A Fractured Mind
by DW McKinney
I cannot pinpoint when I began to fracture. The first crack belied the nature of the spidery root underneath, but by then, it was too late. I was already broken and well on my way to hiding it.
The compulsions, as automatic as breathing, began in childhood. Whether they started before or after my birth father's death—marring the recent celebrations of my sixth and his 30th birthdays—I am uncertain. A therapist, if I ever bothered to see one, would probably assert that his death triggered a deep emotional event in my adolescent mind that has had long-lasting consequences. I accept that as a possible truth. But there is also the matter of the memories of us when he was alive—fewer than the fingers on either of my hands—that play like hyper-exposed photographs in my remembrance. These memories are too old to be reliable, too faint to reveal the finer details, and thus, these deep exhalations of restlessness may be hiding in the sunspots overlaying our faces.
The undeniable truth is that each compulsion sparked in the back of my mind and instantaneously grew into a wildfire. Ashen footprints scar the normal, lived moments of my life:
A mangled marriage of wheat bread, peanut butter, and jelly creeps across my taste buds as I stop chewing to stare fixatedly at a television screen. The Scooby Doo gang and the Harlem Globetrotters solve a mystery. I cannot laugh and I dare not move, or the screams fermenting in the chasm between my heart and stomach will effervesce and slip out between each bite of my sandwich. Ash coats my tongue, so I stare to bring my muscles into control. I stare to suppress.
I never finish playing Yankee Doodle. A footprint rests on the faded ivory keys of my grandparents' piano. I want to destroy the songbook and rip out the fragile pages of the forest green hymnbook. I need to overturn the piano bench, bleeding sheet music onto the floor. I stare. My body shakes. I melt the notes with the heat of my gaze. The wildfire burns my throat, dampening with each dousing swallow.
My mother bought me a subscription to a paranormal magazine that sent me pamphlets and glossy booklets on different mythical creatures. I knew I was like these things, a werewolf, a kitsune, a beast waiting to burst through my skin, sated only by the taste of bloodied destruction. I never turned. There was an inexplicable muzzle on my mouth; my body reined in by invisible chains that looped around my wrists from some place beyond the veil of my reality. Instead, I compulsively lay down in cramped spaces, choosing to box myself in darkness. I silently retreated to my bedroom closet—doors closed—where I lay on the floor, passing my hand over the beams of amber light cutting along the doorframe. At my grandparents' house—their closets crowded with hatboxes and Seward trunks—I lay on the floor in the darkest corners of their three bedrooms to count the cocoa brown wood knots in the ceiling beams. "One. Two. Three. Four. Five…." Again. And again, transposing invisible grids over the ceiling to help me keep track of each knot. I counted until a number clicked in my head then I stopped. Relief.
I easily hid these urges from everyone. I was the only child at the time. My mother navigated the rapids of widowhood as best she could to keep us stable. We often played hooky from work and school, and ate cookies for breakfast. We were inextricably linked, yet there I was, counting alone in the dark while dresses and coats brushed the top of my forehead. I spent most weekends and many weeknights with my grandparents, who lived the significant parts of their lives separate from each other. Even the basic rhythms of their daily life occurred on opposite sides of their two-acre property. It was in the gaps, amidst the timbre of Ed Bradley's voice on 60 Minutes and the steady cacophony of clanging pots and pans in the kitchen, where I stole away unseen to the shadowed parts of my grandparents' house to lay on the floor, usually in the space between the bed and a wall or dresser.
I never entertained the thought of telling anyone what I was doing. I did not know a whole lot, but I knew enough to recognize that what I was doing was not quite right, and thus, I had to keep it to myself. This only served to make my retreats to lay down more fevered; each muscle in my body aching with tension as I waited pensively until I was undoubtedly sure no one could see the ash falling as I lay burning in the dark.
My mother later married a man who I would affectionately call my daddy, and we welcomed his two children from previous marriages. I framed myself against the backdrop of my brother and sister's personalities. I matched the edges of who they were against the costume I wore and quickly realized I was an oddity.
