I was not always broken, I swear, but to be honest, I cannot remember what it was like to not be. I have spent half my life in a million pieces, and I have spent half my life trying to put them all back together. But let’s go back ten years and find out how I got here…
You could say this all started in the fourth grade. I formed a friendship with this girl who had started at our school the previous year. I mean, I had friends, and they were great, but this girl…she loved all the things I did. She liked to sing and dance and act. She wrote songs. I spent my days showing her all the songs I was working on, and I did not realize she never wanted to show me hers or sing for me. She told me about this big acting gig she had auditioned for: the long lost sister of one of the main characters of a great TV show. I did not quite know the process of becoming an actor, so I just kind of accepted it. She promised to take me to the set if she scored the role.
But every time she told me the producers were supposed to call and they didn’t, my skepticism grew. She started to get angry at me for trivial reasons, like not making her a priority over family and people who had been in my life for years. We had only been friends for a couple of months. Since she had begun to shoot me dirty looks every few minutes, only to flip her mood and want to be buddy-buddy again, I started to hang out with my old friends more often. I don’t know why I thought I could flip flop like that. It was not something a good friend would do, but I didn’t really think much of it at the time.
The day I knew this friendship was toxic was the day my fourth grade teacher, a woman I love dearly to this day, called me to her desk. My friend was standing innocently behind her. My teacher asked me very seriously, “Ashley, did you write this note?” and showed me a slip of paper with the words I hate you written on it. I told her that, of course, I would never say something like that, and she believed me. One, I would never say that to someone, let alone write it in a note. That would be awful. And two, as I walked back to my desk, all I knew was that my friend did not even try to change her handwriting before writing the words and blaming me for them. She looked slightly defeated.
So I gave her up.
If only it was that easy.
All of a sudden, I was an outsider. I no longer fit into my old friends’ world. And since my entire class was made up of thirty people, there weren’t exactly any new friends I could make. So I stayed an outsider. And you know, I did not mind it much. For some reason, I found it therapeutic to have time alone. That is, until it turned into crying in the bathroom during lunch and then crying myself to sleep every night. All of it was my fault, I was the one that abandoned them first.
And then my old friend found her way into my friend group, and I was pushed even further to the edge. I was like a disease, and everyone was afraid to catch me…to be caught with me. A part of me knew she was spreading lies about me—hell, she could have been spreading truths about me because at this point, I almost didn’t want to hang around me anymore either. I was uncool, and no one wanted to be friends with someone like that.
It was all in my head, though. I had zero proof that my old friend was telling everyone things about me. It was not like anyone openly hated me, anyway, and when I did confront my friends about my feelings, they enthusiastically assured me they were not mad and still liked me. But my mind started feeding me little Bad Thoughts.
It was not long before those Bad Thoughts went from whispers in the back of my mind to screams I couldn’t drown out. I could not shake the feeling of worthlessness—that I was no more than a little dirt that got on their shoes during recess. I did not understand this feeling, but I knew I didn’t like it. The worst thing was that my friends kept me in the loop just enough to give me a sliver of hope that everything was fine and dandy. They made me believe everything was okay.
Regardless, I could not stop the Darkness from creeping up on me. It wanted to swallow me up, and I was getting tired of fighting it. I wondered why I was still living. What was my purpose on this earth? To be the butt of everyone’s jokes and gossip? I mean, if I was not there, who would they all make fun of? They did not know that I itched to know what it was like to take too many painkillers or what would happen if I walked into oncoming traffic. I truly believed that not one person would miss me. Not even my family.
Because—and I take back what I said earlier—the real worst part was that there was no escape from the Bad Thoughts. I went to school and had to face everyone hating me, and then I had to go home and feel the wrath of my mother and how I was not as perfect as her. She had perfect grades, she was a model daughter, she never did a single bad thing in her life. I was supposed to be just like her. I was supposed to be perfect, but nothing I ever did could live up to her impossible standards. I was stuck in the Middle Child Limbo. My older sister got the oldest child treatment. My younger sister got to be the precious baby of the family, and my brother got the pride of being the only son. I was often overlooked, but if I had one hair out of line, I might as well have packed my bags and left.
