By Nicole Hoelle
I heard from Hachiro last night. Late at night, a message flashed. Alongside a smiling cartoon face was a bland note, something flavorless like “Hi, how are you doing these days?” This made me wonder if maybe it wasn’t Hachiro, if, perhaps, an interloper, a hacker had hijacked his account. That is, whether because it was his image or because he was genuinely strange, Hachiro loved and lived out the odd, the bizarre. The scary, even.
I taught him in a basic ESL class seven years ago. The image is clear—Hachiro’s face opening wide like some kind of crazed, clown mask. When he opened his mouth, as he did when he laughed—and he laughed often—thousands of teeth appeared. Savage troops of teeth, it seemed, about to storm the classroom.
Hachiro never seemed to be laughing at anything in particular—that was part of the craziness. His head fell back and his mouth fell open. Much of the time it seemed like he was listening to someone, who read punch lines to him in Japanese.
Sometimes there was a particular event at which he directed his laughter, but the bizarreness of these made Hachiro seem even scarier. One night, for example, he played a video in class of his friend having a particularly sensitive part of his body tattooed. In the video, the friend shrieked and wailed. As Hachiro watched, he laughed that bizarre, maniacal laugh that caused him to lean back in his chair and float back inside his head, his face. A strand of Japanese words ran like dribble out of his mouth, as he talked to himself or to that being that was floating just inside or above his head.
This head of Hachiro’s was shaved, with tattoos brocading the sides and running up and down his neck and arms. Some students said he was a Yakuza, a Japanese gangster; others said he was a “wannabe” Yakuza or hip-hop figure. Perhaps in order to perpetuate this image, Hachiro once stormed the front of the classroom. The four other students froze as he read some rap he’d written that featured a decked-out convertible, pornographic plots and a weapon or two.
A couple of weeks after he started school, Hachiro pulled a bottle of whiskey out of his knapsack and said, “Teacher, you want drink!” He loved the outrageous and enjoyed terrifying the Japanese girls who sat behind him, who told me, “He is very crazy man.”
In my teens, I had my own experience with crazy. In New England, where I lived, a group of us from the twelve step meetings I’d attended, hung out. We smoked, talked about our antidepressants, and visited mental hospitals on the weekends.
There was my boyfriend Andrew who lost his mind in a dramatic scene. That is, one day, for no apparent reason, Andrew ran into the woods as a helicopter spun down on him. He went to a mental hospital. When he got out, he shot his television with a rifle. He told people that he was Jim Morrison. He strutted through town, in his plaids and bandana, in his converse sneakers and jeans. He was in and out of mental hospitals. Jones was the name of the place— Jones II for the less serious patients, and Jones III, where he’d ultimately ended up, after the helicopter scene, the locked ward.
In those New England years, all of us piled into old cars filled with cigarette smoke and either flashed catatonic looks at the icy landscape or shouted something or other in a loud, declarative voice, about our sick minds or thoughts, our fucked-up relationships, our fucked-up insides. Some talked about LSD flashbacks, some said they wanted to kill themselves.
Some were legitimately ill, I am sure, or at least battling depression, anxiety. Maybe some were just there, caught up in the cool craze of it all, as we barreled down the small streets, past the church and the library. Perhaps, for a few, it was just some way to act or be that would guarantee attention, distinction, uniqueness, maybe even immortality—our personalities so wild and alive it seemed that they could never die, that death could never take them down. Perhaps not.
Even as I talked about crazy like it was some cool thing that you could put on or take off at will, it did find me at an early age, and returned periodically over the years. Probably because I come from a long lineage of panic-stricken women, probably because of certain events across my lifetime, it was bound to happen.
