wounded animal complex – a lament

// preface –

In light of recent – and not so recent – traumas, here is my personal piece of lament. Birthed from a place of anguish and hopelessness, this is an attempt to make sense of the pain.

This is the tale of a loved one I had to euthanize. The one I watched grow up.

This is the sad story I’ve decided to stop writing.

 

wounded animal complex

// part i –

I can’t believe my own life sometimes.

And neither can my friends.

“This has never happened to anyone of us before…”

We’re walking through the thick Bangkok summer heat, trudging our way to Victoria’s small shack in the neighboring swamp. It felt nice, taking a break from our grueling day-to-day scene. Change of swamp scenery for once. Visit a friend. You know.

“Sa wat dee krop!”, we bow and greet Yaai Noi, who is squatting on the creaky floorboards of her less-than-humble abode. She is Victoria’s host for the summer.

We chat and laugh with the sparse, broken Thai that we have, and Yaai insists that we sit down and make ourselves at home.

So we try. There’s only one chair, so I take the floor and sit cross-legged. Yaai’s hospitality is remarkable; she points the only fan she has towards us.

The heaviness of this strenuous summer is suspended and the air is filled with laughter and good energy – but only for a moment,

until an 8-inch long, black centipede crawls into my pants.

At first, I do not see it because it is so fast but within a second, my body somehow still registers that something is wrong. Dangerously wrong.

Without thinking, my hand immediately shoots for my left leg. My body is in defense mode, doing all the thinking for me and it has only one thought in mind, “Stop the danger from going further up my pants.”

Finally, my brain catches up.

“OH FUCK –”

The beast – feeling my hand smash over him – likewise panics, turns on its survival mode and bites down, hard. I feel its pincers sink deep into my flesh.

Searing, acid pain.
I can hardly speak.

“WHAT IS IT?”, my friends look at me, concerned and confused.

“I… don’t.. know…
…poison……”

“Is it a spider?!”

“…No……”

“Is it… a snake??”

“…noooooo……”

It takes a second bite. I feel the poison, surging into me.

I am determined now, to kill this thing. Whatever it takes to keep it from crawling up.

I squeeze with a strength I did not know I had. I’m not sure which is worse, feeling the venom burn my insides, or feeling the thing squirm in my pants.

I am squeezing so hard I can barely breathe.

“…Is it dead..?”

I catch my breath. Afraid to let go.

“I.. don’t know…”, I manage between breaths.

At this point, I’d been squeezing so hard that I can kind of make out its texture and details through my pants.

Not a spider. It’s too long.
Not a snake. I can feel legs.

Oh no.

“I have spare pants”, Victoria hastily offers. “You can change in the bathroom and get rid of it!”

I think about it. I’m pretty sure I squeezed it to death. But if I didn’t, it could escape my grip and crawl up.

This is life or death, I think to myself.

“…Okay.”

I get ready. Just have to hobble a couple more feet over and close the curtain. This is the moment your whole life has been leading up to. This is your greatest battle.

I stand up slowly, and of course,
it escapes my grip.

But apparently, there is this thing called mercy, and the gods decide that today is not my day of reckoning.

It crawls down, instead of up.

It is only until now that I actually see what it is, and my fears are confirmed. It shoots out of my pants and snakes its way to safety.

I had never seen a centipede in real life until that point. And if I had, then they were just lame, fake-ass wannabes. This was the real thing. Despite all that squeezing, I didn’t even put a dent into it.

Next thing I know, I’m being carried to a hospital and rushed into the emergency room on a gurney.

Apparently, I’m on a six-week Christian mission trip or something.

But now, I’m staring at cold ceiling lights while doctors shoot antitoxins and morphine into my leg,
and I’m screaming at God,

“Why am I here?”

I can’t believe my own life sometimes.

I’d only been in Thailand for three weeks, but this trip had unfolded itself in such dramatic, storybook fashion.

That summer, I met my supervillain.
And he came in a form of a grumpy old grandpa.
We called him Daa.

When I wasn’t out visiting Yaai’s and dodging demon centipedes, life was slow at home, taking care of my host Daa and doing chores with him.

I knew that from the beginning – he wasn’t the nicest person – but as the days dragged on, I knew there was something else. He had something against me.

For the summer, he adopted me under his care and everyday, taught me to run errands. Cleaning, cooking, and the sort.

I was slow to learn and he figured that out pretty quick. Getting a “good job” from him was seldom, getting him to yell at you came easy.

Within a week, I became his favorite target to yell at.
Which is tolerable, until he sets you up for impossible tasks. Until he sets you up for failure.

Within two weeks, I became an object of humiliation.
Anytime I messed up, he not only yelled at me, he would ride me mockery and shame me. He turned my incompetency into a laughing stock. Within two weeks, I learned how to say “mental” in Thai.

Within three weeks, I became an object of scorn.
He was on the lookout for my mistakes. Just so he could punish me. Any small thing he could yell at me for. He was out to get me. Within three weeks, I learned that I could be punished for scooping rice “the wrong way”.

