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Perseus and the Minotaur in the Labyrinth of Solitude
The Silver Lining of Psychosis Is That You Are Never Alone
This essay contains explicit and disturbing content, including drug abuse, self-harm, suicide, violence, mental health struggles, and descriptions of intense hallucinations. It also touches on topics such as HIV, addiction, and interpersonal violence. Please exercise caution while reading and consider your own emotional well-being before proceeding. If any of these topics are triggering for you, it is recommended to avoid reading this essay.
Diré de Orlando en este mismo trino
cosa no dicha nunca en prosa o rima,
pues loco y en furor de amor devino
hombre que antes gozó por sabio estima
— Orlando Furioso, Ludovico Ariosto.
I’m not sure how to explain the series of events that led to my inventing and hallucinating a Filipina neighbor in the studio apartment below mine with whom I had a falling out over a stinging rebuke of my way of living and my egocentrism. Devastated by another failed friendship so soon, I took to my medicine cabinet and gathered two boxes of Tafil (alprazolam), a bottle of generic clonazepam, four grams of crystal methamphetamine and gorged myself on them using a half liter of Absolut as lubricant. Before I lost consciousness, I remember the alternating waves of rib-crushing muscle contractions and the sudden release of my exhausted muscles. I remember thinking to myself that I would finally die as my mandible uncontrollably twitched horizontally and all the fingers on my hand twisted and gnarled in patterns I had never made before. Everything went carmine and then black after my diaphragm ceased to contract or release and the panic gave way to a calm acceptance. About two weeks later, tracing my electronic footprints and asking people I had seen just before, I realized I lay in my apartment unconscious for two days. When I woke up I did not have access to all of my memories or to the full knowledge of who I was. Instead, I woke up to the furious voice of a woman I cannot identify, perhaps a hapless barista or store clerk whose voice my brain hijacked and turned into a fury that made the apartment shake with warnings that I should leave the key on the door and run as fast as I could if I did not want to be there when the national guard arrived. So, I left. It would be a week before I could remember my mother’s name.
This began almost a week prior. Orlando was the last person I remember seeing before the start of my psychoses. We had a textbook borderline affair that began coincidentally because we both sought refuge in the same bath house that through the years had degraded from a place where the city’s homosexuals and out-of-town married men deep in the closet went for easy sex and instant intimacy to its base parts as a smoking den where its methamphetamine addicts sought out dark corners to smoke undisturbed. My attraction was not instant; he had an arrogant, adolescent swagger to him (though he was, like me, in his 30s) and a haughty laugh that took time for me to find endearing (when it didn’t elicit a venomous, but silent judgment). My attraction wasn’t known to me until we were comfortable enough for pointed ripostes and for him to think he could impress me at the bar by playing f(x)’s Hot Summer; I, always ready to have the last word, responded by playing the original version by Monrose. He pouted as I gloated about my arcane and learnèd knowledge of pop music made for gay men as they lament aging.
One night, uncharacteristically, he appeared crestfallen. Once he reached his customary, pathological level of inebriation he confessed to me that he had a potential exposure to HIV from a partner whose own status he did not know until he learned about it from a local gay orchid vendor who shared it maliciously as if it were a piece of everyday gossip. Terrified, more of the potential humiliation or social repercussions than of the health impacts or complications, his dearth of knowledge regarding HIV (typical for most gay men everywhere, but shockingly pronounced in Jalisco) provided an opening for me to seduce and charm with the knowledge gained after a near decade working in public health in California; knowledge which I thought had become useless and inert now that I had given into fate’s caprice and returned to Guadalajara where the law, health system and social contexts made my accumulated experience moot. I pulled from the bank of knowledge gained from requisite trainings on HIV the County of Los Angeles requires of all public employees and its contractors and showered him with as much information as I could about the probabilities of transmission, the availability of PEP, outcomes, the process from testing to, God forbid, treatment. I gathered what information I had regarding the local health system while next to him. I swore to him that he would be fine and offered to accompany him to any appointment should he feel the need to lean on someone. I owe my time with Orlando to the nonprofit-government efforts to disseminate this information in the campaign to get every pink-haired Angeleno slut on PrEP. They have my gratitude.
