Elizabeth Mills’ previous work for The Toast can be found here.
When I was eighteen years old, after a year of happiness and firsts and fumbles and pain, I broke up with my girlfriend. That moment was a catalyst – the lit match to the gasoline, the first pebble of the avalanche, the final crack in a foundation poured out wrong to begin with. Over the course of the next eight years, my mind was stolen from me by a creeping sickness, a tangle of sickly growth with wicked thorns that latched themselves to the essential fabric of a hurting child.
Over the course of the next eight years, I watched myself die by degrees, and eventually rose up from a premature grave.
I’d like to tell you about it.
Depression is insidious and, also, very, very boring. It will eat you alive, yes, and it’ll do so while you watch, paralyzed by sadness, hopelessness; by a numbness that builds a nest around your heart. But it accomplishes this slowly, over the course of months and years, crippling your vital processes like it has all the time in the world. Which, of course, it does.
I was eighteen years old, heartbroken and soul-sick, withdrawing from everything and everyone I knew. It was a sedate sort of breakdown, because I was still in high school and therefore still surrounded by people, by the ambient energy of all that living going on.
Even if you’re an island, the waves still crash against your shore, right?
There were enough people, enough friends, enough affection, that my listing ship could float. I was going through the classic stages of a breakup (one in which I had to see my ex five days a week, mind you), and cried my way through conversation after conversation with sympathetic faces, kind voices. But something was wrong, because throughout the process, the sadness was hollowing out my chest. It was gnawing at the edges of a wound started by a kid who still needed to learn how to love, making the whole thing fester and rot.
However, those aren’t the kinds of issues you notice when you’ve stopped sleeping and done your best to replace your blood with coffee, especially not when you’re a teenager who can actually accomplish both goals. My relationship with my mother was strained to the point where she didn’t ask questions because my answers were evasive, or, at that point, the actions of an animal with their leg in a trap. As such, there was the freedom to break, to collapse and let someone else pick through the wreckage of a human being.
The breaking point came slowly, because even though I was imprisoned in the ten-by-ten box of my bedroom, there was the internet. Disappearing is impossible when everyone you’re trying to escape from has your screen names in addition to your home address. But that said, human contact just pushed the night back, it didn’t stop it from overtaking me. So, four years ago, I tried to make my wrist kiss a sharp, shiny knife. My mother stopped me, fought me right there in the kitchen and collapsed against the cabinets across from me, catching her breath while my mind clouded over with static.
But now we go sideways, because it’s hard to stare my life’s lowest point in the face and still, y’know, talk.
Depression can end. Or, to be more precise, it can be tied up and thrown in the trunk, watched over and beaten down as the years flit by. Yet to do that, you need help. You need eyes that haven’t been blinded, hands that can pick through your miswired insides and figure out what’s been crossed, what’s been eaten; what’s been tangled. For me, that help came from a therapist and medication. Twenty milligrams of Citalopram daily kept my head clear while talk therapy sessions every week let me see what a mess it had become.
Now, the thing about mental illness, and being alive for that matter, is that once you handle one problem, another is going to rapidly rise up to take its place. You’ve only got so much bandwidth to process so much information, and waking up wanting to die takes that up every day. Clear the pipe and new pressures are going to slam through it.
The ones that hit me were small, relatively speaking, things like “I’m worthless” or “I can’t see future farther than a week ahead,” the kinds of issues you have to deal with after losing almost five fucking years of your life to a disease. I’m still dealing with them, too, because scars don’t disappear completely, they only fade.
Then, three years into therapy and meds and what still feels like providence, I started to notice how wrong my physical form felt. I started to recoil away from my face in the mirror; started to see someone else in it, hiding behind a beard and revealed in an anxious second’s consideration of my long eyelashes. Quiet times saw me thinking about how I could never connect to narratives of masculinity, how I kept myself small and scared and and and –
It was another catalyst. It was another avalanche, another match, another in the long line of grim tasks my body asked of my brain.
So, over a year ago, after reading and talking and getting back in touch with the idea of having emotions, I came out to myself (and the internet at large) as a trans woman.
I told you that story to tell you this one: when it comes to your mind and the problems that afflict it, the habits it builds and the things it ignores, everything is connected. My self-hatred, the intense loathing I had for every piece of myself, the way I acted and tried to be a part of the background – all were symptoms. The depression, a symptom. None of them, by themselves or as a group, were the disease.
What had been wrong with me was deeper than that, an issue of what my marrow knew and the rest of me had to play catch-up on. What had been haunting me was a question never asked, because not one of us is given the tools to do so in a society that believes your gender is immutable, written on your soul by a doctor giving your naked, squirming body a once-over at birth.
What nearly killed me was a hidden truth that I needed time and help to learn.
That said, my issues and wounds didn’t just vanish, leaving me whole. Scars only fade, remember? The sorrow, the numbness, the great hollow in my chest – all of those things are the relics of a lost boy that I have to make peace with. Puzzling out your identity as a woman is hard on good day and damn near impossible when you can’t feel much beyond sadness and anger. It’s somehow even worse when your self-image has been ground to paste and the revulsion of gender dysphoria digs in to it even further.
But, and this is important, the act of finding myself, of revealing an authenticity previously mired in the wreckage of a confused, scared existence – it offers something long absent. I may not know where my life will be in a week, but there’s a slow burning hope that says “well, at least there is a next week.” There’s the fact that as the days pass and that week comes around, I’ll be alive, and right, scars and all, for the first time in eight years.
Elizabeth is a writer from Massachusetts. She can be found regularly screaming or writing snippets of fiction on Twitter.