That autumn there was such a simple elegance to my own devastation that I didn’t think anybody else needed to know. I felt as if I had been ravaged beyond recognition. I refused to call my mother, and I refused to call my father, I refused to call my brother or my sister or even Tristan. Instead, one cloudy afternoon, I called the first helpline that popped up on a search engine and listened to a stranger’s silence when I told him that I constantly felt like I was about to fall face-first into a puddle and drown.
I was too privileged to be anxious and depressed, and I was too happy to be this miserable. If I had a panic attack, I didn’t tell anyone. If I hadn’t slept the night before, I didn’t say so. If someone asked me whether I’d eaten, I said yes. If someone asked me whether anything was wrong, I said no.
Abruptly, I began to think about all the different ways I could kill myself, if I weren’t so stubbornly focused on staying alive just so I could keep hating myself.
Under no circumstances was I going to tell her that I loved her. Keeping that a secret was more important than being honest about how I felt like I was slowly being pulled apart piece by piece.
My thoughts were a wild animal rattling the cage of its own bones: Where was she? What was she doing? Who was she with? What was she thinking? How was she feeling? Was she thinking of me?
I surprised myself when I ran into someone I knew. I told them about my plans, my goals, what I’d done over the weekend. I assumed the role of student, teammate, child, sibling, friend. I chatted. I laughed. I did it so convincingly that I scared myself. I became amazed at my ability to project a careful image of myself onto someone else’s blank stare.
I thought about holiday plans, summer plans, job opportunities in the sciences, MFA applications, things that might happen at the end of the semester, at the end of the year, in a few years. I wasn’t even sure whether I would make it to the end of the week, to the end of the day. I made plans for the upcoming months even though I felt that I couldn’t think clearly about the future, even though I wasn’t sure whether I’d still be alive by then.
I asked myself how I was going to get through the rest of my life. I broke down. I cried. I screamed. I lay face down on the floor in my basement when nobody else was home. I decided that I was insane. Insane people don’t think that they’re insane. So I wasn’t insane. But if I didn’t think I was insane, I was probably insane. Either way, I was insane, but I didn’t tell anyone. I became a caricature of myself and had trouble recognizing the authenticity of my own feelings. Eventually, I began to doubt whether there was anything wrong with me at all. Like an automaton, I wrote my papers, went to class, went to practice, worked out at the gym.
One morning, I sat on the floor of a bathroom stall in the basement of the student services building and cried until I got a stabbing migraine, and then I panicked because I thought it might be a brain tumour and that I would die. I wanted to die. And I knew that someday I would. But that didn’t make me feel better. Somehow, it only made me feel worse.
Before my first several sessions at the sexual identity clinic, I sat for twenty-five minutes in an entryway with cluttered cork boards and sickly yellow walls, waiting to be called in. Every time, my anxiety threatened to choke all the air out of my body as I sat there, almost thirty minutes early for every session. My appointments were always at nine in the morning, on Tuesdays, because I only started class at eleven-thirty. But my day was usually shot after that. The best way I can describe my first therapy sessions is to compare them to throwing up when you have gastro – you feel really empty and drained, and a little better, but you know you’re definitely still sick.
Sitting in my chair in that entryway, on a cushion that was an ugly shade of orange, I thought about walking out of the clinic every single time. My hands were sweaty; I could feel my heart pounding. I think it might’ve been the fifth session when Dr Franklin asked me about my anxiety in relation to the clinic itself.
“Are you anxious right now?”
She left the office and returned a few seconds later with a heart rate monitor. It looked like it hadn’t seen the light of day since the nineteen-eighties, and just the sight of it made me nervous. She pulled up my sleeve and wrapped the band around my forearm and fixed the clip onto my finger. My resting heart rate was apparently one hundred beats per minute. I was either suffering from a heart condition or constantly jogging.
“Close your eyes,” Dr Franklin said, removing the contraption and freeing up my arm. “Take a few deep breaths. Take your time.”
I did. A few minutes later, when she asked me whether I felt calmer, I said yes. She took my heart rate again and when I opened my eyes, I could see that it had shot up to one hundred and twenty beats per minute.
We concluded that I wasn’t too fond of the heart rate monitor and Dr Franklin scuttled it back into its dusty, pre-twenty-first century holding cell. A half-hour later, we checked my heart rate again by counting my pulse for ten seconds and then multiplying by six, something I’d done many times with my team at soccer practice. This time, in the absence of a dusty old contraption that triggered my fear of the unknown and uncontrollable, my heart rate was a normal sixty-two beats per minute. It reminded me of my drinking that summer, and of how good it felt to be completely unself-conscious, how calm I could feel if I managed to be totally outside of my own head. I had always been able to use sleep, study, or soccer to do that. But now, without alcohol, the only recourse I felt I had left was – ironically – to try being acutely aware of myself, in a psychiatrist’s office for a whole hour at a time, so that maybe by examining all the different parts of myself I could eventually learn to keep them from suffocating me from the inside.
