Badfish

Early 1990

Albion, Michigan

As the car crawls to a stop and we turn off of J Drive North road, I smile to myself.  Not just at the comforting presence of our tiny 3-bedroom home, but at the secret that only I know.  

When we’d first moved into this quaint little country-house, my dad had pulled me aside to entrust me with the secret.  

J Drive… you know what that stands for, right?” he had asked. 

I had shaken my head in confusion and stared at him with wide eyes.

“It’s short for Julie, and Jim,” he had explained, “Your name and mine.  This is OUR street.  Julie – Jim Drive.  Now you’ll never forget what street you live on, right?”

I had nodded, speechless and awestruck.  

Of course it will be years before I realize what a brilliant ploy this is to help me remember my own address.  And the fantastic luck that we’d had in purchasing a home on this road, as opposed to the neighboring I-Drive North or K-Drive North.

But right now, my four-year-old mind is deeply immersed in the deception, and I can barely contain my excitement at having a street of my very own.  

The engine cuts out, as do all thoughts of my secret, allowing more pressing concerns to come to mind – like the audience of stuffed animals patiently awaiting my return.  I unlatch my seatbelt  and prepare to leap out of the van, but before I get a chance, my mother’s voice grinds me to a halt.

“Hold on Julie-bug.  I want to talk to you about something.”

I freeze, wondering what kind of trouble I’ve landed myself in. 

“You’re not in trouble.”  

I release the breathe I’ve been holding.

“But I spoke with Mrs. Kulakowski when I picked you up today.”

That’s my friend’s mom.  Okay, what’s this about?

“She mentioned… that you…”  the corners of her mouth are quivering, like she’s desperately fighting the urge to laugh.  “…she said that you had changed into your bathing suit.  Is that true?”

I stare. “Yeah…”

What’s your point?

“Okay.  So listen, honey, it’s winter time.  It’s a little cold for swimsuits, don’t you think?  And our swimsuits are meant to be worn in the pool, or at the beach.  We don’t wear them under our clothes and change into them at our friend’s houses.  That’s not what they’re for, okay?”

I nod, understandingly. 

Well, that did not go according to plan.  

What my mother didn’t know was that I’d been wearing the swimsuit for weeks now, underneath my regular clothes. Everywhere.  Day and Night.

It had begun with the summer Olympics.  I’d been entranced by what I’d seen on the TV screen, in those giant, sparkling pools.  Those majestic creatures donning their Latex caps and thick, plastic goggles.  Their spandex leotards with giant Red, White, and Blue letters.  Their magical ability to move through water as quickly and easily as an astronaut through space.  

I wanted to be like them.  Needed to be like them.  So much that I began to dream about it every waking second of every day.  All of my energy poured into it.  I couldn’t think about anything else.  It consumed me. 

We had a big, ratty, blue blanket that we had spread on the grass last fourth of July, to watch the fireworks.  I sought it out and secretly stashed it in my room. 

Transformed it into water.

I’d lay it on the floor, change into my swimsuit, and use my bed as a springboard.  I’d leap through the air with my arms overhead and with a loud sploosh, I’d land in my imaginary pool. 

I’d run across the floor, circling my arms wildly in the air, and proceed to win eternal glory for my country.  I’d step up to the lego-box podium with tears in my eyes and thank my stuffed animals for their endless support and encouragement.

My obsession was all-encompassing and I could no longer stand to walk around NOT wearing the uniform that would one day lead me to international distinction. 

Not feeling the familiar tug of it’s spaghetti-straps around my shoulders began to spark nervous butterflies in my belly.  And so I slept in it, ate in it, and played in it.  And in a moment of pure artistic insanity, attempted to share my newfound enthusiasm with my friend down the street.  

Like Clark Kent changing in the phone booth, I entered my friend’s room in normal 4-year old clothing… and emerged as a miniature Olympian. 

Unfortunately, the world was not ready for my heroic feats of imaginary athleticism just yet.

“I won’t do it anymore mom, I promise,”  I say as we make our way up the circle driveway and into the house.  And I keep my promise.  This time.  But it’s not long before I find another harmless obsession to fixate on.  

Years later, these obsessions will take on a life of their own, and have  much less amusing effects on my life.

