Mental HealthCreative

Painting with Shadows

I – Morning Daylight

Sunday is the only day when I can wake up without an alarm. I leave my bed and walk downstairs into the kitchen, noting the sun’s brilliance as it pours through the windows, which becomes intensified as it reflects off the marble counter. I see my parents sitting at the dining table. They are not speaking. Their cups of morning coffee are no longer steaming. They are motionless.

My heart sinks. I know better than to say anything.

“What’s up, guys?” I ask, cheerily, trying to diffuse an already hopeless situation.

 My dad turns his head.

After a pause, he says, “We set down clear, simple rules to keep you safe, and you blatantly disregarded them.” 

He returns to staring at his spoilt coffee. I look at my mom. She glares at me with disgust, then looks down. Dismay builds inside of me. This morning is not the first time we’ve had this conversation.

“We talked about this. We said moderation. We agreed absolutes don’t make sense. The rules aren’t quite that rigid,” I argue. 

My parents retort with a similar response about my safety. My anger mounts, and I raise my voice. My parents continue rebuking my disobedience, and raise their voices. We sustain a fruitless volley, exacerbating each other’s frustration. I start to scream. They scream. I am out of breath. I am sweating. The kitchen is spinning. The counter is blinding. I am incoherent.

My mother seizes my exasperation as evidence of my irrationality — a clear indicator that this mess is mine alone. I speak words. They bounce. I scream words. They volley. We are on different planes of reality. I lose control. My mind is on fire as I hurl two floor lamps across the living room on my way to my bedroom.

I need to regain control.

Five attempts at regaining control ensue: a desperate plea. An ultimatum. A bottle of pills. A locked door. An empty threat.

Locked inside of my bedroom, I hear my dad shout, “Lily! Call 911!” as he pounds on my bedroom door. I hear my mother’s voice on the phone, begging for help to save her son.

Who is she talking about? Certainly not me. This can’t be happening.

“I wasn’t serious! Tell them not to come!” I shout, flying out of my room.

They come.

The ambulance travels faster than I had imagined an ambulance would. I had always seen them whiz by on the highway, but had never perceived just how fast they move. The inside of the ambulance feels like a different world — a place for others, but not for myself. I grasp the cool metal of the gurney’s guard-rail — something tangible to cling to, a portal into reality, a way out of this nightmare.

We arrive at a hospital.

The next several hours are filled with drug tests and tears and interviews and blame and examinations and consequences. I continue trying, in vain, to return to reality. I study the curtain separating my bed from the one adjacent, pondering why two thirds of it are solid and the top third is porous. I stare into the hallway at a nurse working behind a desk.

She’s having a normal day. I would give anything to trade places with her. Life isn’t fair.

“Let’s go,” my father’s strained voice pulls me from my thoughts, “They gave us our discharge papers.”

The ride home feels sluggish compared to the race to the hospital. Nobody dares to break the silence. Every minute noise — the sound of the engine, the sound of the turn signal, the sound of the wind — feels deafening as a reminder of the day’s events. As I sit in the back of the car, replaying the day in my mind, I try to reconcile what happened with reality.

Then it hits me: this is reality. 


II – It’s Just Dinner

“How are you feeling?” asks my Mom as we sit down for dinner that same night. Her demeanor has changed since the morning. Everyone is on their best behavior, trying to avoid another “incident.” 

“I’m tired,” I reply. 

I know this is an unsatisfying response to a question loaded with infinitely more genuine concern than its four simple words convey. It is all I choose to say, however. I had been feeling off lately, but could not work out exactly why. I think back to the countless, fruitless arguments we had recently had concerning my inability to vocalize my feelings. Mom must realize that my terse reply is a vestige of these arguments as she decides not to press me further.

I continue eating my perfectly cooked steak, every bite melting in my mouth as I chew.

I look across the table, through the kitchen, into the living room which is missing two floor lamps that used to flank the credenza. The room feels emptier for it.

It’s your fault they’re missing, you know. 

I know. Terse replies are not the only vestige of the past few months. I start to list all of the other “vestiges” of my inability to communicate my emotions in my head: broken floor lamps, strained demeanors, support group pamphlets from the hospital. The list continues. 

My dad must notice me staring past him as I go through this mental exercise, as he asks me, “What are you thinking?”

