As the year of 2018 was nearing its end, I wasn’t in the best shape. My best friend and much cherished colleague had left the country for another job, and the research project we’d been shaping together to near-perfection over the past six years was crumbling. I desperately looked forward to a week of pleasantly mindless time off during an Xmas break in my home country. But that somehow didn’t work out either.
Both our kids got a bit sick on the way. Since we all slept in one improvised guestroom at my in-laws’ flat, the nights were hell. When the girl wasn’t vomiting in her sleep, the tossing boy was whining for someone to clear his stuffed nose or go to the toilet with him. And while the kids were ready to play and explore after every single one of those crazy nights, me and my wife became seething wrecks.
I couldn’t stand it so I half-pretended I caught some sort of a man-flu from the kids. It was a great excuse for barely ever leaving our sickly-smelling borrowed bedroom. Now, one could say I was thoroughly depressed. And indeed, it wouldn’t be an exceedingly daring assumption after the long history of my madness. But I kept telling myself it’s not that bad this time. What if I was just tired and completely harmlessly annoyed?
I was wrong, of course. The thing is that the line between irritability and depression can be pretty blurry in someone who actually does suffer from depression. I should have known better and act before things got out of hand. And by acting I mean primarily talking to someone who could have helped me cutting through that vicious circle of biting blues before it spins up too fast. My wife had already known about my secret for nearly a year after all. The problem was, however, that my wife was the one I was chiefly annoyed with. And it took me quite a while before I saw through that particular vicious trick of my disease.
Bad as it was, though, one day the cloak of my delusions got a little thinner. It occurred to me that I was perhaps being rather mean and ridiculous. Therefore, in a halfhearted attempt to make peace with myself and everyone else, I agreed when my wife strongly suggested I’d better let her have some rest, too, while I take our daughter out. It was a great idea, actually. Both our kids used to love sleeping in the open as babies, and I was thinking a bit of fresh air would be good for me, too.
The weather was rather springy after a week of proper winter. The little snow that had fallen melted away under the harsh morning sun. When I got out, mild breeze teased me with muddy wafts of sleeping earth covered in drifts of cold-fermenting leaves.
I wanted more of that. The wheels of the buggy crunched on the gritty path as I snaked through a herd of communist apartment blocks, their cubic gloom and indifference still showing under new coats of gaily coloured facades. And then I was off in the forest looming above the town.
I strolled up and down the deserted paths, bathing in lazy light that poured through naked beeches and oaks in curtains of gold and blue. The buggy pranced on roots and stones hidden under the thick carpet of rotten leaves. My daughter didn’t mind that at all. She slept like a log, probably enjoying our new off-road wheels as much as I did.
All in all, it was hard to imagine a more pleasant afternoon after the past few weeks. But it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t complicate things.
When I felt it might be time to head back, I decided to take a shortcut via a path by the wall of the Jewish cemetery, the one I already talked about here. It’s a pretty steep downhill ride. But I had those off-road wheels and loads of experience in taking our kids for outdoor adventures, with a pristine accident record so far. So I felt confident we’d make it without the slightest bump. Then again, I thought, accidents do happen no matter how unlikely they may seem to people. So I parked the buggy above the cemetery and went to assess the terrain to elaborate some contingency strategies.
The result of my evaluation was that while the feat seemed doable, I’d better descend slowly, pulling the buggy in reverse with locked breaks, and in such a way that if the worst comes to the worst, I’ll be able to dampen the fall of the toppling buggy with my own rather large body while holding the baby firmly inside and sliding down like an ungainly but safe sled.
And that’s pretty much exactly what happened. Already at the top of the slope, I slipped in a deep pool of mud hidden under the foliage. The buggy toppled on me, but I halted the fall with my body just the way I devised. It didn’t even get to that emergency slide maneuver or anything like that.
But then the strangest thing happened. My startled daughter screamed in her sleep. It was a long, mind-shattering cry, sounding quite the way I imagine Tolkien’s Nazgûls to scream. And that provoked something I never knew to have in me.
Time became a thick soup. I savoured every molecule of air on its glacial rush to the hungry balloons of my lungs. The golden rays of wintry sun were trapped in frozen droplets of water hanging mid-fall on skeletal branches above my head. The sounds of the town below became blurred hum, with one oozing drumbeat of my heart overshadowing everything.
It was the visceral essence of limitless life squeezed into the moment of the greatest and most unbearable fear. With the conscious me not really in charge, I was back on my feet in a split second. I lifted the buggy in my arms and ran up to safety in one of those fabled adrenaline feats of inhuman strength and agility. My feet barely left any tracks on the muddy path.
Then I was on the flat forest track and time started ticking again, faster than ever before. My hands went as pale as my face must have been. The shock was like a garrote on my neck, turning my breaths into strangled hisses. Cold sweat was running down my sides under the loose shirt. My heartbeat, so slow before, was like frantic digging of a little animal that got caved in my chest. I was sure it would burst out soon, one way or another.
I checked my daughter, certain I hurt her real bad. She was sleeping, though, apparently unperturbed by the whole incident.
It’s no use waking her up when she seems to be okay, I thought, and even if I did find out she’s hurt, I couldn’t do much about it here and now. So I brushed the muddy leaves off the buggy and backtracked to the town, fighting the urge to vomit and shit my panicked guts empty.
When I came home, my daughter still slept with random smiles flicking through her baby face. My wife and in-laws didn’t even scold me much after I told them what happened. They clearly saw I’d already been very efficient at punishing myself for my newest stupidity. Then the girl woke up, perfectly fine and in great spirits after the long forest ride. All good, one would say.
Only it wasn’t. This incident was the final nudge towards a full-on Xmas depression attack. I went back to thinking myself a danger to my own family. There few more such obsessive ideas, all following the pattern that nearly made me kill myself back in 2017. I didn’t get that far this time, having already had some experience in taming the disease. Yet the climax of this particular episode was genuinely insane, like I described previously.
My wife was still with me, however, and she knew. I merely had to remember about that. It took me weeks of hesitant deliberation but eventually I told her what bothered me this time. I mean like really told her, not conveyed the message in the cowardly way I used when coming out originally.
That chat about imagined deaths of our children was the hardest and about the most painful thing I did in my life. But it was also another major step towards sanity, and few other curious things I’ll briefly review in the forthcoming post.
The feature image is my own photo of the Jewish cemetery by which I didn’t kill my baby daughter.