I wake up to shattered glass and vomit on the floor of the motel room. Shallow cuts on my hand, specks of blood on the sheets. I don't know how I got here, how I paid for this room. There was a man! I remember. He must've taken care of it. I don't know where he went, can't even recall what he looked like. Must've scared him away.
And that's fine with me.
I try to recollect the details of last night. I see a broken handle of whiskey that explains the glass, the cuts, the pounding headache. I know Nico abandoned me on the side of the road. Where am I anyway? Just why did I break that bottle?
I feel hazy, confused, but lucid enough to know I need to escape before the damage is discovered. I put on my shoes, step carefully over the mess on the carpet. The smell is horrendous. I brush white dust off the bedside table, flush the empty bag. I hear a knock, maybe next door. Panicked, I grab my purse and dash from the room leaving the door open. I run outside, bounding down the sidewalk as if I know where I'm going. I check the time—late for lab. No wait, it's Saturday. Or Sunday? I don't know. Where am I going?
I stop. Do I call Nico? Will he come save me? I'm scared, alone, and full of twitching nerves. He answers the phone. "Yes?" He sounds terse.
"Where am I?"
"How should I know?"
"You left me. Why did you leave me?"
"You cannot be serious. Don't you remember anything?"
I realize I'm crying. "I'm scared, Nico. Please come get me. I don't know where I'm going, don't know what happened."
He sighs, is silent for several moments. "Did you wander off far?"
I look around. I can't recognize anything. I see no street signs, but don't want to move any further. The sun is burning my eyes, my skin. "I don't know. I don't know. Come, please."
"Don't you see anything?" he says, so frustrated.
"A bar. And I'm near a hotel…motel, whatever." He sighs again, air crackling loudly into the receiver. He tells me he'll find me. An hour later he does. I see the gigantic cracks in his windshield, and realize that is probably what I did that resulted in my abandonment. "Oh god, Nico. I'm so sorry." My eyes are welling up again, and I sniff back tears and mucus. "I don't know what I was thinking."
"I don't think anyone in the world knows what you're thinking." He glances at me for a second, then puts his eyes back on the road. "You look awful."
"I am awful. An awful, awful thing. I don't know what's wrong with me, I feel so…" I can't think of a word, a phrase, to describe just what's going on in my head. There is a darkness creeping into my mind again, negative thoughts swirling. They won't stop. "Is it the cocaine? I'm done with it."
"Good. And maybe, I don't know. Coke's never made me bug out like that, but you've been going pretty hard with it."
I rest my head against the passenger door, staring at the mess I've made of his car. I suddenly know—I feel like that window. Like something has broken inside of me, tearing through my psyche. It has to be the cocaine. I can't—don't want to—recognize it as something else. "That bag. You should sell it, pay for the window."
Nico laughs, pulling into his parking spot. "I think we should dump it. You can figure out another way to pay for the damage."
"He's going to come for me," I say, as the magnitude of my crime finally dawns on me. T could kill me. Would he kill me? "I have to leave, or he'll find me. Hurt me, maybe you."
"What are you talking about?" I shake my head—can't tell him, he'll be liable. I've put everyone I know in danger. What the fuck was I thinking? Where has my head been?
I need a drink.
Nico gets me a beer, allows me to stay the night. I don't sleep, instead spend the time packing everything into my car again. I can't put him in danger. I already have. Oh, the awful things I've done—my brain throws the memories at me like daggers. Where did this all come from? I feel I've lost control, the sudden plummet from the top of the atmosphere resulting in a spectacular crash in my head. I hear one thought clearly above the rest of the mess in there—you're going to die.
I'm going to die. I'm certain of this. And not in the way everyone knows, the way we all eventually meet our demise. My time is soon; I can feel the seconds of my life tick away with each heartbeat. You're going to die. I fell asleep in my car this morning, a few blocks away from Nico's. I check the time, the date. I'm late for lab, for real this time. I speed there, park illegally, run inside desperate to maintain my rock star status in their eyes. "You missed lab meeting," my professor says. "What's up?"
