From Pandora’s Box Came Hope (committing to creativity in an unsteady world)

If I’m honest with myself, I know I’ve been striking out on almost every single one of my goals lately. I haven’t posted in ages, I ended Camp Nano thousands of words behind, I got a whole extra month to read my book club book and I’ve barely cracked it open. My sink is full of dishes, I have an overflowing hamper in my laundry room, and my front yard looks like Jurassic Park after the dinosaurs took over. Although, to be fair, the silver lining on that last one is that Rusty, my favorite red-coated neighborhood raccoon, has fallen hopelessly in love with the yard’s wildness. I have caught him standing on my porch staring at it in unrivaled adoration several times.

The point I’m trying to make: failures happen. They can be miniscule or spectacular in scale. Some days you will roll right through them while barely slowing down, and other days they will knock you to the ground and send you crawling to the closest blanket to cuddle under. It can be hard to admit when you are struggling, when you’ve broken that internal compass and lost your way. It can be demoralizing and it can erode your perspective of who you are and what your future will look like. There is no need to beat around the proverbial bush: failure sucks. It opens up an internal Pandora’s box; we are left grappling with all of the large and scary creatures that came flying out, while desperately searching for those tiny fluttering wings of hope.

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Perhaps it is the world we are currently living in, but I’ll be the first to admit: my mental health has taken a bit of a hit the past few months. I find myself grappling with concepts far bigger than myself, trying to wrestle with the idea that the future I had always planned in my head might wind up being a phantom image that never comes true. I know I’m not the only one feeling this way; with so many people lost in the limbo the pandemic created, we often find ourselves grieving for what we are currently missing and what may be lost to us in future. My nephew is a high school senior who is missing his final months, prom, graduation- the milestones that mean so much to us as we figure out how to carry ourselves into the next stage of life. My sister is the hardest worker I have ever known- suddenly forced into unemployment because the school she teaches at couldn’t support distance learning for her young students. She has been caught on lockdown at home while waiting for her first unemployment check to arrive after six weeks (and counting). My coworkers and I find ourselves pushed to the breaking point trying to institute new technologies into archaic systems that can’t easily support the sudden jump to virtual court hearings. And when I’m on my own time, I find myself trying to come to terms with the fact that my dream of having kids one day might actually be at an end. After two miscarriages, my partner and I were already a little nervous about trying one last time. And then when the virus hit, that little glimmer of hope faded into the dust.

So what do you do when your new normal breaks your heart? You mourn, perhaps you sink into it for a little while, maybe you bake a lot of bread and finally start scribbling into the journal that’s been sitting on your nightstand for the past two years. You learn to cope and you pray that tomorrow will be a little bit easier. And at some point, you just might be ready to take a deep breath and ask yourself one of the most terrifying questions you can posit: what now?

For me, personally, the entire landscape of my future might wind up being very different than what I had carefully planned. The idea terrifies me- that sometimes ‘happily ever after’ doesn’t translate to the real world. It is crucial that I find a way to still be okay in my new normal, to still find a reason to be the happy girl I’ve always aimed to inhabit. What makes me happy, what keeps be fulfilled, what gives me the energy to get out of bed every morning? Hope- hope for new experiences, new ideas, new stories, new skills, new adventures. I still have hope that I can create a life I will be happy with, even in spite of the losses. A few days ago I didn’t have that same hope as I lay curled up on the couch with a drink in my hand and tears in my eyes while watching Rogue One (I’m not sure why, but it’s suddenly replaced all Disney movies as my new medium of comfort). And yet, time has a funny way of slowly eroding the rough edges until you can pick up your troubles and carry them again.

If I don’t commit to myself and the things that bring joy, then the only alternative is to slip back into that dark place I climbed out of. I refuse to live like that. So here I am, committing to myself once again- committing to new dreams, new hopes, new goals. Or perhaps it’s more that I’m dusting off the ones I dropped a few months ago when I curled up into my shell and hid away from the world for a while. This new month is going to be a bit of an experiment for me: I don’t guarantee that there will be successes, just that there will at least be an attempt. I’m worn out with my autopilot, and I’m ready to reinvest in my sparks: the things that bring joy to my soul and keep me moving forward. I am ready to open the door and rediscover the adventure.

