More than anything, surviving is tedious. It is a million small breaths strung together. It is a million neurons and synapses and chemical reactions trying to rearrange themselves and play nice. It is day after day of in-between spaces. Somewhere between the living and the dead is where the tedium of surviving resides. It is the upside-down. The shadow world. The shadow’s body and mind. I am a sleepwalker who never sleeps.
I got out of bed for a couple hours today. I bypassed the mirror in the hall because I couldn’t bear to see what these past weeks of depression have done to me. I have nothing so visibly tangible as a broken bone or a bandage to hide my wounds but I can see the marks all the same. The indented creases traversing my cheek from a head too heavy to lift from my pillow are white lies saying I’ve just woken. I’ve just been tired. I just need to lie down for a minute. A day. A week, maybe two. And could you get the lights on the way out? Pull the blinds. Daylight hurts me. I have a headache. Just need to rest my eyes. So tired. Tomorrow will be better.
Josh comes in after work, he doesn’t turn the light on when he enters. He just finds me in my darkness. I feel the weight of our bed shift as he sits to take off his work boots and crawls in bed behind me still smelling like lacquer, his hands still speckled with paint, his hair is sawdust and sweat. He wraps his arms around my waist and the solid wall of his body guards my back. I trace the callouses on his hands, so thick from years of labor that they feel less like skin and more like a beast’s hide. My workhorse.
I’ve memorized the shape of him.
How he fits against me. But he still can’t reach me. I continue to stare blankly at the wall. I wonder how many walls he’s painted in the last 20 years? How many gallons of eggshell pewter and semigloss antique white he’s sprayed and back rolled in his life. I think he’s painted half our town by now. But he can’t manage to bring color back for me.
“Were you able to get up today?” he asks me gently. My answer is a small shake of my head. I don’t turn to face him because I don’t want to see the crease in his forehead that belongs to me. The one I created with my bipolar diagnosis, with my constant sickness, with my inability to remain stable or well for any discernible amount of time. My shadow self is no fun at all.
Does he feel helpless love? Love that gets up every day and works tirelessly. Love that finds me in the dark. Love that holds on with sturdy hands but is powerless to do anything more than show up again and again while I suffer. Love that is utterly helpless to fix me.
I think to myself I will try to hold onto you, Josh, I will try to keep you in my mind, in my muscle memory, in the feel of your calloused hands and your steady heart beating against my back. Maybe right now I will just stay for you.
He told me he misses me. I think I might miss me too if I could remember who I was.
Once in a moment of silliness, I told him I miss my 16-year-old legs. At the time I didn’t appreciate them, thought they were too big. I could do more weight on the leg press than the football players at my high school. But looking through pictures now I see strong tan well-muscled legs from running track. I see swift legs I believed would carry me anywhere I wanted to go. Fast twitch fibers ready to move and I remember the burn of lactic acid in my quads. A glorious ache. Josh just laughs and runs his hand down my hip while my skin grows hot, skin that is stretch marked and ravaged by pregnancies and gravity and years when I should’ve been moisturizing better when the wood stove was blazing and the dry air was cruel. My skin is familiar to him. But sometimes I worry that’s all there is left of me. I’m a shell, a shadow woman, a shadow wife. He’d said he still likes my legs just fine, and his eyebrow cocked up on one side like the mischievous boy he was when we first met. When I still had 16-year-old legs.
Today I thought I should put these legs to some use. But I have no races to run. I get out of bed and I’m like a drunk, all wobbly and uncertain.
I haven’t been upright in this world for so long, I’ve all but forgotten how to move through it.
I made it as far as my porch. I sat in my rocking chair with a quilt pulled around my shoulders and I watched the wind rattle the pines. I observed my breath going in and out in tiny puffs. I didn’t shower and I didn’t change out of the raggedy t-shirt and pajama bottoms I’ve been in far longer than are hygienic. I didn’t pull shoes on and I could feel the freezing cold wood of our deck creak beneath the bare souls of my feet, shocking my nerves. I liked the bite of the ice reminding me I could still feel something. Even if it’s pain.
I craned my neck up into the deep sky where the grey horizon held onto the dark like it was pulling down a shade. I’ve seen sunsets that look like God dipped his finger in watercolor and painted the heavens but this one is utilitarian. Day returns to night like a drawer slamming shut.
I didn’t stay long. Freezing feet and all. I end up back in bed. But before that, I managed to pen some words. I scratched them down in the dark. They are bitter and melancholy and so honest it felt like I took a good scrubbing to my soul and took a layer of skin off. I’m raw underneath. Pink like a newborn. Maybe this is how life begins again in our new skin.
Maybe when Josh gets home and finds me in the dark, tucked back under the covers, staring at the wall, and he wraps his calloused skin over my skin, I’ll feel again.