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The Bees In My Brain

I’d see the soft outline of a couch or get a whiff of coffee roasting in machines, and it was like I was smelling diesel, blood mixed with dust. The bees would start to buzz frantically then, and the noise was deafening.

May 12, 2021

May is mental health awareness month. The following is part of a short series we’re publishing on The Margins centering on mental health. Look out for more in the series this week.

I was trying to articulate a feeling to you last night, something that’s happening in my mind. 

My mind was once a hive of bees. These bees were busy in their work, furiously caught up in the urgency of a task: analyzing a fight, a rumor, quietly connecting these skirmishes to insecurities. I used to spend my days paranoid and empty, walking into spaces like they were war zones. I’d see the soft outline of a couch or get a whiff of coffee roasting in machines, and it was like I was smelling diesel, blood mixed with dust. The bees would start to buzz frantically then, and the noise was deafening. 

I think this is how depression works. Not a personal rain cloud following you around all day, but chaos, loud and banging, in your brain. You know this of course. We talked about it on our first date. You reached for me with trepidation, until we were touching, hands interlaced, palms damp.

I once asked a coworker if she’d ever been depressed. She looked at me all funny, like I’d asked her if she’d farted. “Well, it’s New York, we’re all depressed, right?” Then she laughed. I couldn’t tell if she thought it was a joke.

Does everyone else have a hive in their head? I thought, looking at her shiny hair and perfect braids. An angry set of bees commanding their body to do more?     

You should know that I’m eager. I want to please everyone, my bosses, you, even this girl with her up-turned nose. There’s a face people make when they like you, not always a smile, but a look of equanimity, like they don’t really care if you can see the wrinkles in their skin. I search for that look, always. Contorting my words and ideas, waiting patiently, until bingo, someone smiles, and like Moses parting the sea, I find land again, a fragile harbor, opening up in my core. There I am momentarily safe. 

The first time I saw this look, I was young, maybe seven. I was dictating facts about the Titanic to my dad—the number of passengers, the levels of the ship, the angle at which it made impact with the ice. My dad decided we were going to turn this into a video-recorded presentation. It became a whole pageant. I spent hours pouring over textbooks, with large, glossy images of decayed leather bags, tarnished jewels, and other underwater artifacts. I put on a frock, a purple-colored jerkin, and when he hit record, I did my best Amanpour, affecting the seriousness of what transpired on that day. 

I can still remember how my father reacted to my words, shifting like a warm block of ice. His shoulders slackened and his mouth went wide. He looked so pleased, this puddle of a man. He grinned until the very last word, and I think that’s when I learned what pleasure looks like. To this day, I seek that, like my father’s face is a platonic ideal, the form of the Pleased Human. 

The problem, of course, is that it’s hard to please people and also please yourself. It’s like one of those absurd circus acts—walking a tightrope while also juggling rings of flame—scary and thrilling all at once. Most of the time, I flail, plummeting to my death. Why don’t they like me?

The bees in my brain have their reasons. You are not enough, they say. You have done nothing worthy. Everyone is better than you.     

I remember once, long ago, I was weeping over broken glass, staring at a shattered painting of Rama holding Sita, her bright saree reaching past the ends of the frame. He stood there, his body twisted like an old tree, brooding over the mess he made. I tried to tell him to please stop screaming, while also screaming myself, which has never worked. Then my anger swelled. We wrestled, big body, small body, like David and Goliath, until his words found me, hot and sharp. Yena paavum poorva janathe na panain?  

What evil did I do in my last life to have earned you?

It’s a weird thing to feel like someone’s curse. I’d rattle my ribcage, wondering if there was something trapped in there, like the old soul of a demon queen. Was I designed to hurt him? I’d think, looking at my slim body. If so, what kind of feeble punishment was this?

I’m not even sure how the fight began. I think I’d come home from school and my dad had said something off-hand about my work or scores. And I’d called him stupid, probably called him fucking stupid. That was enough. He changed, his charming face slipping into something more feral, until I couldn’t recognize him, the sweet guy my hairdresser had had a crush on for years.

We fought a lot in those years. That’s when the bees started to form, I think. I’d sometimes wonder if my dad had bees of his own. Little creatures that spoke to him in his native tongue, telling him he wasn’t good enough, too. 

I used to imagine my hive had a queen, mean and regal. She was the master of this mind, sending out sharp, perfunctory orders to the rest of the hive. Her voice was dusty and fried, and broke often, in that way that seems to really irritate anonymous men on the internet. Like the sound of boots over brush fire, crack, crack, one stray cigarette away from blazing with flame. 

Sometimes, though, the voice would change, and I’d recognize someone else in there. A voice like mine, but more baritone, chocolatey and warm. A voice that loved me, I think, but was also needlessly harsh.

One day you asked me whose voice I thought it was. We both knew, but I really wasn’t ready to get into it. I didn’t want to feel like some stereotype, a girl in bed crying to her boyfriend about her father. And so instead of seeing the truth of the situation – boy meets girl, boy loves girl, boy wants to be there for girl – I buckled over, letting our starchy comforter absorb me whole. You rubbed the small of my back in tiny concentric circles, and I wondered in that moment if you could see the bees, moving ferociously, making quick work of my anxious thoughts.

