“There was a time when I thought you wouldn’t come back,” my mom told me one day, years after a series of major psychotic episodes that I had in my twenties. “I started to believe that you would probably just never be the same again,” she said. I think I cringed when I heard this. I can’t tell you exactly why I hate these conversations, but I do, and I have ever since I (mostly) regained my sanity. My college years were bumpy, but according to my personal timeline, I went completely mad for the first time toward the end of my second year of teaching, when I was 24 years old. I am 38, now.
Lately this has all been something I think about often. At the risk of publicly exposing myself, mental illness is an integral part of my history (something I’ve written about before), as is substance abuse (something I write about less, because of the strong stigma attached to alcoholism and addiction). It was thought, when I first entered drug and alcohol recovery, that the latter might have caused the former, that I went crazy because of what I was putting into my body at the time, but I’ve had a series of mood episodes and psychotic episodes during sobriety that suggest otherwise; sometimes they even happen while I’m taking anti-psychotics, which work well, but don’t ameliorate delusional thinking all the time. I recognize now that the severe breaks from reality I had in my mid-twenties, while certainly exacerbated by a drug and alcohol problem that needed to be addressed, were the first signs of Schizoaffective Disorder, Bi-Polar Type, my current diagnosis but one which came years after my first episode of psychosis. Schizoaffective Disorder means, basically, that I have symptoms of Bi-Polar Disorder and Schizophrenia. The disease is generally considered more difficult to manage than Bi-Polar Disorder but less severe than Schizophrenia, although that can vary from person to person.
I think about my mental illness sometimes because I frequently recall manic periods of my life. My delusions, hallucinations, mania, and schizomania have taken me to some bizarre places—both places that seemed wonderful at the time, and places that were just unquestionably awful. When I lived in Texas I would run through different sections of Houston late at night—the medical center, Rice University, Montrose and the museum district. Every color would shine so vividly, and I believed that there were people behind the scenes, putting together a magnificent plan that was only for me. Once I ran through a health center in the med-center area of Houston that happened to have its doors open late. There were no people inside, but there was a fountain in the lobby that contained painted stones with inspiring words on them. I took my shoes off and walked in the fountain, collecting those stones and lining them up on the fountain ledge, believing – somehow, some way, despite all other evidence – that this had all been planned for me. I was a kid again and Houston was my playground. When two security guards encountered me later that night, I looked at them and laughed hilariously, irreverently, when they asked me what I was doing in the building. Surely this was a candid camera moment, or something like that, and whoever was doing this better believe I was in on the joke. I giggled uproariously in their faces, waiting for them to laugh along. They must not have known what to do, because they simply walked away.
I guess I can’t say that was a “good time,” but it was at least enjoyable while it was happening. I felt titillation and anticipation. I felt powerful, I felt important, and the beautiful, lucid, neon world felt like it was just for me, rife with potential for exploration and infinite possibility. Despite the wonder and joy of that reckless moment, however, I could have gotten arrested. I could have gotten killed. A lot of bad things could have happened, which is one reason I’m glad I’m alive right now, and a reason why, when I think about the theory of parallel universes, I think of how many parallel universes I’m dead in.
I’m far from knowledgeable about quantum theory, but I know on any given day we face thousands of choices, and any small event has manifold possible outcomes. If each outcome of each event is happening in a separate parallel universe – a fascinating thought that seems borderline impossible to me, despite the intrigue of such a theory—then I would surmise I’m already dead in a lot of these universes. There was the time, for example, when the noises in my head were so loud that I couldn’t drink them away, no matter how much alcohol I put in my body. Insidious beasts sloshing through mud, Yoshi from Super Mario Brothers hitting his head over and over again on the brick above him to get coins, unspecified clanging and jangling, police sirens, crowds chanting—all these things and more seemed squashed together inside my skull, combining to play a blood-curdling, maddening symphony that refused to stop. (I have, since then, always felt a special closeness to Poe’s poem about the “bells, bells, bells”). I walked through my parents’ old neighborhood in Erie, PA (I had just moved home from Houston), desperate for some release, afraid to drive because I knew enough to know that driving wasn’t safe for me. I felt powerless to stop what was going on. I reasoned that if I just walked far enough North, I’d get to the dock at the end of State Street, and from there I could walk right into the water, Edna Pontellier-style, and end it all. I had been on the swim team in high school and was still in good shape at this point in my adulthood, which would have been around age 26. Plus, the dock is a very public place, especially in the summer, and it was early summer when this occurred. As such, I would have never been able to drown myself, but the point is, I thought about it. I thought about suicide a lot, when I was depressed, or when I was schizomanic, or when I was some weird combination of both. I didn’t die that day, though. Nor did I die from the hundreds of ways I put myself in danger so many times during my early adult life. Miraculously, while there are many parallel universes in which I’ve already died, this is not one of them. I’m here, in this moment. I get to be a part of this often extraordinary here and now.
