I don’t see the bear.
My six-year-old daughter, Ellie, and my two-year-old son, Alex, have returned with me to our remote campsite from a late dinner at the main camp. We are the only humans in sight. I’m lost in thought, obsessing on a story I want to write about family camping (“What will I write? How long will it take? Where will I try to publish it?”).
Ellie wants to sit in the red chair at the end of the picnic table. So does Alex. Ellie wins. Now she wants her doll, “Hannah.”
“Daddy please get Hannah for me.”
Hannah—the doll she loves best— is out of my reach.
“Ask Alex to get it for you,” I say, as my fingertips play in my mustache and my mind obsesses on my story.
“Alex please get Hannah for me.”
Alex waddles around the picnic table toward the far end. “Okay Eddy,” he says, pronouncing her name as best he can.
“Daddy,” says Ellie, “Who knocked that box down?”
I scribbled the drawing above in the winter of 1984. I was 20 years old. Something was wrong. The connection between my mind and my body had suddenly slackened, and at times it seemed to disappear. It seemed like I was no longer me. I described my thought process as follows:
The pictures in my head won’t go away: blue plastic in the sun, neon lights in a garage, a soft lamp in a rainy window… all within the boundaries of a moment, connected by strings my memory can’t trace.
“The pictures,” I called them, and they travelled in streams flowing softly from nowhere. They were not mine, but I couldn’t ignore them. Worse, the pictures were not neutral. Each carried a wisp of feeling, an emotional imprint—a tiny leash bound to the edges of my mood. Often, that leash led me around campus for hours.
My career was in ruins. My OCD spiked and I was deeply depressed. I spent hours a day on the internet, obsessively searching for philosophical and scientific reassurance that consciousness is not an illusion. My teeth were ground away—some to the root—by my counting ritual that unlocked my jaw hundreds of times a day, but only after I reached an illusory month, day, and year when my anxiety would magically cease.
The only peace I could find was in a fantasy.
Every time I ran–from a mile to a marathon-I imagined myself making an escape from a hostage situation in a foreign country, running hard to cross the border. I escaped from imprisonment after a violent hand to hand encounter with unspecified gangs of drug dealers and terrorists, sometimes in the Middle East, other times in Central America. Oftentimes I imagined that I escaped from several gangs and places during the same run.
Hypodermic needles were my first fear. The doctor’s office became home to my nightmares. Sharp objects—knives, spears, and swords—became my first obsession. My first compulsion was to hold a sharp object against my chin—GI Joe’s scuba knife, a Fort Apache spear, or Galahad’s tiny sword—grit my teeth, and count.
When I was 13, I needed a booster shot. In the weeks before it happened, I developed a new obsession: glass. I collected sharp pieces of glass from the roads and sidewalks. I collected rusted bottle caps. I collected sharp stones. It had never occurred to me before, but what if a sliver of glass gets caught in a car tire, gradually sinks deeper and deeper into the tread, and finally causes a blowout on the freeway? If I didn’t keep filling my coat pockets with the dirty little “hazards” I plucked from the ground, someone might die in a car accident.
When I was 19, I rolled out of a moving car and ran as fast and as far as I could. It probably saved my life. If it hadn’t been for the two black eyes, the gravel embedded in my back, and the two painful head wounds beneath my bloody hair, I would not have recalled anything but a chilling scream. I desperately wanted to remember more. I wanted to remember more when I panicked without reason and pulled my car to the side of the road, when I turned and chased the images that lurked along the dark edges of my brain, when I told the story of how I’d rolled out of a car and mysteriously wakened entangled in an electric fence.
I remembered being alone.