I realize that this blog has been gathering dust. I think I’ve reached a point where I can think critically and speak openly about my experiences over the past 15 years and I’m ready to convey some of the things I’ve been going through. It is impossible to describe depression while you’re lost in its depths, difficult while you’re healing, still hard when you have gained a slight distance and some perspective.
I was diagnosed with major depression when I was 23. I was in grad school, struggling to make my traditionalist professors understand that a digital community was no less viable a source for ethnomusicological study than a tribe in remote parts of Uganda. My mother seemed to be asking “but what will you do with it?” during every phone call, casting doubt on my future. I had a work study job and could not attend as many gatherings with the other students in my departments as I wished to, leaving me feeling left out and marginalized when they chatted about lunches and so forth. I had approached my first semester of grad school with a heavy courseload and no understanding of the differences between college and grad school and the expectations of the professors upon different levels of students. Almost none of my friends from college remained in Boston and I felt awkward and needy when I thought about tracking down the few who did.
My first semester, I decided that having someone to talk to about my stress levels would help me function. I went to the mental health center on campus and spoke with a counselor who responded to my self-deprecating, chuckled, “I don’t transition well and I’ve been fighting off panic attacks and tears for the last few weeks” with a sharp “you say you’re upset but you’re laughing. Why are you laughing?” At that point, I asked for a referral off campus. There is nothing worse than a therapist who does not speak kindly nor comprehend defense mechanisms.
I’m not sure how I got my term papers written, the second semester. I remember little more than lying in my bed, staring up the ceiling with tears leaking out of my eyes, mind completely blank. This state persisted from the last week of classes to sometime in late June. I recall finding myself down in the kitchen of my apartment, water running unheeded in the sink, gazing out the window at the side of the neighboring house and wishing vaguely that I could feel something. That was when I finally realized I needed to step up my game.
I had my anti-depressant medication changed to something without the side effects of memory loss I had been experiencing. I increased the number of appointments I had with my therapist. I enlisted a friend to help encourage me to conduct my research and write portions of my thesis. I forced myself to join social situations and I made new friends. I decided to allow myself to take as much time as needed to write that thesis rather than scrambling to complete it within the recommended time frame for graduating within two years. I remember sitting in the sun on campus one day, feeling amazed because I felt okay, wondering if this was what it felt like to be normal.
A few days later, I went to a performance of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, my favorite opera, in Boston with a fellow grad student. We chattered happily, we climbed up to the third balcony seats that we had gotten, we settled in comfortably, and I thought I was having a heart attack. My heart was hammering, my pulse was fluctuating, my breath was coming in short, shallow wheezes. I spent the entire first act wondering if I should find an usher and ask for an ambulance. I texted my father during intermission, feeling lightheaded. He texted back, “I think you’re having a panic attack.”
The next moment was crisp, like a fever breaking. I was having a panic attack, an incredibly severe one, unlike the ones I’d experienced while on my previous medication (which had involved mostly 5-10 minute fits of crying and gasping for air). It had been so long since I’d had a prolonged panic attack that I had forgotten they could last longer than 10 minutes. It occurred to me that several of the “asthma” attacks I’d had during the last few months had probably actually been low-level panic attacks expressing themselves in this new way. I spent the rest of the show concentrating on controlling my breathing and relaxing my tense muscles. By the time we left, I was exhausted and drained but no longer panicked.
The summer progressed and I watched my fellow students graduate, feeling incredibly relieved to not be up on that stage. I worked with my therapist on not bottling up all of my emotions and opening lines of communication. I prepared to move to a different apartment.
I was packing one night when my phone rang. My grandfather had passed away. It was not unexpected but he was significantly younger than most of older generations of my family have been when passing. It hit me hard, harder than I realized.
My sister flew to Boston to help me move boxes in the morning and then packed me into a rental car to drive back home for the funeral. My entire extended family were their warm, loving, wonderful selves. My grandfather was a well-known man, one of the few people I’ve ever known who truly does qualify as a pillar of the society in which he lived, and the celebrations of his life were wonderful and ridiculous – in my family, we express love through physical affection and remorseless roasting – and it wasn’t until I was back in Boston, in a new, unfamiliar, unpacked, apartment with one friend and several strangers, that I realized how much it had all affected me.
