I was diagnosed bipolar in February of 2013, after months of first being in a manic state, before moving into a period of rapid cycling. I had no sense of how dangerous it was because I have lived this way my whole life and have had to deal with this type of emotional storm many times before, since I was around 12. I white-knuckled the storm. They are quite literally anguish, but I would calculate it out, saying to myself in, say, November: “Okay, this will pass by around May.” (I understood the time-table of these things. I was always right, almost to the day.)
I’ve written before about the initial diagnosis and treatment, designed to stabilize me, and it did, but it was brutal, and difficult, and a full-time job. My mother came and stayed with me because I couldn’t do it by myself my nerves were so completely shattered. A lot of my writing work had to take a back seat in 2013, which was tough because the mania had been so damn productive (the best part of mania), but I just had to let that go. 2012 (with all its greatness, and it was quite often great) scared the shit out of me. I’ve been scared before, though. 2009 scared me. 2002 scared me. 1998 scared me. I have lots of experience. But the storms had progressed in intensity, and each one left me weaker than the last. I was never bouncing back.
I wanted to write about these two separate things – that happened on the same day in 2015 – and how they became one thing in my mind because it was the first time I had some sort of “episode” post-diagnosis and so it was really the first time that I actually had some distance to be able to see what it is that I did and HOW it was that I did it. I couldn’t see it in the middle of the whole thing, but I saw it about a week later, which is some sort of record for me. I don’t write often about these types of struggles but when I DO, I always get a lot of nice emails from people who either get it or sympathize.
So here is an archaeological dig involving:
… and how I ended up processing them as the same exact thing. My reaction seemed quite appropriate to me, considering the circumstances, but then my doctors (two of them) intervened, told me I was hypomanic (my response was along the lines of, “Give me a fucking break”), and they tried to help me un-collapse the two events that had magnified in size to one single building of the Brutalist Architecture school. Like, that’s how SOLID my interpretation felt.
One doctor said, “Anyone would be upset after what happened. Your reaction is not inappropriate, but these two separate things are not the same thing.” “No, they ARE the same thing.” “Sweetheart, they are not.” My doctor calls me “sweetheart.” Sometimes “darling.” In his Italian accent. I paced in the lobby of the building where I work, a gigantic echoing space, hissing at him on the phone, as I tried to explain to him – as I tried to make him see – that how I interpreted this thing was real and how DARE he take that from me. Dragons don’t die without a fight, y’all. It’s never fun to be told that your mind is not processing REALITY correctly.
I did not want to go to the hospital, especially not over something so silly (a date gone … bizarrely … awry), but I had been crying for 5 straight days at that point. Straight. Morning till night. 5 days. But I had cried for 19 straight days in July of 2009. 5 days? Please. Piece of cake. I didn’t understand why the doctors were concerned. But whatever, I worked with my cognitive person to think my way out of the Vice I had constructed for myself, something that would have been inconceivable to me pre-diagnosis. That’s the problem with an illness that is in your own mind. 1. It is very very difficult to describe the experience of it. and 2. It feels so real when you’re in it that you may very well fight like a tiger to hold onto your interpretation because if you let go of it, THEN where will you be? Nobody WANTS to be nuts. There are a couple of things I wrote here on my site in the summer/fall of 2009 that are so hair-raising for me to read now that I have been tempted to take them down. So far, I’ve let them stand.
Virginia Heffernan wrote a beautiful essay about her depression in which she describes constructing a series of rituals that she called “The Pillars”, and these pillars were the only things that controlled her life:
I also talked that way to my friends, who told me that I sounded “abstract”. Sometimes I thought they were right, and so I briskly invented an antidote, the Pillars – a rote series of activities designed to ground me like a middle-school curriculum: exercise, travel, religion, dates, art/music, job. Robotically, I went to the gym, to church, to the Met, to parties, to Seattle. I tried to confine my schedule exclusively to the Pillars – checking them off like a tourist – to keep myself from meandering or morbid thinking.
