content warning: mental illness, suicide
Headlights bloom and fade, and salty tears glisten against my cheeks. As each light passes, I stare it down, hoping it’s the end of my tunnel. But on this warm summer night, the cars continue to flee. As I sit on the damp grass beside the road, I can feel her hand methodically stroking my back, hear his soft breathing as he drifts in and out of sleep. She whispers sweet nothings in a soothing tone, but it’s not enough to make placate my thoughts. While the presence of these two good friends alone is more than I could’ve asked for, no other being is a match for my own subconscious.
Run, my head demands.
No, my heart protests. It’s not a fair fight. A hand clenches my forearm, pulling me back down to a seated position. Sadness encapsulates me, sloshing around in what feels to be a hollow core, with an occasional glimpse of terrified breaking through the surface – the only indication that this is not who I am, that the lack of serotonin in my brain is manipulating my mind.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Her voice is kind.
Away, I think.
Over the next six months, the fall semester of my sophomore year, Leaving became more of a certainty. Trying to not be constantly exhausted by my depression was what the vast majority of my emotional energy was, and still is, committed to. It was, and remains to be, the most difficult part of being me. However, my personal experience with depression is riddled with entrapping comfort, in which suddenly the dark cloud constantly hovering above is my friend, and if I don’t have that, what do I have? And so some days I don’t fight the urge to lay wrapped in the security of my blankets all day. Some days, I let my sadness spill from my heart willingly, submerging both myself and any hope of conventional productivity for the day. Other days, I fight. With anchors around my ankles, I sprint towards the elusive feeling of happiness that I know lies just beyond my cloud. Occasionally, I succeed. For a little, that is.
Over time my depression has evolved, and I have grown with it – sometimes in ways that allow me to manage it better and sometimes not. But during this period of my life it was new, and despite my weekly therapy visits and daily medication, my mind was constantly clouded by this haze that twisted my perception of reality. I couldn’t fathom a situation in which I would be happy, and therefore I couldn’t fathom a life in which I wouldn’t end up taking my own.
This wasn’t necessarily a scary thought until the nights it would become an imminent possibility. Usually, it was just a fact that I carried with me, hidden beneath my blank stares. I knew that I was already a liability to my friends (when I could remember that I had any, a side effect that continues to only be solved by keeping a list on my phone naming them all) on the nights that were bad, and I couldn’t possibly justify forcing them to carry that knowledge with them as well. So in my somewhat deluded mental state, I did what I believed any rational person who thinks they’re going to die does: I wrote a will. Several wills to be exact, sprinkled throughout my journals, each of them apologizing to the people I care about and leaving them a piece of memorabilia that I hoped would ease their grief. What I didn’t realize was that these gifts are insignificant in comparison to my continued existence.
The beginning of sophomore spring my depression came to another climax. I was in the same physical location as before with the same two people, but this time I had run. In overalls and a flannel, I wandered along the shoulders of snowy roads, thinking about how much I did not want to remain on this Earth, how much relief I would feel, and most pressingly, how much relief others would feel if I was gone. It’s amazing how isolated the chemicals in my brain can make me feel, how lonely I imagine I am despite knowing that the two people I love the most will undoubtedly remain by my side.
The return to my friends went, in my perspective, poorly.
“You know what it makes us think when you disappear like that.” Her words were sharp and angry but her voice was cracking. He was silent. I was taken aback, hurt. But there we were, all of us nearly suffocating under the weight of my mental health. There we were, all trying to keep me afloat and stay afloat in the process. There we were.
I later discussed the first warm summer night with her. She told me that when I finally calmed down and we were all going to bed, he whispered “good job” to her. It stung, hearing those words, imaging this alternative version of events in which my narrative was not the most pressing. But it’s true, in a situation in which my life was forced upon their realm of responsibility, they did a good job.
I will never fully understand the sacrifices those close to me have made for my mental health. They are the unsung heroes that embarked on this journey of trying to navigate my mental health with me, and their steadfast support is the reason I’m able to share my experiences and their important role in them. My depression has pulled on our friendship and accumulated baggage in ways that have made our relationship difficult at times and are often hard to acknowledge. I am not a burden, but there is significant effort being put forth by those close to me that needs to be recognized, because at the end of the day, no one has my back, arms, toes, lungs, heart, head, soul like they do.
A year goes by, and we’re back in the same location. I’m doing surprisingly okay for being in a place that has held my lowest lows. But he’s not. He shares that he’s been having similar experiences to me, that he’s also thought about Leaving. I feel immense sadness that someone who has helped me cope with my mental illness now has to live through it himself. I feel grateful that I can be there for him, but I also know how hard it is to help someone who may not want it.
Though other peoples’ battles will not be the same as my own, my experiences have made me calmer when trying to help others. Perhaps I see too much of myself in them. But I think it’s that I’ve made peace with mental health and the effects it has on people. I can see past the stigmatization of mental illness and see their fear, their pain. I understand the loneliness, the isolation that some of us can’t seem to claw away. I recognize the desire for support, but know that often someone else’s presence doesn’t really change anything. I’ve been there. It’s okay if you’re there too.
Everyday is work.
We lug around weights as we fight demons. Sometimes, if we take care of ourselves, the weight lessens a little. Sometimes, people who love us help us carry the weight. Sometimes, we take on a little extra weight to help someone we care about. There is no shortage of weights to be carried or battles to be won, only a shortage of empathy for those who do the carrying.