I’ve not thought of him in at least 35 years. Probably longer. But when my Facebook feed included high school pictures of him, I remembered him instantly. John Wilkins. Perfectly gorgeous John Wilkins. He was way out of my league and I don’t remember having a crush on him, but I do remember his beautiful blue eyes, his brilliant smile, his infectious laugh.
You’ve seen his type; if not in real life, in afterschool specials or Disney Channel movies. He’s the athletic superstar who is more handsome than anyone should be allowed to be; he’s a super student in all honors classes; he’s every teacher’s favorite and every girl’s dream. He’s the kind of guy who is picked for so many class superlatives, that the yearbook staff limits his award to best-all-around so that other students have a fighting chance. All that . . . and he’s nice too.
THAT is John Wilkins. And that’s why I was so stunned to learn that he passed away this week.
When I heard, I sought out his obituary and found nothing to suggest the cause of his death. I kept checking the Facebook feed for more information and—okay—I did my share of social media research (some might call it stalking). He had a beautiful wife of 28 years and two—or maybe three—kids. He had a successful career and seemed to have a full life of friends and extended family. All of this only heightened my shock when I learned the cause of his death: suicide.*
Now, I can’t begin to know what led up to the moment of his final decision. I do not know any of his story except the cause of his death. I cannot speak to his reasoning, his pain, his relationships. I do not know him that well. I can only say that his passing affected me deeply, the grief of it waking me in the night and bringing prayers for his loved ones—his mama, his siblings, his children, his wife . . ..
I shared my story of depression publicly for the first time in February 2017. I came out on my blog with a post that was shared hundreds of times, many of those accompanied by the sentiment, “She always seems so happy! I never would have guessed.” People with depression can be very good at deception. Even before Instagram started filtering out all human flaws, we learned what to share, and what to keep to ourselves. Here’s the thing: we KNOW we don’t have any real reason to be sad (chemical imbalance aside) so we hide it pretty well. And besides, so many times when we have let our masks slip, the world has let us down.
• “You just take things too seriously!”
• “Don’t let it get to you!”
• “Count your blessings!”
• “Your problems are nothing compared to [Person You Know Who Has a Terrible Life].”
• “It’s not that bad.”
• “Have you prayed about this?” (My personal favorite.)
(For the record, we know. And we agree, which actually makes us feel worse, not better. So just, ya know, don't.)
Having struggled with depression as long as I can remember, I know how often I have thought, “It is just too hard to be me. I really do not want to do this anymore.” I’m better now, but I used to feel this way at least weekly (now it’s a rare and fleeting thought). I tried to explain how hard it can be for me to a therapist once, “The pain of the world is so very near all the time. It’s like I was born without an emotional epidermis.” She explained that some people do have more neuroreceptors than others; those individuals feel the emotions of others more readily and more intensely. When you have only a thin barrier between the pain of the world and your very core . . . well . . . life can get overwhelming fast.
I don’t know about John, I really do not. But I know this: when I was in middle school, I was bullied by a couple of guys who called me names and taunted me daily. On the social food chain, if John Wilkins was a soaring eagle, these two guys were . . . let’s see . . . worms. Those two worms tormented me for 2-3 years, through middle school and the first of high school. But John, beautiful eagle that he was, was kind. Simply and effortlessly, kind.
It is the habit of humanity to deify the dead, but It would be invasive and presumptuous of me to shoulder past those whose knowledge of him is much more personal and immediate. So don’t misunderstand me here: I don’t mean to imply that John single-handedly saved me from thuggish bullies. It was nothing at all like that. John just offered a momentary kindly distraction from the pain of being me.
And so, well, I just can’t help but wonder . . . was he born without an epidermis too? Did he somehow—perhaps even unconsciously—sense the pain I felt? Were his incidental kindnesses to me more intentional than either of us realized? I can’t possibly know. But I know what it is like for the pain of others to seep into my soul. I know how it is to feel far too much. Maybe John did too.
