I do my best to avoid images of violence or death. When a slow-motion car crash is recreated on a tv show or a hockey replay presents a gruesome injury, I cover my eyes. If I’m with company I look at my phone, where violence has become unavoidable. I have seen the body of a young Syrian boy washed up on a Turkish beach. I know the ways a face can change in the aftermath of queer-bashing. I have heard men pleading, dying from gunshot wounds with their families watching in horror. I do not avoid these images because they are unpleasant, although certainly they are. I avoid them because of what my brain does with them after I put the phone down.
At first I only worried about the basics, the tropes. Did I leave the stove on? Was that sound an intruder or something falling in the wind? Is that smoke from a match or a house fire? I should have known I was in trouble when, as an intern, I spent an entire lunch break driving home convinced that my room was full of wasps. It wasn’t.
Now, I can’t watch my roommate chop carrots or run the blender without a full-color, high-detail vision of him flaying his hands. When my partner sleeps late, I make frequent trips by our cracked bedroom door to make sure he is still breathing. Every trash bag on the side of the road holds a corpse until proven otherwise.
“Intrusive thoughts.” A very buttoned-up way to describe something that can completely invert me. It happens when I am sitting on my two-person balcony, toes warming while the sun creeps across the chipped paint. On a conference call about how well an ad campaign is performing with the new creative adjustments. While eating dinner on a stool so tall my feet don’t touch the ground. I am calm, until I am not. There is no trigger, no sound or phrase that turns my thoughts to chaos. Without warning I am thrown into imagining how a human body looks as it jumps from the twentieth floor, how the arms and legs rotate during the fall, how it crunches and crumbles when it lands. I consider all possible scenarios surrounding the hypothetical death of my best friend (including how much time I can afford to take off from work to mourn). My friend, of course, is healthy and out of harm’s way.
I live in this state. I spend more than an hour a day as a victim to haywire chemical connections. I tell people I’m very squeamish, that I have an overactive imagination. Both are easier than telling the truth.
Growing up I spent years living in and visiting Buddhist monasteries with my father, who went on to earn his ordination. As a twelve-year-old I participated in a week-long silent retreat. A year later I spent time at a residential Zen center in the Catskill Mountains, where I scrubbed floors with life-long monks and loaded the wood stoves in exchange for a hard mat to sleep on.
At sixteen, I was fresh off a day-trip to the Comprehensive Psychiatric Emergency Program after a nervous breakdown. I left the city’s psych ward in four hours with no diagnosis, only whispers of Bipolar Disorder, and a prescription for Abilify. Knowing this, the monks taught me how to let my thoughts come and go. They taught me the value of stillness and silence. They helped me more than the drugs ever would, but that was before the proliferation of social media.
As an adult living with mental illness, I am bombarded by well-meaning health gurus, each with their own recommendations on how best to calm my aching mind. I wish I could tell them that the last thing I need is a 23-year-old with an eighty-hour training course to tell me which Warrior Pose and essential oil will cure my affliction.
Growing up, my mother had a police scanner running almost constantly, the early nineties equivalent of a Twitter timeline. My vocabulary at age five meant I couldn’t understand most of the words that came through the scanner, but the dispatcher’s voice was always pleasant and calm. Sometimes I imagined her as a member of our family. A bodiless entity at dinner, interrupting family conversations with news of shots fired. The scanner ran constantly and quietly, relaying tales of robbery, fire, and death. Like the din of thunder a few miles away, threatening a storm.
Sometimes I try to remember when my first disturbing thought occurred, what that first body-clenching, panic-inducing vision of what-could-possibly-happen was. Now I realize that it was more like a growing tumor than a stroke.
Who do I tell? How do I tell them? The trouble with obsessive thinking is that I obsess. On bad days, days where I believe that the repeated sound of the front door opening is a harbinger of death via crazed ax-wielding man, there is a noticeable and detrimental impact on my mood. How do I tell my coworkers, “I’m sorry, I’m not frowning at the idea you just floated, I’m frowning because Janet is picking at a hangnail and I’m thinking about what it would look like if it just kept pulling?” How do I tell a friend, “no I don’t want to go to the movie theater, because the last two times I went I’ve had silent panic attacks caused by a man returning with popcorn that might have been hiding a gun?” Or perhaps more relevant, how do you ask “please, for the love of God, add a warning when you post a photo of a dead man?”
I think I’ll keep it simple. There is something I need to tell you.