Scott Reel

“No one takes mental health seriously—or seriously takes people without mental health. I guess the result is the same. It’s easier nowadays to gain a handicap spot for being colorblind than it is an extension on a class paper for depression and anxiety. But that’s not why I’m here, although I wish it were that simple. And to answer your next two questions, yes, I’ve thought about hurting myself, and, yes, I’ve thought about hurting others, but only philosophically in the first case and romantically in the second. 

“By philosophically, I mean pondering the method of suicide most likely to make me a viral hit. If there’s anything I’ve learned in the past five years it’s that the intrinsic value of a human equates to the ratio between how many likes and how many views one has on social media, which would render me valueless and, ironically, my hypothetical suicide invaluable. In my philosophy class I told my professor that this is what Kant had meant by the thing-in-itself, but she didn’t find it nearly as funny as I did. Lustig, nicht? 

“I imagined painting my entire body gold and then hanging it from the four-sided British-looking street-clock outside of the Manhattan Trump Tower. Such an act would surely elevate me to icon status. But after considering it for a few seconds, I realized that not only would this be a logistical nightmare, but it would also symbolically suggest giving Trump the time of day, and that would be contrary to my intended statement. And, no, as you probably assumed, I don’t actually want to achieve icon status. Desiring such a status would entail desiring validation from a population of morons, validation that would then be invalidated by the fact that the population consists of morons. So, now that I think about it, the suicide would be both logistically and logically nightmarish. 

“I was joking, anyways. 

“But, as you probably noticed, I wasn’t really joking about romanticizing the idea of thinning the herd. Honestly, though, at this point if you haven’t thought about it, then I think you ought to be looked at, or perhaps just immediately thrown into the thinning. To be fair, it does look like you’ve thought about it, and perhaps are thinking of it right now. In any case, I meant the general ‘you’. I mean, more than half of America is still arguing about which crayons belong in the crayon box, and ironically they’re the ones that should be put in a box, if you know what I mean…

“That was a test. 

“Thank God, you passed. I wanted to see how long you’d let me rant about the two counseling no-no’s before two guys in white rubber suits boot-kicked down the door and black-bagged me. Did that feel racist, or does guilt just necessarily follow from saying black and white in the same sentence? Yep, just got anxiety. Anyway, no, I’m not actually going to hurt anyone, at least not intentionally or violently. Violence is so exhausting and beastishly emotional. And, as for hurting myself, contrary to all of the self-deprecation that has already come and all that which is likely to follow, I know I am a sunflower among dandelions: I’m just an existentially vexed sunflower. Too much cloud cover, you know, too many weeds. 

“It’s probably more interesting to ask why you’re here. I know that you’re a PhD student. All of the counselors are, I think, which is why the counseling is free, I imagine, one of the only free things at NYU. I’m not complaining, just saying. I mean I’m always complaining, but you know what I mean. I know you’re not going to answer. I’m stalling. 

“I don’t know why I’m here.  

“Trump is almost what made me seek out counseling during the fall semester. I know that much. It was my first semester here at NYU after moving to New York from southern Illinois. My head had been buried in books since September, but, after a few months, one Tuesday in November, shortly after my midterm wave of exams had passed, I glanced at the television, squinted, and saw Trump waving to a cheering crowd through a light fog. He stood proudly in one of those smart yet simple suits that every presidential candidate wears, one he should be barred from wearing (one Obama wore better than the likes of any) which belied his exotically ridiculous bobbling head. Some brilliant craftsman had fabricated him into a dollish American figure, as something everyone was expected to believe to be the next president of the never ending United Debates. 

“And somehow, it worked. 

“Immediately after witnessing that, I ran. I thought I was hallucinating and burst out onto the street. I sprinted through clouds of coffee breath and cigarette smoke, and climbed up to this floor where I was halted by the sleepy front desk receptionist working that day. She asked why I was running but rather than answer I simply inversed her question. Why AREN’T you running? Why isn’t everyone running? I mean I buried my head for less than a semester and what happens? The American people just hand over the country to Satan’s lackey. 

“All she said was, ‘Oh, that. Yeah,’ which I guess was fair: she seemed to have imploded while I had exploded, and given our inversed inquiry exchange, this made sense to me. She was dead inside, I was out. 

