Part One: Diagnosis
“I think you might be Bipolar.”
George Carlin used to do a brilliant set about mental health. The crux of the joke is about shell shock and post-traumatic stress disorder. I obsessively watched this particular set until I had it nearly committed to memory. And suddenly, Carlin appears before my eyes as if I have a front-row seat.
I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t like words that conceal reality. I don’t like euphemisms, or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms. ‘Cause Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent a kind of soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation. For some reason, it just keeps getting worse. I’ll give you an example of that . . .
My therapist, a woman in her mid-forties with short hair and small spectacles, clears her throat and finds eye contact with uncomfortable politeness. I admit that I enjoy watching how therapists bend over backward to maintain composure, “Jess, I think you might be Bipolar.”
I’ve received this diagnosis before, and I liked it even less the second time around. I had been in a bi-coastal, long-distance relationship for the first year of college. Bipolar. Did that mean all of the facets of my personality were in a long-distance, bi-polar relationship? I thought about my emotional life in relation to the north and south pole and chuckled at the thought. “Can you tell me what feelings are coming up when I tell you my diagnosis?” I explain why I had laughed, and she likes the polar metaphor, but not for the right reason. “I admire your creativity, and I think that’s a fine way to think about your feelings of emotional imbalance.”
The session ends, and I’m relieved. I change the subject when she asks if I want another appointment. I tell her I’ll email her, knowing full well that I’m about to ghost my therapist. On the way out, I give a customary wave to the receptionist whose patience I always admired. Carlin’s monologue resumes in my head.
There’s a condition in combat. Most people know about it. It’s when a fighting person’s nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum. Can’t take any more input. The nervous system has either (click) snapped or is about to snap. In the First World War, that condition was called shell shock. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables, shell shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves . . .
I’ve seen therapists for the majority of my life, and the medical terminology festers in my stomach like dining-hall grilled cheese. Maybe I’d have more respect for a therapist who told me the truth. I am bat-shit insane. Crazy. At a liberal arts university, people say that language is offensive. People say I really should not talk about myself that way. And I suppose there are those that prefer the comfortable distance of clinical terms. I’m not one of them. The day I find a therapist who tells me, “Jess, you are fucking crazy,” I will schedule a whole calendar year’s worth of appointments.
Carrie Fisher was Bipolar. She proudly displayed the picture of her that appears in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (D-S-M) during a one-woman show. It’s presented for laughs, and it is hysterical. There’s a definite, crazy look in her eyes framed by that iconic Princess Leia hairdo. As my brain ping-pongs between Carlin and Fisher’s monologues, I notice I’ve somehow made it to the dining hall on the tallest hill of campus.
This week, I don’t see the point in eating, but biological mechanisms ensure I’ll try. My animal brain often tricks me into eating with all-powerful crave signals. These signals are nearly always wrapped in nostalgia. “A bowl of Fruit Loops would be awesome right now.” My weak gut obliges. Or is it my gut that sends signals to my brain? I’m unsure which facet of my body is the culprit, and so I resign to hating it in its entirety.
Thankfully, there’s a group I can convene with at a table under the stairs. A disembodied voice tells me, “They all hate you,” as I smile and say hello. I tell myself it’s all in my head, even though it was as if the voice emanated from the external world.
I don’t belong among these people. Sure we are all English majors, and I am friends with one of the group’s members, but I never properly learned the hierarchies – I guess John is the leader. He group texts us which dining hall to go to and, weirdly, we all obey. He enjoys this power a bit too much. The callous, judgmental part of my brain guesses that he was bullied as a kid. Weeks later, when I find out I’m right, I wonder why I’ve been cursed with an intuition that thrives on ripping the personalities of others to shreds.
Words spill out of my mouth that later I’ll have no memory of. At least sugary cereal gives me an hour or so of pep. Around people, I’m on the north pole of emotions. I’m turned on in a sense. Not sexually. Oh, wait, my brain is telling me that there are indeed rampant sexual thoughts traipsing through my brain as I sit silently at lunch. After all, Andrew is at a nearby table. There weren’t many broad-shouldered, bearded men at my high school. And now, there are too many in this small rural town.
I think someone said something to me just now. Don’t panic. Taylor is looking at me and waiting for a response. His body language says so. He repeats himself, and it’s about an essay due later this week. “I’m just hoping I make it to the end of the week” I reply with a humorous tone that I picked up from obsessively watching stand-up comedy. Everyone laughs and I cling to that surge of dopamine. Yes, I know what dopamine is. I took AP Psychology. And I know I have next to none of it.
