Soon I was dry as a stick of wood. Lying down I raised my hands above me, rubbing them together faster and faster. Clapped my hot hands and rubbed them faster faster faster faster faster faster till they made a blue spark.
Later my mind was not on my body at all when I stretched my arm up and back, but a ray of heat inside my head followed the path of my hand, surprising me. Dehydrated as the rest of me, maybe my head could feel the subtlest charge.
That was never taught in school: how you physically move, from thought to action. Really how it works. The direction from mind to hand doesn’t flow through the arm—it radiates from the brain like a vector to a point on the body, and moving the vectors creates motion. It’s something Leonardo da Vinci might have drawn if he’d thought of it. I discovered it, though, through the senses, in a personal state of deprivation that would be unethical for a scientist to reproduce, and I stand by it.
Matt and Jason were hiking together that summer. Even though their trip was technically over, maybe they needed to be rescued, the way I might need to be rescued. They may have been stranded at the top of a mountain. I sent a great bird to swoop down to pick them up in her claws and fly them down to the ground.
In the dark, on the carpet, I lay on the floor wrapped in the sheet, facing away from the television, still in the game in which I needed to survive, and I would survive when someone said I could eat.
The messages from the TV shifted to become more grave, speaking to people who could not sleep. Under the sheet over my face, I heard again and again about a diet formula, my fat was melting away, and when I touched my forearm it was skinny, and the skin was tight around my collarbone and ribs.
After all this I had been tricked and was dissolving. My head was hollowing. I had to stay awake or I might die.
I replayed strums of “Runaway Train” to calm myself. I passed through.
Then early daylight. When a car door shut and the engine vroomed, I was safe. But on the show Rude Awakening, which pretended to be clever but was just loud, the videos became a taunt, they didn’t answer what they’d promised to, and though Matt implied I shouldn’t drink from the bottle he wasn’t coming back and perhaps had just been conducting an experiment, it was cruel.
How do ecstatic states turn so monstrous, to pull any trick on you in order to grow?
A little girl knocked on the apartment door and when I opened it a crack her mother yelled at her to get away from that door, but I believe that little knock saved me, too.
When my sister called I told her I needed her to say I could take food from the fridge so I could eat. She asked me what was going on, and then told me she was taking a car over.
After I got off the phone and drank some water and scooped some yogurt from a container with my hand, I felt cross-eyed, something had messed up. If you think about it too much don’t your eyes feel stuck together? Probably my eyes were fine but if you pay too much attention to blinking they are stuck together in a sense. Or when I began to rehydrate, of course the water re-plumped my eyes, not to mention my mouth, ears, brain and heart.
I called Jason from the phone next to my parents’ bed, wrapped the curly cord around my neck to help keep me in place, I must have been talking about how Matt was conducting an experiment.
(Earlier that week when I talked to Jason I had been so happy, I told him I was sending him a gift. I said something like it was a gift he’s sending himself, and he couldn’t wait. I was probably closer to his normal, energetic state, actually, and I didn’t tell him everything.)
I raged in Jason’s ear and told him not to say anything, I just couldn’t even take the intrusion of someone saying something right now I was so sensitive and it might throw me again so he had to just listen. I found out later that he was just about to leave for a dentist appointment, so thank you, Jason.
My sister arrived and sat on the bed massaging my shoulders, crying. Not only did I order Jason not to speak, but when my sister lifted her hands from my shoulders something pendulummed in me like a Matterhorn ride and I screamed that she couldn’t suddenly lift her hands.
(This isn’t all a metaphor, it was a jarring feeling in my body. If someone presses down on you, your weightedness changes. Your center of gravity moves, responding to the source of pressure, and when the pressure suddenly releases, the equal force that meets it goes into free fall. It’s not something you’d feel normally, only in an exposed, receptive state. Newborn babies understand.)
I calmed down enough to release the phone and my sister talked to Jason. She was very quiet. “I know,” she said. Another long pause. “I know.” Jason, I believe, said he guessed I wasn’t coming back to school. Softly again, “I can’t imagine it.”
