Saturday, December 8, 2012

Girl Interrupted

Christmas time is finally here! It is the season of reflection (come to think of it, when is it not for me?). I have been thinking about my life and a question came to mind: if I were to write my autobiography right now, would there be a grand narrative? Would there be a unified plot, or would there be a whole bunch of disconnected episodes with nothing in common but the lone heroine? Would she even be a unified identity? Would she be the protagonist or the antagonist? A heroine, femme fatale, a knave, or the antichrist? One thing I can say in the affirmative: my life was certainly anything but dull, and I have made special effort to make it as chaotic as it can be. Any time it all starts to make sense, I manage to throw a wrench in it and begin a new chapter (or a new book even) in search of a better narrative. Perhaps, I am drawn to 19th Century literature because there always is a grand narrative, and it is always grand indeed: amazing things happen to amazing people, and they always come out wiser, stronger, happier. My parents have always believed I was meant for big things, great deeds, and significant discoveries. I have been waiting all my life for something amazing to happen to me, for the Jamesian beast to jump out of the jungle. Yet I am 37 years old and nothing has happened, and, I'm afraid, nothing ever will. I have accomplished nothing. Lately the thought has been giving me much trouble, and it is depressing me.

Now, I don't mean it lightheartedly. The time has come to admit that I am prone to depression. I often find myself sucked into the black hole, where I tend to remain for quite some time until something jolts me out of it. The worst of it is that it is never a gradual descent but rather a sudden fall, a snap, a blink of an eye: one minute I am counting my blessings, enjoying the euphoria, my so-called life; and the next, I feel my life is over, I wasted it away, wasted my potential, thrown it all away, burned all the bridges, and there is nothing to live for any longer. Perhaps, there is a progression from my state of happiness to that feeling of desperation, despondency, and alienation, but I am incapable of recognizing when I begin this downward spiral until I'm at the very bottom. In fact, sometimes I mistake depression for euphoria until the bubble finally bursts.

I guess I have always been afflicted. As far as I can remember, starting with grade school, I experienced these dark episodes. Some of the highlights from my memory bank date back to 3rd grade, when I announced to my homeroom teacher I was going to the restroom to hang myself on my shoelaces. Then there was the time in high school when I was "invited" to see the school therapist and ended up telling her I sometimes felt like shooting people. Come on! How can anyone take this kind of questioning seriously? My prank did not end well: they wouldn't let me out of the office without parental supervision. At other times, I would find myself sitting on top of a subway tunnel listening to Nine Inch Nails, brooding, and watching the trains go by until some driver finally stopped the train and chased me off. Then, of course, there were countless nights of uncontrollable weeping and running away, most memorably to Florida. But those were all quite benign.

The bouts of depressing moods were interjected with a search for other extreme affections. I lived for an intensity of emotions, and every experience needed to surpass the previous. I was addicted to feeling life: if I read books or listened to music, the experience had to be profoundly moving; if I took up a sport, it had to be dangerous; if I were angry, I was violent; if I loved, it had to be out of this world; if I made love, it had to be exquisite; if I felt joy, it had to be euphoric;  and if I were sad, I wallowed in misery and despondency.

The problem is that as I grow older and understand myself better, these episodes become more alarming. Before there was no real reason behind this depression: it was more of a pseudo-masochistic self-indulgence--indulgence in extreme emotions, intensification of my rather boring life. Now I find real reasons to be depressed about. I have realized that there are real consequences to making mistakes, that burning bridges is not only a game of defiance, that sometimes there is no going back, that there is a point of no return, that I cannot get away with everything. I am no longer looking for a thrill. Instead, I am looking for some tranquility and balance. I do not want to live on the edge anymore. I do not have visions of grandeur. I am no longer concerned with the beast: if he is in the jungle, I don't care anymore about his looming presence. Now I only look back with fear that I missed something, that I failed, because, in contrast to my younger days, I cannot afford any more screw-ups.

