This Is How You Lose Your Mind

Dani Fleischer recalls how a lifetime of perfectionism led her down a path of self-destruction.

Dani Fleischer | Longreads | November 2019 | 11 minutes (2,731 words)

There’s no single answer to the question of why I lose my mind at the beginning of my sophomore year of college. There are just things that happen over the years, and those things accumulate over time, and those accumulations finally break me. Like the crack of a whip, it’s loud and startling, and it feels like it comes out of nowhere.

It doesn’t.

***

I spend my whole life aiming for academic perfection, starting when I am 10 — the year my father tanks another job and my parents move me and my older sisters down to New Jersey from upstate New York. It’s the second time in a decade they’ve made that particular move, under eerily similar conditions: a lost job, a desperate reach, an uprooted family.

But there’s another condition too — a preexisting one that comes before anything else I can remember: this strange suspicion I have that I am somehow deficient. Being the new kid in 5th grade only exacerbates this vague and amorphous feeling of not-enoughness. It makes me painfully quiet at school and slow to make friends.

Each morning, during journal-writing time, I ask for the blue laminated bathroom pass and go to the bathroom, to the last stall on the right, and I cry. I’m not even sure why I’m crying but I know it has something to do with the sadness that’s bundled up inside me. Nobody ever told me it would be this lonely, I keep thinking. Then, after a few minutes, I pick the blue index card off the dirty tile floor, splash some water on my face, and return to class. It’s a secret ritual that goes on for months.

Then this happens: I become the first 5th grader who can properly fill out a map of all 50 states, and something temporarily replaces that not-enoughness. I don’t even know what it is exactly, but the urge to steal away to a bathroom subsides for the week, and I spend the rest of the year chasing that feeling. State capitals, vocabulary words like doldrums and oxymoron, letters to Elie Wiesel: there’s so much to try to be the best at, and that pursuit carries me straight into summer. It turns out to be a good year for me. I adapt. I make friends, get straight A’s, and begin to feel comfortable in Jersey.

A few days before 6th grade starts, I find out that we’re moving back upstate again. The reasoning my parents give is muddled: the house upstate never sold, and Mom doesn’t like living so close to her mother. I begin to wonder about how the decisions shaping my life are being made.

I return upstate and bring with me the comfort of academic perfection. School becomes the perfect closed system, a way to quantify my worth, and for a long time that system serves me well. I’m good at it and it seems as good as anything else by which to define myself; it’s rigid and unforgiving, and it doesn’t account for my own humanity. The perfect vehicle for self-destruction: something that feels like control, but isn’t. A car speeding down an icy highway late at night.

I spend high school grinding away at perfection and show myself no mercy when I graduate second in my class. I still get to make a speech at graduation, which is nice. I quote Rilke and people congratulate me and I feel smart, even as I continue to eviscerate myself for not being first.

I get into a good college.

***

I go to school in Manhattan, and my freshman year I start taking Ecstasy on weekends at 11:00 at night, piling into cabs with friends and pulling up to clubs just as the drugs start to swim through me. My favorite club is in Chelsea — an old railroad freight terminal. I wander through the long, narrow industrial labyrinth — different rooms on different levels: some with sunken dance floors where train tracks ran a hundred years ago, some with cages in them, some with velvet chairs and gilded mirrors and mahogany bookcases: Victorian libraries swathed in trance music. I dance through the night with my friends, taking breaks to sit on massive black speakers and feel the house music vibrating underneath me as I watch people wave glow-sticks through the smoky, dark air. (One night I think I’m hallucinating when I see Hello Kitty walking around, until I realize that there is actually someone at the club wearing a giant, furry Hello Kitty costume.) Later, I puke over the side of the speaker and my friend, Akiko, takes me by the hand and brings me to the unisex bathroom — what was once a locker room for the freight terminal workers. Sweaty men and women in various stages of undress move all around me, as Akiko drapes her arms over my shoulders and presses a wet paper towel to the back of my neck. “You okay to make it out of here?” she asks. I nod and she leads me out into the purple early morning Manhattan light.

I spend my whole life aiming for academic perfection, starting when I am 10 — the year my father tanks another job and my parents move me and my older sisters down to New Jersey from upstate New York.