This was the same day my parents were arriving home from Cape Cod. (I had managed to contain myself in my phone calls with them that week, though my mother dreamed that I was lost and had gone to Canada.) By that time I was in my own bed under my blanket. My father asked me to put on some clothes.
My mom was going to call an ambulance but I roared that a siren would throw me over the edge and my sister got her to stop.
A little later, my sister and I sat in the doorway of our rooms, having a conversation in low light. I felt calm and drained, and could have stayed there for a long time. With her head down, she said, “I know that I need you,” and it flooded through me. Peacefulness. The light was soft and gray.
“And right now,” she said, slowly, “I need you to put on your shoes, so we can go to the hospital.”
In the car I knew where we were going, but I didn’t really believe it, because it was actually the destination.
I remember a room in which a doctor checked on me who was movie-star handsome, even my mother and sister acknowledged it to each other, so handsome it seemed to confirm the movie I was in.
I was handed a pill that I didn’t want to take, with a cup of water, and was told I could go behind the curtain and take my time and take it, but then I got very involved in reading the marks on the wall and what they meant.
From the other side of the curtain the nurse let me know I needed to go ahead and take the pill, but I needed more time. The curtain opened and I gave my mother a demonic look, then I wrapped myself around her so they wouldn’t take me, but they did manage to pull me away and a piece of furniture unfolded while I fell onto it face down and they pulled down my pants and gave me a shot.
I don’t remember what happened after. My parents kept them from putting me in, I guess, a straitjacket, but as the staff was taking me I was pulling and fighting them. I wanted both of my parents with me. My father told me later I was very strong. Another patient said when I came in I was wild.
At some point I was in a bed, someone was trying to feed me soup and being sort of jokey about it. I didn’t open my eyes, I was aware of people but it scared me to look at a face. When I first woke up in the dark I was strapped in. I couldn’t get up to pee and so I peed where I was. The steady pressure of the straps was a relief, though.
There were pictures of me with my parents on the wall.
When I opened my eyes in the daytime I saw a nurse standing above me. She had a roundish face, brown eyes, she looked a little surprised in a serious way but her eyes were warm. And then in the doorway, Mr. Ferdinand with dreadlocks said it’s ok, everything’s cool.
Another day: The colorful clock in the social room, all black, its dial overlaid with iridescent fields of color in curving shapes. When I passed it with my sister and brother and said, “I like that clock,” they laughed a little. They knew. Apparently I didn’t remember the hours I stood and stared at it from the hallway. It turned out a former patient had made it and donated it to the hospital.
The three of us held hands, as they both walked on either side of me, and we talked about The Simpsons, “it was the style at the time,” then walked out the door to the backyard. People often used the hour when the backyard opened to smoke, and Mr. Ferdinand stood outside the door with a lighter for their cigarettes.
We sat at a picnic table. I looked at the ID bracelet around my wrist, and my sister and I agreed that it was kind of cool. An artist’s badge. My brother told me when I was waking up I asked for a beaded red claw to wear around my neck.
The purpose of a mental hospital is to guard yourself, others, and themselves from death, murder and ruin of other sorts. So it will always steer toward the viability of the body over the self.
They asked me to count down from 100 by sevens. When I got down to 16, 9, 2 the doctor nodded and began to speak but I needed to pass zero and finished with “negative 5.” My dad appreciated that.
My sister told me the nurse asked what was important to me right now as I struggled with a button at the bottom of my cardigan. I said it was important to me to close this button. My sister put her head between her knees to keep from fainting and I rubbed her back. “She needs to do this,” I said.
They asked me if I felt entitled to something, and my sister told me I said yes and she was glad that I said yes.
Later, I wanted to talk about what I experienced that past week but the doctors didn’t listen to it. The studies, they told me, said that patients recovered better without talking about it. They left the room, as if they decided what was real.
I found it unfair and wrong to prevent me from expressing it, for them to ignore it, and to have me store things inside all over again. There must have been a way, with someone who listened, to heal while talking it through. And even to realize (ok, like Mucho Maas repeating “rich, chocolaty goodness”), the boring places it might take you if you didn’t come back.
