Once upon a time, a beautiful princess lived with a king who could transform into a fearsome dragon and a queen who appeared solid by day but turned spectral by night.
As the dragon king set fire to curtains, entire rooms, and everything that dared to defy his iron will, the queen wandered her lonely halls, forever seeking the king who had arrived on a white horse to ask her father for her hand in marriage–the king with whom she had fallen in love.
Occasionally, she shielded the beautiful princess or her son, the strong prince, from the scorching heat of the dragon king’s poisonous flames. The princess and prince felt terribly guilty for leaving their mother while she begged and bargained and cajoled the dragon king, pleading for his mercy upon their children. Sometimes, he relented. Other times left the prince and the princess locked in their respective rooms, terrified and painfully alone as they covered their heads with pillows to drown out the loud crashes and deadly roars that filtered through the castle, reverberating off of the walls and amplifying the dragon king’s rage to terrible heights.
The princess could never understand the depths of the dragon king’s fury, and her mind folded in on itself to create labyrinths of fantasies, often dreams of faraway lands with handsome princes who never turned into dragon kings, because they would save her and take her to a place she would immediately know as “home” even if it wasn’t a castle. She would become a troll and live under a bridge before she would ever stay forever trapped in this gilded cage.
Oftentimes the princess wondered what had changed the king into a dragon, whether a magic spell or a bad potato or something she had yet to understand. Did all kings become dragons? Was the queen searching the castle for something that would break the spell so she could be reunited with the man she loved? The princess asked the queen why she had searched so long up and down the castle halls, and what exactly she had been searching for.
“The king,” the queen replied, looking up from her needlepoint.
A fierce bellowing voice sounded from elsewhere in the castle. The shadows stretched into steeples along the floor as the sun sank below the horizon, and it was clear that the dragon king had transformed.
“But he’s right there,” she said, her brows furrowed in confusion.
“That isn’t the king,” the queen corrected gently, for she still believed the dragon king and the king she’d fallen in love with to be two separate forms.
“Why is he always so mad?” the princess asked, for the dragon king and the king looked no different in her eyes.
“He has a castle and no mighty hoard to fill it,” the queen responded, as if this explained everything. Most of the time, the queen showed a quiet strength that rarely manifested from under the docile, pleasant demeanor that propped up the corners of her lips each day as though on stilts that were a shade too tall.
The queen dropped her meek illusion only when the dragon king’s flame curled in sharp tendrils around the princess and prince’s bare little feet when they ran across the castle as children do. When his flames contaminated their flesh so that all his children could feel were swords that sliced with white hot fire on the soles of their feet wherever they walked, he asked if they’d learned their lesson.
For her part, the princess certainly had. Playing tag with the young prince had only ended in pain–much like many interactions she’d had with the dragon king–so it seemed clear that he was to be avoided, for any attempt at connection or solidarity with him only ended miserably.
Yet the more the queen protested, the more ferociously the dragon king raged. On one cloudy day, the princess met great misfortune when she happened to be in the line of fire between the king and the queen, failing to dodge the vitriol spewing from his cavernous jaws in a torrent of fury. The princess’s beautiful face melted like she had just bobbed for apples in a vat full of acid, revealing the slick muscle and sinew beneath, and the agony she felt as she lay screaming seemed only to intensify when the dragon king banished her to her room for failing to forgive him when he told her that she was still beautiful.
Regardless of the princess’s feelings, once she was out of sight, the dragon king felt satisfied, power-drunk on the wine that he and the queen guzzled by the barrel each night, which never seemed to run empty even as the dragon king’s fields went barren and grapes died on the vine. The wine had an astonishing effect–with each glass, the queen grew more weak, complacent, and cold; she hated how it affected her, but after years of isolation she no longer felt that she had the right or the resources–nor the family or friends–to abscond from the castle with her children unscathed. She tried desperately to soothe and placate her terrified children as the dragon king grew portly and more cruel.
The princess’s face had finally started to heal and smooth over charred bits of flesh, but it seemed harder than the face she’d had before. Thinner. Thin to the point where no matter how her face moved its muscles or froze them, the muscle fibers lay practically translucent beneath, and her expression was never meek enough. No matter how much life and joy she bled from her “tone” with leeches that remained to feast on her trachea long after her swift departure from childhood, it was never flat enough.
The princess, who loved to read, met friends within the pages of her precious books; the only children she ever saw in the castle vanished in a puff of stale smoke when they caught her running after them, her throat hoarse from begging desperately to play as her brittle, raw face peeled into forgotten flakes of skin that would one day blanket her entire bedroom. If she ever caught them, she had no idea what to do with them, so as she had seen done countless times before, she used and discarded them like broken dolls.
