Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? -Mary Oliver
Recently I got several boxes in the mail from my mother, mostly full of stuff from my daughter’s 4th birthday party over the summer. It was like Christmas for Sara as I opened each box, and toys emerged that she thought she had lost or maybe dreamed of—a mermaid doll that changes colors in the tub, Buzz Lightyear, a few plastic Smurfs (which she calls “Smurths”).
My mom also sent along a surprising item: my passport, not used since I lived in London for three months on study abroad. The photo was taken when I was 16, and I always thought it was awful. In it I sport a puffy, shoulder-length perm,un-groomed eyebrows, braces, and no makeup. But now, I see something different—for instance, someone who could go without makeup and still look OK. But the picture doesn’t matter.
See, I have a flying phobia—circa post-9/11. And I have “had” depression circa way before that. More than the fear of airplanes or terrorists, depression has kept me far from the world I began to explore in high school and college; from connecting to other places and people outside my own sadness. And yet the stamps on my passport remind me that I was once in Vaduz, Lichtenstein (where I remember climbing many stairs to the top of an old Olympic ski slope); Heathrow and Gatwick airports; Greece; and back in New York City on November 30, 1995, when I returned from my months in England. I had also visited Ireland, Scotland, Italy, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and a tiny, ancient part of Turkey, where I bought a little souvenir keychain: a brass figurine of a man with a disproportionately large, erect penis, some kind of fertility symbol. But I wouldn’t say my life after that was very fertile.
Depression creates an inner, and eventually outer, landscape inhospitable to life. Basically, in this state of mind it’s like there is an immovable obstacle between me and anything I might want or need to do, whether it’s to take a walk at the park, play with my child, do homework (I’m a grad student), make plans for the weekend, work a job, write a poem, cope with normal feelings of sadness, anger, and anxiety, or even open my mail. And the most frustrating or debilitating thing is that no one else sees that I have an illness that is walking and talking for me; not even me. Instead, I beat myself up for my lack of motivation, my inability to do this or that.
A couple months ago, I had a vast realization—this is really how it felt—that this identity, of being a depressed person, actually doesn’t have to be permanent. I am 36. And I have struggled through depressive episodes for 18 years now, since my grandfather died of lung cancer during my second week of college. But what if in the next parts of my life, I am going to be an essentially different person: one who isn’t depressed? I was walking in my neighborhood when I first had this astounding thought...It had been a bad weekend. The previous day, I’d spent all afternoon lying in bed. That was Sunday, and my daughter kept wandering in from where she was playing in her adjacent bedroom, probably wondering what was going on with me. As I walked over the broken, tilted old sidewalks I thought about the kind of parent I want to be: one who is not one day remembered by her child as having spent days in bed. I suddenly conceived of the depression as a separate thing—as not really “me,” but as something else that had been added and could be un-added.
At this point on my walk, I noticed a house that I have passed many times since I moved to this neighborhood two years ago. Whenever I’d previously seen it, the house—white, two-story, over a century old, with a dark-blue mansard roof—was under renovation. There was a dumpster out front full of materials being discarded in the process. (This is a common sight on the streets of New Orleans.) The house, I now saw, was done; the dumpster was gone. I could see into the row of tall front windows, made of wavy old glass, into a spacious room whose walls had been painted a delicate, vibrant shade of yellow similar to egg yolk. It looked like no one was living there yet. For some reason that glimpse of color through the glass moved me, and tears came to my eyes. The empty yellow room was somehow my hope of not being depressed—what it would look like. Bright, and lively…I could move into that, and there could be a whole new life. And then, because I didn’t want anyone to notice me staring at this house like someone with mental problems, I walked past, but glanced back a couple times to re-experience that flash of feeling.
When I opened my passport for the first time in so many years and looked at my 16-year-old face in all its awkwardness, and the dark stamps on the blue pages, I was again moved. It struck me as an invitation that had arrived at just the right time: to explore this earth, live in this world and be at ease in my skin. Though I may have to update the photo.