ETA: The events of Richmond happened the weekend before Thanksgiving 2011. During that weekend, I kept a diary, already wanting to write about all the things I’d seen and my perceived triumph over my depression, and the story about the pipeline comes from those pages. I never finished the original post; my depression wasn’t as conquered as I’d thought, and writing about such a positive experience became painful when I couldn’t recreate it to save myself again. I’ve come back to this draft again and again over the years, adding to it, clearing up details, hunting for the pictures, writing about what happened after. I’d often stop writing mid-sentence and avoid this post for months. For perspective, the last time I opened this draft to work on it was 7 months ago. For safety’s sake, I’m going to put a trigger-warning on here for the second half of this post for depression, thoughts of suicide, and roofies. So much for my happy, affirming post about defeating my depression during a field trip.
I’m woken abruptly at 4, when my bed-mate for the night literally crashes onto the mattress beside me. The day before had been a disaster and I fall back asleep thinking uncharitable thoughts toward her. I wake up again half an hour later by the volume of her snoring. More uncharitable thoughts. I’m not sure how or when I fall back asleep, except that the next thing I know, my 7 AM alarm is going off and I’m staring into the surprised-to-be-awake eyes of my other room-mate, J., in the next bed. I silence my phone quickly and without a word, we get ready for the day, dancing around each other in the early morning light. Our room is near the top floor, and from here I can see the sunrise reflected on the river. Briefly, despite the linger aftertaste of yesterday’s meltdown and the lingering weariness from swimming against the undertow of depression and the fear that today will be the same…, I feel a flicker of optimism.
One of the teachers is forming a morning tour of the pipe-line along the James River for the people who wake up early enough. We are definitely up early enough. Dressed, J. and I hunt down a diner; the nearest one is six blocks away – the 3rd Street Diner – but the walk is worth it if it means avoiding the outrageous prices in the hotel restaurant.
Richmond is a ghost town at 7 in the morning. A blue sky overhead and bright sunlight make the silence startling and surreal, as though we’re walking into the set of a zombie movie right before everything goes to hell. A single rain boot, child-sized, lies alone on the corner of a cross walk. I feel both solemn and excited about the day, as though yesterday was a terrible aberration and the dawn has brought with it the strange magic of potential. I’m trying to trust in that magic, cling to it with both hands and wash myself of this disease with it. My humiliation over how I behaved yesterday makes my grip on it slippery, though. Still, I walk and I hope and I focus on the moment and J., whose mere presence helps remind me that I’m not alone in this strange, silent world.
We barely see another car until we reach the diner, where a woman in fishnets jumps out of a cab and heads inside. She must be getting off…work, we tell each other with amusement. It’s still too early for us to be judgmental and the promise of coffee makes me extra gracious to my fellow humans. But really, who else would wear fishnet stockings in November?
With a serious bacon-jones, we jaywalk our way to the corner door. We step inside. We enter the Twilight Zone.
At least, I think it’s the Twilight Zone. Or maybe the Twilight Zone’s less popular, younger sibling, the Early Morning Zone, which may be a less catchy moniker but is just as jarring to the senses. Regardless of the Why’s and How’s and What-The-Hell’s, one thing is immediately clear: this is not a diner. This is a bar, that just happens to serve food. Or maybe this is what Virginians think diners are, and that’s one of the reasons they think us Northern folk are Godless heathens, with our proliferate number of dinners. It would explain why the waitresses are in fishnet stockings and booty-shorts. In Virginia, diners = dens of sin. Well, as long as the coffee is good and they have sausages….
The woman we saw leaving the cab outside? She’s starting her shift. Another waitress – this one in hot-pink fishnet stockings and a corset – brings the people in the booth next to us a tray of beers and orange juice before bringing us our coffees and water. There are flyers for poker nights and game nights and free beer nights hanging right above a breakfast buffet filled with hot scrambled eggs and grits.
For the first few minutes, J. and I stare at each other, at the waitresses, at the building itself, while we wait for the caffeine to kick in. We stare because this can’t be real and coffee is the only sure way to wake us from this strange dream. We’re not waking up, though, and a bunch of grizzled men who vaguely resemble the guys from ZZ-Top descend from the second floor, where and all-night poker game has just wrapped up. We decide to just roll with it. We talk about art as we eat, and make up stories about aesthetic choices – I remember talking about painting a whole city sky-blue so that on clear days, all you would see were the windows hanging suspended from nothing, with people looking out of them from an open sky. We text another friend who’s still at the hotel, taunting him with the waitresses’ hotness and the abundance of booty-shorts.
We finish our meal just in time to meet the morning tour group at the hotel. As we’re walking back, we meet one of our teachers. The tour is canceled; we would have been the only ones going. For a minute we’re disappointed. J. suggests looking for the pipe-line ourselves, and after a minute of telling my emerging depression where to shove it, I agree.