My roommate’s name was Angela, whereas my roommate freshman year had been Angel. Angela, who was Greek, had an appealing air, a little hard and vivacious. “I was stone in love with him,” I remember her saying.
She also believed that she was a queen. And, come to think of it, that she was from outer space. But unless she spoke of it you wouldn’t know.
When my sister visited, she brought me a Sassy magazine, which was an escape. There was a scent in a purple bottle, in the “We Try It” section, that I’d wear when I got home.
“Did she find her crown yet?” she asked about Angela.
“Hey, we don’t know—”
“Right,” she said, “we don’t know.”
At night, the hall outside the window of my door lit up like an aquarium.
Because I was majoring in Comparative Literature, and regretted skipping over the books required for English, I asked my parents for a copy of The Canterbury Tales. With the difficult language and my vision going blurry due to the drugs the doctors were still gauging (including one for side effects, and one for the side effects of that), I read just a little bit at a time.
In the prologue to his tale, speaking of souls in the afterlife, the Pardoner says, “They can go blackberrying for all I care.”
Afterwards I flipped through the Sylvia Plath collection Crossing the Water, which I’d bought on a modest spree, and stopped at one of the poems. “Blackberrying.”
When my Russian psychiatrist (whom I liked—she wore hot pink ballet flats and told me Nabokov was happy in his personal life) sat down with me, I told her what I’d discovered, joyful for the first time in weeks.
“Karen,” she said, “let’s talk about real vorld things.”
She could have admitted it was remarkable. That would have been real.
The other patients didn’t expect from me what seemed to be expected elsewhere. It was less stressful in some ways than college, where strong opinions reigned.
But the medication flattened me. Reinforced everything I’d tried to free myself from.
Despite being grateful at the time that I went crazy in the 1990s rather than an earlier era, I’ll never know what would have happened if I were given time to eat and drink, patience to sleep and recover, come back to myself.
And interest in why I would overthrow a burden, and how I did it. They fixated on the overthrowing as the problem.
Here’s what I think:
I had a ton of things bottled up since I was a baby, and an explosion was inevitable. It’s not necessarily an unusual condition for something that needs to explode, to explode. All it takes is sensitivity, pain and repression. A body under pressure did what it needed to do.
The wall was real. It was also a metaphor. And it was proof.
In Spain I expanded. When I came home I contracted, then broke through.
There is a particular anger. The anger of awakening to deserving more.
The explanation from the doctors, a “chemical imbalance,” gave everyone a pass. No one talked to us about having family therapy. When the energy first coursed through me, I saw the truth that our family needed to talk, but once I became the sick person, the idea died.
That’s something no one said either, that this state may have exposed something true. That you took an extraordinary trip with the power of your mind.
I see what happened as a rush into my intellect, turning into a waking dream, a migrating dream, and I was left alone to discard it while having my system altered, instead of receiving help, choosing the help I wanted, to make an honest repair. To integrate it back to myself, to possess it.
What emerged needed to emerge. The stabilizers held it in place.
I wonder if an expansion followed by a contraction precedes any radical break. If the aftermath hadn’t cordoned off everything I experienced on the rooftop—which my body granted me as relief, whose loss I would mourn, without receiving room to mourn, or recognition there was anything to mourn or crave—I would like to have understood what happened. Even to study, in cross-disciplinary fashion, the flow of energy through literature, the voice, the universe, the body, and the mind. And the capacity to modulate, which I desired.
Atmospheric forces (family, culture, language, rooms and cities) channel suddenly through the individual, the release point of a larger, pressured system. At the moment of crisis, all attention goes to the diode.
There is definitely something unhingedness likes. It doesn’t seek the antidote, that’s for sure, just more and more of itself. Why does it devour? Why not just enough for a pleasurable high?
Before it takes over, it bathes you in a remedy. Some people learn to ride the wave.
From the beginning of my journal:
A still pond
A frog jumps in
The sound of water
The mystery – the “leap” is that initial burst of energy from out of nowhere then it
transfers to water → waves of sound → perception
And also … just sitting there in nature … a frog jumps into a pond.
