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Crocker: Shit House Rat

By Dan Crocker Nov 14, 2016 - 11:08 AM print


Wait a minute, honey, I'm gonna add it up!

It started like the sound of a drum. I'm going to kill myself tomorrow. I'm going to kill myself tomorrow. I'm going to kill myself tomorrow. Once it started, it didn't stop. I woke up thinking it, when  talking to my friends I was thinking it, I ate dinner thinking it, and it was the last thought in my mind before going to sleep. One minute the thought wasn't there and the next it was. And once it was, it never stopped. That moment, which I remember very clearly, was over a year ago.

It didn't happen as suddenly as it felt. When I was a kid, I used to count corners. A picture hanging on the wall in a frame is, at the very least, sixteen corners—those on the picture, those on the glass, those on the inside of the frame, the places where the frame has been jammed together and the outside of the frame. There are the corners on the wall itself. The corners on the television set. The corners on the book shelf and every book in it. Counting ate up most of my day—all of my day if I missed something and needed to start over.

I broke that habit for the most part, but by that time my grandmother was dragging me to church three times a week. I started reading early. I was good at it, and I couldn't get enough of the Bible. The parts about love and forgiveness were lost on me. The church I went to believed that no matter how good you lived or how good of Christian you were, if you committed even the slightest sin and then died without asking for forgiveness, you would burn in hell for eternity. I would imagine myself stepping in front of a bus. Having a horrible bicycle accident. Dying of causes unknown. Hell. Apocalypse. These are the parts I focused on, while praying, literally nonstop in my head all day: Dear Lord, I come to you humbly and ask that you please forgive me of all of my sins, whether I know I committed them or not. For everything I ask, I ask be done only if it's Your will. In Jesus Christ's precious and powerful name, Amen. It's a prayer some balloon-faced old man said out loud in church once and it stuck with me. Sometimes I would add seven or eight “powerfuls” (in Jesus Christ's precious and powerful, powerful, powerful, powerful, powerful, powerful, powerful, powerful name, Amen) to it for reasons I still can't explain.

By the time I was sixteen, I had to stop believing in God. I knew that this obsession was making me crazy. I still didn't think that I was crazy.

You may have figured out by now that I'm OCD. Congratulations. You figured it out way sooner than I did. Mostly, it was something I could live with. I might make sure that all of my empty beer cans were facing in the same direction. I might even count or pray. For the most part, it was under control. Even at its worst back then, it was almost all mental. I wasn't checking locks or stoves over and over. When playing canasta I made sure that any cards I had to lay down in a run were in a perfectly straight line, but mostly it was intrusive thoughts. Thoughts I never shared with anyone.


Anger is an energy

My brother died in a car accident when I was thirteen. I woke up with my father kneeling beside my bed. It was the first time I had ever seen him cry. My aunt was in the next room, screaming, “at least it was all over with fast and he didn't suffer.” My parents disengaged from the world for awhile. I went from an A student to failing everything, disengaging from the world myself. I had already been having mood swings by then. The smallest thing could send me into fits of crying or rage or both. There were days, many of them, I just wanted to lay in bed. Going to school seemed impossible. Every day was a battle with my mother. She would drag the blanket off me, I'd drag it back on. We'd get in a screaming match. “Do you think you're the only one around here with problems?” she'd ask.  In an alternate universe, these mood swings might not have gone unnoticed. In the aftermath of my brother's death, however, they were attributed to a cross between grief and the natural influx of hormones during puberty.

I blame none of this on my parents. This isn't that kind of essay about mental health. It was what it was. A sudden death messes a family up for awhile. I turned inward to a world of my mind. Reading, writing, creating intricate month long story lines with action figures. My mind was a good place to be then. Mostly.

The mood swings never stopped, but the anger eventually subsided into bouts of euphoria. I worked hard at it. My mother had anger issues—she was a short order cook that once knocked a waitress out with a call ball—and I hated that part of myself.  I hated it so much that I buried it deep, deep.



but it feels so right

At 19, I met a 27 year old woman named Sarah. A few weeks after our first date, I moved into her trailer with her. Then, I started having crushing chest pains. My chest felt like fire—my heart like a roman candle. My grandfather died of a heart-attack young. I started obsessing over it, but I kept it to myself. Then, I started having muscle aches, muscle twitches, dizzy spells, tingling hands—a list of physical problems. This was pre-internet, but I read what I could. At various points, I convinced myself I had heart problems, a brain tumor, MS, ALS, and the beat goes on.  The worse the physical problems got, the more I worried over them. The more I worried, the worse they got.

