The weeping woman sat front-row center, cheek pressed against her husband’s lapel. She had come to hear my story of “overcoming depression,” as I said in those days. When I got to the part about sobbing on the kitchen floor while my nine year old asked, “Why is Mom crying?”, her shoulders heaved in solidarity with my former self.
Anyone could tell I’d left the old Rona far behind, the sad sack in the rumpled bathrobe. I edited a profitable women’s magazine, toured around in a designer suit, giving hope to the hopeless at community events like this one.
I tried not to look at the weeping woman. My eyes swept the room but kept returning to her unrelenting anguish. I’d no sooner finished speaking than she was at my side, holding fast to her husband’s hand as if she couldn’t stay upright on her own. She asked with a labored smile, “Do you recognize me?” I studied her pale face, the crescent-moon shadows under her eyes. She could have been my locker mate at the Y, if people go to the Y with their eyes red from crying.
“I was just in your magazine,” she said. “The photo essay about the best moment of the day. I was hugging a golden retriever.”
My god, the laughing woman at the animal shelter. Of all the women who shared happy moments for the story, she struck me as the happiest—a volunteer loving up an explosion of canine joy. I didn’t much care for dogs then, but the photo stirred something primal in me. On a page in Chatelaine magazine, I witnessed a great cracking-open, a transformative encounter between a careworn human and a creature innocent of care. I couldn’t believe the live wire in the photo was the wraith who’d wept through every word of my speech. Had she fallen ill since the shoot?
No, depression had plagued the weeping woman so long, she hardly remembered being well. For the animals, she pulled herself together. My photographer captured a starburst of radiance that lit her whole self but didn’t last. In the best moment of her day, she floated. All the other moments were an uphill trek in sand.
Depression has been called “the common cold of mental illness.” You don’t hear the term much these days, but Chatelaine used it on my watch. We meant to emphasize how widespread it is, how embedded in the life of every family and community. We thought we were easing the terrible aloneness of depression, in which every sufferer feels uniquely cursed—and uniquely unable to bootstrap a way back to health. It’s not cancer, after all. It’s not MS, not even a broken leg. But there’s a reason why poet Jane Kenyon, who struggled with depression all her life, called it “the mutilator of souls.” The common cold goes away on its own; depression can be lethal. Ask yourself how many people in your circle have taken their lives or lost someone to suicide. I got to 10 without even trying.
In a park near my home stands a tree commemorating a long-lost magazine colleague—beloved and accomplished, the mother of three young children—who took her life at 42. The woman who wept through my speech looked about that age.
Twenty-odd years later, I think of her often. I hope she’s well, with a dog of her own. As for me, I’ve fallen hard for a rescue mutt named Casey, a jailbird who received his basic training at a men’s prison in Ohio. Someone I’ll never know taught him to sit, hold his pee and trust the humans who have the privilege of giving him the best life we can. When my husband talked me into adopting Casey, I was in a funk—mourning a friend gone too soon, missing the camaraderie of my job, turning stray pen marks on the table into grounds for an inquisition. How bitterly amusing that “marital” is just a typo away from “martial.” Depressed? Hell, no. I had “overcome” depression. I just needed a project to build and control, as I had the magazine.
I thought I knew the signs of depression: tears in the third glass of wine, fantasies involving a bathtub and a razor blade. But depression has many faces, and a life change—in my case, retirement—can increase the risk of a relapse. Without issues to plan, staff to lead and hundreds of thousands of readers to serve, I found myself unmoored. Depression returned not with sobbing but with piercing and immovable sourness. It was like the goblin’s distorting mirror in a story I loved as a child, Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen.” Seen in the mirror, everything is ugly. When the goblin smashes his mirror, shards of it fly around the world. One penetrates the eye of a child who goes on a rampage of cruelty until his best friend saves him with her love.
I wasn’t searching for love when Casey pranced through our door. Between my friends and my family, I had enough of that, or thought I did. But some things about being human can’t be learned from your own kind. Every walk dog is a master class in happiness, with Casey the oblivious teacher. It takes so little to enthrall him—a stale pizza crust on the sidewalk, another dog’s butt to sniff, a squirrel to chase, as far as the leash will allow. He hasn’t caught one yet but fancies himself a rodent slayer. Like any male dog, he can’t saunter very far without lifting his leg—his “blessing,” as John Steinbeck puts it in Travels with Charley.
When Casey stops for a pee, I look—with curiosity and full attention—at wherever we happen to be. I watch the wind turn the pages of a book abandoned on a trash bin. In the first snowfall of November, I discover a white iris, holding its petals high at the entrance to a parking garage. Who is planting iris here? By what miracle is this one still in bloom? I’m not dreaming, I am blessed. I can’t separate love for Casey from love for what I find in his company.
My mood will sink again, as it does. There’s a lot to arouse my melancholy side. I’ve never seen so much cause for terror and grief. But melancholy is not the same thing as depression, nor is fear for the world. Walking Casey, I don’t think about the future of Israel, Ukraine or the global climate. All that will keep for later, along with more personal worries like the state of my retirement savings or that person I let down in a lazy moment. William James said when psychology was new, “The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.” It’s okay to be a melancholic, as I long as I can rejoice. Okay to exult if I still know how to mourn.
Moments of amazement are like beacons in the dark. The woman who wept through my speech could count on only one such moment, her arrival at the animal shelter. For me, a joyful melancholic, there are many, each one honored with a photo to keep the memory fresh and the stories flowing. I’ve learned to trust that the next one is around the corner. Casey will take me there, and when he goes the memory will guide me. I don’t think about the prospect of depression. I dance with it now.
Your turn now. How do you live with the darkness in your life? Tell me about it.