I think about that a lot when I’m stressed at my job (assistant-managing a boutique), or when my dissertation is frustrating me, or when my apartment is so messy that no amount of cleaning seems sufficient, or when anything else makes me feel, well, less than happy. The doldrums of daily existence, let alone actual adversity, drags everyone down, from time to time, and I’ve realized over the last ten years, as I’ve gotten sober, as I’ve stepped out of a psychotic haze, that my past is probably the greatest gift I have, the greatest weapon I can use to fight the sometimes-depressive belief that life is mundane or that existence is meaningless. I re-watched Requiem for a Dream a few months ago, and despite having had a lot of friends in recovery who were heroine users, I could relate more to the mother in the story than any of the young heroine addicts. She’s obsessed with the false prospect of being on television and she becomes addicted to amphetamines because they give her energy and help her lose weight. She’s constantly and consistently stuck in her own daydream, while living in a small, run-down Brooklyn apartment, and by the end of the movie she’s broken with reality completely, and the camera shows her in a narrow hospital bed in a curtained off room, watching TV while laughing to herself with a dazed look in her eyes. She will never come back, I said to myself when I re-watched the movie. Indeed, that seemed to be the suggestion. She will never come back, and that could have been me. Which is to say, I could be dead, or I could have encountered a fate similarly awful.
These thoughts, in other words, thoughts about what could have happened to me, tend to make life seem more beautiful than I believe it would have seemed otherwise. I remember being a couple years into sobriety. After a horrible interview, I somehow, miraculously, got a Teaching Assistant position at a local University, a university which provided free tuition for its English Master’s program and a stipend to its English TA’s. I started the program after taking a 16-month break from working, and at first everything seemed difficult and formidable. On the flip side, the whole time I wasn’t working, while I was regaining my sanity, while I was stewing in a horrible depression and mourning the loss of drugs and alcohol, I had assumed that all my dreams and ambitions were over, that I’d fucked everything up irrecoverably. So despite how difficult it was to re-enter the real world – and to enter a rigorous Masters’ program where I had to teach college students while taking classes of my own – once I found my rhythm, I was awash in gratitude over the gift I had been given. I remember sitting in Erie’s downtown Starbucks between two of the Composition classes that I was teaching, watching the alabaster snow fall in seemingly steady, even-sized drops, drinking a hot black coffee, thinking, “a couple years ago, I would have never thought this was possible.” The madness, the mistakes, the depression, it all seemed to preclude the dreams I’d previously had of getting my doctorate in English, writing for publication, and teaching at the college level. But here I was, maybe not “where I wanted to be,” but enjoying the steps that may get me there, or somewhere similar. The entire moment was illuminated for me by the simultaneously dismal and miraculous prospect of how badly things could have ended up, and the moment is still etched in my mind, because I realize how happy I was that day, and how precious, how miraculous it was that I had received an opportunity to follow my dreams after all that had occurred. I get to do this, I thought, a phrase that I try to use often now. After the chaos and mistakes, the fiascos I put myself and other people through, the crescendo of my mad existence had screamed in agony and then silenced itself into a harmonious decrescendo, an existence made not of mysterious voices in my head and cacophonous bells, but one that mixed a steady calm with a re-appearance of excitement and anticipation. I felt possibility, again. And I understood, once again, that it was quite probable that good things would continue to come.
I mention this day because I remember it so well. I remember it so well because it’s a small moment that serves as a huge reminder that my messy past has an indelible purpose; along with allowing me to help others through my experience, I can also embrace a sense of gratitude I never thought possible. I’m still not happy all the time – who is? – but so often, this rich, multi-faceted world seems so beautiful, so exciting, so expansive, and if I were still alive in all those parallel universes, if I hadn’t done so many stupid things, suffered so much, and possibly escaped my own death, I doubt that I would feel that way. “We are living on borrowed time,” another recovering alcoholic said to me one day, and it’s a phrase that’s stuck with me ever since.
My story, then, is unique to me, and it’s one that I cherish more the further away I get from it. Oh, of course I get a little manic or depressed or delusional, still—occasionally I still hear a light ringing in the back of my mind or have a significant but manageable delusional episode– but it’s nothing like it was. And yet—yet—despite how unique my history makes me feel, a sense of “terminal uniqueness” is not just a dangerous feeling to pursue, but one that is as illusory as the noises and false beliefs I’ve ascribed to in my past. Many people in the world have experienced psychosis or another mental illness, and nearly all of us have experienced adversity by adulthood. Or, to frame the situation another way, if quantum physics is right, then the fact that I’m dead in a lot of parallel universes hardly makes me unique.
