(Be forewarned: this is real life and not attractive. )
The slate-grey window yawned at me, a near-cavernous thing, a gaping void just beyond which I leaned and teetered, pressed against the cold pane, eyes half-closed. It could have been night or day, either a measure of my sight, my mind, or my disposition. It was 3 a.m., it was 3 p.m., either way it was about to be my undoing, a weak surrender to another gasp of the binding air, a squelched human inhalation/exhalation.
Well, you may ask, how can the very air have binding properties unless filled with smoke or other noxious chemical release of choking minute particulate? But for the time, it felt as if it was, a hazard of living day to day. It was the ponderous curtain of depression, and a deep seeding of unworthiness and powerlessness, and the plaintive sorrow that accompanies it. And it attached itself to me like a second skin that slowly engulfed not only my body but the shrinking core of me. Until a kind of terrible breathlessness came…despite walking, talking, doing as habit bids. Usually. Until an likely imminent failure of purportedly reliable systems.
I have never written for a public readership much of the hardest realities of my life in first person, as nonfiction. The details, even a few that resonate and stick to me like powerful sap. I hesitate. I wonder what can be gained for myself, for anyone. I only know a strong desire is suddenly to, decades later, speak of some things in the way it wants to fall onto the page. Call it a shedding, call it a truth telling, call it a writers impulse to confess, even self indulgent–that worst of writing which I tend to think serious, difficult soul-baring writing too often is. Nonetheless, I keep writing. And the black letters leap onto the white expanse like spooked deer running for their lives, or, perhaps, running to better grazing grounds….
“Don’t let the past steal your present or future”: this is taped upon my mirror on a scrap of paper. I meant it back whenever and I still do. Practice it like a mantra, like a psalm. Use it like a life preserver.
I have not felt those above difficult sensations nor daily carried such burdens for multiple decades–way back when I was in my late teens, when I finally almost gave up the fight with late-diagnosed PTSD due to damage of unspoken (and ignored by all adults) childhood sexual abuse. Emotional abuse, the kind that lingers as a low drone, unheard perhaps by others but unmistakable. Those times and those stories are not even fit to print, I always think, so terrible was my habitation within them. It went from bad to worse: those many storied, high-ceilinged Gothic buildings with dark, too cold or hot, near-empty common spaces and such tiny sleep cells, one of which I sheltered within at night; the lack of control over any waking or half-sleeping moment, and many patients roaming and muttering or locked and tethered and mostly drugged out of time and thought, and ultimately alone and deeply lost. There were those committed for drunk driving, for drug use. This was not an enlightened place or time. There were no addiction treatment centers, no dual diagnosis help back then.
The absurdity of it, trying to heal within a decrepit mental institution and a system that was a maze of a nightmare, antiquated, more ruinous than imagined at first glance–which was bad enough. The place where I did survive 4 months. But it was so toxic and poorly run that it was closed not long after I exited via power of a court order. True, I had experienced what was called an acute toxic psychosis, brought on by amphetamine and barbiturates with psychedelics tossed in, then subsequent withdrawals and the old PTSD flourishing in the midst of it all. There was more that happened in my young life than anyone ever knew. And I wasn’t soon talking. And a badly run psychiatric hospital would not make me talk, either. I determined to stay alive, endure, day by day, but being there with those issues was like being scalded then nothing but burn and ash, bereft. The body sickened, wounded by being dunked/scrubbed/yanked/detained, magnification of emotional robberies past and present and a team of medical “judges” lined up as I was sat on a small chair on a platform, interrogated, given sentence, told that doing my tasks and trying hard was not enough, I had more time: the internment as I called it felt like being left in far greater peril, with no way out. No one incarcerated thought differently behind high barred windows… unless they no longer could think, at all. One could see why not and crying about it helped nothing.
Then, too late for so many, there it was: that it’s doors and windows had finally to be shuttered was, of course, no surprise to me. That it took that long, too long, stunned.
That sprawling compound where so many had lived for years, not just weeks or months, remained vacant for a long time, perhaps I imagined to be razed to the ground as it needed to have been, or sold for its considerable, pretty acreage. Then, perhaps fifteen years ago, I came across a glossy article about how a resurrection had taken place: that dark castle of horrors had been reconfigured, renovated, reborn as a resort of sorts, a high-end shopping and fancy hotel with spa kind of place. Imagine my astonishment and dismay. To think of people taking pleasure there. It will never be anything other than it was, to me, and I can imagine there roam ghosts of its long and ignominious past. I wish it had been made into a garden or a wooded haven, a nature preserve for birds to fly free, all creatures roaming at will. Space to be, nothing a barrier to what comes easily and with no harm intended.