I knew I was grieving but somehow I didn’t think I was feeling right. Roughly a week after being delivered back to Boston, I found myself walking down the hallway of my apartment and wondering, “Wouldn’t it be normal for someone who has been through all I’ve been through lately to think about suicide?”
Then, I thought, “Wait. Did I just think about committing suicide?”
Then, “Am I suicidal?”
I have never experienced a panic attack like the one I had immediately after that string of thoughts. I wound up sitting on the floor in the bathroom, wiping my eyes with roll after roll of scratchy toilet paper, sobbing hysterically and desperate for someone to hug me. My mind was screaming white noise and disjointed thoughts. I texted a friend that I needed help. I called my parents. My mother left immediately to make the drive out to Boston.
My friends are incredible people. As soon as she got out of work, the friend I had texted scooped me up and took me to another friend’s apartment, where our entire group had gathered. No one pushed me with awkward questions. I was hugged, my arms were rubbed, I was leaned against, my hair was stroked, and silent support was offered while we watched a movie and completely unrelated tears streamed down my face. They calmed me down without speaking and just let me gather myself.
My mother arrived early the next morning. We took a hotel room for a couple of days. I spent hours in tears, lying on a bed with her arms around me, gasping out things I barely remember. Things that had bothered me, things that were bothering me, things I learned about myself in therapy, things I’d been hiding from myself and others, fears, concerns, regrets, problems. We drove around the countryside in Massachusetts and New Hampshire the next day, taking in calm scenery and quiet sounds. We chatted, we laughed, we meandered, and in the evening I wound up back in tears, crying for no particular reason, feeling physically cold and emotionally empty and utterly lost.
Mom and I gathered a few things and then drove back home. I spent the next week alternating between curling up in a chair trying to distract myself with books and studying and lying prone on the sofa, trying to convince myself that the feeling of the nine-pound shih tzu sitting on my stomach wasn’t bringing on a panic attack of claustrophobia. It was the single most confused week of my life but by the end of it I knew I needed to return to Boston. Being with my parents had bought me some calm, the knowledge that I was cared for more deeply than I could understand, and the space to recognize that no one could fight this battle for me. I needed to go back to my chosen territory, to face my fears and concerns and reclaim my life.
That is easier said than done. It must have been the most difficult thing she’s ever done, but my mother agreed to drive me back to Boston. She helped unpack my bedroom. She took me to buy a comfortable chair to curl up in. She helped me organize the chaos into a living space. She stayed nearby in a hotel for a couple of days. And then she left.
I took myself off my medication because it had a known side-effect of causing suicidal thoughts. I met with my therapist several times a week. I mourned for my grandfather, I mourned for teenaged girl I had been who had expected to be living an entirely different life at this age. I tried to accustom myself to my new domicile, the unfamiliar room and the new housemates. I went through panic attacks and had trouble forcing myself to leave the house. I couldn’t stop thinking about tripping while going down the stairs and breaking my neck. I was afraid I would stab myself while cooking. I couldn’t stop picturing myself walking out into traffic and getting hit by a car. I shrank away from the safety razor in the holder in the shower because razors could cut.
I finally went to an off-campus psychopharmacologist and got a recommendation for an entirely different medication. My therapist had worked incredibly hard to point out to me that I was not doing any of things I so desperately feared. I was not walking into traffic, I was not slitting my wrist with a razor blade (even though a safety razor, even I could admit, would have been a difficult tool to use to do so). I couldn’t see a difference between fearing suicide and being suicidal until the psychopharm looked at me and said, “These thoughts seem more obsessive than suicidal. Do you tend follow a lot of patterns?”