I was maybe eight or nine when my grandmother caught me lying on her bedroom floor. "Pun'kin! What're you doin' down there?" I looked up to see her bronze face—usually glossy from decades of applying pink face cream morning, noon, and night—contorted into a maze of confusion. Her left hand pressed deeply into her hip, the other twitched nervously, dripping dishwater onto the carpeted floor in front of me. It was the twitching—as if she was undone by what lay before her—that gave away my absurdity. "I don't know," I said. I drew out each word in singsong notes to obscure with my youthful innocence what I could not have known clearly at that age: that I lay close to the edge of the profane. We stared at each other silently for a few seconds, and then we departed into different rooms of the house, never speaking about it further or mentioning it again. We relied on the comfort of our routines and pretended my minor deviation was just that—minor. But, soon, my need to find wholeness in dark places when I felt the slow cracking of myself, only compounded until the moments I lay on the floor numbered in the hundreds.
* * *
The oceans of tears came after I stopped compulsively lying down. They frustrated everyone. "Stop crying! Why you cryin' all the time?" from my daddy. "Why are you so sensitive?" from my mother. "Why do you cry for no reason?" from anyone related to me. I wondered this myself but a strange look from someone would pull more tears to the corners of my eyes, deterring any introspection. A stern no sent tears pouring out by the bowlful. If someone misunderstood me, tears seeped out in rivulets. The switch in my mind that should have regulated my emotions snapped off somewhere and I never found it. I heard the tone of a person's words and knew that what I had done was not right, but without the switch, my emotions translated their words across the far end of my emotional scale. I wept rain clouds when I should have taken correction in stride. Instead, I equated it with the rejection of my whole self.
When my fifth grade history teacher gave me a D grade on a project—because my Mesoamerican pyramid made of Popsicle sticks "looks like it has a coffin on top of it" and was "not perfectly square"—I sobbed while he walked around the room assessing everyone else's projects. Though a straight-A student, it was not the grade that broke me. It was the way my teacher's words crossed the gap in my mind and appointed a value for my self-worth: nil. My distress must have been torrential because he muttered "Jesus Christ" before changing my grade to a C in the middle of class. I wanted to stop crying, but I could not. The tears slipped down my face effortlessly as I stared into my lap, ears burning, wishing I could slide under the laminate fiber wood desk into oblivion. Then a new thing started. I looped the conversation in my mind. My words. His words. My words. His words. I picked at their meaning, searching for a hidden truth that was slightly beyond my comprehension, like I was falling forward in anticipation of hitting the ground but never quite landing. Ash covered my mind. The burning had spread from my throat to my head.
Rerunning dialogue became a regular occurrence, which I interrupted only to arrange my belongings until they were neat and orderly. My purple schoolbag, shaped like a briefcase, had to be packed just so. I aligned my pens and pencils in their knitted slots from tallest to shortest, left to right, with the points downward and the manufacturer's name facing outward. My notebooks and loose papers had to be stacked evenly. When it was time to put on my backpack, I placed it over my shoulders with surgical precision to not jostle anything out of place. "You're a perfectionist" from a school friend. "Why are you obsessing?" from my mother. "Everything can't be perfect," from everyone else.
I had my first official job when I was 12-years old, working in the cafeteria of the joint middle school-high school campus that my siblings and I attended. My job was to make cinnamon and dinner rolls. The cinnamon rolls were my favorite to make, and the dinner rolls the hardest. I could not seem to stop rerolling and reshaping the fat balls of dough until I got them perfectly circular. By then, the balls were unappealing tacky and gross from my touch, but I baked them anyway.
The discourse in my family muzzled me from asking for help. Most of this narrative was built on the expectation to be as adjacent to normal as possible, with members and acquaintances who were not normal kept at a distance. Eavesdropping on grown folk business taught me most of my understanding of this discourse. The greatest threat to our established normalcy was being known. Saying "Well, you know how she is," "You know he's funny," or "You know she has issues" sparked a chorus of grunts, mmhmms, and "yes chile" that melted into silence before we drank more sun tea and changed the subject. The changing of the subject was what gave away the abnormality of the person; their strangeness was too taboo to discuss aloud. You could be known for your laziness, questionable femininity (if you were a man), questionable masculinity (if you were a woman), propensity for arrest, personality—anything that gave anyone in our family pause.
My mother once told me that my father's mother—a woman neither of us ever met—had bipolar disorder or schizophrenia. She was uncertain of the true nature of the mental illness because my father only mentioned it in passing when my mother and he were dating. When I pressed her for more information—eager to know more about a branch of my family line that was rarely spoken about—my mother shrugged and said, "That's all I know. He was embarrassed about it, about her, I think." For his embarrassment, my father hid from me the context I needed during the nights when I laid out my genealogy in search of the origin of what was blossoming in my mind. I longed for a better understanding of what I was going through, but all I heard was the rallying cry of generations of women the colors of honey and chocolate slapping their vaselined legs in frustration and yelling, "Stop crying! That ain't nothin' ta holler about!"
