The Happiest Day of My Life

My sister-in-law and me, on the happiest day of my life. And maybe of hers, too.

[TMI Warning]

On April 3 of this past year, my older brother got married. I’d known his wife-to-be almost as long as he had–nearly two years–and she was basically part of our family by then. So to me, that day wasn’t just about the joy of one of my family members, but two. Though, actually, it was about the joy of all of us.

I woke up early on the day of my brother’s wedding after spending the night at the hotel with my whole family. My sister-in-law, her sister, their mother, and I all had our hair and makeup done professionally. The photographer posed us with our bouquets and snapped hundreds of shots.

The wedding itself was beautiful. It was an Orthodox Jewish wedding, and everyone received a little booklet explaining the traditions and why things were done the way they were. I found it all fascinating and unforgettable.

During the ceremony, I walked my little sister, the flower girl, down the aisle. I shed some stereotypical tears. I’m pretty sure my mom did too, and we probably weren’t the only ones. A Jewish wedding ceremony isn’t something I can easily describe or explain, so all I can say is that I hope you witness one someday.

The reception was fantastic. I got to see friends and family I hadn’t seen for years, and we danced for hours. I’d worn four-inch heels and my feet were killing me, but I didn’t care, for the most part.

And then it was over, I went home and went to bed, and woke up the next morning to the same life I’d lived before.

I’ve been thinking about that day a lot ever since. Not just because it was a major event in the story of my family, but because it holds a very special significance for me. It was, so far, the happiest day of my life.

On its own, that might not seem so strange. After all, since I’ve never gotten engaged or married myself, I don’t really have a choice but to live vicariously through those who have. Since I love and care about my brother and sister-in-law, it would make sense that their marriage would make me very happy.

But at the same time, it’s not the sort of thing you’d really expect as the happiest day of a young adult’s life. Most would probably say something like their high school graduation day, the day they were accepted to their dream college, the day they won a major competition or award, and so on. Self-directed things.

It was also kind of a weird time for the happiest day of my life to occur. Last winter and spring, I was going through a major depressive episode–I’ve lost count of the number by now, but it was probably my fourth or fifth one. In fact, I spent the night before the wedding and the night after it doing the exact same thing–sobbing on my bed for no immediately discernible reason. I remember it very clearly.

But in between those two nights, something was different. I wasn’t thinking about any of that. I wasn’t thinking about what a failure I am or how I have no friends or how I’m terrible at everything I ever try to do, or any of that other stuff that seemed so obvious to me.

And it wasn’t because I was “thinking happy thoughts” or “just ignoring it” or any of the other things depressives are constantly extolled to do.

It was because all of my attention was focused on someone else and on their happiness. Rather than trying to avoid my own thoughts, I actively directed them somewhere else.

In other words, the happiest day of my life was the day I almost didn’t think about myself at all.

I knew almost the instant the night was over that it had been a very special day for me. For months afterwards I kept replaying it in my mind, desperately trying to figure out how to get that feeling back. My parents told me later that their friends couldn’t stop telling them how amazing I looked–not just because I was dressed and coiffed and made up so well, but because I seemed to glow. I seemed alive, and it might’ve been the only time these people had ever seen me that way. It might’ve been the only time I ever have looked that way. I looked like a young person ought to look.

It was only tonight that I finally figured it out. And it made perfect sense. Because the truth is, I’m never going to love myself. I might not ever even like myself. I’ll probably always wish I were born another person. So for me, happiness will never come by focusing on myself and my own life. It will only ever come during those times when I can forget my own existence, my own self.

To be honest, I’m not sure that I’ll ever have a day as happy as that one again, except perhaps when my other siblings or close friends get married. I’m not sure that I’ll ever find someone who tolerates me enough to marry me, and even if I do, I doubt my own wedding day could make me as happy as someone else’s.

On a normal day, it’s just not possible to pretend that the world doesn’t exist. It exists, and it sucks a lot of the time. On normal days my family isn’t going through one of the happiest things that can happen to a person. On normal days, I don’t have anything this momentously joyous to think about.

But I think I can apply what I’ve learned to these normal days, too. That’s why the best advice I can offer to other people struggling with mood disorders is to “get out of your head.” The hard part is figuring out how to do that–it’s different for everyone–and summoning the strength to actually do it. For me, getting out of my head means getting into someone else’s and living through their eyes instead.

That day changed my life in many ways. It inspired me to learn more about the religious traditions I’ve thus far ignored, it obviously changed my family life pretty drastically, and, for about fourteen hours, it let me live without depression.

For those fourteen hours, I was alive. The black cloud over me was gone. The haze before  my eyes was gone.