That was when I learned that I was actually, instead of jokingly, obsessive compulsive. My fanaticism for having certain things in a particular order has been a long-running joke in my family. I was the kid would dump out the crayon box and spend hours meticulously putting the colors in a gradient line before I would color. Being officially diagnosed flipped a switch in my brain, turning my odd habits into something recognizable and acceptable instead of quirks that frustrated me because I couldn’t understand why I was doing them. Yes, the cream cheese needs to completely cover the surface of the bagel. It may be silly but it’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Knowing that my thoughts about death and suicide were caught in an OCD loop made recovering from each episode of panic easier. The episodes were still frequent and severe and the gloom could last for days on end but when the dark haze lifted a bit I could reassure myself that recovery was possible. It was difficult to actually believe it but knowing that shifting my therapeutic goals to address cyclical thinking gave me a sliver of hope.
A lot of that fall and winter is more or less lost to my memory. I applied for and received a leave of absence from grad school. I had completed all required coursework and just needed to write and present a thesis. I truly intended to use the time to grieve and poke away at my thesis but depression doesn’t care about what you should be doing. My memories of those months has a dark film of sadness, frustration and fear. Even daylight was dim, filtered through a blackness somewhere behind my eyes. I lived day to day, aiming for simple survival. “Just make it to Friday,” I would tell myself over and over again, “you can go out to dinner with your friends and forget things for a little while. You can afford an appetizer if you convince someone to split it with you.” Small splurges on things like $20 concert tickets gave me things to actively live for, instead of just enduring existence. “Just make it to the Utada Hikaru concert next month. It should be fun. You remember fun. That will make things better.”
I found work through a temp company so that I could afford to keep feeding myself. My parents helped financially, doing everything they could to support me in my struggle against myself. They paid for my rent when the last of my grad school loans ran out. This brought new feelings of guilt and of being a burden, even though they assured me every day that they were happy to be able to help me. I applied for and received state health insurance which I absolutely credit with saving my life and sanity by paying for my medication and my therapy.
Somewhere in those cold winter months, I decided that I needed to prioritize getting back on my feet over finishing my thesis. While the group I was exploring fascinated and delighted me, trying to write things to please academics who were still not convinced I was studying a “real” community brought levels of stress into my life that completely negated any forward progress I ever made. I wrote and erased several chapters. By the spring time, I actually had less of my thesis completed than I had had when my leave of absence began.
When the chance of a temp-to-perm job arose, I grabbed it. I wound up spending the next three years accumulating aspects of several people’s jobs as personnel changed and decreased at what I tend to call a “soulless for-profit college”. I started as the “assistant registrar” and kept student files. Three years later, I was the event planner, the dean’s secretary, the registrar, the student support system for everything from having a bad day and needing someone sympathetic to talk to to filing paperwork with government assistance offices. I built the library. I built the work-study program. I never received a cost-of-living increase, let alone a pay raise due to changing job functions.
My living situation had grown tense over the months of defensiveness and fear. I misinterpreted just about everything and communicated poorly. I almost lost one of my closest friends because of it. My frustration with every aspect of my situation made me even more emotional and prone to overreacting. Even when my quasi-suicidal tendencies were quiescent I was terrified of losing my job and what little self-respect I had gained through managing to complete the overwhelming projects I was being handed. Silly things like a towel being hung on my hook in the bathroom would throw me into a fit, regardless of whether or not there were other hooks free. Two of the other housemates had gotten married and any time spent on their floor – which had the kitchen and the stairway up to my floor – felt like I was an unwelcome intruder. It was time for me to live alone.
My father came to Boston and helped me move apartments, bless him. I have never been so out of shape in my life as I was after nearly three years of being holed up in my bedroom and only getting exercise when walking to and from the buses to work. I was essentially useless. My poor dad lugged most of my belongings down from the third floor old apartment into the third floor new apartment several towns to the south. Since I would start gasping for breath after just one flight of stairs, he finally made me stay upstairs in the new apartment and start unpacking. The seventy-something landlord, who was built like a brick and did physical work around the house that I had thought only bodybuilders would be strong enough to do, came out of the first apartment and helped.
