My Depakote Regimen
by Matt Briggs
A DEPAKOTE DREAM IS UNLIKE A PAXIL DREAM. It is unlike any of the dreams I don’t remember from before I began my chemical regimen. I don’t remember my old dreams exactly, but I know I had them. I would wake with a flash of something: a boat on a clear lake, the sound of a train on tracks. When I woke from my Depakote sleep, I woke with nothing. I didn’t remember sleep. Rather, the alarm made a noise. I pressed the sound off, and then I climbed out of bed and consulted my memory. With Depakote, I had no idea how I feel. This was a state I desired for those sleepless months before I went to the hospital. I wanted all sensation to end. It was too much. Now all sensation had stopped, and I felt as if my mind was a pond that had been frozen since before the last Ice Age.
It would seem unlikely that given my mental state I would begin a romance. Somehow, I met a man named Bruce. He lived in a rooming house in downtown Everett.
I felt I should feel something about Bruce. I didn’t even know whether I liked him. He was just another body like me in the world, no different from any other piece of furniture. While I felt that a body should be the opposite of a chair, a chair in fact was a reflection of everything a body was not. There it was. I had been medically flattened to the point where I could have been a pinewood plank. I hoped that Bruce would somehow split my abnormal calm and make me feel something.
We were going on a camping trip to the Skagit Valley. Only three hours away, the Skagit was a nearby wild river valley in the Cascade Mountains. A soft rain fell in the morning.
The across town traffic was light. When I arrived at the rooming house downtown, an old brick building with a view of Puget Sound and normally all the mountains around Everett, the rain had become heavy. I could see that it was coming down from low laying clouds – water that evaporated from the heat yesterday and now as the rising run warmed the air it released the water. I’d expected Bruce to be waiting for me on the stoop. He hid inside.
I parked and climbed the three flights of stairs to his door. I could hear a kettle on his range. I knocked. The hallway smelled of encrusted dust, old plush carpet, fried eggs, and scalded coffee coming from the apartments. Bruce opened the door. He wore a t-shirt with holes in odd spots. I could see a nipple through one hole. Long strands of black, curly hair pushed out. He had showered and combed his hair back like a gangster. He had even trimmed his beard. “Come in,” he said. “Breakfast?”
“Yes,” I said. I sat down at the table overlooking the parking lot, the roof of the 7-11, and then the asphalt grounds of the City Hall. The sound of the drizzle falling on the pavement came up from the parking lot.
“It’s pissing rain outside,” Bruce said.
“It’ll let up soon. It’s a morning rain. The forecast calls for heat.”
“Since when were the weathermen right?” Bruce said. “They can’t see the future. No one knows anything except we are all going to die.” He shoveled out a clumped mass of eggs. “Tea?”
“Do you have any coffee?”
“I can’t drink caffeine,” Bruce said. “I have herbal teas. Lemon zinger, peppermint pot, English Rose?”
“I need coffee,” I said.
“Even the smell gives me a panic attack,” Bruce said. “I can run across the street to the 7-11 and get you a cup of coffee?”
“Water is fine,” I said. “Thank you for the breakfast. I’ll pick up a cup on the way to the mountains.”
“It is raining,” Bruce said.
I looked at him. I felt the massive weight of nothing on me from the medicine. I didn’t know how to deal with this. “The rain will let up. You’ll feel like an idiot if you don’t go. By noon it will be hot. You’ll look out and see nothing but mountains.”
“It could rain for days.”
“It will let up,” I said.
I ate his eggs, but they were as dry as fiberglass puffs.
He grabbed his shirt, hat, and backpack, and we walked down the steps. “I want to drive,” he said. “I want to take my car. I am taking you on this trip.”
“Okay,” I said.
I grabbed my pack and then followed him out to the parking lot. He stopped in front of a Chevy Celebrity that might have once been blue or green and was now the color of rusty ditch water. It was full of stray fast-food bags and newspaper. He popped the trunk. No dead bodies. We placed our bags back there. He opened the door for me. The seat crumbled under me like a bag full of packing peanuts. The car actually smelled all right because of all the newsprint. It smelled a bit like a bookstore. He didn’t smoke, which would be a problem for me when I needed a cig.
