After a sweltering August, summery sun like liquid gold, I was fully expecting August to stick with us through September. I was counting on more beach days with my daughter and more early mornings on the paddleboard for me and more weekday evenings walking around the park with a popsicle listening to the cicadas drone. September, it seems, has other plans. We went to the beach early on Monday, too early, we were almost the first people there except the sunrise watchers and the volleyball players and it was like the beach wanted to turn us back to where we came from. The sand at the edges was covered in seagull shit. A different pair of hostile bees guarded every couple of square feet we tried to lay our towels. I watched a woman walking her laps down by the water with a halo of bees flitting around her crown. After we settled, chased away the birds and nervously eyed the bees, we jumped in the water and, good Lord, I have never known such a hasty rejection. Just four days ago the water was fine; now it was frigid. I tried to fake it for my daughter–I always think the water is too cold and it always warms up when I go under–but today even her thick kid skin was not impervious to the change. “It’s cooooold, mama. Can we go back to the sand?”
Since labor day, the sky’s been gray and drizzling rain and it’s cool enough to trade short shorts and baggy tanks for the fall uniform: leggings and a cardigan and a pair of rubber wellingtons for walks. I felt the season shift before the weather did. Truth be told, I’ve felt it since the full moon last week. It feels like something wild inside me being summoned by something wilder outside. It wants to break out. It also feels the opposite of that, like something yawning open inside me wants to pull the wild in. I wonder, briefly, if this sensation is new, something I’m only noticing since I started studying the wheel of the year and the witchy holidays: Imbolc in February, Beltane in May, Lammas just past, and Samhain still to come, I can practically feel it crackling under my skin.
I know I’ve been sensitive to the shifts longer than that, though. Fall is always a darkening. First I was nostalgic for something I never experienced–crunchy leaves and football games and pumpkin ales–and even after my life did look like that the fall still made me sad. I marked the days with sad songs and rain tracking down the window of the bus, the car. I never wanted to be where I was going. In the fall I wanted to get blotto, to disappear in a cave of pills and TV and not come out ’til Christmas and even then only briefly, reserving my rights to go back under until spring.
So, summer to fall always messes me up good and this year we have so little to look forward to, no back to school, no tailgates, no fall festivals or trick or treat, no nights out with my mom friends and, I fear, no police reform, no new administration, no justice, no peace. I was sad at first, but under the sadness I feel something more savage rising up.
This Sunday is Rally Day at my church. Usually, there would be balloons and a procession of children to start the service and a picnic and a pledge drive to kick off the new church year. I can’t worship in my church right now.
I can leave offerings for the trees.
I can clear space on my altar, start bringing the earth inside.
I can source ingredients for simple spells.
I can burn sandalwood and brew tea for dream magic.
I can light a fire under my intentions and will the world to change.
I can sit inside a sacred circle, stand up, and take a step in a new direction.
I can practice the craft the craft that carried women where Christianity refused to go, that served women when Christianity wouldn’t, that let women and the world be wild.
The world is rewilding itself now. I’m still civilized enough but hating it in this new incarnation. Without all the barbeques and picnics and parties to trick yourself into thinking there’s a point, I’m thinking, what’s the point? Maybe in the midst of another month of stupid sameness, it’s time for something radically different. I’m not talking about purple hair or a new house. I’m talking about a whole new worldview.
The first time I experienced depression in a way that I could confidently describe as depression was six years ago. Of course I’ve known the lowlands just about my whole life, I just didn’t know what they were called. I was a moody child before I was an angsty before literature turned me melancholic and then nihilistic. Music made me emo but I called it the blues. For the whole of my late teens and twenties I thought I could blame my suffering on my bad choices, on stress. It wasn’t until I was living the life I always wanted, apartment in the treetops in an old brick neighborhood in Chicago, working a big job, married to the man I’d loved since I was nineteen, mom to the daughter of my dreams, and I still felt total shit that I admitted maybe something was going on with my brain. I thought I needed I diagnosis to call it depression and I didn’t have the bandwidth to do get myself to a doctor back then so I called it seasonal affective disorder, ordered a happy lamp, and called it a day. Did you know that the original studies on seasonal affective disorder involved patients with bipolar illnesses who experienced an inversion of the winter doldrums in the form of extreme high moods and energy in the summer? The flipside of seasonal affective disorder is summer-mania. For me, depression felt manageable because it really was seasonal. Winter was brutal but spring was like waking up again. Winter was the price I paid for glorious summer and summer was like a months-long high. Fall was fine as long as the light came through the leaves and there were apples to pick and cider to drink but also dangerously nostalgic and increasingly apprehensive as the sun fell back. The highs and lows have ebbed and flowed over the years but the seasonality of my moods persisted through marriage and parenthood and illness and work–all manner of things that are no respecter of the calendar.