For years there had been the OCD. There were periods when it mellowed, and periods when it raged. I sometimes pictured it, a big-faced man, gloating or peeling back his lips to show rows of gargantuan teeth. This man spoke in a voice that sounded like a sci-fi, distortion of a voice, a voice running across metal landscapes, through burnt-out wires. This voice was not a voice in the auditory sense, but an imagined one in the mind. The voice told me to touch the door four times, to re-read the sentences four times, and another four, spoke in a darkly colored tone, as he told me not to wear the black socks, because if I did, somebody would die. In more recent years, the panic attacks surfaced. On the bus, looking at the stretches of city, of land, of road, of street, there was both a feeling of claustrophobia, and of hurling through some endless, unstoppable space at the same time. Then, there was the fear that I would choke. Don’t inhale or swallow, I thought, and I attempted to breathe just a little, and let just a little saliva slide down my throat. Then there were the sweats and, eventually, the feeling that my throat was bunching up. I talked one time to a passenger who didn’t speak English. She smiled, holding her hands across her lap, over her purse. I said that it was a beautiful day, and she smiled. I asked her how she was. She smiled again. I tried to hold onto the moment, keep it still, pin it down, anesthetize it, but the moment was rolling all over the place, ping-ponging off the walls of the bus, sliding from one end of the bus to the other. The sweats would then start up, and the jack-hammering in the chest. The OCD then took the opportunity to make his pitch—touch the chair four times, or else you will choke.
I was living in Los Angeles, with half a dozen jobs behind me, jobs I’d walked out of because I thought I was choking, having a heart attack, jobs I hadn’t shown up for because I was too wrecked to get out of bed or get on the bus that I had once asked the driver to let me off of between stops, because I felt that my lungs were collapsing or my throat closing up. I tried to distract myself by looking at the other faces, my feet, by reading, by looking intently at trees and craftsman houses, diners and coffee shops out the window, but all this only made it worse.
When one is crazy or ill with anxiety for a period of time, one often ends up occupying one’s apartment full-time, frozen to the sofa, afraid to move. The aloneness of such behavior then causes one to live shut-in with their thoughts, thoughts that run back and forth, collapse in exhaustion and then get back up and do it all again. By the time I got that job, I’d been so isolated that when I talked I felt like my mouth was moving through an encasement of cement. I felt my eyes wobbling strangely in my head. I learned that when one is alone too long, one is sure to feel even crazier than one might feel when crazy and with people, and that when one truly feels crazy, one will do anything to cover it.
I saw different therapists. One had me jump up and down and count to ten, spin around and count to twenty. The treatment was, it seems, intended to exhaust me to the point where I no longer thought about the anxiety that caused my throat to bunch up at 2 a.m., that launched me out of bed and running through the hallway of my run-down Hollywood building, yelling “help,” causing the already awake drunk guy and the sleeping middle-aged woman to open their doors and just stare at me.
Then I saw Dr. S, who wore high-fashion pants, sleek, black shoes, smart glasses. Everything about him was ironed and pressed; everything about me was crumpled and ripped. He told me that I’d probably need medication and he was right. He also told me that I’d need to find a job. I was a writer, I told him. He mentioned the issue of rent, which I’d been unable to pay. He was kind enough not to mention the bounced or post-dated checks I’d given him. He was kind enough not to mention my holey shoes. I want to write, I told him, something I was sure he didn’t understand, when he insisted that I also needed to find some kind of paid employment.
I finally sought out a job teaching ESL, something I’d done for several months at a time at a couple of schools. I had a degree in English and, while I didn’t know grammar, I could teach idioms and vocabulary and could sometimes be engaging in a classroom. The woman who interviewed me was a young brunette, with the cool, tranquil look of California’s coasts in her eyes. I took a grammar test and failed it miserably. I gave a teaching demonstration. Perhaps she was desperate, but when she offered me the job, I wanted to say—because I really liked her and didn’t want to create chaos for her as I had with previous employers—“You don’t really want to hire me, do you?”
In that first month or two at the ESL school, the anxiety caused me to feel like I was flying around outside my body and looking down. This anxiety often caused my words to sound slushy and strange when I tried to speak them in front of my class.
Hachiro didn’t help; his smiling clown face, the muttered words only scared me more. I was terrified enough of Hachiro to speak to the school manager. I asked that he be moved to another class. But, Hachiro repeatedly showed up in my classrooms. While the other students socialized, shared “selfies” and snacks, Hachiro only talked to me. He walked into my class like a lopsided punctuation mark, sat down squiggly and sideways in a desk and spoke half nonsensical, half Japanese to me and to the person just above or inside his head.