But now this hive is mutating. Suddenly, it is no longer a hive, but a giant white bird, pristine and flawless, soaring freely out of my mind. Now my mind—this bird—is far above the clouds, watching the dawn sun turn from blue to purple to blush. There’s a clarity that finds me here, like the mist on a mirror, which evaporates only to leave behind perfect, unspoiled glass. Here I live for delight and pleasure. Here, I know that the delight of eating a sharp, juicy fruit is equal to any award. Here, I can see that the trees with their leafy crowns and weathered skins are Gods.

I don’t know if this is a product of the hours spent talking to professionals or the tiny pills I now swallow, who, like little soldiers with pointy swords, keep the bees at bay. I’m not sure when, exactly, I could no longer feel the bees, but eventually, they became sluggish and corpse-like, their bodies piling up at the bottom of my psyche. 

Now I twirl, and dive, and soar, and laugh—a crow’s laugh—throaty and shrill, a sound that bounces through the air like frogs leaping in a pond. When I tire of this mindful mindlessness, I look down. The earth is far away.

I see my coworker’s pinched nose as she gets interrupted again. I see her jaw tense, her cheeks flush; I see her feeling small. I see it change her outlook of others, of people who admire and respect her; I see how now she thinks, everyone believes I am small.

I see the tentacles, gentle strands of light, that connect each of us. They are like the strings of a violin, waiting to be plucked. And then a person is casually cruel, and a string thrums angrily, transmitting a harsh music, dimming another’s light.  

As more and more strings hum, creating a dissonant symphony, vulnerabilities are swapped for a kind of magery—a dance of image and ego. I watch as humans morph into actors, compelled by the same inane chant, what will others think? What will others think? So we make ourselves smaller, faker, more pleasing. Or puff ourselves up beyond recognition, till we are a needle-pierce away from nothing, from being a shriveled, over-stretched balloon.

I see my coworker with her fox-like face and beautiful braids. She has returned to her boyfriend’s home. She is crying softly. Today someone asked if I’ve ever been depressed, she says. Do you think she could tell what’s been happening in my head?

He holds her, this boy, like you might hold me, and together, they sit there, shaking, as the sun dips below the skyline. The land eats it whole, until all that’s left is night. 

I blink, and it’s a Tuesday. I’m sitting across my father in our family home. He’s fingering the saffron covering of our sofa gingerly, teasing the threads from its tassels. I watch the coverlet unspool, nerves jangling. We’ve just fought. A 20-year history of mental and physical abuse lies between us, like a bloated animal, slain and forgotten, now washing ashore.

I remember the first time I thought, oh, my dad is small. He was visiting me at Cambridge University, where I’d just begun classes. We were peddling around the campus. He rode ahead of me so he could set the pace. I watched him bounce up and down on his bike, and his body looked so immaterial, like a dandelion that might, at any minute, be ripped out by the wind. What would I wish on if his body crumpled there, unexpectedly? 

He turned around then, grinning wildly, and I saw the boy he once was, biking through the streets of Thirunaveli, fooling around and getting hurt. I loved him then, intensely. I could see him trying, trying to smile at me and enjoy my world. Trying to enjoy his world.

In those years, I’d changed, and in becoming larger, drawing more gravity and space, I’d forced him to change too.

There was once a time when I poured a little water on my dad’s head. I still don’t know what came over me—it was as if some prankster alter ego took over, and like a puppet master, pulled my arm above his head. I was staring at the faint balding spot on his scalp, and then suddenly, it was wet.

He jumped up and yelped, and I could see his muscles moving, going hard and rigid under his skin. Fuck, I thought, why the fuck did I do that?

But his anger never came. Instead, I watched him wrestle with his own body, telling each muscle to quiet down, like a master scolding his hounds. Then he walked away to clean up his face. When he returned, he took my hand, and said, I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to get angry. You didn’t get angry, I thought. But we both knew he was apologizing for something else. For reminding me of a person he used to be, a person we wanted to leave in the past.

Now, I am sitting across my father again. My fear of him returns, like a phantom limb. My body’s memory is long, and my bones remember, even when I tell them hush, honey, it’s going to be ok.

Tears break on my father’s face. For a moment, I see my face; the face that cried over a broken toy; the face that cried when a girl dumped her; the face that cries when her father screams. I faintly hear the words play on his lips; Manichiru, Preeti. Manichiru. But they never leave his throat. His face, our face, just as soon vanishes. Now all I see is stone.

I sigh. The music posed to thrum between us, a gentle melody, goes cold.

The earth is poisoned, I realize, and we are poisoning it. I fight the impulse to soar higher, to leave, to find a bramble and make a home, far away from desks, and offices, and endless cups of coffee, far away from a place where deliverables are king and salesman make more than creators; where disruption disrupts nothing and markets matter more than lives; far, far away, nearer to the sun, nearer to the stars; nearer to the right Gods, still a crow. I fight the urge to flee, to build a home with just you, my love, my one.

But instead, I descend, mind still flying, and reach for him. My dad wails, and I let him, and like that, something that once was broken, slowly starts to mend.