When I was little, I was afraid of lightning because I thought it was the flash of God’s Polaroid camera going off. Adults reminded me—even Bette Midler on the radio reminded me—that God is watching us. That includes me. All. The. Time. When I’m taking my clothes off before a shower. When I get dressed. When my head sways to music. When I’m eating too many peanut butter cookies. When I hit my younger brother. When I’m going to the bathroom.
Does God edit out anything, turn His eyes away for a second to see what others are up to?
I guess I thought God was a multi-eyed creature with lots of cameras all over the world.
But a lot of the flashes took place around me. He needed evidence that I wasn’t as good as I claimed I was. As I pretended I to be.
In college, I wrote an essay in which I used lightning as a metaphor for electroconvulsive therapy (ECT). I was in the middle of the storm back then, unable to see outward through the thick. During the summer of 2006, I had had 10 treatments of ECT for my first major depressive episode, and when I took this class in the spring of 2008, it was just before my second major depressive episode that fall. My last treatment would be June 18, 2014, for my fifth major depressive episode.
The main side effect after the procedure, other than headache and nausea, is memory loss.
In college, and afterward, I forgot who I was.
But the doctors and nurses assured me that my memory would come back.
Lightning is an electrical discharge that takes place either cloud to cloud or cloud to ground. Most cloud-to-ground lightning is negatively charged.
I guess this makes sense. Negative stroke. Negative girl. Two negatives make a positive. I live another day.
Just like they said, my memory did come back, but it was tattered. And then it lay dormant until a volcano of flashbacks and dreams of abuse erupted. Suddenly, I knew more about myself than I ever did.
Yes, what a coincidence, there is a type of lightning that hovers around active volcanoes. Sacrifices. Boys for Pele. Girls for Zeus.
I couldn’t let go of this ever-branching metaphor. Frankenstein’s monster being reanimated by static electricity sparking off into a corpse, a human body. The human brain’s neuronal lightning transferring memories, thoughts, actions.
After all, what meteorological phenomena don’t happen inside our bodies already?
Now, I see lightning as the skeletons of girls. Girls dancing. Girls praying. Girls who’ve worn themselves and been worn down to the bones. Curved spines, long legs, spare torsos, bent knees, caves for chests, arms branching out into the world. Sometimes vertical, sometimes horizontal, sometimes between clouds like whispering secrets. Girls disappearing. Stick figures in their place. Girls running. Predatorgirls with seven arms. Girls lost in a mirror. Each bolt is a shadow of myself in light. Bare bones. Guess the flesh. Imagine the bodies of each one. Create characters.
These are my body’s blueprints, everygirl’s.
Sticks of Fire
I grew up in the Tampa Bay area, the lightning capital of North America. I was raised on thunderstorms, watching the way the summer skies burdened and bruised themselves in the afternoons, the white hot fury x-raying the clouds, the visceral chill of hurricane-force winds, waterspouts conjuring off the coast like dancing smokewomen and the facade of sunshine afterwards. These temper tantrums left small disasters in their rumbly wakes. These images and sensations collided together to form a hallucinogenic slideshow of an ordinary summer afternoon. Yes, roads and trees were askew, but mostly the aftermath consisted of a cooler evening with a sunset masterpiece eclipsing all ruin.
So go the meteorological mood swings of western central Florida.
Florida, the bipolar state. Where the northern part is the South and the southern part is the North. Confused. Oppositeland.
I’ve lived twenty-nine years in this state.
Tampa is a peninsula off of a peninsula. So is Pinellas County, where I grew up. Now I live in Tampa, surrounded by water yet connected to the mainland. Landbridges. Almost an island—only a flood away.
The heat builds up and sweat evaporates. Water rains down with a deadly light show and percussion. Taps from droplets. Timpani thunder. The music of storms.
Circles and circles and circles again.
Got a cloud sleeping on my tongue.1
“Tampa” is Calusa for “sticks of fire.”
Those sticks are drumming on the air I breathe. Got a rhythm to my heartbeat. A clog in my lungs. The heat is a million leeches. I stay inside.
This screwy weather resembles my own weather. My mother’s DNA gave me a cumulonimbus brain full of synaptic chaos and currents, an export from a German ancestor, and my father tried to teach me to read the minds of clouds.
Electrical currents are the blueprints for my thoughts, memories.
I wonder if my mind—my body’s sky—lights up with its own lightning and if it vibrates with the thunder of recollection. Or do some memories stay silent too long?
