Googling your mental health—depression, let’s say, anxiety—will inevitably bring you to neat lists of symptoms.
The lists tend to have ten items or less. This seems ludicrous: no human condition, surely, meets the same criteria as a grocery store express lane.
If you’re honest, though, there’s something appealing about those lists, with their solid, reassuring check boxes, waiting to be filled. There’s the faint promise of order. If you can define yourself within these parameters, then perhaps things will finally sharpen into black and white, become straightforward, predictable.
What’s more, given the multitude of lists available, you’d think you’d see it coming a mile off. Been there, done that, you’d say, and merrily cross out items with a pencil, nod, think yup, time to act. You’d have memorised the suggested treatment options and lifestyle changes already; you’d apply them with the satisfied gusto of a school nurse slapping on a band-aid.
The reality, of course, is that you’re negotiating the list from the get-go. Because what you grapple with does not always look the same, nor feel the same. You have learned this, over the past twenty years. Sometimes it makes a dramatic entrance; sometimes it comes creeping as slow and unobtrusive as a winter’s dawn. You assume you will recognize it, given your age, your experience: but you usually don’t, not until you’re flailing around, up to your ankles, your knees, your neck. It flexes, shifts, forces you to expand your definition, again. A childhood nightmare in reverse, it slowly creaks open the wardrobe door to reveal a monster there after all, lying in wait, all along. It is muscle rippling, barely visible under silk. It makes beasts of innocuous things. It makes the ordinary snarl, bare teeth.
You’re wearied by this shape-shifting. You cannot help but feel you should have mastered it by now; you know so many of its tricks. Still, it slips away from you time and time again, a silent-footed rabbit through the grass. All you can do is watch, and wait for it to shift again, slide glassily into a new configuration.
Make your own list.
In no particular order, these are the ways it has shown itself, up to now. How it can look, can feel:
1. The grumbling, aching beginnings of a cold.
2. Exhaustion: the bone-deep, traveling kind, in which day bleeds into night and back again.
3. Insomnia: despite the aforementioned fatigue, despite the heaviness of limb, the inability to read more than one damn page at a time, or to keep your eyelids from creeping closed during the movie—come nightfall, you’re jarringly awake, scratchily self-conscious against the pillow. Your eyes ribbon over with red. You think of bad, squirming things at two and three and four o’clock in the morning. You despair, quietly, discreetly.
4. Sleeping too much: you learn from one list this is called Hypersomnia. Can result from #3 or exist entirely separately. A drugged-heavy type sleep; endless amounts. All day not enough. Sometimes you wake at four in the afternoon and take a shower, change into new pajamas. The TV plays in the background, for the noise.
5. That kind of lurching, knowing horror you get mid-fall in the moments before you hit the ground.
6. That peculiar, hollow urgency unique to foreboding: an alarm ringing faintly off in the distance, at all times. Something wicked this way comes. Surely.
7. Skittishness. You stop watching TV shows all the way through, can’t follow the plot. Instead, you pace. You take up smoking, briefly and ill-advisedly (you develop a hacking cough, immediately). While smoking outside on a warm, sunny spring morning, you realise you already want a second cigarette, before you’re even done with the first. One at a time isn’t enough. If you could smoke in doubles, you would.
8. Inability to read (and you used to love to read). Your concentration is riddled through with holes. Words writhe about on the page. You read the same paragraph endlessly. Likewise, when you open a notebook, the pen won’t glide over the paper. It’s scratchy; it beats staccato over the page. Nothing joins up.
9. Piles of unopened mail.
10. A bursting unease, under your skin: you’d like to slit yourself navel to throat, like the pigs hanging limp in butchers’ windows, step neatly out of your flesh, shrug it away from you like an unwanted coat. You see yourself fleeing, palely, into the woods.
11. The phone ringing out.
12. Buzzing of texts you may or may not read and will almost certainly not answer for days, or even longer.
13. Cancelling, cancelling, cancelling.
14. A quiet cessation of telephone calls and texts and invitations, which, perversely, you feel weirdly indignant about.
15. A growing prickle of exasperation from friends and colleagues (bar a sainted few), which sometimes makes you feel indignant again, and other times, awful.
16. A conversation in which a friend tells you they cannot rely on you, that you are not there for them, that you didn’t remember the big thing they were dealing with (and you didn’t); that they don’t want you around anymore. You are upset about it, because you know she is right, but it is too late. You will think about this for a very long time, and every time you hear a particular song by the Rolling Stones.
17. Hiding when the doorbell rings.
18. Words solidifying and calcifying in your throat. Your tongue not quite forming the syllables, the sounds, required to articulate strings of words. You can’t explain, you say. You don’t know.
19. Unwashed hair, mounds of laundry: marks over the kitchen floor, fruit flies.
20. Easier to say you’re sick.
21. Unreality: all hollowed-out and brittle, like things they find in tombs. A conviction that everybody else is real in way you are not.
