The Deconstruction of Dennis
THE DECONSTRUCTION OF DENNIS
By Karen Fellows
This is the story of my demise. It is also the truth of my demise.
For some, the downward slide into madness starts as the result of a crushing emotional blow, or a cataclysmic lurch in some homeostatic process deep in the organism. No one expects it to be gradual and insidious. Conventional thought embraces the idea of a sudden trauma, a happening that we can point to and say ďah, so thatís what did itĒ. But despair can creep in slowly, an evil seed taking root in the depths of the psyche, watered by indifference, fertilized by caustic comments. It grows unseen in the head and heart, blocking out the light and taking over like a noxious weed, crowding joy out of its way like a rude stranger on a bus pushing other travelers aside. It settles in and spreads, becoming a thing unto itself, a smothering heavy nervous dictator constantly harping, weighing down the soul, and pulling toward the dark bottom of life where hope has died.
The day I choose to die dawns with a merciless heat, yet my house is cold as always. When we had this house built, it was an image boost. Set in a nice new neighborhood with prefab precision, it looked almost, but not quite exactly, like every other house on the block. But I have been proud of this house. It is an achievement for me, having a house built. Brand new, a visible manifestation of years of education, hard work and planning. Who could have predicted within its walls would lay the coldest realm on the face of this earth? No furniture created by man could defy the empty feeling of this house and no thermostat could prevail over the chill.
This July morning I rise from the sofa where I have spent part of another sleepless night. I wonder if my family is still slumbering in my daughterís room, door locked against me. I want to go to them but I donít because there is an invisible barrier. Their indifference is a strong wall, and I am too weak to hurl myself against it anymore. The low-level buzz of sleep deprivation hums continually in my brain. I try to tune it out and go again to the mirror to check my hair. More of it is gone! A sickening lump of dismay slides down inside me, leaving a trail of disgust. I gently part my hair and carefully check my scalp, tilting my head this way and that, examining each area. To my rising horror, I find several more spots where my hair is sparse and thinning and when I take my hands away, I see that several hairs cling to my fingers. I would weep if I werenít so damn tired. This is at least the thousandth time I have checked my hair since midnight. My long vigils have drained me and I feel the fatigue deep in my bones and my soul. I can almost hear the persistent thoughts out loud now, just on the periphery of my awareness like a low chill voice in the next roomÖI look terrible, I am worthless, I will never get past this, I canít go out in public looking like thisÖ..on and on until I think my spirit will crumble to dust and my body fall away in a puff of smoke. I pace the kitchen, then the living room, then go back to the mirror to check again hoping that I am wrong. Sure enough, more hair is gone. Little pieces of me, missing. They must lay scattered here and there tucked within the fibers of the carpet, or hidden among the rumpled clothes in the hamper, or evaporated into thin air for all I know. But they are not on my head where they belong and I am turning into a freakish caricature of my former self. It is agonizing for me to watch my disfigurement grow each passing day, hour, and moment. What will I do? How can I function? How could I present myself to the world looking like I do? I am weary beyond measure from the worry of it.
I am driving my family crazy with this. My wife says my hair looks fine, this thing is all in my head. She believes it is a delusion to which I am stubbornly and deliberately clinging. She has pointed out many times that I am selfish, possibly even lazy. My daughter tells me I am ďacting like a retardĒ. Maybe he is even faking it, she speculates. They no longer want to hear my concerns. I have worn them down and they have distanced themselves from me emotionally. Now at night they retreat to my daughterís room and lock the door to get away from me. If I bring up the subject of my hair, they grow angry and cold and roll their eyes in annoyance. They have become desensitized to my pain. I am losing my family. Maybe I have already lost them. I know this is my fault, but I canít seem to keep my fears to myself.
I am lonely. One night I ask my wife if she will please just hold me. I tell her we donít have to do anything or talk about anything, but would she please just hold me. I long for some connection to reel me back in, away from the free-floating aloneness that threatens to devour me. She gazes at me with that flat look in her eyes and turns away, closing the door softly behind her. I hang my head, accepting my punishment. We have reached a point where she can barely tolerate the sight of me. This is my faultÖI have done this to us. I have done this to myself. I have become inconvenient.
In January, I am fine. By May of this year I no longer have a job. When I became too distressed to work, my wifeís attention turns to issues of money. I am no longer contributing financially, not shouldering my share of family responsibilities. The arguments replay themselves in my mind. I tell her to take my retirement to pay the bills. She tells me that would be fine in the short term, but she is looking at the big picture. She is bitter. She tells me I will never get better. She predicts I will never work again. She says she will end up carrying the whole financial load by herself. She talks of divorce. Conversely, she says knowing her luck she would divorce me and then I would get well and find some other woman. I realize how badly I have hurt this woman, but it seems that my fixation has more power over me than even she does. I dread a divorce, still I cannot stop, cannot ďgrow up and snap out of itĒ as she insists I could do if I wanted to. And my hair continues falling out by the handfuls.
