The worst hangover I ever had lasted three days. I was in a fog of forgetfulness and pain for three days, until the irritating and incessant ringing of the telephone finally stopped, and the door started banging instead. I knew it was the photographer from work. I answered the door because I was tired of the wet, musty smell of my bed, and I was afraid that my legs and my lungs might actually stop working if I didn’t start using them again soon. Also, I knew that she wouldn’t go away. Maybe she was right. Maybe it was time to stop talking to myself and try talking to somebody else. I was stuck anyway. My brain was going around in unending, unresolved circles, and now my entire body was joining in on the ride.
My body started talking to me. It had spoken to me many times before, but I wasn’t listening. I didn’t want to. I don’t know if I particularly wanted to this time either, but I had no choice. My body was shouting and it wouldn’t shut up. It spoke to me first by taking away all of my strength. Every last ounce. I couldn’t walk down the hallway to pee without my breath coming hard. I couldn’t stand without feeling weak and dizzy. I could feel myself swaying. I couldn’t lift a glass of water to my lips without watching my hand shake, and I couldn’t even keep my eyelids open as I called into work to tell them I couldn’t make it in that morning, I was too ill. I even tried twice. I thought my body was just being a nag, so I called in the first time to tell them
I would be late. Two hours later, my body’s voice would not be put off any longer. It really meant business this time. It took away all of my strength so that I would be forced to listen. That’s when I called into work the second time to confess that I just couldn’t make it in at all. I lay back down. I was at the mercy of the voice, and the voice continued.
It tortured me with varying bouts of coldness and sweat. My heart pounded up through my neck and into my ears, where it made my eardrums vibrate with an annoying steadiness. I had to reposition my head over the pillows so that my ear could hang over an empty space between the pillow and the mattress. This way, with my ear suspended, the sound couldn’t bounce off the sheets and come back up and make my head bob back and forth. Then my heart moved on and pounded around my head like a thick halo. It stayed there all day.
I heard mysterious, sharp little pains every now and then. Mostly from my lower abdomen, where my intestines struggled, and from under my left breast, where my heart pumped alternately between fast and slow. The painful tenor of the sheerest poison soaked up my veins and soddened my limbs. The sound caused me to flinch involuntarily and to moan and rock and curl up in a tight ball. My arms were dead, and my legs had the dull ache of bruises and a pulled muscle that was taking forever to heal.
This went on, through a thin consciousness of day, night, and time, for three days. I called in sick three days in a row. After hanging up the phone every morning, I crawled right back into bed, getting up only to force enough water down my throat to keep my blood in liquid form. My body told me that it was going to die. That it was already dying, and that if I wanted to savor any more of life and the world, I would have to stop trying to drink myself to sleep.
Sleep, sleep, that beautiful, magical, and ever elusive thing. Sleep used to be a sweet and desirable state of delight. When did God decide I was done with sleep? It didn’t matter that I was young. It didn’t matter that I liked to eat well and even liked to exercise. My body was going to die anyway because these compensations weren’t fair. It meant it. I believed it. This time I had to listen.
I could do this. My body was very strong. I knew this well from the volume of abuse I had heaped upon it. I took advantage of my strong body and its ability to recover by abusing it over and over again. Someone else might be dead already. But not me. Not yet. I got up and answered the damn door.
Helen was standing there with a steely look of determination in her eyes and a foot in my door. She grabbed hold of my arm. Decked out in full, black motorcycle gear complete with buckles and zippers, it was clear that there would be no getting around this soldier. Her long, brown hair was dramatically tousled, and her cheeks were slightly flushed from her ride.
“I made you an appointment up at the hospital,” she said. “I want you to talk to somebody. Can you make it?” I nodded and made her let go of me so that I could change my shirt. The fresh shirt I put on was already damp when we walked out into the street.
