“Everything is precarious.”
That is what my wife, Abi, says every time some object or other in our house that is dubiously positioned — you know, in a janky, hinky kind of way — inevitably and, usually dramatically, falls to the ground.
And she’s right; everything is precarious. The odd lamps on tiny tables, the figurines who hobnob a bit too close together on the mantel. The pile of financial papers we’re too scared to deal with shoved into that file thing mounted on the kitchen wall. The wires inside the engine compartment of our antique Volkswagen Beetle. The wires inside our heads.
Some VW wires got crossed the other day, and the Bug crapped out on the grounds of Norristown State Hospital. I was dropping off a retirement present to a former colleague of mine who was moving on to a different career, after 39 years. Every now and then, I find myself back on that campus, because, well, everything is precarious.
An EMT pushed the little 1,600-pound car, with me in it, down the path and I tried to pop the car into gear, but it was of no avail. Herbie came to rest just outside The Arthur Noyes Forensics Facility, colloquially and frighteningly known as Building 51. It’s a locked, high-security facility and I think you can probably guess why. While I was on the phone with AAA, I heard voices coming from inside Building 51, first muffled, and then,
“THAT’S HERBIE THE LOVE BUG!”
I turn my back to Building 51 and press the phone closer to my ear, hoping that the pressure bearing down will crack my skull and that a piece of bone will go straight through my brain.
“Sir? Are you and your vehicle in a safe location?”
“Uh,” I stammer, “define ‘safe’.”
“THAT IS HERBIE. THE FUCKING. LOVE. BUG!”
“Uh, yeah,” I say, “I’m here.”
But, really, am I? Am I here? I almost feel as if I’m dissociating due to the stress and absurdity of breaking down in a 55-year-old Volkswagen done up as The Love Bug on the grounds of a state hospital while being screamed at by locked up patients through an opened, barred window on a mid-April day. But that is what is happening, because wires and fuel hoses and distributors and carburetors.
The Bug goes over bumps and WHEEEEEE! everything jostles and justles and jangles and jiggles. Sometimes it’s okay, and sometimes things come loose.
Back when I worked at the psych hospital on the grounds of Norristown State, things were coming loose. I wasn’t eating or sleeping. When I did sleep, I would often wake up and shoot up in bed with a start and gasp and Abi would therapeutically push me back down flat on the mattress. I would turn away from her and stare at the clock with dried out eyes and sweat rolling down the small of my back. My shift started at 7:00am, but most days I would roll into work before 5:30 — you know, just to get a jump on the paperwork. The night nurses who would still have an hour-and-a-half left in their shifts, must have all thought I was crazy. And they were right.
This was happening because synapses and neurotransmitters and amygdala and genetics.
At around this same time, we used to have an antique bed-frame that belonged to Abi’s grandmother. It was hanky and janky and the mattress would frequently fall off the frame — and no sexual gymnastics were necessary to accomplish this feat either. Sometimes, just getting into the bed was enough to prompt a nocturnal collapse. When this would happen, my dear sweet wife, bereft of what mental health professionals quaintly call “coping skills” would bang her head against the bedroom wall. She would cry out, to nobody in particular, I don’t think, “EVERYTHING IS PRECARIOUS!” And I would hold her, and she would cry into my shoulder and we would put the mattress back, gingerly getting into bed as if we were thieves trying to avoid setting off motion detectors in an attempt to steal the Pink Panther diamond and, somehow, the next day would happen.
I asked my therapist today if he thought I was actually mentally ill. He smiled at me. “What if you’re not?” he asked.
“Then I’m fraud,” I answered, “writing about having anxiety and depression if I don’t actually have it.”
“Well,” he said, “you’re not like those guys in Building 51, right? I mean, mental illness is a continuum, like everything. You’re able to function in spite of your mental health diagnoses and, yes, you do have some. Maybe just try not to think about it all so much.”
Abi hasn’t banged her head against the wall in years, and the repair shop just called. A wire. A stupid fucking 55-year-old German Nazi dumbfuck wire. $37.10. Sometimes the price of precariousness is cheap enough.