Sarah had problems of her own and like two black holes, soaking up light, we circled each other. She took a bottle of aspirin one night and chased it with vodka.

This is how I left her. I was closing at the restaurant one night. It had been exceptionally busy. When I finally got a break, I went out back to smoke a cigarette by the dumpster. I sat down on a milk crate and lit a cigarette. The crisp night air felt like October, a tactile sensation that still brings nostalgic thoughts of youth and possibility.

What the hell am I doing with my life, I wondered. I'm a goddamned writer, I thought. I quit my job right then. I went home and told Sarah I was moving across state to live close to my best friend, Glen, where I could concentrate on my writing. In less than an hour, I had everything I wanted loaded into my car. I drove three hours to my destination and stayed with Glen for a few weeks before I found a job, dishwasher again, and a place to rent.

I became a writer. I would have great burst of creative energy where I'd drink beer and write all night. My poems and stories were being published. I got my first book deal. I was on top of the world. I was also alone for the first time in my life and self-medicating like never before. Then one night, I can't tell you why because I don't know, I started cutting myself. This was in the early '90s. I'm not sure if there was much known about cutting at that time, but I had never heard of it. I just started doing it. Each time, the exact same amount of cuts on each arm, then eventually the thighs and finally the stomach. Always the same, a ritual. It felt like relief and shame all mixed into one.  I wore long sleeves even on the hottest Missouri days—the shirt sleeves sticking to my cuts felt good. The jeans rubbing against the cuts on my legs felt good.

I could no longer deny that something was wrong with me. Something that might be out of my control. I denied it anyway.



saved by a woman

            I skip ahead now. There are stories to tell, but I won't yet tell them. Instead, I'll tell you about my wife.

            No one can be saved although there have been many times when I have felt like I was.

            She found a bunch of bloody paper towels that I thought I had hidden well enough in the bathroom trash.

            Things changed. I asked for help.

            Wait, let me tell you about money.

            I had none.

            I found a clinic. I went in.

            I checked many boxes on many papers.

            I was diagnosed with Borderline Personality Disorder.

            That was all the clinic could do. I would have to find someone else for further help.

            There was this guy who'd see me on a sliding pay scale.


            “What brings you here?”

            “I was diagnosed Borderline Personality Disorder.”

            “That's not a real thing. It's all in your head.”

            Some years passed. Those memories are like a thin soup.

            Weren't we talking about $?

            Or were we talking about physical pain?

            I started working in a mental home.

            They gave me insurance. One doctor said

                        and this is no joke

                                    It could be so much worse

                                    your daughter could have cancer

                                    Worry less

            Another doctor ran tests. This convinced me.

            I started Ativan

            Dear God, it worked (thank you in Jesus Christ's precious and powerful, powerful, powerful, powerful , powerful, powerful, powerful, powerful name, Amen)


Everything is awesome!

It worked. My doctor prescribed a fairly heavy dose and told me to take them three times a day. It knocked the anxiety dead cold, but the old dog of depression kicked in. When I had laid in bed long enough, my wife, scared, dumped the pills down the toilet. I'll be fine, I thought. I'll be fine.

Mostly, I was. I had found ways to work around everything. I got a reputation of being the type of person who would cancel plans at the last minute. I cultivated a group of friends who could deal with it. Those that couldn't fell away. When I started feeling too up, my wife would help me focus my energy into something that wasn't self-destructive. When I got down—and as deep and as intense as that depression can get, I've always been pretty lucky in that it doesn't last long—she would nurse me through it. There were still rough times, for both of us, but the times of grace and beauty outweighed them.


My future's so bright, I gotta

Fast forward again through school and jobs, peaks and valleys—a dead father, a job in the cold north, another book or two. When my dad died, I lost my shit. I stopped writing. I spent hours upon hours compulsively playing an old school MUD. I counted up experience points like corners. I dreamt about them. I scribbled them in notebooks. I vanished into an imaginary world again. My work suffered. My marriage suffered. Then one day, as sudden and surprising as the first note of Black Dog, I had another great idea.

