Finding Land

Charting a course out of depression

"Portrait of the Dying Self" by Jennifer Rabin

I was raised in the Jewish faith, which provides structured guidelines for the grieving process. If you follow them, if you grieve well, you will make it through. The formal mourning period lasts twelve months, after which it is time to move on, to get back to the world, to fully inhabit your life again. Ten months in, I couldn't even inhabit my house, still adrift in the waters of grief, clinging to the rudderless dinghy of my bed.

Days bled their contents into other days, weeks evaporated, months were spent trying to get back to or ahead of other months. Time was a blur, an abstract construct, something that taunted me because I wasn't getting better at the same speed that the numbers were ticking past.

During those months, the following were suggested to me:


  1. I should put up affirmations in places where I will see them-like the mirror!—so that even If I don't believe their messages—I am happy! I am whole! I am loved!—they will have a chance to slowly reprogram my subconscious.

  2. I should pay thousands of dollars to sit cross-legged with other shattered people at a retreat center founded by a new age guru.

  3. I should take a shaman-directed hallucinogenic trip so that Grandmother Spirit could tell me everything I needed to know and I could become fully self-actualized.

  4. And, my personal favorite: that I should just get over it.


I wanted to get over it. More badly than I have ever wanted anything. But I couldn't remember anything before the loss or imagine a future big enough to accommodate it.


Some say it is impossible to describe suicidal depression to a person who has never experienced it. The problem is not in the describing; it is in the understanding, which is not possible if one has not experienced it firsthand. Until I had, I could only compare it to my worst blue moods, moods that would compel me into bed for periods of days, during which I would feel awfully sorry for myself. Invariably, if I gave the humors what they wanted, which was reign over my body and mind, if I allowed them to make me feel, completely and fully, however it was they needed me to feel, they would pass. Before I'd experienced severe depression, I couldn't conceive of a sadness that could not be felt into oblivion.

Suicidal depression does not resolve, as melancholy does, by plunging headlong into it. The more you allow depression, the more it infects. And the boundary doesn't end with your own problems or self-judgment; it corrodes your perception of the world, a place that has become so terrible there is no incentive to return to it.

I am the daughter of two psychologists. They often talked shop around me when I was growing up, about suicide rates and risks, not unreasonable dinner conversation, considering. I remember hearing that women most often took pills or slit their wrists, and rarely succeeded in killing themselves. These were "cry for help" suicides. The men were by far more successful because they went with more violent means like blowing their heads off, which works almost every time. (There was one case in the literature of a man suffering from severe mental illness who shot himself in the head. He didn't die, but it cured his OCD.)

I wasn't interested in one of the "cry for help" deals. If I was going to go, I wasn't going to run it by someone first. I have heard it said that most people die as they have lived. In my sample group of one, I can also say that people plan their suicides as they have lived, which meant that even though I was too depressed to read a book or watch a movie, I was going to have the most well-researched, most thoughtful suicide of all time (the latter, I understand with my non-suicidal mind, is an oxymoron of epic proportions).

A gun seemed like the surest bet, except for a few concerns:

1. I didn't want my parents to see me without a head, so I would have to do it far out in the woods where some animal could eat me and no one would have to see my body. I could send a letter to my parents so they would know that I was gone and not to look for me and I would try to make the letter beautiful so that they would know that I loved them most of all and that this was not their fault and that my wish was that they would go on to be happy and not let this ruin their lives.

There's a subsection to this part,

1a. which is that I heard there's a problem with vultures dying of lead poisoning from eating the carrion that hunters leave behind with bullets still in them. So I would have to find non-lead bullets. Also,

2. As a believer in nonviolence, this seemed like a very violent, perhaps the most violent, way to leave the earth. I was conflicted about whether or not one's manner of death needed to align with the principles they held in life or if when your life was awful enough that you chose to end it, all ideological bets were off. Unsure, I went back to a Google image search for the radial artery.

It turned out that the ganglion cyst I have on my left wrist was directly over the radial artery, making it difficult to access. There was the option of the radial artery of my right hand, but that would mean I'd have to use my left hand to do the cutting and I can't even draw a straight line with my left hand, so that's a problem.

