Women’s History Month: Women in Words
A Comfortable Dysfunction
By Nicole Gibbs
He wasn’t abusive. Not in the way I expected “abusive.” He didn’t hit me is what I mean. Actually, after the first couple years we didn’t even really argue. Maybe it was all the pot we smoked, maybe it was a manipulative trick I taught him, to sit and talk to each other and listen to each other and have discussions that lasted through a whole pack of cigarettes. Maybe this was his way of keeping me thinking we had something special, that he really cared. Maybe it was his way of making sure I needed him.
He had some weird views is what I told myself. I loved him, so I could tolerate his loose interpretations of marriage, of commitment, his ego that filled the room and threatened to smother us both. We were young, and his mom was a mess. One day he would come out of it.
We were young, 19 and 20 when we met in a college drama class. And we were some sort of new age hippies. Only we weren’t that great at it. We were friends. At least that’s what I thought.
When I was married, it was for good. Whatever happened, we would get through it together. When he told me that God was telling him to move to Washington to start a record label and make music, well, how could I let something so important to him come between us? How could I deny him his dream?
Of course it was a disaster.
It was my fault. I didn’t have enough faith. I wasn’t manifesting the right things for us. I was too full of doubt, full of fear. I was too sad, too confused. Too unstable.
He lost all of our money in the stock market. It was my fault. I didn’t believe right. I was so full of fear, I infected him with it. He didn’t want me to feel bad about it. It was just money, there would be more.
I was five months pregnant. I wanted to go home. We moved to a hippie commune in Oregon instead. One hundred acres of nature.
They had plans.
They gave us a trailer with no running water or electricity, a propane heater that ticked like a bomb. It was January and there was two feet of snow on the ground. I wanted my mom.
When the dog jumped in the frozen lake and we had to jump in after him to get him out when the old man who owned the property told me about their arrangements, how they share everything, when we sat at the kitchen table with the four other people living there, setting up for breakfast, and one of the three middle-aged women took her top off and let her huge breasts flop around, drenched in sweat, and told us “I get so hot while I cook, I prefer to do it topless” when they told us “no smoking pot,” I knew it wasn’t going to work.
This time it was me. I was the one leaving. We asked his mom to help us out with money to get home, she said no. We had to stick with our decision. I pawned my laptop and my camera, the only things I had that were worth money. We slept in the car on the trip back and panhandled on corners for money for food. I didn’t talk to him. I knew it was my fault we had failed. I knew that I was the one holding us back with my fears and my doubt. If I just believed in him enough.
Bella lived in a little trailer with her grandma and her uncle when I met her. Her mom was in Washington, in rehab. Her dad had been killed four years before, in a gang shooting. I met Bella on my first day at my new job. It was overcast and the tired classrooms were almost depressing. Bella was loud and obnoxious. She sat in her math class and spun around and around in a computer chair, singing. For the entire period. I wasn’t quite sure what I was supposed to be doing with her. They had pretty much pointed out classrooms and given me a list of names. No training. Social, Emotional, Academic Mentoring. This was the job I had applied for, the job I wanted so desperately. Working with teens who were “emotionally disturbed” or suffered from mental illness (depression, anxiety, schizophrenia).
I knew it was going to be challenging, but I didn’t realize exactly what that would mean. I expected it to be emotionally difficult. Not in the way it really is though. I’ve spent the last six months building up relationships with these kids and they are only beginning to trust me. I started to look for another job recently, something that paid more, maybe some benefits, you know. I was looking through these ads, and I realized that it’s taken me this long to achieve the little bit of progress I’ve made. They depend on me. They count on me to be there for them. I can’t leave now.
“I think I might be a messiah,” he told me one night. We were stoned and I laughed.
“No … really. God talks to me sometimes.” His red hair glowed in the night like flames, his long, lanky body hunched over his cigarette.
“Yeah. God talks to all of us. Just some of us don’t listen. I read that book too.” I dismissed his rambling stoner talk.
“You don’t understand!” He jumped up and glared at me. “We need a revolution! Things need to change! This society is so fucked up, and I think it might be my purpose in life to be the leader of a revolt. An uprising. If you don’t believe me you should just leave.” The tip of his cigarette punctuated his words.
I wondered if he was maybe the crazy one. I couldn’t say that though, I knew better. I was the crazy one. I was the one who was too emotionally weak, to mentally fragile to handle the world. That was why we had to keep to ourselves. That was why we had to move all over the country. We were meant to be together and he was going to take care of me and he was going to be great. A rock star, a revolutionary leader. We were going to start our own country, right here. We were going to start our own village and it was going to grow to be so big and strong that we would take over the government.