I defend myself the best I can, but my defense is timid for I know I am to blame for this crisis. We are not poor, I quietly remind my wife. We have savings. I have my retirement account. Our house is paid for.
My twenty-year-old daughter says to her mother, why donít you just get rid of him? Why are you fooling around with him anyway? I had a vacation planned and heís ruining it! And now he wonít work! What good is he? Each word is a blow to me. What have I done to my child? I have turned her against me. Thatís what I have done.
I have loved being a father. Every part of it. Tears of joy at the birth of my children. Tender love overflowing. Heart full. Sitting at the kitchen table with my daughter, my angel, gazing at the shiny cap of curly dark hair as she bent over her homework, the curve of her cheek delicately and sweetly cupped in her pudgy hand and her asking me is this right dad? Is this right? I remember the swim meets, spelling bees, cozy bedtime stories, giggling slumber parties, fierce tennis matches, family vacations and the feel of her little hand in mine when we crossed the street. She used to look up at me with adoring eyes. But now I have alienated her and I see that she despises me. My first response is disbelief but it turns gradually to acceptance. Of course she would feel this way. I have let her down, too. I tell her I am sorry. I am so sorry.
My confidence is somehow linked to my hair and it begins to diminish with each small loss. I experience decimating self-doubt. Niggling fears skitter relentlessly around in me like furtive mice in a dark room. I am driven to check and recheck my hair continually. This started as a secret worry years ago, but it lived in the background for the most part. It stayed in its place. But it hides no longer.
I am fifty years old. I have fathered two children. I am a faithful husband, I have won weight training competitions. I am tall and correctly proportioned. I am a business major, a CPA, a master of numbers. But, I am not good with words. I see this is a failure to communicate. If I could only do a better job of explaining myself Ö.
I plead my case to my wife on many occasions. I say if I could just get hair transplant surgery, I would be myself again. It worked before and it could work again, I tell her. I have lost my confidence, but I can get it back if I could just fix the way I look. She says, it wonít do any good. She says it costs money we canít afford to spend. We have a son and daughter in college, she reminds me. She says I am thinking only of myself. She says I have no income now. I am ruining her life, she says. I hear these things and I donít blame her. I know frustration is speaking for her. I also know her accusations are true. I am thinking of myselfÖ.I canít stop thinking of myself and my affliction.
I am ashamed. Ashamed of the way I look, ashamed that I cannot work, ashamed of what I am putting my wife through. She looks at me now and her gaze no longer holds any warmth or respect. She looks at me now like the useless piece of shit I have become. My shame grows and folds over itself inside me, expanding and pushing outward to make room. Will it extend beyond me someday when my body can no longer contain it? My breathing becomes shallower to accommodate its painful presence. Shame with its leaking acidic drip rolls inside me like a malformed fetus turning over in the womb. Shame, my new constant companion. Shame, my new best friend. I feel sorry for my wife shackled by Catholic marriage to a man like me.
She pushes me to change. She pushes with condemnation, scorn, and threats of divorce. I feel the sharp fear of being alone, the sick apprehension of losing her. I will do anything to hang on. Anything, but stop worrying about my hair. That I cannot do. Contrary to popular opinion in my house, it controls me, not the other way around.
I wonder how we ever could have thought we were superior, that we had the perfect family, that we didnít have these kinds of problems. Is this some kind of karmic retribution for our snobbery? A divine dressing down? My wife has done no wrong that I can see. My children have done no wrong. Is it then a lesson meant only for me to suffer with and learn from? Will I emerge a better man? I fear it is permanent. I also fear it is a curse, but not a real one put on me by some evil magician or anything. More an accident of fate, I think. I am targeted for this affliction like some people are assigned MS or cancer or brittle bone disease. I wonít find a reason for this before I die.
Thereís nothing wrong with your hair, my wife says yet again. Listen, she says, you need to shape up and you need to do it quickly. But I so clearly can see the problem. Could it really just be my perception? Is it my perception that is wrong? Is it? I feel my head carefully, fingers flying over the surface of my scalp with intimate familiarity. I go to the mirror. No, itís not my perception, I cry out silently. Look! Look at it! My hair is falling out. God. It is falling out more and more each day. I think my implants are shriveling, dying. Something is badly wrong. I look like a radiation victim. I donít say these things to my wife, however. Not yet.
At the end of June, my former boss offers me a lesser position (since mine has been filled) and my wife wants me to accept the job. I tell her I did not spend all those years in school to become a bean counter. She misinterprets these words as combative although I did not mean them to be. You are going to do this, she tells me, you are going to drive to that job and work it and you are going to keep on working it until you retire.
