Simple things can overwhelm, turn me upside down, submerge who I am in a great wave. I was turned over once as a kid, swimming at a beach near LA, the ocean churning and huge. I tried to jump into a breaker and ride it in, but the surge tossed me up in its gritty gnash of turgid green, where I whirled about, then smashed head first into the sand. Lying there on the beach, I turned to see if I was safe and saw what was left of the wave easing away in a mass of bubbles, like so much harmless fizz in a glass. I had been completely lost inside that thing, powerless to move, jetsam to be thrown aside. And now it was nothing.
It’s one thing to be taken over by a force outside you, another to be overwhelmed from within – tossed into emptiness only by your mind. Little things – nothing at all really – can tear you loose from the ground you stand on.
I was driving home one evening on autopilot – it was late, I was tired, preoccupied. My mind was obsessing, vice-tightened on every mistake I had made in my work that night. I had done everything wrong, was sure my colleagues now thought me a fool, a liability. How could I have done this, said that? Every detail cut into my skull, and I thought my head would just crack with the tension.
How could I go back to the office the next day, continue working as if nothing had happened. How could I live with myself? I could never do anything right – I was a fraud, and everyone would know. I was the star in this masterpiece of depressive thinking.
Then I came to a stop sign, a routine stop sign. There wasn’t any light, not even moonlight, but what I could see was suddenly all wrong.
I knew I must be near my home, but I couldn’t recognize a thing. I had come through here hundreds of times, yet now everything was strange. Those tall dark masses must be a row of trees – but there is no row of trees on that corner. How could the road angle off to the left? I knew it went straight ahead, it had to go straight ahead!
I was completely lost. I panicked – I couldn’t make any sense of this space. It was like driving off the freeway into an emptiness without direction or even the pull of gravity. Whatever internal compass it is that keeps me oriented on the face of the earth was broken – a suspended needle spinning round its wobbly circle over and over again, and my mind was spinning with it.
I tried to search my memory for the corners and streets I knew to get my bearings – but there were too many – I could hardly think straight. I was flailing inside, and I couldn’t choose among those rapid flashes. This is crazy, I told myself, just calm down for a minute – it’s no big deal. Why is this happening?
But I had to do something in that dark, empty place without a sign I could see. I was all panic, but I knew one thing. I was in my car, the wheel in my left hand, the shift knob in my right, the accelerator next to the foot pushing way too hard on the brake.
I forced myself to stop thinking and drove straight through what felt like a wall of flashing red lights warning me not to move. But that was all I could do, and somehow I just did it. If I kept on, I would have to find something familiar, something that would place me back where the world was instead of in this nothingness. Movement felt good. Panicked confusion was so many bits of broken glass cutting my hands, but here was a smooth and useful fragment.
It took another couple of miles heading straight down the silent street until I found it. A light, a sign with a name I knew, a corner with a small store and post office, just where they were supposed to be. I knew where I was. A few miles too far, but I knew exactly how to get back. I knew where my house was and would soon be there.
Everything looked right, I could sink into the comfort of the familiar, an order around me that contained my feelings, my awareness. The world was still there, and I was back in place. I wasn’t lost, and the panic ebbed away. No crisis, just a dark night. I knew where I was.