by Julie Burroughs Erdman
The photograph betrayed nothing of my internal storm. Bikini clad, smiling, and tan enough to suggest a healthy glow, my arm was around a beautiful Latina woman I was friends with at the time. Surrounded by a small group of young men in swimming trunks who looked happy just to be there, nothing in my appearance suggested that I would face psychiatric hospitalization within one week.
It all began when I realized that I despised my job. Folding napkins into perfectly symmetrical tents, I was enslaved by the need to retrieve ice from and endlessly grinding machine. When Labor Day passed I resigned, telling coworkers that I wanted to travel. Taking the addresses of transient summer workers, I said I would visit them in Colorado, Arizona, and Utah, while I knew full well that I wasn’t going anywhere. The part of me that stood sentinel against my mood swinging pendulum had slipped away, and I became unhinged.
Holed up in my apartment above a restaurant on Main Street in Sag Harbor, my mind was filled with images of death. I dreamed that my parents’ dog drowned in a pool that she couldn’t escape from, sinking after swimming in desperate circles. That my mother called to tell me that their dog had died from some mysterious disease that the vet couldn’t diagnose or treat informed me of a precognitive ability that I did not ask for or want.
Death filled my apartment. My thoughts moved quickly, too quickly. Then the fog arrived. The smoky air was infused with the misery of my recently deceased aunt and I squeezed my eyes shut against her tiny wraith. Opening them, my eyes stung from the sunny, gelatinous air, thick with smoke and spirits. Raw from insomnia and free floating ideas, I nourished myself with caffeine and cigarettes. I couldn’t sleep. I tried to drive and didn’t feel safe. Desperate, I called a self proclaimed spiritual healer.
Undoubtedly well intentioned, he led me through a guided meditation. Convinced that I’d blacked out, I felt that he’d put me under deep hypnosis without my knowledge or consent. His oils perfumed the opaque, smoke filled air. Trying to grip at reason, I squinted at a new sight. Against the white walls, a bright yellow light emanated from his body. The light covered him completely, stretching outward around his head in rays of light.
Great, I thought, I am now batshit insane.
I felt a deep throbbing pain in my chest and stomach when I gave payment and he left. I did not stop pacing. Had to get away, couldn’t go, couldn’t stay, had to pray. Made a call, met a wall, seethed with rage, crashed the wall. Cool, calm comfort met with frantic, manic panic. One breath in, one breath out… Head down, soothed by the voice, I found some calm. One breath in, one breath out…My heart was aching, splitting apart. Warmed by the voice of gravity, I kept still as I leaned on the counter, listening to a familiar story. One breath in, one breath out…Guards struck down, the universe rained down karmic candy.
Off the phone and alone, I was unable to regulate my breathing. Buried under blankets, there was no difference between night and day. I cried, my tears failing to bring the relief of exhaustion and eventual sleep that they would have if my body were better regulated. I became more alert, vigilant, a taut wire ready to snap. I was at ground zero. I was a wasteland. I bled toxic waste.
I pulled off the pillow that I’d buried my face under when, for the third time, a woman I’d house sat for a few weeks prior, Elizabeth, left a message.
“Don’t you want to get paid?”
I picked up the phone and told her plainly that it wasn’t safe for me to drive. She brought to her house where her kids gave me treats as I wept at their kitchen table. I stood up and and wandered lost into the playroom, stepping around a minefield of toys.
A psychologist friend of hers pulled some strings to have me taken to Eastern Long Island Hospital to be evaluated. Elizabeth drove me, stating that I was the “most pleasant mentally ill person” she’d ever been with. Once at the hospital, I wasn’t so pleasant, calling the evaluating psychiatrist by a profane name. Locked in the ward, I was diagnosed with a “mixed bipolar episode,” meaning I was both depressed and manic at the same time. Medicated with pills that had the look and smell of pink candy. I was knocked to my knees in subjugation, praying to the lords of psychotropic drugs.