I visualize the depths of depression as a well. Maybe your personal hell looks different. For me the important characteristics are:
1) It’s dark
2) It’s physically uncomfortable in myriad small ways
3) I can’t see anything but the Well when I’m in it
That last part is critical. It’s what makes possible situations like me sitting in a park under a tree, in a summer scene so bucolic and tranquil it would make a hobbit shit, and numbly wishing I could believe the sunshine was real. Dissociation, they call that, or so psychiatrists have told me. That summer I was three months from telling a doctor, “I think about puncturing my own skull with a variety of objects on a stunningly regular basis.”
Of course, I didn’t say it like that. That’s the kind of stuff no one wants to hear, even doctors whose business is hearing the bad shit. It’s murderously funny when a therapist winces at you. You know that they’re human, that you can’t hold it against a person to have a reaction… but you wish you hadn’t seen it. You wish you hadn’t been waiting to see it.
I’ve let that wince silence me my whole life. I’ve pulled the lid over the Well every goddamn time, performed health as well as I could, because that’s what I was taught. I’ve now come to the point where I can no longer even talk to psychiatrists. I ghosted the last three who tried to help me after a few sessions, and the only reason I see the one I have now is to keep the SSRIs flowing. He doesn’t ask me about my past. He keeps his inquiries confined to my reactions to whatever I’m currently taking, and checks the appropriate boxes. It’s a good relationship. It’s a holding pattern.
There are a lot of reasons I’m in this holding pattern, but they don’t matter. It’s an artifact of magical thinking, my perpetual belief that the right doctor, or the right drug, or the right self-improvement regimen will come along, and I will be better. I will be able to unburden myself. I will be whatever it was I was supposed to be all along.
I’m here to tell you I’m not waiting anymore.
There’s no one I feel comfortable telling this shit to. So, because I’m ridden by the Imp of the Perverse, I’m going to tell all of you. We gotta give the Speaker for the Dead something real to work with, right? Maybe my personal Well looks something like yours. Maybe I mapped a part of it we have in common. Maybe you did. Maybe all this will do is frighten my loved ones and infuriate my family. I hope not. If you don’t like what you see here, please don’t burden yourself with it. I will not defend or justify my memories or my younger self. I won’t fight you over it. I’m just going to tell you what it looks like from where I am, for what worth that perspective has. It’s the only one I’ve got, and I don’t seem to be able to express it in any other way.
The stories in this series involve me being unusually frank and graphic about some fucked-up stuff, and therefore have the following blanket content warnings:
- Child abuse
- Self-harm and suicide
- Drug abuse
- Mental illness
- Sexual assault and rape
- A shit-ton of swears
Here endeth the disclaimers. On with the farce.
One: The Line
I think we all have a “Line O’ Socially Acceptable Crazy” somewhere in our heads. Someone tells you they’re depressed, even that they’re taking medication for it, and you want to help, you want to reach out. You don’t want to, say… restrain their limbs and teeth. But what if your friend told you they’d been diagnosed with schizophrenia? Also perfectly treatable, and yet suddenly you’re much more interested than you really should be in how well your friend is keeping up on their meds. Where’s the “dealbreaker” line? You’re three dates in and you glimpse her pill bottles on the nightstand — which ones make you run for the door? That’s an ableist line, it is, but we judge ourselves that way too, no matter how bad it gets. There is a kind of Crazy you wake up grateful that at least you’re Not. Until one day… you are.
The line disappears the second you fall over it, that’s the funny thing. I spent my whole childhood terrified and fascinated by the idea of OCD and autistic savants. Autism was in the news and to my seven-year-old mind, it sounded ideal — an affliction that made you better! Smarter, cleaner, more organized… I wanted very badly to become autistic. I wondered if you could catch it, but I didn’t know anyone who seemed like a savant to me.
It is not so important for you to be healthy as to look healthy
Besides, as you hear everywhere you go, everyone’s depressed, so shut up about it. Everyone’s anxious, and they blame Millennials, but brothers and sisters, they were telling that lie in the 90s too. All kids twitched or made little voices in the back of their throats. My best friend was certain she was possessed by demons, but she was a sweet person, so that was all right, we knew all the rituals to keep them quiet. No one seemed to think it was weird that I skipped steps every so often to more properly align my stride with the cracks in the sidewalk. You see, you have to step right before the crack, not too far back, and if it’s too far back the next step needs to halve that distance, even if you have to jump, but don’t overbalance and screw up the next step, otherwise you have to burn yourself with one of the seeds from that tree that scorch when you scrape them on the sidewalk! My friends nodded. It made sense to them. When someone showed up with cuts on her arms, we helped her hide them from her parents. Everybody does that a bit when they’re a kid, we agreed. It doesn’t change the landscape. Dry your eyes, shove the bloody kleenex into the bottom of your bag, and let’s go; we’re late for class.
