“What does it feel like?”
I played with a loose thread on my sweater sleeve, trying to spit out the words of my response. My eyes grazed over the faded beige walls of my therapist’s office, to one of those childish posters of cartoon-ish faces displaying different emotions, to the tips of her leather boots, back to the walls.
“I can’t really… put it into words.”
How do I describe something like depression to a trained professional? People often confuse it with just being ‘sad’ or ‘angry at the world’. For me it isn’t any of those emotions. It’s bleak, and dark. The absence of ANY emotion. So I shrugged, picking at some exposed cotton on the couch.
She sighed, pushing up her glasses and uncrossing and crossing her legs. “Well, that’s why you’re here, isn’t it? Art therapy is useful for a number of reasons.” She smiled warmly, setting her clipboard down and going over to her wooden shelf. It was grainy and stripped, as if it had lasted through the civil war. She tugged out a bin of art supplies and fished out a pencil and a blank piece of printer paper. She sauntered over to me, setting them down and folding her hands together. “Your mother told me you loved to draw. So I want you to draw what it feels like.”
My eyes flickered down to the blank sheet of paper. Reluctantly, I picked up the instrument, and sketched my way through what having this mental illness felt like.
I started with a silhouette of a heavy set girl. Growing up I of course had issues managing my food intake, to the point where it concerned my mother how heavy I was getting. She dragged me to nutritionist after pediatrician after psychologist, to get the same responses she didn't want to believe: “Your child eats when she’s anxious or upset, and that seems too often. What’s happening at home?” It felt awful, having to be seen in public, being an embarrassment to my own mother. My seventh grade math teacher even made a rude comment about my weight, one that I laughed off, even through the twisting feeling in my throat.
I drew a smile on her face. Not a sincere one, this one was crooked and exaggerated and painted, like the Black Dahlia’s after she met the wrong end of a blade. I used to get picked on, teased for everything. Until I started to smile. If I could make someone laugh, if just for a moment, then they couldn’t see what was hurting. If I kept myself smiling, no one would guess that every night I’d curl up and sob, because I wanted to die so badly. If I made other people happy, they’d never guess that the only reason I haven’t killed myself is because of the ache in my heart when I picture my mother’s sobbing face as I’m lowered into the ground in a casket.
I drew a pit in her stomach. I drew scratches, scribbles, shaded it with harsh strokes, so much so that my therapist raised a curious eyebrow. I drew this storm brewing on the inside, but not one of rage or a fit of emotion. This feeling was anxious, dry, and it ached. It was waking up early and staring at the ceiling to try and find the meaning in getting up. It was people asking, “You’re depressed? Well, why can’t you just be happy?” Which is akin to saying, “You have alzheimer's? Well, why can’t you just remember?” And instead of seeking help, you drag yourself through life, trying to ignore the fact that it isn’t normal. Not everyone goes through this. It’s not like being stabbed with a knife, it’s like being stabbed so many times that you go absolutely numb. I scrawled scars on her forearms. I drew dry and crusty eyes, I drew a facial expression that no one knew wept because she couldn’t just be happy.
She glanced back up at me, her eyes tender and soft. “I see…” she murmured, as I let go of the pencil that I had been squeezing so hard my knuckles were white. She set her glasses down, breathing out a sigh. “Have you ever considered to yourself… that it’s okay to not be okay?”
My lips parted, the concept foreign to me. I met her eyes, for the very first time. “I’ll try.”