This piece was originally published in Siblíní Journal: The Distance Diaries in June 2020, under the title, “List of Reasons.”
The gravity of coronavirus became clear to me in early March, during my spring break, when I spent 10-hour days writing my master’s thesis in the eerily quiet lobby of a pharmacy building on campus. The situation felt catastrophic but still distant at that time, the way a horror movie plays in your mind after you watch it — terrifying, but you remind yourself it’s only fiction. I paced around the tile floor while on the phone with my mother, speculating about what would come next and how we would handle it. I was dreading social distancing, but I was grateful to have an apartment I loved, work that could be done at home for at least a few weeks, and a list of other privileges. I told my mom that of all the times in my life for the world to seemingly come to a halt, this was a convenient one for me, since I had no travel plans and a thesis to stay inside and write, anyway. I was uncharacteristically level-headed, rational, even optimistic — and I was shocked by my own disposition. My mom noticed my demeanor and let out her signature laugh — loud and sharp — before telling me, You would be a freakin’ MESS right now if you weren’t medicated.
I started seeing a therapist in the spring of 2018, the year after I graduated from college in New York and moved to Providence, Rhode Island. The day we met, I told my therapist that I had struggled with anxiety on and off throughout my life. She asked me questions about what my anxiety looks and feels like. I answered her as honestly as I could, but I withheld some information that I wouldn’t reveal until months later when I trusted her fully. I admitted to her that my anxiety became overwhelming when I was in eighth grade, but really, I think it started long before that. As a kid, I remember rolling up my baby blanket and shoving it under my shirt whenever I felt sad and didn’t know why. I swore the softness on my stomach made me feel better.
For the last two years, I’ve spent nearly every Friday afternoon in my therapist’s office in Wayland Square, picking at my nail polish as we talk about mindfulness, grounding exercises, and actively halting unproductive thoughts and worries. When I think about potentially moving away after I graduate this semester, leaving my therapist is one of the first losses that comes to mind. It is simple to say that going to therapy has changed my life for the better. I do not want to use abstract language to describe something that has been so concretely beneficial to me and my relationships. This is why I grew frustrated in December of 2019, when I felt I had learned so much from therapy but was still waking up with a sadness on my shoulders, feeling heavy and not knowing why. It was a familiar sadness, one that had come and gone unpredictably throughout my life. My sadness was distinct from my anxiety, which I had under control, thanks to my therapist. Anxiety takes root in my head, then spreads to my body, but my sadness does the opposite.
I started searching for ways to explain it away, listing reasons why I might be depressed. Temporarily, this list made me feel better, liberating me from the fear that I might be “the crazy girl.” It’s just the circumstances, I told myself each time the sadness creeped back. It won’t be like this forever. But there will always be The List of Reasons if you look hard enough. You can always identify reasons to be sad, and I was searching for these reasons not because I was incapable of seeing the good in my life, but because I was already feeling sad, and I was desperate to make sense of why. But a chemical imbalance doesn’t follow logic. You can’t talk yourself out of a mental illness. And I got sick of making lists, even when they were full of legitimate reasons. This time, I listed my measly grad student stipend, and the knowledge that I’m unwillingly growing apart from my best college friends, and every headline since the 2016 presidential election. But these reasons are not flaws in my life, nor are they problems to be solved. They will change, and perhaps some of them will be resolved, but they will always be replaced with new reasons to be sad. They will inevitably become a measly starting salary, and the knowledge that my parents are growing old, and the way violence against women never seems to leave the patriarchy’s zeitgeist, or some other equivalents. Perhaps the most obvious reason of all to be depressed is a global pandemic that isolates you from your loved ones and kills thousands.
In January, after crying through most of my Christmas break, I told my mom I was considering starting an antidepressant. She told me that she had been taking one for about a decade, and that before she started it, her sadness looked a lot like mine. I’ve been wanting to suggest this to you for years, she revealed, but I was afraid I’d hurt your feelings if you weren’t ready to hear it yet. Although I no longer felt shame and stigma about taking medication like I did as a teenager, I continued to oscillate, not convinced that my sadness was anything more than a normal part of my personality. There had been times when I was truly happy for several months at a time, even when my life wasn’t perfect. With the exception of a few particularly dark seasons, I wasn’t incapable of feeling joy. I wasn’t a social recluse. No one could see my sadness unless they knew me very well. I had never planned or attempted suicide, and I worried that saying I had depression would undermine those who were suffering more than I was.
