In A Dark Time “In a dark time, the eye begins to see.” Theodore Roethke
A message from the editor of Magnolia Review:
I grew up with a magnolia tree outside my childhood home. When the wind blew, its branches tapped on my bedroom window. After school I would climb it and enjoy the view. Every spring I looked forward to the pink-white petals and the eventual change to green leaves and bare branches. I choose submissions that I can read over and over again, that continuously bring joy and awe and beauty. We will still do Pushcart Nominations, but this is a special award for a piece that unifies the entire issue. It stands out. It reads well. It is something I’ll remember long after I’ve stopped reading. It is an immediate “Yes! Let’s publish this.” There are lots of great submissions, and it’s an honor to select an outstanding submission for this award. One piece will be selected in every issue. I selected “In A Dark Time” by Kirie Pedersen for this honor for The Magnolia Review, Volume 3, Issue 1. Congratulations, Kirie! – Suzanna Anderson
On a cold December day when I was living in Manhattan, my father died back home in the Northwest. My mother lingered another year. Until I met my husband and we moved east, my parents and I lived within walking distance through a forest. I saw them almost every day.
After their deaths, I envisioned my siblings and I together on the stone wall my father built above the shoreline, site of so many family gatherings. I murmured the lyrics to the old spirituals we sang together, the eight Pedersens a coup for any choir.
Instead, the wall literally crumbled into bits in a winter storm, revealing dozens of bottles that had been tossed beneath as ballast. Our family, too, seemed rotted to the core. As if we’d ingested grief-brewed poison with the ancient hymns, we fled our separate ways.
I slid into a profound depression. For some time, though, I didn’t even notice. Already depleted by the loss of my once-fabulous family, I was halfway there and simply not strong enough to slow the descent. Who wouldn’t weep to become a sudden orphan?
Despite my dismal performance at a local gathering when I refused to speak to anyone except the oldest person there, I don’t feel as depressed today. Most of the time, three months after Mother’s death, all I want to do is cry. And howl.
Mark slept in with me, which I love. He tries to be kind. A few times when we argued, and then I asked for a hug, he said “All right,” grimly, as if he’d rather tear me apart. I don’t think he realizes how far gone I am. I’m not sure I realize how far gone I am. At the community center, I crashed the car into the planter box.
I don’t blame Mark for being upset. We stayed in the Northwest rather than return east because of my need to maintain vigil, although over what, I’m unsure. And now the sun is out and a million birds are singing. Although winter isn’t over, perhaps the darkness is turning around. Since I stood on the sidewalk on 142nd Street and received the call that my father was dead, I’m in a state of paralysis. My skin crawls with anxiety, dread, and despair. I am always exhausted.
In an article entitled “Head Case” in the March 1, 2010 New Yorker, Louis Menand describes pharmaceutical Calvinism, a term invented by psychiatrist Gerald Klerman, by saying “shortcuts to happiness are sinful,” and “happiness is only worth something if you work for it, suffer for it, really.” Menand continues: “…sucking it up, mastering our fears, is a sign of character. … Why should [we] have to pay a price in dread, shame, and stomach aches to achieve a state of being that [those without depression and fear] enjoy for nothing?”
Menand examines the medication option. “Or do we resist the grief pill because we believe that bereavement is doing some work for us? Maybe we think that since we appear to have been naturally selected as creatures that mourn, we shouldn’t short-circuit the process. Or is it that we don’t want to be the kind of person who does not experience profound sorrow when someone we love dies? Questions like these are the reason we have literature and philosophy. No science will ever answer them.”
When Mark and I returned to my Northwest home to attend the aftermath of parental dying, I felt responsible for everyone. I felt guilty about my teaching. I felt guilty about my dead parents. I felt guilty about my siblings and the cats and dogs. I didn’t bother about the negative voice that lived inside my brain. When, with great shame, I told the people in a bereavement group that I couldn’t stop crying and wanted to die, I learned that most were taking Celexa. Such a perky-sounding name!
