Swimming Lessons

I didn’t think of myself as depressed in high school because I didn’t know what that meant, really. I was vaguely aware of a recent cultural phenomenon called Prozac — the book Listening to Prozac came out during my senior year in high school, Prozac Nation during my freshman year in college — but not why it was A Thing. Depressed, to my friends and me, meant pretty bummed out.

I wasn’t aware of ADHD, either, and in the early years after I’d first heard of it — in college or after, I don’t recall — I was of the (common) superior, exasperated opinion that Man, they’ll medicate kids for anything these days.

I was definitely not aware of how often, particularly in women, the two disorders can be comorbid.

I had always been a disorganized child. I was legendarily messy; as early as the first grade, I remember squirming, nauseous with shame and terror, as Mrs. N- came to inspect our desks before the holiday break, knowing what she’d find in mine — an impenetrable jungle of everything from mysteriously sticky welded strata of old papers to a months-old container of applesauce my mother had sent in my lunchbox one day and I had stored in the desk and left there in despair as it slowly turned into an evil biology experiment. I knew it was there, I just didn’t know what to do about it. I kept forgetting. How did people keep their desks tidy? It was bewildering. How did they keep their rooms tidy? How did anyone know where to put things, how to organize things, how not to forget or become distracted, absorbed in some more interesting task?

If you had given my parents or teachers the description of ADHD that is still most commonly understood by the public — the description based on studies of young boys — they wouldn’t have recognized it in me. I wasn’t hyperactive; if anything, I was withdrawn. I was a bright kid. I got excellent grades. I drove my second grade teacher bonkers because whenever she handed out worksheets for us to do quietly in class, I would finish mine in a fraction of the allotted time and then “borrow” my neighbors’ and do theirs too. I was in the sixth grade reading group through most of my time at that elementary school because it was the most advanced they had and I could read rings around my own classmates. I was bored.

And I could focus when the task was interesting to me. I had an unearthly degree of focus when a task was interesting. I would fall into a book absolutely and dwell there oblivious to the outside world. I read the Lord of the Rings trilogy when I was nine, and I lived in Middle-Earth; my fourth-grade teacher was at a loss when I came to school sobbing one day and having forgotten my vocabulary workbook at home, because Gandalf had just died and I was incoherent and inconsolable. I cried all day at school and couldn’t be made to do lessons.

She’s clever, they said. She’s just daydreamy. She’s untidy, she forgets things sometimes. But I was clever, so the rest didn’t matter. My grades were fine.

And they continued to be fine all the way through high school. I was valedictorian of my class. But it was harder.

I routinely forgot or failed to do homework. (I had my own mother for ninth grade algebra, and if you think telling the teacher you didn’t do the assignment is tough, try telling your mom that.) One of my English teachers insisted we keep a reading journal, writing a page or so of our thoughts after each assigned chapter we read; she would collect and review the journals at the end of each quarter. But I read books in a gallop, all in one go at whichever point in the semester I felt like actually reading them, and then would have to frantically fabricate several months’ worth of entries the night before the journal was due. One of my teachers called me a juvenile delinquent in front of the whole class after I’d failed for two weeks straight to produce any homework, and it was both hilarious — I was a nerd! The nerdiest nerd! A teacher’s daughter! — and mortifying.

Everything felt rawer, rougher, the previously smooth scholastic waters suddenly full of unexpected shoals and riptides. And I had to think about college! And suddenly there were weird and complex social pressures!

My report cards remained pristine. My desk, my bedroom — and all the rest of me, it sometimes felt — were a shambles. My parents made fond, exasperated jokes about what a pack rat I am.

I had trouble sleeping. I’d eat ice cream for breakfast for weeks on end because it was easy, I didn’t have to think about it, I liked ice cream. I read obsessively. I lost things constantly. I kept a library book from the city library for three years because by the time I’d found it, it was so overdue I was ashamed to hand it in; I did, eventually, before I left for college, by driving over there one night and dropping it furtively through the return slot before fleeing under cover of darkness.