I’ll never forget how that felt.

The College Story

See, I'm not the only one.

I wish I could spin you the story everyone wants to hear.

That story has a whole cast of predictable characters, and many trunks’ worth of familiar props. The friends, the neat dorm rooms, the beer, the photo collages, the inside jokes, the cute frat guys, the walks by the lake, the hot chocolate, the study sessions, the mentoring professors, the sorority mixers, the coffee dates, the giggly all-nighters, the risque one-night-stands and the whispered confessions to friends in class the next day.

Sound familiar? That’s the College Story. You’ve seen it in every glossy brochure, TV show, Seventeen magazine article, and back-to-school commercial.

But that’s not my story. It never will be. Because the kind of person I am doesn’t get to live that story.

Halfway through my college career, it’s time to admit this to myself.

My story? Sure, it has some bright moments in it. Most stories do, and mine hasn’t been that awful. But then there’s all the stuff nobody wants me to talk about–the weather, the loneliness, the way guys at Northwestern treat me (to be precise, like a thing), the rich, preppy students that I’ll never resemble, the hours spent laboring over essays that professors barely even read (and then unceremoniously slap a B on without further explanation), the expectation to be a walking, talking, drinking/fucking/studying machine, the not-so-subtle bragging NU teaches us to perform, the bottles of anti-depressants lined up on my shelf, the many nights I spent considering transferring, asking for a quarter off, dropping out of college, or dropping out of life.

I played with my little sister today. I do that every day when I’m home, but today it was different because I was acutely aware of the fact that I’m leaving again in five days. I hugged her and my heart broke all over again. I hate that I’m not here to see her and my brother grow up. I hate that nobody at Northwestern loves me the way these two do. I hate that my little brother took one of my blankets to sleep with because he misses me while I’m at school. It all feels so wrong to me.

I’ll feel better once I’m actually there, I know that. Despite what it may look like, making the best of things is a skill of mine. Once I’m there, it’ll be easier to make myself forget the loving family I’ve left back in Ohio and to pretend that home isn’t where I’d always rather be. Sometimes I’m even able to get myself to believe that I somehow matter at this huge institution of higher learning and that it, or at the very least, the lives of some of the other people in it, would be noticeably different if I had never existed.

The truth is that I’m paying $200,000 and a lot of my own sanity for a stupid piece of paper saying that I’m qualified to go get a PhD and actually learn something relevant to my life, because all I’ve learned these past two years is how to act smarter, richer, and more well-adjusted than I actually am. Call me an idealist, but I hoped that college would be more than this.

I’m compelled to apologize for this. To apologize for hating college, because it goes against everything our culture dictates that I do. I’m supposed to love it.

Well, I’m sorry. I wish I could tell you that I do.

Dillo Day: Not For Me

This just says it all, no?

[TMI Warning]

Today is Dillo Day, a Northwestern tradition that dates to 1972. It’s a music festival that happens each year on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend. We get to see several musicians, including some very well-known ones (B.o.B. this year) for free.

Of course, because Northwestern is a college, it is only natural that Dillo Day is more known for being a drunken shitshow than a music festival. The drinking often starts before noon (or even on Friday night) and continues till everyone is semi-conscious in the wee hours of Sunday morning. Actually enjoying the music is nearly impossible, unless you also happen to enjoy being hit on and groped, pushed and stepped on, and presented with some great views of people making out or having sex in public.

And now I’ll make a confession. I find drunkenness, and drunk people, disgusting. It’s not that I merely find drunk people annoying and inconvenient. I find them, and their lifestyle choices, repulsive. I don’t understand why the hell you would want to end your night getting intimate with a toilet bowl, or why you would want to be too far gone to even remember some of the supposed “best” days of your life.

My issue isn’t so much with the alcohol itself, though my relationship with alcohol has always been sort of hard to explain. My parents are social drinkers; they can hold their alcohol well and rarely get drunk. When they do, they’re louder, more social, quicker to laugh. In other words, they’re more fun. I’ve never actually seen them get very drunk, although one summer my dad went to Israel without us to see his friends and apparently had quite a bit to drink one day. It happened to be the same day that our fridge broke down, and my mom, completely clueless in terms of household appliances, called my dad long-distance and hysterically explained the situation, her fears regarding the baby formula going bad, and so on. My dad’s response was, apparently, a hearty “I don’t give a fuck!” and a dial tone.

And that was the worst of it. I’ve never seen my parents stagger, throw up, or hand their car keys over. I’ve never seen them down multiple shots in a row. (In fact, the only time they drink vodka is at dinner parties with friends, when every shot taken comes with a toast of some sort of emotional significance. Meaningless drinking this is not.)

