I am delirious with
grief at losing so much,
I’ve never dared
to imagine, I don’t have to pretend.
forgive me my mask slipped
I fought The semidarkness,
How strange, I emerge
and you are n’t
I wait for you like I wait for autumn
in the viscosity of hot mornings
when my vision is fogged by the heat.
I wish you’d come as quick as thunder
after lighting, as brazen as steam
rising from heated pavement.
Urgent- like rivulets of rain rolling down my window.
My days are unmarked, rolling one into the other,
feet pock-marked by sticky sand.
Like any fall, I know what I wait for-
leaves smoldering, winds feeding
the forest fire, home becoming comfort
rather than half-way house between
wake and sleep.
Ebb and flow.
I wait for you.
How do you tell someone that you have a mental illness? Do you include it on your resume?
My biggest weakness is that I get depressed. A lot. Sometimes I don’t shower or feel anything but my heart beating quieter and quieter and quieter until I think it stops.
My biggest strength is that from time to time I feel everything and do everything all at once.
Do you do it, teary-eyed and earnest, at a coffee shop- a public place, somewhere where they won’t cause a scene- looking away from your chocolate croissant, clasping your hands in your lap? Do you write a musical? Do you make a spectacle? Do you send out a quarterly newsletter to your family and friends to explain why they haven’t seen or heard from you in forever?
The truth is- it’s always a spectacle. Be it a public place or a private home, a newsletter, a musical, a byline. It’s like a public colonoscopy- you’re opening up to the shittiest parts of yourself.
For the longest time, my struggle with my sanity, my stability, and my health was a closely guarded secret. Being an immigrant and a child of immigrants, as well as having an absurdly tumultuous childhood, instilled in me a sense of stoicism I didn’t know I had. I still cry at that scene in Lilo in Stitch. The ohana scene. You know the one. Stitch is alone in the woods, abandoned by the only family he’s ever had, and in a sad, little voice he says, “Ohana means family. And family means no one gets left behind. Or forgotten.” Damn that scene gets me every time. But I refuse to cry for help. I’ll cry for everyone else’s pain but my own.
The first conversation I ever had about mental illness was not initiated by me. I was in my sophomore year of college, and my roommate, now my best friend and soul mate, sat me down and forced herself into the private corners of my mind and soul. I broke down, the rigid boundaries I’d set for myself snapped. And I realized how weak I was. How poorly I’d done in hiding my pain. How obvious it was that I was barely keeping afloat. So I did what I’d foolishly been avoiding- I grabbed a hold of the life preserve that was thrown down to me. I accepted help.
Years have gone by since my diagnosis. I’ve been off and on and off medication. I’ve talked to and been disappointed by therapists of varying degrees (including a Harvard graduate who spent an entire session answering texts and another who used crystals and guided relaxation at every session). I’ve become an advocate for mental health- at work, at school, in my personal life- all while keeping my own mental health secret.
Even though I’ve been more loose-lipped than usual, the truth is that telling someone about my mental illness is a calculated risk. I become an accountant and a politician. I try to find the right sounding words, the words that make the most sense but don’t reveal too much. I’m trying on the best kind of smile, willing my chin not to tremble, adjusting the pitch and tone of my voice. I’m deciding if the catharsis of saying it out loud or the potential for an empathetic ear outweighs the cost. And the cost is high.
Once you’ve dealt with fallout from telling the wrong person, over time you lock that skeleton in the closet and you throw away the key. But anyone with a mental illness can tell you that the skeletons find a way to air out their bones. It’s their nature. And the little demons on your back aren’t so little. And those whispers in your head are screaming. And it’s all too much to bear alone. So you go out into the world and you find someone else. And you pray they understand. And you hope they don’t see you differently or mistrust you or invalidate what you say or pity you or infantilize you or fire you or tell everyone or hate you or not understand you…or, jesus, not care.
The burden of guilt and shame that surrounds mental illness is incalculable. Over time you get a sixth sense about people- a look in their eye, something they say in passing, a book they’re reading during their lunch break- and you think, maybe this one. Because you need to tell someone. Because no matter how hard we try to believe otherwise, humans can’t live without one another. Even someone like me, whose mental illness makes them isolate to the point of debilitating loneliness, can’t help but extend a hand.