I didn’t do The Pillars, but I did erect something called The Triangle in my mind, a rigid and Euclidean formula within which I understood my own life. I thought The Triangle was brilliant and I told all my friends about it. I felt that the Triangle’s angularly-connected lines gave me great freedom and it also provided blinding INSIGHT into how Things Really Were. The Triangle gave me rules of engagement. It was an Isosceles triangle, too (very important) so keeping each “line” equal was difficult (impossible) but it set the standard. I could not see how unforgiving it was, I could not see how STINGY it was. As a matter of fact, at the time I thought the Triangle was freeing. The post I wrote describing The Triangle is one of those hair-raising posts I mentioned before. I was so – forgive me – fucking CRAZY when I wrote it. I wish people understood mental illness better. You’re not, like, “out of your mind.” Or huddled in a corner not able to speak. You are often completely lucid. Everything is clear as CRYSTAL. You see connections other people cannot. And sometimes, you know what? You’re right. But clarity like that is its own kind of madness, because there is no “give” in your understanding of life. The Triangle had NO “give.” How are you supposed to live life within the confines of a Triangle? Jeez Louise. (Incidentally, the “triangle” has become a kind of joke among my group of friends. I told a couple of my really good friends that if I ever started talking about the Triangle again, to tell me to knock it off. Of course, because my friends are who they are, now when I say something even mildly introspective, one of them will murmur, “Triangle.” Or I’ll post a deep quote on my FB page, and my friend Luisa will leave a one-word comment: “Triangle.” What would I do without these people?)
So what happened last year during that week when I cried for 5 days was that the Triangle re-erected itself in all its terrible perfection, and it was the perfect structure on which to hang my interpretation. It was as intricate and deadly and simple as an atom bomb.
If all of the below sounds like I was “making a mountain out of a mole hill,” what can I say. You are the one who needs to read this the most. People pay lip service to wanting to understand and sympathize with mental illness, but then knee-jerk judge how, well, bonkers it looks and sounds in reality.
Let’s move on to the archaeological dig.
The First Thing
In 2014, I went to the Bloomsday celebration I’ve been going to for over 10 years. It’s a joyous and raucous event, with the same people attending every year. We drink beer, sit at picnic tables, and listen to people get up and read from the book. I read from the book. My friend Therese reads. Everyone reads. The writer Colum McCann has been the emcee from the beginning, and he’s awesome. It’s a blast. At this particular event, I found myself sitting at a table with Therese (my regular Bloomsday friend) and two other guys. What a relief it is to hang out with people who understand this obsession. I found myself having a lot of fun being social with people I don’t know, which never happens. And at some point, when I was talking with one of them – a guy I had not met before, not familiar to me from other Bloomsday gatherings – I suddenly realized – like a dim message from a star on the other side of the galaxy- “Huh. I find this man attractive.” It wasn’t a huge deal, just a momentary recognition that I felt attraction, and it had been a while, and wow, that was kind of fun. The next day he sent me a friend request on Facebook. Click Accept.
I then did not think about him again for an entire year. I was wretchedly sick for a lot of 2015, with an ailment that I had had surgery for 5 years before, but it sprang up again. (I now have it handled for good.) The ailment made my physical life HELL, and so Bloomsday came around again and I decided I couldn’t go, I was too sick. I was very upset. I haven’t missed one Bloomsday celebration there since it started, it’s this weird little thing I do every year, an event feeds my soul/mind/heart, connects me to my Dad, my PEOPLE, and I love seeing all of those crazy people once a year. But I could barely walk. So bah humbug, I didn’t go. I lay in bed with a water bottle on my stomach and felt sorry for myself.
I woke up the next morning to a FB message from that guy: “Where were you yesterday?” We had never corresponded before. When I decided to not go to Bloomsday, he did not enter my mind once. I was thinking about Therese, and Colum and Joe, the “regulars”. His message surprised me. If I had gone, and he hadn’t been there, never in a million years would I have messaged him asking him why he hadn’t gone. I wouldn’t have even noticed, probably, since his presence there in 2014 had been an anomaly (as far as I knew). I told him I had been sick, asked him how the day was. He told me some funny stories. He had given a talk on Joyce at the New York Public Library, too. I asked if he read from the book at the Bloomsday celebration. He said he did. I asked him what section. He told me. I told him I loved that section. He said he did too. (We were online at the same time.) And so then began a FB message conversation that lasted the entire day, before we moved it to email, and then finally to text. He was the last person I “talked” to that night, when he texted me “Good night” at 10 p.m. It was very bizarre, and I kept waiting for it to stop, but he kept coming back. So what the hell, sure, I’ll FB message with you all day. He told me he liked my writing. So, okay, so that meant he had somehow been paying attention to me on FB and the links to my stuff I put up there. He said he wanted to be on my mailing list. I told him I didn’t have a mailing list and did he think I should get one? He said he didn’t have one either. But he wanted to “keep track” of me. He was very persistent, he had started it, so he kept the conversation going. It was a humorous conversation. Elvis Costello came up. I told him I loved that Elvis, but I loved “the other Elvis” more. He said, “I gathered.”
