A midge lands on my hand. I go to brush it off but by the time I reach it, it’s already dead. It tumbles.
I am fresh out of my cap and gown, so sure of myself and my place in the future. I am going to Los Angeles in the fall, I tell myself, to make a life. To follow a dream I’ve created in the space of a year, the first year in which I’ve learned to dream at all. I pull weeds, I drink wine, I watch the sunset over the lake from the deck on its shore. I’m not happy, exactly, but I feel on the precipice of something. Perhaps even something great.
I’ve always felt at home next to water. Lapping waves, running streams, or even a still pool somehow untangling the knots within me. I ran to its side often as a teen in the throes of a self-destructive episode. I’d sit on the curb in the dark, toes just touching the murky edge of the neighborhood pond. It didn’t solve any of my problems, but for some reason being near it allowed me to breathe.
There was a pond behind my childhood home. We had it dug ourselves, out of what used to be merely a swampy field. Before it filled, I slid through the muddy pit on my stomach, staining white underwear brown with muck. Once the water rose, I spent afternoons teetering around its rim, net poised to catch unsuspecting bullfrogs. I always came up empty-handed. My mother and I took evening swims, joined by a yowling housecat who dipped in with us on more than one occasion. I caught a turtle once and tried to coax it into domestication with a fence staked into the shallow end of our pond. It grew ill and I had to release it. It wasn’t for me to tame. I am partially or completely nude in the majority of my childhood photos. I was free to do so, having no neighbors within a hundred acres. I’ve been told it was nearly impossible to keep clothes on me. The body was normal. The body was natural. The body was free.
It’s been a year now, and I’m sitting on this deck once more. I was on the precipice of something after all, but it wasn’t something great. It was a black hole of relapse. I didn’t move to LA in the fall. That summer, without the structure and security of university, I free-fell back into illness, finding myself depressed and in pain. I moved east instead of west, settling in Ohio with my parents in some morose parody of Failure to Launch. I’m saving on rent, I told myself, as I work on my health. I have worked, on some things more than others. I have been up and down. Spent months being torn down by depression and then building myself back up. Instead of being poised to leap, I feel hemmed in on an airport’s moving sidewalk, standing in the walking lane as people bustle around me, shooting dirty looks over their shoulders. ‘Why isn’t she moving?’ I imagine them asking. But my legs won’t work and my suitcase doesn’t have wheels.
My grandmother taught me to build boats out of milkweed husks. We split them open to reveal the silky white fluff inside. Sometimes we nestled acorns inside as sailors. Then we’d drop them in the water and I’d race downstream to catch them as they popped out of the industrial metal tube that allowed the stream to continue under the gravel road. Then up through the woods to do it again. We spent hours by that stream and the little pond near it. I upturned rocks to watch crayfish scuttle. I hopped between rocks and got as wet as I could in such a small creek while my grandmother, my third parent and best friend, watched on. She taught me so much of what I know about the forest, even though my scientist parents were actually studying it while she babysat. She fed me tuna salad and crackers as I sat high in the crook of a tree. For dessert, she passed up jumbo black olives that I placed on each of my fingers before slurping them off one at a time. She never ate herself during these picnics. She was always on a diet, sometimes eating nothing more than my leftovers. I used my creativity to make elaborate diet menus at her house. My restaurants had punny names and calorie counts for each of the menu items. At home, I ate whole-wheat bread and skim milk. I learned to tie thinness to health in ways that would haunt me for decades to come.
I spent childhood summers here, timid and anxious. Always the youngest, by far, I sat silently glued to my mom’s side, desperate for attention but too shy to ask for it. I never fit in, not really. Too quiet, too anti-social. Even now, on the edge of extraversion, I find myself unable to leave my mom’s side, her social comfort and practiced ease feeling like my only way into these relationships. I’m the quiet cousin, the sickly cousin, the elusive cousin. The one to be coaxed out of her comfort zone and into conversation.
I remember tubing and skinny dipping and watching the 4th of July fireworks from the big white boulder perched on the lake’s edge. I remember beer bottles and sing-alongs and sandy feet washed off in a cold bucket of water. None of this happens anymore, at least not with me, the family splintered apart long ago. But I still sit on this deck, all the same, accompanied by my aging mother, her brother, and sister. It’s more tranquil now.
Big mossy slabs of rock emerge from the riverbed and I hop between them, my parents following behind. This isn’t our land, technically. Or maybe it is, we don’t really know. Growing up on 120 acres of land gave me the privileged ability to disrespect certain boundaries. This isn’t that land anymore though. It’s not more than a handful of acres of Missouri suburbia. I dash carefully over the wet rocks, imagining myself in prehistoric times. My ankles are weak and my body atrophied from my budding anorexia. None of that seems to matter though as I admire the way the water burbles under my feet. I squat down to look for life but the stream rushes too fast for that. This forested backyard is a piece of home. Missouri hasn’t become home yet, not after a life growing up alone in the woods. It will be a few years yet until I allow the dark paint I insisted upon layering on my bedroom walls to be swapped for pale purple and green. It will be a few years more until I stop answering “where are you from?” with a confusing mix of too much information. Years more until I say I grew up in Missouri without qualification. This little stream ties my lives together in a way I didn’t think possible.
In a favorite photo from this era, I sit on an enormous, woody grapevine by this stream. My hair is dirty, my face is wan, my pants are so baggy my legs can’t be seen. My eyelids are heavy, my smile more a smirk than anything else. But we thought I was happy. They thought I was happy.