Ironically, to this day, I’ve still never learned how to swim.

Intro

A Letter to Me:

Hey there, it’s me. I mean, you. Future you. Future… me? Not sure how to phrase that. It’s not like there’s a precedent for this sort of thing, so bear with me, okay?

It’s been a minute since we spoke, and it’s summer here now. Sticky and humid. Hotter than I remember as a kid. Today is the first day of August.

I know you’re feeling trapped, back there in April. I know that you’re scared – terrified, actually. I know why that is.

It’s the unanswered question that’s been echoing back and forth throughout your mind for weeks, keeping you up most nights, and draining the happiness out of your days. You’ve tried to suppress it. Drown it out. You’ve tried distraction. But the question lingers despite all that. And that’s why I’m writing today – to give you the answer.

Are you ready? Here it is. The answer… is yes.

Yes, it is back. Yes.

Of course, you’ll come to that conclusion on your own in just a few days anyways. You’ll be lying in that bed, inside that dark room with the shades pulled tight, in that house you haven’t left in weeks. You’ll review all the ominous, telltale signs from the previous months, and you’ll come to that dreaded realization. And then you’ll whisper softly into the night.

Hello Darkness, My old friend.

Nothing scares you more. You know what you’re in for. A gradual, seemingly endless torture of the mind and soul. A winding descent down the spiral staircase to hell. A pain so deep that nothing physical could ever compare to it. Inescapable, indescribable mental agony.

In the coming weeks you’ll watch in real-time as your life is slowly and methodically drained of all meaning.

Food will lose it’s taste, so you’ll stop eating it. Books will become meaningless collections of letters and words. Sunlight will be too bright, music, too loud. Conversation, too stimulating.

You’ll wake each morning in a panic, soaked and trembling. Every waking moment will be consumed by anxiety.

You’ll begin to feel your body waste away. The muscles you’d worked so hard to build over the years will shrink from disuse. Your body will begin to reflect the fragile, emaciated condition of your mind.

The same obsessive tendencies that so often drive you to perfection and achievement, will go rogue and become cannibalistic.

You’ll watch, helplessly, as your brain latches on to a negative thought and transforms it into an infinite loop of dark rumination over and over again. You’ll be trapped in these loops for hours at a time.

Every negative thing you’ve ever said or done will present itself in rapid succession, like a Youtube auto-playlist of traumatic, spine-tingling memories.

You’ll clutch the back of your neck in frustration, and crumble into a ball on your bedroom floor. Tiny drops of blood will roll down your neck and onto your collar. You’ll change shirts often, and grind your nails down to nubs to hide the evidence of your descent into madness.

Eventually, your defenses will begin to weaken, and you’ll fall prey to the tiny voices inside your mind. The ones that quietly whisper.

You are worthless. Your are weak. You are a bad person. You should die. Die. Die. Die.

And the more you let them speak, the louder they’ll get. Until there’s nothing left but them. Until there is no truth, except for theirs.

Then, you’ll start to listen, hypnotized by their message. You’ll find yourself nodding along with glazed eyes, agreeing. Yes. Yes, you are right. I see that now. Of course.

The day will come when the voice is so deafening that you can no longer cover your ears to drown it out. Then you’ll start tying knots again. Your fingers know them by heart. No need to look them up anymore. You can do it without thinking. It’s muscle memory. Easy.

But just as you feel the knot tighten against your skin, you’ll think of your family. Contemplating their pain is the only thing preventing you from ending your own.

You’ll summon that tiny bit of strength you have left, and you’ll use it to tell the people you love that the darkness is back.

Up until then, you will have tried to hide it. To protect them from it. To save them the burden. But they’ve seen your darkness before, and they know what it looks like. They’ll have known all along.

I know that right now, you can’t imagine telling people about your struggle. You are embarrassed. You feel weak. You’ve kept it a secret, afraid of what people might say. And because of that, you feel so very alone.

Although it may seem hopeless right now, I promise that one day very soon, you will finally find the strength to speak up. And it all starts with making the decision to fight back. Right now. And you need to let the people who love you, help you.

Your family will rally behind you as you wage this war. Your sisters will never stop texting or calling, even when you can’t bring yourself to call back for weeks.