Of course, they didn’t come back, but the princess didn’t know why. Hadn’t she been a good sport? Hadn’t she let them play with her brand-new toys?
It was around this time that her shadow detached itself to become a malicious, ghostly figure with lank hair and a permanent smirk of mischief; its owner was weak and positively reeked of self-loathing and fear, which it feasted on at every opportunity in the corner of the princess’s vision before her head whipped around to find nothing there.
The dragon king, in his wisdom (meaning, after his dukes had conspired to force his abdication), decided that it was time to leave the barren fields and broken dreams behind for greener pastures. While they packed up their belongings, the princess skirted the castle’s perimeter to avoid her malignant specter and noticed vast lines of cemetery plots along the sides of the castle that she’d never seen before. Her tired, tattered fingers traced the letters on the headstones, and there she found the names of the children she’d frantically run after in hopes of being their friend.
It wasn’t until then that she realized her new face had betrayed her to keep her safe the way the dragon king hadn’t and never could, closing her eyelids to the blazing flames that devoured her would-be friends, opening when only wisps of smoke remained, and looking past the ashes scattered across the floor. The dragon king, who left to wreak devastation elsewhere in the castle, didn’t spare a glance back as the princess sifted through the ashes and wondered if this was what it meant to have friends.
After all, she hadn’t had any that weren’t lining the shelves of her library, and from those pages spilled timeless tales of eternal friendship and true love–but none of the illustrations she found had a face like hers, cracked and scaled more each time the dragon king’s fierce flames consumed each brittle face that replaced the one before, and when they began to break too easily, the queen surreptitiously showed her the wardrobe of faces she used to hide from the dragon king–maids, crones, peasants, and her personal favorite: broken mirrors.
“But how do they survive the fire?” the princess asked the queen, reaching out to skim her fingers along the smooth glass.
“They don’t,” the queen replied simply. “That’s why he likes them the most. They’re enchanted to show him a false self, and when he tires of each one, I commission another before it’s too late.”
“Too late for what?” the princess wondered aloud, but the queen said nothing further on the matter, and the shadows in the corner grew darker and longer.
The new castle made no difference. Eager to escape the dragon king’s wrath, the princess would often blame her transgressions on the young prince, stuffing her ears to block the shrill screams and sobs that echoed down the expansive halls.
She was too afraid to find and comfort him, but her left hand said it knew the way, so she chopped it off and bit into her pillows to muffle her own shrieks. Into the roaring fireplace it went, and she trembled on the floor of her room and felt like a coward.
Her right hand told her to pick up a sword and vanquish the dragon king, so off it went to join its twin in the fire. After they’d roasted to ashes, she carefully gathered their remains with what was left of her bleeding stubs and piled them in an enchanted cabinet that restored whatever was hidden within it–but at a very steep price.
Having no allowance of her own, the princess stole one of the broken mirror faces from the queen’s wardrobe and offered it as payment. The cabinet accepted it gladly, and she now had both of her hands back, so everything was all better now. Surely the queen wouldn’t notice that one face had gone missing.
Over time, the dragon king’s powers only grew in proportion to his rage. Each time he demanded to know what was “wrong with her” when she dropped and shattered a glass or spilled milk on the floor, the sharp sting of an invisible slap met her face, even if the king was nowhere near her.
After years of reading books and faces, she pondered the question and thought perhaps it was a riddle. Maybe the pain would stop and the dragon king would vanish in a blaze of glory if she could only fit the right words into the right order, so she set to work on lists of permutations, crossing off each one when the words had no effect on the dragon king and posting it to her bedroom wall to remind her of the failure until her walls were covered in stacks of hastily scribbled-on pages.
As she wrote each word on each page, many hundreds of possibilities presenting themselves as new words joined the fray, each word sliced into the flesh over her heart and left slivers no bigger than papercuts. Why wasn’t it working? Why wasn’t she good enough yet?
“Even I don’t want to be near you,” her detached specter whispered into her dreams, carving more deeply into her heart with each word. “Who would? You’re foul, you’re evil, and you’ll never be enough. Never.”
Desperate, the princess made one last effort to save herself from complete self-destruction, knowing that her path was headed nowhere fast. The gashes on her chest oozed thickly with fresh blood, and her eyes met those of her specter’s as she defiantly ripped her still-beating heart from her chest with hardly a sound and ran to the enchanted cabinet before it could follow, stuffing it into a locked compartment in the back of the cabinet that she’d found once while attempting to find a place to hide from the dragon king. Quickly, she locked the compartment and pocketed the only key.
