In college, my fellow English majors and I used to joke about how all the great writers and poets had something wrong with them. They all had some form of depression, anxiety, neurosis, or addiction. They all had tragic backgrounds or died in tragic circumstances. (Edgar Allan Poe and Sylvia Plath come to mind as examples.)
We joked about it because it made us feel better. If so-and-so could use their mental and emotional turmoil to write beautiful poetry or haunting stories (or both), then we had a shot at a successful life. We could rise above whatever issues we had or painful childhoods we only just barely survived. And, it made us feel like we had something in common with the people we studied. We could read about Shelley’s opium use and nod with understanding, sympathizing with the idea that life could be so difficult, so dark, that, sometimes, you needed an escape.
I never resorted to drug use myself. Books were my opium. Who needs to face cocaine-addicted parents, cruel high school students, or the mysterious ups and downs of my emotions when I could pick up a copy of The Blue Sword? It was easier to be someone else than to be myself. It was easier to delve into a fantasy world than to face reality, which is so, so much colder and starker. There is beauty in the leafless tree against an iron-grey sky, but there is little beauty in a life without hope.
But nothing ever seemed to work. Religion gave me strength. Friends and a day job forced me out of bed in the morning. When I fell in love, my beloved became reason enough to try to carry on. I couldn’t bring him sorrow by giving up. However, nothing seemed to ‘cure’ me. I wasn’t so much living as I was existing between bright moments of joy.
After my aunt died, leaving only one living maternal relative, something within me shattered. I began to experience anxiety like never before. Every day activities outside our home terrified me. More than once, I had to leave work early, or call out altogether, because I couldn’t bear to be around people. I came to realize that my depression wasn’t as buried as I thought it was and was damaging all aspects of my life. Not even those bright moments of joy were enough anymore to carry me through the periods of grey.
My husband was worried about me and persuaded me to see a psychologist. That psychologist, after a couple of months, persuaded me to get a family doctor, so I could be put on antidepressants. I never wanted to get on medication. Those same friends in college sometimes got on antidepressants and it only ever seemed to make things worse for them. I have one particular horror story (which I’m not willing to share) that made me look at a bottle of Zoloft like it was a dybbuk box.
However, I was persuaded and the most extraordinary thing happened… The grey slowly began to lift. I began to develop the ability to tell the difference between reality and my perception of it. I finally wanted to leave the house and do something. I breathed in air and could smell it. I ate food and tasted it. I opened my eyes and actually looked around. Those pills, those sessions with my therapist, weren’t a magical cure, but they gave me enough room to breathe so that I could begin to take care of myself and enjoy the world around me.
Our yard was in a pretty bad state. My husband mowed it but, for the most part, nothing was tended. There are several rose bushes and all of them were in need of pruning and care. Beforehand, I didn’t give two farthings if they all died the next day. But now that I was actually getting help, was actually doing something about my problems rather than just trying to survive them, I started to care about those roses. I started to care about the state of the yard.
This may not sound like a lot to you, but it was a revolution for me. It would be a revolution for anyone who has suffered depression for the majority of their life. I wanted to go outside, into the light, and help something grow. I was filled with life and wished to bring life to something else. I began to work the earth like my parents did before despair and addictions pulled them under and something within me was worked as well. A deep part of me came to be soothed by something as simple as tending roses.
Though I have spent way more money on our rose garden than is probably prudent, my husband has encouraged me through it all. He loves seeing me outside and doing something. He loves seeing me have joy in something. Maybe he saw something in me, a potential, those five years ago when we first met, and now that something is finally opening up, like a rose turning its face to the sun.