of shipwrecks and lighthouses

I don’t really have a place on my trip for this piece. Chronologically it should fall at my arrival back into Vienna. The reality is that it had started to write itself in my mind from the places of my soul the light failed to reach but the trip seemed to stir up to the surface. Still, I will always recommend taking time to explore and go on an adventure. More often than not the term ‘getting lost’ somehow has the opposite effect to it’s literal meaning; as it’s a good way to find your bearings.

I tried writing this on the train leaving Zurich for Vienna, though my marathon of a trip finally caught up with me due to the overwhelmingly exhausting heat I’ve had to endure the last three days of the spirit quest. So instead, and as I will mention in the official post regarding Geneva, it was a quick sponge bath, a reread of The Little Prince, and then unconsciousness. The ebbing need to write this resurfaced as we got back to the flat from the train station the next morning. Try as I did, a long hot shower, a cold drink of water to chase my medication, and another few hours of napping, did not change the fact that this needed to be said – it just dried up the water that had been leaking from the dam that time, travel, therapy, and tested medication had erected.

I want to state for the record that this is possibly the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to put into words – let alone coherently. It shouldn’t be, but because I want to use this as a platform for good things, for hope, for healing, for others, it becomes much harder than simply telling a story. It requires thought, and care, and Christ knows what else. So I’ve written thousands, literally thousands of words, deleted them, started again, deleted them, made a cup of tea, started again, closed laptop, went for a walk, took a nap, repeat for three days until I finally made it this far.

I could skip this, I know I could. I could skip all of this and just finish writing about the trip and about the journey – but I’d be lying to myself and to you. This is as much apart of the story as the afternoon spent strolling in Amsterdam, or the evening sitting out in front of the Eiffel Tower. There will always be chapters that we don’t like, but sometimes it gives the story contrast and depth of character. It defines a struggle, whether personal or of good and evil. In short, it’s those very chapters that encapsulates the very reason why a story is so beautiful.

The part of my story that I wish I could rewrite, that I could white out, starts with the fact that I have clinical depression. This is a term that is often confused with the state of being depressed – it’s more than that. Clinical depression is conditional, not situational. As I’ve come to understand the difference between the two; its comparing diabetes to a sugar high. That sugar high can come and go, but diabetes is your body losing its ability to regulate blood sugar. Like some diabetics, I don’t believe I was born this way – which I think is more tragic.

The thing about depression, and clinical depression alike, is that there usually is a catalyst, a turning point, an event, a trigger that is at the root of it all.

For common depression the best example is a loss or death. I don’t believe people truly have a grasp on the concept of death, or loss for that matter, because we aren’t able to truly conceive the ideas of forever, infinity, never, and always. The first two, forever and infinity, are interchangeable, but the last two are often overlooked. Each of us interprets the definition of words differently, for me I view never and always as absolutes. Meaning that they are all inclusive of time past, present, or future. For instance, “I will always love you,” or “You will never see her again.” If we take these words for their literal meanings they carry a weight similar to forever and infinity.

That’s what death and loss is about. It’s an event in time where something breaks away from your life forever. It will never come back. They will always be gone. And when there was a lot of love involved, that loss or death will feel like an evisceration, a gouging of the heart and lungs. It will create a very deep scar that while it may heal, you will never be the same again. Like a glass of red wine spilling in an all white room, even if you clean it up, you’ll always know it was there. And if it goes unchecked and untreated, that hole will consume every ray of light, every smile, every opportunity, every moment of joy. It will take everything.

Growing up I had one of my mother’s very old paintings in my room. It was an oil painting that depicted a little girl, no more than five or six years of age sitting next to a very old man with white hair and beard, sporting a Captain’s hat and pipe. They were overlooking a riverway and there were ships with huge sails coming and going. I never knew my mom’s father, my grandfather, as he passed before I was born. I knew my mom grew up on a river similar to this one, and they had a boat, and I had always imagined my grandfather was an old sailor, an old fisherman. Someone who smelled of old tobacco and the sea and could draw me the longitude and latitude lines that represented my house and his. Thus instilling in me an affinity for sailing, for anchors, and ships, and the sea.

So it should be of no surprise that one of the best examples of grief caused by loss or death is one giant sailing metaphor. Several years ago I read this online, on Reddit, and saved it to my Evernote. I knew one day it would be important to share, I knew one day it would help me shape this narrative, and now I want to share some of it with you:

“As for grief, you’ll find it comes in waves. When the ship is first wrecked, you’re drowning, with wreckage all around you. Everything floating around you reminds you of the beauty and the magnificence of the ship that was, and is no more. And all you can do is float. You find some piece of the wreckage and you hang on for a while. Maybe it’s some physical thing. Maybe it’s a happy memory or a photograph. Maybe it’s a person who is also floating. For a while, all you can do is float. Stay alive.

