The thing about having a nervous breakdown is that, for an indefinite amount of time, your life feels like the first five seconds of a terrible car accident.
You’re dimly aware that something awful is happening and that you have been deeply—perhaps even mortally—hurt. Time thins to a liquid in which you are suspended; you miss work deadlines, blow off friends, neglect bills. You are helplessly caught in the undertow of the world.
Next thing you know, you’re pouring boxed red wine into a dirty paper cup in a grocery store parking lot because shopping seems like more than you can reasonably handle sober.
So, this why I’m driving alone down a back country highway in Montana in the middle of January, strung out on bad truckstop coffee and cheap American smokes; because my accident is over and everything in my life has come to an abrupt and brutal stop.
As per the laws of physics, an object not in motion needs an external force to set it into motion. I’m kind of hoping that if I just drive far enough I can just shoot myself off the overpass and into a new, fully mobile life in which I am in complete control.
So far, on day five of eight of a road trip between Whitehorse, Yukon and Montreal, Quebec via the States, the results are middling. On one hand, I am hungry, tired and broke, living in the sort of motels where you check the seam of the mattress for bed bugs before you lay down. On the other, I am not drinking half a bottle of whiskey every night just to put myself to sleep and crying every morning before work.
Despite the blue, sunny day, I am making poor time. There was freezing rain overnight; the blacktop is a slick, treacherous mess and I’m going 20 kilometres an hour under the speed limit. When the trooper turns on his lights behind me, I momentarily think he must be after someone else, except there is no one else on the road but me.
I pull over. The cop pulls up behind me and gets out of the car. In the backseat, my dog whines.
The trooper is immaculately clean shaven, with a pallid complexion which makes his face seem blurred, as if he were done in watercolours. He asks for my papers and tells me he is pulling me over because my license plate is dirty.
He takes a step back and instructs me to come with him.
“In your car?” I have a terrible feeling of dread.
“It’s procedure,” he says, unsmiling.
I get out of my car. As I walk away I can hear my dog barking angrily at the trooper. I open the door and sit down on the passenger side. He closes my door with a bang and gets in next to me.
My heart is beating hard and I fold one hand over the other, squeeze tight. In the months leading up to my breakdown, I had been raped. The incident—along with the brutal mismanagement of my case by the police—was one of the main reasons for my illness. In the passenger seat, I am struggling to fend off a panic attack while the trooper taps away at his screen.
“You seem agitated,” he says, abruptly. His watery eyes have narrowed.
And I think I’m in a car alone with a strange man with a gun. Yes I am goddamn agitated.
I say, “No. I’m just tired.”
That’s when things take a bizarre turn; he asks me if I am on crystal meth.
He asks me if I’ve been drinking, if I’ve been doing other drugs. He is increasingly forceful, increasingly aggressive. He won’t stop staring at me. He comes back to the meth—have I ever done meth? Is there meth in my car? Am I sure I am not on meth? No, no, no.
He doesn’t believe me. He makes me do a straight line walk on the highway. I am shaking so bad from nerves I’m scared I’ll fall over and he’ll take that as proof of guilt. I can’t imagine what would happen then. Cars pass by, see me doing the walk. I can see heads twisting to catch a glimpse of my face.
He searches my car. He makes me stand on the side of the highway holding my leashed dog. It’s cold. The snow is deep. He is going through my clothes, my books. He opens a tin of homemade cookies and sniffs them suspiciously. I am at his mercy; nothing I say seems to reassure him. I am humiliated.
When he finds nothing he tells me to wait in my car. My things are in disarray. I don’t understand why this had happened to me. I feel violated.
He writes me a warning ticket for the dirty plate and tells me I can go. So I go.
I drive 10 miles to the next town, pull over in a parking lot in front of a small restaurant which is attached to bowling alley. I take the key out of the ignition, lean forward over the steering wheel and cry for a long time. I cry because I am afraid of men and because I am afraid of losing control and a man just came and took control away from me again for reasons I don’t understand. I cry because I am tired and hungry and cold. I cry because I am alone and I don’t want to be alone. I cry because my nerves are still so fragile and probably will be for some time.
When I can stop crying I get out of the car, go into the restaurant, order a sandwich and a beer. I eat alone at a little table. The beer does me more good than the food. When I get back to the car I feed my dog a piece of bacon I saved for him in a napkin. Then I take a deep breath, back out of the parking lot and get back on the highway.
My hands are still shaking but as I begin to drive my anxiety slowly melts away; an immense relief blooms within me. The highway unfolds in a perfect, prairie-straight line. There is a black road and there are red mesas covered in white snow and there are black birds lined up on wires. The trooper, the drinking, the breakdown—everything is behind me.
I am moving forward again; I am moving slowly, but I am moving.