11 3 / 2014
A few weeks ago, I requested a copy of my collegiate medical records to give to my new psychiatrist, the first mental health professional I’ll have seen in almost seven years. When I arrived home late last night, I pulled them out of my mailbox: a curled-in-half manila envelope that contained detailed accounts of therapy sessions, medications, dosages, symptoms, diagnoses. Fifty or so pages of details about myself I forgot, and many I never knew.
I was hospitalized in 2006, because I wanted to kill myself. If I don’t talk about it very much, it’s because wanting to kill myself does not, thankfully, come up in conversation very much anymore. I lived in a psychiatric ward for almost a week, over Thanksgiving that year, adjusting to a new medication that would permanently change my life. Gradually, brick by brick, level by level, I built a life for myself afterward: I got a job, I finished college, I rebuilt relationships with friends and family. Ever since, I have proved elastic and resilient in the face of new challenges. Unemployment during a financial crisis. The subsequent trauma of moving to New York for a new job and leaving my life, my artistic community, and parts of my identity behind forever in Saint Louis. The daily disappointments and hurts that, before treatment, would have ruined me. None of these were game over.
When I played video games as a child, I loved the ones you could save and return to later, games that allowed you to stop and think and imagine, and to return when you are ready—Final Fantasy, with its barebones plot and its nondescript characters, particularly fired me up, because I could fill in the blanks with my own projected ideas.
I loved games where, when your character died, a password appeared on the screen for you to write down—often, scrawled with a magic marker on the back of a torn envelope, or, if you planned ahead, a pencil and maybe a post-it note you pulled out of a kitchen drawer. Even if you waited weeks, you could just tap that password in and pick up where you left off, like you had never stopped playing. Months might go by and you’d find a crumpled-up password behind the television and wonder what game it belonged to; you’d try game after game until it worked, and then you’d wonder at the progress you had once made and how you allowed it to get away from yourself. Metroid was like this for me. Samus would have a gun or other power-up I’d forgotten about—what is that, the wave beam? where on earth did I even find that?—and I would play through a whole level to fight a boss character, only to find out I’d already beaten him.
There were games that were absolutely vicious, games that you had to play from start to finish without stopping, games that did not allow you to leave and come back under any circumstances—Castlevania was one of those. I’d beat up skeletons and vampire bats and mummies and Medusa heads, and if I died, which I did often, I went back to the beginning of the level. Controllers would be thrown at the screen in juvenile rage. These games were hard, almost impossible, to beat, especially for a little one with still-developing motor skills. If I had to stop—say, to do homework, or go to dinner—I would agonize over whether to turn the game off, or to pause it and leave it running but unattended. One of my brothers might ruin everything by ending the game while I wasn’t looking. Often they would flip it off because they wanted to play for themselves, sometimes it was an accident—a blameless preteen stubbing his toe on the reset button between chair and fridge.
If my life were a video game, I would not place a bet on me even being able to beat the first few levels again—and yet here I am, I made it through once, even though I almost tossed the controller in 2006. Do I have a save state to revert to? Is there a password I’m missing, maybe written in Crayola on the back of a piece of junk mail, maybe wadded up and hidden in a place where no one thinks to vacuum?
I read over my medical records in one sitting last night: recaps of therapy sessions, discussions about medical leave from school, side effects of medications. It was instructive and enlightening to see, spelled out so clearly, all of the things I missed about myself. When I read, I could remember hurts from a long time ago that I had almost forgotten about; here they were, drafted in clean, clinical language by a professional, complete with recommendations about how I should proceed, how to navigate through this strange dungeon I was in. It was a strategy guide—one I unfortunately could not read on the first playthrough.
In these printouts, huge characters and important details of my life were reduced to shorthand, single characters and combinations of numbers. C, for a person who hurt me, J, for one I loved desperately but who was just out of reach. They were flat on open pages, existing in words and only in terms of my flawed reactions to them. Patient does not recognize an emergent pattern in his thinking—just wait for the boss emerge from its shell before striking. Patient appears tired, words are fast, laughs too loudly, indicating manias—be cautious of these pitfalls, whose passing will require acrobatic grace. 600 mg Li2CO3 tid, a code for an extra life.
The picture of my mental health in this record is far from complete. For one thing, it does not show who I am now: I am reading stories about a different Sebastian in this packet, one I remember but who is now wholly discrete. For another, the most important months of my therapy are missing, because they took place away from my college’s student clinic, with a private psychologist. I came in for check-ups and to have prescriptions filled as long as my student medical insurance would allow, but the bulk of the work was being done in an office tower across town.
I wasn’t aware about how acutely I would want to see those final chapters in print until last night, when I came to see that, after being sent away from fifteenth and final therapy session at Student Health Services, I was not equipped for the battle ahead. It was in the fourteen months that followed that I skipped from medication to medication, that I started having suicidal ideation, that I was hospitalized and released, and finally, miraculously, that I began to heal. Swaths of this time period are lost to me, erased memory. But there is space enough now, there has been enough time away, that I might be able to fill in the blanks if I try.
Although it was after eleven last night when I finished reading, I decided to call my second, final therapist to request my records from him. Reading them might help me make sense of all of the radical changes I underwent before and after my hospitalization, to understand my old self better, to link my present to my past. It won’t undo mistakes I made, or make me invincible—this is not a cheat code—but I thought that having those records, seeing those levels played through again, being able to see the steps laid out slowly and measured, might give me a richer toolbox for understanding myself now.
Today I got a voicemail with my old therapist’s familiar, slowly resonant voice. It had been seven years, he said, but he remembered me and some of our discussions; he remembered that I was working to finish school, for example. Unfortunately, I’d called too late: it had been nearly seven years since he heard from me, and my records were destroyed last month.
It’s hard for me to describe the sense of loss that I felt when I got this message. I suppose it wasn’t loss, really: what did I lose that I already had? It’s not even the sense that I can’t get something I want. What I want is a sense of completion that has not come to me organically, and I think I can still get that. It’s just that getting there now means a journey without a map. I am left alone on vast plains and in thick woods, voyaging through unknown space, searching for hidden secrets on my own—secrets that I hid. I am good at the game; I made it to this level, after all. I just no longer know how I did it, and it may be beyond my remembering. I know now I will never be able to rely on the comfort of hard reference. As before, I will have to figure it all out for myself somehow.
Part of the game is solving for yourself. I get that. I have been playing long enough to understand. I just always hoped there might be an answer—not a cheat, but an answer—that could help lead me through the gauntlet. A password I could use to start over from a point of rupture, but not to skip to the end: I recognize the fallacy inherent in only concerning oneself with the endgame.
For a brief moment, from last night to this morning, I was a child, arm under the TV stand, grasping desperately for a scrap of paper that may long since have been swept away or pitched, intent on going back to play a forgotten stage again. Now I know it’s gone, and I am allowing myself this feeling of heavy disappointment. But—and this is how I am different now—I know better than to shut off the game entirely.