Playing near the dried-up creek neighboring my house, I found an injured blue jay lying on the ground, surrounded by pine needles, one wing twisted awry. At age 8, I stood frozen, terrified by the eerie sight. Was she hit by a car? Attacked by an animal? Or did she lose her way? I backed away quietly and left her there nestled in the shadows, hoping she would heal and fly again. Hours later, when I checked on her, she had disappeared.
Over the years, I thought about that frail bird vanishing into pine trees, as if in a half-dream. How do birds find their way home? Once I read an essay about lost birds, a moniker given to American Indians adopted into non-Indian families. Like wayward aviary counterparts, they suffered from a slew of social problems, including high suicide rates. Lost birds could appropriately describe children who don’t feel loved or attached to their family of origin—those who can never find a nest that feels safe, or like home.
Coming back to my college campus during my senior year was a reality check. As I sped along the highways racing past middle-of-nowhere towns, clouds loomed above me and a sense of dread overtook me. Senior year should’ve been filled with excitement; instead, a pit in my stomach, much more threatening than exam anxiety, grew steadily. I was a psychology major, yet I missed all of the signs of depression.
A tidal wave of shame washed over me. Every time I thought of alcohol, I cringed. I was embarrassed by my drunken outbursts the previous semester in DC, the way I threw myself at random guys and the friends I had crossed. Who was I anymore? I was afraid to leave my apartment because I didn’t want to run into people who would judge me harshly.
After refusing night after night, Mya dragged me to a smoke-filled Collegetown bar where we flashed our fake IDs. “You need to get out of the house,” she said. “You won’t see anyone, I promise.”
At the pool table, Jake was holding a stick and laughing easily with a long-haired brunette, one arm draped around her waist. The Grateful Dead piped in the speakers. His dark eyes danced around the room and met mine for an instant.
I recalled the rough edges of his scruff against my cheek and took a drag of a cigarette. I zipped my leather jacket and blew out the smoke with a who-gives-a-shit huff turning away so I wouldn’t have to look his way. I heard the balls clink before they sank in the pocket.
I’m sorry, I wanted to say. I behaved badly.
But the words were stuck inside my head. I wanted him to love me even when I didn’t love myself. I fled the room and felt bile rising up, a bitter acid after-taste torching a hole in my throat and reminding me of hangovers and how much Jake hated me. I had spent most of my life caring what people thought so the idea of him despising me made me want to hide. I felt my identity slipping away and desperation enveloped me.
In my bedroom, every passing car rattled the floor like a tank zooming downhill during war. Every vibration sent a quake into motion, shaking the windows, rumbling across the shag carpet and jolting my rickety bed frame. Lying as still as possible, I tried to drown out every wave of movement. The minutes ticked by. Even my squishy orange earplugs couldn’t buy me a moment of peace.
I stopped sleeping.
It was sunny despite the dark cloud hanging over me. Backpack loaded, I trudged uphill toward the quad, my Doc Marten boots feeling like anchors on my feet. I wanted to hide, but bumped into my friend Maria, who had seen me at my worst in DC.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“I can’t sleep,” I responded.
She looked at me kindly and nodded, as if I had a cold that would pass in a few days.
“If only I could sleep, then everything would be alright,” I insisted.
At lunch in the crowded dining room, I moved my turkey sandwich around the cafeteria tray but didn’t eat. Usually, we liked to do the crossword puzzle from the school daily, but I wasn’t in the mood.
“Have some curly fries,” begged Mya. “They’re your favorite.”
I shook my head.
“Make her smile,” Mya pleaded to our friends.
Josh made a monkey face. Mya followed suit.
“Do you want to get ice cream?” she asked, trying to win me over with food.
“Nah,” I said and stood up. I slung my backpack over my shoulder to return to the house. “See you later.”
Sitting in a linguistics classroom under flickering fluorescents, I propped my pounding head in my hands and stared at the blurry blackboard. My professor droned on about sentence structure in what sounded like a foreign language. I counted down the seconds with every tick on the clock.