Somehow, he had gotten underneath my skin and found my deepest childhood wounds. Somehow, he turned cooking dinner and doing laundry into a test to prove my own worth.

Within four weeks, I was starting to believe the messages he gave me.

“Maybe he’s right. Maybe I can’t do anything right.
Maybe… whatever I do, I always will end up disappointing him.

Maybe he deserves to punish me.”

So I let him.

We were wounded animals – creatures of matching scars – trapped in a cycle of wounding. Our insecurities fed into each other. We unlocked each other’s worst sides.

We were the perfect duo.

“We’ve never had this happen to an intern before…”, the staff would tell me.

I became that guy.
Always getting attacked by monster centipedes and grumpy grandpas. Always getting hurt.

I came home from Thailand in pieces, not knowing how to live life in its wake.

He was my worst enemy.

There is a phenomenon that I like to call the Wounded Animal Complex.

“Say you beat a dog once on a Wednesday night.
The dog winces and whimpers, maybe even bites back.

Say you beat the dog, every Wednesday night.
Then, the dog will eventually expect it as a part of its weekly routine. At some point, the dog will stop fighting back.

You beat the dog every Wednesday night, the dog will start believing that being hurt is a part of normal life.”

This type of thing doesn’t just wear off on its own. Being in Thailand began to feel like I was just waking up for my daily beating. This is my life.

It took three months, 8,000 miles, and another human being with a license for me to realize, “Oh, that was abuse.”

Oh. I’m depressed.

I’m not okay.

It is not that depression is so terrible because you feel sad, but because you feel nothing. The world loses its color, and everything is grayscale.

The first time I felt like I saw color in my life after Thailand was our Thailand trip reunion. For once, I was with the people who understood. People who were there and saw what had happened.

Minus the grumpy grandpas.

I am cooking, cutting vegetables for our pad khra pao moo. Classic Thai street food. It is my first time cooking since living with Daa.

But it is as if his eyes are still watching me.

Don’t mess up.

I stop. Take a look around me and breathe. Just my own head.
I keep cutting.

Don’t mess up.

I ignore him, and continue chopping away,
slicing and slicing,
scooping the chopped greens into a bowl with the knife,
slicing some more,
being careful not to make mistakes,

– until I really do mess up
and accidentally cut through two of my fingers.

Oops.

I rush to the bathroom, seeing vivid colors for the first time since Thailand. Deep, dark red – gushing out of my hand and into the sink.

But only for a moment, before I black out.

And just like that, I’m on my way to the hospital again.
I’m sobbing in the backseat on the drive there, feeling all sorts of things. Mostly shock, thinking that I had died. But also, just feeling stupid. Maybe a bit mental.

Of course, this would happen. Today of all days. On our reunion.
And of course, it would happen to me.

It’s like I’m a magnet for crisis situations.
I had come back from Thailand for some months now, but now, I really am in pieces.

The next day, my friends leave,
and my life becomes grayscale again,
with the occasional dark red.

“I’m never healed really. I’m some sort of walking wound.”

I’m counting up the months I’ve left from Thailand, because sometimes, time digs a greater rift of separation than distance does. Sometimes, 8,000 miles is not enough.

It’s around the 3-month mark – I’ve already lost most of my friendships and quit all my leadership responsibilities on campus. I don’t know how to live my life before Thailand anymore.

Month 4 comes, and I barely pass the two classes I’m enrolled in. I figure I need to do something to sort my life in order, because there is little to look forward to.

Graduation comes in another semester, and I’ll lose the few friendships I have left. We will all go our separate ways. Then, I’ll really have nothing to look forward to.

Then, the idea of Oakland comes to mind – a dream I had long given up on years ago. I think of moving far, far away into an exciting new land. Starting a new life.

And the idea excites me, because if I have a life here, it’s been crumbling, at best. And coming home to a place that no longer feels like home is one of most unsettling feelings.
So maybe finding a new home will do… something.

Maybe sometimes, 8,000 miles is not enough.

Month 6 comes, and I discover something that injects color into my life.

Dreaming.

Inventing something to look forward to when there is none.

So I feed this idea of starting a new life like I feed a dog. I nurture it and watch it grow, painting detail to it as I go. Where I’ll live, which coffeeshop I’ll work at, what non-profit I’ll volunteer at on the weekends.

I watch wide-eyed as this fantasy grows, until it is bigger than me and takes a life of his own. I start to develop an affinity for it. The more I feed him, the more comfort he gives me. The more hope he gives me.

Year one comes, and I’m filling out applications. Doing interviews.

As my dream grows and matures, so does my anxiety.
What if it’s not real? What if it is?

My care for the animal intensifies and I become increasingly possessive of him. I’m sensitive to anything that may threaten his safety. He is all I have.

Month 13, my insomnia is full-fledged and I literally cannot dream now. I am keenly aware of the other creatures that have birthed in this process. And these animals are not so kind.

Month 14. I think I am losing my sanity from the scarcity of sleep I’ve had in the last few months. I don’t know what is a dream, what is real.

