(Okay, I know that title is pretty bleak, but hear me out.)
When my brain is at its tangled worst, I think about Giles Corey, who was crushed to death under suspicion of witchcraft.
The feeling of suffocation originates in the centre of the chest, just shy of the heart, and radiates out to the limbs. It wraps the head in thick cotton. It dries out the mouth. Like television static, it’s something but also nothing. It presses firmly, weighs the body down, and then it revels.
As a child I was atticky but animated. When my dad came home from work, I’d sock-slide Risky Business-style down the hallway to greet him. I gave my friends crushing hugs at the start of the day, and my throat closed up during the beautiful parts of the daily school sing-along. I had Big Feelings. So when I got older and those feelings tumbled down a ravine, far from my reach, I was lost.
Anxiety and depression go hand in hand, like a cheeseburger and fries served in Hell. I didn’t know this in early adolescence, when I suspected that my personality was shifting under me like tectonic plates. Yet by all appearances, I’d always been a bit withdrawn, a bit nervous. I was not comfortable around people. It was not a stretch to believe my fits of ennui had simply become more extreme as a result of puberty, that nasty nuisance.
I don’t remember at what age I first went to counseling. My parents took me when I began exhibiting some troubling behaviour. I once lay prone on the couch for hours during a dinner party, refusing to respond to anyone. Another time, I sat at the piano playing Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring over and over and over until my fingers creaked, hoping for someone to notice this oddness and ask why.
I was given a book about how to make friends. The psychologist asked me questions I didn’t want to answer.
(How many friends would you say you have? When was the last time you spent time with a friend? How does it feel when you try to make a new friend?)
I didn’t understand the third degree. I was doing fine in school, and I never got in trouble. To me, that was good enough.
Still, I pored over that book. I was motivated to learn inasmuch as it would help me avoid unnecessary social tension, but hindered by my unwillingness to actually do anything. I didn’t want to ask people about their lives. I didn’t want to sit next to anyone on the bus. Like a grouchy retiree, I already knew everyone I needed to know.
I was in some sense aware that it wasn’t right to, say, take out a book at someone’s birthday party, but I didn’t understand what drove me to seek solitary distractions. My justification went like this: I am not having a good time, nor can I pretend to have a good time. I am poor company in these situations. Therefore, I might as well do something I enjoy, which also serves to avoid inflicting my bad mood on others. Isn’t that what socializing is about? Making people feel better? Won’t they feel better without me?
Then my parents moved me into a new school for the commencement of eighth grade, and I landed facedown into a world of impossible, unreadable cues.
I wasn’t relentlessly tormented, but I didn’t have an easy go of it, either. I did nothing to endear myself to anyone; I was of the savage belief that I didn’t care what people thought or did. Couple that with the tact and grace of thirteen-year-olds, and baby, you’ve got a trauma stew going.
I was sick all the time: twisted ankle on flat concrete; migraines; head colds that lingered for years; a croup-like cough that earned me the nickname of Sea Lion. I was fragile and frigid. My body couldn’t adapt to its environment or the feelings ruling it.
I was raised on the power of instinct from my mother and rationality from my father. The problem: My instincts were flattened out by fatigue and painted over by fear; rational thinking is no match for apocalyptic thinking. Everything that made me a person worth being was gone, and in its wake a silence.
So back I went to the counselor. I’m not sure whether it was unsuccessful because I was too resistant to treatment or because it just wasn’t the correct approach. I was a difficult patient, inflexible and unwilling to do the work. No coaxing could sway me.
One November Sunday, my family went for a walk. They asked me to come. True to form, I said no. It was our pattern. I wanted to go — wanted to breathe and race and sing to annoy my brother — but couldn’t say so. Instead, I sat on my bed and watched the three figures walk gingerly along the snow-slick road. I cried for a long time because no one cared enough to stay back with me.
How I loved to sit and lament, sinking into sadness. How long it took to drag myself from quicksand.
My knuckles have been deathly white for many years. Sometimes life does the damage; other times, it’s me.
After stumbles and hard falls, I decided to become a nurse. I figured that, like Alcoholics Anonymous, my suffering endowed me with a soul connection to all those who suffered in their turn. I was not entirely wrong, but it never felt quite right, either. There’s an emotional robustness to nurses, a batter-proof cage, that I couldn’t cultivate. They were open about their struggles and unafraid to learn something new each day. My struggle was the great guilt of feeling I shouldn’t be here.
Even for psychiatric care, where turnover is especially common, I flamed out pretty fast. And I ended up here. Not back at the start, exactly, but it certainly holds the sensation of reversal. Like time travel. Like a rabbit hole. Somewhere else.
My behaviour is my doing, and its consequences are my responsibility. There will always be hurtful words, upsetting situations, thoughtless people. You must learn how to navigate these boulders in your path, not give up and sit down. Adapt, but don’t expect the same from anyone else.
I still have a film over my brain, like the milkiness of cataracts. These days, it’s patchy. It may remain there, but I can see through it. I’ve been forced to see through it. Too much has happened to me; too many times the curtain has fallen.
This year, I have done more for my mental health than ever before, and it’s the most crucial work I could manage. I thought the directionless void was my lot in life, but I’m now certain that this void is just life, period.
I’m not trying to get existential about the wasteland of entropy. I’m just saying that in the grand scheme of things, the glitches don’t matter. Little mistakes go smooth over time. My brain calms when I look around and categorize everything by importance. The tallest flags are the fewest in number.
I love Christmas. I wanted to get this done before Christmas as an earmark for the year. Finally, I have something to really celebrate.