A Brain on Fire

I finally realized how to stop turning my grief into anger. But not before I threw a woman through a window.

A Brain on Fire

We sit in neat rows in a cathedral-like space full of echoes and crown molding, as a woman calls us each by name to the front of the room. The town courthouse is an architectural masterpiece, all carved white marble and exquisite tile work. I’m always acutely aware of its impressive construction. I’ve literally stared at the floor thinking, How could my life possibly get this fucked up, and God, this is just exquisite tile work, at the exact same time.

The prisoners come in last and go first. They get marched in by a prison guard, feet shackled, hands shackled, the musical clink of chains and the squeak of cheap plastic prison sandals filling the room as they shuffle toward their seats in the front.

I wait in what I call “the bad guy section” for my name to get called. I’m the only woman here. I try to dress nicely to stand out even more than I already do. Gray wool dress. Fancy shoes. Black leather bag. If the men around me bother to make an effort, it’s usually limited to a wrinkled polo shirt. The man in front of me has come from work; he still has on a hairnet and a stained white cook’s shirt. He smells of grease. Faded stars and a detailed skull adorn the forearms of the man to my right, and the name of a woman – Alexandra – is written in fancy looping curlicues across his neck. He has on black sweatpants and high-tops. It’s a very long name to have written across a neck, I muse, staring straight ahead.

I have behaved somewhat poorly on several occasions between my daughter’s birth and around her first birthday. To be more specific, I tore apart a motorcycle with a pickaxe, smashed out all the windows of a car with a speaker box, trashed the lobby of a jail, kicked down a door to a private residence and broke a window with a woman’s body. Three arrests. One felony charge.

The official reason I’m in this courtroom today is a charge of criminal contempt in the first degree. It’s only a class E felony, which is like a little baby felony – you can only go to prison for one to four years. That and two charges of criminal mischief in the fourth. I like that the charges don’t sound that bad. I was contemptuous and mischievous. Criminally so. Criminal contempt means you didn’t do what the judge told you to do. I feel like judges on ’80s court TV shows used to yell that a lot while banging the gavel. “Be quiet and sit down, Miss Pennyweather, or I will put you in contempt of court!”

You can get charged with criminal contempt for a number of things, including refusing to testify in a trial. But you only get criminal contempt in the first degree for aggressively violating a judge’s restraining order. Judges do not like that. Say, hypothetically, you were to hit a person who had a restraining order on you, perhaps the father of your child, in the face and then throw the girl he was with into a window, the judge will not like that at all. No sir. They dislike it so much that they’ll send you to domestic violence court where you have to wait in the bad guy section for your name to be called.

“Timothy Clark,” the court clerk reads. Mr. Clark is being charged with assault with intent to cause physical injury. James Robinson is called up next. Attempted criminal contempt in the second. Michael Williams. Probation violation.

With a glaring difference in tone, this majestic room and this summoned-to-stand-before-the-king process is eerily similar to my Master’s graduation ceremony from Columbia University four years ago. The day my life changed. The day my brother disappeared. Except here, they’re not going to hand me a piece of paper and congratulate me. It’s not the dean, but the judge, who will address me.

“You’re in full compliance,” the judge says when it’s my turn up front. I’ve already pled guilty months ago, and been placed on interim probation for a year. Once the year is up, I get sentenced. If I’ve been good, I’ll get a lesser charge than what I pled guilty to – a misdemeanor criminal mischief instead of felony contempt. If I’ve been bad, I don’t finish probation, I get the felony sentence, and I go to jail. Today I’m just here for the judge to check if I’ve been good or bad, like a black-robed Santa Claus. “No violations of the restraining order. Your urine screens have all been clean. No missed probation appointments. Your next appearance is in two weeks.”

I nod and walk out the door, fancy shoes clicking against the luxurious marble hallway. And today is so much better than the day I graduated from Columbia. I walked out of that ceremony in a fog, my degree held limply in hand, having just been told that my brother was missing and suspected dead.

My brother had been camping on the shore of the lake with a group of friends. At dawn, he’d gone out in a canoe, as everyone else slept. When they’d woken up, they’d found the canoe and my brother gone. As the hours passed by and he still hadn’t returned, one of his friends started to worry, and went out in a kayak to look for him. She found the canoe half submerged, in the middle of the lake. My brother was nowhere to be seen. In late March the lake is still freezing cold. The police say he must have gotten hypothermia, turning his limbs to immovable weights, before he made it to shore. We never found him. I’m told they had a moment of silence for him at the Cornell graduation a week later, when he was supposed to walk.

