Alex Difrancesco | Longreads | April 2017 | 8 minutes (2,070 words)
Last year in New York City a 19-year-old engineering student named Nayla Kidd went completely off the grid. She changed bank accounts, cell phone providers, shut down her social media, and ditched out of her Ivy League college to move to Bushwick and become an artist and model, all without ever informing anyone in her life. Social media jumped all over the story, and then the news outlets followed suit. Kidd was a missing person for around two weeks when the police finally found her.
I remember reading her post-discovery missive in The New York Post, complete with discussions about her fancy boarding school, full scholarship to Columbia University, calculated plans, the loving mom who had clearly sacrificed for her, and thinking it was a story of the ultimate callousness. She’d had everything, but she said the pressure was entirely too much, that she’d wanted to run away and have the fun life she saw in an East Williamsburg loft she was thinking of renting. I remember reading it, sitting there and staring at the the words while thinking of my own picture plastered across subways and bus stations. How could she do such a thing intentionally? Didn’t she understand what it was like to be truly lost, to need help? Didn’t she understand that so many people were, that it was not some game?
Perhaps I was jealous. When my mental illness made me a missing person in 2010, the NYPD suggested to my friends who reported me missing that I had run off to follow a band. Though my friends set up a cross-country network of activists looking for me in any of the places they thought I might have been, the NYPD did little. Had the cops accessed my bank account, or even looked at my Metrocard swipes (an investigation practice well-established by law enforcement by 2010), they’d have easily figured out that I wandered around the city aimlessly for days before taking a bus to my hometown and checking myself into a hospital. When I saw Kidd’s story, I thought of all the resources that had gone into her “case,” and all of those of us who really were lost, unhealthy, and scared, who were given little to no help.
Alone in a hospital bed that year, unknown, technically still “missing,” my head still a wash of paranoia and confusion, I began to entertain a fantasy. What if I moved to the Midwest? Changed my name? My gender? Grew a beard? They were thoughts I couldn’t remember ever before having had, but they seemed exactly like what I should do in that moment. I had a vision of myself, flat-chested, wearing a white Hanes T-shirt, a genderless pair of Levis, and combat boots. What if I disappeared from all the people in my life? Started over as someone new? I was not well at the time — I was also standing in front of the mirror thinking about a bug I was certain had entered into my skin and had been living in my bloodstream for years, something I now know is obviously not true — but having disappeared from everyone in my life successfully, I began to wonder, “What if I really need to disappear?”
Years later, it wasn’t until I remembered this fantasy that I began to empathize with Nayla Kidd.
At the time I became a missing person, I was fairly happy with my life — not when I thought about it too much, not when the things I couldn’t control took control of me, but fairly happy. At 28, I had just graduated the college I had dreamed of attending when I was 18, where I’d studied creative writing on a hefty scholarship. I had a group of socially engaged, politically aware activist friends whom I considered a family. Though my relationship with my blood family had been strained by my mental illness over the prior few years, I knew that they loved me, even if they couldn’t understand me. Well, that was what I kept telling myself.
I didn’t consciously feel there was any reason for me to disappear.
It had been less than six months since my last nervous breakdown, which occurred around Christmas time, 2009, after I had just finished finals, and my mother and brother came to New York from Pennsylvania to pick me up for holiday break. The minute I got into the car, my brother said something unabashedly racist. I remember putting my head against the cold window of the backseat driver side and shutting down. I’d been going to a really progressive college, I had learned so much, and my family said things like this. They believed my mental illness was “fake,” little more than me “looking for attention.” I rode the whole way home in silence, and, then, curled up in my old bed, I began falling apart.
At one point during the next few, awful days, I began talking to my mom about whether I was a boy or a girl.
“What the fuck is wrong with you?” my older brother screamed. “Do you want mom to have a heart attack? Do you want me to have one? If she does, I’ll fucking kill you. I’ll break you in fucking half. I’ll fucking kill you.”
It would not be the last time he would threaten my life.
After that break, once I got out of the hospital, I returned to school, and didn’t engage much with my blood family. I called them occasionally, I felt bound to them, but I began removing myself from their lives as best I could. By the time May of 2010 rolled around — the time I disappeared — we were speaking less and less.
It’s now been six years since my last mental breakdown, and returning to the state that made me run away from my life is not easy. There is shame and guilt over inappropriate things I’d said or done years before. There had been elaborate paranoid constructions based on biographies I’d read of Brian Wilson. There had been mild visual and auditory hallucinations, such as the one where, walking down the street, I’d imagined I was in a Truman Show-like reality program, and the high-pitched tweets I heard in the sky were drones following and filming me. These are hard memories to return to, made harder by the fact that anyone who’s gone out of sane consciousness knows that a door once opened is never satisfactorily shut. Though I don’t live in fear of losing reality these days, the possibilities will always nag at the back of my mind.
