By the time I was twenty-eight, I had defended my dissertation, earned my doctorate, and agreed to a tenure-track faculty position across the country from where I grew up. I am very, very proud of these facts. They mean that I did something quite hard at a younger age than most. They mean that I am very, very good at what I do. These are facts that even at my darkest I’ll be able to call up and hold onto as real. I have also suffered immensely under the cross of mental illness. My life has threatened to splinter apart from it. This is also real, also true, and I don’t care who knows this about me. My colleagues have been nothing but supportive, for which I am both lucky and blessed, and if I know one thing about suffering, it is this: keeping it a secret makes it worse.
My mind is good and my mind is wounded. I can be both. One does not invalidate the other. There is a part of me that loves the apparent contradiction of a trustworthy and untrustworthy mind. Take that, Gnosticism and René Descartes.
There is more than one truth of mine that gathers in a complexity like this.
One of the symptoms of depression and anxiety is a kind of hyper-attention to a single truth. The truth of knowing that a thing can be hurtful or unstable, or that life is profoundly sad. We all know things like this. The one who suffers knows only this. It’s not that people with mental illness believe lies, though some do. It is much more that someone is unable to receive any other truth.
There is no “bright side.” There is no “safety.” Not for the person whose world has narrowed to darkness or danger. And they (we) cannot be argued out of it. What others say has very little purchase. Because the person who does knows nothing but danger does not think that safety exists at all. They’re not living in an alternate reality; they’re living in a single aspect of the truth. The world is very unsafe. Especially in a panic, the one truth is literally all they can think of.
I remember being able to think of nothing else but my own death. I remember this terrible repetition, this single fixation. And it made sense. It felt entirely logical, appeared intellectually and emotionally coherent. I was abused, and I never said anything, and no one knew. That is terribly sad. That is a harsh reality that makes living hard. It was easier, in a way, to think of death. It meant I could concentrate on my loss instead of a life lived through loss.The mind tries to preserve itself.
The more I focus on how to live these days, the more challenging it becomes to come to terms with my losses. It is a kind of mourning. A grief over what gave out and gave in. All those many things.
I love my parents. I have never once doubted that they love me. They said so, and they tried to show me so. And still they didn’t notice this dark secret. They struggled to assist a terribly shy and emotional child. They didn’t know about mental illness. Even so, it means everything to me that they were at my dissertation defense, that they saw me do what I am very good at doing. They wanted to be there. My sister was there too. Because they love me. They still dragged me to hospitals, struggled to notice year after year of trauma. They watched much of it. It hurts. Their care and my horror can both be true even if none of us understand.
My mother sometimes held me. Eventually I didn’t want hugs at all.
It’s not like I never assisted in my collapse. I have always have a hard time receiving affection, and being nudged to go hug and kiss my relatives felt like torture. Encouraging me to go do the thing I hated made me more afraid of it. I found what praise I received intolerable. It’s an unfortunate mix: parents who were not quite aware of certain hurts, and my own inability to feel comforted. Each assists the pain of the other. Even recently, my dad said he’s proud of every little thing his children do. I grumbled at the phone and felt the weight of two truths: that he is and always has been proud, and that he never expressed it in a way I understood. In a further prism, he didn’t know that I didn’t understand and I never said so.
Could my mother predict how alienated I felt from her, from women, when she wanted me in a dress so badly? No. Why was it so very important to her? Why did I intuit from this that I’d never be pretty? I don’t freaking know.
And I love them. So fucking much. My mother helped school me into the talented learner that I am. She was almost always at my side. Or there was being able to talk religion with my dad. The times he assured me it’s okay to ask questions about faith. And my mother’s simple faith, so much wiser. The closeness we once had. I never felt close to either, though I know they felt close to me. I complicate the good things.
I care that they baptized me when I was born and dying. I care that they cared about that. What better gift to give a child but faith, even if only briefly? I lived, but no one forgot. The twelve weeks I wasn’t in the womb, the two-pound weight. The incredible survival. The uncertainty over what kind of life that would leave me.
My siblings helped me. Especially my sister. When I became very, very sick. She was there (except when she wasn’t, some part of me hisses), and she has carried me down staircases. Still I withdrew from everyone, including her, even in high school. I loved them and I love them and didn’t – and don’t – know how to love them. Not at all.
Yet I can be incredible at supporting others, listening. I can be very, very soft. Very nurturing and attentive to life. And I can vanish too. I tried to kill myself, after all.
I have known God, I have lost God. I don’t really understand my relationship with God right now. I have asked why we suffer, and refused to ask at all. I flourished in school and was still very lonely. I taught myself nearly half of high school, which is cool to say but was the worst. I have never trusted anyone with my body, and the one man I did repeated all the old hurts. Which is sad. There are memories I can’t stand. There are those I can’t live without. I didn’t really understand that I was smart until much later, and I never figured a kid as shy as me could grow up to be a great speaker.
Weirdly, I didn’t know I was funny. Dammit. I could’ve killed it in school.
On and on and on. My childhood was good; my childhood was awful. My family was wonderful; my family failed a lot. (They have always been good people.) It seems to me to be very difficult to hold these things together, and that each truth lives in me and I live in them – or I’m learning. I’m not sure I can be expected to put the fragments together. I’m not the one who holds the whole of me. That I know.
I am aware that I focus on the dark things as I struggle to trace the cracks in my heart. All are true and all are not everything.
I trust that there is time for mourning, always time. And time to live on.