"I overslept," I say, the only thing I can think of. "I'm so sorry." I'm sure I look terrible, the same clothes I've had on since Saturday wrinkled, smelly. My hair is frizzy, out of control.
"You do look tired. Grab some coffee, we'll talk about the project." I follow her into her office, take out a pen and paper while she spits rapid-fire instructions at me. I was able to follow her, just a few days ago, but now I can't keep up. I scribble random words that I catch, nod along like everything is fine. "Does that make sense?"
"Of course," I lie. "I can handle it."
I go to my desk and want nothing more than to curl under it and hide, go to sleep. I just need to calm down, and everything will be fine. The grad student supervising me tells me he needs my help sacrificing. That's what we call it—sacrificing. We end the animal's life and scoop out its brain, all in the name of science. I feel queasy, but I help him. This was all fine a week ago. Watch the white rat heads plop into the sink, collect them and snip out the brain from the skull. The snapping bone, the blood running rose pink with the water from the faucet, the twitching body of the lab rat on the miniature guillotine—it's all too much. We trap the rats in an anesthesia chamber, the isoflurane gas making them spin and press against the walls until they plop, breathing slowly. I lift them from the bowl and he chop, chop, chops away at head after head. You're going to die, you filthy rat.
I'm rattled, completely. I visit my freak mice, press my hand against a cage while they sniff at the plastic. "I'm so sorry," I say, and I know they understand. I get the crazy idea to set them free—resist it. "It's for the greater good!" They squeak, fighting each other in the cages. I wonder if they're feeling the rage I feel sometimes, the crushing misery. It's sinking in, I can feel it. You want to die.
I wake up in my car again. I think it's the day I'm supposed to move into my new apartment, but my sense of time is all screwed up. I've been living in my car for a few days now. Agitated—it's the best word to describe the thoughts and energy running through me. I feel the stardust inside of me, feel my connection to the universe. It's a spiky, nervous feeling. I'm channeling too much of the cosmos, and I cannot handle all of the power. I need to harness it, to pull myself through whatever it is I'm experiencing right now. It's 2 AM, the clock tells me, and I'm laughing through tears. And I'm scared. I think everyone knows about the cocaine, am afraid to look anyone in the eye. They'll know who I am and they will tell T how to find me, and I will be dead. I want to be dead—you want to die—but not at his hand. I have to control this to the end. I close my eyes and see blood and rat fur stuck to the blade of the guillotine. I hear the crack of bone and it feels like my own neck cracking, my own brain being plucked out and examined. What would they find?
I pull out my phone, dial the last number that called me. It's Jeremy. I sob loudly as soon as he answers. "He didn't get to you!"
"Hey," he says softly. "Where are you?"
"You know I can't tell you that."
"Yeah, maybe you shouldn't," he agrees, laughing a little. "He's looking for you, you know. You're not still here are you?"
"I'm far away. From everyone I know, everyone I've hurt. I'm sorry, Jeremy."
He lets the name slide. "Sorry for what? I'm fine. I'm worried about you."
"My parents," I cry. "Are they gonna be okay?"
"Don't think he knows where to find them. You fucked up big," he laughs.
"Like I don't know that." I sniff loudly. "I know god," I say.
"I've found this thing you call 'God'. It's the stardust inside. The driving forces of physics propelling our lives forward. I feel it. It's scary."
"Calm down. Nothing to be afraid of, I'll—"
"Except my finish. But I'm not afraid of that either, really. I'm scared of an afterlife. I couldn't bear to go through this again." He starts to interrupt, but I continue. "One life was hard enough, but to suffer infinitely would be so incredibly unfair I'd kill myself a million times if I could. I will, if I need to."
"For what? Death? We're acquainted. Close friends, now. It's coming." People walk past my car. I stop talking. Jeremy is silent. When they're far enough, I continue. "I'm sorry for leaving. For everything I've done. I used you."