22. Occasionally, horrifyingly, a tingling and prickling in your extremities, over your face (a classic indicator of panic, apparently: something to do with oxygen): panting. Shaking. Arms looping under yours on either side, helping to heave you up the flight of stairs to Sick Bay because yes, it’s happening again, only this time it’s not so interesting to anybody else except you. Lunch continues: here’s the blithe clatter of silverware, a ripple of laughter.
24. Fear of going outside.
25. Fear of being alone.
26. Fear of being with people.
27. Believing you can find yourself in someone else.
28. Believing if you could just make this relationship work, then perhaps you’d be alright.
29. Making excuses, lots of them, for why someone is treating you as if you do not matter. Avoiding, at all costs, considering that they’ve already shown you who they are, in their cruelty; avoiding asking yourself why you don’t think you deserve kindness, or decency. Telling yourself that really, it’s your fault for being so difficult, and if you could just- if you could just-
30. Talking endlessly about carefully curated things—the wrong things—to the wrong people. You don’t hear what they say, anyway, so you continue. You don’t want them to say look, he’s a dick, but also:why are you doing this, in the first place? What’s going on? You don’t want to hear it, so you don’t. You will find a way to fix everything.
31. Looking for signs, for symbols. For talismans. Magical cures.
32. Vigilance. Constant, bow-taut vigilance.
33. Thickening, stultifying slowness. Paralysis. The air, turgid with it. Staring up a great blank wall of lethargy. Where is the foothold? Where is the point upon which you can lever your weight?
34. Creative block (common, terrifying.)
35. Creative outpouring (rare, insubstantial.)
36. Excitement, bordering mania (rarer: see also, skittishness, insomnia). Staying up all night.
37. Like you’re a flake.
38. Like you’re unreliable.
39. Like you are, in fact, losing your mind.
40. Merely tolerating yourself, as if you’re one half of a long-shrivelled, loveless marriage. Confronting that same face in the mirror each day, weary, disappointed: You again? A heavy sigh, resignation: here we are. The same old bullshit.
41. Hearing the words ‘You’ll never be normal, will you?’ come out of somebody’s mouth, ten years ago. Hearing it sometimes still at two and three and four o’clock in the morning.
42. Hearing the words ‘You’ll never be normal, will you?’ come out of somebody’s mouth and not saying anything. Allowing certain well-intentioned people to neatly classify you as ‘depressive’ or ‘highly strung’ or ‘neurotic’ (thanks, Freud) in order to swiftly disregard any undesirable responses or opinions, and not saying anything. Hearing that somebody’s father considered you a ‘bad influence’ because of, you know, how you are. Not saying anything. Not saying anything. Not saying anything.
43. Like you’re Difficult.
44. Like you’re Difficult to Love.
45. Wondering what the bloody point is if you can’t be like other people and you can’t be normal and you can’t even clean your kitchen or answer the phone or open your mail like an actual adult. If Difficult is all there is, why bother?
46. Wilful Disobedience. Observed more frequently with increasing age and experience: you knowwalking will help, going to bed early will help, eating, doing small tasks: pacing will not, nor smoking nor drinking nor ruminating endlessly, rolling each thought, each memory, around in the palm of your mind like a rosary bead, methodical-but still, you do not walk. You do not go to bed early, and you sometimes drink too much, leave small tasks and large undone, books unread, hair unwashed. You pace, and you settle into those squirming bad things which come creeping in, you nestle into them. Among their writhing tentacles you make your bed. It’s the familiarity, you suppose, which makes their embrace such a relief.
47. Wilful ignorance (also referred to as Wishful Thinking; see also #46). Perhaps this time it’s different, and this fatigue and insomnia and fear of going to collect the letter from the box down the hall is not indicative of anything bad, is just the blue sky mirrored back at itself, is perfectly ordinary. Everyone, you tell yourself, has bad days. Perhaps this time it really has gone, and you’ve cracked it, have found a way to control it, to not be Difficult anymore, to fix everything up so it looks pretty.
48. A certainty, albeit a reluctant one, that arrives one morning as you sit sweating and pale on the sofa, ignoring the doorbell: you have not out-run it, cannot out-run it, no more than you can out-run the marrow in your bones. Like your bones, you live all tangled up together inside this skin.
49. A dredging, sucking, oozing mud-traction progress through the bad days, pinned together shabbily with the very things you’ve previously scorned: the moving, the writing, the sleep. Food, and water. No alcohol. Talking to people, about the actual squirming things. Going into the garden and listening for the birds.
50. A list of things, half-done (better). The kitchen counter wiped over, and the bins put out (if nothing else). One page in your notebook; the firm, insistent looping of your hand, forming the letters, stringing together the words, like beads, one by one. Something, better than nothing.
Rebecca Bayuk is a Brit born and raised in Brontë country, now living in the States. A former teacher and history blogger, she writes poetry, essays and short stories, and is working on her first novel. Her essay ‘Anchors’ appeared in the Microcosm Publishing zine Cat Party last month.