The first time I thought about suicide, I sat at the second story window of our home in Germany and, gazing at the trees outside, wondered what the ground would feel like if I jumped. Would it hurt? Would it be enough to kill myself? I was thirteen.
Over the last twenty years, I have struggled with depression. Some years are good. Some years are sad. Some years are gray and boring. Therapists come and go. I have been hospitalized. Medication helps: it is the trampoline under my window… if I jump, the fall will be jolted, and peter out. But the moods continue. One moment will see me singing to an old Smashing Pumpkins CD, trapped in traffic on the 405, convinced that it is a perfect, lustrous, irreplaceable moment of joy. Then, later, a tiff with a friend will be enough to send me into a spiral of tears and despair, convinced that the world is unbearable. But those moments… despite my frustration with my bouncing emotions and the impatience of people close to me at my seeming loss of control…those are the good moments. The worst moments are the ones that are empty, gray and quiet. During those times I can sense my littleness in a world of swarming activity, and I go numb. There is always a question in my head when I wake up: will this be the day when I am unwilling to move, to get out of bed, to brush my hair or water my plants? I have learned to submit, to spend mornings and afternoons in bed, too tired to feel or wonder or confide.
Depression has formed my personality. Like a person with an injured hand, I have learned how to compensate, how to hold the pen with my thumb and index finger so that I can still write. I have learned to present a figure of confidence and ambition to the world outside my doorstep. I am meticulous with my appearance, my clothing, my home. It is a life lived dually– one woman, sad and gray; the other, glittering and hard–able to assume anything. I’ve had therapists tell me I seem like I can handle anything… and in a sense, I can. My weakness becomes my strength; my vulnerability becomes my shield.
Still, depression is a gift. In my professional work– my vocation, really– with troubled teenagers, I see the fruits of this journey. Talking with young people, listening to them in a way that their teachers or parents who are too busy or tired or forgetful of the emotional roller coaster that is youth cannot, illustrates for me the redemptive quality of a life lived in struggle against self. When the young people with whom I am blessed to have the opportunity to work tell me that they are lonely, it is my loneliness. When they tell me they feel estranged from their classmates, it is my estrangement. When they tell me that they haven’t been able to talk to anyone the way that they can talk to me, that they feel like I can understand, and I see their shoulders shrug up just a little bit higher as the pressures of growing up in a fast, fast life dissipate, I am grateful for the twenty years of training that I have received.
Therefore but for the grace of God, go I. Depression has also led me to faith. In the face of yawning darkness I have experienced murmurs of soul. I am convinced that I am held in the hand of God– how else could I experience happiness at all? It is not my own ability, nor is it some testament to my uniqueness. Rather, I am one of roughly 6% of people in the United States who experiences depression in a given year. My faith, then, is a second gift of this disease.
A month ago I experienced an interruption. Doctors, good doctors, got it into their heads that they might have a way to clear away some of the gray. I spent some time under scrutiny, finally able to sleep without nightmares; the night nurse told me that I looked like an angel when I slept. Since leaving my interruption, I have rested at home. I’ve baked, painted my walls, and taken long hikes that end in dramatic sunsets and pink-washed mountain tops. Since my interruption, I have been hopeful and curious. Is there really a solution? Will the prescriptions the medical staff recommend be a “cure”? Will the last twenty years of my life fold away like a child’s blanket, tucked in a drawer when outgrown?
I have a thin white scar that threads through my right wrist that has been: a reminder of bleak pain, and a marker of those times when, determined to defy my own head, I fought to breath and smile. Over the scar I have a tattoo that reads “Om namah shivaya”, or “Honor the light (the god) within yourself”. It is a 3,000 year old prayer, a mantra of change. I believe in change– I believe in the power of humans to tuck away parts of themselves like sweet smelling blankets and choose the self they want to live. But I also know that biology is powerful, and that for some of us, certain synapses just grew up wiggly and funny and causing havoc.
Depression interrupts my life, and so, also, it is interrupted. Whether or not this last block of intervention is the start to a new life remains to be seen. What I know for sure, is that even if, when, my old friend depression returns, he will bring with him more fruit. The gray will yield promise, and the tears will bring smiles.
And so, in the review of a life lived in fits and spurts, knowing this– that suffering is redemptive, and that self-acceptance is the flower of peace– I know too, that depression is a gift I could never regret.