The thing I remember about the vigil I sat through my Iya’s final days is her fluttering hands. Her knob-knuckled, thin-skinned, white hands gathered pleats in the fabric of her sheet. Pleating and un-pleating in ceaseless, shaking industry.
Sometimes, that’s how my anxiety feels. Like my brain won’t stop folding and unfolding problems, working through the dark hours of my sleepless nights to find just the right angle of some imagined thing that I’ve done wrong that will needle at me until I collapse in a heap of tears and self-loathing.
My maternal grandfather died while I was in Korea, and the anxious, black grief I felt in the months after his death felt like a hole I’d never be able to climb out of.
I’d experienced depression before. In college, depression had been a blank hole of wandering aimlessly through my days. It was a disconnection from my feelings rather than an overwhelming sadness.
After Pop died, I fell into sadness and panic like it was a bottomless pit. I imagined that it would have been easier if I’d been able to say goodbye. In the throes of blind panic after spending a day in the press of bodies in Seoul, I thought that if I’d just been able to get back to the States for his funeral, I wouldn’t be such a mess. I searched desperately for any strand of reason that I could grasp.
I did, eventually, climb out of that hole. Writing helped. Finding the joy that comes from following a thread of a story from kernel to novel and then untangling the mess of a first draft helped my brain slowly find its way back to itself.
I wasn’t prepared for the blackness to settle itself around my neck again after Iya passed. In retrospect, I should have geared up for it. I should have had a plan. Coulda, shoulda, woulda.
My life was GOOD. My incredible boyfriend loved and supported me, and he didn’t mind that I spent most weekends holed up in my office working on my novel. And the novel! I’d revised it into something that was garnering some serious interest from agents, a dream come true. I had a brand new job that I loved. I kept repeating it like a mantra. Life is good. You are lucky. Like the fact that life was good should have somehow protected me from grief and depression and anxiety.
That ain’t how it works. Every night when I went to bed, I was plagued by an endless list of my faults. You’re mean. You’re petty. You’re self-involved and a terrible writer. You don’t work out enough. You should eat less. You’d be better if you were skinnier. You don’t spend enough time with your friends. You don’t do enough for your family. Your boyfriend could do better than you, you pathetic, spineless, piece of shit. Piece of shit. Piece of shit. Over and over and over until the only thing I could do was weep into my boyfriend’s arms while he played Steven Universe for me and petted my hair.
I don’t know why I was so afraid to get help, but making a phone call to a therapist seemed like the most impossible thing in the world. Even with mental health professionals for parents, even knowing that I desperately needed help, I couldn’t force myself to make that call.
It wasn’t until my parents came for a visit last fall and I broke down in pointless, heartbroken sobs in my living room that I knew I had to get help. It took nearly another month for me to manage to force myself to call and make an appointment, and longer still to claw my way through my own fear and go to my appointments. To meet with a psychiatrist and talk about medication. To find a routine and learn a bevy of coping mechanisms to help me through my most anxious days.
And despite everything I now know, despite all of the tools I’ve added to my arsenal, that ugly little voice still finds its way into my skull from time to time. Because this is an illness. A disease.
All of my wildest dreams have come true. My boyfriend is now my husband. My book and its sequel are going to be real, published books I can hold in my hands. I have a gorgeous house, and more books than I have hours to read and food in my kitchen. Life is good.
And I still have anxiety. And that’s okay. Because now when I start beating myself up, I think of Iya, teaching me to pleat tulle to make a tutu when I was a little girl, and of the way that our bodies remember those gestures. And I remind myself to practice the gestures I want to remember. I remind myself to be kind. And sometimes it helps. And when it doesn’t, there’s always Steven Universe.