This Is My Normal
Originally Written for Middlebury College: The Resilience Project, December 21, 2014 - Updated:
I remember the time I watched a documentary on Golden Gate Bridge suicides. Some of the men and women who stood on the railing, making the ultimate contemplation, were talked out of jumping by bystanders or recognized, as it was almost too late, that there was something worth living for. Still others couldn’t find the strength to endure any longer and simply let go. Is this “selfish,” I wondered as I watched? I positioned myself, as best I could, in the shoes of both the victim and victim’s family. I thought back to those in my life whom had bluntly expressed how self-centered they found suicide. But, I thought, who are we to judge another when he or she can no longer live with such anguish?
I feel this judgement sometimes, tangible, as I stand alone in the most vulnerable of moments, unsure of whether what I need is to be coddled or slapped. Sadly, some of the most beautiful, passionate, creative people can no longer take it. We don’t choose to be the ones left in the wake of this horrible disease just as we don’t choose to be crippled by it. Among the pain and the unimaginable circumstances can emerge the unlikeliest of communities. Solidarity sometimes presents itself, however unexpected, in the face of terrible hardship. A community can emerge from the ashes of broken dreams, fallen tears, suicide notes, confusion, and disappointment.
There are people who believe that I have terrible allergies year-round. I do apologize if I’ve lied to you, but I did always feel a need to say something about my swollen eyes. Oh, and the big dark circles...I am not an insomniac. If I’ve learned anything, it’s that there is a major difference between losing sleep because your body can’t rest and losing sleep because your brain is putting your body through mental and physical anguish. If you accurately picked up on the fact that my 3-day-a-week high school sick days were quite literally the most violent mental health days of all, good catch. Add night terrors into the mix; the kind that wake you up, thrashing, or don’t offer an escape at all, and it can wreak complete havoc on your face. But this is my normal.
I cannot act like I don’t get scared any longer. Can you relate to the terror of wondering whether or not you will ever see the light? There have been days where, instead of peeling myself off the couch, I’ve stayed plastered in a state of paralysis, wondering if this, like some terminal illness, can simply not be fixed. I just really don’t want to settle for okay or average functioning anymore. Am I a medical anomaly? I hope this all sounds foreign to you; that you don’t tell yourself these things. If you do feel this way, you are not alone. I know the indescribable nature of agony; despite the torment you go through to describe it. Daily torture was once all I knew. The thought of an effortless existence sounded so farfetched that I could hardly accept it as someone else’s reality. This is my normal.
Now, let’s rewind. I have something to say about those eyes: I have bipolar disorder, crippling anxiety, an “eating disorder not otherwise specified” (a term that may as well be used when identifying lab rats), and hardly a touch of seasonal allergies. I’ve never been as self-sufficient and stable as most people believe I am. I’ve felt so deserted by my own body and brain at times that I’ve put others through the same thing. I’ve also been told, more times than I can count, “wait...what...you? No, it can’t be possible,” and that I obviously “have it all together.” That I look so happy in my Facebook pictures that crying inconsolably could not be something I do regularly. But I remember a short period where I was convinced I’d cried myself empty. Familiar with the feeling? Nothing, not physical or emotional pain, not the most devastating news or heart-wrenching movie, could draw a single, half-assed, tear. It wasn’t until I embraced myself for who I was, and, most importantly, for who I wasn't, committed to long-term treatment, and stared this illness in the face, that I cried like a baby. I was free.
How can a few words even come close to summing up the experience that is, a depressive episode? Forgive the bluntness, but I can’t pretend any longer that depression doesn’t give me unthinkable rage. It also makes me human, though. Hell, no one can pull off a 30-person Thanksgiving dinner like I can after I promise myself I’ll get through another hellacious week by living in the kitchen. I’m hella functional, right? I’ve watched mental illness latch onto my friends, feeding off of them until they’re nothing but bones. I’ve seen friends end their precious lives by no choice of their own. These are smart, beautiful, funny, driven, talented people I’m talking about. The disease controls us and sometimes destroys us. Can I be angry?
What have I always wanted to say to those who ask, “why are you so depressed? Cheer up”? I want to tell them in such detail what this diagnosis means that they squirm in their seats. I want them to know there are times in which I feel like I’m clawing my way, without success, out of a bottomless, pitch black hole...times in which serious physical pain would be an easy out; in which the physical pain that does ensue, as a symptom of my mental turmoil, would pale in comparison to what is going on in my brain.
Depression is not merely a couple moments a day of fleeting sadness. I am immensely proud of my fellow survivors. I know from experience that mental illness chases after you and hunts you down until you grab it with both hands or become its next meal. What, then, do I say to the “optimists” and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” disbelievers? I look them straight in the eyes and tell them that I was voiceless in the face of depression for too damn long. It made every muffled cry inaudible; actualized every fear. Sucking air out of lifeless circumstances, I pressed my face into the mask of some perfect prototype, only to survive. But I don’t want to survive; I want to live.