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Digital Detox: Challenge Mode- Pandemic (Rescuing the Muse)

The storm rolled in days ago; the missiles of rain stung my skin as they slashed through the air, forcing me deeper into the spindly foliage of my tiny island. I found sanctuary in a small cave; the only one on this godforsaken splash of land. I sat and waited, staring out as one gray and stormy day slid into blackened night over and over until I lost track of time. I tried to wait it out, biding my time and making plans to rebuild my little vessel and set sail the moment the storm eased. But it never did. I sat shivering in my cave, thinking of my lost Muse, staring at blank walls and listening to the incessant howling of the wind, the pounding of the rain against the rocks, the angry roiling ocean waves assaulting the sandy shores below my camp.

The gods must have noticed my previous bids for escape, vowing to leave me marooned on this island, they sent the forces of nature out to stop me. What do I do now? Will the rain only stop when my will has died, when every ounce of hope has been drained from my veins? How will I ever rescue my beautiful Muse if I can’t ever leave these shores?

The decision was made in the dead of night, as I huddled closer to my dwindling attempt at a fire. I would have to brave the storm, set sail anyway- if I died in the sea, then at least I died fighting, not wasting away on this spit of land I had grown to hate. I set out when the sky was beginning to turn a murky gray. I pulled the remnants of my broken craft from it’s hidden place near the shore. It didn’t take long for me to repair what I could; she was still brutally damaged, but there was nothing else I could do to fix her. So before I lost my nerve, I charged out into the raging sea, screaming my war cry at the gods above and the monsters below. There was a desperation to my actions, a fire burning inside that even the sea could not drown. This was the time- I could feel it in my bones, I would make it to the distant shore or I would be lost to Davey Jones forever. 

Every good storyteller knows that you must test your characters to force them to grow. Nothing is ever simple in life or in books; something that appears straightforward will often carry hidden challenges that must be overcome. Well, my friends, we have managed to hit expert-level challenge on the digital detox.

I had planned a multi-week challenge, complete with updates and tips that helped me manage through the weeks. Everything was going fine, and then life threw another curveball. A pandemic might not seem like the best time to disconnect from your tech, but there is some merit to focusing on how you use the tiny toolbox you carry around in your pocket.

I will admit- I slipped down the rabbit hole; when I wasn’t busy working I was staring at my tiny screen. I was reading news reports, jumping for my phone with every single alert, scrolling through facebook until I lost track of time. I was exhausted, running on empty, and my nerves were shot. But it felt important to stay on top of the constant changes. Truthfully, in my work it was vital to know what was happening in my community and outside of it. Our orders and procedures changed by the hour, and keeping a constant pulse was the only thing that kept me on top of my work.

But now that intensity is lifting, at least for me. My workplace has dropped our operation levels so low that the gush of necessary updates has dwindled down to a trickling flow. While following the news is still incredibly important, we are reaching that new level of normal that will sustain us through the crisis. For the most part, we know what to do: stay inside, minimize contact, do our part individually to protect the collective. It is frustrating in the sense that the best action to take is inaction. It goes against our nature, and leaves us a bit unsettled.

And here is where the Mission to Save the Muse will come back into play. When the world becomes dark and overwhelming, we run to the arts for comfort. We binge watch shows, explore virtual museums, read books- this is a fundamentally human experience. Since the beginning of humanity we have connected through stories; that’s what all of the arts are- a variety of mediums that tell us tales. It has brought us together since the first caveman painted on a stone wall, ever since bands of travelers gathered around roaring fires underneath stars that lit up the sky.

The usual rules of a Digital Detox might not apply now. You might not feel comfortable turning off your notifications, and you might not be able to put your phone away during work times. When the world closed we had to find creative ways to stay connected and stay sane. This is the beauty of technology- allowing us to reinvent the world around us. The key, however, is making sure you wield this power for good, not evil- the keep yourself sane during these times it is crucial to find a balance that will keep you connected, but not wear you down.

