Sometimes, when it’s quiet, I can remember what my life was like before moving to Cedar Springs. When my thoughts had sharp edges, and my feelings were distinctly outlined by a shadow of self control. Before the colours began to blur, running together like water colours in rain. A time when I was in control, or at the very least, I confidently clung to the illusion of control as most of my fellow human beings do. Before moving to Cedar Springs, I was unhinging slowly, like a door which was being used as playground equipment. To say this move was important would be to grossly understate the fact. This move was life saving. This quiet and secluded house in Nowheresville had become my savior, and if my amygdala could have spoken, it would have cried with gratitude. Or would it?
The doctor had said it several times, as though I needed to know not only what it meant but how to pronounce it. A –myg-da-la. I was much more interested in what had gone wrong with it. I shook as I sat and listened: the lid on my anger barely restrained by the firm grip of my wife’s hand on my arm. I had felt Alison’s strength on previous occasions as it flowed from her hand through my body. It had been sufficient on all but two occasions. Now, as a direct result of the last of those occasions, she walked with a limp. And a proud scar bisected her left eyebrow as testimony to her bravery. I knew I should have run away from this woman who I had loved since the hormonal surge of adolescence propelled me towards manhood. If only for her sake, to protect her, but I was too afraid. Too scared to leave. Besides I didn’t know where to go. I often wished that when my lips devoured hers that I could have sucked courage from her like a baby suckles nourishment from its mother’s breast.
The doctor had worn an expression of practiced sympathy as he sighed and spoke to Alison. I remembered his exact words.
‘We don’t properly understand what has caused this damage nor do we have any means to repair it.’
A sudden dramatic sadness collapsed on me when I saw a single tear roll down Alison’s cheek. I had wanted to speak, to offer some solace but I was incapable: paralyzed by the darkest melancholy. The realization that I would not get better was disturbing. My omnipotence as a comforter to my wife was humiliating. So we both cried together inside a hopeless embrace.
Two months have passed, and I have not hurt Alison or myself. Somehow I have managed not to break anything. I feel relatively calm. As calm as I ever am, or can be. Lithonate apparently works well, to control the wild impulses associated with the manic phase of bi polar disorder, but I’m not bi polar. The doctor described my condition as something very much like bi polar disorder. He gave me a library of literature on bi polar and related mental illnesses, with a caveat that I was not bi polar and the research on the role of the amygdala was still in its early stages, so although I may find some of the information helpful , I should not count on it. I should not, he stressed, hang my hopes on it providing answers or solutions. I recall wanting to stuff all those brochures down his throat and watch him choke to death on them.
I have never read a single word because I cannot see how knowing what might be wrong with me, can assist me to carry on living with something less than the complete desperation that I feel most of the time. I take the pills that I have been prescribed and I attended a series of therapy sessions. I also try to make healthy life choices, which for me means that I don’t start drinking until after lunch, and I torment myself on an elliptical cross trainer, albeit infrequently. I have very strong and emotionally intense memory flashes but I have learned how to manage them. The therapy sessions equipped me pretty well. I feel depressed, and then elated, then depressed again before a callous attack of one phobia or another leads me back down into the hole of abject misery. I am exhausted so I sleep often, though never for more than a few hours. I live alone, and never leave the house in Cedar Springs. It is a fortress built to keep the protagonists in my private war in, rather than out. I am a menace, and I know it.
The telephone rings. Twice, then it stops. It rings again immediately, three times, then stops. When it sounds again, I pick it up and rest the receiver against my ear, breathing as quietly as I can though my heart is hammering in my chest, and I feel like I am suffocating.
‘Bailey. It’s me.’
‘Then why don’t you say anything when you pick up?’
I ignore Alison’s question, partly because I figure she doesn’t really want to know, but mostly because I don’t know. She always contacts me using that agreed upon code, and every day I respond with the same inexplicable paranoia.
‘What are you doing?’
Words were dancing through my mind like fairies in an enchanted forest: words with no discernible intent. I can’t speak. I’m glad she doesn’t expect me to. I feel hot and cold, feverish, as I listen to Alison talk about her day. She is trying to keep me connected but we both know that whatever binds a person to the society in which they live, has in my case, been terminally severed. I mumble and grunt in what I reason are appropriate places for such interjections. I am starting to experience heightened anxiety when I hear Alison say that she has to get back to work, but I don’t know if it is because I am going to lose her again, or if some unspeakable evil is lurking at my door. There is always some hideous little beast waiting to pounce on me and tear me apart. That is what I fear now, as I say with as much sincerity as I can summon, ‘I love you too. Bye.’
I hear laughter: the snickering of a mischievous child. Footsteps precede giggling. Stupid little girls hanging around outside the freak’s windows trying to frighten themselves. Just having fun at my expense. Fun. Hilarity. I roar with amusement: a laugh so violent that I forget to breathe and am forced to the floor in a gagging fit. I laugh at myself. At the silly curious girls. At the absurdity of my imprisonment. And I laugh at my amygdala until my energy is totally depleted.
An alarm sounds but I don’t recognize it at first. Initially, I confuse it with the sound of my voice which I notice has become shrill and hoarse. The alarm is a reminder to take another pill, and although I have not eaten lunch, it is after twelve so I can legally, according to my laws, wash the Lithonate down with a cold Carlton Draught. Great ads they make, I think. So funny. Funny? No, my laughter tank is dry. Clever. Who? Me or the beer ads? Pill? Yes please, and can I have fries with that? No, wait, on second thoughts, I’ll take salad. After all, I’m supposed to be making healthy choices. Choices? Cigarettes. Do I smoke? I look at my watch and remember the Lithonate. I also notice that I have been standing still for half an hour. I feel a little better now.