Once, another therapist, a chubby, balding man told me, “Jess, I see laughter, but I hear sadness.” That’s the last time I go to that therapist. Bless liberal arts universities for having a rolodex of free therapists for us indecisive students to choose from. Of course, now I’ve seen three of them, and it’s back to the drawing board.
I even briefly forayed into group therapy. But I couldn’t take the tasks seriously. You want me to draw my feelings? All of the participants were prone to over-sharing. I spent each session stewing in my embarrassment on their behalf. In the weeks I did attend – I hid my pain and offered positive feedback; this led several of the women to remark that they couldn’t see why I was in group. I would flash a smile in the direction of the therapist leader. Of course, the therapist instinctually understood that I was hiding my crazy. Nevertheless, I considered myself cured and dropped out around week four.
By week five, the high fades and I stumble back into a depression. Sadness. Or “the blues” as I like to call it. I’ve been offered drugs, not the party kind, the severe and mood-altering kind. “No, thanks, I’d like to cling to what little individuality and creativity I have; thank you very much.” The stoic therapist with dark brown eyes and dark hair with a single stripe of gray drops the subject.
It’s not as if I don’t take care of myself. When I wake, disheartened to see that the eggshell-white dorm-room ceiling didn’t collapse on me in the night, several cups of coffee spark a tiny ambitious part of my brain. And I eat—small things throughout the day. Enough to keep motor functions up. After all, that’s all life is—motor functions.
When I’m still buzzing from caffeine at the end of the day, I have weed. My dearest friend Toby will knock on the door, joint in hand. After shoving towels that I use daily and infrequently wash on the seam where the door meets the floor, we’ll smoke and watch cartoons. What do therapists and psychologists like to call that? Regression? That seems about right. It is a regression of sorts because I’m happy. Clearly, I’m being mentally transported back to the last time I was happy. Not that I can remember when that was. My dad, a retired police officer, tells me that “weed will stunt my memory and ambitions.” Little does he know, both of those possibilities entice me.
You mean to tell me that a drug that I will be surrounded by in college will make me forget all the stupid things I’ve said and done? I’ll stop obsessing about mistakes I made years or weeks or months ago? And it will erase my pesky ambitions which keep me in a perpetual state of despair because they’re goals I’ll likely never be able to achieve? My dad’s endless moralizing and explosive temper were, in a word, ineffective. To my knowledge, all of the siblings I have scattered around the country are avid pot smokers. I guess the War on Drugs fails on the streets and at home. Yes, I know what the War on Drugs is. I took a freshmen seminar on the carceral state.
I think, at some point, I was trying to make a point about Carlin and mental health. The rest of the joke is as follows:
That was seventy years ago. Then a whole generation went by, and the Second World War came along, and that very same combat condition was called battle fatigue. Four syllables now. Takes a little longer to say. Doesn’t seem to hurt as much. Fatigue is a nicer word than shock. Shell shock! Battle fatigue. Then we had the war in Korea, 1950. Madison Avenue was riding high by that time, and the very same combat condition was called operational exhaustion. Hey, we’re up to eight syllables now! And the humanity has been squeezed completely out of the phrase. It’s totally sterile now. Operational exhaustion. Sounds like something that might happen to your car.
Then, of course, came the war in Vietnam, which has only been over for about sixteen or seventeen years, and thanks to the lies and deceits surrounding that war, I guess it’s no surprise that the very same condition was called post-traumatic stress disorder. Still eight syllables, but we’ve added a hyphen! And the pain is completely buried under jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder.
I’ll bet you if we’d of still been calling it shell shock, some of those Vietnam veterans might have gotten the attention they needed at the time. I’ll betcha. I’ll betcha.
Part Two: A New Drug
Four therapists and two different therapy groups later, I quit. You see, I had realized the root of my problems. I had arrived at college a virgin. I could blame the rigor of my high school program. But the reality was that I was ugly. When I say this aloud, people are quick to interject. You weren’t ugly, or You just hadn’t come out of your shell. But I don’t need pity. Pity burns similarly to an inflamed pimple. There’s no greater shame than acne and stunted sexuality. Unfortunate looking or ugly. Benzaclin or Zit cream. Sexually inexperienced or virginal. I don’t need coddling.
Anyway, I realized the root of my problem. In freshmen year, I hooked up with a boy. The sexual attention filled a void in my soul. I had spent my adolescence reading M-rated fanfiction and navigating the murky world of internet porn. In middle school, I thought my period arrived later than my peers because masturbation convinced my body it was pregnant. I watched a video of live birth for sex-education week of my health class. Abstinence is the only form of safe sex, after all. The mixed messages meant I was both wholly unprepared and yet filled with bizarre confidence.