I was incredibly happy with my new living situation. I was still terrified, of course, because I was living unsupervised and what if I poisoned myself with my cooking or finally did go crazy and stab myself with a kitchen knife? Added to that was my poor ability to transition through major life changes. There were a few panic attacks, to be sure, but Dad had been insistent on making the living room a completely finished room before he left so I had a warm, welcoming environment to relax in between frenzied bouts of unpacking and cooking. And let’s not talk about my first experience with a gas stove and how completely convinced I was that I was going to go up in a puff of smoke for the entire first month I lived there. But overall, I was in a fresh new place, I had vague hopes that I would finally get some kind of relief to the stress and work load at the office, and I had finally started to go days at a time without expecting to die in incredibly painful ways. My mother came out to visit me and we talked about how things were finally, finally, looking up for me.
Three months after I moved in, my seventy-something landlord came to help me take the monstrous air conditioners he had put in the windows out before Hurricane Sandy hit. His daughter was home on the second floor, making dinner. His wife had just gotten out of the hospital and was on the first floor, resting. They were expecting relatives to come for dinner. And he kissed me, licking my lips. He called me a “good girl” and, when I told him that kissing me was absolutely not okay, he said, “maybe just like this” and kissed my cheek.
I thought I had experienced panic before. I am no stranger to panic. But never before have I been held in place and “kissed” by a man I thought of as a surrogate grandfather, with his family home and his wife ill. That kiss was all that happened and things certainly could have been much worse but, for the first time, I was afraid of an attack from an external source.
When the landlord left, I called my father and told him what had happened. “I don’t think I can live here,” I told him, gasping and shaking and crying. But I did. I couldn’t afford to move again, I couldn’t stand the thought of losing my new independence. Over the next several days, I told my friends what had happened and found myself armed with pepper spray and offers of alternate lodgings. I told a couple of trusted colleagues and received support and encouragement to protect myself officially. I filed a complaint with the police.
Finally, I steeled my nerves and told my mother what had happened. I had left her for last because I felt so ashamed of what had happened, like I was responsible for the landlord’s actions. Was it because I was in my pajamas that evening? Was it because I wasn’t wearing a bra? Let me get this point very, very clear: NO. What happened was not my fault and, even if I had been completely naked, it would not have been appropriate to be kissed against my will. Still, I felt awful about it and guilty for putting his recovering wife through such a betrayal. Going to the police taught me two things: 1. it was illegal for me to have pepper spray without a firearms license and 2. having this report on record would make future transgressions by the man legally actionable offenses. With that second bit of information, I was able to shore up my anger and allow myself to tell my mother, whose opinion matters more than anything, about the Event.
Nothing else was ever done to me by the landlord but I spent the rest of the days I lived there grabbing a knife and checking my closets and shower for hiding attackers. I slept poorly, awaking with every creak of the old carpentry and listening for footsteps on the stairwell. At two in the morning one night I devised an alarm system to tack on the door frame, consisting of twine and metal buttons that would clatter if the door was opened. I dug up the extra shims from the package my father had bought when it was discovered the fridge was on uneven floor and jammed them under the door to make it harder to open. I half ran when taking out the trash. Being attacked joined the list of topics my OCD liked to dwell on and the troublesome thoughts, which had been diminishing, rekindled. I had nightmares about the landlord’s wife finding out I had kissed her husband and transforming in a clawed monster, attacking me while screaming “how could you” and otherwise raging in her betrayal.
I spent many nights waking and staggering to the bathroom to vomit. I developed a persistent stomach pain that I went to the doctor for. It turned out not to be the half-expected ulcer but I was given medication and a recommendation that I lower my stress levels. Fat chance of that happening, what with the living situation and the work problems.
At work, I had been told I was working too many hours. “There is no reason you should be working more than 35 hours a week,” was the actual phrase. I was told that my work was not up to par and not offered any training beyond going to another campus and sitting with their registrar for a day. I spent two hours on public transit and got an hour with that registrar. I was told that I should sign a thirty day “employee success plan” which I was initially excited about as an opportunity to learn how to manage my priorities for work better. Then I actually read it and discovered that it only addressed registrar functions. Well, fine, I admit that there are areas I needed to improve upon in terms of being a registrar. If I were only a registrar, that would be one thing. Unfortunately, the official plan said nothing about the graduation ceremonies, the advisory board meetings, the work-study programs, the student support activities, the accreditation-mandated library, the office supply and textbook requisitions for staff and students, the entry test proctoring for the Admissions department, or the ongoing presentations to teach students about their school emails and software.
