I make bad life choices.
You can ask anyone. My mom, my friends, anyone who has known me longer than a brief conversation over coffee will probably have some sort of anecdote to share about my famously bad decision making skills. I’m terrible at managing money; I’m in the VIB Rouge club at Sephora and believe me, honey, I earned it. My house is littered with Sephora receipts, empty boxes from eBay purchases, and knick knacks of all types from thrift store and antique shops. I can’t resist instant gratification.
I’m the same way with men: I have ridiculously, hilariously, disastrously bad taste in men. Always have. The first man I went on a real date with after coming out was delightful. What was less delightful was that he brought his boyfriend along on the date; I had to ride in the back seat. That was the beginning of years of dating and mating with the motliest crew of mismatched characters. Someday, when I publish my perfume-drenched memoirs, all of these scandalous stories will see the light of day, but for now, the idea of them is what is important. I’m trying to prove a point here.
As I’m approaching yet another birthday, I’ve been thinking a lot about the choices I’ve made. Why don’t I do a better job of selecting partners or balancing some sort of personal budget? Why do I give in to my impulses so easily? I saw an unattributed quote printed on some bargain home décor item at Target that I’ve modified slightly and jokingly turned into my personal mantra: “I’d rather have a good story than a good decision any day.” And boy, do I have some stories. But again, the point is the choices themselves. And why I make them. And why, year after year, I never seem to know better. And deep down, I think I know, though I’ve never put it into words before.
This is the part that’s less fun. There aren’t any obvious punchlines. I think the reason I process the way I do, and make the decisions I do, is because my mind is focused on what’s immediately in front of me. It’s firmly rooted in “now.” That’s not some sort of enlightened hipster Buddha-speak; I just don’t plan for the future. The “long term” doesn’t make sense to me…because I never really thought I’d have one.
I’ve written before about the fact that I struggle with depression. Lots of people do. I’ve been wrestling with it since I was a kid, in different forms. Sometimes it’s just hanging around in the background, casting a small shadow; those times I almost forget about it. I maneuver through my daily routine, and do all the normal things I’m supposed to do and check off all the items on the “to do” list. Sometimes it’s closer. Sometimes it’s right over my shoulder and I can feel it lurking, always just out of sight. Sometimes it’s right on top of me, pressing down on my chest so that even breathing seems like more strength than I’ve ever had to muster. It’s unpredictable. It can be there, heavy and suffocating, and then an hour later I’m on the verge of ok. But it’s always there, somewhere.
And there have been times when it was close much more often and for longer than it was far away.
When I was just starting college, I never imagined that I would see 30. I don’t say that to mean that I had some sort of vague notion, a young person not anticipating the future. I mean I had a concrete idea in my head that I would be dead, either by some situation or my own hand, before I reached 30. Just like the depression itself, my thoughts on this were varied: there were times when I had very concrete plans of how I would do it, and other times I would being laying down wishing with all of my energy that my heart would just stop beating. No matter how the narrative played out in my consciousness at any given time, it was always a short story, never a novel.
There has been a lot of talk lately about suicide because of Robin Williams. How he never seemed like “the type” who would take their own life. But there is no type. You don’t have to dress in all black and mope around coffee shops writing angsty entries in a leatherbound journal (or whatever the fashionable depressive stereotype is these days) to imagine yourself…gone. People of all kinds sometimes think about what it might be like to end their lives. Or how to do it. People who have mental illness might put more thought into it than others, and they might just work harder to make it happen. But there isn’t a type.
The post started percolating in my head right around the holidays when I read THIS BLOG from Huffington Post by Katie Hurley; it’s written by a woman whose father killed himself. She talks a little bit about her experience and how she survived losing someone she loved to suicide. She explains the range of emotions that survivors go through. And she very compassionately counters the idea that suicide is a selfish act:
People who say that suicide is selfish always reference the survivors. It’s selfish to leave children, spouses and other family members behind, so they say. They’re not thinking about the survivors, or so they would have us believe. What they don’t know is that those very loved ones are the reason many people hang on for just one more day. They do think about the survivors, probably up until the very last moment in many cases.
As someone who has spent a lot of time in those kinds of dark places, I can say that for me this is absolutely true. My survival voice was always warring with my self-destructive voice, always reminding me how this kind of loss ripples and affects others. And it gave some convincing arguments; it must have for me to be sitting here, just a week away from 37.
I thought a lot about how this would affect my mother. I know that she carries a lot of guilt for not being perfect; she’s never really understood that even if she wasn’t perfect, she was always there. I didn’t want this to be something else she would blame herself for.