* * *
There were more stable days than ones that vibrated uncontrollably, but the fracturing in my mind only worsened in puberty. If anything, I was nearly shattered.
Thoughts crashed against the dam of my consciousness in relentless waves. Was that the right word? That's not what I meant. SEX! P-p-party. P-p-party. God! Why did you stutter? SEX! Why did he look at me like that? SEX! Stop stop stop stop…! I lay in the dark every night and stared at the bunk bed above me. I tried to empty my mind, but I was flooded with everything that ever was. I laughed too hard. I snorted. I accidentally bumped into a classmate. I didn't know the answer. I made the wrong analogy. I was too outspoken. I was too silent. I gave a look when I should not have looked at all. Why did they laugh at my joke? Did they laugh at me?
My grandparents came over to our house once for Thanksgiving, and while serving my grandfather, I knocked a fork into his lap. "I'll get you a new one." And I did, then I wordlessly walked downstairs to scream into my pillow and pull my hair. "Idiot! Idiot!" filled the cracks of my thoughts. "What are you doing? Are you crying?" My mother called down from the top of the stairs. I lied and said I needed to use the bathroom when I should have said, "I need help." But it was the way she asked "Are you crying?" that fell into my ears like "What the hell is wrong with you?" and the way she looked at me later, to see if I was broken, that made me shut my mouth.
Every day of high school began like this: I woke up, grabbed my bathrobe, and headed to the bathroom. I washed my face and took a deep breath. "Time to brush my teeth." I numbered each stroke to give equal treatment to each side of my mouth. Front right, front middle, front left, back right, back left, then behind my teeth, top to bottom. After I washed my face again, I turned on the shower and waited until the water was warm before stepping in. When the soap was in my hand, the numbers began to fall to the rhythm of the pulsing showerhead. "One. Two. Three.…" At five, I moved to the next body part. Head to toe then back again as I rinsed off. If I accidentally went above five while soaping up, I rinsed off my entire body and started over.
Back in my room, I caked deodorant under my arms to the count of 10 and spackled lotion onto my limbs, stopping only when they "felt even"—whatever that was. I put on my outfit, taking my shirt off and back on, pulling my jeans up and then back down and up again until the clothing felt right on my body. I gathered my backpack, sitting upright against the wall and packed neatly the night before, then headed out the front door. I slid my key in the keyhole and locked the door. Then I rattled the doorknob, unlocked the door, cracked the door open, and closed it again. I re-slid the key in the hole, the exhausted pins and tumbler moving into place once more. Then I twist twist twist twisted the doorknob—bursting into tears on the days when I was late for the bus, unable to stop myself.
Using the bathroom was tiring. I peed, flushed, then traced the air above the toilet seat with the index finger of my right hand. "One. Two. Three. Clear." Then I walked in and out and in and out of the bathroom, performing the toilet ritual again each time until the static buzzing in the back of my mind stopped and I was released to continue going about my day. Once, a former friend of my sister used the bathroom after me. When she was done, she barged back into my sister's room where we were hanging out and yelled, "Eww, Des! The toilet seat was wet! You pissed all over it!" The words popped out of my mouth before I could stopper them. "NO! IT! WASN'T! I CHECKED AFTER I USED IT!" What she said was impossible. I waited a few minutes for the tension to ease and then I walked into the bathroom to stare at the toilet that had betrayed me. "One. Two. Three. Clear." This was just another ashen footprint denoting the slow destruction of my mind.
I also counted while I performed my household chores, numbers tumbling fitfully out of my mind as I dusted, vacuumed, washed dishes, cooked, or did the laundry. I rescrubbed dishes or rearranged loads of laundry until things were "even." In the years when we used gallon jugs of yellow ammonia to clean the bathroom, I prayed for the numbers to be small enough for me to stop scrubbing the toilets as my nose and eyes stung furiously, my breath clogged in my throat.
These exacting performances helped me excel academically. I had near straight-As and a competitive grade point average. It was not until my colleagues on the high school yearbook staff presented me with the "Pop a Prozac Award" during my junior year—laughing when they handed it to me as we celebrated the year over pans of greasy pizza—did I realize others had noticed my strange behavior.
