Sick Little Man
I’ve been on antipsychotics for, let me think, six months now, and I’m antipsychotic enough to tell you about them. They’re numbing, the way holding a cold drink in winter is numbing, and cozy, the way not losing your mind is cozy: it’s numbing and cozy, but it’s not real life, of course, because real life doesn’t come in an orange pill bottle.
Risperidone and Quietiapine, antipsychotics, and Lamictal, an anti-depressant, were prescribed to me by Dr. Rastogi in his warm office in the lower east side of Manhattan following an incident involving my neck and my belt in my cold Chinatown apartment. I admitted myself to the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital and 24 hours later I was taken up to the 18th floor where a nurse checked my pulse and blood levels and asked me questions like “How are you feeling?” and “Did you catch the ball game?” and “Are you experiencing suicidal thoughts?” Doctors considered locking me in the Isolation Room, that padded room you see in movies, because I was hearing voices that were telling me to hurt others, including myself, so they wanted to inject me with a cocktail strong enough to sedate me—patient 10076321, my wristband said—instead they fed me Lithium and sleeping pills and told me to sleep it off.
Since I’m awake now, I should tell you how I ended up in this situation. About, say, a year ago, I began to suffer from what Dr. Rastogi calls a delusion. I thought that a huge bug, a really huge and black bug, a cockroach, had crawled out of my chest, out of my ribcage, other times my belly, and its babies would squirm out with it, eating away my torso and stuff, and when the skin opened the insects spread out with my organs, dark and bloody, the heart still pumping, the bones shining violet, in there. This would happen more than desired. I’d be at Trader Joe’s and there it would be, that bug, the heat of it burrowing inside me, the way bad food has to come out. And when I said, “Please help me, there’s a bug inside me, I think I’m going to throw up, I think I’m going to die,” the bagger shrugged, “We don’t have public restrooms, try the Panera at Union Square.” And when I got home and looked in the mirror, there it would be, pregnant in my chest, its wings fluttering in my gut, its antennas fingering my tonsils, its thorax writhing in my intestines.
My roommate looked at me strangely, because I myself was writhing, ripping my shirt and clutching my chest and screaming, there, in my bedroom, almost every night. That bug was part of my life, and it lived inside me, inside my brain. The delusion. Right around the day I quit my job, the visual grew so vivid and real I got in the habit of standing over the toilet and pulling the roach out myself, a cesarean strangle. I’d see bits of its abdomen in my fingers, and I’d be able to smell my insides, too, the tang of warm drainage fluid. The roach kept coming, day after day, no matter how many times I killed it. So one morning when my roommate left for work I tried killing myself. Strangling hurt, the pressure in my face, before the old belt snapped and my body hit the tile. It was also a waste because, as you know, the roach didn’t exist. I attempted murder on a figment. My roommate was less than happy when he came back for his phone and found me lying on the bathroom floor all bloody from nailing my temple on the sink. He told me to find another place to live.
I admitted myself to Bellevue. It wasn’t the best place to not feel insane. People were schizophrenic, bipolar, suicidal, homicidal, paranoid, obsessive compulsive, anxious, homeless. For once I belonged. Those poor souls taught me to never minimize my problem. Mental disorder is a serious thing, to be treated seriously. I’d be shuffling to breakfast and enter a delusion of spiders crawling out of where the floor, the Earth, yawned open. It was painful and scary because I couldn’t control it, and this shock gently activated more delusions, e.g. the ceiling opening like a mouth with fluorescent teeth, which gently activated the voices in my head, and I’d be in another world, moist and distant, like walking into a dream. This was casual behavior in a psychiatric center, almost expected, but I’d always feel at fault, that I had done something wrong. The nurses took care of me. So I was kind of lucky, almost. After the fifth or sixth episode, I had to employ a trick to banish the delusion. When I saw Dad, naked as an oyster, come at me with a knife, I lay on my back with my fingers laced and slowly recited the Hail Mary. People at lunch thought I was praying before my meal. I wasn’t religious, I’d just rather be with Our Father, Who art in heaven than my father with a sharp object. But, like the cockroach, Dad kept coming. It’s strange but even now, living on the orange pill bottle, four of them actually, I can feel the delusions trying to get out. If I skip my medication, even for one day, they will get out, and I’ll be right back in the hospital. Sometimes I wish I was. In many ways, the streets of New York are crazier than that 18th floor.
