It’s six o’clock on Thursday night. A work meeting ran late, and I’m just now getting home. The house is dark and smells faintly of lime and vanilla, the remnant scents of last night’s dinner of Pad Thai lit by candles and friends. The house is a little cold, chilled by fall and the time change, but still feels cozy.
My little place. With all of my things.
I begin turning on lamps and the Tallulah stirs a bit in her crate, but doesn’t make a sound. She is confident in the routine, knows she will soon be freed for a romp in the back yard along with her big sister.
This time of year is both the best and the worst for me.
Sweater weather. Boots…BOOTS! Cowboy and riding! Hunting and hiking! Leggings and thick soft cotton tights, and yes, even flannel. I will soon dust off one of the greatest inventions of this or any century: my electric blanket. It will warm my soft bed against the increasing chilliness and be topped with high thread count cotton sheets, a decadence introduced to me by the Yankee Clipper. (Being a heads-up girl, you can bet I thought to make off with several of the better sets).
But fall is also the dark time.
I flirted with my sanity one chilly fall when I was twenty-eight.
I am reminded of this every year, every single year, when the darkness descends, reminded of the shadow that fell over me then that, for a while, I thought might not lift. I remember how it began, first washing over me in waves that would, after a time, retreat. I thought I could withstand it; thought I would win the battle, outlast it. Thought I could have a good cry and be done with it.
Pretty soon I was having that good cry every day. Then twice a day.
And then I was engulfed. Utterly. I almost could not breathe for the heaviness in my chest, the constant lump in my throat. The sadness never ended. It was everywhere. It came from a well so deep and vast that I could not express it or cry it out, or deal with it. It paralyzed me, blocked out the sun. I could not work, could not take care of my boy. Could not. Stop. Crying.
“You are depressed, Suzanne,” my Mother told me.
This is not COULD NOT be depression. I am failing. I am simply failing to control myself, failing to go to work, failing my child, failing myself. I am a failure.
“You need a doctor,” she told me.
And although she sat near me, her voice came to me from a distance, passed through a channel, and then, finally, into the grieving chaos that had overtaken my brain.
Doctors can’t fix this. Doctors can’t fix failure. Why can’t I stop this??? What can a doctor possibly do to fix….this…NIGHTMARE? I need to fix it, me. Only I can fix this. I need to do something.
I could only cry. That and apologize.
“I am SO sorry,” I would choke out. Over and over.
Another arrow would shoot into the darkness,
“You are going to get through this. You are going to be okay. This happens to people all of the time.”
This…THIS happens to people all of the time? Jesus Christ, how do they stand it? And, no, I am not going to be okay This? This right here? IS SO NOT OKAY. I am not going to be okay. I AM NOT OKAY.
I would stare at my mother, hiccupping sobs, in total disbelief. She totally and completely, looked like she believed it. She seemed even confident about this. She looked, for all the world, like she thought I was going to be okay.
This made me cry harder and feel sad for her.
“I am sooo sorry.”
I stopped eating. Everything, every single thing I put in my mouth tasted exactly the same. Like I imagined cardboard or dust would taste. It was too much effort, anyway, the chewing of food. So I stopped doing it. What I could taste was metal. After a while, I could taste metal all the time. It was as if a penny had melted in my mouth. It was the taste of fear, I think. I lost twenty pounds in a few weeks. When I did fall into a short, fitful sleep, I would wake with wet cheeks. I was crying in my sleep.
“I’ve made you a doctor’s appointment. With an Indian psychiatrist,” my Mother told me, “When I worked at the college all the Indian professors were the smartest and most sensitive. This particular doctor specializes in something else, but I’ve convinced him he must see you. He didn’t want to.”
Even in the state I was in, I knew I did NOT want to imagine that conversation. Poor Mr. Indian doctor. Never had a chance.
(Sob, hiccup. Helpless unknown Indian doctor….sooooob).
I soon found my blubbering, emaciated self deposited by my supremely confident mother at the office of Dr. S. I will never forget walking into his office.
He stood . Offered me his hand.
“Hello, Miss Clinton.”
I put my hand in his, burst into fresh sobbing.
As if from nowhere, he produced a box of tissues (Kleenex brand, in a taupe and white box) and indicated I should sit. I sniffled exhaustedly.
“And why are you here, Miss Clinton?“ Dr. S. asked calmly.
“Be…be (hiccup) because you’re Indian,” I choked out between sobs.
