This morning, as I was drinking a cup of coffee, a day after my 43rd birthday, I felt a convulsive scattering across the roof of my mouth.
I choked. And spit.
I looked down and saw the bug lying upside down in the light brown liquid, its legs kicking profusely.
I stared at it.
I knew what it was. And I knew where it came from.
The bugs had been with me for as long as I could remember. They are part of my life. I don’t like it, they just are.
At first I was afraid of them. Disgusted. I could feel them crawling over the surface of my hippocampus and through the channels of my amygdala.
I used to scratch my forehead incessantly because I could feel something crawling under my skin, beneath my skull. Like something had burrowed into my nasal passages at night and worked its way into my prefrontal cortex. And laid its eggs. That’s what my brother always told me. We all heard those stories as kids, right?
I didn’t know what it was, or if it was even normal. I was a pre-teen going through a lot of weird changes. A lot of things didn’t make sense at the time.
I remember my first experience with the bugs. I was in middle school at a friend’s birthday party. Introverted, standing away from the crowd. I didn’t know why, and I know it sounds selfish, but I just didn’t feel like being there. The thought of being around groups of people was daunting to me. I forced myself to go, knowing I wasn’t going to have any fun. I just wanted to be at home, locked away in the safety of my bedroom where no one could bother…no, harm me.
So while I was at this party, I felt the itching again. More intense this time. I was worried someone would see me scratching and scrunching my nose, point it out to others, and people would ridicule me. I tried to hide it. I don’t know why I didn’t go to the bathroom before it happened, I just stood there. To my complete disgust, the bug fell from my nose onto my sleeve. I gasped and swatted at it but it just dropped and scurried away into the corner.
I don’t think anyone noticed because no one said anything and people were even coming up to me to talk.
That’s when I knew I was different than a lot of other kids at school.
That was when I knew I had something.
I couldn’t sleep at night. I could feel the bugs scurrying over the macaroni-like canals of my brain as I tossed and turned. I was exhausted during the day but couldn’t sleep for beans at night.
I later learned about something called cortisol, and that it made a part of my brain larger and more active. This is what caused my disturbances – what made it impossible to sleep.
I think the bugs make cortisol in their bodies and then inject it into my brain like venom. It’s what makes me feel and act the way I do.
“It’s just a phase”, my dad said. “Probably from you starting middle school this year.”
“You’ll get better, honey”, my mom comforted.
They just didn’t know.
I didn’t know.
Eventually I came to accept that the bugs were there to stay. I somehow got used to the itching. What choice did I have?
My parents sent me to therapy with my ludicrous and unexplainable rantings of “brain bugs”. The doctor was gentle and understanding while I explained through tears and hanging my head in shame .
“They’re always there”, I sobbed.
“I know”, he whispered. “We’re going to help you.”
I didn’t really understand what the medicine he gave me did, or what it was called. It had letters though-I think an “s” or two, an “r”, and an “i”, or something like that. I was desperate. I couldn’t live like this anymore. Especially when no one believed me.
I took the pills every day like he told me. After a few weeks, the itching began to subside. It was still there, just not as intense. Muted. I learned how to keep the bugs more-or-less contained, though they were always there . At least the medicine helped prevent them from falling out of my ears or nose. I could still feel them moving back and forth inside my skull but I was numb at the same time. I think the medicine made me feel that way – zombie-ish.
I remember that several months after I began therapy, I noticed a girl standing by herself in the cafeteria. She was pretty so I didn’t understand why she was by herself. Probably just waiting on some friends I guessed.
Her eyes darted around the room, almost like she was nervous or didn’t want to be there.
And then I saw her scratch her forehead and wrinkle her nose a few times.
When I walked over to her, she sheepishly looked at me with the one eye that wasn’t hidden behind her beautiful brown hair.
“I’ve got ’em, too”, I told her, casting my gaze down to the ground.
A tear glistened down her cheek.
“Come on”, I nodded.
She smiled. Her eyebrow lifted.
And we turned and got into line to buy our food