A wet January morning found my family in a corner booth at Thumbs Up Diner, scanning our menus. We were glad to have a table, to have moved away from the entrance where others were now waiting. They pressed together against the large street-facing window and near the refrigerated dessert case to avoid standing out in the cold. Whenever a noise rose above the din or there was a shift in the atmosphere, those crowded near the entrance would look up and survey the room to see which table might come open next.
My twelve-year-old, Maya, sat across from me, next to my husband. She was mentally listing the items she would order, silently mouthing the words. Her eight-year-old sister, Callia, still needed my help. She leaned against me.
“Is this the place that has the potatoes I like?” she said, looking up.
There was a time when I would have pressed my face into her hair and inhaled, when the feel of her body against mine would have given me a surge of joy, but I couldn’t feel a thing.
“I think so,” I said. “Why don’t you try them and see?”
Through the window, the edges of the building across the street were dark against the gray sky. People passed, bent into their coats.
The waitress came with our drinks.
My husband, Miguel, tore a packet of sugar for his coffee and reached for a spoon.
“Will you order for me?” Callia whispered.
Could they tell? Did they see? Was it clear I wasn’t there?
“The home fries,” I told the waitress. The syllables turned out of my mouth deliberately, one by one. “And an order of crispy bacon.”
Callia flipped over her kids’ menu, pulled a grubby green crayon from the jar on the table, and began coloring the crescent moon printed on the back of the paper.
The waitress was waiting for my order.
“Just a plain bagel,” I said, though I hadn’t been hungry in months. And I had lost weight. I was the same size I had been in college. The weight loss was unintentional, but I liked the way the loose waistband of my jeans grazed my skin, how I swiveled inside of them.
There’s something wrong. I heard my own voice, close and clear, inside my mind. It seemed louder, more determined than usual.
As if through gauze, I heard the waitress speak to Miguel and Maya before walking off.
Miguel leaned forward and smiled and said something I didn’t catch.
Lately, I had been having trouble thinking and following conversations. Whenever I let my mind become idle, I found myself in a state of uncomfortable distraction. Every moment I spent in reality was exquisitely unpleasant. Thoughts and perceptions ricocheted inside my mind. Bright lights bothered me. Rough textures sent a shiver through my bones. I was easily startled.
My brain wasn’t working right, but my imagination seemed just fine—better than ever, in fact. Any chance I got, I slid into that part of my mind. Daydreaming had become my escape.
I left Miguel waiting for a response and stepped into a fantasy scene I had suspended earlier: I was in my early twenties, wearing a red bandana like I used to, studying a rock face I was about to climb.
I was in Yosemite, in this daydream, even though I’ve never been to California and I’m not a rock climber. Maya, sitting across from me and now coloring her own crescent moon, climbed at a local gym two afternoons a week, but I had never tried it myself. I’ve never been particularly athletic, and in fact, I’m afraid of heights.
I often borrowed my daydream settings from television and movies, and Maya and I had watched a YouTube video about Yosemite climbers the evening before. So that made sense. But there was no explaining why the actor Jeremy Renner was standing behind me on the trail, barefoot and wearing only a pair of torn jeans. He stepped toward me with a heap of rope.
The rugged, brooding actor had sprung into my daydreams unannounced four months earlier, after Miguel and I went to see The Bourne Legacy in September. We had been going to a lot of movies. I had been struggling to focus, and movies were a form of relief. They helped me follow a single train of thought, a single story. The tight package of the plot kept my mind from shifting around, and the darkness made it impossible for anyone to interrupt and send me spiraling back into the metallic distraction that occurred whenever I let my mind relax.
The Bourne Legacy was very busy; there were spies, a remote cabin, a snowy landscape, a beautiful scientist, and a murderous bad seed. But because I hadn’t seen the previous movies in the series, half the plot was incomprehensible. I struggled to understand who the bad guys were before giving up and focusing on the lead, Jeremy Renner. He seemed like a real person, up there on the screen. When he spoke to his co-star, Rachel Weisz, I had the idea he was speaking to me.
Once the movie was over, I forgot about him. Miguel and I had dinner on the patio of a nearby restaurant. We shared appetizers. It was a glorious September evening. The temperature of the air felt no different than the temperature of my own skin. And even though I had been having more frequent and vivid daydreams than usual, and had lost weight, I hadn’t yet realized that I was descending into a depression brought on by a drug I had been prescribed for insomnia.
