When You Wake Up
by Aimee E. Millwood
The first thing that hits you is a rush of fear as you realize you have no idea where you are or how you got there. This lost fumbling confusion is all too familiar. Countless mornings you have woken up hung over—head pounding, throat parched—and you have struggled through this very same panic, this very same mental reconstruction as you try to piece together the events of the night before.
But this is different. This doesn’t feel like those other mornings. This time, the movie replaying the night before doesn’t slowly start to materialize in your head. This time, your mind is at a standstill. You’re swimming through waves of painkillers and sedatives, trying to work your way through the fog. Everything still seems like a dream, like you haven’t yet woken up.
You scan the room and all you see are walls so white the edges blur together in an infinite, all encompassing cave that seems to trap you, swallow you up. There are needles and tubes in your arms, your chest, all across your body, like needles poking into a voodoo doll. The sharp antiseptic scent of a doctor’s office tells you that you must be in a hospital, but you don’t know where, or what got you here. Now that you think about it, you don’t even remember who you are.
And then, your eyes settle on the one recognizable thing in the room—Michael. Michael with his wispy blonde hair, Michael with his clear blue eyes. And Michael is telling you something as he stands over you, his face going from triple to double finally down to just one. He is standing over you, or is he sitting, or are you sitting? No time to figure that out right now. His mouth is moving but you can’t make out words. You are trying desperately to make sense of what his words are telling you — answers to the questions that are buzzing like flies around your head.
Emergency room, you hear. Seizure, you vaguely make out. More words are tossed around to you as a nurse comes in to pull the tubes out from your arms, detach the IV, give you instructions on what to do in the next few days. But you blur her out, only hearing Michael, holding on to the one anchor keeping you tethered to the room. He is saying something about an electrolyte imbalance, the ecstasy you took. You barely remember meeting his parents for the first time the night before, but were rolling too hard to recall how it went. Michael trails on, the words floating up around your head and disappearing in a haze created by all the sedatives in your bloodstream.
The next 72 hours are a blur. You are in a car, at a restaurant, at a house, in an airplane. You are going home to Atlanta, that much you understand. Time and places and people blur by. Your mom greets you at the airport and you hug her without feeling her. It is pouring raining and humid as ever in Atlanta but you barely feel the drops as they whip you across your face, barely feel the burst of Southern summer heat envelope you in an embrace as you step outside of the airport. Welcome home.
Your mom takes you to the doctor, the same one you used to visit in grade school who gave you tootsie pops after shots. He explains to you about brain scans and electrolyte imbalances and the dangers of drug use, spits out statistics that were foreign and two dimensional in health class but are now, very quickly, becoming enormously tangible. He is pointing at charts of what you are told is your brain. It is splotched with dark spots—spots that look eerily like the Swiss cheese analogies anti-Drug campaigns loved to drill into your head—and you wonder, why do you never listen until it’s too late?
The doctor tells you with apologetic eyes that it will be awhile before you feel normal again. He explains that as your sodium levels dropped dangerously low and your brain was flooded with water, your body shut down, taken over by the spasms of a seizure, and a sort of restart button was pushed in your head. He says you blew out a big serotonin fuse in your head, and in the weeks to come, you may feel like the wires in your brain aren’t connecting like they used to, that you might slip back into a depression. He uses mechanical, medical terms, talking about your brain like a machine, something that simply needs rewiring, a few pills to straighten out the kinks.
But he doesn’t tell you about how in the days to come you won’t be able to keep up a conversation without forgetting what you were saying, getting lost halfway in thoughts. That the sharp mind that got you straight A’s all through high school and college now dumbly strains to grab at easy words, how communicating is a struggle. How all of time is divided into before and after, normal and now.
And he doesn’t warn you about the nights of insomnia where you stay up thinking of suicide until the sun rises, about the way you sit in your room with the door closed while your friends and roommates laugh and party a room away, about the jail cell you build yourself in your brain. He doesn’t tell you about how your boyfriend can’t look at you anymore without flashing back to those moments of you seizing, your limp body shaking heavy in his arms, your eyes rolled back, you unresponsive. You not in there, you not quite you anymore.
He doesn’t tell you about the spider that lodges in your brain, building a web. About how you taste dust when you eat, see ghosts when you sleep, speak in a whisper when all you want to do is scream. You can’t feel the breath entering your lungs or a hot shower warming your bones. Every day all you feel is a desert in your veins. You constantly feel like you are standing one breath, one inch, one day away, reaching, fingers stretched, skin cracking, to go back to the person you used to be, the way you used to feel.
You are desperate to get rid of this. You try to write, the one way you used to be able to find relief. But the words paralyze you. The neat, crisp forms of words line up like rows of little blue pills you wash down in the morning with a glass of water. Words used to swirl around your head. Now, trying to put down words on a sheet of blank paper is like trying to talk to an old lover: you don’t know where to begin. Too much time has elapsed; all the words come out stale.
You grasp for identity. The person you were—outgoing, social, effervescent—has slipped away. Your friends tell you that you’ve changed, get upset with you for not going out on the weekends. You try to explain to them but can’t seem to find a way to articulate what you need to say.
Cheap wine that you buy by the box is the one thing keeping you together. The doctor told you if you ever took ecstasy again you’d end up back in the hospital, but sometimes at night when you lie in bed you can almost taste your craving for the E. It’s the one thing in life you still want, the only thing that triggers a surge of excitement: that little pill of sunshine that electrified your limbs and pulsed through your body. You know if you could go back and do it all over again you still would. You would lose it all again just for one more roll.
Aimee E. Millwood is currently a literature student at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Her work has been published in Spectrum Literary Journal, The Bottom Line, The Raiders’ Digest, and WORD Magazine.