At some point, again like a dim message from a far away star, I realized – shamefully late into the process – that he was trying to ask me out. At one point he said, “We might have to become, like, y’know, friends.” I told him I thought that would be good. I mean, it seemed like a no-brainer from the moment I met him at Bloomsday. He was clearly “my kind.” Then began this weird thing where now I realize he was feeling me out. “Do you like to eat?” “Do you drink coffee?” I didn’t understand what he was saying. Of course I eat. Yes, I drink coffee. What the hell. He said something like, “Do you like to eat or drink coffee with other people?” It’s so obvious now, but although I am very smart in some areas, I am very slow in others. He said, “Are you in the city this weekend?” I finally realized: “Oh. He’s asking me out. That’s what’s happening. Duh. And he probably thinks I’m playing hard-to-get, when actually, no, I’m just dense.” Had he been looking forward to seeing me at Bloomsday and then bummed I wasn’t there? That had to be it, right? I couldn’t picture it though because if I had gone to Bloomsday the day before he wouldn’t have entered my mind at all. Anyway, this is so granular I feel like it’s a Diary Friday entry. I was going to see a John Wayne movie at MoMA that Friday, and I was so excited about it, so I figured what the hell, and I told him what I was doing on Friday, and would he like to join me? Put this man out of his “Do you like to eat/drink” misery-nonsense. He said immediately, “Yes, let’s do that.” And then he bombarded me with the details of his schedule so we could figure out a time to meet up. Then we moved it to email, then we moved it to text, and we joked about how we barely remembered what the other person looked like, so maybe we should show up both carrying fruit baskets so we could recognize each other. Dumb. But fun.
I headed to MoMA. He had texted me a couple of times that afternoon – first to tell me he might be late, and then to give me a blow-by-blow update of his progress from Long Island into the city. It was funny, and also weirdly thoughtful. “Okay, so now I’m waiting on the train platform.” “Okay so now I’m boarding the train.” Dude, stop. I got to MoMA and stood outside the theatre, scanning every face for the one I vaguely remembered from last year. Still, though, he walked right by me, and I didn’t recognize him, and he didn’t recognize me. He texted me from inside the theatre: “I’m here. Where are you.” I walked into the theatre and looked around. It was the big theatre, and there were a lot of people there, and I didn’t even know what I was looking for except a head of wild black hair. I finally just said his name loudly into the void, and of course everybody turned around in that sacred-silent space, but then I saw his face, looking back at me, sitting a few rows down. Of course, that’s what he looks like, I remember now. He started laughing because I had yelled his name into a movie theatre and the whole thing was absurd. The movie was in 3D, by the way, which made it all even more ridiculous, such a fun light-hearted thing to do with someone. At certain points during the movie, we’d glance at each other, and I’d see this Joyce-symposium-literature-professor-guy grinning at me wearing 3D glasses and I’d burst into laughter. It was fun.
Afterwards, we went out for a couple of beers at a nearby bar, and as we walked there he was asking me questions about my life, and each time I answered, he would say something like, “Oh, that’s right …”, or nod, showing that I was saying something he already knew. But how on earth could he know any of it? I gave him a look and he admitted, “Yes. I have been reading up on you.” It was funny. (I should have done the same thing with him! CLEARLY.) I wondered, panic-struck, what the hell I had put up on my site in the last couple of days … was there anything overtly insane? But really what I felt was safe when he said that, because I pictured him at his laptop, clicking around my site, and reading my bio … and so I felt like, Well. Whatever is going on with him, he’s at least interested in me – like, me, out here in the world, not some other damn thing that has to do with HIM. (This is a residue of the run-ins with sociopath users I’ve had, ever since my Dad died. My radar has been WAY off.) He was curious about me. That made me feel safe. (The feeling of safety ended up becoming the major Red Flag in my post-event Triangular analysis.)
It was a cool and beautiful night, the bar was open to the street, and we sat in the window, drinking beers and talking. We talked a lot about our writing and what we wanted to happen with it, in our own spheres. He had things he wanted to work on. I asked him what those were. He told me. He told me about his job. I asked him what the best part of the job was. He thought about it and gave a really cool answer, very interesting and thought-provoking. A curious and open and thoughtful man. Eventually he said, “Okay, so you’ve asked enough questions about me. Let’s do you now.” Again, the feeling of safety. He was aware of how I was tilting the conversation his way (I was being polite, sure, but I also was truly curious. I knew nothing about him.) – and so he course-corrected for us, not wanting to just sit there and talk about himself for our entire night. Good man. So then we talked about me for a while. He asked me questions. I told him what I wanted to be doing. At one point I said that I wanted to get gigs on my own merit, not just so that some site could have “a vagina on the masthead” and he could not stop laughing. He said, “I’ve always wanted a vagina on my masthead.” “I mean, why wouldn’t you. I get it.” You know, whatever, none of this was world-shaking, but I felt safe and in my own element – which was very strange to me, and notable, especially since I didn’t know this person, and two days before I had barely known he existed.
