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On Dark Matter and Superblooms
And I know, here on this side, that if I were to lose anyone I love as much as they love me that it would leave a void so vast and deep that the mourning of them being gone would alter my life in indescribable ways, in ways that couldn’t be fixed. I wouldn’t get over it.
We want you here. Please don’t go.
—Dooce.com, May 2019
The rains have reversed, temporarily, more than a decade of catastrophic drought. Some of the seeds that caused this bloom have lain dormant for years, waiting for conditions to improve.
— The New Yorker, May 2023
A few years ago, Heather Armstrong consented to be the third person on Earth placed in a chemically induced coma deep enough to approximate death with the hope that her brain would effectively reboot when she was revived. The human version of maybe you should try unplugging it and then plug it back in. She went through this experimental flatlining procedure ten different times in order to have a chance at recovering from an 18-month-long suicidal depression she’d been living with, the longest among a number of others that had preceded it throughout her life. Armstrong wrote a book about the whole ordeal, her last, published in 2019, but in summary, the treatment seemed to work.
It brought her back from the edge of almost left/nearly gone. Back to her children, back to her parents, back to her friends, back to her readers, and most of all of course, back to herself.
The thought I kept thinking had a beat like a drum and it didn’t feel like it belonged to me.
Sometimes I’d wake up to it. Sometimes it would recur throughout the day or appear just as the sun was going down and then follow me into the mouth of a long stretched-out night. Gone were the visions of mercy I’d sometimes wished for in the past. Being put to sleep by a gentle doctor, like a cat or a dog. Like any animal in obvious need of permanent relief from pain.
This was different. Darker. It doesn't matter how.
The voice in my head, the one we all have, seemed not to be mine.
By which I don’t mean I was hearing voices. It was more as though a wire in my brain kept getting tripped. Or a record I didn’t choose to play was skipping over one line of a dangerous song.
A moment of clarity came early last Fall — I think of it now as a slip of grace — where I knew it was time to ask for more help than I’d been getting.
If you’re thinking Uhhhhh no shit, Ma’am or Hey, lady, perhaps the first dark thought that didn’t feel like yours should have been enough to sound an alarm, I can only tell you this:
Depression is insidious. It’s slippery by design.
You think you’re grazing a toe along the shoreline of a few bad days when you wake up inside a riptide. Points of light on the horizon keep getting smaller as you try to swim toward them, and the bottom, should you touch it now and then, is made of quicksand.
Dooce dot com was the first personal website to carry display advertising which means, well before ‘influencer’ was considered a viable job title, what Heather Armstrong wrote there convinced people to buy things.
Over twenty-some-odd years spent piping her life out into the cyber sea. Exquisitely photographed, wryly observed, often very funny, sometimes harrowing, a lot of beautiful decoration mixed with vulnerability rawly transcribed. The expression of it all together over time led to a unique digital ascendancy in which the colossal power of her pageviews could be marshaled to great effect. And so, after being approached by the many people who had lost loved ones to suicide or who themselves were suffering, while she was on tour for her book, Dooce seized the authority established by her brand and threw a line to anyone losing hope back on shore.
You may think when you walk into a room that you do not light it up, fuck, but do not lay down with that demon. You would be missed with the gravity of unknown universes inside those who love you, vast expanses of space inside every vein and molecule and atom, and even though I do not believe in an afterlife I know that somewhere in the relativity of time and space and light, because of that blip of a moment of all moments lived on this earth when we could smell your scent and touch your face, you would hear us wailing. And you would know you are loved.
We want you here. Please don’t go.
May 15th, 2019. Emphasis hers.
She knew everything we all know when we aren’t sick.
That is how practiced a con artist depression is, and how skilled a thief. That is how patient, cunning, and relentless the illness can be.
Enough to snuff out the life of a woman who’d gone to war with it repeatedly and survived her own near-death ten times previously.
Apertures along the periphery begin to collapse. Appendages feel like lead. Everything that’s beautiful still is, the sky, a stranger's face, but now the beauty feels stitched with sorrow and all of it breaks my heart. Physical energy, the ability to focus, or to enjoy anything objectively pleasurable is similar to day two of a bad flu. All mistakes and regrets sit side by side on an invisible ledge where they offer nothing but Pelosi claps. Useless and burdensome. A waste of all gifts and goodness. Back in the middle of the ocean, trying to hold onto enough air, trying to stay under the waves that keep coming, praying for a little light to peak through, trying to keep enough breath in my chest until I can push up to the surface again.
For years I’ve wanted to pitch Dick Wolf a new show called Law & Order: Social Media Unit. It stars me as the lead detective, doing cyber forensics aka googling people into the ground. Quotes from Rumi and pictures of you in tree pose on your dating app profile will not stand in the way of my swift determination that you are, in fact, an emotionally bankrupt narcissist not actually separated from your spouse. I will find out in minutes. There are digital breadcrumbs everywhere if you know where to look for them.
A particularly harmful post written disjointedly on her website (now gone). Cryptic poems underneath Instagram selfies where she looked anorexically thin. Facebook videos during Covid in which she was slurring and seemed confused (an alcohol addiction had been acknowledged and her recovery from it chronicled in parts, much more recently). People once close to her gestured at having become estranged in the more recent past, complex grief threaded throughout otherwise lauding public remembrances.