My mother waited patiently for whatever it was stretching its limbs beneath my skin to settle rightly. But it took too long and then came the day when she whipped her body toward me so suddenly that I jumped in my place beside her. "Why do you slump your shoulders all the time? Why do you walk around lookin' so depressed like that?" Crying would only make her angrier so I instead focused on her fists pounding against the steering wheel. They ripened as they tightened and I worried they would burst open, showering me in blood and bone. "If you don't straighten up in the next month, I'm sending you to charm school."
There was no time for charm school as my daddy marched around the house training my sister, brother, and me for the war raging outside. "I didn't raise no punks, aiite?" We always nodded in agreement right before he began his self-defense lessons, using moves he learned in the U.S. Marine Corps. My daddy didn't raise no punks and he surely didn't raise victims. We were supposed to be tough, coupling our street smarts with our book smarts, but we could not be faggots and bitch asses and other things. My sister and brother periodically used their fists to defend their honor. "I ain't no punk!" "I ain't one of these lil' ass hoes out here!" I guessed that I was neither of those, but I was fighting an enemy I could not see and could not name—and he was winning. So, I spun out of control alone, waiting for the ground to meet me so I could find a foothold.
At night, everything blended into endless car crashes and funeral processions that I dreamed on repeat. The most frequent one: daddy is driving the two of us in his Volvo, the upholstery an unnatural blood red instead of its usual burgundy. Snow falls relentlessly against the windshield. My daddy's muscles ripple through his arm from the tautness of his grip on the steering wheel. I try to remain silent, but the moment I speak, the car swerves. We crash through a guardrail and over a mountainside. I tumble head over heels through sheets of snow and steel grey until I wake up drenched in sweat. I went to bed every night for four years with headphones on, 91X pumping alternative rock into my ears to block out the unceasing barrage of the world. I stared at the open window, counting the swings of the vertical blinds as they shifted moonlight across my face. "One. Two. Three…"
* * *
The women in the books I read kept tinctures and drank potions to help with their nervousness. Us? We tell ourselves to grow out of it. We just need to get on our knees and pray through ‘cause God only helps those who help themselves. We drown our sickness in spoonfuls of castor oil. We go lie down in our rooms, hoping the sicknesses of our mind will disappear when the pillow meets our head. We say, "They's white people problems; white girl problems." We press these things between typed pages and air them on television shows. We whisper them in conversations saved for grown folk.
* * *
My daddy and I shared an affinity for the same television shows. We watched reruns of Batman: The Animated Series in the afternoons and taped episodes of WWE wrestling matches in the evenings. We began watching Monk the summer before my senior year of high school. The eponymous show was about a private detective who had a nervous breakdown after his wife died in a car bomb. He struggled with obsessive-compulsive disorder and a number of other phobias as he solved crimes. The first time Monk counted something he touched, I crumpled in on myself as all the air left my body. My daddy loved the show. He often let his guffaws arch his back to the point where he might snap in half and slapped his knees at Monk's mannerisms. "What a nut!" But that nut acted like me.
The label of OCD was still rolling around on my tongue when I also learned I had anxiety. This was during my freshman year of college. The walls outside the student health center were lined with the usual pamphlets about sexually transmitted diseases, AIDS/HIV, and pregnancy. I always thought these were a joke. Many of my friends acted as if they were indestructible, bragging about their numbers of sexual partners, unconcerned about rumors of STDs spreading across campus. The pamphlet on anxiety interested me: an anguished white woman holding her head as if something was pushing apart the plates in her skull. I skimmed it quickly then replaced it before anyone saw me. Once alone, I fell down the rabbit hole traversing the Internet in search of more answers, afraid to discuss this with friends or the campus counselors.
The year I discovered the double-edged sword of my brokenness was the same year everything got worse. I still numbered the strokes of my toothbrush and counted how many times I applied deodorant under my arms, but predatory clicks eased from the back of my throat down the base of my spine. I flinched when people tried to touch me, I worried myself mute in conversations, and I turned doorknobs even more frequently than before. During exams, my brain emptied itself of any information—not just what I needed for a test, but simple things like my home telephone number were difficult to recall—and I stared into the pages, completely lost.
