(working title: gr8 depression essay good job)
Birthdays, for me, exist on three levels: cookies and sw33t discounts, obligatory well-wishing, and the appreciation of someone’s impact or existence, where it is flawed as a concept. The problem with birthdays beyond the advent of the formal operational stage is that you realize the only person you are irreplaceable to is yourself; and for everyone else an absence of you is less It’s a Wonderful Life and more how the people of the 70’s had to live life without Facebook. Because this is a day to celebrate a person in your life, and not the continued existence of that person as an effortful and intentional process, that existence is taken for granted unintentionally and the person’s luck, willpower, or some combination thereof is neglected. For me, a birthday should be a not-yet-dead day, like an incentive not to commit suicide that comes once or twice a year. I guess I don’t mind birthdays inasmuch as they are a(nother) reason to eat cake, but from a close friend or relative the use of the words “happy birthday” as a sole meaningless pleasantry irks me. “Happy birthday” tells me you like cake. I also like cake. It is a given that most people like cake. It does not mean anything to me.
“Happy birthday” at its very best is a polite reaction to finding out it is someone’s birthday whom you do not know very well, because in theory you share the collective wealth that is human compassion and you hope that everything is okay and they have a nice birthday in the same way you hope people don’t get hit by bicycles. “Happy birthday” from someone who is close to you, without any substantial meaning or significant revisions, means that it does not really matter to them that you continue to exist intentionally, and in theory they share the collective wealth that is arbitrary expectation, and they believe this event should matter to them even if it doesn’t in the same way they refrain from cussing out the elderly even when they invoke one’s wrath. If things went according to these expectations I think I’d get about three good wishes from people I know and a few more from people I don’t know, and anything beyond that would be a pleasant surprise because I am not very close to most people and I imagine my exchanges with friends are pleasant because each of us enjoys having the company of a friend; the role can be filled by anyone competent enough.
The worst day of my life, if I’ve chosen correctly, was an uneventful one when I was about fourteen. I took the day off from school for depression and just laid there on the floor of my bedroom pretending not to exist. Eventually I found the energy to get up and throw rocks at things outside, not birds because I couldn’t find any, but trees and rusted garbage and other rocks. Are you convinced that humans are built around a soul? Because I am pretty sure I am a dysfunctional robot.
To be clear, I am not battling depression. Depression is a pair of blue glasses. Saying you are battling depression is like bringing a knife to a gun fight and battling the knife. If there is anything I can’t forgive my parents for, and my parents have done lots of wonderful things, it is of course choosing to have a child, because how could anyone, anyone go through life and still decide to inflict that on someone else? Once you are born like that you’re in a life-long imprisonment, for however much life is long. You are given love, you are given time, and you are the object of a lot of spent money. In these cases, you are filling a child niche, designed to carry out your parents’ vicarious immortality, and it is assumed you will also have kids. Your eyes shine under their sweet nauseated gaze laced with oxytocin, and provided you are not an absolute delinquent to commit suicide would make a lot of people tremendously sad. A lifetime of good deeds could not undo this one decision to shackle a person in such a manner.
My eyes set to the present, life is a lot of busy things I don’t want to do, under the vague and distant promise that all those completed things I don’t want to do will pave the road to things I do want to do, or things I do want to do beset with the guilt that they are not the things I will want to do in that promised land. My eyes set to the future, and it is mostly just dread of impending things I don’t want to do, under the less vague and distant realization that there will never be a time when I don’t have to do the things I don’t want to do, and all the things I do want to do, flanked on either side by things I don’t want to do, will never amount to all those many many years of things I did but didn’t want to do. I am at odds with reality, and reality is at odds with me.
“But you’re just a brat,” you say. Absolutely I am a brat, because I am also a nihilist who really hates doing things I don’t want to do. I do believe there is a kind of lifestyle that could make me very happy. I get vague ideas about it, but the fact is I have no idea how to get there, nor any indication of whether I am able to get there or that my efforts now contribute at all towards it, though I also believe that there are seven billion people on the planet and counting who all do things they do not want to do and so it will require a great deal more luck than it will effort.
