Hope and Faith in Times of Sadness

She had every reason to be happy. So why wasn’t she?

By Elizabeth Sherrill, Hingham, Massachusetts

As appeared in

It was 2000, Advent, my favorite time of year, and I was in London, one of my favorite places. The streets were hung with fragrant evergreen swags, the tall red bus crowded with holiday shoppers. And in a seat on the bus’s upper deck, I was struggling not to cry.

It was a familiar pattern, this sudden plunge for no reason into a bottomless sadness. What’s the matter with you? I scolded myself. Neurotic...ungrateful. I was calling myself all the old names when the bus passed Westminster Abbey.

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A posted schedule announced that the Rev. Robert Wright would be speaking on sin that Sunday. The subject suited my bleak mood exactly.

I’d had such attacks as long as I could remember, and they were always as unaccountable as this one. I can still hear my father’s cry of bafflement the one and only time I tried to tell him how I was feeling.

Not happy? With a loving family, good health, material comfort beyond anything he had dreamed of in his own childhood! He told me that as a boy he was sent each Saturday to the store, clutching the dime that was to buy Sunday’s meat for the family of nine.

“Don’t forget to ask the butcher,” his mother would remind him, “to throw in the liver for the cat.”

They didn’t have a cat.

How could a child who had been as fortunate as I fail to be happy? How could I, years later as a young wife and mother, be anything but content? When in 1953 I was diagnosed with clinical depression, my father was dumbfounded.

“You have no right to be sad! You have a husband who loves you, two beautiful kids, a nice home. And you can have a steak anytime you want one!”

It was all true. That’s the terror of depression, the dark mystery that distinguishes it from sorrow. Depression can throw its gray pall over us when the sun is brightest.

You can have a steak anytime you want one. The words have become shorthand for my husband, John, and me for all the things that ought to make a difference and don’t.

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Doctors–and I’ve gone to many–say the roots of depression are complex: a mix of chemical imbalance, accumulated stress and early experience. The specifics are different for each individual, but one ingredient is almost always present. Self-rejection.

It usually starts in childhood, this sense of somehow not measuring up. Though many of us react by becoming high achievers, the belittling voice inside continues its destructive work. For me, it had become immobilizing by 1955.

I was in my mid-twenties, with all the good things my father had listed, my writing beginning to sell, and a much-wanted third child on the way. Still, a paralyzing sense of failure drove me to a tiny room in the partly finished attic of our home in Mount Kisco, New York.

And there I lay, curled on a cot, the door locked on the world, while a succession of babysitters covered the hours that John was at work.

And it was at this lowest point, when my own thoughts were only of suicide, that I began to discover a world waiting to offer not blame, but help.

It was John who at first had to drive me to the sessions with a psychiatrist. Dr. Avraam Kazan gave a name to the shapeless sadness I’d carried from infancy. He called it grieving. And that was what it felt like–some ancient, inconsolable bereavement. But no one close to me had died.

“No one had died,” he agreed. “But as an infant, you didn’t know that.” The event we were discussing I knew about only from casual references by my parents to a European trip when I was a baby.

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Your Comments (7)

I have enjoyed your stories in the annual Guideposts books for years. My daughter gives me one each Christmas. I was never treated for depression until my dad passed in 1996, but have been on medication since that time. Your story made so much sense to me, things I've thought, could not share with others, things that seemed like such small concerns would snowball into such large fears to me. My depression doesn't keep me from doing daily activities but sure keeps me from enjoying them. I pray that reading your story about your depression will help me see a light at the end of the tunnel. i force myself to continue, but I make it really hard for my husband because I can't discuss it with him Maybe I will be able to now. Thank you again for sharing your story.

Dear Elizabeth, My mother sent me a copy of your story, which she was extremely excited for me to read. She told me she'd found the answer and reason for the depression I've suffered with all my life. She was right! While it won't cure the depression, it certainly helps to finally understand the real root cause, in a manner that makes so much sense. My father committed suicide a few months before I turned two and it makes so much sense that a child at that age would think that it was because of them. I've always been the over achiever when I wasn't in a deep depression, the same as you suffered at times. Thank you, so very much, for sharing your story!

Dear Elizabeth...I had a divine appointment with
your story tonight. I went to my weekly counsellor
appt Tues morn. Very depressed after sorting
through Mom & Dads picture albums. I've known
for years there are no baby pics of me. Born in
1950, second daughter, mommy had a nervous
breakdown! She shared with me from the time I
was small that Daddy had cheated on her and neglected
her! He took her to doctors and they gave her shock
Treatments and how horrible they were! My Dad had
Friends who were willing to take me for a while . Mommy
Made my Dad take her to ck on me after 2wks because she
thought they had put me in the oven for supper!
I was a small baby. I am a depressed woman who,
Right now is wondering what leftover stuff I have
actually carried around from going through this period
in my life. I see pics of her and daddy holding my sister
Who was born in 1948 and my bro who was born in 1952.
Happy pics! I was born on 1950. It's like they disappeared .
And me too, until I was 3. What input can you share ? Thanks

Thank you.

Thank you for sharing your story. About a year ago, at age 55, it was determined that I suffer from low self esteem. I assume it was brought on by being adopted and from being terribly shy as a child. I have always felt that I had to do 110% to be almost good enough. I have been working every day to quiet the destructive voice in my head and with God's help (and others) I am beginning to see that I too am a valuable person in God's Kingdom. I keep this verse with me always to remind that God loves me. 1 Corinthians 15:10 "By the grace of God I am what I am..." Thanks again for remind me, I'm not alone.

Thank you - I really needed to see this today.
When I was about 2, my mother had a miscarriage and then experienced severe depression, compounded by migraine. From what I know, she had already found me to be overactive and demanding, and certainly her health did not help matters. This story helps me see how this may have factored in to other concerns in my life.
We were never close, not at all, and I feel that gap again, even more, as my dad is now in final stages of dementia. An unexpected twist is that she is now moving in next door to me - I am anxious about how this will go.
My sister asked me how I felt about her becoming my new neighbor, and I said Maybe it will give her a chance to appreciate me.
Prayers, please, for my mother and I to find connection and forgiveness.

You are precious. Just be your self and show her love and kindness. Sounds simple, but love is a winner no matter what.