Breathing Again  

by Tricia Menzel

“I guess... I guess it’s just hard waking up every morning and...” I trailed off, looking down at

my hands as I circled my thumbs around one another.
“Waking up every morning and wishing that maybe you hadn’t?”
I nodded and pulled my gaze up slowly from my lap, wary to see the reaction of my therapist.

These sessions had become a staple of my time at home, and for the first several months they were one of the only things I looked forward to. It was now January, already four long months since I had dropped out of college and first met with Kathy, but my depression was quite the overachiever. Depression never would have even dreamed of leaving me with a shortage of material to have psychoanalyzed.

As my eyes came to meet Kathy’s, I found that I couldn’t quite decipher the look she was wearing. Her face was soft and round, even when her eyebrows were furrowed together.

Was it pity? Sadness? Both?
“When did you start feeling this way?” Kathy asked, trying to pull more out of me.
“A couple months ago,” I said meekly, almost in a whisper.
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” She pressed further, and I merely shrugged in reply. It’s not that I didn’t want to talk about it, it’s more that I couldn’t. I was normally so well

practiced in articulating my thoughts, poring for hours on Kathy’s blue couch over the breakup I was enduring, the tension between my parents and me, and the general distance growing between me and those I loved most dearly. But this? This was different. The size of this burden was one I had never found myself beneath before.

Every time I imagined how I would tell someone, the words were never a true reflection of how I felt. The select times when I actually did find the strength to finally begin unscrewing my jaw to try and speak, I felt like I was pushing rocks up my throat. Any pieces I could maneuver out were words that never felt like they fit in my mouth quite right, words that only came out in unintelligible fragments. All I had to work with were scraps of feelings and thoughts I was left scrambling to connect. Even if I was able

to stitch these thoughts into words, I never felt like I was alleviating my burden but rather that I was creating more weight to put on the chests of others.

“Do your parents know you feel this way?”

I almost laughed in response at the absurdity of Kathy’s question. My parents were probably the last people I ever wanted to tell. Not because I didn’t love them, not because coming home from college hadn’t brought us closer than ever before, but because there is truly no right way to tell the people that breathed life into you that you have become disenchanted with that gift.

“No, I could never tell them,” I replied, my chest tightening even at the thought of it.

“Why not? You know your mother has been through the same thing, maybe she could help you work through this from the knowledge of her own experience,” Kathy countered, leaning forward to clasp her hands around her knee.

I shrugged again, unable to find the words to reply. You see, I imagined telling Kathy, I can’t tell my parents because it’s not that I want to kill myself. What I want is to be happy and full of life, to laugh in a way that feels natural and relaxed instead of heavy and arduous. What I want is to stop draining all those who have been snared by the guilt of not wanting to abandon the depressed girl. But it’s been months, and I’m not getting any closer to that. So, it’s not that I want to kill myself, it’s just that after your tenth time hitting rock bottom, it sometimes doesn’t feel like there’s a more viable option.

The morning after I dropped out of college, I woke up to my dad poking his head through the crack of my bedroom door. He walked in tentatively, pausing before my bed to reach up and turn the ceiling light on. I squinted through the sudden bright light, my gaze coming to rest on the now-exposed red eyes and flushed cheeks of my father’s face.

“Good morning,” he said, approaching my bed slowly and offering me a hand up. “Hi,” I squeaked, grabbing his hand to support me as I raised myself from my bed.

We stood face to face for a moment, and I watched the tears well up in his eyes before he pulled me in for a hug. I remember when I was a little girl, I used to hug my dad so tightly that I would squeeze

the air out of his lungs. Now, I hugged him only by reaction, lightly wrapping my arms over my father's shoulders. I could feel his chest rising jaggedly against my face as he began to cry.

“I’m so sorry you’ve been feeling this way for so long,” my dad croaked, his voice stifled by tears.

Standing there, engulfed in my own father’s weeping embrace, I wondered how on Earth I had gotten here. Dropping out of college in early September definitely hadn’t helped, but depression crept in far before I began packing to go away to university.