“I felt normal again,” one serene-looking woman smiled.
“Sometimes you can’t do it on your own,” said a former actor.
His beautiful wife, seated across the circle of chairs, nodded. “It’s a miracle!”
I tried Prozac once, and it flipped my feelings all right. My then-husband Tim was diagnosed with incurable cancer the day I started a new job, and Tim had a young daughter I was helping raise. Then, too, I couldn’t stop crying. If I didn’t accept the prescription, my doctor said, he’d have to hospitalize me. I gave in to the threat, and briefly had the “return to myself” then advertised. Looking back later, it seemed that the entire seven years Tim was dying and our lives falling apart, I had a big smile glued to my face.
I didn’t want to surf through the loss of my parents with equally blunted feelings, yet I wasn’t sure I could survive my self-hatred and despair. Each morning I woke with dread. I even considered giving my beloved dogs away. Making an appointment to have them groomed—and don’t even think about grooming myself—was more than I could face. Menand mentioned three books: The Noonday Demon by Andrew Solomon, Unholy Ghost edited by Nell Casey, and Poets on Prozac edited by Richard M. Berlin, M.D. I devoured all three.
The overwhelming advice: Take. The. Meds.
One morning while walking the path to my late parents’ home, I hallucinated Dad in his blue coveralls digging out the flooded ditch. Clearly psychotic depression. Sense of disorientation. Check. Dizzy and scared. Check. Sure, I called it “grief,” but it was clearly insanity. My heart felt heavy and literally hurt, as if it would pop out of my chest. My head, too, felt it might burst. I felt suffocated, sometimes gasping for breath. My skin hurt. I cared about nothing. I woke each morning hoping the day would end without my having to live through it. Check all.
“I’m just going through the motions,” I told Mark. I was operating on one cylinder. I wanted to check into a mental institution. I’d been low in my life before, certainly with the pain of adolescence and Tim’s cancer. But this sadness seemed the culmination of all previous grief, doubled. I kept telling myself, I can be strong. I have to be. But my interventions weren’t working.
And yet. In yoga class, I felt fine, even though there was noisy construction going on outside. I felt loving towards my classmates and toward the teacher. Then I walked into the parking lot, climbed into my car, and crashed into the flowers.
Perhaps after all, only medication could save me. Then I would be “myself” again, with energy and hope and interests. That my lost self might never return scared the holy shit out of me.
Here are the Steps I Took
In Manhattan, it seemed, there was a therapist on every block. Conversations referenced “my therapist” as if everyone has one, like a maiden aunt or uncle. Back in the Northwest, in the remote rural area where I grew up, admitting to therapy is viewed slightly askance. I had a few private sessions with the therapist running the bereavement group, and her predictions were dire. She didn’t threaten me with involuntary commitment, but she said I’d be lucky to escape the burning building of my life with my car keys.
Still unwilling to return to meds, I went on-line. Earlier, plagued by the darkness that starts in the Northwest in October and doesn’t end until the following June, I’d read Dr. Norman E. Rosenthal’s Winter Blues. For what turned out to be clear-cut Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD, I’d ordered full spectrum lights. In a search for Rosenthal, I landed at something called the Center for Environmental Therapeutics at Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center . Week after week, obsessively, I took self-assessments on my circadian rhythm type and my depression level. Each time, the results came back “mild to moderate.” Really not bad, I figured. No need to take drastic measures yet.
The site also offers Q&A with staff physicians, and one day, in my desperation, I sent a Q. “I have mild to moderate depression on your scale,” I wrote. “But this seems normal after the deaths of both my parents within a short period of time.”
