The Cardinal And The Storm

CONTENT/TRIGGER WARNING: References to chronic illness, self-harm, and depression/anxiety.

I’m lying on the couch listening to the icy February rain slide down my living room window. Dizzy, nauseated, and suffering from a severe migraine, I can’t concentrate on anything other than its excruciating pain. It feels like ice picks digging behind my eye sockets combined with my entire head being squeezed in an unrelenting vice grip. The only thoughts that penetrate the fog of illness are half-formed and terrifying.

Maybe I should go to the E.R. Will that make the migraine worse? Will they believe me or think I’m seeking drugs? Should I go alone or make my partner come with me? What if we both get COVID at the hospital? Do I already have COVID? Am I dying? Would it be better if I died? Will this last forever? It’s definitely a tumor. I’m just being a baby. Should I smoke some weed? Call my mom? Take another pill? It’s definitely an inoperable brain tumor.

I don’t want to die, but I’m not sure I want to live.

I turn my head and focus for a split second on the view of our tiny Brooklyn backyard. Suddenly, I catch a flash of scarlet under the dripping trees. It’s a single cardinal with his unmistakable crimson crown and wings, seeking respite from the storm under our mulberry tree. 

I’d seen cardinals in our yard before, but only in summer. In the height of pandemic isolation during 2020, I thought the cardinals were good omens. Messengers of hope, perhaps signs from a benevolent universe of better times ahead.

My mom uses the phrase “a perfect storm” to describe those moments in life when multiple unexpected traumatic events occur in seemingly spontaneous succession. I don’t know how this term came to be. Perhaps it’s because we rarely see storms as bringing anything but chaos and suffering. We can’t think of a storm as “perfect” in a good way. We rarely greet an oncoming storm with excitement or delight. We are primed for devastation, attuned to catastrophe. 

I recently read a piece where one of my favorite contemporary writers, Anne Helen Petersen, interviewed Karla Vermeulen about her book, Generation Disaster. The book describes the unique collective traumas experienced by Americans born between 1989-2001 (myself included). Our adolescence and young adulthood was punctuated by 9/11, mass shootings, increasingly terrifying reports about climate change, the war in Afghanistan, an economic recession that just about destroyed the economy, and deep, perpetual political strife and social upheaval.

In other words, we grew up at the mouth of the volcano, with waves of  molten lava lapping at our feet.

I’ve seen this instability manifest in my own life in various ways. When my older sister was a freshman in high school, the news of a mass shooting at nearby Columbine High School rocked my hometown. Two years later, we watched the Twin Towers fall. Suddenly, we were all but strip-searched in order to board a plane. It became clear that most of us would never live as safe or well as our parents.

 And yet, in all my youthful naivete,  I started my higher education career at a private college in Los Angeles with a price tag so shocking that the financial aid I received barely made a dent. I had undiagnosed ADHD and no idea that I wasn’t ready for college, let alone in a huge, unnavigable city far from my close-knit family.

I arrived to find that, despite the astounding tuition, my freshman class was overenrolled and several of the 1970s-era dorms were closed for remodeling. So, my entire cohort was housed in forced triples–double rooms with an extra bed and desk squeezed into 8’ x 10’ feet. To add insult to injury, the administration decided to deliver three sets of furniture–three desks, three impractically large and heavy dressers with (of all things) granite tops, and the requisite mini-fridge.

One of my first nights on campus, the air-conditioning in our dorm broke. I had attended an all-girls high school and barely dated, never even gone beyond a peck on the lips with a boy. Suddenly, boys and girls were walking around half-naked and sleeping on the floor of the library next to total strangers. I was unprepared to make my own decisions about whether or not to attend class, what to eat, which romantic encounters would end in heartbreak.