In an attempt to explain simple words or phrases, I drew pictures. These pictures often made less sense than my confused explanations. In an attempt to be creative and engaging, as I tried to explain a word like shopping, I’d draw an entire store—with barely discernible sketches of cans, peas, milk oranges and shampoo.
Trying to bring some sense to my explanations, and, at the same time, keep a lid on Hachiro’s crazies, I asked him, on a whim, to be the class artist. Whenever I needed someone to make a picture—draw a scene to accompany a sentence—I asked Hachiro. And so it went. Hachiro composed detailed sketches of places—Los Angeles County Museum when we did the chapter on activities, portraits of his scared classmates when we did chapters on looks and personality. In these portraits, it seemed that another him, maybe that person inside or above his head, had emerged. His drawings were beautifully intricate. The faces featured delicate, faraway, longing looks. Below the sketches of downtown buildings were images of the homeless: penciled strands of hair strewn over distorted faces. The body, a thin, writhing line.
Now, instead of antagonizing the Japanese girls in the class, he wove his sketches, occasionally laughing or muttering something to his pencil, his paper.
Dr. S taught me that these thoughts I had during OCD episodes and panic were just the OCD and the panic speaking, not plausible outcomes. He taught me how to step away from those thoughts, watch them whirl around on the sidelines without getting sucked in. He had me record thoughts: If I don’t step on this carpet eight times, my mother will die, I am going to choke, I have to get off this bus now, there’s something in my throat, if I don’t use four words that begin with the letter p in my sentence, then someone will die. We discussed such thoughts, their validity, the possibility that touching the carpet eight times could actually prevent my mother’s sudden death. He told me to remind myself that these were just the thoughts I had during OCD fits and during panic.
Since I was one of very few people who actually talked to him during his two years of study, Hachiro followed me all over the school, saying nonsensical phrases in English and punctuating and peppering them with lots of Japanese. Alongside these ramblings ran Hachiro’s laugh track as he marched up and down the hall after me, throwing his head back, letting his laughter roll crazily out, narrating something or other to that person above or inside his head. “I’m nuts too,” I sometimes wanted to say to Hachiro, but I think he probably knew that already.
I asked Hachiro to draw the vocabulary words each lesson. “I draw your dress,” he said and he did. He drew my discount-store dress and made it look like something charming and cute, not the rag-tag drapery that it was. I asked other students to dictate drawings to him, using the vocabulary, and they did, even though they mostly were a little frozen-faced in the process.
After some medication, a year with Dr. S, and bands of students to pull me out of myself, I discovered that I wasn’t that unique, or at least no more than the other six million panic sufferers, and two million OCD sufferers.
What I didn’t know then was that in the years ahead, some of my own talent, like Hachiro’s, would surface, as my students and the classroom became the muse I’d been searching for in my mind and my run-down apartment. I looked at the moon sliding back behind the cinder block Torrance buildings and didn’t know that I would later grow to miss and love this place.
During the first months of teaching, and even some of the later ones, I, like any legitimately panic-stricken person, pretended that I wasn’t unraveling much of the time, or at least tried to pretend. In the same way, Hachiro pretended something, though I’m not sure what—that he was nuts, that he was a tough, scary guy, that he was a Yakuza or Japanese gangster, that he wasn’t actually the tender-hearted guy who composed those delicate drawings, perhaps that he was just amusingly weird and not a complete psychopath.
Tonight, when Hachiro writes to me from Japan, his initial stream of normalcy is interrupted by some more expected, incomprehensible things. “What are you doing, Hachiro?” “Smoking cigarettes all day,” he says. I am somewhat relieved, as he makes his odd remarks and writes the sentence, “I am strange man” because it is how I remember him. He tells me he misses me. I never thought I’d think it but I miss him too and want to thank him for making me feel a little less the oddball out, a little less the misplaced punctuation mark, the strand of senseless words at a time when crazy was the last thing I wanted.