Breath & Shadow
A Journal of Disability Culture and LiteratureWinter 2017
Breath and Shadow
Volume 14 Issue 1
By Emery Ross
She thinks she is in Love, so she does what any intelligent person might do and sits down with Love to explain why it’s not welcome in her life.
Love ignores her reasoning, so she turns to science.
“How to stop being in love”
“How to stop thinking about someone”
“Love and science”
“Psychology and love”
Wikipedia gives her a bulleted list of the symptoms of lovesickness (she has most of them) and explains how love is historically viewed as mental illness. She calls her Love mental illness and Love seems amused. It attacks her with a vengeance—flings unwelcome thoughts and gut-wrenching heartache—even as she creates lists in her head that detail all the reasons why Love is wrong and/or something else entirely. Love is a large black monster made of ethereal wisps and tendrils. It’s definitely not something pretty and sparkly and oozing Hope. She takes to classifying her Love alongside Despondency, and it works out well.
She doesn’t talk about Love, and Love starts to constrict her chest and hang out in her throat. When she talks she sounds froggy and the darkness under her eyes prompts some to inquire about her health.
“There’s a lot of icky stuff going around,” they say.
With the absence of a focal point for Love, it flies around, untethered. She doesn’t speak its language, doesn’t understand the point of its existence. But it won’t leave, won’t materialize completely. It begins to take on a sinister air.
She has family over to her house for a party. She had forgotten how racist, sexist, and homophobic they are. She drinks more so that maybe they will seem funny and maybe she will stop feeling sick to her stomach as the others laugh at jokes. They all look at her funny, but no one says anything about her troubled face, her emaciated frame. Her inability to speak haunts her, adds to her growing list of “should”s.
“How to deal with homophobic, racist, and sexist family”
“How to confront racism”
“How to fall out of love”
She tells her friends about the party, but leaves out the part where she felt like she was drowning.
Thursday, after inspecting her bloodshot eyes and the half-moon purplish shadows beneath them, she stopped at the drugstore to buy red lipstick. She guessed that bright lips would take the focus from the top part of her face—she must have read that somewhere. She amateurishly smeared the tube onto her lips. She stared at her face in the rearview mirror for a long time and decided it looked like her lips were bleeding. She wiped it off with a tissue found in the glove box. The red left a stain on her lips that she couldn’t eradicate.
The grocery store was quiet. She felt a pleasant surge of something resembling happiness as the whoosh of coldness hit her face and she grabbed a six-pack of her favorite seasonal beer. She didn’t rush as she wandered the brightly lit aisles in search of the makings of dinner. She smiled at a stranger and didn’t use the self-checkout.
On the way out the doors, she stared at the back of the head in front of her. She watched the pale blonde head bob up and down and tried to think who it reminded her of. She heard a loud pop. Looking down she saw bright red marinara mingled with glass shards around her feet. She froze, unsure what to do. The pale blonde head in front of her swiveled around. “Did your bag break?” The woman asked loudly. “They need to replace that!” The lady barked orders—quickly, militantly. Like a puppet she obeyed, feeling her words like strings tugging on limbs and she didn’t see when the lady finally slipped out of the entryway once the bagger came to clean the mess.
She might have thought depression had passed, but it rematerialized in a broken jar of marinara.
Symptoms of depression
- Feelings of worthlessness or guilt
- Impaired concentration, indecisiveness
- Insomnia or hypersomnia
- Diminished interest in activities
- Recurring thoughts of death
- Significant weight loss
Depression makes little sense to those who have never experienced it. It caresses you from the tips of your toes to the top of your head, covering you with filth and poison. You are Deception. You are Guilt. You are Sadness or nothing at all.
She slips into depression like a silk gown, feels maniacal sometimes, and starts to wonder what to do with herself. She says many, many things inside her head; none of the right things make it out of her mouth. Her mouth is ajar, often, but the sounds that come out are imperceptible. She forgets to eat. Her ears tingle with blood rushes and she runs her hands up and down her ribs. Pushes on her hipbones. Stares at nothing while feeling everything.
“What’s wrong with me?”
Love softly taunts her as it touches her behind the knee and whispers into the sensitive spot behind her ear. She gently tells it that she understands why it’s with her. She explains psychology and motives. She pleads with it, tries appealing to its softer side, cries and begs. She argues with it, uses every available persuasive device in her tool belt, but Love won’t leave. Love invites her on a romantic getaway it calls a “shame spiral” and she tries to get out of it but can’t. Truth watches from the background.
Silently considering; saying nothing. Truth is silver, but a dull silver, like fake jewelry or a dirty serving platter. She never hears it speak so she isn’t sure what it wants from her.
She stops talking to most of her family but her mother still calls sometimes and tells her what she feels and why. Finally she unsuccessfully tries on some of the reasoning, but mostly feels angry that people won’t quit telling her what she’s feeling. She continues to choke on Love, suffocated by its overbearing presence and physical abuses, and then Fear invites itself in. Fear is not a big black monster; it’s actually translucent and bubble-like. It occupies too much space. It hits her in waves and causes paralysis. Cold fingers and clammy palms.
She uses the word “depression” to some of those around her and that helps them to start to diagnose her feelings for her and speculate about the motives behind them. They seem to know why and it seems easy to them for her to just be okay: after the trip, after next week, if you would get out of the house, watch a funny movie, think of happy things. They are all so wrong and she would laugh at them if she could. Instead she sleeps on the couch with her invisible companions.
