I remember sitting across from a woman I used to know. We were in the kind of restaurant that made a production over the bread basket. Plump hot rolls, seeded crackers, rye toast garnished with sprigs of thyme, and whipped butter were wrapped in white cloth and presented to us like gifts. My friend waved it away because she wasn’t eating anything white or brown at the moment, and I shook my head because I wasn’t eating anything at all. The waiter left the basket and every so often we would peer in and pick and pick until the bread had gone cold and our interest waned.
That night, the stars were hot and white and I watched my friend cover her bare shoulders with a sweater she’d tucked into her purse. She tied the sleeves into a tourniquet around her neck and said Mongolian when all I could see was rope. We are flesh, I thought, but I didn’t often say what I thought because it scared people.
Sometimes I think about how primal her need was to tell me the make of her sweater. As if Mongolian mattered. As if we were playing a game of rock, paper, scissors. She was wearing a fabric that would be pillaged by moths while the braids of a rope were constructed to endure.
We tucked into our meal and I talked about pain, specifically my pain. I don’t cry often, at least not publicly, so I turned away and fixated on a man moving food around his plate. He was alone, save for the paper folded in his lap. I noticed he wasn’t eating. His frisse salad remained untouched and the web of leaves went limp. Then there was the pasta. Our waiter charged over and asked if there was a problem with the food and the man regarded the waiter as if he were crazy. Why would there be a problem? Can’t a man order food and not eat it? The waiter nodded and said of course and walked away.
Where do you put it? I asked. Put what, my friend said. This place used to have good couscous. Remember the couscous? I remembered the couscous.
It wasn’t that good.
Pain, I said. I have all this pain and I don’t know where to put. Everything has its place, right? You put sweaters in drawers and hang dresses in closets. There’s a dish for soap. There are cabinets for pots and drawers for knives. Everything fits somewhere. There’s a container for things, but what about pain? Where do you put it? Is there a container for it? The man with the paper left two crumbled twenties on the table and left. I needed a new thing to fixate on because I was on the verge of losing it.
I looked at my friend and her eyes had gone blank. If only I had stuck to Mongolian. If only I had the will to arrange my face into a smile. If only I could endure another dinner. But I couldn’t.
Her sigh was extravagant. This is normal, she said. Is it? I laughed. You’re going through the grieving process, she said. I mean, your mother died. The grieving process. You’re going to feel anger, resentment, pain — this is all normal, she said, and the word normal felt like a chasm widening between us. I can see you’re reading grief manuals off the internet, I said. This isn’t funny, she said, and already I could tell that she regarded me like the bread basket. You’re right, I said. Nothing’s funny.
My mother had died a year ago and this wasn’t about her. My pain exceeded her. I was in new terrain — a dark country to which I’d emigrated yet it was foreign to me. This wasn’t like the darkness of before, this was a fresh hurt. A ground that had given way beneath my feet and the fall felt bottomless. There existed no end to it. There was only the enormity of the hurt and its persistence. I woke to it. I carried the weight of it. I fell asleep to it. Even now I couldn’t meet my friend in the day because the light had become an assault.
You don’t understand, I said. This is constant. Again with the blank stare. The discomfort and confusion. I had created a ripple, a disturbance in one place. I was no longer the fun friend who cracked jokes and entertained her for years. I had become something other.
All I wanted was for her, for anyone, to say: I love you. I’m here for you. Tell me, what can I do?
Have you thought about going back to yoga? she asked, signaling for the check. This is just a slump. You’ll snap out of it. You’ll see.
It was if a curtain had fallen over our table and the room had gone black.
An acquaintance of mine comes out to Los Angeles for work and we walk along Santa Monica Pier and the beach. I take off my shoes and the sand feels cool and comforting under my feet. I tell her about my life here — parts of it, never the whole — and we order an ice cream with two spoons. We don’t finish it and long after she’s gone I sit down on the sand and watch the sun setting over the waves that have turned blue and black and I hold onto the cup as if it were the day. This one day I am slightly happy. Hold on to it. Hold on to it. Don’t let it go.
Another friend and I buy hot donuts and tear them apart with our hands. We agree that these donuts are the best donuts we’ve ever had. In a small voice, she asks what she can do. She acknowledges my face and the darkness beneath it, and I say, you’re doing it. We finish our donuts and wipe the sugar off our hands.
A few weeks later, an old friend from New York visits and stays for a few days. When she leaves I draw all the shades and sit in my bathtub behind the shower curtain. I cry and cry and order razors from Amazon and my head hurts and everything hurts and I text my father that I think…I just might…end my life…and he never responds.