Anxiety rattled my bones, threatening to split me apart, so I kept it at bay by jogging around the campus until my legs trembled and black crept along the edges of my vision. On the weekends, when most students left to go home to visit their families, I ran faster and farther, cutting through the surrounding neighborhoods until I puked in the hedges of million dollar homes. When I bored of running, I biked, and when someone stole my bike, I did Pilates. This worked until my repressed anxiety birthed into depression my senior year. I isolated myself by requesting a single dorm and rarely left my room except to attend class. I ordered delivery personal pan pizzas and gourmet subs nightly, wasting thousands of dollars on an unused cafeteria meal plan. My friends busied themselves with their romantic relationships, and I let myself slip through the cracks. When they asked about my weekends, I smiled and spun my life into an interesting tale 'cause black girls don't get depressed. We run on magic.
When the holidays arrived, I packed my bags and headed home to visit my family. Where I once loved flying, I dreaded traveling by airplane. The moment I sat in my seat, I pulled my Bible out of my backpack to read Psalm 91. "Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty…" I repeated the passage emphatically under my breath to ensure God heard the sincerity in my voice, but mostly because reading it once was never enough. When I finished, I pulled out the crossword in the airplane magazine and focused on solving the clues. The crossword was a mere distraction. The Scripture was to keep the plane from falling out of the sky.
* * *
The disturbing dreams transformed into a creature unharmed by the light of day. They plagued me during classes and in the middle of conversations. I often excused myself to stare at my reflection in fouled restroom mirrors and shout, "Get it the fuck together!" A vortex constantly swirled in my mind, threatening to overflow with obsessive thoughts about the letter I sent my grandmother in the fourth grade complaining about my parents, weird things I said in high school, and everything in between.
I carried this crushing weight around my neck like my birth father did when I entered graduate school. I befriended Kevin, an archaeology graduate student, who later became my boyfriend. "I first noticed you dancing in the hallway," he said. What he saw was the sun shining through my fractured self even when I could not.
Kevin did not mind, or probably did not realize, the extent of my problem. When I stood in the hallway of our graduate department agonizing over a friend's misguided gesture to put my face on a custom-made cake for my birthday, he was reassuring. "My face! I asked her not to and she's gonna do it anyway! Why would she? What're people gonna think?" I could not see my absurdity, and Kevin did not either, or, thankfully, did not care. He rubbed my shoulders. He hugged me. He said, "It's ok. I know. I get it." Wildfire burbled up from my throat, gushing past my lips to spill onto his feet. He loved me in return.
I told Kevin my worries in excruciating detail. He sat and listened, unmoved. He was patient and willing to be the sea that quenched the roaring fire inside me. Of course, I married this man. But what he saw during the day was a far cry from what came out at night. Scenes of violence scrolled through my mind weekly. The corpses of my loved ones stacked up until they darkened the sky around me. When lying in bed beside Kevin, I held my breath to still my body from racking sobs, often silently getting up to blow my nose in the bathroom. One night, Kevin curled up to my back and after a few minutes, spoke into my neck, "Are you crying?" It was not worth lying to him so I rolled over and told him about my dreams. About the countless times I watched him die, about the consuming fire that persisted in my mind.
"When this happens, wake me up, and tell me about it," he said. "Even if it's one in the morning?" "Even if it's one." "What about two?" "It doesn't matter." Then the burning spread to my back, only this time it came from the warmth of his chest pressed up against me. I fell asleep in his arms dreaming of better things.
* * *
The fire in my mind has dimmed; the creature inside me has weakened. I still feel the urge to twist the front doorknob and flip light switches, but I have not indulged in these compulsions for a few years now. Whether I have grown out of them or replaced them with something greater, I do not know. I am unsure if I should even care. I enjoy the mosaic that the fractures have left behind.
The dreams still crop up, sprouting new tendrils of fear now that I have a daughter. More often than not—having found my own voice—I leave Kevin asleep while I sit up in bed and whisper to myself, "It's not real." I say this once, maybe more. The numbers do not matter. I speak with power that does not shatter or spill, but one that brings the dwindling fire to surrender. When Kevin stirs and asks, "What's going on," I rub his back and whisper, "Nothing. Go back to bed." Then I stare at the moon shining through the blinds, pouring light into the empty corners of the room, the ashen footprints no longer hiding there.
DW McKinney proofreads legislation for the State of Texas. She enjoys writing about blackness and motherhood and telling stories about the human experience. Her social commentary and parenting satire have appeared in Sammiches & Psych Meds. She promotes Otherness on her website, www.forlangston.com.