It feels worth it to have gotten sick, just to be taken care of for a few minutes.

I wake up the next day and write a paper for Intro to Philosophy that wins an award. It’s a delicate balance between academic perfection and secretive self-loathing, and maintaining it is a full-time job.

The year ends with me and my friends drinking Malibu rum and pineapple juice on a ship docked at a pier next to the West Side Highway, all of us dancing in the warm May breeze: high heels and taut skin underneath a dark sky and the stars I can never see from the city. My first year at college has gone well, with good grades and friends and excitement about the future. And still, the thought persists: Nobody ever told me it would be this lonely.

Before going home for the summer, I register with my best college friend for a few classes at a university in Italy. The two of us will get closer, I think. I’ll become worldly and stylish and fun, and it will mark the start of some new phase of my life.

A few weeks after I go home, my parents’ business finally goes under, and my trip to Italy goes with it. They’ve mismanaged it all — the work, their finances, their lives — and for the first time, I see something in the act of breaking: a life determined by one precarious decision after another. I watch as my parents throw blame at each other and grapple with a very particular kind of fear: the kind that comes just after the car starts to slide on the black ice but well before it hits the guardrail, when it’s too late to stop and too early to go to the hospital. This will leave me different, I think.

I spend the summer working two waitressing jobs and partying and running away from what’s happening at home, even as I sink deeper into it. As my parents try to figure out some last ditch effort to save themselves, I go out and do more Ecstasy and trip on mushrooms and find sleeping pills that make me hallucinate. Each night I lie in bed, waiting for those pills to kick in and for everything to become a little more graceful — all the uncomfortable details of my life turning into shadowy, attenuated shapes sliding into one another.

My mom asks me why I’m always running away, and it infuriates me. I want to explain it to her, how there’s nothing about home that feels safe anymore, how watching them both hate each other so much is unbearable. How all the years of trying to be perfect have added up to something exhausting. But I don’t say any of it. Instead, I just tell her that I love her, and leave them both to their name-calling.


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As the summer ends, I begin to dread going back to school. It’s simultaneous, this hatred of home and the desperation to stay there. I convince myself that as long as I don’t move, nothing else can either. Of course, what I don’t know — or maybe what I know more than anything else — is that it doesn’t matter what I do or where I do it. Home is already gone.

***

When I go back to school, I learn that losing my mind can look like a lot of different things. I don’t start hearing voices or seeing things that aren’t there, but something inside of me breaks and grief spills everywhere. Nobody ever told me it would be this lonely: it thrums its way through me constantly, even in my sleep.

I start the semester trying to stick to the plan anyway — straight As and drugs and Manhattan nightlife — but something very simple happens: it stops working. I read Plato and memorize irregular Italian verbs and do more Ecstasy, and it just doesn’t sustain me the way it used to. I start crying and can’t stop. I crawl through reading assignments and miss class. I stop showering. Unopened mail and empty cigarette packs pile up around the room.

There’s something stronger than the force exerted by all those standards and measurements that used to give my life form, something that feels like a dam bursting. Or like the car on that black ice sliding closer to the guardrail.

I go to a shrink who diagnoses me with depression and gives me Paxil. I find speed and stop sleeping. I keep taking sleeping pills that make me hallucinate. I weep on the phone to my mother and she weeps back, the two of us pooling my panic. This is her teaching me how to be afraid, and it makes me ache for her and it makes me hate her. I lie awake at night, chain smoking underneath the open window of my dorm room.

I imagine things that aren’t true, becoming convinced of them with a certainty that breaks me from reality. No one likes me. I am boring and worthless, and the only reason anyone tolerates me is because they feel sorry for me. Not just my new college friends, but people I’ve known and loved for years — people who sit with me and put their arms around me when I come home and cry to them about how unhappy I am.

One night, while high on sleeping pills, I run down the dorm hallway and burst into Akiko’s room and demand to know why she likes me. I want to explain everything to her — how I’m feeling and why it’s all too much — but I become too confused and weepy, and I start forgetting how to end sentences after I’ve started them. Eventually she corrals me into my room, even as I continue to blubber and explain, and she lies with me until the black hole of medicated sleep swallows me up.

