<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=1514203202045471&ev=PageView&noscript=1"/> Depression Robbed Me of My Words, Then It Blessed Me with My Writing | Core Spirit

Depression Robbed Me of My Words, Then It Blessed Me with My Writing

Mar 7, 2023
Core Spirit member since Mar 12, 2022
Reading time 9 min.

Depression Robbed Me of My Words, Then It Blessed Me with My Writing
The adversities in our lives can open us to a new language

Losing our words, losing our selves***
There are times, bad times, when language fails us. Our words disappear. It is as if our senses are severed from our ability to experience and express them. It is hard to think. It is almost impossible to communicate with even the closest of connections. For those of us who have depended even on simple vocabulary as the basis of our work, or our pleasure, we are horrified. And afraid.
The Book of Job**
We can find early agonizing attempts to articulate the lament, “Why me?” in the harrowing Book of Job. Job’s abject despair is a hallmark of writing about the rollercoaster of depression and despair. Charles Frazier, ¹ in prefacing an edition of “Job,” described it as some of the greatest and most terse expressions of despair and soul weariness we have.”

Like Job, many of us are engaged in a monumental fight for our lives. Loss, illness, cruelty and trauma are doubly punishing. There is the pain of the adversity itself, and then there is often the loss of one of the best ways of coping with the pain: expressing it, giving it meaning, creating a bridge to others in talking, listening, and writing.

And sometimes, if we are lucky as we slog through hardship, the landscape of awareness changes, and we “wake up” to a different reality. We develop a more expansive understanding of ourselves and our world. We feel the labor pains that demand the expression of new words, vital language and a longing to share these gifts, even when we lack the confidence to try it.

We don’t trust time. It could turn around and kick us all the way back to the awfulness. But with one toe in the water, and then the next, we recall all our “liquid” words, and we welcome new ones as we say, “This is what it is. This is how I feel it. It is different. I am different.”

We are bruised and dented. But there is something in being banged up that can confer the grace of unique vision, a renewed tongue, a wisdom, and a readiness to reintroduce pen to paper.

My words drown in depression
In my mid-thirties I was hit with a dark slowness, a loss of meaning and pleasure. I slowed down. But I never slept. I didn’t talk, let alone write. I lost hope in the possibility of recovering my lost self. I wanted to end my life. Not because I hated it, or myself, but I just didn’t think I could live anymore.

My medical charts filled up with psychiatric word salad. I had major depression, persistent anxiety. I had bipolar ll, and most recently, due to medication mismanagement, I suffered a psychotic episode in which I was convinced that my family had hired the staff at the hospital to kill me. The world truly turned upside down as paranoia sharpened my awareness 24/7, as the only guardian of my life. It has not been easy.

The slow slide into Hell has always gone the same way. There are many signs, but one of the surest is that it’s hard for me to talk, and then impossible to write. My paragraphs are reduced to sentences, and then telegraphed words.

I feel a desperation to keep them in my grasp. They are Hansel and Gretel’s breadcrumbs. The ones that would lead them home. Unfortunately, like the bread, my words were gobbled up by hungry birds, until I realized I had to use sturdier markers instead.

I kept a journal through the first months of what was becoming my first severe depression. The journal was a trail of breadcrumbs. It was full of stories, opinions, and observations. Until I ran out.

Losing ground
Several entries from my memoir of that time mark significant times in which depression flattened my ability to write. ²

Sept 30 — Bad panic and depression. Try to fight the magnetic force field that pulls me toward the sanctuary of the bed. Three patients. Can barely understand them.

Oct 2 — Increase dose of medicine. Very groggy. Can’t get started. Awful.

Oct 6 — The thoughts of death and nothingness are like a fever I can't shake. What is the difference between the thought and the act? How far was it for my cousin between this feeling and the rope around her neck?

I was desperate to find writers who could lend me their “lost and found” words. The final words of author John Cheever ³ were so strikingly true to me. In the last entry of his life, he describes painfully waiting to usher out a visitor he must take to the train.

“It will be for me, I know, twenty-eight steps from the table to the car and after he has been abandoned at the station, another twenty-eight steps from the car to my room, where I tear off my clothes, leave them in a heap on the floor, turn out the light, and fall into bed.”

There is no prototypical depression story, or slavery poem, or dying words. They are as different as they are similar. Some tackle suffering with a triumphant happy ending, others grasp for the meaning of relentless pain and frustration with no triumphant outcome. They will be shaded by age, gender, ethnicity, sexual identity, and temperament.

But the counting of the excruciating steps as the final remembrance of a brilliant, doomed writer was exactly how I was surviving my life.

Saving my life
Several days after those entries, I entered the hospital to have ECT (electroconvulsive therapy). I had a young child. I had to take a chance to save my own life.

The days until the procedures were sluggish and fuzzy. My fellow sufferers and I haunted the nights in our silent insomnia. We were ghosts in screaming pain. We barely spoke. We knew what each other had to say. The tablets and pens people brought me lay pristine on my bed.

The morning of my first session found me fearful and hyper awake. Words burst inside my very slow brain. Staring down terror was not an occasion of prose, by any means. But emotion and language collided into each other in a way I found jarring, and oddly comforting. It was the lowest point of my life, and yet some words resurfaced. As soon as my session was finished, I lumbered back to my room, scribbled and fell asleep.