He sat next to me. He wore a heavy wool shirt and a knitted Peruvian hat with flaps that came down either side of his head. The car didn’t turn over. He smiled at me. “Takes a bit to get her going.”
“We can take my car,” I said.
“I’m the one taking you to the mountains,” he said.
“Better to have a car that can get us there and back,” I said. But, as soon as I said this, I could see I made a mistake. He bent his head down. He closed his eyes, and then he turned the switch and the car rumbled to life, belching blue exhaust. The smoke tasted like a battery terminal.
He reversed. We were on the street.
“My coffee,” I said.
“We passed the 7-11,” he said. “We missed it.”
“There is a Starbuck’s,” I said.
“Depends on what you like,” he said. “I can’t have coffee.”
We pulled into the lot. “I’ll keep her running,” he said.
I stood in line. There was the early morning jazz. There was the sound of people murmuring at the tables. I ordered my coffee and ordered herbal tea for him. I looked back out at the parking lot. It was so clean and presentable inside the store. And then, there was his car sitting between two sparkling sport-utes, a wedge of rust, exhaust, and yellowing newsprint. Thinking about it know I should have felt something – revulsion maybe or an endearing sense of sympathy since he was trying to take me to the mountains. Instead, I noted where he was and that it would be polite to get him a drink, too.
When I came back to the car, he looked at me with my two drinks. “You sure need some coffee,” he said.
I handed him his drink. “They had herbal tea,” I said.
“They did?” he said
He took his tea, and he took a drink. “This is wonderful,” he said. “What a treat!”
He backed the car out, and we drove to the mountains.
In the car I wondered what I was feeling. I didn’t know. I could feel the car seat and the warm air coming from the heater. I could smell the whiff of burning oil in the heating system. I could feel the world, but even these sensations came through as a somewhat dim register of fact. They weren’t colored with any emotion. Normally, I might feel something, guilt maybe, that Bruce drove his car when I had a much better car. Maybe I would remember I had to change the oil in my own car. I would try to remind myself. There was a peace in how I felt, but it didn’t feel like real peace. It is one thing if a lake is still, and the water placidly laps the shores and out in the depth, the surface lies as smooth as a countertop. It is another thing if the lake is frozen, and there isn’t any sound because it is all ice and snow. A placid lake is a dynamic system at rest. The other isn’t a system at all, but a system in stasis. It registered with me that I was in stasis.
I could remember my psychotic break, but it was like remembering the US invasion of Grenada. There had been an executive order by President Reagan. Shots had been fired. I woke one morning convinced that the people I worked with had joined in a conspiracy against me and that they could prove beyond a doubt my criminal inclinations. I had committed serious crimes against the world. I don’t remember what they were. The types of crimes were unimportant. Rather, I felt the guilt that most likely never actually was felt by criminals who had committed grievous crimes against humanity. I suppose Hitler never lost any sleep except toward the end. Did Stalin have to count sheep before he fell into a deep slumber? I could not sleep for the harm I thought I had done. After three days of not sleeping and hiding out in my house, I packed my bags and began to drive to the mountains to hide and that is when I lost any sense of what had happened to me. I woke several days free of the guilt, exhausted, and jittery strapped to a hospital bed.
Bruce drove for an hour until we climbed into the foothills of the Cascade Mountains. In front of us, the sharp peaks rose into the clouds. Behind us, the valleys still lay shrouded in mist. The sun was out in the farms around Darrington. Cattle chewed on grass. Water flowed in brown, churning water in the ditches. Steam rose from the dark asphalt on the highway.