Instantly, one of the vast crew of psychiatrists responded. “Mild to moderate depression is not normal,” he wrote. “You need to talk with someone.” Well, the group therapist implied I was probably beyond help, so, at last, I visited my medical practitioner, a kind physician’s assistant named Sarah. She suggested a low dose of Celexa. And, almost immediately upon starting it, I became physically ill, as if I had a horrific flu. I was flat on my back until the follow-up, when Sarah switched me to Wellbutrin. This produced no dramatic side effects, but I felt deadened. Some essential part of me seemed to have shut off.
I re-read Joseph Glenmullen’s Prozac Backlash, and Antidepressant Solution, as well as articles about side effects and long term impacts of the S.S.R.I.’s or Selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors. After three months of deadness, I titrated off the Wellbutrin.
“A lord of nature, weeping to a tree”—Theodore Roethke, “In a Dark Time”
We returned to Manhattan. Before, I’d been happy there, sometimes outrageously happy, surrounded by friends and delighted with new activities. Now, it seemed everyone had gone mad. I see now, of course, how everything I saw reflected my own insanity. My previous despair returned full-force, and perhaps due to the depleted immune response grief can cause, a tooth abscessed, and I developed debilitating back pain. I’d tried my list of non-drug cures that final year of my mother’s life, but my practice was desultory. Now, flattened by physical and emotional pain, I became determined to survive.
What follows are the methods I applied that not only healed me, but led to a joy and stability beyond anything I’ve ever known. Driven at first by desperation, I practiced day after day, week after week. To hold myself accountable, I recorded each day’s activities and, at least weekly, I shared the results with a trusted friend.
In August of the third year of daily practice, I landed back in my body. I swear I felt an actual thud. And here is my prescription for those who might like to explore such a slow-cooked recovery.
Social Rhythm (with music)
Social Rhythm Therapy is often suggested for those suffering from bipolar disorder, but it helped me with the extreme disruption grief can bring. The general idea is to do more or less the same thing at the same time every day: get up, eat, work, exercise, and go to bed on a schedule. Because I work for myself, this meant setting up my daily schedule as if reporting to someone else; my better self, perhaps, the one who wanted me to live. Every day, even though it was exactly what I’d done the previous day and would do the next, I wrote my scheduled activities in my planners. As I completed each often-mundane task, I checked it off.
Around that period, Mark and I discovered the Early Music scene in Manhattan. I learned that this kind of music most closely matches one’s pulse or heartbeat, and is therefore calming. Early music, Baroque, old jazz, and a Bill Evans Pandora station usually soothed me best. I suggest turning off news, or scheduling a safe and limited time to check anything potentially disturbing, which includes email and social media. Stick to the schedule if you can. It really isn’t that we have more brutality than in the past. It’s that every horrific tragedy in every corner of the world is in our faces all the time; that’s what produces clicks, and clicks equal money. Ask yourself what you really need to know, and whether you want it hovering in the background at all times.
Running, bicycling, kayaking, and swimming each offer their own delights. For me, the basic is walking. Many studies back up the salutary effects, including brain, heart, muscle, and mood function. During my healing phase, my guru was British writer Robert McFarlane, author of The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot, a book I read repeatedly. He describes how, back to the beginnings of time and in all parts of the world, humans bonded to earth through their feet and thus freed their spirits.
My preference is to begin and end each day with walks or hikes, almost always with dogs and often one-on-one with my husband or a friend. I’ve tried group hikes and walks, and find them stressful. I prefer forest paths, but I’ve also enjoyed walking in New York City, particularly around the periphery of Central Park or along Riverside, and in any wilderness in any part of the country or world I might be lucky enough to visit.
According to Portland yoga instructor and international teacher Julie Gudmestad, also a licensed physical therapist, it’s a good idea to walk before yoga, and to practice yoga before meditation. As with all these survival skills, the idea is not how or how long, but simply to do something every day. I keep the mat and props readily available so they are in my face, already set up. According to Gudmestad, five minutes is better than no minutes, which is what most people do to rehabilitate from physical injury. Shavasana, or corpse pose is considered a necessary transition from the yoga practice to life off the mat.
