I really wish, sometimes, that I couldn’t write with personal authority on the topics.
But since I can (and shit howdy can I), I feel I must. Each time someone who suffers from mental illness talks about it, I believe it breathes air into further conversation, understanding and leads to a general softening.
We’ve made a lot of progress. When I reflect upon those that suffered in past decades, I am grateful for the medical (I’m looking at you, Zoloft and Xanax) and societal advances. While I am grateful for those, I still see oodles of room for change and progress.
Last week, depression nudged its way in. I was low. The sun shone brightly. The temperatures soared in the high 70s. I was otherwise healthy and strong. Except that I wasn’t. I was depressed. It pounded through my veins. It weighted decisions, even the smallest that seemed like they should be so easy to lift. My ToDo list loomed. It took my patience and my sense of humor hostage. I did yoga. I ran. I did yoga. I ran. I stretched. I breathed. I took my meds. And I was still depressed.
My usual arsenal of Feel Goods didn’t. Not at all. Like a superbug, my depression and anxiety were outsmarting my most ardent (and vetted!) attempts to keep it at bay.*
Hey, how are you?
My gosh how I both yearn to answer this question honestly and yearn to have a different answer. Do I respond with, Shitty, actually. I’m depressed with a heaping side of anxiety and it totally sucks. ??? And I could then sing my famous rendition of Every party has a pooper that’s why you invited me, Party Pooper, Party Pooper!
It’s a fast way to suck the air right out of a conversation. (I feel it important for me to note here that I have dear family and friends with whom I can and do discuss my challenges, just as they discuss theirs with me.) But what if, just like one may share prognosis and diagnosis of other, more socially acceptable health ailments, what if those that are depressed could do the same?
I’d like to try.
We’ve made a lot of progress as a society and that’s good, but we’ve a far way to go. We don’t have a social construct for discussing mental illness. We, the depressed/anxious/MentalIllnessSuffering people, don’t have experience saying it and we, the people, don’t have experience responding to such disclosures. I don’t blame Us, I just want to find a gentler way, one that involves heart-felt listening. A hug. A check-in.
It’s never easy, is it? I think of all the times throughout my life when I would like to rescript my responses to assorted disclosures from friends. The taste of leather still lingers in my memories from my own foot-in-mouth experiences. But the only way I’ve gotten better at responding is through practice. I still mess up. I still keep trying.
Many don’t know what to say and when the fear of Saying the Wrong Thing sluices through our thoughts, many say nothing. My friend, Lisa Adams, wrote about this on her blog, during her illness with metastatic breast cancer. While each of us is an individual and we all need varying forms of support, I believe the macro level take-away is this: love.
One summer, three years ago, I had a call-back on my mammogram (and have been called back three times since). The scrub-clad nurses assured me when I was in for my initial screening that many times, women are called back in for additional imaging. So when I got the call-back, I tried to be calm. I breathed my way through the days leading to the second appointment, through the second mammogram, and furiously flipped through the pages of People as I waited while they read my new films.
Then, the calm nurse came and said that I needed to have even more imaging. An ultrasound. In the soft-lit room, I laid back and the paper crinkled and I remembered the last time I had an ultrasound, under much more cheerful circumstances. I remembered hearing Abby’s rapid heart beat, and then Henry’s. I tried to remember that sub-aquatic sound of in utero heart beats. I tried to not think I had cancer. It wasn’t working.
The nurse said she would review these images with the doctor and come back to let me know if I needed any more tests. I am an expert at going a long-way-down an imagined, rocky road. In my mind, I was scheduling biopsies, I was wondering how I would tell my husband and kids. I didn’t have ANY information yet I had packed my bags and traveled far.
I propped myself up on an elbow, scrounged for my phone in my purse and texted Lisa. My phone illuminated me in my cotton gown and my fingers flew as I explained to her what was happening. I told her I was scared. She responded with three words:
i am here.
I swiped a tear.
