"The Problem of Time"
G. D. McFetridge
The summer after graduating high school I drove to California with a girlfriend and we spent a week at a beachside campground north of San Diego. I remember watching people build sandcastles. Some of them were works of wonderfully sculpted art, although curiously enough and without exception, once the castles were left unguarded, little kids would wander by and destroy them, trampling the walls and towers into mounds of formless sand. Why would children have the desire to destroy? I have always wondered about that.
A doctor prescribed my first antidepressant when I was nineteen and I’ll tell you what, the side effects were worse than the fricking problem they were supposed to cure. We’re talking zombie land. And I’m not exaggerating.
In any event, about a year later I enlisted in the navy but it didn’t take long until I went nuts, after which the navy’s psychiatrist informed me that I was suffering from bipolar disorder. Back in the old days they called it manic-depressive illness, and I think they changed it to bipolar to make it sound less disparaging, less stigmatizing and more politically correct. How about we call people who are bipolar serenity challenged, because I can goddamn guarantee when you’re flying in the manic phase there’s not much serenity between your ears. You have a ton of energy and hardly need sleep, not to mention all the great ideas that skyrocket around inside your head. Like fireworks lighting up a tornado. Truth is I like the manic aspect of the whole deal—at least for the first several weeks—it’s like being a glittering rock star jacked-up on fame, not to mention when I’m flying in the zone I could talk you into almost anything because I’m so enthused about it myself. But then during the plunge into the dark abyss I feel like a highway sign missing so many letters I can’t make sense of what it says, everything seems bleak and I want to dissolve into nothingness.
After the navy discharged me, I got hooked up with the state’s mental health people. There were some new studies in the medical journals and so the psychologist tried using behavioral/cognitive therapy on me. She was one true believer, but the therapy never worked. And I’ll tell you why. When you’re flying up in the clouds, talking about your problems doesn’t do squat diddly. The thought that follows the activating event is going too fast to get intervened on, plus who can concentrate when you’re zooming at light speed. All that psychobabble went in one ear and zipped out the other. In the end I figured it this way: Just say it out loud—I’m one crazy gaggle of geese … and that’s that.
There’s no cure for what I got and it’s what I said before, the pills turn me into a sleepwalking flat line. Maybe with enough time my illness will burn itself out, just like leprosy. Or maybe I’ll get even crazier and shoot myself or jump off a bridge. Bipolar folks have it tough plummeting down from the manic phase, and when the big crash hits I feel like pond-moss with eyeballs. Talk about existential dread and the realm of absolute futility—trapped in the menacing void, formless, swirling in the abrupt hopelessness of extinction. Whew!
I know about this bullshit. You can believe I know. But I won’t let fear run my life.
I remember when I was a kid my dad used to get annoyed with me and say, “Slow down, Willy. You’re too jacked-up.”
So the foundation was set early on. Hell, when my mom was pregnant with me, she was smoking heavy, drinking coffee by the pot and occasionally taking sedatives. Plus she was on her way to becoming an alcoholic. Once ejected from the womb the first thing I experienced—aside from the end of my penis getting cut off—was drug withdrawal. Maybe all the chemicals in Mom’s womb made me bipolar. The shrink said it’s genetic. Who knows for sure? Probably nobody except God and God ain’t talking … at least not to me.
Not knowing any better, I figured my first major manic episode was halfway between benediction and revelation. Hoo-ah! The spirit was upon me. That is until a month later when the cops came around. After that I went into remission for a couple years, probably because of self-medication, but it didn’t take long until things escalated and I flipped. It was in the state-run mental health facility that I met Deesha Rose Green. Ebony hair, flashing dark eyes, slender and gorgeous. We fell into the chaos of one another. Within a few months of meeting, I was back on my hypo-manic mode, not crazy but feeling I was ten feet tall and having important plans. Always have plans when you’re on the way up. Yes, yes.
So I cashed my funny-money disability check and we blew town for San Francisco. I had an old Dodge van so we didn’t need to spend money on motels, and Deesha had pills—Vicodins and Ritalin—so we were feeling fine the entire way. Plus I was taking nips off a vodka bottle. Deesha was a non-drinker but she didn’t mind me drinking.
I could handle it. No DUIs.
