Monkey at the Wheel

I've never had a great relationship with my brain. Does it seem weird to tell you that? Yes. It is a strange thing to say, but it's true: my brain and I never really got along. I have learned, slowly, that just because something consists of my own flesh and blood; just because it is mine, or is me, this gray lump encased in hard bone riding around on my spindly neck; just because I feel its weight every time I nod my head yes or shake it no, does not mean it has to do what I tell it to.

In fact for most of my life my brain was doing pretty much the opposite of what I wanted. While I was a kid, busy climbing trees and getting in trouble and riding horses and flunking math, my brain was a space ship traversing the galaxy. I'd space out in the midst of whatever I was doing and come back a few minutes later to find a teacher, a parent, a friend or a bully staring at me in confusion, as if I'd just arrived from another planet. In most cases I'd been in the middle of an interaction with these people: a lecture, a game, a fight; and blip! gone. My brain had just done the equivalent of stepping out for a smoke break without notifying the boss--ostensibly, me. I had no idea this was happening, and it was usually awkward. My high school history teacher wrote me up for "humming in class." I was unaware I'd been disturbing his lectures with my musical predilections; my brain had let my body hang out on its own, and my body decided humming in class would be a fun thing to do. 

As I got older, the blips became less amusing and more worrisome. I became a master at "stepping out" of my body. I practically majored in it in college. When my best friend was killed in a car accident two weeks before the advent of my freshman year, I took it relatively in stride. She was gone, and so was I. Off to school went my body, off to the galaxy went my brain. I don't remember very much about being at university. I made some friends but didn't retain many of them. I think I did alright in my classes; I found a major I liked, and one or two professors I connected with. I learned some things but most of them had nothing to do with academics. Mostly, I was depressed. Whenever I bothered to check in with my mind, it hurt; so I didn't check in very often. I got married, then finished school, then got divorced. The pain worsened, so I fled to Africa, a continent of pain, and I drowned myself there in other people's injuries. 

Over the years it began to feel like my mind had special rules that I wasn't aware of. It was a sensitive thing, a high-revving, shaky, frighteningly unpredictable machine. It was a Ferrari with a monkey at the wheel: in hyperdrive one day and the next, mashed into a ditch. I started having delusions. I started seeing a therapist. I didn't know I was having delusions and if the therapist knew it, she kept it to herself. Telling a delusional person that she is delusional is a tricky thing, obviously, but it does fall within a therapist's job description--so maybe she just didn't know. And I wasn't dangerous. I think I was probably just sort of weird. Well, weird and funny and tragic, from the outside. And internally, I was a wreck on one hand and rather enjoying it on the other. I fancied myself a writer and would stay up late some nights, sipping whiskey and emoting on my laptop. Other nights I went out to bars and shows, and danced myself into a dark, frenzied place that felt panicky and claustrophobic. It was those times that I'd feel like something inside me was trying to claw its way out: this deeper mind, this animal brain, this souped-up monkey-driven Ferrari. It couldn't get out, of course, but it did some damage trying. Scars began to appear on my arms and legs. I burned and bit, cut and carved. These were calming activities, they took the engine down a notch, kept the car on the road.

But ultimately there are only so many roads. So many red lights and blind corners, so many tanks of gas burned up circling the same few blocks. Over and over I did the things that had failed me before, hoping this time--this new relationship, this new job, this new residence--would be the right one. Circling that block with manic high speed and razor-sharp turns didn't work, and neither did dragging around the same block in low-speed choked-up depressive reverse. One night in the middle of a new relationship and a promising new career, having just bought my first home, I gave up. Found myself in the bathroom with a bottle of pills and a crazy person in the mirror. Brain: checked-out. Stalled. Gone off the shoulder of the road, in free-fall.

It didn't really come back from that night. Not that brain, not that person in the mirror. I didn't die, but monkey-mind began to. The free-fall lasted eighteen months, and when it was done that car hit bottom and blew up. My life as I knew it died in the resulting fire. It wasn't a quick death, but it was thorough and permanent. I didn't think I'd ever see the road again.

It's weird, though, what can happen after you give up. When your hands are taken off the wheel, by choice or chance. Because of that night I received a new name: Bipolar. It was, I see now, only one name among the many other names I have taken for myself: Writer. Rolfer. Maker of Mistakes. Woman. Lover. Healer. Destroyer. Student. Teacher. Friend. Because of that night I received help, in the form of family and friend support, medication, and therapy. I began to see my delusions for what they were. Now, they are my comedians, a source of laughter in a world that appears to be ever more unaware of its increasing delusions.

And my car is back on the road, at last. It's not the same car. It doesn't do flashy turns and go from zero to sixty in .001 seconds, but it's fast as hell if need be. It's got meds in the tank and love in the headlamps. It's a sweet-ass Cadillac circa 1959, with hot-pink fins and zebra stripes and a set of moose antlers bolted to the grille. This Eldorado is all about moving forward, high speed or low, smooth and quiet, the whole world plastered to the windscreen like it's smiling for a closeup. I'm at the wheel now, most of the time, but there's a tiger in the backseat and every time I gaze in the rearview to try to guess what I might have left behind, his toothy grin reminds me: You got one day to live, lady. Do it. Do it now.


  1. Brilliant. Just brilliant. I am completely in awe. As someone whose life was rescued by medication, I can definitely relate to every sentence in this essay, thanks to your spectacular gifts as a writer.

    1. Ah, meds. I love/hate them. But they are saving my life, and many other lives, every day. So...gotta be thankful. And the ride isn't really so bad.

  2. Your skill as a writer, your insight into our common problems, and your astonishing honesty about your life makes you the most compelling writer I've found in years.

    BTW, I just baked some outstanding snickerdoodles. Shall I send you some?

    1. Yes, please do send some snickerdoodles. You know what would be better, is if I could just pop over for some tea.


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