Of course I didn’t believe this shit. I knew we were just a couple of kids who weren’t all that special. I tried to let go of that “limiting belief,” I tried to trust him and believe in him and his cause. I even had an idea that I might not be the mentally unstable one in the relationship. I mean, yeah, I was depressed a lot. I had three babies in four years. We had no real income, my family and friends were thousands of miles away and his parents criticized me nonstop and blamed me for everything that went wrong.
“Why is she so sad?” my coworker asked me the other day, referring to Bella.
“Yeah, but I mean, why? She was fine this morning.”
“That’s how depression works. You get sad. There’s no reason. And it’s not always consistent, sometimes you aren’t as sad, sometimes you can smile and laugh and play it off like things are wonderful.”
“I think she just wants attention,” she frowned.
“Yeah … that could be it too.”
How do you explain it to someone who’s never experienced it? It’s like you’re moving through reality at a slower pace than the rest of the world. Like you’re on slow motion and everyone else is on normal. Like you’re finding your way through a thick, dark, sticky fog that clings to you and weighs you down. Like the rest of the world doesn’t really exist. It’s a deep, dark sinking feeling that never goes away. It is sadness with no cause, anger with no spark. It’s like life has no luster, no gleam. Everything is dull and flat. Just getting out of bed is hard. We’ve all seen the commercials.
But it is more than that, too.
It is comfortable. It’s safe, depression. If I’m already sad, well, you can’t hurt me quite so much. Not like if I were happy and you hurt me, you know? If life already sucks and I would rather die than anything else … well, then it’s not so disappointing when my husband tries to hook up with all of my friends. It doesn’t hurt quite so much when he says things like “sex has nothing to do with love,” and “sometimes I just want to be with someone who isn’t so emotionally draining.” It doesn’t affect me so much when his parents criticize and judge me instead of offering to do the dishes when they come for dinner uninvited and I am trying to get four or six kids fed and bathed and ready for bed and my blood is boiling, pouring through my veins at a thousand miles an hour with the tension and the frustration and it’s all I can do to not snap. The depression numbs that, flattens it, takes the emotion out of it.
Depression was my coping mechanism. It was easier than admitting I’d failed. It was easier than giving up, much easier than actually making changes. Not that I didn’t try. I did. Especially at first. In fact it wasn’t until the very end that I gave up. But the depression made it easier to fail. Things didn’t matter quite so much.
It wasn’t that I chose to be depressed instead of actually caring. I didn’t have that sort of control over it. It came and went in a tide that was unpredictable and scary. Sometimes it was soft and easy, carrying me along gently and washing me back onto the shore with ease. Other times it was like a riptide, dragging me out against my will, trying to drown me.
But I chose to accept it, I chose to self-medicate instead of seeking the help that I knew was out there. I chose to smoke pot and drink. I chose to stay in a relationship that was failing, a relationship that had me thinking I was crazy. I chose to stay with a man who I knew, deep down, didn’t love me the way I should be loved. It was easier to stay stuck than to face the pain of changing.
When I left J, finally, I went home to my mom. I brought hardly any remnants of the life I was leaving. I filled the falling-apart van with clothes and blankets and toys. I brought a box of artwork that the kids from the daycare I ran had made for me. Pictures they had painted at home and brought to me, arts and crafts they had done with me that they wanted me to keep. My mom’s apartment didn’t have much room to begin with, and when we added me and four kids it was just about overflowing. I put the box of artwork out on the patio with some other things that weren’t absolutely necessary.
I think I had been home a month or so when it rained. I was drunk and thought it was a great treat to go dance in the downpour of icy needles. Water cleanses, you know. I was having a meltdown, and the rain washed away the pain of life, it reminded me that I was alive and that in itself was a beautiful thing. I danced in the rain in the parking lot in front of our apartment, tears mingling with the drops, unaware of any other living being. I didn’t care who saw me, what anyone might think.
When I climbed back up to the apartment, I realized my things on the patio were in the rain. The box of artwork was drenched. I pulled out picture after picture of colors bleeding. When I tried to lift them, the papers tore.
About Nicole Gibbs
Nicole Gibbs is an MFA candidate at UC Riverside Palm Desert. A Comfortable Dysfunction is an excerpt from a longer work.
Photo credit: Maki Matsuoka via a Creative Commons license.