I also take classes, but this can be risky. Gudmestad instructs me to be clear with instructors when I need to alter or avoid poses that might be harmful. In The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Reward, science writer and yogi William J. Broad points out how many are injured or even killed by yoga-related injuries. Unlike Gudmestad, most yoga instructors aren’t physical therapists, and can be unaware of what is safe. Although I started yoga to free myself from physical pain, which eventually happened, I now credit the practice with many subtler effects, including psychological. In the time of death that initiated my own turn to yoga, I liked the statement some yoginis make, “Your final breath will be an exhalation.” I liked the idea that every time I lie on the mat and consciously exhale, I’m practicing my own death. Perhaps more than anything else, my parents’ deaths taught me that I too will die.
The Power of Awe
I was born in a remote rural wilderness, where I continue to live, and nature is my greatest healer. After my father died and my mother was dying, during long meandering walks, I set myself the task of learning the name of one new bird, mushroom, bush, tree, or mammal a day. My handbook was Cascade-Olympic Natural History: A Trailside Reference by Daniel Mathews. The act of naming deepens meaning, and helped sew me to the earth. Being out of doors also helps activate production of Vitamin D, yet another piece of the depression puzzle.
In the January 15, 2016 New Yorker, Robin Wright described a national obsession with pandas. She interviews Brandie Smith, associate director for Animal Care Services of the National Zoo in Washington D.C. “People talk about the power of awe,” Smith says. “When you see something that brings awe, it produces oxytocin.” The myriad species I can now identify, besides the inner silencing caused by concentration, must surely offer a massive dose of this free drug.
In a previous incarnation, I married a Buddhist monk. Before I met Hung Ju, birth name Tim, I enjoyed a forty-minute daily meditation practice I’d figured out for myself. I suppose I was the idiotic sound of one hand clapping, but for me the practice soothed and calmed. The monk soon took me in hand. The only way to meditate, Tim said, was “bolt upright in full lotus,” two sits a day for forty minutes each. He lit incense sticks to track my time. I soon found other things to do.
In When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, Buddhist teacher Pema Chodron defines meditation more simply: “Just find time every day and sit down with yourself,” she instructs. After my parents died, when I was flattened from jaw surgeries and reclining on ice to relieve horrific back pain, meditation seemed like something I could do. According to Chodron, over time, meditation allows one to let go of what she calls story lines. “Don’t feed discomfort with thoughts,” she urges. It seemed a great idea to stop thinking. And also to let go of my story lines, whatever those were.
I soon learned that, like walking and yoga, meditation has deeper health benefits, including improved blood pressure, enhanced immune system, stabilizing of mood, and reduction of chronic and acute pain. Muddling my way back into my non-drug armamentarium, the simple trifecta of walk/yoga/meditate, probably saved my life. Mark and I were living in a noisy sub-let on the Upper West Side, but I soon found a garden on the grounds of St. John the Divine Cathedral, as well as empty chapels inside where I could sit in silence. I also discovered countless synagogues and churches, open and beautiful, as well as the paths that trace through Central Park. Back in the Northwest, I claimed an unused shed.
Serious meditators agree with Tim that meditating while lying on my back over ice packs was improper. However, for me at that time, any kind of sitting was profoundly painful. A danger, of course, is that one will fall asleep. To which I respond: “So what?” Although I rarely do fall asleep, sometimes falling asleep while deeply relaxed is exactly what I need to do. And, after a few years of yoga, I found myself able to do a “real” meditation sit.
But anything that slams the door in the face of would-be meditators—how to breathe or empty the mind or positions—keeps many from even trying. My suggestion mirrors that of Gudmestad: try five minutes a day. Expand to fifteen. At a certain point, the self-reward factor kicks in.