Month 15.
A job offer.

I sleep like a baby that night.

// part ii –

I can’t believe my life sometimes, because I’m living my dreams.

Month 17, I move to Oakland.

I end up in a year-long internship with a missions organization. It’s been 17 months, so I figure I give this Christian missions thing another chance.

Weeks of job-searching later, I find another part-time that helps with the bills and I’m doing the adulting thing now. Living outside of home, hustling my own money, etc.

My ass is broke as hell,
I’m so lonely it hurts,
I haven’t the slightest clue what I’m doing,

but I’m here.

This is the return. I’m back on my feet. This is my life now.

I have never been so sad, yet regretted so little.

Maybe things will be better now.
Maybe this time will be better.

It’s not quite a cafe job, but boba is close enough for a first job so I take what I can get. Rent is coming up and I just need something for the time being.

So each day, I take 12th street deep into the heart of Chinatown to make tea drinks, eager to receive my first paycheck. It’s not quite minimum wage, but I take what I can get.

This is the first time I’ve worked in a kitchen setting in a long time. Say, something like 17 months.

It is also the first time I’ve worked with knives in a while, and the fingers on my left hand twitch involuntarily several times a day. As if some glitchy defense mechanism is kicking in after being buried away and dormant for so long. When it wakes, it is a tad over–caffeinated. Even the thought of scissors causes my hand to recoil.

Get away. There is danger.

Flinch.

“Shut up. It’s not the same thing.”

I spend my mental energy – the little I have left from communicating in broken Mandarin – forcing my fingers to sit still while I cut fruits and vegetables.

Most days, the job is grueling.
There are roughly 80 menu items to memorize and my boss does not properly train me. She just sort of expects me to know. I also do not know how to speak Cantonese, but she just sort of expects me to know.

And I am slow to learn, so when I mess up, she yells at me.

I know that she is a loud woman, so maybe she isn’t mad at me. But most days, I cannot tell.

I work harder and harder, because I just want to do a good job. I just want to do it right.

Don’t mess up.

Flinch.

“Shut up, it’s… not the same thing.”

One day, a customer walks in and orders in Cantonese. I apologize and tell her I can only speak English. The expression on her face changes, as if she is displeased, but she orders anyways.

I start making her drink,
being careful to add the right toppings,
being careful not to make any mistakes,
until I really do mess up and put in the wrong type of tea.

She loses it.
“What is wrong with your brain? Why can’t you speak Cantonese!?”

My boss takes her side, and proceeds to yell at me.

So much yelling.

Within three weeks, I learn how to say mental in Cantonese. Within three weeks, I become an object of humiliation.

Every day, I clock in and accept that this is my life now.
Every night, I go to bed wondering why my centipede bite is itching so much.

Maybe some scars don’t heal so easily.
Maybe 8,000 miles and 18 months is not enough.

Every now and then, I start to wonder if the dark fantasies and creatures I invent in my mind are actually real. But there is no time for such ponderings nowadays.

My life is going at 100 miles per hour.
I’m living the dream, or something. Doing the Christian mission thing, making boba drinks on the side, starting my new life.

It isn’t until my friends visit me – friends from Thailand – that my life finally slows down. There were only a few of us, but I guess you could call this a reunion.

We’re driving 20 on the freeway –
weaving through afternoon traffic,
taking our time as we catch up on life,

– but someone else is going 60 and decides he cannot miss the freeway exit, today of all days.

My life halts instantly.

In the 2 seconds of chaos and thrashing, I ask God, “Is this it?”

I snap out of it, and my body does all the thinking for me. My hands grab the steering wheel, my foot slams the breaks, and keep us from rolling back into traffic.

My mind catches up.
“Oh fuck.”

It is almost a complete T-bone, driver’s side. I get out of the car, my body shaking.

I’m not 2 months into moving to Oakland, and I almost die.

My life is going at 100 miles per hour, and it is when my Thailand friends come visit that life slows down to a violent, abrupt stop. Today of all days.

So I guess you could call this a reunion.

The car is totaled.

On the outside, it looks kind of okay but on the inside, it is damaged beyond repair.

At this point, this is how I feel about my life. Okay on the outside, damaged beyond repair on the inside.

I take a day off work and spend the little time I have with my Thailand friends before they leave. I am determined to have at least a few hours of quality time without some crisis rudely interrupting us.

Now that things feel 0 miles an hour, everything else catches up to me and when it does, it hits me hard like a T-bone collision.
I spill out my guts to them. Snot, tears, and all.

It hits me, why I’ve been coming home from work each day, hating myself. It hits me, why it seems the world has lost some of its color lately.

It takes a life-threatening car crash and other human beings who were with me in Thailand for me to realize, “Oh. I’m not okay.”

Oh. This is about… him.

Somehow, an older Chinese woman yelling at me while I’m making boba drinks rubs salt in past wounds. So naturally, I let her. Because, I just want to do a good job. I just want to do it right. I just want him to see.

