Naturally, I was seated in the first desk. It was the only way I could stay awake. It wasn’t that Mr. Givens wasn’t interesting. Quite the opposite, actually. He was a quietly elegant man. Average height, slender, very late sixties, and full of a love and knowledge of literature that I’ve perceived rarely since.
He stood at the blackboard, grinned mischievously and asked the class to write four words at the tops of our papers: “What is ‘what is’?” I remember, clearly, the terror that bounced around my brain like bee-bees in a kettle drum and the pyrotechnic spinning wheel burning in my chest. Even I knew that I couldn’t possibly have anything worthwhile to commit to paper. I knew that I had neither the maturity, nor the command of concrete thought that it was going to take to answer such a question in an innovative way. Perhaps, had I just written that, had I just said that my ‘what is’ was a profound fear of not having the right answer, of sounding trite or glib. Then perhaps I’d have been able to write an answer that pleased Mr. Givens. But instead, I sat frozen, increasingly aware of the clicking of the second hand on the white, industrial clock on the wall and the furious scratching of pens all around me. I continued to stare at those four words, dodging the bee-bees. Staring. Staring harder. Squeezing shut my eyes. Searching my mind for a spark of clarity. Nothing. Nothing at all.
I knew that all of the brilliant kids around me were far more self-aware than I. Actually, I’m not sure that I knew to label it as self-aware. I just knew that they seemed to thrive. I was clinically depressed. Only, at the time, no one around me knew what that looked like. Looking at a teacher, hearing what they said, and trying at the same time to stop the bee-bees in my head and the spinning wheel in my chest; it was very hard work and I was exhausted all of the time. I couldn’t remember what I’d heard just minutes before, even though I’d done everything I could to focus on it. My grades suffered; my family suffered around me; and I began a slow decent into that state where feeling all of the time left no energy left to think. The bee-bees got louder and the spinning wheel hurt more. “What is” for me was just four words, written in perfect Catholic school penmanship at the top of a piece of cheap notebook paper with blue lines. To this day, that is all I remember writing.
The paradoxes of my life were many, and varied, and kept me from feeling like I had a place, much less a path. I didn’t understand what was happening to me and I knew that I was very much alone in it. I longed to identify with and belong to anything, but with all the “noise,” there was no room for anything else. I would get close and then my “what is” would stop my progress. My “what is” was debilitating fear.
Now, the word depression is often associated with images of people who won’t get out of bed or celebrities who drink themselves into oblivion. I showed up every day, and tried, but without the tools I needed to get past the “what is” that handicapped me. Long ago, I learned to cope with it. I understood the idea that depression is the emotional “snow in the TV screen,” as it was eventually described to me when I was finally diagnosed and treated several years later. In fact, when I admit to people now that I’ve dealt with it my entire life, they look at me as if I have three heads. “What???” they say, shocked. “How can you be depressed? You seem so happy.” Well, these days, my ‘what is’ is vastly different than it was for the teenager sitting at that desk, staring at that piece of paper.
Thirty-two years later, that scene still bothers me. Out of sheer curiosity, I’d love to know what all of the other pens scratched out on paper that day. If I had to write the same essay today, naturally, “what is” would be “perception.” I might, in a flare of drama, write only that one word. It really is no more complicated than that. The sky could be a perfect cerulean with big fluffy clouds, but a hundred different people will see a hundred different shades of blue. Depression dulls all the colors, covering everything with a veil of grey. A few years ago, I chose to live a life full of color and I’ve managed my ‘what is’ as best I can ever since. It isn’t always easy, and some never make it to this point. But it begins with avoiding triggers and then follows with tiny choices. I choose what takes up real estate in my head. I choose to spend time with people that add color to my world. I choose joy. I choose to explore, experience and thrive. I choose my “what is” every day.
So, now ask yourself, what is your “what is?”