The night prior to the first day of spring semester classes came with an unconventional double date. My roommate, his girlfriend, my girlfriend, and I decided to make some “special” brownies. This was our first time baking to get baked, and we soon realized that you do not need an eighth of a gram of marijuana to make the magic happen. I remember saying to my apprehensive girlfriend, “You can’t get too high,” as she attempted to persuade me into slowing my ingestion of our culinary delight. Not long after my five brownies, while watching The Big Lebowski on DVD, my mind began to race. I felt as if everything were in slow motion. This feeling was largely due to the thoughts that were attached to every detail of the movie, which I had seen about thirty times prior. The sensation felt like something out of a science-fiction movie, such as Terminator 2, where the robots size up every human with detailed and swift analyses. They scan the shape, age, sex, and body movements of every human they come across and process the information with lightning speed using some sort of infrared sensors. My brain connections sped uncontrollably, and a feeling of fear quickly came over me.
After one of our other roommates drove us to each girlfriend’s separate apartment, I was certain I would never sleep. As I lay in bed waiting for my girlfriend, who was also high, to join me, my eyes slowly adjusted to the darkness. The situation was reminiscent of a National Geographic video recorded at night, where one can still see the lions hunting some hopeless wildebeest. Basically, I could see her, and she could not see me. I witnessed the familiar “I can’t see a thing right now; I hope I don’t hit anything” walk. This in turn prompted me to say something like “It’s okay” or “Come this way,” but the words did not register with her, because she assumed I could not see her, as she could not see me. At least that’s how I read it with a head full of THC. I think she was both annoyed by the drug and the event and somewhat frightened of me as well as my behaviors.
The next day, we stepped out of an excessive Chipotle lunch and into the chill of the January air. Downtown State Street was alive with equal parts liberal adults and hungover college students who were ill prepared for the commencement of the spring semester.
Parallel sidewalks trap State Street’s narrow road. The straight three-quarter-mile strip begins at the outer edge of campus and ends due east at the state capitol building. On that day, this heterogeneous organism was divided by slow-moving police cars and apathetic city buses with blatant disregard for oblivious pedestrians. Earnest panhandlers and slow-moving out-of-state families disrupted the ambience. These barely animate objects had strollers and actively turning heads, and they observed places like Jamba Juice as if they were cultural representations of the city. At that time of day, in the last of the presemester days, State Street was as active as Manhattan but not quite as odorous (i.e., less urine and circulated air). This was the epicenter for thirsty Madisonians, as one could spit in every direction and hit an active bar.
I told my girlfriend that I thought the way my mind had operated the previous night was probably a lot like mania. As I uncomfortably looked at her and described the racing thoughts, schools of students traversed the single-file impasse our conversation created. The people moved both east and west along the sidewalk with swift intention and the flexibility of diverted running water. I would soon find out that a chemical-induced high from brownies is not the same as mania, but there are some faint similarities. During the commencement address to the 2005 graduates of Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace popularized this little existential anecdote:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?”
And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
There is a fundamental difference that is easily confused between being high on a drug and experiencing mania. When one is manic, it is very difficult for the individual to comprehend the “water” he or she is swimming in. The individual just feels great while in an oblivious state that is filled with wrath and bizarre behaviors. The person is frequently unaware of the potential consequences of his or her condition. There is no reflection or foresight. This reality greatly contrasts the usually more temporary experience of using drugs. More often than not, even if one is stoned out of his or her mind or tripping off of mushrooms to the point of psychedelic hallucinations or visualizations, the individual can usually step back (i.e., reflect) and think, Holy shit, I’m really fucked up right now. That building looks like it is melting right before my eyes. I’m really high! This type of reflection is analogous to the understanding of “This is water.” There is a cause-and-effect connection whereby the person can understand that the drug is causing his or her environment to change. With mania, all too often, the person is unable to uncover this dissociation from reality or realize just what he or she is “swimming” in.
I speculate that the brownie night had an even more profound effect on my girlfriend than it did on me. Not long after that, she decided she wanted to end the almost-five-year courtship. I was at the infamous College Library on February 12, 2002, when she called me crying. In an idiosyncratic turn of events, she pleaded with me to allow her to end the relationship. I was in good spirits at the time and was confident that a break would be just that. Thinking it was nothing more than a temporary phase for her, we broke up. Her own battles with depression and anxiety preempted this change. I recall being comfortable with the breakup happening. I went back to my desk in the quiet study area and finished scrutinizing the dry, dull information for my accounting quiz, thinking the break would last only a couple weeks at most. This chapter of the book concludes here, but soon after the breakup, the first chapter of my life ended with a dramatic shift in my perspective. I would feel as if everything I knew had been lost, and rebirth was a consequence. I was naive and unfamiliar with this new environment, which was filled with too much independence. Had I been asked during that time, surely my response would have been, “What the hell is water?”