railroad crossing

At some point in the stickiness of last summer while I was detoxing from my psych meds, I got very scared and very sad for no reason and locked myself in my closet. (Ironically enough I had come out of the closet years ago; at the time I didn’t find it that funny, but these days I think it’s hysterical.) I assume that some primal part of me longed for the days of being swaddled as a baby while my brain was dry-heaving itself to death, so I found a nice dark corner behind my winter coats and novelty Harry Potter robes and stayed there sobbing for an hour. Eventually I came out and wrote a poem about it. A week later I took my last dose.

Suddenly I was as cured as you can be with an incurable disease – no more meds, not in therapy, armed with coping mechanisms to make sure that my college mistakes wouldn’t be repeated. Honestly I thought that recovery would be a bit more badass, more Metallica than Tracy Chapman. I had to take one day off work because I couldn’t stop vomiting, and for a few weeks there my anger was a palpable thing, my normal flatline temper spiking suddenly just because my roommate left the dishtowel out. For a few weeks there I felt much crazier than I ever had when I was actively trying to kill myself. But I sweated it out, rode through the shakes, gritted my teeth and swallowed the metal in my mouth, practically listened to my brain re-knit itself, tickthunking in the quiet moments like a badly-wound clock. I took my last dose and celebrated with a bottle of cider and a book.

Suddenly I had everything I ever wanted when I was twenty and sitting in the window of the psych ward. Stable job, loving friendships, time to write and a functioning brain. All was well.

I find myself sometimes listening to Metallica and wondering.

Legend says that at a midnight crossroads in rural Mississippi, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to be the greatest blues player who ever lived. The devil’s not the kind of guy who’s going to make it easy; Johnson died at 27 convulsing in pain. During his lifetime nobody really knew much about him. These days he’s considered one of the best guitarists of all time, which if you look at it means that the devil, asshole that he may be, at least delivers on his promises; Johnson’s been dead for almost a hundred years and we’re still talking about him, or at least dramatic mentally ill girls still are.

I’m not one to put much stock in that old ‘tortured genius’ stereotype. I think that it paints mental illness as a good thing, or at least a blessing in disguise – ‘I know that you hurt everyone who ever loved you, but you made some beautiful art of it.’ Maybe I’m just bitter because my own work in the heat of the moment was utterly terrible, but I think that when anyone starts talking about mental illness as a magical recipe for beautiful and gut-wrenching writing, they’re ultimately saying that the writer couldn’t have made great art without it. That the whole sum of what made them so great was what made them turn to writing in the first place. That they should be happy that this happened to them, because now they have something envious, something delicious and forbidden that will give their writing an edge they never asked for. It always made me sick, when people used to say that to me.

But it’s true that I used to write like I was running from the devil himself. My writing was a bruise that I never allowed to heal, constantly poking and poking, eternally just on the edge of pain. Even when I was writing happy things, my novels and poems and drabbles, I was a monster about it. It was the stick that I used to beat off the depression and I clung to that stick even when the brambles stuck into my skin and burrowed deep. Smoke was in my eyes and my teeth and my veins and I breathed deep even when there was a clean balcony two steps away.

I went off my meds because I wanted it, for myself and for my family and for my future life. But the bruise has healed now. I write calmly and collectively; no more dashing off in the middle of conversations for my notebook, no more staying up until three AM chasing the perfect words even when I’m shaking with exhaustion. Maybe it’s part of getting older. But it’s not like a former crazy to let anything get by with the logical explanation. When I’m lying in bed at 10 PM like a functioning adult, my mind seeks the corners of the room, where two walls meet.

I read about the crossroads legend sometime shortly after the attempt, and I’m shocked that I remembered it because absolutely nothing was sticking back then. I was young and drunk and depressed and dramatic; the legend made sense to me, made me feel like a heroine when everything else in my life at the time made me feel like a failure. I had come to the crossroads to bargain; what I was getting in return, I don’t know. At the time I would’ve said peace. Now I think it was something else, something I don’t want to name. And for whatever reason I backed out – either of my own will, or God yanked me out, or the simple mathematics of just how many pills it takes to kill a human, however you want to shake it out. I couldn’t find anything in the literature about what happens to people who left the crossroads before the deal was done.

Sometimes, when I was really drunk, I could swear I saw the demon in the corner of the bathroom mirror. Her eyes were as bloodshot as mine, and she was waiting.

I don’t see the demon anymore. Haven’t in years. I’m good, I’m happy, I’m dating and working and ignoring my lactose intolerance and planning trips to see my brother in Disneyland. It’s the kind of life that many mentally ill people dream of, and I don’t take that lightly. Only a few years after the attempt, to be doing this good? It’s frankly a miracle. My Irish Catholic grandma would say that it’s a blessing from God, that he delivered on his promise.

But I wonder, in quiet shameful moments – everyone knows that the devil delivers on his promises too. That’s why you make deals with him; you know he’s good for it. He needs you more than you need him.

God made you happy, I hear in the bathroom mirror. But I can set you ablaze.

The crossroads are quiet tonight.


Allison Brice is originally from Tucson, Arizona and moved to Washington, DC to get a history degree from Georgetown. She currently works as a tour guide in the US Capitol. She has 44 pet tortoises and eats massive amounts of cheese despite raging lactose intolerance.