I was in the Scottish Highlands when the news about the impending lockdown boomed from the radio. It was the day before my twenty-sixth birthday, a significant birthday because (I’m not sure why) I’d always thought twenty-six would be the year I’d finally have the things I dreamed about: a loving partner, a sweet baby, a fulfilling career, and a home to call my own. I had none of those things. I’d already completed a lot of solo goals in a short amount of time. I’d thru-hiked the Appalachian Trail, written novels, worked in Paris, traveled alone. And while I was proud of that, I could feel my life moving too quickly, and I was no closer to securing any of the long-term goals.
And now as I drove through the highlands with my friend, I tried to focus on the highland coos with their long horns and the fringe covering their marble-shiny eyes. But that voice on the radio was telling me that life was about to change in ways that no one could anticipate. Something was coming and we didn’t know how bad it would be and we didn’t know how long it would last. Whatever happened, I knew it was only going to delay any possible chance of my life moving forward the way I wanted.
I fidgeted as a familiar burning in my brain began. When my anxiety flares up, it’s like I can feel someone spreading gasoline and lighting a match right beneath my skull. Then my heart starts racing like I drank a gallon of coffee and ran a marathon. I’m exhausted, amped up, terrified, watching my vision tunnel. That’s what started to happen in the car, and it continued through the night as I lay in our camping pod, beneath a sky of stars, in a beautiful valley with a view of snowy hills.
I didn’t sleep at all. I turned twenty-six with my eyes wide open.
Back in my flat in Edinburgh, the lockdown began and I fell into a comfortable routine. I slept from ten pm to eight am. I stretched in the morning, ate breakfast and had coffee or tea, read in bed with my cats for a couple hours, worked on university assignments, walked five miles wherever I felt like it, exercised in my living room, made dinner, watched a movie, stretched again, and went to bed. After the Scottish government kept promising “just two more weeks of lockdown” and the two weeks kept passing, I realized that everything truly was out of everyone’s control, and my previous fear and anxiety dissipated as I firmly decided to just wait it out and be patient. Surely it would just be a couple months. I could write my dissertation in peace and then travel a bit before moving back to Florida.
But part of me knew that this peace was temporary. As always, I was distracting myself so that I didn’t have to face the question that had repeated itself ever since I finished high school: “What am I doing?” As August crept closer, I felt myself on a familiar precipice, awaiting an unnamed catastrophe. It was the same catastrophe I’d awaited many times before. For as long as I could remember, depression had been whispering in my ear, telling me that I had no reason to live. And anxiety had been wrapping its fingers around my throat, convincing me that if I did choose to live, there would be nothing but worry, panic, and failure for the rest of my days.
Like Sylvia Plath’s Esther Greenwood, I spent a lot of time sitting beneath a metaphorical fig tree, unable to choose a fig, and watching them all fall, black and rotted, at my feet. For perhaps nine years now, since one in a series of abusive relationships, I have been living in a state of constant and crippling embarrassment. Humiliated about my very existence, I let opportunities pass me by out of fear of failure, and because I don’t think I’m worthy. How could I possibly deserve anything good? How could I choose any of the figs, each of them representing careers, relationships, and possible positive changes, before it’s too late and they’re all spoiled?
Soon after returning to Florida, already blinded by panic and the question of what I would do next, the losses started coming and they didn’t stop. Within a span of a few short weeks, a friend, a close family member, and a lover all exited my life. Three strikes, just like that. Knocked to the ground and struggling to understand the scope of my worthlessness, a new loss of indescribable measure took center stage.
And after seven years of making magic as a character performer at Walt Disney World, I was let go. Thousands of us received an impersonal email telling us that our Covid-induced furlough would no longer be extended, and we were being permanently separated from the company. For so long, I’d been playing these characters, and now I’d have to find out who I was. No mask of makeup, no glittery gown, no fairytale stories to hide behind. Just me, exposed to myself and the world at last.
For weeks I sank deeper. Manically, I’d chase distractions, until one song or one photo or one intrusive thought sent me back into the spiral. Many nights, I knelt by my bed, hands clasped, and prayed to the god I don’t believe in, prayed to die in my sleep. Tears streaming, practically wailing, I sent up this hopeless prayer, begging and pleading with the universe to let me go. Too afraid to take my own life, even after ten years of dreaming about it, I left it up to a cosmic force to do the job for me. But every morning I awoke, already gasping for breath, eyes wild, taking in the room I’d never wanted to see again. I tried to steady my heart with both hands on my chest, but the organ that I desperately wished would stop beating carried on, more like a crash crash crash than a thump thump thump. Like someone was chaotically throwing two cymbals at each other beneath my ribs. I couldn’t stop it. I wept when I knew that I was no longer dreaming, that I’d have to face another day in the world that I felt didn’t want me.
You should be so grateful, everyone said.
You’ve gotten to travel. You have a Master’s degree.
You have your health. You have more than other people. Just be grateful.
Be happy. You should be happy. What do you have to be depressed about?
After Christmas, I felt a tiny glimmer of hope. Perhaps I would pick myself up and ease into my new life: single in my late twenties, jobless but capable of doing freelance work that I actually might like, excited to renovate my home and make it a place that my cats and I could enjoy together for as long as I could manage to stay put in one city. I started to look up at the new figs growing and averted my eyes from the rotten ones at my feet.
A couple weeks of hope must have been a lot to ask for. In January, one of my two beloved cats began sneezing a lot. After weeks of stress in which I could barely eat, and never left her side, she was diagnosed with cancer. I fought the news at first. How could my gorgeous, sweet, perfectly healthy nine year old cat have cancer? How could life get worse when I was just beginning to push on with things despite the losses of the previous months? It seemed too unfair to be true, too ridiculous to not be a joke. But slowly, I stopped fighting and I accepted the reality of the unreal situation. I was going to have to live through this, to be strong for my darlings. I really only had two options: adapt to what was happening, or die.
With the help of therapy, I’ve begun to come back to myself. Depression and anxiety will always be part of me. But I’m working on the embarrassment and self-hatred that make them worse. If I can stop caring so much that some people might think I’m ungrateful, or pathetic, or a failure, then I might be able to start choosing some of those figs when they’re at their ripest. If I can accept that my worth doesn’t come from anyone’s opinions, or anyone’s perceptions of my achievements and losses, then I can focus on what really matters to me: my cats, my mental and physical health, and the people I love. Perhaps on that list of people, I’ll even add my own name someday.