Nobody heard him, the dead man,
But still he lay moaning:
I was much further out than you thought
And not waving but drowning.
-Stevie Smith, “Not Waving But Drowning”
I want to return, for a moment, to the summer of 2014. For those of you that have read my previous blog posts, you’ve probably started to notice that I return here often. That’s because I consider the summer of 2014 to be an extremely pivotal time in my life, one full of pain, endings, heartache, and as I look back on it now, promise.
In early August of 2014, I had the opportunity to travel with a group of students from my school to Ireland for eight days of “off the beaten path” activities. I had registered for the trip in March, long before it actually took place, but shortly after my ex-boyfriend and I had broken up. Visiting Ireland had always been a dream of mine, so I was beyond thrilled to not only have the opportunity to finally do it, but also to explore the country in such a profound way. The itinerary was littered with unique opportunities, like attending the GAA Hurling All Ireland Championship Semi Finals, touring the Google and Twitter European headquarters in Dublin, and attending a dinner at the U.S. Ambassador’s residence. I didn’t think I would have the chance to travel like this again, so I quickly signed up.
One of the highlights of the trip, however, was our opportunity to spend a day volunteering at the Special Olympics at Croke Park. For those of you that aren’t familiar with Croke Park (I wasn’t), it is a giant stadium where hurling, the national sport of Ireland, takes place. For the Irish, Croke Park is probably the equivalent of the football stadium of your home state. It’s a special place, so there was truly no higher honor for me than to walk its grass and facilitate in the running of the Special Olympics.
As volunteers, each of us were paired with one of the athletes to participate in an American football demonstration. My partner, James*, was an older athlete–probably in his early to mid-30s, I guessed–and I was told that though he is always listening to others, he doesn’t talk a whole lot. So, throughout the day, I did what I always do when I meet new people and feel nervous: I talked excessively. As expected, James didn’t talk back to me, but I enjoyed throwing the football around with him and the other athletes. James seemed to enjoy it, too…but his silence made me nervous. It made me nervous because I felt like my excessive talking was annoying to him, like all he could think about was, “You have no idea what it’s like to live a day in my shoes.” Yet, here I was, inviting myself into his country, into his special day, into his life, and he had absolutely zero say in the matter. A part of me probably would have been frustrated by that, no matter how friendly the volunteer was.
Allow me to back up for a moment.
Throughout the beginning of the semester preceding August of 2014, external circumstances set the stage for what would eventually escalate into my complete mental and emotional breaking point. January of 2014 began with the news that the father of a former childhood friend had passed away from liver cancer, a result of his heavy drinking. As the daughter of an alcoholic, sitting through that funeral was especially brutal. The semester continued when my boyfriend, my partner in crime, my soul mate, broke up with me after a year and a half of dating. In a single instant, he was gone, and gone, too, was everything I had ever believed about love, fate, life. Shortly afterward, the mother of another childhood friend was found dead in her home, the result of a lethal combination of over-the-counter and prescription drugs. She, too, had suffered from alcoholism and an addiction to painkillers, and was younger than my parent when she passed. Two parents were killed as a result of addiction-related complications in a span of less than three months. I began to hear the ticking of a clock counting down the days until my parent finally lost the war, always ticking, ticking, ticking away in the background as my heart continued to break.
As the semester ended and the summer began, my sadness and anxiety began to grow, inflamed by difficulties at home, a growing sense of fear about the severity of my parent’s addiction, and an influx of memories of the man that was no longer a part of my life. I had managed to distract myself from much of this while busy at school, but at home, I couldn’t run away from it anymore. As I mentioned in previous posts, I worked full time at a job where I sat in a cubicle alone for nine hours a day, staring at a computer screen and inputting data. There was nothing preventing my mind from wandering, and that was the beginning of the end for me.
I began to think, and for the rest of the summer, I didn’t stop. It didn’t take long for me to realize that not only were any childhood friends in the area no longer coming home, but also that I was not going to make new friends at work. So, after nine hours of sitting in a cubicle, trapped in my own head, I returned home, where I sat alone in my room by myself and thought some more.
From morning to night, all I did was think, dwelling on the memories, the loneliness, the fear, the notion that I was and always had been wasting my youth. I was both enraged by and deeply ashamed of who I had become. Addiction had taken my youth, the very thing whose absence isolated me from my peers my entire life. I was “mature for my age,” the people said. The same people told me to “lighten up,” to “have some fun” every once in a while, to stop being “so serious.” At too young an age, I had become an adult consumed with worry and anxiety, so never ending commentaries about my disposition pierced me like the blade of a knife. The people didn’t know this, of course, but I think that that’s the part that hurt the most. Though this had been especially harmful to my self-confidence in high school, as a twenty-something, it packed a different punch. These were the prime years of my life, the people said. Yet here I was, alone. I was not going to parties with friends. I was not trying out new bars and restaurants, or having wine and movie nights with my girlfriends, or participating in the summertime festivities. I was alone, trapped in my brain, continuing to tumble down, down, down into the darkness.