Where did the brat first start? I think it started when I started to exist. I’m not supposed to exist. My parents explicitly wanted two children, and I’m the third; the first one was a miscarriage. I’m sure it was divine intervention to give our family a daughter, but I feel more like a stork dropped me off and said, “Sorry, it’s the only one we had left.” Now when people look at us in our cage we are four happy clowns all dressed all the same; it’s just there’s something wrong with the one on the end because they are all juggling oranges and I am holding three dead birds.
My dad was and is very excited to have a daughter. He went to an all-boys school and is perpetually astonished to wake up every morning and find there are still two girls living in the house. I have inherited his traits so the two of us read books and brood, but he does not necessarily take care of us. He fills all the usual father requirements, like making sure you know how baseball works and celebrating the rain and always being found first in hide and seek because he is six feet tall and hides under his blanket as though we are supposed to believe a corpse is usually there and there is nothing out of the ordinary. But he does not take care of us; he works and watches tv and is not affectionate, since I don’t like being touched, but loving towards his children, but he doesn’t take care of us because my mother does and she mollycoddles.
Mom was excited to have a daughter; however, I think she would have preferred one who liked the way her hair was cut or would put on a pair of tights and a beaded dress for Halloween instead of opting to be a banana.
I was born boyish and angry. My hair was cut in a mushroom shape and I wore a pumpkin dress for school pictures and absolutely despised myself. I wanted to look like Jennifer Lopez, and I’m happy to say I have not since graduated in fashion sense from the early 2000’s. I told my mother I wanted to kill myself and she said that God says that’s a sin. I suppose though that’s all you can manage when your five-your-old has already thrown in the towel and hates, and I mean hates, the color pink. She spent a day holed up in my room turning the aqua walls a carnation pink and I responded by throwing shoes at the door and screaming. The walls are gray now; they spent a while as a flamboyant orange although these days I like pink just fine. It’s purple that’s the problem. Goddamit purple is the only color I don’t like.
I never self-harmed in the traditional sense, but I had a tiny Munchhausen habit of ramming my head into the bedroom floor repeatedly or standing in the mirror and tensing everything up until it hurt and complaining to my parents a room away about a headache. They caught on more or less immediately. Fortunately for me, I never resorted to much more self-abuse because I was too happy-go-lucky from ages ten to thirteen so when I was fourteen I came down with an ear infection and took a probiotic that soon after spawned IBS. For those of you short on your de facto med school vocabulary, IBS, an abbreviation I will choose not to expand on, boils down to a near-constant stomach ache, all the time, forever. Most of the time it’s the catchall non-answer for when there is no other plausible diagnosis. This manifests in a couple of general forms, but for me, it was a bible of stomach ailments based on arbitrary stimuli. You can’t exercise too hard, you can’t chew gum, you can’t eat too much, you can’t eat too little, you can have orange juice but only a watered down kind, and this is after five years of my mother wrangling every combo of diet, procedure, and medication known and some unknown to Western medicine.
IBS is not rare, though it is somewhat unheard of. It’s not uncommon to have to miss school on a weekly basis and yet it is also not discussed as a legitimate disability because its only distinct symptom is your constant vocal protest. IBS is your embarrassing and invisible new overlord, and the only people who like to talk about it are confused and desperate parents because people who actually have it are too busy rolling around and being sad.