My initial impression of Dr Franklin, when I met her that first session in November, was that she was really good with people. Which makes sense, and I felt comfortable with her right away. She called me into her office and instead of turning around to walk straight out of the clinic, I shuffled to her door, stepped into the room, and waited for her motion before I sat down in a bright red sofa chair, which was closer to the ground than it looked, and that made it feel like I’d missed a step going up the stairs, but with my behind. The chair was right beside a large desk, which was covered in Post-It notes and books and files and pens and papers. The desk and the sofa chair were arranged side by side, in such a way that their occupants could face one another. Behind the desk was an enormous filing cabinet, which filled up another corner of the small room; across from the cabinet was the door, in the third corner; and the last corner was home to a huge bookshelf full of textbooks and binders. The wall across from me was papered with diplomas and photos and drawings and fliers. The office wasn’t cluttered, but its small size made it seem fuller than it was. My favourite thing in it was a tiny cactus on the window sill by the filing cabinet, right across from me. Over the next several months, when we were tackling something really difficult and I felt like I couldn’t look Dr Franklin in the eye, I would talk to the cactus.
That first meeting was a get-to-know-each-other session, which I couldn’t take too seriously. I don’t think a patient is ever supposed to know too much about their psychiatrist, even though I crossed those boundaries pretty quickly. One thing I learned right away was that Dr Franklin and I would get along; that she was sharp, and affable, and funny. It wouldn’t take me long to realize that she was exactly my type. She must’ve been in her mid-forties, average height, short dark hair, blue eyes. I wouldn’t describe her as pretty, or beautiful, necessarily. Instead I felt that she was dignified, elegant, and attractive.
She asked me a lot of basic questions: my height and weight, my family history, my levels of exercise, what I studied at school, what situations made me feel sad or anxious, when I’d started to question my sexuality. I answered everything as honestly as I could.
I’d decided earlier that first morning that I wouldn’t be keeping Angela Damon a secret from my therapist. As much as it still hurt, as difficult as it would be to dig up something that still felt so huge and sprawling and terrifying, I knew I would never be able to get away with not mentioning it, and that there would be no point in being a patient at the clinic if I went in with something to hide.
I heard myself laying out the facts as if I were describing one of my soccer games. It sounded so ordinary when I said it out loud. But even as I spoke the words, I could feel my heart rate picking up again because this was supposed to be a secret, this was supposed to be something that I wasn’t going to tell anyone, this was supposed to be something I would take to the grave.
“It became like an addiction,” I said quietly. “And I think I became addicted to her because she made me feel like I mattered. Like I was important.”
There was a mountain of things I wanted to discuss and we hadn’t even scraped the surface. We didn’t even talk about Adèle that first day. I mentioned her, but obviously she was too big a topic to broach in one session right at the beginning. When I was done explaining about Angela Damon, just the basics, not the details, Dr Franklin looked at me without saying anything. Then she said: “Isn’t that a human thing, to want someone to care about you and to make you feel important?”
And then, not unkind, but unabashed, unreserved, she asked: “Why are you crying?”
It was my first time crying in front of someone for as long as I could remember. I hadn’t been a big crier as a little kid, but as I got older, I learned to cry only in private, if I ever did – in my bed, or in an empty room, or in a bathroom stall.
“It’s okay to be human,” she said quietly, as the tears streamed down my face.
After that first session, I found the nearest bathroom and cried for another half-hour, feeling like there was something enormous and terrifying that had grabbed hold of me a long time ago, and that I was just starting to understand. I hadn’t answered Dr Franklin’s question. I thought about it a lot after I finally left the hospital. My next appointment was scheduled for a month later, just before the holiday break. What I eventually concluded was that my immediate and overwhelming reaction to what she had said – about being human and wanting to be cared about and made to feel important – was an enormous fountain of relief, and its source was a dark, starving place deep inside me.
Excerpt from Catch and Release by Liana Cusmano (Guernica 2022).
Liana Cusmano is an associate editor at Accenti and fiction editor at Carte Blanche Magazine. They are a writer, editor, filmmaker, spoken word artist, and the 2018 Montreal Slam Champion. Their work explores cultural heritage, sexual orientation and gender identity, relationships, and mental health. Catch and Release is their first book.