January is a month for beginnings. This isn’t a new concept, nor is it one that I’ve ever particularly subscribed to: calendar dates are mostly arbitrary, rarely aligning with actual historical events and watershed moments. The president was inaugurated, again; the trees remained bare and scrawny; winter quarter at the university commenced. For me, though, two very new sensations appeared: my arms and legs began to shake uncontrollably, vibrating as if by some odd, latent tic; and I became convinced that I didn’t exist.
I didn’t notice the shaking at first. I was lying in bed with a boy—long-haired, skinny, gorgeous, if not for the fact that I later learned that he was a strong supporter of fascism as a political ideology—who became increasingly annoyed with my inability to stay still, and ordered me to stop moving.
“I’m not moving,” I said.
“Your hand,” he grasped it, tightening his grip, as if trying to squeeze out the twitching.
I watched my hand in his. I couldn’t feel the movement, but I was watching my body tremor. I looked down, and saw that my arm and right leg were twitching, too. It was a bizarre experience. I felt like the opposite of amputees sensing their phantom legs; my limbs were very much intact, but dancing on the whims of some ghostly other.
* * *
If you meet me, I don’t seem crazy. My medical history is stellar, save for some mild depression and anxiety that cropped up in high school, which I was treated for with some nice, simple Celexa. I took four courses at UCLA, with a 3.6 GPA. I had a solid group of friends, with whom I’d drink and smoke, but never in an excessive way. I was pretty, if in a strange, character-on-Girls kind of way, and I was able to get most guys I wanted. I read David Foster Wallace and went on nature walks and patiently awaited the new season of Arrested Development. Sometimes, I’d take the bus to Beverly Hills and window shop. My life was ordinary, and boring, and not at all one that would belong to anyone deemed crazy.
* * *
At a hookah bar the next night, I asked my friend Isaac if he’d ever noticed me shaking.
“Yeah, but I didn’t think it was something to bring up,” he said, taking a puff of this god-awful blue raspberry tobacco we kept accidentally ordering. “I figured it’s just something you’d always done.”
I explained that this was not something I’d always done, and that, in fact, it was something that was starting to terrify me. Was it something neurological, like Tourette’s? Or just a manifestation of my persistent general anxiety? The smoking apparently calmed me in some way; I watched my left hand the entire time we were at the bar, waiting for a quick twitch, but catching nothing.
I was in love with Isaac. It wasn’t something I’d ever planned to bring up to him, because I knew how he felt about relationships. He’d told me that any time he had sex with a girl, he immediately found her revolting afterward. Most of the time, I feel similarly, so I expressed agreement. This was the same conversation in which he described a desire to sleep with me but felt that there were “so many other things” we could do instead. Like talk about his ideas on philosophy, or his ideas on religion, or his ideas on writing. And I loved all of that, because I loved him.
I loved the way he was constantly running his hands through his hair, making it stick up in a weird faux-pompadour, and I loved how he looked just enough like Kevin Bacon in Diner, and I loved how he could seamlessly weave references to Plato’s allegory of the cave into casual conversation. He was the typical subject of a literature major college girl’s affection, and I was a typical literature major college girl. I knew how cliché it was for me to feel the way I was feeling —very Sylvia Plath, very “Mad Girl’s Love Poem”—which led me to slightly despise the entire situation. I didn’t want to sleep with him, or date him, or even have him love me back. I just wanted to be able to fall asleep wrapped in the knowledge that there was someone out there like him. And that was it.
But I loved the way his arm felt when it accidentally touched mine that night as we sat on his bed watching The Life Aquatic, stoned and quiet, alone and dark.
* * *
The twitching seemed to increase as the next few months passed. By April, I’d been told by every person whose opinion I wasn’t mortified to seek out that I did sometimes flinch and shake, but that they all thought I was aware of this. After becoming aware of it, I probably was just noticing it more, but it seemed to have become more intense. I began to drop things, fumble through the letters on my phone and send inane text messages, slosh coffee over the side of my mug as I lifted it.
