I am standing at the top of the stairs, desperately clutching my throat and gasping for air before falling to the ground, succumbing to tunnel vision and nausea. I am lying there, looking up at the ceiling and not understanding where I am or how I have gotten here. I want to scream or call out for help and I can’t catch my breath long enough in between sobs for that to be a possibility. Like a bad dream, it feels like I’m drowning or dying or that the world is ending. A physical manifestation of my anxiety, an opening of the floodgates, a terrifying realization that I am not invincible against my emotions. The irony is that the cause is something small and inconsequential: a book report I had forgotten to turn in on time, one I had slaved away at for weeks. Despite only being eleven, I understood that this was not an appropriate response to a bad grade, my first taste of my body and mind becoming enemies I couldn’t trust.
I know the multiples of 6 and 7 like the back of my hand.
My teacher writes on the whiteboard and I cannot focus because his spit has landed on my arm and now the germs are going to find their way through my skin into my bones and now he won’t stop pacing six steps to his right and left and I know that six is a bad number and seven is not and logically I know numbers aren’t inherently good or bad and now another droplet of spit has landed on my face and I’ve lost count of his steps and now I’ll have to start over.
I can’t go to sleep unless I take seven equally distanced steps from my bathroom to my bedroom and both of the soles of my feet touch the ground in the same way, and definitely not until after I’ve washed my hands exactly seven times.
One, two, three, four, five steps to get from the shower to the sink. Five feels safe today.
I count street signs as we pass by them while driving and I have to turn around and look at the back of each one “just in case” there is something important written there that could cost me my life.
I am trying to control an uncontrollable world and a body I feel I have zero control over, one that will turn on me if I don’t pay close enough attention.
I meet my dad at the hospital. I go to the dining hall with him-where I’ve been eating my meals (for free) the past few weeks. I always get the same thing: a veggie burger and french fries. I never eat more than a few bites. It all feels like poison to me. Food is a means of survival, and if she can’t eat it, then I will boycott it. I will tell food to go fuck itself.
My dad mentions they’re waiting for her operation to be over — one they told us could be the deciding factor (but isn’t everything these days?) They seemed hopeful. I was hopeful. We waited in the uncomfortable limbo between a few more months and a few days. Cancer, I had learned, was a waiting game in which everyone pretended to know what the hell we were waiting for. The doctor approached our table.
“So… we’ve opened her up and I want to show you something. Can you follow me?”
This is customary. The surgeons talk to my dad, my dad relays the information to us. This time, he turns in my direction.
“Magda, come with me.”
I point to myself.
We’re brought into a room with ten different computer screens — there are graphs and diagrams and pictures of organs and levels of things I haven’t yet begun to comprehend; a spaceship in hell.
The doctor points to an image directly in front of us.
“This is her liver,” the doctor says. The images surrounding his hand begin to come into focus. We are looking at the inside of her — her own body eating away at itself.
“And a normal liver is supposed to take up about this much room in the body,” he uses his pointer and index finger to make a circle about an eighth of the size of the screen.
“It’s spreading quickly. If we touch it now, it will spread more”. The kind of phrase that belongs in an action film, not the hospital where my mom will eventually die. It feels out of place, foreign, bitter-tasting.
I wait for my dad to say something, but he just hangs his head. For the hundredth time in this shitstorm of a situation, he is silent. I am waiting for him to fix it.
I look at him and the doctor with a fury in my throat.
I want him to say it. I finally want someone to tell me the raw fucking truth: there is no way that she is getting out of this alive.
“So cut it out,” I say. “Cut her liver out.”
“If we cut out that much, it’ll fail. And she’ll die.”
“And if you don’t cut it out?”
“Well, she’ll get some more time. Until the liver fails on its own.”
I think of my mom laying in the other room, peacefully sleeping in an anesthesia-induced haze. I don’t want them to wake her up. I want her to rest for now.
I go home and climb into the shower and the tears sneak up on me. They are different: blinding, never-ending, all-encompassing. I grab a pair of scissors and make one large gash on my wrist, watching the blood drip down my arm and pool at my feet. A warm, red release.
I finish a ten mile run and stare at my reflection in the car mirror. I can count my ribs and it is still not enough. I pinch my stomach until it leaves bruises in the shape of my fingerprints.