In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don’t even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you’ll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what’s going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything…and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.

Somewhere down the line, and it’s different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O’Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you’ll come out.”

This is grief that you’ll endure when you lose someone you love. This is the struggle of every human being who has ever been depressed – but what about clinical depression? Clinical, or severe, depression is like and unlike traditional depression. You can experience depression while being clinically depressed, and you can have periods of time when you don’t feel depression at all. That’s why I say it’s mainly conditional, not exclusively situational like traditional depression.

I’ve been battling clinical depression for the better part of the last thirteen years. Like the lost sailor, swimming to survive from his capsized vessel, there are times when it doesn’t seem like the depression is there at all, but ultimately the waves come – and they come frequently. Since September of 2014 my clinical depression reemerged more ferocious and tenacious than it has in years. In February 2015, an event triggered depression within my world of clinical depression the likes of which I hadn’t experienced since my early years of high school – since my botched attempt at suicide.

Over the years I’ve done a lot of reading and soul searching on the topic of depression, self-harm, suicide, shame, grief, and anxiety. One realization that I came to had to deal with self-harm, and suicide. I was never a cutter, I just couldn’t stand the sight of blood. I was, however, a stabber. There were times when I would take a ballpoint pen or pencil and drive it the underside of my right wrist as hard as I could possibly press. There were times I would take a lunch spork and stab the same area repeatedly.

Self harm is hard to understand, and hard to talk about. It comes from a very harsh and lonely place. To me it wasn’t so much as a need to punish, or guilt that I needed to retribute, but a need to hurt myself as much, if not more, than what I was currently experiencing internally – to combat pain with pain. I remember when my water polo coach caught me by the wrist one time, saw me wince, and then saw the forearm. It was shameful, but he didn’t understand – he thought it was an act for attention. The thing is self-harm, real self-harm, isn’t just about causing ourselves pain, it’s about trying to hurt, trying to damage, trying to kill off that part of us we are ashamed of. Or worse, that we were made to believe we should be ashamed of.

Growing up, I got into some bends and scrapes on the playground as a kid, fairly normal stuff, but when I got to middle school I experienced a whole new hell. I would rather suffer a lifetime in a North Korean work camp than to have to endure those years again. I was beat up, bullied, ostracized, tormented, and ridiculed. There came a point when I couldn’t even trust the administration to protect me – or justly discipline my tormentors and bullies. Which is probably why I am as vocally defiant to authoritarian figures as I am today, and a vocal advocate against the social injustices of our time.

I could never catch a break. Every friend I had ended up on the other side of that line drawn in the sand by those who would rather see me in tears than smiling. I very quickly learned to spend all my time in the library if I had any chance of survival. In the beginning you question why kids are so hurtful, you try and argue back, or fight back – physically or mentally. Then you may resort to bullying yourself, but the odds of you getting the upperhand on these bullies is far gone by this point. No girl will ever dance with you because of the reputation these bullies have painted for you. You are one boy on a very lonely island.

Whatever bright eyed optimism I had going into Middle School, I was dejected and jaded by the time I left it. Whether the net effects of it were good or bad, puberty was in full swing between leaving middle school and starting high school. Aggressive growth in height and muscle tone, in combination with a summer spent competitively swimming twice a day, six days a week, and getting contact lens, lead to a full transformation the likes of which can be measured against Sandra Bullock in Miss Congeniality. Though my tall, dark, and strong appearance may have made me seem like a senior to the entire campus, the bullies that followed me made sure to remind everyone who I really was.

And you come to a point whether consciously or subconsciously that the lies you’re hearing about yourself start to sound like a sad song of truth. That these words uttered for the sheer amusement of seeing you break become the very words of your own undoing. I once read that only we can decide whether to swallow the lies that we’re fed, but I don’t think the author ever considered being waterboarded in them.

I love Philip K. Dick, I know you do too. Fact is many of the best sci-fi movies in the last few decades were partially, or fully, adapted from his novels. A long time ago I came across this quote:

“There exists, for everyone, a sentence – a series of words – that has the power to destroy you.”

Like an incantation, a death curse, each of us has a series of words that spoken by the right person, at the right time, will undo our entire lives. When I was finally noticed by the opposite sex, I ended up being led on for weeks by a girl, only to find out it was my long standing bullies who put her up to it. The purpose was to publicly shame me, and they got what they were after. That was the moment I accepted the lies as truth. That there was something undeniably, irretrievably wrong with me. And it was at this time that I planned to overdose on sleeping pills and pain medication.

