At a recent reading hosted by The Bookshelf in Guelph, I was asked about the unspecified mental illness in Every Time We Say Goodbye. The characters in my novel cannot name their illnesses. Unnamed, an illness can be anything; unspoken, it often becomes the worst thing possible.
When I was 18, I went on a religious retreat with forty other high school students and met the devil. For six months after, I was unable to sleep except in brief snatches; during the day I was shaken by strange surges, haunted by evil grinning thoughts, and clamped in an iron vice of dread.
The retreat was held in an office building. We went in on a Friday afternoon to find all the windows and clocks covered, and were immediately asked to surrender our watches. “Don’t anticipate,” we were told. “Participate.” Soon, we weren’t sure if it was day or night. (Later I would learn that this, along with sleep deprivation and hunger, is a common technique in cult programming. The body becomes disoriented and the mind follows.)
At some point during our clockless retreat, we were told to lie on mats in a dark room and empty our minds. I did, and into my emptied mind came an unspeakable dread. It was more terrifying than anything I’d ever felt, so I gave it the name of the worst thing I knew. I fixed my eyes on the low-lit crucifix on the wall and recited silent Hail Marys. Eventually, the devil retreated, but I was deeply shaken. If I wasn’t safe surrounded by crucifixes in the Catholic Information Centre in Sault Ste. Marie, I wasn’t safe anywhere.
The retreat ended, and I went home. I was in bed the next time the devil appeared, rippling out of the radio (probably on a Jimmy Page riff). I leaped out of bed, turned off the radio, and prayed like mad. Around four in the morning, I fell asleep. Two hours later, I got up for school.
This became a nightly pattern: terror and dread in sweat-soaked sheets, followed by fragmented sleep. Strangest of all, I told no one. I was afraid that if I told my grandparents, they would take me to a priest, thus confirming my deepest fears. And there was just no way to drop it into a conversation at school (oh yeah, and guess what else? Satan is trying to possess me, so if my head starts turning around, like 360 degrees, that's what's up with that).
One night, I woke up with tremors running through my hands and arms. Was I dying? I stumbled to my grandparents’ room. “Grandma,” I said. “My hands are shaking.”
She said, “It’s nerves.”
Nerves. Huh. Not a supernatural evil trying to get in, but a terrible pain trying to get out. The shaking subsided, and I went back to bed.
A few months later, in university, a description of an anxiety attack in my psych textbook confirmed my grandmother’s diagnosis.
Still, it took a long time to get help, partly because I'd learned as a child that the adults who were supposed to be caring for me were so caught up in their own traumas, they couldn’t be relied on. Also, I didn’t know where to get help, and it would be years before you could Google “heart racing” and “feel like I’m dying” and be led to an anxiety disorder website. But mostly, I thought I could banish my affliction by ignoring it. It took a long time to learn we only cure our ailments by calling them out.