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Remembering the Last of the Normal Days

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On an afternoon like this one. Which I do not remember. In an unnamed photo studio at the back of a mall that may or may not still exist. My father and his wife paid for my senior photo to be taken. It is among the very few photos I have of myself from the year I went mad. Today I looked at it for the first time in 10 years. The person in the photo does not look like me. I was too thin, not eating enough calories each day. I was having active suicidal thoughts, with a plan. Losing time. Hearing voices. A few months from psychosis, psychiatric hospitalization, and homelessness. Hell, I wasn’t even yet wearing glasses. I was only an aberration of myself.

Can we characterize madness, or at the very least my own, in the photos we take? By the way time passes? In the way relationships are destroyed. In the bridges we burn. Or in the scars, we leave on our bodies while we try and navigate a mind which is unraveling?

The photo unearthed feelings and memories which I had tried like hell to bury.

And in the last 10 years, I’d say I’d done pretty well. But with the arrival of my 10-year high school reunion, which I am not planning to attend, memories, like the rotten vestiges of a garden in spring, return.

A decade. The realization comes to me in a whisper. I allow myself to feel that truth, feel the reality of a decade having passed, on my tongue, soft but sour. It is not very easy to swallow.

In my eyes, trained on the camera as the shutter clunked closed, I see what are my last unremarkable moments. A smile, which I know now, and knew then, to be a lie.

The last of the normal days.

Looking at the photo now, I wonder when the moment was when I realized I was in trouble, or if there was a moment like that at all. Ten years ago feels like a different life. And yet not so long, since green tea still tastes like afternoons in the psychiatric hospital. Being a self-aware psychotic is to always wonder, in horror, at the lengths the mind is willing to go. It is knowing how easy it is to lie to yourself, it is fearing the act of breaking. It is being afraid to shatter, to regress, to forget you are sick at all, to become unaware. That is what I see in her eyes.

I see her in that picture and feel nothing but pain for what came after.

How do I look at myself and not hurt? The picture in the yearbook marks a very specific moment, shortly before I lost my mind. I am not the same person I was. I wonder what I thought I’d be doing 10 years ago, in 10 years’ time; how did I expect my life would change? Could I have anticipated what would happen next? Could anyone have anticipated any of this?

How different would my life be now, if anyone had listened to me?

Is it even worth asking these kinds of questions?

That reality feels inevitable, and that is what is so difficult. The knowledge that time is immutable, unchanging, and fixed. I guess that is what is so striking about the photograph. It is the recollection of a person who felt whole, who was still unbroken, who had not quite lost herself yet.

Seeing the picture is akin to traveling back in time. It is to see myself 10 years ago and to see myself every year before that, and every year after.

It is wanting to love yourself but knowing that you cannot change the course of time. It is knowing for now that you’ve got to let go. Eighteen is so young, but 28 isn’t exactly old.

Then & now.

The memories & the mending.

Seeing that picture is to look at myself and know that schizophrenia had, even then, already burrowed into my head, waiting to take control. It is also one of the last pictures my father would get to take of me, not that he deserves even so much. But I wish I could be his daughter again, unwounded, loved…

Often, love is not enough. And understanding that is half the battle.

It is hardly worth even mourning. Not now. Not after everything.

Today’s afternoon passes. The evening falls yellow, and for what seems like moments only, everything is coated in a tawny dusk light. It is quiet, of all times in a day, it is the quietest. Quieter than midnight and quieter than dawn. It is melancholy too. Smelling the way weakening sunlight smells. It smells of almost nothing, except the distant smell of old books, dust, and matches. As distant and lingering as the photo of my younger self that I find myself transfixed by, unable to recognize my own face. It sounds like nothing, though it is nothing that you could lose yourself in. Outside the window, glass panes are saffron and painted in a sunset, it is winter. The ground is covered in snow and ice, and my mind is saddled with depression. But here, with the soft sun on my face, I let it slip. Later, I wish I could remember how to let that same sadness slip away if only for a moment. Though it is not so easy.