Another benign question loaded with immense concern.

“Nothing much,” I say.

Another unsatisfactory, terse reply.

We continue eating in silence. My tender steak seems to have lost all flavor and has begun to feel like saw-dust in my mouth. The more I continue down this line of thought, the more I think of ways in which the very house around me is an example of somewhere that I have lost control of myself. The dent in the floor. The missing plate in the cupboard. The door handle that always falls off.

My gaze must have wandered to my plate in front of me, because my dad notices me looking dejectedly into my food.

“Steak no good?” he asks, half-jokingly.

“No, the steak is fine. It’s really good, actually. Thanks,” I reply. 

The steak was, in fact, perfect. I recognize its lack of flavor as the result of my own thoughts, which I had only been able to describe as “nothing much”. It feels unfair to have such a nice steak. It also feels unfair that I am unable to enjoy it. 

I start to notice how tired I am. I can hardly keep my eyes open.

It’s only 6:30 in the evening. Get out of your own head.

I know that I need to “get out of my own head.” I find this inexplicably difficult to do, however. Doubts start to creep in as to whether my tiredness is caused by some physical illness. I know that it is unlikely. I am only 16 years old. I exercise plenty. I have no family history of illness.

Then why are you so tired?

My concerns are exacerbated by my well-intending Mom who says, “You look so tired sweetie. I’m really worried about you. Do you need to go to sleep?”

Now she’s worried about your health too, Alex.

When my mind is on fire, it consumes all of my energy. There is nothing wrong with my physical health: my mental health is the culprit.

“I’m fine, Mom. Don’t worry. It’s just been a really long day.” 

It has been a long day. I finish my steak and put my plate on the floor for my dog to lick clean. I hear his paws click along the dented hard-wood floor as he approaches my scraps.

It has been a long week. It has been a number of hard weeks. I want to explain exactly why— to open my mouth and make everything clear to everyone — to apologize for everything and move forward as a new person.

You can’t. You’re just having dinner.

I get up and leave the table.


III – Life’s Not Fair

I attend an elite prep school, drive a car with fewer than fifteen-thousand miles on it, live in a spacious home with three spare bedrooms, expect three meals per day, and never have to deal with uncertainty in my life. Why should I be entitled to such a life of luxury while others lack assurance of necessities as simple as their next meal? Life’s not fair.

Peel back a few layers of my life to find an underlying mental health disorder that has, on occasion, become life threatening. Why should I be burdened with a life of mood instability, having to exercise immense self-control over manic impulsivity at some times and having to force myself out of bed at others? Why don’t others have to deal with the same plight? Life’s not fair.

Life’s not fair. That phrase has always felt unsatisfactory to me. What am I supposed to do with these words? They don’t cure the unfairness. They don’t even make me feel better.

I used to believe that the inherent unfairness of life was one of the great evils of the world — something that could not be explained, but had to be dealt with. I would feel guilty about my material good fortune at some times and feel cheated by my other more unfortunate circumstances at others. These conflicting emotions led to an onslaught of attempted justifications:

Maybe it all balances out.

Maybe unfairness comes from the way people choose to live their lives.

Maybe, in my human mind, I just don’t understand enough to see the fairness in life.

I was running these thoughts by my grandfather one day and he gave me a piece of wisdom: “Any individual’s life is far more complicated than any outsider could expect to understand, meaning it is impossible for any one person to comprehend the dynamic between good fortune and bad fortune for the entire human population.”

These words provided me with what I needed to accept the truth: life is unfair, but that’s okay. Enough uncertainty and complexity exists in the interconnected lives of every individual around today to justify the unfairness. There is no way for all of the good and evil in the world to be equally partitioned and for every person to maintain a sense of relative individuality. Unfairness contributes to the uniqueness that makes life complex. Without complexity, life would be boring; so, unfairness is the price we pay for what makes life interesting and worth living.

I believe that life is unfair, and that’s okay. I believe that I have what I have and I don’t what I don’t. I believe that this fact is the remedy against the greater evil of homogeneity. Life is unfair, but it’s not boring, and I would rather relish my spoils and cut my losses than lose the excitement that makes life worth living. Sparkling countertops and tender steaks are part of my reality. Blinding counter-tops and tasteless steaks are part of my reality. The complex interplay between these parts of my reality is my reality.


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