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Photo: Roger Brooks/Getty Images

Depression Takes My Body Away

And clothing can help me get it back.

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As a depressed teen, I used clothes as a lifeline to pull me out of the fear that I was insubstantial. They made my body into a fun experiment I could control. As long as I had or could work toward the clothes that I love, as long as I could fit into them, take up their structures as my body’s own, I’d pull through.

I bargained with my despair: If I gave in to it, which I was sure I would, I wanted it to be on my own terms. If I was going to spiral and hit rock bottom eventually, I wanted it to be while I was wearing things that could prove to me there were things worth loving in the world, even if I was too tired to engage with them anymore. I changed my style every day, like I was running away from something, because I was.

The black darted jacket with gathered tulle at the base of the spine turned me into a business bitch Yohji Yamamoto muse who could never be bothered; the vintage crinoline I pinned haphazardly to look like an asymmetrical waterfall made me feel like the FRUITS girls I spent hours pasting on my walls, dreaming of Tokyo. I felt protected by my love for clothes even if they were strange to the people I knew, because I knew they weren’t the people I’d end up hanging out with when I grew up. If I grew up. The clothes I loved didn’t make me feel beautiful; they made me feel like the future, elsewhere, like my skeleton was a suggestion I was trying out. Clothes made my body a home I could have fun in. Sometimes they still do.

But one president later and several depressions and chronic illness diagnoses in, I feel differently. Instead of standing out, I feel more comfortable dressing in a near-uniform of militantly apocalyptic designs. When I panic, I buy army jackets at the consignment store, or wear an MA-1 and black leggings with pockets I can stuff with my essentials. On an average day I look like an extra in an Akira live-action film. I wear things I can run in, fight in, things built for dirt, the ugly forgotten utilitarian stuff. Everything is big on me now. I drown in my clothes, peek out from them only when I want to.

I’m now smaller than I ever was in school, and none of my clothes fit me anymore, except for pieces I’ve never worn before. The Little League T-shirts from failed attempts at sports when I was in the single digits of youth, the bustiers my mother gave me I never once had the waspish waist to fit into. Pants I inherited from a dead bulimic aunt I used to stare at, perplexed, unsure how we shared the same blood because our bodies were so dissimilar. I’ve been thrown into a version of me that has never happened before.

The physicality of mental health looks different on everybody, when it’s visible at all. Some people get bigger; some people bluer, with bags under their eyes like waterfalls; and some people get smaller, like I do. This is unfortunate, because it makes me look more traditionally beautiful, like I’m being rewarded for my suffering. So I hide it in big clothes so my body is shapeless and unworthy of remarks. I’m trying to write it over my body in a way that feels honest about how hard it is to survive, but that also expresses that I really want to. I am trying to figure out ways to accept my circumstances and be better than them. I want to survive myself.

Depression’s work is rarely done. It tests to see how far you’ll bend beneath the weight of your shame that you can’t wish it gone. It breeds desperation to cheat against your body’s demands of you: stop, do nothing, wither away, hide, get smaller, get quieter, crawl down six feet deep and keep going. Every day, it says these things to me, and every day I have to figure out new ways to negotiate that ugly conversation. I’m getting better at it, but I know it might never stop being a conversation I need to have. I’ll never stop rediscovering myself within it. Being chronically ill taught me a while ago that bodies are full of surprises, that they are unreliable narrators of our dreams, and that something can be a failing, but it doesn’t mean you are. Just because depression has changed my body and my relationship to clothes doesn’t mean that relationship is dead entirely. It’s just changed.

I believe there can be freedom in this, that possibility creates a freedom you cannot kill, that the void can be scary and strange but not evil, just something to cope with. Our bodies are our work and so is everything we do with them and put on them — they’re an inheritance. Depression takes my body away, but my body was a gift to begin with. Fighting depression means I have to give it to myself again.

Nowadays I wear mostly sheer things, not to be sexy but to pay attention to myself more often — seeing a constant glint of a nipple ring through my shirt helps me be mindful and keeps me grounded. Forces me to stay in the room, because the shine holds my attention. I wear more texture, crinkly fabrics and rough hems to run my palms over, to stretch out and unravel when I’m bored. Oversized jeans, comically huge, let me hide away as a performance rather than feeling resigned to ill-fitting pants that I could otherwise try to fill out. If I can’t have a shape that reads as full, I’d prefer to be shapeless and voluminous, like a fog that washes over people I love. I wear things I can use as handles and grip to stop myself from clawing too much at my skin (an aspect of my disorders) — collars I pull when I’m nervous, bracelets I tangle in my hands as I walk. Jumpsuits I can hide things I love in before taking them out like show and tell. Rings I can spin around and around until my fingers are tired and limp and calm. The rings are all shiny, too; they make me remember I can feel golden one day soon. Having things I can play with makes me feel possible again. It makes me feel like I can outrun something.

I am trying to shape a life for myself where I leave a lot of evidence, so if I am always running — back toward my body, back toward a foundation I can rest in — I won’t be lost for too long. Depression takes my body away, but it cannot keep me out. And anyway, being displaced means being elsewhere, and therefore possible somewhere else. I come back a different person, sure. But I keep coming back. I redecorate the space I take up. This body is still mine. I know it better than anyone else.

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