I am covered with hands. They take hold of different parts of me, staking out their territory...I offer myself to these strangers in exchange for the possibility of deliverance. Someone holds my hands and slips needles under my skin. Another slides down my gown and plants red Valentine hearts on my chest. Fingers anoint my temples with cool ointment and fasten a plastic crown tightly around my head. Wires connect me to machines that hum and beep…They cover my mouth and nose with plastic and instruct me to breathe. For several horrible seconds I am paralyzed before I lose consciousness. The waves slam me down. I am drowning…

I had almost instantaneous relief from the relentless suicidal siren songs and then more time for the depression to resolve.

For several months I wandered around my life. I gave in to the temptation of those pads and pens. As the depression relented, it was not just that I could write. I could see. It was a curious feeling, to celebrate the most ordinary or mundane things.

One of the great dividends of darkness is an increased sensitivity to the light.

As a therapist, I was better able to plumb the depths of suffering with my patients. And then I learned about silence. Sometimes silence is not just the absence of words. It’s a place that adversity takes us. A place that demands as much respect as language.

A woman came to see me because of her depression and rage over her metastatic breast cancer. She sat fuming as I fumbled to find words that would let me into her suffering. Finally, I just told myself to stop being stupid. “Sometimes,” I admitted to her softly, “Hell has no words.”

She unbuttoned her blouse and showed me the ravages of her surgeries and cancers. I had to force myself to return to that time when I “sat there with my blouse open.” Sometimes situations seem like they should be so fraught with language and yet, often Hell indeed, has no words. You just have to take the tour.

To respect language’s magic, I gained the wisdom to have the deepest respect for its silence.

As I regained my footing, I found myself writing in different styles. They came from resurrecting my capacity to be funny, and outraged, and sloppily sentimental. I was fascinated by reading the stories of others who had faced down illness, loss, or devastating cruelty.

So many of them had the same “push.” To testify to their suffering and transcendence, to describe horror and fear. To express pain so deep, I could almost feel it. I worried with them, about whether their recovery was only a respite, and hardship would return. I lived along with them as they managed each day with the permanent vestiges of their injuries. Their words entered me as I searched for myself.

I collected phrases and poems in my notebook. I wanted to amass all the words I could. I wanted to keep them safe. I wanted to see if I could bring them together to make something of meaning. I wanted to see if I could translate my experiences to my fellow travelers — the recovered, the walking wounded, the drowning.

Instructions for living and writing
I embraced what poet Mary Oliver ⁴ called, “instructions for living.”

Pay attention.
Be astonished.
Tell about it.

Without the first two, it is difficult to do the third. We have to reconnect our senses to our words.

“Tell about it” is what we writers do, whether it’s describing a hydrangea bush spilling over in its lush offering, or the fragments of a house destroyed by a vicious hurricane.

And no matter how gross, or painful or embarrassing, it is what we do when we “tell” about it, in halting sentences or redolent prose. It is the “astonishment” of how we fell down, how we got up again, and yes, even the recognition of how we might fall down again.

The marriage of Oliver’s prescription for living came to me in a moment when I was leaving a silent retreat at a Trappist monastery. It was about 6 months after ECT. My recovery was wobbly but moving in the right direction.

As with so many people who suffer adversity, recovery can bring with it a hypervigilance, in which we are constantly scanning, trying to detect trouble on the horizon. It can help us get back in the game, but it’s not exactly a recipe for joy.

I’d stopped at the gift shop for their warm wheat and white breads and large jars of peach and raspberry jam. Ten minutes down the road, I was slowly captivated by the fresh yeastiness of the bread. The final words of my accounting were so blessedly different from Cheever’s measured steps at the end.

I can’t find anything to use to spread the wicked jams, so I pull over, open the jar of peach preserves, stick my fingers down deep in the jar, and slap the jam on the bread. Before I can eat the bread, I have to wipe my hands, but I can’t find anything for cleaning. So, I lick each finger, carefully, to get everything. The bread goes down fast. Then come the inevitable empirical questions about which jam will taste better on which bread. I pull over way too many times and eat too many bread and jam and finger sandwiches. But I can honestly say that the ride home with all its bread and jam, and licking and dripping, is one of the happiest moments I have known. Ever.

Some will say that it is the healing from depression that allowed me to savor. True, but it is the writing that reminds me that I am doing just that, savoring. It organizes the despair and gratitude of the journey I have survived. I don't spend much time in the whys and how's of it. I only know they belong together.

And in the almost guaranteed recurrence of certain types of suffering, we can still keep a record of our “breadcrumbs”— our evidence of falling down and getting back up. And even if not a single person reads it, we will be an audience of one, rich again in words.

And they will save us.

[1]: Frazier, C. “Introduction,” The Book of Job (New York: Grove Press, 1999).
[2]: Cheever, J. The Journals of John Cheever (New York: A.A. Knopf, 1991)
[3]: Manning, M. Undercurrents: A Life Beneath the Surface (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 1994).
[4]: Oliver, M. “Sometimes,” Devotions: The Selected Poems of Mary Oliver (New York: Penguin, 2017).

Leave your comments / questions

Be the first to post a message!