Let’s start at the beginning.
It’s 8:29 a.m. and I’m peeking my head around the corner of the HR director’s door for our meeting, which starts in one minute. Immediately, I know she knows. My boss said he didn’t tell anyone except for his boss, so I don’t know if he’s lying or if his boss told her or what, but she knows. You can always tell when people know. They look at you differently, even if they don’t mean to.
“What’s going on?” she asks. We make eye contact and she smiles, a kind smile but a knowing smile, because she knows I know the question is rhetorical, and I sit but only briefly because I’m flustered and I think the other chair might actually make more sense logistically so I stand and move my things, I’m going to sit in the chair furthest from the door so I don’t look like I’m trying to escape and isn’t another person coming to this meeting, I will sit in this other chair with the plush emoji sunglasses pillow already taking up half of the seat, okay here I go, I am sitting on the emoji’s face, this is fine.
“You know,” she says, oh no, here she goes, she wants to Talk About It, “This is no different than having a broken leg. People don’t talk about it, but it’s just as serious.” My eyes start to well up with tears as I chug some water to avoid making eye contact, keep drinking the water, I’m not thirsty but if I stop drinking I’ll start crying and that’s an unsurvivable scenario, “I can see in your eyes that you’re hurting. We need you to get better. Fix your leg.”
The door opens just as I run out of water.
“Aisha! Please come in, this is Amy. She wants to talk about taking a medical leave of absence.”
Let’s start at the beginning, which is right this very second. I am 27 years old. I am successfully raising a dog and six houseplants. My family is proud of me. My boyfriend wants to marry me. I get paid well for work that I enjoy; I have no debt.
The beginning is now, right here, in my bed. It’s a Tuesday morning, it’s 9 a.m. and I should be at work but I can’t get up.
Let’s start at the beginning.
It’s July 2015, in the beginning, and I am drunk in a hotel room. People always say Work travel seems so glamorous! and I don’t know how to tell them that I spend a lot of it crying or vomiting in secret, so I smile and nod. My eyes sink further into black-rimmed holes in my face, their fall accelerated by 4 a.m. wake-ups and fine just one more drink at dinners. I see silhouettes of skylines as I leave cities that I’ve technically visited, I guess. I’ve been to Miami, but have I been to Miami?
It’s July 2015 and I am in love with a man who does not have the desire nor the emotional capacity to love me back. We’re not dating. We’re not really anything. We sleep together sometimes and I don’t understand why he doesn’t want me, but I’m drunk in a hotel room and he’s telling me he can’t come over and he doesn’t want to sleep together anymore. We weren’t anything before, but we’re Officially Nothing now.
So I text him.
you are garbage and you’re going to die alone. I hope to god you find yourself where I am someday (accidentally in love with a sociopath, hanging halfway off a 15th floor balcony & wondering what it feels like to crack your head open on the sidewalk).
Morning comes. So, too, do the headache, the nausea, and the remorse. I email him once a day, every day, until he finally responds.
I hope you get better. I want you to get better. But that’s not something that I can help with.
Let’s start at the beginning. It’s 2000.
Do you remember 2000? It’s an awkward year. In 2000, I browse for clothes at Hot Topic and then replicate my own poser pop-punk persona that I’ve cobbled together from Goodwill finds and shoplifted eyeliner from the Meijer in the next town over. I have acne and a crush on all the boys, one of whom calls me Pizza Face and creates an AIM account to taunt me for not knowing enough about Green Day. A girl named Krissie tapes a sign that says “freak” to my locker.
School gets out at 2:28. My house is empty until 5:30. I spend my free time carving deep straight lines into my arm with a razor blade that I stole from my grandmother’s medicine cabinet and writing poetry about suicide on a simple blog (plain black background with white Times New Roman font) that my mom inevitably finds. She takes me to therapy. They give me a prescription for Prozac. I am 11.
Let’s start at the beginning. It’s 1919. On Long Island, a pair of Polish immigrants are having their first baby. That baby will grow up a little and raise her two younger siblings after her mother has a nervous breakdown, and will eventually get married and have four children of her own. One of those four children will also have a nervous breakdown, marry an alcoholic, and give birth to her only child — me.
Let’s start at the beginning. It’s spring 2008 and I’m a freshman in college. I didn’t think I needed antidepressants anymore when I left home last fall but it’s April now and I’m coming unhinged, the top of my head is disconnecting from the bottom of my head, do you ever feel that way? I go to the campus psychiatrist and he writes me a prescription for Wellbutrin.
It works and it works and then one day, all of a sudden, it doesn’t work anymore. Depression is like that. You think you’re cured and then one day out of nowhere you’re hyperventilating outside the Olentangy River Road Big Lots.
So I go back to a psychiatrist for the first time in 8 years, which sounds easier than it is. Do you know what mental health care is like in this country? Half of the doctors don’t take your insurance. The doctors who do take your insurance have a two-month wait for new patients. If it’s more urgent than that, they tell you to go to the emergency room, as though the average American can afford an emergency room visit.
So I wait two months for an appointment. But before I even do that, I have to admit I need to see a doctor. And that’s hard. Realistically, I‘ve needed to see a doctor for a year. Maybe two years. Maybe the Wellbutrin never really worked. Sometimes I wonder.
