I moved to New York for graduate school. I was in my mid-twenties, and what do we do when we’re in our mid-twenties? We move to New York with very little money and very high hopes. Like many, I entered into the nexus of love and wealth and fame looking for a piece of the glistering and transmutable dream itself. In short, I was here to write a book.
But standing on the threshold of this dream, I began to panic. I thought, I have arrived, and thought nothing of how far I had to go or what it would take to get there. I could see downtown Brooklyn from my window, and most days my impression of New York came from inside my bedroom. Outside, the sidewalks were cobbled and uneven, and the houses and apartments looked like replicas of the houses and apartments I’d watch on TV.
I’d lived in Brooklyn less than a month but had already settled into an inexplicable depression I’d nicknamed The Darkness. I couldn’t leave my apartment, except to attend class in Manhattan two nights a week. Sitting on the F train, I felt sure no one could lived in New York without a constantly replenished supply of antidepressants, courtesy of some kind of pharmaceutical Fresh Direct. The city and its boroughs, alternating blocks under perpetual construction, seemed to reflect its residents. Walking home on those Mondays and Wednesdays, I saw the funeral parlors and casket makers on what felt like every corner and wondered if funeral parlors and casket makers really were ubiquitous in New York, or if I was just noticing them more.
I couldn’t seem to go above the Twelfth Street location of my class, not to Central Park or the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the New York Public Library. I had no interest in going below Twelfth Street, either. I definitely couldn’t go to the youthful hub Williamsburg, specifically to the newly opened McCarren Park Pool, at any time of day, for any reason, ever; all the people my age made me feel old. I put on makeup in the morning and washed it off before bed, having never gone outside. The idea of “making it” was everywhere, and I needed to avoid it. I’d moved to the supposed greatest city in the world in order to spend seventy-two hours at a time insulated and solitary, developing an allergy to people and a near-romantic attachment to Netflix. Like a crazy hermit in the cave on the hill—my hill being Brooklyn Heights—I watched movies like The Human Centipede and wrote to a popular online advice columnist about my thoughts of jumping out of a window because I couldn’t do what I’d moved to New York to do. I was full of the vulnerability that drives people toward the Internet.
Writing a letter to “Dear Sugar,” the advice column of TheRumpus.net, was a last resort: it felt just short of running into the street, dropping to my knees, and begging no one, desperately, for help.
“Right now, I am a pathetic and confused young woman of 26,” I wrote in an e-mail draft to Sugar days before my birthday. “I’ve sat here, at my desk, for hours, mentally immobile. I look up people I used to love and wonder why they never loved me. I lie facedown on my bed and feel scared. I get up, go to the computer, feel worse.”
As soon as we’re done growing up, it seems, we must face what to do with our lives. No one had ever explained things to me, other than stuff about taking vitamins or carrying mace or avoiding herpes no matter what. I was so filled with wanting; I craved to know a little bit of anything, facts, some meaning, if a Facebook friend was a real friend. Was there a secret order, an unshared code? I felt like I’d gambled and lost, yet I hadn’t started playing.
The Human Centipede is a 2010 Dutch horror film about a doctor who kidnaps three tourists in Germany and joins them surgically, mouth to anus, to form, not unpredictably, a human centipede. Whatever you’re imagining, it’s worse. The movie claims to be “100% medically accurate,” and—you have to love the Wikipedia entry on this—“When approaching investors prior to filming, [director Tom Six] did not mention the mouth-to-anus aspect of the plot, fearing it would put off potential backers.” I understood. Like director Tom Six, I too sublimated my inner proclivities so they’d be palatable.
I was aware that some might dismiss my paralysis, say I simply had a bad attitude. After all, I didn’t have anything wrong with me at all, except I couldn’t write—and that at times I’d hyperventilate and my heart would beat so fast I could see my chest flutter and it was impossible to get my breathing under control. Once a panic attack was under way, I could only collapse and wait for it to pass. I’d cry until my nose was clogged or so forthcoming with snot that I’d again be unable to breathe, which would immediately trigger another panic attack about having a panic attack. The hardwood floor and I shared an intimate connection—me sobbing on it—and inside my head thoughts like “I am miserable” played like the horror movie Gremlins on a loop (specifically the scene when water spills on Gizmo and causes him to convulse and spawn five new destructive, evil, rage-filled monsters from his own body) until the phrase multiplied and amplified and I was now miserably berating myself for being miserable, anxiety turning to suicidal thoughts because the pain was so unendurable and exhausting and unending. A bottle of prescribed anti-anxiety pills, a cheese knife on the wrists, an open window—these plans replaced grad school, paying rent, buying groceries.
