I am single. In my early 30s. This, normally, isn’t that big a deal, but when you’re also a person suffering from depression and anxiety, it can be a bigger deal than that.
Let me explain.
A few weeks ago, I got a rejection from a graduate school that lots of people who know me and know the school imagined would be a “slam dunk.” It sucked. Rejection always does. But that evening, my friend and neighbor sat with me and kept me occupied by playing dominoes. We drank Moscow Mules and had a great time. We decided to make it a routine thing.
Once a week, for about a month, that’s what we’d do. Another friend of mine even came to our last week’s game.
I’ll be honest. Sometimes, I almost forget I have a mental disorder, a mental illness. But other weeks, I have to call in sick because I didn’t sleep and am afraid to drive and all I do for a whole day is cry. Those weeks are bad, and what gets me through is my little week-end thing. Sometimes, that domino game is the only time all week where I’m interacting with another person while I’m not at work, wearing my “teacher face”, my “professional face.”
This week, both of my friends cancelled because of life stuff, because of partner stuff, and I don’t begrudge them that at all, but it does remind me that I am alone. And this is bad. Because now is the time when my depression is saying to me that it will always be like this, that things will get worse because more and more people will be married, and have families, and things to do with their families, and I’ll always be alone and that this is just How Things Are.
In some ways, that is true. I am alone. I don’t have a partner in crime, in life, to make plans with, to cancel plans because they made plans for us without checking, to do nothing with, to raise a baby with. That’s also how life works. People form families, get more involved in full-time careers, or some of all of the above, and the time they have to spend on friendships just gets smaller. That’s just how life works.
The big trouble, for me right now, is realizing how much I’ve relied on friends, or on involvement – in work, in clubs, in school – to keep the depression and anxiety at bay. Not to cure it, you must understand, but to keep me from being alone with it. It worked pretty well in my twenties.
But that method of coping is going away, and so too, is the quickest way I know to ward off the worst of it. (And, if we’re being honest, it wasn’t working all that well in my late twenties anyway because my inability to really deal with my depression/anxiety/unstable personality did a lot of damage to a lot of kind people, and I lost a lot of friends. I was kind of a monster. Still am, if given half a chance.) The real problem, and the reason I’m writing now is this: even with my friends, even on domino days, I’m not really myself.
I’m playing a little game of pretend. I’m pretending to be fun, pretending to be okay, pretending – at least for a little while – that I’m normal, that I’m okay, that I have it “together.” I don’t. This might be why I focus on the idea of being single: because I grew up in rural East Texas, the third notch in America’s Bible Belt, where if you didn’t have a boyfriend/girlfriend then something was Wrong With You. What that meant in East Texas was perhaps that you were in the closet. Or Worse. (No one ever much said what “Or Worse” was, but after a certain point, even being queer was more “ok” than whatever “Or Worse” was. At least you were interested in someone, and you were able to find someone who was interested in you, and more importantly, able to understand you.)
I’m still struggling with the idea that there actually is very much something the matter with me, and I don’t know any way to process that except as Wrongness, and I don’t have any interior means of making heads-or-tails of myself apart from how well I am able to function among other people. People’s reactions to me have been my guiding stars, my means of navigation, for most of my life.
Director, producer, and co-writer of The Chappelle Show Neal Brennen said something similar during his Netflix stand-up special Three Mics. If you’re reading this because you, too, have depression or because you’re doing research for work or to understand someone you love who is depressed go watch it. It is worth it because it is more than just a stand-up special. During his hour special, I watched him perform the persona of a composed and clever comedian, and then break from those sections into moments of confession, of honesty about why he was on the stage, about his illness, his treatments, and his personal drives. While the whole special is more than just comedy, the thing that sticks with me was this:
To say I have low self esteem is not true. I have no self-esteem. Like, I don’t have the architecture for good feelings. You could give me a trophy and it would just slide right down. I just don’t have the shelving.
And right now, that’s where I am: realizing I don’t have the architecture for good feeling, for (self) support. I don’t know where to go from this realization, and on days when my little safety nets, my little islands of good feeling and pretend don’t appear on the horizon as I had hoped they would, I don’t know what to do next. And my depression is there: telling me this is just my life. This is how it is going to be. That this is what I deserve. I feel like I’m alone with it and that that is how it is always going to be.
Maybe tomorrow will feel better. (Almost certainly it will. Sleep helps many things.) But for today I’m going to give myself a little credit for not texting literally every person I know and resorting to what is, in the cold light of day, emotional manipulation (more on that some other day, when I’m less wobbly) to find company and distraction to avoid confronting the terror of my own depression, my own lack of shelving, alone.