The first apartment I 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, so it became my makeshift bedroom. Everything about that apartment was tiny and ridiculous. We called it "The Dollhouse."
My upstairs neighbor was Allen. Brash and unapologetic. One of those people who takes up a ton of space despite their small frame. He hugged hard, 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 half his age home.
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 going to talk about. Two, he had a drink in his hand -- preferably one you bought for him. And three, you referred to him as "this guy I know" instead of "you" or "Allen."
He'd shake his head and belt out, "That guy is crazy! Who does stuff like that?!" Smiled big and chuckled. Complete detachment from "that guy" being him. Because it wasn't.
I had just turned 21 and he was 40-something. His gregarious personality perfectly balanced my still-fumbling awkward young adult shyness. We became best friends in a matter of weeks. We hung out by the dumpster and smoked cigarettes every day. He'd come over to my place for beers and 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 my entire family and every guy I brought home. Our friendship ran deep and I loved him unconditionally.
One night he showed up at my apartment 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, and settled onto my futon. I dug through my medicine cabinet, then sat down next to him. He removed the Kleenex from his finger and held it out hesitantly. I grinned as 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 Allen either.
He was the man who found out a few years earlier he's HIV positive. The person who didn't know if he 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, then he'd fall asleep on my shoulder while I watched 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 Allen I called my friend.
It was so easy to be gentle with him. I understood there were lots of people who looked just like him, pulling him 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 struggling to get his needs met. And every so often I think about Allen, and I remember I'm different people, too.
When the depression or the mania take hold, it's not me they're holding on to. Their claws are in someone who's terrified of everything. Unsure and unstable. 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 she is not me. I know different. I know I can feel sympathy for her. I can 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 and 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.
We can talk about how they make up the whole. How they all want the same thing, are all 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 don't all get equal say in who this woman is.
Need help with substance abuse or mental health issues? In the U.S., call 800-662-HELP (4357) for the SAMHSA National Helpline.