I thought of the parallel universe theory the other day, and I was struck by the fact that we’re all dead in a parallel universe –and probably in many of them. First, who among us hasn’t survived or isn’t in the midst of some adversity? Death, illness, injury, poverty, disaster—they are, for better or worse, part of the human condition, and I don’t think many people live long, full lives without experiencing situations that provoke profound pain, the kind of pain that makes life inexplicably difficult. I know a lot of other people in recovery would agree with this. We tend to believe that we are all walking miracles, alcoholics and addicts who would be dead if some higher power hadn’t entered our worlds to help us and straighten out our lives. But even people who have never experienced addiction have usually been through a lot in life, and even people who have never had a problem with drugs and alcohol have likely survived myriad twists and turns, myriad bends and meanderings that could have led to their demise but didn’t, from illnesses to freak accidents, and so on. My perception of parallel universes, at least, necessitates this reality—that many outcomes of events could have led all of us to our deaths, and so we are all dead in some parallel universe – and it’s a reality that I think is wonderful to hold onto. It’s a reality that makes us all glorious survivors in the present moment.
For the present moment is glorious, I think, much of the time, although I grant that such may not be the case for everyone. I’m always in awe that if I lived to be 106, I still wouldn’t have time to read all the books I want to read. There is so much life and richness, so much wisdom and experience between most book covers, and we have an endless supply of them to read, to pursue, to explore. People love stories, and if books aren’t your thing, modern technology has given us as many ways to tell stories as we could possibly ask for –through podcasts, videogames, movies, and streaming services. There are ages of knowledge from cultures around the world, piled upon one another and accessible virtually at my fingertips. The world has different arts, different sciences, innumerable areas of pursuit. I acknowledge that some of this is easy for me to say –I am, relatively speaking, fairly privileged – but I do not think that the feeling of being surrounded by a beautiful, exciting world is one that needs to be unique to me.
When I entered college, I was bombarded by Literature, Philosophy, Anthropology, and Sociology, and I loved them all. I was enamored by the way my professors taught me to write well and to think critically, and while perhaps the type of learning that I so love doesn’t seem as exciting for everyone as it did for me, there are so many ways to explore the world, and my optimistic take on life and technology is that more and more of us are able to get close to exciting places and things–places and things that were once beyond our grasp — because of our collective discoveries and the exponential rate at which technology grows. There is travel and humor, sports and games, seasons and sunsets, delicious food and music, and the list goes on. And to top it all off, I am always so grateful that I have other people, or, in the words of an Elton John song, “And I thank the Lord, for the people I have found.” Most of us have other people, and interests, and something to be grateful for. So much meaning can be found in human connections, in the divine, in the pursuit of knowledge, in the pursuit of self-growth. I sometimes think, then, “there is so much in this world; what else could I ask for?”
I should underscore here that I’m not a fan of toxic optimism. The world, the universe, fate, whatever you would like to call it –all of that can be brutal, and sadness and pain should be recognized for what they are, acknowledged as such, understood, and embraced. Horrible illnesses and terminal disease befall people; an individual watching a loved one die right now, for example, might scoff at all this, and how could I blame them? My brother died when I was 24. My best friend died when I was not quite 30. Grief and loss, among other things, can make the world seem bleak and heartless. And as a fan of horror who lives in a world that seems equally horrific from another vantage point, I’ll be the first to admit that there’s a lot of ugliness out there.
But when I think of my many friends and acquaintances who have died of overdoses, when I think of the fact that I could be dead right now, I can’t help but think of how happy I am not to be, of how wonderful the world seems sometimes. J.L. Mackie divided life into “first order goods” and “second order goods,” and argued that “second order goods” – compassion, for example – could only exist if bad things, like evil and suffering, existed in the world. The crux of the argument was that the most beautiful aspects of our existence can only be beautiful (and, I’ll add, can only seem as beautiful as they sometimes do) because of the pain, suffering, and evil in life. This argument may be problematic; there have always been horrible cruelties and injustices in this world, and it is hard to argue that it’s good that such things have existed and continue to exist. But there is some wisdom in the theory, all the same, an acknowledgement of the fact that beauty can spring from the murkiest, most impenetrable depths of despair and difficulty, that, to invoke cliché, the darkest hour comes just before the dawn.
We are all dead in a parallel universe, but we are all alive in this universe, today, in the moment, in this possibility-filled, joyful, complex, mysterious, amazing moment. My friend has a Doctor Who quote on the wall above the couch I’m sitting on. It reads, “the deep and lovely dark—we’d never see that stars without it.” And right now, more than ever, that observation rings true, to me. I believe there is something for everyone here, if we only look hard enough for it, and the pessimism and nihilism of my younger days now seems stagnant, insufficient, and inaccurate. To many thinkers, past and present, the fact that we might be dead tomorrow is a reason to live vigorously and enthusiastically right now, in this present moment, and I agree with that sentiment. There is suffering in this world, but there is joy, and beyond that, there is meaning. I no longer decode signs and brochures looking for cryptic messages from different people like I did when I was psychotic, but I try to see the meaning in the things I do, every day. We are all dead in a parallel universe, and that is all the more reason to be alive – unabashedly and unapologetically alive – in this one.