"I've used everyone. Everything. The world was mine and I took it, crushed it, snorted it up. Everything is used up, and so am I." You're going to die. You want to die, filthy thing. "Oh my god, I can't do this. I have to go." I hang up before he can object, and start the car. The radio blares static, and it sounds like the familiar noise in my head. I switch the radio station, hear the singer communicating specifically to me, and just drive.
I look at everyone I drive past and feel a strange connection to them. I'm either afraid of or in complete understanding with every stranger I make millisecond glimpses at in high speed. Some are against me, and I have to rush by them. One honks at me as I cut in front of him and speed away.
Been driving in circles for hours. Still not tired. 6 AM. I pull into my illegal lab parking space, swipe my keycard like it's a magic wand and run into the building. The lights are still on at my desk. I must stay on top of my work, no matter how I feel. I pull my samples from the freezer and try to remember the next steps while they thaw.
Looking around, there are sharp objects all around me. They antagonize me—you want to die, you deserve this. I've always been afraid of sharp things, cannot believe the scalpels and razors I've handled during my time here. I don't dare close my eyes, knowing the rodent blood and gore waiting for me behind my lids.
Leaving the samples to perish, I exit the lab for the nearest bathroom. I am a monster, the mirror tells me so. I hear the thought repetitively. I see the mice cut open and pinned to a Styrofoam board, blood pumping out as formaldehyde pumps in. It's for the greater good, are we giving a depressed mouse what it wants? A release from the pain? I imagine myself trapped on the board, waiting for my insides to be cut out and preserved. They will play with my brain when I am done.
Who knows how long I've been staying in my car now? The last time I went to lab? Everyone is calling. I can't talk to anybody, don't even speak to the cashier when I pay for my liquor. It's afternoon, I know that much. I'm feeling quite nervous, sitting in the backseat, so I take a swig of vodka. Then another. I laugh to myself, warmth spreading through my chest. Another. I stop counting, then, and just drink. Poison the thoughts away, smothering them with a chemical blanket. I'm walking, I notice. Did I lock my door? Does that matter? A car horn honks. I'm in the middle of the street, apparently. I bow to the driver in thanks, keep moving.
I was going to finally return to lab, I remember. "Excuse me, where am I?" The woman ignores me. "Where is this? How do I get to—" He brushes past. "Will anyone listen? I'm very late. I need to be somewhere, and I don't know where I am." I step into the street again, stumble. Two teenage boys stop, help me to my feet. I smell like a cloud of ethanol. "Please help me," I say. "Where am I?" One points to a street sign. I clap my hands, hop down the sidewalk.
"Excuse me, ma'am." He touches my arm. "You feeling okay?" I don't know if this cop knows what happened. If he's a good or bad guy, if he'll turn me into the law or to T. But I can't stop myself from speaking.
"It's the stardust," I explain. "It's keeping me up at night, and now I'm a mess. There is neon blood flowing through my veins—" He mumbles into his walkie. "No, you're not understanding."
"Tell me again," he says, guiding me to his car. Alarms ring in my head, but he says he's listening so maybe he'll understand.
"There's this star stuff inside. Of me, of you. Mine is burning bright. I'm being haunted. And hunted." The carnage pops into my mind again. The rat's head rolls into the sink. The ketamine killed him. Dead gray eyes. I'm in the cop's car, and his partner is asking my name.
"It doesn't really matter," I'm saying, but he has my bag. He finds my identification, and I'm prepared for my execution. "Are you going to give me to him?"
"We're going to call your family," partner cop says. "Get you somewhere safe, okay?"
"Nowhere is safe," I tell him. I'm trapped, fooled into this car cage by kind eyes. "Please let me go." They don't. I'm ready to die, and scared out of my mind at the same time.
We're in front of a hospital. Both policemen escort me into the ER, one guiding me with his hand on my shoulder. "We've got a potential 5150 here," I hear the other say to a nurse.
"What's the story?" she asks, smiling at me. I open my mouth, but the cop touching me interrupts.
