Another unedited excerpt from Wrecking Ball
It’s difficult to pinpoint my first manic episode. The most effective psychiatrist I visited told me in my late teens that I might well develop full-blown bipolar by my early twenties. Before, of course, I was only depressed. He was correct. Looking backwards, for a multi-year period, I can observe the slow, but inevitable ascent towards true mania. My unwillingness to protect my personal safety was a harbinger of things yet to arrive.
At first, I was only hypomanic, or near-manic. A truly manic episode cannot be confused as anything else. Hypomania can be excused as eccentricity of personality or idiosyncrasy. In mania, others can clear identify a lack of proper emotional balance and mental health. In those times, I talked out of my head and exhibited obscene amounts of energy. I became hyper-sexual, hyper-religious, borderline delusional, and completely unable to rein in on myself.
I was 19 now. By a small miracle and by my mother’s work behind the scene to help, I’d somehow graduated from high school. Had I stayed healthy, I’d have qualified for numerous scholarship offers, especially those from out-of-state schools. Now, I had to take what I could get. My father, knowing the system, convinced the Alabama Department of Vocational Rehabilitation to subsidize my tuition, minus the cost of textbooks.
Observing the provisions of the tuition payment, I could have attended any public college or university in the state. Both of my parents attended the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa, which was a forty-five minute commute due west. I considered this for a time, but decided I wasn’t well enough yet to live apart from my parents and my doctors. Going back and forth from place to place would be a hassle, and I did not underestimate my own emotional and physical fragility.
Instead, I stayed in Birmingham, and enrolled at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. UAB was an urban campus, for many years a strictly commuter school, or a school of last resort for those who could not academically qualify for their first choices. While a student, I was not exposed to the insularity of a small college town. The business-as-usual demeanor of the rest of the city meant that we college students were just another energetic activity being held on the Southside of town. In some ways, I think this was a blessing in disguise. The world was never supposed to revolve around the university, the students, the faculty, and everyone else intimately involved.
At this stage, I was still exceedingly frail. My first quarter I took the three course full-load minimum during the week. From the instant I returned home on Friday afternoon, I went immediately to bed and rarely left for the remainder of the weekend. When grades were posted, however, I found I’d received two B’s and an A. I barely missed an A in Sociology and, had I been more focused, would have received one in Music Appreciation. Not bad for someone who many thought would never be able to even enroll, much less to take a single course.
Having done well my first term, I enrolled for the spring quarter. The wind was finally at my back. I should add, though, that my emotional problems were nowhere near resolved. I was largely hanging on by the thread, and still waiting for the other shoe to drop. But in the meantime, I had begun to associate with sorts of people who I would have never considered being around even a few years before. The residual effects of trauma changed my life dramatically.
Spring quarter completed, I decided not to take classes in the summer. Shortly thereafter, I began to look for ways to assuage my boredom, to break out of my self-imposed isolation. Living with my parents, while necessary, was often a hindrance. I wanted to expand my base of friends, particularly because I’d so rarely had very many of them.
For several years, the city of Birmingham put on a large, open-air music festival in early June. The tickets were affordable, the acts usually of middling quality, but few my age went only for the music. We were equally restless and bored senseless with the sterility of the suburbs. Our means of leaving that dull world of big box stores and chain restaurants was to go downtown.
Then a freshman in college, I drove downtown along with one of my few close friends. Following the end of the day’s proceedings, I struck up a random conversation with another student from my school. He invited me back to his house, asking if I wanted to hang out for a while. In those days, I had the stamina and the inclination want to be out until four in the morning.
I wasn’t dense. I knew what he was implying. Prior to then, I’d only smoked pot. Since the age of fifteen, I’d been a moderately heavy cigarette smoker. When I drank, I usually drank to get drunk and rarely paced myself. In this stage of my life, I remained hedonistic and fatalistic. I assumed I’d never reach the age of 30, which to me, freed me up for lots of chemical experimentation.
I arrived at a typical sort of student lodgings, an ancient wooden house two block from campus. Four people were sharing space, splitting the rent. Later I would learn that three of them were in an godawful band, which practiced once a week on Saturdays, after classes were over for the week. I sat in on the rehearsals, wishing I could contribute, while noting that doing so was probably a colossal waste of my time.
A drum kit, bass guitar, and cheap electric guitar were scattered haphazardly across the aged hardwood floors when I arrived. After a few words of small talk, I uncovered the intention of this impromptu trip. One of them had procured a bottle of liquid LSD. For $4 a hit, I could dose myself sufficiently for the next several hours. At an earlier time in my life, I would have gone no further. When I was emotionally stable, powerful drugs like acid held no attraction, mainly repulsion. It is amazing what a person will do when he or she has lost the fear of death.
If I hadn’t been so miserable and isolated, I would not have explored the lengths to which I would test my own mortality. What no one knew is that a week or so before I’d been playing chicken with the cars on University Boulevard. On my way back and forth between classes, I’d been walking in front of speeding cars, dodging them at the last minute. I timed myself with a sort of lunatic precision to narrowly avoid being hit.
Two people on the opposite side of the road saw me. I saw the terror in their eyes and in the tone of their voices. I think I smiled at them as I reached the curb directly in front of me. I’m sure they thought I was crazy. These were the sorts of risks I was more than willing to undertake. With the benefit of hindsight, I see now that my absolute worst times had concluded, but that I had a long way to go before I pulled myself out of the valley.
I paid a grand total of $8 for two hits of a powerful psychedelic drug. The dealer had concentrated his product inside a tiny bottle. The container was usually used to hold highly concentrated breath freshener. One drop equaled one dose. I was eager to see what was next in store for me. I’d read romanticized narratives of acid-drenched hippies in San Francisco, and wanted to know what had been that transformative for them.
I have always had a crafty, sneaky side. I say this without pride, but with the recognition that this part of my personality has kept me alive and out of trouble on more than one instance. When everyone dissipated, slinking off to their own private corners and devices, I rose and entered the kitchen. The LSD bottle had been kept inside a freezer, for reasons unknown.
It balanced precariously, leaning sideways against a frosted plastic cup. I acknowledged that, weirdly, the liquid inside somehow never managed to solidify. I placed the bottle between thumb and forefinger of my right hand, then squeezed a copious amount of psychedelic chemical onto my tongue. Since then, I’m told that the slang term for what I did is called, in certain corners,“trenching”. Trenching it might have been, but it was mostly stupid.
I would like to say that I saw chairs and ceiling fans dissolving in front of me. I would like to speak of how colors bled into each other. I’d love to share an anecdote about potent, constant hallucinations that filled my world full of wonder. Instead, I must concede the truth. Though I ingested God knows how much LSD, I never felt, heard, smelled, tasted, or sensed much of anything. Honestly, I felt cheated.
Others I observed, as I walked the length of the house did, seem to have experienced something profound. I knew they weren’t faking it. I, however, after waiting for a couple hours in expectancy, retired to a nearby couch and promptly fell fast asleep.