He blinked a few times at this. Said nothing.
“My…my mother thinks Indians are the bes…best doc…doctors,” I explained.
He blinked more rapidly.
Eventually, after some questioning, he would determine, yes, I was indeed depressed. I needed some sleep. I needed an anti-depressant. These were the days when Prozac was new and it wasn’t prescribed in my case. Dr. S. wrote for something else and told me,
“Go to the candy section of the drug store and buy a sack of lemon drops. Do you know what lemon drops are? These pills will make your mouth dry.”
I nodded. Lemon drops? Okay. If he’d said stand on one foot in the parking lot and recite the Lord’s Prayer I would have done it.
How will this help? How will pills help failure? Pills are for physical pain or antibiotics or for taking when one has to stay up all night. There are no pills for…this. For failure.
“You need a break from your sadness so you can get well,” Dr. S explained.
I didn’t believe him. Didn’t believe pills could stop sadness. Didn’t believe there was any fixing me.
“Why am I so sad?” I asked.
He shrugged, “We’ll worry about that later. Right now you need rest. Need to be able to function.”
I filled the prescriptions. Bought the lemon drops. At least they helped with the metallic taste.
I began staying with my Mother. She saw that my son got off to school, folded our laundry, sat up with me and told stories. I don’t remember them now, I only remember that she told them and, for brief, very brief periods, they distracted me just a little from the brainstorm of sadness. I do remember the theme of the stories: triumph over adversity. Survival.
Dr. S. had said it would take a few weeks for the prescription to take hold, for the chemical to hit my synapses. I waited. Tried to believe I would get better. I didn’t believe it.
I spent a great deal of time sitting cross-legged in a chair before the TV lighting one Marlboro Lite after another watching poor Anita Hill tell the truth about Clarence Thomas. I began to equate Anita’s suffering with my own, only she was far braver than me. Anita was facing down the entire US Senate on national television. And I could no longer leave the house; bear the scrutiny of a single stranger on the street.
“This will pass, Suzanne. I’m TELLING YOU. It. Will. Pass,”
My mother continued to believe this, continued to assure me. She would place a soft hand on my bony knee, look me straight in the face, in the eyes, and say it. Over and over. At least once a day. More, usually.
And then, one day, miraculously, the prescription did begin to take hold.
It wasn’t a perfect fix, and there were some hellacious side effects, but slowly, slowly, things began to change.
First, I began sleeping regularly. Somehow, through the magic of chemistry, this drug caused me to go to sleep at around 9PM. Mornings, I would wake, as if an invisible hand tapped me on the shoulder, at 6:00 a.m. I’d immediately reach for my cigarettes as the sadness would again settle over me like a shroud. Except now I’d had a full night’s sleep, hours and hours without crying or suffering. My mother, upon hearing me begin to stir, would often come in the room, sit with me in silence as the sun rose and the heaviness descended. She would face it with me, an arm around my shoulders.
Gradually, and only occasionally at first, I began being able to focus on other things. Things other than the sadness. Began to be able to ponder my life, how it had suddenly stopped, realize it needed to begin again. Now. That I needed to take control of it. ME in control. NOT the sadness. These periods of clarity and focus began exponentially to increase in time and intensity. And in fairly short order.
I got off my ass.
I was a shadow of myself; a thin, colorless mechanical version of me. But I was functioning.
I began to think of and refer to this new state as “being a good little soldier”. Early to bed and early to rise, Benjamin Franklin (very, very unlike the regular me). Able to focus on only the task at hand (I’ve since decided this is what it must be like to be a man. Very simple.) and nothing more, nothing less. No mental gymnastics, no hamster in my brain spinning frantically round and round. Without the usual ten thousand other thoughts, impressions, conversations, memories, inspirations, worries, floating in and out in there along with the grocery list and the awareness of when the car payment is due and snatches of song lyrics and bits of sentences, etc. etc.
Just plain old what am I doing RIGHT NOW.
I resumed the care and supervision of my son, went back to work. For the most part, I took the reins of my life, the ones that my Mother had held for me when I could not, back into my own hands. I saw Dr. S. once a week. My meetings with him were no more than perfunctory check-ins--nor had they ever been, really--with him assessing that I was functioning, taking my meds properly and continuing to recover.
One day, Dr. S. asked me if I remembered my first meeting with him and I told him that I’d never forget it. He said, “I remember you sat in that chair,” he gestured toward a chair on the opposite side of the room, “and now you only sit in this chair,” he indicated the chair in which I now habitually sat.
