book excerpt

How It Felt to Live Through My First Manic Episode

Photo: Chad Baker/Jason Reed/Ryan McVay/Getty Images

Where was that nugget of old, dried-up shit weed I bought on the Venice boardwalk two years ago from a vagrant dealer who may or may not have sold me a thimble full of dirt mixed with oregano?

I pounded on the volume button of my Costco-special Magnavox stereo. It was pulsating in syncopation with my anxiety. Cacophony doesn’t describe it; it was so loud I could feel it traveling from my heels to my outer cranium, taking in the itching, the scratching, the clawing, the gridlock of atonal chords. It was loud and I needed it to be. I could feel the chorus like combat and I could deflect the harmony. Angels and peace and major chords weren’t welcome, just the loud cheap stereo behind my slammed-shut door.

Where was it? Where was it? Where? I knew it was somewhere. The chords crashed on top of each other. I could see them. I could see the waves of sound cascading from speaker to skin. I could taste them.

It was not under my mattress or tucked into a corner of my pink floral Laura Ashley sheets (a present from my Bat Mitzvah). It was not in my jewelry box that my paternal grandparents, Oma and Opa, had given me when they traveled to Austria. The jewelry box (not the weed) had a tiny ballet dancer on a rusted metal gear that would spring to life and pirouette to canned music every time the lid was cracked. The lid was not cracked and the tiny dancer was crushed under a different sound, suffocating. Where was the nugget? Where was the nugget? Where was that nickel bag of shit weed? I bought it. I smoked it once on a Friday afternoon when no one was home. I felt nothing but fire in my throat, swallowing red hot embers.
I was good, I was great, I was perfect all the time. But now I needed that chunk of bullshit weed so that I could get out of this terrifying place with no windows. Out of this castle of chords crashing down on me. A wall of terror, collapsing onto my skull, the way they had wanted it to. I had to get out, away from my tulip sheets, away from my delicate jewelry box, and very far away from my mask collection. The lips that moved in the night. It was subtle, I could see it. Those faces had something to say and would not shut the fuck up.

I hear you now, I am listening to you, I am leaving.

The popcorn tin! It was in the tin. The tin that once held caramel, cheddar, and butter and sat next to a life-sized penguin in our living room. My things that no one needed to know anything about. Behind my tiny rocking chair and boo boo bear. Stop looking at me, glass-eye.

I ripped off the tin lid. It smelled like popcorn; small stale kernels were wedged in around the edges. There was a folded‑up piece of material. It was the key to my escape. I unfolded the material carefully like a curated item from a time capsule and, just like my vision, there was that shit-brown weed, barely more than seeds and stems. There it was, right where I had stashed it, my dirt fucking weed. It was in that forest-green tin wrapped in that original Venice beach baggie. I needed it now.  It needed to be with me in my backpack. It needed to travel with me wherever I ended up. I could not leave without it. Essential item. Essential survival. Surviving. Surviving this. This war. This war with secret spies and reborn Nazis and people in masks, people who refused to take off their masks.

I grabbed it, buried it in my backpack, and laid my full body weight on top of my dog, Nature. My calm, calm, calming dog, immune to emotion. I had to go. I don’t know why I was chosen to move out. I don’t know why they wanted me to leave. But I knew it was absolutely essential to say goodbye to Nature, to escape the tightening parental grip of my controlling father, to run from the cascade of sound. My dad did not understand that Michael Jackson had communicated with me directly, and that I knew of a direct tunnel to Neverland, a not necessarily safe place but a place I could go, if needed. A last resort, Neverland. When I saw Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson wore masks upon masks and would remove each one, revealing different faces like a Russian doll shedding compartmental tiers of painted tiki.

I grabbed the shit weed and filled my backpack with several small cameras to document atrocities. It was a JanSport back-to-school backpack with a leather bottom (another Costco special). I packed a change of clothes and papers I had been working on, my manifestos about Nicaragua and the Holocaust and the Muppets, some drawings and diagrams.

I did not leave the house quietly; many doors slammed in my wake. I left my Magnavox on, waves of big guitars colliding, a tsunami of screeching sound. I was not communicating effectively with my dad. He did not understand anything. He yelled when I was suffocating in stereo but now I wanted him to know I was gone, going, forever, goodbye at age sixteen. My stepmom, Marilyn, was away, at her stepdad’s Bar Mitzvah in Chicago. He was too old to be Bar Mitzvahed, but I respected his newfound love of the Torah, of God, of ritual, of holiness. I believed so deeply in God that I did not think a book could hold the majesty. Not scrolls. Not nothing. God had chosen me to be a savior and to be saved, which meant escape. And so I did.

I ran out the side door screaming, my dad chasing me. I think he yelled, I yelled back. I was that song, I was screaming those guitars. I was signaling something. He grabbed my backpack (MY BACKPACK!) and we struggled on the driveway near Marilyn’s mustard-yellow Volvo station wagon. I was a prisoner, held back, held against my will, trapped in a house masked with shingles. Rights revoked. Violated. Eventually, I let go, the backpack didn’t matter. Escape did.