There are plenty of reasons to twitch, and none of them interested me. Maybe I was expressing some kind of psychological sensation in a physical way. Maybe I was neurologically compromised. Maybe I was just nervous. If you Google “why am I twitching,” the answers range from “nervousness” to “brain cancer.” Sometimes things are so overwhelming they become boring. And that’s what this was like for me.
What fascinated me, though, was this growing sensation that I did not exist. It wasn’t exactly that I felt the world around me wasn’t real, or that my body was somehow inhuman. I wasn’t hallucinating, or hearing voices, or losing my grip of reality. I simply no longer felt as if I, Megan Lent, was a valid entity.
I’m going to try to describe this as best I can without coming across as insane (which is unlikely, because when I tried to describe this to the ER attending physician, I was 5150’d). I could feel my body and my mind splitting apart, like two sides of Velcro. I would go to the 24-hour Starbucks late into the night, looking at the people around me, trying to discern if they could tell I was there, and if they were really there.
I was completely divorced from my own memories, my own psyche. Everything I knew and believed and felt and thought still existed, but in some shoebox that I’d tied to a rocket and launched deep into space. None of it was connected anymore to how I was existing.
What I was going through was either an experience of depersonalization disorder or an unintentional ego death. In psychology, an ego death is one of the worst things that can happen to you. With depersonalization, you begin to lose the sense that the reality you experience holds any bearing to an actual reality, and this then evolves into a sense that maybe there is no actual reality nor, in fact, any actual “you.” So instead of you being a person existing in the world, you’re an ego floating around aimlessly, a body attempting to not die, in a world that neither the ego nor the body knows how to perceive. There are all sorts of rumors that the disorder inspired Munch’s The Scream, but this seems unlikely to me. The man in The Scream holds onto his face firmly; he clearly understands that there is some connection between what’s inside his head, and the rest of his body. I’m not sure what all the swirls and colors in the background represent. Probably war. Most German Expressionist paintings are about war. Or anxiety. Or both.
The ego death, not too dissimilar from depersonalization, is the primary objective of most schools of Buddhism. In order to achieve enlightenment, a practicioner must let go of his or her sense of individualism and realize that there is no actual boundary between the “self” and the rest of reality. In Buddhism, there’s this idea that the self doesn’t really exist at all, it’s just an illusion holding us back, and that in fact we are all the anatta, or the not-self. And this is a really good thing in theory, because if there aren’t any boundaries between humans and their environment, then no one would feel the need to hurt each other, or litter, or commit arson. Everyone and everything would just exist in harmony,
So, what was happening to me was either the pinnacle or nadir of human existence. Which wasn’t much comfort. Because when you’re going through that loss of self, you can read every book in the library, and you can process it, and understand it, but there’s no way to actually feel the truth of any of it, because your brain and your body have already paid the lawyers, sold the boat, and finalized the divorce. And that, even if it has a name, is truly frightening.
* * *
Around the time of my unfortunate ego death, spring quarter began. And with spring quarter came Elle. I met her at this event at the Hammer Museum. David Lynch was there, and we were outside watching him projected onto a big screen, discussing transcendental meditation. I was there with Isaac, a guy who spent a full hour describing every dead body he’d ever seen, a man who kept peeking happily into a pocket on the inside of his jacket where he kept a naked Barbie doll covered in Sharpie designs, and Elle. She stood to the outside of the group, somewhere between aloof and anxious, her arms kept close to her sides. Isaac would occasionally leave me with the strange gentlemen and whisper things to her.
After Lynch, we all went to a nearby ramen restaurant. I watched Elle drink soup. She was very pretty, with big statement glasses and long copper hair that was so beautiful I felt the need to compliment it but could only think to say “your hair is very healthy…you must eat a lot of nut oils.” Isaac mentioned something I’d said at the hookah bar a few nights before.
“You took her to the hookah bar?” Elle said with faux anger. “But that’s our thing.”
