When you have lived with the blinds closed and you have watched the night become the morning – your eyes wide with both fear and relief – you understand. You can see the sickness once you are well. You can see it in the way a person moves. Sometimes they have fingers that flutter and eyes with pupils wide. They are eyes that need and need right now. Other times, you see a different sort of sickness. The kind that lives in your head – the blinds that are closed even if they are open. The eyes that dart back and forth because they are confused and they are scared. The hands that hold the body which rocks back and forth or kicks while the mouth screams. These are the people.
They are small, black, and almost webbed. The things the beautiful technician, in her thick mask and black gown, sticks on his head. On his curly, always unruly, head of hair. The glue is thick – Like paste, like chalk, like this is happening to someone else’s child. Not mine.
He is small – clutching his book about trucks that go “vrooom” – and he is tired. I am tired. We are tired. She wraps white gauze around his head while I try to read him the silly book. He screams. He tries to get off the hospital bed but all the wires in different colors hold him down. My beautiful boy.
I whisper in his ear. I tell him all of our secrets and happy things but he is scared. He grabs the wires, flips himself around, pulls them. Pulls his hair. I try to stop him. I try.
He finally falls asleep and we are holding hands. And I can cry then. My white mask is soon wet and I can feel him jerk, his arms and his legs, and his eyes flutter. I can see the technician. I see her take notes. Hit keys.
I look at my boy. I memorize his face again. I see the wires. I think of my Grandmother. I pray, though I am not religious. I ask her to make sure my boy will be okay. I miss her.
When the technician wakes him up he screams. Tears running down his face. She flashes bright lights in his beautiful eyes and he looks at me, the glue matted in his hair, and he screams “mama mama mama out out out.”
I am broken. Shattered. Twisted like the fucking wires. But he is mine and I am his and I will wash the glue out of his hair. I will cry while writing this. I will cry in bed. I will cry.
I notice the eyes first – the rapid blinking – when he is young. Before he can lift a spoon to his mouth. Before he can tell me he loves me with his cherub hands reaching for my neck. Before his first birthday. They blink quickly, fiercely, strangely. But I am new at this ; this clothing, this hair, this body that tells me I am more Mother then anything else right now. I am up at 5:30 because he cries and I am asleep when he stops, 16 hours later.
And then he grows up: he is suddenly three years old, he has words now and he strings them together. He tells he ‘loves me’ but it is only me who can hear it. He is still so young; his words only make sense to me. But we are one person now. He is mine and I am his and we read five books before bed. And he looks at me, sometimes angry and sometimes full of light, and I am exhausted, my face is pale and my pants have dirt on them from stomping in puddles together. He is mine and I am his. He is clean and I am not.
His eyes move more quickly now and I think to myself…They are not normal now. They blink like they did when he still slept in my arms but they are angry now – somehow on their own – they move rapidly from right to left and sometimes up and down.
I have found him on the carpet – he finds soft places to land when I cannot see him – lying on his back, his eyes scattered and his mouth moving like he is talking but no sound comes out. Not a word. He is present but he is not here in those brief moments. I stare at him for hours each day. I notice his hands, the way they sometimes operate when the rest of his body is silent, they are stiff, stuck.
I start to mourn before I am told because I already know. My sweet boy.
When I walk, with my daughter’s small hand in mine, I see flowers despite it being December. The kind of flowers that survive the winter; short stocks and yellow tops surrounded by burnt red ash leaves. My daughter always bends down, puts one hand to the gravel and grabs the flower with force. She holds it up to my face, as far as she can reach, and she smiles at me with her little girl smile. She is unaware of everything in that moment save for the flower which she will carry all the way home.
When I am unlocking the door her hands will attempt to push it open like it is locked box and her fingers the key. She will run to her room, her boots dirty, and point to the small glass filled with water on her white dresser. She will point at it, eager, and state “UP. UP. UP” I look at her, this little miracle of mine, and bring the flower close to her nose, “Does it have a smell?” I ask her and she looks at me, her face surrounded by the curls that are more His then Mine. But soft and tight curls just the same.
The world feels a little bit rusty now. It is simply her and that flower and that is all that matters. Her and I.
