Sitting in second period chemistry, my tenth-grade self struggled to zoom in on ionic compounds: the lights were too bright, the chatter of my classmates too grating. I remember walking through the narrow halls of my high school moving slowly and deliberately, as if carrying a cup too full. Even the slightest falter would cause the storm inside to spill over.
Everyone feels broken sometimes. We all have days, weeks, or months when we feel like the cracks between our ribs let too much hope out and too much fear in. I’ve had those days, those weeks, those months before. I know how it feels when even making breakfast feels weighed down and burdened. I know that no one is immune to these phases. We all live somewhere on a spectrum of wellness, and we struggle to give room to one another when we each take our turn moving through darkness.
Living with mental illness is hard, but supporting someone who lives with it is hard too. When an episode comes for me, it pulls down the curtains to everyone I love and asks them to please wait outside until I come back home to myself; it asks them to tiptoe across eggshells and meet me where I am. It makes me fragile and tender, quick to bruise. Movements are heavy, speaking aloud sounds alien, and holding eye contact feels like kneading the parts of me that ache most. It can seem impossible to get out of bed in the morning. When and if I do, every action is a holding place until I can return to my room, turn off the lights, and collapse under the covers.
I have been rising each day to greet this part of myself since I was 14. I’m 24 now, and I’m still getting to know her: the things that make her sore and the things that make her full. But for much of my young adult life, I’ve followed a routine of folding up my complicated parts. I have gathered up the anxiety and depression that dangle out of me to make myself appear neat and tidy for the world. I know every step to this dance—don’t tell them how foggy you feel today, that’s not really what they’re asking when they say “How are you?” Pull back your shoulders, stretch your tired mouth into a smile, tell them you’re fine. There, that’s it. It’s okay, just hold on. You can go home soon.
Seeing a loved one live this way isn’t easy. It makes sense that we see glazed eyes and take it personally. It makes sense that we ask if it’s us: what we did wrong, why we’re being forced to the sidelines when all we want so desperately is to come in. When we feel hurt, we are hardwired to hurt back or give up. This is only natural. We all face growing pains, and we don’t always have space to support each other in the ways we might need. But whether this space exists or not, we deserve to care for ourselves first, even if it feels like doing so lets everyone else down.
In the thick of depression, it can be easy to forget how alienating it is to live outside of it. But it is also easy to forget that we are allowed to take up room. We need not apologize for healing ourselves first, nor do we need permission to do it in the way we know best. Our only obligation is to ourselves, and that is responsibility enough.
As I continue to unearth what that means to me, I find myself navigating a fine boundary between selfishness and self-care. Part of this process may require losing balance, on one side or the other. But with time, I am finding steadiness between the two. Whether it’s through canceling plans, ignoring texts, lighting candles, or taking a bath, I am allowing myself to be as I am. And I am humbled and grateful to know that the people in my life will wait for me as I do.
By welcoming all of my messy parts (and having the space and permission to do so) healing can step in. I am beginning to understand that I am not defined by what surfaces in me; that sometimes I am leaden with fog, and sometimes I sparkle. With this, I am slowly learning how to tread softly on this landscape that is me. I am in equal parts trying to be gentle with myself and firm with the world. To me, part of that means giving myself permission to do what feels right.
In writing this, I am hopeful that my friends and family will understand why I go dark. I am hopeful that I might understand a little better too. In writing this, I am not asking the world to support me in the way that I need. I am only asking for the space to support myself.
I know this isn’t easy—for anyone. It will always be hardest for the ones that love us most. But I also know that it feels right and good to ball up my fists and stretch out my spine in the morning. It feels right and good to lift my chin to the sun when it comes. It feels right and good to breathe deeply. It feels right and good to give myself time, to be gentle with every iteration of myself.
To you, wherever and however you are, I hope you will join me in telling yourself that darkness does not settle forever, that you will feel sun on your skin and full-bodied hope one day soon. I hope you will join me as I bite my tongue each time apology rolls out of me for taking the space to do what feels best.
So this spring, I will get up in the morning, wash my face in warm water, and announce to the world that I am seasonal. I will make every articulation of this life a quiet act of self-affirmation that I am growing. I will welcome my phases when they come and give them everything for which they have longed. This spring I’ll find the love and pull it back, hand over fist, and give it to myself first. This spring, I’m reaching for myself.
By Lauren Toccalino
Illustration by Julia Kuo for VICE