The Light of Depression

Surprisingly, my season of depression led to a greater experience of joy.

Twice, I have seen my father cry. The first time, I was 12, and my sister, Jenny, was 14. She was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes and needed further testing. When we arrived at the hospital, my dad walked around to her side of the car, gathered her into his arms and held her. None of us understood what was happening to my sister’s body, but when I heard my strong dad’s voice break with tears, I knew we were on a new and unexpected path.

Almost 10 years later, in the fall following my college graduation, I was the one my father gathered into his arms. At 22, I was diagnosed with clinical depression and voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric hospital. At a time in my life when the world was supposed to be opening up to me, I found myself retreating. Apathetic, uncaring, tired, and with no particular vision for any future, I subtly drifted into a world without hope. My family and I knew I needed help.

As a child, I had great passion for life. The simplest of pleasures brought unexplainable joy. I seldom demonstrated a melancholic personality. In fact, my parents learned that birthdays, Christmas and any reason for celebration would find me in a delirium of excitement. I loved life, and I loved being alive. When depression struck, I was dropped into a world where wearing my own skin was foreign and ill-fitting.

My mom says that one of the hardest days of her life was the day I checked into the hospital. My personal belongings were rummaged through, and I headed down the long hallway to doctors and a treatment team that became my “family” for the next month. Her drive home, leaving me behind, was heartbreaking. She was left to wonder and guess at why her daughter was in so much pain and why she couldn’t fix it this time.

I was numb, trying to see through a haze that had settled upon what once was vivid and bright. All color had seeped from a life that used to hold such joy. Some people didn’t understand my depression. They regarded it as a bad case of the Sunday evening blues, believing that if I tried harder and stopped feeling sorry for myself, I would “get better.” But I wasn’t just dealing with apathy toward routine. I couldn’t remedy being sick with a strenuous run, a good movie, or simply the passing of time. Depression transcended my circumstances and invaded my soul. It was more like a day terror — like waking up to a nightmare. Clinical depression painted my world black while screaming quietly that I was worthless.

I remember driving home from work the week before I checked into the hospital. My co-workers hadn’t noticed any difference in my performance or behavior. I was great at keeping up appearances. I was good at performing. But that evening, I recall wishing I weren’t alive, wishing my car would turn down an empty road and I could disappear. Upon arriving home, I headed straight for my room and slipped under my covers, hoping to sleep. I wanted to escape life because it hurt to breathe.

By the end of my first week at the hospital, I had made up my mind to leave. It wasn’t working. I packed my bags, headed to the front desk, and announced that I was calling my parents to come and pick me up. But my treatment team told me I needed to stay. Defeated and scared, I returned to my room, unpacked my bags and cried myself to sleep. It was time to get honest with myself.

I was angry. Me, happy Alice, with so much going for her. Stripped of the world’s accolades, it didn’t matter what school I had attended, where I had vacationed, what awards or pageants I had won. It didn’t matter who I knew, didn’t know, or thought I knew. What mattered to those surrounding me was that I was honest about my feelings. They didn’t have to be pretty. I didn’t have to look good. I could just be — and that was enough.

It was the kindness, compassion, love and truth demonstrated in the hospital that began unlocking my wounds, hurts and distorted thinking. I was learning from the worn lives around me. Lives I would have once felt pity for or wanted to distance myself from. They were the ones who possessed strength and courage. They had suffered abuse, neglect, addiction and illnesses. They felt misplaced and forgotten; they were told they didn’t matter. I came from a family filled with love, but as I and others in my hospital “family” shared our suffering, I found I needed their love.

When I was depressed, I was completely turned inward. I couldn’t see past my own shame. It warmed me, but like a scratchy wool blanket, brought its own discomfort. The irony is, until I recognized my depression for what it was, I wasn’t able to turn outward and accept love and love in return.

Getting help and getting rid of the junk cluttering my mind were part of getting better. Hope came gradually, with small steps that slowly returned feeling and clarity. I was changing. My thinking was being altered. I was given a truer sense of who I was: a young woman who needed to be loved for herself, not for what she could offer — not for how she could make you feel. Being honest in the hidden places of my heart. Taking personal responsibility. And slowly, the desire to live, the courage to want to live, began to return. Once truth reveals deception, the lie can no longer deceive unless we choose to let it.

A year and a half after my release from the hospital, I drove along a country road. The moon was bright. The stars brighter. Snow gave a fresh milky coat to the trees, and the night air was full and dark. I felt so alive. I hadn’t believed there would ever be something good enough or rich enough to make up for the pain and darkness I had known. My pain had been deep. But on this quiet stretch of road, I knew it had all been worth it. I knew that life was different because of my experience. Suffering had painted color into my life, and I could be thankful.

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