Depression

I wrote yesterday’s post at two in the morning Saturday, and it feels important to share what happened next.

A couple of hours later, I woke Josh to open the childproof bottle of meds I hoped would finally get me to sleep. I’m struck by the little things I can’t do, like hold a bottle in my two hands and press down hard enough to make its top turn; and by the little things that are coming back, like once again being able to roll my wax ear plugs between my two palms to soften and shape them before using. Who knew that tiny action would be too painful in the days after my surgery?

I finally fell asleep around five Saturday morning. The longer I lay sleepless in the dark, the darker the dark felt. When I woke around 11 a.m., I felt more than sorry for myself. I felt bottom. For the first time since my breast cancer diagnosis, I felt deeply depressed. Couldn’t-get-out-of-bed-all-day depressed. Everyone-around-me-worried depressed. Depressed like I used to get as a teenager and young adult, when I would fall so far down the hole of despair, I honestly thought I would never re-emerge. Thank goodness I’ve learned I always re-emerge, and so the darkness never gets quite so all-encompassing, nor does it last for days on end like it did in my past. But yesterday felt darker than it has in years.

And then I did something I don’t do, or at least not very often. I prayed. I thought about how I once heard that, before finding her way toward enlightenment, Byron Katie was deep into the depths of despair and sleeping on a floor somewhere when a cockroach crawled over her; and in that moment, something happened, something shifted, something—everything—changed for her. For some reason, remembering that story—and feeling as desperate as I might feel were I sleeping on a floor with cockroaches—made me think I should pray.

A funny thing is, the whole time I was praying (which honestly, wasn’t very long, a few minutes tops; and I did it from my fetal position on the bed, not on knees with praying hands or anything like that); but the whole time, I thought about how I was doing it wrong. (Funny because of course I, Type-A perfectionist, felt like I couldn’t even pray right, but really, is there a wrong way to pray? Maybe there is. Like I said, I’m no expert.) Basically I just begged for help. Silently, in my head. Please child namasteplease please make this better. Please please please give me the strength to get up. I said I felt totally stuck, that I felt like it was all my fault for being totally stuck, that I was being weak and dramatic and infantile, that I didn’t know how to make it stop and again: please please please. Help me, show me what to do to get out of this deep darkness, out of this bed.

And something happened. I wish I could say I’m enlightened now, but no, it was nothing like that. But I did feel a physical fluttering in my body, up and down my chest/lung/belly area, like a beam of light swooshing through me. And maybe five, ten minutes later, I was sitting up. Still feeling beaten down and quiet and sorry for myself, but like I could pick myself up out of my dark hole and go downstairs at 6 at night for the first time all day (to the couch, to watch a movie with the kids, no serious tasking or talking, but still).

I imagine this post will be lost on two kinds of people: those who have never known depression. (Were I one of those people, I imagine I’d think, “what’s the big deal, just get yourself out of bed.”). And those who don’t believe in something bigger than ourselves. (I used to be one of those people until a dozen or so years ago when I started developing a spiritual path. And when I was one of those people, I basically thought, “Yeah, right, that’s ridiculous,” about experiences like the one I’ve just shared.)

Interestingly, of all the things I’ve written, this story about me praying is one that feels harder to share. I’m not sure why, but it makes me feel especially vulnerable (strange, not the part about feeling depressed, just the praying bit). So much so that I’ve thought about keeping it just for my private journals. But if I’m brave enough to pull myself out of the darkest hole, I can be brave enough to post a little something about praying.

12 thoughts on “Depression

  1. Cast All Your Votes For Dancing

    I know the voice of depression Still calls to you.

    I know those habits that can ruin your life Still send their invitations.

    But you are with the Friend now And look so much stronger.

    You can stay that way And even bloom!

    Keep squeezing drops of the Sun From your prayers and work and music And from your companions’ beautiful laughter.

    Keep squeezing drops of the Sun From the sacred hands and glance of your Beloved And, my dear, From the most insignificant movements Of your own holy body.

    Learn to recognize the counterfeit coins That may buy you just a moment of pleasure, But then drag you for days Like a broken man Behind a farting camel.

    You are with the Friend now. Learn what actions of yours delight Him, What actions of yours bring freedom And Love.

    Whenever you say God’s name, dear pilgrim, My ears wish my head was missing So they could finally kiss each other And applaud all your nourishing wisdom!

    O keep squeezing drops of the Sun From your prayers and work and music And from your companions’ beautiful laughter

    And from the most insignificant movements Of your own holy body.

    Now, sweet one, Be wise. Cast all your votes for Dancing!

