced the hypomania of June and July followed by the devastating crash around Labor Day. Mood disorders tend to manifest themselves in this cyclical pattern. Many bipolar people report early-summer manias followed by predictable late-summer crashes. It is as if we plant our gardens in the spring, roll rapturously in our fields of brightly colored flowers a month later, and then discover, all too late, that we’re severely allergic to what we’ve planted, and must retire to our beds to convalesce. We don’t have to think about breathing through our noses when we’re well, but the gasping for air consumes us when we’re congested, and we can think of little else besides getting oxygen to our lungs. Forget dancing, scuba diving, running up a mountain, or any of the other things that differentiate living from existing; we’re just struggling for basic respiration.

And so, I was selfish, because it was all I could be.

The one bright spot on the horizon that fall was that I somehow, inexplicably, arrived at Hendrix already having a boyfriend (male savior figure, exhibit 26, figure 4). Throughout my senior year of high school, I’d been writing long letters to Tommy, a friend from Governor’s School, who wrote me long letters back. I’d fallen in love with him because we liked the same music, and because he was in love with me. Besides, he did slightly resemble Sting, with his little round glasses and spiky blond hair. I had driven across the state to his hometown of Jonesboro to accompany him to his senior prom; that night I had given him my first awkward, ill-informed blow job in a drive-through car wash, and afterward he told me he’d gotten into Hendrix too. He was going largely because I was, which should have been a warning sign. He had also applied to the University of New Orleans when he learned I was applying to Tulane, which should have been a blaring blue-light special of a warning sign. From Tommy I would learn the difference between a lover and a stalker, but at the time the latter simply seemed to me a more devoted version of the former.

So, my first day at Hendrix, as I made my twin-sized thin-mattressed bed with the mall-smelling comforter and prepared to crawl beneath it and never come out, Tommy came bounding into my room, all enthusiasm and horniness and a desire to get on with the exciting business of being a college student and being lovers. Lindsay had gone out for a fancy farewell dinner with her parents, so Tommy and I had sex on the black beanbag. I hadn’t had sex in two years, since I found out Owen was cheating on me. Surprisingly, it hurt all over again, and I felt vaguely sick when it was over. My main memory of the experience is squinting against the setting sun glaring through the window, feeling like I’d somehow betrayed my body by revealing it before it was perfect. I was sweaty and sticky and uncomfortable and wanted to crank up the air conditioner, wash myself with very cold water, and shut my eyes against the world and all it entailed. Still, I told myself I loved Tommy, was
in love
with him, and tried valiantly to conjure the swooning feeling I’d had every time Owen touched me. I thought if I could feel something for someone, in the present moment, I’d know I was still alive, still human.

At least, I told myself, reaching gingerly between my legs, I was still able to feel physical pain. That was something. I have never been a cutter, but years later when I listened to the women in my DBT group talk about self-mutilation, I remembered that moment, and I understood.

Shortly thereafter, I stopped eating again. It really was that easy to fall back into the eating disorder. Terrifyingly easy, like falling back into the bed of a lover who’s bad for you but turns you on like no one else. I quickly and easily lost the fifteen pounds I’d gained in England, and then some. I watched my weight fall to 110, 108, 105. I remembered the glory days of 98 and resolved to get to 96. One thing I learned that fall about depression: You could starve it away, at least temporarily. You could boil yourself down to a crystallized, self-contained, self-righteous entity, one to whom nothing mattered but how many calories were in the cereal.

I had a big brown cardigan sweater that became my wardrobe that winter. I grew out my short hair, mostly because I didn’t have energy to get it cut. I also took birth control pills, which made me cry over dog food commercials, thus manufacturing the only emotions I felt. At night I would snivel over my books, wrapped in my sweater, my sheets, my comforter, Tommy. I would pull out of my closet the clothes my mother had washed before I left home, the ones I hadn’t worn and Lindsay hadn’t stolen, and attempt to breathe the Prairie Grove out of them. I wrapped myself in my mother’s smell: Downy fabric softener and line-drying. The clothes were full of our backyard, and they were my lifeline to a comfort I had once felt. I was desperate for something to fill me up and reassure me.

Compounding my guilt over my very existence were Tommy’s unresolved feelings for Jesus. He had found the Baptist church on his own, as a sad, searching kid with nonreligious parents. Like me, he had gotten caught up in church-as-social-life; unlike me, he embraced the prescribed guilt and refused to shake it off. With increasing frequency, he cried after sex, sitting at the foot of my bed with his face in his hands and berating himself for doing something Jesus told him not to. Hendrix was a Methodist school with a Methodist chapel where services were held on Sundays, but he found a local Evangelical church and began attending regularly. I wonder now why I didn’t put my foot down about this, but assume it had something to do with depression, anorexia, and a readiness—no, an eagerness, unique to those with a penchant for self-destruction—to accept that I was a bad person, a corrupter of others. I was far more concerned with calories than human relationships, and I needed to feel guilty about something. Tommy gave me ample opportunity to beat myself up for having even the slightest libido, and motivation to starve it away.

By night, I wrote like my life depended on it, words my only passion other than thinness. I hunched beneath my lamp, contorting my body so the light warmed as much of me as possible. I was always so cold. Having all but given up on schoolwork, I poured myself into writing short stories, most of them about women with eating disorders. I painted pictures of the person I wanted to be, lengthy character sketches of girls who started out fat and ended up in the hospital, white sheets tight around their skeletons, feeding tubes stabbed into their throats. Their families stood around them saying,
Poor Celia, she died of an eating disorder
.

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