The novel coronavirus might have disrupted the cycle. It sure fucked everything else up, and it came close to killing spring. All those flowers blooming out of the trees and mama birds breakfast out of the dirt and I just wandered around town sobbing openly. A friend reached out awhile back, one who had sussed out that I wasn’t well. We talked about this blog and how much it’s helped me. He suggested that random crying jags would make a good post. “I hope you aren’t,” he said, but he “had a feeling.” I almost did write about it but I was embarrassed to admit that on the worst days I was listening to Lana Del Rey who not only was actively being cancelled for racist and incomprehensible posts on social media but is like shooting depressants straight into my brain. Is asking a depressed person what music she’s listening to like asking a victim of sexual assault what she was wearing?
When I responded to my friend, I didn’t tell him about the Lana Del Rey. What I did say: “I’m trying not to make my blog too much of a cry or help even if that’s totally what it is lol.”
There are people who have thanked me for my openness, who’ve said it helped them. There are more people who haven’t said anything at all. For most of those people, it’s fine, whatever. Not everybody needs to read my blog and not everybody who reads needs to comment. For others, silence is its own statement. There are people who’ve asked, reasonably, “Um, don’t you have a job?” I would’ve hoped the widespread conversation around vulnerability that Brene Brown ushered into the cultural zeitgeist and the ensuing shift in viewing vulnerability as an asset rather than a liability would preempt some of those questions, but I get it. I do. I’m aware that emotional volatility isn’t a good look, emotional exhibitionism even less so.
What is it, exactly, that I’m doing here?
I haven’t thought about relapse since I got sick, but by god I mentally beat that horse to death in the spring. Perhaps contrary to pandemic logic, my thinking about drinking had little to do with numbing or escaping or feigning a return to normalcy. I didn’t drink like a lady and I don’t want to, not even in my dreams. Instead, at their height, my drinking fantasies looked like me drinking too much and somebody I love scooping me up and taking me home. They were their own cry for help.
What I wanted then is what I want now is what I wanted always. I want you to see me, to see that it’s hard to be me, and to love me anyway.
Of course it’s easier to beg for love than to receive it. Months ago my mom tentatively suggested that maybe this time of isolation has been harder on some than others and I bristled. I know this is hard for everyone. I know my life is too easy to go on and on about how hard it is for me.
I’m actually doing okay right now. The pandemic has amplified every part of the seasonal mood cycle. This winter was longest and darkest and coldest it’s ever been. Spring too. But summer, oh summer, summer was a honeyed gift from the gods. COVID was no match for the summer sun. Obviously that’s not true in any kind of technical sense. The virus lives on in heat and light and kills people on vacation, but the news that the fresh air disperses the virus pulled us out of our houses and into a new form of community. The ability to say yes to some things made me want to say yes to everything. Playdate in the front yard? Yes! After dinner trip to the playground? Yes! Early morning beach trip? Yes! Weekend mini-golfing? Yes! Lunch dessert? Yes! Is how I ended up overextended and overexposed, literally, after doing too much last weekend? Also yes? Is this summer-mania? Is this just what it feels like to not be depressed? Is this a communal phenomenon, a moment of much-needed relief from pandemic fatigue, a last gasp of freedom before we settle into our first fall and second winter still in the grips of an unpreventable untreatable disease? Whatever it is, I’ll take it.
The only reason I’m writing this today because I don’t need your help today. This is not an accomplishment. My present current okayness is not of my own virtue or volition. I haven’t figured any of this out. I am not going to give you a listicle about how I hauled myself out of a COVID summer slump or cured my pandemic fatigue. I’m not healed, for god’s sake. The only thing going on here is that depression is cyclical and I’m all jacked up on vitamin D and a bit of human interaction.
I will probably need help in the fall.
I will definitely need it in the winter.
I might even need it tonight after I hear from my husband how our daughter’s first day of school went.