When I spoke, he leaned forward, really listening. Sometimes I busted him looking at my mouth as I spoke. I’m not an idiot. I know what this means. Then, in a flash, the event changed … somehow. It started with a pantomime-symphony of body language from him. This kind of stuff can really only be picked up on by a movie camera, and it loses a lot in the translation into words. I could mimic it perfectly, to show you what I saw, but I’ll give it a shot describing it. After a night of relaxed body language, him lounging in the seat next to me in the theatre, leaning over to whisper in my ear, or leaning across the table at me … he got suddenly awkward, looking at me in this weird kind of hesitant way. Like he had something to say. It wasn’t in reaction to anything I said, or not that I remember. The awkwardness looked like: he straightened up a little bit, but there was an aimlessness in his movement too, and one of his hands went to his shirt pocket, where his cell phone was. He didn’t take the phone out, but it was this involuntary gesture, almost like the cell phone had summoned him from the pocket. And he looked embarrassed. I have no idea what was going on with him, but I have no insecurity about what I SAW. I spent 20 years as an actress. I know body language. I must have looked confused at his behavior/gesture, which – in my memory came out of nowhere – and he said, by way of explanation: “My kid and my … baby-mama … are out of town for the weekend.” Which came from out of nowhere, it was not in reply to anything I said.
I should have Googled him before the date, that’s for sure! Or at least trolled his FB photo albums. I have no idea what look flashed across my face, although I’m sure there was something there, and then I adjusted, with the swiftness brought about only by long experience. The situation I THOUGHT I was in was clearly NOT the situation I was ACTUALLY in, and … judging from the awkwardness and the look of embarrassment … he knew it too. Maybe he realized that I seemed to think it was a date when – from his perspective – it hadn’t been a date at all, although that doesn’t strike me as correct. Maybe he had no idea what he was doing. I also highly doubt that. This guy isn’t a kid. We’re the same age. REGARDLESS. I couldn’t help it. I gave him a look and said, “So Mom’s out of town, huh.” The comment landed like the lead balloon it was meant to be. He laughed a little bit, but didn’t say anything in reply. It was all weirdly awkward. Was I creating the awkwardness? But he started it with his awkward behavior! Inside I was thinking, Sheila, a quick Google search would probably have told you all of this. I also was thinking: Baby mama? What the hell is THAT? It was (in my mind) kind of a distancing term, so maybe he was just trying to take the edge off the awkwardness, or … to somehow … downgrade her in importance? A friend of mine said, “They may not even be together. They may just have the kid together. You have no way of knowing.” No. I don’t.
Clearly I had misunderstood something. Or he had misunderstood something. Or maybe he was “feeling me out” for a hookup while Mom was out of town. I don’t know. I didn’t care. I was done with him from that second forward. Wiping my hands briskly of the entire event, which had been so random anyway.
The swiftness with which I wrote him off drove my friends – male and female – crazy when I told them about it later. “Why didn’t you just say ‘Dude, are you married? Are you single? What are we doing here? We are on a date, you do realize that, don’t you? And might I remind you that you started it. You pursued me. So what’s your deal?” I know. I should have. But I didn’t. Listen, you’re the sum of your experiences, and I’m the sum of mine. Besides, as I realized when I looked back on it, the way the initial interaction went down … if you wanted to split hairs, technically I was the one who asked him out. He hemmed and hawed, I guessed what he wanted, and then cut to the chase. So … plausible deniability? Oh whatever. Too intricate.
Two last memories remain of this “first thing”:
Because I was ready to leave from the second he said the word “baby-mama”, the conversation sort of dragged, and it was clear we were both about to go our separate ways. Then came another symphonic pantomime from him. He paused, and gave me this look, a sort of assessing squint across the table, it had some intent … or question … in it I couldn’t locate or name. He was considering whether or not to continue, that’s what it looked like. Then he said, “Do you smoke?” He wanted to go out on the sidewalk and have a cigarette with me. But the look he gave me … the look seemed to signify something else. Cigarettes = Bad. Cigarettes = Naughty. Cigarettes = Something We Shouldn’t Be Doing. In other words, I felt that it was a sexual moment. There was the potential of sex there in that moment. I’m not a naive young thing. I know the look. His look was throwing a line out there, saying, “You wanna be bad? Naughty?” Honey, do not start what you can’t finish. You have no idea who you’re dealing with. There will be a vagina on your masthead in a matter of half an hour if you don’t watch your step. It could have been totally what it was on the surface: him not knowing if I smoked, and wondering if I would judge him for smoking, wanting to smoke with me, maybe to take the edge off of the weirdness that had just come about with his pantomime gesture towards his cell phone filled with other obligations. But honestly, I do not think so. I am rarely wrong about Sex Stuff. It’s practically a superpower.