A few months into that first year, I started having severe panic attacks and experienced my first major depressive episode. My dad had to rescue me from Los Angeles, packing my things as I lay on the floor, convinced my racing heart and shortness of breath indicated some hideous medical condition. On the plane home, I heard voices telling me I was going to die. Without my family’s quick response, finding me a therapist and getting me the treatment I needed, I’m fairly sure I would have.

Six months later, after moving back home and attending community college, I was finally stable enough to start again at a public university 30 minutes from home. And yet, stability was not on the horizon. Though I graduated in four years, achieved honors for my academics, held down a part-time job, and enjoyed a few friendships, I also struggled deeply with depression and anxiety I now know were partly a result of undiagnosed ADHD. I recognize in my younger self the impulsive behavior–experimenting with the wrong boys, drinking too much, dropping classes, lying to my parents–and the struggles with executive functioning that still plague me as an adult.

Fender benders, detonated friendships, roommates furious with my lack of cleanliness, drunken declarations of love to undeserving boys. But more difficult than all of this was the sense underneath it all that I didn’t quite fit anywhere, that maybe I was irreversibly and fundamentally broken.

Between graduating college (with honors) in 2011 and moving to New York in 2019, I had at least 11 jobs including serving in Americorps, teaching middle school English, and bagging groceries at Whole Foods. I had a series of bad roommates and moved back in with my parents for the second and third time. I had complicated romantic relationships with men who were patently unsuited for me. I excelled in a Master’s program in Media Studies but became bored and decided not to go for a PhD, essentially cutting off a career path in academia.

Just before I decided to move to NYC and after my ADHD diagnosis, I finally confessed to my parents that I had over $10,000 in credit card debt on top of the $70,000 in student loans. At age 29, after working without a break for almost a decade, I had no partner, no friends, no career, and no savings. I was (in the most literal sense) worthless. And yet, I plunged ahead like the cardinal, seeking shelter and a place to nest.

I used the money my parents had set aside for my future wedding to pay off credit card debt, sold my car, and moved to Brooklyn with a part-time job, an offer to crash with a friend, and an incredibly risky belief that things would get better. And they did. And they have. I fell in love. I moved in with my boyfriend. I worked through some core issues in therapy. I secured a series of higher-paying jobs in my field.

But then COVID hit. It was the perfect storm. Isolation, fear, the relentless drumbeat of capitalism undaunted. The reasons I moved to New York vanished overnight as restaurants shuttered, theaters went dark and ambulances wailed.

The pandemic stretched on for months. Months turned into years. Armed terrorists stormed our nation’s capital. States passed and courts affirmed more and more bills attacking the right to abortion, gender-affirming care, and voting rights.

My partner and I had very few friends nearby, no family, no “pandemic pod” to weather the storm with. We were an island unto ourselves, huddling together as the rain lashed at our windows and the waves crashed. We worked. We stared at screens. We drank too much. We missed family Christmases and baby showers. We stood in line for COVID tests and vaccines and masks and groceries. We found pockets of joy and laughter and peace.

The world opened again, then shuttered, then reopened, a dizzying dance of changing guidelines and social expectations.

I started having five migraines a month, then ten, then more. I had finally established myself in a life I loved, only to find myself once again at sea.

It’s not that no other generation in history has grown up during dark times. I appreciated the Apple TV series Dickinson–a fictionalized dramedy about the poet Emily–for the way it gently poked fun at how young people whine about living in “unprecedented times.” In one episode, Emily’s sister Lavinia whines, “The Civil War ruins everything!” Today, she would no doubt post her frustration as a snarky Instagram meme. But the outrage is the same. The systems that were meant to help us have failed, the promise of a good job and home ownership with a college degree rendered meaningless, young people full of promise lost to racial violence and mass shootings and a pandemic and endless war and environmental ruin.

But, as Vermeulun remarked, the point isn’t that no past generation had it harder than millennials. The difference, perhaps, is that we’ve never seen the world as safe or believed on a deep level that we’d be rewarded in the same way as our parents for pursuing the things they pursued–be it marriage, a stable career, higher education, home ownership, or parenting.

