Declan planned to have a nervous breakdown. He had studied the DSM-IV and ICD-10 and knew that there was no formal definition for a nervous breakdown or a mental breakdown, but the terms were synonymous. Some ideas struck like lightening. Other ideas took time to construct: they built like skyscrapers in your thoughts and cast long shadows.
Randy at the restaurant had brown teeth stained from tobacco. He said, “Five years of university and you’re mopping floors.” Declan didn’t respond because it wasn’t funny. He had been helping Randy learn English for the past three years and at that moment considered imposing a fee.
He mopped around the dish area. The head dishwasher was Johnny. One of the first things Johnny said when Declan met him was that he was on DISH (which is, Disability Insurance for the Severely Handicapped). He received a check from the government for $1700.0 every month. Declan gave Johnny rides home from work if they were off at the same time. He charged five dollars every ride. He didn’t feel guilty over charging Johnny for gas and Johnny never complained. Declan felt guilty over not imposing the same fee on his friends.
The smart lady at the employment center who edited Declan’s resume told him that one of her friends was on DISH and she had her master’s degree. She was going for her PhD and used DISH as a safety net. Who said a university graduate couldn’t be severely handicapped?
With Declan’s previous trips to the psych ward already on record, another breakdown might qualify him for DISH. Guaranteed, tax-free income in this economy was hard to deny, especially with student debt and a minimum wage job. He could go for his master’s. He could do anything within the limits of his purchasing power and that safety net would always be there, every month.
Declan factored student debt payments against the minimum wage and wasn’t surprised that it would take a couple decades to be debt-free. He imagined having a conversation with a psychiatrist. It didn’t matter if the cup was half-full or half-empty, what mattered was the size of the cup. The size of the cup indicated desire. For example, if Declan looked at his financial situation with “optimism,” with the hope that the economy would “get better,” as Ashley liked to say, the bigger picture concerning the Trans Pacific Partnership came to mind and destroyed every idea of democracy that he clung to. The Trans Pacific Partnership gave private corporations the ability to sue governments for potential losses in revenue. Declan had these imaginary conversations about injustice all the time, especially while he mopped floors at work. He wondered to what degree his previous nervous breakdowns were affected by his knowledge of everyone’s inevitable servitude to capitalists and central bankers.
Declan asked Johnny if he liked to read.
He replied with a vehement, “No.” His intonation was probably equivalent to the common person’s reaction to something like animal cruelty. Declan had never witnessed animal cruelty. Where did these similes come from? He pulled up to Johnny’s house. Johnny slapped a five in Declan’s hand, “See you tomorrow.”
Everything seemed to be on sale at the grocery store. All the prices marked down. He had quit smoking cigarettes two years ago, but Ashley and him still had to resort to the food bank every other week. The line outside the food bank was growing every year. Conversely, the quantity and quality of donations was atrophying.
Ashley had been very supportive of Declan’s previous nervous breakdowns. She didn’t care that he was on medication that made him tired. The sex was still great.
Of course she opposed his plan. His ingenious, scheming, conniving plan. His plan was a skyscraper: a symbol that had been growing since graduation.
Declan told Ashley that with his past breakdowns—and one more—he could qualify for the monthly checks. On top of that, if he worked, he might actually stand a chance of getting out of student debt at some point in life. He could help Ashley with her debt, too.
“Pretending to have a nervous breakdown to get on DISH is criminal,” she said.
Declan showed her the receipts from the grocery store. He asked her if she liked going to the food bank and finding only tomatoes and bread. He told her not to forget about the ever-increasing scarcity of jobs. “The market is evaporating like freshwater in California.”
Ashley didn’t need to say, “I don’t want people to think that my partner is severely handicapped,” because Declan thought the same about her and was ashamed of himself to admit this.
“It’s government mismanagement, that’s all,” said Ashley.
Declan didn’t reply.
She said, “I agree that DISH checks should not be more than a full-time worker makes earning minimum wage, but rather than sulk or fake a breakdown, why don’t you aim to change the policy?”
