It’s coming on Christmas,
They’re cutting down trees.
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace,
Oh, I wish I had a river I could skate away on.
Almost two years ago, on December 21, 2012, my younger sister and I were Christmas shopping. You can imagine, given that it was four days before Christmas, the din at the mall. Are you familiar with the particular pitch which can only be reached by little girls when there is an American Girl store nearby? Y’know, the one that makes the baby Jesus cry? As we made our way through the crowds I got a call on my cell from our older sister Aimee. I knew I wouldn’t be able to hear her, so I sent it to voicemail. She called once more as I was wrangling the bags into the house.
Inside, the home phone rang. I answered, laughing. I was just about to call you! I heard Aimee gasping for breath. Then she said, Tony killed himself.
Wait. WHAT? I said. She began sobbing.
Wait. Wait. Wait.
I couldn’t absorb it. I didn’t have any framework that supported this being true. I’d spoken to my brother in law just the week before. He sounded fine. People who are fine do not kill themselves, do they? I mean, they were planning to move up to Seattle to be near us. People planning suicide don’t make OTHER plans, do they?
I went into emergency mode. I spoke with the officer on the scene and the crisis counselor. I made calls. The only time I lost it was on the phone with the airline. My brother in law just committed suicide and I need to get to my sister. You need to FUCKING HELP ME! I slept with my phone, talking to Aimee throughout the night. I tried to integrate the FACT of it. I’m her sister. We talked every day. I would know if things were bad, right? Except I, of all people, knew that was fundamentally untrue.
My divorce had become final a few months earlier. For a long time, I’d had challenges in my marriage, and had confided in no one- not even my sisters. My ex-husband struggled for years with anxiety and depression. As much as I wanted and needed us not to be alone in it, I couldn’t bring myself to tell the people who could have helped, who could have supported us as a family. I was respecting his privacy. That’s what I told myself – but no one was well served by my not revealing what we were going through.
My ex-husband is a brilliant, funny guy with charm for days. When we were out with other people he had that kind of gravitational pull- he was the planet and we were all just moons. He was energetic, ambitious and highly successful. If you asked anyone who knew him at the time who was the last person they would think of as depressed, he’s likely the person they’d have named.
I think depression often doesn’t look the way we think it will, particularly in men.
About a year before my divorce, I finally had an honest conversation with Aimee about what I’d been going through. Looking back, I think of what that must have been like for her. What I was saying must have sounded so familiar- I know now that there were so many similarities to her experience with Tony. Hearing it must have seemed like an invitation and a threat entwined together. The thought of speaking her truth out loud probably filled her with dread. It’s a bell you can’t un-ring. The first time I spoke about it, I felt incredibly disloyal. I still struggle with that, to be honest. I had my ex-husband read this before I published it- because I am keenly aware this is not just my story- and he gave me his blessing. We have both learned the peril of shame and the silence it requires to exist.
When my brother in law died, I had my sister make me a list of people to call. She gave me twenty-seven names. Of those twenty-seven people I called, only one had any idea Tony ever struggled with depression. One. These were people who would have said they knew him well. You guys, that expression, leading lives of quiet desperation, is a REAL THING.
I brought my sister home with me on Christmas Eve. I had a conversation with my ex-husband. I told him no matter what, I would always love him and be here for him. I said if he felt he was headed toward that sort of despair again to come to me and I would help. Always.
Tony’s death scared him too. He was already getting help, which was a hard and brave thing to do- and something for which I am extremely grateful. I think it prompted him to try and be more open about his experience. I think that part of it is so much more difficult for men. The way women communicate with one another is a gift, you know.
We talked to our son about it. He told us he’d struggled with depression in high school. Hearing my son, who is my heart and soul, tell me he was in such terrible pain and I didn’t know about it, was crushing. Looking back, he didn’t seem to care much about anything- which drove me bananas, but also seemed kind of normal. The truth is, he couldn’t care about anything. He felt so removed, so numb- he was observing life, not living it. Sort of, Oh, that happened. And, I should be happy about that. I guess I’ll turn up the corners of my mouth, and look happy about that. But feeling nothing.
That’s the thing about depression. It’s a dark, heavy coat and not everyone wears it the same way. I think there are more people struggling with it than we realize. We look at people’s lives from the outside, and decide who and what they are. And we, as a society, have DECIDED that mental illness is different. That it is a weakness or a character flaw. I never noticed how much people joke about suicide until Tony died. Take one of those jokes and replace suicide with the word cancer. Still funny? No wonder so many people try and wrestle with it on their own.
My brother in law Tony was a smart, talented man. He had a wonderful wife and a family who loved him. He was a beautiful writer, he loved animals and had a wicked sense of humor. He lost his battle with depression the same way someone loses a battle with cancer. He had a disease that for a variety of reasons went untreated and it ultimately proved to be terminal. His cause of death is listed as suicide. That’s almost right. He died of depression.
The holidays have always been my favorite time of year. So many things that are integral to the person I am are wrapped up in the holiday season. Family. Faith. Music. Ritual. Cooking. Twinkle lights. Wonder. Will Ferrell in tights. I love it so much.
The past few years have given me a different perspective.
This time of year- with its emphasis on joy and hope, togetherness and gratitude- can be agonizing. If you are in a dark place, the pressure to feel what everyone else is seemingly feeling must be overwhelming. It must make the deep, dark hole even deeper and darker. If you are sitting in front of a screen in that bleak place, convinced that everyone else is happy? That you are alone in your despair? My God. Facebook must be a minefield of epic proportions.
I imagine you would feel forsaken. Like the whole world is celebrating, and you are the ONLY ONE who can’t.
Here is what I know. Depression is a beast and a liar. It is a systemic, chronic, family disease. You cannot happy talk your way out of it. It’s not a bad mood. Sad and depressed are not the same thing. Depression is a dark and slippery cliff, and the closer you get to the edge, the less likely you are to realize it.
If you are in a relationship, any relationship, with someone who is seriously depressed and you are helping to hold the mask in place, you are not respecting privacy. You are keeping secrets. Privacy and secrecy are not the same things. Secrets are malignant and they metastasize, and not just within the person whose secrets are being kept.
And if you are reading this and battling depression, if you are in that shadowy and hopeless place, please, PLEASE know that you are not alone. There is help to be had, so please reach out for it. The first step is the hardest. Speak your truth. Talk to a friend, a family member, a pastor, a counselor, a doctor. Tell SOMEONE. If you don’t have someone in your life you feel like you can tell, call one of the numbers listed below.
It can get better. It can. You are loved, friend.
The world is better with you in it, I promise.
For those beloveds battling depression:
National Alliance on Mental Health
Suicide Prevention Hotline
Alliance of Hope