Home from the hospital, my familiar, mundane distresses came back. I cried to my parents about—even now it’s taboo to write—not being liked. My mother assured me that people liked me, which didn’t help. My father told me I got a lot of love growing up, which made me sound ungrateful.
My sister had so many friends, and they came to her. My mother said I didn’t need to compare myself to her, that she was not the norm.
My father said, he guessed, she was magnetic. No help again.
Hadn’t I clinched that for her? By needing her? If you walk into a town with only two barbers, the logic puzzle goes, should you go to the one with a neat haircut or a choppy, messy one?
“But you can analyze literature,” my father added, with wonder. And yet it wasn’t enough. Not if it was too hidden to attract love. Not unless it grew to become your entire self (which, to my credit, I had attempted to do).
My advisor, Meera, who taught the travel literature course, once suggested I take a public speaking class. “Show the world how brilliant you are,” she said. One of those compliments that makes you feel worse.
What would the world be if my school had offered a Public Quiet class? How to be at peace with yourself, without words, in the company of others.
I did see Matt once, after I was out of the hospital for a few months and settling into the new identity of having a disorder. There had been a poster in the hospital, “People with mental illness enrich our lives,” with photos of Virginia Woolf and other troubled writers and thinkers. Matt—not to provoke, and not necessarily to comfort, but since he knew everyone else was pushing the other way—let me know that some of the ideas I’d had in August were backed up by Stephen Hawking. When I told him how I’d stopped sleeping and eating before I went to the hospital, he asked, they didn’t just give you some food? Sleep? And I shrugged and told him more about the illness. But, you don’t see what happened as part of yourself? I shook my head no.
When I returned to school, no one on the faculty insisted I write a senior thesis, and I graduated. The following year, when I had a job and a boyfriend, I slowly went off medication and felt fine.
An Oscar Wilde fairy tale stays with me. Once the village creates a harbor for mermaids, the mermaids swim away.
My friend Jason had a best friend, Vijay, in high school. Before college, they had traveled to India together, and that set Jason on his life’s path. I met Vijay when we all went to Lollapalooza in 1991. He was a witty guy, but I noticed a stiffness in his shoulders and arms, even when he smoked. This was at the same time I had all sorts of problems myself.
A few years after we graduated, Vijay, who had been going to grad school in literature, was hospitalized. While he was doing research, he believed that William Blake had been talking to him through his poems.
Vijay was released from the hospital, still believing the things he had been imagining, or perhaps perceiving quite clearly while taking too much to heart. His grad school was admitting him back to continue with his findings. It all sounded like a disaster, and that’s how it turned out. After returning to his studies, he broke down and went back to the hospital, then home to stay. Later he jumped off a bridge in Buffalo.
I believed all these years that he didn’t intend to die, that he had been acting under a delusion. But now I see it differently. Jason told me last night about the note he left behind for his family. “He felt he could no longer share himself with himself,” Vijay’s brother had said.
At the time, only months before, Vijay told Jason to read The Crying of Lot 49. It was all in there.
In my twenties I never found myself in the same danger, just the sadness. A kind, insightful therapist helped me, though even she would interrupt when I reminisced about being elated.
After avoiding meds for years, but feeling miserable long after a breakup, I decided not to deny myself. An antidepressant in the mix had once made a big difference. I went to a psychiatrist who took my insurance, recommended by a friend of mine who had once worked in his office.
I told him my history, and oddly he prescribed an antidepressant by itself. But I didn’t worry about it right then, and apparently neither did he.
The next morning, after I took it, my heartbeat kicked in, “ka-chunk.” And the sense of inflating began, the thirsted-for energy, all inside my own protective bubble.
Something’s missed in the popular conceptions of “manic.” (Recent crossword clue: “frenzied.” How about, “the sensation of drinking a tall glass of water for the mind”?) The calm, the safety, the inner stillness that allows the flow. The early feeling is secured by ground under your feet, endless ground holding you within an insulation. Taut surface of a blown-up balloon.
You feel like a bed made to precision, a quarter could bounce off you.
Even as my happiness increased with the drug, my lower half felt cut off, my genitals disconnected from my awareness. Numbing and strange, as if my spinal fluid had been redirected.
