10 Shades of Darkness

1) I assume everybody who writes a personal blog has different rules. Some feel they have a “duty” to tell everything and damn the consequences. I don’t. I have a vested interest in keeping my family and friends happy; I also — believe it or not — have a strong sense of their privacy and mine.  All of which means there are plenty of things I don’t write about and will never write about. I do feel I have a duty not to lie, though.

If you think that sounds murky, you’re right. I write a murky personal blog.

2) Twelve years ago, when I was writing a column for the Dallas Morning News, I wrote about something that almost killed me. The writing of it was easy; it was pressing the button to send it in that almost did me in. I even gave it to my husband to read — which is something I almost never do. I hoped he’d advise me against publishing it, but he didn’t. He thought it was fine.

The column was about the son of a friend of mine, a teenager who’d committed suicide. After months of counseling and antidepressants and the constant ministrations of his parents, he hanged himself in his family’s backyard. I wrote about this young man, whom I’d never met, about his depression and about my own bouts of depression. If you’ve ever been deeply depressed, I wrote, you had a profound understanding of how someone could kill himself simply to stop the unbearable pain.

I’d written about childbirth and pregnancy and breast cancer without hesitation — and people had called me brave. None of that required any bravery. But writing about my own tendency toward depression took more guts than anything I’d ever done before.

3) Similarly, living with depression — waking up in the morning, getting up, getting dressed, walking upright — requires a tremendous amount of bravery. Do you know how many brave people there are in this world doing just that? No, of course you don’t. Their shame is too great. Unless you are one of those people, you have no idea.

4) Depression haunts my very earliest memories. Throughout her life, my mother endured crippling bouts of depression. Twice, she had to be hospitalized. Other times, she couldn’t leave her bed.

Once, when I was a teenager, I found an insurance form that said she’d been hospitalized for two weeks after my birth. I’ve often thought about that — how brutal and crippling her depression must have been for her to be hospitalized in the winter of 1949 in a tiny town in northeastern Oklahoma. She must have been a clear danger to herself and to her infant. I can’t even imagine the kind of treatment that was available then, in that time and place. It can only have been barbaric.

5) I’ve never seen depression adequately described in anything I’ve read. Not even Styron’s acclaimed memoir, Darkness Visible, packs the kind of sickening gut-punch depression does. So, how can you ever convey to others what it feels like?

6) Decades ago, when I was so depressed I wanted to die, I remember looking down at our dog and wishing I could trade places with her. That way, I would have been beyond my own excruciating pain. I’ve often thought back to that moment as having been the worst in my life.

Once, I tried to describe this to a friend. She brightened immediately and said, “I know what you mean! I’ve always wanted to be  dog!”

We’re not really friends any longer.

7) When you have breast cancer, people bring you casseroles and get-well cards and flowers. They pin your name on their shirts when they run the Race for the Cure. They loudly compliment you.

When you’re depressed, you’re more alone and isolated than you’ve ever been before. A friend and I once tried to conjure up an image of depressed people staging their own race for the cure. We decided the participants would look down at the ground and move very, very slowly. They wouldn’t wear pink. If they were accompanied by music, it wouldn’t be anything peppy; think dirge.

You see? Depressed people often have a refined and dry sense of humor, especially when the joke is on them.

8.) The 21st century may have produced remarkable strides in tolerance — witness, say, the end of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell. But depression and other mental illnesses are still stigmatized by people who don’t understand them and even those who do. Basically, you have a chemical imbalance, which is no one’s fault. But the stigma remains. You’re not only in deep pain, but you hate yourself for feeling that pain.

9) When I was young, I promised myself I would do anything to avoid the depressions my mother struggled with. I’ve been fortunate enough to live in an era that offers a decent array of antidepressants that have helped me, with few side effects. I realize I’ll be on them for the rest of my life.

10) Sometimes, you write a murky personal blog that compels you to come clean on certain important issues, however painful or personal. I’m thinking this is one of mine.

(Copyright 2013 by Ruth Pennebaker)

Read a post about why didn’t anybody listen

32 comments… add one
  • Tessa Link

    I used to write speeches for a client who suffered from crippling bouts of depression, which were exacerbated by PTSD from a horrific beating he had endured while working in Sth Africa. Like you, Ruth, his mother had also suffered from depression her whole life.

    In his/our speeches, we railed against the stigma that accompanies any kind of mental illness and I remember that once, he came up with a striking comparison between mental illness and the stigma that once surrounded cancer. It’s hard to remember now when we’re up to our asses in pink ribbons and corporations jumping on the cancer bandwagon, but he was right.