Falling asleep had always been a problem. As an antidote, I had long maintained a habit of entertaining myself with fantasy. I would develop little stories in which I was the heroic main character, or argue politics with friends—all of them eventually agreeing with my articulate points—or revise recollected conversations that I wished had gone better, all in the privacy of my own mind. I had been doing this since childhood. It was my way of escaping any feeling that I didn’t want to experience, but it was also fun. Most of my fantasies ended up absurdly comical, and I found them to be so entertaining that I could survive a five-hour flight without a book. Members of my family would laugh when I narrated episodes from my daydream life. If I were waiting in line at the grocery store, for example, I might fantasize about getting hired as the manager so I could reorganize the place for greater efficiency, only to lose interest in the task, abandoning the canned goods to an eternity of disarray.
The only trouble came when I tried to go to sleep and didn’t want to stop the story.
Back in March, I went to a psychiatrist to ask about a prescription for sleep medication. I tried Ambien, then Lunesta, but found the side effects too difficult to manage. I told the doctor that I couldn’t seem to turn off my mind. She asked for my family history. I explained my mother’s bipolar disorder, my father’s habit of excessive worrying. She asked if anything might be causing stress. My husband traveled weekly for work, there were the demands of the household. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to do, now that my children were getting older. I had been thinking about going back to work, but I didn’t know how to manage it. She said it was likely I was experiencing anxiety. She said there was a drug many people found helpful for both anxiety and insomnia: Klonopin.
At some point that summer, after I told the doctor I still wasn’t sleeping, she doubled my dose.
Later, while I was trying to sleep on that night in September, I found the movie in my mind. And as the night progressed, in the subterranean world of half-sleep induced by the little pill, the scenes kept playing.
I woke to the sounds of Miguel and the girls laughing over breakfast downstairs. Our dog, Zelda, walked around the bed, her nails clicking on the hardwood floor. When she found me among the covers, she came over and rested her head on the covers and breathed. I reached out and touched her, then closed my eyes. Suddenly, there he was—Jeremy Renner, behind me in line at a café in Barcelona. I had just ordered a café con leche.
It felt more like life than life. I didn’t want to get up.
“You’re American?” His voice was almost rough. It warmed my skin. Spanish light shone through the window. Wooden fans turned from the high ceiling. Somewhere, someone was playing the cello.
I smiled shyly and adjusted the strap of my purse. I was twenty-four, wearing a flowered sundress and ankle-high leather boots. My long hair fell like water down my back. It felt so good to be young and beautiful, to experience again the power of being seen.
I turned and saw his easy smile. I nodded.
“Yes,” I said. “I’m just here for a few days.”
I had to pause the fantasy to figure out the details. Why was I alone in Barcelona?
Downstairs, someone was putting dishes into the dishwasher.
What was Barcelona like anyway? More like France or Africa? Maybe I should shift the whole scene north, to Oslo.
But then I’d need a sweater.
“Business or pleasure?” he said.
“Both,” I said. “I’m an artist.”
Immediately I revised it to textile artist, in case he asked.
In the café, a cup rattled in its saucer. Downstairs, a door opened then closed.
Zelda pulled back her head and circled. Then she slumped into a curl on the floor and sighed.
I turned back to the barista whose beard was dark and rangy. So they were doing the beard thing in Spain, too. He slid my frothy drink across the counter in a majolica cup. I took it in my smooth hands.
Did they have Starbucks in Spain?
My kids were talking downstairs. Then came Miguel’s voice.
I strained to focus on the daydream. I fiddled with straws and packets of sugar, then revised that image to a sugar dish with a spoon. I stirred slowly, dragging out the time. I tried to look natural. I stared out the window at passersby.
Oslo would have been better.
A sweater coat.
I was beginning to change out the scene when I felt the warmth of his reach. So this was what gravity was. I had to resist leaning toward him. His cup clinked as he set it down on the marble countertop.
I heard Maya’s voice near the stairs. “Where’s Mom?”
“Shhh,” said Miguel. “She’s sleeping.”
Get up, get up, I commanded myself. I had children to take care of, a husband downstairs. I felt guilty. But that wasn’t the only problem. It was as though something was holding me down, keeping me still. The only thing that moved was my mind.
“Pardon me,” said Jeremy Renner, this figment of my imagination, this character in my head. He reached toward the ceramic milk pitcher. “It’s just—the cream?”
I stepped aside, plucked a napkin from the dispenser, and busied myself at a spill. He cocked his head toward the patio door.
“Share a table?”
