There’s an island called Depression. It’s so dark, only the people who live there can really see its outline and feel its weight and breathe its soul-crushing air. D has its own time zone, where day is night and night is night and the sun doesn’t ever shine and the darkness doesn’t ever lift, even for a second, so you can catch a glimpse of sun.
No one — no one — chooses to go to D. But sometimes D chooses you, and it gives you a one-way ticket and invites you to stay for life. If you want to leave, you can try. But it’ll be the fight of your life. The fight for your life. If you even find the energy to fight — which many never do.
I lived on D when I was on chemo, after a bilateral mastectomy that left me with unrelenting physical pain and a breakup that left me in overwhelming emotional grief.
I couldn’t remember how to smile, couldn’t remember what it was like to feel hopeful and happy, didn’t recognize the girl in the mirror staring back at me — a weepy, frail, bald, bruised girl who was always, always crying.
The question people used to ask, “Why are you crying?”, never made sense to me.
The world felt so bleak, the more logical question was to ask them, “Why aren’t you crying?”
While my soul lived on D, my body lived in New Haven, Connecticut.
I went to church. I took communion. Bread and wine, sacraments of grace.
I went to therapy. I took meds. Lexapro and Xanax, sacraments of mercy.
I went to chemo. I let a bright red drug drip into my veins. The so-called Red Devil that was saving me and killing me, all at the same time.
I wrote. I prayed. I cried. I bargained. I begged.
But for 18 months, nothing changed. Except my cancer. That changed, morphing into a version of breast cancer even more likely to kill me.
What I remember about the time I lived on D was how dark and disorienting it was.
One day I walked out of my apartment building and a newspaper reporter ran up to me and said, “Can you comment on what happened here today?” I told him I wasn’t aware of anything happening. He informed me that a Yale grad student had committed suicide that morning by jumping off the roof of my apartment building.
And my first thought was, “Why didn’t I think of that?”
The other thing I remember, besides the darkness of D, were the people who waded through it to get to me.
I remember my parents playing endless rounds of Skipbo with me to distract me from the pain.
I remember two friends who set out a picnic lunch on my apartment floor when I was too sick to go outside.
I remember another friend mailing me dried lavender from her garden so I could smell something besides vomit and alcohol swabs and ammonia.
I remember a coworker taking me out to a fancy restaurant. He asked me how I was doing, and I burst into tears. Instead of asking me more questions, he put his hand on mine and said gently, “It’s okay. Just cry.” And we sat across from each other, eating in silence while hot tears dripped down my dress.
When I finished my treatments, I sold everything I had and moved to the West Coast, trying to outrun the sadness that was choking the life out of me. But it caught up with me.
I spent 18 months fighting for my life in New Haven. Now, here I was in Portland, fighting not only for my life, but also for my mind and my heart and my soul and my joy and my hope.
I don’t know exactly when, or how, but the darkness eventually started lifting. I felt like I could breathe again. I went over to a friend’s house late at night and she’d just gotten take out and I ate one of her fries and I could actually taste it.
I began to feel like my soul was switching time zones, and I was now in sync with the rest of the world. I recognized myself in the bathroom mirror every morning. I even started to like myself again. I went on dates, I celebrated birthdays, I drank champagne on New Years Eve.
I started to come back to life — thanks to prayers and therapy and Lexapro and a je ne sais quoi I can only call grace.
I have a sensitive soul, and since I left the island of D in 2008, I’ve drifted back a few times. But never for as long, or as hard, or as deep, as I was when I was battling cancer.
What I’ve learned is that depression is a dark, disorienting, disheartening place, and no one chooses to go there — except brave, determined individuals who navigate the daunting waters, dock on D’s inhospitable shores and wade into the wilderness — just to reach their fading friend.