Storytelling

(Or: Massive Annual New Year’s Eve Note, Vol. 5)

[TMI Warning]

Many psychologists believe that it’s not what happens to us that matters, it’s the stories we tell ourselves about what happens.

Some people unfortunately interpret this to mean that we ought to “look on the bright side of life” and “find the silver lining” and all that crap.

I don’t really see things that way. Never have. Life sucks a lot of the time, and anyone who tells you otherwise is either stupid, in denial, or trying to sell you something.

But I have learned, over the past year, how powerful personal storytelling can be. This was the year I took a lot of pain and turned it into a force of energy.

~~~

A year ago, I thought I was done with this whole depression thing forever. That didn’t turn out to be the case. It came back almost as soon as the new year started, worse than ever before, seemingly undefeatable.

This has been a painful year. People hurt me this year. They lied, broke my heart, used me, and took my friendship for granted.

I was alone a lot, more alone than ever before. In fact, I spent most of the summer alone in New York. It was a fantastic experience, but a lonely one nonetheless.

It was hard, a lot of the time, not to think about all the ways depression limits me. If I didn’t have it, everything about my life would be different. I’d be outgoing, I’d go to parties, I could stay up late and take harder classes. I wouldn’t be so tired all the time, I wouldn’t have such a hard time talking to people, and, of course, I wouldn’t be so sad.

But sometime over the course of this year, I stopped thinking about all the things I couldn’t do because of depression, and started thinking instead about all the things I could.

For instance, I would never have started NU Listens, my peer-listening organization, if I hadn’t been depressed. I wouldn’t have the skills that allow me to help people. I wouldn’t write so much, or so well. I wouldn’t be able to fully appreciate my family and the other people I have in my life. I probably wouldn’t know what my calling is.

Some people, knowing that, would assume that I’m “thankful” for the experience of being depressed, or that I consider it “part of God’s plan” for me, or that it was “all for the best.”

Well, sorry to burst your bubble, but no. I don’t think any God would put a person through this, and that’s one of the reasons I don’t believe in God. I’m not thankful and I don’t think it was for the best. I want my adolescence back. I want the first two years of college back.

In our culture, preoccupied as it is with constantly finding the silver lining to everything from rejection to failure to broken hearts, I think it’s bold of me to say that I’m not thankful for what happened. I know I’m expected to offer up some grand lesson to be learned from all this, but I’m sorry to say that there just isn’t one. Sometimes shit happens. It definitely happened to me.

Knowing that, I’ve given up trying to find some sort of grand meaning in my experiences with depression. I sure as hell don’t accept the Judeo-Christian notion that I somehow deserved it, and although it has had some positive consequences, I’d say it did more harm than good. By far.

So how to go on? Well, that’s a complicated question for someone who prefers to see things in complicated ways. The story I’ve decided to tell about my own life isn’t necessarily happy, but it’s empowering for me. It’s about working within my limitations to achieve great things.

After all, the truth is that I’m probably not going to ever fully recover. I live at the mercy of something I can’t fully control, and my entire being–from feelings and moods to thoughts, beliefs, and actions–is tempered by it. Some days it leaves me alone, and some days it barely lets me get out of bed.

It means I have to be on my best behavior all the time. Nine hours of sleep, fruits and veggies, not too much carbs or meat, brisk walking every day, at least. Schoolwork has to be done before 9 PM or so, or else I can’t concentrate on it. I get overwhelmed by information easily, hence all the organization–categorized to-do lists and a calendar, a notebook that I carry everywhere, everything in filing folders in a box under my desk. In class I have to write by hand because it keeps me more alert. Otherwise, I start dozing off after sitting still for five minutes, no matter how much sleep I’ve been getting, because that’s how my body is.

I have to always stay busy, because as soon as I have a moment to myself, my mind starts conjuring up nasty thoughts. You’re such a bitch. Go kill yourself. The reason I take five/six classes, work two jobs, and run two student groups isn’t for my resume. It’s for my health.

~~~

So those are my limitations. Sometimes they seem pretty extreme. Sometimes they seem like a blessing compared to what some people are given.

Regardless, I’m not going to define myself through them anymore.

Instead, I’m going to define myself through the unique gifts that I have, and that I’ve become aware of because of my experience with depression.

When I’m helping someone, my self disappears–and with it, so do all of my fears, insecurities, and dysfunctions. I feel like I’m entering the other person’s being. It’s almost a spiritual experience.

Of course, my ideas about others aren’t always correct, but I start down a path of understanding. I start to see why the love the people they love, why the fear the things they fear, why they do things I would never do, why they believe things that I don’t believe.

I’m not looking for any accolades or sense of moral superiority when I say that my calling is to help people feel better. In a way, I’m just as selfish as anyone else. Some people are happy when they make money, or when they do experiments, or when they play sports; I’m happy when I make others happy.

