I am not strong but I have built a house because to build a house, you don’t build a house. You plan. I am very good at planning and this is because I am very good at following through. For a very long time, these were my plans:
Move out of state. There will either be happiness, peace, finally, or there will be a bridge between cold sky and deep water. My research shows that bridges, while probably not totally painless, are only slightly less effective than firearms.
Plan B, in case the contentment reaches tolerance levels and I stop responding favorably: travel Europe alone like I’ve always wanted to do and, if it doesn’t work out, there will be a bridge and half a world between me and anyone who’d want to try to stop me. I’m 20.
All of this was only theoretical. I was too afraid of physical pain to actually go through with anything. I had been afraid of pain for a long time. This is why I had been alive for two decades. So that, effectively, had been Plan A: stay too afraid. Because my answer to that question people ask when they want to be inspirational—“What would you do if you had no fear?”—is that I would kill myself.
I was not hit as a child. I wasn’t touched, really. I always had shoes that fit. There was always tasty food within reach. My parents said I could be anything I wanted. Anything. Nothing in my Rolodex of memories was a reasonable source of the agony I wasn’t sure how my body or my mind were containing. I must, I shrug, have always been in pain. Something about the way my consciousness is structured, perhaps. An endogenous…what, though?
It is not sadness. I am not strong enough to be sad. In this world, which can be very sad, it takes more bravery than I have to be sad.
It is not conventional emptiness, either. I hear children laughing and I want to cry: what is the point of such naive joy if it will imminently degrade into dutifulness or whatever we call depression and then of course death? But there is a feeling there. It is not emptiness.
A psychiatrist thinks it’s post-traumatic stress disorder. I spend every 4th of July and New Year’s Eve under the couch with the dogs and I do hit the deck whenever a car backfires because it’s definitely a gun, not a car. I was within range of the Columbine shootings in 1999, in lockdown for eight hours of the day that drew a bold line through the way I look back on my life: before 1999, every kid was a gift from God to be molded by their imperfect but well-intentioned parents in concert with the hands of God. Also, grownups cared about kids. After 1999, any kid could be a terrorist. The suspicion adults viewed kids with began to infect us kids’ relationships with each other. An awkward kid—way too angry for a girl, also, I had already been pretty isolated before that. Which is the other thing that can cook up some nice PTSD: long exposure to repetitive stress.
This internally generated anxiety, the dread that I was not born farther away from the end of the world. That I have so many days, still, I have to find some way to make them mean something. That I will have to learn to love all the beautiful things like human smiles and reflections and the natural world’s futile abundance because learning to love is the human assignment even though I will die because that is also the human assignment. That everything I love, even though I love them, are little houses of paper suspended in this unknowable box of music. It is sad music, the part that I can hear, and sad music makes me uncertain whether I want to breathe again.
It might be that not being suicidal, because I have tried that, means facing the menace of death.
Maybe I am so pitiful because all this is is loneliness. We really shame people for being lonely in this culture. Loneliness is more than not feeling like you have friends, but it’s almost like, if you’re in want of friends, it must because something’s wrong with you that you wouldn’t already have all the friends you need. What could be more frustrating than having all the friends you feel you need and having no way to feel having them? We are driven by emotion and this is because we are humans. If logic were at our individual and collective helms, we would have gotten ourselves out of all the various alarming situations our species are heading straight for (if we didn’t altogether avoid them in the first place) long ago.
Or maybe it is that we do not live in a society that meets its members’ basic needs, that does not even consider relationships a need like air.
So feeling things is very important—this is what those reports about the nothingness version of depression being particularly intolerable are about. And there are things that I feel—all of them large and intense, my nervous system and my emotional system turned up high and on the inside and outside of my body. But it’s like belonging, community, whatever it is that feels relationship with self and other took non-negotiable roots outside my being. Elsewhere. It is not that I don’t feel like people care about me. It is that I do not feel the care I know they do have for me even when they give it.
This does not feel like nothing. It feels like thirst. It means that my life is mostly performance, memises. People get tired and kind of angry if they have to prove their affection over and over. My job, if I want to take some of the edges of the loneliness, is to behave. And imitating covers a multitude of awkwardness. I become the round peg in a square hole—I could make myself fit in wherever, but I was never enough by myself.
This, technically, is true. For me and everyone. But, at the intersection of capitalism and individualism, the psychological and physiological need for human connection is a disability.
