On April 7, 2019, I accepted a job at Banana Republic.
That simple job offer saved my life.
Many things came together to save my life, but that was an important pivot.
I was thirty-three years old and repeating to myself, over and over, the same nine words: “The next thirty-three years cannot be like the last thirty-three.” [repeat, repeat]
It was a variation of words I’d been repeating for three years now.
“The next thirty-two years cannot…” and,
“The next thirty-one years cannot…”
—down to thirty, which was a birthday that had brimmed with hope: the beginning of a new decade. I’d been worrying for two years about what approaching thirty said about my age, and then when that birthday came, a wave of relief washed over me—my twenties were gone, and good riddance! My teens too! Even my childhood seemed not to matter.
For, you see, those added up to three decades of depression. “Cyclic” depression, my psychiatrist called it, because when I was at my worst, I could not shake thoughts of suicide; and when I was at my best, I was simply depressed. For as long as I could remember things had been this way, with no remission—relief, for me, was at the top of my depression. But it was still a depression.
At thirty I thought, too, perhaps I’d be more of a grown-up at work. I was climbing the publishing ladder quickly, with a promotion every one year instead of the two my first Editor had told me to aim for. I’d been the youngest Editor in my class—me, an Associate! Could I hit Publisher in another decade? I was on my way.
And then my world crashed down. As a Senior Editor of some world-famous journals, I lost nearly everything.
I’d already lost my sense of safety, my dignity, my health. But when I lost my job because I was drinking on it (I couldn’t stop; I shook when I didn’t drink; I feared was losing both my mind and my body.)—I lost my hope. My livelihood. My identity as someone who contributed. And, now without my health or my job, I lost my will to live.
I received a lot of help, extended by strangers who soon became my trusted helpers.
But I couldn’t find a job.
That spring before Banana hired me, I was overtaken by something startling, something strange. I was planning my suicide.
I should explain. Suicidality was not a new experience. I’d been there a few times before—the “cycle,” so it seemed—but this was new. I’d always been planning, desperately, ways to stay alive. Gratitude lists. Lists of the people I loved, who loved me in return, whom I could not bear the thought of hurting so profoundly. A busy schedule. Cuddles with my dog, that little light who carried me through those dark days.
But this time was different. I wasn’t planning ways to stop the thoughts; I wasn’t desperately trying to put up safety barriers to protect me from myself. This time, I had given myself a deadline: My lease was up at the end of May. That gave me until the end of May—three months—to find a job (which seemed more hopeless by the day), or else there was nothing left to be done, but take my own life. I had been depressed for far too long. And I had too much pride to attempt anything non-lethal. There would be no waking up, at the end of May.
I was as honest as I could be. Crying in my psychiatrist’s office in March, newly sober, he asked me to please be hopeful, and I shook my head. Usually he appealed to my reason, analytical and peer-review-minded as I was, but today he knew he needed to speak to my emotions.
He asked if I was thinking of hurting myself.
I looked at my lap and tried to answer, but the lace fabric kept my gaze and my lips wouldn’t move.
Finally, I said, “Not any time soon.” Surely he could understand what that meant.
He ended our session by asking me to pinky promise something. That I would not give up hope. I told him I couldn’t do it, but he insisted. You can’t break a pinky promise. I conceded. We pinky-promised, and he taught me a new trick, a tradition I’d never encountered before—you use your other hand to cut the promise, as if to seal it. This seemed to me the ultimate promise.
But damn it was hard to keep that promise.
I continued to fail interviews. Editing test after editing test. Before, I’d had confidence that I could “edit like nobody’s business,” but as I attempted new genres, I stood corrected: I could edit chemistry journals like nobody’s business. Everything was just so niche. I never should have left materials science, for, it seemed, there was nothing else I was qualified for.
I sobbed after each letdown. I couldn’t eat. My weight was dropping, and I periodically fainted. Newly sober, my anorexia barged forward with a vengeance. I couldn’t even bring myself to eat enough to have anything to purge. In food, it seemed, I rediscovered the only order I could create.
I applied to every Banana Republic in Manhattan. I marched in with my resume, edited to show strong sales skills, and a sparkling cover letter that was basically a love letter to the brand. And it was a sincere letter; I adored that brand.
I entered the store in nude heels, a black pencil skirt and matching blazer, and a white button-down shirt. I asked for the manager.
A tall, slim man met me and said, “You look too good to be here.” He got me an interview with another manager one week later, an inspiring and well-dressed woman, a fashion student at Parsons.
I sobbed the night of my Banana interview—again. I worried I’d said something racist by choosing the wrong words when I explained how inspiring my grandmothers were, disadvantaged as they were in their time. How could I bring up the marginalization of white women to a woman of color? How could I even speak of such a thing at an interview, my God? I got everything wrong. Not only had I failed yet another interview; I had hurt someone, too.
I cried long and hard sitting outside against my apartment building with my knees to my chest, cigarette (how many cigarettes had it been?) in my right hand. I didn’t know how I was going to bear even one more letdown. This had to be it.
My confidence thoroughly shattered, I wondered how I was ever going to keep my promise to my psychiatrist. I couldn’t face one more interview. So I broke my promise. My hope dried up.
The next week, I received a welcome email. I was the newest Brand Ambassador at Banana Republic.
I was staying in New York.
I was staying alive in New York.
“My sober job,” my sponsor, my therapist called it. My minimum wage, sober job. How eager I was to contribute!
I thought about that promise I had made. Perhaps I could keep it, after all.
The year that followed seemed nothing short of a miracle to me. Didn’t I disbelieve in miracles? I couldn’t anymore. There was someone looking out for me, someone helping me beyond human power. I don’t know who or what it was, but, for me, I was running out of time, and I was saved within just weeks of what was going to be the end.
Now we’re in May, 2020. I’m working at my dream job as a science journalist. I’m receiving good feedback from my manager.
Each month has gotten easier than the previous. I’ve cried a lot in therapy, I’ve worked hard to practice the “skills” we learn in our groups.
Around this last New Year, I noticed something strange, something novel. I felt different. What was this feeling?
The feeling was an absence—an absence of depression; I felt good enough. Sometimes I was even content. But, usually, I was satisfied with good enough.
I don’t think I meet the criteria for depression anymore. Something I never could have fathomed. I’d tried everything; I really had. Well, everything except for sobriety. Except for trauma work.
The trauma still kicks me at night. But if depression can change, I have a little hope that, perhaps, my PTSD can transform, too.
This month is the one-year anniversary of what could have been a tragedy, but turned out to be a gift. I am glad I am alive to see this month.