Transcript

778: Me Minus Me

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Prologue: Prologue

Bim Adewunmi

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Bim Adewunmi sitting in for Ira Glass.

Bim Adewunmi

Do you know what the square footage of your home is?

Mona Chalabi

Oh, God, Bim! How could you ask me that, you monster?

Bim Adewunmi

I'm sorry.

That's my friend Mona. Mona bought a house after saving for 10 years. And she has a lot of complicated feelings about that house. For the majority of her life, she's thought of herself as a person who doesn't have money. That's what makes her, her-- no matter the actual reality. It's been that way since she was a kid.

Mona Chalabi

I went to a school, and just up the street was another school that was a private school, that was called Bancroft's. And we all used to call it Wankroft's because I think there was just this understanding that those rich kids were not like us. And they weren't like us because I think, even when you're like 11 years old, you know that the future ahead of them is just smoother. It just has less friction in it. And I think we resented them, even then, for that. Fun fact-- we went to an all-girls school and they called us the Virgin Megastore, which was also pretty accurate, I would say.

Bim Adewunmi

The Virgin Megastore?

Mona Chalabi

Yeah.

Bim Adewunmi

Wow.

Mona Chalabi

So accurate.

Bim Adewunmi

Children are so witty and horrible.

Mona Chalabi

I know. I know.

Bim Adewunmi

Mona knows the price of everything in her house. She can't forget-- the rugs from IKEA, the lamp she bought on sale, but still thinks was too expensive. Being able to afford a down payment, and now a mortgage, it just doesn't match how Mona has always seen herself or how she wants other people to see her.

A few months after she moved in, she hosted a casual bachelorette party at the house for her childhood friend. The bridal party were all school friends she hadn't seen in ages. And Mona was feeling a little uncomfortable.

Mona Chalabi

Like, I'm really obsessed with cleanliness, normally. And I kind of deliberately didn't tidy or clean for the few days before they came, which is so weird, just because I didn't want it to look too nice.

Bim Adewunmi

So you were trying to look kind of like shabby chic?

Mona Chalabi

Not shabby chic, just shabby.

Bim Adewunmi

She didn't clean or dust the mirrors, didn't zhuzh up the cushions, didn't even vacuum for a couple of days beforehand. But despite that, to her horror--

Mona Chalabi

The first friend to arrive, like, did this funny little sort of dance in my kitchen where she was like, oh my God, it's just so big. They asked if they could have a tour of the house. And I kind of was just like, yeah, and then didn't do anything about it. But then, the third time they asked-- they know all of my evasion tactics at this point-- they were just like, Mona, give us the fucking tour. So then I did. And I don't know. They were just like, it's nice. And I was like, thanks. And it shouldn't be a big deal, but it is, because I think it's-- I just don't think I deserve it, I guess.

Bim Adewunmi

These friends all knew how she'd grown up. Her parents had bought their house off an older lady and never updated it. So the carpets were old. The wallpaper was peeling in places. And there was a bit too much furniture. When friends would come over, Mona felt super aware of it and embarrassed, a weirdly identical emotion to what she was feeling in this new house now. The whole tour, she could feel them looking, which is the point of a house tour. And when they got upstairs in her bedroom, the closet door was ajar.

Mona Chalabi

Oh, God. It's just so embarrassing to say these things out loud. In my closet, was a Gucci bag containing a Gucci handbag. Now I did not purchase said Gucci handbag. It was given to me, which is also incredibly bizarre.

Bim Adewunmi

It was a work gift.

Mona Chalabi

And I just kind of saw an eye track on that. And that felt weird to me. And then, also in any human interaction, there's always this choice, right? Do you acknowledge the thing or do you not acknowledge a thing and just keep the conversation going? And I just know myself that if I would have acknowledged it, I would have made things even weirder by, like, overexplaining how I came to have this free Gucci handbag and why I haven't opened it since I got it.

Bim Adewunmi

Why haven't you opened it?

Mona Chalabi

Because, again, it doesn't feel like it belongs to me, even though I own it. Who I am is not somebody who owns a Gucci handbag. And therefore, it stays in the cupboard.

Bim Adewunmi

To her, the designer bag is not actually a bag. It's a material asset, something she could sell if ever things got rough, because Mona is a person who knows that the ground can give way under your feet at any time.

Bim Adewunmi

I have to point something out, though. Like--

Mona Chalabi

Uh oh.

Bim Adewunmi

No, no. I'm just-- I'm just kind of thinking, like, it's a weird thing to be like, "Oh, I don't know what to do. I have money." It's kind of like, "My diamond shoes, they're so tight."

Mona Chalabi

Oh, I know. It's absolutely disgusting. I'm not expecting anyone that's listening to have any sympathy for this. To be really, really clear, this isn't framed as poor me. I feel so uncomfortable talking about this because, again, especially growing up, any time that someone with more resources than me complained-- yeah, I was just like, shut the fuck up. Like, I don't really want to hear it.