He opened the small pouch and saw a handful of keychain with cameras. No big deal. Except for the keychain that contained the key to my Honda Civic hatchback. He took that key.  He opened the big compartment and rifled through until he saw the folded material. He unfolded it. And took my shit dirt weed. I screamed about unfairness and abuse; I needed my car but I needed that shit dirt weed more. It was like an oracle. Magic leaves so potent I didn’t even want to smoke them. I screamed, “That is mine, I am a person with rights,” and he grabbed my arm.

“You cannot go anywhere.”

And I was gone. Hysterical and running down Beachwood Drive with a backpack full of shit but not my shit weed. My dad followed about three quarters of a block behind me, keeping up and keeping his distance. I was not so much crying as bellowing and heaving and crashing into the cement. I turned right on Rosewood and left onto Larchmont. I knew there was a pay phone on Larchmont and Beverly. I could call someone, I could get away. I could be free. I could go to Neverland. I could remove Michael Jackson’s mask and find skin, humanity, a preserved and sweet boy aching for identity and autonomy. I could free him. I could see his real face, his real smooth skin.

The thing was, my dad wasn’t the only person after me. The Nazis were after me. There was a violent war in Central America that had just ended, but I knew from Sandinista training with Salvadoran guerrillas that that war was far from over and I needed to be free to fight. I was on call to save the world. From the Nazis, the Contras, to free Michael Jackson (oh wait, you thought Michael Jackson was free already? Hahahahaaaa. They got you to believe that), and to free myself from my chasing‑me dad who was clearly throwing a wrench in my self‑determination.

I had an idea. It was a good one. If I stopped at a pay phone, my dad would try to get me home. But he could not make a scene. It was not in his nature. He was first‑generation German. And Larchmont Boulevard would echo angry voices.

I saw activity at Prado, a restaurant we’d been to for dinner as a family. I had eaten soft‑shell crabs to celebrate graduation or an anniversary or straight A’s. Javier Prado, the owner, had opened the place two years before, in 1991, a fancy addition to our neighborhood. Javier was previously the head chef at The Ivy. I looked in the window and saw ladders and drop cloths and a handful of people painting the ceiling a deep dusky turquoise. They were expanding the dining room and technically closed. I opened the door and went in anyway, hot mess radiating in every direction. Javier sat me down, past the drop cloths and ladders by the kitchen, away from the ceiling painting. He gave me a glass of water. His wife listened to me. I told them my father had kidnapped me, abused me. That he was after me, that I had to run away. Then my dad showed up, a late‑forties bespectacled lawyer with sparse, Jewish hair. He was out of breath and demanding to see me (frantic in his own calm‑presentation‑German‑American way). They kept me sheltered away from him, my abuser. Though they did not know what to do with me, no explanation from my dad was sufficient. They did not know I was an unreliable narrator. I did not know that either.

So I sat with my water and eventually I called my mom from their phone at the hostess area. She was expecting this call. My stepdad, Jeff, and my mom had just gotten back from Maine — I flew home early to get ready for the school year. I was particularly taken with the loons, calling out to them as they shouted to each other, diving through the cold lake, inspired by their long runs under water. (Did you know the loon plumage went gray in winter? Did you know loons have a salt gland near their eyes and can live in freshwater and salt water? Did you know they need a quarter-mile runway to take off and leave the lake when they migrate?)

I sat in Prado’s kitchen clutching my JanSport backpack, comforted by the dishes being washed and by a new friend. Javier’s daughter was three years younger than I and had Down syndrome. The lilt of her voice made me think we were talking in code, that she understood me and that I understood her and that as long as things were being washed, we were both okay. I could read her thoughts. They were about math and school. I touched her hand and I felt, just by sitting in close proximity, that I understood her deeper than she had ever been understood before and that I could help her. And that she could help me. I felt bonded by trauma. I no longer had this urgency to battle and run from Nazis; I just wanted to talk to this girl who did not make it a practice to talk to many people. I was special; she was special; things were being washed.

I was calmer than I had been in three months. We were telepathically in a deep embrace, a mind‑soul hug that went on for minutes, maybe decades, maybe never at all.

All summer I had been operating on a more efficient schedule, no sleep and little food. The past five days I had ramped up my regimen. I hadn’t slept, not for a minute for the five nights previous to this one. I hadn’t eaten much because most of what I was being fed was poison. I was running on vapors. Occasionally the late Jim Henson would come to me in a vision: warm, bearded, kind Jim Henson, an oracle for all things sensational, inspirational, celebrational, Muppetational.

But here, under a half‑painted ceiling, I was still.

My mom pulled up to Prado with Jeff in the passenger seat.  My dad was still hovering outside the restaurant, not allowed in, on my orders, shunned as an abuser. They regrouped, strategized. They had already formulated a plan. My mom had consulted with her therapist about what one does with a daughter full of demons. My dad went home and got his car. It was after dark and I got in my mom’s silver sedan clutching my backpack full of end‑of‑world supplies.

