Darkness Before Dawn

Posted on in On Our Radar by Christina Baldwin

Redefining the Journey
through Depression


People come to me, pull me aside, and urgently whisper: “What do I do with my grief for the state of the world? How can I not fall into despair?” Their questions, and particularly their trust that I know what they are talking about, invites me to see my own depression as a donation of personal experience to the learning of the whole.

I live in one of the world’s beautiful places, on an island in Puget Sound where the great old forests have been felled to build Seattle, and the second-growth trees are carried off the island to become plywood and toilet paper. From my kitchen window, I can see the clear-cuts rise over the foothills, stopping only at the boundary of the national park. I have seen the carcass of a starved gray whale roll in the surf. I have held the body of an eagle with a bullet hole in its breast. There are days when the fog rolls in so thick I can barely see the edge of my lawn, and standing on the beach below my house, I fall to my knees in despair. I cry over the beauty we are losing, sing made-up tunes of lament, and know such sadness that my heart breaks in my chest, such embodiment of the consequences that my species wreaks on the planet.

I live with the tension of knowing that the serenity of my home environment is temporary. I can take joy in it—and I do. I can mourn the erosion of its delicate balance—and I do. Holding this balance is a rigorous and ongoing spiritual practice: sometimes I vacillate between denial and despair.

I assumed I had accumulated enough resilience and had enough belief in the value of my life work that I could buffer myself from despondency. Then one April day in 2010, when the drilling platform Deepwater Horizon exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, my heart was hit so hard that my protective shell shattered. In the following weeks, as the bodies of birds and animals rolled dead in the gulf, and the water continued to cloud with heavy sludge, I lost control of my emotional containment. I was spewing despair just like the broken pipe head was spewing oil. It didn’t look like either of us was going to get better any time soon.

This wasn’t clinical depression; it didn’t fit a category. Random House defines clinical depression as “sadness greater and more prolonged than that warranted by any objective reason.” My psychological storm felt totally warranted. As a member of a species psychopathically destroying its social structures and biosphere, isn’t grief reasonable? Isn’t rage appropriate? I didn’t want medication; I wanted stamina to endure and learn.

To maintain psychological health, the self needs to feel that it can negotiate life conditions and ameliorate circumstances, even in the midst of trauma. People who manage to maintain this sense of negotiation can often live through even incredibly cruel or challenging experiences with psychological resilience. We hear powerful survival tales from prisoners of war, refugees, torture victims, survivors of accidents and illness—who found some tiny area of self-empowerment that they could focus on and construct their rock to stand on. If they lost this point of empowerment, or if their tormentors understood what this was and removed it, their pain overwhelmed them and their resilience collapsed.

Somehow, in the ongoing roll call of disasters, this particular oil spill removed my rock of resilience. I could not hold the balance any longer; I could not see both beauty and disaster, both joy and despair. I became a pelican soaked in oil.

Eighty-seven days later, BP announced it had successfully capped the well. Good news, but not the end of the crisis for the gulf—or for me. I had unleashed a powerful crisis in myself, and I couldn’t turn it off. A friend listening to me on the phone said, “I think you need to let yourself die. You are being reborn.” I wrote it boldface in my journal—not afraid of the instruction, though not sure how to allow such a thing. It is hard to see the creative transformation of depression while fighting to stay afloat in the black ooze.

I cannot clean the tar off my feathers, attempting to leave trauma behind. I am standing on the western shore of my country and in the autumn of my life. I cannot run from this invisible threat: there is no place to go. I let myself be lifted up. I stand in place—matured, humbled, ready to do my part within the ineffable sorrow of my times. I let myself be broken open.

We who have come through depression and stand with the sacred pearl it offers exude a faint scent of salty survival that attracts others seeking to find their way. We pull each other aside and whisper. We seek to discover what our roles are now that we have survived and reclaimed our place in the new day of our lives.

And I ask myself over and over: Is this not what we have been preparing for all along, the dawn of a new day? That day dawns, and we are made ready by the fact of our survival. That day dawns, and we are made ready by our capacity to keep finding a rock to stand on, even when it’s just a pebble. That day dawns, and our fate remains complex and uncertain. Disasters like the gulf spill and Fukushima are yet more opportunities to stand with ineffable sorrow in our hearts and with determination to move forward anyway, to get to work on creating a fresh world.

In nature, nothing is wasted, so I must believe that in our own nature as human beings, nothing is wasted either. If depression is a natural part of life, then those of us who have been thrown into the well of ineffable sorrow have a spiritual obligation to share our experience and the story we have made from the journey. Reframing depression is an essential skill for our survival in these times. We are not falling apart for no good reason; we are falling apart so that we might come back together stronger. As more and more people take their hit to the heart, we serve as one another’s guides. We are the ones who can say, “I have been this way, and there is a way through.”

In nature, the poison and the antidote grow in proximity to one another: for poison ivy there is spotted jewelweed. The voice of guidance that calmed my heart that day I was shouting down by the sea probably saved my life. Until that moment, I did not know that my despair and the way through the despair were growing in proximity within me. Somehow I managed to flip from rage to grace. This capacity is in us, and manifests over and over. Whatever parts of the psyche are blown open, we carry the antidote: the arduous journey is to recognize and access it. We are falling apart individually because we need to become collectively prepared.

Sorrow is a gateway into stamina. I don’t know what will be required of you and me in the remaining decades of our lives. I know that touching the dark ooze of my own psyche was part of what I needed to know so that I was no longer afraid of it. Touching down and swimming up, I can listen to you and not be afraid of your chaos; respectful, yes, but not phobic, not avoidant. We can receive one another, speak our truths, make space for our differences, choose wise action.

It is awful and awe full to get up every morning, raise the shades, and see if the world as I count on it is still holding steady. I make a cup of tea. I sit in the corner bench in my living room and watch the day rise. My beloved sits alongside. We talk quietly about matters of the heart. We set our intentions into the day. The dog is curled at our feet. The wind blows in from the west. The tides and currents swirl Pacific waters, depositing a ragged line of seaweed and Japanese plastic along my beach.

We do not know what’s coming. Life is beautiful anyway.

Adapted from Darkness Before Dawn: Redefining the Journey through Depression, edited by Tami Simon. Copyright © 2015 by Sounds True. To be published by Sounds True in April.

Christina Baldwin is a writer, presenter, speaker, and storycatcher. She has written many books about the importance of life stories, the empowerment of journal writing, and with her partner, Ann Linnea, created a modern methodology of circle practice that calls people and organizations into conversations of heart and purpose. PeerSpirit.com

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