"Found her a few blocks from here. She's drunk, for sure, but I think something else is going on."
"I'm not drunk," I laugh. "You haven't seen me drunk. You see, I had just a little bit. To calm down. Everything is a mess right now." The tears are flowing again.
"She was mumbling something about stardust inside of her. Seemed paranoid, distressed."
I look at the nurse's ID badge and realize I know where I am. "This is my hospital! I work here!" They keep talking about me like I'm not there. "I go to school here, I work in a lab in this medical center. It's where I was trying to go. I have to get back to my lab, to the mice." Ignore.
"We'll take care of her," the nurse says. "Cara? Is that how you say it? Would you like to come with me?"
"No, I have to go," I wail. She nods. The cops strong-arm me down the halls, to the psych ward, into a room. They wait with me for years. No escape. "Please," I'm crying. "Just let me go. I'll get it together."
A doctor in a spotless white coat enters. She's grinning at me, and it looks mean. I cry even harder. "What'd you bring me today?" An awful, awful thing. That's what they brought you. I want to die.
The cops explain the story again, as the doctor walks over to me. "I'm Dr. Garland." She gently touches my knee. "What's going on? Why the tears?"
"I'm not supposed to be here. I've made a huge mess of this." I stop crying. Try to look normal. My smile is wide. "Please. This is a misunderstanding. I was trying to tell them about how we're made of stars, and some burn brighter and harder than others but the collapse…" I lose my train of thought when I realize what her face is communicating to me: you're crazy, it's saying. "I'm fine, I really am."
"Here's the deal," she replies. "Why don't you stay here with us for a little while, instead of going with them and being booked for public intoxication? Just sleep it off with us."
I feel defeated. They're never letting me out of here. I let the nurse draw blood and listen to the doctor tell me they're going to run a few labs, make sure everything is okay. I watch the blood fill the glass tube and begin to weep again, reminded again of pain and death and tiny mouse brains. "It's going to be okay," the nurse tells me.
"Nothing will be. Ever again. I can feel it happening, deeper than before." But she's already walked out of the room. I curl up on the uncomfortable bed and spend hours, maybe, staring at the wall. Just sleep it off, and they'll let me go. But I can't fall asleep. My mind won't allow it, and it's out of my control now.
I stay up through the whole night. Different nurses come to check on me. They ask if I want something to put me to sleep, and I refuse. In the morning, Dr. Garland comes back, with a scared seeming, younger looking doctor next to her. "Good morning!" She's entirely too happy, and I want to slap it out of her. "This is Dr. Marshall, my resident. He's going to sit in on this interview, is that alright?"
"I don't have anything to say. I try to tell people things all the time and they never listen. How do you think I ended up here?"
"Right, of course. I'm going to listen though, okay? You mentioned stars yesterday. Are they significant to you?"
"Significant to us all," I reply. "I'm so full of their energy right now. It's overwhelming, really. I can't stand it."
"You feel sort of restless? A little agitated?" I laugh, but the tears have already started again.
"Agitated. That's exactly the word I'd use. Everything is spinning, not like I'm drunk…just like, I can't keep up. I've cracked a bit."
I wave my hands in the air, hop off the bed. "Everything was fine! Then suddenly I couldn't do anything anymore. All I want to do is…" I can't tell her that. Then they'll lock me away for sure.
"What is it you want to do, Cara?" I sit back down and shake my head. "Are you thinking about hurting yourself?"
I figure they must train you in telepathy when you're learning to be a shrink. Or maybe the aura of death surrounds me and she can sense it, see it on my face, read it in my eyes. "It's all I can think about."
"Walk me through yesterday. What was going on?" I tell her about the nerves and the vodka, about how I was just trying to find my way back to lab. Then it all comes spilling out. I disjointedly tell her about Jeremy, about Nico, about the cocaine and T, about the death and despair I sense when I close my eyes, about how wonderfully graduate school started out, about how I just want to be back home, dancing with Anna and feeling on top of the world again.
