Re-Learning To Say No: Life As A (Formerly Depressed) Cautious Hedonist

I lost my early 20s to depression. The most fun I had during that time was not wearing pants while frying bacon. I went from being a successful event promoter to being a shut in who only left the house for food and books. If you’re wondering how to put on 90lbs in under three years, the previous sentence should serve as a handy instruction manual. I requested library books online so that I could show up, present my card, get my books, and go back home without a word.

I lived exclusively on the internet. Even remnants of my former life I wanted gone. I scrubbed the web for traces of pictures of me enjoying myself–and there were lots. I promoted parties for recording artists, clothing lines, streetwear brands, and radio personalities for years. I deleted multiple Myspace pages, Photobucket accounts, and requested others do the same. I tried to make myself disappear.

My sister got pregnant during my depression and because I was always around doing nothing in particular (watching Groundhog Day on repeat), I babysat an infant. Every. Single. Day. For 13 months.

Seeing my niece grow up made me realize that time was slipping away. Had I really given up years of my life not interacting with people? Gaining weight for no reason besides a pattern of self-sabotage?

The fog began to clear and I realized I was nearly 300lbs. I didn’t have any friends. I didn’t have a working cellphone. I didn’t have a bank account. How had I become this person? It’s pretty easy if you live a rich life on the internet.

Somehow in this time, I’d managed to start a popular vintage fashion blog about mid-century African-American life, get published on Gawker.tv, be featured on Jezebel and the Huffington Post, make videos that were posted on The Atlantic, and finally freelance for Vanity Fair Magazine and become an editor at Splitsider.com. It’s what I have to show for that time in my life. And it was how I fooled myself into believing that I was OKAY.

After all, how could an unhealthy person accomplish so much?

My author picture was the upper third of my face in profile. I believed that if people saw my face, they’d discredit my words. It’s why I refused to meet with literary peers when they were in town. The chasm between the life I wanted and the life I was living was growing too large to ignore.

I started working out. I did an On-Demand workout video every day for a month in the privacy of my room with the volume almost muted.

I graduated from On-Demand workout videos to walking OUTSIDE. To doing couch-to-5k on a treadmill I purchased with one of my freelance checks. To running! To swimming and getting a gym membership. I ate clean and in less than a year, I was down 70lbs. But I still wasn’t participating in the world around me.

I’d begun tweeting jokes about being clinically depressed. I was put on lists of funny women to follow on Twitter and the feedback was addictive.

In late 2011, I got a cellphone and a bank account for the first time in years so that I wouldn’t lose the opportunity to write for Vanity Fair. They wanted to talk to me. The editor wanted to send me a personal check. I hadn’t had proper identification in so long I wasn’t in the system in the state of Illinois. The cellphone I got was from a corner store with bulletproof glass where they didn’t ask my name with my purchase. But it was a step.

A few months later, I began seeing a therapist. I read The Feeling Good Handbook and realized my negative thoughts didn’t have to dictate my feelings. I filled my first prescription for Prozac and the next day I tried stand up comedy. I haven’t taken more than a few days off since.

I went from denying myself everything to being more permissive with myself and my needs and desires than I’d ever been in my life. I’d always been very sexual – save the three years my libido vanished into thin air – but I’d never smoked weed until comedy and I’d never been a drinker. Recovery unleashed all of my vices.

I drank, I smoked, I dated. The first time I smoked weed, I couldn’t figure out how to use the carb on the bowl, so the guy I was seeing shotgunned me in front of another guy I was seeing. It felt two steps removed from blowing people for crack!

I didn’t even own a proper bra. My old ones from the heavier years didn’t fit – and before comedy, the only thing I was doing on a regular basis was working out. I wore sports bras everywhere and ill-fitting thrift store clothes. And yet, I managed to have tons of sex.

I’d figured out I was sexually submissive while losing weight. Working out makes you VERY horny. And because my sex drive returned way before my social life, I turned to porn. I figured out what I liked and didn’t like. And the new me was going to get what she liked.

I made a male friend after reentering society who I felt I could trust. Not enough to tell him he’d be the first person I’d be sleeping with in years, but enough for him to be that person. We tried EVERYTHING. He choked me and slapped me and pulled my hair and called me names. And it was therapeutic to have the way I felt inside acted out upon me. It started as catharsis and became an obsession.

I began to be able to detect a man’s sexual dominance just from being in his presence. My success rate is still crazy improbable. And when I knew a man would do what I wanted, I made my insatiable desires known.