I just knew that if I said “Yes” to his offer and we went out and had a cigarette on the sidewalk, that cigarette would lead to a couple more drinks and that would lead to … some kind of a clinch. I could feel that progression in the air and I could see it on his face. Believe me, I wanted to say, “Oh, what the hell, why not,” but instead I said, “No, I don’t smoke.”
We got up and left the bar. I was about to head a block West to turn down 8th Avenue to get my bus, and he was about to head East to pick up whatever subway he needed. He said, a propos of nothing, “Hey, my band is playing a party down in Coney Island tomorrow night. Do you want to come?” By that point, I was irritated so my inner response was: Do I look like that big a “mark”, pal? You’re asking me out AGAIN? Maybe he’s clueless. Maybe I am. Both are equally possible. I clearly was missing SOMEthing that was going on. I said, without thinking beforehand, “No, I don’t think I will be doing that,” and my tone was gentle and thoughtful, although I didn’t plan it that way. It was a funny “line-reading,” I have to say, and he laughed in surprise, seemingly at the openness of my language, that I hadn’t made up some excuse or softened the blow. I didn’t say it in a mean way. The mood was awkward but still pretty open and relatively good-natured. It’s not like he led me on and lied to me for half a year like my last relationship. It’s not like he informed me of the existence of baby-mama-child the morning after we fucked. As far as I was concerned, no harm no foul, although irritating. I had invested barely 24 hours in this thing. And I was going to the John Wayne movie anyway, so it’s not like I wasted a night. We hugged goodbye, saying, “Had a great time, thanks, see ya later!”
I turned away from him and now we are moving into …
The Second Thing
… which happened 45 seconds later.
This was literally what I did AS I turned from him. If he had been looking at me, he would have seen this:
I wasn’t hurt. I was irritated as HELL. I put my ear-buds in and blasted Metallica as I stalked across the block towards 8th Avenue. I was laughing I was so irritated, shaking my head. “That was so fucking stupid. What was that.” I didn’t have time to deeply question what had happened before the “second thing” went down, but later, I thought, “Wait … did he ask me out? Is he a philanderer? But if he was a philanderer, then why did he TELL me about his family being out of town in such an awkward way?” Maybe it was as simple as he didn’t think it was a date. But then why get awkward when referencing his family life if he didn’t perceive it as a date? What’s to be awkward about in that scenario, if we’re just going out as friends? The worst explanation was: I had completely misinterpreted his “do you eat/drink with other people” charade, and that I had somehow behaved like a fool and he saw that I was a fool and was trying to ward me off. But … but … he texted me the whole damn day and into the night, with jokes and banter and “I’m going to be 20.3 minutes late” texts … Is it possible to misinterpret that?
But all of that came later. I had no time for anything beyond the Judge Judy eye-roll, and the opening strains of “Master of Puppets” before the “second thing” was upon me.
There’s now a bike-lane on most streets in New York, with a little buffer-zone outside of it, where cars park or idle their engines. Most of these are town cars, waiting for people to come out of the restaurants. I don’t walk in the bike path, but I do walk in that buffer zone, skirting the cars. I walk there because I avoid the crowds on the sidewalk. Or I did walk there. I don’t walk there anymore. And I would suggest to all women to avoid that buffer zone as well. Or at least be on high alert as you walk by all of those waiting cars.