I may be aimless and neurotic, but I’m somehow less concerned with how I fit into this big, varied family. I can look out over the lake and just be. There’s nothing I need to get back for, there’s nowhere I need to be. I think about the lake, the purple flowers that line the roadway, the rocks tumbled by the waves. I just feel at home. I spend my days focused on people, seeing beauty in the customers I serve and the friends that I know. But I’m trapped in the same few buildings that I forget about the beauty in places. It makes me itch to travel as if I’ve forgotten an interest I used to have, just buried it beneath other things. But it’s back now. It makes me wonder if I should take a soulless corporate job and use my salary to go places.
Everyone says the Mississippi River stinks. It’s the exact appearance of something you should never ever drink; a color indistinguishable from its banks. I never really noticed a smell. I sat beside it as often as I could, which was as often as I could drag myself out of bed. As a college student drowning in depression, that is to say, not often. I’d drive downtown and park on the cobblestones lining its shore. Dried-out logs too large to be called driftwood were my perch as I watched cars cross bridges and barge cruise downstream. I never understood my peers’ distaste. Sure, it was brown and opaque, but it was an enormous body of water not 20 minutes from campus. What wasn’t to be grateful for? I didn’t have enough energy to run to it when I needed it; it was simply too far. Maybe if I’d had a car freshman year it would have saved me from the hospital. From the shame of letting loose anguished screams in my room and dashing out the door to my rock, past heads sticking out of dormitory doors. My rock was smoker’s rock, though I did not smoke. It sat in a semicircle of bushes on the edge of campus facing a busy road. I’d sit there when on fire and dream of walking into traffic. It’s where I caught the bus that took me to the hospital after I chose to put poison in my veins. There was no water on campus to save my life instead. No fountains, no pools. The only water I encountered were the droplets that splashed on my face as I emptied my stomach into the toilet of the dorm’s family restrooms. It was as dirty as the Mississippi, but it didn’t offer the same reprieve. It only made things worse.
I am so very happy this time. I am reading again, on this deck. Real books! I feel beyond content to just lie on the beach in the sun, a book in my hands. I spent minutes upon minutes just watching the waves come in, listening to them crash against the sand. I spend an hour watching the sunset. No phone, not even a book. Just being mindful, living in the moment. I don’t feel the pressure to figure out what I’m doing or to live a life I’m proud of because I am. I already am. Is this a side of myself I need to get more in touch with? Is this something I can carry over into my regular life? My therapist would say yes. I don’t feel rushed, I don’t feel the pressure of aging, of the march towards death. I just am. Nothing else matters here. I feel like I’m really living. My heart is full, my mind is peaceful. My brain doesn’t feel like it’s on fire, for once. It’s quiet. It’s okay. I feel good.
We live beside a river now, Swan Creek. Our house sits upon its bank, nestled back into the trees. Its murky green water runs quietly, flooding into a swamp when it rains. It’s calming to be beside it, just as it’s always been. I often take my lunch out to the deck and watch the water as I eat. It makes it easier to cram down the required amount of food. Sometimes I sit on the landing, above what used to be stairs to the shore, letting the sunlight filter through the trees above me. I squint at the water to discern crayfish and regular fish moving through the murky water. My parents complain about Swan Creek being the color of mud, but I’m not one to discriminate. Water is water to me. I reread my completed journal in the hammock by the creek and weep at the change that’s occurred. My favorite line: “I wish I wanted to be as big as the sun.” I am as big as the sun now, though I only wanted to want, never truly wanted to be. My body has grown to its largest yet after my second bout of refeeding. I am human-sized now. I am not sure that I love my flesh, but I know it is loved. My personality has grown with my body, reaching outside of its bounds and capturing others in its wake. It has the energy it needs to do so now. I buy sunflowers at the farmer’s market every Saturday morning. I clutch them in my hand, as my mother and I walk around, beaming as bright as the sun.
I sit here today being tousled by the wind. Actually, browbeaten is more like it. My hands are growing numb as I type this. I’m on the deck by the lake watching the waves peak as they hit what’s left of the shore. The lake has come up several feet since I began this piece. There’s no beach anymore and the stairs down to it were ripped off during a storm. I have to crawl carefully over the rocks if I wish to enter the icy water. Not today, I think. Today is for waves and reflection. I’m moving soon, somehow coming full circle back to the original plan. I’ve spent two years ping-ponging from dream to dream, trying desperately to know myself. I’ve used values cards and taken Buzzfeed quizzes and put the puzzle pieces of me together one at a time. I’ve gained knowledge about my health. I’ve stabilized. I’ve accepted. I’ve grown. I’ve turned the lens that has so long been on myself, out of pure necessity to prevent danger, outward. I want to give back now, to those like me. I’ll become like the individuals who helped save my life, who helped me build who I am now. Maybe that dream will change, but I’ll follow it.
I’m moving to a place that has little water to offer me besides an ocean that can be over an hour’s drive away. But when I stood knee-deep in that ocean last year on a visit, arms extended toward the sky, I knew it would be enough. I cried then, at the freedom I felt. I am 25. My disabilities are stable. I am in charge of my life. I am free to go wherever I desire. I can build whatever life I want. I have the tools now. I have dreams. It’s time to create.
Katarina Schultz (she/they) lives and writes at the intersection of media, mental health, and hope. Bylines include Screen Rant, Comic Book Resources, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and Uncomfortable Revolution. Kat lives in LA with her cat, Bug. She simply wants to make you feel.