The next few weeks sit suspended in my memory in flashes. My mother collapsing on the sidewalk as we left my graduation. Sitting in a red plastic deckchair by the lake, surrounded by police cars and search parties, staring at the black metallic gleam of the lake’s surface. Sitting in a fishing boat, watching the blink of the radar as we combed the lake floor for something much bigger than a fish. Waiting for the scuba team to resurface, heart on pause. So many submerged logs. Riding my brother’s Bianchi road bike, thumbing the worn spots on the grips, feeling the wind in my face, and my brother all around me.

That summer I started making a forest garden for him. My parents had about 20 acres of scrub forest, old sheep pasture, outside of town, near the lake, with a decrepit farmhouse sitting on it. Near where he disappeared. I moved into the house. I hung prayer flags in the woods and started taking out the invasive species choking the forest floor, the honeysuckle, the wild rose, the European buckthorn and western privet – with a chainsaw and a pair of loppers. I wanted the forest to thrive. I wanted to create a sacred space for my brother. I also wanted to destroy living things. I killed so many plants. They simply had to die. While my hands stayed busy my mind stayed blank. I dragged the plants into piles and set them on fire. At night, I would walk into the woods, barefoot, and sit beside piles of flaming brush, listening to the coyotes howl. I would smash pottery I made and throw it into the fire, the flames licking around shards of aquamarine glaze. My brother’s face would appear in my mind’s eye, slightly blue, eyes open, hair suspended, as he sank into the black ink of the lake.

The following spring the forest floor burst open with native wildflowers for the first time in decades. But my brother never came back. And I didn’t stop destroying things.

I tried therapy. Several different therapists. It didn’t “work.” How could a person who had never even met my brother understand how I felt?

The morning the search had begun, I was sitting by the lake alone, staring at it. My father talking to the police. My mother cloistered in our house. My older brother, still in transit from his home in Utah. Several of my best friends – people I’d known since childhood – came and tried to hug me, talk to me, just sit with me. I felt inexplicably angry at them. Felt like screaming at them all to just fuck off. Instead I just ignored them as they sat beside me, not sure how to act, what to say. It wasn’t until my brother’s girlfriend – who I barely knew – walked up, her eyes as red as mine, her entire body shaking like mine, that I stood up, hugged her, and started sobbing.

It was the same thing with the therapists. I didn’t want to have to explain how I felt to some voyeuristic asshole who didn’t actually give a shit. Why should I pay them to expose my most vulnerable feelings to someone who could never possibly understand what had happened? It made no sense to me.

At the job fair a week before graduation, I’d gotten a job at an environmental magazine I really liked. Jackpot. Dream job. They let me defer a few months, and then I went back to New York, where I wrote articles and did research and appeared to move on with my life, without my brother. Most of the time I seemed fine. To everyone including myself. Hollow cardboard cutout fine. Except for the dent in the bedroom wall where I’d thrown the lamp. The puzzle pieces I’d occasionally find in the staircase, of the 1,000-piece puzzle I’d toiled over, lovingly laminated with glue, and days later, hurled down the stairs screaming. I used to think my behavior mattered. Not anymore. Good behavior. Bad behavior. They felt no different. I hadn’t necessarily felt different putting the puzzle together than I had throwing it down the stairs. It was all the same blend of numb rage.

Around this time, I met a guy from my hometown who had various addiction issues, felony charges of his own, and a striking resemblance to a Fight Club-era Brad Pitt. His world was as broken and unrecognizable as my own. He was fresh out of rehab, ready to try again. For the purposes of this story, I’ll call him Rob. I didn’t have to explain how sad and hopeless I felt to him. He got it. One night, he came over to my house in the woods with a couple of our mutual friends, for one of my many bonfires. I’d gotten up as my friends sat around the fire, and walked off into the woods, as had become my habit. It was like walking into fear. The pitch black of it. The sharp rocks under my bare feet, the thorn bushes brushing my bare arms, the vague outlines of shallow gulches I would trip into, skinning my shins, the squelch of mud and slugs in my toes, the rustle of unknown creatures. It was as close as I could come to walking into the bottom of the lake. Out in the dark woods alone, I felt closer to my brother. To knowing where he went.

