Depression is deceptive to those on the outside.
Depression doesn’t care if you are gifted or beautiful. It trumps talent. Naomi Judd tragically showed us that.
And we need to listen. Hard.
Depression is an equal opportunist. It inflicts its devastation on the privileged and the poor, striking those in the limelight and those who are hidden in the shadows. But the debilitating grip is the same.
And as with Naomi Judd, its grip can be lethal.
Depression is sneaky. It hides in the dark so no one sees it. It can pounce out of nowhere, even after triumph. Those who suffer from it can be very skilled at keeping it hidden.
Judd’s high wattage smile was luminous, her talent dazzled us and was life-affirming. But behind that luminosity lay the disastrous, unforgiving, and incapacitating grasp of depression an illness kept secreted away. An illness grossly misunderstood by all too many. The battle is a hard one.
Clutching tightly, depression can take your breath away.
Its pain can be isolating. Like the disease itself, those suffering from it often live in darkness. A smiling photograph belies deep internal psychic suffering. And the torment saps you of your life force, as agonizing and injurious as any physical ailment. When it strikes, it can keep you bedridden, unable to speak, and barely able to function.
The draining feeling that you just cannot bear another day. Another hour. Another minute.
I know that pain. I know depression. We are old pals.
For the past 10 days, it has been my own struggle.
My trip to sunny California had been glorious.
Buoyant even. Inclusion in a world-class art exhibit and a triumphant artist’s reception and talk at the Museum of Sonoma County had been empowering. In a (semi) post COVID world, a whirlwind of social events, meeting friends old and new was wonderful.
Yet even through that, my familiar friend depression sat on my shoulder whispering in my ear, pulling me downward. I had not left him on the tarmac of JFK airport as I thought I could.
The returning red-eye flight home brought me not only to New York but into the welcoming full embrace of my old chum.
Last week I lay catatonic, teary, gripped in the paralyzing pain of depression evaluating the options of making the pain disappear permanently. Agonized, I wrestled through it.
But not everyone can.
Characterized by many for my courage in face of adversity, belies the fears I needed to temporarily bury in order to function in my ever chaotic world. Applauded for my resiliency, it does not discount the torment that coexists with it. The multiple life losses and the sorrow I have experienced in the past year that is always nipping at my heels began bubbling up.
The protective infrastructures were cracking, a cozy place for depression to settle into.
In the end, it was the glaring loss of family connection that seemed to nudge me over the edge. Family has always been profoundly important to me.
I knew my return home would be a melancholy day coinciding as it did with my mother’s yartzeit and the first night of that most family-oriented holiday, Passover.
As I set the small seder table for two that night in my new home, laying out the same wine-stained Maxwell House Haggadahs I’ve used for decades, it stood in stark contrast to the large, noisy, family-filled tables of Passovers past
The silence only amplified the family disconnect that seemed irreparable. With a husband unable to communicate, my loneliness was palpable.
Already vulnerable, my sadness was fertile ground for opportunistic depression-now accompanied by his loyal sidekick PTSD- to swoop in and firmly take root.
As days passed and I was caught in its firm grip, a small voice inside intuitively understood I needed grounding and knew I might find it in hallowed ground.
If my own living relatives were not available, I knew awaiting me less than an hour away was my whole mishpocha.
Last Sunday a visit to my mother’s family cemetery in Queens, New York surrounded by history and ancestors gave me the sense of belonging I was seeking. Because my family connections have slowly dwindled through death, distance, and disinterest, the need to physically be amidst my relatives provided me with a profound feeling of inclusion eluding me in real life.
These were my people. This was my place… this plot of land with all my loved ones that no one could ever take away from me.
As I stood in the venerable cemetery dating to the 1800’s, filled with ancient headstones and centuries’ worth of stories, I felt I had a final eternal home here. A neighborhood filled with my family and ancestors. There was a sense of permanency that I craved in these uncertain times.
I found tranquility in the surroundings, the grass under my feet, the just blooming azaleas, the sheer scope of history surrounding me.
Here were the spirits of my great grandparents, grandparents, parents, uncles, aunts, and cousins in one place.
A full table.
I cried. I wept.
I opened my heart to my family able to give voice to my pain.
I needed to be heard. I lay down on the soft grass to look at the clear cloudless sky to survey my future home. In that peace, I realized I was not ready to live there yet, but comforted in knowing it was there.
I needed to touch my past to give me strength in order to sustain me in the present.
In the 1940s my maternal grandfather Arthur Joseph had purchased a large plot adjacent to his own father’s plot dating from 1918. This act of great love ensured there would be a place of eternal rest for generations to come. Together.
This grandfather that I never met, made sure to provide perpetual care for all his progeny. In fact, all the gravestones are marked with that instructive. As will mine. Perpetual care awaits me. At some point. I am eternally grateful for that.
I understand too that depression requires perpetual care.
I was grieving losses, and I needed to embrace and express them. It is far from over.
The work of grief is continuous, it takes many forms but I am certain it never fully ends. Sadly that is the same as depression. We battle on if we can. Those of us who are lucky live to face another battle.
Depression is a mighty foe.
Let us take care of one another. We all deserve perpetual care.
Photographs: John Martin
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