I paid for almost everything. She supplied the pills and of course her sweet patch of hairs, which was to my limited way of looking at things back then the perfect deal. Symbiotic, right? I know big words—I know lots of them. I may be nutty as hell but I ain’t stupid. In fact the navy shrink tested my brain and told me I had an IQ of 147. Said I could be college material if I stayed on an even keel. Even keel? Yeah right! Me and republicans and Jesus and family values and all the little niceties that accompany the good life. White-picket fences and retirement plans and potato salad, hotdog picnics with the future grandkids. Boring! Popeye is my main man. “I am what I am.” The existentialists took it another step: I am what I’m becoming. God said I am that I am. Say, how about I just am and don’t have a fricking clue why?
Back to Deesha. Maybe the reason I didn’t figure out she was manic was because she was taking Ritalin, which is what they give hyperactive kids. And I know that sounds paradoxical but somehow Ritalin kept her in what I call the middle zone, flying pretty high but not high enough to melt her wings. Like old Icarus. Greek mythology. See? I do a lot of reading, more than you likely think.
So by the time we made Reno, Nevada, she started rationing the Ritalin. Just one pill with my morning jolt of fog-lifter coffee.
“Can’t you get more pills?” I wanted to know.
“No baby, I don’t have a script. I bought these from my neighbor whose kid gets it, but she don’t give the kid the pills and sells them to me instead.”
“So we’ll find a walk-in clinic and you tell them you’re on vacation and lost your pills and need a refill to tide you over. Just pretend you got ADD.”
“Attention deficit disorder.”
“But I’m twenty-seven, I’m too old.”
“No. Adults have it too. Trust me, I know all about this.”
“Do you trust me, baby?”
“Of course I do.”
So … after we’d settled in a motel—we needed hot showers and some television time—we found a clinic. Fifty bucks and you waltz right in without an appointment. Deesha looked nervous. I told her to take a Vicodin. I think she took two.
I waited in the van hoping she’d be sharp enough to pull it off, plus I’d given her a list of things to say, symptom sort of stuff, things I’d once read on the internet. Seemed like it took an hour before I saw her come out the front door. She waved a piece of paper at me. Score!
“Only sixty, baby, a month’s worth. He wasn’t a doctor. He was a PA. What’s a PA?”
“Physician Assistant. They pay some chump a quarter of what they pay a real doc and that’s why you can walk in on the cheap.”
“How do you know so much?”
“Brains sweetie, I got brains. Give me a couple, I’m dragging.”
“I need these more than you. You get two a day for three days, then it’s back to one.” She winked at me and stroked the back of my neck. We drove to the motel, stopping first for a pack of Kools for Deesha and a bottle of cheap vodka for me. Vicodin, Ritalin, vodka. Heaven.
But then I felt it. Felt it when I couldn’t get to sleep even though I’d polished off nearly a pint of vodka, felt it at three in the morning when I was starting to bounce off the walls inside my own head. Oh, shit, I’m heading out of the middle zone into the stratosphere. What I figured out later was that although Ritalin somehow kept Deesha evened out, it was sending me into a serious manic episode. But here’s the catch. It’s like telling a faulty computer to analyze what the problem is that’s making it faulty. It’s like the observer is the observed and so I knew I was taking off but I didn’t see it in the same terms I would see it once I’d crashed. I know it’s tough to get it unless you’re like me. It comes on like a spell. Part of me fears what’s coming but another part says: “Yeah baby! Let’s blast off!”
From Reno we drove into central east California and hit a highway called 395. Deesha was studying the road map. “Let’s take a short cut and go up to Yosemite. The turnoff should be a ways south.”
“First we got to hit another clinic. Where’s the nearest town big enough to have one?”
She traced her finger along the map and said, “Bishop looks pretty big.”
When we arrived we started looking for a walk-in clinic, but we couldn’t find one until Deesha spotted a doctor’s office with a big sign saying walk-ins welcome. Turned out they expected a hundred dollar administrative fee on top of the sixty-five they wanted for the appointment. Rip-off fricking goddamn medical corporations … so I decided to check the map. We needed another town and there it was, not too far on the 395. Mammoth Lakes. And by God and by Jesus they had one. Seventy-five bucks and you walk right in.
Deesha did her dog and pony show and told me what had happened.
“These are a class-II drug and I’ll need to verify this with your regular doctor. Do you have the telephone or fax number?”
Deesha is street smart as hell and she says, “I’m from Canada and I’m visiting my cousin and we’re going to Yosemite. Canada has public healthcare and I see a different doctor every time and so I can’t really remember which one said I was ADD.”
“I’m very sorry, but you’ll have to make an appointment and see our doctor. He can write you prescription if he feels it is necessary. He’ll be here tomorrow from noon until six. See the receptionist and we’ll get you in for tomorrow.”
“But then I have to pay for another visit and we’ll have to pay for a motel.”
