“A drowsy, dreamy influence seems to hang over the land, and to pervade the very atmosphere … the place still continues under the sway of some witching power, that holds a spell over the minds of the good people, causing them to walk in a continual reverie.”
When I was 13, I attempted suicide for the first time. Life with my crack addict mother was a mad, merciless merry-go-round which ever threatened to whirl off its undercarriage. And, although an infinite parade of psychopathically violent boyfriends, perverts, junkies, and career criminals hopped on and off this ride with apparent ease, I was unable to leave the not-so-funhouse. It seemed the only exit was the permanent one, and, with the assumed assistance of two handfuls of pills and a half-bottle of rum, I endeavored to escape.
But, like most kids my age, I had no idea just how tough it is to snuff out one’s own candle. When people accuse those who have achieved this feat of taking the easy way out, they betray the same ignorance I possessed at age 13—there is nothing easy about killing oneself, for one thing, and no one makes the final decision without sincerely believing there is no other way out of their quagmire, easy or otherwise.
What people who have not experienced it do not know is, depression is a sleep-mask—it blinds, and thereby disables, the sufferer. It narcotizes, hypnotizes, and paralyzes one into an incapacitating slumber populated exclusively by nightmares. In this somnambulistic labyrinth, there are no guideposts—one can merely grope at thorny walls. Ultimately, the sleepwalker cannot find the exit in such a palsied state—yet, only after clawing one’s fingers raw in an attempt to scale the walls does one conclude that death is the only way out.
* * *
“By divers little make-shifts in that ingenious way which is commonly denominated ‘by hook and by crook,’ [he] got on tolerably enough, and was thought, by all who understood nothing of [his] labor, to have a wonderfully easy life.”
And that was me at age 30.
Having escaped my mother’s hellacious world through law enforcement intervention, married and divorced, and moved all over the country, I’d finally settled in California and enrolled in a private college by means of a generous scholarship. But I’d also begun to suffer the effects of rheumatoid arthritis and a genetic disorder known as Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, which had left me unable to perform most “normal” jobs. Bills mounted and eviction loomed. Finally, out of great desperation, I made the decision to become a call girl at age 24. By 25, I was the top-rated escort in the San Francisco Bay area. And by 30, I’d become accustomed to the expensive, fast-lane lifestyle such “success” engendered.
I’m sure that, to all outward appearances, I was a carefree, fun-loving party girl, a girl who allowed both her money and her affections to flow freely. Perhaps a bit like a combination of Marion in Raiders of the Lost Ark and Ophelia in Trading Places—a scrappy, lighthearted working girl who could drink a man three times her size under the table.
But that was just a mask I wore.
As a child forced to ride shotgun on the reckless drive that was my mother’s life, I had coped with the black, bottomless chasm within and without by creating a lush, intricate, vivid imaginary world. I retreated into Technicolor fantasy—sometimes I sailed so far away from the outside world that I had difficulty distinguishing reality from the experiences I’d invented. In my mind, I lived in a different time, a distant place, and among people completely disparate to the inmates of my mother’s subterranean dystopia.
But as a call girl, I was highly priced, highly rated, and thus subject to high expectations. My work demanded engagement—I could not simply drift away to make-believe shores. So I did the next best thing—I became a make-believe person.
By age 30, I had made a tangled mess of my life, and that old, too-familiar demon known in clinical circles as “major depressive disorder” once again began to take over. Once again, I was trapped in the sleepy, hollow labyrinth. And once again, I became convinced that death was the only way out.
* * *
“The night grew darker and darker; the stars seemed to sink deeper in the sky, and driving clouds occasionally hid them from his sight. He had never felt so lonely and dismal.”
Never let it be said that I don’t learn from my mistakes. Having failed to accomplish the job with two fistfuls of sleeping pills and a bit of booze at age 13, I was doubly determined to get it right at age 30. I was on several heavy-duty prescription medications at the time, both for depression and the many complex issues related to my chronic conditions, and I had just had them all refilled. I took every last one of those pills—in sum, over 500, about 20% of which were morphine.