My original challenges for the detox looked a bit like this; I pulled together a list of the things that were important to me and added a new component every couple of days to increase the challenge:

  • Turn of Notifications
  • Clean out your apps
    • delete ones that aren’t helpful to you (yes, even that one game you can’t live without)
    • Clean up your social media- get rid of things that are mentally harmful, add more positivity (follow more things that inspire you, that teach you something, that make you feel better inside)
    • log out of apps you have trouble with but don’t want to delete: tell your device to delete your login info so that you have to actually type it out each time you want to log in- makes you pause before doing it
  • Clean out emails: unsubscribe
  • Designate tech free hours (out of sight, out of mind- don’t even bring your phone)
    • During work time
    • During dinner- sit down and talk instead
  • Designate tech-free spaces
    • No phone in the bedroom (get a real alarm clock to avoid temptation)
  • Go out into the world and notice things (focus in on all of those times you would normally reach for your phone while waiting for someone, standing in line, sitting in a waiting room or on a park bench- instead, just watch people, notice the world around you)
  • Write longhand instead of typing
  • Put phone in airplane mode while trying to work to limit distractions
  • Limit any multi-tasking
    • finish one thing at a time, even when interrupted (if possible)
    • turn off the audiobook/music while driving/doing mindless tasks, let your mind wander instead
  • Use some apps that might help you cut back if you are struggling
    • Forest: you set a time limit where you don’t want to touch your phone (ex: while working on a project)- it will ‘grow trees’ for all of the time you follow your goal, but the trees start dying if you unlock the phone. Real trees are planted for your progress
    • Usage trackers: many of them have features that track time spent in each app- if there is one you want to keep, but limit (ex: a game you like to play) set a timer on it for your daily cap
  • Start filling the empty space with new creative endeavors/focus on mindfulness

The current state of the world changes the game plan, but it doesn’t smother the goal entirely. The new focus: the type of tech being used and how it is impacting you. Things that may have been on the list of goals previously might not be workable in our new work-around-world. For me personally, I can’t put my phone in airplane mode or leave it in a drawer at my desk while I’m working. I need to be reachable now more than ever (primarily because of work). I don’t want to turn off all notifications because I do want to hear some breaking news and find out when my State Governor is going to make another announcement. I don’t want to delete my facebook app because that’s the fastest way to check in on friends and family. I can’t sit on a park bench and watch people because it’s important to limit exposure. This week while I enter the mostly-working-from-home world, I know I will want to video chat with my friends on a Friday night and text with coworkers about how we are all coping and what we are doing to manage caseloads- it’s important to keep these options open. In a world that has necessitated a cutting off of in-person connections, we will depend more on these little gadgets to feel like we are still a part of this world.

So it’s time for a new plan, one that might actually be more sustainable going into the future. It’s going to depend more on checking in with yourself, gauging your inner temperature, so to speak, being in tune with your stress levels and personal needs to help navigate what you want to keep and what you are willing to lose. A lot of it will be about whittling down the myriad of distractions into the few key pieces you want to hold on to. For example, instead of having a dozen different news apps- whittle it down to your two favorites- one local, one national/international. Be strict and mute notifications that aren’t necessary-  now more than ever it is important to protect your mental health; as you go through your tech, think of it in terms of what you will allow to have power within your mental space. Don’t give the power of intrusion to anything that isn’t going to serve you in some way- mute those apps that you don’t want to delete and set limits on them.

The main thing that will guarantee success: replacing things that are distracting or stressful with things that bring joy and creative energy. Give yourself permission to ‘check-out’ when you need to. For those working from home, I know it is difficult keeping a separation between work like and home life because it’s all in one little space. It is difficult to decompress like you normally would on your commute back home- try to find a new way to transition; perhaps it could be a couple of minutes of meditation, hide away your working tools in a corner of the room, take a short walk around the block or to your mailbox. Create a habit that will help clear the clutter of your mental space and free you up for your precious personal hours. And then there are those who have suddenly found themselves out of work; the stress of the unknown, trying to figure out how to pay bills- it’s all consuming and terrifying. But for your own sake, it is still important to find time for yourself, to cultivate your own creativity and keep yourself healthy- mentally and physically. The last thing on your mind is creative expression, but I promise- it will help. And who knows, it could turn into an avenue for unconventional income. People are craving connection, people are in the exact same boat and want to feel less alone. Even if your art (in any form) is taking a darker turn right now with all of this uncertainty and fear- harness it. There is power in showing your truth, in sharing that with the world.