“Obviously, that’s the sick chair,” I concluded his observation for him.
He smiled, nodded.
I smiled my shadow smile, a quick conscious stretching of my mouth.
I looked like me, I sounded like me, I was eating so I had hips again, but the medicine, miracle that it had been in the beginning, made functioning possible but in equal parts, it robbed my ability to be in touch with my feelings, my real self. I began to miss my spinning hamster. Realized that was who I am, after all. It was as if a thick protective glass wall had sprung up around me. I could see and hear everything, but it was dulled, muted, distant. Just as the shadow me was dulled and muted. I was in my life, but not part of it. Not fully.
Suddenly, I wanted it back. Knew, without a doubt, I had to take it back.
“I’m ready to stop the meds,” I told Dr. S. one winter day.
“Absolutely not,” Dr. S., startled, responded uncharacteristically quickly, “You must not stop taking the medicine. Do you understand? Do not stop,” he stared at me, for the first time ever, sternly.
“I understand I must wean off. I’m telling you I’m ready to do that,” I shot back, stealing a furtive glance at the sick chair.
“You’re not ready,” he stated emphatically, “You will relapse. All my experience tells me you will relapse if you stop now.”
“I won’t relapse,” I answered.
We stared at each other.
I took a breath,
“I am going to begin weaning myself off. Today. Now. With or without your help.”
“Do you understand this action is against my counsel and advice as your physician?”
“I do understand,” I answered.
And so we began the process: me with a sense of urgency, he with unconcealed skepticism. Within a few months, I was back to myself again. I was a little scared, shaken, somewhat uncertain, but I was a mother, a friend, a daughter. My hamster had climbed back on the wheel. I was me again.
Once I was drug free, Dr. S wanted to begin the process of psychoanalysis. Therapy.
“We need to get to the bottom of this now, “ he told me, “You are ready.”
He had a point. I knew he was recommending what he thought best for me. But I was back to myself and something had shifted within me. Something important. My inner voice told me I was done with the sadness, at least to that extreme degree. Told me I was done with the sick chair, whispered the truth to me:
This experience is over for you. Distance yourself from it. Live your life. Move on. Be strong.
I shook Dr. S’s hand. Thanked him. Walked out the door and into the rest of my life.
I was twenty-eight years old. I was pretty darn sure I knew what I was doing, but it was still a little scary to face down the doctor that medicated me out of the madness and assert my instinct over his much greater training and experience.
In the end the entire incident, start to finish, was six months long. The period when I was completely incapacitated was probably around three weeks or a month, and the rest of that time was spent recovering on the meds. My break was short, very short in the scheme of things, but intense, enough so that I’ve since separated my life in terms of “before” and “after” the experience.
The first fall after all that, my twenty-ninth fall, would hit with a vengeance. The darkness, the chill, it all screamed a bleak reminder of the events of the previous year; re-awakened the fear in the pit of my stomach. I steeled myself against it. Stared it down. Walked through it. Remembered how lucky I’d been to have someone there that other dark fall exactly when and how I needed them. Someone in the gap, that time when things could have gone either way, doing exactly the right thing when I absolutely could not.
A mother smart enough to recognize my depression for what it was, manage my life and my child when I could not, get me to the right doctor (Indian, of course), believe with every fiber of her being that I would be okay and tell me so, in no uncertain terms, Every. Single. Day. Did she, on some level, believe me into recovery? I didn’t know. But I was grateful, so grateful that first fall that I was still whole, still okay, still in the light and not lost down some dark rabbit hole never to emerge again. I knew for certain, and with frightening clarity then, how very close I’d come. And I knew there was only one reason I hadn’t been lost: my mother.
I was overwhelmed with gratitude my twenty-ninth fall.
Eighteen falls have passed since then. And during each and every one of them, when the leaves change and the air turns crisp, without fail, I still at some point always, always pause and remember. I send out a little prayer of gratitude to the universe for what my mother did for me in the dark fall of my twenty-eighth year. It is what I am doing right now, tonight, this Thursday night, in my cozy little place. With all of my things.
I sat down tonight to write a short blog post about fall and contentment. And then my typing fingers finally realized I’ve never thanked my mother, out loud, like I’ve thanked her in silence every single fall for the last eighteen years.
Thank you, Mama. You saved my life.