Time traveling through disorder
Drawing by Ola Abulshalashel

My mental illness often manifests as a vehicle for time travel. By this, I mean that sometimes my feet are firmly planted on the ground of this earth, but my mind is unable to remain in one temporal place for very long. I often exist where time entirely collapses in on itself. The concept is not novel, but I find some resolve in understanding my mental unrest this way. I don’t want to glorify time travel. In fact, I’m pretty sure that in this case it’s no good and a symptom of an unsettled mind, merged with technology, extreme emotions and delusion. Another patient tries to explain something to me about time when they are talking about why the meditative practice of mindfulness is an important exercise, saying that otherwise, you carry on with “one foot in the past, the other in the future, and end up pissing away the present.”

And just like that, I transport back to January 2017 within the walls of that overpriced psychiatric hospital. It’s my first day and I’m sitting in a space they call “the chapel,” probably due to its steep arches and stained glass windows. I’m sinking into a chair across from an older gentleman who looks very sad and keeps sighing heavily as we wait for a CBT (Cognitive Behavioral Therapy) group session on anxiety to start. There’s an ominous wall clock ticking louder than any kick drum I’ve ever heard. A woman in a nearby room is screaming. With increasing desperation and decibel, she begs for someone to help her, to release her, over and over. She’s expressing everything I am suppressing. It’s piercing, like grinding metal backed by nails on a chalkboard and I’m trembling like a speaker about to blow. I put on my headphones and try to drown out the suffering with an instrumental song, “This place is a shelter.”

By the time the strings hit their highest note, I disappear back in time to a sailing trip in May 2016. We’re in Elba Reef on the border of Sudan and Egypt. Our captain has got the boat tucked into the center of a three-walled box of coral that breaks the waves, providing us a safe haven throughout the duration of a vicious storm we hit sailing up the Red Sea back to Egypt. We haven’t seen signs of human life in days, and with no manmade structures around, I’m comforted by the idea that this stretch of sea has little memory, like many of the fish it houses.  I go to my cabin feeling lonely and sleepwalk into a time where I am in the shelter of a lover’s arms. It’s October 2016, I move along to the first time we hook up. The music is playing outside my bedroom door. Leonard Cohen’s “Stranger Song” covers our bodies. In his low gravely voice he sings, “And when he talks his dreams to sleep, you notice there’s a highway curling up like smoke above his shoulder.” Entangled with them, I feel free.

But it doesn’t last. By the time the song ends, I find myself back at Okasha Hospital in June 2016 receiving my diagnosis for the first time, one that is confirmed by two more doctors in the future. Sitting in the cold waiting room, staring at the strangers in the room, alone, inside I weep but from the outside I just look like your average hipster. After 33 years of life, three suicidal plunges, 13 different homes, years of drug abuse, I am given a double whammy of a diagnosis: Borderline Personality Disorder co-occurring with Bipolar II Affective Disorder.

Of the handful of people I find the courage to share my diagnosis with, most, if not all, are shocked. In fact, many of them are disbelieving, largely due to my history of being highly functional, dare I even say borderline successful. I know how to deflect my decay in dapper costumes. For me, receiving my diagnosis is a relief — to finally know the cause of my silent suffering all these years — and at the same time feels like a death sentence. Those I love most can’t reconcile my diagnosis, they make their best effort but fall into consolatory assemblages. Some tell me slogans like, “mind over matter,” while another says, “but we are all a little bipolar,” and there I go, time traveling to the moment I tell my father who grants me the worst possible response to my condition. It’s December 2016, and I’m sitting in my childhood home, loaded on prescribed anti-depressants, anti-psychotics and sedatives to ensure that I feel absolutely nothing. I am grateful for my father, and I have no doubt he loves me, that he has done his best, but at this moment we encounter a system failure on both our parts.

Walking away, I enter the bathroom near the kitchen. Sitting on the toilet, I begin to sweat, to shake, to feel nauseous, and before I know it, I’m back to being 21 years old in this same bathroom having my first suicidal episode. But instead of holding my phone, I’m gripping the household Glock 45 pistol. Somehow, my body comes to the rescue of thought and I start throwing up in the toilet. When I wake up, I’m face planted in vomit on the floor next to the gun; its barrel is starring through my void, as if taunting my detached soul. I feel wholly pathetic, unable to live or die, so I get the hell out of there and travel to a time three years later when in another US city. I am living alright, but the problem is I can’t shake the feelings of worthlessness and depression. Words like “phony” and “unlovable” buzz around me like a flood of mosquitoes feasting on my ears. Repeatedly, I swat my head until I’m numb. If only I could sleep, but whenever I manage a few hours, I awaken violently from nightmares of my own death. It’s 2008 and I’m sitting on my balcony 20 stories above the highway. I can’t quite remember anything of the past 24 hours, but I think I had another suicidal episode. I close my eyes and let the icy January wind shock my senses. I hear the crackling of a cigarette and am surprised to see that I’m the one smoking it. The cars are swooshing by below and for a second it sounds like soft crashing waves on the shore. I realize then I need to get the fuck out of this place and that maybe the sea in Egypt can fumigate my demons. I shake my head to change times.