Oh Lord, we know that you heal the brokenhearted and bind up their wounds. (Psalm 147:3) In your infinite mercy, we pray that your love would reach into the hearts of the family and friends who grieve the tragic loss of your child John Wilkins. May they grieve, not as those who have no hope, but as those whose hope is in Christ Jesus.
*Are you having thoughts of suicide? Is someone you love struggling with suicidal thoughts? You are not alone, there are those who can help, and you have no need to be ashamed. Call for help. Do it for you. Do it for me. Do it for whatever reason you can. But just make the call.
Recently I saw a youtube video of an artist illustrating depression. The depressed person would describe how depression felt to them, and the artist would conceptualize their stories in a drawing. Their stories, thus the pictures, varied greatly. I don't have an artist, but I thought I'd try to describe what it is like for me anyway. Here you go.
For me, it’s not so much a color as a sensation. I guess the sensation is a dark one, sort of a muddy black, but mainly it’s heavy. And oozy. It usually creeps up slowly. I feel it pulling on my feet, slowing me down, and I don’t recognize it at first. I kick at it, trying to loosen the hold, thinking it’s something outside myself, rather than the all too familiar internal struggle. (After all these years, you’d think I would recognize all its disguises.) So, I think I can flick it off with a little justification. It’s patient, depression, so it backs off into the shadows, waiting.
I’m fooled into thinking I’ve resolved it, until it starts from another angle—messing with my sleep, my appetite, my mind. By now it has lured me into emotional quicksand. I get pulled under by depression’s Sirens: “What is wrong with you?” “Why can’t you get over it?” “What real problems do you have?” I try to answer and they pull me closer and their voices get louder. The more I search for the answers to their squealing demands, the more pressure I feel, the deeper I fall, the weight of the world pressing me down, down, down.
It feels like I’m wearing pain. Seeking responses to the non-answerables, I envision all those who face life’s most hopeless battles. Cancer, war, divorce, oppression, loss, racism, poverty, inequities. Tragedies loop through my mind mocking me with the reminder that I have no reason to be sad. I agree. And the pain grows heavier.
When depression opts for a more direct attack, I go from feeling like me, to feeling as if I’m caught in a vortex of despair. I sink fast. There’s no slowing it down, no getting away.
And I’m not sure what lifts the weight and allows me to move again. It helps to remember that Sirens aim to destroy me, not to expand my self-awareness. It helps to plug my ears to their false refrains and to answer with dismissal rather than with access to my soul.
And it helps to do what my mama says (as it does no matter what the problem is): “Do one thing.”
I might send a single email, do one chore, write one sentence. I tell myself that after I do that one thing, I can resume lethargy. Then I do just one more thing. And then another. And in time, I’m back on solid ground, back to me.
That’s what it’s like for me.
Over the course of one week, I learned of two individuals who took their own lives. Both were successful people, according to cultural standards. One a lawyer, the other a business professional, both were married with children and both enjoyed the admiration of their respective communities. People would argue that these two "just didn't seem the type."
Yeah. See that's the thing. There is no type. Depression doesn't care one bit who you are or what you do.
Depression creeps in and lies to you about your value as a human.
Depression doesn't shy away from professionals who have been trained to recognize its deception. It gives no exemptions to the social worker, minister, therapist, physician, or life coach. Its lies are raw and uncensored.
Look, I don't know the answers. I just know that depression doesn't care if you are red or yellow, black or white. It doesn't care about your bank account, your social standing, your dress size, or your IQ. Depression is about as selective as cancer is: cancer doesn't sort through a list of traits and accomplishments in order to determine who will be afflicted; depression doesn't either.
I don't know why depression kills some people and lets others--like me--live. There is no equation, no formula, that I've found that makes sense. Until that answer is found, though, let's talk about mental health in a way that promotes understanding, not judgment. Let's refrain from oversimplifying complex questions with uninformed responses that just come off trite, dismissive, or even downright mean. Of course we don't know everything about mental illness, but we know this: when depression ends in suicide, it's a tragedy of inconsolable proportions. Even the most enlightened comments will rarely be welcome in the midst of such devastation. So let's just keep our mouths closed and our hearts open. Because nobody is the type to get depressed. And so is everybody.
