“Do you hear the train?”
by Anna Cabe
One of the videotapes gathering dust in a closet in my parents’ house is the movie Little Nemo: Adventures in Slumberland based on the now-obscure Little Nemo comic strip, about a boy who travels to Slumberland and then to Nightmare Land to save Slumberland’s King Morpheus. There were flying beds and scrumptious cookies, a beautiful princess and candy-colored creatures, all worthy of this cinematic kingdom called Slumberland, but what imprinted itself upon my impressionable toddler brain was the train in Nemo’s nightmare in the opening scene. It roars like a living monster trying to capture, destroy, Nemo, who frantically steers his bed in elaborate evasive maneuvers. The train is as relentless in its pursuit as a feral hound, its lights like eyes. Something beautiful, Nemo dreaming of soaring through his nighttime city, transformed into something ugly and terrifying.
The train felt so real I couldn’t help but scream and hide my eyes when I watched the film. No matter how hard I pushed my tiny fists over my ears, I could still hear the roar.
In real life, though, when I lived on the clay banks of the Yazoo River in Mississippi, I was not terrified of the train. Trains meant adventure. I took the train up to Chicago to visit my relatives every summer. When it roared into our small-town station, the ground rumbled beneath my feet.
My brother and sister and I fought for the top bunk in the compartment my grandfather always reserved for us. Outside dandelions, dust, cotton fluff, floated on the air. I was never afraid, even the one time I was nauseated, vomiting blue Kool-Aid into my macaroni and cheese while we were in the dining car. It turned a neon green, sickly.
We were riding the train. I was going someplace. Why would I let a little sickness ruin the dark landscape, dappled with lamps and moonlight, rushing away from us?
Now, when I lie in bed at night, Nemo’s train is my nightmare. The train smashes my body to smithereens. The train leaves my blood and brains soaked into the tracks. The train makes me tremble with sweat soaking my forehead. Don’t you know the ways you can be destroyed? I think about them too often.
Best friend’s reaction in high school when I slipped her a note with only a scrawled I think I’m depressed. Really depressed: Come here, we’re going to the guidance counselor.
Guidance counselor’s reaction after I spent what seemed like hours sobbing in her office: It’s probably just stress.
First shrink’s reaction to the unceasing flood of tears: I think you have depression and generalized anxiety.
Mother, after that visit, noting my dry eyes: You don’t need to go again, right?
Friend while studying abroad, playing Never Have I Ever with hard liquor, fluorescent orange Irn-Bru: Never have I ever gone to a psychiatrist […] See I knew it, it’s such a middle-class thing.
My other two friends’ fingers curled down, same as mine. I bit back the panic. I know I probably cracked a dark joke about suicide. I was probably the only one who laughed.
I used to think mental health issues were for white people. Even the one time an estranged friend of mine called me in tears, telling me she had read an article about how much pressure Asian American children are put under by their Tiger parents, and she’s sorry about how she treated me at the end of our fraught friendship, I was cold to her. I said things like Okay and Thank you. To be honest, my own mental health issues —I couldn’t name them as such yet— had less to do with our particular beef than my undying sense that she had screwed me over. That she told me, I understand now, with your parents, when she still didn’t get it at all.
In the Philippines, there’s the concept of hiya, roughly defined as shame or propriety. I didn’t know this term until recently, American-born-and-bred as I am, although when I first learned of its existence, things I’d heard, internalized, all my life clicked together.
My family and other Filipinos I’d known operated under a few assumptions: family first, alienation of those who didn’t follow unspoken social codes, never ever let your personal issues out into the open. After all, the Philippines, besides the Vatican, is the only country in the world that doesn’t allow divorce—better to quietly live apart from your wife, hide your queridas and bastards on the other side of town.
I knew in so many words that the unceasing whistling going on in my head was something to be hidden, a shame that stained the sheen of my family.
I didn’t know any Asian person who went to the shrink in my adolescence. My grandparents, an anesthesiologist and an attorney, still refuse to believe psychology is a legitimate medical field, even though one of their daughters-in-law, their first grandson, studied it.
The only Asian person I knew who went to the shrink was my uncle, my godfather. I didn’t want to be like that. Like him. The odd one out in my family, even though I know now we could have bonded over that. Our brain chemistry. Our loneliness. The way in which desperate love for our family, hiya, sewed our lips shut for so long.
Do you know the term high-functioning? I know it’s not correct anymore, but I don’t know how to describe the way I held myself together all those years.
I’m walking the rails on a bridge. I’m trying not to look down at the foaming rapids. I cry at random moments, when someone says something I perceive as cutting, when I give the wrong answer in class, when an authority figure looks at me funny.
I can’t handle any mistakes, in tests, while answering teachers’ questions. Teachers look concerned all the time. Oh, Anna. . .
I make straight A’s. I don’t know what to do with myself if I didn’t earn high marks, didn’t grit my teeth through menstrual cramps at academic competitions, didn’t win trophies and medals and certificates, cobwebs spinning uselessly about them in my old childhood bedroom.
In kindergarten, the popular girls moved their chairs away when I tried to explain my favorite cartoon, Doug.
Dog? they said. Are you saying dog? You’re weird.
I wasn’t cool. I knew that then. Instead, I built adventures out of clouds: me, the warrior-girl on a dragon, on a horse, my sword high in the air. Foes tumbling as I charged them.
It’s strange but perhaps not that surprising then that I grew up into a woman terrified of driving cars. I got my license relatively late for my area, at seventeen; I still can’t bring myself to drive. I think about a car accident I read about once, where a woman’s spine was snapped in half and skull crushed, her mother’s neck broken. I think about all the ways in which the body is vulnerable, from most pleasant (hypothermia, drowning) to least pleasant (drawing and quartering, immolation). I wonder what happened to the five-year-old who once wanted to ride dragons into battle, if she understood how fire can char the skin.
