It crept in like a low fog, so lightly that I didn’t notice it beginning to swirl around me. A vague unease, a weighty sigh. The sun truly came up later and set earlier, ending my jaunty after-dinner walks with my terrier Frankie. Who enjoyed those walks more? He with his white tail aloft like a plume, his ears bouncing with each rapid step? Or me, watching his tail up and his ears bounce, trailing a few steps behind. But our evening walks ended, closed in by growing darkness.
There were mounting disappointments. Talks I thought I’d be giving that inexplicably were awarded to another speaker. People who enthusiastically swore they would buy my book who clearly never did, leaving me checking my book sales with a head shake and a frown. Important new contacts who promised they would be in touch, who vanished in a puff of smoke after I emailed them. The disappointments started to whisper to me: what you are doing doesn’t… matter.
I went to my high school reunion, only to realize that not many people remembered me. I couldn’t blame them, because I had only attended there for three short years. Still, it was jarring to see people gaze at me, with no sense of who I was. Adding to my plight, I attended the reunion with my dear friend Joe, whom everyone, and I really mean this, everyone in the whole world adores. The day after the reunion, he shared, “I keep getting texts from everyone.”
Across the room, I responded, “And I keep getting texts from no one at all.” We laughed together.
A few days later, Joe texted me, “I am still getting texts from the reunion.”
I replied, quoting Charlie in It’s The Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown, “I got a rock.” I was joking, but also something descended further inside me. My internal whispering grew. What you are doing doesn’t matter. You don’t matter.
For many people, the anniversary of a profound trauma or loss sneaks up and trips them each year. October is my dangerous month. The encroaching darkness takes me down every year. But far more, this is the same month in which my brother died, hurling himself like a madman through the dark Cambridge sky. Decades pass, many decades, but my mood seemingly cannot escape descending with him.
What does it matter? Why do I try? Who would miss me if I stopped?
Recently I attended an event at which I was greeted by some with great enthusiasm, but oddly ignored by others. What do I focus on? The people who lit up with beaming smiles when they saw me? Perhaps that is who I might usually focus on, but now, in dangerous October, my mind seized only on the disappointments, the slights, the hurts.
Again, the thoughts: what does it matter? Why do I bother?
Do I surprise you? Yes, I am usually positive, strong, hardy, and successful enough. But the gremlin of depression lies inside me too, buried like a squirrel’s acorn, planted by the DNA of my relatives, all of them gone, gone, gone.
When my brother took his life, my father angrily blamed my mother’s gene pool. “There is so much depression on your mother’s side (names changed here): Aunt Ida, Uncle Frank, cousin Arnold, cousin Alice. Your mother passed all that on to Marc. We don’t have depression on my side.”
Years later, my father ruefully took it all back. “I used to say it was all your mother. But actually, Uncle Bob had depression, and your cousins Jocelin and Pam. It’s on both sides, I guess.”
My dad told me he didn’t suffer from depression. Certainly, it wasn’t his fault. But when he died, he left behind his diaries, full of thoughts of despair, anger, and suicidal ideation. My mother didn’t suffer from depression, she said. But she died on anti-depressants, in a room in Switzerland where she had flown to take her life.
I was depressed when I was young, for many years. I am not depressed now. But I am passing through a dark, dark cloud, dense with hurt, rejection and fatigue, a dark cloud of existential doubt.
What does it matter?
Already I feel the pressure to end this piece on a positive note. Can I find one? If I don’t, will that be either artistic integrity or a slap in the face for those (how many are there, really?) people who rely on me for spiritual uplift. And is it responsible for a psychologist to admit to despair?
But it comes to me, the one positive that even now, feeling so sad, I know to be true. The world keeps spinning. This dark day will turn into another, which will or won’t be as dark. And then there will be another, followed by another. As time passes, I won’t feel this way.
I have passed through other dark times and made it through. I have also experienced profound joy and satisfaction. Nothing lasts, let alone mood states. The only way things don’t change is if we make the mistake my brother made. He took his despair and ended his life while he was despondent. He ended the chance to see that the world continued to spin, and that light follows darkness, always, sooner or later.
As I write, the fog begins to lift.
I drove to my office after I wrote these words, getting myself together for the day. My first client of the day was a woman I have known for a long time. I have walked with her through despair and disappointment. I know her well. It was time for her appointment so I left the door open so she could come in.
I heard her footsteps coming down the hall. She entered.
“Hello, come in. I’m glad to see you,” I said to her.
She looked at me sadly, intense grief in her face, “And I am so very glad to see you.”
“Ah,” I thought quietly to myself. “I guess I do matter. I matter to her, that’s for sure. I’m glad at least that I can be here for her.”
I’m still finding my way this October, as is the case virtually every October. My coping tools include walking with my dog, listening to music I love, and remembering that it is not always like this. Sometimes life breaks your heart. Sometimes there is a momentary grace.
The maintenance man at my office is an older Asian man. He is polite and friendly, although his English limits our conversations. This morning, it was dark and dreary, equally matched by my dark and dreary mood. I drove to work and exited my car, heading toward my office. In the distance, I heard someone whistling. It was the maintenance man, walking toward me from a distance. He was whistling a perfect rendition of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy.” Not a note was out of place, the venerable, majestic tune rang out through the parking lot. There was no one to hear him but me.
It felt like the universe was signaling: Keep going. There will be joy. Not only that, but listen carefully, there is joy right now. Just listen.
Lise Deguire's multiple award-winning memoir, Flashback Girl: Lessons on Resilience from a Burn Survivor, is available for purchase on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Newtown Book Shop and The Commonplace Reader.