When I’m depressed, it’s almost like I feel guilty when I experience moments of cheerfulness. It feels as if I am lying or something because in fact, I don’t feel better. Underneath, I still feel the all too familiar, overwhelming sadness gripping me. So if I have a good day in the midst of a depressive episode, or even a good minute, it feels inauthentic. There’s this nagging emotional pull reminding me that the present moment is fleeting and that the sadness is waiting, lingering just on the other side of the laughter.
Can you relate? If you’ve struggled with depression, I bet you know what I mean. But if you have loved ones who have been depressed, my guess is that this sounds completely ridiculous to you. Why would someone fight feeling better? That doesn’t even make sense.
Nope. No it doesn’t. But that’s not what’s happening.
Think of depression as a separate entity from the person; let’s call it Bob. When Bob is visiting me, my feelings range from flat (best case) to despondent (worst case). When I am feeling flat, occasionally something will make me smile or even laugh. Now you might witness that and think, Bob must have moved on! What a relief for Aileen! Yet I know that Bob is actually just taking a quick nap. When I laugh, my brain—which is a terrible liar when Bob is around—says, “Hey stop that! You’ll wake up Bob!” which, naturally, wakes Bob.
This maddening cycle has frustrated me throughout my relationship with Bob. Recently though, I discovered another metaphor that seems to fit this scenario a bit better.
My epiphany moment occurred in the midst of a coughing fit. I’d had bronchitis, or some proximity thereof, for over a week. This is not unusual for me; I’m prone to bronchitis. If I get even a slight cold, it tends to go right to my bronchi (which I just call my throat, but whatever). Sniffle one day, hacking cough the next. It’s always been that way for me.
Anyway, I was coughing my ever-loving head off, so I did what I always did: I reached for my throat lozenges. Of course these are no cure for bronchitis, but they do offer a temporary reprieve from the constant coughing.
Do you see where this is going?
See, I realized that if I could think of the depression in the same way as I do bronchitis, those so-called “inauthentic” moments of happiness could stand in the place of the cough drop, offering welcome (albeit temporary) relief from a troublesome condition.
Think of it like this. Imagine I’m in the midst of a depressive episode. Still, I manage to get myself together and get out of the house. But just as I find myself enjoying the moment, Bob starts screaming.
“HEY! Settle down! You’re sad you know. This is not real! You actually don’t feel happy. This is a lie. Get back to being sad like you’re supposed to be!”
So I just respond, “Chill Bob! I’m just taking a little cough drop therapy. No big deal. I know you are still here and are not leaving any time soon. It’s just a cough drop. That’s all.”
And Bob relaxes a bit. He’ll get all stirred up again; this is only a temporary fix—a momentary respite as it were.
When I thought of it this way, I found a number of cough drop remedies that work for me, giving me more moments of relief. Also, unlike actual cough drops, the more I enjoy the moment, the longer the moment lasts. Of course, Bob is persistent and refuses to be ignored; but I just keep putting him off a few minutes at a time. It works.
So don’t deny yourself a break from the sadness just because it feels like a lie. It’s just a cough drop. Pick a flavor you like and enjoy it. It’s really okay.
Having battled depression since I was in the first grade, I’ve gotten lots of suggestions and advice over the years on how to “get over it.” Here are just a few of those and the responses I would love to have given.
See, me, I think you just don’t take things seriously enough. Have you given any thought to world hunger lately? Poverty? Abuse? Because I have and it’s pretty serious stuff. You see me getting upset because of one (so-called) minor incident and you think I’m overreacting. What you don’t get is that, I’m not just responding to this occurrence. I was already thinking about the world’s pain and suffering. Then this thing happens and I’m catapulted into a thought process that attempts to take into account all sadness, all pain, all brokenness of all time. You try thinking about that without getting serious.