I knew something had to change when I went to a book club meeting and my friends there looked at me, said nothing, and proceeded to spend the next hour rubbing my arms, hugging me, and leaning against me just like my other group of friends had back during my nervous breakdown. My mother came to visit again, arriving just in time to sit in the back of the rented auditorium and watch a graduation ceremony I had put together and to help with the clean-up after the ceremony when everyone but one coworker left without a backward glance. When we got back to her car, laden with boxes of spare gowns, unclaimed certificates, banners, programs and other flotsam, I sat the passenger seat and cried. “I can’t. I just can’t.” She looked me in the eye and said, “This is making you sick. This is killing you. You need to quit this job.” She sat next to me while I made myself face the situation and came the realization that she was right.
I handed in my two-week notice. This was the first time I had quit a job for any reason other than going to to school. I was terrified. I was exhausted. If it weren’t for the two coworkers I love so much, the ones I had told about my living situation, I probably would have broken down and cried every single day. I tried to help students figure out solutions to housing problems, child care, stress, fear and frustration, all while feeling like my own future was imploding around me. For those last two weeks, I tried to offer as much training to the coworker who was being shuffled into the registrar position as I could. Most of it amounted to, “This is how I have been doing it but I made it up because I didn’t know how it was supposed to be done, so you should probably request some actual instruction on that” and “this is what it looks like but the numbers are wrong somewhere between the last registrar and me and my lack of training so you should probably ask Corporate if you can start over with a clean slate”.
I was truly sorry to leave some of the people I was working with, including the two coworkers who had become trusted friends and a newish boss who was definitely one of the best bosses I had ever had but who was still undergoing his own training. Many of the people who worked at that for-profit college truly did want to help the students learn useful skills and enter successful careers. Unfortunately, that school was a business and the business only cared that bodies enrolled and bodies graduated, not that individuals improved their lives and situations. As the daughter of a mother who taught in public school and gifted programs and a father who lived for community outreach and arts opportunities, I had long raged at this fiscally-focused, dismissive approach to education. I had told myself that my love for learning and sharing knowledge and my wish to help others experience education was enough to keep me afloat but I was wrong. Leaving that job was absolutely one of the best decisions I have ever made and it was certainly the most overdue.
Faced with unemployment, college and grad school loans that were in repayment and an uncomfortable-at-best apartment situation, I floundered. A wonderful holiday week with my immediate family at my sister’s house in California was a salve for my tattered emotions. I spent several afternoons abandoning everyone to take long naps. I hadn’t slept a full night since October and I was completely out of the adrenaline that my “I need this job” mantra had lent me. I returned from that trip feeling calmer and more centered than I had in months. The very next day, I called my father in tears because I was so lonely for easy affection and perfect nine-month-old nephew I’d had for a week and I was so scared of my nebulous future.
I resolved that, if I did not have a job by March, I would take my sister up on her offer of a place to stay and seek employment in California. At the same time, I felt like leaving Boston, my chosen home, would be a failure of some kind. When I discussed the situation with my mother, she offered to take over my entire rent payments for January and February, to give me time to search for a job. I had never been able to afford Internet service in that apartment, so I spent hours at either the Starbucks in the grocery store or the public library. I sent out hundreds of applications, tracking each meticulously on a spreadsheet to prove to myself that I was doing something despite the utter lack of responses from prospective employers. I landed a grand total of two interviews. I didn’t get either job. My days started to take on that familiar dark tinge of depression and hopelessness.