45 seconds after I left my date, just as I approached 8th Avenue, a man leapt from out of nowhere – from between two of the town cars – and pounced on me, grabbing hold of both of my breasts with both of his hands, squeezing so hard I had finger-print bruises on my breasts the next day, and whipping me around – by my breasts – screaming in my face, “NICE TITTIES, BITCH, NICE TITTIES.” It was a crowded street. It was only 9:30, 10 o’clock. It all happened so fast that my reaction was totally instinctual, and immediate. The self-defense training my cop friends gave to me in my 20s kicked in (and I’ve used those techniques a couple of times. This is not my first time at this particular rodeo). I started screaming and flailing around, trying to get his hands off me, screaming, “GET OFF ME YOU MOTHERFUCKER” (I believe those were my exact words, and my diction was impeccable so there would be no mistaking my intent), and he kept screaming “NICE TITTIES, BITCH” and I flung out my fist wildly – going for his eyes (like my cop friend told me to: “Girls always go for the nuts. Don’t go for the nuts. Go for the eyes.”) – but my fist missed and I punched his throat instead. I was screaming the whole time. Nobody came over to help me. It probably only lasted about 10 seconds so there wasn’t time. If I hadn’t made a scene, Lord knows what would have happened. Girls, #1 rule: Make a scene. Your life depends on it. I made a scene – just like I was supposed to do, just like my cop friends drilled into my head, to attract attention. And whaddya know, still nobody helped me – but the most important thing was that the message to my attacker was clear: If you continue to attack me, I will fight the entire time, and do you really want to put yourself through something like that? When I punched him in the throat, I heard a quick gurgle-grunt sound from him, and he let me go, and I staggered away from him, screaming back at him, “YOU MOTHERFUCKER,” once more for good measure.
The sidewalk was crowded with people. Nobody came over to me to ask if I was all right. But that didn’t occur to me at the time as some outrageous awful thing. Probably because, hell, obviously I didn’t NEED any help. I just punched him and he stopped attacking me. “Uhm, yeah, that woman has it covered, I think.”
I will not be believed but Scout’s Honor, after he let go of me, I put my ear-buds back in, and – as I stalked down the blocks towards the bus station – my mind immediately went back to: “What the fuck was that date all about …” (When I told my friends this, they howled with laughter. Some stranger just flung you around the street by your breasts and the first thing you think of when you get away is, “Wow, that was a weird date I just had, huh?” All I can do is tell the truth.) The attack was just a blip on the radar screen, and DEFINITELY not the weirdest thing that happened to me that night. The weirdest thing was the date and the awkward-pantomime towards the cell phone that I still couldn’t quite parse. A friend of mine asked if I went to report the attack to the police. Huh? I said, “Of course not.” I didn’t even have a sense that it was this horrible thing that had happened. I was walking away from the date – I was attacked – and then I took the bus home, still running in my mind the last 24 hours and wondering if I had mis-read the FB messages and texts, and what the hell had just gone down. On the date. Not on 8th Avenue.
My date and I were still so close – geographically – that as he walked to his subway after our date he probably could have heard – dimly – some woman screaming “GET OFF ME YOU MOTHERFUCKER” from the next Avenue over. That’s how close in time/space the two events were.
The Two Things Became One Thing
In the days that followed I did notice, shall we say, that my date had not texted me saying “Had a great time” or any of the other niceties. After all that “we should be friends” business. Something weird had definitely gone down at the end of our time together, but I couldn’t say what it was. At all. It very well may have been me, although I think we co-created the weirdness. Action, equal re-action. Very quickly, in the couple days after, I thought, “Jesus, though, imagine if he hadn’t told me about the kid and the baby-mama.” I knew what would have happened then. I would have texted him the next day: “Had a great time! Want to do it again?” And he most probably would have … iced me, or ghosted me. Or maybe not, maybe he would have been like, “We just have a kid together. We’re not in a relationship. I felt awkward and didn’t know how to say that. Can we try it again?” That is an EQUAL possibility, but it didn’t occur to me until much later. I felt grateful that he DID, through his awkwardness, tell me of his situation because, inadvertently, he spared me the humiliation of trying to reach out, and him having to turn me down, or say “Sorry, I think you misinterpreted me … I’m not available.” If he had done THAT, he would have felt my Wrath. So in a way he spared us both that. Fine, so it was just this weird 24 hours where my phone was buzzing with his texts, and now afterwards … crickets … and so okay, chalk it up to weird, move on.
Literally, nothing came into my mind about the violence of the attack that came 45 seconds after I left that guy’s side.
When it finally returned, about 4 or 5 days after the whole thing, it returned with a vengeance, but it didn’t return as its own event, it returned as a SYMBOL that EXPLAINED the date, and CONTEXTUALIZED what had happened, it was a Message from the Universe about My Place In It.
