I go to the supermarket with my ten-year-old niece, and when she leaves me in the pasta aisle to get some yogurt, I stand glued to the spot, paralyzed by separation anxiety, staring helplessly at the linguine until she comes back. I'm sick, and I know I'm sick.
I want to tell you about coming apart, wanting to die, and returning at last to myself, and about how my Buddhist practice both helped and hindered me in this zigzag journey.
Although I was suffering from severe depression, I didn't call it that for most of the several years I was in and out of it. I thought depression was for lethargic people who stayed in bed all day. But my pain was as sharp as an ice pick. I felt my life force ebbing away, as if I was bleeding to death, yet, mysteriously, I didn't die. Restless in the extreme, I paced and paced, looking for a way out.
The visible cause was the drawn-out and difficult end of a relationship with a lover. In the space of five years, I experienced four episodes of acute depression, each lasting several months, each provoked by a crisis in the relationship, the last one after our final break-up.
While my misery seemed to be connected to this one person, I came to realize that it was about my whole life. The invisible causes were old griefs and fears, about being left alone, and about not being left alone. I had been through painful separations before, but this one deconstructed me as none other had done. I account for this unaccountable collapse, in part, as follows. After a wrenching divorce, long ago, I had had other relationships, but I had always erred on the side of independence, had raised my children as a single mother, had managed my life, my household, my recycling, on my own. But when it seemed, finally, that I would have somebody else to remind me to change the oil in my car, and then when it seemed, even more finally, that I wouldn't, the dam burst. and my pent-up longing to be taken care of came crashing through.
Many people in our society are lonely and afraid, but we're ashamed to admit it. It's taboo to be depressed. When I was feeling really bad, I still went to work, though I was barely functional, and some days not functional at all. If I had had the flu and had been in a fraction of the pain I was in, I would have called in sick. But I didn't call in "depressed." One day I threw a whole issue of the magazine I edit into the computer's trash can, thinking I was saving it. Then I emptied the trash. I had to hire a consultant to look for it in the virtual garbage, and eventually I got most of it back. But it was myself I wanted to put in the trash.
Even though we're not supposed to talk about it—no, because we're not supposed to talk about it, I'm going to try and tell you what it was like. Physical pain is hard to describe, and psychic pain is even harder. I was in intense, moment-by-moment pain, and all I wanted was to get away from it. The pain was in the thoughts, which I didn't (and couldn't) recognize as just my thoughts. A voice in my head repeated what I took to be The Truth: that I was completely alone, that I would never again love or be loved by another person, that "I" was nothing.
I spent hours every day on the phone; the bill was astronomical. Once, during the 45-minute drive from my lover's home back to Berkeley, I had to stop and call a friend from a pay phone by the side of the road, so that I could drive the rest of the way home, even though it was only fifteen minutes away. Luckily she was home. "I just got off the Richmond Bridge," I sobbed. "I'm afraid I don't exist. My body's here, but there's nobody in it."
"You exist," she said. "How could I love you if you didn't exist? Come over right now and we'll take a walk on the Berkeley pier." Her down-to-earth response was reassuring, and taking a walk helped, as long as I WAS taking a walk. But the minute the walk was over and I was alone in my car, I wanted another friend to take me for another walk.
My desperation was stronger than my embarrassment, and any sympathetic acquaintance who crossed my path was likely to find themselves passing me Kleenex. I called on lots of different people for help, trying not to wear out any one person's patience, but a few friends bore the brunt of the burden. They must have felt at times that there was a hole in my bucket, but looking back, I know now that their steadfast love did not go to waste.
I was shocked by my own descent into helplessness. I had always thought of myself as a competent person, and now I felt like an infant crying in the crib for somebody to pick me up. But I looked like a middle-aged woman, and everybody thought I was a middle-aged woman.
I've gained some understanding of what it must be like to have an invisible illness, like lupus, or chronic fatigue syndrome. I wanted to wear a sign around my neck, "I might look okay, but I'm sick!", so people wouldn't expect me to be functional.