Just before the end of February, I received an email from a guy who had been at my previous job for several months. I had applied to a company in Boston that, it turned out, he had worked for as an HR representative for more than a year. He had seen my application and thought I would be better suited a different position. He encouraged me to submit a new application and passed my resume on to a colleague in his department. I did a phone interview and it was wonderful. I loved everything I heard. I was invited to do an in-person interview and it was wonderful. I was awestruck by the office, so different from my previous office, and I really liked the employees that I was introduced to. I liked the company’s mission statement, I liked the sound of the work I would be doing, I liked the sound of the prospective teammates. I crossed my fingers, used my tax refund to pay for another month’s rent, and tried not to think about all the things that had looked promising but gone so horrifically wrong over the last year.
The next two weeks were indescribable. March hit and I fluctuated between nervous hovering around my phone and disconsolate packing of things for what looked like an impending relocation across country. When my phone rang and I was offered the job, I could barely speak.
It was just the beginning. With that offer of employment, my life changed. I was moving into an entirely new field. I had so much to learn and I was convinced that someone would decide a mistake had been made and I would be back to looking for a job. My first week of work coincided with a big convention that I had previously chosen to be my last hurrah with friends in my city. Now, it was an opportunity to celebrate with them the fact that I had a future in Boston, the fact that I had a future at all. Each day, I left work breathlessly exhilarated, thinking, “They didn’t fire me! I’m not a complete failure!”
The Boston Marathon was bombed. I spent days stranded in my fear-inducing apartment, developing new fears for the friends who lived in Cambridge and Watertown. That week taught me a lot about myself and my city, very, very quickly. I expressed that here in my blog. My mother came out for a pre-scheduled visit that we had considered cancelling because of the bombing and I forced her to go out to dinner with my friends on Saturday after everything was over. It was probably very awkward for both Mom and my friends but I regret nothing. It meant the world to me to have her there while I reassured myself that everyone was alive and in one piece.
In May, my mother sent me a link to an apartment posted on Craigslist. It was near my friends, it was almost affordable with my new salary, it was in an apartment building instead of in a creepy old man’s home. I leapt at it. I wanted to claw the eyes out of the other people who attended the open house. You don’t even understand, I wanted to shriek at them, please let me have this! The landlord’s wife opened the door when I got home one night after applying for the new apartment, sighing at me and saying, “I was so sick. I hoped you would visit me. You were such a nice girl. You were supposed to give us 30 days notice.” I managed not to claw her eyes out, either, not to tell her that her husband was a creep and a lecher and I wanted to move out months ago. I kept it to pointing out that, although she had only learned of the pending move when called for a reference by the new landlord, I still wasn’t moving out for 30 days.
And, somehow, I got the apartment. I had to borrow money from a friend to make the down payment. He later refused to allow me to pay him back, telling me that he wanted me to be safe and happy and, when I protested again, that my suffering guilt over it would be my gift to him. One of my friends lives around the corner, a four-minute slow saunter from my door. One lives further into the residential areas of the town, about a thirty minute walk from my apartment. Two others live about an hour’s walk away, an easy and beautiful walk along parks and reservoirs with only complicated road crossing (which, in the Massachusetts tangle of highways, one-ways and rotaries, is nothing short of a miracle). It’s an area I know well, not a new and unfamiliar town, and it’s the first apartment I’ve ever been in that is on the ground floor instead of the third. That seems a silly thing to celebrate but it makes an incredible distinction in my mind.
With the move, the last of my lingering stress started lifting. Friends helped me move and my parents visited a few weeks later and helped me settle. For the first time in my memory, I no longer felt that the Sword of Damocles was dangling over my head. The next shoe was no longer about to drop. I had bad days, I had good days, I had worries and frustrations. Then, one day, I had a panic attack. I spent about thirty seconds trying to breathe and then straightened up, shocked to realize that I had been living here for two months without a panic attack. I was surprised right out of the one I’d been experiencing. I hadn’t had a panic attack since I had learned I’d gotten the new apartment. I hadn’t had a nightmare since I’d moved.