Another common obstacle is, “I can’t shut off my mind.” I manage my chatter with simple tricks. “Thanks for trying to help,” I tell the thoughts. “I know you mean well.” I then place the babble, as best I can, onto the shoe rack near my door, or into the worm compost bin when in the Northwest. “I’ll be back later if I need you,” I say.
But it’s rare I need those churning thoughts again. Taking a daily action becomes cumulative, and around the one-year mark, I discovered I could become serene even with outside disturbances. Somehow I learned to self-calm, as a crying baby learns to soothe itself. I knew something had changed when, after a lifelong and rather ferocious dental phobia, I found myself calmly reclined in a dental chair chit-chatting with my dentist. Who the hell was this new self?
A study at Rutgers University found that a combination of exercise and meditation causes neuronal changes. Depressed subjects improved. My daily trifecta didn’t simply dispel depression; it seemed to have permanently rejiggered my brain.
Gripes, Gratitudes, and Gifts (the Three G’s)
When I’m walking alone in the forest or driving, I talk out loud. And I follow a specific formula. First, I list everything I can think of that pisses me off. These are the Gripes. I don’t censor or shame myself or try to fix or explain whatever I’m griping about. I just say it, as in “I’m pissed off that it’s overcast today,” or “I’m griping about all the chores I still have to do.” It’s usually petty stuff, but I don’t judge. I don’t try to explain or justify myself to myself.
When I can’t think of any more gripes or grudges, and sometimes just listening to myself causes me to laugh, I start in with Gratitude. All kinds of studies, scientific and spiritual, cite the value of gratitude, as in we can’t hold negatives in our minds at the same time as positives. Again out loud, I list everything I’m grateful for. If I’m on an hour-long walk, my Gripes last from five to ten minutes. My Gratitude always surprises me. Forty minutes later, I might still be talking, and sure enough, I’m starting to feel great. Maybe it’s simply that endorphins seem to kick in for me about thirty-six minutes into a walk, so I’m floating on a double high.
I end with what I call Gifts, which are actually goals. My only rule is that the goals concern only me and actions I can take. I don’t, for example, request the world love me, or that my husband stop snoring. The Three G’s are for me, as Pema Chodron might say, a way to practice loving-kindness to myself. And, from there, the good feelings tend to spread, but that’s a side effect, not the purpose.
Massage, Acupuncture, and Nutrition
Once when I was single and feeling sorry for myself, a friend said, “Buy a vibrator and get eight hugs a day.” Lacking that, a licensed massage therapist can provide soothing human touch, which also helps reduce depression through the release of cortisol. Acupuncture likewise appears to reduce symptoms of depression.
As with yoga, it’s important to find the right practitioner. Ask around. Massage and acupuncture can be covered by insurance. Some suggest vitamins and herbs to treat depression. The jury remains out on whether all such products are created equal. However, there is no question that processed foods and sugar deplete the body and mind. When available, I prefer fresh fruits and vegetables grown by local farmers, and I probably get a serotonin burst from getting to know the farmers who grow them.
Whereas some claim the benefits of retail therapy, buying stuff doesn’t do it for me. I take pleasure in a pared-down existence. For this reason, the expense of buying organic fresh food is balanced by almost zero-spending on the consumer goods that fill box and on-line stores. Living chemical-free, if partaking of massage, acupuncture and fresh food, can cost, but for me, the long-term effects are being happily alive and sane.
In my journals from the death year, I cite my love for my animals almost every day. Whether I wanted to or not, Lilly and Molly needed to walk. I tied their leashes to my belt and off we wandered. Sometimes I’d lie on the moss in the forest, and they’d rest quietly beside me.
Indoors, the cats crawled into my arms or under the covers, unconditional love for the cost of kibble and combing. Those who can’t manage a mammal might consider worms. As my depression started to lift, a friend called about a workshop on vermiculture, composting with worms, offered free through the county. Taught by the owners of the Bugabay Corporation, I learned that the messy detritus of all those fruits and vegetables can be transformed, odor-free, with the use of a simple cedar bin. And yes, the invisible worms transforming cucumber peel and kale into brown gold induces the power of awe.