I learned over the following two or three weeks that Elle and I had a lot more in common. We were both from Northern California, both clinically depressed, both big Neutral Milk Hotel fans. We’d get dinner and watch 30 Rock and commiserate over life. But always in the middle of the conversation would be Isaac. He’d do things like burn Ingmar Bergman’s Persona onto a hard drive for me, have me return it, and then burn Elle the same movie (which, interestingly, is about two women whose identities shift in and out between each other). We’d relay identical exchanges that we’d both had with him. It became obvious that he interacted with each of us in the exact same way. Elle had been gone the past two quarters, taking time off—something I’d done the previous year following a minor breakdown involving a series of binge drinking episodes and rampant promiscuity all culminating in a near-sexual assault and the realization that it was a bad idea to have my 28-year-old boyfriend living in my dorm room. Elle’s reasons for leaving school were probably less illustrious, but I never really cared to ask. Apparently, before Isaac met me, he spent all of his time with her. And with her gone, I was the go-to replacement.
* * *
Once, Elle told me she believed that we’re always awake, but that only half of what we do counts. That the things that happen in our dreams are just as real as the things in waking life, but that maybe reality is a more complicated situation than it’s generally conceived to be. She liked to say that we weren’t real people. She was right.
* * *
I made an appointment with a general practitioner about my twitching. She said that it was a side-effect of the Celexa, and that it was just showing up now. I asked if she could help me get a new medication, but she said she couldn’t. I felt unaided and helpless, that there was a system in place designed explicitly to keep me from being totally well. But I couldn’t feel any of that too strongly; I was still floating, almost totally de-realized. The world around me was a dream.
* * *
The next night, I called Elle to see if she wanted to watch the most recent episode of Mad Men and help me finish the bottle of Maker’s Mark that this sketchy ginger had bought me the month prior. I went over to her dorm. We traded swigs of the whiskey with sips of Diet Coke and shared our love of Peggy Olsen. Elle’s room was perfect, the walls decorated with a picture of Bobby Kennedy next to a “God Invented Weed, Man Invented Alcohol, Who Do You Trust?” poster, which wasn’t necessarily ironic. It was cold—she liked cold rooms, said it was how she was raised—and everything had an air of softness.
We went to one of the dining halls to eat nachos. It was past midnight, and we were relatively drunk. We sloppily shoved chips into our mouths while laughing. She told me that she liked me, and the only thing I could think to do was to misquote Eternal Sunshine and tell her that, though she thought there were only things to like about me now, eventually she wouldn’t, and would see that I’m just a fucked-up girl. She caught the reference and started laughing more. I smiled.
“I think I love Isaac,” I told her.
The way she laughed let me know that she did, too, or that she had, or that she always would.
“I should tell him, right?”
“Don’t do that,” she said.
“But maybe I should.”
“Okay, maybe you should.”
* * *
I knocked on his door, leaning my body into it, drunk. He opened it, half-asleep, getting over a cold.
“Why are you here?”
I didn’t know how to gently describe what I needed to say. I blurted out, “The thing is, I love you.” And the look on his face murdered me a thousand times.
He said that he loved me, in the humanistic sense of the word, but nothing more, and that I knew that, and why was I doing this. I began to cry. I could sense myself becoming more and more unhinged as I accused him of treating Elle and me as the same person. As he told me, “Megan, I’m not that guy,” over and over, I slipped back out the door and could feel my spirit tearing away from my body. I was over.
* * *
I joined Elle back on the grass outside of Isaac’s building and lay down upon it beside her. Her shirt lightly rode up her back, and I could see how pure and pale and thin she was. She was moonlight-gorgeous. I put In the Aeroplane Over the Sea on my iPod. We listened to songs about Anne Frank as a shooting star passed over our heads. As we walked back to our dorms, she took my face and kissed it.
“I’m so sorry,” she said, and ran inside.
* * *
I tried to explain to the EMTs that I’d only gone to the ER because of a tremor in my arm, and that when the attending physician noticed the tremor I then had to explain that it was a side-effect from my anti-depressant, and when she asked if I was depressed I then had to say that no, not exactly, I mean I am depressed but I take pills for that, and that I take anti-anxiety pills, too, but that these all seem to work. And then she left and brought over a different doctor, and he asked me if I was feeling okay, and I said that, yes, I felt fine, just slightly convinced that I didn’t actually exist, and apparently that isn’t something you say at the ER because that’s how you get rolled out on a hospital bed into a vestibule next to an armed guard for ten hours.