I had made a major life transition and it hadn’t gone horribly. The implications of this were astounding. All at once, I had perspective on things that I’d never been able to distance myself from enough to consider seriously. I listened to a podcast that referenced suicide and my triggers didn’t flare up to engulf me in a whirlwind of all the ways I could die. I made mistakes at work, realized them or had them pointed out to me, corrected them and learned from them. I left work each day without being amazed that I hadn’t been canned. The first time I spent an entire weekend in my apartment, alone, not leaving because I didn’t even need to make a grocery run, I was astounded. I called my parents, I call friends, I met with my therapist. “I was fine,” I told all of them, trying to convey my disbelief, “I was productive! I did dishes and cleaned just because I could. I watched a sad movie without dissolving into tears.”
You can never amaze yourself more than when you do something impossible. For me in 2012, having never done it, the 20-mile Walk for Hunger was impossible. For me in 2013, after five years of struggling, making it through a day of my own company and introspection without a depressive episode was impossible. My innate reclusive tendencies have evolved from the social anxiety of my adolescence through the fear and darkness of depression to settle into calm solitude. My fear of endangering myself has quieted from surety that the next step would be my last to a vague thought that I need to be careful while cutting the potatoes or a slip of the hand could nick a finger. The only time I’ve laid in bed, staring at the ceiling with tears leaking from my eyes, was when I finished reading Ender’s Game and wanted to reach into the story and hug that tortured child. Five years ago, three years ago, last year, I could not have imagined doing these things so naturally.
I still have down days. I have days I cry for what seems like no reason. Now, I am able to calm myself down and locate and examine the cause. I have days when I loll around in bed because the thought of getting up and dealing with the dishes that have accumulated in the sink is overwhelming. Yet, the fact that I even think about doing the dishes is a victory.
I spent 2013 building a new life. I spent my time consciously entering into important conversations that I wanted to shy away from. I spent hours learning the pleasure of my own company. I reintroduced the joy of learning new skills by teaching myself, with copious assistance from Google, how to spin fiber into yarn. I am learning to express myself without self-recrimination. I started exercising regularly and being more careful about what I eat, not because my doctor continued to sigh dramatically over my triglyceride level and recommend more medications, but because I wanted to make a choice and prove to myself that I could command my own fate. Even eating had seemed out of my control, before. During the Christmas gathering of my large, loud, ridiculous and wonderful extended family, I still felt myself needing to edge away and sit against a wall. I sat in the middle of the wall, though, knitting and engaging in conversation, instead of hiding in a corner with a book. This is something I have not been able to do since I was child. 2013 was the first Christmas that I felt I could actually contribute to the discussions and share stories with my relatives.
At the beginning of this month, I spent a week and a half in California with my mom, my about-to-give-birth sister, and my wonderfully imperfect nephew. My sister invited me out there to help her and our mother, who regularly goes out there to help with the toddler, during the delivery of my second nephew and the accompanying visits from relatives. My brother-in-law, a trial lawyer, was working until midnight and returning to the office at four in the morning in order to be able to be in the hospital with my sister when the baby was born. He had to leave the very next day.
For me, this trip became about more than just helping keep the toddler entertained and setting the table. This trip represented a chance for me to demonstrate to myself that I was a functioning, capable adult. My sister and my mother had enough to worry about, especially after my sister started experiencing active labor and kept being instructed to go to the hospital to be monitored and then being sent back home. My sister has always sort of terrified me with her very Type-A personality, her decisiveness and determination. Even when we’ve fought and disagreed, she has supported me and encouraged me to step up and take charge. This trip was my chance to show her that her help has made a difference for me and an opportunity for me to return some of that aid.
Curse her for being so perceptive, though. Even when she was high as a kite on narcotics after the baby was born, she pointed out to me that, yes, I still cry when someone says something nice about me. Mom had asked earlier that evening, somewhat hesitantly, if I was gaining anything by still seeing my therapist. My sister’s question forced me to recognize that, yes, I still have an incredible deficit when it comes to self-esteem and I will not be “better” until I can take a compliment or a thanks from someone without feeling awkward and undeserving.