I'm not complaining. I'm really just trying to describe a feeling, I think. And actually, it still feels weird. The strangest feeling is the feeling of coming back, is the feeling of putting a key through the door and opening the door. And it's kind of like-- what's that thing-- agoraphobia, where you're scared of open spaces.

It was really fucking weird to have that when you walk into your home, to have a fear of the open space. But if I'm walking upstairs to go to bed or something, no, it's really weird. I feel like a lodger here. It's transitory.

Bim Adewunmi

So when you're in your house, and you're going up to bed, does it feel like an out-of-body sort of "it's me, but it's not really me"?

Mona Chalabi

Exactly. I can see a woman going up the stairs. And every now and then, I remind myself that that person is me.

Bim Adewunmi

For Mona, there was another big change, and it came a few months after she'd bought the house that had made her feel so unlike herself. She was on a long-awaited vacation with friends.

Mona Chalabi

On the second-to-last night, got a phone call from my sister telling me that my mom-- I got a phone call from my sister telling my that my mom had had a stroke. So I came back immediately. And then she had another stroke. And yeah, she just-- she needs 24-hour care. And so she moved in with me. And I tried to do that as best I could.

Bim Adewunmi

Mona swung into action. She worked out the likely cost of care and for how long they could afford it. That money that she'd been so careful to save was actually being useful. At one point, she thought she might have to sell the house. And the weird thing was, it felt horribly familiar to be in a position where things felt more precarious again.

Mona Chalabi

When I moved into the house, and everything was OK for those six months, I didn't feel like me. And now, I do feel like myself because the fear is back. It's me just living in a nice house for now. This house isn't mine, really.

On some level in my mind, the house isn't mine. And so that makes me feel like me, by dissociating slightly. When I did get more safe, I felt less like myself. I felt really disconnected with myself. I think actually being afraid is part of my identity.

Bim Adewunmi

That's what our show today is all about. When something you understand to be such a fundamental part of yourself changes dramatically or goes away, and you're left wondering, is this still me, am I still who I think I am? That feeling of me minus me. We hear three people facing down monumental changes, wondering exactly that. Stay with us.

Act One: Voice Over

Bim Adewunmi

Act 1, Voice Over. Sometimes you can plot the life of a singer from their discography. Think of the shift Beyoncé made from girl-group power pop to soul-baring global superstar. So I want to play you some recordings of Sandy Allen, who this first story is about, singing from four different points in his life. They map out the story of a person losing a big part of themself and building something to replace it. Here's the first recording. I'll call it the First Voice.

Sandy Allen

OK, here's the first part of a very complicated new vocalese.

(SINGING) Ah, ah, ah, ah, ah-ah, ah-ah, ah. Ah, ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ah, ah-ah, ah. Good.

Bim Adewunmi

That was Sandy around the age of 14, singing scales in a voice lesson. Sandy was born with A Voice. By the age of four or five, he'd be hoisted onto the nearest table at family weddings to belt out "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." Those impromptu wedding gigs became roles in musicals at school and performing in choirs and choruses both at home and internationally. By the age of 15, Sandy had sung in a choir that performed at a San Francisco Giants game and also at the Sydney Opera House. He was good, and he knew it.

Sandy Allen

I was the person in the girls chorus who would sing the mega-mega high note, whether it was in "O Holy Night" or the end of the national anthem, while you're at the MLB game or whatever. I was that voice.

Bim Adewunmi

Sandy's voice, with its three-octave range, was special enough to seriously consider Juilliard. Sandy could sound like a Disney princess. And in this parody of a song from The Little Mermaid, he really does.

Sandy Allen

(SINGING) Look at my face. Check out my chest. Wouldn't you say clamshell bras are the best? Looking around me, you'd think, sure, I could tap that. But as you know, I'm a merfolk, and so I'm a fish down below.

Bim Adewunmi

Sandy didn't go the Juilliard path. He became a writer instead. That's how I first got to know him, working in the same newsroom. But he still loved singing-- karaoke or just sitting at his piano with no audience, just the act of it. Sandy's voice-- high, vast in range, and also kind of effortless-- was programmed in, a cool part of the swirl of DNA that made Sandy Sandy.

Another thing about Sandy-- in his own words, he'd known he was different since he was a little kid, but he kept it to himself all through college and into his 20s, which was when he made his first trans friend. It was at that friend's house that Sandy first saw testosterone syringes. It would take another few years before Sandy came out as nonbinary and trans, which felt great to name out loud.

Whenever he thought about actually starting testosterone himself, it came with a clutch of worries-- a severe anxiety around needles, he was nervous about his relationships with the people in his life. But when it came to articulating all those concerns--

Sandy Allen

The reason I would give myself was I can't give up my singing voice. Maybe I thought the universe would punish me, you know? Maybe I thought that, hey, if I do this "monstrous," quote, unquote, thing and start testosterone and ruin this beautiful voice that I spent so much of my childhood building, then the punishment I'll receive is that I won't ever feel the pleasure of singing again.