Luckily, I had the support of my therapist, who patiently reminded me that although my suffering may not have been as bad as other people’s, I still deserved to take an antidepressant if it would help me feel better. She can’t prescribe medicine, but she diagnosed me with dysthymia, which now falls under persistent depressive disorder in the DSM-V. Dysthymia, which I had never heard of, is different than major depressive disorder (some refer to dysthymia as minor depressive disorder). It typically develops during adolescence, and it comes and goes throughout a person’s life, making it difficult to diagnose. It may be subtle, but it is distinct from healthy, everyday sadness. It is genetic. And it often goes undiagnosed because people think the sadness is just part of your personality.
I started taking an antidepressant by the end of the month, after seeing a psychiatrist who wrote me a prescription for Sertraline, the generic version of Zoloft. My psychiatrist is a bold, abrasive woman with a painting on the wall of her office that reads, "Choose Happiness!" A strange choice of decor, I think, for a doctor who treats mental illnesses. I don’t particularly like her, mostly because during my first visit, she asked me if I realized how attractive I am, then suggested I have some perspective about the problems in my life. Apparently, if you’re pretty, you should look in the mirror each time your depression flares up. Once a month, I hand her a $25 copay for a 10-minute appointment and pick up my prescription an hour later.
Contrary to the anecdotal evidence given to me (and I’m sure many others) throughout my life, my depression could not be completely cured by positive thinking or the decision to "Choose Happiness!" I was already able to recognize the good in my life, to lean into fleeting moments of euphoria. I embraced small and grand moments of joy, like dancing to Paramore with my best friend in her parents’ kitchen, or reading Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People in a café with my headphones in, or driving to work in the morning when the sun was strong and my lipstick was red and the Starbucks barista had found the perfect ratio between black tea and lemonade for my iced drink. But fear of my next downswing paralyzed me into indecision. I was terrified of making the one wrong choice that would bring me back to the sadness I had faced so many other times in my life. I blamed myself — harshly — for each relapse. Like during my junior year of college, when I was studying abroad in Italy, and I sat on the steps in Piazza di Santa Maria Novella and let out ugly, unromantic sobs until a kind stranger handed me a pile of tissues from her coat pocket. I cried to my mom on a $32 phone call home that day, telling her, I don’t understand why it’s so hard for me to be happy, wiping my face with the stranger’s tissues all bunched up into a ball. I’m supposed to be having the time of my life. Or during my first semester of college, when I was utterly unable to fall asleep before sunrise, then fell asleep in all of my classes. (I wish someone had checked on me that year.) Or this past summer, when I worked double shifts in a restaurant and woke up feeling nauseous more days than not. Or the summer before my senior year of college, when I had a panic attack every time I stepped foot in a department store. Or my first semester of graduate school, when I got dumped by a dude I went on only one date with, then my sadness spent six months with me, and I kept making that list in my head, trying to make sense of what was wrong with me and how I could feel so heartbroken over someone I barely knew. Even on my best days, I was walking on eggshells of my own emotions, remembering all the times they’d cracked beneath my feet.
The first morning after starting the prescription, I woke up with a thick headache that lasted four days. I was fatigued enough to fall asleep in the Boston Public Library in the middle of the afternoon, with my arms and head resting on the keyboard of my laptop and my thesis draft open in front of me, begging me to wake up and write. I felt like an infant learning how to keep my head up for the first time. Luckily, the side effects faded within a week, and I started to feel the benefits of the medication around the tenth day. I am extremely lucky not to have suffered from more side effects and to have found the right pill on my first try. This is rare, and it is largely because of genetics; if a prescription works for your parent, it is more likely to work for you. (Thanks, mom.) I am also extremely lucky to have health insurance, and I will never stop fighting for an American healthcare system that doesn’t tie insurance to employment.