I thought about my grandmother; her death was devastating to me. I almost wrote “passing,” trying to distance myself from it in that way we all have of talking around the idea of death, trying to pretty it up with evasive words and comforting euphemisms. I thought about what it meant to be with her during her last days. I focused on how angry I was that my nephews were so young, that they would only have hazy memories of her (if any at all) and how much it hurt when I saw how quickly they stopped asking about or talking about their great-grandma. I convinced myself that I had to stay alive as long as I could, because I was one of the keepers of her memory.
The survival instinct is a funny thing. It doesn’t have to be something big, something important. That impulse to keep moving forward will latch onto anything that might support it’s cause. Sometimes I decided I wanted to stay alive for all of those big, important reasons like family and friends; sometimes I decided I wanted to stay alive because I didn’t want to miss the last book in the Harry Potter series. Or because the newest Dixie Chicks CD was just too good, and I just had to listen to it for a while longer. Or because I still hadn’t seen the last season of Desperate Housewives. Or because I had a new kitchen gadget I just had to try out. Or because I’d just discovered a new author, and my worldly affairs couldn’t possibly considered “in order” until I’d done a complete reorganization of all of my bookcases. It didn’t have to be something huge. It just had to be enough for that moment.
You can’t always anticipate what is going to be “that thing” for that moment that keeps you going. One of the darkest times I had was right before my marriage fell apart; I guess there is a sort of bitter irony to the fact that one of the reasons my ex gave to explain his departure after seven years was that I wasn’t “fun anymore.” And I wasn’t. In fact, two days before we had “the talk,” I came home from an out of town show and sat on the couch and cried for about three hours, wondering if I had enough time to move enough junk out of the garage so that I could drive in and shut the door before he got home from work. I decided to have a big glass of milk and go to bed instead. Two days later, my marriage was over.
For some people, that might have been the proverbial “straw that broke the camel’s back.” For me, it was a reprieve. It was ugly and messy and terrible, but it was clearly defined. It gave me a finite situation to focus on, rather than the amorphous mass of my depression. It gave me a person to focus all of my sadness and rage onto, a way to direct everything outward instead of holding it close to me. And deep down I can be a stubborn sumbitch and I would be good and goddamned before I let anyone believe that I was killing myself over him. Surviving is all about getting through the moment, and sometimes what gets you through that moment can really surprise you.
That moment by moment living isn’t easy, and it certainly doesn’t help cultivate those other kinds of survival skills – you know, the ones that say “Hey, you might be around for a while. Like 70 years, maybe more. Perhaps you should start planning for that.” I was legitimately surprised when I woke up to find 30 candles on the cake; 35 was met with a sort of bemused confusion. Now here I am, just days away from another birthday, and I’m still trying to figure how to approach this whole “future thing.” Forty is lurking somewhere near the horizon, and it has started to take shape in a hazy, non-committal sort of way. Beyond that? I don’t know.
That’s the thing about depression and self-destruction and that whole ugly, unpredictable mess: it never provides a clear narrative. There is no roadmap from A to B to C to D. On a day to day basis, I don’t know what’s going to undo me, and what’s going to lift me up. I just have to keep pushing through it and see where it leads. And I’ve started to recognize that though some of my choices may be bad, and will have consequences beyond what I can see right at this moment, they might also be necessary. That bad decision might be the distraction or the small happiness that acts as an anchor, keeps me grounded, makes the next moment possible.
So why am I sharing all of this in a public forum? Isn’t this all better suited to the therapist’s couch or the pages of a diary? Because I think there is value in telling the stories that make us uncomfortable, the ones that society says should be hidden away. Part of what makes dealing with mental illness so hard is that we aren’t really allowed to talk publicly about the struggles. When I was reading Hurley’s post, there were moments where I felt myself welling up with “Yes!” and “Me too!” and I think that there aren’t always enough of those moments out there when we’re going through our dark times. These are the same feelings I was having watching this YouTube video of poet Sabrina Benaim perform a piece about her experience of depression for a slam poetry competition:
Kate Bornstein has a great book called Hello Cruel World: 101 Alternatives to Suicide for Teens, Freaks, & Other Outlaws. She is very clear that it is not a “self-help” book but rather one that just presents things that you can do instead. Some of them are simple, some are not; some might even seem a little crazy. But they are something to do instead, and if you don’t like one of Bornstein’s alternatives, you can always make up one of you own. Make your own bad, necessary choices. Make your own YouTube video or write your own blog post. Keep the conversation going. As we talk about these things, and share these creations that people are making out of their darkest secrets, we can all feel a little less isolated, a little less overwhelmed by whatever darkness we are facing.
And that is never a bad choice to make.
Tags: bad life choices, Birthday, death, depression, Dixie Chicks, dying, Harry Potter, Hello Cruel World, Huffington Post, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Kate Bornstein, Katie Hurley, Miss Jaye, Poetry Slam, real talk, Robin Williams, Sabrina Benaim, serious, suicide, Survival, survival instinct, surviving depression, surviving suicide, World of Champagne