I am 20 years old. I am walking around Stony Brook University, meandering through the buildings, wandering aimlessly across the expansive campus in the pouring rain. I’m drenched from my hair in its high ponytail right down to my purple plaid converse sneakers, but I keep walking. I could be in class; I should be in class. But my body wouldn’t carry me into the lecture hall even if I wanted it to. The rain is disguising my tear-streaked face, hiding the fact that I’m quietly sobbing. I look down at the concrete as I walk, and it occurs to me to pull my hood over my head. It won’t prevent the rain from soaking me further, but it hides me better at least. Not that anyone would notice me anyway. It’s simply that the hood hides me in a more metaphorical sense, shields me from the reality of the world outside my head in an ambiguously emotional way. There’s a song playing on repeat in the distance, no wait, it’s coming from my headphones, the headphones planted securely over my ears. The punk rock band shout-sings lyrics to me and for me through fast-paced drumming and heavy guitar music: “why does the world as I know it keep on bringing me down?!”
I find myself in the campus bookstore talking to the manager. She’s a woman about my mother’s age. She’s friendly and she always remembers me. She speaks words of comfort that land far away from me but still close enough for me to consider. “Why don’t you withdraw from this semester? Come back when you’re feeling better, more secure. What do you think?”
It takes a while for the idea to solidify in my head. I can withdraw. I know I’d fail if I stay. The knowledge cuts me deeply, slicing through the facade, ripping through the mask of my former self, the mask of a high-functioning perfectionist. I am left with my current self: a confused failure, a bitterly struggling mess, a girl whose desperate attempt at being a regular college student has just been shattered into a billion pieces.
I leave the bookstore and trudge away towards my car, and once I get there and slump into the driver’s seat, I turn my music on again at full volume, the band once again asking me what it’s asked me over and over again today: why does the world as I know it keep on bringing me down?
I am 27 years old. I am driving east on the parkway, not necessarily speeding but going fast enough that I can pretend my anxiety won’t be able to catch up to me. I know it’ll get me eventually, catch me by the throat and squeeze the breath out of me before settling in my chest for its stay. But I allow myself the fantasy of escaping it as I fly free down the Southern State. I just have to keep going, keep doing, keep moving. The faster the better.
I left therapy a few minutes earlier. The office had been bright even without the lights on, with the better part of the back wall a window overlooking the parking lot. We’d been talking about the usual: the way my bipolar disorder seemed to be a cloud casting a shadow on nearly every aspect of my life, obscuring the meaning of it all, eclipsing my sense of what to do to extricate myself from such a situation. I was sick of it, I had no more energy for it. It seemed, at that moment and quite honestly all other moments of recent life, that picking myself up from the depths would be pointless; I’d be dragged back down, probably shortly afterward, anyway. The control I so desperately seek out was too far out of reach. It wasn’t worth it.
Thus I’d been tasked with figuring out the particulars in terms of what actually brings me down, and conversely, what fills me up.
“Change the script in your head,” I was told. “Think about what makes you tick and about what fills you up with that good goo.”
Apparently, I am able to reclaim my moods as my own and combat the suffocating anxiety. I wanted so much to dispute that fact, to lend the negative arguments in my head a voice, and my eyes instinctively lept to the window as the doubts started to crawl their way towards me like the living dead. But my gaze found its way back to my therapist sitting across from me. Her confidence flickered through me. I kept my mouth shut. It couldn’t hurt to entertain the idea. All I had to do was think about what upsets me and what makes me happy. Basic stuff. Shouldn’t be too hard, right?
So here I am. Driving. Thinking about what upsets me and what makes me happy.
