Edges (an excerpt) by Avery M. Guess

very map has edges—the places where one thing begins and another ends, the spaces in between the known and unknown, the places we can name and those we label “Here be dragons.”

As early as third grade, I can remember drawing maps as part of my running away plans. They were never very detailed, and they never would have gotten me all that far from what I wanted to escape—home. 

Still, I worked on the maps with more attention than any assignment my teachers could have created. I’d draw my school first, then the “forest” to the east—a small, wooded area that might have encompassed one square block, then a couple more streets I didn’t know the names of, and finally my initial destination, Red Road. 

Red Road was home to Zip’s Ice Cream whose plastic Major League Baseball caps I collected. It seemed to me that if I could make it as far as Red Road, I could make it anywhere.

I often say that when I was young, I was a fainting goat. Not literally, of course; I’m fully human (though somedays that feels in doubt). However, I did faint a lot before I turned 18. 

Things that would cause me to faint: bee stings (even though I wasn’t allergic to them), walking into big warehouse type stores, headaches, shots (sometimes right away, sometimes the next day), and stomachaches.

I vividly remember one episode when I had a headache. We were driving to Georgia to see my aunt and uncle and cousins and had stopped at a convenience store for gas and drinks. I plucked a can of Country Time Lemonade from the refrigerator and brought it to the counter to pay. 

It was then I felt the edges of my vision and consciousness contracting in slow motion. I reached for the opposite side of the counter to hold myself up. The next thing I knew, I woke up on the floor of the store to hear someone say, “I would have caught her, but I thought she was faking it.” My headache was gone, but in its place my tailbone ached for days.

At the start of 2016, I was 45 and standing on the edges of life, unsure as to how I could continue. The path I’d found in my late 30s and early 40s—that of MFA and PhD programs—still stretched out before me. My writing was going well, but more graduate school was a challenge I wasn’t sure I was up for. I still found myself wanting to leave my life. Edges were familiar and comforting. From them, I could see distinctions I missed while navigating the middle. Move away from the sharp demarcation of here and there and I floundered. It had always been that way. The new psychiatrist I met with in South Dakota recommended I start Latuda to help manage my bipolar depression.

Growing up in Miami, a fair-skinned strawberry blonde, I got many sunburns from days at the beach, pool, or lakes I spent most of my time at from spring until fall. Sunscreen wasn’t de rigeur in the 70s. Tans were in. 

Most people who grew up in South Florida in the 70s and early 80s still remember the Coppertone billboard at what was colloquially known as Spaghetti Junction—that space where the Palmetto Expressway, US Route 441, State Road 9, Florida’s Turnpike, and I-95 all met. It was rumored that Jodie Foster was the model for the girl whose bikini bottom was being pulled down by a small black dog. The sign read “COPPERTONE Welcomes you to MIAMI.” 

Some of my burns weren’t too bad, but many ended with me blistered or peeling. No matter my age, I couldn’t stop myself from picking at the edges of my skin. It became a game. The longer the strip I could pick, the better.

I spend a lot of time looking at maps. Making plans for travel to the edges of places. I have an affinity for points in the far north and south. I’d love to spend time exploring Antarctica. Likewise, I feel called to places like Nunavut, Canada, which are not easy to access. 

I search Google maps more often than I would like to admit, looking for towns at the farthest reaches. Places I could escape to one day. Grímsey, Iceland. Skaw, Unst, in the Shetland Islands of the United Kingdom. Kaffeklubben Island, Greenland.

Often non-permanent residents inhabit these towns—scientists or the military—who rotate in and out. I imagine what it would be like to live on the verge of nothingness. 

I imagine I would love it. I imagine I would hate it.

The story of procrastination is the story of edges. It is the story of finding out just how long you can hold out on doing something until it absolutely must be done.

I’ve been a procrastinator since I was a child. There were times in elementary school that would find me awake at 3, 4, and 5 in the morning doing an entire semester’s worth of homework. 

Some of it didn’t get done because I was gone two days a week to attend Gifted at another school: first Flamingo Elementary in Hialeah and then Miami Lakes Elementary. Most of it, though, I imagine I just put off doing because I didn’t see the point of it. The work was too easy, was boring, didn’t challenge me. If I could do everything I needed in a single night, why should I bother doing it every day?