I really hate sitting in these waiting rooms; all the chairs look the same, with the same dread-locked pattern of melancholy blues and manic reds. The paintings are abstract in that they are not so much art as they are void of art. They sit stagnant on the yellow walls and watch the patients tap their feet, one two three four, the dance of the mentally ill.
I am alone in the waiting room today, save for a large woman who eyes me suspiciously. I am always nervous before the appointments and so I feign asthma and use my inhaler. It doesn’t much work for anxiety, but it calms my nerves just thinking it might. I finger the magazines for a minute but quickly stand up. I cannot sit still here. I walk to reception and use the alcohol based sanitizer. I wonder if my Doctor will think I smell like alcohol. I wonder if I will have to explain I have just used the pungent sanitizer in the waiting room.
She is five minutes late and so I read the billboard. Apparently “The Mood Swing Orchestra” needs guitarists and singers. No experience required. I wonder how one can have an orchestra with people who cannot sing and people who cannot play guitar. I am guessing that if you’re crazy enough you don’t really need to play the guitar: maybe you can just cradle it in your arms and smile at the crowd; Thorazine buzzing throughout your brain.
A large poster screams at me, “YOU CAN QUIT SMOKING.” I laugh under my breath – if you have arrived at this clinic quitting smoking is likely at the bottom of your to-do list. Brushing your teeth is a good place to start.
A sign is taped to the reception window: “ANY VIOLENT OR DISRUPTIVE BEHAVIOR WILL BE PERSECUTED.” The patients at this clinic are usually on so many medications they can hardly walk never mind exhibit any abuse. Furthermore, I question if they understand what persecuted really means. It sounds close to executed.
Fear of the marketplace. That’s what they called it. Decades ago. It’s a Greek word meaning, literally, the fear of being in public. Feeling as if you cannot escape. Panic. Trouble breathing.
They tell me I have agoraphobia now—a complicated word. I prefer fear of the marketplace. It’s a throwback to a time when mental illness did not reside in a large book with a list of symptoms meant to determine your fate. Your life. I can tell you what my life is like. I can try. I wasn’t always this way, strange. I was a child once—just like you.
My mother tells me that I was a beautiful. I had pink cheeks and chubby hands and feet. I smiled at people, dimpled, content. She dressed me up in pinks and blues, twenty-one years old and still a child herself, she was fascinated with me. Her first child, her last child. Sometimes, I wonder if she wanted another. If my father had been a different man, if he had not left when I was still too young to walk or to ask him when he would be home for dinner, our lives might have been different. I try not to think about it. About dad. About where he might be.
Childhood is strange: I remember it in flashes, like lightening, a memory smacks me in the face and I scribble it in my leather journal with fury: When I was five I had a birthday party; just a few kids from school. Mom baked a vanilla cake and the other children ate it. I tried; I put the spoon to my mouth. It wobbled. I worried about the spoon—was it clean? Yes, sweetheart, it’s clean. It found its way to my mouth.
Six years old, maybe seven, I refuse to put my shoes on. I am certain there is something wrong with them. They don’t look right. They don’t look like they belong to me. If I wear them, I am certain, I will fall.
Ten years old, I decide that I can’t eat dairy products, I have no idea where they come from – who touched them last. My mother decides I’m eccentric. She buys us plastic plates. And then I insist on eating with my hands; washing them after until they are cracked and bleeding from the soap. From the hours at the sink.
I guess that’s where this all started – with a birthday, my hopeful mother, and a vanilla cake.
Ten Years Ago
I can’t think of anything that makes me more excited than a bottle of fun prescription drugs. Fun is the key word. It doesn’t take a lot to get them—a period of time has to pass since the last prescription, or I can be creative. I can tell my Doctor that the barometric weather changes have caused a surge in my migraines. I haven’t really had a migraine in months but I do take a lot of Advil.
He looks at me and confers. Yes, it has been rather ugly outside, have you looked up migraine triggers? I tell him I have not and feign shock when he tells me that aspartame, a staple in my fucked up diet, could be causing these. In my life, not having drugs is a trigger.
