You Are Here

The months tick upwards. I tried to write this as four months, rewrite it at five, post it at six. I wish I could say it was because I wanted to say everything perfectly, but it’s not. Life overtakes us, and promises we make glibly to ourselves—“I’ll think of her everyday”—are forgotten fast.

She always blinked in and out of my life. When we met I was in ninth grade and—as she frequently reminded me—obnoxious enough that she needed to be high to sit in the same room as me. That this was her coping mechanism pretty much explained why I wanted nothing to do with her. At some point in college, though, she read a blog I posted from the health center at Princeton and got in touch. It turned out we had something in common.

Mental illness brought us together, but it wasn’t always the basis of our friendship. For a few years when my parents moved to Oregon, she was the one I asked first to stay with when I went back to Arizona, which was still home. We’d drunkenly wander the playground at our old elementary school or laugh at our mutual sense of disaffection any time we ran into old schoolmates on the streets of our not-quite-big-enough hometown. But it seemed as if she was always doing worse and worse, whereas I was pulling out of adolescence and convincing myself that being sick was a bit like having a Mohawk: a phase. I didn’t exactly cut her off, but I definitely stopped making efforts. Messages—maybe even some messages sent from a hospital—went unanswered.

When I slunk back to Flagstaff in the fall of 2013, I called her up again. She was rightly disgruntled, and yet almost instantly my best and practically only friend. When you’re depressed, there are no shortage of people willing to inundate you with well-intentioned advice or enumerate all the great things you have going for you. She didn’t. I’d call her up and tell her I was hitting rock bottom; she’d tell me she’d been there for a while, but come over anyway. So much of being sick is waiting: for impossibly far-off psychiatry appointments, for meds that may or may not kick in, for inexplicable cycles to reach their denouement. She knew you had to wait, but that it was better not to wait alone.

The truth is, though, she was screwed. I often curse my own depression not because, objectively, I’m all that badly off, but because it creates an ever-widening disparity between what I think I should be able to accomplish and what I actually manage. But the drugs worked for me. For her, though, it was the kind of inexplicable, beyond-the-pale shittiness that brooks no explanation and answers no treatment. She knew it, and I did too. It’s hard to be a good friend when all the standard tropes—the “it’ll get better”s and the “no depression lasts forever”—no longer apply. This time, when I left, I stayed in touch. But it was different, stretching across the alternate universes of being well and being sick.

I’d probably be calling her again, these days, if she were still here. One thing she always told me was that just because something good didn’t last doesn’t mean it wasn’t real. I had a good fall semester: I passed my quals, found a new passion in teaching, finished my book, and made some new friends that made me think grad school didn’t have to all be misery. And, in between the list of accomplishments we enumerate in the hopes of giving our lives meaning, I even felt okay. It didn’t last. It’s always hard to tell if the world has changed—my sections don’t seem to be going as well, the dissertation seems inching along even more slowly, and I feel the horizon of possibilities for my life narrowing—or if I’m just cycling, again.

The second thing she always told me was that, at some point, you’ve got to move on. When I was at home, she informed me—matter-of-factly—that after a semester off, I was going back to school, whether I was better or not. I was lucky to have been “better,” but she embodied the alternative: of living a rich, full, generous life, and being miserable anyway. I’m pretty skeptical of the depression-makes-you-a-better-person trope—she was a great person in spite, not because, of it—but I am thinking about her example these days, as I wonder about how to get on with my life while accepting that maybe new drugs and a few months in France haven’t completely changed the wiring in my brain or bottomless pit in my brain waiting to be filled with a sense of self.

Someone told me, six months ago, how lucky I was to have been the last person to talk to her. Whoever said that didn’t know how she sounded that night. I don’t think that, in six months or six years, I’ll figure out if I should have done more that night, or if she called me precisely because she knew—given our history—that I wouldn’t. I can’t say if she were here if she’d forgive me. She probably wouldn’t. She’d let me be with my sadness, but be with me at the same time. It’s a rare form of love that I miss so, so much.

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