It’s 2010, I’m laying on the sand in a seaside camp in Nuweiba, Sinai with my new friends, most of whom are musicians moon-tanning with their guitars and tambourines. My friend Dina starts strumming a Libertine’s song that pulls at the center of my heart. In her low pitch croon she sings, “You’ll never fumigate the demons, no matter how much you smoke.” Still trying, I take a puff of my smoke and let the music rain over me, and for the first time in a while, I’m showered with a feeling of belonging. But it evaporates almost as soon as it has come, and rising again like the tide is the feeling that I am a worthless shape-shifter who will never belong anywhere, the stuck 12-year-old in me reminds the 27-year-old me that, because of who I am or am not, everyone will abandon me. Falling into the void, I travel to a time in 2015, where I’m hunched over with my head in my hands on my couch in Cairo. Next to me is my incredibly stoic friend Nour who, at my request, is ever so gently imparting on me a totem pole of wisdom and knowledge regarding mental health. I explain that I’m feeling suicidal again, but that “It’s ok because I know it’s normal and that everyone feels like this.” Without judgment (a crucial practice when it comes to communicating about this kind of thing), Nour validates my feelings (another key tactic) but also explains to me that my suicidality is not something most people experience, and that it might be time to pursue some serious help. I step into my time machine and enter a day in October 2017.

I’m at the tail end of a nine-month-long DBT (Dialectal Behavioral Therapy) program at the Massar Mental Health Clinic in Cairo. Every week for the past nine months I’ve had three to four hours of group therapy, in addition to an hour individual session with the wonderful head psychiatrist, who also runs my group sessions. Meanwhile, I’ve been making a concerted effort to attend Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous to stay off chemicals, and I’m practicing yoga, exercising daily, and cooking. It is largely due to the DBT therapy that I’m able to engage in any of these activities without the drugs and other behaviors I have used for years. The program, while being aptly formulaic, has begun to make sense to me as we enter the last module. I’ve grown accustomed to the safety and consistency of this group, and without it I’m scared to fall back down the rabbit hole. One evening after the session, I read the bravely powerful first entry within this series on mental health by Pam Labib. In it she discusses many things, but what hits home for me is her words on having a “support group,” and how, over the years, she has been able to cultivate one that she can navigate through when in need of help. For the first time, this idea actually clicks for me and like a cartoon, I see a light bulb float above my head illuminating an image of all those who have loved and supported me over the years. I think about all my different identities: the honor roll student, the professional athlete, the business owner, the drunk, the creative, the capitalist, the socialist, the sibling, the child, the revolutionary, the raver, the addict, the team captain, the mental patient — and for once I do not see them as conflicting personalities, but rather vessels to reach those I love and need. I realize now that while addiction is only one of my symptoms, it is as rooted in my need to fill the immense void in my soul with literally anything, as it is founded in my need for connection and belonging.

But this old story ain’t no fairy tale. There is quite possibly no “living happily after” for me, but there is living, I hope. I know that I will likely never find a cure, that my void will return, and that I might very well fall back into it, never to emerge again. But I know now that the more I keep working on myself, the more I learn to be kind and compassionate to myself and others, the more I learn to drop my judgments, the more I give and show gratitude, the more I pursue expression and spirituality, the more I connect with my family, my dog, and the people I love, the more I follow the music and laughter; the more chance I might have at imagining a future that actually includes me in it. But not just one where I survive, one where I flourish, create, and help others… I’m not so religious but I’m down on my knees begging, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference.” And I’m off again — I travel into a future time. When I open the door of my apartment, I’m greeted by my dog’s symphony of love. I walk out to my terrace and sit on a beanbag under a starry night sky while listening to Moondog’s anthem, “Do Your Thing.” There’s a knock on my door and I hope it is one of those times Nour is on the other side. But by the time I get to the peephole, I’m back to the present day. Pulling open the door, I can see it’s not my friend at all, but rather it’s the electricity bill collector telling me I’ve missed the last few months of payments, “You are three months late,” he says, “Were you traveling or something?”


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