Yup, this is going to be about mental health, and a bit of a departure from me torturing jerky online dating dudes. I know that, because of Robin Williams’s suicide, articles about depression and mental health are popping up on the internet more than cute pictures of puppies (maybe that’s just MY internet with all the puppies?). So you are probably rolling your eyes and thinking, “good lord, not more of this…”, but I think that the more people talk about it, the less stigma we’ll attach to it, so, yeah.
A few of you already know most of this, and some of you probably know a little of it, and the rest of you have no idea. I suffer from anxiety and situational depression. It’s a very common combination, and most of it’s been passed down from my family members. As a kid, it was mostly the anxiety. Other kids labeled me as shy or aloof because approaching new people made my insides squirm. Even more if they were adults who weren’t my parents. I’m pretty sure this is why I read so many books. With books, I could interact with all sorts of interesting people, but without any risk on my part. I wasn’t going to say the wrong thing, or make someone unconformable. And I could listen to them without being labeled as “the quiet girl”.
I sort of outgrew that. I still get anxiety in large groups, or meeting a lot of new people at once. But I generally enjoy being around people, especially people I know well and don’t have to “perform” with, But that doesn’t mean that the anxiety has gone away; it’s just moved to other parts of my life. Like, for example, the first time I went on a date, my junior year of college. We were already friends, or at least friend-ish, but that didn’t seem to matter. I was relieved that the bus we took into Boston was crowded, because it made it difficult for us to talk much. I sat while he stood, and we avoided eye contact. We got tickets for a movie I had already seen and loved, but it didn’t start for over an hour, so we walked around the city. I don’t know if I looked at his face once. I just talked…a lot. About the most random nonsense I could think of. Because this is what it sounds like inside my brain sometimes: “Where are we walking? Should I walk faster so that he thinks I’m better shape than I am? That’s dumb. Does he think I look fat? I mean, I am, but can he tell? Of course he can tell. Duh. I hope I don’t sound stupid. Why don’t I ask what male celebrity he would sleep with? Do I want to know? Why is he staring at me? I wonder what he’s thinking about. Probably broccoli. Why broccoli? Well, why not broccoli? Well, maybe he prefers cauliflower. Why would he prefer cauliflower? It looks like those health book pictures of genital warts. Ew. I hope he doesn’t have an SD. Has he had a girlfriend? Did they have sex? Like, a lot? And what kind of underwear did she wear? I’ve heard that some people wear matching underwear all the time. Where do people even GET matching underwear? Maybe not everyone buys theirs at Target?” This was all in the span of about 30 seconds, and continued throughout the night. And this is something my mind goes through regularly – often before bed, before a performance/presentation of some sort, before an interview, before a first date, before a big party (because I go to soooo many of those), and during any life event that gives me anxiety.
My second first date was almost as bad. I drank at least seven glasses of water just to have something to do with my hands. Which, of course, meant that I had to pee three times during the date. And when I came the third time, I told him that I wasn’t going in there to shoot heroin, I just had ingested a lot water. I talked about Crocs. I talked about how awesome I thought time travel was (mostly, I find it confusing). I talked about a lot of other things, but I don’t remember what they were, because I don’t think I was paying attention.
But the worst part is when the anxiety works itself into depression, which has only happened three times in my life so far. The first was when I moved to Seattle. I moved out with my then-boyfriend to start my Creative Writing MFA. I had a teaching assistantship. We found a shithole basement apartment, and I was registered for classes. I was all ready to go…until my parents, who had flown out to help me move, flew back home, and I went into my room to lie down. Our ceilings were lower than most, but right then, the room felt crushingly small. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t imagine myself as a teacher, as a Seattleite, as a grad student. I knew no one in the city besides my boyfriend. And I was convinced that I would never meet any other people, and would, spend the rest of my life by myself, or with him, in our dark, miserable basement with it’s teeny kitchen for eternity. I watched a lot of TV, mostly the Cosby show, to distract myself from these thoughts. I spent most of the day crying, and the other part hyperventilating. At one point, my boyfriend found me sitting on the floor in my closet with a pile of my clothes on top of me. I wasn’t moving. See, in my brain, this was totally logical. If I put all my clothes up in the closet, than I would really be a person who lived in this city thousands of miles from everyone else I knew. But if the clothes were on the floor, than it wasn’t real. I could still move back to the safety of home, to my family and friends. I could stay still.
