There is nothing quite like having a good mentor. Your mentor is your safety net. She’s the one you vent to when the whole world explodes. She’s not quite like a parent, so it’s easier to tell her about the dangerous things you’ve done to yourself, but she’s not a peer either, so she takes you seriously, takes her responsibility as a mentor seriously. She checks in. She schedules brunches near your college and makes sure you’re back in time for Human Rights. She sees the good in you and says it. She’s available. She never says you are crazy, even when you act a little crazy. You’ll question it every day, but she freakin’ loves you.
She’s there with her arm around your shoulder when you can’t go to class because you’re sobbing on a college staircase and so you hop on a train to go see her.
She’s there to buy you a parfait and listen to you talk about the morning after your first night taking an antidepressant when your subconscious throws you into a panic attack and the paramedics in the ambulance have to tell you that you’re not dying.
She’s there to tell you it’s not your fault when you text a hotline about how your mom was looking through your dad’s search history and started freaking out over the phrase “rat poisoning” and DFACS shows up knocking on your door.
She’s there to tell you you’re not the only one with an abusive parent.
She’s there at the end of the line when you are locked into a hospital because you need someone else to protect you from yourself for awhile. And in the months afterward when you start experimenting with poison to tell you she needs you to be right here.
She’s also there to high-five you when you spit the truth about your struggles to survive this disease at a poetry slam.
She’s there to take you to an interview with who may be the first black woman president someday.
She’s there, and her face lights up every time she sees you.
When I am upset and feeling alone, I think of the day I called the office crying on a blue staircase in the library, and Ari said that I needed to come. I was wearing a blue sweater/dress with striped sleeves and a dark green vest, the same outfit I’d be wearing when the police came for me in the main loop. I swiped some Cheez-its from the supply closet and Ari brought me water in a real green plastic cup. We talked for awhile until I mentioned that that bag of Cheez-its was the first thing I had eaten all day (it was about 4pm). Ari, a small, blonde, vegetarian social worker that laughs all the time and loves Taylor Swift and Christian bloggers and running, immediately retorted that those Cheez-its weren’t going to cut it and took me downstairs to buy me some beautiful rosemary chicken.
Even with Ari’s kindness, I still felt a heaviness in my stomach. Then my mentor Renee came over.
“Hey! Did you want to talk about that interview?”
Her dark hair seemed to fall longer than normal over her deep purple scarf. She sported her characteristic black skirt over leggings and small boots.
“We can,” she said. “Really, I was just checking in before I leave to pick up my daughter. Ari said you’re having a rough day.”
“Yeah,” I answered, looking down and smiling, the way I do when I’m discussing darker stuff.
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“No, I don’t want you to think I’m silly.”
“That’s okay. I know you already think I’m silly. But you don’t have to tell me anything you don’t want to.”
The reason I didn’t tell her was because, well, there was nothing to tell. No messy break-up. No fight with the parents. No earthquakes, no tsunamis. Sometimes depression just hits, I tried to explain to her. It was nothing, really. I had gone to class and answered a stupid question wrong and my old friend, imposter syndrome, settled in. Depression can make you sit still through the worst and break down over the easiest.
She nodded. I told her about the blue staircase, about how hard it was to make friends in college, about my scariest thoughts and feelings.
“It’s like I just want to take a break from life,” I explained, agitated.
A minute of silence, her leaning forward in her chair, thinking, processing.
“I don’t know what that means.”
I meant that I wished I could stop all the pain that comes with breathing, but not forever. If death was the only escape from my thoughts, the ideal situation would be to die, just for a little while, until I could live again. Only, that’s definitely not how it works and it sounds a bit insane. I backtracked and said I was just stressed by schoolwork.
So she sat next to me on the couch and put her arm around my shoulders. I remember it like it was yesterday.
“Okay, I’m gonna tell you about something silly that I do when I don’t feel good, so you have to promise not to laugh or tell anyone. Ready?
“I like to breathe in the light.” She paused to scan my face for any signs of judgement. Then she tilted her head back, smiled, relaxed her shoulders, put her face in the evening sunlight coming from the vertical windows, and breathed.
I may have giggled a bit.
I think knowing that Renee—and Ari and Sal and Joy and everyone who ever believed in me–were there has saved me many times. It’s a vulnerability that’s messy and chaotic and terrifying. I am messy and chaotic and terrified, and I know by now that I’ll never be the fresh, put-together, A-student young woman except to those who don’t really know me.
“I love you,” I texted Renee one day with a picture of a stuffed animal turtle and a picture of sunlight she had given me. So much.
“I love you too.”