After release, everyone began to see me as a sick little man. My family and Dr. Rastogi decided my course for recovery was talk therapy every Monday, mood disorder group every Friday, and lots and lots of exercise. “If you start to have delusions,” he said, “call me.” “If you get off your medication,” he said, “call me.” “If you are thinking about committing suicide,” he said, “call 911.” This was good advice. By all appearances the meds were silencing the carnival, except I was still depressed, and things were wholly unpleasant, even if my temple wound healed and my cockroach vanished, except for a long flash when I decided on whiskey. It was the afternoon I found my new apartment in Williamsburg. I had jogged all the way to Manhattan when I saw one of the patients, my roommate from Bellevue, an African-American man they called King Latifah, holding a cardboard sign outside Penn Station. He was still wearing his hospital gown. His face was dirty and his eyes were as empty as his pockets. Nobody put a dime in his cup. So I did, and he slapped me hard on the face. It flipped my master switch. I cabbed it back to Brooklyn, drowned at the bar, and woke up on the L train, cockroaches everywhere.
From there things got worse, even though my paintings were appearing in galleries and my art friends were saying, “Henry, you’re going to be famous, man.” I couldn’t muster a smile, and not because they were full of shit, which they were. I couldn’t smile because I was a sick little man. Of all my adorable neuroses, my least favorite was crying. I was crying for no reason, and I was crying a lot, especially when I’d eat, as if my taste buds were wired to my doubts and insecurities. I would cry all over my plate. It was upsetting to everyone. “Are you ok?” strangers would ask. “Do you need us to call someone?” And I’d say, “The onions make my eyes water,” but we were at a smoothie place, so I don’t think they bought it. This went on for a while, and I stopped leaving my bedroom, which worried Dr. Rastogi because I was anti-social to begin with. He feared I was cycling, a state that swung me into skyscraper highs and gutter lows, laughs and cries, shouts and silence, subway rides in the middle of the night, all rearranged on liquor, vomiting in bushes, stumbling into massage parlors, waking up next to ex-girlfriends, next to roaches, walking nowhere for hours, sometimes days, thinking about the belt, the gun, the tub with electrical appliances, buying $7,000 in pachinko machines on my credit card, throwing my phone in the East River.
All this flattering stuff was going on while I was unemployed and trying to paint my masterpiece, which I was crying all over, while my parents who weren’t exactly loaded were paying off my pachinko debt and taking loans to furnish my undersized, overpriced apartment. My landlord had a joke. “How much does a hipster weigh?” he said. “An Instagram! Isn’t that funny?” No, but my landlord meant well, and he didn’t ask questions when I picked up the mail with tears running down my face.
The top envelope was from NYU. I had been accepted to the studio art program in winter, to complete my thesis, “Alive,” inspired by the dead. The way I saw it, memories of the dead were more alive than the living, and strangely enough, my portraits really did come alive, they stepped out of the canvas and spoke to me, and my voices spoke back, and that’s how I started making friends. This series was supposed to be my “in” to the art world, but I skipped class and clung to the bottle, after that. The depression weighed on me, and the voices got louder, more in control. Dr. Rastogi told me that it’s possible the voices were my thoughts, not the disorder, that the two are indistinguishable. I never spoke of the voices again. The voices told me not to.
I really don’t know if Dr. Rastogi was right. These auditory hallucinations, he called them, were more real than the voices of my parents, my pharmacist, the people on television. They were more real than real life. They understood me, told me to do things. Their orders were usually attached to crippling depression, bouts of intense sadness, where I couldn’t move, and the voices would operate me, working my controls. A bug-eyed guy in mood disorder group, who kind of reminded me of my roach, likened his voices to everybody he trusted conspiring against him, against his better judgment, so that no matter what he said to them, they would always be right, no room for discussion or rebuttal, just restriction and command, and no way out. The bullies of his mind. The cute girl next to him described her mind as a crowded room. Imagine you’re in a crowded room, she said, and it’s busy, and there’s chatter, and it’s extremely loud, and your dead grandfather is whispering in your left ear, and your asshole boss is yelling in your right, and all you want to do is order a cup of coffee from Starbucks, but the voices are so loud in your head that you can’t hear a thing.
I’m not bug-eyed or cute, but I’ll tell you what I think the voices are like. It’s like your mind is hollow, an echo chamber blowing around all these husks of words, and there’s voices coming out of your bad memories, sprouting like dark flowers, flowers that are very opinionated. And these flowers never stop talking, even the wilted howl, and they’re right in your ear, like a mosquito that knows your name, and the only way it’ll quiet down is if you follow their every command, every hour, day, year … you’re completely and utterly helpless. Which is weird, because the voices are, after all, you. Yet you have no power over you. It’s hard to explain. The folks in group were neither right or wrong. We were all just sick in the head.