After two months, I walk into an office park in the suburbs and tell a pleasant-looking total stranger that I’m losing my mind. It takes an hour and I tell her everything, literally everything because I’ve gone over it all in my head for eight weeks, even the number of people I slept with in the last year in case that indicates a tendency toward bipolar disorder.
“I think you have major depression,” she says, reiterating the diagnosis I’ve lived with since 2000. “Probably generalized anxiety disorder, too.”
We start by doubling my Wellbutrin dose. It helps with my depression, but it makes my anxiety worse. I start pooping, on average, once every five days. “Wouldn’t you rather be constipated and not want to kill yourself?” you might be asking, and the answer is no: that’s no way to live (Shit Free Or Die). I report back to my doctor, who reminds me that this is all correlation and does not imply causation. But what else do we possibly have to go on to decide what to try next?
All we have to go on is what didn’t work: Prozac. Zoloft. Lexapro. Whatever I took between Lexapro and Effexor. Effexor, which worked but with extreme side effects. Wellbutrin, which used to work but doesn’t anymore.
So then we try Pristiq, which is essentially just different enough from Effexor to let the drug company renew their patent (I’ve been doing a lot of reading). I have too much energy in the morning, but it subsides by 2 pm and leaves me unable to do much other than sit on the couch. Weed seems to be the only thing that helps with the side effects and I start smoking it a lot. It causes tension in my relationship.
I tell the doctor about all of this — except the weed— and she decides to split the dose in half: two 25mg tablets, twice daily instead of one 50mg tablet per day. The side effects change: I am less intensely tired when I am tired, which is more of the time.
One day, about two weeks into the transition to twice-daily pills, I wake up at my boyfriend’s house and hurry home to get ready for work. I stop at Starbucks (venti soy unsweetened iced coffee), I feed the dog (Blue Buffalo Wilderness), I don’t take a shower but I do get dressed (dress, sweater, sandals, all black), and then I sit back down on the bed.
“Help,” I text my boyfriend.
I take my shoes off. I climb under the covers and the dog comes with me and I am sobbing, suddenly my body is heaving and I am so sad but I couldn’t tell you why. I can’t move, I can’t breathe. “Maybe,” I think, “Maybe I’d like to die.”
Depression is good for a handful of things. Growing out your eyebrows, for one. Finishing all 12 seasons of Criminal Minds on Netflix. Creating Pinterest boards full of elaborate desserts while eating takeout. Letting your dog’s stray hairs settle into little black fluff balls that float across your hardwood floors like tumbleweeds.
Depression is bad for everything else.
Let’s start at the beginning, which is actually two beginnings that have twisted and warped their way into the same memory in my mind.
I’m between the ages of 3 and 9, which I know because we still live in the small two bedroom apartment in Englewood with the bright red patterned carpet in the kitchen and my mom drives a teal Ford Taurus station wagon. She’s raising me herself, which I won’t fully appreciate for almost two more decades.
We’re in the car and she’s yelling at me. She yells a lot in these memories, which in the present causes her to think she’s the reason I have depression in the first place. I’ve grown to understand that it’s likely a lot more complex than that. I also know that she loves me and did her best, and if anyone understands how hard it is to ask for help, it’s me.
We’re in the car and she’s yelling at me. We’re also in the kitchen and she’s chopping carrots. I’m young; I don’t have a word for depression yet. I haven’t been exposed to the concepts of suicide or self-harm. But I want to throw myself out of the moving car. I look at the knife she’s using to chop carrots and wonder what it would feel like — would it kill me?
So, how long have I been depressed? I think a better question is: have I ever not been depressed?
Let’s start at the beginning, rewind the tape, back before my parents were married. They’re not my parents yet, either. They’re just a couple, in love, on a camping trip in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I don’t know exactly what year it is, but it’s the 1980s and my father is sober.
He’s sober and he’s having a terrible time, which my mom doesn’t know until he tells her, “If I’m gonna feel this way all the time, I might as well just drink.”
Let’s start at the beginning: it’s August 25, a Thursday. It’s been a rough day already for the dog and me, though it’s still early. Just after midnight, severe thunderstorms roll through and I have to coax him out from his favorite spot under the bed; he is barking and barking and will not stop, and is so scared that he snarls at me when I peek down to check on him. The only thing that seems to calm him when he does emerge is the world’s tightest hug — like a Thundershirt, except it’s my body — so we stay like this for two hours in the middle of the night.
I wake up again when my alarm sounds at 6, and we greet each other as we usually do: him with a yawn and a stretch, me with a Good morning, my love and a quick head scratch. Except something feels different when I lock eyes with my neurotic, 20 pound dog this morning. He’s begging for belly rubs, sure, but something else too.
And it dawns on me: I got him through the storm. This ball of fluff needs me. I spring into action, collecting things from where they lay around the house. From my bedside table, I grab what’s left of the weed, the bowl, and two empty beers. I empty the fridge of 11 more beers and two bottles of wine, its only contents. I rifle through my medicine cabinet for my secret stash of muscle relaxers. I got them after a car accident and I save them for special occasions, taking one every so often when I really can’t sleep but monitoring the supply to ensure I still have enough that it’d kill me if I swallowed the whole bottle.
Everything goes in the trash.
I come back to bed, feeling strange. My dog looks like he has questions, though his English isn’t great so I’m not sure what they are. I scratch him in that spot behind his ear that he likes and tell him he’s a good boy. I give him the world’s tightest hug again — not for him this time, but for me.
And then I get up and turn on the shower. I am ready.