I looked to see if it was possible to buy black-market Seconal online. You have to take an antiemetic first, which I happen to have on hand for migraines, so you can keep the Seconals down. Then you empty one hundred reds into some liquid and off you go, peaceful, no anxiety, and no hopelessness tomorrow when you count up the days, the weeks, the months of your watery despair, the near drowning that is bound to last forever.

One morning, while writing a goodbye letter, I got a voicemail from a dear friend who had just had a baby three weeks earlier. It said, "I haven't heard from you in a few days and I'm getting concerned. I know how awful you feel. Please reach out. I'm here. Please call me." Something about her plea cracked me open, that she would take precious time away from her baby to throw me a line.

I steeled myself, practiced sounding cheerful. This would be no cry for help. When she answered the phone, I erupted into heaving sobs, unable even to say hello or to identify myself.

Immediately she said, "It's going to take me a little bit to pack up the baby, but I will be over as soon as I can. Don't go anywhere," and she hung up the phone.

I was hysterical when she arrived. She put her sleeping downy infant in his car seat on the floor at the foot of my bed and climbed in with me. "What about the baby?" was all I could muster. "He's fine," she said, holding me tight, "don't worry." She didn't let me go until my heaves faded to quick soft gulps of air.

She has lost more than most, my friend, has had to find land many times. "I am going to tell you something now that you aren't going to like." She propped herself up on pillows next to me. "You have to make a choice. It is going to be the hardest thing you have ever done or will ever do, and you don't have to do it all at once, but you have to decide to take the first step." She could tell that I was listening. She went on, "Every morning after you wake up, you need to go into the living room and open the curtains. You can get right back into bed, but you have to open the curtains every morning. For a little while, if you do nothing else but open the curtains, we're going to call that a victory. Can you do that?"

I told her I could.

The next morning, I walked the fourteen steps from my bed to the picture window in my living room, pulled the curtains, and walked the fourteen steps back to my bed where I remained for the rest of the day until I walked the fourteen steps back to the living room to close the curtains before bed. (I am not sure why I didn't just leave them open to save myself the hassle the next morning, except that I generally do what I'm told, and since I knew I had to open them again the next day, that meant having to close them at night.) This went on for a few days: fourteen steps, open curtains, fourteen steps, cry, plan my death, cry, fourteen steps, close curtains, fourteen steps. The only thing that changed was the light in my bedroom from the raking beam of sun that slid underneath the door from the living room.

On the fourth morning, I stopped at the couch on my way back to bed and sat down for a few minutes. Okay, the couch. You remember the couch. You used to sit here all the time. What did you do on the couch? You used to check email and plan your to do list. Both far too overwhelming, I settled for checking to make sure that my daily planner was where I'd left it. It was. The next day, I got up from the couch and made myself a cup of tea, something else I used to do every day. I was playacting, the way a child pretends to be one of her parents when you put a cell phone in her hand, loudly barking into the receiver, "Hello how are you I am fine thank you how are you I am very busy at work right now so why don't you email me later and we can go play!" The only difference is that I was pretending to be myself.

My dad suggested that I start taking short walks around the block, which seemed impossible, my body cachectic from having not walked more than fourteen consecutive steps or slept more than a few consecutive hours or eaten a full meal in almost a year. As an additional excuse, I told him that walking by myself had always brought out a sharp twinge of loneliness and so it would probably make me feel worse. The next morning he called and said, "Wanna go for a walk with me? We don't have to go far." Stripped of my only excuses, I begrudgingly put on shoes and walked out the door. From his home seventy-five miles away, we walked together over the phone, talking for as long as I could put one foot in front of the other, which was about ten minutes. We walked together like this every morning for three weeks. It was molting season, I remember, because I came back to the house every morning with a fistful of crow feathers that glinted iridescent in the sun, enough, over the course of those weeks, to outfit a goth showgirl.

Eventually I cast out on my own, without my father's voice for company, walking to a Catholic retreat center that sits on six acres in my neighborhood, a good ten blocks from my house, a distance unthinkable a few weeks earlier. There a walking path meanders through a dense canopy of old growth trees, punctuated by bas-relief sculptures depicting the stations of the cross. A side trail leads to a statue of Mary, enshrined by a stone grotto. She has lost her right hand at the wrist, a Luke Skywalker injury, which makes her somehow more approachable, easier to talk to. She is broken like me.

