Nitrous oxide, N2O, is a fuel racing crews use to propel their cars hundreds of miles an hour. Under intense pressure, it allows the same engine to produce more power. Blends of N2O fuel rockets. They might include, for example, nitroglycerin, which is a drug carried on ambulances to dilate blood vessels, to let more blood through. Nitroglycerin is also one of the most explosive substances in the world.
N2O leads to substantial increases in performance over short periods of time, but the stress on the engine is astonishing. “There’s an element of sustainable that’s been always missing,” I say about my life when an investment banker turned energy healer makes this analogy between destroyed N2O engines and an adrenaline-filled life. He nods.
That speed, that speed—it’ll wear you down. Life with “entropy whipping through it,” as war writer Michael Herr says. For me it’s been a decade of changing countries, incessant newness, horrible men, sinking far too deep into stories of extreme abuse. Most recently, Afghanistan: its adrenaline, then the aftershocks. Dozens of veterans tell me war is “life going 100 miles per hour.” One hundred to zero is very difficult. One hundred miles per hour leaves a lot of aftermath behind.
With N2O, cars race twice that. A chemical reaction fuels the speed—literally fire. Everything we feel is a chemical, too. At that speed, it’s not helpful for someone in stasis, a friend or doctor perhaps, to say, “try sitting still,” or, “be careful you don’t catch fire too.”
It’s a young man’s game. Conversations don’t dwell on sustainability or aftermath. They dwell on speed, thrill, power. “It’s just a lot of fun,” I hear.
Nitrous oxide is also laughing gas: used to relax patients before pain, often abused for its euphoric effect. Inextricable: the fire, the words, the war, the healing, the feeling, the movement, the beauty, the darkness, the lover, the dreams, imbalance, the pain.
The sky had been heavy for days; everyone said it was going to fall. Instead, it sank around us, so slowly I couldn’t tell you the moment or even the day I lost sight of the distance. For a week the sunset had no color: 1,000 tones of grayscale, 1,000 textures, then black. The transition is difficult for months after I return from Afghanistan. I throw up after visiting grocery stores, calm myself by counting the varieties of tomato sauce—there are almost always more than 100. I study obsessively for the LSAT, run very long distances, write everything down. Almost constantly, I cry. Then I have no more ideas, so I take an antidepressant. Everything warps horribly.
Several days later, I try to kill myself. I take lots of drugs to do opposite things and instead of canceling they do everything at once. In an ambulance, inhaling and inhaling and inhaling, terrified and tired. A paramedic’s voice through a tunnel: “Stay with me, look at me, Rianna, you’re not going to die.” Blurred remembrance of hallucinating in the hospital: paintings moving hauntingly, my arms covered in creeping spiders and cockroaches, the walls whispering. I had run a marathon a week before, but in the hospital now I can’t even stand. Guilt. In the emergency room, I try to jump out of bed: ten staples in my head and a concussion that makes it hard to read or write. I wake up confused: blood on my pillow, metal in my scalp.
And it’s hard to know how I got here. Who’s fault? Mine. PTSD. A psychiatrist. Sexist system, the rain.
I don’t know how anyone tells a real story, especially one that ends. It feels dishonest, flippant. I can’t scream through paper, pictures, and ink. Or laugh, love, lose hope—certainly not regain it. For that, I need music, pieces of gravel, a willow tree and a tea table, shards of glass, blood, an elephant statue, many colors of pen, the rat that used to live in the apartment, and at least thirteen steep mountains. Four honey-oatmeal face masks, a Ramadan fast, Diwali lanterns, lectures that don’t contribute to the world, rides on top of buses that do. Rain, and dancing in it. At least a 12-lead EKG although probably, I imagine, my whole and still-beating heart.
“You’re too beautiful to be here,” nurses, patients, doctors tell me and tell me and tell me in the hospital after I try to kill myself. Too beautiful. I start a 1,000-piece puzzle that turns out to be at least five 1,000-piece puzzles mixed, each depicting an idyllic landscape. “Too beautiful?” It seems irrelevant. I’m slow, tired, slow.
