No self-respecting forty-year-old man wants to be living in his mother’s basement, so it’s a good thing I’m more of the self-deprecating type. Your mom’s basement is the place you land temporarily when life kicks you in the teeth or serves you up a nice big shit sandwich. It’s to be used as a fail-safe, a backup plan, the only thing that stands between you and homelessness. Boomeranging is supposed to be a tail-tucking, soul-sucking, short period of time where you gather your resources and rebuild. Unfortunately, my return was four years ago. A shit sandwich in the form of my second forced vacation to the psych ward still left a bitter aftertaste in my mouth. Even after all the vodka I used to wash it down, it lingered and lingered.
I cradled my pounding head in my hands and sat up on the secondhand lifeless mattress shoved up against the damp corner on the floor. Morning light peeked in from a cracked dirty window and dappled against the concrete walls kissed with mildew. The wrinkled sheets were stained with the takeout Sesame Chicken I had eaten the night before. As I combed through my hit-and-miss memories from the prior evening, devouring the soggy chicken was the last thing I remembered. I struggled to piece events together, putting on my detective hat, sifting and sorting for clues, scrolling through my phone for pictures and evidence.
How the hell did I get back here?
I stumbled to the mirror with my head on fire and pinching from the habitual half a bottle of vodka I’d consumed. Vodka is the closet alkie’s first choice when imbibing because we think it is undetectable, but it really isn’t. We like to lie to ourselves like that. It’s easier to lie, and so we find ourselves lying about everything. Did you drink today? No. Did you swipe that twenty from my nightstand? Of course not, Ma. Don’t be silly.
I didn’t identify as an alcoholic; I just developed a habit of leaning on vodka to take the edge off, to help me sleep, to calm the constant rush hour of overlapping screeching voices in my mind. What started as an attempt to self-medicate a real problem stuck around like bad decisions seem to do. I ran and ran, but I could never seem to outrun the pain and worthlessness that plagued me. So, I added it to the stack of bad choices I made that started when the first voices began when I was fifteen.
Almost three decades later, I could pinpoint the why; I just couldn’t figure out a compelling enough reason to stop. When you take a journey into darkness, it doesn’t happen instantaneously. It is taken one single step after the next. One day, months or years later, you wake up and find yourself so far from center you can’t even fathom what you need to do to get back on track. And so you don’t. You continue. You hide and if you have a conscience at all, you try to hurt the fewest people possible as you descend deeper into hell.
I felt the wall up like a sixteen-year-old boy with a girl in the backseat of his car on prom night, and finally connected with the light switch that blasted fluorescent light onto my face. I leaned in and looked at myself in the mirror for the first time in a long time. My hair was graying and thinning, forming a crop circle-type band around my emerging bald head, my blue eyes were red-rimmed and bloodshot, and my skin was pockmarked and graying from the lack of eating anything with nutritional value. Not appreciating the view at all, I continued my inventory down and pinched the little bit of extra flab on my tummy, the natural result of eating Chinese takeout three nights a week and zero ab crunches. On the hotness scale of one to ten, I was a negative thirteen.
In this world, if you aren’t pretty, you have to have a good personality, but more importantly, a great sense of humor. Funny is the great equalizer, transforming the ugly to mildly attractive since the dawn of time. Making people laugh was my superpower, so I channeled all my energy onto the stage. When I was on fire and the crowd was rolling, I felt like a god, like I could do anything. And when they were silent and bored, or worse, heckling me, I felt like sucking on the end of the loaded shotgun that sat in the corner of my closet. Hidden away from the watchful and nervous eyes of my mother. A reminder that I always had a choice, and at any second, I could make a different one.
“Freddie, breakfast is ready.” My sweet mother, Dottie called down from her perch at the top of the stairs, the morning sun making her shadow slant down the wall. Her arthritis made it hard for her to navigate the stairs, so thankfully, she didn’t get to see or experience the current level of squalor I was living in.
I stumbled up toward her voice and rubbed my prickly jawline, opening the door with a small forced smile that felt tight on my cheeks.
“Good morning, my beautiful boy,” she called out, using the familiar greeting she had used every day since before I could answer her back. Dressed in a baby blue house dress and worn slippers, her thinning gray hair was cropped close to her head. Her pale eyes looked into mine behind glasses that sat on the bridge of her nose as she engaged in her most important daily task—analyzing my current mental state. She seemed to exist in a perpetual state of exhaustion, and I felt the guilt rear up every time I acknowledged it. I was the source of her weariness. Years of psychiatrists and doctor visits, calls to the school for disciplinary problems, and job losses had left their mark on her face. Deep, dark circles and a roadmap of wrinkles had taken up permanent residence there, yet she never complained.
“Good morning, Mama,” I said back as I kissed her soft cheek, and she tipped the ancient Mr. Coffee carafe filled with decaf toward my mug. Caffeine was “bad” for someone in my condition. It was on the handwritten list of “Foods Freddie Must Avoid” held up by a faded piglet magnet on her ancient, sweating refrigerator.
Words were important. Words define you. They made up the jokes that I told. They were used to classify my behaviors and identify my afflictions on the quest to define the sixty-four thousand dollar question. What was wrong with Freddie?
The biggest problem with words is, when you exhibit signs of mental illness as a teenager, doctors aren’t exactly forthcoming with them. There is a lot of speculation. A lot of, “We think you might be…” or, “You exhibit signs of…” but not a lot of definitive answers. It’s not like you have a physical disease. Symptoms themselves can’t be used to narrow down a diagnosis conclusively. A disease of the mind is much harder to define, with overlapping characteristics and fuzzier lines.