During my breakdowns, there was also some of the most beautiful art I will ever create — two of my early published short stories were written from the depths of these mental hells, in hospitals.
In spring 2010, having just graduated college, I was planning on moving to Mexico to teach ESL. My chosen family of activists and I had just crossed an international border to attend a huge protest. We ran from the police through parks in the night time with helicopters over our heads. We were arrested. By the time we got back home to New York City, my stress level was through the roof, and I saw danger everywhere. I was in a very bad place.
Everyone in my life hated me, I was sure. Even as I curled up, unshowered and deeply depressed, on a friend’s couch while my friends tried to care for me, I was positive that there was something intrinsically unlovable about me, unequivocally wrong, and that any day, those around me would find out. Every relationship in my life was built on a lie, I was sure.
I left the couch for an appointment with my therapist. But in my unwell state, I’d gotten the wrong day, a day the clinic was closed. When I got there, I saw it as confirmation of what I’d been thinking — everyone hated me, they were pushing me out, I was locked out. I sent some cryptic texts to my friends and left my cell phone at a bus stop so I wouldn’t have to answer any more calls from people I was convinced had discarded me.
Confused, depressed, and suicidal, I wandered around Coney Island, then took a train to the end of the 7 line in Queens. I tried to sleep on a subway bench, and the cops harassed me until I left. By this time, my friends had grudgingly admitted that involving police — usually no activist’s best friend — was the only way they might find me. While one NYPD officer was telling them I’d probably run off with a band, another was poking me with his baton and telling me to move along. I spent days being hustled from one place to another before I finally got on a bus, sick and sweaty and barely able to maintain any semblance of normalcy, and headed for my hometown, where I checked myself into a hospital.
It was in the blue plastic bed of that hospital with its scratchy white sheets that I began to imagine a life completely unlike my own — one I could escape to, and start over. One in which I was a different person. Mexico wasn’t far enough. I had an old Metro North ticket receipt in my pocket that I kept looking at. It said THIS IS NOT A TICKET FOR TRAVEL, and I took it as a sign that this receipt was there with me for a reason. It meant something that I was holding it, that, going away geographically but keeping other aspects of my life the same was not an option. There had to be a clean break, and a chance to start over completely.
As my medications kicked in, the thoughts began to clear. In a few days, I picked up the telephone and called my mother, who broke down in tears.
Shortly after that, my mother had a stroke, which my family blamed on my disappearance. My brother threatened to kill me again, and the bonds that I’d been holding onto were finally broken. I haven’t seen them in seven years.
In that time, I’ve gotten stable, mental-health wise. I believe a great number of the things that haunted me — paranoia, feeling others would see me as I couldn’t see myself and judge me unlovable — were relieved when I finally came out as transgender. It was not an easy process. I had fallen in love with another person who was realizing slowly that she was transgender, and so many memories I’d blocked out came flooding back to me as we talked about our identities. Having someone understand me, love me, and support my gender identity let me be the person that I’d been hiding from myself, the too much and too far that some of the people who had said they’d loved me all my life couldn’t allow. Some people did look at the real me and judge me as unlovable. Others adapted, learned, embraced.
I’m certainly not suggesting that all people who go missing are hiding such a deep secret, from themselves and others, but the longer I think about that liminal space of being invisible from those who create the pressures that make us who we are and not who we deeply desire to be, the more I understand why we run.
When I read Nayla Kidd’s story, I saw someone who had everything, but wanted it to be more, different, and exactly what she chose. Don’t we all deserve that, though? At times, I told myself it was enough for me to be the person I had become because of the pressure on me, but deep down, it wasn’t. My psyche wouldn’t allow it. And instead of making calculated moves, I made myself ill. The end result was the same. She ran. I ran.
I’m currently living in the Midwest, with a new name and a new gender, growing a beard. I didn’t have to shed everyone in my life to do this. But maybe it had helped to disappear briefly. I wonder whether I would have made all these major, vital changes toward becoming a truer version of myself if I hadn’t taken the space from everyone — if I hadn’t had a momentary look at what my life might be if I were the only one choosing.
* * *
Alex DiFrancescois a writer, storyteller, baker, and activist. After living in New York City for over a decade, they recently relocated to rural Ohio, where they are still adjusting to things like “Sweetest Day.”
Editor: Sari Botton
from Longreads https://longreads.com/2017/04/14/how-to-disappear/