    I remember my aunt undergoing treatment for breast cancer which, at the time, meant casual mutilation (removing both breasts and most of the muscle in her back … for a lump, for heaven’s sake!) together with copious amounts of radiation, which scarred her horribly. We kids were all warned, within an inch of our lives, not to mention anything about her cancer to our friends or to any neighbours.

    A bit of a long-winded story, I know, but what I’m getting at is that maybe, just maybe, the stigma around depression and other mental illnesses will also be relegated to history. And if/when it is, it will largely be thanks to people like you, who have the courage to speak up about their own experiences. Bravo.

  • Cindy D. Link

    Since I first read your essay on why you hate the pink stuff associated with breast cancer, I have thought we were soul sisters (even if you don’t like dogs). Now, I know we are. I, too, have struggled with depression all my life. I, too, grew up with a mother and grandmother who were deeply depressed. I’ve joked that they should have lined the whole family up on gurneys and IV’s prozac. It wasn’t until I was 50 that I realized other people didn’t think about, dream about, and long for death on a regular basis. Yoga, antidepressants, and a good support system keep me going. I’m pretty open about my struggle because I know I’ve been able to help people by sharing my story. Your range of impact is greater than mine so I’m sure someone(s) (I made that word up) will be helped by your admission.

  • Alexis Link

    Very brave. I admire you.

  • And sometimes you write something that touches someone on such a personal level that they are compelled to comment.

    It took me a long time to be okay with being on antidepressants for the rest of my life. It took even longer for me to be okay with the fact that I had passed this onto one of my sons and that he will likely be on them for the rest of his life as well.

    But it didn’t take me long to recognized how blessed I am to live in a time that has antidepressants because I too watched my mother struggle.

    Thank you for this not murky post.


  • Rachel Dickinson Link

    You’ve got a lot of company, my friend. It’s a very good day when I am upright.

  • Hi Ruth,

    This is so poignant, so clear, and so beautifully-written. Wow! I’m thinking of my mother now and all she went through with depression and her breakdowns.

    Great writing makes the reader look at her/his life. Thank you once again, dear friend. XO nancy

  • paula Link

    Thank you Ruth for a very brave and honest disclosure on depression. It is important to talk about it so that those of us who suffer from depression can receive support without the stigma. The disease alone is so isolating, but carrying the burden of shame is unbearable. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • Ruth, Thank you for speaking out. It’s such a tough topic to “come clean ” with…your post is both comforting and hits home – hard.

  • I’m sorry to read about your struggle with this. It sounds very difficult, but I think talking about it is helping so many people who feel they are alone.

  • Jenny Link

    Thank you, Ruth. As the others have said — beautifully written. My grandmother suffered from depression and I have a tad of that gene. Tried to commit suicide twice in my youth, and occasionally I feel the dark wall/well of depression closing in on me.
    You mentioned the chemical imbalance and the stigma. Somewhere in my past I realized the two were completely separate, that the chemical imbalance was reality and the stigma was a story I and others had made up and bought wholesale. Imagine my amazement when, after I absolutely refused to buy into the stigma crap, how much more whole and less depressed I felt!
    My mild depression has been helped by taking St. John’s Wort whenever it seems to be nose-diving. After several months I suddenly I feel like I’ve turned the corner from a dark, narrow alley into a sunny, tree-lined boulevard.

  • Thanks for this. I remember being depressed, when I lived in France. Antidepressants helped. My ex could never understand, because he didn’t suffer from depression.

  • If you ever want to write an essay, there’s a magazine called Esperanza that is just about depression and they pay. You could help so many people.

  • Sherrie Marston Link

    Ruth, if I was the half brained, dumb as a post person who said they “wanted to be a dog too” I am so sorry. It could of been me, not being able to see the hole in the ground.
    Just know you are one of the bravest persons I know, love your blog. You seem to keep on keeping on, for all of us. You write about things that only our hearts say to us, so I thank you.

  • Donna J. Link

    Amazing piece, Ruth. Thank you for your candor. Our family has struggled with depression for a long time–and recently one of our loved ones lost that battle. People think you should just act normal, fake it till you make it kind of thing. They don’t understand that sometimes you are so far from normal you can’t remember where it is or what it looks like.

  • Pam Link

    Thanks Ruth.

  • Heidi Link

    I love you, Ruth.

  • I don’t have anything really to say. Just wanted to connect. Maybe because something deep in this connected with something deep in me, and wanted you to know that. You rock.

