It’s Thanksgiving, 2017.
I’m sitting barefoot, 5 p.m. light streaming in through the window, the tree across the street ablaze in red leaves. Within two hours, it’ll be dark.
The house in which Dario and I are living — a lumbering Vancouver Special that once belonged to my grandparents — is quiet. He’s at work. Mewcha is asleep.
I’m starting to feel hungry but I don’t feel like getting up to make dinner yet. When I do, it’ll be something warm and simple. I feel as languorous as the shadows stretching across our empty street.
This quiet. I’m thankful for this quiet.
A year ago I was boarding a plane from Ottawa to Vancouver. Or maybe I’d already landed and was sitting in silence in the backseat of my parents car. Or maybe I was still locked in a YOW bathroom stall, perched on my suitcase and sobbing.
Nothing was quiet then. My thoughts were racing faster than I could keep up with and yet none of them made any sense. I couldn’t feel properly. The deadness of my emotions made my insides feel like cement, and I obsessed over this. I couldn’t think or care about anything except the fact that there was something deeply wrong with me.
Only a week or two later, lying in a hospital, paralyzed by these thoughts, I’d hallucinate that my brain was like a record, with voices spinning endlessly, refusing to be quiet enough to let me think properly.
But on that long-weekend Monday last October, I hadn’t quite reached that stage of delusion.
This is a story I’ve never told before.
I booked my ticket to Ottawa maybe two weeks before leaving, springing the decision on Dario and his parents. He’d been back in Ontario for just over a month, trying to cope or trying to forget the fact that I was losing my mind. A year later, neither of us really knows which.
I was filled with a frantic, desperate hope. I’d recently seen a doctor who thought that my symptoms were the result of something neurological, rather than psychological (spoiler alert: he was right) and he’d taken me off most of my medication. In my paranoid state, I’d become convinced that the pills were the source of the problem. I thought that as soon as the chemicals left my body, I’d feel a sudden clarity.
In addition to this, I was hopeful that seeing Dario and being in Ottawa again would unlock some type of nostalgia in me.
As the plane pulled to a stop on the Ottawa runway, I plastered an unconvincing smile on my face.
When you arrive at the Ottawa airport, you have to take an escalator down from the second-floor arrival gates to the first-floor baggage carousels. As I stepped onto the moving stairs, I spotted Dario waiting to greet me and I knew that, after a month apart, that should have made me feel happy. Over the five years leading up to that moment we’d had numerous airport reunions, and I’d always felt an intense, familiar relief when he pulled me into a welcome-back hug.
But this time, I couldn’t seem to coax even a bit of joy out of my cement-filled core.
The next thing I remember is sitting by lamplight in Dario’s parents’ guest bedroom, him on a mattress on the floor, me on the single bed. I felt overwhelmed by our aloneness. Rather than talk, I downed a sleeping pill and closed my eyes, willing myself to sleep.
When I woke up I still had some faint idea that I might be able to fake my way into normalcy. Dario and I went to breakfast and to the Byward Market. That evening I picked at my dinner, unable to taste it. I couldn’t explain what was wrong with me, and I wavered between feeling silently terrified by this and feeling apathetic about it all.
We went for a walk after dark, past the brick mansions in the Glebe and then up to the apartment building where we’d spent our final two years of school. I felt like a stranger to myself, to the city, and to the person beside me.
After spending the whole day gathering my courage, I finally forced myself to ask the question I’d come to Ottawa to ask. It took so much effort that I felt like I was heaving up the contents of my stomach, pushing the words out of my esophagus.
“When do you think you’ll come back?”
There was a pause, then a quiet. “I don’t know. I’m scared.”
I knew instinctively that “I don’t know” meant “I’m not.”
And I couldn’t blame him. It’s a struggle, still, to understand what happened to me and to the people I love during that time, and to wrap our minds about how we dealt with it all.
I slept as much as possible through the next two days, trying my best to stay curled up in the guest bed until it was time to go to the airport. I felt like I was lost to both Dario and to myself, and I couldn’t sum up the ability to feel truly sad about it, much less to verbalize my lack of emotions.
It wasn’t until he hugged me goodbye at the airport that I suddenly dissolved into tears.
“I wish you were coming with me,” I said.
“I know,” he replied.
But he didn’t get on the plane.
It wasn’t long after that I finally got a diagnosis, that I went into hospital, and that my treatment began. A year later, I am so well that, at times, I forget the whole thing even happened. I am so myself that it seems impossible I could have ever been anybody else.
That said, on beautifully quiet days like today, I do find my thoughts drifting to this past year. This past June, I said that I was going to try not to write so much about being sick, but the truth is that there are still many moments when I can’t help but think of my life in comparisons.
As we sat around the dinner table at our early Thanksgiving dinner on Saturday, listing the things we’re thankful for, I said I was grateful to be healthy. I used to think that it was boring or elderly to give thanks for good health, that there were more romantic things to appreciate. But this year, my health seems like the biggest gift of all.
I’m thankful. For the fact that this June, Dario did get onto a one-way plane to Vancouver, for the cat slumbering on the couch, for my parents and sister who ate too much turkey with me this weekend, for my brother and his beautiful family, for my friends, that sat and watched yesterday as a tattoo artist inked a cedar branch onto my upper arm. Thankful to have a roof over my head and food to eat.
This is what I feel thankful for every year and what I hope to feel thankful for for years to come. But this October, in addition to everything else, I am particularly thankful for the relative quiet in my head.
I’m thankful for the fact that my insides no longer feel choked with cement, that I can feel the heart beating in my chest and that my brain, once swollen in my skull, has finally healed.