It's safe to say that I had very little sense of self-preservation when I was younger. I was plagued by demons, doubts, profound questions about how to live a life worth living, symptoms I'm pretty sure could be identified rather handily by just about anyone as Severe Clinical Depression. But we didn't identify things like that back then. We just foundered on the rocks of our jagged psyches again and again, hoping that the pain would either kill us, or distract us temporarily from feeling so miserable. Because my beast didn't have a name or a face, I struggled with different ways of handling it. Others may scoff at the readiness of people to pop pills to calm the roiling darkness, but after trying a host of ways to smother the pain I'm pretty sure the other ones didn't work.
• • •
Drinking to excess and running up my credit card bills to keep the endless party going was the solution in my early twenties; but the alcohol wasn't thick enough to cover up my ringing notes of failure just beneath the surface. I had graduated high school with no idea how to grow up. I didn't think that I was College Material, nor did I believe that I was clever enough to do anything like get a real job. My first true love was sweet but he couldn't keep his dick in his pants; after what seemed like ten or fifteen dalliances, I finally got a spine and left him.
No luck finding what I was supposed to do or even who I was, I found myself mired in isolation. Thinking a change of scenery was the answer, I fled to New Orleans, trying to escape my debt and demons in a city built largely on alcoholism and desperation. I was literally moving from one disaster to another, in this case out of an epic failure of a relationship in Colorado into the arms of a date rapist in New Orleans.
I met him, madness personified, in a favorite bar of an acquaintance. We had a raucous evening, a group of five or six people in various levels of intoxicated jollity. New Orleans keeps the lights on until morning, and I stumbled out into the swampy April air barely able to walk. He asked if he could walk me home. It was only a block away, up the street. I said sure, and we went to my apartment where I said thanks, nice to meet you, and passed out cold, face down on my bed.
I woke up with him on top of me, huge and impossibly heavy. He was strong, I was frozen in fear, and he finished with no by-your-leave. He mopped up and left me there, stunned and terrified and completely alone.
I became truly deranged. I was trapped in a strange city in a studio apartment with no phone, no friends, no job, no money, and a date rapist who kept dropping by to see me. I took several baths a day, going back and forth to the mattress on the floor where I lay reading Kipling's The Jungle Book, ignoring the bell he rang which hung from the wrought iron balcony over Esplanade Avenue. What I wouldn't have given to be Mowgli in the jungle: the beasts couldn't be any more dangerous than the ones I faced in New Orleans.
One evening I caught a glimpse of my madness in the mirror that covered the back wall, stuck there by past tenants to create the illusion of space in my cramped apartment. Sitting in my only chair at a small bistro table, I was holding a sharp knife in one hand, a tomato in the other, and an existential void in my eyes. There was no-one in the mirror looking back at me; I was as ephemeral as the reflection staring back and back and back, a feedback loop of emptiness. The reflection looked like it was trying to kill something intangible, which I suppose it was.
Shaken to my root, I called a friend in Colorado from the pay phone on the corner next to my apartment, braving the risk of running into my nightmare personified. I poured out my desperation and terror of the person who kept dropping in; it didn't occur to me that I wasn't to blame for what happened; I had been blisteringly drunk and woke up with him on top of me. It was my drunkenness which was to blame, not him.
My friend said, a voice as cold as ice, "You need to tell him that rape is illegal."
And as quickly as I came to New Orleans, I left again. I walked to the bar where I had spent most of my New Orleans nights and sold all my stuff to the bartender, things I had brought for a life in the Deep South which became a ticket for the Greyhound bus back home to Colorado. I sold everything in my apartment in one afternoon, and broke my lease by evening.
A few days later I was back in Colorado, out of eyeshot of my stalker but no closer to sanity. And because misery loves company, I found a boyfriend who was as miserable as me, who dated a girl who had been raped at a party they were at together, and who never recovered from the psychic damage of not being able to stop it. We were two peas in a pod of suffering: we fought, and drank, and bonded over our personal agonies. But perhaps he saw that the combination of our collective maw was going to devour us both if he didn't step away--he dumped me for an affair with a happily married older woman who had four kids and a great husband, passing along the curse of misery to her family too.
At some point, I went back to Seattle which I had fled years before in my first unsuccessful emotional feint. There I fell in with a bunch of people who wore alternative lifestyles like the latest runway fashions, and I adopted a life of casual S&M frivolity: lots of dance clubs dressed in the uniform of leather and spikes, which left little to the imagination. Piercings and tattoos were the latest vogue, and friends of mine became human pin-cushions to prove their rejection of the status quo while becoming the new de facto quo.
But most of us were poseurs; we buckled at the knees when faced with the level of masochism real Dom's and Submissive's were willing to endure. I saw things that still make me shiver with confusion about the depth of peoples' need to be humiliated. I wore the edginess like a badge, but didn't really need to suffer any more than I already was.