"It was a beautiful summer," I sigh.
"I can imagine," Dr. Garland says, nodding. Her resident seems fascinated, if still a bit frightened. They're both taking notes.
"You can just crack open my skull," I say. "And find the answers there because I have none. I couldn't tell you what went wrong. Everything was fine until it wasn't."
"How's your sleeping been? I've been told you were up all night."
"I sleep when I can. I was going without it for a good bit."
"Ever get the feeling your thoughts are racing? Just too fast to keep up with?" I nod. "Is it worse when you're feeling really good?" I nod again. My education tells me where she's going with this, and I don't like it. She asks about prior depression, and I tell her about the meds and the hypomania. The resident nods sagely. They think they've figured me out.
"You're clearly not feeling too well right now," she says. "Why don't we see if we can help you out with that?"
"You mean medication."
"That's right. Let's just give it a try, shall we?"
I grab my head with both hands, pull at my hair. "There's no way out of this, is there?" They say nothing. "Do you promise to help me?" I ask after a few minutes. She promises, and exits the room. A nurse comes back with a cup of pills. I swallow them without water, curl back up into a ball on the bed. I'm feeling woozy, after a bit, and know I'm being chemically restrained. I welcome it.
"Good morning, sunshine," the nurse greets me. Is that sarcasm? I'm too tired to care. "How are you feeling today?"
My tongue is heavy, the message I'm trying to communicate struggles against its weight. "Drugged," is all I can get out.
She checks my chart. "You're on a pretty high dose anti-psychotic. Just to help put you to sleep until the episode passes." Episode, like a TV show—after thirty-minutes the storyline ends. If only my brain would move on so quickly. "Dr. Garland may lower it, if it's just too much for you."
"I feel all fuzzy," I say. "Like, I can't think of…words. The words I wanna say. How long have I been asleep?"
"About a day and a half. Your body had a lot of catching up to do, I imagine."
"When can I get out of here?" I examine the room, the pale green walls, an empty bed beside me. I cannot believe I am in a mental hospital, right now. The nurse calmly explains I've been placed on an additional involuntary hold, a "5250" she says.
"That means your treatment team has decided you need a little more time with us. Until—"
"I'm not a 'danger to myself or others'?" I know the protocol all too well, too learned for my own good. "I'm not going to hurt myself." It comes out of my mouth at the same time the thought returns—you want to die. I close my eyes, expecting the usual death and blood. But everything seems a bit clearer in my head, if only due to the muddling of my brain by the medication.
"We just want you to feel better," she says. "I'll let Dr. Garland know you're awake. She'll be able to explain a little more."
The doctor visits after a while, her coat still blindingly white. "Why do psychiatrists even wear the coats?" I wonder out loud. She laughs, sitting down.
"It's just so we feel important," Dr. Garland jokes. "But you have no idea, the kind of stuff that gets flung at us around here." She shudders a bit, imagining shit tossing psychotics I guess. "Nurse Johnson explained you'll be here just a tad longer, yes?"
She tells me I'm in the middle of a pretty bad mixed episode. "You're experiencing both manic and depressive symptoms right now. The racing thoughts, the suicidal ideation, feeling—"
"I know what a mixed episode is. I own the DSM." An eyebrow raises at that. "I used to want to be a shrink, you know."
"What changed your mind?"
I shrug. "Figured I was too crazy, after the depression."
"When did it first start?"
Another shrug. "Maybe back in high school, even. Didn't get bad until college, around sophomore year. That's when I started the pills."
"And why'd you stop?"
"I felt fine! I just didn't feel like one of those people who needed to be on it for life, you know?" She nods. I look to the ceiling, trying not to cry again. "I know the first try made me 'hypomanic'," I say, finger quotes and all. "But the second one was fine. It cured me, so I stopped."
"It's the nature of the bipolar beast, to tell you you're fine."
"Bipolar," I repeat. "I just don't think it's that serious."
"Depression on its own is serious, Cara."