Out of nowhere he was horribly reminded that if minimum wage increased, so would the prices of everything else.
“I forbid any staged nervous breakdowns you might be planning,” declared Ashley.
He asked her how she would know if it was staged or not.
She walked away, her footfalls reverberating off the walls.
The causes of a nervous breakdown were ambiguous: divorce; problems at work or school; financial problems.
The ambiguity was to Declan’s advantage because all of the causes could be distilled into the phenomenon of stress. Some stress he was unconscious of: this was also to his benefit in reverse-engineering a nervous breakdown. He planned to tell the psychiatrist of the nightmares. What about daymares? He Goggled the word, surprised that it was in fact a word. Dictionary.com provided two definitions: “1. a distressing experience, similar to a bad dream, occurring while one is awake 2. an acute anxiety attack.” Declan had daymares all the time: his life was a constant daymare so long as he was earning minimum wage, was expected to pay off debt, and Johnny made more than him and almost everybody else in the kitchen. Declan knew that he was letting this bother him more than it should. But what really bothered him was that he knew that he could qualify for the checks, but the fact that he sort of needed them and sort of didn’t made him twitch.
The bank called. They wanted to know why Declan was missing his payments. He opened his mouth but words failed him in the daymare. He tried telling whoever was on the line what everyone told him about education and the job at the end. The phone was shaking as he stuttered those disparate things. No, the phone wasn’t shaking: it was his hand. The daymare reached a climax in unforgiving irony because Declan honestly didn’t know if he needed DISH or not. But nothing that he said or did mattered: no debt with banks would change with a nervous breakdown…unless he had one in front of a psychiatrist.
How he met with the psychiatrist is he provided the bank representative on the phone with a storm of hyperventilation, tears, and a runny nose. He conjured an onslaught of suicidal dialogue. The scary thing was that Declan himself didn’t know to what degree he was genuine. He certainly wasn’t suicidal, but it was necessary to sound like he was so that the bank representative would follow the law. That meant calling the cops.
The officers knocked on Declan’s door. He stepped out to meet them wearing a bathrobe and the most saturnine of expressions. They seemed almost bored as they drove him to the psychiatric ward.
The psychiatrist commented on Declan’s history of nervous breakdowns. She didn’t say anything about daymares. She might not have known about them. Declan was put on medication. The daymare was still present, but he was detached from reality. He told the psychiatrist about the symptoms on the DSM-IV and ICD-10 which plagued him and were getting worse every day. Chronic stress and anxiety made him psychotic.
Declan said that he had to work tomorrow, but he didn’t know how—and the lack of grammaticality in his statement was the whole point because it meant at least two things.
The psychiatrist said she didn’t think that work was a very practical idea—not only tomorrow—Declan needed an extended leave. The daymare started to stop for the first time in years because a golden dawn replaced the skyscraper. He needed DISH. Ashley couldn’t possibly hold anything against him. She was concerned about her image in the eyes of others if he went on DISH, but she would look conceited if she abandoned her partner while he was suffering. By virtue of the impasse that Declan had posed to her concerning the difference between fake and legitimate nervous breakdowns, neither he nor her could say anything to the contrary concerning his condition. Eventually he was released from the hospital and was approved for DISH.
Declan felt guilty over accepting the five dollars from Johnny, but he didn’t know why. Carrying around large amounts of cash wasn’t smart, but he couldn’t bring himself to deposit or spend the five-dollar bills. He continually accepted them, saving them in a single stack in the glove box. It felt as though the currency belonged to someone else.
Some ideas struck like lightening. One morning he woke up and kissed Ashley on her cheek. He drove to the grocery store, loaded a cart with non-perishable goods, and spent all of the fives at the till.
Declan told the grateful volunteers at the food bank, very firmly, they didn’t need to thank him.
Jason Elford writes short fiction, poems, and novels. His work has appeared in Foliate Oak, The Worcester Journal, The Machinery, and STOPGap. He lives in Calgary, Alberta.