For me, the lifestyle just confirmed what my demons already told me; self-respect was mutable and changeable depending on the state of one's internal monologue. We could make any reality seem like the right reality under proper conditions. This lifestyle affirmed all that I already believed about myself and others anyway: we were depraved, miserable people who deserved no better than we got. "Pushing the boundaries" was another pack of stories I told myself like mythology.
I had no shred of self-esteem left and found that I was pretty close to not making rent when a friend of mine told me I should get a job with her at a peep show. And because I was broke, desperate, and well-schooled in the art of self delusion, I took it. But it wasn't because I had hit bottom. It was because I was "exploring my sexuality, taking a stand against one-note feminists who shunned sexiness to become fully indoctrinated citizens of patriarchal society instead of embracing femininity in all its contradictions: whore and Madonna, nurturer and harlot." It was a load of BS, though the dancers were all much more to my liking than anyone else I had met in a long time.
And all the dancers seemed to find their own arguments that worked to defend our choice of being naked guppies in a fish tank: we loved the camaraderie of the other dancers, or we loved the flexibility of the hours and the relatively high wages earned. We loved showing off with each other, a regiment of nudity and exercise which kept our lives interesting. Not because we had lost ourselves.
I just didn't have any more fight left in me to look for a real job. I hated myself.
And though it seemed like a good idea to my boyfriend when I took the job since he was feckless and crashing in my apartment, by my third night he decided that my new job didn't suit him at all. He stranded me downtown at work with no ride home after my shift, stuck in a peep show dressing room with a bunch of naked girls I didn't know, where I had to bum a ride from a law student cum peep dancer. It was better than walking three miles home by myself at 1:00 in the morning.
When he finally did come home several hours later, drunk beyond all reason, he decided to show me how much he hated my new line of work by chasing me around the apartment, trying to slap the whore out of me. Since I was sober and he was loaded, I was much more nimble and dodged his blows. He caught me across the eye and I flew toward the door, grabbing enough change to catch the bus to a friend's house as he toppled behind me in a drunken heap, grasping for my legs as I leaped over him to escape.
The next several weeks were spent walking through razor wire. I was cognizant for the first time of imminent and constant danger because I could sense in a visceral, tangible way that my boyfriend was falling apart into sections of deep and violent madness. I delicately stepped between the cracks in his sanity, trying to edge him out of my life without running the risk of being killed by him. People who ran into him in those next few weeks told me later that they had never seen anything like it; he, like I had been in New Orleans, was simply gone. Whoever was living in his body was alien to all of us.
I finally succeeded in returning him to the bosom of his home town on a Greyhound bus, like me a couple of years earlier making my return from New Orleans. Greyhound, reserved for the very poorest and most desperately crazy, the only ship willing to carry such volatile cargo.
• • •
This morning I was going through my photos, looking for evidence of my fondness for Hammer Pants back in the eighties. Instead I found pictures of my madness staring back at me.
There were the photos of my escape to New Orleans, two friends of mine taking up the adventure for a road trip. I'm not sure they understood the level of sorrow and hollow pain that pulled me out of Colorado and into my next horrible chapter. We took pictures of never-ending Texas, and alligator heads in the French Quarter. We drank frothy to-go cups of Hurricanes on Bourbon street. Then they packed up and left me there, just like I asked them to.
Then there were the pictures of my life in Seattle, where we clubbers were dressed in the uniform of fashionable depravity. There is my old boyfriend, being dragged around by a dog leash. I'm looking out of place, confused and blond in a sea of black dye jobs. And because that girl in those pictures reminds me of so much pain, I took the photos out of the album and shredded them.
There wasn't any catharsis. I felt very little about it at all, other than relief that I wasn't so miserable anymore.
• • •
Long after I had discovered a peace I had assumed was to elude me forever, an old friend from back in the day called me up. She was coming through Portland and wanted to see me. We had been good friends through our bad period, both of us slogging through horrid relationships and lives to stumble out on the other side into a glaringly cheerful day. I'm quite sure neither or us knew our lives were going to become so normal or serene, but we were happily surprised to meet our destinies.
We talked about who we'd heard from, what everyone was doing. Some of our mutual acquaintances were dead or missing, having fallen into a deep well of drugs and disease. Some of them had thrown themselves up on the shore of completely normal lives like ourselves. Some were just tourists through the craziness and drifted off to some other destiny where we never heard from them again.
She told me about my ex, the boyfriend from the peep show period. The one who chased me around my apartment threatening to steal what little was left of me.
He had moved to Texas, drove a taxi, met a girl.
She was practically a child compared to him, but they lived together. And one horrid night, he stabbed her in the gut with a bayonet, where she almost bled to death on their living room floor. She lived to see another day, but I cannot imagine what it was like.
Except that I can.