They’re Choking

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He was too tired to argue, so he let her wrap him in the blanket until he couldn’t move anything other than his head. He tried to keep his eyes on her, but she disappeared behind him, then hauled his head into her lap.

“You’re not going anywhere,” she said fiercely, her fingers digging into his scalp. “You don’t have to talk. But you’re not going anywhere. We’re family, and you have to choose. You chose to be here. I did too. I messed up, but I’m back, and that means you get to come back too.”

He shifted, but she’d done a good job with the blanket, and he wasn’t sure he would ever get out without her help. He truly wasn’t going anywhere.

“I can’t escape.” His whisper softened her touch, and he hated himself for it. He wasn’t worthy of her gentleness.

In the silence, everything felt louder. Lightning flashed, and then thunder rolled outside. But he was safe, here. For now. The words shifted inside of him, memories where he had buried them under a ton of rubble. He couldn’t keep silent. He couldn’t escape.

“I’ve been having…flashbacks.”

She rubbed steady pressure into his temples, and he relaxed a little into the touch.

“I keep remembering all the times I’ve been in the hospital. Especially the last time. I can’t keep the thoughts away, and the only way to stop thinking about what happens when I’m on drugs is to be on more drugs. Or drink. Which I’ve been congratulating myself on, like that’s something less than drugs.”

Still, she said nothing, and he felt just a little stronger. Just a little braver.

“What gets me the worst is what I can’t remember. All mixed up with what I do remember. There’s just these missing blocks of time in my life. Either erased because of retrograde amnesia, or because I was just unconscious. But sometimes, the pieces come back. And I just remember what it was that got me there. What an absolute scumbag I am.”

Her hands stilled, and he flicked his eyes back to her. Her expression was an endless well of sadness, almost as sad as he felt. “I wish you wouldn’t call yourself that.”

“You’ve thought it.”

“That’s different. Just keep going, okay? You’re looking better. Tell me more about what it’s like for you.”

A tear rolled down his cheek, and she brushed it away for him. “It’s like I’m dying, like you said. But I did it to myself. And I can’t get out.”

She resumed her soothing strokes, and he shifted in the blanket again, just to feel the comforting resistance.

“What I hate the worst is the fugue state. I hate remembering being strapped down. I remember the first time I woke up like that, with that scraping in my throat, and asked what had happened. And they told me they had to strap me down because I was trying to hurt the nurses. I don’t think you know how horrible that felt. That I tried to attack someone, and didn’t even know it. And that I’d apparently been screaming my head off. and throwing up. And all that happened for me is that I closed my eyes on an ambulance after going on about how I was fine, and then waking up strapped down, barely able to talk, hours later, and being told that I almost died twice.”

“And that was just the first time?”

“Yes. I’ve been in the hospital at least five or six times from overdosing. Usually, I know my limits. But every now and then there’s a bad trip, or I’m too high to keep track of what I’ve already had. Or I just get too depressed to care. And then I end up back there. Always strapped down. Because I always try to hurt them, and never remember it.”

The thunder rumbled again, and he closed his eyes.

“Then there’s the parts that just kind of feel like a dream. Like, I know it happened, but it doesn’t feel real. Like this one time, when I did have this awful, long dream. To this day, I still remember some of the details. I remember something about being in some sort of video game world, with all these kids. Kind of like a theme park. But something was wrong. And I don’t remember all of it, but I do remember that I had to scream. I told myself that I had to scream, to save those kids, or something horrible would happen. And I kept going in and out of that dream, waking up in handcuffs, then going right back into that dream. Knowing that it wasn’t real, but for some reason, still feeling like I had to scream and save those kids. And then, when I was finally off my high, I remember that no one was listening to me. I was talking to one of the nurses, and I told her that no one would listen to my dream. But then she did. She sat there, and I think I remember her holding my hand, and I told her my dream. And it was one of those things where I just had so many emotions, and then it was all just sort of over. The scary thing is that it feels sometimes like it happened to someone else. It’s scary not knowing what’s real.”

“I can understand that. I sometimes have trouble keeping track, too.”  

He nodded, relieved. “Then there’s the times when I couldn’t even remember talking to people who said they came and visited me. I knew it happened, because they’d bring me my stuff. I’d find papers later with my writing on it, lists of things I’d requested from home, but I didn’t remember writing them.”

The images roiled through his mind, one after another, some unclear and nonsensical, others as crisp as if they were happening that moment. But he could hold onto none of them.