I maintained my reservations about whether or not the Sertraline was working for another two months, even after I’d upped my dosage. I’d had good months before, when my sadness had softened, so I thought I might just be experiencing another upswing. I questioned if I was just experiencing a placebo effect. I thought I might just be in a good mood because my thesis was coming along nicely and my boyfriend told me he loved me for the first time. As I said, there will always be The List of Reasons if you search hard enough for them.
But then I hear my mom’s laugh, and, you would be a freakin’ MESS if you weren’t medicated, and I stop pacing. My mom is right. I am extremely grateful that I started taking an antidepressant before the pandemic began to wreak havoc on us. I do not mean to suggest that anyone who is anxious or depressed during this pandemic needs to be medicated. The reasons to be depressed right now are abundant (as are the reasons to start working with a therapist, which I do recommend to nearly everyone). Rather, I am relating my sadness to the pandemic to demonstrate the disconnect that existed between my depression and my experiences. Before starting medication, my sadness was dysphoric, and it was not really caused by the list of reasons I told myself it was. It didn’t follow any logic, as proven now by the fact that we are in the middle of a global pandemic yet I am doing okay. Coronavirus has put my past sadness into perspective, demonstrating to me that my downswings were never my fault after all.
I am not doing well through this, of course, and I wouldn’t trust anyone who is. I have returned to grinding my teeth at night for the first time in months, and I often wake up feeling empty and hopeless again. I am mourning the lives of strangers and of people I know. I am worried about money. There are (many) days when I watch 8 hours of reality TV and eat a family-size bag of peanut M&Ms and don’t brush my teeth because everything feels pointless. I am deeply angry and disappointed, though not surprised, by the actions and rhetoric of our president. There are days when my skills from therapy make me wildly glad to have done work in advance to prepare for situations that test your resilience and your ability to care for your own mental health. And then there are days when I don’t even bother trying to implement them. I miss hugging my mom, and reading in cafés, and spilling secrets over margaritas with my friends, and the two tiny freckles on my boyfriend’s left hand. I am grieving the time I can no longer spend with the people I love — the intangible yet universal loss we are all suffering right now. Coronavirus violently demonstrates how important it is to hold your loved ones close while making it impossible to do so. I am sad every day, but I am not depressed. And one by one, the eggshells beneath my feet have begun to disappear.
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This is my contribution to Witches Magazine, Issue #3: Labor.
Read the feminist literary magazine in full here.
On the eve of my 24th birthday, I sit in a restaurant in Little Italy drinking red wine from a carafe, sharing ravioli and tagliatelle with my college friends. I am not my usual self tonight. I am avoiding attention, keeping my stories to myself, because I have recently been broken up with, and I am trying not to cry.
By the time we get dessert, I am drunk enough that I no longer fear my own earnestness. I raise my elbow from the table, the stem of my wine glass planted loosely between my middle and ring fingers. The house red swirls like my speech, moving with me as I talk. I speak to my friends like I’m standing on a podium, making a toast to my sad, drunk, almost-mid-twenties self.
“My goal for 24 is to be more like I was at 21,” I say, and my friends are caught off guard by the dramatic shift in our conversation. “I don’t want to work so hard to be with someone anymore. I was never like this in college, was I?”
My very kind friends don’t answer my question directly. I blow out the candle in a piece of cheesecake I didn’t want, then press my fork into the slice over and over again, pressing lines into it until a busboy takes the small plate away from me. Outside the restaurant, I say goodbye to my friends in the middle of a crowded sidewalk on Mulberry Street. The late June humidity is sticky even after dark, but I hug my friend Megan close enough to wrap my ankles around her calves.
“I need to call you tomorrow,” I whisper, letting my vulnerability stumble into her arms. “I have more to tell you about what happened with him.”
“I know you do,” she says. Since we met at 19, Megan has always been able to sense and simplify how I’m feeling. She saw me for the woman I would become long before I figured it out for myself.
“I’m sad,” I tell her, then I stop to take a single, shallow breath and hold it for longer than I should. Feeling the tears creep back again, I shoot my eyes up and concentrate on the restaurant’s awning that hangs above our heads, all the yellow and white pinstripes welcoming hungry tourists.
“I know you are.”