Bim Adewunmi

This fear of losing his voice-- it's one that many trans people have experienced and spoken about. Sandy's fear was that there would be a total absence of a singing voice. He didn't know any famous trans men singers, and he'd heard one trans guy talking on a podcast about how he couldn't sing anymore. Four years went by.

OK, here's the second set of recordings. I'm calling this one "The Countdown Sessions."

Sandy Allen

(SINGING) Somewhere over the rainbow.

Bim Adewunmi

This is from late 2020, about 21 months ago. At this point, Sandy had made the choice to start T. But before he started, he felt compelled to sing some of his favorite songs and record himself doing it.

Sandy Allen

What I ended up doing, when I look back at it now, was I was recording really nostalgic stuff for myself, stuff that I had sung in plays, songs that I had sung in my car as a teenager. One of the songs that I recorded on my old voice was "Somewhere Over The Rainbow." It was almost like I reversed all the way to the beginning. I think it was like-- it almost felt like a memorial, you know? Like, hey, let's give this one last spin, you know?

Bim Adewunmi

You said this thing when we spoke earlier that it felt like a countdown to never singing again.

Sandy Allen

Yeah, yeah. I was sad. I was-- I felt guilty. It was like, well, if I'm going to kill this sweet thing that's been my friend for all this time, I will at least enjoy our last days together.

(SINGING) Where troubles melt like lemon drops away above the chimney tops, that's where--

I was mourning an entire selfhood that was the one that I had created. I never felt like a woman, but I had to act like a woman for a very long time. And I was saying goodbye to all of that.

Bim Adewunmi

Did it really feel like you would never sing again, like never, ever?

Sandy Allen

Well, I think that if I'm being honest, my sense was my new voice, whatever it was going to be, was going to be so bad that I just wouldn't want to.

[MUSIC - BILLIE EILISH, "MY FUTURE"]

(SINGING) I can't seem to focus, and you don't seem to notice I'm not here. I'm just a mirror.

Bim Adewunmi

This is one of his newer favorites, Billie Eilish's "My Future." As good as he sounds--

Sandy Allen

I mostly hear how thin and kind of tentative that voice is and how much it doesn't fit me.

(SINGING) Can't you hear me? I'm not coming home.

Bim Adewunmi

You told me that the last song that you ever recorded using your voice pre-T was "Changes," which is very on the nose--

Sandy Allen

Very on the nose.

Bim Adewunmi

--as songs go. You know, just this idea of you flipping through the catalog and, ah-ha, "Changes," because of the changes I'm going through, see? But I love that so much. I love that that was where your brain and your voice landed. Can you play a little bit of that recording?

Sandy Allen

Yeah.

[MUSIC - DAVID BOWIE, "CHANGES"]

(SINGING) I'm too fast to take that test. Ch-ch-ch-ch-changes. Turn to face the strange.

Bim Adewunmi

What do you think when you hear that version of yourself singing it?

Sandy Allen

I hear me singing a male artist with a kind of yearning, you know? Yeah, it sounds like the most excited of any of the takes, right? I hear more energy in my voice there.

Bim Adewunmi

It's like he knows in his gut that this is what he would like to sound like, what he could sound like, and he's itching to get to a time when it's already happened.

Sandy Allen

I was like, yeah, deep down, super excited for what was on the other side.

(SINGING) So I turn myself to face me, but I never caught a glimpse of how others must see the faker.

Bim Adewunmi

Let me play the third set of recordings. I'm calling it "Rough Going."

Sandy Allen

(SINGING) I-- (CHANGING KEY) I--

What the fuck key are we in?

Bim Adewunmi

Sandy's voice in a new phase and not always successful at making the exact sounds he wanted it to be making.

Sandy Allen

(SINGING) I never dreamed that I'd meet somebody like you. I never dreamed that I'd lose somebody like you. No, I--

[BLOWS RASPBERRY]

Sandy Allen's Friend

[LAUGHS]

Bim Adewunmi

It took some time for the T to have a notable effect on Sandy's voice. Those recordings are from about two months after he'd started.

Sandy Allen

I couldn't sing sounds that even sounded OK at all. I was like a screechy teen sound. I had full-on moments where-- that quintessential voice break, where you go to sing a note, and there's nothing there.

It's reminding me of-- it's different, but after top surgery, for example,

I was so weak in my upper body that I couldn't lift a glass. I couldn't open a door. And over that period of months of learning how to use my upper body again, I mean, it was like these small victories, like when I could hold a mug, and it didn't feel so heavy that I was going to drop it.

Bim Adewunmi

In those creaky, newly post-T days, Sandy found himself attempting to sing the songs of artists that he wouldn't have approached before. He tried Leonard Cohen. He tried Johnny Cash. None of it was sounding quite right.

Testosterone does a lot of things. It changes the way weight is distributed on your body, as well as the thickness of your skin and hair and even how fast your hair grows. It also thickens the vocal cords, making some voices break and deepen. And Sandy's voice was breaking.

Waiting for this fourth-decade second puberty to kick in was kind of surreal. Sandy had had top surgery, was growing facial hair. And now, he was waiting for his voice to drop. And then one day--

Sandy Allen

I sat down at the piano, I hit a middle C, and I could not sing it.