I began taking it on a Thursday in August. Friday night I lay down after work to read a short story in a collection I was loving, “Orchid” in Because They Wanted To by Mary Gaitskill.
I have to say, the confluences. The confluences! It’s honey to confluences, this state.
Moving between the present and the past, the story revolves around the seductiveness of Patrick, back when he and the main character, Margot, lived in a house together in college, and the tenuousness of their communication when they run into each other over a decade later.
The writing rippled through me.
A critique of psychopharmacology permeates the story. Margot, a social worker who’s in turmoil herself, recognizes the intensity, the aliveness, of a suicidal girl. Margot met her eye and held her. Patrick, a “psychopharm” whose sister has been in and out of hospitals, lives a more detached life.
Her sarcastic thoughts were very loud, but he didn’t hear them …
By the end, it knocked me out, my heart rapidly beating, on fire.
I left my apartment to go to a rooftop party a few blocks away, where I didn’t know anyone. A note on the window of the building’s entrance said the party had been shut down. It was a buzz-in door and when someone left I went in anyway, got in the elevator but why was I going and I came back down. As I was leaving, two guys were waiting outside to come in, going to the same party. I told them it was called off, but I hadn’t gone up to the roof myself.
So I went back into the building with them and we took the elevator up together. They were both photographers. One of the guys was a little wiry and cute, and other taller and more solid and handsome. When the wiry guy got a little too close to me in the elevator, the taller one pulled him back by his backpack.
We saw there was no party, left the building and went to a bar. That never happened—to randomly meet people and then go have an adventure. I felt both exuberant and free of sexual desire, and apparently that was irresistible to both of them, because they began competing over me. What a thrilling night, thanks to the drug-induced state …
Even though the humor of the wiry one was more my style, he became obnoxious. I called them good cop/bad cop. The taller one lived in my neighborhood, and before parting ways we exchanged numbers.
And that is the joke of sexual attraction, and of men’s supposed difficulty having all the sex they want and women’s supposed ease, because otherwise most of my life I felt so full of desire, and when desire left me I became intoxicating.
I met my sister for brunch the next day, I wanted to tell her about the night before. And then as I started talking about the Gaitskill story, the tears came. She looked around at the other tables to see who was looking. I felt a little bad, but also grateful to open my whole heart to a piece of writing. Even in my infatuation with The Sheltering Sky and Lot 49, they never made me cry.
At work the next week, speaking in an editorial meeting, I moved someone with my passionate argument. A tear came to his eye. At lunch, talking with my friend, whom I’d told about the drug, whatever it was that used to block me had dissolved. I floated. Some people held court like this all the time.
But I was growing more physically uncomfortable, and disappointed knowing the good part couldn’t last. Angry that actually, I’d probably been given a dose large enough for a despondent man rather than a gradual one for a petite woman who’d once flipped out, or the wrong prescription altogether. I halved the pill, but the speed of my heart didn’t go down, it was beating all the time, even as I tried to fall asleep. Still cut off sexually, like a cyborg.
I ate food to weigh me down. A meatball parm hero.
I called the psychiatrist about what to do. And at the end of the call, when I let him know I was angry, he told me I had a “weird system” and hung up.
Sleeping just a couple hours a night even after stopping the drug, I only fell asleep after I broke a sweat. So I started bundling up. Constantly thirsty, my heart still going, I was gulping down Gatorade and glasses of water. Brought a hairdryer under the covers to heat me up after a sleepless night and it struck me that something was really wrong now, with the dryer roaring and my heart going and my head light on a hot day in August. I called my sister and we took a cab to Beth Israel Hospital. She called our parents and they arrived there too.
Speaking to the nurse, I described what happened with a lot of care not to appear crazy. My unusual physical sensations, I thought, might sound mental. I agreed to receive an injection and started to get sleepy. The doctors found that my salt had fallen to such a dangerously low level I might have slipped into a coma.
The next day I told them about the story “Orchid.” Actually several professionals were brought in, women and men, to hear my experience from years ago till now. I may have been seen as an intelligent, articulate and interesting case. In fact, I wonder if any of them read the story afterwards.