I think it was around this time that I also stopped believing in God. That if he was there he was clearly enjoying the popcorn too much to see there was something wrong with the plot, or maybe he was the director? I never quite understood how things happened the way they did. All I know is the night I went to overdose I was saved. Whether coincidence or Christ, I do not know.

I do, however, know what ambulances feel like, as well as stomach pumps. I know what endless halls and white walls look like, rooms without doors but bars on windows. Beds without pillows, and the sounds of other kids crying at night. I can tell you in great detail what its like to watch someone no older than fifteen being restrained by no less than four adults while a nurse and doctor heavily sedate him. I can tell you what real night terrors sound like. I can tell you what it’s like to not feel sunlight for weeks. I can tell you about a boy I used to play chess with who had bags under his soft eyes that held no light, a pale complexion with a kind smile and cut scars up to his elbows on both his arms. I can tell you what it was like to hug him goodbye when I got to leave, and he didn’t. I can tell you what it’s like to see his name in the obituaries eight weeks later when he finally succeeded in his attempts.

I can tell you about medicating, and not in small doses. Anti-anxiety and anti-depression, sleep-aides, and anti-nausea medication. I can tell you what it’s like to truly not feel anything anymore. I can tell you what it’s like to go back to your old life and just feel completely disconnected from it all. Knowing the administration is as afraid of you as they are repulsed by you, because you’re no longer a student – you’re damaged goods. I can tell you what it’s like to have months of therapy, and an additional year of group counseling. And finally, I can tell you what it’s like to smile again, and to laugh again.

When you believe a lie long enough, it creates a hole in you. A hole no person or thing can fill. You believe you’re the problem to your life. The great solution is to remove yourself from it. You are the reason no one will love you, you are the reason you will never have any friends. You are shipwrecked and there is no light on the horizon, and no one to save you. When you believe a lie long enough, it becomes apart of you – at your very center.

In the month of February of this year, those series of words, that incantation, was spoken to me by someone I was completely vulnerable to. That I had no guard against, and no hope to repel. It was cast onto to me, in spurn, by someone I love – loved – very much. And like that, without anyone’s knowing, the ship split along the starboard side and capsized in the malevolent storm and once again I was cast into the sea, this time with cement-block sandals – sinking steadfast under the first wave.

Andrew W.K. is first and formerly a musician, but recently he’s been an author of a column on The Village Voice’s editorial section. Recently he was asked if he ever gets depressed. His response left my mouth agape and tears streaming down my face.

“The times when my depression was really bad are difficult to put into words. People who haven’t been depressed asked me if it was like being in a really bad mood, or feeling really, really sad. It’s not like that at all. It’s not a mood or an emotion. Depression is like being exposed to a truth about reality that is so full of sorrow and misery that it shuts down the very part of you that exists as a human being. It’s like being told that everything good about life was a lie and that the biggest lie of all is you. But you’re not just thinking about these awful truths, you are the awful truth — and you become that feeling.

People have also asked me, “Why can’t you just snap out of it?” Trying to “snap out” of depression is like trying to eat food when you’re nauseated. It’s like trying to stay awake when you’ve taken a dozen sleeping pills. It’s like trying to run a race where you’re underwater and everyone else is on dry land. It takes an extraordinary amount of strength just to exist in the midst of a depression. Just breathing with your lungs takes a full-blown conscious effort. You feel like you don’t want to do anything ever again. You feel like you don’t want to be. And then you feel bad for feeling that. And so on.”

He continues,

“Depression distorts and stains every aspect of yourself and the world around you and rips away at everything that is happy and beautiful, as though the façade of joy has been removed from everything you once held dear. It’s like having a fever in your soul. It’s like what the end of the world tastes like.”

It’s like what the end of the world tastes like, and rightfully so, because nobody kills themselves, or attempts to, for the sheer prospect of death. The truth is much worse than that, it’s that the prospect of death in it’s infinite void somehow seems less painful than a living life. That the one offering death offers, nothingness, is more appealing than any opportunity or hope the future may have for us. If that’s not what the end of the world tastes like, then I don’t think I want to know because I can’t conceive what could be worse than that malignant logic.

When I went under the tide a great number of things happened in quick succession. I stopped sleeping almost entirely for a month, I couldn’t function at work, I stopped eating. I dramatically lost weight, and I was always cold. Finally there were lights in the water, dancing around me, telling me to breathe them in. Telling me to let go of the surface and to stay with them. It was then I had the courage to get help, real help. It was there at the very end of happiness that I saw a single strand of hope thinner than the thinnest hair, glimmering like a sunrise just about to break over the horizon.