Well, for starters, these fuckers who don’t know how to DRIVE upset me. Get the FUCK out of my WAY! But we’ve talked about that before. Other drivers represent a lack of control, which is fairly consistently the larger issue when I get worked up. Another example would be when technology doesn’t just WORK. When the wifi sucks, when my laptop freezes. It should just work, things should just work, why don’t things just WORK? The reasoning there is that my life is already difficult enough without things always going wrong. I don’t need minor, insignificant things putting me over the edge. If two elephants of equal weight are sitting on a seesaw, the seesaw doesn’t move. When a fly lands on one of the elephants, it makes one side of the seesaw heavier. And in my illogical corner of the world, that fly might as well have weighed a ton, because the seesaw is uneven and now I’m off balance and everything is ruined and wrong and I’m anxious and I hate everything. Also known as: Laura isn’t in control of the situation. If I can’t control the idiot drivers, and I can’t control the god damned wifi, what else might be out of my control? It isn’t the other drivers, it isn’t the god damned wifi, it’s what all those bullshit things represent in the bigger picture! Things could easily, so very easily, spin into chaos. The world may very well fly out of the sun’s gravitation, or at least that’s how it feels, because my GOD do things spiral quickly! And the worst of it is that certainty really doesn’t seem like too much to ask. It’s just that life and the universe and my fucking bipolar disorder are always shifting and changing, always moving faster than I can ever hope to. Certainty is a joke, and a cruel one at that.
As if on cue, iTunes shuffles to a familiar song that brings me back seven years. Suddenly I am 20 years old, wet and cold and scared of the fact that so much has gone wrong and I don’t know how to fix it. So much has changed since that rainy October day, but I’m still scared. I sing out loud with the song and wonder, “why does the world as I know it keep on bringing me down?”
Because that’s really what it feels like –that the world itself is out to get me, that the world is trying as hard as it can to bring me down. But I assume the purpose of trying to determine what upsets me isn’t to give me something negative to dwell upon. I assume I’m supposed to focus more on the things that fill me up. And I assume that putting the two next to each other is supposed to teach me some sort of self-reflective lesson about positive self-talk and what it can do for me.
Okay. Positives, positives, let’s think of some positives. What makes me happy? Is it just me, or does this one seem harder than the last one?
But it hits me that I’ve thought about this before. I’d written about it, years ago. Could it have been after I withdrew from that semester back in 2012? I remember sitting cross-legged on my bed, my laptop propped up on my pillow as my fingers tap-tap-tapped across my keyboard without stopping for hours. It must have been late; insomnia had dug its claws into me, but I didn’t have to wake up to get to class, so I stared at my computer screen until I couldn’t possibly stare any longer, until the words had all been propelled from mind to page. I wrote about the little things in life, the small symbols of joy, the smile-bringers. I wrote about those moments of meaningful exhilaration that cast the meaningless days before it in the golden light of purpose. I wrote from my heart because everything else in me was exhausted with the ups and the downs and the frenzied anxiety and the cyclic upheavals and everything else. My body, my brain, my soul was exhausted. But my heart still found its way to the good.
I remember exactly where I saved that piece. I drive home and only need to search a minute or two before I find the flash drive, jam it into my laptop, and once agian sit cross-legged on my bed to devour my words of years past…
Waking up before dawn for no reason, but not going back to sleep. Being the only one awake to hear the reverberating silence be punctuated by the birds beginning to chirp in sweet harmonies. Watching the daylight edge ever so slowly towards the darkness, until finally, the morning erupts into being with fragrant hope. Feeling the peaceful intensity of truly appreciating the gift of a new day.
The smell of spring.
When the lights go out because of a storm so you’re stuck inside counting the seconds between the flash of lightning and the clap of thunder. Listening to the storm move progressively closer, the pitterpatter of raindrops grow steadily heavier, until it runs its course and retreats, the hypnotizing sounds easing to a stop. Walking outside and feeling the heavy dampness of the renewed earth.
Seeing a rainbow arc across the sky.
Laughing uncontrollably with friends, so hard that you’re in tears, gasping for breath because you can’t stop cracking up long enough to inhale fully. Calming down for a few seconds only to start all over again a few seconds later.
When the days get longer, the mornings get brighter, and the weather gets warmer. When summer announced itself in a blaze of freedom and excitement. When the beach invites you to relax on its shores and you arrive with a towel, a book, and some pink lemonade. When you arrive at the bar and meet all your friends for a night of karaoke and deep conversations and maybe even alcohol. When you’re having fun around the clock, and the days melt happily into the next, and your happiness feels eternal and safe.
