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Out of the darkness


I can remember being 7 and feeling sad. Not sad like disappointed because I didn’t make it to the street in time to buy a Drumstick, but more like dark and without joy. I didn’t feel it all the time, but when I did, it kind of overtook me, and no matter how much I vowed to be a better person, it hung over me until it felt like loosening its grip.

When I think of it now, I conjure up hazy images of Saturday afternoons in the living room of our little suburban tract house. In these memories, the sun has moved behind the house behind ours and the shadows feel cold. At the time, I attributed my sense of hopelessness to what was going on around me. My parents argued a lot, my older brother was always in trouble with someone, and we never seemed to have much money. I tied my feelings of sadness to those circumstances in the way that a small child might. Later, the melancholy seemed directly related to not getting chosen to be a cheerleader or to not having a boyfriend. By the time I was in college, I was deeply addicted to self-help books and determined to power through my unhappiness, to perfect the tasks of my life to the point that there would be nothing about which I could possibly feel bad.

It wasn’t until many years later, in the middle of therapy, that I internalized the notion that I suffered from depression, that it was in me, but not my fault. I got it that the circumstances of my life might trigger a bout of it, but it was more about my make-up than anything else. Taking that apart, understanding the gillion little pieces of what happened in me and to me when I felt depressed—the shame, the discomfort—was like a complex game of pick-up sticks. But the result was priceless. When my therapist and my doctor recommended anti-depressants, I resisted at first in all the ways people do. I didn’t want to have to take a drug for the rest of my life, I wanted to be able to take fix my own problems, and I didn’t want to have something “wrong” with me.

... it was as if someone came down to the bottom of that hole and built some huge, sturdy scaffolding for me to stand on.

Still, I felt so disheartened about my own ability to shoulder through the messy, painful darkness at that moment that I was willing to do anything. What I found was nothing short of a miracle, and here’s why: when I was depressed I felt as if I were at the bottom of a deep hole. I knew from experience and well-meaning advice that any kind of movement would help, but moving around down there felt nearly impossible. When I started taking Prozac, coupled with the coping tools I was learning in therapy, it was as if someone came down to the bottom of that hole and built some huge, sturdy scaffolding for me to stand on. Things still happen that spark that trip to the hole, but I don’t go nearly as far down now. I can see over the top and the light that provides buoys me in such a comforting way I can barely describe it. I have room to move, to make changes, to be patient with myself. And each success builds a confidence I never had before.

Since I retired, as my schedule has changed and my identity has shifted, I have found myself in that hole a few times. But it doesn’t scare me as much as it used to, and I feel like I have the tools I need to move in the ways necessary to make my way out. More than anything, I have an understanding of myself and my life that makes it all more palatable. I used to think I was a bad person because I couldn’t will myself to be happy or find the perfect set of circumstances that would prevent me from heading this way again. But I get it now that this is who I am, that it’s as much a part of me as my blue eyes and the pale earth-shaped birthmark on my belly. I don’t look forward to those days when the perfect set of circumstances kick me in a way that leaves me feeling like that little 7-year-old in the dark, but I am oh so grateful to be on better terms with the route out.