That attitude has bit me in the ass more times than I can count.

While attending Miami Lakes Junior High School, I spent a lot of time standing at the top of the staircases in each corner of the building. I’d ask my teacher for a hall pass, usually with the excuse of needing to use the restroom. Then, while everyone else was in class, and the hallways were empty of students, faculty, and administrators, I’d stand at the threshold of the top stair and will myself to jump. I never could make the leap.

It is, perhaps, a falsehood that mapmakers would label the unknown parts of the world “Here be dragons” or “Hic sunt dracones” in Latin, though renaissance, medieval, and ancient maps were peppered with sea creatures of various fierceness.

According to my research, only two globes in existence have the designation—the most recent is the Hunt-Lenox Globe. It is an early 16th century engraved copper sphere, dating to c. 1510. The globe is small, only 13cm or about 5” in diameter and belongs to the New York City Library collection. "HC SVNT DRACONES" is inscribed near the eastern coast of Asia.

The other globe is made from an ostrich egg, dated 1504, and is to date the oldest known globe to contain the New World. It, too, has the saying near the Southeast Asian coastline.

What does it mean that no other surviving artifacts carry this warning in text? Not much, to me, at least. The creatures that inhabit these maps are warning enough: Beware the unknown.  

I don’t know what I’d do if someone came along with a way for me to access the memories, both good and bad. Would I choose to step in from memory’s edges and see the breadth of my experience or would I stay safely perched on the periphery that I’ve inhabited for years?

Not remembering most of my childhood is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, I’ve forgotten all sorts of good things that happened—times with friends, vacations, the days I’d spend with my Nana and Pop-Pop on South Beach, the everydayness of being a child. On the other hand, I’ve unremembered what it felt like to have my mother beat me or just what, exactly, my father would do to me when he would come to my bed. 

I don’t know what I’d do if someone came along with a way for me to access the memories, both good and bad. Would I choose to step in from memory’s edges and see the breadth of my experience or would I stay safely perched on the periphery that I’ve inhabited for years?

I’ve had more than a few psychiatric diagnoses over the years. Post-traumatic stress disorder. Major depression. Anxiety disorder. For a short while, I was diagnosed as having borderline personality disorder. This was later changed to bipolar disorder 2. Both are diagnoses of extremes. Of sharp edges and lines of demarcation.

Between getting my MFA in 2014 and beginning my PhD studies in 2015, I used my birthmother’s house in Kentucky as a base while I travelled to various writing residencies and applied to graduate schools. I put all my belongings in storage, packed my car, and stayed on the move for a year. After talking with Cathy one night about her mother’s Mormon roots, I decided to do a little genealogical research on that side of the family.

I managed to track my grandmother’s family down to an island archipelago off the southern coast of Iceland called Vestmannaeyjar or Westman Islands. Of the fifteen islands that make up the archipelago, only one, Heimaey, whose name means “Home Island,” is habitable. It is a tiny town situated on the edge of a small island country. 

Perhaps my affinity for edges is rooted in biology.

In 1982, I was in seventh grade, I had just turned twelve, and I decided to run away. I stole jewelry from my mother, packed a change of clothes, and left campus just after being dropped off by the daily carpool. I made it about a half a mile before I tired of walking and decided to try my luck hitchhiking.

I made this decision despite the fact that the previous year Adam Walsh disappeared from the mall in Hollywood my mother and I frequented. Despite the fact that his severed head was found two weeks later in a Turnpike drainage ditch.

I don’t know if I was more afraid of being caught and taken home than I was of being beheaded.

There is an article on Wikipedia titled “Extreme points of Earth.” In it, there are facts that any lover of edges would enjoy. 

For instance, only three people have ever travelled to the deepest reachable part of the earth—Challenger Deep, which is over 35,000 ft below sea level—in the Mariana Trench in the Pacific Ocean. Two people, Jacques Piccard and Don Walsh made it down in 1960 and in 2012, James Cameron, of Titanic fame travelled there in his vessel the Deepsea Challenger.

