I used to feel it rolling in like the tide. I would be in a pleasant place, on the shore in the sunlight. The water washed over my toes, leaving behind relief like the wake of a good cry. I would see it coming, with no power to run. A cruel word, a derisive look, and the water was at my knees, then my neck. Then would come the long hours, days, weeks, months of struggling to breathe. Every moment, I had to decide to keep going, to believe that I should live despite the heavy water trying to sink me.
When I was a teenager, I split myself in two. I let the waters take me. I would fantasize about a beautiful forest with a green canopy and wildflowers and quiet. I would lie down to rest in an open grave under a spreading oak. I allowed myself the numbness of the cold water. I allowed myself the vision of peace. But I also kept going, because I knew better than to trust the sea or any picture of death without flies.
When I was in college and grad school, I balled myself together again. When the waters came, I would pull my knees up to my chin under warm blankets. I turned on a white noise soundtrack and thought of myself as a sphere. I could float on the ocean. It could wash over me, and I did not have to sink. But I couldn’t always float. Sometimes my dreary body pulled me down. Sometimes there were rocks that could break a sphere.
Once I had children, the ocean was inside of me. Still untamed, still dangerous, still filled with images that might be either dreams or lies. But with every birth, I found that I could push the ocean into its proper place. When I am in it, I can swim. When I am out of it, I can see its beauty and helpfulness.
What changed is that I am a mermaid now, a hybrid creature. I can swim through the waters of depression instead of sinking. I can walk away, slowly, slogging, and dry out.
I have always been able to function while drowning. Most of my friends and family have no idea that I’ve struggled with depression. I haven’t known so myself, except in hindsight. When a tide has receded, I’ve looked down in wonder at my clean toes. If you’ve been to my house, you’ll understand that this is literal. My housekeeping cycles over years, steadily improving or falling into complete disorder according to the intensity of barnacles crushing my soul.
The chief obstacle of my housekeeping is clutter. I have a hard time getting rid of other people’s junk.
Every time I step out of the water and sweep up the sand, I come across the detritus of other people’s cruelty and indifference. In a drawer in my favorite desk, I keep insulting letters. I think about throwing them away during every low tide.
The conventional wisdom is that you should not hang onto negative objects, negative words, or negative people. But conventional wisdom is stupid. Conventional wisdom does not have to defend itself against gaslighting. Conventional people don’t know that a list of cruelties or a stack of insulting letters can be life rafts. Anything that keeps the ocean outside of my skin, that lets me say “you are there, and I am here,” is a treasure. In the low tides, I can laugh at the lists. I can tuck the papers away and say, “See, you did not imagine it. They really said those things. You are not making it up. You are sane.”
Sanity keeps me from dissolving. It lets me transform. But it’s not very pleasant in the moment.
You will probably wonder what’s on my list. Yours will be different on land. But I’ll tell you mine because the sea makes everything look the same.
On the surface are the comically audacious cuts, ranked in order of absurdity: the woman who tried to avoid eye contact in the grocery store by pulling her hair over her face and sidestepping, the priest who called me “good peasant breeding stock” when I was pregnant with twins, the many people who greeted news of children with “congratulations…I guess,” the man who saw me on the tea aisle at the store and turned and walked away to avoid conversation though we had made eye contact, the person who reduced a year of 20 hour weeks of volunteer work to organize a major event to my “making posters,” the pastor who wrote me warning that I shouldn’t learn too much in college lest knowledge kill my spirit, the mother ruining my baby shower by shouting at me that she had hurt her butt in the bathtub and therefore I was hateful to her, the time my mom told acquaintances that I regularly sang with Pavarotti when I made the mistake of suggesting that she listen to Pavarotti’s recording of a song I was learning, the time my dad wrote me from prison to chastise me for making fun of someone because they only gave me $100 as a gift when I neither made fun of them nor did they give me $100.
The times I was too smart or thought I was smarter than them or was a smartass or was too quiet or too loud or showed too much knowledge in a subject on which I had expertise, the time a man quoted me to myself unknowingly in defense against my suggestion for altering the document he was quoting, the time someone quoted a soy protein bar advertisement as health research, the time someone insisted that his hour of reading a few chapters of a book made him more knowledgeable than my three degrees and doctoral hours and teaching on the subject. These are the light ones. Then the tide deepens, suddenly, without warning.