I had felt safe with my date, for a variety of reasons. He was attentive, he was a good listener, and he seemed interested in me and what I was about. All of this was true. I don’t think any of that was a lie, or a trick, or anything else. (We are still friends on FB and we Like each other’s posts, and it’s all fine and in its proper place.) And so I – who never feel safe – ever ever ever – felt safe. That’s why I noticed it. (“Oh, he’s asking me about me …” Men who only talk about themselves and don’t even THINK to say “So how about you?” are my #1 Turn-Off.) Safety on this level does not mean anything significant like, “Finally. Here is The One.” I am far past any of that. I didn’t attach any romantic significance to it, or at least not further down the line than that particular moment sitting across the table from him. He was working on that date, as all Good Men should do, just like I was working, although it wasn’t work like drudgery-work, just work like being-a-good-social-person-with-manners work: making conversation, talking, asking questions about the other person, listening, making jokes, even going a little bit deep. All of this takes work, and we both were doing it, and so we had a good time. This is how it should go. So. When I say safety on this particular level, that’s what I mean. And I don’t question any of this, Cellphone-In-Pocket-Pantomime notwithstanding. I had a very good time with him. That remains.
But safety also has a larger meaning, with huge significance and potential treachery for me. So what happened was that one sense of safety – the momentary – bled into another sense of safety – the permanent/assumed/buffer-zone/net-underneath, like a small creek pouring into a huge rushing river of associations. That’s where the boundaries get messy. Romantic couple relationships provide a certain measure of safety. I’m not talking about physical safety (although once the mania started ratcheting up, it became about physical safety too: If I had been walking with him – or with any man-partner-mate – I would never have been attacked. This is reality.). I’m just talking about: You are part of a duo, you are not alone. You have someone to back you up, run interference, bounce ideas off of, cheerlead, or even just distract you with jokes, mundane tasks, sex, and stupid fights about nothing. Not to mention societal acceptance – which I never really cared about (pursuing acting knocks that right out of you), but it must be there on some level. So, in general, I have a sense that nothing is safe, and I have to stand guard for myself. Be vigilant. Always. Nobody else is looking out for me. I was thrown to the wolves young. I was in therapy for 7 years and that bitch never clocked the cycles and so I was sentenced to another 10, 15 years, without a diagnosis. I got worse under her care. I am a LETHAL companion to myself at my worst. I am not safe in my own company. You see why safety is a huge deal to me. The only relationships I’ve had with men that were good and caring – with Michael and with him – gave me a BUFFER, not just between me and the world, but between me and my own lethal-ness. I remember saying some tremendously insane thing once, and Michael said, “Babe. No. That’s not what’s happening. At all.” And I trusted him and he said it with love so I listened to him, and his simple words sort of shuffled the experience around, making it smaller, and I was able to move OVER the abyss where normally I would have fallen. That process takes much longer when I am by myself.
So even though my sense of safety during a conversation with this guy was a small thing and not meaningful in a Long-term “This is The One” Relationship way, just a feeling of having a nice time and being comfortable with him, it all kind of poured into one container in my mind, labeled: Safety(TM), or The Lack of It In Your Life. Exhibit A: Nice Titties Man on 8th Avenue.
So. If I can clock the progression:
I had a delayed reaction to the assault. It took about 4 days for me to even remember it. Or consider that I might need to do some processing about what had happened. It flat out did not exist for me.
But when I finally did take a second to go, “Wait a second … member THAT? What was THAT?” it instantly became looped in with the date-gone-awry. The two separate things operated like mercury, racing to be at one with the other, and I could do nothing to stop it. I had no sense that it was anything to BE stopped because it was just so OBVIOUS that one thing had led to another. Later, when I was talking to one of my doctors, she said she was hearing “victim-blaming” language, but she wasn’t getting me, she wasn’t getting what I was saying, the larger issue of it, the whole Triangle of it. Honestly, all she was trying to do was have me snap out of the belief that the two things were the same thing and that somehow the date had led to what happened next. And okay, that’s totally valid. But once the train leaves the station, it takes an act of enormous willpower – buffered by support – to slow all that shit down. I was incapable of it.
If I had to write it down – and that’s the task I’ve given myself – here are how my thoughts went, once I remembered the attack:
You thought you were safe. Silly you. You are not safe. You were deluded in thinking you were safe, even for the couple of hours you were with that guy. You are not safe at all, and to REMIND you of that, here is an attacker, literally 45 seconds after you walked away from your date. You see? Yes, if you were walking with your date, if the date had continued and you two were walking together on the same route, you never would have been attacked. But how many times do we (we? I guess it was The Universe, it was definitely a chorus of taunts) have to remind you that safety of that kind is not for you and never will be? You still don’t get it? It used to be that we’d give you months of time to realize you were not safe. But we’re sick of it, so now we’re gonna throw it in your face 45 seconds later.