My older sister comes to visit me at school, and the two of us get high and hang a string of Christmas lights over my bed, and we lie together in the dark under the small white bulbs. “When did you become so sad?” she asks, running her fingers through my hair. I sob and tell her the truth: I’m not really sure. “It’ll be ok,” she says, “you’ll see. You’re not alone, you’re just not the same anymore.” I don’t know how to explain to her that the brokenness has been there forever, that the problem is that I feel the same as I always have, just more so.

My lifelong insecurities turn into deep, guttural self-loathing. Feelings become facts. Fact: I am a total piece of shit. Fact: The earth is round. Fact: I am unsalvageable. One fact as true as another. The sum of it all becomes this perfect understanding: bad things happen no matter what, and there is no amount of academic perfection that can prevent that. I’ve been delusional to try.

I continue to skid through the semester, collecting fear and pills as I go.

Then one night, I try Oxycontin for the first time, and everything shifts. Right away, I think, This feels like home.

As my parents try to figure out some last ditch effort to save themselves, I go out and do more Ecstasy and trip on mushrooms and find sleeping pills that make me hallucinate.

You can’t know a narcotic high until you know it. You start to tingle as you feel yourself spreading out into something looser and warmer: the body as melting butter. You don’t forget about the things in your life that are wrong.They’re all still there. They’re just spread out across some distant horizon in a way that seems almost beautiful. It’s the antidote to all that loneliness that nobody ever told me about.

It’s the car spinning wildly as I lie down across the backseat and pretend I’m flying.

***

At first, I only get high at night, when everything else is done — only after I’ve really earned it. Then I notice myself thinking about it during lectures, anticipating that moment when everything will get a little warmer, and it will be easier to breathe. Soon, the waiting is all I do, so I stop waiting. I carry around little chips of those round, green pills everywhere I go, and I take them all the time. I turn my head for just a minute, and it’s all there is.

Getting high becomes the only salient thing in my life, and that clarity feels like everything I never knew I needed.

Each time the opiate kicks in, I stop crying so much, and I’m desperate enough to believe that that means I’m in control. I feel less beholden to all the sadness, which makes me think I’m freer. I convince myself that I can be better this way — a better student, a better friend. A better daughter.

I go to class, but I forget to take notes. I sit in the library and try to read, but instead wonder when my next dose should be. I make calendars and lists, charting out which assignment will get done when, but I don’t stick to them. I buy beautiful journals, blue satin and brown leather, but never write in them. I buy a pill cutter. I stop going out with my friends, preferring instead to lie alone in the dark of my narrow dorm bed and let the narcotized haze settle in all around me. I walk down Broadway at 3 a.m. when I need more cigarettes, and sit outside in the quad smoking. The Oxy coats everything with this very particular kind of crystalline sadness that I mistake for grace.

Then, one freezing morning in November I decide at 4 a.m. that it’s time for bed, and that I’ll wake up early to finish an assignment for Italian class. And when I wake up and realize that it’s too late to do the assignment, I just know, as soon as I look at the clock — I’m done. It’s vast and quiet, like the sound of a parachute opening up and then hanging in a quiet breeze. All I can hear is my own breath as I look down at the things that had once seemed so enormous — academics, achievement, “success” — and they all suddenly look comically small from the swell of wherever it is I find myself.

It’s almost funny, how what feels like a parachute opening is actually the moment of collision: the car finally wrapping itself around the guardrail and flipping over it, no sirens in the distance yet, just warped metal and the hiss of a broken engine.

I haven’t even missed the class yet. That’s the part that will stay with me; it isn’t even over. I could still go and take an incomplete for the assignment. But I just can’t remember why any of it matters anymore, and letting go of it all feels too good to stop now.

What I don’t know yet is that I’m just trading one idol for another — academics for pharmaceuticals — that what feels like freedom, finally, isn’t. That the trade won’t liberate me from anything, but will only trap me more.

And even if I knew any of it, I wouldn’t care. That’s the power of this new idol. What I do know is how good it feels to let myself fall. And so I do.

I call my mother and quietly tell her that I’m coming home, and she doesn’t know what to say, so she says ok.

* * *

Dani Fleischer is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the L.A. Times, the Washington Post, The Classical, and Essig Magazine. She is at work on a memoir.

Editor: Sari Botton