    ~ Hafiz ~

    (I Heard God Laughing – Renderings of Hafiz by Daniel Ladinsky)

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  2. Dear Jenny, Again I will say how brave you are! Depression strikes us all from one time to another and these vibrations you felt, I believe are very real. A lot has been written about vibrations and I’ve experienced it myself in the past. As my wise son has told me, “Don’t worry so much about what other people think.” Much love, Beth

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  3. Dear dear Jenny
    I have been reading your blog since the day Sula shared with me that you had breast cancer, and I have been enjoying so much (there must be a better word, but I don’t know what it is) to be able to witness from the distance the journey you and your family are on. I have been moved by your words often, and feel touched in my heart by them, recognising your thoughts and feelings in myself (even though I have not experienced what you are going through). The title of your blog sums it up perfectly. Thank you so much for your powerful, beautiful, and so open writings.
    I have had the thought a few times before, but didn’t know if it was appropriate, to let you know that I am a facilitator of the Work of Byron Katie, and that if ever you are interested, I would be so happy to facilitate you in doing the Work on any of the stressful beliefs that come up on this journey. Since you mention Katie in your blog today, I decided to let you know this. For me, theWork has been the most useful and helpful tool that I have come across so far. I send you and your beautiful, strong family big love and healing. Sylvia

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    1. I’m not sure of the logistics, but I would love the opportunity to learn about/try Katie’s work AND to reconnect with you. I think often about when my mom and I stayed with you in your amazing home in England, have thought often how much I loved being there with you all.

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      1. hello dear Jenny, yes, I so clearly remember when you were staying here in lovely Devon, it still looks more or less the same… It was a special visit for me also!
        re: logistics: I often work with people over skype/facetime, and with the time difference it would mean it would have to be your morning, lunchtime or early afternoon (not sure how much the exact time difference is). Weekends are often easier for me, but I have flexibility. Do let me know if you would like to meet in this way, I would be thrilled.

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  4. Dear Jenny I feel sorry for you,
    but why not feel sorry for yourself, cuddle, encompass and give an encouraging gentle and secure hand to yourself? for going through the hard days? Like being a good mother to yourself?
    Lot’s of love Mariejeanne Stirlin.

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  5. Today Sheryl Sandberg posted this note on Facebook about grieving for her husband, who died suddenly at 46 last month — it reminded me of your post. You’re so brave, Jenny, and so strong…darkness will of course be inevitable, even just as a reaction your body must have as it heals, to say nothing of the waves of feeling you must be experiencing. Prayer is a kind of self-compassion, I think. I’m glad you turned to it, and shared it with us.

    Today is the end of sheloshim for my beloved husband—the first thirty days. Judaism calls for a period of intense mourning known as shiva that lasts seven days after a loved one is buried. After shiva, most normal activities can be resumed, but it is the end of sheloshim that marks the completion of religious mourning for a spouse.

    A childhood friend of mine who is now a rabbi recently told me that the most powerful one-line prayer he has ever read is: “Let me not die while I am still alive.” I would have never understood that prayer before losing Dave. Now I do.

    I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning. These past thirty days, I have spent many of my moments lost in that void. And I know that many future moments will be consumed by the vast emptiness as well.

    But when I can, I want to choose life and meaning.

    And this is why I am writing: to mark the end of sheloshim and to give back some of what others have given to me. While the experience of grief is profoundly personal, the bravery of those who have shared their own experiences has helped pull me through. Some who opened their hearts were my closest friends. Others were total strangers who have shared wisdom and advice publicly. So I am sharing what I have learned in the hope that it helps someone else. In the hope that there can be some meaning from this tragedy.

    I have lived thirty years in these thirty days. I am thirty years sadder. I feel like I am thirty years wiser.

    I have gained a more profound understanding of what it is to be a mother, both through the depth of the agony I feel when my children scream and cry and from the connection my mother has to my pain. She has tried to fill the empty space in my bed, holding me each night until I cry myself to sleep. She has fought to hold back her own tears to make room for mine. She has explained to me that the anguish I am feeling is both my own and my children’s, and I understood that she was right as I saw the pain in her own eyes.

    I have learned that I never really knew what to say to others in need. I think I got this all wrong before; I tried to assure people that it would be okay, thinking that hope was the most comforting thing I could offer. A friend of mine with late-stage cancer told me that the worst thing people could say to him was “It is going to be okay.” That voice in his head would scream, How do you know it is going to be okay? Do you not understand that I might die? I learned this past month what he was trying to teach me. Real empathy is sometimes not insisting that it will be okay but acknowledging that it is not. When people say to me, “You and your children will find happiness again,” my heart tells me, Yes, I believe that, but I know I will never feel pure joy again. Those who have said, “You will find a new normal, but it will never be as good” comfort me more because they know and speak the truth. Even a simple “How are you?”—almost always asked with the best of intentions—is better replaced with “How are you today?” When I am asked “How are you?” I stop myself from shouting, My husband died a month ago, how do you think I am? When I hear “How are you today?” I realize the person knows that the best I can do right now is to get through each day.