So, what could have possibly been the source of such an intense depression? My life wasn’t terrible. In fact, I was entirely cognizant of all the evidence that proved I was incredibly blessed. My parents were together in a loving relationship, I had gotten accepted into a wonderful university with a hefty scholarship, and I was dating someone who I believed to be the love of my life. My depression was not borne of circumstance, but rather just faulty genetics and a powerful chemical imbalance in my brain.

Regardless, depression colored everything in my life a bleak gray, it barred me from feeling the happiness associated with a life overflowing with reasons to be grateful. Ironically, what it did not bar me from was the crippling guilt of not feeling that happiness. That was the hardest element of depression to shake: the guilt. It wrung gratitude out of me like a sweaty gym towel, it threw its ragged claws over my eyes and told me to trust its ugly description of my world. It turned every helping hand offered to me into a threat, knowing that so long as I was kept from the light, guilt could continue to fester within me.

The greatest acts of rebellion against my guilt were in the simplest things; telling myself I was deserving of health, happiness, and light. I fought it constantly, firmly disputing the idea that I am, or ever was, a burden.

It happened one insignificant day while I was driving to work. On this particular morning, I remember how the sky was clear enough to let the sun break through (an anomaly for Midwest winters). I was singing along quietly to the radio with the light washing over my face when I was overcome with an

unfamiliar feeling. It was brief, as quickly gone as it had come, but it was definitely there. For the first time in several long months, I felt happy.

Healing from depression felt like finally coming up for air only to realize I had forgotten how to breathe. Or rather, not that I didn’t know how to breathe, but that something normally so reflexive felt overwhelmingly calculated. I had been underwater for so long that the act of breathing seemed to occupy all of my conscious mind, yet in spite of all this vigilant effort, it never felt quite right.

Is this how I’m supposed to be breathing? Is this what breathing feels like for other people?

Depression had severely distorted my sense of self. So much of who I was (or rather, who I thought I was) had been tainted, leaving me unable to distinguish what was me versus what was a consequence of depression. Things I thought were part of me, like my dislike of movies, conversation, and getting out of bed before noon, were merely symptoms of depression. Symptoms that began to dwindle in relevance as healing took place.

But who was I without these things? Negative as these traits may have been, they were still a part of my self-concept. Their absence was not immediately filled, and I found myself standing before enormous gaps in my identity that I had no idea how to bridge.

It took me a very long time to realize that my life was not ruined, but rather just needed a reset. I was well aware that this change couldn’t happen overnight, seeing as I certainly didn’t have the strength to hit the ground running in any respect. Instead, I had to start with more of a shuffle than a sprint. I learned to hold on tightly to the little victories, like when I finally picked up my guitar again after a long hiatus. Or when I found myself in the middle of a laughing fit with my best friends, the kind that makes your sides scream.

From these moments, I began to rebuild myself from scratch. Piece by piece, I rediscovered hobbies that I thought I had simply outgrown, hobbies that depression had previously sucked all the enjoyment out of. I didn’t return to who I was before depression, because that person was a bright-eyed high school freshman. Although she was as wonderful as a fifteen-year-old could be, almost everything about her was a skin I had long outgrown. So instead, I constructed a new normal; a new “me”.

To be candid, this piece will never feel properly finished. Every time I sit to try and write of last year, I never quite feel like I’m doing my emotions justice. I’ve spent hours on this piece alone, trying to stitch together my experience into relative coherence. But I’ve come to realize that there will always be elements of last year too complex to put into words, that there are parts of mental illness too twisted to convey linguistically. I can write piece after piece on my experience (and I have), but there will always be a hollow feeling that I could never hit the nail on the head. To some extent, it will continue to feel like I’m trying to describe the moon with a naked eye.

The challenge, then, is to try. I know that my story is unique, but it is certainly not rare. And so I will continue to scrape up what I can of my experience in hopes that there will be someone who will read my story and think, “Finally, someone has felt what I have.”