This is what it feels like to be held hostage by mental illness. The wooden floorboards covering my tiny, Brooklyn apartment are suddenly replaced by sludge. This mud strangles my ability to move; I feel terrified and confused. There can be doors and windows (openings) all around me and yet, I feel like I cannot move. Like I cannot leave. I am trapped.
Two and a half years ago, I did something I never thought I would: I got married. As a queer person, the government always taught me that these rights were not offered to me, so I loved many, but never took this step. On June 26th 2015, the United States legalized it, and one year later, I did it.
Little did I know I have been wedded to my mental illness for almost three decades. The problem is, I don’t remember ever saying yes to its proposal. But that is the problem with depression, it does not wait for a convenient time to lurk and lunge.
My spouse is patient, loving, kind. These are all adjectives one desires in a human, but my mental illness is none of these things. Instead, it is debilitating, suffocating, devious.
More recently, I have begun to feel the weight of my depression wrap around my limbs and cloud my brain. It is like a mistress I never pursued but keeps trying to get my attention. It is beyond blocking somebody’s phone number. And I certainly cannot apply for a restraining order. My mental illness finds me wherever I relocate, when I travel, when I am being intimate with my spouse, and when I am at work.
It is difficult to be in a healthy relationship while I feel this way. And this is something that needs to be talked about more. The balance or more specifically, the imbalance. Trying to survive with voices constantly telling me I am unworthy, ugly, dumb. I never realized I have been in an abusive relationship, one which causes me to cancel plans at the last minute with friends, which makes me appear extremely unreliable or flaky. This relationship severs the trust I have in others because I cannot fathom anyone wanting to be next to me, love me, or even like me. Depression is persistent.
When my spouse comes home from work, he asks me how my day went. What I often do not tell him is that there are days I barely survive. Panic attacks on the subway, flashbacks paralyzing my body, feeling such utter sadness that I spend hours thinking of ways to stop existing. Sometimes, self-harm.
Having depression and being depressed are two different experiences. Many of us have said in our lifetime: I wish I were dead. We have days where we want to climb back beneath our comforter and sleep away our melancholy. But it is important to note that depression is an illness. A disorder. It is not just a bad day. It is something I will live with for the rest of my life.
At sixteen, I was hospitalized for my first suicide attempt and my last attempt was just five years ago. I stopped eating, was unable to concentrate at work and began cutting myself again. Various therapists have helped me to find coping mechanisms to soften the scream of my depression: punching pillows, snapping rubber bands against my wrist, drawing lines on my arms with red markers, breathing. But I have been trying to cut myself out of my body for decades. It has never really felt like mine. I yearn for the day when I can look in the mirror and recognize my reflection. To truly like who I see staring back at me.
My mental illness never lets me forget it exists in me. When I find myself relaxing into the marriage I chose, my depression taps me on the shoulder and punches me in the face. It does everything it can to get my attention.
My last breakdown was fueled by too many endings. I have never been very good with change. My mental illness insists things remain the same; it likes routine. So, at thirty-four years old, I lost my mind (again). My family gathered around me, took me to the hospital and I remained there with my mistress, while my bones protruded from beneath my skin because my body would not allow me pleasures like eating or laughter.
My father visited each day, and when I was released, he stayed with me in my apartment, drove me to work, and became like medicine for me without the side-effects. He reminded me that even though I was in this toxic relationship with depression, there was love all around me trying to get in.
My parents just want me to be happy. This is what they say, and of course, what parent wouldn’t want that for their child. The problem is I learned the meaning of this word early on, yet I have a difficult time grasping what it looks like.
“You were such a happy child,” my mother once said. But here’s the thing. With all the technology we have, the ability to chat with people from all around the world, share pictures of what you ate, spend hours LIKEing your friends’ words and images, we really do not always know what is happening within. I can smile for hours, but underneath I am in pain. I am drowning. My smile has become an easy mask to wear. It lets my mistress follow me everywhere without others knowing. I sew that smile to my face, inserting laughter at appropriate times, and no one knows. Then, I go home, rip off the smile, place it on my dresser to wear tomorrow and my mental illness mistress takes over.
This is what it is like to be married to a person with mental illness. My spouse and I will be playing our favorite card game (Skip-Bo) and suddenly I will break down crying. Words will try to tip-toe down my tongue, past my lips, but my mental illness will garble them. At night, I will move to the couch because my anxiety is like a thick rope twisting around me, constricting my ability to breathe. My mental illness jumps on my chest; it weighs six-hundred pounds. Six hundred pounds of trauma. How can I possibly sleep? I will ask my spouse multiple times: why do you love me? I doubt everything. I try to run away. The cutting never stops.
The thing about this depression is I know it so well. It knew me before puberty, haunted me as my body started to change, watched as I had my first kiss, fell in love. And as I began to get older, my mental illness became like a bully. It whispered distractions to me. My mental illness became my drug dealer. My mental illness brought me into strangers’ homes and led me into miles of bad decisions. When I tried to get away from it, it always found a way to bring me back.
I took prescribed pills to quiet it’s voice. Unfortunately, it’s speech grew louder. I tried yoga to get back into my body, to own it again. My mental illness whispered words which reminded me all the times I gave it away. When I wash my skin, my depression throws dirt in my face to remind me how filthy I am.
This is all to say that I am still here. Amidst my bully, my mistress, this sadness, a constant STOP sign for living. I go to work; I teach the most incredible minds how to write, how to think about the various texts we are reading about. I meet students who share their own stories of depression and anxiety and I watch them survive and thrive each day.
My spouse and I go out. We experience parts of the city that still amaze us after so many years of living here. Sometimes being around others can feel like a salve. Other times, I cannot inhale. The crowds make me feel like I am stuck. The skyscrapers scrape me. I fear that I cannot live here anymore, in a city where it is difficult to find a space of solace, of silence, where I can carve out space not already overfilled.
To be in love while having mental illness is a constant confrontation. I fight with the doubt in my head. I try to just trust that my partner loves me, and even loves the mistress who tries to break us up. Over the years, my mental illness has caused me to lose so many lovers and friends. I have missed out on enormously nourishing friendships because I stopped trusting them. I couldn’t understand why they would want to be near me. I would explode and then relationships would end.
This is what it is like to be friends with a person with mental illness. We disappear. We cannot go to your parties. We construct conflicts to prove we are unworthy of friendship. We are moody. We are inconsistent. We love you and then flee.
When I got married, I thought my mistress would disappear. I’ve got this piece of paper now, I said to it. I am bound to another. Leave me alone. And it did for a while. My spouse and I played cards without the interruption of my mysterious emotions butting in. We went to parties. We stayed out late. We went dancing and had spontaneous adventures. But then, I could feel my depression start to crawl around me. Mental illness cannot be ignored; I have tried.
So, I remain. Each day, I check in with myself. I take steps that are slow and sometimes that stop me. I cancel plans, oftentimes at the last minute. I try my best to communicate with others why I am like this. There is more vocabulary around us which allows for exploration of mental illness.
It is a different experience for everyone. This is mine. I am just trying to survive in a body that keeps trying to push me off ledges and onto subway tracks. But I am still here, today; I will check in tomorrow to see how I am.