I don’t know what drives people like Piccard, Walsh, and Cameron. Is it the thrill of going somewhere no one (or very few) have gone before? Is it purely scientific inquiry? Or is it something more? A need, perhaps, to stand at the brink and stare. To see if something stares back.

I thumbed down a man driving a pick-up truck. He assumed I went to Dade County Christian, a private school nearby, and I didn’t correct him. I told him I wasn’t feeling well, my parents were working, and I just needed a lift home. He obliged.  After a while, I realized this wasn’t the best idea, and I had the man drop me off at a likely looking suburban community. He did.

I kept walking until I reached a construction site a few miles away from my school in Broward County. I bought a soda from a roach coach and got to talking with one of the workers. He must have realized I was running away, because the next thing I know, I was confessing to an office worker in the construction manager’s trailer. Someone dropped me off at my school, and I got back in time for fourth period.

I never told anyone. No one ever found out. For years after, I dreamt of running away, my plans ever more elaborate, but I never tried again. 

Apocrypha: how I learned to swim, according to the retirees at my Nana and Pop-Pop’s condominium on South Beach who delighted in telling me the story over and over again when I was a child. At around six months old, my father threw me in the deep end of the pool on the second-floor deck of the building that overlooked the Atlantic Ocean. In their telling of the story, I sank for a moment and then bobbed to the surface, my little arms and legs moving in a way that approximated an attempt to swim.

I don’t doubt there is some truth to this story, though I don’t know how much of it to believe. I’m glad the story isn’t that he threw me in the ocean’s hungry maw, though the salt water would have at least been able to better buoy me. 

There’s no doubt that I was a great swimmer as a child. I never joined a swim team, but I was in the water every chance I got. Still, there’s a comfort in the edges of a pool. A knowing that the water does, indeed, end.

Between 1988 and 2016, the year I started taking Latuda, I’d tried 23 different psychiatric drugs in an attempt to alleviate my depression and anxiety. I started with Prozac, soon after it was released in 1986. 

In alphabetical order, I’ve also been prescribed: Abilify, Ambien, Celexa, Cymbalta, Depakote, Effexor, Elavil, Lamictal, Lexapro, Lithium, Luvox, Paxil, Remeron, Ritalin, Seroquel, Serzone, Trazadone, Ultram, Valium, Wellbutrin, Xanax, and Zoloft.

Of the 24 medications I’ve tried, only two, Depakote and Latuda, have helped. This difficulty in finding something that will work on bipolar depression is typical—some drugs make you manic or hypomanic, others do nothing for the depression.

It’s the Goldilocks story all over again. Though she eschewed the edges for the “just right.” I’ve never could figure out where that point is in my own life.

In April 1983, about six months after running away, I tried to kill myself. I was still 12. 

I overdosed on Quaaludes and some other pills I found in my mother’s medicine cabinet and wrote down the reasons for doing so in a blue notebook I hid in my closet. I don’t remember what I wrote. 

I woke up in the emergency room of the local hospital, confused. I remember confessing to my father that I cursed. I told him about the existence of the blue notebook. When I got home that night, after a brief visit with a therapist, the notebook was gone.

The only time my attempt was mentioned again was when I looked unhappy and my mother would ask why I didn’t try to kill myself again. I was also blamed for the hospital bill. 

Beyond that, my attempt was disappeared.

I started cutting myself when I was a teenager, but I didn’t do it much then. It only ramped up when I was in my late 20s and early 30s, that time in my life when I was trying on different psychiatric medications like so many new clothes in a department store’s dressing rooms. The hypomania and mixed states that were the result of certain antidepressants made cutting seem necessary.

I never cut much or very deeply. I wanted to, but I didn’t have the nerve for it. The blood wasn’t the problem. The pain was. 

Despite my inability to cut as much as I would have liked, the urge to cut lingered for years after. My right wrist, specifically, would draw my attention, and I’d want to place blade to skin, to see the tiny blood drops form above the place where I’d cut. The thoughts were obsessive. Unstoppable.

Thankfully, a new regimen of drugs, including one for anxiety, has stopped the urges for now. I don’t know what will happen when I’m forced to switch medications. Will the desire to cut return? Has it just been muffled for the time being?

