By Nicole Gibbs
I pulled my dirty, fifteen year old mom van into the farthest corner of the parking lot. The same spot where years ago I’d waited for my connect, and later where I’d waited for people who were willing to buy my bad dope at a jacked up price. I turned the car off and glanced around, those old instincts on full alert. I reached down and brought the brown paper bag into my lap. I pulled out the greasy “Siracha Burger,” the box of curly fries. I made sure no one was looking and I tried to ignore the tendrils of guilt that teased at the edges of my consciousness as I bit into the spicy, salty burger.
Halfway through the guilt won out for a few moments and I paused, taking some deep breaths, my throat tight with food.
What was I doing?
I was a vegetarian!
I was on a diet!
Oh jeez. Quit being so uptight, I told myself. It’s one goddamn burger. It’s not the end of the world.
I didn’t want to keep eating it. I hated myself more with each bite. But it tasted so good! I couldn’t stop.
What was wrong with me?
What was the difference between this and the drugs? I mean, of course I wasn’t going to abandon my kids and go live on the streets so that I could eat Jack in the Box all the time. That would be ridiculous. But really, at the core, what was the difference? I used to sit in this same parking lot, watching the same city bus roll by, the Mexican families sitting at the Mc Donald’s across the street with too many kids running around, the same dirty street, the same fear of being seen, the same war going on inside of me, the same self-loathing afterwards. On a scientific level it’s all the same too, I suppose. I put this stuff into my body that’s really bad for me and it lights up all those dopamine receptors and I feel good for a minute and then I feel bad and want more.
I’m not sure which comes first, the depression or the eating. From mid-December through mid-June I’ll feel increasingly better. I’ll work out and eat well and lose 20lbs and feel fantastic. But by the end of June I’ll begin to feel the light slipping away. The few minutes of daytime lost every day will begin to accumulate in my bones, making me want to just stay in bed. As the days grow shorter so will my lack of self-control. The darkness will be a blanket on my body, thickening my waistline, weighing down my breasts. On December 21st, when the daylight flees fastest, I’ll be my heaviest, my thoughts will be at their darkest, my energy level at its lowest. It will slowly come back over the following months.
December is hard.
“Oh here!” My mom handed me a sweater. “It’s your Christmas present.” It was December 27th.
I checked the tag. Large.
“I hope it fits” she said as she dug through her closet looking for other forgotten gifts.
I hoped so too.
I’ve heard people say it’s like being underwater. Everything slows down, you can see people up on the surface, having fun and you’re just swimming around, everything’s muted. Then, before you even know what’s happening, you’re drowning and you can’t find the surface anymore and it’s scary and dark.
I don’t know if that’s entirely accurate.
For me it’s like this:
I go along fine for a while. I feel great. I’m on top of everything, I’m doing all of my mom stuff, all of my student stuff, I’m a rock star at work. I’m working out every day and eating right and then something comes along and shakes things up. It’s usually something little… a weekend trip, a meal at the in-laws, an extra class I need to cram into my already packed schedule, a deadline, one of my kids getting in trouble at school, you know, normal life stuff. But something will happen to throw me off just a little bit. It will be subtle at first. A little stumble. I won’t even notice it until I’m looking back.
And then it’s like this:
Everything is going its normal speed around me and I can’t keep up. All the daily things are happening and I’m two steps behind. I can’t get the kids to school on time, I forget to feed them breakfast, I’m late to work. I skip my workout classes because I’m behind on homework. I eat whatever because I don’t have time to plan anything. I lose my desire to cook because that takes time so we eat pizza for dinner three times in one week.
“She used to be different.” My son says to my husband. “You’re changing her.”
“It’s not my fault! Your mom’s just having a hard time right now,” my husband says.
“Can you guys just stop fighting?” I go to the bedroom and close the door.
And then Christmas comes and the kids are happy. They get some great gifts and I feel like I’m watching it all from another room.
I have so much to be happy about. My life is better than it’s ever been.
I wonder if I ever enjoyed this holiday.
I find the box up in my brain labeled “Christmas” and I begin pulling out little bubble scraps of memory. Most of them are no longer complete, but there are some good ones. And some bad ones. In comparison, this one is better than most. So where is that feeling of happiness? I go through the motions and mostly I just don’t feel much of anything and occasionally I’ll get angry about something and at least I feel that but then I feel guilty for being angry (it’s Christmas time after all!) and then I feel worried because it’s the only thing that seems to be getting through.
Anhedonia: noun an·he·do·nia \ˌan-(ˌ)hē-ˈdō-nē-ə, -nyə\: a psychological condition characterized by inability to experience pleasure in normally pleasurable acts.
I lie awake at night thinking about all these words to describe how I feel, but when I go to write them they’re gone. All I want to do is lie in bed and eat junk and read books that transport me to another place and time. My heart hurts and I’m just so tired.
“I made you a picture mommy,” my youngest tells me showing a rainbow heart at me.
“I love it baby,” I tell her, laying it on the bed next to me.
I find it the next day in the bathroom. I leave it there, on top of the cat box. It looks cheerful there.
I know what I’m supposed to do. I know. I need to be proactive. Take control and battle it. Practice my self-care, call a doctor even. I haven’t been on meds in years. There have been some points where I should have been. I remember driving my car home one night, going 80 on the cramped San Diego freeway. I’d worked a 12 hour shift and I was on the phone with my husband, arguing. It took every bit of willpower I had to not drive my car into the side wall, over the edge of the 30 foot drop off the cliff to on my right.
