This I Believe

Ellen - Laguna Beach, California
Entered on September 13, 2006
Age Group: 30 - 50


In my sixteenth year

I shrieked silent as a dog whistle

behind a slammed door

for someone who was

not me.

I woke up

at the bottom of a well

every morning

tired, too tired to crawl out.

And my head was always splitting

in all directions

God I had no

hope at all, but cryptic journals

notebooks I kept just in reach

to little by little

decipher it all.

I wrote this poem at age 18, reflecting on a cycle of depression I would come to know. At 16, just becoming self-aware, I believed this was how adolescence was supposed to feel. Because I didn’t recognize the difference between normal teenage angst and deep, irrational sadness, I hid my feelings behind a barrier that made me seem just like my friends and classmates.

At high school, I was game for anything self destructive. Like many depressed people, I was fascinated by mental illness and spent study halls reading books like Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar and Joanne Greenberg’s I Never Promised You a Rose Garden. At home, I closed myself in my room, letting the acid drone of Pink Floyd’s album, The Dark Side of the Moon, wash over me. As the song lyrics said, the lunatic was in my head. My parents were too scared to pay attention to the clues: poor grades, missed curfews, withdrawal, combativeness. I was their first born. Maybe they thought this was how adolescents were supposed to behave.

Remembering this time, I don’t know if it lasted months or years. Although my depression-inspired rebelliousness persisted on and off through high school, the curtain of sadness eventually began to lift. Somehow, I survived my adolescence and moved past the darkness into a period of light and joy: college, graduate school, a career, marriage, children, a loving relationship with my parents.

And then it hit again. I was 36 and the mother of two small children. One day, when I was commuting to work, the world suddenly looked different. I observed the people around me and thought how useless their lives seemed, and how insignificant mine was. At home, the simplest complications could start my day spiraling—I might yell at a salesclerk over a billing error or burst into tears if my three-year-old spilled her juice. In the car, I would take out my aggression by tailgating slow drivers or speeding up instead of letting someone pass. I imagined friends, family and colleagues were out to get me. The darkest moment came when I finally went to the doctor for help and the clerk mislabeled my prescription with someone else’s name. I yelled at her as I had screamed at my parents twenty years before.

And yet, a decade later I am rational again, the darkness in my life balanced by antidepressants. I still don’t understand completely where the darkness comes from. I don’t know if it will return. I’ve read the latest books on depression, which explain its environmental, biological and genetic roots. I know now that my favorite grandpa, a Harvard-educated lawyer and one-time candidate for the Ohio senate, was manic depressive. This explains the unpredictable behavior that amused me as a child. (Like the time he ignored my grandma’s request to buy milk at the store and returned instead with a grocery bag full of candy he’d let us choose ourselves.) It also explains why in his retirement he set himself the grandiose task of rewriting the entire Old Testament. Years later, after he was institutionalized, he remained my favorite. I loved my grandpa in spite of the darkness, as I have learned to love myself. That is why I am still here to tell this story. In self acceptance I have found the light.