Just a few years ago, when my mouth was still awkward and crowded with braces, one tenth-grade English teacher asked me who I was. Not what I did or what I liked. Not who I loved. But who I was. I paused. Every bit of fluff that flew into my mind seemed fragmented.
I could not answer then. My response spanned fifteen pages of tiny portals into my mind that I hoped when jumbled all together might tell some truth of who I was. I needed the coherence of time and consideration to capture my core and put it on paper.
It is in fact a fierce joy and a joyful ferocity.
It is joyful, welling up and rolling me out of bed, chipper at the first signs of light. It flies beneath my feet and urges me to prance. It bubbles out across the soccer field and consumes books like ice cream. It is why I always wear neon and pick yellow flowers for my hair and smile too much.
It is fierce, spewing about in feisty debates. It loathes lazing around. It competes in scrabble and sports with ecstasy. It falls in love eagerly. It dreams awake and almost drowns in ambition. It always seeks to see more deeply.
Now that I had named it, I moved to match it with a future. What dragon would I focus my force to slay? In a small classroom, at the hoarse and inspired edges of a professor’s lecture on disease, I suddenly saw a beast with the power to wash away our essence. Disease empties us and tends to leave us all alone, for almost everyone lives with an aura of immunity. Even just before a fall or falling ill, we believe we are the healthy. It is others who are the sick. Them. The weak. We. We are invincible. We are the dragon slayers.
So I began my quest to defeat disease. I saw stricken and screaming children and cancerous grandmas. I stroked a clammy hand in the back of a panicked ambulance. I caught the shadow of the dragon. In labs and hospitals, through TED talks, and during office hours, I grasped one single certainty. I would wield my joyful ferocity to heal.
And then, just as I could feel it – both my essence and my purpose – something broke.
It started so quietly, I barely noticed. It was the end of a scorching summer. By August, I ached to begin my junior year at UNC -- to spring onto my soccer field, to take crisp color-coded notes, and to rediscover my home in the hugs of my best friend.
Finally, I arrived. Just two weeks after my glorious return, I woke to warm tendrils of sun creeping onto my face. I groaned and rolled over. The covers came over my head and I could not tell you what went on in class that day. There were no rainbow charts bringing beauty to mysterious anatomic structures. And later that week, I felt grumpy – a wholly unfamiliar prickle of frustration with nothing sat upon my shoulders. I shook it off, but it sunk heavier.
On the most glorious Friday of the summer, I bounced over to the soccer field. The sky was a pristine shade of Carolina Blue. A sweaty game was already in action and I joined, welcomed by shouts and playful punches. I played and played and played, waiting for the chemical reaction within me. But the sweetness of my safest place tasted bitter. Just seconds after a triumphant goal, amid the dimpled whistles of my current crush, I fought back the growing lump lodged in my throat that threatened to spill out strange emotions with an unrelenting power.
In truth the moments of that month now come to me in short, staccato bursts of abnormality. I remember drinking water, certain that dehydration had wrought those odd effects. And then I ate spinach, every day, for a week, certain now that a deficiency in iron could be the culprit. I ran faster, studied harder, and thought more about my future. I outlined my plan, I wrote my motivations, and I balked as a deep perception of pointlessness blocked out all the light.
So I started to sleep. It was the first time in my life I can recall the urge to sleep during any second of sunlight. On certain days, when acting out the motions that once had been my passions weighed too much, instead of skipping to get ice cream in between my classes, I trudged home and rolled quietly into bed.
A dull, leaden pile sat where once had leapt that fierce joy and joyful ferocity.
And finally, on one crisp fall afternoon of freedom, I met a friend at a café. Vera was a small, earnest girl who had known me since the beginning of freshman year. I hoisted the heaviness and dumped it on the table in between us. My voice turned thick with tears. She blanched in surprise. Leading me quickly out to the churchyard across the street, concealed from curious eyes, I sank down against a wall beneath her arm, and for the first time, my body shook with sobs. Blubbering and bewildered, I told her how I could no longer feel myself. A dull, leaden pile sat where once had leapt that fierce joy and joyful ferocity. Even the light looked different, falling miserably upon the clover patch next to us, and she looked stricken as I curled up and let the aching loss of self and certainty wrack me.