No, this is not the same thing. No, this is not abuse, but it still is not good for me.

My friends leave the next day, I make it my resolve to fight for color in my life.

I quit my boba job.

“Not this time.”

I think I have some sort of Wounded Animal Complex.

I keep getting hurt all the time. I can’t tell if it’s because I’m sensitive or if things actually keep hurting me.

But it seems that all the terribly-timed misfortunes and random crisis situations always happen to me.

“Say you beat a dog once on a Wednesday night.
The dog winces and whimpers, maybe even bites back.

Say you beat the dog every Wednesday night.
Then, the dog will eventually expect it as a part of its weekly routine. At some point, the dog will stop fighting back.

You beat the dog every Wednesday night, the dog will start believing that being hurt is a part of normal life.

You beat the dog every Wednesday night, the dog will start believing that being hurt is a part of who he is.”

I look up from my journal.

No. This can’t be right.
It’s… not the same thing.

That was 18 months ago.

I start scribbling out the page, hoping it would make what I wrote less true, but my hand stops.

It’s not the same thing.

…Is it?

“I’m never healed really. I’m some sort of walking wound.”

For two months, I don’t drive a car.
I’ve only just gotten accustomed to cooking with knives. One step at a time.

I have all my limbs, but I feel like I’m in pieces again. Back to square one. No car, no job, no friends. But I make it my resolve to fight for color, to keep moving.

By now, I know all the coffeeshops in Oakland from all the resumes I’ve sent out. Slowly, my labor pays off and I’m getting calls for interviews.

Month 19 comes, and I get a job offer. Barista position.

Month 20 comes, and I have a car now. Insurance covered.

Life gradually picks up to a solid 70 miles per hour. Things are going okay, even if I am afraid to admit it.

Maybe I was wrong. Maybe it isn’t the same thing.

What a curious feeling it is to hope again.

Wednesday Night.

I’m walking down my street to my car, on my way to church.

It’s 6:45 in the evening,
still plenty of sunlight to burn,
still angry drivers zooming past on Foothill Ave,
still kids playing in the neighborhood.

I walk past a row of parallel-parked cars, looking for my own as I hastily scoop a couple spoonfuls of dinner from my tupperware into my mouth. I don’t make it 100 feet outside of my apartment when one of the parked cars opens up its doors and out comes some four or five guys, quickly approaching me.

The first one looks straight at me and mumbles something to me. I hesitate. Before I have time to think, he lunges straight for my legs and pulls. I’m on the ground now, and the other guys rush.

The beating begins.

They target my head, 4-5 of them throwing their fists and kicking. When you are about to die, your body does all the thinking for you. Arms up. Cover the face. Fetal position. Smallest target possible.

I hear them yelling to each other to hurry up, and yelling at me to mock me. So much yelling. I don’t even notice my phone missing from my pocket.

My mind catches up.
fuck…

But I cannot fight back, or they might hit harder. I can’t afford to move my arms away.

When there are five of them, all you can do is wait, and hope it ends.

I notice that my keys are now gone.
It’s been about a minute. They’re struggling to snatch my wallet, but at this point I want them to because two minutes just might kill me. At this point, I also want to yell at them to hurry up. Just take the damn thing.

Finally, they wrench it out my pocket.

They throw a last couple kicks before hopping back into their car, and take off.

Apparently, I’m doing a Christian mission thing. Apparently, I’m out here in Oakland starting a new life.

But now, I’m lying on the ground with my own blood on the sidewalk and I’m screaming at God,

“Why am I here?”

I can’t believe my own life sometimes.
And neither can my mind, so it replays the scene. Over and over again.

“Did you recognize the guys?”

“No.”

“You’ve never seen them before.”

“No.”

“So they just jumped you for no reason.”

“Yeah.”

The nurse looks away.

“Wow, that sucks… but I mean, welcome to Oakland.”

Thanks, man.

Cold ceiling lights. That sterile smell. Metallic carts being rolled around.

Here, once again.

They tell me that there are no fractures in the skull, no swelling, nothing broken.
On the outside.

I walk out the building with a bag of analgesics in my hand.

On the way home, my roommate tells me –
“In the year plus of living here in Oakland, we’ve never had anything like this happen to us… and in the 3-4 months that you’re here, you’re the one who gets mugged. It’s just crazy…”

Later that week, my internship staff tells me –
“In all the years we’ve been working here, we’ve never had anything like this happen to us. At least not this bad.. and not to an intern…”

One day, a neighbor who I’ve never talked to before, but witnessed the attack, tells me –
“I’ve been living on this street for six years and I’ve never seen anything like that happen… This is a pretty good neighborhood.”

Of course. Of course it had to be me.

Because wounded animals are easy prey.

I can’t believe my life sometimes.
And neither can my mind, so it replays the scene. Over and over again.

“Wednesday night.”

Truth is a slowly-sinking dagger you cannot stop from reaching your heart.

It is now month 21.

A little girl who lives next door says hi to me one day and asks, “Are you the guy who got mugged?”

I don’t know what to say.
“Yes. I am.”

