Tour my house, scrutinize it, and you won’t find a single visible universal product code. I
loathe them. If I’m drinking from a can, I spin it when I set it on the table so the barcode isn’t facing me. In the kitchen and the bathroom, the bedroom and the living room, from cereal to toothpaste, books to condom boxes to movies–barcodes never face me.
I detest them.
“What do you know that we don’t?” my friend Chris often jokingly asks, as if I’m aware of a conspiracy few others know or understand.
But there aren’t any conspiracies–at least as far as barcodes are concerned. As far as I know. No, I turn or obscure or hide every barcode in sight for aesthetic reasons. I can’t stand their look. I don’t know why, but I find them aesthetically unappealing. And since UPCs are ubiquitous in our society, I spend more time than I’d care to admit hiding or destroying or ignoring them.
Source amnesia prevents me from knowing when or why or how this detestation started. I’ve despised them for as long as I can remember. As a child, I’d shiver on seeing them. They filled me with annoyance as a teenager. Now that I’m an adult, I tend to treat them as an art critic stumbling on a low-rent art fair might treat the canvases: with revulsion, then dismissal.
At some point in my teenage years–perhaps 1992 or 93, when I was 13 or 14–I stumbled on a picture of a hand in an old textbook, the skin removed to reveal the tendons.
Tendons ran along the back of the hand and spread out to the fingers. Near the center, at the area where the tendons spread, I noticed a similarity to barcodes. Unlike barcodes, however, the tendons of extensor digitorum, as they’re called, inspired me. The contrast of white against red, the beauty of evolution and the functionality of these meaty cords, moved me. After all these years, I can’t convey the sensations I experienced, a cross between elation, revulsion and fear, and bewilderment.
I covered the top and bottom of the illustration with scraps of paper, revealing the middle of the tendons: white barcodes set against a background of raw meat. It was the first time I consciously acknowledged my obsession with imagery, an obsession I’ve carried with me as long as I can remember, an obsession born out of the story of my birth.
My parents lived in a lower class neighborhood in Michigan City, Indiana, about six blocks from the local hospital. In January, 1979, a blizzard hit, at least according to my mother. The streets unplowed, my father unable to get the car out of the mound of snow under which it was buried, my parents walked to the hospital, climbing a hill as they stomped through the snow. My mother, nine-months pregnant, wore a wool cap, a scarf wrapped around her neck and lower face, wrapped her arms around her belly, clutching it. She squinted and blinked as snow pelted her face.
I remembered hearing this story as a child and visualizing it as if my occipital lobe were receiving information from my eyes. The image was clear, lucid, less an image and more a hallucination. I can still picture it: a neighborhood blanketed in snow; a woman, seen from behind, always from behind, wearing a cap, head lowered, climbing a hill, shins and feet buried in snow.
For some reason, when I pictured this scene–and this holds true today–my father was absent. The image always depicted a woman, alone, enveloped by snow. Perhaps mom deemphasized my father’s presence when she told the story, perhaps I saw dad as unnecessary to the imagery, or perhaps I was enamored with my mother and she was the focal point. Conjuring the memory as I write this, I still don’t picture my father in this scene; instead, I envision a human-shaped waft of black and gray smoke drifting alongside my mother.
A few days later, on January 24, in the waning years of the Cater administration, I was thrust into the world. Born with a headfull of strawberry blonde hair and a cowlick near my widows peak, which curled in a perfect Fibonacci spiral. I was the star of the ward. The hair, my mother told me, drew the nurses to me. They’d hold me and swoop their pinky fingers through the curl, which always fell back into place.
Some photos from the late 70s haven’t aged well; their colors drained, they’ve assumed the palates of Cubist paintings: browns and yellows and grays. The earliest photos of me, including a portrait snapped hours after I was born, now assume the hue of tin-types. Imagining my life as a baby and a toddler, trying to fabricate pictures to augment stories about my early life, I imagine those scenes with muted palates.
A childhood in sepia.
When I was young, five or six, I’d flip through pictures in a photo album and assume my skin and clothes were naturally golden–I didn’t know what sepia was back then–and thought I had somehow lost my natural color as I’d aged. Still, I pictured my early life, then and now, as a sort of reconstructed cubist canvas.