If you’ve been reading here for awhile, you know about my daughter’s nightmares (all about dead animals, recurring since March), but you don’t know about mine. I’ve been a terrible sleeper since childhood, when I started hearing footie pajamas with nobody inside them shuffling around in the basement at night and facing my own recurring dreams about oversized disembodied faces looming out of the walls and hands scuttling across the floor. In high school, the demons crawled under and over and through my bedroom door and started visiting. There was the sensed presence, the shadowy figure that stood at my bedroom door or sometimes the foot of my bed or sometimes right next to my bed, staring down at me. There was the girl with all the hair from The Ring lying in my sister’s bed. There was the sinewy humanoid crouched on my chest pressing down so I couldn’t breathe. There were the actual demons getting up in my face, breathing, leering, readying themselves to steal my soul. The creatures visited at all hours of the night whenever I was in the liminal state halfway between wake and sleep and when they came I couldn’t move or scream, though I tried to. Sometimes I hallucinated myself flipping and spinning bodily getting all tangled up in the blankets in my bed of an accord another than my own, like the little girl from The Excorcist, but I was mostly immobile save for my fingers twitching on top of the sheet. Sometimes I imagined that I was groaning loudly enough to stir my sister or summon my parents but in reality I was silent save for heavy breathing that didn’t disturb anyone but me. These nightmares, night terrors, whatever they were, scared the living shit out of me, but I never breathed a word of them to anyone. I guess the nightly battle for my soul seemed like something I should keep private? I couldn’t fathom what help anybody could give me. I already knew how to banish the demons. I never remembered the trick until the terror just about overtook me, but eventually a bit of religious folklore I’d picked up being raised in the church would come to me and I’d start praying the demons away like my life depended on it, casting them out in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost. It always worked. Not right away,but eventually.
Ironically, the incubus crawled in and landed on top of me around the same time Incubus was dominating the radio airwaves with Make Yourself, without me having any idea it had a name, a history, or scientific explanation, and the waking nightmares, night terrors, whatever they were stayed with me for years, even after I got on the internet and figured out that what I was experiencing was sleep paralysis, a phenomenon that is well-documented, well-understood, and common. Well, how about that. I wasn’t uniquely haunted. I hadn’t broken my brain with teenage substance abuse.
I mostly sorted my sleep problems out when I learned about sleep hygiene from a therapist some five years ago. When I collapsed on her couch I was a hot, tangled mess of anxiety and depression and compulsion and fear, and the only homework she gave me out of that first session was to fix my sleep, which made me figure it was pretty important, so I did. I’m still a light sleeper and vivid dreamer but the nightmares are mostly gone and I haven’t had a bout of sleep paralysis in years.
Until this week. You know that was coming, right? You know this pandemic is clawing back all our hard-won mental health victories. You know the novel coronavirus isn’t the only part of this pandemic that’s deadly.
This past weekend was great, really great, it felt almost like a regular summer weekend. We went mini-golfing on Saturday morning and it felt safe enough being outdoors, with timed entries, masks on until we got on the course, one group to a hole. Afterward, we drove out to Dairy Queen for Blizzards to celebrate our seven-year-old’s hole-in-one, a pandemic miracle for a kid who swings her club like a granny with a bowling ball, and that felt safe enough, too with the restaurant rejiggered for people to order and pickup at the side doors with masks on and six feet of distance between customers in line. We are our ice cream in the car. Saturday evening we hosted an old friend driving through Chicago on our porch and stayed up late into to night chatting a little about the last decade and a lot about the last six months. Sunday morning, I had promised my daughter a beach day, and I worked hard to make it a responsible outing, waking up stupid early and throwing breakfast in a ziploc baggie for the car so that we could be at the beach by 7:30 and out in under two hours. We kept our masks on until we found a good spot for our towels far away from the other early risers and I was vigilant about maintaining a buffer between us and everyone on the sand, in the water, all the time. Sunday afternoon I saw that our town’s summer art fair was still on for that weekend–another pandemic miracle–so I signed up for a late afternoon entry and spent a glorious masked hour talking to artisans and looking at art (including dropping serious money here and picking up a print from here). Sunday night we grilled. The rain was coming down hard so we ate inside just our family but first we dropped a plate of food off at the neighbors’ since they’ve been sharing all manner of cheesy, chivey breads and braised pork with us since May. God, it was such a good weekend. Before bed, my husband and I sat on the couch drinking tea and half-watching our current go-to series for comfort TV and one of us mentioned how much this winter is going to suck when we are all stuck inside the house again and our favorite festivities are cancelled and my seasonal affective disorder kicks into high gear.