“Do we need lunch?” Bruce asked as he drove into Darrington. The small farming town had been filled with hippies in the late sixties. It still retained the rustic, handmade look they’d brought to the town. Several of the buildings were covered in cedar shakes. A vegan café sat in the middle of the place. There were also grain solos and feed stores. I hated bean sprouts, and hippies seemed obsessed with putting sprouts in everything.
“We just left Everett,” I said.
“Onward!” Bruce said.
“Onward,” I thought. Normally, there would be something comical in that for me. Onward from Darrington, to where? I found myself frowning as I wondered why I just didn’t laugh if I found something comical. Instead, a little voice somewhere within me said, “That was funny.” But immediately after someone said something was funny, it wasn’t.
When I woke in the bed at first, I thought I was in a hospital. The walls were cream, and the bed itself smelled clean. The sheets had been washed recently. I moved my feet in the sheets and then went back to sleep. When I woke again, I had a horrible headache. A nurse in blue scrubs sat in the chair. She handed me a tiny cup with pills and another with water. I placed the pills in my mouth. “Don’t chew them,” she said. “Skittles they’re not.” And then, I swallowed the water. A window overlooked a parking lot, a neighborhood filled with tiny, older houses. The house across from the lot held a tall white fence boarded with sunflowers that hadn’t opened yet, a frame for string beans, and then beyond them all were the clear-cut hillsides filled with stumps and heaps of removed branches.
I felt relief. This was the last emotion I felt before I began to feel like my mind and body had become irrevocably separated.
I discovered when I ate lunch that afternoon that I was in the mental health ward in a hospital in Mount Vernon. I wondered how I had ended up there. I didn’t care because they gave me food. I didn’t even have to think about how I might get my hands on something to eat. I found out from the nurses that I had been there for two days already. I could stay for a while longer, until I felt ready to go home.
I realized I hadn’t done anything wrong. It had been the other way around. I hadn’t done it. I was trying to find something I had done to justify the emotion and sensation I felt in my brain. It was so profoundly gigantic I believed I had to have done something correspondingly profoundly gigantic. I was the one who blew up the dam. I used a Tommy gun at the elementary school. I laced the city drinking water with deadly poison from a brown glass jug. I was relieved because I hadn’t done it – whatever it was – I was sick. That was all. I had a kind of serious brain flu.
After several days a psychiatrist met with me. Her office had lots of plants someone was paid to take care of. They were real because I pinched the leaf off one and then rolled it up into a tiny ball while I listened to her explain that I had a condition.
So that was it. I was mentally ill. Only to say ill implied I would one day well be well. They would begin a regimen of medication to manage the condition.
“You mean, cure it.”
“We can’t cure you,” she said. “We can manage your condition. Many people live very normal lives. They are very high functioning.”
I didn’t understand what she meant. I thought she meant I would be on medication for the rest of my life. “I’ll be able to stop my treatment when I’m better,” I said. “If it is an illness, I can be better.”
“Do you think because you are wearing glasses one day you will not need to wear glasses?”
“This is a similar kind of condition,” the psychiatrist said. “Only instead of your eyes, it is your brain.”
“But pills aren’t glasses,” I said. And man, was I right. The first sequence of pills made me want to throw myself off a bridge. I told her that after two days, and she took me off those pills and tried something else right there in the room.
I felt well enough by this time that I wanted to get back to work and my apartment and see my cats. So, I went home and spent that spring at work and taking pills and considering how they made me feel. And they didn’t make me feel that great. Already, I didn’t feel that emotional about things. They kept trying different things. I’d get up and running on some pill, and they would say, “Well, we can do better.”
They tried Depakote. And it worked great for my mood. It wiped my mood clean away. I didn’t have any mood to be disordered left. I became a flesh-robot. You could hit me with a tire iron, and I wouldn’t feel anything. I would just make the sound of a hollow oil drum.
Somewhere about forty minutes into the North Cascade Wilderness, long after the blacktop had given out, the Chevy ran out of gas. I should have noticed something was wrong because the dial cheerily pointed to “Full” even as the car began to sputter.
“I don’t know what is wrong,” Bruce said.