But when the day comes for me to start that job, I find I canít do it. My nervous hands keep flying to my hair of their own volition, checking and checking. It is a compelling force I can no longer resist. I call my boss and tell him I am struggling with my nerves. He is a compassionate man, and he gives me a week to try and feel better. A week doesnít make a difference. In a week, I am actually worse. I have to let the job go. I am too sick to function, too sleep deprived to think clearly, too fearful to face people.
My parents keep saying go to the doctor, go to the doctor. Finally one morning I feel inside me a small hard nugget of self-preservation. I go to my motherís house and ask my parents to take me to the hospital. They jump up immediately and rush me out to the car before I can change my mind. I sit up front with my dad and pull the sun visor down so I can check my hair in the mirror. I feel a strange sense of relief at noting the ugly condition of my head has not changed. I am not crazy. My hair really is falling out. I really am deformed. How can no one else see this?
We have to wait quite a long time in the emergency room. I am extremely nervous, afraid I will see someone I know. They will know why I have come. They would think ill of me and perhaps even discuss me with other people, talk about my decline, talk about me behind my back, perhaps even joke about me as my wife and daughter sometimes do. Only when I am finally taken back to a room and I can close the curtains do I feel a measure of relief.
The ER doctor is unhelpful. It is a fruitless exercise. I do not tell him I think more and more about dying. I do not tell him about my hair problem which I find so deeply shameful. I only tell him I cannot sleep anymore. And I tell him I am depressed. He doesnít ask the right questions. And I donít volunteer much. He prescribes an antidepressant and a sleeping pill and tells me to follow up with my regular doctor. He is brusque and hurried. After all my anxiety and apprehension, it is over with in a few minutes, an anticlimax.
Why didnít you tell him the truth, my mom asks me as we are leaving. You donít want them to lock me up do you, I respond. Of course not, she says, but how can the doctor help you if he doesnít know the whole story? I donít know, I say. Well, son, you take the pills like he said and maybe they will help you.
When I get home, my wife goes with me to the pharmacy. I can tell she disapproves in some way, but she remains silent on the subject.
But the pills donít help. In fact, they make me feel worse than ever. I feel sorry for anyone who has to take this kind of medicine on a daily basis. I hate the way it makes me feel, the bright hard edges to the world, the dry taste in my mouth, the increased agitation. After only a few days, I know this is not the answer for me. I stop taking the medicine. Itís the only thing I can do. Still, I canít pass a mirror without looking. My hair continues to fall out, my bald patches enlarge noticeably each day, and I know it is only a matter of time before my whole head will be a big disgusting orb with patchy sick-looking hair. I am turning into a clown, a troll, a sideshow freak. And I canít stop it from happening to me.
The days have started to run together. The nights are long and tortuous. I am beyond tired from my pacing and my slavish devotion to the mirror. My son comes home from college for a visit and I tell him. He utters kind reassuring words. He does not belittle me. But, he canít wait to leave again. I donít blame him. For just a moment in my memory, there is a flash of the boy he used to be, his little blond head bobbing in the car seat, tiny hands patting my face, baby talk, big hugs for Dad. And later, the basketball games, the weight lifting, the cars, motorcycles and debate club. I love him so much it aches. I wish he would stay longer.
My son is smart. He has changed his major several times. I used to joke that he is a career student. He spends a lot of money. Itís expensive keeping him in school.
I tell my wife I think I may need to see a doctor. A small part of me fervently hopes she would say yes, letís get you to a doctor. I will go with you, and I will stand by you. Donít worry anymore. Help is near. I want her to put her arms around me and tell me we can work this out together. I want her to tell me I matter to her, matter more even than the good life we have built. But that is an unreasonable hope. What really happens is that she reminds me that doctors are expensive and tells me our insurance has a $5,000.00 deductible. So high! I think. It didnít work very well last time, did it, she asks pointedly. But, go to the doctor, she says, and use up your sonís college money. Be selfish. No, I say, I am talking about a psychiatrist, not our family doctor. A shrink, she says flatly. That kind of doctor? Like a crazy person?
She is right. The humiliation will not only attach itself to me, but spill over to her and my children as well. Her father was sick in the head, I know. But, she is strong because she never had a childhood; she had to grow up fast; she did what she had to do. The implication is there that I could be strong too, if I wanted to be. But, I do want to be strong. I envy her that strength. Physical strength (which I have) in no way compensates for emotional weakness. Such weakness is unacceptable. How long can I hide this weakness from the world? But even more important to me, how long can I hide my hair loss from the world? Already I know I am being stared at and whispered about when we go out in public. How can I keep my disfiguring deformity from being noticed?
My wife says I call her too often now. I call her at work. If I keep going, she says she will have no choice but to tell her boss whatís going on. You know how embarrassing this is? She asks. Yes, I respond. I know what embarrassment is. I live it every day.