Trust is hard work. After I’ve had my moment of vulnerability, I often carry more guilt about it than before. I feel ashamed. Like I’ve cast my pearls before swine. As though I’ve just gutted myself and slammed all my innards on the table. My sweetbreads for the feasting. My blood and body for salvation. And the worst, most human, most desperate thing about it is that little scritch-scratch of fear in my heart that no one will partake. I’d rather die being devoured, than live shriveled, alone and ignored.
That’s why, days after, I try to look deeper into their gaze. What do they see when they’re looking at me? I’ll think harder about the words they say. What do they mean by that? I’ll question their tone. Are they irritated? Am I annoying? Did I just burden them with the responsibility of feeling like they have to protect me or walk on eggshells around me? I find it’s harder to throw around self-deprecating jokes- the lifeblood of my sense of humor. Suddenly those aren’t as funny. Because what if I mean it? And I almost always do- though I don’t need defending from my own biting witticisms (just let me have this one).
How do you tell someone that you have a mental illness? Do you do it in pieces? Do you say it all at once? There’s a narrative there you can’t get a sense of, and it’s constantly being written. The difference between sharing and oversharing is your audience and the way they read the story. You can be as overbearing or as mum as you need, and there’ll always be someone who wants more or has had enough. And it’s nobody’s fault. I’ve accepted that life is messy and no one knows what they’re doing and anyone who tells you otherwise is trying to sell you something.
Telling my story isn’t an invitation for advice. It’s not a pity party. It’s not even a cry for help. It’s a barbaric yawp into an empty void. It’s a primal urge to be part of something, with someone. It’s a fear of being alone.
I have Bipolar Disorder type II. The kind that’s mostly clinical depression with bouts of mania, usually presented through anxiety-ridden, sleepless nights and heightened creativity and energy. I’m almost always sad and raw. I don’t love myself. In fact, I don’t like myself very much. I hurt a lot. I have a job I’m afraid I’m going to lose all the time. I have an apartment I have trouble keeping clean. I have a cat named Lucy who I overfeed sometimes. I have family and I have friends that I love. And my capacity for love or empathy has never diminished even though a lot of things in my life seem like they’ve dimmed. I write my story every day. This is just a rough draft. And I refuse to stop revising.
Oh me! Oh life! of the questions of these recurring,Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill’d with the foolish,Of myself forever reproaching myself, (for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew’d,Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds I see around me,Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined,The question, O me! so sad, recurring—What good amid these, O me, O life?Answer.That you are here—that life exists and identity,
That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.
Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass
The solitary swallow left behind-
A kite unflown.
A love unknown.
A mother dies and father cries-
A withered tree.
One cup of tea.
An empty six-pack on the floor-
The holes in walls
The police calls.
The unpaid bills stacked high and tall-
A yard unraked.
A pie unbaked.
The curtains never pulled apart-
A starless night.
A tired fight.
The water now seems warm and calm-
A silent reverie.
A box of memories.
Violetta Nikitina, 2014
For S.A.Dubitskiy (1959-2014)
There’d be a sign, you said
That when you’re dead
The sign, you said, that when you’re dead…
Oh, God. You’re dead.
You said, you said…
That when you’re dead the sky will cry
As we all cry.
But you were dead (are you still dead?)
The coldest evening of the year.
So cold that many others died that night,
Not slowly like you did, I fear.
Quick, quiet, unannounced- well, that’s life.
Or is it death?
I taste them both in the same breath.
Violetta Nikitina, 2014
Don’t be afraid to grieve.
The sun won’t stop setting and rising
If one day or thirty
You prefer night over day.
Ask the sun.
Forgive, forgive, forgive.
Even when you smell of smoke.
Even when you haven’t showered for days
Or breathed fresh air for weeks.
The world will be a welcome sight.
Ask the moon.
When it gets hard and friends leave,
Just say good-bye.
Ask the sky.
Violetta Nikitina, 2016
There is a hunger down below-
A tensing of a hunter’s bow.
The corpulence of men upon the ground,
Deaf to the low and growling sound,
Live day to day and night to night
In lusty fever of a dying fight.
All gods well-fed and thanked. But one
Rebelled against the high-rise of the sun.
The hoary deity with molten eyes
Arose and darkened the blue skies
Let Pompeii fall unto tectonic plate
For all the hunger it could satiate.
Violetta Nikitina, 2014