Though I may be generationally primed for disaster, especially on a national or global scale, it’s always the personal catastrophes that take me by surprise.

I’m someone who lives with ADHD, anxiety, depression, and chronic migraines. These are storms I know, biological forces with which I’m intimately familiar. Though dormant for weeks or months, they’re never far off on the horizon. And yet, they sometimes take me by surprise, leaving me breathless and gasping in the wreckage.

This February migraine was a storm I didn’t expect. The pain, the fear, the sense of residing in a space somewhere between life and death, between illness and health, cut off from the world.

I eventually ended up in the emergency room after a night spent weeping in pain and asking my partner to tell me stories to distract me from the sense of impending doom.

The ER doctors took vials of my blood, gave me various medications and fluids and ran a series of tests. A scan of my brain came back clear. No tumor. I didn’t have COVID. It was “just a migraine.” As the treatment started to work and the pain receded, as I lay on my back with an IV in my arm, I was overcome by a sudden sense of peace.

I realized, immediately and forcefully, that this moment, this imperfect storm, would abate. I would live. I would hold my nephews’ small hands, stroke my dog’s fur. I would stand by the ocean and marvel. I would be a part of the world again, for as long as luck and grace decreed.

But just as deeply as I knew I would again experience great love and joy, I also knew that sorrow, pain, and terror were not finished with me. The world was still broken. This moment of respite was the cardinal in the storm, a flash of crimson on a gray winter day.

A little over a month later, I stood with my toes in the sand looking out at the ocean. I was visiting Sanibel Island, Florida with a dear friend and her family. It was the most beautiful place I’d ever seen: pristine beaches with white sand and teal waters, a wildlife refuge where we watched great blue herons and egrets soar over a bay where dolphins and manatees played. We kayaked through clusters of mangroves, combed the beach for seashells and watched the sun set in blazes of orange and peach. But looming in the background, as ever, was disaster.

My friend’s grandfather was glued to the rental home’s television for hours each day, watching the coverage of the invasion of Ukraine. Just before we set out for a bike ride through the nature preserve where we’d see roseate spoonbills, sea turtles and a full-size alligator, we watched Ukraine’s President Zelensky address Congress. He played a video that contrasted daily life in Ukraine before and during the Russian invasion. Much like the American disasters he referenced in his speech, Pearl Harbor and 9/11, the video showed ordinary days with blue skies and laughing children turned to horrific blood and rubble.

It was strange for me to be in such a beautiful place while other parts of the world were burning. Or maybe, it wasn’t strange at all. And so I thought again of the cardinal. The one I saw while sick was different. It was a quick flash of light in the darkness, transient and ephemeral. It represented the single hour or week or month or year that happens to be free from pain, fear and grief. It was the brief calm after the storm, not its permanent cessation.

As part of Generation Disaster, I realized that these moments between storms were the spaces when joy and peace can enter a life and take root. Because every life has two surfaces: one shiny and unbroken, the other troubled and crumbling. Generation Disaster. Generation Resilience. The eye of the storm–and its apex.

I wanted to tell the sick, exhausted, broken version of myself staring out at the rain, hoping to die, to hang on just a little longer. Because things don’t always get better, but they always, always change. And with change comes promise.

The cardinal was a reminder that we don’t stay alive because we’re guaranteed endless sunny days. We stay alive–we choose to keep living– because if we don’t, we miss those moments when our very cells sing with gratitude for every breath, every kiss, every heartbeat.

We endure because we hope that when the storm returns–and it will return–we will be wiser, stronger, better equipped. We hope we’ll have deeper roots and sturdier branches.

We hope that when the final storm comes for us, we can say that we did the best we could despite gale-force winds and raging waters.

That we were broken and alive and perfect.

Published by adventuresofaschmidiot

Writer, media scholar, feminist. I was recently diagnosed with adult ADHD and hope to document my "journey of becoming" as I approach 30.

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