Your dad will send you short but inspiring messages. You are not alone in this, he’ll say.

Your mom will come to you in your darkest hours and curl up in your bed while you cry. She’ll recount all the times you’ve beaten this before. She’ll remind you that you are a fighter, no matter what the darkness tells you. You won’t believe her, just yet, but that’s okay.

You’ll go to the doctor, again. He’ll change your meds, again. You’ll go through the hellish side effects, again. You’ll throw up and get massive insomnia and frequent headaches. You’ll watch your savings dwindle to nothing as you pay out-of-pocket for the treatment you need. You’ll begin to think it’s all for nothing, but then, slowly, it’ll start to work…

One morning, you’ll wake up with the urge to go for a walk. You’ll climb out of bed and put your shoes on, step outside… and nearly pass out. It’ll have been so long since you’ve been active that you’ll need to rest on the porch before getting to the sidewalk.

Your legs will shake like a newborn baby deer taking its first steps. You’ll return home exhausted and pale. You’ll collapse into bed and cry. Hard. Because of everything you once had. Because of everything you’ve now lost. Because of everything this disease has robbed you of.

But the next day, you’ll go out again. And the day after that too. And pretty soon you’ll be strong enough to walk to the park 2 miles away. Spring will fade into summer, and you’ll even begin to apply for jobs again.

Come June, you’ll try running. You’ll make it 1 mile before nearly collapsing in exhaustion. Again, you’ll go home and cry.

You’ll think about the time you ran 13.1 miles and sprinted across the finish line. You’ll wonder if you’ll ever be able to do things like that again. You’ll ask God why this is happening again. You’ll get on your knees and beg for help. You’ll pray for strength.

You’ll keep up the short-distance runs throughout the job search and therapy. You’ll experience frustration with both. You’ll feel like you’re getting nowhere. You’ll fall prey to duplicitous recruiters and you’ll be lied to by people who don’t have your best interest at heart.

But eventually, you’ll find a new work assignment. Two weeks before you leave for that assignment, you’ll go for another run. Four miles, this time.

As you approach the park that marks your finish line, you’ll look out at the water, stop, and begin to feel the corners of your mouth curl up into a smile.

It’ll feel so foreign, at first. For a brief moment, you’ll lift a corner on that dark veil that’s been draped over your life, and get a quick peek at the beautiful reality that lies underneath.

Then, as you stand there with the warm summer breeze on your face and the smell of the lake in your nostrils, you’ll feel your eyes brimming with tears. You’ll close them, pointedly, and revel in the sensation as the hot, salty drops slide down your cheeks.

No, these won’t be tears of despair or hopelessness. They’ll be ones of relief.

Relief, for the ability to feel anything other than pain, if only for a moment. So much relief.

As you stand there, crying and looking out at the water, a woman will ask if you are okay. You’ll wish you could convey to her the significance of this moment. The struggle it took to get here.

Look at what I’ve just done. What I’ve accomplished. You’ll want to say.

But the truth is that no one will ever understand the vast intricacies of your darkness, nor the strides taken to overcome it, because that darkness is yours and yours alone. Just as the pride is, in having fought it off yet again.

You’ll return home after that run, and you’ll sit down at your computer. You’ll type up this letter.

You’ll address it to your past self – the one that isn’t sure if the darkness is back yet. But when you get to the end, you’ll realize you’re writing for your future self too. Because you’ll know that this battle with the darkness is not even close to being over.

You’ve been fighting it since you were 6 years old, and it has defined your life in so many unexpected ways, both good and bad. Future us will need this message just as much as we do. Maybe even more.

Last of all, you’ll realize that you don’t want to hide this part of yourself anymore. That your struggles have shaped you into a compassionate, empathetic person who wants nothing more than to help others who suffer. But you can’t do that if you never tell anyone about it.

So you’ll do the bravest thing anyone can do when faced with this situation.

You’ll tell the truth. To anyone who will listen.

You’ll finally be free. Truly free. And although it may seem so far away right now, you can and will do it.

So hang in there, kid. And keep fighting. You’ve got this. I promise.

I’m proof.

Love Always,

Your Future Self

PS – On a side note, don’t even bother watching that Game of Thrones finale you’re so excited about. Just trust me.