fortressThere’s a great e-card that reads: “Dear whatever doesn’t kill me, I’m strong enough now. Thanks.” It was the second most-liked item I posted on my Facebook page. The first was a quote by William Gibson: “Before you diagnose yourself with depression or low self-esteem, first make sure you are not, in fact, surrounded by xxxholes.”

Friedrich Nietzsche was responsible for the line, “What doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.” I’m not sure I believe that, given the long list of names of extraordinary people who ended up taking their lives in desperation. Sometimes the pain of severe depression — the hopelessness that is its constant companion — simply becomes too much to endure. Having visited the doorway to suicide for periods of time that lasted months and years, I understand that.

However, there is also truth in what C. C. Jung writes, that “there is no coming to consciousness without pain,” that a clay pot can’t become porcelain without going through the heat of the furnace.

All of it makes sense in hindsight.

But as you are burning alive in that furnace, you presume your new home is hell.

In the summer of 2005, when I had the first of my major breakdowns, I would sit at my computer and stare at a blank screen for hours. I had no mental capacity to form sentences, let alone paragraphs that flowed together. The more I tried to squeeze out a cogent thought, the more paralyzed I became, especially in the face of a deadline.

So I quit.

I called up the editor of a weekly column I was writing and tried to explain.

“Are you sure you want to do this?” she asked me.

“Of course, I’m not sure,” I thought. “I feel like a total wuss, and that I’m giving in to whatever has taken possession of my mind. But why torture myself if the well is dry?”

I packed up my laptop and didn’t look at it again for six months. That’s how long it took me to get my nerve back to sit in the chair again. And when I did, the words weren’t all there. Finding them took another good year or so.

However, there was one afternoon I’ll always remember.

I was sitting in a coffee shop downtown. Beliefnet.com had just asked me to write a daily blog about depression. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day was coming up, so I thought I’d incorporate that theme. I started to write a piece called, “I, Too, Have a Dream.”

I wrote with such passion, incorporating all of the pain and frustration and torment I had experienced in the last two years. I let my heart flow on to the page in a way I had never been able to do before. I was angry but hopeful, infuriated but inspired. I pulled from all the disappointing afternoons with an acupuncturist and Chinese doctor who told me my aura was “black;” the hurtful comments from everyone from my massage therapist to family members, who thought they knew why I was depressed; the unethical psychiatrist who shoved the latest Lilly drug down my throat; the evening I folded my laundry sobbing to tapes from a New Age author who claimed I was wrecked before I was born and drugs would destroy me; and the hours painting bird houses inside a psych ward.

All of it surfaced at once in this piece. I knew, then, that I was on the other side of the furnace. As a result, I was staring at porcelain.

“Suffering … can lead you in either of two directions,” writes spiritual author Richard Rohr in his book The Naked Now, “It can make you very bitter and close you down, or it can make you wise, compassionate, and utterly open, either because your heart has been softened, or perhaps because suffering makes you feel like you have nothing more to lose. It often takes you to the edge of your inner resources … even against your will.”

From the rear-view mirror, I can now see that those two years of anguish were the uncomfortable, coarse grains that produced the pearl of my newer self who was able to write from the heart in a much more authentic way than before the breakdown.

And yet, when I suffered a second breakdown, 18 months ago, I was blinded yet again.

Because when you are in the midst of it, you are absolutely, completely, totally convinced that you will never emerge on the other side, that you will never again be able to do what you did before. In my case, write lucid prose.

Last summer I had a season much like 2005, where I stared and stared and then wept at a blank page. The harder I tried to write, the more paralyzed I became with the keyboard.

Sometimes my husband would come in to find me collapsed over my desk in tears.

I had just signed on to be a depression expert for a popular questions-and-answers website, and was responsible for crafting between 10 to 20 original articles a month. That was in addition to my Everyday Health blog, and the pieces I owed to other websites.

My doctor and friends told me to hang on to the contracts as long as possible, that recovery was around the bend. However, the anxiety of impending deadlines with impaired cognitive functioning — zero ability to synthesize vast amounts of research — was giving me panic attacks. I was afraid to sit down in front of my computer because I knew it would elicit tears of frustration.

I finally told my editor that I was simply too depressed to be a depression expert.

I continued with Everyday Health but avoided personal pieces and complex topics, anything that required thoughtful analysis. I mostly reiterated new studies on mental health. Very gradually I have been risking pieces of me here and there. And it’s been only in the last two months that I’ve been able to sit down at the keyboard without anxiety.

It took another afternoon like the one in the coffee shop seven years ago to feel alive again, to know I’ve made it past the furnace. This time Robin Williams’s death fueled an intense piece, “What I Wish People Knew About Depression,” followed by “What Suicidal Depression Feels Like,” where I was, again, able to consolidate the sweat, blood, and tears of another two-year breakdown. It was an opportunity to sew all the pain and the wisdom together: the disappointment I found in our medical system, the limitations of the holistic movement, the small boundaries of therapy and psychiatry; the need for more compassion and less judgment, for more open-mindedness and less intolerance.

When my editors congratulated me on my heartfelt posts with a beautiful bouquet of roses, I knew I was back.

Late author Olga Rosmanith wrote, “You do build in darkness if you have faith. When the light returns you have made of yourself a fortress which is impregnable to certain kinds of trouble; you may even find yourself needed and sought by others as a beacon in their dark.”

I’m just now starting to identify my fortress.

I’m strong enough now. Thanks.

Artwork by the talented Anya Getter.

Originally posted on Sanity Break at Everyday Health.

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