My brain still wants me dead.
And it reminds me as much in no uncertain terms whenever I’m exhausted and the most basic demands of life feel insurmountable. When burnout struck earlier this year, I went from functional despite current limitations to a barely sentient burning body in bed within a few hours.
Because the kind of depression I have is chronic, I long ago accepted I’d always walk hand in hand with darkness.
I learned how to keep myself out of harm’s way and remain vigilant for potential triggers; I even devised silly ways to outsmart my brain when it misfires. Little by little, I trained myself to push through discomfort until I come through the other side, regardless of how long it takes.
Sometimes, I also focus on writing in another language, a task that can sometimes be so demanding it leaves no room for anything else. But once I’m plugged into that kind of work, it gets so detailed and technical it teleports me into another dimension.
This is how I’ve been coping since I recovered my writing voice last summer after it went missing for five years and annihilated my livelihood.
It is the kind of self-discipline I’ve had to come up with on my own because I was always too cash-strapped to afford therapy and had no one to lean on.
Until another human stepped forward.
After five years single-handedly wrestling with depression, I became invisible as a woman, as a professional, even as a wife.
I wasn’t prepared for anyone to understand or be interested in quite how broken or sad I was, much less offer a few words of comfort. While I make a point of tackling the unspeakable to chip away at mental health stigma, my goal has always been to help the one other human feel less alone. By turning depression inside out, I seek to dispel the shame that prevents many of us from speaking up for fear of being judged as weak.
If I offer my own life up for inspection, it is in the spirit of service. That it’s also how I earn a living at the moment is coincidental: It’s the material I have so it’s the material I use. Doing this work is part of adapting to new parameters like a career in pieces, isolation, and hardship.
In short, I try and make the most of what I’ve got.
It’s no secret I’ve been going it alone. Because my illness catapulted my household into hardship, it soon became the source of much resentment. Once I finally accepted I could count on no one but myself and got to work, I got used to it. Because we humans are endlessly adaptable creatures. Even with a dented brain like mine, survival is instinctive.
Content with making steady — albeit slow — progress, I had settled for survival. Although I yearned to be fully alive again, it was important to remain honest and realistic about what I could achieve without help. But when help turned up, made itself known, and pledged to stick with me, of course it never occurred to me to question it.
I entrusted another human with the contents of my heart and head, much as I do the page on a daily basis only the page doesn’t interact.
The page doesn’t make promises. The page doesn’t pledge to help me navigate complex and harrowing circumstances. The page doesn’t tell me to hang on to it for dear life even though I do by default.
The page doesn’t care.
Immutable and silent, the page just is, a neutral repository of thoughts, recollections, and hopes.
The need to connect with others is innate.
Even when isolation becomes your default, that need never goes away. I used to be the friendly, sunny type a former colleague once described as capable of socializing with a lawnmower. But major depressive disorder caused me to batten down the hatches. Because this is how I’m wired, I naturally still extend the hand of friendship toward others but I don’t let anyone in, not really.
Surviving the last five years has been contingent on keeping my guard up and developing a protective shield. I had to detach from my marriage so it wouldn’t become the straw that broke the camel’s back. I had to set grief aside when my best friend died so I wouldn’t sink. I had to take action rather than mope when my stepmom’s stage 4 cancer diagnosis hit.
Without this ability to compartmentalize, I’d have died by my own hand a long time ago.
When a human connection based on mutual curiosity and a shared desire for support happened, I unpacked all this and more besides.
What you read is what you get, I’m one and the same in person and in print. The only difference is that personal interactions tend to get, well, more personal.
Meanwhile, essay writing veers toward the universal.
Meeting another person who, like me, was determined to honor our shared humanity, no matter how gruesome, was nothing short of empowering.
I was no longer alone. What’s more, I was once again ready to take on the world.
As long as I trusted someone else cared, I soared and thrived against all odds.
I ended up writing pieces that felt entirely dictated by some outer force I came to refer to as the muse, not a nebulous metaphor but that fellow human, an actual person made of flesh and bones.
Although I have been writing my entire life, I had never experienced such intellectual symbiosis. This meeting of the minds created some force bigger than the sum of its parts, and for a while, it gave us both life and kept us going.
From one day to the next, the warm, soothing presence in the background morphed into a blizzard that chilled my bones and violently pushed me away.
Having confessed one of my worst fears was abandonment, I was at a loss to process what was happening or indeed why. I still don’t understand and likely never will.
Granted, I can be intense, so can that other human. Our respective intensities matched and meshed, our grasshopper minds fed off each other. But when I looked to myself for answers that might explain this sudden rejection, I found none despite being reasonably self-aware.
After a few days stuck in an impasse, my brain took it upon itself to remind me how unsuited I was to this cutthroat life and to human exchanges in general. This nefarious thinking is the work of depression but it was such a stark contrast with what had come before that I lost my balance and burnout happened.
I crashed and fell head first into the rabbit hole.
The strength, courage, hope, and defiance this extraordinary connection yielded are gone.
Everywhere I look, there are ghosts, there is rubble, there is nothing left where everything once stood, albeit briefly.
Only unspeakable, unstoppable pain unlikely to let up until I accept once more that we can only ever rely on ourselves. It’s too soon though, I’m still reeling from the shock and pushing back against an inner monologue urging me to give up and surrender even though at least one other human has been hell-bent on preventing this from happening for months now.
And they keep showing up, day after day.
The prospect of a life devoid of human warmth or intellectual connection never appealed to me and still doesn’t.
And why should I even co-opt a bleak and ungenerous philosophy that paints loneliness and isolation as an inevitability when I’ve been blessed to experience the near-miraculous life-affirming power of friendship between two people who care deeply about each other?
And yet, we humans are nothing.
But to ourselves, we are everything, and we can’t expect another being to make up for our own shortcomings or be there for us if we aren’t first prepared to help ourselves.
People will come in and out of your life but you will always remain your best and most dependable ally.