This is how I know it’s back.
That simple question. That simple description of how I’ve been acting.
This is how I know that I’ve been fighting it without realizing I’ve been fighting it. As soon as I recognize it’s here, I realize I’m tired and just want to give in to the gray heaviness and let it wrap me in its soft melancholy until it goes away. It always goes away, or rather, it has always gone away before.
The feeling is almost comforting in its familiarity. The first symptom I recognize is the physical hurt. My entire body hurts all the way through my bones and the ache in my bones radiates its weight out to the ends of my hair until I can barely lift my arms. I feel like I can’t sleep enough, no matter how long my head is on the pillow. When I’m lying in bed and not sleeping, I’m not kept awake by my brain’s incessant thoughts. There’s just the empty echo of sadness, unconnected to anything that’s actually going on.
I withdraw from social contact. The energy required to interact and socialize is lacking so I sit there, in the presence of people, sullen and absent, and even though I should be embarrassed by my behavior I don’t have the will to change it. This is when I fantasize the littlest occurrences into melodramatic episodes and when the smallest sounds irritate and stress my fragile mood. I often think about Edgar Allen Poe when I feel like this. I’d enhance this feeling a hundred times just to get close to his lifelong despair in order to write like he did. Or Sylvia Plath, although I’ve never had her suicidal tendencies (which, is at least one thing I have going for me). I try to write and channel the irrational emotions into something good. I feel like I should be able to write songs like Adele when I feel like this. It’s hardly fair that I should feel like this and not get anything out of it.
The first time it happened, I was 16. I enjoyed it, probably because I was a teenager and melodrama is pretty much the life blood of the teenage girl. I retreated into my head, discovering a continuing obsession with song lyrics, and a working understanding of poetry. Tori Amos put out her song “Spark” around this time and even though it was about her miscarriage from an unintended pregnancy, I felt like the pure emotion in her words, in her voice, and in the music was the perfect accompaniment to my teenage sorrows.
If the Divine master plan is perfection, maybe next I’ll give Judas a try.
It started because I spent an entire Saturday afternoon watching music videos on MTV. Video after video of perfect girls gyrating and dancing and capturing male attention. Why didn’t I look that? Video after video pushing further and further into my brain that I didn’t look right and that all my years of insecurity were dead on. These skinny girls with their low rise jeans and short t-shirts. That’s what I was supposed to look like.
I decided I just wouldn’t eat. Simple plan.
I ate as little as I possibly could without attracting attention. I guess all those stupid school reports about eating disorders had paid off because I made a conscious effort not to exercise too much. Anorexia is characterized not just by not eating, but also by obsessive physical activity. I convinced myself that it wasn’t bad if I only did half of those. But not eating brought on excruciating stomach aches and I had to ditch that plan.
It lasted about a month, this first bout. The weirdest thing was that I truly enjoyed it. I ran across a quote from Victor Hugo reading, “Melancholy is the joy of being sad.” Nothing could sum up the odd enjoyment I found in that month better than that quote. I’ve never been able to recapture that exact feeling again. Maybe it was because I didn’t have alcohol to use as a crutch; maybe it’s like the first hit of a new drug and every subsequent high is never the same.
I’ve been thinking back to the moment when my melancholy lifted that first time. I wonder what I thought about it. I just remember realizing that it was gone and that I felt good that it was gone, despite my twisted enjoyment of it. I wonder if I thought it would ever come back.
Of course it came back. It was my freshman year of college, towards the end of the first semester. I’d never been away from home before and hadn’t had to make new friends since Kindergarten. It’s not surprising, or uncommon, for it to arise in those circumstances. Luckily, I had also recently discovered the magical properties of Keystone Light. Ah, Keystone Light and it’s $10/30 rack price tag. It took away my innate shyness and made me forget my anxieties.
I’m trying to drink away the part of the day that I cannot sleep away.
Needless to say, my first semester of college was a disaster. But I was 18, young, stupid, and on my own for the first time without anyone making me be the responsible good girl that I’d always been. So, I had a built in excuse.
I had no notions of trying to defend against it at this point. Even though I’d recognize it after it was gone, I never felt the threat of it enough to try and change myself and the way I reacted to things. It’s inevitable, really, that I should let myself fall victim to it.
Three years later, I recognized that I spent most of my summer under that intoxicating dark spell. I didn’t see it until it was gone and I had very real consequences to face from letting myself get swept in its riptide. This was the first time the specter of those magical little Happy Pills was raised. Everything in me rebelled, hard, at that easily, simple solution. I didn’t want something be really wrong with me. I wanted to fight it and win by myself.
Over the next several years, I learned that I could fight it and win. But only when I saw it coming. I found things that lifted my mood – forcing myself to socialize with the right friends, running, redirecting my thought patterns, and talking about my feelings (the hardest thing I have to do in life, for reals). I didn’t always win, but I never lapsed into the months long melancholy like I had before.
Life has a way of throwing things at you that you can’t defend against. I slowly started to recognize the signs. Things that were out of my control, things that made me not want to eat (or, eat and eat and eat just to throw up everything I had eaten), and things that spiraled before I could redirect my thoughts were the main culprits. But even when I saw it coming, the fight was often too exhausting and I’d feel like I’d fought it too many times.
I yell and tell it that it’s not my friend, I tear it down, I tear it down, and then it’s born again.
Life marches on and over the last couple years I’ve experienced some pretty intense life changing experiences. And despite my tendency to lean on beer to dull some of my emotions, I felt like I had a good grip on my thought patterns. I really felt like I had it all under control and that the new saner, more rational version of myself was going to handle all of life’s challenges and blithely move past them.
So silly, so naive. But I really believed this and let my guard down. I was blithely unaware that I’d failed to defend against it until last night.
I should have seen it coming. The way I’ve been feeling about myself and the way I’ve been not talking about my pesky feelings. The life stuff that has happened recently. It was stupid not to see it coming.
I should have recognized it last night before it was so succinctly pointed out to me. Lost in the world of a book and unwilling to leave because reading the words on those pages, my bones didn’t ache and I wasn’t on the verge of tears about something I couldn’t put into words.
And all I can do is read a book to stay awake, and it rips my life away, but it’s a great escape.
As naïve and stupid as I feel for not seeing it coming, I feel like I have changed and I have got a better grasp on this than I used to. I just have to get past the tiredness. Last night, I felt like I’d been fighting this for months without realizing it and it felt good to just give in. I felt like I was trying so hard to be good at so many things – work, love, friendships, family, reading, writing, running, everything – and last night I felt like I’d utterly failed at all of it. Last night, I wanted to take a break from fighting, from trying so hard and feeling like I was failing so miserably.
I’ve never been able to explain what’s wrong when I’m asked that question.
There’s no words, there’s just feelings that I want to fight back and beat down.