The Madness of Being: Tales of Friendship and Perverse Laughter

We enter the elevator. I have been in this elevator many times. I laugh and point out the sign that says the certificate indicating its level of functionality resides at the plant in which it was made.

“Isn’t it reassuring?” I wonder if this is making me seem crazy.

I know what I need to tell her.

“I, um, have a really hard time coming here now that you’ve been moved to South Green. I attempted suicide in Martzolf house when I was a sophomore.” I put on my perversely comical frowny face—an expression that in everyday society is reserved for cartoon characters that make excuses for getting out of things when really they have better things to do. It’s a face that I put on when I’m feeling clumsy and inconvenient, which is often.

“And that’s why you’ve missed appointments.”

I nod. “I’m really hot and dizzy.”

“I’d imagine. I wish there was something I could do for you.” I know she’s not making excuses sitting behind her desk, I know that bureaucracy binds and dictates care industries. I can see the pain in her eyes, she knows how hard this is for me. She tells me about different options for therapy in different spaces, but my psychiatric appointments must stay here. I nod, honestly I just needed to let her know.

I was diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder after having a mixed manic episode my sophomore year of college. Mixed episodes make me feel like my skin is trying very desperately to come off, like I, the depths and intensities of my longings and hurt and pain, are bursting forth and my skin/my body is getting in its way. There’s nothing I can do to stop it and all I want is for it to stop. Hence, my taking a bottle o’ Valium, a bottle o’ Atenolol, and washing it all down with vodka. I remember the bottom number of my blood pressure being 36, 12 hours after I was forced to chug liquid charcoal—-black bitter stains your lips and teeth—and pumped full of saline to neutralize all the heart stopping meds floating in my veins.

My ex-boyfriend stands by me the whole time. This sentence literally makes me laugh out loud because it is true, but he also stands there telling me that he didn’t love me anymore and that he was pissed off at me for ruining his chances with another girl by trying to kill myself. Good lordisa, you can’t make this shit up.

(It’s ok to laugh at this. It’s so perversely hilarious to me, but I’ve learned by now that if you’re not laughing—-it’s not rock bottom.)

My case-worker asks me if I had ever been raped or sexually abused. I nod yes. She gives me an intense glance, says “I’ll be right back” and leaves. She returns with my parents. She says that because I had suffered this abuse that I will be placed in a psychiatric ward for 72 hours. She reminds me again and again that because I’ve done this to myself that I have no rights.

I remain in the psyche ward for 5 days. I do not breathe fresh air for 5 days. I still have no idea why we think that locking someone up and away from the world will make them less likely to try and off themselves. I laugh at this idea as well, knowing full well that psyche wards exist not for the people in them but for everyone else, to keep my presence from disrupting our myths of a sane and rational world.

My friend Alexa visits me every day. 6-8 pm visiting hours. We play “Girl, Interrupted.”

“I’ll be Whoopy Goldberg, I am Black after all.”
“You can’t even watch me shave my legs. They only let me shower for 5 minutes—it’s the only time I can shut the door. And they won’t let me have the Spice Girls Greatest Hits CD you brought me, so they sure as hell ain’t givin’ me a razor.”

We laugh, the hearty gut wrenching laugh of rock bottom. The tragedy and trauma of almost losing a dear sister-friend. Together, we sit by the big windows and shake our fists menacingly at the “people who are free.”

These are some of the best moments of my life.
And the worst. The staff seems to be under the impression that I am a spoiled rich girl desperate for attention. Well I’m not, and no one in my family is rich, but I would like someone to notice that I am a hurricane of self destruction, I can’t seem to stop, and would really like someone to help me stop but I can’t ask for help directly because in my brain asking for help is related to violence and trauma.

They ask me what my sexual orientation is everyday. I stare at them. I say “I don’t really have one.”

“Yes you do. Do you like men or women?”

I tilt my head.

“Bisexual then?” I shake my head. I try to tell her the story of how when I was 13 I came out in youth group and was exorcised. I realize I sound fucking crazy and start laughing, which makes me seem even crazier. I did not have the articulate mastery of language I now have from studying feminist and queer theory for five years.

I do not eat. I lose 7 pounds. They pump me full of drugs that induce manic episodes. They will not listen—I have a history of bi-polar disorder in my family, it’s not depression—if I was depressed I wouldn’t have had the energy surge, the mania, I was feeling or the crazy amount of energy it took to try and kill myself. They do not listen.

But a little old lady who works the night shift does. She is a sweet maternal woman, warm comforting and familiar. I tell her of my struggles about how much sicker this place is making me. That it’s almost Easter and I want to be with my family.

They were trying to keep me anywhere from 2 weeks to 2 months. She pushes my case through, and I am released the day before Easter. I owe my life to that woman, and so many others. I wonder if she knows she has my eternal gratitude. I think she does.

My support system, or those I think that would only call themselves that, told me quite frequently that I was a charity case. I could see, smell, taste, feel their disgust for me. That my new boyfriend did not love me, that he felt sorry for me. I’m pretty sure our relationship was so fucked because I believed them. I believed it all for a very long time.