I couldn't eat, a common symptom of depression. It wasn't just loss of appetite. Chewing itself was unbearable. A blob of bread was scary because it got in the way of breathing, and breathing was already hard enough to do. Liquids were more manageable. It occurs to me now that I'd regressed to the stage before I had teeth, when the only kind of eating I could do was sucking. So now I drank hot milk with honey, and earl grey tea, and sometimes I managed to swallow a little yogurt. I lost a lot of weight, something I'm always trying to do when I feel "normal," but I was too downhearted to take any pleasure from it.
Like many other depressed people, I didn't sleep well. I'd wake in the night to pee, and not be able to go back to sleep for hours. I'd lie there clutching a pillow, crying out to the flapping curtain, "Help me! Help me!" I took sleeping pills—sometimes they worked, sometimes they didn't. I couldn't read in the night (or the day, either, for that matter) because I couldn't get past the fear to concentrate on anything.
Waking in the morning was the worst of all. The moment consciousness returned, the pain came with it. Oh no! I have to breathe my way through another day.
I didn't like getting into the shower because I didn't want to be alone with my skin. To feel my own skin and imagine that nobody would ever touch it again was unbearable. Better to swaddle myself in layers, no matter what the weather, so the skin didn't have to notice it was alone. I remembered a pale young woman who had lived next door to me years ago, who began to wear more and more layers of clothing, a skirt over her pants, a dress over her skirt, a long shirt over her dress, then a sweater, a long coat, a cape, a hat, in Berkeley summer weather. Finally her father came and took her away to a mental hospital.
One of the worst things about being so depressed is that one becomes totally self-absorbed. It was hard for me to think of anyone but myself. I knew this was so, and felt ashamed of it, but I couldn't help it. I could hear other people only when they were talking to me about me: recommending homeopathic remedies, interpreting my dreams to me, telling me they loved me.
During my depression, one of my adult sons had a serious bicycle accident, and my fear for his wellbeing snapped me out of my self-absorption for the five days that he was in the hospital. I sat all night in a chair beside his hospital bed, hypervigilant, watching him sleep. I put a cool cloth on his forehead. I prayed to whoever was listening: I promised not to be depressed if only he would be all right.
He came home to my house from the hospital, with one leg in a full cast. It was summer—he sat on the back porch of the house he'd grown up in, in the sun, and I washed his back.
One day I walked into the living room where he was reading on the couch, and he said, "My god, what's the matter? You look like a ghost!"
Dry-mouthed with panic, I told him I had to go see my lover; we had to decide right then whether to break up. "Do you think I should stay with him?" I asked.
My son looked at me with an expression I'll never forget, a mixture of despair and love. "I don't know how to help you any more," he said. "I don't think you should be driving, in the state you're in. Why don't you just stay here and be my mother?"
But I couldn't. I drove out to see the man, compelled by an irrational sense of urgency, with my son's stricken face burning in my mind. And as soon as I left, my son called a family friend who's a therapist because he was so worried about me. I know because my friend called me later. She asked me straight out if I was thinking of killing myself.
I wasn't, not exactly. But I didn't want to be alive. I wanted to find out I had pancreatic cancer and would be dead in a few weeks. Then I wouldn't have to take the blame for suicide. Actually, it wasn't dead I wanted to be, as much as out of pain. Sometimes I worried that I might drive into a tree accidentally on purpose.
I had been a Zen Buddhist practitioner for over twenty years. Buddhist teachings are about suffering and the end of suffering, and Zen Buddhism emphasizes sitting still in the midst of your suffering and just letting go. I assumed that my meditation practice would steady me. What could be more comforting than forty minutes in the peaceful, familiar zendo, with the slant of sun across the cedar floorboards, and the sweet smell of tatami straw matting? But it didn't help. This is what I want to say: at times it made things worse. The demons in my mind took advantage of the opportunity. They weren't real demons, but they didn't care whether they were real or not; they tormented me anyway.
My Buddhist teachers urged me to keep on sitting zazen. "Don't turn away from your suffering," they said, again and again. "When you sit, painful thoughts and feelings will arise. Just notice them, without clinging to them. The painful thoughts and feelings will pass away again, and you'll realize that they are empty."
But when I sat down on a zafu, the quiet just provided a chance for my obsessional thoughts to take over the stage. "I've ruined my life. How can I get him back?" The painful thoughts arose all right, but they didn't pass away. Or if they did, it was only to make room for even more painful thoughts. "I don't know how to give or receive love. I'll die alone. And, adding insult to injury: I'm the worst Zen student that ever was. After 20 years, I still don't know how to sit zazen." It wasn't exactly me who was thinking these thoughts; it was obsession that was thinking them.