The puzzle draws a crowd, all dressed in dark-blue paper scrubs. No underwear because we could hurt ourselves but I find an IV needle mixed with the puzzle pieces. I ask the nurse for a pen. No writing utensils allowed, she says, then gives me a pencil. A young girl screams and I wonder if she is too beautiful to be here. I try to read a book from the library cart but the words just swim. The television plays an infomercial: $19 monthly donation to end animal cruelty. “Time is very slow my brain is very slow,” I write. Rehab is a verb.
Room 18 has been crying all day. Giorgi, who by his account was raised in Saudi Arabia, has no mother, is the son of Tupac, was shot in the head, and is engaged to his sister, leans close. “Just remember always that no matter what happens Putin and Donald Trump are on our side,” he says. Granny Kate flips through old photographs—“here just a couple years into lithium.” Tiffani asks about my life. “Too many credentials,” she diagnoses. “You’ve got to get your M-R-S, your cooking—that’s how you get a man.” “I don’t really think I want a man,” I say. She considers this. Steve asks about my future plans. “My goals are to have a lot of babies, have a lot of women,” he says. “You’re invited.” Granny Kate draws a crocus, then a hyacinth, then her granddaughter in peach, raw sienna, and sapphire oil pastels. My body is so heavy, everything is so heavy.
I write through pencil after pencil until a nurse gives me a pen. “Writing a lot is a symptom of epilepsy,” she tells me. A couple of hours later she takes back the pen and we return to the jumbled puzzles, depicting at least five idyllic landscapes but in so many pieces I’ll never make sense of those worlds.
If you hit the ground hard enough, it will teach you more than 100 years in a classroom, I guarantee. Adrenaline and inertia will teach so much you won’t have time for bad dreams. But it doesn’t allow space for time, and without time, everything will definitely collapse.
Group Therapy Room 2 is white outlets, white tables, white hand-sanitizer dispenser on a white wall next to a white door. Sterile. The only color in the room is a faded print of Van Gogh’s Starry Night.
My hospital discharge: “lack of insight and limited judgment into her illness.” Things I am most proud of pathologized as symptoms. Travel to thirty countries? Running away. Afghanistan? Adrenaline junkie. Eighteen-hour work days in a war zone? Manic episode. Inability to readjust? Depressive episode. Ran a marathon? Self-harm. “I really want to spend my twenties doing things that scare me and are really difficult,” I say. This is added to the list of symptoms.
Medication scares me. I wouldn’t be in this therapy room if I hadn’t taken that antidepressant. And I write—everyone knows antidepressants make darkness and words disappear. “Van Gogh was bipolar,” I say, looking at Starry Night. “He wouldn’t have painted that if he was on medication.” “We would have other paintings,” the therapist says with a shrug. “There are always other paintings, and he would have lived a long and happy life.”
David, an energy healer, was a football player, banker, had a stake in an ad firm before all the death caught up with him and life fell apart. With two siblings with cystic fibrosis, then two parents with cancer, he was twenty-two before he experienced the people around him not dying. By then, almost everyone close to him was dead. He’d risk everything, beat the odds and then immediately put it all back on the line. “A thousand times you can get away with it,” he says. “But the 1,001st time it’ll kill you.” His wisdom, he says when I ask, stems from surviving his mistakes. I remind him of him, he says, but he has twenty-seven more years thinking about it.
“There’s a difference between recklessness and desperation,” David tells me in a quiet office full of crystals, lights, plants, a wooden squirrel, and tuning forks. He talks about energy vibrations and “ice”—frozen pain and trauma—around our energy centers, or chakras. The mind forgets but the body never does. Instead, trauma is stored in physical “files” of pain, or in small accretions that eventually brim over into brain injury, heart attack, massive depression, kidney failure.