But of course, we can’t stand still, unless we want to drown or get struck by lightning or hit by cars. My boyfriend, not knowing what the heck was going on, called my mom. I flew home for a few weeks before classes started, and when I went back, tried to see a counselor, and eventually took some anti-anxiety pills. They didn’t work for me, but once I started orientation, and spent some time with other people, even if I wasn’t friends with them for quite a while, I was okay, because my mind was busy enough to forget how bad I felt.
The second and third times were after breakups, and were pretty similar, though different degrees. And both happened and not great times in my life: right before winter break my first year of my grad program at TCNJ,where I felt isolated and alien; and right after graduating from the same program, only a few months ago, with basically no job. It hasn’t helped matters that a lot of my close friends are scattered across the country, and that while I have friends here, many of them have significant others and jobs and generally busy lives, while, right now I don’t, and didn’t then. But here’s the thing everyone will tell you: breakups are hard. And they are, almost always, and for most people. They are a thousand times worse when you have depression. My first breakup was fairly normal, because I was otherwise in a good place in my life – I liked my grad program, my job, and my social circle. Yes, I was sad, and guilty, and sometimes lonely, and it did feel like little pieces of me were missing. Most of the time I was able to distract myself from those feelings by surrounding myself with work and writing and friends. But the next time, I didn’t have those things. And I had certain expectations for my breakups, so nothing prepared me. No one told me that I wouldn’t want to get out of bed, for days, weeks, even a couple of months. That food would lose it’s appeal. That nothing would be exciting or interesting enough for me to want to leave the house. Some people call the feeling after you get dumped “heartbroken”, but it doesn’t feel like breaking. It feels like it gets sucked out the front of you with something strong and sharp. It takes yours lungs with it. It takes your intestines, your kidneys, your gall bladder. It takes everything inside you and dumps it on a highway somewhere for SUVs to crunch over. And when that’s over, you have a hole the exact shape of that person inside you. All that’s left of you is an outline, and you don’t know how to fill it.
At least, that’s how if feels when you have depression. Like living is meaningless. Like any time you breathe, shards of glass enter your lungs. Like everything is empty. Many days I was physically sick. Sometimes, this was a reaction to anxiety medication I was prescribed for sleeping, because I couldn’t fall asleep on my own anymore. But it happened before I started taking that, so some of it was a physical reaction to my emotional state. I would frequently throw up stomach acid in the mornings, and climb back into bed with my limbs shaking. I didn’t clean my room for months. Sometimes, I was afraid to drive. I would think about crashing into a tree or a lamppost at top speed. I would think about falling asleep and never waking up. I spent my free time reading or watching TV, because being alone with my thoughts was a dangerous thing. Because most of the time they sounded like: “you are a terrible person with no friends who will die alone in a ditch and no one will even notice that you’re gone”, or other versions of that. After a really, really long time, things got slightly better. And then slightly better than that. I was taking antidepressants, and seeing a therapist, which do actually help, but not always.
Yes, I know that it will go away. But I also know that it can come back, and that is terrifying. Because maybe it will be even worse the next time. Hopefully by then, I will have a job, and a decent social life, so won’t feel it as much.
And this is why I just don’t understand why people get angry at people who commit suicide because they have a mental health issue, often depression or bipolar disorder. Those people have zero clues what it’s like to have those symptoms, and to feel that low. They act like depression is a thing that means someone is crazy, or abnormal. Except that it’s not. Your friends have it, even if they don’t tell you. Someone in your family. Your teacher. Your coworker. Your mail carrier. And some of them have gotten help for it, and some haven’t. Because they can’t afford to. Because they think they don’t need to. Because they’re afraid of what their friends/parents/peers/boss/kids will say. Because they think that a strong person would be able to deal with it on their own. Which is bullshit. A few incredibly lucky people can manage their own depression, if it’s mild enough. Most of us can’t, and that doesn’t make us weak, it makes us smart, and responsible. No one calls you weak for going to a doctor to fix your sprained ankle, or your ear infection. But when it comes to diseases of the brain, we all suddenly become really judgmental. Because we can’t see the problems, they aren’t real.
I’m not entirely sure I have a “point” to writing this, but one thing I’d like to throw out there is something for those like me, who’ve experienced a mental health issue sometime in their life: if you’re already open about it, continue being awesome. If you’re not, because you’re a private person, that’s cool. You’re allowed to keep what you want private. But if you keep your issues to yourself because you’re embarrassed, or afraid, know that the more people who tell their stories, the less we need to tell them. People will realize that mental health is a real thing – the kind that should be part of an insurance plan, and the kind that deserves respect, and sometimes treatment. And then maybe all the people who need help can actually get it, and the jerks who stand on their pedestals and accuse sufferers of selfishness and petty actions will shut the hell up.