    I have learned some practical stuff that matters. Although we now know that Dave died immediately, I didn’t know that in the ambulance. The trip to the hospital was unbearably slow. I still hate every car that did not move to the side, every person who cared more about arriving at their destination a few minutes earlier than making room for us to pass. I have noticed this while driving in many countries and cities. Let’s all move out of the way. Someone’s parent or partner or child might depend on it.

    I have learned how ephemeral everything can feel—and maybe everything is. That whatever rug you are standing on can be pulled right out from under you with absolutely no warning. In the last thirty days, I have heard from too many women who lost a spouse and then had multiple rugs pulled out from under them. Some lack support networks and struggle alone as they face emotional distress and financial insecurity. It seems so wrong to me that we abandon these women and their families when they are in greatest need.

    I have learned to ask for help—and I have learned how much help I need. Until now, I have been the older sister, the COO, the doer and the planner. I did not plan this, and when it happened, I was not capable of doing much of anything. Those closest to me took over. They planned. They arranged. They told me where to sit and reminded me to eat. They are still doing so much to support me and my children.

    I have learned that resilience can be learned. Adam M. Grant taught me that three things are critical to resilience and that I can work on all three. Personalization—realizing it is not my fault. He told me to ban the word “sorry.” To tell myself over and over, This is not my fault. Permanence—remembering that I won’t feel like this forever. This will get better. Pervasiveness—this does not have to affect every area of my life; the ability to compartmentalize is healthy.

    For me, starting the transition back to work has been a savior, a chance to feel useful and connected. But I quickly discovered that even those connections had changed. Many of my co-workers had a look of fear in their eyes as I approached. I knew why—they wanted to help but weren’t sure how. Should I mention it? Should I not mention it? If I mention it, what the hell do I say? I realized that to restore that closeness with my colleagues that has always been so important to me, I needed to let them in. And that meant being more open and vulnerable than I ever wanted to be. I told those I work with most closely that they could ask me their honest questions and I would answer. I also said it was okay for them to talk about how they felt. One colleague admitted she’d been driving by my house frequently, not sure if she should come in. Another said he was paralyzed when I was around, worried he might say the wrong thing. Speaking openly replaced the fear of doing and saying the wrong thing. One of my favorite cartoons of all time has an elephant in a room answering the phone, saying, “It’s the elephant.” Once I addressed the elephant, we were able to kick him out of the room.

    At the same time, there are moments when I can’t let people in. I went to Portfolio Night at school where kids show their parents around the classroom to look at their work hung on the walls. So many of the parents—all of whom have been so kind—tried to make eye contact or say something they thought would be comforting. I looked down the entire time so no one could catch my eye for fear of breaking down. I hope they understood.

    I have learned gratitude. Real gratitude for the things I took for granted before—like life. As heartbroken as I am, I look at my children each day and rejoice that they are alive. I appreciate every smile, every hug. I no longer take each day for granted. When a friend told me that he hates birthdays and so he was not celebrating his, I looked at him and said through tears, “Celebrate your birthday, goddammit. You are lucky to have each one.” My next birthday will be depressing as hell, but I am determined to celebrate it in my heart more than I have ever celebrated a birthday before.

    I am truly grateful to the many who have offered their sympathy. A colleague told me that his wife, whom I have never met, decided to show her support by going back to school to get her degree—something she had been putting off for years. Yes! When the circumstances allow, I believe as much as ever in leaning in. And so many men—from those I know well to those I will likely never know—are honoring Dave’s life by spending more time with their families.

    I can’t even express the gratitude I feel to my family and friends who have done so much and reassured me that they will continue to be there. In the brutal moments when I am overtaken by the void, when the months and years stretch out in front of me endless and empty, only their faces pull me out of the isolation and fear. My appreciation for them knows no bounds.

    I was talking to one of these friends about a father-child activity that Dave is not here to do. We came up with a plan to fill in for Dave. I cried to him, “But I want Dave. I want option A.” He put his arm around me and said, “Option A is not available. So let’s just kick the shit out of option B.”

    Dave, to honor your memory and raise your children as they deserve to be raised, I promise to do all I can to kick the shit out of option B. And even though sheloshim has ended, I still mourn for option A. I will always mourn for option A. As Bono sang, “There is no end to grief . . . and there is no end to love.” I love you, Dave.

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    1. Thank you for sharing this beautiful, heart-wrenching and inspiring post. I’m feeling sorry for myself because of all the option As I’m missing out on right now, so one thing that will ring in my ears is, “I’m going to kick the shit out of option Bs.” The other thing ringing in my ear is that I have not lost the love of my life, the father of my children, nor am I losing my own life right now; so let me also take advantage of every last bit of everything I can take advantage of.

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