My mother believed that will, not love, was what made the world go round, and I agreed. I was a wrong girl but I had always worked hard at what I did. I owned a pair of skates, nubby tights, and a white muff made from real rabbit fur. I had gotten my ears pierced when I was only eight years old, and all dressed up in my skating outfit, I looked like a holiday.
Before and at first even after my seizures started, I skated at a pond. For years my mother had been buying me books about champions, the biographies of Dorothy Hamill and Estelle Drier. At home my shelves were stocked full of fame, and when it came to the ice, my mother thought I had potential.
Skating is a sport of bones and grace, a sport where you fly on water like a prophet but fall, sphincter first, on the solidest surface. It hurts and you have to push yourself. You have to push yourself first to go out in the cold, and then to walk over a place where, right beneath, sharks and whales are waiting for you, and then to leap against your better judgment, when your whole self is longing just to nap. The place was called Dehaney's Pond, and it was always beautiful in a winter way. Each December, January, February, reeds crackling like whiskers in the winter wind. "Spin," she would shout, and I did it. The more it hurt, the better I was. "Leap now," she would shout, "with your toe turned out," and I did it, even when my lungs burned and my lips lost all their moisture; I did it until I went far away, far, far away to someplace silver, and beyond pain.
Will is what makes the world go round. If you want something, push, pull, shake and scrape until it forms. The same holds true for the soul. The soul is a pile of moist manure, and only by tilling and shoveling might you turn it into gold. The work was hard, hard! But the possibilities--limitless, a fairy-tale world where you could endlessly become.
I worked. For my whole life, in sickness and in health, I had worked at being bad and good and strong. I was my mother's girl. Before the epilepsy came on hard, I skated, and I had my own private sports as well. "The Jews," my mother liked to say proudly, "marched forty miles in the snow without shoes." When I was very little, maybe six or seven, I had taken to marching around our yard, barefoot in the snow, for no other reason than it was just the way to live. Either you did it or you died.
Once, when marching, I had seen a cardinal. He was Chinese red, and he kept staring at me. "Three steps more," the cardinal had said, and so I went three steps more. That bird got in my blood and ordered me around. "Three steps more," he said, and the next day four steps, and sometimes 1 longed to let the cardinal go, to open my heart and have him soar out, but I couldn't. Instead I went three steps, then four, then five, all for fear and maybe a little love.
But after the epilepsy began, and then got worse, the skating stopped. This is how it happened. I had my first seizure in Barbados, my second one in our kitchen back in Boston. And then, the winter of my tenth year, I started to seize a few times a week or even once a day. Still, I did my glides and my bends, until the January morning, just at dawn, when my mother took me to the pond for practice. I clumped out over the ice in my skates, pushed off, and started my moves. I remember the day was warmish, with a little slick of sweat over the ice, and the reeds had thawed so their boggy smell came out. "Pivot and turn," my mother shouted, and as I did, as I entered the thawing air, a memory suddenly came to me, a memory so clear and absolute it must have been engraved in the back rooms of my brain for a long time, and I was finding it just now, perfect and whole. A memory that was moving slowly even while I spun fast, even while I felt my legs get big, get bloated, and my hands huge now--filled with helium. Help me, I thought, and that was when I recalled that a boy had once drowned in this pond in the summer, and I'd heard about how they'd dragged for the body, his limbs all swollen and soft. Help me, I thought, and the smell came, bad, like a sewer when it's open, and at the same time an exquisite sense of pleasure, of trumpet, I couldn't breathe. I came down out of the sky. I think I came down fast, and a little chicken was running around, Chicken Little! Chicken Little!--and then the sky was falling on me as I sank below the surface of the pond and I saw the boy down there in the murk. "Help me," I wanted to say, but in water there is no voice; there is no speed; there is just a terribly slow suck.
When I woke up, I was in the hospital, but I didn't know that right away because my head hurt so much. "Did I drown?" I asked.
"No," the nurse said. "But you've had another seizure."
Apparently, then, the ice hadn't broken.