But I made it through that experience and the grueling times (including before and the aftermath) as I could only hope that others did. I sometimes think of them, recall their faces, the longing and fear. Since I exited through those gates and found greater freedom I learned there were good ways in which to get better, rebuild my life. It required time, stubborn intention and work to leave behind the oddly magnetic pull to give up. To find sturdy “earth legs” again to keep me steadier. But I found despair did not have to commandeer me; there were coping methods that did not involve drugs, either illicit or prescribed. I may have been fortunate, yes, to read the right books, find a few wise therapists, avail myself of friends and other support people along the way. And I had a faith that I did not altogether abandon, a belief that I would prevail with God’s constancy and compassionate guidance one way or another.
That kind of torment, the black well of it, has not revisited me as happened there in that time and place, the late 1960s. And still the impact has not quite left me, though I might think otherwise.
It wasn’t just the provoking illness and addiction, the self loathing and hopelessness that accompanied it. It was those streaked dirty pea green walls and corridors, the cups and needles full of soul-negating “medicines”, heavy thud of steel doors as they slammed tightly shut and even locked, screams and garbled monologues of agonies named and unnamed, the grave mental states so many inmates inhabited–if one can say they inhabited anything but their bones and flesh. Even I felt taking leave of one’s senses was the best prospect for relief, at times. Then there were less mentally or physically impaired individuals who might possibly have thrived if they had lived more safely, been loved well…they so touched my soul. We found each other’s eyes often and spoke less, there was little will for that. But those things I had to do to get by each day, the labors forced upon me since my mind clarified and I was capable before too long. The required mental gymnastics and learned obedience I was put through by people doing what they were paid to do…the rough hands that informed me there was no escaping anything: these can and do haunt. One does not precisely forget. It gets into sinew and cell and those who’ve known the experience keep it hidden in a series of scars, even as the damage is repaired.
One presses on and looks for anything better. For light amid the depths. One scrounges for courage where there is none. Where every breath feels useless and yet one must breathe. This is how human beings are outfitted if we get to be fortunate enough: we are made to persevere beyond all reasonable cause or any evidence supporting hope. We will ourselves to keep on.
How I prayed when crumpled in dank and dirty corners that if God would only release me from that desert of spirit and mind and body, that Gothic nightmare, I would spend my life in service to help others. I wanted to care more for any sort of real life, but was beaten down and beyond caring…and one prays harder when great need presses in, and also strikes bargains. I was entirely committed to such a bargain (and one day would make good on it).
There it is. Words testifying. But I haven’t thought of this story within the greater context of my life nor of that distant past in so long. Perhaps not since my late twenties. So why now?
I have good cause, maybe. The recall may bring me closer to truths needed so I can rally and come back to joy and peace, not mere facsimiles, not only a hope of both. I already know what hell is; I also know what a sort of heaven is that can manifest here and now.
How does one write of shifting shadows and powerful undertow of depression when I still barely understand it in my own life–despite treating others in some way or another for decades as an addictions and mental health counselor? I have easily empathized with others; I have believed their fight valiant and purposeful. I’ve rallied resources, cheered them on, held the line against more loss and for greater renewal. But, really, perhaps I had lost something vital–a conscious knowledge of all that had been placed on a shelf: Something Once Experienced and Done. Like being beaten or or raped, overdosing or having knives thrown at you or being shot but surviving. I have such stories, too, death and life. So it makes sense to me that it was put behind me and I have simply gone on. This is what survivors learn to do, even as we work out the peace we must have.
Not that I haven’t been miserable other times over the decades for a couple hours, for days here and there–quite low, a darker shade of “blue”–even a greater kind of sad for this or that reason, and also wracked with grief for months after losses, but still living in this world better than expected. We cannot escape these repeats the longer we live; it is only human, as it goes. It’s tested me. I’ve felt becalmed, “emotionally inert” for brief times. PTSD affects things a long while and when the triggers arise even briefly I do know what to do. And yes there are the burdens carried about by the wrong decisions made, aching and worn out. But then they are let go.
So—really depressed? More than here and there\ then done with that? I have had no patience for it. I shake my head, say, No, that was back then–this is now. I am so grateful I have not been there again, not like that. Get down? Get back up, it is simple.
But today I tell you: I have over the last few months glimpsed that misshapen, relentless old beast and found it a daunting thing once more. Not as before, no–I am sober and clean of substances. I am not the same age or of the same time, not that same young, mute and bleeding person. I have had years made sweet and sweeter with happy times to encourage, fortify and heal me. I have learned a ton of efficacious coping methods and use them. And I have time on my side, and it teaches and strengthens me each year. At almost 70, I am stronger and better prepared for meeting “life on life’s terms” and more resilient than ever.
