The Ghost Who Haunts My Dreams

My head told me that I couldn't stay with Tim, but my heart said I was a monster

A ghost has haunted my dreams for more than 30 years. He is evanescent and ephemeral, in the way of dream figures. Unlike most ghosts, however, today he exists somewhere, most likely balding, with a pot belly.

Long ago, I knew him well. His name was Tim—still is, I guess. He was a frat boy with a houseful of Beta brothers all bound for law and medical school. His daddy was a doctor, and the golden boy was on the same track. He had a loving family, with two sisters, a brother and a stepmother. His own mother died when he was 11 after being hospitalized for mental illness.

One evening, after we had dated for four years, he came to my apartment on Kansas City's Country Club Plaza. He was agitated and told me I must call his father to drive two long hours to come pick him up. I did. Then, he told me, I must rub his back as he lay on the floor. I must not say a word. I rubbed his back and stroked his hair, the color of ripe winter wheat. Later, much later, he told me he would have killed me if I had breathed a sound.

People throw around the word "crazy," but they do not know what the word means. They say someone is "bipolar," but have no idea of the psychosis on the outer edge of that description. Most people have never encountered someone who is psychotic, someone who can't be reached, who has moved beyond the pale. They do not comprehend the suddenness with which such an illness can descend, like a heavy curtain shutting out the light. For the first four years I knew him, Tim seemed completely normal, a quiet and studious scholar who perhaps drank a little too much, but spent most of his time studying and spending comfortable time with me. And then came the darkness.

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Everything cracked and changed that night. My golden boy was gone to a place I could not understand. When Tim's father arrived, he took him to a local hospital. The next day, Tim tried to strangle himself with a tie and jumped out of a third floor window. He wanted to die.

I realized that Tim's father, a pediatrician in a small Kansas town, had lived this nightmare before with his own wife. Manic-depressive psychosis, I discovered that night, is hereditary. Tim's father, a dour, quiet, potbellied man, found an expensive psychiatric hospital in Texas that would try to bind up his broken son. I didn't see Tim for months, but with the naivete of youth and the altruism of a certain kind of personality, I waited faithfully for word and wrote him regularly.

One night, I dreamed Tim was distraught after receiving my letter, and realized I should not write him again. Maybe he told me that in the dream, I don't remember. The next day his stepmother called to tell me his doctors had decided I must not write because my letters upset him too much. I told her I already knew. His stepmother, a university professor, was shocked speechless.

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Perhaps the ghost in my dreams had been guiding me through the trauma. Tim spent a year in the hospital and then insisted on moving in with me for two years. During that time, I learned about psychotic mania—the times when he was so crazy that he didn't sleep for days and his speech was an incomprehensible word salad. He had unspeakable delusions and was completely unreachable. It was like he wasn't there.

I became skilled at checking him into the local hospital, and met a whole new cast of characters who suffered with schizophrenia and other devastating psychic illnesses. His depression was easier to deal with; I understood depression. The swing toward mania, however, was very hurtful and harmful. He spent money wildly and became hypersexual. As a medical student, he apparently had a delicious smorgasbord of femininity laid out for him, and I stayed at home when he went out on the town.

Finally, I abandoned Tim. I left town and never looked back, severing all relationships with almost anyone who ever knew him. A master of compartmentalization, I did not think about him, nor did I ever mention him for more than 20 years. In my head, I knew I could not stay with him, but in my heart I thought I was a monster. I didn't know for years whether he had committed suicide. I thought that might be the case.

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The dream character came to me every six months or so, sometimes as he once was and sometimes as a person in my present life, all mixed up with my husband and children.

After I left Kansas City, I lived in the New York City suburbs for 17 years. Then, we returned to Kansas City for a short time. It took more than two decades, but I was finally able to talk about Tim. Still not knowing, fearing he was dead, I called his sister. She was shocked to hear from me, but said he was all right and married to one of his paramours from the days when I knew him. I don't believe he ever worked as a doctor.

She hesitated, and then the words rushed out.

"He always thought you would come back," she said. "He always thought you would come back."

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