“I asked if I could talk to someone, but she said that I couldn’t ‘get in’ until the following week, bunching up one of her cheeks as she delivered the disappointing news, as if to say, ‘Shucks, better just grab a handful of free condoms and figure it out,’ suggesting I could just thrust my way out of the immediate situation, not to mention the ongoing daily situation of depression and anxiety called life. Although, if that was her intended implication, then it wouldn’t be the worst advice, likely more effective than any ‘solution’ from Big Pharma or my parents, but we’ll get to them in a minute. As far as sex goes, we’re still in New York, so no matter what anyone says or advises, herpes is far worse and more permanent than depression, anxiety, or a few voices in your head. We can talk about the voices later, perhaps after mom and dad. But it wouldn’t be hard…to fornicate your way free of a dark mind, I mean—pun intended. Hard? Nevermind. At least it wouldn’t be hard to find the partners—okay, I’ll stop saying hard. Seriously, though, people love screwing sad people. Everyone fantasizes about fixing the people they sleep with. The sadder you look at the bar, the more explicit they’ll be. Maybe that’s why universities always put out free condoms near the counselors’ offices. That’s my theory, anyway. You don’t have to tell me if I’m right. Trade secrets, I get it. They’re not even paying you. 

“Sorry, probably shouldn’t keep bringing that up. 

“The receptionist situation, if you can even recall the details after such a digression, ended somewhat anticlimactically. She said she could probably ‘get me in’ the following week, but I didn’t think it made much sense to schedule counseling right before holiday break. Perhaps that wasn’t a good idea after all, though, since my break was a horror story in itself, a nightmare that I believe is what actually, finally drove me here. If it wasn’t holiday break that pushed me over the edge, then it was having to spend the entire first week of this semester’s classes having to recall and relate my break to my classmates, because of course no academic work can possibly be accomplished at any university until everyone goes up and down the rows listening to how everyone else’s break was. 

“Trump didn’t really have anything to do with my internal angst of impending doom, to be honest, even though I did actually run here that day. I actually just wanted smoke out your political views, but I’m pretty sure you’re a robot, so by default that would make you a liberal and anti-Trump. Your silence convicted you this time. 

“Nothing? I guess I’ll continue. 

“On a more serious note, my holiday break started with what now, after giving it some thought, I’d like to call a performative mental breakdown. That may not sound overly serious, but I assure you, it was. You’re probably wondering what such a thing looks like, but what’s more interesting is how one accidentally and unknowingly ‘performs’ a mental breakdown. The story is much more fulfilling than the experience, I assure you. At my own expense, I will relate it to you, but only because you’re not one of my classmates and no one is forcing me and it looks like you could use a laugh. 

“As soon as classes ended and break began, I realized that I needed to get out of the dorm. I had no idea what New York actually looked like—aside from Washington Square Park, but doesn’t count because it’s basically just a hippie collective loitering around a watering hole—since classes commenced literally one second after I got settled in my room. All I had been able to do from the moment I got here until break was study. And the most exercise I had managed to perform was my Trump run to the free condoms bowl. So, I felt I could use the sightseeing and the blood flow—not the kind of blood flow free latex tacitly implies. God, I’m on a roll today. I know, I’m super mature. 

“I ended up taking the A-train all the way up to 116th, where Central Park starts. I figured I’d walk all of Central Park, Times Square, and Midtown back to NYU, where I would finish, collapse on my twin bed, and sleep until the following day. I happened to actually accomplish that but not with the relieved sense of cosmopolitan productiveness that I’d imagined and desired prior to the trip. 

“My urban excursion did, however, begin as planned: Central Park was more spiritually uplifting than I ever even dared to expect. It’s huge! I felt like I’d completed a Spartan Race just sauntering from one end to the other. But that fingertip tingling elation engendered by Central escaped like heat from the head as I slowly made my way into the escalating madness that is Times Square. 

“I did appreciate the madness for one second, though, because Times Square sat before me like the perfect representation of the inside of my brain, which, like the Big Apple itself, is absolutely brilliant suffocating freaking chaos—minus all of the ineffably infuriating selfie taking. Thank God my brain doesn’t have that to deal with. 

“‘This is my city!’ I told myself, trying to embrace it for what it was, imbibe it as a refection of myself. But then I remembered that I hate myself and, thus, realized that I too hated Times Square and perhaps all of humanity—even more than I already did—for creating such a monstrosity. Still, with persistence and perseverance, I made it through Times Square with a little air left in my lungs. 

“After I squeezed out of the riotous human ant farm, I had to inch through Midtown, shaking at each stoplight like a rescue dog—one that needs rescuing, not one providing it, obviously. I shuffled along 5th, covering my ears as if I was standing next to a speaker at Coachella, slowly losing myself to another panic attack, which was virally spreading throughout my entire body. This continued until I saw the arch, the beloved arch that typically frames the Washington Square Park fountain, the hippie collective watering hole, but which at this time of year perfectly framed the Park’s yearly Christmas tree. Salvation! I thought. 