I recognized the absolute beauty, brilliance and love of those three little words. I. Am. Here.
(The nurse came back in, shortly after Lisa and I texted, and told me I was fine. I could go. That was it. They’d see me next year for my annual exam. Lisa’s outcome was different; her death left a hole in my world. I miss her so much.)
Casseroles for depression.
We (especially women) nourish each other when one of our own hurts. We circle our proverbial wagons and bake chocolate chip cookies, drop off lasagnas, chicken tetrazzini, baked ziti and more, with post-it note instructions, Bake for 25 minutes at 350. Thinking of you. xoxo . Broken legs, surgery, death, heart break, divorce. With our comfort foods, bouquets of flowers and reassuring texts, we attempt to soften the unimaginable, the hurt, the loss, the pain.
I am not good at telling others that I am depressed or anxious. I suck, actually. I’ve said to friends, You know, there are no casseroles for depression. I think we could change that. It must start with those that suffer. It starts with the brave utterance, I’m struggling. I’m having a rough time.
And the equally brave response, I am here.
My wish is that we could tip the conversational model. If someone is struggling with mental illness that they can say it. That someone they choose to tell can receive it. It won’t be easy. Some or many may not know what to say. But may I suggest,
I am here.
I am here.
I am here.
** This week is lighter, brighter and better. Clouds parted and I feel once again like myself. Now I’m flipping depression the bird.
Several years ago, I some powerful essays on this topic by The Bloggess:
Thank you, Jenny Lawson, for paving the way. I am grateful.
the weak spot is considered the
place to strike
emotion to veil
stock to sell
mold to fill
why is the trudging, the opposite of fine,
grief, darkness, depression, pain
admittance, foible, fallibility seen as
What if the softest most tender
What if every expression of emotion/
in all its varied forms
breaks open, waves hitting and
knocking down, mouths filling with salt water
hair mats with the ocean’s foam
and sand in every crevice.
What if with my tears and its tears and every
tear shed like a holy baptism of acceptance/
arms splayed open, pummeled
What if the moment when the tears
hiding in the throat’s middle chamber
in a ball growing exponentially with each
threatening to rip open
the vessel finally free at last.
What if once released and let out of its cage,
rusty hinges creaking their protest
the torrents rage and
throat opens and
a melody so ethereal unfolds in its place.
What if the pain and the truth mixed by the
light of our witness
washes everyone touches everyone/
where we rest our
weary bodies and
rocks cool, smooth on the bottoms of our feet
relief splashing, weights dissipating, strong
from the journey
breathing in the torrents of
I’ll tell you something.
I collect a lot things:
Tshirts, in towering soft stacks in my closet.
Nature’s hearts — rocks, leaves, tiny sea shells–which I keep in a small bowl by my kitchen sink.
Quotes that stun me, stop me, inspire me–written on whatever I can record them on or in.
New words, written diagonally on scraps of paper to Look Up and Remember, tucked in notebooks, library books, surrounding my desk.
Slights, negative words, sentences and thoughts–anything negative about me. This last collection is vast, kept in the daily dredge of my mind.
The Dinner, 1993.
My senior year of college. I’m out to a Really Nice Dinner (not pizza, not cafeteria food, not…pizza.) The restaurant’s rich wood paneling reflecting the soft candle light on our table, which wore a bonafide white linen table cloth. I sat with three men–two men I adored (one, my first love and the other, a dear friend) and my boyfriend’s father. Laughter trickled from our table, our bodies titled toward each other. The wine and the candle light plumed together and pinked my cheeks. I felt–lit up. Pretty. We ate steak and decadent twice baked potatoes. My boyfriend’s father delivered the news from their hometown and family. We learned that his little brother now had a girlfriend. We’re all listening to Mr. Smith, (not his real name) describe Tom’s (not HIS real name) girlfriend and suddenly his eyes fell on me.
“She’s actually a lot like you, Denise.”