That is the thought I began to idealize: running away. No one would miss me. No one would even notice I had gone until they wanted someone to torment. It seemed so exciting to leave this hell behind. But if I ran away, they could find me. If I killed myself, I would be gone forever. Everyone’s lives would be so much easier. The burden would be lifted. I tried to tell my mother I did not want to live anymore, and she told me to “stop being so dramatic.” I knew then that I could never speak up about it, just let it feed on every living fiber of my being until there was nothing left.
And I was wholeheartedly willing to give up the ninety years of my life I once dreamed about. It was all pointless. Why would I want to live to be one hundred if life did not matter to me? I could just cut it short and not waste any time, space, or oxygen.
I was ten.
It was not until a few years later that I considered it depression. I don’t know why…it just never occurred to me. But once I had decided, once I had self-diagnosed myself, I let it eat me alive. I let the Bad Thoughts dominate my mind. It was so much better than being sad because I didn’t feel anything. I was numb to the pain. But I was not finished yet. I wanted more pain. I longed for it to tear me apart until there was nothing left. I wanted to ruin myself until maybe, just maybe, I would follow through with my suicidal thoughts.
For some reason, I held on the tiniest glimpse of hope that one day things would change. I scolded myself for it. Why should I have any faith at all when God had given up on me. I thought I had so much to offer until I realized I was nothing. I was a complete waste of space. But there was that shy, quiet hope that sang to me every once in a while.
The years of pain and emptiness came and went. High school was not the fresh start I had wanted because the nagging followed me wherever I went. There was no escape from it.
Freshman year, I tried and failed to find my place. Stephanie and I got into a huge fight sophomore year that nearly ended our friendship for good. Junior year everything completely fell apart, just when I finally started to believe things were changing. I had broken some of my walls down only to be shamed by my friends. I kid you not, a girl claimed that I was “not as big a One Direction fan anymore” as the reason we no longer spoke. They shunned me for not loathing Taylor Swift when she dated Harry Styles. We took different sides in an argument that had nothing to do with us, and it severed all ties to each other.
I cried myself to sleep so many nights. I woke up with puffy eyes no make up could hide. I did not care what I wore to school. I did not want to talk to anybody. Getting out of bed in the morning was pointless, and I wondered why I did it. Just opening my eyes exhausted me because life was excruciating. Breathing took all the effort I had. What was the point in going to school when everyone hated you? What was the point if a glimpse of them made you break down in the middle of the dressing room before the biggest show of the year while they just stared at you crying from across the room? There was none. I walked into that summer feeling more alone than ever.
Until I met a boy. And partly because of him, partly because depression had turned my heart cold, I walked into senior year as a cynical girl who wanted nothing more than to never set foot in this town again. Of course, he wanted me to stay when graduation rolled around, but there was no way I could do that. And I could never tell him about any of this because I knew he would think it was stupid and that I should get over it. He didn’t know just how badly I wanted to be over it. I just couldn’t—it was a part of me now, like a cancer that was slowly killing me.
In my Health class my freshman year of high school, I learned that with clinical depression, you must experience symptoms at least once a day for more than two weeks. Two weeks. At that point, I had been counting four years. And by the time I turned into a cynic, I was at eight. Was there another name for that? Two weeks and eight years are drastically different. But I had come this far, so why not go for nine, ten, twenty years. I was too coward to actually kill myself, no matter how much I wanted to, so living my life in a state of numbness and heartlessness seemed like an okay way to go.
As if I could get anymore broken than this, what is an eating disorder on top of things?
I never self-harmed, per se, with depression. I never cut myself. Other than a few purposeful burns from my curling iron, I looked clean. But I liked that I kept it all in because the Darkness had become my friend. The Bad Thoughts were all I knew, and I loved how they ate at me. It was a much better high than any burns ever got me, so I would sit in my bed at night and think of all the horrible things I had endured. I would clutch my chest because I couldn’t breathe from the sobs. I thought I would throw up from crying. The mental pain was my favorite drug.