A girlish shiver vibrated the length of my stomach. He opened the door and stood aside to let me pass. I tried to catch a whiff of his cologne but stopped short, remembering that it was a daydream, that daydreams don’t have scents. An iron fence enclosed the patio. Sunlight shone down through the limbs of an ancient, ornamental tree. We sat by a mosaic fountain.
“What’s your name?” he said, so interested.
I could feel my life vibrating, just beyond reach. This was a daydream. It wasn’t real.
Get up, get up.
I heaved myself out of bed.
“Yay! She’s awake!” I came down the stairs, Zelda trailing behind me.
That was in September. It was now January. My mind was fraying at the edges, but it would take a while longer before I understood this, before I understood why. I dragged my consciousness forward.
“What’d you say?” I said to Miguel.
“What should we do today?” He took another sip of coffee. It was unclear what he was thinking. I hadn’t come clean about my secret movie star crush. Whenever I thought about it, the guilt and confusion drove me quickly back into my fantasies. Because the process of clawing back up to the surface was so exhausting, I had developed an elaborate system for managing my divided mind. It was like playing Twister.
I paused the rock face scene. I froze Jeremy mid-motion. He held on to the heap of rope and waited for my direction. From a distance, in my daydream, came a canyon wren’s falling series of whistles.
“A movie?” I took a sip of my iced tea. “Maybe there’s a matinee?”
Miguel nodded and picked up his phone. Probably he assumed my weird mood was the result of something he’d done but couldn’t remember—this was marriage, after all. Thankfully, he liked movies too. “I’ll see what’s playing,” he said.
I exhaled as imperceptibly as I could. My secret was still safe.
Outside, it began to rain again. A man and woman hurried across the street, sharing a black umbrella. At the corner, they turned up the sidewalk and headed toward the glass door of the diner. I lost them for a moment while they made their way through the small crowd. Then they were in, shaking rain and laughing.
Callia’s moon was multi-colored, geometric; Maya’s was a dense, shiny crescent of hard-ground yellow crayon.
Around us rose and fell the tones of cutlery and voices.
Ice dropped into a glass somewhere in the room.
Miguel listed the movies.
“Maybe a suspense or something,” I suggested.
He nodded and trailed his finger along the screen of his iPhone.
So far, I had seen almost every movie nominated for that year’s Academy Awards, including the documentaries and the animated films and the live-action shorts and the foreign films. I went to the last showings at night, after I’d cleaned the kitchen and helped the kids to bed. I went to the weekend matinees while they were busy with their friends. Miguel never minded. He used the time to catch up on work or watch a game on television. Besides, I had told him I wanted to study plot structure in film.
I told this to myself as well, and it was true. The only trouble was that I kept forgetting to do it. Once a movie started and the story took hold of my imagination, I forgot to think. It was what gave me so much relief. The hardest part of having a divided mind was the divide—a gray landscape of distraction and confusion. Daydreams beckoned from one side and reality pulled from the other. The idle state in between was where the real unpleasantness lay. The movie’s content didn’t matter. All I needed was for the plot to work.
“Another one of those teenage dystopian films is out,” Miguel said.
The waitress came over and refilled my iced tea. Her presence took the pressure off. For a second, at least, I didn’t have to pretend to be there. At my side, Callia’s arm moved with her crayon.
My daydream scene hung in the timeless, spaceless theater of my mind. I could start it up at any moment, feel at once the reprieve from my raw experience of sensation, slide easily into the stream, begin again where we’d left off, Jeremy Renner and me.
The harness hung on my hips, weighed down by my water bottle, a clutch of carabiners, and a climbing device I’d ordered online. I reached for the first handhold, twisted my right foot to propel myself upward from a jutting corner of rock. But then the scene started to quiver and break up.
Jeremy Renner still wasn’t fully dressed. I knew from Maya that no one—not a movie star, not even an action hero—could ascend El Capitan in jeans. But what did men wear climbing?
Like a child preparing for play, I spent an inordinate amount of time prepping my fantasies—setting the scene and outfitting myself and the other characters. To pick the right clothes for myself, I had to imagine a closet full of choices. But closets didn’t just hang in the air. I had to imagine the bedroom that the closet was attached to, then the house. It went on and on. Sometimes my real life intervened before I could get the fantasy going. If only I could have dressed him while we were still at home, I’d have been rushing along in the current of the dream. But no, there had been the rain. I’d had to find jackets and umbrellas. I’d gotten distracted by my family—my real-life people, my real life—as we headed out for this weekend morning brunch.
