Hope and Faith in Times of Sadness

Hope and Faith in Times of Sadness

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

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.

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