“That’s the best we can do.”
So … we drove to Yosemite. The fee to get in was twenty-five bucks, but the vacationing hordes invading from the cities had taken all the campgrounds. So we drove past sunset all the way to Modesto and found ourselves a cheap motel. Desha relented and let me have an extra Ritalin. What a great piece of work, I mean it—she’s cool. And Yosemite was a sight to see, especially Half Dome. How could a fricking glacier cut and polish that giant mountain of solid granite? The mystery of it all … the mystery of what time can do. Deesha being a big city girl most her life was talking a mile a minute and flying around inside the van like a mongoose on steroids—it was a wild day.
And then the next day we got lucky and found a walk-in clinic in the crummy part of town and Deesha got another sixty pills. We were on our way to Frisco. San Fran. “The City,” as the locals call it. The snobby bastards give you a look if you say Frisco. Go figure.
That night we slept in the van in a rich neighborhood a few blocks from the yacht harbor. Parked in a place where we wouldn’t call attention to ourselves, although my van looks pretty good and so it didn’t stand out too bad from the other cars, and I had to down another pint of vodka so I could sleep a couple hours. I needed to put the brakes on but the idea of getting anti-manic pills didn’t appeal to me. The fricking drugs turn me into a spiritless android. The only other thing that could help me slow down would be Valium, about 40 milligrams a day, but the docs are extra stingy about handing out that much sedative. The only other thing is the big H, but I knew if I went there—hey, forget the hard part about having to score—it’d be trouble in the long run and plus I didn’t want Deesha getting a taste for the shit. I had the feeling she’s one of those types that tries heroin once and is gone for the entire cruise. You know, the cruise ship leaves the dock and you’re stuck going with it. Bad news. Like walking into quicksand on a pair of skinny stilts.
But hell’s bells, the other way of looking at it is that my ship left the dock a long time ago. And I’ve been on the wild cruise ever since.
Not to change the subject, but what the term genius really means is a person who sees beyond the present and brings something back that up until that time only existed in the future. Like E=MC². Nobody understood that before the turn of the 20th century, but I guarantee somewhere in the future someone other than Einstein figured out the exact same thing. What Einstein’s mind did was seeing into the future and bringing back that knowledge to the present. Like if I went back in a time machine and showed a bunch of cave dwelling Neanderthals how to make fire, damned straight they’d have made me head shaman or chief, and as the word spread every Neanderthal in Europe would have known me as a genius, the man who mastered fire. It’s all about perspective. Linear time is just one way of looking at things. Maybe time is all in the same spot at the same time. Geniuses are the only ones who can see past the illusion of now. Some kind of quantum physics thing.
Most people believe they have free will and thus consciousness can be the cause of its own transformation. But I wonder. Say, if you think about a ripple moving across the surface of a still pond, and at the very peak of that ripple there’s a laser-bright red line thin as a hair, and in front of that line is the future which has yet to become the present, and just behind the line is the present that has just become the past. Now the problem is is that it takes the human brain about 190 microseconds to process any sensory signal and bring that particular information to consciousness. In other words, in that infinitesimal slice of time when the future becomes the present, human consciousness isn’t able to get it until the present has already become the past; thus we only experience reality locked in the past and never actually experience the present. And since the past is unalterable, any action we take to make a choice that will alter the future—which true freedom must do—is an action trapped in what has already been.
But don’t fret about it. Desha didn’t get it either … so I’m probably nuts.
As usual I digress. I digress a lot when I’m tightrope walking along the ragged edge. But what can I say? Because like I said, the cruise ship left the dock a long time ago and I’ve been riding that sonofabitch ever since. Hoo-ah! Can’t sit still. Nope. Too much bioelectricity flying through my head, too much of everything—and then all the sandcastles get washed away into the sea.
San Francisco looks like a tangle of steel and concrete woven together in weird mosaics, emerald blades and strings of lights sparkling and blinking and people scurrying around like patterns of blurred motion. Red lights, green lights, yellow lights—moments caught in the vibrations of linear time while I’m watching sewer pipes spitting out rubies and mud.
I glance over at Deesha. She lights up a Kool and blows a thin jet of smoke into the air.
“Fuck time,” I holler. “I got to get out of this. How about we head to Chinatown? Maybe we’ll find what I need.”
“Sure, baby, let’s go to Chinatown.”
G. D. McFetridge writes from the unspoiled wilderness of Montana’s majestic Sapphire Mountains. His short stories and essays are published in academic journals and literary magazines across the US, in Canada, the UK, Ireland, New Zealand and India.