So today, I will take the time to take care of myself. I will reinvent my new detox: clean out the apps, set timers for the remaining ones, mute notifications, clean out my emails. I will leave my phone in the other room while I cook dinner tonight. I will turn off the audiobooks I’m barely paying attention to while I clean, and let my mind wander- I will let myself process the stress of the current situation and play out the stories percolating in the back of my mind. I will pick an hour to turn off my phone and create. I will pick up a pen and paper and journal by hand, even if it’s only for ten minutes. I will give my brain a break from the constant bombarding distractions and stress and just let it wander as it wishes. And then tomorrow, I will keep attempting to navigate this new normal. I will learn to start prioritizing myself and the things that make me happy again. I will set off in search of the Muse, and use these difficult times to truly find her.

I don’t know how I made it past those first few raging waves; it was as if the gods themselves were shocked at my daring. Perhaps they assumed they had won and simply stopped watching me. I made it past the cresting waves and out to the open sea. The rain still lashed at my skin, it was nearly impossible to see; but it didn’t matter anymore. I needed off that accursed island, whatever the cost. 

I didn’t notice at first- I assumed the sudden waves pounding against my vessel were simply the ocean venting her anger once again. It wasn’t until I felt the sting of flesh brush past me that I realized what was happened- the monster that plagued my dreams all of these nights was back. Large tentacles rose in the air and slapped at the water near my boat- sending waves that nearly dislodged my tenuous hold. She had still managed to find me in this storm. The sky crackled with lighting, the booming thunder filled my ears and left them ringing as the underwater monstrosity continued her assault. I grabbed my puny paddle and dipped it into the water, praying it would help spin me in a new direction. Another dark shape arose from the water and cracked against the edge of tiny ship. I saw the shards of wood split and waited to be plunged into the ocean again- just like last time. 

The broken vessel continued to bob helplessly in the roiling sea. I reached for one of the broken boards, ripping to free and holding it aloft. It had broken off to a sharpened point- large splinters pointing dangerously in different directions from the force used to rip it apart. I clutched it tightly between my knees as I took the dangling remains of rope and lashed myself to the remainder of my vessel. If it sunk, it wouldn’t matter if it dragged me down- there would be nothing else to save me out here. Not this time. I secured the knot with frozen fingers and held my makeshift spear out, squinting through the rain. I screamed into the air, daring her to come and finish her attack. 

I didn’t see the tentacle to my right until it crashed into the side of my vessel, pulling me under. I sunk for a moment before the rope around my waist began to pull, buoying me back to the surface. I was able to take one deep breath before I saw the flash of flesh above me, striking me below the surface once again. I stabbed blindly with my little spear, feeling resistance as I hit something- was it the creature?

There was a thrashing in the waters around me. I pried my eyes open and saw the looming shape dancing beside me, a black inky substance coloring the water around one long tentacle. It reached for me- perhaps in anger. I held my stick in front of me like a lance and waited. Another push and shudder in the water told me I had hit the mark again. The hulking body of the beast lurched towards me as the rope tied around my waist pulled me first left then right- had it grabbed ahold? A shot of panic raced through my body- it was going to drown me. I shoved my sticked towards the body of creature and stabbed- over and over I tried to make contact, the water turning inky black around me. I couldn’t tell if I was even hitting anything anymore.

I was running out of breath, the creature was going to win once again. I pictured my Muse as the darkness closed around my eyes, my arms still wielding the weapon weakly. Then suddenly the movement stopped, the slick tentacles untangled from my craft and I felt the gentle tug of the rope around my belly.

