Asylum Androgyny

Hysteria, from the Greek word hysteros, meaning womb.

Bethlam Royal Hospital. London. 1889.

I expressed experiencing dreadful jitters, anorexia, insomnia, fatigue, and bilious emesis. My femininity was revealed prior to introductions, leaving me prejudged. Prematurely diagnosed. Exposed as a reincarnation of Anna O., they scribbled vapid notes, making a fool of me and shaming Dr. Breuer. Lacking both elegance and perception, they scratched pencil to paper, summarizing my being into regurgitated medical terminology. Vomit – a hollow medical degree laced with privilege and void of philosophy.

I was overshadowed by my uterus, condemned to a diagnosis of ‘hysteria’ by virtue of my physiology. No discussion, no assessment of the functionality of my organs, no mention of the possibility that, if it truly were hysteria from which I suffered, perhaps the solution may be found in biology, not psychology.

Female. Uterus. Hysterical. 

No regard for the complexity of human anatomy, no consideration given to the intricacy of the endocrine system. My body, forced into a rhythm of menstrual regularity, revolted. I am a woman. I am hysteria incarnate. A silk gown drenched in sweat. Barefaced, bare feet, blood and bones. A medical experiment.

A week later, I presented myself in my masculine form. I expressed experiencing dreadful jitters, anorexia, insomnia, fatigue, and bilious emesis. With no uterus to cloud their judgement, they scratched pencil to paper: Possible negative reaction to serious outside stressors or a malfunctioning of a pivotal physiological system. Endocrine system should be thoroughly tested. 
And it was, for no man would naturally experience symptoms of hysteria without a womb to cause them. I am a man. A silk robe drenched in sweat. Barefaced, bare feet, blood, bones… and flesh.

How does one suffer from having a womb? Simple. You become seen through it, overshadowed by it, understood amateurishly by virtue of possessing it.

I was once a man who suffered from hysteria, cured by denying the simplistic approach of a gendered body.

© Leila Chammas, March 1, 2017.


Red Light Existential Crisis

We are born through no effort of our own, with a mind and body we have neither chosen nor own. And, all of a sudden, this thought begins to morph, slowly, into a worm that wriggles its way through the crevasses of the mind. A magnificent organ, soiled effortlessly.

It may not be an existential crisis worthy of the philosophers I studied but it is an angst that quietly gnaws away at my consciousness. Long, grey nails on a bony hand picking away at the chipped paint on my walls. Tk. Tk. A soothing activity for the hand, I’m sure, but I am experiencing exposure and vulnerability.

I’m waiting. I know exactly what for but I will never tell. I know that some of what I wait for will not come to me and I cannot simply go out and grab it. So I slowly and painfully let it go. A mourning process of sorts ensues. If I were a fisherman, I’d release my line into the ocean to disintegrate where I know the spool will accomplish more in death than it ever would in life for me. I learn, and I let go.

Still, I have not begun to live. Twenty-eight years of life and I recognize that the vast majority was spent waiting. Subtly, but still very actively, waiting. Herein lies the crisis, bringing the basis of my existence into question. I have existed for years, created without permission, plagued by a feeling of needing to earn the right to… well, exist. Something about being given what one did not ask for, whether good or bad, creates a sense of responsibility over what has been given. What do you intend to do with it? How do I laugh with Sisyphus, look Nietzsche in the eye and say, “Yes, I would live this life over”?
The angst this creates is almost unbearable – I am chained yet free. I am nothing and everything all at once. The world I have envisioned is not the one I am in. I can either disregard or honor the difference. I am both an idealist and a realist.

And then, when the feeling finally subsides, I emerge from the depths of a murky lake. Baptized through my own suffering, the feeling of near-suffocation dispels the impurities in my lungs. Breaking through the water’s surface, breathing in deeply and urgently, I realize that I will never be loved by another more than I love myself. The fault may either be mine for loving myself too much or another’s for not being capable of loving me enough. And yet this all may not be entirely true. Either way, I am often at a red light, irritated yet unphased. Curious and anxious. The waters of my own reality splashing around me, taunting me mercilessly with the thoughts that while I may very well be Poseidon, these waters may very well be godless.

© Leila Chammas, January 18, 2017.

Aztec Nightmare

I was driving down a main street and I distinctly remember thinking it was dark out far too early, even for wintertime in New England. The sky was vast and charcoal grey. But it wasn’t just dark, it was empty. There was a contagious feeling of hopelessness permeating the atmosphere, one that was unmistakably signified by a sun that had refused to rise. An Aztec nightmare coming to fruition. The feeling seeped down from the sky, a godless abomination clawing its way into me. Trickling down from my head to my toes, I was filled with angst and the kind of sadness that floods the body and morphs into depression with heavy determination.

I was the sky.

I was driving towards doom, into a dim sky. Everything was stopping. The sun had not risen. It wasn’t temporary; we knew that that was it. The sun didn’t just not rise, it had stopped rising altogether. That was the end and I was somehow existing beyond it.

In my sleep, I felt it all for a mere few minutes but remembered it for days.

© Leila Chammas, December 14, 2016

A Beach in New Orleans

Last night, I was on a beach in New Orleans. The sand was warm. The water was warm. The sun was shining brightly against a clear, blue sky. The radio warned of a storm of sorts but there were no warning signs at that moment.