But am I? I am re-evaluating a few factors every day and am not so sure sometimes. IT is not the same, it is not even every day I feel run over by the old self abnegation, but it is a fearsome thing, nonetheless.
And the truth is, I don’t sink too low for no reason at all. It is not chemical as far as I can tell, certainly not for eons, if it ever was– not in the classic sense of clinical depression etiology. I tend to feel internally solid, more or less balanced mood-wise and I do know who I am, know what I need and what to do. Sure, I feel and express several emotions in a day, this is h ow I was built for the world my heart a sieve for feelings and impressions. No one ever accused me of not being transparent, either. But my internal barometer reads acceptably warm or cool, or I change it to what works better for the environment.
No, it is always a particular circumstance which I find more demanding and then finally near-impossible to effectively problem solve around, to improve; or a number of those times with weightier cumulative effect. So I have examined many changes in my life and found that they have taken me down without my full knowledge. Little by little. From one sort of confusion or loss or hurt to another. This low time has been 3 or so years in the making. And I have had to look it in the face; I do not like not turning on a light bulb to see what is coming at me, and what I need to work out.
I will not bore you with endless details but will note some major events. (Those who read my posts weekly, please forgive any repetition.).
Six people I loved have died one after the other in a fairly short time, some in a very difficult manner. I’ve had significant health crises and interventions–cardiovascular issues, serious dental problems (dental matters effect heart health, too, FYI), flares of gastrointestinal illness and issues related to inadequate treatment of a previous female health (mis)diagnosis. I had four random injuries due to hiking terrain/missteps as well as a slip and fall; though no broken bones, they suspended my necessary and loved outdoor activities far more than expected. Years of chronic neck pain from an assault at 40 that can steal endurance. and equanimity–I cannot take opioids, nor even ibuprofen (the latter interferes with my heart health). It can get a bit complicated.
My spouse developed a couple of serious and chronic health problems–surprising, scary. Then there were other life crises/financial worries/emotional issues for our children and others at various times, things that have kept me awake at night. And my only remaining sister–an executive director type, a doer and shaker, and one of two siblings left of four–has weirdly developed dementia, perhaps due to concussion from accidents…. but it doesn’t matter how, it just IS. No other members of my birth family now are here excepting this sister. A brother is in Virginia or travelling the world. (Of course, there are three adult children here plus s few grand kids –for that I am grateful beyond measure.)
One dear friend is slowly preparing to move to Arizona in a year; I already see her much less due to our area move. Another has had a major mental health impasse far worse than my current debacle and another (though younger) who is my dearest friend may be dying even as I write this– her medical diagnoses take greater toll week by week.
Where have so many I have loved gone? Of course this is a not even a sensible question. But it is asked. I count them as they fall and still cannot believe it at times. But we age or get ill, and there you have it.
Earlier in 2019, we moved after 25 years in the same abode to an area quite unlike the old one; I still cannot recall my way around all these crisscrossing, winding roads. One of our daughters had twins (after high risk pregnancy) last spring, and then came unexpected postpartum depression/anxiety with many ripple effects. It was overwhelming for me, too, at first. But she rallied with great perseverance, excellent helps. The readjustments remain ongoing though she returned soon to a good if demanding job. Her spouse has not worked outside home, taking on the household duties and daily child tending for eight months, as well. Money is terribly tight. I have helped out 2 times a week or more for the last nine months.
It has been a past year of unforeseen demands as life just presents us, yes. Communications glitches, ongoing stress with tiredness, expectations not met as imagined. We have all learned things about each other that have been surprising and at times difficult. Not to say soul bruising, now and then, requiring more courage, flexibility, ingenuity, patience, compassion–not all of which operate as well as others or often not all at once for us. We each have had our work cut out for us. But the twins are so worth every single bit of labor and devotion. Their magnificence–who cannot embrace and adore new beings given to our care? We so love them. Still, I think it needs to be said that being grandparents and parents and in-laws all at one time is not so easy-breezy as some would have you think, nor an endless happy celebration day in, day out. There are needs coming at the family all the time, and important. But our delight in those two small girl persons is unending and we care for family so much.