Bim Adewunmi

Wow.

Sandy Allen

You know what I mean? It was gone. Middle C was gone. For context, middle C used to be where I would have started my scales, you know? It would have been kind of just like, it's the easiest thing to sing is a middle C on my previous voice. That was like, uh-oh.

Bim Adewunmi

It wasn't like a weaning off? It wasn't kind of like, oh, it's tapering, and now-- it was just like, oh, I can't do that?

Sandy Allen

Yeah. My voice was, like, gone. The voice that I had was honestly a few notes big. It was absurd. I sat there at the piano going, oh, no, there's almost nothing here. What song can I even make out of such a small ability?

It was a very horrible thing to all of a sudden have my voice go from being the most familiar part of my body on some level to this completely unknown. I didn't even know what it could do, let alone how to make it do it. I remember the song where I sang it, and it was like, oh, my god, this sounds like a song.

Bim Adewunmi

What was the song?

Sandy Allen

It was "Your Song" by Elton John, which is not a song that I like. And I remember having this moment of like--

[GASPS]

--oh, my god. It's a song. I could feel it. It was like the first time that I was able to kind of step back and cross my arms and just watch. It was like I was going, whoa, look at this thing go.

Now I have a much better sense of where the voice starts, and where it can get to. I have a much better sense of how to actually use it. And I feel it when I'm doing it. It's a bigger instrument.

Bim Adewunmi

Bigger how?

Sandy Allen

Hmm. I think when I say that in my mind, I'm picturing a violin and a cello. There's so many examples of instruments where there's a smaller version that's higher. There's a piccolo, and then there's a flute.

And it's like, I'm just rocking a new-- it's a bigger, and it's lower. In order to make a lower sound, you have to move more air through that thing. I need more in order to power it.

Bim Adewunmi

We're on the last set of recordings now. Let's call these "Sandy's Third Voice."

[MUSIC - BILLIE EILISH, "MY FUTURE"]

(SINGING) I can't seem to focus, and you don't seem to notice I'm not here. I'm just a mirror. You--

Sandy singing Billie Eilish again on his piano at home. We were on the phone, and I asked him to play me a couple of songs while we were talking in this third voice, the post-post-testosterone voice. It was the first time he'd sung in front of anyone beside his husband and a couple of friends. The squeaks and croaks have abated, but Sandy's voice is still in flux. The voice rehab is ongoing.

Sandy Allen

(SINGING) Can't you hear me? I'm not coming home.

Bim Adewunmi

It's easy to hear the difference, even only a few months apart. The voice is obviously deeper. But more than that, it sounds strong, like he's been practicing.

Sandy Allen

(SINGING) I'll see you in a couple years.

Bim Adewunmi

That sounds more lived in than what you sent me back in March.

Sandy Allen

Ha, good. [LAUGHS] Yeah, probably.

Bim Adewunmi

Of course, I had to ask Sandy to sing "Changes," too.

[MUSIC - DAVID BOWIE, "CHANGES"]

Sandy Allen

(SINGING) Turn to face the strange. Ch-Ch-Changes. Pretty soon now, you're going to get older. Time may change me, but I can't trace time. I said that time may change me, but I can't trace time.

Bim Adewunmi

Woo, ooh!

Sandy Allen

[LAUGHS]

Bim Adewunmi

How did that feel?

Sandy Allen

Oh. A little scary. [LAUGHS]

Bim Adewunmi

How does your voice feel singing it today?

Sandy Allen

OK. Yeah. Every day that I wake up and I can just sing is like another beautiful, glorious gift. It's like, wow, here we go. I can still do it.

And some days are better. And some days are worse. But it's like, I'm no longer in this period of murk and everything feeling off and searching. I'm on the other side, and I'm just living my life.

Bim Adewunmi

His effortless three-octave first voice and his second unmaintained voice and the raw post-T voice, they're all the bones of this new voice that he had to build up himself.

Sandy Allen

It's a different sound. What I enjoy about it, in some sense, is it's a trans voice. I don't know if I sound like a cis guy. I think that I sound like something else, and I'm a product of a very specific right set of things that can happen to a body. And I love that too.

I love that it winds up being a sound that isn't like others. It feels more grown up and a little more fragile, perhaps, because it's new. But also, I'm always pushing it. I'm always trying stuff that I haven't done before.

Bim Adewunmi

Something he'd never even thought to imagine before now was harmonizing with himself.

Sandy Allen

I had a moment the other day when we were playing some of my old voice over the stereo, and then I, in my voice now, sang along with it and did a self-duet. And there was just this moment of, like, whoa.

[MUSIC - BILLIE EILISH, "MY FUTURE"]

(SINGING) I'm not coming home. Do you understand?

And I think part of that is just the sheer uncanniness of, of course, it's the same voice. It's like, it is me, and you could hear how, in a sense, faithful a replica this is with a big difference. It felt kind of like I was breaking time, the kind of fossil of my old voice in the room and then my new one joining it, dueting with my former voice. Suddenly, my former voice becomes so much more interesting to me this way, where it's not just this thing that I walked away from.