David says my energy profile matches extreme PTSD, and that my yin/yang energy balance is 9/10 male and 1/10 female—all active, no receptive. I say that sounds sexist. “See? Listen.” He says we have five bodies, just one of which is physical. Most people tell me my inclination to seek out adrenaline and push myself cruelly is running away. David says my five bodies are out of alignment, so everything is chaos in me deep down. Seeking out chaos, he suggests, is my way of coming home to that, finding comfort. It feels true. “Of course you are,” he says when I say I’ve been in love for years with a man I could never have. “That makes so much sense.”
“I’m not giving you anything to do before you come back,” he says. “That will probably bother you.” He’s right, I really want him to give me some homework I can win at. He laughs. “Exactly! You’d eat that shit up.”
“You’re used to being in control but you’ve got to let me guide.” Be passive. I nod. There’s no way in hell I’m going to let anyone guide me anywhere, but I decide to come back tomorrow, to try.
Months later, I sit in some of the year’s last warm light, watching the sun disappear. For days everything around me has been beautiful and for weeks I’ve had no words. Half the sky is blue and the rest the darkest gray before a thunderstorm. Such an intense, power-saturated gray—I wonder how I would have described it.
Earlier today, I went to the doctor and asked her to help me stop taking antidepressants. I feel so well-adjusted to the world, work is good, I never cry—actually I can’t. I’ve tried. After two months of easy, it’s time to stop. “Absolutely not,” she said. Then, “Why?”
Because I used to sit in the least interesting places and write pens out of ink in description. Boredom was impossible. Now I could sit wordless in a bus stop, a laundromat, even a summer field bronzing gracefully into fall. I sat at an intersection one night trying to see. Three months ago, the bicycle spokes split the headlights into prisms. Now, it’s mostly “cars.”
The first time I took a drug for depression, in February, my mind rebelled so strongly it almost killed me within days. I almost killed me, I mean. This time, my mind seems to succumb. “‘Sustainable, healthier’ matter more than anything,” a writer I respect told me. He would know. I don’t know. Anyway, he’s right: It’s good to stay alive.
“Everything is very sustainable now and creativity is a small price to pay,” I told my doctor. I didn’t mean it at all. I don’t know why I lied. I went home, feeling vain—how could I be so attached to any part of myself that I would be unwilling to let it go? I sat outside, trying to see, to notice, but I wrote only the simplest things. “Clean air. Quiet. Pretty leaves. Green grass. Getting dark. Clouds.” Tonight, tonight. I wish I had the words.
Not a moon, not a star. Just the faintest shade of blackness separating mountain from the sky. I walk fields I’ve walked 10,000 times and start to wonder if it’s not words I’m missing, but despair. That true, hard, pure, consuming weight: self-hatred, pain, many terrible things. I think that without it—by which I mean without myself—I feel I don’t have anything worthwhile to say. Without the weight, what’s left? Words? Some words.
Last week I felt something strange, a pull against my eyelids. What is happening to me? I wondered, alarmed, before realizing this was what normal tired feels like.
In Afghanistan I collapsed into bed so exhausted I sometimes recorded journal entries because I couldn’t imagine lifting a pen. My voice was ragged and slow, reflecting on how there’s no more succinct exploration of extremes than that sleep of exhaustion to the instant aliveness of being woken by an explosion. I doubted a lot of things in Afghanistan, but aliveness was never one of them.
I haven’t found that in America, although I’ve explored many proxies. Fire is always hot, for example, so I get very close to it. Pain and fear are real on ambulances everywhere, and I become an EMT. Despair is lots of terrible things, but it is an overload, an absolute. Any extreme can be comfort, in its way.
There’s no greater intensity or truth than in cool rocks, winter chill, clean air. Red-orange leaf in the wind, the wind itself, the lack of wind, when it’s gone. That shiver that passes up my spine to spark in my brainstem when I think: It’s okay. I’m okay. Ears pulsing with silence, and blackness at a pitch absolute. Or pulsing with something else. A quiet field or forest that when you listen is full of sound.