“It sounds as though you are running out of gas,” I said.
“But the tank is full.”
“Well, I don’t know. I put gas in it recently.”
“Did you put gas into the car today?”
“We are out of gas.” If anyone knows what it is run of gas, it is me. In the lead up to my break, I used to often run out of gas. I just didn’t look, or I thought that somehow, I could keep the car running even without gas. I was crazy. Even then.
Bruce didn’t seem like someone who was crazy. He was just someone who ran out of gas.
“You should pull over, way over to the side of the road, before we lose our momentum and then have to push.”
He pulled the car over into a gravel turnaround on the side of the road. He stepped on the break. Dust flurried around us and settled on the car and even got inside my nose where it smelled like the inside of a vacuum cleaner bag. By noon there was already dust. The weatherman should be fired.
“How do we know it’s the gas?” he asked.
“It sure seemed like the gas to me,” I said. “Unless you know how to check for something else, I think that is our best bet.”
“I should never have brought you out here.”
“This is a fine time,” I said. “An adventure.” I wondered why he didn’t just fess up about the broken dial. It hadn’t budged since we left town.
We didn’t really talk sitting among the ferns and moss waiting for the next car to come. It was nice. I could hear the river down in the valley. Some camp robbers fluttered from tree to tree checking out if we had anything for them. Finally, a sedan came out of the forest driven by a single man with a grey beard and a fishing cap festooned with handmade flies.
I waved, and he stopped.
Bruce stood there and when I realized he wasn’t going to explain the obvious, I said, “We ran out of gas. Broken fuel gauge. Would you mind giving us a lift?”
“Of course,” the man said. We climbed into the back and the man talked to us all the way to the gas station. At the gas station, Bruce didn’t have any money to buy a gas can and gas, so I bought it. The fisherman even offered to drive us back.
“That’s a long way,” I said.
“I like to talk,” he said. And this was true. So, he drove us back to the car, and we listened to him talk and talk. And then he stopped. “I’ll wait to see whether you can get it started again,” the fisherman said.
I poured in the gas. And then, Bruce tried to roll her over. The car sputtered and then died. “Pump the pedal,” I said. I’d been through this before. I drove an entire season driving until there wasn’t an ounce of gas in my car and I had to walk to the station. Bruce pumped the pedal, click hump click hump, and then the car rolled over and started to hum.
“Thanks for the ride,” I said to the fisherman. He left, and I got back into the car and Bruce kept driving and he didn’t talk or say anything, and I wondered if this is what I could tolerate (or even liked?) about him. He hardly made any demands. I could just sit. That fisherman on the other hand was exhausting. I felt obliged to make “mms and “do-says” the entire time he talked.
After I returned from the hospital to work, I couldn’t believe the amount of detail in my life. There was too much to remember day-to-day. How did people remember it all? I didn’t want to try. Instead, I let most of the information, the maintenance of my car, the garbage picks up schedules for my building, the bill due dates, my paycheck dates, my doctor’s appointments, the endless stream of to-dos foisted off on me by my boss – who had time for this? Nothing was difficult, exactly, it was just all too much to keep inside of one brain or rather my brain, which was still soft and fragile and bluish grey from my sojourn in a psychiatric unit.
I imagined during these days that seemed flush with activity and petty tasks how I used to work as a waitress and lived in a tiny apartment. I didn’t own a car. I coveted a pair of black leather boots, and it became my mission to buy them. I scrimped for a month to buy those boots and when I had the figure for those boots, I wore them around until I could hardly walk because of the blisters they left on my heels. I was thrilled. My life as a waitress always remained for me something I could return to if things got bad enough and now, I think they were bad enough.