I am that guy.

It seems that all the color I spent the last couple months trying to fight for is draining from my vision again. Life is slow, dragging along at an agonizing 5 miles per hour. My emotional capacity is near nothing, so I drop some commitments. After a few weeks, I drop some more.

I kind of want to do.. nothing.

Each day, I look out the window for a few minutes before going outside. I give an extra glance before crossing the street. I check every white sedan parallel-parked that I pass by on the sidewalk.

When I’m not calling credit card companies or standing in line at the DMV, I spend time staring into space at the park or local coffeeshop, unsure of how to live life now. Unsure of how to pray after you almost get beaten to death.

Unsure if I even want to pray. I don’t think I want to talk to God.

Some days, the silence is unbearable so I fill the void with more noise. TV shows. YouTube. Anything.

Month 22 comes, and things are still grayscale. I don’t know when I’m going to have an emotional breakdown. Going outside is like walking in a minefield of triggers. Thinking too much is very much the same.

My staff encourages me to take time off work and get away for a bit. Take a personal retreat, get away from Oakland.

The idea is appealing, yet unnerving at the same time. But I’m not sure why. Do I really want to go there?

I book a trip anyways. Three nights.

Month 23.

I’m driving up the Pacific Northwest Coast, snaking through Redwood Forests, trying to escape from everything. I glance over at my phone every now and then, watching the bars on my phone drop slowly.

I feel a similar sinking feeling somewhere deep inside of me.
Fingers on my left hand twitch.

Shut up.

I turn my music up.

A few hours of driving later and I’m in the middle of nowhere. Spotify offline only lasts so long when you forget to download enough playlists. I soon realize what is making me so uneasy.

Silence.

I get to the campgrounds, check in, and cook a quick dinner. I haven’t even finished unpacking myself, and I’m already cringing. Already holding my left hand and clutching my itchy centipede bite. Already grimacing and holding onto all my scars.

I go back outside because I’m not quite ready yet. I don’t want to go there yet. I’m not quite ready to confront what’s actually inside of me.

I’m not quite ready for the silence, because in silence, I can hear everything.

Perhaps, this was not the escape that I was envisioning. I’m not just in the middle of nowhere.

The next day, I figure that there is little use in trying to run away. I already did that. Here I am.

Out here, there is nothing to fill the void with. No Netflix. No YouTube. No one to turn to. Except God.

I pace around my cabin for a good hour,
biding my time and preparing myself,
until finally, I pick up the pen.

“You know what I’m feeling right now?

I feel like there were a lot of things that didn’t have to happen.

Things that cause unnecessary emotional stress and needless pain,
Things awfully timed,
Things unfolding in the worst way possible,
Things beyond my control that I could not prevent,
Things that no matter how much I prayed against,

still happened.

None of this had to be this way.
But they are now. And I got hurt.

You know what I’m feeling right now?
I feel like all those things that happened, You could have stopped,
but You chose not to.

That perhaps, the demons are out to get me
and You’re letting them.

I was afraid to come here, out in the middle of nowhere. In the middle of my nothingness. I’m scared of what I might find there. I’m scared of what lurks in my own darkness.

As much as it hurts to say, I kind of hate my life. This “dream life” I’ve created is not anything I had hoped it to be. As much as it hurts to say, all it’s been is a continuation of the series of unfortunate events in my life.

I may not be suicidal, but in many ways, I’ve already given up.

Because this is how I think of myself.

I keep separate clocks for the six different traumatic events I’ve experienced in the last two years. This is my obsession.

I am that guy.
And there’s nothing I can do about it.

And if that is true, is life really worth living?
What is there to look forward to, other than more trauma? Other than the next event?

I know this is about him.
The monster living inside of me, two years in the making.

I don’t want to admit that I had fed him and let him grow bigger than me. That he’s eaten me alive, consumed me.

At last, I fed him my heart.
I have forgotten who I am, without my scars.

If you don’t show up now, God,
I don’t know who you are.

I need you to set me free.
I need you to save me from who I think I am.

I need you to kill the Wounded Animal.”

.

wounded animal complex

the anniversary effect

It still feels like summer.

 

I’m walking down Marine at Balboa Island, savoring new flavors with old friends. Frozen bananas with other confused postgrads.

It is October, but it still feels like summer.

A new season, but still tinged with things of the past. The air is light and brisk, filled with small talks and old inside jokes.

Spirits are merry and things feel almost “just right”,
when all of the sudden, a small party of pigeons flies out of nowhere and swooshes right in front of our party of friends.

I freeze in my steps.
The muscles in my body clench, and my heart races, as if trying to outrun danger.

Time glitches, and for that moment, 2 seconds become 2 minutes, 2 minutes become 8,261 miles, and now, the pigeons are already long gone.

What.

“Hey catch up, dude! We’re gonna check out this shop!”

My head snaps back to the present, and I realize that I am alone,
standing in the middle of the sidewalk.

It still feels like summer.

We are standing outside the shop, the small talk and inside jokes continue, but all I can think about are pigeons.