Another hot day rolls around after another sleepless night. Outside the oppressive heat lays its steamy hand over the wilting landscape. I want to go to the mall, my daughter announces. Come on, says my wife, weíre going to the mall. I tell her Iím not up to it. She levels me with that look. Why not, she asks, her tone dangerous with the promise of trouble. People will look at me, I whisper. I hear my daughter snort. Nobodyís going to look at you, she scoffs, youíre an old man. Believe me, no one is interested.
So, I go.
I wish I could wait in the car. My wife turns to look at me and I realize I have spoken my wish out loud. You are not waiting in the car, she says. You are coming in with us and youíre going to act like a normal person. She opens the door and waits expectantly for me to get out of the car. I step out of the car in full viewÖand hesitate. I am twisting in the wind. My daughter sighs with irritation. My wife is exasperated, her mouth set in firm lines and her posture squared for battle. I donít want to fight. I trail behind them toward the entrance, trying to see my reflection in the glass doors.
I am aiming for a surreptitious look at my hair when something in the reflection behind me catches my eye. It is heat rising in little waves off the parking lot behind me. It shimmers delicately. Funny, I think, I only see the heat in its reflection. I wonder if the same principle applies to my hair. Maybe my flaw only shows in a reflection. I ponder this concept as we drag from store to store wondering how can I ever see myself from the outside to test this theory. Then I notice the people staring as they pass by and I know what they see when they look at me. I am intensely uncomfortable but there is no place to hide.
I am disjointed. The real me is transposed over the man I ought to be and the two do not mesh. I donít mesh anymore. But I canít explain this to anyone.
Days stretch out, one after another. Nights are more awful than I can describe. I work on a secret plan. But, where would I do it? What would happen to my body? Who would find me? The first problem is how to do it. A gun, of course, is the best way. Quick, absolute and irrevocable. I do not own a gun. However, luck is with me as my son does own a shotgun. Only recently, my wife told him to bring it home from college because she was afraid he would get in trouble if he was caught with it in his dorm. He did so one weekend and stored it in the closet of his old room. So there it is now, standing like a patient soldier in the corner. Problem number one is solved with the knowing or unknowing collusion of my wife. I will never know if she deliberately placed the gun within my reach to make it easier for me or if she just forgot the danger. Nonetheless, it is there if I need it. Maybe it is her subconscious gift to me and to our family. Such a respectable tool can not only stop the suffering but also destroy the part of me that I hateÖthe top of my head. I think about this for awhile. Mull it over. Taste it until I became comfortable with the idea. At least in death my disfigurement will not be seen.
I take to visiting my parents. They are very worried about me. My wife doesnít like these visits because she is convinced I tell them things that might alter our image in their eyes. I see them anyway, but itís just a small defiance. I do tell them about my problem. I describe to them my agony, the repetition, the joyless cycle in which I am trapped. I ask them over and over, what am I going to do? They have only the same old answer for meÖ.see a doctor.
In their home, I feel an acceptance that I do not feel any other place, but I do not feel relief. They are kind to me. But kindnesses have become ineffectual little arrows of warmth that bounce uselessly off the hard armor of my self-loathing. Compassion cannot penetrate the unyielding layers of my misery. I make my mother cry and I regret it. It is not my intention to hurt her but my suffering does just that. It is hard for her to watch and know she is helpless to change it. I pay a price for these visits. What did you tell you mother today, my wife asks.
I now often call my mother just to talk. I have to keep my voice down so my wife wonít hear. I am now afraid of making her even more angry with me. I whisper into the phone and my mother strains to hear me. I try not to do any more damage to my home life, but these are some wretched days. I ache for the comfort of my motherís voice. A motherís love is unconditional and permanent. I am needing that now. I know I have pretty much destroyed any love in my own home.
I am not refusing to be normal; I have just lost my grasp on the definition of the term. I canít find my way back to myself. I am not mentally ill. I have a hair problem. But for the sake of argument, letís say I am sick in the head. What is my motivation to get well, to make that long hard upward climb? What would I be going back to? A grown man, living with his parents. No job. No wife. No children. No home. No life.
I tell Mom my new idea. I should just shave my head, I say. My mother is noncommittal. My wife, however, doesnít think I would like it and advises against it. I try to think this through. Frenzied thoughts run through my brain like rats in the timbers. If I shave my head, my old hair implants will show, I realize. I need to either get more transplants or have the old ones removed. But what if the removal leaves scars? That would be ugly. Could I get a hairpiece? No, because I would have to shave my head to wear one. And my old implants are there. My idea is a dead end. I am trapped. Mom just listens.
