by Kate Glickman
It started as lightly pressing on the forehead with two or three fingers. When that stopped working, we needed something with more force, like an elbow. Only an elbow was too hard to position. So we tried other things. A book at just the right angle, a coffee mug, a gardening tool. Soon the wall was the only thing that really did the trick, and frankly, it was the most convenient: we could do it anywhere.
The news reported on it briefly. But mostly tied to urban myths or teenage rituals, another gallon-milk challenge. The teenagers who did it were riding the fad; their brains were too young to need the wall. And they never lightly pressed, which is an impossible habit to hide. Even the thickest makeup can’t disguise the faint yellow and green of fingerprint-sized bruises, the mealy look of the skin similar to rotting fruit.
They should have paid attention 10 years ago when the lab mice started running into the walls of their cages. “Why are they doing that?” asked the first postdoc to witness a red-eyed little bugger knock himself out. She published an article about the phenomenon, which she called “targeted cranial desensitizing,” a few months before it became widespread in humans.
I almost exclusively do it for smell. During peach season I found its absence harder and harder to bear. As I sniffed fiercely, making tut-tut-tut noises and scaring my cat, I realized in terror that a peach was my favorite smell. The only smell that unlocked those happy memories of the orchard with my mother when I was younger. We crept in after the farmers and tractors went home, and we ran through the aisles of trees, picking the lush baseballs and giggling, dripping with juice from our noses to our heels.
By this time next year it won’t be in the DSM anymore, and upwards of 90 percent of Fortune 500 companies will be covering it in their nondiscrimination policies. Most workplaces didn’t at first, but after a few quarters of significant savings in their health premiums, leadership took the position of, “Eh, fuck it.” The pharmaceutical companies tumbled. They tried to get their doctors to prescribe anti-hysteria pills to calm the desensitization. Since they didn’t quite understand why the urge originated, they figured the best they could do was to suppress the urge’s intensity. They were heartbroken when most of us never filled our prescriptions, having already deduced that two to three decades on antidepressants was to blame for our synapses’ pliability. Besides, everyone knew that our remedy of instant gratification worked better than medicine.
I was disappointed when I found out that my younger sister had started. She called me one day and described how alive it made her feel, how much more focused and light she had become.
“Jessie,” I said, “Come on.”
“What?” she asked. “It’s amazing.”
She gave such a punch to the word: “ah-MAZE-ing.” I suspected that one day soon the pain would become too much, and she would stop on her own accord. She didn’t need to do it. I knew that before I heard her coo that decadent “MAZE.” For those of us who know what it’s like, we know it’s not amazing. There’s nothing mystical about it. It’s just something we need to do, akin to using the toilet. People like Jessie don’t get the same effect because, for whatever reason, their synapses are just fine. There are longitudinal studies right now that explore the genetics around what they’re calling a predisposition versus an immunity.
I gave up on the smell of laundry a year ago. That one was hard. “It’s just too subtle,” my therapist said, “for your loose synapses.” I went home and worked against the tiled shower wall until I actually lost consciousness. And still—no fresh laundry.
Jessie was the first fatality in the state. “Why on earth would anyone in their right mind bang their head against the wall?” the attorney general beseechingly asked the crowd of fellow Pennsylvanians.
The investigation ended just as fast as it began since they couldn’t figure out how to go about prosecuting impostors. So they wrote suicide on her death certificate. My mother handed me a paper bag that crinkled loudly under her touch.
“Here,” she said. My name was written on the sticker. Take every four hours as needed.
“Mom,” I implored. “What happened to Jessie—”
“Just take the goddamn pills,” she said. “I don’t care if you can’t smell the funeral flowers.”
A light press still works for furniture polish. I position my left pinky just above my right thumb, and then put my right forefinger right at the base of my hairline. I take a big breath, and inhale.