I lay there for a while in the monstrous bed. The sheets were made of meringue; they crackled whenever 1 moved. I stopped moving. I closed my eyes. I knew, even before the doctor told us, that this was the worst seizure I'd had so far. "I didn't die; I didn't die; I didn't die," I kept saying to myself.
The doctor came into the room. It was Dr. Patterson, my pediatrician. I liked him, even though his stethoscope was always cold.
"Am I going to die?" I said to Dr. Patterson.
He came over to my bed. He looked down at me. Then he smiled, took out his stethoscope, and put it on my nose. "I don't think so," he said, listening to my nose. "I think you'll be just fine."
How could I believe that, though, when Chicken Little, who was supposed to be a silly chicken all in a dither, was really right? I was learning, now, that at any minute I could go in a dangerous way. I was not a girl at all, but a marionette, and some huge hand--my mother's hand?--held me up, and for a reason I absolutely could not predict, that hand might let the strings go slack, oh, God.
My mother came into the room. Dr. Patterson said to her, "Just a little sprain in the wrist, a few bruises. But this seizure was more serious than the others. I can't emphasize enough how important the phenobarbital is going to be. She needs a very high dose, six hundred milligrams."
My mother nodded, but she didn't like the idea of drugs at all.
"And," Dr. Patterson said, "I think, as we discussed before, she should go to Saint Christopher's for a stint."
They had told me about Saint Christopher's. It was a special school in Topeka, Kansas. The doctors wanted me to go to Topeka, Kansas, where Dorothy and her little dog had danced off the earth and fallen into a land of lemon drops and witches. They wanted me to go and board there at the special school funded by the Epilepsy Society, so I could get a physical education, and learn to fall the right way, and not break my bones, and it would all take only a month.
"That school," my mother said, "is run by nuns."
It was night. I was back at home, listening through the toilet bowl as my parents discussed the pros and cons.
"Agreed," my father said. "That's a problem."
"And many of the children who go there," my mother said, "are Down's."
I didn't know what downs meant. I pictured goose feathers, fairy children as delicate as feathers all dropping from the sky and blown around.
"Then maybe we really should increase the drug," my father said.
But my mother didn't want to increase the drug because a high dose of phenobarbital gave me a rash all over, a rash so persistent I even got little red bumps along my lower eyelids and in my vag too. Vag was the word I used, my own private word for vagina. Even back then I had private words, places apart from my mother. There was my vag, which now had bumps in it, there was my earlobe, which I liked to touch, there were the woods, where the trees arched and dripped. Sometimes I wanted to go and live in a place apart forever, a place where I could roll around in the dirt and lick things.
And so at night, when I was alone, I took to touching my vag bumps, running my fingers over them lightly so the pain was just the merest shiver, the air on the rash like a damp cloth pressed to a fevered forehead, and I would lie there night after night on the cusp of coolness and heat, and I tried to find someplace soothing.
Instead I got smaller.
I got fears.
One day, soon after the seizure on the ice, I saw Seventeen magazine in a store window. Someday, I thought to myself, I will be seventeen, and then I will be eighteen, and then before I know it I'll be eighty, and I got so scared by that thought I had to sit down on the curb.
I saw a hearse drive by, with blue curtains in the windows. I started to wonder if the spirits of dead people stood under trees and waited to grab at you. It was a shame to be scared of trees, those natural chuppahs, those homes in the middle of the widest world, but scared I was, and so I stood out in the unsheathed sun.
"If you pay attention," my mother said to me, leaning in close, "if you try very hard, you'll be able to stop these seizures."
I could see her face clearly at these moments, eyebrows tweezed in taut lines. My mother had a mole which she tried every day to cover with cream, but its blackness bled through, a little tip of dark, and that was the only part of her I could ever think to touch.
She read a book called The New Cure for Epilepsy, a book which talked about going off drugs completely and learning to breathe in a deep way.
One day we went together to a psychologist at a special epilepsy clinic called the Center for Voluntary Control over Internal Processes. We had to drive an hour to get there. We passed men in orange helmets fixing the highway. The helmets made me so sad I felt everything turn to dust in me. That's the way it was after the seizures began. Anything, at any moment, might become unbearable, might be a sign of some absurdity we would never escape. Helmets. Ponds. Trees. Pears. Just let me close my eyes.