The air was cold as it hit my face, I gulped deeply, sucking in rain and coughing as I tried to breath life back into my sore body. The storm had not abated- but there were no more looming tentacles- the monster had left me, it seemed, gone back to it’s underwater lair, possibly expecting the storm to finish the work it had started. I barely had the energy to cling to the two pieces of wood still lashed together- the remainder of the ship that had saved my life. I held on as best I could and let the ocean take me where it wished. I closed my eyes and waited for my fate to take me. I didn’t even have the energy to open them again when I felt the resistance of sand beneath my feet. Truthfully, I was afraid to open them- what if the waters and lulled me back to my little island? I couldn’t bare the thought.

“Over there,” a voice shouted in the distance. Arms roughly pulled me out of the surf, “She’s alive, help me get this rope off,” I could hear shouts and rustlings around me. My eyes remained shut, but I could feel the faint flicker of a smile on my lips- I had made. I don’t know where I landed, but I had made it through the Sea of Distraction. With that final thought, I let unconsciousness take me.

 

 

Squiggly feelings and sleepless nights (hello anxiety, my old friend)

Have you ever leaned back in your chair too far and felt that jolt when it seemed like you were falling? Have you ever missed a step when you were walking down the stairs and suddenly your stomach was in your throat and your heart was pounding in your ears? It feels like that. But it doesn’t go away.

Have you ever watched a scary movie and felt your body tense waiting for something to jump out at you? Only it doesn’t, so you just keep peeking through your fingers and holding your breath? It’s like that, but without the giddy excitement of knowing that the monsters on the screen can’t hurt you.

Have you ever been driving down the road when your seatbelt locks up for no reason, as though it thinks you are about to crash even though everything is fine? And you have to sit there, locked in for a while, unable to really move? That’s what it’s like.

You are fighting phantom enemies with a smile on your face because no one else will understand. You are calm as a cucumber on the outside while your stomach is full of squiggly jumbled lines, your heart is pounding, hands sweaty, and you just can’t catch your breath. It is a strange moment when you find yourself trying to convince your own brain that you are okay, that everything will be fine, that you will survive this false alarm it has raised.

What people don’t realize about anxiety- I know when I’m being irrational. I know when my brain is looking at shadows and screaming ‘monster.’ But I can’t stop it. It’s not just a thought process; it’s a physical response. It’s like a migraine; I can feel it coming, but I have no power to change it. It is a tidal wave that rolls over me, washing me out to sea. And it’s so damn exhausting trying to paddle back to shore against the current.

I am not always like this. I can be the girl who (outwardly) rolls with the punches. I can be the girl who kicks ass, takes names, and dances backwards in high heels. I can be the girl who argues the intent of Nochlin’s essays on institutional powers, debate the merits of Ravenclaw vs Hufflepuff. I am the girl who can be serious, or funny, sarcastic or plain annoying. I am the girl who can be a lot of different things.

But I am also the girl whose heart was hammering so loud in her chest that I thought it might break the skin. I am the girl who discreetly made her way to the bathroom to fall apart in the middle of the workday. I locked the door, slid down the wall and sat with my head in my hands, eyes shut, gasping while trying to remember how to breath as the panic rushed through my veins, leaving me weak and terrified. Then I stood up, brushed myself off and went back out with a forced smile. I made coffee, joked with coworkers and answered the phone that just wouldn’t stop ringing. No one knew. Not a single soul realized that I was broken and terrified inside. Not one person noticed the way my eyes darted, the way I continually tapped my fingers and toes to expel the excess energy, not one person noticed the cracks showing through my carefully placed facade. No one knew that it wasn’t the first time. No one knew that it wouldn’t be the last.

I’ve had anxiety for a long time; it ebbs and flows, some moments in life are much harder than others. Some days I face my ‘normal levels,’ usually surrounding social situations. And then there are times where I spend months in a constant battle of wills with my own brain, phrases like ‘self-care’ and ‘I’m just tired’ forever on the tip of my tongue. As I write this, I can feel the squiggles inside squirming. I am jumbled up and desperately hoping I can keep my head above water. I’m writing this in hopes that I can bleed some of these emotions away; if I can capture them with words and release them into the world, diluted and harmless- then perhaps I may find a moment of peace. Perhaps I will be able to sleep for just one night.