I need a consult with a specialist. I know this is the answer. However, my wife will not relent on this point. She has already moved our money around in the accounts so I canít access it. She suspects I might be desperate enough to go against her wishes and have some sort of hair treatment. I have to protect our savings, she explains patiently to me as if she were addressing a dull witted child. I canít imagine I would do anything that drastic without her approval, but she doesnít believe me. And I donít believe her when she tells me my hair looks fine. No one will admit the truth to me.
This dis-integrating, dis-assembling, dis-ordering of my life continues. I am an anguished shadow of my former self, hopelessly chasing one bad thought after another around in my tired brain, compelled to go to the mirror time and time again. Each day is worse. Each night is longer.
I have a plan, a plan hatched in dark hours of desperation over many sleepless nights. The gun is already in the trunk of the car, fully loaded and waiting to deliver me from my tortured existence. I am always hoping that somehow this problem will magically reverse itself. But, every time I see the disgusting ugly bald patches, my hope dissolves. The answer is so obvious. If I could just cease to live, problems would be solved. My family wouldnít have to put up with me anymore. I wouldnít have to put up with me anymore. But most importantly, my wife would have my insurance money. I have paid into that policy for years and now that I need it, it is there like an old friend telling me comfortingly to go ahead and let it take care of my family. Lord knows I canít do it anymore.
There is a hand held infrared device that stimulates hair growth. It looks like a robotís hairbrush. It costs a staggering $600. I would order one from the internet, but my wife has taken my credit cards.
My parents offer to take me out of town to a psychologist AND pay for it. That way nobody will know. Also, it will not cost me a cent. My wife is welcome to come along too, they say, we will go as a family. For a minute, I feel a tiny upward tug on my spirits. My wife, however, regards this as interference. Her response is go ahead and go, but donít bother to come home. She is simply fed up with my weakness. She is appalled that my parents indulge it. I am barely clinging to my marriage. Divorce is no longer a mere threat but now a distinct possibility. I have no choice but to decline the offer if I want to keep my family. We continue our new unnatural routine, me pacing, her sleeping apart from me, her going to work each day, me wandering about the house from mirror to mirror measuring and assessing my deformity.
My daughter still has her friends over, but she asks me to hide in the bedroom until her company leaves. I do this for her. I donít want anyone to see me anyway. I look so ghoulish.
Without my confidence, everything is difficult. I had never before realized how every little thing a person accomplishes depends entirely on self image. My life is narrowing to an existence that is truly unbearable and I can see no way out. My job is gone, all those years of schooling and struggle for nothing now. My wife no longer holds me in high regard. My daughter loathes me. My son stays away either because he just doesnít know how to handle the situation or because perhaps he too finds me repulsive now.
There is no help for me. Every avenue is blocked. Hair replacementÖblocked. Medical doctorÖblocked. PsychiatristÖblocked. Anyway, I am afraid of mental hospitals. I have images of myself as a drugged-up zombie, imprisoned in the state hospital, shuffling senselessly from hallway to day room, my incarceration an embarrassment to my family and my hope for recovery remote. I could never piece my life back together after that, and I could not bear knowing I had robbed my son of his future and my wife of her security and my daughter of her place at the center of attention. Look what I am doing to my family, I tell myself. And I love them so much!
But the love I feel for my family canít compete with the darkness I have fallen into. How powerful this obsession is, I marvel. If I could go around the house collecting up my fallen hairs and glue them back onto my head, I would do it. My looks offend me, I admit to myself. They shame and frighten me. I hate them as badly as my family hates my failures. The loneliest place in the world is inside your own mind sometimes.
My mother-in-law suffers from a disease of the mind. She is in a nursing home, her memories erased by Alzheimerís. My wife suggests that I go stay in her motherís old house at night and come back home during the day. My daughter quickly agrees with this idea. You keep me awake at night, my wife says. I need to get my sleep, she says in her reasonable voice. After all, I have to work for a living.
My mother hates the idea. There isnít even a stick of furniture in that house, she says. I wonít have you over there in that empty house every night, she tells me. She says to pack my clothes and come home. She says there is always a place for me at her house. I tell her I will think about it. What no one seems to understand is that I donít want to leave my home at all. I want to be with my wife and daughter, even if it seems they no longer want me.
I tell my wife that I could go stay with my parents for a couple of weeks and give her a break. She says no. It wonít look right. I suspect the real reason is that she canít keep tabs on me as well. And she resents that my parents know about our situation. It violates our privacy. So I am allowed to stay in my own house.
The brush of my anguish paints distorted pictures. Once I make the mistake of telling my mother that my wife is very disappointed in me. To my surprise, my mother says, well, you can tell her for me that I am very disappointed in her. She could try being a little kinder to you, my mother says. The rift between my family and my parents becomes a gorge. My mother believes with all her heart that I am being mistreated. My parents have lost respect for my wife. My wife and daughter resent my parents. I am torn by conflicting family loyalties. The confusion over right and wrong renders me helpless. But still above all, it is my hair loss that plagues me the most. It is paramount. My flaw, my defect, my shame.