Words were tossed around—manic depressive, borderline personality disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, bipolar. From the all-you-can-eat smorgasbord of insanity, I dabbled in nearly everything. What started as quirkiness and anxiety as a child, grew into eccentric risk-taking behavior as a teenager, and culminated in my first hospital committal in my early twenties. It was a wild ride there, but I finally had a diagnosis. Bipolar disorder with occasional hallucinations and OCD. Some experts say bipolar and OCD are linked. Apparently, there’s a twenty percent chance of having them both, so I guess I hit the mental illness jackpot. A real twofer.
Sounds like a good time, am I right? It wasn’t. Finally getting a diagnosis was a relief at first. There was a concrete reason that explained why my brain worked differently than other people I knew. Being able to blame a real quantifiable disorder was gratifying initially, but then the anger settled in and stayed. The mania, though, that sweet dark genius! She was someone I enjoyed as my tango partner. She never disappointed!
I used to be jealous of other people who floated through life unencumbered by the weight of mental illness on their shoulders. They got up, put on their clothes, kissed their wives, and headed to the office. On the weekends, they might cut a little loose, enjoy a six-pack, or take in a movie. It was a predictable, easy-to-navigate existence that I thought I wanted. But if I’m really honest, mania can unleash creativity in such unfathomable greatness, I welcomed my demons. I always knew a crash would inevitably come, but before that, I had incredible breakthroughs. Glimpses of grandeur, where I was able to use more of my magnificent brain to reach highs that the normies couldn’t even comprehend. It was my blessing and my curse.
Russell Brand, Mel Gibson, Kurt Cobain—from where I stood, I was in awesome company. Okay, maybe not Mel Gibson, but even Old Blue Eyes himself, Frank Sinatra was blessed with this difference. Their manic Mondays created some of the best comedy and musical gold ever produced. I felt oddly blessed to be part of this brotherhood. I could never tell Ma that. It would crush her.
“Don’t forget to take your pills,” Ma reminded sweetly. “I set them out with your oatmeal.”
I hated the pills. They made me feel empty, dense, heavy, and numbed out to everything. Taking anti-psychotics was like walking through mud up to my waist. I dutifully put them in my mouth anyway, their bitterness stabbing my tongue, and tried to swallow, but I couldn’t. They were stuck to the roof of my dry mouth, their acidic burn souring my stomach. When she turned around to wash the dishes, I spit them into my hand and tucked them into the half of a white paper towel that was folded in a triangle neatly next to my bowl then cursed myself for letting her down again.
She believed the meds would save me. The problem was that I didn’t want to be saved. It was a song and dance where we each played our assigned roles. She put out the medication thinking it was best for me, and I pretended to take it thinking that was best for her.
A tinkling sound rang out as she dumped oat bran into a bowl and joined me at the table.
“You got in late last night,” she observed.
“Yeah, we went out after the show.” I knew Ma wanted to hear I was spending time with friends instead of isolating. Little white lies I habitually told so she wouldn't worry.
“That’s good.” She slurped at the milk on her spoon. “What are you doing today, dear?”
“The usual. Going to get some writing done.” It was what I always said, whether or not it was the truth. For Christmas last year, Ma gave me a thick leather notebook; it was my most prized possession. The book was bound with a thick strap that held it closed, and inside, scribbled in my illegible handwriting were punch lines and set-ups. Jokes I wanted to try on stage.
“Someday, I’m gonna see your name up in lights,” she said and winked at me. “My Freddie is destined for great things.”
“Thanks, Mama.” She was always my biggest fan, and I lived to make her proud, or at the very least, a little less disappointed.
Her voice got somber for a minute. “Just remember, when you make it big, money is the root of all evil.”
The Christian Broadcast Network blared behind us, as they were engaged in their annual fundraising event. The salt and pepper-haired hosts begged for pledges to help them complete God’s most important mission on earth. My brow crinkled at the obvious hypocrisy that was harder to swallow than the oatmeal currently lodged in my throat. “What?” she asked defensively, putting the puzzle together, pinching her lips together to prevent a grin. Mom loved Jesus but wasn’t so far up his ass that she couldn’t see anything else.
“The irony, Ma. It’s the irony. It gets me every time.”
“Oh, you.” She smiled, waving her finger at me with an exasperated grin. “You’ve been making people laugh since you were in kindergarten. Remember that?” She looked into the mist of her memories fondly, and a small smile tugged at the corners of her mouth. “That reporter came to your school and asked what you would do if you were the principal. Remember what you said?” She pushed my arm playfully.
“I told him I’d quit and get a new job I’d enjoy,” I repeated on rote. It was a memory she walked me through at least once a month, and I always indulged her many strolls down memory lane.
“You killed.” She smiled wide, spots of chewed-up oat bran speckled brown on her pink tongue.
“I did,” I agreed. “I just hope my comedy prowess didn’t peak in elementary school.”
“What are you talking about, Freddie? You have your whole life ahead of you. You are just getting started.”
I grimaced and tried to buy into her Positive Patty spin on my future. I was halfway done already with a string of personal and professional failures a mile wide. But the wide-eyed admiration of my mother never waned. She never gave up on me, and for the life of me, I could never understand why.
I scooped a spoonful of oatmeal into my mouth, tasteless gooey slop that I gulped down obediently. I forced myself to eat the pear she had lovingly cut into slices, but that just felt bland and mushy in my mouth.
Dutifully, I put my dishes in the dishwasher. “Thanks, Ma,” I said and then disappeared into the basement again. My days were mundane and hum-drum for the most part—a complete and total snooze fest. The only bright flashes were on stage, where I didn’t have to be the guy who lived in his mom’s basement. On stage, I could be anyone and say anything. I could create an entirely new existence and live out any fantasy I wanted to live. Maybe that’s why I loved it so much. When your real life was as dull as mine, escaping was the ultimate fantasy.