By Theresa Williams
A Journey in and out of Depression
I fell into depression in the summer of 2002. It started after I had surgery, and it lasted many months. My body healed, but my mind lagged behind. One day I told my husband Allen: “I’m so unhappy.” I’d never said that before.
I wasn’t down in the dumps. A dump might be smelly, the foul rag-and-bone shop of the heart, but at least it’s on solid ground.
I was hurtling at high speed. Falling. My life was falling in around me. I was falling apart. We hear “fall” so often in this context that it’s lost its sense of peril. But as anyone who’s been there knows, falling is terrifying.
Depression was new to me. Melancholy, I’m used to. Lots of writers are melancholics. For us, all life’s tinged with sadness, and it’s just fine that way.
When I was nine, a favorite activity of mine was finding dead birds and burying them in graves with Popsicle crosses. As an adult, I’ve come to love the elegies of D. H. Lawrence. His 1929 poem “The Ship of Death,” one of my favorite poems of all, expresses a kind of sadness that’s nourishing:
Now it is autumn and the falling fruit
and the long journey towards oblivion.
The apples falling like great drops of dew
to bruise themselves an exit from themselves.”
Lawrence was sick and dying. He knew he was about to enter his last transformation and he was preparing himself for it:
We are dying, we are dying, so all we can do
is now to be willing to die, and to build the ship
of death to carry the soul on the longest journey.”
• • •
My depression had been hanging on since July and now it was Christmas Eve. Allen was driving me all over Northwest Ohio, trying to find an open store so I could buy a turkey for Christmas dinner. I had no turkey to feed my family.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. I hadn’t even had the stamina to turn on a light in the evening. But I was surprised—sorely surprised. Sore in spirit, too. I was a failure, and everyone would know, come dinnertime.
One of the worst aspects of the depression was the sense of alienation, of being removed from your own self. Not only was I useless to my family, I was unable to write, since my writing is connected to my ability to plumb the depths of my emotions and experience, a descent worthy of Persephone’s.
My writing also depends on what I’ve come to think of as my gift to the world: my empathy for others. But depression robbed me of this, too. I’d completely lost my ability to connect with anyone or anything. All of this struck at the heart of my whole sense of who I was.
As our car purred along on snowy, nearly empty streets, I thought of the family in A Christmas Story going to a Chinese restaurant for Christmas dinner. “Deck the halls with boughs of horry,” the actors sang. I thought, We could do that. It’d be a new tradition: Chinese for Christmas. My family won’t mind. It’ll be something to laugh about.
But as Allen pulled into empty lot after empty lot, neither of us was laughing.
• • •
January 2003: the depression subsided, and I found solid ground again. It wasn’t sudden, but it was palpable. For so many months I’d been wearing a coat made of lead. The weight of the coat made it nearly impossible to hold myself upright; it was easier just to fall.
One day, I literally felt the coat lift from my shoulders. It was a gray afternoon, but everything looked brighter. I realized that I cared again.
I filled page after page with words, writing mostly with a notebook and pen in the bathtub, where I felt warm and safe. Once, I accidentally dropped my notebook into the water; I ran dripping to my computer to record the words before they disappeared. The more I wrote, the better I felt. The stories were helping me to see what had happened to me.
I ended up writing five short stories that took my character Nora Walker on a journey through the underworld and back to the surface again. In what turned out to be an extraordinary outcome, all five were subsequently published—four in The Sun and one in Hunger Mountain.
In “The Falls,” Nora describes her first medical checkup after surgery:
The receptionist said, ‘Do you still live at so-and-so?’ And I told her, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Is your home phone still such-and-such?’ And I said it was. And she said, ‘Is your work number still the same?’ And I said, ‘Yes.’ And she said, ‘Then everything’s the same, right?’ And I hesitated a second and swallowed hard before saying, ‘Yes, everything’s just the same.’”
My protagonist was falling, but she wasn’t falling into a void. She was falling toward a new life, and so was I. Trials and transformations evoke an essential truth about life: You don’t get a new life unless the old one dies. Melancholics know this better than anyone, but it’s a hard truth. So I kept writing. And what kept me writing was the desire to know how it would all turn out.
The five short stories were fiction, but in them, I found the truth of my experience.
• • •
I can’t remember when I bought my first book on writing and healing, though I know it was a long time after my depression was over and done with. The one that sticks with me still is Writing as a Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo.
DeSalvo quotes D. H. Lawrence, who once wrote in a letter: One sheds one’s sickness in books—repeats and presents again one’s emotions, to be master of them.
Mastering emotions, clarifying and explaining experience: If a writer can reach such goals, he or she may come close to a healing. It’s like one of Lawrence’s apples falling on the ground, nourishing the tree from which it came.
The stories I wrote about my experience with depression were not just for myself but also for others who might need them. I knew then that this is why we must be fearless about sharing our experiences.
It was a big revelation: None of this is about you; it’s about your connection to others. That’s when I realized my relationship to the reader: love.
Theresa Williams is the recipient of an Individual Excellence Grant from the Ohio Arts Council and was recently selected for a summer writing residency at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts.
Her novel, The Secret of Hurricanes (MacAdam/Cage 2002), was a finalist for the Paterson Fiction Prize. Her short fiction and poems have appeared in a number of magazines, including The Sun, Chattahoochee Review, Hunger Mountain, Haibun Today, Barnwood International Poetry Magazine, Paterson Literary Review, Riverwind, and Visions International.
Theresa is a regular contributor to Talking Writing.
“It’s about letting experience and memory accumulate so that it spills over into story.”
— “On Writing“