Your Invisible Illness Is Valid
Sam Escobar

a snap, a flood

I spent the first 2 decades of my life finding out what it means to be a high-functioning anxious person. My earliest memories are ones of supreme fear. I once described it to my dad as — you know when you’re tucked up in bed, about to go to sleep, ready to roll over and count your sheep and then you hear a bump in the night and it startles you instantly, so out of place in a quiet moment before bed? That moment of shock and fear before you settle back into sleep is what I feel all day everyday. Sometimes it’s so bad I can’t leave my room, sometimes it’s not so bad and I feel like maybe I made it all up in my head. Either way it’s there, but either way I manage.

Now I’m wondering what it means to be a highly-functioning depressed person. I’ve felt a deep emptiness inside me for so long, since I was 16 or so, but I never categorized it as depression. Right around the time I dipped into depression, I learned that that supreme fear is sometimes called anxiety. And it wasn’t until this most recent dip that started in September of 2016 did I realize that this supreme sadness is sometimes called depression.

In October of 2016 I got a job in the bakery of a grocery store, not hipster, not Whole Foods, a real grocery store where you have to be a nihilist to be a part of the gang. During my first week there, the butcher introduced herself to me and said Welcome to Hell. I was relieved. I don’t have to pretend here, I thought. I don’t have to feign happiness.

They gave me the 3 am shift because I said I had open availability and hoped for a morning shift, thinking that meant 7 am. It felt like a practical joke from God. I had been unemployed for 2 months and when I finally got this job I felt like I would do anything to keep it. I thought a schedule would heal whatever this was. This inertia, this sadness, this inability to leave bed, to just fucking get it together. I’m a routine kind of person. It’s in my bones. I need it. So I work the job. I do the 3AM shift. I don’t burn the cookies. I smile at my fellow employees enough to be likable but complain enough to be cool with them. I wake up at 1:30 AM, around the time my roommates come home from the bar, and I go through the motions. I brush my teeth but not my hair. I journal a bit and force down oatmeal which leaves me feeling nauseas yet hungry. And just before I leave for work I start to cry. I weep and weep I don’t want to leave I want to be in bed forever, but the minutes tick on and punctuality is in my pulse so I go. I leave my apartment with tears streaming down my face but it’s fine because everyone’s still asleep and I don’t have to pretend and it’s dark out so no one would know anyway.

I drive and listen to sad songs and cry some more. I park in the desolate lot and cry some more. Then I go in and I’m chipper. Who was that sobbing alone in her car? Not me, surely. I’m here, I’m fine, I’m normal, it’s all good. I make bread and I make cookies and it feels good to use my body and not my mind. It feels good to pound my fists into dough. It feels good to smear raspberry jam over dough to make something called “messy bread” because the jam looks like blood and Caroline crying in the car is always thinking about cutting herself because when she’s anxious she wants to relieve the tension and when she’s depressed she wants to just feel something, anything.

I pound at the dough and I relish in the raspberry jam and I’m fine and I’m cool and I’m making friends but then I go on my break and the tears, everywhere, all over my car, sobbing, a mess in the now not so vacant parking lot but I don’t care. My mom calls and I tell her I want to die. I tell her every time I’m on the highway I dream of running away to the towns on the big green signs. North to Sacramento, I could go there. She tells me to quit the job and come home and stay for a little while and we’ll figure it out and it’s a delicious thought and I almost drive back right then and there, but it feels silly, too much. I text my best friend and tell her I think I’m having a mental breakdown and she calls and tells me to leave work and ask my therapist for an emergency meeting and that’s when I see that a mental breakdown isn’t a snap. It’s a slow unraveling. It’s a hairline crack in a dam that takes slow centuries to turn into a fracture into a schism into a fault into a flood and that flood is finally here. I want to go home I want to sleep forever I want to call my mom back and tell her I’m done, but then my break is up. I’ve got to make 64 trays of cookies and I don’t want to fall behind so I hang up and I wipe my face and I go inside.

I make the 64 trays of cookies and they all look perfect and I’m proud of my work. I’ve done the task. Time to go home. I do. I cry. My dad texts me to ask how work is. He was so happy that I got a job, certain that too much time on my hands to overthink was what caused all this, certain that some structure would change things. No. I was depressed before the job and once I had the job I was just depressed and sleep deprived. When I told him they put me on the 3AM shift he told me that it was good, that I could work my way up. He’s who I got this tenacity from. He’s the one that grits his teeth and pushes through, never missed a day of work in his entire life, even the morning my sisters and I laughed as we heard him retching into the toilet one morning after some bad shrimp. We’re workers. We keep at it. That’s the Hoenemeyer way.

That’s what got me here but also that’s what will get me out. Perseverance.

I go home. I shower. I nap. I dream of a stillborn baby, born in the Atlantic Ocean. The water is blue grey like a storm, like winter. She has eyes wide open with bags under them. Naked. Small and shriveled. Not alive but looks it. I wake up, I move on.

Eventually I tell everyone. I write about it, I tweet about it, I stop trying to hide it because I don’t want to give it any more power in my life. And everyone is kind and everyone sends love and I feel it all, so overwhelming that I think maybe the depression is gone. Maybe by shaking the shame out of this story, I have also shaken out the sadness, because the next day I am okay, like really okay, not like kind of numbed out dumbed out okay like truly a normal generally happy person who’s living life in a normal generally happy way. My mom calls to check in and we talk about the future for the first time in ages, like maybe I can actually get out of bed and do something. My dad calls and is shocked and pleased to find me laughing and smiling. I go back to making jokes on the internet. I see friends; I have fun. Then I feel embarrassed, guilty, maybe I made it all up in my head again.

I’m fine. And then I’m not fine. And then I’m fine and I’m fine and I’m fine and actually I feel pretty good and then I’m sobbing on the floor again and then I almost miss my exit on the highway because I’m so lost in my own nothingness. Shame creeps back in in a new way. There was the initial shame for feeling so useless and then there was the shame that came from being okay again. It felt like I had cried wolf. I told my mom I wanted to die or run away. I told my dad I was having a mental breakdown. I told my best friend that I might move back to Las Vegas. And then 2 days later I’m smiling and I’m on the phone with my mom and it’s my break at work and I decide to sit outside which is new because usually I rush to sit in my car to cry. The sun feels good and my mom’s voice sounds good and I’m okay and I say those words out loud and it feels like they’re true. It feels like the worst is over.

But it’s not. And it feels even more difficult to admit to it the second time around, third, fourth, fifth, when does it end? It hasn’t, but it’s shifted. I’m doing all the self-care I can think of. I’m on medication now. The depression is dissolving and it was so real and I have all the proof in all my journals and in the days I still can’t get out of bed, but when I’m feeling good, when I’m feeling driven and focused and excited and adventurous I still wonder did I make it all up in my head?