Sometimes I feel it before it comes.
Sometimes it builds in me, like a cough does – the way you track the tickle of it up your esophagus. You brace yourself, then; you cover your mouth, you look off into the middle distance expectantly. You give the apologetic one-finger to whoever you’re talking to. It comes, you fit through it, you move on.
But this cough is new for me, and I don’t know how to brace myself for it yet. It just comes, and I know it’s coming but still can’t do anything about it. I just wait and take deep breaths and hope I’m wrong.
I haven’t been wrong yet.
It starts the way a tornado starts. Have you ever watched the early stages of a tornado? It’s almost playful at first, little casual whips of wind here – some swirling dust there. It’s like a thoughtful houseguest, sweeping the roads clean and leaving blades of grass stretching toward the heavens in its wake.
You’re almost grateful for it. Maybe this will be healthy for me, you think wildly. Maybe I just need one more big flighty tantrum and then it’ll be out of my system. Maybe at one point I will run out of tears and this will be over. Maybe I’ll reach a day when the cough won’t come, the tornado won’t grow.
That bout of wild, imbecilic optimism fades fast though – and suddenly you’re convulsing with sobs you didn’t even know you had in you. The storm quickly graduates from gathering dust to knocking over pickup trucks, destroying everything in its path. You get swept up, too, and your world becomes a spinning nightmare of confusion and terror.
You cry the way your infant self must’ve cried when you left that warm cocoon and faced a cold, white, sterile world for the first time. You cry like you did the first time you skinned your knee and realized that a kiss actually would not fix it (those liars!), and you were just going to have to live with the pain of it for a while. Tears flow with the same intensity as they did on the pages of your journal, when you first got your heart broken in 8th grade. You honestly didn’t know this many tears existed within you, like you’ve been storing them up your whole life.
While we’re on the subject, who knew how bizarre tears could be? I’ve never been given the opportunity to study them – when I was young enough to cry often I wasn’t conscious enough to care, and when I was old enough to stifle them I never got the chance. But now I’m like a research biologist in the snowy caves of some foreign landscape, faced with complex tear ecosystems and logbooks and measurements. I catalog their behavior like my life depends on it. Maybe it does.
I know, for instance, that it starts in my throat. This is deceiving, because I stupidly think for a moment that I might be able to swallow it back down. I think that if I could just catch it at the starting gate, maybe I could avoid it altogether. Like an idiot.
I can’t push it back down, though, I never can – and trying makes it hurt so much more. So it rises and rises and eventually bubbles up into a sloppy, noisy sob. The first tears flow quickly here; they are thin and wet and generous. A dutiful student, I count them; there are never more than 10. The ripe front lines of the battlefield, the first to get wiped away.
With those young souls having perished, my anatomy calls for backup. Tears can’t do the job on their own anymore, it shouts through the radio. We need coverage in the nose, the mouth, blood rushing to the cheeks and ears. My face is now a pink, wet, messy version of its former self.
The tears no longer act as individuals; they are like a river – a constant, ongoing flow, with each tear closely following the last. There is no counting them now, there would be no use. I start to lose track of how many. I start to lose track of myself.
I can barely breathe or see through my tears and snot and flushed cheeks – perhaps a blessing, because everything I see invites a new wave. Every thought is a tug on the thread, the whole of me unraveling with each new convulsion.
It’s impressive, in a way. Where was this urgent surge of emotion when I had to cry on command in our community theater rendition of Romeo and Juliet? Where was it every time I needed to get out of a speeding ticket? Or make a boy feel bad for hurting me? Where are the goddamn tears when they’re of ANY use to ANYBODY? Fuck these isolated dark bedroom tears serving absolutely no one – like finding an expired winning lottery ticket.
That said, the tears are ruthless, but not entirely inconsiderate – they know when they’re allowed to show up. To their credit, they are usually good at hiding when necessary… during social engagements, when I’m within earshot of anyone, etc. Sometimes they bubble up unexpectedly at inappropriate moments, but they take their leave when I shush them and promise they can return later.
We have an agreement, after all.
But return they do. The moment I say goodbye to a friend, or shut my bedroom door, or get in my car, or hang up the phone, they are right there waiting for me. And oh, when they see it’s time for bed, they stand poised in anticipation – waiting for the call to charge.
Persistent, you see, but respectful.
I turn off the light, close my eyes, and wait. When they come, I welcome them reluctantly (I have to keep up my end of the bargain, you know). The cough builds, the tornado kicks up. And the wheels on the bus go round and round.
We use the word “depression” as a noun – a way of describing a state of being. Something static, absolute, unmoving. But I feel it so much more strongly as a verb. It is gnawing, pulsating, constantly evolving, and in some ways growing stronger… like some unknown organism in a scifi movie. It’s learning more about me, finding new emotional nooks and crannies to exploit. I don’t feel “depressed” in the literal sense – like something is weighing me down and rendering me immobile. It’s more active than that, more alive. It’s cunning and nefarious and cruel. Not a state of being, but a being itself. A villain.
All villains lose, though. Those are the rules. You journey to the ends of the earth, you find its weakness, you capture the magic tool, you pull the sword from the stone. An epic battle ensues and it looks bleak there for a bit, but at the last moment you slay the dragon in a blaze of glory, and everyone is dizzy with relief.
I’m going to slay the dragon eventually, I know it.
In the meantime, though, I think I feel a cough coming on.