This freshmen film student and I connected over our mutual mental health diagnosis. He had an assortment of scars on his bicep and a drinking problem. Like many male film students, he idolized Paul Thomas Anderson and Quentin Tarantino. His brown eyes had a fascinating way of darting anxiously about the room. And, when I offered him my virginity, he said no because he didn’t want me to get too attached. Similar to our conversation about a Kurosawa film, he said I wouldn’t get it.
This was a crisis I discussed in therapy extensively. And each therapist encouraged me not to dwell. I had plenty of my life left to be a sexual being. But those weren’t solutions. Then I had an epiphany. The kind of epiphany or idea you generate in college, half-baked and slightly insane. I hid my mental illness expertly from my friends. They all looked to me for advice. If I could hide mental illness, could I not also hide sexual inexperience?
Thankfully, the internet was full of solutions not endorsed by therapists. Betty Dodson, a feminist thinker, curated a website of sex-education advice that genuinely saved my miserable life. Self-penetration. The bizarre answer to my crisis. Would I be hiding my virginity or losing my virginity to myself?
For my eighteenth birthday, a friend gifted me a vibrator from Spencer’s. I’m sure many in my generation remember the thrill of the 18+ section at Spencer’s. Inflatable boobs, penis lollipops, novelty sex toys, and dirty birthday cards were thrilling for teenage mall-rats. Brandi purchased me one of those novelty sex toys. A cheap, lime green vibrator. Sure, it didn’t have many speeds, and it was labeled a knock-off or novelty. I think it cost around twelve dollars and that is horrifyingly cheap for an object that is meant to penetrate a human orifice. Despite all of those factors, I adored that vibrator.
The plan was simple. I added Andrew on Facebook, hoping he remembered me from our freshmen Shakespeare class. I incorporated self-penetration into my already active masturbation practice, no easy feat as I lived in a dorm room. Surprisingly, this was easy. I was comfortable enough with myself that there was no pain besides the pain of embarrassment. Then, the stars aligned.
Andrew added me on Facebook, and mass invited his e-friends to a party off campus. The Solar Apartments, disgusting college housing passed from generation to generation of smelly boys. A tight black dress and neon magenta tights were the bait. Andrew obliged. We stumbled to his apartment, barely exchanging words. Perfect, I would not need to lie. Standing on my tiptoes, our first kiss on the damp grass in between apartment complexes tickled my senses as much as his beard tickled my face.
The sex was drunken, and in hindsight, lackluster. But I was elated. He passed out next to me unsuspecting, and I laid my head on the hair on his chest, beaded with sweat. He didn’t smell great, and he snored. I had read online the importance of peeing after sex, and so I walked naked, and with pride to the bathroom. In the bizarre, pink neon light, I smiled at my reflection. My hair messy and my makeup smeared, I had never looked sexy before that moment. I wished to linger, but the smell prevented me. The back of the toilet was inexplicably smashed, and I didn’t care to ponder the series of events that led to its destruction.
Sex became my drug of choice. Better than weed because it gave me the dizzying energy that accompanies perceptions of power. Better than alcohol because I wouldn’t be sick in the morning. The sex hangover is similar to exercise hangover. My muscles sore; my sense of accomplishment and invincibility high; I would binge on take-out and sleep peacefully. And sex is not addictive. That’s a myth. The fourth and final therapist, a chubby woman with short gray hair kept trying to get me to join her F.R.I.E.N.D. therapy group. I’d write out the acronym, but I’ll spare you nausea. She claimed my relationship to sex was unhealthy. How dare you try to take the one thing that has given my pitiful, miserable life fulfillment? She’s the only therapist I talk back to, and she doesn’t seem phased by my anger. “Jess, what is your anger telling you right now?” What’s my anger telling me? Fuck you.
The end of the semester approaches. In this past semester, I’ve taken Plan B three times. The nurse clinicians at the campus health center and I grow uncomfortably close. I always appreciated the incognito, brown bag of free Lifestyle condoms. I did not enjoy the looks of concern or barely repressed indignation. Andrew and I had kept seeing each other infrequently. I’d wait with baited breathe for the “hey” text at midnight on a weekend night. During one of our encounters, the condom ended up next to my head. How it got removed? In a drunken stupor, the answer was unclear.