I began to look at the cheap rooming houses in downtown Everett. In downtown Seattle, the same neighborhoods with proximity to downtown businesses and Puget Sound had been buried under luxury condos. The cheap rooming houses filled with at-home merchant marines, Alaskan fisherman, and seasonal cannery workers had long since faded. In Everett, the neighborhood was still going strong. While looking in the faded and grand lobby of one residential hotel, battered Art Deco decor, chipped tetra cotta architectural ornaments above the sidewalk, I actually saw a man with a peg leg. In a smaller building at the end of the row of residential buildings, Bruce answered the door. He wore a clean white t-shirt with a loose plaid shirt over the top, unbuttoned. He’d shaved and looked relatively handsome. He had an air of derelict chic. He led me to the room they had for rent. I spent more money on gas for a month than I would on the room. He invited me back to his room to talk about the place. We talked. I have to admit I would like to have put more charm into my voice than I could muster. I had just started my Depakote regimen. If I lost track, a string of drool might escape my mouth.
He had books in his room. He had a wide desk covered with papers. He had a typewriter. I told him I’d think about it. He invited me out for coffee.
“Now?” I asked.
“When you can,” he said.
I had coffee. He had tea. I asked him what he did for a job. “I manage the building,” he said. He had thick glasses, and I could barely see his eyes through them. When he took them off, his eyes looked like two naked clams at the bottom of a pit of barnacles. Good thing his glasses were so thick. He said he was between full-time jobs. He’d been working at a huge nursing home outside town for a long time. “But that didn’t work out. I liked the work. Everyone needs you for everything.” And so now he was maybe looking to do something else.
A few days later I drove by the building, and it struck me I could go in and say hello to him. So, I did.
The sun had already crept up the sides of the valley when we managed to get my tent set up. It was an eight-man tent so it would have enough room for two people, but just barely. I wondered if they measured the size of tents by how many bodies, they could stack in them? Our campsite was between the gravel road and the river. The river roared over rapids further upstream. Making our way through the woods for water, we came down to the boulder-strewn bank. The river slicked the blue stones in spray. The river eddied in a huge pool. The other side of the river climbed directly up into the mountains, a gigantic cliff of tree snags, rock faces, and mossy overhangs rising into the daylight way above us. When I got back to the campsite, Bruce actually had a fire going. The area around the campsite was swept clear. He cooked some serviceable food, and we ate and drank soda with ice in it. It all worked out well.
I still didn’t feel anything. I hadn’t felt annoyed when he ran out of gas. I didn’t feel any pleasure now that things were going well, either. It was just a matter of fact that here we were in the dark forest sitting near the firelight.
When I turned in, I zipped my sleeping bag up. I was a little too hot but zipped up I felt somewhat safe next to Bruce. Bruce lay on his side. “Good night,” I said.
“Sleep well,” he said.
He leaned over and laid his hand on my shoulder. “Are you really going to sleep?”
“I’m tired,” I said.
“Here we are in the middle of a forest,” he said.
“I know where we are,” I said. “Sleep tight,” I said.
I didn’t really think about what he had just said. I lay there and oddly in the wood smoke and cool air, I felt somewhat okay and went right to sleep for once in my life.
I woke hours later, and Bruce was hunched over me in the dark. The campfire had gone out. His breath came out in a bluish cloud. I was going to shriek or cry out or do something. I felt that I should maybe do something, and then I thought about it. What harm was he doing? I was the one who came out here with him. I knew what he was like. Let him do what he is going to do. I lay back and closed my eyes and tried to keep awake in case he got any frisky ideas – but fell asleep. When I woke in the morning, he was sound asleep. I should feel something one way or the other I thought in the morning.
I walked down to the river and climbed down to the water. I took off my clothes and then climbed into the ice melt river. I felt that for one thing. I felt that one way or the other. It was cold. The water seared the heat from my skin, right to my bones. I floated for a second in the frigid water under the blue trees and dark green rocks. I could see a sliver of sky far above me with the last of the still visible evening stars. I climbed out of the water, and my skin instantly turned red. I forgot how difficult it is to climb on round river stones with bare feet. I had not climbed on round river stones with bare feet for maybe twenty years. How does something like that happen? Twenty years ago. I should have savored walking on those round river stones. I cursed them. I dried off with my t-shirt and then dressed and went back to the camp. No sign from Bruce.
