Symptoms of Disappearing
Content warning: this essay contains discussion of passive suicidal ideation.
It started out as a joke. Or at least I thought it was a joke.
Last summer, my book club read The Hours. This group of Hudson Valley mothers and parents discussed how we were struck by Michael Cunningham’s sensitivity to the plight of new mothers. “Sometimes we all want to run away to a hotel room with a book,” we all agreed.
When lockdown began to drag on through March and into April, then May, I found myself chasing solitude in a similar sort of way. Our book club had moved on to Grady Hendrix by then. I tried to find time for The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. I brought my book into the bath tub, my bedroom. Each time my six-year-old daughter would interrupt me after a minute or two, bursting through a closed door with a request for a snack or for help finding the remote control. Her father was there, working on his computer. It didn’t matter. We were meeting over zoom to talk about the book the next day, and I hadn’t managed to steal away any reading time at all. Stolen. This time was stolen, from more important things. From my work, my family. Finally I took a mason jar mojito out to our hammock, and managed to read for about forty minutes, as the sun went down. It felt luxurious. My daughter appeared, a dark shadow on our back deck.
“What’s for dinner?” she asked me.
I put my book away. Later, I stayed up until 3 a.m., reading. The next day, I asked my book club: Do you ever think about just vanishing? Maybe moving to Canada, becoming a librarian?
They laughed, though their laughter was a little strained. Over the next few weeks, I made this joke a few more times.
Do you ever want to just disappear from this universe? Do you ever wish you didn’t exist?
It wasn’t really a joke. It wasn’t really funny.
I sold my book Strange Creatures in 2017. By 2020, I had been editing it for three years. The book is experimental, emotive, complicated. My editor said that the editorial process was different for my book than any other book he’d ever worked on.
It was different for me, too. At first, I just couldn’t get it right. In order to edit my book, I had to have my ADHD diagnosed and treated for the first time. I had to come out as trans. In order to edit this book right, whole paradigms had to shift within me. But by late winter of 2020, I was finally on my way. My daughter was in full day kindergarten; my ADHD was well controlled. I knew who I was, at last. In early March, after I’d spent nearly a year writing and rewriting the book’s beginning, I had a meeting with my editor where he let me know we were on the right track. Let’s move on to part II, he said. You’re fast — how’s a one month deadline sound?
I’d been working on revising another book with my agent to prepare it for submission, but I set it aside. I settled in to do my work, confident I’d make my deadline easily.
That Friday was the last day my daughter went to school.
I should say that I love my daughter. She is a bright, funny, empathetic horse girl. She’s better with computers than I am. She has a secret kingdom called Toyland that features prominently in her art and stories. She’s the mayor; her plush toys are her supporting cast. She is social in a way I never was, a born extrovert. She thrives from human contact, from conversation. At six, her brain is moving, moving, moving. We learned that she knew how to read three years ago, when we were trying to spell sensitive topics around her and she jumped right into the conversation. She is so good at cheating at board games that sometimes we don’t even notice until it’s too late. She keeps us on our toes.
I hate that I have to note my love for her, because she’s amazing, and it should be a given. But I know how some people might want to frame this essay: by my failures as a parent, by my failures as a nurturer, by my failures as a woman.
I don’t consider myself a failed woman. I don’t consider myself a woman at all, except in an accident of misidentification, in the ways that I’m perceived and in the ways that I was raised within our society. But when my daughter was born, I was still lying to myself. I was still trying. I set up any number of markers, mostly biological, by which I would finally prove my womanhood. Childbirth and breastfeeding, and then attachment parenting in an intense model in which I’d found myself socially. I did many of the things I was supposed to do. It didn’t work. The sense of wrongness never left me. Some might say I was just a different kind of woman, one who prefers work to caregiving. It doesn’t really matter what anyone says, what I say. I know my happiness.
Do you know how long it took me to write this essay?
I contemplated it for four months.
I shouldn’t be writing it now. I have a book to write. Hanukkah presents to wrap. I have a 1 p.m. daycare pick-up, and a 2 p.m. synchronous math meeting. The fish tank needs cleaning. Our elderly cat needs his asthma medicine. These words are frivolous. There is no time for words like these.
When she was three years old, our house was a mess, I had two literary agents leave the business, and I’d almost given up on writing. We had no local family. We had only ourselves. When she was three years old, there were crumbs everywhere, I couldn’t finish a single coherent thought, and she went to bed in my bed around 11 pm every night. Sometimes I would fall asleep first, watching Fred Rogers tour the pretzel factory while she was going, going, going, a little baby brain on warp speed. Frazzled wasn’t the word for it. Frantic was more like it. I’d become convinced, somehow (by who? I can’t even say — maybe by myself) that I would only send her to school if she asked for it. If she consented. I’d decided that to do otherwise was cruel. I don’t believe that anymore. I started to research homeschooling, ignoring a niggling voice inside that said no, and what about your writing, and you are disappearing.