She decides to make peace with Love, and it helps her write bad poetry and romanticize everything. It sits up with her in the darkness and tells her stories that include words like “should’ve” “could’ve” and “would’ve.” She lies still as it opens her up, performs open-heart surgery, and closes her back up, leaving more holes than there were before. It runs its fingers through her hair, pulling at the strands and lightly touching her eyelids.
Its whispers become soothing in the middle of the night. It wipes her tears sometimes and whispers, always whispers. There’s a sense of need that permeates her skin. It burns and scalds and distracts. The need takes over, turns her upside down and inside out. She is the need. Becomes it without consenting.
She writes and writes and writes and it feels like bloodletting. She can’t fucking stop and nothing makes any fucking sense.
Love and Fear seem to have had a fight; sometimes it seems as though Love and Hope might be forming an alliance. Hope skitters around, hard to perceive, easy to misunderstand. She tries, and fails, to ignore them. They stand at her back and she feels their presence: a snake up her spine. She can’t tell them apart sometimes.
At a midnight, in an unforgiving, murky cold, she finally listens to what Love has been trying to tell her all along. It says, I exist in a place where there are no rules.
She understands. But she doesn’t believe that it matters. The illness in her stomach and heart hurt, so it doesn’t seem logical that Love could be truthful. She shuts down and cries a lot. Weeks pass and those around her give up, for she’s just too complicated and difficult. Death sounds welcome, but Love, Hope, and Fear keep her ironically firmly rooted in purgatory.
Fear soon becomes her closest ally. It tells her about all the possibilities that lie in the aftermath of December.
Christmas Eve came, despite her wishing for its nonexistence. The tree that just barely made it up on time menaced large in the background and scolded her. Few presents spread out beneath it – hastily purchased, dejectedly wrapped in bright colors and glittery ribbons that hurt her eyes. She started the day off as she always did: crying in the shower, followed by lying on the bed in her bathrobe until she bullied herself into getting dressed.
The events of the day occurred around her. She felt like the eye of the hurricane. She read the poetry of suicidal poets and internalized their pain. It fit like the correct puzzle pieces with her own agony.
She told herself that death couldn’t come on Christmas.
She knew she looked shell-shocked when she got to the party. She had forgotten to put on makeup and the effort it would’ve taken to put on anything more than a tee-shirt and jeans exhausted her too much to even think about. Her presence was a glaring contrast to the festive dresses and collared shirts.
It took everything she had to not shatter. The twinkling lights and bright wrapping paper looked ominous. Everything was so loud. Laughter singed layers from her heart. She sat on the black leather couch and curled up around herself to keep from falling apart. She went home and stayed up all night, staring into the abyss, feeling small and insignificant. Her heart never stopped hurting. She took no breaths that were not shallow and agonizing.
She is fractured. Her thoughts won’t stop. They race through her head fast as cheetahs.
She tried to talk to someone but they told her, slow down, I can’t understand you. She watched the blood throb in the veins in her wrists, counted pills in the medicine cabinet. Wrote farewell letters in her head.
Two days later she visited the emergency room.
The doctor pins a label to her chest and it weighs five tons. The label comes with large white pills nestled in a brown bottle with a white hat. The pills taste bitter in her mouth. Later she feels them permeating her veins. They come armed to battle the warriors within her: Love, Hope, Fear, Depression.
Symptoms of Bipolar II Disorder
- Hypomanic episodes: racing thoughts, increased talkativeness,
distractibility, over-activity, emotional intensity
- Mixed episodes include both mania and depression; they are marked by
symptoms like racing thoughts and involvement with activities that have
high potential for painful consequences, while also apparently in a
- Depressive episodes: similar to "regular" clinical depression
- Depressive episodes can last weeks, months, or years
The person she has become is a stranger. Now, having a label means that she can feel a glimmer of optimism. The glimmer, however, is dimmed by questions.
Is anything I’ve felt, said, or done real? Is everything a by-product of disease? Can I repair anything? Where do I start?
Is this forever? What next?
Google has no answers that satisfy.
She swallows the bitter pills and it is unclear who will win. She lies in the dark, in silence.
On a warm Tuesday in March she returned to the broken marinara grocery store. She bought picnic supplies, then drove to the park. In her pocket, a handful of brightly-colored balloons bunched up the fabric of her jeans. She sat at an empty picnic table, took out the balloons, and stared at them while she carefully ate her food. Around her she heard the squeals of children. A soft breeze touched her face. It felt like Hope.
After lunch, she blew up a red balloon and coerced Love into it. She blew up a blue balloon and carefully stuffed the misshapen Fear inside. Into a yellow balloon she crammed Depression. It didn’t fit all the way, but it seemed to be enough. She tied the bottoms closed and let them go. They tumbled across the park before the wind picked them up and sent them upward. The balloons became tiny dots in front of the clouds, then disappeared.
A little boy watched her from the grass. He slowly approached her and touched the pile of unused balloons. She took one, opened up his hand, and placed it in his palm. He smiled and ran off. She packed up her dishes and leftover food and left with the rest of the balloons in her pocket.
Emery Ross is a writer and graduate student living in Boise, Idaho. You can find her at emery-ross.com