A plan, of course, is not a house. But they start to feel the same. The thing you can always come back to whenever you are done being where you are. Where you keep the objects that matter to you. A sense of safety. This makes that question people ask when I would reach out, “are you safe?”, sort of complicated.
The thing that needs to be worked into my plans: overcoming the disability of needing other people. Hence the other-continent component of my back-up plan. The acting I was doing in relationships was based on a blueprint I had made from the patterns I observed in how people in general interact. I started creating it when I found myself alone on the big-kid playground at school for the fifth time. I started acting how I saw other humans act, which turned out be more acceptable than me being me, socially. One thing all this acting did that I did not plan was amputate the possibility for real connection. But this, too, seemed like it was good, was what my world wanted from me. Everything runs on separateness because competition would starve to death otherwise. So this is the house I built. It is made of fog and stages and good behavior.
It is actually not where I can live.
And there are holes all around me anyway. My time is spent thinking about how I could get by with no interaction, occasionally relapsing and reaching out. It is not spent building a life or a future. I do not have the tools that hammer out meaning from any of this. I am good at forcing myself to get up and complete a to-do list anyway, until this one:
take one breath
take one breath
take one breath
put left foot from bed to floor
put right foot from bed to floor
This all sounds dramatic. It seems like “why can’t you just show up to your job without expecting it to make you happy and use your time off for happiness and participate in keeping this whole thing going” to a lot of people. It seems like that to myself. This is why it’s hard to talk about directly. Why the metaphors of flimsy houses unwittingly constructed over years and years of the same thinking, striving, writhing, and such.
Carrying out Plan B, though. The people I left here thought I was going to travel like I’d always wanted to do, which I did always want to do until I was doing it. What I was doing was amassing experiences—walking Amsterdam unintentionally stoned, attending Wimbledon, photographing myself on a boat to the Hebrides— even though I was going to die and the boyfriend I had back home was going to die and the pastor who unofficially adopted me was going to die and the sun warming my cheeks was going to die no matter how much more time I needed to get the love thing right.
I think about writing a note. I breathe deep and climb the hill from the swankily groomed play yard for children to the entrance of the bridge and I walk to the middle of the bridge and I flex my calves and my shoulders and my biceps to pull myself to standing on the handrail and I jumped and there was not a moment I regretted it until I burst from the surface of the water in the arms of a German guy who saw the whole thing and, after being brought up to air, felt the evolutionary compulsion to breathe and gave right in.
Stigma has shrunk; we are talking about this dark stuff now. Publicly. Some of us appear to even be unashamed and some of those have risen above the fermenting hell plodding dark leaves most of us in by welcoming it into their identity. The bigger problem, these strong souls say, is the expected competence and productivity and achievement demanded by capitalism. It is healing for me to say this, too. And that is because the problem was never that we were silent. It is that the world thought we were. But the problem is also still the dark, which is not the same as shadow. Shadow implies a light somewhere.
I think you want a recovery story. Maybe something like:
I fit in, but I’m not enough. Or maybe it’s that it, this playing at round-holeness thing I’ve been compulsively doing, is not enough. But I am the one with the straight-edge and the graphite pencil (graphite is less harsh than lead); there don’t have to be square holes in my house. My house can be a real house and there don’t have to be any holes at all because perfection is a possible thing.
This is my actual story: I have built a house that is no way to live. I could try anyway, because I am very good at follow through and acting and holding my breath, or I could find a wrecking ball and push go. It’s a baby step, but that I even see these options, that there are options, is evidence of recovery. And I’ll start the left foot right foot left foot right foot thing in a minute. I just got them from bed to ground.
Megan Wildhood is a Seattle-based creative writer, scuba diver and social-services worker known for her large, idiosyncratic earring collection. Her poetry chapbook, Long Division (Finishing Line Press, 2017), ruminates on sororal estrangement and volleying the challenges of growing up on the planet that’s very nearly aflame. An excerpt of her novel manuscript was published by AMP Hofstra’s literary magazine in May 2019. Her other work has appeared in The Atlantic, The Sun, and Yes! Magazine. She regularly writes for Real Change and Mad in America. She wants to connect with other weary humans around issues of mental and emotional distress, creating real community from the ashes of individualism and finding real hope if only as an act of defiance, in these tattered days.