If you don’t know what it feels like to see your own worst enemy in your eyes; then I am thankful. I hope you never do. But I sincerely hope that you remember those like me who do their best, even when it isn’t good enough. It is exhausting to spend your day hiding your monsters and your nights trying to slay your demons. It is exhausting when you lose power over your own thoughts, over the very things that make you who you are. It is exhausting to always say ‘I’m sorry’ over things you can’t control.

I had many reasons today to be anxious; I have been feeling that shadow creeping over me for some time now. I knew that today would be difficult. And yet, do you want to know what pushed me over the edge into a full blown attack? Keep in mind that I know it will sound silly; as I said, I am well aware when my fears and anxieties aren’t rational. But I can’t stop them. The little barb that managed to rip open the storm clouds overhead was a tiny thing- I finished my book and didn’t have another one to start.

At face value, it’s comical really. But the truth behind it is a bit deeper. My books are my escape hatch out of a world that I can’t control and into a realm that makes sense. There is order in my books, I feel grounded in them. They give me something to cling to in a world that sometimes appears far too foreign to me. They are my touchstone. They distract my brain when it wants to scream and wail; silencing these damned thoughts and giving me a respite from the anxiety that plagues me. When I feel the pressure that foreshadows an anxiety attack, I dive into the pages of another story to keep my brain from focusing on those imaginary little demons it conjures. When that life preserver was ripped away, I found myself drowning again without the hint of land in sight. My brain started screaming, and I was brought down to my knees.

That’s what it’s like; that’s how frustrating and irrational it is. I am normally a strong person who can carry the weight of my own little world, and yet when anxiety strikes all rationality goes out the window. I can be knocked to the ground by a missing book, by a ringing phone, by an oddly-phrased compliment. Anxiety and panic can be debilitating; though many don’t fully grasp what it means for those of us who continually struggle day after day. For those of you who do not face this battle, be thankful. I am so glad you will not find yourself in these trenches. But please, have compassion for those of us you find here struggling. To my brothers and sisters in arms; you are brave, you are strong, and you are not alone. We are in this together, allies in this war against ourselves.

Keeping the Darkness at Bay: My Battle with Depression

If I could have changed things I would have. Don’t think that this was all something that I wanted. I could not escape the prison I had created and I was slowly suffocating. It was like pounding on a brick wall, no matter how bloody my fists got, I couldn’t just give up. But we all have our point of no return. We can only bend so far before we break, and I shattered into a million pieces. I’m sorry I wasn’t strong enough, I’m so damn sorry you are paying for my mistakes now. This wasn’t how it was supposed to happen.  You were always my world, and it destroys me to know I could be hurting you. But you’re tough, you’ll do just fine. I know you- you will do more than just survive; you will thrive. You were always so much stronger than I was. And one day you will look back on me as nothing more than a distant memory, far removed from whatever amazing life you have led. You’ll realize I was meant to be nothing more than a minor detour. You’ll be better on your own. I promise. But I’ll always be here, watching over you. Like a moth to a flame, I’ve never been able to resist you. So take comfort- what I couldn’t do in life, I shall do in death. I’ll be your angel now, guarding you from any harm this world may dare to bestow on you. I love you, now and forever. And I am so sorry. I’ll make sure you’ll be okay.

I wrote this when I was sixteen; this was one of the many snippets of the many letters that I started and stopped. At the time I found myself trapped in a very dark place; I was mired down in that pit for a long time- years even. Chronic depression- that’s what they would have call it- if I had ever told anyone how I felt. But I didn’t. Every day I painted on a plastic smile and went about my regular activities, I played pretend and acted like nothing was wrong. When someone would ask questions I would laugh and brush the comment away with a generic reply. No one could know about the darkness that had invaded my soul and taken up residence. No one could find out what I was inside. I was supposed to be a golden girl, anything less than perfection was not acceptable. I was not the kind of girl that stumbled, I was not the kind of girl that fell. And I sure as hell wasn’t the kind of girl to ask for help. I was stronger than that. I didn’t talk about it. Instead I wrote every feeling out and hid the pages away in a notebook.