The time she told everyone about the party and the desserts and foods at the party, and we all discussed how cool it was going to be and congratulated her on her clever planning, and she turned to me after the others walked off and explained that she was limiting the guest list, and I had to say that I had not assumed I was invited, and I was only wishing her well – all true- but was it necessary to pointedly uninvite me? And the limited guest list was 100 people, including 75 of my friends, but not 101, because considerations had to be made for space. And of course I understood. I understood that I was not important. I understood that no one liked me. I understood that I was an embarrassment to myself for having talked with someone so seemingly kind before, for having assumed it was ok for me to be her friend, even an uninvited friend. And how awkward, and how embarrassing, that I gave the impression that I was begging for an invitation. I thought it was a light conversation about food and cooking and how fun it is to plan a party, like the ones she came to at my house. But it was really a conversation about how I’m not very interesting or fun or important, and how I take up too much space, and how I embarrass myself by trying to talk to people as interesting and important as she was. And how I have to be told specifically that I am not invited.
But really, she was wrong about that, because I always assume I am not invited. I already know that I am not on any friend’s A list. I don’t know why anyone ever talks with me at all, come to think of it.
The water is at my knees.
Do you remember those times after church in the garden, when you stopped by to say hi to your peer group, fellow parents of little children, and you thought it might be nice to get together for lunch either that day or another Sunday, so you went up to them to chat? And after speaking with you for a few minutes about a common subject, they –serendipity!- launched into a detailed discussion about a big gathering at a mutual friend’s house in a little while. It was an open invitation potluck, from the sound of it, and since you were still part of the conversation, you asked a polite question that would have allowed them to save face if you were mistaken, just in case. Oh, are y’all heading to a potluck? They could have said, yes, some old friends are in town and they were planning to see them. I would have wished them well and gone on. They could have said that I was welcome to come in the reserved manner that tells people that they aren’t really welcome. They could have not talked about an open party that they didn’t want me to attend in front of me. But instead, they said, “Oh, it’s just some people getting together. It’s already planned.” Even though it wasn’t, of course, and you were later asked why you weren’t there.
The same person does this often. She tells you about gatherings that are going to happen, in public places or with mutual friends, or both, and gives an exciting detail or two such as one usually gives before extending an invitation. But when you say, “Perhaps we can meet you for a few minutes. We were thinking of going, too,” she explains that you are not welcome. “Well, it’s just some of us getting together. It’s already planned.” So you say, “Oh, well, we were really planning on going on such a day instead. Perhaps we’ll run into so and so another time.” But really you mean that you understand that your presence would ruin their fun. They don’t like you, though it’s a wonder that this person is so bold as to point it out to you in your living room. Why is it that she does this? Is it because she thinks you’re too stupid to have caught on to your deliberate exclusion? Or that you are too unfeeling to notice the slight? Or more likely, that she thinks you are very boring and that coming to visit you is an act of charitable duty that she undertakes as asceticism to build up her fine character? That’s what it is. You are the means of their self-discipline, like the treadmill at the gym.
It doesn’t matter what they seem to be saying with their words and tone of voice and body language. You might be self-deceived. You could be one of those people who finds out midlife that they have one of those brain disorders that blinds them to others’ intentions. You think about all of your friends and realize that very few of them like you, and the ones that say they do actually find you unconscionably dull.
True, some of them are alcoholics who probably don’t invite you to out where they will drink because they don’t like that you might find them dull. But that means that you are also a judgmental, pedantic old fart who offends her friends by seeming to disapprove of their alcoholism. But you really just don’t want to go back to feeling numb. It’s terrifying. It’s horrible when you lose feeling in your teeth and feet, and it travels up your legs, and your elbows and shoulders tingle a little, and you are floating away before you know it. You cannot stand any medicine or substance that breaks your tenuous connection to the ground. Also, they are dreadfully boring when they drink and seem to think the act of drinking itself entertaining.
Thinking this, you realize that you do think they are dull when they’re drunk, so maybe they are right about you after all.
There are those emails that say they are right about you. The friends who broke up with you. They said they are surprised you have any friends at all, that they are not surprised that another friend dumped you. They say that you are a toxic person. You are mean-spirited and cruel to children. That last one opens a full wound.
Cruel to children. Like the people who pointed a gun at you, and beat you, and called you a bitch and fat and stupid and starved you, and tried to keep you from doing your homework or making good grades and beat you if you made an A- instead of an A, and tried to trap you so you couldn’t go back to college, and trapped you on balconies and in cars and yelled at you and said you didn’t love the baby siblings you cared for and raised before you left.
You are back in the closet while your dad beats your mom and breaks everything breakable, and you have your toddler sister at the back of the closet, behind pillows and blankets, and you are between her and the door, and your plan if he comes is to tell your sister she is in a tent, and to be very quiet so she can see fairies, and you throw the Rainbow Brite comforter over her head so they don’t know she is there, and you wonder if you will survive the broken bones, but please God don’t let him find the baby and don’t let him hurt her. If I can get him out of here, I can jump through the window back first with her on my lap, and maybe the glass won’t kill me and I can run her to safety. But if I scream even if I’m dying, the neighbors will save my sister.