Hugging the hardwood floor, I “reasoned” it would take weeks to see a psychologist or psychiatrist. I needed to reach out, and it had to happen now. The online medium appealed: the accessibility and urgency and visible anonymity. And I believed in the connective tissue among art, mental health, and online publishing. “I want to jump out of a window for what I’ve boiled down to is one reason: I can’t write a book,” I wrote to Sugar.” I wanted to jump out of a window because I was in so much pain, I needed someone to see how much. I wanted to be an emergency. I didn’t want to die; I wanted to be saved.
You know who else wanted to be saved? The three human beings connected mouth to anus in the human centipede. I think I loved The Human Centipede so much because my life seemed less horrifying by comparison. The physical reality of watching a German doctor surgically attach—“100% medically accurate,” mind you—three human beings mouth to anus overrode the demands of my bleak mental reality, and in those moments the intensity of my inner life lessoned. Mouth to anus, my God, nothing’s worse than that. Witnessing movie actors die, hands and knees, lips to tush, suggested that being unable to write was a walk in the proverbial park.
I also watched Frozen, in which three teenage friends get stuck midair on a chairlift after the slopes close. Spoiler: not all of them make it. Additional spoiler: there are wolves. Other movies I enjoyed during this period had names like Cannibal Holocaust, Dead Snow, Trollhunter, The Descent, Insidious, Dead Alive, Antichrist, Final Destination (and its four sequels), The Crazies, The Descent Part 2, Return of the Living Dead 3, Quarantine 2, Russell Brand in New York City, Freddy vs. Jason, Alien vs. Predator, Black Christmas, Mother’s Day, My Bloody Valentine 3-D, Gothika, The Resident, Whitney Cummings: Money Shot, A Nightmare on Elm Street (the remake, a horror movie on top of a horror movie in terms of being almost offensively worse than the original), Living Death, The House of the Devil, Wristcutters: A Love Story, Carriers, Monsters, Nine Dead, and Deadgirl.
“How do I reach the page when I can’t lift my face off the bed? How does one go on when you realize you might not have it in you? How does a woman get up and become the writer she wishes she’d be?” I asked, and hit Send, right before I hit play on The Human Centipede 2: Full Sequence.
What I now refer to as my public suicide note went live on August 19, 2010. “Think of the canon of women writers,” I’d written. “A unifying theme is that so many of their careers ended in suicide.”
“It’s not true,” Sugar (who, in real life, is author Cheryl Strayed) answered in her column. She encouraged me to let go of these “inaccurate and melodramatic” beliefs. Rather, she wrote, “The unifying theme is resilience and faith … It’s not fragility. It’s strength. It’s nerve.”
Of her first book, she confided she’d reached the point where not writing it was worse than writing one that didn’t “make it.” And it was true: watching every horror movie available online was worse than writing a bad book.
That Sugar hadn’t written her book by the time she was twenty-eight was, she said, a “sad shock.” Of herself, she’d “expected greater things.” She, like me, believed she’d wasted her twenties and was “lazy and lame.” She “wrote stories in feverish, intermittent bursts, believing they’d miraculously form a novel without [her] having to suffer too much over it,” just as I thought I entered into the nexus of love and wealth and fame, sure I wouldn’t have to suffer, by which I mean “work,” too much securing my piece of the glistering and transmutable dream itself.
“But I was wrong,” she said. And so was I. If I wanted to write the stories I had to tell, Sugar told me to gather everything within me to make it happen. She advised me to suffer, but by “suffer” she meant “work.” Not panic. Not destroy myself. Not hurry, not rest, but simply move. She told me to “write like a motherfucker.”
Sugar had explained things to me, real things, more than the stuff about taking vitamins or carrying mace or avoiding herpes no matter what. I got to work. First, I wrote about how I couldn’t write. And that’s when the miraculous happened: I found myself en medias res writing. I wrote about everything I was going through, like my Netflix dependency. Because of Sugar, I wrote the book I was sure was impossible to write.
When I moved to New York, I learned about suffering, which I was sure was an ending. It isn’t. Suffering is running away to find yourself only to lose yourself; suffering is being connected mouth to anus in a human centipede; suffering is not being able to write a book but writing one anyway because working is not what kills us, it’s what keeps us alive. Suffering is the beginning to another story. Even if that story is The Human Centipede III: Final Sequence.
Elissa Bassist edits the Funny Women column on TheRumpus.net. Follow her @ElissaBassist, and please visit elissabassist.com for literary, feminist, and personal criticism.
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