I remember the time I watched a documentary on Golden Gate Bridge suicides. Some of the men and women who stood on the railing, making the ultimate contemplation, were talked out of jumping by bystanders or recognized, as it was almost too late, that there was something worth living for. Others just couldn’t find it in them and they simply let go. “Selfish” was the word that inevitably floated in and out of my mind as I watched, put myself in the position of both the victim and the victim’s family, and thought about those in my own life who had formerly expressed how deeply self-centered they found suicide to be. But I always had to wonder, who are we to judge another when he or she can no longer endure such pain? I certainly understand how tangible the judgment of others can feel as I stand alone in the most vulnerable of moments, unsure of whether I need to be coddled or slapped. But many of the most beautiful, passionate, creative people who have walked our earth could just no longer take it. We don’t choose to be the ones left in the wake of this horrible disease just as we don’t choose to be the ones that it targets and cripples in one swift motion. It chooses us. But among the unbearable pain and the unimaginable circumstances can emerge the unlikeliest of communities. Solidarity sometimes presents itself, however unexpected it seems, in the face of terrible hardship. As I’ve learned, a community can emerge from the ashes of broken dreams, endless tears, suicide notes, a misunderstood existence, and insurmountable perceived and real disappointment. Here at Middlebury, months after I’ve left, it has.
There are people who think that I have terrible allergies year round. I do apologize if you are one of those people, but I did always feel a need to say something about those swollen eyes. Oh right, and those big dark circles…I am not an insomniac. If I’ve learned anything over the years it’s that there’s a major difference between losing sleep because your body can’t rest and losing sleep because your brain is putting your body to the ultimate and most grueling test. And if you accurately picked up on the fact that my 3-day-a-week high school sick days (that almost prevented me from graduating) were quite literally the most tumultuous mental health days, good catch. Add night terrors to the mix; the kind that wake you up violently or don’t allow you to escape at all and it can wreak total havoc on your face. But this is my normal.
I can’t pretend that I don’t get scared any longer. Do you know how fucking scary it is to wonder with everything you have whether or not you will ever get better? There have been days where instead of peeling myself off the couch I’ve stayed there in complete paralysis, wondering if this, like a terminal illness, can simply not be fixed. And I just really don’t want to settle for okay or average functioning. Forget everyone else; I tend to think I may just be a medical anomaly. I sincerely hope that this all sounds foreign to you; that you don’t tell yourself these things. If you do, though, don’t fear. I know how indescribable the feeling of anguish is despite how much torment you go through to properly describe it. Daily anguish was literally all that I knew at one time and the thought of an effortless existence sounded so farfetched that I just couldn’t bear to accept that it may exist as someone else’s reality. This is my normal.
Now, to go back, I have something to say about those eyes. I have Major Depressive Disorder, crippling anxiety, and not even a touch of seasonal allergies. And I’ve really never been as self-sufficient and stable as most people believe I am. If you’re reading this with some preconception that I’ve never placed my problems or insecurities on another person, expecting them, however unfairly, to help or deal with them, you are mistaken. In fact, I’ve felt so helpless to my own mental illness at times that I’ve made the lives of some very patient others a living hell.
I’ve also been told, more times than I can count, “wait…what…you? No, it can’t be possible,” and that I obviously “have it all together.” That I look so happy in my Facebook pictures that I just couldn’t have spent as many days and nights as I admittedly have crying inconsolably. I remember one period in my life where it literally felt as if I’d cried myself empty. Do you know that feeling? Nothing, not physical or emotional pain, not the most devastating news or heart wrenching story, could draw even a single tear. Once I embraced myself for who I was though and, more importantly, for who I was not, committed to long-term treatment, and stared an illness that had tantalized me endlessly straight in the eyes I cried like a baby. I was free.
How can a few words even come close to summing up what the hell “depression” feels like? You’re going to have to excuse my language throughout this post, but I can’t pretend any longer that depression doesn’t make me inconceivably angry at times. I’ve watched it take my friends into its grip and completely degrade the beautiful people that they are. Hell, I’ve watched it destroy them, tear their fragile insides out, and at times, even lead them to end their precious lives by no choice of their own. One night I had a vivid dream that someone came and took me out of my room. Waking up the next morning I immediately knew that a personification of my mental illness was what had physically dragged me from my room. The dream left me thinking that when suicide feels like the only option to someone, it is really no longer a choice. These are smart, beautiful, funny, driven, talented people and the disease controls them and sometime destroys them. Can I be angry?
And what have I always wanted to say to those people who say, “well…why are you so depressed anyways? Cheer up”? I want them to know exactly what this diagnosis means for my life and that there have been times in which my depression has felt like clawing my way, without success, out of a bottomless, pitch black hole. Times in which serious physical pain would be an easy obstacle by comparison; in which the physical pain that did actually ensue as a symptom of my mental turmoil absolutely paled in comparison to what was going on in my brain.