When, during my first three years of drug-free recovery from depression and death, I jotted notes about what was working, I left out a major part. When my parents died, I became an orphan. After living a stroll away from the home where I grew up, I lost my tribe. Community is hard-wired into our DNA. Just as I had no idea how important my dogs were, until they were gone, I took my parents for granted. Surely, they would always be there for me to love and scorn. And so, great, I walk for miles every day. I practice yoga alone on my mat. I meditate in my rented apartment or wilderness cabin. But without community, I will go mad. Prisoners in solitary confinement go insane.
In the end, survival is about love. I don’t mean an abject pursuit embodied in another human. That kind of obsession, for me, is like one more pill. What I mean, really, is the loving-kindness Buddhist teachers suggest. For all my reading on depression, I missed something, perhaps because I’m blind to what is most difficult.
In Necessary Dreams, psychiatrist Anna Fels says that social affirmation changes the neurotransmitters in the brain, and that it’s important to be around positive people. “Social contact constantly arranges our DNA,” Fels says. Conversely, obsession with negative people impacts us at a cellular level as well. “Getting away from negative people can be like withdrawing from heroin,” says Pamela Allister, a retired counselor and nurse.
Love, community, and connection, of course, can’t be measured, quantified, or prescribed. I can adopt a cat or dog or set up a worm bin, but I can’t manufacture love. In a few cultures today, and certainly in the caves and plains and forests from which our civilizations evolved, I wouldn’t have much choice about being part of a community. To bond and perform some kind of contribution, however small, would ensure my survival. The activities would replicate the actions that helped me become well: physicality, doing more or less the same thing every day, eyeball contact with others, tending critters, and enacting rituals. Rituals related to death might have surrounded me with support rather than leaving me even more isolated and alone.
In this remote rural area where I was born, pioneers, particularly women, often killed themselves. Sometimes, if alone for too long, I would forget how to converse. When I went out to the tiny local store, I couldn’t recall how to make small talk. Chatting with the owners perked me up, and on the way home, I’d feel downright jolly. As with the visits to my local farmers, long walks with my pets, or hiking with a friend, eye contact causes up-ticks in beta endorphin, serotonin, oxytocin, and dopamine, a grab-bag of feel-goods one could never purchase over or under the counter. But I can produce them for myself for free, and they never leave a hangover.
And so I forced myself to attend bereavement and family therapy groups offered free through my county. I scheduled hikes and walks with friends. This didn’t mean I was sharing sadness. I found it more therapeutic to listen. “Tell me your life story,” I’d suggest, and for the time they did, I was transported out of my own.
When I took Prozac during Tim’s seven-year dying, the drug pretty much took effect within a few weeks. The early claims that one became “weller than well” seemed to be true. Only later did I realize the adverse effects. I certainly support those who report they couldn’t make it any other way. I have friends who don’t have five minutes to themselves, much less hours to exercise or meditate. I get that the treatments that worked for me require a daily commitment to forever. Only gradually, over three years, did I move out of depression.
But here’s the payoff. Fairly early on, the treatments I self-prescribed became delicious habits. And eventually, I moved into a realm of calm and happiness beyond anything I’ve known. Following what has become a way of life also leaves me feeling weller than well, and the self I “returned” to is one I never knew. Now, despite a lifetime of depression, I feel quiet pleasure almost all the time. Today I communicate with positive loved ones, or at the very least, with my beloved pets or that cluster of chestnut-backed chickadees and golden-crowned kinglets in the willow. I tuck my bucket of stems and stalks into the bed of worms. Every day, at least once, I take a walk, preferably through some kind of wilderness, even in the midst of a vast city. Almost every day, I practice simple stretches followed by even simpler meditation. By taking these actions most days at the same time, I create ritual, practicing gratitude in a cathedral comprised of buildings or trees.