Into the Blue
(Jersey Girl, Malinowski Thinks)
When I enter the room, a champagne aura emanates from my very being. My smile is so white bright that it’s mistaken for the landing lights at O’Hare. My eyes smize- My golden hair swings and flutters as if a wind machine is perpetually following me. People around me use the words vivacious and exuberant. They all wonder aloud “Is she a Kardashian?”
On my way out the door I don’t say goodbye or thank you for the beautiful evening. I just disappear leaving my host to wonder what happened. I duck into a waiting car as if the paparazzi is stalking me and then I collapse. The smile evaporates to gray. My face droops, my eyes fall back into my head and I am bone weary from the show. The sparkly Arlene Malinowski happy-go-lucky show because you’re not allowed to show your mental illness in public. Or so I believe.
There’s a place in your mind that is so far down you don’t see color. That’s where am. It is early and slippery outside and one of those ashen days in Chicago when the fog feels like a permanent guest on the road. I move at a glacial pace. Sometimes one depression hour feels like a dog year.
In the car I flip open the visor, apply a slicker of Raspberry shimmer gloss. I’m so exhausted that I look like phlegm- but phlegm who’s wearing lipstick because everybody knows that lipstick can hide anything. You never see any of those actors who play sick characters wearing it- not even if they are Angelina Jolie. Besides, I have to look decent to go to the doctors; pretty people get better service especially women. Look it up.
Me, in another psychiatrists’s office. I keep my eyes to the floor like the guilty one on Law and Order. This is my Roswell 51. I know. I know better. I’ve been in the Deaf and disability community my whole life. As a hearing daughter of Deaf parents, as a teacher, as an advocate and ally. I know that disability is a natural part of the human experience. That people with disabilities are not broken and don’t need to be fixed. But I am shamed that this black mental illness has brought me to my knees. I am silent even to those who love me.
I’ve always prided myself on being a “sunny, optimistic and motivated person.” I’ve even bragged about it the same way that those models brag about being able to eat whatever they want to and still stay delightfully emaciated. But out of nowhere Depression just crept in through a basement window and I found him sitting there with his feet up on my nice, new mushroom colored couch and he decided to stay.
My new psychiatrist looks like a professionally dressed Chilean Seabass. In her office I start weeping and it crashes out of me like the foamy white of Niagara falls. But then I can’t stop. It comes from a place so violet deep and primal. She says “Perhaps, we should check you in, just for a few days- just to get you started on some meds. Is it like a spa? I sputter “No it’s not like a spa. In my minds eye I saw lush green, dimly lit rooms with Enya playing in the background- and not ironically. I imagined women wearing thirsty beige robes sitting on loungers waiting for group. See, that’s the thing about Major Depressive Disorder you don’t think rationally. Your reality is twisted. Your judgement isn’t clear.
I take my first 2 pills. They’re melon colored and shaped like kites and I feel like a teenaged girl waiting for her boyfriend to make our relationship “Instagram Official” because I wanted those meds to work and work fast. They didn’t. I tell no one about the inky sinkhole except for Dan, my good and kind husband who guards the secret like it’s a magician’s trick. We both know that crazy and unstable does not get hired, does not get invited to fabulous parties. We both know that all crazy and unstable gets is judged and it shames me.
Meds are added, taken away, tweaked and tweaked again. There are pretty little yellow pills, rainbow capsules, ones that look like teensy hotdogs. I love them. Another one make me feel l’m on a tilt a whirl and I throw up for 24 hours straight. Some work a little, some not. I don’t know anymore. My brain skates the charcoal edge of winter. Panic attacks shake me by the throat. And then I just stop. I stop thinking. I stop moving. I stop being. I cannot anymore. E Mails are left unread. Clothes with zippers and buttons and proper fit sit in the closet. The TV demands too much concentration but stays on like smoky flickering ghosts into the night. Phone calls roll into voicemail. The bed becomes both my shroud and sanctuary. I look into the mirror of the medicine cabinet. I’ve become invisible-even to myself. “When is it time to find a new doctor?” I wonder, until one day she says kindly;“I think we should just wait to see if this lifts. Your body’s been through so much. I don’t know what else we should try right now.” Please don’t say that. Please don’t say there is nothing else we can do.”Six weeks later I get a perfunctory letter that she's moving away to a city that’s warm and sunny. She cheerfully wishes me good health. I hate her.