(SINGING) Not with anybody else. Just wanna get to know myself.

Bim Adewunmi

Sandy had expected a split in himself with the arrival of a new voice, but what was once so unfamiliar is somehow now the truest expression of himself. You could even say he turned to face the strange.

Sandy Allen

(SINGING) I know supposedly I'm lonely now. Lonely now. Know I'm supposed to be unhappy without someone. Without someone. But aren't I someone?

Bim Adewunmi

Coming up, a mysterious man in a hospital parking lot offers to grant one wish. That's in a minute from Chicago Public Radio, when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Bim Adewunmi, in for Ira Glass. Today's show, Me Minus Me, stories of people who change a fundamental part of themselves and wonder if they're still who they thought they were.

Act Two: Me Minus You

Bim Adewunmi

We've arrived at Act Two, Me Minus You. I reached out to one of my favorite writers, Marie Phillips, and told her about today's theme. Two days later, she'd written this short story and sent it to me. Here's Marie.

Marie Phillips

Stephanie sat with her parents by her sister's bed. Her mother was reading aloud from The Road Less Traveled while her father muttered to himself as he did the crossword. Fluorescent lights buzzed, machines hummed and beeped, and the sneakers of hurrying nurses squeaked on rubber floors.

Stephanie tried to ignore it all as she flicked through client emails on her phone, but it was impossible. Even if she could screen out the noise, there was the cloying smell of patchouli oil, Rachel's favorite, from the diffuser by the bed. Stephanie hadn't thought that there could be a worse smell than the hospital's mix of disinfectant, disease, and cheap canned soup, but patchouli oil was it.

Rachel had been in a coma for six months, some bug she'd picked up on one of her endless overseas trips to find herself. Nobody could figure out why she hadn't woken up yet, but the doctors encouraged them to keep visiting, keep talking to her, hoping that something would prompt her to open her eyes. Typical Rachel, thought Stephanie, attention seeking even while unconscious.

Stephanie's mother finished her chapter and pressed play on an ancient portable tape deck. The sound of flutes and whale song filled the air. I'm going to stretch my legs, said Stephanie.

There was a coffee cart by the front door of the building. Stephanie ordered a double espresso and briefly considered, then rejected, a sweaty pastry. The coffee tasted like tarmac. She took it outside into the car park and lit a cigarette.

A man shuffled over. He was short and dressed in a long trench coat with a collar turned up and a battered black hat pulled down over his brow, like a PI in an old detective series, except that his skin was green-- not nauseous green, but actual green, traffic light green. "Hello, Rachel," he said.

Stephanie started, then shook her head. "My name's not Rachel," she said. She moved her handbag closer to her body. "My apologies," said the green man. "You are Stephanie, and your sister in the coma is Rachel. Allow me to introduce myself. I am the genie of the lamp." He bowed.

Stephanie rolled her eyes. Friend of Rachel's, obviously. Only Rachel would have friends who paint themselves green and call themselves genies. She turned to go, but the green man grabbed her by the wrist.

"I have something to show you," he said. He put his other hand on her forehead. She felt herself become dizzy, then her mind filled with images playing out like a film. She saw Rachel unpacking her backpack in her filthy flat, dirty clothes and half-read self-help books and ashtrays overflowing with Rachel's foul menthol cigarettes.

She saw the antique lamp at the bottom of the bag wrapped in an old T-shirt. She saw Rachel rubbing at a tarnish on it and the green man appearing, him offering her three wishes, as is traditional. Money, sex, power, thought Stephanie. What else is there?

But she saw Rachel looking at the mess around her. "I need to get my shit together," Rachel told the genie. "I need to be more like Stephanie. She's got it all-- husband, career, big house. First wish, I want to be like Stephanie."

"Your wish is my command," said the genie. There was a flash, and Rachel collapsed to the ground. In that instance, Stephanie-- or someone who looked like Stephanie-- appeared in Rachel's apartment.

She was wearing a tailored cashmere suit and had her hair neatly curled in a bun. The Stephanie in Rachel's apartment walked over to a mirror and stood at it, mouth wide. Stephanie watched Stephanie watching Stephanie in the mirror.

Mirror Stephanie ran her hands over her body. She started to laugh. She turned to the genie. "This is not what I meant, she said. I just wanted to know how she gets what she's got. But no, it's good. It's really good, but it's not enough. It's her body, but I'm still Rachel.

OK, second wish. I want to actually be Stephanie. I want to forget I was ever me. Let me be her completely for six months and then come back and get me. Then I can use my third wish to go back into my own body, but I'll remember what it was like being her." "Your wish is my command," said the genie again.

There was another flash. Then everything went dark. Stephanie felt the genie remove his hand from her forehead. She opened her eyes and found herself back in the hospital car park, her cigarette burned down to the filter.

"I'm Rachel," she said. "I'm Rachel? Crystals, magic mushrooms, energetic healing, Women Who Run With The Wolves, exotic dancing, caftan Rachel? She hasn't even got a fucking pension!" The genie nodded. "But I don't understand. I feel like me. How can I be Rachel when I'm still me?"