Now I know that depression and epilepsy often go together. That's why I take Prozac now, as an adult. One of the reasons, anyway. It's a proven fact that those who have epilepsy also have a higher incidence of depression, but I wonder if the epilepsy causes the depression, or if the depression is because of the epilepsy, which is, when all is said and done, an illness so existential, so oddly spiritual, you are stuck out in the stratosphere with Sartre and Kierkegaard, with dead dogs and owls.
Dr. Swan, maybe, would help me. She had a lot of posters on the walls of the clinic, posters of mountaintops and streams with inspirational sayings on the bottom. One poster, though, really stood out. A human brain on a green stem. The brain was bumpy, like it really is, but ringed with pale petals, and in the background a sky suspiciously blue, the kind of sky they show in decongestant commercials. Underneath the stem was a poem in bold letters:
The Brain Is Essential to Life
I Want My Brain to Act Calmly and Normally
I Will Do Everything I Can to Help My Brain Act Calmly and Normally
"Come in," said Dr. Swan.
We went into her office.
"What are your triggers?" said Dr. Swan.
My mother and I were in the office together. It was our first session.
"Triggers?" my mother said. Both she and I had gotten all dressed up to see the special doctor, my mother in a stole made of fox fur, with a fox head biting a fox tail, and me in my white muff.
"Yes, triggers," Dr. Swan said. "Oftentimes a seizure comes after a period of stress--"
"Oh yes," my mother said, interrupting. She folded her hands in her lap. "I'm aware of that phenomenon." I could see she was going into her impress-a-person mode. "The stress hormone cortisol and all."
Dr. Swan's office was wood paneled, and Dr. Swan, l've failed to mention, looked nothing like a swan. She wore a dark serious suit, and she was old, and had her gray hair in a bun on top of her head.
"Cortisol, adrenaline," my mother said, still trying to make a splash, when, really, she'd just read this in a pamphlet yesterday.
"I said triggers," Dr. Swan repeated, her voice low and severe. She was a formidable woman and didn't like detours.
My mother stopped, snapped her mouth shut, and for just a moment she seemed flustered. Then it passed. She lowered her head like a bull lowers its horned head for the charge and said, "My daughter has no stressors. She has an exceptionally placid life."
"Mrs. Slater," Dr. Swan said, sighing. "This is not psychotherapy. 1 am a behaviorist. I have neither the time, nor you, I'm sure, given the cost of this treatment, the money, to dismantle your denial. Every child has stressors."
I thought, at this point, my mother would grab me and leave, but she didn't. Instead she crossed one leg over the other and said in a voice suddenly open and warm, "Dr. Swan. May I call you Emma? That might make it easier to talk."
"If you wish," said Emma.
"She did," my mother said, lowering her voice, "take a bad fall when she was three. Her father, well, it was her father who--in a rage--"
I had known nothing about this fall, and my father, who now, years later and long after their divorce, lives alone in a retirement home in Florida, says it's simply not true.
Dr. Swan must have thought so too, for she turned impatiently from my mother and looked straight at me. "Stressors?" she said, as though I were forty, not ten.
Her voice softened. "Let me explain," she said, leaning across her desk toward me. "Sometimes people get nervous and upset, it's perfectly normal. In school, maybe a person gets nervous before a test. Or in families," she said, glancing back briefly at my mother, "it's all right for there to be stressors in families, and if we know about them, we can help you avoid them, and any seizures that follow."
"Thank you," I said, stupidly.
"Lauren," my mother said. She made a show of putting her hand on my knee. "We have always talked openly. Tell the doctor about your stressors. It's normal."
I looked at her. I looked at Dr. Swan. I went back and forth between them with my eyes, but with my mouth I could do nothing.
Excerpted from Lying, A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater. Copyright © 2000 by Lauren Slater. Excerpted by permission of Random House Trade, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.