I need to see a professional about my hair loss. I need it so badly. Selfish or not, I am desperate to have this. I canít solve this problem myself. It is the answer to everything. I know this for certain. If only my head looked normal, everything else would be all right again. My wife will not hear of it. But my parents are willing to try anything at this point.
A few days ago, my mother was trying to reach me. She has good news for me, she says. My parents decided to cash in an IRA and use the money to take me to a hair specialist out of state for a consultation. They will pay for it all and they will drive me there. They will do anything they can to help me, they are nearly as desperate for me to feel better as I am. Hope blooms a tiny blossom inside me.
But my daughter is onto us. Tattletale. She can hardly wait to get my wife on the line and report that Grandma has been calling me. Shortly, my cell phone rings and it is my wife. My daughter has contacted her and told her something is up with Grandma. Whatís going on now? My wife asks, her voice weary with longsuffering. I tell her of my parentsí offer.
Get. Home. Now. She says. Terse. Clipped. What did I do wrong, Honey, I ask her. What did I do wrong? The last thing on earth I want is to give her more reasons to be angry with me. I rush home dreading the confrontation I know is waiting for me. I am hardly in the door when it hits like a storm. She is livid. What do you think youíre doing, she rails. She is furious with my parents. They are babying this sickness of mine. They are trying to circumvent her right out of the picture. They are doing the worst thing they could do, sympathizing. Sympathy does not solve a problem like this. It just makes it worse. I have stabbed her in the back. I have gone behind her back. I have betrayed her. She absolutely forbids this. She tells me once again that if I go to this doctor, not to bother coming home. And she means it. She is at the end of her patience with me. It doesnít actually matter that we wonít have to pay for it. Thatís not the point. What matters is that my parents interfered in our personal business. Thatís the point. What matters is that we made a decision that she opposed, knowing full well that she opposed it. I try, but I canít convince her that I need this, and I know if I do it now that I will be going against her wishes. I briefly consider self surgery. I can see myself at the mirror with a sharp little knife and a pair of tweezers.
She winds down and the guilt rises up to choke me. I am so worn down. I donít know how to manage my own despair let alone the unhappiness I am causing her. She is a good woman and does not deserve this. I know I have destroyed her dream of a perfect family. It seems that no matter which way I turn, I am always causing sorrow for someone. I am a disgrace and the penalty is rejection. I am expelled from the circle of love that used to surround me.
Have you seen my cell phone charger, I ask my wife. I put it up, she says, we donít need you running up the bill. My phone is dead. A few days later she relents and gives it back to me. I donít know why.
My wife and I are standing in the driveway. She is looking at me with barely contained rage. Thatís it, she says, give me your keys. But why, I ask her. She says we canít afford to insure the car anymore now that I wonít work a job. If I want to go somewhere I will need to ride my bike or walk. Part of me wonders if this is really a punishment for talking to my parents about our private business. But I dismiss that thought. How will I get into the house without my keys, I ask her. You can wait in the garage until we get home from work and we will let you in. I donít want to give up my keys and my fingers tighten around them. Come on, she says quietly but firmly, you donít want to make a scene out here in front of the neighbors. I hand her my keys. If you want to drive the car, then you will need to go down and get some insurance on it, she tells me. But I have no money, I say. Well, I guess you should have considered that before you quit your job. She is right. This is a situation of my own making. I donít make a fuss. I worry that my bald spots are showing. She puts my keys in her purse and we go inside. My daughter smirks as I head for the mirror.
I call my mother and ask her to come get me. She says of course but whatís wrong with my car. I tell her I no longer have the key. I tell her about the insurance. Sitting around their dining room table I confess to them that I am destroying my family. I donít know what to do. My dad keeps repeating go to the doctor, go to the doctor. I know he means well, but I am tired of hearing it. We have tried that, and I am afraid. What if they hospitalize me? What if my sonís college fund is eaten up by my medical expenses? What if my wife leaves me and I am alone? What if my children hate me?
Hot windy day. My eyes have dried out and I need my contact solution. I canít get into the house to get it. I have my parents drop me off at home and I wait in the garage until my wife and daughter get home. It feels like my contacts are adhered to my eyeballs. It was a long wait.
My appetite is poor now. I am losing weight. My mother wants me to eat something. Donít you think I should wait and eat with my family, I ask her. I try to call my daughter, but she doesnít answer. I try to call my wife, but she doesnít answer either. I think perhaps I will eat something with my parents. Then my cell phone rings and itís my daughter calling me back. She says if I will walk down to the corner, they will come by and pick me up. (My wife will not drive up to my parentsí house) I set off down the dusty street, hands in my pockets. I look back to see my mother standing in the door, watching me walk away. It looks like she is crying.