I start to fluff up my feathers a bit. I beamed. Then he said,
“She’s kind and nice and not drop-dead-gorgeous.” (Now, in Mr. Smith’s defense, I know my memory has torqued this event, his words. Maybe it was, “She’s lovely and nice and sorta pretty, kinda like you, Denise.” So while I write this as a quote, it most certainly isn’t. But we get his gist: not exceptional, not gorgeous, NOT PRETTY.)
Middle School, 1983.
(Really, I could just end this one here. These two little words stir up such collective angst.) I tell two of my friends that I have the biggest crush on Adam (not his real name, either). Ooooo, they gush and Ohhh, we promise we won’t tell. I swear I can still see his ridiculously long eye lashes revealing his piercing blue eyes. His dimples–OH! his dimples, slices of heaven revealed when he smiled.
One warm spring morning, I walk toward my school. Dewy sunlight spills all around. I realize Adam is walking toward me. ME. My stomach flops and flips and a rush of flush floods my face. He looks into my eyes with his impossibly blue ones and says,
“…Hi,” I reply.
“Do you want to go out with me?”
The sun is now neon bright, all colors are electric and sounds are so loud.
“Yes!” I say. I can feel my smile broaden, lips making that last effort to rise up and over my braces.
A lovely pause, a moment when it’s all true and then,
“Just kidding,” he smiles. He turns away.
Distant giggles escape from behind a cement pillar. The giggles bound off the sidewalk and pavement and hit me like grenades. Adam walks toward that pillar. Two familiar heads pop out from behind the pillar, heads thrown back in laughter. Apparently, the success of their evil plan and my misery are hysterical.
I just stood there. Stunned that the pain was so piercing, yes, but also that this kind of meaness existed.
I’ve even collected negative thoughts that I think people may have thought about me. You may not have known this about me, but I’m a collector of made-up-thoughts-for-other-people.
The Beach, Summer of 2014.
I walk along my beloved ocean’s edge. Hot sun sears my shoulders. I look down and see flabby thighs, pouchy stomach. I see pasty skin and think If I Stand Up Straight I’ll look so much better. Who the FUCK I am to actually wear a bikini at 42? My feet hit the wet sand, I dodge fishermen and pint-sized body surfers. My muffin top jiggles a bit with each step. The air holds salty sea water and Coppertone. A lifeguard stand gets closer; the giant red, wooden structure holds two amazingly golden, gorgeous lifeguards. Brawny. Cool. Indifferent. I walk a bit taller. Maybe they’ll think I’m gorgeous and then BAM My GOD they think you’re a frumpy 42-year-old who should really run JUST A BIT more than the mile it takes you to get the family-owned bakery to eat warm donuts covered in powered sugar with buttercream filling. They see your Picasso-esque face, your deep furrowed brow, wrinkles in stone.
I walk past other innocent pawns, sitting enjoying the shore’s bounty, towels spread languidly on white hot sand. I recruit them into my negative diatribe: the teenaged-girls, the fathers of toddlers, the middle-aged mothers. Because I’m an amazing mind-reader of imaginary thoughts, they all have an imagined insult to add.
And then, there are the times when I feel beautiful. Confident. Sparkly. I may be out with friends and someone snaps a photo. Or, I may pass a store front and glimpse my reflection in its window. In either case, I peer at the image hopefully and instantly wish I hadn’t. Evidence proves, once again, that feeling beautiful and looking beautiful are two very different events. Stupid, I think. Beautiful? Ha. THIS is how you really look. The beauty a mirage, a hoax, pluming away into the air with no way to pull it back.
As I plumb the origins and depths of this habit, I wonder how it began. Of course, life’s events form each of us. But how much? Did these and countless other events, some of which still lie buried in the dark, create this? Did I hoard each negative event, creating this toxic collection? Or, did my anxiety and depression provide the soft, fertile ground for these thoughts to flourish? Which is the chicken? Which is the egg? Somewhere, it all intersects for me and it yields my current reality. A subtle mental fog which alters the way I see my own terrain.
