The thing about being (arguably) very creative and (absolutely inarguably) very dramatic is that your imagination has a tendency to spill into your life.
TRIGGER WARNING EVENTUALLY: We’re going to start with childhood bullying and make our way to talking about depression and suicide, and at the end we’re going to talk about being happy.
Back when I was a book-devouring, daydreaming pile of pre-adolescence, it never once occurred to me that this could be a problem. I spent all my time either reading things or imagining things, and anything in between was dead air. Other kids were either features or obstructions of my elaborate games. Math homework was a hurdle to get over before I could get back to what I was doing. I kicked and protested my way through re-learning long division every year with one finger still holding my place in the book I was trying to read.
I was an odd kid and I had a lot of issues–nothing too severe, but the kinds of problems that are typical when you aren’t. You could say I was bullied, but it wasn’t really a case of being targeted so much as being part of an established social class.
Y’know, the lowest one.
If a game of M.A.S.H was being played and marriage candidates were needed, the formula was this:
Two boys huddle around a piece of paper during lunch, two desks ahead of Mefiante and her Unpopular Friend.
“Okay, so two hot girls, and two ugly ones!”
“Hmm…Jessica Simpson*, and, um…[Grade Five Bitch]?”
“And then, oh man–[Unpopular Friend of Mine]?”
“Yeah, her and [Mefiante].”
Mimed vomiting. General disgust. Laughter.A sad, ten-year-old Mefiante internalizes the experience, one among countless others, and it nudges her a little further along her path to becoming an adult with wildly unpredictable moods she will detail on a sporadically-updated blog.
That kind of thing was pretty normal. You’ve all seen movies. You’ve all been children. You know what it is to be at the bottom of the food chain even if you weren’t, and I don’t think I need to explain further. What’s curious here isn’t that the other kids were mean to a weird girl. I am interested in the way that I, as a Story Person, learned to cope with the constant hurt that went along with being That Girl.
In short, I dramatized.
I made myself up to be noble martyr in my head for putting up with such hardships all the time, a coping mechanism heavily fueled by reading things like Emily of New Moon and any and all historical fiction novel in which the heroine runs away in tears and something terrible just happens to happen to her tormentors. I allowed myself to wallow heavily. Where I couldn’t access respect, friendship, acceptance and all those other elusive good feelings, I self-medicated with drama.
This is a thing. When you lack the maturity to take a step back from your situation, like this: “Okay, yes, people will be mean to you at school, you will get hit in the face with soccer balls, your halloween candy will get stolen out of your lunch and there won’t be much you can do about it, but let’s be real: it could be worse. You’ve got friends, and you’re doing well at school, and all you have to do is deal with this until 3:27 (our school had a weird schedule), hope your bus ride is okay, and then you’re home free again.”
…Instead, it becomes more like this: “You are going to be tortured every day. Why are they doing this to you? What did you ever do to them? Why doesn’t anybody understand you?! One day they’ll see. One day THEY’LL ALL SEE.”
A pattern develops in the imagination of the Dramatic Sad Child. I swung wildly between cruel revenge fantasies in which the other kids were punished for their misdeeds, and more optimistic ones where I triumphed over various obstacles and earned their awestruck, repentant respect.
Either of these story arcs required a lot of dramatic fuel. In order for either type of social reversal to take place in my head, and for the story to have enough emotional impact to be worthwhile, it was important to have enough pathos hanging in the balance, much in the same way that Jane Eyre and Harry Potter and Oliver Twist needed to be sad, despised and hungry orphans before they became interesting heroes. On some level I understood that. When you dramatize your problems, it’s only more psychologically satisfying when you imagine dramatic solutions.
The thing is, this line of thinking eventually gave way to a weird mental attraction to self-pity. I let myself get so addicted to this mechanism that sometimes I stopped short of the revenge and victory parts of the story and just started reveling in pathos (well, angst. But we’re talking about narratives structure so let me be needlessly literary, okay?). At some point I lost most of my taste for imagining myself rising above being sad, unliked and downtrodden. I could no longer see myself becoming anything different. I became, to bastardize a favourite feminist phrase, angst-positive.
If you’re worried about the suicide triggery stuff, stop here.
