Depression, Gift, and Legacy

For Johnny, of course

My mother has been dead a year now, and it has taken me this whole time to begin to find value in her faults as much as her virtues.

For much of my adult life, I’ve been in flight from just such a consideration: There’s a book called The Spiritual Advantages of an Unhappy Childhood, but I didn’t want to read it.

The short version of the story—as anyone who’s read my posts on Good Letters knows—is that my father died and then my mother fell apart, friends left behind and relationships squandered.

Her life shrunk to the dried husk cast off by a locust. She even began to speak in the past tense. My siblings were grown and gone, and I was with her in the house alone.

Across five states and twenty years, on the couch at the psychoanalyst’s, wadded Kleenex in my hands, and kneeling on the marble floor of the confessional, incense curling through my hair, I sorted through the jagged prisms of experience that, as a child, I did not understand: What it means to be in the constant presence of someone who does not look you in the eye, who lives beyond the bar of constant preoccupation.

I didn’t understand, then, the tiresome vigilance I’d develop as a result—the almost unconscious, constant mental sorting to see if, at that moment, I was OK, or if others were about to abandon me forever—a reaction I’ve heard is common among children of alcoholics, and which I’ve seen myself in the needy inner-city children I have taught.

Along the way, I discovered that the seed of my mother’s sadness had been there all along, from my earliest memory, well before my father died. And by the time I was a toddler, the seed had germinated in me, too.

The house in its long silent hours: Morning cool and bustling, topping out at high noon, then the long steep slide of the afternoon as the reddening sun began to burn on the silver towers of the grain elevator behind our house, my hopefulness rising again as the sky turned blue and it was time for the WLBT evening news. (No wonder I wanted to wait up for Johnny Carson every night, to make it last as long as possible.)

The late poet Jane Kenyon expressed it exactly, in her poem “Having it Out With Melancholy”:

When I was born, you waited
behind a pile of linen in the nursery,
and when we were alone, you lay down
on top of me, pressing
the bile of desolation into every pore.

And from that day on
everything under the sun and moon
made me sad—even the yellow
wooden beads that slid and spun
along a spindle on my crib

What I also could not have known at the time was that arc of sadness, as I experienced it, corresponded almost exactly with the description given by monastics of the individual Christian’s struggle to grow closer to God.

What was—even at age three—my afternoon despair but the demon of noontide in which the Christian is tempted by lassitude to give up the battle entirely?

Thinking about this very coincidence—which I do not think is, in truth, a coincidence—I have begun to believe that what my mother (and my father, too, but that’s another story) birthed in me was actually an oddly precious gift.

For, at bottom, the struggle for all of us is simply to live from one moment to the next: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle,” said Philo of Alexandria.

Or as Walker Percy said, to paraphrase a bit: The hardest thing in life is to get through an ordinary Tuesday afternoon. One is far happier, he noted, to be facing an imminent hurricane.

But rather than stare fearlessly into the face of that condition of being lost—and to push through it, by bearing witness in the darkness—we flee, opting instead for giving ourselves the short-term highs of checking Facebook, shopping, politics, or even, for that matter, exercise.

Writer Lauren Winner documents this default tendency well, in her latest book Still: Notes on a Mid-Faith Crisis:

I used to say to Ruth, in all those tortured months before I left my husband, that what I feared most was loneliness. Not being alone…but loneliness, which makes me want to die, which makes me think I will die, which I will do anything to avoid feeling: call a friend; go shopping; pedal endless, frantic miles on my stationary bike; pour another drink; take another sleeping pill.

What Ruth says is: Maybe I should try to stay in the loneliness, just for five minutes, just for ten minutes. Maybe the loneliness has something for me. Maybe I should see what that something is.

Is it any wonder that our society, with its now infinite means of emotional escape, is so incredibly depressed? Even our scrambling efforts at religion can themselves become a drug, hell-bent on evading Christ instead of facing him.

Yes, I conclude, thinking once again about my mother. I hope and trust that she found some succor from all her emotional labors. I know that she is doing so now.

In the meantime, I will look my children in the eyes and take a Zoloft, not neglecting any means that the world and God and science have provided for navigating suffering.

But I will know, via my mother, that I, too, have seen into the bleakest of hours. It is this knowledge that binds me to the suffering around me. And it makes me grateful for the dark and flaming cross she bore.

A native of Yazoo City, Mississippi, Caroline Langston is a convert to the Eastern Orthodox Church. She is a widely published writer and essayist, a winner of the Pushcart Prize, and a commentator for NPR’s “All Things Considered.”

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  • AlyssaSophia

    Caroline, as usual, your words are well-appointed. We need to hear these stories, especially in the church. Also, that poem by Jane Kenyon brought tears to my eyes. I have struggled with depression of my own in periods of my own adulthood due to difficult circumstances, and both see and fear the effect of it on my own children. I hope and pray that God will help them sort it out and find healing and peace.

    • Caroline

      Thank you so much, Alyssa Sophia! I do believe God will give solace to our wounds–and at least with respect to Orthodoxy, the lives of our saints are filled with intimations that many of them suffered these same kinds of trials…

  • And I sit here grateful as well that your past pain can draw attention to a future hope. Your words were a great reminder today ~ thank you for sitting with your pain and sharing it that others might be warmed by the light that comes from its fuel.