I’m not sure why Orlando chose to open up to me about something he was so deeply fearful and ashamed of. I did not expect it, neither did I expect nor can I explain the fact I was so forthcoming about my own HIV status just months after diagnosis and to someone who was then and in many ways still is a stranger. Nor do I understand the lack of envy when it turned out he was still seronegative despite all the worry. In hindsight, I was elated at the opportunity to confess and receive empathy after the collapse of my ego into self-pity and self-hatred, the touch deprivation and isolation from my turn towards nun-like chastity out of a sense of ethical obligation and fear of being burned alive or put in prison. I never told Orlando how I felt or what it meant to me to have his confidence, nor did I ever hear Orlando explain or mention his own precocious openness ever again. But, it wasn’t the last time he laid himself before me without hesitation.
On the first night we spent as a furtive couple, he wore a pale pink pullover sweater that seemed to be picked out of a set designer’s swatch book against his head of blonde-streaked, loose curls always in an aristocratic-en-deshabille that, infuriatingly, suits him perfectly. We sat under the only lit lamppost near my then-home. On a bench outside of Guadalajara’s Soho House, I let him meander through a conversation he monopolized until he arrived at a painful childhood secret which he confessed to me emphasizing his acceptance and fortitude again and again until it wore thin and was no longer believable. I would have married him there if he asked me. I would have given him anything of mine he could ask for. It was this soliloquy, this second confession that opened our shared augenblicke. What followed was more moments like these, small rosary beads of intimacy and deep understanding (maybe, love) that offered respite from my frustrated, always inflected attempts to own Orlando’s affection. He was still obsessed with his ex-fling and our relationship always had the air of carrion, but I brooded and buried the sense of constant humiliation. I accepted it as his cuckold—but for vanity’s sake I attempted to seduce, cajole or entreat him out of the sense that I had given him both aperture and knowledge which he could use to destroy me.
I’m not sure what his goal or cognition regarding any of this was. But, it seemed to be and was reciprocal on more than occasion. He showed an earnest interest in me, dropping occasional compliments that paralyzed me as I held back tears overwhelmed with his sincerity and the attention to minute details of my person. With simple observations he denuded me instantly, every time. Orlando was constantly self-deprecating, cruelly so. He often made oblique remarks lamenting he did not attend university, much less a prestigious one like I did or making comments with his tongue firmly against the palette of his mouth lamenting he did not have my dandy’s gift of seeming to know just a little about all topics. I never believed this was a fair comparison. Orlando was and still is among the most emotionally intelligent and observant people I know—a fact I inappropriately credited to the dark secret he shared. His sensibility and hunger for connection both evinced the existence of a preternatural ability to understand others. He managed always to avoid the impression he was being manipulative or facetious, which stuck three fat fingers in the gap between his true self and the mask of the arrogant, bourgeois little prince I would learn he used with all of his interpersonal relationships. I miss that comprehension and canniness more than anything. It was something I had not felt in Mexico, not even from my own family, and it’s something I have not experienced since. I will spend eternity paying for the regrets I am still discovering regarding Orlando, but it’s the loss of his faithful, never-failing emotional compass which I miss the most (though I know this is a kind of sophistry). I was so delighted and self-obsessed with my attempts to seduce him and to trap him in my orbit that I never took the time to know this side of him better. Never did I ever express to him how lovely and special it was, how envious I was of this specific gift which I thought I shared but was losing day by day.
