The first memory I have of profound sadness which I would later understand to be depression, begins on one unforgettably horrible night in 1971. I was six years old. We lived in Benson, North Carolina at the time.
The sadness descended on a cold December night, a few weeks before Christmas. I remember it as if it were preserved on video: all the people talking in low tones in the den, the smells of unfamiliar foods coming from our kitchen, the dark hallway that led from the den to the living room. It seems like Mother kept walking back and forth between the den (where people seemed unwilling to sit, but equally nervous standing around the edges of our braided rug) and the living room where Daddy sat alone in the reading chair, holding a picture of his brother’s wife, weeping. Aunt Dollie had been killed that night in a tragic car wreck.
We’d been with them just a month before and Aunt Dollie was so alive, so delightful. I remember us kids sitting in the kitchen at the bar eating lunch. I hear our grade-school giggles and feel the orange residue on my fingers as my cousins, siblings and I form letters and funny faces from our cheese doodles. We are so silly. Aunt Dollie is laughing right along with us, her cheeks even rosier than usual. She is beautiful.
Uncle Joe and Daddy were just a year apart and they looked so much alike that they had been mistaken for twins all their lives. Uncle Joe and Aunt Dollie had two boys: John, who was my age and Randy who was the same age as my little brother, Hal. Hal and Randy looked nothing alike—Randy looked like his mother and Hal looked like Daddy. But everybody said John and I looked like we could be twins. We weren’t twins though: because his mama died that night and mine was very much alive. I knew because I kept checking just to be sure.
Oh my goodness I was sad. In fact, I remember feeling as if sadness had actual physical weight. It was so very heavy.
Wait, hit pause here. Time for a quick lesson on depression.
Clinical depression is caused (probably) by a chemical imbalance in the brain. Who knows what causes that chemical imbalance. There are lots of theories. I think my depression is genetic, exacerbated by early losses. But I really don’t know. I’m not even close to an expert on the science of depression and do not ever intend to be. I do know that a trigger is not the same as a root cause. For me, and many others who have chronic depression, grief and loss can trigger acute depressive episodes.
Think of it like type 1 diabetes. Doctors don’t know exactly what causes this autoimmune disease that leads to a malfunction of the pancreas; they do know that if diabetics eat foods high in sugar, they are likely to experience (at the very least) a flare-up. The sugar is a trigger, but it didn't cause the type 1 diabetes. That's the way loss is for me--a trigger, not a cause.
Got it? Okay, you can start reading again.
A year after my Aunt Dollie died, we lived in a different house in a different town (Wilson, NC). We’d left our friends in Benson, but we’d not forgotten them. We thought of them often, nurturing our long distance relationships by recalling good times together and by writing letters to our loved ones. (Mother has always been good at that.) Though we no longer lived in the same town, our friends the Smiths (not their real name) were still a part of our lives. Thus, when tragedy struck their family 12 months after Aunt Dollie died, it did not feel like it happened in some distant other world. It felt like it happened right in our neighborhood.
In this memory, Mother plays the lead. It's December 1972. She is standing in our kitchen; my older sister, Dawn and I are siting at the table. The two of us seem to want to push back against whatever it is causing our mother to act this way. We distract ourselves, putting pencil to paper, not looking up. Mother pulses with pain.
After we learned what happened, I just could not get her oldest son out of my mind. We were in the same grade at our different schools—him in Benson and me in Wilson—and I could just see him waiting for his mother to pick him up after school. He must have thought every car that turned the corner would be hers, only to be disappointed over and over again. His mother had a reliable routine: bundle up the baby (he was four months old at the time), drive to the school and get a good parking place, wait for the bell to ring and for her son to come running out to the car. But that day, the routine took a horrific turn. To this day, no one knows exactly how it happened. Was she kidnapped from her house when she dropped off the groceries before going to the school? That’s the best guess, but it’s still just a guess. Four days after my friend’s mommy went missing, she was found dead in a barn on the outskirts of town; his baby brother, diapered and wearing a thin shirt, lay on a hay bale nearby. Except for a really bad case of diaper rash, the baby--the only witness to his mother's murder--was fine.
I was not at all fine. I was seven. Just seven. As I write this, I keep looking back at the dates because I just cannot believe I was that young. The feelings were so massive that it’s hard to believe I could house them in a 2nd grade heart.
Anyway, that’s how it began. Those two heartbreaking losses only 12 months apart must have tipped the delicate chemical balance in my brain, because around that time I began wishing I could just skip out on this life thing. Life just felt way too hard.
Okay, hold on. Let me explain a few things.
First of all—today I am fine. I love living and I struggle with depression. Both. Thanks to a Godsend counselor, I’ve learned to be okay with that. Some days are really dark and heavy, but not all of them, not even most of them.
Second. I was never suicidal. I wanted to quit being sad. And I had no idea—until more than two decades later—how to do that. Heaven seemed like a good solution; especially with that no-tears clause and all.
Third. If you feel suicidal, you are not bad or wrong for feeling that way. You are also not alone. There are people all around you who feel that way too. (You can look at the comments in these posts and see that even people who have known me my whole life did not know I thought so much about dying.) Do not suffer alone. There’s help. I know it is hard to reach out. Shoot it’s hard to lift your head. I get it. Do it anyway. Call a friend. Go for a walk. Find a dog or cat to pet. Or a horse. Or a pig. Doesn’t matter. And if you are actively planning your suicide, stop. Just stop for a minute. You can get back to it if you decide to do so. But for now, pause. Now click this link http://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/ or call this number: 1-800-273-8255. You are worth it. You really are.
That's enough for now. In the next post. I’ll tell you about this twisted story I read in a doctor’s office story book that set me on a really bizarre path. I even found PDF’s of the thing so you can read it for yourself! Because really, you have to see it to believe it.
Aileen Mitchell Lawrimore is a mother x 3, wife x 28 (years not men), minister, speaker, writer, retreat leader, and lover of beagles and books. She has a lot to say.
Depression: what it is like for me
Depression: Beware the Stereotype
Depression: momentary respite can offer welcome relief
Depression: 6 bits of unwanted advice and my (unspoken) responses.
Depression: Taking Antidepressant Medication
Teaching: Miss P's Retirement Rationale
Celebration & Sadness: Palm Sunday 2019
CBFNC 2019: Canoeing the Mountains