memoir · mental illness · personal

the recursive life

My neighbor sat down at the table next to mine at the local coffee shop. We had interacted a couple of times before–once at the Writing Center where I work, once when he moved in and introduced himself as he was sweeping the hallway and burning sage to banish evil spirits.

I was sitting outside on a slightly-too-cold-to-be-outside kind of day, but the shop was crowded and the sun was shining so I took my double shot americano and my scone to a sidewalk table and started editing the print copy of my dissertation introduction.

When he came outside, I glanced up and smiled, but then looked back at my work. He doesn’t quite understand social cues, so he sat down to talk anyway. I put down my pen and smiled. A break wouldn’t hurt.

As we talked, I couldn’t help but remember Allyson.

In part, because I had spoken to my mother the night before, and she had come up. I would say I had gone months without thinking about her, but that would be a lie. I think about her at least once a day, though I haven’t spoken to her in close to a decade.

When I was sixteen, Allyson was my best friend. Or I was hers. I would have done, and did, anything in my power for her. We would spend hours talking and walking, we went shopping at cheap discount stores. We dressed up in platform shoes, belly-shirts, and body glitter to go to dance clubs. She dyed my hair in the locker room of the pool where we both worked. She taught me how to pluck my eyebrows and wear makeup the way that only teenage girls wear makeup (badly).  Her babies taught me what it was to fiercely love a child. She taught me what it was to love someone so much you wanted to shield them from everything painful. Because she had to grow up too fast, she taught me the value of staying a child. But, because she was still a child, she also taught me to grow up too fast in my efforts to help her.

I broke her boyfriend’s nose one night, after he hurled the TV into the wall and shook her like a rag doll.

I stood in a hospital room and held her second born, the first person after the nurse to do so–even Allyson hadn’t held him yet.

I crouched next to the wall, my ear pressed against the cold surface while she shushed me and told me to listen, convinced she could hear the man that lived in her ceiling moving around in there. “They” had sent him.

This was the last in a series of incidents. She had become increasingly paranoid over the months, convinced people were watching her, that her sons’ fathers were sending people after her. I had grown increasingly nervous over these months, but this moment was the one where I felt ice in my heart because I finally realized what was happening.

Allyson had broken.

Schizophrenia was the diagnosis. I moved away and would try to talk to her on the phone. Sometimes she was lucid, and sometimes, when she’d gone off her meds, she wasn’t. The last time we spoke she accused me of being part of the conspiracy. She also told me I’d abandoned her. That when I left, that’s when her life got worse.

I took that to heart.

And there I sat, at the coffee shop with my neighbor who spoke in ways that mostly make sense, but every once in a while seemed to lapse into stories that made sense to him, but didn’t quite make sense to me.

Before he went inside the coffee shop, he said, “You have blue eyes. And your hair is a pretty color.”   I smiled and thanked him. He seemed to feel embarrassed and got up to go inside. He said, “Really, though. You seem like a really beautiful person.”

I thanked him again. And I just can’t stop thinking about Allyson.


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