Then, seemingly out of nowhere, the calm ocean waves began to rage. Over a mile high, curved like a snail’s shell, thick and blue, powerful and daunting. One wave after the next. Massive and forceful. Curling up in preparation of a brutal smack down on the sand. The sky had turned a deep, deep shade of navy blue. It almost looked sad, heavy, sorrowful at having to preside over such a tragedy. Beachgoers were being swallowed by the waves. Some would attempt to out-swim them. Trying to speed towards the sand only to have the wave drag them there anyway. That’s silly. I watched for the approaching wave and, as it got closer to me, I held my breath and plunged towards the bottom and straight towards the oncoming wave. The key is to let the wave wash over you, not let it grab hold of you. I dodged wave after wave, successfully avoiding being thrust, limb by limb, to the watery sands. That was silly of me too. I awoke from a faint to screams. People were bustling all over the beach, running in every direction, collecting their loved ones, collecting their things, fighting the waves in an attempt to gently make it to shore or giving in to them and risking being thrown violently towards the sea floor, into a boulder, into someone else. I don’t know if anyone got caught in the wave’s current but, if they did, I hoped they could swim well and were strong. Each wave pulled from the shore in preparation for the lunge, clawing at the shore’s sands with two large oceanic, bony hands, dragging clumps of sand back into the waters to fill its gullet for the push. And then the buildup; to get caught in the midst of that power struggle would be a death sentence for a weak or inexperienced swimmer. Their limbs would be pulled in whichever direction, defying gravity. Up would become down and down would become nowhere in particular. It’s happening so quickly there’s no time to think where the air might be. The water is so powerful it takes effort to hold your nostrils shut. And then the sprawl happens. A massive wave, pent-up energy, a colossal undulation barreling towards the sand, taking with it anything caught in its body, to be splayed out, loudly and violently on the shore like paint splattered frantically on canvas. Not many would survive that.

I woke up to screaming. Soaked on the sand under a navy blue sky, the background a possessed ocean. I ran towards the chalet – a white, brick building with three floors where vacationers stayed during the summer and few lived year-round. I somehow made it to a third floor balcony and hid behind the massive red and white pinstripe shade. I could see each wave thrashing and felt splashes of water hit various parts of my body as the water began to cover my toes. I wasn’t safe there. I was trying to dodge the waves but still got soaked. I looked towards the sky and saw that the sun, at the height of all the chaos, had turned a bruised shade of purple. It was the most bizarre thing I’d ever seen. In the waters below, a dark ship floating almost menacingly behind the waves let out black steam that drifted towards the sun.

I don’t remember how but I made it to the building where people from the beach had been escaping for safety. It was beginning to rain in New Orleans. Dozens of people crowded in this grey, cinderblock building – drenched, scared, shocked, and on the verge of hypothermia. And the rain… . The nightmare we collectively experienced wasn’t just at the beach; a part of it followed us here. It was raining and the water in the streets was bright red and foamy. Something was horribly wrong. This was unnatural in every way. Katrina was back to taunt the city. I was afraid, petrified, cold, wet, nervous. I walked down a dim hall, passing several people, all somehow dressed in grey, sitting or standing outside doors, anxiously waiting for something or someone. The soaked carpet squished under the pressure of my footsteps.

She was sitting at a table with four other colleagues discussing who-knows-what but I needed her help so I interrupted and asked if I could see her for literally just a few minutes. Please. We walked into her office and she folded her arms. She’s a psychiatrist; she’ll understand. “Please, I’m freaking out. I need some Klonopin. Just a few pills; I can cut them up. I just need a small amount, just in case I have a really bad panic attack. I… it’s… everyone’s scared.” It could be days before everything dries up. Even in sunny New Orleans. There’s water just about everywhere and it’s more than the human mind can tolerate. She gave me a big, white, plastic, oval-shaped container the size of both my palms put together. I opened it to find massive blue pills, some smaller purple and green ones too. “I don’t need all this. I should be fine with just a few Klonopins.”

“They’re the same thing,” she says, and puts a bunch of small white flowers in with the pills. “These will help you relax.”

I woke up shortly after only to fall back asleep. I woke up again on the same beach, from what seemed to be sedation, to find that a female (a dentist, I presume) at the beach had performed a root canal treatment on me without my consent. According to her I needed it, but I certainly didn’t want it and, at that point, there was no use arguing.

© Leila Chammas, October 31, 2016




Suburban Alienation

I hate the suburbs. I don’t know how it happened but, somehow a home with a garage, front and back yard, and the quintessential white picket fence has become synonymous with the American Dream. So I want it. Or I want to want it. But I kind of don’t. Cooped up in a wooden box, isolated from the outside world, festering and bubbling in the reality created inside the house itself. Every house its own entity, its own reality. Each family existing separate of the others. Years and years passing without knowing everyone’s names or seeing the inside of their homes.

The suburbs were designed to breed anxiety. Maybe not intentionally, but still. The front lawns create an ironically welcoming divide between the public street and private home. A small piece of nature, created by the gods and owned by man. I am walking along the street, feeling the warm asphalt against my bare feet. The world is my playground. Skin pounding against synthetic earth, the side of my left foot grazing the grass of someone’s front yard. Private property. Don’t walk on it. It’s not yours. There’s an awkward separation between me and the house, between me and other people.

Inside, every door is shut. This is where nightmares come to play. Where wives in the 60s burnt their Thanksgiving turkeys and fell in love with Valium. Husbands with a suitcase full of anxiety and a pink slip. Affairs. Debt. Dial tone. Suit. Stock market. Crash. Some of the worst family secrets were bred in the suburbs.

Once in, I’m reluctant to come out. Where are you going? When are you coming back? Who are you going with? 

Everything and everyone seems to be a car ride away. Neighbors are strangers, I don’t know how or why. I’d never step on your lawn, fall on my knees in the rain, in the dark, in your front yard, begging you to help me. We moved into the neighborhood and never got a welcoming. We never offered one. But we weren’t offered one either; we moved into an alienated neighborhood. Literally and metaphorically. Walking only gets me to private property, unless I want to brave an unfriendly main road. Walking: Private, private, private, private, private.


© Leila Chammas, October 28, 2016