I look at the picture of myself again. It is a screenshot from a copy of the yearbook I downloaded off the internet, and for a moment I am going to cry. My eyes water, my throat begins to burn, and my chest is tight. But I catch myself. I look to the year [2013] plastered to the book cover. I try to remember myself 10 years ago. But the woman I was then is a far cry from the woman I am today, and despite trying, I cannot find her within myself.

I remember my first psychiatric stay, dominated by memories that I care little to think about. To guide her through that first time is all I wish I could do. In times when there was no beautiful sunset to guide my heart, I almost lost myself. This happened many times. The heart is a compass that I do not know how to use. In those moments of the gloaming, before nightfall, I feel confident that I am where I am supposed to be. Finally, after all this time.

If I could only hold her against my body and promise her that she would have a home again. If I could promise her that she wouldn’t always be psychotic. If I could promise her that she would, after some practice, learn to wear such a burden like armor. I wish I could tell her that it would be OK. That it didn’t matter what the doctors said and that I would prove them wrong.

Winter is the hardest time to be schizophrenic.

Outside, in the cold, trees cling to the ground by their roots shaped like fists. Skeleton firm and rattling in the wind. The evergreens are the only trees that do not lose their needles. The only trees that are not tense and shivering.

In the winter my doctor has me add a vitamin D supplement.

She took away the antidepressants because they were making me hypomanic.

Yet, vitamin D is often not enough. And the antipsychotic medicine makes me so sleepy.

What helps is to breathe, and to use that sunlight at the end of the day to gather and ground myself. I can imagine that I am holding my own heart in my hands. Blood running between my fingers, and I practice saying only nice things to myself. I know it will be OK. In my mind, I hang a thin string. It separates my emotional and rational self. I honor both as respect comes due, but I walk along the divide and remind myself that I can exist in the middle ground.

Some memories from those days are distinct and gleaming. The bed bolted to the floor. Shoes without laces. Nonconsensual administration of medication. And the look on the faces of loved ones who had decided to see me. The ones who were willing to bare that, the people who loved me, who were willing to continue to try for me. Which is more than I could’ve asked for.

I have a memory, more recognizable than the rest of a loved one, who has grown into a father figure, struggling with me. Through the haze of overmedication, as I forgot what I was saying not long after it had been said. I know it hurt him to see me in such a way, but having him there meant more than what I was capable of articulating at the time.

I spent many winter days, like this one, sitting on the shower floor, in the hospital thinking of ways to try and kill myself.

Today, I am years away from those thoughts. I am so grateful for life outside the system. I was so close to falling victim to it. I hear of others, with the same and similar diagnoses, who have not made it quite so far as me. My heart breaks for them and their families. But I still must relish moments like this one now.

Today the sun is out and it is above freezing. I was able to smell the earth, and somewhere in the forest that surrounds my home, I heard a bird. Fragile music drifted on the pale winter air, trying not to shatter. Life exists. Time passes, a circuit of sunrises and sunsets. The sun drifts across the day and the moon, pale and soft like salt water taffy, across the night. Pinned against a star-scape that spans the entirety of the earth. I am in love with the way time swallows itself. With the way the days do not relent. With the dancing of moonlight across the snow, and the way your hair has gone grey as I wait for mine to do the same.

How have I been alive for nearly 30 years?

Not that I’d like to, but I cannot separate time and space. Every day starts as the sun rises, each day my body is a little older, in a little more pain, and a little more tired. Nothing escapes time. Circling and encircling its own form, beginning far before I was born and continuing for long after I die. I am here for such a short time, despite it feeling so very long. Despite being so very desperate for more time as I age. I am nothing more than a crazy little blip in the incredible vastness of a universe. Nothing has ever made me feel quite so small.

As I pass the 10-year mark with insanity, I choose to bare it with honesty. And as I look at myself 10 years ago, before I began this journey with psychosis, I find that I am grateful that I stayed alive for her. And for this life that has come after.

with love from Maine,


Image via contributor

Originally published: March 15, 2023
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