I knew her. Perhaps not where she was from, her entire life journey, or how she had come to start Miss Jessie’s, but I knew her. She was that bright-eyed, wanting girl in all of us: the one that comes with a million dreams and aspirations but also a load of insecurities. A clean slate but also lots of baggage. She flashes a warm, dazzling smile, but look closely enough, and you can see a glimpse of unhappiness, maybe even a bit of yourself. We see her as a writer, artist, entrepreneur, social worker, student, friend…occasionally as a person. She was my mother just three years ago, a lifeless body who once fell into the longest and most mysterious sadness that had ever sat at our kitchen table. She was my aunt, the shield that was always there for my trivial teenage dilemmas who eventually couldn’t even protect herself when her inner thoughts became just as confining as her apartment. At some point, she was probably my grandmother and my great-grandmother. She was my best friend, a crumpled heap sitting on my bed that I only knew how to pat on the back and let cry on my shoulder. And then she was me. Me telling my therapist that something was always being dropped onto my lap before I could properly deal with what was right before me. Me telling her that I could best characterize waking up to face the day as drowning. Me telling her that it was quite literally the worst possible thing for me to be doing but I couldn’t help shutting down emotionally on the people I was supposed to be closest to. Me telling her that I was deeply ashamed to be feeling the way I was. Me telling her that I was beginning to sleep longer and longer and see less and less sunlight as I stayed holed up in my apartment. Me telling my then-boyfriend, in both subtle and open ways, that I hadn’t been feeling like myself for months. Me being frustrated with him for just not getting it. Me sobbing to him on the phone about not wanting to be here.
Now, I haven’t lived a painfully hard life, but I have had enough experiences to know that all kinds of things can get thrown your way for no particular reason at all (I like to believe that a higher power is just making sure you know that you’re still mortal and fallible in the grand scheme of things). Or perhaps lots of things have been thrown my way, and I’ve just been coping with them in the same manner since I was five: tucking them away or just saying quietly before bed, “It won’t always be this way.” Perhaps that is all catching up to me. Shamefully unhealthy as I glance back, but it seemed to work for witnessing abuse all those years. It seemed to work for coming to terms with the fact that I didn’t have an optimal relationship with my dad. And it definitely seemed to work for pushing through my sophomore year of college. Still, I couldn’t recall ever feeling this confused or frustrated about much of anything. Nothing had made me feel like so much of a stranger to myself. Nothing elicited unhappiness quite like being depressed.
It’s very different from being sad, being unhappy.
With sadness, you can pinpoint the cause. You can cry, mope, and gripe knowing the exact reason why you are doing so. You can bounce back to the old you, the real you, rather quickly. Being unhappy made me feel unceasingly, irretrievably, hopelessly off. I’ve read lots of stories about a fantastic kind of death, about people leaving the world the way they came in and refusing to go quietly. I didn’t want that. If I had to leave, I told myself, I would breathe easy on the way out. Hard to do that when you’re suffocating. The heaviest part was the sheer weight of it all: waking up and immediately feeling, for some reason, like I wasn’t good enough for much of anything. The hardest part was wanting to get out of bed, feeling like I should eat, longing to return to my usual self…but just not being able to. The worst was wanting to do the things that once made me feel alive…but losing the will for any of them. In my wildest dreams, I was writing and dancing and tweeting and laughing and baking and blogging my way out of depression and suicidal thoughts. In reality, I was hovering over a shell of Cinnamon, watching it sleep and cry the days away.
As I write this, I visit that dark, scary place again. It hasn’t been terribly long since I left. But since I’ve read the story of Titi Branch’s suicide, I can’t stop thinking. Of how I ignored my own warning signs initially. How I didn’t actually want to deal with them once I found out what exactly was wrong. Of how I just rode the wave without actually processing anything for so long. Of how I didn’t have a plan for hitting highs or lows. I wonder if Titi saw the signs. I wonder if she wanted to do something about them but just didn’t know where to start. I wonder how many people around her knew something wasn’t right. That something seemed…off. I wonder how many Titi’s I am surrounded by.
Someone once told me that planning for or concentrating on success blocks it. I generally agreed with it at the time, thinking that it could have been interpreted as a cautionary tale against obsessing over superficial milestones. Now, preparing for it doesn’t seem like such a bad idea. I’ve been learning how to deal with long- and short-term slumps. I mean really deal with them. Well…what happens when a high hits again? Or a series of them in close succession? It would seem almost counterintuitive, but maybe preparing for that “normal” once it returns is just as crucial. Was Craig’s dad onto something when he talked to us about winning some and losing some? Is this whole thing–this journey back to myself–about balance?
At some point in the spring of my sophomore year, I remember picking up the habit of constantly asking myself, “What next?” I was selected for a research fellowship then asked myself, “What next?” I put together events then asked myself, “What next?” I wrote for campus publications, or was attacked by them, then asked myself, “What next?” I joined (and thankfully left) committees then asked myself, “What next?” I participated in campus protests then asked myself, “What next?” It continued into the summer. I wrapped up the colloquium for the fellowship and then asked myself, “What next?” I suffered from clinical depression and I certainly couldn’t see any sort of light in the midst of it, but when it finally began to lift, I asked myself “What next?” My boyfriend and I broke up, and again, I asked myself, “What next?” I don’t think I need one. A “next” that is. Maybe I can plan and plan and plan and make lists and have goals and still be forced to take detours. Maybe I shouldn’t measure my life journey in climaxes. Maybe this is all one long, continuous story, and I’ll only be able to distinguish the chapters and make sense of the characters after they’ve sat for a bit and the ink has dried. So no more nexts.
Now I breathe. Now I love. Now I live.