The ambulance driver, well within my age range but obviously far too competent at life for me to ever honestly sexually consider, put on the oldies station as the other EMT propped my head up on the gurney with a pillow wrapped in a plastic grocery bag.
“It’s not fancy, but it’s sanitary,” she said.
We careened through West L.A. toward the hospital, which was, according to one of the nurses, in “fucking Covina,” the female EMT asking every few minutes if I needed a blanket and Billy Joel’s “Big Shot” reverberating through the vehicle. I’d never been in an ambulance before, and there was something very exciting about looking at traffic the wrong way. It was well past 1 a.m. at this point, and most of the cars out were semis, and I’m pretty sure we were taking those winding mountain-valley roads where they kill the brunette in Mulholland Drive. The way the giant trucks would beam out their lights and roll on forward so quickly that it seemed they were going to run right into me was exhilarating. Which, I realize, is not something sane people say.
When we pulled into the hospital’s parking lot, a little black cat scurried in front of the ambulance. It was as if the world was speaking to me using the symbolism of a 9th grade English class.
* * *
I was 5150’d on the grounds that I didn’t have a solid care plan. Which I didn’t, when I signed the forms guaranteeing my involuntary hold. Of course, hours later—and I spent hours at the ER, almost nine total, streaming Lost on my phone while a security guard watched me—my mother flew down from Sacramento. We were told by the second doctor that this would suffice as a care plan, and that I would just have to spend the night somewhere, that the first doctor I met would then be contacted and release me from the hold.
That didn’t happen.
* * *
The hospital was an embarrassing collection of clichés. Driving into the complex, the EMT said with comforting sarcasm, “See? It doesn’t look safe and nice here at all, does it?” And, yes, it looked lovely—a series of long, low buildings surrounded by carefully manicured green lawns. But we didn’t get to go to the lawns; during 10-minute “outside times” allotted hourly, we were herded onto a concrete patio bordering a spotty space of grass simultaneously too dry and too muddy to prove useful. A few deflated basketballs and a cart of board games and cigarettes rounded out the experience.
My mother would bring me things—Entertainment Weekly, crossword puzzle collections, the books at the checkout at K-Mart featuring special movie adaptation tie-in covers. Two pairs of sweatpants and two faded pink sweaters and green plastic flip flops and cheap cotton underwear, all of which I later relegated to the deepest corner of my closet; even glimpsing the edge of a pink sleeve would send me into a full-on, hanger-throwing panic.
The residents were a motley band of women, alternating between angry and near-comatose. There was the woman who was missing her left forearm, a vocal Republican who liked to talk about what “real America” was and how the Beatles were a shit band (“love me this, love me that, who gives a fuck”). Or the woman with a deep, masculine voice and wild white hair, dressed like a tourist from the late ’80s, who would shift from coherent and interesting to near-violent if countered in any way by the nurses. Or the Hispanic woman who either didn’t speak English or didn’t speak, period. Or the woman who always wore a towel around her head and spilled an entire bowl of milk into her lap, a small shaking figure who would shout out in terrified tones, “milk is whole!” or “dog is god backwards!” as if intoning prophecies. Or my roommate, a quiet girl who shuffled through the motions of the day like a professional.
The star of every hour, though, was Shady Boots. I don’t know her real name, but the nurses gave her the moniker the second day I was there. Shady Boots was about 60, thin, with giant eyes—she’d probably been very pretty in her youth—and she hated everyone. And it wasn’t an irrational, all-encompassing “I hate humanity” hatred: she had a solid, if completely factually unsound, reason for hating us all. She called me Ballerina. She demanded to be called Lady Gaga, would yell at one of the nurses for “trying to steal Lamar Odom from the Kardashian,” often went into descriptions of her marriage to “John Elway the football star,” and, if there was nothing else to discuss, would shout out, “You can bet that on Lucky Number Seven, off to the races, Ruby Tuesday!”