The people I so desperately wanted to reach out to were on the other side of an impassible wall that was depression. So, I ran away from it, avoided at all costs, sharing my plight with others. Depression is not fleeting. It is watching taillights of the car you are chasing fade before the exhaust has a chance to reach you. It’s hoping someone will glance in the rearview – but the rearview has been shattered for years.
My mental illness is an entity that, before knowing who I was, spun me into its web and made me a fiber of distortion. It was so early in my life that I first encountered that ugly thing out on a battlefield that would soon become my entire world. I was swallowed up by the darkness; depression, my sidekick. It was the only thing I knew at certain points. I listened only to its voice, and marched to the beat of its ill-tempered drum. The illness enveloped me entirely and yet it never occurred to me that I was drifting further and further from the world I had once known. As it gains momentum, depression annihilates everything you know and everything you want to love about yourself. There are two personas living behind the single shadow that follows me around – only one is rational. “She’s got a good head on her shoulders,” people say of me, and I do sometimes agree. The other side was forced by nature to tell me that the world would be a better place without me. I really believed it sometimes.
It’s a crazy monster this depression; the more pain it offers us, the more we are attracted to the darkest triggers. But nothing compares to the panic that can set in when all is calm, empty, and numb. My depression controlled me, drew me in, and begged me, without a moment’s relief, to watch passively as it blanketed my world and smothered my light. Years ago, all in one moment, I told myself I’d had enough.
Letting go of the most malignant things in my world, the ones I clutched most tightly, was the hardest part. I didn’t know who I was without depression, an enigma that told me I was no one. Still, something brought me back for more and even years later I hadn’t gotten help for it. I knew life as it was would not be sustainable but I also worried, if it was gone, it may take more from me than the sadness. Would meds steal both my deepest lows, and the few things I loved about myself: my capacity for compassion, empathy, and appreciating, to no end, the spaces of my world that still had light? Would I be unconscious, blank, passionless?
After I graduated, I couldn’t take it anymore. I still don’t know if it was that numbness, the disinterest, the lack of fight I had left, or something else entirely that had me convinced I was too weak to fight back. I buckled at the knees one last time and I was just done. But I chose life that day as I smothered the flames of a fire that once engulfed me, despite how warm it felt as it chewed me up. I pushed the door shut on a hurricane of guilt and pain and illness that once tore through my home and victimized me, stealing my world out from under me. Mental illness is the darkest of storms. It is a twisted game of battleship and some of us begin our lives without knowing that our ships were shot down long before the starting timer was turned. Life becomes a struggle and we sink to the very bottom of the ocean with our feet chained to the decks of the ships we don’t even know we are on. The storm doesn’t care if our strategies and thoughts and hopes and dreams are fair or right or possible. We become destined by the very nature of its force to be controlled, and sometimes drowned, by the disease.
Depression made me frail. I am not superhuman. I couldn’t hold my breath forever and I was running out of time. It consumed me, killed me, gave me life and begged me to nurture it all at once, but I was finally ready to call myself a fighter. You know that feeling when you start running so fast you think you’re descending back into toddlerhood, stepping awkwardly and stumbling over your own legs? I sprinted harder away from that disease than I ever thought I could when I finally realized it would kill me. I didn’t look back. And like some kind of miracle, it got better.
If I were to say that my life is finally easy and functional, that would be untrue. I still have my fair share of bad days; days that border on unbearable. If you are reading this and feel you’ve spent full years of your life focused entirely on hanging on, have walked around with no sense of direction or hope, screamed the words “why” and “me” in the same sentence, or think that it can’t get easier, I beg you to trust me when I say it can. Twenty sometimes-excruciating years later, I am here to honestly say that it can. The hardest years led me to many wrongs but also to the right “happy pills,” as I call them, the endless patience and support of wonderful therapists, friends and family, personal accountability, and my dog Tubs, who was emotionally-damaged in some past life and is consequently exactly as clingy as I need him to be.
I would’ve been skeptical reading this years ago – laughing, crying, maybe slamming my computer shut. But let my voice travel through that cold, glass screen of yours, and earn your trust. Depression lives in all of our worlds, however close in proximity. It is everyone’s hero and everyone’s nemesis. It offers our world the most wonderful, loving of people and takes them away from us in the same breath. It is written across the forehead of America’s child in bold black sharpie, though some choose to look past it. It lives in the mind of that troubled kid from that tiny, decrepit town with that dysfunctional family just as it does in that girl from Connecticut with a perfectly imperfect, however wildly different, nuclear family. I still wonder, from time to time, how I became so twisted in its grip. I still wonder why the flashing lights and unfamiliar faces, the cold sterile walls, the monitors, the leather chairs, and the gray skies with no sun to speak of, became my world.
And some people just can’t hold on and it kills me but I know that. I know that so, so well with no judgment and endless empathy. And that’s a reality I have had to face in the last few years. I’m nostalgic now for times I never had; those t- ball games, ice cream trucks, and ski trips I see myself in in my family photo albums. An ominous “something” I so couldn’t understand at that age but that grew and grew inside me, has prevented me from truly living. My world was once gray and this was just my normal. I couldn’t conceive of what life through different eyes might look like. But I am among the lucky to have hung in there long enough to find out. You’ve made it through pages of pain. Now fight.