The more I learn about the nature of mental illness and the many different shapes the same disease takes the more I realize I’ve been waltzing with depression longer than I ever knew. The very fact that I was never particularly surprised when different conditions showed themselves is very telling.
I’ve worn glasses everyday of my life since I was ten. I cannot survive without them. I’ve never lost or broken a pair for two simple reasons. 1: I can’t function without them. I cannot read, see a television screen, or walk without risking injury. 2: I have never had enough money to replace a pair should some thing happen to them. Insurance pays their part only once a year. My astigmatism has only become worse with time and my lenses are ridiculously expensive.
Children are highly adaptable. My glasses were has much a part of my life as my eyes and so I protected them just the same. There were never arguments to put them on. My parents never had to question where my glasses were or search them out. If I wanted to read I had to have my glasses. And I want to read more than my next breath.
So when depression sat itself down in my life with all due authority, I accepted it as easily as I would accept my glasses a few years later. For a long time I thought depression had manifested in my early teens. But the depression of my early teen years was just the same monster wearing a new face.
My first major depressive episode began when I was six. It lasted roughly three years. OCD showed up at the same time. The event that triggered it began with my cousin Jonathan. I was five when he was born. He was the first child of my father’s only sibling. At the time Jonathan was born my Uncle D and Aunt L lived with my paternal Grandmother. If we weren’t in school my siblings and I were at our Grandmother’s.
I don’t remember anything leading up to Jonathan’s birth. He was there one day and that was fine. But then he wasn’t there anymore. He was there when my dad took us home in the evening. The next day, after school had ended, Jonathan was not there. The house was full of lit religious candles and silence. My Grandmother whispered to herself in Spanish, black beaded rosary clenched in her fist. The banner welcoming Jonathan home was gone.
I asked my Great Aunt one quiet question “What happened?”
“Baby Jonathon has gone to Heaven with Jesus.”
Another question “Why?”
“Voluntad de Dios,” she whispered. “Shush.”
Aunt L disappeared too and I have never seen her again. My mother and my Great Aunt sternly told me to be quiet and not ask questions. So I mirrored my older sister’s behavior and things gradually went back to normal. My Uncle moved into his own place and bought a giant black Harley that terrified me.
I was nearing the end of my kindergarten year when one morning sitting in class a thought arched across my mind like lightening. ‘Baby Jonathan!’ He was born and died in early fall. It was nearing summer. I accepted his death the way children sometimes do, easily and without much distress.
“God’s will,” my Aunty had told me. I never questioned her assertion because her belief was absolute. It was honest and fair. Good or bad it was all God’s will and that sat with me quite nicely. To this day I don’t know why his name suddenly came to me but it opened a door in my mind that led to a deep, unknown place.
No one ever said his name. There were no pictures. His mother was gone. His things were gone. He’d had a crib. Gone. A blanket. Gone. Toys. Gone. A name. Nearly gone.
His face. His face! His face? His face was gone, gone, gone.
The more I tried to remember the greater the darkness grew. My Uncle never laughed when he came over anymore. He rode that giant Harley beast without a helmet. He smoked in my Grandmother’s house. He didn’t look at us kids anymore.
I squinted, I held my breath, I pressed on my eyes until they hurt. His face would not come to me. Baby Jonathan had been erased. He’d gone up to Heaven; voluntad de Dios. But it was my family that erased him. His things were gone, his mother gone, and no one spoke his name. Not even a year had passed and he was utterly, completely erased. Not by God’s will but by the will of his own family!
But I had a hope. His birthday. We would celebrate his birthday! Christ had died and gone to Heaven and we celebrated His birthday every single year. Why would Baby Jonathan be different? School ended and started again. First grade and I couldn’t remember Jonathan’s birthday but I knew my Grandmother did. It was before my birthday. But my birthday and Jesus’ birthday passed. A birthday banner for both of us. Cake too. But no mention of Baby Jonathan.
I went into that room that had opened in my mind. It had been dark and empty before. Now it was occupied. A table, two chairs, and it of course. The Pale Rider seated at the table. Its pale horse waited quietly nearby. It was a plague in the Bible. I often went to that dim room and sat with the Pale Rider. I would scream and rage and demand it give me back my cousin’s face. My family had given it to the Pale Rider but I was Jonathan’s family too. I should be able to take it back. He belonged to us! I wouldn’t allow him to be erased. But the Pale Rider never spoke. It would smile sometimes and that’s when the darkness was the worst.
My cousin died of SIDS. He lived for less than a week. He was buried in our mutual hometown. His things were taken away by family friends. Some were blessed and given away. Most were destroyed. My Uncle D and Aunt L divorced quietly. I stared seeing the school counselor after Christmas break. The school had been put on alert of course. The counselor was a kind woman but she didn’t recognize what was happening to me. I doubt many would. I was a six year old in the midst of a major depressive episode with psychotic features brought on not by my cousin’s death but his erasure.
I was utterly convinced that if I looked in the correct book Jonathan’s pictures would be there. How to find that book was given in coded messages in other books. Certain sentences would stick in my mind and these would become the clues I needed to decode and then follow. Certain numbers were special. Certain names important. I fixated. I ruminated. I watched for important signs. I sat at that table with the Pale Rider. I learned to be mentally still. I learned how to keep the Pale Rider from smiling. One day, I left that room and closed the door. I didn’t go back in there for many years. I don’t know how or why that depressive episode ended.
God’s will, I suppose.