Occasionally a Zen teacher will concede that if a person is in the middle of a mental breakdown, perhaps she should stop sitting until she gets her strength back. This is like a track coach telling you that you shouldn't run while you have a broken leg. The assumption is that if there weren't something WRONG with you, if you weren't so weak, even pitiful, you'd be on the zafu. Perhaps I was projecting, but I didn't come to these projections all by myself. Buddhism is a tolerant religion on the whole, but Zen has a judgmental aspect.
When I told my teachers I was disappointed that zazen didn't make me feel bettter, they scolded me. "You don't sit zazen to get something. You sit zazen in order to sit zazen. If you want zazen to make you happy, it won't work." But I wasn't even asking to be happy, I was asking to be less miserable. I was hoping for some peace of mind. And didn't Buddha invent Buddhism in the first place to alleviate suffering? Did all those other people in the zendo really get up out of bed at 5 a.m. for no particular reason?
A therapist, whom I started seeing in the second round of the depression, helped me by her lack of judgment. She didn't look for causes in the distant past—I was in too much crisis for that. But she refused to panic. She was there, and she seemed to think that I was there, too. She was like the ground I fell down on. She believed that I was going to be all right, that the different parts of myself that seemed so split off from each other were really parts of one person, that a host of causes, some internal and some external, had coincided to disturb me so, and that there was NOT something unspeakable, and bone-deep, the matter with me. Her steady compassion, while expensive, was well worth it, and I was grateful to be able to afford it.
But when I left the therapist's office, I didn't believe her any more. I saw her twice a week during the worst times, but there were a lot of other hours to get through in between appointments. The zendo was open every day, and it was free—that is, my membership dues were already paid. So I kept going back, hoping that if I meditated hard enough I'd have some sort of "breakthrough." In the dimly remembered time of normalcy, sitting in the zendo, I, too, had had the experience of watching my worries turn to dry powder and blow away. So now I signed up to sit Rohatsu sesshin, the weeklong meditation retreat in early December that commemorates Buddha's enlightenment. He sat down under the bodhi tree and vowed not to get up until he saw the truth. It took him a week. I had sat many sesshins before, but maybe this would be my week.
The first day was bad. I cried quietly, not wanting to disturb the others. The second day was worse. Tears and snot dripped off my chin onto my breast. I hated myself. "Nobody else will ever love me!"
"Bring your attention back to your breathing," my teachers had advised me. But this was a like telling a person on the rack, whose arms are being pulled out of her shoulder sockets, to count her exhalations.
Sometimes it was like being in heavy surf. A wave of pain would grow, crest, and break with a crash, grinding my bones against the rocky bottom, and then I'd get my head above the water just in time to notice another, bigger wave coming.
But I wasn't on the rack. I wasn't in the surf. I was in the zendo. Around me sat my dharma brothers and sisters, hands in their proper position. As for my hand position, I dug the nails of my left hand deep into the palm of my right hand, feeling relief at the physical pain, and momentary proof of my existence. On the third day, on a break after lunch, I snuck a few blocks away to a pay phone on the street. I called my sister in Philadelphia, and, choking on my own words, I told her I didn't know who I was. I wasn't exactly convinced by her reassurances, but just hearing her voice was some comfort. And when I got home from sesshin that night, there was a message from her on my answering machine, telling me she loved me.
The fourth day was worse yet. The distance between me and the people on either side of me was infinite, even though their half-lotus knees were only six inches away from mine. I thought of the lover who wasn't going to be taking care of me after all. "I'm nobody," I thought. "There's nobody here at all." This feeling of no-self was supposedly the point of meditation, and yet I had somehow gotten onto the wrong path. While a nameless pressure mounted inside me, the people around me just kept sitting zazen. Were they made of stone? I couldn't stay another second, I felt my brain was about to explode. I left without getting permission from the sesshin director.
Driving away from the zendo in the privacy of my car, I shouted: "This is the worst day of my life!" (There would be other days after that when I would say it again: "No, this day is worse.") I was about 18 months old at the time.
