As I write this, I’m sitting in a bar in downtown Denver across the street from a locally-owned theater where two people I love are performing a comedy show. The award-winning comedians, affectionately known as “The Mads” because of their roles as mad scientists on Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K), hired me three years ago in the very venue where they’re performing at this moment. I orchestrated their event-booking and social media for the first year of their national tour. They’re my oldest friends, but I only get to see them twice a year, when they come to Colorado.
I also know the names of half the audience, because they’re dear friends, too. We met because of our mutual love for Mystery Science Theater. We don’t get to see each other often, since almost all of us live in different states and can only communicate online. A close buddy of mine was generous enough to put me up in a hotel for three nights so I could spend the long weekend with the group on this rare, fun occasion.
But about an hour ago, as I talked to the people who are so important to me, scary thoughts began to creep into the shadows behind my neurons. I’m not going to be able to sit through the show and everyone is going to think I’m rude for leaving, the thoughts said. The rational half of me reasoned back that the show hadn’t even started yet, but the insecure whispers just doubled their efforts to make me feel self-conscious. Does everyone think I’m drinking too much? I’ve only had one, I told myself, jaw beginning to clench. But I was losing the battle. Imagine how bad it’ll look for the Mads if their old manager skips the show.
There was a war raging in my mind, Rational Zoe vs. Mentally Ill Zoe, and it was obvious who was winning. My logical side tried to reassert control, but my body had already decided it was too late. My reptile brain sensed the threat my insecurities posed and responded by shutting down. A sense of severe lethargy percolated in my chest, then radiated outward, infecting my limbs and buzzing behind my eyes until I couldn’t keep them open. My attention floated from the building, down the street, and to nowhere in particular. My thoughts turned fuzzy and my eyesight began to blur around the edges. I suddenly felt sleepy – no, more than sleepy, exhausted, like a narcoleptic who suddenly knows they only have seconds of consciousness left before they violently drop to the floor. I needed to lie down. I needed a bed.
I needed to get out of there.
With a concentrated effort, I looked to my left and saw the new friends I’d made on this trip. Straight ahead were the old ones who had known me for years. Behind me was the lovely theater where I had gotten my dream job, and to my right, I saw the comedians themselves who had saved my life over and over again since I discovered MST3K at the age of 15.
You’re disappointing all these people you love, the whispers taunted. I could feel my blood turning gray.
I downed the rest of my cocktail*, but incredibly, the alcohol took almost no effect. Or, more accurately, it did take effect, but it felt as if it were happening to someone else. My tipsiness was on the other side of the room, not in me, not changing my mental state, just sitting in the corner of my perception where my brain couldn’t soak it up. The shutdown my body was experiencing overpowered the effects of the alcohol, as if it wanted me to stay aware of the pain I was feeling.
I couldn’t sit through the performance in this state. I couldn’t do anything at all in this state.** I decided to go to the bar across the street, where at least I might be able to write down what I was feeling away from the eyes of people I cared about. However, just the thought of sneaking off made my dissociation worse. I felt judged. I felt watched by everyone within a square mile radius. They must have thought I was a selfish person for leaving the event and squandering their generosity.
Still, I had no choice, because the dissociation was only getting worse. Feeling awful about it, I sneaked away from the theater as soon as the show started and the last person had left the lobby.
And so once again, no one knows where I am***, because I’m not where I’m supposed to be. Once again, I backed out of an otherwise fun and exciting event because of my symptoms.
Once again, I’m blaming myself for it.
Fuck mental illness.
*Drinking is not an effective way to cope. It’s a dangerous habit that can be especially disastrous for people with mental health problems.
**This article was heavily edited once the dissociation passed and my mind started working again.
***I was very careful and made it home safely.