I believed it all until I found the strength to laugh at the ridiculous choreography some people dance to avoid empathy, to avoid imagining what it might feel like, what it might be like to face one’s own madness, own losses, own trauma.

My grandmother named me Sarah. In the Bible, Sarah was the badass wife of Abraham, who birthed the lineage of Christ. She was 90 when she got pregnant, she laughed in the face of God.

I too laugh in the face of God, in the face of Life and Death. But I do not laugh alone.

My partner laughs with me often. As I fill out my intake paperwork, I ask him if I’ve forgotten anything: “So far I have both rapes, all the assaults (I think?), the exorcism, the childhood shit, sexual abuse, miscarriage, and abortion.” We laugh at my laundry list, a sad perverse laugh of love.

My spiritual companion chose to bear my sorrow with me when I was pregnant and the other person responsible could not live up to the task. He also bore our perverse laughter. He was in charge of reading all the scary information about my procedure, reprocessing it, and giving me the sugar coated version. One day, he began reading “The fourth week is a very important week,” took a brief pause, then shouted “NOT FOR LONG.” I laughed so hard I fell off the futon and we rolled around on the floor doubled over with tears in our eyes.

Jess and I laugh all the time. We’ve been through hell and back. When we get together, it’s like a tumultuous magic. Everything we touch becomes enchanted.

This is for all the friends who laugh with me.

For Jordan, who laughs at my jokes about psychiatry, “How the hell should I know if I’m having delusions? Isn’t the whole point that you don’t know that you’re having one? Do I seem delusional to you? I’m being serious, I have an appointment tomorrow and I need to be able to answer the question.”

For my sister, who has laughed with me at the horrors and joys of our whole life together. I love her with the wild intensity a mother bear has for her cub.
For my grandparents, who laugh and cry with me anytime I need to.
For my Pop, for singing Amy Whinehouse’s “Rehab,” the day they tried to make me go to rehab and we sped away in the car singing it at the top of our lungs.
For my mom, who was in the front seat, cracking up the whole time.
For Ted, bi-polar bears forever.
For Zach, my masochistic lover, whose brutal honesty makes me laugh at the hardest things I have to face.
For Drew, for teaching me how to rise above, namely through secret shots and jokes in poor-taste.
For my wife and son, who witnessed the comical scene of my knocked-up realization. “Why is a thermometer making you cry?” We are a beautiful, magical, and rotten little loving family.
For Eric, who put up with all of my crazy, convinced me that I was in control of my crazy, and who laughs both at me and with me, and always lets me cry.
For Ryan, who laughed in the face of monogamy with me for so many years. I know we’re both so very proud of who we’ve become. All of my love.
For all fricks everywhere.
For Lyn, who is brave enough to always be herself and laugh at herself. Who gave us an absurd language to laugh and love with.
For Kristin, who upon finding the perfect bulldog get-well card for me in a Target, laughed and cried “Louise.”
For the profound dark comicality of every single one of my studio mates.
For the nurse at Planned Parenthood, who through some form of bureaucratic magic voodoo made my procedure drop 400 dollars and laughed with me at the crazy sadist protestors outside trying to kidnap us all.
For Jason, the most empathetic soul I’ve ever come in contact with. Who cries for me when I can’t and laughs at the absurdity of it all with me. Forever forward.
For Abby Fucking Skulley-Mcdaniel, who still helps me laugh in the face of male supremacy.
For Ryan V., for the mere sound of their laughter.
For Nicole, who transforms stories of humiliation into hilarious poignant tales of human experience.

I could of course go on. Today these are the ones I remember. I will remember different ones 2 minutes from now, 2 days from now, 2 years from now, 20 years from now. Always in my heart, always on my mind.

I don’t know why we feel compelled to say “I’m sorry” when someone goes through a trauma. It’s an empty and hollow phrase, standing in for anytime we feel uncomfortable.

“I’m sorry” is something you say if you step on someone’s shoe, or accidentally bump someone with your cart in a grocery aisle. It’s not something you say to someone who has lost a massive chunk of themselves.

What to say? What to say?

Avoid the phrase “If you need anything….” OF COURSE THEY NEED SOMETHING. They need to grieve they need to mourn. This means someone who cares should cook someone should sit someone should tell stories and sing them songs so they can heal.

This phrase is much more comforting to me “I’m here, I’m right here.” We’ll get through this. You. Are. Not. Alone.

It’s really not that hard people. Profound friendship is simple. It’s getting in the car, picking someone up, driving them to an appointment.

It’s sitting in a living room.

It’s an invitation to dinner.

It’s bringing over a covered dish or a cake or cookies or a card or some flowers to remind them that their burdens are shared.

It’s a song.

It’s crying with someone.

It’s crying for someone.

It’s a quiet perverse laugh that contains for a brief moment the entirety of your love for one another.

If we really gave a fuck about mental health, there would be a lot more value assigned to cooking, to singing, to dancing, to story telling, to holding, to loving, to caring for others.

You can change the world, just cook a goddamn casserole and share a laugh.

I know this because so many beautiful gracious souls have done these things for me, in my darkest times there has always been magical laughter.

Essay and photo by Sarah Stevens


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