What I did next frightened me. I drove into Tilden Park, and walked in the woods, where no one could see me. I screamed and pulled my hair. I lay down on the ground and rolled down the hill, letting the underbrush scratch and poke me. I liked having leaves get stuck in my hair and clothing. It made me feel real. I picked up a fallen branch from a redwood tree and began flailing myself on the back with it, welcoming the simple sensation. The bodily pain was easier to bear than the mental pain it pushed aside. I could understand people who cut themselves.
But I scared myself. How could I be spending my sesshin afternoon beating myself with sticks in the woods? How had it come to this?
I picked the leaves out of my hair and went home. The next morning, the fifth day, I called the Zen Center and said I wasn't feeling well—an understatement if there ever was one—and wouldn't be sitting the rest of the sesshin.
I thought I had failed in my practice, 20 years of it!, and was bitterly disappointed in myself. Only now do I see what a growth it was: not to be ruled by dogma, to be compassionate with myself, to take my spiritual practice into my own hands. I didn't sit zazen for some months, and now I know that stopping was zazen; unfortunately, it wasn't until after the depression subsided that I saw that choosing not to sit took as much faith in myself as choosing to sit.
Buddhism teaches that we have "no fixed self." There is nothing permanent about me. During my depression, I wasn't my "self," as we say. I didn't seem to have a self at all, in a way that cruelly mimicked this central point in Buddhist teaching. There was nobody home, and it was terrifying. You'd think that it would be painless to have no self, because without a self, who was there to be in pain? And yet there was unbearable pain. I wrote in my journal:
"Suemoon is here, but "I" am not here. Suemoon is a set of clothes with a vocabulary. She's a wind-up doll.
"The words that come out of her mouth are words from a play, words she learned by heart long ago: "Would you like some honey in your tea? Can you cut 300 words from your article?" She walks and talks with the others in the play. They are all walking and talking. But I'm not in the play. I didn't get a part.
"This is what it's like to fall apart. It's not wanting anything in the whole supermarket. My mouth is dry, nothing makes it water.
"I want to cut myself and bleed. If I'm going to be in this much pain, I want it to show.
"In the bowling alley, not knowing who I am, my feet in rented shoes, I throw myself down the lane. Strike! They all fall down."
I felt angry at Buddhism, as if to say: You told me there's no fixed self, and I believed you, and look where it got me! Emptiness was getting me into trouble.
I couldn't have gone on like this indefinitely: I was tearing up the fabric of my life. As I was weeping to my friend Melody on the phone one afternoon, speaking my familiar litany, she suddenly shouted at me: "Stop it! You've got to save your own life! You've got to do it! Nobody else but you can save yourself, and you can do it! You just have to be brave. That's all there is to it."
And my friend Susie, sounding a different but complementary note, said, "Keep praying. Keep asking for help. Even if you can't do anything else, just say 'Help!' in your mind, over and over."
One day I realized that my helpers weren't limited to the living. I was in my study, staring at the phone on the desk, trying to think of who to call who wasn't tired of hearing from me, and telling myself to be brave and not call anybody at all. When I was a child, my grandmother had told me: "No matter how bad you feel, some other human being has felt the same, and survived." I pulled Gerard Manley Hopkins off the bookshelf and turned to the sonnet that begins:
My own heart let me more have pity on, Let me live to my sad self hereafter kind, Charitable, not live this tormented mind, With this tormented mind tormenting yet
He was right there with me. I memorized that sonnet on the spot, and carried it with me in my head. "Call off thoughts awhile. Leave comfort root room."
It helped me to give a name to how I felt other than crazy, but it took me awhile. I finally called myself "depressed" when I read Andrew Solomon's article about his own depression in The New Yorker (January 12, 1998), and he described symptoms similar to mine. It turned out I wasn't the only one who had ever felt "too frightened to chew," as Solomon said. And I knew just what he meant when he wrote, "Depression is a disease of self-obsession." I was sick, I was "clinically depressed."
It was reading this article that made me decide to try medication. Solomon says, "To take medications as part of the battle is to battle fiercely, and to refuse them is as ludicrous as entering a modern war on horseback."
