Published in Meridian Magazine, February 2010
It’s 2 a.m., sometimes 3, when the boys come in. Dragging pillows and blankets from their bedroom, they approach my side of the bed and lay their pillows vertically on the hardwood floor (there’s not enough room for a horizontal fit), then nestle snugly into the scant few feet of space between the bed and the closet. “Mom,” six-year-old Sam whispers, waking me with the barest sound, “I need you to put my blanket on.”
From my sleep-heavy spot in bed I reach my arm out, grab the quilt he’s handing me, and with a few flicks of the wrist spread it to cover his small body on the floor. I can hear him wriggling a bit as he settles into position next to his eight-year-old brother, then all is quiet and still in the heavy February darkness.
It’s been a year now, exactly a year, since darkness threatened to take my life.
February, 2009 was one of the worst months I’d ever faced. Maybe the very worst. That might sound strange, given the fact that everything was running relatively smoothly in our household. All seven kids were healthy (apart from the usual wintertime colds) and doing well enough in school. Reed’s steady income provided everything we needed and plenty of things we didn’t. I had loving friends and engaging work to round out my life, and my first solo book was on the verge of nationwide release. On the outside, everything was fine. But on the inside, nothing was.
Depression has been part of my life for as long as I can remember, although I didn’t recognize it as such until I was a young adult. I thought my melancholy was simply part of my personality. Having no other experience for contrast, the sadness that constantly shadowed my mind—sometimes thinly, sometimes thickly—seemed normal. Even the uncontrollable weeping, steady exhaustion, and keen despair of my first breakdown didn’t seem too far out of the ordinary. It wasn’t until I began treatment a few months into the ordeal that I realized I’d been ill, legitimately ill, not only during the recent past but also, to a milder degree, for most of my life.
I’ll never forget the day, the hour, even the minute that the antidepressant medication recommended by my therapist began to take effect. It was in the midst of another February, eighteen years ago. I was on an airplane flying from Washington, D.C. to Salt Lake City with my fiancé. We’d just spent the weekend at my parents’ home in Maryland so that my family could meet my soon-to-be-husband. Somehow, I made it through the family gatherings (including my bridal shower) with a convincing smile. But in private I was a mess. In my mind and in my heart the wrenching pain came in waves, one after another, as seemingly endless as the green-gray Atlantic which stretched to Portugal from the Maryland coast.
When we boarded the plane to return to Utah I was fighting the tears that had thoroughly dampened the entire weekend, and when the wheels lifted off the tarmac I resumed weeping in earnest. It was the third day I’d taken Prozac at breakfast; the prescribing doctor had said the medication would take at least a week, maybe two, to start working. But my case proved to be an exception. Somewhere over the great plains, above those vast sheets of farmland withered yellow-brown by the cold, I stopped crying. Calmness enveloped me gently and firmly, quieting my churning thoughts and feelings. For the first time in months, I felt stillness within myself—not the numb apathy of depression, but true peace.
That peace stayed with me for many months, smoothing the path to my temple endowment and wedding, then on through the early transition to married life, carrying me even to the beginnings of motherhood. After my positive pregnancy test I discontinued the Prozac with no immediate ill effects. And for the next thirteen years I plodded through the demands of pregnancies and childbirths and breastfeeding infants, unaware as my depression returned, unaware as it expanded in height and width and depth. Unaware until my seventh child was born, and the next breakdown came.
It can creep up on you, depression can. It can creep into your thoughts and feelings, twisting them ever so slightly and ever so slowly, changing you just a little bit each day until your mental and emotional processing has been turned inside out and upside down. Until you’re stuck in a trap you cannot see, a false reality you’re convinced is true. It’s like an enduring nightmare, living in a counterfeit world that’s utterly, vividly real until you wake up, and roll over in bed, and sigh with relief that it was only a bad dream.
