My morning routine goes something like this: My alarm goes off, and I open my eyes. I spend a few minutes wondering who would find me if I froze to death alone in my apartment, buried beneath a pile of blankets and stray overcoats. (Answer: probably Netflix, after they’ve realized that I haven’t watched an episode of Law & Order SVU in a few days.)
Then, I set a timer on my phone to go off in five minutes, a little less than the amount of time I’ll need to mentally prepare myself to brush my teeth; the actual amount of time being: forever.
I walk to the bathroom and squeeze a tiny, baby-sized amount of toothpaste onto the bristles of my Sonicare. I tie my hair up in a bun on top of my head. I brace myself against the bathroom sink, waiting. Left bottom molars first, a quick sweep across my central and lateral incisors, right back molars. Top left molars second, and then I gag. I spit out my toothpaste, suck in a few deep breaths through my mouth, gag again. I hold my nose so that I can’t taste the peppermint. I pretend it’s a mouthful of a Starbucks holiday drink instead. Nothing works.
I vomit a tiny splash into the sink, rinse, and re-brush my top and bottom teeth. I spit again, try to swish some water around, and repeat. It’s like my body is actively rebelling against any action, thought, or process that might make me smile more.
I used to think it was weird, that I puked every time I brushed my teeth. I thought I was allergic to toothpaste or something. I thought maybe I had ulcers. I thought I was having prolonged morning sickness, a la Kate Middleton, due to my propensity to eat tater tots at five in the morning, or whatever. Every conversation I had with a medical professional went exactly how you would imagine:
Me: “Ummmm…so, I’ve been doing this really weird thing lately? Like, not on purpose? I think I might be allergic to toothpaste or something, because I throw up every time I try to brush my teeth.”
Doctor: “Here are some pamphlets with more information about eating disorders.”
The conversations I had with my mom were even worse.
Me: “So, I kind of threw up this morning while I was brushing my teeth.”
Mom: “Oh my god, you’re definitely pregnant, you’re grounded, forever.”
I eventually accepted my fate: that no one I could tell would ever think that it was anything other than bulimia, or that I was somehow permanently with-child. Those seemed like more realistic options for a girl my age, at least compared to something like being allergic to Colgate.
So I stopped seeking medical advice on the subject. I puked every morning post-dental hygiene routine, and I tried to just stop worrying about it. I knew what to do. Hair up, tiniest amount of toothpaste possible, breathe in and out through my mouth, vanilla-flavored mouthwash to seal the deal. On the good days, I only gagged or dry-heaved, my stomach muscles contracting while I flung cool water in my mouth to try to make it stop. I’ve been told that after a while, human beings can adapt to almost anything.
And then, something unexpected happened. Sophomore year of college, it started happening less and less. Eventually, it stopped happening at all. I convinced myself that I had found the miracle brand of toothpaste (Crest Cavity Protection, flavored “Regular Paste”), and moved on. I gained weight. Not a lot, but enough that the girls in my sorority stopped poking my ribcage and giggling that I should eat a sandwich. I didn’t mind. I threw away all of my old dresses and pants and got new ones. I was fine, as long as I could keep my stomach down in the morning.
It happened periodically a few times over the next few years, but never on days when I felt happy and content and loved. I moved from California to Texas, and then Spain, and then the UK, and finally, New York. I was away from my family for the first time on an exciting, new, adventure. I had boyfriends and friends and new co-workers. I had a job that I loved, and a writing group that I trusted. Things were mostly pretty okay.
This summer, when it came back in full-swing, I noticed that it was worse on mornings after I had stayed awake too late, fighting with my ex-boyfriend and drinking whiskey after we hung up the phone to forget about it. I’m just a lazy, stupid drunk, I thought. I should probably take care of my body better.
After that terrible break up, I naturally started spending more time on my own, even though it felt like being in solitary confinement. Of course I still had my friends, but sadly, most of them did not want to spend every waking second eating Twizzlers and watching Bob’s Burgers with me like my ex did. (I know, shocker.) So, I was stuck hanging out with myself most nights.
Every millisecond that passed when I wasn’t surrounded by friends or loved ones made me feel like I wanted to crawl out of my skin. The moment I met up with a buddy for a beer, or a dude for a date, I immediately relaxed. It felt like being freezing cold, and then stepping into the nicest, warmest bubble bath in the world. It felt like I was alone on a life raft in the middle of the ocean, casting a rope out repeatedly, only feeling remotely normal when a tugboat passed by.
