Getting to Fine
by Natalie A. Collier
The only thing I remember about Charles Dickens’ “A Tale of Two Cities” is the opening line: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” I know there’s more poetic prose that comes afterwards, but I have no use for it, particularly now. There is no more fitting way to describe the past year of my life. It’s been the best-worst year, filled with incredible highs and opportunities and dismal lows. For this reason, I have found myself incredibly impatient for the Christmas season. I’m talking 4-year-old leaving cookies out for Black Santa anticipation. I’ve already bought gifts (this is a record), and I’ve decorated my apartment even though I won’t be anywhere near it come Christmas dinner time. My year needed the holiday cheer, and I’m embracing it.
When people say, “If you lie, you’re a liar,” I get it but can’t wholeheartedly agree. You see, I lie sometimes. It’s not what you think either. This doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with my integrity, and you can’t lump me into that “if you’ll lie you’ll steal, and if you’ll steal, you’ll kill” category. Nope. I lie because I don’t want people to know the truth. I know that doesn’t sound good either. Just listen. If I don’t want you to know the truth, it’s because I don’t want to accept it. I lie when I’m depressed.
On a Sunday afternoon in January 2002, I was diagnosed with clinical depression. I was home for winter break from college. Things had been bad for me, but I hadn’t really told anyone what was going on. I wasn’t sure myself. Year after year, things got worse, and all I knew was I didn’t feel right. There was always a something. Like the fact that my grandfather died a few times in the semesters leading up to senior year. But I smiled when I had to, which was often because white people at small liberal arts colleges prefer their big, tall girl students who wore afros before it was generally acceptable to do so, grin for their comfort. I finally got to the point, though, where I’d stay in bed all day and change into something other than pajamas just before I knew my roommate would be coming back to the room from class to avoid answering her questions about why I’d been in the room all day. This was when the lying began.
I just lied. Sorry.
The lying began when I’d grin and say, “I’m good” when people would ask me how I was. But again, how do you say, “My emotions feel the way I imagine death to feel, if you were alive to feel death” and people not think you were crazy? That started to happen … geez …
Lying to protect others from my internal chaos was an act of service I didn’t realize I was committing initially. I was young, but it was a habit I formed for their benefit. This was also as an act to convince myself I was fine — another form of protection, which was also self-harm. I didn’t have to answer a lot of questions and their notions of me as the good, happy girl remained intact. I needed happiness. Good girls were happy. And after the thief told me no one would believe, if I told on him, his rough hand creeping up my thigh, I needed to persuade myself I was good. My innocence left, as he snatched his hand away, and I started to offer quality performances of joy in exchange. I shriveled.
Checking all the rooms at home to make sure I had everything gathered, I walked around amazed by the math the computer system at the college had done that allowed me to go back without being on academic probation. I don’t say anything aloud about it, of course. I’d been lying to my mother that everything at school was fine. Everything is packed neatly in the car, and it’s time to head out.
“This time is going to be different,” I repeat silently to myself, like a substance-addicted person who’s just learned the serenity prayer.
Before I leave, momma and I are having a conversation about the new mobile phone I need. I sat on the barstool at the end of the kitchen counter, facing the kitchen window. She was to my left, fireplace behind her. She tells me she can’t afford the phone right now, it’ll have to wait until I come back home, and I start to cry. These aren’t brat tears. They aren’t I’m-trying-to-get-my-way tears. They were tears I didn’t know would come. Tears that came from semesters back, maybe years, and wouldn’t stop coming. By the time I heard myself wailing and felt my body’s tremors, my mother, lost about what to do, called my aunt who’s a nurse, to come over.
I don’t know how long it took her to get there. I lost a sense of time, of place. I’d lost control. My mother rocked me as I continued crying, and my aunt talked to someone on the phone. We ended up in an office, and a white, dweeby-looking man squinted and stared at me. He smiled, I stared.
“Talk to him, Natalie. It’s fine,” my aunt said, as she walked out pulling the door to its frame. He was a doctor.
He asked questions, I answered them.
Yes, I do sleep most of the day. … No, I don’t have motivation to do anything. … Yes, I try really hard to get up and do things but my body just won’t let me. … I used to be emotional, but I’m not anymore. I kind of don’t feel anything most of the time. … There were so. many. questions. But it was like he was reading my mind, which was kind of embarrassing. I’d long since convinced myself I wasn’t nearly as talented as the people who loved me seemed to believe I was. He needed to get from up there — my head — or he was going to find out the truth too. Yet he seemed to understand me. The conversation was equal parts cathartic and stressful.
“She’s depressed,” the doctor told my mother and aunt. He asked them questions too and talked about how smart people sometimes have these issues because they require too much of themselves. (I require entirely too much of myself, and not in the way that most of us expect to do well. No, not that. If there’s a chance I might not outperform, I convince myself I’m not even interested in trying something. This is not a lie. It’s also not healthy.)
The doctor prescribed me an anti-depressant I wasn’t the least bit discomfited to take. If you’d lost your shit about a cell phone, you wouldn’t be either. He also strongly suggested I not go back to school. Take a semester off to relax, collect myself, he said. I lied like I’d think about it. Not showing back up at that campus, unlike swallowing a pill every day, was an embarrassment I couldn’t take.
I graduated on time, feeling better but not the best, still lost.
Graduate school, lots of life craziness, more depression and therapy. I learned that those with Major Depressive Disorder often battle depression off and on for the rest of their lives.
“Wait a minute. I’m not done with this?!”