The drugs did not help nor did they provide much time for me to do so. To avoid making a short but richly brocaded story any longer and to avoid giving the appearance I might be less than totally responsible for what happened, deep in my downward spiral and mania I ended everything by humiliating the man in a popular gay bar by bathing him with a liter-sized bottle of beer before sending the bottle crashing towards the dance floor and sending glass shards raining and ricocheting over the stunned patrons who before that moment only knew him as the cool, handsome and aloof regular and friend of the owner. At the time it felt like an exclamation mark to end the string of conversations we had or ever could have. Now it appears to me to be more like an ellipsis. I have not and do not expect to see Orlando ever again. I have accepted and understand—as if I could avoid doing so—the fact he likely hates me. It’s the fact he may fear me, however, that deeply wounds both my feelings and my pride and which quickly dispels any brief romanticization of our experience of each other. I could apologize a million times and I would still doubt it is enough.
In light of this, I understand as a manifestation of my guilt and as a punishment from God that just days after his person was lost to me forever, for the week I was dazed and barefoot on the streets, it should have been his voice of all the voices I had ever heard that echoed from everywhere and echoed always. In contrast to the passive, rehearsed quality of his true voice and his affected manner of speaking, the Orlando I conjured was always menacing and furious, sometimes threatening violence and by chance or divine intervention on his behalf, delivering it through third parties. Still, he deigned to guide me through my labyrinth with an enraged noblesse oblige. I have indulged the paranoid and the improbable by thinking he might have perhaps seen me in my abysmal state and that some of the things I heard had actually bellowed from his wet lungs. It would go a long way to lessen my guilt to know he had a chance at retribution and did not deny himself what was his by right. That’s why I know it cannot be true.
Though I distorted his voice, his face even in the depths of a profound delirium was as it was when he had sat across a table from me. I am embarrassed by how much I owe Foucault, but when I insist that in my madness his face was real I will not stand corrected or accept assertions to the contrary. That face, the semblance of my conjured Orlando had all the volume of the real thing, his curls rimlit with stolen moonlight and then sunlight wrought into a halo as they were the night I first decided to love him and then on the morning after as I saw him leave still tipsy in an Uber I hailed. The features of that hallucinated face cast all the shifting shadows against itself that his true face did. The pupils glided across the whites and the muscles created all the necessary folds in the corners of his eyes. The color of his skin like toasted hazelnuts bloomed into washes of pink. I confess, for the first time and full of bitterness, that it is the face of the Orlando of my id that I most adore and most miss; more than the face of the man in the flesh which at the time occupied all of my addled and distorted thoughts. It feels like I’m engaging in a form of masculine violence to confess this in this format after all this time. I’m unsure of what else to do with the feeling.
I credit the voice of Orlando for preventing worse disasters than the ones that did befall me during that week.Coming from the tops of the city’s historic buildings it entreated me or terrified me into avoiding certain neighborhoods. They revealed to me the invisible borders within the city and the histories of the no-man's-lands where I’d be safe from the city’s security forces, its cartels and street gangs and the satanic cults which I invented to fill the city’s dark corners. I would cower and compress myself into square meter pieces of the sidewalk marked by white and yellow spray paint as he told me that as long as I was within this or that bit of disputed asphalt where the warring bureaucracies had yet to concretize power and on treaty lands secretly negotiated to end the city’s bloodbaths, that I would be safe. On the night I leapt over a pedestrian barrier, slammed down onto the train tracks with the full weight of my emaciated body and trekked through the tunnels, he never left my side. As I saw hooks on chains enter the eye-sockets of catatonic women as they were twisted and crushed around pylons, it was this voice that consoled me with a sweetness I can’t explain or describe but can still hear. The hallucination eventually pointed its knives at me, repeating incessantly that I would not receive the merciful, painless, and dignified beheading of a true man, but that instead my flesh would be shredded and extruded through the gaps in chain links and my cranium crushed so I could never be identified. His voice calmed me, coached me through a simulacrum of dignified acceptance of my fate before it boomed inside the tunnel and urged me to run. As the chains rattled behind me and the furious screams and footsteps of the executioners hiding in the tunnel made my heels vibrate, his voice made the tracks undulate wildly like stricken violin strings as he commanded me and reminded me how to put one leg before the other.