With help I was able to trace this strand through the current and the darkness. I was able to see that this was more than just lost love and condemnation. I was able to see that I’ve been fighting this I regarded as a truth for over ten years. That at my very center is this tumor, if you will, that I hadn’t truly treated, just addressed and forgotten about. I covered it up with staying active and busy, but the past year and a half that tumor had started to grow dramatically. The activities I did for pleasure – swimming, biking, and running – turned into self-medication, and I had to do more and more to keep the tumor at bay. I ended up taking things to such an extreme level that I had become hostile and aggressive, hurtful, spiteful, cruel, and worse of all, apathetic toward the one I loved. All because this lie inside me had been stroked by one misdeed and because I refused to address it, it demanded attention until it was the only thing left standing – and I was on my knees.

These past few months I’ve had to learn how to breathe again. Again, whether divine blessing or happy coincidence, my broken arm was not healing and I was told that I had to cut all activity out that could so much as swing my arm. This forced me to deal with this depression, this tumor. It forced me to hold it and look at it every day. I had to wake up with it, and goto bed with it, and take it on hikes.

My fear is this tumor will be my identity, or I will be identified because of it. Like it is some scarlet letter, or I’m a bird with a broken wing. Even if I have to stay on medication for the rest of my life, I refuse to let this thing define me. It is as much of me as cancer is to a cancer patient, but just because it is apart of me does not mean it is me. And it may try to spread, and end me, but I will fight it – and I won’t fight it alone.

I have a few very awesome friends. Some that refused to let me do this alone. Some that spend all night on the phone with me, or all weekend away with me. Some that drag me outside into the sun when I just want to curl up on the floor in my room.

That’s the other thing about depression, and clinical depression; when you’re trapped in that hurricane of despair, friends are like lighthouses. They are just beyond the reach of your pain, calling you to come home. Signalling you to safety. Signalling you to shore.

Caitlín R. Kiernan wrote:

“There’s always a siren, singing you to shipwreck. Some of us may be more susceptible than others are, but there’s always a siren. It may be with us all our lives, or it may be many years or decades before we find it or it finds us. But when it does find us, if we’re lucky we’re Odysseus tied up to the ship’s mast, hearing the song with perfect clarity, but ferried to safety by a crew whose ears have been plugged with beeswax. If we’re not at all lucky, we’re another sort of sailor stepping off the deck to drown in the sea.”

That’s why we need friends, that’s why we need people. That’s why people need other people. We are all in this together. We all may be shipwrecked at one time or another, but we can also be lighthouses. We can always shine some hope for those lost at sea. And we must always be vigilant keepers of the light, becuase if we let go of that hope, we will be dooming ourselves and others to a fate worse than if there were no hope to begin with.

“It’s so much darker when a light goes out than it would have been if it had never shone.”
– John Steinbeck

For now, the rogues travel fast and alone – one-hundred foot faces of God’s good ocean gone wrong. And they still leave me breatheless, staring a thousand yards out into nothing because behind my eyes I’m staring straight into the eyes of the ghost that I loved. And I’ll blink, and I’ll be able to breathe again. And the depression still has me afraid of things, and some good things. Things like letting someone physically touch me again, or be extremely close to me. It has me afraid to look at myself in the mirror – partly in disgust for seeing myself and partly afraid of looking myself in the eyes.

Though I have looked myself into the eyes. A lot recently, here in Europe. The funny thing is, as much as this has been breaking me down the past five days to get out, my eyes have haven’t been this green since I was in college. Since I was truly, earnestly, genuinely loved. That kind of love that writers wish they could capture in written form and hope to do it justice. The kind that makes you look at the word love and think that its a tragedy that of all the words in our english language we only have one word for love – and this is it, and it an ant to a mountain in comparison to how great this love is. My eyes were green then. They haven’t been for quite some time, and for whatever reason and despite the fact these waves keep coming, they are now.

Maybe those memories, and these eyes, are my lighthouse – though where a lighthouse shines out, these were meant to let the light in. To let the light in onto that dark blemish tucked behind my heart, and in my soul. That beastly cur that wants to see me undone, and wants me to give up hope. Maybe this light will cast out the lie that says my critics are right, that she was right, that there is no hope or future for me. Maybe.

We owe it to ourselves to be lighthouses amongst all that remain shipwrecked.

We need to hold fast to hope, and keep this light alive.

Because we are all in this together.

Love, always.


Postscript: My one great regret is this. That I could never share my feelings when I needed to. Despite brimming over with emotion, I could never share this. I was too ashamed of who I was, and I hated myself more than you could possibly live to understand. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror. For this I’m more sorry than you will ever know, and maybe one day I will finally be okay – and it will finally have let itself go. Peace to you, good night.

shanna twomey, shanna marie twomey, shanna2me

Song On My Mind:

Brand New – Play Crack The Sky

and on Spotify: