A near total eclipse of the sun shows a ring of fire in the blackness.

The Dark Light of Depression

Meredith Walters
14 min readJan 24, 2022

--

I first thought I understood what depression was when I was seventeen.

I’d gone to see a psychiatrist, my last hope for reinforcements in an ongoing battle with my mood. I’d been fighting the war for years, but it was beginning to feel unwinnable. Still miserable after a year of therapy, prone to crying spells that would last for hours, and increasingly convinced I was losing what little sanity I had left, I finally surrendered to the pleas of my friends and family and agreed to give medication a try.

Making my way into the sterile room of dark wood furniture and fluorescent lighting, I was reluctantly hopeful. Books lined shelves along the walls, promising decades of accumulated knowledge, insight, cures. Surely something in all that inherited wisdom could help me.

When the doctor looked up, he didn’t smile but asked me to sit down in an authoritative voice nearly as antiseptic as his office.

I was prepared to answer messy questions about my suffering: what it was like, when it had started, what lay beneath it. Instead, the psychiatrist ticked off questions about my symptoms in a robotic voice:

Are you sleeping?

Do you have trouble concentrating?

Have you noticed any fatigue or changes in your weight?

Stone-faced, he jotted down my answers, nodding after each one like he was checking items off his shopping list. When we finished, he didn’t hesitate to explain that I was depressed and had a chemical imbalance in my brain analogous to the physical defects that cause diabetes.

I’ll be honest — the explanation captivated me. Up until that time, I’d seen my depression and anxiety as a personal failure, which I deduced by reading between the lines of how other people responded to me.

“Just don’t worry about it,” people would tell me, as if my fearful thoughts didn’t have the momentum of a ten-thousand-ton freight train bearing down on me at three hundred miles an hour.

“Happiness is a choice,” they would say. “You need to stop focusing so much on yourself.” I had tried to follow their well-meaning advice with the fierce discipline of a failing student, but happiness felt to me like water, slipping faster through my fingers the more firmly I tried to grasp it.

Before long I had come to what seemed a logical conclusion: there must be something terribly wrong with me.

The psychiatrist threw the first potential lifesaver into my turbulent sea of failure. If depression was a defect, maybe it wasn’t my fault; surely I couldn’t be blamed for the chemistry of my brain.

The first medication the psychiatrist prescribed didn’t work. Depression’s weight as a personal failure seemed as inescapable as ever. But then the psychiatrist gave me a new prescription, and this time a miracle happened: My depression quickly and quietly dissipated like a heavy fog lifting after the sun comes out.

I concluded that the experts had been right and that I was, well, wrong. I tried not to feel bad about the fact that if there were a quality inspector for humans, I wouldn’t have made it off the factory floor.

The author sits on steps hugging a ferret to her chest.

Just before starting kindergarten, I had a recurring dream in which I was on a pristine beach, bathed in golden sunlight, warm sand, and lapping waves, playing with a beautiful, white seal. The seal’s enormous love for me was so solid and filled me so completely that it left no room for anything else. Even fear. I understood that, like the seal, I was too big, too bright, too like the sunlight surrounding us for anything to harm me.

But once I started school, the dream stopped. I would lie on my blue gym mat at nap time trying to conjure the dream by picturing the white seal just before falling asleep, but it never came.

A stream of sadness began running within me.

By the time I was eight, I had discovered writing. My first journals feature stories like the one in which a boy named Pepper kills a deer for fun while hunting with his father. That evening he dreams that the deer he killed takes him on an adventure; he becomes a different animal every week until he learns to see animals as friends rather than prey. Another is about a bunner — a bunny with stripes like a tiger — whose coat is so prized by humans, he’s one of only five left. A third story centers on Oscar, an opossum who “was very happy until he found out that his forest was going to be turned into condominiums.”

I was already clear about a few things: I wanted to write stories. I loved animals. I didn’t like the way I saw them treated most of the time.

