On Dry Gagging

Field notes from Hypersensitive Gag Reflex.

In the months preceding my ex-wife’s psychiatric collapse, she dry gagged every morning on white knees in front of the toilet. The knees came up with little red patches made by the linoleum floor. I remember checking my early morning email, still in a robe, and imagining drops of my urine on the rim, as she was always considerate enough to lift the toilet seat. In the months following said collapse, I latently researched symptoms of severe clinical depression to learn that such behavior was a common well-documented symptom. As for the drops of urine, those yellow tears from a man without aim, they follow me everywhere.

And in the months after our divorce, I too began dry gagging (though less committed, I simply heaved over the sink). It’s like you’re brushing your teeth, and you feel violated by the toothbrush — it flashes in your mind as a knife, or a weasel’s dirty long nail, something dangerous or disgusting — and the reciprocal part of you that you hate, as your own stubborn viscera, dies to come out. If the day ahead is putrid, it may call for the disfigured smiley-face of vomit on the ground. It’s less cathartic than nauseating, the involuntary apparition of oneself as formed by airless gasps emitted into the world.

Clinical psychologists have provided the term “emotional memory” to explain Hypersensitive Gag Reflex (HGR), asserting that our brains store unresolved — truncated, not fully developed — responses from past traumatic experiences, and that these involuntary gags or heaves are responses to the resultant acute anxiety. I only developed this after my ex-wife did, as if discovering the deep ravines of my own viscera from her, and our respective pleas for expulsion. Perhaps the divorce was in itself the traumatic experience, or it simply elicited the calm reservoir of my childhood, stirred its still waters into acid and bile.

Every morning I wake up and sigh. I look at the package of light in my window, some gift, or bomb. I walk naked to the bathroom and weigh myself, obsessed with controlling the digital numbers conveyed with little black slashes. I raise my arms and look at my ribs in the mirror, that bloody aviary for the small blind bird inside my chest. The protrusions look like a xylophone, in a minor scale, of course. I form a caterpillar of toothpaste on my toothbrush, insert it in my mouth, and begin moving my arm. The trick to being alive is to simply start moving and to not stop, to impersonate a functional human being, to get off the bus at the right stop, to take your food out when the microwave beeps, to smile when others smile, and to cry alone. The mirror hosts my greatest critic. If a million mornings stacked together into a life is sad, then it deserves a prayer. My ex got on her knees in so many ways, and sex was the last thing on our minds.

If the world is amiss, and you miss something, or someone, or some part of you. If is a word I could ask myself forever, a word that is in the dead center of life. If we were still together, if it was even possible to love her more. On her behalf, to commemorate my regret, and the monsters we became, I lower my face into the toilet, reduced to the same level as my future and earlier fecal detritus. “I am shit,” this seems to be a common sound bite around here. A tear forms, but only because I’m squeezing my face so hard, as some dry lemon in the desert denying the mirage of another life. A distant one that looks better, with softer edges and someone waiting. Then finally, the deep passionate one way kiss as I crane my neck, close my eyes, open my mouth, and excise the sharp nothingness within. Nothing comes out, but I flush the toilet anyways, as she had always done. Thought Catalog Logo Mark

image – Eric Bryan

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