One night Rob followed me. He came up as I stood in the dark, listening to the woods. He wrapped his arms around me, tightly, his thick down jacket like a soft, strong blanket. I leaned on him, and felt my body relax. Felt the warmth of him in the cold night. “I don’t know how to make it O.K.,” I’d whispered. “Nothing is O.K.,” he’d said. “But you don’t have to do this alone.” We had our misery in common. Misery is not a strong foundation on which to build a relationship.

He got me pregnant within three months. Such a simple thing, with no thought involved. Little baby. Swam into my stomach and could live underwater. I moved back to my hometown upstate. Rob started drinking and using again by the time I was four months pregnant. He’d be there for a few weeks and then he’d disappear for a few weeks. I felt bad for my baby. How much she had to listen to her parents fight before she was even born. How much she had to listen to her mother cry. Maybe I should have cut ties with her father right then. But he always came back. And I wanted him back. I couldn’t take anyone else disappearing. I left the house in the woods and got myself a little apartment downtown. Two weeks before she was born Rob came back and said he wanted us to move in together. Stupid me. I did it. Everything was going to be perfect, right? He painted the walls of our new house, hung curtains of cartoon animals in our daughter’s room, moved all my things from my apartment into our new home. Then one day our baby took a breath and leapt into my arms. As babies do. Hello. Welcome to life.

Taking care of a baby does not mesh well with deep depression. Before, I could zone out. Let the anxiety and fear and anger lap against the shore of my own body, confined. After she was born, I had to do things. I had to take care of someone else when I didn’t have the energy to take care of myself. It was completely overwhelming. I began to drown.

When our daughter was six months old, Rob’s dad died of cancer. His memorial was held the same place the search for my brother had been headquartered. Last time I was here I was handing the K9 unit my brother’s pillowcase. This time, a few hours before Rob’s father’s memorial, I popped my first ever Xanax, which a friend had given me a small handful of, and felt just calm. It was miraculous. It was Johnson and Johnson’s special No More Tears formula in a little blue pill. The next day was my friend’s wedding, held at the same place we held the wake for my brother. Where we walked slowly in a silent line along the shore. She stood in a wedding dress grinning. Congratulations. I took another Xanax. More calm. I was a calm blue bottomless lake of serenity. Not a ripple in sight. The next morning, I woke up choking on my own sobs. I took another Xanax. And another. And another. I took three Xanax that day, and three Xanax is too many Xanax.

Rob and I got into a violent fight. I started it. He ended it. In my mind, him not washing a frying pan three days after he’d shoveled dirt over his father’s body was grounds for war. I threw the frying pan at him. He dragged me outside and threw me off the porch. I landed in the evergreen bushes outside my front door, pain shooting up my right leg, setting my brain on fire. A brain on fire does not belong to a human being. The controls are handed over to the animal machine. The base instinct, the lizard brain. Fight or flight. I always fight. It doesn’t feel like a choice. It doesn’t feel like something I want to do. It feels like something I have to do, no matter how much I don’t want to.

Rob left but I wasn’t done fighting, so I fought my feelings. I fought inanimate objects. I grabbed a speaker amp and broke out every window of Rob’s car. By the time the cops showed up I had kicked over his motorcycle, power sanded the paint job, and was hacking at the gas tank with a pickaxe, sobbing, with blood running down my leg. But I didn’t even get arrested that time. The cops looked at my leg, asked me if I was sure I didn’t want to file a report against Rob, took away my pickaxe, and left. A perfect storm of events, I decided. Not really my fault. Benzos are crazy. Rob moved out after that.

I wasn’t on benzos when I trashed the jail a month later though. I remember looking around the walls of the jail lobby, where I had gone to visit Rob, when he was locked up again after testing positive for cocaine while on probation. Surrounded by the cold steel, locked doors, shadowy black glass of the jail lobby, what I saw outside finally matched how I felt inside. Terrified, alone, trapped. I got to the jail late – not knowing that visitors had to arrive 15 minutes before the visit began. The guard asked me to leave, and then just walked away. I started to go, but before I could make it out the door I started trembling, sobbing, and before I knew it was tearing posters off the walls and screaming. Like chainsawing the plants in the woods, like pickaxing Rob’s motorcycle, trashing the jail felt necessary. Like the situation demanded it. Only this time, it only took me about a half an hour to wonder what I had just done. I drove back and turned myself in, after multiple phone calls from the sheriff. As the sheriff fingerprinted the hand not holding my daughter, a sneaking suspicion was planted in my mind, that maybe, outside of all of Rob’s bipolar, drug-addict crazy (which I assure you is extreme), there was something wrong with me. It was a terrifying thought. That my brain has lost its capacity to think properly.