Then one day, in her car seat, my daughter watched a yellow school bus stop in front of us, and sighed.
“I wish I could go to school,” she said.
I found a little in-home preschool not far from our house. I was hesitant. I planned to send her for less than a half day, from nine a.m. to noon, so we could eat lunch together. On the first day, I was supposed to stay for an hour while she tested the waters. She looked at me, a slight glower creasing her brow, and told me to leave.
“Parents don’t belong in school, mom,” she said, with perfect three-year-old gravity. Her preschool teacher said it would be fine, that I could come back in a few hours. I felt rudderless. I wandered around the supermarket, weeping, ran into a friend who laughed with me about my daughter’s self-determination.
By the end of the week, my daughter told me she wanted to stay for lunch, too. By the end of the week, I’d quit weeping. Every morning, after drop-off, I snapped to action: running a load of laundry, emptying the dishwasher. And writing.
That was the year I finished the book that would become Strange Creatures. Before this, I would wake myself up in the middle of the night to write 100, 200 words at a time, between freelance projects, before falling asleep again. Suddenly, words poured out of me. I didn’t leave my career behind. I didn’t homeschool. I got a new literary agent, a new book contract. Thanks to that yellow school bus, I had a new beginning.
My spouse and I worked together and I made my quarantine deadline. For three hours a day, while managing a new business venture and his own work, he ran around the backyard with my daughter pretending to be a unicorn. I would hide in my office, headphones on, and try to resist doom scrolling. There was no time for it. All through the spring and summer, I’d hand in pages, and get revisions after only two weeks, three. There was no time for the other projects, or the medium posts I’d started to write for extra income. There was only this book, and marching it toward the finish line, as best as I could on fifteen hours a week — less than I had even when my daughter was in daycare.
In between this, we tried to stay afloat with online learning. Other parents told us they were going easy on their children. That didn’t work for my bright flame of a child. When we didn’t keep her busy, keep her interested, she picked fights with us. She reverted to eating only white foods. She got mad that we hadn’t given her brothers or sisters. She bucked. She sparked.
Her distance learning was close to non-existent, and she’d already had a challenging kindergarten year — one which found my early reader insisting she couldn’t read, that she wasn’t supposed to, even though she’d read us books on holidays and weekends. She contended with her first bully, and shifting social patterns among established friendships. In some ways, being home was healing. We made sure it was. I researched phonics learning games and other homeschooling materials. We did Girl Scout badgework. We watched science videos, did experiments, kept her as busy and tired as we could. She learned how to ride a bike. And we were happy, in a way, except for the way in which I deeply wanted to just vanish from this reality.
In between this, too, the skype calls with my editor and the copy edits, my child’s education and happiness, my spouse’s work and my own, we fought over attending protests and disinfecting groceries, on podding and summer camp, on outdoor playdates with friends. We were scared, both of us, in different ways and about different things. I felt like my world was contracting with every heartbeat. Growing smaller. I felt myself growing smaller, too. Even when I put on my headphones and closed my office door, the little knuckles would come knocking.
“Mom? Mom?” she would call. I had no space, not really. On one or two days, feeling deliciously wicked, I closed my office door, put on my headphones, and watched High Fidelity. Watched people go to bars, kiss each other, buy records. A thousand things that felt wrong already, felt like dreams.
I only did this once or twice, though. My time was too precious, too in-demand. More often, I took my medication too-late in the day and buckled in during work time. If I wanted to watch TV, or doom scroll, or watch youtube videos — which of course I did — I saved that for the middle of the night. 3, 4 a.m, over medicated, eating my child’s Easter candy in a deadened haze. I began to wake up at dawn to work in our yard, patching holes in our greenhouse, chopping down trees. Our space looked perfect, a dream all summer. But the truth was, that wasn’t why I was doing it. I was doing it for the silence, just myself and the birds and the sound of my saw. I was doing it for the solitude.
I wouldn’t call myself an extrovert. I straddle the line between introversion and extroversion, needing community but needing time alone, too. Before quarantine, I had my trans support group. A monthly writer’s group. I went to trivia night every week. I went to monthly meet-ups of local Girl Scout leaders. I went shopping for records. I went out for coffee with friends.
Lost, all lost, in lockdown.
But I also had glorious alone time, stretching out in front of me. Forty hours a week where my characters would dance around in my head. Where I could compose thoughts, put together sentences, vacuum on occasion, clean out our fish tank, or go to a store to buy some new pants. Before lockdown, I had two ways of being a person beyond my parent self: the external and the internal. Those other selves shrank down to nothing. I didn’t even have time to mourn them.
