For the first time in my life, I wanted to die. I feel some uneasiness in recalling how much I suffered, as if thinking about it might bring it all back. I don’t know precisely how it started, or precisely how it ended, but for two weeks, it seemed to me that I could not breathe. I could not get out of bed, I could not fall asleep, I could not calm myself, I could not stop the tears. I found myself desperately searching for evidence that I’m okay, that I’m good, that I’m great, and I found none.
Regressing. Relapse. You have a great day, a great week, a great month, maybe even a great year, and you think everything is going so well, and you think finally you understand, finally your hard work has paid off, finally the pieces are falling together in a way that fits, finally things are looking up, finally the future is becoming clearer, finally. And then suddenly you are back where you started. Things don’t feel exactly right, things don’t feel perfect, something’s missing, what am I doing, why am I here, what should I do?
I have been away from home for over a year. I left my entire world, the friends I can rely on, the job that gave me meaning, the city I knew intimately, the possessions I cared for, the person I loved. I left all of it and didn’t look back. These were daily fixtures in my life, and now they are gone. Or, more accurately, I am. It strikes me that everything feels so permanent, but you can disappear in an instant. Did I disappear? Should I have?
Part of these Doubts of Doom are related to my career. I ‘should’ be taking advantage of my degrees, I ‘should’ be maximizing my potential, I ‘should’ be getting a higher salary, I ‘should’ have a job that impresses my mother’s friends because I’m so intelligent and capable and everyone thought I would always do such great things. With that in mind, I accepted a job as a support worker caring for elderly people. This was ultimately a mistake, and I very quickly packed my bags and ran swiftly back to my cozy safari company, where I was welcomed with open arms.
But that week was an important one, and I did fulfill my dream of spending time with old people. In the shower. Naked. This was not as exciting as it sounds; rather, the most humbling experience I have ever had the fortune to be a part of. Most of my clients were at the end of their lives, physically diminishing. They all had the same heartbreaking expression: I am so much older than I’d ever believed I’d be. Herb, turning ninety next month, calls his wife ‘The Boss’ and salutes her after every instruction or request. I helped him disrobe, I washed his sad, wizened, mottled skin and his vivid, beautiful memories as he hunched quietly in his chair, his hands on his lap. At eighty-nine years old, you can still feel embarrassed about a girl seeing your willy. That’s something that never occurred to me, and I find it terrifying and oddly reassuring. And then there was Doris who threw off her clothes and flung them across the room like it was 1999.
Sometimes I feel like them, that I have lived for hundreds of years. I see lives and events unfolding before I can even try to imagine them. The guy next to me on the bus. He wears glasses that he can’t ever find once he takes them off. He’s brilliant, but he doesn’t know it. He struggles with authority, and his hair struggles with staying out of his eyes. He sometimes gets annoyed with the way I see the world, and I get frustrated with his apathy, but we will always say ‘I’m sorry’ and we will always remember the first time we met: He told me I’m different. I told him that’s a lie. The guy who asks to borrow the salt from my table at the cafe. He is loud, confident, and the complete opposite of me, but he can get a laugh out of anyone, and he can lift me out of the darkest of moods. He dances well, sings badly, and frequently overindulges in alcohol. He likes that I am sad, but he doesn’t understand it and he never will. The young girl who lives across the street. She is already too cool to be seen with her little brother, she feels mistreated because her parents won’t buy her an iPad, she won’t ever admit to her friends that her favorite food is her mom’s traditional Korean cooking, she will fall in love, she will have her heart broken, she will be depressed, she will be happy, and she will have a baby of her own, starting the process all over again, back to the start, creating an entirely new set of stories, loves, mistakes, and accomplishments.
I simply cannot look at a stranger without seeing his memories stamped across his face, his futures flowing through the way he walks. And I am finally beginning to do the same to myself, appreciating my own stamps and scars. Twenty-two years later, I am finally opening up my wounds. I am finally welcoming my glass eye as a part of my identity, absorbing it into me rather than battling it as a separate entity. I have spent years determining which head position makes me look the most symmetrical in photos, I have hid behind sunglasses, I have avoided eye contact with strangers and friends. My eye has governed my existence. My eye has made me feel that I will never be normal, never be perfect, never be loved. I have hated myself for having this flaw. Why do we hate our flaws and imperfections? Why do we hate that which makes us interesting and different? I have avoided the mirror every day and yet, I haven’t been avoiding my flaw–I’ve been avoiding me. I’m looking in the mirror a bit more now these days, and still it’s all I see. But maybe I should stop seeing that as such a bad thing.
Benefit One: By getting to know myself, I’m starting to learn what is authentically me. I’m discovering when I need to listen to myself and when I need to push myself. Snowboarding, for example: not Authentically Anna. Over the course of the entire winter season, I experienced a whopping total of 30 minutes of joy. $900 for 30 minutes of joy. Worth it? Yes. Because the unknown would have cost me much more. Now I know. When my future friends invite me on a ski holiday with them, I will pretend not to hear them, or I will go into a spontaneous coughing fit.
Half-marathon training, for example. I am still training. I am still despising it with every fiber of my being. Someone asked me the other day, ‘What’s the best part about training?’ ‘None of it, nothing, ever, please go away and never ask me that again.’ I haven’t seen them since. But I know it’s good for me physically and mentally, so it passes the Authentic Anna test (although I really, really wish it didn’t).
Benefit two (more importantly): I am a constant source of entertainment.
Dean asked me to review a document. I made a suggestion.
Dean: Ah yeah, great idea. See, always helps to have a second set of eyes.
Me: Well, just one eye.
Dean: God, imagine if you had two!!!!
Maranda: Anna, do you mind driving tonight? I don’t have great night vision.
Me: Yeah no worries.
Maranda: How do you know you have poor eyesight? When you’re asking your ONE-EYED flatmate to drive you somewhere.
While I am still trying to figure out the big things, I am getting through each day clinging to the little things, the simple things. Stretching in the sunlight that boldly floods my carpet in the mornings. Buying a new kind of tea (and cookie) at the store once a week. Smiling effusively at a stranger. Running my fingertips along the spines of the twenty books I have checked out from the library. My boss telling me she doesn’t know what she would do without me. Discovering how much I love sparkling water and wearing men’s boxer briefs. Are these things any less important? For me, right now, this is what happiness looks like. This is where I find meaning. This is what wakes me up in the morning and lulls me to sleep at night. Not next week, not next year. Just today.
If I did disappear, it was the right thing to do. But I don’t think I disappeared. I’m still right here.