Depression is not merely a couple moments a day of fleeting sadness. That being said, I feel insurmountable pride for survivors of mental illness, because I know from personal experience that it is something that chases after you and hunts you down until you grab it with both hands or become its next victim.
So what, then, do I say to the “optimists” and “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” disbelievers? I say that I, Lindsay Wheeler, was voiceless in the face of depression for too damn long. It made every one of my muffled cries completely inaudible to the human ear. Like sucking air out of a lifeless world, I fought mercilessly everyday, while pressing my face into the mask of a perfectly imperfect girl, only to exist. But I don’t want to exist; I want to live. The people I so desperately reached out for were on the other side of an impassible wall that was depression. So I ran away from it, avoiding at all costs, the nightmare I could no longer take of yelling through impenetrable glass; faces of those around me staring from the other side with doll-like expressions of disturbing yet undisturbed contentment. Depression is not momentary sadness. It is watching the taillights of another car fade before your eyes as you run yourself breathless toward the trailing exhaust, hoping someone will glance in the rearview. But they never did.
And my mental illness is an entity that, before I had any secure conception of who I was, spun me into its complex web and made me a fiber of its distorted reality. It was typically the loneliest mornings that I lay awake, thinking deeply about the confusing layout of my brain. The face of my illness appeared without remorse, like the dark, blurred face of everyone’s favorite antagonist; the characters we can’t help loving to hate. It was so early in my life and so early in the mornings that I first encountered that ugly thing out on a battlefield that would soon become my entire world; that day and night had become synonymous, or, paradoxically, indistinguishable. I was swallowed up by the darkness and my depression manifested in almost human form, like a destructive sidekick that I couldn’t let go of. It was – he was – the only thing I knew at certain points. I listened to the voice of no one but his and marched to the beat of his, not my own, ill-tempered drum.
It was all that I could see at that hour, one that offers most people relief, when darkness begins to lift and the sun fights to dust the street with light. As it enveloped me entirely it didn’t occur to me like it should have, that I was drifting further and further from the world I knew as a little kid. Depression becomes, as it picks up momentum, a massive blow to everything you know and everything you want to love about yourself. In my case, there are two bodies stuck inside the one shadow that follows me around. One hosts a rational mind; the mind familiar to most of the world. “She’s got a good head on her shoulders,” they say of me, and I do sometimes agree. The other mind was torn from reality as a fledgling, forced by nature to play into the distortions or to be swallowed alive. “The world would be a better place without me,” it said of me, and I really believed it sometimes.
It’s a crazy monster this depression, but the more pain it offers us, the more we crave the depths of its loneliness. The more it pinched my “ugly” sides, the more I wanted them gone. The more tears I cried, the more my cheeks burned and the more I gravitated toward my darkest triggers. The more I could feel its wrath as it etched holes in my skin, the deeper the panic set in when all was calm, empty, and numb. My depression controlled me, drew me in, and begged me, without a moment’s relief, to watch passively as it blanketed my world and smothered the light. Early this summer, all in one moment, I told myself I’d had enough.
Letting go of the most malignant things in my world, the ones I clutched to tightest, was the hardest part. I didn’t know who I was without depression; a voice that had suggested to me, in its most dark and ominous tone, that I was no one. But something brought me back for more and even years later I still hadn’t gotten the right kind of help. I knew that this life wasn’t sustainable but I couldn’t help but worry that exterminating my own internal struggle, if I ever could, would not only take from me my deepest of lows but also the few things I loved about myself at the time: my capacity for compassion, empathy, and appreciating, to no end, the spaces of my world that still had light. Would I become lifeless, blank, passionless, I wondered? I decided one day, sitting in the presence of someone I trusted deeply as she told me it was time, that another night of this hell would be my tipping point.
You see, after I left Midd, I had felt the wind pick up again. I could feel my body fly out of my own control, ricocheting off the wall opposite to the same door I had tried so many times to exit, into a freer place. The dust was getting in my eyes and I couldn’t breathe or see anything beyond my thick skull. The years and the pain and all the bullshit began piling up so fast, accumulating as my body fell deeper and deeper under the soot. I could feel my feet as they lost touch with the ground and I became uncertain as to whether the ground still existed at all. I still don’t know if it was that numbness, that disinterest, that lack of fight, or something else entirely that had me convinced I was too weak to fight back, but my knees buckled and I was just done.