And therein lay the trigger for these particular daydreams, for these themes of romance and adventure. In my real life, I was forty-three years old, a mother and a wife. It was likely that my greatest dramas and romances had already occurred. Mid-life felt like cement. Relief from this came from daydreaming backward. Thus the cut-offs and halter top I was wearing. But my imagination couldn’t be satisfied with rudimentary sketches, and teasing out the details to make them believable took a lot of time. I’d long ago worn out simple plots I could tap into for a tiny spark of delight, plots in which the setup was the fantasy. Jeremy Renner and I had met in the coffee shop, in a bar, on a train, in a taxi, over and over, until these rudimentary sketches grew stale and my imagination hungered for more expansive content. It wasn’t enough just to meet anymore; we had to be going somewhere. And it wasn’t interesting enough for us merely to arrive; we had to do something. But when I let my imagination act on its own, pure absurdity took over. The taxi didn’t arrive at the Paris opera house; it arrived at the hospital. We didn’t share a drink and conversation on the train to Frankfurt; instead, the train derailed and slid into the Rhine . . .
Now, as if the usual choreography of ordinary family life weren’t enough, I had an entire other set to design, another cast to direct. I’d been hauling us all around the world in search of new settings, new controllable storylines that promised more than the canned romance of meetings and partings. Today it was Camp 4 at Yosemite—the center of the American climbing movement—the perfect setting for a grand adventure.
It didn’t escape me that this was the sort of freedom I’d daydreamed toward, back in my teens, when I’d longed to move from Georgia to somewhere out west, where I was going to have a great big life. It was the sort of thing daydreams were generally about. I, the protagonist, was strong and independent, young and beautiful. The shadow of some dramatic event, such as an out-of-season avalanche, loomed. It would provide the climax if we ever got that far into the scene, though I knew we wouldn’t. I kept getting lost in the details.
Now he was holding that heap of rope, poised to hand it up to me so that I could set the route. But the scene kept disintegrating. I strained to bring it back into focus.
There is something wrong. There was that voice again. My voice. I heard it clearly.
“Mom?” Maya said, far off.
Her eyes were wide and steady. She held the yellow crayon between her fingers. I heard a faint echo of her voice in my mind. She must have asked a question.
“I’m sorry, sweetie. Did you say something?”
“I was just wondering if you decided when we could get my new shoes.”
Shoes. Shoes. I kept forgetting. She needed shoes for school.
“Shoes, of course,” I said. “Yes, we can get shoes. Let’s get them today.”
I imagined the shoe store, the rows and rows of shoes. Miguel looked up from his phone.
“Let’s get new shoes today,” I said. Both of them were now staring at me with their identical, shiny brown eyes. I reminded myself to blink. Miguel’s lips parted, then closed.
“Sure thing,” he said.
The waitress came with our food. She set down the plates, pulled bottles of ketchup and hot sauce from her pocket. She, too, was in her forties. What was happening behind her eyes?
“Do you need anything else?” she said. Did I? And if so, what could it be? I had these beautiful children, this beautiful husband, this booth. What else could I possibly need?
“I’d like some more coffee,” Miguel said.
“What do you think, Mama?” Callia said.
She leaned into me and presented her kaleidoscopic moon.
It’s the drug, the voice said.
“Beautiful,” I said out loud.
It’s the drug, the voice insisted. Listen to me.
I wanted to.
Focus, I told myself. Eat.
I tore off a piece of the bagel and put it in my mouth. I reached for my fork.
“Can I try your potatoes?” I said to Callia.
“They’re the ones I like,” she said, pulling back to make way for my hand.
My mother switched between near-catatonic depressions and wild highs throughout my childhood. She was in one of these highs when she left for the last time. I was at school, in the tenth grade, and my father was waiting for me when I came in the door. He explained that she was gone, that he had tried talking her out of it, that he had chased her car down the driveway, barefoot, waving a twenty-dollar bill and clutching the phone book—in case she needed money, in case she needed phone numbers.
My mother was a beautiful woman, and people said I was her spitting image. I recognized in myself something I recalled of her—the inability to get past the moment when youth and beauty begin to lose their value. This wasn’t the only source of her problems, but I knew it had played a part in the nervous breakdown that had preceded her exit from our family. And now this trouble with aging, with clinging unwittingly and immodestly to the tendrils of youth, was my crucible, too. What other latent traits did I share with her? Would I sink into the same darkness that had plagued her? When I had realized that I was roughly the same age as my mother was when she left, I started to panic. And though I hadn’t mentioned this in the doctor’s office, that day back in March, I knew that all of this had been swirling inside my mind for a while. Now, I looked forward to the moment each day when I could take the little pill.