He asks me when I last had a prescription for Demerol. Seven, maybe eight months I tell him. He does not bother flipping a few pages and checking his notes. Just to be sure, I tell him I am out of asthma inhalers and my skin has been breaking out. This, I believe, deters from the absolute fact that I am sitting in his tired office for one reason: Drugs.
He grabs the special pink prescription pad reserved for drugs of abuse and a pen. But before the ink hits the beautiful script I tell him that the Demerol is giving me nausea. In fact, it often makes me vomit.
Doctor (dealer) hums and haws, looks toward the ceiling, and then asks me if a drug closely related to morphine might be a good idea? My heart starts to race but I express concern. I ask him, is this drug habit forming? He chuckles and tells me that he cannot believe the amount of people who come in, people my age, feigning pain and asking for drugs like this. How awful I whisper, how sad, it’s a good thing you can figure out which ones are really in pain. He tells me it’s obvious and he can tell from a mile away. And I decide what a great actress I am again. So great that it may kill me.
He tells me, still smiling while writing the glorious script, that I need not worry about it. I am not like those people my age who lie. I walk out of his office, thanking him (for his ignorance), and beeline it to the pharmacy. Sometimes, the pharmacy feels like home. They bottle drugs like the meals I don’t make; they have comfortable chairs and scented candles I can buy. They are home.
Eight Years Ago
At some point, every addict has a realization. Whether or not they wake up in a hospital bed or decide they have found god. Whatever. We realize that we can’t stop. The control that drugs once gave us, the feeling of careless bliss, is gone.
I realize that Ritalin is no different than cocaine was in my life, only it is free, bottled by an educated hand and placed in a bag for me to take home. Sometimes, when I’ve been up for a couple of days I read my own book. The one about recovery. The one which left readers with some semblance that I had recovered. And I had, for a while, I really tried.
I skip to the middle and read about my own addiction but it feels like someone else. I should have learned from everything in that fucking book, but instead I fumble through the days writing articles about recovery – something I am clearly not excelling at.
Who the hell snorts pills?
Ten Years Ago
Forty pills in a bottle. I count them when they are fresh and new; they are white and they remind me that I am in control. Prescribed pills. I take them as I should, as the bottle screams: take one table every four hours up to four times a day. Demerol is prescribed for moderate to severe pain. Sometimes, when my world burns to shit, I hurt. My head hurts; my brain hurts. Depression. The bottle sits in the closet. I obsess over it – just one. And then two. And then never again.
Demerol makes you feel like you are floating, sort of like Valium, but a hell of a lot better. Floating and despondent. And I like floating. I can sit still – and I can recognize the pattern. The addict in me, having become complacent, is invading my life. Again.
Fear interrupts the floating and I hide the bottle in the back of my closet where I can find it but I promise myself it will stay. I just cannot throw it away. Maybe I’ll break my ankle one day…maybe. You cannot rule these things out. You just cannot. You need reasons for the reasons.
The bottle lives in the closet for a few weeks. I feel triumphant. The pills, they don’t control me, no, I am in control. I am perfectly fine. I am utterly sober. I promise, I am. If my secret lives in my closet it does not exist. And either do I.
A picture: ratted dark hair and glasses which do not leave the house. They are slanted on my face and clouded with finger prints. I am used to seeing blind; I have contacts for when I leave home. I don’t really like leaving the house. I leave the house just long enough so that I do not go insane with lust. Yes, you can lust for sunshine or beg for rain.
The laptop screen stares back at me although I spend most of my time typing staring at my fingers. Apparently, I did not pay attention when we were taught how to type properly in home row. As far as I am concerned my fingers do not have a home; they are simply attached to my wrist somehow.
Click, Click Click.
Cafe Crema made on the Tassimo and Terry O Reilly on the radio. He speaks to me each morning about advertising. It’s bloody interesting and so I listen over and over again because I never hear anything when I’m writing. Just the clicking of my fingers and the fire in my mind.
I am wrapped in an ugly grey blanket and Blake’s coat. My green pill case is on the right, coffee to the left, and my large antique looking record player on the desk. The glass desk. I almost remember the girl who used to play with white fire on this desk. She would have still been awake and this time tomorrow she would still be awake. Her legs would ache and her tongue rippled like a Siamese fighter fish. The sides all chewed up from her teeth.
