Hilary Weston Writers' Trust Student Nonfiction Writing Contest
What It’s Like to Live with Someone with Depression by Alexandra Sweny
i. You will climb the stairs quietly. You will brush your teeth quietly. You will watch television quietly. You will dodge the touchy subjects and the accusations like the practised sinner dodges sacred confessionals. You will become so accustomed to the silence that you will forget that your house is the same creaky home of your childhood, the same floorboards that sang like a chorus beneath the orchestral patter of your racing feet.
ii. You will learn to cook. Growing up will sound like the careful click of a stovetop dial. It will smell acrid, like the wafting bite of burnt garlic. And you will find the beauty in the warmth that you create, in hand-prepared meals and carefully arranged cutlery. You will deliver it on trays and bedside tables, announcing with feigned enthusiasm that dinner is served. The silence before their first bite will be pregnant with a desperate anticipation. You will want them to laugh. You will want them to scrape the plate clean and ask for more. But when you return, you will flinch at the chilled porcelain and untouched food. You will go to bed forgetting that you haven’t eaten either.
iii. One day, they will stop painting. They will rub their eyes and finally declare that books, once so captivating, have become unconquerable Everests. You will gather the pages, and the paintbrushes, and contemplate. You will feel like an archeologist holding fossils of someone from a different time, a puzzle rendered unfathomable by its missing pieces.
iv. You will become scared of their room like the child fears the closeted boogeyman. You used to build forts there: you built kingdoms from the sheets and churches from the cabinets. Now, the dark walls and dirty windows will seem to you more like a cave than a castle. The sheets used to be parachutes, used to be wings that you stretched until, like Icarus, you fell from the sun. A room that once screamed life now whispers sleep. You will wonder what goes on behind the closed door when you aren’t home, and the thought will make you spend many weekend nights sitting downstairs on the couch, a nurse in waiting – except that you are as frightened of the illness as the patient is. You will twiddle your thumbs. You will feel profoundly stupid.
v. You will be tired, but you will not sleep. You will stay up, craning your head to hear if they are crying. You will tiptoe across the carpeted floors to their room. Sometimes you will stand outside their door, wavering uncertainly on the balls of your feet, before retreating. Other times, when you are braver, you will open the door and find them on the floor, their bodies heaving like that of a feral animal. You will tuck them back into bed and bring a cold glass of water. In the mornings you will make no mention of last night’s disturbance, but you will catch a glimpse of your reflection, of your darkened eyes and the glowing pallor of your skin. You will wonder if depression is catching.
vi. You will feel angry — of course you will. You will want to break through the door and rip the curtains open, slap their face and tell them to get dressed, get a grip. The anger will be hot and potent as it squeezes your throat. You will harbour bitterness so unjustifiably malicious that it will seep like venom onto your tongue. You will scream and they will scream back, and you won’t care because it’s the most sound that has filled the house since they stopped playing music.
vii. Guilt will chase the anger, as it always does. You will want to apologize and not know how. So, you will climb the stairs quietly. You will leave dinner at their door. You will contemplate the puzzle.
viii. One day, they will get dressed, of their own accord. You will marvel as they remember socks and iron a favourite dress for the first time since autumn. After months of watching silently from the windows, they will reach and push the screens open. They will step out onto the grass with pink newborn toes, tender and sensitive, wary of the spring that beckons them from the shade. The world will still scare them, will still send them flinching and howling into their room. But a seed will be planted, coaxed from the dirt and the mud. That afternoon, they will cry again, but the next day they will stay awake for just a little bit longer. Slowly, they will remember to feed themselves, and you will remember the music in their laughter. The melody will come back like a favourite nursery rhyme. You will sit back and close your eyes, and you will remember the sound of innocence.
At times it will seem a losing battle. They will trip, stumble, and fall from grace with a heavy thud. Sometimes, they will not want to take your hand. They will not want to listen to your sympathies. The most difficult part will be letting go of the handlebars as they pedal furiously. You must have faith that they will not falter. They will want to heal themselves.
This is how they do it: they will take the bus and come back hours later, sweating under the new spring sunshine and the weight of a vase in their arms. They will replant crooked trees and withered flowers, chattering eagerly about what will grow. It is the first time they will speak excitedly about the future since you can remember. They will pick up old books and suddenly Everest will seem less like a mountain and more like a challenge. In the morning, when the world is still quiet, you will hear them reading to their garden.
And you. You will go to sleep early. You will make dinner and remember to eat. You will be loud again. You will both remember how living is done.
Alexandra Sweny is a 17-year-old from Aurora, ON. She can invariably be found eating, sleeping, or reading. Always fascinated with storytelling and the written word, Alexandra is slated to study journalism at the University of King's College in September. Her favourite writer is Margaret Atwood.