I was going to write a story about finding a mouse in my weeks-old garbage and how it shook me out of my depressive stupor into action. About how I finally did the dishes, took out the trash, and started taking care of myself again. It was going to have a neat, happy ending.
But that’s not this story.
Sometimes you don’t realize how bad things are in the moment, because they didn’t get that way overnight. It becomes hard to remember what it was like before. There wasn’t one reason why I stopped taking out the garbage. Maybe the family I rent from would be in the yard, and I’d be too scared of having to interact with them to go downstairs. Or their unpredictably aggressive dog would be outside. Other times it was too cold or I was too tired.
Dishes began to pile up. Months worth of student loan correspondence, bank statements, and bills covered my dining table, unopened. My houseplants all withered and died. Only my used coffee cups were brimming with life.
I remember a bizarre storybook from my childhood, in which a man becomes so overwhelmed by clutter that he puts all of his dirty dishes in the back of a pick-up truck and drives out into the rain. That’s how desperate I felt, but I didn’t have a truck.
As for my uninvited visitor, I heard it weeks before I saw it. I thought it was just my anxiety turning rustling sounds and darting shadows into something more. But one day, a little mouse head popped around the corner of my bookshelf, into my bedroom.
“You little fucker!,” I shouted, instinctively popping up and retreating to the farthest corner of my bed. The mouse turned its tail and fled to the kitchen, while I called my parents for help. I, a grown adult (and an animal-lover no less) had been reduced to a shaking, anxious mess by a little mouse.
But this was not just a mouse – I had dealt with those before. This felt personal – like a physical manifestation of my moral failings. Motivated by shame and fear, I swept like an anxious cyclone through the apartment, throwing away mountains of tissues and stacks of pizza boxes. I went to take out my kitchen trash, ready to face the weeks of rotting produce that had been too heavy a burden to carry down the stairs.
And there he was. I held up the garbage bag and Albert popped his face out of a gaping hole he’d chewed through the bottom. I screamed and ran, he scurried away. “So it was my fault,” I thought. “I brought this rodent into a family’s home with my airborne rotten garbage transmissions.”
Despite my sister’s reassurance that lots of people get mice in their houses and that it wasn’t my fault, I felt like I had to right this wrong by throwing all of my energy into turning over a new leaf. I enlisted my aunt to help with dishes, mouse-proof the apartment, and procure high-pitched noise deterrents. Every day after work, I swept, cleaned, organized, and tried to get my life together. I paid late bills, scheduled appointments, and did laundry. I became Ishmael and that mouse was my fucking Moby Dick. Surprised by my sudden and rapid progress, my therapist joked, “What are we even going to talk about in here anymore?”
But the thing is, this shame spiral-motivated cleanup act was not the happy ending to a fable about pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. It was a welcome kick in the pants, but it did not cause the clouds to part, the birds to sing, or any godly rays of sunshine to beam down upon my life. Adrenaline will fuel you through a crisis, but it can’t last forever.
Sometimes your brain is so stressed that an unremarkable occurrence like a single mouse in your apartment takes on the weight of all your anxiety, disappointment, and sadness. But when Albert eventually left of his own accord (for all the stress he caused me, I couldn’t bear the thought of finding him dying in a trap), my problems were still there. I was burnt out from trying to run a mile a minute on energy that I didn’t have. Recovery is hard, slow-going work. It’s not a steadily rising upward line on a graph. I thought that I wasn’t sick enough to get the amount of help that I really needed. Not being actively suicidal, there didn’t seem to be any other option for myself than to just pull myself out of this.
I had to reach the point of feeling defeated and helpless and ending up in the ER before I realized that I had other treatment options. I felt like a failure because my efforts at fighting my depression had not worked. Some things had improved – my apartment was never again quite as messy as it had been when Albert came to stay – but my brain seemed to keep marching ever onwards towards a darker and darker place. Although I was not “suicidal enough” to be admitted to the inpatient program, so many doors opened after being totally honest with my doctor about how bad my depression had gotten. I was able to take a medical leave from work (albeit unpaid), undergo intensive outpatient treatment covered by my insurance, and take a break from juggling more than I could handle all day, every day.
After going through partial hospitalization and day treatment, I can now see that although I was fighting with all the tools I had, it wasn’t enough. And there’s nothing shameful in that. Sometimes you just need new tools.
A few months later, a friend of Albert’s visited my apartment. This time my apartment, though not spotless by any means, was not the alluring rodent buffet of trash piles that it was before.
“See?,” I told myself, “A mouse can happen to anyone.”
My thoughts did not hop aboard a speeding train towards catastrophe. I was scared, but this time, the mouse was just a mouse. I could handle this obstacle. I could keep slowly moving forward.