One night, when I was so deep into a Tumblr void that I couldn’t possibly remember whose page I had started out on, I stumbled upon Twitter comedian Rob Delaney’s feed. And it was funny. It was dark, sometimes, too, and there was a lot of stuff on there about Robin Williams’ recent death; compassionate stuff, stuff that made you think about your relationships with the people in the world around you, and I got completely sucked up in reading all of his stories.
I bought his book immediately, because hey, I had a Barnes & Noble gift card and nothing to lose. It was 4am on a Tuesday. I stayed up til 7am, reading it, until I came across a chapter where Delaney described what it was like to have severe, suicidal depression.
If I were a cartoon, my jaw would have hit the floor. When Rob Delaney was depressed, he threw up when he brushed his teeth, too. There was a whole fucking chapter on it, nine beautiful, wonderful, totally gross, graphic pages about how completely and utterly not-alone I was.
For a brief, magical instant, I was elated. Finally! Someone cool and talented has the same weird thing going on! Someone who is living proof that you can be both funny and witty and abnormally sad, all at the same time! And then I was immediately swept up in thinking about my own reasons for hating to brush my stupid teeth.
The first stretch of time was when I was 15, after my very first boyfriend got kidnapped in the middle of the night and taken to one of those wilderness rehab programs in Provo, Utah. Even though I had never taken any drug stronger than Benadryl, I was terrified that the same thing was going to happen to me; that I’d be shoved in a van and taken away from my family and school and left in the middle of nowhere to die.
I developed severe insomnia, and completely stopped sleeping, except for twenty-minute micro-naps that my body would force upon me so that my brain wouldn’t completely shut down. I lived like Tyler Durden for almost 9 months, which feels like a lot longer than it actually is when you’re wide awake for a full 24 hours each day.
I started fight clubs in every city across America, aka, I watched Bridget Jones’ Diary about 400 times and woke up in History class without remembering how I got there.
It got bad again when I was 17, involved in a super unhealthy relationship with a guy who once hit me over the head with a dissecting tool in the middle of anatomy class—one of his less-horrible offenses, actually. I, having a mild case of Stockholm Syndrome, and him, being a total sociopath, went to prom together a few weeks after that. Super smart choices.
And now, here it was again. Maybe it was because the guy I was seeing for a few months broke it off with me to get back together with his ex-girlfriend. Maybe it was because, at the end of August, I got full-on hit by a semi–truck that ran a red light while I was crossing the street. Maybe it was because my ex-boyfriend told me that he had started sleeping with the girl who played his leading lady in a summer production of Odessa by the Sea while I thought we were still dating. Maybe it was because my dog died. Maybe it was because my grandmother had a stroke. Maybe it was because I was broke and drinking too much. Maybe it was just because I was sad.
I went to the doctor and had a complete physical: blood work and urine tests, an EKG, and an impressively strong blood pressure cuff that squeezed my arm until it turned purple.
“Completely healthy,” my doctor grinned, showing too many teeth. “You’re the right weight for the right height, and your blood work looks perfect. You don’t need a follow-up appointment at all.”
I shouldn’t have been, but I felt disappointed. I was secretly praying for a dark mark to appear on the corner of one of the diagnostic reports, alerting some tech in a lab somewhere to how lonely and exhausted I felt. My doctor would see the inky stain slurring my EKG results and exclaim, “Oh my! We’ve never see anyone this miserable before! Your heart must be super, totally broken. Let’s fix you right away.”
I’d be rushed off in an ambulance to a room full of puppies and all of my friends. There would be pizza and root beer floats and those Daim candies from Ikea that my grandmother used to sneak to me when I was small. Stacks of Harry Potter books and copies of Star Wars on VHS would be displayed on a giant bookshelf in the center of the room. Brandy by The Looking Glass would be playing on an endless, magical loop. We would roast marshmallows, and someone would have remembered to bring my Timberwolf sweatshirt, the one I stole from my friend Ulyses, who stole it from his Eagle Scout leader. We would have a big party until I stopped being sad. That’s what I wanted. That isn’t what happened.
What happened, it turned out, is that I wrote this instead. Because I don’t ever want anyone to feel as alone as I did for years, having this bizarre superpower that ruined my mornings and put me off breakfast. It turns out that I didn’t have an allergy, or a virus, or an eating disorder at all. It turns out that depression doesn’t show up on a blood test, but it does manifest itself in other ways. It likes to grab you by the inside of your stomach and demand that you give it attention. It likes to convince you that there are no simple answers, and hey, maybe there aren’t.
But for now, I’m taking things one day at a time. I’m going to keep waking up early every morning, and thankfully for those who have to stand anywhere close to my mouth, I’m going to keep brushing my teeth.