It took another two arrests before that terrifying thought really sunk in. These realizations of your own sanity’s wobbly spots – they take time. It’s a process. The urge to just explain them away is strong, to blame my behavior on the situation rather than on myself.

The next two arrests were at Rob’s house. He’d been left in jail for a month, and then sent to court-ordered rehab for a month, and then come back. I’d picked him up from rehab and he’d seemed so different. Said he was dedicated to working things out with me. Apologized for everything he’d put me through. He’d moved out a month before he’d been put in jail, but now we were back to seeing each other all the time, sleeping together regularly, until one day, maybe two months after he got out of rehab, he suddenly stopped coming over, stopped calling. I’d asked him if there was someone else. He’d insisted there wasn’t.

A few weeks after that, I dropped off our daughter at his house and saw women’s shoes by the door. Brown heeled boots. A new girlfriend I had just found out existed. “Whose are those,” I demanded, pointing to the boots. “Her name is Carla,” Rob told me grudgingly. Guiltily. I yelled at Carla to come down and meet me, to look me in the eye and say hello. Silence. “She’s still in bed,” Rob told me. “Please just leave,” he said. I walked out, imagining them cuddled up together in bed, playing house with my daughter. My heart exploded inside my chest. I got in my car. Just leave, I said to myself. Go home and calm down. Instead I drove around the block and came back for my daughter.

Rob’s police statement said I round-housed the door open. His statements are always sure to mention my extensive martial arts training. Lies. A roundhouse kick to a door would break your foot. A teep is a front kick, you use the bottom of your foot. It is obviously a preferred choice for breaking down a door. Rob let me leave with my daughter, and the police showed up at my house about a half hour later. I refused to go with them, so they called for backup. My driveway swarmed with cop cars. The guy who tried to shove my UGG boots on me as I lay in bed sobbing had a black jacket with SWAT written on it in white letters. Rob filed a restraining order on me after that.

In January, this new girlfriend left town and Rob came to my house and stayed for a week. All apologies and “let’s start over.” The day she got back, he said he was sick. Her car was parked in front of his house. This time I didn’t feel my heart explode. I felt completely calm. I walked up to the house. I had no choice in the matter. I had to confront them both. Calmly. It’s funny, how your brain can trick you into thinking that your actions are sane, reasonable decisions, when in fact you’re way off the deep end. Sneaky lizard brain.

This time I didn’t break the door down. I knocked. Rob let me in. Girlfriend was prancing around the kitchen in a slutty polyester robe with nothing on underneath. Aware that Rob had spent the last week at my house, she put her little limp noodle hands around my neck and started choking me. “I will annihilate you!” she screamed. I shoved her off me, into a window. The window broke. I left in handcuffs. Since Rob already had a restraining order on me, this was criminal contempt in the first degree. Felony Charge. Probation. Fancy white marble courthouse.

After the third arrest, the court ordered a mental health evaluation. The evaluation recommended grief/trauma therapy. It mandated a specific therapist for this. So I quit my Buddhist meditation/art therapy therapist – who I had picked so I could color and sit in silence and not talk about my feelings while still telling the judge I was in therapy – and started seeing this new court appointed therapist.

The first session was horrible. Explosions of tears, sobbing about Rob and my daughter and my brother and this deep dark hole I couldn’t see my way out of. It was a few sessions in that I realized, at the end of it, that I had been talking about my brother. About him, not about the way he died. About his sense of humor, the backflips he used to throw off the roof of the chicken coop, the work he’d done in Haiti after the earthquake. I still have no idea how she got me to do that. To remembered my brother as a person again, not a tragedy. And when the tears did start coming, she taught me how to calm down again. How to get back to acting in control of myself, even if I felt sad, angry, hopeless – to walk out of that room in control of my face. To feel like acknowledging my feelings was safe, and healthy, instead of unacceptable, scary and dangerous. This process helped me start to see my actions as my actions, rather than direct results of a situation, like emotional dominos. I control my own actions. This incredibly basic rule of human conduct took me a lot of soul searching to discover. It also took therapy and medication. To keep that understanding from flying away when I get upset takes therapy and medication.

