Content note: This post contains graphic discussions of suicidal ideation, and anxiety.
There are the things we don’t tell each other, the things that skulk inside of us, the monsters that threaten to devour us. They are the things we sometimes cannot even put into words, though we see other people who struggle with them and whisper yes, I know, yes, and reach out our hands to brush them, to confirm that they are real, to know that we are not alone. These are the things that frighten us, that stalk us in the dead of night, that push and pull our bodies when we try to sink into sleep.
These things are not ordered, they cannot be carried; they are at best dragged behind us, where they leave a slithering, slimy trail that is both sticky and glossy in the dull light of reality. We feel the need to brush the trail behind ourselves so no one sees it or steps in it, to leave no trace, to become smaller and smaller and smaller so we cannot be seen.
They are not to be spoken of. Not ever, anywhere. They are wrong and disturbing and to expose yourself is to be vulnerable. You must put on a strong and bold face even when things are nipping at your ankles. At times, it seems pointless to try having any emotions at all, because they’re all wrong.
I. The silence
I was talking with a friend the other day. We live far from each other now so we catch up on chat when we have a chance, although we’re both busy people so as often as not the chat window consists of a single ‘hello’ with no response, or a ‘you have to read this book’ and a link to Amazon or Indiebound, depending on which one of us is making the book recommendation. Sometimes he calls when he’s on the train home and I sit in the hallway painting my nails while we talk. He laughs at me when I drop the phone and swear. We try to see each other a few times a year, but that doesn’t always happen.
He tells me a mutual acquaintance posted something troubling on his blog the other day, and I go look. He’s written about a near-accident, the thoughts that went through his head during the incident and after, and the part of him that wishes he had lost control. I know the feeling; sometimes, when I drive the long, windy, redwood-lined roads late at night I think about sinking the accelerator to the floor and just going straight until I hit something. Or I’m driving up those switchbacks, you know the ones, right where 128 and 1 meet, and I think about plowing through the guard rail instead of cranking the wheel hard over.
The moment of weightlessness that comes with the fall. Sometimes I dream about it.
My friend tells me he was worried until he called our friend. I say that it’s sometimes hard to remember that other people don’t live like this, don’t experience that feeling every day, and we don’t mean to scare people. I resist the temptation to tell him that we’re normally so good at cleaning up, and that I’m sorry he had to see our friend like that. Don’t worry, I want to say.
There is a shocked silence when I say that, though.
I had no idea, he says. I think about what happened when I told him about my anxiety, which was once so intense that it was virtually impossible to leave my house, let alone the county, the thing that kept me from visiting him in his new home for years after he’d settled there. The thing that made me have heaving panic attacks in the aisles of the grocery store, made me hide under the bed in abject terror.
I had no idea, he said then.
II. The conversation
I had a conversation with a few friends on Twitter the other night. We dropped in and out, weaving around each other as we talked. It became one of those sprawling conversations where it’s impossible to @reply everyone involved but we stubbornly refuse to use a hashtag. Followers catch bits and pieces depending on who they follow and when they check their timelines and then the conversation is gone, an ephemeral moment swirling away unless you want to search for it.
I love this about Twitter sometimes, the spontaneous salons that arise, the flurry of intensity for half an hour or an hour, the quiet disbanding of the group when everyone’s finished talking. There’s something strangely intimate about it even though it is being conducted in a public place where anyone can listen in, or participate.
We were talking about mental health, about anxiety, about the frustrations in our lives. It was a cool, dark evening and people said things they wouldn’t say in the light of day; not bad or wrong things, just things. Things about living with mental illness and having a brain that is constantly out to defeat you, out to twist your thoughts and words, out to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. A brain that tells you that you are not enough and will never be enough, one that pushes you to seethe with jealousy instead of being proud of what you can do.
I tell a friend that I grade my days, and I’m not kidding. I even break it down by category, I explain. My ‘tasks of daily living’ that day was a D. I hadn’t showered, gone outside, made the bed, made the phone calls I was supposed to. I’d barely eaten. That’s not a bad idea, she says, the grading.
Some days are 100% A+ Number One perfect days.
There aren’t very many of those.
III. Here, alone or not, I am not a bowl of grapes
Other people whisper to us. They thank us for the conversation, they say that we’re putting their feelings into words. They say they’re glad they are not alone. For a few moments in the depths of Wednesday night, or Thursday morning, depending on your time zone, the silence is broken and there is a conversation. People are talking. Their slime trails are showing. They take things out of boxes and pass them around and talk about them; oh yes, I got this one on a trip to the frontal lobe.
These conversations don’t happen very often. Most of the time, you feel isolated in a universe of stars too far away to touch. You can barely perceive them, and they’re spreading away from you so rapidly that you have no chance of catching them. You are alone, your brain tells you. Alone, alone, alone. Your brain reminds you that you shouldn’t bother reaching out to anyone, and it tells you that no other brain is broken like yours. You are a bad and wrong thing, it says. You should suffer alone.
You should panic in a sea of anxiety, you should lie sleepless in your bed.
I have a cat on my lap. She’s purring to herself, when she’s not biting my arm. It’s her way of expressing love. I think. Sometimes days go by where I only talk to the cats, where the sound of my own voice starts to sound alien and strange. She likes it when I lie on my stomach on the floor so she can sprawl out on my lower back. Her archenemy likes it when I crawl under a blanket so he can crawl underneath too, purring to himself. He kneads the covers until he farts and then falls asleep.
It’s easier to relate to them. They don’t care if I have a slime trail.
IV. Sea changes
I watch the sun glitter on the water from the bridge and I wonder for a minute what it would be like to sail over the edge, arms outstretched, feeling the wind between my fingers. To fly for a few moments. I know that’s not how it really happens; read a coroner’s report sometime if you don’t believe me.
We are told over and over again that these things we drag taint us, are distasteful and shouldn’t be discussed in public where anyone could be exposed. And when they attack our first response is to go into hiding, to say nothing, or to mouth banalities to convey the image that all is going well, and everything is fine.
I had no idea, is what people will say later.
We spend so much time in isolation and so much time developing a front, a mode of engagement with the world that does not betray our inner turmoil, that we feel intensely vulnerable when we are just ourselves.
Yet, it is only as ourselves that we can confront the things we drag, and it is only in knowing that you are not alone that you can be comfortable in yourself.