I play a game. Yes, This Too Is Sad . To play, I think about my ex-boyfriend’s choked sobbing as he dumped me, about my fear of graduating and stumbling ill-prepared as ever into this real world, and about the insignificance of both these things in the face of my mom’s brand new diagnosis. This will set free the tears I feel are missing from the scene of me lying in bed smelly and despondent in the early afternoon. I am sad for a reason now.
By this point, though, I’m plagued less by sadness than by psychic paralysis. I woke up one day and my brain had stopped working. “Let’s just lie here,” my neurons and I agreed, “until things feel a bit easier.” But that was a century ago and now everything is impossible.
The knowledge that this is depression does nothing to help me fix it. That requires leaving my dorm room, talking to people, trying to articulate this mindset when I hardly understand why I feel this soul-sucking nothing. Words are so hard when your brain’s busted.
I mentally rehearse telling my professors it was beyond not feeling up to coming to class, how I was literally and physically incapable of getting up and getting anything done. I rehearse telling my psychiatrist I stopped taking the antidepressant as an experiment, designed to prove there’s nothing actually wrong with me. I practice this, envisioning the supportive and understanding responses I’d prefer receiving, yet am unable to imagine a day it’ll seem at all possible.
My psychiatric history, the one on paper in various files, should’ve begun a lot earlier than it did. At age ten when I removed all the hairs forming my eyebrows with my fingers, maybe, or before I moved on to plucking a large bald spot in the bountiful crown of hair on my head. I don’t know how many adolescents beg for therapy, but I was among them. My parents, however, had misgivings from their own hidden psychiatric histories, information I was unaware of until they each shared it with me much later, after I was already irreparably crazy.
My paper trail starts in college. Finally free to deal with my mental health as I saw fit, I made my way to Student Health and Counseling when my trichotillomania returned and I was once again horrified by my thinning hair and inability to just stop pulling it out.
Speaking with a counselor proved less helpful than I’d hoped. The point of the suggested mood journaling was lost on me. He remarked often on my fidgeting and how anxious I appeared to him. How did I feel really , he wanted to know, and I shrugged and smiled and kept jiggling my leg or playing with the zipper on my jacket.
“I don’t know. I could be better.”
He realized how bad I was at this therapy stuff before I did, and offered to set up for me an appointment with the psychiatrist.
I implicitly trusted the psychiatrist more. I was pre-med and fully invested in the biological basis of mental illness. Or maybe it was just because she was a black woman. Whatever it was, I opened up, maybe even let a few tears fall. I’d come about the hair pulling, but she thought the real problem was my mood. I seemed “a little depressed,” she said, writing my first prescription. What I’d probably always known about myself became perfectly clear. Years later, I’d read my charts to see her initial diagnosis of dysthymia, a chronic low-level of depression, and wonder whether she’d gotten it wrong then or if I’d really just gotten that much worse.
I should be studying for the MCAT and figuring out how I’ll spend my year off. I should be going to class so I can graduate and live up to my potential for the first time since middle school, or maybe since I was, unfathomably, awarded a scholarship in the first place. I should not be smoking weed all day as if I need it to stay alive, definitely should not be wondering if maybe I do. I should not ignore Leslie when she knocks on my door, probably concerned I’m dead in here. I should be brushing my teeth, for sure.
Instead, I spend my time on a newly developed hobby. It quickly moves past hobby to obsession, though I’m not sure when exactly it tilts to that extreme. I’ve become a Duke Basketball fan. This is not something a person just does in North Carolina. Maybe nowhere in America is it allowed. I have my reasons: Duke is my dream med school; I like picking the rival of my family’s preferred team; I have a crush on Jon Scheyer. And, even more embarrassing, my ex-boyfriend went to Duke and made me watch the entire previous season with him. Jumping back in is like putting on his old hoodie.
The hoodie is dark blue, though not the correct Pantone 287, and says duke on the front. I wear it for every game. I do not wash it. Depression is why, but I allow myself to become superstitious about its effect on the team as justification.
In the hour or so before a game, during a game, after a win, I don’t feel so depressed. Or rather, I don’t feel so nothing. I am excited. I’m anxious, but it’s not the type that keeps me locked in my room. I can focus again, if only on the games. The play-by-play annoys me, so I mute it and provide my own soundtrack. I forget to maintain my quiet, which I’d done so that I might slip into nonexistence to those around me, and I yell for the impressive baskets and the missed calls. Leslie texts to let me know she’s glad she can hear me sometimes, glad to know I’m not dead and decomposing, even if she’s not seen me in weeks and weeks.
I fall in love with basketball completely. I embrace the idea of using “we” when thinking about “my” team, a notion that used to make me roll my eyes. I know who we are recruiting. I love close games, even though it feels as if I hate them until they end in our favor. I love it when the momentum shifts and baskets start going in when they weren’t before. I adore a blowout. I love the swishing sound of the mic’d hoop, the movement of the blue-clad crowd bouncing as one, the team hugging and celebrating.
I grew up in college basketball country and it took a major depressive episode for me to finally get swept up in it all. I don’t understand it. I don’t, at this time, have the brainpower to think about this being a result of my mind’s survival instinct. I miss the importance of the fact that I am able to look forward to anything at all.
This is recovery, but it feels like basketball magic.
To my untrained eye, the team keeps getting better and better. The computer models back up me and the other fans who are certain we are number one. I am also getting better, but that is harder to recognize. There are no depression stats I can track the way I am Duke’s Pomeroy ranking, no message boards for fans to analyze and argue about my mental illness.
I go home for spring break and tell my mother nothing about the depression, about missing a solid two months of class, about how I am all but guaranteed to graduate late now. I try not to notice her hand tremor. I talk to her about basketball, and she is amused by my sudden fandom. I squeal all the way through our 82-50 destruction of the Tar Heels. I’m on the edge of my seat for the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament. I’m back in my dorm when we win the conference championship, and though I am once again locked in the same small room, everything feels brighter. I brace myself for March Madness. My ex and I text as we keep winning and winning. I don’t wash the hoodie, but I do wash myself.
When that final shot bounces off the rim and Duke wins it all, I am too stunned to cry.
It is April and the depression ends. I don’t know that this is the norm for my cyclical mood disorder, that hypomania—and later, full-blown mania—will soon begin to follow the tail end of these episodes. It just feels like the team has carried me to victory. I wake up one day and my brain has turned back on.
I think, “Oh, is that over? I guess I can go outside again.”
I make an appointment with the psychiatrist. I talk to my professors. They try to understand. They want to help. I do as much work as I can for some classes and get a medical withdrawal from the rest. I tell Leslie I’m not graduating with her. I take my pills, which now include an adjuvant antipsychotic to keep the depression at bay. I think about the next season and how, if I killed myself, I’d miss Kyrie Irving—though I don’t know then we’d all miss him due to a broken toe.
I let my parents talk to me about my depression and how maybe it’s because I’ve given up Allah, and I listen and nod when my advisor misguidedly says the same thing about finding Jesus. Finding basketball instead taught me that my sense of comfort and purpose are derived from humanity, from finding the joy and magic in life and the universe and using that to propel myself forward.
My brain breaks again, of course. But even when my mood dips lower than I’d ever thought possible, it’s different from this first truly hellish episode. I know I don’t have to let it kill me, because I know even the most seemingly trivial things can be worth living for. I know one day I will wake up and be able to go outside again. I’ve won against my mood time after time, so even when it hits and I am hurting I can look to the scoreboard and know: I’ve got this.