Sheila, admit it. The thought had crossed your mind that any date carries a possibility that there might be a little boob-touching at the end of it, if things go well. Well, don’t you see that YOU GOT YOUR WISH. You cannot deny that your boobs were, indeed, touched that night, can you? Yes, you have bruise-handprints on your tits from that touch, but you didn’t specify it should be a GENTLE touch. Hahahahaha, you asked for something and we gave it to you. It’s a pretty funny joke, isn’t it.
You want to be touched. Well, here’s a touch, bitch. Don’t say we never give you what you want.
You think you’re safe? You think for one second you were safe on that date? You are worth nothing to him. You ARE nothing. He was just trolling for a hookup. He had no interest in you. Not really. Your desire for safety makes you WEAK. Your desire for safety SCREWS WITH YOUR RADAR, don’t you KNOW that? STOP looking for safety. Never ever lull yourself into a state of relaxation. And if you DO, we will make sure you pay a price for it.
He offered safety for a couple of hours and then withdrew it. And look what happened. What would it feel like to have had BACKUP during the attack? What would it be like to have backup, support? I will never know what that is like, I am on my own. I am on my own. Not like this is news, I KNOW I am on my own, and I do fine on my own, and I’ve had to fight men off me before, but the date somehow opened up another possibility – and then immediately shut off that possibility – so much so that I had to punch some stranger in the throat less than a block away … and so now all I feel is how vulnerable I am. Not emotionally, but physically.
Safety is not possible. It’s not for you. It’s not for you. How many times do we have to teach you this? Why do you still not get it? Don’t you understand by now that we will KILL you in order for you to finally get it?
That’s what it was like inside my head. For 5 straight days. I was beside myself. I cried from morning till night. I fell into bed exhausted. I woke up like this:
For 5 days. I called no one. I told no one. I thought I was being really silly, actually, and was embarrassed at my CLEAR over-reaction. I thought it was a silly thing to get so worked up over, both the date AND the assault. I was embarrassed by the whole thing, but it hit me so hard and so all-of-a-sudden that I didn’t have time to erect any defenses. I floundered for days. I was scared to leave my apartment because I thought I might be killed, that something was out to get me. I made serious promises to never allow myself to feel safe again. That that was a dumb dumb thing, to look forward to going on a date, to curling my hair, to having a good time. Dummy dumb dumb. Look what happened. I had a therapy session already scheduled, and showed up in this state. I was so far gone that I could not be talked out of my interpretation. I fought hard for it. It was 100% real. “THIS is what I get for feeling safe.” The train was so far out of the station that she called in the Big Guns, and that’s when I had the hissing conversation with the Head Honcho in the lobby where I worked. The Head Honcho had also put me on drugs a month before, and I said to him, “CLEARLY THEY’RE NOT WORKING.”
Both doctors said basically the same thing to me.
“Sheila, any person – with or without a bipolar diagnosis – would be upset and traumatized by such a series of events.” “This is a delayed reaction to the assault and that’s very common.” “The date with that guy did not lead directly to the assault. The assault was a completely random event, and horrible, but one did not CREATE the other.” “You did NOTHING. You asked for NONE of this. You have NOTHING to do with why ANY of this happened.”
I still didn’t believe a word they said to me. It all sounded like bullshit. The way they talked, I was just some victim or something. They were avoiding the Grander Truth that I had glimpsed. But their words did somehow create a speed bump, and I could actually feel the Brutalist edifice crack open a bit, and some other kind of clarity become possible. And then it was possible to actually talk about the assault, and the adrenaline that comes about because of something like that. Even me saying I shouldn’t have walked where I was walking when it happened got the “Don’t victim-blame” response, and I rolled my eyes. I am taking responsibility for my part in it. If I had been on the sidewalk with everyone else, he couldn’t have reached me. Come on. But whatever, okay, I won’t talk that way anymore if it’s not helping.
Somehow, somehow, I got back on track but it took me about a month. Both doctors told me I should have called them immediately, to recognize the signs of a gigantic cycle ratcheting up. But to me, it wasn’t a “cycle.” It was just the most valid reaction to what had happened. They spoke to me like I was not getting it: “If you cry for 24 hours straight, call us immediately even if you feel like crying for 24 hours is normal.” I was like, Okay, fine, if you think that’s not normal, then okay, I’ll call you next time.
What On Earth Have We Learned From All of This?
To be honest, the two separate things still are (somewhat) one thing in my mind. I still feel that they are most probably connected. (Triangle.) But I’ll trust the people in my life – the doctors and friends and family – who insist that the two events have nothing to do with each other.
Then again, it’s also possible that I have misunderstood and misinterpreted this whole entire thing.