Every day for a week before I graduated from college, I cried violently into the night. These tears were neither nostalgic nor cathartic–I wasn’t lamenting the best-four-years-of-my-life now at a close. I felt no better for my foggy glasses and soggy cheeks. No, I sniffled my way out of these bouts of despair as unsatisfied and guilty as I felt sniffling into them. Crying isn’t going to make my parents love each other again, and that is a stupid thing to cry about when you’re 22. I cried because I could not puzzle out where my inability to take care of myself fused with my unwillingness to do so.
While my roommates took advantage of the last time it might be socially acceptable for us to binge-drink, I skulked in the eyrie, the school library’s literal brick and figurative ivory tower and sobbed some more. I’m worried about my mental health, I admitted, sheepishly, to a friend who was distant enough to me that I permitted myself to be close with her. If you had a broken arm, you’d go to the doctor. You should do the same for depression, she said. Don’t be silly, I said.
There was no comforting exhalation when my parents legalized their separation. I say legalized because the line between de facto and de jure, never distinct to begin with, becomes messier with divorce. To wit: my father left his wife in 2013 when he moved out, but it took another two years to disentangle three childhoods’ worth of cohabitation. I followed him in paperwork only. I am now a legal resident of a state where I’ve spent no more than a collective month, in a neighborhood I have never been to, inside a house my father does not own. The address–which I have not committed to memory, a charge of my own light brigade–adorns my tax documents to taunt my liminal existence.
On Commencement Day, the rental car and the taxi arriving in tandem to my ramshackle apartment marked the first moment I saw my family together since the split. It became clear that the most immediate pain of my parents’ divorce would be logistical. Over months of stony-faced dinner conversations, I had developed a grudging truce with the hollowness of their relationship, eroded over a decade of medical and financial hurricanes. Now, however, I had to navigate around my mother’s retiring standoffishness, driving her home early to her hotel, then schlepping back to campus so my father’s Californian exuberance could charm my friends’ families into pretending they did not notice my mom’s absence. This logistical pain, so banal and frustrating, wore away at me.
But I preferred it to the other pain, the pain lodged inside my gut from which the endless well of unproductive tears sprung. The logistical pain kept me from interrogating the prospect that the humans who taught me to read and write did not want to be photographed together as their son received his diploma. So I embraced the easy pain of awkward jealousy, latching onto other families so I could remind myself what commitment looked like. During graduation I smiled an exhausted smile, and the photographer Bowdoin College had hired to capture the triumph of newly minted alums caught my stab at feigned happiness. At home, I darkly mused that this barely-a-grin would be the last I ever mustered. Via self-portraits on my refrigerator door, I traced my mouth’s descent from toothy innocence to guarded tightness. I used to be so happy, I pleaded to my mom. What happened?
I cried at the dinner table after my mother confessed she blamed herself for my depression, and then some more because I couldn’t show her my tears. Whether she meant this earnestly or venomously, when I told her I didn’t feel like talking about it she said she didn’t feel like catering to my sadness. I joked about hurting myself in her presence, and then she cried, accusing me of cudgeling her, punishing her for the divorce. I cried because I was not joking and maybe she was right: I wanted my tears to belong to my eyes only. I cried because she blamed herself for the misfiring of my neurons, and because her advice–do not give in to the bad thoughts–gave me no solace. Unwilling or unable to show my mother how I hurt, I sought solace with strangers whose names I should know but have forgotten: the casual Tinder swipe, a professional phone therapist, the Southerner on the other end of the suicide hotline.
I had suspected I suffered from depression since high school, but it took my parents’ divorce to force a diagnosis. I pushed back against the resulting prescription of antidepressants. Going on meds was tantamount to letting depression win, I thought; I didn’t want to surrender my agency for my despondency. I wanted to wrestle with it, try a little harder, glean the right perspective, change my attitude until I created the conditions of my happiness on my own. I thought that my sadness was my fault, that if I just tried a little harder or could just glimpse the right perspective and change my attitude, I would feel better. Yet a big part of me wasn’t sure I wanted to feel better. I was scared to relinquish the comfort cultivated by living inside melancholy for so long.
My bouts of crying weren’t going to bring my parents back together, but, I argued, forty milligrams of bottled chemical wouldn’t either. It would only deceive me into thinking things were better. In the end, I couldn’t escape depression until I admitted I was trapped inside of it. Maybe my denial was like my parents’–a cocktail of inertia, wishful thinking, and Stockholm syndrome. I don’t want to live the legacy of my parents’ failed relationship.
I started on Prozac in November. It was the hardest decision I’ve ever made. It has also turned out to be the best. I still break down in public–grocery stores, now, not library stacks–but I am no longer ashamed of the tears. These cries feel honest. I think I’ve earned them by taking ownership over my depression, which means releasing myself of blame. I can tell the truth, now, to myself and to the acquaintance who asks hey, how’s it going? I can say I am not doing well. But I know I don’t have to be, either.
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