Memory/Character Essay: Thirteen Examples

Genetic Disposition

Emma Suleski

One foot in front of the other I slowly stepped off the bus. Boston is different than New York City. Maybe it’s because I grew up minutes away from this city, but Boston always seemed so quaint and charming to me. It used to feel like home. Now it just felt small.

I shuffled silently through the bus terminal. For the first time in months I was in plain leggings and a hoodie, hair thrown carelessly on top of my head, eyebrows un-tweezed, makeup undone. I wasn’t myself; I wasn’t put together; I didn’t have the same look on that earned me the nickname of “Barbie” in high school. I adjusted my backpack’s straps on my shoulders, letting out a breath as I felt the books inside bounce on my lower back, just inches above the fading scars that marked where the screws went in. The books’ presence was heavy, weighing down my body and my brain; they were a reminder of what I left and what I was going back to in just one week. The pocket of my sweatshirt buzzed and I pulled out my phone to read, “Inside the terminal. Downstairs.”

I shifted my backpack on my shoulders one more time, hoping for an instant that their weight was transferring to my chest and that was the only reason for its constant aching. No luck, the weight redistributed but my chest remained tightly bound with fraying rope. Rounding the terminal corner, I saw him standing at the bottom of the steps. He looked just the same, the same worn Levi’s, the same old flannel shirt, and the same salt and pepper hair. I shot my head back down to the ground, keeping it there as I trickled robotically down the stairs and bit the inside corner of my cheek in every effort to delay the tears. I held this position until I was standing in front of his ugly gray crocs. God I hated those things. I looked up, “Hi Dad.”

He pulled me in for a tight hug and I felt my whole world stop. My brain rushed through all the thoughts I spent the last four-hour bus ride contemplating. See, people have this romantic idea of depression. It’s the pretty girl weeping quietly as her make-up pours down her cheeks in her boyfriend’s arms. It’s the boy who just needs love to be saved. But it’s neither of those things. It’s coming home a month after starting college for your own health, it’s greasy hair and red eyes, it’s crying while hugging your dad in a bus terminal at eighteen years old. It’s so many things and none of them are pretty.

Releasing from his embrace, my dad grabbed my backpack and threw it over one of his shoulders. I pushed open the door and we stepped into a Massachusetts September night. The chill left my eyes stinging so through squinted lids I looked around me at the pedestrian traffic, bustling in and out of South Station’s doors. I smiled at the young girl, seven or eight years old, struggling to keep up with her family. I was familiar with her place as youngest and commiserated with having little legs that could only move so fast. I pivoted and followed my dad to his car and tossed myself into the front seat.

Watching city lights rush past, I sat in the silent car and thought. I won’t, because it would be, well, depressing, but I could write fifteen thousand different words describing how dull and dark lacking serotonin can make your head. That’s what it is too. It’s a chemical imbalance. It’s not some deep seeded Mommy or Daddy issue, the only thing my parents ever did wrong was pass down a genetic disposition.

My dad finally spoke, “How are you feeling Em?” No one ever wants to talk about how they’re feeling. In public, it’s taken as dramatizing teen angst. In pastel painted offices with ticking clocks, it is answering, “How does that make you feel?” over and over again. I’ve been taught to analyze every thought and to go against what my brain is telling me because if I had just a few more chemicals, well, it wouldn’t be saying that. I can’t answer the question in a simple few words; it takes weeks of hour-long sessions. In fact, how I’m feeling often doesn’t even make sense to me. So, I’m lucky. I can simply sigh, “I’m doing okay, Dad” and he understands the message, leaving me back to my thoughts and watching the familiar scenery pass me by as I leave the city and approach my little suburb in the woods. He doesn’t ask again today, but I know someday I’ll need to give him and everyone else in my life a solid answer. Just like me, they’re struggling to understand.

So I’ve learned. I learned to deal with it. After years of closing myself off and forcing myself to survive undertreated, I learned to ask for help. I went home because for just a few days, I needed the help of my biggest supporters. Like I said, it’s not pretty. I cried and my mascara didn’t run in little streams down my rosy cheeks, instead, snot dripped out of my nose. I learned that the best way to remember to take my medicine is to set an alarm on my phone and that even in 2014, not everyone is going to understand that I have a medical illness. I learned to talk, to express, to breathe, and to write. When I say write, I don’t mean a beautiful poem; depression isn’t writing words that rhyme or a symbolism that makes any sense. I mean writing an essay that is painfully raw and real. But getting those words down on paper, those real thoughts and feelings, that’s how I’ve learned to cope.