“You’re disgusting” I say to myself. “You’re not trying hard enough.”
I run two more miles as punishment. I go home and eat a piece of toast for dinner and go to bed clutching my grumbling stomach to distract myself from my mother’s empty bedroom downstairs.
A journal entry:
“The truth is that I do not feel safe in this body. I wish her death wasn’t the thing I felt I needed to trace my sadness back to (even in situations entirely unrelated to her). I wish it didn’t destroy me as much as it has. I wish I could cry in front of my father. I wish I didn’t isolate myself when I was hurting and I wish I didn’t say horrible things to people I love when I’m low. I wish I didn’t smoke weed. I wish I didn’t run back to all the people in my life who made me feel smaller and inadequate. I wish I didn’t love acting so much because the arts are not straight and linear and sometimes I just want someone to tell me what to do next. I wish that memory wasn’t such a powerful thing so that my grief could dissolve. I wish that I could hear about her day or call her when I’m having a bad one or have someone love me the way she did or have someone to love the way I loved her.”
It becomes a cycle- I am happy and then I wake up with blinding rage. I grieve and spend days wondering if there is any point to any of this at all.
Over the years, my mental illness has taken other forms but it all attempts to accomplish the same thing: to hide me, to let me run away from this life. I also know that there is a hopeful side to it: the side that believes that all of this sadness and loneliness is happening for a reason, to bring me to some greater good that I can look back on as instrumental to my growth as a person. But, sometimes I am sad for no reason and want to die for no reason and it’s those days that are the hardest. I know how to navigate the days I’m sad about her; I have not learned how to handle the days that the sadness doesn’t have anything to attach itself to. It’s an exhausting reality and an important distinction to make: mental illness is not always caused by an event. Yes, it is sometimes a result of trauma and yes, usually there are other predisposing factors, but this is how I’ve always been. Her death was simply a container that took all of my illnesses and shook them around, a draw bag of depression and functioning addiction and an eating disorder that switched places with my OCD and anxiety. This is how mental illness becomes a festering wound: a specific shame that convinces the mind it lives in that it has no reason to feel this way. This is why I still feel embarrassed when talking about it. I acknowledge that it takes privilege to have time and space to worry about mental health and to expend energy on figuring out how and why I am this way, and, still, I am sad. I suffer, I hurt people I love and I find anger and self-hatred easier to access than empathy.
I have learned some things, though. Maybe because of these things or in spite of them (something I’m still trying to figure out). By naming them, I take away the power for these conditions to feed into my self-hate. They are illnesses, insidious and, at times, violent, but they are smaller than my potential to rise above them or through them or around them. Her death is an obstacle I am navigating as a mentally ill person and I fail more than I succeed: smoking weed even though I said I’d never put any kind of smoke in my lungs, hating my body even more than she hated her own, allowing that hatred to bleed over into how I treat the people I love most. In one way, I feel like I understand her even better than I did when she was alive. In another way, I wonder if this is some form of generational doom- the depression my mother lived with somehow passed its way down to me as some unceasing and unrelenting power that exacts itself until it is finished. We could call it God or fate or the universe, but that seems too broad and too easy. That makes me a victim. But the most surprising thing I’ve learned about depression (through my own experience and through talking with others) is that it gives me an indelible sense of hope, of optimism. I know this isn’t me and so i know there’s another side to it all. I hope it’s the God she (my mother) believed in, I hope it is something good.
This sadness is part biological, part societal, part mourning, and I am still trying to figure out which part I am responsible for, which part I can stop denying, which part I can willingly own.
For the times I have used my struggles with mental illness as an excuse to treat others with disrespect, to isolate, to hurt those I love, to hurt myself, to convince myself and others that I am unworthy and unlovable, I am sorry. I am lucky to have you. You make me so, so happy.
Depression and anxiety are deep, dark holes that will bury you if you let them. I am still doing my best to find something to laugh or smile or be grateful about most days. I owe a lot of that to those that I love and to a mother that fought her own mental struggles, who told me that “Sadness cannot exist without happiness. They wouldn’t know what to do without each other.”
This piece originally appeared on Medium and is reprinted here with permission.
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Magda Cychowski is an actor, writer and director based in NYC. She is a founding member of Let That Marinate productions. Find more of her writing and poetry @magscski, @magdacychowski and magdalenacychowski.com.