A few days ago, maybe a week or two, I began doing the NY Times Crossword. I got my grandmother the Weekender for her birthday and I did them occasionally, but now I had downloaded the app and paid the subscription fee. I felt elated when I could fill out a Monday or Tuesday without much or any Googling. I felt like a genius the day I finished a Wednesday without help. And I felt like an ignorant fool when I got stuck, a waste of space, my lack of knowledge all my fault simply because I have chosen, in many instances, to not do the work.
I remember the most feedback I had as a kid from teachers or parents or coaches was that I had potential that I squandered. And really, that’s the worst sort of thing that you can do. You’re stupid, fine, you don’t know any better. You’re a terrible writer, you don’t write. You can’t sing, you don’t try to be a singer. But to know I could write and chose not to, out of fear or laziness or sickness, or whatever, to squander: this is worse. We are all complicit in our shortcomings and downfalls and I was willfully rejecting the advice I had been given since the 5th grade. That is shitty.
SO much of what will be remembered about this year or the year before and for most of my twenties is the progression of my illness, the degradation of my body. I read the other day something I had written at the end of last year, wherein I posited that it could probably not get any worse. And what a foolish and arrogant thing to say. Because of course it did get worse. Because of course it got so much worse! I got so much worse!
There was my stint in California, where I landed in the ICU, and realized all my time in California were only ever going to be stints as long as this was how my body felt and operated. If I kept being me, then my life would continue to be scattershot across the continental USA: places I spent time briefly before being forced to come home to New Jersey and recover, and then to relapse and recover. It did not feel like I was building a life. It felt like I was running out of steam.
I could not keep this engine going and then I finally faltered and fell apart in the most physical and metaphorical way possible: I was paralyzed, atrophied, broken. I fell, literally. I had so many falls, so many bruises. There was a moment when I was on the floor of my rehab hospital--this was July, not even six months ago--and I knew I had to call for help, and I knew it would be terrible, and the staff would have to write a report, and I would not be in trouble but I would feel in trouble, and I just lay there for a minute more, trying to steel myself and found that I had no more steel in the reserve. I could not brace myself because I had run out of ways how. And so I pressed the call button.
December always sinks me. I mean to look at the tree and inhale the scent before it is tossed out with the gift bags and wrapping paper and yet every year I do not. The last two Decembers I narrowly missed Christmas in the hospital, and yet being home and not sick is more depressing to me. It reminds me that there are things I could be doing that I am not.
I have been listening to the Hamilton soundtrack and reading everything about Alexander Hamilton and Lin-Manuel Miranda. And for both of these men, their eerie sort of premonition and feeling about an early death motivates them. (Read the New Yorker profile of Miranda for more on this. He thought he was going to die before his first play opened on Broadway.) This inspires me as much as it confounds me about my own motivations or lack thereof. If I am dodging death and illness, why don’t I work on things when I am not in the hospital? Why am I not writing the stories I want to write?
And it’s because that other illness that plagues me, the deep depression, comes and finds me as soon as the adrenaline of surviving has left me. So much of depression has to do with one refrain running through your brain: what would happen if I died? Would death be so bad? I wish I were dead. Maybe I’ll die soon.
At least this is the refrain that runs through mine as soon as I cut the hospital bracelet off. A slackening sets in. All the color is out of the balloons and I’m left breathing the dead helium floating in the room. Technically, yes, I need to rest. I am exhausted from the suffering and pain and illness but more I am tired of the come down from painkillers, the body unfolding itself into another barely pulled off survival. I can’t write, and sometimes I can’t read. I don’t listen to music and I don’t see movies. I can only sit through television shows that don’t challenge me. I can’t comprehend anything new; I cannot get out of bed.
I am living and yet it seem so much harder with each year. The traumas build up, stack in my brain like debris and I cannot shake them. I worry that they will tumble to the floor and I will finally cave in. But writing to me is survival. It is the only thing that will fill me out and up and I think that for this end of the year post, a thing I was sure i would be unable to write, I have to thank the Hamilton soundtrack and freestyle rap battles on YouTube and the elasticity of the language that I love to play with. This year is done, it is over, I have survived and I will endure another. I know I will. I do not want to die.
Recently a friend asked me if I am discouraged by another year of trying to fly and finding that I only became paralyzed more. I wondered if that is how everyone sees my life, as pitiful a narrative as can be. Even I do not feel that badly for myself. (OK, maybe sometimes.) There were as many beautiful moments this year as bad ones, and I’m going to try to remember the beautiful ones a lot more. Rooftop breakfasts in Istanbul, a new niece, shiny and red, my West Coast girls, the California sunsets, the first swim I could take in the ocean after I learned to walk again.
It could be worse. It can get worse. I learned that, this year.
But I survived.