Not just anybody

The other day I was about to part ways with a friend when she said, “Let me know if you need anything.” I said I would and she looked me right in the eye and said she didn’t believe me.

“I think one of the reasons we’re friends is that we’re both really self-sufficient,” she said, “and kind of stubborn about that.”

I amended my statement–I said I’d try–and then I got on the subway.

This isn’t news to me. Asking for help in most contexts is really tough for me.

Sometimes it comes quite naturally. I’m finishing up a year-long internship, for instance, and from my very first day I had students and teachers asking me questions I had no idea how to answer. I’ve been lucky enough to be supported by some fantastic coworkers in the library there, so it’s not hard for me to say, “I’m not sure, but let me find out.”

Very simple.

If only the rest of my life could be like that.

During my second bout of depression, when things got so severe that I was in my campus infirmary for a week, I didn’t want to tell my parents. In the end, I didn’t–I asked my freshman proctor (essentially an RA, although this one happened to be in her fifties and a mother herself) if she would tell them for me. I refused to talk to either of my parents on the phone, and when a certified letter from my father arrived, I didn’t want to open it.

And why not?

Because the first time, about a year earlier, when things had gotten so bad that my parents had to intervene and make sure I saw a doctor and then a counselor, my father had said to me, “Why didn’t you come to us for help?”

I’m always fascinated by the way everyone’s reaction to depression is just a little bit different. Plenty of people don’t believe depression is real, of course, and can’t understand why we can’t just pull ourselves out of it. Then there are the people–like a staggering number of my high school teachers, actually–who will immediately confide that they’ve been on anti-depressants for years, and that’s probably all you need.

Sig Fig told me today, “Your depression makes me feel so helpless.”

I answered, “It makes me feel pretty helpless, too.”

And there’s the rub–even when I’m close to what I know as bottom, a part of my brain takes over and only wants to worry about the people around me. Last week I was on the verge of tears all day, everywhere I went, but a friend told me she was having panic attacks and all I wanted to do was help her.

What is this, this impulse to help anyone but myself? I’ve had most of the people who are closest to me tell me at some point in the last month that I should be in therapy. And I’m not doing that. One of them, in turn, said, “Then I guess you must not care about getting better.”

And I thought–better? What is better? If I could flip a switch and turn off the depression, the anxiety, the violent ideation–I wouldn’t. I couldn’t. This is part of who I am. I hate that it makes the people around me miserable, and if I could find a way I would turn that off–but what is better?

Does experiencing such violent lows mean that I have a greater capacity for joy, because I understand what it is not?

I had someone tell me once that she admired my capacity to love, no matter what. And I don’t think that could be in me if my heart and my head didn’t know the way it feels to hurt in exactly as bottomless a way.

And maybe that’s why it’s so hard for me to ask for help. I’m afraid of being numb to all of it. Would getting rid of the pain mean dulling the happiness too? I can’t take that risk.

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