I’ve been going back and forth on whether I should even write this post; these are deeply personal moments in my life that very few people know about. Should I really take something this sensitive and toss it out there for anyone to find? Am I really at a stage in my life where I am confident enough to own the darkness that I held? Am I brave enough to stand here and proclaim for all to hear that I used to think these things? That I was a breath away from acting on those thoughts? I am terrified; mainly because even after all this time, I am still afraid of hurting the people close to me, I am afraid of letting them see this side of me that I hid for so long. But if there’s anything that life has taught me, it’s that when you have an opportunity to help someone else, you grasp it with both hands and you don’t let go. Today is National Suicide Prevention Day. And so, it seems only right that I take today to show you a piece of my soul that rarely sees the light of day.

I wish I could say that there was one culminating moment that led me to this path; but there wasn’t. There was a multitude of different things, some large, some small; but in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t really matter. No, it’s not about what led me to the road that I travelled, it’s about what happened when I was on it. It’s about being able to recognize the signs within yourself and those around you. That kind of darkness can swallow you whole, and no one is immune. I was a ‘good girl,’ which was perhaps a part of the problem. I was not the kind of girl who was sad or angry- not on the outside.

Every day was a game of masks; I would paint on my plastic smile every morning with an expert hand, making sure I looked as bright and shiny as the world wanted me to be. I laughed, I joked, I said all the right things at exactly the right time. But it meant nothing. At the end of the day I was empty. I just wanted the pain to stop, I just wanted a reprieve. I prayed to a God I wasn’t sure I believed in to make it stop. And then one day, I got what what I asked for. It only proved that you should be careful what you wish for. The tears may have been gone, but I was numb inside. 

You see, there is something that people don’t always know about depression; there is a point beyond the pain, something that is even more terrifying that the daily anguish in your soul. You reach a point where your body and mind cannot physically process it anymore; that’s when the numbness sets in. It sounds like it would be a relief, finally an end to the pain. But it isn’t. You see, there’s something wholly unhuman about the numbness, something scary and incomplete. When you are in pain then at least you are feeling; and when you are feeling, that means you are still alive. That means there is something inside of you that is still fighting to survive. But the numbness is all-encompassing. It makes you feel like you are already dead inside. There is an eerie calm to it, one that still sets my soul on edge. I will take a river of tears over blank stares any day. If there a destructive behavior that I could try; then I did- if only to force myself to feel something, anything- that would convince me I still had something to fight for. I was a shell, I would give anything to feel again.

I mentioned earlier that I was hesitant to even post this because of the people in my life and how it would impact them. People don’t fully comprehend the conflicting emotions you feel for your loved ones when you are lost in the depths of depression. I love the people in my life with a fierce passion; if you know someone fighting this battle, know that it isn’t about you and how you love them. I knew on a fundamental level that my friends and my family loved me; and I felt an immense amount of guilt over my own self-loathing. It was never that I didn’t love them enough, it was that I didn’t love myself enough. They were collateral damage; it was about me and how I could live my life. I worried about them, but when I was lost in that maze, I genuinely believed that they would be better off without me. It didn’t matter what they said, I didn’t know how to view myself as a worthwhile human being. Your self-perception becomes skewed, you can convince yourself that the whole world would be better off without you. It doesn’t mean that I don’t love them with every fiber of your being. It just means that you don’t know how to love and protect yourself the same way. They are two distinct ideas.

I didn’t think I would live to 17, I didn’t expect that I would walk with my class in graduation or find a regular Monday through Friday job. Inside I secretly hoped for some kind of accident, that way my family could believe that I hadn’t wanted it. They could be comforted in their image of who I was, and no one would ever have to know that it was the fate I wanted at the time. Looking back now, at 27, I am amazed to see how far I have come. I couldn’t picture my life at this stage, when I tried there was just a blank void staring back at me. I thought I would be a statistic, one of those sad stories that people only thought of fleetingly during their high school reunion ‘Oh, do you remembe her? How tragic, it makes you really wonder who she’d be today.’