I thought things like this only happened in movies.

“I need to go.”
Take my mind off things.

I get to my friend’s apartment. It’s been almost a year since the last time I stayed the night here. I turn on Netflix and pick my poison – Stranger Things Season 2, which, while we’re on the topic of trauma victims, couldn’t have been more fitting.

Episode 3 or 4 finishes – I’m all Netflix-drunk now and headed for the bathroom. My friend is already asleep so I sneak out with toothbrush in hand.

I open the bathroom door, turn on the lights, and it happens again.

I freeze.

My momentum dies completely, like a car running through caltrops. My left hand tenses up, my heart races to outrun danger, and two seconds feels like two minutes, because the earth just stopped spinning.

It’s only two seconds,
but time is glitching and I’m sucked deep into a memory I’ve thought a lot about, but not in a long time,
when I was staring down at the same white sink bowl, but it was filled with a pool of my own blood,
draining dark red from a finger I almost cut off by accident,
draining colors from my vision and looking at my fading reflection before everything got quiet and dark,
and i wake up next to a car escorting me to the hospital.

Another second passes,
and memory becomes feelings instead of visuals,
and the feeling of the times was sickening to the point where I wanted to cut myself again and create another little “accident”,
because I was alive but life was draining and draining away from me
and everything in life had lost its colors,
except maybe dark red.

Another second passes,
and the sink is empty now. My finger is still attached.

Time resumes at its ordinary tempo,
but now I am brushing my teeth
very, very slowly.

I thought that stuff like this only happens in movies, but now I’m not so sure, so I google away and find some theories and best guesses, which is basically all what the study of psychology is anyways. I have my own suspicions, which PsychologyToday – and even Teen Vogue – more or less confirms, so I decide, “Okay, maybe this is a thing.”

It just might make sense.

It just might make sense of why earlier today, I was hanging out with friends when a flock of pigeons glitched me back in time –

and all of the sudden, I’m thinking about street vendors, and honking tuk tuks,
walking the busy streets of Bangkok, tasting familiar flavors with new friends,
the air is thick with humidity, small talk, and future inside jokes,
and a new friend grasps onto my arm when pigeons fly by because she has a paralyzing fear of birds.

Another second passed,
and the memory became emotion instead of visuals, and the feeling of the times was sickening to the point where
I wanted to throw up from street food poisoning and an abusive relationship I felt trapped in,
and my will to live was draining and draining away from me,
like dark red funneling into a whirlpool down a white sink bowl.

Another second passed,
and my friends are telling me to catch up,
but I cannot because for the rest of the day, my mind is stuck in a memory, thinking about pigeons.

It just might make some sense of why,
it’s already October but it still feels like summer.

I’m brushing my teeth slowly and thinking about how pigeons, bathroom sink bowls, and a character in Stranger Things I can very loosely relate to all acted as triggers within a span of the last 24 hours, and I think I get it now.

It’s about that time of the year.

rest in peace, pt ii – pomatophobia

// preface

The past three years of my life was a matter of symptoms, occasionally peaking out to say hello, like little demons.
This year was a matter of diagnoses, like waging war.

Here is “rest in peace”, a 2-part series of selected memories, depicting my struggle against insomnia.

Read pt. i first, here.


// part ii – pomatophobia

“How long can you hold your breath underwater? How much can your body take before you lose your mind?”

On average, it takes anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours for me to fall asleep. Some nights, I don’t sleep.

And by the sound of it, neither does the hive of horny geckos living under our floorboards.

We have all sorts of alarm clocks here, like stray cats and dogs, dysentery, and 5-inch behemoth cockroaches that manage to find their way into our mosquito net.

Bangkok summer nights are unforgiving. And sticky.

I roll over on our thinly-padded concrete mattress and look at Tony. He is asleep. I glance over at Daa’s bed and hear his labored breathing. Out.

I am envious, but happy for them.

Today, I make it my resolve to fight for my sleep. Maybe I can cheat my way to the Fall. Trick myself into sleep.

“I’m gonna count to ten. And once I get to ten, you will fall asleep.”

One.

You can feel it already, the tiredness descending on you like a thick blanket.

Two.

Your breathing is slowing down.

You can hear your heart beat but it’s getting slower and slower.

Everything is slow motion.

Three.

Now your eyes are getting heavy.

Your heart is beating slower still, but you can’t tell anymore.

Four.

Your mind is getting numb.

Everything is… fuzzy. And really, really soft.

Thoughts gently come and go, like a slideshow that you didn’t make. So you just watch.

Five.

Your eyes are getting very heavy.

So, so heavy…

You aren’t even thinking of what you’re seeing anymore, so you close them.

It is dark.

Six.

Everything is fuzzy.

You hear some noise in the background. But you pay no mind because you are hypnotized.

Seven.

Your head is so numb that it feels like you are floating.

Your mind drifts and drifts…

Eight.

You are flying now, even though you feel like sinking.

Fuzzy.

Time is slowing down but it is okay because so are you.