A blank notebook begging to be filled with ideas and stories and poems and drawings and anecdotes about adventures. An open document, a blank slate waiting to have meaning. A new box of markers, a sharpened pencil, books full of stickers. Creativity waiting to happen. The sheer amount of potential ways to express it.
Looks of encouragement when you don’t think you can possibly go on.
Text messages of all kinds: friends saying “good morning,” groups making plans, catching up with someone you haven’t seen in a while. The magic of being able to communicate with loved ones with such ease. Texts that make you smile, texts that serve as reminders of how loved you are. The kind that you screenshot and save and look at again and again.
Disney World vacations. Going home to the Happiest Place On Earth. The butterflies you get when you walk around the corner, down Main Street, and see the awe-inspiring view of Cinderella Castle. Riding rides, meeting characters, watching shows and parades and entertainment, all the the same exhilaration you’ve always felt while there in sunny Florida. Being a hopeful youth again, finally remembering what that feels like. Having no cares. Making memories. The emotions you’re filled with when you see the fireworks explode gloriously above your head.
When someone gets your quirks and unique assets perfectly.
The few seconds of anticipation at the very top of a roller coaster, when you know you’re about to go over the edge. When you realize just how high up you are, and you’re flooded with a mixture of nerves and excitement. Then the rush of wind blows back your hair and your stomach flips as you rocket towards the ground. The way you involuntarily throw your hands up, screaming and laughing because there’s nothing on your mind except the next drop.
When someone says “this reminded me of you.” Getting noticed, being appreciated, feeling loved.
The crispy smell of fall. Pumpkin coffee and apple pies. Scarves and boots and a light leather jacket. The possibility of hay rides and corn mazes and haunted houses. The colors of the changing leaves.
Being the reason someone smiles or laughs.
The first cup of coffee in the morning. Inhaling the smell of it and exhaling whatever nonsense is attempting to take up space in your mind. Sitting quietly as you drink it, enjoying the flavor, savoring every sip. Then easing into your day feeling energized and excited and filled with ideas and intentions.
Crossing bullet point after bullet point off your to-do list. Collapsing into bed after a long, productive day. Feeling good about your accomplishments. Being proud of yourself and what you’ve achieved.
Snow days where you sip hot chocolate under a blanket as the crystalline flakes continue to fall peacefully outside. Having no place to go and nothing in particular to do. Relaxing, truly relaxing.
A good book.
Deep, emotional conversations with friends. Important conversations. Ones where you talk about everything from philosophical concepts to feelings about life and love, to things from the past and plans for the future, to the craziest and most random things in the world. Getting to know someone you love on another level of intimacy, feeling closer and more connected to them.
Waking up on Christmas morning. Experiencing unparalleled excitement, the same exact excitement you felt as a five-year-old. Christmas breakfast, Christmas presents, Christmas traditions. Giving gifts to friends and family, exchanging them in the spirit of the holiday.
Big hugs that last for a long time, with a squeeze at the end to get out the extra love.
Counting backward from ten on New Year’s Eve after having an awesome night. The way everyone, everywhere shouts “Happy New Year!” in unison. The promise of new opportunities on the horizon. The way we begin each year by hugging and kissing the people we care about.
I take in my words, let them absorb into my mind. Try to reconcile the positivity with the foul, negative lump sitting undigested in my gut.
I get it. I get what past-Laura was trying to convey, I get why my therapist wanted me to focus on the good, the tremendous potential for good that this world brings. Yes, the little things matter more, sometimes. And no, life doesn’t have to be perfect all the time to be beautiful. I realize that I am capable of changing what I see around me by simply viewing it all through the lenses of hope and optimism.
I still have that damn song ringing in my ears, though. “No matter how hard that I try to climb I’ll be pulled back down again…why does the world as I know it…”
I guess that’s the point, though. I have to keep climbing up because that’s really the only thing there is to do. I guess I will reluctantly agree to continue doing that. I’ll agree to pick myself up after every fall, even if the chaos sweeps through again and again in startlingly rapid succession. Okay, fine. There. I get it. I don’t understand it, but I don’t have to, because I get it.
The world keeps on bringing me down because that’s what it does. I’m gonna keep on climbing back up. And no matter how annoyed I am about having to do it, I’m still gonna keep doing it.