Image Credit: Snail Doolin
I was twenty-one when I found out that Carrie Underwood’s song “Before He Cheats” isn’t meant as a literal how-to guide for handling a cheating boyfriend. Even though Carrie sounds like a badass singing about getting revenge on her beau’s convertible, actually taking a baseball bat to someone’s car is crazy. And illegal.
I learned this the hard way.
After finding texts on my boyfriend’s phone between him and a girl he had hooked up with, late at night I drove to his friend’s house, where I had banished him after confronting him with the texts. I climbed out of my car, then snuck toward the driveway and up alongside Kacey’s silver 1992 Honda Accord.
I reached into my pocket and checked my phone. Twenty minutes ago, I had texted him, “I’m going to fuck up your car if you don’t text me back.”
I knew I needed to make a scene in order to get his attention, to get him to laugh at me and tell me I was cute when I was angry. I also knew that I couldn’t feel my body at all, was only vaguely aware of the pain in the back of my left hand, where a peripheral IV pulled at my vein. I had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis just a few days earlier and was undergoing steroid treatment after losing nearly all the vision in my right eye.
My neurologist had warned me that the steroids might make me irritable. I knew that I was irritable. I knew that I was angry, and restless, and getting close to suicidal. I knew that I hadn’t slept in three days, that the Ambien my psychiatrist had prescribed in addition to the seven other medications he had me on was making me hallucinate. Most of all, I knew that I didn’t want to make a scene. I didn’t want to have to go full 2007 Britney on Kacey’s beloved car unless absolutely necessary.
But I’d already sent the text, which meant I had to follow through with my threat or else he’d keep ignoring me. Kacey’s lack of remorse about cheating haunted me. Part of me knew he meant it when he said he was really done this time.
I approached the passenger side of the car and examined it. I’d never taken a bat to a car before; I’d barely been able to use a bat to hit a ball. The “Before He Cheats” music video replayed in my head, even though I hadn’t seen it since it came out nine years earlier.
I lifted the bat and tensed my muscles, bringing it down against the door with a solid, firm whack.
In my fantasies of this moment, the door had immediately crumpled against the impact. But it just reverberated off of the door, not even leaving a mark.
Surprised, I pulled it back and hit the car again, harder this time.
After a few more whacks, I gave up and walked toward the windshield. I made contact with the hard safety glass.
It didn’t shatter like in Carrie’s video. It barely even made a noise.
I was deeply disappointed, and slightly embarrassed that even hopped up on corticosteroids I was still too weak to do damage with a baseball bat. I’d already committed to the crazy ex-girlfriend trope by texting Kacey. Threatening to fuck up his car and then failing at it didn’t feel like an option. Now that I’d made the decision to do some damage, I wasn’t going to quit until I did some real motherfucking damage.
I grabbed my knife off of the ground near the trunk of the car, then walked back to the passenger side front tire and kneeled down to look at it. Maybe popping a tire would be easier than shattering a windshield.
I jabbed the knife into the tire, and it immediately began to deflate. I was surprised—Carrie sang about slashing tires, but apparently all you needed was one quick pop with a run-of-the-mill kitchen knife.
Immensely pleased with myself, I crawled toward the back tire and popped it also.
Leaving two tires un-popped seemed nearly psychopathic, so I walked around to the other side of the car and swiftly stuck my knife through those as well.
I stood up and surveyed the damage. I could see a small sliver of light through my right eye; the rest of my field of vision in that eye was black. I was missing some peripheral vision in my left eye as well, but between the two, I could see that I’d done well. I was still mildly disappointed in my bat-wielding skills, but I thought that four popped tires sent the desired message.
Once I got back in my car and started to drive home, I realized what I had done. As soon as I turned onto the next street, I pulled over and texted Kacey to apologize and offer to pay for new tires.
Even though I couldn’t feel my foot pressed against the brake, even though I couldn’t remember how I had gotten to his friend’s house or why Carrie’s video had emerged from my memory as a legitimate point of reference for how to handle the situation, I knew I wasn’t this kind of person. At least I hoped I wasn’t.
In the five years since my attack on Kacey’s Honda, I have been able to free myself of the shame surrounding that event. I found no shortage of ways to explain what my new psychiatrist would later call a “drug-induced manic episode”: I was having an allergic reaction to the steroids; I was on seven different psychiatric medications, some of them non-FDA approved and prescribed for off-label use; I had just been (incorrectly) diagnosed with a debilitating disease; my first boyfriend had cheated on me within weeks of me nursing him through a major surgery.
But then, at twenty-five, it happened again.