I’ve unwittingly discounted so many lovely sentiments over the years. I brushed them off. Such a disservice, as one wise friend recently told me, to those who took the time to say something kind. I didn’t mean to be ungrateful or rude. Truly. It’s just that my truth lays buried under my collection. I’ve gotten the truth wrong. The negative voice became so ingrained that it impacted how I processed everything. It WAS the process and the filter.
When I passed by a mirror. As I walked down the steps. When meeting someone new. When talking to my children. Or scrubbing dishes. When I glanced at the rows of pants that I haven’t been able to wear comfortably for several months. When I see myself as I step out of the shower, the foggy mirror reflecting an image back to me. Do I know her? Can I see her? Is she me?
I’m slowly clearing the collection and rubble. The dismantling has begun to undermine its authority and power. I’m stepping back and examining each objectively. I stop, shake my head and hold them up to the light.
Windows revealed the wintry night sky. I sat in my flannel-clad bed, duvets cozily tucked all around. My wild curly hair was perched atop my head in a wild bun. I wore my kelly green SANTA’S LITTLE HELPER tshirt and HoHoHo flannel bottoms. Big floppy socks kept my feet warm and happy. My husband walked into our room and over to my side of the bed. He looked at me. The light from my bedside table light illuminated him, warm eyes settled on mine. The thoughts tried to begin, at-the-ready with some mud to sling. Shhhhhh. I refocused. I looked at my husband and then, his eyes. I chose the love I saw there. I locked my own with his.
And I smiled.
“I take a deep breath and sidestep my fear and begin speaking from the place where beauty and bravery meet–within the chambers of a quivering heart.”
― Terry Tempest Williams
I wonder if I will ever be able to take off my ankle-length, black down coat.
I wonder how my hair is doing under my winter hat, all matted and nestled.
I wonder if the warm summer sun misses my face as much as my face misses it.
I wonder how life serves such duality: life/death, light/dark, happy/sad, here/gone.
I wonder if the tulips are stretching beneath the snow. I wonder how they know and envy their certainty.
I wonder what might happen if I truly gave up Caring About What Others Think About Me, what space would be opened, what peace may permeate.
I wonder: are the little birds who occupy this frozen land cold? Do they know cold in their bones? Do they care?
I wonder if I would be truly happy if my home were clean, top to bottom, door frames to base boards, or if I’m chasing an illusion like a dodgy dust bunny?
I wonder about the times I got it wrong. And hope I learned enough to get it right.
I wonder if wrinkles were always eschewed by our culture. I wonder what would happen if time’s stamp was heralded as much as a newborn’s cheek, both equally magical.
I wonder if I can get new inserts for my boots.
I wonder if I’m raising them well, giving them the Right Tools, leading by example in this precarious life.
I wonder and marvel at mathematical minds, speaking numbers like an exotic language.
I wonder if my uterus is suffering from empty-nest syndrome.
I wonder when the words on the page became so small.
I wonder how a song crawls within and pulses with my heart and chest and veins and soul. I can feel the double bar of the sixteenth note and the weight of the bass, starting in my stomach and ending in ripples all around.
I wonder at the implicit power that another person’s careless driving has on my temper, rising rising rising to mercury red.
I wonder if I’d feel free if I threw away my saved stack of magazine pages (recipes to cook, books to read, ideas to ponder)–or if I’d miss the certainty of them. Would I miss their company?
I wonder at the scent of the night, an expanse of dark magic striking my heart’s chord.
I wonder at the familiarity of my husband’s face, our 12 years of marriage and I the cartographers of his particular map.
I wonder how it is that I still marvel at time’s passage and I hope I never stop.
I tuck the waterproof pad into the back couch cushions, wedging it tightly. It crinkles, perhaps in protest, or maybe just groaning in solidarity. I lay the waterproof cover on the floor, securing it tightly under the couch to protect the carpet. I put a clean, soft blanket on the couch. Position the bucket just so.