We arrived at the UCLA emergency room after dark, pulling into the curved brick driveway behind ambulances and EMTs. We didn’t normally go to UCLA for emergencies. I was confused: Why were we going to the hospital at all? My mom said something to the effect of: We don’t know what the fuck is going on. We don’t know what to do. We are out of options. And we are fucking scared. There are doctors past those motion‑sensored glass doors that know what to do. They are going to help you because we fucking can’t anymore. My mom, though a tiny human, was fierce and forceful. She happily employed the vocabulary of her Teamster father.

I got out of the car cautiously. My mom said, in a tired, terse, exasperated, desperate, please‑listen‑to‑me‑demon‑daughter way: “This hospital has a neuropsychiatric institute for adolescents.” I did not register the implication of the statement. I just saw a waiting room full of masked faces in permanent grimace. This place was the place I was supposed to be, the place to engage in the war that haunted me. I had to crawl through the belly of a dark beast to see the shining graceful light of shelter. And so I agreed.

In the waiting room, I was pacing and agitated and I had a death grip on my backpack. There were people suffering from traumatic car accidents, broken limbs, bleeding out from fresh flesh wounds, and feverish babies wailing into the night. I was not bothered by their pain. I went up to each of them to ask the specifics of their condition, to understand why they were there and what their relationship to me could possibly be. (Everyone was related to me and my cause.) My mom saw this and intervened. She told me to stop talking to strangers, to stop talking closely to the other invalids. She purposely put limits on me and confined me. If she provoked me, I might have an outburst and get treated faster. If she told me no, I would wildly insist on yes. I wasn’t just another shingles outbreak or sprained elbow. I was speaking in tongues and trying to heal these broken patients or enlist them in my army, I was channeling the Muppets and Michael Jackson to let them know that everything would be all right. I was murmuring to myself about poison, and electrified by the possibility of  an elaborate escape plan … the waiting room responded with despondent heaves and sighs and groans of pain. People were suffering and I insisted on Uzis and rainbows. Reception noticed. I was escorted by antiseptic nurses and unfeeling night administrators past the doors and away from my parents to a gurney where I lay down willingly for strangers. I was nightgown‑swaddled and buckled in.

I didn’t fight. The night‑shift psychiatrist was young and handsome and I remember feeling like a queen being rolled around the ER. Again, like at Prado, I felt instantly okay. War was on the outside. I was here to expand my psychological presence to return to the battlefield better equipped. I was smitten with this handsome ER doctor who was going to make me better, who was doing my bidding and not the other way around. The restraints were just proof of my importance, of my power. He asked me questions to determine my level of sanity. Questions of logic and determination.
Questions that were like a test. There’s no logic in this world, I thought, how can you test that? How can you know? But I knew how to game the system, I knew the right answers inherently. He did a physical exam, a neurological exam, lab work, a mental status examination, and a medical history. I refused the breast, rectal, and genital exam. I was rolled onto an elevator and kept in seclusion for a night.

The intake report said what was already obvious to everyone around me: I was exhibiting an “increased psychomotor rate, decreased need for sleep (about two to three hours a night), racing thoughts and paranoid ideation regarding her parents following her and watching her, as well as taping the phone calls that she was making.”

I woke, groggy from sedation. The ER docs ruled out head trauma, other medical conditions, and use of drugs or intoxication. They determined that I was in need of psychiatric care and asked me about my mood, voices, my beliefs, if I was suicidal; they tested me with questions to determine how abstract my thoughts were and whether my mind was being controlled by other people. I thought, I am going in deep, deep cover. I will find the evil in these neutral walls. I will exterminate before I’m exterminated. There is no guarantee of survival, but I must push on into this heart of darkness, penetrate the system, broadcast the corruption and be hailed a singular hero with omniscient knowledge of the universe past, present, future.

I believed I had special powers, the report noted; I knew “when the end of the world was coming due to toxic substances” and felt that I was the only one who could stop it. I tried to tell everyone in the waiting room, but they were too busy crying over broken bones. This was the end of the world. This was not a drill. One persistent thought — a gut instinct — was that I was the one, the only one. A prophesized being, special, sent to earth with a mysterious mission — one that I was just now understanding with each passing day. I was Jesus, I was Bob Dylan, I was Hitler, I was John Wilkes Booth, Derrida, Marx, the Monkey Wrench Gang, a bear, a pile of glitter, and a galaxy. I was in an action movie, a war movie, a romcom — I was the protagonist in all of these, of course — I had to warn the population at large about the future, nuclear annihilation, war, genocide, apocalypse on the highest scale, bigger than biblical. I would fall in love along the way. I would recruit this love to fight the larger, epic war. The feeling was that of incredible pressure and responsibility. I could not believe I was tasked with this. I was only sixteen. I was an average teen. But this is how superheroes are born.

From MENTAL: Lithium, Love, and Losing My Mind, by Jaime Lowe. Published by arrangement with Penguin Random House. Copyright © 2017 by Jaime Lowe.

How It Felt to Live Through My First Manic Episode