You are sinking – so, so heavy, like lead weights, that you cannot move anymore.

Nine.

Muffled sounds echo in the background like they’re coming from far, far away… but you pay no mind because you are here, just floating.

All you need to do is lie down and let yourself drift,

on and on,

until,

– I snap awake, startled by the sound of coughing.

I am drenched with sweat.

I hear loud choking from Daa’s corner of the room. After a brief fit, he turns his body over to his side and resumes sleeping.

Everything is loud now. Stray cats. Mating geckos.

Dammit.

I take a deep breath, and start over.

One.

After a couple of tries, I get the hang of it. I don’t even know if it works but I figure that as long as I pretend that it works, it works.

I have no bed, I have no air conditioning, but I found sleep medicine. Placebo or not, I’ll take it.

Meds don’t turn off alarm clocks though and we discover a new one – Daa’s coughing.

“Must be sleep apnea”, Tony figures after a week of consecutive nights of coughing fits.

So every night, we prayed for Daa’s breathing. I don’t think it worked but I found my first doorway to compassion for the man.

A few more weeks of trauma and sleepless nights, and we are back home.

My trip to Thailand messes me up in all sorts of ways.

Like, the sort of way that you don’t realize how bad it is –
until you are 8,000 miles away,
14 hours behind,
and 2 months out,

from the carnage.

Weeks pass and you realize it’s not just the jet lag.
Months pass and you realize being home doesn’t stop the pain, because you don’t know what home means anymore.

One night, I cannot sleep.

And the sting only intensifies throughout the night, to the point where it’s not just my heart anymore. My body tenses up as I feel something pierce my insides and now I’m thinking about knives.

Everything is sharp.

I check my phone and scroll through my contacts to see who I can call.

No one.

Wait, no. Evelyn.
But… it’s late. She’s probably asleep by now.

What about Jeremy? And Erin?
They’re probably too busy. They’re always too busy anyways.

Chris Tomlin.
But my heart only beats faster, so I yank out my earphones, lock my phone, and it is dark again.

No one is here. I am alone.

Wait, that’s not true.

I look over at Tony’s bed and he is asleep already.
I am envious, but happy for him.

I shouldn’t wake him up. He’s tired.

No one.
Knives.

My body is shaking at this point.

I glance over at Tony’s bed again and that’s when I see Him. Only, He’s not the Laughing Man. He is a silent man, with pale skin where his mouth should be.

Standing alone in the corner. Looking at me.

I scramble for my phone and find Evelyn’s number but right before I call, I freeze.

She’s sleeping. She’s tired. Don’t wake her up.

Wait what, don’t be ridiculous. Just call her.

I continue staring at the screen.
Until it dims and shuts off, and it is dark again.

This is a different breed of paralysis.

I look back at the Man with No Mouth.
He cannot laugh at me but he still mocks me.

“Help me”, I scream silently, as the Man in the corner continues to stare at me.

Unable to speak. Unable to communicate.

Alone.

Knives.

“I… I – I need help.”

Tony fixes his eyes on me, I avert my gaze.

“What’s wrong, buddy?”

“I… couldn’t sleep last night”, I tell him with shaky breath and explain what happened. I feel a chill wash over me as I realize that it wasn’t so much what happened last night that was so haunting, but that what happened last night was how I’ve been feeling every single day.

Alone. Paralyzed. Mouthless.

“You know that whole River thing?”

He nods.

“Well, last night was like a whirlpool. Or like a black hole. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t escape. After a certain point, the gravity is too strong.”

“Like quicksand.”

“Yeah.”

Our conversation sways towards the topic of finding me help, like the no-joke, professional kind of help. Usually, I am skeptical but after last night, I am willing to try anything.

“What about sleeping?”

“I don’t know, man. Alcohol usually makes me drowsy but that hasn’t but working lately.”

“Have you tried medication?”

I think about it for a minute. I don’t like the idea of becoming dependent on pills.

“Remember Thailand?”

“What about it?”

“That counting thing I did.”

“Oh yeah… Think it’ll work?”

“You know, I didn’t just make that up. That was actually one of my earliest memories. My mom used to count us to sleep.”

I pause.

“It doesn’t have to work.”

“As long as you pretend it works…”

I nod.

It does not take long for me to suffer relapse. Just three nights later, the Man with No Mouth pays another visit.

After a week or so, I figure my life is just a game of survival now – trying to navigate through a labyrinth of black holes. One wrong move was a step into quicksand, triggering a dark episode of isolation and spiraling in slow motion.

Everyday is warfare, and all I am equipped with is 1-hour combat training sessions once a week.

Treatment begins, and I am medicated with sugar pills. Some use Ambien, or a glass of wine, but my weapon of choice is memory. A fuzzy one.

But the wonderful thing is that it works, or at least I believe that it does. After a couple of tries, I get the hang of it.

Meds don’t turn off alarm clocks though and I discover a new one.

One night, I decide to take a shot and begin the counting process.

One.

“You can already feel the tiredness descending on you, like a blanket.”