The good thing about living smack in the heart of the city is that you can walk almost anywhere you need to go. Sometimes my car stayed parked in the exact same spot for weeks. We walked quietly, side by side, up the five blocks to the hospital where we both did a lot of work for the staff in almost every department. The graphic design firm we worked for used to be a part of the communications department. Another good thing when you’re working with a hospital is that you can get whatever medical attention you need at just about any time you need it. It’s a definite clique. Helen had found a psychiatrist to see me in the evening, on the same day she called, at a big, important, metropolitan hospital complex just by knowing somebody who knew somebody else and so on.
It was cool and dark outside in the early October night as we walked. The layer of sweat accumulating on the inside of my shirt was already sticky and caused me to shiver. Helen marched me up the steps and into the back entrance, across the lobby without so much as a nod to the security officer that we both knew, and upstairs into another cool, dark place. She delivered me like a package to the middle-aged woman inside the office, watched the door close and sat down in the waiting room to block any attempt to escape. I sat down in the room with the woman with the perfectly coiffed hair and the appropriate suit and the predictably large jewelry with barely a sigh. I don’t remember her face very well. I think she looked a little bit like Margaret Thatcher. It didn’t matter. I’d been there before and it was always the same. The same dim, cool, quiet room with plenty of books around. The books are often shelved right up to the ceiling, just so you know that you are in knowledgeable, well-informed hands.
Sometimes there is water gurgling softly from some cheesy, “picturesque” rock sculpture in the corner that is supposed to invoke an atmosphere of Asian serenity. Sometimes the sound just comes from a machine on the floor. Things are everywhere, objects and ashtrays and plaques and just things. The couches and chairs are always comfortable. I have to give them that. The shrinks’ appearance is always a cross between a suit and a hippie. Their clothing is expensive, neat, and pressed, but their hair is too long or the earrings too big. They have to be businesslike with the prices they charge, but they want you to admire and trust them as well. The questions are straight out of the book, but their reactions can range between anger and boredom when they don’t get the answers they are equipped to work with. I’ll start at the top, and this will be quick:
Shrink #1. A heavyset German woman with a hard look to her face and a helmet of short, white hair. She was the Chairman or the President or the Head of the Psychology Department or something like that, so I really ranked. It was my freshman year in college, and she was trying to explain to me why I was being asked to take a semester off and get my act together before even thinking about returning to her precious school. She then proceeded to lecture me on my duty to my parents, my community, and the school, and how the acceptance of these duties ought to whip me right back into shape and cure me on the spot.
I remember the anger in her face as she leaned toward me and spat, “How could you do this to your parents? To this school?” I, myself, wasn’t sure exactly what I had done at the time, and I had no answers to her questions. Completely clueless and lost, all I knew was that it was me with the bandages on my wrists, and her laying the guilt trip all over me because of it. I wasn’t offended. After all, I had lots of experience with this method of attempting to grind people into obedience simply by growing up in the Catholic Church. I wish I had been a little more self-aware, and had been able to tell her just how well I expected this method to work for me, but it didn’t matter.
I knew I would never return to that school.
Shrink #2. I went to a new school and was straightaway assigned to this gentleman on conditions of my acceptance. This man was my most favorite in appearance. I swear to God he could have come straight out of a Woody Allen movie right along with his set. He was thin, with a Vandyke beard, wire-rimmed glasses, and a perfectly tailored dark blue suit. His desk was wide and shiny and deep, and he sat behind it way, way across the room from little me, seated on an equally long and wide couch at least 15 feet away from him against the wall on the opposite side of the room. He would remove his glasses and lean back in his chair and actually steeple his fingers in front of his face, as he looked me over with concern in his eyes. He steepled his fingers. I’m not kidding. By this time, I had taken the prescribed semester off and had plenty of time to reflect on the inappropriate behavior of Important School Shrink #1. If either of these two docs knew anything about psychology, then I was Sigmund Freud. This guy was so completely inane that I wasted no time washing my hands of him after completing the required number of sessions. Once again, the reaction was anger. He unclasped his hands, returned his glasses to his nose, and leaned a whole foot closer to me over his impressive desk to shout, “You cannot quit therapy! You are running away from your problems!” “Running away from your problems.” Those where his exact words. I’m still not kidding.
