MEMOIR: DEAD INSIDE (Extensively Rewritten, Expanded)
One day when I was about ten years old, I believed I was dead. It was a bright, warm day, the sun beating down. It might have been a Sunday, but I am not sure. I have few details to go with this memory, other than that cold, numb sensation that, at the time, I thought, could only be death.
Living with mental illness is a bit like living with a terrible house-guest or room-mate, one who won’t pay the rent or won’t pay their share of the bills or help out with chores. One who makes everything that happens about them, as if it’s their house, and not yours. And I’ve been living with mine my whole life, but I only became aware of it as such when I was first diagnosed at age sixteen. The day I’m writing about here, the day I was ten and thought I was dead, is the first instance I can now recollect of something seeming wrong. It was a hint, foreshadowing a looming story development.
I started thinking about writing this memoir last year during the never-ending medication-change saga. The experience was so much worse than I was expecting–than even my doctors were expecting–so profound and transformative, that I started thinking it might be worth writing about it.
I turned to memoir how-to books, and read a stack of them. THE ART OF WRITING MEMOIR by Mary Karr, and HANDLING THE TRUTH, by Beth Kephart, were two that became my guiding stars. They showed me that it’s okay not to be able to remember every last detail. That it’s okay to say you don’t know, don’t remember. Also that you don’t have to follow a strict chronological sequence. You can fragment the narrative however you please, as long as it works. But the main thing they say is that you have to tell the truth as best you can remember it. Here it gets tricky. Truth is fuzzy. There will always be details missing. There’s the RASHOMON effect, too, where three different witnesses will tell three different stories of what happened. So you have to make your best effort, and be honest with the reader when you’re at the fuzzy edge of what you remember, when you’re standing at the edge of fiction.
Kephart suggests lots of exercises to limber up your writing muscles, to start thinking like someone writing memoir, and I’ll be trying some of them here in the near-future. But the one I’m doing today is the recommended exercise of trying to write down your first memory of the illness.
Looking back from my middle-aged perspective, I can see things from my pre-diagnosis past that look like episodes, or instances, of depression. The first that I can think of was this one where one Sunday when I began to be aware, as I lay in bed, that I felt very far away from my life as I had so far understood it. I was just a kid, and I was used to odd things happening–that was life: practically everything that happens is new to you. And this feeling was new. New and strange.
I felt as if I had died. It was the only thing that made sense. I was dead, but because I was already lying down in bed I hadn’t fallen over. It was odd that I was awake, that I could look around. But I felt abstracted from myself, distant. Adrift. Imagine the colour yellow with all the yellow taken out of it.
I’ve often thought about this time in my life, when I was about ten. I know very little about it. We were still living in Wembley, in my dad’s parents’ old house on Harborne Street, not far from Lake Monger. At school, bullies were always telling me they were gonna kill me after school by the bike racks. I had a male teacher whomwas very friendly, who invited me (and a few other kids) to stay after school for extra lessons. He was trying to teach us Esperanto, and while I can still count to ten in Esperanto, it all seemed a bit silly.
However, it was 1973. That teacher was interested in politics. He started telling us about Watergate and President Nixon. I don’t know about the other kids, but I was fascinated, and it was the beginning of a lifelong interest in politics.
This was my life. I tell you about all this and it sounds pretty normal—except somewhere in the midst of this I experience a day so awful that I feel as I’m actually dead.
Normal life, and then this in the middle of it. It makes no sense. What happened? I don’t remember. I pick and pick at my memories and I can’t see what was going on. I would get up in the mornings, do my thing, and go to school, and the bastard bullies would leave me be today. Sometimes they did. They were random and strange, like weather events. Sometimes they were so dreadful that I would feign illness with my parents to try and get out of going to school that day. It rarely worked. Not only did Mum rarely believe me, she knew I had to go.
It occurs to me I’m wondering, gosh, why did I feel like death? While not seeing one plain-as-day reason for it right here.
I remember in 1974 we had to move house from Wembley to Bassendean. It meant leaving that primary school in the middle of grade six, and completing the year at the new school. It meant new bullies. But it also meant a wonderful best friend.
But on my last day at the original primary school, I walked around the grounds, looking at everything as the sun rode down the sky. I would never see these buildings, these classrooms, this bitumen quadrangle with it’s chipped white markings for netball and handball—ever again. I would never see the conical cap of the septic tank over by the bike racks where I had been informed in grade one that supporting the wrong footy team would ruin my life.
I cried walking around that afternoon, saying goodbye to all that. I bloody cried. I couldn’t believe it! Why the hell was I upset about leaving this hole in the ground where I’d never been happy? Was I somehow attached? Did I secretly love the old pile? Was I sentimental about a place where I’d been miserable for six years?
I’ve often wondered. I think for all its torments, it had been home, and was familiar. It was mine. I knew my way around. I didn’t want to go to a new school, to the unknown. I was scared. Scared not just of the unknown, but scared of the world of uncertainty I lived in, with my dad and his health. You never knew from day to day how things would be. You didn’t know what the future might hold. Much of the time you didn’t even know much about the present.
And there I was, lying in bed, dead in my head, and it was exactly what I needed.
What was I doing before that? I have no true idea. The memory consists of only the details I’ve described. I don’t even know what happened after that. I have a vague and therefore unreliable recollection, possible fabrication, that my mum appeared in the doorway and I asked her if I was dead. I was out of my mind. I was an astronaut doing a spacewalk, untethered to the ship, drifting far away, basking in the vast luminous blue-green-white sky of the Earth’s surface. Somewhere, far from here, lay a young boy beset from all sides with Earthly troubles, so many and so overwhelming that he imagined himself dead, adrift from his useless physical self. It’s nice. It’s a relief.
I don’t know how I came back to myself, but I did. Life went on. School, bullies, homework, girls, unending torment, confusion, terror.
We moved to Bassendean, to an old breezy, cold old fibro house with an outdoor toilet full of spiders and chills. The new school was different in many ways—but as I had feared, only too familiar in others.
I never had another day like that one, when I believed myself dead. I think I came to realise it simply couldn’t happen, so it didn’t. Instead I had days when instead I lay in bed and wished I was dead. Laying there, more or less actually wishing or in fact actually praying to God or something God-like (an 11-year-old’s understanding of the idea of God). Dear God, please make it not hurt. Please make those kids leave me alone. Please look after my mum and dad. Look after my dad.
It’s now been a while since I felt that experience of being “dead inside”, that dissociated, numb, astronaut spacewalking sensation. But then again, not that long. I felt it a lot last year during the Medication Shuffle, when things were so bad. And here and there this year during rough patches. Unlike when I was a kid, when that feeling strikes now I know what it is, and can act on it. It’s more or less like a boiling kettle has just run dry and you need to put more water in. It’s no big deal, and easily sorted out.
But nobody explains that to little kids with big imaginations.