They were just gone.
We were fighting too much. Then the washing machine broke. Then our elderly cat had a health crisis. We thought we were going to have to put him to sleep. After we all cried around him, he rallied. We adopted a new kitten. There was a hurricane. We lost power for three days. We gave up on spraying the groceries with lysol. We continued to debate pods, playdates. I made my deadlines. I got a new release date. Somehow, in this universe, it seemed, my book was finally on the verge of coming out. And yet I still felt like I was shrinking, disappearing. Or maybe I just hoped I’d disappear.
Maybe I’ll drive off to Canada and become a librarian, I thought. But Canada doesn’t even want us anymore.
Everyone around us was forming pods for the coming school year. It was too dangerous, they said, to send their children to school with the children of essential workers. The local school board was dithering about reopening. I didn’t know what to do. We’d signed my daughter up for a week at “camp” at her old daycare back in February. Back then, in the middle of what we thought might be a long and difficult school year, she’d begged to go back to see her old teacher. Would we send her?
I can’t even talk about this anymore, my spouse said after the umpteenth discussion about their mask procedures. It means more to you. You decide.
She wanted to go. I sent her, wearing her mask. On that first day, I came home and snapped into action. I vacuumed, cleaned the fish tank.
And sat down to write.
Two hours in, I sent the daycare director a tentative email: Am I remembering correctly that you have a program for school-aged kids for remote learning in the fall? I’m probably too late, but curious if you have any more details.
Of course, the director wrote back, we’d love to have her.
When my extroverted daughter came home that day, she was glowing. She told me about a new friend, who soon would be a second grader. I listened in a way I hadn’t really been listening in months, savoring her freckles, her humor, her happiness. Feeling a tiny spark of something inside her, inside me.
Her old self. My old self. Our old friends.
It wasn’t until a few months later that I realized how bad it had gotten. Honestly, I’d never been depressed before. I’ve been an anxious person; had anxiety attacks when I was younger. Done EMDR and CBT. I thought I was used to my more complicated feelings, my own dark moods. But this had been new, the urge to vanish.
“Isn’t it funny?” I said to my spouse one day, as we loaded the dishwasher together. With childcare back, with time, with space, our fights had started to calm. We are both stubborn animals; we will never be a couple that never fights. But now we were no longer two trapped, panicked and stubborn animals. We were showing signs of being human again. “I’ve hardly felt like disappearing since we sent her back to daycare.”
“Yeah,” said my spouse, who has more experience with this kind of darkness than I do, “Disappearing. That’s the start of it.”
“What do you mean?”
“Depression. First you start wanting to disappear. Then you start thinking about how.”
Later, after bath time and a story and a kiss goodnight, I googled: wanting to disappear mental health.
Passive suicidal ideation, I read.
This story isn’t over. We’re still in it. Her school went hybrid for three weeks. We sent her — or perhaps I should say that I did. Every day, I let her climb up onto that school bus, wearing her mask, and her smile under it. For a child who had a hard kindergarten year, I was surprised by her palpable joy. There were more stories about new friends from her class of six children. About her love of the hot lunch, eaten at a distance. About gym class. About her new teacher, who let her take any book out of the library, who let her get a new one on the very same day when she was finished with the first. Each day, two days a week, for three weeks, I had eight hours. I started a new project. I felt more and more like myself. We snuggled at bedtime, talking about our day.
Then there was a COVID case in another class at her school. They closed to quarantine for a week, just as cases are rising, surging past April highs. Will they open next week? I don’t know. But if they do, I’m sure I’ll send her.
Some friends never sent their children. They stayed remote. It’s not worth the risk, they say. I feel the heavy implied judgment about my choices. My daughter on the playground with other children. My daughter in two classes — daycare, school — and the bus, too. Sometimes I wonder if I were a different gender, a better woman, a better mother, if I could have done it. If I weren’t so selfish, in love with my writing, my solitude, my work. Maybe then I could have kept my family safe in the way that so many people think I’m supposed to. By sacrificing everything else.
I think about myself, eating Easter candy until I needed three fillings, up all night and then too-early in the morning just to snag a little silence, a little time to think. I think about myself, disappearing. And wanting to disappear.
Is it foolish to make the choices I’ve made? Is it dangerous? I believe the research that says that numbers in school are generally low, that young children need school — that parents need school, too. That domestic violence against children and women is up. That mental health issues are rising. But also I seek this information out. It justifies my choices. It justifies my being here, solid, present, still.
We are so lucky, I hear the mothers say, That we can stay home right now. When her school closes for a week, I make a joke to my writer’s group about wanting to unzip my flesh and walk myself into another reality. None of this feels lucky. It felt too much like drowning, for too long.
I am sure I am not alone in this. I can’t be.