One morning when I was in my early 30’s, I woke up and couldn’t get out of bed. I could move, but my body felt heavy, like I had magically added the weight of a car on my body.
I had known for a while that something was really wrong. I went to Docs, took part in a myriad of tests and ruled out everything from mono to cancer. Heaven only knows all of the radiation I sucked up during those tests. I had a recurrent stabbing pain in my right side and couldn’t keep anything but fat free chicken broth and white rice down. In the middle of it all, I had a breast cancer scare.
Eventually they looked at me sympathetically and said, “It’s just depression.” “Oh – whew!” I thought. “I guess I’m not dying after all.” Of course I didn’t believe them at first. I would have known if I was depressed.
Come to find out, I really was in a clinical depression. Every body has it’s limits and I had reached mine. Within 3 1/2 years, I had completed a master’s degree, moved, married, birthed two darling babies, saw my husband through an educational degree, survived a flurry of marital trauma, and fast-forwarded through several levels of growing up. The peculiar thing is that I felt I was doing fine emotionally – though I was beginning to look like someone who barely made it out of Auschwitz.
It is almost embarrassing how oblivious we can be about our own lives – our own souls – our own bodies. It still amazes me. I considered myself a reflective, in-tune-with-the-cosmos sort of woman. People depended on me. I took on leadership positions, worked on national and local peace and justice issues, wrote “tortured musician” songs, and was doing a decent job keeping the family humorous and functioning. It was just that blasted pain in my side – and the fact that I couldn’t seem to eat. Oh- and the exhaustion. But everyone I knew who was exhausted.
Depression is a strangely familiar and equally unwelcome partner when you are suffering. It’s like that quirky college roommate that you allow to move in while she recovers from her divorce. She was nice enough in college, but there was a reason you were only roommates for one year. She won’t leave you alone. Plus, there’s her mouthy pug who likes to puke on your fancy white carpet and needs to be walked every 3 hours because his bladder is too small. It feels like she will never EVER leave.
The new world you are living makes you feel like you are inhabiting someone else’s life – sort of hovering over it like those out of body experiences people talk about. Your weird medical side effects are not cheerful dinner conversation. You don’t know how to admit it to people – IF you want to admit it to people.
As soon as I was diagnosed, I wanted to run back down that Shannon Beck aisle of over-functioning. But the other part of me was so relieved that I could finally get some rest! I really did just want to sleep for a very very long time.
When I was a kid, I thought of myself as melancholy. I spent hours wandering through acres of wheat fields, writing in my journal, bemoaning my overly sensitive nature and making some serious promises to God. In retrospect, my love of the E minor chord should have clued me in earlier. (By the way, anyone who sucks down minor chords as fast as I did ought to start saving for therapy right now. I haven’t seen any studies, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the E minor crowd ends up with a special discount from the American Psychological Society.)
Help came to me in two incarnations. First, in the form of a really great therapist. Let’s call him Roberto. (Please roll your r’s when you say his name. He sounds so exotic that way.) Roberto was lanky, 6’7″ man with a receding hair line. He unfolded out of his chair like the Jolly Green Giant every Tuesday at 3pm. I was so happy to find the kindest man on the planet. It was with him that I admitted I was unhappy. And that my alcoholic mom was just now beginning to get on my nerves. And that God had turned into a mean ineffectual chump who was not going to deliver me or anyone from anything. And that I felt trapped most of the time.
Gee – maybe I wasn’t doing so great.
In time, with conversation and various attempts at depression meds, the anxiety subsided and the sky started becoming bluer. It had been as if I had become one of the water colors my children were painting. You know the kind a 2-year-old paints where all of the colors are mushed together to be a lovely brown-grey? And after it dries, it is completely warped and ugly, but you put it on your refrigerator anyway? I felt like people sort of smiled at me knowingly (whether they knew or not) and thought, “poor girl. she used to be such a masterpiece.” I wasn’t exactly framable art, if you know what I mean.
The second big help came from music. Listening to it, creating it, singing it, crying it – whatever. I remember listening to Bruce Cockburn’s song Strange Waters http://www.cockburnproject.net/songs&music/strange.html over and over again and just weeping. “Oh, you’ve been leading me through strange waters…” THAT was my life. I picked my guitar up again.
I wrote music. I purged poetry. I started to like chocolate again. I was able to drive through the I90 tunnel without feeling like I couldn’t breathe. Slowly, my life came back.
In the King James version of Psalm 23 that is read at most funerals there is that line, “He leadeth me beside still waters.” It is a beautiful image, one I have clung to at times. But I often feel that life is really more like Cockburn’s take on it: strange waters. Sometimes they are still, but often they are more like this closing chorus…
You’ve been leading me
Beside strange waters
Streams of beautiful lights in the night
But where is my pastureland in these dark valleys?
If I loose my grip, will I take flight?