At age twelve, I wrote my first novel. It took place in a forest and told the story of people who were close to nature and the other animals around them.

But when I entered my novel into my school’s book contest, it received a low score. The stream widened. Painfully aware that most other people didn’t share my concern about animals, my connection to nature, or the longing I felt to belong to something larger than what I saw around me, I felt stranded.

By the time I reached high school, the sadness had carved a path through me as unyielding as the banks of a river. I’d begun to lose touch with my childhood passions. The demands on my time grew, and, with them, my perfectionistic tendencies.

At fifteen, my journal entries are no longer about animals capable of incredible things. They’re about a girl who feels she is capable of nothing. “I put so much pressure on myself I think I’m going to burst. I have a time for everything, an order for everything, a place for everything, and I rarely do anything outside of that. I have deadlines for everything else except my writing, so I always push it to the back burner. Same with my own interests that don’t have to do with school or sports. I feel like I’m falling deeper into the ocean and watching everything pass by.”

As I continued to realize all the ways in which I was different from the people around me, not to mention the gap between how I was and how I thought I was supposed to be, loneliness morphed into alienation, self doubt, and eventually, despair.

At 17: “I am in one of the hardest times of my life I have ever been in. The emptiness grows within me daily and my self-hatred has become a force which rivals in strength the turning of the moon and the earth.”

The waters of sadness were crashing over me. When I wrote a short story for my school’s literary magazine called “The Loneliest Girl in the World Is Drowning,” it didn’t feel like hyperbole. It felt like reality, like truth, like depression.

The author in high school sits with a slouched posture and a sad smile.

Many writers have remarked on the difficulty of conveying the pain of depression. All I can say is when I first got depressed, the pain was so excruciating I became terrified of it. In better moments, I would panic at the slightest stirrings of unease. In the worst ones, it took everything I had just to hold on. I couldn’t see anything other than how much pain I was in and how desperately I wanted to feel better.

Sometimes it seemed like death was the only thing powerful enough to stop the suffering. Of course it wasn’t, but when I say that I learned from depression, it wasn’t because I had any special cleverness, courage, or strength. Quite the opposite: Depression broke me into a thousand different pieces, and I was powerless to stop it.

That, it turns out, was exactly what I needed.

When I tried to go off medication in my mid-twenties, depression returned as if it had spent the time off sitting in a dark room ruminating on all the ways I’d wronged it — it was vindictive, prepared, impossible to resist.

My depression had morphed into generalized anxiety and random panic attacks. I couldn’t trace my anxiety to any concrete fears or events, which made it feel terrifying and out of my control. I feared I was irreversibly broken. In desperation, I decided to try therapy again and go back on medication. But that’s when things started to get interesting. Because instead of lifting the depression so cleanly and clearly as it had before, the antidepressant no longer worked. And when I tried a new one instead, it did no more than take the edge off the most intense feelings.

I had to admit that depression wasn’t simply a matter of faulty brain chemistry, but I still didn’t know what else it could be.

My new therapist gave me my first clue when she asked me to record my emotions hour-by-hour every day.

“But I already know how I feel,” I protested.

“I know.” She gave me one of her kind smiles. “I think there may be more going on under the surface. Just give it a try.”

I did, and what I found surprised me.

There was, in fact, a whole world beneath my conscious awareness — like a network of subterranean rivers. As I paid more attention to their flows, a pattern emerged. Most bouts of anxiety or depression were preceded by a feeling I’d tried to eliminate.

“I don’t understand,” I told my therapist. “I wasn’t really hurt. My friends didn’t mean to exclude me. How could that cause a panic attack?”

“And you weren’t angry at all? I think I would have been angry if my friends had acted that way.”

“Not angry,” I insisted. “Maybe a little annoyed.”

I eventually discovered that when an emotion felt threatening — because of its intensity, its potential to harm a relationship, or what I thought it said about me — I had been forcing it underground, either by talking myself out of it or thinking about something else.

