Somehow, the second time around, it was even harder to see that I was slipping.
Gravity was coy this time as it closed in — a slow-motion fall, so awful and yet so silent.
Perhaps it was the lack of oxygen that dulled my senses — my ribs clenched to keep the pain inside from writhing, my attempt to choke-hold fear. I walked a tightrope, trying not to quiver — eyes fixed forward and vacant, not daring to glance behind me, or at the chasm below.
Sure, there were some hard things to begin with — moving overseas, leaving behind community, the familiar. Stepping outside that peculiar, insulated undergraduate existence and into the ambiguous borderlands of Young Adulthood. This, alone, was a challenge, and like anyone, I had Good Days, and Bad Days.
But, then. The scales tipped. I began facing routine sexual harassment from certain, unavoidable individuals. Later, an unrelated incident of assault placed me over the edge, and I found the world around me colored always with alarm — and the illogical but powerful sense of self-loathing that so often accompanies experiences of victimization.
In spite of myself, I started living in terms of subtraction — only three more hours until I can be alone, only two months until I can get away from this person and all his lewd banality. I thought I could “hold out” — a myth I’d never accept on behalf of another, and something I’m not proud to say I attempted for myself.
But every day cost me dearly — while I pit my pain against the clock, I was drifting into darker waters. I was changing, slowly but definitively. I focused on motion — I fluttered aimlessly in the empty hours of the night, rattling in the sleepless dark, not daring to be still. I washed and scrubbed the kitchen spotless. I cleaned my room with a fury, sorting clothes and dusting surfaces, unable to sit. I studied and researched relentlessly. I cooked elaborate meals but then found myself un-hungry. I put the food away; I mopped the floor. I gnawed at the corners of my life, and took shelter in the numbness of self-induced exhaustion.
I became an inversion of all the things I loved and longed to be — full, bright, hopeful, generous. I grew quieter, drawn deeper into the consuming game of cat-and-mouse inside my head, searching always for busywork as a bulwark against my darker thoughts.
I’d been depressed before. Depressed in the clinical, acute, life-draining sense of the word. The first time was three years ago, and with some help, I eventually moved through the painful rituals of realization, admission, and treatment. I’d spent the hours telling loved ones not to blame themselves, but that I couldn’t “just snap out of it,” that I was suffering from a real illness and it wasn’t my fault. I learned to recognize myself apart from this affliction, and to choose to resist it with the strength I had, and to borrow what I didn’t. I learned a little about brain chemistry, I accepted medication as a viable part of my path to health. And, I chose to speak of this without shame — I’d seen too many people made sicker by silence. I thanked God for the care I received from family, friends, and doctors.
And with all this help and a lot of deliberate breathing, I stopped waking up everyday with rain on my face. The color bled back into my skin, and the world around me. A fog lifted, and I cried with gratitude — and started laughing. This is me I thought one day, as I noticed my body and voice in motion, my mind clicking and singing in raucous flight. Deeper down, I thought how great it was that, as awful as the depression had been, that it had only been an “episode.” Thank goodness, just a passing thing. I’d seen so many people struggle through debilitating mental illnesses for years and lifetimes. Thank God mine was just a blip, right?
Perhaps it could have been. Who’s to say where I would have been had I not endured two traumas this spring? Or if I’d had close friends around me to help me cope, to confront me with concern as I started to lose weight, withdraw, drain away? One can always speculate, but the real question becomes, when we find ourselves on the floor, will we remember what’s worthwhile about standing?
It can seem that the universe begins and ends with that cold patch of ground, where we find ourselves face-down. The voices of even our most beloved ones sound strange, off-pitch, and distant. They beg us to lift our heads, and we are horrified to find that their pleas do little to stir the deadweight inside our chests. Where does the rest of us go — all those beautiful, true pieces of us, the parts that love and laugh and lift our limbs? Surely I haven’t always been this shell, we think. But we lie there, feeling so sunken, stunned by our fear that maybe we’ll never get ourselves back. And at the bottom, we begin to wonder if we ever really were those whole, curious, pulsing beings we remember.
Depression is, in many ways, like some senseless, unstoppable retraction — we coil backwards, into ourselves, losing track of our past and present, shrinking down to a single, silent point. We watch the slow contraction of our horizon, the invasion of oblivion.
How to call someone back from this brink? I have no easy answers. Sometimes, it’s like arguing underwater — our screams are empty air, our gestures muted, warped, and clumsy. Other times, the one depressed feels herself inside a skin-sized cage, separated by an invisible and immutable wall. She’s suffocating, and frozen. She can see you, even hear you, but your entreatments are more of a cruel joke than an invitation — she does not live in the same world as you, and your well-intentioned words slip from the surface of her heart.
This is not to say that you should not try. Twice in my life, now, I’ve forgotten how to walk, and both times, I’ve desperately needed my teachers. I’m just saying, Depression is a strange place with its own cruel and arbitrary rules, and it takes a special measure of love to help someone find their way out.
For me, it was a strange and vicious struggle just to kindle the desire to move again. I had to find the faith to believe in the Me That Lived, that distant, warm memory of a body in motion — and I needed my friends there to defend this truth. They remembered her, and they spoke to me gently of the Me they dreamed of getting back. Slowly, these myths fed me, filled my heart with the echoes of their hope, until I began to imagine she might be real, and worth finding again. Even then, this belief is only the thinnest, most delicate thread at first, a feather-light strand I hardly dared, at first, to lift.
I guess I’m writing all of this to say, I’ve spent a lot of time away from Earth this past year. And I know I’ve startled some people, with my eyes all Neptune-shadowed and my laugh as mute as the moon.
I’ve been tightening my orbit, though, and I’m so much closer to the surface, lately. Some of it has been so clinical — blood tests and prescriptions, backless gowns and stern words from dietitians. You see, up there in space, you’re so weightless that sometimes you forget you have a body. Down here I’m learning again, how to walk and sleep and feed like my fellow mammals do.
It’s not all biology, of course. I’m learning how to use my spirit like my lungs — sometimes, open and expanding, inhaling light and grace along with a little grit. I begin each day with cupped hands, careful quiet, and let the moment fill me with the permeating Present. Other times, I contract — there are days I turn off my phone, slip out for long-sweet walks, or tuck away early at night. I am not the strongest I’ve ever been, but I have the strength to say this much, and I feel the health it brings.
Someone asked me the other day what single piece of wisdom I’d offer to another. I said this: we must know that we will, all of us, break sometimes. We spend so much time telling ourselves the useless lie that we cannot crack — and when we glimpse our own limitations, we flee, panicking, from the breach.
If we would only stop treating ourselves like criminals when we feel small. If we would only understand that every human being is subject to gravity — even ourselves. If only we would make a space for sadness when it visits, knowing it is not a death sentence nor a sign of failure, but a member of every human story.
And, should Life and our own chemistry betray us, catching us in a tide too strong for our individual arms to fight, may we know that this is no fault of our own. May those who love us throw us the lifeline we need, and may we never forget the sweetness of breathing air.