Being sad was What I Did. The notion that people might feel sorry for me, rather than respect, fear or like me, became paramount. My daydreams stopped being rallying scenes of miraculous goals scored in soccer and scathing insults embarrassing my tormentors in front of large audiences. They got a lot darker and made a lot less sense. They lacked plot advancement. They became fantasies about terrible things happening to me–about my classmates being crueler than they ever were in real life, about my teachers and other school admins being more and more biting and authoritarian, and yes, about my parents dying and sending me off to live with hithert0-unknown cruel relatives.(Stay with me, guys. I promise I’m making a point.)
In some ways it was a defense mechanism against the possibility of real problems: once you get comfortable inside your sadness, nothing can hurt you, in theory. If you are at risk of falling and hitting your head while standing, sitting on the floor might be a better choice. Obviously this is a massively immature way to manage one’s emotions on the regular, but I was a weird kid and it worked for a while. The real problem came along when my narrative coping mechanism came face to face with mental illness.
Shit got fucked up.
I became obsessed with the story of a girl in my hometown who had drowned in the rapids one spring, a few years before I was born. There’s a plaque commemorating her death, which was wholly accidental and very sad. She was twelve years old and had been playing near the water with her friends. It was April, and the water was high, and she fell in and they couldn’t save her. Even now, something about that story gives me chills.
It’s hard to say at what point I crossed the line from “angsty kid” into “severely depressed adolescent”, but somewhere in there it happened. The characters in the stories I was writing went from “Capella, a 17-year-old desert warrior with a mechanical prosthetic spine that can be used as a weapon to fight bandits” to “Magnolia, a girl (my age) who ‘committed suicide’ by jumping into the river in the springtime.”
Magnolia’s story was an extremely thinly-veiled proxy for my own life. The actual plotline I was writing revealed that she was murdered, pushed into the river by an enemy, which was a particularly clever device. I wrote about how Magnolia’s friends were devastated by her suicide, I wrote about her body plunging into icy water, about how everyone felt guilty and confused and hurt and missed her more than they would realize–but I told Mercury and my other friends all about how it was really a murder mystery, and wasn’t that cool?
At one point we had to write mock newspaper articles for English class in the eighth grade, and I actually wrote the report of Magnolia Jones, 13, who drowned tragically in the river one April morning in an apparent suicide. When I think back to this now I am blown away that I never got called into the teacher’s office to be talked to about it, but, well, the mental health awareness wave wasn’t there when I needed it most. It came later.
I became truly obsessed with the river. I would visit it every day on my way home from school. I would ride my bike down close to the bridge, to the park. I would lean right up on the guard rails and stare into the rapids in the springtime and think about death. I would fold my body over the wooden fence rails and feel cold spray in my face and speculate about what I would feel, how long it would take for my nerves to lose sensation, what would happen when they found me, if I was found. It was all-consuming, and I didn’t know how to explain it to anyone so I never quite did.
I have a poem that begins,
I stand shaking
When the river calls
As livestock do
In slaughterhouse stalls
Because they know
Exactly what they’re doing there
And I should go
But I lean against the fence
I once climbed down the side of the embankment with rubber boots on, found a low place, and walked right into the cold water. It never touched my skin, but I stood there for a long time, feeling my feet get colder, unable to go forward or back, until eventually something clicked in my head and I ran back up to dry land, dissolving into tears as I went because I had been so, so close, oh my god, how could I–and then again, I had been so, so close, why couldn’t I?
I was okay. I got much happier and I recovered and had plenty of good times and accomplished a lot between then and now. I’ve made great strides in finding more mature ways of handling my emotions, when I know where they’re coming from. But the suicide montages have stayed with me. They are wrong, and they are unhealthy, and they glorify what I know, I know, I know is a sickness, a contagion that wants me dead. The parts of me that are me do not want me dead. But these visions exist, and they are dramatic and compelling and I need to eradicate them.
I live in a world where every bridge has four sides, not two. Between stepping on and stepping off the bridge there are a million different jumping-off points and I know that on every single bridge over water. I see methods everywhere, which I will not detail despite the angsty narrative value because this is too real to fuck around with anymore, and I know that.
I have got to stop feeding the sick parts of my brain by imagining my death when I am upset. I have to stop imagining graphic car crashes and sudden, deadly illnesses too. I’m not going to be killed in a six-car pileup, I’m probably not about to find out I’m dying of cancer and none of the buildings I regularly occupy are likely to collapse on me. These images have become my refuge, in adulthood, because they represent a loss of control and a loss of responsibility, in death. Suicide or disaster, it’s the same impulse: to be unburdened, and not to have to fight.