Yeah, there’ve been times when I should have been on meds.
But here’s something:
The meds all make me gain weight. They make me want to eat and eat and eat. They make me swell up with puffy anti-depression.
And here’s something else:
Exercise has proven to be just as effective as some antidepressants.
And one more thing:
Antidepressants make the lows not so low, but they also make the highs not so high.
It’s not like that. It’s not about getting high anymore. I mean the normal highs and lows of life are not as high and low, which is good as far as the lows go. But I have a hard enough time appreciating the joys of life. To dampen that seems almost as bad as the alternative.
I do believe in medication when it’s needed. That needs to be clear. I’ve found ways to manage. Ways to cope. I’ve built safeguards into my life. I have a safety plan. I know my warning signs and I’m learning to be honest with people. I tell people when I’m depressed. I talk about it with my friends, my coworkers, my teachers. This is difficult because there’s the stigma. That word that has come to be associated with mental unwellness. Sometimes people tell me things like “cheer up” or “it can’t be that bad” or “look on the bright side.”
They don’t know.
Occasionally people understand though. Sometimes I tell someone “I’ve been feeling depressed recently,” and they say “I love you.”
That doesn’t make it better, it doesn’t fix it. But it’s comforting to know that some people don’t see me as broken.
“Mrs. Rubinstein?” Someone from the kids’ school is on the phone.
“It’s Gibbs,” I respond.
“My last name is Gibbs. My kids are Rubinstein. I’m not.” My kids have gone to this school for four years now.
“Oh. Well, listen, I have your son in the office here and I’m going to need you to come in right away and pick him up.”
“Oh. What happened?”
“He brought a lighter to school. We’ll talk about it more when you get here.”
My son is ten years old. He’s a smart kid. Advanced for his age. Mature. Always has been. He has this incredible brain that likes to know exactly how and why things work.
He also has ADHD. Which means that sometimes he’s a very difficult child. Sometimes he can’t focus on anything. Sometimes, when he is hyper-focused on something, there’s no way to get his attention without it becoming a fight. It also means that sometimes he has a difficult time controlling his impulses. Sometimes he makes very bad decisions. Often, he says things that he shouldn’t say and doesn’t really mean.
When I get to the office he’s there, on his scooter, in the waiting area.
“What happened dude?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“Does this look familiar?” The Vice Principal laid a white lighter on the table in front of me.
“No,” I said. “I don’t smoke.”
“He brought a condom too,” she told me. I didn’t bother to tell her that my tubes are tied and my husband and I haven’t used condoms since… ever.
I shrug my shoulders. We walk home together.
He’s almost as tall as me. He kicks his scooter along beside me.
“I love you,” I tell him.
Sometimes, on the really bad days, I can’t answer my phone. Even if it’s a friend calling. Even if it’s the kids school. Sometimes, I send it to voicemail and then listen to the message immediately and never return the call. Sometimes I eat a whole box of Girl Scouts cookies.
A friend of mine lost her battle with cancer two weeks ago. Her daughter is one of my daughter’s best friends. We didn’t know she was dying. That sounds crazy. I mean, we are all dying, every day, right? And, well, she did have cancer. But my friend… she was doing good. She was happy and smiles and white light. She went the natural route, some sort of peroxide treatments, vegan, gluten free diet… and you know what? It worked. The cancer was gone, and she was healthier and happier than ever. Months, even a year went by like that. We went to a Tool concert together and she sat back with her eyes closed and just listened as the music filled up every little bit of space, the sweetest smile on her face.
And then bam, her arm was swollen.
Then I was sitting at her memorial service, her celebration of life, in her backyard, surrounded by all of her friends and family that I hadn’t met because we were friends, but we weren’t, like, best friends. Anyway, I’m sitting there with my daughter and it’s all peaceful and serene and all of her friends and family are talking about her, about how they can feel her presence, about how she isn’t gone, just existing on another plane, and for a few minutes it’s just beautiful, you know? Cupcakes with teal frosting at a memorial service.
But then I realized that I was the only one there who seemed to not “feel her presence.” In fact, I wasn’t feeling much of anything. The sun was right in my eyes and they released some balloons and I wondered about the potential environmental impact those balloons might have. I ate four pieces of butter cake.
They were small pieces.
And I questioned my beliefs for a while, like why I didn’t have the ability to believe in anything as strongly as other people seem to? Why did I feel so wishy-washy about spirituality and life and death and what happens when we are gone? Would I be able to stick to a vegan diet if I had cancer?
My daughter cried when it was time to leave.
“I just want to stay and play for a while,” she told me, tears in her eyes.
“Let her stay,” an elderly lady said as she lit a cigarette in the driveway.
When I got home I went into my bathroom and the rainbow heart that my daughter made me was still sitting there on the cat box, only someone had dripped water all over it and the marker colors had bled all over each other and instead of a rainbow it looked more like a muddy, droopy heart.
That seemed appropriate so I left it there some more.
I noticed the first day it was still light out when I left work. I felt it. I didn’t eat any junk that day.
Nicole Gibbs is a student at UC Riverside’s MFA program. She can be found on Twitter as @nicoleanngibbs.