I'd quit my job. We'd move away from the Michigan winters and back to Missouri. I'd look for a place to get a PhD. I'd find another job, an even better job, and everything would really, truly be awesome. It was easier than admitting I was out of control. I got accepted into a competitive, well-regarded Creative Writing program. It was in Mississippi. My wife didn't want to go with me. I went anyway.

What follows is a story for another time, except for this. The drinking started again. The gaming started again. The ups and downs, which never went away, intensified. I had to see a doctor again. I went to the university clinic, and he gave me Lexapro. One month later I was in a full blown, delusional manic state. I went six days with little sleep and even less food. I was paranoid. I was delusional. I saw minor hallucinations. My mind was literally gone

Quitting Lexapro cold turkey is a living hell.



and now, now, now, now, now. I thought I heard a sound

After graduation, I found my dream job. I was back with my wife. Things went back to the old way. Mostly, I dealt with everything. Until about a year ago. Then, like a drum, I'm going to kill myself tomorrow. I'm going to kill myself tomorrow. I'm going to kill myself tomorrow.  It's a stupid line from my favorite movie, The Royal Tennenbaums. I had no desire to kill myself; I just couldn't stop the thought. Then I could barely leave my office. I had to check over and over to make sure my computer was off. I started snapping my fingers every time I walked through a doorway. The mood swings intensified. I obsessed over emails—to the point where it would become impossible to check them. All the while, the thought. I'm going to kill myself tomorrow. I'm going to kill myself tomorrow. I'm going to kill myself tomorrow.

There are many reasons a person doesn't seek help for mental health. The mind is tricky. A few bad diagnoses or taking the wrong pill can sour the entire experience. There is the guilt, the denial. I don't want to be crazy. I have a family to take care of. It's something men do. We don't let other people take care of us. Misogyny is so deeply ingrained in our culture that many men would rather die than ask for help. Asking for help is a weakness. Then, of course, there is the social stigma. People will treat you differently. It makes a kind of sense. We fear sickness. It's a biological, evolutionary survival mechanism. And what could be more frightening than losing control over your own mind? Your very thoughts?

Then there is the medical system. Most mental health facilities are underfunded and understaffed. They do the best they can, but it's not always enough. When I decided enough was enough, it took two months to get an appointment with a therapist that would take my insurance. Three months after that, he still hadn't been able to get me an appointment with a psychiatrist—someone who could offer me medication. It's nice enough to be told to think of a calm lake to help you sleep at night, but those sorts of things don't work unless your mind is rationale enough to let them. So, I stopped going. I gave up. The thought in my head, you know the one by now, was no longer just a thought. It was becoming a plan.

Did you know that the government wants you to take pills so that you will stay compliant and buy stuff? I knew it. At least the last time I was manic. I paced up and down my front porch telling my wife about it. I hadn't slept for three days. When it was over. When it finally leveled off, I knew I had to find someone quick. I told my medical doctor that it was an emergency (in her defense, I'd never talked to her about anything other than a little anxiety and high blood pressure). She asked me what was wrong and I told her. A week later, I was on a new pill. Faster than I could have imagined, the thought was gone. The OCD behavior was gone. The anxiety was fading. It's still early. There could still be some side-effects, but right now it's like a goddamn miracle.

I started this essay a long time ago. I've worked on it off and on for months. Depending on the section, you might be able to tell what the state of my mental health was at the time of writing. I wanted it to be perfect. I thought it might be the last thing I ever wrote.

It's not perfect. Nothing is. But thanks to one tiny pill, I no longer think it's going to be the last thing I ever write. I feel good. I'm thinking clearly. That doesn't mean I don't have some fear of publishing this thing. Of course I do. The social stigma around mental illness is real. So why publish it now—the year I go up for tenure? A year that will determine my working fate for the rest of my life?

The pill I told you about, the one that has saved my life, without insurance it costs $1400 a month. Before Obamacare, insurance companies were under no obligation to pay for most mental health medications. If all else failed, they could call it a pre-existing condition and be done with you. Now they have to pay, but for how long? The Affordable Care Act is going to be repealed. Insurance companies are not going to continue to pay for things they don't have to out of the kindness of their hearts. Imagine having to chose between losing your mind and a job you love because the only way you could afford your medication would be to go on disability. This is not the time to be silent. I'm mad. I've lived too much of my life in fear and anxiety. Thanks to this one, tiny, expensive pill I'm feeling more and more like my old-self. And my old-self ain't scared of shit.

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