But I want to live. I have no business dying young because I have work to do, I have love to give, I have obstacles to overcome and I have better stories to tell. The healthy parts of my brain know this. And while it’s a messy hit-or-miss kind of situation right now, and I am too much up and down to know what to do about seeking treatment professionally or whether or not I really need to, this is something I can do for myself.
It is time to re-write the montage.
No more solemn piano music and images of abandoned shoes and bag next to the guardrails, no more waterlogged winter coats and no more imaginary obituaries in the paper. It’s time to bring back the one where I’m triumphant and I earn everyone’s respect, more or less.
I have a new vision of the story of the girl and the river, and it starts where it always does. I am sad and desperate and empty and I am staring at the water gushing. I am undoing my boots and setting down my purse and I am shaking. I take off my mittens and don’t feel the cold of the metal guardrail registering on my skin. I think about how I don’t feel anything and it’s time to leave because clearly I am not strong enough, not sane enough, not good enough for this.
I remember childhood alienation and humanitarian guilt and a million examples of inadequacy. I remember every existential crisis I ever had, from being four years old and asking what’s it all for? to being sixteen and learning that there was a large philosophical movement in Europe where grown men asked the same question two centuries ago and feeling defeated that they couldn’t figure it out either. I remember being eleven and unable to eat or sleep or do anything but stare blankly; I remember being fourteen and actively hiding at school to avoid being noticed; I remember being fifteen and trying to graze myself with a dull craft knife, then being sixteen, seventeen, eighteen and raking up and down my sides with a razor. I remember skipping class and wandering out toward highways. I remember every other time I have stood where I’m standing now.
And then something happens. It could be something dramatic like the sun breaking through the clouds or the sky starting to snow or a red cardinal flying past, sure. It could also be something simple, like a car horn honking or a dog barking. Maybe my phone goes off. Maybe I bite my lip and it splits, maybe the wind picks up, maybe I notice the cold of the guard rails all of a sudden. Whatever it is, that tiny shift in sensation makes me feel something, anything. And it opens the door to feeling different from the way I felt when I walked toward the water.
Suddenly I am remembering fireflies and train whistles and waking up to the sound of my dad playing acoustic guitar. I remember whiffs of bakery air. I remember every time I’ve worked myself to exhaustion and sat down for a shift meal at the restaurant where I used to work. I remember conversations and books that seemed so important they took priority over sleep. I remember being in senior kindergarten and reading a book aloud to my brother’s grade two class. I remember the summer before fourth grade, feet immobilized by the mud at the Bay of Fundy, eyes wide picking reeds and horsetail grass in a marsh, reassuring my mother as I stood on ledges of cliffs at the Cup and Saucer Trail because I wanted to see the view.
I remember the beginning of the fourth grade when I met Mercury and began a friendship now coming up for its tenth anniversary. I remember the winter of 2005-2006, when, at the end of a brutal, snowy and failed attempt at making a life for ourselves in a town further north, we packed our things back into the U-Haul truck and I sat up front next to my dad as we finally came home. I remember the feeling that rushed through me when we came into view of the street where I grew up. I remember taking my two best friends at the time on an adventure to the city for my eleventh birthday, and I think about how the train we were so excited to ride that day is the one I routinely take to school now. I remember my mother coming home, unexpectedly, for my twelfth birthday when I had resigned myself to being alone.
I remember every moment where I made an entire room laugh. I remember unexpectedly winning forty bucks and a medal for a poetry contest I’d forgotten I entered. I remember holding a plastic-coated human spleen in my hands at a science camp. I remember being kissed on the cheek in a game of Truth or Dare by the boy I was secretly in love with, and gleefully pretending to be disgusted. I remember the time I slapped Sk8rboi (who will have his own story eventually–just go with it) and the time I punched The Snark. I remember the time I was called to make a foul shot in basketball in gym class and made it, perfectly, and the entire class cheered.
