My smile in the photo isn’t a lie, but an attempt. It was my idea to take the family Christmas portrait, one of those last-ditch efforts to get into the holiday spirit. We took it Christmas eve. Sixteen hours later I crumpled into a corner of the kitchen, screaming about childhood and the demon in my skull.
When the sickness comes on, I occasionally cut myself with a knife or razor to relieve the pressure in my mind. When the demon gets unleashed, I bash my head with the base of my palms, over and again, and when that doesn’t do the trick, I ram my head into a wall or hammer my forehead against a table. It’s like cutting: I’m trying to beat the evil out of my mind. I did this Christmas morning, against the kitchen’s ceramic tile countertop. My son gently, firmly, took me by the shoulders and pulled me away. I dropped into his arms.
For years I didn’t see myself as a man with a mental illness, but a weakling who, every winter, failed. I ruined Christmas. I don’t think that anymore. Nor does my family. This is an illness, not some lack of spiritual backbone. It goes back several generations. My mother suffers from mood swings. Many of our ancestors were known as “colorful,” ebullient one moment, deep in the abyss in the next. We’ve had our suicides.
It’s not just Christmas. Throughout the year I have to check my moods, daily, sometimes hourly. Did I get enough sleep? Am I thinking clearly, or am I thinking too clearly? Are these running thoughts, or moments of brilliance? Am I happy; am I too happy? Depression isn’t my default mood. I’m usually very alive, and just on the edge of being too alive.
I take medications throughout the day, anti-psychotics that keep me in a semblance of homeostasis. I smoke weed in the evenings to keep the terror of night away. Before marijuana, the panic attacks followed the sun. Once it sets, the rattle begins. That’s why I love summer and fear winter. I need sunlight, as much as possible, because going to bed is. . .well, it’s just fucking horror.
But, that’s not genetics. That’s environmental. I was taught, as a child, to fear the night, when predators hunt.
This is all I can say for now. I only got five hours of sleep last night. I’ll have to be careful today. Maybe watch a movie with my mother. Sunset Boulevard, with Gloria Swanson and William Holden. One of our favorites. Besides that, I must have no plans.
This is one of a series of articles on mental illness and childhood trauma. You can get email updates on my blog posts by subscribing here to The Writing Bull.