In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston writes about the protagonist Janie Crawford’s relationships with her three husbands and how they reveal her evolving relationship with herself. During an argument with her second husband, Janie realizes that “something fell off the shelf inside of [her].” That wasn’t the end of the relationship, but it was, in hindsight when she knew it was over.
I’ve often used this phrase when talking with my friends about the breaking-up of interpersonal relationships. There are, I opine from my own experience, three break-ups. There’s the moment when you really break up, yeah, but there are two other ones.
On the tail end of a break up, there’s that time when you’re finally over the person. When you stop crying, stop missing, stop pining, stop being angry, and stop substituting your former lover with new lovers. That’s the final break up.
But there’s an initial break-up too. The break-up before the break-up. There’s the moment when something falls off the shelf inside of you. It’s the moment when deep inside yourself, you know it’s over. It can be months or years between this moment and the actual break-up, but it did happen. It’s quiet. It’s almost imperceptible. You kind of know it when it happens, but you usually only know it in hindsight. It’s when something has been said or done or expressed. Something has happened. And you realize that there’s no turning back. This is it. Something broke. Something fell off the shelf. Something died.
The death of depression is a lot like that. It’s quiet. It’s invisible. It’s not like a rotting egg or broken vase. There are no sensory signs. There’s no audible crash. Some time, when you weren’t paying attention. Some time while you were trying desperately to get up, get dressed and go to work. Some time when you gave all your energy to making dinner for the children. Some time while you were trying to eke life out of lifelessness . . . something died. And because there was no unbearable stench, or mind-curdling scream, or shards of glass on the floor, you missed it.
Because your breath never stopped, you thought you were still alive.
And so the death of depression, like that first break-up, may not reveal itself for awhile. It took me three years to realize that I died in depression. It was three long years from the incident that sent me in a downward spiral, and the moment I realized that something died that night. I spent most of those three years trying to put one foot in front of the other. Trying to protect my relationships and my career from my internal desperation. I spent a lot of those years angry about what had happened. My journal is filled with various phrasings of these words, “I WANT MY LIFE BACK!” I spent most of those years trying to get my pre-depression life back.
It took me three years – and a lot of therapy – to stop fighting. I had to stop fighting the fact that I wasn’t going to get back what I lost. I could not un-ring the bell. I could not go back in time. My experiences had changed me. I could remember who I was, but I could not go back to being that woman.
The words from ancient Greek philosopher Heraclitus were truer than I could have imagined when I learned them in college: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”
It’s also a hard ugly truth: When you come back from the dead, you aren’t the same person.
Although I’m still unsure about whether or not Jesus was physically transported vertically into the clouds like in those old Renaissance paintings, I understand why he could not stay long after the resurrection. He could not return to his old life. He could not continue to walk and teach and heal like he did before the crucifixion. Surely, this is what the disciples expected. They expected him to be back, for good, and to the tenth power. It’s only human to expect that.
I suspect that Jesus knew that wasn’t possible. It was not the same river. He was not the same man.
I wonder why we ask something of ourselves that Jesus did not ask of himself. I wonder why we experience monumental losses and deaths, and try to pretend like nothing has changed. We go to work. We go to our faith communities. We go to meetings. We keep the same schedule. We wash our faces, and trim our hair so we don’t even look different. Why do we hide our own deaths in ways we would never hide the physical death of a loved one? Don’t we love ourselves?
When Jesus died on the cross, the disciples gathered to mourn and cry. When the risen Jesus left, the disciples gathered to pray and worship. I think those are appropriate responses to loss. After all, this is what my family does when someone dies. We cry. And then we sing their favorite songs, laugh about the funny things they did, and pray for one another.
There are moments when I wish I had known sooner. I wish I had heard the crashing of that thing inside of me. I wish I had not wasted time trying to get back to something I could never reach. I wish I had recognized the death when it happened. That’s nearly impossible though. Because I wanted to live, I had to give all my attention to that. I lacked the ability to reflect on what was dying. I was unable to be philosophical or pedagogical or wise. That required stability.
In the three years it took me to realize that I had died, I became someone new. Someone who I actually liked. Someone who could not have been born, had I not died. Once I knew that, everything else became easier. I could mourn and live again.
Now, I just wish for community. I wish that other people could see me dying – even when I can’t see it for myself. Even before I know what has died. In these quiet deaths, I’d like to have others who will mourn and cry and worship and pray with me.
Until I’m stable. Until I can acknowledge the death for myself. Until it’s not so hard to eat and sleep and work. Until I accept and welcome the person I’ve become in the new life. Until . . . as Jesus says in his ascension speech to the disciples (Luke 24:49) . . . until the power comes.