Oh okay. If you’d just hold my brain for a minute or . . . I dunno . . . a decade.
What you don’t understand is that I do not have an emotional epidermis. Think of me as a hairless cat. Wait no. No one should think about that. Ever. Think of me as . . . well . . . think of me as someone who doesn’t have an emotional epidermis. Best I can tell, my filters are super permeable. More stuff just gets to me.
Also, I’m not consciously choosing to be “too sensitive” as you seem to think. I’m trying to handle emotional difficulties better; but when you say “You’re just too sensitive,” what I hear is, “You are broken. Fix yourself.” Your not-at-all-well-thought-out advice reinforces what I already believe about myself. And that makes me want to curl up and sleep for a week. Which just makes people say, “You take things too seriously.” (See above.)
I promise you, I’m working on it. You can’t imagine how hard I’m working on it. This time, I just didn’t have the energy to use the coping strategies I’m developing. And I’m tired of picking up the mask every time I face people. So when you see me like this, please refrain from giving me your pithy solutions; instead of reducing my depression, they actually inflame the condition.
On it! Thanks for the suggestion. Wow. Wish I could have known you 45 years ago. Would have saved lots of money in counseling and pharmaceuticals. Gosh, really! I’m all fixed now. Thanks!
You are so right. I don’t. That’s why I don’t understand why I feel this way. Nothing is wrong. Except for everything. And also nothing. But everything.
Here’s the way things go down inside my brain:
Brain: You have no real problems.
Me: Then what’s wrong with me?
Brain: Lots of people have it worse than you! You have no reason to be depressed.
Me: You’re right; I’m such a loser.
Brain: Think about all the people who have truly difficult struggles. Victims of assault or abuse, people in poor health, those who are bereaved. You literally have no problems.
Me: You’re right. I have absolutely no right to feel this way.
Brain: Then stop feeling.
Me: Okay, how?
Brain: Ummmm. Yeah, I got nothing. Not my expertise.
So I hear you, I do. I even quote you to myself all the time. As a matter of fact, there’s no need for you ever to say this to me again. I say it to myself plenty.
Is that a question or an accusation? If it’s a question, settle in friend. I’ve got lots to say. Most people, though, don’t really want to hear the “why.” It’s not really a question at all. It’s an expression of frustration and I get it! It is hard to live with or around someone who is chronically sad. But if you really want to help, give me compassion not judgment. Compassion is infinitely more effective in reducing depression’s symptoms. So instead of making the above statement, why don’t you just create a safe place for me where love is plentiful and mercy is abundant, k? Thanks.
Here’s the thing: if someone you know or love is suffering from chronic depression, resist the urge to give offhand advice. Instead, offer grace: because grace, like love, never fails.
Though I was in my early 30’s when I was diagnosed with chronic depression, I had gone to counselors from time to time since my teens. And listen, I’m a big believer in therapy. Frankly, I don’t know why everyone doesn’t go to see a counselor.* I mean if you can afford it, for heaven’s sakes get into therapy. Actually, even if you can’t afford it, check into some options for inexpensive or even free services. Really.
Anyway, counseling was familiar and comfortable and not at all scary. Antidepressant pharmaceuticals? Pills that chemically alter my brain? Yikes!
Plus, at the time of my diagnosis, I was nursing my youngest child; I was wary of anything that might affect her nourishment. So, I did my research, using a new resource called the world wide web, and asked my medical doctor and counselor lots of questions.
(An aside: I learned how to do efficient and thorough research thanks to my undergrad degree in history from Campbell University. History majors—and other liberal arts grads—learn how to collect and process information, and to draw conclusions from that data: helpful skills in any career. Hire a liberal arts major. We are good deciders.)
After weighing the benefits and risks, I decided to give Prosac a try. The initial dose was ineffective, so the doctor increased my prescription to the next level.
