By Shaunacy Ferro
On August 17, 2014, I posted this standard “I’m a New Yorker doing cultural activities” selfie of my mom’s and my reflections in a Jeff Koons piece, adding a butt joke as my own personal touch. What’s lost in the pink, glossy image is that I was, at that moment, in the deepest depression of my life.
Only a few minutes afterward, I detached from my mother and my sister, making my way through the Brutalist hallways of the Whitney Museum into the adjoining garden-level courtyard. I desperately needed to get away from the rooms full of expensive, world-renowned art whose appeal and value I just couldn’t fathom. I sat down on a low wall and cried. I felt stupid and useless. My inability to at least pretend at normalcy was ruining what should have been a lighthearted family day with my mom, who had flown in from California in no small part because my phone calls had gotten increasingly morose, hopeless and panicked. When my sister came looking for me and saw tears, I just said, “I fucking hate art.”
On a surface level, I had a well-paying job at a magazine with a recognizable name. I knew my college professors would think of me as a success story for working there, and I had a supportive boss who was constantly trying to give me juicy assignments. Just a few months before, I had been flown to Norway on a press tour of some of the country’s nicest hotels and most beautiful scenery — Instagram gold — ostensibly to write about the Norwegian design scene. (Few knew I had yet to complete a single story.)
I had just emerged from the stress of an unhappy long-distance relationship, and I was genuinely excited to try out some of the dating apps that had emerged since I was last single. I told anyone who expressed their condolences how mutual it had been; how it had been the nicest, most loving breakup of my life; how free I felt the first day I was single; how much weight had been lifted off my shoulders.
I had just adopted a cat and had already accumulated a stockpile of cute photos of her lounging around my apartment that I posted with boastful captions like, “There's a cat purring on my lap — what are YOU doing with your Saturday?”
“I stopped looking when I crossed the street. I wondered how much Advil could kill you. I tried not to look at the full bottle of prescription-strength Ibuprofen in my room, given to me for back pain, because it had started feeling like my secret escape plan.”
Not even my roommates — my best friends — knew just how much time I spent sobbing, in my room and in the bathroom stalls at work and on the subway platforms where even hardened New Yorkers would occasionally stop to ask if I was OK. “Yeah, I’m fine, it’s fine,” I would say. I worked from home many mornings and had panic attacks on the way into the office in the afternoons, thinking about all the stories I had been assigned that I knew I could never finish, thinking about how every new task assigned at an all-staff meeting felt like it would break me.
I felt desperately alone, even though some of my closest friends lived a train ride away. When my depression made it even harder for me to strike up a conversation with a stranger at a party — or even go to a party at all — I berated myself for my social awkwardness. Every day that I failed to meet my required post count at work, I took it as a sign that I was incapable, that after four years of journalism school I wasn’t cut out for this after all. I scrutinized the schedules of my coworkers and friends, taking note of every moment the people around me worked overtime. I wondered if there was something deeply wrong with me for not wanting to spend every waking hour on my job.
Worse, I couldn’t imagine life being any different. I’d only ever prepared for a career as a writer and barely knew what other job options existed. I didn't know anyone who had a job that wasn't stressful, or who regularly left the office on time, guilt-free. And I couldn’t imagine anywhere I’d have a more active social life. Out of all the cities in the country, New York was the one with the highest concentration of people I knew.
On days when I managed to make it into the office by 9:30 a.m., hoping that the quiet, near-empty space would give me a jump-start on my day, lunchtime would see me having a breakdown on a Financial District side street, hoping that none of my coworkers would pass. I scheduled emergency appointments with my therapist and snuck out of the office on many afternoons to stare vacantly out her 22nd story window. I hinted to her about how much I willed cars driving through Manhattan to hit me, but I didn’t disclose the full truth. I was afraid she’d send me to the hospital, and I didn’t want to have to explain that to my boss, didn't want to fall even further behind than I already felt at work.
I stopped looking when I crossed the street. I wondered how much Advil could kill you. I tried not to look at the full bottle of prescription-strength Ibuprofen in my room, given to me for back pain, because it had started feeling like my secret escape plan. I didn’t want to kill myself. But there were moments when I sincerely wanted to die. It was a thought that felt too ludicrous to vocalize, even at the time.
“I still have to sit in a therapist’s office every single week and admit how twisted my inner monologue is, and I still don’t always believe her when she says my harshest inner critic isn’t speaking the truth. But there are moments now — days, weeks even — where I am genuinely delighted by life and glad to be participating.”
I felt idiotic for letting what seemed to be very normal 20-something problems — a job that inspired low-level misery, an unsatisfying social life in a new city — consume me whole. I knew on a rational level that there were other ways to escape work than bodily injury, and that one day, I would make a few more friends in New York City. I knew that there were worse life choices than quitting your job and moving back home with your parents at 23, and that that was, in fact, a viable option. But I could not get rid of the spiraling thoughts that said, “You’ll always feel this way; you’ll always be depressed; a new job will not solve your problems; you’ll never have friends.” Even if I knew, on an intellectual level, that my life would turn out OK, I couldn’t feel that way. This wasn't the first time I'd felt depression take hold of my life for months on end, and the sheer persistence of my gloom-filled mental fog made despondence seem inescapable.
My Instagram from this period looks no different than any other period in my life. There are some cats, some pretty skylines, some twee Brooklyn merchandise, some brunch locales with exposed brick walls. My captions are sparse and unpunctuated, but none hint at the darkness of my life beyond the frame.
Eventually, I dug myself out of the hole. Or partway out, at least. I went on medication. I found yet another therapist. I found a new job that I didn’t have to work hard to be fascinated by. I went on a Tinder date that led to more dates that led to a slight but vital expansion of my social circle.
I’m still not what most would consider a happy person. I still get lonely and inexplicably sad and panicked about my future. I still have to visit a medical professional every few weeks to tweak the medications that keep me from drowning in self-pity, because after a year and a half we still haven’t found the perfect cocktail to right the delicate balance of chemicals in my brain. I still have to sit in a therapist’s office every single week and admit how twisted my inner monologue is, and I still don’t always believe her when she says my harshest inner critic isn’t speaking the truth.
But there are moments now — days, weeks even — where I am genuinely delighted by life and glad to be participating.
My last few Instagrams, as it happens, are also from a museum whose art I couldn’t truly appreciate. They, too, include juvenile jokes, this time about lost penises on Greek statuary and not-so-subtle references to ancient dildos. But elsewhere on social media, you can see me standing outside that same museum with my friends, a genuine smile on my face.
Shaunacy Ferro is a writer who lives in Brooklyn, New York.