I stand next to this twin of mine. This twin that looks as much like me as a sewer does a stream. It is bent over under the burden of an invisible weight. I hold my cane behind my back and debate going it alone. It has the nose of Cyrano with a stout end. Mine is nothing special but normal all the same. Its ears droop and it drags along in a tired sort of way. I stand upright wearing my a silver wrist watch and finely laced black leather shoes. I wear a crisp peacoat tailored to my tall frame while it is draped in an ill-fitting sheet with a ghostly silhouette. There is nothing gentle or feminine about it, nothing bold or masculine. This is not my twin whose beige skin is broken along like the cracks of a concrete wall, broken and to the mercy of any passersby. This is not my twin that walks beside me, always chained to me where our feet meet the sidewalk. This is not my shadow.
I’ve said something like this to myself countless times this last year as I have tried to dig myself out of whatever is going on inside my brain. But this time, it’s time I think to take it seriously and to try. Granted, I always try to force myself. To white knuckle it through a depressive or panicked state. I don’t know what makes this one any different. It was daunting trying to come up with the words when I made a phone call today so when I made my next phone call, right before, I wrote a script of what I needed to say to the doctor because I took too long to connect my thoughts with my mouth. Guess how long it took me to to write that script. I’m too embarrassed to clock it at this point.
Tomorrow. I friggin promise promise promise myself, the actual me, not this walking piece of crud that is curled up in its place. But I digress. Tomorrow I promise I am going to do the following things come hell or high water and since I have felt like I’ve been in hell this past year, high water wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world.
I promise I am going to find a therapist.
I promise I am going to work on this project of mine for two hours minimum without distractions.
I promise myself I am going to put on my shoes, tie them, and at least walk my dog down to the corner.
I promise I’m going to remember to eat. At least two full meals.
And I promise myself I am going to make another list tomorrow after completing this one.
I have no idea how to force myself out of this but putting it here is going to hold me accountable. I’m not even going to say I hope it does. It has to because I do not fucking know where to go from here if I don’t figure out how to be functional.
You wouldn’t think the two would go together, would you? Well, in the wonderful world of depression, all things are possible. It’s like if you took Walt Disney’s most fantastic, imaginative, wonderful dreams, all ironically envisioned in the midst of the Great Depression, and got a little too relaxed, letting them blur together. Pinks and greys and blacks and blues and purples. Sticky like sugar but also like the moist, dirty feeling of waking up in a hot sweat where your nightmare follows you into your room and sits, waiting for you at the edge of your bed. A dream that you allowed yourself to stretch too long so that you ran out of joy and upon noticing the empty pockets, began filling them them with lethargy. You find the bubbles of curiosity you imagined as you walked through your dreams and they pop into puddles of doubt which stain the tips of your toes a dull, threatening grey and no matter how many times you wash them, the stains always remind you to feel just a little bit unclean, enough so that no shower leaves you entirely renewed.
Whatever constellation of fucked up it is, whatever concoction of ADHD/PTSD/depression/anxiety, I’ve got–I don’t wear it like a badge of honor. It’s a branding somebody burned into my neck long before I saw it coming. And when my screwed up sets my life on fire, the branding burns like it did the day it came in. The world tells me it is invisible. I tell myself it is invisible, that it is in my head. It doesn’t exist, right? It doesn’t exist. I’m lazy, I tell myself. Once upon a time a doctor gave me a diagnosis, a label, and I ran away with it because it was easier to face than the demands of normal life. I am playing up my situation. Everybody has bad things happen to them. Most people have had traumatic experiences. I’m the only one I know who lives like fatally wounded animal, perpetually unable to engage in life like a decent adult.
I feel as if every day of my life is another day in the court of public opinion, and a simultaneous court where my own opinion of myself is weighed. I have become a master of “well, but,” “yes, and” “I wanted to, but.” Nothing is ever simple. Nothing is ever cut and dry and it is exhausting, I’d imagine, for those around me. But here is the thing, it’s exhausting for me too. That’s why people have suicidal ideation. Because when your condition is unbearable for you, the pain is scathing when you’re a curse on somebody else.
And when everything that makes you a problem to yourself and others isn’t visible, it’s as likely to be there as it is to not be there. Anybody can fake a mental illness, I tell myself. I browbeat myself incessantly using the stereotypes and words and stigmas society has toward mental illness. I try to get myself to change by saying monstrously mean things to myself. It’s nothing. And I’ve no excuse. I have to get my shit together because everybody else does. I have to stop procrastinating. I need to be more self-disciplined. And I genuinely believe all of these things about myself. I don’t seek help or ask forgiveness because I don’t believe I deserve it in the least and it would be both ludicrous and shameful to try to explain my behavior. All of this is in my head and all of it is my fault and my choosing. My theatrics.