I heated a saucepan of water for the instant coffee. I sat to wait. A feeling did come back to me. It felt nice to have been so cold and now to be sitting in the crackling heat of the campfire. This wasn’t much of an emotion, but I would take what I could get.
Shortly after I started to visit Bruce, I would find myself at his place sitting on his sofa. Bruce would potter around the house, and I would just sit for a long time on his sofa staring out at the street and the mountains. It was still late winter and early spring. The air was cool and bright on the street. I could see the stark white slopes of the snow on the mountains. They seemed like a long way off, a nice place to go if you could muster the energy. “Are you okay?” Bruce asked me the first time I did this, and I didn’t say anything. He sat next to me and took my hand, and he held my fingers. I thought how odd it was to sit there with a man holding my hand. I should feel something. The next time, he said, “Are you okay?” And he sat down next to me after some time, he unbuttoned my blouse. I still didn’t feel anything. He didn’t say anything as he did this. He was a mouth breather. I listened to him breathe through his mouth. That’s all he did. Finally, he pulled one of my breasts from my bra and brought his mouth down and sucked on the nipple. Normally, this should cause some kind of sensation. It did cause a sense of something happening in the same way climbing into a cold river, and then sitting by a hot fire caused a sense of something in my body. I wasn’t sure if I wanted him to do this – and now that he was doing this, I thought I should feel alarm or something, desire maybe. Maybe I really wanted him to do this to me? I don’t know. After he sucked for a while and I listened to the unpleasant sound of a middle-aged man slurping, he placed my breast back in my bra and then buttoned my blouse. He went back to pottering around in the apartment and I wondered if it had really happened? I didn’t come back for a couple of days after that. He didn’t call. But then finally I came back so that I could sit on his sofa and listen to him pottering around. I planned on telling him when he asked me, “Are you okay?” I’m okay, and I don’t feel like you sucking on my tit. Instead, when he asked me, “Are you okay?” I’d become so zoned and maybe morbidly curious about why I didn’t really feel anything that I waited through his procedure. But then he took out my other breast. He pulled off my jeans. And this required some movement on my part but before I could stand up, or anything he had me pinned under him on the couch. He went at it like he was getting paid to use a rowing machine by the stroke. Still, I didn’t feel a thing. I thought it might hurt. Let me tell you it’s been a while. There was a dull burning sensation, but it didn’t begin to hurt until a day later. Even though it hurt it wasn’t anything I actually felt.
The car wouldn’t start in the morning. “Maybe there is water in the fuel lines?” Bruce asked.
“Maybe there is,” I said. “But what are we going to do about that?”
“Flush them?” he asked.
“Do you know how to do that fifty miles up the Skagit River?”
“I don’t know how to do that zero miles up the Skagit River,” Bruce said.
“That’s great,” I said. “I’m going to walk out.”
“Are you getting some help? I don’t know how far I can walk.”
“I’m not going to stay here,” I said.
“We can stay. And camp.”
I looked around at the valley. It was still shrouded in early morning mist. The river continued its steady movement over the stones. I wanted something I realized. I wanted to get home, and I didn’t want to be here anymore. “Stay,” I said. “I’ll come back for you in my car.”
“I wanted to drive,” Bruce said.
“Your car doesn’t work,” I said. “You didn’t even have money for gas.”
“Isn’t it romantic in the woods?”
I looked at Bruce. He had thick stubble on his face. He wore a wool shirt with red and black checks. My mouth was filled with the bitter taste of instant coffee and powdered milk.
“I’m going to get my car,” I said.
I started to walk. The further away I was from the camp, the better I began to feel. I hadn’t felt anything and yet with each step I started to feel something. I could hear the gravel under me. I could hear the birds even though they never let me see them. I came to the top of a hill and looked down a winding road through a clear cut. A family in a gigantic red vehicle stopped as I waved. I was relieved. I was going to get out.