It had only been a few weeks, but the acute awareness of that vanished presence at my core urged me past the football stadium toward Campus Health. Something was not right. It was all wrong. Nervous energy pulsed through me as I opened up to the silver haired woman who squinted back. I listed the transformations and suggested ideas of nutrient deficiencies and hormone imbalances. But most importantly, I exposed my essence. I told her how I loved to learn but could not stand to read a page now, and of the new and sharp disjunction between my rational mind and these gut-wrenching emotions. I painted the emptiness within me.
When my voice began to tremble, at the brink of one more meltdown, I petered into silence. She squinted long at me, sighed, and said matter-of-factly, “Well, it sounds to me like it might be depression.” My body turned white-hot and narrow rivers rolled down my cheeks. The silver-edged face misunderstood my distress. “It’s fine, honey. Don’t worry. I’m going to write you this prescription for Prozac—it should help before too long. You’ll be back to normal soon!”
This was just not a possible solution. The cells within my body rejected those curt words. I couldn’t breathe. Maybe I had briefly considered the possibility. In fact, I worked in a neuroscience lab that studied that very disease. Drilling into rat brains, painstakingly lowering electrodes, we sought an understanding that perhaps charts and graphs will never lend. We aimed to slay a dragon that we could barely see.
To me, depression was that disease that affected those already sad. It was the slow extension of a retreat for those who could not see the beauty.
To me, depression was that disease that affected those already sad. It was the slow extension of a retreat for those who could not see the beauty. It could not touch the person who spends an hour trying to capture the color of the river touched by a setting sun in a poem. It would not afflict the girl who buys a fanny pack with speakers and defiantly dances down the street. It simply was not for those whose were made of fierce joy and joyful ferocity.
But I numbly nodded and held out my hand for that tiny piece of paper that seemed to shift the foundations of who I was. The words laid out above may ring harsh to some ears, but it is only the soft side of the stigma. Even those of us most proud of our compassion, build walls between ourselves and those who seem too weak, too vulnerable, or too unwilling to lay aside their sadness and find the glee in life. Those words are what many of us think silently to ourselves as we study or treat depression, as we hold ourselves high as dragon slayers fighting disease to the death. We are woefully wrong.
Depression does not afflict Them. It afflicts Us. And the shattering realization that everything you imagine yourself to be may be out of reach or lost is crashing down upon your son, your wife, your mother, and your best friend. It is not a weakness or a retreat; it is an excruciating and active pain. For me, I found it was not an inability to see beauty, but instead the exacerbation of that power. It was the inability to feel the meaning that left me exhausted. The world shimmers around you like a remote mirage, laughing, living, and loving while your essence is being annihilated. The desertion of inspiration is debilitating.
As I emerged from the artificial iciness of that office and into the blinding sun, I called my mom. The few words I forced out were clear: “I need to come home, now.” The singular perfection of my mother is that she knows. Some instinct wakes within her and she does not question, she simply acts to rescue me. No matter what. She said, “Okay, we’ll come as soon as we can." And just a day later, despite the three-hour drive in the midst of a hectic work week, I found myself buried in my family’s arms. They did not recognize this me. I could see it in their eyes clouded with worry and uncertainty. But because they were made of my same fabric, they did not unravel me with questions. They simply told me it would be okay, whispering softly to each other through the long nights those things they could not say when I was around. And soon I had an appointment or three. There was the full blood work that I refused to forgo, clinging desperately to hopes of clearly defined physical maladies. Maybe I had that brain parasite that causes your personality to change. Anything in that moment would have been better than this inconclusive and uncertain ailment. I came out clear, and so finally, defeated, I walked into the office of a psychiatrist.
Her eyes were understanding and the air around her vibrated with the strength with which she listened. And when I told her of my dreams to be a doctor, my passions, and the way the light looked different, I could see that she saw me. Though she had not known me, she looked deep down and imagined and believed in the self that I described.
She told me that our brains often work in cycles. She explained that perhaps an unknown force had knocked me out of whack and now all that I might need was some small pill to realign my mind. But most importantly, as we breathed together rhythmically, she reminded me that this was NOT who I was. This was what I felt - a fleeting experience that someday would become a pinprick in the tapestry of my life. So I listened and I took some small pill. And it might not be magic, and maybe I’m simply lucky, but six months later, I faced those understanding eyes again and joyfully tossed away those pills I no longer needed. And I strode out into amber sunlight with renewed ferocity.
Jessica Little is a graduate of UNC Chapel Hill with a major in global health and Spanish. She am currently pursuing a year of adventure in Costa Rica and Argentina before beginning Medical School in the fall of 2013. Writing and soccer are her greatest passions.
Art by Pat Barrett.