Or, I’m reckless. When I lived in Indonesia, I rode on the backs of motorcycles without helmets. Not uncommon there, motorbikes are the way of getting around, but in hindsight, with my knowledge of the frequency of road accidents there—even down to a student at the high school where I taught slipping into a coma—outrageously risky.
Or in college, when I was studying abroad in Scotland, I wanted to prove myself as worldly, sophisticated. To shake the small-town off my shoes. I downed too many shots too fast. I blacked out one night while playing a drinking game to Doctor Who, which seems now simultaneously innocent, disappointing, horrifying. I woke up in a hospital with vomit crusted on my hair. My jeans on the floor. The nurse picked them up; I had ripped them off from discomfort in my sleep.
It could have been much worse, I know. I don’t know what I was trying to prove. And when I drink from stranger’s glasses, when I steal a puff from someone’s cigarette, I know I’m still trying to prove whatever that is.
I only ever tried to cut myself once or twice. It doesn’t work. It could have been that I was trying with an actual kitchen knife not sharpened in ages. Or the rusted blade in my safety razor. Inappropriate tools.
Or, despite the fucked-up wiring of my brain, my fears, cutting’s not one in my arsenal.
I told everyone, casually, jokingly, I wanted to kill myself. If I had gone to med school, I would have killed myself. If I had studied biology or pre-law, I would have killed myself. I laughed when I said this. I relished or ignored the terrified expressions depending on my mood. I thought all the time about killing myself, but saying it out loud, like that, made it feel less dangerous.
Don’t you know how many Asian American women contemplate suicide (16 percent of all American-born Asian women according to NPR in 2009)? Don’t you know some studies posit Asian American women are more likely to try it than other groups? Don’t you know the stigma about mental health in Asian communities? Don’t you know how much being a Model Minority kills us, filial piety kills us, language barriers kill us, racism kills us, sexism kills us? You tell us we’re perfect, we’re docile, we’re successful, we’re smart, we’re hardworking, we’re uncomplaining, and as we smile, we step off the chair. We cut our throats, blood gurgling from the wounds, and you turn the spectacle into an opera. You take our real names, the names you butcher into incomprehensibility, and call us Madame Butterfly.
Grad school undoes me. Isn’t that common? Grad school is built to weed out the weak; only the strong and most importantly, lucky survive the academic job market.
I started pulling out hair, black strands knotting into balls in my hand, on my carpet, in my bathroom sink. I kept cutting my hair short, trying to hide the balding spot near my forehead. I played brightly colored PC games with tinkly background noises and the same music, Hamilton and dance-club tunes, on Spotify over and over, deep into the early morning hours. People around me became concerned. They furrowed their brows. They said, Shouldn’t you consider going to the counseling center? I only started when I couldn’t stop crying, couldn’t stop spinning conspiracy theories about how the people around me were out to get me, the train drowning out any sort of logical thought.
Counseling saves me. I don’t want to talk about the things that push me harder into the therapist’s chair.
My mother, when I was still in undergrad and for the first time in years, relatively content, asked me once, haltingly, That time you went to the psychiatrist. What was wrong with you? Are you okay now?
They are so many things I could have told her. Mom, I never forgave you. Mom, I used to feel like a two-ton blanket was smothering me. Mom, I used to imagine jumping off balconies, roofs. Tripping down stairs. Stepping in front of buses and trucks. Mom, all I wanted you and Dad to do was let me keep going to that office.
But that wasn’t the time yet, and I was happy. I told her, I’m okay now.
Counseling saves me, but it’s sertraline that smothers the trains rumbling in my head at night. 100 mg everyday. My psych had to double the initial dosage. I realized the amount was enough when my leg stopped shaking from stress. I didn’t realize my trembling limbs were a symptom of the train.
It’s not just the counseling and drugs which save me. Before, I told everyone I was heartless. I smiled all the time. I laughed instead of cried. I raged instead of cried. I was cruel to people who tried to help. I was cruel to people I loved. I let people I loved be cruel to me. I groveled for friends’ attention. I was afraid to lose them. I told them I was weak, and they were my rock. I became their rock. I didn’t know how to be a friend without codependence, and yet my friends were the ones who offered their hands to me when I didn’t even know to ask. I’m still learning how to be a friend, how to offer my own hand without harming myself.
I walk the rails still. I balance carefully. I try not to look down at the rushing river. I am alert for the far-off whistle of the steam engine. I practice yoga and take my meds and go to my counselor and treat myself to coffee and walk to class and work everyday. I cultivate my relationships. I tell people the truth, more or less, now, about what meds were making me vomit for two weeks, making my head spin.
I am still high-functioning in a way. At least now, I know that being busy and social is part of what keeps me sane. Pumps endorphins into me. Gives me something outside my poor brain to focus on. At least now, it’s not about smothering my panic, my anxiety, the rumble of a far-off train. I don’t have to push my palms so hard over my ears anymore.
Anna Cabe is an MFA candidate in fiction at Indiana University and the nonfiction editor of Indiana Review. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Bitch, The Toast, SmokeLong Quarterly, Joyland, Cleaver, Expanded Horizons, Noble/Gas Qtrly, and Split Lip Magazine, among others. She was a 2015 Kore Press Short Fiction Award semifinalist, a finalist for Midwestern Gothic’s Summer 2016 Flash Fiction Series, and a finalist for the 2015 Boulevard Short Fiction Contest for Emerging Writers. You can find Anna at annacabe.com.