“Emotions have an arc,” my therapist explained to me, “and they need to peak before they diminish. If you don’t recognize and feel them, they’ll stay trapped in your body. Your brain interprets their unacknowledged energy as a foreign threat. It triggers your fight-or-flight response and — voila — anxiety, which eventually tips into depression.”

Sitting with my emotions felt like chewing rocks, an uncomfortable process in which I attempted to break my disappointments and frustrations down into harmless dirt so they didn’t accumulate like sharp scree in my soft organs. My therapist helped me digest not only the pebbles of my day-to-day experiences but also the boulders of my past. As the process wore on longer than I thought it should, I found myself working on giant piles of slag that seemed to appear from nowhere. Where had all of this pain come from? I began to wonder once again if there wasn’t something wrong with me. How could one person with a privileged childhood and no big trauma in their past possibly have so much to work through?

And then it hit me: I’m not just working through my own past — this is the accumulated rubble of generations of suffering.

My father once told me that his family never talked about what happened to them. He had a brother diagnosed with Hodgkins at age nine. A sister murdered at twenty-two. An alcoholic father whose father was also an alcoholic. Grandparents who fought in World War I. Sometimes I wonder how far back the trauma extends, like an unbroken road reaching the horizon.

I can’t be sure, but I think my father’s family didn’t just choose not to talk about things — I think they were never able to really feel them either. Unprocessed pain doesn’t just disappear. Rather, it’s passed down through the generations in multiple ways — epigenetically, emotionally, physiologically, behaviorally.

Perhaps the reason I had so much pain to process was that after all this time, it was demanding to be felt.

A blue-tailed skink (lizard) on a rock
Photo by Joshua J. Cotten on Unsplash

Depression’s gifts have turned out to be at least as profound as its pain.

As I practiced integrating my emotions, I didn’t just feel better — I also felt more whole. It was as if one by one, long-absent pieces of myself that I hadn’t even realized were missing were returning home to roost.

Over time I observed another gift. Depression and anxiety, which have never left me alone for good, don’t visit randomly. Rather, there’s a pattern:

Depression haunts me when I lose my way.

I get depressed when I forget to listen to what I’m feeling. When I’m once again seduced by the false promise of perfection. When I betray myself or ignore the quiet whisper of my inner wisdom.

Depression and anxiety are like state-of-the-art navigational systems that never let me go off-track for long. Little by little, the pain gets more intense, and before long I have to let go of whatever effort I’m making to force my will upon the world and surrender to the guidance of something larger than my ego.

It was this quiet guidance that helped me find my calling in coaching and writing, urging me to finish my second novel a mere twenty-seven years after my first. It also led me back to family, to Atlanta, and eventually to the grove of trees where I met three unlikely emissaries who revealed depression’s greatest gift.

When I moved back East after fifteen years in Northern California, the forested hills of my hometown greeted me like long-lost friends. I began going on long walks around my house to ease my anxiety and lift my mood.

One day, I was wandering through a narrow wedge of old-growth forest that thousands of people drive by each day but few know is there. Some of the trees in the park are hundreds of years old, surrounded by moss-covered boulders and rare, native wildflowers. As I rounded the top of a small hill that afternoon, a lizard with a tail the same deep blue as the sky darted around the corner of a rock and disappeared into a dark crevice. Its jerky yet graceful movements stirred something in me both strange and familiar, like a blurry dream recalled upon awakening.

It happened again when I crossed the stream a few minutes later and spotted a dragonfly resting on an exposed root with a body that shone like an emerald and black wings of the finest lace. Again I felt like some long-forgotten memory was rising to the surface.

Farther along the trail I passed a spider spinning an iridescent bridge between two distant branches. I stared at the spider’s burnt ocher back and black-and-white striped legs for a long moment trying to form words for the strange sensation quickening within me, but I couldn’t.