Now remember, pre-antidepressants, I cried a lot. Everything made me sad. I had to be careful watching movies or reading books, listening to the news, whatever. Crying was the norm. It was as if I put my whole self into the story—true or fiction—and experienced the same reality as those in the story.
I upped the dose of Prosac. Soon, I realized I wasn’t constantly on the verge of tears. In fact, I felt almost nothing at all. It was glorious (in the beginning). Freeing. I flat did not care! My mantra may actually have been the original “sorry, not sorry.” Then came the night when I was watching 60 Minutes or 20/20 (one of those human interest/news shows). The story that night told of a man and his wife, their beautiful love story that began in grade school and continued into their golden years, and her agonizingly pointless battle with pancreatic cancer. Her dear husband cared for her tenderly until she passed away; now, according to the show, he grieved so profoundly that he struggled each day to achieve basic function. It was a gut-wrenching TRUE tale of love and loss, pain and death.
And yet, as I watched the weeping widower on the screen, I thought, “Dude. People die. Get over it. What? You didn’t think she was going to die? We’re all dying. You, me, all of us. Geez, get a grip.”
I talked to the doctor the next day about considering another medication.
Eventually I tried Effexor and did really well with few side effects. I did so well, in fact, that after just a few months (never mind I’d struggled with depression for the better part of three decades) I decided I probably didn’t need medication at all (raise your hand if you’ve been there). I contacted a local psychiatrist and scheduled the next available appointment; my visit with him lasted an hour. It started with me telling him I thought I could come off the medication, continued with me giving him a detailed history of my depression, and ended with him giving me a prescription for double the dose. True story.
There’s been a time or two over the years that I’ve tried something new on the market, wanting to see if I had fewer breakthrough episodes and if the newer med suited me better. Not a good idea for me: I've just never done a great job of transitioning off one and onto the other. I always ended up under my covers, curled in the fetal position, overwhelmed by such things as poverty, oppression, and world hunger (which I think we can all agree are, in fact, overwhelming in nature).
So now it has been about 20 years since I started taking antidepressant medication and I no longer try to rationalize myself off of it. Here’s why:
Bottom line? If you’re on the fence about taking antidepressants, keep researching, keep talking to your doctor, and keep considering your options. But remember that taking a medication is not a sign of weakness. It’s a sign of wisdom. And it is okay.
What about you? What are your thoughts on antidepressants?
*One thing about counseling: it’s hard; exhausting at least, grueling at worst, but in any case, seriously hard. And it often takes a while to find the right counselor. I have the world’s best therapist now, but it took many attempts. If you need a break from the effort, I get it. But don’t give up. Finding the right counselor is like finding true love: totally worth kissing a bunch of toads to get there.
I have always loved Abraham Lincoln. As a child, I read all of the biographies on him I could find. (I can still picture the section of my elementary school library where the biographies were shelved, and even in my recollection I quickly move from the A's through the K's to get to Lincoln.) I love his witty sense of humor, his passion for justice, his devotion to family, his relentless pursuit of knowledge, and his profound wisdom. I also love knowing that he thrived, despite a lifelong struggle with deep sadness. In his book, Lincoln's Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled His Greatness, Joshua Wolf Shenk says this:
In three key criteria — the factors that produce depression, the symptoms of what psychiatrists call major depression, and the typical age of onset — the case of Abraham Lincoln is perfect. It could be used in a psychiatry textbook to illustrate a typical depression. Yet Lincoln's case is perfect, too, in a very different sense: it forces us to reckon with the limits of diagnostic categories and raises fundamental questions about the nature of illness and health.
Excerpt found at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=4976127
According to his biographers, Abraham Lincoln was many things: intelligent, diplomatic, compassionate, and humorous. He also suffered from depression, so he was often contemplative, withdrawn, and despondent. But, he was never just one of those things; all of those qualities combined to make him the great man he was. If one ingredient had been missing, he wouldn't have been the Abraham Lincoln we know.