I’d finished the course of medication and thought I was done. I’d been feeling awful and pretending like I was OK because I thought I was supposed to be. I could stop lying, except I didn’t.
On Reaching Out
My struggle with depression hasn’t gone away, and probably never will. The good news, though, is that the periods between the battles have gotten a lot longer, and I can usually spot when I need to take deep breaths, ask for special attention from people who love me and other things that re-center me. Essential self-care for me isn’t a good manicure (though my nail artist, Skye, is amazing) and cocktails with girlfriends. It’s telling the truth.
“No, I haven’t left my apartment in four days, and I haven’t showered either. This fog is coming to get me, and I can’t see my way out,” is a lot more difficult to say when yours is the voice people listen for when they’re adrift.
But it happens still. It just happened, in fact. Can you kind of lie?
When I sat to write this essay to talk about my most recent bout with depression I was, instead, frugal with veracity and talked about the time I was diagnosed with depression, passing off what was as good news, a sun-filled, rainbow-accented sky. More truth.
A few months ago, the fog came. It descended quickly, heavily, without warning. On a Wednesday, I suggested a friend come visit for the weekend. I’d been traveling for weeks, had finally made it home and was especially tired. She said she couldn’t, and I understood. By Monday, a few days later, I realized I needed her (or someone) to visit. It was just that quick.
Unlike what I might have done in times past, I tried again to reach out. I mentioned to a few people that I could use a visit. That was the issue, though, I presented it as “wouldn’t it be fun if we hung out?” I did not say, “I am drowning in a pool monsters have filled with self-doubt, anxiety, self-loathing and sadness. Could you be a lifeguard?” The option I presented left me feeling rejected, making the pool water a little deeper.
My body began to ache.
Some people hardly eat in their waking hours when they’re depressed; others eat whatever they can get their hands on. I, the latter. Because I’d been traveling the weeks prior, there was no food in the house. InstaCart, UberEats and GrubHub angels were teeny flickers of light. Every time I scrolled the computer screen trying to decide what I’d eat this time, debating on dessert or not, I felt a little shame, praying, as I added something else to my shopping cart, that I wouldn’t get the same delivery driver I had the day before. It poured in, more water for the pool.
“Did you go anywhere today?” someone would ask on the other end, if I answered the phone.
“I didn’t have time,” I’d say attaching an impromptu excuse, muting the television, my full length imposing the sofa.
To ensure work didn’t fall apart, I texted my research assistant (thank God she’s young and doesn’t mind texting) and sent emails to people I owed them to saying something like, “I owe you an email. It’s coming. I don’t know when.” I did what I absolutely had to, venturing only among the sofa, refrigerator, bed and bathroom.
I finally told my mom I wasn’t doing well.
“I’m coming over there,” she said.
I urged her to wait. “If I’m not starting to feel better by this weekend, you can come,” I promised.
Even writing this now, I don’t know if that was avoidance or an intuition — hope that I’d be better.
After 13 days in, I left home to get my nails done. Skye was expecting me, and I couldn’t disappoint her. I showered and wondered if the water and soap would be repulsed by me. “Put on real clothes,” I told myself, standing in the closet, looking at the options.
“Nothing with elastic,” I muttered. I chose a dress.
I stepped outside and started walking toward the car; the sun was so bright I thought it’d singe my eyes, my skin. I wondered if it’d missed me, even noticed that I’d been gone.
“Hey, Natalie! What are you getting today?” a common chorus that greets me from the other manicurists at the shop when I walk in.
“We’re still figuring it out,” I responded every time I got the question. I faked normalcy.
During my pedicure, I decided I’d venture out after my appointment — go to Target, run a couple errands. By the time the manicure started, I speculated zeal killed mortals. By the time it was all done and I was sitting in my car, I was overcome by the few hours I’d spent outside my safe space. The five-minute drive back home seemed to have more stop signs than I remembered.
My mom had been calling and texting me multiple times a day by now, and I was feeling better but not my usual. “I’m getting there, I think?” Admitting I wasn’t there with that pseudo question took a lot of energy.
A few days later, a friend came to visit, and I was feeling better. I told him how grateful I was for his visit, while we planned his quick trip.
Unsure of what had taken me under, grateful for its loosening grip, we decided to go to dinner at one of our favorite taco spots when he arrived. It’s always jumping. I didn’t realize my nerves were until I hit a parked car in the garage.
My bumper sustained the physical damage, my ego and angsts the spiritual. I’m a good driver. How did this happen?
Friend and I laughed. His laughs were lighthearted, this-is-a-crazy-adventure-we’re-having-together-like-always laugh. Mine were lies.
I was obsessed with questions the rest of the night. Why were there so many people out? Why were they talking so loudly? Why was that car parked car so close to the line anyway? Why do we have to wait so long for a table? How many people live in this city? Does anyone eat at home anymore? Are these people going to keep bumping into me and not say anything? Should I stop driving? Am I drowning again?
As he scrolled social media, I texted another friend about the overwhelming feelings I was having. It was too much to move my mouth with all the people buzzing around us to say anything of substance to my friend sitting beside me. He was figuratively too close for my consolation.
“Accidents happen. It’s perfectly fine. You are capable of driving. Push through the fear. It’s only present to bullshit you,” she texted.
“I have anxiety about being out, I think.” I responded.
“I think so too,” she agreed.
I drove home and the next day was better. The days since have mostly been better. They may not all be, and that sucks. So I’ll try not to lie, but sometimes, honestly, I probably will.
On the Present
Hi, my name is Natalie, and today I feel just fine. Promise. I do.