Whenever we’re struggling with something, we assume we are alone. We are the only ones. I’m the only one who can’t get through the day without crying. I’m the only one with sweaty palms and terror swirling through my body while grocery shopping. I’m the only one who isn’t blissed out after having a baby. I’m the only one who can’t shake this all-consuming sorrow or rage. I’m the only one who can’t sit still. Who can’t stomach myself.
But you’re not alone. You’re not alone in your confusing emotions, dark thoughts and daily struggles. You are one of hundreds, of thousands and even of millions. Two recently published essay collections remind us of this. They remind us that while our stories may be unique, the themes are not. We are connected. And there is hope.
In Shades of Blue: Writers on Depression, Suicide and Feeling Blue over 30 writers contribute powerful, unflinchingly honest essays about their struggles with depression, despair, anxiety, addiction, grief and suicidal thoughts. Amy Ferris, who edited the collection, writes, too, about feeling like she’s the only one to experience “this damp darkness.” She describes her depression in this way:
Everything was pitch black. There was no color anywhere. It was dark and lonely, and the best way I can describe how I felt at that time in my life was like being in the middle of a forest, and it’s eerily dark, and you don’t know which way to turn so you take baby steps. Teeny steps because you don’t know where you are, and you can’t see anything, and you don’t know how to find your way out, and you reach for something to touch, but it’s not there. You fall down, and you don’t know how to get up, so you start by getting up on your knees, and then slowly, very slowly, you straighten up… and start to walk through the darkness, and you’re not sure you’re gonna make it out, but you silently hope and wish and pray that you do…
Barbara Abercrombie writes about the sadness, loneliness and fear she felt, which “crept in like fog.” She writes about depression feeling like failure and a “horrible character flaw.”
Chloe Caldwell writes about “being addicted to everything and nothing,” of reaching for drugs, food and sex to stop from the terror of being with herself. She writes about finding help and support with dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), NA meetings and loved ones.
Angela M. Giles Patel writes about taking medication — and hating it. “The idea that I cannot fully function without it breaks my heart on a regular basis, but I can’t stop taking it… for those of us who are clinically diagnosed with depression, proper medication is critical. To suggest otherwise is a failure to understand the true nature of the problem.”
In Mothering Through the Darkness: Women Open Up About the Postpartum Experience women talk about the things that rarely get talked about. They talk about terrifying thoughts and great grief. They talk about their paralyzing shame, feelings of failure, fears of being defective. Of being an impostor. Of being numb while at the same time filled with bottomless rage and regret. They talk about pain, and they talk about getting better. Much better.
Jessica Smock, co-editor of the collection, writes about crying with her infant son, in the morning, in the afternoon and in the evening. She writes about being shocked at the intensity of her own crying. “It was the cry of a woman with a broken soul, no energy, no spirit. And that’s what it felt like to me at the time: the crying and the colic had crushed my spirit.”
Jen Simon writes about having thoughts of giving away her infant son, of running away by herself or with him. She writes about being “anxious all the time about nothing and everything.” “Sometimes I feel like I can’t breathe. My body is a black hole of feelings and longing and lacks even oxygen — there is never enough and I’m choking and drowning at the same time. I can’t stand up straight because I’m afraid my lungs will collapse in on themselves as my stomach folds over.”
Terrifying, senseless thoughts of killing herself, her baby, her husband start to make sense. With medication, the thoughts dissipate, and after a while, Simon starts getting better and better. And as she writes, things actually become good.
Celeste Noelani McLean talks about the conflicting feelings, of loving her daughter, of not loving her. She writes about her rage at her daughter’s “newborn-ness,” at doing this to herself. “I have no right to the fury that bubbles like tar, black and toxic and spoiling everything with its overbearing stench. I try to quell the anger, the hate I have for the baby I know that I somewhere, somehow, do actually love.” For McLean going to therapy — finally speaking the truth about her thoughts and feelings — starts to help. She starts to shift from survival and self-loathing to learning “how to live.”
Again, none of us is alone — regardless of what we’re struggling with, regardless of what’s happening in our lives. The best thing we can do for ourselves is to speak up and be honest. As Kitty Sheehan writes in one of my favorite essays in Shades of Blue, “Tell someone and boom, just like that, you aren’t alone, which can be a miracle.”
The best thing we can do is to seek help. To see a therapist who specializes in whatever we’re experiencing. To get good information and find support (for instance, Project Beyond Blue and Postpartum Progress are incredible resources). To take medication, if we need it (which is totally OK).
And to remind ourselves regularly of these words — from Sarah Rudell Beach in Mothering Through the Darkness — “We can be shattered, and we can become whole again.”
Young man photo available from Shutterstock