Every year on February 12, I re-read the Gettysburg Address in honor of Lincoln's birthday. Have you read it lately? Well, if not, you may not know that this little speech was given at a ceremony to dedicate a cemetery where soldiers who fought in the Battle of Gettysburg were buried. You may not know that this battle was a great turning point in the war, when the Union began its climb to victory. You may not know that Lincoln was not supposed to speak at the service that day--his attendance was sort of an afterthought. The keynote speaker, some guy named Edwards, talked for an hour or two, but nobody remembers what he said. (A good reminder for this public speaker!)
Here are the few words Lincoln said that day (actually his edited version--like all good writers, he tweaked his original before publishing). You'll certainly recognize these familiar phrases. But this time, as you read them, feel the tension of battle in the air, tension laced now with the hope of victory. Feel the weariness of Lincoln's soul as he counts the costs, naming them one by one--"John, David, Mark,. . ." Hear his heart and mind questioning, "Is the union really worth it?" Look into Lincoln's sad eyes, his deeply lined face (he looks so much older than he did just four years ago) and hear his spirit sing out, "God bless America, land that I love." Sing with him. We are, after all, the living. And we have much unfinished work before us.
Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth, upon this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal.
Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation, or any nation so conceived, and so dedicated, can long endure. We are met here on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of it as a final resting place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this.
But in a larger sense we can not dedicate - we can not consecrate - we can not hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled, here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note, nor long remember, what we say here, but can never forget what they did here.
It is for us, the living, rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they have, thus far, so nobly carried on. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us - that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they here gave the last full measure of devotion - that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain; that this nation shall have a new birth of freedom; and that this government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth.
When I was four and my brother was just a few months old, I started first grade.
Okay, not exactly. I mean, I didn’t actually GO to school. But I might as well have because my sister and I played school all the time; I was always the student. At the time, we lived in the parsonage across from Benson Baptist Church where Daddy was the pastor. Our bedrooms were on the second floor; in the hallway, my sister set up her chalkboard easel along with chairs for me and a few teddy bears. Under her dedicated (relentless) instruction (inquisition), I learned to read not long after she did.
And I loved it.
I loved biographies, especially ones about Harriet Tubman, George Washington Carver, and Abraham Lincoln. I loved novels by authors such as Eleanor Estes, Gertrude Chandler Warner, and Lucy Maud Montgomery. Reading became my very favorite pastime.
I gravitated towards books wherever I saw them; so it is not surprising that I picked up a storybook to read in the doctor’s office one day. Flipping through to find a story that appealed to me, I settled on the short, but horribly powerful story, “Jesus Understood.” I’ll attach PDF links below for those brave enough to read it themselves; here’s a quick summary.
A young boy named Bobby is hit by a car and finds himself in the hospital near death. Bobby’s roommate tells him about Jesus, saying that all you have to do is raise your hand and Jesus will come by while you sleep and take you straight to heaven. Bobby is too weak to manage even this; but the creepy little zealot in the next bed rushes to prop up Bobby’s hand with pillows. The next morning Bobby is dead, transported to Glory because (say it with me now), “Jesus understood.” (And here I thought it was scary that the wolf gobbled up Little Red Riding Hood’s poor helpless Granny.)
Keep in mind that by the time I was in elementary school, I was already exhausted from carrying the weight of the world on my young heart. So, when I read that story (I may have been 7 or 8 at the time), I thought I had finally found a way out. What if it’s true, I wondered. What if all I have to do is prop up my hand, and then I can be done here. I won’t have to be sad any more. I figured it was worth a shot, so night after night, I propped up my hand with pillows and stuffed animals. Inevitably, my hand would relax out of position. I would wake up, not only tasked with facing another day, but also frustrated by my failure to accomplish what seemed to me to be such a simple task.