I laugh now. But, in the moment his reverb-laden shouts, his banging on the tunnel’s walls, the venomous expressions of disbelief, his repeated regrets that he ever thought I was intelligent, his finding every synonym for “stupid” in Spanish as he saw me run the opposite direction into the arms of those who wanted to dismember me, deep into where not even he could accompany me—all this gave me the endurance to run and run until I emerged out of the tunnels bloodied and bruised outside the opening on the other end (I cannot prove this was not the same entrance I fell into, but I remember that I thought I had traversed the whole of the city). His voice was immortal. It did not strike me as odd that only hours before in a separate delirium I saw him bleed out by my side after he had leapt to action to protect me from someone–I’m not sure was real or another hallucination–attempted to attack me.
More often, the voice was disembodied. In the most horrifying delusion, I lost the ability to read and to see objects and people, I could see only the buildings and the fountains of the plazas. A passerby gave me a water bottle. They must have seen me stare terrified around looking for the faces of all the teachers and friends I ever had who I had summoned by inventing an imaginary educator’s conference across the street at the Ex-convento del Carmen. I felt the coolness in my hand, but I only saw the refracted light and wobbling shadows the liquid cast on my palms. Sitting on the edge of the fountain, I heard Orlando’s voice as if from a small speaker inside the fountain. It taunted me and tortured me as he threw the clothing I left in my apartment into the fountain. I remember it vividly; the scene was identical to Guido Cagnacci’s, “Martha Rebuking Mary For Her Vanity,” which I saw countless times at the Norton Simon. Half delirious from acute dehydration and possibly suffering from heat stroke, I sat terrified outside the Templo del Carmen, frightening the diners at the Chai with my screaming as he tossed a camel hair coat piece by piece after shredding it with a knife. I could not see the pieces of the coat, only the shadows and shimmer of the dry cleaner’s bag on the surface of the water. Satisfied, he sat next to me and asked to lay on the lawn. I complied. He lay his head in my lap, I could not see his body but I could see the tears as they soaked into my filthy jeans. He apologized for what would happen next before stabbing his eye socket with a jagged shard of glass that dug into and through my right thigh. I could not see his face or my wounds, only the spreading stains of my blood, our mixed tears, the bits of shimmering jellied cornea and the gloss of eye fluids as he twisted the shard and suddenly stopped writhing. The last I heard was an apology and a whimper. I sat immobile and terrified, feeling as if I had the weight of his head on my thigh and hearing the shard of glass scrape against my femur and break into smaller, more jagged pieces. I passed out at some point and when I woke up, I ran behind a building to check my leg and found nothing, not a scratch. I collapsed on the floor and lay immobile until morning.
Next day, on my penultimate day on the street, I walked down the middle of Avenida Juárez in the middle of daytime traffic hoping to be hit by a car. I made it to Plaza Guadalajara in a rage, screaming because no one had run me over and because I saw (or thought I saw) people in cars and horse drawn carriages point their phones to photograph and record me. I only calmed down once I was handcuffed to a bench by the municipal police and was threatened with being sent to El Zapote. Remembering and still terrified by the police beatings I received earlier in that week, I tried to sit still as I could until they left on their bicycles to respond to a radio call. Orlando’s voice full of joy and punctuated by full throated laughter then told me I would undergo an auto de fe. If I was found guilty, I would be boiled alive in lye in front of the Cathedral. He explained to me in unexplainable detail the laws of New Galicia, specific directives of the Bourbon reforms and the judgments of the Consejo de las Indias which had carried over into the independence period, repeating citations of those which I had broken and the ones under which I would be executed. I’m not sure how, in that state, I could invent this highly detailed legal fiction. I am impressed and horrified by the way my mind works.