After two years of being single, I started dating a woman named Kinsey. I knew I wasn’t ready to start dating again, knew that I needed more time to work on myself and my destructive relationship patterns, but when she and I met at a local Pride event, our feelings came too quickly for either of us to control. I tried to stay in “wise mind” like my Dialectical Behavioral Therapy had taught me, not making decisions purely off of either emotions or logic. There were red flags that I tried to ignore: she lived with her best-friend-slash-ex-girlfriend Jess and got angry when I questioned their relationship. When we were apart, I often mentally conflated her with Kacey.
Two months before we met, I went back on medication for the first time in two years. I had gone cold-turkey off of my seven psych meds, terrified of how they had altered my personality and temperament, but my depression had gotten so bad that I knew I would kill myself if I didn’t get back on an antidepressant. A week after we started dating, I added Wellbutrin to my daily dose of Lexapro.
Although it was the combination that had worked for me in high school, now, I felt amped up and restless and kept needing to run a knife along my thighs and forearms over and over again. A month in, after asking to be exclusive, after accidentally saying she loved me during sex, Kinsey spontaneously broke up with me over text. I was devastated, then relieved: I was putting so much pressure on myself to not act like I had in previous relationships, to not be crazy or needy or dramatic or clingy or overemotional or obsessive, to not give in to the side effects of the medication, which I assured myself would settle down after four to six weeks.
But as me and Kinsey’s relationship grew more volatile, so did my symptoms. She took me out on romantic dates, then blocked my number; she talked about marrying me, then said she was too damaged to be in a relationship. After one of our text fights, I started screaming in rage and hyperventilating while self-harming.
I felt hopeless and desperate, terrified of how badly I was reacting to the Wellbutrin while knowing that I had to stick it out, to get through the month of side effects to ease my depression. I tried to tell Kinsey how badly I was doing, hinting at what was going on while still trying to seem easy, fun, desirable.
After a night out and a bad fight, we decided to stop talking. I went by her house the next day to pick up my things, and although she had left a bag outside so she wouldn’t have to see me, I knocked on her door over and over, scheming ways to get inside her house if she didn’t let me in. I was pretty sure I needed her to drive me to the hospital. My brain was spiraling out of control again. I didn’t want to be alone. I was scared of what I might do.
When she opened the door, I asked if we could talk.
“I can’t,” she said, shaking her head and closing the door between us. “I’m sorry. I can’t.”
When I heard the deadbolt click into place, I flipped around, consumed with rage and panic and desperation.
That’s when I saw Jess’s roses, the ones that had bloomed on her mom’s birthday and that she treasured more than anything.
My brain swarming with conspiracy theories about Jess and Kinsey sleeping together and calling me crazy behind my back, I yanked the roses off the vine and threw them into the street. I got in my car, ran over the flowers, then picked them up again before racing out of their neighborhood and back on the freeway.
I screamed the entire forty-five-minute drive home.
On the phone with my best friend that week, I cried explaining how guilty I felt, how ashamed I was that after two years of therapy and extensive work on myself, I was still making the same bad choices.
“I can’t believe I’m still such an awful, destructive person,” I told him.
“It’s not you, though,” Alex said. “It’s the medication.”
He had helped me detox off of Klonopin two years earlier, had walked with me to the pizza shop near my West Village apartment and sat with me while I ate shaky bites of pizza and described how impossible it was to eat or sleep or think about anything other than death.
“I don’t think it is.”
“Caitlin. You know things have been awful since adding in Wellbutrin. You’re having a bad reaction to it. This isn’t who you are.”
I nodded, although I didn’t agree. “I need to get off of it, I know. But…it’s not just the medication. Some of this is just who I am. Some of it must just be me.”
If medication would be a part of my life forever, how could I separate myself from it anymore? How could I pretend as though I could delineate what was the medication’s fault and what was my fault? Even if my antidepressants contributed to my rage or impulsivity, it was still my responsibility for not having better control over my emotions.
It was still my fault.
I was twelve when a psychiatrist gave me diagnoses of depression, anxiety, and obsessive-compulsive disorder along with a prescription for Prozac. I was also twelve when I decided that having a mental illness made me a monster.
I hadn’t been able to go to school in months; I had panic attacks daily and started praying hundreds of times a day for God to help me.
Four weeks after I started the medication, I was overcome for the first time with the desire to hurt myself, to bleed, to destroy whatever was growing inside of me. I went to the kitchen and grabbed a knife and held it against my wrists as I howled. I had seen my favorite character Ellie cut herself on Degrassi: The Next Generation, and something about holding a knife to my soft, pale flesh felt natural to me. I sat on my bedroom floor with my back against the door, screaming and panicking. My mom forced herself into the room, but I held the knife toward her threateningly, trying to keep her from getting too close to me.