It’s difficult to try to capture the essence of my mental state using words alone. For any of you that currently do or have in the past suffered from depression, perhaps you have felt this way, too. In trying to explain to others what I was going through, I oftentimes felt that my words simply weren’t enough. People nodded as they listened, they wore a look of sympathy as I spoke, and I knew that they were trying to really hear me, to understand. But I still felt that such a vast distance separated us. In my mind, I was shouting to them across miles of barren land, and my words could never quite reach them. Perhaps the closest I can get to describing how I felt would be to compare it to being trapped inside of an invisible glass box. I could see happiness and life around me, but I couldn’t access it. Not only that, but I couldn’t even adequately explain that to the few people I did talk to that summer. Looking back, I kind of wonder if James ever felt this way, too.
In light of my own emotional turmoil, my trip to Ireland was met with some anxiety about constantly being surrounded by other students I didn’t know. I was there with over 80 other students from my university, and there were a few people that I hung around with throughout the trip, and it was nice. But I still felt this distance between me and them. Everyone seemed so happy. There were many moments when I wished I had been there by myself, if for no other reason than because Ireland was so profoundly beautiful that I felt like maybe it could somehow heal me. But I feel like I spent much of the trip trying to hide my brokenness from those that I was meeting, that I was unable to lose myself in the power of both the Irish land and the people.
And then, on one of my last days there, I met James.
After the Special Olympics ended, my fellow classmates and I were invited to the United States ambassador’s residence in Dublin for a cookout with the Special Olympics athletes. It was an incredible evening, filled with great food, dancing, and karaoke. Just as the athletes had invited us into their community with open arms earlier in the day, we got to reciprocate by sharing a classic American barbecue with them on what was jointly American and Irish soil. Before long, most of us were over by the karaoke machine, dancing and singing along as individuals and groups took their turns at singing various pop hits. While I was dancing and singing with some of my friends from the trip, as well as some of the athletes I had met earlier in the day, James was sitting at a table by himself and watching everyone else. Earlier in the evening, I had made sure to say hi and to try to somehow reassure him that I was there to see him if he wanted to see me, but he seemed content sitting at his table and observing.
When the song “You Raise Me Up” by Josh Groban began to play on the karaoke machine, the dancing subsided, and we all swayed to the music while continuing to mingle. All of a sudden, however, I turned around to see James standing behind me, looking at me with one arm outstretched and the other held near his head, the position that the “lead” in a slow dance takes.
I was completely dumbfounded. Without using any words, James was asking me to dance.
After a moment of shock, I put one hand on James’ shoulder and the other in his outstretched hand, and we began to dance. I could feel a gap growing in the circumference around us as the crowd of athletes, students and faculty began to watch–all 200+ of them. We were the only ones dancing. Feeling everyone’s attention made me nervous, and unfortunately, this wasn’t the time for excessive talking. But I continued to hold on to James until the song was over, until we exchanged glances and he assumed his former position at the table, never saying a word.
The summer of 2014 was an extremely painful one for me. In many ways, I felt like I was on the brink of oblivion. I was so enveloped by sadness, anxiety, confusion, that I began to lose sight of anything and everything else, including my own future. In fact, I didn’t feel like I had a future at all. All I saw, when I thought about where I might be in two years, five years, ten years, was nothing. I didn’t know if that meant I was dead or alive, because the truth is that there seemed to be no difference between the two anymore. I felt like an island, like the world had forgotten about me, like I was drowning in an icy sea while others flourished in the summer sun.
Despite my interactions with others throughout the summer, I continued to feel completely worthless. The absence of so many people, the absence of current and former friends, the distance inherent in the relationship I held with my parents, the absence of any kind of constant, healthy love confirmed my meaninglessness. The insecurity I had felt earlier in the day about James’ perception of me matched the insecurity embedded in me that doubted the feelings of every single person I knew, even the people that had known me for far longer than he had.
But by asking me to dance, James breathed life into me. Such a small gesture was all it took for my heart to start beating again–slowly through the rest of the summer, and gradually faster as I worked with my therapist through the remainder of the year to recover from depression and anxiety. James showed me something I had needed for some time. He showed me that people could see, that people were listening. Who those people were, however, might surprise me.
Perhaps that is what is at the heart of this entry. At the time, I viewed the moment James and I spent dancing the same way I view it now: a moment that seemed to be meant only for the two of us to share, and one that I think had been in the making long before it actually occurred. I hadn’t known what the universe had in store for me at the time, and I was almost out of faith, out of hope, out of life.
But all the universe needed was what little remained of me. For the rest, when I wasn’t even looking, it gave my heart exactly what it needed to both stop, and begin again.
*As in all other posts, names have been changed to protect anonymity.