Can Exhaustion Swallow you?
There is blood everywhere on the counter but it doesn’t register right away.
For a few seconds, I look at the red liquid and the flap of skin now detached from my middle finger without being able to make a connection.
It’s as if life were being sucked through a straw, out of my brain, and into the void.
In auto-pilot, I must have retrieved Band-Aids from my suitcase, cleaned the wound, bandaged it tight, and tidied up the kitchen. I even washed the scissors I chopped a bit of my finger off with but I won’t remember anything.
What I remember is a brief incursion on the other side of the veil into a dimension where everything is nonsensical yet familiar.
And the dizziness that descended upon me like a wave, submerging me so completely I was sure I was going to faint.
My brain is trying to drag me back into the present moment.
And yet, I’m stuck amid voices, epiphanies I experience but won’t be able to articulate, and knowledge I do not want. Bewildered and completely lost, I can see time clearly and ask myself the question anyone who has ever tangled with mental illness dreads.
“Am I standing on the edge of insanity?”
I know without a doubt I’m on the cusp of a state different from my usual rational self. I also know I must force my brain to shut down lest I should get stuck in that twilight zone.
I lay down on the sofa bed, wrap the tea towel around my hand and wait for the moment to pass as nausea takes hold. Perfectly still, I close my eyes but don’t fall asleep.
Weeks of intense stress and too little sleep have caused this injury. Time unfolds behind my closed eyelids as sensory overload flattens me. I hear English, French, and Portuguese all at once, voices of people I know, one of whom is much louder than the others. They’re telling me to step back and turn around, I know it’s them because no one else calls me by that name.
A few minutes later, I open my eyes and hoist myself up. Unsteady on my feet, I change the Band-Aids on my finger, drink some water, switch off all the lights, and crawl into bed, shaking with cold and sobbing.
The yearning for human warmth has turned into physical pain again.
If every cell in my body has a mouth, their scream would deafen the world.
There are no traces of my breakdown the next morning.
Still weak, I make coffee and ponder what happened as it brews. At least the sofa bed isn’t drenched in blood, I haven’t lost my mind or my grip on reality, and the sun has risen again.
My phone tells me nothing I do not already know. I called no one, no one called me, and the person who saved me probably has no idea they did so.
How could they when their presence was but a figment of my imagination?
However, mine is showing clear signs of wear and tear and needs urgent attention. But because I am a freelancer whose income isn’t guaranteed, I use this time in Lisbon away from my family to push myself as hard as I can.
As I wait for the airport cab on the morning I’m flying back to Paris, dizziness side-sweeps me again. A few hours after having landed, the same happens at the train station while I’m making my way back to my father’s.
I break into a cold sweat.
“If you fry your brain, there’s no coming back from it,” my friend had warned me two days before. They’re the friend whom my brain conjured up that night, our bond nevertheless very much rooted in reality. We were comparing notes on our respective mental malfunctions and agreed our enquiring mind was the enemy in this case.
“Of course you want to know what’s on the other side, you’re curious but you can’t go there,” they said.
Sometimes, dizziness still finds me.
I’ve come to think of it as my brain’s fail-safe mechanism, a warning that burnout is imminent again.
No matter how many times I tell myself this is a transition phase I must see through until I’ve achieved some professional stability, I know I’m not a robot. What’s more, my extreme work ethics are proving unsustainable so I must find ways of working smarter, not harder.
The scar of my left middle finger will always be there to remind me to take care of myself. But mine is an American conundrum common to so many people in a country without universal health care: If I don’t earn, I can’t afford good health.
And because I’ve already lost five years of my life to major depressive disorder, I’m hell-bent on making the most of those I’ve got left. This, too, explains my determination to keep going come what may. And, deep down, a part of me is also trying to make up for lost time even though I know it’s impossible.
Then again, if my brain breaks, it’ll take my writing voice away and my livelihood with it just like it did for five years from 2013 onward.
But when needs must, you do what you have to do, you wobble, you falter, you fall down then you pick yourself up and keep going, somehow.
I’m a French-American writer and journalist living out of a suitcase in motion between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.
Can Exhaustion Swallow you?
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