“Just leave me alone!” I moaned. “I just want to die.” I keeled over, my grief so overwhelming that I couldn’t stand being in my body anymore.
My mom crouched toward me, trying to grab hold of my wrist. “Caitlin, sweetie, honey, it’s okay. Can you give me the knife?”
“Noooooo!” I curled my body in half, letting the blade fall flat against my stomach.
“Okay, Caitlin, I have to call the police. I need some help, okay?”
By the time the police came, I had mostly composed myself. The desperation had passed, and I had moved out to the family room and allowed my mom to take the knife from my limp hand. I sat crying in front of the fireplace, my body still heaving with emotion.
“Hi Caitlin,” an officer said as he crouched down to my level. “What’s going on?”
“I just feel sad,” I whimpered through sobs.
“Your mom’s pretty worried about you. It seems like you’re pretty upset.”
“I am.” I gasped for air.
I glanced up at him long enough to see the pity in his eyes. I was relieved someone finally seemed to understand how badly I felt.
“Okay, Caitlin,” he said, reaching around to grab something from his vest. “I’m going to need to put some handcuffs on you. You’re not in trouble, but we’re worried about your safety. They’re just going to help keep you safe.”
I looked up at him, my face smeared with snot and sweat, and nodded. I was exhausted.
The officer put the handcuffs around my wrists and helped me stand up. “I’m going to drive you to the hospital, okay? Your mom will drive right behind us and meet us there.”
I felt a familiar pang of panic at the idea of being separated from my mother.
The officer led me out to the police car and helped me climb into the backseat. He shut the door, and I looked back at my house with my wrists behind my back. I saw the next-door neighbors come out of their house and stand in their driveway to gawk at me. I had heard the officer say I wasn’t in trouble, but now, sitting in the back of a police car with handcuffs on, I knew I had done something horribly wrong.
After the incident with the roses, I confessed what I had done to Jess and apologized profusely. She accepted my apology, and a few days later, I dropped a gift by their house with a long letter explaining my actions to Kinsey.
Although I didn’t expect to hear from either of them again, the next day, the three of us sat down and talked everything out. Jess was also on Lexapro and Wellbutrin and had her own medication horror stories. While Kinsey didn’t exactly understand, she was impressed with how I had handled the situation.
“No one would else would have driven all the way out here and dropped off gifts and apology letters,” she said.
“Really?” I asked. “What would most people have done?”
“Nothing,” Jess said. “We never would have heard from them again.”
I was still ashamed of myself and terrified that it would happen again. I went off Wellbutrin and resolved to keep going to therapy, to continue reading books and meditating and working on myself.
But for the first time, I realized that maybe I didn’t have to decide what was me or what was the medication if I had people in my life who were willing to traverse the ambiguous spaces with me, to hold me accountable while remembering that my brain chemicals are often working against me.
Then, months later, when Kinsey admitted to sleeping with Jess and threatened to call the police on me after I showed up—invited—to the drive-through she worked at, I realized there was a second possibility: maybe medication just makes me more vulnerable to emotions that exist in everyone. Maybe me having these episodes isn’t proof that I am an evil, unstable person, but that I am susceptible to falling in love with people who cheat, and lie, and bring out the ugliest sides of me. We all have the capacity to be impulsive and violent and destructive; it just takes some of us longer to reach our breaking points. It takes some of us longer to learn to avoid the things we know trigger us.
There is one thing I know for sure: the crazier I decide I am, the more I tie instability and impulsivity in to my sense of self, the quicker I start to self-destruct. The more I identify with my worst traits—be it my proclivity toward Real Housewives-style meltdowns, my desire for everyone to feel my emotions as deeply as I do, or just my Gemini sun—the less agency I allow myself. I now try to walk the tenuous line between acknowledging the parts of me that I’d never admit to on a dating profile and holding myself to the highest standard I realistically can so that I don’t let my own self-defeating expectations create my reality.
Maybe it doesn’t have to be me versus the medication at all. Maybe I’m not either manic or a monster. Maybe I’m not either someone with a legitimate mental illness who is worthy of forgiveness or a narcissist who gets off on property damage. Maybe I’m just twenty-six, and human, and trying my best. Maybe I’m just me: flawed, complicated, messy, evolving me.
Caitlin Eichorn is a queer writer and massage therapist living in Northern California with her brood of rescue animals. An alum of the Tin House Winter Workshop (manuscript mentorship with T Kira Madden) and Napa Valley Writer’s Conference, her essays have been published on The Mighty and Medium. She is working on a memoir entitled You Make Me Sick about embodying and performing mental illness, as well as a novel about the ethics of reality television and the effects of continuous performance on marginalized people.