I argued with him, demanding to know it was possible these laws were still in effect. Until I saw the large containers of water and detergent outside the cathedral with which they clean the plaza for tourists and the government workers across in Palacio Municipal every day. I felt as if I had objective proof that his assertions were real and stopped demanding answers. Orlando then gave me a chance, an option if I could complete a challenge, if I could meet him at certain buildings or street corners I was supposed to identify based on cryptic clues. He would forgive me, he said, and I would be spared if I could prove I knew enough of the city to prove I wasn’t like all the despised pochos who return deported and humiliated. When I, inevitably, could not make sense of the riddles or when I could not remember the terms of the Cathedral’s elements, the voices laughed at me. In the distance I could hear a great commotion, and I hallucinated a scaffold and the roar of a waiting crowd ready to destroy me. I ran through the historic core in manic circles inspecting the walls of the city’s colonial buildings with eyelashes and numb fingertips. I remember how I put the police outside the Palacio Municipal on edge, not remembering this is where my aunt and cousin worked and looking so crazed and my face swollen, bruised and gaunt that there was no way they could recognize my face and inform her. Stopping behind it at the corner of Santa Monica and Calle Independencia in a panic as I looked around for a hidden Mozarabic architectural detail or a famous bullet hole in the wall, I could see people on the street leap a full meter to avoid me and point. They laughed at me which made my imaginary audience roar and cheer. I returned defeated to Plaza Guadalajara, admitted I knew nothing about anything, that I was a dilettante and had been exposed. I sat at the foot of the Cathedral as the indigent and transitory peoples of the city do every day and night. I thought I could smell woodsmoke as they prepared the transparent glass vat in which my flesh would be boiled until they saw it slip from my bones. Orlando’s voice faded into the distance as I fell asleep terrified and exhausted.
In the shadow of Saint Francis
The people of the city are translucent
And their shimmering organs inside
Glow when I smile at them.
All my dead-bolted secrets
They know and recite like mantras
Sahasranama of my Shame
Until I am transparent too,
Nude in the Courtyard of vagrants,
By the train station
In the shadow of St. Francis
Despite being the day in which I finally recovered some sense of self and remembered who I was, the final day is the one I remember the least. I had made it from Los Dos Templos to the Santuario de la Virgen de Guadalupe by evening. I approached a group of, what I remember being, recently-graduated law students from the Universidad de Guadalajara, professors and judges next to them. I approached them, putting my hands into a pleading gesture as I believed I was explaining to them that I had been on the street for an unknown length of time and in tears asking for them to call the hospital my grandmother’s sister owned in Huentitán. They didn’t believe me, but handed me a fistful of 10 peso coins so I would leave. When I came back to return their money and pleaded again for their help, one of them, a man, took me seriously enough to search for the name of the hospital and call.
A nurse answered. The man told me to sit on one of the concrete cubes outside the Sanctuary until my cousin and my mother’s sister arrived. They group left giving me a shared, sad look until they turned away and went on with their lives. I sat there staring at the image of the Virgen de Guadalupe above the door of the temple. When I heard someone shout my name from a black car, I trembled and nearly ran. But, I recognized my cousin’s face. I remember the horrified and sad expressions on his face as I went on and on with out-of-sequence babbling about what had happened standing outside his car. My aunt told me to get inside and we rode to the hospital. During the course, I apologized to her when I imagined Orlando slapped her across the face and pulled her arm. At that moment, I thought the expression on her face was pain. I know now it was the horror of seeing that our realities were asynchronous and not knowing if they would ever again coincide. Orlando followed on a motorcycle banging against the window and pushing his face against it at red lights. I tried to pretend I did not notice, looking instead at the road ahead and the ribbons of road and street lights that twisted in spirals.
In the hospital, the painted plaster treatment on the walls looked to me like the script of angel writing animated and writhing. They told me to pray. I could hear him banging on the grate of the small rectangular window. When the nurses came to administer what must have been anti-anxiety medication and antipsychotics, the voice warned me that I was choosing my family over him. He screamed that I would never see him again as I pretended to not hear him and tried to greet the nurses. I’m cowed by the self-awareness of my psychosis. He was right. In the morning when two detectives from the Fiscalía showed up at the foot of my bed to ask me what had happened, I was still unable to communicate coherently even though I was no longer in the depths of my delusion. I panicked as I saw the disbelief and annoyance on their faces as nothing I said seemed to make sense to them. I feared I may have said something self-incriminating and that I would be sent to the psychiatric hospital or prison.