Blanket mind, a fog rolling in from the sea. It was lovely, such a relief to feel reality soften. The only problem was my imagination. As my conscious mind relaxed, my imagination revved up.
It was great in the beginning—the coffee shop encounter, and that time we met on an overnight flight to Brisbane. I was en route to accept an Irish award.
“Are you cold?” he asked, offering an airline blanket.
“Cold? No.” I meant yes.
I took the blanket and tucked it around my knees.
Then Madrid, Namibia, a barge floating down the Nile. Ah, the electric beginnings, the carbonated first questions, the moments when I realized that I had escaped through a portal that separated the ordinary world from my imagination, that I had gone somewhere else.
“What’s your name?” he asked in a train station in Madrid.
“Juliet,” I lied, smiling shyly.
“You are exquisite, Juliet, even smoking.”
The cigarette was damp between my lips. Outside the station window, it had begun to rain.
“You brought the weather, didn’t you?” I said, tasting ash.
“What’s your name?” he asked on a bridge in Namibia.
“Juliet,” I said, smiling shyly.
“What’s your name?” he said Paris, in Milan, in the Azores.
“Juliet,” I said. Juliet.
But now that the fever of first romance had receded, small problems intruded. First, there was his voice: I didn’t like it. He kept speaking with the wrong tone, higher than what I recalled from the movie. I remembered from my childhood the tuning fork my father had used when he tuned pianos. In my daydream, I sewed a narrow pocket into my skinny jeans where I could keep it. When Jeremy showed up with the wrong tone, I would whip it out and tap it against my knee to use as a guide for regulating his tone. One day I squandered the entire wait for a mammogram on the matter of his voice alone, pitching it lower, then too low, then too high.
But the adjustments never seemed to stick. How unsettling it was to be in the midst of a romantic daydream in which I was an exquisite, green-eyed Egyptian princess on a royal barge heading down the Nile—and he was one of my sturdy guards, his chest straining the leather toggles of his vest—when all of a sudden he was standing next to me, admiring the crimson thread embroidered into the bodice of my gown, and his voice began to climb upward, startling me. Not to mention the other guards.
“Such deep color,” he whimpered, “for such simple yarn.”
And that wasn’t the only thing.
Soon enough he started to complain.
“Sometimes it’s hard to know what you women want,” he said one day, his voice ascending dangerously. We were sitting on a park bench in Geneva, and I wished I’d brought something for the pigeons. There were three of them, nodding in front of us. I wanted something to do with my hands.
“Just the other day,” he went on, “I was in Sacramento, getting on and off a motorcycle for hours. I wasn’t even wearing a shirt.”
I empathized. I saw the nonsense in these trite fantasies. What were women thinking? But who was he to start making demands? I’d conjured him in comfortable clothing, a sweatshirt and jeans. He hadn’t even shaved.
“I think it’s hard for us, too,” I said, “to know what we want.”
A breeze rustled what was left of the leaves.
“Do you have any idea how exhausting it is to always be dashing?”
I shifted my weight on the bench.
“How much work it is to always have a roguish voice?”
If only I had brought birdseed.
“Can you even say,” he continued, “why you chose me and not someone else? That I’m not just some stock figure or composite sketch?”
No, I thought, before realizing that I meant yes, that I could say. It is because you are so real. But this, he would think, was absurd. Instead, I chose to argue back.
“And you? You know what it’s like to be me? Who can prepare for the way life accelerates, for how quickly a woman becomes invisible? I, too, was once young and beautiful.”
I looked around to make certain no one had heard, and then remembered that I was inside a daydream, in an imagined park in Geneva.
I took a breath.
The pigeons eyed us and cooed.
I was growing tired, too, of all the imaginary clothes, the hassle of picking them up off the floor and hanging them back in the closet.
And more and more, my mind seemed to get away from me. Soon enough, I learned that Brisbane wasn’t in Ireland, Namibia was all desert and the Nile flowed north.
But the real trouble began when he started wanting my life.
There I was in Tahiti, walking the jungle path toward the beach where he’d gone ahead to adjust a wide umbrella. I was wearing a magenta sarong. The sand flooded my flip-flops. The distant notion that Marlon Brando might still be there flitted around in my mind. Had I somehow gotten involved in another woman’s fantasy? Did these dreams travel the atmosphere, looking for a place to attach?
Meanwhile, the other half of my unbolted consciousness was standing in Home Depot, attending to the ritual of buying annuals. Suddenly he appeared in the garden department, still in his swimsuit.