It has become apparent over the years of working with my therapist that I first began experiencing depression when I was about 10 and my first major episode occurred when I was roughly 12. What I had thought was stereotypical melodramatic teenaged angst was, in fact, heightened by serious disease. I never had a chance to develop any self-confidence. I only accepted the fact that I was vocally talented when I realized that I had received a perfect score in a vocal competition that I had almost entirely trained myself for. I was forever chasing my sister’s shadow, never measuring up in my mental comparison chart. I once came out of several long minutes staring at myself in a mirror to announce to my mother that “you always say that I’m pretty but I just don’t see it”. I was sure I was a burden to my father, who I sobbed at after every argument with my mother about college, hobbies, whether the sky was blue.
Every teenager is clinically insane. This is being proven by psychologists and neuroscientists in study after study of cognitive development. Depression took those teenaged upsets and growing pains and fed them into crippling neuroses and bitter defensiveness. How I made it through my senior year of high school without being institutionalized, I’m not entirely sure. Looking back on it now, it might have staved off a great deal of confusion and forced me to take that year off between high school and college that I’d considered as possibly beneficial. It’s a moot point, as that gap year didn’t happen and I progressed to college and the next set of growing pains, worries and doubts.
If 2013 was the year of my learning to be myself again, 2014 is going to be the year of learning to love myself. Actually, this may take more than one year. I have about an 18-year deficit of self-acceptance to get through. I have several advantages in my friends, my family, and the therapist who has met all of my personality quirks with effect training in coping mechanisms, self-analysis of emotional responses, and just letting me vent and talk about what’s gone on in my life since I last saw her. It’s going to be hardest to allow myself to internalize things said by my family, because they’re the ones who have known me all my life, they’re the ones about whom I have the most memories and the feelings, and they’re the one whose opinions absolutely matter the most. Thankfully, I already know how very much they all love and support me because of how they’ve stood by me during the last five years of my battle. I know there is a difference between feeling like a burden and actually being one but it is going to take some work to allow myself to fully believe them when they say that they don’t mind because it’s temporary and someday I’ll have all my loans paid off and be able to actually afford to live in (stupid expensive) Boston.
On a side note, Boston can be a difficult city but I didn’t fail here. My family and my friends have all helped me out. I have a job that I love and feel worthwhile doing, coworkers I adore, an apartment I’m comfortable in, friends to keep me grounded and tell me when I being a nut. If the future sees me leaving Boston, it won’t be because I didn’t measure up. It will be because I choose to relocate.
I am healing. It has been a slow, laborious process. I am still establishing my healthy baseline of emotions. Unfortunately, I think I’m always going to cry at commercials and can no longer blame that on the depression. I’m still getting used to the difference between a depressive bout and actual sadness although both experiences are now blessedly few and far between. I will always carry the scar of these difficult years but, more importantly, I will be armed with self-awareness and useful coping mechanisms for any bad days.
I’m going to learn to set goals again. For so many years, any goals that I aimed for were either turned aside or outright crushed by my circumstances. I don’t have to sit back and watch that happen, now. With my growing contentment and happiness has come a sense of empowerment, of being able to move on after disaster strikes.
My life has definitely not been what I expected it to be. No one expects to spend their early adulthood gasping for air, buried under a weight they cannot express. Despite the emotional and mental pain, I’ve come through to the other side with a rewarding life. For the first time, I expect good things to happen to me in the future. At the very least, I’m no longer reluctant to kick an old man in the shin (or elsewhere) if he needs it. But I am going to make damned sure that I’m never in that kind of situation again. One thing to be said about the slow climb out of depression: it leaves you pretty determined never to be in that horrible place ever again. And I won’t be.
I may have future bouts of depression, dark stretches of days without energy or ambition, feeling blank and bereft. I have an entire arsenal of resources at my disposal now, not the least of which is the fact that I have succeeded. I have clawed my way out of that pit. I did it once, I can do it again. Hopefully I will never need to. But I have and I can and I know I will have support every second of the ordeal.
So there it is, my 2014 resolution. Not to lose 10 pounds or buy fewer shoes or go to gym but to just be and to be happy.
I think I’m going to make it.