You discover very early that it is not so important for you to be healthy as to look healthy. Which means it’s very important to tell no one how unhealthy you are. You should instead always tell them what they want to hear. My parents sent me to a psychiatrist around the age of 13, then complained that I “did nothing but talk to her about video games.” I had no idea I was meant to be directing the session — the psychiatrist was the first adult I’d ever met who showed any interest in me as a person, so I’d talked about what interested me. These sessions were far too expensive for me to fritter them away on being listened to and validated. There were two, and then there were no more. I cut my fingertips with scissors a lot that year. Cut class, too. I hid the former, but they found out about the latter. It didn’t matter. I was always grounded anyway.
“I hate it here, but at least no one can get mad at me for being here, because this is where I was told to be.”
I was grounded for most of high school. I remember a nine-month stretch as the longest single sentence, but my friends defaulted to the assumption that I was grounded for five years. Movie dates and parties would always start with proposed escape plans, and I would veto almost all of them. Perpetually in trouble, and already resigned to my role as the Once and Future Fuckup, I still tried so goddamned hard to do as I was told. That was the only way to make the voices stop. Do you experience this, O My Neurodivergent Perfectionist Friends? When you obey, the brainweasels stop gnawing. “I hate it here, but at least no one can get mad at me for being here, because this is where I was told to be.” I was zero fun to stay out late or get drunk with; I was constantly panicking about when I needed to be home or what I was going to tell my mom if she called. I knew the rules.
Keep your eyes dry and clear. Go through the motions without falling down. Show no emotion that could be interrogated or analyzed. A default expression of empty submission is best. Smiling cracks the facade — try to limit the people around whom you smile. Extended eye contact is unwise. Keep your eyes on a point two to four feet in front of your toes at all times unless eye contact is demanded — then maintain it expressionlessly until dismissed. Questions are heartily discouraged; the temerity to make requests will always be greeted with hostility, and any requests you make will be analyzed for implications of your deficient character. Remember your place. Venture no opinions. Expose no genuine sentiment. Feign enthusiasm or awe as demanded. The cleaner your performance, the faster this will be over.
“At least we don’t beat you.”
“My stepdad molested me, you don’t know how good you’ve got it.”
“I’ll give you something to really cry about.”
There’s the line.
On one side of it, you’re fine. Everybody has these problems, you’re just making a big deal of it, you’re just trying to get out of school, out of work, out of life. On one side of it, the medication is too expensive, the therapy is too much trouble. There are sicker people, people with real problems; you’re just lazy. You’re not one of those people, are you? We wouldn’t be able to love you quite the same way if you were one of those people… those people who need help. Our family isn’t one of those families, those broken families, those dysfunctional families. If we were, we’d really have to look at ourselves, really have to make some changes around here, but fortunately, we’re not. We’re not raping each other in the family bed, so when you think about it, you’re actually the one making trouble for everyone by complaining.
“If you ever run away, don’t you dare come back.”
On the other side of the line, they take you away. They call in the people in white coats. They don’t let you go home anymore. If you ask for help, they might think you need it. If you name the problem, it’ll become real. Depression’s okay, alcoholism is the family business, addiction is your legacy, but just make sure you select your afflictions and self-medicating mechanisms from the pre-approved list, and keep quiet about it, can’t you? With your crocodile tears and your malingering. Dramatic gestures are discouraged. I only threatened to run away a few times as a child, because each time I did, I heard, “If you ever run away, don’t you dare come back.”
When I was 29, I posted on Facebook about my struggle with finding a doctor, finding meds that worked even partially, living with suicidal ideation all that time. People were supportive. Many hearts. In the small hours of the morning — oh, I know the siren song of Facebook when you’re drunk at two AM, I do — my mother posted:
“We do not suicide. This family. Not ever.”
I could see her fear in the words. I could see how she didn’t know what to do, how to help, how to stifle the terror that came too late to have a productive outlet. I knew what she was trying to say. But what she actually said was the same thing she’s been saying to me all my life: “On the other side of this line, you are no longer mine. On the other side of this line, I do not know you.”
The line disappears the second you fall over it; that’s the funny thing.