I don’t know what changed, much like how it started, there was no definitive ‘end.’ I didn’t have a eureka moment when I realized that I was suddenly happy. I didn’t wake up one day to birds chirping while the sun danced through my window and proudly proclaim that life was suddenly worth living. It was so gradual, I didn’t even notice. And even today I am afraid to believe it. I was lost in that world for so long, and something like that leaves a mark on the soul. I am not ashamed of my experiences, no, they are my red badge of courage. But I am always afraid that these past couple years were just a reprieve and I will slip again. I am always aware of my emotions, I am always in tune with those moments where I need to step back and take a break from my life. It was lifting your head above the water line when you thought you were drowning. It was a battle I fought every day. I had to stand up for myself, take a deep look inside and discover who I was and who I wanted to be. I had to fill that blank future with something to give me hope. I had to change.

I don’t think there is a human in existence that hasn’t felt the pull of the darkness. I don’t think there is a single soul out there that hasn’t felt the icy touch of depression on their heart. We all know what it feels like, but we don’t talk about it. Everyone’s answer to escape is different. For me, it was all about self-reflection. I wrote constantly, I bled the poison out of my system one word at a time. I found things to keep me busy, to make me proud. I discovered the art of zen living. I found something in myself worth saving, something that I had all along and never realized.

If you know of someone who you even just fleetingly suspect might be going through this; reach out. You don’t have to say anything profound or deep, you don’t have to confront them even- in fact it’s best if you don’t. Just talk to them. I remember one really bad day where I was very seriously considering giving in to a bad outcome. And then the phone rang. It was one of my friends- we hadn’t been as close, but she still called. Just to say hi, just to talk on a rainy Saturday. That was all it took to pull me back from the ledge. Just a simple ‘hello.’ I have never told her that she probably saved my life that day with just one word. This wasn’t ever a subject we discussed. Perhaps I will someday.

So please, if there is nothing else that you take from this, just pay attention to one another. Show each other kindness, because you never know what monsters someone may be facing. I was a golden girl; and while I wasn’t popular or anything like that; I was the last person you would expect to be dealing with these demons. And I dealt with them for about four years. That’s a long time to feel like you are in hell. That’s a long time to be pushing that boulder up a hill. That’s a long time to hurt silently. So smile, say hi, ask someone how they are doing and listen to the answer. If someone is sad- don’t search for the reason why, there is a good chance that even they don’t know. Just be there. Even if it’s only to watch a movie in silence. Show compassion. Take off your mask so that they can take off theirs.

There is one death by suicide in the world every 40 seconds. In the US alone there is a death by suicide every 12.3 minutes. It is the 10th leading cause of death in the US for all ages. To put that into perspective, murder is ranked #17. This means that we are more likely to harm ourselves than for someone else to harm us. For 15-24 year olds (the age I was when I dealt with my darkest days), it is the 2nd leading cause of death. An estimated quarter million people every year become suicide survivors. That’s a lot of pain, that’s a lot of sadness.

We need to look out for one another, and in the process, we cannot ignore ourselves. I know that it is a lot to ask- to convince someone to ask for help, but trust me, it is worth it. I didn’t believe that I could ever be truly happy. I didn’t believe that I would live past 17. I didn’t believe in a lot of things that I have now. I was forged through fire; because of my sadness, I can appreciate my happiness now. And it wasn’t a single event that changed everything; you don’t need a miracle. Sometimes it just happens, it changes inside of you, slowly building up day by day; but you have to be open to the change. Don’t give up. I am 27, I have a good life- it isn’t perfect, but I’m happy. I have lived through some amazing experieces because I didn’t give up when everything in my soul wanted to. Life is not what I expected; but eventually, the sun does come out, no matter how long you’ve weathered the storm. Don’t give up, don’t be afraid. Most of us have felt the pain, and no one will think any less of you for trying to help yourself. I wish I had. I could have saved myself years of pain. Life is a beautiful mess, never be too afraid to live it.