I asked her for many things. Big things. I needed the world to change overnight. I needed to be all better now, to feel happy! whole! and loved! I was tired of carrying the fifty-pound weight over my sternum that prevented me from taking a full breath. I couldn't bear another day of thinking that my heart might explode. I wanted proof that I was moving forward.

One particular morning, I was stuck in my mind, back in the water world, unable to feel my feet on the ground. The walking path was strewn with needles, cones, and fallen branches, the aftermath of a mythic windstorm from the previous evening. I paid little attention to the detritus, stepping over huge forked limbs that once offered shade. At the opposite end of the property, a hunched silhouette holding a cane stood in the middle of the path. As I approached, I saw an old man in suspenders and work pants. The cane was a broom. He moved tentatively, unsteadily, his balance so precarious that turning his head in my direction to return my greeting almost knocked him off his feet. He took a moment to stabilize and introduced himself as one of the priests there.

"It's nice to meet you, Father," I said, wondering if he could sense that a Jew had been telling all of her secrets to his beloved Mary, that while walking the stations every day I had only ever thought of the cross that I had to bear. I wondered if he could sense my otherness, my despair.

"Welcome," he said. "We love having our neighbors here. Please feel at home." He put his hand on my shoulder to steady us both.

He had come to sweep the walkway. As soon as we said our goodbyes, he resumed his work, arranging himself with his feet slightly apart for stability, slowly pulling the broom across his body five or six times to clear the area in front of him. After that, he shuffled his left foot a few inches forward, then the right. The hard part was having to take his weight off of the broom so that he could advance it forward to keep up with his feet. He repeated this process a few times and then sought rest on a nearby bench. While sitting, he continued to sweep the ground in front of his feet. Sweep, rest, sweep, rest, sweep. In the thirty minutes that I watched him, he cleared an area no more than ten feet by five feet.

We are accustomed to looking for big showy displays of progress—a better job, a bigger house, more money, more fun, a brighter happiness. But when the metrics of progress are humbled, by age or grief or circumstance, we must seek out new ones. Sometimes moving forward can only be measured by how many needles you can sweep from the area directly in front of your feet, by how many crow feathers you can find within a four-block radius of your bed, by how many steps it takes to get to the living room curtains, by how many prayers you say to the Virgin Skywalker.


Nearly a year later, I still walk there every day. I am up to thirty miles a week. I don't ask Mary for big stuff anymore. I don't ask her to change the world overnight or to erase the vast plane of uncertainty in my future. I don't look ahead so much. I watch the squirrels play in the dappled sunlight, the swallowtail butterflies hover weightless above the rhododendron before flitting off to join the others. I mark the passage of time by what the Deodar Cedar cones are doing. At first, they appear out of nowhere as blue-green cocoons, no bigger than an egg, nestled in feathered boughs. They grow over months, quadrupling in size, their concentric rings becoming larger and more textured. As the weather cools, they turn brown and begin to open, their rings revealing themselves to be thousands of tightly overlapping scales. The cones open wider and wider, blooming like peonies, until they fall into a carpet of woody flowers exploding at my feet. I take notice of how many more litter the ground from the day before. I see how many I can fit in my pockets. I take full breaths. New metrics, all.


Death and Dying, Religion


2 comments have been posted.

Wonderful wonderful article.

Nancy Rose | November 2015 | Ashland Oregon

Thank you, thank you for publishing this wonderful writing by Jennifer Rabin! It's the most understanding description I've ever read of what it's like to be "stuck" in a hell that you can't explain to anyone, and feel guilty for not having the strength or know-how to get yourself out of it. It describes the interminable agony of being unable to feel anything at all, and just wishing for it to end somehow. And then the love of a true friend who didn't ask for an explanation, but was "just there" with the first simple instruction; and a father who, by telephone, held her hand each day to help her learn to walk again. HOPE for so many who may feel like there is none. May we all learn to give unquestioning acceptance, patience, and love to others around us who may be struggling each day. Thank you again. Dar Young

Darlene Young | November 2015 | Tigard, Oregon

Related Stories