And again, I did not die.
Apparently God had other plans for me. Perhaps the purpose of my survival was to tell you the tale here and now—because even if you aren’t personally afflicted, depression is all around you, and you may very well have a part to play in someone else’s twilight drama.
* * *
I still find myself being pulled back into that labyrinth from time to time. But I have several tools now that I did not have in my pre-Catholic life that help me keep my head above water.
First and foremost among them is the gift of prayer, the ultimate suicide hotline. It’s a direct link to someone who sincerely understands the nature of suffering, and has experienced intense distress—more so than any of us. Indeed, in the garden of Gethsemane, Christ was so anguished and anxious that He sweated blood. And the agony of His Passion is beyond anything anyone else has ever experienced. Tortured and mocked by His own beloved creations, abandoned by His closest friends—and betrayed by one of them—left to die like a common criminal in the most brutal and agonizing method imaginable, Our Lord has definitely trudged through the black chasm. When we pray, we are speaking to someone who knows exactly what we are going through—not merely because He is able to read our hearts, but because He has made His own journey through the valley of misery. He not only gets it, He also cares and wishes to help—and there is no one better equipped to do so.
The sacraments are also powerful tools in the battle against depression. When my soul feels overburdened, and I feel regret or remorse over the mistakes I have made, the Confessional is available to wash it all away. And if I feel alone, far away from God, I can reconnect with Him in a most magnificent way by receiving the Eucharist—no one who acts as a living tabernacle is alone or separated from God.
Finally, my Catholic community acts as a nurturing surrogate family; it’s a place where I know I am loved and accepted, and where I can indubitably find the support I need, no matter what. I have found solace in the friendships formed therefrom, and I’m deeply indebted to the numerous friends (and strangers) who have provided spiritual, emotional, and practical assistance in countless ways when I have been in need.
Becoming Catholic has filled my life with love and light where there was once only agony and darkness.
* * *
“As Ichabod approached this fearful tree … he thought his whistle was answered—it was but a blast sweeping sharply through the dry branches … Suddenly he heard a groan—his teeth chattered and his knees smote against the saddle: it was but the rubbing of one huge bough upon another, as they were swayed about by the breeze”
Ichabod Crane, deep within his own Sleepy Hollow, mistook a pumpkin for a severed head and a malicious man in a clever costume for a murderous phantom, and it cost him his life. Like him, we who labor under the burden of melancholy mistake opportunities for obstacles, and molehills for mountains.
We cannot escape this myopia alone. When we are in that place, battered and blinded and bumbling about, it is almost impossible to see the forest of hope and God’s love that surrounds us all, because the trees appear as encroaching problems too massive to overcome. We need a hand, a light, to guide us. And your kind words may act as an extended hand for someone drowning in despair; your listening ear and objective perspective, sympathetically shared, may be the light that helps a troubled soul find a path out of their sleepy, hollow labyrinth.
It has been said, “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness.” If you know someone enveloped in darkness—and most of us do, whether we realize it or not—it’s not helpful to them to hear you say “chin up,” “just shrug it off,” or “think positive.” It’s just not that simple for that person. You may be able to do these things, but they cannot–if they could, you can be certain they would.
So, instead of cursing that person’s darkness, light a candle for him or her. Remind that person of God’s love; help him or her brainstorm solutions to the most pressing problems; and, most importantly, pray for that person, and make sure s/he knows you’re doing so.
You might very well save a life.
Bettina di Fiore is a writer and liturgical seamstress based in the San Francisco Bay Area. She graduated with honors from Mills College with a BA in English in 2008. Her blog, Watching the Whirlwind, offers cultural commentary from a Catholic perspective and personal pieces concerning her own radical conversion experience. She also contributed her conversion story to Patrick Madrid’s 2017 book Surprised by Life under the pen name AnneMarie Schreiber.