Nightfall. The campus lay abandoned, every student nestled into the warmth of their dorms as they crammed for mid-terms. Every student save two.
My girlfriend and I were walking down the stone paths, winding through the buildings cloaked in darkness, as we made our way to one of the clearings near the dorms. It was one of several walks we took in the wake of twilight. She knew it was one of the only ways to keep me calm. The dorms were suffocating, with the whispers and busy activity of my classmates as they tried to make sense of my existence. Classrooms were too loud, swift, and crowded. I rarely stayed beyond a lecture or two.
It wasn’t long before rumors started circulating. The whispers got louder, carrying into my own dorm room. My mind had started echoing them back at me, a constant reminder of their judgment. Freak. Weirdo. Nutjob. They started appearing on the whiteboard fixed to my door post. Dyke. Creep. Psycho. No one ever left their name.
Darkness began to consume my life, both literally and metaphorically. My surroundings and even my own thoughts would become distorted into something terrifying. As the nights droned on, shadows in my dorm room would contort themselves into threatening figures. The whispers continued to grow, overcoming the thoughts in my head. I would remain silent for hours on end, worried that the whispers would emerge from my lips as ink and infect my loved ones. At another point, I had become convinced that the static in the carpet was going to devour me. My girlfriend and my roommate tried to calm me by covering the floor with blankets. It worked, but only for a time. Eventually, the darkness would simply latch onto something else. On the rare occasions where I emerged from my dorm, my classmates would look upon me either with disgust or pity, which only made the darkness worse.
The walks took me away from the people putting me on edge but they were far from relaxing. Panic set in every time we approached the clearing. I could feel it bubbling up from my gut, once again threatening to consume me. The campus was nestled between fall and winter, so the trees laid bare before us.
There they were. Branches. Shadowy branches reaching into the depth of night, trying to make their claim on the starlit sky above. I wasn’t sure why, but I was convinced they would reach out for me. Each branch, wrapping around my frail frame, crushing the wind out of me as the shadows forced their way into my lungs. They never did, but the vivid imagery came to mind every time. Yet despite this fear, I found myself gravitating toward them even though I wanted to run. I’ve always felt allured by that which terrified me, even as I sunk deeper into the darkness of my own mind. After all, how can you find your way out if you aren’t willing to explore its depths?
This tended to disturb people. Rarely, though often enough and with increasing frequency over the years, it disturbed me. I learned to be ashamed of my own shadows.
Night after night, I wanted to run. My feet had other plans. They always do.
* * *
I tended to wander when the world was intense. Sometimes it was outside, other times through my psyche. Typically, there was some element of both. Environments were carefully chosen for that purpose, though I didn’t realize it at the time. One frequent destination was the network of tunnels snaking beneath the campus.
My girlfriend knew that if I couldn’t be found, check the tunnels. They stretched between the dorms, various classrooms, and the labs. The campus wasn’t designed for Rochester winters. Its linear layout, with buildings running parallel to each other as traffic was funneled between them, resulted in wind tunnels that made commute by foot, bike, or skateboard unbearable. The engineering team decided to build the tunnels as a compromise. They provided shelter between as many buildings as possible, giving students and faculty the ability to shield themselves from the inevitable frostbite as they scurried from class to class. An underground ant maze for those up against the clock, constantly working, constantly running.
Said tunnels weren’t always well-kept. Overhead lights would flicker on the concrete walls, with dirt and grime building up in the crevices. Various posters or street art kept the students up-to-date on what was going on above ground. Unlike the layout of the tunnels, the decorations on the walls were constantly changing. Some were announcements of club meetings or other upcoming events, others murals meant to highlight evolving politics. One mural showed the U.S. history of marijuana use, both medicinally and recreationally, and the subsequent federal campaigns against its use. A handful of posters mentioned the campus LGBTQ alliance, though I never felt comfortable enough to go. Drama club, debate teams, upcoming parties, game nights. The occasional scribble of how the cafeteria food sucks.
I didn’t pay as much attention to those. My focus was on the objects left abandoned along those grime-covered crevices that so many ignored. The objects had a hidden story, making you wonder what the circumstances were to lead to their abandonment. Most objects were mundane. A bottle cap here, defunct headphones there. It was the stranger objects that drew my focus. A creepy doll with the face partially scraped off. Tiny figurines laid out in a mock battle, gone within the week. At one point, a handful of used condoms. An unusual place for them, but hey.
Like the clearings above ground, I found myself gravitating toward the tunnels. They felt like a physical manifestation of the labyrinth my mind had become. The little things that get lost in the heat of the moment, scattered across the ground, only observable when you take the time to explore each nook and cranny. The filth of time creeping up along the walls, hiding what used to be fresh. Lights cutting in and out like fleeting memory, highlighting what the labyrinth contains at unpredictable intervals. At night, they were nigh-abandoned, which is when the untold stories were the loudest. It’s easy to lose the meaning in a sea of busy feet as students rush from one end of campus to another. When you’re the only one wandering, you can take as much time as you like to reflect on what is forgotten.
The untold story was often lost when attempting to communicate with people, including providers. They kept telling me I was hallucinating and that the only solution was pills. Make the noise go away by way of chemicals. A neurobiological cleaning crew coming to sweep away the abandoned objects of my mind, making it clean and fresh for anyone that came wandering by.
For a while, I complied. I ran from that which frightened me the most, my own thoughts. Take the pills and numb it out. Yet still I wandered, my feet carrying me to darkness I didn’t care to acknowledge. I gravitated toward my own answers whether I realized it or not.
* * *
I never did like the pills much. They made me hazy. It was difficult to connect to my feelings or the outside world. The longer I was on them, the less I could remember and the harder it became to express myself in the written word. My partner didn’t like them, either. Said they made me a zombie. Ultimately, they were the one to decide I was going to stop them, but I never picked them back up once I realized I could think better. I needed that connection to my inner darkness to make sense of myself.
After I left the campus, I spent the next several years trying to find meaning in my thoughts through art. The pills had been abandoned by then. I grew accustomed to the abstract metaphor of my psyche and infused each new piece with objects previously lost. That was my new way of communicating to partners when words failed me. It became a mind game between us: guess the key components and the symbolism they represent. The art and subsequent mind games became my new tunnels to wander as I tried to make sense of my own head. Yet as time passed, I became increasingly frustrated when they couldn’t find the symbols I meant them to. Even in my attempts to tell my story, the message got lost in the noise of conventional interpretation.
Still, it was a necessary process, if not for them then for me. I had to stop running from the specters of my past that threatened to overcome me. I didn’t know that’s what I was doing at the time, but it was. I was learning to become more comfortable in the shadows. Those shadows were a part of me just as everything else was. It was only in confronting and learning to accept them that I could center the focus on individual pieces casting them.
Wandering doesn’t seem so frightening anymore. True, there are still strange objects that disturb me. I’m not sure there will ever be a time where they don’t. It’s in the strange, often times disturbing, that the most meaning can be found. Light shines brightest in the dark. The branches, previously terrifying, instead raise me toward the stars.
My feet forever explore the maze of my soul. Whether they do so alone or with the company of a trusted friend, I’ve grown comfortable with waiting to see where they lead me.
Mad in America hosts blogs by a diverse group of writers. These posts are designed to serve as a public forum for a discussion—broadly speaking—of psychiatry and its treatments. The opinions expressed are the writers’ own.