I got so weird and withdrawn that my mother confronted me tearfully one afternoon to ask whether I was on drugs. It was both hilarious and mortifying.

I would wake up at night terrified and miserable and unable to breathe. More than once, I made it out of bed and down the hall to my parents’ bedroom, and then just lay down on the floor outside their door and cried, unable to bring myself to disturb them. That’s probably my most vivid memory from high school, and it’s a general one, not a specific occasion: a general memory of lying in the hall outside my parents’ room, weeping and sick with some weird, black dread. The feeling I’d been swallowed up by something bleak and monstrous, something airless.

They only caught me at it once or twice. Most of the time I eventually got up and crawled back to my own bed.

But I was still the valedictorian of my class, I was still going to Yale, so obviously everything was fine.

And then I got to Yale and discovered that it wasn’t fine at all. Suddenly I was in a place where being clever buys you next to nothing when clever comes a dime a dozen and you’re also forgetful and strangely obsessive and disorganized and inattentive.

I no longer had to do my homework, because no one would scold me about it; no one was likely even to notice. So I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t even really have to go to class, because no one would come hunting for me if I didn’t. There was zero external structure, I was expected to enforce structure for myself, like an adult, and so I fell apart. That stress nightmare some people have about showing up to take an exam in a class they’ve never been to? That was actually me a couple of times, my first and second years in college. And it went about as well as it does in a stress nightmare.

I withdrew from classes to keep from failing them. I withdrew from so many classes that the dean of my residential college summoned me to inform me that I wasn’t taking enough credits to be considered a full-time student, and I had to start making them up or I was through.

I lasted a year and a half drowning in this stress-dream pressure, not knowing how I was supposed to start swimming. How did people swim? I’d always just floated, lost in my own world.

I developed weird delusions, trapped in this feeling of no-control. The summer after sophomore year I worked an internship in New York City. On the street I would pass a homeless man muttering angrily to himself in an alley, or a woman shrilly brandishing an umbrella at an unseen opponent, and have the nauseous, vertiginous sensation that they were me, that I only thought I was a publishing intern in Ann Taylor pumps commuting from Connecticut, that everyone on the street could tell I was raving, hysterical. Completely out of control. I knew it.

Sophomore year, I went home for Thanksgiving break, went back to college afterward, and tried to commit suicide. My roommates caught me. They literally half-dragged me across campus to the health center, where I was checked in involuntarily and my parents were summoned.

I was suffering a severe depression, they were told, and it was the first time I’d ever heard anyone use depressed in a sense that didn’t mean pretty bummed out. The college put me on medication — Zoloft, at the time — and agreed that at the end of the semester I would be granted a temporary medical withdrawal, a year to get my shit together.

My parents found me an excellent psychiatrist, and with the combination of medication and therapy, I did, in fact, get my shit together. Mostly. I’m not sure it occurred to my doctor back then to think about ADHD in a nineteen-year-old woman, so she treated me for depression and OCD tendencies, and I remained disorganized, sometimes-weirdly-focused and sometimes-unable-to-focus, but I felt in control of my life again. I stopped drowning. I got a job; I took classes at the local UConn branch to make up the credits I’d lost through withdrawals. The following January, I went back to Yale.

I had to change my major, because I’d fallen behind in the language requirement for Russian Studies, but switching to English/medieval studies wasn’t heartbreaking. I took Latin and Old English instead of more Russian, I read a lot of Crusade/church history, and I wrote a senior thesis about the Lollard heresy. (I was, and still am, really into heresies.) I did well. Not well enough for any fancy Latin-level graduation, but well enough to overcome my dingy first year-and-a-half record and graduate with a respectable B+ average.