I sought fun. I sought experiences. I sought the variety that my life had been missing for so long. And in the process, I got involved with a lot of people who were a great time, but ultimately horrible for me – or just horrible. For two solid years, because I’d starved myself of human interaction for the preceding three, I couldn’t differentiate between the types of intimacy I was experiencing. I was having a lot of sex so I thought I was experiencing a lot of meaningful relationships. But I was getting back only a fraction of what I was giving.

I dated a man who openly flirted with women and got their numbers at a parties I’d invited him to – populated by my friends. And because of our BDSM dynamic, I felt that I always had to defer to him and what he wanted.

I dated another man who always got drunk and fell asleep before I got to his house – really late at night after shows – leaving me on the sidewalk in his weird neighborhood contemplating whether to climb his fence or not.

One night, I got fed up and confronted him about his carelessness. He slapped me in the face and when I wouldn’t consent to having sex with him after his assault, he told me he’d slapped me a million times during sex so I should be used to it. I thought I was pretty strong because I’d been working out and lifting, but he easily held my arms down when I was fighting to hit him back. I didn’t want to risk more violence so I just gave in and let him do what he wanted with me. I never spoke to him again after that night.

Another man took my consent to very light BDSM as permission to bruise my vocal chords and my face – while I screamed the safeword we’d agreed on until I lost my voice. I told a friend what happened when she asked why I couldn’t perform at the comedy show we produced together.

Other less pronounced aggressions and inconsiderate to malicious actions began to compile. All the while, I began to accomplish things comedically in a very short amount of time. I was doing festivals and shows and travelling and creating opportunities for myself as well as being given them. Comedy and the expression it has allowed me is a huge part of my recovery from depression. And my personal relationships were so traumatic that I was barely able to enjoy my successes.

Only recently have I been able to step back and find balance. Some part of me, even while depressed, has remained confident in the face of evidence solely to the contrary. I may not always have my shit together, but I always find a way. Most of my neuroses are appearance-based and no matter how much weight I lose, I don’t know that that will disappear. But because I haven’t felt worthy, I’ve allowed people to treat me like I was worthless.

I valued new experiences over self-preservation for soooo long – trying to make up for lost time. Since starting comedy, I’ve tried so many drugs (weed is the only one that stuck), gained and lost dozens of pounds over and over, have had sex with so many transient people, that I lost track of why I’d even begun acting this way.

It began as a way for me to catch up with where I thought I should be in my life after so much deprivation – and it became compulsion. I became a true unhinged hedonist. A sex addict. My friends joke about it, but their concern is real. I’m indulgent and impulsive. And I like myself this way. I’ve only detailed the bad stories, but I’ve also met some truly amazing and caring people since re-allowing myself to do so.

I’m a bike messenger now – for the thrill and the exercise. It’s dangerous, but it’s healthier than leaving my heart and body at the mercy of people who may or may not take care with it. And I’m slowly learning to not tolerate any amount of disrespect from the people I allow into my life – platonically, romantically, or otherwise.

I’ve changed my life too many times to count, and though depression was horrific, I don’t regret it. I wouldn’t be who I am today without having had that experience. And I doubt I would have started stand-up comedy had it not been for hitting rock bottom. It’s not difficult to rationalize the very real possibility of constant humiliation and failure on stage when that’s your default off-stage setting anyway. And having strangers validate my most personal thoughts, feelings, and experiences with their laughter is unlike anything I’d experienced before comedy. It makes me feel like I’m not alone.

I have wonderful friends now. And they care about me and see the bad choices I’ve made. And I see that my future is bright and I can’t keep torpedoing my happiness with harmful choices.

Yes, it’s difficult to stay at home and do squats instead of replying to texts from really hot, really horrible men. Yes, it’s easier to go out and smoke and drink than it is to stay home and write or hit an open mic. Yes, it’s easier to go to a guy’s house around the corner from your show that lets out at 11pm than to trek home across the city on public transportation in the middle of the night – or WORSE – to crash with your friends who care about you, but won’t make you cum.

But healthy decisions are never easy. I exclusively said no to myself for years. I exclusively said yes to myself for years following that. And now I’m learning to be healthy and balanced for the very first time in what has been a life filled with extremes.

Rebecca O’Neal is a stand-up comedian in Chicago, IL–follow her on Twitter at @becca_oneal!