The thing that I can’t explain away though, is that today, when trying to unscramble words on an app I use (something to distract my inner relentless critic), I had all of the letters for “decide” in front of me and I just needed to draw a line between them in the correct order. There is no reason this shouldn’t be a shamefully simple task. I have a BA in English language and literature, an MA in children’s literature, and will soon have an MA in educational leadership. I had a ninth grade reading comprehension in the fifth grade. I won several spelling bees growing up. I have been writing “decide” since I was in the first grade when my spelling and reading were so advanced my teacher took me off her curriculum and created a separate one with separate assignments for me. I say these things not because I am proud of them; if anything, they’re my shame because all of this information suggests that I should be more than capable of the things with which I sometimes struggle senselessly. The things I convince myself are happening because of barriers I’ve manufactured in my mind. All of those qualifications would lead one to think I had no trouble connecting the letters in the word “decide.”
And it took me about six tries in the course of three minutes to figure out that my answer on the game kept getting rejected because I was misspelling “decide.” It took me another minute and a half I’d guess to figure out how to actually spell it.
I don’t know. I don’t know what to do or what help to ask for because it took me three degrees and over five minutes to figure out how to spell a word which has been in my vocabulary for twenty-two years. The only thing that seems an absolute given is that even when these phases go, they come back sooner than they did the last time. Whether it is in my head, whether mental illness is a lie I tell myself, or whether it’s real, I honestly can’t begin to decide because I couldn’t even fucking spell the word “decide” an hour ago. It doesn’t matter if it’s real or in my mind. At least I can take comfort in the idea that this bond is forever.
If you’ve seen Panic Room, and if you have depression, you might already know what I’m about to describe. There’s this stock scene in literature and films where a person answers the door on a “wellness check” from a police officer who has been called to the residence due to a neighbor or family concern. The person who answers the door is painfully conflicted because on the one hand, there is somebody behind the door pointing a gun at her temple and if she tells the cop she is in danger, she will be long gone before she has any chance at being safe. On the other hand, this might be the one chance, the closest by far, that she does have of getting out of the situation alive and she could be sealing her own fate by not signalling to the cop because she is afraid of death.
I don’t know whose gun it is but I do know that I’m for sure the one answering that door when I’m in an episode. Maybe, in some screwed up way, I am also the person holding the gun, maybe it is the depressed part of me holding the gun. Maybe it is just depression embodied or it is all of the scars in my life that have been waiting to burst open simultaneously (I know that sounds a little Good Charlotte-ish but that’s the only way I can think to word it).
Regardless, every time somebody texts me, calls me, reaches out to me in any way, or asks if I am alright, I am standing at that door staring down the barrel both of what seems like my only chance of getting away from the threat hidden in the shadow, and at the sure consequences of what will happen if I dare approach the threshold. As trite as these scenes seem to be, they are so real for me because I know what it feels like to be looking at help you desperately need but not being able to say that you need it and watching it walk away. I don’t know what I need when people who know how I’m feeling ask me how I can make this better. I don’t know. As much as I love to make to-do lists, if I knew, we wouldn’t be talking about it.
The only thing I know is that I need something. Something is threatening me. Something is controlling and isolating me. In spite of the fact that it is invisible and some people might think all in my head, it is very real to me. I know there is no physical gun held to my head but that doesn’t mean that rational thought has any chance of changing the physiological reactions my body is having to the barrel it feels. I want out more than anything and I know I am held captive and cannot walk out on my own but at the same time, crossing that line of telling somebody how badly I need help feels about as safe as setting myself on fire.
Of all the things in the world, I am best at this. It’s telling that in high school I got the superlative for most sarcastic–sarcasm can be a means of evading vulnerable conversations. As a resident advisor my senior year in college, I got the “most likely to disappear” award. I love people. I love helping people. It fills me with energy and I feel joy when I do it–but the buildup of energy I need to have the courage to put myself in that position is easier said and impossibly done.
