Twenty years ago this month I became a college dropout. I offered many arguments in favor of quitting school and leaving behind a huge scholarship at what had been my dream college: Boston was too cold. Boston got dark too early. Boston was too far from home. My program at Boston University was narrow and constricting and awash in the hormones of hyper-competition. All of these were true, but they weren’t the truth.
I was depressed. Acutely, nearly catastrophically, depressed. I’d been a slightly-more-sullen-than-ordinary teenager, but this was something else entirely. And mine was an angry, defiant depression—this depression didn’t keep me inside, suffocated and immobile; this depression was loud and wanted to be known; this depression would argue with anyone who dared to suggest that the future of my life might contain light and warmth and possibility.
In the twenty winters since, I have often been weary and glum, overwhelmed and disgruntled. It’s kind of my winter thing. But I have never since felt myself so recklessly endangered by my own thoughts.
I couldn’t help but think about all of this today as I ran a cold and wet loop around my neighborhood; running has been my anti-depression drug of choice for years now. For this and so many other reasons, the eighteen-year-old I was would have found the thirty-eight-year-old I am both familiar and unrecognizable.
The eighteen-year-old would see my crooked nose and prominent chin first—she was always so quick to judge. The eighteen-year-old would be, I think, pleased to see I’m not yet too old for freckles, that my hair is still relatively undulled by gray. The eighteen-year-old would look around for the bear or alligator that surely must be chasing me—the only logical explanation she would have for my running at all, much less outside in freezing rain.
But beyond the recognizable, if slightly wrinkled and confusing, exterior, she would not be able to see so many other things: The scar on my leg earned while taking a night’s kitchen trash to the dumpster at Spago. The years of aimless drifting through dead-end jobs and last-ditch gambits. The two years living alone in a brown shag-carpeted, faux-wood-paneled hovel. The cross-country trips with David and the years we lived apart. The absurdity of studying for law school exams with a baby on my knee. The exquisite joy and pain of motherhood.
Then, in something out of Borges, I would show her a YouTube video of the time that Boris Yeltsin made Bill Clinton fall apart with laughter during a press conference, and we would, in turn, fall apart laughing together, and that is how she would know I am really she.
I am so grateful to my eighteen-year-old self that she fought back when her brain was trying to kill her. That she kept trudging through the angry darkness. That she delivered a nineteen-year-old me in more or less one piece to start college over. That she survived a miserable Seattle winter to deliver me—on bald tires—through a blizzard in the Cascades to Los Angeles in 1998. That she braved her way through years of agonizing self-doubt and misdirected potential to the steps of law school. That she has stood up and spoken out when her back was bent and her voice was hoarse. That she had the combination of strength and good fortune to arrive, still inside of me now, at this cold and rainy day, cheerfully awaiting a promised snowfall.
The scary thing about depression is that it can come on like an allergy—out of nowhere, strong and resistant to intervention. I cannot say whether I will be lucky enough to escape its ravages in the future. I can only hope that if and when that heavy darkness returns, my future self will be as brave and strong and lucky as she was as an eighteen-year-old college dropout.