As appalling as I find barcodes, I can picture them without disgust. Black lines varying in height and thickness set against a white background with numbers running atop, or sometimes below, them. If you were to imagine them through the lens of a camera, and zoom in until a field of white bracketed by two black lines consumed your field of vision, then you could use that image as the starting point for innumerable images: a detail of flesh set between rotting ribs, the bases of crucifixes on Golgotha, a water tower, a birds-eye-view of a city block, two tuning forks hitting the frequency of the Big Bang.
The imagery matters only if it moves or inspires me. This assertion has held true throughout my life. I don’t know why I obsessed over imagery as a child or why it’s lingered and continues to affect me–sometimes profoundly. My imagination is fired by images. Initially, I construct them in lieu of concepts. My memories of any point in my life are predicated on imagery. I can describe spatial relations, expressions, visual impressions when discussing past events. I conceive stories in terms of imagery. I paint and sculpt with my mind, usually conceiving images which fade as the moment passes, never bothering or intending to sketch them or write them down.
For me, everything starts with an image. I long ago discarded linearity and chronological coherence in lieu of imagery and, later, concepts. To my mind, the merger of imagery and concepts did more to inspire me than any other combination. Such a marriage culminates in, but isn’t limited to, symbolism.
Juxtaposing two images back to back serves more to convey a point than to play out a linear scene in its entirety. For example, showing a woman witness someone’s death, then moving to another image in which she’s hallucinating a decomposing dog on her ceiling in the midst of sleep paralysis is more potent than a conversation about death. Breakdowns are rooted in psychic meltdowns. They only manifest themselves via behavior later. The workings of a person’s brain, how trauma shifts and alters or perverts their perceptions is more true and honest and real than a conversation exposing information or a dramatic scene involving tears or rain. Physical breakdowns serve as a denouement to trauma, not a climax.
Anxiety is a powerful muse. But it can also cripple you. The key to harnessing its power is to absorb the imagery as it perverts your perception. And I can think of no better term than while in the midst of an anxiety attack: a perversion of perception.
For years, I fought my anxiety, struggled to perceive things “normally.” I never knew what “normal” meant, but I assumed it meant something or someone other than me, an imagined self not stricken with my brain.
At 34, I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. For most of my life, I knew I was different without understanding that difference, and I fought it. The diagnosis changed everything. It liberated me in the sense that I could channel my mental illness. I could exploit it creatively.
The impetus for embracing my bipolar disorder and my anxiety disorder was a method developed by Salvador Dali, the paranoiac-critical method, as he called it. He claimed to induce paranoid states that enabled him to make irrational associations, which he mined for their value as imagery and symbols.
I took a similar approach. By inducing anxiety, and allowing it to feed on itself, I’d trigger manic states and fuel myself on a toxic dose of mania and anxiety. Then I’d write. Words poured out of me. I wrote well over a quarter million words in a few months. And here’s the thing: I derive my influence from philosophers, symbolists, and surrealists. I even prefer to call myself an existential surrealist–an awkward term, I know. Over the years, as a writer, I’ve trained myself to draw narrowly focused, at times idiosyncratic, surreal and absurd imagery. And the imagery poured out of me when I induced those states.
Depressive realism: although not endorsed by a plurality of cognitive scientists, it’s the notion that people in depressive states tend to perceive “reality” more accurately than other people. It’s a hypothesis of great importance—perhaps more to philosophers than to psychologists. All people filter information through myriad cognitive biases. It’s incontrovertible. People who aren’t depressed, the hypothesis argues, perceive reality through more positive biases, which enables them to non-consciously filter out more bleak or negative facets of the human condition and human experience. “When you’re smiling, the whole world smiles, too,” as the old song goes. But people locked in depressive states tend not to filter information through positive lenses. In some cases, they glimpse the world as it is, not how it ought to be.
Again, this is a hypothesis and not verified through empirical studies—and since it deals with the “nature” of “reality” we should probably leave it to philosophy; however, I think, through nothing more than anecdotal evidence, that the hypothesis holds water.
Around the time I developed my method of inducing anxiety and mania, I was locked in a months’ long depressive state.