How are you? the question comes automatically from the mouths of others. “Fine, I’m just fine” I reply smiling, bubbly pink. A dozen years of acting classes, money well spent I think to myself. I am paralyzed. I cannot work. I cannot leave my house. I do not know how to ask for help. In the darkest of my soul, I dream about Sylvia Plath and Bell Jarring. I hoard pills. I curse my electric oven. And then Dan does the unthinkable and betrays me. I hear him in the other room on the phone, “She’s clinically depressed. It’s bad- we need to get her into see someone now! I can’t get an appointment anywhere.” The breath is knocked out of me, My head is spinning lurid purple. “What are you doing? You can’t. You promised. I was just having a bad moment.” He says quietly,“I had to tell someone. I’m scared for you”. I sputter “Don’t you understand they’re going to tell everyone!”
He doesn’t listen. He keeps calling and calling and calling. Finally, a friend of his brother connects him to a colleague, who intercedes with a doctor who is an hour and twenty five minutes away and I’m in just like that. Dan chirps, “He’s a psychopharmacologist. They say he’s a rockstar. He’s not taking new patients but he’s making an exception for you.” I bite my tongue so hard that all is can see is the red behind my eyes. Don’t you know what you’ve done? Everybody knows You’ve ruined everything.
I look around this New pastel waiting room. It feels like I sitting in the middle of a pharmaceutical Burning Man. The patients rock and mutter and sweat and tremble and stare dark glassy eyed and get up for cups and cups and cups of water to quench their medicated cotton mouth. These are the last chance people and I am one of them. We wait for 2 hours and when we finally get into his office it looks like a bomb hit it. There is stuff everywhere, it feels like the inside of my brain. He looks nice, like the kind of guy that you should have gone out with in college instead of chasing the bad boys who would make out with you at a party and then dump you for a girl named April- at the same party. I hand him the history that Dan so meticulously kept and I tell him the dark side of calm. “The gnawing at my brain is relentless- relentless. I can’t do it anymore. I want go to sleep and never wake up again.”
Dr Last Chance leans in, connects with my eyes and says in a low quiet voice; “I know you’re in pain but we have lots of options to try. Lots and lots of alternatives” and then starts naming off lists of drugs and drug combinations. Maybe ECT? When we are leaving I throw my arms around him and hug him hard and he hugs me back. Hope is a great gift- maybe the best of all gifts and that’s what he gave me. I slowly start to come out of it. Depression like mine doesn’t just go away, it leaves quietly and surreptitiously like the honey colored light at dusk but word about my break down spreads quickly and at full tilt. No one knows what to say so they say nothing- to me at least. I am humiliated beet red but once in a while tiny shiny unexpected things happen. A silly card shows up in the mailbox. The phone rings and it’s Justine. Ken makes me apricot scones. David offers, sympathetic murmurings and then there the others… who leaned in to whisper “I have a mental illness too.”
And I wonder “why didn’t I know this about you? Why don’t we know this about each other. It would have made everything so much easier. “But each one of their kindnesses is like a long drink of water when I didn’t even know I was thirsty. I had found my people. The ones who are there when I have a pocket of inky black depression and I can’t see my way out.
Looking back I recognize that by loosening the shame and releasing the secret into the blue- has saved me. I am free to name it, claim it and stand to be counted. And I don’t want to be a Khardashian I want to be a brave.
NOTE: My one-woman show, “A Little Bit Not Normal” A serious comedy about depression is touring. This Blog, the show, talkback sessions, community writing workshops, articles in Huff Po, publications & the book- is part of my initiative to become part of the national conversation around mental Illness. Kickstarter will be launched later this year. I hope you’ll join me, because its 1-in-4 of us suffer sometime in our lives, and much of that time it is in silence.