Although the other two times I had to take PlanB were similar, the men were different. I think that was the most shameful detail, whenever I had a moment of clarity that is. However, I would muster up a feminist rage and declare that sexual shame had no part in my life. I was a radical feminist, doing what I wanted with whomever I wanted. Of course, alcohol and drugs decrease the vagina’s natural lubrication ecosystem. And so, the sex was not altogether pleasurable.
Why didn’t I use birth control? I forgot to take the pill daily. The thought of an IUD terrified me. Other forms had acne and low libido listed as potential side effects. In short, your typical, shallow, and woefully ignorant reasons. I failed to realize that Plan B wasn’t exactly helping my acne flare-ups.
At the end of the semester, I sat on the curb outside my dorm building and waited for my dad to pick me up. I dreaded our five-hour drives together. He would pull up in his large Jeep that I was forced to call “the war wagon.” As I mentioned before, my dad’s temperament is finicky. His mood would change. His eyes would darken. His tone would shift. His muscles would tense. I had learned the signs, but not the solution.
This time, after my semester of debauchery, something shifted. The first stop we made on our journey was to the nearby mall. It was, and my dad insisted we dine on mall Cinnabons. Sticky lard-filled icing thickened the blood in my arteries. We continued on our way. He shouted about blue lives matter or Barack Obama’s latte salute to troops; I lost track of all the tangents. Lunchtime consisted of rest-stop fried chicken. I watched him eat a four-piece fried chicken and fries in less than thirty minutes in amazement.
During the post-lunch drive, he was calmer. Since it was the afternoon, he could light a cigar. I’d have been a fool not to notice my dad’s unhealthy lifestyle. But this time, I was struck with one of those rare moments of self-realization. The faces of nurses at the health station flashed before my eyes. All of the times that blood had furiously pulsated under my skin flashed in short succession. The times when I went back to my dorm room following an unsuccessful attempt to get laid and cried myself to sleep weren’t examples of alcohol-induced blues.
But I’m not a Republican. I’m not a police officer. I don’t binge on junk food and chain smoke cigars. I’m not a racist, or I try as hard as I can not to be. I realize that the police aren’t a race. My dad’s skin isn’t blue. I left the south to go to an upstate New York liberal arts college. I’m a liberal, feminist living her best sex life. But was it a good sex life?
For dinner, we stopped at Applebees. Chain restaurants meant we were uncomfortably close to my childhood home. My dad ordered a nine-ounce ribeye, and begrudgingly ate a side dish of green beans. Mashed potatoes are a vegetable, he joked. I picked at my food, as eating like my dad all day always caused my body to shut down in a panic.
His demeanor was calm, but I wasn’t listening to the words pouring senselessly out of his mouth. Generally, all of the conversations had to do with his life, and so I wasn’t obligated to respond. There were no questions about my life to answer. And suddenly, his brown eyes resembled mine. I recognized my smile in his. Our laugh is similar.
The sudden, dizzying nausea of self-realization made the garishly decorated inside of the Applebees spin. I put both hands firmly on the table. Luckily my dad never noticed my symptoms. Or maybe I’d learned to hide symptoms from friends because I first hid them from him. The voices of four therapists merged in my head. Questions they had all asked about my father, questions I dismissed, were suddenly causing the blood in my brain to constrict.
I might faint. I gulped water. I avoided eye contact with the black haired, middle-aged waitress. When we finally made it home, I rushed to bed. For the first time, solutions evaded me. I could go back to therapy, I suppose. I opened Tinder, as I would be home for a month on winter break, and paused. I put my phone down and stared toward the ceiling wishing for it to fall.
There would be no easy solution. There was no hiding. Anybody who met my father would see me reflected. I couldn’t possibly hide from that. And it’s not as if he wanted to be a bad guy. All his life, he wanted us to look to him as a police officer. But the news slowly reported that the law enforcement community might need serious help. I’d seen the evidence of that all my life. The anger, the ex-wives or husbands, and did I mention the anger? My father, personable as he could be, never got help. And his family suffered.
Picking up my phone, I sent Andrew a message. “Hi, you were my first time. I want to thank you for that. And I’d like to talk about it when we get back. See ya around.” Knowing that my libidinous prince likely would never respond, I smiled.
“Thank you for sharing that with the group, Jess.” The voice of the chubby, gray-haired therapist leader of F.R.I.E.N.D. broke through the silence. Feelings, relationships, individuality, needs, and desires. See! I told you. It’s a stupid name, and all for the word “friend.” My hands clasping the paper I scribbled my story on, I take my seat amongst the circle. “Now who would like to share next?”