"Think of Stephanie like a car," said the genie. "The machinery still operates in the same way, but it's Rachel behind the wheel, even if she's not aware of it. Let me give you an example. What are you smoking, Stephanie?"

Stephanie looked down at the cigarette in her hand. "Ugh," she said, "Menthol! I would never!" She tossed the revolting thing away. "It's a lot to take in," said the genie.

She took a steadying breath, wiping her hand on her skirt. "So if I'm Rachel, where's Stephanie?" "Asleep." "In there?" she said, pointing at the hospital, where Rachel's body lay. "Yes," said the genie. "And when you vacate this body, Stephanie will come back. She won't remember the last six months or any of this. But other than that, she'll carry on as normal."

"And I'll be Rachel again, fully Rachel, but I'll remember it all?" "That's right." She'd be Rachel in her crappy basement flat with her crappy job giving teenage girls piercings in Claire's Accessories and her crappy parade of crappy boyfriends who smelled like unwashed hair while Stephanie went back to her mansion and her law firm and her hot house-husband who cooks like a Michelin-starred chef?

My mansion! My law firm! My hot house-husband! It isn't fair. And I would be Rachel, she thought. I'm Rachel?

"I've still got one wish," she said to the genie. "I didn't actually make my third wish back in the flat." The green man nodded. "Then finish her off," she said. "Rachel's body. Kill it. And leave me alone." She lit another menthol cigarette and walked away. Sometimes one wish is all you need.

Bim Adewunmi

Marie Phillips, who is a younger sister, by the way, as am I. Marie's latest book is Create Your Own Midlife Crisis, the best way to make the worst decisions.

Act Three: One Pill Made Me Small

Bim Adewunmi

Act Three, One Pill Made Me Small. This past year, writer Karla Cornejo Villavicencio made a change that had the potential to alter who she has known herself to be for many years. She really didn't know who would emerge. A heads up, this story briefly mentions suicide. Here's Karla.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

In my early 20s, I would sometimes flirt with boys I didn't even like at parties I didn't want to be at by saying things like, "I'm on the maximum dose of my antipsychotic," because I liked that it made me sound dangerous, and it felt like a general disclaimer that nothing I said should be taken seriously. Now, if I say, "I went off my antipsychotic," with no suggestive inflection, with no inflection at all, at 33 years old, married to a woman, increasingly allergic to alcohol, this also makes me sound dangerous, but not in a socially-sanctioned hot way.

You can't escape the stigma. It's there if you're on these pills. It's there if you go off the pills. This is a story of coming off the pills.

One night last fall, I told my partner, Talya, that something was off. I couldn't feel sadness or joy. I couldn't distinguish indignation and frustration from excitement. I thought it had to do with my current antipsychotic, Latuda.

I have never experienced psychosis, but Latuda is prescribed for other things too. I'd been taking it for thoughts that go round and round and a general state of suicidal feeling. I struggled with sometimes explosive emotions that I had a hard time regulating.

And in the years since the original prescription, thanks to lots and lots of therapy, I'd grown stronger and more stable. The Latuda had saved my life, but in the way that a sedating dart saves your life. It made me so lethargic that it was impossible to act out on all my feelings or even to feel them.

I asked my psychiatrist what he thought about maybe going off the Latuda. He said he was proud of the work I'd done over the past couple of years. It felt like a bespoke commencement speech. I cried. And then we made a plan to taper my dose down to zero.

Just to be clear, I'm not anti-med. I love meds. I believe my antidepressants-- plural-- which I still take, are helping me thrive. But the Latuda was different. It's a heavy medication targeting challenges I had addressed in therapy. Maybe I was ready to try life without it.

I'd been on one antipsychotic or another since my early 20s. I didn't know what I was like without this medication. It was an odd feeling to realize that I did not know who I was at baseline, as an adult. I could be anyone, and that was maybe the scariest thing about going off the Latuda. What if I was unrecognizable to Talya or my dog or my editors? What if I became unrecognizable to myself?

I started tapering off Latuda in November. And in January, I taped a conversation with Talya about how it was going.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

You and I have been together, like, six years. And this entire time, I've been on an antipsychotic. Most of the time. Most of the time. And so when I was thinking about going down on the Latuda or off of the Latuda, I was like, clearly, the person married to me right now likes the person that I am on the Latuda. And I wondered how you were going to react to somebody you didn't know or maybe you didn't like off the Latuda.

Talya

You're asking if I was worried about that too?

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

No. How do you respond to what I said? Like, I'm prompting you to talk.

Talya

Yeah.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

See, I didn't ask you a yes-or-no question.

Talya

I am formulating a thought as though on an academic panel.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Talya teaches college students and does her best to get me to write with outlines, thesis statements, and evidence to support my findings. Talya and I got together in grad school at Yale, and she often fact-checks my memories because those years are a blur. I was popping Ativan from mini Altoid tins in literature seminars and new sedating medications had me falling asleep in cafes, wandering lost in downtown New Haven.