The work of holding back tears follows me throughout my birthday, my week visiting the city, and the rest of the summer. I spend the next day walking through Manhattan with my headphones in, listening to Regina Spektor’s entire discography and remembering how much I loved her music during college. I walk 90 blocks, trying to figure out when I started working so hard to be in a relationship or get over a past one. I don’t understand how I can feel so empowered in some parts of my life but so helpless in others. How can I teach fifty 18-year-olds about communication in intimate relationships every semester but not know how to make a good thing last? How can I publish a feminist literary magazine but forget how to get out of bed in the morning? I try to answer these questions as I glide through every neighborhood from the Upper East Side to Alphabet City. Sweat soaks my black crop top as I make my way downtown to my favorite ramen restaurant. When I arrive at the hole-in-the-wall spot, I walk straight to the bathroom, where the walls are covered in handwriting and stickers. I dig through my bag for a Sharpie I stole from the supply closet at school, and I leave my mark on the door frame: Walked 90 blocks listening to Regina Spektor to get here. 6/20/19. Happy 24th birthday to me!
That night, I see Regina Spektor in concert, alone, sitting in the last row of the theater. A birthday present to myself, I’d thought when I bought the ticket in March. During the show, I finally surrender to my sadness, and I cry throughout her set. I can sense which song she’ll sing before she plays it, and I wish I could talk to her on stage where she sits so gracefully at a grand piano. I imagine my voice traveling down from the upper mezzanine: These melodies are a part of me, can’t you see that? I want to shout. Look at your red dress, like the ones I wore when I was a teenager. Can you help me heal the ridges of my broken heart?
On the Fourth of July, I visit my parents at their home on Long Island. We sit by a fire in the chiminea that stands on four square stones in the middle of the backyard. When I was growing up, this flat spot was the pitcher’s mound during every kickball and Wiffle ball game we played. Now, when I think about home, it’s details like these that come to mind, at least on the good days—I picture my dad fetching a foul ball out of a pine tree, a Hula Hoop for second base, my big sisters making fun of the way my knees knock together when I run. When we all visit home during the summer, these are the moments we are always trying to live up to in new, more adult ways. My dad tosses another log into the fire while my mom sits up on the deck drinking Bloody Marys and eating clams on the halfshell with me.
I’m only home for two days—a fleeting gap in a hectic summer work schedule—but it’s enough time for my mother to realize something’s off. She’s aware of my recent heartbreak but dances around the pain all day. By the time the sun sets, her concern overcomes her restraint. She asks me what’s wrong as she pulls the burnt black shell off a roasted marshmallow, revealing the soft white still intact beneath it.
“I wish I could hit a reset button on my whole life,” I say, and my mom stays silent. “I feel like I’ve been sad about the same things for two years now. I keep working to fix them, but it’s not getting any easier.”
Throughout the summer, I make a joke that no one laughs at, about how I am so desperate to find something new to consume me that I’m going to join the Air Force, or maybe the Peace Corps would be better, since I can’t even run a mile without stopping, and who in their right mind would trust me with a gun?
Although my summer sadness is sparked by the particular man who dumped me—I miss how he wore his watch facing inward and insisted that was the proper way, and the Joan Didion on his bookshelf, and the way he referred to celebrities and politicians by their first names like he knew them personally—really, my heartbreak is cumulative. My desire for a relationship is a wound that keeps splitting open like it’s been stitched wrong. And I have grown comfortable performing the emotional labor of trying to fill this void.