Dark circles and I shuffle slippered feet into the kitchen. Squirt squirt the Clorox Clean-Up, wipe it all down. Rinse. Repeat. Same pattern with the door handles, light switches, bathrooms. I give many thanks to Clorox Wipes.
I created a make-shift, easy-to-wash bed on the guest room floor, since I’ve no interest in cleaning vomit that could catapult from the loft bed.
The washing machine swish-swishes, dryer clink-clinks. We go to sleep, him on the floor, me in the guest bed. Side-by-side in our bunker.
At 3 am, at 4 am, at 5 am the calls come from the floor, piercing tentative sleep. I squat down, rub his hot back, push the hair from his eyes. Grabbing for the bucket as I whisper love into the dark, a constant thread. I’m so sorry. Oh sweet love. It’s OK. Promises of the future, perhaps, but really of no consolation now.
“Can I just have a bath?” he asks, two hot-points of red, beacons on his grey face. I help him climb into the tub, worried that after three days of no food, he may slip, fall, concussion, thoughts swirl in cloaks of anxiety as they do in the dark.
I perch on the toilet, bent elbow and hand hold up my weary head. Why is my head so heavy? His fingers move just enough to splash the water gently against the tub’s sides. Soft light filters from the small recessed light above.
Wash, rinse, repeat.
He climbs out, all angles and bones. I wrap the white towel around his hot, small frame. He turns his back to me and plops himself into my lap. I wrap my arms around and inhale the soap, the scent of his Clorox-washed towel, him. He burrows in.
“I love you, Mommy.”
“Oh sweetie. Oh my love. I love you, too.”
I DID that. I did THAT. I pushed through the fog of the flu. I went to the doctor, saw the two calls from my mother and called her back.
An inability to walk.
A shattered tibia.
Adrenaline took charge. I packed bags and drank caffeine and Do I Have My Comforter and My Pillow? and made many yellow, sticky mental notes. I hoped they’d stick.
I drove to Chicago, my Diet Coke and I reunited after a six-day break. We were happy to meet again, sweet bubbles dancing in my mouth and belly. The opening chords of Huey Lewis & The News’ Do You Believe in Love broke into my dimly lit car cocoon. I gasped like a giddy, tweenaged girl and SANG IT. Oh the smooth harmonies. I’m waiting for Huey to call ANY SECOND.
I DID THAT. I drove the five hours, straight to the hospital and parked the car, taking photos like little bread crumbs to find my way whenever I was able to find my way back. Hoping that I’d find my way back.
I kissed her and held her hand and read the opening pages of Carol Rifka Brunt’s Tell the Wolves I’m Home to her. I let her read the summary, worried that a story of 14-year-old June may not entice her, but I promised that the writing was exquisite, that the characters are layered subtly and beautifully. Is There Anything She Hasn’t Read?, I wondered to myself. Not this. I took solace in the well-crafted words of another, giving my own intonation and imagining if I were the author, reading to a group, where I would want the pauses. Would Rifka Brunt put them here?
I came back to my voice and glanced at my mom, her eyes resting, lulled by the cadence of my voice. Carol Rifka Brunt and I brought her a moment of peace.
I stayed with her, in the ER, helping, talking, staying until a room transfer could occur. I kissed her goodnight and cared for her the way she herself taught through countless examples. Countless hours, layering love upon love upon love, always staying.
I wondered not if she were proud of me, but proud of herself for the example she lived for me, that I stepped into and whispered into the dark night, through her searing pain.
Ambiguity swilling, pushing at the dark shadows of the quiet. Her right leg. Her teaching. Her students. She lives alone. My brother and I live away, not here. Where I am now. How Will She Drive How Will She Shop Will She Come to Live With Me and Us and Oh Please Will Her Pain Subside and now, Will Her Students Miss Her Quiet Calm and Many, Many Lessons?