Consequently, my own experience with drinking has been quite different from that of most people my age. I enjoy wine, mixed drinks, flavored vodka, and champagne. I like to drink wine with my parents over dinner and I can’t imagine New Year’s Eve without champagne. I like to be a bit tipsy, enough to make things a bit cheerier, and myself a bit more bubbly. But I have never been drunk, and I don’t plan on it. (In fact, I was furious a few weeks ago when a friend of mine suggested, laughing, that my friends will “make” me get drunk on my 21st birthday. Excuse me? Nobody can “make” me put anything in my body that I don’t want to put there. Any friend who tries to force anything on my body, be it sex or drugs or alcohol or a piercing or what have you, is no friend of mine after that.)

Last night, thinking about the shitshow that today would inevitably be, I found myself wishing that I were normal, that I could have fun in the way that everyone else can. I wished I wanted to do what they do. But I’ve never been that person. I’ve always been serious and I’ve always preferred to be completely in control of myself at all times. My disdain for drinking to excess is as natural a part of me as my preference for Pepsi over Coke, or the fact that I like to sleep on my stomach and not on my back. How do you change these things?

There are no words to describe such a feeling of isolation, which is one of many reasons I don’t talk about it often. I never fails to shock me how easily I’ve accepted everything else “abnormal” about me–my diagnosis of depression, my bisexuality, my foreignness–but I cannot accept this.

And most of all, I just want to understand. I complain about these things and my friends tell me with a shrug, “That’s just how people are.” But why? Why take an opportunity like an all-day free music festival and turn it into a drunken mess you’ll barely remember afterwards? I even understand drinking and partying when you’re bored, but why on a day like this one? Why is this desire as natural for them as my aversion to it is for me? I want to understand this in a sociological and psychological sense. But I don’t.

I sound like a boring, prissy goody-goody with a stick up my ass. I know I do. But the funny thing is, I’m really not. When I’m in a genuinely good mood, which, thanks in part to my shitty environment, is not often, I’m always laughing and making jokes. I love dancing and trying to sing, exploring Chicago with friends, and frequently acting like an idiot. I’m known to occasionally skip class and go tanning on the beach, and to write my papers the night before they’re due because I was too busy hanging out with friends before. I love fun. But I hate partying. The two aren’t one and the same, you know.

So there you have it. Dillo Day is a disgusting boozefest, and it’s not for me. I guess that makes me an outsider as long as I’m at college (and possibly for quite a while longer). I don’t understand why, as a culture, we are fixated on the idea that people should be moronic and depraved until they turn 30.  I want to know why our society believes that being an idiot in your 20s is some sort of prerequisite to having a happy, successful, and meaningful life–and why everyone thinks I’ll “regret it” if I don’t follow this path. I want to know why college students are required as if by law to drink and party and smoke pot and have a lot of casual sex (another thing I really don’t enjoy), or else they’re boring and “lame.”

I’m fucking tired of being judged. It makes me really angry. Stop.

Coming Home

[TMI Warning]

This weekend I went home to Ohio, where my family lives. I hadn’t been home since winter vacation (I spent spring break in New York) so the time seemed ripe for a visit.

The drive was spectacular in that unspectacular way. I took the Megabus, sat on the upper level, and spent whatever time I didn’t spend sleeping looking out the window at the Midwestern landscape. I watched as it changed from the industrial utilitarianism of Chicago and northwestern Indiana to the vast fields, punctuated by lonely farmhouses and islands of fluffy deciduous trees, that I grew up with.

When I got to Ohio, I was stunned by how green it was. Green trees, fields, and shrubs stretched in every direction. I was reminded of how I felt three years ago, when I came home from a summer in Israel–I felt like I’d never seen so much of one color in my life.

Coming home has a certain routine. I greet my family, especially my little brother and sister, whose screams of “Mashaaaaa!” (my Russian name) are always followed very closely by screams of “iPaaaaaaaad!” (my iPad is possibly their favorite thing about me). Then I go through the house and take an inventory of everything that has changed since I was last there. My sister has a new car seat, a much bigger one. There are new drawings and school projects and children’s books lying around. My dad has been cleaning out the little closet under the stairs.

My room, though, is just as I left it, more of a museum than a space where someone actually lives. Every time I’m home, I make changes to it, because that’s the only way I can continue to believe that someone actually inhabits it. Usually I box up some relics of my old life and put them in the closet. This time was no exception.

