Identifying the exact moment in time when my mind no longer belonged to the self-loathing and lapsed space that chiefly defined my depression is not a thing I’ve been able to do with any success whatsoever. Still now, a year and a half after the fact, the start of the thing is the only part I feel any lucidity about. These were the days, and eventually months, that followed my return home from half a year in Asia. I came back to my apartment in Brooklyn on a day in December, and it is this time and place that you and I will agree to refer to as the beginning.
I flew into Newark after paying $800 I didn’t have for a new ticket so that I could stay in Thailand for four extra days. My original flight left Bangkok on December 14 at 9:10pm. I was 950 kilometers away from the airport at the time.
I had been traveling for nearly four months with a man I loved, but after too much time on the road together no longer liked, and, finally, I found myself without him on a small island in Southern Thailand. There was an Italian man who was nine years older than I was and the second day I knew him, I climbed barefoot onto the back of his motorbike so we could find the southern tip of the island where he was sure “his beach” was. When we found it, we ate glass noodle salad on the sand next to free-roaming elephants and watched the sun set over the Andaman Sea. I was dressed in only a bathing suit and sarong and he drove me back with one hand while rubbing my legs warm with the other.
On our third morning – what was to be my last – I woke on the hardwood floor of the damp bungalow we’d come to share to a mess of melted candle wax and limbs, and pages from his Australia Lonely Planet book and our quiet talk about making our way together. There was no mention of the airport and when the time for my bus came and went we wandered outside to the beach and laid down in the sand where Pablo wrapped me in a sheet and called me his American girl with strawberry hair.
I would have stayed longer had I not promised my mother I would be home for Christmas.
When I finally did go home, it was to my old loft in Bushwick. The ride from the airport was cold but I opened the windows to the cab and let the air burn my face, not wanting to miss what I had anticipated would be an impactful moment. I’d invented a cocktail of two ambien and some unknown quantity of Jim Beam on the plane in a futile attempt at sleep, though, so whatever moment may have occurred was lost on my sleepless, boozy brain and instead I rolled into my neighborhood without a cogent thought in my head and hauled my backpack up three flights of stairs to an apartment where the paint peeled back from the walls, the ceilings poured rain and the floors sloped to one side. Mice skirted around the exposed wiring in the fuse box.
I had turned 29 during the trip, a fact that presented itself unsolicited to my consciousness as I stared stupidly at my bed, the legs of which sat in dishes of five-month old cooking oil and were surrounded by a powdered poison – souvenirs from a bout of bed bugs before I’d left. It was there that I made another attempt at sleep, trying to unthink the facts of my present existence, namely that I had no job, a mountain of bills and the knowledge that I wasn’t capable of going back to the work that had sustained me through my 20s.
Some time later – twenty minutes or seven hours – I woke to the sound of the boyfriend I’d parted ways with in Bangkok pounding on my door. After we had both discerned that I was in fact alive, he left me in a puddle of tears on the poison powder-encircled bed and I slept in fits of sweat and Jim Beam and jet lag for two days.
In the weeks that followed, thinking of myself as a writer and grasping for some way to define my newly rootless self, I would daily trudge to my local coffee shop and attempt to write. The depression growing inside of me seemed inexplicable and made even this small event a problem for my ego. There was no way to reconcile the hopes I’d had for this period with the smallness of how I felt, and I tried to teach people to unsee me by avoiding eye contact and wearing giant sweatshirts that robbed me of any hints of sexuality I might have otherwise possessed.
The first in a string of odd jobs was a bartending gig at a drag queen cabaret in the East Village. Two of the specialties here were a Paulina’s Pink Pussy and a Jessabel’s Poo Tang, neither of which I could competently make and, though this period of underemployment could wholeheartedly be categorized as a disaster, I did, as a small bright point, receive makeup and general beauty advice from the queens I was working the bar with, some of which I still employ.
I can only assume that the breakdown that occurred six months or so after my return happened then because logistical necessities were sorted enough that they could no longer shield me from the central fact that I was failing at reintegrating into my life. Post-trip blues exploded into the quiet withdrawal of basic abilities. I remember telling a friend that I was scared, but not being able to name the fear. I only knew that things like hygiene, nutrition, lucidity, speaking weren’t the reflexive components of life they once were and that the foreign nature of the brain I was now working with was more terrifying to me than anything tangible I could imagine then or now.
The symptom I was most aware of for some reason was that seasons genuinely surprised me. The rest of the world seemed to be able to predict their comings and goings with ease, whereas I’d walk into a 90 degree day in June with a coat across my shoulders without being able to comprehend who had alerted all of the other pedestrians to the passage of time. I was still dealing with February. Wasn’t February enough to deal with? How had people found the mental space to acquire shorts? Where had I been?
I don’t know what the breakdown looked like from the outside. I have a close friend who recently told me that I was “learning to have fun again.” I imagine this means the lack of joy in my life was clear, but I’m not sure in what ways. I know that to live it was to live with two basic notions, namely that my friends’ reactions to my lame attempts at describing what was happening (when I finally realized that there was an ‘it’ and, secondarily realized that it was necessary to discuss it) made clear the fact that they had not experienced the kind of abstract dread I was trying to describe. A thing that is its own brand of loneliness piled on top of loneliness. The second was the withdrawal of my basic belief in the dignity and value of my existence.
My mind would snap to the moment I was conscious, reminding me of all the ways in which I had failed it and making waking up in the middle of the night to pee a ridiculous exercise in meditation. Trying to quiet my mind enough so that I could go back to sleep. This is when I decided that peeing in a bucket next to my bed was perfectly acceptable behavior. The less time my mind had to gallop into the loops, the easier it was for me to fall back asleep.
The trip was intended to be a new beginning for me but the end of the trip was the real critical event in this case.
This would have been a very peculiar idea to me two years ago.