You need to mow the lawn today, my wife says. Now remember you donít have a house key, so donít lock yourself out. I canít be leaving work to let you in the house.
Morning dawns with a soft rain that breaks up the persistent summer heat, granting a reprieve in more ways than one. The rain has given me back my car. My daughter doesnít like to drive. She had a close call, a near miss, and now her mother and I drive her where she wants to go. That morning my wife hands me back my car keys because my daughter wants to go to the Y. We canít bike there in the rain. I donít know what happened with the insurance matter. I donít ask. It turns out I will now keep my car until the day I die.
After the Y, my daughter is hungry. I want a taco, she states. But I have no money, I say. I want a taco, she repeats, and Iím not spending my own money on it. Youíre the dad, youíre supposed to feed me. In fact, you still havenít reimbursed me for the stuff I bought last week, she says. I pull over and we search the floorboards, glove compartment and cracks of the seats. We find enough change to buy her taco, but not enough to buy a drink. She sullenly eats her meal, refusing to look at me. Iíve let her down again. I realize my hands are trembling slightly. I grasp the steering wheel harder to steady them. The rain lays a hazy gray coat over the world. I drive her home in silence. The heavens weep.
It is July 18, my anniversary. For twenty seven years I have been married to this good woman and now it is all reduced to nothing by the last six months. My mother convinces me to see her hairdresser today. I donít want to go, but I do it for my mother. The hairdresser takes me into a back room so I donít have to wait among all the other patrons. She is warm and kind. She doesnít feel like a stranger. She looks at my hair. Why, honey, she says, you have a beautiful head of hair. She says, yes I see the implants and maybe just a little bit of thinning, but you have gorgeous hair. She says, I have a product that will take care of this. Your scalp just needs a thorough cleansing, she says. I guarantee you that if you use this shampoo you will notice a difference in a week. I promise your hair will grow back. I ask her the cost. Now, you donít worry about that, she says, you try it and if it works for you, you can pay me later. Out of the blue I tell her I think my wife is going to leave me. She says, oh honey, I have been married 37 years, I know how it is. I bet things will work out with your wife. But if they donít, my goodness, you will have the women all over you. You are such a handsome man, she tells me. You just try these products now and before you know it your hair will be thicker and fuller. Youíll see, she says.
Oh my god, look what heís got now, my daughter says to my wife. Special Shampooooooo! Oh, lord, my wife groans. I am humiliated. They have a bit of fun at my expense. How much did that shit cost, my wife asks. Nothing, I say.
This anniversary is not a happy one. I accept their disdain and allow it to settle like a vulture on my slumped shoulder where it makes a fitting companion to my own self-loathing. I finally realize I am not loved. This will be the longest night of my life.
When my wife and daughter lock themselves in the bedroom for sleep that night, I face my demons alone in the quiet darkness. The powers of the night are ever watchful that I not slip up and find some peace where certainly none is deserved. I take stock of where my life has led and all that I have lost, but thinking is hard to do. Clarity of thought has deserted me and only one neural pathway seems to fire at full capacity. Thatís the one that cycles me through my repetitive motions, the irresistible compulsion to feel my head and nervously inspect my hair over and over again for hours. And each time I check, my suspicions are again confirmed. And each time that old familiar shame and panic washes over me, sending waves of disgust and despair down into my gut.
The morning of July 19 finds me wide eyed, nerves sizzling from lack of sleep, stomach churning, and heart racing inexplicably. I feel such heaviness of spirit that breathing is an effort and each step is like walking through a deep layer of heavy sand. I check my hair again but still it is the same and defeat overwhelms me.
I thirst for peace. I am so tired. This is the day I will escape my personal hell on earth. It has to be today. Tomorrow is my motherís birthday and I just canít do that to her. Not on her birthday. It has to be today. But where can I do the deed? I will go where I am loved, I decide. I will go where I know that my crumpled body will be lovingly cared for. I will go home, where I grew up. I will step out of this body like stepping out of a confining suit of clothes. I will be free. I canít do this at my house. It would be the final insult to my marriage to leave such a mess for my wife. And I do not want my daughter to see her fatherís shattered body dead on the floor, just in case some part of her still loves me. I donít want to hurt her any more than I already have.
It is only here at the very end that I have failed my family. I am sure of that. There was a time when I had a good life. I am an educated man. I was successful. My wife was the single point of light in my life, from which radiated all the parameters of my world. I have a son who makes me proud, a bright assertive young man who pulls the good grades and goes around with all the right people. He writes brilliant papers. He studies. He drinks too, but I donít want to think about that. My daughter was, until recently, the center of our family. She is a cherished diamond, sharp-edged and fierce. A unique jewel sparkling with cold light and mysterious facets. I had vowed to give her everything she ever desired and deny her nothing. Until this condition took me, I did hold true to that promise. But no longer can I find consolation in any of my past accomplishments because my true defective nature has now emerged. I have no one to blame but myself, but life as I knew it is over for me.