I often take for granted how amazing depression is. It can simultaneously make me feel as if I have somebody pressing down with their full weight on my chest and, when I try to force myself to do something I know I should do, it manages to make me feel as if I have somebody’s strong hand around my throat, not squeezing or threatening, just trapping me. At the same time that it can hit me so hard that I physically feel as if these things are happening to me and I get physiological symptoms, it also can make me feel numb and as if everything is hollow. It’s like I’m sitting at the bottom of an oversized well–think of the size of the one in the recent remake of Stephen King’s IT–and I physically feel only a mild discomfort from the damp cold and hearing distant echoes of something I know, if I were closer, would be distressing to me. It freezes me, not just physically but emotionally and mentally. In a world where I desperately want to hit pause but cannot stop it from charging forward, I ironically cannot prevent myself from pausing so that I get left behind. I get stuck. I can’t think of things to say or sort out all the emotional poison coarsing through my body enough to form coherent thoughts. I can sit for three hours and debate between chinese and subs (I did it until 6pm yesterday). I feel so at the edge of permanently falling apart and losing myself that I just imagine something like standing on the edge of a cliff overlooking a really dreary and dry drop into more broken rock and knowing the slightest bit of wind will tip me over into this entirely new state. When I am that vulnerable, I am not safe to be with myself. I mean that I am so self-critical and harsh on myself that I know I emotionally am not capable of withstanding what I would say to myself if I gave myself the chance. And because I assume my perception of myself is so accurate and concrete that everybody must view me the same way, it feels too unsafe to be around people.
So I disappear. I have read other people talking about their experiences with this as it is magic and it really is. Depression’s power in spite of being invisible is remarkable. It’s hard not to be in awe of it when you are actually able to emotionally process and reflect.
I retreat because I feel so incredibly exposed to harm that the slightest negative thought I or somebody else has about me could destroy me. I know what people say about people with depression. Lazy. Snowflakes. I say it about myself and trust me, I think lowly enough of myself that if it were true, I’d be the first one to say I was. But I’m really not lazy and I’m not a snowflake. That’s my point is that depression is like magic because it can make itself and you two very incompatible things at the very same time. I became slothful. I hate being sedentary. When I was around 8-10, I would miss schoolwork in the summer so, in addition to running around outside all day and playing sports, I would pretend I was in high school or junior high, giving myself assignments and an academic schedule throughout the day. I would set aside certain times for reading certain books, thumbing through my mom’s college textbooks, working on my vocabulary, anything I could think of. I proactively seek out work. Yet some part of me functions as if I am lazy. And that is the hardest part about me. Because when I am doing nothing and of use to no one, I am painfully both exactly who I am at the bottom of my empty self while also not at all who I am.
Depression has a funny way of being like that. It becomes you but it isn’t merciful enough to kill the parts of you which are going to hate what it makes you and protest, making everything more of a struggle than if you just took a breath and let it wash you away.
And I do disappear. I sit at the bottom of my empty well and I can hear the real me–the me who feels like me so much that even in these numb moments when she is nearly comatose I can feel her inside me–up trying to tell me something is wrong and needs fixed, or the weather is nice and I would love it if I just came out. I can make the real me disappear without her needing to go anywhere. And until she becomes larger and this side of me becomes smaller and is instead hanging onto her, I am not okay. I am not okay. I am not okay. I’m just trying to weather the indefinite period of peril where I am simultaneously screaming out of my heart while doing nothing but biting the inside of my cheeks and shrinking further and further from others’ minds.
I really can’t type that without singing it in my head. And the only other words I know are “Don’t know if I’ll be back again” so it’s just going to loop like that for at least the next eighteen hours. Fantastic.
As melodramatic as that title is, I don’t know how much more angsty my life can get. It’s only coming in, you know, 16 years too late. I didn’t quite have your Thomas Kincade, picturesque home life growing up. It wasn’t a war zone all the time but it sure as hell felt like anywhere we moved was located on a fault line and it was only a matter of time before the ground started shaking and shit started falling off the walls. So let’s call that, not the worst but far from idyllic.
If you feel like a goldfish in a bowl, disoriented and helpless because you were won by a kid at a county fair who didn’t actually want a goldfish, then same. What can I say? I’m a mess. And the worst part is, in spite of the fact that I don’t feel this way, I have all the same prejudices and stereotypes against myself that people who are ignorant about mental illness have. Just like the crippling anxiety I get from hanging out with people I love, I know better and there is no reason but that does not make it any less oppressive.
I always have the best intentions and have this passion for living life and helping people, in theory. But then the time comes and getting myself to walk out into the world is like trying to force yourself into walking into a burning building. Whatever I’m carrying and however I got it, it’s invisible and only I can see and feel it. I’m tired of talking about it and trying to explain it. Maybe it can’t be explained because I am so screwed up that it’s beyond even mildly screwed up people. I don’t know. I’m just going to try this and if it makes you, or me, feel a little less alone or a little less like a round peg in a square hole, then all the better.
Also, this awesome photo came from: Darina Çiço from Pexels.
I took a deep breath and listened to the old brag of my heart.
I am, I am, I am. –Sylvia Plath