A comparison: the woman with smeared glasses and uneven skin; the world will not ever meet her. The woman with rouge on her cheeks and a diamond ring her other half bought her (little sentimentality tied to it). My jewellery shines and my clothes pass for trendy. I have shaved my entire body – apparently toe nails do not grow hair – and I have lathered myself with cocoa butter and Calvin Klein perfume. My hair is pulled to the side and sunglasses are placed upon my face. I look pretty, albeit adorned in yoga pants and new Nike running shoes.
Who is the real woman?
The child who could not type properly has created two. I wish I could kiss that child on the cheek and tell her that it’s okay to be active in the world – to stop staring at her little hands and thinking they are Just Not Right.
The little girl was just fine, her face and mind clean.
It is easier to forget everything Before when your feet are solid and standing in Now. But still. I think of my first love often. I was 18, my eye-liner dark and my lips red. He was blonde haired, baggy jeaned, and blue eyed. It was that silly, infamous, feeling of first love. We would stay up nights listening to The Doors, sketching in bed, our legs tangled and bare. For five years we battled our love before we let it go. I picture him now; older but still beautiful with his high cheekbones and soft though worked hands. First love is special.
My second love, tall and lanky and certainly impressionable, was smart and addicted to his fancy blue prelude and video games. He was like play-dough – shifting under my watchful eye. But love just the same. A shared home; shared pets. His desire for me to slow down and my desire for him to speed up. It ended with few tears; mutual, as much as these things can be. He is married now and his wife is stunning, blonde and beautiful and his two daughters smile brightly. I am nothing if not happy for him.
My third love, like my first, was quick to fall and five years to last. He talked quickly, walked even faster, and constantly pissed me off. We shared the same taste in music and the same sexual proclivities. We would frequent video stores; the kind with sectioned off areas where you could rent silly videos like Pirates of the Caribbean but the cast was all nude. Johnny Depp would have been unimpressed.
We claimed sobriety together and traveled the United States: spending time in cabins in Mount Baker; drinking, running in the rain, hiking, snowboarding. We went to many concerts and even more hockey games. We loved deeply. We hated equally. I miss him still – though never enough.
Nine years later I remain unattached. I suppose it will stay that way. I am not missing anything for I have had love, in three different ways and with three different people, throughout my 35 years.
I have my daughter now; a different kind of love, the kind you never forget, the kind you must protect. The rest is bullshit at this point.
I hear that headline on CNN – the best case scenario for the USA – and feel uniquely thankful to be Canadian. Uniquely sad as my mind tries to wrap itself around that number. Those people who are not numbers but people. I am also acutely aware of the fact that my Country is likely just a few steps behind – less dense with infection, yes, but trailing nonetheless.
I am exhausted. My bones hurt and my mind is weary. I have always struggled with sleep, this is nothing new, but I can usually pinpoint exactly why. I like reasons, explanations for that which I cannot control. A pandemic when you are a mother is reason enough, right? I’m not sure. When it is 3:00 a.m. and I am doing dishes, listening to an audiobook, I wonder when sleep will steal me away. If it will skip the night entirely. My dog sleeps; he breathes heavily on his bed near the small kitchen table. My daughter is flat on her back, surrounded by her three favorite stuffed animals, sleeping like the angel that she is. But I remain awake.
A friend who is sweet of soul and gentle in touch, allows me to write him long and rambling letters. Six pages, seven. He even reads them – a tall order I expect – and I mail them although he lives just a few minutes away. It helps with the isolation and it reminds me of my checkered past; the people I should have held close but let go. The things I wish I could fix and the things that I have.
It’s raining today but no matter; I will push my daughters stroller up the small mountains that define my location, and later, when all is still, I will kiss her forehead and tell her, “I will see you soon. I love you” and she will sleep and that is all that matters. Her.
Behind me – the news on – I hear the WHO talking about wearing scarves around our faces when we leave our homes; about a second wave of infection coming in the Fall.