Over time, with a rotating door of psychiatrists, diagnoses, and medications, including Latuda, I got better in the ways we measure getting better for mental illness. I made plans with friends. I was productive. I wore lipstick. But a deep sadness gnawed away at me all the time. That scared me. It made me feel damaged and broken and radioactive in ways I couldn't even understand.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

OK, so it's been how many months since I stopped taking the Latuda? January, February, March, April, May-- five months.

Talya

No way.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Mm-hmm.

Talya

That's almost half a year. How do you remember that it was January?

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

I kept a diary. But yeah, those were some long evenings that I just spent in the bedroom kind of just lying down.

Talya

What do you remember about it? When you think about that time, do you remember a certain feeling?

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

I remember maybe the first three months, I wanted to--

Talya

Go back?

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

To go back, yeah.

Talya

Yeah. Are you glad I discouraged it?

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Well, maybe you should say why you discouraged it.

Talya

Yeah. Frequently, you would have bad days, and you would announce to me that you had decided that you needed Latuda. And I would say to you, OK, that's fine, and, before you make such a big decision, why don't you make sure that you're not reacting to withdrawal?

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Yeah.

Talya

Just find out.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Yeah.

Talya

Because once you go back on, you're going to lose the opportunity to have that data. So I was like, if you could just wait. And it wasn't because I didn't want you to be on Latuda. It was honestly because I wanted you to know and think about what you know now.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Yeah.

Talya

And you wouldn't have ever gotten the chance to know that.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

No.

Talya

What do you remember about wanting to go back on it and thinking you couldn't do it? What do you remember?

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

I remember thinking that it was a lot of work, you know?

Talya

Yeah.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

I remember just having a sense-- what I always wanted to know was the baseline.

Talya

Right.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Who I was, what I was at the baseline. And off the Latuda, I didn't really know, right, if what I was experiencing at that time was who I really was.

Talya

Yeah.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

But what I did know is that I was experiencing bodily things like the night sweats and the clamminess and these other things that made me feel like--

Talya

Nausea, headache.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Constant nausea, headaches, that made me feel like an old computer that's just running all the time, that just feels really, really hot.

Talya

I feel like the thing that's-- so what happened when you went off the Latuda, right, there was this kind of eruption of emotion and agitation and frustration. And you got really scared, I think, that maybe your baseline was too much and you didn't want your baseline. Right? And then you kept hanging in there. You kept hanging in there.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

I did keep hanging in there. For many months, I didn't know what was me and what was the withdrawal. But slowly, the bodily agitation, migraines, and shivers lifted, and I was left with me.

Talya

The difference between you on and off the Latuda is huge. It's absolutely huge. But it's not your fear of a different personality coming out. It's not like that at all.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

No, I don't seem to have a different personality.

It's true. I'm not a different person off the Latuda. But everything is harder now. Moving through my day is like trying to beat egg whites into a meringue without a mixer, just a butter knife-- all effort, and I'm bone tired at the end of each day.

I feel much more sensitive than I have ever felt-- tender, sore, and scared-- like a prey animal, a baby deer, or a Yorkie with a bobcat for a neighbor. It takes almost nothing to make me fall apart-- not being able to open a jar, dropping a mug of coffee, taking the weather personally. I fall apart multiple times a day.

But it also takes almost no time to gather myself now. If I feel overwhelmed, I excuse myself to another room, set a 15-minute timer, blast the AC, and cry. I watch a video about chipmunk facts narrated by a young man who seems as delighted by chipmunks as I am. And then I'm fine.

I'm back downstairs making coffee, scheduling doctor's appointments and Zoom meetings, sometimes even before the alarm goes off. Latuda, which was supposed to protect me from emotional intensity, which was supposed to prevent me from breaking down, just kept me stuck in bed, sad about being sad.

I've also noticed that I can concentrate better now for longer stretches of time. For a while on Latuda, I could not read, not at all. I could only reread, and that felt lonely. I'm reading again.

One morning, I took my dog and demons on a walk in the nearby woods. I was midway through the first chapter of Edith Wharton's House of Mirth on audiobook. I was kind of star-struck, starry-eyed about the rhythm of her sentences, the wickedness and speed of her wit, and the sensuous appreciation of melodrama. I felt a bit like a teenybopper. I felt about Wharton the way I felt about John Mayer in seventh grade and Room for Squares came out, and on it, the song, "Your Body is a Wonderland."

I'm confronting strangers again. That's back. Maybe it's because I grew up in New York under Giuliani or because my dad had an explosive temper and, once my brother was born, I learned that if I was scared someone with more power was going to be a fucking asshole to someone with less power, I could put my body in between them and dare the bully to blink first. The thing about me is I never blink first.

A couple of months ago, I ran a guy out of a liquor store downtown because he did a little bow and said namaste to an Indian kid who was working behind the counter. He also kept interrogating him about the village where he was born, and the kid clearly did not want to talk about it. He looked pained and annoyed.

