When I was young, I lived in my head. I read stories and wrote myself into them. I was Fiver’s confidante in Watership Down. I walked with Julie of the Wolves through the frozen tundra.
As I became older, my worlds expanded: I was an orphaned empath in Star Trek.
I was friends with John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I spent hours in those worlds, creating witty dialogue and orchestrating intense moments where I battled evil or saved a friend. I looked forward to nighttime when I could lie in bed, building on yesterday’s scenes, escaping into one of my secret worlds.
In my twenties I decided these worlds were a childhood habit I should leave behind. But I found there were fantasies that stayed with me, similar in some ways to the ones I enjoyed as a child, but scarier. I would find myself imagining scenarios where I was attacked, or raped.
Sometimes I would imagine one of my parents tragically dying and experience terrible grief. When I was babysitting, I would picture a car striking the child, forcing me to desperately perform CPR even though it was too late. The thoughts were brief, but so intense that my heart would race, my breath catch. One moment I was fine, and the next I was panicked, trying to bring my thoughts back to the present.
Later I learned these thoughts were part of the depression. Psychiatrists call them psychotic depression, or delusional depression, but those terms can be misleading. I never lost touch with reality. I didn’t think those things were really happening. But my body reacted as if they were.
The centering tools I’ve learned are helpful when this happens, teaching my body that it’s possible to respond to intense thoughts not with fight or flight, but calmness. Deep breaths. The things I’m imagining may happen, but they are not happening right now.
Still, there’s a reality behind these waking nightmares. Terrible things do happen. My parents will die one day, and I will likely be alive to grieve them. When I was a child, my parents told me the bad things I feared wouldn’t happen, but now I know that’s not true.
Every day children lose their parents to death or abandonment. It’s not delusional to be aware that somewhere in the world children are shot by the police because of the color of their skin, or taken away from their parents because of a country’s horrific refugee policy.
Madeleine L’Engle said, “We can surely no longer pretend that our children are growing up into a peaceful, secure, and civilized world. We’ve come to the point where it’s irresponsible to try to protect them from the irrational world they will have to live in when they grow up.”
We tell our children there are no monsters and that they are safe, but there are monsters, and we know it. What we really mean is that the monsters will likely pick some other place to wreak havoc today. We mean we are safe-ish, for now, and the only way to stay sane is to live in denial about the -ish. Some of us are just bad at the denial. If I were in charge, I would call it non-delusional depression. I’d call it paying attention.
But we do have to live our lives, and depression makes it very hard to keep putting one foot in front of the other. Just being aware of all the pain in your own life, in your friends’ and family’s lives, and in the world tends to make you want to curl up into a ball and cry. And the problem with this, besides the fact that you are not really enjoying your one wild and precious life, is that you may actually be one of the people who can do something about someone else’s suffering.
Your awareness of it may not only be a mental illness, a bleak descriptor penned in your chart in the sharp, quick script of an over-scheduled psychiatrist. It may be a call to action. Because you have to be able to see the monsters in order to fight them. You have to be willing to admit that the Emperor has no clothes before you can try to clothe him.
But having your eyes open to the reality of evil in the world is only half of living in reality. You have to see something else, too. You have to see the beauty. You have to see the angels, the good, the God. Depression shows you your own pain and the pain of the world in stark reality, but it hides the very real beauty and tremendous love that also exist in you and all around you.
One summer afternoon, I was swimming at Walden Pond, having bundled myself out of bed, fighting depression’s despair and heaviness for a few hours. The quiet and solitude lulled me into my own thoughts. Suddenly, I realized my thoughts had left the blue-green swirl of water and sky and had wandered into anxious fantasy. What if I drowned here, I thought, and suddenly I was vividly imagining myself drowning.
My body responded—my heart beat faster, and my eyesight blurred into tunnel vision. It all happened so quickly, but once I recognized what was happening, I began my grounding work, forcing my thoughts back to my body and its surroundings. Where are you right now? I asked myself. What are you doing right now? Pay attention. Describe it. What do you know to be true?
I inhaled deeply, filling my lungs, and noticed that my body rose softly in the water with the buoyancy of that fresh air inside me. I observed that the sun was warm but the water cool. I saw that I shared my particular cove with a turtle that had poked its head out of the water in a little triangle.
Later I sat on my towel, feeling the breeze raise each of the tiny hairs on my arms. I walked down the beach and found a cairn rising out of the shallow water, a miracle of architecture, made of stones balanced on sand. I read a text from a friend asking for prayer, and I prayed for her and asked her to pray for me. Another friend checked in with a brief message. I was surrounded by love.
The monsters are real, but all of this is real, too. In L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time, Mrs. Whatsit shows the children a demonic Thing that is threatening the universe. It is huge and horrible and terrifying.
But then they see something else:
“Suddenly there was a great burst of light through the Darkness. The light spread out and where it touched the Darkness the Darkness disappeared. The light spread until the patch of Dark Thing had vanished, and there was only a gentle shining and through the shining came the stars, clear and pure.
Then, slowly, the shining dwindled until it, too, was gone, and there was nothing but stars and starlight. No shadows. No fear. Only the stars and the clear darkness of space, quite different from the fearful darkness of the Thing. . . .
‘It was a star,’ Mrs. Whatsit said sadly. ‘A star giving up its life in battle with the Thing.’”
The monsters are real, but the stars are real, too. There is great evil and sadness in the world, but there are also stars and the clear, good darkness of space. There are real acts of love and healing every day. My swim through the glacier-dug pond was one. My prayer for my friend as we texted each other that we were struggling was one, and so was hers for me. The act of building the cairn was one too. Any creative act is.
Maybe the maker of the cairn was a star. Maybe she was carrying the weight of the world’s grief, and shaped it into the best thing she could. Maybe she knew that the monsters were real because she had to fight one of the scariest ones just to make it out of the house to fling her art out against them, a star into the night.
The lies that depression tells are powerful because they begin with truth. As a monster itself, depression surrounds you with nothing but monsters while it blocks out the memory of love and hope. We have to keep paying attention, and keep looking for hope and beauty. The night may be long, but only in the darkness can we watch for falling stars, until the day that our own star, the sun, finds us again in the long-delayed dawn.
Each breath is an act of hope and a strike against the monsters. Breathe deep, and feel the buoyancy of your lungs holding you afloat.
Adapted from The Long Night: Readings and Stories to Help You through Depression, by Jessica Kantrowitz, copyright © 2020 Fortress Press. Reproduced by permission.