I worked on identifying feelings. Not everything I felt was anger, my therapist insisted. “Bad” and “fine” are not feelings. This was news to me. She explained my behavior to me in scientific terms. The biological basis for behavior we call PTSD. What it means to get “emotionally locked out,” the fight or flight response when instinct takes over, when you’re just a ball of neural responses with no logical brain attached – just a simple lizard brain. The amygdala – the same part of your brain that controls breathing and heartbeat – takes over, and tries to ensure your survival. How these feelings don’t just fade away over time, like I’d been hoping they would, they get worse. Each time you behave a certain way, like breaking a bunch of stuff when I got upset – it reinforces that behavior in your brain. It makes it more likely you are going to do it again. From the first plant I killed and set on fire, I had been training my brain to break things.

It was comforting – to realize that nothing I was doing, feeling, thinking – that this deeply personal, private experience was mine alone. I’d gone into this feeling like no one could ever know how I felt. No one else had been my little brother’s big sister. No one understood the exact way in which my world had been shattered. Now, I realize that it was the other way around. It wasn’t the therapists who didn’t understand how I felt. I was the one who hadn’t understood that they knew what was going on in my head better than I did. My lizard brain wasn’t special. Nothing I felt was unique. Grief is inescapable. It’s universal. On some level, everyone experiences this terrible pain. I had just been privileged enough to live to the age of 29 without anything truly horrific happening to anyone I loved. Ditto with the struggle of becoming a new parent. The lack of sleep, the loneliness, the boredom. The resentment. The struggle. It’s all deeply personal and completely universal.

She also explained what to do when I get those feelings, that grief tied up in rage and despair and denial: absolutely nothing. Just ride out the emotional tsunami without getting arrested. Actually acknowledge how I feel, instead of pretending that I feel fine, just fine, I just happen to be dealing with a situation that can and must be rectified by breaking all the things. Your brain is like a rescue dog. It can learn bad habits. With training, love, and patience, it can also relearn good habits.

My daughter is almost two now. When I’m putting her to bed, listening to the rhythm of her breathing, she’ll stretch a foot out and place it on my arm, just to maintain contact. She’ll whisper “Mama,” and let out a deep sigh that ends in a sort of mew. It’s the sound she makes when she’s completely comfortable, when she’s about to fall asleep. I listen to her breathe, smell her skin, and am so flooded with feelings of love and gratitude, pride and happiness – joy. Those are feelings I can name too now. These moments make every single part of the heartbreak and pain of the past few years acceptable. Worth living through. I thrill in watching her grow up, but these moments – where she is still my tiny baby, melting into me as she sleeps – it is the most alive and at peace I’ve ever felt. I know these moments will forever be some of the best times of my life.

One day, a few months after I threw his girlfriend through a window, Rob walked through my front door. He’s still here. I helped him move back in. Now he gets to enjoy all the walls he painted. Gets to enjoy the sound of his daughter laughing in the morning. We’re learning to tame our demons. To trade our swords for words.

And if it doesn’t work out? I’ll be O.K. I realize now, my mental health does not depend on his actions. I know now, I didn’t total a car and a motorcycle because Rob threw me off a porch. I didn’t trash the jail because Rob got arrested. I didn’t break down a door and throw someone through a window because Rob started seeing someone else. Sure, those were catalysts. But I responded the way I did, rather than the way a sane, rational, mentally healthy person would, because I had some deep emotional issues I hadn’t dealt with, and was refusing to even acknowledge. Now, I can recognize when I’m not fine, and I can accept that that’s fine. When pressed I can even describe my emotions with words other than “fine” and “bad.” I know what grief feels like, and I’m not afraid to feel it anymore. I can stop and recognize it before that fear turns the grief into anger. I can feel it, however uncomfortable it feels, and come back to myself before spiraling down the rabbit hole of rage that ends with me handcuffed to the wall in a police station.

So far, I no longer get the urge to break things. That synapse of yes-crush-yes-smash has disconnected. Breaking things isn’t how to make feelings disappear. Trying to make feelings disappear is insanity. Learning to accept them – the good, the bad, the excruciatingly painful – opens a door they can walk out on their own. I’m off probation in July.