It can probably go unsaid depression quickly followed and the two of these were a veritable death sentence onto my mother, who is not driven by a need to be matronly in any sense of the word but a compulsion towards and gratification from managing all problems and making her very best deliberate effort to produce two contented children that could be marveled at. Here she found herself faced with two Gordian knots, one around my heart and the other around my waist, and worried herself into a prune saddled with the knowledge that cutting children directly in half is still illegal. I was always convinced she liked my brother better because while he lacks the skills to show polite enthusiasm for her continual humorous gifts (as of right now I have a box filled with two light-up stars with funny faces, a hermit crab, two little pumpkin action figures, a light up skull, two extra large flower-shaped magnets, a monkey with Velcro hands, and a Post-It dispenser shaped like a diamond) meant to evoke small habitual quantities of joy, he always gets canker sores and those can be cured.
As someone deeply convinced of the value of an education and of my ability to go through with it, the first year of high school went terribly for her; I made the three of us late every morning, because every morning was accompanied by the insatiable urge to vomit. I stopped doing homework at intervals because of the hopelessness or pain
or hopeless painfulness or painful hopelessness and one night at some point she just snapped and let me have it because why couldn’t I just do the work and what was that I was writing on my arms? “Lied,” I said. “I should have lied.”
Mom went to bed across the hall and I bawled for two hours, and she did not apologize to get me to stop, she pleaded because she was goddamn exhausted.
My dad, also unfortunate bedfellows with chronic pain, was much more sympathetic, but during that time he worked a night shift, and after all it was Mom that took care of us and drove us to school every morning. He paid me to go to school, five dollars every day I went and three dollars for him if I didn’t. Had he been the driver I would have stayed home much more often, because with Mom a day off required both legitimate illness and a lawyer.
Nothing worked and I was the personification of that nothing working. I wasn’t sick or upset because of some discombobulation of the nerves and neurotransmitters, but because I didn’t want to get better badly enough. If I refused all her solutions because I had learned none of them worked for such and such flavor of stomach ache, she would get awful mad at me. I was too lazy to get better. I was convinced for most of high school that I would not go to college because I would be dead, but what was wrong? Nothing was wrong. No abuse, no trauma, and about as good as you could scrape by without getting horribly stunted through middle school. It’s just that I was sick and everything was so ugly. Mom gave up eventually, acknowledging this, for a fleeting moment, and said she had referred me to the high school social worker.
The social worker’s office was run by the school’s cheerleading coach, an old woman with bat wings and a killer personality. She sat me down to fill out a survey, like you do when you’re trying to alienate people, and reassured me that the place got visits from at least two other students every day. Presumably these were the only two other students in a population of four thousand as malfunctioning as I was. “You don’t understand, lady,” I said, drawing blood to refill this red pen and start marking down bubbles, “I am the goddam champion.” Actually, though, I just filled out silently all the positive answers to questions about thoughts of suicide. There was never a concrete plan, I remember, it’s just that in those days trains were so fast and knives were so sharp and free will was free. Most likely the only other visitors she got were kids smart enough to walk out of class and straight into that room so they could make something up for an hour and miss ninth period. Or they were, actually, experienced with depression enough to go to a place like hers and know not to tell anybody anything. The worst thing you can do is tell somebody, because nobody else knows what to do with a thing like that. In either case, suicide was the wrong answer, and I was forcibly booted out of there faster than you can say liability lawsuit.
I got that Friday off (AND MOM WAS THRILLED) because they said I wasn’t allowed to come back until I had a doctor’s note stating I was officially mentally sound. I didn’t understand it, my parents didn’t understand it, and the doctor definitely didn’t understand it because it sounded suspiciously like something a cheerleading coach pretending to be a social worker would write. She might have also been pretending to understand English, too, because for one thing suicidal thoughts are not a strep throat. Contrary to the claims made by mass-produced bookmarks they pass out at those one-day health class depression seminars, your friend will not be cured if you acknowledge you care, hide all their razors, handcuff them to a chair and tell an adult.
