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In My Blood
Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family
In the fall of the millennial year of 2000, my fall, I was up on the third floor of my house, and I was pacing like a wild man, each step a drumbeat that pounded inside my skull. "I can't do this, I can't do this, I can't do this, I can't do this," I chanted over and over. Each time I'd stress a different word, as if these were lines from some demonic Dr. Seuss poem, but the meaning was the same: I can't go on like this. Not the way I'm feeling. I was pouring sweat; my pulse thudded in my ears. My eyes jumped from the pine floor to the white wall to the open door to the window. Seeing, but not taking in. The room, the world, was senseless to me; it had no form, no order, certainly no purpose. It seemed alien, frightening, just as I did. I was a stranger to myself, a crazed weirdo who'd leapt into my clothes, taken over my body, seized my brain.
At that point, I'd gone three weeks without a solid night's sleep, but I was more wired than exhausted. I might have been a jungle warrior, ready to jump at the sound of a twig snapping. I'd stopped eating, pretty much, since I'd decided I wasn't worth food. In the mirror I could almost see my eye sockets hollowing, as if, any minute, my bones might burst through the skin. Thoughts hurtled through my head like meteors, burning out before I could quite track them.
"I can't do this. I can't . . ."
I'd been toying with death for a while by then, almost daring myself to take a suicidal plunge. To feel nothing—feel nothing forever. Icraved that. In my scarce moments of calm contemplation, I pondered various ways of bringing about my own demise. It was a comfort, like the prospect of a cool drink on a broiling hot day. Hanging myself, blowing my brains out—such acts seemed not at all ghoulish.
Most of all I wanted to take a long fall from a high place. I'd always had a fear of heights, but I started to think that was actually an attraction. A few days before, I'd stood by the bannister on the second floor, lifted a foot onto the railing, and hopped up a little, to see what it might be like to hurtle downward to the first floor like Primo Levi. It wasn't much of a drop from there, barely a dozen feet, and I'd probably have crashed down onto the front hall table without much harm. But now, on the third floor, as I paced about the room, I kept returning to the window. From there, it was a long way down, a good forty feet to a concrete walkway. Such a plunge seemed so right. I was falling, so I should fall.
I reached for the window, flipped the latch.
The proximate cause, as the lawyers say, was the two Ambien sleeping pills I'd taken the night before. I was desperate for sleep, but the bed was hell for me. As I lay there, I felt a prickling heat all over me, as if my body were being licked all over by infernal flames. Breathe deep, just breathe deep, my wife, Megan, sleepily counseled, having conquered insomnia this way during her two pregnancies. But I spent most nights twisting about in agony, trying to find a spot of coolness on the rumpled, sweat-soaked sheets on my side of the bed. I got good at judging the time by the shade of gray on the ceiling, the rate of the cars passing by the street out front.
My brother, Rob, no stranger to sleep troubles as a harried New York lawyer, recommended the Ambien to me as if it were a hot stock. "No side effects," he assured me. "Every lawyer I know is on it."
"Including you?" I asked.
"Of course!" He gave a throaty chuckle.
He's my older brother. Tall and energetic, he's almost invariably cheerful, and he made the pills seem cheerful, too.
I scored an Ambien prescription through a doctor friend. In retrospect, she should probably have asked me a few more questions, but at the time I was really glad she didn't, since I didn't have many good answers. I hurried off to the pharmacy like a junkie, sure that happy, sleep-filled nights were soon to be mine. That night, I moved upstairs to the guest bedroom on the third floor, since I didn't want to disturb Megan any more with my writhing.
I took the pill, then lay back on the bed, eager for the letting-go. But the pill didn't give me the milky calm I'd expected; if anything it made me feel alert, as if I should be doing quadratic equations, composing Elizabethan sonnets, inventorying my sins. So I took another, which set my thoughts racing even faster; I felt my heart rate rise. I didn't take another. Sleep, even the notion of it, fled. I didn't close my eyes the whole night, just lay there staring in terror at the ceiling until morning. Then I got up and went nuts.
As I say, the Ambien was the proximate cause. But there were others. I'd recently placed my mother in a locked ward at McLean Hospital for her fourth hospitalization for major depression, a disease that she'd been fighting since college. Always a tender person, she'd become increasingly frail with age, both emotionally and physically. After my father's death in 1976, she'd had trouble adjusting to the solitude, the exposure, that had come once her big bear of a husband was no longer around to protect her.
It was during hospitalization number three that I'd had the bright idea of writing a novel about her. Not her exactly, but someone like her, an elderly Bostonian patient, proud but broken, at an old-line mental hospital that, like McLean, had . . .In My Blood
Six Generations of Madness and Desire in an American Family. Copyright © by John Sedgwick. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.