But I chose life that day as I smothered the flames of a fire that once engulfed me, despite how warm it felt as it chewed me up. I pushed the door shut on a hurricane of guilt and pain and illness that once tore through my home and victimized me, stealing my whole world out from under me. Mental illness is the darkest of storms. It is a twisted game of battleship and some of us begin our lives without knowing that our ships had been shot down long before the starting timer was turned. Life becomes a struggle and we sink to the very bottom of the ocean with our feet chained to the decks of ships we don’t even know we are on. The storm doesn’t care if our strategies and thoughts and hopes and dreams are fair or right or possible. We become destined by the very nature of its force to be controlled by, and sometimes swallowed by, the disease. It was once stronger than my frail arms. I am not superhuman. I couldn’t hold my breath forever and I was running out of time. It consumed me, killed me, gave me life and begged me to nurture it all at once but I was finally ready to call myself a fighter. You know that feeling when you start running so fast you feel like you’re descending back into toddlerhood, stepping awkwardly and stumbling over your own legs? I sprinted harder away from that disease than I ever thought I could when I finally realized it would kill me. I didn’t look back.
I owe my life to other humans. What I’ve learned after years and years of pushing people away is this: let them in. They can offer you a lot. My pint sized little sister Erin gives me hope that I never realized could exist in my world. I was told recently by someone in disbelief that what I do for the 10 year old – how much time I devote to giving her a few more years in a world void of some of the harshest realities – is above and beyond. The funny thing is that I hadn’t ever looked at it like this at all because I know with complete certainty that this beautiful, smart, compassionate, secure little girl has given me more in her ten years than I could ever hope to give her in the remainder of my life. I look at her and I see myself, a reality that is both frightening and endearing. Naturally, I fear for her as the hourglass pushes her, inevitably, toward the years that for me, hurt like hell and showed me how different I could be from those swimming with, or against, the same current. But I also see something raw and incredibly unique pulsing through my “little peach” (“bear”, “mushroom”, “bean”, “monkey”) that will help her through the future moments that she will surely overcome, though I couldn’t. The moments that picked me up, tumbled me into oblivion, and dumped me out on the ever-shrinking shore I was offered by my own mind. She has the appreciation, strength, and compassion for people and the world that has taught me, finally, in my 22nd year, that life isn’t about the things or the places. Instead it’s about the late nights under a pitch-black blanket with your sister and co-owned bulldog tangled in the sheets. It’s driving a group of screaming kids, much larger than you signed up for, around town to search far and wide for a very specific brand of gluten-free rice crispies. It’s stabbing yourself in the face with a pencil because you’re that uncoordinated and subsequently rolling around on the floor laughing until it hurts without receiving even a fraction of judgment as blood drips down your face.
If I closed this post by saying that my life is finally easy and completely functional, that would be untrue. I still have my fair share of bad days. Hell, I have days that feel almost unbearable. But if you are reading this and feel like you’ve missed out on full years of your life just hanging on, have walked around Middlebury without any sense of direction or hope, screamed the words “why” and “me” in the same sentence, or think that it can’t get easier, I beg you to trust me when I say that it can. Eight sometimes-excruciating years later, I am here to honestly say that it can. The hardest years led me to many wrongs but also to the right “happy pills,” as my family has become accustomed to calling them, the endless patience and support of wonderful therapists, friends and family, a previously non-existent degree of accountability, and my dog Tubs, who was presumably emotionally-damaged in a past life and is consequently wonderfully-clingy.
I would’ve been as skeptical as you may be if I had read this a few years ago. I would’ve laughed or cried, maybe even closed the window on my computer before reaching the end. But if my voice can travel through a cold glass screen and capture the attention of even one person who decides to trust me, this will be worth it. Depression lives in all of our worlds, however directly we encounter it. It is everyone’s hero and everyone’s nemesis. It offers our world the most wonderful, loving of people and takes them away from us in the same breath. It is written across the forehead of America’s child. It lives in the mind of that troubled kid from that tiny, decrepit town with that dysfunctional family just as it does in that girl from Connecticut with a perfectly imperfect, however wildly different, nuclear family. I still wonder, from time to time, how I became so twisted in its grip. I still wonder why the flashing lights and unfamiliar faces, the cold sterile walls, the monitors, the leather chairs, and the gray skies with no sun to speak of, became my world.
And some people just can’t hold on and it kills me but I know that. I know that so, so well with no judgment and endless empathy. And that’s a reality I have had to face in the last few years. I’m nostalgic now for times I never had; those t-ball games, ice cream trucks, and ski trips I see myself in in my family photo albums. An ominous “something” I so couldn’t understand at that age but that grew and grew inside me, preventing me from truly living. I lacked the sheer ability or energy to even fabricate in my mind any sort of conception of what those times could have or should have felt like, until recently. My world was once gray and this was just my normal. I didn’t understand what life through different eyes could have been like. But I am among the fortunate ones who hung in there long enough to find out. And I hope that you will be too because you too, are a fighter.
Middlebury College, ‘14