  • bonehead Link

    Thanks Ruth. You’re not alone, even though it is the loneliest feeling anyone will have. When you know what’s going on and that people truly love you, it is so much better than years ago and will get better in the future.

  • Anton Link

    Allie Brosh wrote two pieces on depression, (Adventures and Part Two) and I think the reason they resonated so strongly with me has to do with her being in the trenches of the feeling.

  • Thank you, Ruth. I nodded in agreement all the way through, from feeling so black you can envision taking your life to being on antidepressants for the rest of your life. Sometimes people will urge me to try holistic methods, nutrition, exercise, etc. Well, you know what? I did that for the first 45 years of my life, and it wasn’t until I started on medication that I felt like I truly started living. We all have to find the path that’s right for us, the one that keeps us upright and a functioning member of society.

  • I love that your first commenter gives hope that one day the stigma of mental illness will slip away as the stigma of cancer has. In our grandparents generation there wasn’t even the word–or at least no one used it. In our parents generation, people were hidden away if they had cancer and their disease was not discussed–just too horrible to face. These prejudices/ignorances do pass.
    You’re brave to share, and help open the conversation.

  • Deborah Lee Link

    Thanks so much for being this brave and honest. You have described a great deal of my life. Sometimes I’m surprised I have made it this far!

  • Debra Link

    Thank you for writing this. I wish it wasn’t still a secret subject.

  • Terry Link

    I came home tonight to find this blog in my in box. I had just finished a conversation with a girlfriend talking about how I don’t understand my bright, beautiful 22 year old son…who just informed me that he is withdrawing from school (st.ed’s…a fortune) because he is so depressed…he just began seeing a counselor at school and that counselor told him to start seeing one off campus immediately …my boy is smart, talented, handsome and can’t finish classes…only 30 hours from graduating…because of depression. Your column is helping (I keep rereading it) to appreciate what he is going through…thanks and if you have any counselor suggestions…I am all ears. He is remaining in Austin for now.

  • Chris Link

    I so admire your willingness to write honestly about this subject. I am a former counselor and have three family members who have had to cope with this illness. In spite of the fact that people tend not to talk about it, it is clear that many people are suffering. I am sure that your post will be far reaching and generate more discussion. Thank you.

  • Carolyn Link

    Dear Ruth
    I first started reading your blog because you are funny and I enjoy your left/liberal take on events in American, particularly as they impact on women. (For those of us in other parts of the world, it’s been useful to have a sane guide to the US over the last couple of years!)
    Then I read one of your blogs on cancer, then another, then watched your joint presentation with James on your cancer diagnosis and treatment. I had just started seeing an oncology psychiatrist occasionally, following chemo and radiation for breast cancer. I was grappling with fear, depression, regret, remorse and other black dogs. So much of what you said hit the spot, and I sent my psychiatrist a link to your presentation in case others of her patients (and their husbands) would find it helpful. This was a passage that I quoted to her, which I found particularly resonant at that moment:
    ‘”I have a bad habit of cracking jokes. And the darker things get, the more I crack jokes. I think I understand what I was doing. As long as I could crack jokes, I still had some control over the situation, I was still myself, I was still whole, I wasn’t just a breast cancer patient.’
    “And I realised that was exactly what I do, and why I feel uncomfortable every time someone says, ‘You’re so brave – you can even crack jokes about it.’”
    Thanks for writing this time about depression.
    Carolyn (Australia)

  • Exactly.

  • carol Link

    Medication alone does not help me. Unfortunately, counseling is out of my middle-income bracket. So, I am one of the “dressed” but distressed.

  • I don’t personally suffer from depression but know people who do. Thank you for helping me better understand what they — and you — experience. Love the description of what a walk for depression awareness would look like…

  • What a lovely post, Ruth. It’s wonderful that you can be so honest about what you’ve had to deal with. It surely will help others. We need more people to be honest about mental illness.

  • Mental Illness is a touchy subject for people, for it is in my family. I thank you for your honesty with all subjects. I started reading your blog daily and will be recommending it to many people through our blog at http://cnacertification-training.com/ Your blog is a great one to also recommend to our home care aides for their clients too!

  • The best description of depression I have ever read was by one of my college students. He was clearly brilliant and I wish I still had a copy of the essay. I can only try and paraphrase now; he made the point that most people are depressed because they are more aware of the suffering around them. They understand the world and human nature and feel everything that much more acutely. In that sense, depression gives you the gift of insight, but at the cost of seeing so much ugliness and having to feel it all so deeply.

Leave a Comment