I forget that not everyone grew up with flying cockroaches. When my brother-in-law got into grad school in Atlanta, I warned him about them, how they were most active after dark.
“You can kill them,” I said. “But not the big ones. If they’re pregnant, the babies will scatter across the room.”
He thought I was kidding until his cat caught one in the new apartment. It flew into the ceiling fan after he spat it back out.
I can see why my brother-in-law thought they weren’t real. They’re the subverted familiar, unsettling exactly because you have a basis to imagine them. I grew up with them, so I forget that they aren’t part of everyone’s history, that not everyone pounded on the walls in the summer to scare them away before bed.
I feel the same way about mental illness. When you explain depression to someone who has never experienced it firsthand, it sounds like something they can understand, but worse, sadness that can fly into your mouth at night. But for me, it’s always been there. Every person in my immediate family has an acute, chronic mental illness. We’ve all gone to therapy and support groups and taken medication. We never talk about our feelings but we pick each other up from the hospital and compare notes on side effects. My brother bitches that if it weren’t for Lithium he’d have more hair.
Even now, I can’t tell if what I just wrote is funny or not. You need the context. It helps if you know my brother, who thinks he could take over the world if he were just a few inches taller and had a stronger hairline. You have to know what Lithium treats. I am drowning in context.
Over the last year, after some trial and error with medication that left me worse than I started, I’ve been working to accept my depression as chronic, something to manage around the way I do any other unpleasant fact of the body. My therapist told me that when I was out of the severe episodes, I should make a list of small, manageable things that bring me joy so I don’t have to remember them when I won’t believe anything will help me.
I wrote the following:
Spotify’s Yacht Rock Playlist
Running ten miles
Chicken pot pie from scratch
Learning a new song on the piano
Nineties rom coms
Long trips to the grocery store
All My Puny Sorrows
Washing my hair
I titled it “Things that make me feel better.” I felt like a good therapy patient, then an even better one when I didn’t have to look at it for almost a year. When the time did come, I dutifully ticked every item off the list. If I’m being honest, none of it made me feel better, except for the list itself. It was a reminder that I was still myself somewhere, a person who liked good outfits and bad music and scheduled meetings around taking her dog to the beach. I put on leather pants to summon myself back. I’m not saying it worked, but I’m not saying it didn’t, either.
This May, during Mental Health Awareness Month, The Rumpus will be exploring this subject through the lens of the things that keep us going. Anna Borges describes these as what keeps us afloat when we’re not sure we can, or want to, keep going on our own. They can be passing driftwood or life preservers, but for however long, they help us keep our heads above water. Send us your essays on the things that keep you alive, that keep you tethered, that make you feel more like yourself when you’re not sure you know that person anymore. We are looking for stories that go beyond object lessons to tell us something bigger about how we make it through.
This call is now closed.
We welcome essay submissions between 1,000-4000 words in length. Essays must be previously unpublished. This includes personal blogs and social media. Given the time frame, submissions will be read on a rolling basis. Please send your work through Submittable.