“And the times when I messed myself. Soiled myself. And I could feel myself being cleaned, still handcuffed. I tried to tell them I had to go to the bathroom, but I was never allowed to get up. So I just had to go in the bed. And they were quick and efficient, but it was still mortifying. But those are some of the things that just keep coming back to me. I’d end up going to the psych ward sometimes, because they thought I was trying to kill myself. But I never remembered getting there. It was like, suddenly three or four days had passed, and then a few weeks, and I could never remember the exact moment I had gotten there. I couldn’t remember walking through the doors to the new unit. I couldn’t remember getting tours, or anything, even though it must have happened. But those blocks of time are just gone. They don’t exist for me. It’s the worst feeling, and I just want to cover it up, even though it might end up putting me right back in the same place.”

“And then I left you.”

He swallowed, trying to remember to be honest without casting blame. “Yeah. That happened. Now that I’m in therapy, memories are starting to come back from that binge, too. I know Jennifer was taking care of me while I was out. But it feels like something is wrong with my brain, and that time is just slipping away. The only thing that helped for a while was the guitar. But that’s gone too. Again. Now there’s this group, and everything is just opening back up again, and I feel like I can’t take one more day. Not one more day, Lanie.”

“Are you saying you want to die?” Her voice was even, without any judgment, but her fingers tightened against his head.

“Yes. No. Sometimes. I just don’t want to feel this anymore. I do belong with those men. And that kills me. I think the same way that they do. That I deserve to be angry. That everything that happened is your fault, and that I was just some sort of victim of circumstance. That any time I thought about hurting you or almost did hurt you, that it was just natural, that it’s better that I think about it, because that’s what’s keeping me from doing it. Until I do it. And then I did it. In my head, I just want you to feel a bit of the anger and pain that I feel, so that you know that you can’t do that to me again. And the only way I can think to get rid of those thoughts is to just not think anything at all. Things feel too real right now. But when I’m on that cloud, and I can forget what kind of a person I am, that’s when I feel like I deserve to be with you. That’s the only time.”

She kept brushing the tears from his face. “You know that’s not true. I’m honored to have you in my life. I’m so lucky you chose me. You’re an incredible person.”

“I’m not, though. My mother knew it. She left me. I don’t even think she thought twice about it. I know I can be a lot. I can be too loud. Too fast. Too much. She was always telling me to sit still, slow down, be quiet, and I tried, but I never could. I remember how tired she was. Those are the thoughts that are coming back, too. I remember from the time I was four. Not a lot. But up until the time she died, I don’t think she ever really smiled when she was around me. I tried so hard, Lanie. I tried so hard. All I wanted was to make her smile. But all I do is make people tired. Or afraid. Or hurt. Especially the Santos family. The last real family I had. And now they’re gone, too, and they don’t want to have anything to do with me. Miranda was right. Everyone was right.”

She leaned over him, her hair trailing over his face. “Even me?”

Closing his eyes again, he nodded. “Especially you.”

“So you believe what I say?”

Suspicion made him look up again, eyeing her. “I meant that you were right to leave.”

“You know what equivocating means?”

He groaned. “Lanie.”

“You can’t just pick and choose when I’m right. If this is what you’re basing this on, then either I am, or I’m not. They can’t both be true. And you can’t just tell me that I’m right when it’s what you want to believe about yourself.”

“How do I know that what you’re saying is even true? Don’t actions speak louder than words? Aren’t you afraid of me? Just like you were afraid of Sean, and your dad, and your grandfather? Aren’t I just another in a long line of men who’ve disappointed and hurt you?”

“I’m not going to say that you’ve never hurt or disappointed me. But you’re the first person who’s ever mattered enough for me to fight for. You’re the first person who’s cared enough to try and change. And that has nothing to do with anyone other than you.”

He was starting to get really hot, in that blanket. “Can you let me out of here?”

Once he was free, he didn’t feel any better. He paced the room, watching the light from outside flash periodically. The storm was getting further away, though.

“One day at a time.”

He glanced at her, then continued his track. “What?”

“Can we just take it one day at a time?”

“It’s not that easy.”

“But can we try? Just tonight. Can you stay clean just tonight? You’re not promising to give it up. And we’re not making any promises about tomorrow. But just for tonight, can you come to bed, and let me hold you? Let me take care of you.”

Could he? Wearily, he let her approach. Her touch wasn’t quite as painful this time. She stripped him bare as he stood still as stone, taking his clothes to the laundry basket in the closet. When she came out, she was also naked, and he reluctantly crawled under the sheets that she opened to him. He turned from her when he got in, and stiffened when she snuggled tight against his back. Her nose went into the spot at the base of his neck, and she stroked his chest, then his arms. He was wrapped in scars, and wrapped in her. Gradually, he relaxed again, trying to focus on the here and now, like he’d practiced in group. What he could feel, and smell, and see, and hear. That’s what was real. That was the present. He reminded himself that it was the only thing he had.

Bundled in her arms, he cried himself to sleep.

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