My wife and daughter leave for work. I call my mother. She says they are going to the grocery store, but for me to come on over. Perfect timing, I think.
However, when I arrive at my parentsí home, I am surprised to find them still at home. Theyíve had a change in plans and decided to go to the store later. So I bide my time. They notice I am in poor shape. I have seen my haggard face in the mirror with its deep lines, sunken eyes and sagging skin. Mom comments that I am wearing the same clothes as yesterday, something I never do. Her eyes reflect her fear for me. I canít comfort her because I know her fear is justified. I am sorry when I see the pain in her eyes. She looks so sad.
I tell her I am so tired of worrying about my hair, just so tired. I wish I could just fly away. Her eyes fill with tears.
Honey, didnít you try your new shampoo, she asks. No, I answer. Why not, she asks. I donít know, I say.
I decide to make one last effort for living, and I call my wife. I tell her I am at Momís and that I am feeling really low, very bad. I ask her if she will talk to Mom. She hangs up on me.
I am stunned for only a moment and then think, well, this is the way I expected it would turn out. But this time itís ok because I am ready. Soon she will be free, too.
I must soften the blow for my mother. It seems wrong to not at least kind of prepare her for what is to come, so I ask her what she would tell people if I ever decide to take my life. She gasps and begins to sob. She tells me it would just kill her. She begs me, please donít talk that way. She says she is so sorry that she did this to me, that it must be some genetic or hereditary factor that caused this. She tells me she had wanted a son so badly and she never dreamed she would be passing on this awful sickness. I tell her she hasnít done anything wrong and this is not her fault.
My dad flies angry and tells me suicide is a cowardís way out. His older brother had done it when my dad was just a boy, and it had devastated him. This meeting is going badly and I am not sure how smooth it back into place. My dad starts out the door, shakes his head, then turns around and comes back. He apologizes for losing his temper and tells me the following Tuesday he will take me to the hair doctor, the specialist, and we will get some professional answers. He is a fixer. He has always fixed things. But he canít fix this. He is trying so hard, but he doesnít know I have already found my solution. I donít have the heart to tell him. Besides, I donít want him to stop me.
I humor him. I let him believe we will make this trip and I can see he is relieved. Then I ask my mother for a hug. I canít tell her this is goodbye, but it is. Then I tell them to go ahead, go to the store. They ask me to come with them. Of course, I decline. They donít want to leave me, but I convince them I am good. Iím good, I say, Iím good. I tell them to go and I will be waiting right here for them when they return. They believe when they get back we will finalize the plans for our trip to the doctor. They believe I am ready to buck the system, ignore my wifeís wishes, and follow through with this appointment. They walk out the door believing the cure for my suffering is in sight. It is, but not in the way they think.
Once they are safely gone, I sit in my boyhood home for a short time, absorbing the particular comfort that is my motherís house. I remove my shoes and one of my socks. I take a final look around my motherís home, feel again the misery pressing down upon me, and step outside.
I raise the garage door and drive my car inside. Then I close the garage door behind me so no one will see. I open the trunk of my car and gaze at the gun. Now that the moment is upon me, I am strangely calm. I call my wife one more time, but she does not answer. I want to tell her goodbye.
I speak privately with God. I remove the gun from the trunk. I sit on the cement floor, lean back, and place the double barrels in my mouth, carefully aiming back and upward. I cup my fingers against my lips and press them tightly around the gun. It is uncomfortable against my teeth. I place my toe through the trigger. I have forgotten to tell my brother and sister goodbye. And itís too late now. I am surprised to notice tears streaming involuntarily from my eyes.
How fast is a shot? Speed of sound? Speed of light? I donít know. But I never even hear the blast before I am flying home, propelled into the arms of Jesus.
I am ended.
Body dysmorphic disorder is treatable with medication and therapy. It is not vanity. It is an obsessive disorder characterized by uncontrollable intrusive thoughts. It requires professional help and the love and support of family.
There are several morals to this story:
1. Body dysmorphic disorder does not respond to ďtough loveĒ which is an approach for a parent to use on a rebellious child. ďTough loveĒ is not a legitimate technique for dealing with serious mental illness. It is, in fact, dangerous.
2. Isolating a sufferer from the emotional support of friends and family exacerbates the illness.
3. Deliberately depriving a person of necessary medical treatment is inhumane.
4. Perfectionism and unrealistic expectations play significant roles as well. Nobody is perfect. Nobody is supposed to be perfect. A personís value should not measured by their physical appearance.
5. Love is not a currency to be withdrawn as punishment or used as a tool of manipulation. Real love stands with a person even if that person becomes ďinconvenientĒ.