Do we open our eyes first, or wake up? The difference seems important to me, somehow, on harsh mornings like this, heat and light pressing down through the plastic blinds of my bedroom window, bars across my face. I turn from the severe light, writhing, arms and legs in a tangle of cheap cotton sheets slick with sweat.
There is nothing to fear in my own room, no reason in it; nor should I be tired after a night’s sleep, or sad at a new day. These things I would know if I could think, but my mind drifts in and out from incoherency to dread, and even in my most lucid moments I cower from the onslaught of daylight reaching through my window like some great apathetic god, wrathful and intent on slowly beating me conscious.
The sun and I weren’t always on poor terms. As a teenager I spent my summer weekends in the mountains of Idaho with my scouting troop, every sunrise a call to adventure. Our days were spent as best as boys could spend them, traversing forests and rivers, lakes and caves, with evenings spent in the rapture of open sky and campfire. At bedtime we would take all our smoke and dirt and cram four of us into a three-man tent, wrapping up in sleeping bags with only our faces exposed, like Eskimo children. Sometimes we’d talk about careless things, and sometimes we would just listen to the crickets, falling asleep despite the unyielding ground. Sunrise would bake the tent through the thin canvas, combining with the morning campfire to literally smoke us out — nose first — hanging on the earthy-sweet scent of ashes and pancake batter. It was so easy back then, to rise out of grogginess and see, bright under the sun, the whole world ready to play.
Today I see shadows on a plain wall, and I hear voices on the other side of the door, and I am unable to face them. The very idea grips me, as if it were the thing that’s real and my own skin-and-bones body were the thought, impotent inside it. I try to move, to stand — just stand! — but manage only to silence the bleating of the vintage alarm clock on my bedside stand. In the laden silence, I give in to the heaviness of my thoughts and retreat.
It isn’t real vintage, the clock on my stand, just manufactured to look the part, with a cherry-red shell and off-white analog face as though faded with years, even though I bought it last week. I bought it because I wanted to feel simple and sturdy, as though I need little more than what my father had: my father, who was as tough as his father. My father, who would never hide from the other side of his bedroom door.
My father believes in grass stains on blue jeans, and my mother knows the best way to wash them out. They gave my childhood a small house and a big back yard with a big red trampoline. This was the closest a kid could get to flying. Up and down; hit the elastic, accelerate upward, feel the wind through your clothes, feel your insides chasing your outsides, pause at the top for a singular moment of weightlessness, and fall back down in utter anticipation, ready to try for even higher next. Up and down; I only needed a few jumps to get high enough to feel like I was hundreds of feet in the air, and still with every fall I wanted to go higher. Up and down; It was like chasing something, reaching for the elusive moment of total freedom at the very crest of every jump, when I could look out over the roof of our one-story house and see the whole world before me, like just maybe I could reach out and grab it. Up and down.
These waves of panic come, always, with despair at all I’m failing to do: I need to wash, I need to clean, I need to go to work. No, I begin to recite the well-worn mantras in my mind, I do not need to do anything. I decide where today takes me. I am anxious, but I am not in danger. My friends won’t forgive me. I can talk to people; I cannot read minds. My boss, he’ll be looking for me. I can move forward; I cannot predict the future. She was the best thing in my life. I am in the present, but my memories are not. I have done good and bad, and my faults are not my identity.
I keep trying to out-think my own brain. If you can move you can sit up. If you can sit up you can stand. After a dozen or so renditions, I don’t feel any better, but I can move. I finally break eye contact with the wall and stand for the first time today. Tomorrow, I might feel the carpet between my toes, the surge of euphoria as I breathe deep and stretch like a big cat. Tomorrow I might feel awake, alive. But I am moving, and today that’s enough.
I used to be much worse. At the best of times, fighting depression and insomnia is mental warfare: arming battlements, notching arrows against waves of your mind’s own demons. In this kind of warfare, addiction is letting down the gate. I don’t remember all the days and weeks I wasted, and I wish I could scrape out the blurry rest of it, now just wounds festering and septic in memory. At the lowest times, the things I was doing to myself didn’t even feel good. But when you’re down, and you’re down for a long time, you’ll try anything to get back up, you’ll do anything to shake the numbness, and you’ll put anything into your body because at least something feels like something. It doesn’t really seem like living if you can’t even feel it, so really I was just living. This I told the shame which always came after each cheap fix. Up and down.
One night I felt something real. I felt the smallest sprinkle of cool little water beads sending shivers through my skin. I breathed, deeply, the dampening air and woke up for the first time in months. I looked up to the grey sky and felt the sting of raindrops on my eyes. I remembered the world, how clouds formed and drifted across the constantly turning earth. I smelled metal and concrete and wet grass. The drops got heavier, the sky got darker and I could no longer hold my head up against it. So I dropped, and my knees hit the pavement, and the pain was invigorating. I cried, and it felt good so I kept crying. My cries became pleas as I clasped my hands and bowed my head to any god listening. I don’t remember the exact words I spoke, but I know it’s the most honest I’ve ever been.
Anxiety does not mean danger. Depression does not mean defect. If you can stand you can walk. A short walk to the bus stop, a few minutes on a bus, and I’m nearly to work. Some other day I would notice the cars passing in front of me. I would notice the grey sky above with rain clouds stretched, overcast across the valley, framed by a backdrop of mountains whose peaks just graze their misty underbellies. Some other day I would notice those mountains that are so tall yet keep the world from feeling too big. But today I am moving, and functioning, and today that’s enough. Today the traffic light tells me to cross, and the shiver down my neck tells me the misty air is ready to give way for rain. I turn up my collar, and I keep walking.
Nothing changed that day, on my knees, in the rain, crying to the sky. Nothing ever changes in a moment. But if you can feel alive for one moment, you can fight to stay alive the next. Fight for long enough and you’ll get a win. I cross the street as the first droplets patter softly on my jacket. Some other day I would enjoy this weather. I would pretend I’m Gene Kelly and dance around light poles. Today, I keep walking.