Toward the end of elementary school and continuing through middle school, I started crying all the time. Sometimes, there was a clear albeit insignificant reason — I failed a test, I spilled milk all over my binder, or maybe someone laughed at me. Many times, there was no reason. One second, I’m filling out a worksheet; the next, I’m the Bellagio fountains, a total disintegration of my emotional apparatus with no explanation. The teacher would freeze and scan around for a possible cause of the meltdown. My classmates would look away, glance at me, and look away again, grinning nervously, excited to discuss the mental illness being exhibited. And seeing my classmates see me cry only heightened the intensity of my breakdown. At the zenith, my face turned bright red and shiny with wetness, and I pulled my whole body into a ball in my seat. I’d think, ‘I have to fade away now. There is no alternative.’ The very notion of continuing to exist after crying in class seemed unthinkable.
No one else in school had this problem. The counselors were baffled. The teachers discussed my behavior during meetings, but could not understand it. My parents barely grasped the scale of my neurosis. As I grew older — 12, 13, and even up to 14 years old — the crying became less and less appropriate. The teachers finally instituted a policy where if I sensed an imminent eruption of emotion, I could step outside the classroom to regain my composure. I was supposed to stay just outside the door. Instead, I would flee aimlessly through the school, clutching my face, looping around in circles until my breathing slowed down.
My mom often received calls like this:
Me: Hey, mom.
Mom: Hey, what’s going on?
Me: Mom, I have to transfer to a new school. There’s no recourse.
Mom: What happened?
Me: IT’S ALL FALLING APART AND I’M LOSING MY MIND AND I CAN’T DEAL WITH ANYTHING!
Mom: Um, okay, what happened?
Me: *incomprehensible sobbing
Mom: Honey? Honey, you’re going to have to calm down. Just tell me what happened.
Me: I dropped my portable chess board.
Mom: You brought that to school?
Me: And all the pieces went everywhere.
Me: And then I started crying in front of everyone, and now I can’t go back to class. I can’t go back there after that happened.
Mom: We can maybe see if there’s another school in our area. Would that make you feel better?
Me: I’m dying! I want to die!
Mom: You’re going to be fine.
Me: I have no friends! I hate it! I hate everything! I want to die!
Mom: Brad, how are you calling me right now?
Me: I broke into the librarian’s office and used her phone.
The school assigned me a mentor, a former NASA employee and model train enthusiast, who would eat lunch with me on Wednesdays. Sometimes he brought me chicken strip dinners from Sonic, and one time, he brought me a Star Wars space pen that wrote upside down and underwater. His wife had been my remedial reading teacher in elementary school (it took me a staggeringly long time to learn how to read). I don’t remember what we talked about. On Tuesdays, I went to some sort of group therapy session filled with other fucked up children who scratched arms and punched teachers. All the while, I seemed to perpetually find myself sitting in the counselor’s office, describing half remembered details of some breakdown or psychotic outburst. On her desk were Rubik’s cubes, beanie babies, and kitten figurines — all tonally incongruous with the bone chilling tales being told in that office on a daily basis. Sometimes I’d tell the nurse I couldn’t deal with shit anymore, and she’d let me take a nap on a cot in the back room.
In the sixth grade, I played the role of Oliver Twist in a musical medley extravaganza organized by the choir department and performed in front of the student body, their parents, teachers, and staff. This event, this blight upon my memory, this noxious black stain on the time-space continuum, was my own personal spiritual apocalypse.
Knowing I had a tendency to choke under pressure, I memorized my lyrics obsessively and practiced constantly. When I stepped up to the mike, the first line of the song was “Where is she?” The other two kids playing Oliver — our choir teachers couldn’t pick just one — had just sang, “Where is love?” but on that third verse, I needed to sing, “Where is she?” This wasn’t confusing. “Where is she?” Not difficult at all. But in that instant, a self-destructive region of my brain betrayed me, and so I sang instead, “Where is love.” This was followed by a long silence save for eerie unaccompanied piano music. Then I said, “Oh shit,” into the microphone.
And now I began crying. I heaved, wheezed, squeaked, melted — and the breakdown accelerated to total nuclear holocaust so quickly, the audience could scarcely believe what they were seeing. I turned to the choir teacher at the piano, and I saw her mouthing the lyrics to me, eyes wide and insistent, fingers pounding piano keys. I opened my mouth and warped it to mimic the shapes her mouth was making while I expelled air. What emerged from my lips were not the correct lyrics, but a deranged rambling nonsense song composed by The Hills Have Eyes family band as an inspirational ode to all the children who’ve ever forgotten what words sound like. This entire time, still crying.
Next we transitioned seamlessly into the big dance number in which all the orphans performed choreography I’d never completely learned. During rehearsals, I could fade into the background. ‘No one will notice the one orphan who’s a little off time,’ I thought. But now, who could miss the orphan who’s not only a terrible dancer, but is also howling with tears? I danced like a lady who’s forced to dance at gunpoint or like a fat alcoholic who’s just found out his wife died, but then his favorite song comes on the jukebox. The audience was in awe. Here at last was the real show — watching a child’s fragile psyche unravel before their eyes.