I work around it.
All the disclaimers: I wrote this months ago, when I knew things were getting better and that I was (most likely) going to be all right. I wanted to remember what happened. So if you're reading this, I made it.
This is what it's like:
It's not like I was unfamiliar with depression or anxiety or simply being aware that life is incredibly painful sometimes, before.
I was unfamiliar with this.
This feeling of sadness so deep and heavy I stopped breathing sometimes. Remember falling off the monkey bars in elementary school? Hitting the pavement so hard, so hard that for a moment your brain forgets to tell your lungs how to inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale inhale exhale
Sometimes you'll be holding a baby or pulling the chicken out of the oven or washing your hair, and this will make you stop in terror, because once again you've forgotten how to breathe.
This started a few weeks after she was born. A grenade went off in my head—shrapnel rattling around—taking the place of reasonable thoughts, co-opting the work of synapses, sending the kind of messages that turn into news stories. Friends and relatives whispering I had no idea conspiratorially.
And the ones that have exactly an idea stay quiet. Mostly because we're/they're afraid of what happens if we talk too much, try to explain too much, try to name the black hole that's suddenly and inexplicably devouring us from the inside out. I still see its eyes in the dark.
Everyday I went to work. Taught history. Made my students laugh. Came home. Made dinner. Nursed the baby, sang songs with the toddler, answered the phone, met deadlines, earned money, got help.
Everyone tells you to get "help." So you ask your spouse who tells you to call your midwife, who tells you to contact a therapist, who refers you to a psychiatrist, who tells you they aren't taking any openings for three more months. Get help. Start again.
The nurse on the other end of the phone tells you to try and sleep. Get some rest. Take care of yourself. Everyone is very worried about you.
Meanwhile, your body is carrying on. Making milk, keeping you alive, keeping the baby alive, completely oblivious to the fact that at any moment the marching orders might change.
Sometimes, all you can do is keep perfectly still. Focus every single atom on pushing back against this.
It feels like being on fire and bones breaking. No one tells you that this, that mental illness, that post-partum depression, anxiety, insanity, that whatever the hell is happening feels like scraped knees and drowning and fractured bones and fire.
I don't love David Foster Wallace the way his intended audience does, but yes, he is right. It does feel like the choice between staying in a burning building and jumping out the window.
Stay in the building. Don't move. Every minute you stay whole and don't shatter a fire dies down, turns into softly burning embers that you can walk on, your body carried by scarred and calloused feet— all while holding the baby, making dinner, nursing, meeting deadlines, reading stories, trying to take care of yourself, and yes, getting all the help—your medicine cabinet becomes exciting and your schedule devoted to appointments.
More than anything, you want to feel joy. You remember what it tastes like (chocolate) and what it feels like (drying off after a swim on warm cement) and what it looks like (all your friends sitting around your table or draped over your couch, laughing)
You'd also like to sleep.
I don't have an answer. I didn't drive into a lake, drown anyone in a bathtub, or run head-on into traffic. I got better until I didn't, and then got better again. New gray matter grew over the bright shards of metal lodged in my brain. It's still there. I work around it.