The Water Rat Was Not Me
I was on a bridge in Bordeaux, France when I saw an animal swimming in the Garonne River. It was not swimming towards either bank, but rather down the river in a direction that promised no future other than the continuous gentle ripple of slate blue water. I was visiting from Chicago, staying with a close friend, and he was standing next to me asking if I saw it, if I saw the water rat. That’s what he called it, a water rat, which confused me as the designation was tragically inexact, a colloquial term that could apply to a vast range of animals. Whatever this vaguely rodent-looking creature was, however, its presence horrified.
Large bodies of water scare me. This is not for the logical reasons. I do not fear drowning. I like to swim, am almost good at swimming. What bothers me is their vastness, and how it leads to a great unknown, a mass of the living, the dead, the artificial, the natural, swirling unseen below the surface. This water rat stirred memories of a hundred childhood nightmares of swimming in open water, no shore visible, these dreams defined by a prolonged sense of impending doom.
I had been depressed for over a year.
The first time I was depressed was third grade, after I got my tonsils out. I place irrational blame on the surgery, as if anesthesia jostled something alive that allowed the disease to emerge. I thought, at first, depression stemmed from the stomach as physical pain accompanied it. I thought of it as tar, black viscous liquid bleeding from the pink-folds of the stomach and spewing outward to poison the body. I thought I would never be happy again. I thought the same thing, in each subsequent episode, that my capacity for positive emotions really would not return this time. It always did get better, but it came down to time. Therapy helped, medication helped, but ultimately I just had to wait it out. These were the acrobats of clinical depression to which I was accustom, but this latest bout was not following protocol. Other episodes were harsher, more debilitating even, but flickered out in a couple of months. This most recent episode made up what it lacked in intensity with duration.
My friend was still talking about the water rat. We had known each other for seven years. He was used to my dark moods, more understanding about them than anyone else in my life. Since I arrived in France, he had seen me through several spontaneous crying jags. I felt guilty that we were not having the vacation we pictured, running through the streets of France in a drunken stupor, rehashing old jokes, mocking old friends, eating good food. As the water rat slipped under the bridge, out of sight, a line came to me. I want to live again. Please, God, let me live again. It was from It’s A Wonderful Life, uttered by George Bailey when he stood at the edge of a bridge begging for the life he had once tried to throw away. Just after Christmas, the film was fresh in my mind. I whispered the words to myself, begged to live again, but it felt futile. George Bailey had reasons to be miserable. There was a logical trajectory that explained the gradual unfurling of his despair. I had no reasons. I was just sad without an accompanying cause, and this lack of a source was deeply frustrating. There was nothing to be fixed, nothing to be done. I just had to wait, and I was so weary of waiting.
I have noticed, in recent years, there’s a push towards awareness of mental illness. What has emerged alongside this push is an onslaught of list-based articles, listicles if you will, on depression. The one I see most often is a variation titled something like, “X Things Never To Say to a Depressed Person.” These sorts of things should make me feel supported, and for the most part they do. It’s good to let the public know words they might be inclined to say can be misguided. You should not tell a depressed person to snap out of it, or that they’re being selfish, or to stop feeling sorry for themselves. On occasion though, however well-intentioned they may be, such listicles bother me.
I often feel these articles reduce my own experience. I resist the notion that interacting with a depressed person is a matter of hard and fast rules, what to say versus what not to say. This feels entirely too prescriptive, intrusive even. My own response to despair is something I have ownership of, and I almost feel guilty when I read a listicle only to find something condemned as insensitive is something that comforts me, as if my own individual response is inappropriate. Don’t say you have so much to be thankful for! Don’t say it’s all in your head! Don’t try and relate, as everyone’s experience is unique! These are all things I have read. The last one bothers me the most. I like being reminded of what I should be grateful for, and the reassurance my worries are in my head, but what helps more than anything is knowing other people have gone through devastating experiences, from which they thought they would never recover, and recovered anyway. It does not cure my depression, but gives me the smallest sliver of hope.
I understand the inclination to discourage people from trying to relate. Without doubt, some people are condescending in their approach, pontificate on their own issues with mental illness in a self-aggrandizing tone, as if their experience is universal. But something does not have to be universally true to be helpful. The vast majority of people who have shared their stories with me, although our stories differ, have done so appropriately. Inadvertently, listicles encourage us to treat those who suffer from depression as these bizarre travelers from a dark foreign land, who we cannot possibly understand. This makes an already alienating experience more alienating.
Paris is supposed to be the city of lights. It is where I landed when I arrived in France, and where my friend and I spent a long weekend at a hostel. Our room was pale yellow, smelled like strong coffee and rain, and everything in Paris was ugly. The rivers were brown. The Eiffel Tower was not beautiful. It was spindly and mechanical, immobile spider web limbs splayed out against the overcast sky.
Bordeaux, our next destination, was the true city of lights. My friend said this on the bridge, and told me to look up. A smear of the yellows and blues of the city’s buildings shimmered behind the silhouettes of leafless trees. It was a pleasant thing to look at, the city that night. The language of depression is prone to bad metaphor. I listen to terrible music when I’m depressed, watch terrible television. I had just been thinking about the rat, and how the rat was me, the river my depression, and how I was trapped swimming blindly into an abyss, and then my friend told me to look up, and I did. I felt a thrill. It was physical, at first, a swelling in my chest akin to the proverbial butterflies in one’s stomach, and then, it became emotional. I was happy. In that moment, I was happy. This was a shocking and wonderful thing.
I wanted to believe I willed myself out of it, that I had dared the universe to grant me some small joy and it provided. This was not what happened. The universe was indifferent, and thinking otherwise was a fantasy indulged to feel control over the uncontrollable. Depression is prone to bad metaphor because it resists language itself, the plain naked misery so acute we fall desperately into the inadequacy of symbolic language, simplify in an attempt to define. Depression is depression. Nothing more. The water rat was not me, and I had not willed myself out of anything. I was just on a bridge, and it was a lovely evening, and in the right moment someone told me to look up. I was granted the smallest glimmer of a forgotten feeling, and, for a moment, the notion of waiting it out did not feel unbearable.
Erin Wisti was born and raised in a small town in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (i.e., the peninsula not shaped like a mitten). She recently received her MFA in nonfiction from Columbia College Chicago, where she was a recipient of the Follett Graduate Merit Award. In addition to personal essay and memoir, Erin writes short fiction and drama. Her work has appeared in Red Cedar Review and Ampersand Review. She currently resides in Chicago.