I had a major car accident Thanksgiving Day, not so bad, I made it out okay, overall. But it seemed a tipping point. (I’ve had only one other crash, in 1974; it left me unconscious/leaving body, “jaws of life” employed, significant recovery time, etc.) This was a couple months after my husband also had had an accident. My car was totaled, it was a lengthy process with insurance and finally abating. More expenses, injury to address. It took me a month to stop feeling anxious on busy streets, to stop feeling oddly fragile, and it jarred me emotionally–more than I thought it should. It seemed too much at moments, though it was so small an actual thing in the end. It helped hasten a faster descent; I berated myself for my error of judgment, of being in the wrong place, the wrong time. And the loss of money–a “new” used car, higher insurance rates, etc. when it was needed for more important things.
I have to admit that I have spent more time weeping than in decades. I cry over truly sad stories and real human suffering, but I’m not a sniffler over sad songs, fussy people, flat tire in a downpour, one-eyed dogs, bad hair day, etc.–and not a full-on crier even when life hurts. But I have become one the past couple of months. Not every day, but far too often for my comfort. There have been words: I have heard that I am a person with several flaws. I have never pretended otherwise; there have been shocks. More words, regrets and bafflement.
There has been grief. The grief is what moves me to lay on yielding pillow and moan, press my forehead against a tree on my walk and let tears run. For what? For my losses, for the earth’s losses, even for your losses. It can feel like one and the same, all of us paddling or swimming best we can but too many of us sinking, even drowning. I intend to–I must– at the very least float until I swim well once more. What else can done do? I am far too old to quit and start over. I get up and face the day; truly, some are better than others. But it takes work and risking more hope again.
I don’t know if these things are “enough” to create a moderate to significant depressive state. I call it as it is today for me. I tried to clarify events and my responses. For how I react shows me my perspective and deeper feelings. Why have I in other times been quite able to “bounce back as usual”? Why have I felt more alone than before? Why is it tougher to well protect myself from what feel like a bunch of harder knocks? And why are more sleepless nights gaining the upper hand, and heavier days being distracted by ruminations that net too little progress? I have been stopped by the accumulated life happening this time. One can get weary. I find what works and does not, what to seek that will enable greater well being. And thus, to be a better parent, spouse, grandmother, friend, sister.
I am more a “yo-yo” for the first significant period since I drank or used drugs so long ago. So I attend AA meetings. I don’t want to drink or use but I don’t want to be on a “dry drunk”, either. I want to be better than this. I go and I sit and listen to the group’s collective wisdom and experience. I know no one at these new meetings out here but I need to listen in silence for now.
I go to church at times. I read Scripture and other spiritual offerings. I read daily meditations and find meaning that helps. I pray for whatever it is I need to be stronger, be kinder, more adaptable and accepting. The courage to let things be. A lack of acceptance can be a stalling point for me. I have to yield to life more, even as I stand up and keep moving. And that movement daily takes me outdoors, without which I could not locate a deeper peace amid the storms of living.
I write, I draw, I listen to music and sing and dance about. I know the power of creating, its deeply restorative effects. But some days….even that seems hard. And that has scared me some.
For so long I have thought, Oh, I am pretty good at taking care of myself. And I have a spouse who can be here for me, too, in many ways. I know the methods by which to bolster and keep steady myself. And about effective therapy services, which I am willing to use whenever needed, so seek one now. In the end it continues to be a process of learning and experiments, the daily smaller gains and losses. And it will be myself once more who rescues me, along with the durable core and support of my faith. It always has been. I am not a user of psychoactive drugs even for mental health and it isn’t due to not finding them valuable but because I know from experience what else to do, and prefer to do that, as it has worked. I am open to suggestions. Let it not be said that I am unwilling to gain greater understanding. Or to practice that authentic acceptance which comes hard, yes, but can be done if it is the right thing, the best thing.
The good news is that I am not nineteen, nor in the grips of the kind of acute distress that takes me to such terrorizing darker places. I have lived that, and I am done with that. And I am an action taker; I am not paralyzed. I am thankful for all this. But I remain sad and confounded more than I want to be. I am impatient to become a braver and better person still. I got a bit of decent input from my brain as I wrote, more ideas so there is more hope. We all must keep searching, reaching, learning, and not letting go of hope–it is what is available to us in times of trouble.
If these tears must fall and fall again, well drat and damn it and so be it. I must require a true and hearty cleanse. I will not dry up, I will not evaporate. If I feel hollowed out by it for awhile there will be more amazing and tough experiences to occupy those spots. I am just another person, a woman who will not rest until life is ever fully embraced, its variations of light and shadow attended to–its dignity discovered daily… and its steady shining, shining through the murky gloaming, upon this path of dirt, brier, sand, sweet grass, blossom–and humblest rock, which after all, tells stories, holds secret gems.
Something “once experienced and done” might again shadow your life, my life. It does not have to own it. Take back your unique and inviolable self still deep within you. That is what I still do.