Last February was a bad dream. For that matter, so was January and December and November, and on the other end, half of March. It was the most severe depressive episode I’ve had so far. Unexpected, because I’d felt quite well ever since I’d resumed medication years before, during that last postpartum breakdown. But over time this medication stopped working the way it should, and an effective substitute eluded me and my psychiatrist throughout the darkness of winter. And in that darkness, I considered dying.
Some people regard suicide as the ultimate act of selfishness, especially for a parent with dependent children. It’s an easy assumption for those who do not understand the dynamics of depression. A friend of mine once commented that when she’s feeling down, her children give her something to live for. “I could never hurt myself and leave my children behind,” she said, “I don’t know how any mother could ever do that.”
I looked at her blankly, unable to respond. When I’m depressed enough to consider suicide, even in the abstract, I’m depressed enough to feel confident that I’d be doing my kids a favor by checking out. And let me state clearly that this is no self-absorbed glass-half-empty pity party, no Eeyore-esque fixation that I could overcome with sufficient willpower and determined optimism. Once depression reaches a certain strength, it becomes a vortex that can’t be escaped without intervention.
For me last winter, intervention came in several forms: a caring and careful husband, concerned friends, and skilled professionals who kept working until an effective treatment was found. Even so, recovery took many months, months in which I couldn’t see any signs of positive change. Depression can depart as subtly as it arrives, invisible until a seemingly sudden breakdown, or an equally surprising breakaway. Like the moment eighteen Februarys ago, when sudden peace bloomed in the stale air of an airplane cabin far above Kansas or Nebraska. Or this moment, one February ago, equally unforgettable:
It was a typical afternoon for that year. Four of the children were at school, and three at home: my napping preschooler, my elementary-age daughter whom I homeschooled that year (due to her own struggles with depression), and Sam, my morning Kindergartner. The house was quiet. I lay on my bed facing the wall, eyes unfocused. Words can’t capture the pain of severe depression. For me, it brings a kind of terror. There I am, awake and breathing, and time and space stretches out in front of me—an hour, a week, a lifetime—and I have to exist in it. It doesn’t seem possible.
My bedroom door opened, and Sam came in. I didn’t want him to come in. I wanted him to stay in his bedroom playing Super Monkey Ball, so I wouldn’t have to move my eyes to look at him, and move my lips to speak (those days, words came only at great effort, as if I had to dredge each leaden letter from the bottom of a lake). I dreaded him asking me for a snack or a story or some other motherly essential, thereby requiring me to lift my limbs and stand upright. But as it turned out, he didn’t need me to move, or even to speak—only to listen to his words:
Mom, if you die, I will cry for the rest of my life.
For his words carried a clear and quickening burst of truth, one that could not have reached me months or weeks or even days before: I knew, in that ineffable way that transcends reason, that no matter how wretched my days were, no matter how little I could offer my children in my dysfunctional state, I was blessing them simply by staying alive. By drawing breath after breath.
That was the beginning of the end, although the end was still faraway. Make no mistake: a child’s expression of love, however poignant, can’t lift the burden of severe depression. That relief comes only by traversing a long and shadowy corridor of recovery, one built from the substance of time and formed through the care and expertise of others. But Sam’s words marked the moment when the escape hatch becomes visible, with its distant yet promising patch of blue sky. And I have returned to that moment many times since, to remember that an existence which feels like nothing can still mean everything.
February has come again. Each day I step gingerly out of bed into the morning darkness, trying to find a flat patch of ground amongst the tangle of Sam and Matt’s sleep-heavy legs. I marvel how their young bodies can find comfort on the hardwood floor, how they prefer the cold firmness of the floor to the cushioned warmth of their mattress in the next room. Of course, if they had their way they’d sleep on our bed, not next to it—which ain’t gonna happen. But on those mornings when I sleep late, Sam crawls under the comforter into the space left by my early-rising husband. He inches close to me, settles into position, and sighs with happiness. He falls back asleep with his small, warm hand touching my arm, secure in the knowledge that I am there.