With my first bite into a chocolate-covered caramel, I heard a "pop!" and fell to the floor like a collapsing toy. My eyelashes brushed against the carpet. Teeth marks in the chocolate I must have dropped stared back at me. Colors pulsed in my left eye. My head ached more than it ever had. I knew I was having a stroke and told myself to get to bed, where I could die in my sleep.
But first, I'd watch The Bachelorette.
I stared at the TV -- that Final Jeopardy melody was playing -- and tried not to move much or breathe too deeply.
It went on. For three days, I ate whatever I could reach in the kitchen, including soup from Trader Joe's. Empty cans littered the floor. Every time I tried to throw one out, I missed the garbage. The can would start rolling, clattering across the room. The first time, I tried to pick it, but bending over made my brain feel like an angry lava lamp. Finally, I forced myself to walk the 12 blocks to my doctor's office (I tried, but couldn't make sense of how to use the bus) and she told me I had to get a CT scan at the hospital up the hill. My brain kept sloshing. Bright lights, sometimes glowing like rivers, sometimes like stars in Disney cartoons, burst across my eyes. Each passing car produced a tiny nightmare of sound and wind, shaking my body. But I got that CT scan.
Everything moved in fast forward. I was at the hospital. My hair fell in clumps as a nurse shaved areas of my head. Electrodes looked like Life Savers stuck to my forehead. My brothers and parents flew in.
A doctor said they would never perform this operation on a 60 year-old because of the risk. But I was too young for them to give up hope. Another doctor said the cavernoma was located in “tiger country” -- in my midbrain -- my eyes might be damaged. But there was no other option. A new doctor said, “possible vegetable,” and told me to say goodbye to my family and friends. I did.
Waking up after the over six-hour surgery, I couldn't move half my body. I couldn't walk. My jaw felt like a broken swing. I slurred words. Couldn’t swallow. My right hand, the one I used to write my way out of desperate situations, the hand that allowed me be a poet and writer, felt like a strange cement fist. It looked like a rose. The doctors told me they didn't know what faculties I'd get back.
Rainbow, California: Winter, 2002
I hid behind the chair -- the only piece of furniture that didn't want me dead. Voices crammed into the room. I used the weight of the chair to prevent me from running into kitchen for the knives. I drank vodka, passed out.
Before this, there had been signs something was wrong: scrubbing my face with Brillo pads and scalding water straight from the tea kettle, not sleeping for what felt like days at a time, dressing up like a pink Cheetah and smearing glitter all over my face on the way to class, stumbling across streets, talking about suicide -- dreaming about it -- drawing pictures of people hanged or drowned or shot. At the local ER, after I had sliced my skin with a razor to let the black birds escape, the receptionist told my mother, “We have actual sick people here,” and advised us to leave.
Twenty miles south, at Palomar Hospital, where I was born, they rolled me down a hallway in a wheelchair, escorted by a large uniformed officer with a gun. The nurse made me sign a paper that said I understood they were not going to give me a lobotomy. The man with long blonde hair kept screaming in different voices and stole combs. The stink of tobacco seeped through the ward from the smoking room, where Jason kept getting in trouble for putting cigarettes out on his skin. I moved gross food around my plate, gave it away when no one was looking to avoid getting in trouble for not eating. In here, I was always in trouble -- for needing meds to sleep at night, for being too tired to make group therapy, for asking to see the doctor (the doctor was very busy), for my boyfriend calling too much.
With one of those tiny golf pencils, I sat on my bed sketching a girl with legs that had sharp alligator teeth. A nurse came in. “I know this is difficult," she said, "having bipolar disorder.” I began to cry. She looked surprised. "I thought the doctor told you," she said. "I can get some pamphlets about your condition."
My condition: the same one murderers and serial killers have.
Tears kept running down my scaly cheeks.
The day after I left the mental ward, my sister-in-law and my brother drove to my parents’ house to lecture me on how I was not really sick. I sat there, numb, still wearing my hospital ID bracelet and thinking, They must be crazy. I had no idea similar reactions from strangers and friends would continue to shadow me.
After brain surgery, I got Get Well cards. Packages of lotion and soap – items I couldn't pick up or hold on to – arrived out of nowhere. Unknown to me, somebody started a Facebook account to track my recovery. A friend I barely remembered sent a fruit basket. My brother dumped it on the floor -- the same floor I had collapsed on -- so I could reach everything. With my mother, we watched Pride and Prejudice, the good version (with Colin Firth). My nephews drew cards for me.
My disability from brain surgery sometimes shows itself in public. I might forget how money works while trying to buy zinnias. People often wait patiently in line. They offer help, even prying bills out of my stiff hand, flattening them on the counter for me. When I threw up my breakfast and the oxycodone for my headaches outside my doctor’s office -- on top of his perfect garden – he put a hand on my back and asked if I was alright. If my eyes stop focusing and I begin to stumble on the bus, someone usually makes sure I don't fall.
My disability from bipolar disorder is less visible. I feel absolutely alone in my struggle. I may look sane, but I could be hearing voices or having visions – veins calling out to be severed or people falling from the ceiling covered in Martha Stewart paint. When this disability is visible, strangers offer me distance and whispers, nervous sideways glances: the bitter taste of the fear of me. It's worse with those I love. Some of them get busy, fast. One responded to a detailed email about my struggle with, “Can't wait to see you when you're better!” When my medication turned on me and I couldn't leave the house, my sister-in-law told me, "You ruined Christmas." No one visits. Or asks about my medication. Not even how I feel. No cards, no emoticons, no Facebook page, not a single gift. My journey is unworthy. I get what I don't want: space – the empty space they need.
What kills me, what makes me the most angry, is that it’s the same organ – but there is only one way to earn a fruit basket.