Drifting off to sleep on Sunday night should have been easy, I was so worn out. Instead my brain lit up with rapid-fire images of death and fear, scenes from every horror movie I’ve ever seen and every violent news article I’ve ever read plus some grisly originals courtesy of my own overactive imagination. Lots of Pennywise, lots of children suffering, spliced with shots of evil men and psychologically tattered mother figures. I’ve learned a lot about how to get along with my mind in the last half decade so I practiced not resisting the thoughts but letting them float in and out like clouds against a blue sky. I reassured the scared child inside me that it’s okay to be scared, and perfectly understandable, because we live in scary times. The pictures peeled away and I fell asleep.
I woke up screaming silently at 2 am. The dream had been disturbing. I was trying to make tea in the kitchen but kept fumbling, dropped the bag, spilling the water, knocking over the mug. Every time I righted the mug and looked away it was upside down again when I looked back. I turned to call out to my husband in the next room to laugh with me and reassure me that I was clumsy not crazy, but he was staring in horror at something off to the side behind a wall I could not see. I knew without knowing that it was an intruder, that someone had let himself into our house and come up stairs without either of us hearing, and I knew from the way my husband wasn’t saying anything that we were in trouble. When I joined him in the living room I saw that I was right. The creature was huge, hulking, a man without a face, just stubble sprouting out of the vast pink expanse on the front of his head. He turned his mass toward me and, unable to cope with the menace, my brain startled awake. Unfortunately, my body didn’t, and I found myself pinned to the bed with the old hallucinations, clawing the sheets with stiff fingers and moaning my husband’s name through closed lips. After a miserable eternity he came to and pulled my physical form to safety.
The dream logic is obvious. The faceless intruder is COVID, impersonal, invasive, impervious to locked doors. The return of the sleep paralysis is my powerlessness in the face of the pandemic. The reel of death as I drifted off to sleep is because the tradeoff for a fun summer weekend is a whole lot of risk. Nightmares are the new hangovers, inflicting maximum shame and regret for too much fun the day before. Even if we were careful, even if each activity felt safe, even if we followed all the protocols, we did too much. Last year, cramming too much into a weekend meant we’d end up exhausted and grumpy. Now, someone might die.
I don’t know how to strike the right balance between preserving my own mental health and somebody else’s physical safety. I don’t know if it’s unforgivably selfish to even consider the former in the same breath as the latter. What’s the line between catastrophizing and respecting the severity of the global health crisis? What’s the line between anxiety-induced hypervigilance and obsessive over-responsibility and being a good citizen? How do I responsibly care for myself and my family and you? If mental health starts with a good night’s sleep, what do we do when the nightmare of daily living infiltrates our dreams?
After a disappointing day at the Chicago Botanic Gardens, we booked a weekend at a campground tucked inside the Cook County Forest Preserves just outside Chicago. We’d camped there just once a few years ago and stuck it in our back pockets as a quick and easy weekend getaway that we never took again because, logistically speaking, camping is not actually the easiest way to spend a weekend, even if the site is close to home. We had plenty of energy, though, stockpiled from doing next to nothing for two-thirds of a summer, and executed the planning and prep with just a few days turnaround, booking the site on Monday and driving out there on Friday afternoon. It would take over an hour to cover less than forty miles because Chicago traffic is miserable even in a pandemic and a city doing it’s best to keep everyone at home, but I didn’t even mind. I sat in the front seat, cracking sunflower seeds and blasting a science podcast with D in the backseat losing her mind over her first-ever 7/11 Slurpee and sketching with a little set of waterproof notebooks and colored pencils we’d given her that morning.