An old friend, we’re talking a back-in-the-day friend, calls me from work and she’s on the verge of tears. She’d read something I’d written online and it disturbed her. I took it down, I said. I deleted it. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her cry before — maybe once, but the memory eludes me. But now I can hear her through the phone line and I can’t breathe because the idea of hurting her breaks my heart. It’s entirely too much to bear. She’s crying now and she begs me to get help.
At first, I do it for her. Then I do it for me.
I visit a psychiatrist I can’t afford and I must have frightened him because he writes a prescription for Wellbutrin and tells me to come back in two days. Do I have any family? Do I have a friend who can fly out to stay with me? I shake my head and say I don’t have any of those things or enough of them to lay this great of a burden. Because that’s how I feel. Like a burden.
I take the pills and for the first few days, my head doesn’t feel right. I don’t leave my house because I can’t trust my balance or me, but I’m lucky. The right drug. The right dosage. Within a week a veil has been lifted. This shocks my psychiatrist. I tell him I don’t want to die anymore, but (I gesture at my body) this isn’t working.
And for a year we get to work.
There is no one pill, he says. There’s no magic here. A pill will get you to a point, he says. And I have to do the rest, I say. He nods. The therapy. No more garbage food. Leaving my house.
Letting people in — all the way. That’s going to be a tough one, I say, thinking about my friend and the Mongolian sweater. That’s why it’s called work, he says, and I call him a smart ass and we laugh. I leave and cry in the elevator.
Dark matter distribution. A black hole sucks you in. Crushes you. Its pull is so intense that no matter or radiation can escape. Not even light can get out. There exists only the constant darkness and the depth of it. A black hole is far from empty — quite the opposite. It’s a great deal of matter contained in a small space. That’s what depression is like at its worst. There is no self-care. There is no being kind to yourself. There is no have you considered yoga or aromatherapy? There is only the pain and you succumbing to the force of it.
The last line of award-winning journalist Anil Ananthaswamy’s The Man Who Wasn’t There reads, “The malady is the self.”
Cotard’s is a condition where people believe they are the walking dead. Body integrity identity disorder (BIID) occurs when people feel a limb is foreign to them and the only salve is amputation. Schizophrenia is a fissure of our sense of agency and self. We become foreign agents in our own bodies.
When something physically breaks within our bodies we believe it to be true because we can see it, feel it, and others can see it as well. We seek treatment because we don’t have the tools to mend our broken bones and clogged arteries. Yet mental illness is elusive. It’s the thing one cannot see. It’s the one thing where the terms to describe our sickness have been reduced to common conversation and the weight of it falls into that black hole.
A temporary state conflates with a life-long neurological disorder. You call your friend OCD because she keeps her home immaculate. You say you’re depressed because you didn’t get that promotion or you’ve drifted apart from your partner. He’s “schizo” because he doesn’t have his life together — he’s “all over the place.” Your co-worker jokes that she has Alzheimer’s because she keeps forgetting important meetings.
Words have potency and meaning and the more we stretch them over the common and banal, the more they become meaningless.
It’s been over two years since I considered taking my own life and the work continues. I have to be vigilant because depression never goes away, it simply lies dormant. I take my medication. I take care of my body. I’ve designed a career that is demonstrably less stressful, and I’ve removed all the toxic people from my life.
Part of that work is a constant education. This past November I was sad about my career and felt it was flatlining and I had to explain to some well-meaning friends that sad does not equal suicide. Experiencing sadness is a normal human emotion — the difference being that I don’t fall into the extremes of it. I’m oceans away from a black hole. I have to explain that depression isn’t about being weak or poor or not having the will to get better because honestly…
Why the fuck would anyone want to feel this way?
Mental illness isn’t an internal wrestling match. It’s an illness just like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease and its effects are just as devastating.
Pain in the mind and body is like a dam threatening to burst. But it doesn’t need to be.
You don’t have to be a psychiatrist to be a present and decent human being. If you have a friend suffering from mental illness and they’ve fallen off the radar, call them. Reach out. Tell them you love them and ask what you can do. Almost always your kindness is the whole and totality of it. Show up and be there for the people you love much like you would if you discovered they had cancer. They’re not expecting you to roll up and administer chemo. But maybe all they want is to see your face and fold your hand in theirs.
When I shared a meal with the person I used to know, part of me wanted her to listen without distraction or waiting for her turn to speak. I wanted her to tell me that she didn’t know what to do but she’d be there for me regardless. I wanted her words, compassion, and heart, and then I’d feel okay to leave a slice of my pain behind. At the table. By the check. Next to the beautiful bread basket abandoned. Bit by bit leaking out instead of an internal wound that’s metathesized.
Your love and kindness have the ability to help someone set down the weight they’re carrying. You may not understand it. You may not feel it or relate to it, but that doesn’t matter. This isn’t about you. This is about your friend and they are hurting.