_____________________________________ 1 Tori Amos, Under the Pink, “Cloud on My Tongue.”
I was eight and beginning third grade and I still rode my bicycle with training wheels. I’ve always been a late bloomer. After the summer of “the talk,” I began to rid myself of the stigma of being the only baby in Mr. Sweetman’s class who still rode with training wheels. It’s as if I didn’t trust two supports; four was better. Steadier. Safer. I didn’t walk until I was eighteen months old—I crawled around, propelling myself with my knees and superior arm strength. My parents worried that I wouldn’t walk before Tim, my brother, arrived. But I did.
The kids at my school had plenty of fodder already for bullying me: my short stature hinted that I’d been microscopic at birth, teachers announced my perfect scores in front of the class, my unsure teeth formed a jumbled smile, and my brown eyes begged for friends.
On the day I lost my training wheels, Dad taught me how to calculate the distance of lightning from where I was. I knew not to mess around in storms, but they occurred so often that it was difficult to muster up the appropriate amount of fear. The chances of being struck by lightning are about one in a million, but those odds are highest in the state of Florida. Ever the native, like my dad, I regarded storms as celestial landscapes, afternoon fireworks, a perk of living in Florida. My dad was cautious, nonetheless, and enforced basic safety. Professor Martin Uman, author of a textbook on lightning, best summed it up: “Don’t stand under tall trees, don’t stand up in a boat, and don’t go out on the beach during a thunderstorm. In general, don’t make a lightning rod out of yourself.”
As the dark clouds congested, Dad unscrewed the training wheels off of my bike and I teetered on two wheels. I wobbled to the end of Palmer Road and was turning back when I heard the sky crackle.
Droplets descended, and we stood in the garage, watching in awe as the thunderstorm stretched past the horizon.
“Want to know a trick?” Dad asked.
“Here’s how you can tell how far you are from lightning: From the time you see the strike, count one mississippi, two mississippi, three mississippi, and so on until you hear thunder. For every mississippi, there’s a mile.”
The lightning was twelve years away.
At fourteen, I was diagnosed with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder. Still, I graduated high school with a 3.7 GPA. I spent a year at home attending a community college, then transferred to Florida State. After dropping all but one of my classes during the spring semester of my second year of college, I came home with my first major depressive episode.
May has the highest rate of suicides. On a Sunday in early May, I overdosed on 20 pink 0.5mg tablets of Clonazepam (Klonopin). Twenty: one for each pathetic year of my life. I smacked back the fistfuls after I’d counted them out. It had to be an even number. Water washed them down. Besides, it was 2006, and 2+0+0+6=8, my favorite number. I wanted to die.
Only I woke up. I’d collapsed in the den downstairs. My mother found me, yelled at me until I was semi-conscious, and insisted I tell her what I’d done.
“I overdosed,” I slurred.
My mother didn’t take me seriously.
I got up.
My mother commanded me to do something. I hobbled past the under-the-stairs closet and slammed my mouth into the wall. It took out half my left front tooth and a chip off the right one.
Each heave of a breath was a thought/task.
Spit out teeth.
Mouth fills with blood.
Taste red iron.
Mother’s voice on the telephone. “She can sleep it off. No stomach pumping necessary?”
Sleep it off.
I had to have a root canal the following Tuesday. It wasn’t bad; I still had a bit of Clonazepam left in me to ward off some of the pain. I had a crown put on my left front tooth and a filling put in my right. I didn’t look like Lloyd Christmas from Dumb and Dumber anymore. I looked normal again.
I slept for three more days.
An Introduction to Electroconvulsive Therapy
My shrink, Dr. W., was a wealthy, distant septuagenarian. I sat in the chair across from him; he sat behind his mighty, decorated desk. University of Florida paraphernalia and degrees abounded. When I had applied to transfer to a bigger school the year before, UF had rejected me. So I applied to Florida State and got in, just to spite the bastards. Now I was listening to this bag o’ wrinkles ask me if “boy troubles” were to blame. In my mind I called him “the elderly sack of skin.” Even though he’d known I’d been severely depressed for months and I’d nearly dropped out of school, it took my suicide attempt to convince him I needed electroconvulsive therapy. It was the famous “last resort.”
I’d read One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I’d seen Jack Nicholson as McMurphy flop and quake on screen. The Bell Jar was my bible. I thought of Plath’s horrific, poetic description in “The Hanging Man”:
By the roots of my hair some god got hold of me.