The car made a smooth right onto Buttercup Lane. When we moved onto that street eleven years ago I remember how excited 7-year-old Emma was to be living on Buttercup Lane. It doesn’t get more fairytale than that. That night I just chuckled, thinking about my poor teenage brothers who had to deal with living on such a flowery street. We pulled into my driveway and my dad yanked his keys out of the ignition. He sighed and put his hands in his lap, tossing a sympathetic smile in my direction. I nodded back to him and opened the car door.

I had been here a thousand times before. Not simply opening a car door in my driveway, but stepping out onto the pavement with a million thoughts rushing around my brain. Depression didn’t exactly surprise me when I got to college; it had been creeping up on me for years, slowly changing my thoughts and actions, slowly changing me as a person. A typical day after high school consisted of stepping out of my car, walking into my house, taking a nap in my bed, waking up, doing my homework, eating dinner, and going back to bed. Most of the time, sleep was my only escape from my daily demons. Due to an injury, my back physically ached, day in and day out. The chronic pain had taken away so much from me: my favorite hobbies, my strength, and my energy. I was struggling with who I used to be, who I was, and who I wanted to be.

The sickly sweet smell of wild grapes warmed by the sun flooded my nose as I got out of the car. I opened the back door to grab my backpack. Stuck between the back seat and the passenger seat, I struggled to pull it out. My dad nudged me aside and in one simple motion pulled the black bag off of the floor and onto his shoulder. I followed him silently up the stairs of our farmer’s porch and he opened the screen door. I pushed on our big front door, hip checking it twice as I always do during the humid months when its wood swells.

I trudged up the stairs and lay down on my bed, sinking deep into the foam that did, in fact, remember me. My thought then became, “what now?” I was home, I was safe, but I was still sick. I rolled over and on my nightstand still sat my old orange leather journal. It was a mess of impulsive scribblings and quotes I had found that resonated with me when I first slipped into the slump, thinking I was entering a phase of simple teenage insecurity.

My uncertain fingers opened creased pages. I turned randomly to an entry dated June 3rd, 2012: my sixteenth birthday. In hardly legible scrawl I read, “my second birthday I didn’t have fun. This isn’t just a phase.” I cringed, remembering myself, ninety-two pounds, shuddering as I kept a poker face while eating my birthday cake. My friends laughed around me, piling plates with ice cream and cookies. I pushed cake frosting around my plate and just laughed along.

I flipped pages to a year later, the summer before my senior year. Months and months of sickness had pushed me to cross lines I never thought I would even approach. I read, “He asked me where the faded pinkish lines on my hips came from and I laughed and said, ‘they’re stretch marks, you asshole!’ He traced one with his finger, looked at me with sad eyes and said, ‘they look more like the physical result of all those nights you told me you hate yourself.’ And I knew he had figured me out.” I closed my eyes, remembering that night. Sitting on a dock in nowhere, New Hampshire, breathing in the scent of forest and lake. I felt the knot in my gut, the pain in my chest. I felt as if I had been caught in a crime I never meant to commit.

I scanned pages one more time and read and reread a quote from one of my favorite anonymous online poets. Tears rolled down my cheeks as the words struck me in a new way. “Drinking cough syrup when you didn’t have a cough is ironic because in reality, you’re sicker than you thought.”

Discussion Questions

  • Why would somebody want to read this piece (the “Who cares?” factor)?
  • Can you clearly identify the author’s intention for the piece?
  • How well does the author support the intention of the piece? Cite specific details that support or take away from the author’s intention.
  • Is there information missing from this piece that would make its intention clearer? What else would you like to know?
  • Does the author portray herself as a round character? How does she do this?
  • Do you trust the author of this piece? Why or why not?
  • How clearly does the author establish a sense of setting/space in this piece? Cite specific details that support your claim.
  • How clearly does the author establish characters other than the self in this piece? Cite specific details that support your claim.
  • Did you learn anything new from reading this piece? If so, what?
  • Are there particular passages with engaging language/description that stood out to you? Describe the appeal of these passages.
  • Would you read more writing from this author? Why or why not?

 

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Genetic Disposition by Emma Suleski is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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