The feeling of failure began to sink in during my years at the University of Colorado. Graduate school took a toll on me. The first two years were nice and easy. I enjoyed supportive faculty, friendly colleagues, and ample intellectual stimulation. My confidence was as high as the Rockies. I applied to the doctoral program to continue my study of Romanticism under Dr. Robinson, got immediately accepted, and successfully completed my coursework. With the sudden announcement of Dr. Robinson's retirement everything changed. I tried to continue studying for my exams, but without encouragement from faculty my motivation and enthusiasm waned. I began to have trouble concentrating on reading. Teaching became increasingly difficult as I watched my confidence plummeting. I was increasingly stressed and found escape in rock climbing. It was my new passion, my new addiction, my new rush.

The time was also rather damaging to my marriage and relationships. After years of feeling estranged from my husband following the birth of our daughter, I finally decided it was time to let go. The final rapture was sudden, immediate, and not without some drama. But it was over. It was better that way. I moved out and lived a few years rather uncomfortably suspended between houses in a basement without much financial means or material possessions. I did, however, find emotional support in my climbing and living partner. The shame of it all, almost broke me. I finally began putting my life back together starting with fixing up the house, moving out of the basement, accepting a teaching position at another college, and finally buying my own house and getting remarried.

At this point, my priorities have already shifted. My daughter had finally a stable home and was attending a new neighborhood school. I was climbing harder and better. But without academic support and much not so subtle resentment from the department, I did not pass my comprehensive exams. I saw the animosity growing, but I still had faith that professionalism and academic integrity would allow the members of my committee to remain objective. It was on one hand the ultimate failure but also a relief: I did not quit on my own; I was forced out.

The next six months were difficult. My episodes of depression were more frequent as my confidence levels fell and anxiety levels rose. As much as I tried to see the blessing in it all, I couldn't shake the feeling of failure and worthlessness. They started with fatigue, difficulty to concentrate, irritability, over-eating, drinking, crying, and, in most desperate cases, suicidal thoughts. I was tired. I could not read anymore. Reading, once one of my favorite occupations, became almost impossible. I could not concentrate and that further led to feelings of incompetence. I lost confidence in my intellectual powers, my intelligence. I found myself boring, dull, inadequate, and socially awkward. I doubted my ability to do anything. My attempts at finding a job in design and marketing, my career before I quit to go back to college were unsuccessful and only further diminished my sense of self-worth of my already fragile ego. I couldn't shake the feeling of inadequacy and shortcomings in character. When I did attend social gatherings, I avoided eye contact. I was irritable. My diet consisted of junk food, and my routine evening occupation became the mindless distraction of watching movies and drinking martinis. I did not want to feel anymore. I just wanted to remain comfortably numb.

I was not certifiable, but it began to dawn on me that it was not normal and that it was time to consider serious changes in my lifestyle and my thinking. All this time I was teaching part-time and working for a small marketing company. Pretenses needed to be kept up. No one really knew what was going through my head, not even my husband, and how difficult it was to keep attending to my daily responsibilities. I was barely hanging on by threads of sanity.

Working two jobs, I was able to improve significantly my financial situation: as my bills were getting paid off, some of the anxiety lifted. My students loved me, and I enjoyed the challenge of teaching a new class. Also,  I started relaxing at my other job and began to once again enjoy designing. Sitting at the computer manipulating images while listening to music was almost therapeutic. I socialized more too: I held conversations, joked around, and laughed more. I finally summoned enough courage to see the only member of my committee who was convinced I should have passed. He was able to put the entire hoax of an exam in perspective: I was not the only one who got the impression that I failed before the exam even began. But it would still take months before I was back, before I could find the courage to write it all down. Because, you know, unless you write it down, unless you verbalize the pain, you cannot begin to heal. Language makes sense of it all, makes it real. And only once it is real, can one deal with it, rationalize it, and find a way to mend.

Finally, recently I started reading books again. I went to the library and borrowed books on depression. I read. I read fast. I read furiously. I could recognize myself in the experiences described. I also started eating healthier, taking vitamins, and running. But my renewed ability to read is what helped me the most.  The books did not only show me that I was not the only one, but they provided me with the language to describe my own experience, my own pain. They provided a narrative, which made sense of it all. I still have ways to go, but I'm slowly getting back on my feet.