As I said in an earlier post, I’ve never wanted to harm myself; I just wanted a get-out-of-life free card—a way to be done with the sadness without actually being at fault, without people getting mad at me. You see, I wanted to be free from the sadness that flooded my heart so very often, but I didn’t want to hurt anyone in the process.
Okay, I realize this sounds ridiculous. But if depression is anything, it’s a liar. Even as an adult, I can get sucked into the lies depression tells me. As a child, I had even less defense against depression’s deceit. Having read this story that made death look so much easier than life, I was tricked by depression to think of it as a true account rather than a pathetic contortion of truth by an amateur eschatologist. Consequently, I adopted this habit of sleeping on my back, my right elbow resting on the bed surrounded by miscellaneous props to keep my hand in the upright position. Unless memory fails me, I did this for years--not every single day, but often enough that I remember it vividly. (Obviously, this is not the sanest thing you’ve ever read. Mental Illness: it’s crazy.)
Eventually, I gave up on that strategy, but for decades I continued to long for a way out that would absolve me of guilt and free me from feeling so very, very sad. Relief finally arrived by way of medication.
In the next post, I’ll share with you how I made the choice to begin taking antidepressants and about some of the roadblocks I encountered along the way. I’ll also tell you how I handled the stigma associated with mental illness.
Oh, by the way, I’m not the only one who was affected by that abusive little bit of literature. I found this post on the humorously titled website, Smother Goose. Check it out if you like to hear a totally different response to that twisted tale.
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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 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 sitting 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.
“Ugh! I’m so overwhelmed,” my sister said.
It was 1998. She had a toddler and was working full-time; I was working part-time and had three children between the ages of eight weeks and three and a half years. (We were often overwhelmed back in those days.) We’d been on the phone for some time. I don’t remember who called whom, but one of us was incurring some serious long distance charges. (Another thing we did a lot of back then.)
There was nothing exceptional about that day. I wasn’t particularly sad or especially down. I felt fine, my version of normal. So I don’t know why I said what I did. It had never slipped out previously. Not during the horrific months of my sister’s complicated, high-risk pregnancy. Not when I had lived half-way across the country and suffered intense homesickness. Not during our college years when we mailed long letters to each other or in any of the years previous when we shared a bedroom. But that day, with the phone cradled between my shoulder and ear so I could talk and load the dishwasher at the same time, I said it almost absent mindedly.
“Yeah, I know. Doesn’t it make you wish you could just die?”
The line went silent. After a moment, my sister said, “Ahm, no. It just makes me stressed out.”
Whoops. Did I say that aloud?
“Yeah, right. I just meant, not kill yourself or anything, just get hit . . . ya know . . . ha ha, by a Mack truck. That’s all.”
“No. I don’t ever wish that,” she said. (I recall the moment in slow motion.) “Aileen, do you have times when you want to die?”
I did. I had all my life.
“Sometimes,” I told her. “But not now. I promise. Right now I am fine.”
We talked for a while and I guess I convinced her that I really was fine (either that or one of the four wee ones in our care demanded attention). Still, I could not get the conversation off of my mind.
My sister is so much like me. How is it that I feel this way and she doesn’t? This just might not be normal. (I’m pretty quick on the uptake like that.)
Thus began my growing awareness of my own depression. Shortly after that conversation, I began my search for effective treatment. Through trial and error, I found the right mix of medication, therapy, and behavior modification to keep my depression under control. Most of the time.
That conversation with my sister was nineteen years ago. I’ve kept my struggle mostly private, confiding only in family, my closest friends, and a few others along the way. I haven’t actually been ashamed, per se. Rather, I feel protective of that part of myself. Protective of the new mother terrified of messing up, of the 13-year-old who cried herself to sleep, the 8-year-old who found existence so very tiring. But over the years, I’ve learned ways to take care of me that allow me to share my experience. And now it’s time to share that story with you.
It’s a long story though, longer than one blog post for sure. So if you want to hear about my 40-plus year struggle with mental illness in the form of chronic depression, stay with me. I’ve got a lot to say.