“So what are we looking at here?” he said. He studied one of the cards that dangled off a radiant chrysanthemum. “This one keeps its flowers until mid-December.”
I felt myself pale. Things were getting out of hand. He must have sensed the barometric shift between us.
“It’s just that I miss out on so much of ordinary life,” he explained, “with all the press junkets and philanthropic poverty tours.”
Could it be true, I asked the ether, that he wanted to trade places? Once I finished here, I had to buy dog food and deposit a check at the credit union. Could this man be unhinged enough to wish to ride along? Never mind how irritating it was to be daydreaming about Home Depot while in Home Depot.
But as my fantasies grew dull, I feared more than anything their falling away. What might come in place of these nebulous dreams?
I shivered, a rabbit across my grave.
“Are you okay?” he said. We were back in Geneva, on the park bench.
A man jogged past, earbuds in his ears, phone in his hands. His footfalls grew fainter as he made his way along the path.
A raven cawed from a limb, then swept down and landed in the middle of the grass. The pigeons, startled, sidestepped, fluttered upward, and landed a few feet away.
“Maybe a little sad,” I said.
“Me too,” he said. At least on this we agreed. “Life,” he continued. “It surprises us all.”
My real life ticked along. I worked at my desk in the mornings. I took Zelda for a long walk each day around noon. In the afternoons, I helped my daughters with their homework and made dinner. When Miguel got home, we sat and talked about the day.
My family was used to my quiet manner, my habit of zoning out. Much of what I was displaying could simply be attributed to my personality. Only, I could easily slip between reality and fantasy before. Now, under the cottony spell of the drug, I never really left that imaginary space, never really surfaced, although I pretended to. I daydreamed during teachers’ conferences, trying to listen with half my mind, and I daydreamed at lunch with friends, waiting for a space in the conversation that would allow me to return to my mental closet and start trying on shoes.
And because my daydreams were now all about a half-dressed movie star—so silly and vapid—I no longer shared the contents of my fantasies with my family. I was living a secret life.
Maintaining all of this was a struggle, and as time went on and the chamber of my imagination grew wider, it became harder and harder to cross back through the portal that separated my two worlds. I had cleaved such a wide divide that I was no longer able to bridge it. There were two of me now, each with her own agency, trying to direct my thoughts and actions, and my imagination, ever the comedienne, had been in lazy command for months, guiding me half-blind from inside the shimmering globe of my unconscious. That’s the state I was in during the breakfast at the Thumbs Up Diner.
“More coffee?” asked the waitress.
I didn’t take my pill at bedtime that evening. Instead, I waited until I knew everyone was asleep. Then I went downstairs.
Even without the night’s dose, I could feel my imagination’s throbbing presence. But now the other voice—the one that had spoken to me in the diner that morning—was in the lead.
There is something wrong. Focus. Eat.
It was reason, rationality, the directing force of my conscious self. It propelled me into the room where we kept our computer. I sat down at the desk. Zelda, who had followed, curled up into a perfect black comma next to my feet.
I touched the keyboard and waited in the electric glow, my mind buzzing.
When Google appeared, I typed the first words that came to mind: Klonopin + bizarre thoughts. I began to scroll through the results.
Klonopin, also known as clonazepam, is one of the most prescribed psychotropic drugs on the market. This in spite of being considered “America’s most dangerous pill” by the mental health watchdog Citizens Commission on Human Rights. It is highly addictive; users can quickly develop tolerance and cravings. It has one of the longer half-lives of its class of medications. It can take from eighteen to fifty hours for it to leave one’s system. It piles up. And while it is often prescribed to treat insomnia, it is insidious and false as a sleep medication: Instead of putting me into slow-wave sleep, it only made me think I had slept. I’d been lying in bed each night, editing daydreams while waiting for sleep that never really came.
In the bright glow of my computer, in the downstairs bedroom of my house, I scrolled down the page, stopping on mental health forums, imagining the voices of the people asking questions in the night, knowing I was one of them.
Does anybody feel depressed on Klonopin?
Does anybody feel detached from their body when they take Klonopin?
I changed the search to Klonopin + Detached. More voices echoed from the screen.
I feel like my spirit is outside my body. I feel detached from everybody I love.
I found a list of 128 side effects, and case histories for dozens of patients who, like me, were prescribed Klonopin for long-term use, when in fact it was meant to treat short-term anxiety. Of the side effects mentioned, those that disturbed me most were the feelings of depersonalization, of detachment, of being tucked inside my own mind.
