Depression is a familiar, yet strange nightmare. A shapeshifting demon I know too well, but always fail to recognize.
When I was little, I used to be afraid of the witches in the closet. At night, with the bedroom lights off, the moonlight cast shadows across the bright Sunday dresses and turned them into a rustling coven of witches. I would lie in bed staring at them, unable to sleep as my overactive imagination warred with my reasoning mind. Sleep. It’s just your dresses. No, no — see, it moved! Dresses don’t move! Eventually I would leap up, risking a spanking, and turn on the light to check. Magically, the witches would resolve into an inanimate garden of dresses, innocuous and cheerful — but as soon as the lights were off and shadows turned the colorful fabric dark, the witches would return with their whispers and rustles.
Insomnia and anxiety have been the long-time companions of depression in the war for my soul. By my teens I knew the necessity of girding myself against them to the best of my ability, but I was resistant to actually implementing any of the advice offered by my well-meaning parents, therapists, and counselors.
I am, by nature, a night owl. I prefer long walks in the moonlight, under the stars. I prefer the silence and emptiness of abandoned streets at 2 a.m. I prefer puttering quietly around the house when all are asleep, each careful movement calculated to preserve my precious solitude. My therapists kept telling me I had to resist it, that I couldn’t lean into it — that I had to at least try to sleep. I would smile tightly, a combination of irritation and frustration: didn’t they think I would sleep if I could? Did they think I liked staying up all hours until I dropped from the sheer, worn-out exhaustion of a 36 hour insomnia?
Then again back then, there were no real consequences when I ignored their well-meant advice. I had that special privilege of a secure childhood, with all the privileges of outsourced responsibilities. Dad used to wake me up for school, shaking my foot and singing the BYU fight song. Mom woIuld drive me if I missed the carpool, and pick me up after school. She set my medications out for me in an egg cup every morning, so I never forgot to take them — and that’s just on the micro level. On the macro level, my parents handled all the day-to-day of household management: income earning, budgeting, meal prep, laundry, shopping, and various errands.
Sure, the kids contributed to chores … but if we didn’t? If, say, I stayed up all night reading, or sneaking out for early-morning walks, or hyperfocusing on an art project, then collapsed in useless exhaustion just before dawn? Eh. Chores still got done. Meals were still made. Household still ran. I wasn’t the key element there; my parents were. I mean, sure, I was utterly useless in school — barely functioning — but my parents made sure I still went. I can’t say my high school career was in any way, shape, or form a shining success, but in retrospect, I have to admit my poor showing it wasn’t due to my lack of ability or any lack of support from my family. It was solely because I didn’t give a shit, was bored by the system/ didn’t see the value in it, and was both overwhelmed and intimidated by the amount of personal responsibility required I was required to take on to succeed. It was easier to fail on my own terms than try to succeed and fail on someone else’s.
Maybe that’s the story of my life. Maybe that’s what I’m still doing.
When I became an adult/ partner/ parent, suddenly I was responsible. It sucked. It still sucks. I miss being irresponsible. I hate watching clocks and making lists and worrying about schedules. I miss being the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants girl. I miss being the spontaneous girl. I miss being the idgf girl. I miss being able to stay up all night and not having to worry about whether or not I’d be in any condition to wake up my kid and drive him to school in the morning. I miss being able to get in the car and go, and not having to worry about all the stupid adult responsibility-type things, like whether or not the stove was turned off and did we close the bedroom door so the cats wouldn’t piss on the bed and did we let the dogs out and did we bring snacks for the kid and do we have the insurance cards in the glove box and did we remember the documents for crossing the border and is the front door locked.
But the thing is, it’s inescapable, and I recognize this: it’s not “being a parent,” or “being a partner,” that forced responsibility onto me. It’s “being an adult.” This is adulthood. This is what it is not to have my parents taking care of things. These are the things they took care of when I was young, and now I have to take care of them. They aren’t here. Now it’s me and my partner–and if I wasn’t lucky enough to have a partner to help shoulder the load, it would just be me.
I learned, abruptly, how to manage my insomnia shortly after my son was born (when I say “shortly,” I mean within a year or so). All those tips my therapists had been telling me through my teens, it turns out, work. Lights and computers off, no electronics up to half an hour before bedtime, and when you think you’ve been lying there forever and clearly won’t sleep, don’t get up. Stay in bed and start counting backward from 100, or something equally boring to you (I tell myself overly-detailed stories).
I also thought I got my depression under control, but then I realized I didn’t have it under control at all: it shifts, and comes at me from different faces, masquerading as external stresses like post-partum depression, grief, outside stress and trauma. The old footsoldiers of anxiety and insomnia wear masks of introversion, self-doubt, and sleep debt, but they’re all the same old stories once lodged inside. Parasite nightmares.
I was so proud of myself for conquering my insomnia, but as the years slip by and my son grows up, I notice my sleep debt increasing. The sleepless nights shade inches longer, an the yawning abyss of daytime exhaustion increases a few days every year.
Sometimes I realize, with a creeping sense of dismay, that the only thing hinging me to a responsible sleep schedule is the necessity of waking up my son in the morning and driving him to school, and when that is no longer required, there is almost nothing beyond the thin thread of my self-control to prevent my worst insomniatic impulses.
I find myself, I lose myself.
I don’t know where I am.