I consulted a psychiatrist, who prescribed Prozac. I took it for about a week, and felt much worse, though I wouldn't have thought it possible to feel worse a week before. One of my journal entries from that week says, "I feel a rottenness in my guts, like all my internal organs are full of pus. I am bitterness beyond belief." The psychiatrist told me to stop the Prozac and try Zoloft. I felt it kick in after a couple of days. It was as though someone opened the door a crack, and I saw the light outside.
Zoloft is supposed to be good for people who have trouble with obsessional thinking. I'm one of those, or at least I became such a person when I was falling apart. And Zoloft seems to do what zazen didn't do—it loosens the grip of the fearful demons. I still had days when I wished I was dead. I still had trouble deciding what kind of cereal to buy. But the Zoloft quieted the voices in my head: "I hate him. I hate myself." It didn't shut them up entirely, but they weren't as loud, and I was sometimes able to turn away from them.
I had a lot of resistance to taking medication. I thought my unhappiness had two parts: negative circumstances in the outside world, and negative attitudes inside my head. I told myself that the solution, spelled out in the "Serenity Prayer," was to change the things I couldn't accept, and accept the things I couldn't change. Not to take drugs. I thought that my Buddhist practice should help me with the second part.
The voice of orthodox Zen whispered in my mind that the monks of old didn't have Zoloft. But some of those monks probably obsessed their lives away in misery; others may have left the monastery because they couldn't concentrate. Buddhist history doesn't tell us about the ones who tried and failed, the ones with attention deficit disorder or clinical depression.
And so I learned to construct my own spiritual practice, according to my needs and abilities. I was learning to trust myself.
Every morning, as soon as I got out of bed, I lit a candle on my little altar, and offered a stick of incense. I made three full bows, then stood before the altar, my palms pressed together, and recited out loud my morning prayers, starting with a child's prayer a Catholic friend had taught me:
Angel of God, my guardian dear, To whom God's love commits me here, Ever this day be at my side To watch and guard, to rule and guide.
It was comforting to ask somebody else, somebody who wasn't me, to help me. I had heard Father Thomas Keating, a Benedictine teacher of contemplative prayer, say that Christian prayer was all about having a "relationship" with God. The closest I'd heard a Zen teacher come to this was when I heard a priest who was giving zazen instruction to beginners say, "Sit like a baby in the lap of Buuddha." I don't think it was a coincidence that she was a woman. But still, this wasn't exactly prayer, and prayer was something I missed in Zen practice as I knew it, so I imported it from Christianity, and other Buddhist traditions. I prayed to Tara, Tibetan goddess of compassion, to fly down from the sky, all green and shining, into my heart. I prayed to Prajna Paramita, the mother of all Buddhas, who "brings light so that all fear and distress may be forsaken, and disperses the gloom and darkness of delusion." These words (from the ancient Prajna Paramitta Sutra) reminded me of the 23rd Psalm: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me." I said this, too.
Then I took refuge in Buddha, dharma and sangha, saying the words out loud, whether I felt anything or not. Taking refuge is an act of faith. I followed with my own translation: "I take refuge in my own true nature, I take refuge in things as they are, I take refuge in the community of which I am a part."
In this daily ritual, I was following the advice of both friends, the one who told me it was up to me to save myself, and the one who told me to keep on asking for help. That I had shaped this practice for myself gave me confidence. And the early morning incense smoke, though it was thin and drifting, provided a hint of continuity for my days. They seemed, after all, to be days in the same life. One person's life, mine.
Faith is an attitude emphasized more in Christianity than in Buddhism, but it's there in Buddhism, too. Faith means faith in yourself, in the practice, in the ancestors, in the teaching. Faith means believing that everything is unfolding as it needs to unfold, and that your own life is part of that unfolding.
Faith is being willing to admit that you don't know the whole story. You don't even know what's going to happen in the next moment, and you just step into it anyway, with "don't-know-mind," as Korean Zen teacher Seung Sahn calls it.
Something else that helped significantly: I took photographs. I'm a writer, but words failed me in the worst times. Photography was wordless but creative. I looked outside myself, at the light that kept right on shining on the world around me. I remember my first print swimming into the red glow of the darkroom at a community art center: my nieces, one big, one little, standing in the kitchen doorway in the sun, in overalls, grinning. Taking pictures saved me from myself. I didn't have to understand myself, or focus on my breathing. I didn't have to MAKE something. My camera led me to what was already beautiful, often as unaccountably so as a bunch of wooden clothespins on an empty laundry line.