At least, I think, my daughter will be too young to remember everything before this, she will only remember everything that came after. I will keep her safe.
Spain turns an ice rink into a morgue. That’s the headline today. One of many. I wonder if the ice rink is kept cold – I wonder if the caskets, dark wood and slim, have names on them. Have you adapted to this yet? Strange how quickly us humans adapt to things – the wonderful things and the frightening things.
It’s my mothers Birthday today. I am the black sheep in the family. I am the first born and the quickest to leave the nest. I make a bit of a mess of my life early on, and then I return, my feathers ruffled, my walls high, but wiser all the same.
Since the age of 18 I have usually been in frustrating, sometimes joyful relationships, that found me celebrating elsewhere, found me wanting. Needing. But things are different now. They need to be.
My daughter, her eyes not yet decided on final color, requires her family. She is pure and she is clean and she is loved by us all. She adores her two cousins – they have beautiful blonde hair like my sister and her husband and they hug her tightly, the older one whispers in her ear, “I woveeee you.“
We cannot gather together in their large windowed living room this year – we must maintain our social distance. You know this. I know this. All of us, six feet apart, know this. But we are still together, my family and I, on my Mothers Birthday. We drop off gifts and we connect online. My Father builds her a greenhouse and time moves on.
That may be the most reliable way to mark time these days – allowing it to just move on.
My mother – suddenly adept at finding YouTube videos online – asks me to sit beside her on her expensive, terribly uncomfortable, couch. She points the remote to the 60 inch television, whispering to me while biting her lip, “just watch. Don’t say anything.” She clutches my hand and I pull back. This is a perfect metaphor for our entangled relationship.
The large screen wakes up with a click and I see a man, presumably in a wet market, slicing a bat into thin pieces. Blood, darker red then my own, hits the makeshift walls, dampens the woman beside him. She continues, the fresh blood on her dark hands, using a mallet to flatten something skin colored.
He is thin, a red bandana tied tightly around his head. I make a joke, I tell her he must be part of the bloods, the infamous gang. She does not laugh. I am, at the best of times, not very funny.
She states, “This is how it happened. These people eating these weird things.” It is not a racist remark so much as an observation, her truth, though not mine. I mention that perhaps our societies gluttonous eating of cows and of pigs may seem strange to their culture. She is quiet, her eyes focused on the man with his knife, the desecrated bat and the blood.
The next video shows children, maybe 12 or 13 years old, all boys in thin white clothing, ripped, lined with dirt. An older boy walks up to the younger boys, he is thin and he is barefoot, he has a large white snake wrapped around a stick. They speak words I do not understand. A fire is quickly lit and the snake, passive as the older child’s hands are clipped tightly around its head, is placed in the fire. It does not die right away – it fights, trying to move away, to unwind itself from the stick. The younger boys surround it, much like in Lord of the Flies, stomping on it where the fire is lower to the ground. Its scales fall off in places but its eyes appear awake. They move. Its long tail slowly turns darker before blackening like ash. It is terrifying but I cannot look away. I am like my mother. Sick with fascination. The boys stand and clap and point to the camera I have forgotten must be filming. They hoot and holler like the kids in my neighborhood who play basketball on our quiet road.
The video ends and she looks at me, waiting, perhaps wondering if I have changed my mind. If I agree that it is difference in culture that has caused this pandemic. But no. This is not why we are living under the expanding wings of Coronavirus, I tell her. Not because of that particular bat or those kids – just kids – with the snake and its eyes. This is not why. How do you know she asks me, how can you possibly know?
I leave the expensive couch, I leave her to her bloody bats and snakes and wild ideas, and I wonder. It could be bats, it could be snakes, all the conspiracy theories, but it doesn’t matter. Does it? Not in this moment. Not anymore. It’s here. Now.
I stare at my daughter, she is 15 months old. She is small and she is not moving; her tiny hands clutch her favorite teddy bear, her increasingly curly hair falls over her eyes. She will be awake soon and she will need me to be her mother. But for now, she sleeps and I watch the baby monitor as I type. I notice the red scaly patches on my hands from washing them so much. I notice the birds outside my window. Things are still growing, moving on while we stand still, while we wait.