Watching the spider sketch a delicate and imperfect spiral onto the sky, I realized that part of what I was feeling was intimacy. This eight-legged, otherworldly creature that used to inspire terror and disgust now felt like a friend. Everything in these woods did. As I crossed paths with the same trees, rocks, streams, and wild animals on my walks, I began to see them first as acquaintances, then neighbors, and eventually, family. They showed up for me again and again, no matter how I felt or what I did. They patiently taught me the value of stillness, wordlessness, and unquestioning generosity. They welcomed me with unconditional acceptance, and I learned from them that — no matter where I am in the world — I am never alone. No matter how many mistakes I make, I am never unloved.

And then it hit me: I am not who I think I am.

When I was a twelve-year-old girl who thought she needed to be perfect to be loved, I made the mistake of believing that I was my flaws and foibles. I felt small, fragile, and alone. My therapists had tried to help me see that I was more than my shortcomings, that I was actually smart, kind, and capable. Their efforts were helpful, but even when I believed them, I was still identifying with the smaller version of myself. Feeling my love for the spider, I began to understand that I am more than my body and my mind, more than my traits — good or bad — more even than my work, my accomplishments, or what I leave behind.

I am made of the same matter as the dragonfly with its shiny, green body and delicate black wings. The same ineffable energy that graces the lizard’s elegant movements animates my own. And like the spider spinning its multi-colored and impressively engineered web, I too bear mysterious gifts from an unknown provenance.

The quickening I felt was a long-forgotten memory of who I really am. Beyond our unique bodies and personalities, all living creatures share a common essential nature that is beautiful, loving, and infinite. When connected to this nature within and around us, there is no room for anything but love.

I’d finally found the white seal again, only this time in the waking world.

A black, white, and orange spider sits on its web.
Photo by Ed van duijn on Unsplash

If depression has taught me anything, it’s that I can’t claim to know what mental illness is or isn’t. But I can say that I’ve seen firsthand how pain can help us heal.

For me, depression and anxiety have played the same role as the pain we feel when we touch a hot stove: they seize my attention and direct it to the exact spot that needs examining.

When I learned how to listen to depression — not the loud voice of cynicism, but the heartache beneath the despair — I began to feel the truth of how disconnected I was — from myself, from other people, from the wider living world.

And I’m not the only one. I now see symptoms of disconnection all around me, in multiple forms of misery, including depression.

Generations of suffering have accumulated largely undigested. The United States was founded on trauma, of the people fleeing their homelands, the people persecuted and slaughtered to make room for them, and the people enslaved to build the country’s foundation. Mainstream culture has lost its ability to help us acknowledge or feel all this suffering. When we can’t feel, we can’t connect. When we can’t connect, we don’t feel safe. When we don’t feel safe, we experience an even greater need to control and dominate, no matter how much fear, hatred, or violence we generate.

Because we’re disconnected from ourselves, we don’t feel the painful impacts of the harm we’re doing to others or — in the process — ourselves.

And so the cycle continues.

Depression — or rather, what I learned when it forced me to acknowledge the pain — taught me how to reconnect. It pushed me to discover the metaphorical slivers of old-growth forest in our modern world, the places where life is still flourishing and can be nurtured, learned from, and nourished.

It turns out that the things I had abandoned because they marked me as strange at best and unacceptable at worst — my single-minded stories, my inexplicable love of animals, my at times painful sensitivity, and even my depression — are invaluable in my work as a writer and a coach building more connection in the world. My misunderstanding was in thinking that I had to grow out of these things, when in reality, I just needed to grow into them.

When I say I’m glad depression broke me into a thousand different pieces, it’s because only by being shattered was I able to see what remained, what could not be annihilated. This — the ability to feel connected to the essential nature that I share with every other living being on the planet — is what was left after the storm.

If you’re in the Atlanta area and interested in joining me on a walk in the woods to explore our true nature, sign up here to get an invitation.

Eclipse photo by Jongsun Lee on Unsplash

--

--

Meredith Walters

Author, coach, and pampered chicken guardian who loves helping people remember who they are and what they have to give the world. https://meredithwalters.com