Another excerpt from Wrecking Ball.
The Internet revolutionized my life, as it did for millions of other Americans. In particular, it gave me access to other lonely kids looking for the same things I was. Live chats became phone calls, then became impossible, but potent crushes. I was usually too shy to reach out and flustered by girls who expressed their appreciation. It’s remarkably easy to develop feelings for someone whose face you may never have seen and who you know only as keystrokes on a monitor.
Looking years forward from here, I recall multiple trips made to visit cybercrushes. My travels took me as far away as California and Minnesota, though most were day trips. My loneliness can not be understated here, and perhaps too my neediness. One could, however, say the very same thing about those thoroughly infatuated with me. It cut both ways.
At first, I took a more conventional approach. My first girlfriend lived only a few miles away. She was a year younger than me, a freshman in high school; I was a sophomore. Though she had an odd demeanor and strange mannerisms, I always saw them as endearing. Her mother was extremely glad to observe my arrival on the scene. Though the sentiment was never expressed in my company, it was possible her mother had begun to wonder about whether her daughter was interested in boys at all.
We’d met at a church youth group function. My parents, requiring extra help to assist with my illness, had taken us to a non-denominational (read: Southern Baptist) church. Despite the fact that my mother never really took to the theology, she appreciated the strong community outreach found there. People prayed for me and brought food to the family to ease the constant stress of keeping me alive and out of trouble. The youth ministry was especially well-organized and I was accepted into it almost immediately.
One regular attender of our weekly group routinely invited her friends along. One of these friends became my very first girlfriend. Establishing a pattern true for many subsequent relationships, I expressed my interest and affection within a few minutes of us being introduced. In those days, I had only two speeds: fast and faster. This approach had turned several girls off earlier in my life, but she didn’t seem to have the same objections.
I remember the first time I arrived at her house, so nervous my hands were shaking while holding the steering column. I hadn’t gotten my license all that long ago and was petrified I’d get hopelessly lost. In the days before nearly everyone on the face of the Earth had a cell phone, getting lost was far easier. And, though I have improved with time, I’m not an especially good driver. The sense of spatial proportion and basic geometry required has always mystified and frustrated me. As it turns out, my worries were baseless.
Her mother took an immediate liking to me. She was very open with herself, which encouraged me to do the same. My girlfriend and I both, it was soon revealed, were taking medication to treat Attention Deficit Disorder. We bonded over a mutual medical problem and its side effects. We rarely ate and were thin as a rail. From her, I learned how to tolerate pineapple on a pizza, though I’m still not sure I like it. My girlfriend’s mother acted maternal and protective towards me, imploring me to eat more and expressing sympathy for my health.
I took photography in high school, done the old-fashioned way on film. The ease of digital photography has obliterated all the old rules. It seems that the only people who print to film these days are artists. Those who signed up for the class had to learn the painstaking, at times laborious way to enter a darkroom, develop negatives, project an image against photographic paper, and then fully bring to light a desired image. Contact sheets were a means of capturing the contents of a roll of film in one glance. One cut the contiguous series of exposures into uniform strips. Next, one organized them lengthwise across the page.
Some years ago, while visiting my parents, I came across some of my photographic work buried at the bottom of a drawer in what had become the guest bedroom. I hadn’t thought of her in years. I’d forgotten how, for a time, she’d been my primary model. She smiles back, though does not look directly at the camera. Nevertheless, she shows a prominent emotional interest in the person behind the lens. The photo that sticks out most has her posed against the outdoor railings of the bookstore where we spent our Friday evenings.
What we had only lasted a few months. I’m sure that’s not dissimilar from the experiences of many at that age. We spent most of our free time buying cheap, tacky items at a thrift store and hanging out at a coffee shop. What I remember about her most now was her addiction to lip balm. The brand she used was small and circular. She constantly reapplied coat after coat, almost compulsively. Because I wanted to appreciate the same things she did, I found myself adopting the habit myself.
I don’t even remember now what caused the breakup. If I had to wager a guess, I’d point a finger towards my illness, though this was true more because of psychological shortcomings on my part rather than a physical ones. In other words, I needed more than she could provide. Now, I wish I’d been more attentive to her feedback, but pain and sickness has a way of creating and ranking priorities based on immediate need. Although far less prominent than later, what I had was a slowly rumbling crisis-in-progress. Within a few months, it would substantially worsen and then become a disaster.
As it turns out, I didn’t have Attention Deficit Disorder after all. That was a blatant misdiagnosis, one of several that the first psychiatrist to treat me would make. I’d been prescribed the stimulant Adderall, which in those days was fairly new on the market. In time, slowly but surely, it would find its way onto the high school black market, for kids who used it to study or simply to enjoy the recreational effects.
If any precipitating factor caused my most substantial episode, the one that nearly proved fatal, it was most likely a result of abusing Adderall. In other words, I turned myself into a speed freak by legal means. As my depression worsened, the psychiatrist continually upped the dosage. Often I would call him on the phone, seeking relief, and I always sensed the panic and worry in his voice as he responded to the desperation in mine. What I wanted, he could not provide.
I honestly don’t remember how many milligrams I was supposed to be taking each day. Whatever it was, it was certainly well over the recommended maximum. And not only that, I was developing a strongly unhealthy dependency with every passing day. My father had taken to locking up the medication in a converted fishing tackle box, which he then padlocked shut. With some effort, I pried one side open so that I could reach in, grab the bottle, and take more. He quickly caught on to what I was doing, but by then, the damage was done.
My birthday falls exactly a week before Halloween, in late October. By now, I had turned 18, a legal adult in most states but not in Alabama. This would be an especially essential distinction later on in the process. My addiction deepened, my mood dropped, and it kept dropping. I kept falling farther and father downward. Teachers and fellow classmates didn’t seem to observe anything out of the ordinary, but then I’d never been an ordinary personality.
Years after the fact, I have been able to attain an explanation what was happening to me. After a time, the drug simply wasn’t working anymore. Before my collapse shortly before Thanksgiving 1998, I’d take a pill of Adderall, expecting the same effect as had been the case at the outset. Instead, I’d experience a perceptible high for only an hour, when once before I’d received eight. My constant over-usage created a paralyzing state of stimulant psychosis. Gratefully, I don’t remember the worst of the worst, but I do remember the depths of the depression that took hold tenaciously and did not abet for months.
I’d contemplated suicide many times before, but I had never reached the necessary depths of despair. The body has an ingenious knack for self-preservation, one meant to prolong living. This time, I’d get dangerously close to succeeding.