Before I had the vocabulary for it, I didn’t think anything of what was going on inside my head. If I wasn’t palming it off as quirkiness, I was sweeping it under the ever-growing rug of social awkwardness I was apparently weaving. My sister and I shared laughs over my borderline frantic calls to stop the car, followed by my flinging myself out and running up to the door to check if I’d locked it. My mother wondered offhandedly if I was spending too much time reading instead of socializing and whether it was doing more harm than good. I recognized her concern but could never find the words to tell my protective, fearless mother that books were infinitely gentler than my schoolmates could be.
Almost every parent-teacher interview I sat through in elementary school involved some form or other of, “She’s a very bright girl, but… very quiet. We worry about her on the playground.” Mortified, I would assure everyone I had friends, close friends, few though they may be, and that was that, case closed. “Quiet” and “smart” became adjacent puzzle pieces of me-on-the-outside. The me-everyone-else-saw.
The only problem was, those characteristics became the bedrock of me-on-the-outside, and back then, I didn’t know how to change any of it even if I had wanted to. It created an intense amount of pressure. I started spiraling in a low-key destructive cycle of worrying incessantly about everything and anything. My anxiety was nameless and consuming, and all I could do was comment laughingly about how my chest seemed too small for the amount of air my lungs wanted to bring in.
My family had taken the opposite approach in their interactions with me. While everyone outside our bubble of a home saw me as “smart,” my parents routinely told me they didn’t expect me to do anything but try. They still wanted me to keep on trying my best. Failure, it seemed to my pre-teen and teenaged brain, was already written into my blood, and it was inevitable that I was going to disappoint everyone I knew. Either people were going to realize I was a sham and the reputation they’d helped me cultivate was groundless, or I was going to try, and try, and succeed for a handful of moments, only to be brought low by something insurmountable. Failure, in that case, wouldn’t even mean failure-of-the-task. It’d be a failure-of-character, because I’d been lazy and hadn’t worked hard enough.
As I grew up, all of my idiosyncrasies grew with me. They ballooned inside me, taking root within my body, until I woke up one day and found I had somehow morphed over time into a living greenhouse, in which everything I hated about myself was allowed to flourish.
I’ve heard depression being described most often to me as a weight — an anchoring, exhausting heaviness. But to me, it’s always been a particularly needy friend. It slides its hand into mine. It walks inside my shoes. It wants to tell me of the world, to show me life, and people, and myself. It tells me it understands me more than anyone else because how could anyone know me better? We’ve grown up together, you and I, it’ll whisper and soothe, never so intimate as when I can’t sleep. I can’t shake its hands off my body because it seems to think this too is a possession. It is a fist; it is a slide of a palm against mine, it is stretching fingers that snag at my sleeves and render me still.
It lingers beside me, hooking its ankle with mine, and even when it’s quiet, it never lets me think, not for a second, that it’s gone.
Let me tell you what a day looks like for me in this life I’ve been strong-armed into sharing.
It’s dark when I wake up, with the gradual change in seasons pitching my room in half-shadows. My curtains are drawn, the daily rumble of traffic has yet to start, and the tinny pop song that is my alarm is cutting through the silence. My eyes are heavy, and my limbs are puppet-taut. My fingers ache in solidarity with my back, though I grasp at the covers and pull them back anyway. The floor is cold, and I shiver. (The shivering doesn’t stop.)
My hands curl around a butter knife as I listen to the coffee wheeze through its morning brew. There is a taxi waiting outside my window, like clockwork, and I think of how somewhere, someone is leaving. I wonder at how they can be so brave, when I can’t even get my toaster to be on the right setting.
There are splashes of coffee on the counter. I inhale, then exhale, and find my hands steadier than I’d expected. I glance at the dark screen of my phone and debate whether I should go into work or not. Somedays I do. Somedays I don’t. There is a 50/50 chance of either at this point.
Scenario 1 — If I Do: There’s a rising jealousy in me as I think of my future self, already on the way home. I smile, though, shaking out the creases in my optimism and pulling it tight around me. The only one who can drive you away is you, I tell myself, walking through the front doors. I’ll greet my coworkers. I’ll be useful and helpful. I’ll see someone and feel my stomach drop, though I won’t care to know why. I’ll turn a corner, see faces and lips freeze, a conversation abruptly silenced, and I’ll smile. Someone will ask me if I’m OK, or how my evening was, or if I had any plans for the weekend. I’ll smile again and read insincerity in place of interest. I get ready to go home, wondering why I’d bothered to come.
Scenario 2 — If I Don’t: I tell myself I’m a useless lump for being unable to do something so simple as going to work. I think about all the other times I’ve been a bad investment. I might eat if it’s going to be one of those days, or I might not if I’m intent on punishing myself. I avoid the texts and emails I see lighting up my phone, until the guilt gnaws at me and I turn it face down. I’ll curl into bed, and behind my eyelids are pinpricks of light. I’m old, and getting older still.
Some days, I can’t leave my apartment. Imagining the open sky, and the fresh air, and all the people I’m bound to see on the street makes my stomach cramp in anticipation. Some days, I force myself to go out because staying in means facing the fact that I don’t have any blue pens, only black, and what kind of sorry excuse for an adult am I? It is inconceivable that I could be so stupid.
I never know when it’ll start.
I’m exhausted all the time. (It’s draining, hating yourself so entirely.)
I didn’t go to work today.
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