Rebound insomnia. Distorted thoughts. Blurred vision, seeing or hearing things that were not there. I had been experiencing these effects for months, but I hadn’t connected them to the drug, or even to one another. Part of the trouble was that I was having a hard time having coherent thoughts at all. It was only that morning in the diner that my rational inner voice gained enough volume to be heard over the soundtrack of running dialogue inside my mind. Most troubling, though, was the subtext that ran through the many stories I read about people whose lives had been affected by this drug—that it affected people differently depending on their personality, neurology, and genetic makeup. I pulled away from the computer and sat back in the desk chair.
I didn’t want my family to know. I didn’t want them to worry about me. I was ashamed to be someone who had fallen under the spell of a drug.
I would figure it out for myself, exorcise this trouble, this demon, this—movie actor?
The next morning, I went to the Emory University library. Up on the eighth floor, I combed through the call numbers associated with psychology and neuropsychology. I looked for books on depression and psychotropic medication. I ran my fingertips along the spines of books on consciousness. I slipped them into the grocery bag I had brought. I found books on memory, fantasy, daydreaming, and dissociation. At the circulation desk, I paid for a community member library card. When I came back out into the sunlight, the bag was heavy on my arm.
Over the next few weeks, as my body began reacting to the absence of the drug, I grew even more depressed and dissociated. The daydreams persisted. They even grew more vivid and interesting. The language I accessed in my mind had never been so lyrical. I felt that I had found the font of poetry, the spring of creative thought, but traveling back and forth from this place to my real life had become too difficult. Though I didn’t want to, I tried willing myself to stay in reality.
I slept only in fragments during the night yet stayed there in bed, lying next to Miguel, thinking about him and the children sleeping in the house, aware of Zelda’s breathing from her spot at the side of the bed. I felt afraid to be alone, afraid to go downstairs into the empty living room and sit there inside my body and wait for the night to be over.
During the day, I tried hard to keep my troubles invisible. As I drove to pick up Callia from lacrosse practice, I rehearsed conversations I might have with the mothers of the other players while we waited on the sidelines. I asked them about their days and fixed my mind on their voices as they answered. But I was growing too weary and tired.
One day I volunteered to help the third graders at the elementary school plant their spring garden. It was a bright April day. New leaves sprouted from the branches of the apple trees the parents had planted the previous fall. The children were excited to be outside in the warm sunlight. I called them into a line and, one by one, I rained sunflower seeds into their small upturned hands. And while my perceptions of the moment were beautiful, it gave me no pleasure. I just wanted to go home and sit in a dark room.
I knew I needed help.
I decided to tell Miguel what was happening.
That night, after the girls went to bed, I began to explain. We were up late, sitting together on the sofa.
“You mean, you daydream all the time?” he asked.
I explained that it had come on gradually over the past spring and summer, that it had really taken hold after seeing that movie, that it was now a habit I couldn’t break, even though I had stopped taking the drug.
I told him again.
“And you’ve always done this?”
“Not like lately, not like this. Before, I could control it. Now it happens by itself.”
“Tell me again about what’s-his-name—what are some of his movies?”
I listed a few.
“Have you watched them?”
“While you were at poker.”
I could see him imagining this. He pulled out his iPhone and started typing.
Then he held it away and squinted.
I leaned over and looked.
“Yeah, that guy.”
I explained that I thought the Klonopin had turned my mind in on itself, that it was why I had lost so much weight and why I had been so depressed, and that from what I understood, I was experiencing the effects of withdrawal.
“You poor thing,” he said. He put his arm around me and pulled me close. Then he admitted he’s always had a thing for Amy Adams.
I worked through the books from the library. I learned about the default mode network (DMN) and the neurology behind daydreaming and mind wandering. The DMN is, among other things, the part of the brain that activates in a state of stream-of-consciousness: the state of mind one wakes to, for example, or the one it falls into while driving. It provides a buffer for the mind while it is recovering from stress, and is associated with creativity. The DMN is where people solve problems and develop ideas. In most people, it deactivates by default when they begin performing a task that requires focus, but in some cases it doesn’t.
The DMN is implicated in children who struggle to focus at school; for some reason, it remains activated even while these children attempt tasks that demand attention. The network doesn’t toggle off. Suddenly I began to understand the trouble I’d had as an elementary school student, the low test scores that sent me out to the white trailer twice a day for Title I tutoring.
So far, research suggests that the mental experiences that occur while the DMN is activated tend to be self-referential in nature. Some scientists have theorized that it is the place in the brain where the self resides. People with schizophrenia have DMNs that fire continuously, resulting in their constant self-reference. (At the other end of the spectrum, people with autism have low DMN connectivity, which prevents easy access to the reverie state where self-referential thought occurs.)
