That morning started like any other morning. It ended in the emergency room.
Copious amounts of caffeine washing down the remnants of last night’s lack of sleep. My blanket is covered in sweat. As I rolled over, I can hear my son let out a little sigh. He gets sweaty, too. A different kind of sweaty from a 200 pound woman. Small children look like cherub angels from Renaissance paintings or ceramic Precious Moments figurines. I look like an out of shape exerciser in too tight clothes on a hot summer day. I pull my yoga shorts up. I will have to tip toe past him to get out the door.
I’m 48 years old resting on a tiny mattress on a bunk bed. The bunk is about as comfortable as it sounds but it is what I am working with at the moment. The springs sticking in my back are a minor irritation I consider worth the physical discomfort. I just need to get access to the fan on a nightly basis. Using my well honed powers of manipulation, I’ve convinced my middle son to switch places with me. He gets the “opportunity” to sleep next to the roaring freight train of snores that is my husband. I get to sleep next to the fan. The fan in combination with cool drafts from the single pane window makes nighttime bearable. The white noise helps shut of the voices that spin around in my active mind. I have also started “borrowing” one of his stuffed animal. Regressing much? Frankly, I don’t have the emotional energy to question my current survival strategies. I am using what works for a decent night of sleep.
There is a certain amount of irony in this. The bunk, of course, reminds me of jail. I used to fight hard to stay on the bottom. I want to be close to the toilet in case I was dopesick. There is a freedom at first when you are completely addicted to drugs like heroin. You can lose yourself in the daily rituals as you become more and more detached. The things that used to matter slowly slip away- the opinions of others, the need to eat, the chains of modern society. There is no need for contouring or getting “the latest” anything. Materialism is replaced by an individual need to convert goods into nods. Then that comes crashing to an end one day. Sigh. Jail sucks. (Rehab sucks too). Then comes the crushing responsibilities of a life out in the free world. There is one small benefit. Institutions have little in the way of practical life skills to offer but they do teach you to how to get up in the morning. Five am to be exact.
My square life routines these days are fairly simple. I’ll start at the end of the day. At 9:15 PM, I put the “do not disturb on my phone”.This is critical to my sanity. Years and years of frantic social media messages have taught me this hard won lesson. Nothing ruins a decent night’s sleep like “can you talk to me-I’m going to kill myself”messages from a person I’ll never meet.
My youngest son sleeps next to me, in his converted day bed he outgrew two years ago. I don’t try to make him my baby- he just IS my baby. The last of my hatched eggs, conceived on my 40th birthday. We play a few rounds of a game called questions. It started as a way for him to ask me questions about my past.
His tiny voice- “Mommy- what is it like to sleep outside?”
Me: “like camping with heroin!”
We both laugh.
Ok, maybe I didn’t say that- out loud.
Honestly, We’ve run out of painful material. I ask him questions like “would you rather be hot or cold” and “if you could only eat one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?”
This cuteness is a buffer for my daily work. Death is a frequent visitor. How many people have I lost to overdose? I lost count before this “epidemic” even started. Between clients, friends, acquaintances, and lovers I’m now easily into the 300 plus range. I remember the fact that my son likes to “touch hands” before we go to sleep. He’s very sweet when he isn’t stabbing his siblings with a pretzel.
At 5:46am, I roll out of the bunk like a fleecy cowboy every morning in search of my next roundup. Thank you millennials for the avocado toast. Generation X traded this toast for our burgeoning anxiety. Like a blanket marinated in small pox.
I check my Instagram. Two more RIPs in the comments section under pictures of people I barely know. Misfortune has taken many of my close friends, the ones who are irreplaceable. My circle has been whittled down to a select few.
I finish my coffee and feed the cats on my way into the bathroom. They can’t wake me up in the fan room. That makes them meow more intensely. Like meow motherfucker, rather than a soft mew. The scissors on the counter catch my eye. Bang trim? Why yes.
Fuck fuck double Fuck. As I held the scissors against my skin, I caught a glimpse of myself. Wild eyed, certainly, detached from the world outside of this bathroom. The towels hang limply against the shower than should have been scrubbed six months ago. Black hair dye drips roll down the tiles like rain drops.
I’m distracted by disordered thoughts. The woman looking back at me has a familiar look of shock. My protective covering is being peeled away to the rawness underneath. I’m anticipating a change- a release. “It’s only self harm if I’m capable of feeling pain…”What the hell am I doing.
In these moments that I can only describe as the action cycle of my mental illness, anything can happen. It has been a staple in my life for over 40 years. There is the wallowing phase. This involves binge eating, depression napping, scratch off lottery tickets, or possibly online shopping. Then there is the action phase. This involves risky texts, showing up at a place I should not be, being progressively later and later for work, and altering my appearance radically with scissors, dyes, or depression garments.
Sharp objects and mental health issues go together like a two piece and a biscuit. Except the biscuit is dry. It gets stuck in your throat, taking away my ability to properly formulate words. As the scissors pass next to my forehead, I feel a stinging in my eyes. Stray hairs made their way under my eyelids. I strain to rub them out. I have already over plucked my eyebrows in a fit of anxious energy. Now there goes the bangs. I see the pieces fall like snowflakes into the sink.
