by Sydney Tammarine
Barycenter (or barycentre; from the Ancient Greek βαρύς heavy + κέντρον centre): the center of mass of two or more bodies that are orbiting each other, or the point around which they both orbit.
Things your new doctor says I am not to ask you in the middle of a dissociative event:
Where are we?
What’s my name?
What’s your name?
How old are you?
What is my name?
Look at me
Look at me
Look at me
Last night I found you huddled in the corner of our bedroom, wide awake and shaking. This was similar but not identical to that time one year ago when I broke down the bathroom door with a hammer to find you curled in a C-shape on the tile, the way you perhaps had slept in your mother’s womb. Both times, you said you were sorry. You had lain surrounded by the glass of a shattered fifth of Jack Daniel’s Old No. 7, and twenty-seven acetaminophen 500mg/diphenhydramine-hydrochloride 25mg pills, which I scooped into the sink to count and subtract from the number on the packaging (100) to estimate the intake (seventy-three, or 36,500 mg, with an error margin of five to ten pills that I might have missed laying under your still, silenced body). It’s not the diphenhydramine-hydrochloride that will kill you. It’s the acetaminophen, and it’s slow. I didn’t know that part until later. People on internet forums say they’d rather burn to death than die from acetaminophen poisoning. Sometimes teenagers overdose on Tylenol PM and wake up the next morning—feeling heavy and nauseous but sickeningly, gloriously alive—and then three days later, right in the middle of doing homework or playing video games or something, they collapse. It snakes its way through the blood to shut down your liver. The Emergency Medical Technician told me all this with one eyebrow raised, his shiny black work shoes behind your curled body on the floor, as if I was hiding the real number from him, as if he was daring me, as if he would wait forever until I got just the right number, counting the blue pills two by two in the sink.
I’ve never told anyone this, but you’d tried to kill yourself in the five-dollar tie-dyed Rastafarian cat T-shirt that I’d put in your Christmas stocking that year as a gag gift. It was hysterical, can’t you see? It was so unbearably funny how you wore that red-yellow-green shirt with an orange kitten with black dreadlocks and a fat blunt stuffed in its mouth your first week in the psych ward. After seven days the receptionist kindly told me I could drop off one change of clothes for you, so I went to Walmart and bought another: this one tie-dyed blue and purple behind a grey cat whose sunglasses reflected the entire galaxy, all the stars and planets, captured for one brief and beautiful moment in static, swirling motion.
I brought you, too, a notebook with Franz Wright’s “Written with a Baseball-Bat Sized Pencil” taped to the cover. You know that poem. You read The Beforelife to me on our first night together, so late the sun was almost rising, our flushed, drunken legs thrown over your futon and each other. Remember, it starts: “You can meet them all here, these people who aren’t coming back?” And it ends: “And who knows, you might be one of them yourself by now, stranger things have happened—”? I asked you to write down all the interesting characters I was so sure you’d meet there, but you just shook your head and told me, “You know, it’s not like that. It’s not actually all that fun here.” I thought you’d misunderstood, but looking back, I’m sure it was me who had not been listening all along.
Definitions I never thought I’d know before you, and can now recite like prayer, in full diagnostic language:
DISSOCIATIVE AMNESIA (also known as Psychogenic Amnesia): the inability to recall important personal information, usually of a traumatic or stressful nature. The most common of all dissociative disorders, frequently seen in hospital emergency rooms.
DISSOCIATIVE FUGUE (AKA PSYCHOGENIC FUGUE): a sudden, unexpected travel away from home, accompanied by an inability to recall one’s past and confusion about personal identity. Individuals in a Dissociative Fugue state appear normal to others.
DEPERSONALIZATION DISORDER: a persistent or recurrent feeling of being detached from one’s own mental processes or body, as if watching one’s life from outside one’s body, similar to watching a movie.
DISSOCIATIVE IDENTITY DISORDER (PREVIOUSLY MULTIPLE PERSONALITY DISORDER): the presence of two or more distinct identities or personality states that recurrently take control of one’s behavior. These dissociated states are not fully-formed personalities, but rather fragments of identity that remember different aspects of autobiographical information. There is usually a host personality who identifies with the client’s real name and is not aware of the presence of other alters.
DISSOCIATIVE DISORDER NOT OTHERWISE SPECIFIED (DDNOS): dissociative presentations that do not meet the full criteria for any other dissociative disorder, occurring independently or concurrent with other illnesses such as post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, or schizophrenia.
