It is six o’clock in the morning and I wake up suddenly. My body is trembling. My thoughts are beginning to spiral and my breath is shortening – every inhale becomes smaller, and smaller, and smaller until I fear that the oxygen in the room might run out.
I try to remember what my psychiatrist told me, about how breathing through a straw never killed anyone. I swear that this time it might.
When I fall asleep, I dream that I live in a house on the beach. I am staring out at the ocean until I see the waves grow taller, and bigger, and louder. The tide is creeping up on me now. I run inside, waiting for the first floor to flood, then the second. I keep climbing the stairs, trying to get away.
I know that I need to get to higher ground. I abandon the house and start running up a hill. No matter how high I climb, there’s always water on my heels. Sometimes it’s up to my ankles. No matter how fast I run, it’s always at my feet. All I can do is wait for the water to recede and hope that it doesn’t take me with it.
I tell myself, “No one ever drowned in an inch of water, Sam.” I swear that this time I might.
When I wake up again, my partner is next to me. I tell them about my panic attack, and about my dream. “I think I know what it means,” I explain. “That sometimes all you can do is keep searching for higher ground.”
Neither of us needs to acknowledge out loud that we’re talking about my mental illness.
About how, for the last eight months since I was hospitalized, I have watched the waves come in and out, chasing me uphill and luring me back down. I have known the kind of grief of being small in the face of something that could eclipse you, could make you disappear effortlessly.
When I see my psychiatrist later that week, I tell him that I have something to say, and that it isn’t nice. He tells me that I don’t have to be nice, that I should say how I feel. I tell him that I feel broken. I tell him that I feel irredeemable. I tell him that I am ashamed. I tell him that I am tired. I tell him that six medications is too much and too little. I want to know –
“Why you are the way you are,” he says quietly. This is a tender wound that I try to avoid.
I nod, choking back words – words like, this isn’t fair, I don’t deserve this, I only ever tried to be good, I only ever tried to be kind, I shouldn’t be here, I should never have been here, fuck this and fuck you.
I know that maybe he has asked himself this before, about me, about the others. Because when I look at him, I don’t see pity – I see pain.
The unspoken truth: There is a particular kind of agony that comes with the realization that you could be good in every way, and mental illness will still chew you up and spit you back out.
You can do everything right – take all of your pills, go to all of your therapy appointments, read every bit of literature, do all your self-care – and still be trapped between the incisors, gnawed to pieces in the aftermath of another episode.
Some days, I can be standing on the platform waiting for a train, or cleaning up my apartment, or having lunch with a friend – and like a sudden, unexpected punch in the gut, I want to weep because I know I’ve been good, I want to weep because I know I’ve tried, and here we are.
I’ve tried so hard.
When I tell a friend about my dream, I quietly comment, “The ocean doesn’t care about how good you are.”
They tell me, “I know.”
I keep looking for someplace safe, somewhere high enough, somewhere untouched. And when I think I’ve found it, all I can do is wait. All I can do is wait, overcome with bitterness, overcome with rage, weeping with the force of a hurricane, breathing through a straw.