Unfortunately, I didn’t realize it, and that’s something that people who don’t suffer from depression often overlook: when you’re depressed, seriously depressed, suicidally depressed, you don’t always realize you’re depressed. Some object or behavior or flaw, etc., grabs your attention, and you focus on it almost exclusively, to the point of obsession. You juxtapose your situation with someone else’s situation or you fixate on a behavior or a perceived flaw, and these fixations and obsessions define your mood as far as you’re concerned. Eventually, if you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself in an “aha” moment and realize that your state preceded these fixations—i.e., these fixations didn’t define your mood; your mood established these fixations.
It’s critical to realize that people who are depressed don’t always realize they’re depressed. I certainly didn’t. And I didn’t realize the extent of my depression, how all-encompassing it was, when I induced anxiety and mania, a routine I performed night after night. Through the benefit of hindsight, I now know that I was playing Russian roulette, but I didn’t perceive any risks at the time. In fact, I was elated; I had never produced as much work with such interesting imagery in such a short amount of time.
A brief interlude:
I wrote two novels back to back. My mental state deteriorated. Locked in severe depression and in a tetrasect of anxiety, mania, depression, and sleep deprivation, I transformed into a hollow man. The world dimmed. Everything reminded me of ashes. Color drained from the universe. I felt hopeless and lost. The world, the universe, and all life in it seemed empty, devoid of substance.
I was writing a novel, Flesh Made World, about a woman coming to terms with her wife’s and father’s death. It was a nonlinear, experimental novel modeled on Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five and Andre Breton’s Soluble Fish. Shortly after I started work on the novel, my father died. He wasn’t sick, so we hadn’t anticipated it. The death of our father was, as far as we were concerned, an inevitability relegated to the future.
Then he was dead. My family and I suspected as much when they called us to the emergency room and sequestered us in a room near the waiting room. A table and chairs filled the room. Nothing else—no phone or television. A box of tissues sat on the table, one tissue standing limply out of the elliptical-shaped hole in the box. I sat beside me mother and stared at the tissue. Who had pulled it out? A nurse? or a grieving family member?
We sat in silence. I sat between my sister and my mother, my niece slumped in a chair across the room, and my sister’s boyfriend sat to my right. My anxiety amplified as I sat there. My mind raced and I tried to kill it, tried to silence it, tried to prevent thinking about my father, lying somewhere in that hospital.
We knew he was dead. Our silence betrayed it. I couldn’t even hope for the best. No one
had come in to see us, no one had told us about my father’s condition, and they didn’t have to: of course he was dead. Why shove us in this room if he was alive?
My fear of heights prevents me from skydiving—which is probably a reason to do it. I imagine a certain tranquility as you’re gliding and free-falling. Peace. The wind wraps around you, assaults you, cradles and resists you. But it must feel amazing.
Xanax reminds me of my imagined skydive. It’s tranquil, relaxing. Then you race to the ground faster and faster, faster and faster. You’re pulling your ripcord as you plummet to the ground but your parachute won’t open. You fly toward the ground faster and faster and pull the cord harder and harder.
Then you hit.
Klonopin was like floating to the ground, then coasting to a soft landing. It lasted longer and felt better. Xanax, on the other hand, felt great for a short burst, then it dropped off and I’d slam into the ground, so to speak.
I hated it.
I visited my NP again and implored her to switch me back to Klonopin but she refused to do it. I don’t like it, she’d say. It’s too addictive, she’d say. Blah blah blah.
As a compromise, she prescribed me extended relief Xanax. This should last all day and make things easier on you, she said.
I didn’t have a choice. She refused to give me Klonopin so I accepted the new prescription.
After the appointment, I sat in my car, smoking, and contemplated dropping my meds altogether. I mean, did I really need them? I wasn’t so bad, was I? I was certainly in a better state than a couple years back, when I’d admitted myself on suicide watch.
I wondered what would happen—what kind of person would emerge—if I weaned myself off my meds. It might make things easier. It’d certainly end my bi-weekly and monthly groveling sessions with an NP not trained in mental health. And it might even improve my sex life with my wife. It might improve everything.
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Daulton Dickey is a novelist, poet, and content creator currently living in Indiana with his wife and kids. He’s the author of A Peculiar Arrangement of Atoms: Stories, Still Life with Chattering Teeth and People-Shaped Things, and other stories, Elegiac Machinations: an experimental novella, and Bastard Virtues, a novel. Rooster Republic Press will publish his latest novel, Flesh Made World, later this year. Contact him at daultondickey[at]yahoo[dot]com.