I had ups and downs over the next many years, but mostly they were calm seas. I no longer lay on any floors sobbing at three in the morning. I wasn’t doing great, but I was doing fine. I went to law school in 2004, and had to see a psychiatrist there starting in my second year after I had a flurry of panic attacks; he changed my medication to Wellbutrin, and if there were a yelp.com for psychiatric meds I would give all the stars to Wellbutrin. It has made probably the single biggest and longest-term difference in my mental health, with the fewest unpleasant side effects.

In 2009 a lot of things happened at once. I was an attorney by then, at a big corporate firm in downtown Boston; my husband and I had just bought a house. I was seeing a therapist who had diagnosed (to my vast surprise) my ADHD, a diagnosis confirmed by a specialist at MGH who began treating me for it, and suddenly I was an effective adult! It was some kind of miracle: water into wine, me into a competent adult. The economy was terrible, but we were doing well.

Then I got word that one of my closest friends from law school had committed suicide. And then my firm started laying people off; the economy was terrible, they reminded us grimly. It’s a special kind of creeping dread to go into your job every day not knowing which of your classmates or colleagues will no longer be there, hearing that there’s going to be a new round of cuts that afternoon, hearing phones ring in offices around yours and waiting for your own.

It rang, finally, in December. I’d been cut.

It was a relief at first. It was a relief not to go into that office every morning, 6 a.m. train, sit all day waiting for that call, trying to look busy, trying to look invaluable. We had savings, it was fine.

But the economy was terrible, and there were no jobs to be had. None. The statistic I recall hearing at the time was that there were something like 4,000 more lawyers in Massachusetts than there were legal jobs. I sent out well over a hundred job applications. I got two responses, both of them polite no-thank-yous.

Our finances tightened, slowly but surely — new house! mortgage! — and I couldn’t pay out of pocket anymore for my therapist, who wasn’t covered by insurance. So I stopped seeing her. And the MGH specialist. My primary care doctor continued to prescribe my Wellbutrin, so I was pretty sure I was still okay. I’d always wanted to be a writer, really, and after I’d tried my hand at a short story and sold it, my husband and I figured what the hell, maybe a break wasn’t so bad. He was still working, I could take some time off to work on my writing career. We could have a baby.

We did. You already know how that went.

But after the worst of that was through, with a couple more stories sold and a Viable Paradise acceptance, things were on the upswing again. (I had a major anxiety attack at Viable Paradise itself, by the way — the Horror That Is Thursday is a real thing, friends — but my VP class are all extraordinary people and the VP staff is extraextraordinary, and I cannot recommend a better bunch of people among whom to have a major anxiety attack.)

And then, I don’t know. This year started optimistic, fierce and determined and defiant. I sold another story, a story I was really proud of, and it was well-received. I had a great time at two cons. I was making steady progress on my novel and had a half-dozen exciting new ideas simmering on the backburner. I had another story I’m really proud of out on submission.

But a friend — a friend who knows me well — had come to visit me early in the year, and toward the end of her visit, she stood in my office and asked me with genuine concern, “Are you all right?”

“What?” I laughed at her, my stomach knotting with unease. “Of course I’m all right. Why wouldn’t I be?”

“Well,” she said, and looked around the room. “I don’t mean any offense, I’m just pointing it out, but your office is really messy.”

Sometime in late July or early August everything collapsed.

I’d gotten through the worst of my PPD, I’d gotten better, but I was still the parent of a toddler and sleeping accordingly — on a good night, I got about six hours. By the middle of the summer, it was down to maybe four. I was living on coffee and the junk food squirreled away in my desk. I was playing video games with obsessive focus, listening to a single song on repeat for days in a row, forgetting to shower. I kept up a good front on social media, because that’s what social media is for. But by August I had started thinking, What’s the point of all of this? Wouldn’t it be so much easier to just not be here?

It would be. God, it would be such a relief. It would be quiet. It would be done.

My husband would go to work and my daughter to preschool and I would cry and wander around the house and wish I were dead.