I remember eight-grade graduation night, where I convinced the committee to use my theme and colour choices. The room is covered in red, black, white and silver (even though our school colours were blue and yellow) and every student’s favourite song lyrics are posted on the walls. The elaborate grad video I produced, alongside two boys who weren’t even my friends at the start of the year, plays perfectly. It includes three of my favourite songs, and the crowd laughs in all the right places. We get massive applause. As each student is called up there is more and more applause, and by the time they get down the alphabet to me, their once most-loathed and most-ostracized classmate, my entire graduating class is cheering. I walk up to the stage for my silly elementary school diploma through a sea of high fives in my four-inch heels. When I receive the French Geography award, the teacher who hands it to me hugs me and tells me I deserve much more.
I remember being in the ninth grade and lonely and realizing that Norma Jean really, truly wanted to be my friend. I remember her picking me off the cafeteria floor and inviting me to sit at her table, and I remember everything that would come after that point. I remember staying up all night stopping a girl I barely knew from hurting herself. I remember the boy was grieving and lonely and hurt and how he changed so much the day I baked him a raspberry cheesecake and brought it to school. I remember how he was sad when I wouldn’t go out with him, but how he handled it eventually and how he bought me lunch and wished me well after graduation. I remember the day I first met The Snark and fell madly in love. I remember my introduction to spoken word. I remember the first time I got a high score at a poetry slam; I remember the first time I won; I remember the first time the audience cheered aloud while I was still talking. I remember the day I challenged the principal in the middle of an assembly, and the entire cafeteria cheered and chanted my name. I remember Reach for the Top victories. I remember the time The Snark and I performed onstage. I remember the day I realized I was over him and was happy being friends.
I remember how I learned to program in Basic and then in Java. I remember every prize I ever won and everything I baked and every positive interaction with a client or a customer I ever had at work. I remember long talks with my mom in the parking lots of grocery stores and long bike rides together on country backroads. I remember adventures and arguments and separations and reunions with my big brother The Narrator. I remember every day we spent together delving into his massive library of music and video. I remember editing hundreds of essays. I remember Heart & Crown and how I got over the idea that I had to be a solitary person; I remember our long phone calls and our outdoor adventures and the one time we crossed paths with a skunk; I remember the hurt in his eyes and the knowledge that I was right in leaving him when I did.
I remember the large birthday dinners I had in high school, and my astonishment at the sheer volume of people I had learned to love and who had learned to love me. I remember Rain Man telling me I was “the nucleus of the friend group”. I remember the times friends went with me to the grocery store and we bought pasta sauce and baby food and soup and hauled it all the way to the food bank several times a year. I remember acts of kindness.
I remember everything.
I think of Tom Sloane and of loud parties and quiet nights and short bus rides and long bus rides and Arcade Fire and affection and so many other things I never expected to find. I think of Sunshine Moonbeam and her rapid-fire peace, love and understanding and the way we talked ourselves into exhaustion the first day we met.
In the dramatization, this is where the music changes. This is where it picks up, this is the moment that’s been missing from these daydreams all along:
I think about how my phone is in my purse on the bridge next to me, and I start putting on my boots. I find out which one is home, which one is closest by, and it takes monstrous force. It takes a Herculean effort. I tie my shoelaces with shaking hands, I pick up my bag, I put my mittens back over my frozen hands and I do it–I leave. I get off the bridge the right way, onto a sidewalk and then a bus. I am walking away, and I arrive on a doorstep, tears still pouring from my face but still alive, heart beating and cheeks flushed from the cold, and there are arms around me and I am squeezing the hand of someone who cares about me and a phone number is being called, reinforcements are called, and I am not alone and I will not be hurting anyone, and now I am crying because I am grateful.
I remember that what I have been doing my whole life is digging for happiness and fighting for the most important things, and that it’s an uphill battle but one I am fully equipped for. It is a battle worth fighting, and from that point on the fight is a little easier.
This is the angst-negativity. This is the new montage for me. If you struggle with this too, I strongly urge you to change the scenes in your head as best you can. Start applying drama and heroism to your recovery, because you are worth saving. There are all kinds of ways to be strong, to be triumphant, and to do anything more powerful than getting comfortable inside your sadness. That’s what I’m going to try to do, and if you read every word of this post you’re a goddamn saint. Cheers.
Mefiante raises her glass of expensive lime soda in a toast, and then leaps onto her alternate-universe motorcycle and speeds off into the night. Dramatically.