In the two years leading up to my 24th birthday, I take on certain practices in my role as a woman in pursuit of stable romantic partnership. Somewhere along the way, these practices become my new normal. Though I apply these rules to myself and no other woman on earth, I feel a responsibility to adhere to the following:
At all times, you must put in the necessary work to win over the man you want to be with, and then deal with your devastation when you are not successful in the endeavor. Pretend you are okay when you are not, and exaggerate the length and exclusivity of your past relationships to make your pain more socially acceptable and understood. Feel embarrassed when you admit how heartbroken you are over someone you only dated for a few weeks, or didn’t date at all. Feel like a terrible, hypocritical, pathetic feminist. Feel your loneliness sear as you remember how you used to judge other women for feeling this way—you used to call them weak. Feel like the type of woman your younger self would hate—you are the ultimate betrayal of all she thinks she knows right now as she retweets Lena Dunham from her college dorm room. Feel guilty for feeling so low when there are people all around you who are suffering so much more. When you get that sinking feeling during a holiday, leave your family to go to whatever bedroom you’re staying in—whether it’s the one you grew up in, or the one in the cabin in New Hampshire that you’re supposed to be enjoying—and lie face down on your borrowed bed and listen to “Ribs” by Lorde for as long as it takes you to be ready to rejoin the couples in the kitchen, or until a concerned sister comes looking for you. When you’re at your professor’s house on the last day of the fall semester, immediately flee to the bathroom when Adele’s “Chasing Pavements” comes on the Pandora station playing on the television because listening to that song in your current state should have been one of Hercules’ Twelve Labors. Spend a large percentage of your measly graduate student stipend on products that are supposed to make you more attractive to the person for whom you have feelings, then feel guilty for spending your paycheck on superficial things. Do not ever stop trying to attract someone new, even for a minute, even when you’re completely hung up on the last one, especially when you’re completely hung up on the last one, because you never know when it might happen! But also, don’t work too hard at it, because it always happens when you’re least expecting it! You should, however, always work as hard as you can to feel like Lizzo; be feminist enough to damn to hell any man who doesn’t want you, even in the moments when you want him more than you’ve ever wanted anything. And when you can’t feel like Lizzo, pretend to feel like Lizzo in front of other people. When you work six days a week at a restaurant in the summer, level up from holding back your tears to holding back your vomit, and forget what it’s like to wake up without ajita. Try to figure out ways to piece yourself back together while simultaneously hating yourself for falling apart in the first place. Avoid any plotline in any movie/show/song/book about a woman who has the “burden” of choosing between two different men who love her. Get resentful when a friend talks about her significant other, but don’t be a bitch about it, except, of course, when you can’t help but be a bitch about it, and never apologize for that. Spend a considerable amount of time making sure you’re not attracted to women, then wonder if you would be attracted to women if you weren’t raised in an oppressive, heteronormative culture, then wonder if you’re actually perpetuating the fetishization of lesbian and bisexual women by considering dating women, then tell yourself that you’re the truly oppressive heternormative figure after all because this whole time you’ve known, deep down, that you have never really had feelings for a woman, and you are very much a fan of having a man put his penis inside of you. Cry to all of the sad songs in the car.
When longing for someone who doesn’t want you back, you must work to make excuses for poor behavior carried out by the men for whom you have feelings. Like, he really does want to be with you, but he’s just not in the right headspace this fall. He’s just insecure—he doesn’t believe that he deserves you (he told you that himself), but maybe if you work hard enough, you can prove to him that he really does deserve you. He’s super smart--he works for NPR!—so he’s just overthinking your relationship; that’s one of the things you usually really like about him. He’s a year younger than you, so he needs a little time to mature. He’s just depressed right now. His job is really overwhelming and emotionally exhausting—way more than yours is, you suppose—and he’s a Virgo, so he works super hard at it, which is actually really admirable, if you think about it. He’s not like most people your age—he just doesn’t check his phone a lot, and that’s why he’s taking so many days to answer your messages. You just need to work on adjusting your expectations. You need to be more patient. You need to give him the time and space he needs to figure his shit out and wait until he’s ready to be with you. If you say and do all of the right things all of the time, you’ll be able to prove to him that you’re the right partner for him. If you listen to him when he’s upset, and you really make the space for him to confide in you, he’ll see how much good you could do for him. Maybe you can help him. Maybe if you’re the thinnest one, the funniest one, the most charming one in your group of friends, then he’ll finally break up with her. Maybe you can make sense of all his mixed signals if you talk to every single one of your friends about him ad nauseam. Maybe if you really work to maintain a friendship with him, eventually you’ll be able to convince him that no, really, my virginity isn’t a big deal to me, like, at all, but I totally get why you were so freaked out by it, I totally understand why you stopped seeing me after I told you, and we can work on this, we can work through this, we can work this out, don’t throw it all away over this, won’t you please forgive me for my inexperience, and, yes, please, won’t you please just have sex with me?
“I just want something to consume me,” I tell my mom, swatting away an ember floating toward the face of my parents’ Labrador. The dog lies undisturbed, sound asleep in the damp grass next to my lawn chair. I lean down to pet her ears. “I don’t want to live inside my own head anymore.”