"I know," I sigh. "But bipolar? That's crazy. Like bag lady crazy." Dr. Garland shakes her head. She explains it's a disorder that comes in many colors and flavors, a chronic condition that can be managed.
"Like diabetes," she says. I laugh. They always compare it to diabetes. "From what you've told me you've been pretty manic all summer. You're cycling now, the pure depression was probably next."
"So okay. Mixed episode, whatever. Why do I have to stay here?" She tells me they just need a little more time to make sure the episode passes while I'm still under their care, to figure out the best treatment options for me.
"We've got you on lithium and an antipsychotic right now, in order to treat the breakthrough episode. That may change as your symptoms recede…or progress."
"You're just trying to make me sleep until it goes away." Dr. Garland starts to speak again. "And that's fine! I'm just calling you out." She smiles, shaking her head.
"You're a special girl," she says. "We're going to take care of you."
And, like that, I believe her.
I spend two weeks, total, in the wards. I meet a man named Odysseus, according to him, who claims his mission in life was prophesized by the Gods. We become friends, chatting casually before and after the group therapy sessions, holding cups of decaf while he explains he was chosen to rid the world of evil through his manifesto, which he had been trying to disseminate through radio and television, in pamphlets to strangers on the street. "That's how they found me," he says. "The evil forces brought me here, trying to fight off my good. The fucking cops, man—"
"They're not on your side," I nod.
"Exactly! I see you understand." I don't, but I nod again, always nod when he's talking to me.
I call my parents. They tell me they're flying out to drag me back home once I'm released, and it takes everything in me not to tell them a drug dealer is after my head. But then I speak to Jeremy, who tells me he's paid part of my debt and T isn't even trying to kill me. "So chill," he says. "But you owe me 580 dollars," he laughs, "At least."
I talk to Anna, and she can't help but sound vindicated. "I knew something was wrong." I roll my eyes. Like she can see me, she says, "But I'm glad you're okay. We were so worried."
The drugs make me feel a little blunted, my mind not as sharp as I thought it was the past couple of months. Dr. Garland removes the lithium from my treatment, adds a different mood stabilizer. The dark, depressing thoughts lift. I notice how quiet it is in my head, no longer sensing the impending doom and bloody, gory thoughts. It's the strangest thing, hearing nothing but linear thoughts in my own mind. Finally I can concentrate on one thing at a time, no longer totally distracted by everything around me, having to pluck out one coherent thought to communicate.
I see pain and grandiosity like I've never even pondered amongst the halls. Individuals suffering from a multitude of disabling mental illnesses. Some of them, Dr. Garland says, are treatment resistant. Banished to a life in and out of mental hospitals. I'm lucky, she says, they caught it early. My prognosis is good, as long as I listen to the professionals. She warns me not to believe the part of my mind that says everything is okay and not to trust the doctors. "This is treatable. You can go back to your life, in time." I notice she doesn't say normal, never normal. What is normal, anyway? I thought I knew, maybe I just wanted to feel like mania was normal. Who wouldn't want to feel at the peak of their existence, like they were totally in control of their life and the world?
I sit in the backseat while my parents drive me all the way back, pressed into a small corner by all of my belongings. My school granted me a year's medical leave, when I'm supposed to get my shit together I guess. The thought still lurks in my head, that the 'professionals' are wrong and just don't understand the world like I do, but the medication calms me down enough to think somewhat rationally about my beliefs and actions. They don't help the guilt I feel over my summer trip in madness, but Dr. Garland says that will come in time. I'm trying to believe her. Watch the miles pass on the highway, exit by exit.
I don't know what I'll return home to, what tricks my mind may play on me in the future. It's disturbing, knowing a bodily organ such as the brain can turn against you at any moment like someone suffering from kidney disease. I still feel sedated, worn out by the medication. But I know the synapses are rebuilding, firing correctly, and find comfort in that. My star burned bright and collapsed just as powerfully, but the stellar remnants inside me have yet to finish their evolution.
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