Acknowledging you care when someone tells you they want to go jump in front of a train should be implicit because in North America that is often times the basis of a friendship. I have never had a confidant who actively hoped for my swift and untimely death, or rather if I have, they had the good grace to pretend this wasn’t so. Admittedly my depression is more a teacup of Bitter Gunpowder than it is Low Self-Esteem Passionfruit Sunrise. There are many people, such as the entire TWLOHA community and most of the internet, who are depressed from the belief that they are always doing something untenable that makes everyone hate them. Tell these people you care as well as handcuffing them to the nearest stable structure because it will take about eight tries before they believe you.
Contacting the relevant resources and informing an adult can be helpful, though it can also be annoying, detrimental, or useless depending. Adults, too, are people; they are depressed, scared, and completely clueless as to how to solve the problem. Teens may want to keep their mental disorder of whatever variety a secret from their parents, and while your high school faculty members may offer themselves as a pillar of support, this is in the first sense of happy birthday and not the second one. My school, again, had four thousand kids, and it was not humanly possible for my student counselor to care about my opinion if it was not a direct threat to my ability to graduate. Your best bet, if you have the insurance, is to find a therapist, and your first-year psychology major friend does not count.
Supposedly it’s hard to land with just the right therapist on your first try, but I got lucky and found myself with a glad-faced blonde who spoke with a light Kansan accent named Jenny. After she moved away a few years later, I came back down to reality and met just once with an Indian psychiatrist who after about ten minutes very clearly wanted to, not unlike most rational people, slap me in the face and tell me to get a job. Jenny, instead, was very gentle and masked disappointment with grace. She waited patiently across the room as I stared at the floor those first couple of weeks and did not elaborate on the reason I wanted to die, a man in a well-tailored suit holding a cigarette whom I thought was beautiful and she called a creative manifestation of my OCD. He appeared a few days before my thirteenth birthday and has since become my sole religion. I painted an owl meant to represent him and kept untidy tallies and notes on the back of the cardboard that came with the frame.
A few months in the SSRI was able to settle and things gradually improved. I was dragged through my first year kicking and screaming, but by the next the terrible unease in the pit of my stomach had boiled down to a quiet discontent for all things in life. I had various little hobbies to keep myself occupied and spent nearly all my free time at school writing prose in the library. Junior and senior year passed in a flurry of busy work and indignation. The second person I poured my heart out to during this time was an erstwhile English teacher who was as fond of giving me A’s as I was of depositing very candid essays of how I felt about absolutely everything, though mixed in with some satire entries he probably thought I was being cheeky and/or was a capable individual and/or he rightly did not trust the student counselor to understand 17-year-old weltschmerz.
I threw the painting away. I kept the cardboard and painted it black in watercolors so that it warped into a U-shape and hung it on my wall all by itself and titled it “Friendship.”
Mom’s greatest fear was of how I would struggle in college with a chronic illness. For the most part, perhaps because things got a little better, it was unfounded. In college the challenges become fatigue and widespread respiratory illness, with trademark tummy trouble here and there in place of the standard-fare college kid incapacitators like binge drinking and skateboards. I have also heard self-discipline is a finite resource, and discovered very quickly that my own reserves store about one liter of the stuff at an absolute maximum.
Could I say to someone in depressed in high school now that it gets better? It’s a well-known fact that “high school” is collusive code word for teenager-jail, so that anything short of Foxconn working conditions is a vast improvement, though I can confirm that no matter your efforts, sleep deprivation is inherent to the human condition. Still, things are endlessly, endlessly drab, and the high school dread that hung about like a ghost for things simply adapts to modern adult life: what if I don’t get a job? what if i never make enough money? is this what I want to do in life?
I do not seek out death explicitly, and yet I cannot express enough what a terrible convenience it would be. My birthday is tragic especially when my mother celebrates it because I always think the enthusiasm and the compassion are intended for someone else, an ideal version of me who is an extrovert and doesn’t need to take six different kinds of pills on a nightly basis at age 19, but I am the one the stork dropped off because I was a leftover and will be wearing this sweet new hat in her stead. On the bright side, impostor or not, I look like Jenny from the Block now.