Yet it’s impossible to avoid the reminders of the fact that I don’t belong here anymore. The first thing my dad said upon seeing me was that my outfit (leggings, boots, and a long, non-revealing top–de rigueur in Chicago) was an “outrage.” He repeated this point several times, saying that just because I could wear something in Chicago doesn’t mean I can wear it in Ohio. Then he said I look like a slut.

This was far from the first time I’ve felt this way here. Come to think of it, I’ve always felt painfully out of place in this little suburb. I was one of very few foreign-born students in my high school, and one of even fewer Jews. I didn’t know anyone else who had ever visited Israel, let alone lived there. I looked different, dressed different, talked and acted different.

I was the subject of much speculation and well-meaning humor. I’ve been called such epithets as “commu-Jew,” “Russian spy,” and “weird Jewish Russian flute player.” I’ve been asked all sorts of naive questions; ranging from the innocent, such as, “Have you ever tried wearing your hair straight?” (Yes, I have. It’s ugly. I am Jewish and my hair is meant to be curly) and “Which church do you go to?” (Um, actually, I don’t go to any church); to the simply ridiculous, such as, “Do they have cars in Israel?” (Yes, Israel has come a long way since biblical times).

(Or, as an addendum–do I like bagels? Do I like vodka? Do I party a lot? How much can I drink? How much can my parents drink? Do my parents belong to the Russian mafia? Are they spies? Political refugees? Do they keep nukes in the basement? Will my dad beat up any guy I bring home? And while we’re at it, why didn’t the Jews accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah?)

I also found myself struggling to explain my developing identity to those around me. Whenever I tried to tell my friends about my life in Israel, I was generally met with blank stares, because many of the people I knew had never even traveled outside of the United States, and some had never even left Ohio or the Midwest. When discussing my travel plans, I usually encountered dumbfounded confusion as to why I would ever want to go to “that place,” since American media tends to portray Israel as a war-torn wasteland. One friend’s mom, a well-meaning woman who treated me like family, asked me to consider not going to Israel anymore because, and I quote, “We want you to be safe with us.”

Everything I’ve mentioned above, I generally took in stride, often even with a laugh. But sometimes the ignorance drifted subtly (or not-so-subtly) into prejudice. A boy in my third-grade class called me a “stupid Jew” (an experience now shared, sadly, by my nine-year-old brother). When a high school friend jokingly insulted me and I got a bit defensive, he smugly suggested that perhaps my defensiveness has to do with my Israeli nationality. Somewhat more disturbingly, a close friend in high school began to tell me once that her mom considers me egotistical–here I wondered, How? She’s hardly even talked to me–but then my friend inserted the explanatory qualifier–because I’m Jewish.

Oh, okay then. Makes perfect sense now.

Whether harmless and funny or crude and prejudiced, the way people interpreted and responded to me when I lived in Ohio could only have told me one thing–you don’t belong here.

Chicago is a different story. People mostly couldn’t care less which country my passport comes from or which type of religious congregation I attend (or, in fact, whether or not I attend one at all, which by the way, I don’t). When I tell friends about my time in Israel, they say “That’s really cool” and tell me about studying in Argentina or traveling through China. Although prejudice of various sorts still exists, even here, I don’t know which is rarer–someone deciding that I’m “egotistical” because of my ethnicity, or feeling like enough of a smart-ass to tell me that their mother thinks so. For the first time in my life, I’ve met people my own age who share  bits and pieces of my culture, and my identity has become even stronger because of it.

And yet…and yet. How I love coming back to Ohio. I miss the greenness and simplicity of it, the friendliness of the people, the lack of noise and traffic. Sometimes I even miss the prevalence of lawn gnomes and pickup trucks. I love escaping the pace of the city, and the police sirens screaming past my window at all hours of day and night. And the girls in heels and sunglasses looking down their noses at me, and the men who try to say things to me on the street.

In Ohio I don’t have to feel bad that my shoes are from eBay and my perfume is from T.J. Maxx–because so is everyone else’s. Even the extra pounds on my body seem to melt away when I’m home, because the “fashionable” waifishness I encounter every two steps at Northwestern is, needless to say, very rare back home.

In Ohio, in other words, I’m a big fish in a small pond.

I used to hate Ohio and especially Beavercreek, the suburb where I lived. They represented everything I hated about the United States–the stifling conservatism, the ethnocentricity, and, on a less serious note, the complete and utter lack of things to do. But over time I’ve grown to appreciate this leafy town. It is, in its own small-minded way, comforting, familiar, and serene.

I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world I’m coming home
Let the rain wash away
All the pain of yesterday
I know my kingdom awaits
And they’ve forgiven my mistakes
I’m coming home, I’m coming home
Tell the world that I’m coming