In the early days I read these to you like a test: A, B, C, or D? None of the above? All of the above? I even switched the order around periodically, to avoid test-taker and/or proctor bias.
The morning after you forget my name for the first time, I sit in the dark and watch television and try not to smoke cigarettes in our new apartment with its shitty paint job and toxic new-carpet smell. I try not to think about how alone we are together, 350 miles from Columbus, in a city where our health insurance doesn’t work. I try not to think about how we are here because of me, my insistence that a fresh start in the mountain air—rolling thick and real in sweet, cold clouds—might heal us, when what I’d really wanted was escape. Escape from the white bathroom tiles and its door that didn’t lock, not anymore, and the pencils you’d brought home that I tried to give away, which kept turning back up on my classroom floor, even weeks later. On the television, Detective Rossi and the Criminal Minds gang are hunting a serial killer who, like Ed Gein (and you), cared for a mother paralyzed by multiple strokes until her death. Like Ed Gein (but not like you), the killer has begun hunting women to dress up in coats made from their skin. I feel like I am wearing someone else’s skin. “What will we do?” the stoic supervisory special agent Hotchner asks, voice faltering in an uncharacteristic moment of humanity and weakness. “We will attack it with analysis and diligence,” Detective Rossi says, grim but admirable, determined. You are still asleep in the next room. I think about how to attack this, this faceless monster wearing your face, with analysis and diligence.
Around midnight I had come into the bedroom to find you wide awake, staring out the uncovered window. You had ripped the blinds right off the wall, probably from trying to draw them closed too fast, probably because you thought someone was watching you from the darkness, and now you sat cross-legged on the floor, spine strangely and precisely erect, with all the white panels fanning out around you. You were rocking side to side, hands clenching and unclenching, fingernails curling in to scrape the tender flesh of your palms. I gave you my hands to hold, do you remember? You were repeating the names of people long gone, but you were not gone, not yet, and I tried to remind you. I gave you both my hands to hold, which meant I had to crawl down onto the stiff carpet with you, let you warp my knuckles in your grip. Do you remember how we used to press our hands together, how I laughed at your short, stocky fingers ending exactly where my brittle, narrow ones did? Things I did not ask you: who I was, who you were, what would happen to us. Things you told me: Karen, Anne, James, Bricker. The names of people you had known in another life, people dead and buried, whom you wanted to save, desperately, as I wanted to save you now. I held both your hands and repeated their names back to you, one of which was your mother’s, and wondered if this—this separation from myself, watching my thumbs rhythmically stroke your knuckles while fear scaled the bones of my ribcage, clamoring up toward my mouth—was really any different from what was happening inside your head.
Things you have said after I’ve asked you my name:
3206 (your mother’s hospital room)
Dr. Bakker (your mother’s doctor)
You didn’t mean to (what you’d say after your mother threw things at you)
I’m sorry (directed at me)
I’m sorry (directed at your mother)
I’m sorry (directed at yourself)
Please don’t die (perhaps directed at me, or your mother, or one of the severed limbs you were trained to save on a Navy hospital ship, four years and 6,800 miles away)
The truth is, I do not know what it means to write down a trauma that is not my own but is so intrusive that it feels like it might be. I do not know what it would mean to forget who that ache belongs to. I want to write down what it means to live with—to love—someone who wants to give me everything, but at any moment can take away anything I’ve ever wanted, at least for an hour or two at a time, once a month or so, depending on the weather, environmental factors, various dosages. I wonder if, in this very act of recording, I am dissecting, dissociating these memories. I am making the like unlike and the unlike alike; I am seeing all at once the blue of your pills and the dusty pink of our Ohio sunrise and red of the pencils from the suicide ward in my students’ little hands—I am seeing all of these at once, and sometimes I feel so overwhelmingly present, as if everything I write only exists because I have made it so, and then sometimes I don’t see myself in it, not at all, not even a little.
Sydney Tammarine is (depending on the day) a Spanish teacher, translator, and writer currently pursuing her MFA at Hollins University. She once convinced a frozen yogurt company to run a coupon series she wrote all about yeti feet. Her work has appeared in Quiz & Quill and The Missing Slate, and her most recent book of literary translations, Diez Odas para Diez Grabados, is forthcoming in Santiago, Chile, from Taller 99.
Image credit: Malik Earnest on Unsplash