With the end of the season comes the end of my Great Summer Depression, and I’m finally burnt out from two years of these expectations. There is a liberation that comes with hitting rock bottom. There is a liberation that comes with the end of a depressing season. I decide I’m ready to get back to dating once I’m able to make small talk again without feeling like there are cinder blocks tied to my limbs.
Before a first date in September, my therapist tells me I have to force myself not to think beyond the present moment. She calls this extreme mindfulness.
“Don’t think about what you hope this becomes long term,” she says as I chip flakes of my navy blue nail polish onto her white couch. “Just concentrate on a realistic goal for enjoying your first date. What do you hope to get out of this? Perhaps a pleasant conversation over a decent cocktail?”
“If someone doesn’t kiss my neck soon I’m gonna drop dead,” I say. “Does that count as a realistic goal?”
This man doesn’t kiss my neck that first night, but we do have a pleasant conversation over a decent cocktail—several of them, actually. As the weeks pass, I realize I have finally met someone who wants to be with me, too. Meeting him isn’t a direct result of all my years of work toward this, nor is it some fated event that comes true because I finally stopped searching for someone. Some intangible, immeasurable combination of my past and present mindsets makes way for our relationship. Mostly, though, the secret is this: he is someone who reads my writing and answers my text messages in a reasonable amount of time, who can sense when I’m overthinking something he’s said, who doesn’t run away as soon as something is less than perfect, who meets me in my favorite café every Monday on his way home from work just so he can spend a few minutes talking to me from across a cramped table. He is someone who makes everything feel easy.
It’s no wonder, then, that it takes me some time to realize I have feelings for him. Without the work that has characterized all of my past relationships, my brain doesn’t initially recognize him as a potential romantic prospect. But where’s the crazy rush? I ask myself after our third date. How come I don’t feel anxious about this?
On our fourth date, we visit an observatory, where we each walk up a concrete ladder to peer out an old telescope. The white paint on the rungs nicks the palm of one of my hands as I hold down the back of my skirt with my other.
“That right there,” says a proud undergraduate getting class credit for interning at the observatory, “is the one and only Saturn.”
Saturn is tiny and matte, a pasty white sliver of sphere and ring at the opposite end of this bulky, immovable telescope. It looks like a little kid cut the shape out of construction paper and the undergrad taped it to the lens of the telescope just to fool us. I think of a song about a paper moon that I learned in elementary school chorus—Mrs. Violeta’s gaudy bracelets used to bounce on her wrists, jingling as she pointed to each row of students on the bleachers, inviting us to sing along with Ella Fitzgerald as she asks the one she loves to believe in her.
My date and I step outside, onto the balcony of the observatory, where we get a subpar view of our city, which we both agree is too small. We’re silent for a moment, looking over the unremarkable intersection below us. He slips his arm around my waist, warming me up in the October chill. I want to kiss him but resist.
“Is it just me,” he whispers, “or did that view of Saturn look totally fake?” I laugh, relieved that he’s willing to say what I was holding back to be polite.
“It was fake, wasn’t it? I’m convinced they were lying to us,” I say, and we make cynical comments all the way home.
Early the next morning, in his apartment, he turns to me and says, “Being with you is too easy.”
I freeze, clench my teeth and straighten my spine at the claim he’s made. I worry that he is about to confirm my fear: There is no heavy labor in this burgeoning thing we have here, so there must be something wrong with it. This must be fake. There must be something missing, right? I ask him what he means.
“I feel like I could spend forever just lying in bed and talking to you.”
As we spend our first few months entangled in each other’s lives, in each other’s beds, my doubts start to fade, and I eventually embrace the ease with which he has become a central part of my life. On the morning of Thanksgiving, when I am back at my parents’ house, I start to worry that during our week in separate states he will forget about me. I worry that our entire relationship has been in my head after all, that his feelings for me aren’t real or sustainable. I tell him this but add a disclaimer: I know I sound crazy, I type in a text, terrified of his response, but can you tell me that everything is fine between us? He immediately calls me and talks me out of it, which isn’t difficult to do. He reassures me that he likes me, that he doesn’t think I’m crazy, that we’re good together, that he’s attracted to me, that he can’t wait to see me when we’re both back in town. It feels simple with him. It feels the way I’ve always known being wanted was supposed to feel, but it never has before. A new normal begins.