We wander through a park at first, enjoying the warmth of the rising sun and the perfect stillness of the morning. The only sounds are our voices and the rushing of the river. There’s a tranquility here that makes me forget.
I forget how much time we spend at the park, looking at the water. It could be 10 minutes, it could be 30. When we leave, I feel the excitement I was missing yesterday and the anticipation of adventure. It’s a lengthy walk, but we find the path down to the pipe-line easily enough, following the bike trail and park paths the city has built along its’ waterfront, passing by industrial design and overgrown rock face.
We look in windows and through holes in walls. We do as much urban exploring as we can get away with. We pretend we’re statues.
We make grandiose plans for masked balls in abandoned warehouses.
We have fun.
When we get to the pipe-line itself, I feel ready for anything. It’s a narrow path, where we’re literally on the pipe-line, and only parts of it have rails to hold to or flat grates to walk across. For long stretches, there’s only the concrete cylinder under our feet and the water and rocks on either side of us. It’s exhilarating.
Where there’s patches of beach or rock, we hope off and explore. There’s an abundance of graffiti and J. and I take more pictures than we know what to do with. It’s a shame that no one else is here with us to see how amazing it is…but the fact that we’re the only ones seeing it this morning makes it immeasurably special to me.
We see a couple other people – a jogger and, impossibly, a man on a bike – but aside from the song and dance of moving out of each others ways, they seem to understand the need for solitude. And surely, they have to know, don’t they? I mean, they’re here too!
We reach a spot where the rocks become large enough to walk across. Then they become boulders out in the river. And safety be damned, the traction of my shoes be damned, I have to be there.
One shaky step. Another. J. is there, holding out a hand to steady me when a surge of icy water rushes over my shoe. We’re laughing. We are so stupid. It’s cold and we’re alone and there’s rushing water and sharp rocks all around us and –
– it’s the greatest thing ever.
We make it maybe a third of the way out into the river before there’s nowhere further to go. We see more boulders under the water – under just a few inches of clear, cold, relentless water that tries to pull me away every time the toe of my shoe touches it – that we could theoretically hop across if and when the water level dropped. It’s obvious that others have done it before.
A third of the way is enough, though. I’m standing there, with this impossibly bright sun shining down on me from the clearest sky I’ve seen in years, while the river rages and thrashes around me. But I’m safe right here. I could stay on these huge hunks of geological debris, plant myself deep in a crevice like one of the trees I see, popping up unexpectedly up and down the waters’ horizon. They survive. I can do that too.
My cheeks hurt from smiling as we make our way back to the pipeline. We make our way to the end of the line, then cross the bridge over the river to walk the nature trail there. It’s all beautiful. My feet are oblivious to everything I’m doing to them, as eager as the rest of me to see what else is there. Because we just saw magic. And now we want to see if there’s more hiding around the corner.
The bubble bursts eventually. The clock strikes midnight. The spell ends. Our friends call us back to the hotel to pack up and check out. Time goes way too fast after that, but I’m not sorry for it. Nothing can top the morning (though a part of me wants to try), and I’m ready for the drive back to Baltimore. We visit an art gallery and a museum. The joy and exhilaration aren’t the same, but they’ve equalized me, giving me enough of a jolt that I feel normal again: introverted but still invested, an outsider looking in but not unhappy about it…
We get back to school late, and I get back to the safe familiarity of my room ever later. This too is something I need. To take the lingering power of my experience on the river and disperse it here. I fall asleep talking or typing, I think, telling people who weren’t there how great my day had been. Sharing the joy that my depression, that foul whirlpool of muck that had nearly drowned me the day before, and been roundly trounced. I couldn’t believe it.
And here’s where the shit hits the fan.
In hindsight, I shouldn’t have believed it.
In another week, the depression was back, worse than ever. I ignored the intensity of it and went to a cast mates’ party, looking to cheer myself up. I was careless and too trusting, and someone slipped something in my drink that had me throwing up and blacking out all night. I’ was incredibly lucky and called my brother to take me home before anything worse happened. I spent the rest of the weekend recovering, and for weeks after, I piled excessive guilt and shame on top of the depression whose depth I continued to underestimate until I was free of it. I didn’t realize until nearly six months later exactly how depressed I was and for how long.
In the meanwhile, I continued what had become my instinctual habit of hiding the soul deep sadness under a prolific amount of writing and school work, pepping myself up with coffee and alcohol and pastries almost every day to stay functioning. I didn’t even realize what I was doing. It got better in some ways after the party.