As beads of sweat collected across her brow, the princess sneaked from her castle window using a makeshift rope fashioned from bed sheets and sprinted to a clearing of trees that stretched their branches skyward and shuddered at her sudden arrival.
“Ohhh, look, it’s the young lady who loves trees,” one of the trees simpered sarcastically, shaking its leaves. “You can tell by all the dead ones she keeps locked away in that castle, bound like captives.”
“Please,” the princess begged frantically, “You have to help me. I don’t have much time.”
Our apartment is not Hoarders level bad, but it could get there easily if I allowed it to. I don’t allow it to because clutter triggers my anxiety.
This pandemic has been hell on my hoarding-related anxiety and on my depression.
I know, on an academic level, why people hoard things. I even have a very good guess as to the reasons behind my husband’s hoarding. But knowing the why doesn’t help; it doesn’t ease my anxiety, it doesn’t make me more empathetic… I think it actually makes me even more frustrated and depressed.
This is one way that having a psychology degree can be a double-edged sword. The knowledge is helpful when you’re looking at the behavior of someone you don’t know. But when it’s someone you live with and you have emotional ties to, it feels like it makes things worse.
The hoarding is a major anxiety trigger for me. It’s limited to his “office”, but sometimes, it seeps out into the rest of the apartment. My husband has this nasty habit of setting things down “for now”, but never picking them back up. I refuse to pick it up. In my mind, my justification is that I didn’t put it there, he did. I shouldn’t have to be picking up after a grown man. So then it sits.
As I type this, I’m looking at a pile of cardboard that needs to go out of the recycling. I look at it and I am seething, both at him and at myself. I’m seething at him for just piling it up and not taking some of it down with him to the dumpster when he took out the trash. I seethe at myself for being so overwhelmed by a pile of cardboard that I freeze when I think about having to haul it out by myself.
I’m resentful. I resent being the one who has to clean. I resent having to tiptoe around his anxiety because if I don’t, then he becomes passive-aggressive and tries to emotionally manipulate me and make me out to be the bad guy because I expect him to help me keep a clean house. Then I start keeping score.
I shouldn’t be keeping score, but I can’t help it. I feel like I carry more of the weight around here and do 90% of the emotional labor in this relationship. This comes from my past; I grew up in an abusive household where I was both scapegoat and maid. I had to clean the whole house while my father sat on his ass and ordered me around. I feel a lot like this now. Except I’m an adult and I don’t live in fear of my husband if I refuse to do it.
I try to clean, but I feel like it’s a losing battle. It’s also becoming very difficult for me to keep pushing on and on. I clean up, but he brings in more crap and sets it down, never to pick it up again.
I think I might be at the end of my rope. Actually, I think I’m hanging on to a thread as far as the hoarding is concerned. I’ve contemplated going into that room and just getting rid of everything that I think is garbage. I’ve even considered ratting out my husband to the landlord as a wake-up call. I’m mortified at the thought of maintenance or the landlord coming in and seeing that room.
Again, not a picture of the author’s actual garage…
I’m not even going to get into how our rented garage looks. That does look like an episode of Hoarders. I’m angry that we pay extra a month to rent a garage to house all the crap he brought home and never used. We need to clean it out, but I’m both overwhelmed at the idea of how much stuff is in there. I’m also mortified at having to open the garage door and having everyone see how bad it is.
I could go to therapy, but the issue here is that I don’t want to tolerate this hoard anymore. I’ve lived with it too long and I feel like I’m enabling him by not saying anything. I’m hanging onto that last frayed strand of rope. I’ve lived with it long enough. I don’t have the time nor the patience to live with all the physical crap. I don’t have the luxury of waiting until he admits that he has a problem and gets help for it. If this makes me sound cold, then so be it. I have to think of myself. This is wreaking havoc on my anxiety and my depression. I don’t want to end up having another nervous breakdown and spending a week in a behavioral health facility because my anxiety and depression have reached the levels of suicidal ideation again.
Don’t laugh. The last time this happened, it was because the idea of going to work triggered panic attacks and I felt like such a failure that I began thinking about suicide.
I have few ways to escape since the pandemic started. I feel trapped, both by a virus and by someone else’s physical crap and emotional issues he refuses to deal with. I’m exhausted, too. I feel like a failure because I can’t keep my house clean. Short of staging an intervention, I don’t know what else to do.
