This is what I know about numbness. It is sinister and creeping and happens slowly, then all at once. I took my medicines like I was instructed for a month before I began to notice that something had changed in me. I stopped being afraid of failing my writing workshops, and I stopped caring about making sure I made it to lectures on time. Admittedly my stomach had stopped feeling like it was about to vacate my body at all times, but the effects of the drugs were obvious and horrifying to everyone but me.
* * *
You can tell a lot about the type of doctor’s office you’re in from the magazine selection.
I sat, fiddling with the zipper on my book bag as I glanced at the titles: Psychology Today with an article being advertised “Foods That Can Help You Get Out Of Your Funk.” I wasn’t sure what type of foods the folks over at Psychology Today were recommending to cure depression, but I felt in my pocket for the half eaten Butterfinger bar melting into my shorts. The mental health clinic at Florida State University was somewhere I never thought I would find myself. I had been shy asking where it was located, on the third floor where you took a separate elevator away from all the students getting their weekly STI checks and flu shots. I had ridden it up with trepidation, and filled out my forms quietly when a young woman with short cropped blonde hair had given them to me. Looking over my answers I felt lost, terrified, and starving.
“Is there a history of depression or mental illness in your family?”
It was the question I kept coming back to. I had originally circled no, then changed my answer after thinking about how my father had had an affair when I was twelve and lost his fucking mind in the aftermath. Firmly circling ‘yes,’ I handed back the form to the cropped haired woman and waited. People trickled in and out from behind the wooden door that led to the offices, some looked severe, others just as frightened as I was. A young girl held a tissue to her face as she exited, although I saw no tears, as if hiding her face before my name was called.
“Shawn Binder!” a squat looking woman with glasses called out. I automatically stood up to her call and followed her into her office.
It was barely more than a cubicle, with plants taking up most of the area not devoted to her comically large oak desk. She motioned me to a plush green chair before looking at a stack of papers in front of her.
“So, what brings you in here today?” She asked me, barely looking up from her forms.
“Well, I was recently diagnosed with ulcerative colitis and I’m feeling really terrible about that…”
I wanted to cry, to tell her every medical diagnosis in the past six months had been an elaborate prank. Instead, I told her the past two months I had dropped 15 lbs, my hair started falling out, and at night I woke up feeling like someone was inside of me trying to punch out my stomach. I finished my story by telling her that a week ago I was walking to my poetry writing workshop when my eyes began to lose focus, a soft static fuzz covering my field of vision. I only remember throwing up banana and iced coffee on myself before a group of students was standing over me, tapping my face to make sure I hadn’t died in front of the sorority bake sale happening on the Landis Green.
If she was taking notes during this time, I never saw her scribbling, she simply stared down at her papers and occasionally looked up at me. Never at my eyes, though, I noted, only at a one-inch space on my forehead. I proceeded to tell her that my diagnosis meant my intestines were seen as foreign to my body, and that if my condition didn’t change soon my lower intestine would have to be removed.
“I know what Ulcerative Colitis is..” she smiled at me for the first time.
“Well, yeah, I figured, but I looked it up online and if they remove your lower intestine then I will basically have to go around with a bag of my own shit attached to me.”
“And you feel sad about this?”
“Have you ever tried getting laid with a bag of your own shit attached to your side?”
“....On a scale from 1-10 how anxious are you at all times, Shawn?”
If you’ve ever been asked to place your anxiety on a litmus test of 1-10 and have no idea what a 10 would constitute, then you know how jarring and disconnected this question could be. I thought about running away from the office, I thought about knocking over one of her plants or asking her if I could have a closer look at the PhD certificate hanging above her fucking squashed face. Instead, I felt myself murmur the number 8, because I couldn’t remember the last time I had chosen to eat anything and the idea of arguing seemed too exhausting.
We went through a questionnaire that covered all my feelings on a scale of 1-10. I had never given much thought to how sad I was, but I figured anyone who felt like their life had just been blasted through with a shotgun deserved to say 9, so I did. I answered all her questions and watched as she scribbled on some papers.
“These are for Celexa and Wellbutrin, we’ll have you start off with these and we’ll get this sorted out.” As she went through the list of side-effects and how the anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medicines worked, I could tell she wanted to be sympathetic, or at least was employing some sort of sensitivity training she had learned, but the stillness in her voice made me feel like screaming.
I left her office with the promise that the mental health clinic would call in a week to schedule an appointment. They never did.
If there was ever a light in my eyes during this time, I never saw it in the mirror. Friends started bringing me cans of soup, and offering to spent time with me, but all I wanted to do was sit on my couch, jerk-off, and watch reruns of Gossip Girl. Even the jerking off was mechanical, stiff and exhausting. It wasn’t so much that I was horny, it was that I needed to check to see if I could still feel anything at all, even lust.