So, yes, I found what seemed like evidence of mental illness and substance abuse looming ever larger overhead. But the place amidst all that social media soup where Heather Armstrong commanded the biggest audience was on Twitter. An early adopter who’d been included on Influential Lists, over a million people followed her there. And what I became captivated by while conducting my investigation was how the account’s focus seemed to shift during the months leading up to her death. It seemed to move…out. Out and far away from here.
There were quotes from Einstein about relativity. References to Quantum Physics. Fibonacci sequences. Breathtaking images from the Hubble and James Webb telescopes. Of nebulae and black holes. Of cartwheel and spiral galaxies. It’s like she was mapping something. Plotting a course. Peeling back layers of all this seemingly unknowable vastness and pointing us toward the architecture beneath or behind.
It’s also entirely possible I’m projecting.
But when I saw that last one, the single definition from all my years of formal education which, for whatever reason, has remained parked in a corner of my brain since 1989, came immediately back to me:
A black hole is an object for which the escape velocity is equal to or greater than the speed of light.
I googled to make sure my memory from Mr. Thomspon’s 11th grade Astronomy class was correct and this is how NASA puts it, with a little more context:
A black hole is a place in space where gravity pulls so much that even light cannot get out. The gravity is so strong because matter has been squeezed into a tiny space. This can happen when a star is dying. Because no light can get out, people can't see black holes.
They are invisible.
In no particular order, some very helpful things: Medication and therapy and memories of walking down the beach on Spring Breaks alone with my father. The watery pink light of Eastern Long Island and what happens to a stranger’s face when you tell them how beautiful they are. Meditation and gratitude and mindfulness and exercise, and meetings with fellow travelers inside anonymous rooms. My stepdad’s hugs, my best friends’ kids, private jokes from thirty years ago, and texts that say I love you out of the blue. Bookstores, babies, low humidity, my mother’s laugh, and the amount of daylight between March and June. The echoey sound of pigeons cooing at dusk, and the wind moving through leaves in the trees. Cobblestone courtyards, trains whistling in the distance, and the earthy smell after it rains. Unconditional love from another dimension masquerading in costumes of fur. Learning to trust the body’s infinite wisdom because certain wires won’t come untangled and some knots can’t be undone simply by discussing them.
I want to convince you that destigmatizing mental illness is urgent and it needs to be addressed by more than a hashtag attached to well-meaning posts throughout the month of May. Because the shame those of us who struggle with it feel makes it all so much worse. So I embedded a bunch of links. I added footnotes. Sciencey things. Evidence that depression is a complex systemic disease. The connection to inflammation. I planned to tell you about neuroplasticity and polyvagal theory. About telomeres getting shortened by a culture steeped in the very traumas it originated, systematized, and now ignores. I have statistics for you too, the exponential increase in rates of suicidal thoughts and actions among adolescents, especially young women, and girls, and how it’s basically all social media’s fault.
I’m going to tell you what I’ve been thinking about every day since I heard the news about Heather’s death, instead.
I’ve been thinking about droughts and dormancy. About demons and wildflowers. About spirals and black holes. About seeds and the rain.
I’ve been thinking about what happened to California and Arizona in March. How the dry cracked Earth turned into a riot of life through a single season’s watery change.
I’ve been thinking that all wounds are designed to heal.
I’ve been thinking about the parts we had to exile from our earliest selves in order to survive. Psychic tissue that got torn. And how we walk around believing it means we’re broken people now. I’ve been thinking those pieces are really just orphans of the soul. Treading water in the depths. Sending messages and sounding alarms in the only ways they know how. Waiting all this time. Waiting until they hear us whisper that it’s safe to come back home.
I’ve been thinking about Heather and I wonder where she is now and I wonder if it feels like when you can finally stop pedaling at the top of a very steep hill and there’s no effort at all anymore it’s just the wind in your hair and the sun on your face and there’s nothing left to hold, so you let go, because you have to, and now you’re starting to remember again, this was you the whole time, borne from before, you’re flying past time so there’s no night anymore, here you come back again, it was too heavy down there, you’re the shape of a spiral, there are trees in your hair, your face is the sun, flowers bloom in midair, you’re sending us starlight but the sky isn’t there, here she comes back again, home everywhere.
Last night, a month and approximately thirty versions of this ago when I first intended to press send, I prayed to the God of Serotonin and Archangel Dopamine along with whichever saint is in charge of helping fearful people find the courage to finish difficult things.
Because the whole point of writing it was throwing a line back to you.
You, out there in the middle of the ocean. You, just grazing your foot along the shore. You, clawing your way through the next hour. You, alone on the bathroom floor. You, paralyzed by grief that seems unending. You, seeking comfort from the robot who runs your phone. You, sitting next to someone still breathing who’s already gone. You, waking up with a stranger, in the middle of a life where you don’t belong. You, swallowing secrets you shouldn’t have to hold. You, afraid it will always be this heavy, empty, and dark. You, going back for love from people who never learned how. You hearing a voice that isn’t yours. You wondering if it would be easier with you gone.
What if you’re someone else’s point on the horizon? And the smaller you make yourself the less light they’ll see. What if someone is praying right now for the grace only your heart that’s wide open from being broken can allow? What if your whole existence is a dormant seed? What if the person you’ve been waiting for is you, you with just a little more water and time?
I think the opposite of a black hole is writing it all down.
And you are the rain we need.
I think the person I’ve been trying to tell all this to has probably always been
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