“I’m not even Christian, but Christmas, including its associations and accoutrement, in this century, has nothing to do with Christianity whatsoever. If it is indeed Jesus’s annual banger, then a lot of people show up to the house party without invitation from or acquaintance with the host, which is obviously still Jesus in this hypersecular fratty metaphor of Xmas, a much more fitting word nowadays, I believe, don’t you think? Bueller? You seem like an Xmas sort of guy rather than a Christmas sort of guy, if you get what I’m saying.   

“Nevermind, I don’t even know what I’m saying. 

“Anyway, like a whale with a blowhole, in dire need of air, I swam through the profoundly inattentive virtually (in both senses of the word) enslaved sidewalk crowd, all of them with their necks broken towards their phones, until I finally reached one of the marble-like benches. Exasperated, reaching the summit of my trek and the apex of my panic, I stood on the long winding bench and blew out a guttural scream, half Leonardo DiCaprio in The Revenant, half Brendan Fraser in George of the Jungle. My nonverbal tribal call for help penetrated like light between and beyond all of the branches of every tree throughout the square. 

“My head bent back, my mouth pointed like a cannon toward the sky, until finally, after what seemed like a minute of petulant, narcissistic out-crying, I stilled my trembling vocal chords, lowered my head, and dared to reestablish eye contact with my fellow race. I panted, quietly, with darting eyes. At first glance, my surroundings appeared unchanged; indeed, it seemed as it always did, with performers performing and passersby passing by. 

“Such was the case until I noticed a woman, perhaps we could even call her a girl, with unkempt hair—not from homelessness, but in the name of fashion, you know the type. She had a nose ring and a cigarette—basically the poster child for all girl-women at NYU—and she happened to be walking in what appeared to be my direction. She looked at me menacingly, sexually, stoically—all or none of these, couldn’t definitively decide then and I can’t definitively remember now—until she reached my feet, which stood in penguin formation at thigh height. I looked down at her eyes and then the top of her paper-bag-colored hair as she bent down, placed a dollar bill in an empty McDonalds cup that stood, invisible to me until that exact moment, directly below my feet. 

“Then she walked away. 

“I watched her, dumbfounded, as distance befell the two of us. She weaved through the crowd, bobbing in and out. I didn’t, couldn’t, take my eyes off of her receding figure, but I could hear, during this time, a variety of metallic notes as people followed suit and dropped their coffee change into the cup divinely placed beneath me. This is why I now consider my mental breakdown essentially performative, intent be damned.  

“Since I was, in fact, compensated, I have mixed emotions about the whole affair. I can’t decide whether I feel taken-seriously or completely trivialized. Such is the life of the performer, I suppose. I’m sure you can understand my frustration. 

“But while entertaining (literally and figuratively), this story isn’t actually the meat of my winter break breakdown. As if I had spat at the gods, which I guess, in a way, I had, my mom and dad touched down at JFK the following day. I told this story to my mother, Linda, a name you should most certainly write down and underscore for safe keeping, as I escorted her and my father from Jamaica to Penn Station. 

“It still baffles me that the station is actually named Jamaica, but that is neither here nor there. 

“She said something along the lines of, ‘Oh honey, you’ve always been so dramatic. But if the noise is really that unbearable, then your father and I could get you some of those nice headphones as an early Christmas present?’ My father hadn’t paid any attention whatsoever to what she’d been saying and sat uncomfortably, shifting around on the subway’s plastic seat, staring at the laughably enormous text on his iPhone, which I had jokingly programmed, thinking it was a riot, until he said, ‘Perfect! How did you do that?’

“Back to mom, I laughed and told her that the only peace and quiet in Manhattan is in a public restroom, the absolute worst place for peace and quiet. Can’t they play something, anything at all in the bathroom? I mean Jesus, why does every single human being have to listen to my every flatulent and fecal cannonball with surround sound clarity? It’s enough to give me an aneurysm or heart palpitations, while never facilitating the task at hand. 

“Have you ever noticed the insanity of that? Don’t answer that. 

“I won’t go into every detail of Linda and James’s holiday stay. They were overwhelmed by New York but stayed positive, as one can maintain only on a short visit. It was good to see them, though, I guess, being that I don’t have anyone here. I didn’t get to see them much growing up. My father sent me off to private school, so it feels like I’ve been away at college for my entire life. He said he wouldn’t have me grow up to be a ‘dumb bum’ like he and mom, but then, ironically, he’s resented me for being smarter than him ever since. I’d have to dodge a hand swat if I tried to slide a three-syllable word into a sentence. I became pretty proficient at being smart and playing dumb, but that’s the act I’ve kept up my entire life. It’s driving me nuts, but not more so than anything else, I guess.  