I cut out alcohol until I could trust myself to not use it as a crutch again. I kept a number for the suicide hotline next to my bed in case of emergencies, taped to a little chalkboard I hung on my wall with a Sarah Williams quote: “I have loved the stars too fondly to be fearful of the night.” I turned to the internet as my new crutch, interacting with both friends and strangers, using their easy communication to remind me that life is worth living. Sometimes I logged onto Twitter just to see people talking to each other, to know that there were other people on the same Earth I lived on. I was one of them, one with them, and if I asked one of them to talk to me, to help me, to hold my hand in the dark, they would be there. I did this often, never divulging why I’d reached out, why I’d responded so quickly to their reaching out. None of them knew what I was going through or that they were saving me with their humor and kindness and friendliness.
I started reading the Bloggess, because my friends told me she’s funny and I was trying to learn to laugh again. I laughed, but I also saw her posts about her own battle with depression. And she said something wonderful.
In high school, all I’d had to keep myself steady were the words of my grandmother, who’d suffer from untreated manic depression and a plethora of anxiety disorders all her life. “Madness is a choice,” she’d say. “Choose sanity.” And I understood immediately, intrinsically, what she meant. She didn’t mean that I could wake up one day, say “I’m normal and sane! La dee da!” She was a brilliant nurse and she knew that some illnesses never went away. But even damaged and sick, you could choose how you felt about it. You could choose how to respond to the obstacles that illness put in front of you. And yes, those choices were hard. It’s so hard to wake up, in pain and unsure about every facet of your very existence, and still say “I’m going to do the best that I can and enjoy that right now I’m alive in a world where there’s still so much beauty if I just look for.”
It’s hard, but I did it. I still do it.
But something about “Depression Lies” lifted another weight off my shoulders. Yes, I could choose to be sane, but in choosing sanity I was also choosing truth. My truth. I was choosing to be the person I would’ve been without the illness.
Not long after expanding my list of emergency mantras by one, the bottom suddenly dropped out. I freaked out. I sank. I succumbed.
Even at the time, I had no idea what had triggered me, but all I could do was cry and hit myself and think about how worthless my entire life had become. And I was terrified because these thoughts and feelings were completely anathema to the life I’d been living even a few hours ago. For an hour that felt like days, I lay on my bed feeling frantic and panicked and confused. I waffled, holding the hotline card, trying to figure out if I needed it yet, or if there was still a chance I could get myself under control. I looked at pictures of myself online, looking at happy moments like Richmond, when I’d won. I thought about messaging one of my many night-owl friends, any one of whom would stay up with me all night if I needed them. I knew that there were people who cared, who would want to help me. And I felt ashamed for thinking of calling and inconveniencing them.
Then I started to think about the scissors that were sitting in my desk drawer. I imagined what it would look like – what it would feel like – if I pressed the blade into my wrist. Something in me snapped back into focus at that. I’d never been suicidal before. Even at my worst, my Roman-Catholic bred abhorrence of suicide had always been too huge to let me even think about it. And yet here I was, thinking about it. Planning it. I looked at my wrists. I had two choices. I could find the strength to cross my room to the drawer with the scissors, or I could go downstairs, where I could hear my brother still moving around. Staying put and suffering on my bed was no longer tenable. I struggled against the temptation of the scissors. I fought to gather enough strength to go downstairs. I thought of my mantras. Depression Lies. Choose Sanity. Depression Lies. Choose Sanity. I imagined those words of power writing themselves across every inch of my skin like wards, casting out the demon of my depression like a bath of holy water. Like I was back on the river, bathing in sunlight and hope. I got out of bed and I stumbled downstairs.
Mom and Matt were both still awake. For over an hour, they held me until I was calm, until I could trust myself to go back to bed. I had Mom hide the scissors and she stayed with me until I fell asleep.
I lived in that pit starting in August of 2011 and didn’t climb all the way out of it until April 2012. It was only then I was able to see myself clearly. Since then, I’ve gotten better at managing my depression. I’m preemptive when I feel a funk coming. I exercise. I talk to people about it before the shame tries to settle in me. I remember the words of all the people who have stood in my shoes and survived. I choose sanity. I remember that depression lies. I instill in myself the knowledge that when I’m feeling low, I may not be okay just then, but someday I will be. I have to carry on to get to that day. And when I start doubting that that day will come, I think about all the beautiful things. I think about the creek that ran behind the house I grew up in and the summers I spent playing in it. I remember road trips with my Mom and think about where we might go in the future. I think about movies I want to see and board games with friends and inside jokes and a million little, silly, but so very important things I want to do, from having Indian cuisine on the weekend to someday publishing my own book. I remember standing in the sun, in the middle of a river with water rushing past me and I remember the way it made me feel. That moment existed and I treat my disease by remembering that I have to keep living for the next one.