Ambiguity, always present. And so, I reach out from this foggy seat, the seat of Rilke’s Questions, and touch the certain. My chest, my breath. The sun. Oh, the trees. Always the trees, echoing my ebbs and flows and teaching just as she does. Strong. Powerful. Quiet. Leaning in to hear their wisdom, proudly squaring my shoulders knowing I’ve stepped certainly into this moment. I Loved Her Am Loving Her Love Her. I did that. Just now. I really, truly did.
Last month, I participated in a fabulous on-line writing group, lead by the lovely, talented Jena Schwartz. Her final writing prompt yielded this free-write. I am so grateful I gifted myself the time to write, with Jena and other talented writers. I think, as a result of this experience, I am going to use this space a bit differently, a bit like a writing playground. I’ll try new things. I may call out, like a child on the monkey bars, “Hey! Watch me! Watch THIS!!” And maybe it’ll be good and maybe I’ll just fall. But I’ll brush off my knees, mulch falling back to ground, and begin again. As Jena writes, “Write. Practice. Be Good to Yourself.”
I’d like to teach the world to sing/In perfect harmony
I’d like to hold it in my arms/And keep it company
I’d like to see the world for once/All standing hand in hand
And hear them echo through the hills/For peace throughout the land
(That’s the song I hear)
I’d like to teach the world to sing
(Let the world sing today)
In perfect harmony**
– Bill Backer / Billy Davis / Roger Cook / Roger Greenaway
As I swirl and tilt about in this holiday season, I am surprised by the polarity of emotion I experience. One moment the pureness of a white twinkle light awakens child-like awe within. The next, I’m cursing the mother-f’n twinkle lights as I take all 600 of them off the really tall tree (which required the really tall, somewhat precarious ladder) because I strung them in such a way that I cannot plug them in.
One moment I am the embodiment of Christmas spirit and then next I give the Grinch a run for his money.
Then, there are the gifts that depression serves up. Generous to a fault, anxiety and depression Give Give Give during the holidays. The deep swell of shadows, hiding just-under the holly jolly moments. The uncertainty, the pulsing thoughts, the self-doubt. Everyone here thinks you’re ridiculous. You’re ugly. You don’t offer anything of value. Then, the self-judgement pipes up: This, again? Why haven’t you figured out how to not feel this way yet? Geesh. It’s a Buy-One-Get-One-Free as it gives doubly, serving up both self-doubt and judgement as I stumble through this lack-of-serotonin forest.
I understand the dissonance and discord (and do my best to find their gifts), but they’re everywhere. Within, in parking lots, on the news, across America, the world. But the moments of harmony–these are the ones for which I’m opening my eyes, heart and soul.
A true smile that begins in someone’s heart and spills onto their face, a tight hug, the feeling that I’m being heard and seen, a hand-written note, someone taking the time to share their story with me.
When I’m driving, impossibly blue sky arching above, and REM’s Radio Free Europe begins to play and I blare it. I sing–loud and proud– into an imaginary microphone that I (may) actually believe connects to the outside world. I open my sun roof because THERE’S SO MUCH JOY and the crispness of winter surrounds my senses and I dance and shimmy as much as one can when buckled into her seat. And I ROCK my air-drum solo.
THAT. That optimism. That throw-open-the-doors-because-I-can’t-contain-my-euphoria joy.
The note I discover in the mud room that reads, simply, I love you Mom.
That moment when I can help someone else through the dark. When I can offer this: I understand. I am sorry. I will help.
The moment when I approach an interaction with my child with understanding and love instead of anger and judgement.
This harmony, this blending of two lives who together make life richer and fuller and bigger and more beautiful. THIS is what I seek.
And so, I search. I open my eyes to the harmonious threads woven throughout my days.
**This song is one of my favorites and I first heard it in the 1970’s Coke commercial. I still listen to this song and it still makes me feel hopeful, and reminds me to be open to joy.