The most on edge I’ve ever felt was when I was taking Wellbutrin and Effexor to combat depression. I was living in Everett, Washington, working at Humongous Entertainment as a brand ambassador (merchandiser) during which I would go to various stores that carried our software and make our displays look good, set up merchandising materials, and train the store staff on our products for children. 

It was in May 2000 when I was 29 that I fell into (at least it felt like falling) a mixed state, where I was both depressed and manic at the same time. I couldn’t sit still. My mind was racing. But instead of having delusions of grandeur, all I could think about was dying – in the fastest way possible. Driving for work didn’t help. I wanted the car to go as fast as my mind, to drive into highway medians at high speeds. 

It eventually became so unbearable that my psychiatrist suggested hospitalization, so I checked myself into Overlake Medical Center in Bellevue, Washington. The episode subsided when they took me off the two drugs where the edges met.

Until April 2004, my whole life was lived on some edge or another. Though I was conceived in Lexington, Kentucky, I was born in Brunswick, Georgia, and my childhood, except for a brief stint in Framingham, Massachusetts, when I was an infant, was spent in Hialeah, Florida. 

When I was 22, in October 1992, I moved to San Francisco, almost as far as I could get away from Miami and still be in the continental United States. I completed that task when I moved to Everett, Washington, in February 1999.

However, due to a depression that wouldn’t quit or allow me to find work, I moved from San Francisco (I’d moved back in October 2003) to Frankfort, Kentucky, to live with my birthmother. 

Since then, I’ve lived exclusively in the middle of the country, first in Kentucky, then in Carbondale, Illinois, then Vermillion, South Dakota, and now back in Louisville, Kentucky. 

I miss the edges daily.

In March 2017, I started a course of treatments of electroconvulsive therapy, often referred to as ECT or “shock therapy.” I advocated for this treatment for myself when I was in the hospital because my depression was so bad all I was doing was researching ways to successfully commit suicide. 

Although I was told that it was possible that I’d have some memory issues as a result of the sessions, I did not realize just how much I would lose. 

It’s impossible to find the edges of memory. I know. I’ve tried. Our knowledge of what has happened is amorphous, ever changing. I do know that I lost approximately six months to the treatments that saved my life. I’ve mourned their passing. I’ve been frustrated that I can’t remember a conference I attended, holidays with my family, almost two semesters of school. 

But I would do it again and again. As many times as needed to keep me from slipping over the edge into death.

One of my favorite movies is 1990’s Postcards from the Edge starring Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, and Dennis Quaid in a production that translates Carrie Fisher’s novel to the big screen. 

The novel is a semi-autobiographical look at Fisher’s struggles with drug addiction and her relationship with her mother. 

Later, Carrie Fisher would write about being diagnosed with bipolar disorder as well as the regular ECT treatments that saved her life in her memoir Shockaholic

In it, she wrote: “I found that the truly negative side-effect of ECT is that it’s hungry. The only thing it has a taste for is memory.”

I didn’t know about Fisher’s ECT treatments when I received mine; I wish I had. I felt like I was taking a trip to the edge by myself, something I’m used to doing, but it would have been nice to have Fisher’s words with me when I went.

When I lived in San Francisco, my favorite beach to go to with friends was Land’s End. The hike down and back up the cliffs is intense but always worth the trip. Land’s End was a beach on the edge of a city known for its edginess.

In Montauk, where I spent my first writing residency at the Albee Foundation, I went to the beach every morning to watch the sun rise. Before I left, I learned that another name of the town was “The End.” 

I grew up going to the beach often in Miami. I always look forward to being near the ocean wherever I am in the world. It’s my favorite place to be. That place where ocean meets land. Where the pull of the tide is the strongest. 

Avery M. Guess has received a 2015 NEA Fellowship for Poetry and grants from the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund and the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She is the Grant Program Manager at the Kentucky Foundation for Women and a PhD student at University of South Dakota. Recent publications include poems in diode and Rogue Agent and creative non-fiction in Entropy and The Manifest-Station. Her debut full-length poetry collection, The Truth Is, was published in 2019 by Black Lawrence Press. Find her on Twitter @averymguess.