    • Caroline

      Thank you, DTHaase. I am so honored…

  • Priscilla Grantham

    Thank you for writing this. It struck a chord with me on so many levels. As a very young child, I wondered what was wrong with me. I felt that surely not every other kid in my second grade class felt as I did. I remember distinctly the many times as a nine year old that I lay in my bed crying without knowing why. The sense of sadness was pervasive. I felt a sense of relief when I learned the word “melancholy” as I thought it was a perfect description of my essence.

    People used terms like “sensitive” and “old soul” to describe me as a child; I strived to be good at everything I undertook, hoping that a perfect report card would magically make me feel good about myself. Naturally, if the A was a 95 instead of 100, this meant I wasn’t good enough. By the time I was in high school I was anorexic and in such a dark place that I wished for death. I couldn’t end my life only because I knew it would devastate my family.

    Depression is my daily companion still. I know there is a history of it on my father’s side of the family and I am on medication which enables me to get out of bed in the morning and not sob uncontrollably on the way to work. I must admit that some days it takes a Herculean effort to get out of bed, and I still burst into tears more than most. The thing with depression is that people who do not know it intimately assume that depression is just sadness experienced by someone who likes feeling sorry for him or herself. I loved the Walker Percy quote you paraphrased; I have faced obstacles over the past 6 or 7 years that I would not wish on anyone. I wouldn’t have believed that such a series of events would befall one person, especially in such quick succession. And they keep coming. But, I push through, because that it what you do when you are a mother. I recently told a friend, “I couldn’t kill myself, but if I were abducted by a serial killer, I wouldn’t put up a fight.” People tell me I am “strong” and “there’s no way I could do what you do” and every sort of variation on this theme. But it is the ordinary Tuesday that brings me to my knees. Depression is a terribly jealous companion. It wants to share you with no one. The hopelessness is compounded by the loneliness- the sense that you are in it all alone. Or maybe that’s just me.

    Your essay has made me think of the gifts that depression has bestowed on me. Certainly, it is part and parcel of who I am. Since I am aware that it is always shadowing me, I make a conscious effort to view the slings and arrows of life through the lens of

    • Caroline

      Dearest Priscilla:

      Now I know how to pray for you. Would it be possible for us to talk sometime?

      • Priscilla Grantham

        I just saw this. I would love to talk to you again; I always loved our conversations. I’m off Facebook for a while, but my cell is 662.380.3385
        I’m always home on Friday and Saturday nights!

  • Leah

    As always Caroline your writing is wonderful.

  • Priscilla Grantham

    Humor, at times going as far as pretending I am a character in a sit com or movie and the plot line is funny in a Woody Allen kind of way.

    Deprssion’s greatest gift, by far, has been my ability to sense its presence in others. To understand the full weight of what it is doing to someone else. My 17 year old was all but debilitated by it last year. I thank God that I knew what it was and that I didn’t tell him to “suck it up” or ” get over it,” a response that is only too common, and while not meant to be cruel, it only exacerbates the crushing hopelessness.

    I dis not intend to write this missive.. Feel free to delete after reading. Most of all, thank you for your beautiful post.

  • Caroline,

    Thank you for writing this. And even though you’ve found a gift in the midst of this sorrow, I still want to say I’m sorry your mother brought it upon you. Even when the darkness brings us wisdom, it’s still difficult to endure it.

    As always, your writing is peerless. Whenever I see you’re the featured writer on any given day, I always think to myself, “Oh boy! I can’t wait to read it!” 🙂 Ha!

    Thanks again, Caroline.

    – CTJ

  • Thank you so much Caroline for describing the beauty and the pain of facing the shadow. Without the shadow we can never know the light.

  • Tracy Alig Dowling

    Your witness attests to the depression that almost everyone feels sooner or later…in your case, it was obviously sooner. I was one of the “lost children” of my family too, coming as I did, right after a major trauma had happened within the family and there simply was not enough attention or reassurance to go around…there was, instead an abundance of neediness.

    And the recognition that we are incomplete is a gift, for if we recognize it and accept it, it makes us seekers of God himself, who cannot and will not disappoint it.
    A wonderful observation I once picked up…from where I do not know…is ‘you can’t dance around the crucifix’, meaning of course that the cross can only be embraced to be understood.
    It is right always and everywhere to give thanks and praise to the Lord!
    Thanks for sending this to me!

  • Beth McCracken-Harness

    Thanks for sharing this, Caroline! Depression is a long hard slog for many of us. I appreciate you being so candid about your struggle and your mom’s.

  • Cousin Anne

    As always, your words touch me from across the miles. .Love you.

    • Caroline

      Love you too, cousin. Thank you for the support–it was, as you might imagine, not an easy one to write…

  • Sarah Kimmet

    Really appreciated this, Caroline. Thanks!

    • Caroline

      Thank you, Sarah. I would love to hear your thoughts in this space as well…Dzai Jyan!

  • Dyana Herron

    Can’t tell you how much I appreciate this post, Caroline.

  • Hi Caroline. That was beautiful!! I still have chills. Thank you for sharing your soul. xoxo, Kath

    • Caroline

      Dear Kath- Thank you so much for your kind response! xxx to you too, Caroline

  • Caroline, thanks. This is, as always, so well-written.I had depression from childhood through young adulthood but, thank God, feel those days are far behind me. Keep up the writing.
    Fromy your old creative writing prof. Love,Peter

    • Caroline

      Dear sweet Peter: Things are pretty good now. I think having the wonderful husband and children helped!