In depression, the mind gets stuck in negative rumination—in the DMN. This was where I was stuck; only, I wasn’t ruminating. Daydreaming happens in the same place in the brain as ruminating, however, and has the same effect on one’s ability to fall asleep. When I told that doctor that I couldn’t seem to turn off my mind, I was correct.
All of these mental eccentricities and illnesses, scientists now speculate, are related.
And all of them are potentially inherited traits.
One day, my Internet research led me to a fascinating community of people who label themselves “maladaptive daydreamers.” These individuals suffer from a condition that produces fantasy activity that replaces ordinary interactions and regular life—thus the label “maladaptive.” I found several Internet forums where members share their experiences of being stuck inside their daydreams or imprisoned in their imaginations. I started reading.
I read haunting stories about people who couldn’t stop fantasizing, who couldn’t leave the house or develop relationships. Over and over I read that there were other, underlying diagnoses or genetic tendencies. ADHD, bipolar disorder, autism, and OCD were the most prevalent. As I read these narratives, I could almost see these people in my mind, peering out from behind a lace curtain. And I realized that one of them was me. How many of them were depressed and didn’t realize it? How many were on psychotropic drugs?
We were ghosts, the inhabitants of Dante’s Inferno, suspended in a state of active torment. At another point in my life, I might have found it easy to think of the people behind those chat handles as fractured and less than human, but I now understood them to be not just maladaptive daydreamers, not maladaptive people, but ordinary individuals like me. Even wives and mothers. Even beautiful women.
I closed the computer and put on my jacket and took Zelda for a walk.
Overnight rainstorms had left a puddle in the middle of a wide field behind the school. A flock of blackbirds was pecking at the ground near the shimmering water. The sun shone off their black feathers. The school was quiet, in spite of all those hearts beating within its walls.
One of the birds hopped around the puddle. Another fluttered away, then fluttered back. I forced my mind to focus on the exact experience of the moment. The puddle out there, the blackbirds, the feel of Zelda’s leash. A car passed. I made myself a promise that if I made it all the way to the creek without losing focus, I would reward myself with a daydream. I listened to my own footsteps, to the jangle of the tag on Zelda’s collar, to the sound of a hammer from a house somewhere nearby. As I crossed the street, I heard the water that rushed through the drainage pipes that ran underneath, and as the sound retreated, I held on to it as long as I could. Only then did I open the portal.
I took us back to an established daydream, back to the park in Geneva with the pigeons nodding forth, trading feet. It was a bright day and I was wearing a white jacket with fur at the collar. We were on a bench overlooking a grassy area. The pigeons’ coos warbled in their throats. I conjured Jeremy in jeans and a black jacket. I was about to speak, but he beat me to it.
“I’m glad you called me up,” he said. “There was something I wanted to talk to you about.”
He sighed and leaned forward, elbows on knees, and looked at his hands.
“What is it?” I said.
“I’ve been thinking,” he said, “that this has to be it.”
As if he would be the one to decide.
I started to speak, but he interrupted.
“The thing is,” he went on, “for you ladies to change yourselves, I have to stay the same. I get tired of standing outside bookstores and train stations, smoking cigarettes.”
A cloud moved in front of the sun. The world darkened for a moment.
Before, each time I’d tried to stop this madness, something would happen to bring the whole thing back to the beginning. I tried switching him out with Jude Law or Colin Firth, but the changes wouldn’t stick. I spent an entire morning trying to exorcise him from my mind. I watched his earliest films, his old Aquafina commercials and interviews. I read dozens of tabloid reports in search of details that would make him less appealing. He was gay, according to some. Others said he liked strip clubs. He had a thing for wristwatches. None of it helped. He had become my own creation, a character in my story. My friend. It was so hard to resist having someone to talk to, someone who knew your thoughts.
And how could anyone ignore the echo call of her name bounding across her mind—even if it were imaginary?
And yet, I felt guilty that I had poached him for my own use while offering him nothing. My fingers moved at my mouth. The words fluttered through them.
“You once asked what you might expect in return,” I said. “It never occurred to me that you might have needs of your own.”
It was embarrassing to apologize. It was hard to let go. But I knew I had to.
What was I waiting for? Random speckles of light? A warmth to reach toward?
End this, I commanded myself.
When I turned, I saw that he wasn’t there.
The bench was empty.
Zelda’s cold nose pressed into my hand.