Shrink #3. A peace offering to my parents for so quickly dumping Important School Shrink #2. She had her own private practice in a ritzy section of town, and charged an exorbitant amount of money in accordance with her location.
I swear I think she was my absolute favorite of all. Let’s call her Dr. Shocker. Dr. Shocker had me wait in a tiny anteroom while she shuffled the patient before me out a door on the other side of her office so that we wouldn’t have to see each other and be ashamed of where we were. Again, in the tradition of great comedic movies everywhere, Dr. Shocker actually had me lie down on the infamous couch while she sat across from me with her pencil and pad and a very loud, ticking clock facing away from me on the little table beside her chair.
She said absolutely nothing.
It became a test of wills. Sometimes she sighed audibly. Sometimes I peeked over and caught her chin nodding down toward her chest, her eyelids looking heavy. There was one session when neither of us said a single word. Not one word, until the blessed minute hand hit the 50-minute mark and she said, “Time’s up.” Then she ushered me out the back door with a look of relief in her eyes behind those plastic owl frames, and her thin lips set in a tired line.
The main thing I remember about her sessions was the clock, ticking away my parents’ hard-earned dollars, and the expressionless, pudgy, bored form of her body trying hard to stay erect in her chair. Everything else is now blurry or white and nonexistent, except for her thick black glasses, the dry red line of her mouth, and the never-ending tick-tock, tick-tock, tick-tock of her clock. The clock would get louder as the hour went on. It was very much like the old man’s heart buried beneath the floorboards of Poe’s imagination. Either one of us could have been the dead man in the story, but at least she was getting paid. I went home and told my parents I was sure I could make do with the free counseling center appointments available to the students on campus.
Shrinks #4 and #5. This dynamic duo ran a group counseling session every week in a cute little cottage on the edge of the university campus. I voluntarily attended, because by this time I was getting so little sleep I felt ready for a NASA experiment on the ability of the human body to continue functioning in an environment of almost complete and total sleep deprivation. I would stun them all, and make the cover of Time Magazine as the real-life person who never slept. Top scientists from around the world would want to meet me and study me and fall in love with me because I was making them famous.
The campus group consisted mostly of young women who talked about almost nothing besides food, how they felt about their looks, and whether or not they were attractive to boys. I was there because I was worried I might actually be insane. My insomnia was not getting in the way of my schoolwork. It seemed impossible that I was even standing on the amount of sleep I was getting, and yet I was still on time for every class and making decent grades. I wanted someone to assure me that this was somehow normal. Shrink #4 was a super tiny, petite brunette who could not possibly have weighed over 100 pounds, and Shrink #5 was an obese, balding, bearded male. Seriously now. They seemed very nice, but an underweight woman and an overweight male in a room full of vomiting co-eds? I graduated from college and got a job and swore never to bother with professional psychology again.
Now I just had to shake off Ms. Thatcher here.
“How are you feeling?”
“I’ve been a little depressed. I’m not sleeping very well. I guess I’m just a little overwhelmed with work and everything.”
“Do you feel as if you might hurt yourself? Are you having any suicidal thoughts?”
“No, I’m just really tired. Work has been crazy.”
“What do you do when you’re feeling overtired? How do you like your job? How are your personal relationships going? Are you worried about anything in particular? Do you feel this? And do you feel that? And what, where, when, why, how, okay?”