(Months later, by the way, I sent a complaint about the “weird system” doctor to the New York State psychiatric board. They reviewed it, and no action was taken.)
Released the next morning, my uplifted feeling lasted for weeks. The guy from the night at the bar, also named Matt, left a message—it worked out very well that my stay in the hospital caused a delay in responding to him.
Even years later, while we remained friends and occasional lovers, the magic around the outrageously slim timing of meeting him in the doorway still glowed. Not only because of the friendship it sparked, but a sense that it would open a path to the party or the work or the incident that would lead me to my love.
The beams of sunlight radiating through me nearly 30 years ago were treasures I held in a private place, as if, under pressure, they’d glitter when I finally spilled them. Now they warm me inside. The space between my eyebrows relaxes. Whenever I embrace myself on the rooftop, I feel powerful.
What came to me then feels absolutely central now. While it needed to fade, as a psychedelic trip fades, I don’t believe the hospital’s approach, the verbal, physical and chemical shutting down of its channel, kept me safe. It took me years of questioning and doubting to finally say it, but I know what happened was wrong. While I passed as being “fine,” it kept me from becoming whole.
Last year I began editing the work of a therapist who cofounded a community-driven health center for people living with HIV and AIDS in Portland, Oregon, in the late 1980s. She never could have done it without breaking from the tradition of “clinician knows best,” guided by a belief that we all have inner wisdom, and that wisdom helps us heal. And I wondered what could have been, in the aftermath of my crisis, if someone had been with me to honor my own interpretation of my experience, and affirm the value of its meaning. To trust my inner wisdom to heal.
Even after writing most of this piece, it’s a comfort to find new scholarship about the role of heightened states that appear to break with reality, but can provide the individual with new vision and purpose, depending how the experience resolves within its context. And that’s just a continuation of philosophical, scientific and spiritual perspectives going back millennia, as well as more recent, growing conversations, alive with first-person knowledge.
Medicine is always a resource, but for the professions behind it: where is a reckoning with the past? Or the present? Personal autonomy matters. An essay in The Lancet Psychiatry bears the headline, “No safety without emotional safety.” A call for reform, not from the 1960s or the ’70s, but January 2023.
I’m moved again by the ideas that immersed me that summer. The mind is so deeply reflected in the dynamics of nature, in the expressions of waves surrounding and coursing through us. Lightning that balances electricity in the skies, water that wants to flow where it flows, crashing against dams that will, one day, fail. And especially, water that wants to rest underground, nourishing its habitats.
The need to control is the source of so much ruin.
I was heartened to watch a talk by a conservator at the Chester Beatty museum in Dublin, who spoke about preserving illuminated manuscripts. Modern approaches are cautious, “minimally interventive,” she emphasized, and tailored to the needs of each particular book.
In order to repair any serious damage, “we first need to understand why it occurred,” she said. “There is no point conserving pigments if the conditions that caused or exacerbated the problems in the first place are not addressed.”
Something touched me, the logic of the why coming first. The humility needed to care for something precious.
Considering the lives of materials, I arrive again at the human relationship to elemental systems. We’re as subject to physics as everything else. Thoughts and emotions and rules are made of energy, too.
A layer of gold leaf shines when burnished, but lapis will turn gray and crumble. Imagine calling the mineral itself the cause of the break. It happens to people all the time.
Maybe we need to let go of the very first things we learned. Become a lover of ancient manuscripts, listening to pages of ochre, malachite, and lampblack, cinnabar and ultramarine.
Karen Hudes is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in Tin House, the New York Times, New York Magazine, The Awl and The Hairpin, among others; her profile of Candida Donadio, Thomas Pynchon’s first agent, is available here. She attended the Byrdcliffe Arts Colony as a writer in residence in 2022, and also leads writing workshops and film discussions, with an interest in supporting the creativity of people who have experienced pivotal mental states.
Additional references for this piece include: “The Decay of Lying” and “The Fisherman and His Soul” by Oscar Wilde, “Pivotal mental states” by Ari Brouwer (Aeon), the work of psychologist Lusijah Marx, and a presentation by conservator Kristine Rose-Beers.
Image via agsandrew/shutterstock