Here I am trimming my bangs with fabric scissors before 6am. The grey cat is scratching at the door. MEOW! He wants wet food now but I’m not finished. This is very important business. Better than cutting my wrists, I suppose. I feel myself slightly out of my body. After twenty minutes, the alarm on my phone goes off. Me time is over. Time to get up kids.
I lost myself in the mirror. I disappeared behind the maniacal whish whish whish of the scissor. For a moment, my problems disappear. For a moment, I don’t see myself. All I can see is the task at hand. Whish whish whish.
Stress starts to slowly creep up my body. I feel it tingling. Like my brain is cutting off oxygen from my appendages and focusing its efforts on keeping the executive functions of the body working. It’s six am and a long day of being me awaits. I have to remain inside this body while carrying my essence around in this flesh suit known as Tracey Helton (Mitchell). Who am I anyway? This question can’t be answered now. I need to get out of this mirror. I brush the trimmings off my shirt. I snap back to “normal”.
Normally, I need at least thirty minutes to collect myself before the kids get up. I wasn’t born into motherhood. It wasn’t something that came naturally to me. I never had the desire to take care of dolls. The closest I came was taking care of emotionally unavailable lovers. Motherhood to me was the abstract idea that one day a little friend would be in my life. There was no thought to stretch marks or was I going to eat the placenta or what would the first day of kindergarten be like. I had no frame of reference.
I did not know what to expect from a child. I did not realize that carrying a life around in what I would describe to her as “My stomach” would make me cradle the same space for years after I was done having children. There is a certainly other worldly feeling of laying in bed alone knowing there is a person swirling around in there. I got pregnant on purpose yet I was naive to what happens when there is this physical change, that primal feeling that signaled I was no longer alone.
Now here I am. Tending to humans. Food. Dressed. Lunches. Three kisses later, the kids are gone in the blink of a sleepy eye. My makeup is starting to run as I pull on my shoes. At 48, I’ve started wearing fishnets, skinny jeans, and bright red lipstick. Two yogurts, a kombucha, and an apple I’ll probably forget go in my backpack. The gate is locked. I am on my way.
Food for the feral cats.
My money for the train.
I step off in a cloud of smoke. People smoking fentanyl on foil at the train station. Chasing it with what’s left of our city’s plastic straw. They will have to find an environmentally friendly solution to this drug crisis. The barefoot woman puts her head into her hands.
This is the places I see five days a week. There’s some blood on the stairs from whatever happened last night. The escalator is broken again. It was on the news people use the bathroom in it and jam the works. I touch my bangs thinking what the actual fuck did I do.
I pass by the man with one leg missing. He used to be a client. He had an infection that never healed. “Hi”, I wave meekly. Why won’t I give him a dollar. Is it enabling at this point or just facing the reality that this may never stop.
Work is work. Listening to people talk for three hours. Attentively engaging in the back and forth that pays the bills. I decide to walk to a twelve step meeting at lunch time. The format is a meditation. Wash that down with more coffee. I feel the blood pulsing into my face. I don’t think this is normal. I’m having chest pains.
“I think I need to go to the hospital”
My play “son” rode with me in ride share. Families are more than just blood. A family can exists wherever you find love and acceptance. He nervously scrolls his phone. I was too concerned about the cost to pay for an ambulance ride. I felt ridiculous yet unwell at the same time. I hated dragging a person along that was forced to worry along with me.
I had on my black Nike tennis shoes on the gurney. Like An outtake from a mass suicide. I only had to strip off the top layer, laying in the cold hallway waiting to see why my heart is breaking. I put my clean bra on this morning. “always stay ready then you don’t have to get ready”. I hate being caught unprepared (by life).
After my EKG, The tattooed army vet that came to take my blood was into metal. He instantly commented on my Slayer socks. He looks at me calmly as I explain I used to shoot drugs into any vein I could reach. He tells me about his four children and I tell him about mine.
“I hope my heart is okay” I add cheerfully.
He stabs me. Ouch. Right through the scar tissues. In twenty years, nothing has come in or out of that space. They need to do two blood draws, he explains. It’s going to be five long hours with a dead cell phone laying on a cold gurney in the hallway. Can I have an extra blanket?
“Sure,” he pats my leg, never to be seen again.
I am forced to reflect on my situation. My phone has run out of batteries. I sent my friend home. It’s just me and my thoughts for the next four hours. Fuck. I try to cover my eyes.
I never imagined I would live this long. In fact, I spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to guarantee I did not survive past 30 years old. Live fast, die pretty. Yet, that didn’t happen. The week long stimulant binges. The cocaine fueled nights. The heroin, ah the heroin. I am so old I am heroin BEFORE fentanyl old. When I talk about using heroin it’s like a teacher reviewing ancient drug history. There was cocaine in the soda, the housewives drank laudium, and there used to be heroin with no fentanyl. Nostalgia for times long gone.
My diagnosis? STRESS. Apparently stress can send you to the hospital. It doesn’t help that I’m actively trying to get new life insurance. Apparently, no one wants to insure a person with my history. Caffeine and stress can spike your heart rate. Have a nice day Ms Helton.
As I get in the van on my way home, the kids ask me what’s wrong. I don’t know if I can tell them. I don’t know if I can explain that my heart has been continually broken. I don’t know how to articulate that it isn’t today, it’s a collection of events weighing heavily on my mind.
My daughter asks me why my eyes are closed. I’m just so tired.
“Maybe you need to rest mommy”
That’s right baby. Maybe I need to rest.