I wasn’t writing. I wasn’t exercising. I wasn’t even playing video games. I was no point. What was the point of me?

The point of me, I decided, was at the very minimum that I have that daughter. And she’s funny and sassy and impossible and too smart for her own good and she loves me like a barnacle. That was a point. So finally, finally, I found a new psychiatrist and made an appointment and spent an introductory hour sobbing in her office.

I’ve been seeing her for a couple of months. I’m going to see her later this afternoon. I am on a cocktail of three medications now — my Wellbutrin, plus an SSRI and an anti-anxiety med — and once my “mood has leveled” she wants to address my ADHD as well.

I’m still not really writing. But I’m thinking about writing, I’m writing about writing. I’m getting on average seven hours of sleep a night. I’m seeing friends and going out to do things; tomorrow I’m meeting a VP classmate in Cambridge to see two of our erstwhile VP instructors at Pandemonium Books (buy The Stone in the Skull, y’all!).

I know I will be writing again soon. Right now, I’m re-learning to swim.

Some days I think about how much of my life I lost to drowning or to learning, slowly, to swim. And then re-learning, and learning again. Drowning differently. Sometimes I despair. It can be so much easier to say, I’m forty-one years old and what have I done with my life? than it is to remember, in fact, all the things I’ve done with my life. It’s hard to catalogue the positives when you’re drowning.

But I’m not. I’m not drowning right now. I’m not exactly swimming, either — I’m sort of dog-paddling around the shallow end, getting comfortable — but I’m getting there. I’m working on it.

I will be working on it for the rest of my life, every day. I know that. The people who know me have to know that, too.

It’s a hard thing to think about, all that work, all that swimming, the depths waiting below. But I am lucky, so lucky, because every time the water closed over my head, there was a lifeguard there to spot me. And not always the expected people, the people who see you every day and can become inured to your slow sinking the way you do yourself. Maybe some fierce and loving college roommates; maybe a visiting friend who looks around and asks with real concern, Are you all right?

I think a lot about my lost law school friend. I miss him. And I wonder why I hadn’t thought to call him in such a long time, to send an email, to ask him genuinely, Hey, how are you? Because I did care; I cared how he was doing. I try not to obsess about it. But I do think about it a lot.

It can make a difference. I know this personally. Just taking the time to knock on a roommate’s door, to ask a friend, How are you? Are you all right? And please know also that if I ask you that question, ever, I mean it.

Please tell me, friends: how are you? Are you all right? I’m not always a strong swimmer. And I get disorganized a lot, and start paddling in circles. But I’m here, and I do know how to dog paddle, and if you’re floundering I will do what I can to help you. Learning to swim can be so, so hard, but it’s worth the effort, and we’re all in these waters together.

4 thoughts on “Swimming Lessons

  1. I have had struggles that are very similar in a lot of ways. For me, I used my addiction to cope until mater in life. Once I got clean, my world started collapsing. The person everyone thought was “a rock” ended up on a 5150 after a failed suicide attempt. After getting through that and some intense therapy, I slowly started learning how to cope. The depression and anxiety still make it hard to sleep OR get out of bed (depending on which monster is in charge that day).

    In the process I move pushed away and alienated some of the ones I initially looked to for advise & counsel. Learning how to interact socially without being an addict is HARD. So much safer for me to write down my feelings and experiences in a pseudo-anonymous fashion knowing I will never have to actually face the person I talk to.

    I appreciate that you are willing to share your life and your struggles with strangers.


  2. Oh Wren, you are such a lovely person. You certainly made an impression on me last year at VP and have continued to over this past year. I am very fond of you. I’m glad that you have support and have found resources that continue to help you. ❤

  3. Wren, thank you for writing this. I am sorry if it was hard. I hope it wasn’t. Thank you for sharing what you went through in the past and over the summer so that I can be a better person for you; so that I can be more present for you.

    I care about you very much. Don’t ever forget that. All my ♥️.

    – Jordan

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