It’s pretty much that simple.

~~~

It’s been a year since I “came out” as having a mental disorder. Since then, my relationships have only grown stronger and my sense of being valued and respected has only increased. Sometimes people do imply–usually via anonymous comments on my blog, as they know better than to say it to my face–that I’m making people “uncomfortable.” My response to this is always the same: they’ll get over their discomfort. I won’t get over my depression.

The truth is that–and I’m terribly sorry about this–I really don’t give a fuck about your comfort. I just don’t. It’s not my job to make anyone comfortable. I don’t really care about fitting in or being cool or normal. I must be missing that gene, or whatever.

If I sound completely different right now than I did just a few paragraphs before, I wouldn’t blame you for being confused. My life’s work will be to help people find happiness, but never at the expense of my own ability to live and express myself as I see fit. My understanding of psychology is that if you’re so concerned with how I live that you’re made “uncomfortable” by my depression, it’s you who needs to change, not me.

I don’t think most people realize the extent of my lack of fuck-giving because, unlike many other young malcontents, I don’t wear it on my body. My clothes are normal. I talk like a more-or-less average educated person. I don’t have any tattoos or extra piercings and don’t plan on getting any, and my hair is dyed, but only slightly. It’s styled in a mostly average way. I don’t choose to “rebel” by doing lots of drugs or people, and I don’t smoke, drink, or listen to unusual music.

But internally, I feel like an alien in this world. There’s a thick glass wall between me and everyone else. There’s a terrible creature that has its tentacles wrapped around my brain, and every time it squeezes, I want to rip my head off.

That’s what depression is.

~~~

That’s not to say this year has been all bad. It certainly hasn’t. I made many friends this year–not just any friends, but best friends. I started working on two different research projects at school. I found a way to connect with the Jewish community at Northwestern. I made Dean’s List this past quarter, started my own peer listening group, got accepted as a columnist for the Daily Northwestern next quarter, drastically increased my blog’s readership, tried therapy for the first time, successfully navigated my first quarter in my own apartment, went on quite a few dates, learned how to make my own jewelry, was accepted to a quarter-long Jewish education program, and befriended a few professors.

I went to New York three times, growing more and more certain with each time that this is where I want to live someday. I watched my older brother get married and found out that I’ll be an aunt in a couple of weeks. I met distant family members I hadn’t even known about before. I decided to wean myself off antidepressants when the new year starts.

Depression keeps me from being truly happy, but I refuse to let it rewrite the story of my life any longer. What I’ve been able to do despite of (and perhaps because of) my limitations makes me glad to be alive. I hope to recover someday, but even if I don’t, my life is going to be worthwhile.

~~~

A few days ago. I’m walking near Union Square in Manhattan. The sun has nearly set and the wind is chilling. I hear a man begging for money.

“Can you spare some change?” he’s saying, over and over. The passerby walk past him and he says, “That’s okay. Maybe next year.”

I put a dollar bill in his cup and he says, “God bless you, miss. I really mean that.”

He says happy New Year, and I say happy New Year too.

And then I continue on my way.

Maybe next year.

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Winter/Summer

It’s hard for me to believe that it’s already summer.

The signs are all there–I can wear my favorite clothes again, I keep my windows open, and the humid air envelops me and makes me feel safe, even at night. There are packing boxes everywhere and the dorms are slowly emptying out…

But in my mind, I’m stuck in January, when everything fell apart again. The heat outside can’t touch that feeling.

I wish I could pack that into one of my cardboard boxes and send it all away.

There is a quote by Albert Camus that I love, and that has provided me with a lot of inspiration along the way: “In the depths of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”

Well, for me, at least right now, it’s the opposite.

Bookman’s Heaven

Note: This short piece has the rather unusual (for me, anyways) distinction of having achieved a grade of 100% in my journalism class, which I’m very proud of and happy about, so I hope you enjoy it too. 😀

If history were a place, it would be Bookman’s Alley.

A fixture of Evanston, Illinois for the past 31 years, this bookstore is the sort of place a bibliophile can enter in the morning and emerge from in the late afternoon, squinting at the sun, wondering where the hours went.

Walking into Bookman’s Alley reveals a serene white-haired man sitting at a desk cluttered with books. He talks easily and casually with regular patrons, but to a first-time visitor, he says nothing.

The store seems tiny and cramped, and the hardwood floor—creaking quietly with each step—is covered with afghan rugs of varying colors and sizes. Piano jazz flows from somewhere near the ceiling. Artwork covers every inch of wall that a bookshelf hasn’t already appropriated, and prints and posters for sale call for attention from baskets on the floor. Full of mismatched chairs for reading and relaxing, the store smells like dusty paper and rugs that haven’t been aired out in decades.

The bowl of pastel-colored gumdrops near the door is an anachronism. Their rough texture and syrupy taste are a jolt from the present.

Reach the end of the front room and you will find a miracle. The room opens up into another, then another. The rooms overflow with dusty tomes, sometimes autographed, sometimes available nowhere else but this bookstore, hidden in an alley. Each bookshelf has a label, such as “Nautical,” “China,” “Magic,“ “Literary Biography,” or, curiously, “Nostalgia.”

Some books peer out from glass cabinets, and some—such as the $1,400 first edition of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Beautiful and the Damned—are too precious to be seen and are denoted by a handwritten card instead. Antiques, though not for sale, accompany the books—Civil War uniforms, model ships, a falconer’s costume, and even a 19th-century printing press.

This is a place where history lives and breathes.