Musicals, Madness, and Memory.

Part 3 - “The Road You Didn’t Take [Always] Comes to Mind”: A Sondheimian Departure and What Followed.

One Labor Day Monday, many years but not too long ago, a plane departed LaGuardia Airport. The plane was headed to Chicago and a job I had left behind there, though when I’d flown to New York days earlier, I didn’t know I had left it at all.

The plane was headed to new friends I’d only just recently made. It was headed toward an apartment whose rent I had paid in advance, and that happened to be filled with all my belongings I had gathered for a year to be spent on the road.

In that same apartment, on the seventeenth floor of a luxury tower, just outside Millennium Park, I had woken shaken and sweaty every day for the month since I moved in. I had gone to bed hungry, and woken up starving, with no desire to feed myself, or shower, or dress, or go to the job that was paying me more than I ever expected, to do something I loved very much.

Something wasn’t right.

At work, I crept into a coat closet during breaks, to hide the conversations I was having on my cell phone with my Dad and Mom and friends who’d listen, to tell them how much and how quickly I needed to escape. The thought that this behavior was becoming more and more conspicuous only furthered my panic and desire to hide.

Something wasn’t right — not at all — as even I was somewhat aware.

I took myself to a psychiatrist in Chicago — by way of an elevated train to somewhere I cannot remember now — making my best effort to stay above water. I told her about the panic, and the night sweats, and the hiding in the coat closet, and the rapid, violent thoughts I had of falling from the window of the seventeenth floor of a luxury tower, just outside Millennium Park.

Such visions were real and vivid. I could almost feel the sensation of falling — profoundly and in my guts.

The psychiatrist prescribed several anti-anxiety medicines that I could take daily, as needed: Beta blockers and benzodiazepines during the day, and Ambien at night when I couldn’t force my eyes shut no matter how hard I tried.

I took the medications. I followed the directions.

“Alright,” I thought. “Will do.”

“I can do this.”

“I will handle it.”

From that moment, the fight for solid ground became somehow even harder to win. Perhaps it’s because side effects may include drowsiness, dizziness, weakness, unsteadiness, depression, loss of orientation, headache, sleep disturbances, problems with thinking or memory, slurred speech, dry mouth, sore gums, loss of appetite, diarrhea, constipation, and blurred vision. Or maybe it was none of those things.

Still, I am aware now that I experienced most every one of those effects. I am aware now, and I was not aware then, that the medicine given for what came to later be diagnosed — a bipolar mixed episode — had triggered a psychological and intensely physical chain of events, all of which would take much time to resolve.

As I took the pills each day, my mental and physical capabilities declined, fast. If a work session ended for me at 3pm, I was in pajamas by 4, blinds drawn, weathering the evening’s storm.

I took myself to a hospital for evaluation. I was told I was in bad shape and that I had two options: Return home to New York for psychiatric intake, or be taken presently as an inpatient in Chicago, near a luxury tower, just outside Millennium Park.

To home I go. But not for intake! No, no no. I will go home, I will get better medicine, I will rest, and I will return Monday — Labor Day.

“I will go, and I will come back. That’s what I will do.”

I packed a small, carry-on suitcase for a three-day trip home to New York, between the work having concluded in the rehearsal studio, and moving into the theatre to begin technical rehearsals for the show.

The theatre was massive and beautiful, historic and elegant. I know this because on the day before my departure, the company had been given a tour of our new, breathtaking home.

I took a cab to the airport with my carry-on. I boarded the plane to New York.

“Thank God,” I vividly remember thinking to myself. “I’m going to make it out of this.” I don’t know what the “this” was, only that I needed to go, somewhere, quickly.

The nightmare, I believed, had ended. I had no inkling of what was to come – that in three days’ time I would miss the plane back to Chicago, and that instead it would be my Dad who would board a different plane the following day — to pack up the apartment on the seventeenth floor of a luxury tower just outside Millennium Park, to bring home his son’s belongings, to be stored in his son’s childhood bedroom, until his son was released from a hospital in New York months later — when life would begin, slowly, anew.

“The road you didn’t take hardly comes to mind. Does it?” Stephen Sondheim wrote that lyric, and it rings in my mind and my heart.

I would come to wonder, many times over, whether the decision — the inability — to board the plane that Labor Day was really a decision at all. Maybe — just maybe — it was a desperate and deliberate fight to keep myself alive, to travel down a different road that has led, windingly, to a grateful here and now.

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