The first apartment I ever had to myself was a tiny basement studio in Portland. The carpet was purple and the kitchen had red and white checkered linoleum. The walk-in closet had two stairs going up into it and was just big enough for a twin-sized bed and a dresser. Everything about that apartment was tiny and ridiculous. We called it The Dollhouse.
My upstairs neighbor was Kyle. I had just turned twenty-one when I moved in and he was forty-something. Fast friends. We’d hang out by the dumpster and smoke cigarettes every day. He’d come over to my place for beers. Watered my plants when I left town. When the weather was good we’d sit on the curb and drink booze until four in the morning. We talked about everything. I was his date to weddings. He met everyone I dated and my entire family. Our friendship ran deep and I loved him unconditionally.
Kyle was brash and unapologetic. One of those people who took up a ton of space without being a large person. He hugged hard and talked loud and had a ridiculous story about every situation. He’d get sloppy drunk, pick a fight, then spill his guts to me in an alley. He’d climb on top of dumpsters, get kicked out of a bar, and bring three or four guys younger than me home with him.
He had a rule that you could only tell him what he’d done while drunk if you satisfied three requirements. One, it’d been at least three days since he did whatever you were about to tell him. Two, he had a drink in his hand—preferably one you provided for him. And three, you referred to him as “this guy I know” instead of “you” or “Kyle”. He’d shake his head and belt out, “That guy is crazy! Who does stuff like that?!” Smile big and chuckle. Complete detachment from “that guy” being him. Because it wasn’t.
Once he showed up at my apartment around 11 PM with his right ring finger wrapped in a tissue. “I got a paper cut. Do you have a Band-Aid?” he asked as he walked by me, settling onto my futon. Kyle didn’t wait for invitations. He knew he was always welcome.
I dug through my medicine cabinet then sat down next to him. He removed the Kleenex from his finger and held it out. I grinned and he became tiny, fragile in front of me. Suddenly he was just a little kid. Our gaze locked as I wrapped the rubbery fabric around his fingertip, his eyes watering.
And that wasn’t Kyle either. That was a different guy entirely. That was the man who had found out a few years earlier he’s HIV positive. The guy who didn’t know if he’s was going to have someone to take care of him should the medication not be enough. Should his whole life slip away pound by pound. Should it all just fade out into nothing.
Every few months he’d disappear for a week or so. Show back up all road-worn and frazzled. I never asked where he’d been. I knew he’d lost his footing. Crawled back into some squat and started smoking crack again. I’d cook him dinner and he’d fall asleep on my shoulder watching something mindless on Netflix. My heart ached for him, but I never blamed him. It was another person inhabiting his body. It wasn’t the Kyle I called my friend.
It was so easy to be gentle with him. Simple to understand that there were lots of people who looked just like him, pulling in every direction. All trying to take care of him even if their ideas of how to do that were damaging and dangerous.
They were trying. I knew they were all trying to get his needs met.
And every so often I remember I’m different people, too. That when the depression takes hold, it’s not me it’s holding on to. It’s claws are in someone who is terrified of everything. Unsure and unstable. She is not me. That girl is shaking. She considers herself unlovable and fragile, weak and unworthy. She believes that everyone in her life would be better off if she slipped out of existence.
But that girl is not me.
I can feel sympathy for her. Understand how scary it is. But I don’t have to own that pain. I don’t have to be afraid. She’s a different girl than me. She doesn’t get to grab the wheel unless I grant her permission.
My therapists always had me name those women who inhabit my body when I’m having trouble staying on the surface. Describe them. The angry ones, the scared ones. The ones who are always panicking. The drunks. The drug addicts. The ones who pick up on girls at bars. Who go home with strangers. The ones who can’t get off the couch for weeks at a time. Women who are sure their friends, their family are only still around out of obligation or guilt. All of them are separate pieces.
Yes, we can talk about how they make up the whole. How they all need the same thing, are trying to solve the same problems, meet the same needs. They all have my best interests in mind, but different ideas of how to serve them. I know I have to listen to all of them. They all have valid voices. They all have stories, but they do not all get pens. They do not all get to decide where this is going. They don’t all get equal say in who this woman is.
Like the sixteen-year-old me who needed someone to absorb the screaming, but also needed someone to say, “No.”
“Yes. I understand you are hurting. Yes. I understand this is what you think you need. Yes. I know. I know. But no. Give me your keys.”