But it was not enough.
I had gained some wait in high school, thanks to puberty and hormones and whatnot, and in previous years my mom would mention her fat genes. They run in the family, you know. Well, in high school, the reminders came more often.
In my weight gain came a butt, partly thanks to my birth-giving hips. But it was a butt nonetheless. When I was getting fitted for my choir dress before the school year started, the gown they originally gave me to try on wouldn’t quite get over my butt, so they gave me a balloon dress and took it in. I told my mom about it because I thought it was funny. She, however, did not. Later, I wanted a new swimsuit to fit my butt (and because it had been a good year or so since I last got one), and she told me that maybe I should lose weight instead of getting a bigger size.
Around Christmastime, we were having a movie night at a family friend’s house, and my mom baked cookies, chocolate chip and snickerdoodle. For the movie, I grabbed two of each and got ready to take my place in front of the projector over the pool. Before I could escape, my mother told me to put two cookies back. Since I wanted them for the course of the movie, I said no and tried to laugh. In front of everyone—parents, kids, my fifth grade teacher—she said, “Well, no wonder that dress didn’t fit.” She never remembers a word I tell her about important things, but she remembers that. I wanted to hit her, to throw the cookies in her face and leave the party, walk home from across town. But I just slinked out of the room, speechless.
God forbid my brother not eat ten donut holes for breakfast…and an afternoon snack. Good heavens if my sister didn’t eat ice cream for dessert for both lunch and dinner. She never batted an eye. But if I took three Oreos to go with my milk after a dinner of vegetables and maybe some grilled chicken? Well, that just wouldn’t do.
So things changed, and I found a new way to torture my mind. Mom wanted me to lose ten pounds? I could do it, and more.
I wish I could say it started out by healthier eating and additional exercise gone wrong. I want to tell you that I did not mean for it to happen. But I would be lying because I knew exactly what I wanted to happen. I wanted to get so sick that she would be forced to see the problem. I wanted her to see how much her words hurt, and then maybe I could get help. I wanted that eating disorder as much as I wanted to wallow in numbness from depression. It gave me a new high.
But she did not notice. I never got thin enough for anyone to see a problem. I dropped twenty pounds in a few weeks and not one word. I almost felt bad because I was passing my (now ex) boyfriend’s sister on her road to recovery, but I was downward spiraling in the opposite direction. He didn’t deserve that from me. That did not mean that I stopped, though. I kept going, I wanted to push myself to my limits. I longed to look stick thin, not because I thought it looked beautiful, but because I wanted to look sickly enough for people to notice. You could say I did it for attention, but it was the kind of attention I desperately needed. And if I died along the way, it would not matter. I would be another statistic and my family would not have to deal with me anymore. It was a perfect solution.
Only I didn’t get that thin. Like I said, nobody saw a problem with me. It hurts as much today as it did then.
When I got to college, everything changed. I felt a freedom I did not know existed. I did not feel like I was drowning in despair anymore. There was light in my life, and I did not understand it at first. This sort of feeling was completely foreign to me, and I was not sure whether or not to embrace it. But I saw this as my chance to dig for that glimmer of hope I saved so long ago and fuel it. I did not know how and I did not know if it would work, but I found myself crying at how beautiful the sunsets were and the way the wind blew in the trees. For the first time in a decade, I saw purpose. It breathed life into me I did not know existed.
Now, I know that it is not always easy. I am at ten years now. I am still broken, but I am working to piece myself back together. I do love puzzles, after all. I still have God-awful days where I feel nothing, just emptiness. I have days where I long to restrict my eating and not miss a day at the gym. Sometimes I am still obsessed with the Darkness.
But like I said, there is purpose and meaning and light in my life. I am not sure if I quite believe it all yet…
I am a work in progress, but my story doesn’t end here. I know now that my friends were not the problem, I was. I am the problem, so I need fixing, but I am fully willing to work at it. I do not necessarily want to live to be one hundred years old anymore, but a long and happy life does not sound so impossible. Let me just repeat that to myself: long and happy life…long and happy life.