When I was being rung up, I aggressively scrolled through Instagram, trying to distract myself. The cashier said something to me. I did not hear it and asked him to repeat himself. Then I heard myself say, "I'm sorry. Can you say that again? I was distracted by how much that guy knows about India."

The guy and his wife heard me say that too and announced this store did not have the wine they were looking for after all. That's when the guy did a little bow and said namaste to the cashier. "Sir, that's fucking rude," I told him. They left the store. I wouldn't have done that on the Latuda. Maybe I wouldn't do it again. But it certainly sounds like me.

I remember the exact moment a few months ago-- in the middle of the night, on the toilet-- when I realized I felt happy. Nothing had happened. I was still half-asleep. But the rush was unmistakable. I grabbed my phone and made note of the time-- 2:00 AM-- and wrote a short description of what that felt like in case I wouldn't remember it, in case I needed photographic proof of the Loch Ness monster in the morning.

Earlier this summer, I sat in the kiddie pool we picked up from Walmart with my book and my music and my dog. I'd been doing this every day for weeks, and it made me feel safe, lit from within with love for the whole world. I again wrote down the time and place.

At 12:07 PM from the hammock, my thighs and stomach covered by old wet hand towels we kept in the freezer to help regulate my body temperature, I emailed Talya only this, "I happy. Posterity pic of my yard day?" This must be what happy women feel, I think.

I also know that in a few hours, when the sun goes down, I will crash. Something about the color of the sky at dusk makes me feel gloomy and dark. It is irrational, and it is also very real. And when that happens, I won't remember what it felt like to be happy. So now I make a point to remember.

Something else I realized-- sadness comes back every day. It was there on the Latuda. It's there off the Latuda. The sadness is always in a corner. It goes where I go, like a shadow or a Disney sidekick. I hate it, but I think it's mine. It's like accepting, in the sixth grade, this is as tall as you're going to get.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

And then I realized that. And I told my psychiatrist. I was like, I think I'm probably going to always be sad. Remember? I was like, because that is a constant. And I think my entire life, I've been looking for an answer of like, just why am I so sad?

And he was like, what if you just accept that that is how you're going to feel for the rest of your life? What decisions can you make for yourself to make life gentler and to do things that you want to do and to-- you know, like happiness or, I mean, non-sadness, he said that that wasn't the goal, that you could have a meaningful life, or you can have a fulfilling life, or you can have an influential life, and you didn't necessarily have to have a happy life.

And that was maybe like two months ago that he said that. And I think that was a turning point for me because I think the thing that I was always trying to correct in myself and find language for is I feel like there's a hole in my heart, like someone took a melon baller-- you know the melon ballers that you take? It's like an ice cream scooper.

Talya

No, I know them. Yeah, I know those.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

OK. So I feel like there's a melon-- OK, this is-- you know. But yeah--

Talya

Yeah, yeah. You feel-- yeah.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Now I'm just like, I guess that's the way it is.

Talya

Yeah. Everybody's different.

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio

Fortunately or unfortunately, it's still me I come home to every day, and I'm still learning who I am and what I'm like. But I am more curious about the too loud, too bright, too harsh world, ever and ever more curious with 30% less abject terror. I'm not sure I like myself yet, but I do trust myself to go on this journey, even if I end up in the back yard again, staring at a molting cardinal who is so freaky looking, I take a picture of it and then cry.

Bim Adewunmi

Karla Cornejo Villavicencio is the author of the book, The Undocumented Americans. Her story for us was produced by Susan Burton.

Credits

Bim Adewunmi

Today's show was produced by me, Bim Adewunmi, and edited by David Kestenbaum. The people who put together today's show include Elna Baker, Susan Burton, Zoe Chace, Sean Cole, Michael Comite, Aviva DeKornfeld, Valerie Kipnis, Tobin Low, Miki Meek, Michelle Navarro, Stowe Nelson, Katherine Rae Mondo, Nadia Reiman, Marisa Robertson-Textor, Ryan Rumery, Charlotte Sleeper, Laura Starcheski, Lilly Sullivan, Frances Swanson, Christopher Swetala, Matt Tierney, Julie Whitaker, and Diane Wu. Our managing editor is Sarah Abdurrahman. Our executive editor, Emanuele Berry. Special thanks today to Tuck Woodstock and Rob Dubbin.

Sandy Allen is the author of the book, A Kind of Miraculous Paradise. My friend Mona Chalabi, who you heard talking about the weird feelings her house gave her, is actually working on a book about our feelings about money. Our website, ThisAmericanLife.org, where you can stream our archive of over 700 episodes for absolutely free. This American Life is delivered to public radio stations by PRX, the Public Radio Exchange.

Special thanks to our boss, Ira Glass. He was on Sesame Street the other week, and Cookie Monster for once wanted to share a treat. He was like-- (IMITATING COOKIE MONSTER) Ira, do you want cookie?

Mona Chalabi

How could you ask me that, you monster?

Bim Adewunmi

I'm Bim Adewunmi. Ira Glass will be back next week with more stories of This American Life.