When I was in the depths of my worst dark days, there was a feeling I would get. It feels like an itch that you can’t scratch. It ignites a burning desire deep within to just rip off your skin so you don’t have to feel it anymore. Every second you’re forced to spend in your body is worse than the last and there is absolutely no end in sight.
When you come to the realization that THIS IS IT. Fear is all you can feel. What does the end look like? People say it gets better, but holy shit, have they encountered YOUR demons? They have not! How in the world am I going to wake tomorrow knowing that the FEAR will still be there. You hear “Just hang on” and can’t believe that you can accomplish such an insane task. That ledge is getting really slippery and you can’t feel your fingers.
So, everyday I started looking for one thing to live for. There were many days that it was my husband’s smile or my children’s laughter. Other days it was a chocolate doughnut. Some days it was the color of the sky, the smell of the air after rainfall, the beauty of a butterfly with an intricate face on their wings, tiny flowers in the yard that no one planted there, but are a gift from Mother Nature, or the sound of the lapping of ocean waves.
The Midwest sunsets on calm evenings, when the delicate pastels of the evening skies are painted on the bottom of barely moving clouds. The call of the male bullfrogs looking for them girls. The song of the cicadas in the damp summer nights. The howling of a distant pack of coyotes counting up their pack to make sure everyone made it through the night’s battle and had full tummies before heading home at dawn. The gentle curves of newly budded trees. Tiny insect eggs tucked into the stem of a dandelion. The deep buzz and tiny squeak of a nearby hummingbird.The delicate structures inside of ordinary looking flowers. Watching two tiny lizards basking in the late afternoon sun. Each of their heads on the other’s back enjoying the quiet before the next adventure.
The way the sun hit my living room window just right only during the “dark months” to light up the crystals in my window to give me rainbows in the afternoon on the days when it finally decided to grace us with it’s presence. The sound of raindrops on windowsills.
These are the things that make life worth it. That one thing would get me through. Before I knew it (though it seems like an eternity in the midst of it) the sun would come out a little more. I’d feel like showering a little more often. I’d hear myself laugh without having to touch the internal reminder that things are funny. Breathing got a little easier.
Here’s the thing… I’m talking to you, person who didn’t want to wake up today. Not the one that didn’t want to get out of bed, the one that prayed the night before (to a deity they don’t believe in) to allow them the freedom of not waking up. You. I love you. You are not alone. You can make it. Do you know how I know? Because I made it. More than once. I have survived every cell in my body telling me to give up. I will survive again. Because I know that one day I’ll look forward to waking up. One day I’ll be able to plan beyond the next minute. One day breath will come. Friend, it feels so good. You are worth it.
Because of my lovely picture (which is in constant need of maintenance), I cannot talk to many people about the constant weight on my shoulders. This situation is not helped by the recent loss of the two closest friendships I have, which happened as these things do, with only small amounts of shared blame.
I’ve been limping along for a while now, managing occasionally to feel like life is worthwhile and these wonderful times of hope are mostly because of my wonderful husband, the one person in the world that I am not afraid to cry with, the one person I know will not think less of me, or dismiss my pain.
This wonderful husband just got a short-term contract (four months) in a city six hours from here. It is a wonderful opportunity for him, one which I happily encouraged him to take, but I cannot go with him for various reasons.
During the day this seems like something I can manage; after all, he’ll still be here on the weekends, and it’s only for a little while.
But at night, the darkness invades my heart, and I cling tightly to him, terrified by the thought of being apart from him for even one night. Because along with being my best friend and soul mate, he is frequently my salvation.
It is because of him that I have not dropped out of grad school under the overwhelming apathy that threatens to prevent me from finishing assignments.
It is because of him that I can sort through my often tangled feelings and come out the other end feeling like I might be okay.
It is with him, and only him, that I can say that haunting word “depression” and not feel like I have to have a treatment plan all mapped out for his perusal.
Five days a week without him is five mornings I have to get out of bed and go to class. It’s 80 waking hours that I cannot debrief in his arms. It’s five evenings of dread, knowing what’s coming when I get too tired to fight it off, and it’s five nights of hugging my pillow, praying sleep will come before the melancholy attacks.
So, I got my medicine adjusted like I said I was going to.
After a hilarious rigmarole of being referred to a doctor who only saw seniors, then one who only saw children, then one who didn’t take my insurance, I finally ended up with a really sweet doctor (who is the tiniest woman I’ve ever met).
