Hope and Faith in Times of Sadness

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

Posted in , Mar 6, 2014

Elizabeth Sherrill leans in to smooch her husband, John.

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.

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.

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.

My father’s work as a private detective sometimes took him overseas. The case he was working on in January 1929 meant a lengthy stay in Paris, a long-awaited chance to take Mother with him. Her parents agreed to come north from Florida to care for me–an ideal arrangement for all concerned.

“Except,” Dr. Kazan pointed out, “for the ten-month-old that was you.”

My parents simply disappeared one day and never, as far as I knew, were coming back. “Four months later, when they returned, they would have been strangers. Emotionally, you lost your parents as surely as if they had died in a car crash.” Worse, for me, he believed, since the “loss” went unrecognized.

Would this small episode really be enough, I wondered, to account for lifelong feelings of insufficiency?

I think of people I know who suffered actual trauma early in life–whose parents really did die, or who were abused, neglected, abandoned–yet emerged as self-confident adults fully in charge of their lives. Could parents’ absence for a few months really cast such a long shadow?

Dr. Kazan, at any rate, believed it could. “Babies are self-centered little creatures. To a baby, if the mother goes away, it’s his fault. The message to the psyche is, ‘I’m no good.’”

I’m no good. How many of us–for reasons as apparently slight as mine–tell ourselves this lie in childhood! And having told it, we latch on to every negative that comes along as proof.

In Paris, my mother had become pregnant again. Desperately seasick all the return trip, she could barely stand by the time the ship docked in New York.

Her parents had brought me to the pier to meet the ship. While she was gone I’d not only started to walk, but as Mother recalled, was running up and down the dock, grandparents in pursuit.

“I looked over the railing and saw you,” she told me years later, “and I just groaned at the idea of running after you.” I understood that groan; at the time of this conversation I was chasing my own toddler. And I understood a little more about the melancholy that envelops some of us in childhood.

We’re the ones who are quick to interpret every parental groan, with its cause in an adult world we know nothing about, as dissatisfaction with us. My brother, for instance, was born in November 1929, the month right after the stock market crashed.

To my not-yet-two-year-old mind, my parents’ distress–actually over financial hardship–was my fault, the new baby a better replacement.

Children handle a low self-image in different ways. Mine was to withdraw behind an imaginary door, retreating into books and solitude. Later, my choice of writing as a profession enabled me at least part of the day to close a literal door on the world.

Our various coping mechanisms keep us going, often for many years, till too many ingredients of depression–chemistry, personal history, outside pressures–occur together. For me the crisis in 1955 was part hormonal, part grief over my father’s recent death, part old feelings of worthlessness.

And a crisis, when it shows us our need for help, can be good news.

It had sent me to Dr. Kazan. By the time my daughter was born, in February 1956, he had found medication that allowed me to venture beyond the house. It was a shaky equilibrium at first, and the place of greatest threat was the supermarket. Simply stepping inside, I’d feel the panic rise.

So many choices! In the indecision which marks depression, I would pause and consider, walk on and return, grab something, put it back, select something else. 

When the pounding of my heart grew too strong I would lift the baby from the shopping cart, seize the two-year-old by the hand and flee to the closed-in safety of the car. Beside me on the seat, my little boy would regard me solemnly. “We forgot the food again, Mommy.”

Dr. Kazan made a common-sense suggestion that at least kept us from starving: “Find a small grocery store.” I developed a repertoire of such strategies to get me through routine tasks.

Unable to confront the blank page on the first draft of a new story, I took to writing between the typed lines of previous work. I ran errands when the fewest people were about. I was functioning again, but it was hardly living.

Psychiatry had explained some of the why of my depression–removed some of the frightening mystery–but further help was obviously needed.

Others, I knew, found strength in God. Religion had played no role at all in my childhood home; now for the first time in my life I began to read the Bible. A new world opened before me! A loving God, visions of strength and joy beyond my wildest hopes.

And then I discovered the part in this new world that would be required of me.

This is my commandment, read the words printed in red ink, that you love one another.

For some people such a command poses no problem. I’m married to one of them. I’ll leave our table at a restaurant in some town where we’ve never been, be gone five minutes, and come back to find another chair pulled up, John and a “really interesting guy” in rapt conversation.

But what if, like me, your instinct is not to pull up a chair, but to close a door?

It was to a spiritual helper named Joe Bishop that I turned this time. To Joe I confessed my lifelong pattern of pulling away from people.

“When I take a break from writing,” I told him, “I’ll head off on my own. Drive to a bird sanctuary. Go to a museum. Don’t ask anyone else along, just do my own selfish thing.”

What puzzled me, I went on, was that I had friends I enjoyed doing things with. Why did I need to be by myself when I could have a good time with others and give them pleasure too? “I’ve tried to change, but I can’t seem to.”

“And why,” asked Joe, “do you want to change? Do you think when God created you, he meant to make someone else?”

I had been the editor on Joe’s writing projects for years, he reminded me. “I saw long ago that solitude is as necessary for you as food and drink. Why not thank God for feeding you in this way?”

Then, the closed door that I’d struggled against all my life was–acceptable?

Not only acceptable, Joe went on, but God-given. “Perhaps God made you someone who enjoys being alone because he wanted you to be a writer.” My impulse to hide–“it’s led you to help other people tell their stories.” I was, Joe insisted, a profound lover of people, “in your way, not John’s.”

Me? Whose self-image was that of a distant, standoffish person–I cared deeply for others? It was one of those heaven-tinged moments when in the mirror of someone else’s eyes we catch sight of a better self than we knew.

Joe’s portrait of me, I suspect, was largely a projection of his own deeply caring nature. But perhaps that too was an insight into this God I was meeting in the Bible! Perhaps, like Joe, God saw us not in terms of our character, but his.

As I left Joe’s study that day, I knew I was holding a key that would let me more and more often unlock that door. The key is acceptance of myself as I am, not as I wish I were. Not as I might someday become. Not in comparison to anyone else.

I can accept myself–delight in myself–because, the Bible tells me, God made me for himself, and can use all the particulars of my history for good. The very things I like least about myself, indeed, may be those he values most.

It was the beginning of true healing, not the completion. There’s no quick fix, I’ve discovered, for the disease of depression. Though the down cycles are less severe and come less often today, that self-destructive voice still whispers its accusations.

Like all of us who have struggled over the years with a poor self-image, I need to hear the message of self-acceptance again and again.

I wasn’t expecting to hear it that Sunday in London as I headed toward Westminster Abbey. I took a notebook along with me; during the sermon on sin I planned to make a list of the changes in myself I needed to make.

And this is what I heard: “To love myself just as I am,” said Dr. Wright, “is to accept God’s evaluation instead of my own. I am right now as loved and worthy of esteem as I ever shall be, already infinitely loved and respected.”

Sin the minister defined as “the condition of not knowing this.” Repentance, he continued, comes when “we weep for the sin of ever having thought of ourselves as unloved, for not having loved ourselves as we are.”

There in that high-arched nave I did weep. In the notebook that I had brought along to list my shortcomings, I wrote instead, You are infinitely loved this very minute! When that little voice next whispers to me that I’m no good, that sentence will remind me that God is of another opinion.

Read Elizabeth Sherrill's response to a query from a reader about her fight against depression.

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