I got depressed a few weeks ago. Off-and-on depression is a familiar experience for me, but this one was especially nasty, on a par with the grief I felt when my mother died. I was thoroughly blindsided, and felt helpless to pull myself out of it.
Right up until that time, I’d been on a bit of a roller coaster emotionally, but I’d been meditating a lot and was on the whole doing well. Then: bam! I got sucked down into the vortex. There was a trigger, which I won’t go into, but it became a source of desperate fascination for me. Meanwhile, in my daily life I was experiencing a lack of the kinds of experiences that help to produce good feelings. The weather was awful, with a grey sky, rain and snow, and worst of all, ice that made walking the dog a treacherous gauntlet. Even worse, my sleep took a nosedive.
After surgery on my right shoulder in January I still had lots of pain, plus I had developed a case of bursitis in my left shoulder that felt even worse than the one that had been cut open. My ability to do the simplest tasks was severely limited. For awhile I had been enjoying scented candles, which provided sensory pleasure that offset some of the physical nastiness, but then I developed a cough and had to give them up. My brain was foggy enough that I couldn’t read anything even remotely challenging.
Then there was the troubling acknowledgment that I needed to stop taking opioids, now that I was over six weeks out from my shoulder surgery. I can’t say that the pills reduced the pain all that much after the initial week, nor did they provide reliable sleep, but they did make me feel good all over. When I reluctantly gave them up, I discovered that I had become dependent on them, maybe even mildly addicted. Suddenly my nerves became a source of jangly noise in my head and my entire body felt miserable. When I tried to meditate I felt like jumping out of my skin, so I stopped sitting entirely. Prior to this experience I had looked on opioids as an occasional respite from pain. I had an ongoing prescription for times when my fibromyalgia pain got to be too much, which I took at the rate of about three times a week. The result was a welcome feeling of euphoria. Now that was gone, and my own brain chemistry was exposed in all its deficiencies.
The result was overwhelming. I felt as if I had become plugged in to all the sadness and melancholy of the universe. I cried a lot, feverishly struggled to find answers, and dove into distractions. In daily life I could barely function; could barely manage to get dressed and make the bed in the morning or make a cup of tea. My poor dog stayed at my side throughout, but I felt no comfort from his presence out of guilt over how little I could respond to him.
People who knew about this implored me to get therapy, but I didn’t have the energy to pick up the phone and make an appointment. There was nothing I could do by way of self-help either. Throughout this time, I was bedeviled by a painful question: why am I still here? Why am I even alive? My mother’s death of two years ago hung over my head like a cloud of unknowing. She was 97 and had dementia, so at the level of all reason it was more than time for her to go, but her death made me an orphan, a motherless and fatherless child, and at 63 years of age I couldn’t make sense of myself with no parents to mirror myself back to me.
It is impossible to describe this feeling to anyone who hasn’t been through it. I have been a practicing Buddhist for almost 10 years; before that I was a liberal-minded Christian for about 30, yet in the condition of existential despair absolutely nothing made sense. There is nowhere for the logical mind to go under such circumstances, no verbal formula to pull oneself out. The trigger for this recent bout of depression involved another person’s death from years ago. I remember thinking, how can a person be here in the world, making an impact, and then be irretrievably gone? It’s not as if I haven’t understood the teaching on impermanence, nor am I unacquainted with the facts of life and its inevitable end. Yet at certain times, this time being the most recent, death presents itself as an impossible enigma. How can this person, that person be gone and I still be here? And what am I even here for?
The conventional wisdom is to get a person out of this dangerous place as quickly as possible, to return them to ordinary life and functioning. But as I look back on it, I recognize that my time in the wilderness was itself a form of wisdom, a doorway, a point of disclosure. Religions offer among other things a means of making sense of death, but no one ever really makes “sense” of it because death, either the prospect of one’s own or coping with someone else’s, is beyond sense. At the point of someone’s death, even the death of a pet, there is a tear in the fabric of our universe that leaves an aperture into the unknown. For a time we are suspended in this radical uncertainty, until the tear closes up and we begin to inhabit a new universe without the missing piece, in its place memories and stories that give comfort. Of course my mother is gone, my father is gone, and all of this was bound to happen unless something worse were to happen and I were to die first. Of course I will die some day, and here’s hoping it’s not before my time and I leave no loose ends. Life goes on, people move on, adult or even minor children readjust, spouses remarry, friends mourn and then resume their social and work lives in new formations. And all the while, under our feet there is the abyss, which can swallow us without warning when we find ourselves undefended.