I sizzled in his blue volts like a desert prophet.
As a kid and as an adult, I’d stuck my finger in a light socket and felt no spark. I wasn’t the least bit afraid, just like I’m not the least bit afraid of lightning.
It couldn’t be worse than the depression.
Floating in a black pool and drowning from the gravity of your own body, black mucus-water flooding your lungs, sinking the ship of your body, nothing to buoy you but the hope of letting go.
I let go once the general anesthesia kicked in.
Two of my family members have undergone electroconvulsive therapy: my great-aunt Juanita, my grandpa’s sister, who complained of being “blue” all the time, and my second cousin George, who suffered from schizophrenia. Neither benefited from ECT. In fact, though it was reported throughout the family grapevine that George had slipped and fallen to his death, my mother and I believe he hanged himself and the family was trying to cover it up.
Both Juanita and George laid bare a common threat found in Pinellas County, Florida, the “Sunshine Skyway solution,” I call it. Linking St. Petersburg, the southern tip of Pinellas County, with Manatee County to the south, the Bob Graham Sunshine Skyway Bridge is a four-mile concrete and steel pathway across Tampa Bay. Its peak height is 431 feet, and as noted on its Wikipedia page: “Because of its height above the emerald-green Gulf waters, length of continuous travel, location in a warm-weather state, and modern architectural design, it is a popular spot for filming automobile commercials.” It’s even more popular for suicide. Juanita and George contemplated jumping off. The Baker-Acted teens I was hospitalized with at fourteen threatened to do it as well.
The last time I rode over the bridge, when I was twenty-eight, my boyfriend was driving, and I noticed red telephone booths every ten feet or so along the edge. This must be why they don’t film car commercials here anymore—or if they do, they edit the phone booths out. I fantasized about plummeting into the bay waters, a very Floridian way to die, like dying in a hurricane, getting eaten by an alligator, or being struck by lightning.
ECT: A Brief History
I read up on ECT’s backstory. In the 1930s, the age of psychoanalysis, biological psychiatrists competed for cures: insulin shock therapy, Metrazol therapy, and electroshock therapy. Italian psychiatrist Dr. Ugo Cerletti thought the hippocampus played a role in epilepsy and was determined to produce seizures in dogs to examine their brain tissue afterwards for any changes. Cerletti, aware that electricity could be used as a convulsive agent, placed one electrode in the dog’s mouth and the other in its rectum and electrocuted it. The current passed through the dog’s heart, so the animal died most of the time. Another psychiatrist, Lucio Bini, told Cerletti to put the electrodes on either side of the dog’s head to avoid shocking its heart. Bini’s assistant recommended Bini and Cerletti visit Rome’s municipal slaughterhouse where pigs were knocked unconscious with electricity to make slitting their throats easier. They noted if the pig was not killed soon after the shock, it had a grand mal seizure.
And electroconvulsive therapy was born.2
2 David Healy and Edward Shorter, Shock Therapy.
The doctor shocked me, electrodes on either side of my head.
Bilateral for a bipolar girl.3
I sing Tori Amos’ song, “Mother”:
Green limousine for the redhead
DANCING dancing girl
and when I dance for him
somebody leave the light on
just in, just in case I like the dancing
I can remember where I come from.
I have a grand mal seizure.
Because I am a dog.
Because I am a pig.
I think of another song by Tori Amos, “Blood Roses”:
Sometimes you’re nothing but meat.
He doesn’t slit my throat because, after all, I am human.
I blink myself back to life in the recovery room, not knowing how I got there. The blonde nurse slides my Mary Janes back on my feet and hands me my glasses.
My head is Hiroshima, post A-bomb.
Electroshock is no big deal.
It’s only lightning.
I am the ECT capital of 28-year-olds.
I’m a goddamn marvel of modern science. Quoting McMurphy, the patron saint of psych patients.
You’re so goddamn young, Patti Smith and Regina Spektor whisper into my ear.
But I feel so goddamn old.
I retreat into the waiting room. Some natural instinct and a nurse guide me on two feet. I drink the lukewarm coffee and eat the yogurt my father brought me from the cafeteria. We watch the radar on the TV, predicting the typical afternoon thunderstorms with green, yellow, and red blobs blanketing the state, foreshadowing the sticks of fire and the skeletons of girls.
_____________________________________ 3 Doctors have debated my diagnosis. Today, it’s bipolar II and obsessive-compulsive disorder.