In one of the worst times, I visited my mother at her home in the country outside Chicago. It was not a good time for me to be traveling far from home. My therapist loaned me an African statue that I knew from her office, an ebony fertility goddess with a round face like a plate, nursing her child. She said the dark goddess would take care of me. I clung to that African statue as I navigated the terrifying, inorganic corridors of O'Hare Airport. The hard wood of the statue didn't seem hard.
One afternoon I walked into the prairie, lay down in the long grass where nobody would find me, and stared at the sky. The earth felt solid under me, and the crushed plants smelled good. It's always my impulse, in times of greatest distress, to get down on the ground for comfort, all the way down. Like a child, I dizzied myself with loud crying, in this place where no one could hear me. I stared at the clouds as they scooted out of sight over the edge of their blue field, again and again, and I fell deeper and deeper into my green hole. The September-red turkey-foot grass waved over me as if I was already dead. It felt like the only bearable place to be. I wanted to stay there until the earth wrapped her arms around me and I turned to mulch, but my mother would worry.Instead, I had to get up and stumble through the rest of the afternoon.
I couldn't tell my mother quite how bad I felt. I was over fifty; she was over seventy. It was no longer her job to make me stop crying. Still, she tried. She gave me a little clay statue she had made many years before, of a mother holding a baby. The baby's feet, sweetly awkward, looked like a seal's tail. It was round and solid, and felt good in my hands.
I read Marion Woodman, the Jungian psychologist and author, and listened to her tapes, some of which seemed to be about me. The Jungian idea of a journey helped me. I tried to believe I was going THROUGH something, not just deeper and deeper into a hole. As my grandmother said, others had been here before me.
I paid attention to my dreams; I tried to trust the unconscious. I noticed my dreams as if they were letters I sent to myself to encourage myself. One night, for example, I lowered huge blocks of concrete from a ship onto a dock, using pulleys and a grappling hook. Slowly, I swung these heavy burdens into place and released their weight.
Gradually, somebody who seemed to be me was moving back in, reinhabiting my body.
Now I can say this: there are times in life when nothing helps, when you just have to grieve, you have to feel terrible for awhile about something. Whatever you do, you're still in despair. All you can do is go through the agony and come out the other end of it. It's a gift, in a way, to hit the bottom (boy, did it not feel like a gift at the time!) because there you are on the bottom, and you're still there, and then you go on. So something has caught you. The trouble is, you can't tell it's the bottom until afterwards, when you've come up from it instead of going further down; and besides, you might have to hit the bottom more than once, as I did. Still, if you lie on the grass, you can't fall down.
There's a saying in Zen that "inquiry and response come up together." Perhaps that's what prayer is. To make an inquiry is already to get a response, because asking implies that there's something else there. And there's not even a time lag. The moment you're asking for help, you're already getting it. It may not be exactly what you're asking for, but something is there. Once, when I called Zen teacher Reb Anderson in despair, he came to Berkeley to see me. We sat on a park bench in a children's playground, and he told me, "Try to remember that the universe is already taking care of you." In the following months, I said this mantra to myself over and over: "The universe is already taking care of me."
Now, almost two years out of the desolation, I still don't understand what happened, and I wish I did understand, because I don't ever want to "go there" again. But I do know some of the things that pulled me through, including nature, the love of friends and family, poetry, medication, therapy, my own form of prayer, and learning to trust myself. I am grateful many times a day for my mental health. Even on days when I'm the most lonesome, or the most afraid, there's somebody home inside myself.
I remember a turning moment, when, at the end of a hard summer, I was visiting friends on Cape Cod.
One late afternoon I walk barefoot and alone down the beach and into the salty water. There are no people about, so I take off my bathing suit in the water and fling it up on the sand. I swim and swim and feel the water touching every part of me. I'm IN it, no dry place left. I'm not afraid to be alone with my skin because I'm not alone; there's nothing, not the width of a cell, between me and the rest of the universe. I do a somersault under the water and look up at the glittering membrane above me. My head hatches into the light, and I breathe the air and feel the sea on my skin and know that I will be all right. No, not will be, but am already. I'm back in my life.