Many years ago, I was asked to design a shirt for an exhibit. Because my art skills are practically nonexistent, I used what I’ve always used: words.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead,” my life motto, stenciled in white, cut across the otherwise black expanse of the shirt.
And that really was my life motto. I was young, full of energy, eager to do everything, everything all at once. Sleep was a waste of time, I believed. And so I tried to avoid it. I could function for days on end with no shuteye. Sure, the sleep collectors came barreling through the door sometimes, demanding I pay my debt, knocking me off my feet, causing me to crash for hours and hours only to wake up later not knowing where I was, what day it was.
Fast forward to now. That shirt is long gone and, along with it, my youthful energy. If my younger self could see me now, she would be shocked. I used to shun sleep. Now, I embrace it. Cling to it, like a desperate toddler clings to her mother. Some days, it feels like all I could do is sleep. I sleep even when I know I don’t need sleep anymore. I sleep even when there are things I should, I could, I want to be doing.
They call it hypersomnia. I call it a goddamn curse.
I don’t know anymore if it’s still a side effect of my medication (but why? all the others have faded away), if it’s a symptom of depression, if it’s a coping mechanism, or if it’s just become who I am. Maybe it’s all of the above.
I’m a sleep monster. Sleep has become my superpower. I would sleep forever if you let me.
And then I’d feel guilty about it.
The last time I was at my shrink, I brought it up.
“Doc, I can’t stop sleeping.”
“Maybe you’re tired.”
“No, it’s really too much sleep.”
She wants me to stop feeling guilty about sleeping. She wants me to be kinder to myself. She wants me to listen to my body. But sometimes, my body is an asshole who lies.
Depression makes me sleep too much. Sleeping too much makes me depressed. It’s a vicious cycle I need to end. I actually have a plan. Now if I could only stay awake long enough to carry it out.
The last time I saw El, he touched my Wimpy Kid tattoo with his finger and said, “Another new tattoo and still no Shrinking Ninja?”
El had created the character for me when I was diagnosed with depression. He has supported me through this journey, going with me for runs, spotting me at the gym, cooking for me (soup week will always be a precious memory) and being a constant presence even during times I would disappear into my shell. We didn’t know then that it was a battle he too would face just over a year later.
It had always been my plan to get one of my ninja selves tattooed, I just hadn’t gotten around to it. I thought there was plenty of time. But six days after he reminded me of my missing tattoo, El died in his sleep. He was just 28.
I gave his eulogy days later, ending it by apologizing to my grandparents and my mother (they’re not a fan of my tattoos) and telling everyone at the wake that I am finally getting my ninja tattoo.
I did it weeks later, on the eve of my birthday. I braved the rain and the Friday night traffic to make it to 55 Tinta.
Over the past weeks spent missing El and mourning, the Shrinking Ninja’s meaning has changed for me. She is no longer just a girl fighting depression, she’s a symbol of my cousin’s extraordinary ability to keep putting himself before others (something we’ve heard again and again and again from everyone who’s been around him) and the lasting magic of his big, big heart.
Thanks to @alvinscene, my Shrinking Ninja is now permanently a part of me. I love how he added his touch—those pretty splashes of color—and how the tattoo became a collaboration between him and El.
I can’t believe it has been over three months since I last updated this blog. So many things have happened. I had an unforgettable trip to Hawaii (can’t wait to go back; dreaming of moving there). A month later, I returned to the US and had incredible adventures in LA and California. I went to Singapore for a couple of days. I got a lot of new tattoos. (Yes, a lot!) I’ve reconnected with so many wonderful people. I’ve made some new friends. My band has gotten back together. (We have a gig at Route on the 23rd, see you there?) My cousin Fifi got married. (I was one of her wedding hosts and I had so much fun). I wrote personal pieces about mental health for the paper. And yes, I’m still learning to live with depression.
Three months ago, I was in a really good place, well on the road to recovery. I believed my first depressive episode was behind me and I thought that if depression hit again, I would be equipped for it.
Then, two things happened.
First, in May, I skipped my medicine for one day—one day!—and went through withdrawal. It was hell. (Lengthy post about that soon, I promise.)
And then, weeks later, in June, my second depressive episode hit. I was wrong. I wasn’t ready for it. In fact, I had no idea it was even happening until it brought me to my knees. Depression doesn’t always look or feel the same, even to the same person.
My first episode made me numb. My second one made me feel too much. I couldn’t stop sleeping (which derailed my plans of going back on Rivotril but more about that later). I felt exhausted all the time. I was irritable. I was miserable. I swam in negative thoughts. I would hole up in my room for as long as possible. I had crying spells. Still, I managed to work. I fulfilled my social obligations. During those few weeks, no one knew what was going on except me, not even Dr. D.
It took me weeks to send an SOS to Tita Marie in Seattle who tried to help me figure out what was going on. She told me to cut back on sugar and alcohol and she agreed that I should schedule an earlier appointment with Dr. D.
But before I could do that, I woke up one morning just feeling better. Refreshed. Like the storm had passed and the fog had lifted. I felt like myself again. Normal. I was excited to work. I had a lot of energy (which meant more time in the gym, yay!). I was eager to see people. I didn’t feel like hiding in my room anymore.
This was just last week.
Tonight, I watched Finding Dory with my mom and I was stunned by how much I could relate to Dory. Her frustration with her mental disability. Her ability to accomplish tasks despite her issues. Her stubborn determination.
Seeing her trying to navigate through the deep sea reminded me so much of swimming through the darkness of mental illness. The confusion, the setbacks, that feeling of being lost were all totally familiar. It can be a lonely struggle… but only if you make it one.
And maybe that is the biggest lesson that I needed to learn tonight. That while my murky head can make me feel like I am fighting this on my own, that couldn’t be further from the truth.
Dory has Nemo and Marlon and Hank and Destiny and so many others… and I have so many people rooting for me that listing them all would be impossible. And I am grateful. I just need to be able to remind myself of that during the bad days.
And you should do the same. After being so vocal about my battle against depression and anxiety, I’ve heard from so many people going through the same thing. I always tell them one thing: it doesn’t matter what your issues are, you are not alone. We are not alone.
Let’s keep fighting, and, like that mighty blue fish, let’s keep swimming.