“I’m okay. I’ll be fine. Thank you for your time. No, I don’t think I need to make another appointment or see anybody else. I’ll be fine, thank you again.” Same old, same old, piece of cake. Rivulets of sweat were dribbling down my body, one drop at a time, from my armpits down to my waist like a Chinese water torture. As she sent me on my way, I wondered why she hadn’t brought up the issue of alcohol. I must have been reeking of booze all over her office. I could smell it, the sour air, wafting up from my chest. She didn’t mention my smell, my sweat, or the three days I had called in sick to work. Her eyes were squinty and watery. She seemed fidgety, impatient, and a little red in the face as well. Maybe the boozy smell in the air was coming out of her, not me. In retrospect, I believe that perhaps she, herself, was drunk at that exact moment.
Helen walked me home.
“How do you feel?” She paused. “Do you think you’re an alcoholic?” Helen was my number one drinking partner at the time. She was available at any time and any place for any reason, so there was no way I was going to admit to being an alcoholic to her even if I thought that I was. She was obviously a little afraid of this as well.
“No, I’m just letting myself get really depressed about this job and always being broke and my love life and JC. You know how he sucks. He’s so difficult. I can’t even think straight when he’s around.”
“Tell me about it,” she sniffed. “You have got to stop doing him, and we have both got to get out of our jobs.” Then she laughed. She may have been making a little more than me as the only photographer in the firm, but it couldn’t have been much more. There were only six of us: four young women and two, older male partners.
“Will you make it into work tomorrow?”
“Sure, sure. I’m fine now. We’ll go out after work on Friday and talk.” We were already at my apartment, the second floor of a rowhouse in a “good” part of the city. She had parked her motorcycle right in front, so she only had to pause for a moment.
“Okay, see you tomorrow.” Helen was always so easy. That was the great thing about her. Everyone else was much, much too complicated.
I walked up the front porch stairs and turned to watch as she drove away. Back in my room, I stripped off my shirt and changed again into a clean, absorbent gray cotton rag. I looked down at my torso as the shirt waist dropped down. Yeah, looking a little flat, white, and weak down there. Back in the bed, I lay down and propped my head up on two pillows, closed my eyes, and started thinking.
Okay, major changes need to begin right now. Not only to keep everybody off my back, but to keep from accidentally killing myself. Things were getting serious and the brass was getting involved. I had to be different now.
A different person completely. Different goals, more long-term goals, different attitude, different strengths, different resolve. What could I do, right away, right now to get this going? It came to me in a true epiphany. My eyes opened to the ceiling.
I needed to become a long distance runner.
I ran track and field in junior high and loved it. Well, in reality, I ran track and field in junior high because my circle of warmest friends demanded my participation and there wasn’t much of an alternative. Girls’ soccer had not yet exploded onto the scene, and the only alternative for spring was girls’ lacrosse, played with heavy, flat, wooden sticks more suitable for a street fight than for the capacity to capture a high-speed missile. Then there was that natural boundary rule of the playing field. In other words, there were no boundaries. Might as well just drop the stick a few yards out and keep on running straight home, pop open a Tab, and hit the couch until dinnertime.
Track it was. During a track meet, we screamed at our teammates, shoulder to shoulder, with our arms locked together over the fence on the sidelines. In good weather we piled close together over the bleachers, and in bad weather we huddled beneath them, discussing our dreams and jitters and the oncoming summer. Those friends of mine went on to college, marriage, and everyday life with the joy I had lost still secure on their faces as I whirled out into the endless night alone.
Running it would be. Becoming a long distance runner would solve everything. It would clear out my head, make me tired enough to sleep, strengthen my body, force me to continue setting goals, and spiritually catapult my ass out of my poverty-level job. I could do this.
Figure it out. Where would I do this? It would be easy. There was a big university down the same road as the hospital, and the big university had a stadium, and the stadium had a track. I was good at going around in circles. I could run after work. It would be rush hour, with plenty of headlights and traffic to light me up and keep me safe on the dark city streets along the way. It was only a few blocks away, just like everything else on the north end of town. Was it locked up? Could I somehow just blend in? Would it be monopolized by the track team? Figure it out tomorrow. Right then, I just needed to close my eyes.
I knew I was feeling better already, because I immediately started thinking about sex.