I recently began to spiral out of control. This spiral has taken the form of ravenously reading online articles about space-related fatalities. My specific starting point was Wikipedia’s article “List of spaceflight-related accidents and incidents.” Did you know that the first African-American astronaut died in training before he ever made it to space? His name was Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. It was 1967, a year before Martin Luther King Jr. was killed and the same year that former WWII spy Jim Thompson went for a stroll in the Malaysian jungle and was never seen again.
It’s never a good sign when I start reading about these things. It’s a surprisingly quick jump from “reading Wikipedia articles for six hours” to “listening to the final recordings of cosmonauts and astronauts as they die”; this may come as a surprise, but it’s hard to sleep when the single scream that escaped from Apollo 1 is ringing in your head. That happened in 1967, too.
I drink. Sometimes. And then I feel bad about it. Why do I do it? For the same reason I read about things that disturb me.
I’m a high-functioning combination of many not-good things, and there’s been multiple occasions in which I believed agoraphobic could be among those things. When I was unemployed in 2014, I held the unofficial title of NEET (Not in Education, Employment, or Training) like a trophy. My mind went on autopilot, trapped in a flesh vehicle that was either severely under or over-fueled, depending on the week. In retrospect, I realize that I was having a nervous breakdown that was only exacerbated by me keeping to myself and the confines of my soothing, familiar apartment. During this time, I wondered a lot about shut-ins — mainly about Japanese hikikomori (social recluses), who often have their own rooms and steady access to food and internet. Who pays their rent? How does this process work? How can I say screw you to the system and never make face-to-face contact with another human again?
Sure, the above questions are rhetorical, but I do know the answers. Most hikikomori are financially supported by their parents or other family members. This is not an option for me; the few family members that I have struggle to pay their own bills. And so, I have evolved to mostly function normally outside of the home, in order to pay mine. If I was actually agoraphobic, I wouldn’t be able to do that at all, which is good because agoraphobia is a serious anxiety disorder and not something one should wish to have.
That said, I am mentally ill. Specifically, I have a non-agoraphobic anxiety disorder and depression. In graduate school, my counselor said I was one of the highest-functioning mentally ill people he’d ever helped. It made me feel like I wasn’t ill at all. It didn’t even make sense to me: how was I high-functioning if I began crying as soon as I landed on his couch? I graduated top of my class and was selected as Graduate Marshal for our commencement ceremony. I stayed home instead. What a High-Functioning Individual© I am.
I’ve been writing this on and off for hours. I’m distracted, but am trying to be productive. I’ve submitted different combinations of the same nine poems to dozens of literary journals and call it effort. I am now researching the Lost Cosmonauts theory – the belief that there were cosmonauts in space before Yuri Gagarin, but their records were erased due to mission failures. The Lost Cosmonauts are generally believed to be a hoax, because there were no Soviet records of these mystery people and everyone knows that the world has open access to every Soviet record ever saved. Right?
If I’m being honest, I don’t believe the theory, but it was true that there were cosmonaut deaths that the West did not learn about until decades later. These two fatalities were not included on the Fallen Astronauts memorial plaque (left on the Moon by Apollo 15 in 1971) because the Apollo crew didn’t know about them. Their names were Valentin Bondarenko and Grigori Nelyubov. Also missing from the plaque was Robert Henry Lawrence Jr., the first African-American chosen to be an astronaut.
Robert Henry Lawrence Jr. died when his Lockheed F-104 Starfighter crashed and his seat ejected sideways. Valentin Bondarenko accidentally set himself on fire in an oxygen-rich chamber. Grigori Nelyubov was an alcoholic. He never made it to space.
I may not have agoraphobia, but I do have astrophobia, the fear of celestial objects. In my case this fear manifests when I see large re-creations of these objects; the actual Moon is too far away and too small to disturb me. I realized this fear around the first grade, when I saw the billboard for Reyers Shoe Store, the “Largest Shoe Store in the World!” This claim was emphasized by the giant photo of Earth on the middle of the billboard, so large that it crept off the sign in broad semicircles at the top and bottom. While my parents were stuck in traffic, I found myself trapped in the backseat, my window mere feet away from this false planet. Captive audience. Paralyzed, tears streaming down my face.
I wanted to be an astronaut when I was a child. My parents were very supportive and bought me lots of books about the planets and the stars. My father gave me a map of Mars, pulled from an old issue of National Geographic. I could not have the entire map open at once because it frightened me so much. But I liked opening the corners, and imagining what each of the many named craters and rock formations looked like on the surface. At 8, I chose one crater to be my future home. I no longer remember its name.
I still wanted to be an astronaut, despite my fears. I just figured I’d never look outside the rocket window when it was facing Earth, because child logic is not the soundest. Now I know that I will never be an astronaut because of my history of mental illness, which is honestly for the best. I’d be an awful astronaut.
I now live in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. I’m from New Castle, Pennsylvania, the Fireworks Capital of America. Pittsburgh is a much larger city than New Castle, but I find it easier to hide from people here. It would be even easier to hide from people if I lived on Mars.
Grigori Nelyubov was airbrushed out of the official photograph of the Sochi Six, which was the original class of cosmonauts. He was erased from existence because he was an embarrassment to the Soviet government; his excessive drinking and depression led to repeated incidents of disorderly conduct. But he was not kicked off the mission because of his actions – it was because he refused to apologize for them. The airbrushing job was used as one of the arguments in support of the Lost Cosmonauts theory. Who was this missing man? He must have died in space! No, as the world later learned, he jumped in front of a train. Both are horrible ways to die.
When I get like this, I think about what it would take for me to disappear. In the digital age, it is much harder to disappear on purpose unless you’re planning on dying, but I’m not interested in dying just yet. I just want an apartment, a space heater, high-speed internet, and some food. I want nothing else, including my name.
It is quite possible to cut yourself off to the extent that most of the world will not know who you are or even of your existence. However, this is difficult if you have a strong social media presence and people who you love and who love you back. Also, when you have rent to pay and no savings account.
And so, I fall into this habit roughly every six months: after too much socializing, too much misfortune, too many emotions and dark thoughts and Dadaist nightmares, I lock myself in my apartment for as long as I can. I neglect responsibilities, but try not to neglect hygiene – remember, I am supposed to a High-Functioning Individual©. I close my blinds, I close my heart, and I open a new tab on my browser.
Miss Macross (a.k.a. Sheena Carroll) is a Pittsburgh-based poet, witch, and painter. She is influenced by spacecraft, witchcraft, and personal trauma. Her work has been published in Philosophical Idiot, Train, The Mantle, and Flash Fiction Magazine. You can find her on Twitter @missmacross@missmacross and on Facebook at facebook.com/akamissmacross.