The thing about numbness is that is it separate from depression. It isn’t that I was too sad to get out of bed, it was that I truly did not give a shit what I did with my time on earth. Why try if we’ll all be in the ground one day or burned to cinders or sobbed over by people you can’t even get it up emotionally for?
There was one thing I never really lost sight of though, and it was the idea I had latched onto years ago of becoming a writer. There was something peaceful in the ideas of sharing my thoughts with the world and fostering a community where people felt less alone. It all seemed so epic and lavish and exciting. I had read The Bell Jar once and connected with Sylvia Plath’s writing. Plath had eventually shoved her head into an oven, ending her life. This is pain, I had thought while reading. It was from that moment that I knew my new numbness wouldn’t suffice. It was at that moment that I knew that being numb was worse than being dead, because I would never experience all the pain I was supposed to in order to become one of the greats. I began to eat again with the prompting of others, I began to go back to class if only to fall asleep during peer edits in Poetry 101.
Two months after I had started taking the medicines I had thought would make me better I started to formulate my idea of how writers operated. Two months after I swallowed my first pill I began to understand that I needed to hurt myself, and hurt myself badly if I wanted to survive as myself and as an artist. When we’re young we put so much stock into our integrity as artists, as if we need to tattoo ourselves with pain in order to birth beauty. I promised myself I would hurt. I promised myself I would pay for this numbness and for the call from my school’s mental health clinic that never came.
Two months after I started taking anti-depressants I sat on a campus parking lodge perched above a Denny’s and considered killing myself. I had stolen a bottle of sleeping pills from my roommate and rolled them in my hands as I sipped whiskey out of a flask marked adorably with bubble letters reading “poison.” I thought about sending my friend a text to let her know where I was, what I was doing, imagining her scrambling to call an ambulance before I woke up in the hospital with a pumped stomach. Then I imagined my mother, her round face rosy red in the way it only gets when she’s had a glass of wine or when she’s been crying. I threw the bottle of pills under a BMW parked next to me and drove home; even then I couldn’t bring myself to shed a single tear.
I considered slicing my wrists open, even googling how you could do it in a way that made it impossible for them to stitch you back up. I didn’t know anyone with a gun, so that option was quietly and quickly ruled out. Fuck, I even considered ramming my car into traffic, but even as numb as I was, it didn’t seem fair to ruin another life for the sake of ending my own. In the end I settled on being fucked. Although now these seem like mutually exclusive events, at the time one seemed to seep seamlessly into the other. If I couldn’t fucking off myself, I would fuck someone until I forgot who I was.
I found him on Grindr at 1am and he agreed to pick me up outside the Gold’s Gym a two minute walk from my apartment. He rolled up in an old beaten red Buick and told me to “hop in.” He had been drinking, the smell of gin all over him mingling with weed and nicotine. He drove me back to his apartment and had my pants off before we had even exchanged names.
Take a hit, he said, motioning to a gravity bong fashioned from an old Mountain Dew bottle.
I took a hit, allowing the smoke to fill my lungs with everything I couldn’t feel and wouldn’t feel. Letting out a sputtering cough instead of offering me water, he led me over to a wooden chair standing solo in his living room and bent me over.
I stood above myself as he thrust, disconnected from my body. I was told this was some of the side-effects of the drug, but I was thankful for them. His grunts sounded like a feral animals and it was over in seconds. I was a ghost, I was a ghost and it felt good.
A few minutes later, in the darkness of his room, I could register that his scruff was on my hand, and yet it didn’t feel like anything at all. He had a pet cat that at some point in the night pounced on me before I asked him to drive me back to Gold’s where we had met. It was winter and even in the northern Florida region there is frost that will cover the ground at times. I wanted to shiver, but couldn’t bring myself to, so I waddled over to a patch of icy grass and planted myself in it. I can self destruct, if I want to, I thought to myself as I stared up at the stars. I thought about Virginia Woolf, and how she had filled her coat pockets with stones and waded out into the water to drown. If I was going to feel nothing I needed to drown too, and every random screw and bong rip seemed like another stone I could fit snugly into my pocket.
Eventually a cop rolled by in his patrol car and flashed a light on me. “Everything okay?” he called out from his rolled down window as I picked myself up and proceeded to walk home. If he had pulled out a questionaire right then and there and asked me to rate my sadness of a scale from one to ten I would’ve had an answer. It wouldn’t have been an 8 or a 9 or even a 10 but a 2. A two felt a fuck better than the zero I was living in.