Song Diaries: Iris by The Goo Goo Dolls (1998)

My lifelong battle with mental health…

By Antonia Elms

There were many nights when my family spent dinner at my father’s best friend’s house. Guillermo’s home had a beautiful front yard, with two floss silk trees, pointy-barked and full of pink flowers in the fall and winter. The backyard was lush with a green lawn, always trimmed, decorated with intricate, black ceramic tables and chairs.

Guillermo and his family were nice enough, but their energy was stagnant. I felt trapped watching my brothers and Guillermo’s sons play games or inhaling the smell of frying potatoes airborne. Musty, hot summers blanketed my body, which was already sweaty from puberty. The only escape was outside, near enough for my parent’s view, but never far enough for me.

While our families laughed and talked inside, I often stared at the stars, breathing heavily, on the verge of tears, listening to music. All I wanted was to leave, wanting more than conversations with people who didn’t understand me. This goes beyond Guillermo’s place; it was my home, my schools, my family. Being in my skin felt wrong and walking through life wasn’t enough. I made a better world in my head to cope with reality. From a young age, before my teenage angst, and before Guillermo moved next door, I needed someone to understand me. I convinced myself that this imaginary person existed, an angel who knew all the answers, someone to cure me.

I’d often play Iris by The Goo Goo Dolls from my cheap Motorola phone as I sat outside. And I ached while listening to this song, wishing for anyone to materialize next to me, to hold my hand, and tell me I wasn’t crazy.  

And I’d give up forever to touch you
Cause I know that you feel me somehow
You’re the closest to heaven that I’ll ever be
And I don’t want to go home right now

On a disgusting August morning, searingly bright at 8 am, mosquitoes abundant and calculating, my mother, energetic and lovely, dragged us to the park on a whim. The goal was tennis, even though none of us had ever played before. Screaming joyfully, my siblings ran with it, always willing to play. Thirteen at the time, my body felt slow and useless, my mind groggy and resentful, only wanting to be in bed like most of my summer. It wasn’t my mother’s fault, she was trying to fill the long days, worried that we spent too much time indoors. I cried, I told her I wanted to more than an innocuous game of tennis. I wanted to climb mountains, like the women in health magazines, the epitome of purity and sanity. Laughing, my mother took me home sobbing, labeling it as teen woes. Unsure of how to handle me, she told my father, who also laughed, “how can you climb mountains when you’re too lazy to get out of bed?” It felt like the world was crushing me.

And all I can taste is this moment
And all I can breathe is your life
‘Cause sooner or later, it’s over
I just don’t want to miss you tonight

Every birthday I’d wish for a new more exciting life, like the ones I found books and TV. At one point, I thought God was putting me through a test, “13 years in hell before you are who you want to be,” but then the time stretched, and it was: 14, 15, 16, 17. Each year, I was disappointed, hoping that I’d wake up from a coma and be reborn a perfect being. Every birthday until 18, I’d stand outside my own backyard, staring up at the sky, wishing for something to strike, anything.

How could I miss something I’d never had? Or someone I’ve never met? I lived more in my daydreams than I ever did in the real world. When the moment was too monotonous to bear, an imaginary friend saved me, whispering commentary, painting any situation into a story where I saved the day. Too often, my parents asked me why I was smiling after so many hours of sitting and gawking blankly at a wall. But it was addictive, all-consuming. As I built up a fantasy, reality became grayer, more blurred each day. Even when the present was beautiful, my mind was elsewhere, watching myself from a cloud, too high from earth, but not near enough to heaven.

And I don’t want the world to see me
‘Cause I don’t think that they’d understand
When everything’s made to be broken
I just want you to know who I am

I had a panic attack on my eighteenth birthday. With a better understanding of episodic depression, ADD/ADHD, and anxiety, it didn’t seem fair for me to struggle while everyone else was normal. Why was I broken? Why was I alone in my family? Why did I have to rely on the crutch of a fantasy to continue living? My parents did not believe in therapy or psychiatry, and after going undiagnosed for so long, I didn’t know who I was anymore.

One day, while In the middle of traffic, I broke down crying. I told my mother that I didn’t want anything for my birthday, I didn’t want to go out for dinner. Confused, she called my father, asking for a second opinion, but he was baffled too. Hurt, unsure how to act, they both yelled at me, in-person and on speaker. They both worked so hard to give me a beautiful and easy life, so why wasn’t I enjoying it? And it wasn’t their fault. I don’t begrudge them anything, they were only trying to help, but it just wasn’t the help I needed.

And you can’t fight the tears that ain’t coming
Or the moment of truth in your lies
When everything feels like the movies
Yeah, you bleed just to know you’re alive

I love my parents, they’ve given me everything and more, but I had to reach out. After transferring to an out-of-state college, finding a therapist and psychiatrist, life became easier to handle. With medication and coping strategies, there’s been less dissociation and definitely fewer attacks. Eventually, my parents saw the change in me, the new light in me, and although they were wary at first, they gradually began to understand. After all, they loved me and wanted what was best for me.

And that person I was looking for, the fantasy? As cheesy as it sounds, it was always me, speaking to myself. Now, when I listen to Iris, it doesn’t make me as breathless as before – I just don’t relate as much as I used to, especially to that last line, “you bleed just to know you’re alive.” I’ve found myself, and although there will always be complications, my fantasy is slowly becoming my reality.

Some names were changed to protect the identity of the writer.

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