It's a gray December morning - the beginning of a long, slushy, gray winter here in the rustbelt, the beginning of the S.A.D. season. Soon my neighbor Marsha will start saying, "I've got to get one of those full-spectrum lamps!" She and I agree on that every winter, but neither of us does it because it's just too icky to go out. Then every Spring we forget. But if a door-to-door salesman came down our street tomorrow, selling those lamps at a reasonable price, he could clear out his inventory on our block alone. So if I'm a little down today, a little blah, there's nothing out of the ordinary in that. Except that, in my family, every brush with depression is like walking near a precipice; as my mother says, depression doesn't just run in our family, it gallops. Here's an incomplete list of the toll it has taken on us. My great great grandfather - a mostly white man who had tried to help the Eastern cherokee - died in an insane asylum speaking only Cherokee. My grandmother's sister hung herself after having the flu. Her brother committed suicide too, (they say he had a forbidden love for an Asian woman. Eeek!). My grandmother's husband, my mother's father, committed suicide by jumping out the window of his law office.
When I was little, my mother used to tell me, among many other stories, the stories of these people. They were all had comfortable lives, people who loved them, reasons to live. Most often, she would tell me about her beloved father, driven to insanity at the end of his life because he was terrified he was getting alzheimers. And she used to say things to me like, "If you ever get the flu and feel like doing something 'bad' to yourself, promise you'll call me first."
"OK mommy," I'd answer. "I'll call you," not exactly knowing what we were talking about.
My mother also says, "It's not that the depression is so bad. It's the cure we choose that's awful." By which she means, when the door to the unthinkable is opened, it never closes completely again. Knowing my grandfather walked out a sixth-floor window one day, gives any height a double fear for me: 1. I might fall accidentally 2. I might fall on purpose. Because of what he did, I always know that "cure" is an option. So, ten years ago, when my middle daughter was diagnosed with autism, I followed my kin toward the edge, and had a nervous break down. Even though I had a wonderful husband and two beloved daughters, a comfortable life, and many, many people who loved and needed me (not least of all, my disabled daughter). The diagnosis simply snapped the ropes that held me to those moorings, and I drifted away into full, nonfunctional, depression. I remember lying in bed, unable to move because I was pinned down by an unbearable weight. It was like lying at the bottom of a dead ocean; and it wasn't so much that I wanted to kill myself. It was more that I wanted to stop living. It sapped all the love out of me. and it just hurt so damn much for my lungs to breathe, for my heart to pump blood.
But unlike any of my kin, I broke down in the age of pharmaceuticals. My doctor prescribed Zoloft, and within two weeks I no longer wanted to stop existing. Within a month I was able to remember love, to get out of bed and care for my people. So I am still here. I take my low dose of "Vitamin Z" every morning, because my mother was right; the depression is not so bad, and a very little bit of extra serotonin makes it all manageable. Which is not to say it's entirely disappeared. There are gray days and gray times when I hear my ancestors whispering. But I'm not afraid, anymore, that they'll pull me over the edge. One little pill, and magically, no one in my generation has taken that final step off the ledge. i don't tell my children cautionary tales of flu and ropes and the dangers of high windows. I tell them that I take a pill, that if they need help, they can take pills. And i have hope that the sad list of wasted lives ends here, with me.