Guest Column: Coming to terms with depression

I exhausted my parents. Bewildered them. However, it was not due to the usual rebellious acts of adolescence. Rather than sneaking out after dark, I spent my evenings curled up haphazardly reading a book of poetry. Against all their admonishments, I sat and read, becoming entranced by the words that covered the fragile and yellowing pages. I encountered miracles of language as I perused the small, green books my great Aunt Leotris had given me. Using the built-in bookmarks made of ribbon, I would note groupings of words that particularly inspired me. I was a somber, brooding girl even then, and the words that spoke to me the most were the sad ones. They loomed close to me as I read, giving me a way to understand my own experience.

Soon, I began to concentrate on the biographical sketches that prefaced the volumes of poetry. There was one word I encountered continuously as I read: Melancholy. I simply loved the sound of it. It was a soft-lit color moving like smoke, curling up from the corners of the room to envelop me. This soft, smoky presence had lived in my home for years in the life of my mother. She would sleep all day, saying that she was too tired or sick to attend my school functions. Some days, she wouldn’t make dinner or abruptly threw her plate in the sink halfway through the meal. Now, I had some way to understand my mother. She was melancholy, her life wasting away as she lay downy and warm in a grave of pillows and blankets at 3 in the afternoon.

As my mother descended deeper into sadness, I took refuge in the books left to me. Sitting on my hardwood floor, I began speaking the lyrical phrases into the breeze that came through my window. I felt the earth moving toward me. The trees seemed to sway in a motion that coincided with the circulation of my blood. I felt that I had a special connection to the crows that escorted me on my walk to school each day. In this world of astounding beauty, I felt capable and full of life, and I began to write my own stories, craft my own poems.

Over the years, I have experienced extremes of mood that in retrospect are a blessing. They have given my writing a substance that would be impossible without the ebb and flow, the ache and heady transcendence known as Bipolar Disorder. However, it took me years to realize that I could use words in a cathartic manner during my times of darkness. I learned to negotiate my moods by playing with language. But this was a difficult lesson. In the beginning, I abused the process of writing, becoming drunk with my own pain. I wrote lists of death, wallowing in the garbage of my mind. I wrote about being depressed, having no job and few friends. I wrote about being 100 pounds overweight and digging food out of the garbage to fill a hole in me, while simultaneously destroying a self that I despised. But as much as I told the truth about the content of my experience, I was lying about my source. It was fear, simple, yet gut-wrenching fear of life.

When I began to face my fears, I found that I could use words to heal myself rather than simply ruminating on the darkness of my soul. Through the words that I had so loved as a child, I learned my truest and most profound lesson: There is no such thing as wasted time. Everything is necessary. I have since realized that there is something of triumph in my darkest moments simply because I have survived them. And the woman that I had so immortalized as the root of all my pain, my mother, I have fleshed out her character a bit. I now remember the warmth of my mother’s arms as she held me and how she smelled of coconut. I remember her braiding my hair, her smile stark with red lipstick against her pale skin. And I remember that for all my romanticizing of my troubled childhood, I was happy in that moment. And I believe there will be more moments like it in my future.

Shannon Webb is a client of Janet Wattles Center.

From the March 22-28, 2006, issue

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