I keep counting and everything gets very fuzzy.

I get to around Eight or Nine, the part where you are flying in space but sinking at the same time.

Sounds are muffled, time is slowing down, and everything is so, so heavy.

I drift and drift, readying myself for the Fall, when suddenly the sounds are not so muffled anymore and I snap awake to the sound of coughing.

Air.

My body rolls over, drenched with sweat.

Without thinking, I blurt out, “Daa??”

Being tired is one thing. Being tired of being tired is something else entirely.

Everyday is warfare and I decide that survival is not the only game I want to play. So I run away.

Tony asks me right as I’m about to leave, “Hey man, where you going?”

“Far away.”

“How far?”

“Like 100 miles far. San Diego.”

He thinks about it for a minute.

“Can I come?”

I smile and a piece of my heart melts.

There is much caffeine, heart-to-heart storytelling, and stupid fun. Before the day is over, I already get the feeling that this is my favorite day of the semester.

Two pounds of burritos and two hours of freestyle rapping later, we get home and I accidentally step into quicksand.

I feel myself sinking slowly into a black hole of isolation.

Everything is sharp.

Oh no.
No, not this again.

I close my eyes and start counting.

One.

“The tiredness is descending on you…”

But my heart continues to beat faster. I can’t breathe.

What do I do.

Remember your combat training.

I glance at a piece of paper titled “Grounding Techniques” on my desk.

Okay. We’re gonna do this. We’re gonna get out of here.

“God?”, I say out loud.
“I don’t know if you’re there but I’m gonna tell you about my day, okay?”

I start muttering under my shaky breath. Waves threaten to swallow me in their ebb and flow and I struggle to stay afloat. I fight to stay alive, and I fight for the will to keep fighting, with memory as my weapon of choice.

I end up whispering to God – or myself, I don’t know – for the next hour straight, occasionally pausing to ask myself, “Am I going crazy?”

I fall asleep that night.

And while I may have been totally crazy, this was a victory.

Because finally, for the first time in far too long,

I opened my mouth.

After a while, swimming through black holes becomes a thing I can somewhat get the hang of. Combat training gets more interesting, because I’m learning to fight for things other than waking up, showing up to social functions, and eating.

The Man with No Mouth stops showing up at night.

If depression is a storm, I had looked into its eye and seen it pass.

For once, life was more than struggling to keep my head afloat.
For once, I was not drowning.

Before I know it, I’m hearing my therapist’s last words. My combat training is complete and her job is done, at least for now.

I pick up a habit of opening my mouth before going to bed each night. Some nights, I talk with Tony, or I text Evelyn. Other nights, I whisper to God, or myself, like a crazy person.

Sleep isn’t a thing I need to fight for anymore. I remember the peacefulness of floating on my back and allowing the lazy river’s current carry me to my dreams. I remember looking up in the sky and wondering if I’m floating in water or floating in space.

The River is not such a terrifying place anymore.
I can sleep soundly, and the Dark Things decide that this just will not do.

One night, I am floating on my back and gazing at the stars, when they swim up to me and tilt my body to its side.

One.

But I am drifting off so I do not notice.

Half my mouth and nose is submerged.

Two.

My heart beats faster and faster.

My lungs are filling up.

Three.

But I pay no mind. I am hypnotized.

Four.

The current picks up and the sound of rushing water crescendos, as does my heart beat.

Five.

Wake up, my body attempts to warn me.

Six.

But I’m trained to tune out voices now. All sounds are muffled at this point.

Everything is fuzzy.

Seven.

Drifting on and on,

my head is so numb that it feels like I am flying,

Eight.

yet sinking,

in slow motion,

Nine.

because everything is so, so heavy,

like lead weights,

that I cannot breathe anymore,

closer and closer,

until,

– I snap awake to the sound of coughing.

Air.

My body rolls over, drenched.

Today, I opened my journal and wrote with shaky hands,

“How long can you hold your breath underwater? How much can your body take before you lose your mind?

I’m starting to believe that my body and my soul have a much closer relationship than I had previously assumed. They should be working in sync to each other, but some connection, some cable between the two has snapped inside me.

My mind wakes up before my body does and I see things no one should ever see. Like when the anesthetics fail to kick in, and glitch during surgery.

Now, parts of my body that aren’t ever supposed fall asleep are doing just that.

My body is suffering from a severe drought of rest, and I’m starting to wonder how much more it can take before I lose my mind, too.

That perhaps, this insomnia is not just a beast of the flesh.”

– I put my pen down.

Tony is already asleep and I am envious, yet happy for him.

I turn off the alarm app and throw my phone across the room.
I look over at the box of Ambien sitting on my nightstand for a good minute or two, then throw the box across the room, too.

I turn my body to its side and put a pillow behind my back to keep myself from rolling over during the night.

I start counting.

One.

You can already feel the tiredness descending on you, like a blanket…

 

 

// pt ii – pomatophobia

**Tony and Evelyn are real person(s), given aliases for storytelling and privacy purposes.