Hello from day 8 million of quarantine. Are you worried that you might be losing your mind? I definitely am losing my mind. I’m out here over the edge of sanity on twice my usual dose of quetiapine, an atypical antipsychotic I have referred to lovingly over the years as that med that prevents you from tearing your face off like a rabid hyena. I lost my mind over the weekend, after I sustained a series of blows to my sanity (which is, let’s admit it, always precarious) that included multiple mental and physical health events in the lives of people I care about and need to care for, as well as the unending trauma of the quarantine itself, the way it has cut me off from some of the coping mechanisms I used in the past, and the deaths, and the isolation, and the homeschooling, and the masks, and the massive blood clots the loss of taste and smell the hairdresser care packages the plexiglass barriers appearing everywhere, the livestreamed dance parties I can’t bring myself to join even though they sound so joyful, the cocktail zooms I bail out of because I don’t want to be a party pooper, the people I simply stopped talking to because they were making everything worse, not better, the long shadows left by people I gave up before the quarantine, my mother’s sourdough starter I begged her to mail me but have not started, 50lb bags of hard red winter wheat berries because it’s hard to find flour and I have a grain mill, people, people I love and want to hold who live nearby but are not in quarantine with me, and the distance that every day is worse, is harder to overcome, my own walls, and the spring still happening outside as if to spite us, “I’m bigger than your plague” says the spring, or, when I’m in another mood, to comfort us “I’m bigger than your plague.”
Hello from the other side of losing your mind. If you feel like you might be losing your mind, and you haven’t lost it before, you might be very scared right now. What if your mind, she leaves you, what if she never comes back? You may feel as if you only have fragments, that something has been shattered, that your plans were destroyed and that you cannot come up with new ones, that you see only this next moment, that there’s no thread, or too many. Perhaps you have run out of patience with living itself, not to mention the people or animals or objects with whom you live, be they only dust bunnies or house centipedes. You are falling, and you don’t know when you’ll stop falling. Maybe you are numb or maybe there are too many thoughts in your head, all bad, maybe you feel as though you have suffocated, that you’re on the other side of death, somehow, that none of this is real and all of this is sinister and terrible and you don’t know when it will end or how.
I’m familiar with the sensation, it happens to me several times a year. My mind is a rickety rube goldberg machine held together with a combination of duct tape, spiritual mumbo jumbo, and drugs that include more than just those prescribed by my various doctors, whose prescriptions are often as questionable as the unprescribed — that’s all to say though that I am always reaching a point beyond which I think I cannot go — my mind is too much in tatters, too many or too few thoughts, finding myself having to drop at least the “functioning” part of the “high-functioning” descriptor upon which my self-image and sense of value in the world resides. At first I struggle and worry. I think I will never put myself back together again. Too many fragments.
Truthfully it’s April and right on time for me to lose my mind anyway. I was supposed to be on a Girlstrip this weekend, three seats in row three on a Jetblue out of Boston, three working moms finally free of obligations for a weekend meetup with their fourth, flying in from SF, like a superheroes club. Maybe we’d have planned a heist. But last year I remember also several days I took off work in April to wait through an antipsychotic haze until I had the opportunity to reinvent coherence for myself, and last year there wasn’t a plague. Heartbreak, but no plague.
Here’s what I know: the feeling of your mind being in fragments, like picasso painted it to spite you, the necessity this may cause of having to recuse yourself from decisions, from conversations, from much of anything at all, for a little while — it comes and it goes. Nobody goes crazy once and for all. Maybe there’s a decline, over time; I’ve certainly declined, where by declined I mean acquired along the way new varieties of mental torment, the sudden psychogenic itch, the obsessive-compulsive quality to my terror, more obvious hallucinations, strange delusions, phantom pain, my symptoms mutating endlessly as if something in me was wounded and blinded by blood in its eyes, flying around banging here or there looking for a way out, finding none, craving escape and using every tool at its disposal to compel me to release it. My little demon, trapped inside and wanting out. Only my demon is me.
See how the words flow, they flow this way when I have lost my mind. But, this is the thing I keep trying to tell you but getting distracted from, because I am only living in a very acute now, because of the way my thoughts move in this world of fragments.
I always put myself back together.
I do not look the same after I have done so. It is not merely that you can see the repair lines, as in those japanese bowls that are repaired with gold. It’s a beautiful metaphor, the idea that my mind has thin gold repair lines running all through it, shining. (Your head is full of golden light, a shamanic practitioner once said to me. I talk about golden threads I throw to friends when I am depressed, so that they may tug on them). But I’m not a beautiful japanese bowl. Every time I lose my mind whole new wings appear, new rooms, new staircases, new storage closets somehow already filled up with old paint samples and doorknobs and drill bits, new windows, some looking out onto fields or oceans, some overlooking a dumpster, and the dumpster, naturally, is on fire. Many things on fire all at once, some not-at-all-approved cable installations, buckets of frying grease and pieces that couldn’t be put back in anywhere.
It’s untidy and parts are ugly but I do put my mind back together again, every time, and I keep being okay with the result. I mean, okay for 10 seconds or so, which is as long as anyone gets to feel okay about anything, if they’re paying attention at all. There’s room in my new mind to accommodate whatever has changed.
Look, we are all having to do this a lot, right now. Even the strongest among us will lose our minds for a moment or five, for one Thursday or several, because losing your mind is the quickest and most decisive way to take a step out of the onrush of doing and let some rearranging go on. I’m not trying to romanticize it, although perhaps I am claiming it has a purpose, but maybe that’s only because I cannot get out of it so I might as well give it a role in my life, the role that losing my mind provides, that it is a moment I pass through in order to learn better how to live with what I have been given, that I trust now that, to paraphrase Buddhist psychologist Mark Epstein, I can go to pieces without falling apart.
If you find yourself with a lot of shards where your mind used to be, if this has brought you to an utter halt, my best advice, assuming you have already lined up some therapy and medication, as might be necessary, is to wait. Take care of yourself as best you can, and take whatever drugs help ease the pain, as responsibly as you can, and don’t expect very much of yourself other than to rest, and wait, and maybe go for some long walks down back alleys, see what turns up. One day after lunch maybe you try folding a little bit of laundry. You’ll fold it and it will feel okay. Maybe you can make some rice or the bed. Your mind is flexible and strong and you can rebuild it as many times as you have to, whether that’s once in a pandemic or, like me, every April, July, and November.