That’s the core of psychosis, really: sickness. And since your knowledge of the world is filtered through that sickness, the whole world begins to look as grotesque and spoiled as you. And when there’s no good left to spoil, your sickness turns on you, it becomes you, and you the sickness turn on yourself, a black hole for which all things rot and disappear, like light lost in shadow. There’s nothing in this world that doesn’t sicken you to your bones, sad and dank and putrid animals that reek of death and stupidity, a stupidity so hopeless and consuming that you buckle over nauseated, sick to your stomach, sick to your sickness. Psychosis is self-disabling. It’s hard to pinpoint. Imagine that cancer has attacked your throat and there’s an all-around trauma in that area, so that you can feel the eye-watering scratch and burn in your throat, but you can’t call for help, because your throat is paralyzed. That’s the core of psychosis: paralyzing you, disarming you, killing you, in ways even your handy orange pill bottle can’t defend.
The only fight against it, to stall the sickness, is to psyche yourself out, distract yourself, so you can process things. Sometimes the way to know yourself is to not be yourself, and find your identity in the difference. You need your trusty antipsychotics to do this, to rebalance your dopamine and serotonin and all that, to “find your self,” the thing you lost in the first place. But what if the antipsychotics aren’t enough, what if the coffee you drank slowed the delivery of the mechanism, and the voices start up in your head, and slowly it dawns on you: the bullies of your mind, the crowded room, the flowers, are all wearing your face. You knew you were the sickness and the sickness was you, but to really see yourself as the root of all that has ruined your life, that you were born this way, that you will be buried this way, that when you finally turn to the belt or gun or electrical appliances, you’ll realize you’ve already died a thousand deaths, inside you.
I always seemed to die slower in greyer, colder, rainier weather. I managed to eke through the winter semester at NYU and even won an illustration contest, five hundred dollars, most of which I mailed to my parents and the rest I spent on liquor, because drinking liquor gave me style with a brush. It also put me to sleep early, and not the good kind of sleep, delta sleep, just so I could wake at four in the morning, all fatigued and eureka at the canvas. Sick little man was sacrificing his mental health for his creativity, and the sickness won.
That’s why in spring semester my voices and I boarded the Megabus to go from New York City to Philadelphia to leave Earth. There’s not much to say about the ride, except there was this tarantula thing sitting next to me, talking about politics, and I had this nosebleed that turned my shirtsleeve as red as the Thomas Bond House, the bed and breakfast where I arrived, at sundown. The host said, “Henry, Henry, so good to see you, welcome back.” And I said, “Hello, good to see you, good to be back.” Moments like this make you question the whole suicide thing. If you’re able to change your mood for someone else, why not yourself? I guess I was just used to hiding the sickness. Every day was sort of a dreary game of pretend. Sometimes the delusions or hallucinations or whatever became so three-dimensional and lifelike I couldn’t tell what was real or fake. The bus, the host, the hotel, could have all been in my mind.
Before I ramble on about my trip and problems, I want to tell you about who I met at the hotel. Her name is Sarah Bond. Sarah is the daughter of Thomas Bond. She was the last friend I made on Earth. I happened to meet Sarah because she lives on the third floor, room 302, and she was standing right in front of me. So I said, “Did they name this room after you?” and she said, “Yes, are you enjoying your stay?” and when I didn’t answer, she said, “What is your name?” and I said, “Henry,” and she said, “Henry, are you all right? You seem like something’s wrong,” and I said, “I’m fine … I just have a lot on my mind,” and she said, “Where did you get that scar?” referring to my temple. I told her I was sick and trying to kill a bug. She laughed and we talked some. Sarah wanted to paint for a living. Part of me wanted the same thing. The other part wanted to call 911. Talk to Dr. Rastogi or my mom and dad. Sarah watched me uncap my orange pill bottles and eat all of them at once. “What was that for?” she asked. I was too tired and stained to explain myself. I was ready for the end. It was silly, but inevitable. I had been dead a lot in winter, and it was time to make things official, tidy and physical; I arranged the stepstool just so beside the bed and tied the sheet in a neat little knot around the post. While the other guests were downstairs drinking wine and listening to Beethoven, I was slipping my head in a cotton halo, my voices saying their goodbyes, my heart beating cockroaches, my arms dangling by my sides, my eyes following the grey-pink swirls on the carpet, dim as light could be, those curtains, those large brown cabinets and bureaus standing up to the pictures on the wall, the maps, the landscapes, the portrait of Sarah Bond still alive.
Dominic Viti has published writing in USA Today, Beloit Fiction Journal, and Chorus (Simon & Schuster). His copywriting has won the Cannes Lion, Webby, and Telly awards. He lives in Philadelphia.