After that, I started skipping classes. My head ached and my vision, blurry. I had trouble mustering energy to shower. Nothing seemed worth the trouble.
One evening, Rebecca was in the kitchen pounding chicken breasts for her specialty, chicken parmesan. Her redhead boyfriend Josh, who could pass for her brother, was chopping onions next to her. Some friends were coming over for dinner.
“You have to change out of your sweats, Jen,” he instructed with brotherly affection. “You’ve been wearing them for a week. Go brush your hair and take out that fucking scrunchie.”
Obediently, I went upstairs to change. Standing in front of the mirror, I stared at my reflection. I saw only a faint outline of a girl, a vanishing girl, lifeblood flowing out of her veins. I blinked, wondering if I was going to disappear.
Josh knocked at my door and poked his head in.
“Are you okay, Jen?” he asked. I could hear the care in his voice, mixed with worry and his Long Island accent.
“I’m worried about you,” he said. “That you might hurt yourself.”
“No, I’m fine,” I protested, barely louder than a whisper.
“Okay,” he said and left. I didn’t want to cause anyone extra trouble. I wanted to be invisible. To disappear. I couldn’t feign a smile. I couldn’t even muster any tears.
In three short weeks, I had gone from a promising senior to a shell of a person. Tortured by insomnia, I fell behind in classes and couldn’t imagine any way to catch up. Falling into a chasm, except I couldn’t shout for help. I didn’t have an ounce of energy left to cry for help.
My roommates tried to stage an intervention in our living room. “You should sign up for a new activity,” Rebecca suggested brightly. “You can make new friends.”
I nodded, wishing that was the simple answer, or the key to unlock my prison of misery and despair.
“You can make an appointment with a counselor at Gwinnett,” Mya said.
I agreed. The appointment date loomed in my mind. Something was wrong. I thought it was me. But deep down, I believed no one could help me. Stubborn even at my lowest.
Desperate for a way out, I called my mother and told her I wanted to leave school. That was unacceptable. She couldn’t see how desperate I was. She only knew that she had worked hard as a Chinese immigrant to give me a good education.
You can change, my mom pleaded with me. You can be a different person.
I agreed mindlessly. Even in my docile state, I knew was losing it because I had never listened to her in the past. Her calling me “selfish” and “spoiled” over and over when we clashed throughout my high school years rang through my head like a broken record.
In my bedroom, I had a picture taped on my wall of a dance troupe. The bodies were tucked in, balancing on each other to form a gravity-defying circle. Take it down, she told me over the phone. She ordered a new bed to arrive.
I knew the Chinese can be a notoriously superstitious bunch. Maybe I was being haunted by a spirit. Maybe I needed to be reborn. Maybe I needed to repent.
My friends noticed I was unusually quiet.
Nine Inch Nails’ The Downward Spiral played on repeat. The raw, broken quality of the “Closer” lyrics clawed at my soul:
Help me I broke apart my insides
Help me I’ve got no soul to sell
Help me the only thing that works for me
Help me get away from myself
They didn’t know I was a ghost trapped in purgatory, my voice seized and bottled by the evil sea witch, never to be heard again. As for the injured blue jay, I told myself she had survived. Most likely, she had died and been snatched by a larger animal. Every winter, millions of migratory birds fly south, relying on their internal compass and memory, but some like me have trouble finding their way home.
The daughter of Chinese immigrants, Jen Soong grew up in a small town in New Jersey and has been on the hunt for extraordinary stories and food for as long as she can remember. “Lost Birds” is an excerpt from her memoir-in-progress Beautiful Tomorrows about her struggle to overcome depression. An alum of VONA/Voices, her work has appeared in Redbook, Boston and The Manifest-Station. She lives with her family in Davis, Ca. Find her @jenmuze. Her spirit animal is the hummingbird who can traverse great distances despite being small.
Author Image Credit: Aaron Coury