There was a night not too long ago when he put the gun on the dashboard and drove and drove down country roads into the starlight and way out into a rural pasture, and you were pretty sure because he was drunk and raging that he was taking you and your mom out there to kill you, but thank God you were still a child enough to have a sweet child’s voice, and you asked him about the stars and said, “Is that Cassiopeia?” and pretended not to know which was the big dipper and which was the little dipper, so that when he stopped the car and told you to get out, you pretended to be excited about the big dipper, and he was drunk enough to grow maudlin and to forget that he had convinced himself the past few hours that your mother had cheated on him and that he was a failure and should put his family out of their misery, and instead he pointed out the stars to you, and he tucked the gun under the seat and drove you the long way home, and you fell asleep riding over the bumpy dirt roads out of sheer animal relief.
All this goes to show that they are right. You should not try to talk to any of them. It’s sad that you are cruel to children, because you cannot see it at all. From what you do all day and all night, it seems to you that you are kind to them and love them. You thought that their happiness and joy and freedom and flourishing were signs of that, but really, you managed to be resilient while living with a compulsive liar and someone who sometimes thought about killing you. Your parents actually hated you, and you are here, talking with these people who are so much more important and interesting than you. So maybe you’re actually a shitty parent, too, even though you thought you were a cycle-breaker who thoughtfully and deliberately arranged her life differently and made very different choices. You thought that you were the first person in your family to get a college degree and two graduate degrees and to live without addiction or abuse and to heal heal heal and to walk every day further out of hell.
But wait. If we are laying out evidence for why you should not be loved, do you think you should mention the good things, too? Like when the Archbishop of Canterbury whispered in your ear that you have a great gift for leadership, or when the officials at the state office commend your parenting and tell you that your child, with the less than first percentile language function and less than seventh percentile cognitive function, who has flourished and shown himself both intelligent and capable of learning language after all, is excelling beyond any expectations because of you, or the stack of good grades and publications, or the people you love who you know love you, or your fierce loyalty, or the way you sing? Sometimes people even seem to like you when they meet you.
Oh! And don’t you forget that you are a reader. People cannot lie to you, because you read body language so well. It’s a side effect of walking out of hell. Maybe the people who don’t like you don’t really not like you, but they are merely used to being around obtuse people. They are spelling out your uninvitedness because they think you didn’t catch on. But you are, meanwhile, so close to being able to read people’s minds from their bodily intentions that society is physically painful to you. They mean to be subtle, but to you they are shouting. They are jerky like newborn babies are jerky, without the muting effects of the water.
This is when you feel your fins sprout out. This is when you remember that the meaning you have made of your grief is not complete. When they insult you, they don’t know that it will hit home. They are used to tossing out spiked words like seashells. They think you are standing on the shore, where you won’t get splashed.
Do you remember how you forgave your parents for hating you? It was a brute decision at first, dynanite in the water. Then you listed out the wounds as they surfaced like jellyfish. You threw them onto the shore one at a time and let the sun dry them out till they turned to paper. You read the letters and scoffed. You told the stories and wrote them down and wrote them again. You smoothed out the grief with your hands, flattening it on the table to see it clearly. You folded it into a paper boat and tossed it in the water.
But the pages were covered in a nonsense language, and you read them wrong. Now you’ve swum back into them. You are surrounded by the scoffs and slights and absurdities and sharp words of friends and enemies and people who have turned on you. They all look like nonsense as you swim past, breathing in the strong salt water.
You remember that we all came out of this stew of salt and heat, and the papers dissolve, the sharpness of the words unraveling into the water like seaweed. It floats by, innocuous. You are immune to it now. You have walked on the land, and you have survived your foolish attempts at walking in the sea. Now you swim, and you see that you are a creature you never imagined yourself to be.
When you walk on the land, the words and body language are sharp as swords on your tender feet. When you swim, nothing hurts you. The abyss is not there to drown you but to buoy you. Your mistake before was seeing the water as judgment.
You thought you had to justify yourself, and you couldn’t. You couldn’t prove your loved ones righteous, either. But now, you see the weeds float past, your words, their words, hurts, cruelties, exclusions. None of it is important on its own. You can barely taste the bile in the water.
You are a mermaid. What made you so was acceptance. You decided that even if all the bad stuff were true about you, you still wanted love. That’s when you started to transform.
The ocean seems like love sometimes. But you don’t really know what it is. You might call it mercy, and you might say it’s justice. You’d be right either way. It’s the reckoning that came to you when you needed it, to wash out the wounds, to dilute the poison till it turned to medicine. You live in it now. And maybe, sometimes, you can help the drowning.