I hoped Orlando would speak up and, as he had in all my conflicts with police, tell me how to convince them and save me from confinement. I heard nothing. I turned to the window hoping to see his face peering down. All I saw was the white gold disk of the spring sun against a wan, blue morning sky. I felt hot tears coat my face as I lay in the hospital bed realizing the spell was broken, for the first time since I initially lost consciousness realizing I had yet again failed to kill myself, and remembering everything that had happened to me in the aftermath.
Abandoned by the voice of my constant companion, I never felt more alone. More than ever before, I wanted to die.
One month later, I would attempt again. I never heard his voice. Not as I lay dying, not in the pavilion of the psychiatric hospital.
One of the bartenders of this bathhouse hung the nickname “Gardenia” on this man, a stinging criticism both of the pretense of aristocratic delicacy and his pronounced but repressed femininity. The nickname references the song, “Perfume de Gardenia,” a representative sample from the Mexican songbook whose chorus goes “Gardenia perfume, love’s perfume.”
The name throughout this piece, Orlando, is fictional to avoid embarrassing the real man. Gardenia’s nickname and occupation, however unbelievable, are real. I’m not obliged to be discreet with someone who openly shares peoples’ serological status to demean them.
My diagnosis came during a particularly difficult time to have HIV in México, but specifically in Jalisco. While treatment remained free and accessible to patients in the state, from my diagnosis in June I was told treatment would not begin until November in contravention of both global public health guidance about 24-hour testing-to-treatment windows and possibly, the law. The months while I waited were filled with news reports of lawsuits and denunciations before the state’s human rights commission related to the death from AIDS of gay men and trans women crushed by the rubble of the collapsed health system.
Nationally, reports of undetectable men on ARVs arrested for not disclosing their status to partners and of attacks including by fire on gay men suspected of having the virus did not do much to make the wait any more comfortable.
I still do, though the psychotic personality I created with his voice and the advice I heeded probably prolonged my time on the street by doing everything I could to avoid contact with people who may have known me or would have been able to recognize me before the sequence of events made me unrecognizable.
Throughout the ordeal, details like this from my life or images I saw in textbooks, bits of historical details and art historical theory reared their head. They had the effect of closing the gap between psychosis and disbelief. Because these were familiar, objective memories I had no way of thinking the delusions and hallucinations were anything but plain truth. I am still trying to understand how my mind conjured memories of high culture such as these in the state I was in.
El Zapote is Jalisco’s state-run mental hospital, run by the Instituto Jaliscience de Salud Mental (State Institute for Mental Health or SALME after its initials in Spanish) under the Health Secretariat of the state. It has a reputation for violence due to the severe mental illness of patients, many of who are there due to drug-induced psychosis or untreated severe mental health disorders.
During my psychosis, these insecurities frequently reared their head and the entire ordeal was, in essence, a manifestation of my feelings of insecurity, isolation and alienation that I had been consumed by ever since arriving in Guadalajara and finding that my fantasies of Return were all impossible to achieve and infantile wishes.
I have never enjoyed even the fumes of my family’s wealth or security that was lost to the economic crises that roiled the country. But, I know that I have enjoyed, maybe undeservedly, relief due to the intangible, non-fungible inheritance I did receive—their manners, names and affectations. I don’t know if I’d be sane or alive had my aunt not owned a hospital and if she had instead just been an employee in any economic sector.
I owe this man who I couldn’t possibly recognize my life. Another of the debts to the many people who have been so generous to me that I will never be able to repay. I do wish I knew who it was, but I know I would be too ashamed to face him again.
One of the persistent themes of the delusions I had that week was about my having a hand in the destruction or desecration of the city. This coincided, rather unfortunately with the burning of the Mercado San Juan De Dios, which I thought might have been my fault. When I was in the hospital, I immediately asked my aunt if this had actually happened. When she confirmed the market did in fact burn, I was terrified the rest of my memories of that week were also true.