This doesn’t mean that our relationship is perfect, or that my anxieties and insecurities have vanished, or that it will remain this easy forever. But it does mean that I don’t feel like I have to compartmentalize pieces of myself around him—I no longer have to pack up my anxieties and insecurities, snap on lids to suffocate them in containers in a storage unit across town. He doesn’t require the labor of pretending I’m okay when I’m not. He doesn’t put me in a position to decode his every move. He is willing to make himself vulnerable around me, but he doesn’t ask me to unpack his emotional baggage to an extent that should be reserved for someone with a private office and a copay and a graduate degree in mental health counseling. I am no longer planning out every text message, thinking I need to always say the perfect thing at the perfect time lest he disappear. For the first time, I can make myself at home in his apartment, in his everyday life. I take off my glasses, earrings, and bobby pins, and I stack them in a tiny pile on his coffee table.
With this happiness, though, comes its own loss. I feel a piece of my identity start to dissipate. How many years have I done the work of being single and unhappy about it? What do I do now that this part of my life has been simplified? Does this mean I’m not going to cry in the car to my sad songs anymore? This lack of distress is what initially stopped me from recognizing my feelings for him. I wasn’t sure I could feel gratified without the familiar rush of pain, without the self-indulgent satisfaction of feeling sorry for myself. Have I finally been granted permission to stop working so hard to win over the guy with the beard and the glasses, the one who sits behind me in class, or serves me coffee, or steps onto my subway car, or catches my eye from across the party? When did I start feeling a responsibility to work toward not being single anymore—at 22 it became all-consuming, but didn’t it really start when I was 15? What will my clever Instagram persona be if not that of Sad Single Girl? When I walk into a bar, what will I do with my time and energy if I’m not scanning the room for someone to sloppily kiss on the dance floor later? Can it really be that simple—that he likes me back and tells me so, that he is upfront about his feelings, that we are going to continue spending time together for as long as it feels good to do so? Does this mean I’ve become one of them? I know this is what I wanted, but without being subjected to my usual labor, I don’t feel like myself.
Then I think of a much younger version of me—she is 6 years old, or maybe 9; the difference is negligible, as my neuroses have been consistent for as long as I can remember. She wakes up on Christmas morning, unwraps all the things she longed for, all the things she mentioned in her lists and countdowns and prayers for months. She worked hard to get these things, or so she thinks, because she behaved as well as she possibly could in order to ensure the things she thinks she deserves. She has not yet learned that whether or not one “deserves” something is a meaningless concept. Then, in the blink of an eye, she’s sitting on her living room floor surrounded by ripped paper and empty boxes and a dark feeling of disappointment upon returning to the reality of her everyday life, back to normal.
But her life is different now. She has the things she wanted, and that is, objectively, better than not having them. What more can she ask for? What more can she do? She helps her mom stuff the wrapping paper into black garbage bags, she asks her dad to cut the twist ties restraining her Barbie Doll in its box. She carries on, a little more prepared for next year.
It’s unfortunate, and at times it feels unfeminist, to admit how much my boyfriend has lessened my labor lately. I wish I could say that I freed myself of my longing on my own, that I figured out a way to live forever in that single bliss I felt at age 21. But I was in pursuit of something I genuinely wanted—clear to my friend Megan on my birthday, and my mom on the Fourth of July, as well as my Instagram followers, most people I’ve had casual conversations with in the last two years, and anyone who has read my prior Witches pieces. And I was exhausted by the labor of unfulfilled longing. Certainly this is a new relationship, and it may or may not one day be subject to the labor that I see long-term relationships endure. But for the last two years, I experienced so much of the labor of relationships without any of the benefits—there is no payoff when the labor is only on one side. If or when this ends, I will have learned to avoid relationships that ask me to do the work of convincing and begging, of strategizing and decoding. And I will leave him with a trail of bobby pins scattered throughout his apartment, coloring his coffee table, his windowsill, and his nightstand.
Music, feelings, and a little bit of feminism.
words by the month