The Slurpee was my husband’s idea. We both grew up on a gas station food but his drug of choice was (is still?) the sickly sweet syrupy slush of Slurpee in the most alarming flavors and colors available. Even as a kid, I dismissed Slurpees as a vile. True to my mountain west Mormon heritage I was nursing a 32 ounce Diet Dr. Pepper by twelve. If pressed, I will slurp a reasonable flavor, like Wild Cherry. My husband on the other hand. I’ve seen him purchase with his own hard earned adult coin a slime green Shrek Slurpee. Though buying my daughter her first Slurpee on the way to camp was my husband’s idea, he was not there it execute it, having decided to turn the trip out of the city in a pandemic into a feat of a different kind: a 100-mile bike ride that started with him leaving our house at 8:00 am and riding way down through Chicago’s south side almost to Indiana before looping west and rolling into the campsite at 3:30. That left me on my own at 2:30 to brave the inside of the 7/11 with my seven year old. We stopped at the store in Skokie, spritzed our hands with sanitizer, pulled on our masks, and stepped into the cool, familiar smell of the corner store and breathed in deep. Ahhhh. Advisable in a pandemic? Probably not, but I will never not love that smell of sweetness tinged with rot as long as it’s in a corner store and not, say, in the top notes of a wine I once tried in Frankenmuth, Michigan. Could we, should we, have beelined for the Slurpee machine in the back of the store? Probably, but I walked us up and down the four long aisles first. We didn’t need snacks but we definitely needed to see the snacks. I would have bought a bag of Werther’s Original hard candies but they only had the worthless sugar free kind and the soft caramels which taste amazing but I wanted something I could suck.
I tried to explain to my daughter why I wasn’t getting anything but she will never understand how I can be so particular about candy. To a kid, or to my husband for that matter, junk is junk is delicious junk. For my, junk food is life giving, but only if it’s my junk food–Cheetos, Cheez-Its, those fried Hostess Fruit pies that disappeared from the shelves sometime in the last decade but that I still look for because they turn up in small towns once every few years or so, Skittles but only the purple bag, LifeSavers but only Wild Cherry or Butter Rum, sunflower seeds, but only only David’s and none of that flavor blasted shit that wrecks the inside of your mouth even more than plain, no ranch, no sour cream and onion, and, it pains me that I have to spell this out, but no, I do not want the pocket of seeds and spit I’m storing in my left cheek to taste like Jack Daniels.
We walked along the back wall peering into every cooler, but they didn’t have vitamin water triple x zero, so I kept on walking. Finally, we found the Slurpee machines. I had been mildly worried they wouldn’t have them or they wouldn’t be working, even after I saw posters advertising them on the front of the store, because that’s generalized anxiety disorder at its best, but there they were, whirling away in a corner next to the checkout. I scoped the layout, did some quick math. There were only four flavors but two of them were Coke-based, so my daughter’s options were Cherry and Blue Razz. She picked Blue Razz immediately. Of course she did, I don’t even know why I was surprised. The cup situation was more confounding. Styrofoam cups were sticking butt out from six slots lined up underneath the machines but the cups in five of the six stacks were all equally huge and the cups in the last stack were tiny. The fountain drink machine on the other wall had a wider range of cup sizes, but they were plastic not styrofoam. Do Slurpees require styrofoam? Would 7/11 even sell me a Slurpee in a soda cup? I glanced at the prices printed on the side of the Slurpee machine for help but they offered none. For one thing, they didn’t match the cups. For another, they started at large and went up. Not for the first time that day, I wished her dad were here with us instead of pedaling around the city. A pair of middle schoolers strode purposefully over to the fountain drinks and poured themselves 32 ounces each, in plastic cups. I envied their confidence and quickness, but wanted them to get the fuck out. We were all masked but they were too close and, anyway, they were making me doubt myself. My daughter waited patiently while I puzzled over my–her–options. Tentatively, she suggested that I get the bigger cup and not fill it up all the way. Bingo bango bongo, you’re a genius, kid! I grabbed a large (???) styrofoam cup, filled it 5/6 of the way full, put the <$2 charge on my card, and stuck the cup in her hand with a straw in it. “Can we document this for papa? You can stand in front of that mural.” She looked back, saw that the painting had a dog in it, and chirped, “Okay!” I snapped the picture.
We were supposed to get on the road right after that, but D had forgotten her stuffed owl, so we had to go back home, and we hit Chicago weekend traffic when we got back on the road. By the time we made it to camp, we’d been in the car for over two hours, listened to an entire podcast about trees, read aloud from the Neverending Story, stopped at another gas station to pee and buy Cheez-It Duoz (cheddar and parmesan), and made one wrong turn. My mouth was raw from the plain David’s and my daughter was freezing from the Slurpee and the A/C and my husband was waiting for us with a bundle of wood in his sticky cycling clothes. We were ready to camp.