I take my pill and swill my Carlton Draught in between puffs on a cigarette which surprisingly tastes stale. Maybe, I quit and forgot to throw these ones away. As I settle in my favourite chair in front of the television, my mind piggybacks my body into tranquility. My amygdala informs me, indirectly of course, that everything is all right for now. For now. This is my existence. I turn on the television and see straight edges and distinct shapes, and my hope is renewed.
Familiar voices soothe like Aloe Vera on sunburned skin. I know these people on the television, but they don’t know me. I think my obscurity is an advantage but I can’t explain why. No one would ever ask anyway because I don’t have conversations. When the need arises - and thank God that is seldom - I approximate appropriate social intercourse. I can fake it with the best of them. They’re all fakers. I know that too. It’s comforting to be certain about some things in my life even though those things are so few in number, I can count them on one hand.
What do I know? Upon which facts can I suspend my existence? I’m alive. I live alone. I don’t really belong anywhere or with anyone. Alison loves me. I’m grappling with the vagueness caused by ineffective synapses in my brain, searching for the fifth thing. Hoping like crazy that I can seize it and even, dare I dream, make it to my other hand and then I will have really achieved something today. I take a breath and glance over to the bookshelf stuffed with dust covered silverfish boarding houses. I can’t read anymore. I just don’t enjoy it. I’m busy lamenting my loss of literary interest when I hear Alison’s voice. Although it’s unmistakable, the most recognizable voice in my life, I hesitate as I try to figure out how I could be hearing her. I do hear voices. That’s not unusual, but I’ve never heard Alison. When I look at the television screen, I see her. She’s doing an ad for a local pharmacy. Someone switches on a kettle in my stomach and I can feel the awful churning commence, the bubbling of emotions. I remember Alison studying for her degree, studying fervently, giving it everything she had. I recall criticizing her and calling her a dreamer. High school drop outs don’t go on to university, earn degrees and get high paying jobs, I said. She cried whenever I was mean to her, and she cried when I inevitably apologized, but I kept on hurting her. I didn’t mean to. I’ve never intended to hurt anyone. I smile, but it’s a pathetic one like the seven hundredth cheesey grin you’ve had to force for the endless photo shoot at a wedding. I’m glad Alison and I never married.
I was well when we met, perfectly well and we were perfectly happy. We crashed headlong into love from the first night we met at a mutual friend’s birthday party. We talked and laughed. We flirted, we connected – there’s an overused word- and I remember wishing that I could stay with her all night. Spellbound, I was trapped in her intoxicating energy. By the time I started having trouble with my amygdala, we were so deeply in love and committed to one another that we thought we could win. Foolishly, we believed that we were strong enough to overcome anything. The fairy tale ending would be ours. We deserved it. We were so wrong.
Looking at Alison, I see a princess. But she’s not my princess. She’s beautiful, kind, generous and intelligent. She’s dogged as well though, and underneath her sweet and soft veneer, is a warrior. But she’s not my warrior. I realize I’m crying when I can no longer clearly see her face. The ad ends with a happy jingle and an invitation to visit the store for the lowest prices and the best service. I want to go to her. I stand up but the room is spinning and I have to sit down. I won’t be going to see her. I never leave my prison. I can’t. Nothing is stopping me of course, except my own fear. I shudder and push my palms hard against my forehead. Can I reach my amygdala this way? Can I stop it? Can I crush this cruel dictator? I need some more pills. Did I miss the alarm? What time is it? Someone is yelling at me, telling me to get off my fat backside and do something useful. Be a man and stop wasting your life, it says. It sounds like my father but I never knew him. Or did I? I stand again, suddenly infused with anger. I want to hit something. Smash the source of that taunting voice. I feel hot as I listen carefully. Straining.
‘It’s only the size of an almond and you let it control your life,’ says the voice.
I still can’t tell from where these evil jibes emanate. I respond with, ‘Actually it’s not a single entity. It’s a set of neurons located deep in the medial temporal lobe.’ Where did that come from?
‘Good for you. You know your enemy.’
‘It’s enlarged,’ I continue. ‘Damaged, so that it doesn’t function properly. That’s why I suffer all these mental problems.’
‘Did you know that it shrinks by thirty percent in males after castration?’
‘Who are you?’
I realize that I have walked into the kitchen during that conversation with an imaginary protagonist. A sense of déjà vu accompanies me. Maybe it’s a good thing that my memory is faulty. When it works as it should, I have an overwhelming feeling that I have the same conversations every day, and do the same things. I don’t know if this is true or not. It’s not one of the five things I know for sure. That’s right, the five things I know for sure. I recall trying to think of the fifth thing before I was distracted by the Warrior Princess on the television. Then it comes like a kingfisher dive bombing the surface of a creek for a feed: my amygdala is faulty, and it is to blame for my miserable existence. I am conscious of my shoulders sagging slowly under the weight of that depressing thought. I need a better one: a happy thought. I open the fridge. Everything is bright and fresh in there so I stand and stare, allowing the cold air to refresh me and renew my hope once more. Then it comes to me like benevolent lightning from heaven. Fact number six: I like beer. It’s been a great day. I did something good and I can’t wait to tell Alison all about it, if I can remember when she calls.