She added another antidepressant to the one I was already taking, and it seems to have helped the symptoms in question – I’m still sleeping odd hours, but it’s only for 8-9 hours at a stretch, not 12-14, and my default state is “bored” instead of “bored and sad and mopey and lonely.”
And yet I’ve not managed to quite nail things down. I’ll stay up late without realizing how late it is, then sleep until 4 or 5 the next afternoon. The new medicine causes insomnia, so I was warned to only take it in the morning. But if I don’t take it when I wake up at 4 PM, then I’ll just sleep even more. If I do take it, I’ll be up all night and sleep late the next day. If I do manage to wake up early and take my medicine, I’m so tired that even the medicine can’t keep me up and I pass out around noon and wake up at 7 PM (which is what happened today).
I just want to wake up in the morning feeling at least somewhat rested and get tired at night being able to fall asleep. Since when is that such a massive thing to ask? If I could just do that AND have my medicine killing off the sadness and apathy, then all I’d have to do is muster up the motivation to do laundry and clean my room and make it look like a human being lives here!
To top it all off, I’m moving to North Carolina within the month. My best friend is moving back into her childhood home, which she inherited when her dad died, and she’s offered to let me live there rent-free if I cover half the bills. Her area has a much better economy than mine, so I could find a job more easily. And there are nearby schools where I could get either an associate’s or a second bachelor’s degree in the field I want to move into.
It’s too good an offer to refuse, so I’m cashing out my savings and heading up there as soon as she gets moved in and ready.
What if it all falls apart?
What if I can’t find a good psychiatrist nearby? I don’t even know what my insurance situation would be before I got a job.
What if I get on this same fucked up sleep schedule again and my room stays this messy and I’m awful to live with and she hates me?
What if I still don’t find a job and I burn through all my savings?
What if I get the degree, and take out a bunch of loans to do it, and still can’t find a job even then?
I don’t know. I was so sure for awhile this medicine had made things a lot better, but I sure don’t feel any less afraid.
I alternate between believing both that “my parents gave me everything; I had a happy childhood; I don’t have any reason to be this messed up,” and “my parents emotionally neglected me; I had an awful childhood; no wonder I am this messed up.“
I fantasize about being in the hospital because that seems like the ultimate (and only) way that people might finally see me and care about me. Logically, I know that it’s not true, but my emotional brain is convinced that being sick or hurt is the way to get the love, attention, and care that is not present in my daily life.
I am ashamed.
I’m a 22-year old who is still desperately attached to my mangled childhood stuffed animal, Lambie.
I surreptitiously, but uncontrollably, pull out my own hair. I know have trichotillomania (and dermotillomania while we’re at it), but it’s one of my most shameful “secrets.”
I am pained getting out of bed in the morning. It’s hard to relate to people who casually say, “Yeah, I didn’t want to get up this morning,” but may not understand the gravity of depression. It hurts to the bone.
I have trouble taking my daily antidepressants because a hidden part of me doesn’t believe I’m worthy of feeling better.
I am obsessed with filling my brain with as much information about mental illness as possible.
And yet, no matter how much I read books, articles, and studies about eating disorders, depression, eating disorders, anxiety, or impulse-control disorders, I struggle to control my own mental health.
I have a hard time with “I’m depressed.” Maybe because I don’t believe that the real me is just buried under mental illness. It’s more like “I’m a person living with depression.” It has taken so much of my personality and soul out of me, but without depression, I am a lively, joyful girl.
I am taking care of myself (or I’m learning to).
I practically begged my parents to see a therapist, nutritionist, and psychiatrist, when I was only 15 years old. It certainly wasn’t easy, especially because we didn’t talk about anything “emotionally charged,” but I knew that it was a step I had to take in order to alleviate my pain.
I reach out to others when I need it most. Even though I isolate, too, I also know that in moments of desperation, I do instinctively ask for help and support from those I trust.
I treat myself to occasional manicures, special purchases (a dress, a pillow, some art supplies), and a lazy Sunday.
As much as my brain tries to trick me into thinking that I am worthless and unlovable, I try to actively do things for myself that remind myself that I deserve care.
I am brave.
I share my story with very few people, but when I do, it is the most rewarding experience. Sharing real experiences and thoughts is how I create deep connections with people.
I moved to Denmark for my first job out of college. I don’t speak the language, I’ve never been away from home for more than four months, and I left my entire support network at home.
I am working full-force in therapy at facing the demons and insecurities I have hidden for years. I am taking charge of my life by learning to be vulnerable, accept my flaws, and love myself in spite of them, and find happiness for the first time in my life.