I used to tell kids I was a test tube baby. It began in fourth grade when I started public school after the Catholic school kicked us out because the check my father wrote for all the past due tuition wasn’t legit. So besides my father bouncing and leaving our family, the check bounced too, hence my brother and I going to another school.
These stories were a way to distance myself from others. I didn’t see my stories as lies. I saw them as an exaggeration of truth. As a way to say, let me tell you something that sounds better and hurts less to tell.
Telling the real story that when I was six years old, my father left our family for our babysitter who was pregnant by her boyfriend who was my father’s best friend whom she left to marry my father—well besides needing to draw out a chart, it would have been embarrassing to tell. People would have felt sad or pitied me or called Jerry Springer to book the next show. Even at that early age of six, I felt sad and embarrassed enough. I didn’t need others’ sympathy and I didn’t want it. So I told and wrote stories that made people laugh or wonder for a little bit. In those moments I felt like I had control when all I felt inside was neglect and abandonment. I didn’t realize it at the time but that’s when my depression was triggered.
On my first day of first grade, my father, pissed off because of the divorce though he was the one that asked for it, dropped my brother and me off in front of the school steps. While other parents walked their kids to the front door, he made us climb out of his old-ass Buick window because the passenger door didn’t work and there was no way he was getting out on his side. He drove away while we climbed the stairs alone. Cue dramatic music and bam: we got a tearjerker here.
That’s when I knew I wanted to be a writer.
I wrote my first poem about a dog that loves a frog that doesn’t love the dog back. My first ever poem and it had to be about loss and sadness. That sadness thickened like grease left to congeal and turned into a big ball of depression.
I'm in the ring with depression all the time. Sometimes it's winning and sometimes I am. We go back and forth, sometimes sparring and staring each other down. Sometimes, like now, we're in between rounds, each taking a break though we can still see the other is there, ready to go again. There are times it has me in the corner, pummeling me with jab after jab to the point where I don't know what's what, or who I am, or how I will breathe again without it hurting.
And at the core of this sometimes muted, sometimes clamorous pain is the realization that I will never be good enough. I will never be a good enough writer or mom or wife or friend or human being. I can never reach the top because I can’t even see the top. Most of the time this drives me to be better. It makes me work harder because I want to one day reach that top—wherever it is—but sometimes, when I am down, so far down that I can’t even see the bottom of the top, it’s what drives me to want to hide and cry and wonder why would anyone bother with me?
Not too long ago, a friend told me, “If you kill yourself, you’d probably sell more books.” I had just told her I was feeling sad. When she said what she did, I laughed because she laughed and I said, “You’re probably right” and then we ate lunch. I thought about it. Yeah, I would probably sell more books. I also thought about how she didn’t understand mental illness.
I was in that very episode when I was asked to write this essay. I tried to write, but nothing happened. I was so stuck in the dark, my feet sinking in my little island of quicksand. I was sinking slowly, but at the same time no one knew unless I told them. I had to go to work; I had to take care of my family. It wasn’t like I was pretending, rather I didn’t need everyone to know my business.
Being depressed doesn’t help me write better or at all. It doesn’t bring an intense need to put words on the page because my feelings of worthlessness are too intense. I can’t write if there is no confidence there. No sliver of anything I put on the paper will be good. I can’t write my way out of depression either. Nothing happens.
But once I am through a depressive episode, all I want to do is write. It’s like I’ve been sleeping or really sick, and I finally have my energy back and I realize I’ve been gone, and I’m good to go. I can get into zones where stories just spew on the page and even if they don’t make sense or aren’t very good, words are on the page. I try to ride that out as long as possible before the next episode hits.
Maybe that’s why my stories tend to have narrators that feel isolated. I may not be in their exact situations, but I can empathize with them. I let them figure out how to get through that isolation and move forward on the page and maybe in some selfish way, it helps me figure it out for myself, too.
Whether my writing was triggered by my depression or vice versa, I don’t know, and it doesn’t really matter. All I know is that both exist in my life and neither are going away. Both are work to manage and both are part of who I am. They take away and lend to one another. I am the writer I am because of all that I have felt: the happiness, the sadness, the love, the isolation. The page and my words—these realties that I create—I don’t know how to do anything else. I wouldn’t want to do anything else as much as I wouldn’t want my depression to just be up and gone. I’ve been on the edge twice of letting this world go, and that I never want to experience again, but I’ve learned how to manage my depression, or at least I’m trying. It’s a process.
When it’s here, I remind myself that it will pass, and to write like hell when it’s over.
Cyn Vargas' short story collection, On The Way, is being published by Curbside Splendor, in spring 2015. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing and is the recipient of the Guild Literary Complex Prose Award in Fiction. Her work as appeared in Split Lip Magazine, Word Riot, and elsewhere. www.cynvargas.com