“You’d think I’d blame my father for everything, but it’s really on Linda’s bar that I rack the weight of my childhood sorrow, simply because of her incompetence, her gelatin spine. My father may have been a tyrant growing up, but at least he forged his own way, aggressively and not passively, audibly and not tacitly. My mom, in the fetal position, has simply cowered in his wake position since they got married at twenty. Of course, he never noticed. Or perhaps he did notice and just never expressed it, as it was an expectation for his wife to scrunch herself up into a ball behind him, the man, the leader. Call it what you want, Linda never dared to protect me from him. The only way I could defend myself was to succeed beyond reproach. 

“And although he never hit me, I would have loved to have been beaten instead of having to suffer through his emotional and cerebral torture. Honestly, I have to give him credit. I wouldn’t have thought he had the intellect to abuse me the way he did. But I guess that underpins his entire philosophy behind sending me away for my education: he knew he was intelligent and resented the fact that no one gave him the opportunity to earn the pieces of paper necessary to unlock the vault to the money in this country. I can understand that, and I think that’s why my anger never finds him for very long. I respect his intelligence. On the other hand, while I don’t respect my mother, she has my love, or pity, but we all know what Nietzsche said about pity. Is pity a thing in counseling? 

“Don’t answer that. We can’t afford another digression. 

“The point is that I had to be perfect in school or else I’d come home on break and be belittled into the frozen ground with caustic, existential criticism. He would always say things like, ‘Mediocre grades at a great school will only get you mid-level management, nothing over one hundred and fifty K—if you’re lucky! I’ve earned that with perfect grades at shit schools!’

“That is when all of it started, the muttering, the depression, the anxiety. 

“Once I raised my hand in class, and I must have been too excited and reached too high because one of the scabs on my wrists cracked under my white dress shirt and started bleeding. The bell rang, but my teacher put out his arm, holding me back until everyone had left. He told me to roll up my sleeve, and I said that that really wasn’t necessary, but he didn’t propose it as an option. After he saw the cuts on my arms, some scarred and some new, he said he’d have to call home. 

“I said if you do that, you will be far more destructive than the razorblade behind this, ditching the whole student-teacher dynamic, which felt moot at that point. He was playing hardball, so I spoke to him at eye-level. I would be damned if I was going to live like my mother. We stood silently. I could feel his breath on my face, as neither of us would break eye contact. I almost asked, ‘Do we make out now, like, what’s your move?’ But he only told me, with the utmost seriousness, to cover it up and cut it out. It took everything I had not to say, ‘I assume the pun was not intended,’ but I didn’t and left, muttering to myself what a piece of trash I was all the way back to my room. 

“I have muttered to myself for years, vocalizing my father to avoid hearing him, to keep myself perfect, which I have, on paper, anyway. Eventually my muttering went silent and bought office space in one of the high rises in the Times Square that is my mind. But, back to the point, to my boundless frustration, my father was right. I was accepted into every school to which I applied. 

“He hadn’t emotionally abused me for a few years by that point, since he didn’t have a tenable argument, but, of course, we butt heads over what I would major in. I said it would be philosophy or literature and he said it would be computer science or statistics. We settled on a double major in computer science and philosophy with a minor in literature, only because, he said, philosophy is logic-based and being well-read makes one cultured, which will set me apart from all of the other coders out of college who will inevitably write to fruition our future, for better or worse. Thankfully, ever since I left the house, he’s treated me like an adult, except he tells me I better not be some ‘French whore’ at school, which I assume and accept to be a fairly normal command for parents of all students, phrasing aside.  

“As for the voices, no, I don’t think I’m schizophrenic. Everyone has voices in their heads. It’s just easier to call them voices. But really, in my case, I think they are just unfettered thoughts running on solar panel emotions. My emotions have direct fuel injection to my thoughts with indefinite sustainability. I don’t know squat about cars or sustainable energy, but I assume they are as they sound. The beauty is that my voices are impervious to insult in a world that has become hyper offended by everything—I try to see the light in these things, thanks to Linda. 

“Anyway, it’s not like I let them control me. I dish it back, not to mention that there is no coherent self for my voices to target. Thank God for philosophy! Instead of hating only one of myself, I have millions of myselves to hate and blame for whatever censuring the voices attempt to proposition! 

“Sorry, I’ve had a lot of coffee this morning, and I really like philosophy. Unfortunately, though, I don’t think philosophy is conducive to mental health. 

“That’s why I’m here, actually. That’s exactly it.”

“Our hour is up.” 

“How convenient.” 

About the Author

Scott Michael Reel is a former sergeant in the United States Marine Corps, having served four years as a combat correspondent. Originally from Chicago, he currently resides in Michigan where he is pursuing his Ph.D. in language and literature at the University of Michigan.