The only person I wasn’t terrified of interacting with was a girl around my age who’d recently shaved her entire head. Even then, we didn’t talk so much as stand near each other and watch the other residents smoke and struggle through games of Yahtzee. A few men were in our ward (officially referred to as the “women’s wing,” but we’re talking about a place that doesn’t provide hand soap, not the lounge at Bloomingdale’s.) One was maybe in his early thirties, wore a blanket around his legs at all times, and consistently tried to engage me in card games. I’d try to play with him, but between our mental states and my already weak knowledge of poker, we’d just give up after half a hand. Another was an oversized elderly man who had to sit on special chairs because, according to the nurses, he had scabies. He’d drool sometimes and mutter to himself, his giant back hunched, reeking of piss. The third scared me most of all, just because of how average he appeared—department store jeans, fresh T-shirt each day, combed hair, good speaking skills. It was obvious why someone like Shady Boots would be “in a place like this”— a solid euphemism, yes, even if a more apt description would be “a jail with fees”—but why someone like him? And where, to an outside observer, did I fall on that spectrum?
The attendants—some nurses, most not—would make every effort to make our lives more difficult. When Shady Boots fell out of her wheelchair, they laughed instead of helping her up. The tiny delusional woman would often get hit with the large cart of food trays; her assertions of pain were treated as extensions of her mental state, nothing to be concerned with. Each morning, we were required to fill out a sheet explaining our mood with helpful guide words and faces, ranging from smiling to frowning, to circle. In order to get breakfast, we had to fill out the forms. But more often than not, there were not enough—if any—pencils.
Medication time came next. Your name gets called and you approach a window, the border between you and the lobby, between you and the Real World. You’re given a small paper cup of water, and your pills are slid over. They don’t tell you what your pills are, and when you ask, they expect that you already know. Imagine how scary that is. I was swallowing things without any knowledge. I was taken off the anti-depressant I’d been on for the past three years without any tapering-off, and was immediately into depakote and seroquel, two strong anti-psychotics that caused constant grogginess and a 10-lb weight gain. (In one of the more disturbing offenses I witnessed, I was also taken off of my birth control pills.) Because I was both in withdrawals from going cold turkey from Celexa, and adjusting to two heavy new medications, I could barely sit up straight or go an hour without breaking into tears. As for hygiene, all items were request-based. I tried my best to keep my appearance tidy, but my hair betrayed every effort. The flimsy plastic brush I was offered did nothing for my mass of hot pink curls, still sticky with temporary dye. And it was in this state—hair crazed, hormonal, half-asleep—that I was sent to see the doctor each morning.
My mother fought for me every day, eventually getting me a meeting with a judge, who ignored the psychiatrist and released me from the hold. But that wasn’t the end of anything.
* * *
Once I established a psychiatrist outside the hospital, I began to understand why so many people go without proper medical care: after about a month, I couldn’t afford cab fare to her office. The bus wasn’t an option, either, given that all the right buses left while I was still in class. My cancellations became more and more frequent, causing me to skip days of medication to have enough to last until the next appointment. The drug cocktail kept altering, but eventually evened out to lamictal, remoran, and Abilify, plus klonopin as needed. I’m a student, and still under my parents’ plan, so I had double insurance—and I realize how lucky I am to be able to afford any of that handful.
I tried to proceed with my life as normally as I could. I went home and saw a Rolling Stones concert with my dad that was life-affirming. I dropped half of my classes but got As in both of them. I stopped talking to Elle and Isaac. I loved them, but I couldn’t be around them. Especially Isaac. Once, I saw him walking toward me, and leapt behind a bush, like I was in a sight gag on a dumb sitcom.
I’m not sure how it happened—and it happened slowly—but I began to piece together how to be a person again. I dyed my hair blonde and cut it to look calmer, prettier. I began to write again. I would have whole afternoons dedicated to crying, sure, but then there were times like the night my best friend and I took a bus and got off at a random stop, winding up in the Valley, where we read books at a Cheesecake Factory while listening to Taylor Swift’s new single until the place closed.
I told her that I was thinking of writing all of this, on the bus back to LA.
“Not everything needs to be a story,” she said. “Some things, they just happen. And you use them to grow. And they’re not for anyone else. They’re only for you.”