4am, 17 Years Ago

I read this old poem of mine today, and I found it more thoughtful than I remembered. I wrote it the summer between high school and college. I was depressed already but neither I nor anyone else knew. I was secretive and moody but I mostly just seemed like an emotional teenager. But when I look at things I wrote, I know that my depression was already at work.

I wrote this poem, probably late in the summer, in 2000. I was already having trouble with insomnia and I wrote this at 4am, like the title says. I did not record the date–just the time. I thought my thoughts were being ruled by the night rather than by my age, but this poem is very much written by an 18 year old. 

So why is it worth revisiting? There are a few moments worth touching on, I think, as a way to see my depression clearly at work. Here’s the poem. I will share my thoughts after:

I don’t want to be here

I don’t know where in the hell I want to be

I want to be in your grasp


As long as I can see my reflection in your eyes

But not here

And not anywhere alone

There is a different kind of blood running through my veins

It feels different

All it does is create dissatisfaction and desire

Desire for everything I’ve ever dreamed of

I need something to appease my heart

The beat is sad

I want out

I want to go far away from everything I know

I want to feel you on my skin

I want to see pink sunsets

I want something better

I want the courage to actually do something

I want talent

I want opportunity to knock on my door

And I want to be older

I want to be in your realm, not the audience

I want you

I want to rearrange the world and write my own fate

And I want to be in love

I want to close my eyes

I want to be someone else

I want to walk out my door and never come back

I want to know every song ever written

And I want to write the saddest song in the world

Then sing it

I want to peer into your soul

And I want you to peer into mine

I want to climb a mountain

And find all the answers at the top

I want to kiss you

I want to play the piano

And write a book with all the right words

I want to look into a mirror at your house and be satisfied

I want to lose my heart to you

I want you to take my hand in yours and hold it tight

I want to sit with Carlo Marx and contemplate everything all night long

I want to stand in the rain

I want life to be more than it is

I want to stop and start again

I want somebody to talk to

Just to talk

I want to be able to sleep at night and not wake up

I start with my discontent and the vague desire to be elsewhere. As I begin to romanticize my feelings, I actually touch on something noteworthy: “There is a different kind of blood running through my veins/ It feels different/ All it does is create dissatisfaction and desire.” I was being hyperbolic, metaphorical, but I was more correct than I could have imagined. My blood wasn’t different, but my chemicals were imbalanced. And I could feel it. I was different. My body and brain were working differently than my friends around me. And it made me discontent. It made me long for something to make me feel better–to make me feel happy again. I thought at 18 I needed romantic love. But that was just the lens through which I viewed my feelings. I thought it was because no one loved me. And I longed for the love that I thought would fix me. And I thought that I could not find it where I was because if I could have found it there then I would have already found it. I couldn’t understand that the problem was not external but internal. And yet I did understand. I felt the difference inside, as if it was in my own blood, but I couldn’t understand that a mental illness could change my ability to perceive reality and myself so dramatically. 

One of the weirdest things about my first depressive episode is that I really wanted to live fully–I just didn’t want to live the life I had or be the person I was. I wanted a different life. I wanted to do, be, and experience the world. It seemed so beautiful and yet I felt so sad. I thought that if I was different or if I went somewhere different that maybe I would be able to feel content and happy: “I want to climb a mountain/ And find all the answers at the top.” felt like everything I needed was out in the world somewhere. I thought that if I could journey across America like Sal Paradise or go to Africa like Eugene Henderson and become the rain king (“I want, I want, I want…”). I just wanted anything that would work. I was searching. I thought I needed experience in order to find what I was looking for. I was consumed by daydreams of the things that I thought would fix me. And I would ruminate over my inability to have the things I thought I needed to feel happiness. And because I wasn’t going to actually, physically go anywhere, I obsessed over my bad fortune. That fate had put me in a place and time where I could never be content. And I thought that if I could just escape and find the answers to all of my existential questions, then I would be fine again. I would be like everyone else again. But I need a journey or I would wither where I was.

But beyond wanting to take a physical journey or fall in love, I wanted everything to be different. I felt like even if I did all of these things, life would still be disappointing. I was already giving in to the hopelessness of depression: “I want life to be more than it is/ I want to stop and start again/ I want somebody to talk to/ Just to talk”. I go from not wanting to be where I was–time and place were the problem–to wanting all of life to be more–existence generally is the problem. At first I didn’t fit where I was, I wanted things to fix me, but by the end I want everything to be different– a do over. But what I really needed was someone to talk to about all of this. And that is not just something to throw away. That is not just what I wanted as a depressed 18 year old, it is truly what I needed. I needed to be honest and tell someone how horrible I felt rather than just writing about it. I knew that I needed that. But I believed that I was strange. I believed that I was selfish and bratty for feeling unhappy. I was afraid to show my true colors for fear of rejection. As much as I need to talk to someone who could help me, I didn’t. I just wrote it all down and kept it secret. 

And finally, “I want to be able to sleep at night and not wake up”. As I mentioned above, I was already experiencing insomnia as a result of my depression. I would stay up late in my room thinking, ruminating, writing, daydreaming. But sleep was elusive. It sounds like I meant that I wanted to be able to sleep solidly through the night, but I know better. I remember. I wanted to be able to sleep and never wake up. This is some of the earliest evidence of my experiences with suicidal ideation. Part of me was willing to admit that I was so discontent, so unhappy that I would not object to gently falling asleep and never waking up again. I felt that way because as I wrote down all of the things I wanted I became more and more sure that I could never have them, and that I was crazy just for wanting so much rather than accepting what I had. I didn’t have a bad life. I didn’t know why I couldn’t be happy, and why I wanted so much more than I had. And it was too much for me at 18. I felt like I had my entire life in my hands at 18, and I was signing up for an unfulfilling life, and that any other life was inaccessible to me. I felt like I was stuck before I ever began. I felt doomed. But I didn’t realize how doomed I was. I didn’t realize that I was just at the beginning of wanting to sleep and never wake up. I didn’t realize that within a few months I would do what I could to make that desire a reality. 

It surprises me sometimes that I could so clearly feel what was happening–I could write about it–but I didn’t understand it at all. I could feel the changes taking place in my body and my ability to function. I recognized that I was feeling more and more unhappy every day. And my depression made me think that it was all normal. That it was just the truth–the reality of the situation. I just accepted my own destruction as unavoidable. I was destined for a life of unhappiness a the young age of 18. 

But that is how depression works. It hides. It wears a mask and makes you believe that it is you. That you are the depression and the world is as skewed as depression makes it seem. And depression tells you to hide yourself. Depression makes you feel like an anomaly. And it will make you believe that nothing can every change to make you feel any better. And it starts small and romantic. And it is pretty and tragic. And it feels special. But it turns dark. It turns ugly. And it is nothing but a vicious illness. 

There is hope for healing. You can feel better, and the answers to your problems may be closer to home than you think. Don’t let depression steal your dreams. Don’t let it tell you that you will never feel happy again or that only the impossible can fulfill you. There is love, hope, and happiness available through medical help and therapy. Sending you love and clarity. May you see the truth and find the healing you deserve.