One day in 1972, I walked from my grandmother’s house out to the veterinary clinic, on the edge of town, where we had boarded our cat for the summer. The vet’s wife uncaged Piccolo and handed her to me. She clung to my chest as if I had lifted her out of a stormy sea into a lifeboat. I carried that black wisp of a thing across the bypass and set her down on the unpaved alley that used to run from one end of our neighborhood to the other. She followed me with the obedience of a dog, keeping a few feet behind and holding her tail straight up in the air.
I reached the yard and then our abandoned house. I suppose no one had bothered to lock up, because I don’t remember needing a key to open the backdoor. I entered the kitchen.
Houses are more than mere buildings. They have “character,” we say. We say that a well-built house has “good bones.” Settling at night, houses “sigh.” Return to your house to retrieve something that you left behind, something you will need during your vacation, and you may have the eerie feeling that your house is holding its breath until you leave again.
That was not my experience on this summer day in 1972. Our house seemed dead. It was dim inside, the more so because I had just stepped out of bright sunshine. Fleas had infested it. The air was hot and stale. I had expected to be comforted by walking through the rooms. I wanted to be able to report that all was well. Instead, the house felt alien to me. Or broken somehow. I felt empathy with our cat, with her bewilderment and desperate need for reassurance. Shutting the door, I knew that I would not come back before the rest of my family returned.
It’s a special kind of horror, isn’t it, to expect the familiar, only to encounter something unrecognizable, even grotesque.
Two and a half years ago, I stood in front of a classroom full of students “in the clutches of something alien,” as Andrew Solomon puts it, the author of The Noonday Demon. It had been weeks since I’d slept more than a couple of fitful hours at night. Often not that much. I had just begun taking two different antidepressants, the potential side effects of which include confusion about identity, place, and time; decreased concentration; unusual tiredness or weakness; general feeling of discomfort or illness; and sleepiness, though — go figure — trouble sleeping is also an unintended outcome. In addition to the antidepressants, I was on a powerful anti-inflammatory drug for pain in my hip and pelvis, which was preventing me from sitting for more than a few seconds at a time. And finally, as needed, anti-seizure medication to stop the full-blown panic attacks — heart racing, chest tight, breath in gasps, body trembling uncontrollably, limbs chilled, eyes locked on looming shadow — that had ensued from the exhaustion and unrelenting pain, both physical and psychic.
In the span of a few weeks, it seemed, in the fifty-second year of my life, I had reached a point where I no longer recognized myself. (Though for all I know, this personal crisis had been years, maybe decades in the making.) So much that I had taken for granted was gone. This, above all: the fundamental assumption, hardly rising to the level of conscious thought, that though I would certainly die one day, I would live to see the next day and the one after that, during which I would feel a sense of purpose and succeed in meeting life’s smaller and larger challenges, whether making conversation with the young man bagging my groceries or coping with my children leaving home for good.
All hope — poof — gone.
I looked at my students through a haze of Trazodone and crushing fatigue, striving to make it seem natural that I never once sat in my desk chair. My mind worked as smoothly and easily as gears choked with grit. Wincing inwardly at the sometimes inappropriate things that I heard myself saying, I struggled to conceal my anguish that the capable and well-regarded teacher I had once been was gone forever. Because that is the apparently irrefutable lie that this demon is forever whispering in your ear. Whispering obsessively and compulsively. “There was a Before, Jim, and now there is an After, and I am here to tell you that I will never, ever, ever allow you to get back home.”
We have that expression, “waking nightmare.” Perfectly apt in this case. For a recurrent dream that I have had in my adulthood goes like this: I am in an unfamiliar, often dystopian or post-apocalyptic landscape. I’m trying to get home. On foot or, oddly enough, bicycle, I’m wandering through a bleak landscape of rust and weeds, a cyberpunk Odysseus with no grey-eyed Athena for a companion. Naturally, in these dreams, I never arrive at Ithaca or anywhere else.
Well, that’s bad but not terrifying, you might be thinking. But consider this variation: one of my sons and I are toddling and walking, respectively, through a hellscape of nondescript strip malls and fast-food restaurants — a dystopia of a different sort. Traffic whizzes by on the multilane highway. No sidewalk. We cross manicured patches of grass, navigate the busy entrances and exits of asphalt parking lots, step around immense metal columns supporting signs glowing with corporate logos. Then I am distracted for a moment. When I look around, my little boy is no longer at my side.
That depth of horror had become my life, now turned completely inside out, every day a waking nightmare. It seemed logical to assume, therefore, that the only place to recover what I had lost was in the world of dreams, for which I would need to be able to sleep, which clearly I could no longer do. As I said to my stricken but stalwart wife one horrible Saturday afternoon, in a brief respite between increasingly frequent and severe attacks of wild panic, which seemed to have their own, independent existence, “There’s nothing left between me and them.”
Literal description fails. Only metaphor can capture an experience like that.
Madness had seeped into my life like venom spreading through the bloodstream. A creeping paralysis, gradually deadening reason, hope, resilience, self-confidence, laughter, a sense of proportion, optimism about the future. And at the same time, paradoxically, madness blazed up like demonic fire. I felt scalded, my nerve endings exposed and hypersensitive. Any stimulus — a sad memory, twilight, a muscle spasm — could leave me writhing or weeping.
I was caught between icy depression and white-hot anxiety, and I had become a stranger to myself. Over and over again I said to my wife, “I’m so afraid.”
Yes, one day in the summer of 1972, I walked to the veterinary clinic on the edge of town, where our cat Piccolo was waiting to be rescued. I was eleven years old. Our house was empty. No one asked me why my family had left town. My grandmother was very kind. I slept alone on the second floor of her grand house. Dead bees collected on the floor of the bedroom, underneath one window. I read a book about a fictional World War II soldier who escapes a sunken submarine, swims to a Japanese-held island, and becomes a war hero. At lunchtime, I often sat by myself on the screened porch, under the ceiling fan. The cook handed me platters and bowls of food through the kitchen window. I saw my cousins and friends most days. I wasn’t lonely. I wasn’t consciously afraid. I should have been, I suppose, but I didn’t know to be.
One day in the summer of 1972, I walked from my grandmother’s house to the vet’s. His wife uncaged our black cat and handed her to me. I carried Piccolo across the highway and set her down in the alley. She minced along behind me as I walked toward our empty house. We passed a wooded lot where I had buried other pets of ours. It was understood to be one of my chores, to dispose of the poor puppy or kitten that had wandered into the road at the wrong time or made the mistake of curling up under the tire of a parked car. I did it because it was expected of me. I did it because I was the one who wouldn’t be too squeamish or — ah, here it is — too emotional.
One day in the summer of 1972.